Lincoln(11/17/2012)

11-17-2012Lincoln

Opening scenes are an important part of any film’s momentum, and the opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is rough.  In the scene we see the titular president visiting a Civil War battlefield and converse with two pairs of union soldiers, one pair white and the other black, and both view the president as a hero and quote the Gettysburg Address to him from memory.  It’s a cute way to get the famous speech into the film, but the situation feels contrived and its shot with a degree of whimsy that’s just wrong for the time period.  Were anyone else directing the scene probably wouldn’t have been as ominous had anyone else been directing but Spielberg has a long history of softening material that could be gritty and his last film, War Horse, was probably his sentimental nadir.  However, this opening scene is misleading, in many ways Lincoln is the anti-War Horse, in many ways it’s so (relatively) restrained that it makes War Horse look like some sort of throw away project that Spielberg put together so that he could purge all his worst instincts in preparation for his ambitious project about our 16th president.

Saying that this is a project about Abraham Lincoln actually isn’t entirely true; contrary to what is implied by the title this isn’t really a biopic.  The film focuses almost entirely on the political machinations required in order to pass the thirteenth amendment through the House of Representatives, which firmly put an end to slavery once the Civil War ended.  Abraham Lincoln (played here by Daniel Day-Lewis) is obviously a major participant in this movement, but he’s not really the film’s focus for much of its run time.  The film is actually an ensemble piece consisting of dozens of speaking roles and depicts the wide range of characters that needed to work together in order to get the 2/3 vote needed to pass the amendment.  We see this from the perspective of Lincoln, his cabinet member, his family, his political allies, his lobbyists, and also from the perspective of some of the lowly representatives who would pass the deciding votes.

Some of the standout cast members include Tommy Lee Jones as the radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who steals a number of scenes with his acerbic wit and passion.  Hal Holbrook also steals scenes in the role of Francis Preston Blair, an aging member of the Republican’s conservative wing which is more interested in ending the war than freeing slaves.

It’s not just the actors playing famous historical figures that stand out.  Actors like James Spader and John Hawks, who both play party operatives trying to sway moderate Democrats over to their side, are just as noteworthy and memorable as actors like David Strathairn and Jared Harris (who play William Seward and Ulysses S. Grant respectively). I could go on and on like that; this cast is absolutely stacked with top rate talent doing great work in interesting roles.

Of course one couldn’t begin to talk about the acting in this film without getting into the work that Daniel Day-Lewis does as Lincoln himself.   Day-Lewis is amazing here both for how good his imitation of honest Abe is but also how well he restrains himself in order to blend in with his cast.  Assisted by some excellent makeup, Day Lewis looks exactly like Lincoln and he conducts himself with all the dignity that one expects of the role.  It would have been easy for Day-Lewis to beat his chest throughout the film and command every second of his screentime as he did in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood (two films where such acting was entirely appropriate), but instead he comes across entirely human and thoughtful.  After a while I stopped thinking of the man on screen as a role being played by an actor, it just felt like I was watching the Abraham Lincoln up on the screen and only occasionally would I stop and think “wait a minute, this is actually the dude from The Last of the Mohicans, that’s amazing.”

The film’s dialogue is at times a little lofty and theatrical.  It’s clear that the script, written by Pulitzer prize winner Tony Kushner, has cherry-picked many of the finest quotes from all of these politician and put them into basic conversations between characters and that can seem a little hard to swallow at times.  Lincoln himself comes off a little too much like an OG Jed Bartlet at times, especially when he continuously comes up with wise historical anecdotes for almost every situation, and his speechifying does strain credibility at times.  Still, I can’t help but be amazed at just how effectively Kushner was able to bring all of these complicated political dealings to the screen in such a highly efficient and accessible way.  The screenplay perfectly explains all the stakes involved and all the maneuvers therein without ever talking down to the audience and while still having time for personal character arcs and moments of comic relief.

Meanwhile, Steven Spielberg manages to bring this script to the screen in a way that is, for him, very restrained and dignified.  Spielberg edits the film at a brisk pace which gives the film a nice sense of immediacy and he also avoids sentimentality more often than he doesn’t.  From a visual perspective this probably isn’t one of his best, but it’s hardly ugly.  Much of the action takes place in very dark light (which is accurate given that this is set in Washington before the advent of electricity), and that may be off putting for some, but Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography does get its job done.  I won’t say that Spielberg’s less savory habits don’t pop up occasionally in the form of some overly dramatic music ques (though John Williams is wisely restrained for much of the film) and a couple of other questionable moments.  For the most part though, Spielberg more than acquits himself and has staged a nice comeback from the disaster that was War Horse.

Opening wide just a week after a closely won but highly impassioned election, Lincoln couldn’t be any more relevant today.  We worship Abraham Lincoln today but one could hardly imagine a more divisive figure in his day what with half the country partaking in an armed rebellion against his leadership.  Even without confederate politicians in Washington we still see passions running incredibly high on the floor of the House of Representatives.  The representatives on the floor actively hurl insults at one another and fight and bicker and scheme against one another with incredible rancor.  Watching Lincon’s men work day and night to pass the amendment I couldn’t help but think of all the trouble Barack Obama went through to pass his Healthcare Reform bill.  The stakes in passing that bill weren’t as high as they were for the thirteenth amendment, and his opposition wasn’t as… treasonous as Lincoln’s was, but the parallels are still there.  If anything the political process in this country has changed a lot less than we like to think.

Perhaps one of the things to be learned from this period of history is that the greatest leaders aren’t necessarily the ones who play it safe, nor are they always going to be the ones who unite disparate parties. There are some things that are simply too important to allow to continue just because the status quo will keep the opposition at bay.  Lincoln was a man who, by the late stages of the Civil War, could no longer compromise about slavery and may have paid with his life for standing by that conviction. Still, the legacy of what he was able to accomplish lives on.  That’s something to consider when, at the moment, there is much talk of a need to compromise in order to get things done in Washington and this film is full of compromise.  Lincoln spends a great deal of time thinking back on previous compromises like the Emancipation Proclamation and regretting that they are mere half steps.  He also compromises in order to get the conservative wing of his party to vote with him.  Furthermore, he finds himself compromising some of his loftier principles by making under the table deals for votes and by lying at certain stages of the process in order to keep the vote on the floor.  Other figures like Thaddeus Stevens also find themselves compromising some of their rhetoric for the greater good.  And yet, all of this compromise is done in order to reach a noble end: the abolition of slavery once and for all, and on that principle there could be no compromise.

I’d love to say that Lincoln is somehow perfect, but it certainly isn’t.  It never really finds the right place to stop, and after the passage of the thirteenth amendment the film sort of forgets that it isn’t really a biopic and keeps going.  I’m also not fully convinced that Spielberg was the right person to bring this script to the screen.  I can just imagine how well this would have worked in the hands of someone like Michael Mann or Paul Greengrass or someone else who could have really given this the feel of a quick moving modern political thriller that just happened to take place in 1865.  Still, so much of Lincoln works so well that I can’t help but whole heartedly endorse it.  When all is said and don’t it probably won’t be canonized next to Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saving Private Ryan, and Munich within the highest ranks of Spielberg’s filmography, but it is still an amazing work of historical cinema made by some of Hollywood’s finest talent.

**** out of Four

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DVD Round-Up: 11/28/2012

The Deep Blue Sea (10/17/2012)

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No, this isn’t about genetically altered sharks; it’s actually based on a play set in post-WW2 Britain by Terence Rattigan.  Director Terrence Davies doesn’t do a whole lot to expand the material beyond its stage roots, but he does make some choices I wasn’t too fond of.  First of all, the cinematography is garbage.  Davies shoots the whole thing in a very soft and tinted tone that just looks televisual and amateurish.  That might be a superficial issue to have, but it’s there through the whole film and can’t be all that easily ignored.  The strength of the original source material does shine through though and there’s also some really good acting from both Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston.  I guess I’m happy that this introduced me to Rattigan’s play, but Davies’ less than inspired direction makes this feel more like a Masterpiece Theater adaptation of it than a quality feature film adaptation.

*** out of Four

Kill List (10/24/2012)

If nothing else, this film really keeps you guessing.  At first it seems like one of those “kitchen sink” dramas about the British working class, then it turns into a brutal assassin movie, and then it turns into a spooky satanic thriller in the vein of Polanski’s The Ninth Gate.  The movie is filmed very well and has a number of very cool and memorable scenes.  At times though, the film feels like it has been made so as to string together said scenes rather than as a great story unto itself.  There are a number of loose threads that have perhaps been left as such deliberately in order to preserve a sense of mystery, but they still kind of bugged me after the movie was over.  It should also be noted that this movie is extremely violent and shows people being killed in some very painful looking ways, so this isn’t going to be for everyone, but for genre fans this will seem like a very fresh and interesting movie.

***1/2 out of Four

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The Dictator (11/7/2012)

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Sasha Baron Cohen is comedic genius, and that makes it all the more painful when he makes crap like The Dictator.  This really could have been good, there is a sort of dark comedy to the way that decadent dictators behave and Cohen could have tapped into that.  Instead what he’s made is a low brow comedy that’s every bit as stupid as the garbage that the Jim Careys, Adam Sandlers, and Mike Myers of the world make when they’re at their worst.  This is a film with no internal logic, it pretty much does whatever it wants to do in order to accommodate whatever dumb joke it wants to make.  Every once in a while it throws out a good joke deserving of a better movie, but those moments are few and far between in this otherwise lacking comedy.

*1/2 out of Four

Oslo, August 31st (11/16/2012)

I expected a lot from this sophomore effort from the Norwegian director Joachim Trier, and while the film isn’t necessarily the terrific leap forward that I was expecting, it is still a strong piece of work.  The film is a lot different from Trier’s debut film, Reprise, which was a much more energetic and almost Danny Boyle-esque film made by a hungry young wunderkind.  Oslo, August 31st is a slower, some would say more mature, film about a young man taking a short trip to Oslo after having undergone a rehab treatment program.  As we watch this character meet old friends and experience progress and setbacks we begin to get a good picture of what his life was like before rehab and how he got to this point.  The film is steeped in melancholy and is filmed very well and has some good acting.  However, I’m growing a bit tired of these arthouse movies where we watch people going through an important day in their lives.  This format is certainly unique from Hollywood fare, but I don’t know that it’s all that creative when compared to the wider selection of world-cinema.  Still, this film tells such a story more effectively than most, so it deserves credit just the same.

***1/2 out of Four

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The Invisible War (11/28/2012)

11-28-2012TheInvisibleWar It’s hard to give too much of a glowing recommendation to Kirby Dick’s documentary The Invisible War, because it follows more or less the same patterns that almost every agit-prop documentary of the last decade has.  As a piece of filmmaking it is average at best.  However, the subject matter here is so disturbing and infuriating that it largely works in spite of itself.  The film is about sexual assaults in the military and the system that allows them to continue without intervention.  The film features profiles of men and women who have been sexual assault victims while serving in the armed forces as well as interviews by former military investigators with insights into the systemic failures ingrained in the military.  Anyone who’s been paying attention has likely heard one or two similar horror stories on the news here or there, but there’s something uniquely powerful about seeing such accounts collected into a case against the system that’s all the more powerful.  It’s telling that similar accusations have greatly tarnished the Catholic Church while the military is still nearly deified by large swaths of the population.  This documentary is probably a better example of effective political activism than of fine filmmaking, but a strong movie is a strong movie.

***1/2 out of Four

Skyfall(11/9/2012)

11-9-2012Skyfall

I’ll say it upfront, I’m a massive James Bond fan and I watch the films in the series with the zeal of a “fanboy.”  I’m a James Bond traditionalist and it’s because of this that I’ve had an awfully hard time wrestling with the recent entries in the series which have starred Daniel Craig in the iconic role.  When Casino Royale opened up without the series’ trademark gun barrel cold open I nearly had a heart attack, however, the film that followed was quite strong and I ultimately had to put my reservations aside and admit that the film was overall a success.  I figured that with the series now rebooted the films that followed would get back to basics and we’d never see such heresy again… then for some ungodly reason the next film, Quantum of Solace, didn’t have the gun barrel cold open either.  Had that second film been anywhere near as good as Casino Royale I probably would have held my nose and approved yet again, but it wasn’t.  Quantum of Solace sucked both as a bond film and as a regular action movie and the fact that the filmmakers stepped all over the franchise traditions that I hold dear in order to make that monstrosity only made the film’s failure sting all the worse.  Still, I held out hope that the producers behind the series would view the series reboot as complete and the next film would finally return the gun barrel cold open to the beginning of the film where it belongs.

After a four year wait the third bond film starring Daniel Craig has finally arrived, and the god damn thing still doesn’t open with gun barrel cold open…  WHY MUST YOU PEOPLE KEEP RIPPING MY SOUL APART!  I know all this sounds crazy, and no, this isn’t really just about a fifteen second piece that I believe belongs at the beginning of these movies.  This is about a mindset that seems to have infected Eon Productions and led to the creation of three straight films made by people who seems to think it was their duty to “fix” the bond series when I for one think the series was never in need of fixing.  It’s like they’re so obsessed with reboots that they don’t know when to just roll with what they have.  It all seems like some kind of massive over-reaction to the shortcomings of the 2003 bond film Di Another Day, which as admittedly terrible, but the series has seen worse and hasn’t needed to go to these lengths to come back before.  All that said, I’m not going to judge Skyfall harshly out of some misguided sense of purism.  I did like Casino Royale quite a bit in spite of its transgressions from the traditions of the series and I was more than willing to give Skyfall the same credit if it turned out to be a solid film unto itself.

The film’s opening scene feels almost like an encapsulation of the first Mission: Impossible movie, firstly because it involves a fight on top of a moving train and secondly because it involves a list of undercover agents’ identities being stolen by international terrorists.  This theft would come back to haunt MI6 when it falls in the hands of a mysterious terrorist (Javier Bardem) who begins launching a series of cyber attacks which seem to be directed directly at M (Judi Dench).  M plays a much larger role in this film than in most Bond films and here she’s under fire both from the mysterious hacker/terrorist and from people within the British government including a bureaucrat named Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) who suggests that both M and Bond are old fashioned and outdated.  In spite of some personal setbacks, Bond is sent to track down the man behind the attacks and bring him to justice.

The man brought aboard to direct this installment in the franchise was Sam Mendes, a director I’ve largely supported, especially in his early years.  Still, the choice worried me.  Bond movies are usually made by filmmakers who are solid but anonymous.  It’s the one series where I’d prefer not to see Oscar nominated filmmakers, at least if Marc Forster’s disastrous stint directing Quantum of Solace was any indication.  Fortunately, Mendes handles himself behind the camera much better than Forster did.  Forster’s misguided attempt to co-opt the Bourne series’ “shaky-cam” is gone.  Mendes style is largely simple and elegant.  Roger Deakins has been brought on board as cinematographer and he does a lot to elevate the film by giving it a really sharp and glossy veneer.  This is not to mean that Mendes’ direction is a sterling example of control and discipline, as the film does go off in some strange directions at time like a bizarre scene involving CGI kimono dragon and a misguided Albert Finney cameo late in the film.  It also doesn’t mean that I think Skyfall works terrifically as an action movie unto itself.  In that regard it’s actually kind of flawed.  The film reminded me of the troubles facing the 1999 Bond film The World is Not Enough in that it opens with an incredible action scene which the film is then unable to top later on.  In fact the opening actions scene is the only setpiece that truly feels “Bondian,” the rest feel more like what you’d expect from a typical if well made big budget Hollywood action movie.

Where the movie really started to go off the rails for me was when it introduced Javier Bardem as the villainous Raoul Silva.  Silva is an ex-MI6 agent looking for revenge, a background that bears a striking similarity to Alec Trevelyan, the antagonist from the 1995 Bond film Goldeneye.  While Trevelyan exacted his revenge through the typical evil villain means, Silva’s revenge is a bit more personal.  In fact his methods bear a striking similarity to the methods of The Joker in The Dark Knight.  I might go so far as to call it a ripoff.  On top of that, I really hated a lot of the decisions that Bardem and the writers made in the characterization of Silva, specifically their decision to make strong hints in regards to his sexuality.  That the filmmakers choose to make a gay man into a Bond villain is not objectionable in and of itself, but they opted to turn Silva into a twisted character driven by bizarre mother-issues and sexual urges.  Between that and some not-so-subtle symbolism that’s employed in the character’s death scene, the whole thing struck me as rather homophobic and unsavory.

I also wasn’t amused by a running meta-gag about a sort of civil war between “the old ways” and “the new ways,” which is clearly intended to be a statement about old-fashioned action films and modern action films.  This is odd firstly because it requires characters to continuously insinuate that Daniel Craig’s bond is “old.”  Weren’t they just calling this Bond a young new agent just two movies ago?  It’s like this movie wants to be both reboot and the culmination of a character’s years of accomplishments all at the same time and it just doesn’t compute.  What’s more, modern audiences have yet to dismiss a single Bond film for being “old fashioned.”  Every single Bond movie since Goldeneye has made more money than the last, even the much maligned Die Another Day was a huge box office success, and yet this movie operates as if the series has been up against the ropes of the last two decades.

So I guess now I’ve circled back around to my over-arching objection to the direction that this franchise has been heading in.  All the producers really need to do at this point is relax and stop trying to turn every installment of the franchise into some sort of grand statement about itself and also to stop panicking every time one film doesn’t quite work work.  That’s all I ask… and that the next movie opens with the gun barrel sequence… that’s all.  It that too much to ask?  Anyway, I’ll again reiterate that my problems with Skyfall do go deeper than my Bond movie fanboyism.  It’s certainly an improvement over the dreadful Quantum of Solace but I probably prefer Casino Royale on almost every level.  It had better action scenes, a more original plot, more psychological depth, and it generally felt more reverent towards the series even as it was actively subverting it.

*** out of Four

Flight(11/3/2012)

11-3-2012Flight

Think back to the ancient days when these businesses with names like “Blockbuster Video” and “Hollywood Video” painted the landscape.  I used to spend hours in those places just looking through all the movies on the shelves just waiting to be discovered.  One of the defining features of these establishments was their division film into various genre departments.  There was action, there was comedy, there was sci-fi, there was horror, and then there was the large section that was simply labeled “Drama.”  Later I’d come to realize that “drama” wasn’t really a genre any more than “white” is a color: it signifies the absence of something (in this case genre tropes) rather than the presence of any definable feature.  In truth, 90% of all world cinema can more easily be called a “drama” than anything else, but when I think of the “drama” section at Blockbuster the films that come to mind most readily are the courtroom thriller, non-comedic romances, and character studies, and biopics that Hollywood embraced so readily in the 80s and 90s.  Outside of their indie-shingles, Hollywood has shied away from “drama” in recent year in favor of effects driven genre movies.  One of the most prolific makers of the “drama” back in the day was Robert Zhemekis, who made successful “dramas” like Cast Away and Contact before spending a decade making weird animated genre films.  Fortunately for everyone involved, Zhemekis has suddenly returned to “drama” this year with a character study called Flight.

Part of the reason that Hollywood has turned away from “drama” is that it’s increasingly hard to cut a trailer for something without a simple high concept or a bunch of “moneyshots.”  You can see this problem in the trailer for Flight, which I initially hated because it seemed to give away way too much about the film.  After seeing the movie I realize that this trailer isn’t really spoilerific so much as it’s misleading.  The film is indeed about a man named Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) who miraculously crash lands a plane with minimal casualties only to face charges that he was intoxicated while flying the plane.  However, this is not the twist discovery the trailer makes it appear to be, nor is it some kind of unlucky misunderstanding.  In fact the movie opens the morning before the flight and shows a clearly hung over Whitiker wake up next to a nude woman drink some hair of the dog and snort a line of cocaine.  Later we see him spike his on flight beverage with vodka.  It’s immediately apparent that Whitiker is not some unlucky slob who just had a little too much to drink, he’s a long time functioning alcoholic and this dramatic incident is going to make him face his behavior in a way that he hasn’t before.

Whip Whitiker is not a likable character on paper, and that’s where Denzel Washington comes in.  In the hands of a character actor like Phillip Seymore Hoffman or Steve Buscemi he’d just come off like a contemptible human wreck.  In the hands of a major movie star, however, he’s hard to hate.  Denzel Washington looks like the kind of guy who you want to have flying your plane and who you believe would come off as a hero after a Sullenberger-esque emergency landing and you desperately want to believe that he’s in the right in spite of ample evidence to the contrary.  There’s a scene mid way through the film where he gets into a huge fight with his family that looks like something out of Jerry Springer or Cops, then mere moments later manages change gears and come off like a mild mannered and reasonable fellow to TV reporters who are waiting for him at his door-step.  You quickly realize that it’s this kind of charm that has allowed the character to hide his problem as long as he has.

All in all, the depiction of alcoholism here seems completely believable, but what new does it bring to the table?  Well, not a whole lot.  The film shows patterns of behavior that have been seen before in a number of films.  However, the execution here is really solid and that does a good deal to separate the film from the pack.  Zhemekis is an old pro, and his extended incursion into motion-capture animation doesn’t seem to have drained any of his energy or skill in the crafting of live action drama.  The film’s central plane crash sequence is tense and brilliantly realized, and the whole film manages to keep a really good pace the whole way through.  Aside from a few painfully obvious soundtrack cues, I can’t think of any major filmmaking aspect where the film really drops the ball in any significant way.  That said, this film is Hollywood to its core, and how one feels about that style will likely have a major effect on one’s enthusiasm for the end results.  The storytelling here is straightforward and at times its discussions of AA, religion, and self deception can get a little blunt.  The film also has an ending which isn’t overly daring and can be seen as something of a cop out (albeit not in the way that one necessarily expects).

Overall though, I can’t begrudge the film too much for its commercial aspects if only because the idea of a commercial drama feels almost novel in this day in age.  Flight does a whole lot right and is worth seeing if only for Denzel Washington’s performance and a couple of standout scenes.  Is it a quality film, absolutely, and yet it also isn’t necessarily a film I feel all that compelled to lavish praise upon.  We’re in the middle of a busy award season and there are so many other films that aspire to do new and interesting things rather than simply being a very well made variation on a somewhat familiar story.  It’s a film that I can almost guarantee anyone that they’ll enjoy, but it’s not necessarily one that I insist that anyone drop everything and rush out to see.

***1/2 out of Four