The final months of the Civil War a time when President Abraham Lincoln struggled to end slavery and bring the Confederate States of America back into the fold of the Union are among the most important moments in Unites States history. They're also the murkiest. Eleventh grade American History tried to teach us — war four scores Emancipation Proclamation the 13th Amendment and a fateful night at the theater — but with a few hundred years' worth of events to process most people leave school knowing that Lincoln made a couple of important moves that turned the world what it is today.
Thankfully we now have a film courtesy of the legendary Steven Spielberg that brings the 16th President's amazing uphill battle to cinematic life. The cold hard facts could not be more impressive.
For Lincoln an adaptation of the Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln Spielberg scales down his usual blockbuster sensibilities (last seen in 2011's World War I melodrama War Horse) to craft an intimate portrait of an iconic political figure. To pull it off writer Tony Kushner (Munich and the two-part Angels in America) constructs the film like a play relying on the soothing chameleon presence of Daniel Day-Lewis to breath life into Lincoln's poetic waxing. The president hits roadblock after roadblock on his quest to free the slaves and end the war Kushner and Spielberg weaving in handfuls of characters to pull him in various directions (and accurately represent the real life events). Each time Day-Lewis' Lincoln gracefully dances the dance solving every problem with action and words. Today Lincoln is held in high regard as an inspirational figure. Spielberg shows us why.
Lincoln isn't a full-blown birth-to-death biopic of the Great Emancipator and is all the better for it. Picking up in January of 1865 years into the Civil War Lincoln summons his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) to say enough is enough — the time is ripe for the abolishing of slavery. Against the vocal naysayers of the Union and even his personal confidants Lincoln attempts to rally the congressmen he needs to make his bill an amendment. He hires three men (John Hawkes Tim Blake Nelson and the wonderfully outrageous James Spader) to use whatever nonviolent means possible to swing the vote. All the while well-spoken adversaries (like Lee Pace's Fernando Wood) take to the House of Representatives floor to discredit Lincoln and dissuade congressmen. Keeping the progressive foot in the door is Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) a foul-mouthed powerhouse who shares Lincoln's ambitious dreams of equality.
The story is simple but Kushner doesn't shy away from laying down lengthy passages of political discussion in order to show the importance of Lincoln's task. It's dense material spruced up with Kushner's ear for dialogue. But even so it occasionally meanders into Ken Burns documentary territory. Case in point: there are so many characters with beards in Lincoln Spielberg even flashes title cards underneath their opening scenes just so we're not lost. The fact-heavy approach takes getting used to but Spielberg and Kushner adeptly dig deep beyond the political gabfest to find a human side to Lincoln. He's a gentle man a warm man and a hilarious man. The duo's Honest Abe never shies away from a good story — at times he's like Grandpa from The Simpsons lost in his own anecdotes (much to the dismay of his cabinet). Day-Lewis chews scenery as hinted at in the trailers but with absolute restraint. That makes his sudden outbursts really pop. When Lincoln becomes fed up with pussyfooting politicians like the quivering representatives played by Walton Goggins and Michael Stuhlbarg Day-Lewis cranks the high-pitched president up to 10. He never falters.
There's a great deal of humor and heart in Lincoln — partially because the circus-like antics of Washington D.C. feel all too close-to-home in this day and age — and Spielberg paces it all with expert camera work. The drama is iffier: a side story involving Lincoln's son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) teases an interesting family dynamic that is never fully explored and is clunky when dropped to the wayside in favor of larger issues. Same goes for Lincoln's wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) who continues to grieve for the couple's lost child. They are important issues but they don't quite work in the fabric of this specific narrative.
The larger world outside the offices of the White House and Congress is often forgotten too — we hear a lot of war talk without seeing a whole lot of war. Instances where Lincoln ventures out into fields of the dead have emotional impact but we feel disconnected from it. Where Spielberg really gets it right is in the chaos of the presidential occupation. There is no easy task for Lincoln. "I may have been wrong about that " says Abe referencing his issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation "but I wanted the people to tell me if I was." Day-Lewis understands Lincoln's complex internal thought and brings it forward in each scene: humble confident deadly and compassionate.
Spielberg's technical team once again wows and echoes the lead performance. Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski's contrasting photography near chiaroscuro makes the beautiful set and production design hyper real and highlights the actors' aging faces. Composer John Williams returns once again but with a score as low-key as Day-Lewis' character — a change of pace when compared to War Horse. It's all up to par with Spielberg's past work without turning Lincoln into a flashy period drama.
Day-Lewis was the talk of the town when the first Lincoln trailers made their way on the web. Surprisingly however Lincoln wows because it's a well-balanced ensemble drama. Lee Jones delivers his best work in a decade as the grouchy idealist Spader delivers the comedic performance of the fall season and every scene introduces another familiar face to add additional gravitas to the picture (as opposed to being a distracting cameo fest). S. Epatha Merkerson's late-in-the-game scene opens up the tear ducts in a way that none of her male costars can.
If history isn't one of your interests Lincoln may not rouse you — background reading not required but conversation moves at lightning speed and without much hand-holding. It's a change of pace for Spielberg and a welcome one. With all the bells and whistles that come with being the biggest director of all time Lincoln looks amazing sounds amazing and has enough talent to make it an exhilarating learning experience.
In a blanketed statement Luke Greenfield’s Something Borrowed attempts to explore lifelong friendships and the circumstances responsible for their ends. It’s billed as a romantic comedy which would be true if one choreographed dance to Salt N Pepa’s “Push It” and one instance where someone breaks their nose during a game of backgammon were the genre’s qualifiers. But deeper than that lies a message along the lines of “never defer to others ” or even one that’s more like “never give other people the opportunity to take what’s yours because they will.” However those morals get so completely muddled along the way that ultimately the film is downgraded to a chronicle of two best friends in love with the same man.
The film is told from the point of view of Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin) who’s described as a successful lawyer at a top law firm (so “top ” in fact it’s never named). She is single mostly keeps to herself and is preoccupied with other people’s happiness but is lucky enough to have a very good friend in Darcy (Kate Hudson) who never misses a chance to talk about herself or steal the attention of an entire party by showing up in a pink boa. We learn Rachel and Darcy's friendship spans decades through a slide show that Darcy puts together for Rachel’s “surprise” 30th birthday party and during Darcy's toast to her best friend she talks about how excited she is to marry Dex (Colin Egglesfield) and how thankful she is to Rachel for introducing the two of them. However the truth is Rachel didn’t introduce them – what really happened was Darcy crashed Rachel and Dex’s date that was in honor of all the hard work they did together to prepare for a law school test. Rachel is saddened by the combination of turning 30 and listening to Darcy's excitement over her upcoming marriage to a man she doesn't deserve and after seeing the birthday girl's pout Dex suggests the fellow lawyers go get another drink together. Rachel casually admits to Dex that she’s had a crush on him since law school (which he claims to have never known) and during a shared cab ride to their separate apartments Dex kisses Rachel because it turns out he has had feelings for her all this time too. Thus begins the affair between Dex and Rachel even though Dex’s wedding to Darcy is only weeks away. Eventually Dex and Rachel both realize they love each other and Dex has to make a decision as to which woman is right for him.
Because the story is told from Rachel The Downtrodden's POV the filmmakers attempted to make Darcy the villain as she’s the opposite of Rachel and is someone who gets everything she wants without having to put forth any effort. In actuality Darcy is pretty easy to despise because she always talks about how she’s good-looking and the only obligations she has are towards partying and making incessant demands to Rachel about her wedding to a man she only halfheartedly loves. I suspect Greenfield decided to highlight the tremendous differences between Darcy and Rachel so as to emphasize the fervor and resilience of their bond (which would in turn make the affair between Rachel and Dex a bigger and more dangerous conflict). But it ends up being a disservice to the overall project because the characters themselves are so fundamentally flawed. The notion that one woman would WILLINGLY endure such bullying from someone who’s supposed to be her best friend is terribly unrealistic and so because the movie virtually revolves around this dysfunctional friendship between these two women means everything is painful to watch. There’s even a point where Rachel’s character becomes as unlikeable as Darcy in the way her utter obedience to Darcy makes her weak-minded a terrible heroine and essentially not worthy of our respect either. And what kind of a romantic comedy has us trying to figure out which woman we hate the most? (Exactly.)
John Krasinski saves the movie from being intolerable. He plays Ethan Rachel’s other best friend and (unlike Darcy) he genuinely cares about Rachel’s well-being. Rachel confides in him and he offers her advice and encouragement and Ethan does not like Darcy at all because he sees the way she treats Rachel and the way Rachel’s life halts every time Darcy has a demand. But his character is way more important than it appears to be because he’s the one who points out that both Rachel AND Darcy are flawed characters and he validates the audience’s disgust with both women. He does this by openly criticizing Darcy’s narcissism (which the audience notices within the first few minutes of the film) and also makes Rachel aware of how pathetic it is that she’s been at Darcy’s beck and call for 30 years. Ethan is arguably the only sane character in this movie and strategically he functions as its voice of reason. Even though Krasinski does not play a main character he’s so responsible for the humor that he is a true delight. Ginnifer Goodwin also does an excellent job playing the character who thinks she’s too ugly to ever get a handsome husband and Kate Hudson also deserves some recognition for embodying someone so self-righteous.
It's hard to criticize producers or a studio about what's wrong with a movie that was originally a book because neither the producers nor the studio are responsible for the story's fundamentals -- the author is. At the same time it’s impossible to hold an author responsible for how well his or her book was adapted into a film. That means both the filmmaker and the author must share credit for Something Borrowed but I have a feeling that in a few years neither party will want any.
Dreamer is another one of those family films--based on a true story no less--that makes you feel guilty for not liking it because it means so well. The film revolves around the Cranes who have worked on their Kentucky horse farm for generations. But gifted horseman Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) loses his love for the job when the farm hits hard times. His estranged father Pop (Kris Kristofferson) feels like his son has given up unnecessarily. Even Ben’s young daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) can’t get through to her dad. The only way this family can heal is by helping an injured horse named Sonya get ready for a seemingly impossible goal: to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Say it together: “Awww!” At least the film gets it half right in its casting. Russell is perfect as the beleaguered Ben a man who needs a little inspiration to get back on track and he thankfully never takes it over the top. Same goes for Kristofferson who is aptly crusty and unwilling to give his son an inch--that is until his granddaughter and that darned horse melt his heart. And the family resemblance is uncanny; apparently the two actors have been told quite often how much they look like each other. The one misstep here is Fanning. Yes she is an extraordinarily gifted actress for her age but Cale should have been played by a happy sunny child. The oh-so-serious Fanning doesn’t really qualify. Also Elisabeth Shue as the mom is all wrong. A horse farmer’s wife? Please. Writer-director John Gatins takes a big gamble making his directorial debut with a movie about an underdog horse. First there’s the underdog part. This year seems a bit saturated with the plot device what with films like Cinderella Man and most recently Greatest Game Ever Played. Second there’s the whole horse thing. It’s just going to be hard to top the Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit--the quintessential true horse-racing movie to beat them all. True Dreamer is based on a true story and is nicely--albeit conventionally--framed. But the film isn’t unique in any way. It’s the same feel-good family stuff we’ve been swallowing all year. See? I told you I’d feel guilty for knocking it.
Based on a series of six Marvel Comics created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby in 1962 The Hulk revolves around a scientist named Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) who following a laboratory snafu absorbs a normally deadly dose of gamma radiation. Bruce thinks he has escaped unscathed--until he gets mad ... real mad which causes him to turn into a huge rampaging green monster known as the Hulk. In order to make this 40-year-old gamma theory somewhat more believable for today's science-savvy moviegoers screenwriter James Schamus and his team decided to arm the script with a somewhat more convincing scientific rationale. The story follows Bruce's father David Banner (Nick Nolte) who as a young scientist conducted prohibited genetic experiments on himself thus changing his son's life before he was even out of the womb. While modernizing the scientific reasoning behind Bruce's transformation makes sense it's a pity it had to be done in such a heavy-handed way. By adding such an elaborate layer to the story The Hulk becomes more about Bruce and David's tormented past and any semblance of a plot is buried in melodramatic dialogue between the characters. The result is a comic book adaptation that is much too serious for its own genre.
Despite the theatrical discourse don't expect complex characters to emerge from The Hulk. Although Bana (Black Hawk Down) is a good choice for the lead of the nerdy scientist and reluctant hero his character is so busy pretending he doesn't have any problems that the audience never gets to see his emotional side. Bana's character grimaces convincingly as he represses his anger for example but he fails ever to open up on a personal level to his love interest in the film his co-worker Betty played by Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind). Betty is Bruce's old flame but the two are obviously still in love: she is obsessed with fixing whatever is broken about him. As the Hulk Bruce need only look at Betty once for his anger to subside and allow him to morph back into human form. They have weighty discussions about the significance of their dreams and Bruce's past yet they never seem to connect on any level. One of the film's best performances comes from Nolte (The Good Thief) in the role of Bruce's mad scientist father David. Almost Shakespearean at times Nolte--scraggly hair and all-- completely immerses himself in the role. The cast's performances however are muted by the general heaviness of this would-be actioner. Look for quick cameo appearances by Lou Ferrigno (from the 1970s TV series The Incredible Hulk) and Marvel legend Stan Lee.
For his follow-up to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon Ang Lee has turned to bigger greener matters. The Hulk the director's visual effects-intense picture (with a little help from Industrial Light & Magic) is stunning and startlingly well done. The green beast's computer generated movements from his heaving chest to the single leaps that spring him well into a different zip code are convincingly real. Not only does the ground shake when this goliath lands but his momentum even throws him off balance at times sending his lumbering arms flailing. But while the CGI Hulk has been meticulously honed Lee's homage to the world of print comic books--using multiple screens to present concurrent storylines and alternate angles of the same scene--is off-putting: Rival researcher Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas) suspiciously walks out of the lab Betty reacts in one panel Bruce sits back in another. The simultaneous screens don't necessarily show anything pertinent going on making the far and wide close and medium shots of the character's reactions a distraction rather than a helpful storytelling technique. But the most disconcerting thing about the film is that in its leap from the four-color paneled pages to the big screen it lost its wit.