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.
Hollywood has had lots to say about the American school system as of late and whether you choose to believe the information presented to you via eye-opening documentaries like Waiting For Superman or fictional phenomenon’s like Fox’s Glee it’s clear that our educational institutions are out-of whack at best broken at worst. No one has been able to depict this disheartening downward spiral quite like director Tony Kaye with his new film Detachment. In it the reclusive auteur focuses on just a few weeks in the life of Henry Barthes a substitute teacher who gets more than he bargained for when he takes a job at a fledgling high school and in the process gives parents professors and kids a much-needed wake-up call.
In this short period of time Kaye dissects the contemporary classroom with unflinching realism. The grainy worn film stock he uses for his verite’ photography coupled with topical subject matter ranging from child prostitution and teen suicide to parental negligence makes the movie appear to be more a documentary than a narrative feature but that’s where Carl Lund’s poetic screenplay comes in. His prose is simultaneously beautiful and brutal effortlessly supplying existential excerpts for star Adrien Brody darkly comic bits for fellow teacher James Caan and up-to-the-minute slanguage for the teenage students. He also uses this star-studded stage (the ensemble includes Marcia Gay Harden Tim Blake Nelson and Christina Hendricks among many others) to touch upon the larger sociopolitical issues effecting our schools and children lashing out at numerous initiatives/establishments like “No Child Left Behind” that we’re led to believe have been implemented to increase residential property values instead of grades. Though the script begins to sound like a sermon at times it’s not intrusive enough to become distasteful. Quite simply it’s brazenly truthful.
However excessive exposition can often hurt a film’s momentum and Kaye gets unnecessarily sidetracked with the painful back-stories of his characters. Brody’s Barthes is our central protagonist so the sub-plot involving his aging ailing grandfather is essential in defining him but the filmmaker forces insight into the lives of almost every teacher (and a few of the students) down our throats. Individually each vignette is heartrending but distracting; the majority of them have little connection to the main narrative. Collectively they illustrate many of the problems that contemporary families face and more importantly create an emotional crescendo leading into the inevitably tragic conclusion.
The brilliance of this casual buildup to the film’s climax is a nod to Kaye’s storytelling aptitude. I found him utilizing the kind of in-your-face filmmaking tactics that Spike Lee made commonplace in his early movies most noticeably with close-ups on a few actors who irritably address the camera head-on (like in Do The Right Thing). In addition he intensifies the action with quick cuts and aggressive push-ins that elaborate on each character’s crisis. Perfection clearly isn't his strong point; Kaye frames his shots sloppily at times and doesn't attempt anything groundbreaking but maximizes the potential of tried-and-true lo-fi techniques. His stylistic abilities are second only to Brody’s performance which is subtle sad and sweet all at once. We take an emotional and psychological plunge with the native New Yorker as he navigates a teenage wasteland of sex drugs violence and depression but it’s all just another day at school to America’s urban youth.
Long absent since his freshman feature American History X Detachment is a welcome return for Tony Kaye whose commitment to the integrity of this story is marked by unrelenting bleakness in its tone and uncensored cynicism regarding the state of our schools. He doesn’t portray every educator as a saint or every student as a sinner; through Brody he imparts on us the uneasy truth about the direct correlation between our failure as parents and the failure our children: we're one and the same. The true genius in his film is not represented in the text of his commentary but in his ability to forge an explanatory mosaic from his characters’ varying but related points of view. Because of this there are multiple mini-narratives that run through Detachment and all of them are worthy of your attention.
Salt the propulsive new thriller from Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger Patriot Games) has been dubbed “Bourne with boobs ” but that label isn’t entirely accurate. In the role of Evelyn Salt a CIA staffer hunted by her own agency after a Russian defector fingers her in a plot to murder Russia’s president Angelina Jolie keeps her two most potent weapons holstered hidden under pantsuits and trenchcoats and the various other components of a super-spy wardrobe that proudly emphasizes function over flash.
But flash is one thing Salt never lacks for. Its breathless cat-and-mouse game hits full-throttle almost from the outset when a former KGB officer named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) stumbles into a CIA interrogation room and begins spilling details of a vast conspiracy. Back in the ‘70s hardline elements of the Soviet regime launched an ambitious new front in the Cold War flooding the western world with orphans trained to infiltrate the security complexes of their adopted homelands and wait patiently — decades if necessary — for the order to initiate a series of assassinations intended to trigger a devastating nuclear clash between the superpowers from which the treacherous Reds would emerge triumphant.
The Soviet Union may have long ago collapsed (or did it? Hmmm...) but its army of brainwashed killer orphan spies remains in place and if this crazy Orlov fellow is to be believed they stand poised to reignite the Cold War. It’s a preposterous — even idiotic — scheme but no more so than any of our government’s various harebrained proposals to kill Castro back in the ‘60s. As such the CIA treats it with grave seriousness even the part that that pegs Salt who just happens to be a Russian-born orphan herself as a key player in the conspiracy.
Salt bristles at the accusation but suspecting a set-up she opts to flee rather than face interrogation from her bosses Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A former field agent she’s been confined to a desk job since a clandestine operation in North Korea went south leaving her with a nasty shiner and a rather unremarkable German boyfriend (now her unremarkable German husband). She’s clearly kept up her training during while cubicle-bound however and in a blaze of resourceful thinking and devastating Parkour Fu she fends off a dozen or so agents of questionable competence and takes to the streets where she sets about to clear her name and unravel the Commie orphan conspiracy before the authorities can catch up with her. That is if she isn’t a part of the conspiracy.
The premise which aims to resurrect Cold War tensions and graft them onto a modern-day spy thriller is absurdly clever — and cleverly absurd. But Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay isn’t satisfied with the merely clever and absurd — it must be mind-blowing. Salt is one of those thrillers that ladles out its backstory slowly and in tiny portions every once in a while dropping a revelatory bombshell that effectively blows the lid off everything that happened beforehand. No one is who they seem and every action every gesture no matter how seemingly trivial is imbued with some kind of grand significance. The effect of piling on one insane twist after another has the effect of gradually diluting the narrative. When anything is possible nothing really matters.
But spy thrillers by definition trade in the preposterous and the principal function of the summer blockbuster is to entertain. In that regard Salt more than fulfills its charge. Noyce wisely keeps the story moving at pace that allows little time for asking uncomfortable questions or poking holes in the film’s frail plot. And he has an able partner in the infinitely versatile Jolie who having already exhibited formidable action-hero chops in Wanted and the Tomb Raider films proves remarkably adept at the spy game as well.
It’s well-known that Jolie wasn’t the first choice to star in Salt joining the project only after Tom Cruise dropped out citing the story’s growing similarities to the Mission: Impossible films. But she’s more than just a capable replacement; she’s a welcome upgrade over Cruise not least because she’s over a decade younger (and a few inches taller) than her predecessor. Should Brad Bird require a pinch-hitter for Ethan Hunt he knows where to look.
Shot in a nervous intrusive style Rachel Getting Married is a blistering portrait of a family during a tension-filled wedding weekend. The long-simmering conflicts come to the surface at an event that’s supposed to be about good times. Actually the title is a bit of a misnomer since although it is indeed Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) getting hitched the plot really revolves around her troubled sister Kym (Hathaway) who comes straight from a stint in rehab to the family gathering. In attending the wedding she brings a boatload of personal issues--sibling and parental resentments and a whole host of other problems guaranteed to make everyone in the room uncomfortable. This all comes to a head early on at the pre-wedding dinner at which she makes an awkward piercing toast that puts the entire place on edge. It doesn’t help that her father (Bill Irwin) is rather weak and overprotective and her mother (Debra Winger) is now remarried and has moved on to a different kind of life--disconnected from her daughters emotionally. The wedding a Hindu ceremony becomes a catalyst for personal confrontations that finally break out into the open. The ensemble cast assembled by director Jonathan Demme is simply unbeatable--led by a breakthrough performance from Hathaway. Her wry ironic humor internal self-loathing seething conflicts and heartbreaking emotional vulnerability are all the by-products of a young woman who desperately needs to be embraced. This is a major acting turn and those who only think of Hathaway from Ella Enchanted and The Princess Diaries are going to be surprised to see the emergence of an actress who is the real thing. As her sister Rachel DeWitt who also was impressive as the mistress in season one of Mad Men doesn’t get to take center stage but has several strong moments. Watch out for this one. Irwin and Winger prove the meaning of the word “pro” in their limited screen time. In just a couple of big scenes Winger totally nails the mother and her need to distance her relationship with her own family. You only wish the part was fleshed out a little more especially since great roles for Winger seem to be few and far between these days. Irwin is equally impressive likeable but clueless as far as the real drama playing out between his daughters. This Tony-winning Broadway veteran gives us a lifetime of information about his character in just a few scattered moments. The Oscar-winning Demme (Silence of the Lambs Philadelphia) has spent the last few years doing documentaries and concert films so it’s nice to report he’s got his mojo back with his first narrative film since 2004’s The Manchurian Candidate remake. Actually Rachel seems influenced by some of his recent non-fictional work with a documentary style approach to screenwriter Jenny Lumet’s somewhat conventional scripting. The use of hand-held cameras is pervasive and has the intended effect of bringing out raw emotions in the kind of cinema verite Robert Altman often employed. In a nod to the obvious inspiration the late Altman is thanked in the end credits. Demme’s in-your-face filmmaking might be oft-putting to some members of the audience but it effectively heightens the reality of the piece separating Rachel from the pack. Ultimately this is a performance piece and Demme has brought out the best of his cast of fine actors gaining award-worthy turns.