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.
127 Hours the new film from Slumdog Millionaire’s Academy Award-winning writer-director duo Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle feels like it was made in the titular time frame. The movie is choppy and fast-paced like the adventures of its daredevil protagonist Aron Ralston who amputated his own arm after an accident in the cavernous regions of Moab Utah in 2003. This kinetic style of filmmaking (similar to how Slumdog was produced) succeeds in artistically recreating the horrific events of those five painful days but prevents the audience from developing an essential emotional connection with the character and renders the movie limp with more style than substance.
The story begins with Mr. Ralston’s (played adequately by James Franco) ritualistic preparation for intense outdoors activities. He ignores his mother’s phone call (and it’s clearly not the first time he’s done this) so he can begin his extreme expedition that much faster. This selfish attribute is true to the character and foreshadows his eventual arc but Boyle stumbles around with irrelevant narrative detours involving a pair of female thrill-seekers and a barely-seen sister and ex-girlfriend. These subplots are ultimately counter-productive and feel out-of-place.
Instead of providing the character’s backstory through a traditional prologue we learn about Ralston’s past through his own sleep/food/water-deprived hallucinations while he’s stuck beneath a boulder at the bottom of a canyon. In this grim ill-fated state the audience is supposed to feel remorseful and on a basic level of human compassion we do. However it’s difficult to sympathize with a character as arrogant and narcissistic as Ralston who admits that he’s brought this situation on himself.
In terms of craft Boyle is at the top of his game. Aron’s spiritual breakthrough is dramatized by surreal visual sequences that deliver the most moving imagery in the entire film. His use of sound effects particularly enhanced the harrowing experience as do the realistic prosthetics used to depict his bloody sacrifice.
Though the film has the tension and suspense that made similarly-themed survival tales like Castaway and Rescue Dawn moving it lacks an introduction that builds a bond between audience and character debilitating the effect of Aron’s eventual triumph. Many will rejoice when they see Ralston emerge from his mountainous prison a wiser and more appreciative man but there’s never much reason to root for him throughout the picture unless you’re simply hoping for a happy ending.
After breaking out two years ago with the teen pregnancy comedy Juno writer-director Jason Reitman trains his keen acerbic eye on the modern business traveler in Up in the Air a bittersweet comedy about one man’s turbulent journey of self-discovery and redemption.
George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham a corporate downsizer (he fires people for a living essentially) and seasoned road warrior whose aversion to real human connection is reflected in his mammoth stockpile of frequent flyer miles the fruits of a job that calls for 300-plus days spent away from the office. Thoroughly content with a life spent in hotel bars and airport lounges Ryan begins to slowly unravel when he’s tasked with mentoring Natalie (Anna Kendrick) a fresh-faced recent graduate with a bold set of ideas for transforming the business of firing people — ideas that threaten both Ryan’s untethered existence and his budding relationship with Alex (Vera Farmiga) a fellow corporate nomad whose penchant for low-effort commitment-free relationships mirrors his own.
Enchanted by visions of a perpetual booty call replete with racy Blackberry messages and romantic trysts arranged via Outlook Ryan begins to suspect he might have found his soulmate in Alex. Inconveniencing his idealized scenario however is his travel partner Natalie a probing perceptive gal who proves a far more worthy adversary than he initially anticipated. As Ryan exposes Natalie’s real-world inexperience and naivety in a series of mildly disastrous business meetings she in turn refutes his resolutely isolationist approach to love and relationships. Soon their mutual resentment gives way to a father-daughter dynamic characterized by genuine albeit guarded affection. As his carefully crafted barriers steadily erode Ryan’s thoughts increasingly turn to Alex and he begins to contemplate the previously unthinkable prospect of putting down actual roots.
Corporate downsizing emotional detachment and the dehumanizing effects of modern technology aren’t exactly the most lighthearted of topics but Up in the Air avoids wallowing in dour Death of a Salesman territory with the help of Reitman’s sharp perceptive wit and a handful of lively cameos from comic heavyweights like Danny McBride Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons. In fact the whole affair makes for a surprisingly uplifting experience in a "saddest happy ending" kind of way. Though the latter half of the film is hampered by structural deficiencies and a pair of melodramatic sadly predictable twists that move the plot forward but diminish its overall impact it still qualifies as one of the top films of the year and Reitman’s best work to date. Consider Up in the Air a surefire Oscar contender.
Charlie (Michael Douglas) has been a mess for quite a while. A jazz musician who has battled schizophrenia and manic depression for years has spent the last couple living in a mental hospital. His 16-year-old daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) has been living on her own in the family home (mom is long gone) having quit school and gone to work at McDonald’s to make ends meet. When Charlie is released and comes home the pair begins to tentatively rebuild their relationship. The good news is that Charlie is taking his meds and handling the real world reasonably well; the bad is that he’s developed an obsession with a legendary cache of Spanish gold doubloons reportedly buried near their dusty California home. When Charlie begins to convince Miranda that he really isn’t crazy--at least when it comes to the treasure--together they begin a Don Quixote-like journey that cements their fractured relationship back together. Forget Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko the ultra-smooth Wall Street guy or as dashing Jack Colton of Romancing the Stone fame. These days Douglas now 62 has said he needs a really good reason to leave his family so this role where he can play a scraggly bearded wild-eyed edge-of-nuts guy is just the ticket. Douglas gives one of his best performances ever as Charlie striking just the right balance of intellect insanity and inherent love for his no-longer-little girl. Plus the man whose on-screen persona has often been all about male vanity is anything but that in King of California. He’s a scrawny whippet of a guy rather than a hunky leading man and it’s a transformation that just may get him another Academy Award nomination. Meanwhile 20-year-old Evan Rachel Wood proves that she really is an acting force to be reckoned with giving a gently nuanced performance as a girl who has had to grow up way too soon yet still completely loves the father who has struggled to care for her as he struggles with his personal demons. First-time writer/director Mike Cahill has done a first-rate job of bringing this quirky funny and slightly poignant story to the screen. Perhaps the reason he’s been so successful is in the company he keeps. A film-school friend of Oscar-winner Alexander Payne (Sideways About Schmidt) Cahill enlisted his producing help for his film along with Payne’s Sideways partner Michael London. King of California bears Cahill’s own stamp however--a combination of terrific visuals that often make wry satiric statements deftly melded with an assortment of memorable characters and situations. Perhaps his biggest strength is in the casting of the film in his choice of the two talented actors who bring a believability and sense of real family ties to their roles. With King of California Cahill begins what looks to be a long and beautiful friendship with moviegoers who love to be transported to interesting and funny places.