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.
Kids' movies may be the most difficult cinematic mountains to climb. The filmmakers must cater to two perspectives at constant odds with one another: young ones who find amusement in simplistic stories and broadly painted humor and their parents who need enough of a grounded hook emotional core and clever jokes to keep them from nodding off. Not an easy task.
To see this winning combination pulled off by a 3-D animation/live-action hybrid adaptation of a rather irritatingly sweet cartoon from the '80s…well it's both a shocking and welcome surprise. The Smurfs transcends recent property-grabs like Garfield Alvin and the Chipmunks and Marmaduke by embracing the cartooniness relishing in the fact that it can get away with anything with the help of adorable little blue people.
Smurfs takes the model employed by 2007's Enchanted kicking things off in the colorful fantasy world of Smurf Village and quickly bringing its cheery clueless characters to the terrifying metropolis of New York. After Clumsy Smurf accidentally leads the Smurf-obsessive Gargamel (Hank Azaria) to the hidden mushroom haven of his brethren the bumbling black sheep of the Smurf family finds himself and a few clan members Papa Brainy Grumpy Gutsy Smurfette at the wrong end of a Blue Moon-induced worm hole. The group (along with Gargamel and his cat) find themselves face-planted in NYC's Central Park where they meet Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris) yes man to the cosmetic titan Odile. This sets the race in motion—the Smurfs enlisting the help of Patrick to find a way back home Patrick seeking the perfect ad campaign for Odile's new make-up line and Gargamel questing hungrily for a few drops of Smurf essence.
If Smurfs was simply a barrage of fart jokes and pop culture references the movie wouldn't click but by giving each of his characters something to do (seems obvious no?) director Raja Gosnell injects the film with a helpful dose of heart. Along with Clumsy's quest to be more than his name insists Harris' Patrick also has his own problems to overcome. Namely preparing to be a Papa Smurf to the kid he's about to have with his wife Grace (Glee's Jayma Mays). Harris and Mays take their roles here seriously going all out when they need to chase the adventurous Smurfs around town in one slapsticky sequence after another but they put just as much into their smaller scenes. One moment where Papa Smurf sits Patrick down for a "Dad talk" even has weight—a near impossible task for a "kids" movie.
But let's not get too sappy: the movie is funny plain and simple. Azaria makes a living bringing cartoon characters to life—he's a reason why The Simpsons has been on for more than 20 years—and his goofy Gargamel antics are inspired. A recurring gag where the evil wizard continually steps through ventilation steam grates probably read fine on paper but Azaria knows how to play big and doesn't allow any moment of physical comedy to lazily fall through the cracks. On the flip side Harris nails the straight man role and acknowledges that hanging out with Smurfs is just as bizarre as you'd imagine. Think The Brady Bunch Movie for the world of animation.
With solid kids' flicks becoming a rare occurrence Smurfs is a breath of fresh air a film that believes in its own simple message while simultaneously being self-aware of its cartoonish heritage. The movie's a smurfy good time but it takes a particularly smurfy Smurf to let go of cynical baggage and smurf it.
After the death of their parents Rashad (Tip "T.I." Harris) and his younger brother Ant (Evan Ross) have to fend for themselves. Trying not to think about his pending high school graduation Rashad works as a janitor for his stingy uncle (Mykelti Williamson) and hangs out with his friends practicing for the Skate Wars competition at their local roller rink. Ant however approaches life differently after he hooks up with Marcus (Big Boi) a big-time drug dealer in the area. Marcus recruits Ant to do his dirty work and the kid gets himself tangled up in the harsh world of drugs money and violence. It’s up to his older brother to get him out of it and finally steer him in the right direction. ATL proves some rapper-turned-actors can indeed be in a movie not based on their real lives. Known as “The King of the South” in the rap world T.I. displays some notable acting skills. Born and raised in the ATL (that’s Atlanta to us lay folk) his southern slang and cool demeanor lend credibility. As well Big Boi (half of the Atlanta-based hip-hop group OutKast) does a nice job giving his drug lord character multi-layers. He plays it smooth recruiting high school kids and promising them more money then they have ever seen. When they don’t pay up he then turns on a dime and becomes quite menacing. And watch out for Evan Ross the youngest son of the legendary Diana Ross. In his debut performance as Ant he tugs at your heart even when you’re hoping Rashad will smack him for the bad choices he makes. Music video director Chris Robinson makes his feature directing debut with ATL a story loosely based on ATL producers Dallas Austin and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins’ (of TLC fame) experiences growing up in Atlanta. With many of the hottest hip-hop artists coming out of Atlanta Robinson--along with first-time screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism--impressively incorporates the music without focusing on it. Sure the soundtrack crunks it up but this is not a film about a wannabe rapper trying to make it out of the ‘hood and into the spotlight. There aren’t any lengthy shootouts and no one dies. Instead ATL interweaves compelling themes of family dynamics rich vs. poor--and even a roller skating motif which seems to come out of left field but provides some fun moments. ATL is a breath of fresh air for a hip-hop movie that isn't about hip-hop.
As Phone Booth not-so-subtly points out most folks these days spend a great deal of time on the phone--so much so that the compulsion to answer even a random ringing phone is sometimes just too hard to pass up. Such is the fate of one Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) a smooth-talking PR rep who revels in his self-serving unethical existence. He prefers to wheel and deal on his cell phone while pacing the streets of New York but uses a public phone booth for the calls he doesn't want wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) to find out about like the special one he wants to make to Pam (Katie Holmes) a wannabe actress he's trying to get in the sack. Yet on this particular afternoon the pay phone rings--and being the phone junkie he is Stu answers it. Biiiig mistake. The caller turns out to be a serial killer with a sniper rifle who tells Stu he'll be shot dead if he hangs up the phone. Of course Stu thinks it's a sick joke at first but after the sniper kills someone near the booth Stu is suddenly thrust into a hellish game of cat and mouse with the unseen gunman. Eventually the police arrive led by senior officer Captain Ramey (Forest Whitaker) who first mistake Stu for the crazy shooter. Soon however Ramey his team Kelly and even Pam become ensnared in the sniper's web--and only Stu can save them by digging deep into his soul and coming clean ultimately outwitting the killer at his own game.
That this is pretty much a one-man show is a given--and Farrell bears the weight of it on his shoulders quite well. The Irish actor has a certain reckless-yet-oh-so-vulnerable approach towards his craft which he uses to full benefit in Phone Booth. Stu goes from cocky bravado to gut-wrenching defenselessness in one fell swoop and even though his character's dialogue gets heavy-handed about what a schmuck he has been Farrell manages to make it all believable. As the sniper Kiefer Sutherland is menacing and sardonic as he goads Stu into his confessions but the baddie never comes off as evil as you would like him to be. Of the supporting players only Whitaker stands out as the police captain who is thankfully a lot smarter than he first appears to be. Holmes and Mitchell on the other hand have the tedious tasks of playing "the women" and neither are able to rise above their thankless parts.
Phone Booth had some difficulties making it to the big screen. Originally From Hell's Allan and Albert Hughes were attached to direct with a varying list of A-list actors attached to star at different times including Will Smith and Jim Carrey. Eventually the film fell into director Joel Schumacher's lap in 2000 and (after Carrey dropped out) he cast newcomer Farrell with whom the director had just worked in Tigerland. Twentieth Century Fox at last was able to set a November 2002 release date--but then came the horrifying real-life events last October where two snipers in the Washington D.C. area randomly killed several people and the studio decided to postpone the release due to those sensitive circumstances. Now that the film is finally coming out the wait seems to have paid off since a) Farrell has become a bona-fide star in the meantime with The Recruit and Daredevil under his belt and b) Phone Booth is just as fresh and visually stimulating as if it was made yesterday. Schumacher shot the film in 10 days because he knew he had to pull out all the stops to sell the concept of having the action revolve around one guy standing in a phone booth. The result is an excellent fast-paced film which uses a split-screen style to tell the story--and keep the movie's--and the audience's--adrenaline pumping throughout.
After surviving a devastating car accident following her first college party freshman Cassie (Melissa Sagemiller) falls into a coma and steps into a nightmare of otherworldly visitations. Haunted by a grim reaper of a far different kind her only hope is to cling to chance encounters with her lost love Sean (Casey Affleck) and the aid of a mysterious young priest named Father Jude (Luke Wilson). Cassie's malicious friends Matt (Wes Bentley) Annabel (Eliza Dushku) and the morose Raven (Angela Featherstone) seem intent on drawing her to the dark side but the spirit of her soul mate Sean guides her back to the world of the living.
Sagemiller (Get Over It) may be a fine actress but this film--her second full-length feature--isn't the one to prove it. Not that Sagemiller does a poor job but like most dull and stale horror movies the female lead isn't asked to do much other than look frightened and scream--a lot. Affleck (Good Will Hunting) Bentley (American Beauty) and Dushku (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) are among the more talented actors of their generation but are completely wasted especially Affleck in his one-dimensional role. Wilson as Father Jude is the only character with an interesting part but unfortunately the good Father's development is stunted and incomplete leaving Wilson little to work with.
Steve Carpenter's first turn as a director leaves much to be desired. Of course Carpenter wrote the formulaic script so why shouldn't he be the one to helm it? One major flaw (and there are plenty to choose from) is that nearly half the movie is shot tight on the characters giving the audience a very myopic view. Even if that was intentional it certainly did nothing to heighten the tension (what little of it there was) in the movie. The flick's tagline "The World of the Dead and the World of the Living... are About to Collide" conveys the message of an epic struggle between the forces of evil and the forces of good--a struggle that never materializes. And the film's final message that love conquers all is the boring hackneyed truism that breaks the cliché camel's back.