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.
It was the trickle of pee heard around the world. Cannes attendees were aghast and/or amused an infamous scene from The Paperboy that shows Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron; this is apparently a great salve for jellyfish burns which were covering our Ken Doll-like protagonist. (In fact the term protagonist should be used very loosely for Efron's character Jack who is mostly acted upon than active throughout.)
Lurid! Sexy! Perverse! Trashy! Whether or not it's actually effective is overshadowed by all the hubbub that's attached itself to the movie for better or worse. In fact the movie is all of these things — but that's actually not a compliment. What could have become somethingmemorable is jaw-droppingly bad (when it's not hilarious). Director Lee Daniels uses a few different visual styles throughout from a stark black and white palette for a crime scene recreation at the beginning to a '70s porno aesthetic that oscillates between psychedelic and straight-up sweaty with an emphasis on Efron's tighty-whiteys. This only enhances the sloppiness of the script which uses lines like narrator/housekeeper/nanny Anita's (Macy Gray) "You ain't tired enough to be retired " to conjure up the down-home wisdom of the South. Despite Gray's musical talents she is not a good choice for a narrator or an actor for that matter. In a way — insofar as they're perhaps the only female characters given a chunk of screen time — her foil is Charlotte Bless Nicole Kidman's character. Anita is the mother figure who wears as we see in an early scene control-top pantyhose whereas Charlotte is all clam diggers and Barbie doll make-up. Or as Anita puts it "an oversexed Barbie doll."
The slapdash plot is that Jack's older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes back to town with his colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) to investigate the case of a death row criminal named Hillary Van Wetter. Yardley is black and British which seems to confuse many of the people he meets in this backwoods town. Hillary (John Cusack) hidden under a mop of greasy black hair) is a slack-jawed yokel who could care less if he's going to be killed for a crime he might or might not have committed. He is way more interested in his bride-to-be Charlotte who has fallen in love with him through letters — this is her thing apparently writing letters and falling in love with inmates — and has rushed to help Ward and Yardley free her man. In the meantime we're subjected to at least one simulated sex scene that will haunt your dreams forever. Besides Hillary's shortcomings as a character that could rustle up any sort of empathy the case itself is so boring it begs the question why a respected journalist would be interested enough to pursue it.
The rest of the movie is filled with longing an attempt to place any the story in some sort of social context via class and race even more Zac Efron's underwear sexual violence alligator innards swamp people in comically ramshackle homes and a glimpse of one glistening McConaughey 'tock. Harmony Korine called and he wants his Gummo back.
It's probably tantalizing for this cast to take on "serious" "edgy" work by an Oscar-nominated director. Cusack ditched his boombox blasting "In Your Eyes" long ago and Efron's been trying to shed his squeaky clean image for so long that he finally dropped a condom on the red carpet for The Lorax so we'd know he's not smooth like a Ken doll despite how he was filmed by Daniels. On the other hand Nicole Kidman has been making interesting and varied career choices for years so it's confounding why she'd be interested in a one-dimensional character like Charlotte. McConaughey's on a roll and like the rest of the cast he's got plenty of interesting projects worth watching so this probably won't slow him down. Even Daniels is already shooting a new film The Butler as we can see from Oprah's dazzling Instagram feed. It's as if they all want to put The Paperboy behind them as soon as possible. It's hard to blame them.
It's rare that a sequel trumps the original but The Expendables 2 manages to do just that with a steady stream of one-liners and welcome weathered faces as well as a few new ingredients. E2 seems even more self-aware of its own silliness especially with Jean-Claude Van Damme as the villain (named Vilain of course) and Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger popping up in smaller roles alongside previous Expendables Sylvester Stallone Jason Statham Jet Li Dolph Lundgren Bruce Willis Terry Crews and Randy Couture.
Then again The Expendables wasn't any sort of action classic; it was like writer/director/star Stallone threw a whole bunch of ideas at the wall to see which would stick then added massive amounts of weapons and the occasional hand-to-hand combat. It was popular but it definitely not the kind of awesome actioner that the stars were able to make 10 or 20 years ago. There's the rub actually; like women actors who have written or directed their own projects because nothing else was available or satisfactory Stallone created The Expendables because Hollywood didn't seem to know what to do with him and his fellow action stars as they got older. It's easy to criticize Stallone et al for not doing the same amount of stunt work or hand-to-hand fighting that for example Statham is capable of but the whole thrust of the movie is that they're expendable -- to themselves to the world and until Stallone kickstarted these movies to Hollywood.
E2 is still clumsy but it's a little more adventurous and a little more introspective. Two new additions to the crew seem to throw everyone for a loop in one way or another. Liam Hemsworth shows up as Bill the Kid a sniper who left the military after a raid in Afghanistan went horribly wrong; his age and hopefulness not to mention physical prowess is a foil the Sylvester Stallone's Barney Ross and one that Barney is well aware of. Nan Yu joins the team as Maggie who is apparently the only person who can disarm the safe that holds whatever secret thing Church (Willis) has sent them to retrieve. And if the Expendables don't get her back alive Church will make them pay because even though Maggie is some sort of multilingual computer genius with a vicious roundhouse she's a lady. On one hand perhaps we're supposed to gather that this group of old dogs is learning new tricks by having to deal with a smart capable woman in their midst; the attempts Gunner (Lundgren) makes to flirt with her are clunky and goofy and she's obviously way too smart for fall for that claptrap. On the other when she whips out some instruments of torture Barney cracks "What are you going to do give them a pedicure?" And of course her role also devolves into an incredibly stilted and unbelievable romantic interest for Barney. One point for trying but two points deducted for falling into the romantic interest trap.
At times it's hard to tell whether or not we're laughing with the crew or at them. Plus because of how jam-packed the cast is some actors get the short end of the stick. Statham is the most charismatic of the bunch and he also has the most impressive hand-to-hand fight scenes but the emphasis in E2 is sheer firepower so he doesn't get nearly enough screen time. Couture is fairly forgettable while Lundgren plays the lunkiest of lunkheads; the running joke is that he has a chemical engineering degree from MIT and was a Fulbright Scholar which is supposed to be funny... except it's also true. (We're to assume he's mended his evil ways between the first Expendables and the second.) Is Lundgren agreeably poking fun at himself the same way Schwarzenegger hams it up at every turn? Or does E2 have shades of JCVD which stars Van Damme was a washed-up action star? Are the emotional moments supposed to fall so hilariously flat on purpose? For some reason it seems important to tease out which parts of these movies are earnest and which are tongue-in-cheek.
There's a weird melancholy about watching this group of aging action stars that has the same tang as watching someone you love grow older especially as they try so very hard to fight the ravages of time. If you dig a little deeper maybe deeper than E2 warrants you could find a well of sadness below the back-slapping antics. The world has changed and even though Stallone and his crew have muscles so hard and juicy they could pop out of their skin like grapes they can't compete with Bill the Kid and Maggie and others like them. They know it and we know it and while it's good fun to see old friends or onscreen enemies kill scores of bad guys (led by JCVD sporting a truly horrible fake Baphomet-style neck tattoo) there are better smarter more exciting and more interesting action films on the horizon.
And there's also The Expendables 3.
Much as I enjoyed X-Men: First Class Fox’s exuberant prequel/reboot (preboot?) of the fabled Marvel Comics series I was a bit disoriented by its opening sequence in which a Mengele-esque Nazi scientist played by Kevin Bacon attempts to coax a terrified young Erik Lensherr a death camp inmate into demonstrating his newly discovered mutant powers. As the interaction transpires the camera does something odd: It remains static holding its gaze on the characters’ faces affording us the rare treat of being able to scrutinize their expressions without the distraction of rapid-fire cuts or circling dollies or palsy-cams or any of the other myriad tools preferred by Hollywood’s increasingly ADD-addled action directors.
Restraint? In a comic book film? Strange but true. Even stranger is that it comes courtesy of director Matthew Vaughn whose previous comic book adaptation Kick-Ass was so over-adrenalized it should have come with a complimentary shot of insulin. Here Vaughn shows greater confidence in his material his actors and most admirably his audience letting the story hold sway unhindered by gimmicky enhancements. First Class is hardly a throwback mind you – it features all of CGI accoutrements one expects from a proper summer blockbuster – but it has a stylish retro sensibility to it that is as refreshing as it is unexpected.
In fact were it not for all of its superhuman characters one might not be able to tell that it’s based on a comic book. Whilst devising an approach suitable for his film’s early ‘60s Cold War setting Vaughn a Brit clearly found inspiration in his country’s most enduring film franchise. First Class bears far more in common with The Spy Who Loved Me than with any of the previous X-Men installments or any other comic book flicks for that matter and is all the better because of it.
Playing Vaughn’s Stromberg is Bacon whose character has graduated from death camp atrocitier to swaggering supervillain in the intervening years since the war’s end. Ensconced in his underwater lair aboard a well-appointed submarine Sebastian Shaw as he has re-christened himself (only in the comic book world does a fugitive Nazi war criminal choose an alias with the initials “S.S.”) is secretly conspiring to ignite a fatal MAD-provoking nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.
No Bond-inspired film would be complete without a dose of benign sexism embodied ably by Mad Men’s January Jones in the role of Shaw’s right-hand woman Emma Frost. A mutant who can read minds and manifest diamond-plated armor Emma’s greatest gift the filmmakers make abundantly clear is her superhuman rack which when activated turns her into a walking honey trap no soldier or government official can resist. (It’s also the movie's most potent marketing weapon.)
Even our hero Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has got a bit of 007’s DNA in him. Cheeky rakish given to funneling beers and hitting on Oxford co-eds McAvoy’s Xavier is a far cry from Patrick Stewart’s stuffy avuncular version of the character. Though his mutant telepathic abilities are highly developed his human intuition isn’t as he scarcely notices the insecurity metastasizing in his adopted sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) a blue-skinned shape-shifter in desperate need of validation.
She eventually finds that validation in Lensherr (played as an adult by Michael Fassbender) whose cynical view of humanity bred by prolonged exposure to its more sinister aspects places him at odds with Xavier’s vision of peaceful co-existence between mutants and their unenhanced counterparts. Nevertheless Xavier and Lensherr become fast friends and they agree to collaborate in the recruitment and training of a clandestine force of superhumans capable of stopping Shaw. Shortly thereafter the first-ever mutant all-star team is born.
Anyone vaguely familiar with the comic book knows how this relationship turns out. But Vaughn’s fresh approach to the characters and their underlying motivations helps ameliorate some of the predictability of film’s plot and its inevitable resolution. Like Batman Begins First Class is bound to pursue a pre-determined outcome but it makes brief detours here and there that refresh the franchise without jeopardizing its sacred canon. Vaughn takes great care to appease the film's fanboy base without alienating the broader audience. Though I couldn’t care a whit about Torso-Beam Boy Winged Stripper Girl or a handful of other extraneous characters devotees of the comics will no doubt rejoice in the screen time allotted to their respective backstories.
There are a handful of moments when Vaughn’s ambitions exceed his effects budget but for the most part he proves a dexterous purveyor of popcorn theatrics. Some of the best bits including a spectacular sequence in which an anchor tears through the deck of a luxury yacht have been spoiled by the film’s trailers but they still impress when writ large on the big screen. And there are a few surprises in First Class that remain thankfully unspoiled. Better see it quick before the next ad campaign debuts.