Lincoln

History is where the greatest stories are found. There is drama, surprise, horror, romance and suspense in the events of the past. The number of subjects that can be explored is limitless and the subject of Abraham Lincoln, is rich with potential and has been mined deeply in the past. Biographical pictures can sometimes introduce us to characters that we have barely any knowledge of, or they can celebrate those we know well in a grandiose manner. What it takes to make a successful movie out of those bits and pieces of history is a great storyteller. Over the last forty years, there has been no greater cinematic storyteller than Steven Spielberg. From “Jaws”, to “War Horse”, Spielberg has usually managed to tell us compelling stories that are highly visual in nature and they touch our hearts. This film should have been the perfect combination of subject, story and film maker. While the story is intelligent and thoughtfully told, in the end for me, it was more hollow then it should have been.

Otto Von Bismark, said more than a century ago that “laws are like sausages, it is best not to see them being made.” The story of the passage of the 13th Amendment is the real focus here. Although that passage was accomplished through the cleverness and political acumen of our 16th President, it is still a legislative process with multiple characters whose motives are mixed. Way back in 1972, a stage musical was transferred to film on the passing of the Declaration of Independence. “1776” was an interesting movie, but not a popular success and even with songs, the legislative process is a slog. Aaron Sorkin has written brilliant stories about the political process of legislation both on television (The West Wing) and in movies (The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War), but he had the advantage of plugging clever word play into the mouths of fast talking characters. Tony Kushner, the screenwriter for this film, had a more difficult task. He had to find a narrative that would put many of Lincoln’s own words into this story, he had to invent words for all the other characters, and he had to stay true to the political speech of the times. As a result, we often get great stories told by the President, forced into meetings that might not have made the most sense for them to be used in. During the first half of the movie, every scene with Lincoln has one of those charming stories. While the homespun wisdom of Lincoln feels accurate to the character, it also feels shoe horned into the narrative.

A complete Lincoln biopic may not have been necessary, and I understand the need to focus the story a bit. Yet by cramming it into the short window of the lame duck congress that ultimately moved the legislation forward, the emphasis stays off of the President too much of the time. This may have been Lincoln’s last great success as President, but from a story perspective, it lacks the kind of drama the Emancipation Proclamation presented. Having read and loved “Team of Rivals”, the book that Spielberg and company largely based their story on, I can say that it was the proclamation that represented the more interesting dilemma Lincoln faced, and it was a more natural story to focus on. There is one sequence here where Lincoln gives voice to the whole process of the decision that he used in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.  It was a more interesting five minutes of mid 19th century politics and law than most of the histrionic speechifying done in the Congress in support of the 13th Amendment in this film. The backroom deals and political payoffs and the political divisions in the Republican Party at the time, are shown clearly but just not made very interesting. Instead of being a living breathing embodiment of Lincoln’s political skills, it feel more like a tableaux of Lincoln, during the process. This film is a history lesson not a drama. I like history but it may be difficult to embrace it without the narrative it needs.

There is so much right in the film that it is difficult to pinpoint those elements that ultimately undermine it. Daniel Day Lewis, is spot on perfect as Lincoln. From what I have read of his speeches and the history around them, his voice is probably closer to the real voice of Abraham Lincoln than the sonorous tones of Royal Dano, who provides the voice of Lincoln at Disneyland and Disney World. Day-Lewis manages to stand tall even with the bowed shoulders of Lincoln. His face looks gnarled and worn in the job. His movements display the real movements of a man who is tired and carries the weight of both the world and his young son on his shoulders. (Just watch how Tad climbs up on father Abe in the sequence in front of the fire, it seems like something a man of that time would do with a child). The only weaknesses in the performance come from the tense confrontations he has with his wife, played by Sally Field. In those scenes he seems to be straining for drama rather than interacting with his wife. Sally Field is actually more subtle in the two “fight” sequences.  When he is telling the stories that Lincoln told so often, he is a natural. When he explains his positions to the cabinet and his political allies, Day Lewis feels authentic. He is robbed of greatness sometimes by the way the script forces the stories into the narrative. The opening sequence tries to cheat the Gettysburg Address into the time period of the story, by having soldiers repeat the lines back to the President who had said them almost two years earlier. We get a great version of Daniel Day Lewis doing the Second Inaugural address, but it is done as a benediction after the President has been assassinated. Too often, great moments are being imposed on the story that the filmmaker chose to tell, and the stitching is too obvious.

The movie is filled with great moments and terrific actors. Behind every beard or costume was a performer doing some darn fine work. The technical elements of the movie are also superb. The visuals are right, the sets impressive, the cinematography is excellent. I did not notice John William’s score, which is both a blessing and a curse. We get a more natural story when the events are not always being sweetened by the music, but the parts of the story that touched me usually had music to them. Not the music of the score but songs of the times, sung by soldiers and by the congressmen. In the final analysis, I admire the movie a great deal, and I was moved by some of the bits and pieces. “Lincoln” is not a work to be ashamed of, but it is not a work of art, and the biggest failing for me, who reveres Abraham Lincoln above all other American Heroes, is that it is also not a work of heart.

Twilight Breaking Dawn Part 2

Since the first time I saw the poster for the first Twilight movie way back in 2008, I thought this was going to be a soap opera featuring teen vampires and werewolves. We got the books and ran through them lickety split, just in time for the release of the final novel, “Breaking Dawn”. In the whole time, my opinion on these has not wavered, it is melodrama, disguised as horror, with pretty people play acting earth shattering love. None of what I have just written should be construed as a slap at the series. I just want to point out that judging it by any other standard seems to be a little silly. As a soap opera featuring teens playing monsters, it is the emotional ride that the readers and viewers want. If it is not what you wanted to see, then there was no point in watching it, and certainly very little point in bitching about it. The final novel in the series, which has been broken up into two parts for the films, is just over the top crazy with emotional payoffs for the faithful. There is a wedding, a wedding night, a monster baby and birth, followed by animal imprinting in a way that resolves the big emotional conflict in the whole series. Once that is done, there was not much more to say, but since your story needs to have some conflict, let’s toss in a vampire war and a bunch of random characters to try to make it interesting. Viola’, instant melodrama satisfaction. If this is up your alley, then “Breaking Dawn Part 2” is up your alley.

The story is told in a pretty efficient manner. I thought this movie was a lot more economical and time sensitive than Part 1 was. The characters never really develop after the first movie or book. They have the same emotions just jacked up on a bigger scale with each subsequent episode. Bella loves Edward, Jacob loves Bella, Edward loves Bella but is conflicted about doing so. When the magic non-immortal, but probably not dying anytime soon Renesme comes along, Jacob’s romantic story is finished. He has bonded with Edward and Bella through their child and it is now one big creepy weird family dynamic. These are really issues with the book and not with the movie. The film does a credible job of trying to make all this hyper ridiculous material believable on film. If you have been all in for four movies, there is not any reason to not tag along now and finish it off. The accelerated growth of the baby is accepted by everyone, including one of the least likely characters to let all this pass, Bella’s Dad Charlie. From the beginning of the series, Charlie has been the most realistic character and the one actor who gives a performance that is not simply mouthing words that sound portentous. Billy Burke grounded this character in the part of the stories that could actually be true, an estranged father and daughter coming to realize how much they really do need each other. After four films playing it straight, he has to make a switch and play the fantasy element along with everyone else. There is a scene where Jacob tries to make this easier for him to take, and it gets a big laugh, but for the first time Charlie is the butt of the joke. Still, Burke manages to pull it off with some dignity and the story plays out with minimal reference to the real world again.

Anyone who remembers the book probably knows what a big build up to nothing it was. It was all tease about a big vampire war but when the end came, not much happened. The biggest success of this film is to overcome that weakness of the novel. The big battle does basically take place, and although it too is a bit of a cheat, at least the audience gets some of the visual treats that a movie ought to be providing. Michael Sheen shows up again playing the unctuous leader of the vampire royalty the “Voltari”. He hams it up pretty well and compensates for the amateurish line readings by all the other “evil”vampires in the movie. After the horrible performance she turned in as Jane in the “Eclipse” episode, Dakota Fanning is reduced to basically no line readings in this movie, she utters one word twice, and is silent for the rest of the big confrontation. Still, when the character’s storyline is played out on screen, it got a big reaction from the fans in the audience.  The fighting here is even less realistic or horrifying than the kung fu in “The Man with the Iron Fists”, but it is nicely choreographed with lots of flying, spinning and kicking. One of the reasons this never works as a horror film is that all the horror elements are CGI effects and basically makes most of the action look like a big cartoon. I enjoyed the cartoon nature of the action scenes, but it is hard to ever feel too invested in the outcome.

The Cullens are aided in fighting the false charges against them, and in the fight at the end, by a motley crew of other non-Voltari vampire types. We get a little back story on some of them, but others just show up, mutter a couple of lines and then fade into the background. Joe Anderson, an actor we have sort of taken a liking to, appears as a nomadic vampire that everyone seems to expect great things out of, but he vanishes from the movie without doing anything other than serving the fan desire to see as many of the characters from the book visualized as possible. There are a couple of Eastern European vampires, that actually act and sound a bit more like traditional vampires, who show up and enliven the time while we are waiting for the big battle. They leave the story unhappy but if there are ever more sequels, expect them to play a part. Bella’s big gift, that she actually has had since the start of the series, is that she is a shield to the powers of all the other characters. Of course this makes no sense since Jasper and Alice have been manipulating her feelings and seeing her future from the first story. That’s OK, because the vampires also only sparkle in the sun when the story calls for it. I don’t have any excuse for sloppy storytelling, except that it just doesn’t matter in a story like this.  These movies are teenage angst, lived out like a big role playing game. There are some tuneful songs in the background and some characters that you might like if you buy into any of it, or you will hate if you are a hater. I just can’t develop enough reason to hate this stuff and it gives so many other people pleasure, that I am happy to go along for the ride.

I’ve read all the books once, and seen each of the movies at least once. From that I can say that the film stays true to the book and manages to make at least one thing about the book better. The end of the film had a coda that was unnecessary, with the umpteenth pledge of undying love between Bella and Edward. Whatever it is that the “Twihards” are projecting on to these characters, continues to escape me. The love story of these two appears to have been replaced by the characters in a “Twilight” based fan fiction that has become extremely popular this last year. I look forward to seeing “Fifty Shades of Grey” and all it’s sado-masochistic  sex being played out on the big screen in a hard “R” rated film. I think it would be most appropriate for Pattinson and Stewart to play the leads there as well. Maybe we will get some real characters having real sex and we can leave the mystical sparkling vampires to their own place in cinema history.

SKYFALL

OK, the build up was too great, the addiction was too strong, and my need to see this overcame my common sense. Yesterday evening, when my daughter got home from work, I asked, are you up for a midnight show? She of course is genetically wired to love James Bond, and she is a spoiled child as am I, so we ended up at the local cinema after a long day, with an early morning staring us in the face, and waited for the start of the new 007 adventure. I thought I was done with the need for these masochistic midnight screenings. It appears that the fifteen year old boy that is still inside me somewhere, has enough influence to make me ignore all the warnings of old age. So, the big question is, was it worth it? Not to put to fine a point on it but HELL YEAH!!!

Skyfall met my expectations and those expectations were pretty high. After Casino Royale was such a success in my mind, the letdown of Quantum of Solace made me very cautious. There was a good deal of wisdom in letting the franchise percolate for an extra couple of years. We got a chance to reassess Quantum (not as bad I as originally thought) and we were forced to anticipate something more significant. With the fiftieth anniversary of the cinematic James Bond, it was important to get this one right. The producers went all in with an A list director in Sam Mendes. They got Academy Award winning actor Javier Bardem to play the villain. Two other veteran actors fill in key roles, Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney. Finally, they take a pretty solid story and load it with smart dialog mixed in with high tension, and then some fantastic nods to the fifty year legacy that they are continuing with this film.

As usual, I will try to remain discreet as regards story. My wife mentioned a rumor that she had heard a week or so ago, and I was irritated to even have it in my head, regardless of whether or not it was true. The pre-title sequence is an exciting chase and fight that takes place in Istanbul. I recognized it immediately not only because of the familiar skyline, but because there was a similar rooftop chase in “Taken 2” just a month ago, that appears to have used some of the same locations. The story and locale work very much better here than they did in the Liam Neeson sequel. The chase involves cars, motorcycles, rooftops, and a train. The action is splendid with a memorable visual of Bond straightening his jacket as he jumps off a steam shovel that he has just used to move from one train car to another. That oh so brief act, carries so much Bond imagery as history it is amazing. I got an immediate flashback to Connery pulling the wet suit off of his dinner jacket in Goldfinger, or Roger Moore dusting off briefly after a fight in Cairo. Those little bits of business tell us all that Bond is both a fighter and a dashing man about town, even in the wreckage of the moment, he wants to look right. It is a touch of humor that was mostly lacking in the first two Daniel Craig outings. It is also a portent of things to come.

The title sequence is beautifully done and only has real meaning once you have seen the whole film. It features what may be my new second favorite title song. Adele’s recording is haunting and fits with the mood of the film. It can’t reach the hyperbolic urgency of Goldfinger, but it’s not trying to. She has simply set the tone for the movie with a smashing pop tune that makes you recall earlier Bond film themes, but is completely original. It has been more than thirty years since a Bond Theme song was nominated for an Academy Award, I think the drought is about to be over. I will mention only one other thing about the opening of the film, it lacks the gunbarrel tracking shot that has proceeded all the other Bond films. It does make an appearance, but it is in a different spot and it works like gangbusters when it shows up.

It gives nothing away to say that the story revolves around a revenge plot against MI6 and M herself. The opening sequence has set us up for understanding why someone might have it out for the head of the British Secret Service, especially an insider with long standing resentments. Bond himself gives into some of those resentments, but being Bond, in the end he manages to overcome his own doubts through sheer force of will. As the plot unfolds, we are also given a clever narrative that explains the twisted logic of the scheme. Bardem’s Silva character oozes festering anger and demented analogies. The words he is given to express them work really well to make his character an enemy that Bond will want to throw down. Like his Academy Award winning villain from “No Country for Old Men”, Bardem’s character does much of the acting with his hair style. There is something incongruous about this dark Spaniard with bleached blonde hair. Every time there is a sequence with Silva chasing or being chased, the hair is a reminder of who the villain is and where he is in the scene. Add to the visual his great line readings and you have the enemy with the best character development since Grant in “From Russia with Love”.

Much of the story also involves some of the intrigue that goes on around the offices of MI6. Politics is a part of the story, but it is a generic type of political power infighting. M is faced with tough decisions everyday, sometimes about who lives and who dies, but also in how money is spent and resources are allocated. The fact that she is, in the end, a bureaucratic figure, accountable to political interests is also part of the story. Judi Dench makes her seventh appearance in the role of M, the head of MI6, and she has one of the best story lines for her character of any of the earlier portrayals. Having once been identified as the “Evil Queen of Numbers”, it is nice to see how she has come around to view the need for field work and especially the double O section. The relationship she has with Bond continues to be a professional one, but it also is layered with a deep seed of mutual respect and loyalty. Her introduction as M in Goldeneye” was a little controversial. Subsequent outings in the Brosnan Bond films ranged from serious to nearly comical. In the Craig movies, she has been a stern authority figure and no cheap laughs are forced into her dialogue.

There are several of the usual action sequences. Bond follows and fights an assassin in Shanghai, matches wits and fists with thugs in Macao and confronts a platoon of hired gunmen as part of the climax of the picture. Almost all of these sequences are filmed in a traditional action mode, without the shaky cam and quick cuts that have marred so many recent features. There is sustained tension in the capture of Silva and then in the interrogation process when we know that bad things are coming despite all surface looks. When there are flaws in the story, they are usually quickly shuttered aside by an engaging piece of action or some dramatic visual. I can’t say that the story is perfect. The main reason is that flaw that most serial killer/revenge/procedural stories have, the plans of the villain always work out as planned, despite their complicated nature. The number of paid mercenaries that Silva has to sacrifice in order to sell the bait in his trap is really high. No one seems to question why they are doing something, and they ignore the consequences to others and proceed to follow orders in spite of their foolhardiness. These are minor quibbles that are designed to show you that I am aware of the films faults, so that when I praise the movie I don’t simply sound like a lovestruck fan boy.

I will finish up by noting several satisfying moments in the movie. The new Q, is not just there for comic relief, and is not always a likable character. For someone so full of himself, he make a cardinal mistake that I could see a mile away. He does have some great exchanges with Bond, some of which gently salute and mock simultaneously the prior Bond gadgets. An old friend of 007s returns in the last third of the picture and the warmth of that return was palpable in the audience. The glee I felt as an homage to the 50th anniversary was gratifying. I got the feeling that the producers and screenwriters recognize that they had strayed a bit from those things that made Bond fun for fifty years. Quantum was so serious and set on making Bond over in the mold of a Jason Bourne, that they lost the legacy that was their trademark. This movie brings it back. The series feels as if it is fresh and ready to move into the future but that it knows what the past means and they are not going to forget it again. There are new characters that I look forward to seeing return in future Bond adventures, but I don’t want to anticipate them too much because I want to revel in the Bond we have right now. I’m going back to see it again tonight and I may go on Monday as well. Welcome back James, your legions of fans are going to be happy to spend another fifty years with you.

Flight

Denzel Washington has played dicks before. He won an Academy Award for playing a huge monster of a human being in “Training Day”. So in a way he is returning to familiar territory here. His character is a hero, like Captain Sully from a few years ago, who landed a plane on the Hudson river and saved everyone’s life. This story is premised on a different scenario. The captain does an unimaginably heroic landing, but he is also a deeply flawed person. The crux of the tale is not that the accident was managed as well as it was, but that the Captain cannot manage his own life half as well as a severely damaged plane diving for the ground at six hundred miles an hour. That my friends is a screwed up life and it is really what the movie is all about.

Captain Whip Whitaker is an alcoholic. I try to avoid spoilers in these reviews, but I can’t think of a way to write about this without discussing the main plot engine in some detail. His drinking and drug use have no real impact on the events of the plane crash. In fact, it is the opposite that happens. The crash forces him to consider the toll that his behavior is taking on everyone else but most especially on himself. Actors love to play parts like this because it gives them a chance to stretch some important acting muscles. Denzel gets to be intoxicated, belligerent, self righteous and thoughtful all within moments of each emotion. He has to be good for us to accept that he is a real person and not just someone play acting for us. In the long run, Denzel is a good actor, so he is convincing and gets to have a pretty good story arc.

The fact that the actor is good however, does not make it easy to put up with the reckless self destructive Captain Whitaker. Any one with a drug addict, alcoholic, or philanderer in their life will understand this. Whip is given multiple opportunities to turn things around. Friends come to his aid, a supportive fellow addict drops into his life, and the fates seem to conspire to give him a lift out of his screwed up life. At each turn, he makes the wrong choice. Look, millions of people enjoy a cocktail without ever having a problem, but when some one does have a problem, it is lights out. I never want to be in these situations and have to face the troubling image in the mirror and ask, what have I become? That is what Whip Whitaker has to do, and it is a frustratingly ugly sight. There were a couple of sequences which seemed to mock religious faith as a way to lead ones life. When all is said and done however, it seems that the hand of God is needed to put things into place.

The first half hour of the movie includes the lead up to and the actual crash of the plane. It is a harrowing experience and as close to an actual air crash as any of us will ever hope to be. From a technical point of view, this part of the movie is flawless. Robert Zemekis, the director, previously traveled this path with “Cast Away” and Tom Hanks living through a plane crash but being trapped on an island. In essence, this film is a remake. Alcoholism is the island, recovery is the rescue and the girlfriend addict is Wilson the volleyball. There are other characters in the picture but they are also just stand ins for the obstacles that our protagonist has to overcome. Don Cheadle played Denzel’s deadly funny friend “Mouse” in “The Devil in a Blue Dress” nearly fifteen years ago. They are reunited in this picture and are again good counterparts, although Cheadle feels a little underused here. Bruce Greenwood as the old friend and pilot’s union representative, is the fire on the island that sustains Denzel’s character, but delays him in making the decision he must ultimately confront. John Goodman appears and just adds energy to the movie.

As much as they might need each other for help, addicts also threaten each other with relapse. We have what little caring for Whip as we do, because of his entanglement with a woman facing some of the same issues he faces. Their meeting and subsequent relationship is a result of another addiction, nicotine. This addiction is so strong that even a dying cancer patient they encounter, can’t provide enough warning to wake Whip up. Listening to their dialogue sometimes feels theatrical, but the cruel things that are said in pitiful self righteousness are exactly the kinds of aggressive counterattack that addicts use to deflect from themselves. The movie is sometimes a little hamfisted with the story, but it still feels real for the most part. The actors are top notch and although it is not always pleasant to watch, it is well done and well worth a look.

Wreck-It Ralph

Animated films have always been a favorite, but they need to have a solid story to hold my interest. Years ago, “Toy Story” took inanimate objects and brought them to life, now Disney returns to the same vein to strike it rich again. This time providing an unseen life and environment for video game characters. These heroes and bad guys work all day in the salt mines of a video game in an arcade, and then after closing time have their own lives to lead. Apparently however, they are unable to slip the boundaries of their character’s role in the game as easily as they slip out of the games to mingle with each other.

“Wreck it Ralph” is the hero of our story but not of his game. The theme behind the film is as old as “the Wizard of Oz”, which is “there’s no place like home”. Throw in a little empowerment and an evil background character and you have the makings of a pretty standard kids film. As the story unfolds, we meet a lot of characters that are fun in their games but not necessarily great to hang out with. Ralph seems to be one of the only self aware characters, despite attending a support group for villains in video games. It is a little unclear why they all don’t see the issues Ralph is facing since they face much the same dilemma. “Fix it Felix”, the hero in the game that Ralph has become discontented with, actually appears to be a good guy who simply can’t bend to the feelings of Ralph’s character as easily as he does to those other characters in their game. The antipathy of the characters in his own game lead Ralph to seek a solution elsewhere, although he really just wants to be part of the gang.

I was never a gamer, either on arcade machines or home consoles. I may have played a few games of Pac-Man or Asteroids, but not enough to get good or to care whether I got good at them. Kids who grew up with this stuff will probably enjoy this film quite a bit since it uses many identifiable avatars from classic style arcade games. The two main games featured in the story however, appear to be original creations of the screenwriters. The “Wreck it Ralph” game looks like a variation of Super Mario Brothers, and the graphics are designed in a clever way to suggest that it is an older game. “Sugar Rush”, the location of most of the action in the story, is a racing game with a sweet theme and cute little avatars straight from the “Hello Kitty” school of design. There is a combat game that briefly figures in the action, but the main plot centers around the activity in “Sugar Rush”.

The graphic design and art work in the “Sugar Rush” game are fun to look at. The characters seem familiar even though the game does not really exist. The racing cars driven by players in the game are constructed in a separate level of the game and feature some wild candy themes accessories. Trapped inside of the game, is a character that needs to be released from a “cyber” limbo and this is where the story works the best. Ralph, starts off as a morose, somewhat self centered character and travels a path that allows him to empathize with others. He also turns out to be no dummy, so he quickly figures out that something is wrong in this world. As he discovers the true programming glitch in the game, there are additional points of jeopardy and plot development. The strings all come together almost as well as one of the Pixar films. The weakness is the motivation of the villain and the credibility of the character dynamics. Kids may not care that the rules don’t always make sense, but they do want to care about the characters and be able to relate to them. For the most part, they will.

The look of the movie is excellent and there are some stand out bits of humor. Kids will laugh at the Dooty jokes, and adults will not be able to eat a certain chocolate sandwich cookie again, without a familiar tune from their own childhood ringing in their heads. The sentimentality of the story takes a while to build up and the payoff is pretty sharp. To use a sports metaphor here, it is a home run but not a grand slam. Disney scores with an effective animated film that will satisfy the family audience and make you feel glad you came. It may not be on your list of great animated films, but it is definitely a solid hit.