Friday, November 16, 2012

REVIEW: Lincoln

Most people would rank Abraham Lincoln at or near the top of the roster of US Presidents. I would rank Steven Spielberg's Lincoln at or near the top of the roster of this year's movies.

And yet, it may not be quite the film people are expecting. It is not a Civil War epic. The ads prominently feature battle scenes, but those scenes are contained within the first five minutes of the film. If you want battles, watch Glory.

Nor is the movie truly a Lincoln biopic, despite its title. It does not follow the journey of the man from humble Illinois lawyer to mythical president. That story has been ably told before, via Abe Lincoln in Illinois and John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln. The new movie focuses solely on the last few months of the president's life, and, more importantly, his battle to pass the 13th amendment that will abolish slavery.

And yet, Lincoln himself is very much front and center, because that particular battle embodies the man and his legacy. By focusing on this sliver of the man's life, Tony Kushner's screenplay illuminates Lincoln as he has never been before.

This is due in no small part to the masterful portrayal by Daniel Day-Lewis, who is now the definitive cinematic Lincoln. The actor is famous for burying himself in his roles, but he has never done so with greater impact than he has here. Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood) did not make me forget Bill the Butcher (Gangs of New York). Bill the Butcher did not make me forget Christy Brown (My Left Foot). But Abraham Lincoln very much made me forget Daniel Plainview, Bill the Butcher and Christy Brown. The actor reveals the president to be a Rubik's Cube of a man, a puzzle that is fascinating no matter what side he displays.

But Day-Lewis is not the only one who disappears into the film. So does Steven Spielberg. Lincoln is unlike any film the director has made before. He delved into this same time period in the underrated Amistad, but that film had visual sweep. Even Schindler's List, which was considered a major departure for Spielberg, had bravura sequences.

Spielberg keeps showy visuals and camera movements to a bare minimum. More than anything else, his new film is a chamber piece. It's essentially two hours-plus of people talking. But that talk crackles with energy and gamesmanship. The film means to make us a witness to history, and it's a riveting master class.

Spielberg is not typically thought of as an actor's director, but he has assembled a brilliant cast with a multitude of well-known names: David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jackie Earle Haley and Hal Holbrook, to name just a few. Chief among the supporting players is Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist Congressman Thadeus Stevens. He passionately believes in outlawing slavery but has to swallow hard when he must compromise his principles and not do it in quite the way he wants. That issue is more than a little timely when partisan gridlock is the order of the day.

The film doesn't conquer all its own problems. I found the material involving Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) a distraction, as was the overextended ending. Spielberg has problems sticking his landings. It's no spoiler to say the film ends with Lincoln's assassination, but showing it is unnecessary. What's more important is what historian Shelby Foote meant when he said that "everything Lincoln did was calculated for effect."

That effect resonates even more thanks to this film.


Wednesday, November 07, 2012

REVIEW: Skyfall

How great is Skyfall?

At the packed screening I saw, the movie got applause no less than three times.

In one astonishing long, unbroken shot, Javier Bardem takes the mantel of best Bond villain of all time, and never lets go.

It's the best-looking Bond movie bar none, brilliantly shot by the great Roger Deakins, who lenses most of the Coen brothers' movies.

The action scenes are fantastic, with Stuart Baird's punchy editing obliterating the memory of the confused blur that was Quantum of Solace.

Daniel Craig proves that the older and more rugged you get as Bond, the better.

The excellent screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, delves into Bond's early years in a way no other Bond film has.

The movie blends new technology with good old-fashioned ruthlessness, deconstructing the Bond mythos much the same way Christopher Nolan did in his Batman movies.

It's a bit light on Bond girls, and I missed that element, but only one Bond girl really matters here is Judi Dench's M. Enough said.

Q is back, played with just the the right touch of brashness by Ben Wishaw.

Another Bond favorite is back too. Again, enough said.

In 1999, director Sam Mendes made a film called American Beauty that so entranced me, I turned right around to see it again the same weekend.

In 2012, director Sam Mendes made a film that so thrilled me, I was disappointed I couldn't see it again immediately, since I saw it early.

How great is Skyfall?

It's one of the very best films of the the year.



Friday, November 02, 2012

REVIEW: Wreck-It Ralph




Don't look now, but Disney just beat Pixar at its own game.

Wreck-it Ralph not only is terrific fun, it's the best movie made by Walt Disney Feature Animation since its glory days in the 90s. Heartfelt, visually dazzling and wonderfully clever, the movie tops such recent Disney efforts as Tangled and Pixar's Brave - both films I very much enjoyed -  but with reservations. Reservations are absent this time.

That's largely because, in a way, Disney has truly begun to assimilate Pixar and its storytelling techniques. All of Disney's feature films since Meet the Robinsons have been overseen to some degree by Pixar guru John Lasseter. But this is the first time Disney has truly mastered the mix of humor and heart that makes Pixar so potent. I expected to have fun, but not this much fun.

Like the Toy Story films, Wreck it Ralph takes kind of a behind-the-scenes look at a very familiar world. This time, it's the world of 80s/90s video games. Many people have said the game in the movie, Fix-It Felix, resembles Donkey Kong, and it does, but it most reminded me of another 80s game called Crazy Climber, the first game I can recall that talked. Your climber character said "Ouch" when people dropped things on its head, and then screamed "Oh nooooooo!" when you finally fell off.

I digress, but this movie was a nostalgic blast that constantly reminded me of games of yore. But even better, that conceit isn't just a gimmick. It's a doorway to a well-thought-out story where Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) tires of being a villain and jumps to other games to be more heroic. One of the other games is called Sugar Rush, which is like Candy Lane gone delectably berserk. There, Ralph meets the impetuous but endearing Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) who enlists Ralph's help to race in a go-kart game.

Wreck-It-Ralph blends the best of its Disney and Pixar fathers. Ralph's quest to be loved is not unlike the "I Want" quest of Disney princesses. And the relationship between Ralph and Vanellope is like a slightly more mature take on Sully and Boo in Monsters Inc. And just as Pixar made Larry the Cable Guy endearing, Wreck It Ralph pulls a similar miracle here with Sarah Silverman, who normally annoys me, but utterly won me over here.  For the first I laughed at loud at Oreos, and more than once, I had to adjust my 3D glasses because I had something wet in my eye.

So yes, it's emotional and flashy, in all the best ways. All the gameplay will appeal to boys, but Vanellope is a much stronger character than the ads let on, so girls will love it too.

Most movies based on video games falter because it's like watching someone else play. This one scores because it lets us all in - even a guy like me, who has  never owned a video game console. Not even an Atari 2600.