Thursday, November 15, 2012

LINCOLN Is A Riveting Portrayal Of Men Talking In Rooms

LINCOLN (dir. Spielberg, 2012)
 Above all else, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" puts your No Shave November to shame, assembling the fiercest collection of beards this side of the Mississippi.

In another more "meaningful" way, the movie also boils the president down to the most human level yet seen. Gone is the iconography. Gone are the famed tales of doing his math homework in charcoal and writing the Gettysburg Address on a napkin with the blood squeezed from a dragon or whatever. Gone is the history viewed in hindsight.

What we're left with is a strikingly, at times frustratingly, intimate portrayal of a man who has long since belonged to the ages. If its main lesson is the simple one that Lincoln lived his life as a human being - plain spoken, personable, with moments of doubt - maybe that's a lesson worth remembering. History isn't made by faces on the coins we use to scrape gum off our shoes. It's made by actual people who show up.

As I watched "Lincoln," I felt an acute awe that here's a man who actually lived and interacted with other humans. A near-childlike observation, I know. But also a vital one.

Spielberg's boldest gambit, one that ironically proves to be his greatest asset while also holding the movie back from greatness, is his razor focus. Forgoing the usual "greatest hits" biopic style ("Here's the Lincoln/Douglas debates, here's the death of his son, here's the..."), the bulk of "Lincoln" dwells in the last few months of his life as he pushed to pass the 13th Amendment. It's the style favored by Philip Seymour Hoffman's "Capote." Pick one key event from the subject's life and dive headfirst into it, blowing up each detail to life size and hoping it paints a larger, more symbolic picture of the man.

Oddly this also creates a schizophrenic struggle that the movie never quite overcomes. It wants to be a historical epic while remaining a small-scale character study. It wants to be a "how the sausage is made" political drama, but with that usual dash of Spielberg populism. If we get no closer to what made Lincoln tick, maybe that wasn't on Spielberg's agenda. It still leaves an emotional distance between us and a man clearly intended to be a character in his own drama.

Spielberg can't for the life of him shoot a movie that doesn't look at home on the big screen. With cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, he bathes interiors in lush light and shadow and supplies a more cinematic vista than his story seems to even request. Still, "Lincoln" has comfortably rested on Spielberg's to-do list for the better part of a decade and damned if the resulting movie makes evident why.

God, though. To be in the same room as Lincoln. To watch him react. To watch him spout anecdotes and tell jokes. To watch him struggle when men stand in his way. Daniel Day Lewis' greatest gift as an actor is his ability to be perpetually in the present. We never catch him planning his next movie or behaving out of artifice. It's a downright eerie transformation, completely devoid of vanity, and just a towering achievement.

In fact, Spielberg himself displays an admirable lack of vanity, stepping back more than I can remember to let those around him shine. This is a performer's picture, at times becoming a game of Spot That Character Actor (knowing the guy who appeared in both "Breaking Bad" and "The Wire" earns you bonus obsessor points). James Spader in particular delights by popping in and seeming to forget he's in a costume drama.

Everything I can ultimately say about "Lincoln" is that which will drive certain crowds away while sending others a-flocking. Don't expect sweep. Don't expect bombast. Don't even expect goosebumps. Instead, expect a meticulous study in how one particular piece of history is made by the people who showed up to make it. Characters sure do talk for multiple turns of the script's pages - screenwriter Tony Kushner never met a monologue he couldn't expand, and Spielberg never met a monologue he couldn't slowly zoom in on while the John Williams score swells.

Still, as I write this, President Obama recently earned his second term. He stands center in a nation that sees him either as a pillar of nobility and good intentions, or an agent of our demise. No one yet knows how this period of history will play out. And it's vaguely comforting to see on screen one of our greatest presidents when he was alive and knew just as little, but trying his best to figure things out as they came. If "Lincoln" doesn't draw direct parallels between those times and ours, it shouldn't have to. History just repeats itself with different clothes.

It's a dry but absorbing work, seemingly destined to bore unsuspecting middle schoolers to tears when their teacher doesn't have a lesson planned. Whatever. Kids don't deserve Daniel Day Lewis. But this story does deserve a bigger stage.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

This SKYFALL Review Brought To You By Heineken And Joy

SKYFALL (Sam Mendes, 2012)
Any great movie contains "that" moment. The shot or line of dialogue or look from the actor when you decide you love this movie, when you submit to its power and strap yourself in, all while tactfully ignoring that nagging fear that it will drop the ball.

In "Skyfall," that moment hits in the opening scene and never lets up. Bond (a never more assured Daniel Craig) stumbles onto a mission in Turkey gone horribly wrong, sparking a bravura chase sequence combining cars, motorcycles, trains, forklifts, disbelief, and anything else that happened to be near set that day. To say it challenges credulity is to miss the point (aren't all Bond movies supposed to open with a little swagger?).

What matters is it throws down the gauntlet for a movie that didn't come all this way, through all of MGM's famed financial woes, to be timid. Not only is it a superb James Bond movie and the best thriller of the year, but it's a great movie, period. Here is one bustling, invigorating entertainment representing what pop filmmaking can and should be. A breakneck series of "This is too good to be real, oh wait it is, will it ever stop, IT NEVER STOPS!"

Hyperbole, take a holiday.

Carrying 50 years of creaky franchise history on its shoulders, "Skyfall" and newcomer director Sam Mendes bridge the gap between the old and the new, the elegant and the gritty, the Connery and the Craig (stranding poor Timothy Dalton somewhere in the moat). After that disastrous Turkey mission that supposedly left Bond dead, MI6 headquarters in London finds itself the target of a terrorist bombing. Lured out of hiding but not much giving a damn for the company that abandoned him, Bond sets loose after the man responsible (a terrifyingly flamboyant Javier Bardem), whose motives reveal to be intensely personal.

Mendes and his screenwriting team present themselves as clear scholars of the Bond franchise, paying respects to the familiar tropes when necessary. This ain't no Mad Lib movie, though, filling in the blanks in a preordained structure. "Skyfall" sets to point the compass in a new direction, and it zigs just when you expect it to zag. Bardem holds court in the usual island lair, but he views it as a disposable novelty. The "Bond Girl" is all but an afterthought - disposable candy to cut a few scenes of the trailer around. And instead of an action climax with the fate of the world crashing down, Mendes opts for a lyrical ballet of images (although rest assured, gunfire and explosions abound).

What "Skyfall" ultimately delivers is a 2.5 hour movie with a razor focus. Bond isn't the scenery in some other man's play. Mendes turns the focus squarely on him and how it actually feels to have a license to kill in a career that will probably kill you first. If the movie doesn't ultimately answer what makes James Bond tick, it's because the character still must maintain that man-of-the-moment persona. By the end, enough tantalizing clues are still offered about his past, putting to rest the "James Bond is an ongoing code name" theory.

Structurally it resembles "The Dark Knight" more than anything else, gleefully tearing apart its franchise's past before putting it back together in a way we didn't even know we wanted. Bond and the villain don't engage in a fashion runway walk-off between impossibly suave and megalomaniacal (although they are indeed both that). What we get is far more interesting - two sides of the same broken coin, both hoping the other guy caves first. Clearly arriving on set wanting to create a classic Bond villain and nailing it, Bardem exists in his own world - hurt, disappointment, and pure burning nihilism all fighting on his face. "Skyfall" even makes room for a little latent homosexual tension between the two men with Bardem oozing film queen slime, if that's even a thing.

And Craig, of course, stands as the first Bond for whom a respectful comparison to Sean Connery isn't even necessary. He is the best there is. Hang it on the wall.

God, such serene confidence this movie moves with. Such immaculate, elegant pacing. Such a gripping fusion of thriller, character study, and fanboy cheering. Practically the whole thing rings with the joy of kids playing in the sandbox for the first time, and it affirms the Bond franchise as something that can revive itself as long as it wants as long as filmmakers like Mendes are around to charge the paddles.

I would marry "Skyfall," but I'd also let it have its way with me just as willingly.