For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Monday, November 26, 2012



Lincoln the man, the politician, the professor, the father, the martyr, and the myth: director Steven Spielberg’s extraordinary new biopic (based on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin) reveals the many layers of its subject with the grace and solemnity of a battlefield hymn.  With cinematic shape-shifter Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role, Lincoln is the most powerful and profound and deeply moving Hollywood dramatization of the American icon’s life since 1939—when Henry Fonda donned the famous hat and beard in John Ford’s peerless classic Young Mr. Lincoln

From War Horse’s sumptuous green valleys to Lincoln’s traditionally high-contrast interiors, it’s evident that Spielberg yearns to echo the majesty of that late cinematic deity.  But where Ford began Lincoln’s journey, depicting his humble origins as an Illinois litigator, Spielberg finishes it.  By early 1865—the waning days of the Civil War—that promising youth had grown into a weary elder statesman.  If his presidency and life were fatefully truncated by a gunshot at Ford’s Theater, Spielberg’s film reminds us that his legacy lives in his immortal doctrines and words.

The film begins with a fierce skirmish in the pouring rain and mud.  But the war on the battlefield is basically over (spoiler: The South lose).  A new conflict is brewing in the halls of Congress, wherein Lincoln seeks to ratify the 13th Amendment, thereby lawfully and constitutionally abolishing slavery.  Dissension among rival partisans and a potential Southern peace negotiation combine to complicate the procedure of ratification.  Lincoln’s stressed-out Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), is tasked with procuring the twenty congressional votes needed to reach a two-thirds consensus.  Assisted by three colorful lobbyists (James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson), (dis)honest Abe exercises the chicanery intrinsic in democratic politics, suggesting that lawmaking is essentially a game of wheeling and dealing.    

The film depicts a veritable hen House of Representatives, where squabbling debaters hurl insults about in eloquent 19th century vernacular.  Occasionally, I worried the movie would wallow excessively in the legislature, but the complex domesticity of the White House aptly dispensed those concerns.  As the screwy Mary Lincoln (Molly to her beloved), Sally Field plays inexorable emotionality to Abe’s modest stoicism.  As her husband is too mandatorily stolid to express the sorrow he feels for the thousands of sons lost during his administration, Mary is the more outwardly bereaved that their own son Willie died three years earlier.  It’s been speculated that Mary suffered from bipolar disorder, and her ailment is visualized emphatically in a single jarring edit; her inconsolable sadness is wiped away by a demented grin.

The nearly wordless rapport between Abe and his youngest son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), is perhaps the most affecting; it attests to the paternalism discernable in the President’s overall nature, towards his family, of course, but his people as well.  One particularly striking tableau sits Lincoln in an Oval Office rocking chair with Tad on his lap.  Like a baroque painting, father and child cuddle over a picture book as lustrous sunbeams from the window pierce the blackness and illuminate their intimacy.  It’s an image worthy of art galleries and recalls the famous statue that stands in Richmond, Virginia to this day.  Lincoln’s discordant relationship with his oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a would-be Yankee soldier, feels shoehorned and melodramatic in comparison. 

Nevertheless, Day-Lewis gives a career-highlight performance.  His eyes sunken, his shoulders heavy, his steps short, his voice high and courtly, the two-time Oscar winner channels the real man as best as historical records describe.  But showing his figure in wistful silhouette from behind, Lincoln also memorializes a symbol, a mythic insignia of a struggle that still remains largely unfinished.  In addition, Spielberg and Day-Lewis make the President a raconteur: he doesn’t really talk; he orates.  His incipient thoughts seem to roll around his head like musket balls before flowing forth elegantly.  Besides one hilariously aggravated cabinet member, who’s had enough of Abe’s speechifying, the whole world takes pause to listen.  Day-Lewis’ performance speaks to Lincoln’s wisdom, melancholy, sense of humor, and larger than life aura.

Actually, the whole stock of characters is fantastic.  Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Stuhlberg has a significant role as an ambivalent congressman trembling before his cohorts.  Speaking for the South in a tense but mannered confrontation between belligerents (a more civilized assemblage than wartime Congress, I must say), Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) imparts succinctly and stately the Southern cause: not racism, not enslavement, but preserving a way of life, a culture (few Confederate soldiers actually owned slaves).  Lincoln’s strongest ally in the House is club-footed abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), whose principled aggression is public from the podium, but the extent of whose dedication is only revealed to us behind closed doors.    

Beautifully shot by Janusz Kami
ński in nuanced close-ups and vivid period imagery, underlined by John Williams’ courageous marching-song score (reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan) and Tony Kushner’s dialogue cribbed in spirit from Civil War letters and diaries, Lincoln is a great film.  Although Spielberg’s movies are often so maudlin they appear filmed through a pane of sugar glass, his latest is an epic achievement that’s vastly expressive through images while celebrating the might and endurance of the spoken word as well.  It was said of the President on his deathbed, “Now he belongs to the ages.”  Though he’s long been quiet, Lincoln insinuates that somehow he teaches us still.

Sunday, November 11, 2012



Flight takes off with the most harrowing sequence in popular cinema all year.  At 35,000 feet, a commercial airliner carrying ninety-five passengers and five crewmembers falls out of the sky over rural Georgia.  Plummeting headfirst at an escalating velocity, the cabin echoes with panicked cries.  In the cockpit, the crew races to assess the problem before it’s too late.  Like a flaming meteor, the aircraft barrels uncontrollably toward the ground.   

The intensity is so palpable viewers will want to buckle up in their cozy theater chairs.  In a last-gasp decision, the pilot takes manual control and pulls an audacious and unorthodox maneuver: He flips the enormous jet upside down in a desperate attempt to slow its runaway descent.  The plane tranquilly soars completely inverted for several minutes, before gracefully rotating around, leveling off, and crash-landing miraculously in an open field.

Behind the wheel is Capt. William “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington), a respected airline vet and former Navy pilot.  Hours after the accident, as the injured man recuperates in a hospital bed, a media circus is already converging, ready to proclaim the next national hero.  Although Whip’s clearly wary of the attention (fleeing to a secluded family farm as soon as he can), the spotlight, as any celebrity knows, tends to illuminate the truth, regardless of how well it’s hidden. 

Directed by legendary filmmaker Robert Zemeckis (his first live-action film since Cast Away), Flight is an absorbingly taut and poignant excursion into one man’s tormented mental airspace.  In the wake of stardom, Whip struggles to overcome his demons, now that they’ve unexpectedly come to the fore.  After a toxicology report reveals both alcohol and drugs in Whip’s system at the time of the crash, he faces a different sort of plunge altogether—a full-on drunken bender.    

But Whip’s not merely a drinker.  He’s a raging alcoholic, as dependent on booze as oxygen.  In spite of his inebriation, he’s still a fantastic pilot, based on an impossible mid-air recovery that saved dozens of lives.  When it comes to criminal charges, however, will that even figure?  Six passengers were killed.  The people require a scapegoat.  If he can sober up before a hearing with the NTSB, he might avoid culpability and prison time.  If he can sober up, that is. 

To Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins, the crash is more than just Whip’s jarring wake-up call.  It’s a symbol—a beautiful conceit designed to weigh and clarify his negotiation of two completely different but equally unmanageable downward spirals. 

As we’ll learn, Whip’s problems with substance abuse go back to his fractured marriage, where they destroyed his home-life.  Rueful over past mistakes, Whip self-medicates exorbitantly, and Washington, in a performance worthy of nominations, plays the character with charismatic aplomb, in addition to staggering frailty and obstinate self-destructiveness.  He’s killing himself.  He’s just too cool to care. 

To provide a reflective counterpart, there’s Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a Georgia-peaches accented beauty that narrowly escapes her own close call with heroin.  Meeting over cigarettes in a hospital staircase, she and Whip become like AA sponsors that sleep together.  Although she never emerges as a rounded character in her own right, Nicole’s desire to get clean has the contradictive effect of highlighting Whip’s unwillingness to acknowledge his own decaying existence.     

While a union litigator (Don Cheadle) sagaciously endeavors to nullify the drug screening—partly by getting “An Act of God” accepted as a possible cause of the accident—Whip does his own existential soul searching. 

Speaking of, there’s a strong spiritual undercurrent pervading the story.  The first responders to the burning wreck are a church group mid-baptism, adorned in white robes.  Shot with quiet, angelic serenity, that scene’s ethereal form ostensibly conveys Whip’s concussed disorientation, but further insinuates a saving divinity.  Yet, the script has little, if anything, to say about religion besides “God’s ubiquity” and other platitudes.  Flight is best when it stays grounded, assaying Whip on his arduous crawl from the abyss. 

In Melancholia, a looming interplanetary disaster made an ingenious metaphor for depression.  Similarly, Flight perceptively juxtaposes two catastrophic nose-dives, each handled by an individual who’s by turns in control and completely out of it.  If Zemeckis’ gripping morality tale has its comedic moments (John Goodman’s far-out coke dealer is a hoot), it depicts alcoholism largely with an urgent sobriety and sepulchral gravitas.  

In the tradition of The Lost Weekend or Leaving Las Vegas, Flight pinpoints exactly what addiction takes from us.  It steals our loved ones, our lives, and most costly, our sense of identity and spiritual equilibrium.  Addiction spins us upside down until we’re completely unrecognizable to ourselves, like an inverted commercial jet.  This wise and troubling film argues that, on some level, they’re equally difficult to turn back around.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Here Comes The Boom


Here Comes The Boom is the best movie comedian Kevin James has ever made.  Hardly lavish praise, I know, but in previous adventures, like Paul Blart: Mall Cop, we chortled at lovable losers playing hero.  In Here Comes The Boom, no pretense is necessary.  As a teacher competing in UFC cage brawls to save his school’s music program, James proves a surprisingly valiant punching bag.  And although this amiable underdog comedy supplies the requisite jabs, comical and otherwise, we’re not inspired to jeer at their recipient, but cheer for him instead.     

Introduced as a one-time Teacher of the Year who has since grown disheartened, James’ Scott Voss is a tardy, unshaven sad sack sleeping through life; his Biology students waste away the period on their cell phones while he fecklessly hits on the sexy nurse (Selma Hayek).  Across the hall, Marty the music teacher (Henry Winkler) is passionately conducting symphonies and reciting zestful aphorisms: “Without music, life is meaningless.”  When budget cuts are cruelly dished out, it’s no surprise Marty gets the axe.  They’re not going to cut Biology! 

Even if director Frank Coraci isn’t exactly equipped to go toe-to-toe with today’s public school crisis, the movie still calls attention to its failing bureaucracy with unexpected lucidity.  For a slapstick sports charmer starring the fat guy from Grown Ups, Boom profoundly, if reductively, blows the whistle on a grave injustice where tenured sloths and laid-off enthusiasts combine to shortchange eager students.  As king of the sloths, Scott will have to take some hard knocks on his way to redemption.     

With Marty in his corner holding the spit bucket, and a brawny Dutch trainer (Bas Rutten) screaming instructions ringside, Scott climbs into the Octagon; the prize money should be enough to cover his co-worker’s salary (you get paid even if you lose).  At first, the pudgy gladiator survives only on his ability to withstand ferocious beatings, but his improvement as a fighter dovetails nicely with his improvement as a teacher, and, ultimately, as a man.  Scott’s arch from complacency to action could symbolize the exigent rejuvenation of American schools. 

Pinned down by excisable subplots, the story is somewhat scattered, and the matches themselves are engrossing if cartoonish—patty-cake next to last year’s Warrior.  Regardless, Here Comes The Boom is optimistic about institutional as well as personal change; it lets James (who co-wrote) shed his jester persona and bring forth his inner white knight.  In the inevitable championship bout, with Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy” marking his epic entrance, we know that Scott, his students cheering, has somehow already won.  And Kevin James, in his strongest role to date, shares that victory.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower


A surprising many of America’s great teen movies are nostalgic pieces.  The two greatest, arguably, are American Graffiti and Dazed And Confused, both lively remembrances unctuously devoted to the minutia of their respective milieus.  But in resurrecting bygone eras—the early 1960’s and mid 1970’s—those two movies presented more than merely time-capsule fashions (hotrods and The Beach Boys; bellbottoms and Black Sabbath).  They expressed, and continue to express, the universal themes of growing up.  When executed with honesty and keen perception, a teen film has the ability to transcend time and place, conveying not only the small transitory window of its singular characters and setting, but moreover, the entire temporal and geographical spectrum of human adolescent experience. 

Like those other films, The Perks of Being a Wallflower qualifies as a period piece.  (It takes place in the 90’s!)  Also like them, it has sequences that are timelessly identifiable, with characters that are never clichés, don’t fit into tidy high-school-movie stereotypes, and emerge as recognizable human beings in familiar situations.  Directed by first-timer Stephan Chbosky (based on his bestseller), Perks isn’t perfect, however.  It’s by turns truthful and absurd, relatable and curiously preternatural.  In the final act, the story trails off into a kind of outrageous psycho-dramatic nightmare.  For the most part, though, the creators deeply understand their subjects: the childish insecurities and the intense yearning for love and acceptance.             

The coming-of-age drama focuses on Charlie, a 14-year-old freshman at a Pittsburgh high school.  Shy, forlorn, and socially guileless, Charlie is played by newcomer Logan Lerman with lachrymose vulnerability, evident in the way he wanders the hallways and classrooms of his campus like a lost lamb, too withdrawn, bemused, and self-conscious to muster so much as a whimper around his peers.  Charlie is treading water at school, less a small fish in a big pond than a guppy in an ocean teeming with great whites, and they smell blood.  Related in voice over, the amateur scribe drafts faux-correspondences with a non-existent pen pal he calls “friend”.  The sporadic confessions grant us unlimited access to his soul, as he lays bare shards of his tender heart with every punch of a typewriter key. 

Charlie desperately wants to fit in, and although he develops a kinship with his English teacher (Paul Rudd), he has little luck with the student body.  Eventually, Charlie connects with Patrick (Ezra Miller), a histrionic goofball sitting alone at a football game.  Once welcomed into Patrick’s offbeat clique of upperclassmen, Charlie meets the plain-Jane Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman)—who he dates briefly, but only because he’s too polite to break up with her—and the beautiful Sam, a fetching free spirit played by a never-lovelier Emma Watson.  We’re introduced to her just as Charlie is, in a glowing close-up that recalls memories of the celestial perfection reserved for a person’s first sight of first love. 

That shot stands out in a film that offers a handful of candid frissons.  So too does a hookup scene between Charlie and Mary Elizabeth, wherein his timid nature, disinterest, and inexperience combine to make sensible the shivery awkwardness of unrequited affection. 

As the school year passes by, the kids reveal themselves to us gradually, like a deliberately built up rock anthem.  Sam’s desire to share music with her friends (remember mixed tapes?) symbolizes her boundlessly generous spirit.  From his uncanny Dr. Frank-N-Furter send-ups at midnight screenings of Rocky Horror, Patrick proves himself publicly jocular and confident, but privately dejected, heartbroken by his secret lover’s refusal to acknowledge their relationship.  Charlie emits a quietly ruminative air, by which he observes his surroundings, displaying the artistic altruism of Hemingway or Salinger.  By beckoning us into its circle of wallflowers, the film lets us empathize with and embrace them in an astoundingly humanistic manner, illuminating their imperfections for the purpose of affording them vibrantly realistic identities.      

The performances emphasize that plucked-from-the-hallways veracity.  Lerman makes Charlie achingly sympathetic and sincere.  The gifted Miller, so nefarious as a killer in We Need To Talk About Kevin, here belies that cartoonish wrath with an ironic self-assurance that veils Patrick’s scars.  Maturing with every role, English actress Emma Watson not only poses ably for a Pennsylvanian—she embodies a mythic object of male teenage infatuation with such elegance that it’s easy to overlook how she’s deconstructing it.  Sam, anguishing in regrets and buried memories, is too substantive to be a simple ideal, and Watson plays her with an alluring mysteriousness informed by the actress’s solid comprehension of her character’s unspoken traumas.            

Admittedly, Watson is too gorgeous to pass as an unpopular misfit, but that’s hardly the most unconvincing aspect of the movie.  Adapted by Chbosky himself, the script tends toward unnecessary overkill.  Some of the students display malevolence more typical of prison inmates.  I mean: Do we really need that wretched girl in Charlie’s class who constantly calls him a fag?  In a drunken avowal, Charlie confides to Sam that his best friend committed suicide over the summer.  If that alarming tidbit seems over-the-top, just wait for the climactic twist.  In short, it’s too exorbitantly dark and too heavily obscured in hazy psychology to enrich the film in any profound way.  At that point, I could no longer relate.  I could no longer say, “Hey, we’ve all been there.”  Because I haven’t, thank God.    

Even if Perks veers perilously close to shock-value mendacity, it’s still the best film of its genre since An Education.  Chbosky’s adaptation elucidates the convalescing power of human connection and empathy.  Charlie is so introverted because he’s essentially his own best friend.  Locked precariously inside his own consciousness, he associates, per his writing, only with his reflection, like light bouncing between mirrors.  When Sam and Patrick graciously offer their friendship, Charlie is finally able to arise from his prison, join the world, and live his life.  Standing in the flatbed of a pickup truck, cruising through a tunnel as David Bowie’s “Heroes” blasts from the stereo, he proclaims, “In this moment, we are infinite.”  To be young and alive is to experience the moment like it’s everlasting.