Thursday, December 06, 2012

Movie Reviews

When you have Steven Spielberg behind the camera and arguably the greatest living actor playing arguably the greatest U.S. president, that's a hard combination to screw up.  And, in fact, Lincoln is not a screwed-up movie.  It's the definition of a solid motion picture, illustrating the story of Abraham Lincoln and the passage of the 13th Amendment, and basically becoming a staple that will be shown for decades to come by history teachers who can't be bothered to fill out a lesson plan for that day.

Now, parse this endorsement.  "Not screwed-up," "solid" and "classroom staple" don't exactly compare to the more outward raves that the film has received, since while this is a thoroughly professional (there's another buzzword) motion picture, it's not a great one.  It's hanging around in the bottom half of Spielberg's all-time top ten, and while that's not exactly shabby company, it's lacking the spark that defines Spielberg's best work.

Lincoln is like a really good episode of West Wing combined with a really well-cast (and extended) Canadian Heritage Minute and maybe a pinch of this song.  While I have no doubt that the story was both painstakingly researched yet also exaggerated for dramatic effect, it just didn't move me as either historical document or as a creatively-licensed look into what Lincoln the man was "really" like.  While I'm by no means an expert on Lincoln, was he really the homily-spouting awesome guy that Day-Lewis portrays?  It almost seems too easy.  I'm not saying that DDL played Abe as a caricature or anything, but when you literally have characters throw up their hands in mock outrage that Lincoln is launching into another of his homespun allegories, you might want to dial back the monologues a bit.

This is one of those cases where I can't help but let Oscar punditry influence my views, since I feel like I'll be unfairly critical of Lincoln in comparison to other, superior, pictures it's nominated against.  There's a good chance that it'll win Best Picture, Day-Lewis Best Actor, Tommy Lee Jones as supporting actor and even Sally Field as supporting actress (if she can upset the Anne Hathaway buzzsaw), and yet if any of those results go down, I can't help but feel that something great should've beaten something very good, be it the movie itself or any of these fine performances.  Also, while I'm mentioning the acting, I should mention the murderers' row of excellent TV actors who fill out the supporting roles.  Any film that gives quality parts to Walton Goggins, Lee Pace and scores of other notables is okay in my book.

To use presidential comparisons, the critics want to hail Lincoln as Lincoln, whereas it's probably only William McKinley.  I swear I'm not just lazily tossing out the name of another assassinated president, I did the research, people.  Or, rather, Kyle did the research.


Flight and Smashed make good companion pieces, though I wouldn't suggest actually watching them back-to-back unless you never want to drink again.  For all the (deserved) praise that Denzel Washington is getting for his performance, Mary Elizabeth Winstead treads a lot of the same ground and in my view does an equally terrific job in portraying a person who is struggling to adjust to their alcoholism, with the key difference being that Winstead's character at least acknowledges the problem early, while Denzel is traveling down the Egyptian river. 

Because Winstead's early realization allows her to tackle her obstacles for most of the film, it seems like she weirdly has the more-fraught journey, whereas Denzel has the somewhat larger concern of a plane crash, six victims, televised hearings and the media spotlight weighing down upon him.  That's a lot heavier than Winstead's comparably lighter issues of dealing with her also-alcoholic but amiable husband (the great Aaron Paul), the lies she uses to cover her drinking at her teaching job and the SUPER FUCKING AWKWARD situation that arises with her co-worker and fellow AA member.  I'm not going to spoil things too much, but it's a major Yikes Moment made even Yikesier (not a word) by the fact that the character is played by Nick Offerman.  You will never look at Ron Swanson the same way again.

Ok, so maybe these problems aren't a hill of beans, and they seem larger in comparison to what Denzel's Whip Whitaker faces in Flight since Whip himself seems so unconcerned.  That's his trick to dealing with both life and his substance abuse --- just stay calm, keep your head down and hope that somehow everything will work itself out, and for most of his life, that's worked.  Don Cheadle doesn't have much to do in the movie besides remind Whitaker of how much trouble he's in, and yet that's exactly what Whip drastically needs, a constant alarm to get him to finally wake up.

Denzel plays the role as if he's half-aware of his drinking problem (he's coherent enough to try to cover it up) and half in denial, and if you're half in denial about alcoholism, you're basically all the way in denial.  It's one of his best performances, a role so good that I didn't even think once about Jay Pharaoh's legendary impression on SNL that underlined and highlighted all of Denzel's usual ticks for the world to see.  We're safe, Denzel won't become a caricature like Robert De Niro has over the last 15 years.  Speaking of which….    


You've basically got three levels of "hey, look at this acting!" in The Silver Linings Playbook.  First you have Bradley Cooper, who is terrific here and gives a performance that, frankly, I thought was beyond him.  Second you have Jennifer Lawrence, who is as good as the Oscar pundits have been saying she is in the picture, which is why she's the Best Actress frontrunner.  Between this and Winter's Bone (and even more commercial stuff like Hunger Games and the new X-Men movies), we can officially confirm Lawrence as a capital-M major talent. 

And finally, you have Robert De Niro, busting out his first truly good performance in….holy crap, so, I looked this up on IMDB and I'd have to say it's been 15 years.  De Niro's been okay --- Ronin, City By The Sea, the "Meet The…" series and the Analyze series --- in some films just playing versions of his usual persona, but it's been a lot of phoned-in work.  To use the SNL example I mentioned about Denzel Washington, it's like De Niro saw Colin Quinn's impression of him on the show and thought, "hey, if I've been typed as a monosyllabic tough guy, can I just do that for a while?  Man, this is easy!"  In Playbook, however, ol' Bobby D actually restructures the De Niro persona as a guy who has to act tough as a way of coping with his feelings of being trapped by his OCD.  Hopefully this is the start of one final run of great roles for De Niro in his elder statesman years.  (Also, let's throw a bone to longtime character John Ortiz, who's very good in his role as Pat's almost-as-equally-disturbed buddy.)

The acting carries a solid but oddly-structured script across the finish line of the Very Good Movie race.  It's a drama with some quirky moments for about 80 percent of the movie, then it takes a weirdly comic turn towards the ending.  I honestly think the only reason is still kinda works is because of the fact that it's set in Philadelphia.  A certain FX sitcom has mined 7+ years of comedy out of the stereotype of the quick-to-anger and thickheaded Philadelphian, so now when you set a film about anger issues in Philly and expect it to be funny, it's automatically believable thanks to the groundwork laid by Charlie, Mac, Dennis, Dee and Frank. 

And, OF COURSE these bipolar/obsessive compulsive guys with anger issues are Eagles fans.  You don't need to be a sports fan to enjoy Playbook or understand that these guys are all nuts for following a team this closely, but there are lots of little references that will add to a sports fan's enjoyment of the picture.  For instance, football fans remember the famous season-ending Cowboys/Eagles game that serves as one of the movie's dramatic climaxes.  Maybe the real losers here are Bills, Browns, Vikings, Lions, Chiefs, Jets and Bengals fans, who don't even get movies about their tortured fandom.  Not too late to jump on the Green Bay bandwagon, guys.


I realize that Expendables 2 came out months ago, but doesn't discussing it long after it lost what little relevance it had fit with the movie's overall theme?  It's just a big, dumb, goofy action movie that takes itself maybe two percent seriously and it's wonderful to just turn your brain off for two hours to laugh and groan at the nonsense on the screen.

About that two percent of seriousness….I was somewhat let down by the first Expendables film since I went in expecting a winking homage to old-school action movies, yet what I got was basically just an old-school action movie played mostly straight.  The sequel, however, definitely has tongue planted firmly in cheek.  Van Damme plays the villain and his character is literally named "Vilain."  Chuck Norris shows up and starts quoting Chuck Norris facts.  Every involving Willis and Schwarzenegger in the airport was gloriously absurd.  So there was lots of comedy, but it was intentional comedy, which again was slightly disappointing since the beauty of those shitty old 80's action movies was that they were chockfull of unintentional comedy.

That's why it was so heartening to note that the funniest scene in the movie was, hands-down, the shot of Sly Stallone "running" into the airplane hanger.  I use the quote marks since the 66-year-old Stallone didn't run as much as he staggered quickly.  He ran like a man whose leg was caught in a bear trap.  It was beyond hilarious and I'm almost certain that it was included when the editors and director realized how funny it was.  Sly co-wrote the script, and frankly, that kind of subtle joke is beyond him --- he'll poke fun at himself and his co-stars in the dialogue, but adding a scene where he runs like a man in a full body cast was probably not in the cards.

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