Saturday, November 24, 2012

A small, but essential, part of the life of "Lincoln"

If you go to see this movie expecting to see much of the Civil War, you’ll be sorely disappointed.  This movie isn’t about the Civil War.  It’s not even about Abraham Lincoln per se, as I’m fairly certain that Lincoln’s life consisted of more than just the first four months of 1865.  One could even make the case the title “Lincoln” is not entirely appropriate, and it instead might should have been named “Passage of the 13th Amendment,” as this is primarily a film about the political process surrounding that event.  However, if you go to see it expecting to see one of the greatest film actors of our generation giving a tour-de-force performance, your money will be well-spent.

Daniel Day-Lewis amazes me once again, as he so disappears into Abraham Lincoln that I don’t even see the performer.  I was most impressed by his voice – I don’t recall him ever having that speaking voice in any of his roles before, and it’s very different from many of the gruff-voiced portrayals of Lincoln we’ve seen before.  His soft-spoken demeanor and gentle movements wonderfully communicate the kind soul we’ve all believed to inhabit Lincoln.

Steven Spielberg doesn’t show us Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, or his being murdered at Ford’s Theater.  We’ve seen all that before.  Spielberg shows us Lincoln speaking to a couple of soldiers waiting to board a train, to his secretaries in the middle of the night, to some telegraph operators waiting for his instructions to them, and to General Grant while seated together in rocking chairs on a front porch.  We see him lying on the floor before a fireplace with his youngest son.  We see him fight with his wife, and with his eldest son.  These are the things that humanize Lincoln to us, perhaps more so than any other president.

As we see the job-offering, the favor-promising and the outright bullying involved in his securing the necessary votes to pass the 13th Amendment, one wonders just how we of this time in history can say that politics is dirtier than ever.  Looked to me like business as usual.  Well, with the possible exception of the bullying being done in much prettier language than our current president’s cronies and stooges used for cramming Obamacare down the country’s throat.  Whenever I see a well-made period-piece film of the 19th Century, I leave the theater feeling that I missed out on the language of that time.  People were much more well-spoken in those days (or at least educated people were), so much so that even calling someone else the most vile and despicable names, it sounded so much more pleasant.

As usual, Spielberg and his usual cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, have crafted a beautiful film.  The sets and locations here are fantastic and completely convincing (I honestly don’t know how much computer-generated assistance there was in recreating this time and place, if any at all).  I foresee Oscar nominations for photography, set design and costumes without a doubt.  The rest of the notable cast, from Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field to Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and Jared Harris, are excellent as well.

Some folks I know describe the movie’s pace as slow, and while I can understand that sentiment, it seems to have a bit of a negative tone to it that I’m reluctant to agree with it.  “Deliberate” is a better adjective, as the process of politics is a deliberate one (hence parliamentary debate being called “deliberation”).  The movie’s pace was very absorbing, and I was certainly never bored.  Just pay attention, people – if you want a faster pace, rent a Bruce Willis movie.  While this movie may not be the definitive depiction of Abraham Lincoln’s life, it should certainly become the definitive depiction of this event in our nation’s history. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

"Skyfall." Best. Bond. Ever.

That's right, I'll say it again in case you misunderstood me - Best.  Bond.  Ever.  I could just quit writing right there, because it really doesn’t get any simpler than that.  Don’t get me wrong – Goldeneye was great.  I still love Thunderball and Goldfinger.  Even Live and Let Die was pretty good, but if we are to take the word “reboot” literally, then I have to consider the Daniel Craig era as a separate entity from the rest of the Bond series, and as such, Skyfall is simply the best of the bunch.  One of the greatest sensations I can hope to experience as a moviegoer is when a movie lives up to my high hopes for it.  This one most certainly does.

After an intense pursuit of a stolen hard drive that contains vital information through the streets of Istanbul, Bond is wounded during a desperate fight atop a moving train, flung to a river below and left for dead.  MI-6 continues on without him, but when the complex plot of a cyber-terrorist to discredit and disgrace “M” (Judi Dench) begins to take shape, he reappears from the dead, only to be told that he’s possibly too old and out-of-shape to continue serving.  Not that he or “M” would allow silly things like physical evaluations and psychological profiles to keep 007 out of action for long, so rules are bent and superiors are ignored, and Bond then jet-sets halfway across the globe in pursuit of those who seek to make use of the information on that stolen hard drive.

That information turns out to be the identities of every covert operative currently undercover in terrorist organizations all over the world, and it’s being used by some evil mastermind to wreak havoc on MI-6 in general, and on “M” in particular.  The villain turns out to be a former MI-6 operative named Silva (played by a wonderously-creepy Javier Bardem, who can do Creepy Bad Guy better than most, as proved by No Country for Old Men), whose plans turn out to be much more complex, and much more personal, than mere cyber-terrorism.  His first meeting with Bond must be the grandest entry of any Bond villain into a film, and his ensuing conversation with him must also rank as the strangest.

Of course, it’s amazing what an Oscar-winning director can do for a franchise-formula movie (pay close attention to that statement, Walt Disney company, when deciding who will helm the next Star Wars flick…).  I have wondered what sort of “action movie” Sam Mendes could make from the moment I heard of his hiring to direct this film.  I mean, let’s face it – American Beauty and Revolutionary Road were wonderful movies, but they don’t exactly make one think he could just as easily have made Die Hard or something like that.  That said, I’ve had a gut feeling all along that he’d pleasantly surprise us and would make Skyfall something special…  and he sure as Hell did.

Mendes has given us the most visually gripping Bond film I can remember.  As exotic settings have always been a staple of the Bond series, Mendes makes fantastic use of the nighttime settings of Shanghai and Macau, with a skyscraper’s glass and a city’s neon lights apparently being the new trees and foliage in which snipers ply their trade these days.  The gloom of Scotland, the light bulbs of the London underground, and the harsh sunlight of an abandoned island in the South China Sea are all important parts of Mendes’ lovely finished product.

I can’t rave enough about this script, either.  Skyfall is certainly the most character-invested film of the entire Bond series.  We see Bond have doubt about the world changing around him.  We see “M” face her mortality.  We see other, younger operatives suffer the consequences for actions demanded of them.  We see the people to whom they answer question their very necessity in the modern world and the wars we might fight.  We also, for the first time in the fifty-year history of the cinematic version of the character, see that Bond actually did exist before he was granted his Double-O status. Screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan apparently took advantage of the extra two years provided by MGM’s financial problems to hone this script to near-perfection, and given the sorta-flat previous film in this series (that would be Quantum of Solace, which actually began filming without a completed script), it’s easy to forgive being made to wait longer for this movie.

We’re even given the pleasure of being reintroduced to some of the characters and details we used to love about the series that went away after Casino Royale, in ways that are entirely appropriate to the new style and tone of the series.  There were just enough winks to Bond’s past to be appreciated, but none of them so over-the-top as to make one’s eyes roll at the cheesiness of doing so.  I am so tempted to give away some of these nuggets, but oh, how I don’t want to deprive you of the pleasure of learning these things for yourself (I will blab that it’s great to see that Bond made sure the Aston Martin he won from Demetrios in Casino Royale got shipped over from the Bahamas after that mission was completed, and that it has a few specs that harken back to other Bond movies…).

If you’ve avoided the movie’s Wikipedia entry so far (damn those European moviegoers who’ve had an extra two weeks to see it and spoil the surprises for us over here…), then you’re in for one heck of a time.  The pre-title action sequence alone is worth the price of admission, so consider getting a completely fantastic experience the rest of the way as a bonus.  In other words, Skyfall kicks ass.  Maybe I should’ve just left it at that.