Friday, November 30, 2012
Feature films about historical figures often make the dramatically deadly error of hewing too closely to a standard biographical format, forcing the audience to experience its subject from birth to death with all significant moments in between. Steven Spielberg’s latest prestige picture avoids that pitfall by focusing on a few weeks in early 1865. Shortly after re-election (as the Civil War began to wind painfully down and before the newly elected legislature takes office) President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) works behind the scenes to scrounge up votes in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment, which will formally abolish slavery in the United States. This task, which Lincoln assigns to Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) who delegates same to brokers W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), is fraught with perils both political and physical. Not the least of these comes from within Lincoln’s own fractured Republican Party. Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), the ostensible head of the conservative wing, assures the President that his caucus will deliver provided Lincoln negotiate terms with a Southern delegation that includes Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley), Vice President of the Confederate States. The radical wing of the party, headed by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), has a less codified agenda and would react with despair to any peace negotiations prior to the amendment’s passage. Tony Kushner based his cogent, verbose script in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” and fashions these convoluted machinations into rollicking and moving political theatre. The usually manipulative Spielberg shows admirable restraint and has assembled one of the finest ensembles in recent memory, with Sally Field giving the much-maligned Mary Todd Lincoln a refreshing dose of humanity. But the film belongs to the triumphant Day-Lewis. He makes the revered, near mythical, figure so relatable and human, you could easily forget you’re watching a performance.
Thursday, November 29, 2012
In a dystopian future set in the totalitarian state of Panem, a girl and boy between the ages of 12 and 18 are chosen by lottery from each of its twelve districts to fight to the death on national television. This annual ritual (called a reaping) came about because of a failed rebellion years ago. The conflict’s victors reside comfortably in the Capitol and are an elite, oddly-dressed bunch. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) uses the reaping as both punishment and entertainment, but its primary purpose is to quash further rebellion. These most dangerous games are overseen by Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) who uses computer-generated perils to manipulate and, on occasion, to finish off unruly participants. 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in District 12 and spends much of her time in the woods hunting food for her family with bow and arrow. When her younger sister Primrose is chosen in the lottery by ditzy Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Katniss volunteers to take her place. She and the male tribute from her district, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), head to the Capitol to be trained by former game winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and primped by Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). Because winning is as much about popularity as survival skills, the tributes suffer through televised interviews conducted by the obsequious Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) before being thrown to the proverbial lions. The script by director Gary Ross and Suzanne Collins (upon whose novel this is based) and Billy Ray comes off as both faithful and paper-thin. The film takes nearly half its running time to get to the games, yet its world and inhabitants feel artificial and incompletely realized. Director Ross, who lacks the conceptual and visual rigor to pull off successful world building, must shoulder much of the blame. Tucci gives his quirky character plenty of verve, and Kravitz displays surprising charisma. The other performances, however, are standard issue. Nevertheless Lawrence and Hutcherson have good chemistry together – enough at least to keep the film engaging, if less than enthralling.
Monday, November 26, 2012
Director Robert Zemeckis makes his first live action feature film since CAST AWAY, after an artistically disastrous foray into motion-capture animation, with mixed results. We first meet pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) in a hotel room with Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), one of his flight attendants, the morning after a nightlong bender and only hours before he will captain (and she crew) a commercial jet to Atlanta. There is a mechanical failure in flight and Whip must perform a daring maneuver, to the abject horror of co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), but manages to crash the disabled plane in a field with only six souls lost (including Katerina). The media hail him as a hero. When Whip regains consciousness in the hospital, however, he learns from pilots’ union rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) that he (Whip) is being investigated for flying under the influence. Meanwhile, on the ground in Atlanta, Nicole (Kelly Reilly) has bought a high-powered narcotic and returned to her shabby apartment only to overdose on the drug. She and Whip meet cute in a hospital stairwell and share an illicit smoke. Before long the two addicts seek shelter and solace with each other. As Whip spirals into drunkenness, Nicole tries to guide him to an AA meeting while Anderson and Lang struggle to keep him sober for the federal crash investigation. John Gatins’ script has lofty ambitions but succumbs about thirty minutes in to the faulty mechanics of familiarity and narrative convenience. Washington gives a towering performance, but it never soars due to the clumsy, unconvincing character arc. Greenwood and Cheadle do admirably well with underwritten roles, as does Geraghty. Melissa Leo is completely wasted as Ellen Block, the chief federal investigator, and John Goodman, as Whip’s dealer Harlan Mays, is ill served in two scenes played for queasy laughs. After reaching his zenith with the charming time travel comedy BACK TO THE FUTURE, Zemeckis lost his interest in character and became obsessed with technology. Here he has made a technical marvel with no soul.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
On November 4, 1979, Iranian revolutionaries overran the U.S. embassy in Tehran. They took over 60 Americans hostage, held them for 444 days and garnered constant media attention during the international crisis. Director Ben Affleck’s terrific new film tells the less well-known story of six State Department employees who escape the attack and the joint effort of the CIA and Canadian government to get them safely out of Iran. Chris Terrio based his crisply paced yet textured script on Joshuah Bearman’s article “Escape from Tehran”, and he wastes little time before plunging us into the action. The six escapees take shelter in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), but their days are numbered as agents of the Ayatollah Khomeini conduct house-to-house searches for spies. Enter CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck), who obtains approval from boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) for a daring rescue operation (or, as O’Donnell deadpans, “the best bad idea we have”). Mendez will enter Iran posing as a film producer on a location scout for a non-existent science fiction movie called ARGO and leave with the hostages as his film crew. To create a convincing cover Mendez enlists makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) who brings on crusty producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to make the enterprise look legitimate. Although Hollywood buys the ruse, now Mendez must convince Iranian officials that this is real and six terrified Americans that this will work. Adding to his impressive work in GONE BABY GONE and THE TOWN, Affleck confirms he is a directorial force with which to be reckoned. He keeps his touch light and unobtrusive while maintaining near constant suspense and, just when needed, puncturing the tension with unexpected humor. Most of the film’s laughs are generated by the duo of Goodman and Arkin, who clearly relish their roles. Cranston is wonderful, and Affleck’s performance is appropriately low key and devoid of ego. The final suspense sequence goes a little overboard for my taste, but it’s easy to forgive. That’s Hollywood, after all.