Wednesday, November 28, 2012


There's a point in watching Daniel Day-Lewis as our 16th president of the United States where you realize you're not just watching an actor portrayal. You are watching a man disappearing behind a historical figure, an icon of American history. You stop seeing Daniel Day-Lewis. You see Abraham Lincoln. Never again will an on-screen representation of him be so close, so real and so accurate. And it all starts with that voice. The voice Day-Lewis decided to inhabit the president with is nothing short of brilliant. The legend and lore of Lincoln brings to mind a deep, booming voice. History tells us otherwise, and the master method actor brings this richly to life. Before this film, Lincoln was a figure, a representation, an idea. Now, there's a man to go with it.

Instead of the painterly, picturesque puffery of last year's "War Horse," Steven Spielberg directs "Lincoln" with refined understatement. He allows the densely packed script from Tony Kushner ("Angels in America," "Munich") speak for itself, which was expertly crafted from Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals." Full of monologues, heated debates and strategic discussions, the movie documents the final months of Lincoln's presidency leading up to the passing of the thirteenth amendment and his tragic assassination at Ford's Theatre. The beauty in the collaboration is that it works like a time machine transporting audiences effortlessly to the 19th century, a time when the Civil War raged on and worry surrounded Lincoln's re-election.

Longtime Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shoots "Lincoln" full of dark interiors and light spilling in through windows and curtains. Only a few shots are outside, and the only piece of battlefield action is in the film's first fleeting moments. For the majority of its two-and-a-half-hour running time, the film is a lesson in history -- and I mean that in the best way possible. It's smart, and you feel smart watching it. It can drag and does take a bit to get settled in with its vast cast of characters and familiar faces, but once we first enter that House of Representatives, the rewards for your attention and perseverance are immense.

The supporting crew is a laundry list of names and faces audiences will recognize. The main players are Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln's eldest son, Robert; David Straithairn as Secretary of State William H. Seward, Lincoln's right-hand man; Tommy Lee Jones as the hot-tempered radical liberal Thaddeus Stevens, a fervent advocate of black rights; and Sally Field as Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd. But that's only the beginning. James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Lee Pace, Jared Harris and  Michael Stuhlbarg among many other actors play strong supporting roles to give this moment in history real drama and life.

Casting Sally Field as the impassioned Mary Todd was inspired, as the veteran actress shows us the 16th president's wife as both indignant toward and admirable of her husband. Likewise, Tommy Lee Jones brings a weathered yet tough energy to Thaddeus Stevens whose private secret reveals his personal connection to Lincoln's cause. Both of these seasoned performances will be nominated alongside Day-Lewis.

All of this, all of "Lincoln," it all circles back to Day-Lewis. The scenes of him speaking to his Cabinet are captivating. He plays Lincoln with a quicksilver spirit that is ideal to the president's lore and how well-loved and appreciated he was by his party members. He has all the patience in the world, idling by and telling long stories -- but he also has his moments where he doesn't see what he knows needs to be done getting done. And when he slams that fist of his down on the table and asserts his power, you'll get chills. If nothing else, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" could likely restore your faith in American politics.

Monday, November 19, 2012


There's something woefully wrong with "Anna Karenina," and I refer to both the title character who's a distressful mess of a woman, but I also refer to the movie in which she stars. I've heard of style over substance, and I've heard that's what Joe Wright's latest feature falls victim to. But it's much more than that; it's style over no substance. There's no holding this exercise in decadence together other than the decadence on display in itself. This is the third time Wright has used Keira Knightley as his muse ("Pride & Prejudice," "Atonement"), and as much as I wanted another collaboration between this directorial master and the actress to strike gold, this is not the case. She plays dress-up in beautiful gowns playing to the part, the ill-fated Anna Karenina, but there's nothing beyond the beauty she emanates.

All the world's a stage, and she is but a player in the drama. Wright boldly directs his latest period drama (after the welcomed departure of last year's "Hanna") as a stage play within a movie. The action opens upon a stage, the camera moving into the set with all the backstage fixings and characters walking briskly past operating ropes and pulleys. The camera work simultaneously pulls us into 19th century Imperial Russia and keeps us once-removed from the action. The aesthetic is a fun diversion to start, but ultimately begins to deconstruct. Scenes still take place outside and look painterly but don't include the stage. When characters appear within the stage and in the audience area with all the seats removed as opposed to when entire scenes are detached from this stage, it all become random and inconsequential.

There are several moments where backdrop characters freeze to become an astonishing tableau upon the stage. This works to especially great effect when Anna engages in a dance of seduction with the younger count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). But again, it more announces the panache of Wright as a director but fails to engage us further in Anna's plight. As the 900-page Leo Tolstoy novel from which this is adapted -- and has been adapted plenty of times before -- tells us, Anna takes a trip to visit relatives and gets enraptured by Vronsky. She's an upper-class wife married to minster Karenin (Jude Law), but the only passion left for their marriage is displaced in a love for their young son. To fall so desperately in love with another man is despicable in the eyes of high society St. Petersberg and Moscow, and yet Anna feels she can flaunt such adultery without the world watching.

Coming from the perspective of a modern day audience, of course we sympathize with Anna. Why shouldn't she able to love who she wants? But at the same time, Anna is so unruly with her desire that she turns to downright recklessness. Her husband learns of the affair, and he offers forgiveness as long as she keep it secret; that way society won't punish her. She refuses, and society sees her punishment in full. When our sympathies begin to shift, that's when "Anna Karenina" really starts to fail. Silly, Anna, passion is temporary.

Whether it's the acting or a stiff screenplay from Tom Stoppard ("Shakespeare in Love"), something about the film is bloodless, lifeless and worst of all -- passionless. When Anna feels so powerfully about her affair with Vronsky, we should feel that level of emotion. Meanwhile, there's a third important character in play. A landowner named Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) who hopes to marry Kitty (Alicia Vikander), but she has a crush on Vronsky before he's otherwise occupied. Levin and Kitty end up happily-ever-after while Anna, well, you know. Is this version of "Anna Karenina" a tale about following undying love, or a morality tale about responsibility and duty? The confusion is crippling to the film and slams Wright's latest as a glorious miscalculation.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


Every awards season needs its surefire crowd-pleaser, and David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" is it.  This screwy and hugely compassionate comedy is also a genre-defying collision of football, ballroom dancing, family drama, mental illness and romantic intrigue. The movie follows Pat Solatano Jr. (Bradley Cooper), a troubled man struggling with his bipolar disorder. He was committed to a psych ward after catching another man with his wife, Nicky, and consequently nearly beating him to death. Now having been released and picked up by his loving, dedicated mother, Dolores (Jacki Weaver of "Animal Kingdom"), Pat's on a life mission to get his wife back. The number of times he mentions her name is a sickness in itself, and it comes with a peculiarly positive outlook on life with the motto "excelsior." Much like he did with his last outing "The Fighter," Russell excels in bringing to life colorful idiosyncrasies; here it's the hectic, buzzing nature of Pat's Philly family to which he's brought home.

Robert De Niro plays Pat Sr., a father who doesn't fully realize the apple hasn't fallen too far from the tree. He's an obsessive-compulsive Philadelphia Eagles fan who turns his football fanaticism into an entire family affair. He lost his job and was banned from the stadium for fighting, so he conducts risky business as a bookie leaving him glued to the TV exhibiting irrational and superstitious behaviors to ensure his team wins. Meanwhile he's frustrated that he doesn't know how to help his own son. This is De Niro's juiciest role in a very long time, and he looks more engaged than ever. Perhaps because it's not just another "Fockers" sequel, and thank goodness because it reminds us why he's one of this generation's great veteran actors.

The movie is a little wobbly to start establishing Pat's personal predicament, but it really gets its footing once Jennifer Lawrence's widowed Tiffany is introduced. They meet at a dinner party hosted by Tiffany's controlling sister, Veronica (Julia Stiles), and her stifled husband, Ronnie (John Ortiz). The minute Pat and Tiffany lock eyes, there is a connection, a chemistry. Tiffany even bluntly asks to have sex, but that's not what she means. She's only turning to her typical habit when it comes to interacting with men. They feed off each other's unfiltered, manic energy, and their scenes together are something to behold. Lawrence appears transformed since we were first introduced to her in 2010's "Winter's Bone." At only 22, she really is the girl on fire, straddling both the "Hunger Games" franchise and an incredibly unhinged performance like this.

Cooper is a comparable match to Lawrence, an actor with a prolific career who tops it off here. The off-kilter sway, momentum and fidgety air he brings to Pat is revelatory and unlike anything we've seen from him before. Behind those bright blue eyes is a vulnerability, a conflicting mess of impulses and emotions; lucky for him, it's something Tiffany shares. They both flirt with disaster, but at least now they can do it together.

Having both written and directed it from the 2008 novel by Matthew Quick, Russell brings the work of a true auteur to "Silver Linings Playbook" with a love for his characters, a very unique rhythm and a quirky sense of controlled chaos. The zany family he sets into play builds and gets more convoluted, especially with the additions of Pat's buddy from the psych ward, played by Chris Tucker who we arguably haven't seen since "Rush Hour," and Anupam Kher as Pat's shrink.

The film's loose storytelling takes Pat and Tiffany to a dance competition -- and without giving too much away, their dance is a sporadic treat, a schizophrenic blast of motion that perfectly mirrors what goes on inside these characters' heads. The scene recalls to mind the beauty pageant at the end of "Little Miss Sunshine," a misshapen family unit coming together. While one of the lessons of "Silver Linings" may just be to find your own silver lining in life, the real silver lining may be that no matter who you are, everybody's just a little bit crazy.

Friday, November 16, 2012


Forgetting "Quantum of Solace" ever existed, the latest James Bond reinvention arrives as a full-bodied piece of rousing entertainment that's even better than Martin Campbell's original reboot of the franchise with 2006's "Casino Royale." First off, Daniel Craig (reprising his Bond role for a third time) looks more confident and assured than ever. Less bulky, more lean, looking haggard but still handsome and with a newly added sly sense of humor, the actor portrays 007 as less brooding and more finessed. Director Sam Mendes, whose most recent outing was the small indie comedy "Away We Go," has worked with Craig on "Road to Perdition" and proves the perfect man for the job. And coupled with a talented trio of writers -- Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan -- "Skyfall" excites from the start hitting the ground running with a breathless opening action sequence.

The elaborate chase takes us to the first of the film's exotic locations: Istanbul. Bond and a fellow agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), are in a pursuit that takes Bond on top of a moving train with Eve watching closely. Monitoring remotely from MI6 in London is the severe-looking M (Judi Dench); as Bond gets into a wrestling match with the enemy in pursuit, Eve announces she can take a shot to take the enemy down. It's a risky shot, but a shot nonetheless. M makes a judgement call ("Take the shot!") that sends Bond plummeting to the rushing water below.

Brilliantly choreographed action like the above is sprinkled throughout the duration of "Skyfall" taking us to Shanghai and a mysterious island that houses the film's best Bond villain in years. Played effortlessly by Javier Bardem, Silva is all the more terrifying in his theatricality with flamboyant dress, cat-like eyes and bleach blonde hair. A playful and perversely sexual exchange between Silva and Bond is inspired. No stranger to sinister roles having embodied Anton Chigurh in "No Country for Old Men," Bardem plays Silva as the face of cyber terrorism. He's a computer whiz who can spark chaos with one key stroke and the newest threat to MI6 even if only M and her agents realize it yet.

There's a Bond girl (Berenice Marlohe), but just barely. Perhaps it's because Eve's real name is Miss Moneypenny -- hint, hint. Instead, the emphasis is on the complicated relationship between Bond and M, a storyline thread that takes them to Bond's origin: an old Scottish mansion fittingly named Skyfall and inhabited by a man named Kincade (Albert Finney) who raised the young James. This brand new Bond comes just in time for the series' 50th anniversary, and it both invigorates the modern and commemorates the past. M is past her years, and there's a new boss in position, Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). When Bond is debriefed on a mission from a much younger Q (Ben Whishaw), the only gadgetry he receives is a palm-recognizing pistol and radio transmitter. And yet when the original Aston Martin from "Goldfinger" is unveiled, it's a blast of pure nostalgia for fans.

Adele's gorgeous theme reverberates throughout "Skyfall" with the classic Bond theme trumpeting in later on, and the whole thrill ride is accented with a touch of artfulness from Roger Deakins whose keen cinematography deserves awards consideration. And speaking of awards, if never in its 22-film history has a Bond film been nominated for an Oscar, the 23rd entry in the prolific franchise is a better time than ever.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


Robert Zemeckis hasn't directed a live-action movie since "Cast Away," so how perfect that 12 years later he's at the helm of "Flight" whose centerpiece is a harrowing 20-minute airplane crash sequence. Nothing tops the FedEx flight disaster in the 2000 Tom Hanks vehicle, but this certainly comes close in its heart-pounding detail and claustrophobic point-of-view placing us right in the cockpit. After escaping stormy weather and turbulence, the plane suffers a mechanical failure sending it into an irreversible nose dive. The fear evoked in the lead flight attendant (Tamara Tunie) and young co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) is a contrast to the calm, level-headed demeanor of pilot Whip Whitacker (Denzel Washington) who rolls the aircraft upside-down to maintain its altitude in a gut-instinct decision.

Hours prior to this very flight, we see Whip hungover in a hotel room. Beer and liquor bottles scatter the room, and he fights on the phone with his ex-wife while a naked woman dresses beside the bed. To jolt himself back to life from his grogginess, he sniffs two lines of cocaine and throws on his dark aviator sunglasses to portray a man completely in control. It's a facade, though, as Whip is a man who's completely lost control, and playing this tortured soul gives Denzel Washington his most hypnotic and powerful dramatic performance in years. And Zemeckis, who recently turned his efforts exclusively toward stop-motion animation ("Beowulf," "The Polar Express"), hasn't lost the ability to draw performances from great actors.

Whip glides the plane with 102 passengers on board into a crash-landing in a vacant field holding nothing but a small church. Only six die in the crash, and to those who don't know Whip personally, he's hailed as a hero. No other pilot could've landed the plane the way he did, and crash simulators following the event prove this. The fact remains, however, that Whip was intoxicated. An investigation from a federal organization goes underway with Whip under close scrutiny. The film, against expectation, is smart in not devolving into mere procedural. Instead, it continues as a brooding and intense character study with phenomenal supporting turns to accompany.

Retreating to seclusion at his grandfather's farm, Whip dumps all remaining alcohol in his possession. He realizes the plane crash was his wake-up call; his opportunity to turn his life around. When his union representative (Bruce Greenwood) and lawyer (Don Cheadle) turn up, however, with the bad news of Whip's toxicology report, whether Whip can stay above the influence of his past behavior or continue his downward spiral comes into question. During his stay in the hospital, Whip meets a drug-addicted woman named Nicole (Kelly Reilly); just when you think it'll be him who saves her, she attends AA on her own, and her disappointment in Whip trumps her ability to help him.

And if John Goodman is to be nominated this year, it should be for his role here (over "Argo") as Whip's drug guru, Harling Mays, who channels the Dude from "The Big Lebowski." He arrives at a crucial moment when Whip is held overnight in a hotel room before the morning of his hearing. In only two scenes, he steals the show injecting the movie with dark humor. Likewise, Melissa Leo commands the screen during another pivotal single scene. A bold claim can be made for ensemble of the year here.

"Flight" is about a man battling his inner demons, and the screenplay from "Real Steel" scribe John Gatins doesn't tell us how to view, or judge, Whip. The film nears perfection, but then backs off at the last minute. It gives Whip the easy option, the nicely wrapped epilogue. Such tumultuous proceedings should've been left more open-ended, not so easily solvable; give Denzel Washington's acting more credit. His impending Oscar nomination proves it.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


"Cloud Atlas" is inherently polarizing in its very nature. Either you get swept up in its soaring, outlandish vision, or you don't. It's a film easy to dismiss but equally as easy to get caught up in its undeniable power and ambition. From Andy and Lana Wachowski (who arguably haven't made a decent movie since "The Matrix" and maybe "The Matrix Reloaded") and Tom Tykwer, behind the one-hit wonder "Run Lola Run," these three set out to make the epic, visionary mind-bender of the year. And to their credit, they've done exactly that.

The movie is based on the seemingly impossible to adapt 2004 novel from David Mitchell, which tells six different stories spanning between the mid-19th century and well beyond the year 2144. The movie adaptation casts the same group of actors playing different characters within each story. The main players are Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw and Jim Broadbent who all, in some cases, are not even recognizable in the role they play. Supporting them are Hugh Grant and Susan Surandon. Sometimes the actors are the centerpiece of their story, other times they're a background figure. Each story opens with a larger exposition to give some context, each serving as their own single vignette. Once introduced, however, they weave together cutting back and forth between each other with a very specific rhythm.

The success in the storytelling comes from the way the six stories, and the main roles within, work together as they spill over and ripple through the narratives. I can't imagine the road map the Wachowskis and Tykwer must've created to pull this off. Now, I could go into detail about the premise of each timeline, but it would be an effort in vain. The point is the complex tapestry of feelings that is ultimately created, how particular themes so clearly resonates freely into the next frame. The filmmakers definitely touch on something political -- big oil destroying a nation -- but I won't get into that here. Themes of freedom, justice, liberation, truth, love, loss, good and evil all perfectly sync up in the thematic telling of each story, and it has a wondrous effect. We're never set on a character for long, but in the way certain roles represent others in a different timeline, similar emotions carry over. An escape, a romantic interest, a painful death -- there's always a link. Repeated passages, phrases and one similarly-shaped birth mark command repeated viewings to follow what I can only assume are endless correlations between the six stories.

If this all seems very general, that's because it is. "Cloud Atlas" works at its best when looking at the bigger picture. It's in the details where the movie starts to fall apart. The portrayals are caricature, cartoonish even, but there's no lack in color and texture. For example, the 2144 storyline takes place in Seoul, Korea and forces actors to wear makeup making them appear more Asian. (Except for stoic and stunning Korean actress Doona Bae.) It's a weird effect, especially Jim Sturgess' use of an accent. The other future storyline has Tom Hanks and Halle Berry speaking in a strange, broken language that's nearly laughable -- not to mention almost impossible to understand. But again, those are the nit-picky details. When watching "Cloud Atlas," an overall feeling emerges, a grandiose idea of the recurring moralities of human nature, no matter when or where, or what lifetime -- history repeats itself. I urge you to see it. It's certainly not for everyone, but it also very well might be just for you.