Saturday, November 17, 2012

Mathew Brady tintypes seemingly come to life in fascinating ‘Lincoln’

By Steve Crum

Eighteen years ago while walking to the parking lot after screening Jurassic Park, my then 12-year-old daughter said to me, “Dad, I feel like l’ve just been with real dinosaurs.” She was referring to what she saw in the movie, not me and fellow movie critics. I felt much the same after seeing Steven Spielberg’s recent other work, Lincoln. I had been in the presence of our 16th President for 150 minutes, a unique experience, certainly. Figuratively, at its visual core, Lincoln is a collection of Mathew Brady photos come to life. 

That is not meant to imply Lincoln is a documentary. It isn’t, but the incredible thing about it is its credible realism. Certainly, Spielberg gets enormous credit as director and co-producer, but as in any artistically successful film, his team deserves kudos as well. Tony Kushner’s screenplay, adapted from the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, is laced with sharp wit and stirring rhetoric. The script includes documented speeches and conversations by Lincoln and his associates. After all, how do we really know everything said behind closed doors? Here is where Kushner and Goodwin fictionalize, but believably.

Another component vital to the success and atmosphere of Lincoln is the cinematography of Spielberg’s longtime collaborator, Janusz Kaminski. For Shindler’s List (1993), Kaminski photographed in newsreel-like black and white, adhering to our perception of WWII. For Lincoln, the look is bleached or amber-hued color, resembling 19th Century tintypes. Kaminski and Spielberg also chose to shoot indoor scenes with available light, via candle or kerosene lamp. The use of color seems more a lack thereof, and extremely effective for realism. K/S used a similar look for 1997’s Amistad.  

Lincoln is not a biography of Abe Lincoln's entire life, but it vividly portrays the man during a critical period in our country’s history, nearing the end of the Civil War, and on the brink of abolishing slavery. In fact, during the course of the movie, we witness (per se) Lee’s surrender to Grant and, after belabored efforts--to say the least, the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. This encompasses the final four months of Lincoln’s presidency and life, in 1865. During all the bickering and figurative backstabbing of Congressional members over both ending the war and passage of the amendment to end slavery, Lincoln himself stays focused on achieving both goals. The story is  enhanced by the inclusion of his badgering wife Mary, finely portrayed by Sally Field, shown to be both a thorn and driving force in her husband’s political efforts.

Of the 100-plus speaking roles, surely a record for any recent motion picture, it is Daniel Day-Lewis who dominates. I am neither the first nor last to note such. His Oscar worthy performance encompasses greatness. Day-Lewis IS Lincoln. Henry Fonda and Raymond Massey will forever be revered for their takes on The Great Emancipator, but the acting benchmark has now been set with Day-Lewis, our greatest living film actor. His body of film work is stunning. 

In addition to Day-Lewis and Field, there are at least a dozen noteworthy actors. Among them, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert, who tries to persuade his parents to let him enlist as a soldier. Tommy Lee Jones, as Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens, delivers one of the two best performances of his career, the other being Coal Miner’s Daughter. Others deserving mention include David Strathairn, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, and Jackie Earle Haley. 

Scenes cover the Lincolns in bedroom talk, wherein Mary Todd relentlessly blames her husband for the death of their youngest son, Willie. On a lighter note, Lincoln’s tendency to both humor and manipulate fellow politicians by segueing into one of his homey, backwoods parables, even in the midst of advising a battle, adds to his unique characterization. 

Incidentally, do not expect elaborate scenes of Civil War battle. There is a sobering scene of Lincoln on horseback, stovepipe hat and all, slowly maneuvering through a battle’s aftermath of hundreds of dead soldiers. I was taken more with the fact President Lincoln is on horseback, an image never photographed--at least to my knowledge. 

There is a lot of flourish and pomp in Lincoln, as well as humanism and intimacy. Spielberg’s superb storytelling, like his classic Schindler’s List, is a must-see. 
GRADE On an A to F Scale: A
Enjoy the trailer to the memorable Lincoln:

Friday, November 9, 2012

‘Skyfall’: THE best James Bond movie...ever

By Steve Crum

Skyfall would not be the best James Bond film ever had it not been for the previous 22 Bond movies. Not that this Sam Mendes-directed, smoothly stirred blend does not stand independently as a Class A action-adventure yarn, which it does. But to fully appreciate Skyfall, one really needs to be a Bond movie aficionado. That is because there are so many subtle and overt references and outright homages to 007 cleverly worked into the plot, dating back to Sean Connery. Otherwise, a first time Bond viewer will miss an arsenal of fun. 

For this Bond freak, Skyfall is one satisfying James Bond adventure.

It grabs from the get-go via an opening chase scene of Bond (Daniel Craig) running afoot and eventually on top of a speeding train to nab an assassin-thief possessing a vitally needed, coded chip. Naturally, every James Bond movie opens with an action set-piece which is followed by the title sequence with theme song, and this one does not waiver from tradition. However, there is more derring-do gutsiness compressed in these five minutes than in any previous Bond. Trying so hard not to spoil the fun, let’s just say there is breakneck running and jumping, car chasing, and a Caterpillar involved. And not the little, wooly kind. 

As the story (by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan) develops, it is clear that British spy headquarters M16 is under explosive attack because of its leader, M (for the final time played by Judi Dench). Something or someone is targeting her agency to get to her. Unfortunately, at a crucial time like this, M’s foremost agent, 007, has some issues of his own, interfering with  duty to M and country.    

This development does give ultra-psychotic Silva, played by Javier Bardem in blond wig, opportunities to display his viciousness, making him the most formidable and dangerous Bond villain of them all. Just try not to think of his similarities to Hannibal Lecter when he is (temporarily) jailed. Each and every Bond bad guy is dangerously eccentric, but the relentless Silva, an ex-M16 agent, is vastly more conniving and driven, fueled by personal vendetta. Bardem’s bloodthirsty villain Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men in many ways registers as a kissin’, er, killin’ cousin to Silva.

Bond movies are formula famous for being filmed in some of the most exotic, colorful locations in the world, and so goes Skyfall. The Hong Kong scenes, particularly at night, are spectacular. Mendes integrates memorable action set pieces befitting each location. Speaking of action sequences, Skyfall’s opening bit is equalled by a half dozen other nail-biting slam-bangers. Do not ask how future Bond movies (and there will definitely be more) can even equal what Mendes has accomplished here. 

By mid-movie, M is both in danger of being killed and losing her job (through forced retirement) in the process. However, there is always 007 to her rescue, along with his sometimes able assistant, Eve (Naomie Harris). Even M’s second in command Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) proves himself as no slouch in heroics. She and M16 get able support from the newly designated and very young Q, played by Ben Whishaw, who looks like he just stepped off The Big Bang Theory set. 

Mix in a very strong finale performance by Albert Finney as Scotsman Kincade, outstanding stunt work and visual effects, and perhaps the most eye pleasing opening title sequence (Daniel Kleinman) of all 23 Bond flicks. Adele’s title song, written and performed by her, is a gem too. Speaking of music, there is a fine Thomas Newman score, with a very healthy dose of Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme punctuating key parts. 

Daniel Craig’s central performance is vital, and he does not disappoint. For Judi Dench, the swan song could not be more emotionally fitting.   

By film’s end, we appreciate that the franchise has refashioned itself by never once forgetting its glorious history, including a certain Goldfinger car. So satisfying it is, five decades later, and counting. 
GRADE On an A to F Scale: A
The trailer previews a goodly number of Skyfall's thrills:

Friday, November 2, 2012

‘Flight’ will undoubtedly garner Oscar nomination for Denzel

By Steve Crum

Ray Milland did it. So did Jack Lemmon, Susan Hayward, and Dudley Moore. These are actors who were Oscar nominated for superbly playing alcoholics. Milland even won for 1945’s Lost Weekend. A few months from now, when Oscar noms are announced, you can add Denzel Washington to this cadre. No doubt  he will be nominated for Flight. His performance is a stunner.

In fact, Flight is a terrific movie overall, featuring standout support from Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Nadine Velazquez, Don Cheadle, and Bruce Greenwood. Director Robert Zemeckis’ drama is his most introspective work since Cast Away. Perhaps that is faint praise, considering his primary body of comedy, fantasy, and animated films.  

The wrenching story (penned by John Gatins) follows a would-be heroic commercial airline pilot and his ongoing decent into the hell of drug and (particularly) alcohol addiction. Washington portrays veteran pilot Whip Whitaker, whose cocky worldliness masks a lonely, driven soul. We perceive him first as a carefree, cool ladies man, but Whitaker‘s persona rapidly changes to disgusting irresponsibility. It is the acting challenge of a lifetime, and Washington triumphs. 

Flight’s harrowing first 15 minutes features one of the most white knuckled plane crash sequences in film history. What begins as a routine morning flight from Orlando, with 88 passengers aboard, quickly turns deadly. Captain Whitaker, assisted by Co-Pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), tensely maneuvers through stormy skies only to encounter one engine malfunction after another. The plane nose dives out of control. 

To Evans’ consternation, Whitaker takes manual control. It is no real spoiler to reveal he basically saves the day, and is soon heralded by the media as a hero.  

Here is where the real story of Flight begins, as Whitaker’s personal life spirals to a devastating crash due to his alcoholism. His union rep, Charlie Anderson (Greenwood) and union attorney Hugh Lang (Cheadle)  struggle to cover up Whitaker’s inebriation while flying as well as keep him sober as he testifies before feds at an NTSB hearing. Unfortunately, Whitaker’s addiction now directly affects his ex-wife, his teen son, and a new girlfriend (Reilly). The same goes for his old friend, Nadine Velazquez (Katerina Marquez), a flight attendant. 

The only one in Whitaker’s life not negatively affected, although he is probably concerned, is pal Harling Mays (Goodman), aging hippie and Whip’s main drug supplier. Goodman has two primary scenes, and they are choice bits of grim humor. In a movie like this what other kind of humor could there be? 

It cannot be said Flight is particularly uplifting or inspiring, but there is welcome calm following Whip Whitaker’s turbulent life storm. 
GRADE on a scale of A-F: A
Take flight with this trailer: