Little Birds

Once you know, there ain’t no comin’ back

I would love to see a movie starring Juno Temple’s character from Little Birds, Sarah Bolger’s character from The Moth Diaries, and Ryan Gosling’s character from Drive.  It’d be a fantastic road movie in which they would, in the words of Pulp Fiction‘s Jules Winnfield, “walk from place to place, meet people, [and] get into adventures.”  But there would be a roadster and a bike involved.  Don’t ask me who would be the voice of wisdom and save them all from certain destruction.

Little Birds was written and directed by Elgin James, which in retrospect makes some of the supposedly “based upon true life experiences” bits seem simultaneously synthetic and hubristic, but I want to forget about the behind-the-scenes stuff for a minute, because Juno Temple’s and Kay Panabaker’s performances here are really worth the sit.

The story centers around Lily (Juno Temple, the reason I turned the movie on), a depressed fifteen year-old who has gone halfway to killing herself at least twice, once by cutting her thigh.  She lives in a poverty-choked town near the Salton Sea – a highly saline lake in California accidentally created by a flood, leaving wreckage, dead fish, mud volcanoes, and a generally run-down vibe.  Lily, tired of this place and feeling neglected by her mother (Leslie Mann), dreams of running away and going anywhere else.  Her best friend, Alison (Kay Panabaker) hangs at her side, also living a sedentary life near the lake and keeping few (or no) other friends.  Alison lives with her seemingly catatonic dad and helps out on a farm owned by her uncle Hogan (Neal McDonough).  The early scenes of Alison and Lily sharing a one-person bicycle may as well be iconic shots from an exemplary youth-rebellion film, which is saying something, because I believe, to an extent, that these characters (or at least their archetypes) are important.

Lily eventually leaves town with the help of Alison, who steals Hogan’s truck, though Alison goes along with this only because she’s afraid Lily will get herself hurt.  They make their way to Los Angeles and follow a trio of boys they met earlier: Jesse (Kyle Gallner), David (Chris Coy), and Louis (Carlos Pena, Jr.).  Jesse, thinking he’d never see Lily again, made out with her and promised this-and-that if they ever ran into each other in L.A.  The boys reveal themselves to be a group of wastrels, living in an abandoned motel and occasionally robbing people on the street.  The active viewer asks, where are their parents (with the exception of Jesse, who explains his preposterous, albeit convenient to the plot, predicament)?  I don’t know.  How are they all so lean and muscular without workout equipment or money for good food?  Beats me.  How did David, the group’s de facto leader, get hold of a handgun?  Couldn’t tell you.  The scenario is handy because it gives Lily an excuse to hang out with people her age and still be unaccounted for.

One of the film’s themes is inertia.  Early on, McDonough’s Hogan, essentially the film’s wise old soothsayer (which I’m willing to buy, considering the fact that farmers literally predict the future with a good degree of accuracy every year in the Farmer’s Almanac) tells Alison a story about traveling all the way to Bora Bora in his youth for much the same reason Lily wants to escape the Salton Sea.  The one pearl of wisdom he took from his adventures was the fact that “people are dumb and cruel everywhere.  I could have just stayed home.”  Alison also starts to believe that excitement about life may be interior, and that staying in one spot is okay if that’s what makes you happy.  The problem here is that Alison (Panabaker is 22, but I’m guessing Alison is somewhere around 14) doesn’t seem to have any aspirations.  Lily doesn’t know where she wants to go, but at least adventure is in her blood.  Is Alison really fine with riding her bike around a depressed neighborhood for all hours of daylight?  Regardless, the situation with the male trio signifies another form of inertia.  These guys, whom to Lily represent independence, freedom, and adventure, are actually doing nothing.  Less than nothing, in fact.  No family, no job, and not even the urge to drift.  Lily, in the absence of her cramped home life for a few days, convinces herself that she’s “really happy.”  Alison, the more down-to-earth of the two, can see that nothing has changed, and more importantly, that there’s nothing for Lily out here.

The boys come up with a harebrained scheme: use a dating site (which is all but named Craigslist) to lure perverts into a trap and rob them, using Lily as bait.  Angry at Alison and blindly in love with Jesse (which seems ridiculous given their short time onscreen together, but makes sense considering Lily’s sheltered life and lack of romantic experience), Lily agrees to the idea.  It works once, then David gets greedy and books another meeting (in the middle of the night) without Lily’s permission.  When Alison stands up for her best friend, she is kicked out of the group, all of whom have been annoyed with her from the start for being a know-it-all, disagreeing with their violent points of view, and for not wanting to “party.”  Of course, the guy Lily meets next knows he’s walking into a trap, and when he sees that his captors are kids, he beats the hell out of all three boys.  Jesse shows his true colors and abandons Lily.

Next comes something problematic.  There’s an attempted rape, but it’s the Movie type of rape – the kind that occurs (or in this case, almost occurs) with the intention of standing for something else.  The rape scene in both versions of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was horrifying not only because of the event itself and its sense of realism (both of which are horrifying enough), but because it was not used as a symbol or a consequence of the victim’s actions.  Here, we can sense a “loss of innocence” coming, in a very serious and permanent way.  Lily has been rushing her adulthood through the entire film.  Well, the film seems to say, here’s what rushing your coming-of-age gets you.  Really, dude?  Enough with the Big Bad Wolf schtick, and enough babying women.

But Lily gets one more chance.  As Chekhov says it must, the gun finally goes off.  The rapist rolls over, either maimed or dead, and Alison stands there with the smoking pistol.  Her ability to do this is accounted for earlier – she shoots with Hogan on the farm almost every day.  A character detail that not only deepens its character, but actually functions for the story in a satisfying way!  Who would have thought?  Free of the boys and (hopefully) seeing how idiotic all of this was, Lily joins Alison on a trip home, but we don’t see them get there.  We last see them pulling over on a beautiful beach and prancing into the shallows of the Pacific Ocean, reverting to childlike excitement and literally washing themselves of whatever residue remains from the adventure.

Finally, Juno Temple gets an excellent lead role and does what I’ve always known she could do.  Kay Panabaker, previously unknown to me, is also astounding here; both display incredible vulnerability and strength.  The duo make the film worth watching despite the turns in logic and the filmmaker’s attempt to do everything at once – the story touches on suicide, abandonment, and sexuality, but little concerning any of that is revealed or realized.  Also, why is Juno Temple, 23, topless so often in this?  I can guess.

I imagine that the title, Little Birds, refers to the delicacy/vulnerability of young girls and the dangers of temptation.  But as Alison could surely tell you, there are some little birds that don’t buy into the stereotype.  Velociraptor, for instance.

Little Birds (2012); written and directed by Elgin James; starring Juno Temple and Kay Panabaker.

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Silver Linings Playbook

Excelsior!

Silver Linings Playbook is the greatest rom-com of its generation.  Why?  Because it’s never played for laughs, and its cozy ending is never guaranteed or taken for granted.  Jennifer Lawrence has already scooped up several awards for her performance, including her second nomination for Best Actress at the Oscars.  Do the majority of the film’s proponents feel that David O. Russell (and to a separate extent, writer Matthew Quick) does an honest job of portraying the mentally ill in a sympathetic light, or do the film’s characters simply fall into line with popular perceptions of folks struggling with these illnesses (i.e. the way we want to think about the “less fortunate”)?  I hope it’s not the latter, but I’d like to explore it a little.

The movie begins with Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a married man with bipolar disorder, returning home after eight months of treatment at a mental health care facility.  His wife, who previously cheated on him, has gone away due to Pat’s violent behavior, and Pat moves back in with his parents, Patrizio, aka Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver).  He has always shared a strained relationship with his father, who apparently favored Pat’s brother, Jake (Shea Whigham), and who, as a result of being out of work, has taken up bookmaking (in particular, gambling on Philadelphia Eagles games) to make ends meet.  Pat Sr. associates all sorts of superstitions with the Eagles, displaying mild symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder when games are on – he must hold onto a certain handkerchief for the duration of each game, the remote controls must point in a certain direction while resting on the TV stand, certain family members must sit on certain sections of the couch, and so on.  These are mostly played as the Movie version of OCD (i.e. quirky and ultimately harmless), but thankfully, Pat Sr.’s problems don’t exist as a joke in and of themselves: he desperately wants to reconnect with his son; however, he must do it on his own terms, and we can sympathize with him as a well-meaning (albeit poor) father attempting to rectify mistakes and be a good dad, even though his child is now an adult.

The fun begins when Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) at a dinner with his two married friends, Ronnie (John Ortiz) and Veronica (Julia Stiles).  Tiffany’s husband, a police officer, has recently been killed – not doing cop work, but hit by a car while helping a stranger change a tire.  Tiffany admits to not being thrilled with her relationship in the time leading up to her husband’s death, however, and was fired from her job for, as she puts it, “having sex with everyone in the office.”  Pat asks, “Were there any women?”  “Yes,” she says.  “What was that like?”  “Hot.”  Is O. Russell ogling the then-21-year-old Lawrence here?  Yep, absolutely.  Is he making a joke out of sex addiction?  Maybe; I hope not.  But this scene turns out to be something wonderful, and not throwaway sexualization.  Pat’s reaction (one of titillation and great interest) comes back to haunt him – he accuses Tiffany of being “crazier” than he is, she points out, yet he loved hearing about her sexual escapades.  This brings things right back to the audience.  It’s a scene designed for a certain reaction (particularly from male viewers), but it also invites us to examine why we have the reactions we have, and serves to remind us that no one is immune to hypocrisy.

Tiffany eventually recruits Pat to be her dance partner in exchange for delivering letters from Pat to his estranged wife, who has obtained a restraining order against him.  As an audience, of course, we think, “No!  You two are supposed to end up together!” but they cannot yet see it (also, given their personalities, we’re not too sure a relationship is a good idea).  Pat accepts this dance partnership at the same time as Pat Sr. and Jake attempt to rekindle their familial bonds with him, and this leads to layers and layers of personal conflict that bring every character together on many different levels.  Yes, the characters work as slaves to romantic comedy convention – Meet Cute, Lull Section, Spiteful Sleaze, etc. – but the characters are deepened and developed to the point that the story’s conventional backdrop feels like a cushion.  We know Pat must eventually chase down Tiffany in the end, but the film is only a comedy insofar as Shakespeare’s comedies were: not meant as one big joke throughout, but comforting enough in its conclusion that there’s little to no unease during the walk up the aisle.

Silver Linings Playbook respects its characters and places them, not the concept, beneath the spotlight, however many bits of formula may be visible beneath the gloss.  The various mental/medical struggles of the characters, while oversimplified and polished for the screen, are never played off as lovable quirks, and that’s rare.  Here we see Bradley Cooper’s best performance yet (proving he can do something other than the slick Fonzie type character), and another juggernaut from Jennifer Lawrence, in her third and most special performance of the year.  The scroll of awards she’s collected since 2010 is enough to humble anyone in her age bracket and trade.  Robert De Niro, as the struggling old father, has the Christopher Plummer effect in this movie (maybe because his relationship with Cooper’s Pat is close to home) – when he gets teary, so do I.  Jacki Weaver’s and Shea Whigham’s characters are used well, and there’s even an appearance from Chris Tucker, who pops up now and again as Danny, Pat’s hospital-mate and the film’s resident comic relief.

Roger Ebert said of this movie, “[it’s] so good, it could almost be a terrific old classic.”  When the AFI does its “200 Years” list, I have every confidence that it will be considered one.  Let’s just remember to thank John Milton for the title.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012); written and directed by David O. Russell; adapted from the novel by Matthew Quick; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, and Jacki Weaver. 

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Time and tide wait for no man…or woman

Emily Blunt and Amr WakedSheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked) tells us, about two-thirds of the way through Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, “I wanted them to understand that this wasn’t about fishing.”  In writing, this is what I might call a “thematic passage” – the character is speaking in context, but also telling the audience how to read the story.  Indeed, Lasse Hallström’s film, based upon a new-ish novel by Paul Torday, is anything but a movie about fishing.  It is primarily about patience, but also about love and different kinds of faith (the most interesting kinds being non-religious).

The story begins with financial adviser Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) typing an email to widely respected fisheries expert Alfred “Fred” Jones (Ewan McGregor), seeking advice for a project that will involve bringing (you guessed it) salmon fishing to the Yemen.  These scenes feature a charming technique: the typed words pop into the air alongside the face of the character typing them, allowing for intimate closeups of the character in place of a still shot of their email inbox.  Fred considers the project ridiculous and impossible (his exact words in the email are “fundamentally unfeasible”), even after being bullied and blackmailed by his boss, Bernard (Conleth Hill, whose fans are probably not used to seeing him with a full head of hair) into supporting it.  This leads to an immediate conflict between Harriet and Fred, and the wordplay between them (Fred being overly formal and unfeeling to the point that Harriet accuses him of having Asperger’s, and Harriet keeping the tone light while simultaneously housing a superior knowledge of the Yemen region that she only wields when Fred thinks he has the upper hand) is adeptly written and delightful to watch.  Meanwhile, Patricia Maxwell (Kristen Scott Thomas), the British Prime Minister’s hot-tempered and impulsive press secretary, comes upon the salmon fishing project while trying to find a puff piece that will keep Anglo-Arab relations supposedly friendly in the eye of the public, even after a recent mosque bombing in Afghanistan.  However convenient this might be to the story, it ties together in more than one way: Harriet’s new boyfriend, Robert (Tom Mison), is posted to Afghanistan on military assignment, and after the Meet Cute we recently witnessed between Harriet and Fred, we must suspect that Robert will not be coming back.  Additionally, Fred’s apparent issues with his wife, Mary (Rachael Stirling) are showcased, which also bodes well for a potential relationship between the two main parties.

The problems between the two couples, however, are handled better than they would be in a garden-variety romcom.  Take, for instance, the fact that neither Robert nor Mary fit the Spiteful Sleaze archetype.  Both are good, sympathetic people who deserve to be happy; they just can’t seem to work things out with their partners.

Fred, as he must, comes around to the potential of the project after visiting the sheikh’s estate, fishing with him, and learning that the well-water in the area is cold enough to support salmon.  The trick now is obtaining salmon that will “run” (swim upstream), but since the British media has run a smear campaign on everyone involved due to the inevitable failure of another of Bernard’s blackmail attempts, the only option is to use farm-raised salmon who have never run in their lives, and have faith in the fact that swimming upstream is their natural instinct.  Despite the sheikh’s earlier polemic concerning Fred’s lack of faith, the former is risking his reputation and life (including enduring assassination attempts) in order to see this project realized, and does not approve.

What follows is a story about trust.  The characters must trust each other to survive, to attain love (not just any love, but the kind they all feel they deserve), and to see their hard work pay off.  The audience must trust the filmmakers (and original author) to convince us of the unlikely, the impossible, and even the absurd.  McGregor and Blunt play their characters with complete commitment and seriousness, which has led to a Golden Globe nomination for each of them this year.  Thomas’s Patricia is hilarious, well-used, and has a few greatly inspired scenes featuring Instant-Message sessions with the Prime Minister, who only ever appears as a still image and delivers some delicious political humor; as well as a scene with her family, which not only fully deepens her character’s personality as an alpha female and overzealous worker, but is such a gem of comedy that a viewer like me wishes for some deleted scenes (in the scene, Patricia tells her son, who refuses to put his cool-looking hood down and act like an adult, “Don’t you suck your teeth at me, young man.  I’m not one of your bitches from the Baltimorlow Rises, you feel me?  I’m your fucking mother”).    Waked, an Egyptian actor known mostly for playing villains, creates a handsome, excitable, and absorbing shiekh, snatching a victory from what could have been a stereotype.  His inherent mysticism, which would be grating in real life (he occasionally says things like “You will know when the time comes”) is key to understanding the film’s depth: suspend your disbelief, he seems to say, and the ensuing magic will not seem so ridiculous.

The film, in the public eye, seems to follow that old Shakespearean-age rule that any story with a happy ending is considered a “comedy,” regardless of content.  Despite my protests about this film being pure comedy, I’ll concede if the Globe nominations accrue more viewers for one of 2012’s most genuinely heartfelt, and, I must say, “nice,” films.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2012); screenplay by Simon Beaufoy; based upon the novel by Paul Torday; directed by Lasse Hallström; starring Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor, Amr Waked, and Kristen Scott Thomas.

 

Les Misérables

Mix it in a mincer and pretend it’s beef

Jackman/HathawayHowever wonderful and entrancing Tom Hooper’s rendition of Les Misérables may be, let us remember that its source material is a 1980 musical that is itself a somewhat fast/loose adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel.  In that sense, it remains remarkably true to the spirit of the original work (and most of the events and character relationships) for a third-hand script 150 years later.  For those not familiar with the musical based upon the novel, Les Misérables (loosely translated as The Wretched, The Victims, or The Poor Ones) is a sung-through musical in multiple acts, which in a way is similar to Hugo’s novel, which is split into five titled sections.

The five sections, mostly titled after characters’ names, may have helped the average filmgoer figure out who’s important in the movie if included.  For instance, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is the central figure who connects every character in the story, despite the fact that the character has less physical presence and longevity than most of the core cast.  Who would be able to guess her importance right off the bat?  Well, a reader would, seeing as Hugo titled the first section of the novel “Fantine.”  The pacing of the film, though, is expertly handled.  No time is wasted getting from event to event, even when several years pass, and as with a stage show, we are left to imagine what transpired in between.  Since the songs last longer than a simple conversation covering the same material, rendering the film 158 minutes, these quick transitions are especially appreciated, and do not subvert the idea that what happens later is earned.

The story begins in 1815 with Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict who earns parole after a nineteen year sentence.  However, the prison guard, Javert (Russell Crowe), tells him he’ll never be free as long as Javert is watching him.  Eventually, the starving Valjean is taken in by the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson), but steals his silver and retreats in the night.  When Javert’s men capture him, the Bishop, in an incredible act of kindness and forgiveness, claims that the silver was a gift to Valjean, and that Valjean in fact forgot the most expensive pieces, and gives him two beautiful candlesticks, along with the warning that he had better use this gift to make himself an honest man.  Amazed by this generosity, Valjean breaks parole and assumes a new identity, and eight years later, he becomes a factory owner and Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer.  Fantine, who works in the factory, is dismissed by an abusive foreman after he discovers that she’s been sending money to her illegitimate daughter and needs a raise.  Valjean, present in the room, ignores this because he spots Javert, now a police inspector, and worries that his old nemesis may be there to apprehend him.  Javert suspects, and his suspicions are confirmed when Valjean reveals his identity in order to save a man who has been wrongfully accused.  Before narrowly escaping the wrath of the obsessed Javert, who has been hunting him for almost a decade, Valjean brings Fantine (who has been forced into prostitution) to the hospital, asks her forgiveness, and promises to raise her daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen, and later Amanda Seyfried).  He buys Cosette from the perfidious Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), greedy innkeepers who have worked the little girl to the bone and treated her like an animal.  Nine years pass, Cosette grows up, and the Parisan June Rebellion of 1832 is about to begin, led by Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne), the latter of whom falls in love with Cosette after passing her on the street, and she reciprocates.  Valjean, effectively Cosette’s father, feared this day, and now finds himself not only still in hiding from Javert, but involved in the revolution because of Cosette.

The beauty of Les Misérables, perhaps, is the fact that even after 150 years, I cannot say “You can guess where the story goes from there,” as I do about so many popcorn flicks made from unreadable modern scripts.  This is in part due to the fact that Hooper and company leave most of the story threads intact and do not attempt to water any of the action down for the ADD Generation – granted, these are threads that the stage musical also kept intact, and Hooper’s film only leaves out two of the original songs, while adding a brand new one (“Suddenly,” sung by Hugh Jackman).  Not since Aronofsky’s The Fountain has Jackman truly shown us that he can do something besides playing Wolverine, and if he wasn’t already slated to play Wolverine once again later this year,  I’d say that this is the role that will break him out of actiony brain-garbage for good.  Russell Crowe is convincingly narcissistic and troubled as Javert, though his singing chops are dubious at best, and his voice seems to mysteriously improve as the film goes on.  Redmayne, known to me only from last year’s My Week With Marilyn, may have a breakout role here, bringing an intimate sort of sympathy to Marius, the closest thing to a Boring Hero you’ll see in Les Misérables.  Samantha Barks, who has played Éponine in the stage show, reprises the role here, and successfully fuses the character of the novel with that of the musical.  Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter are perfect as the story’s most unscrupulous players, and while the innkeepers were not used for comic effect in Hugo’s novel, the musical version makes them seem like they were written for these two actors, especially Baron Cohen, who gets through “Master of the House” without channeling any of his “Ali G Show” characters even once.  The showstopper, however, is Anne Hathaway, who plays one of the younger Fantines we’ve seen, and sings the famous “I Dreamed a Dream” in a single 4-minute shot.  This move by the filmmakers is brave, risky, and a roaring success.

The film adeptly retains the deeper facets of Hugo’s characters, particularly Valjean and Javert, who seem polar opposites (Valjean the embodiment of kindness and redemption, and Javert a human manifestation of vengeance and obsession), but neither of whom are completely black-and-white.  Javert remains a misguided antagonist who cannot separate morality and lawfulness, which leads to his famous conundrum in the end.  The film’s only missteps, maybe, are the extended battle scenes, which are fatiguing and sometimes make the film feel as though everything was leading up to a big gunfight, and the sheer, for lack of a better term, “Britishness” of the whole production, which obviously cannot be avoided.  It’s just disconcerting to hear Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) speaking cockney on the streets of Paris.  Make no mistake: the positives outweigh everything else, but if I were to watch it again, I’d probably fast-forward the fighting.

Is Les Mis one of the best films of the year?  Probably, though I’m not yet sure how to compare it to other films.  But wait – that isn’t my job; it’s the job of the people at the Academy, who haven’t gotten it right since before the damn musical was written.

Les Misérables (2012); written by Alain Boubil; based upon the novel by Victor Hugo; directed by Tom Hooper; starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, and Amanda Seyfried. 

Lincoln

Time passed, as happens

LincolnI’ve never cared much for political biopics, glorification of History’s Great White Guys, or the films of Steven Spielberg, but perhaps that’s why Lincoln did something for me – its subversion of all three forms.  Yes, it’s a film specifically designed to win Academy Awards, but the presence of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln dilutes the Hollywood Design to the point that the film becomes less like a film and more like sitting in various rooms with the President during the last few months of his presidency.

The film’s title may be a bit of a misnomer, but its chief intention (Oscars for Spielberg) requires it to be the “definitive” Lincoln film, especially since two other Lincoln-themed movies (Redford’s The Conspirator and the campy Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) have been released in the past two years.  You may expect a story so definitively named to cover the title character’s entire life, or at least his up-and-coming years when he was wrestling for the presidency, but no; here, we see Lincoln in his final months of life, struggling to pass the 13th Amendment (the abolition of slavery) whilst being driven to the edge by his home life.  Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) supports her husband’s politics, despite their marital problems, which include the death of their middle son and the fact that Lincoln once threatened to have her put in the “madhouse.”  Additionally, Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is determined to join the army, which Mary staunchly opposes and which Lincoln, regardless of his status as Commander-in-Chief, cannot do a damn thing about.

The timeworn trials of the Lincoln family take a backseat to the political action and sometimes feel wedged between the complex narrative involving the Amendment.  It is worth noting, however, that even though we know slavery will be abolished, Lee will surrender to Grant (Jared Harris, who hardly needs makeup to look like the general), and the Amendment will pass, the story still feels urgent and exciting.  Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is depicted as the Louisiana farmboy he was, not the baritone man’s man archetype we sometimes like to glorify him as.  He actually had a high-pitched voice (the only way he’d be heard in the back row of the giant crowds to which he gave speeches).  He was sympathetic, self-deprecating, and bizarre.  He loved to tell stories and tie old parables into what was happening in the White House.  Day-Lewis, famous method actor, completely becomes Lincoln in this picture, and even gets his obligatory Day-Lewis-Closeup-Yelling scene, but even then, you’ll only see the president here, not an actor.  Lincoln’s famous bowler hat is of course included, but is never played for laughs or even for much attention; it may as well be an extension of the man himself.  Long shots provide Day-Lewis and the rest of the cast with incredible opportunities to paint carefully-crafted pictures of their historical characters.

The film’s primary standout feature, aside from Day-Lewis’s performance, is the sight of the House of Representatives floor, whereupon abolitionist and Radical Republican Congressional Leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) pushes for the passing of the Amendment while trying not to appear as a race-equality extremist.  He butts heads with slimeball Democratic Congressman Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), in fiery exchanges that I can only hope have been transcribed verbatim.  The sheer animalistic nature of the countless dozens of white men on the floor looks like something out of a parody, but we sometimes forget that this is the way it once was.  The scenes of these congressmen shouting, chanting, climbing over each other, and clawing faces, forms a perfect parallel with the opening scene of the movie – a brief glimpse at a battle from the Civil War, in which hundreds of soldiers melee to the death in a pit of mud – showcasing how absurd war really is.  Lincoln knows it, as does Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), who treats Lincoln like a misbehaving child when the latter skirts histrionics or does something behind Seward’s back (such as bringing Confederate representatives to the North in order to talk peace, essentially holding the end of the war hostage until the Amendment is passed).

Lincoln features possibly the largest cast of white guys ever assembled.  So many famous and accomplished actors appear, in fact, that it becomes almost a joke after awhile, as they continue to appear one by one.  Noted comedian James Spader appears as William Bilbo, a lobbyist who has some amusing scenes as he tries to convince Democrats to vote for the 13th Amendment; Michael Stuhlbarg, known for starring in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire as notorious gambler Arnold Rothstein, plays George Yeaman, Kentucky’s reprsentative, and puts on an interesting southern twang; David Costabile of Flight of the Conchords plays James Ashley, and very convincingly; Tim Blake Nelson has the part of Richard Schell, who leads Lincoln’s, shall we say, “street team” along with Bilbo; Walton Goggins, who appeared in Tarantino’s Django Unchained as a character with a much different view on slavery, appears as Wells Hutchins, one of the 16 democrats to break with their party in favor of the Amendment; Hal Holbrook, who played Lincoln in 1976, plays Francis Preston Blair, the politician who arranges a peace talk with the Confederacy; and refreshingly, Gloria Reuben appears as Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave and Mary Todd’s confidante, who receives plenty of screen time and a very important scene with the president near the end.

If the film has one pitfall, it’s where Spielberg chooses to end it.  A lovely scene on the night of Lincoln’s death features the president leaving his cabinet behind in order to hurriedly meet with Mary for the opera.  “I guess it’s time to go,” he says, “though I would rather stay” – purportedly Lincoln’s real-life final words to his cabinet that evening; whether or not he prophesied his own fate is up to you.  He then hands his gloves, which he refuses to wear, to his black butler, a free man, who watches Lincoln traverse the hallway until he becomes a silhouette of that tall, bearded, bowler-hatted American icon we all know.  In shadow, he then descends the stairs, leaving this life behind, the gloves perhaps a metaphor for Lincoln passing the baton to the people he has helped free.  This is where the film should end.  Instead, there is maybe another two minutes of reel, in which Lincoln’s shooting is announced to opera-goers, a doctor pronounces him dead as his family grieves, and then a flashback of his second inaugural address is shown before the credits roll.  Is this pure indulgence, a stab at absolute completion, or does Spielberg believe that modern viewers don’t know what happened to Lincoln that night?

Lincoln reminds me of something my dad said the other day, regarding HBO’s John Adams miniseries: “I learned so much more watching that than I did in school.”  Do biopics like these take liberties with history and dramatize people and events?  Yes, of course.  Historical fiction exists to observe and interpret history, not to provide a substitute for facts.  Is there something real, though, that can be learned from a film like Lincoln, whether about the man or the time period?  Maybe.  Regardless, let’s hope we can continue to remember without relying upon the entertainment industry, or else our grandchildren are in trouble.

Lincoln (2012); written by Tony Kushner; directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, and Tommy Lee Jones.

Django Unchained

The D is silent, hillbilly

Foxx and WaltzDjango Unchained is what I’d consider Quentin Tarantino’s 10th movie (do the math yourself).  This is the “southern” Quentin talked about in 2007, and it’s worlds better, in many ways, than 2009’s Inglourious Basterds – to date, the only Tarantino film I haven’t watched more than once.  My main issue, maybe, besides the “How many times can we kill Hitler on film?” conundrum, was the fact that Melanie Laurent’s and Diane Kruger’s characters were pointlessly killed off after providing a strong female presence, and their Surprise Demises left a sour taste in my mouth at the end of the film.  Quentin has a history of creating genuinely strong and sympathetic female characters – take Kill Bill’s Bride or Jackie Brown‘s Jackie Brown – Bridget and especially Shoshanna were no exception, but their treatment in their film’s third act turned me off.  Here, in Django Unchained, the women don’t do much of anything – Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the only female member of the core cast, is basically a walking MacGuffin who waits around to be rescued.  At least she isn’t strangled by Christoph Waltz, though.

The story begins in the 1850s during the height of the American Old West.  Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a former dentist and German bounty hunter, rescues Django (Jamie Foxx) from a couple of slavers on the road.  Schultz, a non-racist non-bigot in a world where the “N word” is essentially used as the technical term for African-American people, hopes that Django will help him identify a group of outlaws called the Brittle Brothers, as Django once worked on a plantation overseen by them.  In return, Schultz will give Django his freedom and 225 dollars.  Django turns out to be a natural shot with all types of guns, and after slaughtering the Brittles on a plantation owned by the foppish Big Daddy Bennett (Don Johnson, being a good sport as usual), Django enters into an arrangement with Schultz: the two will become bounty hunting partners through the winter, and once the snow melts, they will team up to rescue Django’s wife, Broomhilda, from Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio), an unfeeling Francophile who forces slaves into death matches and prostitution on his plantation (hilariously known as Candieland).

The film’s first act follows Schultz and Django as they travel from plantation to plantation, gathering bounties and battling many of the film’s amazing cast of characters, most of whom carry names only Quentin Tarantino could/would come up with (there are so many good ones in Django, in fact, that a character named Crazy Craig Koonz isn’t even shown).  In this first act, Waltz is the dominant actor, and it’s hard not to see Schultz as the main protagonist.  His charisma and eloquence are a force all their own.  Django essentially plays Schultz’s sidekick until the second act, when finally, it is he who must come up with the plans, who must allow horrible things to happen in order to reach his goal, who must stomach the unstomachable.  Up until this point, the film doesn’t feature most of what aficionados might consider “vintage Tarantino”: the long shots, infinite conversations, and invented language give way to more traditional cinematics, but consider the fact that Quentin is working in an established genre this time: the Western.  Once Candie appears, however, the film’s central scene is constructed: a dinner in Candie’s manor, during which Schultz and Django will attempt to trick Candie into selling Broomhilda to them after pretending to be interested in Candie’s “Mandingo fighting” enterprise.  Also at dinner are Leonide Moguy (Dennis Christopher), Candie’s sycophantic lawyer, Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly (Laura Cayouette), Candie’s widowed sister, Butch Pooch (James Remar), Candie’s head enforcer, and most importantly, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s head house slave, a race-traitor who immediately suspects Django and Schultz of foul play and eventually reveals their deception to Candie.  The scene harbors as much suspense and potential combustion as anything Quentin has filmed.  Jamie Foxx’s performance resembles the glass lid on a pot of water about to boil.  We know that if he ever goes through with lifting his gun out of its holster, this whole thing is over.

The third act is not what most will expect, mostly because a third act isn’t totally necessary.  It does not contain Dicaprio or Waltz, and introduces new characters in the form of Australian slave drivers played by Michael Parks and Quentin Tarantino (yep).  Additionally, Billy Crash (Walton Goggins), Candie’s right-hand man, arrives front and center after being a background character for most of the story, which seems a bit “off” only because the role was originally meant for Kevin Costner, who dropped out due to scheduling conflicts (i.e. the absence of Dicaprio wouldn’t have formed quite so large an empty hole if someone equally/more famous took the lead villain role, though Goggins is great).  This brings us, eventually, to a second “final shootout” at Candieland, which leaves only two characters standing and ends the film with the flair we expect from something so charmingly self-conscious.

As usual, Quentin uses his characters well, and knows the genres in which he works better than anyone.  The film isn’t as indulgent as it could be, though the uber-violence (exaggerated blood and extended gunfights) will turn some away.  The pairing of Waltz and Foxx is inspired, fun, and tense, and the against-type casting of Dicaprio and Jackson as villainous characters brings forth performances so strong that you’ll never once consciously think you’re watching Leo and Sam.  Don Johnson’s character gets an extended scene in which he forms a posse (which includes Jonah Hill) to hunt down Django and Schultz, and he never quite gets his plan out because everyone complains about the makeshift masks they must wear (“I can’t see fuckin’ shit in this,” says Johnson in a gut-busting southern accent).  The scene humorously foresees the creation of the Ku Klux Klan.  Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, Tom Savini, and Zoë Bell pop up here and there, and there’s even an appearance by Franco Nero, who played the title character of 1966’s Django, a violent and ill-tempered western with over 100 unofficial sequels.

Finally, there is the topic of slavery.  Quentin claimed awhile back that he wanted to do “big issue” films in the form of spaghetti westerns and other genre films, and he wanted to do them because everyone else was afraid to.  As much as this may seem like he’s “spoofing” slavery or other serious tragedies from our country’s history, this isn’t the comical revisionist Hitler-death we saw in 2009.  Ethically, this film takes its subject matter very seriously, and the scenes of slave abuse are never exploitative nor meant for ironic humor.  Quentin handles the material responsibly, and certainly does not glorify or rewrite the struggles of laborers any more than last year’s The Help did.  It’s gutsy, transgressive, and not only about slavery, but about the way slavery is portrayed in the movies.

Django Unchained (2012); written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, and Leonardo Dicaprio.

Anna Karenina

Divorce is one thing – dinner is quite another

KeiraKnightleyAnnaKarenina2

Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright’s film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is what I would call different.  It’s different enough to provide a fresh, exhilarating film experience, but it only works one-hundred percent if you’re not much of a reader.

The story, set in 19th century tsarist Russia, follows Anna (Keira Knightley in yet another period piece) as she explores the question of her own happiness, a question whose answer seems to ever evade her grasp.  Her husband, Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), is practical, steadfastly religious, soft-spoken, and highly respected in society.  They have a son together and seem to get on just fine, until Anna lays eyes on Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and begins an affair with him during a trip to Moscow.  Karenin is relatively unmoved, as such concepts as “love” and “happiness” don’t hold much stock in his world, but he soon discovers that Anna is pregnant with Vronsky’s child, which is not only (according to Karenin) a “crime against God,” but also a threat to the family’s social and political standing.  The irony here is that the story begins with her coming to terms with her brother’s (Matthew Macfayden) womanizing, which threatens to break up the family.  Her own adultery is met with far less tolerance, and even when Vronsky brings her to St. Petersburg, the couple are unable to make friends, and as Vronsky develops his own social life, Anna becomes paranoid and possessive.

The parallel story involves Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a country landowner who loves Kitty (Alicia Vikander), sister to Anna’s sister-in-law, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald).  In the original story, his part is much larger, and his marriage to Kitty is anything but easy, whereas the film focuses more on Levin’s difficulty in courting Kitty – sure, this is important, but a novel of this size can’t be compressed, with all of its ins, outs, what-have-yous, character developments, emotions, and structures, into two hours. Additionally, some of the most important parts of the book involve epiphanies on the part of several characters, most of all Levin, who eventually decides, after doubting Kitty’s love for him and fearing a difficult relationship with his son, that he must live righteously in order to justify living at all.  Vronsky, amazed and embarrassed at Karenin’s strength of mind and heart when the latter forgives him for stealing his wife, unsuccessfully attempts suicide.  These pivotal scenes are omitted from the film.

In fact, the film does a bang-up job of sweeping any and all deep characterization under the proverbial rug.  Anna is depressive and indecisive, Karenin is righteous, Levin tries hard, Vronksy is foppish and irritable, Oblonksy is a funnyman, Dolly is understanding.  We never get much deeper than these traits, and the narrative focuses more on Anna’s manic dithering than any real growth on the part of the cast.

Where the film succeeds is its visual style: much of the story, particularly in the beginning, takes place on an enormous stage.  Single shots encompass multiple scenes, with the actors walking behind curtains and changing costumes in seconds.  Sometimes, they’re dressed by stage-hands right in front of us.  Many of the film’s discoveries take place in the theatre’s rafters, where the characters creep, ponder, and of course, in the end, leap.  This style is at the expense of never being unaware that you’re watching a scripted production, but for this piece, it inexplicably works.  The performances are mostly golden, with Jude Law radiating a reserved intelligence, Gleeson possibly finding a breakthrough as a hero, Macfayden managing to provide comedy within a tragedy, and Kelly Macdonald looking as though she’s about to cry in nearly every scene.  The only one I’m on the fence about is Keira Knightley.  Can she act?  Of course.  Was she cast in this film because she’s the best possible candidate to play Anna, or because her popularity following the Pirates of the Caribbean movies was the only ticket to getting a nationwide release?  I don’t know.  I would have been way more “with” Anna in the film version if Kelly Macdonald had taken up that role instead of Dolly, who is relegated mostly to the background.

I’m more concerned with the decision to leave out character details and depth, rendering many of the characters straw figures in fabulous clothing.  I cannot help but think this was a studio thing, or a knowing flourish on the part of the director – as classic and canonized as Tolstoy’s work may be (hell, I just had a student present on the author and this novel last week), as much as everyone should be looking at this material as an example of good art, there’s a dwindling interest (and we’re talking about the general public here, not writers and readers and thinkers) in anything that doesn’t involve fast cars, laconic dialogue, mushroom clouds, and traded gunfire.  Why does the work of Tolkien, work that’s been adapted to death, get a three-movie deal for a 317-page novel?  Anna Karenina, 864 pages, gets crammed into 2 hours of reel, and someone’s going to complain that it feels incomplete?  I’m sure Stoppard, who wrote and adapted his own play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, to film, had every intention of doing a faithful adaptation here.  But when it came down to it, there had to be a sacrifice.  Throwing character development in front of the train is an insane decision, but as we all know, there ain’t no sanity clause.

Anna Karenina (2012); written by Tom Stoppard; adapted from the novel by Leo Tolstoy; directed by Joe Wright; starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Kelly Macdonald, Domhnall Gleeson, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.