Monday, November 19, 2012


When you have one of the most accomplished directors in cinema history directing arguably the greatest actor of our generation who is portraying the United States’ greatest President, you expect great things.  You can also expect an abundance of hardware over the next three months as well.

Lincoln doesn’t disappoint.  Daniel Day-Lewis is the greatest of character actors; he completely immerses himself in his roles.  This one is no different.  As an amateur historian, I have done more than my fair share of study on our sixteenth president and Day-Lewis is as an accurate portrayal as any I’ve seen, and there have been many good ones.  The mannerisms such as his gangly, slightly hunched, lurching gait to his slow, and back-woodsy story telling, in his high pitched voice, are believable in every sense.  This IS Abraham Lincoln.  Day-Lewis is entrancing in the role, so much so that as the modern day viewer, you get to be the proverbial fly on the wall.

Another great performance in Lincoln is Tommy Lee Jones as radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens.  For me, Jones has a career littered with as many poor, disinterested performances as great ones.  He was at his best in this film.  Stevens was a fierce abolitionist who had a reputation for supporting minorities and the downtrodden his whole career.  Historically, he is blamed for the strict Reconstruction enforced upon the South after the war.  The film briefly touches on the difference of opinion about Reconstruction between Stevens and Lincoln, who favored a much gentler, forgiving stance than did Stevens and the radicals.  Lincoln’s death took away Stevens’ biggest obstacle in his wish to punish the South.  John Wilkes Booth did as big a disservice to the South as any man in the Post-Civil War era.  Lincoln would have promoted a forgiving Reconstruction and instead, Stevens got his way and the rest is, well, history, and led to a century of hatred and misundersting between the two geographical factions.

A few more names need to be mentioned for their performances in this picture.  James Spader was delightful as W.N. Bilbo, who was what we might categorize as an early lobbyist of sorts.  Sally Field as the mentally unstable Mary Todd Lincoln and Lee Pace as Representative Fernando Wood also stood to me.

Historically, Lincoln was very accurate.  Spielberg encompassed as much of the President’s story as he could within the restraints of only one month’s time of his presidency.  Lincoln suffered from melancholy, which today we know is depression.  This was a life long malady for the President, made worse by the stress of the job, casualty figures (from both sides), and the death of his son Willie, which is dealt with in the film.  The President also had to constantly deal with what we call today a high maintenance wife.  Mary Todd Lincoln, while probably not outright insane, was a constant burden during his presidency.  There were battles between the First Lady and Congress, which are subtly alluded to in the film, that didn’t help Lincoln at times when dealing with his political opponents.   Lincoln also suffered from nightmares and premonitions.  He was a darker man than is widely known by the general public.  He put up a good front with his light, upbeat, unpolished mannerisms.  Lincoln does a great job of giving us a true sense of his personality.

Ultimately, Abraham Lincoln was a grand manipulator and a political genius.  That is why he is considered our greatest president.  Every politician in Washington, from his enemies to his cabinet, all thought they were smarter than Lincoln.  The President was a patient man who was willing to slowly lead people to his way of seeing things.  In the case this movie focuses on, the passing of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the President does not have time to be patient.  Everyone knows the war is coming to an end and if the amendment isn’t passed before the war is over, it would never pass.  Honest Abe was willing to bribe and cajole opponents into voting his way.  There is a line in the film that was perfect.  To greatly paraphrase, it went something like this – never has such a just cause been won by such corruption by such an honest of a man.  You get the picture.  Lincoln did what he had to insure the passing of the most important legislation to our country’s history since the Bill of Rights.  If Lincoln had not pulled this rabbit out of his stove top hat, how long would it have been before it would have passed?  No one knows but it would have probably been decades because the southern states would not have ratified it if it passed after they returned to the Union.

My favorite scenes are the ones that take place on the floor of the House of Representatives during the month long congressional debate over the 13th Amendment.  It was a different time and the debates were much more entertaining back then.  The insults were not subtle and were made face to face, not through the media.  Congressional debates were loud, almost tavern brawling affairs (Senator Charles Sumner was beaten as his desk in the Senate Chamber by Preston Brooks for an insult during a debate).  The film does a great job giving us a flavor of the times through these accurately depicted scenes.

The movie wasn’t perfect.  The story did drag down when it was focused on Lincoln’s oldest son Robert, who wanted to join the army against his parents’ wishes.  While this was a real issue in Lincoln’s life, the film puttered along during these scenes.  Also, I wish Spielberg would have done a better job informing the audience of some of the historical, satellite characters.  If you don’t have a degree in History, there is a good chance you don’t know who Preston Blair was or his role in the government, yet he has a significant role in the film.  Lincoln’s cabinet, maybe the President’s biggest opponents in Washington, goes largely unidentified in the movie, even though they are in a couple of major scenes.  There are a couple of very minor inaccuracies in the film but they really have little to do with the momentous events which take place in the scope of the film and only the history dorks like myself will have noticed. 

I highly recommend this movie.  It is an incredibly important part of our nation’s history and there are lessons to be learned in the current political arena.  The film deals with the importance of bipartisan cooperation on points of great bearing.  Today’s politicians should take notes.  The movie is rated PG-13, mainly for a bit of swearing and two brief, yet gruesome battle related images.  Whether you love history, or well acted, well directed films, this is a must see and will certainly win its fair share of hardware in the coming months.  The film drew significant applause during the showing I attended at it was well deserved.

Get twitter updates for both of my blogs @jawsrecliner.  Thanks for reading.

Monday, November 12, 2012


In its amazing fifty year cinematic history, the James Bond franchise has followed a tried and true formula with incredible success.  Through 23 films (I count Never Say Never Again – a rogue production) and six Bonds, the suave and debonair 007 used gadgets, sexy Bond girls, and incredible action to find a favored spot in our movie going schedules.  Every film featured several signature actions scenes that were just too hard to believe but we just didn’t care.  Those unbelievable action sequences are part of the Bond legacy and we have come to expect them, and even look forward to them.

Skyfall deviates from that old formula.  Daniel Craig’s modern, 21st century 007 is more physical and brooding than his more suave and debonair predecessors.  Skyfall is more story than action and we receive more of Bond’s personal background than in maybe all of the other films combined.  Craig’s Bond isn’t as witty or outgoing as previous incarnations but there is more effort put forth in this film.  Craig’s Bond is more serious and less interested in looking dapper.  Daniel Craig’s Bond, after three movies, is a truly unique Bond and the franchise seems willing to go along.

The formula is truly broken in Skyfall.  There is a Bond girl – sort of.  The femme fatale, Severine, makes a brief, yet memorable appearance and I guess she get the title of Bond girl henceforth.  Yet, she was hardly a blip on the old radar.  Those signature action scenes were fewer and much more believable.  Except for just a couple of small things, they were realistic even.  In following with Craig’s previous Bond flicks, this builds upon the theme of a more personal story line and is central in Skyfall.  Historically, the 007 franchise has kept its distance from the personal.

Finally, the villain.  Silva, portrayed with creepy brilliance by Javier Bardem, is a traditional Bond villain in appearance and personality.  You know what I mean, just a little weird and eccentric.  It is the plot, though, that goes off the beaten Bond trail.  Silva doesn’t seek anything as mundane as world domination.  He isn’t working for any grand organization who wants to sell arms or state secrets.  He is not trying to control the world’s oil supply, or news, or anything so grand.  Silva wants but a single, simple thing – revenge.  Skyfall is a story of simple, festering vengeance. 

I am torn a little by the new direction the Bond franchise seems to be heading.  On one hand, the story and the acting are much better than is traditionally the case.  Bardem is terrifically flamboyant.  Dame Judi Dench gives a performance that is worthy of a Supporting Actress nomination.  Daniel Craig’s mentally and physically battered, imperfect Bond is a much deeper, realistic 007.  The characters and the plot have much more flesh and depth to them than any previous entries.  All in all, Skyfall teeters on the brink of being a real movie of substance.

On the other hand though, do we want Bond to take himself so seriously?  One of the great attributes of the 007 franchise was its escapism.  The breathtaking, impossible stunts and action scenes were a pure joy.  What would they come up with this time?  There was always anticipation for that fantasy aspect of each and every Bond film.  Do we really want to lose that?  Do we really need another dark, brooding, moody hero?  This is the conundrum I have with James Bond right now.  Skyfall is truly a good movie with more depth and feeling but is that what we truly want from our 007?

Lastly, for some of the reoccurring characters in the Bonds movies, this edition is clearly a transitional movie.  Without going into it too much and giving too much information away, this franchise is going to grow and move forward with several of its supporting characters.  I know Daniel Craig is going to do one, probably two more, Bond films, but I doubt it will be more than that.  There is clearly a plan to continue the series indefinitely.  I have always loved Bond, no matter what Bond incarnation (even those two Timothy Dalton disasters).  I will go see each and every one, whether they are action fantasies or serious movies with action.  Regardless, it is still 007 and that is enough for me.

Monday, November 5, 2012


There can be little argument Denzel Washington is one of the top three or four American actors of this generation.  Over the past twenty past years, he has worked prolifically as a leading man, starring in nearly fifty pictures.  He has had more than his share of clunkers (The Bone Collector, The Mighty Quinn, to name a couple) to go along with his great performances.  In some of the films, it is as if he knows the script is crap and he seems disconnected with the role.  When he is into the role, he is very, very good.  Such is the case in Flight.

I don’t know how his role as beleaguered hero, Whip Whitaker, will stack up with is other great performances in films like Glory, Training Day, and Man on Fire, but Flight should easily land in Denzel’s top ten performances.  Washington always seems to be at his best when the role is multiple dimensional, when there is a definite dark side to his character.  He isn’t a comedy actor and he isn’t an action star, although he can do both.  He is a dramatic character actor and he shines when his characters are edgier.  This the key to his best roles.

Whip Whitaker certainly qualifies.  It is a tough role because Denzel is in nearly every scene in the movie except for a few briefs scenes early in the film that set up anther character on a parallel timeline.  The film focuses almost completely on Whip Whitaker, the brilliant pilot and the weak, often unlikable person.  Whitaker is filled with demons and flaws and he is very good at hiding them in general.  He is filled with a self loathing that reveals itself in a couple of intense scenes where he is by himself.

In the theater, the audience was entranced by Washington’s performance.  We wanted Whitaker to do the right thing time and time again and he let us down time and time again.  Several people even applauded at one point in the movie because they thought he finally was going to conquer an evil demon.  The audience has a stake in Whitaker’s personal battle.  We wanted him to exorcize those demons, despite his sometimes loathsome actions.  In the end, it was the whole focal point of the film.  After disappointing himself, and his friends, his family, and the audience so many times, would he in the end have the strength to do the right thing?  That will be for you to find out for yourselves.

There were some nice supporting performances, especially the ever terrific Don Cheadle, but this was Denzel’s spotlight.  He made us care for Whip despite all of his issues.  Director veteran Robert Zemeckis proved he hasn’t lost his touch over seeing a live action film.  There were some fine directorial moments in this film, namely the plane scene, but there were a lot of subtle moments as well.  Zemeckis did a great job giving us quiet scenes with just Denzel that showed Whitaker’s inner battle playing out on his face and in his soul.  Zemeckis also knows when you work with an actor like Denzel Washington, just get out of his road and let him do is thing.  It was certainly a successful combination here.

I love dramatic character studies.  They may be my favorite type of movies.  Flight falls squarely into this category and I wasn’t disappointed.  The film was a little over two hours long but I was so entranced that it flew by.  I didn’t check my watch even once.  Denzel Washington was at his best and I will be shocked if he doesn’t earn another nomination for the gold statuette.  He is worthy but I have a funny feeling that it is going to be tough to beat out Daniel Day-Lewis.  Regardless, Denzel deserves whatever awards come his way.  Flight is rated R at it fully deserved that rating.  This film is not appropriate for younger audiences and I do not recommend it for pre- or young teens.  Don’t let that stop you from having a date night and going to see this great movie.

Check in with my sports blog, and follow on twitter @jawsrecliner