Nobody disputes Steven Spielberg's place as a great American filmmaker. While the relative merits of his filmography can be argued (re: The Terminal or Hook) as can be his limitations with farcical comedy (re: 1941 or Catch Me If You Can), his overall body of work is, inarguably, comprised of a shitload of films that deserve to be shot into space so that alien civilizations might learn of humankind and see what great movies look like.
I could list off my favorites (it's a crime that Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jaws isn't Top 5 AFI material) or wax nostalgic about his role in my cinematic life, which did completely influence my base notions of what a good film is, long before I could consider his influences.
But at this point in Spielberg's career, and my love of it, even those who would dismiss his penchant for sentimentality or his Barnum-like showmanship (Jurassic Park) will still study him in film school for decades, along with his influences, be they Preston Sturges -- where the sentimentality comes from -- or John Ford and David Lean -- where the epic scope comes from. One can see Billy Wilder in his attempts at comedy and the touch of Kurosawa in his best narrative depths, and -- early on -- the wonderful character realism of Truffaut, that spearhead of the French New Wave.
But even when all of his talents misfire (Jurassic Park 2 is easily the worst thing he's ever made), Spielberg proves to be an evolving director that never seems incapable of tightening his grip on the raw talents that make him a modern American, populist master.
With Lincoln, his labor of love, Spielberg takes the past and its forgone conclusions about our second most influential president and makes them gorgeously immediate.
Based in part on Doris Kerns Goodwin's tome, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America) adapts the last four months of Lincoln's life as he begins the full court press to get the 13th Amendment ratified -- which would abolish that bullshit idea of owing people -- even as Lincoln courted reconciliation with the traitorous South, who were still fighting their fourth, bloody year of the Civil War in defense of slavery.
Which really isn't the least of "Honest" Abe's worries; instead having to navigate the tumultuous waters of Congress -- a cantankerous, Victorian bunch divided between Republicans and Democrats, the latter of which wants nothing to do with emancipation as long as it ends the war. The Republicans, led by Lincoln, largely believe slavery is immoral and are lockstep in the desire to pass the Amendment -- pretty much the last thoughtful thing Republicans ever did for black people.
The Best Policy. Daniel-Day Lewis’ portrayal of Honest Abe’s attempt to free the slaves may be his best yet in Lincoln.
But since all amendments need a 2/3rds vote to be ratified, at least twenty Democrats have to come on board for this tenet that Lincoln is determined become law before he takes his second oath of office.
Much of Lincoln involves the greasing of wheels, the interlocking mechanisms of vastly disparate politicians, families and people, and how Lincoln pulled off a pachinko-like game of influence to win them over, mirroring the grace, technical mastery, and sense of humor with which Spielberg crafts this, one of his best films.
While the obvious credit goes to Daniel Day-Lewis (I think he married himself) for once again sinking so deep into character that he probably let someone shoot him in the head -- the periphery of Lincoln bursts with great performances from a veritable ark of great character actors, both new and old.
It shows. Be it Tommy Lee Jones's scenery-chewing and perfect turn as Thaddeus Stevens; Joseph Gordon Levitt as Lincoln's eldest, earnest son Robert; Hal Holbrook's (so glad you're not dead yet) turn as the influential Preston Blair; Sally Field's beleaguered Mary Todd Lincoln or the trio of delightful supporting roles by John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and James Spader as the "fixers" who twist Democratic arms; Lincoln's cast is rarely short of perfection. Spader, in particular, and oddly, as W.N. Bilbo, has a career-defining performance that realigned my perceptions of James Spader. He usually plays assholes.
Making what seems like acknowledged, mundane, backroom machinations compelling, The 'Berg adapts Tony Kushner's miraculously light-hearted script into an entertaining and expertly told cinematic stage play -- catalyzed by Daniel Day-Lewis's transparent, funny, and immersive performance. Never once does it feel like an imitation, though the amazing thing about Lincoln is how many greats we see, all of them swinging for the fences.
I hate message movies, but if you are going to make one at least grab my attention with something uncompromising. Larry Clark had that down with Kids. If you can make someone feel like a pedophile for being interested in your characters, you're pushing buttons. Sure, it's ultimately an explicit, anti-AIDS PSA -- that made you feel a little dirty because Larry Clark likes teenaged sex a bit much -- but at least it left an impression beyond its rote message.
A good corollary for Smashed, the new film from writer/director James Ponsoldt, might be Leaving Las Vegas. If you're going to do a movie about an alcoholic hitting rock bottom, ground it in more deeply written characters. It's not that Mary Elizabeth Winstead's Kate is suicidal, or even that she's shallowly written. It's just that the clear message of all of the film's characters is so predictable -- to teatotalling precision.
Kate (Winstead) is a young elementary school teacher who drinks like a hero. Married to her trust fund baby and equally shit-faced husband, Charlie (Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul), the couple's relationship is primarily based on having a good time and then drunkenly screwing before they both pass out, which might be how they wound up getting married in the first place.
When Kate blows chunks in front of her second-grade English class, she's forced to make up a story about being pregnant as a cover from her students and her principal (Megan Mullally) -- a cover blown by her nerdy collogue, Dave Davies (Nick Offerman, easily owning this flick), a 12-stepper who has more than one motive to get Kate into AA.
After drunkenly offering a crackhead a ride downtown and hitting some rock (bottom?), Kate decides she has to turn her life around. Will her marriage to her unrepentant and spoiled party-hound survive her need to overcome her newly discovered problem?
The Hunted Becomes the Hunter. Bella Cullen (Kristen Stewart) is on the prowl with husband Edward (Robert Pattinson) in the final installment, Breaking Dawn:Part 2.
She's married to Jesse Pinkman, so guess accordingly.
What's frustrating about Smashed is how often it seems so on-point and predictable for whole scenes and then pays off with something surprising. That has more to do with the strength of the performances than the writing itself.
The subject is always alcoholism, the characters discussing it and living it in either mundane or unlikely ways, the banal effect of which is offset by a few emotionally driving moments, as when Winstead and Paul recognize the coming rift between them, or when they visit her estranged, boozy mom (Mary Kay Place) and she lays her head on Kate's shoulder -- a simple thing that effortlessly drives home some major emotional regret.
When Ken Offerman's Dave hilariously confesses his attraction to Kate by saying something that will never get him laid by any woman ever -- unless they were both drunk -- it creates a moment where the actors elevate the narrative and almost make Smashed seem good.
Tonally, Smashed is trite, though the weaknesses of its formulaic narrative are bolstered by the performances. Imbued with a decent pace -- it can't be accused of dragging at 85 minutes -- Smashed is nothing if economical.
When the film works, the acting by Winstead, Paul, Offerman and Octavia Spencer -- as Jenny, Kate's wise, Mother Abigail-esque sponsor -- creates moments that hint at director Ponsoldt's skill at getting good performances off of a script that he probably should have let someone else write.
Breaking Dawn: Pt. 2
Until now, I've seen every Twilight movie.
But I didn't wind up seeing the triumphant finale. I almost liked Twilight: Breaking Dawn Pt. 1 for how it finally played Stephanie Meyers' bloated, meandering, retrograde tale of Bella Swan and her inexplicable worth to Edward, Jacob and tweens everywhere (not to mention their creepy moms) for the absurdist joke it really is. Director Bill Condon finally figured out a way to make haters hate (a little) less.
My review of Eclipse -- two years ago -- was over 1200 words and nothing about the Twilight films has really changed since. The shitty novels they are based on and their vapid fan base still make me want to join Team Go Fuck Yourself.
And, being critic-proof, Breaking Dawn Pt. 2 will be the highest grossing film of the franchise because it is, so thankfully, the last.
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