Thursday, November 29, 2012

Lincoln: Spielberg's Annual History Lesson

     It's extremely obvious to every serious movie-goer that Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the greatest living actor. His ability to fully enter a character's mannerisms and psyche (he even stays in character throughout the entire movie shoot when he's not on camera) with ease is awe-inspiring and always fun to watch. So when Day-Lewis was announced as the titular star in Steven Spielberg's historical and fair Lincoln, it came as no surprise: of course he was cast as Lincoln. Of course he will be totally indistinguishable from the 16th President of the United States. Of course--during awards season--he will sweep up plenty of Best Actor statuettes. It's all so obvious and predictable, and it's...true. Day-Lewis, shedding much of his normal ferocity and anger (like he displayed in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood), becomes Abraham Lincoln, high-pitched voice, tall stature, intelligence and all. And though the film seems like it could have played late at night on the History Channel with a no-name cast and crew, Day-Lewis's performance (and a couple others, namely Sally Field portraying Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd) solidifies this film as a must-see, even though the climax is obvious and the theater-esque direction (most of the film takes place only in a couple of different rooms) makes it--for me--a once watch.
     Other than the basics, before seeing Lincoln, I never knew that much about Lincoln. This is assuming that his portrayal is accurate, which is a statement that most historians tend to agree with. Tony Kushner's screenplay is full of little details that Day-Lewis brings to life with great respect: a plainspoken nature that the common folk could relate to, a love of telling stories that have a pertinent lesson or moral at the end, his own horror of a dead child, his unrelenting fortitude on the issue of abolishing slavery. The story is only a small part of the man's life: it takes place during his final months alive as he tries to pass the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives. But it's powerful and emotional. And melodramatic in places, too--this is a 21st Century Spielberg film after all. Remember last year's War Horse? This is a director that pulls at the heartstrings as much as possible.
     All of the performances in Lincoln are predictably stellar. Sally Field steals the show as Lincoln's wife, a woman who has suffered an incredible amount of physical and emotional pain and sometimes takes it out on the men in her life. She is funny and heartbreaking, and she displays a ferocious insanity at times that will surely be recognized at the end of the year. Secretary of State William Seward is played by David Strathairn, a man who is always on Lincoln's side even when his opinion differs from the President. Another great performance is Tommy Lee Jones portraying Rep. Stevens, who will go to just about any length to abolish slavery. The rest of the cast: too many great names to mention, and they all play their part with typical excellence, however small or large that part may be.

     The film starts a bit slow, but it builds to inevitable well-acted courtroom scenes that showcase how divided the nation was during this time of war and slave ownership. Lincoln needed a certain number of votes from undecided (or easily swayed) House voters to pass his crown achievement 13th Amendment. Lincoln will do just about anything for these votes, and he feels that his Presidency is all for naught without passing this important Amendment that will change the course of history. Spielberg does a good job of showing us that backroom political dealings and manipulations are not just a part of modern politics. These things were happening--though in a different way--150 years ago. A person's vote can be changed by a variety of means.
     Insults fly from every angle during the court scenes. If only some of these tactics could be used today! It would make CSPAN must-see T.V. Lincoln runs into a major problem just as he's on the cusp of passing the Amendment. There are talks of peace and the war ending, but if the war ends even slightly prematurely (and even though it would save the lives of thousands of young soldiers and the horrific pain that their families would feel) all of the work that he has done on his prized political possession would come crashing down, because ending slavery with the 13th Amendment would mean ending the war anyway.
     If you go into Lincoln expecting epic Civil War battles echoing another Spielberg historical epic, Saving Private Ryan, you might walk away disappointed. This isn't a film about a gigantic war campaign. It's a film about a different type of campaign: a theatrical movie about speech and discussions that involve changing minds and overcoming prejudices. Day-Lewis's performance is subdued and un-showy, and although it was awesome, I wouldn't call it the best of the year: I'd give that honor to Joaquin Phoenix in The Master or John Hawkes in The Sessions. Lincoln is a history lesson, but I mean that in the best sense possible. In Spielberg, you have a teacher that is funny and entertaining, a teacher that masks learning with a wonderful story. But, as great as Lincoln is during most of its run time, occasionally I still had the feeling I was sitting in a desk at school, waiting for the next burst of excitement.     (B+)

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Sessions: Notes on Hiring a Sex Surrogate

     Mark O'Brien is a poet and journalist. He is also (basically) paralyzed from the neck down from contracting polio when he was a child, spending most of his life either inside an Iron Lung--one of those large medical ventilators that allows a person who has lost most muscle control to breathe with regularity--or being wheeled around on a gurney by a revolving door of caregivers that also feed, wash, and clothe him. Mark, always up for an experiment, begins to wonder what it would be like to be intimate with a woman (he's a virgin). Although he doesn't have control over any part of his body below his neck, he still has sensations and can fully achieve erections and ejaculation, but he doesn't have any control of either. So he hires a sex surrogate--a semi-prostitute that allows people with sexual problems to experience their innermost desires in a controlled environment. This is the true story that The Sessions is based on, a short and sweet film written and directed by Ben Lewin (a polio survivor himself) that ranks among the year's best due to its touching performances, particularly John Hawkes as the disabled Mark O'Brien.
     This is a great adult movie about sex and desire that doesn't resort to gross-out gags or rely on the physiques of flawless actors to tell its story. Mark (Hawkes) is a lover at heart: he has a way with words and a self-deprecating humor that women find charming, especially since words are all Mark can use to woo. Though Mark is very religious, and he begins a fruitful friendship with Father Brendan, a new priest at his church played with humor and sensitivity by William H. Macy, intimacy with a woman is all he really desires: he wants to do this because he thinks his time is running out. God will give him a free pass and look the other way for this minor sin. The heart of the film is Mark getting wheeled from place to place, usually to confessional with Father Brendan or to a private room where Mark starts his sessions.
     The sessions are extremely nerve-wracking for Mark, particularly the first one. His aid, Vera (Moon Bloodgood), a nice young woman who would do anything for Mark, wheels him into a room, places him on the bed (the real O'Brien was only 4'7" and 60 pounds) and he waits for the surrogate. Mark has only spoken to her on the phone to arrange the meeting. He's never seen her. The tension is palpable: will the woman live up to Mark's expectations? Will she be gentle enough (Mark only likes to be touched very delicately)? Will he find her attractive? The "She" in question is Cheryl (Helen Hunt), and she grounds the film in a reality instead of letting it slip away into a Lifetime movie corniness. Hunt's performance is tactical and brave (not just because she's fully nude in most of her scenes). She takes her profession seriously and thinks of herself as more psychiatrist than slut. She's married to a philosopher that doesn't mind her odd profession and has a teenage son.
    Knowing that Mark, due to his condition and lack of relationship experience, becomes attached quickly and easily falls in love, Cheryl sets up some important ground rules: they will only meet six times, and it won't get too personal. They'll focus on "body awareness exercises", finally culminating in the last session where they will finish with real intercourse with actual, honest-to-goodness penetration. Through these sessions, we learn more about these two characters and what exactly they want out of life. And wouldn't you know it? These two begin to grow more during these two-hour meetings than they have during the past years of their auto-pilot lives.
     It's a nice story, one that brings smiles and tears through honesty and sadness. But it's a great movie for one reason and one reason only: the performance of John Hawkes as Mark O'Brien. For the past few years (particularly as the meth-addicted Teardrop in Winter's Bone and the chilling cult leader Patrick in Martha Marcy May Marlene), Hawkes has been able to live inside his roles with a realism that makes it seem like you're watching a real person instead of an actor portraying a character. He's never been better than here: Spending the entire film on his back, his spine bent at a sharp angle (he supposedly filmed the entire movie with a large foam piece under his back, causing actual back problems [not that minor back pain compares to having actual polio]), Hawkes builds a character with a high-pitched questioning voice and realistic facial expressions that show happiness and sadness in equal, exquisite measure. Through his performance--and to a lesser extent, Hunt's--we realize that The Sessions is about care and kindness, the kind that goes far beyond asking "How are you?" without expecting or caring about an answer. It's about experiencing what you want in life, whether you're paralyzed and stuck in an Iron Lung or healthily walking on your own two feet.     (A)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bond Goes Back to Basics in Skyfall

     Plenty of people were pissed when Daniel Craig was chosen as the new bond back in 2005--he was too small, too blond, too weathered. A lot of tensions were eased when Craig's first foray into the storied franchise, 2006's Casino Royale, was released into cinemas. Although a few maintained that their fears were justified (Bond had turned into a humorless killing machine that would give Jason Bourne a run for his money), it was clear that Bond had entered a new age of darkness and excitement that was keeping up with the world's collective anxieties. Two years later, Quantum of Solace left a bad taste in many a viewer's mouth: its confusing plot and typical action caused the film not feel like a Bond movie, though it was still entertaining enough.
     I've never been a huge fan of the Bond movies: I can barely make it through some of the older ones, and it's rare that the films make any sort of good progress between the bi-yearly incarnations. So where could the series--heading into its 50th Anniversary year after much legal trouble involving the production and studio--go? Apparently, the only direction was up: bringing in the great drama director Sam Mendes (creator of the fantastic films American Beauty and Road to Perdition)], Skyfall (the 23rd entry in the long-running list based on Ian Fleming's books) is an absolute blast, a stripped-down simple story of James Bond facing an awesomely-over-the-top villain, his childhood, and the inevitability of death. Progress forward is reaching back into the best aspects of the Bond canon.
    Skyfall throws you into the plot quicker than the film will make $100 Million dollars: Bond is chasing down a running man who has stolen an important hard drive with information that may affect the world. It's one of the most exciting openings of the year: with motorcycles, trains, excavators, and sniper rifles all making appearances, finally culminating in a surprising event and the new theme song sung by Adele. The opening action and great title sequence sets the tone for the rest of Skyfall: we're back to basics, a resurrection and merging of everything that has gained James Bond millions of fans over the year--a winking humor, a sense of purpose, a simple (yet exciting) story.
     M, played with an expert authority by Dame Judi Dench, begins to be in deep shit: that hard drive has data that could destroy MI6 and all of the undercover agents that are supposed to be protected by the government agency. She's getting old and tired and would like to leave a lasting legacy, but an interesting connection with a certain villain brings her knowledge to the forefront. And what would a great Bond movie be without a great villain? Javier Bardem (already a bad-guy master after his incredible job in the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men) portrays Silva, a homo-erotic man with a penchant for showmanship and a disgusting grin from swallowing one-too-many cyanide pills. He's mischievous and funny, and he provides a good foil to Craig's portrayal of a Bond who has gained a calm control after experiencing death.
     To defeat Silva, a hacker who seemingly has control of every single computer system in the entire country, Bond must confront something scarier than Silva's deformed smile: his sense of self and memories of being a child orphan. I won't give away the climax, but it all comes together in a great showdown that allows Craig to add a little dramatic flair to his otherwise stone-faced portrayal of Bond. New characters make appearances that set up their inevitable story arcs in future Bond films: Ben Whishaw is Q, a computer nerd who is bound to help Bond with new gadgets in the later films. Ralph Fiennes is a higher-up in government that may be extremely more important than his normal job makes him seem. And Naomie Harris (of 28 Days Later fame) is an agent that harms and helps Bond in equal measure.
     The Bond films needed this. Though Casino Royale seemed like an origin story, one that echoed the sentiments of Christopher Nolan's first Bruce Wayne film, Batman Begins, it's Skyfall that becomes the rebirth that Ian Fleming's character really needed: a story that's both simple and emotional that brings forth questions of Bond's past that have never been raised before. It makes the point that although villainy, in this day and age, can be as uncomplicated as gaining access to fire-walled Internet sites and secret government websites, we still need heroes to root for, heroes to cheer for, heroes who can come to grips with their own personal demons to take down a force set to demolish the notion of humanity. Skyfall is Bond, and everything that is great about the character. Bond resurrected.      (A)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Movie Meta: Seven Psychopaths

     Seven Psychopaths is one of those films that winks at the audience in a self-aware fashion. Marty (Colin Farrell) is a screenwriter who is writing a script with characters that are like his friends or are his friends. The movie that Marty is writing in Seven Psychopaths is titled "Seven Psychopaths". He basically only has a title until his friends tell him stories or give him ideas about psychotic violent people who murder, maim and torture others. Much of the actual Seven Psychpaths (the one that you and I are watching, not the one in which Marty is writing) takes place inside Marty's mind, playing out his movie within his head. Other scenes showcase Marty's actual life, with a dog-napping plot involving Marty's best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell, in one one of his best performances ever), his accomplice (Christopher Walken) and a dangerous gangster (Woody Harrelson) who has separation anxiety due to his missing Shih Tzu. Sometimes the real Seven Psychopaths blends with Marty's own version. Consequently, the film is a bit jumbled, but it's fun and funny enough to overcome its own messiness.
     When Martin McDonagh broke onto the film-making scene in 2008 with his wonderful black comedy In Bruges, he was rightly labeled as an Irish Tarantino, a writer/director with a penchant for snappy, vulgar dialogue and a visually-cool direction showcasing quick flashes of extreme violence. Seven Psychopaths isn't as coherent as In Bruges--nor is it as good, either--but it still contains the same personal flourishes of McDonagh. Marty is an alcoholic, a writer who seemingly doesn't even know where to begin his story. Rockwell's Billy decides to help his friend out by putting a classified advertisement in a magazine, asking people with crazy stories of insanity to sit down with Marty and tell their stories, sparking some inspiration.Billy kidnaps dogs for a living with his partner Hans (Walken): they go to the city parks, swiping the dogs from rich owners then returning them later for the reward, refusing the money at first like good citizens.
     There are a lot of psychopaths in this film. At least seven. When Billy and Hans take the wrong dog (owned by the previously mentioned Charlie, Harrelson's loose cannon), it sets in motion a series of events that echos some of the plot points in Marty's growing screenplay. There's also a serial killer on the loose offing some of the characters in the film, nicknamed the Jack of Diamonds, because he leaves that specific playing card at each of murders. He comes and goes without much explanation like many of my thoughts in this review. There's also a terrifying Quaker and a Vietnamese suicide bomber who wants revenge because his family got murdered at the massacre at My Lai. I'll leave it to you to find out whether these characters are a part of Seven Psychopaths or the script of Marty's "Seven Psychopaths".
     The best part of this film is easily the fun performances. Farrell's Marty is a nice un-showy acting job, a nervous Irish guy who drinks too much alcohol when he is anxious. He lets the other actors play off of his nervousness.  Harrelson has fun with Charlie, a man who would die for his dog but not for a human. Two portrayals really shined for me: Sam Rockwell (who is always under-appreciated) is totally awesome and badass in Seven Psychopaths. The film, to me, was mainly a showcase of his hilarious insanity. Every sarcastic quip and pull of a gun's trigger was pure comedic excellence (a lot like Farrell's performance in McDonagh's In Bruges). Typically, I find Christopher Walken to be a little too much, as he plays essentially the same character in film after film; that can grow tiresome. But I loved his portrayal of Hans in Seven Psychopaths. He showcases a weirdness and likability, grounding the film closer to reality.
      There isn't much of a female presence in Seven Psychopaths. They're either being called a "fucking bitch" or getting shot in the stomach. But that's not to say the film is sexist: it's so self-aware that the characters talk about females being dispensable characters in typical movies in the same genre. Late in the film, the three friends travel far out into the desert to get away from gangster Charlie, drink, and jointly work on Marty's screenplay. They throw out the idea of a final shootout, guns blazing and heads exploding. Do you think, in a film that's as cognizant of itself as Seven Psychopaths is, the climax matches up with the character's ideas? You should know what to expect in a film that constructs and then dismantles genre conventions as solidly as Seven Psychopaths does.     (B+)