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The previews for Lincoln filled me with ambivalence.  Stephen Spielberg is a gifted filmmaker, yet his penchant for the glib and over dramatic is well-established, and what was presented in the trailers seemed overly earnest and important.  Spielberg also has history with this history and Amistad was a ponderous, overblown movie.

The first scene of the film did not help.  President Lincoln surveys the troops.  Two white soldiers (including, inexplicably, the peculiar looking Lukas Haas from Witness) unconvincingly quote the Gettysburg Address to him while a black soldier ahistorically makes demands on the president, such as equal pay for equal work.  As the white soldiers fail in recitation, the black soldier delivers the full verse.  And courtesy of John Williams, stirring horns blare.

The exchange feels wholly unrealistic.  I was reminded of the great scene in Frost/Nixon where Sam Rockwell, playing the Nixon-hating James Reston, Jr., practices excoriating Tricky Dick upon their meeting, and then when his big moment comes:

Richard Nixon: [Reston swore to Zelnick earlier he would never shake Nixon’s hand] Pleasure to meet you. [Offers Reston his hand]

James Reston, Jr.: [after a pause, he shakily extends his own hand] Mr. President…

Bob Zelnick: [after Nixon leaves] Oh that was devastating, I don’t think he’s ever going to get over that.

James Reston, Jr.: Fuck off.

Well, there’s none of that here.  The black soldier is as comfortable as if he were speaking to his city councilman in 1987.

Nonetheless, Christy Lemire of The Huffington Post gets it right: “For anyone who cringed just a little while watching the trailer for ‘Lincoln’ and worried that it might be a near-parody of a Steven Spielberg film, with its heartfelt proclamations, sentimental tones and inspiring John Williams score, fret not.”  After its inauspicious start, Lincoln settles into a proficient, if overlong, political potboiler having more in common with Advise and Consent than grand, gauzy history.  Lincoln needs to get the 13th Amendment passed in the House, but he is squeezed by moderate Republicans (led by Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair) who seek a negotiated peace with the South; radical Republicans (led by Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens)  who distrust Lincoln’s expedience; and fiery Democrats who look for every advantage to stymie the bill.  Lincoln works the room and the town trying to thread the needle of events and demonstrating not only his keen intellect and gift for homespun stories, but a progressive mind that regularly churns.

As Lincoln, Daniel Day Lewis is masterful.  The weight of his worry and the tragedies that have befallen him seem etched in his face, yet his Lincoln is not merely an icon.  Lewis communicates Lincoln’s anger, his canny sense for politics, his exasperation at his unstable wife (Sally Field), and his physical nature, not only with his children but with others to whom he instinctively feels fatherly.  Field is also noteworthy, fleshing out Mary Lincoln and capturing her irrationality and her cunning.

There are some problems.  While the history feels right, and most of it is indeed accurate, some of it is not, and in ways that matter.  For the final vote on the amendment, free blacks pack the galleries and Mary Lincoln observes with her personal modiste, played by Gloria Reuben (who I have not seen since ER).  This did not happen and it feels cheezy, part of a clear effort by the filmmakers to give agency.  Sometimes this works, as when Lincoln has a White House porch discussion with Reuben about the fate of blacks after the war.  It is clearly a concoction but feels legitimate, especially when Lincoln says, “I don’t know you.”

Sometimes, the efforts to show agency do not work, as in the opening scene.  But you can feel Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner trying, mainly by use of the ennobled, stoic black or unconvincing crumbs, such as Tad Lincoln’s fascination with slave photos.  They knew Kate Masur’s New York Times op-ed about the passivity of black characters was coming (she suggests that perhaps the director could have shown Reuben and Lincoln’s black butler “leaving the White House to attend their own meetings”) but did the film no favors in trying to head it off.

Tommy Lee Jones is also all wrong as Pennsylvanian Thaddeus Stevens.  He’s either too Western, too Southern, or simply too rugged to play this man in this time.  When he brings home the actual version of the final bill to read to his housekeeper and lover in bed, it was hard to stifle a groan.  And the ending, where Appomattox, the assassination, and an inaugural speech  flashback are quickly tacked on, is unwieldy.   Finally, it is time for Williams to hang it up.  The score is a lazy rip-off of his work on Saving Private Ryan.

Criticism aside, The New Yorker dubs the film a civics lesson for children, and indeed it is (I brought both of mine to the movie and we had a great discussion afterwards).  As one of my professors told me, history is in many ways the stories we tell about ourselves, and this is a story about ourselves told fairly well.

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A group of friends gets together to mourn the suicide of a contemporary. What is really being mourned is their youth, which, sadly for the audience, occurred during the 1960s when they matriculated at college together.  What follows is a miasma of nostalgia, soundtracked ironically by Motown (there is not a black face amongst these people), as a group of super-successful people (even the drug dealer has a Porsche) lament their transformation from their fantasy selves of the past (idealistic, war protesting, caring, would-be world changers) to what they have become (affluent, whiny, navel-gazing malcontents who rue their upper-tax brackets, nice homes and cars, and cushy lives).

Some offerings on their current state:

“Wise up folks. We’re all alone out there and tomorrow we’re going out there again.”

“It’s a cold world out there. Sometimes I feel like I’m getting a little frosty myself.”

“I’m sure we all think there’s a lot of good left in us.”

Sam Weber: So how’s your life?

Karen: Oh, great. How’s yours?

Sam Weber: Not so great.

Karen: Ohhh, we’re telling the truth.

Only one character resonates, and then, but for a moment.  The drug dealer, William Hurt, eventually succumbs to the feel-good ooze and affirmation, but early on, as the unctuous Kevin Kline tries to connect, Hurt says one of the few adult things in the movie:

a long time ago we knew each other for a short period of time; you don’t know anything about me. It was easy back then. No one had a cushier berth than we did. It’s not surprising our friendship could survive that.”

This moment of lucidity is soon overwhelmed by gloppy, poofty, self-congratulatory schmaltz, forever to be prefaced by “the soundtrack for a generation.”

Peace and love is easy to dispense in a gorgeous, multi-million dollar mansion, owned by Kline and his angelic wife Glenn Close.

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So in the ultimate sacrifice of a suburban queen, she offers Kline’s sperm to her college buddy, Mary Kay Place, who is desperate to get pregnant.  Said sperm is to be delivered by Kline in the natural act. Close even stands in the hallway after delivering her gift, so proud of her selflessness she positively beams.

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By the way, was a decade ever so hard on someone’s hair?  If you doubt it, check out Close’s ‘do in Fatal Attraction and Jagged Edge.

The Big Chill is made worse by the fact that it isn’t even original, but rather, Lawrence Kasdan’s big-budget version of John Sayles’s The Return of the Seacaucus Seven.  The picture spawned a worse copycat, even more cloying and self-satisfied, Peter’s Friends.  If you wondered what The Big Chill would be like with Brits, wonder no longer.

What are the chances I’d see two Mark Duplass movies back-to-back much less one I’d rate a 0 and one I’d rate a 5?  This is a sweet, whipsmart picture about three Seattle magazine employees – two interns (Aubrey Plaza and Karan Soni) and a writer (Jake Johnson) – who go to Northern California to do a piece on a guy (Duplass) who put out an ad to go back in time, looking for a companion.  The writer took the job solely to nail an old high school girlfriend he found on Facebook (Jeneca Bergere).  Plaza is along for the ride and Soni, a geeky Indian techie, only took the internship to round out his resume’.  Plaza becomes intrigued by Duplass, Johnson falls for his target, and it turns out time travel may be possible.

This is a dual story between four people looking to connect.  Duplass bonds with Plaza while Johnson and Soni engage in a mentor-mentee dance.  Best, what seems a goof assignment to write an ironic, hip piece on a quirky dude masks a couple of crises of conscience, place and purpose.

Everybody is excellent, but Johnson is particularly strong as an urban scammer who uses the story as a cover to hook up with a high school flame and realizes how empty he feels in the arms of a real woman.  She asks what he’s doing, he responds that he has an Escalade, she clarifies “no, I meant with your life” and he responds “I just told you.”

When she puts up her guard, points out the error of his idealization, and his fairy tale collapses, he runs to Soni and screams in the geek’s face to get off the Internet, away from his safety bubble and live a life.  Johnson’s character is emblematic of the maturity of the writing.  Normally, he’s the dick, the full-of-himself comic relief.  As a character, it’s an honorable job, ala’ Bradley Cooper in Wedding Crashers.  But Johnson (and really, all the characters) are given more depth in an economical fashion, making a very funny movie poignant and multi-layered.  One of the best films of the year.

Mark Duplass (Humpday, Safety Not Guaranteed) is the brother of a recently deceased.  We meet him at the one year anniversary of the death.  After a gentle eulogy by his brother’s friend, Duplass offers his own, explaining that his brother was a bully who only changed for the better after watching Revenge of the Nerds and realizing that the bully doesn’t get laid.  His brother’s ex (Emily Blunt) intervenes, let’s Duplass know he’s in a bad place and offers her remote family house so he can sort it out.  When Duplass arrives, he finds Blunt’s sister (Rosemary DeWitt) sorting her own issues out, having just left a 7 year relationship with another woman.

With a promisingly caustic first scene and the idea of a romantic angle perhaps immediately removed from the equation, the possibilities are momentarily intriguing.  But Duplass and DeWitt share a bottle of tequila, they have sex (she actually says “I’m game if you’re game”), and the movie craps out.   Duplass achieves orgasm in less than a minute to establish his bona fides as a regular schlub and to ensure that no connection was achieved.  Blunt, in love with Duplass, shows up.  It gets weird.

The film tries desperately to be cool, but the dialogue is stilted and humorless.  Duplass is presented as a bit of a crack-up, but he is unfunny (a sample bon mot is his observation that they go to an IHOP but will need passports), superficial, and self-involved.  Both women are crashing bores and for a romantic triangle of sorts, it is surprising how sterile and sexless they seem.

Though Duplass is desperate to keep the fact he had sex with DeWitt from Blunt, you know and hope it will out.  Anything to break the monotony, which is quite something for a 90 minute film.  These are the three most boring people in the world, characters created by the writers who pen quips traded by couples in Ikea commercials, if an Ikea commercial was soundtracked by acoustic guitarists who play at contemporary Christian services.

The film is also amateurishly acted (Duplass is the poor man’s Ron Livingston, DeWitt is dishwater dull and Blunt one-note dewy eyed).  Is there depth under those still waters?  Most likely, just brackish, gloomy ennui.

Another criticism.  There is no lazier writing tic than the use of “fucking” before every noun, a regular staple in this film.

How I Met Your Mother is always better paced and funnier and that show sucks.  This is hipster drivel without a single genuine moment.  Avoid.

A soldier in Iraq (David Anders) is gunned down and dragged away into the desert. He comes home to LA for a full military funeral, but after being put in the ground, he rises. And goes straight to the apartment of his wastrel friend (Chris Wilde, who looks like David Spade but acts funnier). There, he realizes he cannot eat. Soon, he craves blood. He robs a blood bank but realizes he is better served appearing vulnerable and then feeding off of criminals (a mix of Charles Bronson in Death Wish and Dexter).

The first half of the film is fresh and clever.  The “what the fu**!” reaction of Anders to his plight is gut-busting and the aplomb with which Wylde greets his pal is the perfect pitch. The picture has a wicked sense of humor, harkening back to American Werewolf in London and Reanimator. This could easily have been a bigger budget, Paul Rudd/Seth Rogen project. Indeed, feeding your back-from-the-dead pal is the ultimate validation of a bromance.

Alas, two thirds in, and it runs out of gas. The plot shifts to the woes of Anders’s girlfriend, who still unconvincingly loves him with all her heart, even if he actually rots and stinks when unfed. It gets more and more absurdist, and after we dispense (in gruesome fashion) with the girlfriend, the movie doesn’t know what to do with itself.  So it opts for over-the-top excess and a high concept finale. The former is numbing. The latter comes off cheezy. The film’s low budget, hidden nicely by well-chosen LA locales and unambitious special effects, becomes an issue when we get into police chases, an overlong massive shoot-out in and outside of the subway, and sci fi nonsense that cries out “Student film.”

Still, promise from director D. Kerry Prior and a noble failure.