Monthly Archives: November 2012

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 self-important.

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.

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

But 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 are etched in his face, yet his Lincoln is not merely an icon.  Day 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 as well as 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 dressmaker, 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 where none existed.

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 it doesn’t work, as in the opening scene.  But you can feel Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner trying mightily, mainly by use of the ennobled, stoic black.

They had to know Kate Masur’s New York Times op-ed about the film’s depiction of the the passivity of its black characters was coming (Masur suggests that perhaps the director could have shown Reuben and Lincoln’s black butler “leaving the White House to attend their own meetings”), but they 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.

A group of friends gets together to mourn the suicide of a contemporary. What is really being mourned, however, is their youth, which occurred during the 1960’s when they matriculated at college together.  What follows is a miasma of nostalgia, sound-tracked ironically by Motown (there is not a black, brown of tan face among them), 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.”

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.  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, who is dispatched in Dick Van Dyke’s pajamas to inseminate.

Close even stands in the hallway after delivering her gift, so proud of her selflessness she positively beams.

Throwback: 'The Big Chill' | Decider

My kingdom for sounds of hard, headboard pounding sex emanating from the bedroom (“You like that?” followed by “Oh daddy, give it to me”).  Or Kline coming out into the hallway and saying to Close, “Do you mind?  We’re fu*&ing in here.”

And then Close the Good becomes the Glenn Close from Fatal Attraction, killing everyone in the house.

Alas, it was not to be.

The movie makes a virtue of overt explication of what every character is thinking.  The audience cannot be trusted to intuit their banal, narcissistic whining masquerading as some kind of higher truth.  They must be told!

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 Secaucus 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.

Your Sister's Sister (2011) - Rotten Tomatoes

Mark Duplass (Humpday, Safety Not Guaranteed) is the brother of a recently deceased.  We meet him at the one year anniversary of his sibling’s 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 sound-tracked 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 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.

Skyfall' sends Bond franchise soaring again

In his third turn as James Bond, Daniel Craig is close-cropped, weathered (think a better-tailored Steve McQueen in Papillon) and dispirited.  M (Judi Dench) put him in his funk.  She made a tough call without batting an eye and as a result, Bond was shot and presumed dead. He survived the bullet but left the job to drown his sorrows. Another former 00 agent (Javier Bardem), however, harbors a much nastier grudge against M, bringing Bond back to life and service.

There are weaknesses.  Skyfall is merely a revenge flick.  All of Bardem’s efforts are directed at killing M, which is not all that interesting. Moreover, Bardem not only wants to kill M, but he wants to do it face-to-face (early in the film, he proves how vulnerable she is by blowing up her London offices via computer).  So, his master stroke (a hit on M as she testifies before a board of inquiry) seems unnecessarily elaborate given that if successful, he’s probably going to shoot her in the back in a confused firefight.

The film is also heavy on exploring Bond’s psyche. We learn he is an orphan (thus, his wounds from M’s callousness are all the deeper).  We also see his psychological interview (to determine his fitness for duty) and even the crawl space where he hid as a lad upon hearing of the death of his parents. The interview has funny moments (including a clever word association; the psychologist says “murder” and Bond responds “employment”) but it also reveals Bond’s “Rosebud.” The revelation of the childhood hideout and trauma feels too close, too modern.

Bond’s generational clash is another theme, one better delivered. We meet a new Q (a twenty something played by Ben Whishaw, who was impressive in BBC’s “The Hour”). Q fences with Bond about the utility of having live agents searching for intel. Meanwhile, forces all around Bond and M are telegraphing it is time to pack it in.   Even the villain, Bardem, positively winces at the rigor of field work. He can do it, but he elegantly expresses his preference for the click of a mouse.

Bardem is perfect. He’s psychotic, charming and empathetic. His opening speech on what to do with rats on an island is riveting and his playful sexual come-on to Bond is surprising and convincing.  He steals the show.

The Bond women are distinct and sexy.  The first is a lithe, capable agent (Naomie Harris) who is given the order by M to take her shot in the opening scene (she misses the bad guy and plugs Bond, resulting in some clever repartee’ upon his return).  The second (Bérénice Marlohe) is a doomed beauty, in mortal fear of Bardem, latching on to Bond as her salvation.

The action sequences are up to snuff, if not dazzling. The finale is an old fashioned shootout where Bardem and his army attempt to get at Bond and M at his childhood home, an ancient Scottish manor house. They are assisted by the property’s game keeper, Albert Finney, which could have been cutesy but works out fine.  It also introduces shotguns. Shotguns are cool.

Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and the ghastly Revolutionary Road) seemed a strange choice to helm. But he proved capable of action in Road to Perdition, and he puts his stamp on the franchise. Mendes is patient and methodical, comfortable with a moody but chattier Bond, where the discussions are not rushed.

Perhaps indicative of a future lighter touch, Skyfall closes with not only a Bond lightened by catharsis, but the introduction of a captivating new Moneypenny (Harris) and a report to his new boss, Ralph Fiennes.

A vehicle for the skills of a host of accomplished Brit actors, this movie starts out swift and charming, as we watch our leads end up in India at a run-down retirement hotel that looked a helluva lot better in the brocuhure.  Judi Dench is recently widowed; Tom Wilkinson, fed up, abruptly resigns his judgeship; Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton have had to scale down their retirement plans after an investment in their daughter’s internet company went bad;  Maggie Smith needs a hip replacement and can get it quicker in India; and Celia imrie and Ronald Pickup are fighting aging and simply along for the ride.  Directed ably by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), the set up is deft and the upcoming culture clash looks to be fun.  Okay.  Love Actually for old people, right?

Instead, the film takes itself way too seriously.  The Nighy-Wilton union is crumbling.  Dench is regretful of her long-term marriage.  Wilkinson has a deeper secret underlying his removal to India.  Smith’s tale is even more woeful.  What seeemed a light comedy turns into a morose trek.  Even the comic relief (Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel, who runs the hotel) has his own crucible – he must stand up to his mother and choose the one he loves (all with the help of some sound Brit advice).

The actors are really all very good, and they are elevating pedestrian material (not a thing happens that you haven’t guessed).  The resolutions are absurdly convenient and it ends sickeningly cloying.  Unlike Slumdog, the India portrayed here is all sweetness and dazzle, if a little crowded, and the Indian actors are given that child-like nobility that always comes off as condescending.   

The last 15 minutes is so rushed in its effort to provide a tidy, happy ending, it feels damn near like the entire endeavor was trying to make a flight.

It is in vogue to denigrate Will Ferrell, whose excess has long outlived its freshness. He’s slogged into one tiresome, repetitive project after another. Land of the Lost? A one-man show portrayal of George W Bush, The Other Guys, Casa di mi Padre, The Campaign, and soon, a repeat, Anchorman: The Legend Continues. His forays into a successful Jim Carrey-like branch-off started with promise (Stranger than Fiction) but his dramatic weaknesses were apparent in Everything Must Go. His last goofy semi-triumph was Step Brothers, which owed as much to the supporting efforts of the scene-stealing, diabolical Adam Scott and the inspired premise as to Ferrell’s adolescent sincerity as the arrested man-child, Brennan Huff.

Let us not forget, however, that when Ferrell was on a roll, it was an impressive one – Old School, Elf, Anchorman, Wedding Crashers . . . all a variation on the man-child theme, but classics nonetheless.

At the end of Ferrell’s run is Talladega Nights, the last hurrah, but what a hurrah.  Ferrell plays Ricky Bobby, an ignorant, flashy, uber-American NASCAR driver with a hot blonde wife (Leslie Bibb), a loyal race car compadre (John C. Reilly) who loves Ricky so much he happily takes second in every race, two horrific kids (Walker and Texas Ranger) and a gay French nemesis on the track (Sacha Baron Cohen). When Ricky is on top, it looks something like this:

When it all goes to crap after a brutal wreck, Ricky must re-connect with the itinerant father who abandoned him as a child (Gary Cole) and his old-school mother (Jane Lynch). With their help, and the help of a loyal, starstruck flunky (Amy Adams), Ricky regains his mojo and lives the VH1 comeback before our eyes.

The gags are inspired, the back-and-forth (much of which has to be improv, as evidenced by the bloopers in the credits) crackles, almost every supporting character delivers well (Molly Shannon as the boozehound wife of a corporate slime is particularly prime), and the chemistry between Ferrell and Reilly, which was very good in Step Brothers, is undeniable. After Ricky loses his nerve and then all, Cal replaces him, setting up in Ricky’s house and with his wife. But they do miss each other:

It’s uproarious, loaded with gem slogans (“If you ain’t first, you’re last”) and has as much fun as you can have with American excess. Even as silly an endeavor as this could have come off condescending and mean to “those NASCAR types” but Talladega Nights feels wholly respectful even as it goes to town on its target.