Lincoln

November 30, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

The passage of the 13th amendment, which freed all slaves, is pretty much the first passage of Civil Rights in this country. Abraham Lincoln was the man behind it, and he’s always been seen as one of the greatest presidents of all time because of it. It’s a great story, because it was far from easy. The country was locked in a Civil War that in a large part was due to the issue of slavery, and even in the North, Lincoln had his detractors. Even in his own party, Lincoln was not considered a great leader. This is the story that Steven Spielberg intends to tell in his latest film, “Lincoln”.

Unfortunately, the film is so cloying, so pandering, so preachy, that what should be a riveting drama about how one of the most important bills ever passed in this nation, is really just a two and a half hour long sermon with the effectiveness of a loud dog barking in the middle of the night. There is no drama here, no real conflict. There are only a bunch of scruffy, rat-faced, or whiny old white men against the noble, do-no-wrong Messiah, Honest Abe (played by Daniel Day-Lewis).

The film begins with a scene between Lincoln visiting troops and is approached by two black men from different regiments. One black man is practically bowing at the feet of Lincoln, while the other piles on exposition to berates Lincoln on not being sincere. From that moment, I sensed trouble. Kushner’s script is so afraid of being misconstrued or taking the risk to be the least bit fair minded, and instead makes sure we all know how wrong slavery was, and how great it was that this bill was to be passed. Well, the whole audience this film is made for is well aware at how wrong it was, and how great the bill was. So, tell a story. But neither Kushner, nor Spielberg, are interested in doing this. They seem more interested in beating us over the head with nobility and sentimentality that, by the last shot, is beyond nauseating.

There is no conviction in the storytelling of this film–it’s more cartoonish than it is historical. The facts are all there, but they’re delivered so simply that it’s hard to believe this is how it really went down. And, with something as urgent as this time was, it’s disingenuous. Lincoln needs votes to secure the bill’s passage–he doesn’t want to wait for the war to end in fear of the South not voting for it. Even as it stands, he won’t get it passed; but he thinks he has a better chance. And the time is “Now, now now!” So 3 men are ordered to “bribe” delegates that are either on the fence, or completely against it. This could’ve been an effective way of showing the power of conviction that Lincoln and his supporters had for the bill–instead, it’s treated as some kind of fun little adventure complete with banter between characters played by James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson, and accompanied by a plucky soundtrack by John Williams.

In contrast, any time we see the people against the bill, they’re in dark light, such as the scene with the Vice President of the Confederate States (played by Jackie Earle Haley). His scenes make him look like some kind of dark serpent, or evil creature. He’s lit so we only see one eye, one evil looking eye. Scary. Yes, we get it Spielberg. These are the bad guys. But is that really fair to history? Were they all bad guys? Was everyone for the bill good guys? Isn’t this kind of simplifying of sides what got us into the war in the first place? The reality was that there were no good or bad guys; there was a lot of ignorance, and a lot of intolerance. Lincoln’s intentions initially were to keep the country together, no matter what. Whatever his personal views on slavery were, he did have some in the White House.

But Spielberg doesn’t respect the fact that this was how it was done at this time. Sure, we’re 150 years removed and we know how wrong it is. But we’re going back in time here, and there is not one credible character on the other side of the fence. There’s a scene where one of the weak-minded senators says he’s against slavery but he can’t tolerate this bill because it will lead to women voting. Now, I’m sure that mind-set was a lot more prominent than only coming from this one meek individual. But the scene comes across as easily trying to point out how wrong this character was. Well, no kidding! But why trivialize this event by trying to make it so easy to be on one side or the other? What was at stake for the entire nation if the bill was passed or not? None of that is really explored, leaving everything to easy conclusions that couldn’t possibly be accurate at this time.

There are other problems with the script, too. Robert Lincoln (dutifully played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to join the Union, but his parents are against it because Mary (Sally Field, in her most Oscar-wringing role yet), doesn’t want to lose another son, after their middle son had died due to illness. She comes off as a raving lunatic, while Lincoln is stoic, and strong. This subplot goes absolutely nowhere and doesn’t have anything to do with the main story, nor does it strengthen the theme of the film either.

Lincoln spends a lot of his time in this film making speeches. He comes in a room, he makes a speech. Everyone who is a good guy loves it, everyone who is a bad guy hates it. It goes on like this for the entire duration of the film. His speeches are all the same. He wants what’s best for the country. Yes, we get that. Everyone against him, even at times his friend and his Secretary of State (played by David Strathairn), tries to convince him with horribly unconvincing arguments. I’m not actually even sure why this film is called “Lincoln”. In early drafts of the script it was going to be more of a biopic of Lincoln’s life. But by its final revision, it was narrowed down to passing this amendment. So why isn’t it just called “The Amendment”?

The last scene that shows Lincoln “alive” is the most aggravating. One of his servants looks on as the Great Man in his Top Hat walks down a corridor, admiring how great this man is. Not only do we not ever need to see this shot, but if you haven’t been bludgeoned enough by this time at how Christlike Lincoln is in this film, this scene leaves no doubt.

The simplemindedness of the script is what is most disappointing, though. Is this how far we’ve come intellectually after 150 years that we still can’t bear to look at what the conflict was really about? To be able to look at the other side and be challenged at what they believed as well? I look at the current situation with gay rights. Do you look at everyone who’s against gay marriage and gay rights and say they’re evil? And vice versa, do you look at anyone who is for gay rights and gay marriage as unforgivably bad, or unmistakenly good? Can you tell me every person that’s represented in this film reflects what’s ongoing nowadays? People can be just as ignorant as they were 150 years ago, we have plenty of evidence of that. But we also have come a long way at tolerance. On both sides of the country, you had good and bad, ignorant and educated. If this film was released in the 50’s or early 60’s, the worst I could say about it is that it’s dated. But at least, at that time, we still as a nation were not comfortable with race relations. Sure, racism still exists and always will; but even in films like “American History X”, we get a much more real, cunning, and educated look at how it affects us as a society. That was a powerful, adult film about racism. This film’s almost aimed at children with its simple message that “racism is wrong”.

And if that’s the case, why have all the strong language then? This film is littered with profanity that neither enhances the characters nor gives any scene more flair. In fact, hearing Lincoln use the “s” word almost makes him sound dumber and vulgar. There are scenes that show too much blood and guts for kids to comprehend and handle; and yet, as I said, I can’t see anyone beyond the 5th grade needing to see something like this to shed light on racism.

On top of that, no 5th grader is going to want to spend 2 and a half hours watching old men yell at each other. They have Thanksgiving dinners for that.

My rating: :?

Men In Black 3

May 30, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

I have a continuing dilemma whenever I see that there will be a  new MiB movie released. On the one hand, I have a lot of anticipation that it will be better than the last one that came out; and inevitably, when I see it, I’m always underwhelmed and disappointed that it wasn’t even as good as the last one that came out. Such is the case again with “Men in Black 3”, a movie with just enough ambition to make a smile-worthy film, but tries nothing new to re-invent itself or push its own limits. It goes through the motions and hopes we are pleased. This may work for some people who just want to get out of the house for a few hours and sit in a cool theatre on a hot day (as I call them, “get away” movies); but for me, at least with this franchise, I’m always wanting more. The jokes are predictable, the climax and resolution always seem to leave me empty–and in this case, kind of sour.

This film begins with a  bad guy named Boris “The Animal” (though it’s just “Boris” to you) who is locked up on the moon after being captured by Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). He subsequently breaks out and goes back to earth with the intent to travel back in time, kill Agent K, and start an invasion with his cronies, an alien race known as the Boglodites. Agent K’s original capture of The Animal 40 years ago is legendary because he also installed what’s called the ArcNet, a protective shield that won’t allow the Boglodites into the earth’s atmosphere.

Agent K and J discover Boris’s time travel plot when they are checking out routine alien criminal activity, and when K disappears, J also finds himself in a rip in time that makes him crave chocolate milk, and he soon learns that he’s in an alternate present in which K was killed 40 years ago by Boris. J then has to go back in time to save Agent K to the 60’s.

I’m going to stop here and reveal that I’m instantly on edge whenever time travel is introduced to a plot as a device. It’s so incredibly contrived and overused and because there are so many possibilities and flaws, it winds up being ludicrous and unconvincing. It also usually leads to many, many plot holes. When I was reading about the production of this film, Will Smith had said they had tried everything to make sure that the film’s time travel rules were followed as best as they could. At the same time, the film’s director, Barry Sonnenfeld, admitted they did not have a definitive act 2 or 3 when production began. Well, it certainly showed.

J has to convince K about this plot of Boris (played by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement) going back in time, stopping K’s original arrest of Boris by killing K, and also killing  an alien named Griffin whose race created the ArcNet (Arcadian is the name of Griffin’s race, and Net is pretty easy to figure out) and gave it to K to begin with. Griffin (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) is kind of like a cross between Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood, and Robin Williams. He has one of the more memorable scenes when the three of them are in the infamous The Factory (although the Andy Warhol joke is a bit weak, I thought), when he goes on and on about possible futures, confounding Agent J. 

The best scenes in the film involve Agent J (always charismatically played by Will Smith) and the young Agent K (well imitated Jones by Josh Brolin–he has a knack for imitation). We finally see a softer side of Agent K, and find out he did at one point have a love interest, Agent O (played in the present tense by Emma Thompson). That plot is never really explored but it’s probably for the best as it would’ve been far too complicated to sort out in an alien comic action adventure movie.

As relieved as I was that it didn’t become a love story, I was also left unmoved by the main story involving the plot to save Agent K. I’ve enjoyed the two characters through their movies, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I really cared about them. And usually by the time the new movie comes out, the old one has evaporated from my mind. These are not inherently memorable films. While the chemistry is fine, and it’s fun to see some of the antics the MiB go through to catch the bad guys (bowling with an alien’s head, for example), it never really leads to anything that memorable. I also found the villain Boris to be a bit stale at best; and at worst, kind of irritating. You never really get a good read on what kind of personality he has. He’ll toss out a one-liner here or there that makes you think he’s hip; but then he’s stone faced or upset about being called “The Animal”. I also thought that the lack of “place” in the 60’s was a missed opportunity. I get that they can’t go “Austin Powers” on everybody, but what were aliens like 40 years ago compared to now? There could’ve been many possibilities for humor and even some adventure. There’s one flat joke about how the Neuralizer has evolved but that’s pretty much it.

Where the film ultimately fails, though, is the ending (how could you guess?). There’s a twist which I won’t give away–I will just say that it has its heart in the right place, but unfortunately doesn’t have its logic in the right place. Up until that point the film was digestible. Nothing great, but nothing bad. But the twist, with all of its intentions, just falls flat. And you don’t even have to think that hard about it. Almost immediately you will think, “Are they just throwing this in here for the sake of it?”

Sometimes I wish someone would just tell a screenwriter, “Look you don’t have to just throw a twist in there okay?” Just resolve the movie and move on. Sure, the film would still be less than a masterpiece. But it at least would be closer to that than an out of focus Polaroid, which is what “Men in Black 3” ultimately is.

My rating::?

Captain America: The First Avenger

July 27, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

I remember back in the summer of 1990, I was going to see “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” for the second time in the theatre, when I spotted a really cool looking poster for an upcoming movie. All it was was a shield, red white and blue. I recognized it immediately. It was Captain America.

In my youth, there was nary a superhero film (besides the “Superman” sequels) until 1989’s “Batman”, so I was really excited. I thought, well if there’s going to be a movie for Captain America, then maybe they’ll make a Spider-Man movie, too!

Well, that poster was the last I heard of “Captain America”, the movie. It was only about a decade later when I read that the movie was such a bomb, it wasn’t even really released at all. Back in those days, Hollywood wasn’t about to spend money to churn out superhero movies the way they do now, like a fast food combo meal.

And so, my childhood was left with no “Captain America” movie. And now, into my thirties, I realize by seeing this 2011 film, that I wish I could go back to my childhood and take this film with me. If I were 11 years old again, I probably would have enjoyed the film thoroughly.

Instead, I was absolutely thoroughly bored with this film. Every simple-minded gag and plot device is utilized here. It’s just your average Rah-Rah Go America style action flick, and the lack of depth to the characters and plot would’ve been ignored had I been a kid, simply amazed and swept off my feet by the dazzling special effects. Instead, nothing worked for me.

The film is, like every other comic book movie, an origin story. And like most Marvel comic book heroes, this one is an underdeveloped kid who suddenly gets massive powers. He goes from being the Little Engine That Could to the Coors Light Train, blasting through enemies (who look like a cross between S&M enthusiasts and the Cobra Command) at a breakneck pace. He has a love interest, played dutifully by the amazingly beautiful Hayley Atwell, and he has a boss, played amusingly by Tommy Lee Jones. The only real waste of a good character actor is Hugo Weaving, who plays the main villain known as the Red Skull. He’s so paper thin and uninteresting, it’s really a shame. Captain America himself is played actually pretty well by Chris Evans, who has already had a comic book character attached to his name in his career. That’s another thing that’s strange to me: time was, a comic book hero that became a movie also became the identity of the actor. Christopher Reeve was Superman. That was it. But now, you’ve got actors who are appearing in several comic book movies as separate heroes. I wonder if kids know the difference, or care.

What does it matter anyway? We’re so inundated with comic book movies, they all start to look the same. I enjoyed “Thor” for what it was, and it was at least a bit different. But this movie is just your average, garden variety, run of the mill superhero movie; but it lacks heart and eagerness to please. It’s almost as if just because it’s Red, White, and Blue, we should cheer. It’s the Flag Waving Comic Book Hero Movie.

Well, I’m sure that will appeal to certain audiences. Count me out.

My rating: :(