Thursday, April 11, 2013

Wow ... you really believe he is a Town Car: "Lincoln"

I mean, we knew Daniel Day-Lewis was good. But this good? Yowza.

I kid. He was really more of a Continental. I kid again! And will kid no more, since I'm running out of Lincoln models to mention. At least, without a Navigator. Boom!

OK ... that's out of my system.

So this Really Important Movie came out on DVD not long ago, and the missus brought it home -- against her better judgment, considering the film is four score long. She didn't make it to the end, but I managed it over the course of a couple of nights. And while Danny Boy is impressive as always, others also carry their weight and Spielberg doesn't really make any missteps, I ultimately came away a little let down, expecting more oomph to go with the grandeur.

Our story is far from a sweeping look at the entire life of our 16th President. Rather, we zero in on a signature accomplishment: his quest to truly give slaves their freedom through the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Lincoln has won a second term, the Civil War still rages and -- despite his Emancipation Proclamation -- there's no guarantee slaves will remain free after the war ends.

So just put the measure to a vote in Congress, right? Uh, wrong. Much like today, you gots to get the votes, and there are plenty of spineless politicians who have no interest in standing on principle. So Lincoln dispatches his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn) to rustle up the votes, using a trio of rascals who promise jobs, money ... whatever. All this while trying to corral the boisterous Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), who wants to outlaw slavery so bad he risks alienating the moderates Lincoln needs to seal the deal.

Meanwhile, Honest Abe is dealing with family fun in the form of his unstable wife, Mary (Sally Field), and anxious son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who wants to fight in the war instead of being a silly old lawyer. And about that war ... even if the Union seems to be closing the deal, there's the matter of balancing that with the 13th Amendment fight.

So plenty of balls in the air, with the Tall Man in the Top Hat as the anchor. And Day-Lewis certainly seemed to have Lincoln down. From the gait to the voice to the beard to Abe's apparent penchant for storytelling, Day-Lewis, as always, inhabits the role. Nothing to complain about here. But ... did I find this performance as compelling as Daniel Plainview in "There Will Be Blood?" No. Probably not as much as Bill the Butcher in "Gangs of New York," either. True, those may benefit from being fictional/unknown figures, but still.

On the flip side, I liked Jones better in this than most recent stuff. Sure, his range remains limited, but the passion and wit he gives Stevens were genuine. Others acquit themselves well, particularly James Spader as one of the congressional bribers. Lots and lots of good actors in a range of roles, and no real false note among them. Plus, did you ever think you'd see a scene in a Major Motion Picture with Daniel Day-Lewis sitting across a table from Jackie Earle Haley? Ever? Really?

Spielberg of course handles all this well, and the story is quite interesting. If I have a complaint, it's the slight abundance of talky-talky and the distinct feeling at the end that we were wrapping up an episode of Schoolhouse Rock: How an Amendment REALLY Gets Passed. No question this was historic, and I drank in the significance while watching the final vote. (Spoiler alert, I guess.) But I couldn't shake the packaged drama feeling. And then, poof ... we see Lincoln heading to the movies.

In the end, "Lincoln" is good, but not the best work of any of the people involved. Nor did it top all other films from 2012. Maybe a few less soliloquies and a little more depth on the true impact of this fight would have helped. And I must admit that scene with Lincoln telling Stevens that he drank his milkshake was a little jarring.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Roger Ebert, the movies and me

There are many men whose opinions I valued as a child. Beyond my father, though, it's hard to think of any guy I listened to more than Leonard Maltin, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. And the last held the highest rank in that trio.

I can't say for sure what was my first movie. I remember my parents taking me and my little sister to see "The Jungle Book" at a drive-in theater. I remember seeing "The Spy Who Loved Me" on network in prime time. Whatever it was, it started me down the road to countless other films, and as you know from reading this blog -- and just knowing me in general -- movies remain ... if not a passion, thanks to the time constraints of family, work and whatnot, then at least a strong interest. Past, present and future, I love them, and I don't see that changing.

Outside my dad, Roger Ebert may be the biggest reason for this. I remember religiously watching "Sneak Previews" while in grade school, then "At the Movies" after that. Like a lot of people, I couldn't wait to see what was on this week's slate, and how colorful the commentary would be. And when Roger and Gene really disagreed? Whoa, nellie. To say they carved out a unique place in pop culture is like saying Johnny Depp on occasion gets a little kooky with his roles. Sure, I inhaled Maltin's annual edition of movie capsules and ratings during the '80s; my sister and I often said, "Let's see what Len has to say about this." But there's no question that "Two thumbs up" remains the standard by which we judge movies.

Roger and I grew apart when I went to college -- ironically in Chicago -- and I eventually lumped his movie reviews in with many others. That's been even easier to do in recent years with Rotten Tomatoes and other aggregators. But even as I made the rounds with The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and other movie reviews, Ebert stayed in the mix -- never as shrill as Rex Reed, fawning as Peter Travers or stuffy as Anthony Lane. The sad premature death of Siskel in 1999 left Ebert as the standard -- all the more impressive after his health issues in the 2000s.

And now he's gone. The real everyman movie reviewer -- knowledgeable yet accessible -- has left us. Fitting that word spread like wildfire this afternoon on Facebook, which took the thumbs-up to whole other level. I don't know what Ebert thought of that, but I do know I'm going to dig out my copy of "I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie" and enjoy some of Roger's razor wit one more time.