Thursday, November 29, 2012

Justice for All

I know I might upset a lot of Academy Award voters with this statement, but here goes: I'm not that big a fan of Steven Spielberg.

Sure, his early stuff - Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind - are classics, and everybody who has seen his early thriller The Duel tells me that it's a movie I need to watch. But as good as Jurassic Park was, was it REALLY one of the best the year it was released? Are E.T. and Schindler's List REALLY among the best movies of all time? I say no. I believe Spielberg is one of the industry's more overrated directors, one with a certain amount of talent and an eye for the cinematic but lacking a consistent storytelling ability. Look at last year as an example; War Horse was a bloated, over-hyped mess that would have been shunned had anybody else been in the director's chair. Instead, it was nominated for Best Picture over more deserving fare such as Drive, Bridesmaids and even David Fincher's solid adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Spielberg's name can still move mountains, even if his movies more often move me to boredom. It's why I don't look forward to his products, even when they are Lincoln and feature the inimitable talents of Daniel Day-Lewis.

Ah, the days of smaller cabinets...
Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography Team of Rivals, Lincoln focuses on one of the most crucial battles for our sixteenth US President, one that had (almost) nothing to do with the Civil War. The Battle of Gettysburg has ended, and the disastrous Civil War is coming soon to a close. Lincoln (Day-Lewis) has just secured reelection, and makes it his priority to add an amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery. With public support at an all time high, now is the time to get the amendment ratified by Congress. But even with all his strength, he doesn't have the majority vote necessary to guarantee victory. And so Lincoln and his allies must convince his Democrat rivals that approving this measure is more important than petty political machinations.

As Jessica Rabbit's evil clone would say: "A Man!"
First and foremost, let's get the obvious statement out of the way: Daniel Day-Lewis is simply astounding. an almost guaranteed lock for this year's Best Actor categories, Day-Lewis does far more than simply emulate the recorded character of arguably our most revered President. As the stovepipe hat-wearing politician, the actor embodies Lincoln's persona, from his easy command of an audience to his sensitive compassion to his ability to speak on any given subject. That he does this convincingly comes as no true surprise; that it seems to arrive so easily is what makes Day-Lewis the outstanding performer he is. There isn't one moment in which he is on the screen that he does not demand your attention, respect and awe, and he also appears to garner those same responses from his erstwhile costars.

It was Mr. Booth, in the Theater, with the Revolver. I win!
But he doesn't have to carry the whole movie on his own back, as Day-Lewis is surrounded by some of the best actors Spielberg could cobble together. You can't fire a musket without hitting any of a number of talented character players, from David Oyelowo to Walton Goggins to Jared Harris to Lee Pace to the amazing Michael Stuhlbarg, and those are just the small cameo roles. Tommy Lee Jones, who had been regressing in the quality his performances the past few years, leaps back to relevance with his portrayal of Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens. His is an Oscar-worthy performance, a far cry from more Men in Black sequels. More strong performances come from David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and it was obvious a lot of research went into making their relatively obscure characters as true to life as possible. Watchmen's Jackie Earle Haley manages to steal a few moments (opposite Day-Lewis, surprisingly) when he is allowed on screen, putting a much-appreciated face to the Confederate government. And some of my favorite moments in Lincoln involved the banter between John Hawkes and James Spader, playing Republican lobbyists tasked with garnering Democratic support for the amendment. Spader especially is one of the film's best additions. Certainly he's the most entertaining, and while his witty repartee won't likely be enough for Oscar considerations, I'm surprised he's not getting mentions in that regard.

No Oscar for you!
Of course, no Spielberg film is without significant drawbacks. Like most of his work, the director tends to spell everything out in no uncertain terms. Subtlety isn't his specialty, and he's not above using blatant humor, cliched situations and imagery, and telling rather than showing to get his point across. It's not as bad here as it was in War Horse, and the director is helped by his performers in not allowing these weaknesses to get too out of hand. One actor that doesn't really help him however is Sally Field, who plays Lincoln's mentally fragile wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Spielberg has said that he only saw Field in the role, and that's likely what blinded him to the fact that her performance was typical of what we expect from the character. I frankly wasn't impressed; I've seen good Fields roles over the years, and this wasn't one of them. One scene in particular between Lincoln and his wife didn't quite fit, thanks to a decidedly theatrical take that I'm not entirely sure wasn't intentional. And Spielberg has issues with keeping all of his details straightforward. At times he uses subtitles to effectively introduce new characters or locations that we had only heard of before; at others he leaves us to our devices, confused as to the latest turn of events.

My favorite performer of the whole show.
Besides Day-Lewis and the mostly-amazing cast, what I liked most about Lincoln was the history behind it. For many audience members, this is the first we've heard of many of the details leading up to the ratification of the thirteenth constitutional amendment. The reasons behind each character's actions are closely scrutinized, and Spielberg actually does a good job of showing us both how things have changed in the last 150 years and how much they've remained the same, from the gullibility of the public to the divisiveness of Congress. Again, at times he makes things a bit TOO clear cut (especially with politicians perpetually shouting "What's next: black voters? WOMEN voters?" Yeah, we get it), but this is still likely the most authentic look at Lincoln's political career you're going to see on the big screen. The director's ability to capture a scene on camera is one of his greatest strengths, and likely the main reason he has maintained his foothold atop the Hollywood hierarchy after all this time.

I wonder if he has "Old Man" written on his business cards?
Despite my early reservations, Lincoln is a fine film, and one of the better historical dramas of the past decade. It's not perfect, and Spielberg's inability to get over his own hype slightly sabotages any chances of a Best Picture win. But Daniel Day-Lewis is more of a sure thing than anything else in theaters right now or at any time this year. This is a film that - warts and all - is worth watching for his performance alone. If you want to see a master at work - and really, who doesnt'? - then you simply must give Lincoln a shot. It's easily Spielberg's best film in two decades, and is a much better than most of his critics will ever admit.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Open Letters Monthly: Rise of the Guardians

Dreamworks finally makes their presence felt in the 2012 Oscar race for best Animated Feature with the release of Rise of the Guardians, the folk-tale inspired film based on the Guardians of Childhood series of books by William Joyce. Though Dreamworks has often lived in the shadow of Pixar as far as their animated features have gone, they are always capable of putting out something extraordinary, such as the original Shrek or How to Train Your Dragon. Likely to be nominated, and with Pixar putting out a great-but-not-Pixar-level product in Brave, and Dreamworks might actually have a shot at the big prize this season.

Jack Frost doesn't know why he suddenly came into existence almost 300 years ago. All he knows is that he controls the cold weather, isn't seen by anybody, and wants to live without rules and restrictions that would compromise the fun he has every day. But when the Boogeyman returns from centuries of isolation in an attempt to rule the world with fear, Jack finds himself summoned to join the Guardians of Childhood, led by the legendary Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny and Sandman. Together, they have a chance to fight back, and Jack may just discover the person he was meant to be.

Rise of the Guardians is directed by Peter Ramsey and features the voices of Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Jude Law, Isla Fisher and Hugh Jackman.

Click here for the complete review at Open Letters Monthly.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Nuthing ta F Wit

When I was younger, I used to have a friend who was REALLY big into Asian Martial arts flicks. Anytime we would hang out at his place, there would be some movie or another playing on his television. I already was somewhat familiar with the popular Bruce Lee, but it was through him that I was introduced to Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh and Sammo Hung, years before their popularization in Hollywood. But it wasn't just these superstars that were in his VHS collection, but increasingly obscure titles that all but the most hardcore martial arts fans would know nothing about. These films often looked low budget, but made up for the imagery of not only what the human body could do (and most stars did their own stunts, remember) but the exaggerations through wirework that made for a wonderfully fantastical element to even the most grounded releases.

This same friend was also the one to introduce to me the New York rap group Wu-Tang Clan, often called the greatest and most influential hip hop group of all time. Nobody sounds quite like Wu-Tang, which is why the group has managed to keep their status for almost twenty years. De facto leader RZA apparently had as much respect for the old-school martial arts flicks as my childhood friend, because he directed and stars in The Man with the Iron Fists, an homage to the genre with big name stars Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu on hand.

That's going to be hell to clean out of the carpet.
Jungle village has its share of problems. The many clans are constantly at war, and the average folk just do their best to avoid being caught in the middle. When the Lion Clan, led by the treacherous Silver Lion (Byron Mann), makes a grab for power, every man, woman and child in Jungle village is in terrible danger. Their only hope of salvation? An opium-addicted mercenary (Crowe), the deposed son (Rick Yune) of Lion Clan's former ruler and the outsider Blacksmith (RZA), skilled in making exotic weaponry.

Oh, yeah. And Lucy Liu leads a brothel full of trained female assassins, as well.
The best parts of The Man with the Iron Fists? Well, leads Crowe and Lucy Liu add a bit of class to the cast, with an amazing on-screen chemistry that wishes you could see more of their characters together. Liu possesses the same charisma and allure that she brought to Ally McBeal over a decade ago, and forces control of every scene she enters. And Crowe, who was only able to be on set for ten days, does more with his role in that limited time than he has managed in the past decade of dedicated roles. For the first time in a long time, Crowe actually looks like he's having FUN. Maybe if he took roles like this more often, people would think more highly of his talents. Besides, they can't all be Gladiator. The soundtrack is solid and memorable, with new music not only from Wu-Tang but also The Black Keys, Kanye West and My Chemical Romance. The balance makes for one of the more pleasantly diverse soundtracks in recent memory, and stands out as one of the film's main selling points. The action scenes are decent, with no major problems sticking out, though for a movie with such obvious reverence for the genre, I wish there had been more major fight scenes than the few included.. MwtIF also carries with it a wonderful campiness; it's difficult to be too critical when things are far too silly, both visually and verbally, to really be taken seriously in the first place.

His name? Wait for it... Jack Knife.
Of course, that doesn't mean the experience is flawless. This is RZA's feature directorial debut, and it painfully shows on multiple levels. A couple of actors - Mann and Cung Le - manage to put in decent performances, but most of the acting is so bad that it completely defies the "so bad it's good" category, especially the surprisingly weak Yune. Worse is former WWE superstar David Bautista as a prototypical villain. But the absolute worst parts of the cast are the insipid Jamie Chung and RZA himself. Chung has shown no sign of improvement after poor appearances in Sucker Punch and The Hangover Part 2. All the potential she once had has turned to vapor, perhaps never to be seen again. RZA is slightly worse an actor than he is a director, taking himself and his film far too seriously and only popping during a brief flashback sequence close to the movie's climax. His dull narrative is a problem, as it's obvious he doesn't trust the audience to follow along such simplistic lines, or couldn't find a better way to convey it. You need a scorecard to keep track of all the characters and double crosses, and many potential storylines were left either on the drawing board or the cutting room floor. It's obvious that while Quentin Tarantino has attached his name to this, it's only in the most perfunctory sense; he definitely did his part to inspire this, but Man with the Iron Fists has a purely primordial feel, possessing Tarantino's carnage without any of the abject social commentary.

The Eyes have it!
As martial arts flicks go, Man with the Iron Fists will most certainly go unnoticed and unseen by general filmgoers. It's not a bad experience, and you get the feeling that RZA will improve with future projects, though perhaps he should choose one side of the camera and stick to it. But it's also a very specific experience; you know exactly what you will be getting into, and most people won't care one way or the other how this one turns out. RZA emulates the feel of a classic martial arts film, but never does anything to expand that experience for others. For hardcore martial arts fanatics, this is a must-see. For everyone else... not nearly so much.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bond... the Best Bond...

James Bond is no stranger to the concept of death. Over the course of 22 films, MI6’s most famous secret agent has seen more than his share of mortality and managed to survive with his trademark confidence intact. He has been portrayed by Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig, with each iteration witnessing death firsthand throughout the course of their Bond careers. But while his 23’rd outing, Skyfall, features Bond coming back from certain demise once more, the character was almost dead on arrival long before the film’s November 9’th release. Thanks to parent company Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s financial troubles and bankruptcy claim in 2010, many thought we had possibly seen the end of Ian Fleming’s creation after 2008’s dreadfully dull Quantum of Solace. Despite retaining popularity both for the franchise and current leading man Craig, there was a possibility that we might have seen the end of one of the longest-running film franchises in Hollywood history. Fortunately, while both the Bond name and series are finally returning from their near-death experiences, the character puts on one of his best all-time showings.

The car, like Bond, is vintage.
Thankfully not a mere continuation of the previous story in the Daniel Craig trilogy, Skyfall begins a whole new tale; Bond, thought dead after a mission gone bad in Turkey, has resurfaced after three months and a deadly attack on Great Britain’s MI6 headquarters. While M (Judi Dench) is blamed for the security leaks that led to the attack and the exposure of agents embedded in terrorist organizations, she sends Bond after the man who orchestrated the bombing: Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent who decided he could do more by going rogue than he could as a member of a government agency. Not back to full strength, Bond must somehow find a way to defeat Silva while also preserving the integrity of England and MI6 at the same.

Bardem; the Villain of 2012?
This is a Bond film for absolutely everyone. For those who loved Casino Royale’s change in pace from the austerely smooth storylines that preceded it to the brutal, gritty style that emphasized Bond’s confidence, character and humanity, then director Sam Mendes ups the ante by knocking 007 from his perch and forcing him to work up back up to anything approaching his usual self. In following through with this, Craig reminds everyone why we love to see him as the hero of this series; he manages to pack into a very tightly-wound package the charisma, focus and killer instincts that make Bond such an effective and beloved character. Craig does all this with a striking confidence that automatically makes him the most impressive thing in the room, with the addition of a vulnerability rarely seen in Craig and never seen in Bond. It’s a refreshing difference, and one that helps define his past and future. He rarely in this film is his character tasked with anything so superhuman as to defy belief. And his Bond is one who keeps up with style, but doesn’t let it define his life; he’s as comfortable in a classic tux as he is in casual wear. At this point it’s safe to say that Craig has surpassed much-loved Sean Connery as the most renowned Bond of all time, a notable achievement after many (myself included) criticized his casting before Casino Royale was ever finished.

The requisite topless scene.
But for those of you pining for a more old-fashioned spy narrative, you’re also in luck. Released during the 50’th anniversary of James Bond in the movies, Skyfall is at most times homage to the franchise itself. Bardem is by all standards the epitome of a classic bond villain; he doesn’t lack in scope, aim or confidence, and best of all doesn’t need lumbering, monosyllabically-named henchmen to do his dirty work for him. Silva has no problem handling his own business, and the fact that he’s Bond’s physical and intellectual superior creates no end of difficulty for the super agent. This film needed an expert villain (seriously, do you even REMEMBER Quantum of Solace’s bad guy?) and Bardem is so impeccably scary that I doubt you’ll see a better Bond nemesis in the coming years. And Dench’s M is still a force to be reckoned with, accepting a much larger role in the film than she has in her previous entries to date. Dench is one of those actresses you’re always happy to see, and her role here cements her status as one of the best all-time fictional MI6 heads.

His office doubles as mother's basement.
 Skyfall also features the return of Q (Ben Whishaw), the quartermaster who supplies Bond with his weapons and gadgets. I know a lot of fans have been looking forward to Q’s return, and the decision to revamp him and the entire tech department as young hackers with ability to do more significant damage on a laptop in bed before they get up than any one agent can do in a week was a move both inspired and brilliant in execution. Despite these familiar additions however, Mendes makes it clear in his story that the world is a different place than it was in 1962. Unlike previous decades in which we could see with clarity who our global enemies are, our fears have replaced the Soviets or the Chinese with the Taliban, non-centralized terror groups that don’t claim nationality but are just as – if not more – effective in their attacks than those global superpowers we used to worry about. Skyfall masterfully addresses that, and how MI6 and similar espionage groups will be effective in both the Bond future and the modern world.

So much promise, such poor execution...
Of course, not everything classic can be considered good for the Bond franchise. Sooner or later the series is going to have to graduate its female characters to a semi-respectable status, if for no other reason than common decency. In most Bond movies, Bond Girls are either mindless twits who fall in love with our hero or ruthless killers who… also fall in love with him. More often than not, Bond’s love interests get knocked off through brutal, throwaway means, and often without much fanfare. The Women’s Liberation Movement has not hit Fleming’s England yet, and while there have been a few women in the series who have excelled as characters through strength (Grace Jones in A View to Kill), skill (Honor Blackman in Goldfinger or Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies) or intelligence (Eva Green in Casino Royale), the franchise has never featured a true woman warrior who was ever close to Bond’s equal in all respects. Berenice Lim Marlohe is talented but otherwise useless as a typical Bondette whose biggest contribution is a shower scene with Craig, and while we’re teased by the arrival of weapons-savvy female MI6 agent Eve, played by Naomi Harris, we are disappointed twice; once, by Harris and Craig’s nonexistent chemistry, and the second time by the rather pedestrian manner in which the story uses her. 

He's getting too old for this $#!%
But that hardly matters in the long run. Skyfall appears to be not just a new chapter in the Bond saga, but the start of something new and wonderful. Clever in its execution, smartly told and impeccably guided, it’s quite possibly the best Bond movie of all time. That doesn’t necessarily translate to best movie of the year, but as action epics go it easily outpaces the likes of Cloud Atlas and The Dark Knight Rises by a good margin. And that’s what makes the future of Bond so exciting and scary: it still has room to grow. With a wealth of respect and adoration from its fans and contributors and a brand-new lease on life, there’s little reason not to believe that the coming 24’th James Bond film will be even better. As we’re told in the closing credits, James Bond will return, and Skyfall proves that the franchise can mature and evolve with the times. The next entry will have to be the one to prove that it can continue down that same path.