Movie Reviews - 2012 postsMonday December 17, 2012
Movie Review: Lawless (2012)
Whoever decided to make a movie out of Matt Bondurant’s “The Wettest County in the World: A Novel Based on a True Story,” a story of bootlegging brothers in Franklin County, Virginia circa 1931, probably thought they could turn it into a kind of backwoods “Godfather.”
Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), like Vito Corleone, is the family patriarch who refuses to join the safety of a collective and gets his throat slit halfway through … but lives. Howard Bondurant (Jason Clarke) is the hotheaded, chick-banging brother a la Sonny. And Shia LeBeouf’s character Jack? Both coward and heir apparent. So both Michael and Fredo. If you can imagine Michael and Fredo as one man.
Here’s the big problem with “Lawless.” It focuses on Jack rather than Forrest, and Jack is a pain in the ass. He’s a coward who thinks a tough-guy image can paper that over. He has two older brothers to emulate, boys who save his ass time and again, but he chooses to emulate big-city gangsters like Al Capone and Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). When he finally gets a big score, he flaunts it. He buys expensive cars and expensive suits and gets his photo taken on the running board of his automobile with guns in his hands. He drags his friend, Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan), who has a limp from childhood rickets, into the business and gets him killed. He drags a lovely girl, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), a preacher’s daughter, Mennonite, I assume, to his still across town, and nearly gets her killed. He is given the chance time and again to prove his mettle and doesn’t but never owns up to it. He never owns up to his culpability. He never offers us, or the universe, a mea culpa.
The movie opens with young Jack, the youngest of the three, unable to shoot a pig at the family farm, forcing Forrest to do it. Then we get the status quo in Franklin County, Virginia, circa 1931. The Bondurants distribute moonshine in mason jars all over the county. So do others. But everyone respects each other’s territory. Particularly the territory of the Bondurant boys. Howard is an ass-kicking miracle while Forrest is a slow-moving, barely talking monstrosity with brass knuckles. He’s Bane without the iron lung and with a slightly better haircut. Then there’s Jack. Never mind. You know kin.
Forrest has a theory that the Bondurants are indestructible. During the Great War and Prohibition, everyone around them died and they were left standing. He carries this sureness with him wherever he goes.
But into this status quo, shaking things up, comes Virginia Commonwealth Attorney Mason Wardell (Tim Tolin), a powerful fat man in the backseat of a car, who wants a cut of the profits. He’s got with him, from Chicago, Special Deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce), a bully dressed like a dandy: perfumed, a shaved part to his slicked-back hair, cufflinks and shiny shoes. Something’s gotta give.
It does. Rakes’ men cause a ruckus at Forrest’s place, a gas station/diner in the middle of nowhere, and get the brass knuckle treatment; but they remain behind and in the middle of the night slit Forrest’s throat. Oddly, at this point of vulnerability for the Bonderants, no one descends. Instead, Jack, on his own, sells moonshine at a greater profit to Floyd Banner, and he and Cricket Pate almost die for their trouble, standing in an unmarked grave. But when Banner finds out that Jack is a Bondurant, kin to that hothead Howard and his mule brother who walked 20 miles to a hospital with his throat sliced, he agrees to cut a deal. He even gives them the address of where Rakes’ men are staying. After Forrest and Howard descend, there’s not much left of the two, and they send Jack to deliver a package: the testicles of one of the men in a mason jar.
So at this point do we get all-out war? No. We get a montage of the Bondurants raking it in and whooping it up from their deal with Floyd Banner, along with a little unnecessary narration from Jack. I’m thinking: Really? Montage? It cuts the tension, for one. Besides, do both sides think the other is done? Do the Bondurants think Charley Rakes will go on home now? They’ve up the ante. Surely he about to up it back. Or at least call.
He does, just as Jack is showing off to Bertha. But thanks to Howard, Charley Rakes loses the upper hand, and Jack has the opportunity to kill him. He doesn’t. Did he just run out of time? Is it the pig all over again? Does he just not have it in him? Instead Rakes’ men find Bertha and Cricket Pate, return the former to her father, but allow Charley to walk off with the latter and kill him. No one in the county cottons to that, nor to Charley Rakes, who looks down on them all. And in the end, on a covered bridge, with his brother Howard backing him, and Forrest on the road with three or four bullets in him, Jack Bondurant is finally able to kill the pig.
Not with a bang but a whimper
“Lawless” was written by Nick Cave (yes, that one) and directed by John Hillcoat, the team who gave us the great Aussie western “The Proposition” in 2005. It’s beautifully art directed. It includes some of my favorite actors of recent years: the cooler-than-cool Tom Hardy, the stunning Jessica Chastain, the always lovely Mia Wasikowska. Dan DeHaan (“Chronicle”), a sickly-looking Leo DiCaprio, is an up-and-comer, either a future star or a perennial character actor. I’m always interested in what he’s doing on screen.
All for naught. I’m buying less and less the kind of cool Tom Hardy brings to the screen, but I’ll still buy it in the service of a good story. This isn’t that. There are too many characters for the time allotted. Chastain is wasted, as is Oldman.
Most of all: Fredo ain’t your lead. Actually Jack isn’t even Fredo. Fredo was self-aware and that made him interesting. Jack isn’t and isn’t. He’s as frenetic and shallow as Sam Witwicky. He’s a hollow man who thinks he’s full. I actually cringed as he courted Bertha. I cringed as he made his plans for wealth and fame. I cringed at the echo of “Goodfellas” in the end. Franklin County, Virginia deserves better.
Movie Review: Life of Pi (2012)
Promises are made at the beginning of Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi”—or at least one big promise. An unnamed writer (Rafe Spall), who is about the become the listener of the story we are all there to see—about a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean—has heard that this story will make him believe in God. Since he is by extension us, one assumes the story will make us believe in God, too.
Good! I thought. Sitting in the theater, a fundamentalist agnostic in the middle of a long, tired week, I was ready to believe in something.
So did it work? Did I come out of the theater believing in God?
Of course not. In fact, the fantastic story we hear, which may or may not be an illusion, but is certainly an allusion, almost discounts this belief.
Pi keeps going
But before we get to that story we hear other stories about a young Pi Patel (Gautam Belur, Ayush Tandon) growing up in India. We get his early flirtations with religion: growing up Hindu; being perplexed and then attracted to the self-sacrifice inherent in the story of Jesus (“Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ”); feeling calm when praying to Mohammed. The boy collects religions the way I used to collect baseball cards.
But the best story is the story of his name.
The Writer assumes Pi’s father was a mathematician, but the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan), in the middle of making him lunch, says the story is a bit more complicated. As good stories often are.
Pi had an uncle, Mamaji (Elie Alouf), who was born with water in his head, and the doctor whipped him around and around to get rid of it. From this, he developed the thin legs and broad chest of a swimmer, and a subsequent fixation on swimming pools. Whenever he traveled he had to check out the swimming pools in the area. His favorite was in Paris: Piscine Molitor. And when Santosh (Adil Hussain) and Gita Patel (Tabu) had a second child, a boy, that’s what they named him: Piscine Molitor Patel.
Pi loved his beautiful French name until one day in middle school when it morphed, at the hands of schoolboy wits and bullies, into the vulgar English verb pissing. He suffered for a year under that nickname. Then he came up with a plan. At the start of the new session, when the teacher called out the roll before each class, young Piscine would walk to the front of the classroom and tell everyone the new foreshortening of his name: Pi, as in 3.14, etc. But the schoolboy wits and bullies weren’t having it, and insisted he would still be Pissing. Pi anticipated that reaction. So in his last class, the math class, he not only gave a rudimentary definition of pi; he not only wrote “3.14” on the board, but he kept going. He wrote out, from memory, dozens of numbers, hundreds of numbers, in the equation pi. And it caused such a sensation that he accomplished his goal: he became Pi.
Now that’s a story.
Pi’s family runs a zoo in the former French quarter of Pondicherry, India, and young Pi, now 11, is fascinated with a Bengal tiger there, who was originally named Thirsty by Richard Parker, a hunter, but due to a clerical error the names were reversed: Thirsty, the hunter, brought in Richard Parker, the tiger. At one point Pi tries to feed Richard Parker meat from his hand. “You think the tiger is your friend?” his father yells at him. “He is an animal, not a playmate.” Pi insists animals have souls; he’s seen it in their eyes. So the father gives Pi something else to see with his eyes. He ties a goat to the bars of Richard Parker’s cage and forces his son to watch what happens.
In college, Pi (now Suraj Sharma) reads literature, feels restless, falls in love. Then his family is forced to move. They have to sell the animals and for some reason ride with them on a Japanese steamer to their new home in Canada.
This gets us to the story we’re expecting to see: about a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean.
The tiger under the tarp
But not immediately.
The big storm that sinks the boat and almost everyone and everything in it, washes up, onto Pi’s lifeboat, which is half-covered with a tarp, not a tiger but an injured zebra, a seasick orangutan named Orange Juice, and a hyena who keeps trying to finish off the zebra. Pi tries to maintain control of the situation but he’s a boy without a weapon. It’s Orange Juice who finally does it, by bonking the hyena on the head. For a second we’re relieved. We laugh. Then the hyena attacks Orange Juice. Pi screams. And from under the tarp, Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger, finally emerges and swiftly kills the hyena.
And just like that it’s the two of them: Richard Parker, patrolling the lifeboat, and Pi hanging onto a makeshift float of oars and lifejackets tied to the lifeboat. In this manner they drift and get hungry. At one point, the tiger, hungry, jumps into the ocean to get at the fish but then swims toward Pi, who, panicking, pulls himself up on the lifeboat. He’s about to kill the tiger, clinging to the side, but can’t, for he sees the soul in his eyes. Instead he creates a kind of ladder that the tiger ascends to safety.
The story becomes increasingly hallucinatory. The ocean turns luminescent just as a giant whale leaps into the air and thunders back again. They are suddenly inundated, pelted, with flying fish, who fill the boat with themselves. Half-starved, they bump into a floating island, teeming with meerkats and vegetation, which, Pi determines, is a living thing, and carnivorous, and would eventually eat them. So off they go again. Finally, after 227 days, they land on the shores of Mexico. Pi drags the boat onto the beach and collapses. Richard Parker leaps onto the beach and heads for the jungle, which is conveniently nearby. He pauses right before he enters it again. Pi, barely able to lift up his head, is hoping for a final look of farewell from this companion, this tiger whom he tamed and loved, but it doesn’t come. Instead Richard Parker simply vanishes into the woods.
That’s basically the story. Except no one believes it. Hyenas and tigers and zebras, oh my? A floating carnivorous island? A boy and a Bengal tiger? Is this Calvin and Hobbes?
No. But it may be “Fight Club.”
The tiger inside Pi
In Mexico, the Japanese steamer company sends two representatives to find out how their boat, with all its precious cargo, sunk. Other than “Storm,” Pi can’t really tell them why. He can only tell them the other things, about Richard Parker and the carnivorous island, which are not only fantastic but completely irrelevant to what they want to know. So he tells them another story. In this one, the animals are played by humans. The orangutan is Pi’s mother, the zebra is a sailor with a broken leg, and the hyena is the asshole cook we met on board (Gérard Depardieu). It’s a lie for those too grounded to believe the fantastic.
But then the Writer makes the connection between Pi and the tiger—that Pi was the tiger—and, as the Writer realizes it, so do we: This is the true story. Pi is the tiger who kills the hyena (the cook) who kills the orangutan (Pi’s mother). Transposing the story with animals is Pi’s way of dealing with the tragedy. In this manner, the tiger is both Pi’s Hobbes (his companion) and his Tyler Durden (himself). It’s also why it took so long for the tiger to show up on the lifeboat. He wasn’t emerging from under the tarp; he was emerging from within Pi.
Neither version, by itself, is satisfying. Each has holes. If it’s the version with the tiger, how does Richard Parker, a tiger, hide under a tarp, and why would a hyena hide there with him? And if it’s the version without the tiger, then it’s a version without the tiger. That’s no fun. Instead of a story about a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, it’s a story about a boy on a lifeboat who slowly goes crazy with grief and isolation. But the two versions, each unsatisfying, each full of holes, complement each other.
As for the early promise about believing in God? At the end of this long tale, the mature Pi asks the Writer which story he prefers and he admits the one with the tiger. To which Pi responds: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”
The Writer smiles at this but in the audience I was simply confused. Wait a minute, what did he say? Goes with God? What does that mean? And prefer? Preference isn’t belief. How does this make us believe in God? Is Pi, a man who collects religions the way I collected baseball cards, saying that humans prefer the story of God the way that we prefer the story of the tiger? Because it’s a nicer story? And because it keeps the other story, the story about the horror humans do, at bay?
This isn’t a story that makes us believe in God, in other words. This is a story about why we believe in God. Or why our belief in God is generally a lie.
The tiger or Gérard Depardieu?
A friend of mine refuses to see this movie. He saw the trailer and thought it looked like pap. A boy and a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean? Puh-lease. My friend didn’t know he was already in the movie. He was a representative of the Japanese steamer company, there to file a report. And, in that report, even they, the reps, prefer the story about the tiger. Who doesn’t? It’s got a tiger in it.
“Life of Pi” is interesting in this way. It appears to be a tough-but-gentle wish-fulfillment fantasy about a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. But the further I move away from it, the darker, and less gentle, it seems; and the more I see, not the tiger growling majestically, but Gérard Depardieu, the hyena, lording it over the injured people in the small lifeboat. Until he’s brought low.
Movie Review: Dark Shadows (2012)
“This thing is spectacularly off,” I said.
“I keep waiting for it to find a rhythm,” Ward responded, “and it never does.”
We were halfway into Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows,” surely one of the worst movies of the year. The cast was good, the trailer looked funny, the reviews were OK. In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis called it enjoyable; on Salon, Andrew O’Hehir trumpeted Michelle Pfeiffer’s return to the screen (after only a year away?), while on Slate, Dana Stevens wrote, “[Burton] and Depp, both avowed childhood fans of the original series, seem to be in their element and having a grand old time.” Turns out these positive reviews were in the minority. Among top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, “Dark Shadows” garnered a 37% rating, which, to me, is still 37 percentage points too high. It’s an abysmal movie.
It opens with 10 minutes of backstory. In the 18th century, the Collins family, including young Barnabus, leave Liverpool, England, for the wilds of Maine, where they start a fishing empire, create the town of Collinsport, and build the stately, gothic mansion known as Collinwood.
Barnabus, of age now, and played by Johnny Depp, is about to diddle the servant, Angelique (Eva Green), who asks if he loves her. He cannot tell a lie: he doesn’t. Hell hath no fury like a woman—or, in this case, witch—scorned, and she uses her powers to kill his parents by falling steeple. Distraught, he descends into the black arts, but manages, through the pain, to find his one true love: Josette (Bella Heathcote, this decade’s Heather Graham). Ever jealous, Angelique compels Josette to throw herself off Widow’s Hill, turns Barnabus into a vampire, then turns the town against him. A torch-wielding mob descends, chain him in a coffin, and bury him alive for 200 years. Cue credits.
It’s now 1972. A young woman on a train, who looks like Josette (same actress), is obviously hiding something (she changes her name, per a Victoria, B.C. travel poster, to Victoria Winters), and heading for a job as a governess at Collinwood, now decrepit. There, she and we meet the modern, dysfunctional Collins family: matriarch Elizabeth (Pfeiffer), who is starched and overly proper; her eye-rolling teenage daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Mortez); Elizabeth’s brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), a weak, shallow man who ignores the needs of his son, David (Gulliver McGrath), whose mother died at sea three years earlier. David claims he still sees his mother; he claims he still has conversations with her. That’s why Collinwood has an in-house shrink, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter, of course), who arrives at evening meals frequently plastered. There’s also a disgruntled butler/handyman, Willie (Jackie Earle Haley), who is frequently plastered, and whose every joke falls flat.
Only after meeting all of them, as well as the ghost of Josette who plagues Victoria, do we get the resurrection of Barnabus by a night-time construction crew, each of whom screams, runs and crawls from this nightmare. Barnabus then goes to Collinwood and we meet the family all over again: Elizabeth, Carolyn, Roger, et al. Elizabeth wants to keep Barnabus’ secret—that he’s a 200-year-old vampire—from everyone, including the family, so she introduces him as Barnabus III. From England. All of these jokes fall flat. Then Barnabus meets the new governess, Victoria, who looks exactly like his long-lost true love, Josette, and discovers that his nemesis, Angelique, has survived all of these years and is now running the town.
What does he do? Get revenge on Angelique? Court Victoria, who looks like his one true love?
Neither. He sets about restoring the family name and reputation. We get a montage—backed by the Carpenters’ “Top of the World”—of workers sprucing up Collinwood and the Collins Canning Factory opening its doors again. When Barnabus finally meets Angelique, she makes a pass at him; the second time they have rough sex. He also sucks the blood out of a band of hippies in the woods. Then he kills Dr. Hoffman, who, under the pretense of curing him of vampirism, and wanting eternal youth, tries to turn herself into a vampire. Before this, she goes down on him. Later, Barnabus throws a ball headlined by Alice Cooper. “Balls are how the ruling class remain the ruling class,” he says.
His revenge? Forgotten. His one true love? Whatever. What should be driving the story forward isn’t, and what is driving the story forward isn’t funny.
Occasionally we get bits where Barnabus grapples, to humorous effect, with 1972 mores. He sees the golden-arched “M” of McDonald’s as a sign of Mephistopheles. He wonders over the sorcery of television and yells at Karen Carpenter, singing on a variety show of the day, “Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!” In Dr. Hoffman’s office, he shakes his head and says, “This is a very silly play.” Cut to: an episode of “Scooby Doo.”
But most of the movie is scattered, pointless, painfully tin-eared.
All of it leads to a final confrontation between the Collins family and Angelique, where we find out, in a pointless third act reveal, that long ago Angelique turned Carolyn into a werewolf. We also find out that it was Angelique who killed David’s mother at sea. At this point David’s mother finally reveals herself, in all her howling fury, and destroys Angelique.
Why didn’t David’s mother do this sooner? Why didn’t Barnabus? Why do the Collinses consider Barnabus worthy of the portrait over the fireplace when it was Barnabus’ father who built up everything? And since when do witches turn men into vampires?
The fault isn’t Depp’s: his line readings; his reaction shots, are generally good. But nothing anyone else does is worth a damn. Tim Burton lets his freak flag fly. He paints Johnny Depp chalky white again, as in “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “Willie Wonka,” and “Sweeney Todd.” He has the living and the dead raise a family again, as in “Beetlejuice.” But there’s no juice here. Burton’s always been a lousy storyteller, sacrificing plot and plausibility for imagery, but even the imagery here feels stale. Burton’s love of the dead finally feels dead.
My favorite moment? The end. And not because it’s the end but because of the Hollywood hubris it represents. As Barnabus and Victoria, both vampires now, kiss on the rocks beneath Widow’s Hill, the camera dives underwater and heads out to sea, where we come across the body of Dr. Hoffman in cement shoes. And her eyes suddenly open. Ping! The end. It’s a set-up for a sequel that will never be made. It’s an ending that assumed a success that never came.
Movie Review: Lincoln (2012)
You know the saying that laws are like sausages—you don’t want to see them being made? Tony Kushner says, “Grow up.” Steven Spielberg says, “We’ll loin ya.” Their movie, “Lincoln,” is not only the greatest story ever told about the passage of a law—in this case the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which formally, legally abolished slavery—it’s a joy for anyone who cares about great acting, writing, and drama. It’s what movies should be.
In 1915, Pres. Woodrow Wilson called “The Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s Confederate-friendly epic, “history written with lightning,” but I wouldn’t call this movie that. It’s history written as carefully as history should be. It’s well-researched and made dramatic and relevant. Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), the most saintly of all presidents, isn’t presented here as a saint but as a smart, moral, political man, who, under extraordinary pressure from all sides, does what he has to do in order to do the right thing. His machinations aren’t clean. It takes a little bit of bad to do good. Progress is never easy. There are always slippery-slope arguments against it. Sure, free the slaves. Then what? Give Negroes the vote? Allow them into the House of Representatives? Give women the vote? Allow intermarriage? The preposterousness of where the road might take us prevents us from taking the first step. Then and now.
Nobody does it better
I once said of Jeffrey Wright’s Martin Luther King, Jr., that no one would ever do it better; I now say the same of Day-Lewis’ Lincoln. He only has to talk about his dreams to his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), with his stockinged feet up on the furniture, a kind of languid ease in his long-limbed body, and I’m his. He only has to quote Shakespeare one moment (“I could count myself a king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams”), and, in the next, ask Mary, in a colloquialism of the day, “How’s your coconut?” and I’m his. I remember when I was young, 10 or so, and we were visiting my father’s sister, Alice, and her husband, Ben, and when we had to leave I began to cry. Because I didn’t want to leave Uncle Ben. I liked being near him. He had a calm and gentle spirit that I and my immediate family did not. It felt comfortable to be around. I got that same feeling from Daniel Day-Lewis here. How does he do that? How do you act a calm and gentle spirit?
His Lincoln exudes charm. During a flag-raising ceremony, he pulls a piece of paper from his top hat, says a few quick words, then looks up with a twinkle in his eye. “That’s my speech,” he says, and returns the paper to his top hat. He gives his cabinet, reluctant to spend political capital on another go at the 13th amendment, which the House failed to ratify 10 months earlier, a primer on the legal difficulties of the Emancipation Proclamation. If slaves are property, then… If the Confederacy is not a sovereign nation but wayward states, then… Finally he apologizes for his long-windedness: “As the preacher said, I would write shorter sermons but once I get going I’m too lazy to stop.” He says it with a twinkle in his eye. His stories are there for purposes of instruction and/or distraction. Maybe he does it to distract himself. In the war room late at night, waiting on word about the shelling of Wilmington, Va., a blanket around his shoulders and a cup of coffee in his hand, he launches into an anecdote about Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen, and Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill), loudly objects. “You're going to tell one of your stories! I can't stand to hear another one of your stories!” He leaves. Too bad. He missed a great story. Added bonus: You get to hear Day-Lewis, an Englishman, acting as Lincoln, an American, imitating an Englishman.
If this Lincoln is human-sized so is the presidency itself. Petitioners line up outside Lincoln’s office to ask for favors. His cabinet is full of men who think they should be president and aren’t reluctant to share their opinions. His wife has her complaints (their son, Willie, dead now three years), his son Robert has his (he wants to leave law school for the war), Negro soldiers have theirs (they’re getting paid $3 less per month than white soldiers). Both political extremes mock him. Abolitionists consider him cautious and timid, a lingerer and a buffoon, while the Northern Democrats malign him as a tyrant enthralled to the Negro. They thunder about him in Congress. “King Abraham Africanus!” they cry. A president considered too conciliatory by friends and an African tyrant by foes? Plus ca change.
Peace v. Freedom
Ultimately “Lincoln” is about the choice between peace (for all) and freedom (for a few). “It’s either this amendment or the Confederate peace,” Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), tells the president. “You cannot have both.”
Almost everyone pushes Lincoln toward peace even as he moves, in his methodical, searching manner, toward freedom. He gave himself the power during war to proclaim all slaves free, but what happens in peace? Won’t slavery still be legal in the South? Couldn’t the Civil War just happen all over again over the same issue?
The 13th amendment has already passed in the Senate and it’s just 20 votes shy in the House. So early in January 1865, even as he sends moderate Republican Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) to Virginia to set up a potential peace conference with secessionist delegates, Lincoln hires, or has Seward hire, three scallywags (read: lobbyists), gloriously headed up by James Spader as W.N. Bilbo, to more or less buy the votes of lame-duck Democrats, losers of the 1864 election, who have nothing to lose and gainful employment to gain.
That’s the true drama of the movie. Can Lincoln, in the midst of pulling back the South to the Union, hold together enough of the disparate elements that remain to abolish slavery at the federal level before the South returns and gums up the works again? We get a few key moments, several dramatic scenes. The Northern Democrats attempt to goad thundering abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, into proclaiming on the House floor that he believes in the equality of races (anathema at the time) and not just equality before the law.
You know all of those “100 Greatest Movie Insults” compilations on YouTube? They need an update. This is Stevens’ rejoinder:
How can I hold that all men are created equal when here before me stands, stinking, the moral carcass of the gentlemen from Ohio, proof that some men are inferior, endowed by their maker with dim wit impermeable to reason, with cold, pallid slime in their veins instead of hot, red blood. You are more reptile than man, George! So low and flat that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you.
What fun. The language here is beautiful. I also like it when Lincoln calls his cabinet “pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters.” We need to bring that back: “pettifogging.” We need to bring back erudite insults.
But the key scene in the movie contains no thunder, and the key man who needs convincing isn’t a Democrat; it’s Lincoln himself.
As with the Ethan Allen story, it takes place in the middle of the night in the basement of the White House. Lincoln is about to send a message in Morse code about the “secesh” delegates, and ruminates out loud with several officers. Up to this point he’s been pursuing two paths, one leading to peace but not passage, the other pointing to passage but not peace, and this is the point where the paths diverge and he has to choose which to walk on. He begins down the path of peace: bring the delegates to Washington. But before the message is sent, he engages the two men in conversation.
One of them, it turns out, is an engineer. Lincoln asks him if he knows Euclid’s axioms and common notions, and then regales them with the first: Things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other. “That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning,” he says. “It’s true because it works. Has done and always will be.” He seems to be talking out loud. But there’s a moment, an epiphanic “huh,” when Lincoln realizes the point he’s talking toward:
In his book, [huh] Euclid says this is self-evident. You see, there it is, even in that 2,000-year-old book of mechanical law: It is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other.
The beauty of the scene? Kushner and Spielberg draw no line to the Declaration of Independence. They assume we’re already drawing that line ourselves. They assume it’s self-evident. They just give us Daniel Day-Lewis saying “Huh.”
At which point he rescinds the order sending the peace delegates to Washington, and thereby changes history.
To the ages
“Lincoln” isn’t all glory. The screenplay by Tony Kushner attempts to demythologize history, the presidency and Lincoln, but Spielberg, fore and aft, can’t contain his myth-making tendencies.
In the beginning, sitting on a raised platform, Pres. Lincoln engages four soldiers, two black and two white, and seems halfway to Memorial already. Three of the four soldiers have the Gettysburg Address memorized already, as if they were 20th-century schoolkids (Dan Roach and myself in fifth grade) rather 19th-century soldiers. We hear tinkling music as if in a Ken Burns documentary. It’s all rather unnecessary. We could’ve begun with Lincoln’s bad dream and stockinged feet and gotten on with it.
Then there’s the ending. Spielberg has always had a problem with endings. From behind, with music swelling, we watch Lincoln leave the White House, on April 14, 1865, late for Ford’s Theater. “Not a bad end,” I thought. But it’s not the end. We go to the theater, but it’s a different theater, one his son Tad is attending, which suddenly closes its curtains to announce the awful and inevitable. Then there’s a deathbed scene: Mary wailing, the doctor declaring, blood on the pillow, someone saying, as someone maybe said or maybe didn’t, “Now he belongs to the ages.” The end? No. Spielberg has to include the second inaugural: “With malice toward none, with charity to all…” Meanwhile I sat in my seat, feeling not very charitable.
But those are my only complaints about “Lincoln.”
Movie Review: Hitchcock (2012)
It’s been quite a year for Alfred Hitchcock, hasn’t it? His film, “Vertigo,” a box-office bomb when it was released in 1958, was voted the greatest film of all time by the 846 critics, distributors and academics commissioned by Sight & Sound magazine, supplanting “Citizen Kane,” which had ruled atop that prestigious list for decades. Then HBO premiered its movie, “The Girl,” about Hitchcock’s obsession with Tippy Hedren, his star of “The Birds” and “Marnie.”
If “The Girl” focuses on the girl and was a drag, “Hitchcock” focuses on Hitchcock and is fun. It begins and ends fun anyway. Near the end, Mrs. Hitchcock, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), tells her husband (Anthony Hopkins) that they’ve been “maudlin” with each other for too long. Indeed. That’s the problem with “Hitchcock.” It, like Hitchcock himself, has a maudlin middle.
Why are they Mr. and Mrs. maudlin? Because after 30 years Alma is suddenly upset by her husband’s obsessions with his leading ladies, the so-called Hitchcock blondes, including Madeleine Carroll, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, and now, here, Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson). To get back at him, she succumbs to the attentions of hack-writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who adapted “Strangers on a Train” for Hitchcock (apparently poorly), and who is now working on a project called “Taxi to Dubrovnik,” which, in real life, was published as a novel in 1981. At a beach cottage, she agrees to collaborate on it with him. She likes the way he flirts with her. She likes the attention he pays to her. Attention must be paid. But her absence distracts the great man from his work, the film “Psycho,” for which they, the Hitchcocks, are mortgaging their house. It also distracts him from his obsessions, such as peeking through the blinds of his Paramount office at the would-be Hitchcock blondes walking by. Instead, Hitch becomes obsessed with Alma.
Even before Alma began disappearing up the coast, though, Hitch hardly seems obsessed with his leading lady. He doesn’t stare at her 8x10 glossy the way he does with Grace Kelly’s. He doesn’t spy on her in the dressing room through a peephole, as he does with Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), prefiguring, of course, Norman Bates’ own voyeurism in “Psycho.” He isn’t upset with her, disappointed in her, the way he was with Miles, whom he was going to make a star in “Vertigo,” until she betrayed on him, cheated on him you might say, by getting pregnant. He doesn’t maul her in the backseat of a limo as he does with Tippi Hedren in HBO’s “The Girl.” You know what he does? He shares candy corn with her in the front seat of her Volkswagen. Cute. So what’s Mrs. Hitchcock’s problem? That’s the real disconnect of the movie. It doesn’t answer one of the main questions of drama: Why now? If anything, everything points to it not being now. Everything they own is riding on “Psycho.” Shouldn’t Alma be riding with it? Instead of succumbing to the fatuous flirtations of Danny Huston?
The wrong man
Worse, Alma’s sad beachfront needs distract us from what may be a better movie. Because while Hitchcock is acting the perfect gentleman with Ms. Leigh, or the cuckolded husband with Alma, he is having imaginary conversations with none other than Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the Wisconsin mass murderer on whom Norman Bates is based. That’s pretty creepy. Ed Gein is to Hitchcock here as Humphrey Bogart is to Woody Allen in “Play It Again, Sam.” He gives him advice. He taunts him to action. Ed Gein. Yet Hitch remains toothless despite it. He remains a charming but naughty waddler of a man. It seems you should go one way or the other: deeper into the similarities and differences between Gein and Norman and Hitchcock (and us, by the way; they keep leaving out us, the movie audience, the true voyeurs, as Hitchcock never did); or maybe you replace Gein-as-counselor with Norman Bates, who, being fictional, would be lighter, and fit better into the overall tone of the movie.
Instead, it’s a movie of distraction. It’s a movie that keeps skimming surfaces.
In a way, it’s about how the French were wrong after all. Hitchcock wasn’t an auteur the way they said. He needed Alma, and he needed Bernard Hermann’s score (Wirt! Wirt! Wirt!), and he needed all the other talent around him, not least Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. But mostly he needed Alma. He owns up to this at the premiere of “Psycho.” Alma, who is used to staying a few paces behind the great man, is here called forward to share in the acclaim, and they have the following conversation that sums it all up rather neatly:
Alfred: I’ll never find a Hitchcock blonde as beautiful as you.
Alma: I’ve waited 30 years for you to say that.
Alfred: And that, my dear, is why they call me ‘The master of suspense.’
It’s a charming bit that I didn’t believe at all.
The movie begins and ends similarly, with Ed Gein murdering his brother with a shovel in 1941, and the camera panning over to, yep, Alfred Hitchcock, who, in “Alfred Hitchcock Presents…” fashion, speaks to us directly about Cain and Abel, and brotherly murders, and the connection between Gein and “Psycho,” and what we’re about to watch. It’s the macabre served with a wink. The movie ends happily, with Hitchcock in front of his southern California home, which, with the success of “Psycho,” he gets to keep, and wondering over his next project. He’s looking for inspiration. “I do hope something comes along,” he says. At which point a crow settles on his shoulder. “Good evening,” he says to us.
Now that’s fun. Hopkins is fun. He’s less one-note than two-note, but both are fun notes.
Mirren is good, too, but most of her notes—her various carping, her hope for an affair with Danny Huston—are not fun, and at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie.
It’s a shame because I liked almost everything else in “Hitchcock”: the battles with Paramount head Barney Ballaban (Richard Portnow); the battles with censor Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith); Hitchcock’s conversations with legendary agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), who deserves a movie of his own. I liked all of this backset intrigue. I left the theater with a smile.
But the movie is a little like Alfred Hitchcock, the man, divided into thirds. We got a bit of the head (the dry wit), and a bit of the lower depths (the peeping voyeurism; the Scottie Ferguson dress-up games), but too much of that overweight, maudlin middle.