Monthly Archives: November 2012

Lincoln (****)

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With certain kinds of subjects, it can be hard to separate out the quality of movies made about them from the relative significance and emotional freight which they carry. Given that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln had me fighting back tears in the first five minutes, it just might be that race in America is one such subject for me. As a critic interested in aesthetics, I have to insist that movies that are righteous in their values may in fact be reprehensible in their quality. Taking on racism or genocide or Jesus does not get you a free pass and, in a better world, would guarantee you a universally higher standard. The world we have, however, celebrates all variety of creative abominations solely for their noble intentions (not least in the Church, Kyrie eleison) and such I feared would be the cultural pressure attending a movie about slavery in an election year with a black president. Unlike so much noble agitprop, however, Lincoln shows the craftsmanship of Spielberg, et al. gelling virtuosically into a wonderful film that is by turns a political procedural, a character study and a historical snapshot.

It is not, in fact, a war movie, despite opening with a few spare minutes of combat that are just enough to register the bloody stage on which the rest of the film will be set. It’s an arrestingly chaotic sequence, shockingly intimate bayonets thrusting and fisticuffs in the mud. Black soldiers are center frame in this sequence, unsubtly underscoring the life and death struggle of which they are the unwilling locus. We stay with them immediately following the initial battle, as we’re introduced to Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) speaking one-on-one with troops after battle. As famous as he is for his speeches, in Lincoln it is face-to-face that he seems more at home. Spielberg and Day-Lewis present us a wily introvert with an iron will and a thousand undercurrents, not a gregarious statesman.

Day-Lewis, a brilliant and notorious method actor (likely much of the inspiration for Downey Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder), turns in yet another intensely mannered performance which avoids calling undue attention to itself. It’s somehow both studied and seemingly effortless. The punctilious method fits the task of depicting this certainly punctilious character. We get Lincoln the pragmatist, the do-whatever-it-takes political workhorse. The film literalizes one of the president’s many metaphors, assuming that we know the “true north” of the situation (slavery is wrong and must end) and immersing us in the deserts and swamps which waylay our heroes on their journey towards the goal. It’s only in the contested, miry thick of it that we are introduced to our most lionized and mythologized national leader.

The crux of the film hinges on the sixteenth president’s decision to push for an amendment to the Constitution that will abolish slavery. Rather than take us through the tired motions of yet another hagiographical biopic replete with infancy and passion narratives, Spielberg wisely chose to make a film about Lincoln-as-leader, a man revealed in the process of doing what it was that makes us keep on remembering him. We don’t need to know where he went to law school or what dating Mary Todd was like, we just want to know what made that iconic bearded beanpole so special. Lincoln charts out a fascinating picture of federal political process during the height of war–the backroom deals, the speechifying, the intractable divisions, the hand-wringing, the pull-no-punches lengths deemed to be necessary means. And it shows us how Abraham Lincoln walked a tightrope through all of them.

I am cynical about politics, and Lincoln kind of Leslie Knope’d me. I am easily distracted and distraught by the darkness of human past and present; Lincoln lit some flickers of hope in my soul. It inspired me. It’s a picture of a hard-nosed man who decided what was right and did what it takes to ensure that it happened. The notion of a political “decider” fell out of vogue this past decade, but Lincoln should stir you with its willful leader and his electrifying appraisal of human dignity. It’s a beautifully composed painting about doing the right thing and a righteous inspiration to anyone who’ll listen. And it’s reminder that you might get shot in the head if you follow in his footsteps.

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Who Should Direct Star Wars 7?

I’m cautiously optimistic about the Disney buyout of Lucasfilm. Apparently there’s plenty of nerd rage circulating the interwebs about it right now, with cries of, “NO! That’s not true! That’s impossible!!” and whatnot.

But, as with most Jedi devotees, the purity of my love for the series was forever ruined by The Phantom Menace and its follow ups. I’ll never forget the series of disappointments that film piled on, the slow realization as it went on that it wasn’t going to fundamentally redeem itself. Lucas et al did not seem to have considered what made the original trilogy work, but rather treated the material as an intellectual property that could be strip mined for flimsy stories sold on their special effects.

Lucas knew that people would go see the movie, and did not waste time with things like mystery or working to get us invested in the characters. Lucas, legal and creative despot of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones properties*, had free reign to make whatever the heck he wanted. The prequels have the feeling of half-baked ideas run amok, ultimately flashy, hollow products lacking any compelling aesthetic or narrative sensibilities. I’m overstating my case somewhat, but it fuels how I feel about the Disney takeover of the intellectual property (from here on, IP).

Because Lucasfilm has already reduced the Star Wars brand to an IP to be mined for corporate entertainment, it makes sense for it to be taken over by a company who often succeeds at doing that to great effect. Not that Disney hasn’t churned out its fair share of crappy movies, but, like many others this past week, I would point to the Disney takeover of the Marvel and Pixar brands of positive examples of what the Mouse House can do with pre-existing IPs or studios. This is the framework (effective corporate takeover of an entertainment IP) that should shape how think about which directors are best suited to the task of helming Star Wars 7.

First off, there are some big name directors who are just not viable options. Industry moguls like James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are invested in their own projects and studios and would surely never deign to be squeezed into the Disney’s re-energizing of the Star Wars franchise. Two other fan favorites, Chris Nolan and Joss Whedon, are less impossibly unlikely yet ill-fitting for various other reasons. God spare us gritty or post-modern turns in the Star Wars film canon.

There are other highly talented directors who haven’t been as widely proposed but might at first seem like good fits. Guillermo del Toro, master of the truly alien, is too infested in his brand of subversive fantasy-horror to come to a gee-whiz IP like Star Wars. Brad Bird, who gave us The Incredibles and Mission Impossible 4, is too witty and kinetic–I don’t see him thriving in broadly epic adventure mode. Insanely talented stylists like Alfonso Cuaron and Ridley Scott don’t fit, precisely because Star Wars has never really been about style.

The worst case scenario is that we get some awfully pedantic director hired for bringing effects heavy tent-pole films to the screen on time and under budget. Chris Columbus, of the first two Harry Potter‘s, would be one, Jon Turteltaub of the National Treasure films would be another. Stephen Sommers helmed the first two Mummy films and was entrusted with the second installment of G.I. Joe. Shawn Levy gave us the Night at the Museums, the three-letter nick-named McG both Charlie’s Angels as well as Terminator 4. And then there’s Brett Ratner–*shudder*. Anyone who fits this bill would count as a loss to me.

Here are some guys I think could make it work–and seem like realistic possibilities given that it’s Disney doing the hiring.

Andrew Stanton (Finding NemoJohn Carter)

Despite the colossal mess that was John Carter, a lot of its problems seem inherent to the unlimited freedom the studio gave to Stanton to make a convoluted fanboy indulgence rather than a streamlined and effective pop thrill ride. Stanton is a talented director, and Carter shows the promise of a large-scale, effects-driven adventure that could have been.

Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the CaribbeanRango)

Verbinski oversaw Disney’s most lucrative franchise of the past decade, and while the Pirates sequels weren’t as fun as the first, they remain agreeable effects-driven tentpole films. Additionally, Verbinski’s penchant for weirdness and art design could really serve the Star Wars universe well. He could bring back some of the strange textures that the Jim Henson workshop imbued Empire and Jedi with.

Robert Zemeckis (Back to the FutureThe Polar Express)

Zemeckis has finally broken his decade long absence from live action film with the highly acclaimed Flight, and could follow that up by taking over SW7 for Disney. He made Who Framed Roger Rabbit? with them in the late 80’s, and has been obsessed with effects-driven films for virtually his entire career. He’s made some highly popular classics like Spielberg and Cameron, but he doesn’t seem to be tied up in future projects in the same way that they are.

Joe Johnston (The RocketeerJurassic Park 3Captain America)

Johnston is a serviceable director who tends to work with effects, and his pop-classicism would be a great fit for the Star Wars universe. Captain America was an especially great showing for him, and the Marvel-Disney connection might get him on the list.

Jon Favreau (ElfIron ManCowboys & Aliens)

The same goes for Favreau. He has a both a great eye for action and snappy dialogue timing. If the next Star Wars has any of the verve of the Iron Man films it will be better for it.

Pete Docter, Andrew Adamson, John Lasseter (various)

These guys, like Andrew Stanton, are all talented directors working in animation. Adamson has already made the transition to live action (from Shrek to The Chronicles of Narnia) but Docter (Up) and Lasseter (Toy StoryCars) could both reasonably break out of Pixar and make a fantastic Star Wars film. Although Lasseter certainly knows how to make an entertaining film, as current head of Disney Animation Studios he is the least likely of the three to take or be offered the job.

In My Dreams: Hayao Miyazaki

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