“Lincoln” Is More Historical Bore Than Illuminating Biopic

Lincoln-posterReferring to Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln as a biopic is a bit of a misnomer. The film’s action is centered around the final months of President Abraham Lincoln’s life as he fights to get the anti-slavery amendment passed.  Following the political machinations involved with the amendment, Lincoln feels more like an extended episode of The West Wing than a biopic of Lincoln’s life.

Because it’s a Spielberg film, he’s managed to accrue an all-star cast. Daniel Day-Lewis astutely plays Lincoln, vanishing into the character and easily managing the monologues screenwriter Tony Kushner wrote. Sally Field earnestly plays his wife Mary Todd, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt brings a little depth to his rebellious son Robert. Among the Washington politicos are a variety of names you will most likely recognize: David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Lee Pace, and Tommy Lee Jones (and keep your eyes peeled for a special appearance by Girls’ Adam Driver).

When the politicking doesn’t get too obtuse, the plotting for votes can be somewhat entertaining. The film also highlights some of the family drama that Lincoln was dealing with at the time as well, which has its compelling moments. But, overall, this is a fairly dull film. Kushner’s writing is more suited for a stage adaptation of the material. Monologues—both political and personal—abound; but the cinematography leaves these speeches feeling stagnant. (And wouldn’t we rather see Day-Lewis win a Tony instead of yet another Oscar?)

Even if you can manage to get engaged in the struggle for amendment votes, the big vote occurs around the 2-hour mark of this 150-minute film. That leaves a full 30 minutes to show a ponderous Lincoln, slowly moving to his inevitable assassination (which is as equally anticlimactic as the amendment vote). Lincoln is one of the most over-hyped films of this Awards season, and the one you’re least likely to see. And you might as well keep it that way, unless you’d like to pay $14 for a nap.



Obsession Can Be Contagious in “Zero Dark Thirty”

Kathryn Bigelow’s newest film continues her exploration of our post-9/11 world. Zero Dark Thirty follows one woman’s intense obsession with tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden. While it may still feel too early for a film about this event, which only occurred a little over a year ago, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal had been working on this bin Laden obsession story before his actual death (which would actually force them to change how the film would end). Yet regardless of how you feel about the actual events, this film will draw out the obsession-driven part of you.

PrintWhen the film opens circa 2003, Maya (Jessica Chastain) arrives in Pakistan as a green CIA agent tasked with finding bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders. She is quickly exposed to an extreme torture scenario as she watches her new mentor Dan (Jason Clarke) interrogate a prisoner. Maya looks deeply uncomfortable in this setting, but once she gets back to the office she feels more at home. Yet as the years go by and the hunt continues, Maya’s determination grows, as does her confidence, when interrogating prisoners. She soon becomes even more detached than Dan, possibly because she has other men to do the actual torture while she shouts questions at them.

Dan’s disillusionment leads to him to leave the field and return to DC. He isn’t the only one that leaves Maya, who begins to outlast—and outlive—everyone stationed in Pakistan. Leads come and go, but Maya’s obsession grows and manifests itself in many unhealthy ways (especially as concerns her diet). Soon she is the real-life Carrie Mathison from Homeland, but when she thinks she’s found bin Laden we are more inclined to believe her because she is not bipolar (like Carrie). Of course, convincing her bosses that she’s found him is not an easy task.

Jessica Chastain is perfect as Maya. She can exude the strength and confidence she feels while also showing her vulnerability when devastating events occur. As her obsession takes over, Chastain balances the line between driven agent and full-on crazy. Her intense and heartbreaking performance sets her apart from most of the lead actresses of the year (hopefully leading to some Oscar gold!).

The other actors in the film are great in their smaller roles as well. Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau, and Kyle Chandler do their best to balance Maya’s ferocity. And Mark Duplass, Stephen Dillane, John Barrowman, and James Gandolfini pop up as various CIA characters in the same fashion that Argo is replete with TV-actor cameos. You are in good hands with these actors, and they give the film all the credibility you need to believe in the story and in Maya.

The film covers a lot in its 3-hour span, but it manages to infuse small moments of humor to relieve a lot of the tension felt from the terrorist attacks that are constantly occurring in the film. You should never feel too comfortable when watching, because an explosion occurs at least once every thirty minutes. Yet the film never gets as intense as The Hurt Locker (or that climactic sequence in Argo), making it easier to sit through. The tension lies more in the mind, as we follow this great manhunt.

Bigelow, Chastain, and Boal are names you’ll hear thrown around a lot in the next few months as Zero Dark Thirty continues to rack up award nominations. Of the “Big 5” films of 2012, I definitely believe this one is the best. Even if you don’t care about bin Laden or the War on Terrorism (like me) or already feel fulfilled from marathoning Homeland (also, like me), this film is still intensely engaging and thrilling to watch. Although Zero Dark Thirty is certainly not my favorite film of the year (there were so many great ones!), I definitely feel that this was the best film of the year.

You Won’t Be Too “Miserable” During This Latest Lavish Musical Adaptation

les-miserables-movie-posterFor 2012’s big musical release, director Tom Hooper has tackled the behemoth of musicals, Les Miserables. Adapting this French Revolution musical that spans 20-odd years is no simple undertaking, but Hooper managed to do a wonderful job (despite a few missteps). Whether or not you’re familiar with the source material for the film (the novel by Victor Hugo or the stage musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg) you are bound to enjoy much of this film (unless, of course, you dislike musicals).

The main story of the film focuses on the convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) running from police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) whose life mission is to recapture Valjean. Valjean crosses path with factory worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and in a twist of fate raises her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen) after her mother’s untimely passing. Cut to a decade later, and older Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls for revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) with one glance. But to get the girl, Marius must survive the ensuing revolutionary uprising.

Tackling a sung-through musical (in which every line of the musical is sung) is no easy task (see also: Evita); but Hooper does an admirable job. The main reason for its success (and a few failures) is that the actors sing live for the camera instead of lip-synching to prerecorded tracks of their voices. For the actors who are trained vocalists, this singing works well; but for the actors with weaker voices, they play up their sing-acting with enough emotionality to hide their low-key singing.

Hugh Jackman, as a Broadway veteran, should’ve had the most ease with this film; but he (or Hooper?) chose to make his voice ragged to match Valjean’s rough and aging character, thus masking Jackman’s smooth voice (although without smothering any of Jackman’s intensity). The younger theater performers fared better. Samantha Barks reprised her role as Eponine (after performing it in the 25th Anniversary Concert performance opposite Nick Jonas as Marius) and belted out “On My Own” with full emotionality in the rain. Aaron Tveit, too, lent his beautiful voice (and curly mop of hair) to the cast as Enjolras. Even Anne Hathaway managed to sing a haunting version of “I Dreamed a Dream.” While her voice doesn’t stand a chance against Patti LuPone (who originally sang it), her tearful performance captures the emotionality of the song in a way that is only possible as a film musical.

Less capable with the singing was Russell Crowe, who spends most of the film look deeply uncomfortable as he tries to sing his lines (his voice is too pretty and gentle to match the character of Javert). Amanda Seyfried’s vibrating staccato (last heard in Mamma Mia!) is suited for the role of Cosette—potentially the least-liked character in the musical. Eddie Redmayne’s warbling seems to match her staccato as they embark on their naive love story. Although Redmayne controls his voice much better in his understated “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” which is far more heartbreaking than Hathaway’s ballad in the film.

Most surprising of all, however, was how completely not annoying Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were as the Thenardiers (the only characters that are actually more annoying than Cosette). Carter channels her Mrs. Lovett and Cohen his Pirelli from Sweeney Todd to bring the despicable comedic reliefs to life. Even though they still act as though they are in a Tim Burton film, they embody the Thenardiers exactly as they should.

If the ballads in the film succeed from the live singing technique, it is the group numbers that suffer. The opening group number “At the End of the Day” lacks the oomph you get from the stage ensemble. “Lovely Ladies” suffers a little too as the opening lines “I smell women/smell ’em in the air” is turned from a shout to a whisper. These changes, while annoying to some theater fans, actually work well to embody the grittiness of the filmic world Hooper has created. Fortunately, the epic act one finale song “One Day More” is greatly enhanced in this film adaptation as each individual character’s overlaying solos are highlighted and combined together in a perfect, goosepimple-inducing montage.

The biggest missteps in this film are centered on the camera. Claustrophic shots of Hathaway, Jackman, and Redmayne during their ballads makes their performances almost painful to watch. Conversely, the schizophrenic camera during Crowe’s ballads makes his songs extra dizzying (since they occur on the top of tall buildings/bridges). The group numbers fair better, but the quick editing in some of the scenes makes it almost worse than the stagnant shots in the ballads. Fortunately, Les Miserables is long enough that you can look past much of the camerawork and focus on the beauty found throughout—sumptuous costumes and sets! The beautiful voices of the young revolutionary men!). If you do, then this will be the shortest three hours of your life.

For me, the hardest part of watching most musicals on film is the first ten minutes. When the film opens and it looks like a normal movie, but then actors begin singing, creating a jarring effect on the brain (no matter how much I prep for this it always happens). Yet by the second or third number I am accustomed to and revel in it. Les Miz has a longer learning curve, but by the prologue’s end, Jackman will finally convince you to ignore the befuddling camerawork and focus on the lavish musical being presented. While the film has earned (and will continue to earn) much awards buzz (and rightfully so), its chances at winning the gold at the Oscars seem somewhat less likely given the unconditional critical praise surrounding its lead competitor Zero Dark Thirty (but more on that later).