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Boyhood (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | August 9, 2014 | 6 Comments

Boyhood charts Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age 6 to 18SPOILERS!

With Boyhood, a childhood saga that follows a boy’s life from age 6 to 18, director Richard Linklater has pushed the capabilities of film to the fullest. For a couple of days a year for 12 years, he shot the same cast and tracked the growth of his child star Ellar Coltrane with genuine, unprecedented truth. This couldn’t have worked with another medium; it works because it is a film. Boyhood is a cinematic triumph that reaffirms the power of the movies. If that sounds like hyperbole, go watch it.

Boyhood opens with a shot of the sky, backed by the sounds of Coldplay’s 2000 hit “Yellow”. Cut to Mason, the boy we will follow for 12 years (or 165 minutes), lying on a grass field and looking at the clouds. His mother, Olivia, tells him it’s time to go.  We soon learn Olivia is a struggling teacher and that he has an annoying, star-student older sister named Samantha (Lorlei Linklater, daughter of Richard and appropriately irritating). Mason spends his time with neighborhood friend Tommy, doing graffiti, biking, and flipping through a catalog of barely-clothed women. He moves to Houston, where he reconnects with his liberal musician father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), who weaves in and out of Mason and Samantha’s lives. Olivia gets remarried and divorced, and remarried again. Mason finds new friends, faces bullies, experiments with drugs and drinking, and suffers break-ups. He tries to figure out what he wants to spend his life doing and looks for the meaning of it all. We watch him grow from being a bored gamer who could care less about school to an angst-ridden rebel to an endlessly chatty shutterbug slacker. Life goes on.

A young mason (Ellar Coltrane) at school in Boyhood (2014)Watching Ellar Coltrane grow up as Mason is a revelatory experience.  It was a considerable gamble on Linklater’s part, casting a kid who could grow up to be anyone. That’s what makes Coltrane’s performance so uniquely impressive. We’re there, watching, as he grows taller, his voice deepens, and he, ultimately, arrives as a powerful screen presence. It’s a terrific performance, made up of twelve terrific performances. Coltrane smartly shies away from overacting and the spunky, perky attitude of typical child actors. He makes Mason a quiet and timid youngster, then a chatty creative type. It’s one of the most vivid, detailed, and realistic kid performances ever.

Mason's (Ellar Coltrane) high-school graduation after-party in Boyhood (2014)

Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are no less powerful as his parents, wisely underplaying two realistic roles. As a single mom trying to go back to college, raise two kids, and get remarried, Arquette is subtly remarkable. Olivia is a nuanced character, who reveals layers of sophistication, sorrow, and love throughout the film. Arquette has a particularly poignant scene with Coltrane near the end of the film that may reduce many viewers to tears. Hawke is just as wonderful but gets some more lighthearted moments as Mason Sr.: a compassionate but often absent dad, an angry ex-husband, and a musician who’s forced to move on to other work. Whether he’s having fireside conversations about Star Wars or discussing the meaning of life with teenage Mason, Hawke is understatedly funny and unexpectedly wise, despite his modest screen time. Arquette and Hawke’s underplayed skill dawns on you as the film draws near it’s end, just as Mason realizes how important his parents have been in his life.

Boyhood is very much an actor-centric film, but it’s also a landmark directorial triumph for Richard Linklater, who mixes indie aesthetics with documentary realism. At the start of filming, he had no script for the film, preferring to come up with new ideas each year. Linklater was also wise to focus not on coming-of-age film cliches but smaller, more meaningful moments like camping trips with dad, a high school graduation after-party with family, and a symbolic, spiritual hike that ends the film. Actually, Boyhood, like life, is a whole made up of lots of little moments that cumulate into something meaningful over time. Linklater doesn’t make his thoughts on growing up too obvious, instead letting you develop your own take on the film’s messages. Yet there’s a profound beauty in how he deals with the fleeting nature of childhood and the idea that life is just a bunch of seemingly unimportant moments that add up to something greater. There’s a particularly poignant scene near the end of the film where Olivia, talking to Mason before he drives off to college, comments on how her life is one big chain of events that goes by too quickly. After three marriages, going back to school, and sending her kids to college, the only major event left in her life is death, she tells Mason. Capturing small yet significant memories of childhood and turning them into a thoughtful mediation on life isn’t an easy task, but Linklater has succeeded.

Olivia (Patricia Arquette) with Olivia (Lorlei Linklater) and Mason (Ellar coltrane) in Boyhood (2014)

Charting Mason and his family’s story over the first decade or so of the 21st century, Boyhood also functions as a reflection on the 2000’s so far. Historical and cultural milestones can be seen throughout the film: Mason and Samantha attend a party celebrating the release of the latest Harry Potter book, their father talks to them about the war in Iraq, and Mason is always playing with the latest video game console. In the film’s funniest scene, Mason Sr. has his kids put Obama signs on their neighbors lawns – and even snatch a McCain sign from one house. Adding to the nostalgia-inducing time capsule element is the wonderful 00’s-spanning soundtrack, which includes The Black Keys, Vampire Weekend, Wilco, and others. Years from now, the film will serve as a seminal snapshot of 21st century life.

Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) in Boyhood (2014)

Has there ever been a movie like Boyhood? Michael Apted’s documentary 7 Up documentary series and Francois Truffuat’s fictional Antoine Doinel films have followed kids as they grow older over many films. Yet Boyhood is so remarkably specific in telling the story of Mason’s family and so universally relatable in charting a child’s growth that it manages to create one of the most believable portraits of childhood, family, and life ever captured on film. It’s also one of the most funny, reflective, beautiful, tragic, and absorbing movies you’ll see all year. The hype about it has been towering, yes, but believe it. By following a boy from 6 to 18, Richard Linklater has created an entertaining, heart-rending portrait of 21st century family life in America. It forces you to think, moves you to tears, compels you to laugh, and encourages repeat viewings. An enthralling, unforgettable triumph of cinema as original, engrossing, delightful, and heartbreaking as anything in recent memory.

Life Itself (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | July 22, 2014 | 3 Comments

A young Roger Ebert celebrates winning the Pulizter Prize for Criticism in 1975

Early in this film, we hear a recollection of Robert Zonka, feature editor of the Chicago Sun Times, telling Roger Ebert that he would take over the job of the paper’s film critic. As he recalls in his memoir, Ebert was happy to have “a title, my photo in the paper, and a twenty-five-dollar-a-week raise”. We should be happy too, because without him we wouldn’t have had one of the most opinionated and important film critics of all time. Hey, without his writing, I might not be writing this review now. His reviews were some of the first I read, and they inspired this blog in many ways.

Now we have Life Itself, the film tribute Ebert deserves, a loving yet unflinching documentary by filmmaker Steve James. Based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name, the film tells the story of his life, using interviews, family photos, film clips, and footage James shot with Ebert in the last months of his life. In 1994, Ebert championed his basketball doc Hoop Dreams, which he called the “the great American documentary”.

As an only child growing up in Illinois, Ebert found a knack for journalism as a high school sports writer but blossomed as a reporter, and then editor, of the Daily Illini, while at the Univesity of Illinois. It was there he developed his thoughtful yet fervent writing style and, as colleagues attest to, his demanding, ambitious personality. It was there he even wrote one of his first movie reviews, for La Dolce Vita in 1961. Several years later, Ebert was a real film critic, writing during the early era of “New Hollywood”. He was one of the first to praise Bonnie and Clyde and 2001: A Space Oddysey. Ebert wrote about twenty-something art house auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog when they were just starting out. In the film, Scorsese talks specifically about the experience of being praised and panned by Ebert, and the surprisingly pivotal role the two played in each other’s lives. In 1975, Ebert became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975.

Ebert wasn’t without his problems, however. For years, he struggled as an alcoholic, trading insults and stories at O’Rourkes, a Chicago bar. The film covers this time in depth, drawing from the memories of Ebert’s drinking buddies and the bar owner.

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel during the heyday of their movie-review show At The Movies

Some of Life Itself‘s best moments involve Ebert and his turbulent yet deeply important relationship with film critic Gene Siskel. Ebert, as film critic for the urban Sun Times, wanted nothing to do with (or even talk to) his new rival, who worked for the more urbane Chicago Tribune. By 1975, however, the two worked to cohost Sneak Previews (later At The Movies), inspiring a new generation of film lovers. James uses television footage, outtakes, and numerous film clips to illustrate their rivalry and friendship with hilarity, friction, and, ultimately, warmth. Interviews with At The Movies producer Thea Flaum lend context and history, while Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen, tells some heart-rending stories.

Movie geeks will be particularly absorbed by a segment chronicling Richard Corliss fascinating but arguably unfair 1990 piece “All Thubs: Or, Is There a Future for Film Criticism?” He writes about At The Movies: “It is a sitcom (with its own noodling, toodling theme song) starring two guys who live in a movie theater and argue all the time. At The Movies is every kind of TV and no kind of film criticism.” Ebert’s response, from “All Stars: Or Is There A Cure for Critcism Film Criticism?”: responded by saying “it would be fun to do an open-ended show with a bunch of people sitting around talking about movies—but we would have to do it for our own amusement because nobody would play it on television.” This section of the the film is small, but memorable. With these think-pieces, Corliss and Ebert shone light on film criticism’s purpose-whether it is important to write lengthy reviews for the sake of integrity or to expand a television audience’s appreciation of film. As Martin Scorsese says of Ebert: “He made it possible for a bigger audience to appreciate cinema as an art form, because he really loved film.”

It may sound like this is a film focused on, well, films. And, because it is about Roger Ebert, movies are a central part of this story. But we learn about all aspects of his life: his drinking, yes, but also his personality, his late-in-life marriage to Chaz Hammel-Smith, and the thyroid cancer that cost him his ability to eat, drink, or speak. Communicating through voice synthesizers on his computer and introducing himself to a new generation of readers (myself included) through his blog and Twitter, Ebert plowed on; showing his endurance and strength during times of extreme pain and despair. After multiple surgeries and a multitude of blogged movie reviews, Ebert died on April 4, 2013 at age 70. Obama Oprah, Spielberg, Redford, and many more praised him. In Redford’s words: he was “one of the great champions of freedom of artistic expression” whose “personal passion for cinema was boundless”.

It was Ebert’s writing style that made him such an icon. Direct, encyclopedic, eloquent, and opinionated, his combination of old-fashioned newspaperman clarity, a film buff’s knowledge, and a TV host’s accessibility made him one of the most talented film critics of all time. Pauline Kael may have influenced the generation of New Yorker film critics that followed her, but you’ll hear Ebert’s impact in almost anyone writing newspaper movie reviews.

Back to Life Itself: how does it work as a movie? Steve James doesn’t break boundaries with his techniques, but cross-cutting between unflinching interview sessions with a hospitalized Ebert and a more conventional talking heads/archival footage documentary approach is a masterful move. Early on, the film suffers from Stephen Stenton’s dry readings of Ebert’s memoir and unfunny soundbites from Ebert’s old friends, making the early scenes feel like a weird combination of audiobook and television retrospective. But the film gets more insightful and affecting as it goes. Its two hour length feels exhaustively informative yet also brief considering how much happened during the man’s life.

Post-surgery Roger Ebert, still reviewing movies and living life

Ultimately, Life Itself‘s few flaws are overshadowed by it’s many strengths. Steve James and his team clearly have immense respect for Ebert, but they rarely shy away from giving us a warts-and-all study of the man. What we’re left with is a film about life and love, sickness and death, newspapers, criticism, and the movies. At times inspiring, poignant, hard to watch, and hilarious, Life Itself  tugs at your heartstrings, makes you laugh with joy, and will have both your thumbs pointed up.

A Hard Day’s Night (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | July 10, 2014 | 2 Comments

The Beatles perform in A Hard Days Night (1964)In 1964, The Beatles were still four best friends who had recently found themselves on the top of the world. Sgt. Pepper, Yoko Ono, Linda Eastman, India, Brian Epstein’s death; that was all to come. After all, Ringo had joined the band a mere two years before. To many adults, they were just the latest pop act unlikely to have any lasting influence. In epitomizing this moment in the band’s career and being a riotously enjoyable piece of art, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night is practically perfect entertainment; a feature-length rock ‘n’ roll advertisement disguised as a cinema verite-style black-and white art film.

The Beatles goof around in A Hard Day's Night (1964)50 years after it’s July 6 release, the film still exudes the sincere spontaneity of the Fab Four with classic songs, indiscriminate wittiness, and an irreverent sense of what’s real and what’s plot. Lester, then an obscure British director picked by the band because of a Peter Sellers short John Lennon loved, has said the film’s on-the-go nature is due much to The Beatles’ inability to remember their lines. “The structure of the script had to be a series of one-liners,” he has said. “This enabled me, in many of the scenes, to turn a camera on them and say a line to them, and they would say it back to me. There was very little structure that was planned, except that we knew that we had to punctuate the film with a certain number of songs.” So unscripted was the film, that when filming was over there was only one song left to record- the title track, though the film didn’t have a title. (In the end the term a “hard day’s night” was a Ringo phrase that Lennon told Lester about at lunch, and then went to record afterwards). Turns out the approach worked just fine. When the group meets Paul’s “grandfather” on a train, the moment is so downright amusing and random that it seems like the band made up the entire scene right then (some of it they probably did).

Central to the appeal of the film, is, of course, The Beatles themselves. Whether they’re performing, dancing, or being interviewed, the four come off as goofy, surprisingly regular pranksters who want to escape the confinements of celebrity life and just party. Lester doesn’t do a lot to differentiate the group but the differences are there already. John is the cheeky bad-boy who happens to be leading the band; a sly jokester, yes, but also the one with the most obvious musical talent. Glad to simply party, Paul is the fun-loving pretty boy with the strange “grandfather”. George, comical but often quiet, might be the hardest to categorize but always seems to be having a good time. And Ringo is Ringo: droll, lonely, soft-spoken, and possibly the most distinct of them all.

John pokes fun at Paul's grandfather  (Wilfrid Brambell) in A Hard Day's Night

In limited re-release now, the film sports a spiffy new restoration, taken from the original 35mm negative, reverted to it’s original ratio, approved by the director, cleaned up by innumerable digital tools, and scanned in glorious 4K. And you really can tell the difference. The whole film has a newfound visual clarity, without totally altering the vintage, grainy beauty of Gilbert Taylor’s raw and real cinematography.

It’s a testament to the film’s power that the songs never overshadow the other scenes.With songs like these, that’s no easy feat. Cleaned up with a 5.1 Dolby mix, those gorgeous pop harmonies have never sounded so infectious, nor has the simple, iconic instrumentation sounded so musically brilliant. Apart from the title track (possibly music history’s greatest single chord) and the wonderfully danceable “Can’t Buy Me Love”, few of the songs are the type of Beatles classics that anyone on the street would recognize, which makes rediscovering the soundtrack such a joy. John’s harmonica part on “I Should Have Known Better”, Ringo’s punctuating drums on “I’m Just To Dance With You”, Paul’s beautiful, surprisingly melancholy “Things We Said Today”, George’s gorgeous guitar on “And I Love Her”: rarely is pop this infectious, influential, and flawless.

The Beatles are chased by a mob screaming fans in A Hard Day's Night (1964)The classic songs, the extempore hysterics, the raw cinematography…it all comes together in A Hard Day’s Night, one of the most delightful and important moments in the last of fifty years of music, movies, and culture. For proof, see the opening-credits scene. John, Paul, George, and Ringo flee a mob of screaming fans, as they dodge girls, run through cars, and hop on trains, all to the sounds of “A Hard Day’s Night”. Some things come and go. The Beatles isn’t one of those things.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 8, 2014 | Add Comments

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) skateboards to a volcano in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)The Secret Life of Walter Mitty 3 1/2 Stars

This was a great year for movies, but have any films made you laugh out loud from beginning to end? Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of those films. Stiller is excellent as director and actor, and the film is as bizarrely funny as it is cheerfully delightful. It’s not perfect but it’s still one of the most enjoyable films of the year.

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) lives his quiet life daydreaming about romance, adventure, and co-worker crush Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig). He works as a Negative Assets Manager in LIFE Magazine’s photography department.  But as LIFE moves online, and prepares for it’s final issue, Walter’s job is threatened.  Legendary photographer Sean O’ Connell (Sean Penn) sends in some possible cover photos for Walter to look at. Negative 25 (which Sean declares to depict “the quintessence of life”) is immediately selected for the cover. But when Walter can’t find the photo, he flees his job and flies to Iceland, to search the world for Sean. As he tussles with sharks, scales the Himalayas, and falls in love with Cheryl, Walter discovers living is a lot more thrilling than dreaming.

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) with his co-worker crush Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a fine achievement for Ben Stiller, both as actor and director. As actor, he’s absolutely hilarious playing Walter. Stiller portrays Mitty as a hardworking daydreamer in search of excitement and gives the character soul and meaning. His performance is thoughtful and moving, and yet his deadpan delivery and quirky physical humor will make you burst out laughing. Even in the dramatic scenes, he’s wonderful. The supporting cast is solid too: Kristen Wiig, Patton Oswalt, Sean Penn (in a 5 minute role), and Adam Scott, as Walter’s obnoxious boss Ted, are all fine. But this is Stiller’s show and he’s subtly hysterical in a great role.

Stiller’s work as director, however, is even more impressive. From the gorgeous visuals to the layered script, his mark is all over the movie. He’s plenty experienced at making audiences laugh, and that’s quite evident here: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is easily one of the funniest movie of the year. But it’s not the jokes that surprise; it’s the fact that Stiller proves himself as a truly talented director. The movie is equal parts comedy, romance, and adventure and Stiller is equally adept at all three. The film is beautiful, moving, and enthralling, not least because of Stiller’s direction.

Ben Stiller’s directorial voice is eccentric, funny, and and adventurous, and his unique style often works…but not always. Stiller occasionally indulges in his comedy roots a bit too hard, as if he’s as afraid of the unknown, like Mitty. Some of the broader slapstick humor just isn’t funny and a few scenes feel weird for the sake of it (a Benjamin Button spoof, for example, is amusingly strange but has no reason being in the movie). As the film tries to wrap up, some scenes meander and drag. Though the poignant ending is perfect, Stiller takes too long getting there.

Despite its flaws, the film’s technical side is flawless. Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography is ravishingly expansive, while the special effects are remarkably effective. The soundtrack is a soulful compilation of catchy tracks including Of Monsters and Men, Jack Johnson, and others. Best of all, the appropriation of David Bowie’s Space Oddity in a key scene is perfectly hummable. Only Greg Hayden’s editing needs a little work; the film, as previously mentioned, is overlong at 114 minutes.

Steve Conrad’s script is also terrific. It feels timeless and topical at the same time, and the characters are well developed. The story is captivating and surprising, and I found the LIFE magazine and photography story-lines engrossing.  Still, plot points like these often get jumbled around. Conrad and Stiller sometimes have more food than they can chew, with all the one-liners, characters, locations, set-pieces, and product placements. Though most of this is entertaining, some scenes could’ve been expanded.

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) meets master photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a funny, enthralling adventure that marks the arrival of Ben Stiller as a true director. Stiller is also hilarious in the title role, leading a fantastic cast. While it sometimes drags and Stiller’s directing skills still need a bit of work, Walter Mitty is as inspiring, hilarious, and heart-warming as any other film this year. There’s no need to dream. This is one of the most entertaining films of 2013.

Nebraska (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 2, 2014 | 4 Comments

Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, andBruce Odernkirk in Nebraska (2013)

Nebraska 5 Stars

Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s latest, is a poignantly hilarious, deeply moving film about life, loss, love, and a million dollars. Featuring two astounding lead performances, it’s truly one of the must-sees of the year.

Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant in Nebraska (2013)Bruce Dern stars as Woody Grant, an aging, former-alcoholic grouch who thinks he’s won a million dollars from a magazine sweepstakes competition. He’s so convinced, he’s ready to walk from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to claim his prize. Woody’s older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and wife Kate (June Squibb) are desperate to stop him from falling for this scam. But Woody’s younger son, David (Will Forte), agrees to drive him, just so he can “have his fantasy for a couple more days”. Along the way, Woody and Dave meet up with their eccentric family. They even stop at bars, walk through a graveyard, and try to steal back an old air compressor.

Nebraska feels refreshingly unlike the recent crop of longer, louder blockbusters. Director Payne does an excellent job with the film and his voice lends some quirky originality to the film that is all his own. The script, by debut screenwriter Bob Nelson, is packed with droll jokes and delicate characters. And the story is both a comedic road-trip adventure and a nuanced, complex portrait of everyday people in everyday America.

Pheron Papamichael’s cinematography also stands out, with his subtly sweeping panoramas of rural America. More noticeable is the lush black-and-white beauty. Why is the film shot in black-and-white? I don’t know but, for some reason, it adds to the small, intimate feel of the film. By the way, when was the last time a film’s cinematography stood out? There’s also a wonderful score by Mark Orton and even the length of the film is just right (at 115 minutes), thanks to Kevin Tent’s editing.

David Grant (Will Forte) just wants to make his dad happy in Nebraska (2013)At the heart of the movie is an astoundingly good performance by Bruce Dern. As Woody, he’s mostly silent but he coneys so much visually, in a way only the best actors can. It’s a note-perfect yet beautifully understated role. Equally good is Will Forte as Dave. He’s perfect playing the Everyman trying to make his dad happy, thanks to his fine comic-timing and some surprising dramatic chops. June Squibb is just right as Woody’s wife, Kate. Squibb both hysterical and touching in a delightful scene-stealing performance. The supporting cast is also filled with top-notch character actors. Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, and Angela McEwan make the most of their small but vital parts, while Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray (real-life siblings) are laugh-out-loud funny as Dave’s obnoxious cousins.

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is undeniably one of the best films of the year. The film is sometimes hysterically funny and sometimes pensively sorrowful, but its tale of family relationships in a lived-in America is always riveting. Bruce Dern, Will Forte, and June Squibb highlight a phenomenal cast, while the screenwriting, cinematography, editing, and music departments are nothing short of extraordinary. Nebraska had some truly interesting things to say. And it’sdefinitely worth listening to.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 7, 2013 | 1 Comment

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) ready for battle in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire 4 1/2 Stars

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the satisfyingly exhilarating follow-up to The Hunger Games, is easily one of the most entertaining sequels to come out of Hollywood in a long time, thanks to Jennifer Lawrence’s riveting lead performance and director Francis Lawrence’s phenomenal adaptation of Suzanne Collin’s bestselling book.

The plot is sophisticated and multi layered but the basic gist is this: The previous year, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) won the Hunger Games, the televised death match where kids fight to the death, along with love interest Peeta Mellark. Now, her and Peeta have caused a revolution against the rich and evil that live in the Capitol. Things get even worse when the dictator behind the Capitol, President Snow, announces that the 75th annual Hunger Games will have previous winners compete. Now, Peeta and Katniss are forced back into the arena for a death match with more enemies, more suspense, and more action than before.

All this sounds very heavy handed but director Francis Lawrence never loses sight of the depth and heart that makes this series special. Unlike the previous installment, Catching Fire doesn’t race to begin the Games. In fact, it’s not until halfway into the film that the Games begin. Lawrence takes his time setting the scene. We get to know Katniss better this time around, but we also get to know the supporting cast, as well.

Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and Katniss Everedeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

There’s certainly a lot going on here: a love triangle, old grudges, politics, fashion, and bloody death matches and it’s a surprise everything stays together. The secret is that Suzanne Collins (author of the book series) served as one of the screenwriters. Collins obviously knows the story best and you can tell. Shockingly, there weren’t any big scenes I missed from the book and some added witty dialogue.

The cast, here, is spectacular, starting with Jennifer Lawrence. As Katniss, she’s bold, tough, and conflicted. The character is a heroic one but Lawrence also paints her as a wounded, flawed, somewhat tragic hero. It’s this nuanced heroine that makes this series unforgettable.

The only slight disappointments are Peeta and, the other love interest, Gale. Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth, respectively, are decent actors and do a fine job, but unlike Lawrence, they don’t exactly resemble the book’s descriptions. In fact, some of the smaller characters threaten to steal the show (not a problem). Jena Malone, as fierce and funny Games competitor Johanna Mason, is sharp and hilarious, thanks to some memorable moments that make her small role stick out. Sam Claflin and Jeffrey Wright are also fantastic, as fellow Tributes (the name for Hunger Games competitors).  Rounding out the cast is Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the deceptive mastermind behind the Games.

Catching Fire has a number of heart string tugging moments but there’s also enough bravura set-pieces to rival most summer blockbusters. Once the Hunger Games begins, it’s all action-all the time. But that doesn’t matter because the fights are filmed beautifully and careful and are a thrill to watch. It also doesn’t hurt that there is real suspense here.

Another strong aspect of the film is the look. Lawrence doesn’t try to mimic previous director Gary Ross’ shaky-cam shots nature shots of hazy beauty, nor the over-the-top Capitol fashion. This time around, things are more down to Earth. The sets look lived in and the everything is snowy and dark. Before and during the Games, the dominant colors are gray, blue, and white. Unlike other franchises, The Hunger Games seems to be developing a new, singular look for each film.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in The Hunger Games: Catching FireThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire is thrilling and thoughtful. It serves as the perfect antidote to this summer’s lackluster crop of ho-hum blockbusters. Ending with a massive cliff-hanger, Catching Fire is the must-seed blockbuster of the season. The odds are certainly in this franchise’s favor…

Jaws at the Chatham Orpheum (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | August 17, 2013 | Add Comments

A day at the Chatham Orpheum TheaterBefore I start my review: Jaws is back at the Orpheum by popular demand. See it!!!

Cape Cod’s Chatham Orpheum movie theater has had a long history. But 21 years since the theater closed doors, it’s now re-opening thanks to $2.2 million, 3,000 donors, and hard working staff led by President Naomi Turner. Recently, Flick and I got a chance to see Jaws at the theater. Here’s my thoughts on the theater and review of the film.

When I first walked into the Chatham Orpehum theater on August 4, 2013 I was stunned. Paintings and shark sculptures line the walls and there’s even a mini restaurant/cafe with a bar and a few tables. The cafe features the menu from Vers, the larger restaurant downstairs. The concession stand has popcorn and lots of candy. All of the staff is extremely nice. You can really tell everyone working there loves movies. The attention to detail is astonishing; even the bathrooms have pictures of Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe on the doors.

After talking to staff, my family and I walked into the 162-seat movie theater with two bags of popcorn and a sky high excitement level. I was not disappointed. Delicious popcorn, no trailers, super comfy seats! And it just got better…

The opening credits for Jaws (1975)The lights went down. The movie started. Jaws’ underwater opening credits hauntingly lit up the screen, complete with John Williams chilling theme.

A Jaws poster designed specifically for the OrpheumI’d never seen Jaws before, which made the experience all the more enjoyable. The plot isn’t exactly original: an everyman police chief (Roy Schieder), a rich kid oceanographer (Richard Dreyfuss), and a weathered seaman (Robert Shaw) team up to hunt a great white shark terrorizing Amity Island. But director Steven Spielberg’s real achievement here is taking that basic concept and turning it into something more: a monster movie with heart.

Our heroes out at sea in Jaws (1975)The story is perfectly realized; every scene is the exact length it needs to be, no more, no less. There’s some very funny dialogue that makes for some classic arguments between the characters. The performances are also extraordinary. Schieder is quietly effective as Chief Brody, while Dreyfuss is brashly charming as Hooper. The standout, however, is Shaw. At first glance he’s just a colorful sea captain but, with his legendary tour de force monologue, Shaw gives the character a hidden depth.

The film is a miraculous production: sublime editing, memorable cinematography, precise direction, and one of the greatest musical scores of all time. In fact the suspense of it all is so terrifying that you won’t care about the fact the that the shark effects are slightly outdated.

Roy Schnieder in Jaws (1975)There are many iconic moments: the girl who swims just a bit too far, Quint’s first appearance, the floating head,  and the famous “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” line. But the sensational climax is the true high-point. William’s rousing score is the perfect fit for our heroes final showdown with the shark. The culmination is utter genius. Each of the main protagonists gets their own confrontation with the shark: Quint’s blood spitting clash, Hooper’s nail biting shark cage adventure, and Brody’s wildly explosive battle. This is action cinema at it’s peak.

Jaws is a masterpiece of film-making, even better appreciated considering the rough circumstances under which it was shot. Thrillingly gut wrenching, soulfully humane, and one of Spielberg’s best; Jaws may not be the single greatest movie of all time but, after one fantastic viewing, it’s one of my all time favorites. And seeing it on the big screen, with first-class surround sound and gorgeous digital projection, was a bonus.

My afternoon at the Orpheum seeing Jaws at the movies was a true treat. The Orpheum gives you hope for modern movie theaters in a multiplex filled world. Movies couldn’t have been brought back to Chatham better.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 28, 2012 | Add Comments

Bilbo Baggins and some dwarves in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

3 1/2 Stars

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey tells the beginning of Bilbo Baggin’s epic adventure. Bilbo lives a comfortable yet uneventful life in Bag End. But when Gandalf the Grey, a tall and powerful wizard, comes to persuade Bilbo to go on an adventure, things get complicated. 13 dwarves arrive at Bilbo’s house, eat all his food, and ruin certain parts of his home. Eventually Bilbo decides to go along with Gandalf and the dwarves. But what is this adventure, exactly? It’s a quest to reclaim the dwarves’ castle. Invaded many years ago by a dragon named Smaug, their home is filled with treasure! In an attempt to reclaim what is rightfully theirs’, Bilbo, and Gandalf face treacherous obstacles along the way during the first segment of (for Bilbo, at least) an unexpected journey…

I will start this review off by saying that I have read the book The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, but have not read The Lord of the Rings books or seen The Lord of the Rings movies. And as for the decision about making The Hobbit into three films, I am a bit skeptical though more excited by all the possibilities, than some at least.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey begins the way I expected it, based on all the critics’ reviews and the decision to make a trilogy out of a single book: the film starts off slow. We spend a long, long, long (I’ll just say overlong, to keep my sentence not too, too, too overlong..long…long!) time at Bilbo’s house. I must say the dwarves’ slapstick comedy as well as the funny dialogue (Gandalf talking about “the game of golf was invented” takes the cake, I just gotta say!). I also can’t think of anything I’d leave on the cutting room floor from the scenes in Bilbo’s house, but it just felt a little… uneventful (not unexpected).

A dwarf and a troll in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)Once the adventure does get going, however, I didn’t get much more pleased with the film. While the beginning is actually rather daring for a blockbuster (can you honestly name a big budget extravaganza from this year that spends 20+ minutes in one character’s house, without any action scenes?) the middle is overly conventional. We simply get one action scene. And then another… And then another… And then another… And then you get the idea, already! While the middle third of the film is no slog and some of the fight sequences are really entertaining the film doesn’t head in one, concrete direction.

Galadriel and Gandalf in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)Things slow down (and get a bit weird: Galadriel seeming in love with Gandalf and then just oddly disappearing) when we take time to visit Elrond, played nicely by Hugo Weaving, and some other visitors: Saruman, portrayed by Christopher Lee, and Galadriel, played by Cate Blanchett. This not in the book sequence is a nice break from all the action (and I assume) a chance for Lord of the Rings fans to catch a peek at former favorite characters, but it just didn’t grab me. Though it may be, as I already said, a good chance to “slow down” the movie it’s just not interesting enough for Peter Jackson to grant it an ability to be as lengthy as it is.

However to make up for the disjointed beginning we get an amazing third act. There’s the riddle packed Bilbo and Gollum confrontation, a big goblin battle, and a flaming pinecones filled fight with Thorin’s old enemy, Azoc. Honestly these three climaxes could’ve been in separate movies. Bilibo and Gollum in this one, goblin fight in the sequel, and the pinecone sequence in the last installment (with added Smaug). Or a better idea would be to have added the dragon to this film, saved some money for other films, and stopped all the criticism of expanding the story. And with just that they could have made one film, not three. Maybe two films would’ve been the right fit.

Martin Freeman is great as Bilbo Baggins, turning in a mostly comical role. All Freeman needs to do is win an Oscar, star in some other blockbusters, and complete The Hobbit trilogy. If he can survive all that he’ll become a full fledged movie star. Alot of the times the star of a movie series will disappear once their franchise has ended, but that normally happens to younger actors (Elijah Wood of The Lord of the Rings, just 20 when The Fellowship of the Ring was released in 2001, is a prime example). Freeman is 41 and, despite the fact that his biggest role up unto this point was starring as Arthur Dent in franchise hopeful turned disastrous flop The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, he’s great here. He shows just the right amount of comic verve and jolly vigor. He does a commendable job without ever turning into a bland macho man. It’s a fine performance…but just that… fine. There seems to be just a bit lacking there. It’s not Oscar worthy or classic, for that matter, either. But it’s good, nonetheless. And, FINE, I’ll stop complaining already!

The supporting cast is strong but unsurprising. Ian McKellen (as Gandalf the Grey) and Richard Armitage, as Thorin Oakenshield, are okay but nothing different than the normal type of actors who appear in fantasy franchises. Meanwhile, Ian Holm and Elijah Wood have totally unnecessary screen time, reprising their roles (Old Bilbo and Young Frodo, respectively) from The Lord of the Rings. They do NOTHING interesting in an opening prologue that isn’t returned to for the rest of the film. As for the dwarves, they’re “quite a merry gathering” though no single actor stands out.

Technically the film is wonderful, with dazzling sets, amazing effects (both sound and special), weird yet great make-up, and a terrific score by Howard Shore—featuring a hummable theme melody and the so-so Song of the Lonely Mountain by Neil Finn.

A rock monster battling the heroes in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)Now to quickly sum up my thoughts on seeing this film in IMAX 3-D; brilliantly incredible! Seriously, Hugo and The Amazing Spider-Man are the only films that could rub shoulders with The Hobbit in my pantheon list of The Greatest 3-D Films (if I ever did one!). And after seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark, back in it’s September re-release, and this (these are the only two IMAX films I can vividly remember watching) I now feel like IMAX is one of the ultimate ways to experience cinema in this day and age. Combine them together and shake the pot and…and…and…TA-DA!!! You’ve got movie magic, especially for a cinematic event such as this one (take note of the awesomely in-your-face moving and/or living rock mountain scene!)!

Gollum hiding from Bilbo in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Jouney (2012)

My favorite scene is the triple climax. I’ve already talked about the goblin battle and the Azoc-pinecone fight. But just to review: while the goblin battle is particularly thrilling the Azoc fight has particular emotional resonance, thanks to Thorin’s tragic connection to the made up big baddie. As for the riddle sequence, Andy Serkis turns in an unsurprisingly great as Gollum, even if he doesn’t pour emotion (as in Rise of the Planet of the Ape’s Caesar) or slapstick comedy (as in The Adventures of Tintin’s Captain Haddock) into the small role. But as for the scene there’s not much to it, apart from the fun yet creepy riddles. Nonetheless it’s probably the most satisfactory scene of the film for fans of the book. While each third of the climax may not be wholly satisfying on it’s own, added up they create an entertaining finale.

My favorite character is Bilbo Baggins. He’s not the ideal protagonist for a big budget fall film but that’s what makes him great. We spend a great deal of time seeing his decision making process of whether or not to go on an adventure with Gandalf. But despite this overlong showcase of one Hobbit’s predictable decision we still get to know the character and savor Martin Freeman’s witty performance enough to be happy with Peter Jackson’s big screen interpretation of one classic character (or I should say Hobbit!).

Thorin Oakenshield prepares to battle Azoc in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images. I agree but would add that anyone over 11 or 12 will be fine, depending on your level of sensitivity. NOTE FOR THOSE OF ALL AGES: The flashback to the death of Thorin’s father is revoltingly gross, no matter how old you are.

The movie wants to be a comedy. It wants to be an epic. It wants to appeal to toddlers, teenagers, and people who read The Hobbit when it was first published. Sometimes it succeeds, sometimes it doesn’t. But no matter what, this is a journey worth taking. A precious fantasy adventure that is is flawed, fun, and ferociously thrilling all in one. Bring on the sequels to a prequel! But for whatever reason Peter Jackson has decided to make three Hobbit movies. And that’s the way this epic trilogy will play out. I kinda want to shout out “Bring on the sequels to a prequel!”, but something tells me not too. At least we get some emotional highpoints, even if not nearly enough. “From the smallest beginnings come the greatest legends.” reads the poster’s tagline. But from one book expanded into three films we get a visually awesome (especially in IMAX 3-D) yet overall ho-hum first installment.

Arthur Christmas (Flack’s Holiday Recommendation)

Posted on | December 8, 2012 | 1 Comment

Poster for Arthur Christmas (2011)

4 1/2 Stars

Arthur Christmas tells the story of the Claus family. There’s the current Santa named Malcolm, the classic looking ho-ho ho man; there’s Steve, the modern and selfish one who’s next in line; and then there’s the Grandsanta, who’s been retired for a while but still quite lively. Of course there’s also (and surprisingly just one) Mrs. Claus and lots and lots of elves. Every year they go around delivering 2 billion presents around the world, despite some years with glitches. This year they succeed. “Mission accomplished!”, yells Santa! It’s Santa’s 70th year and he’s expected to retire (the balloons say “Congratulations Steve”, for goodness sake) but he doesn’t. And then Arthur the silliest, youngest, and most anxious (for Christmas) member of the family discovers one kid’s been missed! A girl named Gwen wants a pink bicycle and even wrote a nice letter about it but she’s now in danger of getting 0 presents! So along with Grandsanta, a stowaway wrapping expert elf, and all eight reindeer Arthur travels to return this present in a hobbly, wobbly sleigh. And let’s just say this one present isn’t delivered in the 18.4 second average a character mentions early in the film. On Arthur’s journey he encounters many obstacles. Lions in Africa, a government that thinks he’s in a UFO, reindeer that keep falling, and more are all big hurdles. We also get to see the spaceship Santa travels in. That brings in another problem: perhaps Grandsanta didn’t want to help Gwen out and perhaps he just wanted to prove to Santa and Steve that traveling in hi-tech sleighs and going down chimneys can still be done. But can they deliver the Christmas present before Gwen wakes up?

Arthur Christmas and Grandsanta in Arthur Christmas (2011)

This is the perfect Christmas movie: it’s short, funny, and has mass appeal for the whole family. Once the journey gets going you can tell how almost every scene is going to play out. But the overcalculation never really bugged me. Anyone over the age of 9 will know how the story is going to turn out (if they’ve seen other movies) but that’s not the point. The film is so joyous that you’ll get too wrapped into the fun to care about the flaws.

The jokes are wonderful. There’s slapstick comedy, hilarious one liners, and terrific gags about the Santa buisness: in other words those of all ages will find something to laugh at! The script by Peter Baynham and Sarah Smith is incredibly well done. Aardman is a bit underappreciated, in my opinion. If you ask some one if they’ve heard of the company they’ll probably just say “Oh didn’t they do Wallace and Gromit!?” And the answer is yes, but not only. They’ve also made Chicken Run and The Pirates! Band of Misfits (among some others), which are also great holiday family viewing for once you get tired of ho-ho-ho films. Aardman is arguably the British Pixar. The animation is always amazing and the films themselves appeal to the whole family.

Here’s a link to our article about seeing the premiere of The Pirates! Band of Misfits and meeting Peter Lord (the director of Pirates! and producer of Arthur Christmas) at TIFF Kids (Toronto International film Festival Kids).

Long time Aardman fans might be a bit surprised by the fact that the film isn’t stop motion, the way their films are typically made. But the CGI didn’t bother me. It’s as sleek and different from clay puppets as can be but works well for this film (the visuals are much more complex and intricate than Wallace and Gromit, for example).

Arthur Christmas and Grandsanta in Arthur Christmas (2011)

One last, great thing is the voices. James McAvoy as Arthur and Bill Nighy as Grandsanta are the two standouts but Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Hugh Laurie, and Ashley Jensen are terrific in supporting roles. As for the nameless elves there’s an unbelievable amount of star wattage. I couldn’t tell that many of these actors played minor elf roles (Andy Serkis, Robbie Coltrane!). Click here to see the full cast and crew.

The movie also has a great moral: when others give up on something you think is worthwhile accomplishing, don’t back off. “Be the change you want to see in the world as Arthur (I mean Gandhi) once said. Arthur is committed and even if he’s occasionally foolish he’s not one to back down from something that’s right. Anyone who watches this movie can learn something from this message.

Arthur Christmas in Arthur Christmas (2011)

My favorite character is Arthur Christmas because he (as mentioned in the paragraph above) is strong willed and smart. He may seem nonsensical and foolish but, more so than anyone else in his family, he proves that he cares that every child gets what they want for Christmas. James McAvoy is great as the voice behind the character.

My favorite scene is the opening. We get to see the visually astonishing sled spaceship for the first time as well as the process of delivering presents. Go to iTunes to watch the first 9 minutes and 47 seconds of the film for free and understand fully what I am talking about.

Arthur Christmas has been rated PG for some mild rude humor by the MPAA. I completely disagree. Everyone always complains about how few G movies are released. That’s a true statement and one way to solve that problem would be if the MPAA rated movies (that should be G) G. I would rate it, Arthur Christmas, G but note that there is some intensely perilous action sequences that may be frightening to younger viewers.

Arthur Christmas and Bryony in Arthur Christmas (2011)Who It’s For: Arthur Christmas is a must for those tired of the Christmas classics viewed time and time again, year after year. Original, beautiful, exciting, filled with adventure, and appealing to 5 year olds and 95 year olds this exactly what a great holiday family movie should be.

Don’t forget to check back for more holiday movie recommendations (with Who It’s For special paragraphs) from Flick and Flack coming soon!

Lincoln (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 2, 2012 | 6 Comments

Lincoln (2012)5 Stars

Lincoln tells the inspiring true story of Abraham Lincoln and his attempt to persuade the House of Representatives to vote for the 13th Amendment.   In doing so slavery will be abolished. If Lincoln loses the vote he will have to wait until the war is over. And if the Union wins and the South rejoins the US, the South will surely vote against the Amendment. You probably already know how the vote turns out but you don’t know how Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and others try to persuade Democrats to help pass the Amendment. The time is mid 1860’s and the Civil War is almost over.

Steven Spielberg directs this movie. Along with the rest of the crew one of his greatest achievements in the film is accurately representing the mid 1860’s. The filmmakers create an impeccably authentic sense of time and place by vividly rendering everything from the way people talked to how African Americans were treated. All of the actors talk in a way that seemed surprisingly modern to me but since I didn’t live when the film was set I can’t criticize this aspect. Everyone who made this movie should definitely be commended for their historical accuracy. Clothing, a Civil War battle scene: the film is shockingly realistic. There are a few factual errors and goofs but none that would be painfully noticeable to a regular non-historian moviegoer. And at least Lincoln rides in a buggy rather than a VW Bug.

Lincoln (2012)
The story and events in the film are also highly factual (despite some inaccuracies). But the story itself is what makes the film so great. Anyone who knows a single thing about history will know how the climactic final vote turns out but it’s hard not to be wrapped up in the suspense. Steven Spielberg directs the film like the pro he really is. Many people are saying it’s the best film he’s made in a decade. While he is my favorite director, many of his films I haven’t seen (not because I don’t want to) simply because I’m not allowed to watch them yet. Apart from Lincoln I’ve only seen three of his films of the 2000’s. They are in chronological order: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), The Adventures of Tintin (2011), and War Horse (2011). Lincoln is definitely better than the first two (albeit respectable films) but I might need to see the criminally underatted War Horse again to compare. It’s a simpler movie that you can enjoy without knowing all about the politics of a century and a half ago.

But back to the direction of Lincoln. Spielberg puts together all of his pieces in a way that reminds me of Ulysses. S. Grant commanding all of his Union soldiers. Everything is carefully constructed with the kind of precision I imagine this film must have been some very hard work for Spielberg. He has said he can direct Indiana Jones-type action flicks in his sleep. That can’t be true. Even for one of the most advanced filmmakers of all time every project comes with a new challenge. But I made an educated guess that he meant only action films like nothing he’d ever done before (an IMAX 3-D motion capture family film like the animated Tintin)  will from now on be added too his resume. Maybe that’s a good choice, though I’d love to see a fifth and final, nostalgically fun and Mutt-free, new Indy movie of course starring Harrison Ford. But for Lincoln Spielberg spent 12 years doing researching (while making other movies). I’m surprised it took that long though he wasn’t studying nonstop. Nonetheless his research shows. But was this film fun to make for him? I’d need to ask myself to find the true answer (something I’d love to do) but I’m guessing yes, in a way. The film was probably difficult and stressful at times yet rewarding and fascinating at others. And yet no matter how hard it is to create celluloid gold when a director is on the red carpet for their film’s premiere I am sure they are undeniably happy because it is at a time before people have had a chance to say their opinions of the new film. When Lincoln premiered at the New York Film Festival on October 8th  I’m sure Spielberg was a bit nervous but boy did it pay off.

Research, overseeing, and orchestrating all tiny parts were probably the three most important parts for Spielberg on this film. But every other department on the film is equally great. Most notably of course are the actors. Daniel Day-Lewis is fantastic in a part originally intended for Liam Neeson but was changed to Day-Lewis when Neeson was considered too old, though only five years his senior. Day-Lewis is perfect as Lincoln. Many critics have said he’s the real thing, so to speak, but no one knows the truth. If I’m not mistaken there aren’t any living film critics from a little over 150 years ago. But based  what historians have told us and photos have shown us Day-Lewis is really the real thing. He nails the part. And in fact he might be a better way to study Lincoln than any 100% factually correct history book. Every muscle movement just seems right. Only a few flaws of Lincoln are shown. Was he really so perfect? Probably not. But no one wants to create fake bad things to say about the man and that’s a good thing. I can’t imagine anyone else playing this part as well as Day-Lewis does. This is the first film I’ve seen him in and I can already see why people are calling him our greatest living actor. He’s won two Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscars: first for Gangs of New York (2002) and then for There Will Be Blood (2007). He’s also been nominated for two Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscars: first for his breakout role in My Left Foot (1989) and then for In The Name of the Father (1993). He’ll definitely get nominated as Best Actor for Lincoln and surely win.

Mary Todd Lincoln (2012)
As for the rest of the cast there are plenty accolade deserving turns. As Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, Sally Fields turns in a quietly understated performance much like Day-Lewis’. She doesn’t get alot of screen time but is memorable in her scenes. The only other female in a promininent role is Elizabeth Keckley Gloria Reuben, who has only done B-movie action films and ER up until this point. Entertainment Weekly’s Oscar predictor Anthony Brenzican listed her as a “Consider This” possibility for Best Supporting Actress. While she has two big moments her work in the film was a little too supporting for my taste and I think Fields deserves the Oscar.

The rest of the cast is dominated by talky male politicians: David Strathairn as William Seward, Secretary of State and Lincoln’s right hand man with conflicting ideas; Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, another older helper in stopping slavery; James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson, hired hands and drunken lobbyists; Michael Stuhlbarg as George Yeamen, a quiet politician with beliefs that transform; and many more nameless characters. These are all great performances.

But then there’s Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, a fierce fast talker of an all out abolitionist. Jones plays the character as a man who isn’t afraid to get across his point. In a scene of verbal jousting with Mary Todd Lincoln, Stevens surprised me by being rather confrontational with the First Lady. After the two moderate summer smashes (for their expectations) Jones is back in Oscar form. He is great as K in the Men In Black trilogy, and critics liked him for reprising that role in Men in Black 3, and playing Arnold in Hope Springs. But the pure energy Jones gives this character makes him a top contender for Best Supporting Actor.

As Lincoln’s children we see Joseph Gordon-Levitt finely playing Robert and Gulliver Mcgrath turning in a wonderful small role, though I wish he had one big emotional moment to show off his acting chops. Since it’s such a long and packed movie there’s not really any space for extra character development. That’s okay; there’s nothing I’d cut and I’m not asking for a 3 hour movie.

I hope the movie will win the Best Ensemble Cast award at the SAGs. But for individual Oscars Sally Fields may win Best Supporting Actress and Tommy Lee Jones has an even better shot at winning Best Supporting Actor. And in a busy Best Actor race Daniel-Day Lewis will claim that prize for sheer historical accuracy alone.

The script of the film by Tony Kushner is undeniably brilliant. The sharp Congress arguments, the solemn presidential speeches, and the funny “stories” are all terrifically written. Kushner does a great job and he’s already started a new Spielberg script that nobody knows about. Perhaps he could be Spielberg’s new great collaborator.

Walking Lincoln (2012)I’m now going to not technically spoil anything but those who have never heard of the death of Lincoln should stop reading! As for the final scene I was surprised we didn’t see Lincoln get shot. There’s already plenty of other disturbing scenes and you’re expected to know about the horrors of war and death going in. But the part that bothers me more is the flashback choice. In a well spoken and written speech we see Lincoln adress fellow politicians. But I already forget what he said. The Gettysburg Adress would have have been a good one to use, considering it’s perhaps his most quotable. But that could be a little over the top. Maybe a flashback to the scene a minute before where Lincoln hauntingly walks down an empty hallway to the theater. The film could’ve ended there. Another bothersome image is when the scene transitions from the candle to Lincoln’s face because it looks awfully weird. A much better ending would be after we see Willie screaming at the theater we then cut to a quick shot of people remorsing over Lincoln’s body. Then we see Lincoln walking down the corridor. And then a cut to a shot of Lincoln’s face. Then the credits roll.

Lincoln Clock (2012)There’s also no special effects and only one minor battle scene. And even the battle scene is less than a minute not an unnecessarily overlong set-piece. In fact the fight is more of a blurry flashback and probably took a day to shoot during the film’s 3 and a half month production (rather short, I feel). Meanwhile, the sounds are mainly real. The ticking of Lincoln’s clock is the real ticking. But of all of the sounds blend in which shows that the audio mixers did a great job because they didn’t draw attention to realistic noises during dramatic scenes. One type of sound that is often under the spotlight is John William’s seriously subdued score. Many have complained it’s too loud and annoying but apart from the terrific theme song William’s blends the music in with everything else.

My favorite scene is the voting climax. It’s thrilling even though I (and all decently educated people) knew what was going to happen. All of the elements blend together adding up to a thrilling whole. My other equally favorite scene is the opening. It’s very well put together. We see the horrors of the Civil War, preparing us so that we understand what people are talking about for the rest of the film. We also watch Lincoln baffled by strong minded African American soldiers and some vain white ones as well. And then finally one of the African Americans walks away reciting the Gettysburg Address. This scene is a perfect summation of why the film makes history down to earth, fascinating, and enthrallng. And that music doesn’t hurt either.

My favorite character is…..hmmmm. Oh yes! There’s a guy named Abraham Lincoln in the film. He’s portrayed as a magnificent man by Daniel-Day Lewis and we also get to see his sad side as well.

The MPAA has rated Lincoln PG-13 for a scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language. Anyone studying Lincoln, slavery, or the Civil War will not see anything worse than what they’ve studied. Kids watching the film might be bored if they’re expecting an action fest (so don’t). Everyone will be occasionally disgusted by the horrific images of war. Some kids and adults will be glued to the screen thanks to the constant debating, historical significance, and gloriously old fashioned spectacle. Anyone over 12 is probably fine. I’d rate it PG-13 for the same reasons as the MPAA as well as a little more than brief strong language.

Lincoln debating (2012)Combine the witty, fascinating script by Tony Kushner, John William’s stirring score, the wonderful adaption of Doris Kearne Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, a mindblowingly magnificent cast, and the epic direction of Steven Spielberg and you’ve got an excellent historical drama. I think it’ll be Argo vs Lincoln for Best Picture and for now I can’t decide which I love more. Go see this movie if you want to know why 2012 is a great year for movies and why Spielberg is our greatest living director. See it to discover the reasons Lincoln is still remembered today. He was smart, savvy, truthful, inquiring, sophisticated, and gave everyone a chance to talk. He was our 16th President. He was Abraham Lincoln. Go see this movie. To be honest I haven’t seen a more classically cinemactic movie all year.

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