Tag: Lincoln

Lincoln in the Bardo in Galway

LINCOLNINTHEBARDO

On my first day of walking around Galway I stopped into a local bookstore, as was inevitable. There I found a book I had been meaning to pick up but had no time to read as I was finishing my Masters Thesis and then moving back to CT. Now, though, I would have plenty of time to read George Saunders’ first novel. The author, known for both is short stories and his non-fiction essays (most notably this fantastic piece about Donald Trump) delved into the longer-fiction end of the pool with Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel told through a combination of dialogue (kind of) and historical accounts (a mix of real and made-up sources) about the time directly preceding and following little Willie Lincoln’s death. The boy’s spirit (or something) pops into being at the beginning of the novel and the rest of the book concerns the other spirits’ quest to help him transition onto the next place while his father, the unpopular President only 1 year into the Civil War, lingers around the cemetery and, following real events, holding the body of his young boy in his arms. That is the majority of the story that happens in this book, but Saunders accomplishes much more in the course of the novel.

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Insanity Necessary: An argument for going all out

At the beginning of one of this summer’s biggest blockbusters we are treated to maybe the craziest thing anyone will see in theaters this year. Respected actors like Russel Crowe and Michael Shannon are dressed up in super-nuts outfits and barge in on a council meeting of people with silly hats to argue about eugenics. After a quick fight, Crowe jumps on the back of a giant four-winged beast and flies back to his house to witness the birth of his child, the first naturally born and conceived child on his home planet in ages. While all of this is happening, a battle rages outside among a planet that seems to be exploding at all times. It was crazy, it was weird, and I loved it. Man of Steel didn’t end up being a great movie, but it did succeed, at least early on, in doing what too few movies are brave enough to do: trying whole-heartedly to just do something.

All too often I have a moment of clarity while watching a movie. Most recently, The Purge came to a tipping point, a time when the narrative could go one way or another, and the movie’s success felt like it would live or die based on what the writer and director (the same person in this case but not always) decided would happen. In The Purge, a doorbell rings and the locked down family is brought into the moment, the beginning of the rest of the movie. The identity of that doorbell ringer will shape what kind of film the rest will play out as. Will it be a deeply cynical, biting social commentary where neighbors that smile in your face during the day turn into ruthless, jealous killers at night? Or will the ringer be revealed as just some guy, a less biting, less interesting choice which punts the potential of the film on third and one? Well, unfortunately, it’s the latter. The Purge goes from potentially great to boringly normal. Subpar, even, though that lies more on the lack of skill behind the camera than it does on the premise of the film. The Purge was never going to be a masterpiece given how poorly it was made, but it could have been a messterpiece, a movie which, as its most admirable quality, can claim that at least they were doing something. Trying something, giving it all they’ve got. I appreciate craziness, I appreciate insanity.

A few of my favorite messterpieces include Thirst, which melds uber-violent vampire things with wacky slapstick stuff and one of the silliest, most beautiful endings of the past decade, Synecdoche, New York, a movie that takes about a billion threads and tries to weave some of them into a truly emotional epic and mostly succeeds, and The Night of the Hunter, a mashup of a whole mess of techniques and styles that nonetheless congeals into a moving fairy-tale about growing up and being pure at heart. All of these movies are on my current top 100 list of all time, alongside other messterpeices like The Shining, Magnolia, and Brazil. None of these films lack ambition, though they might not quite reach what they’re grasping for. I will always give the edge to a movie that’s going for something with all of its heart over a movie that plays it safe with any kind of subject matter. This generally will reward genre movies as they often have a bit more leeway in terms of what they can go for and even more leeway as to what the audience will forgive. But serious dramas can go crazy with the best of them. The Lion in Winter doesn’t do a whole lot in the directorial department but the dialogue and the glee with which the actors say their lines is so delightfully over-the-top that I can’t help but fall under its spell of deceit and family politics. Punch-Drunk Love takes the patented Adam Sandler man-child and throws him into the real world where his immaturity helps him fall in love with a girl and endangers his life when a mattress salesman goes bananas at him. The Truman Show has a lot of logistical problems and plot-holes when you think about the situation for a while, but the power of the film and its crazy premise overpowers those nits and becomes something great. Again, all of these films are in my top 100 list. I just love a movie that aims high, even if it doesn’t reach its lofty target.

There are a few movies in my top 100 that are restrained, content to be the best that they can be. I’d put movies like Days of Heaven and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Raiders of the Lost Ark in that category, all of which might go all out for a scene but generally keep their ambitions close to their vests. It’s perfectly fine to do so. Last year Lincoln was one of my favorite films even though it was pretty much just a straight biography. But movies like The Cabin in the Woods and Cloud Atlas and Holy Motors occupy a greater amount of my thinking about last year’s films, and are the first titles that come to mind over the more staid films of the year. It’s something almost intangible, and I know that there are people out there that just prefer to have their movies be what they are and then be done. But why go to the cinema to see something you can outline in advance? What purpose do movies have if not to surprise us in their stories or their techniques or their ideas about life? Even today’s safest bets, superhero movies, are embracing the absurd. The opening of Man of Steel is just the most recent in a list of superhero films breaking out of the mold and becoming crazy. Thor: The Dark World had a trailer debut today and looks to capitalize on the biggest strength of the previous film, its sense of humor and high drama. Thor was peppered with Shakespearian dialogue and wacky outfits and canted angles and surreal sets. It’s the craziest of Marvel’s movie universe splinters and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Best Movies of 2012: Part 3

Sorry I’ve taken so long here. Hectic week and I’ve seen two more movies from the year so this installment is going to start at 21 instead of 20 where I left off. Silly, I know, but I’ll go back and fix everything so it looks less dumb. Anyways, time to start with the really good stuff. Remember, asteriskes

21. Django Unchained. A-. *

Our mutual friend has a flair for the dramatic.

Django really only suffers in comparison to the masterpiece that is Inglourious Basterds. Where that movie had a lot of things going on underneath the surface this one feels more like a straight up slavery western, as straight up as those can be. There are some amazing scenes and performances (DiCaprio in particular) and Tarantino does his thing. I only hope that he continues to try to say things rather than make less interesting stuff.

20. Anna Karenina. A-. *

I am not ashamed of who I am or what I’ve done. Are you ashamed for me?

Joe Wright is maybe the best stylist director we have working today. His movies always look and feel amazing, and this is no different with certain key scenes taking place on a stage with the participants sometimes acting as the audience and the backstage stuff indicating the lower class areas of the story. It’s a fascinating device that highlights the performative nature of the ruling class in a society that has a rough relationship with the rich. Keira Knightley and Jude Law are fantastic, it’s just too bad the third part of the love triangle at the core of the film, Aaron Taylor-Johnson doesn’t do anything with the role. It makes it hard to believe Anna’s choices. I wish she stayed with Jude Law.

19. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. A-.

I know who you are, Sam. I know I’m quiet… and, and I should speak more. But if you knew the things that were in my head most of the time, you’d know what I really meant. How, how much we’re alike and, and how we’ve been through things… and you’re not small. You’re beautiful.

Adapted for the screen by the writer of the popular book, I was really surprised at how much I liked this. It’s a highschool movie which could spell disaster yet through a great script and wonderful acting from the three main kids the movie turns into something grand. It totally weirded me out, actually. Made me feel all these weird feelings about my time in high school (which was neither as good nor as bad as the events depicted here) and my current friend relationships. It’s all so effectively emotional and even artistically inspiring. Don’t look past this one.

18. Les Misérables. A-. *

I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I’m living!

I guess there’s a reason why this story has been adapted and remade over and over again since 1862. It’s so damn emotional and it’s hard to not get caught up in the swell of things. Led by a strong Hugh Jackman turn and an amazing supporting performance by Anne Hathaway, the movie only hurts in a bad way when Russell Crowe is asked to sing. At all other times it hurts so good. I even liked all those horrible close ups.

17. Life of Pi. A-. *

I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.

I’m a fan of the first 90% of the book on which this film is based and luckily Ang Lee improves that percentage to about 95%. I still really hate the ideas the film has about God and “reality”. I can get past all of that for the majority of the film, though, because it’s so well made. I got to see it in 3D and it was truly a wonder to behold. I love the magical realism and Irrfan Khan saves a lot of what could be horrible voice over stuff. He even made me tear up during a speech at the end that I fundamentally disagreed with. That’s pretty powerful stuff.

16. The Master. A-. *

Man is not an animal. We are not a part of the animal kingdom. We sit far above that crown, perched as spirits, not beasts. I have unlocked and discovered a secret to living in these bodies that we hold.

I’m probably going to be tried for treason or something for putting this movie so low on my list. Well, hopefully the people with that kind of authority just stop reading this list now before they see what I put above it, then I’ll really get excommunicated. The unfortunate part is that I really really like this movie. It’s probably the best crafted movie on this list, everything is impeccable and works perfectly towards the goal of the film. It’s just that I didn’t have as much invested in this movie as I did with some of the others on this list and certainly with PTA’s previous films. It feels the most distant to me. I can’t really explain it, which, I guess, is apropos considering the film at hand.

15. Seven Psychopaths. A-. *

You didn’t think I was what? Serious? You think I’m not serious just because I carry a rabbit?

For the first twenty minutes or so of this movie had me worried. What happened to all of the wonderful character stuff and clever dialogue from In BrugesMartin McDonagh‘s previous film? It all disappeared for some mildly interesting things about writing a script. Have no fear, though, all of that stuff returns soon and the movie never stops getting better. It’s a rare happening, an increasingly good movie. Bolstered by standout work from Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken, the movie’s meta-ness threatens to get out of control but always stays on that brink without going over. It’s a movie about movies about stories and I kind of love that stuff.

14. Prometheus. A-. **

A king has his reign, and then he dies. It’s inevitable. That is natural order of things.

I probably have this higher than most other people. That’s fine. Everybody else just can’t handle the greatness. Does it have script problems? Certainly. Do they detract from the quality of the film? A little, that’s why this has a minus next to that A. Do I care? No. It’s such an interesting movie to me, filled with little idea pods and hints of larger things that all those issues fall to the wayside. A well acted, intense, sci-fi movie with greater things on it’s mind is something to be praised, not torn to shreds by plot-hole-spotters.

13. Holy Motors. A-.

I am so old I’m afraid I’ll never die.

This is by far the strangest movie on this list. It’s almost a sister movie to Cosmopolis, only good. Leos Carax drops us into this weird world where a man has a job which entails going to 11 different locations and acting out a scene or two from wildly different genres of film/life. It’s totally nuts. There’s a motion capture sex scene and an odd (to put it mildly) leprechaun-y troll character and a family drama and a bank robbery gone wrong, to name a few of the crazy things on display here. Denis Lavant is the actor and his physicality changes so much with each character he transforms into it seems like they are being played by different people. It’s a breathtaking achievement that isn’t scared to do whatever the hell it wants at any given moment.

12. Coriolanus. A-.

He that will give good words to thee will flatter beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs that like nor peace nor war? The one affrights you, the other makes you proud. He that trusts to you where he should find you lions, finds you hares; where foxes, geese. Who deserves greatness, deserves your hate.

Shakespeare adaptations are always tricky and this lesser known play is harder still, with a bunch of politics of a country that doesn’t actually exist mucking up the process. Luckily, first time director Ralph Fiennes does a great job of focusing us on the relationship between the two men at the heart of this conflict and the people around them trying to turn them towards their own goals. It’s a classic story, really, and the cast pulls off the tough Shakespearean dialogue with aplomb.

11. Looper. A. *

Then I saw it, I saw a mom who would die for her son, a man who would kill for his wife, a boy, angry & alone, laid out in front of him the bad path. I saw it & the path was a circle, round & round. So I changed it.

Looper is the third film by writer/director Rian Johnson and continues his streak of amazing films. I’ve loved all of them, even though this is the least of the three. It’s a time travel movie that has very little time travel, and an action movie which slows to a crawl in its second half to develop characters. Weird, right? Well, it’s those elements along with Johnson’s fine eye that make it such a great film. Everything about this movie works.

10. Girl Walk//All Day. A.

If there’s a movie you haven’t heard of on this list it’s probably this one. That’s because it’s actually a 75-ish minute full-album video featuring the entirety of mashup whiz Girl Talk’s All Day record. And there’s no talking, only dancing. There is a modicum of a story, yet another love triangle between The Girl, The Gentleman, and The Creep, but all of that takes second billing to the wonderfully joyous dancing and fluid camerawork on display. It’s just too damn fun not to be in the top ten for the year. And the best part is you can watch the entire thing for free here. Please do.

9. The Deep Blue Sea. A.

Lust isn’t the whole of life, but Freddie is, you see, for me. The whole of life. And death. So, put a label on that, if you can.

I watched my first and second Terence Davies movies this year, the other being The Long Day Closes, which ended up really high on my top 100 list. This one won’t make that list but it is good enough to place in the top ten for the year. It is, shockingly, another love triangle and where Girl Walk plays with the trope a little bit, this film embraces all of the dramatic potential of that situation. Thanks to astounding acting by Rachel WeiszTom Hiddleston, and Simon Russell Beale, every emotion is amped up to 11 while Davies masterfully orchestrates the drama with his soft focus and long takes. Scenes of note include a long tracking shot in a flashback to Weisz and Beale hiding in an Underground station during WWII and the first encounter between Weisz and Hiddleston which emphasizes the physical nature of their transgression. It’s fantastic stuff.

8. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. A. **

Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? That’s because I am afraid and it gives me courage.

Nobody in their right mind thought that stretching The Hobbit out to 3 movies was a good idea, and it still isn’t. This feels too long and bloated with things that don’t matter (Rivendell could have lasted 2 minutes, not 15) and yet I still loved it. It’s always nice to get back to Middle Earth on screen and Jackson still has a great eye for the more fantastical elements of the world. And there are more of those here than in the entirety of the Lord of the Rings films, from the rabbit sled to the fighting mountains and the goblins that live inside them. It’s a way more fun movie than any of the previous three, though not as well made as any of them. I’m super excited for the (even sillier titled) Desolation of Smaug later this year. BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH!

7. Cloud Atlas. A. *

Fear, belief, love. Phenomena that determined the course of our lives. These forces begin long before we are born and continue after we perish.

Cloud Atlas is one of those books that people call unfilmable thanks to the weird structure and confusing timelines and potential psychobabble. Tom TykwerAndy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski co-direct and somehow manage to pull all of this into some kind of cohesive whole. While some hated the idea of having all the actors play different characters in different timelines, I welcomed the bold choice and I think it payed off spectacularly, especially with Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant in the evil roles. It’s also quite a marvel mechanically as it moves from timeline to timeline across decades and centuries. The pace of the movie is fast and loose, which keeps every ball in the air and never lets us catch our breath. And it looks gorgeous.

6. The Avengers. A. **

I won’t touch Barton. Not until I make him kill you! Slowly, intimately, in every way he knows you fear! And then he’ll wake just long enough to see his good work, and when he screams, I’ll split his skull! This is MY bargain, you mewling quim!

It took four years and five movies to set up the events of this film in the Marvel film universe and with Joss Whedon‘s second directorial effort it all payed off. He took the broken characters that make up this superhero team and bounced them off each other in his typical quick and witty way. Bringing back nearly everybody left alive at the end of all of those individual films and throwing us the man who was always meant to play Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) was a risky choice that payed off big time. Whedon also shows off his visual skills with some wonderful shots of action and dialogue, including the giant tracking shot at the center of the battle for New York City. I’ve seen it three times already and will be happy to see it again and again and again.

5. Lincoln. A. *

I am the president of the United States of America, clothed in immense power! You will procure me those votes!

I was one of those guys that liked War Horse so I think I was a little more excited for Lincoln than those that were burnt out on Spielberg schmaltz. Thankfully, Lincoln is probably one of the ‘berg’s top 5 movies, due in large part to the supreme performance by Daniel Day Lewis and the script by Tony Kushner which gave DDL lots of room to play. This is the most surprisingly funny movie of the year and both of those guys deserve the credit for making Lincoln into a real person and not a mythological figure. It’s a movie marred only by it’s opening and closing scenes and a pretty bad turn by Sally Field who didn’t figure out how to play a crazy person very well.

4. The Cabin in the Woods. A. *

Yes, you had “Zombies.” But this is “Zombie Redneck Torture Family.” Entirely separate thing. It’s like the difference between an elephant and an elephant seal.

Horror movies are great. I love them, even the crappy ones. I get the feeling that the duo behind this film (Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon) share that sentiment with me. The movie pokes fun at all the silly tropes that horror films use in a playful way. It’s not mocking horror movies, it’s embracing them, eating them up, and spitting them back out with a heaping dose of meta-fiction thrown on top. It escalates wonderfully as well, going from what you expect to what you’ve always wanted to happen in a movie like this. The last 30 minutes are spectacular. DING!

3. We Need to Talk About Kevin. A. *

It’s like this: you wake and watch TV, get in your car and listen to the radio you go to your little jobs or little school, but you don’t hear about that on the 6 o’clock news, why? ‘Cause nothing is really happening, and you go home and watch some more TV and maybe it’s a fun night and you go out and watch a movie. I mean it’s got so bad that half the people on TV, inside the TV, they’re watching TV. What are these people watching, people like me?

This is technically a 2011 movie but I didn’t see it until February of last year, and that was in a theater so I’m putting it on this list. Deal with it. It’s a truly amazing film, full of artistry and intense emotional struggles as a mother (Tilda Swinton) tries to love her son but just can’t. Well, that’s half of the movie. The other half still follows her as she tries to deal with the consequences of an act that becomes clear as the movie goes on. I won’t go into too much detail here to save the experience for any of you that haven’t watched it yet. Let’s just say that this movie is even more relevant now than it was when it came out. Director Lynne Ramsay totally immerses us in this horrible situation with her use of color and sound. It’s a singular movie experience.

2. Skyfall. A. **

It always makes me feel a bit melancholy. Grand old war ship. being ignominiously haunted away to scrap… The inevitability of time, don’t you think? What do you see?

I liked this movie so much I saw it twice in a 24 hour period. James Bond has always been hit or miss. It’s part of the charm of the series, you never know what you’re going to get from film to film. This time we got the best movie yet. Daniel Craig’s Bond is older and rustier than ever. He faces a world where his necessity is in question. Do we even need a Bond anymore? By the end of the movie the answer is a resounding yes, especially if they all look and feel like this. Outstanding work from Judi DenchJavier BardemBen WhishawSam Mendes, and Roger Deakins meld into something wonderful. And it even has thematic depth!

1. Moonrise Kingdom. A+. *

There’s a cold water crabber moored off Broken Rock. The skipper owes me an IOU. We’ll see if he can take you on as a claw cracker. It won’t be an easy life, but it’s better than shock therapy.

There was a time when I didn’t like Wes Anderson. Fantastic Mr. Fox changed that and now I look forward to every new movie he makes. This was the first I got to see on the big screen and his meticulousness in framing and the art direction really pops when everything is larger than life. Featuring one of the few times when I’ve liked Ed Norton in a movie and a bunch of really solid supporting roles, the real stars are the two newcomers that play the kids at the center of the story (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward). It is, like most Wes Anderson films, full of melancholy and nostalgia and the driest wit and now that I have figured him out I really love it.

 

That’s the list. I hope you got something out of it. There is, of course, another, hidden list that is peeking out around the edges here. The list of movies I just didn’t get to. There are a ton of these and most of them not interesting. Here are the interesting ones:

This is Not a Film, Damsels in Distress, The Five-Year Engagement, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Headhunters, Rust and Bone, Men in Black 3, Oslo August 31st, Your Sister’s Sister, Magic Mike, Ted, Take This Waltz, The Imposter, Shut Up and Play the Hits, Ruby Sparks, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Searching for Sugar Man, Hope Springs, The Bourne Legacy, Compliance, Lawless, Arbitrage, End of Watch, The Sessions, Flight, Chasing Ice, Rise of the Guardians, Hitchcock, The Guilt Trip, Jack Reacher, This Is 40, Not Fade Away, Tabu.

So if you can make a case for any of those please do in the comments below. Also let me know if you agree or disagree with any of my list items. Or even give your top 10 or whatever!