by Steve Habrat
I’m starting to think that there is no role too great for Mr. Daniel Day Lewis. The man continues to top himself with each new role and with Lincoln, director Steven Spielberg’s new war drama, he may have given the performance of his career. With Lewis’ uncanny performance as the centerpiece, Spielberg, who blew us away last year with heartwarming boy-and-his-horse drama War Horse, spins a film so rich, detailed, and satisfying, it almost demands a second viewing to fully appreciate this towering instant classic on a technical level. I was in absolute awe over the fussy attention of each set piece, astonished by the grade-A lighting flowing into each scene, and fully immersed in this meaty slice of informative history that drops us right into the thick of the battle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. But it all comes down to Lewis, hidden behind a beard and a few expertly blended prosthetics, as he settles into the role with a thin but warm smile. He is a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, a weight that he sometimes begins to collapse under but hides with a clever story that will lighten the mood when the tempers flare and the nerves churn around him. You can’t help but admire this man even when Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner dare to shed light on him in his fits of desperation.
Picking up during the last four months of Abraham Lincoln’s (Played by Lewis) life, the Civil War continues to rage and the battle to end slavery is heating up in Washington. Lincoln, his Secretary of State, William Seward (Played by David Strathairn), and cranky abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Played by Tommy Lee Jones) join forces to gather the number of votes needed from opposing Democrats in the House of Representatives to pass the Thirteen Amendment. As he attempts to convince those stubborn voters, Honest Abe uses his down-to-earth charm and hilarious anecdotes to win them over. He also sends out a trio of lobbyists, W.N Bilbo (Played by James Spader), Richard Schell (Played by Tim Blake Nelson), and Robert Latham (Played by John Hawkes), to earn votes. As the pressure to pass the Amendment and end the war escalates, Lincoln battles with his grieving wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Played by Sally Field) over the death of one of his sons and pleads with his son, Robert Todd Lincoln (Played by Joseph Gordon Levitt), about enlisting in the army.
At two and a half hours, Lincoln is far from the typical biopic that we all expected it to be. In all honestly, I think the final product would have suffered and bored us to tears if it chose to dive into Lincoln’s early years. The film opts to pull the curtain off of the small details and reveal the smoky meetings in the White House, where Lincoln and his staff debate over the best way to earn votes and win the war. When they can’t agree, Lincoln pauses and offers a little story to lighten the mood. Some of these stories are so veiled that they even stump Seward, who replies blankly with, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” When we aren’t in the meticulous drawing rooms of the White House, we are crammed into the stuffy House of Representatives, where the men bicker, scream, yell, and argue until they are blue in the face about the Thirteenth Amendment. While it certainly is interesting to get a behind the scenes look at this historical moment, it seems to lack suspense, mostly because we know the that the Amendment is going to be passed. In a way, that is the precise problem with Lincoln. There is never a moment where you are caught holding your breath. Instead, Spielberg focuses on carefully telling this historical epic in the grandest sense.
Then we Lewis, who pours everything he has into Honest Abe and completely disappears into the role of the 16th president. Folks, there are just simply not enough hours in the day to rave about this spellbinding performance. You just can’t help but love Abe as his lanky frame lumbers into a room and warmly embraces every face he meets. Lewis plays Lincoln as a sly politician who can win you over with a few perfectly delivered jokes. As a husband and father, Lincoln isn’t great but he tries his hardest. You can’t help but feel for the guy as he gets ripped up one side and down the other over the fact that he suggested the Mary be checked in to a mental institution when one of their sons died. He also doesn’t win any points with Robert, who begs Abe to let him enlist in the army. He rants about his embarrassment over not being able to wear a uniform during a party at the White House. The moment that hurt the worst was when Abe tries to reason with Robert but Robert just storms away in anger. As Abe watches his go, he silently whispers, “I can’t loose you.”
Lincoln may belong to Lewis but the supporting cast members are all brilliant in their own ways. Fields is an emotional force as Mary Todd Lincoln, who grapples with a grief that sends her into shocking fits of hysteria. Every blow of accusation she dishes out to Abe is even more severe then the last. When it comes to her politics, she can really grab a room. She shares a scene with the curmudgeon Stevens that finds a whole room holding their breath. Jones brings his long face to the role of Thaddeus Stevens, who is a firm defender of the Thirteenth Amendment. He is also handed a number of punchy one-liners to help keep things a bit playful (there is a good one about his wig). Levitt, who has been everywhere this year, shows up here as Abe’s antsy son Robert. He isn’t handed infinite amounts of screen time but his desperation to join the war is brave. Strathairn is firm and no-nonsense as Seward, the prickly Secretary of State who gets a little exasperated with old Abe and his anecdotes. Spader, Nelson, and Hawkes are all tasked with lightening the drama as three hilarious lobbyists. Spader is especially hilarious as he jogs after opposing Democrats and breathlessly argues and bribes them for their vote.
Despite ignoring his early years, Lincoln ends up feeling like the ultimate biopic, one that is immensely infatuated with its subject. Spielberg goes to great lengths to paint Lincoln as a man who isn’t perfect but is trying so desperately to do the right thing. Clearly a passion project, Spielberg pours his all into this and it shows right up to the end, making him a strong contender in the Best Director category at the Oscars. Lewis, meanwhile, should just be given the Best Actor Oscar right now and save the Academy the trouble of sorting out that category. So the question stands, is this Spielberg’s finest hour? Well, it is certainly is a triumph and it certainly ranks with the best of his work. Whether you love Spielberg or hate him, you can’t deny the fact that Lincoln is a touching, thoughtful, intelligent, reflective, and towering piece of filmmaking that will certainly be remembered for years to come. Best see it now so it can be admired on the big screen because your television will not do it justice.
by Steve Habrat
For a film that has been selling itself on the promise of telling us the untold story about Spider-Man’s origins, The Amazing Spider-Man feels suspiciously familiar. Replace the original actors with some fresh faces, toss out Mary Jane as the love interest, bring in new director Marc Webb, and scrub away pervious director Sam Raimi’s fresh-off-the-pulp-page style and you have Marvel’s good but not really amazing reboot of their ultimate cash cow. The debate still rages on about whether it was a smart move on Marvel’s part to reboot the Spider-Man franchise just five short years after Sam Raimi left a bitter taste in our mouths with the overly crowded Spider-Man 3. In my opinion, I believe that it was a bit early, especially since Webb’s reboot didn’t really take on much of a life of its own and Raimi’s series is still pretty fresh in my mind. Even though this is familiar territory, Marvel still understands what worked in the previous Spider-Man series and it refuses to let go of that formula. I guess it means a big payday so I can’t really say I blame them.
The Amazing Spider-Man re-introduces us to gangly but brilliant teenager Peter Parker (Played by Andrew Garfield), who is under the care of his warm hearted Uncle Ben (Played by Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Played by Sally Field). Peter has been under their watchful eye since he was a young boy, his parents mysteriously dropping him off at Uncle Ben and Aunt May’s one night and then disappearing without another word. Peter attends Midtown Science High School, where he snaps photos for the school year book, is the target of bullies, and crushes on the equally brilliant Gwen Stacy (Played by Emma Stone). One day, Peter stumbles upon his father’s old brief case and in it, documents that link his father to the pharmaceutical company Oscorp. Peter goes on to discover that his father worked closely with a man named Dr. Curt Connors (Played by Rhys Ifans), who severed contact with the young Peter after his parents disappeared. After sneaking into Oscorp to meet Dr Connors, Peter stumbles upon a laboratory that is crawling with those iconic genetically modified spiders. One naturally finds its way into Peter’s clothing and gives him a painful bite on the neck. He quickly begins to notice some strange by powerful side effects taking effect. Meanwhile, Dr Connors is researching cross-species genetics, which would allow Dr. Connors to re-grow a missing limb. After being rushed into human testing, Dr. Connors tests a serum on himself, with devastating consequences.
Director Marc Webb (yes, that is his real name) and his team of screenwriters understand that what appealed to us in the original Spider-Man movies was indeed the boy behind the bug-eyed mask. Webb allows his camera to linger on Peter for quite some time before throwing him behind that famous mask and letting him loose on the rooftops of New York City. There was a lot to like in that story about the bullied nerd who seemed helpless in defending himself suddenly becoming more powerful than he could have ever imagined. The Amazing Spider-Man really lets us see Peter’s anguish, from the suppressed anger over his parent’s sudden disappearance to the cold-blooded murder of his Uncle Ben. Peter gets an up close and personal look at the ugly side of life and what that ugly side can dish out. While all of this isn’t really new, Webb still manages to wring out some easy emotion from it by shrouding it in shadows and tearstains. Garfield’s Peter isn’t afraid to let the tears of pain fall down his face and paired with the swelling score from James Horner, you’ll find yourself getting easily sucked in to that pain and really feeling it. Webb knows that we can’t resist weepy and he really has a blast hitting the sob button multiple times throughout The Amazing Spider-Man.
The best part of The Amazing Spider-Man is the casting choices, mostly Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. Garfield and Stone, who struck up an off screen romance while shooting the film, allow that real life spark to translate and boy, does it pay off. They capture and quickly bottle the giggly self-consciousness of first love and allow it to mature into a confident romance. The little moments between Parker and Stacy easily outshine any of the nail-biting action scenes. You will also find yourself falling for Sheen’s Uncle Ben and Field’s Aunt May, both who are game to play loving guardians to the awkward teen shut away in his bedroom upstairs. Sheen’s Uncle Ben is given endless amounts of fatherly wisdom to pour onto Peter but he does it with quite a bit of spirit. Field’s Aunt May is stuck with grieving throughout much of the film but she is in full command when in front of the camera. Then we have Ifans as Dr Curt Connors/The Lizard, who is a revelation as Peter’s mentor but unsure of himself as the deformed monster. In many respects, he is similar to Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin from the 2002 original, minus the hover board and firepower. For the dark and serious approach, he is at times a bit too fantastical and his destructive plot is unintentionally funny.
What would a Spider-Man film be without the swinging action sequences that are hell-bent on giving us vertigo? There are plenty of showdowns between The Lizard and Spidey to keep the adrenaline flowing but Webb never dares to construct an action scene that we haven’t seen before. He converts it all into 3D and then just sends webs flying our way along with various other debris, rubble, and dust. I found myself getting sucked out of some of the action sequences because Spidey is just too mordant. He does muster up a few good one-liners, especially one about his weakness being “small knives” and a critique of a car thief’s wardrobe (both which you have seen in the trailer). There is a gun-snapping brawl with a SWAT team that pits Spidey against skeptical police Captain Stacy (Played by the underused Dennis Leary), who has vowed to get the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man off the streets. I won’t say much about the edge-of-your-seat finale except that Spider-Man is bruised, battered, and has his back against the wall, on the lookout for all the help he can get. It is all done up in a CGI confrontation that takes Spider-Man to the very top of the New York City skyscrapers.
If Marvel would have held off for a few more years before deciding to revisit the Spider-Man universe, I think they could have come up with something inventive and invigorating. Instead, they rushed into something that obviously could have used a bit more thought and it is apparent in more than a few scenes of The Amazing Spider-Man. Spot on casting wasn’t enough to blind us to the fact they didn’t really elaborate on the beloved superhero. Still, The Amazing Spider-Man does offer up plenty of escapist summer thrills to warrant a trip to the theater to check it out. There is tons of immersive 3D and tweaked special effects, the best scenes being the ones where Spidey is swinging in between buildings. Since Marvel has insisted upon Spider-Man swinging across the movie screen once again, I am curious to see where they take the Webhead in future installments and I can’t wait to see how Garfield develops the character. I guess that is all any good but not amazing origin story can do.