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
In the seemingly endless string of zombie films out there, 2007’s indie horror comedy Fido is one that is painfully overlooked and I can’t understand why. This gee-whiz hunk of Americana cheese mixed up in the gooey zombie genre is such a fun little flick that I can’t believe horror fans don’t make more of a fuss about it. A sunny little Canadian picture directed by Andrew Currie, Fido ambles along on its ironic joke that finds zombies shuffling about a cheery 50’s era suburb but the hilarity doesn’t stop at the basic premise. This film has some gut-busting jokes that are neatly embedded in all the comic book chaos as well as knee-slapping nods to the B-movies that were all the rage in the Eisenhower era. Fido also works due to the touching spark between K’Sun Ray’s Timmy and Billy Connolly’s Fido, the friendliest and smartest zombie to lurch across the screen since Bub in Day of the Dead. While you will be beaming through about eighty-five percent of the picture, Fido does stumble a little at the end, which is a shame because things were going so swimmingly. Even if it stumbles, you will still be giggling as a happy-go-lucky tune from the atomic era bops along the soundtrack as the living dead munch on the entrails of the living. How can you argue with THAT?
Fido takes place in an alternate 1950’s universe where a radiation cloud from space has drifted to Earth and awoken the flesh hungry undead. Just in the nick of time, a company called ZomCom have invented a collar that suppresses the undead’s hunger for warm human flesh. In addition to the collars, ZomCom have erected massive fences that keep the zombies out of the small, picturesque towns that dot the United States. It has also become all the rage to “own” a zombie servant, one who serves you dinner and performs other mundane tasks around the house. It is in one of these small towns that we meet Timmy Robinson (Played by K’Sun Ray), an inquisitive little boy who is bullied at school and largely ignored by his distracted father, Bill Robinson (Played by Dylan Baker). Timmy does find some affection and attention from his mother, Helen Robinson (Played by Carrie-Anne Moss). When one of ZomCom’s zombie control specialists moves in across the street from the Robinson’s, Helen notices that the family has six servant zombies. Embarrassed that she doesn’t have one, Helen goes out and gets Fido (Played by Billy Connolly), which enrages Bill but delights Timmy. Timmy and Fido begin bonding but after a nasty accident in the park, the safety of their peaceful community is threatened.
Cleverly using the conformist 50’s as the backdrop, when it was heavily encouraged ship off to the suburbs and start a family, Fido suggests that conformity turns us all into mindless lurching zombies. It would make zombie godfather George Romero proud while it keeps the rest of us in stitches. The implication is a bit obvious at times, never as subtle as something Romero would have produced in his heyday but it is easily forgivable. Fido is also all dressed up as a cute 50’s B-movies that echoes the atomic willies that came out of the detonation of the atom bomb. The beginning of the film is a newsreel that looks like it could have been borrowed from a drive-in of yesterday, only a touch funnier and without the whole duck-and-cover advise from the optimistic, reassuring narrator. While it can be warm and fuzzy, Currie doesn’t forget the finishing touch, a touch that consists of bucks of fake blood and guts. The gore isn’t always here for the hell of it and Currie uses it to add to the heavy doses of irony. One scene finds a zombie getting shot right in the head in the middle of a sunny suburban street, where kids play, cars trudge by, and sundress clad housewives eagerly await the arrival of their husbands after a long day at the office (martinis ARE included). After we hear the gunshot, Currie cuts to a shot of brains and blood splattering all over a white picket fence and a bunch of flowers. It was perhaps my favorite shot in all of Fido.
Fido is also a success due to the performances from Moss, Ray, and Connolly, all who do a marvelous job in this overlooked gem. Moss is wonderful as a housewife suffering from a severe case of ennui. She is a wonderful mother who is desperate to shake things up. Her lassitude with her money-obsessed husband is heartrending, mostly because she is filled with so much pent up warmth, warmth she transfers to both Timmy and Fido. Ray is also a joy as the curious Timmy, a target of neighborhood bullies who just longs for a buddy. Ray is so good as a quirky squirt that thinks outside the box and his chemistry with Fido is unbelievably strong. Thankfully, Connolly also picks up on the chemistry and plays off the young actor quite nicely. Fido is a cuddly ghoul who shrieks and moans over a thunderstorm and even rushes home to grab Helen when Timmy is in trouble. He’s like a cooler Lassie, with two legs, less hair, and more decaying flesh. Dylan Baker really gets into a groove as the cranky Bill, who hates to have his routine disrupted and loathes the shuffling Fido. Tim Blake Nelson shows up as Mr. Theopolis, an ex-employee of ZomCom who is romantically linked to his zombie servant Tammy (Played by Sonja Bennett). Henry Czerny also drops by as ZomCom’s security chief Mr. Bottoms, a nasty piece of work who suspects that Timmy and Fido may be up to no good.
The last fifteen minutes of Fido is where things really go south. The climax erupts into tons of zombie pandemonium with one main character biting the dust. There really isn’t any emotional weight to the sequence but the laughs allow the clunky final act to keep its head above water. Things are brushed over a little too quickly for my tastes and it feels like the filmmakers almost ran out of money and had to condense the final moments. I would have also liked to see Fido embrace a little bit of horror. Things do get a bit tense but it never gets particularly freaky which was slightly disappointing. Still, the first hour and fifteen minutes of Fido are extremely sharp, from the set design all the way to the rapid-fire script from Currie, Robert Chomiak, and Dennis Heaton. The laughs are solid and the relationship between a boy and his zombie will work its way into your heart. For fans of the zombie genre, Fido is a must. Fans of the comedy genre, make sure to move Fido up to the top of your list. You will walk away more than satisfied.
Fido is available on Blu-ray and DVD.