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.
Batman Forever (1995)
by Steve Habrat
After Tim Burton took Batman to the darkest depths of evil’s soul in 1992’s Batman Returns, Warner Bros. wanted to make the Batman franchise friendlier to families all over America (No death to children here!). With Burton out of the director’s chair and wearing the producer’s hat, Joel Schumacher steps in to brighten the mood, yanking the brooding Batman out of the shadows and tossing him head first into a world of neon lights and rubber nipples on the Batsuit. Schumacher’s Batman Forever, the third installment in the franchise, was without question the grandest Batman film to date. It sprints all over this art deco Gotham City that looks more like a nightclub than an actual metropolis. Some of the dark tones of the original two films remain loosely in tact and newcomer Val Kilmer, who steps in for Michael Keaton, refuses to quit brooding as Bruce Wayne, but the film welcomes in two campy villains, an annoying sidekick, and a homoerotic feel that turns Batman and his antagonists into glam rock drag queens with no purpose or direction. Completely reversing the plot to create a darker Batman, Schumacher takes things back to the campy 60’s television series that starred Adam West as a much more cartoonish version of the Dark Knight and in the process, he horrifies Batfans everywhere.
Batman Forever begins with the dreaded Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Played by Tommy Lee Jones), the former do-gooder D.A. of Gotham City, terrorizing the good citizens of the sprawling city. He blames Batman (Played by Val Kilmer) for not intervening in a courtroom accident that left half of his face horribly scarred. Two-Face soon finds an ally in the rubbery terrorist Edward Nygma/The Riddler (Played by Jim Carrey), a disgruntled former employee of Wayne Enterprises who is out to stick it to his idol, Bruce Wayne. The Riddler devises a way to suck the secrets out of the heads of the helpless citizens of Gotham, which allows him to get inside Batman’s mind and figure out his true identity. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne has assumed responsibility for the young Dick Grayson (Played by Chris O’Donnell), who watched helplessly as his parents were murdered by the bloodthirsty Two-Face. As Dick spends more and more time in Wayne Manor, he begins to suspect that Wayne is hiding something and he is determined to find out what that secret is. As The Riddler and Two-Face close in on the city, Bruce Wayne begins to grapple with his true identity, leading him to consider hanging up the cape for good.
In the past, I have criticized Burton’s Batman films for not exploring the psychology of Bruce Wayne and what drives him to dress up like a giant bat. Schumacher’s Batman Forever attempts to wrap its head around why Bruce does this and while I admire the effort, it is shoddy and half-hearted. Bruce is urged by love interest Dr. Chase Meridian (Played by Nicole Kidman) to face down his demons, which leads to a handful of moody flashbacks that are ripe with the darkness of the first two films. Unfortunately, a good majority of this side plot was removed from Batman Forever due to the studio’s fear of venturing back into the dark side of Batman. This is just one of the missed opportunities in Batman Forever. There are tons of moments that appear to be going in the right direction but are thrown off by studio interference. Many are quick to place ALL the blame on Schumacher, labeling him the only person responsible for Batman crumbling to glittery ash, but I think Warner Bros. also played a part in this monstrosity. I was always hesitant to put all of the blame on him because you will catch glimpses of the film that Schumacher wanted to make. There are some bleak touches to be found if you are willing to look closely, something that saves Batman Forever from being a total turd.
Another positive that Batman Forever has working in its favor is the casting of Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Kilmer continues to play Wayne with a straight face, refusing to stop and wink at the audience even when Schumacher slaps nipples on his armor. When he puts on the Batsuit, Kilmer communicates in a whisper that does seem perfect for a guy dressing up like a giant bat, which softens the blow of campy lines of dialogue like, “I’ll get drive-thru.” Things really hit rock bottom for Kilmer when he is forced to team up with O’Donnell’s Robin, who does nothing to lift the creeping veil of camp that is slowly draping over the film. Schumacher also hints at a homosexual spark between the two crime fighters, which would be okay if the previous two films had hinted that Bruce grapples with his sexuality but that isn’t the case here. Kilmer is forced to morph the brooding hero, who has had feelings for Vicki Vale and Selina Kyle in the past, into a bisexual with an identity crisis. It’s a bizarre touch to throw into the series in the third quarter but Kilmer keeps a cool head with the murky twist.
To make things worse for Batman Forever, O’Donnell has no clue how to approach the Boy Wonder. At times, he wants to be just as brooding and dark as Kilmer’s Bruce Wayne and at others, he wants to be a party-boy rebel without a real cause. I had mixed feelings about his character but he really rubbed me the wrong way when he jacked the Batmobile and takes it out for a joyride. Personally, I could have done without the inclusion of Robin, as I personally have never been a huge fan of the character. Then we have the two villains, both who lift the buffoonery of Nicholson’s Joker but forget the measured menace that made his character so unforgettable. When Carrey isn’t on the screen with him, Jones actually knows how to handle his split-personality wacko but whenever the question-mark-clad Carrey enters the scene, the two seem like they are in a contest to see who can out-camp the other. Carrey wins the contest and turns the Riddler into a heavily caffeinated version of the Joker who loves one-liners and loves light-up jackets. Jones and Carrey do an admirable job with the material they are given, but I wish they weren’t asked to act like they are two giddy teenagers. Matching Kilmer’s somber tone is Nicole Kidman’s sexy psychologist (a fitting love interest for this film), who is here to coax the demons out of Wayne. Also back is Michael Gough as the faithful butler Alfred, who contributes another quality performance, and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, who once again has absolutely nothing to do with his iconic character.
As I stated earlier, Batman Forever was the biggest Batman film at the time and Schumacher loads it with enough action to live up to that reputation. The film does have some marvelous sets even if they do turn Batman Forever into a gigantic neon dance club. The fight scenes lack the brutality of Batman and Batman Returns, at times seeming like the characters are dance fighting (It wouldn’t surprise me if they were) rather than actually fighting for their lives. Schumacher and his crew hope to overwhelm us with action and eye candy so that we won’t notice the fact that the film basically has no plot and they almost succeed. Luckily, Kilmer is a nice fit for Batman and it is a shame he didn’t stick around to elaborate on his performance, but I can’t say I blame him for abandoning the character when the studio is more interested in selling toys rather than making something coherent. Overall, Batman Forever is a regressive film that appeals more to kids than it does to the adult viewers looking for something substantial and weighty. Oh well, at least there wasn’t any “Wham” or “Pow” to speak of, which was a relief for a film that hits the ground with a campy joke about Batman stopping for drive-thru.
Batman Forever is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Men in Black 3 (2012)
by Steve Habrat
I think we can all agree that the world wasn’t starving for another Men in Black film. It has been ten long years since Agent J and Agent K saved the world in the lousy Men in Black 2 and now they are back in a film that is a slight improvement over the 2002 disaster. Men in Black 3 is not a great film but it has great performances and truly incredible CGI to marvel at, but the absence of any fun action sequences cripples this lukewarm installment. Considering the film has a price tag of $215 million dollars, you’d think that it would have at least one “WOW” moment in there somewhere. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t. Sony must have forgotten they were making a summer blockbuster for audiences who want to see things blow up. Throughout the runtime, I also couldn’t shake the feeling that everything that was playing out on the screen had been done before and much better at that. It felt like Sony just repackaged the original film, tied it up with recycled jokes, and put a big ribbon of 3D on it.
Men in Black 3 begins with the revolting alien menace Boris the Animal (Played by Flight of the Concord’s Jermaine Clement) breaking out of a massive prison that happens to be on the moon rather than good old Earth. Boris is also missing one of his arms and he is pretty pissed off about it. It turns out that his arm was shot off by Agent K (Played by Tommy Lee Jones) way back in July of 1969, who then took him into custody and shipped him to his lunar prison cell. Boris quickly figures out a way to time travel back to 1969 so he can kill the young Agent K (Played by Josh Brolin) before K can shoot off his arm and arrest him. He also wants to stop K from planting a device that protects earth from a massive alien invasion. After older K disappears, it is up to suave Agent J (Played by Will Smith) to travel back to 1969 and join forces with the younger (and nicer) Agent K to prevent the alien invasion and stop Boris before he completely alters history.
Men in Black 3 was plagued by script rewrites and multiple delays that almost drove director Barry Sonnenfeld to the breaking point. The good news is that despite all the rewrites, Men in Black 3 tells a fairly engaging little story with some mildly clever moments. The bad news is that screenwriter Ethan Coen doesn’t ever really do much with J’s appearance in 1969. He resorts to dated jokes like telling Andy Warhol that he’d “have no problem pimp-slapping the shiznit” out of him and complains about dated technology. The film only takes a few opportunities to really play with the race relations of the late 60’s, mostly in a scene where two white police officers stop J and accuse him of stealing the car he is driving. It is jokes like this that would have really went over big in 1997, when all of this seemed fresh and slightly innovative. If those jokes aren’t enough to make you roll your eyes, once again, the film cracks jokes about certain celebrities being aliens as well as extraterrestrials hiding in plane sight. Doesn’t it feel like 1997 in here?
What ultimately saves Men in Black 3 from crumbling right in front of our eyes is the acting, especially from Brolin, Clement, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who shows up as a neurotic alien who can see multiple futures that all have different outcomes. Brolin steals the show with his impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones, an impersonation that is eerily spot-on. From the drawl in his voice to the sleepy eyes, Brolin is an absolute knock out, getting every twitch, step, and head turn just right. It is also the funniest aspect of Men in Black 3. Clement does a damn fine job making you remember him once the credits crawl across the screen. Boris could be one of the nastiest aliens from the Men in Black universe, snagging what has to be one of the most disgusting kisses in motion picture history. Coen and Sonnenfeld really hold back with his character and he is someone that I wished we had seen more of. The underdog of Men in Black 3 is Michael Stuhlbarg as the sweet Griffin, who turned out to be one of my favorite characters in Men in Black 3. He was just such a likable soul—one whose faith in humanity was so infectious, you couldn’t help but root for him.
As far as our two veteran protagonists are concerned, they fair about the same as they did in the previous two films. Smith is still the wild child, the one who is more concerned with making the job look good. The scenes in which he uses the Neuralyzer on crowds of people are some of his best. A touching last act twist gives his character a heaping amount of emotional weight that, in a way, comes a little too late. Jones, on the other hand, is absent through a good portion of the film, allowing Brolin to take the driver’s seat for a while. Jones is his usually crabby self, one who smiles by letting his face droop. I won’t deny that Smith and Jones do have an odd-couple chemistry that somehow has kept through three films and it is no different with Men in Black 3. They really find their groove early on and in a way, it is sad to see it cut off even if Brolin does a fantastic job.
The biggest problem I have with Men in Black 3 is the uneven action sequences that feature fine CGI, but just have no adrenaline to keep them moving. I was never on the edge of my seat once during the film. An action scene at the beginning that features multiple aliens seems like it was included just to give the partnering toy company some ideas for action figures. I couldn’t help but feel the same about the handful of new gadgets that we see. Sadly, Men in Black 3 plays things a bit too safe for my tastes. It seems to cater to the kiddies, who will surely eat it up and have a few good laughs at some of the slapstick moments. I feel like Men in Black 3 would have faired a little bit better last summer, when Hollywood had a fixation with period piece blockbusters, ones that were heavily interested in rewriting history (mostly with superheroes). Men in Black 3 ends with a showdown on Apollo 11 that is mixed with a handful of scenes showing in-awe spectators glued to their televisions screens, sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to be blown away by this sublime moment. For all the eye-candy Men in Black 3 throws our way, I truly never felt like one of those grinning, in-awe spectators even though I so desperately wanted to. I was fighting back yawns.
Natural Born Killers (1994)
by Steve Habrat
Leave it to Oliver Stone to tackle an issue like the American public’s fascination with serial killers, blood, sex, guts, and all out mayhem. Natural Born Killers is without question one of the most controversial films ever made, a psychedelic road trip into Hell that boasts hallucinatory images, shotgun wielding satire, and a blood drenched riot as a finale that leaves the sane viewer with their mouth on the floor. Natural Born Killers is notorious for inspiring a long list of copycat murders in the wake of its 1994 release including the shooting of William Savage and Patsy Byers, the Heath High School shooting, the Columbine High School massacre, and the Richardson Family Murders. Natural Born Killers deals with the morbid intrigue we have with cold-blooded killers and how the media glamorizes and glorifies their actions. The film touches on all the major figures in death including Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Charles Whitman, and David Koresh, to name a few. Through all the controversy, director Stone has some thought provoking things to say and we can’t help but feel ashamed in ourselves for how we hang on the violence projected into our homes via the nightly news. We, as a society, were guilty this past summer when we hung on every second of the Casey Anthony trial and now, we are guilty of it again with the recent Chardon, Ohio school shooting, where news cameras were onsite to catch every drop of blood and every tear from those affected. We still haven’t learned from the message Natural Born Killers tried to deliver to us.
Natural Born Killers follows the horrific killing spree of Mickey (Played by Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Played by Juliette Lewis) Knox, two bloodthirsty individuals who have been twisted and mutated into heroes by the media for the carnage they leave in their wake. The film hops around and shows us glimpses into their troubled pasts, the pursuit of a Detective Jack Scagnetti (Played by Tom Sizemore) who has a few secrets of his own, Mickey’s Manson-esque interview with self-centered Australian tabloid journalist Wayne Gale (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.), and their stay at a prison run by Warden Dwight McClusky (Played by Tommy Lee Jones). After a year stay at the prison, Mickey and Mallory are to be moved to a mental institution after being deemed insane, but the Warden, Gayle, and Detective Scagnetti all have plans of their own for the deadly duo.
You can’t evaluate Natural Born Killers without discussing the hyperactive style and array of colors Stone bathes the film in. He shoots with multiple types of film including Super 8, 16mm, black and white, animation, and video, the film flipping from one style to another with frantic randomness. Stone also adds heaping amounts of stock footage including footage of the 1993 siege on the Branch Dravidians, the Nazis, and the Charles Whitman shootings. In addition, Stone also shows us Mallory’s disturbing upbringing at the hands of her abusive father and cowardly mother. Stone presents this to the viewer as a 1950’s sitcom, adding laugh tracks and upbeat music, suggesting that we sensationalize the past of criminals and use their pasts as entertainment. Stone further suggests that we sensationalize violence every single day and use it as a form of entertainment. Even though the film deals with gruesome topics and we should be appalled by it, we keep watching and easily digesting it because he molds it into shameless entertainment. Even if you hate the film and find yourself mortified by it, you can’t say that you weren’t entertained while watching it.
The characters of Mickey and Mallory are contorted into a modern Bonnie and Clyde with a sprinkling of Charles Whitman and Charles Manson. They relish in their hellish fame and joyfully tell their fans “you ain’t seen nothing yet!” as they are led into court. Stone makes them charismatic despite their urges to kill and maim. They use theatrics in the massacres, usually leaving one person alive to tell the tale of Mickey and Mallory. Mickey is a brewing storm of fury that is bottled up and when provoked, slowly uncorks and spews forth with a wrath that will make your head spin. Mallory isn’t as discreet (I use that term loosely here) as Mickey, she unhinges at the smallest little things. But in a sick way, we root for Mickey and Mallory, who actually just want to be left to themselves by the end. Their love for each other trumps their murderous impulses. Stone purposely wants us to root for them, forcing us to listen in on their warped viewpoints Mickey explains to Gale. He also paints them as tragic victims by their troubled pasts, another action by the exploitative media. But Stone uses Gayle to show us how infectious the mental sickness is, the virus spread with a camera and microphone. Mickey sparks a gruesome riot and awakens a killer in Gayle, who begins to enjoy the murder and mayhem. Stone seems to be foretelling the idea of individuals who find inspiration in these monsters.
Natural Born Killers doesn’t pour much hope in the ones who are sworn to protect us. They use murders and psychos for their own personal fame and gain. Wayne Gayle uses them for reputation, Scagnetti uses them for vengeance, and McClusky uses them for his career. In the end, we have to wonder if any of the individuals out there really care about our safety or well-being. These twisted people realize that they can capitalize on death. By the finale, Mickey and Mallory are the rebellion to these individuals–bring down a flurry of bullets with an army of inmates tearing through the prison. Natural Born Killers says that those who claim to protect and serve are really no better than the ones they are trying to capture and put behind bars, something that the real life individuals who are guilty of this crime should be ashamed of.
Natural Born Killers is a film that should be approached with caution, a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. As I have pointed out, many miss the intellectual message of the film and see it as a trippy view into how murder can make you famous. How murder will make the world remember your name, a message that is formed by a weak, delusional mind. For the viewer who wants a thought provoking experience, I encourage you to see Natural Born Killers, a film that holds a slot in my top twenty films of all time. I have always found myself fascinated by how the evening news projects violence into our homes on daily basis. Think of how no one stopped disgraced politician Budd Dwyer as he pulled out a gun and blew his head off on live television, on a snow day when young children were able to see it. If you have seen the footage, you know that the camera kept rolling and the cameraman even zooms in on the bloody mess, making sure we see every minute detail and every smudge of gore. Then it was rerun for everyone to see, presented as a spectacle of a desperate man with no other option. Think 0f how the news covered the events of Waco, how we hang on the interviews with the deranged and manipulative Charles Manson, or our round the clock coverage of any given school shooting. We are the ones who are guilty of making these monsters heroes. We are the ones who sensationalize death and tragedy, refusing to try to intervene or turn away from it. We haven’t learned from our mistakes, that I say with firm confidence. Natural Born Killers is as relevant now as ever, morphing the film to a polarizing classic.
Natural Born Killers is now available of Blu-ray and DVD.