Tag Archives | 2012 movies

Movie Review: Lincoln

Director Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan, War Horse, Schindler’s List) returns to American history with his stately Lincoln starring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role and the outcome is better than his last purely historical exercise, the moral monstrosity Munich. It’s been seven years since that atrocious movie, which was co-written by the writer who also wrote Lincoln. Worse, Lincoln is “partly based” on a sketchy book about the nation’s 16th president by a known, admitted plagiarist, Harvard’s disgraced Doris Kearns Goodwin. Add that this DreamWorks/20th Century Fox picture is being distributed by Disney with a soundtrack by Sony and you have the potential for too many cooks – some of them bad cooks – making a mess.

But the movie is anything but awful. It’s not deep, or penetrating – this is not Lincoln’s definitive story – and it is decidedly safe. What Lincoln lacks in passion it compensates for in Spielberg’s masterful touches, including lighting and a well-integrated score (by longtime collaborator John Williams) focusing on a central character in moving pictures, which glide in motion around the towering, graceful republican who fought a war to abolish slavery, reunified a broken nation and died in an assassination. Spielberg deals in words expressed as part of the action. As the plot moves across the end of the Civil War toward Confederate surrender amid President Lincoln’s growing determination to amend the Constitution and put an end to chattel slavery, the director of Jaws polishes each part as if he’s shining a classic car. Abraham Lincoln, a Kentucky native raised in Illinois, is telescoped into a narrow but crucial passage in our American history, with nothing of his youth, multiple failures and formative intellectual debates with Stephen Douglas. He is, in Lincoln’s words, keenly aware of his aloneness in the White House. His son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) defies him. His wife (Sally Field) navigates him. His secretary of state (David Straithairn) respects him. But only Abe Lincoln, expertly played by Day-Lewis, bears the burden of saving the United States of America from a huge mistake.

Lincoln carries that dramatic weight with all its flaws. It starts too late in the war, without pretext, leaving a proper setting for slavery, i.e., how it came to be accepted, the fact that it was perpetually controversial and had been hotly debated and dogged the nation from its founding, out of the picture, which drains power and makes the movie too pedantic and churchy. We do not experience slavery in the film, though we do experience the war over slavery. Instead, we see several Negroes who have escaped slavery, some entirely, and it’s good to see depictions of the Union, including its black contingents, fighting for slaves to be free. We see compromises, bad philosophy and racism dramatized, but we do not see slaves under slavery, so the South and its rotten way of life get off too easy. The Democrats, however, do not, and Tommy Lee Jones (Hope Springs, Company Men) as a radical Republican fighting for slavery’s abolition delivers a blistering attack that should remind the public that today’s Democrats and their vicious, hateful progression toward total economic slavery – and hatred of the productive – is rooted in a fundamentally backward, archaic view that man’s moral obligation is to serve men. It’s a short scene, probably not intended to convey what I’ve just written, but it’s inescapable to those who think and know the history that thinkers such as John David Lewis – whose Civil War lessons ran through my mind as I watched Lincoln – teach us.

These Republicans were Republicans in the proper sense of the term; the party was born of passionate moral opposition to enslavement of men, women and children and America’s first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, is portrayed by Day-Lewis as a thoughtful man who weighed his words and actions. He is a measured man of honesty, integrity and reason, citing mathematics with regard to rejecting slavery. He is not without both humor, telling a joke that reminds us of the greatness of George Washington, and anger, almost slamming a coffee pot down before he tells the joke. Sally Field as his wife, who grieved with her husband for her dead child, matches her co-star in every scene they have together. The cast is very good, particularly Gloria Reuben as a former slave who plays it cool and dares to ask him an important question and 87-year-old Hal Holbrook as an old coot with leverage but it’s Tommy Lee Jones who makes the most of his part, other than Field and Day-Lewis, holding the moral drive steady toward slavery’s extinction with grit and resolve – and the plain pursuit of his own selfish happiness.

The climax of the story revolves around a rumor and the false dichotomy – again, posed by irrationalists – of peace versus freedom. The vote on the 13th Constitutional amendment to abolish slavery in the House of Representatives is suspenseful only in the recreation of a crucial moment in history, brought forth by a single man – an individualist in the arena – who ultimately refused to put faith, tradition and feelings above facts and, while certain aspects of this larger-than-life tale such as the historic role of Frederick Douglass and anti-slavery industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie are pointedly absent, there is no denying the power of an American movie made by a man from the Midwest about a man from the Midwest who proclaimed the Negroes’ emancipation and struck down slavery, the precondition to restoring individual rights.

“Godammit, I’m voting Yes,” one legislator says as he casts a single vote to end slavery less than a hundred years after our country was founded. Spielberg, with the woman who leads Disney’s new company, Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy, has made a movie that’s too safe and slow, but his Lincoln is also strong, character-driven and compelling. Choosing to let the camera serve as an intently involved witness to noble ideals in debate and action – including a memorable passage from Abe Lincoln’s Gettysburg address – the director of Close Encounters of the Third Kind trades the anticipation for that picture’s single-minded mid-American crusading for communion for this picture’s single-minded mid-American crusading for a union. Both in their own ways, each film’s character lost a lot including family in achieving his goal – both got there in aloneness – and both men focused on the future, not the past. Lincoln, evoking the gravest American injustices since slavery was abolished, from what our government did to punish Americans who were Japanese and what it did to enslave Elian Gonzalez to today’s enslavement of industry, medicine, banking and nearly every aspect of our lives, calls upon us to act now to protect what Lincoln lived – and died – for: freedom over slavery.

Movie Review: Sparkle

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Set in the 1960s, Sparkle (a remake of the 1976 version of the same name) tells the tale of three sisters who strive to become recording artists in the Motown era and struggle to remain a family amid the toxic magnification of fame. It is Whitney Houston‘s final film.

Don’t see it just for that reason, though she shows one last glimpse of her larger than life talent in an oversimplified secondary role as the girls’ strict, religious mother. In fact, Whitney, who is credited as an executive producer and reportedly fought to get this movie made, portrays a character very similar to her own mother, Cissy Houston, a former backup singer for Elvis (another luminous star who died tragically – in his case 35 years ago today) who became a Bible-thumping Christian. One can almost feel Whitney putting her own spin on this role, updating, improving, pulling it back and calibrating her performance. She transforms a two-dimensional Bible mother into someone who’s probably better than I imagine her own mother to be. That counts for something.

Unfortunately, Whitney and everybody else doesn’t get much to work with in obvious characterizations and meandering plotlines. See Sparkle (and only if you want to) for the music, the showmanship and the soap opera, but know going in that it’s more soap than opera. Sparkle is not, however, a vehicle for any star, Whitney or anyone else. As the title character (Sparkle’s her name), TV talent show alumni Jordin Sparks is sufficiently fresh-faced (my filmmaker guest liked her more than I did), playing the ingenue who becomes a mature woman amid the wrenching female family saga that encompasses race, sex, drugs, money and religion. Sparkle learns to put some sizzle into God’s gospel and that’s what the story amounts to, which turns out to be anti-climactic and that’s not because I’m not religious. Her big solo number is a repetitious bust, to be frank, but the end credits song is better. It should have been in the movie.

So much should have been in (and left out of) this movie. Mother and children live what looks like an easily upper middle class existence but everyone talks as if they’re struggling in the middle class. Mother has a dress shop – she apparently built her business herself (insert Barack “you didn’t build that” Obama joke here) – yet we do not see enough of what makes Mama make money and pay for her daughters’ pricey bedroom interiors. Nor do we see enough of how middle child Sister (red hot Carmen Ejogo) goes from mother love-deprived sex kitten to drug addict and battered woman or why Sparkle’s boyfriend Stix (Derek Luke) puts business above his honey or why he switches back or why Dolores (known as just “D” and you’ll see why and played by Tika Sumpter), my favorite character, wants to become a doctor when not many black women from Detroit, where Sparkle takes place, sought admission to medical schools. Too much story and not enough cutting and editing, leaving gaps where there should be transitions, is a problem. One gap is an interesting character named Levi (Omari Hardwick), who gets jettisoned from the story and then reappears in an out-of-character way.

Yet it’s not a bad movie and Sparkle has a shine. Burrowed between cuts and fragmentary scenes is a strong thread – stronger in certain ways than in the original and certainly better than was executed in Dreamgirls – about siblings and what it means to be a sister. Sparkle, the spirited songwriter, is the young pup in love. D is the protective, responsible older sibling who has no time for anything but her goals. Sister is the troubled sparrow, who mistakes her virtue for a ticket to ride, and when she gets derailed she recognizes her own limits and pays her sisters back. It all could have been quite moving, really, and at times it comes close or evokes an emotion, but cardboard characterizations such as the heavy Satin (Mike Epps), dim the lights and trivialize real issues such as race-based self-hate, toxic infatuation which is not love, physical abuse and, in what should have been the most compelling part of the story, self-centered opportunism, which many mistake for 100 percent perfectly selfish ambition. All this rests on the musical performances of the early 60s’ girl group, which are nearly worth the price of admission. The first few numbers are excellent, impeccably costumed by Ruth Carter, staged and filmed and with audience reaction shots so that you remember that it’s a story, not a music video. The tunes and numbers are often elegant, sultry and wonderfully accessible. If you love the Motown pop sound, you’ll love the musical scenes.

Religion is played as the cultural black church version – a more positive, jubilant and less fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible in which God rejoices in seeing “happy, good-looking black folks” in his house – and when the girls are boppin’ in their babydoll dresses to pave the way for their future, their success is celebrated, not denigrated. Director Salim Akil (TV’s The Game) teases us with thought-provoking lines about never being sorry for telling the truth and about people who ought to be helping themselves being too busy prayin’ with preachers who are awfully quick to take the money in the basket. But the topically relevant director falls back on odd shots that sugarcoat men hitting women and he doesn’t develop the plot to match the tunes. Along the way, we lose track of what begins with an excellent sense of time and place, complete with civil rights clips, and end up with a production number that feels like 1995. But Whitney Houston makes an impression in a movie, from The Bodyguard to The Preacher’s Wife, and Sparkle shows us a peek at what might have been part of a redemptive comeback wrapped in a cautionary tale about discovering why what’s held sacred is what shines the brightest.

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