Movie Review: Lincoln [2012]

Lincoln [2012]

Lincoln [2012]
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin (book)
Genre: Biography/Drama
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones and John Hawkes
Running Time: 150 minutes

Steven Spielberg is back, folks.

After a decade full of less-than-impressive efforts, Spielberg’s Lincoln delivers the goods. It doesn’t hurt to have one of the most stellar casts in recent memory, but there’s still quite a bit of substance in this historical biopic.

Lincoln [2012]

Rather than serve as a biography of Abraham Lincoln’s entire life, the film focuses on the President’s push to pass the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, an act which would formally abolish slavery in the entire country. Naturally, with a nation already divided due to the Civil War, passing this amendment is no easy feat. The Democrats are almost entirely against the idea of abolishing slavery, and the prospects of getting the 20 extra votes needed are dire. Yet Lincoln is a stubborn, but passionate, man who will not give up until his mission is complete, even against the wishes of his advisors.

This is such a critical moment in our nation’s history, and it’s remarkable to see this played out on screen. A tremendous amount of detail went into recreating this time period, with extra emphasis on the faithfully reconstructed costume design. The casting is also near perfection. Daniel Day-Lewis, of course, has been on the receiving end of constant praise for his portrayal of Lincoln, and he deserves every accolade thrown his way. Soft-spoken, intelligent and charismatic, Day-Lewis embodies the 16th President in a way that makes it incredibly clear why he was so beloved. In a career loaded with memorable performances, this may very well be his best, and it would be shocking if he didn’t win the Oscar.

Lincoln [2012]

The rest of the cast is stacked, to put it mildly. Just take a look at some of the names involved: Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earl Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, Lee Pace, Jared Harris. This is basically character actor heaven. Field and Jones have both earned Oscar nods for their performances as Mary Todd Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens, respectively, and rightfully so. The trio of Hawkes, Spader and Nelson are especially entertaining as a group of chief negotiators who will go to any means necessary to sway/bribe the Democratic voters.

Lincoln isn’t a perfect film — Spielberg still has a habit of spelling things out for us (i.e. Mary Todd and others writing down notes such as “8 votes to win” just in case we didn’t know) — but it is a wholly engrossing one. With a heavy reliance on dialogue, the acting needs to be top-notch, and in this regard the film does not disappoint at all. Lincoln will likely clean up at the Oscars this year, and for once I will have little to complain about.

9/10

Movie Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene [2011]

Martha Marcy May Marlene [2011]

Martha Marcy May Marlene [2011]
Director: Sean Durkin
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes
Runtime: 120 Minutes

Ever wanted to peer into the mind of a disillusioned cult member? I can’t think of a better film that presents this ability than Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Elizabeth Olsen (yes, the younger sister of the Olsen Twins) stars as Martha, a young girl who has fled a farmhouse cult in the Catskills. With no one else to turn to, she goes to a pay phone and calls her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who lives three hours away. Despite not having communicated in at least two years, Lucy drops what she is doing, picks her up and brings her back to her vacation home. Upon arriving, it is clear that the difference between the two sisters is like night and day. Lucy and her rich husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), are very well off but live a hectic lifestyle. From her two years on the farm, Martha has developed some bizarre habits and has trouble fitting in with the norms of society.

Martha Marcy May Marlene [2011]

The movie dives directly into Martha’s mind, as we are shown interwoven clips from present day (at the lake house) as well as her time in the cult. At the farmhouse, the group’s leader, Patrick (the always incredible John Hawkes), has such a commanding presence that he makes everyone feel as if they are living the good life. There is a sense of community within them that brings them all together, even as Patrick demands unreasonable things from them. It’s frightening to watch all of this first hand, especially as most of the cult members are innocent young girls. This shit happens in real life, yet it’s something we don’t really see or hear about until tragedy strikes.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a slow burn that moves at a very deliberate pace. While intriguing for the most part, there were moments in the second half where I felt things dragged a bit. The movie probably didn’t need to run the full two hours, but it was hard not to get entranced with Sean Durkin’s direction. The cuts between present and past were seamless, feeling like one long, flowing thought in Martha’s mind.

Martha Marcy May Marlene [2011]

One thing that will be a huge issue for some viewers is the movie’s ending. I won’t discuss specifics for fear of spoilers, but man, talk about a polarizing conclusion. It’s something you will either love or hate, and my theater’s reaction was decidedly to the latter. Frankly, it pissed me off at first as well, but I grew to like it. It’s one of those endings that really makes you think, and it definitely succeeded in getting everyone talking about it afterward.

While the film has some aspects that won’t please everyone, it is still a very moving experience that showcases a rather interesting character study. It was a real treat to see Elizabeth Olsen step out from her famous siblings’ shadows and put together a truly powerful performance. This girl has big things in her future, folks. It was also awesome to see John Hawkes in another major role, as his performance gave me flashbacks to his memorable role as Teardrop in last year’s Winter’s Bone.

Is Martha Marcy May Marlene essential viewing? No, but it’s a well-made film that shows that both Durkin and Olsen have big things in their futures.

7/10

Movie Review: Contagion [2011]

Contagion [2011]

Contagion [2011]
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Genre: Drama/Sci-Fi/Thriller
Language: English
Country: USA

Pandemic movies are hardly anything new. More often than not they tend to delve into far-fetched scenarios where zombies run rampant and feast on human flesh. In this regard, Contagion is almost like a breath of fresh air. There are no zombies, and the situation is entirely feasible.

The movie focuses on a rapidly progressing virus outbreak, not unlike the swine flu, that kills those that come in contact with it in a matter of days. It is unknown where this virus came from, at least initially, and it becomes a worldwide concern as the medical community frantically attempts to develop a vaccine. Meanwhile, people everywhere are freaking out, causing mayhem to the streets and others while trying to avoid getting sick. To put it bluntly, this is total chaos.

Contagion [2011]

Rather than dwelling on an individual story or small group of people directly involved in one aspect of the pandemic, director Steven Soderbergh chose to follow people from all over the world. The movie keeps tabs on regular folk, doctors, scientists and even conspiracy theorists. The fact that the movie is spread out with so many different subplots is both a blessing and a curse. I loved the global feel of the movie, as we saw viewpoints from all over the world. However, with so many characters introduced and then dropped in and out of the main storyline, it becomes difficult to feel any connection to them. The multi-character arc is a great idea, but a few characters here and there could have probably been cut out.

I also noticed some issues with the movie’s pacing. Even though it is labeled as a thriller, Contagion really lacks any sense of excitement. The general feeling of hysteria is always there, but the movie tends to rely too heavily on random subplots that offer little emotional weight. As a result, there are moments where things feel like they are crawling along. This is a bizarre problem for a movie that pushes through over 100 days of action in under two hours.

Even though it is difficult to get behind some of the characters, it must be stated that this is of no fault to the cast. Several of the actors have been nominated for Academy Awards in the past, and they certainly do as good as they can with their small roles. Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne and Jude Law seem to get the most screen time. Damon is great as a normal guy who just so happens to be immune to the disease. After his wife and one of his daughters die at the onset of the virus, he attempts to recreate a normal life with his remaining daughter. Fishburne is in excellent form as Dr. Ellis Cheever, an employee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Jude Law delivers perhaps the most enjoyable role of all as a conspiracy theory blogger, even taking a cheapshot at blogging in stride.

Contagion [2011]

Other noteworthy additions to the cast include Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle and John Hawkes. Winslet in particular shines in her limited role, as she usually does. Cotillard’s character arc is perhaps most frustrating, as she enters and then disappears from the movie at long intervals. Again, kudos to everyone involved for getting all of these big name actors, but it would have been great to have them fleshed out some more.

Regardless of these faults, it would be inappropriate to call Contagion a bad movie. It has an excellent cast and a great concept, and I really enjoyed the tense soundtrack as well. The problem is that it simply could have been a lot better.

6.5/10