June 24: #25, Lincoln
Four score and seven years ago...was the last time I watched a movie
Lincoln begins with a short, but effectively brutal look into the messy realities of the Civil War, as the Battle of Jenkins Ferry is raging when the film opens. Black and white soldiers fight one another not with guns, but with bayonets and fists while sloshing in several feet of muddy water. From the filthy opening that shows the price of change, we enter a film that is as much about the sloppy business of getting anything done in politics as it is about Abraham Lincoln itself.
Director Steven Spielberg says that he decided to focus on the four-month period of Lincoln’s life leading up to the ratification of the 13th Amendment because otherwise, the scope of the project would be so large that a single film couldn’t contain it all. It’s a fair assessment, and there’s something to be said for the fact that we do get to see many sides of Lincoln- father, husband, idealist, and stubbornly obsessed politician- even though the film covers just four months of his historic life.
So why does it all feel so boring? Part of it is surely that many of the cast members do not bring the understated brilliance that Daniel Day-Lewis, who is clearly the greatest living actor in the world, brings to the title role. Others, like Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Lincoln’s oldest son) bring too much emotion to roles that require a touch more subtlety. Then there’s Sally Field, who even in a role that demands occasional hysterics, manages to overplay it.
The exception to the rule is Tommy Lee Jones, who is great as Thaddeus Stevens, a member of the House of Representatives and staunch abolitionist. Jones knows when to show some subtlety and when to let it all hang out, even if he does take on a role with less complexity than the others, being as Stevens is one of the only people in the film that knows what he wants from beginning to end and does not waver.
The film is technically sound, with Spielberg knowing how to bring out the epic feel of important moments while filming the more private moments of Lincoln’s life in a more familiar, intimate way. It’s just a shame that there aren’t more of those moments. Lincoln’s dedication and will are at center stage here, even if the reasons why he is so determined are left for the viewer (especially one who is not well-versed on Lincoln) to decide for him or herself. The film is notable for a couple of great acting performances, and it is interesting to see that even with such a no-brainer of an amendment (hindsight being 20/20, of course), some dirty dealing had to go on to make it all happen. However, I can’t help but feel that the film as a whole is a bit of a missed opportunity. Grade: B-
June 25: #26, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Way better than George Washington: Zombie Killer
Watching these two back-to-back seemed like a cute idea, but immediately became problematic for a number of reasons. One of which is that while I am not the kind of person who goes into an action film looking for Academy Award-level acting performances, it’s hard to watch Daniel Day-Lewis knock the role of Abraham Lincoln out of the park, then see Benjamin Walker stumble through a rough approximation of the man where he basically just says things in a slightly deep voice and with as much seriousness as he can muster.
If I hadn’t watched Lincoln, I wouldn’t have minded the inferior performances of any of the cast members in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, nor the fact that the timeline of Lincoln’s kids is entirely thrown off so that his oldest son, Will, can be used in a plot point later in the film.
I mean, none of that really matters in a movie about Abraham Lincoln hunting vampires, right? In fact, for the first half of the movie, you wonder why it has to be Lincoln and not just any old person fighting vampires, other than the obvious novelty of it. It isn’t until the film is fast-forwarded (which means you have to believe that the vampires who want to ruin him just leave him alone all of a sudden for 25 years) that the whole thing gets tied (rather ludicrously, but still) into the Civil War and you see that there’s some creativity at work here.
When you see that young Abraham Lincoln’s training for the rough and tumble world of vampire hunting consists only of a) fighting in the dark and b) axe twirling, you know that the action scenes will be not be moored to reality. And oh, man, are the action scenes batshit-crazy. I mean, if you think the concept of Abraham Lincoln hunting vampires is crazy on its own, wait until you’ve seen Abraham Lincoln hunting a vampire during a stampede of about a thousand wild stallions, vaulting from one horse to the next, or Abraham Lincoln hunting a vampire while on a moving train that is racing at high speeds across a burning bridge.
While the dramatic scenes are bland, the action scenes come alive and are stylishly done, with moody skies, vampires jumping out of paintings, and great special effects. Mostly, the stylistic choices work for director Timur Bekmambetov. The exception is when he goes to the well too many times, as when he does the “slow motion, followed by extremely fast motion, followed again by slow motion” trick that is meant to highlight the best parts of any particular fight. It’s cool in small doses, but it happens ALL THE TIME and becomes obnoxious here. Grade: C+