Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Rise of Skywalker! And the Fall of Just About Everything Else Star Wars...

Holy cow!  I cannot believe it has been that long since I have posted on this wubbulous blog!  Then again, after the magic that was 2019’s Shaft, what more could be said?  Simply put, it was the best movie of the entire year, perhaps the decade.  Of course, it won’t get the love of the award-mongers, but those people just want to get invited to film premieres, so their opinions mean worse than nothing.

          Speaking of people that just want to get invited to premieres, I want to talk about Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of the Attempt to Erase Episode VIII.  I know it is a new year, but since hardly anyone is talking about Star Wars given the lack of hype or interest or rewatchability, I might as well take up the challenge and be the lone voice in the desert. 

Could even the late Paul Lynde have saved Episode IX?

          My bride and I once again lured a babysitter to watch over our brood and instead of taking advantage of the situation, we decided to go to see Star Wars: Plan IX from Outer Space.  We ordered some Brobdingnagian-sized burgers and some healthy flagons of ale from the cinema bistro.  Everything was delicious except the Samuel Adams IPA I ordered by mistake.  To me IPAs taste like someone poured Windex into a beer because they enjoy the disinfectant aftertaste.  Still a beer is a beer and a Star Wars movie is a Star Wars movie, so why not. 

Yes, this was the original title.  Yes, this film makes more sense.

          My wife asked the waiter what the audience reaction has been for this movie.  The gent hesitantly replied, “It’s been okay.  I think fans will like it.  I didn’t mind it.  Leave me alone now so I can get your fries!” and then he ran away.  With that vote of supreme confidence, we tucked into our food and after 45 minutes of uninspiring trailers, the movie began!

          Now, like I did with The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, here are some random thoughts that occurred to me during this film.  They are arranged in no particular order and are laced with spoilers throughout.  This new trilogy has been pretty spoiled already, so it shouldn’t matter.  And with that incredibly easy and poorly written joke, let’s dive into the many confusing moments of The Rise of Skywalker!

·         It is going to be bad if I laughed at the title crawl?  “The dead speak!”?  When did they do that?  Did I miss something?  Is there an Episode VIII.5 The Last Jedi Strikes Back Again that was direct to video that I didn’t know about?  Was it a secret message in either of the Ewok movies?  Now if The Emperor spoke offscreen at the end of The Last Jedi as kind of a teaser…oh now that would have been interesting…  “The Final Order…can now begin! Heh heh heh...”  But that didn’t happen, so we’re just chucked into a film where I spend most of the runtime half-heartedly going “Okay. Sure, why not?” because I shouldn’t be thinking while watching.

·         I’m 15 minutes in and we’ve been to around 7 different planets on two different ships with a dozen characters.  I suppose that just letting scenes play out would be ridiculous as that would expose the hodge-podge nature of this film’s production.

·         John Boyega has been sorely shafted by these movies.  In many ways, Finn is the most interesting character from Part VII.  Expanding his arc and letting it flow would have been quite satisfying over the course of these films.  You had him reject his Stormtroopering, join the Resistance, and then you could have had him question those decisions or wonder if he is a First Order spy or sacrifice himself in Part VIII or see this saga through his eyes as the audience or anything.  But instead, nope.  He tags along with Poe, gets in a conflict with Poe that is never explained but then gets resolved, he’s made a general because…he’s a general now, and then rides space horses on a Star Destroyer.  Of all these actors I feel the sorriest for Boyega.  He deserved better.

·         On that note, I think all these actors are better than these movies.  What is it about Star Wars that ensures that good actors are given crap to work with?  Look at this list: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Ian McDiarmid, Christopher Lee, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Peter Cushing, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, etc.  Now all these actors have certainly risen above their given Star Wars material over the years and have shone in other projects to be sure.  (Even Hayden Christensen has shown chops in other films.)  So, I cannot pick on Disney Star Wars in this area.  But I also see that the trend was not reversed by Disney Star Wars either, so I can pick on them for that.

·         Thank you, Episode IX, for not killing off Billy Dee Williams.  Oh, I know you wanted to, but you didn’t.  Not that 82-year-old Lando is a tentpole throughout the entire movie, but it was still damn good to see him.  Oh, and thank you Lucasfilm for killing off Han, Leia, and Luke already so Lando would have no one to interact with from the movies he originally was in.  And it is a different dude in a Chewie suit, so he doesn’t count.  Not even Bored Force Ghost Luke couldn’t talk to Lando for any reason?  No?  Well, still good to see Williams bring some much-needed class into this entry. 

"Why yes, I am pictured in the dictionary under "Smooth"."

·         Keri Russell was in this film supposedly as former flame of Poe’s.  I say “supposedly” because I watched the whole film and 97% of the time, her character had a helmet on that covered her whole face.  Let me put it this way, Russell is barely in the movie more than me, and I'm not in it.  Good prank, J.J.!

This is Keri Russell.  
I definitely would have remembered seeing her if she was in this movie.

·         Adam Driver is one of the few actors in this trilogy who I think shines through and through.  Despite the emo-moments and such, I ultimately care about Kylo Ren/Ben Solo’s journey and his conflicts along the way.  Driver gives a good performance and his was by far the most interesting character in this entire sequel series.

·         And I wish I could say the same about Daisy Ridley.  Not that I loathe Rey, but I loathe that she wasn’t given enough to do to grow as a character.  I have no issue with her being the granddaughter of Palpatine, although that raises a whole other series of questions too.  (Like did Palpatine know that his clone was busy moving and grooving, making relatives along the way while trying to take over a Republic, rule an Empire, build a Death Star, etc?  How’d Clonepatine find the time?!  Was this all going on when he was a Senator making a Nabooty call?  Obviously, this was happening sometime before Return of the Jedi unless there was another clone running around making Li’l Palpatines.  Is there going to be a sequel prequel trilogy that will talk about the Clonepatine family hijinks?  Too many questions!!!)  

Where the hell is the Lobot Star Wars movie?  Where?!

·         But I can see why the Mary Sue tag gets hung on Rey.  Just because she’s now revealed to be a Palpatine, it doesn’t mean she can automatically do the things she can do.  Luke was a Skywalker and showed no real Force abilities prior to meeting up with Kenobi.  Leia either for that matter.  Yet we know there were younglings being trained in the prequels and Anakin showed Force potential early on, but everything came easy for Rey because the scripts said so.  Why wasn’t this paced out better?  Could it be that her being a Palpatine was not the plan from the start...?  She could have had such a great arc with true inner conflicts with the Dark Side and instead, she can beat everything because she can beat everything.  Ridley does try over these films, but boy a clear character arc and some rewrites would have certainly done some good for Rey to be sure.

·         Speaking of Palpatine, let’s give some love to Ian McDiarmid once again as The Emperor!  He’s a delicious menace and even though he was jammed into this storyline haphazardly, he still brings a wonderful presence as the Borg Queen Palpatine, all connected by wires, cables, and pulleys.  Then again, just by being here, it means that the entire climax of the first six episodes means absolutely nothing, so once again thank you, Disney Star Wars!  Remember that whole Anakin Skywalker plotline?  Well, thankfully that now is rendered pointless!  Yay!  Oh look, X-Wings!  

The Emperor learned even more schemes from these nefarious con men!

·         Palpatine has been masterminding…what exactly?  He started the First Order but then also has been foisting his own army and fleet on this separate planet that’s beyond The Great Barrier-lite?  There are Stormtroopers and TIE Fighters and Star Destroyers that have nothing to do with the First Order just being collected and built in secret for at least 35+ years now?  Hm.  But I must ask: why?  Wouldn’t the First Order be enough of a threat?  It seemed to be doing just fine over the previous two movies.  And he’s been cloning Snokes because…he’s been cloning Snokes so I should just shut up?

·         And how does Palpatine secretly recruit these thousands of troops and officers on this very hard-to-reach Sith planet to staff all these Star Destroyers and fighters?  Couldn’t there have been just a throwaway line (I know, there were plenty already, but just bear with me) that said he’s been getting back into cloning Stormtroopers just like from Episode II or III?  Hell, even his using battle droids like in Episode I would have been preferable and sadly more believable.  (Imagine a Star Destroyer being operated by those “Roger, Roger”-uttering bots!  But paint ‘em black because they’d be even more eviler!)  If they were all operated by battle droids, it would then make more sense to have a central navigation control than needs to be taken out, right?  Like when Anakin took out that control ship near Naboo?  Ahem.  (So, Lucas’ ideas for this universe again are better?  Hmmm…seems they keep getting ignored during this regime at Lucasfilm…)    

Hmmm...still think that Borg Queen Palpatine remark was off?

·         How did planet-destroying Star Destroyers make it out of Unnavigable Sith Planet to get blown up outside of the forest moon of Endor or Bespin?  Or were those even planet-destroying Star Destroyers or just regular ones?  I’m really confused at this point.  I was shrugging like everyone else in the theater, going “Sure.  Okay.”  I think making the death of the Ewoks a A-1 level priority for Palpatine would have made for an interesting if not slightly amusing plot development for this movie.  Just have McDiarmid scowl about how those “furry rebel scum” must be exterminated with extreme prejudice and show Wicket standing tall against this latest threat!

·         Thank you for showing Wedge Antilles for a line during the last battle.  Thank you for not putting him in a helmet either so I could say that I think I saw him for a split-second.

If it helps, Wedge was my favorite character in the Disney sequel trilogy.

·         Thank you for not having characters tell Finn that a ground assault on a Star Destroyer is interesting enough on its own so he certainly doesn’t need to bring space horses into it.  Because space horses racing on the hull would be ridiculous.

·         Thank you for having Kylo’s memory of Han Solo show that Han had even more beard stubble than he really did when he killed him.

All right, all right.  I must stop.  I have to.  I could go on for even longer, as my wife can fully attest by how she’s plugged her ears from the moment we left the theater, but I’m stopping here avoiding other plot whatzits and head-scratching moments in this movie.  Besides, they can all stretch back to two cornerstone lynchpin moments from Lucasfilm.

1.   Why wasn’t there a firm storyline in place prior to making these three movies or for that matter, a producer that could control this franchise with steady guidance, letting plot dictate the day?

   Imagine if a storyline was in place from the get-go.  They knew they wanted to do a new trilogy with legacy characters popping in.  They had incredible amounts of goodwill prior to starting.  And even after the mind-boggling success of The Force Awakens, they still didn’t have a firm storyline in place.  Oh they had ideas, but the producer didn’t set them in stone and instead allowed whatever creative team do whatever with each installment.

   Now this is fine with something like Rogue One, a standalone story, independent of the Episode saga.  But even George Lucas had a plot outline for the prequels, a trilogy that certainly had its fair share of other problems.  Lucas and Rick McCallum stuck with the story that they had and saw it through to the end, such as it was.

   Kathleen Kennedy could have been that firm hand, but it didn’t happen.  She could have allowed for three years for development between installments, like 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm did in the past, but she didn’t.  She could have had a fixed story in mind and had subsequent directors follow it, but she didn’t.  Instead we ended up with a soft reboot of A New Hope, a follow-up that said plot threads hinted at in the previous movie were worthless, and a follow-up to that follow-up that said the first follow-up was wrong and now we’re done!  Explosions!  A new cute droid!  Yay!


2.   Having Princess/General Leia alive at the end of The Last Jedi was an incredible mistake.

Yes, I know this hinges on the tragic passing of Carrie Fisher.  This was the unexpected twist that could hamper any production.  Fisher passed away on December 27, 2016 almost a full year before the initial release screening of The Last Jedi on December 9, 2017.  This means that Lucasfilm knew the facts that a lead actress from this series was dead and that their Episode IX had Leia alive for it.  This was a crucial moment…and yet…

They did nothing.

The Last Jedi came out and no alterations to account for Fisher's passing were made.  In the Star Wars universe, Leia lived to fight another day and Rian Johnson wasn’t directing Episode IX, so never mind!  This was a huge error.  They could have certainly reworked the story so that Leia passes away in the film and dare I say it: Luke could have lived!  No, really!

Besides, Leia had a perfect out by being blown off that bridge in the beginning of the movie.  Just having her die right then and there would have be shocking but needed.  It would provide yet another motivation for Luke to get off his duff and help Rey and the Resistance.  And Leia for the most part is just in a coma anyway once she Force floats back onto the ship.  This was an easy fix with editing.  It would even make more sense that Holdo doesn’t trust Poe because he worked for Leia, not her!  She would of course be wary of Poe and it would work narratively.  

Yeah, Carrie is best remembered in this way instead.

The most we would be robbed of would be that great scene between Luke and Leia on Planet Saltlick.  Beyond that with reshoots and editing, Leia could be removed from the narrative and Luke could step up, still be force projecting with Kylo, and then not vanish during the Porg 'N' Milk Creature Island sunset.  Yes, you would have to retool Episode IX since Leia was gone, but that’s nothing compared to the plot headaches that Colin Trevorrow deftly avoided by not directing Rise of Skywalker.

Kennedy used reshoots everywhere else with Lucasfilm products, why not in The Last Jedi when you have a full year before release to fix this narrative?!  Instead you now must suddenly backpedal, say that old unused vague footage of Leia can successfully do Rey’s Jedi training, and then just have Leia decide to die because of that most supreme ailment: you ultimately ran out of film clips. 

Ye gods, this could have been a simple fix.  I mean, c’mon doesn’t it make more sense that it would be easier to deal with an alive Mark Hamill instead of a deceased Carrie Fisher.  And I’m just a schlub that owned an Ewok Village and I figured this out.

That ultimately is the epitaph for this sequel trilogy: a frustrating waste of potential.  With some tweaking here and there and a focus on story, this could have been at the very least entertaining.  Instead the compromised Episode IX ends up taking the brunt of the blast trying to furiously tie everything up between the prior two movies that conflict with each other.

And I didn’t get my funnel cake sticks.  Damn you, Lucasfilm for that being the definitive tragedy!

Friday, June 28, 2019

Is Shaft (2019) the Best Movie of the Year? You're Damn Right!

            It is a rare moment when my lovely bride and I can escape the worries and needs of being parents.  When those moments come, we take advantage of them with all speed.  So if Grandma says that she’ll watch the three little dickens for an evening and if you’re a harried parent, take my advice: drop those kids off and run.  Just run.  Throw cookies and Dog Man books over your shoulders and keep running!

            When my wife and I caught our breaths from sprinting to the car and escaping at the speed of light, that is if light travels at a safe 45 miles per hour through that neighborhood, we found ourselves at a local movie theater, Junior Mints in hand, each with a ticket to see the family film of the summer.  No, not The Secret Life of Pets 2: The Quickening!  We saw the new Shaft!  You’re daaaaammmn right.

            Golly, can a movie with this small of a budget be worthy of such ire from the social consciences out there in the wilds of the internets?  I thought this type of volume was only reserved for Ghostbusters reboots and Marvel Universe movies with femaley C-list characters as the lead.  Why would we even see such a film?  Were we fans of racism, misogyny, homophobia, bad language, violence, millennial bashing, stereotypes, sexism, and good soundtracks?

            These were the questions that faced us as the lights went down in the cinema.  My Junior Mints weren’t too melty and as the familiar face of Samuel L. Jackson occupied the screen, we prepared for one of the worst things that social justice has condemned in the total history of the past week: the 2019 Shaft sequel.

            Annnnnnnnd…we loved it!  The crowd loved it too.  By the way, the audience for this showing was one of the most diverse that I had ever seen.  We were all laughing together at the right moments, enjoying the right beats of action, oohing and aahing whenever Sam Jackson’s John Shaft did something smooth and gratifying onscreen.  I can’t remember the last time when a movie was exactly represented by every trailer I saw.  This movie was just plain damn fun.  

Here John Shaft employs the art of negotiation.

            So here as always, are my randomly arranged bullet points of topics that crossed my mind when seeing Shaft.  Yes, there be spoilers ahead and no, I won’t shut my mouth because I can dig it.

·         If you’re going to see Shaft to watch Samuel L. Jackson be the best damn Samuel L. Jackson he can be onscreen, you won’t be disappointed.  The brakes are off, the gas pedal is floored, and I don’t think that I’ve seen him be this enjoyable recently outside of a Tarantino movie.  You can just tell he relished shooting this movie.  Perhaps after the barrage of Nick Fury-ing, it was just great to see Sam Jackson kicking ass and being too cool to take names once again.  Thankfully, the film knows where the bread is buttered and Jackson is a constant welcome presence.

·         Jessie T. Usher as John Shaft’s son JJ, is wonderfully fun too!  Yes, he is a millennial character, filled with all the stereotypes that go along with that.  But he is not just the cliché, he shows intelligence and sense of humor about the circumstances.  He just doesn’t have the street smarts like his father does.  That being said, JJ isn’t just letting the old school methods of Shaft stomp over everything.  JJ displays his saavy, tech skills, and marksmanship throughout the film as well.  This is clearly a movie that isn’t just about the differences in generations, but about differences in culture as well.  And it shows how one can learn from those differences.  Perhaps I’m laying it on a bit thick, after all this is just a Shaft sequel, but this movie was getting it laid on pretty thick by those that unfairly bashed it, so I’m okay with it.  Bottom line: Usher is quite good throughout.

Critics wish their bashing comments could be as smooth as these coats.

·         Speaking about differences in culture, let’s just acknowledge that Shaft is completely aware of the targets it goes after.  Everything is fair game.  No one is considered a sacred cow that is beyond comment.  In that sense, everyone is considered…dare I say it…equal.  Whoa.  That’s truly profound on my part, isn’t it?  Are there race jokes?  Yes.  Are there homosexual jokes?  Yes.  Are there religious jokes?  Yes.  Are there sexual jokes?  Yes.  Everyone makes the commentary list, no one is beyond it.  On that level Shaft is an equalizer and for that I think it is rather refreshing.  Rather than worrying about causing some dreaded offense, Shaft plows through and essentially says, “Yeah, I did that.  And I don’t care if you or you or you have a problem with it.”

·         On the demerit side of the ledger, I have to say that the villain in question isn’t overly memorable or threatening.  While it is satisfying to see his final comeuppance, it would have been so much more if we had seen this guy’s history with John Shaft.  At the very least, seeing him be more a dangerous bad guy as he goes throughout the movie.  Granted, this would take time away from Sam Jackson on the screen, but just a few throwaway scenes displaying how vile a baddie this dude is would have been welcome.  And it would have made Shaft going after him to be all the sweeter, knowing the stakes that were involved.

·         Did I mention how wonderfully badass Jackson is in this movie?  I did?  Hm.  Well, I’m mentioning it again.

·         Just as a matter of warning, this is more of a direct sequel to 2000’s Shaft rather than the Shaft films and TV movies of the 1970s.  We follow Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft more than we follow Richard Roundtree’s John Shaft.  This is by no means a bad thing, mind you.  However, I do wish there was more Richard Roundtree in the overall film.  He is a delight in this movie and I couldn’t get rid of my smile as soon as Jackson and Usher come to see him.  Damn, I miss the 1970s movies and God Bless Richard Roundtree.

If you think you can ever be as cool as a leather-clad Roundtree 
swinging into a room while firing a gun, you never will be.  Just give it up.

·         Is the film misogynistic?  Let me start off by saying that I hate social labels to pigeonhole a movie.  Does anyone remember that the original movie received an Academy Award for a score that contained the phrase “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?”  Hm.  I wonder what the atmosphere will be like in a film in this series?  That being said, the two main female leads, JJ’s friend and longtime crush Sasha (Alexandra Shipp) and JJ’s mother Maya (Regina Hall) are both fantastic.  Shipp more than holds her own with Usher and Jackson and isn’t some bimbo/damsel in distress.  Hall as Shaft’s ex-wife is equally good.  She doesn’t put up with Shaft’s bull and knows how and when to read him the riot act.  Are there some throwaway female characters in the movie?  Yes.  But there are plenty of throwaway male characters in the movie as well.  Most of them get shot by Jackson.  Pretty even-Steven actually. 

·         The film even addresses misogyny directly, which you can see in the trailer.  When a female crime boss is brandishing a bat, JJ calls Shaft’s going for his gun as an act of misogyny.  Shaft directly says that he’s not calling gender into this.  He just sees someone with a bat, threating them.  Shaft doesn’t care what you are or who you are if you’re intending to do harm to him or his son.  Hm.  Sounds like he treats everyone equally.  Hm.  Sounds pretty progressive.  Nah, I’m sure the more social justicey souls out there are right in their criticisms.

·         Another point is the plot or what there is of it.  The story at hand isn’t a daring and complex action thriller, full of twists and turns.  Nope, not at all.  It is pretty standard for the genre.  However, remember that the original 1971 Shaft wasn’t a radically plotted movie either.  When you pare away everything to the core, the 1971 Shaft was a fairly standard detective movie.  The 2019 Shaft is the same.  However, you don’t watch either movie for the plot, you watch it for the lead character, the atmosphere, and the attitude throughout.  What was amazing for the 1971 Shaft was how vibrant and confident Richard Roundtree was.  He spoke to an entire generation and became an icon.  This wasn’t Virgil Tibbs or a subservient lackey, this was John Shaft.

I hope this cigar appreciates being smoked by this icon.

·         The same goes for the 2019 Shaft.  It shows how far the world has come along.  I’m not black.  Neither is my wife.  We are some pale translucent folks indeed.  Yet, we love the character of John Shaft.  We admire the sheer cajones on him and the fact that he doesn’t put up with anyone’s shit.  He’s quick on his feet, he’s quick with his wits, he’s too cool for school.  In certain circles of racial hatred, this character was reviled in 1971.  Almost 50 years later, I can sit in a theater with an audience from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds and we can all enjoy John Shaft together.  That is some amazing progress indeed. 

            Which brings to mind the most narrow-minded group out there regarding this movie: the dismissive social justice critics.  Yowza.  Who would have thought that the most blinkered people for a Shaft movie would be this group?  After all, John Shaft if nothing else, is a strong character of color.  We went from some racially intolerant people that couldn’t stand the 1971 Shaft movie to the social justice voices that can’t stand the 2019 Shaft movie.  This doesn’t seem very progressive, does it?

            If one looks at Rotten Tomatoes, which one should never do when determining what movies to see, the critical score isn’t that great.  Some critics enjoyed the movie, more sat from on high with their dismissive bon mots, enjoying what they thought were witty withering comments.  However the audience score is in the mid-90th percentile.  What does this tell us?  It tells me that the general public isn’t interested in a heavy drama about race and gender issues in America today.  No, save that for Academy Award nominated films that no one aside from these critics are going to see.

Even this many Junior Mints aren't as cool as Shaft!

             Instead, the people apparently want to see something fun.  Something that breaks down the barriers.  Something where one can relax and enjoy some escapist entertainment and wish fulfillment.  The 2019 Shaft knows what it is and doesn’t apologize for it either.  In this day and age that is refreshing, but it is also quite sad that we’ve come to this point culturally.

            To close, I just want to give a little backstory.  Back when I was a freshman in college, the local grocery store had quite a selection of VHS tapes for rental.  The non-new releases were dirt cheap.  Also I should mention that I went to the whitest college on earth.  Only certain Mormon universities lacked more melanin than our overall student body.  So as a way to rebel against the system, I decided to rent some classic Blaxploitation films since that world was so very far removed from the one I inhabited.  The movies were Superfly and of course, Shaft.

            I knew nothing about Shaft beyond the classic theme song.  My compatriots and I huddled around the TV in our Minnesotan dorm room and popped Shaft into the VCR.  And it was a revelation!  That film changed our narrow-minded lives, especially mine.  It opened a door to peek at a whole other culture.  Richard Roundtree was amazing, the movie was entertaining, and we cheered Shaft along the whole time.  My eyes were opened and that day the first bricks in a cultural bridge of appreciation was built.

            So critics be damned.  When it comes down to it, most of those voices probably know they could never be John Shaft and hate him for it.  I know that I can’t be him either, but the difference is that I love John Shaft for it. 

            Oh, by the way, did I mention that Samuel L. Jackson kicks serious ass in this?  I did?  Hm.  Well, I’m glad I did and I’m even gladder he does.  The bigger question is: can you dig it?  Because you should.

"I said, can you dig it?!"

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Lincoln & Spielberg: Close Encounters on a House Divided

My father was a huge Civil War history enthusiast.  And by using the term “Civil War”, of course I mean the American Civil War.  Who cares about the inner conflicts that occurred in other nations anyway?  I mean when Ken Burns gets around to making documentaries on all those other conflicts, maybe I’ll check them out, but the odds on that are extraordinary.

            One year we got my dad the three volume set of Shelby Foote’s narrative of the War.  Foote was a talking head in the Ken Burns documentary so his set was a natural.  After Dad passed away, I was fortunate enough to get that set.  The other day I decided to read it because I never had.  When I cracked open the first volume, I discovered something shocking: I don’t think my dad ever read it.  The binding didn’t even appear broken.  No dents or scuff marks, dog-eared pages or highlighted sections.  Nothing.  It was pristine.

            How could this be?  I thought Dad was a history buff.  Now I wonder...  Did he read any of the other books we got him?  The ones on Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain or James Longstreet or William T. Sherman or Jefferson Davis?  There were the copious books of photographs and battles and ironclad ships and a hundred thousand other topics.  But did he ever actually read them?  Personally I know that if I didn’t read about items that interested me, it would be terribly unfulfilling.  In an odd coincidence, this brings to mind a relevant movie that I’m segwaying into in a most blunt and ham-fisted manner.   

             As I read the Foote narrative, I remembered that Steven Spielberg had made Lincoln back in 2012.  I never saw it at the time, but I thought that as it pertains to the Civil War, I’d give it a try.  Daniel Day-Lewis had been praised upwards and downwards and every direction in-between for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln.  And Spielberg is no slouch in that whole movie direction department, so it should be great, right?

Granted, the movie did take some liberties with the history.
            Hm.  Well…  Hm.  Seven years after the film’s release, why don’t I go in more semi-manageable observational chunks about the film.  Oh and do I even have to mention that there will be spoilers going forward?  I mean the events of the film took place 154 years ago.  If you don’t know them by now, go read more.  Please.

·         Daniel Day-Lewis is a revelation.  He so embodies the Lincoln character that it becomes impossible to distinguish the two apart.  Now never having heard Lincoln or seen Twitter videos of him, I cannot say that Day-Lewis IS Abraham Lincoln.  But as far as a role goes, DD-L is always fantastic to watch.  He captivates the attention so much that when he’s not on-screen, the film loses the electricity of his presence to be sure.  Thankfully there aren’t huge slabs of the movie without him.  I normally have no regard for the Academy Award, but in this instance, Daniel Day-Lewis richly deserved the Best Actor acknowledgement.  A performance for the ages.

·         The rest of the cast is…okay.  Tommy Lee Jones is good as Thaddeus Stevens, I just wish he was given more to do.  There are too many scenes of him just contemplatively looking at things.  Now this is fine in something like No Country for Old Men.  In Lincoln, where he plays abolitionist firebrand Stevens, it just makes you wonder how much more he could have been used.  He does have a nice coda that gives him a vested interest for the amendment’s passage, but I wish it were alluded to earlier so that the stakes were even dramatically higher for him.

"You will pass that Amendment!  Put your hands up!"

·         The same is true of Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln.  She’s a good choice, taking on the role with just enough emotional distress that playing Mrs. Lincoln requires.  She’s a picture of unbalance and poise, a tough line to walk but Field does admirably.  Again however, she’s not in the picture enough.  Her scenes with Day-Lewis are excellent but like Jones, she’s under-utilized.

At least she has experience working with bearded men.
·         James Spader portrays an unscrupulous behind-the-scenes vote briber whose character name I’m too lazy to look up.  Frankly, he’s the best James Spader in the business and he simply James Spaders the hell out of the role!  Now if they had Spader bouncing around with his Boston Legal co-star William Shatner as a bribing compatriot, then that would have been great!  But I love Shatner so I’m biased in even listing this as a missed opportunity.

Seeing this, still think Shatner would be a wild choice?

How about now?  Yeah, I didn't think he'd be way off either.
·         The production design is top-notch and another richly deserved Academy Award was given to Lincoln in this field.  The time period jumps off the screen and you are immersed into the world of 1865 America.  Same goes for costuming, props, set design, everything.  The film’s universe is set throughout.  I can even smell the lamps burning, the mud of the street, the horses, the cigars.  Quite an achievement.

Look at that production value!  It looks so authentic, doesn't it?
·         Now here comes a big hiccup in the film: it was mistitled.  Since I did no preparation for this movie other than knowing who directed it, who starred in it, and that Lincoln would hopefully be in it, I was more than surprised that the movie only covers the last four months of Lincoln’s presidency.  And even then it truly only focuses on the January 1865 passage of the 13th Amendment for most of the runtime.  This would be fine…if the movie was called The War for the 13th Amendment or The 13th or Lincoln’s Other Civil War.  But by calling it just Lincoln, a different expectation is set.

·         For instance, the movie is based on a book that examines how Lincoln’s cabinet was made up of political rivals.  It talked about how Lincoln had to navigate through those murky waters during a time of great domestic war and upheaval.  That sounds like a fantastic movie!  Inner conflicts, a great outer conflict, great drama.  Instead we don’t really see this in Lincoln.  Sure, Lincoln butts heads with Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) a little bit, but not enough.  Secretary of War Stanton** doesn’t really fight with Lincoln either so that’s another potential conflict that was blunted.  Of course, I imagine that by January 1865, these former rivals are settled into roles, presumably understanding each other’s working dynamic to a better extent.  While I’m elated they eventually got along, it does practically nothing for the film’s drama.

·         That’s what makes Lincoln’s choice of this timeframe so frustrating.  According the limited special features on the Blu-ray (which also irritates me but is par for course with Spielberg’s releases), it was stated that the original script was over 500 pages long.  Spielberg jokingly suggested that the script would have been a mini-series on HBO with that length…and that’s exactly what should have been done.  You already have Daniel Day-Lewis signed up.  Why not see his interpretation from the moment Lincoln was first elected president through to his demise in April 1865?  How about a 4 part mini-series, with each part covering a year of the Civil War from the perspective of the Lincoln White House?  It would have been extraordinary indeed!  Instead we get two and a half hours of mostly January 1865.  This whole movie is a missed opportunity.

Here is an early prototype of the Lincoln character.  And look at that hat!

·         What do we get in Lincoln?  At the simplest base, it becomes a movie about the machinations of how one gets a bill passed in Congress.  Just like Schoolhouse Rock! without the catchy tunes.  Of course the ante is automatically upped because this vote deals with the 13th Amendment, which would repeal slavery in the United States.  Obviously the historical import cannot be understated.  However, there’s been no dramatic build-up to this moment.  The viewer is just thrust into the current situation and is forced into caring because of the gravitas of what is at stake here.  If there had been time for circumstances to foment and build over the course of a mini-series, then this indeed would be an incredibly dramatic and important lynchpin for the overall story arch.

·         There are many assumptions that the audience knows a lot of Civil War history to fill in some gaps along the way.  Fortunately, I had a good grounding due to lazy teachers in grade school who simply showed the Ken Burns Civil War documentary when it came time to learn about that period in the history book.  So I know who Seward and Stanton and Grant and such are.  I’ll give the film credit in this regard, it doesn’t spoon-feed you with laborious text and/or narration about what came prior to this moment.  It wants to start in January 1865, which it does and you better bone up on your history or you’re going to be left in the dust a bit.

·         Also per the limited Blu-ray special features, a goal of the movie was to show the dynamic of Lincoln’s family as well.  So along with Mary Todd, there as are his sons Robert and Tad as well.  But his sons aren’t that fully-fleshed out.  Tad is there when they need to have a scene showing Lincoln tender and fatherly.  Robert is there when they need someone whiny and all Joseph Gordon-Levitt-y.  Again, and I mean to beat this into the ground: this could have been covered so much better in a mini-series.  You would actually understand Robert’s anger with his father, the impact of the deaths of Lincoln’s other two sons, the focus on Tad.  Instead the boys feel forced into the story to pad the runtime.

Here Gordon-Levitt realizes that he's completely outpaced in this movie.
·         Speaking of the runtime, once the main plot concludes, the movie keeps on going for some reason.  The point of this film centers on the passage of the 13th Amendment.  Once that happens, logically the film should end.  But…it…doesn’t.  The movie goes from the successful vote to Lincoln going to talk with Grant.  Some more with Mary Todd.  Lee surrenders at Appomattox.  The fateful night at Ford’s Theater.  We don’t see the assassination but we do see Tad reacting to the news that his father has been shot.  Then a brief moment of Lincoln expiring, Stanton says, “Now he belongs to the ages,” and we recap with a Lincoln speech as the credits then roll.  Perhaps the movie should have been called Lincoln: Return of the King.  Frustrating.

·         Here’s a thought on how to finish better: even if you wanted to end the movie with Lincoln surveying the carnage as he talks to Grant, go ahead.  Have Grant look empathetically after Lincoln as he leaves, show some texts about what happened to the characters, and end with Lincoln’s speech.  That would be just fine with the movie you decided to make.  And if you didn’t want the blurbs, I’m fine with that idea as there weren’t any at the beginning.  But my overall message is: don’t jam as many events as possible that have nothing to do with your film’s story at large just because you can.  With Lincoln, it just became a case of too much, too late.

·         I will say that I appreciated the virulent nature of how the House members interacted with each other at that time.  That there weren’t more duels or at the very least slap fights is quite shocking.  One thing is certain: a current “battle” of tweets just goes to show how weak-kneed today’s politicians have become.  Back in 1865, a heated exchange on the floor of the House could result in someone getting a limp after spitting some teeth out.  Now THAT’s politics!


Okay fine, I’ll be the one that says it: Steven Spielberg just hasn’t been the same after the one-two punch of Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park in 1993.  That 4 year gap between those movies and The Lost World: Jurassic Park marks a clear line of demarcation in Spielberg’s career.  There would be no more Jaws or Close Encounters or even Hook.  There would be A.I. and War of the Worlds and Indiana Jones 4.  Take a look at Spielberg’s filmography.  Now see if you’re more likely to watch his films from before 1994 or the ones that came afterwards. 

That might seem unfair.  But Spielberg himself set that bar so very high.  Look at the films he made from 1975 to 1985.  Now look at the films he made from 2005 to 2015.  How do the groups compare?  Which films do you think will stand the test of time?  Lincoln fits squarely in that latter grouping and while having many individual items to commend it, I don’t think it is a standout effort.

This picture shows Spielberg having it happened prior to 1994.

This is a shame because if anything one should see this film for Daniel Day-Lewis and his remarkable performance.  The production value is quite high.  Also, on a technical level Lincoln is very competently made; it is Spielberg after all.  But in that same respect, I expect more from him.  For me, this film shows what could have been instead of what actually was.

At the end of the day, my father had a lot in common with Spielberg.  If my dad were still with us, he’d be roughly the same age as Spielberg.  Both show a true passion for what they love.  They both enjoyed Raiders of the Lost Ark.  And apparently they both didn’t read Shelby Foote’s Civil War books either!  As I now read those volumes and others, I can sadly see what they both were missing.



**Stanton was played by Bruce McGill who also was D-Day in Animal House.  So yes, D-Day could have fought with D.Day-Lewis.  But of course, another satisfying opportunity was lost!

Then again, it would have been tough to find him for the movie...