Breaking Dawn Part Two: It’s times like these, when typing out the title of the sequel to the adaptation of the fourth book in the Twilight series, that I am grateful for the concise, near-mercenary honesty of a title like Fast Five. Because let’s be real: this is Twilight 5, for a story that has no more business expanding beyond two or three parts than any number of low-rent horror franchises. I held out hope that perhaps the comparably incident-packed Breaking Dawn Part One, directed by the reasonably decent Bill Condon, might inject some life into movies that generally play like a few boring mid-season episodes of a creatively stalled TV show, just as I hoped that maybe 30 Days of Night‘s David Slade would give the third one a bit more horror-movie style. It didn’t. It didn’t. It never does. The best Twilight movie is still the first one, because at least that one had an excuse to look low-budget and vaguely amateurish. Maybe the fourth one would’ve been more fun with the contents of this movie, which apparently include Vampire Kristen Stewart and more low-rent vampire skirmishes, were allowed to stay with it; then again, a vampire-human wedding, vampire-human honeymoon boning, a pregnancy via vampire that should be impossible, a vampire-assisted cesarean section for a human-vampire hybrid birth, and a werewolf falling in love with a baby weren’t enough to gin up some energy in Breaking Dawn Part One. So: once more into the Twilight breach, expecting some giggles and enthusiastically half-embarrassed audience reactions, hoping for a movie that is better than semi-terrible.
Silver Linings Playbook: Did the Weinsteins move up the limited bow of this movie at the last minute specifically to step to K-Stew with a Jennifer Lawrence performance people seem poised to love way more than anything Stewart has done in between Twilights? Then again, it seems to me that people are poised to love just about anything J-Law does; remember last year, when a bunch of critics saw Like Crazy and claimed that the guy was crazy not to appreciate the wonderful girlfriend he had in Lawrence’s character, despite Lawrence’s character having like half a personality trait and about 15 minutes of screen time? Yeah, movie-critic crush alert: nerds be liking Jennifer Lawrence. I like her, too, but let’s just calm it down a little. Even at calmed-down levels, I’m excited for a David O. Russell movie that’s coming out a mere two years since his last one, The Fighter, which represents pretty much his quickest turnaround ever. Obviously Russell has had trouble getting movies off the ground due to the magical combination of timid, ambition-averse studios and his general reputation as a raging a-hole, but when thinking about how The Fighter was a decent-sized hit in 2010, I had a realization: David O. Russell secretly has a pretty decent box-office track record. Given that Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster were art-house hits (that’s something we used to have in the 90s!), and Three Kings and The Fighter were actual mid-level hits, that only leaves I Heart Huckabees as his actual fop, and if you’ve seen I Heart Huckabees, you understand that $12 million domestic for that movie is as much an accomplishment as it is a money-losing proposition. This puts him ahead of Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Michel Gondry, and just slightly behind Spike Jonze (who has the advantage of a three-movie resume). Irritable, handheld chronicler of familial dysfunction David O. Russell: box office gold! Or at least bronze.
Anna Karenina: Joe Wright makes period dramas with Keira Knightley, and Joe Wright makes Hanna. I rather prefer him making Hanna, but I guess high-style tracking-shot-obsessed directors aren’t the worst guys to be doing these Keira costume movies where she has super-intense, often quite sad-looking sex while looking upwards.
Lincoln: Steven Spielberg’s understated micro-biography opened in NYC in just two theaters last weekend, managing a scorching per-screen average usually reserved for animated movies or new-millennium auteurs like Wes or P.T. Anderson; this week, it expands to more multiplexes. On its face, Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s procedural approach to the last few months of Lincoln’s life resembles a cable miniseries: the story of the Thirteenth Amendment, with bonus Lincoln grace notes! But the mere existence of a Spielberg historical procedural changes the form. Spielberg excels at capturing wonder, motion, gut reaction; his last foray into this level of speechifying and gavel-banging was for another slavery-related picture, the uprising/court drama Amistad. After the brief, intense bit of battlefield grappling that opens the film, Spielberg heads indoors for much of Lincoln, as the 16th president, his cabinet, and his friends and foes in the House of Representatives debate, cajole, and insult their way to a vote on the amendment abolishing slavery, which Lincoln believes will also bring an end to the Civil War. It would be misleading to call the film a political thriller; even at its most exciting, it doesn’t exactly inspire metaphorical or actual nail-biting, and it takes plenty of pauses to glimpse Lincoln’s family life, or to hear his folksy stories and anecdotes. But while Lincoln lacks the thrilling chill of the best modern procedurists like Steven Soderbergh or David Fincher, it’s fascinating nonetheless. Spielberg, with his innate understanding of how, why, and when to move a camera, isn’t in the virtuosic mode that produced War Horse or The Adventures of Tintin, but he doesn’t tamp down his filmmaker’s instincts, either. In potentially static scenes of Lincoln and the cabinet chatting about policy, Spielberg draws the audience into the conversation with his framing, expertly guiding us through positions and, hey, reactions: panning and circling unobtrusively, sticking silent but important members of the discussion in the frame, slowly pushing in on Lincoln when his rhetoric begins to boil. In the dusty corners and muddy streets of 1865 Washington, Spielberg’s movie comes alive.
Daniel Day-Lewis, continuing his tour of American history as the great emancipator, adjusts to Spielberg’s reflective, sometimes drawn out, but still urgent tempo—or maybe Spielberg is coming to Day-Lewis’s unhurried, seemingly uncanny rhythms, or maybe they’re both settling in to the glorious wordiness of Tony Kushner’s screenplay. Regardless, Day-Lewis, like his director, doesn’t do much showboating; Tommy Lee Jones, as fiery abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, has just as many verbal and emotional fireworks, if not more, and an insane supporting cast brings the old-timey color (James Spader doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for this sort of movie, but as an Albany-originated political strong-armer, he’s a delight), even if the parade of recognizable faces sometimes harkens back to that miniseries feel, especially when Sally Field puts it all on the table as Mary Todd Lincoln. Kusher, Spielberg, and Day-Lewis make Lincoln a thoughtful, sometimes fraught man who nonetheless holds great conviction in the idea that the Thirteenth Amendment will change history. It holds a slight flavor of corn, yes, but only the merest taste, because the movie is also upfront about the less-than-noble means of passing this bill (again: James Spader as Albany-based political operative!). If a few of the emotional high points are predictably Hollywood, the movie’s path to and between them defies a lot of expectations: Spielberg doing an intimate political drama rather than a sweeping wartime biography; Day-Lewis letting the camera glide to him, rather than towering over the frame with oratory; a John Williams score that swells like a bruise, not an inflammation. Like his buddy Robert Zemeckis, Spielberg has made a movie with superficial resemblances to his past work that’s actually like almost nothing else in his filmography—except in its rock-solid cinematic craft. In the end, his Lincoln only looks like it could be a play, or a miniseries, or any sort of history-lesson relic, to an untrained eye.