Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

02 January 2013

Breaking My Vow of Silence

It's been a rough six months, dear reader, in which i've battled with what i can only describe as a combination of resurgent writer's block and a case of cinephobia, an almost total inability to partake of the thing that most sustains me. Literally months went by without a single trip to the movie theater, an unheard of thing for yours truly. Even in my scruffy youth, i could and would always scrounge up the price of a movie ticket, even if it meant subsisting on a diet of Philly soft pretzels and brown rice. But not lately. Among the few movies that i've gone to see since the start of the fall were Killer Joe, a wonderfully demented little piece of perversity that actually made me start to like Matthew McConaughey again, and Christian Petzold's Barbara, a quietly powerful film that explores the oppressive atmosphere of life in the former East Germany. 

Things are, however, finally looking up: I've been to three of this season's big titles in the past three days and have another week of free time to catch up on a few more. On Sunday, i went to see Les Misérables; yesterday, Life of Pi, and today, Lincoln. Since there are already plenty of well-written, thoughtful reviews of all three films, i won't go into any great detail about them individually. But each film invites a different kind of watching, and that's something that i take great pleasure in. Les Miz is so familiar--is there anyone who hasn't seen at least one stage production of it?--we know all the music and struggle not to burst into song along with the characters at every turn. Hell, some of us have even read the book! But there's a good reason why it is so familiar, why we go back to read/see it again and again: it is one of the world's great stories of suffering humanity, of nobility, and of the possibility of redemption. It is cathartic. It makes us feel better about the human race. Still, such familiarity can be a terrible obstacle for a film, but in this case i found the whole thing very affecting, very moving. I left the theater humming those familiar songs and thinking that maybe this time i should try to tackle the novel in French. I probably won't, but it's nice to feel that inspired.

               Les Misérables Poster
                                              Life of Pi Poster

I was originally pretty skeptical about Life of Pi. I'd read and enjoyed the novel, but hadn't thought of it as especially cinematic; and --gasp!-- it was in 3D. Oh me of little faith! Has Ang Lee ever let me down? Of course he hasn't! I found the film mesmerizing, beautiful, hypnotic, and very hard to put into words. I'm usually turned off by films that seem too effects-driven, but this film used special effects, 3D, and CGI to the most exquisite advantage. I felt like i could have stayed on that lifeboat with Pi and Richard Parker and sailed around the world for years.

Lincoln Poster

I went to see Lincoln primarily for Daniel Day-Lewis's performance, and that was as brilliant as i hoped it would be. But the pleasures of the film went beyond that. Tony Kushner's screenplay is a delight, rich in that kind of zingy nineteenth-century political rhetoric that makes you realize how very dull and plodding most of our politicians are today. The film focuses so specifically on the political maneuvering to abolish slavery through the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that it might easily have become bogged down with the simplistic sanctification of a great moment in history.  Instead it is alive with strategizing, scoundrels, and large moral questions. It is always a good thing when a historical film leaves you wanting to know more, and in the case of Lincoln, i was especially intrigued by the character of Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and want to read more about him. One criticism that i feel that i need to make (and i think that many others have expressed a similar opinion) is that the movie goes on for about ten minutes too long. There is the perfect emotional conclusion as we watch Abraham Lincoln leaving the White House on his way to the theater, his back slowly receding until he is no longer there, at which point the audience let out a collective sigh. But then the movie goes on, as though Spielberg doesn't trust his audience to have sufficient grasp of history to know what happens next. And so it continues unnecessarily, showing poor wee Tad in hysterical tears at the news that his father has been shot, showing poor Abe curled up dead in his bed, etc., etc. It's a dull and emotionally deflating ending to an otherwise powerful film.

One final -- perhaps frivolous -- note: Among these three films, i got to see many, many of my favorite actors in supporting roles. Helena Bonham Carter was her usual deliciously frowsy presence as Mme. Thénardier, providing the perfect touch of comic relief in Les Miz. The marvelous Irrfan Khan was a great addition as the adult Pi in Life of Pi (if you haven't seen it yet, check out his performance as Sunil in the third season of In Treatment). And Lincoln? It's almost as though the casting director had called me on the phone to ask me what actors i really wanted to see: there's David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, James Spader, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Gloria Reuben, to name a few. 

It's been a few good days of moviegoing. It's nice to be back.

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