Abe, Daniel ... and Henry

Before Daniel Day-Lewis played Lincoln, another actor's portrayal was legendary. On Henry Fonda's forgotten greatness.

(Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)
(Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation) Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) W hen early trailers were posted online for Lincoln , the new biopic from Steven Spielberg, the consensus was that star Daniel Day-Lewis, known for the research he pours into perfectionist transformations, was finding his way into character through the voice. Day-Lewis as Lincoln sounded nasal, deliberate, a bit pleading, and surprisingly high-pitched. In instant homage, Jimmy Fallon took a clip from the trailer—the president, urging a group of black-clad 19th-century men sitting around a table to make a change “now, now, NOW!”—and redubbed it as Pee-wee Herman. Compare Day-Lewis’s alien timbre to the ease of Henry Fonda, finding one of his first great film roles in director John Ford’s research-free Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). Fonda played the future president during a fictionalized period in his youth, when he grew from a bumpkin into a knowing Illinois lawyer on his way to...

Road Trip! Road Trip!

What will the latest generation of cinephiles make of Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend?

(AP Photo/Mario Torrisi)
The Criterion Collection has just brought out a new Blu-ray edition of Weekend, Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 phantasmagoria about cars, nihilistic consumerism, and civilization's imminent collapse into barbarity. As I often do these days in connection with Godard's movies—and not only his movies, either, but his more than most—I wonder what the latest generation of cinephiles will make of the thing. That's if they don't confuse it with Andrew Haigh's 2011 gay romance of the same name, a pretty good flick that's also available from Criterion. Presumably, Today's Young People be able to appreciate how brilliant a lot of Weekend is. The movie's great sequences are fairly undeniable if you've got eyes. But 45 years later, viewers obviously won't have access to the 1960s context: the whole roller coaster of ever more extreme artistic and political ideas and fashions that Godard's films of that breakneck decade so often seemed to be reacting to and anticipating all at once. Back then, he was an...

The Future of Star Wars

Flickr/The Official Star Wars
Though it may be four days before a presidential election, I just don't feel I can let the issue of the future of Star Wars pass without comment. In case you don't pay particular attention to these things, Disney is buying the franchise from George Lucas, and plans to release more Star Wars movies. Our own Tom Carson responds without much enthusiasm, writing that though he was never particularly crazy about Star Wars , "I think one reason for the deep bond fans feel with Star Wars is the awareness that the whole stupid, nutty legend all came out of one man's head. Those tin-eared character names, goofball non-human sidekicks—Jar Jar Binks (boo) no less than Chewbacca (yay)—and inane narrative compulsions are all homely testimonials to an authorship that stayed idiosyncratic and personal even when Lucas hired other hands to direct four out of the six installments." I agree up to a point, and in Disney's hands the next installment will probably end up expertly executed but without the...

I've Got a Bad Feeling about This

For our reviewer, a depersonalized Star Wars is no Star Wars at all.

(AP Photo/Disney, Todd Anderson)
Temporarily turning even Sandy's aftermath into an also-ran all over the Twitterverse, the news earlier this week that Disney had acquired George Lucas's entertainment empire for some $4 billion—including the right to make more Star Wars movies, with the first post-Lucas installment set to roll out in 2015—seems to have left fans about evenly divided between feeling stoked at the prospect (how can more Star Wars be bad?) and dismayed at Papa George's sellout to the Dark Side. "Get your childhoods ready," one negativist tweeted. "They're about to get pissed on again." Since I don't have a dog in this fight—not my childhood, kiddo, and we all know Disney will eat everything one day—it surprised me to notice I wasn't totally indifferent. An as yet not-quite-formulated regret was creeping in, despite my basic allergy to Lucas and the Millenium Falcon he rode in on. While I've never bought into the "Star Wars killed the movies" rap that some of my crustier colleagues like to peddle, the...

When the Fringe Shapes the Center

During the AIDS crisis, ACT UP's radicalism forced more mainstream gay-rights groups to step up their game.

(AP Photo/Tim Clary, File)
(AP Photo/Tim Clary, File) Act Up protestors lie on the street in front of the New York Stock Exchange in a demonstration against the high cost of the AIDS treatment drug AZT in September of 1989. S tarting with my inability to believe Mitch McConnell isn't one of Disney's talking teapots gone rogue, there are plenty of good reasons I don't and shouldn't run the zoo. But if I did, How To Survive A Plague would be mandatory viewing for Occupy Wall Streeters. First-time director David France's new documentary about the 1987-'93 glory years of ACT UP—aka AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, in case you've forgotten—is a wrenching remembrance of a gay holocaust that's already dimmer than it should be in our memory. The movie is also an exhilarating portrait of human beings discovering what they're capable of in a crisis. But above all, it's the story of how a never too numerous band of obstreperous activists successfully changed public policy. On that count, France may gild the lily somewhat...

How Was the Trailer, Mrs. Lincoln?

A look at the trailer for Spielberg's upcoming Civil War biopic

(AP Photo/Disney-DreamWorks II, David James)
Presumably, we all know that speculating about upcoming movies with only their trailers to go by isn't a fit activity for a serious man. But that's how it works in a culture that now operates as a giant racetrack, everywhere from politics to the fall TV season; we all enjoy playing tout. Besides, I can't remember the last time I considered myself a serious man—it's all larks and pratfalls to me now, folks. That's how we grizzled types stay current. At any rate, now that the first trailer for Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is out, moviegoers can feel reasonably sure of at least a few things we only guessed before. In approximate order of descending "What? Good God, sir, are you trying to tell me Anderson Cooper is gay ?" nonsurprise: Boy, is this sucker going to be mournful and majestic, with composer John Williams providing his usual musical oil spills when it comes to (re-) stating the obvious. This serves an admirably educational purpose, since any 11-year-old will henceforward be able...

Big Hollywood, Small Toronto

Among big-ticket Oscar contenders, the critic's heart will always be with the overlooked gem.

(Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
(Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP) Actor Hugh Grant attends the premiere of Cloud Atlas during the Toronto International Film Festival. Every film festival has its own customized vanity. Maybe a mite grimly, Cannes hangs on to its monopoly on glamour. It’s harder than it used to be to get big American stars to walk the red carpet—the studios no longer see much PR value in a Cannes premiere for movies they’re spending millions to open a week later stateside anyway—but the paparazzi can always make do with Johnny Hallyday in a pinch. Sundance, of course, is still the ideal place for indie filmmakers to attract notice. The New York fest gets by on whatever spurious sense of consequence is implied by its location, location, location. And these days, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) touts itself as the place where the road to the Oscars begins. In overdrive ever since future Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire’s North American premiere here four years ago—The Artist,...

Norman Mailer Aims for Auteur ... and Falls Way Short

Criterion Collection has released the famed author's not-so-famed entries into the film canon.

(AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman)
Whenever being a writer wasn’t enough to suit his churning sense of drama, Norman Mailer (1923-2007) could come up with some awfully wild-assed ways of advertising himself. They ranged from stabbing his second wife in 1960 (she lived and was dissuaded from pressing charges, and he actually got a judge to buy his argument that being labeled crazy would damage his literary reputation) to running for Mayor of New York City nine years later. But those almost seem like banal versions of Walter Mittyism gone disastrously overboard compared to Mailer’s notion that he could become a movie director—indeed, a visionary one, since why else bother if you were him?—without so much as a day’s apprenticeship. Over four decades later, Criterion’s Eclipse series has brought out the eccentric results on DVD: Wild 90, Beyond The Law, and Mailer’s magna cum gaudy capper to the whole caper, Maidstone, which cured him of his movie mania by busting him financially. To varying degrees, all three of his 1960s...

Hooray for Hollywood?

Flickr/The City Project
The article of the day is Jon Chait's piece in New York addressing the question of Hollywood's liberalism. To simplify it a bit, Chait argues that conservatives are basically right in their belief that Hollywood liberals are warping our minds with left-wing propaganda, though they seem to have all but stopped bothering to complain about it. I find it hard to disagree with the first part of Chait's premise: Hollywood is, indeed, dominated by liberals. There are a few high-profile conservatives there (Bruce Willis, Tom Selleck, Clint Eastwood), but they're a small minority. It's not hard to figure out why. Any industry that is made up of creative people is going to be dominated by liberals. Most novelists are liberals too. I'm sure most graphic artists are liberals. There's a whole lot of psychological research demonstrating that liberals tend to be more tolerant of ambiguity, open to experience, and interested in change than conservatives, while conservatives tend to be more...

Kubrick's Vietnam, 25 Years Later

Full Metal Jacket—as well as the rest of the director's canon—still fails to impress, even after a quarter-century intermission.

(AP Photo)
When the 25th anniversary Blu-ray of Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam War movie, Full Metal Jacket, showed up in the mail last week, I knew what was going to happen. As I glowered at the lavishly packaged thing and it glowered glacially back, my inner Jiminy Critic chirped up with his usual reproach to my anti-Kubrick bias. “Practically everybody but you knows that Stanley is the greatest thing since sliced eyeballs,” he said, making that tired joke about Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou for the gazillionth time. “You chump, did you even notice that 2001: A Space Odyssey just vaulted into sixth place in Sight and Sound’s poll of The Greatest Movies Ever Made? And you haven’t seen this one since it came out.” Feebly, I protested that once was enough. As for 2001 , I’ve seen it four or five times, just trying to figure out what everybody else is going on about. I still think it’s like watching somebody mistake solitaire for poker. “Once is not enough, if I may be so bold as to quote the famous...


Our first opportunity to watch Charlie Sheen go totally psycho.
If you were a teenager in the '80s like I was, you had to have a complex relationship to jingoistic entertainment. On one hand, the way Cold War competition was grafted onto things like sports and movies was kind of unsettling, since the fate of the world was actually at stake, and one had to think that amping everybody up into a testosterone-fueled frenzy couldn't be a good thing. On the other hand, you couldn't help but swell with national pride at the Miracle on Ice, or at Rocky knocking out Ivan Drago. (Though to be clear, the ultimate message of Rocky IV is one of mutual understanding, and one hears the plaintive cry of a man who knows he is but a pawn of much more powerful forces in Drago's lament, "I must break you." OK, I'll stop.) There may have been no cultural product that captured that atmosphere quite so perfectly as Red Dawn , the 1984 movie in which the Commies actually do take over, and it's left to a small band of high schoolers led by Patrick Swayze to use their...

Ricky Bobby Goes to Washington

Don't watch The Campaign with expectations of high sophistication and deft explanation of political issues.

(KC PHOTO/Warner Bros./PictureGroup)
(KC PHOTO/Warner Bros./PictureGroup) A nyone expecting sophistication from Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis’s sloppy-but-enjoyable new political comedy, The Campaign , has plainly led a life crammed with one furious disappointment after another. I can’t believe it’s much of a spoiler to tell you that America wins and politics loses, the contradiction in terms that the big public has feasted on since time immemorial. Movies like this one always let the audience revel in a more or less infantile cynicism about the democratic process by omitting issues, genuinely stubborn ideological divides, the reality of partisanship and the rest of the stuff that gives elections a point. Then a magic finale transforms the Statue of Liberty into a Tinkerbell worth clapping for just the same. Scooting into the wings in befuddled dismay, the whole squalid system turns irrelevant once some plucky fellow stands up for what’s right—usually, a generic and nonpartisan integrity that sweeps away bad faith...

The Masked Morality of the Batman Trilogy

The Dark Knight Rises is not an easy parable for the political left or right.

(Image courtesy of
Midway through a matinee viewing of The Dark Knight Rises , I had a sinking feeling that many progressives would interpret it as a conservative film. It’s the most obvious reading. In a thinly veiled reference to Occupy Wall Street, the main villain, Bane, spouts facile leftist slogans about “equality” and “the people,” and the only man who can conquer him and save the city is billionaire Bruce Wayne. But if you look at the entirety of the Batman trilogy, the politics are more complex. In each installment, director Christopher Nolan plays with different approaches to crime and capitalism. There are no easy dichotomies. By the end of the third film, a clear argument for balance between authoritarianism in the name of order and an anarchist view of people power emerges. The previous installment of the trilogy, The Dark Knight , ended with a seeming endorsement of authoritarianism, after Batman used an extensive surveillance system to track and eventually defeat the Joker. He employed a...

Batman: Gotham's Reformer

(Jamelle Bouie/The American Prospect)
My colleague Tom Carson makes an excellent point about The Dark Knight Rises , the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy: The real joke, as Rush [Limbaugh] might have learned if he’d crammed his posterior into a theater seat before venting, is that The Dark Knight Rises is one of the most deeply conservative movies to come out of Hollywood in years. Understand, I mean “conservative” in the traditional, more or less honorable sense that Rush and his fellow napalm-eaters have done their best to make obsolete. To a large extent, that’s built right into the source material. To much grimmer effect than his rival, Superman—all that sunshine palaver about “the American way,” feh—Batman has always been the guardian of a social order against chaos, with a pretty dour view of unbridled license and plenty of pessimism about humanity’s prospects for improvement. It’s absolutely true that Batman is a conservative character, and that this conservatism carries over into both Rises and...

A Dark Knight for Romney?

Don't believe Limbaugh—the most recent Batman movie is an epic for the 1%

(Courtesy of
Stop me if you've heard this news flash once or twice before, but Rush Limbaugh got it gloriously wrong. On Tuesday, the Porcine One took to the airwaves to froth about the coincidence—no, wait, there's no such thing in Limbaugh-land—that the villain of The Dark Knight Rises is named Bane, a homophone for "Bain." Plainly, this was a case of Romney-bashing propaganda by a Hollywood nefariously in league with the White House. "You may think it's ridiculous," Rush said stoutly, locking a barn door through which whole herds of ponies have fled over the years. "I'm just telling you this is the kind of stuff the Obama campaign is lining up. The kind of people who would draw this comparison are the kind of people they are campaigning to." Even by his standards, this was gaga enough that Limbaugh was in full-on fudging mode by Wednesday. "I didn't say there was a conspiracy theory," he said. "I said the Democrats are going to use it." But if they try—and at least one Dem flack (Chris Lahane)...