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The election is over, thank God, but fascination with the presidency goes on. The “big three” -- George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt -- are back with a vengeance on the big and little screens.
The latest edition of Assassin’s Creed takes place during the American Revolution and GW is a major character. Unfortunately, I suck at video games so I haven’t actually perused it. I throw it to the audience to add your own commentary on this game and its consequences.
Filmmakers have been trying to portray the Great Emancipator at least since Birth of a Nation a century ago, and with the possible exception of Raymond Massey’s portrayal in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor) most have failed. He’s just too iconic.
There’s something about being a national hero, THE national hero, that makes it difficult to do a portrayal of that person as a regular human being. In Lincoln, Steven Spielberg doesn’t do a full biography, but just concentrates on one incident, the passing of the 13th amendment to the Constitution, the first in over half a century.
For the most part, the film is a celebration of the art of lobbying. Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), hires three unsavory lobbyists -- William N. Bilbo (James Spader), Colonel Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Congressman Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson) -- to bribe Democrats (who were the bad guys in those days) by offering retiring and defeated congressmen patronage jobs.
While Daniel Day Lewis is utterly brilliant as Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones steals the show playing Thaddeus Stevens, the Pennsylvania Congressman who led the antislavery movement -- well before there even was a Republican party -- and then the Radical Republicans. He channels Don Rickles and is a hoot. This is one of his best performances, and the whole thing is reminiscent of The West Wing in 19th century drag.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Director Roger Michel’s Hyde Park on the Hudson has been making the rounds of the film festival circuit and it just recently opened. If this one doesn’t get Bill Murray an Oscar®, he’ll never get one. The film’s got everything a Masterpiece Theater fan or political junkie would want.
After all, there’s nothing the British are better at than a good costume drama, and the visit of King George VI (Samuel West) and his Queen (Olivia Colman) -- the parents of the current Queen Elizabeth -- to the US in 1939 is the perfect vehicle for expanding the American market.
With the Great Depression finally ending and World War II looming on the horizon, someone in the administration had decided that President Roosevelt (Murray) needed a playmate, and found one in his sixth cousin Daisy Suckley(Laura Linney), who is taking care of a very aged aunt.
The film has the feel of Downton Abbey meets the West Wing to it, as Daisy and FDR fall in “like” with each other and what happens when she discovers he’s shagging his secretary Missy Lehand (Elizabeth Marvel), while their majesties are making a royal visit to the President in order to deliver English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin’s request for help after he realized he’d made a huge mistake trying to buy Germany’s Adolf Hitler off.
It’s a fun film and really nice to see history done right for a change. I remember how Spielberg really botched Martin Van Buren in Amistad a decade ago, and more recently, Oliver Stone’s horrible history series on Showtime. But with the election over and politics thankfully on the back burner for a year and a half, I don’t think we will see anything like these films in quite a while.
Read more: Ottawa Animation Festival 2011
Every state capitol in the Union has a legitimate theater, a big one where the road companies of major Broadway shows can come and entertain the elite. Such a place is the Paramount, a fine old palace dating back a century or so, located about 10 blocks south of the State capitol building in Austin, Texas.
The place is huge, and decorated with faux art nouveau paintings and looking exactly like it should: A movie palace par excellence. This is why all SxSW’s gala premieres take place here.
Cabin in the Woods
Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods opened the festival and well it should. This is a really good theological action comedy, and possibly Whedon’s best work to date.
What do I mean by “theological?” You’ll have to see the movie to find out. The title refers to the stereotypical dwelling, where a standard bunch of college students (Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Chris Hemsworth, Jesse Williams and Fran Kranz) are forced to battle the forces of evil (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford)….or do they?
This is one of the most self-referential horror films since Scream One, playing up on each and every movie cliché in the history of genre to hilarious effect. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of scares here too, but this is an action comedy, and Whedon, who gave us the likes of Buffy and Firefly, is a master of those.
The film careens from jokes to scares with wild abandon, and we’re not sure where this thing is going, but the ride is too fun to care much, and when we finally get to the climax, which is totally mind-blowing, we’re almost totally exhausted as the protagonists are supposed to be. Think of Westworld meets Scooby Doo.
Blue Like Jazz
Director Steve Taylor’s latest opus is a theological coming-of-age movie and as such is too cute by half.
What do I mean by “theological?” it means that God is discussed ad nauseum. It’s all about region and what it means, and while it pretends to come from a free thinking atheist perspective, it’s as pious as an afterschool special on the Pope Channel.
According to the blurb, Don (Marshall Allman), a 19-year-old sophomore at a Texas junior college, tries to escape his Bible belt upbringing for life in the Pacific Northwest at the “most godless campus in America.”
Well, it ain’t. It’s a right-wing parody of the “most godless campus in America” and isn’t that good a depiction. The characters are all cardboard cutouts, and the edges aren’t all that well cut out either. It tries to have some Animal House moments, but while it comes close once in a while, it cannot shake that piety that Don and the film are so dead set on rebelling against. The ending is broadcast well before the middle of the film, and despite what we fervently hope, it gets there, ug.
Sixth Street between Congress and I-35 is what might be called an essential tourist trap. There is nothing but bars, souvenir shops and pizzerias. It’s Austin’s version of Bourbon Street, and is one of those places where, if you don’t like country music or alcohol, it’s best to stay away from. In this milieu sits the Alamo Drafthouse -- a duplex movie theater which is the greatest such venue in all of Texas and perhaps the entire south.
The place is a drive-in without the cars. It has decent seats and waitresses serving food, full meals, and has something resembling tables, so you can’t spill your dinner on your lap, but that’s not the half of it.
The theater has the best trailers in the country. There are old ones from flicks they’re not going to show, ancient cartoons -- some of which were commercials from the days when great grandma was a little girl -- and music videos from the time before the term was invented.
I was so engrossed that I hoped they wouldn’t turn them off for the film until the end of the short or whatever snippet they were playing… But of course they did. They always do.
The Code of the West
Rebecca Richman Cohen’s latest documentary is on the fall of legal medical marijuana in Montana. There was a referendum on the subject in 2010, and it passed with an overwhelming margin, but some people didn’t like that, so there was an immediate repeal campaign in the legislature, “for the children” of course.
…and because this was 2011, when the Right fringe of the Republican Party was in charge of everything, it was to some extent. We follow the bill as it goes through both houses and gets vetoed by the governor before being reborn in almost as lethal form. The film is well done, but the point of view; it’s very pro medical marijuana kind of gets in the way. This won’t get anywhere.
Nir Paniry’s sci-fi psychological exploration of how memory works is mostly about a maguffin: A machine that puts our hero Tom’s (Sasha Roiz) consciousness into the brain of a convicted murderer (Dominic Bogart). Tom is a phantom in this other guy’s head with no one to talk to but the voice of the machine (Sara Tomko), which was supposed to have been turned off after it malfunctioned four years before.
We know Tom’s going to get back into his own body eventually, but that would be too easy. Unfortunately, the twists and turns are somewhat predictable and mostly tedious. The psychological stuff is interesting, and when Tom and his host actually manage to communicate with each other, it’s somewhat satisfying, but this ends up as nothing more than direct-to-video territory, which is kind of sad.
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