Monday, November 19, 2012


I'll be the first to admit that Abraham Lincoln is the "right answer" when the question of "Who was the greatest President?" makes its way into a given conversation; akin to the Sunday school answer of "Jesus!" to every question posed. Even amongst the iconic names like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, it seems like quite a challenge to find a man who weathered a more difficult time in the history of our nation with such grace and dignity. He's become a legend, and rightly so.

Many a miniseries, radio drama, and film has attempted to depict Lincoln dramatically. And earlier this year saw his tongue-in-cheek incarnation in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer. But it should come as no surprise that the latest depiction of Honest Abe may be the greatest, as Steven Spielberg's Lincoln released last week to critical acclaim. The film focuses on the final months of the Civil War - and by extension, Lincoln's life - and the political intrigue surrounding the passing of the 13th Amendment. With an ensemble cast and a host of Oscar-winning Spielberg regulars (John Williams, Janusz Kaminski, Michael Kahn, etc.), Lincoln has all the ear-marks of an early Oscar contender.


Even if you haven't seen the movie, you've likely heard the praise or expected great things from the trailer. If you take one thing away from this review, it's that all the hype is well deserved.

Lincoln is not a war movie really by any stretch. At the film's opening there is a scene depicting the brutal chaos of battle that lasts for just under a minute, and there is another brief scene at a hospital that depicts a wheelbarrow of amputated limbs being carted away. But aside from those two moments, the film is devoid of blood or gore and all of the conflict depicted is either interpersonal or political.

As a character-driven film, much of my praise is directed at the character-driven aspects; namely the acting. It should come as no surprise that Daniel Day-Lewis has once again crafted a performance for which he will almost assuredly win Best Actor. I was immediately thrilled when the first trailers for the film came out and I heard Day-Lewis's take on Lincoln's voice. While Lincoln's legend has endowed his memory with a commanding and booming voice, eyewitness (earwitness?) accounts from the era indicate his voice was rather high-pitched and somewhat nasal. So I was excited to see that even such a seemingly insignificant detail was already being incorporated into the authenticity of the film before it was even released. But the voice is only one piece to the puzzle that makes up Day-Lewis' magnificent performance. The way he gestures with his hands, his rather awkward gait, his odd but endearing sense of humor; all of these are rendered so wonderfully that Mr. Day-Lewis once again completely disappears into his role. He is Abraham Lincoln, and the film is naturally all the stronger for it.

But right alongside Day-Lewis' powerhouse performance is a treasure trove of equally engrossing performances. Sally Field balances tender heartache with subtle histrionics as the unstable Mary Todd Lincoln. David Strathairn's turn as Secretary of State William Seward is appropriately tense, while Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens is cunning but convicting. With a cast as recognizable as they are talented, I'm tempted to go name-by-name in praise of each performance. But suffice it to say that everyone - from Lee Pace to Jared Harris to Jackie Earle Hayley to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and everyone in between - perform marvelously under Spielberg's expert directorial care.

Which brings me to the next point of interest: the directing. It's often hard to take note of a director's "performance" in the absence of personal touches or flairs for flash. But Spielberg does an outstanding job putting this film together. The pacing is methodical but even and engaging. Each shot is framed with textbook precision, and the color palette employed gives Lincoln a mildly weathered look. There's no evidence of a mass bleach-bypass or anything, but each frame of the movie feels as though it has been gently aged for effect.

And John Williams is at it again. His score for Lincoln isn't quite as iconic or grandiose as the work that's made him a living legend. But between piano melodies that evoke Gospel hymns of the time period and tragically triumphant brass in the main theme, the score stays with you long after the credits have rolled.


The movie is two and a half hours long, and while I personally didn't find that to be a deterrent I'm sure there are those who would be less than pleased with such a run-time regarding material that's comparatively bland next to an action heavy movie like Gettysburg or Glory.


Lincoln is, as I hinted at before, likely to be up for several nominations at the next Academy Awards ceremony. And I wouldn't be surprised to see it take away the Best Picture Oscar either, though there's still plenty of time between now and then for other films to join the running.

From what I can gather, the film takes little historical license with its topic and more or less conveys things as they happened authentically. But the most important detail that appears to be rendered with complete historical accuracy - so far as we can tell - is the person of Lincoln himself. Some of the best moments in the movie are those in which Lincoln showcases what secured him the Presidency in the first place: his personable nature and undeniable sincerity. The movie is downright funny in several places as Lincoln shares a humorous tale or tells a joke with the purpose of drawing a parallel or illustrating a point. And it's in those moments, though I'm aware that I'm only watching a performance, that I feel as though I'm getting to know Abraham Lincoln a little better. It's this feeling that ultimately makes Lincoln a triumph. It's an intimately personal film that doesn't really go out of its way to praise the memory of our 16th President, because the case for his acclaim is readily self-evident in his words and actions.

While it only focuses on a very brief moment in Lincoln's life, I'm of the opinion that this movie may be the quintessential portrait of the man. There's a palpable depth to the entire film no matter which part you inspect, and this depth reflects the gravity of the historical events depicted.

Lincoln is a superlative achievement, and one that dutifully honors the man it depicts. In short, Steven Spielberg has done it again, ladies and gentlemen.

The Room - Live at Inwood Theater! (November 16-18, 2012)


There are times I think I do. Then I sit down to watch Tommy Wiseau's seminal masterpiece, The Room, and I think to myself: "Maybe I don't understand life."

Some of you might feel a little bit lost right now; a bit confused as to what's going on and just who that dead-eyed fellow is leering at you in the black and white poster immediately to the right of this text.

"Lemme ', there is too much. Lemme sum up."
The year 2003 saw the release of The Room; a film widely regarded as one of the worst ever made. If you've never seen it, you might find that statement a bit of a leap. Maybe you suspect critics of employing some good ol' fashioned hyperbole in their assessment of this film. Maybe it's bad, but not that bad, right?


Here's the basic hierarchy of cinema:

1) Good movies.
2) Bad movies.
3) So-bad-they're-good movies
4) So-bad-they're-just-plain-terrible movies
5) The Room

If you've spent any time on the internet, you've likely seen the clips and memes mined from this train-wreck of a movie. "OH HAI!" and "You're TEARing me aPART liSA!" etc. These are some of the highlights from The Room, but they in no way convey just how deliciously awful this movie is from start to finish. It's so bad that it might be one of the funniest things you'll ever watch, to say nothing of the host of basic movie-making gaffes practically spilling out of each scene. And consequently, The Room has gained a cult following with midnight showings around the country throughout the year.

It was just such a midnight showing in Dallas at the Inwood Theater that called me away from my dwellings in San Antonio this past weekend. Teaming up with my aforementioned cinephile companion and fellow The Room fanatic Andy Huber, we set off to catch a peek inside the madness of these midnight showings.

We arrived quite early thanks to the 85mph speed limit on Texas 130 - the new toll road around Austin and settled into the makeshift line that was beginning to form at the Inwood Theater. The building was a fantastic vignette; a theater from a bygone era converted into a modern day movie-house still retaining much of its retro feel.

Roundabouts 10:30, we spied a taxi pulling up to the theater. We peered around our fellow patrons and the door obscuring our view to suss out whether or not the passengers were in fact Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero, who plays Mark in The Room. Much to our delight, the guests of honor had arrived and exactly as we expected...which is to say that Greg "Sestosterone" Sestero was dressed in a casual-yet-comfortable jeans-n-jacket ensemble while his counterpart sported the usual combination of rock star heroin addict we've come to expect. And Mr. Wiseau is never to be parted from his sunglasses; no, not even when the sun has long since set. My suspicion is that this has to do with radiation from the destruction of his home planet, but more on my theories about Tommy's status as alien being later on.

PHOTO CREDIT: Whoever took this picture of some guys I know.
Both Tommy and Greg immediately set about tossing around a football, a move whose significance fans of The Room will appreciate. Tommy would indicate which member of the attendees crowded around the lobby he intended to throw the football to by pointing and wiggling his finger as if it were a worm trying desperately to escape from the alien to which it had been sewn. He would then toss the football to the lucky patron, who would more often than not catch it and then pass it back to him. This proceeded for about 15 to 20 minutes before the stars settled behind a little merch table for some autograph signing and picture taking.

Just before this, Tommy did a quick once-over of the crowd, shaking hands briefly. I managed to grasp his appendage for a brief moment, and I'm confident that what I felt was the synthetic skin from his "human-suit" that's meant to help him look like one of us Earthlings. This also accounts for the ways his eyes appear to be falling out of his head; I'm guessing he just hasn't had a chance to repair some of the slippage from the suit in several years. Maybe he came from the wrong side of the tracks on that planet and couldn't afford one of the nicer skin suits, like the one Christopher Walken wears. I'm just spitballing here.

Before too long, it was time to make our way into the theater, which we all did with eager steps. On my way in I managed to snag a high-five from Sestero, whose somewhat catatonic gaze betrayed the dismay he's apparently been carrying with him ever since The Room stole what chance he might have had as a Hollywood leading man.

Once in the theater, our eyes were met with the following sight:

 Yes indeed, ladies and gentlemen. Auditorium 1 in The Landmark Inwood Theater features only couch, loveseat, and beanbag seating. And, to add sprinkles to the icing on the cake, each couch had a matching ottoman. Thus, settling into our seats involved kicking back and relaxing in a luxury I don't fully have even in my own home. Why every theater in the entire world doesn't have this feature, I'll never know, but they should all take a cue from John Hammond.

"Hold on to your butts."

After the loyal patrons had found their respective seats (and in a few cases, snagged a 5-minute nap) Tommy and Greg arrived to do a brief Q&A before the show. There were several questions posed to the duo, all of which were surprisingly pertinent. Greg and Tommy answered in turn, and in ways consistent with their demeanor. I can confirm that Tommy is entrenched in his claims that The Room has been unjustly vilified. When asked by an audience member what defines bad acting, Tommy's answer amounted to him saying that everyone acts all the time anyway, and there's no such thing as bad acting. Greg's response to the same question was "I think you all know what bad acting looks like." Such was the tone of the Q&A; Tommy exhibiting a relentless commitment to The Room, and Greg being vaguely self-deprecating about the entire experience.

"I'll never love again."

One audience member asked for Tommy and Greg to sing "Happy Birthday" to a friend of theirs, whose name they were told was Dusty. The young lady Dusty ascended the stage and after Tommy failed to get her name right ("Justine?..Justy?...Justry...well, whatever.") commenced with an aborted version of the Happy Birthday song which was rendered thus:

"Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you...dear Justine...HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Ok, that's all."

Again, my suspicion is that Tommy just hasn't spent enough time with our species to learn all our strange customs, so it's the thought that counts.

Having sufficiently connected with his audience, Tommy sprinted out of the theater with Greg in tow to the roar of applause. Finally the lights dimmed, and The Room began. Under normal circumstances, talking in a movie theater is more or less an execution order as far as I'm concerned. But with a midnight screening of The Room, the idea is to - in the words of Tommy himself - "laugh, cry, express yourself...just please don't hurt each other." So the majority of the film was spent yelling all the iconic lines at the screen as they happen. Shouting "You're tearing me apart, Lisa!" with a room full of like-minded enthusiasts was a joy in and of itself. But it's the makeshift audience protocol that makes attending a midnight showing of The Room an absolute must for any fan.

To begin with, each time one of the pictures with stock photos of silverware appears, handfuls of plastic spoons are hurled at the screen. Don't worry about bringing your own, usually one or two trusty attendees will arrive with a bucket or two in tow and you'll have more than enough projectiles to collect as they rain down on and around you and your loved ones.

Next, each time characters begin to make out, the entire audience makes a loud gulping sound in time with each smooch; as if the entire room was swallowing the face of their significant other.

But by far my favorite audience tradition is "counting." This manifests itself in a few ways, as there are numerous opportunities. But the most hilarious one is during the initial love scene between Tommy and Juliette. As if seeing Tommy's human-suit skin clinging to him vigorously isn't hilarious enough, the entire audience began counting each thrust of his hips during the already-awkward lovemaking occurring onscreen. It might sound just weird, as opposed to funny. But believe me; listening to an audience shout "5!...6!....7!...etc." at full force during that scene is among the funniest things that I've ever personally witnessed. And those are only a few of the ridiculous and hilarious things the audience does to participate in the Tinseltown Travesty that is The Room.

The Room is hilariously bad enough on its own; you only need to see Tommy Wiseau crotch-punch a red dress once to know what I'm talking about.

"That's the idea!"

But add a sold out auditorium cheering him on as he does it - each spasmodic thrust of his hips into the vermilion cloth accompanied by "BAM!", "YEAH!" "TAKE IT!" - and you've got a movie-going experience quite unlike any other. I don't recommend seeing The Room at a midnight screening as your first foray into its tortuous narrative. But I whole-heartedly recommend you see this movie and then add a midnight showing to your bucket list. Ignore the sage words of Tommy Wiseau's admonition to Denny: "Don't plan too much, Denny. It might not come out right..."

Trust me, a midnight showing of The Room will definitely come out right.