Posted in Brain Bits, Movie Reviews, Music, Television

Brain Bits in Autumn

The rule of thumb in film has always been “show, don’t tell.” So when “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg, shows, it’s riveting. The heated debates on the floor of the House of Representatives over the proposed 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, the calculated arm-twisting to obtain those precious votes, first by a trio of hired guns, then by Lincoln himself—marvelous entertainment. But when we get to the telling—and telling and telling—when Lincoln spins yet another yarn or delivers one more parable, your urge to imitate Secretary Stanton’s disgust by leaving the room may be overwhelming. By the end of the film, when Lincoln sits at the bargaining table for peace talks with the Confederate commissioners, you may be uttering a heartfelt “Yes” when one of these Southern gentlemen warns “Spare us your pieties, sir.”

On the plus side, you couldn’t ask for a better cast. Daniel Day-Lewis is surrounded by some of the best lincoln-daniel-day-lewis_810character actors in the business: David Strathairn, Bruce McGill, Hal Holbrook in a marvelous turn as Blair, Lee Pace (the dandy, Rep. Fernando Wood) , Michael Stulbarg, Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate VP Alexander Stephens, John Hawke, James Spader, Jared Harris (the last two almost unrecognizable), Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln. Sally Field delivers a terrific Mary Todd Lincoln, but her inclusion is emblematic of a major flaw in this film—at times it feels like it’s made of mismatched parts. When the subject is war, slavery, politics or reconstruction, the film just sings.  When it’s about Tad (who gets far too much screen time) or other matters, you long to get back to another round of Congressmen insulting each other on the House floor or to finally sit down with those Confederate peace commissioners whom Lincoln has so strategically delayed. Lincoln did indeed suffer numerous personal tragedies throughout his life, and his relationship with Mary was a difficult one, but those stories have been portrayed many times. “Lincoln” shows us perhaps the best and shrewdest politician in our nation’s history (FDR is a close second) at work, and had Spielberg and Tony Kushner, who wrote the script, focused exclusively on that aspect of his life, I think they would have had a better movie.

The last view Spielberg gives us of the living Lincoln may be trite, but it’s still stunning. As his faithful valet watches him depart the White House for Ford’s Theater, we see Lincoln walking into the deepening blue of an April twilight. Absolutely breathtaking, and shown without a word.


boardwalk-empire-nucky-chalky“Boardwalk Empire” ends its third season tomorrow night, and I’m dreading the outcome.

The show runners long ago made their point—and remade it to the point of exhaustion—that Gyp Rosetti is a lunatic. I’m surprised they didn’t emblazon an “N for Nut” on his Anthony Wayne hat to top off his antics. But he’s had his uses. I don’t think I was alone in smirking when he pitched his tent (“Heigh ho!”) in Gillian’s Artemis Club in last Sunday’s episode, “Two Imposters.” I loved how Gretchen Mol played Gillian’s barely concealed disgust at the invasion of Jimmy’s her elegant mansion. So much for harp-accompanied poetry, particularly when the boys are humping your young ladies in your well-appointed living room.

Any episode in which Chalky White gets quality screen time makes me happy, so I was gratified to see Michael K. Williams strut his stuff in the stand-off with Gyp. How long Chalky and Nucky will remain BFFs is anybody’s guess, but I suspect the present alliance will be enough, along with the cadre from Chicago, to take care of business.

My biggest concern is Richard Harrow. The promo for the season finale does not seem encouraging—it looks like he attempts to shoot his way out of the Artemis Club, thus the reason for the marshalling of weapons we saw last week. And he appears to aim at a woman whom I hope is Gillian. This season of “Boardwalk Empire” has demonstrated, if nothing else, that the show runners made a huge mistake in killing off Jimmy and Angela Darmody, who lent an emotional cast to the show that’s been sorely missed. Let’s hope they don’t compound the error by eliminating Richard. May he live to kidnap Tommy, marry Julia and grow rich working for Nucky.


If I had to name my favorite classical music works, Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” would surely make the short list. Late autumn is the perfect time of year to listen to this, and there’s no better depiction of the season than “Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely One in Autumn),” the second song in the cycle. The mezzo-soprano is Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Enjoy.

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