Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Flick of The Day: Lincoln

There are few historical figures more clothed in the endearing embrace of the passage of time than the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Time makes saints of the worst of men and Lincoln was a statesman and leader for the ages in his own lifetime.  In the years since his death he has become an almost mythic figure, the great emancipator and a man who symbolised all that could be borne of political will. The greatness of the United States, if such a thing can be said to exist, is tied up in men and women like Lincoln. To attempt a biographical film on his life and times is a tall order and one which Hollywood has attempted on more than one occasion. That a film-maker of the calibre of Steven Spielberg combined with a stellar cast is behind this latest effort should be a cause for excitement among cine-philes everywhere.
Eschewing, correctly in my opinion, the approach of previous directors of attempting to tell the story of Lincoln’s life’s work in favour of a focus on a brief few months toward the end of the gruelling civil war, Spielberg’s film attempts to document the passage of the 13th Amendment which abolished once and for all the abomination that was and is human slavery. We meet Lincoln on the margins of a rainy battlefield as he talks jovially with a pair of young black soldiers fighting for the Union side in that most bitter conflict. From this one scene it becomes apparent what an incredible performance Daniel Day Lewis has once again drawn forth from within himself. He inhabits the role completely down to the gait of the President. From this conversation with pair of soldiers, Lincoln resolves to pass the amendment in the democrat controlled house of representatives no matter the cost to his personal prestige or relationship with his fellow republicans.
Despite the protests of his Secretary of State, an excellent David Strathairn and his much put upon wife, a fine Sally Field, he pushes on seeking to grasp by any means necessary the votes he requires. To accomplish this, he must do two things. Firstly he has to secure the votes of his own party led by an aged Hal Holbrook who demands that a negotiated peace be sought with the confederacy. This will lead inevitably to the defeat of the bill so it must be held off. Secondly, he must procure through the use of state favours, 20 democratic votes. To this end he hires a firm of lobbyists led by Mr W.N. Bilbo, a fantastically entertaining performance from James Spader to procure the necessary votes. Yet even at this point, the passage of the bill is not assured with Lincoln having to involve the noted radical and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, again another superb performance from Tommy Lee Jones. Were these political troubles not enough, he also suffers with a wife who grieves for her lost son and another son, Robert, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt who yearns to play his part on the battlefield. That he manages to walk this difficult personal and political path while also fighting a war along with his most trusted General, Ulysses Grant, played by the always watch-able Jared Harris, is a tale in and of itself.
There is not a single weak performance in what is an excellently assembled cast. I realize reading the above that I have yet to even praise actors of the calibre of John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley or Tim Blake Nelson

The real achievement of both Spielberg and Day Lewis is that on one hand they shake the dust off the mythic status of Lincoln and humanise him so that he may be viewed as an ordinary man with flaws and difficulties while on the other they manage to put his achievements in a proper light and eulogise them for how ground-breaking they truly were. This is proper old school Hollywood film-making on a grand scale and deserves to rewarded as such. It will be a surprise if it fails to win most of the main acting awards as the forthcoming Academy Awards and yet this is a fine year for cinema with a number of equally excellent rivals.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Flick of The Day: Zero Dark Thirty

Prior to 2008’s The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow was perhaps best known for her 1991 surfing-bank robbers epic Point Break which although it contained the combined acting talent of Keanu Reeves and Anthony Kiedis was not without its charms. Her surprise Oscar nod ahead of ex-husband James Cameron’s unstoppably awful behemoth Avatar has since propelled her career to new heights and there was considerable anticipation ahead of the release of her new film and today’s flick of the day, Zero Dark Thirty.
The film is a dark and epic account of the decade long search for Saudi terrorist Osama Bin Laden, perhaps the most wanted man in history. Boldly proclaiming itself to be based on actual events from the opening was always bound to lead to doubters digging away at the plot and this has certainly proved to be the case.  Much of the controversy has centred on how the explicit use of torture by CIA operatives led to the capture of Bin Laden with various politicians of different hues up in arms at the idea that an American serviceman would engage in such nefarious activity and showing a shocking lack of self-awareness in the process. This does not strike me as being a particularly controversial point of view but the controversy has dogged the film since its release in the US and may yet see it miss out on Oscar nods. It would be unfair to the film to review it without tackling the issue head on.
Onward to the film itself them, and it is every bit the exciting and engaging thriller you would expect it to be. Taking the point of view of Maya, a driven CIA operative played by an excellent Jessica Chastain, we take up the chase for Bin Laden two years after the events of September 11th 2001 when the war on terror is in full swing and information is gradually being extracted via torture from various detainees in various CIA black sites. The torture scenes are every bit as uncomfortable viewing as you might imagine and the film must be lauded for asking the moral question at the heart of such actions. Personally I found the Mandingo fighting scenes in Django Unchained more unpleasant but such is the way of things. Maya learns of a man close to Bin Laden, a courier who carries his messages, known as the Kuwaiti. She is the first to spot the potential of this lead and much to the consternation of her superiors drives it above all other considerations from the streets of Pakistani slums to the deserts of Afghanistan and across the Middle East following every new lead till the events of that fateful moonless night in Abbottabad.
Chastain has justly earned plaudits for her performance as the unbending Maya but credit is due elsewhere in what is a fine cast. The various spies and managers in the CIA have a kind of grey unremarkable nature as if they could fade into the background at any given time which perhaps they do. Mark Strong is excellent as George, a high level manager who harasses his agents into delivering targets to be killed in drone strikes and is himself harangued by Maya as she seeks to push for a mission in Abbottabad. Jason Clarke is also excellent as the torturer Dan who seems to care more for his pet monkeys than the prisoners under his watch. At one point he delivers a piece of sage and yet chilling advice to Maya about not being the last person holding a dog collar when the congressional sub-committee come calling. There is also a brief turn from James Gandolfini as the slow moving CIA Director who ultimately recommends an attack.
It is I think an interesting choice to leave almost all of the significant characters either unnamed or with a first name only. It increases the feeling of authenticity, of these spies as being the kind of people who will fade into the pages of history they are writing unnamed and unknown. 
The film should suffer more from the fact that every member of the audience knows how it will end. It doesn’t really and remains fraught with tension until the final scenes perhaps in part due to the level of operational detail about that night which is included in the film for the first time. 
All in all, this is the definitive account of a dark chapter in world history and how the awful deeds of one man were brought to an end. A fine and engaging piece of modern cinema, it deserves to be recognised as such and not slandered for political ends.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Flick of The Day: Django Unchained

Ah, Quentin Tarantino, what genre will he bring his usual mix of exploitation cinema, sharp dialogue and stylised violence to next? Such is the question we have asked ourselves every few years since he burst onto the scene in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs.  His best film remains 1994's Pulp Fiction, a walk on the dark side of the Los Angeles underworld. Since then we have had Tarantino does Kung Fu, Tarantino does Exploitation and Tarantino does World War 2 with varying degrees of success. All of them had their moments of greatness but so often the director's sense of style has overburdened the film's storyline. It becomes too much.  His latest opus is a slavery themed western and is perhaps his best film in over a decade. It is perhaps the perfect match between genre and director.
In 1858 on a dark and cold Texas night, a group of chained slaves are wandering through the darkness after their new owners. Into this scene steps Dr King Schultz played by the excellent Christoph Waltz, a German ex-dentist and bounty hunter on the trail of three n'er do wells named the Brittle Brothers. One of the slaves is in a position to help the good doctor as he can put a face to the names on his list. This slave is Django, played by Jamie Foxx. After our first bout of brutal violence, Django falls into the hands of Dr King and together they set off after their bounty. A bond soon develops between the two and on their travels Django reveals that he has been separated from his wife, Broomhilda. Having captured the evil Brittles, they vow to work together to save Broomhilda from the evil clutches of Calvin Candie, her new master and owner of the Candyland plantation played with wilful abandon by Leonardo DiCaprio.
The spaghetti western as envisioned by masters like Sergio Leone, is a genre close to my heart and is obvious from the opening frame that Tarantino both loves and understands the mechanics of such films. They are an epic battle between the irredeemably bad and the indisputably good. In our case, the good are Django and King Schultz while the bad are undoubtedly Calvin and his evil house servant Stephen, a fine turn from an unrecognisable Samuel L. Jackson. Another telling trait of the Italian westerns made by Leone & Co from the 1960's onward were that they very much approached the old west from a revisionist position, it was a dark, bloody and lawless place full of bad men. This is definitely something which Django Unchained plays up. While at times beautifully shot and filled with gorgeous scenery, this is ultimately a brutal tale of revenge and Tarantino as is his wont doesn't shield us from this violence.
Much has been made of both the level of violence and its supposed effect on society and indeed that somehow the film belittles the horrors of slavery through its copious use of the N word. I fail to see how it does anything other than shove the sheer terror that was slavery in the antebellum south into our faces and says look this is how it was. It is brutal and feels terribly real all the same.
The western and Tarantino are a perfect match because his usual excesses feel at home here and they never grate as they might in a different genre. This is above all an enjoyable film and it wears its running time well without overstaying its welcome. A definite must see.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Flick of The Day: Looper

A few weeks back in my review of Premium Rush, I noted that it had been a big year career wise for Joseph Gordon-Levitt and it would seem unfair not to mention perhaps his most challenging role in Rian Johnson's mind bending time travel flick Looper. A bravely original story, it didn't break any box office records but found solid reviews wherever it opened.
In the year 2044 in a post-collapse America, time travel has yet to be invented but thirty years from then it has been. While the technology is quickly outlawed, criminal organisations harness it for nefarious uses. Those people who have to be made disappear are sent back in time where designated assassins known as Loopers dispose of them. One such hired gun is Levitt's Joe, a man in it for the money with a longing to escape the life and move to Paris. He spends his days learning French and his nights using drugs in hedonistic night clubs. One of the unfortunate elements of his job is that one day his employer will send his older self back in time to be murdered, a process known as closing the loop. Of course that day soon arrives and Bruce Willis turns up as older Joe. Joe hesitates for a moment and his older self knocks him out and goes on the run. Joe is left with little choice but to track down himself and see the loop closed or face the consequences from his boss Abe, an excellent Jeff Daniels.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is not an obvious younger version of Bruce Willis and he deserves credit for undergoing the requisite make-up which makes him largely unrecognisable. The film opens very well, creating  a wonderfully realised dystopian setting. Indeed so well done is the set-up and the flash forward's to the next thirty years of Joe's life that the rest of the film can't really live up to it. The pace slows as we reach the middle of the film and the lack of any real action is a real shame because the film picks itself up again as we head for a thrilling finale. Please do not take this as a scathing criticism however for their is so much to enjoy and take in, it is just a shame that it doesn't fully realise its potential.
The film possesses an excellent and well thought out cast beyond the leads. Paul Dano and Emily Blunt give fine turns and special mention must go to newcomer Pierce Gagnon who is excellent for such a young child in a role that very much carries the second half of the movie. Ultimately this is a satisfying if imperfect slice of mind bending sci-fi in the manner of Christopher Nolan's Inception. There are so many great ideas throughout the script, much like Rian Johnson's earlier neo-noir in a highschool film Brick.
Johnson deserves particular credit for bringing a new idea to the table in terms of time travel, something which is littered throughout the genre. The film is also particularly stylish and self assured and this combined with a fine concept and a stellar cast carry the whole thing off.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Flick of the Day: The Hobbit- An Unexpected Journey

It was with decided trepidation that I ventured to the cinema over the Christmas holidays to view the first instalment in Peter Jackson's much commented upon Hobbit Trilogy. Between The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, Tolkien's writings were a cornerstone of my childhood and there is nothing as disappointing in a pop culture sense than seeing a book you've adored poorly adapted for the big screen.The Hobbit is not a small book but it is about a quarter of The Lord of The Rings in word count so the idea that it required a trilogy of films struck me as odd. I read the early reviews and was not hopeful. So it is a delight then to report that all my fears were largely unfounded and that Peter Jackson has once again delivered a well thought out version of Tolkien's middle earth in today's flick of the day The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Our return to middle earth opens with a visually stunning preamble telling the tale of how the Dwarves were driven out of their kingdom beneath the mountain by the dragon Smaug. Forced to abandon their homes and great wealth, the dwarves roam the land taking up metal work were they can get it, a wandering people. We fast forward to an ageing Bilbo Baggins, once again played by Ian Holm, attempting to tell his story for the benefit of his nephew Frodo. Before long we meet a young Bilbo played with a sturdy air of confusion by Martin Freeman. He is idling away his days in The Shire smoking his pipe and enjoying the quiet life when much to his chagrin, the wizard Gandalf,who is again played by the excellent Ian McKellen, seeks to send him on an adventure.  Soon enough he is best with a party of dwarves arriving on his doorstep seeking to eat him out of house and hobbit hole. After initially turning down their offer of employment as burglar in their company, Bilbo eventually sets off into the wilds beyond the Shire in the company of Gandalf, Balin, Dwalin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin,Nori, Dori, Ori and of course the leader of the company Thorin. There are many obstacles to face along the way from Trolls to Orcs and the action proceeds apace across the gorgeous New Zealand countryside. Given the massive running time Jackson time has afforded himself, it is nice to see him put The Hobbit in the context of the wider Lord of The Rings tale and there are lengthy scenes explaining the rise of the darkness in Mirkwood. As this episode ends, we leave the company in sight of the Misty Mountains.
When the film gets going, it is an enjoyable thrill ride of a journey and makes for compelling cinema. If there is one criticism however it is that it does take awhile to reach this point. The opening chapter of the novel is called An Unexpected Party and this one party takes a good 45 minutes to take place. Jackson cannot be accused of not being due care and attention to the text, rather he luxuriates in it being as faithful as he possibly could be to every twist and turn in the narrative.
The dwarves feel well cast but it is difficult to judge because we don't really get much of a chance to know each in person, there is just too many of them. However hopefully this will be resolved over the course of the trilogy. It would be a shame were the characters to remain undeveloped. 
The action scenes are well judged by Jackson though it does feel like CGI is in a much greater use than in The Lord of The Rings. This is not necessarily a problem but at times the screen feels almost cartoonish, the landscape too soft edged but it is a minor criticism.
I cannot comment on the quality or lack thereof of the much vaunted 48 frames per second 3D effect for I chose to view the film in good old fashioned 2D. Perhaps that is comment enough. I was irked to see however that there was a much smaller selection of 2D screenings on offer in comparison to 3D. This would seem like a new method of coercion by the studios to force you into paying extra for an inferior viewing format. Alas was it ever thus.
I look forward to the next instalment eagerly.

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