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Monthly Archives: February 2013

Lincoln

Lincoln

Synopsis

Spielberg’s film set in January 1865 at the start of the second term of Lincoln’s presidency.  Lincoln is determined to push for the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery before the American Civil war ends.  He must get the requisite number of votes and his allies, including Secretary of State William Edward, pressurise different politicians into voting in the required way.  Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens  who gives a powerful speech in the House of Representatives.  Lincoln’s son is keen to join the army over Mrs Lincoln’s objections, and she is grieving for her dead son.  Will the vote go Lincoln’s way?

Review

Spielberg often suffers from musical incontinence as we get syrupy music galore.  In Lincoln the music is more restrained, but this being the civil war we still get the usual trumpet solos and military drum rolls.  The folksy repertoire is something that Spielberg has always exploited: the innate wisdom and decency of the ‘ordinary’ guy against the big leaguers, the blue light moments, and reverence for gooey eyed kids.  This is kept to a merciful minimum. Daniel Day Lewis is honest Abe, always ready with a hokey anecdote illustrated with homely metaphors.  He gives Lincoln a high pitched voice which is mesmeric as it becomes more forceful.  He looks like Lincoln and moulds into him as he ages.  This is not so much acting as a summoning of his ghost.  The distinctive stove pipe hat towers over a face growing as if into weathered wood.  The scenes in this film look autumnal and smokey as if they could easily blend into the sepia photographs that confetti films about this era.  There is a Balzacian density in the interiors of the houses.  Among all this Day Lewis does justice to the stature of this man to the point of hagiography.  In the US there is often a reluctance to examine the clay feet of their idols.  Initially, Lincoln was anti-slave, but anti-equality of races, he was primarily anti-secessionist.  He was a racist wishing for the deportation of black people.  His adherence to the black cause was a belated recognition of their role in the civil war.  In Lincoln black people are not allowed to be humanly complicated, they are rather noble and eloquent.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens and his skilled oratory only falters on the details of equality.  His performance is powerfully theatrical as is David Strathairn’s as Seward.  It’s often the case that political debates in mainstream films get self congratulatory and poseurish.  This is Spielberg’s Twelve Angry Men.  Egotistical exhibitionism pretends to humane disinterest, rhetoric wins over detailed argument.  Lincoln uses a lot of pressure to get the necessary votes and he seems to do it in real time.  The political struggles compete with the domestic hell in the grieving of Mrs Lincoln (Sally Ann Fields).  Her family’s conflict mirror those of the nation.  This is a fine portrayal of Lincoln and undoubtedly towers over the hundreds of other Lincolns from D.W. Griffiths to Raymond Massi’s et al.

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Posted by on February 20, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Les Misérables

Les Misérables

Synopsis

As nearly everyone on this planet knows, this is a globally successfull musical based on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.  It’s about Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) persecuted by his obsessive pursuer Javert (Russell Crowe).  Valjean becomes a thief and uses his loot to become a respectable mayor.  He takes the persecuted waif Fantine (Anne Hathaway) under his wing, she dies and he looks after her daughter Cosette who grows up to be played by Amanda Seyfried.  It’s French revolutionary time in the 1830s.  Cosette becomes romantically involved with Marius (Eddie  Redmayne) who is romantically pursued by Eponine (Samantha Banks). Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen play a pair of crooked innkeepers.  The barricades go up, Valjean and Javert meet again, and will Cosette learn the truth and find happiness?

 

Review

I’m not usually an aficionado of filmed musicals, their plots are crudely simple and characters are embarrassing as they mime their way through sentimentalized absurdities.  I was prepared for more of this in Les Misérables, however in spite of the usually forgettable music, in spite of Russell Crowe’s singing (sounding like a wounded cow ), and in spite of relentlessly sung dialogue, this film is quite enjoyable.  I actually wanted to sing as I left the cinema.  Les Misérables is energetic and passionate, a lot of the time it seemed more like sung acting than characters simply singing songs.  The actors sing as they perform, there is no miming from dubbed recordings and this is quite impressive.  Anne Hathaway held her notes and our attention through the “Dream” song.  Samantha Barks reprised her Nancy role, as she was equally impressive.  The acting always seems sincere and passionate and unselfconsciously often melodramatic.  The sets are amazingly detailed like the prints of Gustave Dore summoned in gloomy colours.  The revolutionaries strike poses as if for a David painting.  Paris in Les Misérables looks like a stage set for an opera and this is surely apt, the plaster elephant like an opera sentinel against the stacked furniture of the barricades.  The unrealistic absurdity of piled up furniture against gunpowder and infantry emphasizes the staginess, as does the impossibility of the Paris streets bursting into song!  Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers are hilarious as they provide Oliver Twist comic colour (they remind me of Fagin and the Artful Dodger).  Helena Bonham Carter also reprised her Sweeny Todd role but she should be careful.  In Les Misérables she wears bad make up and a fright wig, in Alice in Wonderland she wears bad make up and a fright wig, she does the same in Sweeny Todd and Great Expectations.  She really must get away from this predictable casting, maybe it’s Tim Burton’s influence.  Anyway, Les Misérables shows that you don’t have to have a good singing voice, just join in the fun.

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Django Unchained

Django Unchained

Synopsis

Quentin Tarantino’s ‘spaghetti’ western in which Dr Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is a bounty hunter who releases Django (Jamie Foxx) from slavers and they work together as bounty hunters.  Schultz agrees to search for Django’s German speaking wife Broomhilda (misnamed from Brunhilda), and they track her down to the Mississippi plantation of Candyland run by Calvin Candie (Leonardo di Caprio).  They pose as slave buyers.  Samuel L. Jackson plays Stephen who is a slaver’s ‘yes man’.  There is blood and mayhem…

Criticism

This is Tarantino’s take on the ‘spaghetti’ western, whose most famous promoter was Sergio Leone.  Django gives us the usual western: the eager apprentice taking over from the master, the search, the street gunfight, innate decency reluctantly coming out in the end, confrontations with downtrodden or idiotic humanity.  As you would expect from Tarantino, it’s full of ironic genre referencing.  Django plays with the western like Pulp Fiction played with gangsters and Inglorious Basterds played with schlocky war films.  The big debating point is the excessive violence in Tarantino’s films, Django has a lot of it.  I think it laughs at violence but it stills gives brutality a starring role.  The nastiness is leavened with florid turns of phrase, the apt rejoinder and self conscious sarcasms and witticisms seasoned with a dash of irony.  Rather than cancelling the violence, the eloquence colludes with it, like a bloodied knife in a box of jewels.  True Grit uses the King James Bible for it’s speech style but since the violence is more rationed, I think it is more effective in that film.  Calvin Candie and Shultz are the purveyors of the high class riposte and apt put down.  Shultz does not so much mentor Django as do a Pygmalion job on him.  Django has scarcely an independent voice until after becoming a killing machine.

Leonardo di Caprio relishes his evil slaver role, presiding over a ‘Mardingo’ slave fight, setting dogs onto a fugitive slave, preaching racist ideology with the prop of a skull.  He justifies racism by the supposed moral and intellectual possibility of the slave incapable of highly justified hatred.  His dandyfied floridity erupts into manic violence.  Samuel L. Jackson plays his ‘yes man’, eagerly betraying Django, Bromhilda, and Shultz.  The vile word “nigger” is used 113 times in the film so at times an audience might feel baited in the way that Lars von Trier often baits.  We are meant to be uneasy about our response to the use of this rap funk word.  Jackson’s venomous self hatred is turned on black people.  As in other Tarantino films we get irritatingly catchy music which allows a slowing down of the action, Django takes a couple of tracks from Two mules for Sister Sara so it’s a tribute to Enio Morricone.  We also get cheerfully anachronisms such as speech and dress not apt for the 1850s.  The funniest scene in Django is when a mob of vengeful southerners go after Django and Schultz, and they cannot find the bounty hunters so they argue about their silly Ku Klux Klan head bags. Hilarious.

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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