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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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Looper

Looper film posterSynopsis

Set in Kansas in 2074, it stars Gordon Levitt as a “looper”, Joe, whose job is to shoot those fallen foul of the mob.  The victims are sent into the future from 2044 and once the deed is done the killer is rewarded with gold or silver ingots strapped to the victims back.  The gang boss is Jeff Bridges.  The fate of all loopers is to be killed 30 years in the future and this closes the loop.  They are shot with a ‘blunderbuss’.  Joe meets his future self, played by Bruce Willis, but he cannot kill him.  Willis pursues a child who will become a real danger “The Rainmaker” (same idea in Terminator).  The child is looked after by Emily Blunt on her farm.  Can Willis do the job?

Criticism

I sometimes attempt to write science stories but I wouldn’t touch time travel with radiation gloves through a screen!  Time travel works as a comedy (Back to the Future) or as comic book fun (Time Machine or Terminator) but not when it takes itself seriously as in this film.  I always find it pretty bankrupt as a plot device and the notion of time travel seems scientifically and philosophically preposterous.  Looper gets perilously close to cod philosophy about time travel.  Looper also relies on the usual dosage of gratuitous violence, which I have mentioned in a few other offending films.  Dr Johnson said that bestial behaviour is an escape from the pain of being human, mainstream American films certainly do a lot of escaping (like Lawless and a lot of other films). Like Dorothy in Oz, Joe hopes to escape from Kansas and learns French so he can live in Paris but Jeff Bridges from the future advises him to learn Mandarin (a pretty safe prediction).  The street scenes are like in Soylent Green, people are victims of casual brutality.

The sequence on Emily Blunt’s Kansas farm is the longest in the film.  Her farm is surrounded by fields of maize and it reminds me of Cary Grant chased by a crop duster in North by Northwest or aliens in Mel Gibson’s Signs or a lot of Stephen King films.  No good can come of being in a maize field and sure enough Joe is in danger here when he tries to save the “Rainmaker” kid from Bruce Willis as his future self.  The  film lingers a lot on this farm where Emily Blunt plays the obligatorily feisty loner.  There is a sort of love story between Blunt and Joe.  Here we are supposed to think of the nature of love and belonging and identity but it all looks like a pilot for a TV supernatural series.  The kid can levitate people and things so it looks like Omen has got tangled up with some would-be arty film about life on a future farm.  As with a lot of sci-fi films deflecting attention from a possibly tight budget, there is a recurrent gimmicky fetish so in this film people can telekinetically manipulate objects and there are Batman type aerocrafts.  Looper has been praised by critics but I found it shallow and derivative.

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Inception

Inception poster

Synopsis

Leonardo di Caprio plays Cobb, an ‘extractor’ who gets into people’s dreams.  We see him first on a beach, he is taken to Japanese businessman he worked for.  In Paris he recruits Ariadne who makes mazes, Cobb takes her round a dreamscape Paris folding skywards.  They risk being stranded in a dream.  The Japanese businessman has a rival running a corporate empire, he wants him out of the way.  Peter Postlethwaite  plays this character, he has a grandson (Cillian Murphy) who Cobb and co want to use to infiltrate dreams.  Ariadne (Ellen Page) is the dreams’ architect but dreamers fill in their own details.  They go into the heir’s subconscious through three dream levels to get to the ultimate situation.  There are shoot-outs, an escape from a hotel, things float sideways through corridors, a van is in free-fall from a bridge, then they get into Alpine scenery and reach Postlethwaite in a surreal sickroom.  Cobb has to resist being lured into a permanent dream by his wife (Marion Cotillard), he gets away from her apartment which crumbles into a stormy sea.  They all wake up on a plane, Cobb meets his kids, spins a token as a sort of reality memento.   Is it all still in a dream?

Review

I didn’t really worry about the film being an unending dream because I think it lacks good story telling skills.  We get characters saying things like “This is in your head, what do you do next?”,  “This is my dream and I am enjoying my subconscious”, and so on.  If a story has to comment on its own actions it’s not a proper story, it’s a self conscious ritual of schematisation.  A slow numbing seeps through me as it gets quite up itself, it’s like watching  The Matrix, nerdy complications become ends in themselves as they send ‘plot’,  ‘character’,  ‘human quirkiness’,  and ‘coherence’ into an artistic casualty ward.

Dead of Night showed film makers how to make a film about a dream, things charge to a horrifying climax and still there’s the possibility at the end that the dreamer will go through it all again, but it is tantalisingly hinted at rather than spelt out in CGI circus tricks.  Dead of Night is rooted in everyday life and everyday anxieties, the stories are separated from the possible reality of story telling in the setting of a cottage.

It has been said that film is the technology of dreaming, so are we supposed to think that this film theorises about film?  Well, it lacks even cod philosophising, neither do we get to the level even cod psychology, so take your pick.  When Cillan Murphy finds a wind toy by Postlethwaite’s bed, are we meant to think that this a symbol of lost happiness like ‘Rosebud’ the sledge in Citizen Kane?  Does this want to be a as momentous a film as Orson Welles’?

This film’s depiction of dream images, like nearly all of Hollywood’s in the past century, is tame and unoriginal.  One is impressed by CGI trickery and the reference to Escher’s stairway is nice but mainstream cinema is embarrassed by the weirdness and disconcerting quirkiness of actual dreams, it prefers to keep them stereotyped, settling for neat tableaux of  decipherable archetypes.  In mainstream cinema you know you are in a dream when the following occur:

  • a) a white bird flapping slowly down a corridor,
  • b) echoing voices,
  • c) a character dramatically changes appearance,
  • d) running down a street in slow motion soundlessly shouting,
  • e) a safe or a doll’s house contains a small object,
  • f) silence interrupted by sudden noise,
  • g) a loudly ticking clock,
  • h) a sky speeded up,
  • i) silent banging on a door.                                                               .

In  Inception, the extractors carry a personal token into the dream so it seems a sort of shamanistic vision quest except that the dream has been designed by a psycho-technician and the dreamer’s quirky details are never allowed in, so what’s supposed to be a dream is simply visual stylisation, a sort of shifting cinematic wallpaper.  The schematic set allows a certain symbolic freedom if it is not disturbing, that is dreaming from coffee table magazine illustrations and the dream must serve an overriding waking state narrative cohesion, the symbolism merely illustrates the narratives requirements, the dream can never be taken on it’s own terms and left enigmatic.  Hitchcock dreamed courtesy of Dali, others have chosen Tenniel psychedelia and Jungian religious archetypes from Roger Cormen but they have all been safe.  It’s as if mainstream cinema has set itself the Freudian task of puritanically reducing the moods of dreamscapes into the simplicity of decipherable symbols.  Like Freud, mainstream cinema wants dream symbols to serve a morally didactic purpose, dreams must lead to moral resolution and those beguiled by dreams are supping with the devil.  Here Cobb’s wife has died, imprisoned within dreams which reflect Cobb’s own guilt.  He must atone for the loss of his wife by transcending the beguilements of the dream.

It might be harsh criticising too much the dream images of Inception when there are technological tricks, but some more imaginative interpolations would have been welcome.  We get the streets of Paris, a bridge in the rain, a hotel, then a mountain landscape straight out of Where Eagles Dare, all driven by shoot-outs and fistfights, so there’s no chance of any deeper stuff.  This was made by Christopher Nolan of the Batman films, so you would have expected something gloomier instead of the slo-mo Mission Impossible we get.

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2011 in Film Reviews, Out on DVD

 

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