Archive | April, 2013

Lincoln

29 Apr

lincoln

 

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin (book)

Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn

Motion Picture Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 150 minutes

 

Spielberg was always going to make this film and he was always going to cast Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president of the United States. His vision was finally realized and award nominations duly followed. Whilst not a masterpiece, Lincoln is an achievement for all concerned and the timing is interesting. American politics today is of little succour or interest to most of its citizens and long since gone are senior political figures to inspire the nation. Abraham Lincoln was inspiring, a role model. Compared to the leading politicians of modern day Washington, he is a giant.

The stature of Lincoln is emphasized from the start of this film. He is shown in shadow, sitting high on a makeshift stage, a tall looming and brooding figure. He towers over his family. He seemingly carries an enormous burden on his large angular frame. It is classic Spielberg, and it is classic Day-Lewis. He is Lincoln in every detail and his performance rightly won awards. It is exemplary and intelligent work and Day-Lewis carries the film with grace.

The story is that of Lincoln’s fight to abolish slavery during the last year of the American civil war. He wants to end the war, but he also wants to end slavery for which the south are in part fighting. It is shocking to see and hear southern politicians explaining their moral and natural right to keep slaves. It is repugnant, but only 150 years ago that such debates took place. Lincoln plus Tarantino’s Django Unchained shed light on a relatively taboo cinematic subject. Is that a coincidence? I am not sure, but Steve McQueen’s film Twelve Years a Slave is coming soon so there seems to be a wave that’s building.

In fairness to Spielberg, his Lincoln is not a belligerent piece of work and is more concerned with Lincoln the man and Washington politics than slavery and the civil war. It surprised me just how small and quiet this film is. There are few scenes shot outdoors and ‘action’ is limited to full-blown filibustering. This is a film about politics and about beliefs. As such it is very heavy on the dialogue and, apart from about 20 minutes around half-way, it carries that dialogue well. The acting is strong across the cast with Lincoln’s 3 backdoor fixers finely played by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes. Only Spielberg can attract such a stellar cast.

I enjoyed this film, but I was not blown away by it. Day-Lewis is extraordinary and the production values (in costume, sets, music) are extremely high. Lincoln is a polished piece of work and retells a crucial part of US history. It should be utterly absorbing, but that is not quite the case. It is worthwhile, comes from the heart and is acted beautifully, but I cannot say that it is fully engaging or uplifting. And for a Spielberg film, so long in getting made, I find that a little surprising.

Jack Reacher

27 Apr

jack reacher

 

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Writers: Christopher McQuarrie (screenplay), Lee Child (based on the book “One Shot” by)

Stars: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins

Motion Picture Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 130 minutes

 

 

I have not read any of the 17 Lee Child books featuring the character Jack Reacher, but I was aware of the controversy surrounding the casting of Tom Cruise. Reacher is described as being 6’5” tall, as having a 50” chest, of weighing approx 110 kgs and being a dirty blonde. That’s the Cruiser down pat right? Hardly, but Tom is anything if not confident. And he really does give this a good go and apparently surprised the most ardent of Reacher fans.

It is easy to see why Cruise chased this role. Reacher is a cool character, created for 40-something fanboys to admire. Jack Reacher says very little, he’s as hard as nails, a gentleman with the ladies, beholden to nobody and he delivers some great one-liners. I am sure that Lee Child looked to mash up James Bond, Jason Bourne and any of those Seagal / Van Damme / Norris b-movie fighters of yesteryear when he first sat down at his typewriter. His work is not culturally significant or particularly novel, but it is entertaining enough judged by this film.

The start of this adaptation is very good. It’s exciting and interesting as a lone sniper sets to work terrorizing city folk. The entrance of Reacher is handled cleverly and I was pleasantly surprised by how tight the first ca. 30 minutes were. Unfortunately the plot misfires thereafter and the whole film becomes rather daft –there is a large, shadowy and evil company involved and Werner Herzog appears as a sort of crazy super villain. The plot has too many holes in it and Rosamund Pike is horribly miscast as the city’s public defendant.

All in all Jack Reacher is a solid character and this is a solid piece of Saturday night entertainment. It is all too obvious and has mostly been seen elsewhere before, but Tom Cruise gives it a lift. The action is good and there are some witty lines. As this is film number 1 from 17 books (and counting), I got the feeling that the film-makers tried too hard to cram in too many Reacher cod philosophy quotes and anecdotes. Yes he’s a solitary ex-soldier living ‘off the grid’, but we don’t need reminding every 5 minutes! Subtlety is largely missing from this affair. Maybe in the next one?

Bernie

10 Apr

bernie

 

Director: Richard Linklater

Writers: Skip Hollandsworth, Richard Linklater

Stars: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey

Motion Picture Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 104 minutes

 

Who is Bernie Tiede? That’s the key question to this mockumentary style film by Richard Linklater. He appears in Carthage, East Texas and walks into a job as assistant mortician. Thereafter he walks into the lives of almost all of the 7,000 townspeople leaving the vast majority with smiles on their faces. As well as being skilled at making up the recently deceased, Bernie sings in the church choir, directs the local theatre group, starts an arts festival and organizes a pageant for senior citizens. He is cheery, enthusiastic and great with people, especially the little old ladies. Having helped to arrange their husbands’ funerals Bernie likes to keep a caring eye on the widows.

Bernie is a strange little man and this is a strange little film. The fact that it is a true story makes it doubly so. Linklater read an article in a Texan newspaper about the real Bernie and immediately saw it as a movie. Having worked on the script with the journalist, he then made a perfect decision and cast Jack Black in the lead role. Black’s portrayal of Bernie is a thing of weird beauty. Black is exceptional and his acting blows away any preconceptions that you might have about him. He completely embodies this friendly mortician; he walks, talks, consoles, organizes, sings, and dances and throughout the film he never breaks character.

The widow who Bernie focuses on is called Marjorie Nugent and is played acidly by Shirley MacLaine. She is a mean old lady and none too popular in Carthage. Bernie believes that there is good in everyone and he slowly ingratiates himself with the wealthy widow and gets her to open up more to the community. Together they go on overseas trips and soon enough Bernie is giving Marjorie financial advice and practically moving in. Their relationship is odd. It’s not sexual and it’s not of a mother / son dynamic. They are mismatched friends that come to rely on each other, but with Marjorie, and her money, dominating.

Bernie and Marjorie don’t have a happy ending. She ends up with 4 bullet holes in her back and he ends up facing a jury. The final act of the film deals with the court case that is a result of Marjorie’s death. The local prosecutor, played well by Matthew McConaughey, puts Bernie on trial and stirs up a hornet’s nest in East Texas. What is justified homicide if the victim was so damn mean? Is a valid defence the fact that the accused is so damn nice? Bernie is strangely gracious through all of it and even I struggled with my verdict. That’s the beauty of the film. You don’t really know Bernie Tiede so passing judgement on his lifestyle, relationships and misdemeanours is not easy.

Silver Linings Playbook

7 Apr

silver linings

 

Director: David O. Russell

Writers: David O. Russell (screenplay), Matthew Quick (novel)

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 122 minutes

 

Here is another recent award winner that comes to the small screen on the back of major critical and box-office success. The director, David O Russell, is well liked by critics. He has an eclectic back catalogue that includes Flirting with Disaster (excellent), Three Kings (good), I Heart Huckabees (poor) and The Fighter (very good). He is not a prolific director, but like Gus Van Sant, another US ‘50’s born film-maker, he usually delivers something interesting and leftfield.

The subject matter here is certainly not mainstream. Both leads suffer from forms of mental illness and their journey towards living ‘normal’ lives is what drives the film forward. The setting is a working class neighbourhood of Philadelphia and the home of Pat Solatano, recently released from a psychiatric ward and back living with his parents. Pat beat up his estranged wife’s lover and suffers from anger issues. He is also horribly direct; what he thinks he says and it’s rarely complimentary and never dull.

Pat (Bradley Cooper) struggles with his similarly angry father Pat Snr (Robert De Niro) and his mother (Jacki Weaver) works hard to keep the peace. That is a believable set up and the three characters combine nicely. The father and son dynamic is one of the main themes and it is clear that Pat Snr’s lack of patience, superstitious nature and compulsive behaviour have influenced his son. Apples rarely fall far from the tree.

Whilst Pat is working on himself and seeking that elusive silver lining, he runs into Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). She is a young widow who turned to promiscuity and prescription drugs to manage her grief. Tiffany shares Pat’s directness and the two immediately make an engaging pair. The film is mostly about their highly unconventional courtship and to that end Cooper and Lawrence play off each other brilliantly. Cooper is particularly good playing the bi-polar Pat and deserves equal credit with the more feted Lawrence.

This is a good film with excellent performances. For US mainstream movies it is brave in its subject matter and it is prepared to jump around in tone as per the real lives of the mentally ill. Pat is bi-polar and his mood swings colour the film with drama, humour and sadness in equal measure. The film that this most reminded me of is Good Will Hunting by Gus Van Sant and anyone who enjoyed that will like this. The locations are very similar, the unconventional camerawork is present, and there is an abundance of honesty and humanity on display.

End of Watch

1 Apr

End of Watch

 

Director: David Ayer

Writer: David Ayer

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 109 minutes

 

 

The US film and TV industry is firmly established around Los Angeles and unsurprisingly the local police force remains a popular subject. Almost all film genres have used the LAPD for inspiration including film noir, gangster, action and comedy. With allegations of corruption and brutality dogging the force since way back, a lot of the output has been critical. In 2011 Woody Harrelson was extraordinarily good in the film Rampart playing a racist, alcoholic and violent LAPD officer. In 2001 Denzel Washington won acclaim playing a rogue officer in Training Day.

Training Day was written by David Ayer and here on End of Watch he adds the role of director. He might not be concerned about saturation in LAPD stories, but I think that he is concerned about so much negativity. For whilst End of Watch reveals some bad behaviour that LAPD cops suffer from, Ayer builds a picture that empathises with the hyper-stressed police. He shows the domestic lives that cops cherish and that are difficult to maintain under the acute pressure of protecting and serving. In a lot of ways this is a different type of LAPD story.

End of Watch follows two officers that have been partners since leaving the academy. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Brian and Michael Pena plays Mike. The film tracks them inside and outside of the precinct, on quiet and on hectic patrols and away from the force altogether. Multiple cameras are used, as per movies such as Chronicle, and the result is a highly intimate and sometimes claustrophobic portrayal of being a cop in a high crime neighbourhood (South Central LA). The more ambitious cop Brian actually carries a small handheld camera with him on patrol and that, plus standard patrol car cameras, are edited in to great effect.

This is an excellent film. I was unsure about the fly-on-the-wall set up during the first 15 minutes, but I was pulled in by the tension and action of some of the crime scenes and by the sheer camararderie of the two cops. Gyllenhaal and Pena become highly believable LAPD officers and the danger that’s put in front of them grows ever more disturbing. I found myself enjoying the company of these two guys, but starting to worry about their safety. That is quite a feat of writing and directing by Ayer and of acting by Gyllenhaal & Pena. Besides sympathising with the police, I also found myself slack-jawed at the casual violence portrayed in South Central LA, a truly nightmarish neighbourhood.

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