Review – Lincoln

Apologies for not writing in a while – I’ve been caught up with the dull necessity of A-level revision and coursework which has prevented me from writing any reviews. After my mock exams, however, I made an effort to see as many Oscar-nominated films as I could within the space of two weeks, and this was one of them.

Review – Lincoln

2013, 150 mins, 12A, Dir. Steven Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Straitharn, Tommy Lee Jones and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

lincoln
Steven Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’

Steven Spielberg, still a great giant of the American film industry, has decided to make his twenty-seventh film about Abraham Lincoln, a great giant of American politics. This is certainly no easy task. Lincoln remains a man of mythic proportions, a great advocate of freedom, the leader of the north in a brutal civil war, a victim of assassination at 56. So many have opinions on his life, his character and his motives – indeed, over fifteen thousand books have been written about him. Rather than arguing for one side, however, Spielberg with this film presents an exceptionally balanced portrait of Old Abe at a very specific moment in time: as he tries to pass the thirteenth amendment to abolish slavery.

The film opens with a brutal scene of battle between Confederate (South) and Union (North) soldiers on a grimy field. It almost feels like we’re reliving Saving Private Ryan in a different period, but the sequence ends as quickly as it started, and in terms of onscreen display of Civil War combat this is all we get. The brilliantly written scene that follows shows Lincoln talking to a couple of black Union soldiers about their position in the army, and it is from this point that the politics take over. The main focus of the story is on the President’s attempts to emancipate American slaves, and much of it takes place in tense Cabinet rooms, the boisterous House of Representatives and Lincoln’s own bedroom as the Civil War rages on. It is, as some reviewers have aptly pointed out, like The West Wing in the 1860s, a snapshot of the political persuasion and persistence needed to push a bill through Congress, as uncertain Democrats are targeted by lobbyists working for David Straitharn’s Secretary of State. Despite the lack of spectacle and action, perhaps a little unconventional in terms of Spielberg, in terms of its script it is funny (particularly the insult-trading in Congress), intriguing, very clever, and crucially never dull.

But the film is also a meditation on Abe Lincoln’s character. Despite his ubiquitous presence in patriotic American hearts the film certainly doesn’t skirt over his faults. He has domestic problems with his wife and elder son Robert (Gordon-Levitt), particularly in relation to the latter’s keenness to get away to fight in the war, and there remains the consistently posed question of whether his own motives for the bill were humanitarian or geared more towards ending the north-south conflict. It is not necessarily suggested that he favours complete equality, as does Thaddeus Stevens, a member of Congress played by Tommy Lee Jones, who gives a fantastically deadpan performance. But the overriding impression of Lincoln is that he was indeed one of the few Presidents that could easily be described as great, and that he did make tremendous achievements before his untimely death.

Speaking of the man with the top hat, Daniel Day-Lewis, under impressive but uninhibiting prosthetics, gives a performance truly worthy of a third Oscar. He is incredibly distinctive in that he plays Lincoln with a high-pitched accent, which ties up with contemporary records of his style of speaking, but in doing so loses none of his onscreen presence. In front of his Cabinet, he attacks the very idea of ‘putrescent’ slavery with domineering power, but there are also moments of warmth, particularly in the stories he tells in different situations, laced with wit and often hilarious to watch. Day-Lewis in his typical method style simply was Lincoln for the few months that it took to shoot. Even Spielberg referred to him on set as ‘Mr. President’, a fact revealing of the actor’s sheer might and dedication to his craft.

Lincoln and his Republican ministers
Lincoln and his Republican ministers

The focus on intense drama and politics still cannot take away from the fact this is visually a Spielberg film, and as such there are several moments that are breathtaking to look at – Lincoln’s final exit is one such example. Once again shot by frequent collaborator Janusz Kaminski, the camera smartly remains on the ground with its characters – unlike The West Wing, there are no sweeping helicopter shots of the White House – putting a sharp emphasis on character. Spielberg does make a conscious effort to avoid the sentimentality that he has sometimes been criticised for, and any soft moments in the film are few and far between, and quite forgiveable. It is mature Spielberg, and all the better for it. We gain the sense that we are really watching history, and the scene in Congress when the vote is cast on amendment 13 is both tense and exciting, even if you know the outcome.

Lincoln may have been overshadowed by Ben Affleck’s Argo at the BAFTAs and Golden Globes but really it is the superior film – a real credit to the filmmakers involved as well as the cast, particularly Daniel Day-Lewis. But it also stands not just as a technical achievement but as a very well-judged and fair-minded portrayal of the sixteenth President of the United States. Spielberg was so serious about his Lincoln film that he recorded the man’s actual watch in the museum in which it is held and placed the recordings in the completed film – a final reminder of his attention to detail and undeniable skill at directing.

9/10

Review – Looper

Review – Looper

2012, 118 mins, 15, Dir. Rian Johnson, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt and Paul Dano

Looper

Looper is writer/director Rian Johnson’s third film. His first was Brick, a low-budget independent which took the linguistic styles of Raymond Chandler and substituted them into, believe it or not, a high school setting. And Johnson shows the same originality here, constructing a science-fiction premise which leaves you gasping for breath. It’s not perfect, but Looper is easily the best science-fiction film since Moon, a terrific and fresh train-ride of a movie which beguiles, shocks and entertains in turn.

It is 2042. We follow a man called Joe (Gordon-Levitt) who is employed as a ‘Looper’. When the mob want to get rid of someone in the future, they send them back in time to these loopers, who murder them. Loopers enjoy the high life of clubs, drugs and sex, but there comes a time when their own future selves are sent back to be dispatched – ‘closing your loop’. When this happens to Joe, his older version (Bruce Willis) escapes, triggering a violent train of events which will see a clash between the old and younger selves, a clash of two ideas about Joe’s future and past.

From the outset, it certainly looks like an action film, and from the beginning it convinces you that it is. There are some excellent set-pieces that simply refuse to be generic, with the characters actually taking time to aim and shoot, instead of a barrage of misfires and cover-taking. It also takes a decidedly R-rated stance; indeed, the heavy and powerful blunderbusses utilised by the loopers don’t allow for much else. The scenes in a dystopian Kansas city are truly exciting, but suddenly the film slows down and takes a more reflective stance. As Joe stumbles onto the farm of the protective Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young son, the action turns minimal for a long period of time. Such a rapid change of pace is a little disorientating but if you can adjust then it is rewarding – the long sequence at the farm reveals some intriguing surprises, and Emily Blunt gives a bolstering performance as a woman you feel could really shoot you if she wanted to.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, meanwhile, is barely recognisable as the young Bruce Willis, and also gives a strong performance. When the two of them are onscreen together, chiefly in the diner sequence, it is more tense than you would imagine. They face each other off, grappling fiercely with alternate futures, each trying to impose himself on the other. Willis in particular is terrifying in this sequence and in the rest of the film; with a gun, he is a formidable and unforgettable force, plagued by memories of his life, and seeking to restore them as much as he can, no matter the cost.

Joe (Gordon-Levitt) and Joe (Willis)

The future urban city is brilliantly but realistically built. It is overpopulated, many of its residents living in poverty on the streets; the upper classes, with their expensive cars, suppress their fear of crime with large guns. China has overtaken the USA as a superpower, as Joe is recommended by his boss to learn Mandarin instead of French. You really gain a sense that things could turn out as they do in the film.

As with most films, though, there are problems. And Looper contains a number of plot holes that may affect your enjoyment of the film. Don’t let that happen. Yes, there are things which don’t quite add up, and some things which really don’t add up, but that should be no reason to pass it off. What you have is arty, ballsy filmmaking which disregards cliché and takes you on a thumpingly good ride. You may think it slumps in the middle. But the performances of the two leads, the design and the stellar action scenes more than make up for that. It’s a fantastic film.

8/10

Review – The Dark Knight Rises

Review – The Dark Knight Rises

2012, 164 mins, 12A, Dir. Christopher Nolan, starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Gary Oldman

The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was one of the director’s finest achievements, a seminal film of technical brilliance and, as the Joker would see to it, terrifying villainy. With that milestone to surpass, with Joss Whedon’s The Avengers taking $1.4 billion at the worldwide box office, and with critics doubting the audibility of the main villain after seeing the first few minutes of footage, The Dark Knight Rises faced a number of obstacles. But Christopher Nolan is not to be distrusted. In fact, he has made a film that not only puts doubters to shame, but acts as a perfect end to what has already been a supremely exciting series.

We open eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, where the ‘Batman’ has been disgraced and his alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, lives alone, limping around his mansion with nothing to do. Thanks to the Dent Act following the death of Gotham’s former DA, the city is seemingly at peace, although Commissioner Jim Gordon cannot shake off his past. However, there is an entirely new force which threatens Gotham in ways no-one could have anticipated, as the unbelievably strong Bane arrives to wreak havoc. And if that wasn’t enough, Wayne becomes embroiled with a mysterious woman named Selina Kyle who has a lot of things hiding up her leathery sleeve…

Plot twists are a-plenty, and there are a larger number of characters than ever that contribute to the flow of the narrative, but everything is controlled and each of the actors is allowed to shine. Anne Hathaway gives us one of the best performances in the film as Selina Kyle. Although the Nolan trilogy of Batman movies is more grounded in reality (the term ‘Catwoman’ is never mentioned in the script, and the costume is less fantastical than in Tim Burton’s imagining) the sly, rebellious attitude is still there, and Hathaway pulls it off with ease. At the Wayne Mansion in one of the early scenes in the movie, the sudden change from shy, innocent maid to sexy, artful jewel thief is made with one word and a slick change in facial expression. She also drives a Batpod really well.

Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises

The role of Bane is comfortably filled out by British actor Tom Hardy, and you do gain a sense of the physicality of the character – every knuckle-pounding punch that he plants on Batman is really felt by the audience. He brings something new to the caped crusader, both a physical and a mental threat, and is a truly formidable villain. Christian Bale, meanwhile, turns up the ante as the main character. In the epic finale, when he sports the Bat-shaped cowl, Batman’s passion for driving out crime and delivering Gotham from evil is more effervescent than ever.

The supporting cast is, as always, phenomenal, although the notch has been turned up considerably. Michael Caine gives his most heart-wrenching performance of the series, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a delight as John Blake – or is it… no, never mind. One of the most memorable performances is one of the shortest, as a character from a previous film (who I refuse to mention) shows up as a judge, sentencing Gotham’s rich and famous as Bane restores ‘power to the people’.

There’s so much to praise about the acting, but my goodness you could never forget the visuals. The Dark Knight Rises is a sheer spectacle from beginning to end. Whether you see it in IMAX or not, no-one can deny the jaw-dropping nature of the opening plane stunt (which was performed for real, over Inverness), or of the many other action sequences in the film. Nolan pulls out all his impressive stops and in terms of scale this is certainly the largest Batman film, with nearly an hour of the film shot using IMAX cameras (and a bladder-threatening running time of nearly 3 hours). Mercifully resisting shooting in 3D, the director shows his love for the audience, and with his tendency for using practical effects whenever possible over CGI (as well as shooting and editing on film strips, a fact proudly proclaimed in the end credits) he further reveals his tendency for traditional-style filmmaking and heart-stopping theatricality.

Batman faces a moment of panic as the cops close in.

However, we musn’t just thank Nolan for the experience that it is. Hans Zimmer’s score adds to the atmosphere immeasurably, with every pulse-pounding beat making you tremble in your seat. The sound design guys show the true ferocity of Bane’s punches, and mix the film so that in the final hour you have no time to relax as Batman makes his return.

There is so much to pack in to The Dark Knight Rises that at times it can seem a little chaotic. But ultimately the story holds strong, constantly alternating to another round of surprises, and serving well each of the characters. In fact, the running time of the film is never hard-pressing – the time seems to fly by, in fact. It is so impeccably paced and well-edited. But the ending could be the best part of the film. Everyone knew that Nolan is a master of film endings, as we witnessed from the ambiguity of Inception‘s spinning top, but he ends his trilogy here in truly spectacular fashion. We are treated to a series of alternating images that lead us into beguilement and expectation. When the end credits roll, applause is absolutely mandatory, as the jaws of the audience simultaneously drop once more.

The Dark Knight set the standard impossibly high with a first-rate villain and the kind of action never glimpsed before in a superhero film, and despite the many things that make this film great, it just isn’t quite as good as its predecessor. But does it need to be? Chris Nolan has provided more-than-satisfying closure for a monumental series of films, an alarming and exciting tour-de-force of premium intensity that really lives up to the hype surrounding it – in fact, I think it’s probably the best film of the year. I am certainly going to miss the Nolan Batmans, the expectation that surrounded them upon release, the gasps of awe at the incredible action sequences. And I know that I am not the only one. 

9/10

Review – 50/50

I caught this at a preview screening last Thursday; due to an internet connection that suddenly decided to be Jon Snow from Game of Thrones (or, a bastard) I haven’t been able to publish the review till today. Enjoy, nevertheless.

At 27 years old, Adam is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. His first line to his mother when breaking the news is “Have you ever seen Terms of Endearment?” The irony is evident, since it’s clear from the opening few minutes that Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 is a completely different film. Yes, it’s about cancer and the way it affects those around the sufferer, but its hefty subject matter is approached in a way that is sensitive, funny and ultimately quite unique. As a matter of fact, it’s based on a true story, and the main character happens to be based on the writer himself, Will Reiser; its authenticity is therefore guaranteed.

The cast is quite brilliant and no-one underperforms. Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays Reiser with a great amount of subtlety as the cancer slowly erodes away his way of living. The foulmouthed Seth Rogen is outlandish and crude as Adam’s best friend Kyle, but in a way that is far more believable than some of his previous roles. Anna Kendrick, meanwhile, plays Katherine, an inexperienced student psychiatrist whose effervescent charm marks her as one of the better supporting characters.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is that it has a good balance between humour and sadness. It’s neither overly sentimental nor slapdash; the humour is confined, simple and overall quite hilarious. Adam’s girlfriend gets him a dog, claiming it will help him with his disease. The animal turns out to be a former racedog, named Skeletor, exceedingly thin physically, almost miserable in look; a mirror for Adam himself. Kyle begins to use his best friend’s disease in order to pick up girls; while funny at times, this part of the story

Seth Rogen gasps as Joseph Gordon-Levitt shaves his head.

is also poignant as Adam realises he cannot enjoy relationships as he once did. That’s not to say that Kyle doesn’t care. Quite the opposite; all in all, he doesn’t know how to act as he has to come to the conclusion that anytime soon his friend might die. Towards the end of the film, we feel sympathy not just for Adam, but for Kyle too, whose concern is masked beneath his relentless efforts to appear as normal as possible.

The cinematography is excellent. We see the film almost in its entirety through Adam’s eyes. When listening to his doctor’s long-winded explanation of his cancer which is laden with complicated medical terms, Adam’s vision blurs and so does the lens’. The doctor’s speech becomes little more than an extended murmur before Adam gains consciousness again. There is a later episode in a hospital corridor involving marijuana that I will not spoil for you, but suffice to say the audience was laughing out of their seats.

The simple fact that this could happen to anybody is representative of the film’s realism and adds enormously to its effect. In fact, as the credits rolled, I was filled with questions. Would any of my friends ever be diagnosed with cancer? Would I ever be diagnosed with cancer? If so, what would be the effect on the community? Would the mother of the sufferer become grief-stricken like Adam’s in the film? As these questions rolled around in my head, I left the cinema very satisfied, knowing that 50/50, a film made for just $8 million, had completely achieved its purpose.

4 stars out of 5