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

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Classic Movies – Lawrence of Arabia

It has been over six months since I last wrote about my thoughts on what I see as a ‘Classic Movie’; I promised then that there would be more like that post, and then… there weren’t. Yeah. Sorry about that. My excuse (which you shouldn’t believe) was that I simply couldn’t choose a particular film to write about. There are so many films of incredible significance, cultural or historical, that I just couldn’t make a decision. Seeing the digital re-release of Lawrence of Arabia a few days ago, however, ultimately made that decision for me.

Directed by widescreen legend (and fellow south-Londoner) David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia depicts in truly epic fashion the exploits of the controversial British Army Officer T.E. Lawrence, who had a key role in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire from 1916-18. While showing some of the events of that revolt as they unfold, the film is mostly a meditation on Lawrence’s character: his conflicted loyalties, his issues with violence and inflicting pain, and so on. Peter O’Toole, in his first major role and the one which he is continually defined by, plays Lawrence, and the supporting cast includes Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn.

Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia

I will be totally frank: the only place to really see this film is in a cinema. I was incredibly lucky to see it the first time round a few days ago at the BFI Southbank, featuring a moving curtain covering the screen, an actual interval splitting up the near four-hour length and a musical overture. Were it not for the mobile phone usage and chatter during the latter, I would have felt utterly immersed in a vintage cinematic environment. And that’s exactly what the film needs. As long as cinema continues, as long as directors keep directing and budgets keep escalating, there will never be anything like Lawrence of Arabia ever again.

Maybe it is the length. Maybe it’s the exquisite cinematography. Maybe it’s the intense portrayal of character. Perhaps it’s just the 1950s and 60s epic sensibility, of using thousands of extras as opposed to CGI, and the booming, rousing score. But there was something about the film that just struck me when I left the cinema, and not a day has passed when it has not entered my mind.

Mostly, it was to do with the visuals; the images from the film profoundly affected me from beginning to end. David Lean, with his cinematographer Freddie Young, introduce the flaming desert by instantly cutting from a scene where Lawrence blows out a match to a striking, orange-tinted landscape, where the blazing sun slowly rises in the distance. Another very memorable scene is shot in an expansive desert, where Lawrence witnesses a figure on a camel emerging from a distant mirage. Lean doesn’t quicken the pace but holds the audience in anticipation as this tiny, distant dot trots closer to the scene. That figure will turn out to be Sherif Ali, a key character, but the ambiguity and scope of his arrival is truly unique and marks the film’s incredible visual look. (That scene was filmed with a special 482mm lens from Panavision, which has not been used since.)

Sherif Ali rides out of a mirage to join T.E. Lawrence

And what of the acting? Peter O’Toole was Oscar-nominated for his starring role although he didn’t win – he would go on to be nominated a further seven times, still without success. Despite Noël Coward’s comment after seeing the film that, were O’Toole any prettier, it would have to be ‘renamed Florence of Arabia‘, Lawrence’s conflicted, tormented self is brutally and psychologically portrayed, adding a very dark and menacing edge.

Indeed, the story and the intense ideas about Lawrence’s psyche are as epic as the film’s production values. The script, principally written by Michael Wilson but perfected by Robert Bolt, explores Lawrence’s egoism and his mental decline in detail while never seeming sentimental or clunky. It also, interestingly, includes some very topical discussion about the Suez Canal in terms of British interest; the film came out in 1962, five years following the Suez Crisis.

The supporting cast are no less excellently chosen than O’Toole. Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali portrays a character that moves from a purveyor of violence into much more restrained territory; his exit scene is the finest in the film. Anthony Quinn absorbs himself in the role of Audu abu Tayi, the leader of an Arab tribe; before filming, Quinn meticulously added his own make-up with a picture of the real man sitting beside him so he could achieve a near-perfect likeness. And who could forget José Ferrer as the Turkish Bey, a man that appears for little more than five minutes and yet gives a truly unsettling performance as he torments and tortures the eponymous Lawrence?

While I can’t comment on how far the digital restoration improves the film in general, I will say that the landscapes really stood out and were beautiful to look at. Crew illness and increasing costs preventing shooting entirely in the Arabian desert, but rural Spain does just as well: the sweeping, empty deserts, the colossal rock formations that tower over the characters, the densely populated tribal camps and the vastness and colour of the Suez Canal are all part of a vast and overpowering technicolour British film that was, no doubt, unlike any before it.

A beautifully framed shot from the film.

I also loved the soundtrack. Maurice Jarre was given just six weeks to write and record the orchestral score for a near four-hour film, and he did an astonishingly good job. The overture begins with a round of thumping drums and a complex trumpet arrangement, before slowly transitioning into the rich, atmospheric theme on the violin, a theme that will repeat itself throughout the film (memorably, at one point, on a harp), giving a true sense of place. Just having the experience of sitting in a cinema while the overture blares out was exhilarating, and I found its depth remarkable considering the short scale of time in which it was conceived.

Everything I’ve talked about confirms my assertion that the film could not be made today. There are practical considerations, of the reluctance of modern audiences to give up half of their day for a film, and of budgetary concerns – Steven Spielberg, who calls the film his all-time favourite, estimates it would take nearly $300 million to make today. But there is also a sense of its scale, of its complexity, at which modern studios would likely balk. What Lean did in 1962 was release a film that topped his previous The Bridge on the River Kwai both in terms of spectacle and in terms of the depth of its characters, and came to define not only his career but those of many who worked on the film. I was utterly, utterly astonished by Lawrence of Arabia, and its uniqueness both as an epic and as a film give me no reluctance to refer to this not only as a Classic Movie, but also as a masterpiece.

Lawrence of Arabia – 50 years old

Review – War Horse

Review – War Horse

2011, 146 mins, 12A, Dir. Steven Spielberg, starring Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston

Warning! This review may contain minor spoilers (only of set-pieces, not of the plot/ending).

War Horse

Steven Spielberg’s new adaptation of War Horse is one of two films released in the past year that have thrown you back to his career in the 1980s, the other being The Adventures of Tintin. After a flurry of more serious and dark-hearted films (which nonetheless retained at least a few tendons of Spielberg’s more playful senses) alongside the crushingly disappointing fourth Indiana Jones installment, 2011 has been a great return for the director. War Horse retains the sense of adventure and emotional drama that is characteristic of the early works of Spielberg, not coming out with many surprises, but certainly an enjoyable experience for most.

Based principally on the 1982 children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, and gaining inspiration from the far more successful 2007 stage play, War Horse is an intriguing story of a farmboy in the early 20th century who, after training a horse that comes into his possession, is shocked to find that it has been registered to help with the war effort. The young boy, named Albert, is conscripted into the army and tries to find his beloved friend in the midst of the devasting First World War. The story of the injustices of war and the undying hope of one young lad is Spielbergian in itself and it’s quite obvious that he is the man for the job.

Despite this, a sizeable amount of Albert’s journey (especially to the war front) is left out of the final film, which still stands at nearly two and a half hours. For an extended period midway we see and hear nothing from the boy and thus a certain portion of the emotional effect (considering his young age in the story) is lost. It is worth noting, however, that the film is not necessarily Albert’s; it is Joey the horse’s. We follow his journey through the hellish battlegrounds of war, from a fatal cavalry charge to his painful entanglement in between the British and German trenches. He is our main protagonist, our main lead, and we vouch for him, although Albert’s role overall is somehow lost in translation.

Never mind. The acting is superb. Young newcomer Jeremy Irvine gives a confident and gripping performance while Peter Mullan and Emily Watson provide great support as his mother and father. Worth mentioning are Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston who, while only appearing in a few scenes, are utterly convincing as the young, idealistic British army officers. But Spielberg is the real star here. After forty years in the business he is certainly an expert in mise-en-scène; every shot is immaculately framed alongside some beautiful transitioning with the help of regular collaborator Janusz Kaminski.

While the stage play is more stripped-down and raw, the film is on a much greater scale with its epic battle scenes and rich score by John Williams, his best work in a while. The director is no stranger to war violence as we all know and War Horse does not shy away from it. In fact, it’s remarkably gritty for its rating, not very gory, but certainly a tough watch in parts. The camera doesn’t flinch during the punishment of two German deserters; this style is very much reminiscent of Spielberg’s uncompromisingly brutal Schindler’s List. War Horse, then, is lighter Spielberg with darker elements, as oppose to the films in the mid to late nineties that proved him to be more than just a popcorn director.

War Horse is an excellent film. Its virtuoso directing, marvellous acting and set-pieces form a film that harks back to the restless adventure of E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It has a strong emotional core and is bound to be loved by audiences, although its story somewhat lacks in consistency; the stage play is superior on that front.

4 stars out of 5.

Review – The Adventures of Tintin

I managed to get free tickets to a preview screening of the film – read my slightly average review below:

Produced by Peter Jackson and directed by none other than Steven Spielberg himself, everyone knew that a Tintin movie (the rights of which the director has held since 1983) was going to be a big deal. The series of comics by revered Belgian writer Hergé, the first written in 1929, have been a global success, showered with praise and translated into more than 80 languages worldwide, while the most dedicated fans often brand themselves “Tintinologists”. It will therefore come as a huge relief for many that Spielberg’s motion-captured homage to the plucky red-haired hero is funny, cinematically impressive and intensely difficult not to like.

Jackson had previously convinced Spielberg that filming Tintin in live action would not do the comics justice. When watching the film, one has to agree. The motion-capture technology brings Tintin to life. It’s admirable how seriously Hergé’s animated world is taken, from the detail of the characters to the cartoonish action sequences. One stunning scene takes place in a Moroccan town where Tintin chases down three small pieces of paper vital to his investigation – he loses Haddock in a sidecar (who had just blown a water dam to bits with a bazooka) and ends up zip-lining down a telephone wire on the remaining wheel of a motorbike. That’s a tiny fraction of what happens, but the impressive thing is that a large amount of this scene takes place in a single shot. It’s animated with visual flair, colour and virtuosity and is a return for Spielberg to the films he made in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s by far his most entertaining film since Jurassic Park.

The characters are done very well. Haddock, played by Andy Serkis is alcoholic and delusional; Tintin (Jamie Bell), every strand of his trademark quiff blowing in the wind, is as adventurous as the books make him out to be; and Thompson and Thomson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), hilariously incompetent, provide great comic relief. There have been obvious problems in terms of “dead eyes” in motion capture (exemplified by the rather creepy Polar Express and Beowulf) but Tintin doesn’t suffer from this. In fact, when adapting

Tintin and Snowy

from a series of pictures in which character eyes are black dots, the filmmakers do surprisingly well in making Tintin, Haddock and others look more human. Character movements are smooth and appear natural; occasionally I thought I was watching live action.

The Adventures of Tintin is pure fun. In fact, it’s a visual treat that despite minor flaws (a drawn-out ending, flat 3D) is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, encompassing a glorious world, constantly funny jokes and impressive action set-pieces. Go and watch it. You won’t regret it.

4 stars out of 5

Jurassic Park re-release – 2011

The first time I watched Steven Spielberg’s 1993 classic Jurassic Park must have been on a VHS cassette when I was a small child. I was captivated by its stunning visual effects and instantly elected the Tyrannosaurus Rex as my favourite dinosaur in the film. Consequently, it’s rather easy to imagine my frenzied delight when I heard that (coinciding with the blu-ray release) Jurassic Park would be re-released in cinemas across the UK.

The classic poster for 1993’s Jurassic Park

This was not just an opportunity. This was an unmissable necessity, an undoubted must to see this film on the big screen in all its glory. Why is that, you ask? Well, there are several reasons of which I shall mention only a few:

1. John William’s majestic score in surround sound, enveloping you in your cinema seat.

2. The Tyrannosaurus Rex. Not only does its roar scream at you in its ultimate loudness, but on the big screen it looms over you in its proper height (well, it did at the cinema I went to).

3. In 1993 it became the highest-grossing Spielberg-directed film of all time (excluding inflation) and made more money than any other in that year.

4. It’s a landmark in the use of computer-generated imagery. The film still looks brilliant after eighteen years and stands as a better piece of storytelling than Avatar.

5. Samuel L. Jackson is so damn cool as the Head Technician of Jurassic Park that even in a minor role he needs a whole screen to stomach his awesomeness.

So I ventured down on the afternoon of Saturday the 24th September to the BFI IMAX where I watched the film for the first time in a number of years. It was astonishing. I had forgotten how undeniably impressive the computer-generated T-Rex was (as reflected humorously in the mirror of the jeep in which Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum and Bob Peck make their escape) as well as the savagely intelligent velociraptors. The first dinosaur attack around the T-Rex paddock still kept me on the edge of my seat (it’s one of my favourite scenes) and I was able for once to notice a lot more subtleties as well as grasp more of the plot  – don’t you always find that happens with films from your childhood?

Wayne Knight, an incredibly underrated actor, brought a necessary wave of human antagonism beyond the various escaped dinosaurs as Dennis Nedry, the vile and greedy technician who you can somehow feel sympathy for. Richard Attenborough, in his first acting role for fifteen years, is very convincing as the kindly scientist who only too late understands the reality of his elaborate theme park. He exists as a sharp deviation from the character written in the Michael Crichton novel, who is described as “arrogant, deceptive, disrespectful and rude”. It’s particularly emotional in the film when we see Hammond sitting on his own in the restaurant, slowly eating spoonfuls of ice cream to which he has “spared no expense”, gradually coming to realisation of what he has done with his Jurassic Park.

The film just works so well and is so incredibly entertaining that it’s vastly difficult not to ramble on about it. The CGI and animatronic dinosaurs co-ordinated by Stan Winston are an incredible sight to behold and the characters truly have depth. Yes, it has its flaws, many of them technical (where does that steep drop in the T-Rex paddock come from?) but it’s a supreme slice of Spielbergian entertainment that was perhaps the defining piece of effects cinema of the early 1990s.

I stayed until the end credits with my friends after jokingly hearing a member of the audience shouting “Let’s wait for the dino outtakes!” All in all, it was an experience to remember: a rediscovery of one of my favourite childhood films in a high definition print on the biggest screen in England. Maybe I’ll end up seeing it again, just perhaps not at the BFI IMAX. £11.50 is a hell of a lot of money for a cinema ticket.

£11.50??