Film review – Lincoln (2012)

7 February 2013

Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis)

Collaborating for the second time after first working together on Munich (2005), director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner have made a decent film that nevertheless feels overly burdened by the responsibility of depicting historical detail. Set during the American Civil War in January 1865, Lincoln focuses on President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he attempts to abolish slavery in the USA by passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in the House of Representatives. Two major goals of the film seem to be to faithfully document a crucial moment in history through entertaining fictionalisation and to use Lincoln’s involvement as a way of shining some light on the type of person he was. Lincoln mostly feels like one of Spielberg’s straight-faced historical films with a couple of key moments reminding audiences just how good Spielberg is at coaxing an emotional response from the audience with cinematic spectacle.

For most of the film’s running time, Lincoln depicts the political machinations that went on during Lincoln’s push to bring slavery to an end. It is detailed, long and occasionally dry. The historical worthiness does relent during some scenes, especially when a group of Republican Party operatives led by William N Bilbo (James Spader) appear to deliver welcome levity to key scenes. The inner conflict experienced by the Radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) when he must compromise his progressive beliefs about equality in order to get the anti-slavery amendment through, provides the film’s most interesting examination of moral and political complexity within the democratic process. While Day-Lewis is remarkably good as Lincoln, the scenes depicting his personal life with his wife First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) and son Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) simply do not resonate the way the scenes with Stevens do.

The moment where Lincoln really impresses is when Spielberg delivers the type of grand emotional pay-off sequence that is usually associated within his spectacle-driven blockbusters. The scenes where the House of Representatives vote to end slavery is filmed with suspenseful intensity that then gives way to immense relief and joy as the amendment is passed. The editing is short and clipped, and every shot seems to begin a few seconds after the action in the frame has begun to give the impression that progress is occurring so rapidly that not even the film itself can keep up. For any dull patch that may have come before, this exhilarating sequence does much to redeem the film. In terms of narrative structure, the previous Spielberg film that Lincoln ends up most resembling is Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which while a more consistently entertaining film still provided a dramatic change in pace and style at the end to deliver a long feel-good sequence as a sort of reward to the audience for hanging in for that long. There is even a shot of Day-Lewis as Lincoln walking into the glowing light coming from the window – signalling the dawn of a new era – which is almost identical to one of the final shots from Close Encounters of the Third Kind of Richard Dreyfuss walking into the glow of the alien spaceship.

Ultimately Lincoln suffers in comparison to other films. Michael Apted’s 2006 historical biopic Amazing Grace, about William Wilberforce’s campaign to end the slave trade in the British Empire, far more effectively expressed the political mood of the era as well as exploring how Wilberforce’s private and public life affected each other. In Young Mr Lincoln (1939) director John Ford and actor Henry Fonda used a relatively minor episode in Lincoln’s life to demonstrate far more convincingly and compelling how his personal convictions about equality, justice and democracy influenced his actions.

As one of the most influential, popular, successful and important filmmakers of the past 40 years, Steven Spielberg has specialised in having audiences willingly submit to his masterful emotional manipulation. A swell of music with a slow zoom into a wide-eyed face, and suddenly Spielberg has you sharing the wonder, horror, delight or bewilderment of the character on screen. Moments like this exist in Lincoln and there are moments where Kushner’s witty dialogue shines through to remind us that the participants during this extraordinary period of social change where humans as well as historical figures from textbooks. However, for the most part Lincoln is not a significant inclusion into Spielberg’s filmography despite the noblest of intentions and undeniable cinematic craftsmanship.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Inception (2010)

19 July 2010


Knowing the details of how Inception unravels will not ruin the film for you but going into it as a blank slate is still the most rewarding way to initially experience it. So it is enough to simply say that Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, an expert in extraction, which is the art of stealing secret information hidden in people’s subconscious. He and his team face their biggest challenge yet when they are tasked with inception – the seemingly impossible act of implanting thoughts into somebody else’s subconscious.

Inception: Mal (Marion Cotillard) and Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Mal (Marion Cotillard) and Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Films depicting different levels of reality that projections of the mind can occupy are now reasonably familiar. The Matrix first introduced the concept to mainstream cinema audiences and this concept has since appeared in films as diverse as eXistenZ and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Inception owes something of a debt to all these films, plus Dark City, but it is still a boldly original work that takes the idea in a new direction. Director Christopher Nolan has worked with complex narrative structures before in Memento. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight demonstrated his stylishly cold spin on the film noir aesthetic in his portrayal of the hostile city. All these elements come together perfectly in Inception to make it Nolan’s masterpiece to date.

Part of what makes Inception so remarkable is that it has been made to appeal to the broadest audience possible. The film’s internal logic in the way it depicts how the subconscious operates is carefully thought-out and explained in terms of how different levels of the subconscious can have temporal and spatial effects on the others. These ideas end up facilitating the extraordinary lengthy action sequence that takes up the final act of the film. It is conceptually complex but written so well that you are never confused about what is happening. There is nothing wrong with cinema that leaves you puzzled, perplexed or confused but it is also extremely impressive to experience a film that is mind-bending in such a digestible way. At the same time, at no point does Inception feel dumbed-down or overly explanatory, which was the significant flaw in Nolan’s The Prestige. In 2010 both Toy Story 3 and now Inception have demonstrated that big studio films don’t have to be disposable products only aimed at short attention spans.

Inception: Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Inception is cinema at its most rewarding. Hans Zimmer’s score complements the visuals and the emotional rushes throughout the film. It contains a lot more characters of importance than in most films of this nature and yet they are all fully fleshed out and identifiable. Inception is the sort of film that future films will be compared to for its structure, writing, concepts and action. Cinema is rarely this engaging on so many levels and if you have any doubts then they will be gone by the final shot that cuts to the credits at the most perfect moment possible.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010


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Film review – (500) Days of Summer (2009)

17 September 2009
Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel)

Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel)

Summer Finn is one of those It Girls. She’s attractive, unconventional, intelligent and rebellious. It’s no wonder that Tom Hansen falls for her. While Tom abandoned his dream to become an architect and has since worked as a greeting card writer, Summer is a free spirit who seems to do what she wants. Unfortunately for Tom part of what makes Summer such a breath of life is her refusal to ever be defined as being in a relationship. Hence, the 500 days that Summer is a part of Tom’s life are both exhilarating and devastating for him. Summer is the woman of his dreams but her dismissive attitude towards the idea of true love is forever hanging over his head.

(500) Days of Summer has everything that you could want from a film that is quite consciously in the mould of a typical American indi. It contains unconventionally attractive yet extremely charismatic stars, music by undisputedly cool bands (including The Smiths, Pixies, Doves), ironic music (Halls and Oats, that song Patrick Swayze sings on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack), a non-linear narrative, a self referential narrator, pastiches to European New Wave cinema and The Seventh Seal, and various visual gimmicks such as split screen. However, far from being contrived (with the exception of the horrible wise-beyond-her-years little sister character), all these elements work and the result is a highly entertaining film.

5DOS-05500_scaled(500) Days of Summer combines the bitter-sweet romantic whimsy of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with a marvellous reinvention on some of cinema’s oldest clichés. After Tom first sleeps with Summer it cuts to a scene of him being all happy and carefree the next morning. It’s a gag that has been done so many times before but it escalates into a full-blown public song and dance routine that includes an animated bird landing on Tom’s shoulder. It’s a sequence that reeks of hip irony but director Marc Webb fills these moments with such energy that you are completely won over. In fact, (500) Days of Summer is a brilliant example of how to repackage tried and tested ideas to make them feel fresh and original again. It is a film that also miraculously manages to subvert generic expectations in one way while also completely confirming them in another. (500) Days of Summer manages to both have its cake and eat it too.

Casting Zooey Deschanel (Yes Man, The Happening, Bridge to Terabithia) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Stop-Loss, Brick, Mysterious Skin) has a lot to do with the film’s success. Summer is the perfect role for Deschanel to channel her quirky acting style and Gordon-Levitt completely embodies Tom’s awkward, hip personae. You can’t help think that the various Joy Division t-shirts that Tom wears actually come from Gordon-Levitt’s own collection. The pair share a wonderful onscreen chemistry that is both sweet and sexually charged. (500) Days of Summer demonstrates that classic cinematic conventions aren’t tired and worn by default, they are just waiting to have a new lease on life breathed into them.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Film review – Mysterious Skin (2004)

30 August 2005

Director Gregg Araki, a leading figure of ’90s New Queer Cinema, delivers a rich and moving film with Mysterious Skin. While Araki’s previous films, such as Totally Fucked Up and The Doom Generation, were self-consciously trashy tales of teen angst and chic nihilism, Mysterious Skin explores the difficult, painful and frequently sensationalised issue of child sexual abuse.

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