Film Reviews from October 20 to November 5

Here are some recent film reviews of mine. More to follow throughout the month.

Lincoln (2012, Steven Spielberg)

I liked Lincoln more than I disliked it, but the film is far from perfect. To start with, it is about 30 minutes too long, and you really begin to feel that extra half hour at the end. Then, there are the usual Spielberg moments of overly sentimentalized drama, where true sincerity is marred by unnecessarily elegiac music, or by excessive underlining of the subtext with push-ins to characters whose presence serves merely to tell us what we already know. But the bedrock of this movie is a truly fine (and often understated) performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, whose choice to have his Lincoln speak in a high register did not bother me at all. I had thought, from the trailers, that this would be a problem, but after the first 5 minutes of watching him, I had forgotten all about my initial reservations.

So – see the film for Day-Lewis, if for nothing or no one else. There are a lot of other actors in the film, however, and seeing so many people you know in false whiskers and wigs can actually be distracting. I think the film would have been better served with fewer celebrity cameos. Still, many of them are fun to watch. My favorite was James Spader.

In spite of finding the use of music distracting, at times, one of the things I liked a lot about the film was the fact that, initially, there is so little music. For quite a while, there is almost no non-diegetic score, and we are left alone with the characters as they discuss matters political and personal.

I also like the very literate script by Tony Kushner. There is virtually no physical action in this film: it is all about the nature of how politicians get things done, and how they get things done is often by talking. I was amazed at how engrossed I was by the words (until that two hour mark – the magic moment when films either declare that – YES! they can be that long – or go downhill). Watching Day-Lewis incarnate a Kushner-penned Lincoln-as-raconteur was a delight. The pleasure that writer, director and actor clearly had in staging the many moments where Lincoln tells rambling anecdotes – and in showing how those anecdotes helped define him as a beloved man and leader – is quite infectious.

So – for me – it is a very mixed bag, with the positive nevertheless outweighing the negative. And compared to the last Lincoln film I saw – Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – it’s a masterpiece.

The Big Picture (2012, Eric Lartigau)

This is entertaining enough, if ultimately a little disappointing as a thriller. There are too many plot holes for it to completely work – too much disbelief needs to be suspended. That said, the lead performances are all very strong, and there remains the question of whether or not this SHOULD be looked at as a thriller. In a Hollywood director’s hands, it might have had more adrenaline, but it would most likely have lacked the metaphysical side that ultimately is the film’s greatest appeal. What defines us? What do we want? What happens when we self-abnegate? The film grapples with these questions, and has a conclusion that is all open and no end.

Wreck-it Ralph (2012, Rich Moore)

This was great fun, if also a bit formulaic in that Disney way: the hero doesn’t like his life; he leaves to find himself; he makes mistakes along the way that threaten his world and the world of others; he finds his way and rights all wrongs; he ends up back where he was, after having wrought change that makes others appreciate him more and lets him appreciate what he has. That said, the details surrounding the formula aree fresh and well designed. Anyone whose misspent youth involved far too many hours in the arcade will love the concept. Parents will probably like it more than kids, but kids won’t be bored, either. And it is a welcome reprieve from such mind-numbing sequels of the animal variety (Ice Age, Madagascar, etc.). To top it all off, the voice talent is excellent. I don’t give it 5 stars because, well, there is that formula . . .

Flight (2012, Robert Zemeckis)

First of all, let’s be clear that this is an extremely well made film with a top-notch cast that delivers the goods, performance-wise. Robert Zemeckis, the director, has always been able to handle both the technical and artistic (and commercial!) side of highly complex storytelling, and Flight shows that he has lost nothing in the 12 years he just spent wallowing in the motion capture universe. But one’s reaction to the film will depend on a number of factors, not the least of which is how the movie lives up to one’s expectations.

It is not necessarily the fault of the director or the screenwriter that the movie’s trailers advertise a very different kind of movie than what we get. I, for one, was not expecting a Leaving Las Vegas-like exploration of alcholism (and other addictions), but that is what we get. The airplane crash drama is incidental: this is a movie about self-destructive behavior, failed attempts at recovery, and eventual redemption. Denzel Washington – who, in spite of Time Magazine choosing Daniel Day-Lewis as the greatest actor of his generation is, in my opinion, the actual greatest actor of his generation – is magnificent. Still, I did not enjoy the experience of watching him drink and drug and be unrepentant for over 2 hours. That may be just my problem, but if you’re looking for a taut thriller about the politics of how governmental institutions handle investigations into major accidents (which is what I thought I was going to see), you will be very disappointed. Forewarned is forearmed.

Haywire (2012, Steven Soderbergh)

To those of you who have seen the documentary Side by Side, in which Steven Soderbergh takes such a triumphalist stance in favor of new digital technologies over the former glories of film, I hold this film up as Exhibit A for the defense. While Soderbergh has proven himself time and again as a master artist and technician, in this film he is neither. It is the latter failing that is most shocking, as even when Soderbergh has made such stylistically off-putting films as Bubble and, to some degree, The Limey, he has nevertheless demonstrated a strong command of the technologies at hand.

Here, however, he shows that even a film shot on a RED camera can be ugly, with blown-out white pixels, and display a terribly designed color palette. To top it all off, the sound recording often seems as if it was being done with a single boom mic that is too far away from the actors. The real problems with the film lie not with its technical failures, though, but rather with its silly underdeveloped script and even less developed characters. It doesn’t help that almost none of the actors are giving watchable performances. It seems as if Soderbergh – who operates the camera on his own projects – was too preoccupied with creating putrid visuals to focus on the talent.

Ironically, the best actor in the film is actually the novice, Gina Carano. According to her, her voice was “tweaked” in post-production. Well, whether it was or not, she nevertheless possesses a fine screen presence, and is the only one not chewing up scenery. I liked her, and she is the reason the film gets two stars, rather than just one. The problems with this film do not lie with the digital technologies – there are plenty of lovely films shot on the RED – but in the apparent lack of any workable aesthetic sensibility behind the camera.

So Soderbergh, before you start talking about the death of film, why not spend a few moments reminding yourself that what really counts is storytelling and craft, regardless of medium. The new does not necessarily guarantee good work, and your triumphalism may be blinding you to that which is important: good filmmaking.

Black Narcissus (1947, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)

As someone who hated The Red Shoes, finding it to be grotesque where it should have been exhilarating, I was very pleasantly caught off guard by this film. I have always liked Deborah Kerr, so I knew there would be at least something pleasant in the film for me, but I was not prepared for how much I enjoyed the use of color, made even more extraordinary by the fact that the film was made in 1947, when color cinematography was still in its infancy. The great Jack Cardiff’s work helps make this movie a near-masterpiece.

I only call it a “near-masterpiece” since there are some of the usual European colonial attitudes, including the use of English Jean Simmons in quasi-blackface, that generally kick me out of these kinds of stories. But overall the film is beautiful, and quite moving in its portrayal of women whose lives have left them little choice but to persevere in demanding and often unrewarding work, and to find what dignity they can in that choice. The sexual hysteria of the previously-unknown-to-me Kathleen Byron was a nice extra, especially when she comes storming out of the chapel with that red dress and her hair all askew. Yikes!

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