Sunday, November 25, 2012

Lincoln (2012)

Director: Steven Spielberg                      Writer: Tony Kushner
Film Score: John Williams                      Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn & Tommy Lee Jones

It’s curious to me that the most damning negative criticism of recent dramatic films by fans seems to be that they’re boring. This has been the case for films as diverse as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, but was especially disturbing to me after watching the new Steven Spielberg film Lincoln. After marveling at his most recent historical tour de force, I couldn’t believe all of the negative criticism online that dealt with the fact that fans thought the film was “boring.” This is a major film about a major event in our history. If all fans want is action, they need to stick to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and save their money on serious dramatic films.

Based nominally on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book A Team of Rivals, the film deals only with the last few months of Lincoln’s life as he desperately (some might say presciently) attempts to get the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed in Congress before the Civil War ends. It’s masterful on many accounts, although there are still Spielbergian moments that can make one wince, most notably the black and white soldiers in the opening who recite his Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln. At the other end of the spectrum, Daniel Day-Lewis is the supreme Lincoln, alternately grave, folksy, sly, and commanding. His physical presence in the film is convincing and brings a genuine humanity to a legendary figure in American History.

While some of the other acting may seem over-the-top, James Spader, Tommy Lee Jones, and Sally Field come to mind, anyone who has read significantly on the era can only come to the conclusion that Speilberg expertly reigned in the actors in a way that presented far more subtle performances than the actual characters. And, of course, as with any historical drama there will be the usual spate of historical inaccuracies, the most comical being Spader’s telling Lincoln that they weren’t allowed to use fifty cent pieces because they had Lincoln’s portrait on them--no living figure has ever appeared on U.S currency. But that aside, there is a brilliant sense of period to the proceedings, an immersion into 19th Century politics, and a genuine feeling of intimacy that seems very purposeful and works very well.

The viewer is completely struck--in the same way as in the series John Adams--by what a slower time the world was then. It was a time of letters, a time of horse drawn carriages, a time without television, a time when people read for pleasure and children played with toys on the floor. One such scene comes at the end of the film, while Lincoln is at the White House waiting for word on the passage of the amendment. While the debate concludes and voting begins, he is cut back to in various scenes with his youngest son. Finally, he is simply shown standing in the middle of his office, virtually motionless, sunlight infusing the room through sheer curtains and washing out everything but his silhouette. It captures that period in time brilliantly, but I’m also sure it’s one of the scenes that make film fans think it’s boring. And that’s too bad, because it’s films like these that really show the importance of movie making as an art, and genuinely take us as far as possible in a visual medium, to the place where the written word has always been able to take us: a vicarious experience of another time and place. In Lincoln, Spielberg has succeeded admirably, and I fully expect an Academy Award nomination, if not a victory.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Star Trek (2009)

Director: J.J. Abrams                                    Writers: Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman
Film Score: Michael Giacchino                       Cinematography: Daniel Mindel
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Bruce Greenwood and Zoe Saldana

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn saw the birth of the Genesis Planet, but this Star Trek prequel could be considered the genesis film. It’s the birth of the franchise, so to speak, the beginning of all that would come afterward. “Damn it, Jim, I’m a doctor.” “I’m givin’ her all she’s got, Captain.” “Highly illogical.” This is where it all started. But the best thing about this film is the premise. The Romulans from the future, who blame Spock for the destruction of their planet, accidentally come back through time travel and await the opportunity to destroy the planet Vulcan in front of Spock’s eyes. By doing so, however, they change the space-time continuum and thereby allow for a different timeline than the one that happened in the television series. This frees future films in the series from strict adherence to the series and allows us all to seek out and explore strange new adventures with the original characters.

The new film begins with the Romulans emerging from the black hole, encountering the Federation star ship Kelvin. Onboard is an officer by the name of Kirk, who we assume to be James T. But as the prologue nears its conclusion we come to understand that this is Kirk’s father, George. His father being lost on that mission, the young James becomes a rebel, but is recognized for his superior intellect by Captain Pike and invited to join Star Fleet. Meanwhile, the young Spock is dealing with his dual identity as half-human half-Vulcan and battling with his emotions. Uhura is already a Star Fleet cadet and is joined by Kirk and McCoy onboard an emergency mission to Vulcan. Of course, this is where the planet is destroyed and the crew members bring their talents to the fore and become the crew of the star ship Enterprise.

Chris Pine is great as the new Kirk, named after his two grandfathers, James and Tiberius. Spock was probably a more difficult casting job, but Zachary Quinto does a great job at emulating Leonard Nimoy. Zoe Saldana, who did a great job in The Terminal, makes a fantastic Uhura. And the rest of the casting is just spot-on. Karl Urban is Bones McCoy, John Cho is Sulu, Anton Yelchin is a wonderful Chekov, and somehow discovered on a desolate planet is first engineer Simon Pegg as Scottie. By far the best part of this film is the ability to hit the reset button and start the series fresh. Infinite variations are available due to the new timeline and the young actors have lots of years ahead of them to recreate the series in their image.

The film won an Academy Award for best makeup, which is the least of its positive attributes. Director J.J. Abrams is a brilliant choice for director of the series, and has now been picked up to do the directing chores for the latest Star Wars film. But the scripts are very well done, totally respectful of the series, using all of the catch phrases, keeping the characters true to their original conceptions and showing them bonding as the crew that we came to know and love in the original series. Being able to pull back from all of the spin-offs and start fresh is a boon to Treckies, and the new Star Trek is a series that is destined for greatness.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Wings (1927)

Director: William A. Wellman                              Writer: Hope Loring & Louis D. Lighton
Film Score: J.S. Zamecnik                                Cinematography: Harry Perry
Starring: Clara Bow, Charles Rogers, Richard Arlen & Jobyna Ralston

Wings is typically considered the very first film to win an academy award for best motion picture in 1929, when in fact it shared honors with F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, also from 1927. That subsequent lists of Oscar winners have excluded Sunrise, even though the first awards were technically for two years, both 1927 and 1928, is unfortunate, especially given the fact that Murnau’s film is clearly the superior film. But while Wings won the award for “Outstanding Picture Production” and Sunrise won for “Unique and Artistic Production” the academy decided the following year to combine the categories and named Wings as the retroactive winner of best overall picture. What's so exasperating is that neither has to be left out, and should both be recognized equally, especially since the first awards were for two years.

The first half of the film is fairly standard Hollywood fare for silent pictures of the day. Production values are good and there is some very nice moving camera work for Harry Perry that holds interest. Clara Bow’s screen work, while not out of the norm for acting at that time, seems to be more animated than necessary and feels a bit over exaggerated. Fortunately, it’s a small role. Where the film really takes off is in the second half with the aerial photography, which is thrilling to watch even in today’s film world of CGI special effects. I would argue it’s almost more thrilling because of that. With the exception of some hand-drawn flames on the long shots as planes fall to their doom, there are no special effects at all. The plane crashes are obviously done on the ground, but the rest of it is the real thing, and the open-air cockpits and the banks of clouds in the background make for some tremendous battle scenes. The plot was no doubt the inspiration for the film Pearl Harbor, which is ironic considering how much special effects work went into the later film.

The story itself is fairly pedestrian: two pilots from a small town are in love with the same girl. Clara Bow is the odd girl out, so to speak, as her love interest is still smitten with the more cosmopolitan girlfriend of the richest boy in town. Both the men join the air force and become friends, and fight in France during the First World War. During their training they meet a young Gary Cooper. What’s interesting is how many sources claim that Wings launched the career of Gary Cooper, which is hard to believe considering he’s on the screen for less than two minutes. I was actually looking forward to seeing him in the film, but he dies in an off-screen plane crash and that’s it. Overall, Wings is a solid production, a good silent film with an excellent recreation of First World War battlefields by William Wellman who was a veteran of the war. Whether or not it was worthy of an Oscar award, considering all of the films to choose from at the end of the classic era of silent film in 1927 and 1928--including Sunrise--is debatable.

Monday, November 5, 2012

L’Atalante (1934)

Director: Jean Vigo                                Writers: Jean Vigo & Albert Riéra
Film Score: Maurice Jaubert                   Cinematography: Boris Kaufman
Starring: Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté and Michel Simon

My prejudice against foreign films is going to show again in my review of one of the A List’s entries, L’Atalante. While there’s nothing exactly bad about it, it certainly failed to capture my imagination in the way it has for numerous critics through the years. There are certain elements of the cinematography that are striking—and very French—but they tend to stand out as aberrations amid the generally static look of the picture. The leads are competent in terms of their ability to hold interest, but it is the incredibly odd looking—and acting—Michel Simon who dominates the screen, and not in a good way.

The story is about a pair of newlyweds, Juliette and Jean, played by Dita Parlo and Jean Dasté, who begin their married life aboard the barge that Jean pilots up and down the Sein. It’s made clear in the opening sequence after their marriage, that Juliette is very different from other girls in the village in her desire to experience more of life. But the barge life is one of monotony and drudgery and quickly pales. When they finally reach Paris and stop for a couple of days, she goes out on her own to see the town and a furious Jean pulls up anchor and leaves her. When he can’t bare life without her it is Michel Simon’s Père Juleswho brings her back to resume their interrupted love. Of course this main plot is heavily laced with the antics of Jules, much to the detriment of the film.

The only other movie that begs comparison with L’Atalante is F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece Sunrise, which is superior to the French film in almost every way. Both focus on the relationship of a couple, and the lure of the city juxtaposed with the hard working yeoman’s life. But where Murnau’s film is a tour de force, Jean Vigo’s film borders on the tedius. Where Murnau’s city is a living, pulsing temptation that literally pulls its protagonist in against his will, Vigo’s city is merely a picture window full of nick nacks that, while fascinating to a country girl, lacks nearly all of the allure that would justify Jean’s impetuous action.

Terrence Rafferty’s review in The A List is over the top with hyperbole, admitting in the same sentence that director Jean Vigo, who died at age 34 just after the film premiered, created less than three hours of total film but was also somehow “one of the greatest artists in the history of the movies.” On its face it’s patently ridiculous. One of the metaphors that Rafferty uses to explain Vigo’s “genius” is to compare his work to that of a jazz musician. But that’s like saying Dupree Bolton is one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time based on only two albums he recorded in his lifetime. Tantalizing for the possibility of what he might have become--Vigo, as well as Bolton--but hardly the greatest of all time. L’Atalante is interesting for its historical value as Vigo’s only feature film, but no more artistic than many other works of the time and in many ways less so.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Godfather Trilogy (1972-1974-1990)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola                           Writers: Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola
Film Score: Nino Rota & Carmine Coppola         Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton and Robert De Niro

Since I just recently purchased and watched The Godfather Collection on DVD and then re-watched it with Coppola’s audio commentary, I thought this would be a good time to review this A List entry. I must say, however, that I still prefer watching the story chronologically and thus will always keep my copy of The Godfather Saga on VHS that Coppola, in a moment of financial weakness, was forced to edit together for CBS. I know, it’s sacrilege, but something about seeing the whole thing unfold linearly over time is magnificent.

My first exposure to the films came late, but is something I will be forever thankful for. In 1983 while on tour with a band we found ourselves playing for a week in the unlikely town of Drumheller, Alberta, one of it’s many minor claims to fame being one of the locations where Quest For Fire was shot. We were playing in the bar of a hotel owned by a pair of Italian brothers. One night they had us down to their apartment in the basement of the building that they shared with their mother and she made us a wonderful Italian meal. That Saturday night, after our gig was finished at two in the morning, the brothers closed down the bar while we packed up our gear. Then they proceeded to roll out the big screen television and a number of men began coming back into the bar. The reason: to spend the rest of the night watching the first two Godfather films. I had never seen them before and so I stayed up until dawn, mesmerized by the power of the story, the artistry of the filmmaking, and the perfect atmosphere in which to watch them.

It’s hard to imagine now but, with the exception of Marlon Brando, the entire star-studded cast of The Godfather--including Abe Vigoda--were relative unknowns at the time. Al Pacino’s Michael, of course, is the thread that ties all three films together. There’s certainly little need to rehash the plot of the rise and fall of the Corleone family here. Not only did the first film win an Academy Award, but the sequel, The Godfather Part II, won as well for best picture and both have achieved canonical status. The third . . . well, this came at a time of another of Coppola’s financial downturns, and it shows. Where the first two films use parallel set pieces that mirror each other in a beautiful way (the wedding / christening, and the execution finales) their use in The Godfather Part III seems trite and unimaginative. Still, the death of Mary and the ascension of Vincent Mancini are chilling.

Michael Sragow’s review of the first two films for The A List is straightforward and full of literary allusions, a tone befitting his subject, which he ultimately labels, “a national creative triumph.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s really the expert melding of so many brilliant parts, from Mario Puzo’s original novel, to Coppola’s directing, the acting of Brando, Pacino, De Niro and the rest, the evocative score by Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola, and the incredible camera work of Gordon Willis. They are the perfect storm of filmmaking excellence and will be hailed as masterpieces for as long as filmic art is celebrated.