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Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln

Steven Spielberg, 2012, USA

The biopic is a genre that is, like its literary cousin the biography, decidedly not for everyone.  The reason being that even relatively short lives consist of massive amounts of detail, so the author or filmmaker has to strike a difficult to achieve balance between burying their audience with minutia or glossing over complexities in the name of coherent narrative.  This is hard enough to do in a 400 page book, much less a two and half hour film.  Lincoln succeeds in obtaining this balance not by ambitiously retelling large swaths of our sixteenth president’s life but by focusing in on the the early months of 1865 right before Mr. Lincoln’s tragic death.

Don’t get me wrong – there are great biopics that succeed in taking the long view of one person’s life (Gandhi (1982), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Raging Bull (1980) to name a few).  Certainly Spielberg, with his talent to tell the over-story (often at the expense of his characters) could have pulled off a massive and action filled epic about Abraham Lincoln.  Perhaps someday that film will be made, but in this story is not massive, action filled, or epic, but rather a successful attempt to connect the audience with who Mr. Lincoln was by re-creating, in precise detail, a short period of his life.

While Spielberg goes beyond his comfort zone by resisting the epic and focusing on the day to day, Daniel Day-Lewis is squarely in his domain.  After all, his last two Oscar-nominated performances (winning one) were playing nineteenth century Americans.  Of course this is about the only thing that these characters have in common.  In any event Mr. Day-Lewis once again shows why he is often considered today’s finest working actor.  The rest of the cast (Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jared Harris, etc.) are more than up to the task as well.

Of course Lincoln does not escape Spielberg’s eternally optimistic worldview, despite the tragic ending that we all know is coming.  After all, even his greatest work, the tragedy Schindler’s List (1993) is pure Spielberg when it breaks the fourth wall at the end.  For those who don’t like his work in general, this may be a bit of a turn off.  Certainly the tragic complexities of the Civil War are rarely visited territory in films, and there is a case to be made that Spielberg misses an opportunity.  For me, however, that is another director’s film for another day, and what Lincoln sets out to do – present a detailed portrait of Abraham Lincoln by re-creating a few specific months of his life – is masterfully accomplished.

You may like Lincoln if: You are interested in a refreshing take on the biopic that uses masterful acting and directing to present a vision of Abraham Lincoln that sheds new light on a revered historical figure.

You may not like Lincoln if: You feel that Spielberg can do no right and that every film about war has to be dark, bleak, and gritty.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

 

 

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Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis) (1945)

Children of Paradise

Directed by Marcel Carne (1945, France)

“Jealousy belongs to all when a woman belongs to none.”

Children of Paradise ranks with Beauty and the Beast (1946) and The Rules of the Game (1939) as a contender for the finest French film from the first half of the Twentieth Century.  As good as the film is, the story of its production is more compelling that the film itself.  Shot in France for 18 months between 1944 and 1945, the production had to deal with moving the entire set between Paris and Nice, collaborators and spies imbedded by the Nazis, a Jewish set designer and a Jewish composer working in secret, and the logistics of acting as a cover for French Resistance fighters.  Overall it is remarkable that this film exists at all.  Since its premiere in Paris shortly after the liberation of France by Allied forces, it is said that it is playing somewhere in Paris every day of the year.

Children of Paradise, at its base, is a story about four men who are obsessed with one woman.  The backdrop is the Paris theater and carnival scene circa 1820-1830.  The four men, the idealistic yet selfish mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), the dangerous yet honorable criminal Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), the flamboyant yet kind actor Frederick (Pierre Brasseur), and the staid yet remorseless Count de Montray (Louis Salou) are based on historical figures from that era. However, the actors who play them use the historical template to create enduring archetypes that one can still see in films today.

The object of their pursuit, Garance, played by French screen legend Arletty, drives all of these men into borderline madness, and each of the men has a different reaction to those feelings.  Frederick at least uses his jealously to take his acting to new heights, while the other three men are driven to murder and betrayal.  While the melodrama may be a bit of a hurdle to modern viewers, the story is still alluring and bizarrely beautiful.

As one of the pinnacles of the pre-New Wave French style of filmmaking known as Poetic Realism, one can see how Children of Paradise could have inspired the men like Godard and Truffaut to take French film in a new and groundbreaking direction.  Children of Paradise, despite its penchant for melodrama and its staged, theatrical scenes, is one of the pinnacles of Poetic Realism.  Add to this the fact that it was created under seemingly impossible circumstances, and it stands astride pre-New Wave French cinema as a colossus.  Where else could French cinema go after Children of Paradise, if not to someplace entirely different?

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

 

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Sideways (2004)

Sideways

Directed by Alexander Payne

USA, 2004, 126 min

“No, if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving.  I’m not drinking any !@#$% Merlot!” – Miles Raymond

Two men spend a week in California’s central wine country in advance of one of their weddings the following Saturday.  In some ways, Sideways is a fairly standard buddy, road movie.  It is, however, an exceptionally good one with absurdly funny situations, mostly sharp dialogue, and well developed characters, including the California wine country itself.

It is a bit hackneyed to say that the setting is a character.  One can make that statement about any film set anywhere remotely interesting.  But the laid back, friendly wine country stands in stark contrast with the film’s main duo – the neurotic and depressed Miles (Paul Giamatti) and the amoral, sex-addicted train wreck, Jack (Thomas Haden Church).  The movie doesn’t play up the fish out of water situation, but it is clear from the beginning that neither character truly belongs.

Miles certainly comes close.  His often clobbers his dim-witted friend over the head with his knowledge of wine, and he is depicted as a regular to the area and a friend of the locals.  He is also constantly on edge, afraid of defeats that he has already conceded, and pining for the past.  It becomes clear that he doesn’t particularly belong anywhere, at least not until the movie’s ambiguous ending.

Jack on the other hand is a monster.  Miles sets up the week in wine country for his own selfish enjoyment certainly, but Jack’s selfishness exists on another plane of existence.  His actions are reprehensible, and if wine country were nastier turf he probably wouldn’t have made it out alive.  Needless to say he’s not welcome back there by the end of the movie.

While I enjoyed Sideways, it suffers from two issues.  First, in the few places where the dialogue is weak, it’s really weak (we get it – Miles sees himself as a Pinot grape).  Also, its two main characters are so unlikeable that it may turn some moviegoers off.  Otherwise, it’s worth a couple hours of your time.

Rating

You may like Sideways if: You are in the mood for a clever, mostly well written buddy comedy, or you absolutely love wine.

You may not like Sideways if: You get annoyed by occasionally weak dialogue, or you are turned off by unlikeable protagonists.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe