Lincoln – a tautly directed ‘political thriller’


With just a few hours to go for the 2013 Oscar Awards, it was perfect timing to watch Lincoln earlier this evening. This is Spielberg’s second historical film dealing with slavery in the 19th century, the other being Amistad (1997). While Amistad is considered to be one of Mr. Spielberg’s well-intentioned but flawed efforts, he gets it absolutely spot on with Lincoln, in no small measure due to the amazing screenplay from Tony Kushner. Mr. Kushner is nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay and it’s going to be a very close call between Lincoln, Argo, Life or Pi and Silver Linings Playbook – probably the closest and most high profile Oscar battle for adapted screenplay in recent years.

Lincoln plays like a tense police procedural, one could call it a ‘political procedural’, with experts from both parties matching wits against each other, employing the arts and crafts of negotiation, horse-trading and good old-fashioned grandstanding, to secure the passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. Through it all, we see President Lincoln coaxing, cajoling and at times enforcing his will upon his cabinet members and his political rivals to grasp this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to end slavery once and for all. At the same time, he must pursue efforts to end the 4-year Civil War, although he realizes that if the War ends, then the general public and the politicians will no longer see a pressing need to pass the Amendment.

Of course, much has been written about Daniel Day-Lewis being a shoo-in to win the Oscar for Best Actor. And true enough, he inhabits Abraham Lincoln’s character like he was born to play this role. But equally, Day-Lewis is supported by a remarkable ensemble performance from perhaps the biggest gathering of character actors in any recent American film. Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field have been nominated for Oscars in their respective supporting roles. Sally Field is able to hold her own when sharing the screen with Daniel Day-Lewis…the scene where they argue about their son Robert enlisting as a soldier is filled with electric tension, whereas their opening scene together shows a wonderful underplayed tenderness. Tommy Lee Jones, as expected, seems very comfortable playing yet another bluff and unyielding character. It was worth the price of the ticket just to listen to him insulting various people in the film. But ultimately, his character Thaddeus Stevens is as much a hero of this film as President Lincoln is.

Another performance of note is that of a barely recognizable James Spader playing ‘vote fixer’/lobbyist W.N. Bilbo, along with his two cohorts played by John Hawkes and the ever-likable Tim Blake Nelson. The viewer also gets great satisfaction from seeing the two key Democrat opponents to the Amendment – Fernando Wood (played by Lee Pace) and George Pendleton (played by Peter McRobbie) – get their comeuppance during the final vote…the satisfaction emanating from their outstanding performances as the ‘bad guys’.

I haven’t yet watched the other contenders for Best Picture, especially Argo which seems to be the front-runner. But it’s difficult to imagine any other film topping this in terms of acting performance, dialogue, production values, editing and that all important ‘historical weight’. Spielberg’s productions of course operate like clockwork now with an established team of collaborators like cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, composer John Williams, editor Michael Kahn and costume designer Joanne Johnston, all of whom have been nominated for Oscars. But even if George Clooney walks away with the Oscar for Best Picture (as one of the producers of Argo), I certainly hope that Steven Spielberg will win for Best Director.

One final thought – given the behaviour of Democrats and Republicans today, isn’t it amazing that 150 years ago, it was the Republicans who voted to end slavery and the Democrats who opposed it?

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Charismatic character actors in Hollywood – an update


Well, 3 hours later and I have updated my list already and made it a round 15 names with the addition of Benedict Cumberbatch. I have a feeling, he will move quickly out of the list of character actors to the list of leading men, much as Michael Fassbender has. The same may apply to some of the younger actors like Luke Evans. But for the time being, I think they qualify to be in this list:-

Listed in alphabetical order of their surnames.

1. Jason Clarke

 “ First noticed: As sadistic prison warden Ulrich in Death Race (2008). Best role so far: As Howard Bondurant in Lawless (2012), but I hear he is very good in Zero Dark Thirty (2012). He also has a big role coming up in Great Gatsby (2013) and will play Abe Lincoln’s father Tom Lincoln in The Green Blade Rises (2013). 

2. Marton Csokas

 “ First noticed: As the Elf King Celeborn in Lord of the Rings II and III; although all he did was to stand in the background behind Galadriel. He had a small but significant role as the assassin Jarda in The Bourne Supremacy (2004). Best role: Playing the younger Stephan in The Debt (2010). ” 

3. Benedict Cumberbatch

 “ First noticed: playing British PM William Pitt in Amazing Grace (2006). Best role: of course, as the lead in TV’s Sherlock. In a supporting roles, I liked him as Peter Guillam in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). But I suppose his biggest on-screen role yet will be as the villain in this summer’s Star Trek into Darkness. ”

4. Liam Cunningham

 “ First noticed: As the army doctor in Spielberg’s War Horse (2011); it was a short but pivotal role, which helps to reunite Albert and his horse. Best role: As Ser Davos Seaworth in HBO’s Game of Thrones. ” 

5. Cliff Curtis

 “ First noticed: in Niki Caro’s indie sleeper hit Whale Rider (2002). Best role: As the FBI Deputy Director in Live Free or Die Hard (2007) ” 

6. Kevin Durand

“ First noticed: Playing Fred ‘The Blob’ Dukes in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and as fallen angel Gabriel in Legion (2009). Best roles: As Little John in Robin Hood (2010) and Ricky in Real Steel (2011). ” 

7. Luke Evans

 “ First noticed: Playing Apollo in Clash of the Titans (2010), but he was even more impressive as the youngest and coolest-looking on-screen Zeus yet in Immortals (2011). Looking forward to seeing him play Bard in the 2nd and 3rd installments of The Hobbit (2013 & 2014). ” 

8. Bruce Greenwood

 “ First noticed: Playing JFK in Thirteen Days (2000), Roger Donaldson’s under-rated chronicle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. That probably remains his meatiest role to date, although technically he was playing the lead role in that film. I quite liked him in the role of Christopher Pike in Star Trek (2009) as well. ”

9. Ciarán Hinds

 “ First noticed: Playing Carl in Spielberg’s Munich (2005). Best role: While he has appeared in a number of movies since, I think his best role was in Munich. ” 

10. Oscar Isaac

 “ First noticed: Playing dastardly Prince John in Robin Hood (2010) and dastardly Blue Jones in Sucker Punch (2011). Best role: Blue Jones and his brief appearance in crime thriller Drive (2011). ” 

11. Stephen Lang

 “ First noticed: of course, as Col. Miles Quaritch in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), although he also had a very good role as Charles Winstead in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies the same year. Best role: Col. Quaritch in Avatar and Commander Taylor in the short-lived TV series Terra Nova. ” 

12. Mads Mikkelsen

 “ First noticed: As villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale (2006). Best roles: As Draco in Clash of the Titans (2010) and as Dr. Struensee in A Royal Affair (2012). ” 

13. Édgar Ramírez

 “ First noticed: as assassin Paz in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Best role: Playing the lead as Carlos the Jackal in Oliver Assayas’ TV mini-series, Carlos (2010)…however, this was a lead role; in a character role, playing Ares in Wrath of the Titans (2012). He will play Simon Bolivar next in Libertador (2013). ” 

14. Mark Strong

 “ First noticed: Playing Lord Blackwood in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009) and soon after as Sir John Conroy in The Young Victoria (2009). Best role: As Godfrey in Robin Hood (2010), as Jim Prideaux in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and as the aforementioned Lord Blackwood. ” 

15. Jeffrey Wright

 “ First noticed: Playing escaped slave Daniel Holt in Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (1999). Best role: As Latino gangster Peoples Hernandez in Shaft (2000). Since then, I think he’s just been cashing in paychecks, with walk-on roles like Felix Leiter in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. ” 

 

Charismatic character actors in Hollywood – an IMDB list


I just created a list on IMDB of my favourite character actors in Hollywood today. Click here or just scroll down.

Image of Bruce Greenwood

1.

Bruce Greenwood

“ First noticed: Playing JFK in Thirteen Days (2000), Roger Donaldson’s under-rated chronicle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. That probably remains his meatiest role to date, although technically he was playing the lead role in that film. I quite liked him in the role of Christopher Pike in Star Trek (2009) as well. ”
Image of Ciarán Hinds
2.
Ciarán Hinds

“ First noticed: Playing Carl in Spielberg’s Munich (2005). Best role: While he has appeared in a number of movies since, I think his best role was in Munich. ”
Image of Cliff Curtis
3.
Cliff Curtis

“ First noticed: in Niki Caro’s indie sleeper hit Whale Rider (2002). Best role: As the FBI Deputy Director in Live Free or Die Hard (2007) ”
Image of Édgar Ramírez
4.
Édgar Ramírez

“ First noticed: as assassin Paz in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Best role: Playing the lead as Carlos the Jackal in Oliver Assayas’ TV mini-series, Carlos (2010)…however, this was a lead role. In a character role, playing Ares in Wrath of the Titans (2012). He will play Simon Bolivar next in Libertador (2013). ”
Image of Jason Clarke
5.
Jason Clarke

“ First noticed: As sadistic prison warden Ulrich in Death Race (2008). Best role so far: As Howard Bondurant in Lawless (2012), but I hear he is very good in Zero Dark Thirty (2012). He also has a big role coming up in Great Gatsby (2013) and will play Abe Lincoln’s father Tom Lincoln in The Green Blade Rises (2013). ”
Image of Jeffrey Wright
6.
Jeffrey Wright

“ First noticed: Playing escaped slave Daniel Holt in Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (1999). Best role: As Latino gangster Peoples Hernandez in Shaft (2000). Since then, I think he’s just been cashing in paychecks, with walk-on roles like Felix Leiter in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. ”
Image of Kevin Durand
7.
Kevin Durand

“ First noticed: Playing Fred ‘The Blob’ Dukes in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and as fallen angel Gabriel in Legion (2009). Best roles: As Little John in Robin Hood (2010) and Ricky in Real Steel (2011). ”
Image of Liam Cunningham
8.
Liam Cunningham

“ First noticed: As the army doctor in Spielberg’s War Horse (2011); it was a short but pivotal role, which helps to reunite Albert and his horse. Best role: As Ser Davos Seaworth in HBO’s Game of Thrones. ”
Image of Luke Evans
9.
Luke Evans

“ First noticed: Playing Apollo in Clash of the Titans (2010), but he was even more impressive as the youngest and coolest-looking on-screen Zeus yet in Immortals (2011). Looking forward to seeing him play Bard in the 2nd and 3rd installments of The Hobbit (2013 & 2014). ”
Image of Mads Mikkelsen
10.
Mads Mikkelsen

“ First noticed: As villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale (2006). Best roles: As Draco in Clash of the Titans (2010) and as Dr. Struensee in A Royal Affair (2012). ”
Image of Mark Strong
11.
Mark Strong

“ First noticed: Playing Lord Blackwood in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009) and soon after as Sir John Conroy in The Young Victoria (2009). Best role: As Godfrey in Robin Hood (2010), as Jim Prideux in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and as the aforementioned Lord Blackwood. ”
Image of Marton Csokas
12.
Marton Csokas

“ First noticed: As the Elf King Celeborn in Lord of the Rings II and III; although all he did was to stand in the background behind Galadriel. He had a small but significant role as the assassin Jarda in The Bourne Supremacy (2004). Best role: Playing the younger Stephan in The Debt (2010). ”
Image of Oscar Isaac
13.
Oscar Isaac

“ First noticed: Playing dastardly Prince John in Robin Hood (2010) and dastardly Blue Jones in Sucker Punch (2011). Best role: Blue Jones and his brief appearance in crime thriller Drive (2011). ”
Image of Stephen Lang
14.
Stephen Lang

“ First noticed: of course, as Col. Miles Quaritch in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), although he also had a very good role as Charles Winstead in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies the same year. Best role: Col. Quaritch in Avatar and Commander Taylor in the short-lived TV series Terra Nova. ”

 

A Good Day to Die Hard, but a Bad Way to Smash Cars!


When Live Free or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0) came out in 2007, it was considered to be an intelligent extension of a franchise which had  been dormant for 12 years. Pairing the ageing Bruce Willis up with a young Justin Long would help bring in the teens. After battling wits with bad guys played by the likes of Franco Nero, Jeremy Irons and Alan Rickman in the previous 3 films, the 4th edition had a younger adversary in Timothy Oliphaunt, which felt appropriate for the new century. Heck, they even covered the Asian demographic by roping in Maggie Q.

Each action franchise, be it Bond, Mission: Impossible or Rambo has a core DNA and successive directors need to stay true to it, while also bringing something fresh and contemporary to the sequels. For me, Die Hard movies are about cat-and-mouse games, where the good guy wins through a combination of wits, street smarts and good-old fashioned American ‘can do’ spirit (Yippee ki-yay, m#$%f@*$!). Whether it was inside a high-tech high-rise or in a snowbound airport or above and below the streets of Manhattan, John McClane would find a way to outwit the bad guys, in spite of their greater numbers, technological superiority and advanced planning. In Die Hard 4.0, this approach was updated and McClane had to deal with a cyber-terrorist, which is why he needed the assistant of a young hacker.

With the latest entry in the franchise A Good Day to Die Hard, the producers seem to have lost the plot…literally! This is not surprising when you look at the folks in charge:-

Screenwriter Skip Woods destroyed the X-Men franchise with the screenplay for X-Men Origins: Wolverine; other efforts like Swordfish and A-Team haven’t exactly featured in the lists of great scripts either. The intellectual interplay is completely missing and has been replaced by a generic action film.

Editor Dan Zimmerman is the son of Oscar-nominated editor Don Zimmerman and he has actually assisted his father in editing some of the great comedies like Galaxy Quest, The Nutty Professor and Liar Liar – movies where the entertainment came as much from the timing as the performances. But Zimmerman jr. does a poor job in this movie;  it has the shortest running time in the franchise at 97 minutes, but honestly, a few additional minutes added in to better explain what the hell is going on during that car/ truck chase sequence would not have been amiss.  The main purpose of the scene seems to be to destroy as many cars from as many different angles as possible; the car-smashing is intercut with close-up shots of the various participants in the chase, with no apparent link between one cut and the next, or no explanation of who is chasing whom.

Director John Moore is best described as a ‘director-for-hire’, someone who can do a reasonable job of making genre films without imprinting any personal stamp on it whatsoever. I think of him as a watered down version of action director Simon West. At least Mr. West gave us Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Con Air and The General’s Daughter in the early part of his career. John Moore has given us Behind Enemy Lines, Flight of the Phoenix, Max Payne and now this…yup, that’s pretty watered down. So far, his films have come in at relatively low budgets, so the studios still made some kind of profit, but I have a feeling that this one has broken the bank.

I can forgive Bruce Willis for acting in this bomb, only because he also continues to appear in smart scifi thrillers (Looper, Twelve Monkeys), quirky comedies (Moonrise Kingdom, The Whole Nine Yards) and all-time classic genre bending films (Pulp Fiction, The Sixth Sense). If you have a free afternoon, you may be better off watching other ageing action stars like Arnold in The Last Stand or Sly Stallone in Bullet to the Head or perhaps all of them together in Expendables 2, but stay away from this one.

Hollywood storytelling at the end of the silent movie era


I recently signed on for a 5 week course on Coursera.org, titled The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound and Color. It is being conducted by Scott Higgins, who is Associate Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University. The first week of lectures has just finished, which focused on films from Hollywood’s silent era. As part of the lecture, the students were required to watch two movies this week, both from 1928, the same year that the first all-talking feature film Lights of New York was released. I guess the 2 films – Frank Borzage’s Street Angel and Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York  – could be said to represent the apogee of silent film-making, a craft honed in Hollywood over the preceding 15-20 years.

Street Angel was one of 3 films Borzage released during the years 1927-29 featuring the romantic pairing of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. The first of them, 7th Heaven is perhaps the best known and it won him the Oscar for Best Director. Certainly it is on my watchlist now, after the experience of Street Angel. which to me showcases Borzage as a complete director. The film is a veritable encyclopedia of visual storytelling. The elaborately orchestrated opening scene features a full 360 set, complete with staircases, street furniture, moving clotheslines, animals and a number of extras…accompanied by an amazing combination of tracking, panning, crane and zoom shots. There are also scenes in the film, where Borzage uses expressionist motifs like enlarged shadows on walls, fog, forced perspectives and even a Nosferatu-like pose by Charles Farrell towards the end of the movie. But what Borzage was really skilled at was in celebrating romance, using lighting, soft focus and framing to create melodramatic scenes…his pairing of Gaynor and Farrell worked particularly well for him, given the significant difference in their heights and build. For all his skill at melodrama, there are also a couple of moments of great tenderness. The first happens when their two characters ride on a carriage early on in their relationship; she is trying to be rude to him, but he responds by putting his coat around her. During the silence that follows, their feelings for each other are clearly written on their faces and we know that Cupid’s arrow has struck. The other happens much later in their relationship, when Farrell’s character sells his only painting and instead of using the money to buy food, brings home a flower for her (the rest of the money having been collected by local tradespeople on the way home)…she throws the flower aside in frustration and we can see his heart broken; she then steps out to buy the food herself, but not before doubling back to surreptitiously pick up the discarded flower through the open window. There is a desperate degree of coincidence, contrivance, symbolism and melodrama at the end which reunites the lovers and gives the audience the happy ending which we were all rooting for.

The Docks of New York is a very different film, the chalk to Street Angel’s cheese. The story takes place over a 24 hour period at the docks of NYC. While Street Angel can be likened to a romantic opera, The Docks of New York is a grounded depiction of the seedy, raucous life of sailors and barmaids. The one aspect of the film that is similar to Street Angel is the elaborate set-pieces featuring large number of extras and long tracking shots (some of which must have required quick placement or removal of dolly tracks). Needless to say, in the silent movie era, directors relied completely on the power of visuals to make an emotional impact. The one that stood out for me early on is the scene where a group of coal stokers line up in the engine room of a ship and take a look at the bawdy graffiti on one of the walls just as they are pulling into New York; we are made aware of two worlds – the hot, dirty and sweaty world of the stokers and the ‘women and beer’ world that awaits them on the shore. This film is about how one of the stokers crosses this physical and emotional boundary – first accidentally and in the end, willingly. The stoker played by George Bancroft is a strong, silent Charles Bronson type, used to having his way with his fellow men and women. He rescues a young woman, played by the beautiful Betty Compson and this act perhaps changes the course of his life forever. At 75 minutes, this is a relatively short film; one which ends on an unexpected note, poignant but also optimistic in a matter-of-fact kind of way. It leaves the audience hoping that these two can overcome the harsh realities of their surroundings and go on to have a happy life in the future. Comedian Clyde Cook has a good supporting role as the stoker’s pal and seems to get all the best lines in the movie (delivered via intertitle cards, of course). Director von Sternberg went on to great fame directing Marlene Dietrich in the early talkie classic The Blue Angel.

I am very much looking forward to my 2nd week of lectures, which will move to the early sound era. We will watch Ruben Mamoulian’s Applause (1929) and the Marx Brothers’ hilarious Monkey Business (1931), which I have seen before but of course am happy to watch again and again.