Category: Political Dramas


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Nature is cruel and horrific.Yes, it can be beautiful. It only takes a trip to a major natural landmark to establish that, but the entire premise of “life” is predicated on barbarism: murder to survive, starvation for those that don’t, ultimate extermination of anything that can’t assert its dominance at the top of the food chain. And a fair existential question is: If your chances in life of experiencing consistent suffering are so high — much higher than living a life of ease and pleasure — then why should we keep trying at this experiment in life at all? Most people — myself include — would respond with: family, friendship, romance. Those heights transcend the inherent tragedy of life, but in the bleak Russian drama Leviathan, it’s not easy to keep those escapes in mind when an avalanche of tragedy takes hold.

The story of Job as I imagine Michael Haneke might conceive it, Leviathan equates the oppressive cruelty of nature and life with existence under the post-Soviet Russian state and unlike Job, a benevolent God doesn’t exist at the end of the tunnel of your trials. Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a hot-headed mechanic in a small, coastal town in northern Russia, faces the seizure of his home and garage by his town’s corrupt mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov). Although Kolya’s former army buddy and closest friend Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a handsome lawyer from Moscow, has dirt implicating the mayor in gruesome crimes, Kolya’s temper, the deep unhappiness of his long-suffering wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and the oppressive power of the Russian state threaten to grind Kolya away until there’s nothing left but his bones… not unlike the titular skeleton of the “leviathan” whale on the town’s coast.

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When I think of John Ford, I think of the wide open Western expanses that define practically every shot of classics like The Searchers. When I think of John Wayne movies, I think of the straightforward moralism of The Cowboys. When I think of James Stewart (barring the final act of Vertigo), I think of the archetypal “Aw, shucks” All-American of It’s a Wonderful Life. So, when all three combine to make such a jarringly out-of-character film for all involved, it should be no secret that I found The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to be among the most interesting of the “classic” Westerns this side of High Noon.

Far more a commentary on the death of the Wild West than a traditional oater, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is unlike any Western of the era or, honestly, any other film of John Ford’s career. Removing itself from the iconic Western vistas that are Ford’s metier and placing itself in crowded homes and claustrophobic streets, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance captures the transformation of the West from a lawless frontier to the first stirrings of civilization and law & order. And most surprisingly of all, the film has something honest and fresh to say on ethics that remains fresh 52 years later.

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After his stagecoach is robbed by the brutal bandit and bully Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and he’s beaten within an inch of his life, East Coast lawyer Ransom Stoddard (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation‘s James Stewart) is rescued by the rough but generally decent gunslinger and rancher Tom Doniphan (The Longest Day‘s John Wayne). Ransom has had every penny to his name and every last worldly possession stolen by the untouchable Liberty Valance and as he has to start from scratch to recover his assets and make a name for himself in the dangerous town of Shinbone.

Shinbone’s Marshall, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), is a fat, slovenly coward and even though everybody in town knows Liberty Valance is a crook and a murderer, he won’t lift a finger to bring him to justice. Tom is the only man in town with enough nerve and talent with a gun to stand up to Liberty, but Liberty knows well enough to stay out of Tom’s way to avoid taking a bullet from him. But Ransom wants Liberty brought to justice. However, unlike every other Western hero ever, justice to ransom doesn’t mean a shoot out in the streets. It means a trial and jail. But, in a town without a competent criminal justice system, Tom’s way of the bullet could be the only true answer.

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The film’s framing device is that decades later, Ransom Stoddard has returned to Shinbone for Tom’s funeral. Ransom is now a U.S. Senator and he could be the Vice-President of the United States if he wished. And, through a story given to a local newspaperman, we hear the real story of the legend that shot him into political stardom. But, in actuality, it gives the film an example to delve into one of the most important philosophical debates of all time: What is more valuable, truth or results? And, to an extent, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance comes down on the utilitarian side of that equation.

I can’t explore those themes too deeply without ruining the film (although, considering the fact that it’s 52 years old, I wouldn’t feel too guilty if I did), but time and time again, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance proves itself to be more psychologically and philosophically minded than the vast majority of its late 50s/early 60s peers. The film is essentially an argument that the American West that Ford himself helped to mythologize in the American conscious had to end, and that the typical John Wayne heroes of the past didn’t have a place in the modern world.

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James Stewart plays a character that is simultaneously a deconstruction of the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington typical Stewart idealist as well as an argument for why society needs men like him. I’ve probably said this before on this blog, but James Stewart is one of my all-time favorite actors (not necessarily one of the ones I think is the best), and along with Vertigo, this is certainly one of his most complex and demanding roles. And as we Ransom struggling to balance his desire for law & order and due process against the brutal realities of the old West, Stewart captures all of the character’s frustration and desperation.

John Wayne and Lee Marvin also shine in the two primary supporting roles (even if Wayne gets top billing in the film, Ransom is the main character). Tom may ultimately be a good man, but he’s also a bitter roughneck who isn’t afraid to be a bully when he needs to make a point. Along with The Searchers, it’s one of the more complicated characters of Wayne’s usually pure white hat career. And Lee Marvin might not have the most fully-written character in the titular Liberty Valance, but he makes the man drip venom and anger, and he steals every scene he’s in, even if he’s not afraid to chew the scenery a little bit.

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I wrote half of this review last night and True Detective is coming on in five minutes (seriously, watch that show; it’s the best new HBO show since The Wire and easily the best show on TV right now) so I’ll draw this review to a close. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the Western that even non-Western fans can get behind. In fact, it’s so drama-driven that fans of more traditional, action-driven old West epics may find it to be a bit of a bore. But for everyone with an open mind for the possibilities of Western storytelling, it’s a must see classic deserving of the title.

Final Score: A-

 

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Man, talk about a movie that seems like it was made just for me that I wound up not liking at all. I’m a political science major (for those who aren’t familiar with my personal life) who suffers from what we’ll call… disillusionment with the modern political process. I still follow it fairly religiously, but every time a politician I admire lets me down, part of me dies, and it’s not a stretch of the imagination to say that my complete and total lack of faith in American politics is why I still haven’t graduated from college. It’s kind of ridiculous at this point considering my general stellar academic record when I actually participate in the process. So, a 1970s satire starring Robert Redford (The Way We Were) that chronicles an idealistic politician’s path to corruption and selling out seems like a perfect fit for my bleak worldview. Sadly, 1972’s The Candidate is a shallow and superficial affair that is also undeniably dull.

Anyone who’s seen the Chris Rock film Head of State should be familiar with the basic plot of the film; Head of State is mostly just a more upbeat and directly comedic version of this film starring an African-American (and it deals with a presidential election instead of a Senatorial one). Bill McKay (Robert Redford) is the overwhelmingly handsome and liberal son of a famous former governor of California. The Democratic party needs to field a candidate in the Senate election against the seemingly unbeatable incumbent Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter), and a sleazy party operative, Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle), picks Bill McKay as the sacrificial lamb because this untested and inexperienced pretty boy should have no chance of winning. But, Bill begins to resonate with the voters, and he slowly starts to relinquish the control he was promised over his campaign to party hacks in the hopes that he can win, and Bill begins to be just another political sell-out.

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The premise of that film sounds spectacular. I was incredibly excited when I put this movie in my DVD player, and I thought my streak of watching excellent films in this blog was going to continue. It didn’t. The Candidate isn’t an inherently bad film. At times, its portrayal of the realistic tedium and day-to-day activities of a political campaign can be interesting. In fact, I’m not sure if many other films capture it as well, but that portraiture is rarely used for the sake of propelling a compelling plot forward. And, Bill is about as uninteresting a protagonist as you can imagine. Though the film’s intention was to have a weak, passive protagonist, that doesn’t make said weak, passive protagonist a strong anchor for an entire film. The Peter Boyle character was far more compelling, and just, in general, the things The Candidate has to say about political corruption seem stale and sadly dated.

Though Bill was a terribly boring character, Robert Redford did as much he possibly could with the bland “hero” he had to work with. Part of the film’s ability to work is that you have to believe Redford is charming and handsome enough to sway the state of California despite the fact he clearly doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about on the issues. And, since Robert Redford was one of the biggest sex symbols of the 1970s, he’s got the handsome part down. And with his boyish good looks and natural charm, he oozes the natural appeal that any politician would need. Although the best performances of the film were Peter Boyle as Marcus as well as Melvyn Douglas as Bill McKay’s father who smirks and laughs as he is fully aware of the path of self-corruption that his son is about to set himself on.

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I’ll keep this review short because A) I watched this movie several days ago and B ) I just didn’t care that much for it. Even if like me, you consider yourself a political junkie, there are other movies that handle similar ground better. Hell, I’m sure that if I were to re-watch Head of State, I would find it to be a more enjoyable experience than sitting through The Candidate again. I respect what the movie was trying to say, and, perhaps, in 1972, its message might have resonated more, but the passage of time has robbed The Candidate of whatever power it may have had. If you are going to watch this film, come for Robert Redford and stay for Peter Boyle. Otherwise, find a different way to pass your time.

Final Score: B-

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Along with the Cold War (which officially ended the year I was born, 1989), one of the defining historical conflicts of the latter half of the 20th century that I have virtually no recollection of is the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. With the seemingly endless sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics over whether or not Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or become part of Ireland, I can remember reading about it after the violence mostly ended, but I have almost no recollection over any of the events while they lasted. I was nine when the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998, but that means I was too young to be an American kid and understand what was happening overseas. And, perhaps it’s because this is my first cinematic exposure to the violence that consumed Northern Ireland, I found The Boxer to be a truly fascinating examination of The Troubles as well as a gripping character study of one man who wants out.

Nominally, The Boxer is a sports movie, but it makes every other boxing movie I’ve watched for this blog seem trite in comparison. Whether you’re talking Rocky or the more recent The Fighter, it seems obvious that The Boxer has more to say about violence, politics, and the human condition than most other sports movies could ever hope to achieve (except maybe the terribly underrated, This Sporting Life). If The Boxer charts one pugilist’s course to redemption, it lays out this man’s path in stark and brutally realistic terms in a world where centuries old hate and violence constantly threatens to undermine any positive steps one man can hope to take. Though the romance at the heart of the film doesn’t carry as much weight as the tale of redemption and political strife, even it cements the senseless and tragic back-and-forth of revenge and violence.

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After serving fourteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, former Irish Republican Army member Danny Flynn (The Age of Innocence‘s Daniel Day-Lewis) is released from prison and wants nothing more to do with the men who let him rot in prison for something he didn’t do. But nothing is ever that simple. As Danny is released from jail, Joe Hammill (Adaptation.‘s Brian Cox) is negotiating a peace treaty with the British government on the grounds that the IRA prisoners of war are released, but Joe’s desire for peace in Northern Ireland isn’t shared by all of his subordinates, particularly the revenge hungry Harry (Gerard McSorley). And to make matters worse, Danny’s old girlfriend Maggie (Synecdoche, New York‘s Emily Watson) is now the wife of an IRA prisoner, and in the minds of the IRA, there’s almost nothing lower than a man who consorts with the wife of a prisoner.

When Danny is released from prison, he meets up with his old boxing trainer, Ike Weir (Ken Stott), whose become a pathetic and homeless alcoholic with nothing to do with his life when Danny wasn’t around to keep him going. Together they pair re-open their old gym, and in direct defiance with the wishes of the most militant members of the IRA, Danny and Ike make the gym non-sectarian, which means both Catholic and Protestant kids can train there. And, if Danny weren’t already hell-bent on pissing off the IRA, he begins to rekindle his friendship and eventually romance with Maggie. As Joe desperately tries to keep the fragile peace that he’s brokered with the Brits, all of the sectarian tensions and violence threaten to erupt again as Danny prepares for a highly publicized fight with a Protestant championship boxer.

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This probably isn’t a controversial stance to take but Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the greatest screen actor that’s ever lived. I’ve reviewed a decent number of films with Daniel Day-Lewis in them, and whether it’s The Age of Innocence or A Room with a View or Lincoln or Gangs of New York, I’ve become convinced that there isn’t any type of role that Day-Lewis can’t play. His range as an actor borders on ludicrous. His performance in The Boxer may not be as iconic as There Will Be Blood, but it’s still one hell of a turn, and Day-Lewis finds all of the rage and resentment and, most importantly, world-weariness that is eating away at Danny’s soul and then forces the audience to recognize the insanity of the world Danny finds himself in. There’s a scene later in the film where Danny is boxing a Nigerian boxer, and it’s one of the most remarkable scenes of Day-Lewis’s career.

And, thankfully, Day-Lewis isn’t the only one with a great performance in this film. Emily Watson is a big name in her native United Kingdom, but she should be a huge star everywhere. She may not have the most conventional leading lady looks, but she’s a hell of a performer. And, similarly to Day-Lewis, the character of Maggie helps to emphasize the film’s themes of weariness with the insanity of the Troubles and how the stubborness and obstinacy of those who can’t let grudges go destroys the lives of everyone around them. And Emily Watson captures how the Troubles have eroded what’s left of Maggie’s soul until Danny steps back into her life. Brian Cox, Ken Stott, and Gerard McSorley all also shine in their supporting roles. Ken Stott’s performance as the alcoholic Ike is one of the more heart-wrenchingly realistic portrayals of alcoholism this side of Leaving Las Vegas.

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The film has some minor structural problems, but they’re marginal complaints in a film this excellent and thought-provoking. Similar to The Return of the King, there were nearly three or four different moments when I thought this film was about to end, but then it kept on trucking on. Every sequence after these false endings worked and enriched the story, but it certainly made me antsy as the film continued. But, as I said, when a film has this much to say about the nature of violence, hatred, and the senseless cycle of revenge, I’ll forgive it for ignoring basic laws of cinematic story structure. Both as a historical document of the last breaths of the Troubles as well as an intimate portrait of one man trying to recapture his soul, The Boxer  is an indisputable triumph of character driven and political storytelling.

If you enjoy Daniel Day-Lewis, there is no excuse for not watching this film. I have seen exactly one film where he played the lead that I did not enjoy (the abysmal musical Nine, and it’s not his fault it was bad. You can’t make a fucking musical adaptation of 8 1/2 and not expect it to be fucking terrible). Daniel Day-Lewis’s insane dedication to craft and character is usually worth the price of admission alone (it’s what made Lincoln a very good if not a great film), and thankfully The Boxer has more than just another superb Daniel Day-Lewis film in its favor. My only word of warning for this film is that if you struggle understand foreign accents, you will have a hard time with the almost indecipherable thick Irish accents that all of the characters employ. And there are no subtitles on the DVD or Netflix versions of this film. Other than that, you owe it to yourself to watch this excellent film.

Final Score: A-

 

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One of the things that I have always loved about foreign cinema is that it opens me up to worlds and cultures that I will never experience first-hand. Great foreign cinema (A Separation, The White Ribbon, Stroszek) can edify me as much as it entertains me. I’m clearly not saying that all enjoyable foreign cinema must have cultural history inside it (Bergman and Fellini care little for that), but it’s always wonderful when it does. 2006’s Rang De Basanti is the first Indian/Bollywood film that I’ve reviewed for this blog, and I felt that I learned more from this film about modern Indian youth culture and India’s history than anybody possibly ever could from Slumdog Millionaire.

It is difficult to characterize Rang De Basanti in simple terms. Running at nearly three hours, Rang De Basanti is the type of multi-generational epic that went out of vogue in America around the time the Godfather films finished up. The film’s emotional core and even genre are just as hard to pin down as the film starts off as a coming of age dramedy that shoots unexpectedly into tragedy for the film’s last hour. The film has a grandness of ambition and purpose that exceeds the actual artistic merits of the film to the point where the film’s themes are subverted (I believe unintentionally) by an insane final act that lessens the ethical value of the film. Rang De Basanti has its flaws, but even despite them, it proved an immensely enjoyable movie.

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An idealistic young British woman, Sue (Alice Patten), travels to India in order to shoot a historical film about India’s revolutionary movement in the 1920s against British rule. Sue finds the young stars of her film when her friend Sonia (Soha Ali Khan) introduces Sue to her group of college friends, including the charming DJ (Aamir Khan), the brooding Karan (Siddharth), the comic Sukhi (Sharman Joshi), and the pensive Aslam (Kunal Kapoor). The Western society-obsessed friends are cynical towards the state of modern India and have trouble relating to the martyred patriots at the center of Sue’s film, until tragedy in their own lives sparks a revolution in their own hearts.

I don’t want to say too much more about the film’s story because part of the pleasure of Rang De Basanti is watching the transformation this film takes. It’s not much of a stretch to say that until a pivotal event took the film into it’s final act, I was convinced that Rang De Basanti was a comedy about cultural diffusion and barriers with some light drama involved. The tone was so light and lively (and the musical numbers but more on that in a second) that when the film switches gears (and boy does it), I was left feeling as if I’d been punched in the stomach by the sharp turns the story takes.

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I may be wrong, but I’m fairly certain that Rang De Basanti is the first Bollywood film I’ve ever watched in my entire life. And, I’m sort of thankful for that because the moviei s a great fusion of Bollywood tropes (doomed romances, insane out of nowhere dance numbers) and more traditional Western storytelling which all fits within the film’s context of young Indian men rediscovering their sense of Indian nationalism. There’s a dance sequence interspersed with bits of historical tragedy from Sue’s film that is immediately followed by the tragic event that sets the films final act into motion, and while that may seem dizzying to American audiences, it seems to mesh within the Indian context of the film.

Ultimately, Rang De Basanti proves to be a film about corruption in the Indian government. When I was an RA, I had several friends from India and Pakistan (both from the Lahore region of the area), and either one was willing to readily educate me on the political corruption of their respective governments. And, Rang De Basanti‘s attempts to bring these issues to light is all well and good and very noble, but the film loses some of its moral authority on these tough issues when it has its heroes behave the way they do towards the end of the film. I don’t want to spoil what happens, but it’s certainly easy to say that the film finds itself muddled by the end.

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Rang De Basanti is centered on a great cast with a natural chemistry, and the interactions between the young male stars reminded me of an Indian spin on classics like Diner. Aamir Khan and Kunal Kapoor really stole the show, and I’d like to see more from practically everyone in the cast though sadly not much Bollywood winds up on my list for this blog. I’ll draw this review to a close with this. Rang De Basanti may lose its footing by the film’s end, but if you can get past the thematic missteps in its closing moments, you’ll be rewarded with an intense and highly emotional look at Indian youth and the problems facing modern Indian society. For lovers of foreign cinema, I highly recommend it.

Final Score: B+

 

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In 1986, William Hurt (One True Thing) won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Luis Molina, a flamboyantly homosexual prisoner serving time in an Argentinian prison, in the film Kiss of the Spider Woman. Along with the novel by Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman became an important entry in the canon of LGBT cinema. Though there is no denying the bravura ferocity of William Hurt’s performance and commitment to his role, as viewed through a modern lens, this film’s characterization of homosexuality borders almost on camp caricature, and were the novel not written by a gay man, it would almost be offensive.

Imprisoned for having sexual relations with an underage prostitute, Luis Molina is toiling away his days in a horrifically managed prison overflowing with petty thieves and political prisoners of the oppressive Argentinian regime. Molina passes his time by recounting the details of his favorite movies to his roommate, Valentin Arregui (The Addams Family‘s Raul Julia), a hardened Marxist political prisoner. As Molina tells Valentin of a favorite German romance (that also happens to be a Nazi propaganda film), the pair become closer despite their differences although betrayal and lies threaten to undo the fabric of their new relationship.

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An evening of sleep removed from my viewing of Kiss of the Spider Woman and I still can’t decide whether or not William Hurt’s performance is brilliant or extraordinarily offensive to the modern LGBT community. It’s probably both. He loses himself in the role. Hurt is a famously intense character actor, and it shows in this performance. There isn’t a second where he isn’t Molina. But, the writing of Molina is so flamboyant and stereotypically “camp gay” that it’s hard for me to take him seriously. So, William Hurt becomes this wounded, sensitive, desperately lonely man, but the writing of his character often turns Molina more into a stereotype than a real man.

I have no complaints about the characterization of Valentin Arregui or the performance of Raul Julia. In fact, I was actually far more impressed with Julia’s subtle, restrained intensity as Valentin than I was with the over-the-top (though in line with the character) camp of William Hurt. Valentin is a man consumed by anger and his political passions. But, he is also a lover. He misses his girlfriends. He misses his freedoms, and he respects the openness with which Molina lives his life. And Raul Julia captures the slowly eroding layer of toughness and hatred that are all Valentin seems to be when the film opens as he becomes more sensitive in the shadow of Molina.

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Kiss of the Spider Woman can be heartrendingly intimate. Though it may not have the sheer power of Sunday Bloody Sunday or A Single Man, the film paints a detailed portrait of the lives and loves of its two heroes. And through the unique framing device of the film within the film, Kiss of the Spider Woman is allowed to weave a symbolic and allegorical web (pun possibly intended; I’m not sure) rife with the angst and longing both our heroes feel so deeply. The film accomplishes so much with the mostly two-star set up, that the moments where the film strays and introduces other characters actually living in Molina and Valentin’s real world (as opposed to the Nazi film characters) seem woefully deficient compared to the relationship of Molina and Valentin.

I’m going to keep this review really short (though I swear I enjoyed it quite a bit) because I have some other things that I need to write about today. I want to apply for a fellowship, and I’ve sort of realized that I haven’t worked on any of my screenplays for nearly two months now if not longer. It’s time to remedy that. If you enjoy intimate character studies and important films in the LGBT canon, Kiss of the Spider Woman is a must see. The ending drags on a little too long, and not every scene winds up winning (and Molina’s campiness may be a turn-off to some), but for the 1980s, this film was remarkably prescient and insightful.

Final Score: B+

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Long time readers should remember that I am currently a political science major at West Virginia University. I’m fairly knowledgeable of not just current American politics, but the darker history of America’s political past. I’m an Aaron Sorkin junkie, and even if The American President overly romanticized the modern presidency, it still captured something refreshingly accurate about the modern legislative process (and had a great love story to boot). A biopic of Abraham Lincoln that pushes past the well-known stories of his presidency and focuses on his attempts to pass the 13th Amendment directed by Steven Spielberg (War Horse) starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York) seems like it would be right up my alley. And while Lincoln is full of interesting historical anecdotes and shows Lincoln as an intelligent politician (not just the nearly divine figure he’s become in American history, though it does that too), the film lacks an emotional, human core to hold this history lesson together.

Although, let’s face it, other than Munich, Spielberg’s “serious” films of late have felt more like cold, clinical experiments in cinematic technique than the grand celebrations of a movie-lover with more tools than he knows what to do with. In the past, Spielberg’s movies felt so full of life and wonder. E.T. remains one of the purest cinematic portrayals of the innocence and wonder of childhood ever made, and A.I. is (to me) one of the three definitive science fiction films of the 2000s and marks the end of innocence of childhood in as tragic but beautiful way as humanly possible. Spielberg’s status as one of America’s most important directors has apparently gone to his head and so many of his most recent films (especially War Horse) are dry and devoid of the emotion and honest humanity that made his best works so brilliant. Lincoln doesn’t fall as far as War Horse, but it constantly left me asking for something more substantive.

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As stated, Lincoln is a narrowly focused biopic (a decision I actually applaud) that follows the last months of the Civil War and the efforts of President Lincoln to ensure the passage of the 13th Amendment. For those not familiar with the U.S. Constitution, the 13th Amendment banned slavery (contrary to popular belief, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t ban slavery. It just freed the slaves in the Confederacy). With the help of his Secretary of State William Seward (David Straitharn), Lincoln must navigate the rat’s nest known as the U.S. House of Representatives. Not only must he contend with the factions within his own party (he needs unanimous support from the Republicans if it has any hope of passage), he must convince at least 20 House Democrats to vote for the bill they clearly loathe. And through the promise of patronage, intimidation, and outright bribery, Lincoln and his team get the job done (I hope to god that’s not a spoiler for you).

My primary problem with the film is that it consistently fails to humanize this mythic figure in American history. While the movie isn’t afraid to show the legally ambiguous/outright illegal tools Lincoln used (for good causes), he remains a deified figure throughout the whole film. He is rarely, if ever, shown as simply a man, albeit a man facing titanic pressure and seemingly insurmountable problems. Honestly, the only moment in the film that really explores the human problems Lincoln faced is a fight between Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), over whether to allow their son Robert (Looper‘s Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to enlist in the Union army. As we see just how crazy Mary Todd has become in the wake of the death of her son Willy, you get an idea of what Lincoln had to deal with in his personal life in addition to his now storied political gamesmanship. And it doesn’t help the film’s cause that Lincoln is shot in such gorgeous light so often that it seems like the film is trying to portray him as a god-like/angelic figure.

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Thankfully, then, the film had more amazing performances than it could have possibly known what to do with. Daniel Day-Lewis won his third Best Actor Oscar for this film (although I honestly think Joaquin Phoenix did a better job in The Master) and his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln is as transformative as anything he’s done to date. Daniel Day-Lewis is my favorite actor of all-time, but there were so many times in this film where it was easy to forget that I was watching my favorite actor. His Abe is as different from Gang of New York‘s Bill the Butcher as that was from The Age of Innocence‘s Archer Newland as that was from There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview. Although this performance lacked much of the emotional dynamism that I associate with Day-Lewis’s best roles, it’s still a master class on restraint and completely losing yourself in a part.

Although, with all respect to Daniel Day-Lewis, there were three other performances in this film that I found more compelling/interesting than his. Sally Field gave arguably the best performance of her entire career as the emotionally damaged Mary Todd, and I honestly have trouble believing that Anne Hathaway was better in Les Mis than Sally Field was in this role. David Strathairn (one of Hollywood’s most under-appreciated character actors) shined as the tough and passionate William Seward who is as responsible for the passage of the 13th Amendment as Lincoln himself. But the real stand-out performance of the film was Tommy Lee Jones’ fiery turn as Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens. He’s arguably the most moral person in the whole film (and easily the most idealistic), but Jones plays him with enough humor and passion and ferocity to turn it into one of the really memorable supporting turns of 2012.

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I’ll draw this review to a close because my sister and I are hanging out today and I want to spend some time with her (and not my whole evening reviewing a movie). Lincoln is certainly worth your time, if just for the endless great performances alone. I lost track of how many times I wrote in my notes while watching this film, “Hey, it’s [insert great character actor] here,” and almost without fail, the performances were all “A”-caliber. And, if you’re a history buff, you’ll be fascinated by all of the different things Lincoln and his team had to go through to get that bill passed. Ultimately, I just wanted to know more about Lincoln, the man, than the historical accomplishments I’ve already read about so many times before.

Final Score: B+

 

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(A quick aside before I begin my actual review. I’m on literally like five or six different types of cold/sinus/allergy medicines at the moment, so if this review is incomprehensible gobbledy-gook, that’s why, and I’ll fix it when I’m not drugged out of my gourd and my sinuses don’t make my face feel like it’s simultaneously melting and being squeezed by a massive vise)

If you were a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, how would you vote in the race for Best Picture? Would you vote for what you simply thought was the finest film of the year based solely on its artistic merits or would you allow for more complicated factors such as mainstream accessibility and cultural significance? I bring this up because for the last five years, I can’t honestly imagine that the Academy voters went with Option A (unless their tastes in movies are just stunningly shallow) and instead went with the option of smart films with mainstream appeal. It’s not that The King’s Speech or The Artist are bad films. They’re very good films, but like 2012’s Best Picture winner, Argo, they were released in a sea of films with far more artistic vision and insightArgo2

With that prior warning, it may come as a shock when I say that Argo is a virtually flawless film. There wasn’t a single moment in the film where I thought to myself, “That was mishandled,” or “They should have done that differently.” However (and I’m about to coin a word here), it was also a totally “awe”-less film. For a movie that is now enshrined as the “Best Picture” of 2012, there was simply not a single exceptional element to the film.  At literally no point in the film (except for maybe Alan Arkin’s performance but more on that later) did I sit up and say, “Wow. That was superb.” From the direction (Ben Affleck’s now infamous Best Director snub was honestly well-deserved) to the cinematography to the characters to the story, everything about the film was very good. Nothing about it was great.

A fairly fictionalized account of real events, Argo is the story of a recently declassified CIA op that occurred during the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1980. After the Iranian revolution that deposed U.S.-supported Shah Reza Pahlavi and began the reign of the Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran’s turn into an Islamic Republic, Iran had a very legitimate beef with the actions of the U.S. government in overthrowing their democratically elected leader prior to Shah Pahlavi. And after months of unrest, protestors stormed the U.S. embassy and took 52 American diplomats and members of the foreign service hostage for 444 days. Argo is the story of six Americans who escaped the embassy before they were captured and the efforts of the C.I.A. to extract them from Iran.

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Tony Mendez (Dazed and Confused‘s Ben Affleck) is a C.I.A. exfiltration expert. His job is to get wanted targets out of highly hostile environments without any violence or calls for alarm. When the State Department and C.I.A. are tasked with extricating the six American escapees (who have been staying at the home of the Canadian Ambassador to Iran), Mendez has to come up with a plan to get them out of the nation alive. So, Mendez decides to have the escapees pretend they’re part of a film crew surveying Iran as a possible location for their new science fiction film, and with the help of Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (The Big Lebowski‘s John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Catch-22‘s Alan Arkin), that’s just what Mendez is going to do.

Perhaps my biggest complaint about the film is that it’s like eating a box of popcorn. When all is said and done, the film tastes good and it keeps you full as you’re going along, but when the credits roll, you realize it was completely empty and you’re hungry for something of actual substance. I said earlier that the film was flawless although perhaps that was the wrong word. It has a big glaring flaw, but you only really notice upon later reflection once the credits roll. This is a film simply over-flowing with eccentric and interesting characters, but for the life of me, I couldn’t give a shit about a single one of them because the film spent zero time developing them and letting the audience emotionally invest in their troubles.

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Part of me also wants to find fault in the almost comically stoic performance from Ben Affleck as the film’s lead, but upon reflection, I’m going to say that it makes sense and is logical within the context of the performance. Mendez is a hardened C.I.A. spook and his job is navigating high-tense situations. It makes perfect sense that he would be as calm and collected as humanly possible. But, honestly, the only performance from the film that wowed me was another delicious comic turn from Alan Arkin as the foul-mouthed movie producer. If nothing else sticks with me from Argo, the catchphrase “Argo-fuck-yourself” has already become part of everyday vocabulary thanks to Alan Arkin.

I was also bothered by the film’s decision to add unnecessary and totally fictional conflict and complexity to the mission that Tony Mendez was trying to perform. I understand that the film wouldn’t be very interesting if it had stuck strictly to the facts of the “Argo” case, but it could have found depth and tension in other areas rather than a strict portrayal of historical facts with some completely made-up shit thrown in for good measure. The film wants to be taken seriously as a portrayal of the events that occurred (and it does get a lot of points for showing why Iran had a good reason to hate the U.S. at the time), but when it adds fictitious elements like the near shoot-out at the airport in the film’s climax, the movie loses some of its credibility.

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And Argo committed one of the most disappointing movie crimes of all (at least for me). Other than the often hilarious and refreshingly comic moments that lampooned the sillier sides of Hollywood, the film seemed to never generate an emotional response from me other than a vague sense of pleasure from the admittedly very clever and daring mission it portrays. I didn’t care about the characters. Their actions never make me feel sympathy or distaste. And, as mentioned before, their characterizations (even that of Tony Mendez) were crudely thin.

So, it’s becoming clear that my earlier statement that Argo was flawless is coming apart at the seams while I’ve yet to find much positive to say about this film. So, let me close out with this addendum to the torrent of issues I took with this Best Picture winner. I honestly enjoyed this film, and I thought it was a very good, mainstream crowd-pleasing thriller. It is the fact that it was named the Best Picture of last year that I feel the need to examine it with such intensity. As a political thriller and a loose retelling of historical facts, Argo is a success. But if you call this the most artistically significant film of last year, well, “Argo-Fuck-Yourself.”

Final Score: B+

 

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If there’s ever been a movie made that comes as close to absolute perfection as one can get but errs ever so slightly along the way, it’s Gangs of New York. In many ways, I have always found this film to be Martin Scorsese’s most ambitious and artful enterprise, but it’s Scorsese’s very ambition that leads the film to stray from its path. Along with Woody Allen, Marty Scorsese is arguably one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors. From the modern day cops & robbers thriller The Departed to the bustling children’s fantasy of Hugo to the lush, romantic period drama The Age of Innocence, his skills know no bounds (obvious, we include his now iconic crime epics like Goodfellas). Gangs of New York is Scorsese’s swing at bat for the historical epic, and it’s a home run like the rest of his career. In one of his darkest, most pessimistic works, Scorsese casts a prophetic eye to America’s political splits by looking back at our ethnic schisms, while wrapping it in a Shakespearean tale of revenge and American history.

If Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life became the summation of every theme and trick Malick had used in his films before hand, Gangs of New York fits into the Scorsese canon in the same way, and to be honest, none of his films have reached these heights since. As a man obsessed with the conflict between religious identity and our most base instincts and desires, Scorsese has become the definitive American director to explore religious guilt and the psychic conflict it breeds. He has also crafted tales centered around men and women defined heavily by ethnicity in worlds where that is all many others see. He loves men of great stature but even greater fallibility, and perhaps no American director besides David Simon is so acutely aware of the role that environment and birth play in our fate. And through Gangs of New York, Scorsese makes his grand, cynical statement once and for all on all the themes that have propelled his career.

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Before New York City became the commercial center of the world and Times Square was the most trafficked and wealthy spot on this planet, it was a poor city in the 1800s with rampant crime and plagued by ethnic strife. Though Tammany Hall, led by Boss Tweed (played in the film by Jim Broadbent), seduced the flood of immigrants entering the city as soon as they got off the boat, nativist xenophobic sentiment was not far behind from the strong-arm tactics of members of the Know-Nothing Party who wanted the nation’s docks closed to all foreigners. And, just as the United States is instituting its first draft to man the Civil War, foreign resentment and massive wealth disparities feed the fuel of public discontent, and the slightest disturbance would mean blood on the streets (when the gangs aren’t causing it already). It’s clear that one doesn’t have to make much of a stretch to find parallels from the film to not only the early 2000s that birthed the movie but also the increasingly polemic America we live in now.

The film begins in 1849 with a battle to the death between the Dead Rabbits, an Irish immigrant gang led by Priest Vallon (Michael Collins‘s Liam Neeson), and the Natives, a brutal American-born gang led by Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (The Age of Innocence‘s Daniel Day-Lewis). When Bill defeats the Priest in hand-to-hand combat, the Dead Rabbits are no more, and the Priest’s son, Amsterdam (played as a grown-up by Inception‘s Leonardo DiCaprio), is left an orphan. Amsterdam is sent-off to the Hellgate reform school, and sixteen long years he waits and lets his anger and desire for revenge grow. When he’s finally released from the asylum sixteen years later, Amsterdam returns to the city of his birth seeking nothing less than the death of the man who killed his father. But when Amsterdam returns to New york, Bill “The Butcher” is stronger than ever, and though he is initially trying to simply infiltrate Bill’s organization, Amsterdam quickly finds himself becoming a son figure to Bill who doesn’t realize Amsterdam’s true identity.

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(side note. every part of this review before this sentence was written yesterday. I passed out writing it and I’ve only just now had time to return to it. So, my apologies if my thoughts now seem disconnected)

Much like The Age of Innocence before it, Gangs of New York is everything you could possibly want in a historical epic and it mostly avoids the trappings of the era. While the costumes and period detail are astounding (though it turns out that Scorsese used a hodgepodge of different times and looks to create the feel of the film), the “period” of the film isn’t the point. It’s not a film meant to dryly capture historical facts. History books and documentaries exist to do that. Instead, Scorsese uses the class discontent, racial animosity, and seething anger of the era to turn a mirror back onto the current age. And, in the process, he asks very uncomfortable questions about one of the few wars that everyone (at least in the North) in this country can agree on today, the Civil War. By peering into darker pages of American history and wrapping it in a tragic story of revenge, Scorsese finds universal truths of the American experience. With  a script partially written by Margaret and You Can Count on Me‘s Kenneth Lonergan, the power of the story and characters should be no surprise.

In classic Scorsese fashion though, Gangs of New York is an enthralling film to look at, not just because of the striking period detail but also because of the striking cinematography from Michael Ballhaus. When the film centers around the Five Points (the area of New York City that would later on become Times Square), there is a darkness and messiness to the film’s visual style and production design (though any history buff could tell you there wasn’t nearly enough shit on the streets). And when the film briefly takes a visit to the richer parts of the city, you could be forgiven for believing you’d stepped onto the set of The Age of Innocence, and the movie’s visual style matches the new feel. And lest we forget, the movie has one of the most famous closing montages of all time as the old New York is quickly swept away and we see the ever evolving New York City skyline til it reaches the present.

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Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the greatest film actor that’s ever lived. If you can watch his body of work and not come to that conclusion, we evaluate acting differently. His dedication to his craft is simply peerless. To prepare for the role of Bill “The Butcher,” Lewis listened to old recordings of 19th century NY politician William Jennings Bryan in order to master a New York accent that has ceased to exist. He refused to take modern medicine when he caught pneumonia during principal photography for this film because it hadn’t been invented yet (he eventually caved when it nearly killed him). Yeah, that’s sort of crazy, but it’s that type of commitment to his parts that makes Daniel Day-Lewis such an extraordinary talent and why he’s won three Best Actor Oscars (more than anyone else). I haven’t seen The Pianist yet so I can’t say if Adrien Brody was better, but man, he must have been really good to beat Daniel Day-Lewis for this film.

This was one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s first really mature roles in a post-Titanic world and the beginning of his partnership with Martin Scorsese (which I hope just lasts forever cause the two work magic together), DiCaprio still brought his A-game even if he wasn’t able to meet the heights he would later set in The Departed. But, with Amsterdam, we got to see much of the boiling anger mixed with naked vulnerability that would help to define some of DiCaprio’s best roles. Although, hilariously like The Departed, he does have trouble maintaining his accent over the course of this film (though just like in The Departed, the script does try to hand-wave this away). Cameron Diaz also gives easily her best performance other than Being John Malkovich as the pick-pocket that catches Amsterdam’s eyes but also threatens to be his downfall.

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If the film can be faulted then, it’s that it has so much to say and not nearly enough time to say it all. I think that the film’s climax is one of the best things Scorsese’s ever done in terms of sheer Hellish, apocalyptic destruction, but it becomes so unfocused that on your first viewing (or three), it may not be terribly apparent why everything that is happening is happening and why it’s necessary for Scorsese to show it all. And the only time where the film really feels like it’s starting to lag over it’s nearly three hour running time is immediately following… well, a moment in the film that I don’t want to spoil, but the movie begins to feel a little bit more like  history lesson than the Shakespearean tale it had before. Although those moments do dovetail to give the film it’s messy, tragic finale.

I’ll draw this to a close. I’m re-making the list for this blog (I think I’ve accidentally been deleting movies from my list rather than just the one’s I’ve watched), and as someone who’s done that twice before (I straight up lost my first list. Yes, that was as terrible as it sounds), I can already tell you how long it’s going to take me to remake the list for this blog. But, now, I’ll be keeping it in the Cloud so I don’t really need to worry about losing it. Cause if I lose it again, I’ll probably just say f*** it and quit doing this blog. Anywyas, that’s a time consuming activity, and I want to finish at least one decade every day in terms of repopulating that list. I did the 2010s and 2000s yesterday. Today’s the 90s. My last words on this film then are, if you’ve managed to not see Gangs of New York yet, do so immediately. It just misses perfection, but it many ways it’s the most impactful film Scorsese’s ever made .

Final Score: A

 

(Quick aside before review and I promise it’s not talking about me being on a hot streak. Though I still am. I think this might be the first Robert De Niro movie I’ve reviewed. We’re nearing the 300 movie mark here and I might be wrong, but I’m pretty sure he hasn’t been in a single film so far. That seems crazy to me. Glad to finally bring him around)

Usually the role of accidentally forecasting the future is in the hands of science fiction. Go back and watch 2001: A Space Odyssey where people are teleconferencing with video. Boom, you have a 1960s idea of what would ultimately become Skype. In 1902’s A Trip to the Moon by legendary French innovator George Melies, he predicted space flight and a lunar landing 60 years before it would happen. I could go on all day. Generally, you don’t see that happen in satire. Well, we can thank David Mamet and Barry Levinson for breaking that rule with their ground-breaking 1997 political satire, Wag the Dog, which is now an eerie presage to the many events to come after the film was made. Christine O’Donnel might not be a witch (sorry that meme never got old to me), but someone needs to see if screenwriter David Mamet has an honest-to-god magic crystal ball lying around.

When the unseen President of the United States is caught in a sex scandal involving an underage Firefly Girl (read: Girl Scout), professional spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) is brought in to contain the situation. With the help of White House Liaison Ames (Cedar Rapids‘ Anne Heche) and Hollywood producer Stanley Motts (Dustin Hoffman), they construct a fake war with Albania to keep the media from paying attention the President’s real sexual misconduct. Gathering some of the best (and ultimately slimiest) minds that Hollywood has to offer, the spin team comes up with reasons why we would go to war with Albania (a suitcase nuke at the Canadian border), haunting and fake images of the civilians punished by Albanian terrorism, and even phony stories of a war hero trapped behind enemy lines hoping to last the two weeks til election day without anyone discovering their fraud.

I really can’t imagine any scenario where Bill Clinton finds this film even slightly amusing. Although I don’t think we went into the military situation in Kosovo to distract from the Monica Lewinski sex scandal and impeachment hearings, a lot of Republicans thought that was the case. How many times did liberals like myself think that President Bush was faking imagined terrorist threats to distract from other, more important issues? The answer is all of the damn time especially when he would raise the terrorist threat levels for seemingly arbitrary reasons. I’m not sure if it’s as easy to trick the media as this film makes it out to be, but it’s a point of fact that people in power will exploit the ignorance and fear of the masses to keep themselves in office and distract from bigger issues. Also, the film managed to completely define what war has looked like in the 21st century with a terrifying foresight.

When a film has Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman as its leads, you have to know that magic is gonna happen. It won’t rank as one of the great roles of either actor’s career, but they were superb as always. De Niro turns Conrad Brean into a menacing creature that can smile as he cooks up the tiny (but most important) details of a fake war with Albania while flashing a colder smile as he threatens to kill a teenage girl if she ever tells anyone about the fake video she just shot. Dustin Hoffman is better as the smooth and fast-talking Stanley Motts. I don’t want to belittle the performance by saying this (even though it’s true), but it’s the sort of Hoffman role you expect where he bursts with nervous energy and his method skittishness. Yet, his gung-ho belief in selling America this fake war is the tie that holds the film together as is his ultimate disappointment when he realizes no one can ever know he made this all happen.

I’m not sure how much credit to give to Barry Levinson here and how much to give to screenwriter David Mamet. The film flows with the rhythm of a great Aaron Sorkin script or a Robert Altman film thanks to a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue so my money’s on Mamet. Although where Sorkin liked to show politics at its most idealistic and hopeful (I contend that he is Hollywood’s last great Romantic), this film certainly falls on the bitter and cynical end of the spectrum and leaves you wondering if anything you hear about from our nation’s leaders is true? I’m not quite as skeptical as Mamet apparently is, but the film’s ability to make you think and laugh at the same time is certainly commendable.

I’ve got a headache and an exam tomorrow (my second of three exams this week. Welcome back to college Don) so I’ll keep this short. If you like satire and politics, this film is as biting as they come and scarily predicted where the world would be heading over the next 15 years. Anne Heche is reminding me of why I’ve grown to love her body of work so much these last couple of years, and Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro are simply two of the greatest actors of all time. With a spot on and quotable script, Wag the Dog is the full package although those without a stomach for the seedier side of American politics may not be able to handle the film. This joins The American President and Primary Colors as one of the great political films of the 90s.

Final Score: B+