Category: Pre-20th Century Period Pieces


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When they’re wronged, most people feel an immediate need for justice to right that wrong. When someone steals, we put them in jail. When someone kills, a handful of states (in a barbaric practice) will kill in return. And while putting someone in jail can keep them from stealing again and executions can keep someone from killing again, is that justice? It doesn’t restore the stolen property. It doesn’t bring the dead back to life. It simply appeases our need to feel that something has been done even if nothing productive came out of the act itself. And the idea that we then commit violence for violence’s sake becomes terrifying and that paradox of how to make right that which is wrong lies at the core of the mature and thematically complex anti-Western, Unforgiven.

When someone is assaulted or violated in some physical manner, society’s focus tends to be on the aggressor of that violence rather than the victim? And while it’s important to ensure that these acts can’t occur again, why is that the epicenter of our attention? Why isn’t it the person that’s hurting? They are the ones who suffered the most, not the society that punishes the action causing the pain. And, while their names may be invoked in the quest for “justice,” too often their actual needs are swept under the rug. And throughout Unforgiven, men seek “justice” while the woman whose brutalization sets the film in motion never has her world returned to normal.

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The first “important” book that I ever read was The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. I read it in middle school long before I could fully appreciate the complexity of Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s examination of what it meant to be a black man in America in the middle of the 20th century, but even as an adolescent, the power of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz’s fury and critique of American culture stuck with me in a way that forever changed my life. Although I’m white, I have biracial family members of African-American lineage and, growing up, my family took care of a family of four African-American foster children for many years. And through my immersion in real life to the legacy of institutionalized racism (and the more casual kind that still lingers to this day) as well as my exposure to Malcolm X’s story at such a young age, I was always aware of and sensitive to issues of race in ways that few of my white friends are or ever will be.

Even as a child, I was always astounded by the ways that people in the American South (West Virginia may have technically been part of the North during the Civil War, but we were one of the last states still actively fighting racial integration in the 60s) romanticize antebellum chattel slavery. These are people who have seen Gone With the Wind one too many times, and their idea of slavery are happy Mammy’s and Prissy’s who were glad to serve at their master’s beck and call. Clearly, they never read Roots. It is impossible to read Roots or The Autobiography of Malcolm X and have any romantic feelings towards the factual history of slavery and institutional racism in America. Yet, people do. We can add British director Steve McQueen’s masterful film 12 Years a Slave to the list of must-see works on that dark page of American history.

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The Academy Award winner for Best Picture is easily the darkest and most complex film to win that award since Schindler‘s List although for my money 12 Years a Slave is an entirely different class of filmmaking, and it is easily one of the finest films of this decade so far. In fact, 12 Years a Slave has such a richly faceted point to make about morality and ethics that I’m unsure if the Academy actually understood the subtext of the film because films this fatalistic and cynical don’t generally win Academy Awards. As an examination of the way that society is capable of normalizing cruelty and how the institutionalization of cruelty against marginalized groups robs even victims of their ability to empathize with other sufferers as they simply try to avoid more victimization themselves, 12 Years a Slave is a masterful philosophical treatise at a Bergman level.

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York in the 1840s, making a living as a violinist with his wife and two children. Solomon accepts an offer from two men in a traveling circus to play his violin as part of their show, but when they reach Washington, D.C., they drug Solomon and sell him to slave traders. And it isn’t long before Solomon, who was born free and had never been a slave his entire life, is sold to a string of masters in the American South and is exposed to the cruelty and barbarity of antebellum slavery firsthand.

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Upon being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Solomon’s name is changed to Platt, and he is beaten several times within an inch of his life as he protests his new appellation. Solomon must also hide the fact that he can read and write from his new masters because a slave that could read was considered the most dangerous type, even more than runaways. And although Solomon is initially sold to a relatively decent master, Ford (Star Trek Into Darkness‘s Benedict Cumberbatch), it isn’t long before a fight with a cruel overseer results in Solomon’s sale to a brutal and barbaric rapist and sadist, Edwin Epps (X-Men: First Class‘s Michael Fassbender) where he will spend many long years, a witness to not only his own suffering but also that of Patsey (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o), Edwin’s favorite slavegirl that he rapes and abuses at a whim.

The obvious “text” of 12 Years a Slave is that slavery was a barbaric, unfathomably cruel system that no civilized nation can ever explain away. The text is likely what 12 Years a Slave won its Academy Award for, and Steve McQueen captures the barbarism in no uncertain terms. Slave women are raped repeatedly. Solomon and Patsey are both beaten towards the point of death, and we are given graphic looks at their backs where the flesh has literally been ripped from the bone. Mothers and children are ripped apart and when the mothers cry, they are beaten for their tears. McQueen ensures that there is no way to sit through this film and think that slavery was anything other than the evil system of exploitation and cruelty that it was.

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But, what makes 12 Years a Slave the masterpiece it is (and easily the greatest Best Picture winner in over a decade) are the nearly countless levels of subtext in the film. There’s a moment somewhat early in the film where Solomon has nearly been lynched by a foreman of the first plantation he worked on, and although the plantation overseer stops the lynching, he leaves Solomon hanging from the tree for hours to make a point. And in a magnificent long take, you start to see other slaves leaving their dwellings and return to their daily routine. Almost none of them so much as look at Solomon (one kind soul gives him water) and slave children play in the background eventually. It shows how in the world of slaves where you can be beaten or killed for one stray look, no one sticks their neck out for one another. You simply try to survive, and because of that, the film resists the temptation to even romanticize the suffering of the slaves by trying to make them too heroic or noble.

On the other level, even the kindest whites (with one major exception) are only able to extend mercy or understanding to slaves to a certain point before it begins to inconvenience them. At that point, they simply revert to believing that the blacks aren’t real people and that they can’t risk themselves to help them. Ford is kinder to Solomon than any of his other owners, but when Solomon tries to tell Ford that he is truly a free man, Ford refuses to hear any of it and sells him to Edwin Epps even though it’s clear that Ford believes Solomon on some level. And a friendly plantation neighbor to Epps allows Solomon to keep his wages for playing his violin, but he still utilizes Solomon for slave labour in the cotton fields. And, one seemingly friendly white quickly sells Solomon out because he thinks it will make him a quick buck.

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But, the kicker to the film’s themes of how systematic repression and cruelty robs victims of their ability to empathize with one another is a scene with actress Alfre Woodward (Primal Fear) as a former slave who was freed when she married her master (the same man who allowed Solomon to keep his earnings for a violin performance). She has been a slave. She was in the same position that Patsey was in. But, now, she lives in the comfort that is provided to her on the back of the forced labour of her former people. She gives a small speech at the end about the karmic judgment waiting men like her husband, but she seems totally unaware of the hypocrisy of her own position. And it’s because her suffering has created a mindset of “at least, I’ve managed to escape the lash for now.”

It also doesn’t hurt 12 Years a Slave‘s case that it has one of the finest ensemble casts in years. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives one of the best leading man performances of last year (in a year overflowing with superb performances) by playing Solomon’s suffering as realistically and with as little melodrama as possible. Solomon is human, and even he becomes tone deaf to the suffering of those around him on occasion, and by simply making him a man (rather than a symbol for all of slave’s suffering), Ejiofor and McQueen turn him into one of the most well-crafted characters of the 2010s.

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Although I’ve yet to see any of the other Best Supporting Actress performances besides Julia Robert’s in August: Osage County (she’s great in that film, but the movie is terrible and also Roberts was the leading lady), I can’t imagine I’ll be at all upset about Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar win. Although she spends much of her early moments on screen not actually speaking, Nyong’o’s role eventually blossoms into an example of the suffering slave women (particularly beuatiful slave women) faced at the hands of male master’s who saw them not as people but purely as tools for giving them pleasure. And, one of the most memorable scenes of the film’s involves Patsey begging Solomon to kill her and put her out of her misery and his refusal to do so because he knows how much trouble it would be for him if Epps found out.

Michael Fassbender got a well-deserved Academy Award nomination as well (I have trouble believing that Jared Leto was ever better than him in anything but I haven’t seen Dallas Buyer’s Club yet so I can’t judge) as the bordering on psychopathic Edwin Epps. Fassbender makes it clear how brutal and sadistic Epps can be, and his actions in the film are monstrous, but Fassbender never turns Epps into a total monster, and that’s the beauty of his performance. Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, and Sarah Paulson also all shine in smaller roles.

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After a quick scan of the last 20 odd years of Best Picture winners, there seems to be little question that 12 Years a Slave is the best winner of that award since Unforgiven. Although I’ve enjoyed every Best Picture winner of the 2010s, I haven’t thought any of them were remotely Best Picture worthy, and it is beyond refreshing to see a film of this magnificent a caliber finally being rewarded with the highest honor in the film industry. I still have to see most of the other Best Picture winners (the only others I’ve seen so far are Captain Phillips and The Wolf of Wall Street), but 12 Years a Slave has set not only a high bar for them to clear but also any other prestige films to come out the rest of this decade. It is a must-see film event for all who love the fine art of film.

Final Score: A+

 

 

 

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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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The moral spectrum of pre-Clint Eastwood Westerns (High Noon being a notable exception) is fairly easy to delineate. The criminals wear black hats; the heroes wear white hats; and all is right at the end of the day. If there are Indians, they are the bad guys as well. 1953’s Hondo attempts to be a thematically complex film in the vein of High Noon, and while what it believes to be its own enlightened attitude is actually dated and somewhat offensive by today’s standards, Hondo‘s take on the eternal Western conflict between white settles and Native Americans is years ahead of its time. With a constantly surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the Apache, despite their place as the film’s villains, Hondo is a frustrating film that makes steps forward in Native American portrayal in American cinema while also still indulging in racist Hollywood stereotypes.

John Wayne (The Searchers) plays “Hondo” Lane, a half-Apache loner making a living riding dispatch for the United States army in the Western territories as the peace treaty between the U.S. and the Apache has fallen apart because the U.S. broke the treaty and killed Apache without cause. After being ambushed by an Apache patrol, Hondo loses his horse and wanders on foot with his loyal dog Sam into the ranch of abandoned wife Angie Lowe (The Pope of Greenwich Village‘s Geraldine Page) and her young son Johnny (Lee Aaker). Angie’s husband is a worthless layabout and months ago he left Angie and Johnny behind to drink and gamble away his days in a nearby town, leaving Angie to the mercy of any natives who would happen upon her ranch.

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Despite Hondo’s warnings to abandon their ranch because the Apache are on the warpath, Angie and her son stay and Hondo rides off to continue his job. In his absence, an Apache war party led by the noble Vittorio (Michael Pate) invades the Lowe ranch. Angie tries to invoke the friendly relationship her family has had with the Apache in the past but it is to no avail. She and her son are only saved when her son tries to kill one of the Apache warriors to save his mother. Vittorio recognizes the courage of the young boy and makes him an official Apache warrior and leaves mother and son in peace though he tells Angie that she has until the next planting season to choose an Apache husband. And when Hondo realizes that the Lowe’s are in the path of the Apache, he makes his way back towards their ranch with Angie’s jealous husband in his wake.

I say that this film is progressive for the early 1950s but still terribly offensive by modern standards because it gives context for the Apache being pissed off and murdering people as well as creating an almost heroic Apache figure, but it also indulges in many of the worst “noble savage” stereotypes of Western storytelling and once Vittorio disappears from the film, the Apache devolve into a crazed murderous horde with seemingly no direction. But, when Vittorio is around and he’s testing both the Lowe family as well as the values of the half-Apache Hondo, the film seems like it actually has something to say. That thematic energy not only disappears upon his second act death, but the film loses any sense of context or meaning.

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Geraldine Page was nominated for an Academy Award for this film, and although I don’t know if I thought there was anything particularly Oscar-worthy about her performance, she was certainly a better performer than John Wayne. The only thing John Wayne’s ever had going for him was presence, and unlike The Searchers, he doesn’t get the opportunity to put his presence to a more subversive effect. The film also has Gunsmoke‘s James Arness in a smaller bit part, and it was clear just from his few lines that he was going to be somebody later on. John Wayne’s status as one of Hollywood’s most enduring icons has always been something that’s confused me. He’s not a great actor or even a particularly good one, and Hondo most certainly doesn’t rank in the top tier of Wayne roles.

Hondo starts off ponderously slow although it does thankfully take that time to establish the details of life on the Lowe farm as well as Hondo’s past living with the Apache. The action does eventually kick up once Hondo leaves the farm for the first time and realizes that Angie and Johnny being in danger isn’t something he can turn his back on (especially since her husband won’t be doing anything to help them). And for a while, Hondo becomes a surprisingly enjoyable old-fashioned oater. But, it sadly falls apart by the film’s end and the progressive stances it was trying to make early on become merely an interesting afterthought in the story of Hondo. For fans of Westerns, it’s worth a watch. Everybody else can skip out.

Final Score: B-

 

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David Lynch is known for two things: mind-bending surrealism and an uncanny ability to terrify audiences through entirely unconventional means. His best films (Inland Empire, Eraserhead, Mulholland Dr.) tap into both realms through surrealistic nightmares of Freudian psycho-sexual imagery. I’ve been watching Twin Peaks lately (I’m near the beginning of Season 2), and in the episodes where Lynch has the biggest involvement, it too hits those high-notes. 1980s The Elephant Man is without question a Lynch film. His second directorial feature, it features Lynch’s sympathy with the bizarre and cast-aside. But it is also an almost uncharacteristically straight-forward exercise in Lynchean film-making. It lacks much of the surrealism that defines him as a director, and the structure of the film is remarkably simple by Lynch standards. It is also, perhaps, Lynch’s most thematically complex and emotionally rich picture so perhaps leaving the surrealistic flourishes at the door was the correct decision.

Though there is generally an over-riding theme to any given Lynch film (Blue Velvet = pulling back the curtain on suburban tranquility, Inland Empire = the borderline psychotic obsession of the best performers, Eraserhead = a Freudian nightmare of fatherhood), I also don’t think said themes are often the point of that particular Lynch work. They aren’t the reason that people obsess over his films. Lynch is a cinematic technician of the highest order and when modern directors like Gaspar Noé and others aspire to match his work (they rarely do), it is because they recognize his rightful standing as one of the great cinematic visualists. For the first time that I can remember, the visual nature of Lynch’s films takes a back seat (though trust me, it’s still there waiting in the wings) and instead The Elephant Man becomes an almost quiet mediation on cruelty and the perverse nature of voyeurism.

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The Elephant Man is a very loose adaptation of the true story of 19th century Englishman Joseph Merrick (called John in the film and played by Alien‘s John Hurt), who suffers from a truly horrific series of bodily deformities that gives him such a frightening visage that he has been exploited by the circus and dubbed “The Elephant Man.” The film begins with respected British surgeon and anatomist, Frederick Treves (Thor‘s Anthony Hopkins), arriving at the circus and finding himself intrigued by this so-called Elephant Man display which is causing enough of a stir that the police force the circus owner, Bytes (Freddie Jones), to shut down that feature in his display of “freaks.” Treves requests a private viewing where he sees John Merrick for the first time and is struck to tears by the man’s disfigured frame. Treves strikes a monetary deal with Bytes and utilizes John in a medical forum on anatomical abnormalities before returning John to Bytes, under the impression that Merrick can’t speak or understand English.

When John returns to the circus, he gets bronchitis and when Bytes realizes he can’t beat it out of John, he calls Treves back to fix his prized possession. And after an extended stay at the Royal British Hospital, Treves discovers that John is actually capable of speech and has known how to read for most of his life, a fact he’s hidden to avoid beatings from Bytes. After convincing the hospital’s governor, Carr Gomm (The Charge of the Light Brigade‘s John Gielgud), of John’s intelligence, Treves becomes John’s permanent caretaker and mentor. And, though Treves realizes he initially exploited John in a manner similar to Bytes, Treves tries to atone for his early selfishness by helping to integrate John into the upper echelons of British society and to give him a life of comfort and happiness that has constantly eluded him. But, the cruelty and wanton stares that have haunted Merrick his whole life will need more than Treves’s good intentions to disappear.

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John Hurt received a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for his turn as John. For the first thirty or so minutes of the film, I actually thought that Treves was the true main character of the piece, but once John begins actually speaking, he takes his rightful place as the emotional center of the film. Though some could accuse Lynch of portraying Merrick as being inspirationally disadvantaged in a Forrest Gump-esque manner, I actually think the film is a deconstruction of that trope. John’s utilization as a “freak” that happens to be well-spoken and the hottest ticket in upper British society is treated as the exploitation it is, and one of the greatest scenes of the film is Anthony Hopkins (also in a brilliant performance) wondering if he is a good man or a bad man for what he is done. John’s circle in life isn’t complete until he’s truly accepted as a peer by these men and not some novelty for their dissection (and when that finally occurred, I was, of course, in tears).

Here’s a fun fact about The Elephant Man that you may not be aware of. The Best Makeup category at the Academy Awards was invented because of this movie. There was not a category to honor the make-up work in The Elephant Man in 1980, and only a vague special citation had been given in the citation category in the past. If you’ve seen The Elephant Man, you know how absurdly well-done John’s makeup is. I’ve seen photographs of the actual Joseph Merrick, and John Hurt is made to look practically just like him. I miss the pre-2000s days of actual physical special effects. If The Elephant Man were made today, Merrick would probably be some type of CGI creation, and it would rob him of his basic humanity. As an actual physical creation, John becomes a marvelous feat of technical wizardry that looks phenomenal 33 years later.

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That both this and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull lost to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People for Best Director and Best Picture (and to Polanski’s Tess, which is at least a great film, for Best Cinematography) has to be one of the most absurd moments in Academy history. I mentioned that this is one of Lynch’s more subtle films, but I don’t mean that as an insult. His strength as a visually arresting director are still on full display (though his usual surrealist touches are left to dream sequences that are explicitly such). The Elephant Man is shot in a beautiful black-and-white, and in general, the movie’s visual style is an homage to German expressionism of the Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau vareity as well as subtle shout-outs to the Tod Browning cult film, Freaks. Considering the look of this and Eraserhead, part of me wishes that Lynch might have stuck to black & white though his color films are just as good. The movie’s sound design is nearly as interesting as its visual direction as it turns into some nightmare of industrialization.

I’ll draw this review to a close. I want to eat lunch and watch (ironically enough perhaps) some more of season two of Twin Peaks. I didn’t have much time to dive into the thematic statements of the film. The movie is particularly effective in making the audience feel guilty for wanting to know what John looks like. You become as much of a bastard as those that hound him at the train station (which provides the film’s most famous sequence). The Elephant Man provides something that few Lynch films ever do (and this is coming from a huge fan). It provides actual emotional context. The Elephant Man is an almost overwhelmingly sad experience but not in a cheap, exploitative way. This is a David Lynch film for that aren’t generally David Lynch fans.

Final Score: A-

 

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I have a confession to make. I am a Westerns junkie. I obviously don’t think it’s the best film genre, but whether I can intellectually rationalize it or not, Westerns are my ultimate guilty pleasure genre. The elegant simplicity of the Old West mixed with gorgeous on-location shooting and the most mythic of American heroes, the Western gunslinger, make for a reassuring and consistently enjoyable experience. Even when it’s a by the books “oater,” I still find myself able to sit down and enjoy a movie and turn off the critical faculties that I’ve trained myself to have on at every juncture with other films. 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is very much a traditional and conventional Western with virtually no regard for historical accuracy, but as far as classic Westerns go, it’s a fun take on the Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday legend.

I really can’t overstate enough just how little historical accuracy is portrayed in this film. It’s virtually non-existent. Other than the fact that Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp were real people (as well as Wyatt’s brothers) and the fact that there was indeed a gunfight at the O.K. Corral with the Clanton brothers, I’m pretty sure that most of the stuff that happened in this movie was totally made up. That didn’t actually bother me any when I was watching it because at the end of the day, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a fun little “oater.” But, if you want a little historical accuracy in your films about real people, you should probably keep that in mind if you sit down to watch this movie.

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In the late 1800s, lawman Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) finds his way into the town of Fort Griffin chasing criminal rustler Ike Clanton. While there, Earp saves gambler/gunman Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas) from a lynch mob after Holliday kills a man in self-defense. Later, Earp settles down in Dodge City, Kansas where becomes the town Marshall and it isn’t long before Doc Holliday makes his way there as well. Doc Holliday feels he owes Wyatt Earp his life, and he repays his debt by becoming Earp’s deputy and saving Wyatt’s neck on more than one occasion. After catching wind the Clantons have set up shop outside of Tombstone, Arizona, Earp and Holliday make their way to Tombstone which sets up the titular gunfight that serves as the film’s historical climax.

Kirk Douglas was fantastic as Doc Holliday. I’m not sure if his performance was as great as Val Kilmer’s almost effete take on the character in Tombstone (which became arguably the finest performance of Kilmer’s career), and it’s weird to me (as a kid bred on Tombstone) to never hear anybody say “I’ll be your huckleberry,” but Kirk Douglas finds the darker and mercurial side of the Holliday character. As opposed to Wyatt Earp’s more moralistic traditional hero, Kirk Douglas plays up how much of an anti-hero Doc Holliday really was. And there are scenes where he allows himself to become angry with his prostitute girlfriend Kate (Jo Van Fleet) where Douglas becomes legitimately menacing. It’s easy to see where his son Michael got his acting chops. Burt Lancaster was good as well although the part of Wyatt Earp required much less.

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I’ll keep this review short because I want to maybe try to finish Season 1 of Star Trek: The Next Generation today and I honestly don’t have much more to say about this movie than I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot although I also recognize that there’s nothing special or unique about it (other than Kirk Douglas’s performance). So, if you’re a fan of classic Westerns and white hats versus black hats (though ironically enough, Wyatt Earp wears a black hat the entire film), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s a fun way to pass two hours. And on one last side note, I just did some quick research about the actual events leading up to and surrounding the titular fight, and it’s kind of hilarious just how inaccurate this film is.

Final Score: B

 

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Occasionally, I will watch a large-budget, Hollywood blockbuster that is such an unmitigated failure that I have to wonder how anyone, anywhere possibly thought this was a good idea. These are films that are an appalling mish-mash of over-acting, over-directing, absurd bombast, and melodramatic emoting. And it’s been a long time since I’ve watched a major Hollywood feature (let alone a Best Picture nominee) that was as much of a train-wreck as 2012’s film adaptation of the longest running stage musical of all time, Les Miserables. With a few shining rays of competence to make it even passably bearable, Les Miserables can be politely termed “catastrophic.”

Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) should have his Best Director Academy Award retroactively revoked for this pompous, unfocused, absurd drivel. Not that he should have won in 2010 (that was clearly either Darren Aranofsky or David Fincher‘s year), but his Les Miserables is such an excruciatingly unwatchable mess that one has to wonder if this was even the same man. In fact, were it not for Tom Hooper’s love of the close-up (which he abuses beyond belief in this film, but more on that shortly), I would find it impossible to believe it was the same man. As a life-long lover of musical theater, Les Miserables was one of the most painful cinematic experiences of my adult life.

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For those unfamiliar with the Broadway musical or Victor Hugo’s excellent source novel, the plot of Les Miserables is almost like something out of Shakespeare (except where characters are even more unbearably archetypal). After serving a 19 year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving son, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released from prison but his status as an ex-con makes him unemployable in Revolutionary France. After stealing silver from a church, the bishop (the original West End Jean Valjean) refuses to press charges against Jean Valjean and gives him the silver with the charge to turn his life around. And though Valjean keeps his word, that freedom comes with a price.

Jean Valjean breaks his parole and opens a factory though he spends the next eight years on the run from honorable but imperious Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). After one of Valjean’s workers, the beautiful Fantine (Rachel Getting Married‘s Anne Hathaway), is fired by the foreman for having a child she’s kept secret, Fantine is forced into prostitution and destitution and it is only Valjean’s generosity that keeps her child from starving and dying alone. However, by showing Fantine kindness, Valjean awakens the suspicions of Inspector Javert and though Valjean plans on given Fantine’s daughter Corsette (played as a grown-up by Amanda Seyfried) a better life, he must do it knowing that Javert will hunt him for the rest of his life as the backdrop of the French Revolution takes hold.

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I’ll at least by kind enough to this disastrous film to assure you that there are, in fact, occasional bright spots to this otherwise unending torture. Anne Hathaway is only on screen for about 15 minutes, but her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” works very well even though her voice isn’t powerful enough for that iconic number. On one of the few occasions that the film’s over-use of close-ups works for its intended purposes, the song lets Hathaway show off some really impressive facial expressions and she nails the emotional subtext of the number. While I still think Sally Field did a better job in Lincoln, I can at least see why the Academy decided to give the award to Hathaway.

Sacha Baron Cohen (Hugo) and Helena Bonham Carter (Conversations With Other Women) brought some much needed levity to the film as the two inkeepers who “care” for Corsette and the performance of “Master of the House” was one of my two favorite numbers from the film (of only about three that I even enjoyed). However, the truest joy of the film was Samantha Barks turn as Eponine. It was one of the only unadulterated delights of the picture. Maybe because Eponine is the most compelling character in the musical, “On My Own” is the best song, and Samantha Barks played her in the West End production, but every too short moment that Eponine on the screen reminded me why I loved musicals and why Les Miserables failed to meet the standards of say Chicago or Sweeney Todd.

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But for those small blessings, you had to suffer through three hours of ineptitude. Even an established Broadway star like Hugh Jackman (who won a Tony for his fierce portrayal of Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz) was excruciatingly miscast as Jean Valjean. Jackman’s voice is simply too nasal for the part and it made him sound sharp on all of Jean Valjean’s high notes. Russell Crowe can not sing. That is just a scientific fact, and to quote a friend, “I think it was his singing that caused the French revolution.” Rex Harrison made it work as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady even though he couldn’t sing. Not even the kindest critique could say the same thing about Russell Crowe.

And, to watch Tom Hooper reduce one of the most beloved Broadway musicals of all time to essentially a three hour long music video was so frustrating. I say that because of the hectic, spastic directing and editing (not just because there is no spoken dialogue in the film. It’s all sung) which is frenetic without being meaningful. The only times Hooper lets the camera stay still for more than a couple seconds is during some of the more emotional musical numbers which are done in long takes, but he so overdoes the long close-up that it just becomes as gimmicky as the rest of the visual aesthetic of the film.

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Understanding that Les Miserables is a brutal and dark tale of fatalism, eternal suffering, tuberculosis, poverty, and the price of redemption, I know that Les Miserables will not be as fun or campy as most of the musicals I actually enjoy. But, the film never earns the emotional core it so desperately seeks and becomes a soulless shell of the epic tale it wishes to present. It also doesn’t help that the narrative structure of having everyone sing all of the lines adds a certain amount of “narm” to the proceedings. Because people singing about poverty and love and the French Revolution is impossible to always take seriously (especially when paired with Hooper’s catastrophic directing).

I don’t know who I can tell to watch this movie. If you’re a fan of the stage show, maybe you’ll like it. I have to question your sanity, but maybe you’d enjoy it. I disliked this movie so much that I almost have trouble believing I could even enjoy a full Broadway production of Les Miserables, and as I’ve said, I’m a lifelong fan of live musical theatre. What I will ultimately remember about Les Miserables is that it may come to define to me a film that is simply an avalanche of bad decisions and incompetence all rolled into one massive blockbuster clufsterf***. Leave this alone and just rewatch Chicago for the millionth time instead.

Final Score: C-

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The reader of this review needs to imagine a long and deep sigh to preface these proceedings. You do it? Good. I’ve watched my fair share of lengthy films for this blog. Lawrence of Arabia, Das Boot, and (more recently) Django Unchained spring to mind. And while occasionally films can make perfect use of their length from beginning to end (The Tree of Life or Margaret), the previously mentioned films all lost some points for their bloated states. Not everything needed to be there. But still (with the exception of Lawrence of Arabia which had a plethora of problems in addition to its length), the interminable length of some movies was usually a minor price to pay for an otherwise great picture. 1957’s Civil War epic, Raintree County is not a great film by any stretch, and it’s near three hour run time is torturous. The movie has its share of moments though, and Liz Taylor is truly phenomenal. It’s a shame then that a good half of the film could probably have been excised for the better.

Set in the years leading up to the American Civil War, Raintree County is a romantic melodrama cut from the distinct 1950s mold with Gone With the Wind ambitions lacking the Gone With the Wind spectacle (not that I actually think Gone With the Wind is that great of a movie either). John Shawnessy (Montgomery Clift) has just graduated high school and is deeply in love with his high school sweetheart, Nell Gaither (Eva Marie Saint). After falling under the spell of vixenish Susanna Drake (Giant‘s Elizabeth Taylor) and winning an important foot race (it makes sense in context), John accidentally impregnates Susanna after a one night stand and marries her from his sense of honor. And, it isn’t long after marrying Susanna that John discovers that she is… unstable and that the secrets from her past may come back to haunt him as the spectre of the Civil War begins to weigh over the entire nation.

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The performances in the film were actually very good. This was the first Monty Clift film I had ever seen, and he was very impressive (especially when I learned that he nearly died during principal photography and his face was terribly scarred in a car accident). One of the first big “Method” film stars, Monty Clift turned John into a wounded and sensitive young hero that went against the mold of many of the ultra-masculine film stars of the era. In fact, I also read that he was James Dean’s favorite actor, and you can see the influence he would have on James Dean in every line of his face. Every facial expression Dean used in Rebel Without a Cause is also on full display with Monty Clift in this film and apparently Monty Clift was doing it first (although this film is newer than Rebel). Also, for one of Hollywood’s most famous early homosexuals, he still had a sizzling sexual chemistry with co-star Elizabeth Taylor (although I’ve since read that he was bisexual).

And, speaking of miss Liz Taylor, she kind of blew me away in this movie. I was a big fan of her work in Giant (one of her only really high profile roles I think I’ve watched for this blog. Well, that and Life With Father, but I hated that movie), but I was not prepared for her performance in this film. She received an Academy Award nomination (she lost to Joanne Woodward for The Three Faces of Eve which I’ve never seen), and it was well deserved. Similar to Monty Clift, Liz Taylor’s acting style was light years ahead of its time. She wasn’t quite a Method actress, but her raw sexuality and ferocity as her mental illness takes over was a type of commitment to the part that was rarely seen from female actresses of that era. I wasn’t as impressed with Eva Marie Saint, although her role was slighter, and I know from On the Waterfront that she’s a great actress in her own right.

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Sadly, good acting does not a three hour long film make. And that’s where the film’s problems arise. When the electric personality of Susanna was there to create a sense of intrigue, tension, and, ultimately, danger, Raintree County become surprisingly enjoyable. Although John is perhaps, finally, too noble of a figure, his descent into the seduction of Susanna and then the price he has to pay because of how psychotic she is makes for great drama, and for a film set in the 1950s, there was clearly a slight message of civil rights written into the film (all of the “villains” opposed abolition). But, when the film turned its attention to the romantic tensions between John and Nell, I honestly couldn’t give a shit. And the film’s opening drags and drags until you finally get a feel for the characters and what the dramatic conflict of the film may be. Raintree County is not a shining example of a well-paced script and just as the beginning drags so does the end until it suddenly and swiftly closes in an absurd manner.

If you’re a fan of Civil War melodramas like Gone With the Wind, you’ll probably enjoy Raintree County much more than I did. I was actually leaning towards a “B-” for this film because despite its egregious flaws, the good stuff was actually keeping me attentive. But the aforementioned ending, which made me go from feeling like it was dragging immensely to suddenly ending without much warning (which seems as impossible as it sounds), dropped it down a grade. I think for fans of older romantic dramas (of which I usually am not), this movie’s good sides will outweigh its bad sides. For everybody else, I’m sure you can find a better way to spend three hours.

Final Score: C+

P.S. The video transfer of the copy of this film that I got from Netflix is arguably one of the worst I’ve ever seen in my entire life. This looked like a VHS copy of a film. Not a DVD copy.

 

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Oh Quentin Tarantino, why do you tease me so? When was your last truly consistent film? Jackie Brown? Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Inglourious Basterds (especially Basterds) are overflowing with brilliant moments, but they are either flawed in some structural way (Basterds) are simply, intentionally not serious (Kill Bill and Basterds). I honestly believe that he hasn’t been able to put together a consistently perfect film from beginning to end since his Jackie Brown/Pulp Fiction heyday. His penchant for excess and for cartoonish genre caricatures have taken over his rock solid characterizations and peerless ear for quotable dialogue. As a long-time fan of the Western genre and Quentin Tarantino, I’ve long awaited Django Unchained, and while the film is literally perfect for an hour and fifteen minutes (possibly the best work Tarantino has ever done for that time frame of the film), Tarantino’s juvenile sensibilities and lack of an internal editor turned Django into a bloated, imperfect “what could have been.”

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the film. Django Unchained is an unquestionably great film. The missteps it takes generally remain in the shadow of the moments of true inspiration in the film although they are just glaring enough to consistently draw you out of the picture. The stretch of the film where Tarantino nails the themes he’s trying to capture (more on that later) are dark, complex, morally ambiguous, and consistently subversive in a way that only Tarantino seems to be able to achieve. But because the film decides it has something to serious to say, it’s general inability to see through on those grand statements and it’s constant devolvement into slapstick-levels of comedic violence creates a frustrating and ultimately immature emotional dichotomy for the movie that begins to tear itself apart from the inside as Django progresses.

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Two years before the beginning of the Civil War (which lends a dark fatalism to the timing of most of the film), German bounty hunter/retired dentist King Schultz (two time Oscar-winner Christoph Schultz) makes a living killing criminals for the U.S. Government. They may be wanted “dead or alive,” but dead is easier to transport. As the film begins, Dr. Schultz is hunting the Brittle brothers, three former foreman on a large slave plantation. Schultz’s only lead is Django (Horrible Bosses‘ Jamie Foxx), a slave from that same plantation who has been separated from his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Schultz buys Django (in a classic Tarantino cold-open) with the promise that if he can help him find the Brittle Brothers, Schultz will give Django his freedom and $75. And the hunt for the Brittle brothers is only the first act of the film.

After Django and Schultz score the Brittle Brothers Bounty (I can’t possibly imagine that being a spoiler), the real meat of the film begins when Django joins Schultz to become a bounty hunter in his own right so that he can buy the freedom of his wife. And after a winter of hunting criminals, Django and Schultz track down Broomhilda’s new owner, a Francophile slave master and slave fighting ring baron, Calvin Candie (The Departed‘s Leonardo DiCaprio). Understanding that Candie won’t sell Broomhilda at a reasonable price willingly, Django and Schultz concoct a plan to infiltrate Candie’s plantation, “Candieland” (I shit you not), to free Django’s beloved. And if that means that Django will have to go undercover as a black slaver (the lowest of the low in the 19th century black community), so be it, although the real threat may not be Candie but Candie’s scheming head house slave Stephen (The Avengers‘ Samuel L. Jackson) who immediately loathes the free Django.

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Like every Tarantino film before it, Django Unchained‘s greatest strength in addition to its stellar dialogue is the absurd depth of its cast. Jamie Foxx’s performance is probably the slightest out of the primary characters (well, Kerry Washington’s performance is fairly forgettable but she’s rarely on screen and her characterization is intentionally paper-thin), but even he finds the steel and anger that transforms Django into the force of pure revenge he becomes by film’s end. Christoph Waltz won an Oscar for playing King Schultz (his second for a Tarantino film) and while Schultz isn’t nearly as compelling or complex as Basterd‘s Hans Landa, but Christoph Waltz is one of the best foreign actors to grace American screens in decades so I’ll forgive Tarantino if he couldn’t make this role quite as great as the past one (though Philip Seymour Hoffman should have won for The Master. Him or Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln).

Funnily enough, I don’t even think that Christoph Waltz gave the best performance in the film. That was either Leonardo DiCaprio’s Candie or Sam Jackson’s Stephen. I know that’s an unpopular opinion but both characters were far more complex and better written, and they required more talent to play, and both actors seemingly totally lost themselves in the part. I might even go as far to say that Candie is possibly the best performance of DiCaprio’s career. He took to the bad guy so much better than I could have ever expected. Candie has a slick, charming side, but DiCaprio also displays the fierce evil and anger rooting in his heart. And Sam Jackson… just Jesus. In the entire Tarantino canon, Stephen makes a strong case as the most despicable/brilliant villain yet (only behind Hans), and Sam Jackson’s devotion to brutalizing every classic Uncle Tom stereotype ever is insane. DiCaprio and Jackson were robbed of Oscar nominations.

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And, as I’ve said, the film’s second act is perfect. Literally. It’s probably the best hour or so any Tarantino film ever made. And that’s saying something since I worship the man. It has something serious to say about slavery, revenge, and the moral inequities we are willing to commit in the name of something good. Unlike a lot of films about slavery, it is not watered down in this movie whatsoever. In fact, its portrayal of slavery is so dark (and accurate) that it may come as a shock to many modern audiences. And Django nearly loses himself in the character he has to portray in order to enter Candie’s farm. He allows slaves to die and be beaten and he is as awful to them as the whites just to rescue his wife. It’s moral ambiguity at it’s finest, and up to a climactic dinner where Django and Schultz are on the cusp of freeing Broomhilda.

Which makes the rest of the film such a frustrating affair. Don’t get me wrong, I could watch the film’s final forty minutes over and over again. I could watch Jamie Foxx kill slave-owners in an orgiastic display of blood lust all day, but what makes that explosion of violence different from Basterds is the lack of a metatextual subtext shaming the audience for enjoying the gore so much (i.e. Inglourious Basterds eventually became a satire of overly nationalistic war films). Django is simply a revenge fantasy played brutally straight. Except not because it’s a cartoon in live-action for gore-chasing grown-ups. I understand that something can be both serious and juvenile, but Tarantino doesn’t toe that line as well in Django as say Woody Allen or even Chasing Amy-era Kevin Smith. And because of the movie’s constant mood whiplash, you can never tell when you’re supposed to be taking a scene seriously and when you’re supposed to be laughing at the silliness of it all.

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I loved Django Unchained. When it was done, my dad and I talked about how much I enjoyed it but I also had to immediately temper it with the various criticisms that I laid down before. I would have loved to see a version of this film that Tarantino plays more seriously. I think that could have been the best movie Tarantino had ever made. As it is, Django Unchained has all of the hallmarks of a great Quentin Tarantino film. Sharply realized characters, quotable dialogue, a distinct visual style, and a never-ending supply of fun. But it also falls prey to all of the curses facing his most recent crop of films, mostly an excess of violence removed from a serious context. It’s not enough to make me not love this movie and I’m sure I’ll watch the hell out of it like I have every Tarantino film, but it fails to reach the apex of Tarantino greatness because it doesn’t seem to know exactly what movie it wants to be.

Final Score: A-

P.S.: It may however have the best Tarantino soundtrack ever for what that’s worth.

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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+