Wednesday, January 23, 2013


It's taken me a while to get the necessary distance to review Kathryn Bigelow's controversial but critically acclaimed CIA procedural thriller, ZERO DARK THIRTY. The movie is meant to be an account of how US intelligence tracked down Osama Bin Laden, ending with a recreation on the fatal raid on his house in Abbotabad.  But it goes further than just being a fiction inspired by facts, as Tony Kushner would claim for the scrupulously researched LINCOLN.  Rather, Bigelow's movie opens with a statement of aggressive alignment with the truth, before playing real telephone calls from the Twin Towers.  So, before we even see an actor on screen, Bigelow has asked us to take her movie as THE definitive truth, and emotionally manipulated us by playing harrowing real audio from Bin Laden's most devastating terrorist attack.

We then move into the first two hours of the film, which is basically a standard police procedural, except that it features copious quantities of torture, which are shown to provide the information that leads directly to Bin Laden. Jessica Chastain is perfectly cast as Maya. She looks vulnerable and slight and this nicely contradicts her determination to the follow a slight lead despite her superiors' scepticism, even to the point of participating in graphically and unrelentingly depicted torture.  Of course, one can see Bigelow's not too thinly veiled metaphor for a female director's struggle in Hollywood, and every scene of genuine peril or tension is offset by the scenes of clichéd struggle against The Man. Did the real Maya theatrically and childishly use a marker to chalk up how many days the CIA knew about Abbotabad and refused to act?  Would a character as senior as Mark Strong's director really unleash a standard macho shouty tirade at his team?  It all felt rather written by rote. This was most evident in the sequence where a colleague of Maya's arranges a meeting with a potential lead - a meeting that is built up to be tense but where I was always aware of its dramatic purpose and obvious consequences.

The part of the movie that worked best for me was the final half hour, where Bigelow meticulously depicts the raid on Abbotabad, showing great technical accomplishment in her use of night vision equipment in conjunction with standard camera lenses, working in zero natural light.  I also respected the discretion with which she hinted at, but did not show the death and body of Bin Laden. And perhaps the  most finely judged dramatic moment of the film is the final shot, where Maya, mission accomplished, is left with the horrible existential, deeply political question "where do you want to go?"

The problem is that ZERO DARK THIRTY only deals in such political and moral sophistication in its final scene.  Up to that point, we are in no doubt that it is torture that produces the information that leads to Bin Laden.  For Bigelow, and her screenwriter Mark Boal, to suggest that they are just neutrally depicted "what happened" is disingenuous.  This is problematic.  Not only because it severely streamlines and simplifies a very complex issue, but because movies do not exist in a social and political vacuum as pure works of art with no consequences.  I am unsurprised to see the CIA measured but clearly angry denial that this is an accurate portrait of the hunt for Bin Laden, and to say that the content of this film will be inflammatory in certain quarters is an understatement. 

ZERO DARK THIRTY is on release in the USA, Spain, Canada, the Philippines, Taiwan, Portugal, Macedonia, France, Juwait, the Netherlands, Singapore, Finland, Ireland and the UK. It opens on January 31st in Belgium, Argentina, Australia, Germany, Israel, New Zealand, Lithuania, Sweden and Turkey. It opens on February 8th in Denmark, Italy, Estonia, Iceland, Norway and Poland. It opens on February 15th in Brazil and Japan; and on February 22nd in Chile, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Russia and Bulgaria.

ZERO DARK THIRTY is rated R in the USA and has a running time of 157 minutes.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

DJANGO UNCHAINED - Castigat ridendo mores

Quentin Tarantino returns to our screens with his gonzo Western homage slash anti-slavery revenge movie DJANGO UNCHAINED. It's arguably his best work since PULP FICTION - a movie so tightly drawn, so beautifully produced, so funny, so earnest, so delicately handled. Yes! Delicately handled.  There may be the trademark pulpy shootouts, and those archetypal Tarantino tense long-form dialogue scenes, but watch how Tarantino handles the politics of slavery here.  It's so deft, so respectful, so bracing, it achieves in the context of a pulp mash-up what no earnest AMISTAD like film could achieve.

The first shot of the three hour epic is of Jamie Foxx's whip-scarred back. The camera holds its gaze, forcing us to internalise what slavery really means.  It's not the forced silence of Hollywood, only to be occasionally broken by Mammy in GONE WITH THE WIND, or Spielberg's dignified oppressed. It's violent, and sadistic, sweat and blood-stained.  Throughout the film, Tarantino shocks us with visions of slaves in hook ringed chains, metal face guards, branding irons and most appallingly, a torture chamber called a hotbox. I don't think any movie has brought us up close to the reality of slavery, and given us, in the form of Christoph Waltz' Dr King Schultz, a liberal almost preternaturally modern pair of eyes through which to view it. Then notice how carefully Tarantino shows us the violence of slavery.  When he wants us to see something, he holds the camera on it, preventing us from looking away. But look how carefully he shows us Broomhilda's (Kerry Washington) limp body being wheelbarrowed out of the hotbox.  He's very careful to show us the horror without exploitatively showing us her nakedness. Or in another key episode, look at how he shows us the sadistic plantation owner and Mandingo fighting boss Calvin Candie (Leonardo di Caprio) ordering a runaway slave to be torn apart by dogs.  We hear the horror, and see it reflected it the faces of the onlookers, and we see fleeting glimpses, but Tarantino is careful not to exploit it. Even in a pivotal later seen, when our conscious, Dr Schultz, remembers it, the powerful imagery is held to a minimum.  

The film falls into three broad parts. In Act One, we meet Dr Schultz, a bounty hunter with a smooth tongue and a faster trigger-finger, as he  meets and frees the slave Django. Waltz is characteristically charismatic, holding our attention as the film's hero, almost to the detriment of Django, at least until the final act.  They make a deal - Django will help him as a bounty hunter, and then he'll help Django find and free his beloved Broomhilda.  In the second act, the initial bounty has been killed, and we move to a kind of training montage. Django becomes a sharp-shooter, and the two form a bond as Schultz explains the significance of the Siegried-Brunnhilda legend.  Our heroes have a run-in with the Clan, that plays like something out of a Coen Brothers movie.  For me, this second act was the weakest of the piece. It felt like the film was meandering, and I particularly disliked the stunt casting of Jonah Hill as it brought me out of the film.  In the final act, our heroes meet the real anti-hero of the piece, Calvin Candie and his sidekick, the obsequious head house slave Stephen (Samuel L Jackson).   This is where the true horror of slavery is exposed, where Di Caprio gets to chew up the scenery, and where righteous anger is unleashed.

The structure, revenge motif and complete mastery of DJANGO bears no small resemblance to INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, but this film feels more tightly written, less meandering and more focussed.  There's nothing as memorable or as tense as the initial scene where the Nazi general is sitting in the French farmhouse looking for hidden Jews, or as the bar-room scene where the English spy is given away, but as a complete movie, DJANGO feels superior. 

I think the courage to show what slavery was, and the restraint in showing it, especially in the context of what is essentially an exploitation-revenge movie, makes DJANGO UNCHAINED a peerless film - certainly one of the finest of Tarantino's career, and easily the most important.  But if all that makes it sound too earnest, rest assured that this is also a movie for cinema lovers - full of references to old classics, belly-laugh dialogue and ludicrous shoot-outs.  You will enjoy this film, and be educated by stealth - the perfect combination.

DJANGO UNCHAINED is on release in the USA, Canada, Belgium, France, Chile, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Kuwait, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Macedonia, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Albania, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden and the UK. It opens on January 25th in  Australia, Denmark, New Zealand, Portugal, Lithuania and Uruguay. It opens on January 31st in Argentina, on February 27th in Taiwan, on March 1st in Japan, on March 21st in Singapore and in March 29th in India. 

DJANGO UNCHAINED is rated R in the USA and has a running time of 165 minutes.

Saturday, January 12, 2013


Helena Bonham Cartier as the devious Madame Thenardier
For the improbable few who don't know, Les Miserable is a remarkable novel by Victor Hugo, set in mid nineteenth century, post-Napoleonic France.  The main character is a good but traduced man called Jean Valjean who lives under an alias to escape his convict past.  He is hunted by Javert, a cop whose strict adherence to the rule of law will not admit mercy or humanity.  In the first half, Valjean is redeemed by the mercy of a priest, witnesses the death of a seamstress turned hooker called Fantine and promises to care for her daughter Cosette. Together they escape Javert in the anonymity of Paris.  In the second half, Cosette falls in love with a revolutionary young aristo called Marius, who is also beloved by the sad little innkeepers' daughter, Eponine. Valjean realises that rather than escape Javert by fleeing to London, he must save Marius from certain death on the barricade. In doing so, he challenges Javert to let him pass with the dying boy, thus fundamentally destroying Javert's worldview and self worth.  Javert commits suicide, and Valjean dies, his family knowing his true worth. 

In the 1980s, the novel was reworked as a musical by Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alan Boublil. They stripped the Victor Hugo classic of its baggy social exposition leaving the bare bones of a story of young love crossed with a tragedy of redemption versus the rule of law. They also added a handful of truly superb songs and the comic relief of the con-artist inn-keepers, the Thenardiers. The result was a product of memorable songs, and overt sentimentality.  The only character of any real psychological interest was the conflicted Javert.  Even poor Eponine, suffering unrequited love, is so good that she leads her beloved Marius to Cosette.  It is, then, almost uniquely, a movie in which all the major characters are wholly good, and their songs speak to worthy but unfulfilled longing.  There are no song and dance numbers here. It's just torch song after torch song interspersed with the one truly comic number at the inn.

I am conflicted about Tom Hooper's translation of the musical to the big screen.  There is much to be commended.  He forces the actors to sing live during the take, rather than miming to a prerecorded track, giving the movie an emotional authenticity that is entirely novel.  Surely movie musicals can never go back from this new high bar?  Hooper is also unabashedly faithful to the original - capturing its grandeur and melodrama, ringing every last tear from his audience. I doubt any fan of the original will be disappointed with this on-screen translation. Hooper is fortunate in his cast. Hugh Jackman's background in musical theatre is well known and it shines through here with his heartbreaking Valjean. We have seen Amanda Seyfried sing in MAMA MIA! and are unsurprised by her pretty but slightly too trilly soprano.  Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne as Fantine and Marius prove to be highly capable singers too.   The only weak link is Russell Crowe as Javert, but I didn't mind this at all as it is far more important that we believe his psychological deterioration in the final act - an d Crowe sells this well.  Of course, it was predictable that Eponone, played by Sarah Barkman, would be a scene-stealer given her theatrical background, and as usual we get the Papageno/Poor Joe effect with little Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche.  As comic turns, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are predictably superb as the Thenardiers. 

Behind the camera, I love the ambition of Tom Hooper's vision.  The first scene that rises through murky waters to high above a dangerously listing great ship.  The choice of a beautifully ornate Catholic Church on an isolated hilltop for Valjean's conversion.  The use of colour in the scenes with barricades - the red of Enjolras' coat.  The metaphor of having Javert always walk on the edge of the precipice.  I particularly liked the idea of Fantine singing "I dreamed a dream" almost immediately after selling herself for the first time, utterly destroyed and vulnerable.

But there is one directorial choice that I found utterly grating, and for which I think the Academy was right to deny Hooper a Best Director nomination because it is so very fundamental to the success of the film. As I said before, Les Mis is different because the songs are rather uniform. There are no song and dance numbers, and only one out and out comic turn. Rather we have a mix of earnest, heartbreaking torch songs and earnest heartbreaking doomed political chants. Unfortunately, Hooper has chosen not to  vary his style of filming. In general he cuts between camera angles but keeps his camera still and focused, often in extreme close-up, on the singer.  I get this with Valjean's conversion. And I get it for Fantine's big turn.  But for every other song? By the time I got to Marius' "Empty chairs at empty tables" I was desperate for some kind of variation, and this detracted from Redmayne emoting his heart out. This lack of directorial imagination, or perhaps the fixation with a novel idea that was taken too far, is this movie's Achilles Heel.  So that while it works emotionally, and the performances and design impress, as a work of pure cinema, it fails. 

LES MISERABLES is on release in Japan, Australia, Hong Kong, Canada, Singapore, Spain, the USA, Hungary, Malaysia, the Czech Republic, Kuwait, Lebanon, Portugal, Bulgaria, Lithuania, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Ireland, Mexico, the UK and Vietnam.  It opens on January 18th in Estonia, Iceland, Norway and Sweden; on January 25th in Poland and Romania; on January 31st in Italy, Slovenia, Thailand and Brazil; on February 8th in Russia and Taiwan; on February 14th in Cyprus, France, Argentina and Greece; on February 21st in Belgium, Germany and Finland; on March 1st in Turkey and on March 21st in Denmark.

LES MISERABLES is rated PG 13 in the USA and the running time is 157 minutes.

Thursday, January 10, 2013


GANGSTER SQUAD is a movie that's all style and no substance. The post WW2, Los Angeles crime thriller has beautiful people (Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin) in beautiful costumes, trying to say cool things while in mortal danger.  But where Curtis Hanson/James Elroy's, LA CONFIDENTIAL,  was slippery and seductive and genuinely scary at times. Ruben Fleisher's GANGSTER SQUAD is about as cartoonish and risible as Warren Beatty's DICK TRACY.  Nowhere is that more obvious that in the hero and antihero.  Josh Brolin's fearless cop O'Mara is an earnest meat-head. Every decision he takes in hunting down Sean Penn's real-life gangster Mickey Cohen is plain dumb.  O'Mara blunders through this movie, all muscle and no irony, and we're left wondering why his marvellously clever wife (The Killing's Mireille Enos - the only heart-warming performance in the film) sticks with him.  As for Sean Penn as O'Mara's nemesis, this is his worst performance in some time, not helped by the fact that he's under so much make-up he looks like a parody on Mickey Rourke.

The plot, such as it is, sees the one clean senior cop bring together an off-the-books gangster squad of policeman, led by O'Mara, to kick Cohen's ass out of town. It's a band of misfits and clichés - a sharpshooter - a token African American, a token Latin American - a brain (Giovanni Ribisi, whose characteristic over-acting does not look out of place here) - and the Face man (Ryan Gosling).  Naturally the Face man falls for the gangster's moll (Emma Stone) leading to a hackneyed side-plot, but in a movie painted with this broad a brush are we really surprised that all basically ends well in the best of all worlds?

GANGSTER SQUAD was a great disappointment. I'd imagined great things from Ruben Fleisher after his genuinely witty and original ZOMBIELAND.  I partly blame Will Beall's plodding script full of mono-dimensional characters. But at the end of the day, it's the director who directs bland performances, decided to use anachronistic, cheap, Zack Snyder-y, vis effects, and generally drags down the tone of the production.  

GANGSTER SQUAD is on release in Belgium, Australia, Chile, Ireland, the Netherlands, Singapore, the UK, Canada, Estonia, India, Lithuania, Norway, Romania, Sweden, Taiwan and the USA. It opens on January 17th in Argentina, Denmark, Hong Kong and New Zealand; on January 24th in Germany, Greece, Kuwait, Russia and Iceland; on January 31st in Hungary, Slovenia, Brazil, Bulgaria and Turkey; on February  7th in France, Portugal and Spain; on February 21st in Italy; on March 1st in Finland and on May 3rd in Japan.

GANGSTER SQUAD is rated R in the USA, and has a running time of 113 minutes.

Oscar Surprises On The Upside

Gael Garcia Bernal stars in Pablo Larrain's superb Chilean
political dramedy NO - deservedly nominated for Best Foreign Language Film

This may well be the least controversial set of Oscar nominations in decades.  No obviously great works are missed, except in the Best Documentary category, where I would have expected to see WEST MEMPHIS THREE, MEA MAXIMA CULPA and CHASING ICE.  Similarly, the large set of nominations for LES MIS seems, frankly, bizarre, but this is more than offset by the utterly genius inclusion of Pablo Larrain's Chilean political dramedy, NO.  I'm sure it will be beaten by Haneke's AMOUR, but the nomination alone should raise awareness of this funny, politically astute and technically brilliant film starring Gael Garcia Bernal.

All this aside, the  key message was that the early lead established by Ben Affleck's superb thriller, ARGO, has been usurped by Ang Lee's imaginative and visually stunning LIFE OF PI, and Stephen Spielberg's mesmerizing LINCOLN.  I suspect LINCOLN may well sweep the major categories with LIFE OF PI, ARGO and maybe ZERO DARK THIRTY sharing the rest of the spoils.  However, of these first three major films, I'd be happy no matter who takes the Oscars, as all three are stunning pieces of work.  A true upset would be if SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK won anything other than Best Screenplay or LES MIS got any awards at all.

As usual, you can see the full list of noms below. I've put the likely winner in UPPERCASE and placed an asterisk by the nominee I think deserves to win.

Ben Affleck's brilliant political thriller ARGO has lost its early lead to

BEST PICTURE: Amour; Argo; Beats of the Southern Wild; Django Unchained; Les Misérables; Life of Pi; LINCOLN*; Silver Linings Playbook; Zero Dark Thirty.

BEST ACTOR: Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook; DANIEL DAY-LEWIS*, Lincoln; Hugh Jackman, Les Mis; Joaquin Phoenix, The Master; Denzel Washington, Flight.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Alan Arkin, Argo; Robert de Niro, Silver Linings Playbook; Philip Seymour Hoffman*, The Master; TOMMY LEE JONES, Lincoln; Christopher Waltz, Django Unchained.

BEST ACTRESS: JESSICA CHASTAIN, Zero Dark Thirty; Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook; Emmanuelle Riva*, Amour; Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild; Naomi Watts, The Impossible. 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Amy Adams*, The Master; SALLY FIELD, Lincoln; Anne Hathaway, Les Mis; Helen Hunt, The Sessions; Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook.

Daniel Day-Lewis must be a dead cert for Best Actor as LINCOLN,
and should lead this film to the most Oscar wins.

BEST ANIMATED FILM: Brave, Frankenweenie, PARANORMAN, Pirates!*, Wreck-it Ralph.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Seamus McGarvey, Anna Karenina; Robert Richardson, Django Unchained; Claudio Miranda, Life of Pi; Janusz Kaminski, Lincoln; ROGER DEAKINS*, Skyfall.

BEST COSTUMES: Jacqueline Durran, Anna Karenina; Paco Delgado, Les Mis; Joanna Johnston, Lincoln; EIKO ISHIOKA*, Mirror Mirror; Colleen Atwood, Snow White and the Huntsman.

BEST DIRECTOR: Michael Haneke, Amour; Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild; Ang Lee, Life of Pi; STEVEN SPIELBERG*, Lincoln; David O Russell, Silver Linings Playbook.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: 5 Broken Cameras; The Gatekeepers; How To Survive A Plague; The Invisible War; SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN*

BEST EDITING: William Goldenberg, Argo; Tim Squyres*, Life of Pi; Michael Kahn, Lincoln; Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers, Silver Linings Playbook; DYLAN TICHENOR AND WILLIAM GOLDENBERG, Zero Dark Thirty.


BEST MAKEUP AND HAIR: Howard Berger, Peter Montagna and Martin Samuel, Hitchcock; Peter Swords King, Rick Findlater and Tami Lane*, The Hobbit; LISA WESTCOTT AND JULIA DARTNELL, Les Mis.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: Dario Marianelli, Anna Karenina; ALEXANDRE DESPLAT, Argo; Mychael Danna*, Life of Pi; John Williams, Lincoln; Thomas Newman, Skyfall.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG: Before my time, J Ralph, Chasing Ice; Everybody needs a best friend, Walter Murphy and Seth MacFarlane*, Ted; Pi’s lullaby, Mychael Danna and Bombay Jayashri, Life of Pi; SKYFALL, Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth, Skyfall; Suddenly, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil, Les Mis.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN: Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer, Anna Karenina; Dan Hennah, Ra Vincent and Simon Bright, The Hobbit; EVE STEWART AND ANNA LYNCH-ROBINSON, Les Mis; David Gropman and Anna Pinnock, Life of Pi; Rick Carter and Jim Erickson*, Lincoln.

BEST SOUND EDITING: Erik Aadahl and Ethan van der Ryn, Argo; Wylie Stateman, Django Unchained; Eugene Gearty and Philip Stockton, Life of Pi( Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers, Skyfall; Paul N J Ottoson, Zero Dark Thirty.

BEST SOUND MIXING: John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Jose Antonio Garcia, Argo; Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson and Simon Hayes, Les Mis; Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill and Drew Kunin, Life of Pi; Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom and Ronald Judkins, Lincoln; Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell and Stuart Wilson, Skyfall.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and R. Christopher White, The Hobbit; Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald R. Elliott, Life of Pi; Janek Sirrs, Jeff White, Guy Williams and Dan Sudick; The Avengers; Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley and Martin Hill, Prometheus; Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Philip Brennan, Neil Corbould and Michael Dawson, Snow White and the Huntsman.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Chris Terrio, Argo; Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild; David Magee, Life of Pi; Tony Kushner*, Lincoln; DAVID O RUSSELL, Silver Linings Playbook.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Michael Haneke, Amour; Quentin Tarantino*, Django Unchained; John Gatins, Flight; Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom; MARK BOAL, Zero Dark Thirty.

Sunday, January 06, 2013


Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN is a masterpiece, and certainly his best film since JURASSIC PARK, and his only good film that attempts profundity and nuance rather than spectacle.  For that we have to thank a screenplay by Tony winning playwright Tony Kushner ("Angels in America") that never dumbs down the nuanced political considerations of the time; never shies away from tarnishing "Honest Abe" with the reality of political vote-getting; and deftly juggles a vast array of characters  It's a screenplay that understands the deep historical import of its material, but finds time to turn an icon into a real man, not to mention allowing for comic relief. Of course, for that transformation we also have to thank Daniel Day-Lewis, who turns in the kind of tour-de-force charismatic, many-layered performance that we have come to almost take for granted. With a little make-up, a careful study of gait and a beautifully pitched voiced, Day-Lewis clothes himself in crumpled world-weariness and a fondness for the laconic anecdote that hides an inner steel and practicality.  His Lincoln gives politicians of all colours a stern lesson is not letting pride and one's vainglorious boasting about one's moral compass blind one to the necessity of real politics - that is, working with the opposition, working the system, lobbying hard and using patronage where necessary - to get the bill passed.

In this case, the bill is the 13th amendment to the US constitution, forbidding slavery in the US and and all lands subject to its laws.  The film shows that Lincoln cares enough about this great work in its own right but also because he sees the potential legal problems with his Emancipation Proclamation. In public he argues that the bill, by crippling the Southern economy, will hasten the end of the war. But the reality is that the war is already near over, and the South willing to negotiate a peace. The key drama of the film is that Lincoln must put off that peace, as much as he desires it, because he knows that as soon as it is negotiated, he will loose support for his Bill from sections of his own party. Second, he must secure crucial swing votes from the opposition, by means fair and foul.

LINCOLN is, then, a film about politics and the raw, unpleasant reality of doing a deal. There is very little battlefield action, although the horrors of war are never far from his, or our mind.  We see the cost of delaying the Southern delegation of peacemakers (led by Jackie Earle Haley) and the lawyer's equivocation that ultimately gets the bill passed. We also see Lincoln's secretary of state, Seward (David Strathairn) hire three lobbyists cum vote buyers played by John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and most memorably, a rotund and roguish James Spader.  Spader's down and dirty politics is surpassed only for style by Tommy Lee Jones Republican leader and abolitionist Thaddeus Jones.  He is portrayed as a kind of 19th century Malcolm Tucker, full of colourful insults and sneering bullying of callow young politicians. He provides both light relief and real insight into the art of political compromise, and deserves an Oscar nomination as much as Day-Lewis.

Politics aside, the movie shows us Lincoln as a man who connects with people - who is truly beloved and respected - with his personal touch and colourful stories.  It also shows us Lincoln as the doting father, and frustrated but loving husband.  Sally Field as the grieving, angry, stubborn Mary Todd Lincoln gives a stunning and screen-stealing performance - again Award-worthy.  It is fortuitous for Spielberg that his consistent and typically ill-cast obsession with father-son relationships actually works in LINCOLN.  Our grief at his assassination is not just because a great man has been killed, but because a good father has died. Which brings me to the only weakness of the film.  The movie has a natural and elegant final scene about five minutes before it actually ends, with Lincoln walking away from us and into history.  To my mind, we didn't need to actually see the assassination at all.

LINCOLN is on release in the USA, Canada and Chile. It opens on January 18th in Lebanon, Mexico and Spain; on January 24th in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Russia, Slovenia; on January 25th in Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Colombia, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Lithuania, Sweden, and the UK; on January 31st in France, Denmark, Hungary, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Portugal, Guatemala, Iceland, Norway, Panama and South Africa; on February 7th in Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras,  Nicaragua, Turkey and Uruguay; on February 14th in the Dominican Republic; on February 21st in Hong Kong and Singapore; on April 5th in Venezuela; and on April 19th in Japan.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013



David and Jacqui Morris' documentary is an utterly compelling and deceptively simple exploration of the life and work of the famous British war photographer, Don McCullin. It takes the form of a candid interview with McCullin as he takes us through is career and shows us photographs, supplemented with occasional contemporaneous TV interviews with the photographer, and interviews with his editors. McCullin grew up poor in North London and by complete chance managed to a photograph printed that resulted in a seemingly endless stream of work.  A combination of innate talent, ambition and self-confessed addiction to conflict took him to Vietnam, the Biafran war, the Middle East, Cyprus and Northern Ireland. And even when at home, McCullin took pictures of the East End poor and North London gangs.  

His pictures are still powerful - often extreme close-ups, beautifully framed - an unflinching document of inhumanity and conflict with flashes of individual dignity for us to cling to. And he speaks with candour and self-examination about the dangers of voyeurism, the nightmares, the despair about whether he did any good.  Looking at the photos  today, it's a reminder of a golden age of photojournalism, when newspapers would fund such expeditions and had the independence and the courage to print the results. For McCullin that golden age came to an end when Murdoch bought The Times and the government realised how provocative his photographs were.  He wasn't allowed to cover the Falklands War and even if he had, Murdoch wouldn't have printed the results.  This gives an air of melancholy to the film - a vanished time of real journalism, rather than today's banal embedded propaganda. 

McCULLIN is on release in the UK.

McCULLIN has a running time of 95 minutes and is rated 15 in the UK.

The Worst of 2012

Movies to which we can but say, "Leave me alone Baldrick. If I'd wanted to talk to a vegetable I would've bought one at a market."

RED TAILS  - as if more evidence was needed of why George Lucas should be kept the hell away from all movies for his safety and our own. Oh yes, HAN SHOT FIRST.

EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE - containing the most irritating and offensive character and conceit since Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

THE IRON LADY -  The Lady deserved better than this caricature impression dressed up as a drama.

ANNA KARENINA - I almost enjoyed how badly cast the theatre metaphor was, as it confirmed my long-held opinion that Joe Wright is the most over-rated director of all time, beginning with ATONEMENT and continuing ad nauseam.

SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD - in which Keira Knightley plays a manic pixie dreamgirl and fails horribly. Even Steve Carrell's innate charm can't save it.

LIBERAL ARTS - smug privileged white kids kvetch about how tough life is because, no shit, getting an English Lit degree from a second-rate college does NOT make you employable.  Also why I hate Lena Dunham and GIRLS.  Seriously, people, nobody cares. Now go learn some math and get a job in accounting like the rest of us.

TAKE THIS WALTZ - most unsexy sex scenes of all time. And yes, that includes all fiction written by former MPs.

And finally, the disappointments.  Movies that weren't terrible but weren't as great as we were hoping given their pedigree:

DARK SHADOWS  - awesome cast, production design.  Still can't quite figure out why it wasn't full of camp hilarity.

PROMETHEUS - convoluted nonsensical script. Damon Lindelof, go and sit in the corner and think VERY carefully about what you've done.

COSMPOLIS - David Cronenberg disappears up his own arse.  Could've been a great indictment of Wall Street.  Was just pretentious wank.

THE DARK KNIGHT - much like the Duracell bunny, it went on and on and on and on and eighteen million nonsensical plot happenings later  nothing half as cool as The Joker had hit our screens.

RUST & BONE, AMOUR, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD - all fine but overhyped.