Archive for Steven Spielberg

Marvelous Hairy About the Face

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2013 by dcairns

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Like many filmmakers before me, I have grown a beard. Oh, I denied this at first, claiming it was merely a coincidental gathering of hairs, or insulation for the winter, or a new kind of chin hologram, but there’s no denying it now. Through careful ignoring of my jowl area, I have given rise to a positively Melies-like hair construct.

So to LINCOLN, Spielberg’s hairiest movie ever, hairier even than HOOK, which had Robin Williams in it for God’s sake (“his arm is like an otter” ~ Jiminy Glick). There are all kinds of beards in it. Big beards, small beards, beards as big as your head. Although I note that rather than sporting the full Irish, that strange jaw-fringe, Daniel Day-Lewis looks merely unshaven at the sides, with a tuft on the end of his chinny-chin-chin that’s more like a jazz beard than the half-a-chimney-brush sported by the late president in contemporary portraiture.

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The rest of the fine cast have all kinds of facial appurtenances, from the voluminous side-whisker to the billowing moustachios on perspiring ectomorph James Spader. His appearance excited comment from Fiona ~

“He would still be gorgeous if he’d lose weight. Maybe he doesn’t care.”

“Maybe he’d like to lose weight but likes eating, and doesn’t like exercising, and doesn’t want it all sucked out through pipes.”

“They could make a second James Spader with what they sucked out.”

“A wobblier one.”

“Why would it be wobblier?”

“Well, it wouldn’t have any bones.”

“Maybe they could grow some bones and stick them in and then we’d have two James Spaders.”

But sadly, Fiona’s beautiful dream is as yet unfulfilled. I don’t think they’d grow bones for James Spader. They didn’t do it for Ray Bolger, whose need was clearly greater.

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Oh yes, Tommy Lee Jones — that vast monster — is awfully good, compelling in a way nobody else in the film can manage, entertaining though some are. (For once, Jackie Earle Haley plays a man stranger-looking than himself; Spader is the third actor to be playing a character called Bilbo in today’s cinemas, surely a record; little Gulliver McGrath who stole the show in HUGO is great as Tad Lincoln; David Costabile from Breaking Bad is a delight as always; Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son, Babe-raham Lincoln.)

John Williams pours on the syrup — maybe less than you’d expect, but more than the film needs, since it’s at its best as a dry political procedural. Janusz Kaminski gives Lincoln his Jesus lighting a lot less than I’d expected. More than I’d like, but seriously, far less than I expected. Joanna Johnston puts David Strathairn in an orientalist dressing gown that must by the loveliest thing that fine, stoic stick has ever worn.

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AMISTAD.

This is a return to AMISTAD territory, I guess. I liked AMISTAD, but it suffered an imbalance — it devolves from an exciting mutiny, with Africans filmed like Jurassic Park raptors (a ballsy but justifiable choice) to a courtroom drama with inevitable anticlimax. Richard John Berry’s TAMANGO is better. It stays on the boat.

LINCOLN’s script by, MUNICH writer Tony Kushner, makes a good fist of the politicking, though some of the film’s pleasures — smug, nasty politicians being bested by shrewd, good-hearted ones — are inevitably a touch predictable. But it works when the movie keeps its mind on its plot, but this being later Spielberg it isn’t altogether allowed to — the film ends several times, each more ineffectually than the time before, long after the purpose of the story — the emancipation vote over the 13th Amendment — has been brought to its conclusion. The film devotes a lot of screen time to Mrs Lincoln, and Sally Field is very fine, but as the movie seems determined to prove Mary Todd Lincoln sane, or at any rate to avoid showing her genuinely irrational (all her hysterics and histrionics seem perfectly justifiable, if extreme), the role isn’t everything it might have been.

It is, of course, largely a film about white men deciding the fates of black men, women and children. That’s the part of the story the film has chosen to focus on, and it’s most successful when it does focus on it. The stuff showing the Civil War is oddly ineffectual, and attempts to build a role for Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley feel a little forced at times, though it’s nice that she has more lines than Kerry Washington in DJANGO UNCHAINED.

It’s too tempting to see the Tarantino and the Spielberg films as the two basic choices open to filmmakers: one a gleeful exploitation movie, the other a respectful, dusty hagiography. But this isn’t so. In fact, the dichotomy is false on its own terms, since LINCOLN, though sometimes stodgy, is never as dull as the longeurs in DJANGO, but even if both films enthusiastically did what it said on the tin, there would be a whole wealth of alternatives. One might be to let black filmmakers tell some of these stories. We watched Charles Burnett’s documentary NAT TURNER: A TROUBLESOME PROPERTY, and despite a meagre budget, its true story was more sensational than anything Tarantino’s imagination has conjured up, and it delved deeper into the issues thrown up by slavery, or any other great evil, than Spielberg’s film. And in less than half the running time of either film.

Midnight Movie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 22, 2012 by dcairns

Caught up with JJ Abrams’ SUPER 8.

(JJ Abrams movies may be what rental is for.)

But I’m favourably disposed to him, really. And actually glad I saw his STAR TREK on the big screen, where the audience reaction was delightful. I’ll totally see the sequel.

Peter O’Toole cameo (left).

Abrams channels the Spielberg of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and ET well, but I disliked the faux-camera-flare and missed the grain. And also, Spielberg has been heavily absorbed by US filmmakers already, so there’s recognition without the shock when it’s done more self-consciously, as in “this is a retro statement” rather than “this is what we consider the acme of American cinema” which is the kind of attitude I get from those MUMMY films…

The story is fine, though I wished it were weirder: real UFO stories are WEIRD. The period feel didn’t really come alive for me, and oddly, the Super-8 film element wasn’t important to the story. Some kids are making a zombie film when they accidentally film a train accident in which a crashed alien, held prisoner for years by the government, escapes. But the accidental filming part isn’t really a big plot point, when you get to it. A shame, since it shouldn’t have been hard to get a BLOW UP thing going on.

Hey, it’s Glynn Turman — from JD’S REVENGE! — as whistleblowing science teacher Mr Woodward (easy Watergate reference). As we know from Breaking Bad, science teachers are bad-ass.

As the spectacle and crisis mounts, the film goes for emotion but doesn’t quite nail it, despite Elle Fanning being particularly good. I think this is because we don’t quite know how to feel about the big alien — he’s more sinned against than sinning but he does kill a lot of innocent people. And eat them. Even in Act III. There’s something nice about the film’s desire to make us consider things from an enemy alien’s point of view, and ask how these hostiles got to be so hostile — good liberal allegory work there — but it’s inimical to the simplicity Spielbergian emotion seems to require. And Abrams still has a weakness for gestural emotion, where characters throw away or let go things that they’ve grown out of. Never actually convinces or moves us. Gloria Stuart chucking that diamond away in TITANIC has a lot to answer for.

But as the extraterrestrial shit hits the fan and Spielbergian classicism melds with Abrams’ more chaotic, modern feel, one positive thing is that the funny lines play funnier amid the frenzy, so it’s a pretty good time. Just not, somehow, satisfying.

But the Super-8 film-within-the film is great ~

 

I Like Ike

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on December 22, 2011 by dcairns

Going into the peculiar TAKE A CHANCE I was already a big Lillian Roth fan. Coming out of it, I’m a big Ukulele Ike fan. He’d somehow passed me by until this moment, apart from his work as Jiminy Cricket. Of course, Ike (AKA Cliff Edwards) was uncredited in that, along with the rest of the voice cast (such strange, distant days those were — now, voice actors are cast not for their voices but precisely for name recognition).

But I read the name in Bob Balaban’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary, since Spielberg had previewed his big UFO movie with the song at the end, to horrible reactions from the audience. Columbia stock dropped so fast they had to stop trading. The power of song…

Of course, Ike’s rendition, which is beautiful in its own right and works like a charm in the Disney, would have been fatal in Spielberg’s wide-eyed conspiracy thriller, unbalancing the thing and undoing all the credit it gets for having edgy seventies actors and cinematography, turning it into the big load of baloney it secretly wants to be but is ashamed of owning up to. Balanced on that knife-edge, it never quite becomes total kitsch, and is something I’m really quite impressed by, despite my cynicism about it.

(The live radio version heard 3.50 into the above clip is much preferable, I think, to the soupily orchestrated movie version — when vocals are as emotively quavery as these, you don’t need syrupy strings.)

Anyhow, for my reactions to TAKE A CHANCE, and for two Lillian Roth numbers and one Ukulele Ike, skip over to The Daily Notebook for the penultimate Forgotten Pre-Code.

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