Monthly Archives: January 2013

Lincoln: four score and seven Academy awards

LincolnThat Steven Spielberg’s latest opus Lincoln is in pole position to sweep the board at the various upcoming awards ceremonies is no sort of surprise: in many ways it’s exactly the sort of weighty and respectful historical drama that’s been a safe choice for these kinds of self-congratulatory red-carpet-and-tuxedo-fests for years. In other ways however it’s unusual, not the standard Hollywood treatment of a moment of national crisis at all, whereby tricky nuances are ironed out and characters are simplified or misrepresented. It feels to me like a harking back to the type of serious high-minded movie They Don’t Make Anymore, like All The President’s Men or Anatomy Of A Murder, in which the bulk of the drama is in the dialogue and real-life legal and personal fudges and compromises are embraced and explored by the film-makers, rather than being dodged. It took me a while to fully tune in to, but this is a surprisingly absorbing and intelligent take on history. In some respects it’s more like watching the last couple of episodes of a prestigious HBO television series than a blockbuster movie – in places it’s downright educational.

What it isn’t, to start with, is an Abraham Lincoln bio-pic*. The film focusses entirely on the first few months of 1865, a time in which Lincoln is attempting to resolve not one, but two, major issues of American business: the Civil War that’s been raging for the last four years, and the abolition of slavery. These issues are of course linked, and the president’s challenge is to find a path by which the successful resolution of one doesn’t de-rail progress on the other. He’s within reach of getting an anti-slavery amendment to the constitution passed, but he still has enough vociferous opponents in the House of Representatives to scupper it, and he knows that he only has this narrow window of opportunity following his decisive re-election to get the thing signed before traditional party politicking will resume.

Lincoln the movie shows admirable restraint. Given that it’s set during a particularly bloody and divisive, and therefore potentially very dramatic and cinematic, conflict, it’s remarkable how little of its two and a half hour running time is spent on the battlefields – really, it’s just a short sequence at the very beginning, and one or two scenes showing the cessation of hostilities towards the end. Most of the film takes place in rooms (rooms in The White House, the chamber of the House of Representatives, some legal chambers, the occasional bar or restaurant) and what mainly happens in these rooms is that middle-aged or elderly men talk to each other. Typically, an obstacle to progress will arise which will cause general dismay or anger until the man in the stove pipe hat gets to speak, and when he does the difficulties start to melt away. Lincoln as depicted here is a hugely talented cajoler and persuader and inspirer, able to see his way through impenetrable thickets of legalese and intransigence, and often softening the mood with a folksy tale or reminisce before proposing risky and courageous solutions to the problems that come up. Tony Kushner’s script (from a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin) is intelligent, literate and full of detail and requires the viewer to lean in and actively engage a lot more than your average Hollywood screenplay, but it’s worth it – the climactic scenes of the vote on the amendment are truly exciting and a worthy pay-off.

If you’re going to make stuff like this work on the screen it does of course help if you’ve got one of the greatest actors working today in the lead role. Daniel Day-Lewis has got excellent form in portraying larger-than-life figures from American folklore (witness the terrifying Bill Cutting from Gangs Of New York and There Will Be Blood‘s equally sociopathic Daniel Plainview) and here he nails it completely, with the aid of a false nose and that highly distinctive beard. He renders Abe as fragile but charismatic with a high papery voice that nonetheless commands attention, and he rightly dominates all the scenes he’s in. It’s not my favourite performance in the film though: that would be Tommy Lee Jones’s ornery congressman Thaddeus Stevens, whose hilariously bluff manner of doing business masks an unusually enlightened set of attitudes for the time.

Spielberg seems to put out big-budget films at an almost inhuman rate, and while you can’t fault him for spectacle there often feels like there’s something missing at the centre of his stories. That’s definitely not the case with Lincoln. I liked it a lot, maybe even enough to think about working on some elaborate facial hair of my own.

*If you’re in the market for one and you don’t mind a bit of artistic licence, you could have a look at this interesting slice of counter-history.

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Tony Fletcher: A Light That Never Goes Out – The Enduring Saga of The Smiths

TonyFletcherSmithsThe reputation of The Smiths as one of the very greatest pop groups seems to grow over time even as that of former frontman Morrissey becomes diminished with every predictable and increasingly sour outburst he comes out with against his well-worn targets of the establishment in general and the royal family in particular. Back in his group’s heyday he was able to successfully present himself as a startlingly fearless, witty and articulate figurehead for those many souls who found themselves disillusioned and depressed by the crass vulgarities of modern culture and the brutality of society’s institutions, both formal and vernacular. It was his genius for distilling this disdain and bewilderment into his lyrics, allied with the tireless talent for contriving surprising but always rigorously disciplined song structures of his musical partner Johnny Marr that made The Smiths’ body of work so penetrating and imperishable. To my ears at least they made every other group sound facile and irrelevant, and their continued refusal to reform only makes the music they recorded over a quarter of a century ago now seem even more special, even if the lack of reunion is due mainly down to bad blood between certain of the group’s members.

For The Smiths everything happened fast. Before the eighteen year old Johnny Marr knocked on Morrissey’s door with a view to proposing a songwriting partnership in May 1982  neither the group nor any of its songs existed (although Marr had previously played with his school friend and eventual Smiths bassist Andy Rourke in a few casual bands) – excepting a one-off four-song showcase slot later that year with a stand-in bass player and drummer they played their first gig in early 1983, put out their first two singles that year, along with three BBC radio sessions showcasing some extraordinarily accomplished songs, and stood poised to release their first album by the beginning of 1984 with a small library’s worth of favourable press cuttings and reviews under their belt. Unlike pretty much any other critically-acclaimed group The Smiths never had “potential”: they arrived fully-formed, with a complete absence of embarrassing early material. That searing version of Handsome Devil on the B-side of Hand In Glove was recorded live at The Hacienda at only the group’s third gig! Ultimately, the group’s end was as abrupt as its beginning, with Johnny Marr’s exhaustion and frustration with the lack of a steady management figure to cope with Morrissey’s capricious nature causing him to pull the plug in September 1987, but they made the most of the time, recording seventy original songs, only a handful of which are disposable and the bulk of which are as thrilling and potent and intelligent and melodic as anything in pop music. Considering the chaos that surrounded the band, with constant conflict with their record company and promoters, the pressures of dealing with a quote-hungry media and legions of besotted fans, tours coming apart due to inadequate preparation and not a little abuse of alcohol and other substances their strike rate and quality control when they got in the studio is unbelievable.

There have been a fair few books put out in the last twenty years or so on both The Smiths and Morrissey solo, but Tony Fletcher’s new labour of love A Light That Never Goes Out may well be the only one anyone who’s interested in the roots of the group and their subsequent explosive career will ever need. Its nearest competitors (that I’ve come across, anyway) are Johnny Rogan’s Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance, which is where a lot of the inner workings of the band were first exposed, and Simon Goddard’s Songs That Saved Your Life, which is an excellent analysis of the group’s music, organised in song by song fashion in the same way as Ian MacDonald’s definitive Beatle book Revolution In The Head. Goddard’s is still the one to go for if you’re looking for specific detail on the recordings, but Rogan (whose book came out in 1992) has now been eclipsed by Fletcher, if only for the new book’s more measured approach, depth of research and above all newly collated information about the band members’ childhoods and formative years.

Fletcher starts a long way back, with his first chapters dealing with Manchester as the engine of the industrial revolution and subsequent expansion of the British empire before moving on to explain the circumstances by which the city gained a significant Irish population in the early years of the Twentieth Century. I hadn’t appreciated until now that all four Smiths have strong Irish ancestry, and although there are few direct references in Morrissey’s lyrics the book makes clear that a major source of his adult contrarianism is the miserable time he had when attending a harshly authoritarian Catholic school. Interestingly, Marr went through some similarly challenging experiences but reacted quite differently – the close bond between this preternaturally confident and extrovert boy and the ambitious but isolationist Morrissey is right at the core of this story. Fletcher also takes the trouble to lay out the relationships between the different areas of Manchester the band members grew up in and moved through, and sketches in their family backgrounds and the amateur groups they were involved in. This is all highly readable, though you do start to worry that Fletcher’s never going to get round to telling you about The Smiths – you’re 200 pages in before Marr gets to knock on Morrissey’s door.

Fortunately the pace picks up as the band get going, and from this point on events unfold in a breathless rush, with The Smiths developing so fast that they’re continually leaving their various support mechanisms behind, and decisions being made all the time that confound conventional music business wisdom. They stake their independent credentials to the mast by signing with the ethically sound Rough Trade, but it doesn’t take long before Morrissey starts to carp about disappointing chart positions and the absence of flyposting campaigns (given his refusal to sanction a promotional video and his habit of not turning up for interviews and gigs it seems a bit rich). They record a sure-fire platinum-selling rock anthem How Soon Is Now? then throw it away as the extra track on a 12″ single. A second album appears barely a year after the first – it’s a massive step forward creatively, with Marr effortlessly turning his hand to myriad musical styles and Morrissey honing his lyrics into a multi-pronged critique of violence in society, but the choice of title of Meat Is Murder makes it clear the band aren’t interested in commercial compromise. The band are on the verge of breaking America, but the responsibility for holding it all together falls more and more on Johnny Marr’s shoulders, and despite his work ethic he’s only one man, and barely twenty-two years old at that. Andy Rourke is sacked when his heroin habit comes to light, but is rapidly re-instated. A second guitarist, Craig Gannon, is hired, then let go. The third album The Queen Is Dead is an absolute masterpiece, but the group refuse to release its best track There Is A Light That Never Goes Out as a single. And so on and so on.

Fletcher skilfully digs into all this mayhem, and considerably more besides, while all the time making sure he maintains a neutral tone. Personally, I’d have stuck a bit more blame on Morrissey for at times wilfully sabotaging his own group and indirectly endangering the health of his musical partner, but there you go. The author went the extra mile to secure interviews with nearly everyone involved (see if you can guess who one of the refusals came from), and has been able to synthesise what’s probably as close as a definitive version of events as we’ll ever get. If the book has a fault, it’s that its ending seems abrupt – there was plenty of colourful fall-out, not to mention one or two great records, in the wake of the band’s split, but he stops in 1987 at the same point as the band does. Maybe he’s planning a sequel.

A few years ago the New Musical Express ran a chart of the most influential rock acts of all time, based on annual poll results and number of column inches. It’s hardly an unskewed demographic they were sampling but the result was brilliantly shocking nonetheless – in second place: The Beatles. In first place: The Smiths. Happy now?

Django Unchained

DjangoUnchained

I sort of tuned out from Quentin Tarantino’s films somewhere around the preposterous, gleefully violent and painfully stretched out Kill Bill double-header, writing him off somewhat as a flashy attention-grabber who wasn’t really up to the job of sustaining a two hour plus movie without the help of either a talented co-writer (Roger Avery on the brilliant but maybe over-celebrated Pulp Fiction) or some classy source material (Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, on which the brilliant and definitely under-celebrated Jackie Brown was based). His new one Django Unchained has however been getting some good notices, so I figured I’d make the effort this time. I was glad I did. Django, on which QT gets a sole writer’s credit, is as preposterous and gleefully violent as anything that came before, but it’s also gripping, tense, wickedly funny and formidably well acted and shot. It’s just about as downright entertaining as anything I’ve seen in a cinema this century.

What we have here is kind of Roots put in a blender with Once Upon A Time In The West and a couple of lorryloads of ketchup. It’s set in the deep South of America a couple of years before the civil war, with the Django of the title a slave who finds himself unexpectedly freed by a decidedly unconventional and charmingly loquacious German bounty hunter, Dr King Schultz. Dr Schultz needs Django to identify some law breaking overseers with a price on their heads, but he finds himself warming to the freed man and admiring his facility with firearms and eventually agrees to help him locate his wife, who has been sold to a plantation owner in Mississippi. After tracing the woman they hatch a plan to retrieve her, but this will mean putting a con over on the ruthless and capricious Calvin Candie and you just know it’s not going to end peacefully with a gentlemanly handshake.

Django is a long film, but it doesn’t mess about: the tone is set from the first scene, an immediately unnerving confrontation between the unfailingly urbane and courteous Schultz and a pair of suspicious slave traders. Tarantino has a real gift for concocting scintillating and unpredictable stand-offs in which one can sense the violence seething beneath the verbal exchanges, waiting for the slightest of false moves or facial tics as an excuse to erupt, and in this film he’s thankfully been able to come up with a compelling through line into which he can work them. And for the most part he also sticks to the rule book as regards letting a story flow and not getting all non-linear on our ass – while the jigsaw timeline aspect of Pulp Fiction was actually really refreshing and unusual at the time, these kind of games seemed to get pretty wearying pretty quickly, and it’s nice that Django proceeds in broadly chronological order, save the handful of flashbacks necessary to avoid an unnecessarily distended running time. This story has at its heart a highly perilous confidence trick, and while the scenes required to put all the elements in place unfold at an unhurried pace it’s well worth the preparation for the nailbiting and startlingly explosive climax at Candie’s lavish ranchhouse.

QT has also got a fairly impeccable talent for casting, and here he really excels. Jamie Foxx broods and smoulders mightily as the wronged Django, but he also allows the intelligence of the character to show through, and he’s not half bad with a shooter either. Leonardo DiCaprio renders Candie as a truly vile and preening bully, but he’s charming as well, and knows when he’s better off making a tactical retreat. The standout performance of the lot is Christoph Waltz, sporting an exceptional beard as Dr Schultz, a man who appears able to talk his way round or out of any extreme situation but is also perfectly comfortable when the only course of action available is to use the pistol concealed up his sleeve. Schultz is one of those rare movie characters you feel like spending quality time with – you’d be happy to have him round for a takeaway, or to sort your tax returns, or to fix your plumbing while simultaneously explaining references in Goethe. Give this man an Oscar now.

It does of course all end with some viscerally bloody action sequences, which might put even hardened Tarantino watchers off their tea. The last half hour or so was for me probably the least interesting bit of the film as all the dramatic tension has now been released, but you can’t fault it for not being a big finish, and I would rate these as one or two of the most pleasingly lurid and dynamic shootouts I’ve yet seen on screen. Did remind me a bit of Monty Python’s “Sam Peckinpah directs Salad Days” skit, though.

Overall however Django is some kind of triumph, and respect is due to Tarantino for carrying on ploughing his furrow with such unapologetic vigour, wit and expertise. Everything’s fair game and shocking the audience is part of the job –  for example, it’s telling that the end credits begin with an assurance that no horses were harmed in the making of the movie. If true, there are some pretty sophisticated special effects going on here that passed me right by.

The Impossible: new wave

TheImpossibleLooks like the length of time perceived to be a respectful interval between a disaster occurring and a dramatisation of it being available for one to stuff oneself with popcorn in front of has got a lot shorter over the years – it took a few decades for them to make a film about the sinking of the Titanic, but a mere nine years after the devastating South Asian tsunami here we have The Impossible, a harrowing but also strangely toothless account of one family’s ordeal after their holiday in Thailand comes to an abrupt halt on Boxing Day 2004*.

Juan Antonio Bayona’s film starts with some (deliberately?) banal scenes showing a (deliberately?) bland couple arriving at their resort with their three young sons. They settle in to their luxurious apartment on the beach, exchange Christmas presents and lounge around in a dull, but generally easy on the eye, manner with not much in the way of a hint of what’s coming other than a couple of ominous shots that seem to be from the point of view of a deceptively calm ocean. The mother and father are played by troopers Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, who can do this sort of thing in their sleep, but the true selling point of this movie is made clear when a massive wall of water rips through the trees and buildings of the resort without warning, sweeping away the preceding twenty minutes’ comfortable torpor and a slew of skimpily clad Europeans alike. These sequences are extraordinary – presumably they were achieved with much assistance from computer generated imagery, but there’s nothing to give this away on screen: it really does look and feel like a catastrophe on a biblical scale, with cars and wreckage and trees and bodies being roughly and indiscriminately propelled along in raging brown watery turmoil. You can really believe Naomi Watts’ expressions of panic and horror as she witnesses her son struggling to keep afloat out of her reach, and the injuries her character sustains had me recoiling in my seat.

But when it’s over, it’s over. The bulk of the film concerns the family members’ efforts, first to survive and reach safety, and then to find each other, and the action settles into a fairly routine separation/reunion drama. Despite the formidable difficulties the characters face, and the blood, bodies and general desolation that are everywhere in evidence, it all seems a bit too fated to come out well in the end, as though the director was concerned not to serve his viewers too much of a downer. Everyone we meet comes across as saintly and noble and self-sacrificing, and there’s a confluence of happy coincidence at the resolution that’s not really convincing. An onscreen title emphasises the point that this is a true story, and I’m sure the specifics of this one case are faithfully presented, but for every family who eventually came through the event intact there must have been several who suffered bereavements – this may be a true story, but I doubt it’s a particularly representative one, and the producer’s decision to change the family’s nationality from Spanish to English also speaks of a desire not to present too much of challenge to its intended audience. It’s a shame, given how impressively both the catastrophe and its immediate consequences are realised, but I guess most people don’t go the cinema because they want to get depressed.

* actually, thinking about it, there was an HBO TV miniseries Tsunami: The Aftermath which screened as early as 2006, but I think the current film is the first to really go for a full-on depiction of the event, disaster-movie style.