Cinema has always been considered a great democratic art form – even though it has never been particularly good at representing democracy. There is a plot device in most political films that never ceases to amaze me: when an American president faced with a monumental crisis delivers a speech that wins everyone (regardless of their political stance) over. No character ever responds in disagreeable outrage. Though art imitates life, the concept of political opposition bears no meaning in the movies. Most political films aren’t very good, so for me to say that ‘Lincoln’ is one of the best political films ever made may not be saying much, but I really do think this is a gem of a picture.

The challenge director Steven Spielberg faces with ‘Lincoln’ is a big one. Any American audience member who has his or her high school diploma would have needed to pass American History. And my guess is if you don’t know what 16th President of the United States of America was responsible for during the American Civil War, you should have your History credit revoked and your high school diploma withdrawn. You know, he was kind of a big deal. In any case, most audience members will be equipped with this knowledge. This leaves Spielberg with the challenge of telling an involving story whereby the outcome is already known. And, of course, Spielberg is up to the challenge.

The moment the film’s poster was released, there was already talk of Daniel Day Lewis being considered for a Best Actor Oscar. A strange curiosity it was for me to see this actor of British and Irish citizenship play of one of the most influential American presidents. Bill The Butcher (‘Gangs of New York’), Daniel Plainview (‘There Will Be Blood’), Christy Brown (‘My Left Foot’) – with his angular frame and craggy features, DDL has embodied characters that we as moviegoers will never forget. From his self-conscious posture to his angry outbursts when it looks like the amendment won’t pass, Daniel Day Lewis completely nails every inch of his performance of the title character. And yes, it is absolutely worthy of a Best Actor nomination. Let me go a step further – Daniel Day Lewis *will* win the Best Actor Oscar.

The supporting cast choices are almost entirely excellent. Tommy Lee Jones is fantastic as the quick-witted, fiercely verbal Republican house leader. Joseph Gordon Levitt is great in just about everything now – he plays Lincoln’s elder son who is eager to see combat. To the younger moviegoing audience, don’t see this movie just for JGL – he has a very small part. Sally Field, playing Lincoln’s wife, captures the protectiveness, and moments of near insanity of her character well – but she looks old enough to be Lincoln’s mother. There’s also a barely recognizable James Spader (or completely unrecognizable to me).

‘Lincoln’ isn’t a full-scale biopic in the traditional sense. We’re witnessing a small fraction of the man’s life – but, this window is more than sufficient to understand who he was. And even so, there is enough material present in ‘Lincoln’ for a 10-part mini-series (the movie itself has a runtime of 149 minutes). Spoiler alert (to those who fell asleep in History class) – Lincoln dies. The assassination scene didn’t have the big, Spielbergian emotional impact I was expecting it to have. The most moving scene for me was a quiet scene where the 13th Amendment is read aloud. Which is unlike the usual Spielbergian technique to have his film’s sweeping score milk the emotion out of the viewer – this isn’t intended as criticism, because it’s worked on me in the past (I knew I was being emotionally manipulated, but I didn’t care *cough* War Horse *cough*).

But, there are a number of Spielberg trademarks that are present. ‘Lincoln’ opens with a scene of muddy, hand-to-hand combat and these moments of chaos feels like Saving Private Ryan Lite. However, for the PG-13 standards, there are some brutal and truly memorable images. Spielberg still can’t resist the occasionally corny moment though.

I’ve criticized political films for having the cornball political speech scene. There are many moments of speechifying in ‘Lincoln’, and all of it feels authentic. Lincoln is proud of his own story telling abilities, much to the annoyance of those around him. But, as a viewer, I loved hearing them.

The debates and insider deals in ‘Lincoln’ do make today’s congress look like amateurs. This is a richly detailed account of what Lincoln and his allies that to do to put an end to slavery. I’ve mentioned Daniel Day Lewis’ lock for the Best Actor Oscar. I suspect there will be nominations in the following categories: Best Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones), Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Costume, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. Movies of this craft and quality tend to sweep. QED. 


James Bond has been fighting off villains and bedding women for five decades now, and on his 50th birthday, he gives us a gift – ‘Skyfall’ is a spectacular entry in this 23-film franchise. This is Daniel Craig’s third outing as Bond, and though his brute force and Jackie Chan-style stunts initially made me believe he was better suited for a Bond villain than Bond, I have come to accept that this is how the latest reincarnation of the iconic character will be defined. Because I don’t want to spoil any of the fun, I’m going to keep the plot description very short. Bond must overcome some injury-induced rustiness whilst dealing with a rogue agent who’s hell-bent on undermining him and MI6. The enemy here is played by Javier Bardem in a completely loony, over-the-top performance that is good, but truthfully, feels slight in comparison to the creepy antagonist he played so well in ‘No Country For Old Men’ (he garnered an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in that role). The film also suffers occasionally from some pacing issues and does run a little long at 143 minutes.

Those are just minor quibbles though. ‘Skyfall’ is the most visually stunning Bond film in the series. The movie was shot by Roger Deacons, one of the greatest cinematographers working today (he has been the principle cinematographer for all Coen Brothers films since ‘Barton Fink’ in 1991). Whether we are in London, Shanghai, or Macau, the screen pops with vibrant colors and a richly glossy look. I didn’t get to see the movie in IMAX, but I will definitely give it a second viewing on the largest screen possible just to admire the look of it.

You may forget midway that you are watching a James Bond movie. This is a very different Bond picture – one that is driven by developing its characters, and exploring the relationships between them as opposed to taking place in a gadget-filled live-action cartoon universe that this series seems to occupy. Yes, the babes, the cars, and the exotic locales are all present, but when I think back to ‘Skyfall’, it’s the characterizations that stand out for me. There’s a weakness and vulnerability to Craig’s version of Bond that makes him more compelling. Historically, Bond has been able to escape any messy situation without getting any blood on his suit. Here, he’s wounded and weary; and this helped create a rooting interest that I haven’t felt since the early Connery pictures.

I did have my misgivings about Sam Mendes directing this project. His work as a director include: ‘American Beauty’, ‘Road to Perdition’, ‘Jarhead’, ‘Revolutionary Road’, and ‘Away We Go’. Many of these are great films, but he is known as a director of drama. His working with framing and staging action sequences in ‘Jarhead’ felt very minor and underwhelming, and so, he wouldn’t have been my first choice as director. But, he completely hits the target here.

‘Casino Royale’ remains the best of the recent Bonds, with ‘Skyfall’ being just a notch below it. This is, however, a significant improvement over ‘Quantum of Solace’, and one of the most memorable action films of the year. Still in tip-top shape at the age of 50, here’s hoping the central character goes on for another half-century, especially if the results are as exhilarating as what’s offered here. QED. 

Cloud Atlas

I don’t know if I’m ready to review ‘Cloud Atlas’. Is one viewing enough? I know I’ve witnessed something amazing; that I’ve seen a film of unbounded imagination, and fearless scope. But I’m not entirely sure I know what it’s about. Based on the novel by David Mitchell (which I have not read), ‘Cloud Atlas’ interweaves six interrelated stories over a span of five centuries involving a gigantic cast of A-list stars in multiple roles. Acts of love, cruelty, kindness and more appear to ripple through incarcerated souls as well as time from the past through to the present and well into the future. ‘Cloud Atlas’ is one of the most ambitious movies I’ve ever seen, and is in the tradition of other great films of this scope – ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and ‘The Tree Of Life’.

Usually, at this point in my review, I go into detail about the plot of the film. I’m not sure I will here. Maybe it’s because I can’t. Each segment tells a story of intrigue that touches on some universal themes. Directors Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer deliberately assign multiple roles to the actors so that we as an audience are able to follow threads to different stories. Easier said than done. During many moments, I asked myself “Is that Hugo Weaving? Is that Jim Sturgess? Did Tom Hanks spend more time with the make-up artist than he did reciting his lines? Wait; is Halle Berry an African-American woman, a Jewish woman, and an Asian man?” One moment, Tom Hanks’ character throws a book critic off a high-rise building, and the next, his other character is a post-apocalyptic villager strangely infatuated with Halle Berry’s extraterrestrial character.

The 24th century storyline has the characters speaking in futuristic gibberish. This is the true-true. I will admit some of this is pretty laughable.  

As an exercise in technical filmmaking, this is largely substantial. I will concede that there is enough material in ‘Cloud Atlas’ for six movies – each individual segment is worthy of a full-scale feature all on its own. I greatly admire the choice of the filmmakers to not tell these six stories like vignettes (and have each story appear in chronological order at 27 minutes before moving onto the next one). The filmmakers cut between segments rather rapidly. There’s even a line by one of the characters acknowledging that flashbacks and flash forwards are cheap tricks. To me, each story becomes more involving and more emotional because of the way it is assembled – the energy level and tension of each story builds off of the others. By the end, I felt there was more at stake than there otherwise would have been if the film decided to present these segments as individual short films. These stories are meant to complement each other in the way that a system functions when all its individual components are called into action at the right time. A piece of the system shouldn’t be removed – they exist as a comment on each other, and they are interlinked in such an intricate fashion that the only people who can truly decipher this algorithm are the filmmakers and screenwriters themselves.

But, each of us deserves a crack at it. Yes, ‘Cloud Atlas’ is maddeningly complicated. It is a challenge to keep with these stories involving a 19th century ship, a slave, aboriginals, an aging composer and his new assistant, corruption within a nuclear plant in the 1970s, and a revolution in Seoul in the 22nd century. And the makeup is so well done that often times, we don’t realize we’re seeing the same actors – the fact that some of them go as far as crossing genders only adds to the puzzlement. What does all this come down to? The movie’s themes about the nature of life are evident – we are bound by one another “from womb to tomb” as one character states, and when one door closes another opens. We make choices between gutlessness and bravery, cruelty and humanity, and each of these acts have consequences. On a more basic level, the picture has a “fight the power” message that would make the fathers of transcendentalism proud. I may be entirely off base. But then again, what did viewers derive from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ upon its initial release in 1968?

Good films are in season after all. Will ‘Cloud Atlas’ be a major contender come awards season? I don’t think so. I think it certainly has a good chance of making my personal Top 10 List of the year, but I think it will ultimately prove to be too polarizing to warrant nominations in the major categories. That being said, ‘Cloud Atlas’ will certainly receive recognition for Best Makeup, and Costume Design. The visuals are breathtaking, whether we’re looking at futuristic CGI f/x, or real world cinematography, and so a Best Cinematography nomination is also possible.  

Does the film’s reach exceed its grasp? Yes. The filmmakers throw the entire pot of spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks, and I don’t feel like I should fault a film for having too many ideas. All great art represents some kind of failure – you don’t do anything great by doing something within reach. Scene by scene, story by story, I was completely enthralled in the experience. Though it will have as many detractors as promoters, I found ‘Cloud Atlas’ to be a magnificently bold, ambitious, gorgeously filmed epic unlike anything I have ever seen before. “Now, what the heck was that about?” Your papers will be due on Monday. QED.