Thursday, January 31, 2013




Daniel Day-Lewis portrays President Abraham Lincoln in this scene from director Steven Spielberg's drama "Lincoln" from DreamWorks Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox.

© 2012 DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.  All Rights Reserved.
  • Released Internationally on 16/11/12
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 30/01/13
Preview (first published 01/01/13 in VIDA Magazine)

I have yet to watch a Steven Spielberg film I didn’t enjoy, and which didn’t showcase his huge talent and knack for storytelling. And I have yet to see a Daniel Day Lewis performance that was not completely convincing. Few actors have gained as much respect as he has recently, especially after his seminal There Will Be Blood. So when Spielberg has a long-standing desire to make a film about Abraham Lincoln, and Day Lewis looks uncannily like the famous US President, the board is set for a piece of classic Americana storytelling. Any US president would probably be worth making a film about, but if you abolish slavery and end up assassinated, that film might just be all the more important and poignant.


L 000223

President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis, far right) meets with his Cabinet to discuss the planned attack on Fort Fisher in this scene from director Steven Spielberg's drama "Lincoln" from DreamWorks Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox.

Ph: David James, SMPSP

©DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. ÊAll Rights Reserved.
Review (29/01/13)
This film might not provide you with many edge-of-your-seat moments, and its main plot point - the abolition of slavery in the US - is an outcome that all viewers will (hopefully) already know was successful. But it still manages to portray the time and the process with the gravitas that such a historic moment deserves, and much of that gravitas is carried and dished out by Daniel Day Lewis' Abraham Lincoln. 
It's a restrained but stunning piece of acting, and in ways far more impressive than the over-the-top performances he excelled at, such as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. There's a wonderful mix of the serious side and the playful side, as well as both his political facade and his struggles as a husband and father. During the family scenes, he jousts with another veteran - Sally Field as his pained wife. The rest of the cast are far too numerous and wonderful to mention individually, although Tommy Lee Jones does stand out, and his wizened character is given probably the best ending in the whole film.
Spielberg evidently has great respect for the subject matter here, and he delivers this wonderful historical chapter without much gloss, but with loads of class. Some might argue that this is more a film that needed to be made rather than one that was released for entertainment purposes, but I for one enjoyed it from beginning to end, and every aspect of what you see and hear on screen is top notch work from quality artists. 


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Django Unchained

  • Released Internationally on 25/12/12
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 23/01/13
Preview (first published 01/01/13 in VIDA Magazine)

It must be a good month if a new Tarantino film isn’t film of the month. And of course, it’s unfair to compare, especially with films so diverse. Anyway, one of the most prolific, admired and unique directors of the past twenty years is back, and as usual this promises to be a finely-crafted but boisterous film. After proving his talent with twisted crime dramas (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction), martial arts films (Kill Bill), action films (Death Proof) and war films (Inglourious Basterds), he has now turned to westerns, a genre he loves and has already drawn very obvious inspiration from. The titular Django (Jamie Foxx), an inspiration from the 1966 spaghetti western of the same name, is a freed slave. He teams up with a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz, who rose to stardom after stealing the show in Basterds) to hunt down his enemies and free his wife from the clutches of a wealthy slave trader (Leonardo DiCaprio, finally in a proper villain role). There will be action, there will be humour, and it’s a safe bet to say there will be a few ‘wow’ moments. Tarantino has already used music and directing styles from westerns to elevate numerous scenes from his previous films, so it should be fun to see him run amok here.

Review (22/01/13)
There were two major films about slavery released in 2012, but this is the one that makes you squirm. Lincoln showed us the dealings and wheelings that were necessary to help abolish slavery in America, but this film shows it in all its grotesque glory, going seemingly overboard with depicting it as a normal and accepted way of life, despite the day-to-day horrors it entailed.
The D is silent
Jamie Foxx looks stern and focused as the titular hero, as he proceeds, with great sacrifice, on what is essentially a love quest to find and release his wife. He is aided by Christoph Waltz’s cunning bounty hunter, who operates within the boundaries of the law but detests the whole slavery business. His character is entertaining to watch, although it is essentially a continuation of his masterful performance in Inglourious Basterds.
A good hour into the film we meet the main villain of the tale, portrayed with zealous glee by Leonardo Di Caprio. The man is rich, the man is powerful, and the man is disgustingly and convincingly racist, something he believes in like a science. It is at his hands and within his premises that the most flinch-inducing scenes play out, and Tarantino doesn’t hold back when it comes to showing the depravity and horror that slavery can lead to.
Below par
Despite being an entertaining and wonderfully-made film, it’s far from Tarantino’s best, and probably the first time I ever looked at my watch during one of his films. Many of his signature touches are missing, with surprisingly linear storytelling, interrupted only by the occasional flashback or vision. I missed his complex, stylish interludes, so evident in previous films. He also gives himself a cameo, which results in him looking and sounding very out of place towards the end of the film - a far cry from his wonderful role back in Reservoir Dogs.
Always a forefront feature of Tarantino’s films, the music serves it’s purpose well here without going too over the top. One particular highlight is the sumptuous use of the late Jim Croce’s ‘I’ve Got a Name’, which fits perfectly in a great montage marking the beginning of Django and the bounty hunter’s fruitful partnership. The maestro Morricone also contributes an original song, after having had selections from his previous works used so perfectly in Tarantino's recent films. It’s also great to see Tarantino venturing into other legendary composer’s discographies, with some vintage Jerry Goldsmith being put to good use this time around.
In the end
When the water finally comes to the boil, there’s a wonderful, cathartic, explosion of an ending, releasing all the pent up pressure in the long-suffering Django, and providing the usual endless carnage that we have come to expect from Tarantino. Throughout it all, Django maintains a fair amount of panache, which is a welcome break from the horrors that have come before. It’s not easy viewing, and it’s not one of his best films, but it’s still one of the most accomplished films of the year.

Mark 8 out of 10

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Les Misérables

Les Miserables
  • Released Internationally on 25/12/12
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 16/01/13
Preview (first published 01/01/13 in VIDA Magazine)

The festive season was especially crowded at the box-office last year, so thankfully we have a handful of highly anticipated ‘event’ films trickling over into January. It’s hard to pick a favourite, but based on popular appeal and a huge worldwide guaranteed audience, this is probably the one that will make the most waves. Considering the many millions who have watched and cherished the stage adaptation over the past quarter of a century, this has a lot of great expectations to live up to.
The ingredients for great cinema are all there - a tragic and epic story, stunning and instantly recognizable music, larger than life heroes and villains, and a fair dose of comedy. What has been added recently is a cast and crew who should hopefully do the material justice. After other directors were mentioned in the past, the job was handed to Tom Hooper, fresh from his huge success as the director of The King’s Speech. The scribe roped in to adapt the play for the screen was Williams Nicholson (Gladiator, Elizabeth: The Golden Age). Plus the big names involved in the stage phenomenon are very much on board, with super-producer Cameron Mackintosh (who often visits his mum here in Malta), producing and apparently also having a cameo.
The casting was always going to be a challenge. Hooper insisted that the musical performances are recorded live on set, adding to the realism of the performance, but also making the roles much more demanding. Hugh Jackman has proved he can sing and dance with class, even on the Oscar stage, and he stars as the hero Valjean. His lifelong nemesis is portrayed by Russell Crowe, who has his own rock band down under and should therefore manage at least most of the notes hit by Inspector Javert. Anne Hathaway, who has also sung live on the Oscar stage, is Fantine, whilst Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia!) is Cosette. Rising star Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn) is Marius, and the comic duo, the Thénardiers, will be brought to life by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, who had appeared together in the musical film version of Sweeney Todd.
Nowadays, many musicals are adaptations of films, but it is almost inevitable that the long-standing, worldwide success of original musicals results in them making the reverse journey to the screen. After Moulin Rouge! revived the musical as a film genre over a decade ago, we were soon treated to a lavish production of The Phantom of the Opera. This has the potential to be an even better and more successful adaptation, with a stellar cast and a courageous singing ethic. If you’ve never had the honour of watching this amazing story unfold on stage, and hear the timeless music, you’re in for a treat. If you have, then this is a must.

Review (12/01/13)
In future, I hope all musicals are made this way.
When I sat down to watch this film I was starving. Within minutes, I had forgotten about my hunger, and for two and a half hours I was so engrossed in the music, the drama and the anguish of this classic tale, that I only noticed my stomach rumblings well into the end credits. From the first few seconds, it is made very clear that this will be a large-scale adaptation, with a hefty scope and budget as befitting this loved story. But once the spectacle has been taken in, the camera zooms in onto the worn, pained face of our hero Valjean, and this establishes a recurring feature of this adaptation, and one which proves very successful - this is Les Misérables, the musical, in extreme close-up.
As mentioned in the preview above, the ‘singing live on set’ was one of the most discussed issues about this film. I loved the results, especially when coupled with the in-your-face direction by Tom Hooper. I quickly realised why I was enjoying the songs so much. I realised that the quality of the singing is ultimately secondary to the acting of the characters. Since the actors don't need to worry about lip syncing perfectly to a pre-recorded track, they can concentrate more on what they are singing, and what the character is going through. Yes, maybe the resulting soundtrack of this film is far from pitch perfect, and may pale in comparison to the musical’s previous cast recordings - but it sounds, and more importantly looks more real. Having front row seats at the theatre is great, but this is like having the character in a phone booth with you as they belt out their lines. Every line on their face, every grimace or smile as they sing, every furtive look, is wonderfully clear. And this makes the songs all that much better. I understood lines and lyrics I had never understood before, because the acting brought them to life in a more vivid way than was possible on stage. 
The results are most evident in two key sequences. First, Hugh Jackman, who by the way is astounding in this film, has a prolonged, uninterrupted soliloquy at the end of the prologue, which plays out beautifully and rushes toward a euphoric ending as the music, and the cameras, soar to signal the start of the next act. But you only get a few minutes to recover, because soon afterwards, Anne Hathaway enters the scene. She quickly loses her hair, her tooth and her pride, but then her brief presence culminates in a four-and-a-half minute tour de force, as she brings ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ heart-wrenchingly to life. Again, it’s an uninterrupted close-up, and again, there might be notes (but just a few) where she falters slightly, but it’s so stunningly and convincingly well-acted that, for me, she brought the song so vividly to life it was like I understood it for the first time, despite having heard it countless times before. The range of emotions she goes through in that one scene is incredible, and I hope she continues to win supporting actress awards all the way to the Oscars, if just for this one scene. Goodness knows how many takes they must have done, but it sure was worth it. 
The rest is all more or less as expected. The damp, ugly setting of revolutionary Paris is recreated wonderfully, and the ensemble of famous names and stage veterans do justice to the timeless music. The exhilarating moments such as ‘Who Am I?’ are all as rousing as expected, and the amusing Thénardiers provide some much needed relief from the heavy proceedings.  Besides working wonderfully as a film narrative, this adaptation showcases what a masterpiece the music is. The recurring themes and songs which serve as signposts in this lengthy saga lend themselves to great montage scenes inbetween the quieter, more intimate moments. There was one point where I had to remind myself not to clap at the end of the song. The ‘building the barricade’ scene is also a joy to behold, and something that only a film adaptation could pull off.
Ironically, I felt the film slacked very slightly once the actual revolution started, with the plot not as tight and fast-moving as previous acts. The barricade action scene was also the only time I thought it felt claustrophobic and ‘on set’. This unfortunately lost some of the grand scale established in previous scenes. But these are minor quibbles and they were quickly swept from my mind as the film’s ending roared onto screen, bringing the curtain down on a masterful adaptation of a masterpiece musical. Stunning.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Gangster Squad

  • Released Internationally on 10/01/13
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 10/01/13
Preview (first published 01/01/13 in VIDA Magazine)
Great film noirs, especially those set in the earlier part of the last century, are hard to find nowadays. The last one I can think of is The Black Dahlia. That timeless look and feel is something that some directors get just right, and which is wonderful when it works. I doubt we’ll ever get another Chinatown or LA Confidential, but as long as they keep trying, I’ll keep watching. This latest one suffered a slight hiccup last summer due to a scene in the film in which gangsters open fire on a theatre audience, which made releasing it a bad idea after the Aurora shootings at the Dark Knight Rises midnight screening. The release date was moved, but it’s yet to be confirmed whether the scene was left in place. Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men), Ryan Gosling (Drive), Emma Stone (The Help), Sean Penn (Milk) and Nick Nolte (The Thin Red Line) star.

Review (09/01/13)
This star-studded gangster film is no Goodfellas, although it does try to emulate it at times and comes quite close. Josh Brolin’s central character is a reliable one, and much like in No Country for Old Men he manages to portray determination and sobriety as the main hero. Sean Penn’s portrayal of the main antagonist is less successful, on the other hand. He has enough menace and presence to be convincing as the man pulling all the strings in Los Angeles, but his dubious accent and odd facial prosthetics are distracting. He leaves no doubt as to what he is capable of, however, with methods of killing his enemies that are both original and disturbing.
Many regular features of past similar films are present - the dry voiceover, the press conferences by the chief of police, lots of smoking, the scenes in nightclubs (including a wonderful long take, possibly a direct nod to Scorsese) and the flinch-inducing violence. There’s even the policeman’s long-suffering wife, although thankfully here she is given a meatier role which makes for a more interesting character we can actually care about. The director also throws in some of his own touches, with stylish slow-motion shots which he used to wonderful effect in Zombieland.
The cast all perform wonderfully, and the plot moves along at a captive pace without showing any signs of missing the infamous replaced scene (see above). The final showdown is slightly disappointing after the huge build-up, but everything is tied up nicely in the end in what is an entertaining and well-made, if not hugely original, addition to the gangster film canon.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Past Perfect: Body Heat (1981)

Home movie gems from the past few decades that need some dusting but never get old.


Back in 1981, a certain Lawrence Kasdan was getting some much-deserved attention after writing the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not a bad way to start your career. For his next move, he wrote and directed this sexy thriller. It’s set during a Florida heat wave, with ceiling fans, beads of perspiration and sweat patches featuring in nearly every scene, and adding wonderfully to the oppressive atmosphere. The film’s protagonist, a debonair lawyer (William Hurt) who isn’t exactly a star at his job, starts an affair with a wealthy woman (Kathleen Turner, in a sizzling breakout performance) and they plot a crime together which doesn’t exactly go according to plan. The film doesn’t shy away from nudity and racy content where appropriate, but it is also heavy on slick dialogue, great acting and a smart plot. And all dipped in a wonderfully sultry jazz soundtrack by the legendary John Barry.