Sunday, December 23, 2012

Film Review | Lincoln

Night at the Museum
by Thomas Delapa 

Laws and sausages, it's been said, are best not watched being made.

There’s a generous helping of the former—and a side of the latter—in Steven Spielberg’s heralded historical biopic, Lincoln. But will movie-going voters stomach a 150-minute presidential profile in courage that feels like a heavy chip off the block of Mount Rushmore?

No, Lincoln doesn’t land in theaters with a crash or a thud. It’s more like a whisper, the kind of hushed tone you’re schooled to use in museums and mausoleums. As a biography, the title itself is a misnomer of sorts, since Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner’s opus only spans a few months in early 1865, as the 16th president pokes, prods and pushes Congress to pass the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery in the U.S.

For nearly two score years, Spielberg has been synonymous with blockbuster Hollywood entertainment, alternating with his high-minded historical fare like Schindler’s List, The Color Purple and Amistad. This prestige production is even further removed from the patented Spielberg action formula. There’s nary an action scene to be found in these parts, so there’s absolutely no mistaking it for Gettysburg—not to mention Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Rather, Spielberg makes a strategic retreat to Washington, D.C., training his camera on a foray of low-key interior scenes that might as well been staged at Ford’s Theatre.

Towering (literally) above the cast in beard and stovepipe hat is lanky Daniel Day-Lewis, who’s a dead ringer for Honest Abe—with reedy voice and stoop to boot. Evidently awestruck that his star looks like he just stepped out of a penny, Spielberg constantly poses his star in pensive, heroic profile. The two-time Oscar winner shrugs off his premature bronzing in a few forceful scenes, but he generally keeps under wraps, weighed down by a long, dusty cloak of legend. Instead of freeing the slaves, Day-Lewis should have insisted on emancipating his painstaking performance style a tad.

Partially drawn from a book (Team of Rivals) by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Kushner’s script similarly gets bogged down in musty backroom political deal-making. Sensing an opening as the grisly Civil War draws to a close, Lincoln and his shrewd secretary of state, Seward (David Strathairn), hunt for votes in a raucous House of Representatives, both from their own abolitionist Republicans, led by an irascible Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), as well a handful of Democrats who might be persuaded, pressured, even bribed. Unsure of the dramatic bite of these smoke-filled shenanigans, Spielberg does his own logrolling, slipping in comic touches gilded to cornpone fiddle music.

As HBO’s fine John Adams mini-series showed, authentic American history can be truly compelling, but Spielberg and Kushner are too reverent and mythologizing, even as they go to pains to display Lincoln’s folksy, sometimes earthy wit. (Did you hear the one about Ethan Allen, George Washington and the outhouse?) The solemn tone is weighed down further by John Williams’ grandiose score, which chimes in with salutary horns better enlisted for an Arlington processional march. I may be going out on a limb here, but I do declare that the topic of slavery isn’t the hot-button issue it used to be. Spielberg, however, still seems to be fighting the Civil War, and, um, with horses and bayonets.

So you have to ask, then, why the filmmakers were so keen on running this long, lavish production up the flagpole, especially in an election year. Is it the curious resemblances to the presidency of Barack Obama, also recently re-elected and presiding over a bitterly divided Congress? While basic civil rights for African-Americans are at the heart of Lincoln’s crusade, Kushner (Angels in America) may be embedding his own topical amendments, from gender equality and racial intermarriage to gay rights.

Whatever the pertinent political motives, Lincoln makes for starchy, button-down history, more monument than movie. It may be an honest Abe, but it’s not nearly a winning one.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Film Review | Samsara

Around the World in 90 Minutes
by Thomas Delapa

In Sanskrit, samsara roughly means the "ever-turning wheel of life and death." In director Ron Fricke's meditative non-verbal documentary, Samsara translates into a mute mélange of image and music that revolves from the humdrum to the stunning.

Five years in the making, Samsara is a return trip to the New-Age travelogue territory for Fricke that marked his 1992 Baraka -as well as 1983's trailblazing Koyaanisqatsi on which he was the cinematographer. In this incarnation (or perhaps reincarnation), Fricke and collaborator Mark Magidson trekked to 25 countries spanning the globe for a sensuous and spiritual spectacle, but one that will leave some audiences hunting for a thematic road map.

Fricke calls his work a "guided meditation," and the cascade of images captures a paradoxical world of dynamic contrasts: the sacred and profane, desert and mountain, city and country, rich and poor, primitive and modern. Central to both Buddhist and Hindu beliefs, "samsara" isn't exactly an heavenly concept, but rather signifies the eternal cycle of life and death, including the infernal bugaboo of human suffering.

This odyssey starts at the birth of a new day at Buddhist monastery in India, where monks painstakingly create, grain-by-grain, a mandala sand painting. Visually, Fricke and Magidson's running motif is the human eye, whether on a resplendent Chinese dancer, a statue of King Tut or on a gallery of candid subjects staring at the camera, giving off expressions that run the gamut from disquieting defiance to inviting exoticism.

Fricke's camera also takes the long view, giving us remarkable vistas of deserts, mountains and cityscapes, often captured in revealing time-lapse. A busy downtown shimmers at night, punctuated by a moving necklace of headlights, while a river of commuters rushes through the Tokyo streets in fast-motion like so many human ants. You may feel like a stranger in a strange land as you eye these human caravans and wonder in bemusement where on earth we are headed as a species.

But confused audiences may well ask, "Where in the world is Ron Fricke?" since his globe-trotting is so fast and furious that it might make your head spin. Inner-directed spectators will take to the ambiguities and apparent incongruities of Fricke's eco-montage. Others will no doubt wish for better directions. Fricke doesn't readily connect the dots or his shots, so you'll have to DIY, folks.

Still, there is much to marvel at in this trippy New Age tour, which could be looked at as an upscale update of 1961's sensational Mondo Cane. Pessimists will think that the modern world really has gone to the dogs, especially after observing the unsavory scenes from a Chinese chicken factory, where workers in pink jump suits and masks systematically kill on a scale that would be the envy of Joseph Goebbels. Fricke never fails to remind us of evolution of mechanized man, embodied in the scary spectacle of tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers marching in robotic formation. In the frankly bizarre category, the dead winner is a Ghana coffin shop, which makes it possible for one newly departed to rest in peace inside a casket customized into a giant shotgun.

Fricke aims high in this movie (it was photographed in lush widescreen 70mm), but the results are scattershot. With no script per se, only a rough scenario, he and Magidson let the images speak for themselves. They sometimes say volumes in beauty, mystery, weirdness and wonder. Other times, they barely whisper. Samsara is 90 minutes of checkered pictorial pleasure, but it's a world away from cinematic nirvana.