MOVIE: Lincoln


daniel-day-lewis-lincoln-spielbergSPIELBERG’S “LINCOLN” – BRILLIANT. Finally after wasting his talent on the saccharine trivia of “War Horse”, Steven Spielberg’s enormous talent has been complemented by the comparably enormous talents of Daniel Day Lewis playing a convincingly thoughtful, charming, funny Lincoln, script-writer Tony Kushner (who gave us “Angels in America” one of the best plays of the last decade) and the always extraordinary Janusz Kaminski’s, his cinematographer.

This is a movie as somber and serious as its subject – essentially America’s second founding moment (Washington’s wresting of the country from colonialism was its first; Lincoln’s abolition of slavery was its second). It is set in the middle of the bloody civil war. Spielberg show us a nation divided, the bodies piling up – so many brutalized corpses sinking into the mud – and the President facing the awesome responsibility of choosing between ending the carnage or ending slavery.

The responsibility and grave consequences of the choice weighs on the President’s shoulders and we see the tall and spindly-slender Day Lewis, who physically seems to have been sculpted to play this role, bent and bowed under by its burden. At one point someone tells him that he’s aged a decade in the last year and we witness this in the lattice-work of lines that betray his care-worn face. Who knows what Lincoln was really like, but Spielberg’s “Lincoln” offers us both the icon – often Janusz shoot him like some sort of official presidential portrait, his strong profile outlined against a dark foreboding background – and the man. He is at times stern and unwaveringly focused on the task ahead, and at other times, garrulous, funny, charming and seductively manipulative. Daniel Day Lewis flickers in the half-light from one mood to another – from introspective to angry – in beats of an eyelid.

It is a master-class of acting, of inhabiting a character and pulling you into his introspection, his fears and vision through the modulations of his voice, the fidgets of his fingers, the stillness when all around is in motion.

What Spielberg has managed to do in this so very restrained movie is to squeeze every ounce of heart-stopping drama from what is essentially a movie about law-making. It is the film-maker’s show and tell about the agonizing birth of his nation. He highlights the fact that the abolition was dragged into life not as a result of the high-mindedness of the House of Representatives, but through Lincoln’s perseverance, his conniving relentlessness (he basically bribed and bullied into being the thirteenth amendment of the Constitution) and the sly positioning of abolition not as recognition of racial equality, but as a legalization of equality in the eyes of the law.

Maybe it’s America’s election of a Black president, or maybe it’s simply coincidence, but this year we’ve been treated by two magnificent movies set around the same period and dealing with the same subject: slavery and prejudice in America (Tarantino’s exuberant comedic version, “Django Unchained” and Spielberg’s classy “Lincoln”). Tarantino is overt in his commentary that racism is still alive and well; Spielberg’s take is more nuanced.

Tarantino points to the deep hypocrisy of the South with its miscegenation and complex, almost incestuous Black/White intermingling. Spielberg highlights the grand divide between the two nations (nothing’s really changed here – the flag of Texas still flies, and, in the absence of the KKK, is still the anti-integration symbol) and the naked fear that abolition would be a financial disaster. Slavery, climate change – funny how the US tries so hard to ignore those things that could inconvenience their bank accounts.

But I digress.

No review of “Lincoln” would be complete without highlighting two other sterling performances – that of Tommy Lee Jones, as the curmudgeonly Thaddeus Stevens, a fiery abolitionist (his face as craggy as Mount Rushmore). Tommy Lee Jones – all fire, brimstone and uncompromising passion is the counterpoint to Daniel Day Lewis’s deep calmness. Spielberg’s pairing of contrasts adds to the texture and rhythm of the film. The other class act is that of Wayne Duval as an unsmiling Senator Bluff Wade (OK, this is a very small part, but Wayne is my friend, so I thought I’d give him a shout out)

363010.1Spielberg is essentially a director of men (“Schindler’s List”, “Saving Private Ryan” the Indiana Jones movies, “Catch Me if You Can” etc). The women (here headlined by a tough-minded Sally Field as Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln) are peripheral. They remain choric figures, glowing somewhere in the background, contributing to the narrative, but outside its gravitational pull. And, apart from his schmaltzy side (witness as I noted, “War Horse”) this is his weakness (I refer you to “The Colour Purple”). But with the strengths he possesses as a director, who’s complaining.

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MOVIE: Django Unchained


django-unchained-leonardo-dicaprio“DJANGO UNCHAINED” SUCCEEDS marvelously as a deliriously comedic wallow in a buddy movie cum Blaxploitation revenge fantasy all wrapped in a post-modern Western dress. As with all Tarantino movies, he plays up all those auteur signifiers we’re accustomed to: Franco Nero, the original Django, offering a subtle wink and a nod when he learns of Django’s name, a posse of old Western actors (Bruce Dern and Russ Tamblyn) are back in the saddle- the movie playing homage to them – even a jowly Tarantino himself making a Hitchcok-ian cameo.

Mr. Tarantino deserves praise for having created his own richly filmic genre. There are certain factors you can expect of a Tarantino movie: the pulpy look, the ornate dialogue, the gore, the intricate story-telling, the always surprising use of music and that blend of in-joke intellectualism with populist vulgarity. It’s a style that works well with “Django…” as it allows him to offer his – very serious take – on the nature of American race relations without seeming to be at all serious.

The story is set two years before the civil war when a chained Django (Jamie Foxx) is ‘freed’ by Dr. King Schulz (Christopher Waltz), a bounty hunter posing as an itinerant dentist. Dr. Schulz needs Django to help him identify some men on his wanted list, which he does in exchange for his freedom. These two unlikely men – a Black American slave and a White German dentist/bounty hunter- bond… a bond that leads them to Calvin Candie (Leo deCaprio) in search of Django’s wife Brumhild (Kerry Washington – who also played alongside Jamie in “Ray”) who, would you believe it, speaks German. Huge shoot-outs and vast buckets of blood ensue along the way before husband and wife can be happily reunited.

At its heart lies Django’s revenge – the Black man’s revenge against White oppression. This movie-goer’s fantasy (Tarantino paints the BAD guys with very broad colours, so that his audience can share Django’s blood soaked catharsis of revenge) is an actualization of the dynamic of abuse, distrust and blind fear that seems to exist as the core element of the American narrative (and for this, look no further than the Republican “birthers”). Tarantino highlights the look of shock and horror on the faces of the townspeople upon seeing a Black man riding into town with a gun strapped to his waist. This must have been as scary as, say, a Black man becoming President. And this is no mere ‘reading’. For Tarantino’s style transcends period. In other words, though we’re ostensibly looking at a mid nineteenth century Western, we’re really quite clearly in a sort of Tarantino ‘now’.

The real hit of the movie is Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, the Uncle Tom house slave. Jackson is not an actor I look to for nuanced performances. But here he captures the mix of aggressive superiority, intellectual snobbery and cringing, fawning obsequiousness that invests what could have been a stock character with a degree of menace that’s far deeper than Leo’s somewhat pantomime villain.

You can see how “Django Unchained” has won such critical plaudits as well as such enthusiastic audience response. It has all the elements: an exciting story; a serious topic; big name actors; blood. And yet for all this, I felt that whereas “Inglorious Basterds” really plunged you into the menace of the Nazi mentality, “Django Unchained” felt at its core, quite trivial. It’s as though Tarantino was satisfied by shocking his – white – audience with his repetition of the ‘N’ word and by holding up a mirror to the –barely- submerged racism that still exists. It could have been a great film; but as it is, it’s (merely) good fun.

MOVIE: Gangster Squad


GANGSTER SQUAD

A NEW VIDEO game has just been launched. It’s called “Gangster Squad”. Actually, hang on, it isn’t a game, it’s a real movie. It looks like a game; the characters in it, who are apparently real actors, move like it’s a game; and the storyline sounds like a game. But the fact that it’s on at the Clapham Picturehouse and not on X-Box… that, I guess, is the big give-way. It’s the only give-away.

So, buyer beware – don’t be fooled by the glittering cast of this new, thuggishly dumb gangster movie that premiered this week.

The premise is this: it’s just after the war (1949 to be exact) and Sean Penn is Mickey Cohen, a low life Hollywood gangster with ambitions of taking over the entire West Coast. He controls not only whole legions of armed hench-men, but most of the politicians and police, who turn a blind eye to his nefarious activities. Except for Nick Nolte, who is taciturn, which means he’s uncorruptible. It is he who conscripts a squadron of ex-army (equally uncorruptible and dedicated) cops to make war on Cohen and his gang, outside of the constraints of the law and the badge.

Maybe you’ve come across plot lines like this before, and, what with this array of stars, you may be lulled into thinking that there’s some fiendishly clever twist on this old cliché to introduce new energy and thematic pulse, the way, say “The Untouchables” did.

But no, you’d be wrong. This is simply one of those super-masculine outings where the women are dames waiting to be saved by strong jawed men; where the bad guys just don’t seem to be able to hit their targets despite truck loads of bullets (shown jumping from their rifles in loving slow mo’), but where the good guys are keen-eyed shooters; where there is a relentlessness of sadistic blood-splattering violence; where the body count is unremitting; and where the dialog is snappy and meaningless.

Which matches the acting style.

The only excuse could be that director Ruben Fleischer (who gave us that classic, “Zombieland”) pushed them to go for, let’s say, a more broad interpretation of character. This must have opened up Sean Penn, who is usually very compelling and believable (the only half way decent thing about the dreadful “Tree of Life”) to ham it up to such an extent that I fear he might have his Equity card revoked. Josh Brolin, as Sgt John O’Mara the square-jawed un-killable leader of the pack of ‘good guys’ delivers a performance of such flinty resoluteness, he appears constantly to be busting his brains to remember his lines. And ‘it’ man, Ryan Gosling snatches his performance from the “cool dude” draw where he stores his “Drive” school of expression-free acting.

Much of the action takes place on a back lot that Fleischer’s production team must have snapped up from an X-Box drawer of fire-sale design discards. For it is quite clearly a back-lot; nothing remotely credible.

But, there is a lot of attention to wardrobe. Mary Zophres who dressed Harrison Forde and Daniel Craig in “Cowboys and Aliens” as well as the team from “Iron Man” gives us the GQ version of roaring twenties, rogue-cop style.

So at least, if “Expendables II” wasn’t your cup of tea; or if you aren’t surprised to find that the Oscar judges have passed over Jason Stratham yet again, you may find some solace in the flashy masculine clothes on display. And if even this is not your cup of tea, suggest you conserve your energy and time.

TRAVELS: Barcelona


DSCN1456BARCELONA HAS MORE than Messi to boast of: Look up, and you’ll see a world of architectural wonders that any other city in the world would be proud to own. Look down and you’ll encounter platters of tapas unmatched anywhere else. It’s a city for gawkers and gourmands.

So, for the next few paragraphs or so, let’s meander aimlessly awhile, see a few sights, sample a few dishes and, probably mix a few metaphors as well. If you’re thinking of visiting this fair place, here are a few highlights you might wish to consider.

This is a port city and perhaps that’s why its many interlocking barrios and winding alleyways don’t really flow from a single gravitational hub. La Rambla, drifting northward from the port area, away from Columbus pointing meaningless at nothing and nowhere in particular, atop his 165ft column, through the Ciutat Vela, the Old City, is probably the closest you’ll get to a centre. It’s essentially a long, tree-lined promenade, fringed by stalls selling trinkets and trash and bounded on both sides by a snarl of traffic. To most people, I would imagine, this would be their first encounter with the city’s tapestry of facades. The area certainly give you an great overall sense of the look of the place. And there are a couple of interesting buildings, such as the Oriente hotel with its curling dragon and swirl of giant ornamental fans – interesting in a bizarre sort of way.

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The high point here though is La Boqueria, one of many markets dotted around the city, and a gawking gourmet’s delight. Here you’ll find produce (oh, everything from chocolate truffles to charcuterie to neatly stacked many-cloured fruit seemingly radiating sunlight, to buffets of freshly prepared legumes redolent of the smells of the Mediterranean, to silvery fresh fish and crab still breathing for release, to succulent hunks of pork and beef and platters of poultry). Interestingly, many of the vendors here are women; not usual for a market.

But even more interesting are the many tapas stalls that call out to us weary travellers. We stopped at Bar Pinotxo. It’s a little sliver of a place run by an engagingly active family and offering some of the more tasty treats you’re likely to find anywhere. We stopped here for a cold Cava (Catalunya’s great gift to the world of sparkling wines) and a dish of thyme infused chick peas.

(As you saunter from taps bar to taps bar as we did, you’ll quickly begin to differentiate those that merely offer the same old clichéd tapas – albondigas (meatballs), anchovies in oil, gambas al ajillo, croquettes filled with a variety offerings, morcilla (or boudin noir), jamon Ibero and goat cheeses – to the really imaginative places. Not that I have anything against these treats mind you… but there’s much better to be had. And starting at Bar Pinotxo sets a bar that’s pretty high.)

As your wander to gawk at the city’s best, there are two areas I’d recommend. The first is the spread out Barri Gotic, where you’ll find the extraordinary Catedral de Santa Eulalia. This place has been around in one form or the other since the tenth century, so, you know, it’s old. But what’s interesting is that when you enter its ancient portals, you enter not so much a church, but it seems like a mini village with its own eco zone (there are several trees inside) and, surprisingly, a gaggle of geese. There are thirteen of them – one for every year the martyred St Eulalia lived. Oh these Christians, how charming they are with their many gods, oops, saints and their marvelous narratives.

This area also boasts Pjtarra Restaurant on Carrer d’Avinyo, 56. This old eatery (it’s over a hundred years old) is a converted clock shop (and there are many of them on the walls) that only opens for lunch (how do they stay in business?). It offered us by far the best meal we had on our trip. I had a very slow roasted leg of goat, its meat succulently falling off the bone, and steeped in a rich red wine sauce. And of course, more cava.

Not that far from this area is a barrio called La Ribera and El Born. This has a few interesting sights to look up at. But this is a place best kept for looking down.

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Carrer Montcada is the place to find the best tapas in town. In particular, El Xampanyet at No. 22 is a tiny bar where we managed, luckily, to find a seat squashed against a corner. From that – great people-watching – vantage point, and with the help of a friendly waitress, we ordered all manner of delights: chorizo stewed in wine, little squares of tender tuna, charred red peppers etc. What’s great here (and with many of these little bodegas) is that the tapas are all there for you to point at, and, well, hope for the best. El Xtampanyet also offers its own sparkling wine – Xtampanol.

Almost opposite you find the larger establishment – Euskal Etxea – another superb tapas bar. Here you don’t even need a friendly assistant. You simply take whatever dishes suit your fancy and, because all the tapas come with a toothpick in them, at the end your bill is simply the addition of the number of toothpicks you’ve chosen. What could be more efficient (assuming of course that everyone stays honest)?

Time to look up.

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By far the most interesting road –visually – is that of Passeig Gracia – from the Passeig to the Diagonal metros. This is the posher part of Barcelona; it’s also in an area called the Eixample (which simply means that unlike the serpentine direction of the streets in the Old City, here there’s some sense of order). This area is a treasure trove of design. The overall look is one of old-monied elegance where low-rise apartments with floor to ceiling shuttered windows offer flashes of bold colour and warmth against their walls of cold stone. The quiet restraint of the classical lines is time and again punctuated by many-storied bow windows, embellished with flounces of tinted glass.

Here and there, suddenly, unexpectedly, you’re likely to encounter some art deco edifice with its shock of self-conscious design, its woodwork seemingly reanimated from its original tree with tendrils that curl wherever fancy takes them.

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Look out too for the towers of some of these buildings. As though their architects couldn’t bear to leave the roofs without one further flourish, these magical towers are like gigantic tulips that have burst into flower just the night before.

More than all this, here you’ll find several buildings designed by the protean Gaudi. Casa Batllo is one of a triumvirate of exuberant Modernista buildings called the Illa de la Discordia. Like everything else Gaudi, these stand apart, in a universe distinctly their own. La Pedrera is his central (domestic) masterpiece. This huge eight-storied apartment block, devoid of straight lines, seem to have been carved out of a single massive boulder. On the roof where (for a small sum) you can wander along its undulating walks and stairs, there are massive heads (hiding chimneys), apparently inspired by Medieval knights, but which could easily be the heads of Easter Island reimagined by Darth Vader.

Gaudi’s world-famous, incomplete masterpiece (he was killed by a tram car while the building was under construction) is of course La Sagrada Familia. This looks like some otherworldly stone octopus that had been sucked from the bowels of the earth, lizards, snakes and other reptiles still clinging to its crenelated sides. And within its strange gnarled exterior exists a different dimension. You’re transported magically to the inside of a balloon where thin white spidery legs seem to defy gravity to give the whole place a sensation of floating. It’s less a house of God, more a portal to heaven itself.

But that’s all about looking up as high as you can look. Let’s end with looking down – to the best paella in town (so many places offer paellas which are really risottos with an afterthought of an unpeeled langoustine). Les Set Portes, near the Waterfront is one of those institutions where it seems everybody who’s anybody has eaten at. At our table there was a plaque boasting that Woddy Allen had eaten there (Charlton Heston had eaten there too. But we’ll forgive them that aberration). I hope Woody had eaten the paella. This version of that rice dish has a flavor that’s deep and complex, with the soccorat giving it a nice dark taste. We had the rich man’s version – which meant that the shrimp had been peeled, and there were generous chunks of saffron rich meats for us to dive into.

And of course, as always there was cava.

MOVIE: Les Miserables


Les-Mis-Hathaway-Jackman11-1280x844Verisimilitude. That clearly was what Tom Hooper (of “The King’s Speech” fame) was going for in this adaptation of the long running play, “Les Miserables”. That’s why he made the wise decision to have his actors actually act their songs instead of miming pre-recorded versions. For that has always been an issue in so many movie musicals – all drama comes to a stop until the number is over with. In this version, which is almost all sung, Hooper keeps the integrity of the narrative by insisting that his actors ‘perform live’ as it were.

And there are indeed some fine performances. Hugh Jackman was a good choice as the long-suffering lead, Jean Valjeun. Having stunned New Yorkers a few years ago with his tour de force performance in “The Boy From Oz”, we knew he could belt out a number; and he does that to great effect here. Russell Crowe’s Javert, Jean Valjeun’s dogged nemesis, gives us compellingly heartless run-by-the-book policeman. Who knew he could sing? And Sacha Baron Cohen as Thenardier, the thieving low-life, along with his wife Madame Thenadier (Helena Bonham Carter) deliver fine comic performances.

The rest of the cast are neither here nor there. Having lost tons of weight, Anne Hathaway successfully buries her loveliness under a dirty, scraggy, gaunt visage, but she’s all whimper, whimper, simper simper. Not that the role offers a lot of nuance: the poor woman is forced to turn from prim and pure to prostitution to pneumonia in the space of a few song-cycles. The other key characters don’t work. Eddie Redmayne was great as the boring Colin Clark in “My Week With Marylin”, where the conceit was, ‘how could a dolt like this end up with the world’s hottest woman?’ Here, as Marius, he’s supposed to be such a heart-throb that the sequestered Collette (a vacuous Amanda Seyfried) falls in love with him instantly.

I’m not buying it.

And that’s the core failing of this movie. Not unlike Spielberg’s “War Horse”, here’s a story that works brilliantly on the stage, but on the big screen, the promise of verisimilitude is wrecked by a narrative that simply lacks credibility. “War Horse” without the puppets became in Spielberg’s hands mere emotional treacle; and “Les Miz” without all the extraordinary genius of the staging and the exciting immediacy of the theatre simply exposes the psychological shallowness of the tale.

When tough guy Javert discovers that Jean Valjeun isn’t as bad as he thought, his immediate change of heart (scene changes on the stage suggest time lapses; on the screen, this evaporates) is so extreme that he kills himself. Really?

Good guy Jean Valjeun basically sequesters Collette for a decade. This is usually called kidnapping, but we’re meant to accept it as part of some sort of story-line convention. I didn’t.

And then Collette with a singe glance falls instantly in love with Marius who instantly reciprocates the love. Nice for a fairy-tale, which this does not purport to be. He, by the way had joined the uprising to fight for the rights of the downtrodden (it’s not called “Les Miserables” for nothing). But in the happy nuptials at the end, he seems comfortably happy with his nobility and vast fortune.

And dear, noble and downtrodden, Fantine leaves her beloved baby with two obviously nasty, scheming people. Works for Harry Potter, but not here.

Even Hooper’s production design doesn’t quite seem to know where to go. The movie starts with a nice big screen cinematic take on prisoners toiling in a boat yard. By the end, the production design is so staged and corny that the grandeur of the occasion (we’re in the midst of a major revolution here) is reduced to a silly street corner where you know it’s going to end badly for the rebels.

But, despite it all, “Les Miserables” was well received by many critics; and there’s no doubt that it’ll do well at the Oscars. Oscar likes this sort of fare: big, populist, seemingly about small people taking on the rich, pretty actresses down-playing their looks (think Charlize in “Monster”) and –critical – successful.