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lincoln

The goal of any historical film is to try and derive excitement and suspense enough that you’re interested for the entire runtime–even if it is someone as revered and learned and relearned as Honest Abe.

With the amount that people know of him, you’d think it would have been much more difficult to teach and inform on the subject, but Daniel Day-Lewis brings such deeply felt humanity to a role that he allows to engluf him so completely that, while the pace never quite picks up, you are enraptured watching the living visage of one of the greatest Presidents ever, one who’s probably in your pocket right now.

More than anything, this film is a courtroom drama, studying the effects of the bloodiest war in US history on the men who were on borrowed time to get the 13th Amendment passed during a lame duck session in Congress.

To that end, Lincoln also achieved another tenet of historical films: Teach me Something. I had no idea that Abe essentially bribed voted-out Democratic members of Congress with positions in the government for their vote to enact the 13th amendment.

Or that politics hasn’t seemed to change much in the past 160 years or so: Tommy Lee Jones’s Congressman Stevens spends most of the film insulting his fellow congressmen (nincompoops!) across the aisle in the Democratic party because they don’t believe in race equality; bribes and deals are cut to get things done; and that the only time stuff gets done is during Lame Duck sessions when Honey Badger Congressmen don’t give a shit.

Beyond that, it’s hard to say much–Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is stellar; Tony Kushner’s screenplay brought into the third dimension two and a half hours of speeches and stories; and John Williams’s score wasn’t overpowering, but subtle in its emotional direction–beyond that, though, there’s really not much than can be said about the Best Picture Winner of 2012 (Yes, that’s my prediction, even though I’d obviously prefer the Master) except…

Some Nitpicky Shit that nobody else may care about (but I do!)

Up until now, Steven Spielberg has had me worried–it’s not that he’s slipped at all as a filmmaker, but that I just haven’t enjoyed the last two films of his that I saw. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a two hour clusterfuck, and War Horse had me so distracted with its lighting choices that I never could get into the film.

Those lighting choices are here, too: Between War Horse and this film, it seems as if he’s started to move toward pointing harsh white lights on all his actors at all times in spite of the coloring of the rest of the scene.

In War Horse, it was fairly acceptable as it seemed like a fitting lighting design for a film that originally came from a stage play. But, here, it’s just distracting at first, and I had to continue to consider its thematic uses because, against such a ridiculously rich period piece, it simply looked awful at points.

But then I decided that it was more to give the actors with any sort of humanity an almost angelic glow, as if highlighting those who were fighting the good fight, and those who were fighting against it. I came to this conclusion mostly because Jackie Earl Haley’s turn as the Confederate VP is never shone in such a light, but in other scenes, each and every person in the background has a white spotlight shown on their faces.

It’s weird, unnatural, and distracting, but it definitely helped to accentuate the dichotomous nature of humanity because, most of the time, the light is often from only one direction, allowing shadows to fall across the faces of the actors in a way that hints at their own uncertainty at whether or not any of this will work.

So it has its thematic purposes, both here and in War Horse, but I simply can’t rectify within myself the need to use such a jolting strategy in an otherwise gorgeous film.

And I have an excuse to post this:

There’s another one, but I can’t effing find it unfortunately.

water dissolving and water removing [meek’s cutoff]

Not related to Meek’s Cutoff; Related to my short film

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Be forewarned that I deal heavily with the ending, the story arc, and what it implies meaning, “Y’ar, thar be spoilers ahead.” But see this movie… But take a No Doz beforehand if you have a short attention span. 

I saw this movie last Friday and I’ve been flummoxed ever since.

The way it begins with water and ends without it. The way it begins without any traditional setup–including how Meek convinced them to follow him–and ends without any conclusion.

Ostensibly.

See, this film’s “problem” is that the outward plot and conventional beats of storytelling openly defy what is actually going on. This is because conventional beats imply the destiny of characters. As Kate Stables wrote in her review, “”What’s manifest in Meek’s Cutoff isn’t destiny, but the difficulty of gauging truth, whether it concerns what’s over the hill, or within a human heart.” In other words, what we should be waiting for isn’t the destination, but the decision as to what the destination will ultimately be–water or death.

When Michelle Williams’s character, Emily, makes the decision to convince everyone else that the Indian knows what he’s talking about, she has figured out that the Indian is the only one, anymore, who may even possibly know where water is, so when he begins to signal and speak in Nez Perce that’s unsubtitled, she tells everyone what she believes she’s hearing.

And not in a suddenly-clairvoyant way where she finally truly understands what he’s saying but in a “He’s gotta be saying this, for the love of God” kind of way. It’s her final act of desperation to save this group.

The viewer, though, isn’t privy as to whether or not this final act of desperation yields them any luck.

At this point, I’m pretty sure watching everyone die would be really disappointing.

Destiny and Gauging Truth

While the men are tending to destiny, the women are left to be the quiet jurors. The women can’t speak openly with the men about the plight of having no water and being lost and “what the fuck are we supposed to do with this Indian who’s just as lost as us?” but they can speak quietly, by making broken, elliptical statements to their husbands in such a way that guides them without being subordinate. The last thing anyone wants is a fight of any kind.

As a result, this movie exists in a weird juxtaposition in which the outward plot and conventional beats are pointing us toward destiny while the inner workings and the quiet force of the women is truly taking us where we want to go.

The film itself is within every single detail of what these people are doing on this trail. It is built to request the empathy of the viewer, only to have any emotions toward these characters pummeled by the irresolute ending.

Just as their wagons are built to get them across the country, this movie is built to get us from water to water… Only, just like the characters and one of the wagons, we don’t quite ever make it.

The Viewing Experience

The focus of a film isn’t on its broader story but on its intricate parts and, as a result, takes its time.

In order to better to pull the viewer into these intricacies, Meek’s Cutoff is shot using the old “Academy Ratio,” or 4:3, or square like televisions older than HD.

To Director Kelly Reichardt, “It gives you this foreground: you get the height over the mountains and the sky. But it also worked for the vision that the women have in their bonnets, this lack of peripheral vision and this straight-ahead, no-nonsense perspective. And then also if you’re traveling seven to twelve miles a day, and you have widescreen, it’s like, ‘There’s tomorrow! I can see it in the screen! And there’s yesterday!’ So this was a way of keeping you locked in the moment and not getting ahead of where the emigrants were. I think that helped build tension, because you could not see what was around the next corner.”

What is interesting about using this aspect ratio is that it enhances the area which our eyes are drawn to in the sense that our characters remain in the center of the screen the entire time since there’s really no left or right third of the screen.

Reaction to the Ending

When I went to see this film, the ending was the part that made the entire theater groan and say “That’s it?” Then the middle aged couples continue to talk about it during the credits.

But while everyone else was asking “Where’s the rest of it?” I was left asking “Why?”

Because it’s a complete film, it just doesn’t feel complete. It feels like it blacks out right before the third act.

From Emily’s perspective, the story begins at the river and when she’s convinced she’s found it again.

And so, since the story of the women is done before the story of their destiny, the movie ends without resolution.

One Last Thing

The Indian in this film speaks no English, only Nez Perce (I stayed through the credits to find out what language it was). And it isn’t subtitled.

I’ve always felt that subtitling words that the main characters don’t understand cheapens the experience for the viewer. We’ve come far along on this journey with them and, now, you’re giving us more information than them for the first time. The biggest offender of this is the film adaptation of Everything is Illuminated. Elijah Wood’s character is only understanding what Alex is telling him and yet the viewer has subtitles to make sure every word is understood.

So, to me, this was a gutsy move driven by the story. But I can understand if it’s frustrating. I’d like as much as anyone else to know just what the hell he was actually saying.

But that’ll probably have to wait until the DVD.