Monday, June 23, 2014

DVD(s) of the Week: Lincoln and Inside Llwelyn Davis

Unusually, this week, we got a double-header in on movie Saturday, something we've not done for a while, as we usually wait for our youngest to head to bed. This week, a combination of the heat and a very energetic party left him spark out early, so we took the opportunity to have a bit of a catch-up. And an odd double-bill it turned out to be - Steven Speilberg's historical drama Lincoln followed by the Coen Brothers tale of the early 1960s folk scene, Inside Llwelyn Davis. I'd love to be able to draw a neat, unexpected parallel between the two films, but really I can't, so regardless, lets just plough on with the reviews.

First up, Lincoln. This is serious-faced Spielberg making a movie that is weighty and about "stuff", and whilst it retains his hallmark middle-of-the-road accessibility, the weight does hang off it both for good an ill. The focus of the film is the passage of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which explicitly outlawed American slavery for once and for all. The film does a good job in the early running of laying out why it's important, why it needed to be done before the Civil War ended, and the sort of hurdles that it had to cross. There is a lot of neat groundwork in the early going that allows the film to keep moving in it's later stages, and also makes clear the "base politics" at work. There is a focus on procedure, and a conflict between idealism and pragmatism, that reminded me of The West Wing at it's best, although without the TV shows scripted "zing".

The main focus falls on two characters - Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, a radical and firey abolitionist. Jones probably has more fun inhabiting the outspoken, angry and pointedly witty Stevens, and makes a concerted effort to steal the film out from under everyone else. He's the character with the most distance to travel; a character that feels like it is there to make points about compromise, and fighting the battle in front of you, and taking the wins where you can, and it's Stevens who gets (for me) the films most poignant moment towards the end, as he takes the (passed) bill home for the night.

As Lincoln, Daniel Day Lewis feels at times a little bit too much the Lincoln that has come down through history, all folksy anecdotes and  homespun wisdom. But the film is clever to show the limits of that, especially in the broken, pain-filled marriage still reeling from the death of one of their children several years before. As a portrait of the man, the film works best when its showing his flaws, and it's in these moments that the strength in the performance comes through.

It's also worth mentioning that the film is lovely to look at. Many scenes are lit like paintings of the period, with strong lights and darks (especially on the actors faces) and does manage - mostly - to make a story about passing a law tense and interesting. It does sag a little towards the end, however, and the story effectively finishes with the passing of the bill, whilst the film keeps going for another 15 minutes or so, just so it can end on Lincolns assassination. I understand why, but I really don't think it was necessary.

Noticeably shorter is the Coen Brothers Inside Llwelyn Davis, the story of a down on his luck folk musician working the New York Scene in 1961. I say "story" but that's a bit of a generalisation, as this is a film largely without a plot, that literally ends at the same point that it started. The film follows the character over a couple of days of crashing on peoples sofas, searching for lost cats, and largely alienating anyone who could help him, as he struggles with his life, music and, well, pretty much everything. Davis is a hard character to like - in fact I'm not sure the film has a traditionally likable character in it - but Oscar Isaac is an absorbing presence that carries pretty much the whole running time on his shoulders.

Fans of the Coens will be familiar with the meandering structure, and many of the films vignettes are excellent - the trip to Chicago being a high-point - and the music is great. The obvious first-glance comparison is O Brother Where Art Thou, but that film has a wit and drive to it missing here, leaving this a deeper character study and less quotable lines. It still has John Goodman though. What you are left with is more like A Serious Man or The Man Who Wasn't There, a film that isn't about anything but this one character, and his life, and some great folk music.