Lincoln (2012)

2016 #62
Steven Spielberg | 151 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & India / English | 12 / PG-13

Oscar statue2013 Academy Awards
12 nominations — 2 wins

Winner: Best Actor, Best Production Design.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Score, Best Sound Mixing.


Daniel Day-Lewis allegedly stars in this account of the final months of President Abraham Lincoln’s life, which might more pertinently be called The 13th Amendment due to where its focus lies. I say “allegedly” because I’m not convinced they didn’t find a way to resurrect Lincoln to appear as himself, then just pretended it was Day-Lewis acting.

Although this project started life as a traditional biopic of the 16th President of the United States, as director-producer Steven Spielberg developed it over several years, it was eventually whittled down to what we have here. Most reviews and the like describe it as being about the final four months of Lincoln’s life, and in a literal sense that’s true because the last couple of months are covered at the tail-end of the movie. However, it’s really about one month: January 1865.

With the American Civil War not yet over, though clearly in its final stages, and an election recently reaffirming Lincoln’s presidency but bringing changes in the House of Representatives — changes that, importantly, don’t take effect for a few more weeks — the president decides now is the time to push through the unpopular 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which will abolish slavery. He wants it passed because it’s the right thing to do, though there is far from consensus on this point. However, the passing of the amendment would likely bring about the end of the war, which leads some to back it even though they don’t agree with the amendment in and of itself; and the forthcoming changes in the House mean there are a raft of senators soon to be looking for new jobs, whose votes might be bought with the promise of a cushty position in the near future.

If that all sounds very political, it is. I wouldn’t be the first to observe that Lincoln plays like a period version of The West Wing, but it bears repeating because it’s true. If the idea of men standing (and sitting) in rooms debating political manoeuvres — who might be persuaded to vote which way, and how they might be persuaded, and what they will want in return, and what deals need to be struck, and so on and so forth — sounds like it might make for an engrossing movie, then there’s a fair chance Lincoln will be your cup of tea. A not-insignificant proportion of viewers protest that it is boring, however, and while I in no way agree with them, your mileage may vary.

From a filmmaking perspective, this is first-class work. Spielberg shows a more restrained side to his proclivities than in the similarly-themed Amistad, but exhibits perhaps a little more flair than in his next film, Bridge of Spies. Much like that latter movie, his sentimental streak only really manifests itself in one short scene right near the end… though historians who contest the commonly-taught history of Lincoln as an upstanding man (a view this film clearly maintains) may argue the whole film gives in to this aspect of the director’s work. Either way, the film is a visual triumph, its production design award well-earned. Even more so, however, is the work of Spielberg’s regular DP, Janusz Kaminski, whose candle-and-gaslight photography of interiors is breathtakingly good. The whole picture exhibits a richness and a sharpness that, perhaps for the first time, made me wonder if 4K might be a really worthwhile idea after all.

The real meat of the film comes in the performances — not the actual political debate, because we all know how that should go, but the men performing said debate. Of course the title performance dominates the movie, but Day-Lewis does not. As I alluded to at the start, it’s hard to see the actor’s presence in the role — it’s not a performer, it is Abraham Lincoln. Not to do anyone else in the film — or, indeed, any other performance in any film ever — a disservice, but Day-Lewis embodies the President in a way few other actors have ever embodied a role. It’s quite remarkable.

It’s a real testament to the rest of the cast, then, that in the face of this powerhouse performance they all do such sterling work. Sally Field tackles a complex, potentially thankless role with aplomb. The movie is about the titular man, so her scenes are really about illuminating the President’s psyche and so creating the biopic side of the movie (i.e. the reason why it isn’t actually called The 13th Amendment), but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t make Molly a believable human being in her own right. Tommy Lee Jones also stands out as hardline abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens doesn’t get on with Lincoln and thinks the 13th Amendment doesn’t go far enough, but will he concede it’s better than nothing in a social climate where many think the opposite? And then there’s James Spader as behind-the-scenes political persuader W.N. Bilbo (yes, like the Hobbit). When he first tumbles onto the screen he looks like a misplaced comedy creation, and he does bring some much needed levity to the film, but in a measured way that doesn’t tip the scales too far. It makes the whole better because of it.

They’re still the tip of the iceberg, however, because in the film’s expansive two-and-a-half-hour running time there’s space for accomplished performances from David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Peter McRobbie, David Oyelowo, Adam Driver… I’m just naming them in the order they are in the cast listing. Some of them are only in one scene. I still think I’ve missed some people.

For me, there are few black marks (unfortunate choice of phrase…) to be held against Lincoln. Does it give in to Spielberg’s sentimentality? Yeah, a little — but it’s a long, long way from the worst case of that, and I think you’d be nitpicky (or have a different opinion on history, which, you know, is a matter of opinion) to criticise the film too harshly for that. As to whether it’s boring, that’s entirely a matter of preference. If you think The West Wing is boring, people who write lists of “the greatest TV shows ever” will disagree with you, and you also likely won’t like Lincoln. I like The West Wing, though.

Lincoln is going to be remembered for Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, and in many respects that’s fine, because (as I’ve said a couple of times now) it is an astonishing piece of acting. Fortunately for the viewer seeking out that performance, there’s an awful lot more to Spielberg’s polished political drama.

5 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of Lincoln is on Film4 tomorrow at 9pm.

It placed 13th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Amistad (1997)

2016 #16
Steven Spielberg | 155 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English, Mende & Spanish | 15 / R

Feeling in need of more intellectual fare after helming The Lost World, Spielberg turned to a project already in development at Dreamworks: an adaptation of a non-fiction book about the 1839 mutiny on the slave ship La Amistad, and the ensuing legal battle. Although not poorly received by critics, there’s a sense that the consensus view dubbed it “black Schindler’s List”, the implication being that by aping the earlier film it was inevitably inferior. I don’t think that’s a watertight chain of logic, but, nonetheless, Amistad is clearly a ‘minor Spielberg’.

Despite being “a slavery drama”, most of the film functions as a legal drama: though it begins with the slave uprising, and later has an extended flashback showing their kidnap and transportation, the thrust of the film lies in the courtroom arguments about who owns the ship’s ‘cargo’ and consequently what should be done with them. This is a period when capturing Africans into slavery, and by extension their subsequent transportation, was illegal by international agreement, but actually owning slaves was not yet banned (at least in the US). It’s before the American Civil War too, so there’s a political dimension: if these ‘slaves’ are freed, what tension might that spark between the north and south?

Though Spielberg is certainly not immune to the Africans’ plight — the depiction of life on a slave ship is appropriately harrowing — it’s clear from early on which side he expects us to identify with, in terms of cultural background if not shared morality: as survivors of the mutiny talk the next day, the slavers’ Spanish dialogue is subtitled but the slaves’ African dialect is not. It’s a simple but effective technique to align us with one side — as I say, not morally (in no regard is Spielberg trying to apologise for the slavers), but socially. Unfortunately, it’s not sustainable: later, when we need to understand the Africans to follow a scene’s point, their dialogue is suddenly subtitled, and from then it’s sporadically translated as needed. I can see why that choice was made, but it makes the unsubtitled bits feel like a cheat.

In most other regards, it’s kind of an old-fashioned movie. In a few ways that works: it’s got classical cinematography, both the use of film (obviously, this being well before mainstream adoption of digital) and the framing, the pace, the editing. In other respects… well, it feels very late ’90s now, the overall style of the screenplay and the treatment of the story reminding you that it’s not actually a moderately-recent film (which I guess I’d personally filed it away as, being the most recent of Spielberg’s pre-2010s films that I’d not seen), but is now nearly 20 years old. And, though I may be damned for criticising him twice in as many weeks, John Williams’ score is a little heavy-handed.

This can be said of Spielberg’s approach to the drama, too. Some of the courtroom stuff is suitably mired in legal technicalities and argument, but by film’s end it gets a little bit too… what’s the word? Not “preachy”. Not “sentimental”, exactly, though it’s born of that old criticism of Spielberg. “Melodramatic” may be on the money, though. It doesn’t help that everything reaches a climax — not only narratively, but also in the way it’s written, shot, acted, and scored — only for it to be revealed that it’s just the end of act two. Okay, that’s the truth of what happened (or near enough, for the purposes of this dramatisation), and by adapting it in that way it emulates the emotions the characters experienced; but from the audience’s perspective, you feel like you’ve reached the end… only to be served up another half-hour of movie. And it’s a long film too, so you feel that. It gets by because it’s fundamentally a good film, with strong performances and technical merits, but it’s a little bumpy for a bit.

There also seem to be a startling array of factual inaccuracies to level at the film. As ever with fictional adaptations of real life, it’s a difficult line. No fact-based fiction is 100% like reality, especially when you factor in unavoidable variances in people’s memories and opinions. However, the more serious or famous the events being depicted, or the more they’re being used to indicate some wider point about their setting, the greater the responsibility to present something that is at least passably accurate. I think some would contend that Amistad is not that. I’m no expert, but this section on Wikipedia, which is bolstered by multiple citations to suggest its accuracy, indicates the extent of the issue.

It’s easy to criticise Amistad, because Spielberg makes the production of very good movies look effortless, so the missteps stand out all the more. The story of La Amistad and its ‘cargo’ is a powerful one, and Spielberg has — naturally — turned it into a good film; but by remixing history to over-egg the message, it loses a little something. A valiant effort, but a film like 12 Years a Slave makes many of the same points in a less grandiose manner.

4 out of 5

12 Years a Slave (2013)

2016 #3
Steve McQueen | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R

Oscar statue2014 Academy Awards
9 nominations — 3 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay.
Nominated: Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design.



As we know, the Oscars are racist and always have been, especially recently. Like two years ago, when they didn’t give a load of nominations and several awards to a film about slavery from a black director and black screenwriter.

Oh, wait…

That film was, obviously, 12 Years a Slave, the true account of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who was kidnapped from his New York home and sold into slavery in the South. His story provides an overview, of sorts, of the experience of working as a plantation slave, both for a relatively decent master (Benedict Cumberbatch) and an evil SOB (Michael Fassbender).

One person who didn’t win an Oscar was Ejiofor (he lost to Matthew McConaughey, but he did win the BAFTA). His nomination was certainly deserved, though, because it’s an incredible lead performance — restrained most of the time, evoking Solomon’s internal life subtly rather than showily, but with carefully executed break-outs of emotion. Indeed, I’m slightly baffled by online commenters who felt the film was cold and lacking emotion or character. At the risk of getting on a high horse, I wonder if it was just too subtle for some? Ejiofor isn’t sat there tearing his heart out, but I thought there was considerably more to his performance than “looks happy in flashbacks, looks miserable in slavery”.

Nonetheless, the supporting performances are uniformly excellent, too. Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt may be mere cameos, the presence of such actors highlighting their roles more than their function within the narrative does, but there are very strong turns from Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, and in particular Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o, who will break your heart, and Michael Fassbender, who is overdue the gong for his many varied and accomplished performances. (I doubt his forthcoming triple of X-Men 6, video game adaptation Assassin’s Creed, and prequel-sequel Alien: Covenant will do anything for him in that regard, but he’s not yet 40, and that’s the prime part of a man’s life for Oscar winning, apparently.)

Steve McQueen’s direction is classical but effective, rarely drawing attention to itself when it has more important things to convey. That’s not to sell it short, though. A scene in which Fassbender’s plantation owner forces Solomon to do something unthinkable is achieved in a single roaming take that lasts nearly five minutes; a tour de force of camerawork, performance, and behind-the-scenes choreography, which only serves to heighten the tension and horror of the experience by never cutting.

Unsurprisingly, 12 Years a Slave is not an easily digestible film — it’s about a disgusting part of human history, and doesn’t shy away from some of its horrors. That said, it’s watchable thanks to the top tier performances, consummate direction, and moving storytelling.

5 out of 5

12 Years a Slave was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

The Vigesimal Monthly Update for January 2016

A new year means the monthly update format is… exactly the same as last year, because it works. (Well, I think it does.)

For any newcomers, or people in need of a refresher, here you’ll find: everything I watched in January 2016, with some observations and analysis too; all the reviews and 100 Favourites entries I posted last month; and The Arbies, my monthly awards. Plus, this month, a few snippets of site news.

Without further ado:


#1 Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (2016)
#2 Snatch. (2000)
#3 12 Years a Slave (2013)
#4 Funny Games (1997)
#5 Lady of Burlesque (1943)
#6 The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), aka Shao Lin san shi liu fang
#7 Super 8 (2011)
#8 The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
#9 The Five Venoms (1978), aka Five Deadly Venoms
#10 Hercules (Extended Cut) (2014)
#11 White God (2014), aka Fehér Isten
#12 King Boxer (1972), aka Five Fingers of Death
#13 Return to the 36th Chamber (1980), aka Shao Lin da peng da shi
#14 Starman (1984)
#15 The Two Faces of January (2014)
#16 Amistad (1997)
#17 The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
#18 47 Ronin (2013)
#19 A Boy and His Dog (1975)
#20 Adam (2009)


  • For the first time, I’ve opened up my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen selections beyond my DVD and Blu-ray collection to include stuff I have access to on streaming services, etc. Due to my inattentiveness, I included a film that was to be removed the day after I posted that list. Fortunately I did notice, and 12 Years a Slave was squeezed in on its last evening on Amazon Prime.
  • I also caught Snatch before I cancelled my Netflix subscription (I hadn’t meant to keep it so long, what with also having Amazon Prime, but golly, there’s so much to watch!) That’s two checked off already, meaning WDYMYHS 2016 is off to a flying start. Considering I usually end up playing catch up (and, two times out of three, failing), that’s a Good Thing.
  • A few other instances of pairs and repetitions this month:
  • 2x Guy Ritchie movies. As mentioned, one was the first check off WDYMYHS 2016; the other was the first check off my list of 50 Unseen from 2015.
  • 2x slavery-related movies. The aforementioned 12 Years a Slave, and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. Both feature Chiwetel Ejiofor, donchaknow.
  • Lots of kung fu movies! Two reasons: Film4’s first Martial Arts Gold season (there’s another in March/April), and that loads are available on Netflix UK, including several well-regarded ones.


January is always the most awkward month to analyse. In so many ways the start of a new year is a false new start — it’s an arbitrary marker imposed on Time by humanity, not any kind of empirical new beginning. (Sorry to get glumly philosophical.) A goal like watching 100 films is different though, because January bumps you right back to #1; and this year, that was from the lofty heights of #200. My point being: here, January is a new beginning, not just “the next month”, and can set a tone or pace for the year to come.

Probably not this year though, because — in spite of my stated aim to watch fewer films in 2016 — I made it to 20 in January. That makes it only the fourth month to pass into the 20s, and also my fourth-highest month ever — and as I’ve been doing this for 109 months now, being fourth is (in relative terms) an achievement. It’s the best January ever too, exceeding last year’s tally of 16, and the 20th month in a row with a double-figure total. That is something I aim to maintain this year. If I achieve it, it will see me reach 10+ films per month for two consecutive years, and a total of 31 consecutive months. Just 11 months to go…

So what else can we forecast for 2016? If I keep this up, it’s looking at another record-obliterating final total, this time of 240. I won’t keep it up, though. Historically, January averages 8.08% of a year’s final tally (the actual percentages ranging from 2008’s 5% to 2011’s 12%), which would peg 2016’s total at an even higher level: 248. Which, I say again, it won’t be. What it should be, though, is over 130 — which would still position it as my third best year ever. Considering I intend to spend February and/or March getting value-for-money out of a streaming service or two (as I did in January), besting 2014’s 136 is certainly not out of the question.



A new series for 2016, tracking my 100 favourite movies (that I saw before starting 100 Films). This month: a fuller introduction than that one-sentence summary (though that is the gist of it) and the first seven entries. The full list of all 100 will continue to be updated here throughout the year.



The 8th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
Looking back over this month’s viewing, it feels a bit “good but not great” — a lot of films I liked very much, but nothing that really jumps out at me as a dead-cert contender for this category. While it’s more of a Quality movie than a favourite per se, then, the best film this month was its only five-stars-er, 12 Years a Slave.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
Conversely, not many films I didn’t enjoy this month either. However, for disappointment value — expecting the greatest martial arts movie ever made and getting a mess — the loser is The Five Venoms.

Best Opening Sequence of the Month
If you haven’t seen White God then it can be a tough experience (especially for dog lovers), but the opening is fantastic: our young heroine cycles through deserted city streets, percussion-heavy classical music dramatic on the soundtrack, pursued by a pack of hundreds of dogs. There’s a reason they used it for the poster.

Most Surprising #1 at the Chinese Box Office
I know I’m meant to choose these awards, rather than let the Chinese public do it for me, but surely it’s worthy of note that the cinema release of Sherlock: The Abominable Bride saw it top the box office in China, as well as post strong figures in South Korea and other countries. No, really. And that was just the start of it: according to Box Office Mojo, it wound up taking $20.5 million in China and $7.5 million in South Korea, where it bested The Force Awakens (seriously), while other reports peg it as earning $2.7 million in the US. Full figures aren’t easy to come by, but it seems to have a worldwide gross somewhere north of $34 million. Not bad for a TV episode produced for a couple of million quid.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
Outpacing popular posts from just inside the New Year, like Sherlock and my statisticstastic 2015 list, was fun backstage murder mystery — and, significant to its success in this category, blogathon entry — Lady of Burlesque.


Normally I refresh my directors page header image somewhere around August to October, but I was busy watching a shedload of films back then, so it’s been pushed to now. January’s a better time for it anyway, after a full year of film viewing — and next January could make a big change, with my 100 Favourites factored in. The header features the 20 directors who have the most films reviewed on here, and some will get multiple additions thanks to that favourites list. For now, it’s based on how things were on January 1st. I completely rebuilt it, so it’s all spiffy.

Also, I’ve modified the “list of reviews” header. I think that’s the first time I’ve changed it since it went live a couple of years ago. Of the 27 pictures, ten were replaced and four refreshed with higher-quality versions, so it looks a lot spiffier too.

Finally, I decided to re-write the “About” page, for the first time in 3½ years. I re-read the old one and found myself intensely irritating, so hopefully the new version is… less bad.


My viewing selections will be mainly dictated by “what’s on Sky Movies”, in the run up to the Oscars…