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Recent Movies: Lincoln; Anna Karenina; Silver Linings Playbook; Opera: Tristan und Isolde ****

February 13, 2013

Recent Movies

Lincoln

This historical drama takes place during the Civil War when U.S. president Abraham Lincoln is trying to end the war and also pass the constitutional amendment to end slavery.

This film is a fine historical drama with a good share of wit, very good acting, and solid directing by stalwart Steven Spielberg.  It breaks through the challenge of being two and a half hours with mostly political dialogue.  This situation would make most films dull but there is never a dull moment in “Lincoln”.

The film and its lead performance by Daniel Day-Lewis have been winning overwhelming acclaim during this current awards season.  While I would not criticize either, I believe this acclaim is rather over-rated.

Probably no other actor could do better than Day-Lewis in this (or any other) role.  He is very presidential in a calm and collected sort of way.  The only moments of true intensity in the man are displayed more in family matters especially in discussions with his wife (very well played by Sally Field).  “Lincoln” does not give Day-Lewis the chance to show the deeper dramatic side he showed a few years back in “There Will Be Blood” and a generation ago with “My Left Foot” and “In the Name of the Father” though he still gives a fine performance.

Overall, the film is a fine dramatization of one of the most important times in U.S. history.  It stays at a calm pace without much wavering.  The only criticism would be the unusual choice of having a major dramatic event occur off-screen.  Had it been depicted on-screen, it might have provided a welcome jolt.

Another lost opportunity was that the viewer gets little glimpse of what the average American (both black and white) thought of the events passing before them.  There was such a brief scene in the beginning but later the debates were strictly among politicians.

This is a fine film overall but with some missed opportunities.

Rating (out of four stars):   * * *

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Anna Karenina

In this British film, based on the classic Leo Tolstoy novel, the upper class of Russia is scanadalized by an adulterous affair within their ranks.

The consensus seems to be that although this is a good film, it is a disappointment considering its expectations.  In the beginning, the style does take a while to get used to.  Many segments of the film are set up to take place on a stage.  Other theatrical gimmicks are used to change scenes.  Once accustomed to this style, however, the film does appeal.

Many fascinating themes are explored:  the extreme repression and hypocrisy of the social mores of the place and time;  the contrast between one relationship that is forbidden and passionate vs. one that appears passionless but has more stability than expected; and the rivalry between Russia’s two largest cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow.

At just over two hours, the film could not fully capture the essence of the novel but it’s still fascinating and entertaining in its own way.

Rating:   * * *

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Silver Linings Playbook

In Philadelphia, a young adult man (Bradley Cooper) moves in with his parents after he has completed an eight-month term in a mental institution in Baltimore.  In his parents’ neighbourhood, he connects with a young woman (Jennifter Lawrence) who also has mental health problems.

The film begins well with some comical moments.  It has some good scenes but also some troubling ones.  The main character’s father (Robert De Niro) is a betting addict – often a difficult plot point in any film – and a scene in which he goes over-the-top has too much hysteria (among other scenes).

There are mixed feelings about the grand finale which includes a dance contest.  In many ways, it was superbly executed but sadly, the outcomes were formulaic and predictable.

Cooper is certainly a good actor and does a fine job in this film.  It is a demanding burden for him, however, that he is in every scene in the film.  As good as Cooper is, he seems over-exposed at times.

Lawrence is credited with a leading role but she does not spend nearly as much time on screen as Cooper does.  Her performance is the greatest asset to this film.  She shows the same sharpness here as she did in “Winter’s Bone”.  It is a delight every time she is on the screen.  The great veteran De Niro also has some fine moments in reflecting on times when his children were younger.

This film (written and directed by David O. Russell) missed an opportunity in exploring further into a neighbourhood couple who are high-achieving and materialistic while falling apart emotionally.  This would have made a good subplot.

“Silver Linings Playbook” was finely directed and acted but, like many films, its script could have been better.

Rating:   * * 1/2

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Opera

“Tristan und Isolde” by Richard Wagner at the Canadian Opera Company

This acclaimed production has so much reason for praise.  Although the set is almost sparse, a background film screen is used to parallel the story’s spiritual side using much symbolism.  It works beautifully, particularly at the end.  But, of course, the real magic is in the music and the magnificent singers who bring it to life.

In the title roles, Ben Heppner and Melanie Diener are magnificent.  Their connection in the second of three acts is truly magical.  They are aided by a great supporting cast including Franz-Josef Selig, Daveda Karenas, and Alan Held.

With a total stage time of four hours, split by two intermissions, there were a few times the  production seemed long.  Thankfully, these were few.  With an ending that mixes the screen videos (by Bill Viola) and grand singing to portray the liberation of the soul from the body, this production was heavenly in many ways.

Rating:   * * * 1/2

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