In the Name of the Father (1993)

inthenameofthe1We are met with a deluge of drums, explosions, and the unmistakable voice of Bono murmuring over the credits. The year is 1974 in Guilford England, the Irish Republic Army is as belligerent as ever, and right from the beginning director Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father grabs hold of our attention.

But we actually become introduced to our story by backtracking. We meet our main hero and championing Gerry Conlon as a punk kid stuck in the thick of the IRA’s madness. His father, fearing for his son’s well-being after a close call, sends his boy off on a slow boat to England away from trouble, or so he thinks.

In England, Gerry and his bud Paul call on an old friend from back home and they soon become enamored by the world of free love, drugs, and communal living. Their soundtrack is the tunes of Dylan, the Kinks, and Hendrix. It’s a good gig sans bombs going off down the street.

inthenameofthe33But what follows is something out of some perverse nightmare. Upon a return trip back to Belfast Gerry finds his home raided and he ends up in the interrogation block being grilled by a group of less than sympathetic police attacking him with a barrage of insults and threats. This doesn’t just seem like an Irish-English problem. There’s so much hatred present and Conlon and three of his buddies get roped into signing confessions under duress.

It’s at this juncture that the film develops into a full-blown courtroom drama, but the nightmare is hardly over. Not only Gerry but his friends as well as his father, are all sent off to prison. Pleading innocence does no good. Being innocent is no good.

By the time he’s in prison, Gerry is all but fed up with the world. He’s hardened because as he sees it nothing in life is fair and so he will grin and bear it. He looks almost derisively at his father, a man still living as he always has, completely opposed to any rebellious or militant action. They have their share of familial conflict, but as Mr. Conlon becomes ill things begin to change, specifically in Gerry.

He resolves to take up the cause once again if only for the sake of his father, and an audacious solicitor thinks she might just be the one to do it for him. So he ends up in court once more for another round, but this time, proceedings are invariably different. Still, utterly chaotic but a lot has changed for the better in 15 years.

Regrettably, this is a rather disjointed narrative that feels more like shoddy storytelling than a complex plotting device. The most glaring example involves Emma Thompson who is shown multiple times in the first half of the film but does not actually become deeply involved in the storyline until well after an hour in. After a promising beginning, the film does seem to succumb to a bit of melodrama as well that gets remedied by a happy ending.

inthenameofthe3However, as he has the habit of doing Daniel Day-Lewis falls so seamlessly into his role as the Irish lad from Belfast who was wrongly accused. His Irish brogue is second-nature and he jumps between rebelliousness and fear with tremendous skill due to the emotional range demanded by the role.

Just like Conlon’s own struggles, this film is a long hard grind. It’s not always pleasant, not always gripping, but it does have staying power. In the end, the performances of Daniel Day-Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite are worthy of our attention alone. The truth of the matter is that they are a truly dysfunctional father and son combination, but that makes them a gold mine for emotional depth. Their relationship becomes the major point of contention as they grapple with topics of justice and compassion.

4/5 Stars

My Left Foot (1989)

My_Left_FootAs the film opens we watch a foot slowly wiggling its toes. It’s nothing extraordinary because we’ve undoubtedly seen this millions of times. If not on film then at least in our own lives. But it’s what the foot does that piques our interest. Quite dexterously but still straining, it manages to pull a record out of its sheath, set it down on the player, and lay down the needle before music finally emanates out. This simple act gives us some profound insight into the story that we are about to invest ourselves in.

My Left Foot, directed by Jim Sheridan and carried with an early tour de force performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, is an excruciatingly tortuous movie to watch at times. It follows the real-life narrative of Christy Brown, the future painter, poet, and writer who grew up in Ireland only capable of moving his left foot.

Neighbors in the community look at Christy as the bane of his family. He is his kindly mother’s unfortunate cross to bear. And true, his childhood existence is a humble one and his parents don’t quite understand how to empower him, but they still are devoted to him. His mother is the nurturing one and his father sees him as a cripple, but he loves him in spite of it.

As Christy is growing up there’s time for playing football, spin the bottle, and trying his hand (or rather foot) at watercolor. Because the truth is, Christy is a highly intelligent, creative mind only looking to express himself. And his mother continues to build him up with encouragement. In fact, Brenda Fricker’s performance brings to mind all the strong, grounded mothers in the vein of Jane Darwell’s Ma Joad. You can even find a little How Green Was My Valley or The Quiet Man in the family life.

However, it is speech therapy which becomes the next step in Christy’s development and his therapist does so much to open up his world. It’s hard for him not to feel attached and feelings of affection towards her. But as we find out over time, he’s as much a volatile creative force as he was an emblem of perseverance. Because he did not simply sit back, and when he learned to verbalize his thoughts there was a torrent of passion and perhaps even harbored anger that was finally released.

In no scene is this more evident than the one in the restaurant where his longtime therapist Eileen says she is going to marry another man, and aside from his pernicious words and his not ceasing to drink, Christy brings the conversation in the entire establishment to a standstill. In his defiance and anger, he breaks glasses, pulls off the tablecloth, and even threatens bodily harm.

But even when his pride is injured, Christy still remains faithful to his mother and father. His family life prospers even after the untimely death of his and pretty soon his career as an author flourishes after the publishing of his autobiography.

It’s up in question whether or not Christy Brownreal-lifeife received such a happy ending as this cinematic adaptation, but there is no doubt that the film gives the audience a jolt namely thanks to Day-Lewis’ complete dedication to his part. This film much like the likes of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or even the Theory of Everything allows for great performances, but it also relies on these same actors to use constraints to their advantage. Watching Lewis is a masterclass education in what it means to truly don a role. In this case, My Left Foot truly benefits from it.

4/5 Stars

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

youngmr1Hailing from a year laden with numerous American classics, Young Mr. Lincoln is undoubtedly overlooked in deference to other titles like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Even John Ford’s own Stagecoach, starring John Wayne, overshadowed this autobiographical work headed by Henry Fonda. Then the next year they came out with The Grapes of Wrath and that title garnered praise for both men. But again, it seems like most have forgotten about Young Mr. Lincoln.

It really is a shame, because this is a quintessential Ford film, and Henry Fonda gives an iconic turn as one of the great historical giants of all time. Except instead of focusing on his major accomplishments, trials, or fatal death, this story contents itself with a simpler story. The focus is the fledgling law career of Abraham Lincoln, who back in 1857 is only a lanky country boy with a hankering for learning. He sees tragedy at a young age when people pass away around him and yet out of those formative years rises a man who is wise beyond his years, because he understands his fellow man and cares deeply about justice.

Lincoln is hardly a lawyer of any repute, and he seems hardly a political figure compared to the likes of the great Stephen Douglas. But the people respect him because he wins them over with his common sense and homespun witticisms. Aside from his ubiquitous top hat, he willingly judges pie eating contests, and play the Jew’s harp with feet reclined at his desk.  One of his dear admirers is the young socialite Mary Todd who takes an immense liking to him. He’s the kind of figure that the elite and common folk alike can truly respect.

So when two brothers are accused of murdering another man after a fight one night, it is Mr. Lincoln who avoids a lynching and appeals to the morals of the locals. He, in turn, promises the mother of the boys that he will do his very best to win their freedom and he does all he can to gain her trust.

When the trial begins he carefully picks the jury and faces off against a venerable prosecutor with much greater experience than himself. The mother of the accused saw the squabble, but she cannot bear to implicate her sons. Lincoln pleads on her behalf.  It also looks like the key witness and friend of the deceased man will put a seal on the case, but young Mr. Lincoln is not done yet.

Thus, the film ends and Lincoln is most certainly on the rise, but we get to imagine his future knowingly, on our own, because none of that length of the story is told. In that way, it’s rather interesting to juxtapose Ford’s film with Spielberg’s more recent biography Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. They represent different generations of filmmaking, because the latter film takes a monumental moment in history, the passing of the 13th amendment, and places a magnifying glass to it. Focusing on all the individuals involved, and it is certainly going for an amount of period realism, starting with the impressive performance by Day-Lewis as our 16th president.

Young Mr. Lincoln is a lot simpler because it does not need to focus on the highlights. It takes as great of an interest in Abe’s origin story so to speak. On his part, Henry Fonda plays the role wonderfully using his mannerisms and plain speaking delivery to give a homey quality to Lincoln. He’s believable, but in a different way than Day-Lewis. It’s not better or worse necessarily, just different. That being said, Young Mr. Lincoln deserves a place among the exulted classics of that legendary year of 1939. Hopefully, it will continue to receive the respect that it deserves, because it is a moving and surprisingly very witty film. Probably in the way Abraham Lincoln was.

4.5/5 Stars

A Room with a View (1986)

df65f-room_with_a_viewWith direction by James Ivory and a cast including Helen Bonham Carter, Maggie Smith, and Daniel Day-Lewis, the film opens in Italy where a well to do English woman is on holiday with her significantly older cousin. While staying in Italy she falls in love with the country and comes to appreciate the many different people you come across there. 

It could be a commanding author, a pair of kindly old women, or a father and son with a more open way of thinking. In fact the Emerson’s reflect the change that is coming to England while Lucy and her cousin Charlotte reflect the old Victorian way of England. They are so caught up in manners and etiquette that they never give much thought to their actual desires and feelings. This becomes extremely important when Lucy returns home to her family and the snobbish but well-meaning young man she is to marry. She believes she is in love, but then the Emerson’s come to live nearby and Lucy is in conflict, especially after an incident in Italy. 

Lucy continues to follow the norms of what she is supposed to do, and it is only after much lying to others and herself that she truly confesses her feelings. Things are not turning out the way she had expected and thanks to kindly Mr. Emerson she finally leaves the pleasantries behind for love. She returns to Italy with her love and is met with another group of colorful individuals and she once again has a room with a view. This film is obviously very English and it is made by the characters like Mr. Beebe, Charlotte, and the Emersons who all make this a pleasant film to watch. 

4/5 Stars

There Will Be Blood (2007)

fe325-there_will_be_blood_posterStarring Daniel Day-Lewis in a brilliant performance, the film opens at the turn of the century where a Daniel Plainview finds oil and starts a small drilling company. After a worker dies, Plainview takes the abandoned baby as his son H.W. He uses the boy to endear himself to others and his successes grow. Time passes and Daniel is approached by a boy who knows the location of oil. Daniel goes there and buys up all the land he can, becoming a wealthy man in the process. However, not everything is wonderful. He begins a long conflict with a local preacher (Paul Dana) and his son becomes ill after an explosion. Later a man comes to Plainview claiming to be his brother and Daniel also abandons his son. The years pass and he is more greedy and tyrannical and on top of that he is also a drunkard. He cruelly mocks his son before cutting all ties with him. Finally, he commits one last violent act. What stands out is that Plainview has no redeeming qualities and this man proclaiming to be a minister is also an undesirable. This film had moments reminiscent of Giant, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and even Citizen Kane. However, despite the commanding performance of Lewis, it is not quite the same caliber in my mind.

4.5/5 Stars

Lincoln (2012)

a8b03-lincoln_2012_teaser_posterDirected by Steven Speilberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis with Sally Fields, and Tommy Lee Jones, the film focuses on Lincoln’s 2nd term as the Civil War comes to a close and he fights to pass the 13th amendment.

At home Lincoln deals with his temperamental wife, argues with his older son about joining the war, and plays with his younger boy Tad. At the same time he must work behind the scenes to get enough representatives while also facing the prospect of a Confederate surrender. His life is beyond stressful, with cabinet meetings, speeches, inspections, and tough decisions to make day in and day out. However, despite the toll, he copes and in the process does great things. Within the film we also become familiar with William Seward, Thaddeus Stevens, and other leaders who must make their own difficult decisions on the issue of slavery.

Ultimately, the landmark amendment is passed but it is short lived with the assassination of Lincoln. He truly was “a man for the ages” and Lewis does a wonderful job of portraying his every aspect. His voice, his features, his parables, his political savvy, and even his frailty give us a crystal clear picture of the man. The supporting cast and the cinematography were both very good. It proves that a film full of drama and some humor does not need action to make it excellent. It is all about the characters and more importantly our very history.

4.5/5 Stars