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Amistad – Review

13 May

In 1839, the slave ship La Amistad was taken over in a slave revolt led by Mende captives. This led to a drawn out trial involving many different parties concerning murder charges and property rights, while abolitionists of the time used the trial to prove that these Africans had rights the same as anybody else. While this incident didn’t change the times it did have lasting effects whose ripples could be felt throughout that time in history. It remained a story that seemed overshadowed by other historical events until Steven Spielberg, producer Debbie Allen, and writer David Franzoni resurrected the story for modern audiences. While it isn’t the most historically accurate film in the world, it has a sense of courage and honor that shows there was plenty of good in a time of evil.

After freeing himself from his chains securing him to the slave ship La Amistad, Mende captive Sengbe (Djimon Honsou) leads a revolt against the Spanish slave traders on the ship. Due to their lack of knowing how to properly navigate a ship, Sengbe and the rest of the Africans find themselves landing in an American port and are swiftly arrested by Naval officers. The captives are once again locked in jail where they await trial for murder and cases involving property rights. This attracts the attention of abolitionist Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) who enlists the help of property lawyer Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) to represent the captives in a court of law. The proceedings actually keep favoring Baldwin’s arguments, but it doesn’t take long for President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) to intercede and take the matters to the Supreme Court. With their case quickly spiraling out of control, Joadson, Baldwin, and Sengbe recruit the help of former president John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) to stand up for the Africans’ rights in the highest court of the land.

Amistad is the first film Spielberg made with Dreamworks, and at this point it’s hard to believe there was a time that he wasn’t working with this company. This was the time when Spielberg was really showing what he had to offer. This is epic film making that only got better with Saving Private Ryan. The production design of this movie is top of the line with sets that seem to live and breathe. I am really interested in this time period, so I may be a little bit biased to praise movies that so completely bring this era to life. While the set design and costumes already stand tall, there are other factors that exist to completely draw you into the world of this movie. The first is John Williams’ beautiful and often sweeping score. The other is Janusz Kamiński’s eye catching cinematography that was also put on display with Spielberg’s previous movie, Schindler’s List.

Like I said earlier, Amistad is an epic movie that really takes its time in telling the story and making sure all of the information is clear to the audience. This is both a good and a bad thing. While there is plenty of dramatic momentum moving the story forward, it’s hard to ignore that this can be an overly wordy movie. There are some moments where you have to stop and think of people really talk like the characters in this movie do. The writing is mostly spot on, but there are times when it becomes a little bit too theatrical when a general rule for film making is to show the audience information and not outright tell them. There’s one scene in particular that really stands out. There’s a scene where John Quincy Adams is addressing the Supreme Court, and it’s clear that Spielberg was really into shooting this scene, and for a while it’s incredible. It’s an amazing speech that unfortunately never seems to end. There were at least three different times where I thought that the speech was over, but then the camera would change and Hopkins would continue on. It became almost comical.

While this movie does get a little wordy and bogged down in over the top dramatic soliloquies, the people delivering these lines are all megastars in their own rights. This is a great cast with Freeman, McConaughey, Honsou, and Hopkins all knocking it out of the park. McConaughey and Honsou especially work great together and their getting to learn to understand each other while not speaking the same language is my favorite part of the whole movie. I do feel like Morgan Freeman was underutilized and only has a few memorable scenes where I feel like he was actually given something to do. Finally, Hopkins isn’t in the movie all that much, but when he is it feels like I’m watching the real John Quincy Adams and not an actor playing the part. Few actors can pull that off as well as Hopkins can.

Amistad has all the working of a memorable and epic Steven Spielberg movie. It’s filled with a cast of great actors, excellent music, and fantastic production design. It also is a little bit overdone in some parts, which can either add more of an entertainment quality or come off as something a little less respectable. This isn’t Spielberg’s finest achievement, but it is one that I feel doesn’t get the respect that it deserves. Personally, I thought it was a great movie and it’s one that I’d love to watch again. It tells an excellent story, and while it may not be totally historically accurate, it’s a pretty epic way to spend an afternoon.

Final Grade: A-

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Lincoln – Review

23 Sep

2012 was quite a year for the 16th president of the United States. His first major outing of the year came in the form of the over the top action/horror film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. While I actually thought that movie was quite a laugh, Honest Abe didn’t get quite the treatment he deserved until later on that year with Steven Spielberg’s epic historical drama Lincoln. Now, while this movie is definitely one that revolves around Abraham Lincoln, it is more so the story of his legacy, and finest achievement, passing the crucial 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution.

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In the year 1865, the Civil War was reaching its conclusion, but to many people, it was far from over. While the battles were raging, a different kind of war was going on in Congress with Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) on the front lines. His goal to abolish slavery was met with much hostility, but he was far from giving up the fight. Unable to unofficially speak to many politicians himself, Lincoln required the help of people like Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) to speak for him, while a team of lobbyists led by William Bilbo (James Spader) worked more covertly to secure the vote. This was a difficult time not only for Lincoln, but also his family as his wife Mary (Sally Field) was still grieving over the death of one of their sons and another of his sons Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) decided to leave school and join the army.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that Lincoln is boring, mainly because Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner decided to put the actual battles of the Civil War on the back burner. The war itself acts as a looming presence over the Congressional hearings, which is the film’s focus along with the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s life. Knowing that going into the movie may make it feel a lot less heavy. That doesn’t change the fact that this movie can feel a little overloaded. Unless you’re an expert of the time period, the politics may be a little hard to keep up with at first, but I soon found myself following along with ease. The film also ends kind of strangely, with what felt like multiple endings, a few feeling a lot better than the actual ending. I’ve heard some people say that the real talent behind the movie isn’t Spielberg, but Kushner for creating such an incredibly written and thoughtful screenplay. I’d have to agree with that, although kudos go to both Spielberg and composer John Williams.

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But while Spielberg, Kushner, and Williams have all worked to create something special, I have to say that the man of the hour, or more so two hand a half hours, is Daniel Day-Lincoln… I mean Lewis. The amazing thing about Daniel Day-Lewis is that no matter what role he takes, he literally seems to transform himself into that character. Just look at his acting in Gangs of New York and There Will be Blood amongst other things. Lincoln is his crowning achievement, though, and won him the Academy Award for Best Actor. His Abraham Lincoln is a quiet and nervous man who enjoys telling stories to pass the time and quoting intellectuals to help prove his points. Though he is nervous, he is also a force to be reckoned with which is made clear in scenes where he gets a bit heated. Watching Lincoln was literally like watching history play out before me.

It’s very easy to just get lost in Lincoln. While the story is very important and well told, I could easily go back a second time and turn off the sound and just watch it. Things are recreated so meticulously that it’s almost ridiculous. For example, the sound of Lincoln’s watch is actually recorded from his actual pocket watch. The rooms of the White House are crafted so well and the scenes of battle we do see are gut wrenching and intense. It’s an amazing looking film that wouldn’t have worked so well if it wasn’t so perfectly constructed.

Lincoln is a masterpiece from a master film maker that was scored by a master composer and written by who I now consider a master writer. This is a film that will go down in history as one of the most important American films ever made. While it does feel a bit too heavy at times and the politics move kind of quickly, it’s still a gripping and moving drama about a man who went beyond what was expected of him to change the course of American history for the better. It took me a while to finally get around to watching this film, but now that I have, I can’t quite get it out of my head.