Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



29 November



The Zong Massacre, 1781

On this day in 1781 the Zong massacre took place. A Liverpool slave ship called the Zong got lost on the high seas en route for Jamaica and, running low on water, decided to throw some slaves overboard. On 29 November 54 women were thrown overboard. 42 men were jettisoned on 1 December and over the next few days a further 36 slaves were thrown into the sea. A further ten slaves threw themselves overboard as a protest against the inhumane treatment of their fellows. When it arrived at Black River, Jamaica, the ship had only 208 slaves on board, of the 442 it had left Accra, Ghana, with on 18 August. The ship’s owners then claimed insurance against their loss, which the insurers refused to pay. The ship’s owners then took the case to court, where they argued that the slaves were an insurable asset and that they had been thrown overboard to safeguard the rest of the cargo. The argument about the crew’s actions being murder was not entertained. Though the massacre on the Zong barely disturbed the millpond of public opinion, it did stir the conscience of Granville Sharp, a British Quaker who set about a campaign of writing to members of Parliament, clergymen and fellow Quakers. The Zong massacre and the reaction to it, in some quarters at least, became one of the early spurs to the development of the Anti Slavery Movement.




Lincoln (2012, dir: Steven Spielberg)

So gigantic has the presence of Daniel Day-Lewis become in a film that he often overshadows every other aspect of the production. That’s certainly the case with Lincoln which quietly manages to be Steven Spielberg’s most nuanced, and therefore interesting, film in years. Telling the story of the dying days of the Civil War and the growing pressure to emancipate the slaves, Spielberg, writer Tony Kushner and Day-Lewis paint a portrait of a man, make a sketch of the times and tell the story of the progress of the Thirteenth Amendment (to make slavery illegal) through Congress. Rarely has a film about the horse-trading and the pork-barrel politics required to get a law changed been so fascinating. And rarely has Lincoln been depicted in so revisionist a manner. OK, Spielberg isn’t above hokiness – the opener where a black soldier and a white soldier read the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln, who looks like he’s just stepped down from the Monument that bears his name – is pure Spielberg corn. But this scene also does a lot of expositional work in a very few minutes – we now know who this man is and what this film is about. That scene apart, as said, this is not the boilerplate Lincoln movie. No Saint Abe, instead Spielberg points out that underneath that almost painfully folksy exterior there was a party political tactician who could tack against his own prevailing beliefs in order to secure a greater goal. “If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… what’s the use of knowing True North?” is how Lincoln defends it. And there are plenty of allusions to modern-day politics, a touch of the Clinton era in the way the White House accounts are being investigated by Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens, a man of principle who, like Lincoln, has to weigh whether it’s better to compromise a belief to secure something for the greater good of the greater number. And it’s surely fascinating, in light of the Tea Party and Neo-Con colour of the Republican Party these days that it’s the Republican Lincoln who’s straining to amend the Constitution, while Democrats are blocking him at every turn. As for Day-Lewis, is it the great performance that everyone says? Well, it’s starry and it’s theatrical and if you go in for that sort of thing then yes it is great. But look out for Sally Field as Mrs Lincoln. She is required in one short scene to re-orientate the film away from politics and chicanery back towards emotion. And she does it. It’s an amazing piece of work.



Why Watch?


  • Top level coffee table film-making
  • Janusz Kaminski’s sombre, shadowy cinematography
  • Spielberg atones for Amistad
  • The historical detail is exquisite and often quite brutal


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Lincoln – at Amazon





20 May 2013-05-20

Jamie Foxx is Django, in Django Unchained

Out in the UK this week



Django Unchained (Sony, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

If you could cross Gone with the Wind, Shaft, and A Fistful of Dollars, you might end up with something like Quentin Tarantino’s lavish entertainment starring Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx as unlikely amigos out to rescue a female slave (Kerry Washington) from plantation owner Leonardo DiCaprio. Starting verbose and staying there – is there a single person in this film who won’t stop talking? – this playful, bloody and tense drama is at its funniest when it leaves Foxx and Waltz to interact. And it’s full of surprises. A fact which extends all the way down to casting decisions – such as Don Johnson as a Southern, Burl Ives-ish piece of work, and Franco Nero (the original Django) receiving a lesson in how to spell his former character’s own name from Jamie Foxx.

Django Unchained – at Amazon


Lincoln (Fox, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Abraham Lincoln fights to abolish slavery by a combination of horse-trading and arm-twisting in a surprisingly unsentimental civics lesson from Steven Spielberg. Daniel Day-Lewis plays the 16th US president as a folksy charmer with the silver tongue of a Bill Clinton, the guile of a Richard Nixon. It’s a rich, beautifully appointed coffee-table book of a drama, full of fascinating historical detail and boasting an excellent, idea-driven screenplay by Tony Kushner. Lincoln completely atones for Amistad, which was the last time Spielberg was in this neck of the woods.

Lincoln – at Amazon


Trouble with the Curve (Warner, cert 12, DVD)

Clint Eastwood is tempted back in front of camera, having vowed Gran Torino was his last time, in another Shirty Harry drama – the story of a grouchy old baseball scout leaning heavily on his daughter (Amy Adams) for one last hurrah. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad in this down-the-line piece of Hollywood storytelling which leads up to the sort of big emotional finish that is entirely inevitable, wholly welcome.

Trouble with the Curve – at Amazon


West of Memphis (Sony, cert 15, DVD)

Similar in scope and effect to Errol Morris’s Thin Blue Line, this documentary about young men who spent 18 years in prison for a crime that they clearly didn’t commit, is the fourth film to cover the case of the West Memphis Three. It’s a remarkable and cautionary tale of what happens when over-eager cops with the media down their neck are handed an easy solution, in this case dim heavy metal fans with a fondness for wearing black which makes them an obvious target for a charge of satanic cult slaying.

West of Memphis – at Amazon


The Magnificent 11 (Eureka, cert 12, DVD)

Co-written by Irvine Welsh (who turns up as an extra) and with a forlorn “And Robert Vaughn” in the opening credits, which indicates that the last of the Magnificent Seven has lent his name to this peculiar enterprise, here’s a British comedy full of familiar faces. Sean Pertwee and Keith Allen lead the stagger, as members of a struggling Sunday League football team who take sponsorship from a local tandoori restaurant. The script is shocking, none of the relationships make any sense, the plot is laughable, even the football is bloody terrible, and in the opening scene a pair of birds flash their knockers to put off the opposing side’s game. It is, in other words, a brilliant spoof of the heyday of terrible British films – the 1970s, when the main motivation behind a certain style of British movie-making was money laundering. It is a spoof, isn’t it guys?

The Magnificent Eleven – at Amazon


Bullhead (Soda, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

If you were filled with admiration for Matthias Schoenaerts in Rust and Bone, wait till you see him in Bullhead, playing a man-mountain cattle farmer pumped with synthetic testosterone and seeking payback for a childhood crime so shocking that no matter what he does you’re on his side. Every once in a while Belgium produces a great film, and like Man Bites Dog this is a matter-of-fact depiction of ugliness and brutality, full of flavour, and playing out against a background you don’t see every day – that’s the black market in growth-boosting animal hormones and the gangsters who trade them.

 Bullhead – at Amazon


Cleopatra 50th anniversary (Fox, cert PG, Blu-ray)

There is a six hour director’s cut somewhere, but this Blu-ray restoration of what still ranks as one of the most expensive films ever made runs a mere four hours. It is epic in every sense – saw Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor become lovers, almost killed Taylor (look out for the tracheotomy scar), nearly bankrupted Fox. It is an outrageous exercise in Hollywood camp that won Oscars for art direction, cinematography, costume and visual effects and killed the sword and sandal epic for nearly forty years, until Gladiator brought it back to life.

Cleopatra – at Amazon



© Steve Morrissey 2013