Daniel Day-Lewis

My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown (1989, Jim Sheridan)

My Left Foot is told in flashback. There’s the present–kind of glorified bookends–when Christy Brown (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a successful adult and flirts with his nurse (Ruth McCabe)–and then the past, which recounts Brown growing up poor, with cerebral palsy, in 1940s Dublin. Hugh O’Conor plays Brown until he’s seventeen or eighteen, then Day-Lewis takes over. Since Day-Lewis has a beard and a distinct manner in the present-day stuff, when he’s a teenager and before he’d ever gotten any rehabilitation or treatment, it’s a very different role. O’Conor plays a very different role too in his maybe twenty minutes–he’s got to play younger Day-Lewis from the first scene when he’s not even a tween. And he’s got the big material to get through.

Dad Ray McAnally thinks Day-Lewis is catastrophically cognitively impaired. Mom Brenda Fricker doesn’t think so, but McAnally’s a loud (sometimes scary) drunk and there are the six other kids to think about. But it also means the audience knows something the characters don’t. Yes, there’s something about the expectation, both for the narrative and O’Conor’s performance–but also presents the characters from a particular angle, which tends to work a lot better for Fricker than McAnally. Because there’s also the unseen scary bits regarding McAnally. Fricker–rightly so–gets sainted. McAnally gets gray, only My Left Foot isn’t really set up for gray.

My Left Foot is very precise in its attention and its intention. The focus is on O’Conor and Fricker–then Day-Lewis and Fricker–in the family’s house. My Left Foot’s production values are never bad, but director Sheridan and production designer Austen Spriggs focus their efforts on the scenes at the family’s house. Sheridan’s not a flashy director, but when he’s out in public–basically these occasional pub scenes for McAnally–and photographer Jack Controy is no help–the precision is gone. To wildly varying degrees. The verisimilitude orbits Fricker. Because Day-Lewis (and O’Conor) are too busy doing these layered performances, not to mention the impossible physicality layer. They don’t need a grounding or anything, they just can’t be concerned with tempering the mood.

It’s actually something brought up later on–as someone reads Brown’s actual writing aloud–regarding the constant feeling of isolation, even in a large family. Day-Lewis and O’Conor are always isolated. Much to Fricker’s frustration. Day-Lewis, Fricker, and O’Conor all have big character arcs in the film. No one else has them. Even if their characters do change a lot–like McAnally or Fiona Shaw, as Day-Lewis’s first doctor and champion–they don’t get to do it on screen. Once they’ve changed too much, they just disappear. Same thing happens to Fricker in the third act; worse, sometimes she’ll be in a scene and wasted. Shane Connaughton’s script sacrifices a lot of character for efficiency. Sheridan enables it, yes, but the script is ruthless.

But I’m getting a little ahead.

Once Day-Lewis takes over, the film nicely ambles about. There’s a subplot about McAnally and Fricker being able to buy him a wheelchair and one of the sisters getting in trouble, but they’re very mild subplots. They provide some narrative structure. Otherwise, it’s these micro-vingettes, all of them doing–often heartbreaking–character development for Day-Lewis. Fricker gets her character development in big moments. Day-Lewis’s builds. The film avoids getting too in-depth with anything. Just like McAnally’s faults are left unexplored, as are all of Brown’s medical problems over the years. Or physical realities. Or, actually, mental ones. Day-Lewis has a couple big rejection from women scenes and the film skips the hard stuff. My Left Foot isn’t rosy, but Sheridan and Connaughton make a real effort not to get too real with any of it.

And, given–while in the present and now apparently a writer (Brown’s work as an artist and writer are very murky in the background)–Day-Lewis tells McCabe (who’s reading his first book, My Left Foot) about how it’s too sentimental. The film is too sentimental. The acting is never too sentimental. The production never looks too sentimental–Jack Conroy’s photography is too flat for the emotion. But Sheridan and Connaughton are going for sentimental. Elmer Bernstein’s score is often so saccharine–while being technically competent if not better–it distracts from the acting.

Of course, with a better ending–the micro-vingettes have been becoming summarized micro-vingettes skipping forward in the narrative without any rhythm–the film maybe could’ve gotten anyway with the sentimentality. Day-Lewis is charming as hell by the present day stuff. He’s just not in it enough in the present day to get too sentimental about. Everyone’s material take a dive in the third act; the film has run out of time to tell its story so there’s a rush to the finish. The transition from flashback to present is really, really, really rough. It races and interrupts the actors.

The film’s exceptional moments come in the first and second acts, when all the elements sync up–the acting, the writing, the history–and Sheridan is able to get these fantastic scenes. Because the writing gets so loose with the history later on, there’s less opportunity for that sync.

And no real attempt at it in the present day stuff. Day-Lewis and McCabe are just cute together. Both actors do quite well with the material, but Sheridan is going for cute. And gets to pull it off thanks to Day-Lewis.

Sheridan and Connaughton are able to get away with a lot because of Day-Lewis and Fricker. Fricker not getting to finish any of her subplots is downright mean of the film, given how much of it she enables.

Fricker, Day-Lewis, and O’Conor give great performances. Exceptional. Singular. Performances deserving that sort of adjective. McAnally is excellent. His part isn’t good enough but he’s excellent. Fiona Shaw is fine. She’s sympathetic but not too sympathetic. McCabe’s cute. All the brothers and sisters are perfectly fine; they’re interchangeable in the narrative, so there’s not opportunity for much more.

My Left Foot has its problems. It also has exceptional pluses. The pluses win out.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jim Sheridan; screenplay by Shane Connaughton and Jim Sheridan, based on the book by Christy Brown; director of photography, Jack Conroy; edited by J. Patrick Duffner; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Austen Spriggs; produced by Noel Pearson; released by Palace Pictures.

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Christy Brown), Brenda Fricker (Mrs. Brown), Ray McAnally (Mr. Brown), Fiona Shaw (Dr. Eileen Cole), Hugh O’Conor (Young Christy Brown), Ruth McCabe (Mary), Alison Whelan (Sheila), Kirsten Sheridan (Sharon), Declan Croghan (Tom), Eanna MacLiam (Benny), and Cyril Cusack (Lord Castlewelland).


There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson)

There Will Be Blood. I don’t know where to start. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance is biggest thing in the film–it’s the film, after all. Without Day-Lewis, the film’s not possible. Director Anderson gives Day-Lewis some quiet at the beginning of the picture to establish himself; there’s nothing to do but stare as the music comes up, as Robert Elswit’s photography contains the carefully executed action. Day-Lewis transfixes and never lets go.

But Blood is, beneath all its epic trappings, just a character study. It’s such an intense character study, Anderson is more than willing to let the narrative take a back seat to Day-Lewis’s performance. While the setting and the script are all meticulous, their details are background. Day-Lewis exists in front of them, directly in between the viewer and the story.

At the same time, Anderson goes out of his way with the grandiosity. Between Elswit’s photography, Jonny Greenwood’s music and Jack Fisk’s production design, every moment of Blood has audiovisual impact. Anderson and Elswit do these incredibly complex tracking shots from time to time; they’re breathtaking filmmaking but they never betray the film’s focus. The viewer’s attention is on Day-Lewis.

Anderson’s concentration–the way he forces the viewer to pay attention–mirrors Day-Lewis’s concentration. Just the time he loses that concentration is when Anderson forces the viewer to start re-evaluating things.

Great support from Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier and Ciarán Hinds.

It’s a brilliant film. Every moment’s absolutely perfect.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; screenplay by Anderson, based on a novel by Upton Sinclair; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by Jonny Greenwood; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by JoAnne Sellar, Anderson and Daniel Lupi; released by Miramax Films and Paramount Vantage.

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Daniel Plainview), Paul Dano (Eli Sunday), Kevin J. O’Connor (Henry), Ciarán Hinds (Fletcher) and Dillon Freasier (HW).


Gangs of New York (2002, Martin Scorsese)

Gangs of New York is a really big, really bad epic. Director Scorsese pays so much attention to the scale of the film, with sweeping crane shots and intense (and terrible) action sequences, he doesn’t pay much attention to the other elements of the film. Like the acting. And the script.

First, the acting. It’s not terrible. Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s always clean-shaven and always has perfect hair because he’s a matinée idol, not an actor here, isn’t atrocious. He can’t keep an accent but, when he’s delivering the lame dialogue or pretending a romance with Cameron Diaz… well, it’s clear it isn’t his fault.

And Cameron Diaz isn’t terrible. She’s got an idiotic character and nothing to do in the film. She does nothing just fine.

Daniel Day-Lewis is fantastic. Until about sixty percent through the picture, he makes it worth seeing. Then he and DiCaprio have their falling out and the script goes even more to pot. It goes entirely into summary and narrative montage, even though Scorsese has stopped with the montages.

The film’s a mess, not just narratively, but visually. Thelma Schoonmaker–one of the great film editors of the last fifty years–is constantly doing these ugly, jagged cuts and even worse fades. Scorsese can’t do this film. From the first few minutes, it’s clear he can’t do a film this size. He doesn’t want to have to acknowledge the artifice and it kills the film.

Day-Lewis’s spellbindingly good. But Gangs is atrocious.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Scorsese; screenplay by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan, based on a story by Cocks; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Dante Ferretti; produced by Alberto Grimaldi and Harvey Weinstein; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Amsterdam Vallon), Daniel Day-Lewis (William Cutting), Cameron Diaz (Jenny Everdeane), Jim Broadbent (William Tweed), John C. Reilly (Jack Mulraney), Henry Thomas (Johnny Sirocco) and Brendan Gleeson (Walter McGinn).


In the Name of the Father (1993, Jim Sheridan)

In the Name of the Father falls into most true story adaptation traps. It has a really long present action, which is unevenly distributed through the runtime. There’s a framing device introducing Emma Thompson’s appeals lawyer first thing–with her popping in from time to time to remind the viewer of the device. That device helps orient Daniel Day-Lewis as a teenager at the beginning (or just a little older), but it’s still a true story adaptation issue.

And it wouldn’t work without Day-Lewis. Director Sheridan doesn’t seem to enjoy the courtroom moments in the film, making Thompson a side character. Not just a side character, but one without much depth. The role works thanks to Thompson’s sincerity and some effective writing from Sheridan and co-screenwriter Terry George.

The framing device doesn’t cover the film’s entire runtime; eventually the turntable needle catches up in the present action. The flashback is Day-Lewis’s personal growth throughout the film, something Sheridan and Day-Lewis are subtle about. There’s a big moment for changing him, sure (it’s a true story adaptation after all), but the groundwork is already there. Responsibly handling the narrative fallout is where Father distinguishes itself.

The film is always well-acted, whether good guys (Pete Postlethwaite is fantastic as Day-Lewis’s always upright father who ends up falsely imprisoned too) or bad guys (Don Baker and Corin Redgrave).

But Day-Lewis, and the true story, are the whole show. Sheridan expertly facilitates them to their successes.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Jim Sheridan; screenplay by Sheridan and Terry George, based on a book by Gerry Conlon; director of photography, Peter Biziou; edited by Gerry Hambling; music by Trevor Jones; production designer, Caroline Amies; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Gerry Conlon), Pete Postlethwaite (Giuseppe Conlon), Emma Thompson (Gareth Peirce), John Lynch (Paul Hill), Corin Redgrave (Robert Dixon), Beatie Edney (Carole Richardson), John Benfield (Chief PO Barker), Paterson Joseph (Benbay), Marie Jones (Sarah Conlon), Gerard McSorley (Detective Pavis), Frank Harper (Ronnie Smalls), Mark Sheppard (Paddy Armstrong) and Don Baker (Joe McAndrew).


The Last of the Mohicans (1992, Michael Mann)

One of the particularly amazing parts of The Last of the Mohicans is how quietly director Mann lays out big pieces of the film. The relationship between Daniel Day-Lewis, Russell Means and Eric Schweig–Day-Lewis as adopted son to Means and adopted brother to Schweig–is complex and moving and Mann spends almost no time establishing it in dialogue. Certainly not the heavy lifting. The heavy lifting is the choreography of how the men hunt together in the first scene. Later, when they're battling the French or their Native American allies, their movements show the relationship.

For the romance between Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe, however, Mann goes the other route. The directness moves Stowe from third tier–behind Steven Waddington as her suitor and Day-Lewis's annoyance–to first. Hers is the film's most difficult role because she's the only one in the film making a huge journey. Mann establishes her character through dialogue in quiet scenes and in louder ones, it's all Stowe. Expressions, movements. It's a phenomenal performance.

And it needs to be to go up against Day-Lewis. He's transfixing.

Great supporting work from Means, Schweig, Wes Studi, Maurice Roëves and Patrice Chéreau. Jodhi May's good too, but doesn't have the same depth of material. Though she handles the implications of hers well.

The editing–from Dov Hoenig and Arthur Schmidt–the music–from Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones–and the photography–from Dante Spinotti–are all magnificent. Spinotti and Mann create expressive moments out of still shots of the scenery.

Mohicans is a truly wondrous piece of work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Mann; screenplay by Mann and Christopher Crowe, based on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper and a screenplay by Philip Dunne, John L. Balderston, Paul Perez and Daniel Moore; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Dov Hoenig and Arthur Schmidt; music by Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones; production designer, Wolf Kroeger; produced by Mann and Hunt Lowry; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Hawkeye), Madeleine Stowe (Cora Munro), Russell Means (Chingachgook), Eric Schweig (Uncas), Jodhi May (Alice Munro), Steven Waddington (Maj. Duncan Heyward), Maurice Roëves (Col. Edmund Munro), Patrice Chéreau (Gen Montcalm), Edward Blatchford (Jack Winthrop), Terry Kinney (John Cameron) and Wes Studi (Magua).


Lincoln (2012, Steven Spielberg)

Lincoln is a political thriller. The vast majority of the film concerns the 13th Amendment and Lincoln’s attempts to get it through the House of Representatives. When Lincoln isn’t pursuing this story (or when director Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s tangential subplots are too thin), the artifice starts showing. Not even Daniel Day-Lewis, in a phenomenal performance as Lincoln, can survive all of them. He survives most of them, but not when Spielberg brings up the John Williams schmaltz.

At its peaks, Lincoln makes one forget history and be enthralled at watching it unfold. It’s discouraging Spielberg and Kushner didn’t apply this same vigor to the finish. Lincoln is not a biopic; it’s inexplicable why Spielberg felt the need to include the assassination… other than the viewer’s expectation.

He should have left well enough alone, because he fumbles the end. And the second ending. And especially the third.

The film has an all-star cast of recognizable faces if not names. James Spader is the best; he’s allowed the most freedom. Both David Strathairn and Tommy Lee Jones are excellent. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is lost–his role’s useless in actual narrative. Jackie Earle Haley doesn’t do well either. Lee Pace and Peter McRobbie are fantastic as the villains.

Sally Field is Lincoln‘s other big misstep. The other actors, even the lesser performances, transcend their celebrity. Field embraces hers, apparently with Spielberg’s full blessing. It’s a goofy casting choice.

Lincoln is often great, but not consistently. Day-Lewis is, however.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Tony Kushner, based in part on a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Rick Carter; produced by Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Abraham Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), David Strathairn (William Seward), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Robert Lincoln), James Spader (W.N. Bilbo), Hal Holbrook (Preston Blair), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), John Hawkes (Robert Latham), Jackie Earle Haley (Alexander Stephens), Bruce McGill (Edwin Stanton), Tim Blake Nelson (Richard Schell), Joseph Cross (John Hay), Jared Harris (Ulysses S. Grant), Lee Pace (Fernando Wood), Peter McRobbie (George Pendleton), Gulliver McGrath (Tad Lincoln), Gloria Reuben (Elizabeth Keckley), Jeremy Strong (John Nicolay), Michael Stuhlbarg (George Yeaman), Boris McGiver (Alexander Coffroth), David Costabile (James Ashley), Stephen Spinella (Asa Vintner Litton) and Walton Goggins (Clay Hutchins).


The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005, Rebecca Miller)

So… what happened?

Sometime in the first four months of this year, I proclaimed Rebecca Miller the best new filmmaker since… shit, I don’t know, Wes Anderson or somebody. Sure, Wes Anderson. Wes Anderson is the last great filmmaker. Or P.T. One of them, just not Paul W.S. Anyway, this conclusion about Miller was based on Personal Velocity.

I talk a lot–if not at The Stop Button, then in personal conversation–about artists shooting their wad. When they’re done, in other words. There are famous non-wad-shooters like Woody Allen, John Carpenter, John Ford, Clint Eastwood, and Stanley Kubrick and on and on and on. It looks a lot like an Owen Wilson-less Wes Anderson does not produce a wad… Anyway, Rebecca Miller appears to have shot her wad with Personal Velocity.

It’s not that all of Jack and Rose is bad. It’s not. Not all of it. Miller’s reliance on Bob Dylan songs, bad. Miller’s shot composition, excellent. Her dialogue and some of the scenes, also excellent. It’s just that it’s too long for her. I should have known after I read Personal Velocity, the book….

Anyway, there were four good stories in Personal Velocity, the book. Miller put three of them in the movie. The long stories in the book were painful and failed.

Kind of like Jack and Rose. I’m not as upset about the film as I thought I’d be, just because now I realize I should have seen it coming. I should have seen the long narrative as her undoing. Miller’s greatest potential appears to be in doing small stories, like a TV show. I can see her doing a really good TV show. But I’m not holding my breath for her next film.

I hope she proves me wrong.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Rebecca Miller; director of photography, Ellen Kuras; edited by Sabine Hoffman; production designer, Mark Ricker; produced by Lemore Syvan; released by IFC Films.

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Jack Slavin), Camilla Belle (Rose Slavin), Catherine Keener (Kathleen), Paul Dano (Thaddius), Ryan McDonald (Rodney), Jena Malone (Red Berry), Jason Lee (Gray) and Beau Bridges (Marty Rance).


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