12 Years A Slave by Steve McQueen

12 Years A Slave by Steve McQueen

 

Based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, it recounts the story of Northup, a free black carpenter and musician living in upstate New York, who gets kidnapped and illegally sold as a slave to the south for twelve years.

Solomon Northup is the role of a lifetime and Chiwitel Ejiofor delivers it in full, leaving the viewer in moments of shock, fear and awe. Solomon’s inner conflict between resisting his new slave identity to the sad eventual acceptance is all communicated through Ejiofor’s face and body, as he is forbidden to speak. And it is in witness of terrible things, we see Solomon grasping tight onto his own values and dignity that makes his situation all the more endearing. It is impressive how we can see what Ejiofor is thinking in every moment. There is noteworthy long take where Solomon quietly contemplates his own fate, his eyes slowly look towards the camera and it struck me dead still. Even though Matthew McConaughey is still my pick for the Oscar this year, it’s going to be ultimately between McConaughey and Chiwitel Ejiofor.

Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps is one of the most despicable evil onscreen characters in recent memory and probably for the ages. Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson and Benedict Cumberbatch all give fine supporting performances. What dark nether place the Caucasian actors are going mentally to breathe life into playing slavers is unfathomable. It is quite a sight to behold that level of evil being performed.

As producer, Brad Pitt didactically shows up in a small part to say the entire point of the story. While good in the part, Pitt’s appearance seems for more political reasons than purely for story reasons. It is not big enough of a problem to say he is miscast, but some may find it hokey or jarring.

Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is spectacular as Epp’s most prized slave Patsy, capable of picking five hundred pounds of cotton per day, but the achievement brings her more harm than relief. What happens to Patsy is even more heartbreaking than Solomon’s situation. Because of this, Nyong’o becomes the heart of the story in the latter half, as she represents the majority of slaves who were never free to begin with and never will be. Nyong’o is my pick for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.

The physical violence is hard to watch. However, the non-violent scenes offer an insight not prevalent in other slave films, answering Quentin Tarantino’s proposed question “Why don’t slaves just kill their masters and escape in the middle of the night?” from Django Unchained. Steve McQueen gets beneath of how slavery works psychologically and shows its emotional violence. The way the slaves are sold posed completely naked, shower in groups outdoors like animals, and dance and sing in the middle of the night to amuse their masters, the power of slavery is not the threat of the whip but the overwhelming sense of human degradation that weighs them to the eventual surrender of one’s humanity.

Needless to say, 12 Years A Slave is an intense and upsetting experience. The story is masterfully visualized by McQueen, showing the horror of slavery through how society deemed it normal and acceptable. The awards recognition it has gained is well deserved and has nothing to do with the fact that it is a film about slavery or playing to the white guilt in Oscar voters. The majority of audiences will probably only be able to stomach the experience once, as the gut-wrenching nature of it may not be friendly to watching it again. My suggestion: go see it once, but see it in full with your eyes wide open and soak it all in for what it is. It is a work of social and historical significance.

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The Counselor by Ridley Scott

The Counselor by Ridley Scott

To give the simplest summary of the latest film from Ridley Scott and first-time screenwriter Cormac McCarthy, the Counselor (Michael Fassbender), deeply in love with his fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz), tries to make a quick score in a one-time drug deal with Reiner (Javier Bardem), his girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) and middleman Westray (Brad Pitt). The deal backfires, and now The Counselor is wrongfully targeted by a Mexican drug cartel.

So Cormac McCarthy, Ridley Scott, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz in a monumental cinematic failure, what happened?

Let’s be clear. The true author of The Counselor is Cormac McCarthy, not Ridley Scott. The artistic choices that McCarthy is attempting with the script are evident. He seems to have a disdain for exposition, as most of the scenes start and end before the typical story movements in a plot. What remains are these existential conversations that occur after a lot of the action has taken place.

McCarthy thinks that by removing story explanation, the film’s themes and ideas will float to the surface. The dialogue just drones on and on and on non-stop, having the viewer scratching their heads trying to keep up with it. As a result, there is no time to absorb the themes and ideas that McCarthy is trying to communicate. Audiences can tune to a different syntax (i.e. Yoda or Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange) and absorb heavy themes, but it is hard to do both at the same time.

Michael Fassbender carries the film sufficiently on his shoulder by adding as much believability as possible and together with Penelope Cruz make a good solid emotional anchor with their love story. Javier Bardem does his trademark brand of ‘psychotic hair acting’, fashioning a spiky hairstyle that looks like he is forcibly pulling out his hair with hair gel. Brad Pitt’s character just seems like an odd combination of character quirks that comes off more shallow. It is hard to buy Bardem and Pitt’s characters because gangsters would never philosophize and advise their underlings like old wise sages.

Cameron Diaz is the odd one out and it is hard to judge her performance. It took me a while to realize that Malkina character was from Barbados, and apparently she put on an accent for it, but it was undetectable. The role is something we never seen from Diaz before and it is a wild explosive left-field character. I just don’t know what to make of it. Every actor is delivering on what is written, but it’s hard to judge if it’s good or bad acting because the performances do not add up to the sum of its parts. The actors are not to be blamed.

The final conclusion I can draw is that director Ridley Scott and the cast believed that Cormac McCarthy has written something great and have proceeded to honor it by acting it out unedited as if it was Shakespeare. Had they been more critical about the screenplay and its mechanics, something more profound definitely could have been made. From what McCarthy is trying to say with these themes, he would have done better by just writing a philosophy paper about greed and corruption. As a bleak morality tale, it is not at all compelling.

The Counselor is not a film I would recommend people to see for leisure, but anybody with an interest in screenwriting should give it a watch to study the forensics and learn what not to do, even if you are a critically acclaimed novelist.

 

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Dallas Buyers Club by Jean-Marc Vallée

Dallas Buyers Club by Jean-Marc Vallée

 

In 1985, Ron Woodroff (Matthew McConaughey), an electrician and avid rodeo enthusiast with homophobic views, contracts the HIV virus and is given 30 days to live. His doctor Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), tells him about the testing of an anti-viral drug named AZT – a drug thought to prolong the life of AIDS patients. Discovering that AZT is actually harmful, he switches to other non-FDA approved drugs ddC and peptide T and partners with Rayon, a transgender woman (Jared Leto), and creates the Dallas Buyers Club, providing drugs to patients for a membership fee.

Making his resurgence this year with a return to dramatic roles, Matthew McConaughey dives into the Ron Woodroff character with an incomparable passion and commitment in years. The monologue McConaughey delivered in the finale of A Time to Kill sent chills down my spine years ago, and since then I have been waiting for years for him to quit doing romantic comedies and now the wait is finally over. Looking dangerously emaciated and painfully frail, McConaughey brings a complex humanity beneath the swindling, trashy, rude exterior in Ron Woodroff. Never in any circumstance would you ever want to hang out with Woodroff, but you feel sympathy for his plight and cheer him on as he rids of his homophobia and starts helping other people. This is McConaughey’s career best.

From the sparse arthouse way he chooses his parts and dividing time with his music career, Jared Leto has gone unnoticed under the radar, most people still only remember him from My So-Called Life. Rayon is the single most compelling onscreen character I have seen this year. Leto tackles the role with such love and human warmth, breathing charm and a sense of humor into Rayon, the role transcends from being a flamboyant woman trapped inside a man’s body but a human being who desires to be truly loved. As Rayon tells her estranged father in a scene, “It’s not a choice.” I would never presume to know the life experience of transgender people, but after seeing Leto’s deeply moving performance I feel much closer. Campaign or awards politics aside, both actors should win the Oscars, period.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée adopts a handheld cinéma vérité style that brings rawness and immediacy, taking its heavy subject matter head-on and naturally lets the characters tell the story. Even with the latter introduction of the FDA subplot, the story never becomes a political debate about whether the law truly meets human needs. Dallas Buyers Club is a fascinating, powerfully moving story and told passionately by its makers. It is one of the year’s best films.

From Vegas to Macau by Wong Jing

From Vegas to Macau by Wong Jing

 

The God of Gamblers series were the films of my childhood and were amongst the first films I binge-watched on television. Chow Yun Fat in a pompadour and tuxedo with unexplainable gambling powers walking in slow-motion was just the epitome of cinematic cool. The success of the first GOG spawned three spinoff series, a sequel and a prequel. The gambling movies peaked with the Stephen Chow series when he took it to new heights with his brand of nonsensical humor. The trend started to die out in the late 90’s and eventually in the 2000’s became embarrassing rehashes starring Nick Cheung. The only interesting addition was 1999’s The Conman starring Andy Lau, a reboot of The Knight of Gamblers series, which interestingly rooted the gambling into reality. Sadly it was ruined by its lackluster sequel The Conmen in Vegas, which was a string of unfunny lewd gags.

Now here we are with From Vegas to Macau, the story starts with small-time conman Cool (Nicholas Tse), whose undercover policeman half-brother (Phillip Ng) is murdered by Ko (Gao Hu), the head of an illegal gambling syndicate. Cool seeks the help of “Magic Hands” Ken (Chow Yun Fat), a legendary gambler turned casino security consultant, to battle Ko.

As you may have figured, Chow is unfortunately not playing the Ko Chun character. The Ken character is more akin to Chow’s silly comedic roles in The Diary of a Big Man or The Eighth Happiness, which is overall less serious. However much of Chow’s cinematic allure is still there. I can watch Chow Yun Fat in a tuxedo walking into lobbies greeting people all day. When Chow sits at a gambling table, you just want him to win so much you don’t even care how he is doing it. He is the warm bright sun shining onto this film, and every time he is not onscreen, it starts to feel cold and stale.

Nicholas Tse looks bored playing the stone-faced romantic lead Cool. Tse plays it so straight it looks like he belongs in another movie. Jing Tian, having previously starring together with Donnie Yen and Jackie Chan, is getting on my nerves from overexposure. Her policewoman is bland. I would kindly suggest that she go fire a real gun and wear the police gear before the day of the shoot, because she always looks like she’s playing dress up. As the comic relief, Chapman To does the most with he’s given with delivering the cheesiest jokes in rapid-fire delivery. To does it with such earnestness that he just about gets away with it.

Even after 20 years, Wong Jing is still giving the same gags. I started guessing the punchlines to all of the gags. Even worse, I knew where they were all done before. To name a few tropes: the international water plot twist, staging a fake football broadcast, and the fat women being undesirable gag are all here. The most unforgivable thing is that there isn’t a final gambling match at the end,

The biggest con man is perhaps Wong Jing himself, who in the final shot of the film, teases the audience with a surprise cameo appearance and plays a hip hop cover of Lowell Lo’s original God of Gamblers theme song in the end credits, which insinuates the good film that he could have made, the film that everybody came to see. And that is just mean-spirited.

Wong Jing, having seen him speak in interviews, has a very ‘ends justify the means’ approach to everything he does. As long as he makes money, everything he does is justified. That is the accountant-like approach to Jing’s directing. What’s most infuriating is the gambling film series feel stuck in time is not because of its nineties pastiche, but because Wong Jing has no interest of taking it anywhere by updating or adding a new modern angle to it. From Vegas to Macau just feels like reheated overnight food.


American Hustle by David O. Russell

American Hustle by David. O Russell

American Hustle by David. O Russell

 

David O. Russell’s latest caper American Hustle is fundamentally more interested in its characters than doing anything with them.

The story is a fictionalized account of the FBI ABSCAM operation in the late 1970s. Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale), a con man, falls in love with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), and the couple start running a con operation together. Everything seems perfect at first, but Irving refuses to leave his adopted son and wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who refuses to divorce him. When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) catches Irving and Sydney in a loan scam, they are forced to help him make four arrests for their release.

What happens with the characters never matches the depth of their characterizations. As the narrative switches perspectives and cross-sections into the inner monologue of several characters, it keeps the viewer perpetually wondering who is the main character of the story. The con, or more specifically the plot, is cast to the side. The joy of watching the construction of the con is not present; O. Russell is not interested in those nuts and bolts.

Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are all very good and very free in their parts. Louis C.K. even has a funny supporting role as Bradley Cooper’s FBI superior who is frequently bullied. Despite of the nominations, the acting is not Oscar worthy. It just seems like it should be.

O. Russell directs like an acting coach running a class exercise, having the actors improvise scenes and go off script to no end. The scenes do feel raw and unrehearsed. At its best, energy is building and chaos seems to be imminent, like a lit fuse burning its way to the end of a dynamite stick that we cannot see. At its worst, it feels plodding and going over information we already know. The inverse effect is it makes the actors, as good as they are in their parts, look like they are playing dress up. So as much as it wants to be an anarchic character study, the final result is oddly shallow.

American Hustle does not quite live up to its awards hype. The truth is, it was overhyped from the beginning, and somehow David O. Russell has everybody believing he has made something good. Or somehow the people just want to believe he has made something good. Good for him, but I really doubt anybody will be talking about this film six months from now when the hype dies down.

The Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorsese

The Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorcese

 

Martin Scorsese’s latest is based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a New York stockbroker and founder of Stratton Oakmont, a company which engaged in securities fraud and corruption on Wall Street during the nineties. 


First off, the performances are top-notch. Leonardo DiCaprio has managed to find new depths by playing a character that is even debatably worse than the racist plantation owner in Django Unchained. DiCaprio has done more than enough to win his Oscar, and winning for The Wolf of Wall Street is as good any of his other roles. My favorite DiCaprio performance is still Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Though my vote goes to McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club this year. Speaking of which, McConaughey has a great cameo as Jordan’s mentor, who gives Belfort the inspirational push. However, Jonah Hill is the standout as Belfort’s psychotic sidekick Donnie Azoff, delivering an even more impressive performance than in Moneyball.

At a 3-hour running time, the film is too long and it easily could have been shorter with less party scenes and throwing midgets into giant dartboards at the office. As a rise-and-fall story, it has too much ‘rise’ and not enough ‘fall’. I wanted the story to move on and inform us about the financial damage this all caused and all the lives it hurt in the process, but Scorsese does not seem interested in the forensics. Overall there are some very good party set pieces and funny scenes, but after a while, I was just numb.

The story is essentially told from the villain’s point of view. Extending this idea to the classic children’s storybook The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, which is told from the Big Bad Wolf’s perspective. The Wolf retells the Three Little Pigs story and asks the reader to consider his side of the story. The Wolf was simply trying to bake a cake for his grandmother’s birthday while nursing a bad cold, and things got out of hand. Therein lies my criticism: there is nothing redeemable from the Jordan Belfort character in The Wolf of Wall Street. Or at the very least, the filmmakers do not seem interested in showing anything beyond the surface. 

The breaking-the-4th-wall story device of having the villain narrate his story to the audience is raunchy and creative, but Scorsese totally forgets that it is supposed to be ironical. The premise of the black comedy is that we’re supposed to laugh at how vile and putrid these people are. But by the nth orgy scene, the characters are matted into two dimensions and we never get beneath the surface. The morality play tips over to the other side and it mistakenly justifies itself. Just because this a tale about self-indulgent shallow people doesn’t mean we have to tell their story in a self-indulgent shallow fashion.

The bad taste left in my mouth at the end is not the film’s self-indulgence, but out of worry that The Wolf of Wall Street is so unclear about its cautionary message, that there are certain viewers that will admire this lifestyle and become inspired to become a stock broker. For the rest of that find the Belfort character repugnant will feel empty wondering what justified the three-hour running time.

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Tom Yum Goong 2 by Prachya Pinkaew

Tom Yum Goong by Prachya Pinkaew

 

Tom Yum Goong 2 marks Tony Jaa’s return since his announced retirement after the failed Ong Bak 3 and living life as a Buddhist monk. The sequel to 2005’s Tom Yum Goong has Kham’s elephant Khon is kidnapped once again by an evil organization that plans to blackmail Kham into assassinating the President of Katana to kickstart a coup. As flimsy as that plot sounds, it is the least of its problems.

By incorporating special effects and stereoscopic 3D into the film’s action scenes, Pinkaew forgets its major visual effect, namely Tony Jaa himself. The action is haphazardly cut with an embarrassingly huge amount of spatial jumps and tight close-ups that do not match, as if there was not enough usable footage. Many times the viewer enters the action after the first hit has been made. Apparently there were five editors on the project, what happened?

Tony Jaa is at not in his peak physical form, and the film seems to be hiding it from the audience. He is not as fast or hard-hitting as he once was. Jaa’s choreography is restrained, for most of the group fights he just seems to be dispatching people aside as quickly as possible. And the whole time, I was waiting for Jaa to show off. Everytime Ja whips out the elephant boxing style, a style that he and fight choreographer Panna invented for the previous film, are some of the film’s most exciting moments. Sadly, there is very little of it.

Jeeja Yanin from Chocolate is unfortunately sidelined, she occasionally shows up to help Tony Jaa and vice versa, but otherwise there is little interaction between them. Clumsy cop comic sidekick Petchtai Wongkamlao gets some nice lines in but as seen in the first Ong Bak his strengths seem to lie in physical comedy, which he does not get to do here. The stunning Rhatha Phongam from Only God Forgives also makes a decent femme fatale, but the overabundance of supporting characters and a political assassination plot weighs everything down as the film takes on more than it can handle. Why does it have to be so complicated? Man loses elephant. Man goes and retrieves it, end of story!

RZA, together with his film The Man with the Iron Fist and self-proclaimed love of martial arts films, is forging a reputation to being a kung fu film staple. His casting as the villain is cashing in on that particular geek sheik. Atrocious acting aside, watching RZA sharing an onscreen fight with Tony Jaa had me rolling my eyes. RZA movie fights just fine, but does anyone buy him gaining the upper hand on Ja?

Speaking of which, Marresse Crump, who plays the lead henchman, is a great onscreen fighter who can go toe-to-toe with Tony Jaa. The first fight between Crump and Jaa had me pumped, and their last fight on a train track was the type of creative set piece I was expecting to see. Both fighters are capable of more complicated choreography but the choreographers held back with their fight. The fights always seem to be over before the audience can properly enjoy them. The first Tom Yum Goong had a video game boss level-like approach with its action sequences that kept topping each other in terms of scale and insanity, which was made it entertaining and hilarious. There is nothing to that equivalent here.

The best Prachya Pinkaew film is still Chocolate, as it had a neat creative angle and managed to incorporate its action in telling an emotional story coherently. Tom Yum Goong 2 just seems oddly distracted and unconfident about what it wants to be. 

Police Story 2013 by Ding Sheng

Police Story 2013 by Ding Sheng

 

Mainland Chinese police Captain Zhong Wen tries to reconcile with his estranged daughter Miao Miao in a bar, which is interrupted by a group of criminals taking over the bar, turning it into a hostage situation.

It must be said that the anticipation for a Jackie Chan film has changed over the years. Chan himself had announced in last year’s Chinese Zodiac 12 to be his last film with major action in it. We cannot go in expecting to be wowed by death-defying stunts or exhilarating fight choreography anymore. Instead of fights, he has chosen to switch into the dramatic.

Police Story 2013 is not a continuation of the original Police Story series, the title is in name only. Chan’s character Zhong Wen is not Chan Ka-Kui, Jackie Chan’s Supercop character from the original Police Story series. Zhong Wen is not hotheaded, not prone to solving conflicts with violence or even a great hand-to-hand fighter. The only similarity both characters share is their whole-hearted belief of the law and their obligation to do the right thing. Otherwise, Zhong Wen is a dramatic character exploring themes of old age and dealing with the consequences of being a poor father, and therefore it is a role that the older Jackie Chan naturally fits into. In comparison to Chan’s dramatic turns in The Karate Kid remake and The Shinjuku Incident, this performance is the most honest.

The fights, which are not choreographed by the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, are shot close and choppily edited. And sadly, there are not that many of them. For Jackie Chan fans that are hungry to watch a good fight or a stunt will be disappointed. Originally there were not going to be any fights in the film.

Director Ding Sheng, who previously worked with Chan on Little Big Soldier, constructs some tense moments and keeps the audience guessing with red herrings. Liu Ye plays the villain in true scenery chewing fashion, the cat-and-mouse game between Liu and Chan is the price of admission. Jing Tian, having been played the most annoying female police officer in Donnie Yen’s Special ID earlier this year, fares much better in a more fleshed-out role. I’m curious to see what part she will play in the upcoming Chow Yun Fat-Wong Jing God of Gamblers rehash From Vegas to Macau.

As for the hostage situation itself, the bickering hostages are very annoying and it begs to question how they would be able to yak on the way they do without risking execution. The final reveal in the mystery plot is pedestrian, as one would expect a more epic conflict. Immense effort has been made to shift things to a ground level and while it succeeds at creating a gritty realism, it works against the film in terms of payoff. With a back catalogue full of dangerous stunts and action scenes, who could imagine a Jackie Chan movie made so humbly and low-volume?

Police Story 2013 ultimately is an incidental addition to the Jackie Chan canon and does not hold a close candle to the original Police Story series -though much better than the awful New Police Story-, but I did not expect it to be either. It was entertaining for its running time, but I won’t watch it again. The 3D is a shameless cash grab as minimal design has been put in and it is counter-productively dulling down its colorful cinematography. Overall the average Jackie Chan fan might be happier to see it as a rental. Nothing here is worth being angry or disappointed over.

You might be thinking, why am I being so forgiving? Why am I giving Police Story 2013 a pass? The answer: I am not ready to live in a world without Jackie Chan movies in it.

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