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 Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug by Peter Jackson

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug by Peter Jackson

The dwarves, along with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey, continue their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from Smaug the Dragon.

To start off, I am not a Lord of the Rings fan. I haven’t read any of Tolkien’s works and only have seen the Peter Jackson’s film trilogy once. I am, however, a Sherlock fan and originally elected not to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in silent protest of it delaying the third season of Sherlock for an entire year. A friend invited me to a free screening of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug two days before its premiere, so I quickly caught up with the previous installment and read up on the film’s production online to prepare for its sequel. So this is going to be a review of the first film too. Let’s crack on…

My biggest problem with An Unexpected Journey is it launched its story retrospectively from Lord of the Ringsstarting with an older Bilbo Baggins telling the story to Frodo Baggins just before the events of The Fellowship of the RingThe Hobbit is not a prequel, it was written first before Lord of the Rings. It’s the true “part one” and yet it’s being framed as if it was a prequel to a great trilogy. This effectively echoes throughout the two Hobbit films as I am constantly being reminded about what’s to come. It’s distracting and by association makes The Hobbit seem less important.

Whether it’s Peter Jackson’s completist approach to expand the story or a corporate decision from the financiers to cash in on the success of the LOTR trilogy, The Hobbit is too long.  Often the story takes big steps backwards before being able to move forwards. It took forty minutes in the first film to start the journey and for someone who is not coming in sheer excited fandom, the slow pace is a lot of work on the audience’s part.

This is the typical pattern of one story movement in The Hobbit series thus far: 1) An imminent crisis or problem faces our heroes  2) Backstory is given in context to our heroes to the crisis. 3) The group tries to persevere and just as they fail or are about to give up, Bilbo does something that solves the problem  4) The group rejoice about the pure spirit of Hobbits and how impressive it is, cue flute music 5) A new problem comes along. Repeat.

Throughout both films, I had an internal monologue that kept screaming, “Let’s go! Hurry up!”, as if I was watching someone play a video game at snail’s pace. Die-hard LOTR fans will say that I am wrong about this but it’s why those DVD extended editions exist. Even though we’ll never know, Guillermo Del Toro’s original idea of directing the The Hobbit as two films sounds better. But this is just something I’ll have to accept. That’s the extent of my issues because when The Desolation of Smaug is good, it is very good.

Martin Freeman is a great Bilbo Baggins. The role requires exactly what Freeman plays best: acting quizzical from being one mental step ahead of everybody but always feels socially awkward about pointing out the obvious. Freeman’s reactions are entertaining and overall I find Bilbo a much more engaging protagonist than Frodo; he gets things done.

Smaug the dragon is frightening. Benedict Cumberbatch injects an immense sense of threat and power into Smaug’s voice, combined with its gigantic size, creates a memorable movie villain for the ages. It was bone-chilling watching the dragon slither around in the dark, with the imminent feeling he can squash Bilbo at any moment. Hands down, the Smaug scene is the best scene in all five films so far.

The beautiful Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel is a welcome addition to the series. Despite of being Jackson’s creation, she is a well-rounded strong female character that adds a love story. Orlando Bloom returning as Legolas is neither her or there for me. He isn’t an interesting character and seems to exist for his fighting abilities. Both elf characters are unnecessary filler material, but make entertaining filler no less. The dwarves are more fleshed out in this installment, which is an improvement because there was nothing to distinct them apart from each other in the first film.

Another minor quibble I had was the decision of using CGI in the action scenes. The orcs are computer-generated and the action sequences look digitally layered and video game-like. They’re well designed and are well-paced action scenes. But the LOTR trilogy previously established a real world look with its use of  New Zealand landscapes and creature make-up, and I wonder why Peter Jackson decided to go with more CGI as it doesn’t match with the previous films.

Peter Jackson’s deep love for the material is felt throughout both films and this perhaps is the film’s most winning quality. After all, Jackson’s completist approach isn’t self-indulgent or obnoxious, but out of a genuine love, awe and wonder for Middle Earth and its mythology. It’s infectious and is probably the primary reason I was able to sit through the long running time.

Overall, I enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug more than An Unexpected Journey. There is less setup to be done, hence the story moves along much faster. And for that reason alone, I think I will enjoy There and Back Again even more when things begin to wrap up.

2 Guns by Baltasar Kormákur

2 Guns by Baltasar Kormákur

2 Guns by Baltasar Kormákur

A DEA agent and a Naval Intelligence officer find themselves on the run after a botched attempt to infiltrate a drug cartel. While fleeing, they learn the secret of their shaky alliance: they are both undercover agents.

2 Guns is reminiscent of buddy cop movies in the late eighties and nineties. Unlike a lot of recent throwback 80’s action films, it tastefully retains much of the fun factor by concentrating on character and dialogue and removing some of the modern tropes that have gone stale, like the oversaturation of pop culture references. With its setup and buddy dynamic, at times it actually reminded me of the 1996 Adam Sandler and Damon Wayons buddy cop movie Bulletproof.

What elevated 2 Guns from standard action fare were exactly the snappy dialogue and the buddy dynamic between Washington and Wahlberg. The two lead actors create a believable long-time friendship and it gave the movie a sizzling charm that you just can’t look away from. Watching Walhberg and Washington rapidly throw zingers back and forth alone made the price of admission. After seeing his facetious performance in this film, it’s easy now to imagine Mark Wahlberg taking over the role of Tony Stark in future Marvel films.

The film has a good supporting cast. James Marsden and Edward James Olmos seem overqualified for these supporting roles. It’s nice to see them but they have too little time to truly shine. Paula Patton is cast in a seemingly intelligent female role, but is ultimately there for her sex appeal. Bill Paxton is the only one who gets to properly chew up some scenery as a scary CIA agent with a flair for torturing his victims.

The story moved along fast like a shark, for fear that stopping for a thoughtful pause would ruin its momentum and shatter the illusion of how complicated the plot seems. The action scenes are fun. More importantly, they are visible and you can follow what’s going on.  When it came to the finale, the film said “Screw it!” to all the dramatic buildup from the first two acts and serves a lesser solution to its conflict.
 Had it been a slower moving story with less charming leads, I would have considered the finale a cop out ending and been pissed.

But this time, I just went with it. I’m a sucker for buddy cop movies. 2 Guns just oozes old school charm, and charm can go a long way.

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This is the End by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

This is the End by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

While attending a party at James Franco’s house, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and many other celebrities are faced with the apocalypse.

First off, I want to say I am a fan of the Judd Apatow team. Before Judd Apatow made The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, I wasn’t really into the American comedies that were dominated by Ben Stiller, Will Ferrel and Vince Vaughn. The improvisational nature of Apatow’s comedy and the crude sophomoric jokes infused with a heartfelt message hit me on a deeper level. As a lover of buddy cop movies, I’m also generally a sucker for bromance movies, of which I would argue is a close relative. Most of all, I like Apatow’s cast of actors. Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, James Franco… they’re all funny in their own idiosyncratic way and seem to have free reign over their own personas.

This brings me to my first critique of This is the End. The central gag of having the actors play themselves isn’t as funny as the film thinks it is. For example, This is the End‘s version of Michael Cera is a foul-mouthed cocaine addict. Why? Because the filmmakers thought it’d be funny to do a total reversal on Cera’s real life persona. That gag is only truly funny if we know what Michael Cera is like in real life. Most of us, unlike the filmmakers, can only drawn upon Michael Cera’s timid onscreen persona. That creates enough of a contrast to elicit laughs and it does. However, the filmmakers are ultimately more connected to the joke than the audience can ever be, and that is problematic on some level. I get the feeling I should be laughing harder than the film is making me.

Just to reiterate, I did laugh. There were times when the celebrity gag won me over. I liked how the character relationships were set up and they all have great chemistry. Jay Baruchel plays the audience’s avatar and reacts to all colors of obnoxious behavior exhibited by the other actors. Actually, the film even takes it one comedic step further. When Danny McBride enters the film, he does his brand of obnoxious behavior that happens to be so overwhelming, the other annoying actors call him on it and ask him to stop.

When the film doesn’t rely on the celebrity gag and gives something for the characters to do to survive the Apocalypse, it’s much more creative and funnier. I liked the graphic novel-like style that went into the world creation of the apocalypse. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg deliver some surprises to what’s going on outside James Franco’s house. The parts in between that didn’t pertain to surviving the Apocalypse are strung by improvisational dialogue scenes and they stick out as the weaker moments. I recognize the ability to improvise scenes and be funny on camera, but watching the cast react to the fantastical elements was more interesting than watching the celebrities react to each other. As the audience’s avatar, Jay Baruchel ends up being outnumbered as he is the only genuine likable character in a cast of six. So for somebody isn’t already warm to these actors, they easily come off as very unlikable. And that can get taxing rather quickly. The writing isn’t doing enough to build enough character for the cast and the film is completely reliant on what we know of these actors and their past works.

Due to its leaning towards it’s own self-referential quality than being a apocalyptic survival film, This is the End is ultimately a fan film for the Judd Apatow audience. (Think Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back for Kevin Smith’s Viewaskew Universe) If you never liked any of the comedies from the Judd Apatow team, this movie isn’t going to convert you. If you don’t like none of these actors, I’d tell you to just skip it altogether. I am part of the Apatow audience and like these actors, and even with that, it felt like watching one gigantic inside joke.