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.

Star Trek Into Darkness by J.J. Abrams

Star Trek Into Darkness by J.J. Abrams

The crew of the USS Enterprise meets an unstoppable force of terror from within Starfleet, Captain Kirk leads a manhunt to capture a one man weapon of mass destruction.

The central relationship between Kirk and Spock is the most compelling element out of the entire Star Trek canon. My peers frequently debate me about Star Trek: The Next Generation but my viewing experience of TNG has only been the movies. Unfortunately I missed it as a television series. For my money, there’s been nothing nearly as compelling and iconic as Kirk’s hot-blooded brash instinct versus Spock’s cold logic and the temperamental humane Dr. McCoy caught between them. I love what they each represent and their eternal triangular quarrel. They want to work together to solve grandiose problems but they all see different on the approach. Never does one of them ever solve the solution completely with their own philosophy and often it’s a varying combination of all three that saves the day. It’s about hearing people out, being unassuming and adapting to new ideas. When Star Trek: The Original Series debuted in the mid-60’s, Gene Roddenberry intended the original show to have a major political agenda and aimed to present an optimistic version of what man can be at their very best.

Much of the essence from Star Trek: The Original Series remains in Star Trek Into Darkness, it contains themes about colonialism, political intervention, foreign policy and terrorism. But it is there only if you want to read it. These themes are expressed in a muted fashion as the thematic discussions are always running parallel to major action set pieces. As if the material was like a shark that had to keep moving at breakneck speed or it will risk dying of boredom. Personally, I never minded those thematic discussions in the previous Star Trek films. A few more quiet moments wouldn’t have been bad either. Just saying. Now that J.J. Abrams is helming the next Star Wars movie, the “Star Wars vs. Star Trek” geek war that existed when I was a teenager might very well be over now. A Star Wars influence is present in the film and I ponder what elements Abrams will bring over.

The script is workshopped to an inch of its life. Heck, it’s indicative in the film’s “no colon” title. The fact that the writers have been quoted stating that “There’s no word that comes after the colon after Star Trek that’s cool.” has been clearly spent way too much time pulling their hair psychotically, obsessing over every detail and perfecting the story over coffee-spilled paper. Seriously, is there really a group of people out there that feels negative about colons after the movie title? Does that really justify warping (yes, pun intended) English grammar? This sounds like ranting but I really mean this as a compliment to their supposed geek madness.

The cast delivers as they did in the previous installment. I do think having watched the previous installment helps immensely as there are not a lot of character building moments for everybody. But the actors are all well casted in their roles and fortunately every crew member still has something to do. Zachary Quinto shines as Spock and his friendship with Chris Pine’s Kirk is a believable one. Their friendship is the heart of the movie. Simon Pegg gets to do something new as Scotty. Benedict Cumberbatch is a great villain. He owns the audience. One minute he is savagely evil, the next minute we slightly sympathize with him and then he shifts again. On that note, I can’t wait for Sherlock season 3.

This is a very ambitious film that has a lot of things to accomplish. It’s trying to deliver a story with multiple characters, please both the non-fans and the fans, go to new territory but also honor the spirit of the original series. The film essentially wants to have its cake and eat it too but it accomplishes it really well. If J.J. Abrams’ gave any more pop culture nods as he does in this film, his head would fall off. I cheered at the spectacle of the action scenes, laughed at the in-jokes, and almost cried at the film’s climax. It doesn’t go to new territory as much as the first one and I hope they do go somewhere new for the next installment.

I want to see it again and look forward to the third installment. Hopefully it won’t take as long as this one.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Tomas Alfredson

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Tomas Alfredson

In the bleak days of the Cold War, espionage veteran George Smiley is forced from semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet agent within MI6.

I cannot fault you for not liking Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It demands that you keep up with it wholeheartedly with 100% undivided attention. Once you put in all the work the film is demanding and fully immerse into its hypersensitive world of subtleties, it becomes a rewarding experience. A blink feels like a gunshot. A facial tick becomes a car chase. Everybody is looking behind their backs.

Director Tomas Alfredson does nothing to make it easy either. Let’s list the things: 1) The story has a non-linear plot structure that the audience needs to piece together. 2) There is no explanation for the spy lingo. 3) The audience must play detective along with George Smiley, tracking who said what to whom, matching it to what was said in a previous scene to deduce if they are lying. Lying is an art form in itself. Are they lying entirely? Or just omitting a detail? What motivates a lie?

The film completely functions on a thematic level. Gary Oldman said in an BBC5 interview that director Tomas Alfredson doesn’t even think he made a spy thriller, which confirms my point. This is not a story about espionage at all. No, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about mistrust. It’s about these men confined in tight spaces perpetually spying on each other and how it alienates them apart. Humanity is a weakness and compromises their survival as spies. Every character in the film battles with their own humanity to survive. There is a great scene where Gary Oldman’s George Smiley lies to another character with a perfect poker face. The bleak coldness that he exudes is intense and shocking. The subplot with Smiley’s wife artfully gives insight to the Smiley character. We never get a good look at the wife because she exists as an idea – she is the deal he has to make with the devil. Home is where Smiley is at his most vulnerable and we see the consequences of Smiley’s commitment to his cold-hearted profession.

Since I’m a Sherlock fan, I loved seeing Benedict Cumberbatch rise through the ranks into films now. He’s great as Gary Oldman’s younger sidekick who is still wet behind the ears. I look forward to seeing him in the next Star Trek movie. Please don’t make him play Khan. It would be a waste. Toby Jones’ face screams red herring. Alfredson films Jones in a way that makes him look like an evil leprechaun, similar to how Sergio Leone’s penchant for filming faces as if they were landscapes.

Speaking of which, this film has great cinematography in that it tells the story. The film is about discovering truth amongst a cloud of lies and the cinematography really serves that idea visually. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema has managed to find layers of shadow in places that I didn’t know exist, like the backseat of a car. The camera moves, like the pan shots, really give a sense of place that constructs the moody, smoky, morally ambiguous atmosphere. With the long lenses, the audience is looking into the lives of these spies seated in tight spaces, as if we are watching them suffocate.

Something really noteworthy is how they utilized is Gary Oldman’s glasses as a plot device. Yes, Hint! Notice George Smiley’s glasses in every scene. It’s used like Maggie Cheung’s dresses in In The Mood For Love. What’s genius about is it forces you to look at Gary Oldman’s eyes, which both guides your eyes to his performance and immerses you along with his investigation of what’s going on as he interviews each suspect.

Hands down, Gary Oldman should win the Oscar. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. How does an actor underplay a role to this degree and still manage to be this engaging? Due to the Academy’s usual taste of rewarding showy loud performances, it seems unlikely Oldman will win the gold statuette. It’s a subtle performance completely constructed around what he’s not showing and what he is not saying. But at least the Academy recognized the brilliance of his performance. It’s a step, right?