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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Shame by Steve McQueen

Berberian Sound Studio by Peter Strickland

Berberian Sound Studio by Peter Strickland

 

Berberian Sound Studio centers on Gilderoy (played by Toby Jones), a British foley artist working on the audio track for an Italian giallo film, The Equestrian Vortex, takes a wrong turn as life starts to imitate art.

Berberian Sound Studio
subverts the usual visual experience of watching a horror film and shows you the creation of a horror film in sequences where you see the foley effects, voice and music being added to a film that is omitted from the audience. It creates an unsettling otherworldly creepiness as you watch foley artists stab watermelons, voice actresses shrieking and convulsing in sync to an offscreen projection. We never see much of the film-within-a-film The Equestrian Vortex and the lack of it forces the audience to be highly sensitive to the the sounds in the film. It’s unnerving and it becomes gradually creepier as it goes along. Never has a shot of someone’s hand tearing lettuce been so scary.

As a “film about a film”, Berberian Sound Studio celebrates the art of filmmaking by showing us the power of cinema by presenting all its techniques both literally and metaphorically. It’s not heavy on plot nor character. You must feel your way throughout this film with your senses as it’s creating tensions through visuals, sounds and feelings.

Things that aren’t happening before us are constantly implied and its constant claustrophobic interior setting is a metaphor about the inward journey of the artist’s mind creating their own world. The way an artist craft stories with their imaginations, the love and stress that goes into their work and how it can often become obsessive.

And for that, it’s perfectly okay to be lost inside Berberian Sound Studio. Set the volume at a decent level and just let the visuals, soundscape and montage guide you through varying states of reality and fantasy. I recommend it to horror fans and any film buff. It’s a real piece of art.

Seven Psychopaths by Martin McDonagh

Seven Psychopaths by Martin McDonagh

A struggling screenwriter inadvertently becomes entangled in the Los Angeles criminal underworld after his oddball friends kidnap a gangster’s beloved Shih Tzu.

Seven Psychopaths takes its central gag from Adaptation in that it’s about an author struggling trying to write the ideal original story, trying to avoid cliches and climatic gunfights but then at the end the author picks up a gun and shoots his way out of his problems, ironically juxtaposing the exact situations he’s trying to creatively avoid. It simultaneously addresses and pokes fun at the author’s eternal struggle to balance his own personal voice and the necessary components of what makes a story entertaining. So, does Seven Psychopaths bring insight to the craft of storytelling? Not exactly. Is it funny? Yes.

Colin Farrell plays a good straight man and Woody Harrelson makes a hilarious villain. Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken both balance the movie’s post-modern aesthetic by adding humanity to the story. With all the post-modern cutaways, witty dialogue and crazy titles stopping the film to identify each psychopath, the movie titters on being self-indulgent but it does not because we believe their characters and care about them. The tone is balanced very well as a result and we are able to both laugh and take things seriously at the same time. Sam Rockwell steals the movie. The humanity he’s able to insert into his character is impressive. Even in his craziness, we understand how his mind works and believe that he is genuinely trying to help his friend. In the hands of a lesser actor, the movie would have collapsed.

Seven Psychopaths is Martin McDonagh’s second feature and it shows. It’s a film where the director is enjoying a bigger cast, bigger budget and more free reign. I don’t have a problem with that. However,  In Bruges is still the superior film. It was a deeper film about guilt and redemption and even had a metaphysical layer that explored the idea of purgatory. I still read it occasionally as a screenplay. Seven Psychopaths is a good piece of fluff and flirts with the suggestion of deeper ideas ironically to get laughs. It’s really good fluff, but fluff nonetheless.

Shame by Steve McQueen

Shame (2011 film)

Shame by Steve McQueen

In New York City, Brandon (played by Michael Fassbender) has a carefully cultivated private life, which allows him to indulge in his sexual addiction. That life is disrupted when his troubled sister Sissy (played by Carey Mulligan) arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay.

It almost does not matter that Shame is a performance-based film, film is still a director’s medium. Whether you have a good performance or not in the can, it’s still up to the director to help the audience understand the performance in context to the story. That brings me to my next point: Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender have a really good thing going on. One trusts the other and the other completely knows how to use him in a movie.

McQueen is a director that knows 1) how to guide an audience through Fassbender’s performance and 2) knows how to put the actor and the audience into the world of the film. In fact, he does them both with the same technique: the long take. There are several long take sequences in the film that really put you into the world of the film and I think it was the right aesthetic choice. The long take not only brings reality by preventing artifice through editing, it allows us to really look inside Brendan.

Brendan is a protagonist with an unexplainable problem. It’s the compulsive need to find catharsis and escape through the flagellation of one’s body. As the emptiness grows inside through one’s growing addiction but cannot stop indulging to feel alive. The film doesn’t even go into telling us what happened to Brandon or Sissy before the story that may have been the genesis of his addiction. That does not matter. We only get the sense that they’ve been through some kind of trauma together.

Much of the journey is communicated through Michael Fassbender’s personal quiet performance. We understand Brendan through how he reacts to his surrounding world. A noteworthy scene was his boss David (played by James Badge Dale) mentioning the amount of pornography on his office desktop computer and we feel the immediate tenseness of his terrible secret and a fear of embarrassment as Brendan covers up with a poker face, even though his boss is totally unaware of his problem. Yes, Shame transports you into the mind of an addict. We feel why a moment’s thrill is better than perpetual existential gloom. Yes, Michael Fassbender deserves the praise and awards. I’m glad he’s getting both.

I’ve been writing this post for the past few days and I have found it very hard to sum up my thoughts. When I finished the film, it was very subtle and I did not completely understand the film. Through days of digesting it, it stuck a very deep cord inside me. I thought about man’s insatiable need for love and connection. I particularly thought about the scene where Sissy sings a sad rendition of New York, New York and why it moved Brendan to tears. I thought about Brendan’s romantic pursuit of his colleague Marianne (played by Nicole Beharie) and what happened there. I’m still digesting it. It is impressive how much deep underneath inside emotions Shame managed to communicate. This is a real work of art. Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender are a great team and I hope to see more work from the both of them.

One of the best films of the year. I’d be surprised if this wasn’t on my top ten by the end of the year. Now I want to see Hunger.