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.

Related Links
Shame by Steve McQueen

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Trance by Danny Boyle

Trance by Danny Boyle

Trance by Danny Boyle

An art auctioneer who has become mixed up with a group of criminals partners with a hypnotherapist in order to recover a lost painting.

Danny Boyle’s new film Trance is an cinematic assault on the senses, and unapologetically so. The premise behind Trance is inherently silly. This is a world in which where hypnosis is magic and accomplishes everything. I doubt any real gangster in the world would ever incorporate a doctor of any kind to assist them with crime.  Audiences just have to go along with it. With trippy cinematography and an awesome soundtrack that I want on my mp3 playlist, Boyle crafts a colorful thrill ride of a film.In the past, Danny Boyle has experimented with genre to varying degrees of success. 28 Days Later worked for me, Sunshine did not. For Trance, the genre-shifting nature works mostly because of its three stars giving it the proper balance. All three lead actors are given dimensional characters to play. Vincent Cassell and James McAvoy seem to be enjoying their roles as they get to play out not only their own characters’ complexities, but their fantasies and projections as well. The standout, surprisingly, is Rosario Dawson.

This is the best Rosario Dawson role I have seen thus far. In her past roles, her sex appeal has been used too blatantly and it has taken away from her performances. The more you intentionally portray someone as sexy on film, the less sexy it is. I am too aware that I am supposed to be aroused by something that I am not totally immersed in. It’s more the idea of sex and the building of sexual tension that creates onscreen sexiness. Danny Boyle sets up the proper atmosphere and films her in a way that forwards the story. Boyle creates an allure to Rosario Dawson’s hypnotherapist character, who’s just sitting down in plain office attire hypnotizing the male characters with words. Her presence adds an entire genre, the erotic thriller, and it sets the film off on a corkscrew spiral mixing film genres, reality and dream states. Nobody is who they seem to be and the film delivers some nice twists and turns.

There’s a trashiness that the film revels in, as if the film is fine with the audience being aroused and indulging into its stimulus. It never gets serious enough for the audience to ever truly take it seriously. So for that, Trance is a fun naughty little piece of pop art, that’s not to be taken seriously and I was comfortably lost in it.

Stoker by Park Chan Wook

Stoker by Park Chan-Wook

After India’s (played by Mia Wasikowska) father dies, her Uncle Charlie (played by Matthew Goode), who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her unstable mother Evelyn (played by Nicole Kidman). She comes to suspect this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives and becomes increasingly infatuated with him.

Screenwriter Wentworth Miller has stated that this is not a vampire movie. To this I say, “Trust the tale, not the teller.”  Regardless of what Miller says, it’s a vampire film or not, Stoker is clearly playing to the beats of a vampire film underneath its surface.There are things at play that suggest this, Uncle Charlie is fixated with India and he preys on her. India seems to possess some kind of innocence or purity that is at stake of being corrupted. Lastly, the movie is called Stoker. That’s no accident.

It’s as if someone took a traditional vampire movie, folded it inside out, wore it like a bag on his head looking outside from within. That’s the way to watch Stoker. Anybody who says there is nothing happening in this story is not looking at the subtext. The subtext is the supertext, that’s where the story is taking place. Park Chan-Wook leaves a lot of empty space for the audience to ponder about what’s going on. There is a whole lot going on if you tune to the film’s grammar and look in the right places.

Matthew Goode has always had this steely piercing look that looks sinister and that quality is well used under Park’s direction. Park knows how to pull back and just shoot an actor in a certain pose to emote a mood or feeling. As Uncle Charlie, we never know what he’s thinking or if we can really trust his intentions. Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman give fine performances but Matthew Goode gives the standout performance. The real star of the film however is Park Chan-Wook himself. He elevates the script by adding a visual poetry that subtlely implies. Everything is played at such a low volume that the audience is unnerved waiting for the tension to crescendo.

A good companion piece to Stoker is Park Chan-Wook’s 2009 vampire horror film Thirst; it’s probably what got Park the job. This is probably one of the best English-language debut for an Asian director. It’s a smooth transition as his directorial stamp is very much present. You will need to put in more brain work for Stoker, but it pays off.

Ruby Sparks by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Ruby Sparks by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Calvin Weir-Fields (played by Paul Dano), a struggling novelist trying to recreate the early success of his first novel, writes about his ideal dream girl, Ruby Sparks (played by Zoe Kazan), who comes to life.

Ruby Sparks is pretty consistent with its story beats as it journeys through the sweet and the bitter parts. It certainly hits its mark of being a quirky, cute and funny indie film but ultimately it isn’t as deep as the filmmakers think it is. For me to totally indulge into the fantastic dream girl along with the Paul Dano’s Calvin, the film has to make the audience fall in love with the Kazan’s Ruby Sparks as well. I personally did not find Ruby Sparks attractive or fascinating enough in that context to entertain that notion. Having a quirky girl be the perfect girl simply isn’t enough. We don’t know anything beyond Ruby’s quirks because she is a fictitious shallow creation. The way Calvin is fascinated with her is like the way Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets fascinated by Zoe Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer because she likes The Smiths. For any guy who has learned the life lesson of “idealizing the perfect girl” will find nothing profound in Ruby Sparks. I saw where the story was going right from the start, and then eventually the story went exactly to that exact predicted conclusion.

The color scheme is noteworthy. I noticed how they color coordinated Calvin’s clothes and home to be more bland. The standard practice of cinematography dictates one should never shoot white walls. They meant for it to look bland for story reasons, but cinematographer Matthew Libatique does a great job with making an entire interior of white walls interesting with natural lighting.

There is an indulgent approach on the filmmakers’ part. The dream girl is being played by the screenwriter and it seems the directors got the job because they directed Little Miss Sunshine, so they’re basically here to decorate the film with quirks. This is a piece that needed more aesthetic distance from its makers. What I really wanted to see happen was Calvin to come back to reality and date a real girl. Or better yet have Calvin also see a real girl and be forced to choose between fantasy and reality. There are some half-developed themes here, one noteworthy idea about how Calvin has complete control over Ruby with his typewriter. It takes the film to a darker place, which was interesting, but it was took too long to get there and the final message of the film seems to be truncated to “don’t idealize girls” instead of “live in reality”.

It’s like the story doesn’t give its characters a big enough problem to push the story further to a more profound conclusion. It just needed something more. At the film’s final scene, it didn’t seem Calvin learned anything from the events of this movie. Subsequently, I didn’t learn anything either.

Hitchcock by Sacha Gervasi and The Girl by Julian Jarrold

Foreword: a solution to reviewing two similarly-themed films

On my “Common film review clichés to be avoided” page, I have previously stated that I will critique every film as a standalone piece of work. Recently, a special case has surfaced that now has me reconsidering a possible exception to my previously established rule.

Two films about Alfred Hitchcock released this year: Hitchcock and The Girl.

There is an element of timing for when a movie is released that affects one’s experience of how someone views the subject matter afterwards. Theoretically from a film critic’s mentality, two films sharing the same subject matter should not matter and on principle every piece of work should be critiqued as a standalone piece. However, I am too aware that The Girl will be overlooked because Hitchcock has bigger stars in it, a stronger promotional campaign and a theatrical release.

Funny enough, Toby Jones, who plays Alfred Hitchcock in The Girl, has gone through a similar “double case” with playing Truman Capote. I am no expert on Truman Capote, but from what I have read, Toby Jones’ performance seems like a more accurate depiction. Jones’ version showed more colors of emotions; particularly presenting the playful socialite side of Capote in Infamous, an aspect that seemed muted in Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s take in Bennett Miller’s Capote. Toby Jones’ performance was overlooked after Phillip Seymour Hoffman won the Oscar, it is as if as a social group we have exhausted the amount we can possibly care for a subject in its first interpretation and cannot give the same amount of care or attention to the second.

So as a film critique experiment and also to satisfy my lifelong yen to serve justice for the underdog, I have decided to watch Hitchcock and The Girl back-to-back. I chose Hitchcock first because it chronologically takes place before the events of The Girl. Let’s see what happens.

On with the review of Hitchcock

Hitchcock by Sacha Gervasi

Hitchcock centers on the relationship between director Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville during the making of Psycho, a controversial horror film that became one of the most acclaimed and influential works in the filmmaker’s career.

Anthony Hopkins’ performance is more pantomime than a result of inhabiting a role. There’s a lot of emphasis on Hitchcock’s physicality and his droopy face and it comes off as a very good impression played for comedic effect. It’s possible that it is not Hopkin’s fault as director Sacha Gervasi and writer John J. McLaughlin do not have a particular perspective on how we should view Alfred Hitchcock as a person. The film’s not interested in delving too deeply into who he was but aims for laughs with its comedic self-referential tone and many witty remarks from Hitchcock himself.

Helen Mirren as Alma Reville is a good straight man to Hopkins. The interplay between Hopkins and Helen Mirren is the heart of the film. I wish there was more things for these actors to do, to explore their parts with more insight. It forces me to think that they only casted Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh to sell tickets based on the tease of how they filmed her famous shower scene.

The first third of the film starts off decently plot wise, the central question being “How is Hitchcock going to get Psycho made?” However, once the production of Psycho goes underway, there is no more tension in that storyline. It’s as if there was a checklist of events and the film goes on autopilot and checks them off as we move along for the rest of that storyline. I am sure there was more drama to the production and if there wasn’t, the film should take narrative liberties to dramatize it. For example, we all know the security cars missing the airplane taking off by an inch in Argo did not really happen in real life, but it’s more dramatic depicting it that way than just having the crew sigh relief after passing the three security checks as the film’s climax. No, the film shifts focus onto the relationship between Hitchcock and his wife Alma.

The use of humor gets in the way as well. There is a device where Alfred Hitchcock has imaginary conversations with Ed Gein (played by Michael Wincott), the real-life serial killer that inspired Psycho. It’s a great idea for a device as the manifestation of Ed Gein represents Hitchcock’s drive to complete his controversial vision. In essence, Hitchcock is having a supportive conversation with himself. However, the film chooses to score these conversations with a thriller type score that suggests that the imaginary non-existent Gein is going to stab Hitchcock at any second as if we were suddenly watching a Hitchcock film. This tonally defuses the original goal of the device, all in the place for a self-referential laugh.

Did I learn anything insightful about Alfred Hitchcock? Not too much other than I would really like a supportive wife like Alma. It works as a light dramatic comedy about an aging odd couple.

The checklist nature in which Hitchcock glosses over the events of the making of Psycho ultimately makes for more of a televisual experience as opposed to a cinematic one.

Now on with the review for The Girl

The Girl by Julian Jarrold

The Girl depicts the turbulent relationship between filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and actress Tippi Hedren. Hitchcock becomes infatuated with his leading actress, and ends up subjecting her to a series of traumatic and gruelling experiences over the making of The Birds and Marnie after she rebuffs his advances.

The Girl is as far away tonally as one could go after watching the light and funny Hitchcock. Aesthetically it’s a much more cinematic experience, it’s a much darker film and it has a very firm perspective of how it depicts its characters. In fact, the most interesting thing about The Girl is it pretty much decides that Alfred Hitchcock was a sexual predator, and fully depicts him that way one hundred percent. This is where The Girl may distance audiences.

Sienna Miller gives a great performance as Tippi Hedren. Even as a victim, Tippi Hedren is not a weak helpless inactive character. Miller manages to find a lot of things to play dramatically which makes this dark subject matter very watchable. I was scared for her in her scenes with Jones and even have a feeling of how beauty can be a problem for a woman if you are constantly gazed at all day by your boss. Something I probably would not think of if not for the film. As naive as it sounds, I would love to hear what women have to say about this film.

Toby Jones delivers. This is a more natural, deeper performance but the ultimate result doesn’t feel like the humorous facetious Hitchcock we know from his onscreen persona. It’s as if Jones had to inhabit the role of Alfred Hitchcock deeper to shift his image to suit the film’s thesis. For example, Jones nails Hitchcock’s voice to a tee, but at times he would shift Hitchcock’s voice to a more sinister place, and at times it was like he was part Alfred Hitchcock, part Cockney gangster. He plays him like an old pervert and through his stare we can see the fantasies that Hitchcock is superimposing onto this woman and experience the emotionally violence. Never has a dirty limerick felt so scary.

I am of two minds about The Girl. If only it was a complete work of fiction with imaginary characters, I could tell you that it was a great film about abuse, harassment and power dynamics against women in the workplace. It’s a story worth telling, it’s a more cinematic film than Hitchcock and I am glad I saw this movie, but I cannot simply dismiss somebody as a sexual predator simply from watching a film.

Not to dispel anybody who has been a victim of emotional or physical abuse, but I cannot verify whether the events in this film really happened or not. As a viewer, I can go as far as viewing it as an interesting speculation at best. I simply cannot answer the film’s plea for justice the way it demanded.

That’s the choice everybody will have to make when watching The Girl: do you believe it for fact or does it stop as an interesting speculation?

Verdict: 
It’s hard to access if this was successful because I cannot rewind and experience this in another way, but I do this works as a solution. Mainly because I had to digest both films together in their individual goals and this is as fair an assessment I could have given for both films individually. It was an ironic experience because the two films have completely opposite depictions of Alfred Hitchcock.

Let me know what you think! =)

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.

Martha Marcy May Marlene by Sean Durkin

Martha Marcy May Marlene by Sean Durkin

Before I review this movie, I have to talk about exposition in screenwriting. If you already know what exposition is, please skip ahead.

Exposition is the facts that you need to know to follow and understand a story. As film is a visual medium, the general rule in giving exposition is that you should always “show, don’t tell”.  i.e. You should never have a character say he is deadly killing machine, instead you show him taking out 10 people at the same time in a scene.  The best exposition is done as invisible as possible. The viewer should not be aware of it. At the worst of times, it disconnects the viewer because all of sudden they are shown the nuts and bolts of the story. It is simply not engaging or entertaining.

As a screenwriter, I wrestle with the idea of exposition. First of all, you have to get certain information across for the story to work. So you have to do it. Second of all, you have to make exposition interesting. What constitutes as interesting? Where is that line? My personal favorite example is in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery where they have a character named Basil Exposition whose sole purpose is to give exposition. So he’s giving you the exposition but because of the “wink wink” postmodern factor it is interesting again. So where is that line between interesting and uninteresting exposition? In Christopher Nolan’s Inception, often characters are explaining what’s going onto each other. Can we justify that it was interesting because Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was teaching Ellen Page’s (whose character is representing the audience) how the dream world works? Was there another way to show the audience what’s going on without the dialogue?

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a drama pasted on top of a horror movie skeleton. It is about a young woman named Martha (played by Elizabeth Olsen), who has just escaped an abusive cult in the Catskill mountains to stay with her older sister  Lucy (played by Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (played by Hugh Dancy). As she recovers, Martha deals with delusions and paranoia from her dark past.

Elizabeth Olson is an engaging actress and carries the film competently, she plays a naive innocence against massive trauma and we experience the inner turmoil she is hiding from everybody. What can I say? I like underplaying performances. John Hawkes is great as the leader of the cult. It’s a very subtle performance that is quite creepy. I have noticed him in several movies (Michael Mann’s Miami Vice where he played an informant) and even a Canadian short film where in the opening sequence he sets his arm on fire (I cannot remember the name of it). He’s a fine screen presence. I hate that there is not enough of just normal dudes on film. Hawkes will probably have to work his way up through playing disheveled creeps or crazy people to get a starring role like Michael Shannon in Take Shelter. I wish him all the best.

So how is it horrific? It is how Martha acts and what she says that suggests remnants of an odd warped view of the world (from the influence of being in the cult) that contrasts with societal norms represented by Lucy and Ted. Martha is taciturn about her past, she never directly tells Lucy what has happened (No exposition! Hurrah!). However the audience knows as we switch between the past and the present, the story shows pieces of what happened and leaves plenty of space for us to imagine the in-between. The horror forms out of everything between the cracks.

Non-linear storytelling is the trend this year with the likes of The Iron Lady, J. Edgar, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and We Need to Talk About KevinMartha Marcy May Marlene contains the best justification of the non-linear storytelling device this year so far.

It’s well-written, disciplined piece of drama that knows the subtlety of it’s own punches. And you know what? Basil Exposition is nowhere to be seen and I was rather marveled by that accomplishment.