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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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.

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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