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

The Counselor by Ridley Scott

The Counselor by Ridley Scott

To give the simplest summary of the latest film from Ridley Scott and first-time screenwriter Cormac McCarthy, the Counselor (Michael Fassbender), deeply in love with his fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz), tries to make a quick score in a one-time drug deal with Reiner (Javier Bardem), his girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) and middleman Westray (Brad Pitt). The deal backfires, and now The Counselor is wrongfully targeted by a Mexican drug cartel.

So Cormac McCarthy, Ridley Scott, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz in a monumental cinematic failure, what happened?

Let’s be clear. The true author of The Counselor is Cormac McCarthy, not Ridley Scott. The artistic choices that McCarthy is attempting with the script are evident. He seems to have a disdain for exposition, as most of the scenes start and end before the typical story movements in a plot. What remains are these existential conversations that occur after a lot of the action has taken place.

McCarthy thinks that by removing story explanation, the film’s themes and ideas will float to the surface. The dialogue just drones on and on and on non-stop, having the viewer scratching their heads trying to keep up with it. As a result, there is no time to absorb the themes and ideas that McCarthy is trying to communicate. Audiences can tune to a different syntax (i.e. Yoda or Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange) and absorb heavy themes, but it is hard to do both at the same time.

Michael Fassbender carries the film sufficiently on his shoulder by adding as much believability as possible and together with Penelope Cruz make a good solid emotional anchor with their love story. Javier Bardem does his trademark brand of ‘psychotic hair acting’, fashioning a spiky hairstyle that looks like he is forcibly pulling out his hair with hair gel. Brad Pitt’s character just seems like an odd combination of character quirks that comes off more shallow. It is hard to buy Bardem and Pitt’s characters because gangsters would never philosophize and advise their underlings like old wise sages.

Cameron Diaz is the odd one out and it is hard to judge her performance. It took me a while to realize that Malkina character was from Barbados, and apparently she put on an accent for it, but it was undetectable. The role is something we never seen from Diaz before and it is a wild explosive left-field character. I just don’t know what to make of it. Every actor is delivering on what is written, but it’s hard to judge if it’s good or bad acting because the performances do not add up to the sum of its parts. The actors are not to be blamed.

The final conclusion I can draw is that director Ridley Scott and the cast believed that Cormac McCarthy has written something great and have proceeded to honor it by acting it out unedited as if it was Shakespeare. Had they been more critical about the screenplay and its mechanics, something more profound definitely could have been made. From what McCarthy is trying to say with these themes, he would have done better by just writing a philosophy paper about greed and corruption. As a bleak morality tale, it is not at all compelling.

The Counselor is not a film I would recommend people to see for leisure, but anybody with an interest in screenwriting should give it a watch to study the forensics and learn what not to do, even if you are a critically acclaimed novelist.

 

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Prometheus by Ridley Scott

Prometheus by Ridley Scott

Prometheus by Ridley Scott

In the late 21st century, the crew of the spaceship Prometheus follow a star map discovered among the artifacts of several ancient Earth cultures. Seeking the origins of humanity, the crew arrives on a distant world and discovers a threat that could cause the extinction of the human race.

First off, I am proud to say I was not a victim of all the hype and it was definitely a much better film-going experience having not having seen the film with too much worked out in my mind. Now on with the review…

Awe is a very important component for science fiction films. Thematically science fiction deals with both the potential and limit of mankind, reflecting who we are as human beings if there were no bounds to our ability to accomplish good or heinous things. For example, seeing a spaceship soaring through space or a planet get blown up should both evoke awe. From frame one I was instantly awed by the world created in Prometheus. Using real physical sets and locations over computer generated ones really makes a big difference. I was marveled by the space of the world and was ready to explore it along with its characters. Thanks, H.R. Giger!

It’s been a while since we had a true science fiction film asking big questions. Does God exist? Who am I? Who made me? Why did he make me? How would he see me? Every character represents in the story a different argument against all these questions. Although we are given a conclusion for all these questions on a narrative level, the film never really provides an answer to its big thematic questions and I loved that.

This is one of Rapace’s better-suited parts that I have seen her play as she has a lot more emotions to play compared to a role like Lisbeth Salander. Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw is not “Ellen Ripley Deux”, she is clearly playing her own original character. If there are any similarities, it’s that they’re both well-rounded female characters that both show moments of vulnerability and strength.

Michael Fassbender is captivating as the android character David and interprets playing a robot creatively through physical choices. A delicate weightless walk, a constant neutral tone to his voice and facial expressions that don’t quite match what’s being said. The audience is left constantly guessing, “What is he up to? Is he being deceitful? Was that a joke or did he really mean that?” He plays up the ambiguous non-human nature of a machine and adds to a lot of the mystery of what’s going on in this world.

As a side note, is the Blade Runner sequel from Ridley Scott necessary at this point? The “can a robot be human?” theme established in this film can be totally explored possibly in sequels with the David character.

There’s been a very common complaint about how the characters act very unscientific for a group of scientists. I have thought about this argument even though it didn’t occur to me upon my first viewing because I was absorbed into the film. I will say this as a counter argument: Prometheus, as the title suggests, is a cautionary tale. The characters are meant to do all the wrong things and pay for it. It’s a rule of the genre, it’s the equivalent of someone checking an odd noise in the attic in a horror movie. Now you might say that that’s not an excuse for bad characterization, I agree. But if people are noticing stuff like this, I think the movie probably failed to engage you on some level. It was not the case for me and I didn’t have a problem with it.

What will ultimately divide audiences about Prometheus is the fact that it is a movie embedded with dual goals in its DNA. There’s the Alien prequel and the Prometheus movie. Personally I was much more fascinated with the Prometheus portion. Some may think that Prometheus does not answer enough questions about Alien. I agree and disagree. It does provide you answers about the events in Alien but it gives it to you in the form of creating more questions. Personally, I would have preferred fewer answers. I’m more interested in the questions.

Bring on Prometheus 2!

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.

A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg

A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is something very cinematic about watching the creation of something. In A Dangerous Method, we see the beginnings of psychoanalysis and the intellectual debate about the approach to the mind. Carl Jung (played by Michael Fassbender) treats Sabina Spielrein (played by Kiera Knightley), whom eventually becomes his assistant and one of the first female psychoanalysts. They begin a love affair, that breaks the boundaries of their doctor-patient relationship and threatens Jung’s family and career. Adding oil to the fire is the presence of Sigmund Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen), of whom Jung seeks approval from but ultimately their relationship turns turbulent as they differ on views of sexuality and religion.

First of all, I liked the 2 lead performances. Michael Fassbender is great as Carl Jung. Viggo Mortensen brings true gravitas to Sigmund Freud, and we experience how Carl Jung is intimidated by his presence. Viggo is our generation’s Robert De Niro. He’s come a long way as an Omish dude sitting at the back of a carriage in Witness. Some actors are good at creating a character internally (i.e. Robert De Niro is always Robert De Niro but is able to create a character)and some actors are good at physicalizing a character (i.e. Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow or Willy Wonka). Viggo Mortensen is both. Any role Viggo is in, he truly transforms into his roles inside-out and always creates a presence to be marveled.

On the issue of Kiera Knightley convulsing and making spastic movements… given that it is a factually-accurate portrayal of mental distress, she’s performing the psychosis as if she were in a theatrical play. She has yet to learn how to use a close-up on film. In my opinion, it’s not her fault. The director should have cut around her or toned her actions down. Watching her face as she does them, it feels very performed. I think less is more in this case and this was somewhat of a miscalculation on Cronenberg’s part. However, Knightley does fares better in the latter half of the movie.

I can see why David Cronenberg was attracted to do this material. There is a mental violence underneath the relationships between Freud, Jung and Spielrein. At times it is about manipulation, most of the time, it is all about power. The main problem is the mental violence is not violent enough. That may be because these are true events with real-life historical figures. You end up with a dramatic replay of historical events. There is no prominent theme underneath that does not say anything about life that you can take away from.

Is it worth seeing for the performances? Not really. It would also require an interest in the foundations of psychoanalysis (which I do have an interest in) as well. But even with that, that’s still pushing it because there is nothing more beneath it’s surface to offer. In the end, I’m glad I saw it but A Dangerous Method is a bit unremarkable.

Haywire by Steven Soderbergh

Haywire Movie Poster

Gina Carano holds her own as the lead and actually is the most interesting thing about the film. Along with how the fights are filmed, she brings much gravitas to the film. You never doubt her fighting ability for a second. And most importantly, we feel the pain of these fights. Even given that  she’s probably padded underneath her clothes and is pulling the punches, the force of the hits look real. Often, she is being knocked against objects, which cannot be faked. I’m all for more martial arts films filmed in this way.

Much of the film’s style takes from the Ocean’s 11 movies: the jazzy, snappy music plays along as people go inside and outside of buildings, scoping out an environment and hatching up plans. There is something very cinematic about seeing something being assembled (i.e. like a sniper rifle being assembled or a team of thieves hatching a plan for a heist). And there is nothing Steven Soderbergh likes more than filming people opening and closing briefcases or car trunks, picking up bags and moving along to some other place with a plan to do something.

I believe this Ocean’s 11 heist film style works against the film. It brings too much lightness, which is antithetical to the reality of the world that it is set in. And also the reality of what the fight scenes are bringing to the table. There is a really subtle moment where Gina Carano, escaping from capture, trips over and hurts herself. It’s a small moment that brings a lot of reality, A) she’s not invincible B) she makes mistakes. But all that ultimately is unbalanced because those other heist-like scenes are filmed too slick. It takes away the tension and the pain, and you feel that she will get away with it with the finger-snapping soundtrack playing in the background.

Oddly, all the thespians are sidetracked because they’re not really given anything interesting to do. The film seems to slow down when it’s just the actors as there is no real scenery-chewing to be done. I wish they would replace one or two of these actors with other real-life mixed martial artists so she would have someone challenging to fight with in the film. Like in Ong Bak (or what I call Look What Tony Jaa Can Do!), as many henchmen Tony Jaa took down, they still build up the end fight with another martial artist (the one on steroids, for those keeping track).

Though being a massive martial arts fan, I really look forward to seeing more of Gina Carano. If they ever make a live-action Wonder Woman movie, she would be the ideal choice. Heck, at one point in the movie, they even called her Wonder Woman.

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