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

Prisoners by Denis Villeneuve

Prisoners by Denis Villeneuve

When Keller Dover’s daughter and her friend go missing, he takes matters into his own hands as the police pursue multiple leads. But just how far will he go to protect his family?

Prisoners has the strongest ensemble cast of 2013 and everybody brings their A game. Keller Dover is Hugh Jackman’s most raw and complex role yet, as Jackman plays Dover’s wavering belief of the justice system and descending morality to a realistic precision. Things get murky as Dover takes matters in his own hands on an unconfirmed suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano) and traps himself between being desperate, angry and helpless.

Jake Gyllenhaal, sporting a neck tattoo and facial tics, creates the realistically compelling Detective Loki. The character is a fascinating inward look to how police detectives conduct their investigations, interrogate suspects and how the job centers on being emotionally removed from the crime itself. Loki is even darkly funny at times because he is so distanced from the crime and committed to procedures that normal things seem outlandish to him.

Roger Deakins’s cinematography brings layers of shades into the perpetually cloudy and otherwise flat-looking suburbia. The moody atmosphere embodies a sinister undertone; whether the location is a forest, a kitchen or a washroom, it feels like someone is lurking behind the corner. Mirroring its main characters, the cinematography impressively supports the story with a growing sense of insecurity.

Denis Villeneuve directs ambitiously, as Prisoners juggles between being a character study of two families dealing with a kidnapping, a crime mystery plot and the theme of the institution versus the individual. Retrospectively, in total Alfred Hitchcock-coined  “refrigerator logic” terms, the film does not entirely deliver on all three. Maria Bello, Viola Davis and Terrence Howard’s characters do get sidetracked. The story thematically switches between whatever is the most interesting in the given moment, which in the moment is powerfully engaging.

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.

Looper by Rian Johnson

Looper by Rian Johnson

Time travel is invented by the year 2074 and, though immediately outlawed, is used by criminal organizations to send those they want killed 30 years into the past where they are killed by “loopers”, assassins paid with silver bars strapped to their targets. Joe (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a looper, encounters himself when his older self (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time to be killed.

First, to get this out of the way… the Bruce Willis make-up on Joseph Gordon-Levitt did not bother me. I stared at it for a while and eventually my eyes tuned to it. I can understand people being distracted by this but it ultimately works as a story device.

In short, Looper is a well-made science fiction actioner that asks its big questions while retaining its fun factor. The best thing it has going for it is that the film is hyper aware of movie genre conventions and chooses to play with them.

Ten minutes into the film, I was suddenly becoming very aware of the film’s influences, including Blade Runner, Terminator, and a Twilight Zone episode called It’s a Good Life. (There probably are more I haven’t named. I invite you to name more.) By the second shift, I was aware that this is part of the film’s design. Most movie-going audiences are pretty familiar with film genres at this point. Looper is aware that your mind is thinking back to another film you have seen, and the film uses that thought train to surprise you. Every time I had an idea of where the story was going, the film would mutate it’s genome, tonally shifting into a completely new territory of genre.

I have read that the genre shifting has been the major reason why a lot of people dislike the movie. It didn’t bother me because what really won me over ultimately was the film’s energy. Yes, the film a crackling independent film feel to it that was visceral and fresh in how the story was told and paced. Every time the story made its tonal shifts, I was renewed with excitement and found myself going along with it again and again. I even found myself excited by the camera movements during an action scene, particularly what they choose to show on and off camera.

The common time paradox issue in time travel stories is addressed by literally having a scene where its two leads sit down, discuss the science of it and arrive to the agreement that it does not make a lot of sense, but ask the audience to go along with it anyways. And that’s the key point to whether audiences will enjoy Looper: whether you choose to go along with it.

In the end, the pacing never lets its big existential questions settle in to ever let you really ponder deep thoughts about them, but that’s the point. It’s delivering a fun ride. And it’s plenty fun!

Oh, and by the way, Jeff Daniels was a great villain.