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

Advertisements

Machete Kills by Robert Rodriguez

Machete Kills by Robert Rodriguez

The U.S. government recruits Machete to battle his way through Mexico in order to take down an arms dealer who looks to launch a weapon into space.

Every new additional reiteration of Machete is becoming less funnier than its predecessor. Machete was funny when it was first a trailer in Grindhouse. It was mildly amusing when it was made into a feature film. The sequel, Machete Kills, is now just a bland joke that has been worn out by its many retellings. Robert Rodriguez, the joke teller, can’t seem to get enough of his own joke. Furthermore, he doesn’t seem to care how much we like the joke at all.

This film went right through me. As soon as it was finished, it was forgotten. Danny Trejo is an unique onscreen presence and I’m glad he is still working at age 69. Trejo has shown range in many of his supporting roles. Unfortunately, Rodriguez uses Trejo blandly as the film’s straight man, having react deadpan to the supporting cast of crazy cartoon characters surrounding him. Much of the film’s gags feel cheap, and it has nothing to do with b-movie irony. The most noteworthy example being the El Chameleón character, an assassin who is a literal shapeshifter, is a cheap excuse to open up guest star spots to help market the film. See? This all seems funnier to Robert Rodriguez than it is to the audience.

Robert Rodriguez claims to like his characters, and proceeds to populate his film with a cast of supporting characters that are on the surface visually interesting, but doesn’t do anything with them. It’s as if Rodriguez is perpetually trying to sculpt the perfect action icon, but never delivers the pathos to fully sell the character. Instead, the characters are all handled in a throwaway fashion, tossed aside once their iconography is fully formed.

The saving grace of Machete Kills is Mel Gibson, who really devotes himself to the role, milking his dialogue and sells his Bond villian-like character as if he were playing Macbeth. Gibson’s performance matches with the film’s ridiculous tone, but adds that missing pathos that Rodriguez is unable to provide, making every other actor slapdash by comparison. But when Gibson’s Luther Voz claimed to be a Star Wars fan who decorates his evil fortress with Star Wars memorabilia, I gave myself a light face palm. Evoking Star Wars as a source of humor is just about the lamest joke in the book.

That’s how this film slashes itself (pun intended). It is lazy and half-assed; it doesn’t know what to do with its own talent and has expended all of its irony. It’s sad to see Robert Rodriguez fall to this level. He is a very capable and multi-talented filmmaker who can shoot, score and edit, but maybe he just shouldn’t write his own scripts. I do not care about the upcoming Machete Kills Again… In Space. Please wow me with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.

Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino

Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino

Set in the antebellum era of the Deep South and Old West, a freed slave Django (played by Jamie Foxx) who treks across the United States with a bounty hunter Doctor King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz) on a mission to rescue his wife Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington) from a cruel and charismatic plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).

I’m just going to right into it…

The best performance by a mile is Christoph Waltz – he is the heart of the movie. Waltz’s Doctor King Schultz single-handedly balances the entire film, evening out the tone between moments of intense horror and humor and mediating the film’s internal battle between historical fact and its post-modern aesthetic. He is the Yang to the film’s Yin, filling out the missing part of the scenes and even providing a human perspective into what’s happening when the audience does not what to feel in certain situations. Whenever Christoph Waltz is not in the movie, it is heavily felt.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin J. Candie is a great villain and brings a scary presence. Scary is something we haven’t ever seen Dicaprio accomplish so it was quite fresh to see. He sings Tarantino’s dialogue, projecting a charming demeanor on the surface while carrying a constant petty evil underneath. It’s not Oscar worthy (if anything, he should have won for The Aviator) but a powerful performance nonetheless.

Jamie Foxx’s lead performance as Django seemed off to me. Particularly his voice threw me off because his inflections sound too modern. Everybody else seems to have an accent from the era, but he does not use a southern accent, or any accent. He just sounds like a black man from 2012. Django’s progression of intelligence was unconvincing to me as well. There were times where he seemed dim-witted and other times where he seemed sharp, and it felt unnatural. It is not a screenwriting issue, but in how the performance was delivered. It was as if Foxx focused on playing the “Man with No Name” western genre hero and did not know how to balance it with the historical context of black slaves in America. He just did not carry enough pain in his eyes.

I don’t have words for Samuel L. Jackson’s performance, it’s quite the spectacle to behold. Watching it transported me into a weird nether place. Maybe I need to go leaf through a history book on slavery or something. I don’t know what to make of it. And on that awkward note…

However one may feel about Tarantino’s frequent use of the N word, he definitely has a strange obsession with it. As horrible as this sounds, I was surprised how other racial slurs from that era were not spoken in the film. (I am not going to name them here. I will defer you to watch that scene in Clerks 2.) There is a quality in Tarantino’s crass, in-your-face direction that suggests that he gets off rebelling against social taboos. That telling him that something is politically incorrect will push him to do it in order to disprove you. That’s my speculation anyways.

The film is way too long. Simply put, it’s ill-disciplined in the sense that Tarantino wants his cake and eat it too. He wants to tell his story and communicate a statement but also wants to amuse himself by inserting things that he enjoys and cannot reign himself in. There is a gag where a major comedy star shows up in a cameo which I found problematic. In fact, it was problematic in the exact same way I found Mike Meyer’s cameo was in Inglourious Basterds. In a film where it’s trying to balance historical fact and a post-modern aesthetic by mediating film genres, seeing a modern comedic actor show up for a cheap laugh is just one extra layer too many and it took me out. Did the gag make me laugh? No. Did it progress the story? No. Then why is the gag there? Tarantino wants it to be, that’s why.

A reason that I prefer Django Unchained over Inglourious Basterds is that Tarantino doesn’t try to make every scene into a dialogue set piece. The opening set piece in Inglourious Basterds is the best thing Tarantino has written (he says so too), but every proceeding scene seemed like he was trying to recreate that for the rest of the movie and it got tiring. There is a point in the Django Unchained‘s final act where the story could have concluded but it proceeds for another half hour. I could have cut 20 minutes out of the film and it is that exact 20 minutes that holds the film from being something masterful. Yes, that includes Tarantino’s cameo. Tarantino shouldn’t act in his own films. Maybe he shouldn’t act at all in anything but he was the worst part of his own film.

All that said, I enjoyed it much more than Inglourious Basterds ( I am so relieved it didn’t end with a character uttering “Hm, maybe THIS is my masterpiece.”) Tarantino fans may love the extra fat, but I would have preferred a leaner steak with more discipline. It’s just that little difference, if only Tarantino reigned himself in.

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel by Alex Stapleton

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel by Alex Stapleton

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel covers the life story and legacy of Roger Corman, his films, his struggles and his impact on modern cinema. He’s worked with many of today’s top talents, he can make a feature film in 7 days and simply does not believe in the word “No”.

Even though I haven’t seen any of Roger Corman’s productions, how I have come to know about Roger Corman was hearing about his approach to filmmaking. The idea is you get the guy who wants to be the next Federico Fellini, give him 7 days to complete a movie with 2 chase scenes and a scene in a strip club that you will only have for a hour without going over budget. What I liked about this approach is that it cuts through all the pretentious notions that filmmakers/artists often get caught up on about expressing themselves or putting their stamp or trademark onto the film. What matters most is the film and whether the audience responds to the product. It comes down to problem solving and giving the audience what they want – entertainment. After all, the only thing a filmmaker owes an audience is to never bore them.

The behind-the-scenes stories were fascinating and insightful to Corman’s journey as a filmmaker. Particularly the story of Corman’s experience with The Intruder, a film starring a young William Shatner about race relations in the south. It was a film that Corman wanted to say something from his heart and it ended up being his first commercial failure. Corman later learned the idea of supertext and subtext from a method acting class and figured out the best way to balance putting his own message was to put it underneath the entertainment (i.e. monsters, boobies, or explosions). Other worthy mentions from the documentary was the story behind 1963 Corman film The Terror, which was a film shot on the same set and cast  as The Raven (Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff) to capitalize on the new soundstage. Much of the story was improvised, it was done by 4 different directors at different points in time and the onscreen result hardly made any sense.

What made Corman a great leader was that he would push people to do things that seemed impossible. You could see how that pressure created seeds of creativity and experience which lead to mastery and success. One example was Ron Howard not having enough extras in the racing arena for the finale of Grand Theft Auto. He pleaded to Corman asking for more extras and was rejected. From what it looks like in the Grand Theft Auto excerpts, the shots with the audience members were done with tight shots. There’s another part with Pam Grier and they mention what made her distinct from other female stars was she was not afraid to get dirty and do her own stunts. I assumed that probably lead to her breakthrough with the advent of blaxploitation. It was a very Darwinistic process that I would have personally loved to be a part of.   

It was quite something to see Jack Nicholson break down and cry talking about his friendship with Roger Corman and how Corman was the only one to hire him before mainstream success.

The documentary shows the best way to learn something is just do it, learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward. To know that Roger Corman still continues to make films in the present proves that as long as you have the will, the possibilities are infinite. A very positive message for any creative/aspiring filmmakers out there today.

(As a postscript note, the Vincent Price Edgar Allan Poe films look intriguing. They were a massive success at the time. I’m an Edgar Allan Poe fan so I’m going to check them out.)

The Artist by Michel Hazanavicius

A piece of art is always defined by it’s time, or more specifically, by it’s own context. For a piece of art to relate to its audience, it must be relevant. Shot in black and white in 4:3 with no recorded sound, The Artist exists as the perfect counter argument to the emergence of 3D. This is where The Artist draws a lot of it’s charm. If there wasn’t a current debate about whether 3D enhances one’s experience of a story, I don’t think people would have embraced The Artist as much as they have now.

Onto the film, the cast does a great job at rehashing silent movie acting. Bérénice Bejo looks like a silent film actress. Jean Dujardin reminds me of Gene Kelly with his killer smile. I particularly liked what he did with his eyebrows in a scene where he films a spy movie. The story is basically Singing in the Rain and story wise the third act does seep too long in sadness. It seeps to the point where we are just lingering on somebody’s pain and suffering (almost like in the film The Pursuit of Happyness). It gets a tad uncomfortable than you’d want in musical comedy where things should hop along, even in sad scenes they have sad musical/dance numbers, don’t they?

The Artist makes me think of what Quentin Tarantino’s goal with Kill Bill: it’s a postmodern throwback film that’s directly addresses its influences. Part of the joy is watching the film references its influences along with the story. This sets up a trap: a film that relies on the strength of previous films has a hard time rising above them. For example, most of Kill Bill: Volume 2 is a homage to spaghetti westerns. The Ennio Morricone music, the telephoto shots of Uma Thurman walking in the steamy desert all make me think of how The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly was a great film. Automatically this sets Kill Bill in an inferior position because my focus isn’t on Kill Bill. That was partly my experience with The Artist.

Unlike Kill Bill, there’s a precision in craft in The Artist that I admire and respect. Michel Hazanavicius loves cinema but is able to reign in his fanboy-isms to tell a proper story. For example, they perfected when and when not to show cards for dialogue. The nightmare sequence in which George Valetin dreams about the advent of sound films was one of the highlights. I can’t believe one dog (Uggie the dog as Jack the dog) did all those tricks!

The Artist succeeds in its goal, it’s a well-crafted, well-acted delight of a film. The film is made for film lovers and I smiled throughout it’s entirety. Smiling through a film is a different experience from laughing through a film. You leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy. But ultimately, I don’t think the postmodern throwback film is something to be rewarded or applauded to this level. Its longevity is suspect, but I guess time will tell on that.