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 Heat by Paul Feig

The Heat by Paul Feig

An uptight FBI Special Agent is paired with a foul-mouthed Boston cop to take down a ruthless drug lord.

The Heat is a comedy that brings both familiar and fresh genre elements. The buddy cop movie elements are the familiar portion, but what’s fresh is the comedy pairing of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Most notably, it’s a buddy cop movie that stars two women.

Melissa McCarthy is a living comedy engine. The key to her performance is that she’s not approaching the part as a comedienne, but as a dramatic actress as well. She delivers every line like her character is totally serious. The story is partly about the social classes in Boston and it is established that McCarthy’s Mullins comes from a tough Boston neighborhood. She incorporates that into her performance. In a lesser actress’s hands, it would have been raunchy for the sake of being raunchy.

Sandra Bullock plays social awkwardness well and a good straight man to McCarthy. Again she brings her charming personable star quality and it’s hard not to like her for being so self-deprecating. This role has a similar arc to her character in Ms. Congeniality – an uptight by-the-book cop who needs to learn to let go. Suffice to say, Bullock and McCarthy make a great comedic duo.

The action scenes take a back seat and comedy is the main priority. The entire cast is full of comedians and comedy-capable actors. Standup comedian Bill Burr, Jane Curtin and Marlon Wayans add a variety of comedy dimensions with their supporting roles. Thomas Wilson, famous for being Biff in the Back to the Future films, as Melissa McCarthy’s emasculated police captain brought a huge gaping smile on my face. It was like watching Biff being upstaged in an alternate timeline.

Bridesmaids 
director Paul Feig understands that there is no moral barometer for comedy and isn’t afraid to risk bad taste for laughs. They hold nothing sacred here. There’s a running gag with an albino that had me in stitches. Underneath all the comedy, the movie is subtly about women working in a male-dominated workplace. I like how the film stays true to this concept. There’s no love subplot with a male suitor and it even draws comedy from women dealing with misogyny.

A great deal of improvisation was done in the comedic scenes. Despite of that, the film is well edited. The comedy never stops the story from moving forward and it seems a lot of comedy babies were killed in the editing room. I laughed consistently throughout the entire film. It’s a well made comedy by people that like and understand its workings. Now that they’ve announced a sequel, I look forward to that as well.