12 Years a Slave

February 9, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” Those are words spoken by our film’s protagonist, Solomon Northup (Chiwitel Ejiofor) who was a real historical black free man kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film “12 Years a Slave” depicts his journey into that world, and his hope that he can return to his family. He is an accomplished fiddler and carpenter, and has a wife and two children and lives in New York. He is approached by two seemingly harmless men to join their “circus” as a featured musician. But we all know where this is going–he is given too much wine after celebrating a successful tour, and wakes up in a cell in chains.

What follows is a very emotional story, anchored by one of the strongest performances of the year by Chiwitel Ejiofor; however, some of the film’s weak points distract from what could have been an even more powerful film. Northup is given a new name upon capture, Platt, and told he is a “runaway from Georgia”. His first experience as a slave is on a slave ship heading down to Louisiana, and witnesses some of the real brutalities of slavery immediately. He is sold by an indifferent slaver (played by Paul Giamatti) to a rather nice plantation owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). But one of Ford’s carpenters, John Tibeats (Paul Dano), wants to make life a living hell for slaves (as if life weren’t hard enough). This is where the film is weak, and I’m a bit disappointed in Paul Dano for choosing such a caricature role. It’s easy to play the hilljack Southern racist who mugs the screen by licking his chops at any chance to yell out racial epithets and use a whip. I think we get that these people existed…but this character could’ve been played by anyone and been just as shallow and useless as an ancillary background role. Northup doesn’t back down, however, and when he fights back, he is hunted by Tibeats and even strung up, about to be lynched. Tibeats and his crew are fired by the overseer, who leaves Northup hanging, although the rope hasn’t been fully discharged, so he still can hardly breathe and dangles helplessly as a slew of people come out and do their normal routines as if nothing is happening to him. This is one of the better scenes in the film because it’s a continuous shot that continues to unfold and pretty much symbolizes what we thought of slavery and blacks at the time.

Ford is unable to protect Northup and so he sells him to another plantation owner who is far more cruel (of course) and pretty much insane. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is the new owner, who runs a strict cotton plantation, and treats his slaves as if they were animals–except one slave girl named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) for whom Epps has obvious feelings for, and is resented by his wife (Sarah Paulson). While Epps is another white guy with a whip, Fassbender brings another dimension to the character, showing him to be more of a controlled coward than just your average racist. He is consumed with wanting power, but is powerless when it comes to his wife, and he does whatever she tells him to do. She is hard to figure out–but she isn’t exactly high on the slaves, either. In a way Epps’ character reminds me of Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List” (although I think that character was better written). Epps also has a strange ritual in the evenings, to order his slaves to dance to happy music with him. Since Northup can play the fiddle, he is spared the dancing, but still has to watch it. Patsey is the most skilled picker on the plantation, bringing in over 500 pounds daily, but deep down she is consumed with wanting to be set free from the plantation, even if it means leaving the physical earth completely. At one point she asks Northup to end her life, to which he cannot bring himself to do.

Eventually a white criminal joins the group of slaves and Northup sees this as an opportunity to get out; but he is betrayed by the man and has to talk his way out of giving a letter to the man that would have reached New York, and notified his family of his predicament. Epps believes Northup’s story that the man wasn’t to be trusted anyway and just wanted to become an overseer, and this was just a tactic of his to manipulate the situation. But later, another white character is introduced–a Canadian carpenter and friendly to slaves, Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt). Bass is a bit of an arbitrary character, seemingly on brought to screen for exposition and being preachy–another weakness of the script. Pitt is a fine actor but it seems like his presence in this film was screaming “I produced this, so I’m going to put myself in the film as the most sympathetic white character.” Northup again has to try and trust this man, knowing what he is risking. But to the audience, it’s pretty obvious what will happen.

Overall, there are powerful moments in the film, especially in its climax, and thanks to Ejiofor’s incredible performance, the film works. The other strong points are the soundtrack and the cinematography. There are a lot of shots of trees, seeming to represent constancy, and even when the trees look like they’re dying or somehow suffering, they still stand strong. The backdrops of dusk and dawn show a representation of the passage of time, and how these points of day symbolize death and life. It isn’t just about surviving, as Northup points out, it is about living. This is a part of our history, whether we want to bring ourselves to accept it or not. I think the film could’ve presented a statement in a more clever way at times; but sometimes it needs to be blunt. It’s not a film you would necessarily want to watch over and over again; but for one viewing at least, it is certainly worth the time and will definitely move you.

My rating: :-)

Prometheus

June 12, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

In 1979, we were introduced to a new kind of alien monster that we had never seen before in the movies. We were always used to aliens either looking like the “little green men” in flying saucers that were popularized in the 50’s, or possibly something tentacled. But in Ridley Scott’s alien horror film simply titled “Alien”, we saw a new kind of monster. It was terrifying, but also mesmerizing. This kind of alien wasn’t necessarily an “intelligent life form” like us; it was more like an insect. And it was simply a killing machine. The film spawned an entire franchise that had its ups and downs (mostly downs) and was finally put to sleep a few years back.

Then, someone had an idea. Ridley Scott admits that this new film, “Prometheus”, is somewhat of a prequel to “Alien”, but not entirely. I think that there’s enough evidence (especially at the end) that gives us an idea that it’s at least a companion piece. It begins mysteriously on an unknown planet with an unknown being that resembles humans disrobing and drinking some kind of sludge from what looks kind of like a petri dish. The being immediately begins convulsing and his status takes a horrible turn for the worse as he plummets into the nearby sea. In the distance there’s a giant ship just hovering above.

The hypnotic beauty and terror of that scene sets the stage for one of the most striking visual experiences you’ll have in modern film–after all, this is Ridley Scott, the same man who brought us visual masterpieces like “Blade Runner”. What’s lacking, however, is a good cast of characters and breadth of story to back it all up.

We’re soon introduced to two archaeologists in 2089, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) who, while on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, find some artwork from ancient civilizations that match up to others and think that this is an invitation to go find them. I don’t know why, but it’s comforting to me to know that the Isle of Skye is still going to be here in 2089. Fast forward a few years, and we’re on the Prometheus, an all-too-obvious name for the symbol of what this movie tries to be about. We’re then introduced to one of the more interesting characters (albeit inexplicably devious) named David, the resident android (played extremely well by Michael Fassbender). Besides the captain of the ship, Janek (played charismatically by Idris Elba), the other characters are mere throwaways–fodder for the upcoming monsters to gorge upon. The real disappointment is Meredith Vickers played by Charlize Theron. She’s icy, almost robotic (and at one point accused of being one), and she’s skeptical. But we never get a good idea why she is the way she is except for maybe a hint toward the end. She works for the company, the Weyland Corporation, that has funded the project. The owner, Peter Weyland (played under bad old man makeup by Guy Pearce), believes in the archaeologists and wants to find these ancient civilizations. But, like in all the “Alien” movies, his motives may not synch up to the good-natured intentions of Shaw and Holloway.

Once they land, the film really gets going and it isn’t too long before stupid crew members play around with things they shouldn’t and all hell breaks loose. This is where the film is at its best–Scott may be getting up there in age, but he still knows how to build tension, and create wildly chaotic scenes that are admirable in the way they push visual horror. The creatures they discover are incredibly hostile and certainly resemble the “xenomorph” structure we’re used to in the “Alien” franchise. There’s also the humanoid “Engineers” who speak in a different language, and we’re never really sure what their true motivation is. But they are hostile toward the humans, and seem to want to go to Earth and bring their slimy friends with them.

The mysterious qualities of the film are where it is most interesting. You can ask yourself a lot of questions about these creatures and what their relationship is to us. But what bogs this film down are the cliched ancillary characters, the predictability of the plot once it starts going, and even a clunky third act that gives you a few “Is it over?” moments that may make you shift in your seat. Be sure to stick around, though, because you certainly don’t want to miss the last scene.

As a monster movie, the film is pitch perfect. It has all of the ingredients of a thriller and it delivers on that. But as a philosophical movie about aliens, other worlds, ancient civilizations, the meaning of it all, it just gets lost in a lot of goo, gore, and derivative dialog. I wish the screenwriters (Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts) would’ve spent a little more time developing a more interesting plot and characters with more depth rather than try to mesh sci-fi mumbo jumbo with quippy one-note characters. Holloway’s character starts off with promise but quickly devolves into an alpha-male meathead. The “geologist” who looks like a futuristic cyberpunk is downright cartoonish. Even our “hero”, Shaw, is somewhat bland (Rapace is no Weaver). Comparatively, ”Sunshine”, which also featured a sci-fi space exploration crew, at least had more interesting and likable characters.

All of this makes for a good movie experience, but not a great one. I’ve heard there is more to this film that was cut for the initial release, and that there are plans for more films in this series. What I’d like to see is this lead up to a full on reboot of the “Alien” franchise to give it new life the way “Star Trek” did a few years ago. This “alien” can easily be given a fresh story and still be entertaining. With the right filmmakers and writers and cast, I think it could work. As it stands now, though, there’s a lot of work to be done.

My rating: :-)