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: :-)

Where The Wild Things Are

October 27, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

This has to be one of the most well known children’s books of all time. Anyone who is anyone remembers this book being read to them by teachers, or their parents, when they were growing up. Alongside our various “Ramona” and “Berenstain Bears” books, was an old library copy of “Where the Wild Things Are”. I remember very little about the book, except the monsters.

The film, directed by Spike Jonze (”Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, “Being John Malkovich”), explores the book’s very thin idea about imagination, and creates a real world surrounding an imaginary one reminding me a bit of “The Neverending Story”. In fact, the beginnings of both movies were similar. A young boy with a big imagination is an outcast among his peers and comes from a broken family. In “The Neverending Story”, the character Bastian skips school and falls into the world of the book he’s reading. In “Where the Wild Things Are”, Max loses himself in a far-off island inhabited by big (and somewhat scary) monsters who are facing a crisis.

The film has an uneven feel to it at first because we’re not exactly sure what to like about Max. He’s obnoxious and likes to run around and scream a lot. But what exactly is his problem? Is it the fact that no one listens to him? Is it that he has no friends? We’re not even really sure if he does or not. But I guess we’re supposed to feel sorry for him. I’ll admit that I didn’t really, at first. When he first reaches the island with the monsters, they’re having problems with a monster named Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini); and, like Max, they’re not really sure what his problem is, either. But he’s throwing a temper tantrum, and Max joins in. Carol takes to Max, thinking maybe they understand each other–and Max convinces the monsters that he is a king. Carol makes him their king, and like in the book, they have a “wild rumpus”.

At this point in the film, I was really lost on what this was about. It seemed to have no direction. Because the screenplay didn’t flesh out Max’s character enough, we’re only left with a bunch of howling creatures and a howling boy set against a howling soundtrack.

But once the plot unfolds with bringing a conflict in, it does take shape and in the end, redeems itself. A character, KW, has two owl friends named Bob and Terry that for some reason Carol doesn’t like. What you don’t find out is why–but I believe that may be the point. Carol is just being selfish and while he wants everything to be the way it was–with everyone together–he refuses to change himself or be more open minded. In Max’s real life situation, he is exactly like Carol. He’s broken away from his family because he doesn’t want to adapt or accept change.

At least, that’s what I got out of it. The film’s major flaw is the directionlessness of the first two acts. It has moments of fun and laughter; but because it seems to have no purpose, sometimes it feels empty and hard to follow. And for a supposedly imaginative movie about the exploration of imagination, it seemed fairly unimaginative in its execution.  I could see not only the children in the audience squirming, but the parents were just as clueless and impatient. The film finishes strong, however; and James Gandolfini’s fine performance as Carol saves the movie. His intensity and sadness provide depth that allows you to feel something for him. And him being the window character for Max, we feel something for him as well.

Overall, the film is a good one–but I’m not sure what kids will take away from it. If they’re not incredibly petrified by the monsters, they might be confused by what is going on during the movie and wondering why the monsters are depressed. But if they get the fact that the movie is about selfishness and why it’s important to open your mind and change with the situation, then the film has done its job.

I just think it could have been done a bit better.

My rating: :smile: