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: :-)

Django Unchained

January 16, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

I don’t know that I can say Quentin Tarantino is one of my favorite filmmakers. Although, I will say this: when he makes a great movie, he makes me re-think that position. But his career hasn’t been all that consistent. After getting off to a fine start with the slightly superficial but entertaining “Reservoir Dogs”, he really stepped up with “Pulp Fiction”–and then, seemed to disappear. “Jackie Brown” was a nice sleeper, but it was a bit of a let down after something as great as “Pulp Fiction”. Then came “Kill Bill”, a movie that literally split me in two. I liked elements of it, but I didn’t love any of it. His “Grindhouse” offering of “Death Proof” left me unimpressed as well. Oh, and as far as a screenwriter–I did really enjoy “True Romance” as well.

Then came “Inglourious Basterds”, probably my favorite of all of his films. It was Tarantino at his finest–not just as Tarantino, but as a filmmaker in general. He just flat out nailed it with that picture. It was epic, it was haunting, it was funny, it was enthralling, and it was moving, on top of it being just plain interesting throughout.

He follows it with “Django Unchained”, a film I had a lot of interest in because he seemed to be very inspired by Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone (two Sergios, one…nevermind) and I was intrigued to see what he did with the taboo context of the story, which revolves around slavery.

Tarantino knows how to cast a film, that’s for sure. He enlists again the help of one of the finest actors out there right now, Christoph Waltz, to play the sidekick to the hero of the film, Django, played by Jamie Foxx. Immediately, the film looks appealing. Throughout it, there are some trademark Tarantino moments, and there are some just flat out great scenes. Jamie Foxx is certainly Oscar-worthy, proving again how strong he is as a leading man.

But as a movie, on the whole, something just didn’t work for me. As much as I hate to admit it, I think it truly is the context in which the story revolves around. There is almost too much joy involved with this film in order to give it a pass for taking place during the time of slavery, which is a scar that will never go away in this country. We can move past it, we can forgive it somehow–but to create a fun action western picture out of it, just left me cold. 

Django is a freed slave by Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) who becomes a bounty hunter with him, ”making money killing white people”. We learn that Django is married and his wife is being held at a very fancy plantation owned by a charismatic young man named Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, in his finest role in years). Through most of the first half of the film, we see Django and Schultz’ exploits as bounty hunters, going after villainous slave owners and racists, in the name of revenge I suppose. There’s one would-be comic scene in which one of the racists (played by Don Johnson) known as Big Daddy tries to rally some men to lynch Django and Schultz wearing masks. But the holes aren’t quite where they should, and it winds up causing a stir among the posse. I know Tarantino wanted to lighten the mood here and say “Haha look at these idiot racists!” But the scene to me just fell flat. It was so childishly written and almost just too goofy for a movie like this. And it sends a mixed message, which permeates this whole film. Just what is Tarantino’s feeling about this time period? He just throws so much at the screen that it’s hard to really tell if he gets his own movie this time.

On the one hand, we’re given very loud clanging sound effects when we hear the men in chains. That was on purpose. And effective. We’re shown some brutal scenes of slaves being whipped, including Django’s poor wife Broomhilda (played by the appealing Kerry Washington). But then, we’re given scenes like the mask scene and a few others of confusing humor and outright gruesome violence that borderlines cartoonish. It’s a very fine line to walk, and I don’t think Tarantino walked it very well. Certainly not like he did in “Basterds” where there was very little cartoonery and there were no scenes of torture or anything that would muddle the message.

Where the film works best is when the two bounty hunters reach Candie’s plantation (known as Candieland). There is a lot of building tension, broken a few times by an hilarious and welcoming performance by Samuel L. Jackson as a servant named Stephen. DiCaprio is at the top of his game as the gleeful but careful Calvin; and both Django and Schultz know what is on the line in order to save Django’s wife from her master.

I think this film, like “Kill Bill”, and some of Tarantino’s weaker works, suffers from being unfocused. When Tarantino has no clear vision, and just wants to have fun, he creates what I call a “hammock film”. It’s lazy, it’s unsure, and even though it can be entertaining, it just hangs there with no real purpose. I could never really figure out “Django Unchained” as a film. It wants to be a lark, it wants to make a statement sometimes, but it doesn’t come through because Tarantino is too interested in his style.

There’s something I want to contrast, and it’s a bit pretentious, but it involves food. Take the “strudel” scene in “Inglourious Basterds”. And take the “white cake” scene in “Django Unchained”. The strudel represents something–Germany. In it, Shosanna must put on a happy face and…well, EAT Germany. She is forced to enjoy something sweet that makes her sick. It in itself is torture, representing everything she hates. That is good writing. That has substance. The white cake in “Django Unchained” simply serves as a device for a violent shootout. I have no doubt Tarantino meant something with making it “white cake”–but that is exactly all this film really is.

And Tarantino can do a lot better than white cake.

My rating: :?

Lincoln

November 30, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

The passage of the 13th amendment, which freed all slaves, is pretty much the first passage of Civil Rights in this country. Abraham Lincoln was the man behind it, and he’s always been seen as one of the greatest presidents of all time because of it. It’s a great story, because it was far from easy. The country was locked in a Civil War that in a large part was due to the issue of slavery, and even in the North, Lincoln had his detractors. Even in his own party, Lincoln was not considered a great leader. This is the story that Steven Spielberg intends to tell in his latest film, “Lincoln”.

Unfortunately, the film is so cloying, so pandering, so preachy, that what should be a riveting drama about how one of the most important bills ever passed in this nation, is really just a two and a half hour long sermon with the effectiveness of a loud dog barking in the middle of the night. There is no drama here, no real conflict. There are only a bunch of scruffy, rat-faced, or whiny old white men against the noble, do-no-wrong Messiah, Honest Abe (played by Daniel Day-Lewis).

The film begins with a scene between Lincoln visiting troops and is approached by two black men from different regiments. One black man is practically bowing at the feet of Lincoln, while the other piles on exposition to berates Lincoln on not being sincere. From that moment, I sensed trouble. Kushner’s script is so afraid of being misconstrued or taking the risk to be the least bit fair minded, and instead makes sure we all know how wrong slavery was, and how great it was that this bill was to be passed. Well, the whole audience this film is made for is well aware at how wrong it was, and how great the bill was. So, tell a story. But neither Kushner, nor Spielberg, are interested in doing this. They seem more interested in beating us over the head with nobility and sentimentality that, by the last shot, is beyond nauseating.

There is no conviction in the storytelling of this film–it’s more cartoonish than it is historical. The facts are all there, but they’re delivered so simply that it’s hard to believe this is how it really went down. And, with something as urgent as this time was, it’s disingenuous. Lincoln needs votes to secure the bill’s passage–he doesn’t want to wait for the war to end in fear of the South not voting for it. Even as it stands, he won’t get it passed; but he thinks he has a better chance. And the time is “Now, now now!” So 3 men are ordered to “bribe” delegates that are either on the fence, or completely against it. This could’ve been an effective way of showing the power of conviction that Lincoln and his supporters had for the bill–instead, it’s treated as some kind of fun little adventure complete with banter between characters played by James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson, and accompanied by a plucky soundtrack by John Williams.

In contrast, any time we see the people against the bill, they’re in dark light, such as the scene with the Vice President of the Confederate States (played by Jackie Earle Haley). His scenes make him look like some kind of dark serpent, or evil creature. He’s lit so we only see one eye, one evil looking eye. Scary. Yes, we get it Spielberg. These are the bad guys. But is that really fair to history? Were they all bad guys? Was everyone for the bill good guys? Isn’t this kind of simplifying of sides what got us into the war in the first place? The reality was that there were no good or bad guys; there was a lot of ignorance, and a lot of intolerance. Lincoln’s intentions initially were to keep the country together, no matter what. Whatever his personal views on slavery were, he did have some in the White House.

But Spielberg doesn’t respect the fact that this was how it was done at this time. Sure, we’re 150 years removed and we know how wrong it is. But we’re going back in time here, and there is not one credible character on the other side of the fence. There’s a scene where one of the weak-minded senators says he’s against slavery but he can’t tolerate this bill because it will lead to women voting. Now, I’m sure that mind-set was a lot more prominent than only coming from this one meek individual. But the scene comes across as easily trying to point out how wrong this character was. Well, no kidding! But why trivialize this event by trying to make it so easy to be on one side or the other? What was at stake for the entire nation if the bill was passed or not? None of that is really explored, leaving everything to easy conclusions that couldn’t possibly be accurate at this time.

There are other problems with the script, too. Robert Lincoln (dutifully played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to join the Union, but his parents are against it because Mary (Sally Field, in her most Oscar-wringing role yet), doesn’t want to lose another son, after their middle son had died due to illness. She comes off as a raving lunatic, while Lincoln is stoic, and strong. This subplot goes absolutely nowhere and doesn’t have anything to do with the main story, nor does it strengthen the theme of the film either.

Lincoln spends a lot of his time in this film making speeches. He comes in a room, he makes a speech. Everyone who is a good guy loves it, everyone who is a bad guy hates it. It goes on like this for the entire duration of the film. His speeches are all the same. He wants what’s best for the country. Yes, we get that. Everyone against him, even at times his friend and his Secretary of State (played by David Strathairn), tries to convince him with horribly unconvincing arguments. I’m not actually even sure why this film is called “Lincoln”. In early drafts of the script it was going to be more of a biopic of Lincoln’s life. But by its final revision, it was narrowed down to passing this amendment. So why isn’t it just called “The Amendment”?

The last scene that shows Lincoln “alive” is the most aggravating. One of his servants looks on as the Great Man in his Top Hat walks down a corridor, admiring how great this man is. Not only do we not ever need to see this shot, but if you haven’t been bludgeoned enough by this time at how Christlike Lincoln is in this film, this scene leaves no doubt.

The simplemindedness of the script is what is most disappointing, though. Is this how far we’ve come intellectually after 150 years that we still can’t bear to look at what the conflict was really about? To be able to look at the other side and be challenged at what they believed as well? I look at the current situation with gay rights. Do you look at everyone who’s against gay marriage and gay rights and say they’re evil? And vice versa, do you look at anyone who is for gay rights and gay marriage as unforgivably bad, or unmistakenly good? Can you tell me every person that’s represented in this film reflects what’s ongoing nowadays? People can be just as ignorant as they were 150 years ago, we have plenty of evidence of that. But we also have come a long way at tolerance. On both sides of the country, you had good and bad, ignorant and educated. If this film was released in the 50’s or early 60’s, the worst I could say about it is that it’s dated. But at least, at that time, we still as a nation were not comfortable with race relations. Sure, racism still exists and always will; but even in films like “American History X”, we get a much more real, cunning, and educated look at how it affects us as a society. That was a powerful, adult film about racism. This film’s almost aimed at children with its simple message that “racism is wrong”.

And if that’s the case, why have all the strong language then? This film is littered with profanity that neither enhances the characters nor gives any scene more flair. In fact, hearing Lincoln use the “s” word almost makes him sound dumber and vulgar. There are scenes that show too much blood and guts for kids to comprehend and handle; and yet, as I said, I can’t see anyone beyond the 5th grade needing to see something like this to shed light on racism.

On top of that, no 5th grader is going to want to spend 2 and a half hours watching old men yell at each other. They have Thanksgiving dinners for that.

My rating: :?