12 Years a Slave


Could this be the next Best Picture Oscar winner?

Could this be the next Best Picture Oscar winner?

(2013) Historical Biography (Fox Searchlight) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Adepero Oduye, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Lupito Nyong’o, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt, Garret Dillahunt, Isiah Jackson, Dwight Henry, Kelsey Scott, Quvenzhane Wallis, Devyn A. Tyler, Willo Jean-Baptiste, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Ashley Dyke. Directed by Steve McQueen

The question we sometimes have to ask about a movie depicting a horrible epoch in human history is why. Why should it be made? After all, it’s not exactly a secret that slavery was a terrible, shameful practice. But do we need to be reminded of that?

I believe that we do. In the same way movies like Schindler’s List reminds us of the holocaust, or Hotel Rwanda reminds us of the horrors of genocide, we need to remind ourselves periodically of the depths of inhumanity that man practices upon other men. We need to be reminded as Nicol Williamson once accurately (albeit bombastically) said in Excalibur that it is the doom of men that they forget.

Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is a prosperous man in Saratoga, New York in 1841. While he is a black man, he is nonetheless freed and is well-known as a magnificent violinist but also a hard-working carpenter. His wife Anne (Scott) is highly respected as a great cook. They have beautiful children and as African-Americans in the mid-19th century go, a pretty wonderful life.

Then, he is approached by a couple of men calling themselves Hamilton (Killam) and Brown (McNairy) who represent themselves as entertainers in need of an accompanying musician. They are going as far south as Washington, DC. The money is good and the company congenial so Northup agrees to lend his services.

He awakens in chains in a slave market. Gone are his clothes, his papers identifying him as a free man and even his name – he is to be called Platt now. He is sold by the dealer (Giamatti) to Ford (Cumberbatch) who runs a sugar cane plantation near New Orleans. There he goes with the disconsolate Eliza (Oduye) who has been separated from her children. However, Northup gets into a fight with the cruel and barbarous carpenter Tibeats (Dano) who for some reason has it out for Solomon (possibly because Northup was a better carpenter) and for the safety of his slave and of his plantation, the kindly Ford is forced to sell Platt to the cruel Edwin Epps (Fassbender) who runs a cotton plantation.

Epps expects 200 pounds of cotton to be picked by each one; those who fail are lashed cruelly. The best cotton picker is Patsy (Nyong’o) who does three times what the burly men of the plantation can do. Epps has taken an unhealthy sexual interest in her which infuriates his wife (Paulson) who visits cruelties and mutilations upon Patsy. Solomon for his part is keeping his head down low, making sure nobody knows that he can read and write. When Solomon meets an itinerant Canadian carpenter (Pitt), he knows his last chance to get word to those in the North of his whereabouts may be staring him in the face.

Based on the memoirs of the real Solomon Northup, I’m told the film follows the book pretty closely – McQueen insisted on it. While I can’t personally vouch for that, I can say that this is an incredible story told with as much authenticity as the filmmakers can muster. That this is a British production is somewhat ironic that it takes a foreign eye to shed light on an American disgrace.

There is a good deal of brutality. When slaves get whipped, pieces of flesh fly from their back and the resulting cuts are hideous to behold. It’s not easy to watch but this was the reality of what happened. Too often Hollywood portrays a whipping as a grunting actor, jaw heroically clenched against the pain as lines of red appear on his back. In reality, whippings were horrid affairs with a good deal of screaming and bloodshed. To his credit, McQueen doesn’t turn the eyes of the camera away and we see the brutality in unflinching detail.

Ejiofor has long been one of those actors who has been patiently waiting the right role. He’s finally found his. One of the best actors you’ve never heard of out there, he plays Solomon with dignity, with fear and with humanity. Solomon is a smart guy and occasionally able to manipulate Epps but his own inner fire gets him into trouble sometimes. He is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination come January and is an early favorite to win it.

Fassbender has been busy of late and might get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his layered and nuanced performance as Epps. Certainly Epps is a cruel and vicious master, but he is also henpecked by his wife to a certain degree and a slave to his own lust for Patsy. Epps could have easily been portrayed as a caricature of a plantation owner; yes, there is evil here but it isn’t cartoon evil but the evil that slavery creates in the slaveowners.

Nyong’o is a newcomer but her performance as Patsy may bring her the kind of notice new actresses dream of. Patsy is the face of despair in the film and Nyong’o handles it with a certain dignity that at once is moving and disturbing. When the despair overwhelms her and she begs Platt to end her misery, one wonders how many slaves took that road off the plantations. Probably many more than we realize – when hope is dead, the will to live generally dies with it.

This is a movie that is certain to be considered for Oscar gold this year and is going to make a lot of year-end top ten lists. While it may be considered an education about slavery, I see it more as a metaphor for the continued inhumanity that we enforce on others. The message here isn’t that slavery is  bad; I’m pretty sure we all get that. It’s how we treat each other today and how our ability to enslave others has informed that treatment that makes this movie so important. While I would hesitate to bring small children to see this, I think parents should bring their teens. Opening the eyes of a younger generation isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: Impeccably acted by Ejiofor and Fassbender. A living breathing testament to the horrors of slavery.

REASONS TO STAY: The violence and brutality can be overwhelming at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence and scenes of torture and cruelty. There is also some nudity and sexuality, as well as a few graphic images that may be too intense for the sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Henry and Wallis both co-starred previously in Beasts of the Southern Wild, also distributed by Fox Searchlight.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 97/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amistad

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Italian for Beginners

Advertisements

Deadline (2009)


Maybe she should have taken a shower.

Maybe she should have taken a shower.

(2009) Psychological Thriller (First Look) Brittany Murphy, Thora Birch, Tammy Blanchard, Marc Blucas, Claudia Troll, Michael Piscitelli (voice). Directed by Sean McConville

Writers block is a bitch. When in the throes of it, you can’t think and you certainly can’t write. Everything feels wrong, like things are out of place and you can’t think where they are supposed to be. It’s frustrating and there is no sure way to break it.

Alice (Murphy) is a screenwriter with a deadline coming up. She is fast in the grip of Le Block but has good reason to be – her boyfriend tried to drown her in their bathtub, causing her to lose the baby she was pregnant with at the time. Her boyfriend was sure that she was sleeping around and the baby wasn’t his.

A producer friend with more money than sense offers up a decrepit Louisiana plantation he has access to for Alice and tells her that if she locks herself alone in there with a week’s worth of food and drink with nothing else to connect her to the outside world the words will start flowing like the Mississippi. Alice, despite the fact that her homicidal boyfriend is being released from jail, agrees to it despite the misgivings of her friend Rebecca (Blanchard).

So to distract herself from the blank pages Alice explores the crumbling mansion and in the attic discovers a box of videos taken by the house’s former owners and a camcorder. She begins to watch them and discovers they are of David (Blucas) and Lucy (Birch), a couple who simply left the mansion one night and never returned. Nobody knows where they are.

Alice discovers some eerie similarities to her own situation. Lucy, for one thing, was pregnant. And David was growing paranoid, thinking that the baby wasn’t his. And Alice is becoming more and more certain that Lucy haunts the old plantation. And that her boyfriend (Piscitelli) is stalking her and knows right where she is. Is all this really happening or is it a product of Alice’s paranoid imagination?

This was the last picture to be released during the late Murphy’s lifetime (another one, in the can, still awaits release later this year although she passed away four years ago) and it isn’t a bad one from her perspective. She nails the role nicely, giving Alice a kind of emotionally fragile veneer but with a personality that’s endearing enough to make you identify with her character. Even those who aren’t fans of her work as I am will find this performance worth checking out.

It’s a shame that she wasn’t given a lot more to work with. The script is fairly routine, with the usual jumps and twists that you expect to find in a psychological thriller/is the house haunted or is she crazy kind of movie. There are also some real head-scratchers here; why would anyone agree to go somewhere remote all by themselves when there was prospectively someone who wanted to do them harm running around on the loose? And if the couple disappeared, what were their videos doing in the attic, particularly if there was damming evidence on the tapes (i.e. Lucy’s murder)?

One gets the sense that the script was written in a hurry by someone with writer’s block just borrowing whole cloth bits and pieces from other movies. The concept is nice (although it could have gotten there with a little more logic) and there is some genuine creepiness to be found. Those and Murphy’s performance are pretty much the film’s saving graces but I wouldn’t look too hard for this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Decent performance by Murphy. Some chilling moments. Nice concept.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Basically kinda been there, done that. No real surprises and a whole lot of stuff that must be taken on faith.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some nudity, some disturbing images, a bit of violence and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The DVD was pulled from Redbox shelves after star Brittany Murphy passed away 19 days after the video release.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: What Lies Beneath

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Django Unchained


Smoking the competition.

Smoking the competition.

(2012) Western (Weinstein) Jamie Foxx, Leonardo di Caprio, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Gerald McRaney, Dennis Christopher, Laura Cayoutte, M.C. Gainey, Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, RZA, Anthony LaPaglia, James Remar, Jonah Hill, James Russo, Walton Goggins, David Steen, Nichole Galicia, Franco Nero, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is one of the most iconic film directors of our time. When all is said and done I truly believe he’ll occupy a spot in the pantheon among the best ever. He has a love and respect for genre films that places him squarely in fanboy territory, yet he understands what’s great about them and how to turn them into something more than just basic entertainment. He elevates them – which is why I sit waiting with baited breath for his first horror/sci-fi film.

Until that day, you get to deal with his latest which takes on the spaghetti western, although this is set in the antebellum South so you might join Tarantino in referring to this as a “Southern.” In it a German dentist turned bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) liberates a slave named Django (Foxx) from a group of slave traders delivering their property to the market. It seems that Django once worked on a plantation where a trio of wanted men – the Brittle Brothers – had worked as overseers. Dr. Schultz has paper on them but doesn’t know what they look like. Django does. A partnership is born.

They travel to the plantation of Big Daddy (Johnson) where Django spots the brothers, two of whom are getting ready to whip a slave. Oh, no you didn’t. Django shoots ’em dead, and then guns down the third as he tries to ride away. Big Daddy doesn’t take kindly to it  so he organizes a posse of bag-wearing rednecks (including Hill in a cameo role) which is among the movie’s funniest scenes – the riders can’t see very well in the improperly cut bags. However Dr. Schultz devises a plan that outfoxes the rednecks, which Django implements.

Django has earned his freedom and $75 in his share of the bounty and is eager to track down his wife, who was sold separately from him to a different plantation.

She has in fact been sold to Candyland, the fourth-largest cotton plantation in Mississippi and the home of young Calvin Candie, whose hobby is Mandingo wrestling – pitting slaves from different owners in battles to the death. Candie who isn’t above having his dogs tear slaves to pieces, is a seemingly diffident yet genteel sort on the surface but he has all sorts of bad seething below that surface. He is supported by his house slave Stephen (Jackson), a crotchety sort who jealously hordes his position and authority in the house; Leonide Moguy (Christopher), an oily lawyer and Mr. Pootch (Remar), a debonair but deadly bodyguard.

Django first must hone his  skills as a bounty hunter before taking on that bunch, and when he is finally ready in the spring he is quite the killer but he is up against some of the most ruthless, sadistic men in the South. Is Django more than a man?

Of course he is. This is a Quentin Tarantino mash-up and he is not only targeting Spaghetti Westerns but also Blaxploitation and B-movie revenge flicks from the 80s. Django harkens back to classic heroes from all of those genres (but particularly John Shaft whom Tarantino has said is his descendent; in fact, his wife’s slave name is Broomhilda von Schaft).

Foxx imbues Django with a quiet dignity, which is about what you’d expect. Django isn’t worldly but he’s bright; he learns quickly and while his voice rarely gets raised he carries himself with such self-assurance that it’s easy for him to convince white folks that he’s a free man. It’s not a flashy performance, but it’s a confident one and illustrates the growth that Foxx has made as an actor in just a few short years. In many ways this is an even better performance than his Oscar-winning turn in Ray but might not attract the attention in that regard not only because it’s so low-key but because the competition for Best Actor this year is so bloody fierce.

He has plenty of support though. Waltz, who achieved his breakout role in Inglourious Basterds for Tarantino, switches gears and is a good guy this time out, although he’s got a bit of a dark side. Here as Dr. Schultz, he is urbane, witty and erudite. He uses a lot of five dollar words that most of the people he deals with have not a clue what they mean. He smiles a lot, is a bit of a charmer and a flirt but is at his core a decent fellow who is repulsed from slavery and the vicious things that are done to the slaves.

Di Caprio is a serviceable villain; he doesn’t play villains often but when he does he can be as over-the-top as any and that’s what the role calls for; at one point in the movie Candie pounds a table in emphasis. Di Caprio hit the table so hard he cut his hand open. Tarantino refused to yell cut and the scene proceeded with Di Caprio’s hand bleeding and that’s the take that’s used in the movie. The intensity, as it always is with Di Caprio, is there.

Jackson also plays villains less often than heroes and like Di Caprio, is no stranger to over the top. This is a part tailor made for Jackson and he inhabits it. It’s not the part you’d think he’d play – Yessuh Massuh isn’t exactly his style – but when you think about it, who else would you cast in the role? As good as the talent is among African-American actors right now, none spring to mind when you think “who could play Steven properly?” Just SLJ and like the trooper that he is, he does it note-perfect. Of course, I’m not sure that Jackson would have taken a part like this for anybody other than Quentin Tarantino.

One of the plot elements is that the story of the movie is supposed to parallel that of the legend of Siegfried which it kind of does. Like the legend, the movie’s story is told really in three parts. Each part has certain parallels with the legend – and no, I’m not going to explain it to you here. Just be reassured that Waltz tells you what the story is at the beginning and by the end you think back and say to yourself “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh yeah!” Far be it for me to remove the thrill of connecting the dots from you.

Now, the elephant in the room when it comes to this picture is the use of what has come to be called the “N” word. A lot of people are uncomfortable with that and I can understand it – it’s a word I don’t personally use and normally I don’t encourage its use. However, in this instance, Tarantino’s intent is to portray not only the physical degradation of the slaves but the mental and spiritual humiliation as well. The word was in wide use at the time for one thing and it wouldn’t be realistic to ignore it. I found that the first couple of times I heard it that it was kind of a shock, but after that I grew numb to it. Maybe that’s a point Tarantino is trying to make, but be warned that the word is used a lot and if it offends you, you might want to take that into consideration.

All of these things are fine by me but there are a few things that I do have to say that aren’t as positive. The movie is nearly three hours long; I’m guessing that about 20-30 minutes of it could have been cut without ruining the flow or continuity of the movie or disrupting the story. For example, there’s a scene near the end where Django is being transported to a brutal mine where he will be worked to death. How he escapes takes a good five to ten minutes; it’s a scene that under a more economical director could have been easily accomplished in under a minute. Of course, Tarantino is not known for his frugality (being kind of a gregarious sort of guy, that figures) but that kind of thing happens several times during the course of the film.

More unforgivably, the movie drags in places. Few if any write better dialogue than Tarantino but there are times when things just…drag. Too much talking. Not enough action. The directors of those movies Tarantino loves so much could let 15 minutes go by without so much as a word being spoken. Actions do speak louder than words and rarely is that so apparent as at the movies.

I was hoping that this would be one of the year’s ten best but it won’t make that list sadly. This isn’t one of Tarantino’s best. Plainly. And I’m sure that disappointment has probably brought down his rating a tad; if anyone else had directed this, I might well have given it more stars. At the end of the day though, it doesn’t measure up to his best works and that is part of your moviegoing experience – are your expectations being met. It’s not terribly fair that my expectations of a Tarantino film are so high but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. It’s a very good film. It’s just not a great one.

REASONS TO GO: Foxx, Waltz, di Caprio and Jackson are all at the top of their games. If you love Tarantino you’ll love this!

REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Those who don’t like Tarantino will hate this. Drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Extremely graphic violence (i.e. when people get shot they get shredded with blood going everywhere), plenty of bad language and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Foxx rides his own horse, Cheetah, in the film during the bareback sequence.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wild Bunch

SHOT IN THE NUTS LOVERS: Hopefully there aren’t a lot of you out there but if there are, there’s a whole lot of it going on in this movie.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Young @ Heart