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

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Axe not what your country can do for you…

(2012) Horror Action (20th Century Fox) Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Jimmi Simpson, Robin McLeavy, Alan Tudyk, Marton Csokas, Joseph Mawle, Erin Wasson, John Rothman, Cameron M. Brown, Frank Brennan, Jaqueline Fleming. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

 

Our nation’s 16th president is widely beloved, considered our most courageous and visionary president and for good reason. He led our nation through its darkest hour, freed the slaves and in general kept the nation together even as it was coming apart. He also rid the country of vampires. Yeah, that was him.

Of course, you might not be familiar with that last part but don’t worry. This isn’t a history lesson. It’s rip-roaring bloodsucking entertainment from the man who directed Night Shift and the man who wrote the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Abraham Lincoln (Walker) watches as his mother (McLeavy) is murdered by Jack Barts (Csokas), whom Abe’s father (Mawle) crossed when he protected his impetuous son from stopping Barts from whipping an African-American boy. Young Abraham wants revenge but his more level-headed dad makes him swear not to do anything foolish which Honest Abe does…until his father passes away.

Going to a bar to gather some liquid courage, Abe runs into Henry Sturgess (Cooper). Eventually, Abe discovers that Barts is a vampire and his guns are ineffective against him. Lincoln is saved by the intervention of Henry, but not before permanently scarring Barts by leaving the ball of his pistol in his eye.

Sturgess heals Abe’s wounds and tells him that the vampires have mostly been hiding out in the South as plantation owners, using the slaves as a food supply. Abe, studying for the law, is also trained by Henry in the fine (or not-so-fine) art of vampire hunting – and not a Scooby in sight (obligatory Buffy reference considering the subject matter). Having had a bad experience with guns, Abe prefers the silver-coated axe as his weapon of choice.

Sturgess sends the newly martial arts-trained Abe to Springfield to practice law. There he meets shopkeeper Joshua Speed (Simpson), who hires the young man and allows him to stay in a room above the store. The two become fast friends but coming back into Abe’s life is Will Johnson (Mackie), the young boy Abe saved from whipping years ago. Also in his life; Mary Todd (Winstead), the fiancée of rising political star Stephen Douglas (Tudyk).

By night, Abe kills local vampires and chafes for the chance to get his hands on Barts. Finally, when Sturgess finds out that Abe has been making friends and fallen in love, he warns him that he’s making a horrible mistake – these people will be endangered by the things Abe does at night. And that’s just what happens. Once Abe finally gets his hands on Jack Barts, people – okay, vampires – take notice. In particular, Adam (Sewell) who is the leader of the vampires here in the States, a creature who has lived since the days of the pharaohs and who is eager to establish a nation of his own for his kind – the Confederate States of America, for one.

He and his sister/enforcer Vadoma (Wasson) hatch a plan to bring Lincoln to them, kidnapping Will and bringing him to their New Orleans plantation. Abe and Speed rescue him by the skin of their teeth, but Abe determines to fight Adam in a less direct way – through politics. Abe’s determination and vision leads him to the White House.

However, Adam has been busy as well, allying with Jefferson Davis (Rothman) to supply vampiric troops to overcome the numeric superiority of the North as well as their armament. With unkillable soldiers, Adam and the Southern generals decide to put an end to the war by invading, leading to a place called Gettysburg. Realizing that the only hope of defeating the army of the undead is to arm his own troops with silver ordinance, Abe, Will and Joshua set out on a desperate train ride from Washington to Pennsylvania. The entire nation’s future hangs in the balance but Adam knows he’s coming.

This is an idea that does tend to stretch one’s tolerance for fantasy. That it has been largely unsuccessful at the box office speaks more about the imagination of the moviegoing public than that of the specific filmmakers here. The movie is certainly filmed in dark tones with bright moonlight. There is certainly a gothic feel to the film but with more of an action sensibility than, say, Dark Shadows.

The special effects are okay, though not ground-breaking in most senses. However, there are a couple of scenes which are done rather badly – the scene where Lincoln chases Barts through stampeding horses – where the horses look like something out of a computer game, complete with a dun-colored sky. It looks fake and pulls the audience right out of the reality of the film.

I have no problems with fudging with history to suit the needs of the story, although here some of it was, I thought, unnecessary. Making Will Johnson a lifelong friend instead of someone he met in Springfield (which is, as I understand it, what actually happened) or having Joshua Speed as part of Lincoln’s inner circle in Washington (in reality he declined to leave Springfield and sent his brother James whom Lincoln liked less in his stead) doesn’t really make the story any easier – it’s just simpler to write it that way.

Mackie is a fine actor who brings some gravitas to the role of Johnson. Simpson as well, who is channeling Christian Slater to my mind, gives Joshua Speed a fairly ambiguous role which aids the story nicely in the last reel. Winstead is an underrated actress who has done admirably well in a bunch of movies that haven’t been as good as her performances. It’s no different here; hopefully she’ll be cast in a movie that’s worthy of her talents soon.

The main problem here is Walker. He might be a fine, capable actor but this is a part that is almost impossible to pull off to begin with – Abe Lincoln as an action hero? Doing Matrix-like moves while wielding an axe like something out of a Tsui Hark movie? Uhhhhh…it’s kind of entertaining, I have to admit, while you’re watching it. Thinking about it now, reading it on paper…sounds kind of dumb. The other issue is that Walker has moments where he really carries the essence of the Great Emancipator. At others though, he seems to be floundering, not quite sure how to capture Lincoln’s natural self-effacing demeanor and homespun humor.

This is entertainment, pure and simple. There is no moral message, and if you take this as a history lesson you’re clearly insane. This is meant to keep you on the edge of your seat for a couple of hours. Nothing more, nothing less. The movie isn’t always successful at it but it succeeds more than it fails. If you’re willing to give the concept a shot and throw logic and history out the door for two hours while you’re in the air-conditioned cinema, then you might actually be surprised at how good this is.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of action and some nifty effects. Mackie, Cooper and Winstead are all solid.
REASONS TO STAY: Walker’s performance is a bit inconsistent. Too many liberties with history and facts. Some of the CGI is surprisingly poor.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of violence as well as a hint of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The man in the film’s final scene who is approached in a similar manner as Abe was recruited was played by book and screenplay author Seth Grahame-Smith.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100. The reviews were mostly bad.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Near Dark
GETTYSBURG ADDRESS LOVERS: Walker recites the speech here in a re-creation of the address.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The American Experience series begins

Mongol


Mongol

There are more than four horseman of the apocalypse in Mongolia.

(2007) Biographical Drama (Picturhouse) Tadanobu Asano, Honglei Sun, Khulan Chuluun, Odnyam Odsuren, Aliya, Ba Sen, Amadu Mamadakov, Ba Yin, He Qi, Su Ben Hou, Ji Ri Mu Tu, A You Er, Hong Jong Ba Tu, E Er Deng Ba Te Er, Sai Xing Ga, Bayersetseg Erdenebat. Directed by Sergei Bodrov

 

Speaking for myself personally I have a great love for history. Understanding what has happened in our past helps us to understand who we are in the present. The history of Asia, Africa and Australia are largely unknown here as we are mostly taught the history of the United States and Western Europe.

Temudjin (whose name should properly be spelled Temuchin) would later be known as Genghis Khan, a man even ignorant Western ears have heard of. However, as the movie opens up, he is a little boy (Odsuren) whose father (Sen) is a warlord who needs to see his son betrothed. While his father is eager for a more politically advantageous union, his son becomes smitten with Borthe, a young girl (Erdenebat) with a feisty nature. Temudjin manages to convince his father to allow him to become betrothed to Borthe, promising that he will come to claim her in five years. The party heads for home.

On the way home his father is poisoned by a treacherous tribe betraying the Mongol tradition of hospitality. His father names him Khan which doesn’t sit well with the rest of the warriors who know that Temudjin’s mother was the war prisoner from a different tribe.

One of those warriors, Targutai (Mamadakov) spares the life of the young Temudjin, claiming that Mongols don’t kill children but they apparently do leave them in the steppes to die. Temudjin is found face down in the snow by Jamukha who becomes his blood brother.

Later, Targutai captures Temudjin and enslaves him. He escapes and grows to manhood (Asano) without a tribe. He is once again captured by Targutai who is now free to kill the adult Temudjin but the young man escapes anyway and this time finds Borthe (Chuluun) and resolves to bring her back to his family. However, they are attacked by the tribe Temudjin’s mother had been captured from and he takes an arrow. Borthe whips the horse Temudjin is on, sacrificing herself for the man she loves and becomes the slave/concubine of the warlord Chiledu (Ga).

Temudjin approaches Jamukha (Sun), now a Khan himself, and asks for help in liberating his wife from the Merkit. Jamukha agrees to this, but a year passes before the attack actually takes place. In the interim Chiledu has passed away and Borthe has had a son by Chiledu. Temudjin takes the son as his own, despite the mutterings of both his own warriors and those of Jamukha. The next morning when Temudjin takes his leave to return home, a pair of warriors from Jamukha’s tribe accompany him since Temudjin distributes more plunder among his warriors than their former Khan. Jamukha rides after them and demands their return but Temudjin responds that every Mongol is free to choose their own Khan. Jamukha warns Temudjin that this will undoubtedly lead to future conflict which it does when Jamukha’s brother is killed attempting to steal the horses back of the warriors who had defected to Temudjin’s tribe.

Jamukha has vast numerical superiority and quickly overwhelms Temudjin’s forces. Rather than execute his childhood friend, however, he chooses to sell him into slavery. Borthe is misinformed that her husband is dead. Will Temudjin be able to escape once again?

This is  magnificent sprawling epic of the sort that David Lean used to make. Using a pair of cinematographers, Bodrov manages to create magnificent vistas of the barren steppes as well as lovely recreations of ancient Ulan Bator (the Mongolian capital) as well as villages of the era. This is as beautiful-looking a film as you’re likely to see in the last five to ten years.

It also boasts the fine Japanese actor Asano. While the movie is subtitled, Asano is magnificent with his facial expressions. You may not always understand what he’s saying but he conveys everything he is thinking and feeling with his face and eyes, his expressiveness giving flesh and blood to the historical figure Temuchin. Asano also has fine chemistry with Chuluun who amazingly enough is not a professional actress but was someone that the casting director met in the Russian embassy in China when she was leaving after having searched fruitlessly for the right actress to play Borche.

Now, as far as historical accuracy is concerned things get a little dicey. For one thing, not much is really known about the great Khan’s childhood and young adult life as the Mongolians didn’t really believe in written records. Much of what we see onscreen is conjecture and to be honest some of it seems somewhat unlikely given what few facts we do know.

There are plenty of battle scenes here with lots of arterial blood spurting in graceful parabolas through the air to liberally coat the camera lens. It can be pretty brutal and not for the squeamish. We also don’t get a whole lot of insight into everyday life on the steppes. We just get the sense that Temuchin went from slavery to battle to battle to slavery and so on. I’m quite sure there was more to his life than that.

This was the first film in a projected trilogy which unfortunately will not be completed – the other two to cover his rise as Genghis Khan and his eventual fall. While the remote locations helped keep costs down in making this movie, the movie was nevertheless unprofitable and the great difficulty in making the movie to begin with has essentially derailed the project permanently. I would have liked to have seen those films, but at least we have this one to excite our imaginations and certainly Mongol does that expertly.

WHY RENT THIS: Stunning cinematography. Asano turns a magnificent performance in.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags in places and is probably a good 15-20 minutes too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some battle sequences that are quite bloody and gory.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed on location in Kazakhstan and Inner Mongolia (a province of China where more Mongolians live than in Mongolia itself) in places so remote that roads had to be built by the crew in order to travel there, and where dailies – which normally take 24 hours to make it back to the production, took three weeks to arrive.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.5M on an $18M production budget; the movie lost money during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: 21 Jump Street

CSA: The Confederate States of America


CSA: The Confederate States of America

Heroic soldiers of the Confederate Army raise the Stars & Bars over Mt. Suribachi.

(IFC) Charles Frank, Rupert Pate, Evamarii Johnson, Larry Peterson, Harvey A. Williams, Arlo Kasper, Robert Sokol. Directed by Kevin Willmott

There are watershed moments in history that are so significant, we are often prompted to ask “what if” those moments didn’t go the way they actually did.

The fall of the Confederacy is one such moment. Writers like Harry Turtledove have speculated on what the world would look like if the South had won the Civil War. Here, director Willmott gives us a look in a highly original method. Inspired by Ken Burns’ influential PBS documentary “The Civil War,” he posits a British documentary on the history of America that goes counter to what the Confederate government has taught its people and asks questions that the government doesn’t want the American people to consider.

In this version of history, Judah Benjamin (an actual historical figure) convinces England and France to come to the aid of the South, supplying troops to help Robert E. Lee overwhelm the Union army at Gettysburg. As a result, the Confederacy wins the war and conquers Washington DC. Abraham Lincoln (Kasper) attempts to flee north to Canada, aided by Harriet Tubman. They are caught, Tubman summarily executed and Lincoln sent to a military prison where he languishes for two years before being pardoned and exiled to Canada, where he lives in bitterness until his death in 1905.

The film is narrated by Frank in a dry manner that nails what you would hear in actual British documentaries. Much of the information is communicated by a pair of historians from opposite sides of the coin; Confederate historian and apologist Sherman Hoyle (Pate) and Patricia Johnson (Johnson), a Canadian historian descended from American slaves who fled to the Great White North. There is also John Fauntroy V (Peterson), a presidential candidate of the Democratic Party descended from one of the founders of the Confederacy and whose family has achieved Kennedy-like status in this alternate universe.

A further conceit is that the documentary is being transmitted on broadcast television for the first time, and there are commercials interspersed for products, many of which I won’t repeat here because they are so offensive. However, many of them are actual products from American history and those that aren’t, like a website for online slave auctions, might well have been.

Director Willmott is an academic, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas and displays an academic’s perspective, which leads to an overly dry sensibility at times. Still, he also has a deft hand at satire and when the movie is at its best, it is genuinely funny and thought-provoking. However, the movie can be scattershot; when the movie isn’t working, it can be awfully uncomfortable. This may well be on purpose or to help us examine our own attitudes towards racism. In any case, no less a personage than Spike Lee has put his stamp on the film, whose name is attached to the film as a “Spike Lee presents” type of thing.

This isn’t for everyone; the production values here aren’t exceptional and the acting can be a mixed bag. Still if you look at the big picture, the movie has plenty to offer and there’s nothing wrong with checking out a movie that makes you consider your own values somewhat.

WHY RENT THIS: There is some genuinely cutting satire here and when the movie works, it’s laugh-out-loud funny.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: When the movie isn’t working well, the viewer feels more uncomfortable than amused.

FAMILY VALUES: Younger sorts may not understand that this is a satire and not an actual documentary. There is a good deal of racist invective (necessarily, given the subject matter) that may be disturbing to some.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The faux D.W. Griffith movie The Capture of Dishonest Abe includes footage from actual D.W. Griffith movies.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Flags of Our Fathers