‘12 Years a Slave’: Our shame gets visceral telling in the history of betrayed free man
The stain of slavery on American history has seen many renderings on celluloid, from the misguided pro-South, silent 1915 masterpiece by D.W. Griffith, “Birth of a Nation” that embosses Klansmen in a heroic light, to Quentin Tarantino’s recent revisionist fantasy, “Django Unchained,” in which the Klan are little more than Keystone cops in hoodies and an emboldened slave, freed of shackles and armed, rains down wrath on skin-trading vermin. Both are cinematic achievements in their own right, but neither gets fully at the foul plight of rooting day-to-day under the duress of an overseer’s whip. Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” came close, but that sweeping epic took place centuries ago, long before the pilgrims hit the shores of Massachusetts and our European forefathers began an unwritten policy of treating people of nonwhite pigmentation like pests and livestock.
The good (or grim, as it may be) news is that director Steve McQueen, who is black, British and an auteur of recent reckoning, goes at the matter in “12 Years a Slave” in a fashion that gets under the viewer’s skin in unexpected ways. It’s uncomfortable and telling. What McQueen achieves is a visceral experience that, while not a history lesson in the factual sense, becomes the de facto moral rendering of an era that should be recalled only with remorse and shame. Continue reading
Not so long ago the Coen brothers deviated from their usual quirky fare for a hardboiled yarn about lawmen and criminals playing it loose and lethal as they pursued an elusive satchel of money back and forth across the Southwest border. The basis for that masterpiece came from the laconic and acerbic prose of the Cormac McCarthy’s novel “No Country for Old Men.” And in an odd and intriguing first-time move, the scribe has delivered an original screenplay for iconic director Ridley Scott (”Alien” and “Blade Runner”). The result is full of pointed soliloquies, diatribes imbued with philosophy and poetry and even daubs of philosophy regarding poetry, but the mainstay, of course, are protracted dissertations on death and destiny, followed invariably by death.
Just as in “No Country,” the plot is driven by an accidental anti-hero ensnared in a macabre web of underworld misdoings. In short, McCathy has cooked up an assured rearrangement of “No Country.” It’s not on par by any means, but it is entertaining. And if you haven’t gotten enough of him lately, Michael Fassbender tackles the eponymous role (“the counselor” is all he’s ever called), as a square-jawed, fashionably stoic defender, who, while very dapper and upper crust, has a long list of unsavory clients. One, an imprisoned mama kingpin (Rosie Perez, putting a lot of pizazz into a brief role), asks him to pay a fine for her son who’s in jail for a traffic violation (going over 200 mph). He complies reluctantly, but doesn’t know that the kid is involved in a scheme to highjack a $20 million drug shipment – which doesn’t matter, because by sheer association he’s now considered one of the brains behind the ever-expanding plot. Continue reading
‘All is Lost’: Redford, alone at sea, silent, carries film soaked with beauty and fear
Vastness can be an aesthetic wonderment, breathtaking to behold like the dark cold of outer space in “Gravity” or the endless desert in “Lawrence of Arabia,” but given a rip in a suit or a missed rendezvous at an oasis, that hypnotic intoxication with the serene forever can quickly become the edge of a hapless demise where outside intervention becomes a mathematic improbability and personal perseverance is the only shot at salvation.
In his sophomore effort, “All is Lost,” young filmmaker J.C. Chandor – who got an Academy Award nomination for his bold debut “Margin Call” – employs the sea as his beauteous hell. The film’s title is a shard from a letter written by a hopeless yachtsman adrift at sea in a life raft. Continue reading
WikiLeaks, a renegade news outlet, takes hacked secrets from government agencies and publishes them to the world sans redaction, protecting the identity of the whistleblower through an elaborate “submission platform” that’s so secure even the publisher doesn’t know the identity of the leaker. The site’s notoriety reached its apex when it published reports exposing U.S. intelligence assets abroad and snippy interoffice memos from State Department officials trashing world leaders. But that’s just the background and part of the denouement of “The Fifth Estate,” which is really more a character study of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his rise to international infamy.
Assange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch (Khan in the last “Star Trek” chapter) who in long white locks and with piercing blue eyes looks somewhat ethereal or otherworldly, like the fair-haired elves in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy or the calmly maniacal Julian Sands in the “Warlock” films. Cumberbatch’s Assange is a hard beast to wrap your hands around. He’s gruff, arrogant, but at the same time an idealist who spends time in Africa trying to expose corrupt governments stealing money from the people and killing anyone who questions their brutish entitlements. The film’s window of insight into Assange’s mystifying persona is his early collaborator Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl, who played Niki Lauda in “Rush”), who at first idolizes Assange and his mission but later has ideological differences over what to do with the military papers the then-Bradley Manning leaked to them (it was Manning who exposed himself in a chatroom). Continue reading
‘We Are What We Are’: Family secret eats away at a town where people go missing
Human consumption (as in flesh of, not spending habits) onscreen isn’t so disturbing when it’s a vampire or a werewolf gnawing on a fellow being as an hors d’oeuvre, but bring that in a little tighter to where man’s dining on man for sustenance and it becomes downright creepy. Even the understandable plight of the “Alive” survivors, who chomped on frozen stiffs to keep themselves going while stranded in the high Andes, educes a shudder, like lingering reports of ritual cannibalism among remote tribes in Borneo. But what if it were next door, not something perverse from a sick mind such as Jeffery Dahmer, but a long-standing family tradition executed in the name of God?
Meet the Parker family. They feel like lost cast members from “Little House on the Prairie,” yet live in the modern suburban remotes of upstate New York. Mom (Kassie DePaiva) handles everything culinary, from the ritualistic harvesting to the careful trimming and lengthy rendering process, that results in a savory stew. But right off the bat mom has a seizure in the middle of a flash storm, heaves up blood and is gone. Her grisly duties fall to daughters Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner), though after the death their father (Bill Sage) declares a period of abstinence that allows for the macabre outer sheen of the film to fade and the edgy backstory of how the Parkers came to their generations-old practice to come to the fore. The girls struggle to come of age (a time of sexual awakening for Iris) and dad goes through maniacal mood swings and Parkinson’s-like fits. Continue reading
‘Captain Phillips’: True-life pirate drama never hits dramatic depths you’d expect
Back in 2009 the world watched rapt as a U.S. cargo ship was seized by pirates off the coast of Africa. To save his crew, the captain offered himself up as hostage and was subsequently cordoned off in a lifeboat pod with a posse of armed and anxious pirates looking for a multimillion-dollar ransom. Eventually the Navy and SEAL Team 6 got involved and brought about a quick resolution. It made for great drama then and would seem a natural fit for film, but as harrowing as “Captain Philips” is, it never quite gets below the surface of the whole ordeal.
All of this might come as a bit of a surprise, because “Phillips” is directed by Paul Greengrass, who so adroitly chronicled the intrepid doings of doomed 9/11 passengers in “United 93.” His insight and meticulous care for every passenger and their story and plight rang through cleanly and with genuine earnestness. Here that acumen feels lost or, at best, severely muted. Continue reading
Some might wonder how the director of “Y Tu Mamá También” and “Great Expectations” (bet you forgot about that 1998 foray starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke) arrived at a space odyssey such as this. Likely the international success of “Y Tu Mamá También” opened a few doors for director Alfonso Cuarón, and his follow-on, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” which was the best segment of the overheated wizard series, enabled the Latin auteur to play freely with special FX and blockbuster-aimed gadgetry. Two films later he capitalized on that and wowed critics and audiences alike with the bleak future-scape thriller, “Children of Men,” registering perhaps the first perfect fusion of grand vision and epic scale in the new world order of digital filmmaking.
Development of “Gravity” began shortly after “Children of Men” (in 2006) and took nearly six years to complete because of the need to invent technology to make the film possible and the degree of complexity and time required for some of the special effects, which are far beyond typical green-screen chicanery. For what’s onscreen and the $80 million budget spent, it looks like every minute and every penny was poured into every scene. The film is nothing short of a miracle in filmmaking and should be held as such. Continue reading