Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

January 25, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

12YAS-Poster-Art

Of all the 2013 films I have watched and will watch, I doubt there is one that will leave a greater lasting impression than 12 Years a Slave, the remarkable, and apparently very accurate true story of a free black man kidnapped into slavery (no prizes for guessing how long). It’s one of the most brutal and uncomfortable movies I’ve ever had to sit through, but thanks to the brilliant direction of Steve McQueen (Shame), I don’t feel as though I’ve been manipulated at all. 12 Years a Slave is simply an unflinchingly honest, harrowing, raw and emotional motion picture about one of the darkest eras of American history — and it’s interesting that it took a British director to make a defining film about it.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free black man during the 1840s making a living as a musician with his wife and two children. Following a horrible stroke of misfortune he ends up being renamed to Platt and is shipped off to New Orleans where he sold by a slave trader to a plantation owner. There is a lot more to the story, but I will just keep it at that to prevent divulging any potential spoilers.

This is a confronting film, a grotesquely violent film; a film that tears at your heart. The excellent adapted screenplay by John Ridley (Three Kings) does not hold back in showing us what slavery was like back in those days, and neither does the direction of McQueen. The cruelty, the frightening beatings, the habitual physical and mental abuse, and the helplessness and depression — it’s all inescapably there. And according to scholars and experts who have seen the film, it is the most accurate on-screen depiction of slavery they’ve ever seen.

The thing that impressed me most about 12 Years a Slave, however, is how McQueen just tells Northup’s story the way it is. This is not some Hollywood story of triumph or some warm fluff touting the beauty of the human spirit. It’s just a man who loses everything trying to survive under extremely trying circumstances. It could have been so easy for this film to spiral into an exploitative, manipulative, melodramatic mess, but the approach is subtle yet direct, presenting audiences the story as is, and giving us the room to interpret the hints and emotions for ourselves. I felt the injustice and outrage as designed by McQueen, but I didn’t feel like any of it was being shoved in my face, even when I was watching the torture taking place right in front of me. That’s what I call masterful filmmaking.

Chiwetel Ejiofor deserves an Oscar for the defining performance of his career as the stoic Northup. It’s such a difficult role, not just because of the physical aspects of it, but because of the layers required to play an educated man pretending to be an uneducated slave. He is no saint. He didn’t care about the plight of the slaves before he became one, and once he did, he did what he could to survive, putting himself first as most people would. Ejiofor’s ability to capture every side of his character is what allows us to feel his fear, his desperation, his pain. And it’s not like he’s running around gunning people down like Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained or giving out motivational speeches like Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln — everything we get from the character comes from Ejiofor’s understated expressions, the restraint in his voice, the sorrow in his eyes.

The supporting cast features a list of well known names, from Paul Giamatti as a slave trader to Paul Dano’s racist carpenter and Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender (third collaboration with McQueen after Hunger and Shame) as Northup’s two very different masters. Fassbender, in particular, steals the show somewhat as a religious nut and the primary antagonist in the film, though Cumberbatch’s more reserved performance as a fairly decent but complicated man provides a nice contrast while also reminding us that not all slave owners were sadistic.

I thought the appearance of Brad Pitt towards the end of the film was a little jarring, but apart from that I though they all made their characters three-dimensional and memorable in their own way. However, the lesser-known supporting cast also deserve a lot of praise, in particular Lupita Nyong’o, which has been nominated for best supporting actress as a tormented slave lusted after by Fassbender, and American Horror Story’s Sarah Paulson as Fassbender’s icy psycho wife.

There are other aspects of the film which I usually don’t talk about but feel like I should point out here. I really liked the visual style McQueen employed for the movie, with a gritty documentary-esque look and a colour scheme that accentuated the realism and brought out the heat down in New Orleans. The music score by Hans Zimmer was also fitting for the period and helped add another dimension to the on screen drama.

12 Years a Slave is not easy viewing, nor is it intended to be. But it is a rare motion picture, the kind that doesn’t come around very often, where the story is compelling and the direction, script and acting are all top notch. And when all is said and done, it could end up being the movie that resonates more than any other released in 2013. Having said all that, it’s hard to give 5 stars to a film that’s almost impossible to enjoy.

4.5 stars out of 5.

PS: 12 Years a Slave is not without critics. There are some who say the film was made just to make white people feel bad about what happened. There are others who criticised the decision to focus on an educated man, someone who wasn’t a real slave, rather than one of the millions born into slavery and never knew any better, just so audiences can connect with the protagonist. None of these are valid criticisms. First of all, everyone, regardless of who you are, should feel bad watching human beings abusing other human beings. Secondly, no one makes a movie just to make people feel bad about themselves. Thirdly, why not pick a protagonist who can connect with audiences? This is a great story, a true story that deserves to be told — why shouldn’t it be?

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 12

September 17, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Yes, there are still movies from 2012 that I have not yet finished reviewing or watching. But I am getting there. I swear. Here are four more film reviews.

Byzantium (2012)

byzantium-poster-180412

This was one I had been really forward to because it’s directed by Neil Jordan, and I really needed Saoirse Ronan to redeem herself in my mind after the disaster that was The Host. I’m still not 100% sure what to make of Byzantium, which is an interesting twist on the vampire genre and relies a lot on its brooding and melancholic atmosphere as opposed to cheap scares — though I wish I could have found it more engaging and frightening.

Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan are a mother and daughter vampire pair who have been around for a few hundred years by surviving on human blood. The story is dominated by a back story dating back to the Napoleonic Wars of how they became who they are, interspersed with their modern day exploits and typical (or not so typical) mother-daughter tensions. And of course, there are mysterious people hunting them down.

It’s a very dark (literally — the film is almost always poorly lit), bloody and violent film that provides a welcome escape from all the vampire lover fantasies we’ve had in recent years. I also loved the whole concept of how they are made into vampires and the way they transform when they feed. It’s different and haunting, driven by two very strong performances from Arterton and Ronan.

On the other hand, the dreariness got to me a little as the film progressed, and I yearned for less melodrama and more excitement. The back story, to be brutally honest, was somewhat predictable and stale, and I think that is what dragged the film down and prevented it from being an exceptional vampire flick. A minor disappointment because of high expectations, but not a bad film to catch on DVD on a rainy night.

3.25 stars out of 5

Cosmopolis (2012)

Cosmopolis_PosterArt

So I keep hearing about what a great American writer Don DeLillo is, and Cosmopolis is based on one of his novels. And it’s directed by David Cronenberg (who gave us the magnificent A History of Violence and Eastern Promises in the last few years). Sure, it starred Shovelface, aka Robert Pattinson, but Cosmopolis was definitely high on my list of most anticipated movies of the year.

What’s it about? That’s hard to describe, but essentially it’s about a young billionaire (Shovelface) trying to head to his barber in a limo and gets sidetracked. He meets a bunch of people (from his wife to an assortment of mistresses) and things suddenly start to spiral out of control. Just 109 minutes of people saying and doing strange, random, confusing things.

The film has gotten mixed reviews and two minutes in I could see why. Cosmopolis seems like a great story on the paper, but adapted to the screen and it just feels all wrong. Every scene and conversation feels painfully contrived, like they are trying to sound mysterious and befuddling. No one on the history of the planet has ever spoken like the characters in this film, and yet everyone in it speaks in the same way.

I like the feeling of not knowing what is going on as things are slowly revealed to me throughout the film, but this film tries way too hard to mess with the audience’s mind and challenges them to look for deeper meaning (the follies of capitalism and materialism, perhaps?) when there isn’t really anything to look for. At least it feels that way anyway.

Cronenberg’s direction is stylish and the film is atmospheric, and the performances are strong, though that doesn’t make up for all its faults. It’s disappointing because there was definitely potential here, but instead all Cosmopolis did for me was bore and frustrate.

1.5 stars out of 5

Killing Them Softly (2012)

killing them softly

I was warned about Killing Them Softly, which received praise from critics but was panned by many regular people who watched it. In fact, I was warned by an aunt to avoid it at all costs because it might bore me to death. Being the sucker for punishment that I am, I braced myself and watched it anyway, and to be honest I just thought it was OK — not boring, not great. Just OK.

The premise is simple. Ray Liotta runs an underground gambling ring for mafia types and once held up his own den to steal money off his patrons. Armed with the knowledge if that it happened again that people would automatically point the finger at Ray, a couple of goons (Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy) are hired to rob the place. In the aftermath, a hitman played by Brad Pitt, who likes to “kill them softly” (ie, quick and relatively painless) is assigned to…sort things out.

This is one of those movies I probably would have fallen asleep in a few years ago, but nowadays I have come to appreciate the art of “slow storytelling” and have come to understand why certain films are paced in a certain way. Killing Me Softly is undeniably slow, with lots of well-crafted dialogue and pauses. But the dark and bleak noir atmosphere is definitely intriguing, and when the violence hits it is brutal and uncompromising.

Having said all that, there’s not a lot about the movie that makes it something I would want to recommend to others. It’s simply a well-made movie that is slow and gritty, with big name stars delivering the expected strong performances. I wouldn’t call it boring, though it’s not exactly entertaining either.

2.75 stars out of 5

The Expatriate (2012)

the-expatriate-poster

Known as Erased in the US, The Expatriate is a bit of a “meh” film in the sense that it’s perfectly adequate but does little to suggest that it should be anything other than a straight-to-DVD film, which is is.

Aaron Eckhart is a former CIA agent (kinda like Liam Neeson in Taken) who is living with his daughter in Brussels while working as a security expert. One day he suddenly discovers that all traces of his existence have been “erased”, so to speak, forcing him on the run as his ex-colleagues all start dropping dead. So essentially the whole movie is about him trying to survive while figuring out what big conspiracy he has been dragged into.

It’s not the most original premise, but there are elements of the film that work effectively for this to be an above average thriller. But when you have movies like Taken and those from the Bourne franchise (which this film borrows from liberally), a movie like The Expatriate pales in comparison and feels almost redundant.

I’m a fan of Aaron Eckhart and I think he does a great job in it, but it’s hard to like a movie when you feel like you’ve pretty much seen everything before, except done better.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: World War Z (2013) (2D)

June 25, 2013 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

WWZ_Poster_5_23_13

I’m just going to come out and say it: World War Z is possibly the best zombie movie I’ve ever seen.

To be fair, I can’t recall many worthy zombie movies off the top of my head. I haven’t seen the George Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead, widely regarded as the GOAT. 28 Days Later was very good. Shaun of the Dead is very funny. I Am Legend had its moments. Resident Evil is a guilty pleasure. REC is terrifying. But as of now, I’d still rank World War Z on top.

Why? Well for starters, while it is one of the most intense cinematic experiences I’ve had with a “zombie film”, World War Z doesn’t feel like your conventional zombie flick. Yes, there are loads of zombies, carnage and people fighting for survival, but the mood of it feels…different. Perhaps because it is less camp, the tone feels more like a plague film, say like Outbreak, the 1995 Dustin Hoffman movie, or the more recent Contagion, made in 2011. Throughout the 116-minute running time I never got the sense that I had “seen it all before” and never felt like I knew where the story was heading.

There are also heavier political elements in World War Z than typical zombie movies, though I don’t want to say much more than that because of potential spoilers.

The film centers on Brad Pitt, who plays Gerry Lane, a former United Nations employee, and his family (wife played by Mireille Enos, whom I am unfamiliar with), as the zombies start to take over the world. Using his connections, Lane is able to get to safety, but his skills are needed to help find out the cause of the outbreak so scientists can develop a cure or vaccine. Lane travels to several locations around the world in search of an answer, battling hoards of zombies and scraping through extremely close calls along the way. A few of the particularly pivotal scenes are still vividly floating around in my mind, a sign that director Marc Foster (Monster’s Ball, Quantum of Solace, The Kite Runner) really got them right. They were intense without overdoing the whole crazy-mutilated-zombies-jump-out-of-nowhere routine we’re so accustomed to seeing in these types of movies.

The second half of World War Z is not quite as good as the first half, and unfortunately the ending, after a stellar finale, was quite disappointing. The special effects were better than the trailer suggested (I initially thought they looked terrible) but some of the scenes with masses of zombies still looked a little too CGI. But these are my only complaints.

I would compare World War Z to my favourite film from a couple of years ago, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Sure, there are lots of flaws and holes, but it’s one of those rare films that kept me engrossed from start to finish, and at one stage during the movie made me want to say out loud — “this movie is freaking awesome!” It’s intense, exciting, entertaining and clever without trying to be too clever for what is, after all, still a zombie movie. I can’t wait for the planned sequel(s).

4.5 stars out of 5!

PS: I have not read the 2006 horror novel of the same name by Max Brooks upon which the film is based. Apparently it is completely different.

Battle of the Polarizing Films: Drive (2011) vs The Tree of Life (2011)

November 13, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

It’s November and I still haven’t finished reviewing my list of 2011 films. So here’s another film battle — this time,  between two of the most polarizing films of last year – Drive and The Tree of Life. I thought one of these films was amazing, and the other boring and pretentious — but can you guess which is which?

Drive (2011)

I had heard some mixed reviews of this Ryan Gosling neo-noir crime drama. Some said it was slow and boring and too violent for its own good. Others said it was one of the best films of the year.

The story follows Gosling’s unnamed lead character, who works as a mechanic by day and a getaway driver for criminals at night. You don’t know much about his past or background, but all you know is that he is one heck of a driver who can stay calm under the tensest of situations and a badass you wouldn’t want to mess with. He befriends a neighbour, played by Carey Mulligan, and her young son, whose father is in prison and owes protection money to the mob.

It’s a simple story driven by a fascinating character and a sublime performance from Gosling, who seems to be unable to do anything wrong these days. It’s also boosted by a superb all-star cast, including the omnipresent Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman and Christina Hendricks.

With the exception of Mulligan, who gives a good performance but feels miscast in the role, I loved everything about this riveting film, which had been hooked and on the edge of my seat from the opening sequence — which is, might I add, one of the best of any movie ever. I loved the tension and I loved the mystery of Gosling’s character — the calmer he was the more nervous I got. And I don’t often notice the soundtrack but this one’s was rocking — the ethereal-electronic-pop-dominated score was perfect for the look, style and feel of the film. (For some reason it reminded me a little of the video game Grand Theft Auto!)

As for the violence, yeah, it might have been a little excessive (elevator scene, anyone?) but I thought it fit in well with the overall tone and added an edge to the tension. I’ve always been a fan of well-executed violence (thanks, Tarantino), and I suppose this is a great example of it.

One of the best, and potentially one of the most memorable, films of the year for me.

5 stars out of 5

The Tree of Life (2011)

The buzz around The Tree of Life before I watched it was that it is a revolutionary piece of filmmaking that cements his place in cinematic history as one of the best directors of all time. But word of mouth from relatives was that it was so confusing and boring that walking out would have been a better option than staying until the end.

My previous experiences when it comes to Terrence Malick have not been positive. I remember when people were calling The Thin Red Line a vastly superior film to Saving Private Ryan and decided to check it out, but had too much trouble trying to decipher all of Nick Nolte’s mumbling to really understand what the fuss was all about. Then I watched his next effort, The New World with Colin Farrell, but I gave up on it about 20 minutes in after, again, failing to get through all the mumbling voice-overs. What’s this guy’s deal with incomprehensible philosophical mumblings?

Anyway, I thought as a more mature movie viewer, I would now be more capable of appreciating Malick’s art. But in the end, I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it. The Tree of Life had its fair share of mumblings as well, but that wasn’t its problem. Its problem was trying too hard to be “profound”, to be “different”, to be a “masterpiece.”

Essentially, this “experimental” film follows a middle-aged man’s (Sean Penn) memories of his childhood in Texas in the 1950s with his parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), but at the same time it is also supposed to be some chronicle of the history of the universe that explores the meaning of life.

I don’t have a problem with ambitious projects, which this clearly is, but I suppose you need to be in the right kind of mood to enjoy The Tree of Life (ie, high on LSD or something). If you’re expecting a linear narrative with a clear story to tell, then you’re going to be sorely disappointed. But if you’re expecting a movie to suddenly turn into the National Geographic channel and show the images cosmos and dinosaurs and asteroids, and feel that it explains what life is all about, then you’ll probably love The Tree of Life.

I do appreciate the artistic merits of the film to some extent, as well as the beautiful images of nature that Malick projects onto the screen. The scenes depicting the children and their relationship with their father are also done well and occasionally stirring. In that sense I guess I don’t despise The Tree of Life like some others do, but at almost 140-minutes it was just too much to take and digest. Frankly, I was often bored and frustrated.

Maybe I’ll have more luck with Malick’s next film, To the Wonder, a romantic drama starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams. I heard people booed laughed at it during the Venice Film Festival earlier this year.

2 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: Moneyball (2011)

March 19, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

To me, there is simply something romantic about the sport of baseball.  It really is the only sport where anything can happen until the last out and sometimes does.

The biographical sports drama, Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller (Capote) and starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman, does an outstanding job of capturing the essence of that romance.  Based on the Michael Lewis’s book of the same name, it tells the true story of Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane (Pitt) and his attempt to use sabermetrics (basically statistical observations) to build a winning baseball team with limited money. It sounds kinda lame, I know — I thought it would be a boring movie too — but somehow, Moneyball works as a moving drama that hits all the right emotional notes.

Moneyball is, at its heart, an underdog story. Beane was a high school standout that made it to the majors but failed to live up to expectations, and as GM of the Athletics, he constantly faced an uphill battle with one of the smallest budgets in the MLB and constantly losing good players because they can’t afford them. By chance, he comes across Peter Brand (Hill), a young Yale economics grad who introduces him to sabermetrics, a system of player selection that was ridiculed and almost regarded as blasphemous amongst Beane’s old (in experience and age) staff.

Personally, I knew very little about what actually happened in real life, which made Moneyball an exhilarating experience to watch. If it wasn’t a true story I would assumed it was too good to be true — you really can’t make this kind of drama up. And full credit to Miller for approaching the story with a steady hand and the requisite subtlety, without overplaying things too much, something a lesser director easily could have done. It’s not so much the baseball action as it is the action behind the baseball, if you know what I mean.

As a result, Moneyball achieves the rare feat of being a sports movie that doesn’t feel bogged down by cliches. It helps that the baseball action looks incredibly authentic, and you could have fooled me into believing that what I was watching was real game footage.

The screenplay by Steve Zaillian and Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) also plays a big part in the film’s success. As is typical of Sorkin’s writing, Moneyball‘s screenplay is witty and sharp, with awesome dialogue and no wasted words.

But of course, it’s the terrific performance of Brad Pitt that anchors the film from start to finish. I’m not sure about an Oscar win, but the nomination was certainly well-deserved. I can’t say I can agree with Jonah Hill’s nomination for best supporting actor though. Sure, it’s one of the rare times he isn’t playing an obnoxious bozo, but was his supporting performance really one of the top five of the year?

The only other minor complaint I have is the slightly over long 133 minute running time, but given the amount of things that happen throughout the film I didn’t find it that big of a deal.

I’m not sure if you need to be a baseball fan to appreciate film, but for me, Moneyball was a personal delight — a film about taking chances, believing in yourself, and ultimately, knowing what is important.

4.5 stars out of 5!

PS: Young Kerris Dorsey, who plays Pitt’s daughter, almost steals the show with her few scenes. I am currently hooked on her rendition of Lenka’s The Show, which has a key role in the film.

 

 
%d bloggers like this: