Saturday, March 22, 2014

An American Horror Story: 12 Years a Slave

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave

Director: Steve McQueen

Reviewed: 22 March 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ****

Solomon Northup's journey from the freedom of Saratoga Springs, NY to the degradation of slavery in 1841 Louisiana takes a Hitchcockian concept (the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time) and adapts it into a harrowing true American horror story. Solomon, a free man, found himself kidnapped and pressed into slavery, lost to his family and to the world that he knew. Director Steve McQueen masterfully constructs an enveloping, compressed tone and unforgettably naturalistic mis-en-scene, and in this film's narrowness and precision, he achieves something quite remarkable. 12 Years a Slave has a transcendent power in its performances, screenplay, and overall relentlessness. I have simply never seen a film like it.

Slavery poisons all involved in its depraved logic. There are swindlers who lie to Solomon to get him to travel to Washington D.C. for a purported traveling music show, and his trust makes him vulnerable. There are rapacious businessmen who examine slaves like animals at market, selling them to the highest bidder, swiftly separating families and forever destroying lives. There are ferocious overseers intent on squeezing backbreaking labor out of their property, reading to mete out violent responses to any perceived slight. There are masters of the planation, often times drunk with power and occasionally capable of mercy. McQueen zooms in on Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) at several moments of the film, moments that punctuate his own attempts to survive the most horrible of circumstances. These shots often focus on Ejiofor's face, conveying the pain and the turmoil of his experiences, and McQueen often lets the shot linger for thirty, forty-five, even sixty seconds. Moments like these naturally make an audience uncomfortable, desirous of a cut or release from the intensity, and McQueen has his form reflect his content and keeps us on the hook. Ejiofor is the heart of nearly every scene of this film, and this performance is his finest yet. Michael Fassbender's performance as malevolent slave owner Edwin Epps represents another dimension of that fine actor's capability: Epps is filled with self-loathing, drunken cruelty, and sordid justification for his actions, especially when called to account by Bass, a visiting laborer (Brad Pitt, in the only discordant moment of the film). Lupita Nyong'o infuses her performance as the imperiled Patsey with a haunted quality and an unnerving physicality. With very little screen time, Nyong'o makes a titanic impression.

In some ways, 12 Years a Slave is the anti-Django Unchained, last year's Oscar winning film about slavery and one man's journey to freedom. Where Tarantino infuses his film with modern touches, baroque dialogue, and explosive western-style justice, McQueen offers less bravado and more quiet work with his camera and the work going in the background of scenes. Tarantino gleefully shows the ruin of Candy Land and its oppressors, with Django riding off the victor (though he will undoubtedly be pursued). McQueen offers no catharsis or comeuppance for the guilty. He rarely zooms out to show a wider view of a scene, much less of history or the passage of time, as though we are trapped within the film, unanchored in time. But time does pass as the final scene reveals. He achieves a labyrinthine quality in this film, surprising and startling in moments by upending expectations.

Steve McQueen has made a film relevant to modern day scourge of human trafficking, calling to account those in both political and religious power, as well as completely annihilating any romanticism of this ugly, abhorrent epoch. An early shot in the film depicts a captive Solomon's outstretched hands confined by bars in a basement window, shadows hiding his face, as the camera zooms out into a crane shot to show the backdrop of the growing and yet unfinished U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. For our country's high-minded and noble ideals, there is an acknowledgment that needs to be given that much of what our country has was built on the backs and lives of those held in bondage. That is part of our country's legacy. Human cruelty knows no bounds as McQueen shows, and the struggle to survive and tell one's story can only help recover from but never fully undo the effects of such terrorism.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lee Daniels' The Butler: An Ambitious, Alternate View of 20th Century American History

Movie Review: Lee Daniels' The Butler

Director: Lee Daniels

Reviewed: 10 March 2014

jamesintexas rating-- **1/2

Although I admired much about Lee Daniels' The Butler, an expansive and ambitious film that spans an unseen U.S. History from the 1920's to the modern day, the film's scope undermines its dramatic power, resulting in an assemblage of four or five strands, all incomplete but any of which would be sufficient to build a film around. Daniels has united a terrific cast and an impressive array of make-up artists, clothing stylists, and production designers to capture the Eisenhower through Reagan eras in Washington D.C., yet his film struggled to maintain a consistent rhythm with scenes that are all to brief and too many ellipses among characters.

The story builds around a young Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker and several younger actors), a man from the South who witnesses the brutal murder of his father and becomes a domestic servant in that very household. Cecil takes to the role of serving, becoming the best of the best, always dedicated to a few core principles. Be invisible. Hear nothing. The room should be empty with you in it. Cecil's path leads him away from the South and to Washington D.C. in the 1950's, a marriage to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) with two sons, and a butler position in the Eisenhower White House. The film then focuses on Cecil's service through 8 administrations and the Civil Rights Era, with his activist son Louis (David Oyelowo) often providing a counterpoint to his own more conservative positions. It is breathtaking to go from famous actors impersonating presidents to painful reenactments of Woolworth counter sit-ins, Freedom Rider bus attacks, and Black Panther Party meetings, and all of these pieces tantalize because nothing in the film is given enough room to breathe. A few sequences feature cross cutting between the world of the father (polishing silverware, preparing elegant state dinners) with the world of the son (enduring virulent abuse from racists, being thrown into jail).

Daniels has overreached in the film, but he has at least four or five potentially wonderful films inside of it. One: Cecil Gaines remains too much of a cipher because of all of the cutting away. Digging deeper into his psychology could have provided more understanding of his character. Instead, he seems symbolic more than real. Two: Cecil works with a staff at the White House of impressive actors (Cuba Gooding, Jr., Lenny Kravitz), and though the film hints at their camaraderie and outlines the necessity for wearing a facade to work in this world that gives them less pay than their white counterparts, Daniels simply glances at the friendships and the experience of working in the White House instead of digging deep.  Three: Cecil's relationship with his wife Gloria is given short shrift; their marital troubles stem somewhat from his long hours at work, but the film never gives them the scenes necessary to fully understand their relationship. Four: The world of the presidents and historical reenactments. In pursuit of realism and iconography, Daniels creates a sense of cursory history, with presidents and leaders changing on a whim, often with a television or Cecil providing the catalyst. When a president asks Cecil about his family, I'm most curious about what prompted that question. How much does the president know about his staff?  What was it about Cecil that encouraged those who wielded power to learn from him? There are too many unanswered questions like that. Five: The story of Cecil and his son (and seeing them through the prism of his lost relationship with his own murdered father) mirroring the different generations' approach to change undercuts the human element. Cecil and Louis needed more scenes together in their home and beyond. A powerful shift by a character at the end of the film would echo even more deeply with their relationship meaning more to the film.

Yet through it all, there is an undeniable power to seeing a filmmaker grasp with the Civil Rights Era through the lens of a father and son as well as take us up to the modern era with Nelson Mandela protests and the election of Barack Obama. Part of me really wanted to see the conversation that the framing device builds up the entire movie. What would Cecil tell the current president? Lee Daniels is an important voice working in film today, and although I found this film's faltering to outweigh its brilliance, that does not mean I'm not impressed with the attempt. I am excited to see what this visionary filmmaker dares to do next.

Minor Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Movie Review: The Man Who Knew Too Much

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Reviewed: 11 March 2014

jamesintexas rating-- **

I think too highly of Alfred Hitchcock to overrate The Man Who Knew Too Much. It lacks dramatic movement, logic, and slows down its pace at several moments to a near-crawl. The story takes far too long to get going, and despite a fun assassination attempt of a prime minister at a concert in Royal Albert Hall, the film hinges upon some pretty ridiculous moments. A well-timed scream. A door being unlocked. A trip down the stairs. From the master of Psycho, North By Northwest, and Vertigo, it all seems kind of light.

Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day are Benjamin and Jo McKenna, an Indiana couple vacationing in Northern Africa who uncover a conspiracy when a man dies on the street and tells them the target of an upcoming assassination attempt. At the same moment, their son is kidnapped and held as collateral to prevent them from revealing what they know to the police. The languid pace (and less than frantic behavior of the parents) detracts from the film, and it takes over forty-five minutes to get going. A few misdirections take up the next half hour, and the film really only gets going in its final two scenes. The film seems to have aged considerably, and the ending does not seem very powerful or complete. I'm eager to read more about this film and to see what I might be missing, but I just don't think that this film is in the same league as others by this director. And, I'm not sure who the title is referring to. Stewart's character?

Road to Nowhere: James Franco's Hubris and William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.

Movie Review: As I Lay Dying

Director: James Franco

Reviewed: 11 March 2014

jamesintexas rating-- **

Well. James Franco's hubris as a director results in the messy As I Lay Dying, a beloved classic of American Literature, reduced to a series of cinematic gimmicks and sloppy speech-making. At the heart of William Faulkner's Depression-era saga of the woebegone Bundren family's odyssey to bury their mother in Jefferson, Mississippi is the polyglot voices of a family and a community, intersecting and overlapping, not quite fitting together. To depict this, Franco relies all too heavily on a split-screen technique to represent shifts in time and character, but I think these choices undermine the heart of the novel itself. While an easy way to depict multiple consciousnesses or perspectives, Faulkner never intended his readers to read two chapters simultaneously, which is essentially what Franco does by splitting the screen and combining moments from the novel in this most unnatural way.

His eye for casting seems somewhat right with Tim Blake Nelson as the nefarious teeth-seeking paterfamilias Anse and a precocious Brady Permenter as young Vardaman. However, the film's biblical journey across Mississippi seems rarely matched with powerful imagery or cinematography. The film's score lacks any sort of connective tissue between scenes, and the overall effect is one of horror, but Franco's lack of restraint in final pivotal scenes shows far too much, lessening the dramatic power of the family's destruction.

It is not untoward to desire a director up to the challenge of filming the unfilmable, to wrestle with the complexities of Faulkner's prose and stylistic choices. I have always wanted to see what Terence Malick would do with Faulkner or perhaps Quentin Tarantino. Both men have the confidence and inventiveness required of Faulkner. Franco's hunger for a challenge, while admirable, exceeds his skill as a director or screenwriter. I don't begrudge him for it, but it is difficult not to consider what a more capable cast and director would add to this heartbreaking work of modern literature from the closest America has ever come to Shakespeare. Franco just got stuck in the mud of Yoknapatawpha County.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Woody Allen's Update of A Streetcar Named Desire: Blue Jasmine Beckons.

Movie Review: Blue Jasmine

Director: Woody Allen

Reviewed: 7 March 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***

Cate Blanchett's Oscar-winning performance as Jasmine French, the socialite wife of a Bernie Madoff-esque criminal (Alec Baldwin) anchors another strong film from director Woody Allen, and what lingers in the mind is Blanchett's strong performance because of it essentially being a showcase for one of our finest actors. Due to an elaborate structure that weaves back and forth in time from the East Coast to the West Coast, from the wealthy, good times to the desperate, penniless ones, Blanchett gets to show off her chops, playing naive, anxious, confident, lost, and panicky, all while holding Jasmine's distinct air of elegance. Clutching her Hermes bag, displaying a brittle fragility, always in search of a drink and a rapid fire conversation, Jasmine flees New York to San Francisco, staying with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and colliding with her relationships, past (Andrew Dice Clay) and present (Bobby Cannavale). Jasmine's deteriorating mental state reveals itself through near-breakdowns, frantic monologues to herself, and a desperate fling to try and recapture what she had lost. Similarly, her sister's relationships mirror her own coming to terms with who she is, and the clash of coasts and values comes together in unlikely and surprising ways.

I like that Blue Jasmine is mostly a film about people talking and bouncing off of each other's personalities, and Allen elicits marvelous work out of Sally Hawkins and Andrew Dice Clay among others. If Clay's Augie is the Stanley to Jasmine's Blanche, then the denouement, albeit clunky in its reliance upon coincidence and being in the right place at the right time, quietly destroys her attempt to regain lost position. Blanchett carries the film up until the final scene, and I was never bored by this tale. There is an air of the modern with the references to the Wall Street malfeasance of recent years that makes this film less dusty than some of Allen's recent ones. I recommend seeing it on the strength of the cast alone, and Blanchett's accolades are most deserving.