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12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a Slave #1

by Steve Habrat

In early October, Alfonso Cuarón’s space drama Gravity was on everyone’s lips as a shoe-in at the upcoming Oscars. It was king of the box office throughout the month and it seemed impossible to meet someone who wasn’t raving about how great the film is. In the past few weeks, the hype has cooled around Gravity and has begun to heat up around director Steve McQueen’s sobering 12 Years a Slave, an unflinchingly graphic look at the horrors of slavery. Based on the autobiography of the same name, 12 Years a Slave tells the devastating story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was ripped from his family and sold into slavery. Impeccably acted from a cast of A-list talent and featuring some of the most handsome cinematography I’ve seen all year, 12 Years a Slave lives up to its reputation as being an emotional wrecking ball that shatters your heart. McQueen allows his camera to highlight the raw emotional anguish of his characters, but its also his refusal to pull the camera away through some of the more violent images that really brings the audience to their knees. The end results are unforgettable, guaranteed to haunt you for the rest of your days.

12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York. He makes a good living as a prominent musician and he stands as a well-respected member of the community. One day, while out on a stroll, Solomon is approached by two men, Brown (played by Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (played by Taran Killam), who claim to be traveling artists looking to employ Solomon as one of their musicians. Solomon graciously accepts their offer over dinner and drinks, but the next day, Solomon wakes up in a dank cell with chains around his wrists. After enduring a savage beating, Solomon is told that he is being transported to New Orleans to be sold into slavery, despite his insistence that he is a free man. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Solomon is sold to William Ford (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), a kindly plantation owner who is receptive to Solomon’s ideas and even gives him a violin after learning he is a muscian. After a nasty confrontation with Ford’s overseer John Tibeats (played by Paul Dano), Ford is forced to sell Solomon to Edwin Epps (played by Michael Fassbender), a brutal plantation owner who enjoys relentlessly tormenting his slaves. Fearing for his safety, Solomon begins plotting a way to get away from Epps and to be reunited with his family.

Last year, Quentin Tarantino delved into the topic of slavery with his grindhouse revenge tale Django Unchained, a film that was accused of allowing one of the darkest chapters in American history to morph into a blood-splattered cartoon. Despite the attacks, I still thought that Django Unchained struck a chord with some of its material and it really sent a chill with the way it presented the seething racism of the time (It also topped my list of the best of 2012). While it’s undeniable that Tarantino padded portions of his film with dark humor and winking nods to obscure spaghetti westerns, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave never even considers softening on the viewer. He keeps his camera fixed on the weary faces of those forced to labor away in the hot sun, allowing the anguished cries of a woman separated from her two young children to slice our soul, and the souring hope in Solomon’s eyes etch itself into our brains for the rest of our days. When he pauses to show us the overkill brutality of a lashing, there is no eruption of candlewax blood that calls attention to the fact that you’re just watching a slice of escapism. It’s a bit too realistic, especially when the cries of pain jolt you in your seat. McQueen is careful not to exploit the graphic violence, refusing to give long glimpses of slashed skin or puffs of blood. He drives its impact through constantly allowing us to see the faces of those who are enduring the beating—something that is sure to cause certain audience members to break down in tears.

12 Years a Slave #2

Further securing 12 Years a Slave’s place in cinematic history is the A-list talent, especially the barbaric Fassbender and the crushed Ejiofor. A good majority of Ejiofor’s performance is in his wide eyes as he constantly stares just past the camera or down at the dirt under his feet, attempting to make sense of his current situation. It seems like he is always holding back tears and reassuring himself that he will not bow to the cruel overseers that patrol around with guns and whips. His passion sucks the air out of the theater as he is beaten down in the jail cell, told repeatedly that he is bluffing about being a free man and that he is simply a runaway from Georgia. We feel his desperation, fear, confusion, and anger as he pleas to be unlocked from the chains that imprison him. On the plantations, its unbearable to see him forced into submission, the only bright spots coming when the impressed Ford realizes the potential in him. A sickening dread takes over in the second half of the film when he is sold to Fassbender’s Epps, an abusive monster that enjoys waking his slaves in the night, dragging them up to the main house, and forcing them to dance for his amusement. He never passes up the chance to humiliate them; giggling at their trembling anxiety while he weighs the amount of cotton they picked for him that day. He’s also consistently at odds with his lust for the frail slave girl Patsey (played by Lupita Nyong’o), who he awakens in the middle of the night to have his way with, only to give way to instant disgust in himself. You won’t believe your eyes as he drools down on her, choking and slapping the poor girl for no reason at all.

As far as the secondary performers are concerned, Cumberbatch’s Ford is a gentle individual who hasn’t blinded himself to the fractured humanity in the men and women before him. Paul Dano’s John Tibeats is a stringy racist who forces the new slaves to clap their hands while he cheerily sings a menacing song about a runaway slave being caught and severely punished. Paul Giamatti shows up briefly as Theophilus Freeman, the man in charge of selling these petrified souls to leering plantation owners who act as though they are purchasing livestock rather than a human being. Brad Pitt gives a small but pivotal performance as Samuel Bass, a Canadian who is sympathetic to the cowering individuals aiding him in his construction. Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam will earn your disgust as Brown and Hamilton, the two men responsible for kidnapping Solomon and selling him into a world of constant suffering. Nyong’o is fantastic as Patsey, Epps’ favored slave who is loathed by his wife, Mary. Sarah Paulson brings Mary Epps to life with plenty of terrifying gusto. Don’t be fooled by her glimmers of kindness, as cruelty is always close behind it.

As far as some of the technical aspects are concerned, the cinematography from Sean Bobbitt offers us some natural beauty in between some of the more disquieting moments of the film. Also worthy of mention is the score from Hans Zimmer, who trades in the pounding drums of The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel for a much more intimate score that captures the film’s wounded spirit. In the film’s darker sequences, the tranquility is traded for wailing strings that will make the hair on your arms stand up. One complaint I have with the film is that I would have liked to have seen just a little bit more of Solomon’s life before he was sentenced to the fields. We get a handful of flashbacks that get the job done, but considering the length of the film, I was left wanting just a bit more than I got. Overall, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a searing experience that is elegantly shot, sharply written, courageously realistic, and superbly acted by all involved. This is an emotionally taxing and startlingly powerful film that sends you away at a loss for words. I find it difficult to believe that there will be another film this year that challenges its status as the best of 2013.

Grade: A

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Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek Into Darkness #2

by Steve Habrat

It has been four long years since JJ Abrams ventured into the Star Trek universe and left both die hard Trekkies and casual moviegoers hungry for more deep space adventures from the brash Captain James T. Kirk and the brilliant Mr. Spock. For some, that lengthy wait felt almost like a lifetime. In between 2009s Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams buddied up with director Steven Spielberg on the set of their 2011 alien-in-suburbia throwback Super 8, and it seems that this friendship has really inspired Abrams and his approach to science-fiction blockbusters. Almost every single frame of rollicking action in Star Trek Into Darkness is alive and bursting with Spielberg’s spirit for adventure, something that will absolutely delight anyone who is a fan of Spielberg’s breezy approach to summer diversions. Yet you don’t necessarily have to be big on Spielberg to adore the second installment in this rebooted franchise. We may only be three weeks into the summer movie season, but after taking this bad boy in, I think we may have an early contender for best blockbuster of the year. Featuring two times the action, two times the thrills, two times the emotion, two times the fun, and two times the laughs, Star Trek Into Darkness finds Abrams burning with sugary creativity and bubbly enthusiasm to deepen the relationships between his wonderfully reinvented characters.

Star Trek Into Darkness begins on the primitive planet of Nibiru, with the crew of the USS Enterprise on an undercover mission to monitor a volcano that is on the verge of erupting and wiping out the planet’s natives. The crew has been warned that they are not to reveal their presence natives, but after a dangerous attempt to stop the volcano from erupting, Captain James T. Kirk (played by Chris Pine) breaks orders to save Spock’s (played by Zachary Quinto) life. Back on earth, Kirk and Spock are reprimanded by Admiral Pike (played by Bruce Greenwood), who reassumes command of the Enterprise, relieves Kirk of his command, and reassigns Spock. Meanwhile, in London, a Starfleet archives is attacked and destroyed by a shadowy Starfleet agent named John Harrison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch). Kirk and Spock are called in to attend an emergency meeting at Starfleet headquarters to discuss how to respond to the attack. The meeting is interrupted by another attack that kills several high-ranking members of Starfleet including Admiral Pike. With Pike dead, the USS Enterprise is given back to Kirk and Spock, who quickly hatch a plan to go after Harrison, who has fled to the hostile Klingon planet Qo’noS.

Much like Abrams’ first Star Trek film, the second installment is loaded with nifty little plot twists that should not be spoiled by a review. Just know that if you are a major Star Trek fan, there a more than a few surprises that will almost make your head explode. With all of the characters fleshed out in the first film, Abrams can strictly focus on the nonstop action that practically blasts the audience into the neighboring theater. The film begins with an Indiana Jones-style chase between the terrified Kirk and “Bones” McCoy (played by Karl Urban) and a yelping tribe from Nibiru, who launch spears out of the screen in glorious 3D. In case there wasn’t enough to marvel at in this particular set piece, Abrams flips to the glowing action that is taking place within the swirling volcano. From there on out, there is a city-shaking attack on Starfleet, a wicked shootout between Klingons and a handful of crewmembers of the Enterprise, a nerve-frying space jump through a spinning field of spaceship debris, and a breathtaking fistfight on the streets of San Francisco. If that isn’t enough to hold your attention, you’ll certain find yourself unable to stop scanning the inside of the seriously amazing USS Enterprise or grinning over the wild crew members that operate it. Surprisingly, the film was converted into 3D in postproduction, but it is totally worth spending the extra cash to check it out in immersive 3D.

Star Trek Into Darkness #1

While the action will certainly have you drooling, Star Trek Into Darkness really comes to life through Pine and Qunito. It really is a treat to see these guys hilariously bickering it out every step of the way. They argue in a disciplinary meeting, during the opening chase, and even while they are trying to infiltrate Qo’noS. Pine continues to be reckless and cocky all while he flirts with one girl after another. The early scenes between Pine and Greenwood’s fatherly Admiral Pike were especially touching and shattering when Pike meets a nasty laser blast. Quinto continues to bring the laughs as the rigid and emotionless Spock, a stickler for the rules if there ever was one. Here, Spock’s emotional detachment is put to the test and it truly does strike a chord. Yet the real magic happens when Pine and Quinto are together, with their egos clashing and banging around the iPod walls of the Enterprise. Their friendship is really put to the test when the confront Cumberbatch’s Harrison. While it is best not to reveal much about John Harrison, just know that Cumberbatch nearly steals the entire movie away from Pine and Quinto. He is one hell of a commanding villain.

If you were worried that the rest of the Enterprise crew had flew the coop, never fear, as they are all back where they belong. The sexy Zoe Saldana is back as Nyota Uhara, who has developed a relationship with Spock that goes far beyond the Enterprise. Karl Urban continues to bring the pessimism as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, who is constantly getting under Kirk’s skin with some of the worst metaphors you can think of. Simon Pegg continues to delight as the hilarious engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, who hams it up through an exaggerated Scottish accent. John Cho brings a quiet intensity to the role of Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu and Anton Yelchin is cartoonishly frantic as Ensign Pavel Chekov. We don’t get nearly as much of them as we did in the first film, which is a bit disappointing but understandable considering everything that is going on within the story. And we can’t forget the outstanding newcomers Peter Weller and Alice Eve, who are here as the ruthless Starfleet Admiral Alexander Marcus and the beautiful weapons expert Dr. Carol Marcus.

As far as summer movies are concerned, Star Trek Into Darkness is about as strong as they come. While there is an abundance of action and explosions to keep those with a severe case of ADHD hooked, there is still plenty of humanity to this story. We genuinely care about these characters and after a while they almost start feeling like close friends. They are especially irresistible when Abrams shakes the Enterprise and lets all these drastically different walks of life mix. Overall, Star Trek Into Darkness is a massive step up for the sleek and sexy franchise and at just over two hours, Abrams still leaves you wanting more of absolutely everything. Just like the first outing, it simultaneously pleases Trekkies and those just looking to be dazzled on a Friday night. You know what? Just stop reading this review right now and go see it. Just don’t be surprised if you want to see it again the second its all over.

Grade: A

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

by Steve Habrat

I’m glad I let Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy marinate in my mind for a few hours before I sat down to hammer out a review of it. I emerged from the matinee showing with my head spinning and my brain scrambling to put the pieces of this puzzle together. I was so hastily trying to wrap my head around what I had just seen. I was initially let down by it and to think I was so excited to see this smoky, earth toned espionage thriller that looked like it was ripped out of the 1970s. I thought it would be full of thrills and white-knuckle moments. Folks, I’m here to tell you it’s not what you think it is. Despite passing itself off as a Cold War spy flick, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about the men that were causalities of this war that consisted of suspicion and heightened awareness of the individual at your side. Accusations flew in place of bullets. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about bombed out egos rather than bombed out cities. If character studies and talky dramas turn you off, either wait until this film is at your local Red Box or skip it entirely. If you are willing to let it into your brain, you will find it slowly creeping down your spine hours after you see it.

Set in 1973, retired British Intelligence agent George Smiley is lured out of retirement by Oliver Lacon (Played by Simon McBurney), the civil servant in charge of intelligence, to investigate a mole who has infiltrated intelligence and has apparently been there for years. Smiley teams up with fleeing agent Ricki Tarr (Played by Tom Hardy) and intelligence officer Peter Guillam (Played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and together they launch an investigation aimed at the new Chief of the Circus Percy Alleline (Played by Toby Jones), his deputy Bill Haydon (Played by Colin Firth), and his allies Roy Bland (Played by Ciarán Hinds) and Toby Esterhause (Played by David Dencik). Smiley begins meeting with individuals who were forced out of positions due to their suspicions and accusations, now left in ruin and haunted by what the know. Along the journey, Smiley tries to repair his shattered past and come to terms with his demons that silently plague him.

While it is certainly a droll film in it’s first forty-five minutes, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy finally sets things in motion when more layers begin to peel away. The one aspect I really liked in the beginning was the fact that Smiley barely spoke any dialogue and he lets his world-weary face do all the work. His eyes are cartoonishly enlarged behind his thick-rimmed specs and his mouth slightly opens as if he is about to let a thought out but he quickly remembers to cage it back up. He is a curious one. When he does speak, he has a raspy and weary voice to fit his somnolent eyes, though his words have been dipped in thick globs of confidence. Oldman does a terrific job with Smiley and he will certainly get an Oscar nomination for his aloof portrayal of John le Carré’s heartbroken spy. I found myself replaying the scenes of Smiley strolling through the misty, dingy streets of Cold War London or Smiley sitting alone in his apartment as the television chirps in the background. There is a knock at the door and in response, his head slightly turns, and this is when we get a quick glimpse at his broken and lonely heart.

The rest of the supporting players in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy hold up quite well next to the slow burn of Oldman’s Smiley. This is, afterall, a character piece. Firth’s Bill Haydon is a standout, providing some small bursts of humor in the relentlessly dreary atmosphere. Hardy’s Ricki Tarr seems like he will be the tough guy but Hardy has the good sense to show us that even tough guys have a breaking point. Jones’ Percy Alleline is a supercilious and loose cannon little twerp who you would never dare cross (even if he only stands at 5’5”). What is fascinating about these men, who all appear to be working on the same side, is that if their eyes were daggers, no one would be left standing. They sit around in a smoky boardroom and stare each other down, loose their cools, stomp off, and sulk. And yet Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy holds the moments where we see them fall victim to all the suspicion, accusations, and attempts at ruin. They collapse when the chips are down and it is almost worse than any of the actually carnage that the film shows us.

Behind all the cigarette smoke and glaring actors, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy offers us eye-popping art direction, allowing Cold War London to really come alive. At times, I felt that the sets were actually characters in the movie. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is also shrouded in a film noir atmosphere and the only thing missing is a femme fatale to lure these men to their fate. Director Tomas Alfredson has made a film that slowly grows in the hours after it has been seen, coaxing you back to uncover more. It is watered by your own puzzlement over it and your drive to want to put it all together. The film never resorts to gunfights or fists fights and it only builds excitement through heated exchange. The downfall of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is that the film sometimes seems unsure how to actually build that suspense and the narrative gets caught up in itself. Talky and arty with a nifty old school swag, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy works better as a portrait of wrecked men rather than as a chilly espionage mystery.

Grade: B+