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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

Prisoners (2013)

Prisoners #1

by Steve Habrat

Earlier this summer, news broke out of Cleveland that three girls who had been missing for over a decade had finally been found alive in a home belonging to Aerial Castro. This miraculous discover was a happy ending for the families who were forced to endure years of torment over whether their loved ones were alive or dead. With such chilling news reminding us that the most terrifying monsters of all could be living just next store to us, now is the perfect time for a film like director Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. Dealing directly with child abduction, Prisoners wastes no time getting under the viewer’s skin and striking an all-too-real chord that sucks the air right out of the theater. With its dreary atmosphere and lack of polish to keep the audience removed from the story, Prisoners becomes a riveting revenge thriller that sidesteps an exploitative side, a trap many well-known revenge thrillers have fall into. Then there is the powerhouse cast (Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, and Melissa Leo), a slew of Oscar nominees and winners who comprise the fractured center of this deeply disturbing piece of filmmaking.

Prisoners begins with Keller (played by Hugh Jackman) and Grace (played by Maria Bello) Dover and their two children, young Anna (played by Erin Gerasimovich) and teenage Ralph (played by Dylan Minnette), heading up the street to the home of Franklin (played by Terrence Howard) and Nancy (played by Viola Davis) Birch for Thanksgiving dinner. While the adults sip wine and visit, Anna and Ralph wander around the neighborhood with Joy (played by Kyla Drew Simmons) and Eliza (played by Zoe Borde). The kids soon stumble across a dingy RV that Joy and Anna proceed to start climbing on. After discovering that someone is inside, Ralph and Eliza lead the kids away before the owner can come out and yell at them. Later on, Anna and Joy head back out to the Dover’s so Anna can show Joy her safety whistle. After failing to return, the parents begin frantically searching the neighborhood. Unable to find the girls, the parents alert the police, who immediately put Detective Loki (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) on the case. That evening, Loki discovers the RV that the girls were reportedly playing on. Inside the RV, Loki discovers Alex Jones (played by Paul Dano), who he immediately takes into police custody. After discovering that Alex has the IQ of a 10-year-old and there is no evidence of the girls having been in the RV, Loki releases Alex back with his aunt, Holly Jones (played by Melissa Leo). Enraged and convinced he is guilty, Keller takes the law into his own hands, kidnaps Alex, and begins torturing him in the hopes of finding the whereabouts of the missing girls.

While Prisoners presents itself as a revenge thriller, the film could also pass as a horror film—a horror of personality film to be exact. Early on, Villeneuve suggests that there is something ugly and horrible about to strike in suburbia. There are low rumblings on the soundtrack and he cuts to outside shots of the Birch home with an ugly gray tree cutting right through the center of their lovely home. Something is about to break up this happy family and leave them scarred forever. There is also no sunny comfort, as every exterior shot is filled with billowing snow, low roars of thunder, gray clouds, and sheets of rain smashing against homes and car windows. It’s about as atmospheric as a film can be. When the revenge aspect kicks in, the film doesn’t rely on copious amounts of blood and gore to shock (that isn’t to say the film is bloodless), but rather the heaving animalistic savagery that can erupt when one is consumed by unguided accusation. Villeneuve serves up several shots of rundown apartment hallways complimented by Jackman’s angry shouts and Dano’s terrified whimpers barely audible through the rotting drywall and wood. The yellowing walls and crumbling apartment building where much of the torture takes place mirrors the deterioration of the central character’s morals. The trust in the law is long gone and the only way to get answers is to viciously and relentlessly attack someone who may not even be guilty. Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski suggest that even through uncertainty, the drive to put a face on our pain and suffering can bring out the worst in us, even those who are claim to be men and women of God.

Prisoners #2

With the grim tone keeping us frozen in our seats, Villeneuve then allows the performances to emotionally drain us. Jackman completely disappears in the role of Keller, a bleary-eyed man of God who looks like he has been blasted by a wrecking ball. His anger erupts when Dano’s Alex is released in from police custody and when his wife sobs that he needs to protect his family, his revenge plot turns him into grizzled shell of a man who has to keep reminding both God and Alex that he doesn’t want to be unleashing the rage that he is. Howard’s Franklin is a timorous disaster who continuously suggests that torturing Alex is a grave mistake. Despite his protest, he aids in beating the man to a bloody pulp. Davis walks a fine line between objecting and approving of Keller’s approach to the horrific situation. She’s certainly distraught, but she demonstrates a bit more strength than Bello’s crumbling Grace. Piled under a mound of blankets, clutching tissues, and popping prescription meds, Grace finds solace in coma-like slumber. Dano is fragile yet dark as the bespectacled Alex, who enjoys yanking a dog up in the air and dangling it from a leash. Gyllenhaal is magnetic as the tattooed hard-boiled detective simultaneously trying to get to the bottom of the disappearances while unraveling something much bigger than he ever could have imagined. It’s even worse when his superior suggests that maybe he should let the case go. Melissa Leo rounds out the A-list cast as Holly Jones, Alex’s aging aunt with a broken past.

At a towering two and a half hours, Prisoners is surging with ripped-from-the-headlines realism that is never given a million-dollar sheen some films of this sort get. The film seems cold to the touch and the violence, when glimpsed, is absolutely stomach churning. People gasped when we caught a glimpse of Alex’s swollen and beaten-in face, the presentation of a torture device made out of a shower makes you groan in disgust, and a sudden suicide blasts both the characters and the audience across the face with a sledge hammer. Even the film’s child abduction subject matter is darker than the midnight hour and becomes a tough pill to swallow. The climax of the film threatens to become a bit ludicrous, but Guzikowski’s screenplay has every angle covered to make sure the events never plummet into implausibility. Overall, its tough to call if Prisoners will become a darling come awards time, but the film dares to explore humanity at its absolute worst. Not only that, but the performances, especially Jackman’s, demand to be seen and will not easily be forgotten. As an early fall movie season effort, Prisoners disturbs the viewer at the deepest levels imaginable.

Grade: A

Looper (2012)

by Steve Habrat

For quite some time, I’ve been griping about the never-ending stream of recycled ideas coming out of Hollywood over the past few years. I’d say that one of the most original films I’ve seen recently is without question Christopher Nolan’s 2010 mind-boggler Inception, a film that left me speechless after my first viewing. Well, now I can add writer/director Rian Johnson’s Looper to the short list of wholly original films. Fresh but flawed, Looper is truly something you’ve never seen before, a confident science-fiction vision that has the stones to pat itself on the back in the first fifteen minutes. While I believe that Looper is a little too hasty to congratulate itself for breathing new life into science fiction, the film’s opening hour is near classic levels. It’s incredibly riveting, funny, thrilling, and just begging to be revisited so the viewer can piece the brainy plot together. Unfortunately folks, it is too good to last and Looper does hit a snag in its second half, leaving Johnson in a scramble to recover. The second half of Looper is shockingly comatose, shifting the focus off the nifty time travel and onto a little boy and his mother, two characters who fail to draw the viewer in the way that stars Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt do early on. Luckily, the ending is somewhat of a recovery but it still leaves us feeling a bit empty.

In the year 2074, time travel exists but is instantly outlawed. Time travel is secretly controlled by a mob organization in Shanghai and is led by a mysterious figure called the Rainmaker. This organization captures individuals they want wiped off the map and they send them to the year 2044, where hitmen known as “loopers” kill the individual and then dispose of the body. Joseph Simmons (Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) happens to be a looper in Kansas City, a dystopia gangland controlled by Abe (Played by Jeff Daniels), a man sent from the future to run the looper organization in 2044. Joe and his looper buddies quietly carry out their assassinations by day and by night, they hang out in Abe’s nightclub where they take recreational drugs through eye drops and flirt with the beautiful dancers. While loopers appear to live the high life, their bosses can suddenly end their contract, which means they send an older version of the looper through time to the younger version to be killed off, which is known as “closing a loop.” After Joe’s friend Seth (Played by Paul Dano) fails to “close his loop,” he comes to Joe’s apartment in a panic and asks Joe to hide him. Joe agrees to hide Seth but is soon convinced by Abe to give him up. Thinking the mess is behind him, Joe heads out to wait for his target to arrive. To his horror, his next target is the older version of himself (Played by Bruce Willis). The older Joe manages to escape and sets out to settle a nasty personal score. As the younger Joe frantically searches for the older version, Abe’s personal army known as “gatmen” begin to close in.

Certainly not the easiest film to sum up, Looper is chock full of twists and turns that will have your brain swimming, at least at first. The opening introduction is truly something to marvel at as Johnson’s camera explores this rusty, unglamorous vision of the future where cell phones are transparent and hovering motorcycles exist. It is in these opening moments, when Joe and his friends zip through the city streets in a sports car, almost mowing homeless people over, that I was vaguely reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The comparison quickly fades and we are left with a completely original story with plenty of savage wit and blood-drenched violence. Johnson does his best to not have to pause and explain plot points to the viewer, something that films of this sort often are forced to do. He manages to find a way to let the story naturally play out with only a small assistance from Joe’s voiceover. The film also tells us that there are individuals that have suffered genetic mutation and posses telekinetic powers. The film never fully elaborates on this aspect of the story but it becomes increasingly important as the film advances towards the climax. The second half of the film introduces us to isolated farmer named Sara (Played by Emily Blunt) and her son, Cid (Played by Pierce Gagnon), who are forced to take in the younger Joe, who is hiding out from Abe. It is on Sara’s farm where you may find some yawns making their way into the story.

Judging from Looper’s trailer, you’d think the film would be heavy on action but you are in for a surprise. Looper puts more effort into exhaustively developing its main characters. This is all well and good with Willis and Gordon-Levitt but when the film shifts to Blunt and Gagnon, the film is sent into a slump. Gordon-Levitt continues to prove why he is one of the most talented men in Hollywood as Joe. A mumbling junkie who coldly carries out his work, Joe is a young man heading for an unknown disaster. We feel it in these early scenes but we can never put our fingers on what that disaster is. Joe is busy stock piling all the silver bars he is paid for his assassinations and studying up on his French so that he can retire from being a looper and move to France. He mimics Willis almost perfectly, with a little help from subtle prosthetics glued to his face. In the early scenes, away from Willis and Blunt, Gordon-Levitt has a groove that I was sure wouldn’t be thrown off. Then he comes face to face with the even colder Willis, who has some nasty business to attend to that I will not ruin here. Trust me when I say, his business got some nervous rustles and uncomfortable twitches from the audience in my screening. The scenes where Willis and Gordon-Levitt are forced to come face to face don’t seem to have the zing that Johnson thinks they do. They are devoid of any real chemistry that would make these exchanges fun. They are almost, dare I say, flat! Luckily, Johnson separates them and lets them shine on their own

Then we have beautiful Blunt, a moderately talented actress who always seems to fly just under the radar. She has never really delivered a performance that has absolutely floored me and here, she is really no different, no matter how much raw emotion she chooses to pour into her brooding role. Similarly to Willis, she can’t really seem to find a groove with Gordon-Levitt even if the two are demanded to spark up a romance. Surprisingly, the young Gagnon is another standout as the lovable tyke Cid who can turn into a monster in the blink of an eye (we will leave it at that for fear of spoilers). While there are brief moments where Sara and Cid’s story will have you at the edge of your seat, they just failed to make me really care about them and trust me, I wanted to. Looper also makes the grave mistake of under-using Paul Dano as the hotshot Seth. Johnson only hands him a small number of scenes before he vanishes. The same thing happens with Jeff Daniels, who is here on an extended cameo. While memorable, I wished he would have remained in the action a bit more than he does. He hands his dirty work off to the screw-up gatman Kid Blue (Played by Noah Segan), a character that is more for comic relief than true menace.

While I hesitate to really call Looper a mediocre movie, I was certainly hoping for more consistency. Instead, it gets switched on to autopilot before the furious climatic confrontation. While the arching plot is relatively easy to follow, Looper leaves a lot on the viewer’s plate to chew on and debate. I’m still trying to piece everything within the picture together and make sense of every little plot point that Johnson hands us. Despite the frustrating stand still in the middle of the film, there are moments where we are sucked back in and overtaken by the early thrill, especially when the film switches from Sara’s farm back into the city. Overall, I admire the ambition and I certainly have to give it up for the premise, as it truly is one of a kind. I commend Johnson for trying to do something new and I even have to give TriStar credit for taking a risk on Looper. Despite the flaws, Looper is still a minor triumph for science fiction and I am left wanting quite a bit more from Rian Johnson.

Grade: B