12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

October 27, 2013

slave1 Greetings again from the darkness. Should this be labeled a historical drama? Is it one man’s extraordinary tale of strength and survival? Does this fall into the “art film” category that so divides the movie-going public? The answer to all is YES, and I would add that it’s a masterfully crafted film with exquisite story telling, stunning photography and top notch acting throughout.

The movie is based on the real life and writings of Solomon Northrup, a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery from 1841-53. Northrup’s story provides us a look inside the despicable institution of slavery. Needless to say, it’s a painful and sad process made even more emotional by the work of director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame). McQueen takes a very direct approach. Not much is left to the imagination. Torture, abuse, cruelty and misery take up the slave2full screen. The only subtlety comes from the terrific work of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northrup. His facial expressions and eyes are more powerful and telling than any lines of dialogue could be.

You will not find many details from the movie here. This is one to experience for yourself. It lacks the typical Hollywood agenda when it comes to American history. Instead this era is presented through the eyes of a single wronged man and his quest to return to his wife and kids, no matter the inhumane obstacles. We see Paul Giamatti as an emotionless, all-business slave trader. Benedict Cumberbatch is a plantation owner who has a heart, but lacks business savvy. And finally we enter the world of cotton farmer Michael Fassbender, who twists Bible scripture into threats directed at the slaves – his “property”.

slave3 Fassbender dives deep into evil to find his character, and along with Ejiofor, Sarah Paulsen (who plays Fassbender’s icy wife), and Lupita Nyong’o (who plays slave Patsey, the center of the two most incredible scenes in the film), provide more Oscar worthy performances than any one movie can expect. You will also note Quvenzhane Wallis (as Northrup’s daughter) and Dwight Henry (as a slave) in their first appearances since Beasts of the Southern Wild. Other strong support comes from Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam (SNL), Michael K Williams, Alfre Woodward, a nasty Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt and Adepero Oduye.

Steven Spielberg gave us a taste of the holocaust with Schindler’s List, but not since the TV mini-series “Roots” has any project come so close to examining the realities of slavery. Northrup’s story seems to be from a different universe than the slave4charming slaves of Gone with the Wind. I would argue that what makes this watchable (though very difficult) is the focus on Northrup’s story. While tragic, his ending actually deflects from the ongoing plight of those not so fortunate. It’s a story of a man who states he doesn’t wish to merely survive, he wants to live a life worth living.

McQueen’s direction will certainly be front and center come awards season, as will many of the actors, John Ridley (the screenwriter), Sean Bobbitt (cinematographer) and Hans Zimmer (score). The only question is whether the subject matter is too tough for Oscar voters, who traditionally lean towards projects a bit more mainstream.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see filmmaking and story-telling at the highest level and based on the true path of one man during one of America’s most despicable periods.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: slavery, complete with explicit scenes of turture and cruelty, is something you would rather read about than see depicted onscreen.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUQNjfhlREk


THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (2013)

April 4, 2013

place Greetings again from the darkness. With an extended tracking shot to open the film, we follow Ryan Gosling, a motorcycle stunt rider, from his trailer through the carnival grounds and right into the metal sphere with his co-riders. It’s an exhilarating start to the film and introduces Luke (Gosling) as a heavily-tatted star attraction on the carnival circuit.

This is director Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to his 2010 critically acclaimed Blue Valentine (which also featured Gosling). While that film painfully presented the gut-wrenching misery of a crumbling marriage, this latest shows multi-generational fallout from poor decisions and faulty father-son relationships. Cianfrance has quite an eye for well-intentioned, but inadequate personality types. This latest is presented in triptych format … three distinct story divisions. The first segment is mesmerizing and top notch filmmaking.  It follows Luke’s attempt to “do right” by his newly place3discovered infant son – the result of last year’s carnival trip to this same town and a tryst with Romina, a local gal played by Eva Mendes.

Gosling is especially effective (yet again) as he falls in with a local mechanic played by a terrific Ben Mendelsohn (frightening in Animal Kingdom). The two hatch a scheme to capitalize on Luke’s bike riding skills by robbing banks. These “jobs” allow us to see the other side of Luke, who seems sincere in his desire to provide for the child and win back Romina. Things go badly when Luke crosses paths with rookie street cop Avery Cross (played by Bradley Cooper). Watching Gosling’s contradictory personalities is quite amazing … he flips from quietly charming to cold-blooded brutal bank robber in the blink of an eye.

place4 The story then shifts to follow Avery and his strained relations with his wife (Rose Byrne), their infant son, and Avery’s former state Supreme Court judge father (Harris Yulin). A sub-plot brings in police department corruption led by … who else? … Ray Liotta. Mr. Liotta still possesses the beady-eyed stare that can scare the crap out of his fellow actors and anyone watching the movie. This corruption and the idealistic and ambitious nature of Avery aren’t a very pleasant mixture, but it sets the stage for the final act.

Flashing forward 15 years, brings us to a fairly predictable situation that still proves interesting. The previous stories focused on the failed relationships of Luke and his father, Luke and his mis-fired attempt at being a dad, and the awkwardness of Avery and place2his father. Now we see the resulting mess that are the two now teenage boys. The sons are played by Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan (memorable as Cricket in Lawless). DeHaan especially shines as the Gosling/Mendes prodigy.

Sean Bobbitt is the film’s Director of Photography and he deserves special mention for his work with Cianfrance in bringing a different and intimate look to the characters, setting and story. Also, Mike Patton’s unusual score fits perfectly and keeps the viewer on track. This is a very uncomfortable movie to watch, but those who enjoy tough, artsy films will be rewarded.

*NOTE: During the Q&A after the screening, director Cianfrance mentioned that Ryan Gosling is not “typical” actor, but that he has quite a feel for characters and visual story telling. Unfortunately, a couple of days later Mr. Gosling announced he was taking a sabbatical from acting.  Luckily for us, he has built a pipeline of movies that should keep us satisfied for the next couple of years.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of gritty independent films OR you enjoy triptych story structure OR you just want to see Ryan Gosling at his coolest riding motorcyles

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an uplifting, inspirational story … no superheroes saving the world in this one.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G07pSbHLXgg