Greetings again from the darkness. Woman power. Black power. Racist old white men. Corrupt politicians. Abusive husbands. Cheating white husbands. Racist cops. Men are bad. Women are strong and good. If a filmmaker were to blend all of these stereotypes into a single movie, then as movie goers we should expect an ultra-talented filmmaker like Steve McQueen to go beyond conventional genre. Unfortunately, a nice twist on the heist movie formula from Lynda La Plante’s novel turns into predictability that whips us with societal clichés posing as societal insight.
I seem to be one of the few not raving about this movie. Hey it has the director behind Best Picture Oscar winner 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Mr. McQueen), a screenplay he co-wrote with Gillian Flynn (GONE GIRL) from the aforementioned novel by Lynda La Plante, and a deep and talented cast of popular actors. It ticks every box and it’s likely to be a crowd-pleaser, despite my disappointment. Every spot where I expected intrigue, the film instead delivered yet another eye-roll and easy-to-spot twist with a cultural lesson. Each of the actors does tremendous work, it just happens to be with material they could perform in their sleep.
It’s the kind of film where audience members talk to the screen – and it plays like that’s the desired reaction. This is the 4th generation of the source material, including 3 previous TV mini-series (1983, 1985, 2002). It makes sense that this material would be better suited to multiple episodes, rather than hurried through 2 hours. There are too many characters who get short-changed, and so little time to let the personalities breathe and grow. But this is about delivering as many messages as possible.
A strong premise is based in Chicago, and finds a team of four burglars on a job gone wrong. This leaves a mobster/politician looking to the four widows (hence the title) for reparations. Since the women have no money, their only hope is to tackle the next job their men had planned. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Carrie Coon play the widows, though only the first three are given much to do, as the talented Ms. Coon is short-changed. In fact, Ms. Davis is such a strong screen presence that she dominates every scene she is in – she’s a true powerhouse. Even Liam Neeson can’t hang with her. Colin Farrell appears as a smarmy politician and Robert Duvall is his f-word spouting former Alderman dad. Cynthia Erivo has a nice supporting turn in support of the women, and Bryan Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Garret Dillahunt, Kevin J O’Connor, Lukas Haas, and Jon Bernthal fill out the deep cast … see what I mean about too many characters and too little time?
There is no single thing to point at as the cause for letdown. The story just needed to be smarter and stop trying so hard to comment on current societal ills. As an example, a quick-trigger cop shooting an innocent young African-American male seems thrown in for the sole purpose of ensuring white guilt and an emotional outburst from the audience. It’s difficult to even term this film as manipulating since we see the turns coming far in advance. Two far superior message films released earlier this year are Spike Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN and Boots Riley’s SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. For those who need only emotion and little intellect in their movies, this not-so-thrilling heist might work. For the rest of you, it’s good eye-roll practice.
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 full 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”.
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 Woodard, 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 charming 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.
Greetings again from the darkness. Can a film be a beautifully crafted work of art AND also a movie that very few will enjoy, or even have an interest in seeing? Clearly, I am in the minority here as critics are raving about the insight and genius of writer/director Steve McQueen (Hunger). McQueen is an art school graduate and has a terrific eye for color, tone, texture and visual acumen. Those talents (and plenty more) are all on display in Shame.
For me, there are two separate aspects to discuss: the look of the film, and the effectiveness of the story. The first deserves recognition and kudos, while the second has resulted in a total lack of interest and ambivalence. Evidently the goal was to detail and humanize the diagnosis of sex addiction, detailing the lack of emotional connection that follows this most personal of activities. The film is rate NC-17 for good reason. Not only are the two stars uninhibited, but much of the supporting cast joins in … too many to count.
I will not itemize the number of ways in which Brandon (Michael Fassbender) tends to his addiction. On the surface, he is a normal looking guy with a normal job in a generic Manhattan office building. We quickly learn that he is always alone and in angst … regardless if he is in a group at hour hour, hooking up with one of his endless stream of partners, or handling his own business. This guy is unable to find joy in anything that life offers.
His isolated world is one day invaded by his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). We learn that their up-bringing has much to do with his always dour mood, and her desperate need for attention and care. They are both a mess … just in different ways. She has a line via voice mail that says “We aren’t bad people. We’re just from a bad place.”. That is meant to explain the rotting foundation without exposing us to another story of poor parenting skills.
The clearest indication that Brandon’s emotional issues are well beyond frayed, occurs when he actually starts to see a glimmer of relationship hope with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie), only to have that end in performance failure. He quickly fixes the problem by resorting to what he does best … with no meaning attached. The best sequence in the film occurs while Brandon eye flirts with a subway passenger, whom he loses in the crowd after the ride. She re-emerges late in the film clearly open to his attention.
Carey Mulligan is building a strong film career and her performance here is wonderful. Michael Fassbender has had a remarkable year with the latest X-Men, Jane Eyre, A Dangerous Method, and Haywire. That is a dream year for an actor. The film is beautiful to look at and has stunning performances. All that for a movie that is not really very interesting and certainly lacks substantive entertainment value for the normal movie-goer.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can ignore the beat down of the story and focus on the artistic film qualities OR you just like to see movie stars naked.
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: watching characters in the midst of life-long emotional abyss is less than appealing to you, not matter the high level of art direction