Monday, October 28, 2013

Punishing "12 Years a Slave" rewards viewers' pains


directed by Steve McQueen
starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Alfred Woodard, Brad Pitt

It’s tempting to attach a warning label to “12 Years a Slave” for those who haven’t seen it: That it’s difficult, even painful to watch. That it’s a grueling indictment of humanity, or rather, inhumanity, at its worst. That the violence is relentless and graphic, and not in that cartoony Quentin Tarantino way, but in a way that feels all too real and thus all the more sickening. All true—and yet to brand the film thus is to make it sound like an ordeal, an experience to endure rather than enjoy, which is also to misrepresent and undersell it. Director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the memoir of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was kidnapped, shipped downriver and sold into slavery for the titular 12 years, isn’t exactly built for enjoyment, but neither is it unalloyed suffering. In moving quietly between moments both appalling and poignant, it achieves a dark beauty and emotional resonance without offering the easy catharsis one might expect from the knowledge that Solomon’s indenture does, eventually, come to an end.

Maybe it took a Brit to bring the right balance of empathy and objectivity to the “peculiar institution” that continues to cast long shadows over our national identity. It’s somehow appropriate that British artist-turned-director McQueen (“Hunger,” “Shame”) depicts both the physical and psychological toll of slavery from the viewpoint of a man who at the outset is just as much a stranger to its horrors as the audience is. As Solomon, Chiwetel Ejiofor (a fellow Brit, who previously did his best work in indie films such as “Dirty Pretty Things,” “Kinky Boots,” “Children of Men,” and “Talk to Me”) conveys through both body language and wide, expressive eyes the rapid shift from sunny complacency to stunned disbelief and, finally, a semi-permanent internalized anguish that hangs over him for the rest of his time as a slave.

In some ways the early going is, if not the hardest, at least the most shocking for Solomon, as for us. Think of it: an educated, comfortably middle-class professional musician with a wife and two children finds himself incapacitated, imprisoned, and thrust unceremoniously into a nightmare world where nothing of his previous identity, not even his name, is recognized. He’s viciously beaten to a pulp in response to his attempts to clear up what he’s initially convinced is a mix-up; coolly, almost impersonally slapped by a slave trader (Paul Giamatti, effective in a small but chilling role) when he dares to assert his real name; and forced to stand by in silence while said trader shows off his human wares like so much livestock and separates a mother from her children without batting an eye at her frantic pleas.

From that beginning, things only get worse. While Solomon’s first master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), recognizes his superior talents and treats him relatively well, that goodwill only goes so far when Solomon runs afoul of one of Ford’s white hired workmen (Paul Dano, even more punchable than usual). Solomon is ultimately sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a New Orleans cotton planter legendary for his Simon Legree-like cruelty to his slaves. It’s at this point that Solomon’s life becomes even more of a fever dream, as Epps, in addition to being merciless, is also quite possibly insane—forcing his slaves to entertain him by night with singing and dancing after a day of backbreaking labor, fixating obsessively on a young female slave, Patsy (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, outstanding) despite the burning resentment of his wife (Sarah Paulson, also outstanding), and nursing paranoid fears that his slaves are conspiring to run away from him. Fassbender is a formidable and oddly magnetic presence, his performance suggesting that Epps’ status as slave owner is eating away at him like a cancer, even though his slaves feel its impact most directly and deeply. No slave feels it more than the all-too-aptly named Patsy, and her horrific treatment is almost too much for the film to bear.

But it holds up, thanks to McQueen’s characteristic restraint. I’ll admit that his previous films left me a bit cold; to me they felt like exquisitely crafted, clinically detached portrayals of human compulsion that never quite hit home because they were so detached. Here, perhaps for the first time, McQueen locates a throbbing emotional pulse, yet his instincts as an artist still tend towards the observational rather than the red-hot jugular. In this context, that impulse works: the scenes of abuse are unsparingly but not gratuitously brutal, and attentive to their impact on everyone involved—not just Patsy but Epps, his wife, and, of course, Solomon. And again, there is no cheap catharsis, no release of tension, only the quietly agonizing realization that unlike Solomon, who has resources they don’t, neither Patsy nor any of the other slaves have any hope of escape other than a premature death. (One of the most gut-wrenching scenes in the film is one in which an old slave simply drops dead in the fields and is buried with minimal ceremony; one look at Solomon’s expression says it all—the crushing fear that this might be the best he can hope for himself, now.)

By the same token, Solomon’s long-delayed liberation, when it comes, feels strangely muted rather than joyful. And that’s as it should be. “12 Years a Slave,” despite its broad narrative arc, isn’t really a hero’s quest. It’s one man’s experience of an institution that killed millions and almost killed him, too. It’s Solomon Northrup’s story, but in McQueen’s hands and for our times, it’s just as much the story of the men and women Solomon had to leave behind.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Homeland, Ep. 3-3: "Tower of David"

Brody's back! And bald. And totally fucked. But alive, just barely - if you count recovering from a gunshot wound in a flophouse in Caracas, heavily guarded by a man who for some mysterious reason would rather keep him prisoner than turn him in for a $10 million bounty, and pressed by a shady doctor to get hooked on smack.

Brody's captors tell him in no uncertain terms that this is the end of the line for him. I'd be more concerned except that I don't believe for a minute that the "Homeland" writers are going to let him rot in Caracas for the rest of the season. Just as I'm equally sure that they're not going to let Carrie spend the rest of the season in the psych ward.

Still, the episode was pretty effective in conveying just how hopeless and trapped both of our leads are right now, in prisons that in some sense were of their own making. Watching them struggle in vain to get out somehow managed to be both interesting and tedious at the same time. I'm not sure how the show can get them out without running into all the plausibility problems that plagued season 2, but I'm willing to withhold judgment for now. That said, I think I'm going to take a break from recapping "Homeland" until it introduces some kind of game-changer, for good or for bad. I'm skeptical that the show will ever return to the quality of season 1 - I think the writers have boxed themselves into a corner with respect to Carrie and Brody - but I will keep watching in hopes that it does.

Random observations:

-Brody's captor must really owe someone a huge favor. But who besides Carrie has any interest in keeping Brody alive? I mean, besides the hot daughter who rather improbably seems to have fallen for the pale bald guy. (Don't get me wrong, Damien Lewis is pretty dreamy, but Brody's not exactly in his best state at the moment.)

-The real standout character of the episode, IMO, was the heroin-pushing doctor with a pedophilic streak. Fun fact: Erik Todd Dellums, the actor who played him, was also in "The Wire" and, before that, "Homicide."

-Thought Claire Danes did a great job capturing Carrie's tenuous mental state - partly under control thanks to the lithium, but still barely holding it together. She was especially good in the opening scene with the doctor, pitifully trying to get him to put in a good word with her de facto jailer, Saul.

-Also liked Carrie's scene with the lawyer, though it's not clear whether she's just being paranoid or is correct in her suspicions. Based on the show's track record of validating Carrie's intuition even when she's most unstable, I go for option B.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"Gravity" weighs existence against existential (and has cool effects, too!)


Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

“Life in space is impossible.” The last sentence in the opening title cards of “Gravity” is both confirmed and challenged by what follows—a film that manages to be at once a white-knuckle thriller about a desperate struggle to survive and a quiet meditation on what drives the desire to live.

“Gravity,” Alfonso Cuarón’s first film in seven years, took an unusually long time to move from conception to execution: in its earliest stages, it wasn’t even set in space, though it’s now hard to imagine taking place anywhere else. There’s an elegant simplicity to the emptiness of space that serves its themes well—being and nothingness, if you will. Not that emptiness is all or even mainly what we see on screen; the movie takes place within striking distance of an international space station, with the beautiful blue, white, and green glow of Earth continually visible, and always in the foreground, our two principal human characters. These are a female engineer on her first mission, the oddly named Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), and her commanding officer, Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). It’s just another day at work for them, doing routine maintenance on a telescope, when the destruction of a Russian satellite unleashes a devastating flood of space debris that pulverizes their space shuttle and leaves them adrift and, in Ryan’s case, perilously low on oxygen.

Particularly in the early sequences, one of which thrusts the audience into Ryan’s perspective as she’s spinning helplessly in space, clawing desperately for some kind of visual cue or point of stability to orient her, the film has a breathless intensity that puts most action films to shame. After that first stretch, Cuarón pulls back at intervals to allow for a little breathing room, only to tighten the screws before we get any real chance to relax. It’s not sadistic so much as unrelenting, the much- (and justly) touted visual effects underscoring the pitilessness of the vast void, as well as its icily impersonal beauty.

Yet what gives the film its power isn’t its visual expansiveness but rather its intimacy, embodied in its focus on Ryan and Kowalski. Which is not to say that we get to know either of them well in the usual sense; although Kowalski is chattier than the reticent Ryan, the two are relative strangers to each other and we only learn a few details about their personal lives. But we learn about them, and empathize with them, in how they react to their predicament. Of the two, Ryan functions more successfully as the audience proxy, partly because she’s the novice here, partly because Bullock is such a believable Everywoman. (Kowalski, by contrast, exudes just a little too much Clooneyesque charm, even at moments of extreme crisis, to be entirely relatable.) Perhaps for this reason, the most haunting scene is one in which Ryan has just enough time to realize and reflect on the fact that she's about to die. She says, quite simply and heartbreakingly, “I know, we’re all going to die. But I’m going to die today.” In a beautiful passage from Roger Ebert’s last memoir, the late great movie critic touches on exactly this fear:

I don’t expect to die anytime soon. But it could happen this moment, while I am writing. I was talking the other day with…a friend of 35 years, and the conversation turned to our deaths, as it always does. “Ask someone how they feel about death,” he said, “and they’ll tell you everyone’s gonna die. Ask them, In the next 30 seconds? No, no, no, that’s not gonna happen. How about this afternoon? No. What you’re really asking them to admit is, Oh my God, I don’t really exist. I might be gone at any given second.

I won’t give away whether Ryan and Kowalski actually do die over the course of the movie. The outcome (which may surprise you) doesn’t affect the impact of that moment—a moment of particular significance for Ryan, who has a tragedy in her past that’s left her little or nothing to live for. Under those circumstances, what makes a person want, and fight, to live? Mere instinct? Or some higher power? “Gravity” ultimately skirts any definite answer to that question, at most suggesting that some force greater than animal survival lies behind the human will to live. Whether that force is spiritual or merely evolutionary, the viewer is left to decide. Some may find that evasiveness irritating, and while I don’t, I do think it makes the difference between a very good movie and a great one. Still, the fact that it encourages such pondering without letting up on the suspense, all within an economical 90 minutes, is no mean feat. In fact, it’s damned impressive. Without a doubt, Cuarón deserves full credit for realizing a vision that on paper must have seemed as impossible as, well, life in space.


Also saw:


Directed by Paul Greengrass
Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed, Barkhad Abdirahman, Mahat M. Ali; one scene featuring Catherine Keener

True to its title, this film depicts the 2009 hijacking of a U.S. merchant marine ship by four Somali pirates from the perspective of the ship’s captain. Tom Hanks convincingly inhabits the no-flash, no-frills character (even if he doesn’t quite nail the New England accent) of the skipper who manages to keep his head and outmaneuver his adversaries using only his wits and his superior knowledge of the ship. However, the hijackers (all friends and first-time actors from a Somali community in Minneapolis) more than hold their own opposite him, especially Barkhad Abdi as their diminutive but fierce-willed leader, Muse. As directed by Paul Greengrass (“United 93,” “The Bourne Ultimatum”) with his usual lack of sentimental gloss but thankfully less than his usual quota of handheld shaky-cam, "Captain Phillips" presents a compelling portrait of men fueled by economic desperation who you can’t help hoping will make better choices—despite the fact that their lives have been defined by the glaring absence of better choices. The film does go a beat too long, especially in the last 20 minutes, which could probably have been condensed without damage to the narrative. Still, the prolonged waiting for resolution underscores the agony felt by all the players in a tragedy that feels simultaneously global and intensely, claustrophobically local.



Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Alexandra Maria Lara, Olivia Wilde, others

Solidly entertaining flick about the real-life 1970s rivalry between two Formula One drivers, the hard-partying British daredevil James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the hyper-focused, disciplined Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl, best known as the Nazi war hero who tries unsuccessfully to woo Mélanie Laurent in "Inglourious Basterds"). The racing scenes have an impressive kick even if you already know how they turned out, and Hemsworth and Brühl are both excellent in their respective roles—even if the script overplays the contrast between Hunt’s impulsive, hedonistic recklessness and Lauda’s relentlessly austere, Germanic precision. Other characters flit in and out of the picture without making much of an impression, with the exception of German actress Alexandra Maria Lara as the woman who stands by Niki notwithstanding his characteristically dour pronouncement that “happiness is the enemy.”


Monday, October 07, 2013

Homeland: Season 3, Episode 2

The Carrie-Brody relationship may be the face of the show, but the heart of "Homeland," and its secret weapon, has always been the relationship between Carrie and Saul. Now that that relationship seems to be on the rocks, the show feels strangely rudderless. Which is not to say that it actually is, only that it's a bit disorienting in how fast it's rewriting the rules of who's on whose side.

Saul says he's on Carrie's side, which both is and isn't bullshit. There's no question he's using her as a sacrificial pawn to save what's left of the CIA (unless you're one of the conspiracy theorists who think he's playing a deeper, long-con game to undermine it). At the same time, he's right that Carrie, in her present state, is her own worst enemy. That scene in which he manages to turn her own family against her says it all. It's cruel, but I don't think it's entirely cold-blooded calculation on Saul's part: he knows that Carrie's completely bonkers and that letting her run amuck poses as much danger to herself as to the CIA. His methods of containment may be morally questionable, but arguably not wholly unwarranted as far as Carrie's well-being is concerned.

Carrie doesn't think so, of course, and her final, whispered "fuck you" to her erstwhile mentor was far more wrenching than any of her previous confrontations with him. She's so consumed with his betrayal she barely registers the fact that she's acquired an unexpected ally in Peter Quinn, who appears to be questioning where his own loyalties lie. This threatens to put him at odds with his erstwhile boss, Dar-Adal (F. Murray Abraham), who in yet another realignment, appears to be in an uneasy alliance, or at least equipoise, with Saul. I couldn't help wondering if Saul didn't order Carrie's commitment to prevent Dar Adal from taking even more extreme measures.

Meanwhile, as one mental patient is (re)institutionalized, another finds herself adjusting to release, which feels to her like anything but freedom. The parallels between Dana and Carrie - as well as the points of divergence - are heavily underlined, as Dana, too, tries to convince a skeptical (albeit less hostile) audience that she isn't crazy. I continue to be profoundly uninterested in her semi-secret boyfriend, rain-soaked angst and laundry room sexcapades and all. But I did like her cathartic bathroom scene with her mother, even if her plaintive insistence that she's healed/healing is way too tied up in a probably ill-fated romance. Something uncomfortably familiar about that, too, no?

As for Carrie, I don't know where her narrative arc is headed, but I don't believe for a minute that Showtime will allow "Homeland" to sideline its lead, Emmy-winning actress. That said, it was interesting to watch a fresh female face, Farah(?), make a bid to fill the role of Saul's protegee. I liked the way the show introduced her, with no explanation - just the long tracking shot of a young woman in a head scarf entering the CIA, uncomfortably aware of the less-than-friendly stares of passersby, until she presents her credentials. Things get off to a rough start between her and Saul, with an ugly and uncharacteristic, frankly rather unbelievable bit of anti-Muslim bigotry from the latter that brings tears to the girl's eyes. But she ultimately proves her mettle, with a little assist from Peter Quinn's brand of persuasion. I'm looking forward to seeing her character further developed.

Random observations:

-Crazy credits are back! With a few changes. Most significantly, instead of Carrie's quivery "I missed something once - I can't, I won't let it happen again," we get “I'm not the one who got it wrong. I'm the only one who got it right!” I hope this isn't a portent of Carrie's trajectory, as I'm not sure I can take an entire season of wild-eyed, furiously self-righteous Carrie.

-Not sure what to make of Dana's folding herself on to dad's prayer rug. It wasn't quite an obeisance. Felt more like her trying to find some clue, any clue, to what could have turned her father, belying her assurances that she's moved on.

-Is there any significance to Saul telling Farah to keep her discovery of the "missing" transaction fees between themselves? Only if you're a Saul-is-evil conspiracy theorist.

-Line of the week: "I'm FUCKING zen!"