12 Years a Slave Review

12-years-slave-poster

12 Years a Slave is a movie of incredible power.  It not only speaks truth to power and depicts an important time in our history, but it does this while being extremely emotional and artistic at the same time.  Rarely does a movie get all aspects of film making as right as this one does.  This is not a film that gets by on good intentions.  It is a tour de force for all involved.

The movie follows the story of Solomon Northup, a person who was a free black in the pre Civl War North.  He is captured by fugitive slavers and taken down south under false pretenses.  It certain ways it is almost like the Inferno section of The Divine Comedy as it charts the lead character’s descent into hell.  We watch as Solomon goes further and further and further down the dark rabbit hole of American slavery.

I don’t believe a movie is important just because it tackles a serious subject matter.  There are plenty of made for TV movies and lesser Hollywood films that take on controversial subjects with often forgettable results.  Often these movies inform us, but many of them do not move us.  In order for something to stay with a viewer it has to have a certain kind of poetic truth, more than the just the mere representation of facts.

The direction by Steve McQueen is the work of a true master.  The same can be said by the cinematography of Sean Bobbit.  The camera lingers in all of the right places, adding meaning and pulling ideas out of the story.  There are landscape shots that add a surreal fever dream quality to certain scenes.  There is a scene that focuses on the slaves singing.  For a moment I was left thinking about the power of music to help one transcend suffering on this earth.  And yet, scenes like this are done without hitting you over the head.  The score is almost minimal.  Much of the powerful emotions of the film are communicated by the powerful performances of the actors and by what the camera chooses to linger on.  Often films will try to manipulate you with their score.  I found myself moved almost to tears several times just by the images onscreen.

Every actor in this film brings their A game.  Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyoung’o, as Solomon Northup and the female slave Patsey, are able to convey complex emotions often with nothing more than the expressions on their face.  Also, none of the white actors in the film allow their characters slip into caricature.   Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson always make it feel, no matter how horrible their deeds as slaveowners are, that you are watching the actions of complicated human beings.

This movie is not only a deeply moving historical drama, but it is also as horrific as any horror movie, and even features certain scenes of jet black comedy.  Yet it does all this while never letting you forget that as strange and as horrible as the scenes in the film are, that this is anything other than another day in our history.  This is not the work of strange beasts who have no relation to our present, but the day to day lives of many of our American ancestors.  It does not simply condemn the past, but also makes us aware that the deeds of these people are very much alive in our modern world.  In fact there are times when Fassbender’s character sounds quite a lot like modern day racists.  He simply had the legal permission to cary out his worst impulses.

Anyone that thinks this movie is depicting worst case scenarios simply hasn’t read enough history.  I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  William H. Seward, a member of Lincoln’s cabinet, makes a trip down south and is completely disgusted by the day to day depravity of the South at that time.  He sees a group of black children being led in shackles while being whipped.  Children!  And again at the time this was nothing unique, but just another day in America.

When I mentioned that there were scenes of dark comedy, I meant that the film features moments where the absurdity of human behavior comes to the forefront.  Several times Fassbender’s Edwin Epps character commits horrible acts while being drunk, and then quickly justifies his acts by bringing up the Bible.  Hannah Arendt once said that, “the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.”  We recognize the truth in this behavior, in that even in our modern world many people justify their behavior through religion.  Because this behavior is absurd, to anyone that has a brain, it becomes ridiculous, but it is no less true or horrific for being so.

This movie, which features so many scenes of horrific depravity, is also full of compassion.  The dignity for which Solomon bears his suffering is inspiring.  Brad Pitt also plays a character later on in the film that reminds the viewer that, even during times like these, the world is full of good people as well.

If this movie just relayed the message that slavery is bad it would be bringing nothing new to the table.  However, by infusing this story with poetic truth, the filmmakers have made a film that allow us to reflect on our present.  While watching the film I couldn’t help but think that not only was this a story of where we came from, but so much that is in the film is still with us, even if it is often just below the surface.  I think if you not only want to understand our past, but also our present, this film is a must see.

The Civil War and Movies

As any of you that have been reading along know, the last two weeks I have been interested in the Civil War.  Last night I watched Lincoln.  It was the second time I have seen it and it is really an extraordinary film.  Although there are a few scenes that seem a little too symbolic, and because of this aren’t believable as reality, overall it is really well done.  Maybe its best attribute is it really makes one think about the nature of politics.

Anyway, I wanted to watch another movie on that time period tonight.  I was doing an internet search and the truth is there are very few excellent movies that deal in that historical period.  I find that very strange.  Is that because we are afraid of really exploring a war in which half of the country was on the wrong side of justice?  Is it just that it is too long ago and, unlike World War II and Vietnam, we are too far removed from it?

It is becoming clearer and clearer to me that in order to understand modern America, one must be able to have some understanding of what happened during that time period.  Works of drama are more accessible than most history.  Good dramatizations can also often bring out certain truths, even if they contains slight elements of fiction, in ways that documentaries or even history books cannot.  They can connect people emotionally to something they might not otherwise understand or be interested in.

Werner Herzog On TV and Commercials

Our grandchildren will blame us for not tossing hand-grenades into TV stations because of commercials. Television kills our imagination and what we end up with are worn out images because of the inability of too many people to seek out fresh ones.”

- Werner Herzog

If you would like to read more quotes by the German director you can find some at:

http://www.penningtonproductions.com/werner-herzog-quotes/

If you are even the slightest bit interested in Herzog, the book Herzog On Herzog is a completely engaging read. 

“The Conformist”: An unsettling political masterpiece returns

“The Conformist”: An unsettling political masterpiece returns http://www.salon.com/2014/08/28/the_conformist_an_unsettling_political_masterpiece_returns/ via @Salon

This article in Salon made me really want to see this movie.  It is also nice to see a long form piece about a work when so many reviews are becoming shorter and shorter. 

The Movie Prometheus and Mythology

This blog includes big spoilers for the movie Prometheus.  

I must admit that I am fascinated with the movie Prometheus.  It is directed by Ridley Scott and it is an indirect prequel to the movie Alien.  I saw it twice in theaters and I seem to watch it every time it has come on TV this week.

First, I’m not saying that there are not problems with this movie.  The characters often have lapses in judgment that you would normally see in B horror movies.  Also the end, now that I have seen it several times, is really just a more serious version of the ending of Almost Heroes; yes the movie starring Chris Farley.  In the Farley comedy once the characters, who are racing Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Ocean, reach the Pacific Ocean, they decide to keep walking to Asia.  They decide to do this despite going through 90 minutes of comedy hell. The character of Dr. Shaw in the movie Prometheus, despite having just endured imaginable horrors, decides at the end to go further into the alien world that she has discovered.  They say that comedy is when a hero goes to the innermost cave and learns nothing.

However, I think I like this movie for two reasons.  First is that director Ridley Scott always puts the money on screen.  Whenever you see one of his big budget movies you are seeing something original and unique that you don’t see anywhere else.  Just the design aesthetic of this movie is incredible.  Also the creatures and aliens in this movie are actually really creepy.  A great deal of horror and science fiction are suspenseful only to lose credibility when you actually see the thing you are supposed to be afraid of.  The scene in the sick bay, where Dr. Shaw is trying to get rid of the alien inside her is one of the few times in recent memory I can remember actually squirming in a theater.

Second, I think that they created an interesting and complex mythology for this film.  In movies in the science fiction genre, or horror or fantasy, it is not important that these movies adhere to the rules of reality, so much that they create a unique world with its own rules.  The movie is deep, but not deep in the sense that one would usually use the term.  The movie does ask religious and philosophical questions, but I find them to be somewhat superficial and again that is not really what I’m talking about.  I mean that the film is deep in that its world has many layers to it that make it interesting.  It has a mythology in it to the point that your imagination takes you to places that aren’t being shown on screen.  The movie creates a three dimensional world, that however horrific, is different from our own and is something you can get temporarily lost in.  That to me is entertainment.

Video

Monday Morning Fun

I thought I would provide some fun for those of you that will be reading this early Monday morning at work. I was watching Lethal Weapon and within 30 seconds Danny Glover said the classic action movie line, “I’m too old for this shit.” If you haven’t seen it here is a Movie Supercut showing how many times variations of this line has been used. Tell your boss you are too old for this shit! Enoy…

Under the Skin: A Second Look

Although I can say with all certainty that the new movie Under the Skin is not for everyone, I can’t stop thinking about it.  If you want to know what it is about read my review from a few days ago.  It is cinema at its best, where imagery is painterly and infused with multiple layers of meeting.  One can’t help but look at the world in a new light, at least if you are open to this kind of film.  It is a slow movie, but this pace is rewarding as it causes you to contemplate the images being shown. 

Scarlett Johansson is an alien, but as this character she forces us to see the world in a way that we might not otherwise.  The world, stripped of its context and meaning that we impart on it, is a strange and mysterious place. 

One of the interesting things in the movie is the men that she seduces.  They have thick Scottish accents.  The accents are so thick that at times I had trouble discerning what they were saying.  Here they were speaking the same language as me, but they appeared foreign, as if inhabiting some familiar but parallel universe. 
Also, the natural world is presented as I believe it really is, as a world we rarely seen in nature documentaries that want to explain and categorize it.  Nature is beautiful and enchanting, but it is also dangerous beyond human comprehension on many levels.

Again, this movie is not for everyone.  It requires work out of the viewer.  In some ways it is more like going to an art museum than the traditional Hollywood fair.  However, if you are up to the challenge, you will see something unique.  It is if the director, Jonathan Glazer, opened up a small glimpse to the mysterious heart of the universe.