Movie Review: “12 Years a Slave” (Steve McQueen, USA/UK 2013)

Sometimes, I diagnose films with what I call “Holocaust* Movie Syndrome,” which means that they are being judged on the basis of the importance and power of their subject rather than their own merit. I call it “Holocaust Movie Syndrome” because holocaust movies are often given this treatment, receiving universal, almost unthinking praise simply for being holocaust movies. The treatment works in the opposite direction as well, with “silly” movies like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, USA/UK/Canada/Japan 2010) dismissed as “fluff” in spite of having obvious quality. It does not mean anything in particular about the film, which may indeed deserve the praise anyway (for example, The Pianist [Roman Polanski, France/Poland/Germany/UK 2002] was a clear case of Holocaust Movie Syndrome, but was in any event a remarkable film that deserved that praise), but it means that much of the critical reception is rather shallow and cannot be given the weight that critical opinion usually carries.

12 Years a Slave was a clear case of Holocaust Movie Syndrome, being praised mostly on the basis of its depiction of an important and emotionally powerful subject. That meant that, in spite of the immense praise it is receiving as the likely Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, I went in to this film with little idea of what to expect. In the end, it ended up a good film, if not one that deserves quite the praise being heaped on it.

The film’s tale is the powerful, riveting true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man in 1841 New York who is kidnapped into slavery in the south and spends 12 years as a slave before being able to return to his family and freedom. It’s interesting and packs an emotional wallop, and director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley use the strength of the story and its characters to maximum effect.

The one problem is that the film’s greatest strength—the story—also becomes a weakness as McQueen is unable to stay focused on a single point throughout. Much of the film fits a central point about the miraculous-yet-dangerous ability of humans to hide within themselves to avoid facing what is wrong around them or even within themselves. For a film that does an awful lot right, that’s not the biggest flaw in the world, but it is enough to keep the film from being a masterpiece, or even being as good as Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA/France 2013) or Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, USA 2013) were in its year.

McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt advance their central point with a number of interesting visual elements. Brutalities of various types—murders, beatings, etc.—are consistently happening on or just off the edge of the screen, out of focus, or in darkness that hides just how brutal they are, as the in focus characters do their best to ignore them. Those techniques make it all the more powerful when we finally do see the brutality full-force, first when Solomon himself is strung up but survives and then when he is forced to whip a fellow slave himself. They also use changes in coloring and lighting to their best effects, enhancing the terror of Solomon’s discovery that he is trapped in some bizarre sort of prison cell with low-key lighting and enhancing the relative freedom that Solomon feels in Judge Turner’s cane fields with bright, saturated colors. It’s a well-made film visually.

Chiwetel Ejiofor leads a cast that is rather uneven, but he leads it with an excellent performance. Like with Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, he plays a character who generally does not wear his emotions on his sleeve and so is often limited in what he can show, though he does everything they ask perfectly well. And then, he has a few scenes where he gets to (relatively) chew the scenery, like his tearful explanation of his situation to Bass and his reunion with his family, and he is absolutely fantastic in every one of them. It’s a great performance, and one that is really marked by his restraint. Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, and Benedict Cumberbatch are excellent in small roles, seeming completely natural and showing a remarkable amount of depth for what little screen time they have. However, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o are both relatively weak in their roles, sometimes coming across as though they are trying to hard or just as generally appearing unnatural.

The other role that deserves note is Brad Pitt’s performance as Bass. While he does not have much to do and does not really stand out in a good or bad way in his role, I found it rather silly to cast him in that part, immediately turning that character into a white knight who is bound to save Solomon. We’ve seen him betrayed again and again, to the point that we would be just as suspicious of Bass as he would be, but once we see that he’s Brad Pitt, we know he’s not going to sell Solomon down the river or fail. It’s nice that Pitt wanted to be in the film to lend it some star power (though since he was a producer, he already could have done that) and certainly his performance is not a problem, but I think it was a mistake to cast him in this way.

Hans Zimmer produced an excellent score that uses Solomon’s facility with a violin to full effect and perfectly enhanced every emotion the film sought to elicit. It wasn’t one of the more attention-grabbing scores one could ever hear, but it did exactly what you want of a film score.

Overall, 12 Years a Slave is a very good film that has one major flaw that keeps it from really being a masterpiece. Luckily, it does everything else about as well as you can ask, and that’s what keeps it worth watching. Further, it is of course an emotionally powerful journey that will punch you in the gut, and I’m not sure that the commoditization and dehumanization of people involved in slavery has ever been captured more strongly.

 

*The “holocaust” being referred to throughout is the Nazi-led holocaust from World War II. I am simply calling these films “holocaust” movies for the sake of brevity, and certainly do not mean to imply that other holocausts have not occurred, as indeed they have.

Movie Review: “The Wolf of Wall Street” (Martin Scorsese, USA 2013)

Since 1990, Martin Scorsese’s career has been maddening. Up to that time, he was one of the great American directors of all time, producing masterpieces like Taxi Driver (USA 1976), Raging Bull (USA 1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (USA/Canada 1988), and of course Goodfellas (USA 1990) and rarely making a major misstep. Then, his career apotheosis, the film he seemed destined to make, still didn’t win him the Oscar that had eluded him through a two-decade career (and to make matters worse, he lost out to Kevin Costner of all people).

He spent the next two decades repeating the tricks that, when new, made him such a great filmmaker, with varying success, rarely traveling far beyond his favorite subjects and never attempting something new. Much of the time, he seemed interested in just repeating his past. Then, bizarrely, The Departed (USA/Hong Kong 2006), another one of his exorcises in re-creating Goodfellas (and one of his less successful efforts in so doing at that) finally won him that Oscar.

His next full-length non-documentary, Shutter Island (USA 2010) did not receive the critical praise he was used to but I considered it an excellent film and more importantly a sign that Scorsese was willing to try some new things, venturing into completely different thematic territory, a new subject, and even some new visual techniques. He followed that up with the acclaimed Hugo (USA 2011), an even larger departure from Scorsese’s history that seemed to signal that the Oscar had freed him up to be the great filmmaker he had once been.

Fresh off of two signs that he had finally progressed beyond the demon of Goodfellas losing the Oscar that had stalked him for two decades, I was excited to see what Scorsese did next. However, while The Wolf of Wall Street has received considerable praise, it has also been dogged by complaints that it was a repetition of Scorsese’s past, even drawing direct complaints that it was a retread of Goodfellas again. Unfortunately, the complaints were accurate, and Scorsese’s film was yet another competent-but-repetitious attempt to recreate Goodfellas, leaving me wondering why on earth anyone would watch this instead of just watching the earlier film again.

The point of this film is the ability of capitalism to justify horrible actions. It could easily begin with, “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a Wall Street cheat.” It tells the story of Jordan Belfort, a middle class kid who finishes school wanting nothing but to be rich and so heads to Wall Street seeking his fortune as a stockbroker. He learns some of the ins and outs of the business from a disturbing and disgusting successful broker only to see his firm fall apart just as soon as he starts, then adopts the worst elements of that broker in creating a new, illegal stock firm and of course builds an empire of wealth, debauchery, and drugs before the FBI finally brings him down. All along the way, he justifies himself by pointing out the amount of money he has given to down-on-their-luck people needing the help and seeing himself as the more reasonable member of his partnership with Donnie Azoff. He repeatedly claims that his nonstop search for money and drugs is “the American way.”

The plot is a good enough way to make Scorsese’s point, but he is so interested in Belfort’s drug problems and debauchery that he spends fully half of the movie just establishing those elements again and again. He’s so busy showing us Belfort’s amusing attempt to drive himself home while high on Quaaludes that he makes no attempt to connect that scene to his overall point. He is so excited to show us the repeated orgies and various other debaucheries of Belfort’s firm that he doesn’t bother to explain somehow that Belfort’s dissatisfaction with his beautiful, sex-crazed wife is driven by his obsession with money and constant stimulation. It’s as though the film is more interested in pushing the envelope and getting as close as possible to an NC-17 rating than it is in making its point, which is why it ultimately fails.

For most of his more recent work, Scorsese has worked with cinematographer Robert Richardson, but this time he instead turned to Rodrigo Prieto, who has a long history of solid-if-unspectacular work in his past, and it’s difficult even to tell that there is a change. The film uses more of a full color palette throughout than Scorsese’s normal use of washed-out color that becomes more saturated as the film continues, but that is essentially the only difference from Scorsese’s offerings of the last two decades. The film also repeatedly attempts unusual shots to explain to the audience the altered perception of a high person, but they frankly consistently fall flat. Announcing that the Quaaludes are having their effect on a character and then having him move in slow motion just doesn’t do much for appreciating what they do, and makes that trickery completely unnecessary and almost laughable.

The acting is rather uneven, with an excellent lead performance supported by smaller performances that range from good to bad. DiCaprio is the only person who gets a lot to do, and he really knocks it out of the park, portraying his charismatic salesman as he progresses from an eager-to-please ingénue to an arrogant, selfish prick. The transformation he goes through is sudden, not subtle, but it is amazing seeing the ambitious but somewhat reserved young man adopt the mannerisms and activities of his mentor, and he has to portray widely varying emotions throughout. Meanwhile, Jonah Hill, a guy who we’re apparently supposed to think is hilarious while he is doing nothing and great anytime he’s not in a broad-as-can-be comedy (seriously, why have the critics all decided he’s brilliant?) is so bizarre and off-the-wall that it’s difficult to believe him even as an insane drug addict, and seems to have the same look on his face 90% of the time. Matthew McConaughey deserves some credit for an excellent cameo as Belfort’s first Wall Street mentor, a performance that seems more real than many of the supporting roles. Margot Robbie plays Belfort’s seductive wife every bit as greedy as her husband, albeit in a different way, with aplomb, though she doesn’t have too much to do.

As always, Scorsese and Robbie Robertson (I’ve never been clear on who should get the credit.) do a masterful job finding music to suit the film. That ability to use extant music as such a strong cue has long been one of Scorsese’s great strengths, and it was just as present in this film as it famously was in Goodfellas.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a decent film, but it’s really another attempt to retread the ground of Goodfellas that doesn’t do it as well and adds another 40 minutes of sex and nudity. It’s not a terrible way to spend a few hours, but you would be better off just watching Goodfellas again and spending a half-hour reading.

Notes

  • I don’t know about everyone else, but where I grew up, a two-accountant family would not be “middle class.” Nor could “middle class” people afford Belford’s education.
  • It’s interesting that Scorsese comes out with another re-tread of Goodfellas the same year that David O. Russell skewers it.
  • The voice-over was annoying and unnecessary throughout the film. There are times when a voiceover fits well and times when it just gets overused, but this time was one when it could have been cut completely without losing a thing.
  • There were a number of funny moments throughout the movie and some really good dialogue. It was more enjoyable than it was good.
  • Interesting trivia: Robert Richardson, Scorsese’s usual cinematographer, also shot Wall Street (Oliver Stone, USA 1987). I wonder if that fact has something to do with Prieto shooting this one.

Movie Review: “Her” (Spike Jonze, USA 2013)

Spike Jonze has built a career on making films with odd basic concepts. Sometimes, like Adaptation. (USA 2002), he’s able to make the film work within its own weirdness, finding a good thread to follow throughout and having just enough of a visual imagination to keep things interesting. Other times, like Being John Malkovich (USA 1999), he has trusted the weirdness of the concept to carry an otherwise completely uninteresting film. In either case, the unusualness of the plot has typically been enough to receive attention and praise aplenty, meaning that even the very strong reviews for Her left me wondering what to expect from the film. Would it be another interesting-if-uneven work or perhaps even better or would it be another pointless exercise in weirdness?

Unfortunately, I think the film is closer to the latter than the former, and the praise it is receiving is almost entirely about its basic plot and Joaquin Phoenix’s strong (if one-dimensional) lead performance.

The film tells the story of a lonely divorced writer, Theodore Twombly, developing a romantic relationship with the operating system he has just installed on his home computer. Twombly’s relationship with the OS ebbs and flows just like a human-to-human relationship and he struggles with and eventually accepts both the idea of having such a relationship and the idea of revealing such a relationship to the world. The problem is that the film doesn’t really have a point. Instead, it’s attempting to explore the nature of love, a concept that is far too large and complex for a film, and that the film seems to be attempting to explore in the most shallow way possible. It’s only interested in exploring whether it is possible for a human to have a relationship with an operating system that is a “real” romantic relationship, not in examining any of the more specific issues that would need to be explored in order to make that determination. As a result, the film really ends up as rather a pointless mess that is only concerned with advancing its silly plot and not with making any deeper point.

That said, the film does what it sets up to do reasonably well. The relationship between Theodore and Samantha is complex, realistic, and nuanced. The characters are well-drawn, especially Theodore himself. As an emotionally drained loser, Theodore makes his living as a writer of personal letters for other people who apparently cannot be bothered to write their own letters. It’s a perfect and quick explanation of who he is and the world that this film inhabits: one where people fake their own relationships, making a loving relationship with a “fake person” is understandable. Even minor characters like Theodore’s blind date whom his friends send him to meet and his boss are interesting, rounded characters, an achievement that few films could boast in only two hours.

It also boasts some clever jokes, like the phone sex partner who wants Theodore to choke her with the dead cat by the bed (and more importantly his strained reaction to her request). However, it is also perfectly willing to be so broad in its humor that it loses me, as with the virtual reality character who swears at Theodore and flips him off and apparently it is hilarious because it’s a cute little cartoon doing that.

Unfortunately, Jonze and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema display little visual imagination. It’s a standard cyan-orange color scheme without any particularly interesting shadows or lights happening anywhere. The film uses cooler colors for more emotionally detached scenes and warmer colors for more tender scenes, which is decent enough technique but nothing special. There is nothing awful about the visual aspect of the film, but it’s not actually interesting either, which limits how good of a film it can really be.

The acting is excellent across the board, but it’s also excellent in part because the deeper characters don’t get much screen time while those who get more screen time are much more shallow, as best exemplified by Theodore. Theodore is, quite simply, a sad sack. There just isn’t much for Joaquin Phoenix to do with the part, though he deserves credit for how well he plays this downtrodden person. His part is essentially a watered-down version of William H. Macy’s part from The Cooler (Wayne Kramer, USA 2003), and he does everything he needs to do. It’s just that what he needs to do is not as complex or interesting as one would like from a truly great performance.

It should also be noted that Owen Pallett’s score was a rather annoying, obtrusive presence throughout the film. Some moments, like the cascading obviousness of Samantha’s piano lines in her songs, work well for the film, but those are unfortunately the exception rather than the rule.

All told, Her is an average film. It has an interesting concept, some nicely written characters, and great acting, but that’s where its strengths end. It’s okay for a single watch, but nothing more than that.

Notes

  • I do wonder a bit when this film is supposed to be set. The technology of OS1 is clearly well beyond the capabilities of humanity today–Samantha would easily pass the Turing test. High technology also seems to be ubiquitous, even more so than it is today, and there seems to be no shortage of nonstop, perfect internet connections and wireless transmitters of various types. But there aren’t flying cars or self-fitting clothing or anything, so is it supposed to be the near future? Or is Jonze just taking some major poetic license with the limits of current technology? (Or are we not supposed to think about that?)
  • Why didn’t Scarlett Johansson play the sex surrogate? That would have been hilarious.
  • Chris Pratt has always been a big guy but holy crap his arms were huge. They were bigger around than Joaquin Phoenix’s head. He must have already been training for his superhero movie.
  • Making Amy Adams a blonde is a crime. Spike Jonze is now in my prison.
  • I’m terrified to look it up, but places like where Theodore works don’t exist, do they? They probably do . . .