Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Peculiar Institution

Fassbinder and Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave.

«««« 12 Years a Slave.  Written by John Ridley, based on the memoir by Solomon Northup. Directed by Steve McQueen. At selected theaters.
There are a lot of things Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave isn't. It isn't self-consciously hip, like Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. In its unstinting portrayal of plantation slavery in the southern US, it isn't easy to watch. Yet despite the multiple scourgings, hangings, rapes and other indignities it portrays, it never feels exploitative, never indulges in Gibsonian pleasure of self-flagellation. What it is, in fact, is the most compelling treatment of its subject since Roots---and maybe longer. 
          The "hard to watch" part deserves emphasizing. Based faithfully on the real-life memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black from Saratoga, New York, Slave withholds none of the horror as it shows the enterprise of human trafficking that operated in the antebellum period. Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an educated family man, and a talented musician, who is lured to Washington D.C. in 1841 on the promise of a job. After a night of hard drinking, he wakes up in chains. Protesting that he is a free man, he is savagely beaten, and informed that he is an escaped slave from Georgia. His past is erased, and his name changed. Before long he's smuggled out of Washington into the deepest of the Deep South, where he languishes as a field slave for a dozen years.
          One of the film's most trenchant images, among many, is of Northup crying for help from a basement cell as McQueen's camera rises to reveal the incomplete U.S. Capitol building. There, in one shot, is the essence of what became Martin Luther King's message more than a century later: that slavery was not just immoral, but a standing indictment of a nation that failed too long to uphold its own ideals.
          Nigerian-descended Briton Ejiofor (Children of Men, Redbelt) is terrific as a man too busy holding together the tatters of his dignity to think about vengeance. At no point does he not command the screen, even in the presence of a powerhouse cast that includes Michael Fassbinder, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt. No doubt his performance will make him a major star. Also notable is Lupita Nyong'o's performance as Patsey, as a girl who discovers the consequences of being the object her master's guilty desires. To Northup's enduring stoicism, Nyong'o is a bare nerve, delighting in her little privileges as strongly as she suffers their costs.
          But make no mistake: the real revelation here is the British-born McQueen. His best-known previous work, 2011's Shame, had its moments, but gave no hint of what he was capable of. From start to finish, 12 Years is the work of a director in complete control, tightening his hold on his audience like Solomon Northup tightening the strings on his violin. To perpetuate the metaphor, the film feels like a recital by a master soloist, staged in a spare room for just a small audience. Over 133 minutes, it unfolds with the logic of a terrible theorem, never flinching from the results. By the time Pitt appears, playing an abolitionist who excoriates Fassbender on the abomination of human slavery, it feels not like a moralistic lecture from another century, but a long-denied affirmation that 2 plus 2 does, in fact, equal 4.
          Northup's book was one of the better-known slave memoirs of the 19th century, though its impact tends to be overshadowed today by Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Picking apart the movie's portrayal of slavery would be hard, given that Northup's experience was well-attested. Still, it is interesting that in the scene where Paul Giamatti's character sells Solomon to his first "master", Northup is sold for a price of $500, a considerable sum at the time that would be equivalent to about $12,000 today. Rational folks making a $12,000 investment today—or back then—rarely throw such serious money away on frivolous cruelties. It's for that reason that the film is almost compelled to portray Northup's last "owner", Fassbender's Edwin Epps, as a drunken lecher and sadist.
           No doubt there were slave owners who were insane. But in a way, this is letting the institution of slavery off too easily. The deeper damage of all those generations of slavery was not done by the occasional sociopathic master, but by the regular, everyday institutionalization of human suffering. It wasn't necessarily the whippings, but the slow wearing-down of dignity. Every night a slave went to sleep in bondage, thankful to have his belly full of his owner's food, was its own kind of beat-down.
          But these are quibbles. 12 Years a Slave may well count as the definitive movie about its subject for a long time. For an institution with such a consequential legacy, that's saying a lot.

© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ant, Boot

Abdi and Hanks are equally at sea in Captain Phillips.

««« Captain Phillips. Written by Billy Ray, based on a book by Richard Phillips & Stephan Talty. Directed by Paul Greenglass. At area theaters.

Before the killing of Bin Laden and the fall of Kaddafi, the happy story of the Obama era was the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips. After sailing too close to pirate-infested waters off the horn of Africa in 2009, Phillips’ freighter, the Maersk Alabama, was boarded by four armed Somalis. Following procedure, the captain and his crew frustrated the pirates’ plan to take the vessel and its crew for ransom. Phillips himself ended up on a lifeboat with the raiders, who were ultimately confronted by the Navy SEALs. For the sakes of movie fans who might be current events-challenged, I’ll say no more about the circumstances of the ending, except that it was met by widespread relief at home—if not so much in Somalia.
            Now we have Captain Phillips, a dramatization of the incident from Paul Greenglass. In addition to a couple of Bourne movies, Greenglass made United 93, another ripped-from-the-headlines dramatization. Greenglass knows all the tricks and tropes of the Hollywood action mill, but also has a way of bringing a clean, taut, unsentimental approach to portraying real events. Interestingly, Phillips doesn’t resemble United 93 so much as another hostage drama rooted in real life, Dog Day Afternoon. In other words, it’s not such a happy story after all.
            Lest you think the showdown-at-sea premise isn’t iconic enough, Phillips is played to Tom Hanks—a guy who pretty much represents America itself in films like Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, and Forrest Gump. With his character stuck between his blue collar roots and his white collar overlords, Hanks doesn’t play it iconic, going instead for a hard but sturdy dignity. He already knows guys like him are surviving on borrowed time. Putting a gun to his head seems almost a clarifying act, making refreshingly obvious the economic forces that compelled him to sail too close to Africa, just to save a few bucks for his bosses.
            The script by Billy Ray makes the very same point about the head Somali pirate, a wisp of guy called Muse (Barkhad Abdi). He’s smart, he’s dirt poor, and he’s got bosses too—the gun-toting kind—who force him to keep going farther out into the Indian Ocean, hunting for bigger and bigger pay-offs for the “company”. “I made six million dollars last year,” he boasts to his hostage. To which Phillips replies, “If that’s true, what are you doing here?”
             Therein lies the difference between Captain Phillips and the typical post-911 hostage drama. Abdi plays his character of such maniacal conviction that you know he’s equally a hostage, trapped by the circumstances of a national tragedy. If our country was made lawless by civil war, and other nations took advantage of our trouble by pilfering our resources at sea, is there any doubt the boat-loads of American crackers—sorry, “freedom fighters”—would be out in the water in speed boats, taking matters into their own hands?
            And so when the Navy arrives, it’s already intervening in something far more ambiguous then a “hostage situation.” Greenglass gives the SEALs all due credit for pure, efficient lethality—perhaps too much credit, as the real event was far messier than he makes out. Like at the end of Dog Day Afternoon, we’re left with the feeling that not all positive outcomes equate with justice. As Samuel L. Jackson says in The Avengers, it’s a case of “ant, meet boot.”
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Station to Station

Bullock surviving in Gravity.

«««« Gravity.  Written by Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. At area theaters.

We've seen better days on the final frontier. The space shuttle is now a museum piece. We can find no national consensus on what NASA's next mission should be. At a time when access to space is essential for national defense, global climate monitoring, and not getting squashed by space rocks, NASA has been downgraded to a "non-essential" service. As of this writing, almost the entire agency is shut down, a pawn in the ongoing budget follies in Washington.
          But all is not lost. Into these dark times comes Alfonso Cuarón's magnificent Gravity, a vivid reminder that leaving the planet still has the potential to blow minds. Budgeted at a fraction of a real space mission—only $100 million—this movie may inspire the most kids to become astronauts since the glory days of the space race.
          Thanks to Star Wars and Star Trek, we tend to think space travel is old hat. Of course, we're wrong: with the sound effects and laser beams and spacecraft zipping around like WW2 fighter planes, neither of these (and Star Wars in particular) have anything to do with the reality of living and working in space. More than any movie since Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Gravity gets the experience right, in all its strange and haunting glory. Space really is, like, another world.
          The script (by Cuarón and his son Jonás) is a concerto for two instruments. Sandra Bullock is rookie astronaut Ryan Stone, on her first shuttle mission to service the Hubble Telescope. She and veteran flyer Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are on a spacewalk when things go terribly, fatally wrong. Nothing more need be said about what happens, except to say that Cuarón (Children of MenY Tu Mamá También) has spared no effort in getting the details right. From the seamless simulation of zero gravity to how astronauts "hear" sounds through the vibrations in their suits, it's hard to believe Gravity was not actually shot in orbit.
          Equally important, Cuarón goes into space only with the stuff he needs. This survival story has no extraneous exposition, no spoon-fed sentiment, no manufactured love interest beyond, perhaps, a few hints. We never see guys with pocket-protectors sweating it out back in Mission Control. Like in Children of Men—and unlike the jump-cutting norm--- Cuarón is stingy with montage, preferring to present the action in a series of masterful long takes. We might be tempted to call his approach "minimalist", except that the film never feels like the least Cuarón could do. Sometimes his camera soars, Kubrick-style; sometimes it flits into the character's helmets, literally looking through their eyes. The film is full of details that should reward second and third viewings, on the biggest screen you can find.
          Clooney is Clooney here, the modern incarnation of rough-hewn movie warhorses like Gary Cooper or Burt Lancaster. His appeal is definitely post-feminist, however, as his character is a supporting one only, dedicated to empowering his partner. The star is really Bullock, as she develops her post-ingenue legacy of quirky vulnerability wrapped around an iron core.
          Critics like this one have often complained that the potential of movie CGI is theoretically limitless, but depressing in practice. Though filmmakers can now visualize absolutely anything they want, they too often resort to the same old dragons, hobbits, and terminators. With GravityCuarón has at last given us something truly new. Let's hope that, unlike NASA, he's on the cusp of a beginning, not an end.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Go Speed Racer

Hemsworth and Brühl (right) rev their engines in Rush.

««1/2  Rush.  Written by Peter Morgan. Directed by Ron Howard. At area theaters.

Give the makers of Rush credit for one thing: they know that mere excellence isn't enough to make compelling sports drama. Periods of dominance by any one figure or team are boring. It's rivalries that really sell tickets, from baseball (e.g., Yankees vs. Red Sox), tennis (Federer vs. Nadal), or basketball (Lakers vs. Celtics). Chances are that nobody today dwells too much on who won the Formula One World racing championship way back in 1976. But in Rush, director Ron Howard and Co. bet that you'll will care if you know that the title was contested by two bitter rivals, British prodigy/playboy James Hunt vs. his Austrian frenemy, Niki Lauda. Like Achilles and Hector—or Maverick and Ice Man—it's the struggle for supremacy that makes the story, not the prize.
          Some sports have had their movie classics, but auto racing isn't one of them. Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan hope to defy that history by making a rarity among big-budget Hollywood opuses: an unabashedly character-driven drama. Chris Hemsworth (Thor) plays Hunt pretty much to his reputation: a sunny, likeable guy who was a daredevil on the track and a womanizing booze-hound away from it. That he had any time for racing was a miracle in itself, given that British Airways stewardesses were delivered en masse to his hotel rooms, and he reportedly slept with five thousand different women in his forty-five year lifetime (assuming he started at fifteen years old, that's a brand new lover every other day, sports fans). Of course, this is a Ron "Opie" Howard movie we're speaking of here, so Rush is happy to wink, wink at the sex and drinking, but overlook Hunt's heavy use of weed and blow—sometimes mere moments before he climbed behind the wheel.
          Daniel Brühl's Niki Lauda is actually far more interesting. The scion of a Vienna banking dynasty, the real Lauda defied his family to take up racing. He was notoriously prickly character, brilliant with cars but flummoxed by people. Where Hunt laughed in the face of danger, Lauda got out his slide rule, endeavoring to limit his risk to 20% "and not one percent more". His social skills were questionable, but never his grit: after a fiery crash in Germany that seared him outside and in, he was back in the cockpit a mere six weeks later, racing to hold off Hunt for the world championship. Though this is his first major role, Brühl got the hardest job—making us care about someone even his closest colleagues called an "asshole."
          Rush fails to reach top gear, but it isn't the fault of the leads. From Cocoon to Apollo 13 to The Da Vinci Code, words come to mind to describe the Ron Howard aesthetic, such as competent and workmanlike. This is particularly unfortunate given the gut-wrenching spectacle that auto racing could present, in the right hands. In his classic boxing drama Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese did not just settle for a compelling character, but re-imagined the sport visually, from the inside out. By contrast, Howard never shows us something new. He never even gives us a plain, uninterrupted view of what it's like to steer around a Formula One track for more than four seconds, resorting instead to cliché, MTV-style jump-cutting. Stylistically, there's nothing here that Tony Scott didn't do two decades ago in Days of Thunder.
          It's tempting to think that Ron Howard the director, who grew up before America's eyes acting in shows like The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, simply can't think his way out of his middle-brow box. Perhaps that's unfair to his intelligence. In any case, Rush doesn't take the checkered flag.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro