12 Years a Slave

ImageThere’s a moment towards the end of 12 Years a Slave where Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) looks directly into the camera and seemingly at the audience.  He stares for an extended moment, as if to say, “Can you believe that only 150 years ago – this happened…in the United States of America?”  12 Years a Slave is the quintessential American slavery-era film; it is heartbreaking, disturbing, tender, raw, and also beautiful.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northrup, a free, New York citizen who is a victim of a horrific kidnapping scheme where Southern slave traders abduct free Black citizens and transport them South forcing them back into slavery.  Northup’s life and family are ripped from him so suddenly that it is astonishing.  The title is pragmatically evocative of how long Northrup will endure his injustice, and director Steve McQueen makes sure the audience feels every bit of it as well.

The film is based on Northrup’s own memoir, a literary example preciously rare as so many slaves died before they could tell their stories or were never taught to read and write.  A pervasive struggle Northrup faces in the film is searching for tools or opportunities to write.  The film opens with Northrup covertly trying to make ink out of blackberry juice and fashion a pen out of stray twigs.  McQueen wisely emphasizes the oppressive silencing that occurred in order to, in some way, try to explain how such outrageousness was even possible for so long.

McQueen frames Northrup’s experience by casting recognizable faces as various archetypes of 19th Century Southern society.  Paul Giamatti plays a slave merchant in all of its absurdity, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the hypocritical plantation owner who seemingly appreciates humanity but wants to turn his eyes from the horror he knows is happening right under his nose, and Brad Pitt plays…Jesus; I’m pretty sure he’s playing Jesus.  However, one player, other than Ejiofor, gets to sink his teeth into a role that is far more substantial, Michael Fassbender.  Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, a slave owner who owns Northrup for nearly 10 of his 12 years in slavery.  Fassbender is terrifying; his character is reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes’ character in Schindler’s List, yes – he’s that chilling.  However, what sets him apart from being a typical embodiment of evil is that as the film goes on, it is clear that Epps is mentally ill.  This element does not garner sympathy for his actions, but it does reveal some of the helplessness inherent in a society that avoids the value of human life.  The end result is a decaying infrastructure that eats away at itself until it collapses.

Of course, this is a showcase for Chiwetel Ejiofor, an actor who has been on the brink of greatness for some time now.  Ejiofor’s performance is certainly in the running for the best of the year.  He harnesses strength as he portrays the effects of a dark and obtuse time in human history.  As Solomon Northrup, he leads the audience through a series of events that certainly require a bold and fearless guide.

12 Years a Slave is a moody masterpiece that I’m sure offers more context in repeat viewings, but I don’t know what kind of person would be able to sit through this film more than once.  McQueen contrasts the most abhorrent events of our young country’s history with some beautiful filmmaking, glorifying the Southern landscapes in rich, luscious irony.  His camera is up close and personal, using countless close-ups with the clear objective of putting slavery “in your face.”  The emotion is real and raw, not melodramatic.  Towards the end of the film, Northrup finally breaks down, which is inevitable.  He weeps for what he has missed.  It is a history lesson of the best and worst kind.  A

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Gravity

ImageGravity director, Alphonso Cuarón said that after this, he will never make another “space” movie.  Thankfully, the “space” movie that he did make is nothing short of spectacular, and should certainly make any director think twice before making the next “space” movie. 

Superlatives abound when describing the intensity and the mind-blowing visual effects of Gravity.  Set in space, Gravity opens with the words, “Life in space is impossible,” and five better words do not exist to serve as prologue for the film that follows.  Doctor Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are on a NASA satellite repair mission 600 kilometers above Earth’s surface when rogue debris from a Russian satellite detonation rip through their station at 50,000 MPH, decimating their ship and sending the astronauts hurdling into space. 

Cuarón majestically dazzles the viewer in the opening scene with epic silence, sweeping camera movements, and sensory immersion that rivals that of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  He magnifies the strangeness and utter complexity of being suspended in space as Stone and Kowalski are shown performing a variety of tasks as they complete their mission while communicating via radio between each other and their contact at Mission Control in Houston (Ed Harris). 

The peaceful, serene tone of the film’s first ten minutes is mesmerizing but unsettling as a twinge of impending doom is resting uneasily in the audience’s mind.  The thrilling contrast of the sudden catastrophe that befalls Stone and Kowalski is also handled with pure terror.  Tonal comparisons can be made to the 2003 film Open Water where primal fear is explored as two scuba divers are abandoned in the middle of the ocean hundreds of miles from shore.  Gravity taps into that same primal fear with expertise and style.    

Gravity is a true cinematic ride.  While not deep in content, the film is absorbing, terrifying, and authentic.  Clooney and Bullock carry the movie with ease and with a tight running time of 91 minutes, the small cast merely emphasizes the ironically claustrophobic nature of space.  Cuarón’s choices of point of view are magnificent as he allows the camera to effortlessly and seamlessly transition in and out of first-person at the most opportune times.  Few films give an audience such awareness and consciousness.  In once scene Bullock’s character is suddenly sent spinning into deep space.  She loses radio communication and the camera assumes Bullock’s point of view.  The audience abruptly is thrown into a very real experience of spinning, attempting to gain a point of reference, discovering oxygen levels are low, and likely literally holding their breath.  This is a movie to experience in a theater!  A

Gravity is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 31 minutes.  See it on the largest screen possible; it is playing in IMAX and XTreme theaters and can be seen in both 2D and 3D.  The People’s Critic saw the film in 2D, but many critics say this is a film worthy of the 3D surcharge.       

Blue Jasmine

ImageFor The People’s Critic, perhaps the most anticipated moment of any cinematic calendar year is not the summer blockbusters or the fall awards-hungry films.  It is the release of the latest Woody Allen film.  With Blue Jasmine being his 41st film as writer/director in as many years, the always reliable, always prolific auteur has earned the respect of The People’s Critic as a living legend.  The Brooklyn-born neurotic genius shows no signs of running out of steam at the age of 77 with Blue Jasmine being one of his most insightful and finely-tuned films of his career.

Have you ever wondered who that blabbering stranger is who sits next to you on an air plane or who that mumbling nut-case is who sits next to you on a park bench?  These are quite possibly the questions that inspired Allen’s latest film.  The film’s title refers to Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett), a modern American socialite who suffers a life crisis when her financial investor husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), turns out to be a white-collar crook in the vein of Bernie Madoff.  Jasmine’s story is told as a fractured storyline flashing back and forth to Jasmine’s life before and after her impending ruin.  Allen handles these juxtapositions flawlessly, carefully crafting the triggers that send the story hurdling back and forth.

Allen’s film may be contextually set within the confines of financial crisis; however, the film is actually about trust and fate.  The strength of the story rests on the complex and fractured relationship between two adopted sisters, Jasmine and Ginger (Sally Hawkins).  Jasmine and Ginger were separately adopted, raised together, but fate sent them on wildly different paths.  The film opens with a freshly ruined Jasmine leaving New York to live with Ginger in San Francisco.  The transition is not an easy one for her, and Ginger’s low-middle class lifestyle disgusts Jasmine.  What complicates things even more is that Ginger and her now ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) were victims of Jasmine’s husband and lost everything.  Jasmine is mindful of this tension and it is a testament to Blanchett’s ability in how strongly she plays a victim who is also a victimizer!  Allen explores this element throughout the film while also examining Jasmine’s sense of entitlement regardless of the fact that she has no skills and simply fell into wealth; we even learn that even her name is false as she changed it from Jeanette to Jasmine because she thought Jeanette “lacked panache.”

Furthermore, trust is a dynamic issue presented in the film.  While mostly known for his impeccable ability to create fascinating female characters (and Blue Jasmine is no exception), Allen also presents the damage of deception through his uncharacteristically diverse set of male characters.  Bobby Cannavale is especially indicative of this as Ginger’s current boyfriend, Chili.  Michael Stuhlbarg, Louis C.K., and Peter Sarsgaard join Cannavale and Dice Clay in developing the vital effect of trust, or lack thereof, on the human condition.

When one looks at the career and accomplishments of Woody Allen, one sees the maturation of an artist, of a genius.  It is this maturation of Allen’s techniques, subject matter, and films in general that I find most interesting.  And it is fitting that Blue Jasmine is probably most comparable with one of Allen’s most mature films, Crimes and Misdemeanors as both films utilize his broad knowledge of literature and film as well as exploring a whole range of moral ambiguities while accomplishing the difficult task of combining comedy with drama.  Cate Blanchett is poised to enter the Oscar race swinging as is Allen’s screenplay.  Blanchett is clearly the film’s major talking point and she delivers a tragic performance worthy of much discussion.  I can only imagine how Ruth Madoff feels about this one.  A

Blue Jasmine is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes.  This is another solid film in Allen’s storied career that is sure to illicit emotion while also emitting a slightly disturbing tone. 

The Conjuring

ImageOne of the best things you can say about a horror movie is simply this: it’s scary.  In January, I wrote a short discussion on the horror genre masked as a review of Mama.  I have chosen to foolishly assume that my small blog post has single handedly reminded filmmakers and studios of the potential effect creative horror films can have.  The Conjuring is scary.

Strangely enough, the man who revitalized the exploitative “torture-porn” style of horror with his 2004 film Saw is now looking to do the very same thing to the classic horror style that films like Saw all but demolished.  James Wan helms the efficaciously eerie film, The Conjuring which tells the true story of two paranormal investigators who agree to help a family whose house may be infested with a demonic presence in 1970s New England.

From the Exorcist inspired main titles, The Conjuring is off and running.  We are introduced to paranormal investigators Ed and Loraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) as they hear out potential clients explaining a feared demonic infestation by way of inhabitation of a very disturbing looking doll.  We discover that Ed is a demonologist who while not ordained is still accepted among the Catholic church and his wife Lorainne is a clairvoyant, both with many successful cases behind them.  After this introduction, we are informed that the true story that follows details the most horrifying case that the Warrens have ever encountered.  The film’s structure then fragments into a dual narrative where we simultaneously follow the Warrens as well as the frightening events that lead a family to seek them out.

This dual narrative is an excellent choice for Wan to keep the scares coming as well as inform the audience to what is happening while not losing track of either the Warrens or the Perron family’s decent from infestation to oppression and ultimately to possession.  The story of a family bothered by something extra-terrestrial is not as fresh of an idea as it once was, but Wan’s simple techniques like a quick focus  or a back and forth camera pan offer terrifying results.  Additionally, the Parron family is quite large composed of Roger (Ron Livingston), Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters.  This allows the danger to feel more real and their options to seem more limited while the terror is more expansive.  Furthermore, the appearance of a bouncing ball, a creaking door, or a quick clap provides some of the best scares in recent horror history without feeling cheap or cut-rate.  Not since the first Paranormal Activity have ghostly scares been so effective, but unlike Paranormal Activity, the scares in The Conjuring do not necessarily come with the forewarning of a timestamp on a video camera.

Reviewing a good horror film is an art in itself as quite a bit must remain unsaid, but enough must be said to entice the reader to see it.  James Wan has created a horror film that appeals to a nostalgic retro vibe that calls back to the monumentally creepy films of the 70s like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and Don’t Look Now.  I first saw The Exorcist at age 17 on home video on a sunny afternoon and it still scared the ever-loving shit out of me.  I can say that The Conjuring provided me with the closest experience to that in a long time.  I’m sure it will be quite a while before I decide to watch The Conjuring alone at night.  A-       

The Conjuring is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes.    

The Bling Ring

ImageSofia Coppola’s life of privilege is no secret; I mean she is a Coppola, daughter of Francis, and even appeared in all three Godfather films (she was one year old in the first one).  Privilege is an interesting topic, and the exposure of the jaded nature of the privileged is not a new subject for the film industry.  Coppola has forged this territory before first in 2003 with Lost in Translation, then in 2006 with Marie Antoinette, next in 2010 with Somewhere, and most recently with this year’s release of The Bling Ring.

Based on real events detailed in Nancy Jo Sales’s Vanity Fair article, The Bling Ring is about a group of shallow, obsessive teens who rob celebrity homes in order to emulate their lifestyles.  After using the Internet to track celebrities’ whereabouts, Marc (Israel Broussard) and Rebecca (Katie Chang) begin hand picking the residences of out-of-town celebrities to burgle.  Their three close friends Nikki (Emma Watson), Chloe (Claire Julien), and Sam (Taissa Farmiga) round out the ring of thieves who steal over $3 million worth of property in one year’s time.

This story is ripe for the hands of Coppola.  While known for searching for the sympathetic side of degenerative celeb culture, she is not quick to pardon the acts of these characters.  The Sleigh Bells’ song “Crown on the Ground” plays during the film’s opening credits suggesting the forthcoming loss of innocence and selfish deviance of the characters.   Coppola draws from Sales’s article to construct a twisted Bonnie & Clyde-like story with less-than admirable protagonists.  Here Coppola analyzes youth culture and its influences in an attempt to diagnose what has lead to this overwhelming degradation in the aspirations of young people.

While it is easy to blame Rebecca, Marc, and company for their ultimate predicament, Coppola does not place the blame solely on them.  Nikki and Sam’s mother, Laurie (Leslie Mann), religiously feeds her daughters Adderall because she is too consumed with vicariously preserving her own youth through her children’s experiences.  This pill/pharmaceutical culture is clearly linked to the excessive substance abuse carried out by these young characters.  Furthermore, Laurie lacks the backbone to provide a leadership role in these girls’ lives, yet attempts to home-school them with weak lessons about moral guidance.  This hypocrisy of adults presents an additional element to explain how and why the film plays out as it does.

Coppola also frames her film with confessionals from the “ring” after their inevitable capture.  In these confessionals, the young criminals speak frankly about how their society and surroundings damaged their self-image and consciousness to the point that they were motivated to do something about it.  Coppola proposes the question that with the media’s focus on saturating the market with the glamorous lives of the over-privileged youth who seemingly were handed fame and fortune, how is patience, hard work, and morality supposed to compete?  This is a disgusting question, and one that mature adults can easily answer, but the question is posed to immature, poorly guided young people, thus the answer is archetypically suggested by this film.

It is easy to dislike this film.  However, much like last spring’s Spring Breakers one must see the forest for the trees.  There is a mess here, but it is one often swept under the rug and films like this try to show what happens when too much dirt accumulates.  This notion is most realized when examining the captivating character of Nikki, played brilliantly by Emma Watson.  Nikki utters the film’s last words, which I will not spoil here, but the message is loud and clear and it resonates as Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” plays during the closing credits.  What I will say is that Watson has a cameo in Seth Rogan’s This is the End, and while that film certainly earns its title – perhaps this film is even more deserving.  The Bling Ring is one of Sofia Coppola’s best films in an impressively growing filmography.  Her subject matter may not vary much from film to film, but she has a knack for finding new, fresh ways to interpret a theme.  It can be a “tough pill to swallow” at times, but the film is an ambitious and well-made social satire that feeds off of the very problems it wishes to expose.  It is a weird yet substantial film!  A-

The Bling Ring is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 30 minutes.  Go in with an open mind and broadened expectations.  Also keep an eye out for Sofia Coppola’s good luck charm, Kirsten Dunst who makes an uncredited third appearance in a Sofia Coppola film.

This is the End

ImageI know this won’t be a popular statement for the 80 or 90 people that loved Freaks and Geeks in 1999, but I’m glad it got cancelled if it led this group of young actors to strive for a level of celebrity that allows for a film like This is the End to be made and to work so well! 

This is the End is another example of pseudo-reality entertainment in the style of Curb Your Enthusiasm, where actors play versions of themselves albeit sometimes deeply ironic versions of themselves; I’m talking to you, Michael Cera – at least I hope I am!  Seth Rogan wrote and directed this film along with his partner, Evan Goldberg, and the film clearly benefits from having someone so close to the actors involved with all parts of the production. 

This is the End opens simply enough with Seth Rogan meeting his friend Jay Baruchel at the airport.  They plan to hang out in LA and eventually end up heading to James Franco’s new house for a big house-warming party.  The opening act of this film is a cameo-filled (Emma Watson, Rhianna, and Paul Rudd to name a few) laugh fest that just piles on the humor in ways that a big-screen comedy hasn’t done since The Hangover in 2009.  The comedy is not just name-dropping cheap laughs though.  Rogan and Franco along with Jonah Hill and Jay Baruchel have permeated their way into celebrity in such a way that they can satirize the entertainment business through self-referential humor.  Rogan has written a screenplay that characteristically paints his characters as corrupted in one way or another by the entertainment industry, and this biting satire plays out far beyond the opening act. 

Rogan also makes a series of wise choices as both a writer and a director that keep this film from quickly growing stale.  Most notably is his decision to play the rest of the film as a true disaster film.  Once the inevitable apocalypse begins, it is not treated as a joke to introduce more absurdity.  Instead, it is used as a backdrop of real danger designed to continue the motif of contempt that has built up in the characters.  That is not to say the laughs stop coming – that is in no way true.  However, the balance of humor and real danger keep the film fresh and alive. 

The apocalypse that hits is quickly discovered to be a literal onset of the Book of Revelations complete with the Rapture and the arrival of Satan on Earth.  Such high stakes force the boys to hole up in Franco’s house along with Craig Robertson and Danny McBride.  Irreverent humor abounds with some of the meanest, nastiest, low-brow, toilet humor imaginable – all of it hilarious.  Occasionally, the film hits a slight snag in terms of pacing and some of the gross-out humor is tasteless and extreme, but it is hardly at the film’s detriment.  The film has a little bit of something for everyone; in fact, even fans of The Backstreet Boys owe this film a tremendous debt of gratitude for preserving a shred of their relevance in cinematic history. 

Rogan and company have truly tapped into a genre of humor that grows along with them.  In one scene, they try to kill boredom by filming crude home-movie versions of sequels of their own films.  Somebody get to work on this exact version of Pineapple Express 2 immediately!  In fact, This is the End would be a great exclamation point at the end of the “end of the world” movie fad that has been so commonly explored in entertainment lately.  However, with World War Z, The World’s End, and Elysium still to come this summer along with fall’s second installment of The Hunger Games series, it’s clear that we are far from done with this genre.  A-   

This is the End is rated R – very, very, very R – and has a running time of 1 hour and 59 minutes.  It is heavy on the raunch, and while I highly recommend it as a comedy, it is not for the easily offended. 

Star Trek Into Darkness

ImageIt is fair to say that J. J. Abrams is a man who has found quite a bit of success within the entertainment industry.  In fact, his name likely appears on the top of a very, very short list of encouraging up-and-coming writers, producers, directors, and creators.  While few milestones are left for him to achieve, Star Trek Into Darkness does happen to represent his first responsibility as director of a sequel and a high-profile one at that.  Since it is no secret that Abrams will be helming the most highly anticipated set of sequels of all time in terms of the upcoming Star Wars episodes; Star Trek Into Darkness has a little more riding on it than usual.  Fortunately, Abrams and company have done it again, in that Star Trek Into Darkness is nothing short of spectacular!

After a four year wait, the crew of the Enterprise is back on the big screen.  Into Darkness hits the ground running with a wild, stylish opening segment that reminds us that hot-shot Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) doesn’t play by anybody else’s rules.  However, this time his cavalier philosophy finally catches up with him.  Kirk’s chance at redemption comes at the cost of an attack on star fleet by a mysterious mad-man by the name of John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Harrision’s attack and subsequent retreat to hostile space leads Kirk and crew on an inter-galactic man-hunt that tests their strength, courage, and relationships. 

The film looks very good and while heavy on special effects, they do not overwhelm the movie.  Abrams shot much of this film on the lot in Paramount Studios, but he was able to use realistic staging quite often, resulting in action scenes where the actors actually were able to interact with the environment and be immersed in the reality of it.  A clear example of this is a fantastic fight scene near the end of the film that takes place on top of multiple levitating barges.  The actors filmed this scene on actual moving platforms, which aid in creating a very intense tone for a pivotal scene. 

A major strength of Abrams’s first Star Trek was the expert casting, and that remains so in Into Darkness.  All of the iconic roles are filled with performers who understand how to balance the legacy of their characters’ reputations with the modern turn necessary to freshen up the franchise.  Especially excellent is Zachary Quinto who plays a more sensitive Spock, while still preserving the stone-cold-logical element that all fans have embraced for nearly fifty years.  While inside tongue-in-cheek references are aplenty, non-trekies will be none-the-wiser and will not feel like they are missing something.  Nonetheless, Abrams does not let the notoriously passionate fans down and creates another film that will certainly have devotees reeling, laughing, and gasping at several carefully nuanced touches; study up on your Klingon!   

Star Trek Into Darkness is far simpler in story and scope than its predecessor, which may disappoint those looking for twists and turns that fans of Abrams have come to expect from his work on television shows like Lost and Fringe.   While straightforward and uncomplicated in terms of plot, it is a lot of fun.  The pacing is swift, the action is great, and the all of the humor works.  Star Trek Into Darkness substantiates the latest voyages of the Starship Enterprise, which will surely live long and inevitably pro$per!  A-

Star Trek Into Darkness is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 3 minutes.  While it was apparently not shot in 3-D, it was shot in IMAX, and the 3-D conversion is top notch and not disappointing.  See it in 2-D or 3-D, but definitely see it on an IMAX or Xtreme screen.