Tag Archives: B+

12 YEARS A SLAVE

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B+

It’s difficult, indeed impossible, not to be moved by the story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man in New York who was kidnapped by slave traders and, after twelve years in bondage in Louisiana between 1841 and 1853, finally liberated, going on to write a memoir of his horrendous experience that appeared almost simultaneously with “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and was briefly almost as widely read. “12 Years a Slave,” adapted (with some streamlining and simplification) by screenwriter John Ridley and director Steve McQueen from that book, certainly depicts the inhumane treatment Northrup suffered under even the most enlightened of his “masters” (not to mention the purely sadistic ones), and for that reason alone it’s a significant contribution to an art form that has generally tiptoed around the nation’s original sin up until now.

But McQueen dilutes the visceral impact of the story by too often succumbing to the artiness and visual affectation that so strongly characterized the style of his two earlier pictures, “Hunger” and “Shame.” As a result his film is an important work, but one that’s more potent on an intellectual level than an emotional one. It might be argued that the distancing of McQueen’s approach mirrors the somewhat anomalous situation of his subject. Northrup, after all, was different from most of his fellow slaves in that he had known an America where, though his civil rights were circumscribed by his color, at least he was not treated as property. As portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor with exceptional nuance, Solomon is introduced, after a brief prologue showing him working in a sugar cane field, as a musician in Saratoga Springs, where he lives comfortably with his wife and two young daughters. Enticed to Washington D.C. by two fast-talking men with an offer of well-paying employment, he’s wined and dined, only to find himself in a dismal cell the next morning, shackled and charged as a fugitive slave ready for transport “back” to the south. (McQueen demonstrates his penchant for visual emphasis—or overemphasis—at the end of this sequence by pulling the camera up from the courtyard in which Northrup must bathe to show the Capitol as the immediate background of his mistreatment.)

Northrup is then shipped, along with others similarly snatched, to New Orleans, where a slave trader ironically named Freeman (Paul Giamatti) sells him to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). The sequence is enlivened by Giamatti’s tense, flamboyant performance, and given extra punch by the anguish of another slave, Eliza (Adepero Oduye), who’s separated from her children, who are sold separately. That begins the more benign stage of Northrup’s—or Platt’s, as he’s been renamed—ordeal. Ford proves a relatively decent owner, a man conflicted about the societal system he’s part of but afraid to rebel against, and willing to embrace—and use—his slave’s expertise in the lumber business. Such moderation, however, is no part of the character of Ford’s chief carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano, once again doing his maniacal shtick perfectly), a vicious racist who enjoys humiliating Platt until the slave turns on him, to be saved from death only by Ford’s intervention. The closing sequence of this chapter, in which Northrup hangs suspended from a tree while the other slaves go about their business seemingly oblivious to his plight, is another of McQueen’s artful touches, perhaps intended as a rebuke to the famous long crane shot of the burning of Atlanta in “Gone With the Wind,” only one picture whose romanticized portrait of Dixie “12 Years” is designed to demolish.

Ford thereupon transfers ownership of Platt to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a steely-eyed psychotic whose affair with sensual slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) leads his jealous wife (Sarah Paulson) to egg her husband on to ever greater cruelties. McQueen uses Epps to represent the depths of depravity in the supposedly genteel southern racist culture, depicting him brutalizing slaves for failing to pick enough cotton each day and not only beating Patsey nearly to death when she displeases him but forcing Platt to participate in the gruesome act—a long scene that will force many viewers to avert their eyes. Ultimately it’s only the intervention of an abolitionist-minded Canadian carpenter named Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), to whom Northrup confides his history and who informs the man’s New York friends of his situation, that secures Northrup’s release and tearful reunion with his family.

There’s so much that’s superb in “12 Years a Slave”—the intense performances by Ejiofor and Fassbender, an astonishingly vivid turn by Nyong’o, and stellar work from Giamatti, Cumberbatch, Dano and Paulson—that its failings are all the more regrettable. In addition to McQueen’s tendency to choose an arty visual alternative too often—perhaps encouraged by the almost painterly images fashioned by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt—there are lapses toward the close that suggest that both the director and Ridley were running dry. That’s unfortunately most evident in the scenes featuring Pitt, who also served as one of the producers. Bass’s pronouncements are the only elements in the film that come across as preachy, largely because Pitt’s delivery lacks the concentration and urgency that might make them seem like firmly-held convictions rather than words on a page. The final scenes of Epps’s fury over being denuded of his property and Solomon’s return to his family right matters, but the damage lingers. As was the case with Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” McQueen’s film is impeccable in its period detail, with the production design (Adam Stockhausen), costumes (Patricia Norris), art direction (David Stein) and set decoration (Alice Baker) all estimable.

McQueen’s film, in fact, invites comparison to Spielberg, not only in terms of “Lincoln” (which, after all, dealt with slavery more indirectly), but “Schindler’s List,” which dealt with another of the most barbarous realities of human history and also ended in a victory that seems very small in relation to the horrors that surrounded it. “12 Years a Slave” will be termed by many the best film about slavery in the United States that’s ever been made, but that has little meaning, as there have been so few of them, and those there are not terribly good. One’s appreciation of it is muted, however, by the realization that it could have been better still.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

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B+

Among mainstream filmmakers Paul Greengrass is the reigning master of what might be called manufactured cinema veritate, bringing an almost palpable feeling of reality even to fictional material about Jason Bourne. It’s a talent he’s used with special brilliance in wrenchingly powerful recreations of actual events in “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “United 93,” and he brings it to bear again in “Captain Phillips,” a dramatized account of the incident of April 8-12, 2009, in which an American-flagged cargo vessel, the Maersk Alabama, was seized by four pirates off the Somali coast and its captain held hostage in a small lifeboat until he was freed by U.S. Navy SEALS. It’s an extremely well-made film, but for a variety of reasons not as gripping and compelling as “United 93,” with which it’s now being compared.

Actually, that comparison isn’t really the proper one. “Captain Philiips” is more akin to Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” the film about tracking down—and killing—Osama bin Laden. Both are grueling stories that end triumphantly with military success; the triumph in “United 93” is one of self-sacrifice, which isn’t quite the same thing.

Still, Greengrass uses the technique he’s honed over the years to give the tale—adapted by Billy Ray from the book Phillips wrote about his ordeal—considerable punch. The sequences depicting the pursuit of the ship by the Somalis—played by Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali (all native Somalis who emigrated to the U.S., and all without professional acting experience)—and the takeover of the vessel are beautifully crafted, with superb cinematography by Barry Ackroyd and editing by Christopher Rouse; and the following episode, in which most of the crew hide from the intruders, is harrowingly suspenseful. The later scenes of the captain and pirates sweltering and bickering in the lifeboat as naval forces bear down on them and plan Phillips’ rescue are also tense and viscerally exciting.

Why, then, does “Captain Phillips” fail to reach the level of Greengrass’ earlier films, or of “Zero Dark Thirty”? One reason is the scope of the story, which frankly suffers from its relatively small scale. The recent Danish film, “A Hijacking,” told a similar story, but broadened the narrative to include the families of the crew back home and negotiations between the pirates and the shipowner, matters that this script entirely skirts. To be sure, the earlier film had serious problems of pacing and tone—to dramatize the tedium of the event (which dragged on far longer than this one), it was very deliberate, and its eschewal of highly charged moments accentuated the dulling effect. But a comparison suggests that the decision to ignore anything away from the ships and the lifeboat, while it has the virtue of enhancing intensity and a claustrophobic feeling despite the expanses of the sea, has drawbacks as well.

The second problem is Hanks. It’s not that he doesn’t given an excellent performance; he does. In the brief early scenes with Catherine Keener as Phillips’ wife, he radiates the right everyman quality (even if the accent is inconsistent), and later he takes on the brusquely businesslike role of a skipper effortlessly. The arrival of the pirates transforms him into a canny manipulator trying to outfox his captors, while in the final reels he makes a convincing hostage, alternately calculating and terrified. He caps it all off with a stunning scene in an infirmary where all his character’s emotion over his ordeal comes pouring out—sure-fire Oscar bait, if one might be a bit crass.

Yet it’s undeniable that Hanks is too familiar to fit comfortably into a picture of this type. Much of the force of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “United 93” came from the fact that the actors weren’t recognizable; it allowed the pictures to achieve a near-documentary feel even though they were obviously crafted with the utmost technical calculation. “Captain Phillips” is equally superb technically. But the very presence of Hanks, who’s as singular a personality as Jimmy Stewart ever was, shatters the illusion the filmmakers are so carefully creating. That’s made even more evident because the rest of the cast has the anonymous quality of the earlier pictures; Chris Mulkey is the most familiar member among the rest of the crew, and he’s hardly a household name.

Still, even with its problems, the film is an impressive accomplishment. The attempt to provide background on the pirates may be thin—understandable, but unfortunate—but the quartet of Somalis give convincing performances. That’s especially true of Abdi as their leader Muse, a thin, reedy figure whom Abdi invests with equal measures of shrewdness, vulnerability, nastiness and credulity. The U.S. military personnel are less distinctively characterized, but the actors put across their spit and polish effectively.

It’s possible to find fault with “Captain Phillips” because one has to assess it against the highest standards—Greengrass’ own. But if it’s not the director’s best work, in comparison to that of others it’s still a potent piece of fact-based drama.