People, Property, Propriety and Evil in 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave 2

Steve McQueen’s searing cinematic treatise on slavery will never be accused of holding back.  Classically the film opens in medias res showing small moments in the life of a man enslaved that lead him to flashing back to an idyllic moment with his wife when he had been a free man.  McQueen’s confident direction and John Ridley’s assured screenplay move cleanly back and forth in time to tell the harrowing story of Solomon Northup (an amazing Chiwetel Ejiofor), an accomplished violinist from Saratoga, NY with a loving wife and children who is lured to the nation’s capital on the promise of work only to get kidnapped into slavery.  The horrors, violence and depravity slowly escalate during the film’s runtime, with McQueen transmitting the details through clever points-of-view and camera angles, focusing on the screams and faces of the victims until by the end of the film all blood and flesh are left pooling on the dusty ground of the plantation hellscape run with diabolical vigor by Master Epps (a blisteringly despicable Michael Fassbender, stretching his acting muscle yet again to its darkest reaches under McQueen’s insightful and uncompromising eye).

12 Years a Slave is simultaneously a harrowing one-man-survival-tale and a bitter pill of a history lesson that reminds us it wasn’t so long ago that an entire culture in the Southern United States believed with all their rotten hearts that it was their right to hold other human beings as property.  Continue reading

Advertisements

Holding the Audience Captive in Prisoners

Prisoners

Anyone who sat through Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve’s well-crafted but morally repugnant Oscar-nominated film, Incendies, knows he’s a man who loves to play with the audience and turn the screws to the point of torture.  While going more mainstream with the kidnap thriller, Prisoners, he still finds way to tighten the ropes and hold an audience captive.  Red herrings, recurring visual motifs, carefully placed clues and masterful editing have become the director’s calling cards, and he stacks his deck in Prisoners with an A-list cast and sets the brooding atmosphere with Roger Deakins’ flawless photography shaded in blues and greys meant to mirror the moral ambiguities of this sordid tale.

Though it runs over two and a half hours, Prisoners is relentlessly compelling in a cold, calculated procedural kind of way.  Much of the film plays like the pilot episode of the next great TV crime thriller as it sets up the case of two missing girls and toggles itself between the families affected and the lead detective bent on finding the children.  Unfortunately it’s that same sensibility that leads Aaron Guzikowski’s disappointingly rote and too-tidy script awry.  We never really get to know the characters deeply as they are all composed of stock genre elements and would be better fleshed out in a long serial television format. Continue reading

The Disappearance of Alice Creed

Gemma Arterton is Alice Creed.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed opens with a point-by-point look at two men (a menacing Eddie Marsan and a bewildered Martin Compston) preparing for the kidnapping of our titular anti-heroine (former Bond girl Gemma Arterton).  Writer/director J. Blakeson builds the tension confidently with well shot, well scored scenes that lull the audience into believing these men are so meticulous and organized, whatever it is they are about to do, they’re going to pull it off brilliantly.  They just have to.  Oh, but when you mix in human emotions, things couldn’t go more astray.

We’ve seen these kidnap flicks before, and we know something always goes horribly awry.  Blakeson knows he’s going to have to keep us on our toes, and he does so with some gravely intimate moments while falling back on old-fashioned melodrama.  Continue reading

A Review of Pierre Morel’s “Taken”

Don’t Be Taken for a Fool, 3 February 2009
4/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

And now producer/writer Luc Besson and director Pierre Morel present the comedy event of the year!

Here’s the pitch: Two spoiled obnoxious teenage girls from California go to France and get kidnapped by a group of Albanians trafficking dumb tourists into sex slavery to the highest bidders–and you guessed it, one of those high bidders is a Middle Eastern sheik. But oh yeah, did I mention one of those girl’s fathers just happens to be a retired Jack Bauer-style super-spy who’s about reign down a sh*t-storm on the streets of Paris in order to rescue his idiot daughter? And guess what–it’s Liam Neeson!

Yes, there is a bit of a novelty factor in watching the guy who played Oskar Schindler go against type and get crazy on these moronic dirt-bags. And gosh darn it, Liam does his best with the role. I can’t remember the last time a film was sold to the American public entirely on the sound of one man’s voice reading dialog. He alone makes the otherwise unbearable film watchable. However, let’s be honest. As much fun as it is to watch Liam Neeson outrun a speeding car or electrocute some guy or kill a dude with a broken bottle, Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino was a far better and more refined example of grizzled old guy “badassery”, and it was a hell of a lot funnier, and fancy that, had a moral.

What we have here in Taken is tone deaf French filmmakers sticking their nose up at Americans and spreading xenophobia abroad. I’m pretty sure they thought there were making a slick black comedy that no American would see through. Had they manifested this with a harder edge or more overtly satirical tone, they might’ve been on to something. Instead we get a second-rate episode of “24” watered down by a PG-13 rating that takes away any possibility of entertainment on even an exploitative level.

Bottom line: Don’t be fooled by Liam Neeson’s voice. He commanded our attention in the teaser trailers, but this should be film not taken.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database.

A Review of Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone”

Who knew that behind the camera Ben Affleck would be able to deliver such an audacious and wickedly depressing piece of Dickensian subversion?  Against all odds, his debut as a director is on par with Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter and Robert Redford’s Ordinary People.

Masterfully Crafted Descent into White Trash Hell, 29 October 2007
9/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

In some ways, “Gone Baby Gone” plays like a horror film. It depicts a seedy world full of drug dealers, murderers, corrupt cops, pedophiles, child killers, and down-on-their-luck Bostonians trapped in an urbanized “white trash” hell where the two African-American characters, a Haitian drug lord and a noble police chief (Morgan Freeman), wield the most power from opposite sides of the law. Director Affleck showers his hometown with humanistic shots of everyday people milling about, seemingly minding their own business, while their world decays and rots around them. The socio-political subtexts of “Gone Baby Gone” tick quietly like a time-bomb underneath the surface of an otherwise rote crime flick about the race to find a missing four year-old girl. I imagine this deep, dark, and morally questionable under-pinning is what has kept mainstream audiences from connecting with the film while critics have hailed it as a masterpiece.

Adapted from a Dennis Lehane novel (author of the similarly themed and depressing “Mystic River”), “Gone Baby Gone” is masterfully crafted from the opening shot to the closing scene. Ben Affleck proves to be a far better talent behind the screen than in front of it, and while the casting of his younger brother in the lead role may seem like nepotism, Casey Affleck gives a richly complex performance as the private eye who uncovers the truth behind the kidnapping of the little girl. The dialog, strung poetically with grim and vulgar Bostonian street-talk, reminded me of “Good Will Hunting.” With Ben Affleck credited as a co-screenwriter here, this film disproves the popular myth that Matt Damon (or an unnamed third party) was the primary force behind their Oscar-winning screenplay for “Good Will Hunting.”

Like the best of the actors-turned-directors (Robert Redford, or “Mystic River” maestro Clint Eastwood), Ben Affleck is able to get his cast to deliver amazingly rich performances oozing with pathos. Ed Harris, who sometimes over-acts in one-note fashion, is a powerhouse as the lead officer on the case and delivers quite possibly the best performance of his career; his character’s seething rage and fractured view of justice will leave you literally shaking. Amy Ryan, as the strung-out mother of the girl, delivers the type of pitch-perfect portrayal that the Supporting Actress Oscar was tailor made for. Casey Affleck, following his great turn in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” shows that he is an actor to be reckoned with, raw and emotive, and equal or superior in many ways to contemporaries like Ryan Gosling. Older brother Ben is such an actor’s director, he even manages to deliver a heartbreaking scene towards the end where Michelle Monaghan (in the otherwise thankless role of girlfriend and partner to the male lead) displays a range you didn’t see coming.

For the acting, for the dialog, for the intricately complex and devastating crime drama that unfolds, and yes, for the directing, “Gone Baby Gone,” as depressing a piece of subversion as it is, ranks as one of the year’s very best.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://imdb.com/title/tt0452623/usercomments-54

_______________________________________________________

Check out my reviews of past crime thrillers set in Boston:

The Departed:  http://imdb.com/title/tt0407887/usercomments-359

Mystic River:  http://imdb.com/title/tt0327056/usercomments-222