Sean K. Cureton

Archive for November, 2013|Monthly archive page

Slavery in the American South, as an Eerily Realistic and Surreal Nightmare

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on November 24, 2013 at 6:41 pm
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12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen
4 out of 4 stars

Based on the historical slave narrative written by Solomon Nothup in the mid-nineteenth century, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave tells the story of the American South in the midst of its most debauched era. Where other films about slavery in the American South have always felt overly clinical and too ostentatiously self-effacing, McQueen’s examination of the same subject feels eerily realistic to the point of surrealistic nightmare. The lurid objectivity with which McQueen examines Solomon’s initial kidnapping and subsequent enslavement is fascinating in its accuracy, and horrifying in its accusatory representations. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is at the top of his game as Solomon, delivering a career defining performance that is supremely effective in its subtleties; wounded, defeated, searching, and hopeful, all at the same time. Never has a film represented the experience of the American slave this truthfully without sacrificing honesty for showmanship; luckily for the viewer, McQueen is modest in his presence as spectator, allowing the performances from his characters to speak for him, delivering a cinematic story that is worthy of the man that inspired it.

Starting with the opening sequence of the film, McQueen takes the viewer directly into the mind of his protagonist, wrongfully imprisoned and slowly losing the will to live. McQueen’s Solomon is, in this way, heartfelt and tenderly wrought as a cinematic figure, able to stand in for the numerously varied experiences of those around him. Ejiofor as Solomon is forceful in his striving towards life, intelligent in his deceptively hidden depths of humanity, and tender in his state as the downtrodden man. When watching Ejiofor’s performance on screen, it’s hard to believe that any one man could manipulate his own emotional condition so drastically at will, hinting at the true and horrible nature of slavery as an act of aggressive and violent coercion. When the lashes of the master’s whip cracks towards the end of the film, Eijiofor’s horror is palpable, merging with the psychological state of the viewer, and granting the film the illusion of reality that all films attempt to capture, but so rarely do.

Beyond the masterful performance from lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, and not to mention the equally stunning turns from supporting actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o, Steve McQueen as director makes his own presence felt definitively as author of this great modern masterpiece. Shot for shot, and sequence for sequence, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is an intense portrait of the endurance of the human soul, magnificently captured through extended shots of such interminable length that might make the likes of Stanley Kubrick jealous. Instead of moving from location to location with the rapidity of someone afraid of the wretched nature of his subject, McQueen lingers over each scene and landscape, rendering the duration of the twelve years of the title viscerally realized through the cinematic image. Whether it’s a shot of ten’s of workers in a cotton field, or one single gaze into the face and soul of Solomon, McQueen’s camera doesn’t miss one moment offered up by his actors and locations. In this way McQueen essentially documents every piece of cinematic artifice as if it was fact, and deceives the viewer into accepting such a fanciful philosophy in the process.

In what is only his third feature film, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave may very well be not only the greatest film from a singular director, but the greatest film about slavery in the American South ever made. Taking its place beside such important slave narrative films as Roots, McQueen’s film about the life of the wrongfully enslaved Solomon Northup is masterfully conceived, acting as a vehicle for historical discussion and interpretation, as opposed to the type of advantageous mythologizing that is more typical from such cinematic adaptations. Led by a stellar cast of leading actors, McQueen’s film is powerfully interpreted, leaving nothing unarticulated or left to the imagination of the viewers. Through its brutal honesty, 12 Years a Slave serves as an unflinching reminder of an American past rooted in prejudicial amorality, and reminds us of how far we’ve come since, and how much father we have yet to go. Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor have made the most important film of the year, and now it’s up to the viewer to see and champion their picture as the masterwork that it is.


Recommendation of the Week: Frances Ha (2012)

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on November 24, 2013 at 6:24 pm
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Frances Ha (2012)
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Netflix Rating: Really Liked It

Directed by Noah Baumbach, and co-written with his romantic muse and creative collaborator Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha is the most recent feature film from an already prolific and talented American director. Shedding his often-misanthropic worldview for that of his more whimsically hopeful partner Gerwig, Baumbach’s most recent film is decidedly more spontaneous than any of his previous films to date. Where Baumbach’s work prior to Frances Ha has been a bit more intelligently witty and meticulously plotted, his new film is delightfully care free, borrowing the breezy style of Goddard’s films from the French New Wave, while situating itself quiet nicely into the laissez-faire malaise of the more contemporary Mumble-core film movement, of which Greta Gerwig is an unofficial queen. Revolving around the lives of Gerwig’s Frances Halladay and her close-knit group of friends, Frances Ha provides a brilliant depiction of 21st century 20 and 30 something’s, restlessly underemployed, and searching for meaning in a sub-culture defined by its asocial affinity for ironic detachment and comfortable apathy. Baumbach has never felt quiet this care free, and Gerwig has never starred in a film quiet this well written and constructed, which makes Frances Ha the perfect blend of two distinctive creative personalities working in seamless cooperation with one another.

At the center of Baumbach’s and Gerwig’s new film is the study of the platonic relationship, as it is defined by and between two women. While Frances’ relationship with her closest friend and confidant Sophie tends to verge towards romantic intimacy, Baumbach’s direction serves to carefully rein in the more tender scenes from becoming too suggestive of a relationship inclusive of sex. Without overstating the nature of Frances and Sophie as a couple, Baumbach’s film presents the two characters emphatically, giving them ample room to speak for themselves and emote the elusive essence of a true love, based on respect, compassion, and thoughtful criticism. It’s rare to observe such an honest replication of friendship on film, and even rarer when it comes to finding a film about a friendship between two women that doesn’t placate to the male gaze. Like Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, Greta Gerwig offers a unique and thoroughly contemporary look at young women now, refreshingly independent and wickedly intelligent.

In order to examine the essence of 21st century youth, fresh out of college and desperate for employment that doesn’t compromise the individual spirit’s artistic ambition, Baumbach borrows heavily from the French New Wave in terms of style. Using the potentially troubling and rising trend in contemporary art cinema of re-acquisitioning black and white film for aesthetic flourish, Frances Ha looks remarkably refined, re-appropriating black and white cinematography for a film that would feel naked without it. The slap-dash pacing and impromptu settings lend to performances that feel spontaneous, reminiscent of Goddard’s Breathless without coming across as instances of self-aware cinematic referencing. Paired perfectly with Baumbach’s Neo-New Wave visual style is Gerwig’s impeccable theatrical timing, honed as a lead performer and writer within the Mumble-core film movement. Offering up dialogue that is decidedly understated and underwritten, the characters in Frances Ha feel incredibly realistic when compared to the characters in more popular Hollywood dramas, which often come off as over-articulate and over-produced when compared to real life.

Not since Kicking and Screaming has Baumbach made a film quite this unapologetically sophomoric, and Gerwig is in top form as Baumbach’s muse and lead actor. Frances Ha is a remarkable film about contemporary young adulthood, posing its questions while sympathizing with its subjects in a way that feels conspiratorial in nature. Like Kicking and Screaming, Frances Ha is a film about youth that is kind and forgiving with its subject, possibly because its director and writer finds little in common with those that are of his own age and social demographic. While it might have been interesting to see where Baumbach might have gone creatively had he stayed with his former partner, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach’s work doesn’t seem to be suffering from a want of relevancy or liveliness, which is often the case with directors at this stage in their creative outpouring. Fresh off of their initial partnership developed during the filming of Baumbach’s Greenberg, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig have proven that they are a creative team in cinema to be applauded and awaited with eager anticipation, and Frances Ha is further proof of their particular genius.

Frances Ha is available on Netflix Instant View, and is my Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.

Allegorical Thrills and Socially Conscious Action, or The Hollywood Action-Thriller by Paul Greengrass

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on November 3, 2013 at 6:08 pm

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Captain Phillips
Directed by Paul Greengrass
3 ½ out of 4 stars

Inspired by the events surrounding the infamous hijacking of an American cargo ship by Somalian pirates in 2009, Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips is a viscerally stunning thriller, cinematically impressive in terms of the approach it takes towards its material. Without over-stimulating the senses of the audience, Greengrass’ new film is able to tell a potentially polarizing story in a way that feels nuanced and complicated, rather than simplistic and manipulative. Through the use of the now ubiquitous filmmaking technique of the hand-held “shaky cam,” Greengrass’ film gains a sense of realism and immediacy, even if the now popularized method used to achieve such an effect still feels too much like a gimmick, out of place in an otherwise near immaculate film. While it might have been easy to turn the pirates into pure bred, vilified antagonists, Greengrass transforms his Somalian pirates into a metaphor for the economic disparity between third and first world countries, providing social commentary to an already well known story in order to complicate and challenge the viewer’s preconceptions about the events that unfold. When Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) asks Muse (Barkhad Abdi) whether there isn’t some other line of work he could take up besides being a euphemistic “fisherman,” Muse replies “Maybe in America,” which serves to set the tone for the entire film, laying bare a carefully composed social critique that makes Greengrass’ picture so memorable.

From the very beginning of the film, and up until the very last shot before the closing credits, Captain Phillips is a film that doesn’t let go of the hold that it has on the viewer’s attentions and sympathies. By starting the film slow, with scenes that allow the viewer to become intimately acquainted with both Richard Phillips and Muse on a personal level, and then gradually increasing the amount of action and tension allowed to be seen on screen, Greengrass is able to produce a film that feels personal and heartfelt, reaching beyond the confines of its source material and genre. The fact that the viewer is not simply able to build a connection to the Somalian pirates, but is expected to do so, points to the intelligence and empathy of Greengrass as a singularly talented director within the action-thriller genre. Again and again, Greengrass’ camera stops and meditates on a particular scene, character, or action, forcing the viewer to come to terms with how he feels about the situations depicted, rather than offering the quick release of pervasive action sequences more common in the typical Hollywood action-thriller. Captain Phillips is a slow moving, brooding monster of a movie, offering thrills that leave you on the edge of your seat days and weeks after having actually seen the film.

Taking on the leading role of the eponymous Captain Richard Phillips, Tom Hanks has never delivered a performance quiet this emotionally affecting and revelatory. While Hanks may have received an Oscar for his performance as the mentally challenged hero of Robert Zemeckis’ over praised Forrest Gump, it is this film that feels more career defining and expertly articulated. Hanks as Phillips is the epitome of the everyman, humbly working for the benefit of his wife and son at home, and forced to take on the unexpected and dangerous adventure of defending the lives of his crew from armed Somalian pirates. Supported by the phenomenal performances from a crew of first-time actors portraying the pirates, led by the sublime actor Barkhad Abdi, Greengrass’ film is raised to unimaginable heights. The choice of hiring a crew of untrained actors for the role of the Somalian pirates was a risky move on Greengrass’ part, but one that paid off in spades, and serves to vastly improve the film’s theatricality.

While Greengrass’ new film feels a little too slap dash at times, owing to his aforementioned use and affinity for the “shaky cam” technique, Captain Phillips is so well executed and performed that any of the more worrisome aesthetic flourishes of Greengrass as auteur can be quiet neatly swept under the rug. Borrowing from his work on the Jason Bourne films, Captain Phillips is appropriately action packed, while leaving room for its talented actors to augment and perfect Greengrass’ style with an extra dollop of humanity and pathos. Tom Hanks and first time actor Barkhad Abdi are phenomenal, delivering performances that intensify the action on screen, rendering the tension of the overall cinematic experience palpable. The force with which Greengrass tells this now familiar story is unrelentingly exciting, leaving viewers in a state of shock not far from that experienced by Phillips in the film’s final and intimately immersive final sequence. Captain Phillips is an expertly achieved action-thriller, providing subtle commentary throughout, without overwhelming the film with politics or a more overt ulterior agenda, which would otherwise render such a film too plodding or distastefully premeditated.

Recommendation of the Week: Mama (2013)

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on November 3, 2013 at 5:51 pm

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Mama (2013)
Directed by Andres Muschietti
Netflix Rating: Really Liked It

Written and directed by Andres Muschietti, and based off of a short film of the same name made in 2008, Mama is a singularly impressive horror film. Despite being riddled with clichés and a certain predictability that verges on becoming tiresome, Mama is a film that manages to deliver a story that is fantastically creative, utterly enjoyable, and heart warming. While the elements which make this film a horror movie are at times too obviously present, the more magical elements that serve to create the film’s world are surprisingly well conceived, surpassing any expectations of the viewer. Watching the two girls, Victoria and Lilly, interact with the phantom creature “Mama” is effectively frightening and intimate, serving to visually represent the dual nature of the ghost “Mama” with subtlety and style. While Mama will certainly not go down as one of the scariest horror films ever made, it will go down as one of the more creative and enjoyable films from a genre that is often too depraved and twisted for the casual viewer.

Appropriately enough, much of Mama’s brilliance lies in its examination of motherhood as a facet of human nature, stemming from both a primal understanding as well as a trait that is learned from experience and circumstance. Set up as the background against which Muschietti’s film takes its inspiration is a story about motherhood that is eerily familiar and intimately creepy, and which serves to bring the film’s thematic interpretation of the proverbial mother figure into clearer focus. According to the mythology of “Mama” as it is presented in the film, “Mama” is the ghost of a Victorian woman put away in an asylum, who subsequently escaped to reclaim her young child from an orphanage, and then plunged off of a cliff to her death in an attempt to seek eternal rest with her baby. Unfortunately, the child was impaled on a tree branch on the way down, separating “Mama” from her offspring, and causing her to seek out Victoria and Lilly as substitutes. Predictably, Victoria and Lilly are later “adopted” by a second mother, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), which leads to much of the dramatic tension and horror movie tropes that ensue, making Mama an inspired, if ever so slightly contrived, ghost story.

At every turn in Muschietti’s carefully crafted film, menace mingles with somber concern, imbuing the scares that ensue with an ambivalence that lends some subtlety to the rather over-the-top theatrics. While “Mama,” a CGI created, wraith-like demon, is certainly a horrifying monster to behold, Muscietti never over uses her presence purely for the sake of cheap thrills. Watching “Mama” play with her two adopted children is disarmingly heart wrenching, humanizing the monster’s actions gracefully. At the film’s climax, when “Mama” attempts to return to her watery grave with her children in tow, it’s hard to root entirely for Annabel, which points to just how complex “Mama’s” presence in the film truly is. Unlike many contemporary horror films, where the monster is over utilized to the point of dehumanization, Muschietti’s “Mama” is absent for much of the film, generating a measured amount of dread, mixed with significant contemplation over of the nature of the beast in her absence, making “Mama’s” eventual appearances all the more compelling.

You’d be hard pressed to find another horror film from recent years that’s quiet like Andres Muschietti’s Mama. While Muschietti’s film is prone to both the stereotypical jump scares as well as the methodical beats of the average haunted house or monster movie, it’s also one of the more compelling horror films from recent years. Taking up the topic of motherhood as its indirect focus, Mama offers a portraiture of matriarchy that is familiar and unsettling, pointing towards the relationship between mother and child in a way that feels mock poetic, yet ultimately beautiful. What’s more, Muschietti proves himself to be just as capable as his producer, and fellow director, Guillermo del Toro, offering up a film that gives the likes of Pan’s Labyrinth a run for its money. Bottom line, Mama is a wonderful film, horror movie clichés and predictability aside.

Mama is available through Netflix, and is my Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.