12 Years a Slave

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12 Years a Slave is a masterpiece, pure and simple. The film of the decade. And it’s also one of the most difficult and frightening films you’ll ever see. Difficult and frightening because of the unpleasant truths it stirs up about human nature and the realization of just how psychopathic the institution of slavery was and always will be.

The fact that America once had an entire economy built on the dehumanization of an entire race by another, an economic system that justified–even demanded–the enslavement of blacks in order for the white ruling class of the South to prosper is a larger truth the film prompts us to reflect on while we watch, in horror, at the plight of Solomon Northup, the film’s protagonist, kidnapped and enslaved in mid-19th century America. Northup not only bears punishing torture and deprivation, he also observes the heart-rending experiences of fellow slaves, whether separated from children or beaten to within an inch of their lives. There is also psychological brutality, an all-pervading fear of the lash, the knife, of being lynched, of betrayal should Solomon even think of escape or confide the truth behind his enslavement to anyone. For twelve years, Northup bides his time, perseveres, swallows his pride and his dignity, if only to survive, waiting for the crucial window of opportunity to assert his freedom.

Adapted from Northup’s remarkable 1853 memoir, screenwriter John Ridley traces the events that led Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from being a free man, a husband and father in 1840s New York into a nightmarish odyssey through the slave trafficking network that fed the South with northern blacks and the years of hardship that follow. Duped by two conmen into traveling to the nation’s capitol, Northup suddenly finds himself captured by slave traders. Shocked and in disbelief, he joins the ranks of fellow slaves, among whom is Eliza–a mother with two children in tow–as they are transported to the New Orleans slave market. The horrors really kick in from this point on as, first, we watch as the slave trader (Paul Giamatti) separates Eliza  from her children, leaving the mother a heartbroken and inconsolable wreck for the rest of her life.

Northup’s journey takes him to the plantation of a relatively kind and genteel landowner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). But Ford’s mild nature isn’t mirrored by his venomous white overseer (Paul Dano), who demeans and terrorizes Northup at every step out of jealousy and spite, noting Northup’s intelligence and resourcefulness. Fearing for his slave’s safety, Ford sells Northup to the planter Epps (Michael Fassbender), inadvertently throwing him out of the frying pan and into the fire. For Epps is a demon, every bit as vile and villainous as Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List; he delights in psychologically and physically abusing his slaves. Despite his hatefulness, he harbors a perverse love for one of his slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o)–similar to Goeth’s fixation on his Jewish prisoner/housekeeper–and abuses her sexually.

It’s heart-rending to see Patsey’s suffering–at one point, she even implores Northup to kill her–and we wonder, as we do throughout this extraordinary film, how common such suffering and sorrow was among slaves during this time. We become aware of this vast, anonymous pain crying out from behind the walls of time and selective history. And Eliza and Patsey become two women who represent the voices of millions of forgotten black women of this era.

No other film to my mind depicts slavery–and the culture and system that nurtured it–with the direct and unapologetic starkness of 12 Years a Slave. But within that starkness, there’s humanity and love–the qualities that bind humanity to art and humans to each other. Credit for this bold and purposeful project goes to director Steve McQueen and his exceptional cast. McQueen employs, on the one hand, a shrewd sense of craftsmanship, rife with drama, suspense and heartbreak to keep us rooted. Overlaying that is a serene artfulness evident in imagery of plantations and Southern landscapes that are evocative of Winslow Homer (see The Cotton Pickers, 1876, and Veteran in a New Field, 1865), courtesy of master cinematographer Sean Bobbit. The film has the painterly sensibilities that reminded me of Terrence Malick and Julian Schnabel. But a more unexpected filmmaker that came to mind was David Lynch, particularly his The Elephant Man, which blended a strong, stark visual style to depict an environment of pervasive cruelty.  There is a similar push-pull at work in 12 Years a Slave, with its hallucinatory visual and dramatic power at odds with the repulsive behavior on display.

Its brilliant aesthetic aside, this film would not be the masterpiece it is without this cast. Bold, fearless and commanding, Ejiofor is indelible as Northup. We mourn his suffering as we wait for him to make his next move, resolute in the idea of securing freedom. Surrounding him are brilliant performances from those whose characters personify evil, like Dano, Giamatti and, particularly, Paulson as Epps’s hateful and vindictive wife. Trust me, this woman will live on as one of the screen’s great villains. The chameleon Fassbender continues his run as one of the screen’s most compelling stars, playing the conflicted and fascinating Epps; few actors can make evil this watchable (only Fiennes, see above). Most moving is Nyong’o as the resilient Patsey, a woman whose spirit we watch degrade in the course of the film and whose friendship with Northup burns like a few precious flakes of ember in the cold night of the film’s suffering.

There’s a lot you’ll have to confront within yourself while watching this film, but no other movie this year will connect you more deeply with your own humanity. It’s for these reasons and so many more that 12 Years a Slave must be witnessed. Once you do witness it, you’ll never want to again. No matter, though, because its imagery, its message, its savagery will have claimed a part of your soul forever. You will never be the same again.

Grade: A

Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: John Ridley
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt


City of Life and Death

“City of Life and Death” is among the greatest war films ever made. Rich in humanist themes and absolutely unflinching in its depiction of the moral chaos and physical violence of war, Lu Chuan’s film about the Japanese occupation of Nanking in 1937 isn’t merely one of the year’s best films, it’s a powerful work of art and a testament to the expressive essence of pure cinema.

Inevitable comparisons will be made between “City of Life and Death” and Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Chuan’s opening battle scenes between the Japanese invaders and a Chinese platoon – led by a stalwart patriot (Liu Ye) – have the complex staging, the realistic, you-are-there sound recording, and the frenetic yet coherent editing and camerawork that distinguished “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Also, one can’t watch Cao Yu’s shimmering black-and-white photography here – especially the grimy, crumbling interiors awash in shafts of daylight – without recalling Janusz Kaminski’s concentration-camp sequences in “Schindler’s List.” Indeed, even at the level of story craft, Chuan shares Spielberg’s instincts in how to overlap and weave adjoining scenes together, thereby tightening the pacing and heightening their emotional impact.

But “City of Life and Death” is arguably a more mature work than either of Spielberg’s aforementioned Oscar winners. Spielberg’s movies – and, frankly, mainstream Hollywood movies, in general – telegraph their emotional cues so heavy-handedly that, as viewers, we too often feel bludgeoned into submission (this tendency has sunk many an otherwise worthy Spielberg effort). The emotional resonance of Chuan’s film, on the other hand, is low-key, more subtle; “City of Life and Death” doesn’t need to strong-arm its audience into deploring war and its inhumanities because that message reveals itself in the film’s naked presentation of events. Its quiet, understated quality allows viewers the freedom to process – morally and emotionally – the story’s unfolding horrors in their own personal ways.

To protect the thousands of survivors fleeing the Japanese siege, a group of Western ex-patriots in Nanking and their Chinese colleagues establish a Safety Zone. Chuan follows several of the Safety Zone’s inhabitants in their attempts to placate their aggressors, from administrators like Mr. Tang (Fan Wei) who, as a Nanking native, endures heartbreaking loss and humiliation, as well as refugees, particularly the women. The Nanking occupation is notorious for the rampant sexual victimization that soldiers inflicted on the women and girls, both Chinese and Japanese (prostitutes shipped in by the army), and a great deal of this film, rightly so, examines the barbarity and dehumanization of rape.

But in its desire to offer a mosaic of the Nanking saga, the film’s grand canvas can’t accommodate for deep evaluations of its characters – as compelling as they are – beyond their individual function in the screenplay. Characters are variously heroic, stoic, noble or tragic, and so we view them more as types rather than distinctive, nuanced creations. For instance, the storyline of Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a callow Japanese recruit horrified by his experience, involves him falling in love with a jaded Japanese prostitute, and, as such, never transcends the timeworn clichés of the naïf falling for the wrong woman. It’s such limitations that under serve Chuan’s otherwise ambitious vision.

What lingers, though, are not the film’s flaws but its masterful achievements. The power of Chuan’s film lies in the textures of its images and sounds – in the long passages of silently suffering faces, in the eerily peaceful images of the city’s streets littered with rubble and the dead, and in the long, almost-hallucinatory sequence in which Japanese dancers and drummers commemorate their victory. It’s in these moments that the story tells itself, and when we feel that here is that rare filmmaker who embraces the classical essence of the medium. Viewers wishing to learn more about the so-called Rape of Nanking should turn to Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s equally poignant, harrowing 2007 documentary “Nanking,” alongside which “City of Life and Death” makes an excellent companion piece.

Grade: A

Written/Directed by: Lu Chuan
Cast: Liu Ye, Gao Yuanyuan, Hideo Nakaizumi, Fan Wei, Jiang Yiyan, Ryu Kohata, Liu Bin, John Paisley, Beverly Peckous, Qin Lan, Sam Voutas, Yao Di, Zhao Yisui

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Everyone knows the plot by now: Three down-and-out gold prospectors slumming in a small Mexican town venture into the titular mountain range and strike the mother lode. But that’s when trouble starts brewing as one of the men, Dobbs (played by Humphrey Bogart in one of his career-defining performances) becomes completely dominated by his greed and murderous suspicions towards the other two men — the easygoing Curtin (Tim Holt) and the seasoned, wisecracking Howard (Walter Huston, who won an Oscar) — till everything they’ve worked for and accumulated is jeopardized.

Huston’s crackerjack screenplay is a study in karmic justice as the men follow their separate paths, destined to meet their separate fates. Six decades since its release and counting, the performances by the three leads continue to exert a raw moral power, especially Bogart’s. He really goes full-tilt in a bold, unapologetic turn as the unhinged Dobbs. Holt makes a sturdy counterweight to Dobbs’ excesses while Huston holds his own as a grizzled prospector who’s seen a thing or two. His foreboding look as Dobbs begins to unravel reveals that Howard is the movie’s oracle, our resident wise man and the jokester we badly need by the time Treasure pitches and storms to its close.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an all-time masterpiece of characterization, structure, pacing and storytelling in general. While the outdoor photography could have been more expressive and textured (the early interiors are gorgeously filmed), and Huston’s early inspiration flags in the third act, the sheer narrative force of the whole thing — and Bogart’s indomitable performance — carry the film through. Among the most unforgettable action/adventure movies ever made.

Grade: A

Directed by: John Huston
Written by: John Huston
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, Walter Huston