Review: Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave”

There’s something to be said for our society when, upon viewing a trailer for a film that deals with the topic of slavery in the United States, it is immediately dismissed as “Oscar Bait.” I myself am no stranger to jumping to that particular conclusion (sometimes faster than I thought possible). It is something that comes almost naturally. In fact, a lot of period pieces in general, of any kind, tend to bring about this response in audiences. And, upon watching the film, do not do anything to quell said response. War Films, Biopics, et cetera, all share an emotionally-stirring idiosyncrasy that just seems to scream “well that director wants an award.” In a way it has almost trivialized the events that they are covering. That is not to say that these types of films are bad films, because they aren’t—more often than not they are without a doubt what anyoone would consider a Good Film, but in such a by-the-book way that it can almost reduce the film going experience entirely. Something too wrought with swelling scores and emotive speeches breaches cliché territory, indeed, breaches “Oscar Bait” territory, and quickly. It is—and I say this only for hyperbolic purposes—almost a little insulting that studios can produce these almost manipulative and sometimes seemingly passionless films in search of a buck or perhaps an award for the mantle.

However, there are times when a period piece film comes along that makes me realize that those kinds of films do not always fall into Oscar Bait territory. Take, for example, Steve McQueen’s recent monument, 12 Years a Slave.

I wasn’t familiar with the book the film was based off, but I knew more or less what to expect with the subject matter, considering the title. However, I knew not to expect the run of the mill Civil-War-era period piece from Steve McQueen, who had demonstrated his incredibly poignant and subtle direction through his past works (Shame and Hunger), and thus I was pretty excited for the film beforehand. Taking into account the cast too, I  had a feeling that this wasn’t going to be just “another one of those.” And, lo and behold, it gloriously wasn’t.

In fact, 12 Years A Slave is potentially one of the most fulfilling, endearing, and painful films in this particular genre to watch. I say painful not in that it is bad, because it certainly is not, but in that it is agonizingly realistic. And beautifully so–disturbingly long sequences depicting the mistreatment of humans in pre-13th Amendment days so gloriously shot by McQueen’s visionary eye stirs the viewer in the most honest of ways. The performances in the film are standout, specifically in the newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who is for sure due for an award or two this season. She is electric, and the same can be said for the rest of the cast; Michael Fassbender, a McQueen favorite, shakes the screen with a terrifying portrayal of cognitive dissonance. And of course there is the star of the show, Chiwetel Ejiofor, who truly comes into his own, with longing expressions lighting up the screen every moment. Everyone else, from Benedict Cumberbatch who is very rapidly climbing his way to the top of the A List, to the classic Paul Dano, really put on their war faces for this film, and it shows. It is a perfect storm of cinematography and performance.

In sum, 12 Years A Slave, though with a mere glance at the title seems to be Oscar Bait, is most certainly not: it is honest, it is heart-throbbing, it is both a pain and a joy to watch, and it is a capital-c Classic. If no other antebellum-era picture, all must at least witness this.

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Guest Review: Michael Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

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[By Ott Lindstrom]

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s prologue is, at first glance, the set up for an uninspired romantic comedy: against the backdrop of a frigid New York Valentine’s Day, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet spend seventeen minutes make puppy eyes at each other, exchange playful dialogue and do their very best to be adorkable. Out of context, it’s a damning first impression, coming across as a sort of twee understated indie thing where copious amounts of mumbling and awkwardness attempt to stand in for actual wit or humor. Then the seventeen minutes is over and the mood changes with the brutal swiftness of a bullet to the head as the titles drop, accompanied by a shot of Jim Carrey sobbing alone in a dark car.

There is something oddly compelling about watching Jim Carrey cry, a morbid satisfaction akin to sticking a thumbtack into a child’s balloon or popping the head off a dandelion. When the man’s famous rubbery visage, so adept at pulling off wacky expressions in accompaniment to funny noises, is scrunched into a tear drenched cascade of wrinkles, you can’t help but be enthralled. So it is with many aspects of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michael Gondry’s examination of failed romance wearing the guise of a low concept science fiction film. This is not a “feel good” movie by any means; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is to romantic comedies what Spec Ops: The Line is to modern shooter video games, an assumption-manipulating, cliché-eviscerating exercise in subversion and indictment that still manages to engage and fulfill despite its many layers of grim cynicism.

The majority of this engagement is embodied in Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. Both actors are in top form here, as ex-lovers Joel and Clementine who opt to undergo a procedure to erase all their memories of their relationship. Carrey is marvelously low key, turning in a quiet and nuanced performance at odds to his usual over-the-top comedic shenanigans. If it weren’t for the few rough patches where Carrey’s broad comic chops are given the opportunity to manifest (mostly in the form of almost cringe-worthy tone-breaking displays of facial muscle acrobatics), one could nearly be convinced he had been dealing in empathetic, dramatic roles his entire career. Sadly, it is perhaps this abstracted triumph of Carrey’s acting that is the biggest tragedy in a film full of heartbreaks: it is closing in on a decade since the film’s debut and Mr. Carrey hasn’t set foot near any project with even a fraction of Eternal Sunshine’s depth since.

Kate Winslet is equally great as Clementine, a brilliantly constructed corruption of the manic pixie dream girl romantic archetype. To paraphrase her catchphrase, Clem is a very fucked-up girl, whose litany of eccentricities comes off as more sad and petulant than endearing. The brash impulsiveness Winslet brings to the role is a perfect foil to Carrey’s quiet uncertainty. While their romantic chemistry feels a touch lacking (as it should, considering the context), the interplay between the two is nevertheless extraordinarily pleasurable to watch.

The background cast, while solid, feels more like a collective means to an end than an actual roster of fleshed out characters. Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood provide flashes of comic relief (far more seamlessly than Carrey does) and Kirsten Dunst and Tom Wilkinson provide a moderately interesting subplot that channels into the main twist of the third act. The actors are all good at what they are doing, but many of them feel one note and they are all completely overshadowed by the main duo.

Gondry’s directing and Charlie Kaufman’s writing are all but impeccable. Apart from the clunky way in which the script brings Joel and Clementine back together at the end of the film and the supremely awkward way in which the title’s source quote is worked in, Eternal Sunshine is fantastically constructed and presented, taking joy in toying with the viewers’ preconceived notions and slamming them in the face with jarring juxtaposition. The sci-fi aspects of the movie are nicely minimalistic, with no bloated technobabble to bog down the excellent dialogue (this is one of the most eminently quotable films I have seen in a good long while). The nonlinearity that stems from the science fiction elements is easy to grasp and follow, managing to be clever without confusing. The special effects, few and far between, are pleasant in their subtlety; an image of Joel’s storybook childhood home transforming into a bleak, tumbledown wraith as his memory is scrubbed is beautiful and melancholy.

And that is the best way to describe Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: a beautiful melancholy. By the time the film has come to its inexorable conclusion, there isn’t a scrap of hope left for the characters, only the putrescent stench of dead love lying thick over the chilly streets of a New York February. And yet, despite the frustrating futility of Joel and Clem’s love life, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is still extraordinarily satisfying; the creativity and craft of the creators and the talent of the leads is more than enough to justify letting a little heartbreak into your life.

4.5/5 “You should probably check this out. Now.”

Available on Netflix Instant Streaming

Jack and Jilling

[Original Publish Date: January 5, 2013]

The other day I was browsing the internet per-the-usual, and I stumbled across a post on the popular blogging site Tumblr. On this particular post was a screencap of an IMDB page for a film that was to be released entitled “This is the End.” The picture included the cast list, and the names of the characters in the film. Tumblr was clearly excited for the movie because it managed to get reposted nearly 83 thousand times, along with the caption of the original poster, which read, “There have been talks of an All-Star cast in the past… but this, my friends, is the most perfect cast ever created. I cannot wait for this movie.”

I have to say that after reading the first three names on the list, Emma Watson, James Franco, and Jonah Hill, I too thought the cast looked excellent. It was only when I looked over to see the names of their characters that I discovered the truth about this film—it was yet another prime example of Jack and Jilling.

Let me preface further description of This is the End by first explaining to you how the term Jack and Jilling came about, and what it means.

While I was perusing the net one evening, searching for reliable film-related websites, I found myself watching a 70-minute-long review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. It was entertainingly thorough, and thus, I found myself a regular visitor of the website that had created it: Red Letter Media. Red Letter Media prides itself on being… well, rather nitpicky when it comes to film, with an overly-snarky and hard-to-impress attitude. They break down films piece-by-piece and build it back up through their absurdly detailed reviews. While it’s not exactly the site you’d visit to decide what movie to see in the theatre next, it’s definitely entertaining to more devoted (and cynical) movie-goers. I don’t always agree with Red Letter Media’s views (in fact, I can say I ardently disagree with a reasonable amount of what they have to say), but it is fair to say that they are intensely comprehensive when it comes to information on cinema.

One of their reviews specifically stuck out in my mind. It was a review for a film that they stated, “Would change your life.” What film is that, you might ask? Why, it’s Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill, of course!

Oh, but not in a good way. Jack and Jill, though appearing to be a lighthearted, run-of-the-mill, comedy, is much more sinister.  This isn’t even my bias leaking through. I understand that taste in film is subjective. One person might find something funny that another person does not. Another person might be driven to tears by something the first person thought was foolish. However, those kinds of opinions are reserved for movies that are, actually, movies. Jack and Jill is not a movie. Jack and Jill ceases to be a movie when you see the motives behind its creation. And I assure you, with something as transparent as Jack and Jill, they aren’t exactly invisible.

It is not the uncreative plot that makes this film bad. It is not the truly dreadful quality of the acting or the writing. As I said earlier, Jack and Jill is not a movie. We cannot judge it by the same presets we would judge a real movie by. If we were to do that, you would get what was expected: a 3% on Rotten Tomatoes, a 23 on Metacritic, and a rousing “ignore” from acclaimed critic Roger Ebert. No: we should judge Jack and Jill by what it truly is:  a blatant scam.

In that regard, I tip my hat to the King Fraud Adam Sandler for manipulating his fan’s pockets into a personal piggy bank. He is a master of that particular trade. And things like Jack and Jill (things that are not movies) are his medium. Like Picasso to oils, is Adam Sandler to… scam… commercial… projections of fake-movies.

Jack and Jill is a trick. It tricks the audience into thinking they’re watching a film through cheap jokes and forced sentiment. What they are really watching is a giant, cheap, commercial.

I would highly suggest you watch Red Letter Media’s entire review of Jack and Jill. However, since you people all have lives to live that can’t be wasted watching hour-long reviews of Adam Sandler films, I doubt you will. So I will neatly sum up what they have to say.

Jack and Jill is a cheap-looking movie. There is little to no effort put into makeup or effects. The sets are poorly crafted. The entire film looks like an SNL skit. However, the budget for this film was an estimated 79 million dollars. To put that in perspective, we will compare it to the budgets of two other 2011 films that look insurmountably better: Cabin in the Woods, with a budget of 30 million, and Drive, with a budget of 15 million. How does that make sense? Why do these films look so much better than Jack and Jill? Where did 79 million dollars go if not to effects or makeup or design or work of any kind? Not to mention that 79 million isn’t even including the vast extra amounts of money given by advertisers for product placement (and trust me, there is a lot of it).

Before I go on, I would like to not get sued for libel by making a notation that this is merely a theory. Maybe the makeup artists worked really, really hard on Adam Sandler’s…wig. Maybe the wig was made out of the finest silken hairs in the land… or something.  Maybe they had to spend 50 million dollars of the budget on the wig. Or maybe Happy Madison (Adam Sandler’s production company) just took all the money to overpay the actors (Adam Sandler and all of his SNL friends). He doesn’t care about the quality of work. He isn’t trying to win Oscars. He is trying to turn a profit. He writes a script in a weekend. He calls his actor and producer friends. They film this thing for a month or two. They release it. And it makes a worldwide gross of 150 million dollars. Enough people around the world go to see these abominations for it to earn 150 million dollars. And Adam Sandler gets richer and richer.

That is the definition of Jack and Jilling. In a neater sense, here is a quote from Red Letter Media’s review:

Adam Sandler says, “Hi, I’m Adam Sandler. I have lots of pull, I have lots of box office hits (not necessarily in the critical definition of hit, but in the financial definition of hit), I can make some phone calls. We’ll put together this really cheaply made product called Jack and Jill. I can raise this amount of budget for it (x amount of dollars), and I’m going to call up all my old friends and give them horribly inflated paychecks to be in it, and at the same time get giant checks from big name advertisers to also give us money. We’ll cash all these paychecks and we’ll release this bomb into the theatres, and who gives a shit what the critics say, people will go watch it… and everyone will be happy.”

“So what’s wrong with that?” you might ask, “Companies making products for a profit. It happens all the time. That’s what business is.” Well, there are a couple things wrong with that. It does not only belittle the medium by turning film into fast food. It does not only make millionaires out of talentless hacks. What Jack and Jillingdoes, is laugh at us. All of them—Adam Sandler, Allen Covert, Tim Herlihy—they sit in their mansions and laugh as all the mindless zombies go to the theatre to eat their garbage. And it is insulting. You should be insulted, because these people think that you and I are so dumb. And what’s more is that they are bordering on being correct.  Maybe we are all just dumb, because if their plans didn’t work, then these things wouldn’t continue to be made.

It’s not just Adam Sandler. Look at Gary Marshall: the director of two movies that were literally the same. Look at this thing coming out in a few weeks. And finally, let’s get back to This is the End, a fake-movie that is especially disappointing.

The title for the movie is This is the End. It is directed by Seth Rogen. It is written by Seth Rogen. Seth Rogen is in it, playing a character named… Seth Rogen. And good god, I usually respect Seth Rogen (50/50 was a great film)! Who else is in it? Paul Rudd plays a character named… Paul Rudd. Jonah Hill plays a character named… Jonah Hill. Michael Cera plays a character named… Michael Cera. Do you see where this is going? It unfortunately does not stop there.

This is the End is Jack and Jilling us again. And audiences are going to pay ten dollars to go and see this two-hour-long Funny or Die video, and these people are going to make fortunes off of it. All these actors all probably showed up at James Franco’s house one night and did improv for a few hours, taking turns filming one another on their iPhones. Then they probably employed some poor USC film students to edit the thing into a “movie.” And somewhere, Philip Seymour Hoffman is shaking his head in utter disgrace. Of course, I haven’t seen the film, so maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s hope. Maybe it actually will be a work of art. Maybe its existence won’t make me cry myself to sleep at night. But it’s dreadfully apparent laziness tells me that what little hope I have is unfounded. It’s Jack and Jilling. It’s all just Jack and Jilling.

You won’t stop going to these movies, I know. It’s okay. It’s not your fault. You laugh at the man falling down the stairs because a man falling down the stairs is funny. And so, they are right to make a two hour long movie of a man falling down the stairs. They are right to turn a profit off our generic laughter. It doesn’t hurt anyone except those who are too emotionally attached to movies. Never mind Adam Sandler being in the 1% and stealing all the money right along with the Wall Street executives. Never mind the trivialization of film as an art form, making good movies so far and few between. McDonald’s product doesn’t cheapen 5-star-restaurant’s products, so why should Jack and Jill cheapen the quality of good cinema?

Unfortunately, it all costs the same amount of money to go to any movie. The ten dollars you spent to see Jack and Jill on Friday, November 25th could have been ten dollars you spent to see Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. But who cares about Hugo, really. Leave all those “dry, boring” films to the pretentious people. You weren’t in the mood for spectacular effects or magical acting. You were in the mood to go to the theatre with your friends and laugh at Adam Sandler falling down…without even realizing that Adam Sandler is the one laughing at you.

Here We Go Again.

No more tumblr tags. No more plebeian themes. In fact, I paid thirty dollars for this theme and spent a decent amount of time in photoshop so it better look cool.

I’ll be better about content: reviews, articles, what have you. It’ll be better. Everything will be better.

And I’ll include guest columns–look, point is, this is gonna be professional. Even though this first blog post is anything but.

Don’t judge the whole blog by this post alone, okay? I promise, this is going to be trill, and based, and all those other positive urbandictionary adjectives.

It’s all going to be cool. It’s all happening. I swear.

✗ Maddison