BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: 12 Years a Slave

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE

12 Years a Slave
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (memoir)
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofer, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Sarah Paulson

Connecting 12 Years a Slave immediately to its Oscar buzz because of when a studio chose to release it would be a disservice to it.  To put it simply, this is the most powerful film about American slavery that I’ve ever seen, and diminishing that accomplishment by asking if the white male establishment of the Academy can handle it enough to award it with anything is at the bottom of my list.

Steve McQueen’s previous two features, Hunger and Shame, were visually brilliant, but at times lacking a crucial human element.  This was especially true of Shame, whose miserabalism was supposed to be its own profound reward but ultimately registered as empty.  There is obviously a great deal of suffering in 12 Years a Slave, but also an intense humanity.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: The Wolf of Wall Street

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The Wolf of Wall Street
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Terrence Winter (screenplay), Jordan Belfort (book)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie and Kyle Chandler

One of the biggest bright spots in this year’s Oscar nominations is the amount of prestige bestowed on a three-hour spectacle of almost non-stop vulgarity.  I have a pretty good feeling that Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is nominated simply because of the pedigree of talent involved.  It is almost as polarizing (and misunderstood) as Shutter Island, which probably would have been nominated had it been released during awards season.

Scorsese, whether or not he likes it, is an Oscar mainstay now, and would likely have to tank in an almost unfathomable way to not get attention from the voters.  The Wolf of Wall Street looks kind of like an Oscar film on the surface, but it’s also everything that they typically dislike:

It’s a comedy.  It’s a black comedy.  It’s not self-serious.  It’s three hours and not about World War II or ancient history.

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Short Takes: Inside Llewyn Davis, The Hunt, Mitt

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

Inside Llewyn Davis- The Coen Brothers’ first film since 2010’s True Grit is sardonic and strange, and at times very moving.  The most apt description I’ve read about it was “Sisyphus gets a cat,” which perfectly encapsulates the existential yet playful journey that the title character (Oscar Isaac, robbed of an Oscar nod) is destined to be on forever.  Llewyn Davis is a folk singer, but not good enough to make a living at it.  He’s cute, but his personality is too prickly to be likable.

Thanks to a wonderful score with music by no less than T-Bone Burnett, this is the Coens’ prettiest sounding movie.  This is also one of their prettiest-looking (hat tip to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel), capturing a dimly lit, antique vibe that feels perfect for Greenwich Village, 1961.  Grade: B+

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Our Favorite Movies of 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street movie

1. The Wolf of Wall Street- The funniest film of the year was made by one of the world’s greatest directors, Martin Scorsese, who is now into his 70s and nearing the very end of his career. You wouldn’t know it watching The Wolf of Wall Street, an impossibly energetic riff on the true-life exploits of Wall Street crook Jordan Belfort. The film depicts behavior most would find irrefutably lewd, misogynist, or downright amoral; most of which is played for uproarious laughs. The men in Wolf act out of humanity’s basest impulses; snorting drugs and screwing prostitutes in the office just because they have no one there to tell them “no.” Scorsese, much like the protagonist, never slows down to moralize anything on the screen, keeping the focus on the excessively sexual and drug-fueled life of Belfort and all of his brokers. It is in these outrageous slapstick moments and revolting conversations that the director becomes a sly satirist, allowing us to laugh at and observe this lifestyle from the self-aggrandizing narrator’s point of view. The uniformly great supporting cast, paired with DiCaprio’s career-best performance, carry out exhilarating, even visceral, comedy scenes that keep the film bouncing through its three-hour run-time.  Scorsese’s damning portrait of greed has a well-secured place in the canon of America’s great black comedies.

spring breakers

2. Spring Breakers- The perverse pleasures of cinema were mined and radicalized in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, an apocalyptic beach party and an unforgettable deconstruction of modern America’s excesses and wastelands. Aesthetically, it mirrors the sex-and-drug infused paradise of an MTV spring break, filmed under bright pink skylines and seedy red nightclubs. Malevolence has always been a way of coping with marginality for Korine’s characters, but for Brit, Candy, Faith and Cotty, it is a way to reach the ultimate high; attaining a transcendent euphoria, not through debauched revelries but through dominance and power. Big Arch and the indelible Alien are the walking, boasting incarnations of this ever-lasting Dream, and the girls’ eventual foray into criminal warfare is all an inevitable part of their quest for insatiable pleasure. As a major release in 2013, Spring Breakers is purposefully indefinable, and so nonplussed reactions from Gen-Y are unsurprising (strangely, our drug-obsessed culture doesn’t seem too interested in art inspired by drugs?). But not working directly as an obvious critique of anything is exactly why the film will endure; by evading a definite “purpose,” it is a piece of art that can be observed from a multitude of angles. If anything, the year’s masterpiece will serve as an important corrective: it’s not style over substance, style is the substance.

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REVIEW: The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street movie

The Wolf of Wall Street
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Terrence Winter (screenplay), Jordan Belfort (book)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie and Kyle Chandler

There was a man sitting in front of me during The Wolf of Wall Street who was in such anguish during the entire three hours that he asked his girlfriend multiple times if they could leave “this foolishness.” She sat almost entirely in silence, whispering something along the lines of “If you wanna leave, leave,” a couple of different times.

Loud bursts of hysterical laughter also popped up throughout the theater during the movie as well, as a bunch of white collar Wall Street crooks in the ’80s and ’90s made a debauched spectacle of their privileged lives in ways that nearly transcend vulgarity.  Several people walked out, though the agonized boyfriend/husband sat it out until the end.

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Short Takes: Saving Mr. Banks, Anchorman 2 and More

Saving-Mr-Banks1

Saving Mr. Banks- A Disney propaganda film intent on making the definitive statement on how Walt came to pry the movie rights for Mary Poppins from the claws of its author, P.L. Travers.  It’s surprisingly nimble and entertaining propaganda, though, leaning heavily on the dry wit of Emma Thompson, who plays Travers, and the natural charm of Tom Hanks, whose casting as Disney is a huge indicator of the movie’s slanderous intentions.

Despite the sour taste the movie’s historical rewrite leaves, there are many funny and well-directed sequences involving Travers combating the Disney crew over the Poppins film adaptation.  I felt like I was being forced not to identify with her, though.  Like director John Lee Hancock did in The Blind Side, he overplays the fairly decent hand the story and actors gave him by suffocating it with Disney sugar.  Thompson is fantastic here, but the movie never misses an opportunity to make her seem like a shrew who needs taming. Grade: C-

anchorman-fros

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues- For a movie that tries desperately for two hours to elicit laughs at any cost, Anchorman 2 isn’t nearly funny enough.  Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) goes global on a CNN spinoff with the rest of his news team, played again by Paul Rudd, Steve Carell and David Koechner, and their idiocy is a natural fit.

The script gets a few good jabs in about the ridiculousness of the 24-hour news cycle, but most of the jokes that don’t involve the comedic anarchy of Carell’s weather guy Brick are just stale.  It exists more as an SNL episode with a bunch of celebrity cameos than a movie.  Grade: D

Upstream-color

Upstream Color- Shane Carruth’s second feature is a wondrous creation.  Unlike his first, Primer, it thrills more on a sensory level, and he surpasses what’s in the script instead of just presenting it.  The story focuses on a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) who is subjected to mind control and stripped of her identity, but he keeps the narrative in constant limbo by being more interested in examining the experience than stopping to explain it.

Kris meets a man (played by Carruth) who also seems to have undergone the same procedure as her, and the two fall in confused love, their identities and memories eventually clashing but not getting in the way.  Describing the movie’s story does little justice to the spontaneous beauty Carruth sustains throughout.  Its meaning unfolds for the audience at the same time as the characters, though to apply any concrete meaning trivializes the breadth of its power.  Grade: B+

movie43

Movie 43- I’m offended that this movie exists.  Grade: F

REVIEW: A Touch of Sin

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A Touch of Sin
Directed by: Jia Zhangke
Written by: Jia Zhangke
Starring: Jiang Wu, Zhao Tao, Luo Lanshan and Wang Bao

Tiger, ox, snake and rooster- these four animals, symbols on the Chinese Zodiac calender, are key to understanding the central character in each of the four chapters in Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin.  It illustrates the clashes and cohesion of tradition and modernism as it applies to those people, who operate in four distinct areas of that industrial and economic superpower.

It’s thrilling that a movie as confrontational and abrasive as A Touch of Sin could even be made in China, where the film industry, like many other things, is regulated by the government.  The movie’s bloody genre trappings aren’t subtle, and they enhance the overt political statements rather than mask them. Each character is confronted by different, uncensored truths about their country, and each of their stories erupts with violence and death.

The first is the story of Dahai (Jiang Wu), a disgruntled miner.  Confronted with poverty after corruption and greed privatizes his mine, he becomes a working-class avenging angel, wielding a shotgun and a pitiless dead-eyed gaze.  That gun is wrapped in a tiger-imprinted cloth, and a loud growl precedes his rampage.  Wu is a commanding, ferocious screen presence.

Next is the ox, a gun-loving migrant worker who returns to his family in the southwestern city of Chongqing.  His act of violence is the murder of a wealthy couple so he can snatch the woman’s purse.  In fact, nearly all of the carnage in A Touch of Sin is spawned by economic injustice.  There is the snake, a spa receptionist bullied to brutality by a rich man looking to use her for sex.  And, finally, there is a young man searching for economic opportunity, unaware of endless dead ends and vast corruption.

This is my first encounter with Zhangke’s work, and the boldness and skill he executes each chapter is astounding.  His characters are not defined by their respective zodiac animals or by their violence.  Both of those are overt contrasts with their attempts at normalcy in modern China.  There are glimpses of labor factories, train crashes and ruthless economic disparity; things that do not make headlines in state-run newspapers but that Zhangke clearly wants to the world to see.

Grade: B+