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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REVIEW: Meek’s Cutoff

Meek’s Cutoff
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Written by: Jon Raymond (screenplay)
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano, and Shirley Henderson

The post-modern western Meek’s Cutoff, the latest from minimalist director Kelly Reichardt, operates with two things in mind: people are indecisive, and the Oregon Trail is beautiful.  In this quiet, contemplative film we find an American allegory set against the Western Expansion in the 1800s.

A group of settlers is led by a guide named Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a bearded troubadour who prefers to burn through the plains rather than accept their dominance.  The whole film rotates around the settlers’ mounting uncertainty, especially that of Emily (Michelle Williams).  

Meek’s Cutoff acknowledges the intolerance of the time period, and uses it as a mirror to today.  Screenwriter Jon Raymond has written some beautifully expressive dialogue  in this film, especially considering how little overall talking there is.  The back-and-forth Meek and Emily share when he asks her if she hates him is one of the most well-written exchanges of the year.

The role of Emily does not mark the first time Williams has operated in the low-key films of Ms. Reichardt.  The two brilliantly collaborated in 2008’s Wendy and Lucy, another earnest American folktale set in Oregon.  That film was better, and Williams was better in it, but this one is still quite good.  It has more in common with Reichardt’s 2006 film Old Joy with its picturesque nature setting and many unspoken implications.  This is not the bombastic Western setting of John Ford or Sergio Leone.  There are no grandiose shootouts or even any cowboys (It’s rated PG).

Instead of typical Western conventions that directors like the Coen Brothers have subverted to their own post-modern ends, Reichardt favors a mood of near-tranquility.  There are outbursts, as when Meek and another settler played by Paul Dano bring back a Native American captive.  Fear of the unknown seeps to the surface, but Emily’s whispering into the ear of her husband (Will Patton) turns the “savage” into their guide instead of a corpse.

Muttering is largely how Emily and the other women silently get their way in this movie.  There are several instances where the men mutter to themselves about what it is the camp should do.  Reichardt almost always pans to the women, silently gathered to the side and watching their lives being decided for them. They recall the nuns of Doubt, albeit with more colorful garments, in more ways than one.

This is important to note because it clearly establishes Reichardt’s vision of the film and her identity as one of the few female directors working today.  Had a male director been behind the camera, those scenes may have been shot quite differently. The most revolutionary thing about Meek’s Cutoff may be that it confronts gender without sacrificing any of the realism in the time period.  When Emily takes up arms against Meek in the film’s climax it’s, as the New York Times also noted, more than a gun she’s wielding.

Just because Meek’s Cutoff is not as masterful as Wendy and Lucy does not dismiss it from discussion.  In fact, it is still a very fine film, one that has a clearly defined worldview and cinematography that is absolutely striking given the budget.  The early images of a vast empty field and the howling wind striking a lone Emily behind the other wagons is a perfect visual metaphor for its themes. On this journey they are all together but separate, moving forward with no direction at all.

Grade: B

REVIEW: Cowboys & Aliens

Cowboys & Aliens
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Written by: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, & Hawk Ostby (screenplay), Scott Mitchell Rosenberg (comic)
Starring: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, and Sam Rockwell

You can almost see the studio meeting that birthed this movie.  I’m sure it went something likes this:

“What’s the title?”

Cowboys & Aliens.”

“We’ll sell the title, then.  It’ll be like Snakes on a Plane!  Who’s directing?”

“We’d like to get the guy from Iron Man on board.  Also, we want Harrison Ford to star.”

“Great, looks like you’ve thought of everything!  Here’s $100 million.”

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ARCHIVE REVIEW: L.I.E.

L.I.E.
Directed by: Michael Cuesta
Written by: Stephen M. Ryder, Michael Cuesta, & Gerald Cuesta
Starring: Paul Dano, Brian Cox, Bruce Altman, and Billy Kay

Watching L.I.E. reminds you of what the American Independent Cinema first set out to do; it’s of full moral ambiguity within a premise that would never in a million years be green-lit by a Hollywood studio.  Looking at recent indie fluff like Juno or any of its brightly colored siblings makes the often edgy facade of independent movies seem like they’re losing touch, never mind the quality.

L.I.E. stars Paul Dano in what is still his most daring role.  His excellent performances in Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood almost seem safe next to his role as Howie, a gay, misguided 15-year-old who becomes romantically entangled with a much, much older man.  If Dano is daring, than Brian Cox is fearless on an almost unparalleled level as that older man.

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DVD Must-watch: Spike Jonze’s Oscar snubbed Where the Wild Things Are

Image courtesy of Screen Rant

The biggest crime perpetuated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Peter Travers of Rolling Stone prefers “Farts and Biases” and I tend to agree) this year is ignoring Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. Today, you have the opportunity to partially correct that mistake by going out and renting or buying the film yourself and seeing what great work he has done.

Jonze had the audacity to adapt a 12-page, mostly illustrated children’s novel to the silver screen.  Guess what?  He succeeded admirably.

Wild Things is a beautifully told vision of childhood.  The fears, anxieties, tribulations and joys told through the eyes of a young boy named Max (portrayed by terrific child actor Max Records) are all brought to vivid, beautiful light in this film.

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