12 Years a Slave

Platt, you are a marvel

12yasSolomon Northup’s true story is one of the greatest narratives about slavery and freedom in the history of anywhere.  Published in 1853 (in the years leading up to the American Civil War), Northup’s memoir was a unique look into not only the living conditions of slaves, but the real-life relationships between slaves and masters.  Steve McQueen’s film takes some Hollywood liberties with Northup’s original story (it’s not as if Northup himself is here to protest it, not that he would probably want to relive the brutality through fiction in the first place), but thankfully, he neither Hollywoods the emotional impact nor synthesizes a formula plot.

Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black violinist living in Saratoga.  Through one thing and another, he is tricked, kidnapped, and sold into slavery by a couple of opportunistic charlatans, and finds himself on a plantation owned by baptist preacher William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Once he accepts his position (though never giving up hope of seeing his family again), Northup is able to remain on good terms with Ford, who seems only to own slaves because he’s expected to (one must assume that he inherited his money).  Slaves Robert (Michael K. Williams) and Eliza (Adepero Oduye) are not so lucky.  Northup engineers a waterway for Ford, which leads both Ford and his head carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano) to wonder whether Northup is actually more than he seems.  Tibeats’ reaction is one of hatred, and he antagonizes the slaves, especially Northup, every chance he gets – in fact, the character is introduced when he sings the most evil song in the history of cinema (and I hope for Dano’s sake that it doesn’t become a meme anytime soon).

The conflict between Northup and Tibeats (which culminates in a horrific several-minute-long single shot of Northup hanging by the neck while everyone goes about their day around him) becomes a liability for Ford, who sells Northup to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a character so racist and abusive that he might be a caricature if not for Fassbender’s painfully truthful performance combined with the harrowing knowledge that Epps was a real person, and one of many generations of people just like him.  His wife, Mary Epps (Sarah Paulson) is a stock character whose scenes alone with Northup are mostly unnecessary, but whose verbal attempts to emasculate her husband in front of his workers causes plenty of trouble for the latter.  Epps directs his sexual frustrations and violence towards one slave in particular: Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), whom he rapes and brutalizes with absolutely no comeuppance or complaint.

Along comes Armsby (Garret Dillahunt), a white man whose drinking habits cost him enough of his living that he’s forced to get a job picking cotton on Epps’ plantation.  In a bit of nice (albeit appropriately frustrating)  dramatic irony, Armsby commiserates his position whilst cleaning lash wounds on Northup’s back.  Northup asks Armsby for a favor, but we know he’s a red herring and that Northup will not yet escape.  After being turned in, Northup remains on the good side of Epps, who considers Armsby useless anyway (going so far as touching a knife to Northup’s chest and stating, in regards to Armsby, “If he weren’t free and white…”).  Soon after comes the arrival of outspoken Canadian carpenter Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), whom readers of Northup’s book (or viewers of the original film adaptation starring Avery Brooks) know will eventually help Northup escape.  It’s very telegraphed in the film, as Bass has no problem telling Epps that his slaves are human beings and that he has no right to own them (a concept that seems so foreign and ridiculous to Epps that Bass might as well have told him that one day there would be a thing called motion pictures, and that he himself would be played as a villain by a British actor).  Northup bonds with Bass after listening to this conversation, and takes another risk.

It’s difficult to see Northup’s homecoming as a happy ending, because most of us are still thinking of Patsey, who still lives and will eventually die on Epps’ plantation, alongside the countless other slaves still in the south, who were born into slavery and will never know anything else.  The film’s final line, “There is nothing to forgive,” has multiple layers to read.  The titles at the end, which reveal that Northup took his kidnappers to court and lost the case due to the fact that blacks were not allowed to testify against whites, did nothing to stifle the weeping of the entire theatreful of viewers where I saw the film (about a half-hour’s drive from Northup’s home).

The film is (expectedly) a marvel performance-wise; Ejiofor hits a vein of silver as Northup, bringing a careful respect to the character in every scene.  His performance of “Roll Jordan Roll” puts most of the cast of Les Miserables to shame, and acts as a fantastic figurative response to Tibeats’ hate-filled song earlier on (at the expense of reminding the audience that this is a movie).  Fassbender is incomparable in his second role in a row 1) as an American, and 2) alongside Brad Pitt, who acts more reserved than usual, letting the more important characters remain in focus.  What McQueen robs us of, however, is the scene in which Northup actually relates his story to Bass.  This is important; Northup has not told anyone his story in twelve years, and thus not heard himself say aloud who he is, where he is from, and what he cares about.  It’s something we’ve been waiting for, and the filmmakers sacrifice it for the sake of narrative movement in a film that has established a general okay-ness with slowing down and allowing people to talk (certainly, bits of Bass’s anti-slavery diatribe could have been trimmed if the issue was time; actually helping a slave escape holds a bit more precedent).  Nyong’o as Patsey really strikes a nerve: here is the character who receives every imaginable brutality, and gets absolutely no restitution.  Her whipping scene is something that no one will ever forget, and her performance (her face is in focus while blurry images of two or three different characters take turns decimating her) made me feel like I was standing nearby watching it happen, as helpless as Northup to do (or say) anything about it.

Unfortunately, 12 Years a Slave is the most recent (and hopefully last) in a string of movies about two things: 1) slavery, and 2) white people rescuing black people.  Lincoln, Django Unchained, The Butler, The Man With the Iron Fists, The Help, Elysium, etc.  Why the fascination with slavery?  Why not a film where the black characters don’t rely on white saviors?  Why can’t a popular film feature a black protagonist who isn’t the victim of her/his identity as a central point of the narrative?  McQueen’s film gets a pass because it’s a true story, but it still sets a certain trend, especially when it’s so extensively lauded.  I really hate to think the recent onslaught of slavery films has some ulterior motive, as if Hollywood knows it’s a sensitive topic that will automatically place it against the best dramas about other things.

I feel I should end with a lighter-hearted question: why isn’t Paul Dano allowed to play something other than a psychopath?  I’m not naive enough to think the other questions will receive actual answers.

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave (2013); written by John Ridley; based upon the memoir by Solomon Northup; directed by Steve McQueen; starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o.  

2012 Favorites

We now return you to 2013, already in progress

feature_presentationI keep hearing myself say, “I told you the best movies from 2011 were Take Shelter, Another Earth, and Jane Eyre.”  In part so that I can cite the fact that I “told you,” and mostly just because I’ve been wanting to for awhile, I will now hold the Richard Lives equivalent of the Oscars once annually (called “Favorites” because I don’t presume to be any more of an authority on the subject than I seem to be [not to say I don’t make better decisions than the Academy, but I digress]) .  The rules I set for myself are as follows:

I.  Only include movies that I’ve seen/written about here.

II.  Set early February as a deadline.  Do it during awards season.  As such, I won’t have seen every movie of the year, in large part because of my location (for example, I am doing this list before having seen Rust and Bone, as I may not get to it anytime soon.  Apologies to Marion Cotillard, who surely doesn’t need my approval).

III.  Only include movies from the year in question.  Sometimes I see films from the previous year that I never got around to and write about them if I need to, so you’ll see them mixed in with the new movies.  Look at the year of release, listed at the bottom of each review, if you’re wondering why The Lie isn’t included in this year’s list.

IV.  No more than 5 nominees for each category.  Some have fewer.  Some have only one, such as “Favorite Character,” which we’ll also call the Highlander Award, just for fun.

V.  Be honest.  As much as I may like to be seen disagreeing with the Academy, Les Mis was pretty damn good.

I’ll explain the categories as we go, if the parameters aren’t obvious.  The “Body of Work” actor and actress awards refer to actors who had the most prolific year (varied roles, great performances).  2011’s winner was, of course, Jessica Chastain, with seven major roles and no equal in performance and character assortment.

Some categories have several nominees.  Some don’t.  Categories with multiple nominees may have a star (*) next to one, indicating my personal favorite of the year’s best.  However, since the nominees aren’t actually receiving anything from me (positive encouragement notwithstanding) and considering the fact that many of these roles/films are really not comparable (for instance, how do you compare Hugh Jackman’s performance with Woody Harrelson’s and Daniel Day-Lewis’s, and then decide which is somehow “best”?  “Best” according to what characteristics shared by all three?), you may consider all nominees equal winners if I’ve chosen not to “star” anything.  Click the links (movie titles) to see my original reviews.

Without further ado:

Best Pictures

Safety Not Guaranteed             

A Late Quartet                        

Moonrise Kingdom

Les Misérables

Zero Dark Thirty

Best screenwriting

Quentin Tarantino – Django Unchained 

Derek Connolly – Safety Not Guaranteed     

Martin McDonaghSeven Psychopaths    

James Ellroy/Oren Moverman – Rampart

Brit MarlingSound of My Voice 

Favorite character

Léa Seydoux as Sidonie Laborde – Farewell, My Queen

Best Actress (single performance)

Jessica Chastain as Maya – Zero Dark Thirty*

Lea Seydoux as Sidonie Laborde – Farewell, My Queen

Juno Temple as LilyLittle Birds  

Jennifer Lawrence as TiffanySilver Linings Playbook 

Sarah Hayward as SuzieMoonrise Kingdom 

Best Actress (body of work)

Jennifer Lawrence

Best Actor (single performance)

Woody Harrelson as Dave Brown – Rampart*

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham LincolnLincoln

Michael Fassbender as DavidPrometheus

Richard Gere as Robert MillerArbitrage

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Robert – A Late Quartet*

Best actor (body of work)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Best supporting actress

Brie Larson as Helen – Rampart*

Imogen Poots as Alexandra A Late Quartet*

Brit Marling as MaggieSound of My Voice

Diane Kruger as Marie AntoinetteFarewell, My Queen

Best supporting actor

Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz – Django Unchained

Robert De Niro as Patrizio SolitanoSilver Linings Playbook

Ben Whishaw as Robert FrobisherCloud Atlas

Best director

Kathryn Bigelow – Zero Dark Thirty*

Oren MovermanRampart

Quentin TarantinoDjango Unchained

                                                                                                                                                   Best book-to-film adaptation

Anna Karenina

Les Misérables*

Silver Linings Playbook       

Dark Horse Favorite

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Biggest letdowns

Skyfall

The Expendables 2

Ruby Sparks
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Most Popular Review

The Moth Diaries

Actors who wrote to me

Lily Cole

Lauren Ashley Carter

———

Thanks for reading.  See you next year.

Les Misérables

Mix it in a mincer and pretend it’s beef

Jackman/HathawayHowever wonderful and entrancing Tom Hooper’s rendition of Les Misérables may be, let us remember that its source material is a 1980 musical that is itself a somewhat fast/loose adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel.  In that sense, it remains remarkably true to the spirit of the original work (and most of the events and character relationships) for a third-hand script 150 years later.  For those not familiar with the musical based upon the novel, Les Misérables (loosely translated as The Wretched, The Victims, or The Poor Ones) is a sung-through musical in multiple acts, which in a way is similar to Hugo’s novel, which is split into five titled sections.

The five sections, mostly titled after characters’ names, may have helped the average filmgoer figure out who’s important in the movie if included.  For instance, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is the central figure who connects every character in the story, despite the fact that the character has less physical presence and longevity than most of the core cast.  Who would be able to guess her importance right off the bat?  Well, a reader would, seeing as Hugo titled the first section of the novel “Fantine.”  The pacing of the film, though, is expertly handled.  No time is wasted getting from event to event, even when several years pass, and as with a stage show, we are left to imagine what transpired in between.  Since the songs last longer than a simple conversation covering the same material, rendering the film 158 minutes, these quick transitions are especially appreciated, and do not subvert the idea that what happens later is earned.

The story begins in 1815 with Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict who earns parole after a nineteen year sentence.  However, the prison guard, Javert (Russell Crowe), tells him he’ll never be free as long as Javert is watching him.  Eventually, the starving Valjean is taken in by the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson), but steals his silver and retreats in the night.  When Javert’s men capture him, the Bishop, in an incredible act of kindness and forgiveness, claims that the silver was a gift to Valjean, and that Valjean in fact forgot the most expensive pieces, and gives him two beautiful candlesticks, along with the warning that he had better use this gift to make himself an honest man.  Amazed by this generosity, Valjean breaks parole and assumes a new identity, and eight years later, he becomes a factory owner and Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer.  Fantine, who works in the factory, is dismissed by an abusive foreman after he discovers that she’s been sending money to her illegitimate daughter and needs a raise.  Valjean, present in the room, ignores this because he spots Javert, now a police inspector, and worries that his old nemesis may be there to apprehend him.  Javert suspects, and his suspicions are confirmed when Valjean reveals his identity in order to save a man who has been wrongfully accused.  Before narrowly escaping the wrath of the obsessed Javert, who has been hunting him for almost a decade, Valjean brings Fantine (who has been forced into prostitution) to the hospital, asks her forgiveness, and promises to raise her daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen, and later Amanda Seyfried).  He buys Cosette from the perfidious Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), greedy innkeepers who have worked the little girl to the bone and treated her like an animal.  Nine years pass, Cosette grows up, and the Parisan June Rebellion of 1832 is about to begin, led by Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne), the latter of whom falls in love with Cosette after passing her on the street, and she reciprocates.  Valjean, effectively Cosette’s father, feared this day, and now finds himself not only still in hiding from Javert, but involved in the revolution because of Cosette.

The beauty of Les Misérables, perhaps, is the fact that even after 150 years, I cannot say “You can guess where the story goes from there,” as I do about so many popcorn flicks made from unreadable modern scripts.  This is in part due to the fact that Hooper and company leave most of the story threads intact and do not attempt to water any of the action down for the ADD Generation – granted, these are threads that the stage musical also kept intact, and Hooper’s film only leaves out two of the original songs, while adding a brand new one (“Suddenly,” sung by Hugh Jackman).  Not since Aronofsky’s The Fountain has Jackman truly shown us that he can do something besides playing Wolverine, and if he wasn’t already slated to play Wolverine once again later this year,  I’d say that this is the role that will break him out of actiony brain-garbage for good.  Russell Crowe is convincingly narcissistic and troubled as Javert, though his singing chops are dubious at best, and his voice seems to mysteriously improve as the film goes on.  Redmayne, known to me only from last year’s My Week With Marilyn, may have a breakout role here, bringing an intimate sort of sympathy to Marius, the closest thing to a Boring Hero you’ll see in Les Misérables.  Samantha Barks, who has played Éponine in the stage show, reprises the role here, and successfully fuses the character of the novel with that of the musical.  Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter are perfect as the story’s most unscrupulous players, and while the innkeepers were not used for comic effect in Hugo’s novel, the musical version makes them seem like they were written for these two actors, especially Baron Cohen, who gets through “Master of the House” without channeling any of his “Ali G Show” characters even once.  The showstopper, however, is Anne Hathaway, who plays one of the younger Fantines we’ve seen, and sings the famous “I Dreamed a Dream” in a single 4-minute shot.  This move by the filmmakers is brave, risky, and a roaring success.

The film adeptly retains the deeper facets of Hugo’s characters, particularly Valjean and Javert, who seem polar opposites (Valjean the embodiment of kindness and redemption, and Javert a human manifestation of vengeance and obsession), but neither of whom are completely black-and-white.  Javert remains a misguided antagonist who cannot separate morality and lawfulness, which leads to his famous conundrum in the end.  The film’s only missteps, maybe, are the extended battle scenes, which are fatiguing and sometimes make the film feel as though everything was leading up to a big gunfight, and the sheer, for lack of a better term, “Britishness” of the whole production, which obviously cannot be avoided.  It’s just disconcerting to hear Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) speaking cockney on the streets of Paris.  Make no mistake: the positives outweigh everything else, but if I were to watch it again, I’d probably fast-forward the fighting.

Is Les Mis one of the best films of the year?  Probably, though I’m not yet sure how to compare it to other films.  But wait – that isn’t my job; it’s the job of the people at the Academy, who haven’t gotten it right since before the damn musical was written.

Les Misérables (2012); written by Alain Boubil; based upon the novel by Victor Hugo; directed by Tom Hooper; starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, and Amanda Seyfried.