Friday, November 15, 2013

12 Years a Slave Review

12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen
Released in 2013

Think back to elementary and high school, when you learned about American slavery as a young student. A chalkboard or PowerPoint slide relayed statistics of the Triangle Trade. You paid attention to key words and concepts that might appear on next day’s fill-in-the-blank quiz. Your life was comfortable enough that this grade seemed to be the only thing at stake. And that was that.

With blunt force, 12 Years a Slave reminds us that embalmed, quasi-objective summaries of America’s greatest shame do not approach anything close to knowledge. For in this draining but necessary new film, history informs art, but it is art that realizes history. Like Steven Spielberg with Schindler’s List, director Steve McQueen knows that only emotion and, more precisely, pain, convey the true toll of our violent, oft-romanticized past. While you may feel battered around taking in McQueen’s manipulative, unapologetic style of filmmaking, you should also leave the theater grateful. At last, you have witnessed an image of slavery both lucid — for, like most Hollywood pictures, it follows one man and his struggle — and unflinchingly, savagely honest.

Our eyes into history belong to the incredible Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Based on the life and memoir of a freeman-turned-slave of the same name, 12 Years a Slave opens on a plantation where a dejected, much older Solomon hacks away, like a machine, at sugar cane before flashing back to an idyllic suburban family portrait in Saratoga Springs, New York, circa 1841. A gifted carpenter and violinist who has won the favor of the town’s wealthy white folks and its remarkably progressive shopkeeper, Solomon lives a pretty modern life with his wife, daughter and son. Enter Scoot McNairy and SNL’s Taran Killam as two genteel traveling musicians who look like the Mad Hatter and recruit Solomon’s skills for a tour to Washington D.C. After a night where his hosts made sure his wine glass was always filled to the brim, Solomon wakes up on the floor of a dungeon, in rags and chains. A walloping from a studded paddle and the words, “You ain’t a free man,” welcome Solomon to hell.

If you would allow me the digression, I would like to look closer at that turning point of a scene, when Solomon gets beaten. In the first long take and off-putting composition in a film full with them, McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt spread Solomon across the foreground of the shot, on his hands and knees, as a white man, out-of-focus in the background, enforces blows to his back. Solomon screams in agony with every strike, but shadows shroud his contorted face. So, what do we have? Solomon, the white man and the weapon are all obscured or distorted from our sight in some way, yet the iconography of a slave receiving punishment, from Solomon’s supplicant pose to the abstracted colors of both faces, is unmistakable. In this shot, Solomon stands in for any and all slaves, suffering not just bodily harm but the first pangs of becoming something less than a person.

From this shot onward, McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley balance the two conflicting duties when depicting slavery: humanize your lead subject (here, Solomon) but do not elevate him above the millions of others unable to tell their own story. While Solomon is more educated and well-spoken than most of his fellow slaves, he realizes he must play dumb if he wants to survive in a white man’s world (not unlike Forrest Whitaker’s adaptive servant in Lee Daniels’ The Butler). Slavers look for obedience to match a slave’s muscles — anything more stirs revolt. Notice the sickening compliments a slaver (Paul Giamatti) showers over the naked black men and women standing frozen like mannequins at auction, rapping a man’s toned chest and lifting a girl’s smooth chin, with awful insinuations. He sells Solomon, now known as “Platt,” and a mother (Adepero Oduye) to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), denying Ford’s half-hearted attempt to appease the mother’s cries to buy her children too. Not the son, the slaver whispers with glee, because “he will grow into a fine young beast,” and not the prepubescent daughter, because give her time and, well …

If the slaver’s inhumanity brings out the gentleness in Ford’s disposition, the scene also reinforces that Ford perpetuates this system with a bundle of cash. After Ford gifts Solomon a violin for good behavior, the lamenting mother makes sure Solomon doesn’t forget that, “given the circumstances,” Ford is still a slave owner. And after Solomon assaults a sadistic overseer (Paul Dano, who, after Prisoners and There Will Be Blood seems to be Hollywood’s go-to punching bag), Ford whisks his property away to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), infamous for “breaking” his slaves. By the way, this is immediately after Solomon survives a daylong lynching by tiptoeing in the mud, which McQueen films for a suffocating, unbroken eternity.

It is at Epps’ cotton plantation where the majority of the film remains, where Solomon befriends a doomed, kind soul named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) and completes a transformation of his own. Patsey has earned the bad fortune of Epps’ lust, and thus also his wife Mary’s (Sarah Paulson) cold-eyed contempt. The scenes between Patsey and the two Epps bring out a savagery in the so-called civilized white men and women who believe they have a biological mandate to own “inferior” humans. Thankfully, Patsey has Solomon, who has wised up to the dehumanized submission survival requires. This leads to a horrible, albeit cinematically extraordinary scene filmed in nauseating handheld, akin to Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible. Not long after, Solomon resolves his guilt and accepts his sorry state in another perfect long take, filmed in tight close-up, where he hesitates before joining in on a graveside Negro spiritual. The internal strife Ejiofor communicates with just his eyes — looking up to God, down to the dirt and, finally, forward ahead — pretty much grasps 12 Years a Slave from McQueen’s hands.

Like Schindler’s List before it, 12 Years a Slave concedes to a fair dose of Hollywood sheen. Mary Epps is so evil she’s lifeless. Hans Zimmer’s score, while effective, reuses Inception’s “Time” motif (which he, in turn, adopted from his Thin Red Line soundtrack). The 134-minute running time almost feels too short, stretching the believability that Solomon’s journey spans 12 years. Brad Pitt shows up near the end, to distracting effect. But if Pitt’s name sells one or 1,000,000 more tickets to see this film, I am on board. For once, a gimme-Oscar pitch has earned its merit through artistry and provocation. You won’t remember the lashings as much as those despairing human faces. Those you won’t forget.

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars Out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Big Question


Dr. Frank: What are you doing?
Zach: [sits up on chaise lounge] I’m right here?
Dr. Frank: No, I mean at school … as you were saying.
Zach: Oh. Well, I have my classes, five of them right now. Lot of work with those, but they’re like Film and English so I can’t complain. [beat] And I write for the newspaper, The Daily Sun. I write for the Arts section: you know, movie reviews, concert write-ups, columns, pretty much anything on Breaking Bad. I’ve had a few cool interviews, too. Do you know A.O. Scott?
Dr. Frank: Zach, look out my window.
Zach: Okay.
Dr. Frank: What do you see?
Zach: Central Park?
Dr. Frank: Yes. I know who A.O. Scott is.
Zach: Okay. [looks at hands] Well, I’m glad I talked to him. This was last week. Being a movie critic for The New York Times, that’s a great job.

Dr. Frank: What do you want to do with your life?
Zach: Oh, geez. There it is…
Dr. Frank: It’s the big question.
Zach: Yeah, I mean, sometimes it keeps me up at night. Like I said, I love film. I want to do something in that field.
Dr. Frank: In what capacity?
Zach: That’s the big question. I would love to direct, write or produce, or even edit. I’m not terribly confident in any of those — like, so much of directing and producing remains a mystery to me — but I appreciate that you can collaborate with so many other talented people to get one big project done. I’d love to give all that a shot. It’s just…
Dr. Frank: Hmm?
Zach: You know. I see where you’re going with this. You just asked me what I’m doing, currently, and then you ask me what I want to do with my life.
Dr. Frank: And?
Zach: And there’s not a whole lot of overlap between the two. Right?

Dr. Frank: I didn’t say that.
Zach: Well, I took a screenwriting course last semester. I’m in a filmmaking class now. I didn’t mention that before.
Dr. Frank: Hmm.
Zach: They’re not easy. I mean, I’m doing fine, grade-wise, but I am starting to realize how really good you have to be to make a living as a director, screenwriter, you know.
Dr. Frank: Good?
Zach: Well, maybe “good” isn’t the word. You have to be persistent. Like, just adamant about being a filmmaker and not giving up, always adapting. That’s what John Krokidas told me. He directed the movie, Kill Your Darlings, with Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter, in it. Have you heard of it? [cranes head backwards]
Dr. Frank: [scribbles in notebook]
Zach: [settles in again] You just have to really want it. I’m not sure I really, really want it. Am I willing to fight for it? I don’t know. [beat] Besides, I’m a ways away from being good enough. I have a lot more messing up to do before I’m ready for the big leagues. And, even then, I don’t know if I ever will be…

Dr. Frank: [raises head] I would like you to consider my first question again.
Zach: How am I today? Well, I’m here, Doc, clearly I could be better.
Dr. Frank: No, Zach, I mean the question that started this dialogue of ours. What are you doing now that you excel in?
Zach: [exhales] It’s tough to say.
Dr. Frank: I don’t think it is.
Zach: What you getting at?
Dr. Frank: You talk about wanting to be a film director or editor but you keep returning to the work you do currently, the writing you do for The Sun.
Zach: Yeah, I guess so. It’s a big thing I do.
Dr. Frank: Please elaborate.
Zach: Well, I enjoy it — to an extent. There are many pieces I’ve written that I totally disown. Sometimes they’re bland or too abstract, or sometimes I take some stupid idea I thought was novel and extend it too far. [beat] But there are pieces of mine I am proud of. Some of them have a sense of voice and conviction. To be a good critic, you need those things.

Dr. Frank: It sounds like you have had time at school to err in your writing and get better doing so.
Zach: Yeah, that’s right. It takes time, doesn’t it?
Dr. Frank: To sit here, with you, today: 14 years of studies, after high school.
Zach: Man, that’s right. Wow. What better time to mess up than at college? [cranes head again]
Dr. Frank: This is your hour, not mine. Please continue.
Zach: Yes, okay. I’m just realizing now that I’ve started on a path of journalism, and that I’ve made some headway. I think I have. To really excel in filmmaking would require starting from scratch, on a different path, which I have begun to do. But it’s tough, and I’m not sure if it’s for me. [beat] Plus, I believe great criticism is an art of its own. Don’t you agree?

Dr. Frank: [wistfully] I was a film critic for The Crimson, long before you were born.
Zach: Awesome! [coughs] Well, any advice? What path should I take?
Dr. Frank: All yours to decide. [looks at watch, slams notebook shut] Look at that, our hour is up. Same time next week?
Zach: Ah… [lies rigid on couch]
Dr. Frank: [walks to door, opens it]
Zach: Alright! [bolts up and out toward the door] Sure thing, Doc. Same time next week.

Dr. Frank: Be sure to see Diane on your way out. The month’s bill is due. [slams door shut]

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Elvis Costello Concert Review

Elvis Costello
At State Theatre, Ithaca, N.Y.
On Thursday, November 7, 2013

There is an awesome dissonance to Elvis Costello’s genius: He’s got that voice, as recognizable as David Bowie’s or Van Morrison’s (if you think about it, it pretty much sounds like a marriage of the two) that has hardly changed after  more than 40 years of belting. But then you’ve got his actual music — 32 studio albums worth, kicking off with radio-friendly punk before spiraling into soul, country, folk, electronica, jazz and classical. Hell, he made an album with The Roots this year. The word “chameleon” is often used to describe Costello, and rightly so, yet he’s the same guy, with the same voice, the same glasses, the trademark suits and fedoras. If there is any venue in Ithaca where time can, for a little over two hours, at least, slow down and where the man himself can open up, it is our very own State Theatre, where Costello played a solo set Thursday night courtesy of Dan Smalls Presents. Turns out Elvis Costello is not only a virtuosic performer but also a gracious, funny guy eager to look back on his roots, music history and the popular enigma he has erected in his name.

A jumbo-sized “On Air” sign idled by stage right before the show began. There was little other ornamentation up there, save for an intimidating number of guitars (I counted five). My eyes wandered over the State Theatre’s walls, ceilings and lamps, soaking in their history. Not long after a beaming Costello, sans opener, took the stage at 8 p.m. and the “On Air” sign lit up, he made sure to applaud his surroundings. “I’m making an effort to play all the old vaudeville theaters,” he said humbly, reminiscing about when he first visited America and made sure to see all the monuments: “The St. Louis Arch, the Empire State Building … and Ithaca.” “Rock and roll was invented here in Ithaca, you know,” he quipped later in the night, “concocted in a science lab here in Cornell, before anyone wanted it.” A genuine appreciation for our town and his audience buoyed any dry sarcasm, which could explain why this sold-out crowd greeted every song with some of the loudest, most passionate ovations I have ever heard.

He earned it. From the first song, My Aim Is True’s “Welcome to Working Week,” Costello radiated excitement. On “King Horse,” he toyed with pedal reverb and stuck all the requisite high notes and then some. His voice held strong to the end, although he called on audience participation now and then. At times, the call-and-response echoed the scatting of Cab Calloway — as during his performance of “America Without Tears,” where he approached something like delirium with complicated doo-wop and trills. When covering The Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” he egged everyone on to really shout the “Hey!” that precedes the eponymous chorus — he seemed so happy to perform a song he has clearly loved since childhood. Just to balance the mood, perhaps, he got the crowd to reiterate, “Now I’m dead … I was scared,” a bunch of times in “God’s Comic.” This call-and-response got louder and louder and, by song’s end, felt more cathartic than macabre.

If the back-and-forth is any indication, Costello hosted an atypically intimate night of music and chatting about music. “This is a socio-political survey,” he announced early on, “about the last [50 to 70 years] of history and my place in it.” A proven legend like Elvis Costello can spout as many self-aggrandizing boasts as he wants, as far I’m concerned, yet this quote turned out to be a wordy precursor to a selfless and sentimental examination of his family and influences. In between a Nat King Cole cover, “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” and “Ghost Train,” he joked about his late father, a musician who “looked like a hippie” or Peter Sellers fromWhat’s New Pussycat? (think Velma from Scooby Doo). His dad once booked him a gig as a backup guitarist before he even knew how to play. Costello improvised, going crazy on air guitar to the befuddlement of his older audience. He actually learned how to play guitar, of course, and, in those Born to Run days, he wanted nothing more than to be Bruce Springsteen. This idealism produced “Radio Soul,” a highlight of the evening and a much more romantic precursor to the scathing hit “Radio Radio.” This reflection granted Costello an opportunity to weigh in on the power of music, which he believes mixes internal emotions with the drama of melody and dynamics to create something uniquely empathetic. Given the evidence, I don’t think he could find one naysayer for miles around.

When his narrative arrived at his grandfather, Costello worked the audience like a seasoned comic, with speculation about how his ancestor was too “finely dressed” for a trumpet player: he must have been a smuggler, too. This levity segued into talk of the Great Depression and “Jimmie Standing in the Rain,” the strongest and most heartrending song of the night. The ache of his voice as he sang that borrowed last line, “I’m your pal/Brother, can you spare me a dime?” away from his microphone lingered in the air before being swept up by exuberant cheers from every soul in attendance. A similar vibe informed “Alison,” which he sang with little movement and his hat tilted down. He hushed his guitar to let his melismatic vocals take over. In such a charged, nostalgic atmosphere, that oft-repeated line, “I’m not gonna get too sentimental …” revealed its true colors.

By the second encore (thats right, second), Costello took requests with a loud, red, light-up “Requests” sign. A tender rendition of “Tripwire” on electric guitar morphed into a wild “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” which ended in a carnal loop of guitar feedback. Costello met multiple standing ovations with a bow and quick retreat back to the guitar or, by the end, keyboard, holding a finger up in the hair to indicate “Just one more.” He actually followed up with two more, ending on the somber ballad “The Puppet Has Cut His Strings,” which reaffirmed worked more to reaffirm the pathos of the second-act songs than the comic, pub-like feel of the first act. We got close to the man, we laughed with him, we exchanged compliments. By the end, that internal artistry reclaimed its hold, bringing the mood down while keeping our spirits high. Elvis Costello shared something special with us Thursday, something complete. But he, like every true genius, left the stage a puzzle unsolved.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.