New Releases October 18th, 2013: 12 Years A Slave and Carrie

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Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbinder in “12 Years A Slave”

It’s about time someone made a serious film about American slavery.  Steven Spielberg’s Amistad functioned best as a courtroom drama, and last year’s Django Unchained, for all its scenes of bloody antebellum oppression, was too facetious.  The momentous backdrop mostly provided director Quentin Tarantino with an opportunity to pay homage to his beloved Spaghetti Western predecessors.  Finally, our country’s dark history of subjugation receives its deserved cinematic recompense with 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen’s haunting and heartbreaking slavery saga.  Based on the 1855 memoir of the same name, the movie chronicles the experience of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and auctioned and forced to spend twelve years as a slave on a plantation.  Like no movie of its kind, it will take you to hell and back, if you’re brave enough to make the journey.  Before turning to filmmaking, McQueen was renowned as a contemporary artist.  Since then, he’s directed two other films, the unforgettable IRA drama Hunger and the sex-addiction character-study Shame.  Combining his raw treatment of controversial subjects with an aesthete’s appreciation of fine visuals, McQueen makes 12 Years A Slave both beautiful and provocative.  To mirror the ordeal’s impact on Northup (who spent later years crusading for abolition), this profoundly emotional drama stirs in viewers the very same feelings of outrage and betrayal.

The opening image is a memorable one.  A lineup of black workers wearing tattered rags stand at attention as they are instructed how to properly chop sugarcane.  The face of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) stands out, for his alone displays the appropriate expression of agonized disbelief.  Throughout the movie, Solomon makes the perfect protagonist because he witnesses the atrocities with a horrified fascination that reflects our own.  The narrative then rewinds to when Solomon was free and a respected violinist living with his wife and children in Saratoga, New York.  One fateful day, two dandy musicians ask him to accompany them on a business trip to Washington D.C.  There, Solomon drinks heavily and awakes the next morning in a dungeon with his arms and legs chained.  He screams for assistance, but his cries go literally (and figuratively) unheard by the people on Capital Hill outside the window.  To silence his protests, the kidnappers “convince” him to embrace the identity of a runaway Georgia slave named Platt.  Any psychologist will tell you that the first step in the process of dehumanization is revoking the victim’s identity (in the Holocaust prisoners were given numbers.)  Solomon is subsequently shipped south to New Orleans by steamboat, stripped naked so shoppers can evaluate him physically, and soled to the highest bidder.

Initially he winds up on the farm of the relatively benevolent William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch).  On Sunday mornings, Ford holds church services.  The hypocrisy of his piousness notwithstanding, Ford proves that not every slave owner was inherently wicked.  Some were decent folk who, compelled by culture or economics or both, chose to participate in a wicked institution.  Working with regular cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, McQueen brings the 19th century Deep South to life with great fastidiousness.  The verdant sugarcane fields, humid swamplands, towering grasses, and elaborate plantation compounds are sumptuously illustrated.  The director accomplishes a palpable sense of time and place with his painterly imagery.  However unlikely, Solomon actually flourishes under Ford, who puts his knowledge of engineering to good use.  In one scene, Solomon proposes a strategy to traverse the narrow passageways of the bayou.  Ford is impressed with both the effectiveness of his plan and the eloquence with which he expresses it.  Solomon’s intelligence, however, earns him an enemy.  An altercation with the plantation’s resident carpenter (a strident Paul Dano) ruins his welcome.  McQueen makes evident that the suppression of intellect was one of slavery’s greatest injustices.  Racial inferiority is and always was a product of human perpetuity not biology.

Ford’s tranquil-pastoral sermons contrast sharply with the perverted religiosity of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), Solomon’s new master, who is introduced as a shadowy figure quoting scripture only to justify harsh corporeal punishment.  On his plantation, whippings are proportional to the difference in cotton picked from day to day.  Some nights he rouses the workers from their sleep so they can dance for his amusement.  Portrayed by Fassbender like a sadist on a power trip, Epps is a slaver without a conscience, a true villain allowed to exercise his sickest impulses consequence free.  When we observe his disturbing infatuation with a young slave woman named Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o), we see how, through no fault of her own, she becomes an object of intense loathing for the master’s wife (Sarah Paulson).  In one devastating scene, Patsy is punished severely for wandering off looking for soap, a luxury that Mary has deliberately revoked.  With a harrowingly tacit despair, Patsy, as played by the courageous Nyong’o, quickly establishes herself as the movie’s battered and broken soul.  Despite the actors’ always gripping performances, Solomon and Epps, for my taste, land too predictably on the Good and Evil spectrum.  McQueen canonizes the former as a paragon of morality and virtue and vilifies the latter as Satan with a Mississippi drawl.  Perhaps beyond his intentions, the director overly mythologizes both characters, almost to the extent of a vague biblical parable, maybe Exodus or Job.

As the title implies, Solomon’s time in bondage was finite.  After a decade, he finally comes across the sympathetic ear of a Canadian word worker (played by an Amish-bearded Brad Pitt).  Without spoiling the details, I will admit that his deliverance arrives with the same abruptness as his capture.  12 Years A Slave is undoubtedly difficult to watch.  The assiduousness of the atrocities exhibited could’ve easily been desensitizing, but McQueen maintains the source’s essential humanity.  I was disappointed that the quieter moments of slave life were not included.  However miserable, slaves eked out an existence anyway.  If the director sacrifices verisimilitude for affect and seeks more to disturb than to discourse, it’s probably because his modus operandi is confrontation rather than rumination.  To face modern audiences with such a nightmarish vision, he believes, is imperative before a conversation on slavery as a persistent phenomenon can commence.  Like its intended audience, the movie presents a complacent northerner who needed to experience the chains before he could stand up against them.  Thus Steve McQueen’s staggering historical drama knows that the true tragedy was not Solomon’s twelve years of captivity; rather it was that millions of people were born then lived and died without ever knowing, not even for a moment, the freedom we take for granted.

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Julianne Moore and Chloe Grace Moretz in “Carrie”

The story of Carrie, about a bullied high school student who uses her telekinesis to punish her tormenters, is probably more relevant now than ever.  With the media swarming around cases of bullying and the occasional tragedies that accompany them, it’s felicitous that everyone’s favorite prom queen should now reclaim her throne.  Even more, with the constant news coverage of rampage shooting sprees, Carrie’s climactic gymnasium massacre inherently recalls several analogous current events.  Directed by Kimberly Pierce, who made the similarly themed Boys Don’t Cry, the new Carrie, which is supposedly a reimagining of Stephen King’s novel and not a remake of Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation, stars Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore in roles memorably filled by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie.  Unfortunately, Pierce’s film, for all its opportune timing, cannot emerge from the shadow of its iconic predecessor, regardless of a marketing strategy designed to accentuate the differences.  That’s probably because the plot shamelessly retraces the original’s bloody footsteps, cribbing it line for line and scene for scene.  What could’ve been a profoundly fresh take on a horror classic instead disappoints as another in a procession of pointless remakes.

Pierce and her screenwriters do make a few half-hearted stabs at originality.  They add the anticipated cyber-bullying element and also attempt to flesh-out the characters.  These variations, however, only emphasize the project’s overall lack of ingenuity.  In the opening, for example, unwed Jesus freak Margaret White (Moore) delivers her own infant daughter and immediately contemplates killing her.  Her decision is obvious (there’d be no movie otherwise), but the scene strives to do more than generate false suspense.  It’s meant to establish a bond between Margaret and her daughter that continues throughout the story.  In my eyes, it accomplishes little beyond dramatizing an event that’s more aptly alluded to in the original by Laurie’s confessional monologue.  Then we flash forward sixteen years to a suburban high school where Carrie, now a shy teenage pariah, is teased in gym class for sucking at volleyball.  In the locker-room shower, she gets her first period while her classmates chant and throw tampons, before posting the camera-phone footage to YouTube.  Without the benefit of trendy web references, De Palma at least understood the religious and sexual symbolism of Carrie’s blossoming womanhood, how the blood of her menstruation correlates with the pig’s blood that inevitably drenches her at the prom.  Conversely, Pierce is content to shuffle through the motions, never considering the deeper spiritual and cultural mechanisms at work in King’s macabre fairy tale.

To confirm my skepticism, Moretz proves she’s completely wrong for the part of Carrie White.  She’s too pretty and innately confident to either convince as a schoolyard outcast or capture the character’s paralyzing insecurity.  The popular young actress does however achieve something missing from Spacek’s incarnation, specifically the swelling anger of a fragile adolescent being pushed further and further towards the edge.  As Carrie learns to harness her telepathic powers, Moretz infuses the discovery with an intense angst that comes into relief as she sends textbooks orbiting around her bedroom.  That said, the screenplay, in its immense reverence for the original, emphasizes the protagonist’s yearning for social acceptance, which conflicts with Moretz’ put-on performance of wide-eyed consternation.  No matter, Pierce is more interested in the tumultuous mother-daughter relationship anyway.  Moore assimilates that element into her portrayal more successfully than her costar.  Flagellating and delusional yet loving in her own way, Margaret is tortured indeed.   Even still, I’ll always prefer the raving demagoguery of Laurie’s performance, which recalls a few chilling encounters I’ve had with crazy people on subway trains.

Back at school, we follow teenage socialites Chris (Portia Doubleday) and Sue (Gabriella Wilde).  The former is a vicious queen-bee who conspires to humiliate the heroine at the prom and the latter is a repentant princess who altruistically persuades her jock boyfriend to bring Carrie as his date.  Comparing De Palma’s legendary prom scene—with its hellish red filters, split-screens, and droning score—against Pierce’s banal hurricane of computer-generated debris would be a disservice to both parties.  In a bid to one-up Spacek’s demonic fugue state, Moretz theatrically waves her arms around like the sorcerer’s apprentice.  By that point it was already clear, effective after a recent Indie Rock hit began thumping on the soundtrack, that this movie was a visionless hackwork made solely for undiscriminating teenagers to make-out through.  Not only does Carrie fail to justify its existence; it bungles any and all intellectual opportunities associated with a modernized version, namely the understanding of how the heroine’s violent retribution is now unavoidably characteristic of real-world individuals who bring firearms into elementary schools and movie theaters.  Rather than allow Carrie greater significance, the filmmakers merely unearth her, slap on a gaudy new dress, and hope we won’t notice the putrefied bones and flesh underneath.

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Still from "Citizen Kane"
Still from “Citizen Kane”

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