Commentary

November 1, 2013

Fly Over: ‘12 Years a Slave’, and ‘Carrie’

Movie-Poster

In theaters:

’12 Years a Slave’

“12 Years a Slave,” directed by Steve McQueen, is one of those movies I’m glad I saw, but wouldn’t necessarily want to see again anytime soon. The film is based on the memoir by Solomon Northup, a free black man from the north who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, then brought to Louisiana to work on a plantation.
This is a powerful, important film that shows the evils of slavery as well as any movie I’ve seen. Viewers should be aware, however, that they will pay a price for this brutal look at a man’s journey into the horrors of slavery. The price is emotional pain and suffering, because the audience is right there with Solomon as he is ripped from his comfortable life with his loving family and forced to bear witness to unspeakable acts of cruelty and violence.
The director, McQueen, is apparently drawn to difficult subject matter, and his films cut to the bone. His two other feature-length movies, “Shame,” about a pornography and sex addict in New York City, and particularly “Hunger,” based on the true story about a prison hunger strike led by the IRA leader Bobby Sands, were also at times hard to watch.
In all of his movies, McQueen isn’t afraid to linger on a single shot for a very long time. This technique is used to excruciating effect in one scene in which a spiteful carpentry supervisor, John Tibeats (a smarmy Paul Dano), attempts to lynch Solomon after an altercation. The overseer, who is the carpenter’s boss, arrives in time to chase off Tibeats and his two accomplices, but he doesn’t help Solomon, who is left hanging, neck in a noose, hands bound behind his back, tiptoes barely touching the muddy ground below him. McQueen lingers on this shot for what feels like forever, and all we hear is the “squish, squish, squish” his toes make in the mud as he desperately tries to take the pressure off the rope around his neck. The audience can simply watch, helpless, skin crawling.
The lead actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, has a fundamental decency about him that makes him perfect for the role of Solomon. Ejiofor, 36, is a British actor who has extensive stage experience and supporting roles in movies dating back to Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad” in 1997. Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”) is also well-cast as a hard-bitten southern slave trader who initially sells Solomon to a benevolent Baptist preacher, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch).
The actor who steals this movie, though, is the German-born Michael Fassbender, who gives a shattering performance as Edwin Epps, a slave owner with a reputation for “breaking” those unlucky enough to work for him.
Fassbender, who collaborated with McQueen in “Shame” and “Hunger,” brings an intensity to the screen that is rivaled by very few actors working today (two that come to mind are Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman). Epps is a drunk and a sociopath who personifies the vicious slave driver of that era. The character, however, isn’t a caricature. Fassbender brings nuance and a dark charisma to the role in a way that is as thrilling as it is unnerving. (Look for Fassbender to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.)
Brad Pitt, one of the film’s producers, has a small role as a Canadian carpenter on the Epps plantation who goes out on a limb for Solomon. Much hinges on Pitt’s character, however. In a pivotal scene, Pitt challenges Epps on the morality of keeping slaves, and in so doing articulates the central theme of the film.
Of course, slavery is wrong, and it always was. But in the context of the movie, it doesn’t sound like such a trite concept coming from Pitt.
Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin famously said, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” The same could be said of slavery. While millions were subjected to this evil, sometimes it takes the story of one man – such as Solomon Northup – to truly put things into perspective.
“12 Years a Slave” is rated R for violence and sexuality.

 

Carrie-Poster-Fan-001

‘Carrie’

I have the original “Carrie” sitting on my Netflix list, unfortunately unwatched. So, I can’t really compare the two, but it goes without saying that this newest rendition probably falls short considering Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie were both nominated for an Oscar in the 1976 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel by the same name. However, this newest version certainly stands on its own.
Some may ask why remake a classic, and really it’s quite simple – money. But, on a whole this film is quite entertaining. The added special effects and updated on-screen technology, i.e. cell phones, the Internet, etc., provide a newer audience a nice modern update to a classic. The story itself is essentially the same, and with so much emphasis on bullying in schools and in the media, perhaps “Carrie” resonates even more with younger audiences. It certainly provided insight into what some would call a modern day epidemic and left the audience really empathizing with Carrie’s (Chloe Grace Moretz) plight.
If you’re unfamiliar with “Carrie” the book, or either film, it’s Stephen King’s first published novel in 1974 that was adapted to film in 1976. The story revolves around Carrie White, a shy teenage outcast who is bullied and embarrassed by her classmates. Unfortunately, after an incident in a girls’ locker room, Carrie becomes even more ostracized. However, it’s during this period of time that she begins to discover she has telekinetic powers. It all comes to a head at the high school prom when Carrie is part of a horrific prank that sets her off. The result is a lot of dead high school students, bullies and bystanders alike.
There’s an interesting story behind the creation of “Carrie.” King was at the time an aspiring novelist but penniless and living with his wife in a trailer in Maine. He began working on “Carrie,” initially as a short story for a magazine, but decided that he didn’t know enough about how a teenage girl really operated and tossed his manuscript in the trash. His wife, Tabitha, fortunately pulled it out of the garbage and convinced him to continue. With her guidance, presumably in the psychology of a teenage girl department, King turned the story into a novel and the rest is history.
Along with the updated modern effects, the two stars are also a joy to watch. Julianne Moore is great as Carrie’s religious zealot of a mother. The beginning of the film shows how mentally disturbing her character is as she contemplates murdering her newborn, but of course she doesn’t. Moore’s intensity is as frightening as Carrie’s telekinetic powers.
Moretz (“Kickass”) is also a breath of fresh air. The young actress has already proven her acting chops in earlier films, and doesn’t disappoint as our flawed protagonist. Though it’s difficult to imagine someone as attractive as Moretz being teased in real life, she comes across as a tortured teen who is able to express sincere pain especially with her big eyes. As she expresses her hesitation to attend the prom with the school heartthrob, you can’t help but feel empathy.
Although I don’t foresee any Oscars for this film, “Carrie” is certainly worth watching. Other reviewers may debate the two films and relish the opportunity to pick apart the new adaptation. But, taken at face value, and especially if you haven’t seen the first film, “Carrie” is certainly worth a view because ultimately it’s entertaining.
“Carrie” is rated R for bloody violence, disturbing images, language and some sexual content.




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