Posts Tagged ‘movies’
Though it helps humanize many current and former believers, Going Clear pulls no punches against Scientology’s biggest “celebrity megaphones” — especially its superstar public face, Tom Cruise. Both the book and film allege that Cruise, a close friend of Miscavige (who was the best man at the actor’s wedding), has benefited for years from a labor force of Sea Org clergy members. “I’m singling him out,” Wright says. “More people got interested in Scientology because of Tom Cruise than any other individual, and he knows what’s going on. He could effect change, and it’s on his shoulders that he should.”
Gibney is harsher still. “For [Cruise] not to denounce, or at least investigate, what’s going on seems appalling to me,” he says. “He gets a lot of money and a lot of privilege from a lot of fans, and the idea that allows the vulnerable to be preyed upon in his name seems reprehensible.” In fact, Going Clear claims that Cruise’s own ex-wife, Nicole Kidman, fell victim to Scientology’s excesses herself. According to high-ranking defector Marty Rathbun, the Church wiretapped Kidman as part of a multifaceted campaign to drive the couple apart when Miscavige felt she was pulling him away from his faith. Even to readers of Wright’s book, this is breaking news.
“That was something Marty told me in my interview,” Gibney says. “When he spoke to Larry for the book, emotionally, he still had one foot in the Church. [Rathbun] had been a key enforcer for them. To unravel those big lies takes years, and to undo the psychological damage that was done to him by the Church is a slow healing process. He was able to say things now about how aggressive the Church was, in terms of trying to get Cruise back, that he might not have been willing to say before.”
I interviewed Oscar and Emmy–winning director Alex Gibney, Pulitzer-winning journalist Lawrence Wright, and high-ranking Scientology defector Mike Rinder about thir upcoming HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief for Rolling Stone. I’ve been working on this for a long time, and I hope you enjoy reading it.
I wrote a lengthy, pretty much unexcerptable piece on The Jinx for the New York Observer in light of last night’s finale and the surrounding news stories. It touches on Serial, Capturing the Friedmans, Mea Maxima Culpa, Going Clear, Gimme Shelter, The Thin Blue Line, America’s Most Wanted, True Detective, Goofus & Gallant, spoiler alerts, hubris, justice, and art. I’m proud of it and I hope you enjoy it.
18. ‘THX 1138’ (1971)
As visually and sonically stunning as anything George Lucas would later do in a galaxy far far away, his future-fascistic nightmare is a pure product of the decade’s New Hollywood renaissance, exploring sex, drugs, mind-numbing television, governmental malfeasance, and both the necessity and futility of rebellion. Robert Duvall is quietly tremendous as the movie’s equivalent of 1984‘s Winston Smith. It’s not just a film, it’s a jumping-off point for an alternate universe in which George Lucas’s body of work veers closer to Sixties cerebral sci-fi than Thirties serials.
“What’s wrong?” I contributed a couple of items to Rolling Stone’s list of the 50 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the ’70s.
Better Call Saul (AMC, February 8th)
We all know the story of Walter White, but how did his lawyer break bad? That’s the intriguing idea behind AMC’s so-crazy-it-just-might-work prequel to Breaking Bad, in which Bob Odenkirk reprises his role as Saul Goodman (née Jimmy McGill), the sleazy but skillful lawyer to Albuquerque’s lowlifes. Rejoining Odenkirk and showrunner Peter Gould (the character’s original writer) are Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and costar Jonathan Banks as the infamous fixer Mike Ehrmantraut. Origin story, bitch!
I was moving last week when this went up, so I missed it, but I contributed thoughts on several upcoming works of note to Rolling Stone’s big 2015 pop-culture preview. Enjoy!
I Was a Teenage Velvet Goldmine Skeptic. Not quite teenage, I suppose — I’d already turned 20 by the time of the film’s autumn 1998 release — but my musical mindset was still adolescent in essence. Precariously poised between poseurs and mainstream morons, I believed, there existed a sweet spot of authentically alternative art, of real rock and roll rebellion. This was a place you could live, provided you worked relentlessly to refine your taste to its essentials, and then never, ever fucking budged. One and a half post-poptimism decades later I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how needlessly dreary and exhausting an approach this is, but my own Pauline conversion was still a few years in the future. That road to pop-cultural Damascus had many side streets. But if you were to retrace the route — starting with My First Pop Divas Kylie and Beyoncé, working back through electroclash and the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City soundtracks, traversing all the ‘80s pop and ‘70s rock I’d never before gone near, and converging at David Bowie, the artist whose breathless, liberating adoption and deletion of influences and imagery at opened up my avenues to all of the above — the road would begin with a chance late-night Cinemax channel flip and my second encounter with Todd Haynes’s glam fantasia Velvet Goldmine. It’s no exaggeration to say that that viewing changed my life. The only thing it had in common with my first viewing of the film — a head-scratching, yawn-suppressing affair in the campus art-house during its brief bomb of a theatrical run, at which I pronounced it an overinflated, pointlessly complex dud that committed the cardinal sin of not rocking hard enough — was this: I loved the “Baby’s On Fire” sequence, the movie’s centerpiece, its beating heart, its throbbing loins.
Famously, Velvet Goldmine is to David Bowie what Citizen Kane (from which it stole its structure) is to William Randolph Hearst. To use a more recent example, and a more accurate one given how both films center a fictional, emotionally overwhelming relationship between two men, it is to Bowie what The Master is to L. Ron Hubbard. In place of Joaquin Phoenix’s giggling alcoholic damage case, VG puts forward Ewan MacGregor’s American rock’n’roll animal Curt Wild as the foil to its central celebrity stand-in, Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s Brian Slade. Though primarily an Iggy Pop manqué, Wild will, throughout the course of the movie, incorporate elements of Lou Reed’s biography, Oscar Wilde’s name, Kurt Cobain’s name andlooks, and Bowie’s own post-glam Berlin period. The moniker for Meyers’s Bowie figure similarly references fellow glitter luminaries Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry, and the band Slade; if we were to pick apart “Maxwell Demon and the Venus in Furs,” Brian’s alien-messiah persona and his house band, we’d be here all night.
This Russian nesting-doll layering of references to icons of rock, film, and literature is an annotator’s dream, to be sure. But more importantly, it enables Haynes to make a movie not about Bowie, Iggy, and glam, but about the idea of them, doing so by constructing them from a continuum of related ideas. Velvet Goldmine is about artifice as art and fandom as fantasy, and a love letter to the artists who introduced a young Haynes to these sensations as he came to terms with life as a young gay man. The “Baby’s On Fire” sequence is where that letter gets sealed with a kiss.
I wrote about my favorite sequence from one of my favorite movies, the Velvet Goldmine montage sequence scored by Jonathan Rhys Meyers/Venus in Furs cover of Brian Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire,” for One Week One Band’s special soundtrack spectacular.
I find the idea of Star Wars without George Lucas singularly unappealing, even troubling. Turning Star Wars into a depersonalized, committee-driven content factory divorced from its creator in perpetuity, like the major superhero franchises, is a tremendous regression in any number of ways. Whatever his faults, Lucas is a real filmmaker, and these were his original ideas. J.J. Abrams, by contrast, is a facilitator, a babysitter for the ideas of others —Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, Star Wars, the Spielberg gestalt (Super 8). His involvement with Lost was minimal — the germinative idea was brought to him by the network, and other than his admittedly fine work co-writing and directing the excellent pilot, 95% of that show, good bad and ugly, was Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. Alias is a sexy female spy series. Honestly, his greatest claim to originality is Felicity. In other words, he is Hollywood’s first “auteur” in the mold of the countless superhero-comics writers and artists who’ve been content to labor with the tools made for them by actual visionaries decades ago, spending entire careers creating nothing new, ideal employees for a system that has wholly conflated art and product. Moreover, his visual style is capable of being parodied in its entirety with a five-second montage of a shaky-cam shot and lens flare. That he’s apparently pouring Star Wars into his bog-standard garden-variety postmillennial action-blockbuster directorial mold (shaky-cam stormtroopers) instead of adjusting for the material is crass and sad. I’m sure the movies will have entertaining moments performed by state-of-the-art special effects technicians and likeable, talented actors, and have all the soul, guts, and idiosyncracy of a superhero movie, which is to say none at all.
Also the lightsaber makes no sense. “Check out my sword. It’s extra good because it has two little swords sticking out from the hilt of the big sword, in case I need to stab someone standing immediately to my right. Or to my left, even — the possibilities are endless, really.”
RAVENOUS (1999)Don’t let the snakebit production (two directors came and went before Antonia Bird was brought aboard) or the jarring score put you off. Ravenous is a roaringly good cannibal-horror movie, and one of the finest film examples of the “Weird West” subgenre, which situates supernatural evil amid 19th-century America’s wild frontier. Trainspotting’s Robert Carlyle chews more than just the scenery as the lone survivor of a Donner Party-style expedition, while Guy Pearce, Jeffrey Jones, and Jeremy Davies are among the motley crew of a remote Army outpost who try to find his lost companions — and fall into his trap. Spectacular gore, genuinely funny black comedy, and a surprisingly powerful exploration of cowardice in the face of violence make this one worth sinking your teeth into.
I have a couple of entries in Rolling Stone’s fine list of widely overlooked horror films. Find them…if you dare!
Most of the action-figure/kids’-cartoon juggernauts of the Eighties were developed the old-fashioned way: by corporations. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe began in the design department of toy behemoth Mattel. Its rival Hasbro teamed up with Marvel Comics to revive its old G.I. Joe concept, this time making its toy soldiers the same size as the smash-hit Star Wars action figures to which Mattel had passed up the rights several years earlier, with their “Real American Hero” relaunch. The Hasbro/Marvel team-up found similar success when it rebranded several lines of robot toys Hasbro had licensed from Japanese toy company Takara as the Transformers.
By contrast, the Turtles literally started out as a joke. Co-creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were comic-artist wannabes when they spent a November 1983 evening doodling the masked, weaponized reptiles to entertain themselves. Each adjective in Turtles‘ title represented a hot superhero-comic trend at the time — mutants were the stars of Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men; DC’s New Teen Titans had teenage protagonists; and future Sin City impresario Frank Miller had stuffed his groundbreaking run on Daredevil full of ninjas. By throwing it all together atop a funny-animal framework — which, from Carl Barks’ Donald Duck to Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck, had long been a route to comic-book gold — Eastman and Laird simply obeyed the Spinal Tap doctrine of cranking it to eleven.
This here is a snippet from the history of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I wrote for Rolling Stone. The gist is that the Turtles began as a literal joke shared by creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, and came to prominence as a comic that existed halfway between Frank Miller parody and Frank Miller homage; it was only when Eastman & Laird hooked up with a toy company that hooked up with an animation studio — i.e. the same basic process that birthed He-Man, G.I. Joe, and the Transformers — that it became the durable pop-culture phenomenon it is today.
I got to work in all kinds of fun factoids — the “black-and-white boom” that followed TMNT’s success in comic shops, the bonafide alternative-comics ventures funded by Eastman (Tundra) and Laird (the Xeric Grant) with their Turtle fortunes, “Turtle Power” going to the top of the pop charts in the UK. I hope you enjoy it!
Marilyn Burns, star of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, has died. She gave perhaps my favorite performance in the history of horror. She hit me hard, and I never healed. Goodbye, final girl.
4. Watching sharks attack annoying celebrities isn’t as much fun as you’d think.
When the first shark soars through the aisle of an airplane and bites off Kelly Osbourne’s head, it’s funny. When another one chows down on nerd-media icon Wil Wheaton, it’s amusing. By the time Perez Hilton shows up on a subway platform, you’re just counting down the seconds till an unconvincing splash of CGI bloodspray signals his departure from your TV screen. Hell, several of the most irritating d-listers who show up – Andy Dick, Billy Ray Cyrus, Subway’s Jared – don’t even give us the satisfaction of dying.
5. Watching sharks attack actually pretty cool celebrities isn’t that much fun either.
Shot on a shoestring and intended to be just another widget cranked out by the Syfy Originals schlock factory, the first Sharknado had a cast to match its ambition. When the dust settled and the sharks landed, it’s not like the careers of Ian Ziering and Tara Reid were gonna take a huge hit — only Sopranos and Home Alone veteran John Heard was gonna have to answer to his god for appearing in that thing. This time around? Comedians-slash-character-actors Richard Kind, Judd Hirsch, and Robert Klein all get fake shark blood on their hands, as do bona fide hip-hop legends Sandra “Pepa” Denton and Biz Markie. (Stick with Yo Gabba Gabba!, Biz.) If you’ve ever wanted to watch Robert Klein make stage chatter with WWE Superstar Kurt Angle while they play the Mayor of New York and the Chief of the FDNY respectively, or see Pepa get squashed by a whale shark while riding a Citibike, this is your big day, you weirdo.
6. The Today Show is awkward even when it’s being attacked by sharks.
Ukraine, Gaza, ebola, sharknado. In these troubled times, we turn to trusted news anchors like Matt Lauer, who has almost as much Sharknado 2 screentime as Tara Reid. At one point, he and genial weather guru Al Roker have a weirdly passive-aggressive back and forth about whether to call them “shark storms” or “sharknados,” arguably the most uncomfortable morning-TV moment since Lauer asked Anne Hathaway about her wardrobe malfunction. Later, the pair stab a shark to death live on camera, handling its exit just slightly better than Ann Curry’s.
“You can only take these characters so far before it gets ridiculous,” Gunn admits. “Honestly, some of the latest superhero movies take themselves so seriously, they feel like a joke. This desperate, angsty need for ‘coolness’ is sort of pathetic. Guardians is a big reaction against that.” Will the grim-and-gritty-loving fanboys go along? Gunn laughs. “Who the hell knows?”
On my A Song of Ice and Fire tumblr boiledleather.com the other day, a reader asked me:
I’m sure that someone has asked this before, but what are your thoughts on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings-adaptations? Especially compared to Game of Thrones (different medium, I know, but still).
In May of 2001 I received an invitation through my job as associate editor of the A&F Quarterly (“the lifestyle publication” of Abercrombie & Fitch) to a screening of the 20 minutes or so of footage of the then-unreleased The Fellowship of the Ring that had screened at Cannes. This was from the Mines of Moria sequence — the discovery of Balin’s tomb, the fight with the cave troll, and the flight down the stairs. It was obviously crackerjack action filmmaking, but I’ll tell you what really hit me the hardest. As the Fellowship flees down that first flight of stairs, orc arrows start raining down on them, bouncing off the stone steps. Legolas turns and returns fire, and the camera gives us an arrow’s-eye-view of its flight across the chasm and into the forehead of an orc archer. At the moment of impact the camera cuts to a shot just above and behind the orc’s shoulder as he falls from his perch into the pit below, and suddenly we can see the enormous distance we’d just traveled on the head of that arrow. Fresh from film school as I was, I was blown away by this. Peter Jackson had used the flight of the arrow to describe the space it was shot in, using its physical movement to convey a sense of scale to us that would not have been possible if he’d simply cut back and forth between the vantage points. This of course is what all action sequences in visual media ought to do — root you in an environment, use the action beats to move you around in that environment, give as many beats as possible palpable physical stakes you can grasp and contextualize immediately. It also showed that Jackson was going to use the full force of the cinematic medium to tell this story — he wasn’t just going to line up a bunch of CGI critters and throw them at one another, nor was he going to whirl and twirl haphazardly, he was going to paint the story with the camera and the editing bay like brushes. It showed that the soon-to-be-legendary attention to detail he and the Weta team paid to every prop and set and costume had a storytelling purpose as well, that a bow and arrow and a stone chasm and a hero-orc makeup job would not just look cool but help us understand where we were and what kind of world it was and why it mattered. Finally, it showed that for the first time ever, a fantasy film was actually going to capture the scale of epic fantasy, the sheer physical awe-someness of it all above and beyond the striking images that plenty of fantasy films before it had dealt in without that ability to convincingly situate them in a world as large as our imaginations. Not a single moment in the entire trilogy contradicted these initial impressions. They’re magnificent films and I love them to pieces.
For letting the trailers fool me, I deserve what I got. I mean, to be fair, they didn’t fool me, exactly — I’m well aware that you can make a good trailer out of pretty much any film. But the movie promised by the trailer was very much my kind of movie: well-acted horror in which the horror dwarfs and makes mock of human ambition and self-conception.
But Godzilla‘s not a horror movie, it’s a blockbuster, and by that I mean blockbuster-as-genre, with all the faults that entails: cardboard-cutout leads, buildings meaninglessly collapsing, paper-thin women characters, and the glories of the U.S. military. (Yes, in a Godzilla movie! No, mentioning Hiroshima once doesn’t cut it!) Everything that was beautiful, moving, and scary in the trailers is beautiful, moving, and scary here, but with the exception of some unexpected and laugh-out-loud funny swipes at CNN, that’s the extent of the film’s value.
The soul of those trailers, Bryan Cranston, is absolutely amazing here, displaying total commitment to the work and bringing me to the brink of tears. The problem is that he’s so much better than everyone else in the movie that (SPOILER ALERT) when he dies at the end of the second reel, any incentive to give a shit dies with him. Seriously, did they not see the problem that sticking with this twist idea would cause? He’s so incandescent in every moment he makes everyone else look like the movie was some kind of community-service sentence. Poor Ken Watanabe is given nothing to do but glower his way through some exposition, and David Strathairn’s disinterest is so palpable I half expected him to take off his mic and walk off the set at any moment. The one exception is Juliette Binoche, but she dies even before Cranston does. Perhaps Cranston’s early departure was mandated by budget or scheduling, but all I can do is critique what wound up on screen, and it’s not even a matter of a counterfactual wherein his character was the lead instead of Aaron Taylor Johnson’s nothing of a Navy bomb technician: His character was the lead for half an hour, and that’s when it was a good movie.
Godzilla has strong kaiju visual effects, certainly stronger than those of Pacific Rim; you watch this and you just think Guillermo Del Toro should be even more embarrassed for himself than he already ought to be. But it’s hardly novel in that regard: The Mist and especially Cloverfield pioneered the use of modern-day CGI to convey the horror of scale, and in those films the one-dimensional characters and hackneyed tear-jerking moments are more easily forgotten since they really are horror movies, and really do try and occasionally succeed to be frightening and bleak. For all the ranting about how Gojira will send us back to the Stone Age, this is no apocalypse: Godzilla‘s supposed to leave you cheering and hungry for the sequel. It lacks the courage of Cranston’s convictions.
I did a thing on potential Oscar upsets for Rolling Stone. Some are bona fide upsets, some would just be upsetting.
1. I posted about this on my A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, and even before I made the connection with ASoIaF about ten seconds before I did so, I was thinking today about how Godzilla is presented here the way I like dragons to be presented in stories — as a total upending of all human endeavor.
2. It’s just such a pleasure to hear and see Bryan Cranston again, particularly since the Breaking Bad finale left a bad taste in my mouth. That’s not his fault — he’s a magnificent actor. Listen to how his voice is constantly breaking and being repaired, like, as an ongoing process effected through force of will. Watch how his eyes shift back and forth at the end of that opening speech, as though he’s so consumed by what he’s saying he can’t really decide how, or if, to focus it.
3. This is the kind of tonal commitment I like to see in genre work, provided it doesn’t devolve into self-seriousness. And I’ll admit, that line is thin, and subjectively drawn. But playing Godzilla as a horror movie, which it originally was, seems as valid a place as any to take the assumptions of the genre work in question and hit hard with them.
I wrote an article about this very thing for Rolling Stone. I got to compare Brandon in The Godfather to James Brown inventing funk and God parting form from void, so that was fun.
I interviewed director Darren Aronofsky about his upcoming Biblical epic Noah, which is set in a timeless non-Biblical fantasy world, interestingly. Key concepts: “this isn’t your grandmother’s Bible,” giant monsters, theodicy, Patti Smith writing a lullaby for Russell Crowe to sing to Emma Watson and recording it with the Kronos Quartet and Clint Mansell.
David O. Russell’s American Hustle is best described as…
a) a paperback novelization of a Martin Scorsese movie
b) an SNL skit that blew the week’s wig budget
c) one of those movies with a solid cast and serious-looking art direction on the DVD cover when you spot it in the discount bin at a 7/11, and you look at it and go “whoa, this never made it into theaters? How’d that happen? Must be a story there” and pick it up on a whim and watch it and it’s pretty good, nothing spectacular, you can at least see why Jessica Lange and Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman signed on
c) an experiment to see how much of Amy Adams’s breasts we can see without ever actually seeing a whole breast. Oh, sure, Tumblr tells us you can see a single nipple for a single split-second in a single scene, but if anything that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance only emphasizes its ephemerality. Perhaps this — not the “no more fake shit” mantra, not the Abscam scandal, not the long cons that may or may not be being run — is the film’s central metaphor, the areola atop its mammary gland of artifice and fakery. In the end, can you ever, like, really see a breast?
American Hustle is a fun enough time at the movies, but a pretty preposterous contender for the best the art form had to offer in the year that was. Virtually all of the characters, from Christian Bale doing the film’s second-worst Robert DeNiro impression to Bradley Cooper eating the scenery like Bale must have been hitting the craft services table to Jennifer Lawrence emotionally careening all the way around an inconsistently drawn Perfidious Female, are actors wearing cool costumes and doing funny accents rather than people. There are a couple of exceptions: Adams is pretty good in a role that requires the character to realize she’s only an ersatz femme fatale for two doofuses rather than the real thing — she reminds me of Bilbo Baggins’ self-descriptive “butter scraped across too much bread”; she has a moment in a bathroom stall, a look on her face, that’s the film’s sole genuinely sexy moment. Jeremy Renner works quite well as a politician whose crookedness is really and truly just a matter of constituent services; his character is set in opposition to the film’s entire project of letting sleazy-looking ’70s clothes and tri-state area ethnicity stand in for a thoroughgoing examination of a milieu. I found myself wishing his career arc between this and, say, Dahmer had flowed less through action-hero stuff and more into just disappearing into life’s casualties like he did in those two films.
The film did have one truly memorable scene, the one where it all came together, where Bale and Adams’s con artists and Cooper’s overly ambitious FBI agent and Renner’s hapless mayor and Lawrence’s desperate housewife are all drawn into a party where the sting they’re involved in suddenly balloons into a monstrosity capable of bringing down senators and destroying one of the most powerful organized crime outfits in North America, which is to say one capable of getting them all killed, even as the personal deceptions each of them has been running on one another threaten to crack up in restroom and bar-stool screaming matches. Everyone involved suddenly has so much to do, so much to think about, so much of it disconnected and drawing them in different directions, that you realize how straightforward and inert the rest of the material is. Previous party scenes feel sparse not just because of the bizarrely low-rent number of extras, you know? You just want the rest of the movie to have thought this hard about this stuff. Instead everyone gets a happy ending except the lawman, which is hilarious in a world that spent several months pillorying The Wolf of Wall Street for insufficient opprobrium directed to its scumbag characters. Crime pays!
* A mentality by which one can see both Her and 12 Years a Slave and judge the former superior to the latter is a very foreign mentality to me. I’m grappling with that a lot tonight. There’s obviously an element of self-congratulation in preferring the horrifying historical drama about slavery to the twee portrait of an unlucky-in-love copywriter and his smartphone. And there’s an element of voyeurism, too, one only heightened by seeing the film in a packed theater full of middle-aged and elderly upper-middle-class white patrons from my preposterously segregated home of Long Island. Roxane Gay’s essay on the film for Vulture, for all it’s undergirded by presumptions about cinema I don’t share — I find brutality, spectacle, and decontextualized visual stylization, all of which she rejects at least as far as this movie is concerned, often inherently valuable in terms of conveying meaning; director Steve McQueen is proficient and profligate with all three — also makes the point that 12 Years a Slave furthers the idea that the movies about black people worth making involve their historical/political suffering at the hands of American white supremacy. All those caveats aside, I still found this film enormously compelling, as a story and as a political statement and as cinema, in ways that completely crush Her, which is routinely topping it in critics’ best-of-2013 lists. And that’s a gulf between me and other viewers that I’m thinking about a great dal.
* Crying in a crowded theater is difficult to do, for some reason. I wound up with tears streaming down my face consistently but without the usual sobbing and heaving — just a few sniffles. I’m embarrassed to say I was embarrassed.
* Stuffing your film with famous actors in bit parts is frequently a dubious proposition — remember Ted Danson in Saving Private Ryan? Yet the effect McQueen generated with that tactic here was invigorating, if menacingly so. Each time a new familiar face popped up, I found myself thinking “Oh Jesus, what’s this one gonna do?” Michael K. Williams, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Garrett Dillahunt, Bryan Batt — each managed to be intimidating by virtue of simply being there, all famous and shit. By the time Brad Pitt showed up, an aged Golden God whose role in the narrative and his part in getting the film made in the first place combined for a sad and knowing take on the White Savior, the cameos moreover gave the film a true labor of love feeling, a “let’s put on a show” urgency.
* Though the film was written by an African American, its director and star are two black men from England, and it co-stars two more men from England as the lead character’s primary enslavers. I felt there was a unique fury brought to the material from those four outsiders’ perspectives. The crimes of an neighbor content to excuse or ignore them are often best exposed from next door. “I’m So Bored with the USA.”
* Chiwetel Ejiofor is actually better than you’ve heard. Long, lingering close-ups the first time he sings along with a spiritual, or on the day he entrusts the sympathetic white hired hand played by Pitt to write a letter to his friends back home to plead for rescue, are asked by McQueen to do nothing but allow the audience to linger in Ejiofor’s emotional and physical company as intimately as possible. He’s just remarkable.
* Lupita Nyong’o, the film’s female lead, is required to spend essentially all over her screentime in some form of extremis — the object of brutal scorn and even more brutal affection from her masters. Even during a brief respite at the brunch table of a neighbor who herself had been elevated from slave to “Mistress” thanks to her owner’s romantic inclinations, there’s a panic in the extension of her pinky finger she affects while taking tea. Her body is ultimately the tableau on which the film’s climactic act of violence is performed: the makeup effects are among the most physically upsetting I’ve ever seen, which given my predilections is saying something, but I used “tableau” because that’s what she is made to be, a canvas on which the emotions of her slaver, his wife, her fellow slave Solomon, and her own self are painted in blood. Hugely complicated, hugely upsetting. A goddamn highwire act is what it is, and she invests that character with such urgent sadness, right down to her final out-of-focus fall from the story.
* In the scenes where we see Ejiofor’s Solomon Northrup interact with his wife and kids as a free man in New York prior to his kidnapping, much of the antiquated formality of his and the other characters’ speech throughout the film, preserved from the autobiography which forms the basis of the film, necessarily falls away. Replace the horse-and-carriage with a car and the formal attire with t-shirts and jeans or whatever, and his last happy goodbye to his family (off on a business trip without him) could come from the opening of any Hollywood movie in which a good-natured family man gets fucked over by sinister forces. Which is important. Sounding like regular, everyday people by stripping away dialect, even just for a scene, goes a long way to conveying that Northrup was a regular, everyday person, until America’s nightmarish racist dystopia — a regime so repulsive and constructed on lies so preposterous we’d have a hard time accepting it as science fiction had it not actually happened in our actual history for hundreds of fucking years, were not television networks making money hand over fist by marketing its apologists as cuddly curmudgeons, were not cackling dimunitions and dismissals and denials of its horror repeated every day with the tweet of a #tcot hashtag, were its legacy not seen everywhere from voter registration laws to the lily white neighborhood i myself live in right this very second — swallowed him whole.