#6. 12 Years a Slave (2013, McQueen) (USA/UK)
Steve McQueen somewhat inverts his psychological studies from outside-in/how the body inherently relates as vessel between what we see of people and what goes on within. It’s all recognizably McQueen, with suffering as the nucleus, but everything about 12 Years a Slave feels inside-out. By this I mean one man’s story, which remains prioritized, is used as a catalyst for taking in, if not directly on, the larger whole, all stemming from the centrality of Solomon. There is a blanket focus on the broader sets of societal and ideological circumstances through character behavior required for atrocities to be normalized. It’s a story of perverse realities, realities that reinforce the importance of always continuing to confront history, to reexamine, to not forget. Shouldn’t have to be said, but apparently it does, that history reflects the present (not to mention that slavery, in different forms, still exists). There is an emphasis on papers, on the thin and simultaneously meaningless/critical line that determines Solomon’s, and everyone’s, fate. There is also an emphasis on the abruptness of comings and goings in the people Solomon comes into contact with. Eliza’s children, Eliza, Clemens and of course Solomon, now on the exiting end, as he leaves Patsey. It doesn’t linger on these comings and goings; no time is left to process. The moment Solomon leaves particularly resonates, because we leave with him. He is in the carriage, Patsey barely visible, a fuzzy dot in shallow focus, and we can make out enough to see she faints, and then she is out of the frame a couple seconds later.
Can we all agree that the Hans Zimmer score is a direct rip-off of his own work? Specifically the track “Time”, from the last five minutes of Inception. Considering that “Time” is my favorite piece of score Zimmer has ever done, I’m okay with this and understand his desire to self-rehash. But still.
It’s pretty clear that Lupita Nyong’o is sort of the transcendent soul of the film, or rather that Patsey is.
The riverboat sequence stands out as a distinct transitional marker. It formally supports the abhorrent process of being put into the system with atonal music and a focus on the riverboat’s wheel churning (also pulling him farther away from his family). It’s a sort of prelude to the way McQueen presents the material, with a no safety setting intact. Long takes, shallow focus, the pain showing on the face and being inflicted on the body. I also wonder about the focus on brutality in the film, and if maybe it’s sort of an easy way of addressing the institution of slavery that puts that blanket focus mentioned earlier in the shadows. It’s complicated to be sure.
I’ve tried to avoid talking about how I felt during the film because it’s the way most reviews have been framed. But I have to mention the emotional build-up, one of unsurprised but nevertheless tearless disgust, that gets released by the end. As Solomon looks on at his family, both familiar and unrecognizable, apologizing for the state of his appearance, the impact of the film hits all at once. Being lifted out of hell is more emotional, understandable as beginning vs. end of film, than taking the initial plunge.
Lastly, I get that Plan B Entertainment helped produce the film but I really wish someone besides Brad Pitt had been in that role who pulls out his Aldo Raine voice, which I hated the first time, to distract.
#7. Simon of the Desert (1965, Buñuel) (Mexico)
Daunting to write about this one; I can’t pretend to know what Buñuel was trying to do. When it started, I didn’t think much of it, but its combination of overt moments of humor and a gentle sort of satire won me over wholesale by the end. Buñuel sympathizes with or at least pities Simon’s efforts even if the film lampoons the worthlessness of said efforts. One of the things, hell perhaps the thing, I most connect to with Buñuel is his atheism, and so I always enjoy seeing how he tackles religion in various ways throughout his career. What I took from Simon of the Desert was a depiction of misguided piety, and the way Simon’s extreme devotion to God, in which he spends years standing on a pillar, is actually sort of a cheat/empty gesture. That extreme isolation is sort of useless and meaningless; the real hardships are down there on the ground. In this parable, God and Satan exist, but the way faith functions for the characters is condemned. The local priests don’t know their own faith. A father, upon being granted the miracle of restored hands, uses them to slap his child. The townspeople react with indifference and change the topic to bread. Even Simon, who refuses all adornment and basic needs, accepts a larger grander pillar on which to stand upon.
Claudio Brook was giving me weird Bob Odenkirk vibes in his physical appearance.
Buñuel lost money at the end of the production and had to tack on a quick ending, the result being rife with lunacy and the most drastic of all scene-changes. I’m not sure what to make of it, besides it being awesome, but there is an odd complacency on Simon’s part. Radioactive Flash!
#8. Escape from New York (1981, Carpenter) (USA)
Even with Carpenter films that don’t do much for me, like this one, anything I get out of it directly derives from it being ‘a John Carpenter film’, even if said characteristics help make up my ambivalence. His tendency, particularly with films he has a writing credit on, are exceedingly simple set-ups to the point of near abstraction and a refusal to be bogged down with world-building. He periodically adopts a deliberate molasses-like pacing that promotes a precise foreboding atmosphere supported by his synth scores.
I didn’t feel much one way or the other towards Escape from New York. I enjoyed it enough but wouldn’t call myself a fan. Neither would I go out of my way to put it down. Predictably great cast; I always admire the actors Carpenter chooses to work with, assembling a varied group of regulars in the character actor vein. Even Kurt Russell feels like a character actor in star’s clothing. Donald Pleasence as the President! Was annoyed that Adrienne Barbeau’s character immediately stays by her dead mate to die alongside him. Of course the one female character stops living after her lover dies. Ugh. Harry Dean! Borgnine! Lee Van Cleef! Isaac Hayes! Tom Atkins (!) who I like to pretend is the bane of my existence. So many manly men.
My 3 takeaways were the score, the green-lit streets and alleys, and the ending. I would admittedly have liked a bit more world-building. There is a short casual scene in which Snake enters a decrepit theater where a stage production is happening. I liked that slice-of-desolate-Manhattan life and could have used a bit more of it.
#9. Story of a Prostitute (1965, Seijun Suzuki) (Japan)
I believe this is only my second Seijun Suzuki film? Can’t claim to have loved Story of a Prostitute when taken as a whole, but there sure as hell were moments, scenes, elements I am in awe of. What held it back for me, though this what probably makes it a more objectively ‘great’ film, is that its focus is far more on the military than is of interest to me, at least in this particular story. Seijun Suzuki served during WWII, and uses this story, which takes place during the Sino-Japanese war, as a gateway for criticizing Japanese military institutions. That aspect is pretty scathing; there is no winning, people are swallowed up like it’s nothing, the system is the one that betrays the individual. The most committed of the bunch, Private Mikami is a boy devoid of personality for his loyalty, and who goes to trial for being taken prisoner only to later commit suicide. It’s nice to see Suzuki reach outside that relentless pulp sheen for that scathing political surge, but I admit it lost me a bit for this same reason.
Yumiko Nogawa is outrageously physical and high-pitched; a force of nature if there ever was one. This is a representative example of Japanese actors/actresses often, depending on the melodrama or tragedy of other tone of the story, using their bodies and voices in ways that seem connected specifically to Japanese theater origins. Harumi is self-destructive, coarsely defiant, and desperate, but she’s fearless. That reliable style-to-spare of Seijun Suzuki’s makes for some remarkable moments within the whole such as using slow-motion and mismatched use of sound to heighten emotion and torment. These moments slow down the nightmare.
#10. Short Term 12 (2013, Cretton) (USA)
So close to being great, and some of it is great, to the point where I still like this a lot despite what I’m about to write. It’s largely undone by an insistence on neatness and on failing to recognize the complexity of individuals by bluntly tacking on a predictable parallel backstory for Larson’s Grace which is rote and unnecessary. There’s also a faint whiff of it having gone to the Hollywood cleaners even if it hasn’t. What I mean is it’s a bit too shiny; a bit too neutered as to make everything more presentable. Just look at the way Nate is presented. He is the new employee and audience surrogate, our introduction into the foster care system. And he is flabbergasted by everything around him. Attempted breakouts, getting spit in the face, being called out on his naivete. Everything. And it’s like really? Really? It seems geared to represent audience reaction, which means the film is assuming that people live in under a rock and don’t understand how tough it is for everyone involved in foster care facilities.
So it’s a testament to the film that despite these major drawbacks, I really liked Short Term 12. When it isn’t stumbling, it has a natural grace, a commitment and attentiveness to both staff and kids alike, and the acting is stellar. I’ve been patiently waiting for Brie Larson to be given a chance to show people what she can do since her work on “The United States of Tara” (where she took the snarky teen role and created new nooks and crannies for her character tenfold) Her contribution to the film is incalculable. She has such a spontaneous charm, such conviction, such a lived-in quality. Her character has a pretty drastic arc, where the illusion of control and responsibility collapses completely. She’s so good that she sells Grace’s arc, and though I hate the direction they take her in, Larson is never less than captivating, selling it all wholesale. The same goes for the Keith Stanfield as Marcus and John Gallagher Jr. as Mason. These are some truly gifted performers. Marcus’ rap is heartbreaking and raw. Short Term 12 feels on its way to authenticity, and I encourage people to see the film even if it abandons its good intentions with clunky compact sheen.