Tuesday, October 22, 2013

12 Years A Slave

This Fall is turning out to be one of the best in terms of films having Oscar potential, especially this early in the game! Tonight I had the much-anticipated pleasure to see 12 Years A Slave with other OSU students and Wexner Center members. Before the film I confidently said it would win Best Picture hands down; after the film I (still) feel it has much exceeded my expectations and emotions. Where do I start?

The all-star cast: Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor, newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, Benedict Cumberpatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Adepero Oduye (Pariah), and the shorter performance by Quevenzhane Wallis (Oscar nominated for Beasts of the Southern Wild). Fassbender is obviously McQueen's choice actor, and his role transition from sex addict in Shame to slave owner (still donning his Shame cap) is more than fitting. His vivacious performance creates even greater scenes with the phenomenal Platt (Ejiofor) and Patsey (Nyong'o). The harsher the scene, the more intense the acting; consequently, the harder it is to look away even though the material becomes more graphic.

If only I could showcase 100 stills from this film to capture only part of its perpetual beauty. Here, Patsey defends her life against master Epps.
Not only is this the first slavery film that shows Platt arguing with or fighting back against his owner and getting away with it, it is the only one (that comes to memory) with multiple owners challenging the horrific, yet seemingly realistic conditions slaves endured. Tibeats (Dano) plays the common, rotten, and enraged Slave-hater, but Ford (Cumberpatch) and Bass (Pitt) show that challenging bullies is an everlasting concept that is still being dealt with 170 years later.

Every shot is a beauty unto itself. Platt (Ejiofor) works in the cotton field, above.
The spectacular cinematography kept me entranced as any quality film would and should. The colors contrast beautifully in every scene while the camera not only moves, but captures innovatively. Even the transitions are crafted to startle and yank the viewers' eyes and soul from one scene to the next, a subtle reminder that the slaves had no such break to delight in. The rippling, receding waves of the steamboat paddlewheel (a surprisingly unsettling sequence of shots) are a constant reminder that only looking to your past gets you thrown overboard, no matter the circumstances. The long takes are (as always) exceptionally gratifying.  Semi-spoiler: Seeing Platt tiptoe for his life while hanging by a noose for minutes on end during multiple long takes (in story time this lasts for almost a whole day's work) keeps the viewer breathless and mystified. Notice the house he was building stands in the background as a blinding reminder of why he suffers (end spoiler). Then one of the final shots follows Platt's distressed eyes before they finally fix on the screen/viewer forcing each of us to contemplate the ideals of living and surviving as a slave. Did he survive favorably in the eyes of God? Should he have followed through with Patsey's offer? His growing rage and determination were secured during the extreme long take and moving scene where a group of slaves sings "Roll, Jordan, Roll," reminiscent of the earlier paddle wheel and rolling tide. Be ready to hear this powerful tune again at the Oscars: it will definitely be up for Best Original Song.

The kind master (Cumberpatch) gifts his most worthy slave with a home away from home.
Music plays an important role throughout the film and at multiple times deliberately challenges diegesis vs. non-diegesis. Hans Zimmer's sometimes provocative, rarely uplifting, and mostly impending and Inception-reminiscent score perfectly parallels Solomon's fiddle-playing abilities. His talent which ironically gets him kidnapped via a circus scheme is his only resting place during capture. A wave of his bow silences screams and soothes souls, a literal reminder (he scratches the names of his family left behind into the violin) of the transcendent power of music (and sound mixing & editing in film). Zimmer has long been, for me, the most famous composer of this generation and he will continue to rise (Get it? Because he scored The Dark Knight Rises, too...) in popularity after he nabs an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. Here is just a pre-preview of the soundtrack since it won't be officially released until November 5th (1:50 is a good place to start):

The gripping story of Soloman Northup, a free man who is kidnapped and turned into a slave fights for his survival for 12 terrifying years and captures the audience for 133 minutes. While the film deals slightly with the issue of white supremacy, the overall message has nothing to do with black power. There are some white slave owners that understand the cruelty forced upon The messages are more centered around the power of strength, soul, and family keeping a man determined to one day be reunited with his family. Patsey is by far the most profound woman he meets along his journey. She makes the viewer step into her shoes to realize that while she may have major skills picking cotton in the fields, she is living in a constant hell between Edwin Epps and his Mistress (Fassbender & Paulson). In the end, Solomon and her relationship are reduced to a few words: "But what about Patsey?"
This harrowing tale is based on a memoir of the same title published by Solomon Northup in 1853. As Bass suggests during his heroic monologue, the laws continue to change even though some people are stuck in their own ways. Slavery has since been outlawed but it is a memory never forgotten. Yet, kidnapping, sex trafficking, civil rights, and a countless other inequalities are still profoundly relevant today. A world where people don't have to live in such fear is still miles away, but it is a future that should not be thought of as impossible. It is a goal that Solomon fought for years after he was enslaved, and his heart lives on today in those that carry this similar drive.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Defying Gravity

I have no idea why I didn't write a review of Gravity right after I saw an advanced screening two weeks ago. It has taken me almost this long just to accept that it actually happened and that I actually experienced that most amazing...thing. I saw the teaser trailer when it was released and forbid myself from watching the full trailer and other clips until after I saw the movie. So if you haven't seen the trailer yet, DON'T. Just watch the teaser and be prepared to be even more blown away!

Gravity is more than just a film: it is a cinematic experience which assaults your senses in the most stylish, unexpecting, and welcoming of ways. I still remember the film (more than a 'movie') starting and me not knowing how such a piece of work would be able to begin. But the few lines of text appeared and then the vastness of space in 3D appeared. My giddy eyes reeled from the cinematographic and special effects beauty, the long takes deepening my focused and aroused senses.

Sandra gives the performance of a lifetime as Dr. Ryan Stone. Yes, I know. Every new movie that Sandra Bullock is in has these same lines attached, but this time it is even more true! She dons a boyish haircut, which adds to her vulnerable character (bringing to mind one of my top 3 shots of the film. Can I explain it? No, that would ruin the moment. But the shot creeps up on you in the softest of ways and once you realize what is being captured, your heart just wants to embrace the full power of the image. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey.). Dr. Stone's transformation is beautiful. It begins after she tells us about her daughter (no spoilers) and continues through the final shot of the film, a memorable extreme, low angle shot of her rising and defying gravity.

There are a million things to say about this film but to simply write them in a blogpost does none of it justice. I cried three separate times thanks to Sandra's performance and I walked out of the theatre knowing the Oscar should already be split between her and Cate Blanchett (for Blue Jasmine), despite the already insane amount of Best Actress Oscar hype. The cinematography is instantly jaw-dropping because it really does look like space (I've been scouring the web to find a real IMAX theatre around here) and the camera movements will have you reeling for something to hold onto. The special effects will have you asking yourself over and over "How did they do that?! They really must be in space!" Every slight movement or particle in the air acts as if it were 'weightless'. My third favorite sequence is when water droplets disperse and one splatters on the camera lens. Every string that gets bumped in the space station and every blast from the fire extinguisher are as fluid as hair gliding in the wind.

The sound editing is almost just as important in transporting you into the perils of what is happening. While the camera moves seamlessly from space to the inside of Sandra's helmet, the flawless sound transitions from Sandra's deep breaths and frantic calls for help to the vacuum of space where not even Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) can hear or help her. Alfonso cleverly and constantly switches between barriers to make sure the audience doesn't become fully comfortable with the horrific situation. He keeps you saying "What the heck could come next?" and of course, something even worse happens.

There are moments (yes, plural) that I stopped breathing or held my breath hoping it would replenish Dr. Stone's disappearing supply of oxygen. The beauty, the magic, the intensity, and the power of this film escapes me. It should without a doubt be seen in 3D. The technology is subtle in many ways, yet I also caught myself blinking when I wasn't expecting meteorites to fly towards me.

Now, I hope none of this scares you. I started this post off by saying Gravity is an experience you need to fully immerse yourself in and if you do that, it will be one of the most fulfilling things you do this fall. It will not escape attention from the press or a growing cult fanbase for the months or years to come. It already rose from 8.5 to 8.7 after the official opening day (Friday Oct 4) on IMDB and is (not surprisingly) Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. If I get you to rethink seeing this film because you are afraid of heights or space, then I have done my job. I already convinced my grandma so there must be a few more waivering souls out there.

Do yourself a favor today. Take a break from work or studying and go see Gravity. I guarantee it is like nothing you have experienced before.
For the much-awaited arrival of Fall, I bring to you a pumpkin smoothie! So cozy up in front of the fire with this smooth delight :)

3-4 oz. frozen pumpkin pie filling (freeze ahead of time!)
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup vanilla yogurt
dash of cinammon

After you blend everything together, feel free to top your drink with crushed (cinammon) graham crackers. Or go ahead and add them to your drink!