Reviews: A Thrifty Three Pack

Did you think I hadn’t been seeing any movies just because I haven’t been posting reviews very often? You silly reader you. There is always time, even in grad school, to see new movies – absurdly over-priced NYC limited-release movies. It’s still a few weeks before I’m out of the end-of-semester woods, and by then I’m sure my backlog will be even worse, so here’s some quick reviews to sate your appetites.

(BTW, get pumped – the 7th Annual EMO Awards are only about a month away!)

12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen’s clinical, composed direction takes on Kubrickian proportions in this thoroughly unsentimental slavery drama. As with his previous films (“Hunger,” “Shame”), “12 Years a Slave” never quite works as a story – it is too controlled, too stiff in its imagery and characterization to stay engaging on a narrative level. The filmmaking itself constantly forces its presence, pushing us away from Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) the man in favor of Solomon Northup, symbol of wrongful oppression.

That might be for the best anyway, as there will always be something problematic about exploring the mundane, institutional evils of slavery through the story of an exception. Northup, a free black man from upstate New York kidnapped and sold into servitude in the 1840’s, was an extraordinary case in that, as the title of the film suggests, he eventually found an escape. As Mark Harris wrote on the subject, it is somewhat difficult to suggest the truly destructive, systematic injustice of slavery through the individual suffering of one man who ultimately got out. The most heart-rending, excruciating moments in the film often happen around Solomon, not to him – indeed, it is better not to see this as the story of Solomon Northup, but the story of what Solomon Northup saw.

And to that end, McQueen’s camera observes in stunning, audacious fashion. There are shots (in particular a searing, supremely unsettling scene of a hanging) so bold, so dense they bowl you over. Far from the baiting, self-consciously significant dramas that the subject matter calls to mind, this is incisive filmmaking of a kind middlebrow Hollywood is usually terrified to touch. It earns its acclaim with complexity and an actual, debatable point of view.

Ejiofor endures with solemn spirit, but the movie’s fire belongs to Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as a tempestuous plantation owner, his cold wife, and the slave girl that captures his obsessive gaze. While our protagonist is often swallowed by McQueen’s direction, treated as just another piece of the mise-en-scene, this trio seem to burst out of the frame, their unrestrained energy spilling forth into the audience’s nightmares.

As for the distracting parade of star cameos in smaller roles (Benedict Cumberbatch! Brad Pitt! Paul Giamatti! Taran Killam!), generally the less said, the better.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

The Wind Rises

To be perfectly honest, I get slightly choked up just thinking about this movie. It’s rare for an artist to “sign off” in such an open manner (no, Steven Soderbergh’s multiple resignations from filmmaking don’t count) – and doubly so for that notice to be as gentle, melancholic and introspective as this. But then, could we expect anything more from Hayao Miyazaki? The animation grandmaster’s last feature film (he will reportedly continue to make shorts exclusively for the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo) encapsulates – and not accidentally – much of what his entire career has meant, both to his audience and clearly, to him personally.

Sidestepping his usual, more fantastic subject matter, “The Wind Rises” has Miyazaki taking an unexpected last-minute left turn into historical biography. Based (albeit very, very loosely) on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the aircraft engineer who designed the infamous “Zero” fighter planes used by Japan in WWII, “The Wind Rises” pits its director, for the first time ever, against the constraints of reality. That Miyazaki uses this challenge as an opportunity to liberate our notion of what a biopic can be speaks to his limitless imagination. As we follow Jiro from his schoolboy days up to the start of the war, Miyazaki periodically interrupts with flights of fancy both figurative and literal – delightful dream sequences (involving Jiro’s spiritual mentor, a projection of Italian aviator Giovanni Caproni) play alongside soaring shots of aircraft on the wing, transforming our world into something as beautiful as the lands of make-believe we’ve seen in the director’s previous works.

More than ever though, the pure exuberance and joy of these passages is tempered by the specter of human violence and destruction. In a deft choice, Miyazaki leaves World War II itself off the screen; the pall of that future trauma is left hanging over Jiro’s dreams, as the engineer struggles with the knowledge that his designs, which he pursues out of aesthetic and scientific wonder, will be used to devastating ends. The film has drawn criticism from both ends of the political spectrum in the director’s home country, and that’s not surprising – it walks a fine, complex line between optimism and elegy, finding a sympathetic message of pacifism in the life of a man who created killing machines.

Part of that sympathy could be chalked up to the fairy tale Miyazaki has concocted out of his protagonist’s personal life. But really, Jiro’s storybook romance with a young girl named Naoko is the only weak link of the film, as it does drag somewhat in the film’s final third. It’s not the tubercular love interest that makes Jiro such a relatable figure – it’s his creative passion and gentle, human decency.

And that is, in the end, what drew us to Miyazaki’s films. Throughout “The Wind Rises,” Jiro is clearly intended as a surrogate for the director, constantly sketching and drawing at desks that look suspiciously like animation tables. So if we must say goodbye, there really is no better way to part than this: with a man who, deep down, was always just a boy who dreamt of flying.

“The Wind Rises” played in limited release in NY and LA for a week; it will return to theaters across North America in February.

Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars

Blue Is the Warmest Color

Nothing you may have read or heard about “Blue Is the Warmest Color” can accurately prepare you for the actual experience. Yes, there are some extended lesbian sex scenes; but anyone who’s just looking for titillation would have much more satisfying options elsewhere. Yes, the IFC Center in New York is letting in high-school-aged viewers in flagrant disregard of the MPAA’s NC-17 rating; but while I have absolutely no problems with this and commend that theater’s notion that adolescents should have the opportunity to see their real lives, in all their messy, awkward glory, up on the big screen, implying that this is a coming-of-age story doesn’t really give the whole picture either.

The brilliance of director Abdellatif Kechiche’s approach is in his patience – “Blue Is the Warmest Color” clocks in at almost exactly three hours, because the filmmaker seems less interested in telling a story than observing one. On every structural level, Kechiche simply waits, taking us past the point where every other film tells us we should stop. Conversations meander, showing off not just critical information but superfluous detail; scenes and montages linger, revealing both action and reaction; time passes, because real life doesn’t have pat endings. A ten-minute sex scene seems entirely appropriate when the leads need a full minute or two just to decide whether to kiss.

What seems to start off as a French take on “An Education” winds up going much, much further, a tale not just of discovery but of disillusionment, mundanity and loss. The central relationship, between young, aimless student Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and the older, confident artist Emma (Léa Seydoux) is not treated as something representative or universal, but the confluence of these particular two individuals: it’s not even that it’s about sexual orientation so much as personality, ambition, desire. This is not your life; this is Adèle’s.

The fact remains that Kechiche is a straight man filming younger, straight women simulating lesbian sex, and that does make elements of “Blue Is the Warmest Color” problematic (Kechiche’s obsession with Exarchopoulos’ rear end in particular struck even me as unnecessary). But good lord, if we are to have that debate (and we certainly should), let it be about a film this formally intriguing and well-performed.

Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars

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