Monday, October 7, 2013

NYFF: 12 Years a Slave & Le Week-End

Thanks to Manhattan traffic, I only made it to 2 of my 3 scheduled screenings on my final day. The good news is that I was able to see one of the year's best films, which more than made up for it. Read on for my thoughts on "12 Years A Slave" and "Le Week-End".

First up on today's schedule was the latest film by the incomparable Steven McQueen - "12 Years A Slave". If you thought he'd slow down after making the brilliant "Shame" two years ago, then you're wrong. This is yet another astute portrayal of humanity that solidifies his importance in modern cinema.
This true story follows a devastating twelve years in the life of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. An accomplished and educated man with a family, his life becomes a living nightmare as he is taken from his peaceful life in New York and dragged down to Louisiana.
As the story unfolds, it becomes abundantly clear that this is no ordinary period drama. This is a true Steve McQueen project, as unflinching and exacting as "Hunger" and "Shame". The world we are presented with is aggressively brutal, often feeling like a version of hell, rather than anything like our earth at all. Yet the truth of the matter is, this is indeed our shared history. This truth is a hard pill to swallow, but that's why this vivid film is so potent.
The characters involved represent the wide range of individuals that contributed to both the proliferation and abolition of slavery. What's remarkable then, is the uniformly honest portrayals by the cast. The most vile characters are played with just as much conviction as the more noble ones. Sarah Paulson's Mary Epps character is a good example. She's a woman who should be listed under the definition of "bitch". It couldn't have been easy for her to put herself in those shoes, but here she is playing it without judgment. Truly, the entire cast is outstanding and I legitimately wouldn't complain if any of the side characters picked up unexpected awards recognition. Of the main characters though, the most deserving are Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor. The peaks and valleys of emotion come from their enigmatic portrayals.
Despite their brilliance though, the real star of the film is Steven McQueen himself. He's ever-present throughout, with his direction becoming a character of its own. His visual concepts are so evocative that they really do speak louder than words. Working in tandem with his collaborators Sean Bobbitt and John Ridley (cinematographer and screenwriter respectively), even the most poignant moments are never "on the nose". It's what elevates the film above other portrayals of this era. In my opinion, this is the definitive cinematic account of the horrors of slavery. Perhaps something better may come along in the future, but the comprehensive approach of this script will be hard to top. McQueen masterfully captures the essence of slavery - the contradictory interpretations of Christianity, the rape, the violence, the negro spirituals, the glimpses of kindness and most crucially, the despair. The palpable honesty of the film boils down to the notion that slavery was such an extreme evil that death became a desirable alternative.
"12 Years A Slave" is undoubtedly a tough viewing experience, but it's one that is ultimately rewarding. The mere existence of this story proves that humanity has the ability to overcome any societal injustice. This poetic, almost Shakespearean film is sure to linger in your memory for a long time. It's quite simply a must-see.

In Oscar terms, I have no doubt that this film will be a major contender. Firstly, the harrowing emotional journey is likely to reap rewards for the acting and writing. You can expect to see nods for Chiwetel Ejiofor (Best Actor), Michael Fassbender (Best Supporting Actor), Lupita Nyong'o (Best Supporting Actress) and John Ridley (Best Adapted Screenplay). In addition, you can expect a slew of nominations in other categories like Best Editing, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design. The background music may be a tougher sell to voters, as it could be seen as repetitive. That recurring theme is beautiful however and I could easily see it grabbing enough votes for a Best Original Score nomination. Of course, the most deserving nomination would be Best Director for Steve McQueen. The success of the film is all due to his artistic vision. Last but not least, this is easily one of the best films of the year and should be a formidable challenger for Best Picture. I strongly hope the Academy will agree with me and shower it with praise come nomination morning. Rating: ★★★★★

My New York Film Festival excursion came to a close with Roger Michell's dramedy "Le Week-End". It was his second straight appearance at the festival (following "Hyde Park on Hudson" last year) and unfortunately, his directing flaws show up again with this film. Much like his previous effort, he undermines the screenplay by inflicting a dreary tone to the proceedings. It's a shame really, since Hanif Kureishi's script clearly had a lot of potential.
The story tells that of an older couple who visit Paris (where they spent their honeymoon) in an effort to rejuvenate their marriage. In doing so, they open up about life's challenges and get a deeper understanding of their relationship.
We've seen similar stories like this and initially the film does feel somewhat inessential. However, it soon reveals itself to be very deft in the way it reveals the truths about the characters. It's filled with many eloquent lines of dialogue that are quite disarming in their quiet beauty. Of course, it helps that the actors are perfectly cast for their roles. As the romantic pair, Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan have an effortless chemistry that goes a long way in keeping the film interesting. They clearly understand these roles and deliver the lines with the utmost honesty.
As mentioned earlier, the direction does impede the film. Michell makes strange choices, like the use of a woozy jazz score that contradicts the vivacious nature of the actors and the characters. He also has issues with pacing and a laziness with his visual compositions.
There's no denying the strength of the actors and the writing though. The plot has a lovely mix of comedy and drama (often at the same time) that is clearly understood by the cast and screenwriter. It's too bad that Michell didn't seem to get the memo. "Le Week-End" was a pleasant film for me to end with and I would certainly recommend giving it a look. Rating: ★★★★

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