Weekend Roundup: Nov. 8th – 11th, Pt. 2

12 Years a Slave

I’d like to talk about Steve McQueen for a second. Not the actor who starred in such 60’s actioneers as Bullitt and The Great Escape – although he’s definitely worth talking about. Rather, I’m referring to the Black British video artist turned filmmaker who gave us such films as Bobby Sands biopic Hunger and sex-addiction drama Shame, both of which starred Michael Fassbender. McQueen’s new film is 12 Years a Slave, an adaptation of a memoir by Solomon Northup, a free-born Black man from Saratoga Springs who was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. The book was adapted by John Ridley, an African American screenwriter who penned the scripts for such films as U Turn, Red Tails, and – wouldn’t you know it – Undercover Brother.

12 Years a Slave won this year’s People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, which is a pretty sure sign that a film is going to get serious Oscar nominations (The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire, which also won the People’s Choice, went on to win Best Picture.) That gives the sense that 12 Years a Slave is an ‘awards picture.’ And in a sense it is. But it also something very different. It is not just a documentation of the institutionalized savagery that was American slavery. It is an experience of it. Normally, I’d hesitate to use such an expression to describe a film for I feel that errs towards hyperbole, but I don’t think this is hyperbolic. It wasn’t until after I’d gotten into my car afterwards that I realized my jaw ached from how tightly I was clenching it during the last 30 minutes.

There are many reasons why 12 Years a Slave is as powerful as it is, but perhaps the most immediately apparent is that the acting is unilaterally excellent. This ranges from Chiwetel Ejiofor, another Brit who’s spent most of his film career in (well-judged) supporting roles but absolutely shines as Northup, to Kenyan newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who embodies Patsey, arguably the film’s most tragic character, to McQueen’s not-so-secret weapon Fassbender, who plays Edwin Epps, Northup’s greatest owner in both time and cruelty, and who from frame one is absolutely fucking terrifying. But every role, no matter how great or small, from Paul Giamatti’s ‘businessman’ to Michael K. Williams’ quickly dispatched prisoner, is expertly cast and played. It’d be difficult for me not to imagine this film scoring a nod – if not a win – in every acting category at the Oscars this year. In fact, the only disappointment would be Brad Pitt, who shows up late in the game as a Canadian laborer with abolitionist beliefs. The problem isn’t with the quality of the performance, because Pitt is not a bad actor. But when an actor of Pitt’s celebrity, noted for his humanitarian work, and also one of the film’s producers, gets the role of what is essentially the ‘savior’… well, it’s pretty distracting.

Regardless, the other driving force behind 12 Years a Slave – and the key to its emotional power – is its violence. I don’t say that lightly, as I consider myself as having a pretty strong constitution when it comes to screen violence. It is graphic and upsetting, but it also isn’t exploitative and gratuitous. The violence is not necessarily always bloody, but in a combination between McQueen’s directorial sensibilities and Sean Bobbit’s exceptional camerawork, the brutality is choreographed in such a way as to make you feel every blow and every lash. Hell, even something a relatively tame as a slap carries immense power in this film – largely because you don’t know if a slap will be the end of it. There is one scene in particular near the film’s final act. I won’t describe much other than it’s catalyst is a bar of soap and it is filmed in a single handheld shot. It felt like it was 15 minutes long, but maybe it’s eight. Or five, I’m not sure. It is a scene so expertly shot, choreographed, and acted that although it is arguably less graphic than something like The Passion of the Christ, it is harrowing enough to give anything in that film’s two hours a run for its money.

12 Years a Slave is a difficult movie to recommend. It’s very different from other ‘awards films’ like The Artist or Argo, which, wonderful as they are, still feel very much like ‘movies.’ Yes, at the end of the day, 12 Years a Slave is still a movie, and no, it doesn’t actually tie you to a post in the Deep South and whip you half to death. But it is perhaps the most authentic feeling movie about this subject that I’ve ever seen. I can’t really recommend it if you want to spend a night at the movies, or even if you’re in the mood for a drama. And I can’t really tell you to ‘prepare’ yourself, because Christ, what can? I thought I was prepared going in. But if you’re looking for a film to challenge and move you, then 12 Years a Slave is the one to do it. As I’ve said before, I don’t cry very often at movies anymore. This film’s final minutes – and its final line – wrecked me.

If you think you can, see it.

About Time (2013)

My dad ascribes to a belief that any movie with the word ‘about’ in its title will probably be pretty good. About a Boy, There’s Something About Mary, What About Bob?, About Schmidt – these are just a few of the titles he uses to prove his point. For my money, I think you could throw About Time in there, as well.

Whether or not you know who Richard Curtis is, you know his work. He started out in television writing for such Rowan Atkinson creations as Mr. Bean and Blackadder, but also went on to write (and occasionally direct) such films as Love Actually, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, the Bridget Jones movies, and Pirate Radio (known in the UK by its marginally cooler title, The Boat That Rocked.) About Time marks Curtis’ third outing as writer/director, and it’s pretty par for his course, for About Time is nothing if not a sweetheart of a movie.

About Time follows the story of a young man named Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, son of the great Brendan), who on his 21st birthday learns from his father, played by Bill Nighy (who seems to be contractually obligated to be in every British film ever made and improves all of them simply by being there), that all of the men on his side of the family can travel through time. The rules are simple: to do it, simply go into a dark place (closets are preferable), close your eyes, clench your fists, and think of where you want to go. You can only travel back to experiences you’ve had in your own life; similarly, you can only travel ‘forward’ to places you last time traveled. “You can’t kill Hitler or shag Helen of Troy, unfortunately,” Nighy informs us. It’s about as lo-fi as you can get with a science fiction concept, and yes, it’s as prone to plot holes as any other time travel narrative, but hey, at least the film is consistent with them.

So anyway, Tim promptly sets about trying to use his time travel powers to get laid. Being a ginger, this doesn’t come easily to him, even with time travel on his side. (Aaahhh, ginger jokes…) That is until he meets Rachel McAdams at a ‘Dans le noir’ dinner (which is one of the film’s genuinely sweeter moments) and falls for her hard and fast. Which means, basically, that Gleeson had to do no acting at all.

I mean look at her eyes, for fuck's sake!

I mean look at her eyes, for fuck’s sake!

In any case, Mary (that being McAdams’ character) seems to fall equally as hard. But through a series of plot contrivances and some dunderheaded behavior on Tim’s part that I don’t have the energy to get into, Tim then chooses to go about wooing Mary in ways that are a trifle manipulative (yes, yes, I know that’s what time travel would suggest, but still.) If I were to be generous, I might characterize these plot points as representing how young people are not always aware of how their actions effect others, but that’s a little more generous than I’m feeling. Fortunately, the chemistry between Gleeson and McAdams is genuine, and it’s not long before the movie starts to move into the stuff that actually makes you feel all fuzzy inside.

If I may, Curtis’ films can feel like his protagonists at times. Awkward and relentlessly self-interested at first, hard to warm up to, but when they do, reveal themselves to be very smart, very warm, very British, and have just the right amount of crass. The ‘crass’ in this case is mostly carried by Tom Hollander as Harry, a boozy, sweary playwright who is temporarily Tim’s landlord and gets what are easily some of the film’s most wickedly funny lines.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that I’ve got some problems with the film’s opening hour, but those are almost all outweighed by how wonderful its second half is, where the film basically quits its romantic comedy aspirations and becomes a platform for Curtis’ ruminations on marriage, parenthood, death, and yes, time. It’s hard to not make that sound self-indulgent – and hey, at two hours, it kind of is – but Curtis is a good enough writer that if his observations aren’t coming from a place of real warmth and wisdom, he certainly makes it sound like it does.

unlike some other people I could mention...

unlike some other people I could mention…

You can probably tell if this is gonna be your thing or not. If it is, give it a shot. You’ll probably like it.


Weekend Roundup: Nov. 8th – 11th, Pt. 1

Okay, so like four movies I wanted to see came out this weekend, and I saw all of them. So instead of writing a full-on review for each one, because damn, I figured I’d do a series of ‘mini’ reviews for you guys and put them all in one post. So, without further ado…

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Mr. McGee apparently starts procrastinating like hell when a Word document looks like it’s gonna exceed three pages, so let’s just put up the first two for now, shall we? Check back later for the other reviews.]

Thor: The Dark World

We are officially balls-deep into Phase Two of Marvel Entertainment’s machinations to take over everything ever, what with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. currently on television, the recent announcement of five new TV series for Netflix, and Thor: The Dark World being the eighth film in their interlocking Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). And we’ve got three more films before Phase Three even gets started.

Though I’ve found all the MCU films to be entertaining, the first Thor was something of a mixed bag for me. It did have a quite funny fish-out-of-water story with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) being cast out of Asgard and dealing with mortals, as well as solid performances and action sequences directed by the one and only Kenneth Branagh. It also had an opening half-hour that was leaden with exposition and nonsensical terminology, as well as frost giants, which by the very nature of being frost giants are extremely difficult to take seriously. Oh, and the normally reliable Anthony Hopkins hammed it waaaay up, what with shouting gibberish instead of dialogue.

While Hopkins still isn’t always as restrained as he ought to be this go round, I found The Dark World to be a much more consistently entertaining film than the first one. That’s probably because there’s so damn much going on. Almost every major character has some sort of a subplot going on, from Thor to Thor’s squeeze, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), to Jane’s intern, Darcy (Kat Dennings), to Darcy’s intern, Ian (Jonathan Howard). Somehow, this all manages to not be a horridly confusing mess, though director Alan Taylor’s long career in television – namely the several episodes of Game of Thrones under his belt – might have something to do with it. In fact, the only characters who don’t really get anything interesting to do are Tadanobu Asano’s Hogun, a minor character from the first film who is conveniently deposited on his home planet in the film’s opening, and the film’s actual antagonists, the Dark Elves, who despite having some talented performers in their ranks (Doctor Who’s Christopher Eccleston as the leader, Lost’s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje his main henchman), really don’t get to do much besides talk in some fantasy language about how they need to get the evil intergalactic goo to destroy everything because evil.

One could easily argue that The Dark World is even more leaden with exposition, but at least none of it is a boring or inherently silly as its predecessor’s. And all of this exposition does come back around to form what is easily one of the most fun finales I’ve seen in a blockbuster in quite some time. And nothing can quell the fun of watching Tom Hiddleston swarm his way through a scene as Loki, who between these two films and The Avengers has something of a personal trilogy going on. Sure, the stingers to this one suck, but that’s really a minor quibble compared to everything else.

If you’ve been keeping up with these films, you’ve already seen it. But if you’ve somehow managed to avoid any of the previous films, give this one a shot. You shouldn’t be too lost.

All Is Lost

J.C. Chandor has only directed one other feature film. That film was Margin Call, which for a debut feature managed to secure a doozy of a cast, with Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons, and Demi Moore being but a few of the stars he managed to corral, presumably with a screenplay (written by Chandor) that would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award. It was an extremely talky, paranoid, claustrophobic Wall Street drama that following the employees of a major investment bank as it entered the early hours of the financial crisis that would sweep across the United States in 2008.

Chandor’s follow-up, All Is Lost, could not be more different. Its only actor is Robert Redford, who is credited simply as ‘Our Man.’ Our Man rarely speaks. He is on a boat. And that boat is sinking. That is all it is. And it is beautiful.

The film opens with a hauntingly gorgeous shot courtesy of Frank G. DeMarco, who does stellar work on this film. This shot is also home to the film’s only concentrated portion of dialogue: a bit of narration by Redford. Fortunately, it doesn’t go the familiar route of explaining who Our Man is, where he came from, and why he was out on the ocean alone. It is simply his last testament, and a beautifully written one at that, vague and specific and universal in all the right ways. “I tried,” he says. “I think you would all agree that I tried.”

We are then treated to a shot of Redford waking up in his hammock. Where his communications system used to be, there is now a giant hole, gushing water. He goes topside to find a wayward shipping container has crashed into the side of his yacht. What follows is an hour-and-a-half long game of one step forward, more like three steps back.

I hesitate to say any more than that, but know that this is a film that oozes confidence. Redford never falters in his performance, communicating his character’s decisiveness, his experience, and his weariness all in a single look. Similarly, Chandor never wavers in focus. Again, there’s no flashbacks or explanations here; just the document of one man’s struggle to survive, ably assisted by DeMarco’s cinematography, Pete Beaudreau’s editing, and Alex Ebert’s spare but magnificent score.

This film and its ending will mean many things to many people, but I ultimately found it to be a metaphor about the very struggle of being alive in and of itself. Ultimately, All Is Lost is fitting tribute for one of American cinema’s most enduring talents, and a calling card for one of its new ones.

If watching Robert Redford survive on a boat for 90 minutes sounds interesting to you – and by God, why wouldn’t it? – see this.

Recommended: Rage Select

Okay, today I wanna try something a little different. Sometimes there things on the Internet of which I am a fan – comics, YouTube channels, websites and such – that I don’t think get enough love. Now, I’m not the world’s preeminent tastemaker, but I do have a platform to promote things that I like, and I’d like to do that now. This isn’t something I’ll do all the time, nor does this mean that I think what I’m promoting is to everybody’s liking.  But you’re reading this, and who knows, you might just give it a shot. And I think that would be great! I’m certain the folks I’m recommending would feel the same way.

So anyway. Rage Select is a fledgling video game website based out of Austin, TX, whose primary output is their Let’s Play videos. For those who don’t know, a Let’s Play is essentially video footage of a game as its being played and the players talking over it, usually to humorous effect. There’s a million Let’s Play ‘personalities’ out there. I think Rage Select is one of the better ones.

Rage Select started life as ‘The Loading Bar’, a video-game offshoot of movie website Spill.com (also one of my favorite places on the web.) Though their ‘Happy Hour’ videos were very popular, they eventually had to be let go earlier this year due to the overhead costs they were incurring. About a month later, Rage Select emerged, and they’ve managed to keep my attention ever since.

Rage Select is primarily driven by two distinct personalities. The first is Jeff, the site’s owner and operator. He codes the videos and plays every game to completion. He is easily the most experienced and knowledgeable about video games on the site, and basically plays the ‘Straight Man,’ providing context to the games and games-related issues they discuss and grounding his opinions factually and eloquently.

The other is Jason Murphy, also a man of great intelligence and eloquence. And of incredible fury. Effectively the site’s id, Jason loves nothing more than encouraging digital acts of homicide, burglary, and arson, usually with a Scotch in hand. He’s also fond of relating childhood stories that usually involve something awful happening to another person’s genitals, and a special kind of game affectionately dubbed the ‘Kobayashi Murphu,’ wherein Jason asks Jeff if he would have sex with a variety of undesirables (Space Aliens, Praying Mantis Women, Nazis, etc.) and slowly builds a series sordid yet inescapable set of circumstances for Jeff to navigate. Oh, and he likes to curse. A lot.


(My kind of people.)

There’s also a third official ‘Rager’ called Grant Davis. He works for these websites. Personally, he’s not my thing. I don’t find him very funny. And he’s not super good at video games. But, you may disagree. And hey, his main role is to fill in when Jason’s not available, so he’s not on that often anyway.

Their weekly schedule generally consists of covering the major releases of the week Mondays through Thursdays in a segment they call ‘The Dojo’ (an old joke about how Jeff’s poor game playing skills are a mark of shame for the website). Fridays are ‘Indie Fridays,’ where they play some of the smaller-scale, often more experimental releases, which range anywhere from ‘arthouse’ games like The Stanley Parable to …uh, Mount Your Friends. Saturdays are ‘Sequential Saturdays,’ where the boys play through an entire game one episode at a time. They’re currently in the midst of Batman: Arkham Origins, though they recently completed their first playthough: Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare.

Sundays, however, are Ladies’ Night at Rage Select, where it becomes home to a segment called ‘Sparkle Fandango.’ In it, Jason’s wife, Allison, and her two friends, Kayla and Kristen, play anything they goddamn well please. That ranges from old SNES games like Mario Paint, to indie games like Journey, to soul-crushingly difficult nightmares like Dark Souls, to actual nightmares like Outlast. I’ll be honest, this is not my favorite segment. I find Allison’s personality very overbearing. And LOUD. And also, not to sound like a jerk, but watching people struggle with controls…not my thing. BUT, they have a rabid fanbase of their own, and I’m willing to bet that for some of you reading this, they totally are your thing. So give them a shot.

(Then again, maybe not…)

For me, when it comes right down to it, it’s all about Jeff and Jason. There’s something often hysterical but oddly comforting – for me at least – about two mid-thirties alcoholics playing video games, talking about movies, and challenging each other’s very twisted, very vivid imaginations. If that sounds at all like your idea of entertainment, I highly recommend you give Rage Select a shot.

Now, normally that would be the end of it. But as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Rage Select is a fledgling website. In layman’s terms, that means that they need money. Fortunately, they’re making enough to do this professionally, but barely. At the end of every video they implore their audience to whitelist the site in their ad-blocker software and to use the Amazon.com links at the bottom of the page if they’re considering buying anything online. They also ask you watch the videos on the Rage Select website if you’re watching it on YouTube, since that means that people are spending more time on the site and therefore get a higher commission from advertisers. They also attempt to do this by putting videos up on their YouTube page a day after they come out on the site. I prefer to watch YouTube videos on my television since it’s easier on my back, but unfortunately their website doesn’t allow for the videos to be played on any other device. So a lot of the above options are difficult to stay diligent about.

My preferred method of supporting them is through their Patreon webpage. Patreon is a service that allows you to be a digital patron of an artist. That means that for every piece of content the artist creates – in this case, videos – they receive a donation from you. That donation can be any size you want, and you can even set a monthly cap on it. (I pay 50 cents a video with a $20 a month cap, though I don’t believe I’ve ever exceeded it.) They make about $300 a video at this point, so they’re doing pretty well. And to express their gratitude at how well they’re doing, they actually send out weekly (usually on Sundays) bonus videos via e-mail to their subscribers. I won’t spoil what those are, so you’ll just have to find out.

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that I think these guys are awesome. They produce videos every day and they’re all at least 30 minutes long (often longer), so you’re getting a ton of content. Lately, they’ve been doing cool things like turning the Dojo into ‘The Asylum’ and playing horror video games for Halloween, or doing super-sized, hour-long videos for some of the more recent major releases like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Batman: Arkham Origins, and Battlefield 4. They also do a weekly podcast as well as the occasional review, all of which are as entertaining as their videos and which you can subscribe to on iTunes. Oh, and they sell really fancy, limited run-only t-shirts.

(Like this one.)

The Rage Select website is here. Here’s their YouTube channel. And their iTunes page.

Their Patreon page is here.

And you can see all of their old Loading Bar videos here.

Give ‘em a shot. Maybe you’ll like what you see.

Oh Christ, I almost forgot. They have puppets.

Ender’s Game

Okay, full disclosure time: I’ve never read Ender’s Game.

Or rather, I tried to in middle school and didn’t very far. I honestly don’t remember why. Maybe at the time I found the writing rather impenetrable – like my experience reading Fellowship of the Ring. Maybe I just didn’t find it very interesting. Regardless, I remained aware that Orson Scott Card’s novel was considered a classic for young adults and the sci-fi genre. And that the film adaptation of it had languished in Development Hell since the novel’s publication in 1985. The whole production had even been slapped with that most ignominious of labels: being ‘unfilmable’. Of course, in a sort of reverse of the point made in THIS review, the question isn’t will they make the movie. Plenty of unfilmable novels have been filmed. The question is how long will it take? And who will make it? And will it be any good?

In this instance, the adaptation was scripted and directed by Gavin Hood, the South African director who gave us Tsotsi, the story of a teenaged street thug forced to care for an abandoned baby that went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. A win that, no doubt, gave him credibility. Credibility he lost almost immediately when he helmed the much-maligned X-Men Origins: Wolverine. (Full disclosure again: At the time I saw X-Men Origins, I thought it was perfectly fine. I also had no idea who Deadpool was and why people were so upset about him. I haven’t seen it since it came out, so maybe things have changed. Or maybe they haven’t.)

While that might make some fans of the book trepidatious, I think I’m probably in the perfect demographic to see the film. Having never read the book, I have nothing to judge it against. And surprisingly, the film’s marketing has not pushed Ender himself, instead focusing on Harrison Ford’s gruff Col. Graff (gee, I wonder what word his last name sounds like?), who espouses many vague allusions to a near-genocidal alien attack on Earth and how that must never happen again and Ender is our only hope and everybody else is like ‘He’s just a kid, don’t you see that he’s not ready?’ (paraphrasing) and he’s all like “You’re never ready. You’re only ready enough.” (Not paraphrasing.) In short, I know nothing.

For those who are like me, the film educates you on the history of its characters and their world in a way that is brisk but also leaden with expository dialogue. In the year 2086, Earth was attacked by an insectoid-like alien race known as the Formics. Decades later, we prepare for an assumed retaliation by training child soldiers. The reason? A child’s brain integrates complex information more easily than that of an adult. …So anyway, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a child prodigy at war. His superiors at the International Fleet have noticed. His brother, Peter, was kicked out for being too sadistic. His sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin), was kicked out for being too compassionate. Ender yearns to find a diplomatic solution to conflicts, but when pushed, destroys his enemies so thoroughly that it prevents any future attacks. Graff sees this as a desirable and exploitable element, and ships him off to Battle School, where he will be trained in how to combat his enemy while being kept as socially isolated as possible.

As you can see, rich stuff.

So does the movie live up to it? Well, let me put it this way. Everything is very good. And staid. That applies to the sets, the special effects, the directing, the action, but especially the acting, which is unfortunate because there is a cavalcade of talent attached to this. Asa Butterfield, the young man who also lead such films as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, does an admirable job of showing what’s unspoken, conveying the conflict in Ender’s eyes between his peaceable and his brutal sides. But – and this is not necessarily Butterfield’s fualt – it’s easy to make a character sympatheic but not particularly interesting. The same goes for Harrison Ford, who plays Col. Graff with gruffness his name implies; nothing more, nothing less. Viola Davis plays a compassionate onlooker. As does Abigail Breslin. They’re both really compassionate. Even Hailee Steinfeld, who blew me away holding her own with the likes of Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon in the remake of True Grit, is disappointingly given little to do here. Her Petra, one of the only girls at Battle School (perhaps the only one) to have spoken dialogue, is someone who takes an immediate liking to Ender and helps him as often as she can. And that’s it.

The only real surprises here, acting-wise, are 1.) Ben Kingsley manages a surprisingly good New Zealand accent, and 2.) the young Moisés Arias’ portrayal of Salamander Army leader Bonzo Madrid. I’ll admit, with his diminutive stature and permanent scowl, I found it funny when he first chews out Butterfield, who quite literally towers over Arias. But it doesn’t take long for you to believe that when he threatens Ender with death if ever disobeys his orders again, he’ll do it.

Interestingly, despite Orson Scott Card being a big fat homophobe, the film is surprisingly progressive in its integration of race and gender. Yes, our protagonist is a white male, and his superior is a white male (though his superior is of color), but the ‘Launchies’ of Battle School are a diverse mix of boys and girls. Ender makes friends with two South Asian kids, Bean (Aramis Knight) and Alai (Suraj Parthasarathy), almost instantaneously. And although Steinfeld’s Petra is a boring character, she’s shown to be as interested, capable, and essential to the team as any of her male counterparts. Maybe I’m just out of touch, but I still feel like it’s kind of rare to see this in films these days, let alone see it implemented without being completely condescending. I don’t know if this progressive attitude is in Card’s novels, but if it is, then it make his intolerance of homosexuals all the more perplexing.

I won’t give away the film’s twist, but to those who’ve read the book, I’ll admit: it got me. It was a real gut punch. This is an intelligent, challenging story, filled with moral quandaries and righteous anger. It’s just a shame that film often doesn’t feel as passionate as its source material.

See it if you wanna see it.