Film View 2013

3 Mar

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vanity fair march 2014 cover

The Year of Black Film

The industry provided couples with a steady dose of PG-13  franchise pictures to choose from, also a glut of animated features for the entire family, superhero tent pole releases and the zombie genre pic for teens dominate the box office like in years past. The only thing they have in common of course are ridiculously high budgets, effects laden action sequences; rote crowd pleasers with color-by-numbers storylines that don’t require much thought, these are  the types of releases that  keep the studios in business. A steady stream of Black-themed films noticeably permeated the strategic studio scheduled rollout; populating the landscape from early 2013 the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, all the way to year’s end Buppie reunion sequel (10 years in the making) The Best Man Holiday, both pictures doing extremely well at the box office. Along with the excellent underappreciated documentary Free Angela & All Political Prisoners, memorable movies Blue Caprice, Mother of George, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, 12 Years A Slave, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, along with the niche offering Oldboy, Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain stand up concert film, the obligatory Tyler Perry effort in 2’s and the gospel tinged musical Black Nativity among them. On display several black storytellers getting a chance to show their craft. For as long as I can recall there has always been one or two mainstream Black films released and then there’s that  filmmaker of color of the moment like a Spike Lee or presently Tyler Perry to serve the market. There has never been this number of Hollywood movies written, produced and directed by African-Americans and others who are a part of the  African diaspora (and trust me I should know). The Village Voice called Mother of  George “A new renaissance moment for  American Black Cinema.” Not to mention the long list of talented actors who dominated the screen, it has been hinted at so I am just going to go ahead and deem this The Year of Black Film.

From the cinematic standouts 12 Years A Slave and Fruitvale Station much deserved critical acclaim, oddball choices as a Spike Lee re-imagining of the cult classic Oldboy, the mere fact that picture came and went quietly speaks to how Lee fared amongst such strong and diverse entries this year. In previous years A Spike Lee Joint (this latest branded the first Spike Lee Film release) would have filled the quota. The Best Man Holiday USA Today headline: Holiday nearly beat Thor as race themed films soar.That got them into a bit of hot water because the film is about relationships not race but look at the perception. And Armond White’s opinion and antics aside many critics and viewers found 12 Years A Slave too violent, “torture porn” to some because it doesn’t have a hook like the revenge fantasy Django Unchained or overly sentimentalized like The Help which is much more palatable to audiences, nor artsy like a Schindler’s List which in my opinion is equally or more violent but is considered a classic.

The state of Black Cinema comes into question, where do films like these fit into today’s society, in the multi million dollar industry? What is the perception of what is represented in that type of film? The ones that resonate typically are family dramas, inner city morality tales, narratives of servitude, romance or broad comedies.  Like the character Cecil Gaines in The Butler was taught, “We got two  faces: ours and the ones that we got to show white folks. We have to make them feel non-threatened.” Meaning to say the negative response to films like Fruitvale and 12 Years and their plaintive narration has proved to be too much for the general movie goer who seeks escapist fare. Akin to the Civil Rights Movement, Hollywood will have to get used to the change. The snub of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the highest grossing African-American film this year, praised by critics, virtually shut out  this awards season. That Sundance Festival darling Fruitvale Station did not garner nominations in the Best Picture, Actor and Director categories they warranted. Unusual indeed the fact that The Weinstein Company backed both pictures and the Mandela movie, the history of campaigning by them is notorious. For your consideration indeed. Still Idris Elba with Julia Roberts on his lap on the cover of Vanity Fair is a sight to behold as is Lupita Nyong’o ruling the red carpet this awards season. It was director Steve McQueen who brought one of those self-congratulatory Hollywood Reporter roundtables to a screeching halt a year ago when he pointed out the lack of films by minorities and it is apropo he is the one spearheading this year of Black Film. Actor Michael B. Jordan echos the same sentiments I have, “One film or five? What’s the quota? I feel like this is a year filmmakers of color had stories they wanted to tell and they were successful. But it’s got to be sustained.”

1. 12 Years A Slave

British filmmaker Steve McQueen takes an unapologetic look at every subject he brings to the screen. You can’t not be brutally honest when it comes to the story of Solomon Northrup the freeman abducted and held in bondage during the 1800s in the Antebellum South. A narrative with no hook, no convoluted revenge tale or earnest historical biopic by a big name director. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a taut career defining performance under McQueen’s unrelenting direction, anchoring a beguiling cast that includes heart wrenching  portrayal of Patsy by Lupita Nyong’o. This film does what Kubrick said when he attacks any subject matter; become the definitive take on that subject. You can’t help but be shaken and the impact leaves you unbalanced and reflective once you’ve seen it. A level of storytelling that dwarfs every other entry in the field. It is a comment on what passes for entertainment nowadays and the intelligence of the American public that this film is looked upon as a hard pill to swallow. A point of contention always raised by the offending party when specific instances in history are dramatized. Consensus praise in critics circles for McQueen’s work , I am baffled by the odd savaging (I’m looking at you Armond White) as if there is no artistic merit to speak of. The fact that he has pulled up a seat at the table. Good for him.

2. A Touch Of Sin

Balancing humanity and morality, the modern world smashing up against old world tradition, the impact on Chinese civilization painted with a broad brush awash in blood. The studied performances in this drama show incredible range and illustrate what it takes before one reaches a breaking point (where there is no turning back). When violence erupts it’s a result of X amount of offenses and transgressions before that final thing sets off acts of retribution. Four stories rooted in economic frustrations, each one taken from the headlines in his native China by director and writer Jia Zhag-ke.

3. American Hustle

American Hustle is the best Martin Scorsese Picture that Martin Scorsese has made in a while, the only thing is that it’s made by director David O’Russell. The hottest director of the last three years, he is in a Billy Wilder zone as we speak.  Amy Adams,  Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper especially should thank their lucky stars. The dialogue in his character driven stories bristle and you can see how much fun the actors have saying their lines. The film has the best line in a film this year (no spoiler alert “see the movie!”) Jeremy Renner’s pompadour is worth the price alone.

4. Gravity

Alfonso Cuarón’s film has heart! Co written with his son Jonás Cuarón, it is a rollercoaster ride of improbable twists and turns, sensory overload in 3D (in a good way) that leaves the viewer euphoric when all is said and done. Sandra Bullock does a yeoman’s job as the medical researcher out of her comfort zone dictates that you have to route for her because you’ve put yourself in her shoes. All the expensive toys, bells and whistles that go into a production like this and George Clooney support the reality of her peril at low orbit. Trying to get back to her spacecraft before she runs out of oxygen and then back to Earth safe. There are several things implausible about the film from a technical standpoint but it does not take away from what’s up on the screen, in awe and terror the special effects never make you spiral too far from the human story.

Behind The Scenes Look

 NYTimes Making A Scene: 11 Performances

Award winning cinematographer Janusz Kiminski (Steven Spielberg’s secret weapon) directs 11 tiny little shorts with eleven of the most celebrated actors on-screen with lines from noted screenwriters. To check out all 11 performances click the link on the screen. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, line by Nicole Holofcener is not to be missed.

5. Fruitvale Station

The fact that the Oscar Grant killing so mirrors the circumstances that led to Trayvon Martin’s death makes Ryan Coogler’s film debut emphasize these recurring incidents that unfortunately leads to an inordinate number of lives loss when minorities encounter law enforcement. What makes it so tragic is the sheer randomness of it all; ordinary lives turned upside down when families have to cope with losing a loved one. Oscar Grant’s spirit lives on in this straight forward retelling of the events filmed on location in the Bay area. Michael B. Jordan depicts Oscar as a conflicted young man trying to get a grasp on his immediate situation, making choices (good and bad) that seem warranted under the  circumstances. It’s not what he says so much it’s what he doesn’t and how his eyes speak volumes when confronted by difficult choices. It’s a credit to the filmmakers that the cast seems like family. You can almost fault the film for being so naturalistic you overlook how well executed it is.

Dante Ferretti MoMA

Dante Ferretti: Designing for the Big Screen at  MoMA

The retrospective at MoMA pays homage to the master Production Designer who has defined the look of critical cinema for more than four decades of innovative, distinguished design work, Ferretti has received numerous awards, including three Oscar statuettes, three British BAFTAs, and several Italian David Di Donatello awards. Collaborating with the most noted directors in the annals of film Fellini, Pasolini, Burton, Scorsese and Tamor, I can argue that without him they could not be the visionaries we know. The painstaking detail in the model Gangs of New York set shows what goes into creating the world on-screen that fuels one’s imagination. A true artist, it is evident from the fully rendered charcoal drawings, ink sketches and architectural renderings serving the needs of these one-of-a-kind filmmakers. The exhibit shows his amazing range from designing Concetta World’s rollercoaster to the opera Aida, La Boehme and a stage production of The Fly. The labyrinth of selected Ferretti work on film projected simultaneously will dazzle and make you fall in love with the movies all over again.

6. Free Angela & All Political Prisoners

The iconic activist Angela Davis’ afro is as ubiquitous as that image of Che in a beret. And what she is so famous –infamous– for? The specific events that catapulted her into the public spotlight in the seventies few people know. The writer / director Shola Lynch when I met her at a screening in Harlem called her film a thriller and romance, it is that and so much more. This film gives a depiction of early 1970s through interviews and archival footage; the tone of the country under Nixon and the California of Ronald Reagan permeate the narrative of what led this assistant philosophy professor, Panther supporter, alleged kidnapping conspirator, FBI 10 most wanted fugitive turned counter-culture icon. In the current interviews you can still see the spirit of the young radical some 40 years past.

7. her

Spike Jonze is that type of storyteller like a Wes Anderson, you know when you’re in a Jonze crafted world, it will be sad, quirky, heartfelt and at times scary on some level. Beneficiary of Charlie Kaufman scripted tales of wonder like Michel Gondry at the start of their feature film careers, at this point without the assist it is clear where Charlie leaves off and where Gondry and Spike continue. I want to speak on the performance of Phoenix that could have only manifested itself due to a collaboration with Jonze, venerable and frank, you expect a certain performance from him but this turn not froth with the usual Joaquin malice and it is disarming to watch. Samantha voiced by Scarlett Johansen is so engaging it is possible to see how Theodore Towmbly can have a relationship however implausible with the OSI system on his cell phone. Samantha is HAL 9000 without life and death at stake in the vastness of space, the bigger question that crowds Joaquin Phoenix is love, that titular expression that has no precise definition and how one communicates in this existence.

8. Picasso Baby: Music Video

Jay Z brings Hip-hop to the art world, as his own art installation performing at The Pace Gallery in Chelsea NYC. This one-of-a-kind happening by the mogul, recording artist and trendsetter is captured by director extraordinaire Mark Romaneck.

9. Upstream Color

Without pricey special effects, set pieces or name cast Shane Carruth’s debut sci-fi film Primer overwhelmed viewers. Nine years later he has delivered an equally brilliant, mesmerizing and at time downright confusing opus I found strangely beautiful. Sans dialogue for a majority of the story about a couple who meet by chance and find that it was not coincidence, over time realizing that their lives had been interrupted by similar mysterious incidents and have left both broken and reeling for some sense of normalcy or simply peace. They harken back to the past for comfort and as they fall in love realize they share the same experiences, not knowing where one begins or ends or which is either. The filmmaker draws on broad themes that has a certain poetry, specific instances are dramatized and the viewer is left to draw their own conclusions. If Carruth’s first film drew comparisons to Kubrick this one seems to tip it’s cap to Malick with a tinge of Cronenberg for good measure, and I don’t know about you but that works for me. Kudos to him for being in such esteemed company.

10. Stoker

The english language first feature of Korean auteur Chan-wook Park does not disappoint with its taunt narrative, stylized visuals and heady cast. Park the purveyor of revenge dramas (his resume speaks for itself) with a script by actor Wentworth Miller  unabashedly tips his hat to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.  Sexual tension and studied lunacy make for a refined thriller that pauses to reflect on the consequences. Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode make the perfect dysfunctional family. 

Actor – Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave)
Actress – Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Supporting Actor – Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Supporting Actress – Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave)

Breakthrough Performance: Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is The Warmest Color)

Director – Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave)
Original Screenplay – Eric Warren Singer and David O’Russell  and (American Hustle)
Adapted Screenplay – John Ridley (12 Years A Slave)
Director of Photography – Philippe Le Sourd (The Grandmasters)
Visual Effects – Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk and Neil Corbould(Gravity)
Soundtrack – Danny Elfman (American Hustle)

Artisans: Forrest Whitaker (The Butler[A], Fruitvale Station[P]),  Andrew Dosunmu (Mother of George[D])

Artistic Merit:  Act of Killing, Blue Caprice, Behind The Candlelabra, Blue Is The Warmest Color, Dallas Buyers Club, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Like Someone In Love, Mother of George,  Mood Indigo, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, Room 237, The Grandmasters

Guilty Pleasure: Only God Forgives

A Later Assessment: Computer Chess, Before Midnight, Francis Ha and Rush I could not truthfully comment on. These films were not screened  for the posting of this piece, for no particular reason other than the fact I can’t see every movie.

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