: I hate to condemn a movie sight unseen, and the presence of Kimberly Peirce behind the camera makes me want to see something good in it—imagine, a horror movie centered on a young woman actually directed by another woman! But it's hard to suss out a rational reason (beyond name recognition) either to redo Brian De Palma's 1976 film or readapt Stephen King's novel of the same name (and from my understanding, De Palma's film didn't deviate enough from King's source to keep those tasks from seeming like basically the same thing), even (or especially) to bring it into the present day. Was either source insufficient for its lack of Internet bullying? Most troubling, to me, is the casting: Sissy Spacek had the look and unease of a true outcast, while Chloe Grace Moretz is one of those suffocatingly precocious child actors who hasn't yet outgrown the air of performance that surrounds all of her work: not joyful, weirded-out performance, but school-play effort disguised as master technique. She can be used well (like on 30 Rock
, an example that shouldn't count, because who wasn't used well on 30 Rock
?) but I can't picture her matching Spacek's open-nerve tension. Still, this will probably make some money this weekend because it's somehow the only wide-release horror movie to come out in all of October—especially crazy in a year that has produced half a dozen horror hits. Horror money seems to ebb and flow with various trends; the decent Evil Dead
remake nonwithstanding, Carrie 2000
seems like it belongs with that spate of unimaginative 80s do-overs from a few years ago. But I'm still thinking about seeing it, because I already saw All the Boys Love Mandy Lane
and those DVR'd Nightmare on Elm Street
sequels may not cut it, Halloween-wise.
and All Is Lost
: Another week, another couple of movies about old-guy movie stars rediscovering their mojo. The critic-approved version is All Is Lost
, which recently played the New York Film Festival
, and which I enjoyed but not as much as the trickier and tricked-out survival stories of Gravity
and Life of Pi
. This is Redford's first big getting-too-old-for-this-shit adventure, which puts him way behind Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who have been riding this non-subtext hard ever since The Expendables
hit it big in 2010. So far, solo vehicles for either actor (including The Last Stand
and Bullet to the Head
, both out earlier this year) have failed to match even the second-weekend gross of Expendables 2
; this team-up may function as some sweet Expendables
methadone. Actually, let's hope it's a better movie than a Stallone-penned Expendables
, because it's got a great hook: Stallone plays a brilliant (yes!) escape artist who (in the style of Redford's Sneakers
) is hired by prison contractors to break out of their confines and point out their systematic weaknesses. (Batman has performed similar due diligence for Arkham Asylum, so we can see what a specialized field this is.) He's hired to work his magic on the biggest, craziest high-tech prison ever, only to be double-crossed and locked up for real, with only an actual criminal (Arnold! With a goatee!) on his side as he's forced to stage a real breakout, presumably for revenge! This sounds like the third-best action movie of 1987, undermined only by the fact that it is currently, at press time, 2013. But it does sound more interesting than watching old guys shoot gigantic guns.
12 Years a Slave
: In 1840s Upstate New York—in my hometown, in fact—husband, father, musician, and freeman Solomon Northup was lured down to Washington, DC, with the promise of a lucrative music gig, only to be drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery, in which he remained for over a decade. That's the true story Steve McQueen tells in 12 Years a Slave
, with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup and an excellent supporting cast so stacked that actors as varied as Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Paul Giamatti, and Scoot McNairy get only minutes of screentime apiece. The film covers an epic and potentially unwieldy amount of time while remaining attuned to the details of the horrific treatment that surrounds and engulfs Northup, who quickly learns to downplay and whenever possible hide the fact that he can read and write, has a family up north... or is even named Solomon Northup, as he's rechristened Platt by his captors. It's a surprise, then, how well McQueen paces this movie, fitting those 12 years into a relatively trim (by Oscar-bait standards) 130-minute running time. The chronological jumps—more scrambled at the beginning as the movie flashes back and forward, then subtly linear toward the end as the years continue to pass—are made with sharp, graceful cuts.
At first, the story has the quality of a lucid nightmare: Northup wakes groggy and chained after a poisoned night out. As the movie goes on, though, this nightmare becomes Northup's life. McQueen doesn't spare any horrors, yet the movie doesn't linger on them, either. Some of the most discomforting shots in the film aren't of whip-mangled backs or dead bodies, but McQueen's trademark fixed takes emphasize the pure hell of slavery: a long shot of Northup in a noose, just barely touching the ground, feet slipping in mud, as he tries to keep it from tightening around his neck, as other slaves go about their business in the background, may leave you somewhere between shifting uncomfortable and gasping for air. As the movie jumps forward in time, McQueen smooths it over with evocative sound design, cranking up the horrible scrape of coal-shoveling on a slave-transport ship, and overlapping the claps of an enforced slave song with the relentless chopping of wood.
In its quiet way, the movie is relentless as slaves and owners shuffle in and out of Northup's life. Benedict Cumberbatch plays his first owner, a decent man "considering the circumstances," as Northup puts it to another, understandably less forgiving slave. Indeed, this owner doesn't seem driven by cruelty, but his tacit approval of slavery nonetheless leads, inevitably, to greater evil: another owner, played by Michael Fassbender as another man (after his showcase in McQueen's Shame) consumed by sexual desire, this time for Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), much to the consternation of his wife (Sarah Paulson). At times, including but not limited to these glimpses of marriage psychodrama, the dialogue of 12 Years a Slave sounds like an overheated play. But the movie doesn't tip into melodrama, in part because Solomon must keep quiet; he's often a passive character, by design and by necessity. In this way, the movie goes beyond the observation that, hey, slavery was a pretty horrible practice, and gets at how absolutely unwinnable it was: how a smart, compassionate, and legally correct man is left, for a large chunk of his life, more or less paralyzed just to survive.
12 Years a Slave has been described in some quarters as a corrective to the revenge fantasy of Tarantino's Django Unchained, in one of those instant-backlash moves that renders pretty much every movie of the past 10 years one that no one likes anymore. But the harsh realities of Slave actually complement Tarantino's film perfectly. Django isn't my favorite Tarantino, but damned if I didn't want to watch it again after this one, desperate for just a taste of cathartic escape.