Oscar Night 2014 – 12 Years a Slave Review

It’s Oscar night March 2nd!

This year I happened to see quite a few of the movies up for nominations, but I thought I would give a review on the movie with 9 Oscar nominations.

Poster by Ignition Print

Poster by Ignition Print

12 Years A Slave

Directed by British video artist Steve McQueen, it was a must see for me since it was a true story, and historically significant to my ancestry. The movie is about the autobiography of Solomon Northup, published in 1853. Solomon is an accomplished violinist by trade, and a free man living in upstate New York. In the first few scenes McQueen uses silence, scenery, costumes, and a soft filtered look through the lens to capture the eloquent  life of  “freedom” that Solomon and his family live. Through a series of unfortunate events, Solomon is shipped to Louisiana and sold into slavery.

I had the movie “Roots” on my mind when I entered the theater, but the contrasting scenes into slavery (one of them rated R) quickly squashed the elegant mini series theory, and I found myself pondering whether I should stay, or walk out now!

I stayed with some regret, but not because the movie wasn’t directed well. In fact, slavery was depicted all too “real” in this movie, I was squirming in my seat. An overwhelming darkness clouded my soul until the very end. Solomon’s struggle to survive this new life was certainly different from that of a slave that knew no other life. Solomon to some extend has to conceal who he really is. He can’t reveal his literacy, but manages to reveal his level of education in one scene. He upstages the foreman played by Paul Dano, and is punished for his success. He is hanged, but his feet barely touch the ground. He can’t lift them, or he dies. This is the scene that had me squirming! McQueen focuses on this scene at length. The morning turns to evening as the slaves go about their daily routine, continually passing by Solomon as he struggles to keep the noose from tightening. I think what bothered me the most was not that Solomon was inches from dying, but that not even his fellow-man could help (although one woman snuck him a drink of water). This was a very powerful scene.

Chiwetel Ejiofor does an excellent job in the movie as Solomon, as well as Lupita Nyong’o who plays the role of Patsey.

The movie has hope eventually when Solomon befriends and begins to trust a carpenter played by Brad Pitt. The carpenter promises to write a letter to a colleague of Solomon. Solomon is eventually retrieved and brought back to his home and family.

Although the movie earned its many nominations, I found it disturbing in its truth, profoundly silent in Louisiana’s beautiful back country, and a heartwarming reunion in the end.

Did you see this movie? Let me know what you thought.

Enjoy the Oscars!


“Lee Daniel’s The Butler”


I watched the unprecedented performance of “Lee Daniels, The Butler” this weekend. The historical fictional drama written by Danny Strong, starring Forest Whitaker is based on the true story of the African-American butler Eugene Allen, who worked at the White House for 34 years.

(Spoiler Alert!)

The story is an amazing capture of historical milestones from 1926 through 2008, focusing mostly on the civil rights movement, and racism in America. Whitaker plays “Cecil Gaines”, a humbly believable role as a butler, proud to serve in the white house through multiple administrations. He is dedicated to his job, but struggles with what’s happening on the “outside.” Life on the outside is unpredictable, and often tense.

Oprah Winfrey plays his wife Gloria who unexpectedly does a fabulous job depicting a neglected housewife. The relationship is utterly believable as Oprah struggles with alcohol and infidelity while her husband spends long hours working.

The struggle continues while the country protests daily to achieve equality in America. Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo) is drawn to the cause, and becomes an integral part of the protests in the south, and later involved with the Freedom riders, and the Black Panther movement. Only after his retirement from the white house does Cecil appreciate or acknowledge his son’s involvement in the movement.

“You hear nothing; you see nothing; you only serve.” is the most important thing Cecil learns early on at the White House, but this phrase rules his life. It makes him passive and subservient with both his son and his wife throughout most of the movie.

Daniels casts a bunch of famous actors and actresses, but there were a few quirky cast members, and an undesirable moment. Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower and Mariah Carey’s little appearance would have been better played by unknown actors. Although the movie wasn’t particularly focused on presidential character, the presidential acting was weak. The focus was more about what each president was dealing with during his term in office. The scene with Lyndon B. Johnson on the toilet with his pants below his knees was completely unnecessary, and left me pondering its meaning. Maybe it was an attempt to show Johnson’s often crude behavior.

I liked that the movie showed the progression of the black male’s strength and significance from a helpless share cropper in 1926, to the 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama. We’ve come a long way.

The make-up for the elder Cecil, Gloria and Louis was fantastic, as well as the musical score, costumes, props, and editing.

This Oscar contender embraced our emotions. The theater together, laughed, gasped, cried and clapped. There were several scenes of exuberant humor, where you just found yourself chuckling. I especially liked the end as Cecil prepared to visit the newly elected President Obama. Cecil says nothing as he careful prepares his treasured attire (a tie from President Kennedy, and a tie holder from LBJ), and proudly wears them to the white house. Whitaker silently shows how proud he is to be a part of American history, how proud he is to have served 8 presidents, and his country as well.

I liked the movie. It was good to see with my 19-year-old daughter. Her generation for some odd reason, fails to value our African-American history. Maybe it’s because the Civil Rights history taught in school today is but a sliver, and of little significance when its taught within the 10 month span. I’ve tried to talk about our history with her, but she never wanted to hear about it. I’m dealing with a generation who couldn’t understand why we were making such a big deal that Barack Obama was going to be the “first black president”. Imagine that? Its disappointing, but I guess if you haven’t experienced racism’s past, you’re oblivious to its damage. I believe that if you have experienced it, you can appreciate our country’s accomplishments.

If you’ve seen the movie, let me know what you think.

Lincoln – movie review

I had the privilege of seeing the movie Lincoln last night.

What a great epic story about the legislative process of history’s 13th Amendment that ratified our constitution, divided, and changed our nation.

Steven Spielberg in his usual way, so elegantly depicted Lincoln’s life 4 weeks before his death, capturing the most intimate moments of our most memorable president during this historical time.

The cinematography immediately set the tone of the 19th century era with shots of architecture that displayed old rustic weathered wood and brick. I recall only one sunny day in the movie. Outside shots were filled with rain, darkness, and smoke symbolizing the constant civil battle that ripped our nation it two. Most of the shots in the movie were tight, capturing Lincoln and his cabinet with close up shots. It enabled us to truly be a part of the emotional roller coaster during that time.

Daniel Day-Lewis was amazing, a living, breathing, inspiring Lincoln. His demeanor, love, tenderness and patience with his “crazy” wife Mary Todd, played brilliantly by Sally Field, and his young son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) gave us a glimpse into the humanness and everyday life of an ordinary man in many respects. We witnessed his zeal and determination to bring peace to our nation, but not just a temporary peace, one that would leave a lasting tattoo on this nation. We saw a caring , and determined Lincoln, one who put equality in the for-front of his every being. But we also saw the humor in the brilliant mind of this self-taught individual.

Continue reading

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” – A must see summer movie

Cannes Film Festival
Beasts of the Southern Wild: The Sundance Sensation Wins Cheers at Cannes
Artful and magical, this debut feature by Benh Zeitlin is the first film of Cannes 2012 that comes within hailing distance of masterpiece
By Richard Corliss | May 18, 2012 | +
Fox Searchlight
Fox SearchlightBeasts of the Southern Wild

Year: 2012

Director: Benh Zeitlin

Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Actors: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly

The soggy patch of Delta Louisiana called The Bathtub is home to all manner of untamed marvels: crocodiles and boars, greenery and swarming green flies, a hardy band of humans who know it’s dangerous to live there and unacceptable to leave. But no creature is more entrancing than the precocious, poetic Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis). Living in a shack on stilts with her willful, ailing father Wink (Dwight Henry), she cooks her own meals and tends lovingly to the birds, dog and hog in her care. She hears them talk to her: “Most of the time they say, ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘I gotta poop,’ but sometimes they speak in code.” Hushpuppy is six, and ageless — a wise wild child who looks like an angel and speaks like a Sybil.

The girl’s teacher speaks clearly enough when she tells her charges, “The river’s gonna rise, and there ain’t gonna be no Bathtub, just a whole bunch of water,” and predicts the apocalyptic arrival of aurochs, an extinct species of cattle. Hushpuppy knows danger and tragedy: her daddy whacks her when angered, and her mother just “swam away,” to death or the mainland. (But mama speaks to the girl as well, from a chair in the kitchen.) If her father has taught her anything, it’s resilience, and no mere hurricane is going to make them extinct. “Me and my daddy gonna stay right here,” Hushpuppy promises. “We’s what the earth is from.” Sharing the child’s defiant faith, the citizens of Bathtub throw a party — food and fireworks and music to scare away Satan or Katrina. Through the revelers, Hushpuppy runs joyously toward us, holding a sparkler in each hand. The furious fiddling climaxes, and a title flashes on the screen: Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Most Cannes audiences reward the official films here with grateful or tepid applause. The crowd at Benh Zietlin’s debut feature seemed ready to cheer the opening title. And no wonder. Or rather, many wonders. The sensation of this year’s Sundance Festival, where it won the top award for dramatic (fiction) film and for cinematography, Beasts is the odds-on favorite to take the Caméra d’Or prize for best Cannes first feature. Expect more hosannas when the movie opens in the U.S. June 27.

As animals and a lost mother talk to Hushpuppy, so this bewitching film speaks in words and images of a clarity and vision nearly unique in today’s independent cinema. The movie’s antecedents are more distant: one detects the Audubon intensity of Terrence Malick’s early films, the multiracial tenderness of David Gordon Green’s George Washington, the family conflicts of Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou and, further back, Robert Flaherty’s 1948 Louisiana Story, the proto-indie tale of a Cajun boy whose life is upended by the construction of a nearby oil rig.

There’s a refinery across the levee from Bathtub too, but Hushpuppy’s land is far from what Mainlanders would call civilization; the place could be in Brazil or aboriginal Australia, and in any period over the past hundred years. We’re in the region of fable, as related in Lucy Alibar’s one-act play Juicy and Delicious, which Alibar describes as “a bluegrass musical about sex and Southern food” and which she and Zeitlin freely adapted into this film. (Hushpuppy and Wilk don’t exist in the original.)

A movie not of propulsive story power but of atmospheric vignettes, Beasts navigates its narrative with a child’s intense and wandering attention. A storm swats The Bathtub; after it subsides, Wink and his daughter survey the wreckage in a boat made from an inverted car chassis. The authorities try to evacuate the locals, and they resist. Hushpuppy and some other children are transported onto a floating bordello, And yes, the aurochs make an appearance to a brave little girl who can stare up at one of these tusked, snorting giants and declare, “You’re my friend, kind of.”

Mostly, it’s about Hushpuppy’s quest to create a family out of a rough father, an absent mother, a backyard menagerie and her boundless imagination. Mama is a bittersweet memory for the girl and Wink. (“Daddy said that Mom was so hot, she walked into the kitchen and didn’t even have to put on the stove.”) His flagrant temper is no match for his daughter’s rhetorical fury. (“I hope you die! And when you die I’ll go to your grave and eat a birthday cake by myself.”) Wink, wandering across the property in a hospital gown, is indeed close to death, a status for which the ever-practical Hushpuppy has contingency plans. (“If my daddy don’t get home soon, it’s gonna be time for me to start eating my pets.”)

The girl may not realize her own emotional and physical prowess. When the exasperated Wink slaps her, she punches him in the chest — a good thump— and he falls over. He’s back in the hospital, where Hushpuppy visits him and notices the beds full of patients attached to feeding tubes. (“When an animal gets sick here,” she observes, “they plug it into the wall.”) Wink will leave her — the girl loses kin and makes new friends at Mach-2 speed — but Hushpuppy is a survivor and a chronicler, the Odysseus and Homer of her own seafaring epic. At the end, she says, “I’m recordin’ my story for the scientists of the future. In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.”

One astonishment of this mature and magical film is that it is the first feature for Zeitlin, Alibar, cinematographer Ben Richardson, co-editor Crockett Doob and composer Dan Romer. (The New Orleans filmmaking collective calls itself Court 13, after the abandoned squash court that became its headquarters.) Three-and-a-half years in the gestation, Beasts of the Southern Wild evolved through rewrites, Sundance labs and on-the-set improv, but mostly through casting. More than 3,500 children were auditioned for the Hushpuppy role, conceived as aged 10 to 15. Then the five-year-old Wallis showed up and, Zeitlin recalled, he was “looking at a warrior. It’s not at all who the character was, and it’s not at all who you were imagining, but it’s so clear that the spirit [of Wallis] is exactly the spirit of the movie.”

A thousand obstacles face any film team, veteran or virgin, and the challenges increase when the stars are non-actors. As Wink, a role that could stumble into brutality, Henry locates pain and nuance, and a love for a willful child he could have abandoned. But Wallis is the find here. A lovely, wiry thing, she seems to live through each of Hushpuppy’s moods, fears and visions. In what is already proving a strong year for female roles (Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone, Kara Hayward in Moonrise Kingdom, Margarete Tiesel in Paradise: Love), Wallis would be a potent contender for Cannes’ Best Actress award…

If only her performance were eligible. Beasts was relegated to the sidebar program called Un Certain Regard, though its artistic accomplishment is higher than that of any film we’ve seen so far. At Cannes in 1989, another first feature and Sundance prizewinner, Steve Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape, copped the Palme d’Or. Lately, though, few debut American indies have played in the Competition. (Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, an Oscar winner with a similar pedigree as Beasts, was also demoted to Un Certain Regard.) The Cannes programmers prefer a main slate heavy on venerable auteurs, and the Palme d’Or is often a lifetime achievement award. No newcomers, thank you.

So Beasts of the Southern Wild was deprived its deserving shot at the Palme d’Or. But there is life after Cannes, and a hauntingly human experience awaiting Stateside audiences. Mark down the date: June 27. That’s when American moviegoers will see this perfect storm of a film, and the tiny force of nature that is Quvenzhané Wallis.

Read more: