★★★★ / ★★★★
Leave it to director Steve McQueen to helm a heist film more interested in the people about to pull a job than the actual robbery itself. What results is an elegant, intelligent, character-driven work that commands the precision of high-end thrillers in which the viewer is dared not to blink in order to avoid missing a beat. Notice that the burglary unfolds for a mere five minutes and yet the overall experience is most satisfying. The reason is because seeing the theft is merely cherry on top. We already know that it must be done and how it will be done. And once it is done—I’d even go as far to say that even before it is done—we are more curious about how the characters will choose to move on with their lives.
The picture is filled to the brim with terrific character actors. The leader of the widows compelled to thievery is played by Viola Davis, doing so much and saying more than enough within the span of a few seconds in which the camera is fixated on her face. She need not say a word. Sometimes all she has to do is scream. Her silence, the anger in those eyes, the confusion, the frustration—and the depression—of being left with nothing can be felt with overwhelming clarity. And yet—her co-stars: Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo—shine on their own exactly because the screenplay by Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen ensures that their characters have something important to do or say about grief and/or survival. It truly is an ensemble cast; everyone supports one another. Take away one performance and the final project is not as strong.
I admired how the director navigates through the chess pieces. There is a subplot about mayoral candidates (Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry) attempting to make deals and to pull off overt subterfuge. These players, too, are interesting. Although a heist film, I enjoyed that the material is able to broach the subjects of race, legacy, what power means—how to obtain it and how one plans to wield it. Intriguingly, the material is unconcerned about choosing sides. Both men are questionable and choosing the lesser of two evils is a herculean task. Even though these candidates are given less screen time than the widows, which is appropriate, they are memorable based on the actions they take on. Even a henchman (Daniel Kaluuya) can be fearsome.
The film also attempts to deliver great entertainment. Action scenes are well-executed and edited. They look and feel realistic; perhaps most importantly, we always get the impression as though something critical is at stake. The script touches upon professionalism and keeping emotions in check when performing a job. There is a cold detachment to the violence. It is all so matter-of-fact. And because it is this way, we get a sense that anything can happen, that maybe not all of the women are required to survive. We already know it will not have a happy ending. Their loved ones are dead. The best we can hope for is a bittersweet ending, but it feels out of reach.
“Widows” is based on Lynda La Plante’s crime series. It is amazing that the filmmakers manage to create a complicated yet believable world in a span of just above two hours, while at the same time making us wonder what might happen next for those who got what they wanted (or the opposite of what they had hoped for). Those looking for heist films that shatter conventions, look no further.
★★ / ★★★★
Although not short on ambition, prison-break drama “Papillon,” based on the autobiography of Henri Charrière, suffers from pacing and tonal issues so severe that at times they take the enjoyment out of what should be thrilling and exhilarating moments. It requires patience to endure these miscalculations especially considering the fact that the film clocks in at about a hundred fifty minutes. An argument can be made that it is too long and bloated.
Perhaps most enjoyable is the performances. Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman play Henri and Louis, a safecracker framed for a murder of a pimp (or so he claims) and a counterfeiter, respectively, prisoners in the French penal colony of Devil’s Island. The power is not in the words they utter but the moments in between. They can look at one another, at the sky or the ocean, or at someone that they pity or are angry toward—and not much else is needed. This pair could have relied on their charm, physicality, or behavioral quirks. Instead, they choose to create convincing characters that we wish to make a successful escape not because it would be entertaining but rather we become convinced eventually that if they were to get a second chance at a free life, they would use it wisely.
I admired how the screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. takes the time to show how it is like to be in this particular prison, especially solitary confinement. This is when the languid pacing is at its most effective because we see and feel the psychological toll the prisoner undergoes over time. We appreciate the size of the cell, the etchings on walls, what the previous man who lived in that cell was possibly thinking, the food served, or lack thereof, the bugs crawling across the floor, the classical conditioning based on the sound made by guards on the hallway. When the material provides a high level of specificity, it is fascinating. However, it reverts to becoming a prison break movie.
The act of making an escape should be suspenseful and thrilling. While I enjoyed there is no gadgetry, complex planning, and special effects are kept at a bare minimum, observe these scenes closely and recognize they come across somewhat slapstick at times. I considered the editing. Maybe it lingers a second or two too long after a guard is hit over the head that it leaves enough room for the overacting to come across as fake. I considered the rather uninteresting perspective of the camera, how it tends to observe from one angle and dares not budge even when the subjects are running for their lives. I even considered the lack of an exciting score that is designed to snap the viewers out of ennui. Maybe if the silly sound effects were masked a bit, it would have been more exciting and less amusing.
Perhaps all of these elements combined created the unintended byproduct.
“Papillon” is surprising in that it is not character-driven. Take a look at the relationship between Henri and Louis. While it is interesting that they are not quite friends, more like two people who need each other since what one lacks the other can offer, they are not that interesting when together or apart—especially when the script requires that they speak with one another about, for example, planning an escape or why one ought to partake in escaping. The lives of these two men divorced from the prison are described briefly, but these come across as decorations rather than convincing realities.
Towering Inferno, The (1974)
★★★ / ★★★★
The tallest building in the world, known as The Glass Tower, is erected in San Francisco. The first eighty floors are for businesses while the rest, going beyond one hundred twenty floors, are strictly residential. A prestigious party is planned to take place in one of the highest floors. Hours prior, Doug Roberts (Paul Newman), the architect, is informed by technicians about a wiring problem. Although Roberts informs the building’s owner, Jim Duncan (William Holden), of the potential danger, the party is to go ahead as planned anyway. Unbeknownst to anybody, there is already a fire in one of the rooms. The fire detector is faulty.
Directed by John Guillermin, “The Towering Inferno” is a highly entertaining action-thriller that is willing to perform at a various levels of intensity. The fire is so ravenous that not even water, despite being under the control of experienced firemen, can stop it from consuming and spreading. As in most disaster films, the audience is required to get to know several key players with whom we can expect to get hurt really badly or die in the most gruesome ways possible.
There is Susan (Faye Dunaway), torn between accepting a job she had been hoping to get for five years and traveling with Roberts indefinitely, Lisolette (Jennifer Jones), an aging lady who lives with her cat, Harlee (Fred Astaire), a conman who seems to show genuine interest in getting to know Lisollete a bit more, and Mike O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen), the fire chief with excellent leadership skills. There are moments when our patience is tested because the way in which the characters are introduced has an air of cheesiness and the dialogue sounds somewhat forced at times.
But when the door of the burning storage room is finally opened, it is like opening Pandora’s box. There is excitement because, for instance, we are forced to wonder how a small fire from several floors below can possibly reach the room where the party is occurring. But the picture is not just about the fire consuming its victims. The screenplay by Stirling Silliphant brings up questions about responsibility and human error.
There is Duncan’s son-in-law, Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), who knowingly deviated from Roberts’ instructions and substituted inferior wires and other equipments in order to save a couple million dollars. Naturally, choosing to save money for the sake of safety has repercussions when building the highest skyscraper on the planet. There is no doubt that he is responsible but is he the only one?
The picture is a love letter to firefighters, but the writing does not mistake bravery for invincibility, cowardice for a character flaw. There are extended sequences in which we simply observe firefighters doing their jobs. Like the men holding the hose, our attention is on the fire being extinguished. Surprises arrive from many directions which eventually create suspense and thrills. In some scenes, the ceiling collapses on the firemen, but in others, the burning room explodes in their faces. I was left consistently speechless, wide-eyed, and aghast when a logical and theoretically effective plan is rendered useless by unpredictable factors.
“The Towering Inferno,” based on the novels by Richard Martin Stern (“The Tower”), Thomas N. Scortia, and Frank M. Robinson (both for “The Glass Inferno”), plays with our expectations. It makes one think twice about staying in hotels above the seventh floor.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★
After sharing a meal with two men who promised a well-paying job, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wakes up in a dark room with chains around his limbs. As he tries to piece together what happened the night prior, two men he has never seen before go through the door and one of them claims that Solomon is to be sold for the right price. Solomon insists he is not a slave, that he is in fact a free man who has a wife and two children waiting for him in Saratoga Springs, New York. The man chooses not to hear another word and soon Solomon, renamed Platt, is taken to New Orleans to work in a plantation.
Perhaps the most interesting and effective technique utilized in “12 Years a Slave,” directed by Steve McQueen and based on Solomon Northup’s autobiography, is a certain level of detachment when it comes to its treatment of the characters. Notice that there is barely a trace of a character arc with respect to the protagonist. Instead, emphasis is placed on the grueling circumstances that Solomon, as well as the other black men and women he comes across, is forced to endure for more than a decade while keeping in mind that there is a psychological complexity to white folks who deem themselves superior. A shameful time in American history is told through a microcosm.
The scenes involving humiliation make a lasting impression. It is most appropriate that the picture concerns itself with details, from naked black men and women standing side-by-side while being examined by potential buyers to being woken in the middle of the night just so their owners can watch them dance. We are encouraged to think about the mindset of a group of American people who once thought it was morally acceptable to treat their fellow human beings as objects or playthings.
To question whether the film’s level of violence is suitable to the story is to miss the point completely. The brutal lashings—which are very explicit, from the sharp snap of the whip to the droplets of blood in the air upon impact on the body—are not meant to be pretty as the subject is not meant to be digestible. It is supposed to make us uncomfortable; it is supposed to be upsetting; it is supposed to make us angry. The level of violence is never gratuitous because it functions as a symbol of the white man exercising his power over his property, the taming of what he considers to be his animal when it does not do what he wishes.
Ejiofor’s face is one I can study for days. His approach to the character is silent indignation. The script requires scenes in which he must emote in big ways that our complete attention is demanded but his performance is most interesting when he is subdued. The decision to compartmentalize Solomon’s suffering is one that feels loyal to an educated character with many thoughts, just waiting for the right opportunity to escape.
Songs and music being allowed to bleed from one scene to another is a stroke of genius. It is not simply done for the sake of flow, as a lesser film would have, but to remind us that the horrific occurrences from one moment in time is carried through the next—just as how the body may heal from physical wounds but the memory of how one gets that injury and how it feels afterwards, a psychic scar, is remembered with clarity. The events of the past are placed in a modern context: that slavery in America is one that should never be forgotten.
Every year, there are only but a few movies that ought to be remembered—despite whether it should win accolades or whether it ultimately did (or did not)—and “12 Years a Slave,” based on the screenplay by John Ridley, is deserving of that honor. It is admirable because it is uncompromising, unrelenting, and a rewarding piece of work.
★★★ / ★★★★
On the outside, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) seemed like he was living the dream. As a thirtysomething single man living in New York City, he commanded a fancy job, lived in a fashionable apartment by himself, and was very capable of having most women because of his preternatural good looks and charm. But inside, Brandon was a mess. His sex addiction consumed every aspect of his life. Whether he was at work, on the subway, or at home, all he could think about was sex and how he was going to get it. When his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), paid him a visit, the control he built for himself was threatened like it had never been before. “Shame,” based on the screenplay by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan, held a vise grip around the issue that is sex addiction in its first half only to lose vigor toward the final act. Within the first ten minutes, although I found the handful of penis shots quite distracting, it felt almost appropriate because it braced us on what we were about to see. The implication I extracted from it was that it was very easy to get a reaction from seeing a titillating body part. What was difficult, however, was being open-minded, getting into the mind of someone with an addiction, taking him seriously, and perhaps sympathizing with him. As nudity was paraded on screen, the accompanying shots involved Brandon intently starting at a woman on the subway (Lucy Walters). At first, I could relate. I admit that I’ve been on a public transportation and couldn’t help but admire someone due to his or her physicality either from afar or right across front me. But then it began to get creepy when the woman, probably around fifteen years younger than Brandon, returned his look of complete lust. When someone catches me starting, what I tend to do is smile then look away. Instead, the two continued to look at each other so fiercely, like it was a game, to the point where the woman began to get very uncomfortable, as if she sensed that there was something very wrong with this guy who kept looking at her. The evolution from awkwardness to lust to danger was quite riveting and I admired that the director, Steve McQueen, allowed the scene to play out so naturally until the woman felt like she needed to run and escape the situation. I found the movie quite brave. It created an argument that although Brandon–and people who share the same affliction–was addicted to sex, he was still human because he could discern between right and wrong, even though sometimes he was forced to do the right thing, like allowing his sister to stay with him because she had nowhere else to go. Brandon’s struggles in wanting to have a genuine relationship with another person was most beautifully framed by his date with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), so different from what he initially thought she was like. I was certain that he went into that date expecting sex at the end of the night. On one of their conversations, there was one question that was brought up that proved, at least to me, that Brandon did want to change. To state that question here, I feel, would do the film a disservice. I wished that Brandon’s relationship with his sister, though mostly involving, didn’t result to such predictability as the material began to wrap up certain strands. The attempt to get us to care felt cheap and off-putting. For a picture so loyal in embedding implications between the lines, the obvious catharsis came off as, at best, out of place. “Shame” did a great job suggesting that there is no cure for sex addiction without one scene taking place in a counselor’s or a psychiatrist’s office. For most people who don’t seek help because they are not aware that they have a problem, there is only another day of trying not succumb all over again.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Hunger,” written and directed by Steve McQueen, followed the last few weeks of life of a prisoner named Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) who decided to go on a hunger strike because the British government did not want to recognize the IRA prisoners (Liam McMahon, Brian Milligan) as political prisoners and the fact that the pisoners were constantly treated inhumanely by the guards. At first I thought that the first half of this film was about the hunger strike because everyone was insanely skinny. Only half-way did I realize that the first half was the “blanket and no wash” protest–prisoners had nothing but blankets in their cells and they chose not to wash themselves for days on end. (Not to mention they decorated their walls with their filth and food.) The turning point (and best scene) of the film was the conversation between Bobby Sands and a priest (Liam Cunningham) because that extended scene brought a sharpness and intelligence to the picture as it tackled issues such as the ethical reasons regarding the hunger strike and whether performing such a dangerous task, as noble as it was, could ultimately lead to nothing. The portion of the scene when Fassbender talked about what his character’s leadership meant to him was honestly was one of the best five minutes I’ve seen in a long time. The images that the character described were so vivid in my mind and the emotions that the images entailed captivated me. McQueen’s direction was always present because as the story was being told, the camera knew, at the perfect moments, when to zoom in to the actor’s faces and when to pull back. The effectiveness of the director’s craft made the experience that much more rewarding. The second half–the actual hunger strike–absolutely blew me away. Fassbender’s transformation was shocking to me. It reminded me of Christian Bale’s horrifying transformation in “The Machinist,” but instead of psychological repercussions, we got to observe how Bobby’s health declined and how his life ultimately came to an end. I loved that this film felt small but the ideas were so big; it highlighted those ideas via the synergistic effect of silence and haunting images. I also loved the film’s use of contrast in terms of other people using violence to others and people using violence to themselves. “Hunger” is a very rich and complex film worth pondering over. I couldn’t believe this was McQueen’s directoral debut because he commanded the story and direction with such focus. Like with Fassbender who also impressed me in “Inglourious Basterds,” I’m looking forward to McQueen’s next project.