Sunday, March 2, 2014

vague scribblings on a few movies

I am so far behind in my film viewing that I’ve only seen three films in the last four months.

One of these was Gravity.  While 3-D is often annoying and just another gimmick to me, in Gravity it was finely used technology.  The film is breathtaking, occasionally terrifying, with lovely performances from George Clooney as well as the quietly realistic star turn by Sandra Bullock.   Director Alfonso Cuarón (also co-writer with Jonas Cuarón) has a tight rein on his audience as he throws us into a spectacular journey, leading us gently into complacency and confidence, then dropping us into the void.  Between Ms. Bullock and the 3-D, we are following in her wake all the way, hovering between life and death, imagination and reality.  Gravity is riveting and gorgeous.  I left the theatre lightheaded, very glad my feet were on Mother Earth.

12 Years a Slave is a devastating film, a personal and intimate tale of a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery.  We follow Solomon Northup, a black man from upstate New York in the year 1841, down to Washington, to Georgia and Louisiana.  Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup with dignity and passion.  When the excellent script by John Ridley gives him no words, his eyes, his posture, his entire person still speaks to us.  We feel the horror with him and through his eyes, marveling at the obvious monsters and those who appear civil and yet live despicably immoral lives.  The easy-to-spot monsters are portrayed brilliantly by Paul Dano as a psychopath who is master carpenter on the plantation of Solomon’s first owner, Mr. Ford, and the cause for Mr. Ford selling Solomon to the totally mad Edwin Epps, who was frighteningly embodied by Michael Fassbender.   Similar to what I felt when I saw Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, if I were to see Michael Fassbender along the street, I’d cross it.  That’s how scary he is. On Mr. Epps’ plantation we also meet Mistress Epps, a frighteningly cold Sarah Paulson almost as monstrous as her husband. The object of Epps’ obsession is the object of his wife’s malice:  Patsey, a young and beautiful slave who somehow picks more cotton than everyone else and endures nightly rape by Mr. Epps.  Portraying Patsey is an enthralling actor named Lupita Nyong’o whose work here will be long remembered.  12 Years a Slave is a horror show; it appears impossible:  People could not have lived through this.  And yet they did. 

Almost worse than the monsters were the seemingly sane people.  Solomon’s first owner, Mr. William Ford, played with gentle restraint by Benedict Cumberbatch, and his dreadful wife are the sort who appear normal, and yet they are part of this vicious society, confusing someone like Solomon by treating him with relative kindness.  It’s more difficult to recognize or understand Evil when it is well bred.

Director Steve McQueen orchestrates the dark and the light, the despair and the hope, and keeps the story moving while not rushing through moments of silence and reflection that the characters and the audience require.  Cinematography by Sean Bobbitt escalates the contrast between good and evil showing us the beautiful landscapes of Louisiana as they are dirtied by the disfiguring disease of slavery.

Finally, this weekend I saw The Wind Rises, the last film (so he has stated) of Hayao Miyazaki, the masterful creator of such entrancing animated features as Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle.  It is, of course, gorgeous.  I gasped as the world rippled in the earthquake that occurs while the main character, Jiro Horikoshi, is riding on a train to university.  The earthquake was visually stunning as it broke down villages and railroad tracks alike, and the fire that followed hard upon it sounded like a monster chasing all the people away.  Masterful. 

Jiro is an historical character, a man who designed airplanes that became fighter planes against the Allied forces in World War II.  He was fascinated by flying, like many another Miyazaki character.  We go on his dream flights with him, beautifully drawn sketches of fantastical airplanes, over soft and shimmering landscapes.  The Wind Rises is the story of a man in love with flying and aeronautical engineering, and then with a woman who shares his vision just because it is his.  It’s a sweet love story and an adventure as the planes Jiro imagines in his dreams are built.  The characters are oddly voiced by a star-studded cast led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, and Emily Blunt. 

Despite its marvelous dream sequences, this film was less enchanting to me than Miyazaki’s previous offerings, so I admit to being a bit disappointed.  But it all goes to show that we are all just humans when our flags are taken away.  Jiro Horikoshi was a brilliant man whose story was worth telling and Miyazaki told it well. 

I just missed the magic.

~ Molly Matera, signing off until the next time with “All the Way with LBJ!”

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