Thursday, November 21, 2013


I spent my first 24 years in Dallas, and the history of November 22, 1963 was always there, always floating in the Texas history books like a satellite.  And even though I was ten when the film was released I was fully aware of Oliver Stone's JFK, as the news surrounding his film was everywhere, all the time.  The film was released with much controversy, as barely a truth seemed to be on display in Stone's work.  Following the history of the JFK assassination through the eyes of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison was Stone's first controversial move, as Garrison has since been discredited as being a cook, a loon, and perhaps even a pedophile.  There are so many angles to approach JFK that it's almost impossible for me to make some sort of final judgment.  On one level, it is a masterfully crafted work of art, on another it is reckless and dangerous.  And yet, on even another level, it is about one man's obsessive nature; or perhaps it is a summation of American consciousness.  And much like the assassination itself, Oliver Stone's JFK is a polarizing film, great at its core, but curious regarding its place in the world.

The film itself is a masterwork, and I feel like I must defend it over and over throughout this essay.  On just about every tangible level, JFK is transcendent technically, with unforgettable performances, brilliant writing, and some truly inspired directorial choices from Oliver Stone.  It seems that there are a million possible approaches to the aftermath of the Kennedy Assassination, and yet Stone's choice for his hero was New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner, whose investigation has since been debunked on just about every level.  So why Garrison?  Because, I think, Stone was not trying to teach his audience a history lesson with this film, but he was attempting to capture a general feeling in the years following the murder that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone.  It seemed to ridiculous, that a drifter and a loser living in a shabby home could be solely responsible for killing the idealistic leader of the free world.  Garrison's investigation operated under this pretense, fed by "facts" that were manipulated by Garrison and his staff along the way.  The conspiracy made more sense to so many people, and Stone's film examines that study of obsession in Garrison, and that notion of paranoia in the American public.

And yet, still, what is the true purpose of Stone's film.  I watched again this week, on the cusp of the fiftieth anniversary, and something about JFK feels a bit more slight these days.  It is because, in part, we are nearing such a monumental anniversary.  But the message at the heart of the picture seems to lose some of its luster today because I, along with most people, have come to the conclusion that Oswald acted alone.  All of the shots on Kennedy seem to be explainable.  So does JFK the film still mean what it used to mean, before so many forensic examinations and historical evidence has closed the books?  I don't know.  For me it does, but for the conspiracy theorists I'm sure they would say that's just what they (the CIA? Russia?  The Mob?) want us to think.

And here I go back, the other way, to celebrate the film.  What makes the JFK Assassination so fascinating is that these theories even exist in the first place.  Despite some fringe cooks, the 9/11 tragedies are fairly laid out in front of us.  But the Kennedy situation involves an entire subculture of conspiracy theorists.  So in that sense, Stone's picture is fascinating in the fact that these hairbrained ideas were conceived as fact, as truths.  There are the hobos in dress shoes, the prostitute who tried to warn everyone, the smoke on the grassy knoll, Jack Ruby, the Mob, Castro and Cuba, and on and on we go.  Stone fills the screen with these controversies, and fills each role with actors like Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, all working as pivotal characters in his investigation.  Garrison's probe into the murder pulls him into an obsessively deep world of criminals and thieves, but none of it has lasted.  The picture becomes more of a study of Garrison's unhealthy obsession than the murder of Kennedy itself, until the trial comes into focus in the third act.

Technically, there may not be a better film ever made.  While the straight story is told in color, flashbacks are in black and white with a newsreel texture, and various clips are inserted from time to time.  As Garrison and his staff reconstruct elements like the fishy photo on LIFE magazine or the history of Oswald in New Orleans, the moments are recreated and the music drives up the tension.  And what of the music?  It is perfect at times, but at other times it seems to glorify Garrison and his heroic stance.  Stone has been an adamant conspiracy theorist throughout the years, but certainly he is aware of websites like the JFK 100 which debunk 100 "facts" in his picture.  He has to realize these supposed facts are not, indeed, facts.  He has to, which sheds a different light on the picture and what it means historically.  It may never again hold the same energy as it did back in 1991, but as a cinematic work of art, JFK is masterful.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

12 Years A Slave

12 YEARS A SLAVE: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, directed by Steve McQueen (134 min.)

There is a moment near the end of Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave where wrongfully enslaved free man Solomon Northup, who has adapted the slave name Platt, stands in the light of the failing sun.  That is the scene in its entirety; Solomon stands, staring just past the screen, taking in the last twelve years of his life where he has been away from his family.  It lasts an eternity, cinematically speaking, and it is the best moment in one of the most emotionally powerful films ever made.  Solomon is staring into the abyss, having just given freedom one final shot, and we are staring along with him.  We feel his pain, most of which we have witnessed the last two hours, and at this moment the audience is given the opportunity to stand beside Solomon Northup one last time.  This scene of silence pulls us in to a moment so intimate, when the final scenes unfold for this man and his journey, the emotional impact is at its pinnacle.  12 Years A Slave I will never forget.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is an actor who you have most certainly seen in a great number of films throughout the years, a solid character performer who has shown versatility in his career.  This picture is going to change his life.  Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, an educated African American living in upstate New York as a free man in 1841.  Solomon is a genial, kindhearted gentlemen, a well spoken violinist with a home, a wife, and two loving children.  He is also a bit too trusting, as is the case when two men come calling for his services.  These two men claim to be performers themselves and they convince Solomon to come along with them to Washington where they will perform and make a great deal of money.  Once in Washington, however, the two men get Solomon drunk, or perhaps drug him, and sell him to a slave trade headed South.  Solomon wakes up in chains, protests his imprisonment, and is brutally beaten by two white men.  This is the first of many beatings Solomon will endure as his twelve-year journey into hell begins.

Solomon is handed over to a slave trader, a scoundrel played by Paul Giamatti who gives Solomon the slave name Platt.  As Platt, he is sold first to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Ford is a decent human being, a slave owner merely through circumstance who cares for the slaves he buys as well as he can.  His overseer, however, is a weasel, Tibeats, played by Paul Dano who plays weasels better than anyone in Hollywood.  A conflict between Platt and Tibeats forces Platt to be sent to another plantation owned and operated by Edwin Epps (McQueen regular, the great Michael Fassbender).  On Ford's plantation, Platt was a home builder and a land clearer who had his own small house and was respected by Ford himself.  The Epps plantation, however, places Platt in the cotton fields and unearths a hellish landscape of evil and warped humanity.

Epps is a monstrous, wicked, sociopathic plantation man who badly mis-interprets bible scripture to justify his treatment of the slaves he purchases.  The bulk of the film takes place on the Epps plantation, where Edwin takes the lowest cotton pickers every day to tie them to a post and whip them.  His rage is unpredictable, and his wife (Sarah Paulson) is manipulative and cold.  Platt is indeed intimidating to Epps, who can see his educated ways beneath the slave exterior.  But it is the presence of Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), a beautiful young slave woman, who gets the blood of Mistress Epps certainly boiling.  Edwin has a sick fascination with Patsey, he rapes her regularly, but his admiration only goes so far as evidenced later in the picture.  Aside from Ejiofor, the performance from Nyong'O is quietly devastating, moving, and powerful.

The journey of Solomon is a true story, and truly horrifying and heartbreaking.  As a slave, Solomon fights despair and bucks against becoming just another uneducated slave. Most slaves were sold into slavery at an early age, or born into it, thus were never educated.  Solomon's pride keeps him afloat early on, but the system eventually breaks him.  He battles to hold onto his identity, and although he may lose it for a while, it never leaves his heart.  To say this is an Oscar worthy performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor is almost an insulting understatement.  This is a performance that is as unforgettable as anything you will ever see.  From the quiet moments conveyed in only his eyes, to the shouts and pleas of desperation, to the happier moments and memories of his free life, Ejiofor gives everything to his performance, and everything exudes from the screen.

Steve McQueen is never a man to shy away from tough subject matter, given that his previous two features (both great films in their own right) dealt with a prison hunger strike and crippling sexual addiction.  This time around, McQueen's scope and his budget has expanded considerably, as has his subject.  Slavery is an embarrassing time in American history, and this film exemplifies those feelings tenfold.  McQueen's camera is unflinching, intimate, and at times unsettling.  But at the same time, McQueen, along with composer Hans Zimmer, create moments of emotional intensity I have never endured in a film.  In my own life, certainly I have experienced heartache and pain beyond any art medium; but as far as films are concerned, never before have I been so devastated and, ultimately, so emotionally engaged in a film as much as I was with 12 Years A Slave.  It is the best film of the year, and there is really no debate.