Thursday, January 9, 2014

Outer Space, Antebellum South and New Jersey in the 1970s

In December, I checked off a bunch of general release films from my To See list.

Gravity starring Sandra Bullock & George Clooney; directed by Alfonso Cuarón; (2013) - Official Website
Ender's Game starring Asa Butterfield & Harrison Ford; directed by Gavin Hood; (2013) - Official Website
American Hustle starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper & Jennifer Lawrence; directed by David O. Russell; (2013) - Official Website
12 Years a Slave starring Chiwetel Ejiofor & Michael Fassbender; directed by Steve McQueen; (2013) - Official Website

I saw Gravity at the Century 20 Daly City.  It was the first and only film I saw at that theater in 2013.  The Century 20 is the nearest theater to where I live but one which I rarely visit.

My office closed at noon on December 24.  On the way home, I stopped by the Century San Francisco Centre 9 in the Westfield Centre to see Ender's Game.

I saw American Hustle at the 4 Star on Christmas Day.  It was one of the largest audiences I've seen at the 4 Star.

Three times within a week, I went to the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinemas to see 12 Years a Slave.  Each time the screening was sold out.  I ended up going down to San Jose to see it at the Camera Cinema 3.


I saw the 3D version of Gravity.  This is a film which could easily have failed.  I recall a film called Buried starring Ryan Reynolds.  The premise of the film was that a contractor in wartime Iraq is captured by terrorist and buried alive.  He has a cell phone by which he can communicate with the outside world.  The entire film is shot from the point of view of being inside the coffin.  I remember my interest waned because "Limiting the action to the box diminished the potential of the film."

Gravity has the benefit of the vastness of space and some cool 3D CGI FX.  Bullock anchors the film as an astronaut who is marooned in outer space.  She makes her way from the ruined Space Shuttle to a Russian space station to a Chinese space station.  It also benefits from George Clooney distinctive and reassuring voice as the mission commander who saves Bullock.  I also recognized Ed Harris' voice as Houston ground control.

Gravity is a good thriller and Bullock is up for the role.


I never read Ender's Game as a boy.  Early in 2013, I was given a copy of the book by a friend who was anticipating the film version.  I liked book quite a bit.  It reminded me of Starship Troopers (the book not the film).  In both stories, Earth is threatened by an insect-like alien race.

In Ender's Game, children of Earth are identified at an young ages for their military potential.  They are sent to specialized training schools in outer space.  Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is one such child.  Testing high and showing great potential, Wiggin progresses at record rate through his training.  In the book but less so in the film, much of the story involves training games in a zero gravity environment.  I found these to be very enjoyable in both the book & film.

Ender has some issues to work through.  His exceptional abilities and the actions of the school commandant Colonel Graf (Harrison Ford), isolate Ender who has always felt different on account of being "a third" or the third child born to a couple when two is the typical limit (shades of China's one child policy).  The stress of the training as well as tormenting from bullies and jealous classmates pushes Ender to his limits...and that's before he has to command a fleet of starships against the insect enemies.

The film wasn't bad but as is often the case, I liked the book better.  The film was a little flat and it seemed as if some of the movie plot would be confusing if you had not read the book.  Moises Arias who was memorable as the odd kid Biaggio in The Kings of Summer is also memorable as Ender's chief tormentor, Bonzo (pronounced bone-so) Madrid.  Ender is supposed to be smaller and younger than Bonzo but Butterfield towered over Arias.  Still, Arias gave the role everything he had and was the most memorable thing about the film for me.


American Hustle sure did feel like a Scorsese film.  Robert De Niro even makes a memorable cameo appearance.  This film will likely be nominated for several Oscars.  Christian Bale and Amy Adams are incredible in their roles as grifters being squeezed by an ambitious and in the case of Adams, amorous FBI agent (Bradley Cooper).  The film has a great soundtrack, Bale's outrageous comb over and even more outrageous wardrobe worn by Adams (did they really wear that stuff in the 1970s?).    Adams and Jennifer Lawrence certainly have no qualms about plunging necklines.

Louis C.K. as Cooper's sensible FBI supervisor, Elizabeth Röhm (unrecognizable from days on Law & Order)  as Jeremy Renner's Guidette housewife and Michael Peña as a Mexican American FBI agent from Tucson who impersonates an Arab sheik stood out in small roles.  For some reason, I'm always drawn to strong performances by the supporting cast.


12 Years a Slave will also likely be nominated for several Oscars.  Chiwetel Ejiofor is Solomon Northrup, a free black man in New York in 1841.  A skilled violinist, Northrup is induced by two men who own a traveling circus to join their company on tour as far Washington DC.  At a farewell dinner, the men drug Northrup and sell him into slavery.  He is smuggled out of DC and identified as Platt, a runaway slave.  He is told repeatedly to keep his true identity secret - warned by slaves and beaten by a slave trader (Paul Giamatti).

"Platt" is sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a relatively benevolent slave owner.  Having experience as a carpenter, Platt quickly runs afoul of Ford's carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano in a nice performance).  Nearly lynched by Tibeats and his friends, Ford sells Platt (for both their own protection) Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), whom Ford describes as a "nigger-breaker."

The arrival of Epps, or more accurately Fassbender's performance, elevates 12 Years a Slave to something transcendent.  To call Epps a cruel slave owner would be a disservice.  He is certainly cruel but the man is a walking set of contradictions and his cruelty merely a symptom of deeper issues.  I won't say Epps is as much a victim as Northrup but will say that Epps is the best example I've seen about the dehumanizing effects of slavery on both the slave and the slave owner.

The only way to morally rationalize slavery is for the slave owner to believe the slave is less than human.  Whenever, the slave reminds the slave owner, through actions or provoked responses, that s/he is human, it chips away at the foundation underpinning the institution of slavery.  In Epps' case, his anti-muse is a young female slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o).  Not only can she pick more cotton than men twice her size but Epps is sexually attracted to her...and Epps wife (Sarah Paulson) knows it.  It's toxic situation which eventually results in Epps ordering Northrup to whip Patsey for some perceived disobedience.  When Northrup fails to show sufficient vigor in his lashings, Epps takes the whip and we see Patsey's skin flay in a particularly disturbing scene.  I forgot to mention that Epps wife looks one with approval bordering on enjoyment.

Eventually, Platt finds a sympathetic white man (Brad Pitt) who agrees to contact his family in New York and report on his situation.  This leads to Platt/Northrup's emancipation.

The most impressive performance was Fassbender as Epps.  Fassbender, who starred in McQueen's Shame (2011) & the recent X-Men reboot (I'm told his performance as Magneto is impressive) is building up a notable filmography.

I found the dialogue a little stilted.  The slaves spoke like they were stage actors from the Sarah Bernhardt era.  That's a minor quibble.  12 Years a Slave is a powerful film and left me emotionally spent.

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