Cast Against Hype

Reflections on film and other forms of storytelling from a Swedish wannabe-storyteller…

Tag: 12 Years A Slave

”Gravity” – Lord of the Awards Tonight?

OK. So I’ve only seen roughly a handful of the films which will matter tonight. But only because you can do it anyway; here are some predictions about the winners in the more prestigious categories. In this year’s Oscar Awards Show, which I’ll probably not stay up and watch. After all, with the time difference and a ordinary working Monday coming up here in a grey, late-winter Sweden… Well, you get the idea. 

Quite a lot of awards are about technical skills, special effects, editing and costumes. It seems rather uncontroversial guessing many of those will end up with the makers of ”Gravity” (which I still haven’t seen, but I hope to do so quite soon).

Anyway. Predictions, or in most cases just a wild outright guessing game:

Best Documentary Feature: ”The Act of Killing” (directed by Joshua Oppenheimer). I’ve only seen some parts of this study in ‘the banality of evil’ (if you dare define the topic as such) but some day I will get around to watching the whole thing. I hope.

Best Original Song: ”Ordinary Love” by U2 from the recent Mandela biopic. Maybe I should listen to other songs in this category first, but….

Best Original Score: Steven Price for ”Gravity”

Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki for ”Gravity”

Best Foreign Language Film: ”The Hunt” by Thomas Vinterberg (Denmark). I should have seen this much-talked about film long ago, it seems. Hopefully I will. Soon…

Best Screenplay based on something already written, sort of: John Ridley. ”12 Years a Slave”. That is some heavy stuff, people.

Best Original Screenplay: Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell for ”American Hustle”. In a category where I still haven’t seen any of the nominated films. Just going with a gut feeling that might be completely off.

Best Directing: Alfonso Cuarón for ”Gravity”. Surely his night of Victory will really gain momentum there, right?

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o for ”12 Years a Slave”. Young, fresh, brilliant in a demanding role.

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto in ”Dallas Buyers Club”. No, haven’t seen it,  but all the buzz concerning his transgender transformation has to mean something significant here.

Best Leading Actress: Sandra Bullock. According to a recent statistical study she’s seen or heard for 75 minutes out of roughly 90, which translates into 87 percent. And in this timeframe she’s obviously made quite a lot of impact.

Best Supporting Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor in ”12 Years a Slave”. Possibly Matthew McConaughey can compete with his turn in ”Dallas Buyers Club”. Anyway, serious parts in really serious stories tend to beat the relatively more lightweight roles in a situation like this, no?

Best Movie altogether: ”Nebraska”. No, just kidding. ”Philomena. ”Kidding again”. And even if ”Captain Phillips” is quite an impressive film and ”Her” has had a lot of encouraging buzz lately, it simply has to be ”Gravity” here as well. Soon available on DVD here in Sweden, by the way. Soon…

But maybe I forgot the category Short Documentaries. After all, here you find ”Pittäkö mun kaikki hoitaa”, from Finland; obviously a real global box office smash to be.

The Best Films of 2013. Maybe.

As usual there are far too many, probably excellent or at least really good movies I haven’t had the opportunity to see this past year, along with all the ones I also probably shouldn’t grieve over having missed. But… ”Gravity”. Judging from the circumstances; director Alfonso Cuarón and its stars, and of course, all the enthusiastic, glowing reviews it could very well be the movie of the year. 2013, that is. I simply haven’t gotten around to seeing it. Yet.

As it is, and after careful scrutiny I’ve decided to highlight five other films, although the order in which they ended up on the list has gone through some changes back and forth until I settled on this current ranking:

(Note: these are films that opened in my home country Sweden last year, and some of them were released before that in the US for example)

1. ”Cloud Atlas” (directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski)
A handful of parallel stories linked together loosely in a way that’s exciting, original and stimulates the imagination like few other recent films I’ve come across.

2. ”Zero Dark Thirty” (Kathryn Bigelow)
Controversial and sometimes tough to sit through, based on reality (although exactly how much so, is up for debate) and really arresting retelling of the hunt for Osama bin Ladin, even though the outcome is already known.

3. ”Captain Phillips” (Paul Greengrass)
Stylistically hyperreal recount of a hijacking on a ship in the world’s maybe most dangerous waters between East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

4. ”12 Years a Slave” (Steve McQueen)
Restrained but still raw and powerful story, manages to add something new to the history of films and other accounts of slavery in North America (and world history in general).

5. ”The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (Mira Nair)
Who is he? What does he want? Does he even know that himself? We meet a man not sure of where he really belongs and whose choices and actions reflect this ambivalence. And is he truly dangerous or just understandably frustrated with the state of the world? See for yourself and find out.

Close: Melancholy vampire drama ”Byzantium”, partially apocalyptic low budget production ”Beasts of the Southern Wild” and the latest musical version of ”Les Misérables”.

Extra honorary mentions for two movies where you have to admire the fact they were even made, but also because of their insights into cultures rarely captured so closely on film: ”Wadjda”, made in Saudi Arabia by a female director and starring a young girl protagonist trying to fulfill her dream of getting her own bicycle. Finally, ”No Burqas Behind Bars” – a documentary about women in an Afghan prison. How come they ended up there? And why does it sometimes seem like life inside of these walls allows more freedom than life outside?

A Swedish version of this article has been published at russin.

Intelligent and Challenging History Lesson With a Heart

256px-Solomon_Northup_001Twelve years. In slavery. Having lived a free man i the northeast of the US, Mr Solomon Northup suddenly finds himself the victim of an abduction and winds up further south as another man’s property. The year is 1841 and the nation is still divided between the states practicing  the regular use of unpaid labour, and those – predominantly north of the capital Washington DC – that has abandoned that system. The civil war hasn’t been fought yet. And yes, this is one of those films labelled ”based on a true story”. Northup wrote a book about his ordeals, published in 1853.

Solomon quickly tries to adjust to the new circumstances, in order to survive. There’s no point in trying to speak up about injustice or his true identity. Rather he needs to keep a low profile and preferably not reveal things like the ability to read and write. Like so many other people in similar situations, he will face many changes and learn to obey different masters with different stripes. The systematic oppression can be brutal, while at other times more subtle, arbitrary and above all, almost impossible to completely adapt to.

Considering the subject matter, ”12 Years a Slave”, directed by Steve McQueen, is not the monumental message movie looking for instant emotional impact that it could have been. Often it’s strikingly slow and low-key, although charged with a near-ubiquitous feeling of dread and looming threat. The relative slowness can test the patience of those expecting something more explosive.

The people living off the labour of their ‘property’ come in different shapes and sizes. The Benedict Cumberbatch character seems comparably ‘civilized’ and decent under the circumstances, but he has a hard time controlling the wrath and vengefulness of some of his associates when they deem Mr Northup (or Platt, as he’s come to be known to them) an insurgent, obnoxious character that cannot be trusted. Michael Fassbender plays another kind; moody, unstable and by all accounts an alcoholic who unpredictably switches between anger, paranoia and an equally eerie playfulness including manipulative mindgames with everyone in sight. Especially, of course, the slaves but also with his wife. Their relationship is obviously dysfunctional and has been for a long time, which results in her being increasingly jealous and frustrated with primarily a young slave girl seemingly attractive in the eyes of the master. This will have dire consequences – and definitely most for Patsey, the slave girl.

Cruel and unusual punishment are sort of compulsory in this genre, but here the scenes of sadistic violence are used as a dramatic device quite carefully and when they really can have an impact. They serve to remind us what this is all about; the notion of ‘owning’ other human beings and thus not considering them completely human. With the support of the surrounding society.

256px-Chiwetel_Ejiofor_by_David_ShankboneIn the midst of all this we follow the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as a respected man with a family and a life, waking up to a nightmare that’s not a nightmare and who has to decide how to act in this new environment, under inhuman circumstances. Ejiofor has been doing great work for years, for example in films like ”Serenity” and ”Children of Men” but now he has the opportunity of becoming more of a household name. For those motivated enough to practice the pronounciation of his name, at least. Also worth mentioning is the newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, skilled at picking cotton but taken advantage of in more ways than one, and more or less deprived of any ways of changing her predicament. Short of suicide, which is certainly something she contemplates, although I will not spoil anything by revealing how her storyline unfolds at the end of this film.

”12 years a Slave” is overall an intelligent, challenging and urgent piece of filmmaking, where the easiest ways out are generally avoided. It appears capable of creating more of a lasting impact than just the immediate experience of having seen a film that’s not primarily entertaining but acutely arresting and challenging for hearts and minds. What more could you want from the cinema at Christmas time?

Illustration information and credits:

1) Nebro (Solomon Northup (1855) Twelve Years a Slave) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

2) Chiwetel Ejiofor at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008. By David Shankbone (David Shankbone) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) eller CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Note: a Swedish-language, somewhat altered version of this review is available at russin.nu

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