12 Years a Slave (2013). I made a conscious decision not to see 12 Years a Slave when it came out, figuring it wouldn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know, and there was nothing I could do about it, anyway, except to be vigilant against any national backsliding, which I already do. I’m too old to spend discretionary time and money to do something I know I’m not going to enjoy going in. The Beloved Spouse and I were visiting my parents, this was the movie they’d received from Netflix, so we watched it with them, and I was right the first time.
I’ll probably catch hell for this, but 12 Years a Slave strikes me as the kind of movie thatwins awards because people are ashamed to be seen as voting against the subject matter. The acting is excellent, it’s beautifully photographed, but there’s no story there. It’s a series of agonizing anecdotes that leads to Solomon Northup finally finding the one man in a position to help him who will do so, and then people come for him and restore him to his home. While I have no doubt that what actually happened—especially from Northup’s perspective—that’s not really storytelling.
Director Steve McQueen shows a disconcerting knack for not knowing when to get out of a scene, resulting in episodes that might be criticized as borderline torture porn in a less elevated film. Northup’s near hanging and the whipping of Patsy are good examples. The scenes needed to be drawn out to make the point, no argument there. There comes a time when the point has been made and the scene continuation becomes overkill, with the paradoxical effect of lessening the effect. McQueen received kudos for his willingness to stay on shots of a single person’s face as emotions wash over it, sometimes for over a minute. (Which could come to seem like half an hour.) While I appreciate the point he wanted to make—and it’s a valid point, describing one of this country’s Three Great Shames—the concept of “less is more” could well have been applied.
If you’ve done more than superficial study of American slavery as an institution, or have spent time wondering what it must be like to be sold as chattel, separated from your family, and beaten or killed indiscriminately, you don’t need to see12 Years a Slave. If none of the above conditions applies, you should. It should be compulsory for about 80% of the Tea Party.
Grudge Match (2013) I put this in the queue because we both like DeNiro, Stallone, and Arkin and it might be a nice, meaningless way to pass two hours. It was much better than either The Beloved Spouse or I had expected. Fun more than funny, but it was a lot of fun. Stallone was asked to do what he does well, and DeNiro let the lines and situations provide his humor, instead of trying to sell it as he is prone to do. As always, Alan Arkin steals the movie. There’s a little lazy writing when some effort would have allowed the plot to move just as well or better, but there are also some subtexts you don’t often get in comedic fluff. Well worth a couple of hours.
The Running Man (1987) Jesus Christ, is this a shitty movie. Almost without a doubt one of the ten worst movies I have ever seen.
Marlowe (1969) Turner Classic ended its James Garner retrospective with this adaptation ofRaymond Chandler’s The Little Sister. All said, not a bad effort. Garner is a good Marlowe, and the story is adhered to as well as any other Marlowe movie. At its core, this is an attempt to update Marlowe from the 40s to the 60s, and it succeeds far better at that than does Robert Altman’s effort to update him to the 70s, The Long Goodbye. Stirling Silliphant’s screenplay is true to the moral center Chandler established, and Garner has the right amount of fun with him. This could have been the definitive Marlowe flick had not the production itself been so mired in the 60s. Made a couple of years later, after The French Conneciton showed what could be done with some realism and grit, this could have been great.
The World’s End (2013) Another in the Simon Pegg-Nick Frost films, this one about a loser’s (Pegg) attempts to get his old school mates together for a legendary pub crawl they tried, and failed, twenty years ago. Pegg and Frost are spot on, as always, and the writing (by Pegg and director Edgar Wright) skewers some contemporary cultural practices while showing Pegg’s character isn’t as cool as he thinks he is. The ending gets a little out of control, but that’s a quibble. This is two hours of great fun.