For Reel


12 Years a Slave (2013)
November 16, 2013, 10:59 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Steve McQueen
5 Stars
12 Years a SlaveOne of the running themes that has permeated Hollywood in the latter half of the year has been survival–a theme most explicitly explored in Gravity, All is Lost, and Captain Phillips. It comes as some surprise that 12 Years a Slave fits so easily into this grouping, even as its subject matter raises the stakes from one man’s story to that of a poisoned nation. Although pundits of the film rightfully argue that it might have educational value–it is indeed shocking that a movie so forthright about this period in American history is such a rarity–director Steve McQueen doesn’t simply treat the film as an objective or even medicinal look at a nation’s shame. The genius of the narrative is the significance that its emotional appeal comes from, in the Hitchcockian tradition, its wrongfully accused protagonist’s struggle to survive and find justice. As a middle-class free man, Solomon Northrop (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is at a remove from his fellow slaves, making him not only a victim of slavery but a privileged witness to it. Just as Northrop is taken from relatively comfortable living into the bowels of human cruelty, so too is the audience uprooted from the comfort of their movie seats into McQueen’s unflinching depiction of hell. Although engaging with this type of identification is certainly not necessary to elaborate on the evils of slavery, it is one that forces audience members to not simply view history from a distance, but to imagine the sheer horror of participating in it themselves.



Shame (2011)
January 7, 2012, 12:45 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Steve McQueen

For such an intensely focused character study, it is unusual that Shame often feels so unspecific and directionless. This is not a problem for the first two thirds of the picture – after all, the character’s emotional detachment is director Steve McQueen’s biggest interest – but as the film tramples towards its climax, things turn ludicrous in a hurry. Michael Fassbender’s “low” sees him enter a gay nightclub which, with its black, grisly hallways, is designed to appear like hell itself. As good as the actor is, it’s hard to take him seriously as he contorts his face into orgiastic agony while receiving a blow job, and, worse yet, as he crumbles to his knees during a jog on a rainy morning. McQueen never earns these moments – the ticking clock heard on the soundtrack in the beginning of the picture is clearly leading to an explosion, but when it comes it feels overdramatic and silly. Before it is clear that the film has nowhere to go, however, things are compelling enough. There’s a great date scene shot in a single take (a stylistic element that was expected to repeat after McQueen’s memorable use of them in his previous, much better picture, Hunger), and just about all of the actors, outside of Fassbender’s womanizing boss, are in top form. That the film never lives up to this preliminary potential is a sizable disappointment.