“BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” (2016) Review

“BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” (2016) Review

Following on the heels of the success of 2013’s “MAN OF STEEL”, I had expected the Warner Brothers Studios to follow up with another movie about Superman, starring Henry Cavill. To my surprise, the studio had announced another movie featuring Superman, only the comic book character would be sharing top billing with another from the pages of D.C. Comics.

Warner Brothers surprised me with the announcement that their next comic book movie would feature Superman aka Clark Kent co-starring with none other than Batman aka millionaire Bruce Wayne. And the latter would be portrayed by Ben Affleck. Needless to say, I was not pleased by this announcement. I saw it as a personal insult to Cavill, who had really impressed me as the Man of Steel. And I felt that Warner Brothers could have given Affleck his own stand-alone film about the Caped Crusader, before rushing into some attempt to rush into a “Justice League of America” situation, similar to the one featuring the Avengers for Marvel Films and the Disney Studios. About a week before “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” was due to be released in movie theaters, I read a series of reviews that literally bashed the film. Now, I have never been a major fan of director Zack Synder in the past. And I was pleased that he did not go overboard with the angst factor in “MAN OF STEEL” as he has done with his previous films. But after reading so many negative reviews . . . well, I did not expect to like this movie. However, I had to see it just to satisfy my curiousity.

“BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” began during the last events of “MAN OF STEEL”. It began with billionaire Bruce Wayne aka Batman arrival in Metropolis to assist Wayne Enterprises employees caught up with the city’s citizens in the destruction caused by Superman’s battle against fellow Kryptonian General Zod. Unfortunately for Bruce, one of his top executives is killed and the legs of another employee named Wallace Keefe are permanently damaged from falling debris. Due to these events, Bruce begins to view Superman as a destructive threat to Earth and desires to find a way to bring down the Man of Steel. Nearly two years later, Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane is visiting a North African country to interview a political figure believed to be a terrorist. However, her interview is cut short when the men who had accompanied her kill the terrorist’s men and many local villagers. Superman aka Clark Kent manages to rescue her from the terrorist, but Lois ends up feeling very disturbed by the event. But she is not the only one. Many people, including a Kentucky senator named June Finch blame Superman for the incident and like Bruce, begin to view him as a threat. Many are unaware that Metropolis’ top billionaire, Lex Luthor, was behind the incident in Northern Africa. Like Bruce, he began to view Superman as a threat . . . but to his own plans and his sense of worth. Unlike Bruce, he commences upon a plan to exploit the distrust of Senator Finch and others to bring down Superman and other meta-humans of whom he has become aware.

When I first learned that Warner Brothers had decided to follow up “MAN OF STEEL” with a movie in which Superman was to share top billing with Batman, I was not thrilled. In fact, I had hoped they would do a second Superman movie. And while the movie was being shot, I was more than determined not to like this film. Reading the movie’s negative reviews made me believe that disliking it would come very easy to me. And then . . . lo and behold! I ended up leaving the theater with a positive view about the film.

Mind you, “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” was not perfect in my eyes. I had two problems with it – one major and the other minor. My minor problem with “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN” has a lot to do with my virulent dislike of Snyder’s 2009 movie, “THE WATCHMEN”. The director utilized a device that he had carried over from the 2009 movie – namely the use of graffiti in some scenes. I thought he had overused it in “THE WATCHMEN” and continued to do so in this film. And the graffiti only brought back unpleasant memories of the 2009 film.

My major complaint against “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” has to do with the relationship between Batman and Lex Luthor. In one scene during the film’s last half hour, Luthor revealed to Clark that he had created situations not only to slowly direct public opinion against the latter, but also Bruce Wayne, whom he knew to be Batman. Luthor figured that Batman would go after the Man of Steel and the latter would eventually kill the former. I must admit that I found this very confusing, considering that the movie never hinted that Luthor was interested in killing Bruce in the movie’s first half. In fact, the Luthor Corp. files that Bruce had uploaded and Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman had stolen did not even contain any information on Batman. I had assumed that Luthor only became interested in killing Batman . . . after the latter had stolen the Kryptonite his people had discovered in the Indian Ocean and destroyed a LexCorp lab. And the movie that I had seen in a theater seemed to verify my assumption. Like I said . . . confusing!

So . . . what did I like about “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”? Well, the story. Okay, I really enjoyed it. I liked the fact that the movie eventually promised what its title had hinted . . . a conflict between Superman and Batman that eventually led to the promise of the Justice League of America. And screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer presented this development with a very emotional and complex tale. What I found particularly interesting is that nearly everything in this tale is a direct result of the events from “MAN OF STEEL”. This was especially the case for both Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor’s hostility toward Superman. In fact, Luthor used the dead body of General Zod (courtesy of the U.S. government) to not only study Kryptonian physiology, but also create the monster Doomsday, which would prove to be a threat in the movie’s final action sequence.

The movie also featured some excellent emotional development for the main characters. Again, this seemed to be the case for Clark Kent’s growing despair from the public and the government’s reactions to the events in Northern Africa; his disapproval toward Batman’s more violent vigilante activities; the latter’s anger towards the events from “MAN OF STEEL” and the heady mixture of paranoia and ego that drove Lex Luthor to investigate other meta-humans and plot against Superman.

For a movie heavy on action, it featured some interesting dramatic moments. My favorites included Clark’s clashes with Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White over investigating Batman’s activities in Gotham City; the first meeting between Clark, Bruce and Diana Prince at a party held by Luthor in Metropolis; Bruce’s lingering anger over what happened in “MAN OF STEEL”; Luthor’s clashes with Senator Finch over his plans to deal with Superman; Clark’s conversations with his adoptive mother Martha Kent about his activities as Superman and with the ghost of his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent; Lois Lane confrontation with Luthor before the final action began; and also, Diana and Bruce’s comments on the public’s fickle attitude toward Superman. The movie also featured further development of the relationship between Clark and Lois, which culminated in a very charming and sexy moment in a bathtub. I thought Sndyer handled these scenes very well, which is not surprising. He has always managed to get great performances from his actors . . . even in his movies that I dislike.

However, first and foremost, “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” is a comic book hero film . . . an action-adventure film. And Snyder was certainly in his element as a director. This especially seemed to be the case in those scenes that featured Lois and Superman’s adventures in northern Africa, Bruce’s dreams about leading a group of rebels against Superman, Batman’s attempt to steal the kryptonite from Luthor, his rescue of Martha from Luthor’s henchmen, and the attempt to rescue both Metropolis and Gotham from Luthor’s newly created monster, Doomsday.

However, one half of the movie’s title is called “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN”. Many movie fans and critics had dismissed the idea of an effective battle between the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader. So did I. After all, Batman was not really a meta-human – someone with super abilities – merely a highly trained costumed crime fighter. The movie made me realize that many of us had forgotten that Bruce Wayne also had brains. Through his investigation of a Russian weapon-trafficker named Anatoli Knyazev, he learned that Luthor was not only investigating meta-humans, but had found a possible weapon against Superman. Kryptonite. By creating weapons from the kryptonite he had stolen from Luthor Corp. and a powered exoskeleton suit, Batman was able to put up a good fight against the Man of Steel. And surprisingly, their battle proved to be very effective to me . . . even if many still believe otherwise.

The other half of the movie’s title was “DAWN OF JUSTICE”, which hinted the beginning of the Justice League of America aka the Super Friends. I found it interesting that Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor’s reactions to the events from “MAN OF STEEL” not only led to their fear of Superman and attempts to find a way to destroy the latter, but also to hints of the forthcoming creation of the Justice League of America. It all centered around Luthor’s investigation of other meta-humans and the files Bruce and Diana had found within Luthor Corp.’s computer mainframe. The file not only contained information and video clips on Diana’s past as Wonder Woman during World War I, but also on Barry Allen aka the Flash, Arthur Curry aka Aquaman and Victor Stone aka Cyborg. But it was that one scene in which Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman finally decided to form a team to battle the monster Doomsday . . .

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. . . that led to memories of the old ABC animated series, “SUPER FRIENDS” and its theme song going through my mind. It was a wonderful moment for me.

There was one aspect of “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” that left a heavy imprint on my mind was the fickleness of human nature. We humans are a fickle, controlling and very selfish specie. Snyder and screenwriters Terrio and Goyer really did an excellent job in portraying those aspects of our nature through the character of Superman. I found it interesting that many viewed Superman as a savior or angel. This was apparent in the statues raised in his honor and this almost selfish demand that he serve as their savior and nothing else. I can recall one moment in which victims of a flood had left the symbol on his costume painted on their roof to attract his attention. On the other hand, there were many others viewed him as a real threat against humanity . . . even after he had saved them from General Zod’s plans in “MAN OF STEEL”. Both Bruce and Senator Finch blamed Superman for the destruction that had occurred in Metropolis nearly two years ago, conveniently forgetting that it was Zod’s arrival on Earth that had led to that destruction. I came away with the feeling that people like Bruce, Senator Finch and Wayne Enterprises employee Wallace Keefe used Superman as a scapegoat, since the latter ended up being the last Kryptonian left standing. I do not find this surprising for using others as scapegoats is a very human thing to do. After the Congress bombing, even those who had seen Superman as a savior began to think otherwise. They did not come to this conclusion via any investigation on their parts. Superman was the last person standing and ergo, became “Suspect Number One” . . . just as he had become following Zod’s death. No wonder Clark had fallen into despair and walked away for a while. And no wonder Diana had such contempt toward the public’s renewed good opinion of Superman following the battle against Doomsday.

I have been talking about the plot so much that I forgot about other aspects of “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” – namely its technical and artistic effects. I might as well start with Patrick Tatopoulos’ production design. Tatopoulos did not have to create an alien world or a setting from the past. But I was impressed by his duel designs for not only the cities of Metropolis and Gotham, but also the northern African town at the movie’s beginning, Washington D.C. and the damage caused by Doomsday in the two fictional cities. He had ample support from the art direction and visual effects teams. I was surprised that Zack Snyder did not use Larry Fong as cinematographer for “MAN OF STEEL”. Because the latter had worked with Snyder on both “300” and “THE WATCHMEN”. In a way, Fong’s style, which struck me as sleek, rich in color and slightly dark, reminded me of Wally Pfister’s work for many of Christopher Nolan’s films. I have noticed that a good of Han Zimmer’s movie scores have seemed a little heavy-handed lately. And it certainly seemed to be the case for “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”. But there were moments when that heavy-handedness seemed to mesh rather well with certain scenes, especially during those that hinted the future Justice League of America and the battle against Doomsday.

Ben Affleck became the eighth actor to portray Bruce Wayne aka Batman on screen (television or movie) and the public had not reacted well to the news of his casting. I found this astounding, considering that Affleck is a first-rate actor, who had previous experience portraying a costume hero when he played Matt Murdock aka Daredevil in the 2003 movie about the character. Affleck did an excellent job in portraying the paranoid aspects of Wayne’s nature in a very intense and at times, slightly scary manner. Henry Cavill was equally effective in his continuing portrayal of Clark Kent aka Superman. The loneliness that seemed to mark his performance in “MAN OF STEEL” seemed to have been replaced by satisfaction in Clark’s relationship with Lois Lane, intense determination to investigate Batman’s activities and frustration with Perry White’s unwillingness to allow him to embark on that investigation. My favorite scene with Cavill involved Clark’s quarrel with Perry about investigating Batman. And my favorite Cavill moment was the “What the fuck is wrong with you?” expression he gave Luthor when the latter introduced him to the Doomsday monster. But following the Congress bombing, that old despair and loneliness returned in full force. When I first heard about this movie, I thought Amy Adams’ role would be reduced from what it was in “MAN OF STEEL”. Thankfully, my fears were abated, for not only did Lois continue to play a major role in this DC Comics universe, she also played a major role in exposing Luthor’s plans and eliminating Batman’s anger toward Superman. Being the consummate actress that she is, Adams did a superb job in conveying not only Lois’ emotional vulnerability regarding Clark and what happened in northern Africa, but also her intelligence and determination to discover the truth.

The movie also featured an exceptional performance from Jesse Eisenberg as main villain, Lex Luthor. Not only was his movie exceptional, but also rather surprising. It was not that I thought him incapable of portraying a villain, but I just could not see him as Lex Luthor. I was wrong. He gave a fantastic performance. It seemed both subtle and overly dramatic at the same time . . . in a good way. He made Luthor seem very eccentric . . . again, in a good way. Diane Lane returned to portray Clark’s adoptive mother, Martha Kent. Her portrayal of Martha struck me as rather unusual. In other comic book hero movies, maternal types like Martha tend to give speeches to the main hero in order to motivate them in serving the public. What I liked about Lane’s Martha is that she was more concerned about Clark’s well being and happiness than him fulfilling some destiny as a hero or savior. It may seem selfish, but it also seemed very real to me.

Gal Gadot became the first actress to portray Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman in a very long time. Ever since Lynda Carter ended her run with the ABC/CBS series in 1979, Hollywood seemed reluctant to bring the Amazonian Princess back to the screen. Thankfully, Warner Brothers, Snyder and Nolan ended that dry run by hiring Gadot for the role. And she was perfect . . . spot on. I never thought another actress could do justice to the role – except for Marvel alumni Jamie Alexander from “THOR”. But Gadot was perfect and I look forward to seeing her solo movie. Jeremy Irons, to my utmost surprise, became DC Comics’ new Alfred Pennyworth. His portrayal seemed so different from past performances – a little less of a servant and more of a companion for Bruce. More importantly, I really enjoyed the sardonic wit that Irons had infused into the character. But he was not the only one. Laurence Fishburne returned as Clark and Lois’ boss, Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White. In “MAN OF STEEL”, Fishburne had infused a touch of dry wit into his portrayal. In this movie, that wit was in full force and even more sharper – especially in the actor’s scenes with Cavill. I really enjoyed his presence in this film. The movie also featured some excellent supporting performances from the likes of Holly Hunter, who gave a wonderfully sarcastic speech to Luthor in her portrayal of Senator June Finch; Harry Lennix, who returned as former General now Secretary Calvin Swanwick; Scoot McNairy, who portrayed Wallace Keefe, the Wayne Enterprises employee who had been crippled during Superman’s battle with General Zod; and Kevin Costner, who returned with a poignant performance as the ghostly figure of Clark’s adoptive father, Jonathan Kent.

To this day, I am flabbergasted by the media’s negative campaign against “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”. I do not understand it . . . period. I could have understood if the movie had drawn some criticism. But this unrelenting criticism struck me as unreal . . . especially after I had seen the film. But you know what? I realize that I should not care. I saw the movie twice and I enjoyed what I had seen. Yes, “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” (what a mouthful!) had some flaws. What movie does not? But overall, I was very pleased by this film. I like to think that I understood what director Zack Snyder, along with screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer were trying to say. And I enjoyed the performances of the cast led by Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill very much. More importantly, I am glad that the cinematic version of the Justice League of America has finally commenced. Regardless of the opinions of others, “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” more than satisfied me. It has become one of my favorite movies of 2016.

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1840s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1840s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1840s

1 - The Heiress

1. “The Heiress” (1949) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 play, which was an adaptation of Henry James’ 1980 novel, “Washington Square”. The movie starred Oscar winner Olivia De Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins.

2 - All This and Heaven Too

2. “All This and Heaven Too” (1940) – Anatole Litvak co-produced and directed this excellent adaptation of Rachel Fields’ 1938 novel. The movie starred Bette Davis and Charles Boyer.

3 - Half-Slave Half-Free Solomon Northup Odyssey

3. “Half-Slave, Half-Free: The Solomon Northup Odyssey” (1984) – Avery Brooks starred in this emotional television adaptation of Solomon Northups’ 1853 memoirs, “12 Years a Slave”. Directed by Gordon Parks, the movie co-starred Rhetta Greene, John Saxon, Lee Bryant, Art Evans and Mason Adams.

5 - The Mark of Zorro

4. “The Mark of Zorro” (1940) – Rouben Mamoulian directed this superb adaptation of Johnston McCulley’s 1919 story called “The Curse of Capistrano”. The movie starred Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Basil Rathbone.

4 - The Liberators

5. “The Liberators” (1987) – Robert Carradine and Larry B. Scott starred in this Disney adventure film about Underground Railroad conductor John Fairfield and his fugitive slave friend, Bill; who escort Kentucky slaves north of the Mason-Dixon Line to freedom. Kenneth Johnson starred.

6 - The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin

6. “The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin” (1967) – Roddy McDowall and Suzanne Pleshette starred in this Disney adaptation of Sid Fleischman’s 1963 children’s novel called “By the Great Horn Spoon!”. James Neilson directed.

7 - Camille

7. “Camille” (1936) – George Cukor directed this lavish adaptation of Alexandre Dumas fils’ 1848 novel and 1852 play called “La Dame aux Camélias”. The movie starred Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor.

8 - Cousin Bette

8. “Cousin Bette” (1998) – Jessica Lange starred in this loose adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s 1846 novel. Although unpopular with critics and moviegoers, it is a favorite of mine. Directed by Des McAnuff, the movie co-starred Hugh Laurie, Elisabeth Shue and Kelly MacDonald.

9 - Jane Eyre

9. “Jane Eyre” (2011) – Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender starred in the 2011 movie adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel. The movie was directed by Cary Fukunaga.

10 - 12 Years a Slave

10. “12 Years a Slave” (2013) – British director Steve McQueen helmed this Oscar winning second adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoirs about the latter’s experiences as a slave in the Deep South. The movie starred Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender.

“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

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“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

I first learned about Solomon Northup many years ago, when I came across a television adaptation of his story in my local video story. One glance at the video case for the 1984 movie, “HALF SLAVE, HALF FREE:  SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”, made me assume that this movie was basically a fictional tale. But when I read the movie’s description on the back of the case, I discovered that I had stumbled across an adaption about a historical figure. 

Intrigued by the idea of a free black man in antebellum America being kidnapped into slavery, I rented “HALF-SLAVE, HALF-FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”, which starred Avery Brooks, and enjoyed it very much. In fact, I fell in love with Gordon Park’s adaption so much that I tried to buy a video copy of the movie. But I could not find it. Many years passed before I was able to purchase a DVD copy. And despite the passage of time, I still remained impressed by the movie. However, I had no idea that someone in the film industry would be interested in Northup’s tale again. So, I was very surprised to learn of a new adaptation with Brad Pitt as one of the film’s producer and Briton Steve McQueen as another producer and the film’s director.

Based upon Northup’s 1853 memoirs of the same title, “12 YEARS A SLAVE” told the story of a New York-born African-American named Solomon Northup, who found himself kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Northup was a 33 year-old carpenter and violinist living in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and children. After Mrs. Northup leaves Saratoga Springs with their children for a job that would last for several weeks, Northup is approached by two men, who offered him a brief, high-paying job as a musician with their traveling circus. Without bothering to inform Northup traveled with the strangers as far as south as Washington, D.C. Not long after his arrival in the capital, Northup found himself drugged and later, bound in the cell of a slave pen. When Northup tried to claim he was a free man, he was beaten and warned never again to mention his free status again.

Eventually, Northup and a group of other slaves were conveyed to the slave marts of New Orleans, Louisiana and given the identity of a Georgia-born slave named “Platt”. There, a slave dealer named Theophilus Freeman sells him to a plantation owner/minister named William Ford. The latter’s kindness seemed to be offset by his unwillingness to acknowledge the sorrow another slave named Eliza over her separation from her children. When Northup has a violent clash with one of Ford’s white employees, a carpenter named John Tibeats, the planter is forced to sell the Northerner to another planter named Edwin Epps. Unfortunately for Northup, Epps proves to be a brutal and hard man. Even worse, Epps becomes sexually interested in a female slave named Patsey. She eventually becomes a victim of Epps’ sexual abuse and Mrs. Epps’ jealousy. And Epps becomes aware of Patsey’s friendship with Northup.

“12 YEARS A SLAVE” gained a great deal of critical acclaim since its release. It won three Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture; and two British Academy Awards (BAFTAs).  Many critics and film goers consider it the truest portrait of American slavery ever shown in a Hollywood film. I have to admit that both director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have created a powerful film. Both did an excellent job of translating the basic gist of Solomon Northup’s experiences to the screen. And both did an excellent job re-creating a major aspect of American slavery. I was especially impressed by certain scenes that featured the emotional and physical trauma that Northup experienced during his twelve years as a Southern slave.

For me, one of the most powerful scenes featured Northup’s initial experiences at the Washington D.C. slave pen, where one of the owners resorted to physical abuse to coerce him into acknowledging his new identity as “Platt”. Other powerful scenes include the slave mart sequence in New Orleans, where fellow slave Eliza had to endure the loss of her children through sale. I found the revelation of Eliza’s mixed blood daughter being sold to a New Orleans bordello rather troubling and heartbreaking. Northup’s encounter with Tibeats struck me fascinating . . . in a dark way. But the film’s most powerful scene – at least for me – proved to be the harsh whipping that Patsey endured for leaving the plantation to borrow soap from a neighboring plantation. Some people complained that particular scene bordered on “torture porn”. I disagree. I found it brutal and frank.

I have to give kudos to the movie’s visual re-creation of the country’s Antebellum Period. As in any well made movie, this was achieved by a group of talented people. Adam Stockhausen’s production designs impressed me a great deal, especially in scenes featuring Saratoga Springs of the 1840s, the Washington D.C. sequences, the New Orleans slave marts and of course, the three plantations where Northup worked during his twelve years in Louisiana. In fact, the entire movie was filmed in Louisiana, including the Saratoga Springs and Washington D.C. sequences. And Sean Bobbitt’s photography perfectly captured the lush beauty and color of the state. Trust the movie’s producers and McQueen to hire long time costume designer, Patricia Norris, to design the film’s costumes. She did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions worn during the period between 1841 and 1852-53.

Most importantly, the movie benefited from a talented cast that included Garrett Dillahunt as a white field hand who betrays Northup’s attempt to contact friends in New York; Paul Giamatti as the New Orleans slave dealer Theophilus Freeman; Michael K. Williams as fellow slave Robert, who tried to protect Eliza from a lustful sailor during the voyage to Louisiana; Alfre Woodward as Mistress Shaw, the black common-law wife of a local planter; and Bryan Batt as Judge Turner, a sugar planter to whom Northup was loaned out. More impressive performances came from Paul Dano as the young carpenter John Tibeats, who resented Northup’s talent as a carpenter; Sarah Poulson, who portrayed Edwin Epp’s cold wife and jealous wife; and Adepero Oduye, who was effectively emotional as the slave mother Eliza, who lost her children at Freeman’s slave mart. Benedict Cumberbatch gave a complex portrayal of Northup’s first owner, the somewhat kindly William Ford. However, I must point out that the written portrayal of the character may have been erroneous, considering Northup’s opinion of the man. Northup never judged Ford as a hypocrite, but only a a good man who was negatively influenced by the slave society. But the two best performances, in my opinion, came from Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and especially Best Actor Oscar nominee and BAFTA winner Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Nyong’o gave a beautiful performance as the abused slave woman Patsey, whose endurance of Epps’ lust and Mrs. Epps’ wrath takes her to a breaking point of suicidal desire.  Chiwetel Ejiofor, whom I have been aware for the past decade, gave the definitive performance of his career – so far – as the New Yorker Solomon Northup, who finds himself trapped in the nightmarish situation of American slavery. Ejiofor did an excellent job of conveying Northup’s emotional roller coaster experiences of disbelief, fear, desperation and gradual despair.

But is “12 YEARS A SLAVE” perfect? No. Trust me, it has its flaws. Many have commented on the film’s historical accuracy in regard to American slavery and Northup’s twelve years in Louisiana. First of all, both McQueen and Ridley took historical liberty with some of Northup’s slavery experience for the sake of drama. If I must be honest, that does not bother me. The 1984 movie with Avery Brooks did the same. I dare anyone to find a historical movie that is completely accurate about its topic. But what did bother me was some of the inaccuracies featured in the movie’s portrayal of antebellum America.

One scene featured Northup eating in a Washington D.C. hotel dining room with his two kidnapper. A black man eating in the dining room of a fashionable Washington D.C. hotel in 1841? Were McQueen and Ridley kidding? The first integrated Washington D.C. hotel opened in 1871, thirty years later. Even more ludicrous was a scene featuring a drugged and ill Northup inside one of the hotel’s room near white patrons. Because he was black, Northup was forced to sleep in a room in the back of the hotel. The death of the slave Robert at the hands of a sailor bent on raping Eliza struck me as ludicrous. One, it never happened. And two, there is no way some mere sailor – regardless of his color – could casually kill a slave owned by another. Especially a slave headed for the slave marts. He would find himself in serious financial trouble. Even Tibeats had been warned by Ford’s overseer about the financial danger he would face upon killing Northup. I can only assume that Epps was a very hands on planter, because I was surprised by the numerous scenes featuring him supervising the field slaves. And I have never heard of this before. And I am still shaking my head at the scene featuring Northup’s visit to the Shaw plantation, where he found a loaned out Patsey having refreshments with the plantation mistress, Harriet Shaw. Black or white, I simply find it difficult to surmise a plantation mistress having refreshments with a slave – owned or loaned out. Speaking of Patsey’s social visit to the Shaw plantation, could someone explain why she and Mistress Shaw are eating a dessert that had been created in France, during the late 19th century? Check out the image below:

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The image features the two women eating macarons. Now I realize that macarons had existed even before the 1840s. But the macarons featured in the image above (with a sweet paste creating a sandwich with two cookies) first made their debut, thanks to a pair of Parisian bakers in the late 19th century, decades after the movie’s setting. This was a very sloppy move either on the part of Stockhausen or the movie’s set decorator, Alice Baker.

And if I must be frank, I had a problem with some of the movie’s dialogue. I realize that McQueen and Ridley were attempting to recapture the dialogue of 19th century America. But there were times I felt they had failed spectacularly. Some of it brought back painful memories of the stilted dialogue from the 2003 Civil War movie, “GODS AND GENERALS”. The words coming out of the actors’ mouths struck me as part dialogue, part speeches. The only thing missing was a speech from a Shakespearean play.

Not only did I have a problem with the dialogue, but also some of the performances. Even those performances I had earlier praised nearly got off tracked by the movie’s more questionable dialogue. But I was not impressed by two particular performances. One came from Brad Pitt, who portrayed a Canadian carpenter hired by Epps to build a gazebo. To be fair, my main problems with Pitt’s performance was the dialogue that sounded like a speech . . . and his accent. Do Canadians actually sound like that? In fact, I find it difficult to pinpoint what kind of accent he actually used. The performance that I really found troubling was Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the brutal Edwin Epps. Mind you, he had his moments of subtle acting that really impressed me – especially in scenes featuring Epps’ clashes with his wife or the more subtle attempts of intimidation of Northup. Those moments reminded me why I had been a fan of the actor for years.  Perhaps those moments led him to earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  But Fassbender’s Epps mainly came off as a one-dimensional villain with very little subtlety or complexity. Consider the image below in which Fassbender is trying to convey Epps’ casual brutality:

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For me, it seemed as if the actor is trying just a little too hard. And I suspect that McQueen’s direction is to blame for this. I blame both McQueen and Ridley for their failure to reveal Epps’ insecurities, which were not only apparent in Northup’s memoirs, but also in the 1984 movie. Speaking of McQueen, there were times when I found his direction heavy-handed. This was especially apparent in most of Fassbender’s scenes and in sequences in which some of the other characters’ dialogue spiraled into speeches. And then there was Hans Zimmer’s score. I have been a fan of Zimmer for nearly two decades. But I have to say that I did not particularly care for his work in “12 YEARS A SLAVE”. His use of horns in the score struck me as somewhat over-the-top.

Do I feel that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” deserves its acclaim? Well . . . yes. Despite its flaws, it is a very good movie that did not whitewash Solomon Northup’s brutal experiences as a slave. And it also featured some exceptional performances, especially from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o. But I also feel that some of the acclaim that the movie has garnered, may have been undeserved, along with its Oscar and BAFTA Best Picture awards.  As good as it was, I found it hard to accept that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” was the best movie about American slavery ever made.

“ARGO” (2012) Review

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“ARGO” (2012) Review

Ben Affleck must be at a lucky point in his career. His third directorial effort had recently been released in theaters and became a commercial and critical hit . . . like his two previous films. The movie also won several awards, including the top prize – the Academy Awards Best Picture of 2012.  And Affleck never struck me as the type who would direct and star in a film about the CIA rescuing American diplomats from the Middle East, let alone co-produce it. But he did and the result is the movie, “ARGO”

“ARGO” began in early November 1979, when Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran and took most of the civilian and military staff hostage in retaliation for American offering refuge for the deposed Shah of Iran. At least six staff diplomats managed to get out of the embassy and seek refuge at the home of Canada’s ambassador, Ken Taylor. With the six diplomats’ situation kept secret, the C.I.A. assigns one of their operatives, one Tony Mendez, to find a way to get the diplomats out of Iran before they could be discovered. After dismissing several proposals, Mendez creates a cover story that the escapees are Canadian filmmakers, scouting “exotic” locations in Iran for a science-fiction film.

Mendez and his C.I.A. supervisor Jack O’Donnell, contact John Chambers, a Hollywood make-up artist who has previously crafted disguises for the C.I.A., in addition to his work in the “PLANET OF THE APES” film series. Chambers puts them in touch with a film producer named Lester Siegel. Mendez, Chambers and Siegel set up a fake film studio and successfully establish the pretense of developing Argo, a“science fantasy” in the style of “STAR WARS” in order to lend credibility to the cover story. Meanwhile, the escapees grow frantic inside the ambassador’s residence. Shredded documentation from the American embassy is being reassembled, providing the militants with evidence that there are embassy personnel unaccounted for.

I am going to cut to the chase. I enjoyed “ARGO” very much. What am I saying? I really enjoyed this movie. So far, it is one of the better ones I have seen this year. Once again, Affleck knocked it out of the ballpark with a first-rate thriller that gave audiences a peek into the efforts of the C.I.A. to save those six diplomats who managed to get captured by the militants. Affleck, along with screenwriter Chris Terrio, did an excellent job in setting up the entire story from beginning to end.

One of the movie’s gem scenes featured the actual storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. It is quite obvious that Affleck, along with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, used a hand-held camera style to film this particular sequence. And although I am not a fan of this particular style, I must say that it suited this particular sequence very well, projecting an effective sense of chaos and panic.“ARGO” featured other memorable scenes, including Mendez’s efforts to recruit both Chambers and Siegel for his mission, a tense encounter between Taylor’s Iranian maid and intelligence officers looking for the diplomats, the humor-filled setup of the Argo Operation in Hollywood, frustrating moments in which Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan came close to shutting down Mendez’s operation, the final escape from Iran by air and a nail-biting sequence in which the same group hit the streets of Tehran for a “location scouting mission” in order to maintain their cover.

There is so much about this movie that I enjoyed that it would take an essay for me to explain in great detail. I do not have the patience for such a project, but I do have to comment on the movie’s technical aspects. Not only did Rodrigo Prieto did an excellent job in re-creating the violence and confusion of the American embassy takeover, he also captured the muted glamour and insanity of Hollywood with vivid color. I could see that a great deal of his work benefited from some outstanding editing from William Goldenberg. In fact, I really have to hand it to Sharon Seymour and her production designing team for their re-creation of the 1979-1980 period in American and Iranian history. Seymour and her team were ably assisted by Peter Borck
and Deniz Göktürk’s art direction, along with Jacqueline West’s realistic looking costume designs.

But “ARGO” would have never worked by Affleck’s outstanding direction and the talented actors and actresses that were part of the cast. Not only was I impressed by Affleck’s direction, but also his subtle performance as C.I.A. operative Tony Mendez, who did not need guns and fighting skills to accomplish his task – merely brains and nerves of steel. John Goodman was marvelous as the witty and slightly cynical make-up artist, John Chambers. He also had great chemistry with both Affleck and Alan Arkin, who portrayed the sardonic and prickly Hollywood producer, Lester Siegel. I was not that kind to Bryan Cranston in my review of “TOTAL RECALL”. But it was great to see his magic again, in his fiery and funny portrayal of Mendez’s C.I.A. supervisor, Jack O’Donnell.

“ARGO” also featured some wonderful supporting performances as well. Kyle Chandler made two brief, but very memorable appearances and President Jimmy Carter’s foul-mouthed Chief of Staff, Hamilton “Ham” Jordan. It is a pity that his role was not longer. I was also impressed by those who portrayed the besieged diplomats – the always entertaining Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishé. Scoot McNairy and Rory Cochrane were especially memorable as a paranoid Joe Stafford and the hilariously sarcastic Lee Schatz. Victor Garber gave solid support as Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who gave the diplomats refuge. And Sheila Vand was marvelous in the tense scenes that featured the Taylors’ Iranian housekeeper, Sahar. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Titus Welliver, Bob Gunton and Philip Baker Hall.

Naturally, “ARGO” is not a perfect movie. Not all of it is historically accurate. This was very obvious in one shot that featured a dilapidated HOLLYWOOD sign that overlooks the Los Angeles Basin. The sign was restored to its former glory in November 1978, 14 to 15 months before Tony Mendez’s arrival in Southern California. And I found Mendez and the diplomats’ encounter with the Iranian airport security guards and escape from the country somewhat contrived and manipulative.

Flawed or not, I cannot deny that I found “ARGO” to be one of the most satisfying movies of the year. I enjoyed it that much, thanks to a first-rate script by Chris Terrio, superb direction by Affleck and an excellent cast that included John Goodman, Bryan Cranston and Alan Arkin. In the end, “ARGO” strikes me as another triumph for Affleck and his two co-producers, George Clooney and Grant Heslov.