Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave” is a mixed beast. Building up enormous critical praise for his unnerving long shots and previous career as a visual artist boldly invading the cinema landscape, “12 Years A Slave” looks ravishing even if its topic of slavery is nauseating. Like he did in “Hunger” and “Shame”, McQueen has taken a tough subject and created a lyrical exploration, both in the mournful eyes of star Chiwetel Eijofor and his bracing use of foreground and background- such as a partial lynching that goes on for an uncomfortable amount of time and a whipping, full of swish pans and a roving steadicam that ignites the pain in excruciating real time. But the brilliantly attuned technical stuff aside, I still came away with the feeling that nothing new, introspective or especially interesting had been revealed in this true life tale of a New York black man kidnapped and sold into slavery. I know that sounds harsh, but “12 Years A Slave” is one of those ‘important’ films whose reach feels aimed at embracing that importance rather than an organic experience. A solid film, but one that I’m just not doing cartwheels over.
The second Michael Fassbender film in a week is Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor”. Written by novelist Cormac McCarthy, “The Counselor” is my pick for screenplay of the year. Bleak, black and utterly cruel, “The Counselor” offers no escape for its characters- Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt and Penelope Cruz- to escape the sun stained borders of Texas and Mexico as a drug deal goes terribly wrong. Rambling scenes of dialogue between characters that espouse the nature of guilt and sorrow, huge plot points that seem to be avoided for the sake of avoidance, and an ever shifting alliance between everyone are just a few of the tricks in McCarthy’s hellish void. “The Counselor” has been called misogynistic, nasty and just plain bad…. But I ask what did anyone expect from the creator of such works as “The Road”, “Blood Meridan” and “No Country For Old Men”?
Thinking back to the awfulness of “Bobby”- in which a parade of stars moonlighted in 60’s wardrobe and waded in melodramatic moments- I went into Peter Landesman’s “Parkland” with a bit of apprehension. Though the film does suffer from some of the same moments of grandstanding, “Parkland” still succeeds due to its treatment of marginalized events in the JFK assassination as well as some resonant performances. Based on a script by Landesman, “Parkland” tracks the three days in Dallas, November 1963 from the intimate (James Badge Dale as Lee Harvey Oswald's brother) to the generic. There are fascinating moments sprinkled throughout, such as the heartbreaking scene with the Secret Service literally breaking apart Air Force One in order to fit JFK’s casket onto the plane and the reaction of a Dallas cop opening a car door for the First Lady. There are also cringe-worthy moments…. And its this episodic nature that holds “Parkland” back from being something truly spectacular. It also features the ever annoying herky-jerky handheld camera technique that feels like an overcompensation.