FS, Contributing Writer
“12 Years a Slave”
Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” (wide release) is a lacerating portrait of what’s been termed America’s original sin.
Based on the nineteenth-century memoir of a free black man in New York who was abducted by slave traders, sold into bondage and forced to labor on Louisiana plantations for more than a decade, the film is powerfully acted by Chiwetel Ejiofor as the unfortunate victim and Michael Fassbender as the most brutal of his masters. There’s also a vivid performance by Lupita Nyong’o as a slave whom Fassbender takes as his mistress but nonetheless treats brutally.
The only flaw in the film is McQueen’s penchant for visual artiness. Many of the images are so carefully composed that they resemble paintings rather than real life, and the effect is to distance the viewer from the narrative. The result is a film that works more on an intellectual than an emotional level.
Still, this is a strong depiction of a subject that has been treated infrequently in American films, and, in the relatively rare instances when it has been addressed, has been too often romanticized.
Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor” (wide release) is based on the first original script by noted novelist Cormac McCarthy, but, despite some characteristically pungent dialogue, it’s an almost complete failure.
The plot has something to do with a scheme to hijack a truckload of drugs being driven into the United States from Mexico, and the disaster it brings to a lawyer (Michael Fassbender again) who’s a nervous partner in the operation and becomes the target of a murderous cartel when it goes awry.
Almost nothing in the movie goes right, either. The details of the intricate robbery scheme are never satisfactorily explained, so the whole thing becomes nearly incoherent. The story turns violent and ugly, with some scenes so gory that they’re hard to watch. And toward the close characters begin to spout long, pseudo-poetic monologues about life, death and destiny that are so overwritten that they’re positively laughable.
Some notable actors – Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt along with Fassbender – are wasted in this misbegotten effort that presumably wants to be clever but winds up merely being repulsive.
Director Kimberly Peirce’s new take on Steven King’s “Carrie” (wide release), about the telekinetic teen who takes vengeance on her high-school tormentors at the prom, follows the script of its 1976 predecessor remarkably closely, apart from some obligatory updating involving cellphones and YouTube postings.
But Peirce’s approach to the material is much different from the darkly humorous, visually flamboyant one that Brian De Palma took in the earlier film. This time around, King’s story is played perfectly straight, and, though some of the scenes of destruction in the last reel are amped up to meet the more ghoulish expectations of today’s audiences, the effect this time around is more realistic, pointing out the tale’s relevance at a time when the problem of bullying has increasingly become a matter of concern.
It’s a film that’s unlikely to achieve the classic status of De Palma’s, but, with strong performances from Chloe Grace Moretz in the title role and Julianne Moore as Carrie’s fanatical mother, it proves to be a respectable alternative.
It’s retro time at the movies with “Escape Plan” (wide release), a prison-break flick starring two leftovers from ’80s action pictures, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The plot is given a contemporary twist in that the lockup is a secret black-ops facility where particularly dangerous malefactors are “disappeared” without benefit of due process. Stallone is the innocent man wrongly incarcerated there, a specialist in prison security who was hired to test the place’s design, and Schwarzenegger is the canny inmate who helps him execute an escape for reasons of his own.
Despite its underlying critique of “extraordinary measures” to deal with the worst of the worst, this is basically a live-action cartoon, but only one of the two aging stars gives it the punch it needs. Schwarzenegger seems to be having a good old time, ripping into his lines with zest. But Stallone is his characteristically sleepy self, slogging through the picture without much energy.
As a nostalgia trip, this “Plan” is serviceable. But otherwise it’s just a mediocre reminder of the sort of movie they don’t make anymore – and probably shouldn’t.