Movie Project #26: Rudy [1993]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Rudy [1993]

Rudy [1993] 
Director: David Anspaugh
Writer: Angelo Pizzo
Country: USA
Genre: Biography/Drama/Sport
Starring: Sean Astin, Jon Favreau, Ned Beatty
Running Time: 114 minutes

When it comes to inspirational films, Rudy has a surefire winning formula. It’s based on a true story, it involves a massive underdog, and it’s about someone who refuses to stop following his dreams. Football is at the heart of the story, but it’s the type of feel good flick that can appeal to anyone.

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Movie Project #8: The Insider [1999]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

The Insider [1999]

The Insider [1999]
Director: Michael Mann
Writer: Michael Mann, Eric Roth
Country: USA
Genre: Biography/Drama/Thriller
Starring: Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer
Running Time: 157 minutes

Whistleblowing reports are ripe for film adaptations, and Michael Mann’s The Insider turns one such true story into a gripping thriller. No action scenes are necessary here; instead, the film builds tension through the tumultuous work that is investigative journalism, and the extreme lengths large corporations will go to cover their asses.

Russell Crowe plays Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, a research chemist who decides to blow the whistle on the illegal behavior of his former employer, Brown & Williamson. Part of the triumvirate that is Big Tobacco, B&W had blatantly lied to Congress about the addictive nature of their cigarettes. Wigand is persuaded to spill the beans about these blatant perjuries by 60 Minutes producer, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino).

There’s a lot on the line here. Wigand is breaking his confidentiality agreement, thereby risking jail, and he is receiving all sorts of legal pressure from his former company. He becomes paranoid, believing there to be threats on his life, and it begins to unravel his once-stable family. Bergman, determined to get this story out there, is fighting profusely with his superiors at CBS. They are worried about the possible financial repurcussions that could happen if they were to air an interview with Wigand. There’s a lot of back-and-forth drama going on, and the pressure takes its toll on both men. By the end of the film, both Wigand and Bergman look like they have been to hell and back. It’s an increasingly desperate battle between the evil corporation and those seeking to tell the truth.

The Insider [1999]

There is an equal emphasis on both men in this film. We grow to learn more about Wigand early on, as he battles with himself on whether or not to fully go through with his actions. Later, Bergman is the main focus as he fights tooth and nail to get the 60 Minutes interview with Wigand on the air and unedited. Even when things are looking absolutely dire, neither one gives up.

Both characters are well-written and given an ample amount of screen time, and Crowe and Pacino bring out the best in them. As the film goes on, it becomes more and more noticeable just how much of an uphill climb they have ahead of them. Crowe and Pacino are backed by an impressive supporting cast, including Christopher Plummer as 60 Minutes anchor Mike Wallace, Philip Baker Hall as the TV show’s top boss, and Diane Venora as Wigand’s distraught wife.

The Insider [1999]

If there is a flaw in the film, it’s the running time. This is a captivating story, no doubt, but it feels a bit stretched too thin to warrant a running time of over two and a half hours. There are moments where the film drags, and a bit more editing would have been beneficial.

In the end, The Insider asks the question: is justice really worth fighting for? In this case, yes, it appears so. All of the hard work from these two men did pay off, as the Big Tobacco companies reached a massive settlement (over $200 billion) with all 50 states. Wigand and Bergman emerged as different men by the end of it all, but it can be argued their perseverance made them stronger than they ever were before.

8/10

Movie Project #6: Catch Me If You Can [2002]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Catch Me If You Can [2002]

Catch Me If You Can [2002]
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Jeff Nathanson (screenplay), Stan Redding (book), Frank Abagnale (book)
Country: USA
Genre: Biography/Crime/Drama
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Amy Adams
Running Time: 141 minutes

I’m always a sucker for “truth is stranger than fiction” narratives, which is why I made Catch Me If You Can one of my first selections from this year’s project. An imposter movie with Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, a possibly rejuvenated Steven Spielberg… it has all the ingredients for a fun, memorable adventure. For the most part it works, but it doesn’t quite reach the levels it could have.

The story, set in the 1960s, is certainly interesting enough. DiCaprio plays a fresh-faced teen named Frank Abagnale, a con man who manages to pose as a pilot, doctor and lawyer all while earning himself millions of dollars by the age of 19. Tom Hanks is Carl Hanratty, an FBI bank fraud agent who catches onto Frank’s scheme and pursues him endlessly throughout the decade. Both are broken, lonely men who have pushed themselves beyond the point of exhaustion with their cat-and-mouse game. No matter what Hanratty does, Abagnale seems to be one step ahead of him.

Catch Me If You Can [2002]

It’s doubtful that Frank envisioned life as a con man, but his first taste of success pushes him farther and farther down the rabbit hole. If he could impersonate an airline pilot, gain access to their payroll system and even get invited into the cockpit on several flights — with minimal effort, mind you — why stop there? When Hanratty gets hot on his tail, Frank just shifts gears and becomes a doctor, somehow getting himself a supervisor gig at a hospital. At one point, Frank even pulls a fast one over Hanratty, escaping arrest by claiming to be a member of the Secret Service.

Watching Abagnale finagle his way out of tricky situations is always entertaining, though there are several moments that raise questions about just how true his claims really are. In particular, there is a scene near the end of the film in which he somehow manages to escape an airplane as it is landing — it’s as dubious as it sounds. As the film is based mostly on Abagnale’s own stories, it’s reasonable to assume he took some liberties in telling them. Perhaps in the end, he is still conning all of us watching his tale unfold on film.

Catch Me If You Can [2002]

And yet as wild and crazy as this story is, Spielberg never quite lets it reach the next level. The film overall feels safe and never really finds its footing. At times, it comes across as a comical, light-hearted adventure, while other times it gets bogged down by the drama surrounding the two leads. It’s still a fun watch, to be sure, but I can’t help but imagine how this would play out with an edgier filmmaker.

At the very least, the film does have a stellar cast to fall back on. DiCaprio and Hanks, though neither are at their best, are both effortlessly compelling, and they make for a memorable duo. Amy Adams, in one of her earliest roles, is a real highlight, playing the sweet and naive love interest of Abagnale. Christopher Walken is also terrific as Frank’s father who has issues of his own with the IRS.

Even with its flaws, Catch Me If You Can is a likable film that manages to make its extended running time feel shorter than it truly is. It’s not the best film from anyone involved, but it’s fine for what it is.

7/10

Movie Project #6: Catch Me If You Can [2002]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Catch Me If You Can [2002]

Catch Me If You Can [2002]
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Jeff Nathanson (screenplay), Stan Redding (book), Frank Abagnale (book)
Country: USA
Genre: Biography/Crime/Drama
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Amy Adams
Running Time: 141 minutes

I’m always a sucker for “truth is stranger than fiction” narratives, which is why I made Catch Me If You Can one of my first selections from this year’s project. An imposter movie with Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, a possibly rejuvenated Steven Spielberg… it has all the ingredients for a fun, memorable adventure. For the most part it works, but it doesn’t quite reach the levels it could have.

The story, set in the 1960s, is certainly interesting enough. DiCaprio plays a fresh-faced teen named Frank Abagnale, a con man who manages to pose as a pilot, doctor and lawyer all while earning himself millions of dollars by the age of 19. Tom Hanks is Carl Hanratty, an FBI bank fraud agent who catches onto Frank’s scheme and pursues him endlessly throughout the decade. Both are broken, lonely men who have pushed themselves beyond the point of exhaustion with their cat-and-mouse game. No matter what Hanratty does, Abagnale seems to be one step ahead of him.

Catch Me If You Can [2002]

It’s doubtful that Frank envisioned life as a con man, but his first taste of success pushes him farther and farther down the rabbit hole. If he could impersonate an airline pilot, gain access to their payroll system and even get invited into the cockpit on several flights — with minimal effort, mind you — why stop there? When Hanratty gets hot on his tail, Frank just shifts gears and becomes a doctor, somehow getting himself a supervisor gig at a hospital. At one point, Frank even pulls a fast one over Hanratty, escaping arrest by claiming to be a member of the Secret Service.

Watching Abagnale finagle his way out of tricky situations is always entertaining, though there are several moments that raise questions about just how true his claims really are. In particular, there is a scene near the end of the film in which he somehow manages to escape an airplane as it is landing — it’s as dubious as it sounds. As the film is based mostly on Abagnale’s own stories, it’s reasonable to assume he took some liberties in telling them. Perhaps in the end, he is still conning all of us watching his tale unfold on film.

Catch Me If You Can [2002]

And yet as wild and crazy as this story is, Spielberg never quite lets it reach the next level. The film overall feels safe and never really finds its footing. At times, it comes across as a comical, light-hearted adventure, while other times it gets bogged down by the drama surrounding the two leads. It’s still a fun watch, to be sure, but I can’t help but imagine how this would play out with an edgier filmmaker.

At the very least, the film does have a stellar cast to fall back on. DiCaprio and Hanks, though neither are at their best, are both effortlessly compelling, and they make for a memorable duo. Amy Adams, in one of her earliest roles, is a real highlight, playing the sweet and naive love interest of Abagnale. Christopher Walken is also terrific as Frank’s father who has issues of his own with the IRS.

Even with its flaws, Catch Me If You Can is a likable film that manages to make its extended running time feel shorter than it truly is. It’s not the best film from anyone involved, but it’s fine for what it is.

7/10

Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street [2013]

The Wolf of Wall Street [2013]

The Wolf of Wall Street [2013]
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Terence Winter (screenplay), Jordan Belfort (book)
Genre: Biography/Comedy/Crime
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie
Running Time: 180 minutes

The Wolf of Wall Street is exactly what I expected it to be — a wild, drugged-out ride through the career of a larger-than-life criminal. Sex, drugs and profanity profilerate the screen. It’s so over-the-top in its debauchery that it’s bound to infuriate those sensitive to such content. One of the very first scenes, in which Leonardo DiCaprio snorts cocaine off the backside of a hooker, tells you all you need to know about what the next three hours hold. If that doesn’t deter you, well, sit back and enjoy one of the craziest films you’ll see all year.

Set in the late 80s and into the 90s, the film follows the rise and fall of a cocky young stockbroker named Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio). While he starts out fairly mild-mannered as a married man, he begins spiraling out of control after accepting a profitable job selling penny stocks. As his wealth begins to accumulate, so does his lavish lifestyle. He forms his own company, Stratton Oakmont, hires a handful of friends (mostly drug dealers) and then molds them into successful brokers. Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) becomes his right-hand man, and Belfort scores himself a new hot wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie).

The Wolf of Wall Street [2013]

Belfort’s excess and fraudulent behavior catches the eye of FBI agent Greg Coleman (Kyle Chandler). The two of them play a bit of cat-and-mouse as Belfort starts shoveling his money to a Swiss bank account. He always seems to be one step ahead of the game, yet he simply doesn’t know when or how to stop. Naturally, his habits lead to his downfall.

Does Belfort change? No, not really. The more money he makes, the more out of control he gets. He throws spectacular parties for his employees, most of which are full of cocaine, Quaaludes and orgies. He’s a pretty awful guy all around, yet DiCaprio manages to make him so damn charismatic. Leo’s performance here is both batshit crazy and also one of the best in his career. Watching him dance, scream and jumble around while strung out on ‘ludes is worth the price of admission alone.

The Wolf of Wall Street [2013]

The supporting cast is absolutely terrific as well, with no weak links anywhere. Jonah Hill often goes into frightening territory with his character, but his drug adventures with DiCaprio make for many of the film’s best moments. (On a side note, who would have ever thought Hill would have *two* Oscar nominations? Dude deserves them though.) Matthew McConaughey has a great scene in which he acts as a bit of a mentor to Belfort, leading him in an awkward-but-amusing chest pounding chant. Rob Reiner, Spike Jonze and Jon Favreu all have notable bit parts, but perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is Margot Robbie. This Australian actress is the perfect counterpart to DiCaprio, even managing to steal a scene or two from him. She’s definitely one to keep an eye on in the future.

The Wolf of Wall Street‘s excess may be a bit too much at times, and it does bear quite a few similarities with Goodfellas, but Scorsese is still in top form here. The dark humor is so twisted and off-the-wall that I found myself laughing often, and quite frankly there is never a dull moment within the film’s three hour runtime. If you can handle the vulgarity, this one will not disappoint.

9/10

Movie Project #47: The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]

The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Writers: Joseph Delteil, Carl Theodor Dreyer
Country: France
Genre: Biography/Drama/History
Starring: Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, André Berley
Running Time: 82 minutes

During this year’s 50 Movies Project, I have seen a number of great films, many of which I would now even consider among my favorites. None of these, however, could have prepared me for the experience of watching the 1928 silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, for the first time.

Before watching this highly-regarded Carl Theodor Dreyer classic, I knew very little of the true Joan of Arc story. This was something that I never learned in school or had even heard of until I was much older. Yet it resonated with me in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]

The film focuses on the trial of Joan of Arc, a 19-year-old French maiden who, claiming divine guidance, led the French army against England during the Hundred Years’ War. After being captured by a group of French who remained loyal to England, she is put on trial for charges of heresy. Unable to get a confession out of Joan, the English bishops begin to ridicule and torture her. This does not prove effective, however, as Joan is adamant about her visions and guidance from God. Claiming charges of “insubordination and heterodoxy”, the English eventually tie her to a stake and horrifically burn her alive.

The on-screen proceedings are based on the actual trial documents, and this fact only adds to the emotional experience provided by the film. The way Joan is treated by what is essentially a group of old, bald, white guys that represent the Church is absolutely disgusting. She is mocked and treated cruelly by most involved, and the actual execution is presented as if it were a circus (complete with carnival performers and men on stilts). In fact, it is not until Joan is literally burning at the stake that the townspeople cause a ruckus. I know the world was significantly different in the 15th century (obviously), but it’s just baffling that something like this could even happen.

The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]

Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s performance as Joan of Arc is widely considered to be one of the best of all time, and I’m not even going to try to argue that point. Her facial expressions, often shown through Dreyer’s extreme close-ups, will haunt you for days. Legends state that Falconetti was legitimately treated harshly on set, being forced to kneel on hard stone for hours at a time in an effort to provoke genuine emotion out of her. Perhaps this treatment is why she never starred in another film after this; a shame, too, given her flawlessness here.

Quite frankly, The Passion of Joan of Arc completely blew me away. I had my reservations about watching a silent film that would appear to be dialogue-heavy, but I was transfixed from the very first scene. The version I watched was the one Dreyer intended, meaning that it was completely silent — no orchestra or score to speak of. This added to the intensity on screen, but I would love to watch this again someday with one of the acclaimed scores created afterward. Almost 100 years later, this film remains startingly effective.

10/10

Movie Project #43: A Beautiful Mind [2001]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

A Beautiful Mind [2001]

A Beautiful Mind [2001]
Director: Ron Howard
Writers: Akiva Goldsman, Sylvia Nasar (book)
Country: USA
Genre: Biography/Drama
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly, Christopher Plummer, Paul Bettany
Running Time: 135 minutes

(This post contains spoilers.)

The evolution of John Nash (Russell Crowe) in A Beautiful Mind is nothing short of remarkable.

In 1947, as a graduate student at Princeton University, Nash is a bold, cocky young man. He is confident in his mathematical talent, but his social skills are lacking. A flamboyant roommate, Charles Herman (Paul Bettany), helps bring him out of his shell, and eventually he fits in with a new circle of friends.

A Beautiful Mind [2001]

Nash’s personal growth is even more successful after college, as he gets a job as a professor at MIT, and he begins dating (and later marries) one of his very attractive students, Alicia (Jennifer Connelly). And just as he starts to grow tired of his day-to-day work, he gets a top-secret offer from a high-ranking Pentagon official, William Parcher (Ed Harris). Nash is confidentially hired on as a codebreaker, with his assignment being to find and decode hidden messages that the Russians placed into newspapers and magazines.

There’s just one problem. Parcher isn’t real.

Nash suffers from schizophrenia, and he is constantly imagining people and situations that don’t exist. Because he believes he is part of a classified government assignment, he becomes increasingly paranoid that the Russians are after him, and this begins to greatly impact his personal and professional life. Eventually, he is taken in by a psychiatrist, Dr. Rosen (Christopher Plummer), though the treatment at this time was only shock therapy.

A Beautiful Mind [2001]

The middle years of Nash’s life finds him struggling with his mental illness, unable to take care of his young son and also unable to work. The film’s big Hollywood moment arrives later on when Nash begins visiting MIT daily, eventually coming to terms with his hallucinations and getting his job back as a result. And, to make his story even more inspirational, the man earns a Nobel Peace Prize.

It’s a beautiful story, even if it does get a bit too schmaltzy at times. Russell Crowe does a phenomenal job as the very real (and still alive) Nash, and his mental illness is treated tactfully. Some bits of Nash’s actual life aren’t mentioned in the film, such as his bisexuality and his child out of wedlock, but director Ron Howard has claimed that this is not meant to be a literal representation. The rest of the performances, particularly that of Connelly and Harris, are excellent, and the acting as a whole helps elevate this film.

8/10

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave [2013]

12 Years a Slave [2013]

12 Years a Slave [2013]
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (based on “Twelve Years a Slave” by)
Genre: Biography/Drama/History
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt
Running Time: 134 minutes

No film this year has left me as emotionally shaken as 12 Years a Slave.

Based on the 1853 autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northrup, Steve McQueen’s latest effort unflinchingly shows the horrific atrocities of slavery in the southern United States. In 1841, Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in what is sure to be an Oscar-nominated performance) is a free black man living with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York. An accomplished violinist, he is offered the chance to go on tour with a band in a traveling circus. However, this turns out to be a ruse, as Solomon is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery during a night out in Washington DC.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

Forced to use a new name, “Platt”, Northrup is now treated as if he were a piece of property, being traded among multiple owners. His pleas describing how he is actually a free man fall on deaf ears. His first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), appears to have a slight bit of compassion, but make no mistake: he’s still a slaver. An incident on the plantation prompts Ford to send Northrup away to the only other owner who will take him: the brutally violent Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). From there, Solomon’s plight only gets worse.

Epps essentially serves as the film’s main villain, a drunken, religious nutjob with a tough wife (Sarah Paulson) and an obsession with one of his female slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). If any of his slaves fail to meet his daily quota in terms of cotton picked, they are taken out back and whipped over and over again. Both Northrup and Patsey feel the rage of Epps, and these moments make up some of the film’s most disturbing scenes.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

By all means, 12 Years a Slave is a difficult watch. McQueen is relentless in exposing us to the heinous reality of slavery, particularly through his signature long takes. One of the most uncomfortable examples of this involves an unhinged Paul Dano (playing a plantation overseer) beating Northrup repeatedly before proceeding to hang him from a tree. Although Dano’s character is forced to stop, nonetheless Northrup is still left hanging, with just the tips of his toes able to support him on the ground. It’s a disgusting sequence, and McQueen makes sure to show us damn near every minute of it.

By the end of the film, I was a wreck. I was so angry at what was happening on screen, and it made me sit down and start to reflect on my country. Although legal slavery in the U.S. and the subsequent Civil War happened 150+ years ago, that’s really not all that long ago. It’s mind-boggling to think that this happened at all, let alone in the not-so-distant past. I felt like I was put through the wringer, and chances are most will feel this same way.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

Everyone involved with this film is in top form here. Ejiofor is sure to get endless acclaim during awards season, and any accolades are well-deserved. I can’t think of a better leading man for this role. Fassbender is terrifying and unpredictable as a sadistic slave owner, further cementing his status as one of the best in the business right now. The supporting cast, which consists of such big names as Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti, all turn in noteworthy performances, but special mention must be made of two of the most prominent women in the film: Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong’o. Paulson is the perfect counterpart as Fassbender’s wife, driven by her intense jealousy, and frightening in her own way. Nyong’o, in her first feature film, is given some of the worst treatment, but she is more than up to the task. She is certainly someone to keep an eye out for in the near future.

12 Years a Slave is one of the most important films I have seen in some time. Not only is it the best 2013 film I have seen this year, it is the best film I have seen all year, period. It’s often a difficult watch, but it absolutely must be seen.

10/10

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave [2013]

12 Years a Slave [2013]

12 Years a Slave [2013]
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (based on “Twelve Years a Slave” by)
Genre: Biography/Drama/History
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt
Running Time: 134 minutes

No film this year has left me as emotionally shaken as 12 Years a Slave.

Based on the 1853 autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northrup, Steve McQueen’s latest effort unflinchingly shows the horrific atrocities of slavery in the southern United States. In 1841, Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in what is sure to be an Oscar-nominated performance) is a free black man living with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York. An accomplished violinist, he is offered the chance to go on tour with a band in a traveling circus. However, this turns out to be a ruse, as Solomon is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery during a night out in Washington DC.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

Forced to use a new name, “Platt”, Northrup is now treated as if he were a piece of property, being traded among multiple owners. His pleas describing how he is actually a free man fall on deaf ears. His first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), appears to have a slight bit of compassion, but make no mistake: he’s still a slaver. An incident on the plantation prompts Ford to send Northrup away to the only other owner who will take him: the brutally violent Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). From there, Solomon’s plight only gets worse.

Epps essentially serves as the film’s main villain, a drunken, religious nutjob with a tough wife (Sarah Paulson) and an obsession with one of his female slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). If any of his slaves fail to meet his daily quota in terms of cotton picked, they are taken out back and whipped over and over again. Both Northrup and Patsey feel the rage of Epps, and these moments make up some of the film’s most disturbing scenes.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

By all means, 12 Years a Slave is a difficult watch. McQueen is relentless in exposing us to the heinous reality of slavery, particularly through his signature long takes. One of the most uncomfortable examples of this involves an unhinged Paul Dano (playing a plantation overseer) beating Northrup repeatedly before proceeding to hang him from a tree. Although Dano’s character is forced to stop, nonetheless Northrup is still left hanging, with just the tips of his toes able to support him on the ground. It’s a disgusting sequence, and McQueen makes sure to show us damn near every minute of it.

By the end of the film, I was a wreck. I was so angry at what was happening on screen, and it made me sit down and start to reflect on my country. Although legal slavery in the U.S. and the subsequent Civil War happened 150+ years ago, that’s really not all that long ago. It’s mind-boggling to think that this happened at all, let alone in the not-so-distant past. I felt like I was put through the wringer, and chances are most will feel this same way.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

Everyone involved with this film is in top form here. Ejiofor is sure to get endless acclaim during awards season, and any accolades are well-deserved. I can’t think of a better leading man for this role. Fassbender is terrifying and unpredictable as a sadistic slave owner, further cementing his status as one of the best in the business right now. The supporting cast, which consists of such big names as Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti, all turn in noteworthy performances, but special mention must be made of two of the most prominent women in the film: Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong’o. Paulson is the perfect counterpart as Fassbender’s wife, driven by her intense jealousy, and frightening in her own way. Nyong’o, in her first feature film, is given some of the worst treatment, but she is more than up to the task. She is certainly someone to keep an eye out for in the near future.

12 Years a Slave is one of the most important films I have seen in some time. Not only is it the best 2013 film I have seen this year, it is the best film I have seen all year, period. It’s often a difficult watch, but it absolutely must be seen.

10/10

Movie Project #33: Amadeus [1984]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Amadeus [1984]

Amadeus [1984]
Director: Miloš Forman
Writers: Peter Shaffer (original stage play)
Country: USA
Genre: Biography/Drama/Music
Starring: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Jeffrey Jones
Running Time: 160 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This is considered one of the all-time great music films, and it has appeared on countless lists (and won numerous awards).

Accolades: 53 award nominations with 40 wins, most notably 8 Oscars (including Best Picture), four Golden Globes and four BAFTA Awards, #95 on IMDB Top 250, #53 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies

For a film named Amadeus, it’s a bit surprising that legendary composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart isn’t entirely the focal point of the story. In fact, the film is less of a biopic than it is a tale of jealousy combined with an overwhelming love of music.

The envious party is Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), a fellow composer who has earned respect as the court composer for Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones). In the film’s opening scene, we see an elderly Salieri attempting to commit suicide by slitting his throat, all while screaming about how he killed Mozart. His attempt is unsuccessful, and he ends up in an insane asylum. When a Father (Richard Frank) visits him to take his confession, Salieri begins a long-winded spiel recounting his days as a rival of Mozart (Tom Hulce), all of which we see through flashbacks.

Salieri’s recollection mainly covers Mozart’s time in Vienna, essentially the last ten years of the young composer’s life. Salieri’s first glimpse of Mozart is rather amusing, and immediately it shreds any pre-conceived notions about classical artists we might have. Wolfgang (or “Wolfie” as he is later affectionately called) is childish, chasing a busty blonde throughout the palace, eventually even getting down on all fours to pull her out from underneath a table. A unique first impression, that’s for sure.

And then he laughs. Oh, what a laugh. Mozart’s obnoxious, high-pitched giggles catch many of the patrons off-guard. While shrill, his distinct laugh perfectly fits his offbeat demeanor.

Amadeus [1984]

In many ways, Mozart’s life is parallel to that of a modern day rock star. He rises to fame, gets married (to the aforementioned blonde, played by Elizabeth Berridge), keeps an unkempt home and then falls into a life of booze and erratic behavior in order to keep up with the pressures of his work. It’s interesting to see that even though the music has changed drastically over the years, the performers really aren’t that different.

The jealousy kicks in when Salieri realizes that he will simply never be as talented as his rival. Mozart is able to come up with bombastic pieces seemingly at whim, not even needing to make adjustments to what he writes down. It doesn’t help that upon hearing one of Salieri’s pieces for the first time, Mozart quickly tweaks it into something far superior, giving it little to no noticeable thought. Also, Salieri is deeply concerned that he will be forgotten throughout history, whereas Mozart will be fondly remembered (he was right — at least until this film came out).

F. Murray Abraham is tremendous as Salieri, and his performance demonstrates the burden of a man so stricken with jealousy that he will do anything to gain satisfaction. His smile as the Emperor yawns during one of Mozart’s extended plays is masterful, and you can’t help but empathize with his pleasure, however misguided it may be. Tom Hulce’s take on Mozart is the perfect complement, as the two men could not be any more different.

Amadeus [1984]

Although I enjoyed the focus on the rivalry, I can’t help but wish that we got to learn more about Mozart the man. Early on, shortly after getting married, his wife is shown as being pregnant. Not soon after that, a toddler appears, meant to be their son. No recognition is really given to his son — in fact, we never learn his name. It turns out that Mozart actually had six children, of which two only survived infancy (only the one is ever shown in the film). Perhaps a little more background on Mozart could have been given rather than including a lengthy vaudeville performance near the film’s final act.

Still, minor quibbles aside, Amadeus truly is an impressive piece of filmmaking. The attention to detail is astounding and true to the period, and the performances, especially Abraham’s, are phenomenal. As someone who knows little about classical music, I still found the film to be very engaging. If you enjoy classical music and/or operas, well, you’re bound to *love* this film.

8/10