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Toronto International Film Festival 2013 Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave

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Toronto International Film Festival 2013: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave
Toronto International Film Festival 2013: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave

The opening scene of 12 Years a Slave is startlingly tragic for both the viewer and its protagonist, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), renamed Platt upon being sold into slavery, but it’s also effective in its smallness and intimacy. Shown supine on the hard, wooden surfaces sleeping with fellow slaves, Platt is awakened by a young woman who forces his hand on her breast and pushes it down her body so that he will finger her. He relents, at least momentarily; she watches him with an unimaginable despair that turns into temporary pleasure, and he watches her back with a similarly unknowable sadness. This is the first of many scenes in the film in which director Steve McQueen masterfully articulates the necessity of a character demanding a level of control and power when forced into contexts as depraved as slavery. The woman doesn’t look to Platt for physical intimacy; she just needs to be touched, and knows she can simultaneously trust him and exploit his humane temperament to do it without him hurting her.

On the Rise Nicole Beharie

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On the Rise: Nicole Beharie

Warner Bros.

On the Rise: Nicole Beharie

Back in 2009, there was a little limited-release movie called American Violet, about a real-life, wrongfully-convicted single mom who fights back against The System. In all likelihood, the film wasn’t on your radar, because frankly, it didn’t deserve to be. Not much more than Lifetime fluff, the racism-combatting underdog tale preached like a PSA, and reduced fine actors like Alfre Woodard and Will Patton to vessels for lousy dialogue. Burning like a sparkler at the film’s center, though, was poised and petite Nicole Beharie, whose excellent breakthrough performance in the leading role unfortunately got buried in the rubble of the movie’s missteps. Taking a stock character and imbuing her with specific, plausible verve, Beharie displayed a towering talent in stark juxtaposition to her diminutive frame, immediately joining the ranks of so many fine actors who make bad movies watchable. Beharie’s turn didn’t go entirely unnoticed. She won that year’s Best Actress trophy from the African-American Film Critics, and also scored nods from the Women Film Critics Circle and the Black Reel Awards. But that she didn’t find much subsequent success beyond these specialty-group kudos is as valid a sign as any of how much harder starlets of color need to work to break out in this business. Countless white ingenues of lesser talent and beauty have surpassed poor reviews and box-office returns to ink scads of deals, often for the hard, simple fact that they’re more bankable. Can you think of any black actresses under 30 who are headlining films? Take your time.

Sundance Film Festival 2013: A Teacher

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Sundance Film Festival 2013: <em>A Teacher</em>
Sundance Film Festival 2013: <em>A Teacher</em>

Writer-director Hannah Fidell’s debut feature, A Teacher, tells the story of a high school teacher who enters into a sordid love affair with her underage student. It’s the type of tale that’s been played out in many iterations in the past, usually dominating our 24-hour television news cycles and daily papers, titillating the public imagination as much as it breeds a sense of communal, moral outrage. But asking the question of morality, ultimately, isn’t the main goal of the movie. Fidell presents the affair between English teacher Diana (Lindsay Burdge) and charismatic teen Eric (Will Brittain) with an ambiguity that neither romanticizes nor condemns their actions. Their flirtatious looks in school hallways, clandestine rendezvous in the backseats of cars, and naughty nighttime text messages form the frame on which a second story rests—a story not about a scandalous love affair, but the psychological workings of a woman bent on self-destruction.

Poster Lab: The Master

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Poster Lab: <em>The Master</em>
Poster Lab: <em>The Master</em>

Poster designer Dustin Stanton has a history with Paul Thomas Anderson, devising the ad for the director’s Punch-Drunk Love while working with BLT & Associates, and creating the unforgettable one-sheet for There Will Be Blood while employed by Concept Arts. Now an independent artist, Stanton has been followed by his auteur collaborator, and has easily outdone himself with the poster for The Master, Anderson’s forthcoming sixth feature. Focusing on a drifter (Joaquin Phoenix) who, in the early 1950s, finds apparent salvation from alcoholism and malcontent with a budding religious group, the film is served well by Stanton’s glass-half-full approach, which implies a skepticism about the drifter’s turning point, and seems to question whether or not his saviors’ murky world is indeed better than his own. There’s a host of meanings one could ascribe to this handsome image, which easily sits in the top tier of 2012 film posters. Stanton first marries the elements of liquor and the sea, as the cultish group reportedly gets its start on a boat (where much of the film takes place). There’s also the dichotomy between Phoenix’s bobbing-through-life apprentice and his titular mentor (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose credibility may just be going down by the head. And if you care to take the bait, there’s always the matter of the title itself, which seems an incidental reflection of Anderson’s ego.

Oscar 2012 Nomination Predictions: Actor

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Oscar 2012 Nomination Predictions: Actor
Oscar 2012 Nomination Predictions: Actor

What Kurt said yesterday about the Best Actress race applies to the Best Actor race in spades, only with a little more direct focus. Instead of covering the gamut of popular Oscar strategies, the two strongest locks in this category are playing variations of the same game: homecoming king. No one is going to say either Brad Pitt or George Clooney stretched their acting muscles to the point of tearing in Moneyball and The Descendants. They’re mainly being rewarded for dependability and reasonably mature taste in pet projects, especially in the case of renaissance man Clooney, who at least has the wherewithal to play up his creeping schlubishness—not to mention split an onion in the palm of his hand during The Descendants’s emotional high point.

Poster Lab: The Best Movie Posters of 2011

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Poster Lab: The Best Movie Posters of 2011
Poster Lab: The Best Movie Posters of 2011

Honorable Mention

The Devil’s Double: Boasting the year’s best monochromatic design is this glossy, tacky beaut for The Devil’s Double, the star-making Dominic Cooper vehicle about Uday Hussein (Cooper) and his Iraqi-soldier doppelgänger (also Cooper). Littered with machine gun shells and coated entirely in gold, the poster evokes both the glorious, violent excess of Scarface and the opulence of the Middle East’s corrupt power elite, all the while looking like a gaudy bauble you’d snag at a novelty shop. The poster knows its movie’s milieu, its genre, and its character’s superficial appetite for, well, everything. [Poster]

The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence: Yes, this creepy-crawly, nether-regions one-sheet for The Human Centipede 2 is as “sick” as its tagline suggests, and it’s anyone’s guess what an actual centipede serving as a woman’s landing strip has to do with a psycho’s victims being forcibly, gastronomically linked. But it is, like it or not, one of the more inspired poster designs to be unleashed this year, and for all its intentional tastelessness, it displays a cleverness and certain aesthetic restraint that transcends its content, and that can’t be found in any celeb-slathered collage. Besides, provocation is the chief goal of this after-midnight franchise, and here, that’s not just owned, but laid bare. [Poster]

The Mechanic: A poster that doesn’t look like much, but catches your eye and holds it, this clean and simple image for the Jason Statham actioner The Mechanic makes a fun puzzle of bad boy cinema’s ever-enduring necessity, and forces you to look closer to examine its parts. The amount of negative black space is as strong a visual choice as the inter-locking orange arsenal, which ultimately acts as a kind of starkly graphic photomosaic. [Poster]

Oscar Prospects: The Help

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Oscar Prospects: The Help
Oscar Prospects: The Help

The Help represents a pitiful lack of progress, and that’s hardly an indictment of the ways its characters and events are depicted on screen. This is an affable, predominantly inoffensive bit of goes-down-easy middlebrow fare, whose crimes are mainly those of uninspired screenwriting technique (underwritten roles, conveniently sidestepped conflicts). Yet, the film’s inherent iconography incited a storm of knee-jerk disgust from cynics and ax-grinders, who took to Twitter with a litany of rants about Mammies, magical negroes and fried chicken. A counterattack of support for the film soon followed. The subject of race in the movies will always get people talking, but that this minimally provocative mainstream fluff was met with such exhaustive, tempestuous discourse feels culturally puerile, like tamed dogs fending off wolves on the hunt for the next Birth of a Nation. Now, the discussion of a movie that might have just as well come and gone with the rest of August’s releases has spilled over into the Oscar race, an arena in which there is, in fact, discussion to be had.

If people are looking for something to complain about, a better target would be the preposterously thriving Oscar whiteout, which last year led to the favoring of grotesque turns from Christian Bale and Melissa Leo over every incredible performance in For Colored Girls. This year, the only two black performers poised to be honored with nominations are those who play maids, a fact that’s far more contemptible than anything Tate Taylor presents in The Help. And the meager nomination tally won’t merely be a fault of the Academy, either, as there certainly wasn’t a wealth of baity work available for people of color this year, a year in which the only high-profile part that recent Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe can boast is, yes, a maid—in a Brett Ratner movie.