12 Years a Slave (2013): As Close to Reality as Narrative Can Get

One of the essential aspects that a director needs to have in order to not only create a well-crafted and emotionally rocking film, but also have enough humanity remaining in its presentation to enable a sustained connection with its audience. Steve McQueen is considered to be one of the great provocateurs of the day (up next to Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke).

Now, any filmmaker can make (what some may call) an exploitive piece about the atrocities committed during American slavery, as well as the act of kidnapping free black citizens and selling them into slavery. And considering this past year we had a large release of two hyper-charged movies dealing with the topic of slavery (Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarantino’s Django Unchained), however, neither had really the face of slavery painted with such a stark and unflinching brush.

McQueen takes the true story of abolitionist Solomon Northup’s 12 years in bondage and presents a cinematic experience that can only be equaled in visceral honesty by his previous films and one other. The attention to minute details was some of the most impressive filmmaking I have seen in dealing with a dark and grizzly subject. However, it also has a ring of such realism that when dealing with this particular period in time in cinema, one of the more popular methods is the film around the Civil War with slavery playing a part in the background, toying about. In Ronald Maxwell’s Civil War epics (Gettysburg, Copperhead and Gods and Generals) slaves were treated with kid gloves, taking a more particular (and appropriate) focus on the battles and the lives lost. Lincoln was completely about the subject of slavery and it was at the utmost importance, but it was from the legislative and political points of view, about those responsible at the end for the eradication of slavery. And ironically, the one film dealing with slavery during the conflict that even came close to this point of showcasing the horrors of slavery was Edward Zwick’s Glory, only due to the fact that the subject was the foundation of the first Negro regiment in the United States army.

So, we arrive in pre-Civil War America where a happy family is shattered by a violinist’s commission for work and being drugged and taken. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who personally is one of the most overlooked actors working in filmmaking today, plays Solomon. Having an eclectic filmography from Amistad and Talk to Me to Serenity, this man is one of the more impressive character actors of the last twenty years, and is a perfect casting choice for the main role. The whole of the cast is perfectly pieced together. With supporting cast members Benedict Cumberbatch, Liza J. Bennett, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano and Adepero Oduye, this is one of the most impressively assembled pieces next to There Will be Blood and The Social Network. However, there is of course one other shining star next to Ejiofor, and that is Michael Fassbender.

Fassbender throws so much passion and rage into the role of Edwin Epps that he as the actor disappears. This is a performance that happens possibly once in an actor’s career as being that quintessential movie that epitomizes your craft at its peak of power. Though Fassbender has been delivering this type of acting in the past (notably with McQueen and Neil Marshall), but never to this level. As his energy courses through the part, it infects everyone else. The emotion is so raw and revealing that it is quite difficult not to be effected deeply by the film. For it is not the harsh imagery and brutal realism of how slavery is documented alone, but for the undiluted emotion coursing from the characters gives the pain a human face.

Unlike horror films where many people are there to simply be meat, or even more directly in Tarantino’s Django where the film takes the pain of bondage and does illuminate on several atrocities perpetrated in that time, it was more of an homage to Spaghetti Westerns and Blaxploitation films than a commentary on slavery, so in many instances it was very tongue-in-cheek about it.

12 Years a Slave is a film that makes audiences care for each and every one in this hell-on-screen. And the antagonists are a commentary on themselves, as conversations dealing with the topics of slavery and right to property when that property is a human being. To avoid sounding utterly repetitive, it must be expressed that when presenting a topic so close to so many people as well as the foundations of many families, one thing must be understood more than any other. Though a director or writer may have every last shred of empathy on the planet, unless the research has been done fully and down to the most scrupulous detail, it will not be effective. One of the recent issues with a film was the release of the adaptation of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. And though it was a beautifully sad movie, the material dealing with the effect of Nazism and Hitler Youth on the main character (one of the central focuses of the original story) was held at a considerable distance. And though the cast did a remarkable job and the writing was near identical to the book at times, the respect for the material ended up neutering the result, without much in the way of tension or honesty of how the world appeared and existed during that time.

This film though, takes the full blood and brutality of American slavery as well as reminds each audience member that these were people. Not actors faking on a screen, not a story that just told a time hundreds of years ago, but this was the reality, the present for so many people. Without a doubt, this is a movie that is one of the strongest representations of the subject, as well as one of the best movies made in 2013.

FINAL RATING:  ★★★★½ / ☆☆☆☆☆

Originally Published: January 6, 2014 in The Baltimore Examiner

I Spit on Your Grave (2010 & 1978): Why Are We Still Talking About It?

One of the increasing trends in horror filmmaking is that of the remake/reboot/unwanted sequels that seem to be flooding the market. However, ironically enough it isn’t from the primary independent system that these films are being pumped onto screens everywhere, but more often than not, they are coming from defined studios. This brings us to the topic of discussion; one of the more controversial films of the 1970s was the infamous rape/revenge exploitation film I Spit on Your Grave. It is by far one of the most tasteless, inept films to come into notoriety due to its content and execution. Though its director Meir Zarchi had exhibited increasing prowess in how to direct disturbing and effective work, it ended with his 1978 debut (his only other film being the consistently incompetent Don't Mess with My Sister in 1985).

This however, brings audiences to 2010 with the release of the Steven R. Monroe remake of the same name. Firstly, the original I Spit on Your Grave is so reviled, the thought of a remake seems abjectly absurd, which is why there have been no personal attempts to watch the remake until now. However, with the impending release of I Spit on Your Grave II (also helmed by Monroe) in theaters this year, enough curiosity was peaked to ensure the remake received its proper time to convince audiences that it is more than simple tasteless smut. In the hands of the right director and production staff, the idea of a rape/revenge film can be executed (no pun intended) rather well.

However, upon watching the film, all possible doubts about the material have been satisfied. Unlike a film such as Maniac, where the original received a backlash for its content, but over time it was recognized as a cult classic of the genre, as well as the remake intensifying the disturbing aspects, adding a flourish of original ideas to the mix to prove both incarnations invaluable to horror fans. The remake of I Spit on Your Grave is a film that takes all of the elements from the original that made the film infamous, intensifies them beyond any realm of comfort, and forgets to improve everything that made the original a generally horrible story.

The plot of both films is that of a lone woman (Jennifer) traveling out to a remote cabin in the country to focus on writing her next novel, where she is assaulted and raped by several local men (Johnny, Stanley, Andy & Matthew), and over the course of the next month, plots and carries out her bloody revenge. Yes, the plot is the base for a film that can be at least effective. No, neither have what they need to be to ensure audience empathy or investment in what is happening on screen.

The first major difference that catches the eye is that of the actress playing the protagonist. The original Jennifer was played by Camille Keaton (known most notably as the lead in Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange?). Married to Zarchi at the time of the film, her husband was able to ensure her abject humiliation on screen was well captured. However, Keaton never sold the idea of the character, nor was her actions and motivations fully convincing. However, after the rape, there is a solitary ten-minute scene where Keaton’s talent comes through the veil of her one-note acting and her talent is quite clear for all to see.

In the remake however, Jennifer is played by Sarah Butler. As events progress, Butler becomes more in touch with aspects of the character and empathetic connections are made with greater ease due to her conviction to the role. Though this engrossing performance does not excuse or make up for the film’s numerous other shortfalls, it is one of the only high points of the work.

To be honest, this goes for the majority of the acting in the remake. The acting is taken and handled in a way that is far more unnerving than anything the cast of the original was able to pull off, however this is primarily due to two reasons: the script and the cinematography.

The screenplay of the original (as well as the editing) was the brainchild of Zarchi himself, who says the story was inspired by a time he aided a woman who had been raped in New York, and whose jaw had been broken. The experience of trying to get her medical aid as well as justice for what had happened had disgusted Zarchi to a point where he wanted to make a film. The original title of I Spit on Your Grave was Day of the Woman, which actually could be interpreted as a more offensive title than the one audiences across the world are privy to. Selling the work as a film of female empowerment and strength worked as a decent marketing ploy back when the work was initially released, however, one watch-through of the original disproves such a notion and just nods at the fact that Zarchi had watched Wes Craven’s <i>The Last House on the Left (probably Craven’s best film next to Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream) a few years prior and only took away the savagery of the rape scene and nothing else. Though Craven’s debut itself was a rip-off of Igmar Bergman’s <i>Virgin Spring</i>, it still stood as an effective exploitation film with an easily connectable theme: whether it is vengeance or not, violence/murder does not make you whole again.</p>

While Zarchi’s film is void of anything that may be construed as a deeper meaning (regardless of how many people may say it has), the remake actually is not. The screenplay of Monroe’s version was penned by Stuart Morse, which remains his only credit to date. The remake script shares several elements with the original. The film is void (even more so than Zarchi’s version) of believable characterization and exposition, when 20 minutes into the film audiences are already having to endure another extended continuous rape scene lasting almost half and hour (Zarchi’s ran 45-minutes). Motivations for characters are weak and unbelievable (villains of film set on the fact that all women from the city are manipulative and whores), and no history with the characters makes any effort to prove why they believe what they believe, other than the fact they believe strongly in it. However the tacked-on moral message (brought about by the final scene) though authentic is half-baked at best: whether it is vengeance or not, violence/murder is never justified and we all swim in the same sewage.

The way each movie is filmed is the glue that really holds each work together (though usually I acquaint that facet usually to editing). The original (shot by Nouri Haviv, a skin flick cinematographer) was flat, basic, and relatively standard except for the ten minutes after the rapes where Jennifer tries to recuperate. The washed-out colors and half-hearted lighting in the night scenes make the film a rather irritating sit, on top of the debauchery of the content.

However, the remake boasts Neil Lisk as its photographic forerunner. Though Lisk sadly passed away the same year (the film was dedicated to him), in his wake he shot some great work, notably Michael Worth’s God's Ears and Jonathan Fahn’s Old Dogs. And the shot work in Monroe’s film was exemplary, if not the one thing that actually could keep any audience member watching; taught, well-lit, appropriately mixed between still shots, steadicam and handheld, and the color correction was perfect. Then the content has to ruin it.

The setup for the rape scene is just the same, an attempt to get the mentally handicapped character Matthew to loose his virginity. Whereas the original (played by Richard Pace in his only role) seemed more like a bumbling idiot rather than someone with mental mishaps, the remake actually took steps to ensure a convincing performance (by the very talented Chad Lindberg). Pace’s character simply succumbs to peer pressure and finally takes action in raping Jennifer (after everyone else had a turn), but he had full awareness of what he was doing and the possibilities of the consequences. However, Lindberg’s Matthew initially is forced into it by Johnny threatening to gut Jennifer if he does not. This initial action prompting Matthew into raping her is far more believable due to the non-confrontational and submissive aspects of the character type. And when Jennifer acts aggressively to Matthew violating her, his violent reaction is prompted authentically.

The trouble with the rape sequence in either film is the rapists themselves. In the original, Johnny, Stanley and Andy are hicks from the country that assume that all women for the city like to sleep around just because they could, and the slut-shaming that is used is relatively down-played and so when the rape sequence initiated in the original film, the savagery of what happens comes so far out of the scope of the characters and possible reality that no justification can be eked out. In the remake, it is taken to the complete opposite side of the spectrum where the characters still believe that all women from cityscapes are sluts, but with such viciousness to it that it could be construed as reactionary feelings to previous trauma resulting from encounters or relationships with city-dwelling girls. However, if this was an actual portion of the characterization, then Morse forgot to add it into the screenplay.

Zarchi’s film has the three rapists initially trying to get Jennifer’s attention in rather supercilious ways, like roaring a motorboat in circles as if it were a motorcycle (which conjures up images from a specific episode of South Park). Monroe’s rapists are closer in kin to the Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs, with games including beating animals and their only attempt to woo Jennifer is the first time they meet, and after that, an unreasonable hatred seems to build up in Johnny, who is the front of the group, at least initially. Unlike Zarchi’s version, there is another character added into mix that really is a split-off of the original Johnny character in the town Sherriff Storch (played by the eclectic Andrew Howard). Storch is the one with a wife and child in this film where Johnny was the married man originally. And to be honest, regardless of how Storch acts in the film, this setup is far more understandable than the original. His reactions to Jennifer eventually meeting up with his family after he thought her to be dead was the most genuine acting in the movie, though it’s ruined by his participating with the raping (involving a nasty anal rape side-aspect) being completely unfounded. Nothing before or after suggests that this man would have done this, especially since he apparently shares the same hatred of city people that the others do.

The constant battle of city versus country is something that has been played up well in other films (such as Mississippi Burning and Deliverance) however, this is obviously written by someone who has absolutely no concept of the differences that cause strife, and it goes further than just the fact they are from different centers of life, there is additional subtext that makes what happens on the surface more plausible and that much more terrifying. This movie makes it into a flat and uninteresting trope that holds little to no water in its argument. Now, it can be drawn up to nitpicking that these personal observations have been made, but it is simply lazy filmmaking at its cruelest.

This film takes elements from much better works (such as the psychological torture that imprisonment and debasement in your own house can bring, from Michael Haneke’s Funny Games) as well as key elements that can be clearly ripped-off from earlier, more effectively terrifying works (Johnny forces Jennifer to give his revolver a blowjob, which can be taken in almost a beat-for-beat imitation from the final scene in Tracey Letts’ Killer Joe). The only thing that can be said that the remake took in a stronger direction than the original were the death scenes of the rapists. In the original, the way she goes about killing her attackers is so out of character, even for what she had endured, that nothing justifies it, just as the rest of the film. In the remake however, each death is actually symbolic of each of the character archetypes.

The first to die, like the original, is Matthew. Matthew in the original tries to kill Jennifer because his friends have ostracized by the rest of his friends for letting her stay alive, and tries to correct it, blaming her for his misfortune. The remake, Matthew is genuinely remorseful, for when he actually finds Jennifer again, he is terrified of her and of what he has done. During his part of the rape, he looses control and starts to strangle Jennifer before he comes to his senses and throws up from disgust at himself. Thus, Jennifer uses a noose to strangle him. Though Matthew was strangled in the original, it was less symbolic and more leaning on that it was the least painful death.

Before the next death in Monroe’s version, Jennifer spends a good amount of time messing with the minds of her rapists, causing internal strife and violence to erupt, mirroring the psychological torture she endured before her violation. However, unlike the original, which makes far better sense, the next to die are Stanley and Andy.

Stanley (played by Daniel Franzese of Larry Clark’s Bully) is a voyeur, filming the whole of the rape for his own private enjoyment (bringing further comparisons between these characters and Viktor Sayenko & Igor Suprunyuck), and when it comes time for him to die, Jennifer places hooks through his eyelids and smears fish chum on his face, leading to his eyes being plucked out by birds. Andy (Rodney Eastman from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 & 4) is fascinated by his own appearance, playing the lady’s man and all-around douche; he is suspended above a tub of lye and through physical exhaustion slowly dies by his face being dissolved away. In Zarchi’s version, their deaths are shoved into the last ten minutes of the movie, which consists of an axe and a motorboat rotor slicing them apart.

Johnny’s death is the same as the original, a castration. However, unlike the original where you only hear Johnny dying from blood loss, this one is a bit more extreme. Due to Jennifer living off dead animals and having to do savage things to survive in the month or so she is in hiding, the viciousness of her revenge is far more believable, whereas the original only has her sitting out on her lounge chair a couple weeks afterward, where her existence is discovered rather quickly. Johnny this time, has a horse bit in his mouth (which is referencing his constant referring to her as a show horse, as well as his line, “No teeth, show horse” before he forces himself down her throat), and is stripped naked. Jennifer proceeds to remove his teeth with a pair of pliers and then cuts of his penis and shoves it into his mouth. He dies from the blood loss.

Sherriff Storch’s death is rather simple, though this is when the movie really tries the patience of its audience, to a point where anything redeeming is lost. His death culminates with a shotgun being shoved up his anus and then having a shatter-shot blasting through his face. But before he does die, he gives a rant to Jennifer basically saying that she is no different than he is, and that they’ll both be in hell. This tacked-on moral ambiguity is the final slap to the face that would have ended the movie for many people, if it weren’t already the ending of the film.

The unoriginality, plain ham-handedness of the material and mean-spirited aspects of the “moral” message of the film make the movie insulting and highly degrading to the audience. There are no relatable characters, there are no understandable motives (beyond not wanting to be caught by the police for the rapists, and vengeance for Jennifer) and the pacing, editing, writing and direction of the film is so inept that it is astounding that the film actually had such a wide release (though its box office return of roughly $573,000 worldwide on a budget of $2,000,000 reaffirms its effect on movie-goers). Meir Zarchi served as Executive Producer on the film, which further removes his supposed (feminist) motives for the original, and discredits any defense he could make about either work. Just as the original, it is a tasteless, overbearing and forced experiment in violence and determination to be as disgusting as possible. Though there are elements handled better than the original, this work adds nothing to a horrible story and adds much to all of the elements that made the original such a bad film to begin with. Nothing was learned from the whole ordeal. And with I Spit on Your Grave II holding none of the original characters or anything that seemingly continues on from the setting and plot of the first film, it is following along with the worst of the horror genre when it comes to sequels (like Human Centipede II and Hostel III), and unfortunately with reboots such as Leprechaun and Jeepers Creepers III (not officially a reboot, but a third installment 10 years after the last makes more for a reboot than a continuation) there isn’t an end in sight.

REMAKE RATING:  ★ / ☆☆☆☆☆

Published: December 23, 2013 in The Baltimore Examiner.