Oscars Combat: Jared Leto vs. Michael Fassbender

Chrisoph Waltz may have won the award, but for me the Best Supporting Actor in any 2012 movie was Michael Fassbender in “Prometheus,” as the human-hating android David. I won’t elaborate; The Flip Side has already covered “Prometheus,” and David, here, here, here, here and here. I’m a fan.

Fassbender’s character Epps in “12 Years a Slave” changes the rules a bit when we think of movie villains. David wasn’t truly evil because he was a goofy character in a goofy movie. No such person exists. Epps, though. Epps is real. He’s a villain whose darkness permeates. You watch him and wonder “Could anyone really be like that?” The answer is frightening.

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“Strike her, Platt! STRIKE HERRRR!!!!” Then the gun comes out. “You will strike her. You will strike her until the flesh is ripped, and the meat and blood flow equal, or I will kill every n—– in my sight. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME! STRIKE HER! STRIKE HERRRRRR!!!”

Epps conjures visceral danger. He’s often drunk. He believes both God and the law are on his side. “Sin?” he responds to Solomon Northup’s pleas for mercy on Patsy. “There is no sin. A man does how he pleases with his property.” He represents torture, rape and death, and not in the abstract.

I left “12 Years a Slave” thinking Fassbender was going to win an Oscar.

Yet here comes Jared Leto, clinging to the supsonic Matthew McConaughey spaceship as it exits our atmosphere. Leto plays Rayon, a transgender AIDS patient. He’s usually in drag. Like McConaughey, Leto lost a lot of weight for “Dallas Buyers Club.” Unlike McConaughey, Leto looks ripped rather than scarily skeleton-like. Rail-thinness almost suits him.

Rayon has a hard edge. She’s necessarily tough because of prejudice she faces daily, but Leto also channels femininity and sweetness as someone who wants to be a pretty girl. It’s a good performance.

But it isn’t Best-Supporting. Partly, I think, Leto isn’t served by a bold-artist director the way Fassbender is in “12 Years a Slave.” When Fassbender is screaming in Solomon’s face, the camera gets close enough for us to almost smell his boozy breath. When he’s sprinting after someone or stomping across his plantation, the shot moves back to encompass the entire set he’s devouring.

Leto doesn’t have the same physical challenges, but some dashes of art would have helped. When he tells his dad he has AIDS, for instance, the camera doesn’t get in close or do anything to accentuate this powerful experience. It holds him in a medium-long shot. Rayon is wearing a suit (men’s clothes, which he hates).

“It wasn’t a choice, dad,” Rayon says of becoming the person his father seems so repulsed by. “Long time no see.”

“I suppose I should thank you for wearing men’s clothes, and not embarassing me.”

“Are you ashamed of me, because I hadn’t realized that.”

“Huuuuh. God help me.”

“He is helping you. I have AIDS.”

He stares at his dad from across the desk and he’s vibrating and his head’s bobbing a bit. He starts crying and apologizes.

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It’s all on Leto to pull this off, and as good as he is he never quite transcends the material like McConaughey does. The tricky part of being in a movie that’s all talking is that you have to—duh—keep talking. McConaughey finds a rhythm and holds on as it ebbs. I think I can see Leto working. He nailed the part, but he didn’t master it. There’s a difference.

Leto’s nomination is the start of something. He’s been a recognizable face in TV, music and movies. Now he’s a star, with Oscar cred.

Fassbender’s performance is the next step up for a brilliant actor who already deserved one of these. To be that scary is mastery. If he doesn’t win, I’ll always think he should have.

Oscars Combat: Jennifer Lawrence vs. Lupita Nyong’o

Patsey makes death sound so sweet when she’s begging Solomon Northup to kill her. It’s the essential tragedy of the most tragic character in “12 Years a Slave”: Killing her, she says, through tears and a smile, would be “an act of kindness.” Solomon can’t run because he doesn’t want to die; here’s someone whose life is that much worse than his.

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“American Hustle” is nominated for an Oscar in every acting category. Deservedly. And the best performance was Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn, “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.” She has the fewest screen-time minutes of the top four actors, which helps because she can focus her power on fewer scenes and make them count that much more. nyongolove.getty

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Patsey picks over 500 pounds of cotton per day. The other men in the field can barely crack 200. For this she is singled out as extraordinary by Epps, the plantation’s insane owner. Epps is sadistic. He strokes Patsey’s neck and calls her Queen of the Field. At night he rapes her. His wife is jealous. She maims Patsey with a heavy glass bottle thrown point-blank to the face, and with a skin-tearing scratch through Patsey’s cheek.

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Lawrence outshines the other “American Hustle” actors because their characters all have to reckon with her. She’s socially on offense, always doing something. She befuddles Christian Bale’s character, her husband, to where he’s stuck staring with a pained and helpless expression. The couple has amazing fights in the movie, and she always wins, even though she’s the one who starts the house on fire, or almost gets him killed by mobsters.

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After the first scene of cotton weighing, when Patsey’s shown to be so much more industrious than the others, we get a short scene of her sitting outside, humming and braiding corn husks into dolls.

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The dolls are dark and light, together just fine. Patsey has such a sweet, gentle soul. She’s a beautiful person. This movie’s universe has absolutely no sympathy.

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If there’s a single character in “American Hustle” with the best claim to hate Rosalyn it’s Amy Adams’s Sydney. Sydney has more skin in the con than anyone else, because she took the check from the FBI agent’s hand. She’s caught red-handed. And Rosalyn is messing with everyone to not be bored. They’re also romantic rivals for the same man. Yet when they’re finally facing off in that bathroom, yelling, even Sydney gets ensnared by Lawrence’s sexiness. Lawrence plants a sudden sticky kiss on her lips, and then cackles maniacally.

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Lupita Nyong’o is brilliant because she’s perfect as this character experiencing specific horrors at the hands of a monster. Patsey. Patsey, man. Jesus. She has to beg to be clean, please, just once, can’t she use soap because she’s earned it? She has to be stripped and whipped for trying, one time, to be a normal person. She has to beg for her own death, and be told no. How would someone in that situation act? Exactly like this. It’s beyond heartbreaking.

Lawrence brings her unique personal energy to Rosalyn. Sheer awesomeness is why Rosalyn is so memorable. IMDB.com says “American Hustle” director David O. Russell told Bale “Christian, I hate plots. I am all about characters, that’s it.” Much of the dialogue is improvised. That cranks the pressure on the actors. They have to inhabit their parts to where what they do comes naturally. Lawrence’s character scares everyone on multiple levels. And she’s funny.

That’s why I’d vote for Lawrence. Impossible choice though.

Internet Sports Lord Biffs on Big-Eyes: See Here, Oscar

The funeral. Do not listen to Bill Simmons. (Here’s his link.)

In “12 Years a Slave,” Chiwetel Ejiofor plays someone who’s kidnapped and imprisoned in a nightmare world. He is considered a subhuman and tortured. Multiple critics describe in their reviews his “deep, soulful eyes.” They’re big eyes, and when he’s scared they beam desperation.

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He doesn’t want to die, but there’s a madman with a gun in his face, screaming into his ear to whip Patsey until the skin on her whole back is shredded. You believe it, and want badly for this poor guy to survive such raw horror.

Ejiofor played the villain in a modern-classic science fiction flick: “Serenity,” written and directed by pre-“Avengers” Joss Whedon. Ejiofor’s character, The Operative, is a charming, interesting snake, hunting the heroes across space with a samurai sword and an army.

“12 Years a Slave” is a step above great villain. Three steps. Despite all the killing, Solomon Northup does fight back, and he hangs for it. He runs, and the universe sends a message with one of the saddest, most coldly violent things you could imagine seeing. We watch him face hell on earth with huge, sharp, sad, scared eyes.

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Bill Simmons is ESPN’s best brand. His fan’s-take writing style was so fun to read he gained a massive following and now runs a website (Grantland.com:

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God bless it) where many younger versions of himself cover every interesting topic in all sports and pop culture (movies, TV, music, novels sometimes). It’s made him an authority, with a TV show and a blockbuster podcast.

On that podcast, he said “It’s a slightly controversial opinion, but if I was gonna rank the best performances in that movie, I don’t know if, uh, if, if the. Say his name; I can’t say it.”

Responded Wesley Morris, Pulitzer-Prize winning movie critic on Grantland (sagely): “Chiwetel Ejiofor?”

“I don’t think he’s in the Top 3 for me, in that movie.”

Then Simmons started asking if younger versions of Denzel Washington or Don Cheadle would have been better as Solomon Northup. That’s what he walked out of the movie theater wondering.

The answer is no. They don’t have the eyes.

“I didn’t love the performance,” Simmons said. “I thought it was good. I didn’t think it was amazing, you know?”

No. Bullshit. That is no argument, and Ejiofor must be a contender for Best Actor.

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There’s a funeral in “12 Years a Slave” for a man who dropped dead in the cotton field from heatstroke. The slaves are all singing and clapping.

Solomon Northup was kidnapped into that world. He doesn’t want to be a slave. He doesn’t want to sing with them. But they keep singing, and he’s looking at that grave, and he fights it and fights it but they keep singing. You see the entire struggle on his face, in his eyes, until he gives in and sings. Accepts he’s a slave. This is his family now.

That scene was amazing. He’d better be a Best Actor contender.

Omar Comin’ to “12 Years a Slave”

Omar is on the boat that takes Solomon Northup to slavery. The bad wolf of “The Wire”—Obama’s stated favorite character on that beyond-classic TV show—appears, at first, with a metal mask chained around his face, like Hannibal Lecter or Bane. He vows to fight, tries to fight, gets killed, and thrown overboard. He lasts maybe five minutes of film time, a mystery warrior who chooses to rebel. Solomon dumps his body and watches it drift out to sink below the waves. There’s a message there: Don’t fight.

This is an amazing cameo by the actor Michael K. Williams. He survived a prison stabbing attack in “The Wire,” but his “12 Years a Slave” character is dispatched via stabbing in practically no time. Slavery was so much more perilous than the modern-day Baltimore drug game.

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I used to play handball with a guy who explained between games that modern government welfare was like slavery. Poor people are relying on the government for their food, he said, and for their shelter. That was the extent of his argument. “Slavery.”

Sarah Palin said the other day in a speech “When [our debt] comes due, and this isn’t racist … but it’s gonna be like slavery … we are gonna be beholden to a foreign master.”

These two won’t be seeing “12 Years a Slave,” but they should. The evil of slavery (personified by Michael Fassbender as a villain, Epps, destined to be remembered forever) was rape, torture, and demented physical and psychological abuse.

Solomon runs once—and happens upon one of the movie’s scariest, most graphic scenes. Another message from on high: Don’t run. Just like the boat death of Omar was a message not to fight.

Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce calls Sarah Palin Princess Dumbass of the Northwoods. Unless she’s willing to say on-the-record that “12 Years a Slave” isn’t accurate, Princess Dumbass should shut up about comparing anything to slavery. Everyone should.

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My wife said the movie made her “physically uncomfortable,” and demanded afterward to be taken straight home to hug our baby. So much for a drink. There were sobs throughout the theater as we left.

“The Passion of the Christ.” That’s the last time I felt so physically afflicted—in the face and gut—over a movie character. (Maybe “Boys Don’t Cry,” too.) Except in this case, visceral sadness and sympathy are a byproduct of an exciting, interesting flick filled with great actors playing compelling characters.

Scene after scene is just excellent. When Solomon wakes up in chains it plays like raw horror. Then there’s the auctioneer (Paul Giamatti) walking among his kidnapped slaves, many stripped naked, hitting them and pulling on their faces. A family is split apart despite an appeal to the auctioneer’s decency. (There’s no decency.) A little later, we watch the kindest of Solomon’s owners, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), preaching gospel over the sound of a mother weeping for having lost her children. Ford’s religion probably makes him feel better about enabling such a wretched institution, but it can’t cover the basic wrong he’s committed.

The whippings in this movie make that famous Denzel Washington scene in “Glory” look G-rated by comparison. Even something as simple as a letter being burned in the dark takes on profound meaning because it’s filmed so thoughtfully by director Steve McQueen and the filmmakers.

And oh, God, what happened to Patsey? Epps’s wife is a Hitchcockian monster (think a meaner Mrs. Danvers from “Rebecca”) who torments poor Patsey with physical attacks that make you cringe. And what Epps himself does to her is so much worse. Patsey, man. Patsey. She could pick 500 pounds of cotton a day. . . .

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Other favorite cameo, besides Omar? Paul Dano. He shows up to be evil for a while, squeaking like he squeaked as Eli Sunday in “There Will Be Blood.” Is “12 Years a Slave” the best movie since “There Will Be Blood”? It’s a fair comparison, since both films feature the main character beating the hell out of a shrieking Paul Dano. Kudos.

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See that rope behind him? Messing with Paul Dano had some seriously vicious consequences for Solomon.

How many acting Oscars can one movie be nominated for? We’re about to find out. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon, for so many scenes but especially when he sings at the funeral. Fassbender, for sure. Dano? Paul Giamatti as the auctioneer? Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Patsey, is gonna be a Supporting Actress favorite. Just wait. Sarah Paulson as Patsey’s jealous tormentor is gonna get a look, as well.

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This blog had some fun previously with Brad Pitt’s “World War Z.” Pitt produced “Z” and that movie seemed an indulgent vanity project. It stripped away everything but the title from a beloved horror novel to make a zombie blockbuster without any good zombies.

But Pitt’s production company also made “12 Years a Slave,” and Ejiofor said it was Pitt’s star power that made the movie happen.

He puts himself in the movie, toward the end. Brad Pitt gives one of the very few featured performances that won’t get nominated for an Oscar, but that probably doesn’t matter. I imagine Pitt swung the deals to get this movie made and put himself in there because he simply wanted to be in something so great.

This is the best film of his career. He said so.

There’s a scene where Fassbender’s Epps is chasing Solomon with a razor. They run through a muddy, shitty pig pen and as Epps is jumping the fence he catches his knees and flips forward to smash into the ground. He growls. A pratfall like that is normally meant to be funny. In this case, it’s an instant of surreal physicality driving home two points:

1) This is a ridiculous, insane situation.

2) The acting, writing, and directing in “12 Years a Slave” are amazing in ways both big and small.

This is the best movie of Brad Pitt’s career, and he was in “Fight Club.” It may go down as one of the best pictures ever made.

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