Archive | January, 2014

I Watched… #56 (12 Years a Slave)

30 Jan


12 Years a Slave (2013)

Slavery is an oft-covered subject in cinema, from tacit acceptance in Gone with the Wind to the fantastical, gratuitous revenge story of Django Unchained, but it has taken many years and a young, English artist-turned-director to portray its true horrors.
Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) tells the story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as is, whereas most period pieces sacrifice history for the theatrical, McQueen sticks to the facts. The facts were that Northrup, a free man living outside New York with his wife and two children, was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South of antebellum USA. McQueen focuses on the story of one man, but Northrup’s story clearly defines the American slave trade.

This is certainly McQueen’s most ambitious project yet, some may even view it as bravery but a film such as this shouldn’t be brave because, in truth, it should have been made decades ago – a film where slavery is unwrapped, dismantled and it’s rotten core fully exposed.
12 Years a Slave is a powerful film, but even this label is too broad, so many films are powerful: romantic ones that tug the heartstrings to drug-fuelled tales of caution. It is McQueen’s masterpiece though, that creates it’s own sub-category, it goes beyond thanks to its overdue necessity, it drags shame and the deep depravity of human nature forward into the light, it can be seen by all and the habitually employed shadows of theatricality are cast off.

Northrup is the anchor of the story and the audience’s conduit into the depths of slavery. He was a man born free, a musician unaccustomed to the hardships of slavery and shocked by its brutality, a relatable figure in an unfamiliar world. Once on the plantations of Louisiana, arriving there by paddle-steamer by way of New Orleans, Northrup finds himself in a foreign place, the urban comforts upstate New York replaced with humid swamps, towering trees weeping moss and cotton fields, their white crop as the soft source of endless suffering.

There is a wild beauty to the Southern landscape, an element that McQueen fully exploits; the influence of Terence Malick is clear as shots linger on the lush bayou, a peaceful place that bears the scars of slavery, much like the slaves who have felt the whip.
Idyllic nature is juxtaposed with brutality of man and no man is more brutal than Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), Northrup’s second master after the benign Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) is forced to sell. Epps is an unrelenting master who in one hand holds the whip and in the other, the bible. Religion and force combine to justify and enforce his ownership and shocking treatment of his ‘property’. He is part of a mad world; a world where slave-master’s preaching drowns out cries of mother’s stripped of their children, a world where unspeakable acts appear to be gospel, a world where people plunge to the depths of humanity and don’t resurface.

Northrup is a keen violinist and it is his musically orientated tour to Washington that leads to his abduction, music is an inherent thread of the film. Hans Zimmer’s score is hauntingly perfect and it is a violin – presented to him by Ford – that gives Northrup a link to his past life, the names of his family carved into the ornate woodwork. The slaves sing songs in the cotton fields; music provides a moment when the slaves, at least in mind, can be free. Some of the slaves do call out for death but most want to live, survival is not living but it is better than death, just about.

Ejiofor is magnificent, he more than holds his own despite being surrounded by a sterling cast including Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti who, alongside Lupita Nyong’o in her stunning debut performance, provide the pieces for McQueen’s raw spectacle.

12 Years a Slave is essential cinema; necessary, shocking and honest. Where the eyes would naturally waver, the camera stares, unable to flinch as scenes of hanging, rape and lashing seem to play on well into the realm of the uncomfortable. McQueen portrays humans as going back to their animalistic roots; the slaves are forced whilst others descend into a primordial madness, a whip and bible in hand with money on the mind.
12 Years a Slave is a searing, visual poem, but one born with a dark heart. It is a truly unmissable film, even though some may be reluctant to watch it again.


I Watched… #55 (The Wolf of Wall Street)

24 Jan


The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Scorsese’s biography on Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) follows the rise and fall structure to a ‘t’, from a wide-eyed kid in the 80s to his fall as crime, corruption and FBI investigations take their toll. However, unlike his 1990’s masterpiece GoodfellasThe Wolf of Wall Street is epic only in runtime, clocking in at around 3 hours.

Both films concern anti-heroes but Jordan Belfort is no wise-guy and certainly no Henry Hill, his character is so loathsome and unlikeable that there is no sympathy to be found for a stockbroker whose mantra is to ‘f**k the client’ as a means to satisfy his insatiable greed. There is no pathway into the film, a disconnect exists due to the frankly disgusting behaviour and attitudes of the protagonist Belfort and so Wolf never really takes off.
Scorsese drenches the film in comedy and black humour, Wolf is often very funny, to help get his message of ‘a cautionary tale’ onto the screen and ramp up the entertainment, but it is this abundance of comedy, sex and drugs and general repetitive exuberance in the methods that clouds the message of wrongdoing. There is little synchronisation between the methods and the desired end result that Scorsese envisioned, the sheer sliminess of the Belfort character doesn’t help and one suspects DiCaprio was ideal for this role so to make the character more appealing and likeable for a global audience; but even the brilliance of DiCaprio does not help to generate any sympathy.

Despite the clouded message, the supporting performances are fantastic, Matthew McConaughey’s all too brief role is memorable as a wiser, older stockbroker who imparts his wisdom on a young and impressionable Belfort. Jonah Hill, as his best friend and business partner Donnie Azoff – just as deluded as Belfort, but with glistening white teeth – is excellent and builds on his promise shown in Moneyball, and of course Belfort’s glamourous trophy wife Naomi, who is lively in her big break opposite the veteran DiCaprio.
Parts of Wolf work well, the unusually patient and reserved direction from Scorsese and stable camerawork functions fine as DiCaprio takes the centre stage. The whole never ties together though due to a detachment between the message and depiction as well as an anti-hero who demands and deserves nothing but an apathetic treatment from the audience; a 3 hour biography with such a repulsive character certainly becomes tiresome.


I Watched… #54

10 Jan


Nebraska (2013)

Alexander Payne has already shown his talent as one of the modern greats with Election and Sideways, an auteur treading the line between mainstream and arthouse. His latest film, Nebraska, continues his witty, humorous screenplay style and his critiques of contemporary American society.

Gorgeously shot in a soft black and white with a tinted style that seems a shade away from allowing colour to seep into the picture. But colour would defeat the purpose and brilliance of Nebraska, which follows the aging Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte) as they make the trip to Nebraska to claim a marketing prize of one million dollars. This is a road-trip movie, much like Sideways, but the roads of Midwest America are long and bleak, illuminated by the bright lights of taverns that prove an irresistible call to the alcoholic Woody, played magnificently by Dern in this glorious and funny old-fashioned picture.