Film Pop: 12 Years a Slave

Year:  2013
Director:  Steve McQueen
Stars:  Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o

Following Her, the second Best Picture nominee I managed to see on the weekend was the film everyone’s been talking about, the early favourite for the victory, 12 Years a Slave.  Both my girlfriend and I had been eagerly awaiting its UK release, even if our local cinema couldn’t make up its mind when it was going to have it in.  Based on the memoir of the same name written by Solomon Northup in 1853, 12 Years a Slave is the third feature film from British director Steve McQueen (and the third to feature Michael Fassbender).

12yasSolomon Northup is a black man living freely with his wife and children in Saratoga Springs, New York in the year 1841.  One day he is approached by two travelling entertainers who want him to join them as a violinist, only to be plied with alcohol one night and find himself in chains the next morning.  Now in the possession of white strangers, he is shipped down to New Orleans, given the new name “Platt” and sold to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Ford is (relatively) civil towards Northup, but is forced into moving him on after Solomon’s altercation with vicious carpenter Tibeats (Paul Dano).  He comes into the possession of Edwin Epps (Fassbender), a violent drinker who puts Northup to work in the cotton fields along with the rest of his slaves, the best picker among whom is young Patsey (Nyong’o).  Vulnerable Patsy becomes the object of Epps’ infatuation and he soon rapes her, defying the attempted protection of Solomon and the efforts of Epps’ wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) to revile her at all times.  Northup, aided by travelling worker Bass (Brad Pitt), finally makes his companions in the north aware of his situation and is brought back to his family, not before being forced to brutally whip Patsey under Epps’ coercion.

12 Years a Slave is for certain a good film; it goes further than almost anything before it in depicting the cruel reality of slavery in America.  Ejiofor produces a masterful, moving performance as a man fighting the worst injustice imaginable to be reunited with his family.  However, overall I felt a little let down by the hype surrounding the movie. It didn’t really shock me like I was expecting it to, but maybe that’s less the film’s fault and more the result of the industry’s tendency to fill feature after feature with awful human behaviour and the media’s subsequent eagerness to shout about how shocking it is.  Maybe it’s just me, but I know I’m not the first to say this.

12yas2 As well as this, It has been criticised by some for the fact that the director and lead actor are black British rather than African American, because they don’t have the heritage rooted in slavery to draw from; I admit to being too inexperienced to comment on this meaningfully.  It’s also received a decidedly mixed reception for its historical accuracy, variously being praised for its brutal depiction of the treatment of slaves and condemned for its omission of important themes from the book (such as the slaves’ never-ending attempts to escape).

Ultimately there’s nevertheless no denying that 12 Years a Slave is a film that will go down in history for the right reasons, and it’s a film that you need to watch.  To me it’s a victim of great overhyping, but it’s still a very good film and one of the top contenders for the top prize at this year’s Academy Awards.

My Rating: 7.5/10

Film Pop: The Hurt Locker

Year: 2008
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Stars: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty

So for my first review of an Oscar Best Picture winner destiny has placed in my lap The Hurt Locker, Katherine Bigelow’s critically-acclaimed Iraqi War drama. The film depicts the endeavours of an elite bomb disposal unit, led by notorious loose cannon Sergeant First Class William James (Renner). He is appointed to the role following *SPOILERS* the death of the team’s original leader in the film’s opening scene. Over the course of the movie, featuring a few gunfights and a few bomb detonations, Sergeant James gradually wins the trust of his unit (Mackie, Geraghty et al) despite a number of disagreements between his repeated efforts to get everyone killed and their ultimate aim of not getting killed. This is where I’d usually give a brief rundown of the plot of the film, but this film was essentially devoid of plot, deciding rather to follow a simple pattern:

Squad receives tipoff regarding IED → James dons suit and goes to investigate → tense standoff with suspicious-looking Middle-Eastern man → James does something outlandish and life-endangering → James successfully defuses bomb → repeat.

It may be telling that the part of this movie I most enjoyed was the (all too brief) encounter with the British soldiers, including Ralph Fiennes’ reprisal of his role of “English Guy stuck in Desert”. Maybe a film like this doesn’t appeal to me as a Brit nearly as much as to the Americans at the Academy who I get the impression are much more connected to their military. We barely seem to care about our own troops, so why would I be interested in the slow (boring) tale of a “maverick” American bomb disposal technician? On the other hand, my American girlfriend didn’t seem to enjoy the film any more than I did. Maybe it was because the plot was boring and the cast was boring (take a bow, Jeremy Renner).

Still, somebody somewhere must have liked the film, and I don’t begrudge them that; it was certainly well-made and some of the explosion scenes are close to breath-taking (although perhaps a big screen would have pushed this up a notch). I’m sure it’s a good film for someone who likes this kind of thing, but I’m also sure (this being my second viewing to be absolutely certain) that I’m not one of these people. It’s just that seeing essentially the same scene over and over doesn’t get me all that excited, however well-shot and “tense” the scene may be.

The movie ends with James, who used to be so excited by the thrill of war, coming home and realising that it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be and he’d rather be at home with his wife and young child. If he’d been willing to listen to me, I could have told him this at the beginning of the movie and saved us all a yawn-inducing two hours and six minutes.

My rating: 5/10