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: August: Osage County

Year:  2013
Director:  John Wells
Stars:  Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis

As the Oscars approach (with the main bulk of nominations being released today in fact), I recently came to the conclusion that it’s about time for me to kick into gear and get up to date with some of the films tipped for awards. The number of new releases that I actually managed to see in 2013 was pretty woeful, but between now and the 2nd of March when the 86th Academy Awards will be played out I intend to get a little more familiar with the nominees.  August:  Osage County, adapted from the award-winning play of the same name by Tracy Letts, is almost guaranteed a couple of nominations and is an outsider for a few more.

aoc1In the titular Oklahoma county, alcoholic former poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) is interviewing young native American woman Johnna (Misty Upham) for the position of live-in carer for his narcotic-addicted cancer-suffering wife Violet (Streep).  When Beverly disappears, Violet summons her family for support:  sister Mattie Fae and her husband Charles (Margo Martindale & Chris Cooper respectively), and the Westons’ three daughters Barbara (Roberts), Karen (Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson).  Strong-willed Barbara arrives with husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and teenaged daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) and immediately tries to wrest control of the family from her ailing, matriarchal mother, powerful despite her illness.  Often-absent Karen turns up with her latest boyfriend, sleazy Steve (Dermot Mulrooney) who soon sets about grooming 14-year-old Jean.  Youngest daughter Ivy lives locally and is single (at least as far as the rest of her family are concerned).  Beverly is shortly discovered drowned, having gone out alone on the lake in his boat.  After the funeral and the late arrival of Mattie Fae and Charles’s son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), the family proceeds to break down both emotionally and physically.  After a series of explosive confrontations and revelations Violet is gradually abandoned by her family and left broken, crying in the arms of quiet Johnna.

Happy families?
Happy families?

August: Osage County has been described as a “black comedy”, but in truth there’s very little comic about it.  It’s a very dark film, with light points few and far between.  In such a large, star-studded cast you might think that it would be hard to pick out individual performances, but this isn’t the case.  Unsurprisingly Streep steals the show as deeply afflicted Violet, and is a shoe-in for at least another Best Actress nomination (although an outsider for the win to strong favourite Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine).  Roberts, Lewis and Nicholson all play their respective parts superbly, although Roberts is of course no stranger to the “fierce, independent woman” role.  A special mention goes to Benedict Cumberbatch (who turned out to be the reason my girlfriend wanted to see this film) for a solid performance and an American accent that I’m assured by my Kentuckian other half was decent but no Okie (I paraphrase).  To be brutally honest the film doesn’t particularly stand out as anything special, but it’s worth a watch as a decent drama if you’re prepared for a depressing 2 hours and you want to see Meryl Streep do her thing.  And if it does get that elusive Best Picture nomination that’s only a bonus.

My Rating:  7/10

Film Pop: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Year: 2013
Director:  Peter Jackson
Stars:  Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch (voice) et al.

Yesterday for my birthday I was treated to a trip to the cinema to see The Desolation of Smaug, the second part of the big budget Hobbit trilogy.  Having only managed to catch 2012’s An Unexpected Journey a little over a month ago, I was well prepared for this two-and-a-half-hour journey into epicdom.

Following a Bree-based flashback, the film opens with Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Bilbo (Freeman), Thorin and the dwarves (Armitage et al.) fleeing from the goblin hordes before sheltering in the house of dwarf-hating shape-shifting smaugposterbear-man Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt).  Fortunately Beorn’s hate of dwarves is surpassed by his hate of orcs, so he protects the party and advises them that the only route they can take on their quest is through Mirkwood, the forest of the dwarf-hating elves (I’m sensing a pattern here).  Before entering Gandalf heads off on one of his characteristic mysterious quests, promising to meet up afterwards (pull the other one, wizard).  In the forest the elves, captained by the ever-popular Legolas (Orlando Bloom), help rescue the troupe from giant spiders but soon lock up the dwarves in their forest fortress.  Bilbo, by virtue of being able to turn invisible (some sort of magic, I suspect), evades capture as always and cunningly engineers everyone’s escape by floating them downriver in empty barrels, despite the combined efforts of elf and orc.  This is in fact the best sequence of the film, as we get to see the bloodbath everyone loves mixed with some beautifully choreographed scenes only made possible by dwarves in barrels.  They float to the mouth of a lake, and are smuggled into conveniently-named Laketown by the unpopular Bard (Luke Evans).  After winning over the  town, the dwarves make the journey to the Lonely Mountain minus the wounded Kili (Aidan Turner), caught in a love triangle between Legolas and she-Elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), his loyal brother Fili (Dean O’Gormann) and Bofur (James Nesbitt), who drank too much and overslept.  Thorin, driven by Boromir-esque greed, brings the others into the mountain to reclaim the Arkenstone from the great dragon Smaug (Cumberbatch), while Laketown is ambushed by orcs and Gandalf confronts the Necromancer (also Cumberbatch) in a duel he can never win and ends up trapped (sound familiar?).  The picture ends with Smaug heading off to wreak havoc on Laketown, just like Bard warned.

Of course as the middle film of a trilogy there are no real conclusions of any sort, but there’s enough action to stand the movie mostly on its own and the character development, notably absent in the first film, is admirable in the second.  Perhaps this is a vote in favour of stretching the novel into three movies, as it would be nowhere near enough time to devote to more than a couple of characters were this not the case.  This is seen particularly in the case of young dwarf Kili, and, unlike for example Frodo and Galadriel, Legolas’s reappearance is actually worthwhile.  The introduction of Lilly (another TV actress) as Tauriel, a character not really seen in the book, surprisingly adds a welcome softer element to a film that might otherwise have been too action packed (i.e. the previous film).  It still retains the moments of humour, mostly provided by Stephen Hunter’s Bombur and Stephen Fry’s Master of Laketown.

This Guy.

Overall it’s fair to say that it’s pretty pointless watching this film if you haven’t seen An Unexpected Journey and don’t plan to see next year’s conclusion, There and Back Again.  In fact, it’s a bit pointless reviewing the film at all because if you’re interested in the series you’re obligated to watch it and if you’re not then it’s a waste of (quite a lot of) your time.  But I think it’s a promising improvement on the first film, and I think the average Tolkien-lover will find The Desolation of Smaug very enjoyable, which I can definitely say I did.

My Rating:  8/10