Review – 12 Years a Slave

2013, 134 mins, 15, Dir. Steve McQueen, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, and Brad Pitt

12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave

Exactly one year ago this month audiences were treated to the flamboyant and horribly funny Django Unchained. Up to that point it was one of the most realistic depictions of American slavery ever produced, and was lauded as such. While it remains a truly excellent film, there was always a lingering sense that the definitive film on slavery was yet to be made, one that did away with a revenge western plot, that avoided deliberate humour, something that showed the N-word to be a tangible, terrible, harsh, historical term, as opposed to a mere flippant remark.

It is extremely likely that the definitive film on slavery is 12 Years a Slave. It is, quite simply, astonishing.

Steve McQueen’s film is adapted from the memoirs of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free-born African-American who was kidnapped in 1841 and, as the title suggests, sold into slavery. Northup endures beatings, attempted murder and psychological attack under the control of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a sadistic and cruel plantation owner. As an audience we rail against the injustice both of Northup’s incarceration and of the entire system of slavery, as the brutality of a very dark period of American history manifests itself onscreen.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave

It comes as no surprise that 12 Years a Slave is, at times, very difficult to watch. Within minutes of finding out about his kidnapping, Northup protests that he is a free man, and is promptly beaten with a wooden object so hard that it smashes into pieces. The entire beating happens in a single shot; we are given no respite from what is happening. McQueen’s direction, with Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography, is unsparing. Frequently such scenes are presented in very long takes, including one genuinely shocking act of savage violence at the end, effectively the dramatic climax of the story. McQueen, as an Englishman, makes sure we know that he is making a very different film about slavery – a film that American directors have ultimately failed to make over the years.

12 Years a Slave is inevitably driven by its characters, and the impeccable casting ensures a wide array of impressive performances. There isn’t one instance of bad acting, a huge relief given the sobering nature of the source material. Ejiofor’s performance here is undoubtedly his best, with much suggested through his facial expressions; his silent articulations of pain and desperation are difficult to forget. Michael Fassbender, a frequent presence in the films of Steve McQueen, is strikingly hostile and sadistic as Edwin Epps. Epps’ cruelty and instability leads not just to physical punishment of his slaves but also to sexual assault, and Fassbender is frighteningly convincing. So too is Lupita Nyong’o. The suffering and torment of her character Patsey is brilliantly conveyed, and she is deservedly gaining awards recognition for what is (surprisingly) her feature film debut. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

The role of the music is also key to the film’s stratospheric success as a piece of drama. In some senses, it acts as a metaphor for the story itself. Hans Zimmer produces an excellent score which on occasion grows metallic, disturbing, almost modern, particularly when Northup is almost killed by racist farmhands. Yet that is offset by the stirring sound of the Negro spirituals sung by the slaves. The song ‘Roll Jordan Roll’, written especially for the film, is sung at a slave funeral, with Northup eventually joining with his fellow prisoners as part of a collective identity. The message is that even amidst the haunting oppression of the white slavemasters, even in darkness, there is hope.

12 Years a Slave is nothing short of a modern masterpiece. Aside from its intelligent direction, mature and balanced performances, and atmospheric music, a great deal of its impact can be assessed by the emotions it arouses. I felt genuine shock at the treatment of the slaves that superseded mere intellectual empathy, revulsion at the sadistic practices of Fassbender’s plantation owner, and a righteous outrage at the historical perpetrators of these terrible atrocities. In other words, the film achieves a rare level of catharsis, one that left me speechless long after the final shot had elapsed. Nothing in recent years has ever so much deserved to clean up at the Academy Awards. 12 Years a Slave is upsetting and exhausting. But it is tremendous proof that the quality of cinema has not declined with the distractions of CGI and 3D, that filmmakers are some of the most important people in our society, and that through dramatic presentation they can so overwhelmingly bring to light historical issues that still have bearing on the material and psychological lives of people in the twenty-first century.

The first shot of the film.
The first shot of the film.

10/10

Advertisements

My weekend at the London Film Festival – part 1

I haven’t written anything on Jacobthehobnob since March of this year; please do feel at liberty to conclude that I am the worst blogger in the world. As the growing difficulty of my schoolwork and the pressure of university application took their toll over this summer, I found it increasingly difficult to keep up with the world of film and to interact with it through writing. However, having finally sent off my application to read History at several UK universities, I feel that there is really no excuse not to contribute at least something to one of my most anticipated events of the year  – the BFI London Film Festival.

This is my second year attending, and if any of the five universities I’ve applied to go against their better judgement and offer me a place, it may be the last until I finish my degree. Last year I gained a very powerful impression of the atmosphere of a festival that is quite often absent from the general cinema visit. Every audience member, no matter the screening, cares deeply about film – most of them even more than I do. Much of this is evidenced in the general audience behaviour (mostly impeccable – no mobile phones). But it is also seen in the excited film discussions that reverberate around cinema walls before starting time, and in the frequent rounds of applause following the end credits. It is truly unique and only adds to the thrill of seeing new pieces of cinema before they are put on general release.

Computer Chess 11/10/13

Computer chess
Computer Chess

My weekend at the festival kicked off with a small independent film called Computer Chess that I saw at the ICA. Described affectionately by its director Andrew Bujalski as a  ‘period piece’, it takes place in the 1980s at a small tournament for chess software programmers. Over the course of a weekend the physically unremarkable contestants play their software against each other, chat philosophically about the future of computers, and possibly find love. Computer Chess is a real oddity, a film that straddles the genres of comedy, romance, mumblecore, and existential drama. One of its most impressive aspects is its quasi-documentary aesthetic; the film was shot on a clunky Sony camera that actually came from the period, giving a hazy, amateurish, televisual feel to the whole thing. It truly feels like a product of the time in which it is set. While not consistently comedic, I thought the film certainly had its moments, partly thanks to the performance of Patrick Riester as an introverted, expressionless young programmer. Riester comes into contact with the only girl in the competition and yet is unable to convey any feelings towards her; elsewhere, his encounter with a sexually indulgent older couple in the same hotel he is staying in is hilarious beyond recognition. Yet amongst the comedy there is a very experimental intention. The cinematography is the most obvious demonstration of this, with the picture inexplicably morphing into colour for a particular scene. But the director’s refusal make the viewing experience easy or conventional – there are plenty of open ends and unexplained phenomena – is incredibly bold and yet another example of what makes independent film so liberating and exciting.

Patrick Riester in Computer Chess
Patrick Riester in Computer Chess

The film’s producer Alex Lipschultz, who took part in a post-film Q+A, revealed that for the most part non-professional actors were employed, and that much of the dialogue was improvised. Indeed, there is a lingering casualness to the whole thing, and I found spending my afternoon with a group of socially challenged programmers not boring in the slightest; Computer Chess is extremely entertaining, funny, bold and inventive, and I cannot wait for my next viewing.

8/10

Like Father, Like Son 12/10/13

Like Father Like Son
Like Father Like Son

Last year 75% of the films I saw at the London Film Festival were Japanese. Admittedly I saw very few films, and only improved on the number this year by one. But that percentage is no accident. I have found that Japanese drama is some of the best produced anywhere in the world. Whether as an example you take Yôjirô Takita’s Departures (2008), or even Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-Bi (1997), there is a warmth and humanity to much of Japan’s cinematic output that strikes me every time I witness it. Such is the case with Like Father, Like Son, Hirokazu Koreeda’s meditation on what it means to be a father. I saw the film at the Odeon West End cinema and the director was present for a few brief questions. Listening to his discussion about his work, which was aided by an interpreter, my faith in the profundity of Japanese film increased exponentially.

The winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes this year, Like Father, Like Son is the story of a successful businessman called Ryota who fathers his young boy, Keita, with great discipline. It soon emerges, however, that the hospital in which Keita was born six years ago made a fatal error; Keita is in fact the biological son of a different set of parents, who themselves have fathered Ryota’s real son. The film chronicles the efforts of these two sets of parents to decide on the upbringing of the young boys – specifically whether or not they should switch them – and more importantly follows the journey of Ryota in learning to be more affectionate to a child, no matter his background. I thought that the film on a thematic level was extremely well balanced and rather brilliant. In playing out on-screen the worst nightmare of every parent, Koreeda addresses issues that are very inherent in Japanese society, particularly the importance of the family patriarch and of blood lines. Ryota clearly feels it is important to bring up his biological child, and his parents encourage him on that front. But he comes into conflict with his wife, who has different feelings on the matter, and is far kinder and more forward-looking than her husband.

Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota
Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota

In terms of its characters, Like Father, Like Son isn’t particularly original. The two fathers in the film are fairly conventional types: the upper-class workaholic who can’t connect with his child versus the working-class father who is rapturously received by his offspring. But the note-perfect performances of the Japanese actors – both young and old – was striking, and I left the cinema with a deep smile across my face, optimistic for the future of the two families in the film.

8/10

So, that was the first two thirds of my London Film Festival weekend. Join me soon when I’ll be discussing Jonathan Glazer’s new film Under The Skin, something that left me deeply affected and moved, and was by far the best thing I’ve seen at the festival so far.

Review – Les Misérables

Review – Les Misérables 

2013, 158 mins, 12A, Dir. Tom Hooper, starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway

Les Misérables
Les Misérables

Any questions as to whether or not I’m a fan of musicals are always met with a resounding ‘No.’ Singin’ in the Rain is one of my favourite films and I love the glorious tomfoolery of Bugsy Malone, but I’m sceptical of anything else due to the fact that I just find them a little bit generic. Despite this, I’m not going to be mean about Les Misérables simply for the fact that I was actually impressed by it. Having not seen the stage show, and after slightly wincing at Anne Hathaway’s saccharine Oscar acceptance speech, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. But the film succeeds, a definitive crowd pleaser strengthened by its performances and innovative recording style.

Though rooted in Victor Hugo’s lengthy 1862 novel, Les Misérables is more of a film adaptation of the popular stage musical, which has been running in the West End for nearly thirty years. It takes place over a seventeen-year period in early-nineteenth century France as we follow Jean Valjean, a former prisoner who has violated parole and is hunted by the ruthless policeman Javert. Most people know the story – it eventually builds up to the failed 1832 Paris rebellion which saw the deaths of nearly a thousand anti-monarchist students. But it’s not really about politics. We’re faced with the emotion of love, death, sacrifice and redemption as the characters all interact for better or for worse. And perhaps the best thing about the film is its cast – a remarkable selection of actors, most of whom can actually sing. Anne Hathaway is pretty powerful as Fantine, although the one-take ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ is perhaps too overt an invitation for an Oscar, while Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are both a delight to watch as they plunder the shabby habitués of their inn. The real star, however, is Hugh Jackman, who gives a totally unrivalled and supremely operatic powerhouse of a performance, vastly overshadowing whoever is opposite him, including Russell Crowe (although, in this case, that’s not a terribly difficult thing to do). 

Hugh Jackman in the French court - one of his best moments
Hugh Jackman in the French court – one of his best moments

It’s also an impressive technical achievement. Director Tom Hooper’s decision to record all singing on set – a slightly mad idea given that pretty much everyone sings, all the time, even the dialogue – genuinely adds something to the film. A few of the songs are given a rawness that is perhaps absent from other, more clean-cut musicals, while everything in general is so flawlessly mixed you wonder if the filmmakers told the truth about what they were doing (the soundtrack is, incidentally, very good). Tom Hooper’s frequent use of close-ups encourages an intimacy with the performers, drawing us in to their struggles, although there are a few wider, more cinematic moments that are equally as impressive.

The biggest flaw of the film is its length. As we approach the final few scenes the whole thing becomes gradually less consequential – there’s love, there’s death, there’s rescue, there’s love again, and everything perks up for the final song, but the ending has been so long coming that it slightly loses its meaning. What it’s in need of, ideally, is an interval, as in the stage play: a break from its scale and its emotion to prevent it from becoming bombastic. But nevertheless there are some stunning numbers, and the collective singing in ‘One Day More’, with the characters belting out lyrics in different locations, linked by frequent cuts, is a brilliant high point.

Some will be put off by its high-flown sensibility and the simple fact that it is a musical. But it would be unfair to dismiss Les Misérables because there is simply so much about it that is right as opposed to wrong. Strengthened by its performances and its cinematic technique, it is a brutal, warts-and-all assault on the senses that demands to be seen in the cinema.

7/10

Review – Lincoln

Apologies for not writing in a while – I’ve been caught up with the dull necessity of A-level revision and coursework which has prevented me from writing any reviews. After my mock exams, however, I made an effort to see as many Oscar-nominated films as I could within the space of two weeks, and this was one of them.

Review – Lincoln

2013, 150 mins, 12A, Dir. Steven Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Straitharn, Tommy Lee Jones and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

lincoln
Steven Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’

Steven Spielberg, still a great giant of the American film industry, has decided to make his twenty-seventh film about Abraham Lincoln, a great giant of American politics. This is certainly no easy task. Lincoln remains a man of mythic proportions, a great advocate of freedom, the leader of the north in a brutal civil war, a victim of assassination at 56. So many have opinions on his life, his character and his motives – indeed, over fifteen thousand books have been written about him. Rather than arguing for one side, however, Spielberg with this film presents an exceptionally balanced portrait of Old Abe at a very specific moment in time: as he tries to pass the thirteenth amendment to abolish slavery.

The film opens with a brutal scene of battle between Confederate (South) and Union (North) soldiers on a grimy field. It almost feels like we’re reliving Saving Private Ryan in a different period, but the sequence ends as quickly as it started, and in terms of onscreen display of Civil War combat this is all we get. The brilliantly written scene that follows shows Lincoln talking to a couple of black Union soldiers about their position in the army, and it is from this point that the politics take over. The main focus of the story is on the President’s attempts to emancipate American slaves, and much of it takes place in tense Cabinet rooms, the boisterous House of Representatives and Lincoln’s own bedroom as the Civil War rages on. It is, as some reviewers have aptly pointed out, like The West Wing in the 1860s, a snapshot of the political persuasion and persistence needed to push a bill through Congress, as uncertain Democrats are targeted by lobbyists working for David Straitharn’s Secretary of State. Despite the lack of spectacle and action, perhaps a little unconventional in terms of Spielberg, in terms of its script it is funny (particularly the insult-trading in Congress), intriguing, very clever, and crucially never dull.

But the film is also a meditation on Abe Lincoln’s character. Despite his ubiquitous presence in patriotic American hearts the film certainly doesn’t skirt over his faults. He has domestic problems with his wife and elder son Robert (Gordon-Levitt), particularly in relation to the latter’s keenness to get away to fight in the war, and there remains the consistently posed question of whether his own motives for the bill were humanitarian or geared more towards ending the north-south conflict. It is not necessarily suggested that he favours complete equality, as does Thaddeus Stevens, a member of Congress played by Tommy Lee Jones, who gives a fantastically deadpan performance. But the overriding impression of Lincoln is that he was indeed one of the few Presidents that could easily be described as great, and that he did make tremendous achievements before his untimely death.

Speaking of the man with the top hat, Daniel Day-Lewis, under impressive but uninhibiting prosthetics, gives a performance truly worthy of a third Oscar. He is incredibly distinctive in that he plays Lincoln with a high-pitched accent, which ties up with contemporary records of his style of speaking, but in doing so loses none of his onscreen presence. In front of his Cabinet, he attacks the very idea of ‘putrescent’ slavery with domineering power, but there are also moments of warmth, particularly in the stories he tells in different situations, laced with wit and often hilarious to watch. Day-Lewis in his typical method style simply was Lincoln for the few months that it took to shoot. Even Spielberg referred to him on set as ‘Mr. President’, a fact revealing of the actor’s sheer might and dedication to his craft.

Lincoln and his Republican ministers
Lincoln and his Republican ministers

The focus on intense drama and politics still cannot take away from the fact this is visually a Spielberg film, and as such there are several moments that are breathtaking to look at – Lincoln’s final exit is one such example. Once again shot by frequent collaborator Janusz Kaminski, the camera smartly remains on the ground with its characters – unlike The West Wing, there are no sweeping helicopter shots of the White House – putting a sharp emphasis on character. Spielberg does make a conscious effort to avoid the sentimentality that he has sometimes been criticised for, and any soft moments in the film are few and far between, and quite forgiveable. It is mature Spielberg, and all the better for it. We gain the sense that we are really watching history, and the scene in Congress when the vote is cast on amendment 13 is both tense and exciting, even if you know the outcome.

Lincoln may have been overshadowed by Ben Affleck’s Argo at the BAFTAs and Golden Globes but really it is the superior film – a real credit to the filmmakers involved as well as the cast, particularly Daniel Day-Lewis. But it also stands not just as a technical achievement but as a very well-judged and fair-minded portrayal of the sixteenth President of the United States. Spielberg was so serious about his Lincoln film that he recorded the man’s actual watch in the museum in which it is held and placed the recordings in the completed film – a final reminder of his attention to detail and undeniable skill at directing.

9/10