12 Years A Slave (2014)

12 Years A Slave (2014)

A few weeks back I derided the fact that December-February brings about an onslaught of films that I deemed to be Oscar fodder. You know the types of film that I refer to: ones that focus on race, prejudice or persecution. Or generally a mix of all three components. I won’t lie – I’ve been cynical of these types of movies, as sometimes it seems that they were conceived only to give the writers, directors and actors a chance of accolade. Indeed, I’m still sure this is how the studios see these films; I doubt they’re concerned with the pathos or poignancy of a piece, merely how much revenue it can bring it. After all, it’s a business! Awards buzz = more ticket sales as people clamor to see what the fuss is all about. Then something happened to make me repeal my cynicism. That “thing” was 12 Years A Slave.

12 Years A Slave (2014)

12 Years A Slave tells the tale of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in the pre-Civil War USA. Solomon is a freeman, living up in the North East with his wife and two children. This all changes abruptly when he’s kidnapped and sold into a life of slavery with no proof as to his true origins. Over the next 12 years he sees himself overseen by various “masters”, from the more benevolent and forward-thinking Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbach) to the more oppressive and ill-tempered Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Solomon must witness all the untold horrors of slavery, whilst also keeping his past a secret lest he be lynched… slaves are paid to work, not to read, write, or think.

And 12 Years A Slave doesn’t pass up the opportunity to show you the horrors of slavery in the US. From what’s been told by director Steve McQueen, they actually chose to omit some of some of the acts that Solomon described in his memoirs (yes, this is a true story). Truth be told, you’d be surprised that that was the case. 12 Years A Slave is intensely visceral and sometimes makes for very uncomfortable viewing. It almost feels like you’re watching a snuff movie at some points. I defy anyone not to be unnerved by McQueen‘s unflinching decision to hold the camera on Ejiofor during a lynching scene… the cinematography, the noises and the background acting truly makes you want to look away or hide from the screen. Similarly, the scenes of lashings are also particularly harrowing. This isn’t a movie for the feint of heart, but is for people that want to acknowledge what actually went on in the past.

12 Years A Slave (2014)

Steve McQueen has done a fantastic job of sculpting arguably one of the finest movies in recent memory. The pacing of the film is sublime and the 120+ minute run time evaporates before your eyes. There’s no filler in this movie – it’s all top notch quality film making. And acting. Yes, a movie can only get so far on direction and story alone. The ensemble cast that’s been put together for this movie is beyond reproach. Although trailers and posters would make you believe this is a Brad Pitt fronted film (he does feature in the film… that much is true), that would be a huge disservice to the other actors, and indeed is a bit of a cheeky lie considering he doesn’t appear until the final act of the film.

British-born Chiwetel Ejiofor is  superb protagonist; capturing the joy, sorrow and adversity of the title character. I’d like to think that Solomon Northup himself would be pleased with this portrayal if he had the chance to watch this movie back. Ejiofor summons so much emotion that it’s hard to not be swept away and become emotional yourself when things don’t go his way (and that happens a lot). I feel more attention should also have been placed on Benedict Cumberbach and Michael Fassbender in the promotional materials, as both actors deliver in spades, even if this is the first time I’ve ever heard Cumberbach embrace an American accent. I really want to focus on Fassbender here though, as this is arguably one of his strongest performances to date. He embodies a vile, but critically broken man in an untold way. I was mesmerised by every scene that he was in, and he definitely deserves at least one gong for Best Supporting Actor at at least one of these upcoming ceremonies! If there’s any justice he will do anyway.

12 Years A Slave (2014)

Likewise, 12 Years A Slave as a whole, whether actors, director, screenplay or the film itself, deserves to be acknowledged for what it is: a spectacular piece of modern cinema. I expect big things for this movie over the coming month as the awards are handed out. I’m not normally one to be so taken with a film that’s a forerunner in these battles, but my mind has been changed. For me, it’s going to be a close battle between this and Captain Phillips. The true winners are however the audience… we’ve been spoiled, for sure.

12 Years A Slave is currently standing head and shoulders above all other contenders for Best Picture in our eyes at Film Phage. We’ve not been so moved and emotionally battered like this for a long time. Yes, the film is graphic, but why should the subject matter be sugar coated? Humans are a brutal species, regardless of race, gender or creed. It’s been the case since the first of our ancestors started to fight one another over territory or resources. Between Steve McQueen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbach, Michael Fassbender and a superb supporting cast, we have been blessed with a truly fantastic film to commence 2014.

You’ve got to taste the irony in my introductory paragraph don’t you? I talk at length about prejudice, and then air my own prejudices against flagrant Oscar-baiting movies. Although several are still to be unleashed in the UK, I doubt any will prove to be as worthy of praise as 12 Years A Slave. I don’t think I have any more superlatives to throw down here. Simply: see this film, or miss out on a true highlight. Done.

Phage Factor:

5 Star

Advertisements

American Hustle (2014)

American Hustle (2014)

I like it when a director shows favouritism towards working with certain individuals. I really believe it brings the best out of the actors. Perhaps one of the most notorious directors for this is Quentin Tarantino, who makes no great secret of the fact that he favours using Samuel L. Jackson at every opportunity, as well as Uma Thurman and Christoph Waltz when the opportunities arise. Another pairing that’s recently come to light is Neil Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley who will soon embark on their third outing together. So, when I saw the billing for David O. Russell‘s American Hustle, I won’t lie; I was excited. He’s seemingly done a great job of welding together the casts of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook to deliver his latest outing. How does Russell‘s Frankenstein’s Monster turn out though?

American Hustle (2014)

The cast of American Hustle is like a glorious chef’s recipe: 2 parts The Fighter (Christian Bale and Amy Adams), stirred with 2 parts Silver Linings Playbook (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence), folded in with new turns from Jeremy Renner and a host of others. What’s delivered? A delicious slice of 1970’s Americana revolving around blagging, conning and a whole host of escalating events. To break it down, Irving (Christian Bale) is a con-artist – small time – but a con-artist all the same. He takes this up a notch when he falls for Sydney (Amy Adams), who completes his criminal duo perfectly. The first problem? Sydney isn’t his wife. Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is his wife. The second problem? Well, don’t try and con an undercover FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), as you’ll get enveloped into working with one wild agent. And third? Don’t make friends with your next con; especially when he’s the Mayor (Jeremy Renner)… Believe me, there are numerous other problems for our cast, but that would be spoiling things somewhat!

American Hustle (2014)

The strength of American Hustle is clearly in its cast, but the same too can be said of its plotting. But let’s first dwell on the performances. It’s no secret that The Phage is a huge fan of Bradley Cooper. We tell you this every time we see him in a film, and indeed, tell you at numerous other times too. Cooper is again on sterling form, with a role that’s got more in common with The Place Beyond The Pines more than his “typical” Hangover-esque portrayals. In fact, I’m not sure it’s even fair to use The Hangover roles to describe Cooper any more; he’s done far too many other films. Similarly, Christian Bale is on great form too, clearly relishing the role. Likewise, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence deliver solidly in their performances. I’m a little surprised to see Lawrence up for BAFTAs and Globes with her performance here, which isn’t as captivating as that of Silver Linings Playbook, but that’s mainly because she’s not strictly a main character here. I was pleasantly taken aback by Jeremy Renner’s turn here too. He’s new to the David O. Russell stable, but his role was interesting and deep.

Indeed, it’s this level of “deepness” that makes American Hustle as interesting as it is. It’s not some ham-fisted attempt at a con film, as each character has flaws and dilemmas. It’s not Oceans Eleven. Thankfully. The plot continues to thrust forwards, leaving you wondering just who is going to come out on top. I like the fact that films don’t necessarily end happily nowadays, as this introduces a lot of guesswork on the audience’s behalf as they try and second-guess where the film’s ultimately going to end up.

American Hustle (2014)

Having said all of this, the film isn’t perfect. It’s got a meaty run time, that perhaps almost outstretched its welcome. Considering I’m a fan of all people involved in the movie, that says something. Quite what I’m trying to say? I’m not sure; it’s just that there’s fat that could otherwise have been trimmed here. Even just a swift 10-15 minutes hacked off the run time could have done wonders. That’s not to say it makes the film back… it just stops it being a “classic”.

American Hustle is a wonderfully vivid movie set against the backdrop of the 1970’s. David O. Russell contnues his directorial run to deliver a beautifully written and shot film, albeit with a little extra fat than was perhaps absolutely necessary. As awards’ season looms large, I wonder whether we could see any wins for American Hustle; it’s certainly a great film, but in a year with so many enormously strong contenders, can it walk away with any of the big ones? Time will tell.

All of this just makes me interested to see what David O. Russell will deliver next, and who he’ll be using in his next ensemble piece. Although Nailed is cited as being his next production, it deviates somewhat from the more serious / likely to get acclaim films that he’s become synonymous with in recent years. We just want more Bradley Cooper, but who didn’t see that coming from us?!

Phage Factor:

4 Star