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

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Django Unchained (2013)

Django Unchained (2013)

Everyone has their favourites. Whether it’s their favourite actor, director or brand of cereal. Life’s eclectic like that. Me? Well, I’d struggle to pick out a single actor; I’ve got way too many favourites. Cereal? Well, I’m not really a cereal fan, but I’d go with something containing almonds and is crunchy enough to break at least five teeth per serving. As for director? Well, that’s quite easy: Quentin Tarantino. The guy has had his hand in some of my all time favourite movies and has also propelled certain actors into the ranks of my favourites too, owing to his screenplays. So when a new Tarantino movie rolls into town, I sit up and take notice, as they nearly always guarantee a slice of cinematic gold. Can Django Unchained continue the trend?

Bad Boys... Texan style.

Bad Boys… Texan style.

Before I get down to brass tacks, let’s discuss the premise of this particular movie… as if you don’t already know! The film follows the life of the titular Django (Jamie Foxx) – a slave who is liberated by a dentist-come-bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), in order to track down three targets. But what does Django want to do when the task is accomplished? Well, he wants to go off and find his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) – a fellow slave of the pre-Civil War United States. It just happens to be that Broomhilda is the property of a Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio): owner of the appropriately named Candie-Land plantation. Can the dynamic duo rescue her from his clutches? Or will Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) the loyal house slave, figure out their game?

Quite simply, Django Unchained is a formidable work of cinema. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I loved every last moment of it. It had the perfect storm of great plot and fantastic casting, complete with Tarantino‘s brilliant scripting flourishes. So let’s kick off with the acting skills on show here. Much was made of the casting of Django himself, with Will Smith apparently in the running for the part in the early days. This made a lot of people sit up and take notice; owing to Smith‘s established fan base and ability to make massive returns at the box office. But for whatever reason, he never tried out for the part. This led to the hiring of Jamie Foxx for the role. Whilst Foxx isn’t the brightest star in the film, he fits the role perfectly. He’s just “right” for the part – he’s a fit, both physically and vocally. For me, his portrayal of Django was spot on. But as I say, he’s not the eclipsing star here. That accolade in fact belongs to three supporting actors: Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson. Waltz is bankable. He was sublime in Inglorious Basterds and put on a great show in Carnage. He’s a talent to be reckoned with. Whilst I found the role of King Schultz to be compelling, I never felt the same “wow” as I did with Inglorious Basterds‘ Hans Lander. Still, you can’t fault his performance here.

Django Unchained (2013)

I think I was most impressed with Leonardo DiCaprio, though I’m not surprised. For too long this guy was seen as a flash in the pan – only famous because of Titanic and how much the ladies loved him. But nothing could be further from the truth. He’s shown us countless times how he can step up to any role, so it was great to see him as a detestable character. Candie is sinister, intelligent and at the same time, incredibly naive. DiCaprio pulls it all off with aplomb. Finally, it’s brilliant to see Samuel L. Jackson in another defining role. As I’ve mentioned previously, it seems the guy picks films out of a hat, as opposed to scrutinising a script, as some of his films have been less than palatable. But Tarantino again brings the best out of Jackson. Just like Joss Whedon has his favourite rotating cast, I’m glad that Tarantino has the same. It’s familiar, but it’s always different… if you understand me.

Django Unchained (2013)

Plot / script-wise… it’s Tarantino. Come on – you know what you’re getting here. Ultra-violence, a heap of beautifully crafted dialogue and some great music choices. Some have derided the choice to include Rick Ross‘ 1000 Black Coffins (a modern hip hop song) in the middle of a film smattered with oldie-worldie sounding tunes. But it works! Come on, you can’t say you weren’t surprised to hear “Stuck in the Middle With You” during Reservoir Dogs can you? It was a massive juxtaposition – a guy’s ear being cut off with a cut throat razor with such a jolly song over the top. The same is true here, I’d argue.

The one thing that is definitely very “un-Tarantino” is the fact that he opts for a chronological story. We’re all well accustomed to his flair for Chapters in his films – ones that switch back and forth in time. They’re oddly absent here – something that must have been a deliberate choice on his behalf, of that I’m certain.

Oh, and anyone spot the massive tie in to the rest of the Tarantino universe? You know – where he makes a nod to a certain character / event in another of his films? No? Yes? It’s three points for a correct answer… OK, here’s a clue: King Schultz. Now go back and watch Kill Bill Vol. 2 with that in mind. All should become apparent.

Now, my verdict was never going to be an obvious choice based solely on the fact that Tarantino is the man writing the script, but it certainly raises expectations. Expectations can either be met, exceeded or never met. But Django Unchained never wanes and never bores over its lengthy run time. If anything, I’d have loved more time with those characters in their world. As I say, it’ll have its detractors, but what film doesn’t?

Thankfully, the Tarantino brand is still a mark of quality. Django Unchained is one of the best movies he’s ever put his name to. I’m not going to declare it “the” best, because his catalogue is too strong and it’s ultimately like picking between your favourite children… But we all do have a favourite don’t we? Cute little P. Fiction is mine…

Phage Factor:

5 Star

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