Monthly Archives: January 2014

Review – 12 Years A Slave (15) [2014]

12 Years a Slave - header2

Star Rating: 4.5/5

Director:

  • Steve McQueen – Hunger, Shame

Cast:

Music Composer:

It is with great relief and pride that state-sponsored slavery has been consigned to history in the West and in most other parts of the world. From ancient times through to the mid-20th century, enforcers of slave-based systems at times demonstrated the worst aspects of human nature. Despite America’s ideology of freedom and democracy for all peoples, the country started off with a terrible stain on its record due to the racially-aggravated slave-based system that was predominantly practised in the South of the country. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave brilliantly gives us a window into the harrowing world of the treatment black people suffered at the hands of white slave masters in the South before the Thirteenth Amendment came into force in 1865.

Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), as a free man, with his family in New York.

Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), as a free man, with his family in New York.

12 Years A Slave is based on the true story and memoirs of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Born and raised in New York as a free man, Solomon is invited by two ‘artists’ to share his skills with the violin and make some good money by playing in Washington DC.

But after making some money in the capital, Solomon is drugged one night and wakes up in chains in a dank underground cell. Despite his protestations of being a free man, Solomon is shipped to the South and sold into slavery.

Somehow, Solomon must stay alive, maintain his dignity, and return to New York to see his wife and two children again.

12 Years A Slave is a powerful, tear-jerking and distressing film from the off. Nothing by way of raw brutality is left out to illustrate how badly black people were treated under slavery. By starting the film with Solomon in slavery, having all his moments as a free man via flashbacks, Steve McQueen immediately enables audiences to sympathise and pity Solomon’s situation.

Sometimes (to be really pedantic) in order to rub salt into Solomon’s sorrowful predicament, the film indulges itself a little. This has the dual effect of giving Solomon so much screen time that it is as if the world revolves around him (especially due to the fairly long scene sequences that McQueen favours); and it pads out the movie’s running time to 134 minutes by putting in scenes that have no material effect on the plot. But these minor criticisms should not undermine the effectiveness of 12 Years A Slave.

Epps (Michael Fassbender), the nastiest of all the slave owners, shouting crazily at an enslaved Solomon, tormenting him.

Epps (Michael Fassbender), the nastiest of all the slave owners, shouting crazily at an enslaved Solomon, tormenting him.

The movie, however, would only be half as potent if it were not for the great performances from all the cast members, but in particular from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender. Ejiofor captures the anger and the despair of his character. Moreover, he portrays the sheer willpower of Solomon to survive with (some of) his dignity intact splendidly. Whenever Solomon looks back at the life that was taken from him, viewers cannot help but feel Solomon’s pain, and credit must be given to Ejiofor for enabling audiences to feel such strong emotions.

On the flip side, Fassbender also makes viewers feel strong sentiments with his performance as Edwin Epps, the ‘N*****-Breaker’ as his character is proudly nicknamed. It would have been easy for Fassbender to fall into the trap of a pornographic nastiness (as Ramsey Snow from Game of Thrones and the villains in Hostel and The Human Centipede all gleefully jump into). But by Fassbender playing Epps as an eccentric and quasi-comical human being, with problems of his own, Fassbender provides us with a powerful performance of a sadistic, yet troubled soul that feels entirely natural under the circumstances.

Fassbender can be seen to represent some of the worst facets of slave owners (and humanity in general when given licence). Nevertheless, 12 Years A Slave makes a point to show audiences that some slave owners were not as bad as Epps, and that they lived in fear of men like Epps and their own henchmen because of it.

Black slaves hung for the crime of running away from their cruel masters, and to deter others from trying to do the same.

Black slaves hung for the crime of running away from their cruel masters, and to deter others from trying to do the same.

Being afraid, of course, does not excuse keeping slaves or their actions. But as honest as the film is regarding the cruelty of the slave-system in the South, it is equally honest about why some people, who would have probably been good citizens in the free North, perhaps did not do enough (or anything at all) to help bring down the system. Steve McQueen must be applauded for this, like he should be for virtually everything else in this movie, as it would have been easy to inaccurately portray all slave owners as the Devil incarnate.

Over-all, 12 Years A Slave can be best summed up in the words of one of the actors in the film: “amazing… and none of it good.” Through outstanding performances from the cast, the film powerfully reveals the horrors and brutality of the slave-based system in the South of America in the mid-nineteenth century. One is likely to leave the film feeling numb and distressed, but also with the knowledge that not all the slave owners were wicked and that good men like President Abraham Lincoln put an end to the reprehensible system almost 150 years ago.

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Review – The Hobbit II: The Desolation of Smaug (12a) [2013]

The Hobbit II - title banner

Star Rating: 3/5

Director:

  • Peter Jackson – Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Lovely Bones, The Hobbit IIII, The Adventures of Tintin II

Cast:

  • Martin Freeman – The OfficeThe World’s End, Sherlock, Fargo
  • Ian McKellen – Apt PupilLord of the Rings TrilogyX-Men I-IIIX-Men: Days of Future Past
  • Cate Blanchett – Notes On A ScandalBlue Jasmine, Cinderella
  • Richard Armitage – Captain America: The First AvengerBlack Sky, Into The Storm
  • Aiden Turner – Alarm, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
  • Ken Scott – Casanova, Charlie Wilson’s War, One Day
  • Graham McTavish – Rambo, 24: Day 8, Columbiana
  • Benedict Cumberbatch – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Star Trek II: Into Darkness, The Fifth Estate, 12 Years A Slave
  • Orlando Bloom – The Lord of the Rings I-III, The Kingdom of Heaven, The Good Doctor, Zulu
  • Lee Pace – The Fall, Twilight IV: Breaking Dawn: Part II, Lincoln, Untitled Lance Armstrong Biopic
  • Evangeline Lilly – Lost, The Hurt Locker, Real Steel
  • Luke Evans – Clash of the Titans, Immortals, The Raven, Dracula Untold
  • Stephen Fry – V For Vendetta, Alice In Wonderland, Sherlock Holmes II: A Game of Shadows, Once Upon A Time In The Kitchen

Music Composer:

  • Howard Shore – Lord of the Rings TrilogyHugo, A Dangerous MethodThe Hobbit IIII

In December 2012, Peter Jackson started audiences on another nine-hour trilogy into Middle Earth, nine years after the last one ended. But anyone expecting The Hobbit Trilogy to be of the same quality as The Lord of the Rings Trilogy should have looked at the size of their respective source materials. With The Hobbit book having less than a third of the pages of The Lord of the Rings, it was unsurprising that The Hobbit I: An Expected Journey was overly-stretched, self-indulgent and stuffed with scenes that added little to the adventure. Well (predictably), The Hobbit II: The Desolation of Smaug suffers from the same syndrome, but it is a vast improvement on its predecessor.

Thorin (Richard Armitage), Balin (Ken Scott) and Dwalin (Graham McTavish, furthest left) looking for a the secret entrance.

Thorin (Richard Armitage), Balin (Ken Scott) and Dwalin (Graham McTavish, furthest left) looking for a the secret entrance.

In The Hobbit I, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) left the Shire to help Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the dwarves of Erebor reclaim their gold and homeland from Smaug the Dragon. By the end of An Unexpected Journey, after a long and dull trek (that mimicked the journey of the fellowship in The Fellowship of the Ring), some chases, and some fights with goblins and orcs, the eagles rescued Gandalf, Bilbo and the dwarves, and flew them to within sight of the Lonely Mountain and the ruins of Erebor.

Now, it is up to our new fellowship to make their way to the Lonely Mountain and retrieve the Arkenstone, the legitimising gem for the dwarf king. Yet, in order to regain this precious pearl, someone will have to be brave enough to snatch it from under the clasp of a dragon…

The plot for The Desolation of Smaug is straightforward and fun. The storyline also runs at a much faster pace than that of An Unexpected Journey, which is a good thing (since last time out it took 43 minutes just for Bilbo to leave the Shire).

Another noteworthy matter is that Peter Jackson has somewhat rectified two of the faults of the last film by adding in a major (albeit made up) female character (Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly); and by giving some personality to Balin, Dwalin and Kili so that they can differentiate themselves from Thorin ‘wannabe Aragorn’ Oakenshield and the other nine (synonymous) dwarves.

Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), the uniquely badass elf, showing the orcs what she's made of.

Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), the uniquely badass elf, showing the orcs what she’s made of.

Moreover, the dragon has been done superbly well. The special effects, combined with Benedict Cumberbatch’s rich, rumbling voice make the scenes with Smaug some of the most creative dragon scenes ever seen in a movie. Undoubtedly, the arrival of Smaug is one of the best features of The Desolation of Smaug and makes the film worthwhile.

However, in a similar vein to An Unexpected Journey, at 161 minutes The Desolation of Smaug is long. (Couldn’t the eagles have flown the protagonists to the Lonely Mountain and spared us two hours?). Worse, The Hobbit II is bloated with the disapplication of the laws of physics, an overuse of CGI, too many fight scenes, some (Logger’s Leap-style) fairground rides, irrelevant sub-plots from old and new characters, and an unnecessary love triangle (stolen from that wreckage of a pentology known as Twilight) to cap it all. All of these add nothing to the story and should have been edited out.

Yes, the water rides might be as entertaining as the love triangle is contrived and pointless. But there is something troubling about the continued mowing down of the orcs by the protagonists. Why couldn’t Peter Jackson have had our heroes at least try to negotiate peace with the orcs? Is it because the orcs look deformed that they can’t be negotiated with?

One may argue that as no negotiations take place in the source material, it cannot happen in the films. But, first, we are in 2014 (not the 1930s when the book was published, or the 1960s when the book became a sensation, or even 2001 when the first of The Lord of the Rings films came out). And in 2014 peace negotiations with peoples different to our own must be given every chance to succeed. Second, Jackson has changed so much from the book that merely to state the excuse of ‘not in the source material’ is neither convincing nor valid.

Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), usurper and desolator of Erebor, awakening from his slumber to reveal his awe-inspiring (and frightening) size.

Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), usurper and desolator of Erebor, awakening from his slumber to reveal his awe-inspiring (and frightening) size.

Perhaps, if Bilbo had posed the above-mentioned questions, it would have enriched the story and given the film a deeper moral dimension. More to the point, it would have been in character with Martin Freeman’s excellent portrayal of Bilbo and made The Desolation of Smaug a more gratifying and thought-provoking film.

Over-all, The Hobbit II: The Desolation of Smaug is a step up from An Unexpected JourneyThe Desolation of Smaug moves at a decent pace; has some, if too many, enjoyable and imaginative action scenes; and a fantastic looking and aptly sounding dragon to make for an entertaining spectacle. Nevertheless, there is no getting away from The Hobbit II’s swollen running time. The Desolation of Smaug, like An Unexpected Journey before it, is burdened by the numerous, purposeless, Jackson-invented side-stories that have ruined all that is good about the first two instalments of The Hobbit Trilogy, and that are also surreptitiously sullying The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

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