12 Years a Slave – A Review

12 years a slave

You do have to feel sorry for Leonardo DiCaprio, don’t you? Every year seems to be the one when he’ll finally win that elusive Oscar, and then something comes along and pips him to it.

And on that note, we have 12 Years a Slave, an adaptation of Solomon Northup’s account of slave life in the mid-nineteenth century American south. It’s almost hard-wired to be a hit, given the combination of subject, cast and director. But the buzz surrounding it has been something truly special. Put simply, I haven’t heard a negative word about it.

Northrup’s book is an unknown to me, so I can’t make any comparisons to the source material. What you see here will be a judgement of the film on its own merits. Which is how it should be

Read on…

Lincoln – A Review

lincolnBeing the second film I’ve seen in as many weeks revolving around the slavery in the US, it was somewhat inevitable that Lincoln would invite a comparison with Django Unchained, so let me get it out of the way: they are completely and utterly different.

Lincoln, however, was a truly excellent film, and the two hours and twenty minutes I spent watching it on Saturday night entirely justified the vote of resounding confidence from the Oscar nominations. It was a soaring film, held aloft by assured and inspired performances almost completely across the board.

For the uninitiated, Lincoln is a film which follows US President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) through December 1864 and January 1865, as he tries to pass the 13th amendment and ban slavery, in the dying days of the civil war. It is a mixture of political thriller, and detailed character study, showing the key people of the time — Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) — and their roles in what has become a major feature of history.

Obviously, Day-Lewis is the star of the show, and his performance in the titular role was every bit as magnificent as is to be expected. The man has made only five films in the last ten years, and he clearly invests a lot in his performances. And no exception here. For nearly two and a half hours, I completely bought his confident use of Lincoln’s rhetoric, his movements, even his posture. It wasn’t so much that he portrayed the president, but rather that he became him.

But if Day-Lewis gets the accolades and applause, I really don’t think the film could have worked so well without Jones’ spot as leader of the abolitionist faction of the Republican Party. A man whose choice between hard principle and doing what is necessary to achieve his dream. It was an emotional, witty and dazzling performance, and his final scene summed up the film expertly.

The only performance which didn’t impress me was Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln. A woman on the edge of madness cannot be easy to play, but Field’s performance too often crossed over into the tremulous and wailing, clinging too often to stereotype and cliche, and lacking the nuance of other actors.

If I were to change anything, I would have ended it with Lincoln’s classic silhouette as he left his cabinet to head to that fateful play at Ford’s theatre. The scenes after didn’t add anything, and the simple knowledge of where Lincoln was going to would be enough to conclude the story.

I’m not a historian, so I can’t comment on the accuracy. And there is probably some mileage in claims that Lincoln under-represents the role of black Americans in abolitionism. But overall, it was a triumph of film-making, managing to blend beautiful scenes with powerful images of history, all centred around one actor’s stunning rendition of an extraordinary man.

Django Unchained – A Review

django unchained

Before I start this review, I reckon it’s worth highlighting that I am far from a sold up, Kool-Aid drinking member of the Tarantino cult. Yes, I thought Pulp Fiction was genius, but sadly its a height that he hasn’t really scaled since. It was Kill Bill which broke the illusion for me — a tiresomely long two-film epic, desperately light on plot and looking like a four hour masturbatory fight scene.

But, I am delighted to say that Django Unchained has me convinced once again.

The film follows title character Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who after being bought and freed by dentist-turned-bounty-hunter Dr King Schultz (Chistopher Walz) becomes a bounty hunter himself in order to find his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). That quest leads the bounty hunters to Broomhilda’s owner Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in a typically Tarantino-style violent encounter.

I know, it sounds completely bananas. But it works, beautifully, largely due to top quality acting. Leonardo DiCaprio is someone whose acting talent I have felt has been waiting for an opportunity to bloom. I have high hopes that his title role in The Great Gatsby later this year will see such a blooming, and they’ve only been increased in the light of Django.

Samuel L. Jackson’s turn as Candie’s house slave was also an excellent performance. Variously sympathetic and detestable, it was another performance to really use all of his talent and abilities. And not a single motherf**king snake was seen.

It was definitely a violent film; gunfights slick with blood, and a key plot point revolving around gladiator-style slave deathmatches. That said, there wasn’t really any sense of glorification, and it seemed to portray the grittiness of the times without letting it weigh too heavily on the story.

I really can’t find a fault with it. It was fun, engaging, and a pleasure to watch. If Tarantino did more of this and less self-indulgent nonsense, I could see myself joining his legion of adoring fans. The interesting thing will be seeing how it stands up against Lincoln in dealing with broadly similar themes from a (hopefully) different perspective.

But I would definitely recommend Django Unchained. It reminded me that film can be serious and entirely entertaining at the same time.