12 Years A Slave

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One of the front-runners of this year’s Oscars is 12 Years A Slave, Steven McQueen’s latest attempt at the marriage of art and narrative film. The movie is based on the true story of Solomon Northup: an artisanal son of a freed slave, who finds himself kidnapped, taken to Georgia against his will and sold into slavery to a number of slave owners.

The fact that this story is true (and apparently not the only occasion someone was illegally sold into slavery at the time) is shocking enough, but McQueen does not shy away from showing the true brutality and undignifying existence for black slaves in the 19th Century. There are a number of scenes that are so harrowingly realistic, and acted upon a knife’s edge, that they will have you turning away out of respect for the victims of the torture. There is more genuine, effective horror in this movie than in any lowbrow torture porn flick and it is very difficult to watch.

A huge factor in how difficult the film is to watch can be attributed to a fantastically nuanced performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor as the protagonist, Northup. Ejiofor changes how Northup holds himself throughout the film; he is a proud violinist with a loving family at the beginning, and by the end he’s a complete shell of his former self, hunched and invisible when white people are around. There were some great turns from Nyong’o, Cumberbatch and Dano, but I am not sure Brad Pitt worked in his role. I also felt that sometimes, the main antagonist, Epps (Michael Fassbender), was played too much like a Disney villain, which may have been a decision on McQueen’s part to create a foil to the nuanced Northup. Whenever he explode in a fit of entitled white Christian rage it felt like the movie was trying to fit into generic narrative conventions of good vs bad, which cheapened the movie for me somewhat.

As with any McQueen movie it is shot beautifully; we get the lingering mid shots and close-ups of peoples’ faces for which the director is known. Whereas other another director would chose to end a scene when an audience would expect, McQueen managed to draw out the rawest emotion by having the nerve to leave the camera rolling just that little bit longer. In a movie such as 12 Years A Slave – a movie that is so deeply-seated in visceral emotion – this technique worked extremely well. If Shame was McQueen’s breakthrough movie, then 12 Years A Slave is his masterpiece, and I very much doubt his marriage of art and narrative cinema will ever be as popular.

12 Years A Slave is not a film into which you should go lightly. The subject matter lends itself to some graphic brutality and devastating realism that is not for the feint of heart, however the central performance from Ejiofor is definitely a reason this should, and needs, to be seen by everyone.

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The House I Live In

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The House I Live In, a sharp and thorough investigative documentary on the ‘War on Drugs’ in the United States, needs to be taken notice of. Written and directed by Eugene Jarecki (Why we Fight), with a credible and weighty set of A-List producers at its helm, this is a documentary not to be messed with.

Through the use of first person interviews, stock footage and statistics, Jarecki, a seasoned and experienced documentary film maker, presents a well rounded and compelling argument against the effectiveness of current drug policies in the USA. Shocking minimum sentencing laws and disproportionate incarceration for minorities are just two of the failures that are intelligently picked apart. Jarecki brilliantly navigates the history of drug culture, it’s undeniable parallels with race relations and it’s devastating effect on a disenfranchised America, with an ease, empathy and sophistication that could so easily have ended up confused and disjointed. Instead his own personal connection to the story, and omnipresence as a director and narrator, succeeds in validating the message rather than cheapening it. The result is a film peppered with open and frank discussions, humanising and personalising those affected. Jarecki’s simplistic cinematic style shows an appreciation and respect for this, allowing the content to breathe.

This is an important and significant piece of work. The breadth of the stock footage, scope of information and credibility of his sources are in itself a feat, yet he has also managed to weave these elements seamlessly into one another with the skill of a master craftsmen.

Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In, is as compelling as it is startling, If you have not seen this film, see it. Right now.

Moneyball

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I’m not ashamed to admit that I have no interest in baseball. This is part due to the fact that I’m not from the US/Japan, but mainly because I invest far too much of myself into Arsenal Football Club. This, however, did not stop me finding Moneyball an absolutely charming and exuberant sports movie, which was more about the men behind the sport than about the sport itself.

Brad Pitt stars as real-world baseball coach Billy Beane, a man who went against the grain and used statistics rather than talent scouts to build his Oakland A’s team. Ignoring decades of scouting tradition, he hired a Yale graduate in economics and used a spreadsheet to end up as one of the biggest shocks in the sports’ history.  His character, expertly written but perfectly delivered, is a cheeky, charming and funny man sent entirely on his morals and ideology. With the help of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), and some down-and-out baseball players, he proves wrong his critics and goes down in the history books.

Aaron Sorkin’s script is one of the best things about this movie. He is one of the best screenwriters at delivering entirely believable male characters. One of the stand out scenes involves a dozen scouts, Pitt and Hill, and the pace is so dynamic; the lines come thick and fast, and the tension and humour is tangible. Nevertheless, there are a number of silences in the movie that are so well timed, they create a fantastic air of reflection without being clichéd. There were even a few scenes that were so believable they felt improvised, which was actually confirmed by Christopher Tellefsen near the bottom of his interview.

There were a few aspects of this movie that I felt dragged it from being a complete triumph. Firstly, the editing was pretty terrible at points. On a number of occasions there were reaction shots in which you could see the character not facing the camera wasn’t talking, yet you could hear their voice. Also, the storyline with Beane’s daughter felt completely unnecessary. The story with the team was strong enough to appeal to a mass audience but the daughter/family scenes were the weakest in the movie. The final five minutes I found myself a little bored, but it swiftly ended and I was left smiling nonetheless!

Moneyball was a fantastic movie. It won’t be considered among the greatest ever made, but it will be one that will raise your spirits and is a great story about underdogs.