Tag Archives: BRAD PITT

AD ASTRA (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

AD ASTRA (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

Directed by: James Gray

Produced by: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, James Gray, Anthony Katagas, Rodrigo Teixeira, Arnon Milchan

Written by: James Gray, Ethan Gross

Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler etc.

Music: Max Richter

Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**



There’s a moment toward the end when Brad Pitt’s intrepid astronaut, Roy McBride, is floating in space, and he asks himself (via a voice-over), should I carry on? Is there any point? In the vastness of space, nearing the endgame of an epic mission full of danger, he asks himself if it is worth, existentially speaking, continuing. It’s a central theme to the whole film and perfectly encapsulates McBride’s character. Externally he is heroic, however, internally he is perpetually questioning whether life is worth living. I often find myself doing this, but not in space. It’s usually when my alarm goes off in the morning and I have to go to work.

But McBride is not pathetic like me. I cannot even get on a plane for fear of crashing. He is on a mission to save Earth. Because, in the near future, catastrophic destruction is threatening us. Thus, he is given the task of venturing to Neptune, via Mars and experience all manner of space obstacles in order to track down the person or persons who may have caused the beginning of the end. This individual is alleged to be his father, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones. So begins McBride’s very personal journey to the stars; to the heart of the darkest space.



A while ago I wrote an article about Hollywood making unofficial “remakes” as part of their film output – you can read the article here. Essentially, I proposed that in amidst their sequel, prequels, adaptations and superhero movie releases, you will get original screenplays and content too. However, sometimes these original ideas are thinly veiled carbon copies of ideas and structures from other films or literary sources.

For example, Star Wars (1977) used The Hidden Fortress (1958) structure and characters as an original starting point. Likewise, James Gray’s stunningly crafted science-fiction drama. Ad Astra (2019) is clearly using Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), as, not just influences, but total structural replication.

This in no way effected my enjoyment of this enthralling epic. What did happen though is that the story structure felt very familiar. The narrative unfolds in a staccato style with elegantly shot space transportation sequences and McBride’s psyche testing stops, spiked with bursts of action, fighting and surprising twists. When Clifford finally reaches Kurtz, I mean his father, his character and the audience have experienced some truly thrilling and visually spectacular moments. We also experience the psychological and philosophical musings of McBride. But, arguably these are nowhere near as poetic as Martin Sheen’s voice-over from the Coppola war classic.



In most scenes the visuals steal the show. The cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema and production design creates a hive of imagery which, amidst the darkness, bursts with colour and light. I genuinely, especially on Mars, felt like I was in a moving art installation. Having said that, Brad Pitt’s subtle but emotional performance and Max Richter’s sumptuous score also enhance the emotional pull of the story. Pitt, I expect to win a Best Supporting Oscar as Cliff Booth in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019), but he could also get a Best Actor nomination here.

James Gray directs with a deft and “less is more” hand throughout. While the production itself looks epic, the psychology of the film is one of introspection. His themes of obsession, journey and existentialism drew me in the way they did in his last film, The Lost City of Z (2016). Ultimately, although the film’s screenplay could have ironed out some thin characterisations and plot inconsistencies, Gray demonstrates that the very existence of his films certainly make life worth living.

Mark: 9 out of 11


CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: THE DEPARTED (2006)

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: THE DEPARTED (2006)

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Produced by: Brad Pitt, Brad Grey, Graham King

Screenplay: William Monahan

Based on: Infernal Affairs (2002) by Alan Mak and Felix Chong

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone, Anthony Anderson, Alec Baldwin etc.

Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus

**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**



“In my day you had two choices – be a criminal or a cop! When you’ve got a gun pointed at you – what’s the difference?” Frank Costello


Oscar-winning gangster film, The Departed (2006), is a vicious, double-crossing, paranoiac remake of the equally brilliant thriller, Infernal Affairs (2002). With a cast that reeks of testosterone and star quality, the incendiary William Monahan script is ferociously directed by filmmaking genius, Martin Scorsese. The legendary director and his production team, plus the terrific ensemble cast including Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen and Leonardo DiCaprio, lift this story above the run-of-the-mill cops and robbers genre movie.

The Departed (2006) moves at a heady pace from the start, establishing Sullivan (Damon) and Costigan (DiCaprio) as”Staties” in the Massachusetts force. They both have deep secrets; both go deep undercover unknowingly trying to catch the other. Sullivan is a criminal masquerading as a brilliant cop in order to further gangland boss, Costello’s (Nicholson) power games. The edgy, streetwise Costigan, on the other hand, joins Costello’s gang in order to bring him down from the inside.



The film is shot and edited, as expected, with immaculate precision; crammed with unrelenting and bone-crushing thrills and violence. Thematically, it’s powerful too. Throughout, honesty and truth are obliterated by lies and death. Costigan and Sullivan are no more than pawns at the hands of a corrupt system that lets people down from a great height. This is literally the case where Martin Sheen’s Captain Queenan is concerned. His death is probably the most brutal demise of all. At times, I must admit, my head was spinning because of the twisting plot as Sullivan, in a Kafkaesque turn, ends up chasing himself as part of a serious crime investigation.

The screenplay by William Monahan is a ballsy joy, full of despicable protagonists and biting dialogue. While many of the characters are difficult to like, the plot. thrusting soundtrack, incredible performances and narrative suspense really get the heart racing. Nicholson and Wahlberg take special glee in spouting their offensive dialogue. DiCaprio too is brilliant as the paranoid cop, dragged into the mix through some screwy sense of righteousness. Lastly, Matt Damon’s portrayal of Sullivan is particularly astute, as he plays against that all-American good guy he is often cast as.



Amidst the cat-and-mouse shenanigans, merciless tragedy pervades throughout. Virtually everyone is a rat or cheating on someone as the film deconstructs the notion of loyalty. Consequently, most scenes blur the lines between good and bad, as characters attempt to out-wit and out-kill one other. By the end there is no good or bad in the traditional sense, just a bunch of wasted lives in an ultimately nihilistic pursuit of money and power. The characters exist in a rodent-infested Boston setting, distorting the distinction between truth and lies. Is there a difference? The Departed (2006), doesn’t discriminate; and there lies the truth.


5 REASONS THIS COULD BE GOOD: AD ASTRA (2019)

AD ASTRA (2019) – FILM PREVIEW

Directed by: James Gray

Producer(s): Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, James Gray, Anthony Katagas, Rodrigo Teixeira, Arnon Milchan

Written by: James Gray, Ethan Gross

Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Jamie Kennedy and more.

UK Release: 20th September 2019


5 REASONS AD ASTRA (2019) COULD BE GOOD

I haven’t done one of these for a while so thought I’d reignite my movie preview section. The main reason is the trailer for science-fiction epic, Ad Astra (2019) looked absolutely brilliant, so I’m very excited to see it at the cinema when released. Here are five reasons it could be good.

1) THE STORY

I love the science fiction genre and space especially is a great place to create mystery and drama. The narrative to Ad Astra (2019) finds Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) travelling to the depths of the galaxy to find his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones). While it appears to be an original script, the story owes much to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Thus, if we get anywhere near as incredible as Apocalypse Now (1979), but set in space, this could be really great.


2) THE DIRECTOR

Director James Gray has steadily built up a very impressive film C.V. of character and crime dramas. His last film, The Lost City of Z (2016). a jungle epic was a box office loser, but a really compelling drama about exploration and obsession in the Victorian era. Ad Astra (2019) is his biggest budgeted film so far, but given his filmmaking skills and experience, it could be his best yet.


3) THE STAR

Flying high from starring in Tarantino’s twisted movie fairytale, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019), Brad Pitt is proving his star quality still burns brightly. Pitt is always a commanding lead actor and he has played: Nazi Hunters, bare-knuckled fighters, disaffected thirty-something alter-egos, baseball coaches, infamous cowboys, romantic heroes, stoners, vampires, cops, psychopathic drifters, hit-men and many more characters. Here he plays an astronaut and I think it is only his second sci-fi film after the superb Twelve Monkeys (1995). Thus, Brad Pitt’s appearance is another reason to get excited.


4) SPECIAL EFFECTS

While I’m a screenwriter myself and more drawn to story rather than effects driven films, The Moving Picture Company are leading special effects experts. They have worked with Method Studios, Mr X, Weta, Brainstorm Digital etc. on this film and so the work on this space opera looks like it could be incredible. Indeed, The Moving Picture Company alone have provided effects for: Blade Runner 2049 (2018), The Jungle Book (2017), Sully (2017), The Martian (2016), The Guardians of the Galaxy (2015) and many more!


5) THE TRAILER

Because I am so experienced and probably jaded where trailers are concerned, it takes a lot to get my attention when at the cinema. But, the trailer for Ad Astra (2019) absolutely rocked. It did not give ALL the story away and made me want to watch the film. Don’t take my word for it – here it is:


ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – FILM REVIEW – A $90 MILLION “ARTHOUSE” & FETISHISTIC CLASSIC!

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – FILM REVIEW

Directed and Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Produced by: David Heyman, Shannon McIntosh, Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Margaret Qualley, Austin Butler, Al Pacino, Mike Moh, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Damien Lewis, Kurt Russell and many, many more.

Cinematography: Robert Richardson

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

From watching the trailers for Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019), I remember thinking: this looks so cool and I’m glad they haven’t given away much of the story here. Because, I hate those darned trailers which give away the story!

So, you watch Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film and then you realise, after the excessive running time, THERE ISN’T REALLY ANY STORY as such! Okay, DiCaprio’s character suffers an existential career crisis but that’s kind of it. Instead, you get mostly a nigh-on three-hour historical and cultural nostalgia trip down memory lane filtered through the artistic and fetishistic vision of one of cinemas great filmmaking iconoclasts.

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019), is essentially an arthouse character study where you get to hang out with two-and-a-half lead protagonists, plus a whole army of fictional and ‘real’ life supporting characters from the 1969 Hollywood era. Our two main “heroes” are neurotic, alcoholic B-movie actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and tough, handsome and laconic, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The two characters contrast and complement each other perfectly. Moreover, the star quality, chemistry and fine performances of the lead actors bind the movie together amazingly.

Brad Pitt is especially brilliant. His character is not, until the violent ending, given much to do story wise; however, he does it with such charm. He imbues a character who has accepted his place in the world with such easy-going humour and control, it is an absolute joy to watch. It’s an iceberg performance which seems shallow on the surface, but has hidden and unsaid depth. I really wanted to know more about his character, especially what appeared to be a very colourful backstory.

DiCaprio, on the other hand, has the showier performance. Edgy, hungover and insecure due to his characters’ fading Hollywood career, DiCaprio gives another fantastic movie performance. He commits to the Dalton character and features in some wonderful sketches which pay homage and parody B-movies, TV variety shows and old TV Westerns. What I loved was his ability to demonstrate different levels of acting skills. DiCaprio can fuck up Dalton’s acting on set one moment, but then deliver acting on a Shakespearean level the next.

Margot Robbie, who we know is a brilliant actor in her own right, alas, is not afforded the same level of care in regard to the characterisation of Sharon Tate. More of an ornamental character in the film, she looks great going to the cinema, packing a suitcase, driving and generally just being effervescent. Yet, it’s truly is one of the film’s major flaws that it doesn’t make more of Robbie’s acting talent. Even the fantastic ending, which Tarantino, takes incredible liberties with in regard to actual events, finds Tate’s character development unfortunately left bereft of emotion.

Similarly, the Hollywood cameos echoing throughout the films are pure style over substance. For example Steve McQueen, Roman Polanski and Bruce Lee feature but these are mostly inconsequential encounters. The Bruce Lee representation and scene is actually really funny as Cliff Booth and the martial arts star face off in a hilarious flashback. Typically, Tarantino has caused controversy with his Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) rendition. Personally, I respect that people may be offended, however, it’s more comedic and iconoclastic rather than overt racism. After all, this is a fairy-tale vision of Hollywood and not a documentary. Plus, Tarantino knows he’s going to piss people off so it’s obvious he’s playing with people here.

While Bruce Lee’s persona is playfully satirized or racist depending on your point-of-view, Tarantino’s representation of the Manson family is more damning. It’s clear he absolutely hates hippies, especially acid-looped killer hippies. Dalton and Booth represent the old-school, honest Hollywood working class, so are the antithesis of the drop-out youths. The culture clashes between this era and the new flower-power cults is something Tarantino explores. Charles Manson, who barely features, is a ghost-like figure though. Instead, it is the character of Tex (Austin Butler) and the females of the commune who are most prominent.

Margaret Qualley as Pussycat is especially hypnotic in her role. Exuding both sexuality and acid-drenched nihilism, Pussycat is a siren hitcher, luring drivers to symbolically crash against the cliffs. For me, Tarantino should have made way more of the old and new California culture clash themes, as they resonated powerfully when on screen. Plus, the scenes on the commune were actually quite creepy, so more should have been made of this threat from a dramatic perspective. Lastly, the irreverent and violent final act carnage exploits the clashing of these two different cultures, but more could have done throughout to enhance this dynamic.

Overall, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019) is a near three-hour arthouse classic. If you like films about film and TV making, driving, feet, ensemble casts, films within films, cinema-going, Los Angeles, more feet; and hanging with the marvellous DiCaprio and Pitt in a 1969 setting, then you will love this beautifully rendered and lovingly crafted film about Hollywood. Otherwise, you will probably find it a boring, indulgent and style-over-substance folly. Either way you have to admire Tarantino’s exquisitely controlled writing and direction. He certainly does!!

Safe to say though Tarantino will not care either way, because most of his filmic output has made a lot of money at the box office. This has now allowed him the luxury, like that of true cinema artists such as Kubrick, Altman and Antonioni, to make whatever films a studio is prepared to give him the money for. He’s basically making films for himself and doesn’t care if the audience likes it or not.

I personally found myself magnetically drawn to Tarantino’s vision and from a purely filmmaking and artistic perspective I was totally immersed throughout. Having said that, if the incessant driving and shots of dirty feet were cut and Dalton and Booth had been given a proper plot, rather than the thin stranded narrative within the impressive gallery of cameos and set-pieces, I would definitely expect to be writing about one of the best films ever made.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11

VICE (2018) – CINEMA REVIEW & OSCAR BINGO #3

VICE (2018) – CINEMA REVIEW

Directed by: Adam McKay

Produced by: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Kevin J. Messick, Will Ferrell, Adam Mckay

Written by: Adam McKay

Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Jesse Plemons

**CONTAINS HISTORICAL SPOILERS**

Unlike the previous Oscar Bingo attempts for A Star Is Born (2018) and First Man (2018), this review has full knowledge of the nomonations. So, rather than be guess work this review of Vice (2018) is intended to be based on more constructive critiques of the Oscar nominated films I have seen.

BEST FILM CHANCES – 8/10

For starters, Vice is certainly worthy of its award nominations. I have seen some criticisms that it is cartoonish and simplistic and while I actually agree with this, it is also a brilliant and scabrous work of satire. Yes, it’s preaching to the liberal and left-winged Hollywood choir, but it definitely presents a fascinating snapshot of Dick Cheney’s rise from alcoholic wastrel to powerful political figure.

While I believe Roma (2018) will win the Best Film, I enjoyed Vice more from a stylistic, educational and emotional perspective. I was drawn into the murky world of American politics by McKay and his fantastic ensemble cast, and was compelled by the machinations of Cheney’s manipulative puppet-master to Bush’s marionette President. McKay’s film, while certainly one-tracked, powers along picking apart and satirising one of the most shadowy political figures of recent years.

BEST DIRECTOR CHANCES – 8/10

In terms of tone and narrative, McKay’s The Big Short (2015) was arguably a more cohesive film. Indeed, Vice is presented more as a non-linear monatge and sketch style recreation of key events in Cheney’s life. But I loved the style and McKay should be praised for his editing choices. He throws the veritable formalistic kitchen sink at the film using: direct address, Shakepearean monologue, cross-cutting montage, fake credits, voiceover, freeze frames, fake footage, stock footage, flashbacks, flash forwards, inter-titles, third-party narrator and many more stylised tropes. In my view his directorial bag of tricks are utilised without losing emotional impact too. While Alfonso Cuaron will probably win McKay certainly deserves kudos for enlivening his subject matter with such storytelling choices.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE CHANCES – 10/10

Christian Bale should win. I have not seen Rami Malek, Viggo Mortensen or Willem Dafoe’s acting in their respective roles but Christian Bale is astonishing. Fair enough, he has taken a real person and delivered an emulation performance, but he also brings to Cheney to life with formidable cinematic style. Of course, the physical transformation could take the headlines but in terms of emotion and mentality he really raises the perfomance bar. Cheney may be an enigmatic character but Bale brings quiet menace, whispers and manipulation to the role. There is also a sly humour there too which makes Bale’s Cheney another memorable acting monster he’s created.

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE CHANCES – 8/10

Amy Adams is one of my favourite actors. Not quite a Lady Macbeth character, her Lynn Cheney pushes Dick forward mercilessly to make a better man of himself. She is the foundation and rock of their relationship and glues his life together when he faces health issues and political setbacks. Adams nails the role, and while Rachel Weisz will probably win for The Favourite (2018), Adams may finally get the Oscar she deserves.

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE CHANCES – 5/10

Sam Rockwell is excellent in emulating George W. Bush but he only has a few scenes. While Rockwell dumbs down with the best of them I would have nominated Steve Carell instead. His Donald Rumsfeld, was a creeping, neurotic and conniving joy and definitely deserved the nomination in this category.

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY CHANCES – 7/10

The film benefits from a sparky screenplay which keeps a potentially dull subject spinning along in an entertaining fashion. It takes a complex set of characters and scenarios, and despite simplifying to fit a leftist agenda, still constructs intelligent analyses of Cheney and Washington at large. Ultimately, Cheney is shown to be an opportunist and dangerous person who manipulated information and policy to finagle the USA and allies into a war for profit. Even worse he did so from the position of Vice President – boo Cheney! Boo! While McKay deserves praise for his brave creative choices, I would go for Paul Schrader’s exceptional First Reformed (2018) in the original screenplay category; Schrader deserves it more.

CONCLUSION

I am a big fan of satirical works such as: Private Eye, Yes Minister, Spitting Image, The Thick Of It, Veep and South Park. They seek to undermine and take critical shots at our leaders, illustrating the danger, absurdity and stupidity of those in power. They also, in an entertaining way, carry a message that those serving their country are often serving themselves more. Conversely, a film like Vice, however cartoonish or broad, still has the power to highlight the corruption and horror of a man like Cheney. While the script and direction are tonally scatter-gun, Bale’s incredible rendition, and the marvellous supporting cast, anchor the film and ensure this satirical ship rarely hits the rocks.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11

MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #3: SAM ROCKWELL

MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #3: SAM ROCKWELL

There are some actors who just walk between the raindrops when they’re on-screen; inasmuch as everything they do seems so effortless. The magnificent Sam Rockwell is one of those actors. He’s not a big star but he certainly shines like one in most of his roles. While the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Meryl Streep and Christian Bale are tremendous actors, the audience can clearly SEE the work they are committing to; yet Rockwell just glides through a performance charming you and pulling you in with his guile and a golden smile.  He’s just good in everything. Here are five performances I particularly enjoyed. (Note: glaring omission from the list LAWN DOGS (1997) which I ashamedly have not seen. I apologise to my fan.)

**THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD**

GALAXY QUEST (1999)

THIS is the film where Rockwell first hit my consciousness and it is a wonderful sci-fi comedy which gently mocks but also affectionately homages Star Trek and its legion of fans. It has a terrific ensemble cast including Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, Tim Allen and Tony Shalboub.  Plus, the effervescent Rockwell stealing scene after scene as the kind of sidekick/bit-part show cast member who usually gets killed first.  The film is a bona fide cult classic and I urge you to see it if you haven’t.

JOSHUA (2007)

I picked this because it’s a VERY effective psychological horror film which kind of fell through the cracks on release and is worth catching online or DVD.  It’s an extremely well written, directed and performed “demon child” film but done with nuance rather than the overblown histrionics of the devilish OMENesque movies.  Rockwell plays a loving father and husband and it’s one his more complex roles showing pain and confusion rather than the easy charm one has come to expect from him.

THE WAY WAY BACK (2013)

Talking of which Rockwell ratchets the charm right up to ELEVEN in this wonderful-rites-of-passage-summer-of-love-coming-of-age-dramedy.  He plays an overgrown man-child who refuses to grow up and accept responsibility – preferring to play the fool at a Water Park!  There he takes the awkward teenager Duncan (Liam James) under his wing and trains him to party, have fun and gain confidence with girls.  Rockwell’s just so goddamned likeable and acts as a positive ‘father’ figure to Duncan in contrast to Steve Carell’s negative philanderer Trent.

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007)

Andrew ‘Chopper’ Dominik’s moody Western is one of the BEST films I have seen from the last 10 years.  It was pretty much a box-office flop but everything about it screamed greatness to me: stunning cinematography; elegant pace; resonating themes and subtext regarding fame and celebrity; wonderful cast; beautiful vistas and so on and so forth.  Rockwell excels in a supporting role as Charley Ford who gets caught between the eerie homo-erotic hero-worship-then-rivalry of his brother Robert (stunning Casey Affleck) and eponymous Jesse James (never better Brad Pitt).  The film moves at a glacial pace, building character and suspense, while in between the sporadic bursts of violence startle and raise the pulse in an altogether memorable cinematic experience.

 

MOON (2009)

In MOON not only do we get one Sam Rockwell but we get hundreds for the price of an admission fee.  He is outstanding as the isolated astronaut (AND doppelganger) mining the moon for helium-3, who having met another version of himself is thrown into an existential crisis.   What it lacks in budget it makes up for with the use of ‘authentic’ old-fashioned models. Moreover, the story engages intellectually, then dramatically before eventually tugging at the heartstrings; all the while introducing fascinating sci-fi concepts.  Director Duncan Jones shows Christopher ‘Interstellar’ Nolan how to make a humanist sci-fi masterpiece for a fraction of the cost and in Rockwell he has a tremendous co-pilot. A film to watch over and over and arguably Rockwell’s finest performance as an actor.

12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013) – Film Review by Paul Laight

12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013) – Film Review by Paul Laight

**THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS + CLIPS**

The artist/director Steve McQueen is a very important filmmaker and his films to date include the searing character study of Bobby Sands in Hunger (2008) and the pulverising sex-addict study of Shame (2011).  His latest epic is another intense offering based on the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup, a New York State-born free man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery.  Indeed, in just 3 feature films McQueen has proven himself a genuine cinematic artist and a beacon of real quality and must-see drama.

Whereas Sands in Hunger was driven by political motives and Sullivan in Shame unable to control his animal instincts then Northup’s character is a family man, a proud and free individual living with his wife and child in Washington.  It is there that the story cross-cuts with later events and Solomon’s unjust capture into slavery. He is a dedicated family man and his character is epitomised at the beginning when he turns down the sexual advances of a female captive; my understanding being he could not compromise his fidelity despite being imprisoned in this Louisiana hell.

From the start you’re really rooting for Northup as he is shown to be intelligent, musical and scholarly gentlemen both proud and faithful.  His kidnapping is a press-ganging of the most heinous kind as he led away from Washington with the promise of lucrative work then tricked when seemingly at his most content. The subsequent journey through the plantations of New Orleans is a most despicable crime against humanity and McQueen shows this is many scenes of physical, verbal and mental abuse perpetrated against Northup and other characters.  Here pain and suffering has never looked so beautiful with stunning cinematography by Sean Bobbitt. It’s a story of sunshine and pain with McQueen utilizing Northup’s life microcosmically in regard to the slave movement as a whole.

The cast are incredible from Chiwetel Ejiofor, in the leading role of Northup to evil slave-zealot Michael Fassbender, benign yet complicit Benedict Cumberbatch and many more including Paul Dano, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, standing out in supporting roles. It has received nine Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director for McQueen, and Best Actor for Ejiofor, and Best Supporting Actor for Fassbender, and Best Supporting Actress for Nyong’o and I would be shocked if it doesn’t win something.

McQueen treats the subject matter with the reverence and power it deserves and literally paints a brutal, inhumane and devastating set of images with which to tell the story. He often favours long takes notably the scene where Solomon hangs clinging by his toenails to life. This is a stand-out iconic scene and it is too much to bear because we have so much invested in Solomon’s character by this stage and really want his suffering to end.  But that’s where Fassbender’s Epps enters the play and the intensity is ratcheted up and then some.

For well over an hour 12 Years a Slave is majestic filmmaking of the highest quality. Northup’s characterisation is incredible, however, this is to the detriment of the other characters who dip in and out of the narrative notably Benedict Cumberbatch’s Ford, who to me was the most interesting of the white slavers as he appeared to be a compassionate man trapped within a vicious societal circle of hate.  Fassbender’s maniacal Epps I feel deserved a better introduction because even though the actor is once again breath-taking I felt the performance MORE than the actual character.  The two wives of the slavers were one-dimensional and interchangeably evil, plus, I was disappointed Paul Dano’s character left the narrative too early.  The major casting disappointment is the glory-hunting role Brad Pitt gave himself as the kind Canadian carpenter who assists Northup in his quest to escape.  Pitt is a great movie star and I love his work but he’s too big in my opinion to appear so late in such a story as this.  I was deeply involved only to suddenly be reminded I was watching a Hollywood movie.

Steve McQueen is a master craftsmen and has made a near-flawless work of cinema even though I must admit the ending left me very frustrated.  There is power and emotion for all to see but I wanted more satisfaction for Northup’s character and some kind of retribution to be dealt to his captors. McQueen had cooked up such an intense soup of pain and suffering I wanted more of a release. Indeed, it seemed quite a passive denouement to me especially when compared to a film such as Glory (1989) and the Roman Slave action epic Spartacus (1960). However, this is a more personal epic and the filmmakers have clearly stayed true to the honour of the original book so my personal desire for cinematic revenge on the slavers will just have to be met by Tarantino’s dancing-horse-bad-ass-Blaxploitation-Western Django Unchained (2012) I suppose.