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I May Destroy You
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Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Benedict Cumberbatch
Running time: 134 minutes
Country: USA, UK
Having the ability to cinematically re-tell a chapter of history has expanded rapidly in this generation. The majority of bio-pics and historical-dramas feature a story with oppressive contents; however, there are the odd few true stories which depict a touch of hope within humanity. 12 Years A Slave tells a story of pre-Civil War America that represents the brutality of slavery whilst within it, introduces Solomon Northup's extraordinary and touching tale during enslavement. Following in similar footsteps to Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List and Roman Polanski's The Pianist, 12 Years A Slave certainly does provide enough visual persuasion of 1800s American slavery whilst also becoming a fantastic bio-pic filled with sublime performances from its ensemble cast and breath-taking mise-en-scéne.
Although slavery in America occurred in the 19th century, for Hollywood to illustrate and promote an oppressive piece of their history may have been difficult. Still, the aim was to interpret American slavery as it was at the time. Last year we saw Django Unchained, a slight historical twist of slavery in the US but 12 Years A Slave more realistically portrays a brutal reflection, especially the attention to detail in moments of violence and abuse. Furthermore, slavery in 12 Years A Slave is centred primarily on Northup's personal experience in which the whole concept becomes both disturbing and inspiring. Similar to the representation of the Holocaust in Schindler's List and Nazi-invaded Poland in The Pianist, Northup's 12-year odyssey of enslavement exposed inner faith, which is the key to a bio-pic told within a hostile environment.
Prior to directing 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen had only made two features - Shame and Hunger, both of which are low-budget, British independent films. In their own ways, both have been sadistic projects from the perspective of its protagonist. In that sense, 12 Years A Slave and its contents became prominent to McQueen's directorial style and subject choice. 12 Years A Slave became less independent than McQueen's previous works and had consequently become a high-standard film, with a higher budget and more Hollywood-y touch to it. At the same time, it still maintained the perspective of Northup within the dark and raw surroundings. Similarly, while the subject is oppressive, the actual production of 12 Years A Slave was beautiful, particularly Sean Bobbit's cinematography who occasionally highlights the natural landscapes; therefore, enhancing the realistic touch of 1800s America.
Throughout his career up until now, Chiwetel Ejiofor has been 'that actor' who made regular supporting appearances behind central stars. However, Ejiofor leads the pack in this historical-drama with a superb breakthrough performance. Similar to Adrien Brody's performance in The Pianist, Ejiofor reflects Northup's clear family-minded, sensitive nature whilst exhibiting the horrors of slavery. We observe many African-Americans in 12 Years A Slave but Northup becomes the black male slave as his journey of torture, pain and sorrow illustrates a clear understanding to viewers from just one man's viewpoint. Nevertheless, Ejiofor has finally had his breakthrough role and deserves to be an Oscar contender. Meanwhile, Lupita Nyong'o makes her acting debut in an outstanding performance as female slave Petsey. Like Ejiofor, Nyong'o's performance is a representation of gender within American slavery and her role impressively interpreted the vulnerability and innocence of women during enslavement as well as the pain, cries and pure fright.
Michael Fassbender returns for the third consecutive time with Steve McQueen. Following his previous critically acclaimed performance in Shame, Fassbender shines once again as the sadistic plantation owner Edwin Epps. Fassbender has portrayed cold, bitter characters in the past and this became advantageous to his role in 12 Years A Slave. He superbly reflected the cold-hearted, sinister mannerism of Epps; therefore, honestly depicting the cruelty of Caucasian plantation owners towards their slaves. In addition, Benedict Cumberbatch makes a decent appearance as William Ford, another plantation owner but more benevolent than Epps. Paul Dano also gets some screen time as Ford's abusive and incredibly racist carpenter. Being arguably the most racist character in the entire film, Paul Dano brilliantly enhanced further realism among their treatment of black people during that period. As a result, it has become his greatest performance since There Will Be Blood or even Little Miss Sunshine.
Whether based on real-life events or an original screenplay, the cinematic representation of slavery is bound to raise curiosity and occasional controversy, especially when there's slavery involved. 12 Years A Slave marvellously depicts to viewers how America was in the South during that period, which was enhanced further by McQueen's superb directing, excellent performances from particularly Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong'o. McQueen's latest is as energetic, drama-wise, and is not far among Schindler's List and The Pianist in terms of expressing human drama through historical facts. Nevertheless, 12 Years A Slave may be a stomach-turning film but there is no doubt it is one of the most powerful bio-pics of this generation and will be a strong contender for Best Picture.
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch
Running time: 161 minutes
Country: New Zealand, UK, USA
After waiting for almost a decade, The Hobbit prequels to Lord Of The Rings began with the impressive yet somewhat poorly-paced and stretched predecessor An Unexpected Journey last year. Some could argue that it became a disappointment to Tolkien fans for stretching approximately one hundred pages of writing into an almost three-hour film. However, the second installment The Desolation Of Smaug is a much stronger, exciting and thrilling adventure. This sequel is in a dangerous position because its execution could go either way - whether it'll provide central concepts to the plot that'll lead to the finale or that it'll be an inaccurate, weaker follow-up. Although Jackson implemented certain features in The Desolation Of Smaug that were not in Tolkien's book, it is an impressive sequel that somewhat redeems An Unexpected Journey and ends with a superb cliffhanger leaving the audience to eagerly await for There And Back Again next Christmas.
The main issue with this entire Hobbit trilogy is how Jackson is stretching the contents of a single 361-page book into three lengthy films. An Unexpected Journey's pacing was rather weak and filled approximately half of the novel into almost three hours. However, The Desolation Of Smaug gets straight to the point by filling in multiple plot concepts in the middle of the book whilst still providing enough narrative space and time for viewers to enjoy. While the main plot is of Bilbo, Thorin and companies' continuous quest to the Lonely Mountain, the sequel has many subplots - Gandalf's search of Necromancer and the love triangle between Legolas, Tauriel and Kili. The latter may have been a ridiculous shoe-in for Jackson to initiate longer running time but it somehow does not ruin the film. Besides, Tolkien told multiple sub-plots in Lord Of The Rings, much like Jackson did in the films. In fact, Jackson is almost spot on with pacing this time. Also, the plot is full of multiple locations and new characters who weren't in An Unexpected Journey (yes, even Smaug). Still, although we witnessed a weak opening sequence with no meaning of what happens in The Desolation Of Smaug (it becomes more of a reminder), Jackson has really picked up the pace.
Of course, Tolkien fans have been expecting The Hobbit film adaptations to appear as epic and realistic, visually, compared to Lord Of The Rings. However, the difference is that not only is there a ten-year gap between the trilogies but Lord Of The Rings is a trilogy primarily for a teenager and adult audience whereas The Hobbit has been described as a gem of children's literature. So, quite frankly, the visuals are going to be different. At the same time, audiences would expect them to be identical seeing as The Desolation Of Smaug is part of a prequel trilogy and for it to feel connected to Lord Of The Rings. This sequel is not only darker, narrative wise, than its predecessor but it is visually darker and provides a more serious tone to the trilogy. Similarly, the 3D format is actually worth the money in this sequel, particularly the barrel sequence and of course, to finally see the dragon in the flesh.
Martin Freeman proved himself to be a fantastic choice for the role of Bilbo Baggins in An Unexpected Journey and once again, he maintains that in The Desolation Of Smaug. Bilbo's true character was exposed in this second prequel as he faced a great deal of danger which required bravery and courage. Freeman's subtle execution of Bilbo became success as we saw him become more vulnerable at the same time slowly begins to be under the manipulation of the Ring. Ian McKellen delivers a great performance once again as Gandalf the Grey. While he was undoubtedly the best actor in Lord Of The Rings, his performance has not changed and it was great to see him back. Richard Armitage still does not entirely impress as Thorin Oakenshield. Yes, he possessed that bitter, cold attitude but his desperation to reclaim Erebor and signs of courage were lacking in this sequel. Hopefully, he can improvise one final time in There And Back Again.
Undoubtedly the highlighted character in The Desolation Of Smaug is Smaug himself, beautifully voiced and performed via motion-capture by Benedict Cumberbatch. In Tolkien's novel and prior to fully witnessing Smaug, he has been known as a terrible, powerful dragon and Jackson's interpretation of the character was jaw-dropping. Dragons have always been portrayed as dominant species of special magnificence and Smaug ultimately fulfills that. Still, Cumberbatch's role was absolutely fantastic and perhaps runs up towards the brilliance of Andy Serkis as Gollum. Perhaps Cumberbatch's key quality as Smaug was his booming voice which served as a personal quality and was beautifully applied with the dragon's visual image. Therefore in the cinema world, Smaug has ultimately become the beast of all beasts and Tolkien would be proud. Cumberbatch's portrayal of The Necromancer is also worth noting too as he provided a sinister performance through voice which leads to the return of a certain villain in Lord Of The Rings.
On a similar note, the return of certain Lord Of The Rings characters who are not in the original Hobbit novel has been another big issue for fans. For example, Orlando Bloom reprises his role as Legolas. While he was great in Lord Of The Rings his involvement was not necessarily required. His physical appearance looked rather strange, particularly eye contact lenses. It looked too comical and did not entirely look like the Legolas who we saw in Lord Of The Rings. However, that does not necessarily mean that his general appearance was not terrible. No, Legolas was not mentioned in the original book, but Bilbo and the Dwarves' encounter with the Elves in Mirkwood would be another way for Jackson to provide slightly original ideas whilst still flowing along with Tolkien's original story.
Although The Desolation Of Smaug had a few minor issues with sub-plot and implementation of characters, it is a vast improvement on An Unexpected Journey. The second prequel has provided more adventure, Tolkien's literature trademark, and more action that has enhanced a more refreshing return to Middle-Earth. This Hobbit series perhaps was not going to be the exact same Middle-Earth that Jackson entered into with Lord Of The Rings trilogy but this second prequel really is not far. Nevertheless, The Desolation Of Smaug is an entertaining and intense film that has left us to enhance our excitement for the long-awaited finale in this trilogy.
Director: Alfonso Caurón
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Running time: 90 minutes
Country: USA, UK
In this day and age, it is not often we experience cinema as a spectacle event. Films of this type usually provide the combination of powerful human drama with a new supply of technological features, particularly in 3D. In that sense, they have often stood out against typical Hollywood films and have something new to offer. Alfonso Caurón's Gravity is another addition to that list among spectacle films, such as Avatar, Hugo and Life Of Pi, as its visual representation becomes an equally substantial achievement to the plot and characters. Alfonso Caurón returns to filmmaking for the first time since Children Of Men in 2006 and provides us with a truly intense, eye-gauging and stunning space-drama.
Those who are familiar with Caurón's work will identify that two of his auteurist styles of filmmaking are his excessive use of long takes and tracking shots. In the past, these techniques have allowed the audience to literally become the camera and vice versa that leaves us to follow the characters and examine the narrative flow. In Gravity, we witness unbelievable direction from Caurón through multiple long takes, such as the film's first thirteen minutes. These long takes suggest Caurón's talent as a director of immaculate quality, ability to direct the actors in ways which maintain the audience's attention. Caurón's central focus in Gravity is the naturalistic portrayal of outer space and his direction is portrayed similar to a discovery channel, which becomes an observation exercise for viewers. Through sound effects, we often hear only the sound of breathing and throughout most of the film; there is a limited supply of music. This additionally stands away from other Hollywood films as it becomes a spectacle film filled with nature. Caurón's sci-fi hit adds a sense of realism and truth.
In many ways, Gravity is a typical survival film that we have seen time and time again. The film itself is basically two astronauts stranded in outer space after a mission goes wrong and try to get back to Earth. That is the story and due to this, the plot is thin and occasionally lacked depth. We did get a few incidents in which protagonist Ryan Stone talks about her daughter but the aim of Gravity is to experience hers and Matt Kowalsky's situation and pray that they find solutions to return home. So, in a sense, the plot is exactly the same as the story. The audience still experience space as it is but Gravity still had the potential to go beyond those borders and provide us with further ambiguous structure. The 3D experience arguably has not been more exhilarating and breath-taking since Avatar in 2009. It goes to show that it only works if a film is purely made for it and has been done properly and patiently. 3D almost literally dragged us into outer space but the beauty of Gravity is that it would still be a marvellous experience without it.
While we witness a truthful depiction of outer space and its natural beauty, it is entirely depicted through the dangerous and intense journey of Dr Ryan Stone and Lieutenant Matt Kowalsky. Sandra Bullock took on the role of Stone with a superb performance. Bullock has often been criticized for her acting and while she has been a bland actress throughout her career, her role in Gravity is arguably her greatest yet. We experience everything with her and whilst in her situation, she envies pure human spirit and a firm connection with the audience.
Some have argued that Stone and Kowalsky, portrayed by George Clooney, were underdeveloped as characters. However, they are not like your traditional Hollywood characters with acknowledged backgrounds and motives. It is their independence that allows them to drive themselves out of the circumstances. In fact, the development of particularly Ryan Stone is told through her struggles to return to Earth. It becomes a revelation for the audience as the courage and bravery is who she really is. On the other hand, Matt Kowalsky was almost irrelevant to the film as he was seriously underdeveloped, even as a supporting character. George Clooney was basically playing George Clooney. In a sense, it worked because he was symbolizing the average man in space and Bullock the average woman, but of what we see of Clooney, his appearance was rather bland and had nothing compared to Bullock's performance.
Typically, Gravity has been compared to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey through similar visual representations of space. Caurón's sci-fi hit certainly does achieve a spectacular, naturalistic experience of space along with 3D but it could and should have been a true landmark if it perhaps enhanced a deeper plot. Despite this, Gravity is still an unforgettable experience that makes its mark among Avatar, Hugo and Life Of Pi as a film of pure visual magnificence. Be prepared for an jaw-dropping 90-minute ride in space.
<b>Director:</b> Paul Greengrass
<b>Starring:</b> Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed
<b>Running time:</b> 143 minutes
In recent years, we have witnessed the release of multiple biography-dramas and has spiralled out of control. While they are re-telling certain events in the magical world of cinema, there are not many out there which clench the emotional drama or intensity during its time setting, especially if it is from the perspective of an individual character. Paul Greengrass already blew our minds with his unbelievably realistic, stomach-turning 9/11 drama-thriller <i>United 93</i>, and seven years later, he has achieved that once more with <I>Captain Phillips</i>, which revisits Captain Richard Phillips' experience of the Maersk Alabama hijacking in 2009. Greengrass has been known for his auteurist style for depicting real-life dramatized events with his unique camera style and approach to <i>Captain Phillips</I> ultimately paid off. Here we have another masterpiece from Greengrass that will leave you off the edge of your seat and is a strong Best Picture contender.
Paul Greengrass has always been a director of documentary-like technicality. His most notable attribute as an auteur has been his effective use of shaky camera. This is sometimes a huge gamble as its continuously wobbly movement could confuse the audience as to what is happening in a scene. Greengrass is the master of this technique because it is perhaps as close as a film can get to grasp a sense of reality, in a similar style to documentary. With all of the thrills, action and suspense that <i>Captain Phillips</i> possesses, the implication of Greengrass' wobbly filming style worked beautifully. If anything, it got the audience even more involved as a realistic drama but it still worked tremendously as an escapist film.
Another substantial quality in <i>Captain Phillips</i> is the nail-biting suspense. Admittedly, the film begins like it is an ordinary day but the appearance of the Somali pirates and the hijacking picks up the pace. From this point, the suspense gets higher, the surroundings get more claustrophobic and the audience's uncomfortable predicament gets tighter. Greengrass progressively tightens and zooms on the suspense through his technical style and narrative flow which we, the spectators, are almost reaching out of our seats and begin to find it more difficult to endure. Nevertheless, the amount of stomach-turning tension that <i>Captain Phillips</i> bestowed perhaps could not have got any higher than Greengrass' shaky-camera techniques and of course, Tom Hanks in the leading role.
Particularly in his most famous roles, Tom Hanks has delivered performances as characters either in search of a unique adventure or are forced into one. His appearance in <I>Captain Phillips</i> is in some ways a typecast because it is once again, a film that features Hanks practically on his own in which the plot's central focus is on the circumstances of his on-screen character, similar to <I>Cast Away</i>. In <i>Captain Phillips</i>, especially in the film's second act, the audience are there with Phillips every step of the way and Hanks' portrayal of a terrified yet brave and noble man really shines. It is perhaps his greatest performance in a long time and he is undoubtedly a contender for Best Leading Actor. While Hanks' is leading the cast like he almost always does, a stand-out performance in <I>Captain Phillips</i> is newcomer Barkhad Abdi as pirate leader Muse. In his first ever acting role, Abdi reaches up to the hype and formed a superb chemistry with Hanks. Muse is a complex character as he, like Phillips, wants to do what is right for his country, current situation but does it in a wrong but rather desperate way which demoralizes his objective and perhaps the poor Somalia people. Nevertheless, Abdi's first on-screen appearance is an inspiration to amateur actors and he deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
<i>Captain Phillips</i> is a gifted thriller which possesses the ability to maintain exhilarating suspense and emotional exhaustion upon the audience. The fact it was based on a true story, one that occurred only in 2009, depicts further historical involvement and Greengrass' technical documentary-like style practically seals that. At the same time, it is rather unpredictable for a bio-pic as narrative events, characters and camera shots are thrown around everywhere examining and tightening the circumstances. Nevertheless, <i>Captain Phillips</i> gives Kathryn Bigelow's <i>Zero Dark Thirty</i> a run for its money and it could become Greengrass' greatest opportunity yet at Oscar glory as well as for Tom Hanks to claim his third Academy Award win.