'12 Years A Slave' - Dir. Steve McQueen (15)
A towering achievement and one, I suspect, that will loom large over the careers of many involved - not least writer-director Steve McQueen and star Chiwetel Ejiofor. The film follows Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) a free and comfortably middle-class black man in the mid-nineteenth century - a few decades short of the Civil War and abolition of slavery - who's tricked into leaving his wife and family in New York to perform as a violinist in Washington DC, only to be abducted and sold into slavery. As you can guess from the title, and the fact Northup later published the memoir upon which the film is based, his ordeal is not quickly resolved and we see this man accustomed to a certain level of respect and hyper-polite, cravat-wearing cordiality in the free north subjected to number of horrific, dehumanizing abuses once he is sold down south - a contrast that underlines much of the subsequent tragedy.
Soon we're, along with Soloman, witnessing the rape of enslaved women, children torn from mothers and sold to the highest bidder, lynchings, and many other appalling acts of brutality. And we see many faces of slave ownership too, from the paternalism and impotent liberal-guilt of Benedict Cumberbatch to the blind hate of Paul Dano, who seems to take great pleasure in beating and tormenting the slaves as a means to reinforcing his own fragile sense of self-worth. Then there's the mercurial Michael Fassbender as the alcoholic and unpredictable Edwin Epps, whose religious fervor and cold conviction that his slaves are nothing more than property makes for an especially nasty villain - even if, like everybody else, he's played with great humanity. Obsessed with Lupita Nyong'o's Patsey, Epps ends up using the film's most tragic character as an unwilling pawn in a domestic feud with his wife, played by Sarah Paulson, leading to several of the film's most shocking single moments of violence. Though there is a sense that all involved are victims (though some unquestionably bigger victims that others) with slavery an institution that ultimately demeans everybody.
Perhaps Hans Zimmer's conventional and overwrought score (sections of which are lifted note for note from 'Inception') is the film's only real weak-spot, with McQueen's use of diagetic music (songs sung by the slaves and Soloman's violin playing) much more genuinely heartfelt and raw than any moment the orchestra comes in. Indeed some of the sustained close-ups and long takes are made all the more memorable and stunning because they take place in complete silence. Though ultimately Ejiofor's performance is so strong, telegraphing a great deal of subtle character change over the film's titular time-frame, that it's difficult for anything to spoil it. '12 Years a Slave' is manifestly McQueen's most conventional and mainstream film to date, with his visual artist background and arthouse sensibilities more keenly felt in the cold and self-consciously difficult 'Hunger' and 'Shame'. What this film does is wed the director's compassion for difficult characters and interest in exploring unpalatable human truths with something more heartfelt and genuinely emotional - something built for an audience.
Paulina Garcia gives a sensational performance as the title character - a beguiling turn that earned her the Silver Bear for best actress at last year's Berlin Film Festival, playing a divorcee who combats feelings of isolation and unhappiness with hedonism and a slightly desperate attempt at romance. It's a perfect character study which is warm and humorous and sometimes even triumphant without compromising the well observed reality of the character and her underlying sadness. 'Gloria' is a particular joy due to its nuanced and atypical portrayal of a middle-aged woman, with the title character multifaceted and shown engaging in activities - such as clubbing, drug taking, having lots of sex, drinking, gambling - usually restricted to the under-40s as far as movies are concerned, none of which are played for easy laughs (as is the case in 'Last Vegas' - reviewed below).
A claustrophobic film, during which the camera never strays away from the protagonist (I'd be hard pressed to recall a single shot Garcia isn't in), director Sebastián Lelio has crafted something deeply compassionate and empathetic with a deceptive lightness of touch. It isn't showy and there isn't a loose scene or sequence in it, instead this is a well-crafted character piece told with great economy and forward drive that plants the viewer firmly in the shoes of its brilliant and quietly tragic central character.
'Short Term 12' - Dir. Destin Daniel Cretton (15)
More interesting when focused on the kids rather than the equally troubled adult care workers, 'Short Term 12' is an earnest and heartfelt American indie drama about a temporary care home for abused or otherwise traumatised youngsters. Brie Larson stars as Grace, a care worker who finds it difficult to listen to her own advice when it comes to dealing with her own difficult, abuse-ridden past, and she has rightly earned plaudits for the role which she plays with charm and great strength. However the stand-out actor is without doubt Keith Stanfield as Marcus, one of the troubled young people in Grace's care, who unfortunately isn't the focus of the film's main plotline even if he steals every scene he's in. It's tough and emotional without seeming cloying or manipulative, though a few strands are resolved a bit too satisfactorily at the end in a way which, though admittedly heartening, feels dishonest.
Simultaneously offensive to older people - with "look! Old people doing young people stuff is funny!" being the film's only gag - whilst nakedly making a run on the so-called grey pound, Jon Turtletaub's nostalgic and sentimental romp is a waste of a fine cast. Featuring a fun and terrifically watchable Kevin Kline, a typically winsome Morgan Freeman, a suitably slick and slimy Michael Douglas and another lethargic, "where do I have to stand?" turn from Robert De Niro, 'Last Vegas' alternates between brash 'lads gone wild' antics, with wet t-shirt competitions, strippers and the dubious spectacle of veteran actors drinking spirits from an ice sculptures nipples, and schmaltzy, safe, judgmental moralising - the effect being that this is neither an "oh no they didn't!" amoral farce or a bittersweet foray into the trials of ageing and the power of friendship, though it obviously wants badly to be both. Falls flat as a comedy and as a drama, leaving a sour aftertaste.