Tag Archives: Michael Fassbender

Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in America in the 1700s, is kidnapped and sold into slavery where he remains for 12 years. During his time he is tormented and tortured by slave owner Epps (Michael Fassbender) who also has an unhealthy obsession with Solomon’s fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).

Director Steve Mcqueen’s previous two features, Hunger and Shame, were intricate character examinations, delving into the human condition but from a very particular viewpoint.

However, with 12 Years a Slave McQueen tackles a much broader subject, that of slavery, and looks at it from a more expansive viewpoint. It’s still a character examination, and a deeply personal one at that, but this time around we’re shown a wider world and some of its more horrendous aspects.

And much of it truly is horrendous. McQueen takes an unflinching look at Northop’s story and has no qualms in presenting us with a piece of cinema that is genuinely uncomfortable and in many ways repulsive. On more than one occasion we’re shown the atrocities that Northop and his fellow slaves had to endure and we’re not spared any of the details.

McQueen has become known for his long takes and he uses them here to devastating effect. One scene in which we see Northup being hung whilst life blithely goes on around him lingers for what seems like an eternity. Similarly, when we see Patsey being sadistically whipped by Epps, every inch of your being screams for it to stop, but McQueen forces us to watch every last crippling lash. This does make for an incredibly difficult watch but is all the more powerful for it.

The performances are also hugely responsible in delivering the film’s message. Chiwetel Ejiofor is heartbreakingly genuine as Solomon as he wrestles with coming to terms with the fact he’s now a slave and may never see his family again. Another long take showing Solomon’s conflict in joining in singing ‘Roll Jordan, Roll’ with the other slaves is simply masterful. Michael Fassbender also gives yet another fine performance in his third collaboration with McQueen as the hateful slave owner Epps. In a similar way to Northup, Epps is conflicted, particularly when it comes to his feeling for Patsey and Fassbender is fantastic at showing this underlying vulnerability. Lupita Nyong’o, in her first film role, is a revelation as Patsey and seeing her subject to such abhorrent abuse is just crushing.

There are faults with the film, though, and blame must fall at the feet of McQueen and writer John Ridley. Solomon is kidnapped and sold into slavery very early on in the film which doesn’t really allow us to get a sense of his family life. His wife and children are afforded very little screentime and so we don’t really get much of a sense of Solomon as a family man and more importantly a free man. Also, there’s very little to indicate the passage of time throughout the film. Solomon was a slave for 12 years, but in the film it could just as easily have been 12 days. This doesn’t really help us get a sense of how long he was in slavery for and consequently lessens the impact when he finally regains his freedom.

It’s difficult to say 12 Years a Slave is a film one can enjoy. There’s plenty to admire and respect but it’s hard to glean much enjoyment from it. However, it’s an undeniably powerful piece of cinema and further proof that Steve McQueen is one of the most evocative directors working today.

Pros

  • Outstanding performances from Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong’o
  • Beautifully shot
  • Immensely powerful and heartwrenching

Cons

  • Not enough time spent with Solomon and his family in the outset
  • Little to indicate the passage of time, lessening the impact of just how long Solomon was away.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Hunger

Hunger

Hunger is the film that introduced the world to Steve McQueen. Not the iconic Bullitt actor, but the English film director who had previously worked predominantly as an artist. It was also the first time he teamed up with rising star Michael Fassbender (the two would later work together in Shame and the forthcoming film Twelve Years a Slave). If this was indeed the first time people had heard of McQueen and seen the collaboration with Fassbender, then they should count themselves lucky as they are witnesses the emergence of a director and partnership that appears to have a very promising and potentially significant future.

Set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Hunger tells the story of Republican prisoners and their attempt to regain political status after it was revoked by the British Government. The main focus of the story is that of Bobby Sands who led the 1981 hunger strike that claimed his life and that of five others. Prior to Sands’ arrival, we see the prisoners amidst a no wash protest, smearing excrement on the wall and refusing to wear anything but blankets. Upon Sands entering the prison, focus switches to his story as he refuses to eat and becomes thinner and increasingly frail.

The thing that immediately hits you as you watch Hunger is the lack of dialogue. For the first 40 minutes, barely a word is uttered; it doesn’t need to be. We get most of the information we need through what we are seeing and McQueen does an excellent job of showing no more and no less than we need. It’s brutal and disgusting and paints an ugly picture of the whole issue. We then come to the film’s middle third, the section for which it is perhaps most famous. This is a hugely impressive 17 minute long take of Sands talking to a local priest about his motivations for taking part in the hunger strike. Shot in one continuous medium long shot, it is an enthralling scene that contains nothing but dialogue as cigarette smoke dances between the two. Being so starved of dialogue up to this point, it’s a dramatic change of pace for the film and one that comes at just the right time to keep you enthralled. Following this scene, there is once again very little dialogue, perfectly framing the middle section of conversation.

Upon watching Hunger, it’ll come as a shock to few that Steve McQueen is an artist by trade. Quite simply, the film is beautifully shot; every shot is meticulously framed, showing exactly the detail that McQueen wants you to see. It’s amazing how fantastic he can make walls smeared with feaces look. Each frame could be a painting, a work of art in its own right and a disgustingly beautiful artistic snapshot of the time. Because that’s what Hunger is – a snapshot. There is little actual narrative and it’s not the character study some may expect. The characters we see in the first third of the film are not seen again and, aside from the aforementioned conversation with the priest, we don’t really get to understand much about Sands either.

Bobby Sands and a local priest, shot in one continuous 17 minute take

Bobby Sands and a local priest, shot in one continuous 17 minute take

Furthermore, for those with little to no knowledge of the situation in Northern Ireland at the time, Hunger may be a little alienating. There is little to no exposition and you’re not really any wise by the time the films comes to an end. This is nothing that can’t be rectified with a little background reading, but it may frustrate some who are looking for something with a little more narrative. McQueen, though, is entitled to make the film he wants to make and this is clearly his preferred format.

In terms of how it views the political issues, the film does appear to sympathise slightly more with Sands and the IRA. Again, this is the side that McQueen has chosen to take so that needs to be respected, but it may alienate those with particular political leanings. McQueen does include a couple of scenes that show the other side of the coin but these are few and far between.

Now pretty much a household name, Hunger was one of the pictures that made people aware Michael Fassbender. As has since become expected of him, he is superb as Bobby Sands, and his commitment to the role is without question. Production was shut down on the film so Fassbender could undergo a medically monitored crash diet before filming the scenes as Sands during the hunger strike. Reminiscent of Christian Bale in The Machinist, Fassbender slimmed down tremendously, which at times is quite harrowing to see. We also get to see his now revered acting skills during the 17 minute conversation, showing that he is one of the most talented actors working at the moment.

Hunger won’t satisfy those looking for an in-depth discussion of the Troubles or even those looking for a character driven study of Sands and his fellow prisoners. However, it is a work of art and, visually, is one of the most fastidiously created pieces of cinema you could hope to see.

Chris

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Film review: Prometheus

Prometheus film posterIs it a prequel or isn’t it? Well yes, but not really. Kind of.

And therein lies arguably Prometheus’ biggest problem – it’s not really sure what it wants to be. Ridley Scott originally conceived Prometheus as a direct prequel to his 1979 seminal sci-fi horror Alien, but later shelved it due to the development of the monstrosity that was Alien vs Predator. He then picked up the project again sometime later but decided to move away from the idea of a prequel, instead opting for a film that referenced Alien and existed in the same universe but was not directly a part of the series.

Prometheus kicks off with archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discovering a cave painting featuring a constellation of stars that has also been found in paintings and carvings from other civilisations on Earth. Believing that this could somehow hold the secret of life on Earth, the pair, along with a hefty crew that includes the obligatory android, David (Michael Fassbender), and The Company’s cold and corporate Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), depart for the moon LV-223. But, of course, it all goes a bit pear-shaped and what they discover turns out to not just be a threat to themselves, but the whole of mankind.

Scott has reiterated several times that Prometheus is not a true Alien prequel, but at the same time hasn’t been subtle with connecting it to the original franchise. It’s the Weyland Corporation behind the expedition; there’s an android (or artificial person as they prefer); some of the creatures are more than a little familiar; and the whole plot revolves around Space Jockeys (or Engineers to give them their proper name), the mysterious species seen in Alien when Ripley et al first discover the downed ship on LV-426. It’s a clever way to drum up hype, but it only succeeds in neither standing on its own two feet nor providing a real link to the original film. Throughout much of the film, it struggles to find its own direction, seemingly unsure of how closely to stick to canon and how far to diverge from it.

Meredith VickersThis is down to the script which, for the most part, is pretty terrible. For a start, there are far too many characters; there’s a crew of 17 on board Prometheus, some of whom we see for little more than a couple of minutes and, as such, care very little whether they live, die or become enraged zombie-aliens. Try and remember the names of more than a few of the crew and you’ll have done well. The character development for those we do see a little more of is also non-existent. There’s little to no exposition and no depth to them whatsoever. Holloway is a prime example of this. Billed as the male lead, his character adds absolutely nothing to the story and is so underdeveloped you actually end up forgetting he’s even there at all.

Noomi Rapace is decent enough as Shaw, although the attempts to give her a back story seem very halfhearted and almost an afterthought. Vickers as The Company’s representative on the mission is an intriguing character but somewhat underused, and is one of the few characters you actually want to see more of. Then we come to David, the crew’s resident android and the single best thing about Prometheus. Fassbender delivers a superb performance, once again proving he’s one of the most versatile actors around at the moment. David’s creepy and unnerving persona continually has you second guessing his motives throughout and whether he has an agenda other than the one presented. Stealing every scene he’s in, it’s equal parts depressing and amazing that, as an android, he has more personality than the vast majority of the other crew members.

On to the plot. Prometheus starts of well enough, sets the scene, and just when you think it’s going to turn up the atmosphere and crank up the tension, well, it just doesn’t. You never really get that sense of fear and everything just becomes that little bit predictable. Nothing of relevance really seems to happen until towards the end when everything just feels hacked to pieces and it jumps all over the place; hopefully the inevitable Director’s Cut will add a bit more coherence to the narrative.

David, the crew's android

“The reason we came here was to find answers.”

These are the words uttered to David by Holloway as he explains his reasons for the expedition, and could also represent the mindset of many of the Alien fans excited to see Prometheus. However, it poses many more questions than it answers, which just leaves a sense of frustration and confusion. Trying to make sense of the events in Prometheus is a near impossible task, which is often just the result of poor writing rather than intriguing and enticing plot twists and turns.

We didn’t really need a load of answers; a film simply existing alongside Alien would have been fine, but Scott just couldn’t help throwing in ties to Alien that meant a direct comparison was always going to happen. And if that comparison is in any way intended then you have to make sure it fits nicely together, otherwise you’ll have fans baying for blood. Scott has said that there could well be a sequel, and if there is, it will likely move further away still from Alien. That is absolutely fine, but that’s the intentions, make sure it does move away from Alien; don’t keep clinging on to it.

Elizabeth ShawPrometheus has taken quite a hammering in this review, but it’s not a total disaster. There is, of course, the aforementioned superlative Fassbender performance, but it also looks absolutely stunning. From the beautiful vistas of the film’s outset to the Giger-inspired interiors, it is visually gorgeous and presents the film with an incredibly grand sense of scale. Also, the 3D actually works very well, adding an extra layer of depth to the visuals, whilst remaining subtle enough to not become distracting. On presentation alone Prometheus excels, but unfortunately is let down on too many other fronts. With a clear direction Prometheus could have been so much more, but it just failed to develop an identity that could work on its own or as part of the Alien series.

Words: Chris Thomson

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Film review: Shame

Sex addiction is a topic that has garnered plenty of media focus over the past few years, but it’s a subject that, up until Shame, had not really been examined in film to such a degree. The reasons behind this are unclear; perhaps it’s because many don’t take it seriously as a condition, or maybe it’s that studios feel it would be too much of a risqué subject that would deter people from seeing it. Whatever the reason, the topic has finally been addressed and has been done so in a film that’s intense, shocking and sometimes harrowing.

Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender)

Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is a 30-something New York bachelor; he’s successful, has a good job and a decent apartment. However, he also has an unflinching sex addiction that he must balance with his regular work and social life on a day-to-day basis. Brandon seeks out different sexual partners nightly and resorts to masturbating several times a day, even at work, to satisfy his urges. He seems relatively at ease with how he manages his life until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up unexpectedly. This throws Brandon’s life into turmoil as he tries to come to terms with his sister’s arrival and still manage his fervent addiction.

The desire for sexual satisfaction consumes Brandon and it’s a constant search for his next fix, eventually forcing him to do whatever it takes to quell his urges. However, true satisfaction is something that, no matter the lengths he goes to, he never really attains. At no point is the film erotic; Brandon never seems to truly enjoy his encounters, but rather sees them as a means to an end. He’s scratching an itch, merely getting a hit before moving onto the next one. The only time Brandon attempts a relationship approaching normal, he’s awkward, uncomfortable and unable to perform as he otherwise would.

Sissy Sullivan (Mulligan)Shame marks the second time that director Steve McQueen has employed Michael Fassbender as his leading male, after 2008′s Hunger, and it’s clear he manages to get the best out of him. Fassbender’s performance is superb and he shows off the full spectrum of emotions as the struggling Brandon. It’s no surprise that McQueen is using Fassbender again in his next film, Twelve Years a Slave, which is due out some time next year. Mulligan also deserves mention as the clearly emotionally damaged invader of Brandon’s precariously balanced life. She has less time and scope to really develop her character (which is down to the script, not her), but she does well with what she’s given.

In terms of cinematography, Shame is absolutely stunning. The film does a fantastic job of capturing the vibrancy of New York without resorting to showing the big landmarks to qualify the film’s location – this is real New York. We see the palatial offices of the financial district when Brandon is comfortable with his life, but also see the seedy underbelly of a city that never sleeps when he is at his most desperate. McQueen’s use of the long take is prevalent throughout the film, really allowing us the ability to get more from the characters and the scenes and pushing the actors in terms of how invested they can become in their characters.

BrandonHowever, the film isn’t without its flaws, the majority of which come from the script. Whilst we are given an insight into Brandon’s life and how his addiction affects him, we are left in the dark somewhat as to the causes of his behaviour. We are given glimpses as to the root cause, but for some this may be a little obtuse. What is suggested to us may be deemed somewhat stereotypical and even a little easy as a behavioural catalyst. Whilst films shouldn’t have to spell everything out to a viewer, a certain level of exposition is important and perhaps Shame falls slightly short on this front. Fast forward and the film’s resolution is also lacking somewhat. We are given little indication as to the ramifications of the past hour and a half’s viewing or where the characters’ journey is headed. We are left without an answer as to how sex addiction can be overcome, if at all. As a character film, this works well enough, but it is most definitely not the examination of sex addiction that the film is billed as.

That said, Shame is one of the standout films of 2011, and how it was completely ignored by The Academy is, frankly, a little sad. For direction, cinematography and the actor’s performances, a nomination is the least it deserved. The film is not for the faint hearted, and most definitely not for the prudish, but for those curious about the topic of sex addiction and how deeply affecting it can be, Shame is essential viewing.

Words: Chris Thomson

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Prometheus trailer brings the fear

It’s been a long time in coming but Prometheus is now just a couple of months away. Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel doesn’t actually deal with any of the characters from the original Alien story but focuses more on the origins of the foes that Ripley et al came up against. Whilst the trailer is jam packed full of action, details on the plot are still pretty scarce, although Alien fanatics could probably go through the trailer with a fine tooth comb and find a few hints.

What we do know is the crew of the Prometheus are drawn to an alien planet and discover signs of life. After that it all goes a bit bat-shit crazy and there’s lots of screaming and being scared. Will we see a fully formed Xenomorph? Will the Chestbuster make an appearance? Why is Michael Fassbender being a bit creepy at the end? Time will tell…

UPDATE!

A new UK trailer for Prometheus has surfaced, which is a little more story focused than the previous one. And is that a Facehugger we see just after the two minute mark?!

Prometheus finally (chest)bursts onto screens on June 1st.

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