Posts Tagged ‘Steve McQueen’

1) 12 YEARS A SLAVE (DIR. STEVE MCQUEEN, USA/UK)

An ultra-early release of 2014 in the UK (January 10th to be precise), Steve McQueen’s third film 12 Years A Slave has endured, in my memory, as the most moving cinema experience of the year. Prior to this film McQueen had established himself – with Hunger and Shame – as one of the most important feature directors in the UK, for his ability to merge demanding topics with fresh visual language. With 12 Years A Slave he proved himself capable of this on a much grander scale, earning a Best Picture Oscar, a $187.7 million box office return and widespread critical support. It is essential that we revisit history through the eyes of great artists and Steve McQueen is one such artist.

2) 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH (DIR. IAIN FORSYTH & JANE POLLARD, UK)
In a strong year for cinema documentaries 20,000 Days on Earth expanded the paradigm. Composed of elements from dramatic fiction, observational documentary and the rock film this Nick Cave biopic, set over the course of a day, is an expertly framed Petri dish of fascinating ideas. While the film might primarily appeal to Cave fans, it should interest anyone who creates, or simply wishes to understand themselves and their human impulses. Cave’s transcendental live performances feature prominently, while the meaning of these occasions is explored in moments of fascinating examination, as the frank and eloquent Cave reflects on his life to a therapist and lives out his life in atmospheric Brighton.

3) THE WIND RISES (DIR. HAYAO MIYAZAKI, JAPAN)
The Wind Rises is the final film of Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki and it is a bittersweet achievement, not only about about the cost of innovation, but the cost of dreams. Based loosely on the true story of Japanese engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who was responsible for designing fighter planes during World War II, the film surrealistically captures the glorious freedom of imagination and intellect and contrasts it with the devastation these powers can bring. In line with Horikoshi’s own attitude towards the futility of WWII, the film’s tone is one of profound melancholy. The film presents a man whose talent for innovation and love of flight is tragically undermined by the impulse, in others, for war.

4) ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (DIR. JIM JARMUSCH, USA)
In the cinema, 2014 was a special year for the more esoteric side of rock n’ roll. With Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch took the horror genre into reverent territory and drew a line straight back through the history of art. The film, which centers around the reunion of a pair of vampire lovers (Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston), resonates with a universe of fascinating culture for those ready to listen. With locations in Chicago and Tangier the film takes us on a poetic punk journey, into a world once inhabited by Shakespeare ghost writers, Nikola Tesla, William S. Burroughs & The Stooges. The film’s soundtrack, featuring Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL, Jozef van Wissem and Yasmine Hamdan is also not be missed.

5) VIRUNGA (DIR. ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL, UK/CONGO)

This extraordinary film from prolific director Orlando Von Einsiedel is a thrilling piece of journalism and another fantastic expansion on the possibilities of documentary cinema. The film follows the current crisis of the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as the park’s security team and rangers attempt to hold off an onslaught from Congolese rebels who appear to be collaborating with British oil company Soco. The documentary creates extraordinary emotional stakes by telling the stories of Andre Bauma, who cares for the park’s gorilla population, park director Emmanuel de Merode and journalist Melanie Gouby. These individuals put their necks on the line for the park, which the film depicts as an integral element to the survival and autonomy of the DRC, while the filmmakers capture the unfolding violence and human displacement.

6) THE KIDNAPPING OF MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ (DIR. GUILLAUME NICLOUX, FRANCE)
Back in 2011 controversial French author Michel Houellebecq (Whatever, Atomised, Platform) disappeared during a book tour for The Map and the Territory, leading to media speculation that he had been kidnapped by al-Qaida. The contention created by the author’s works may have justified such a possibility, but director Guillaume Nicloux’s dramatic interpretation of the situation (starring Houellebecq as himself) speculates on a much different – and hilariously funny – scenario. The integral joke of the film is that Houellebecq, in sly deadpan style, rather enjoys the experience, as he encourages his surprisingly benevolent captors to cater to his whims and vices. However you may feel about Michel Houellebecq, this film riffs brilliantly on his dark humour and outsider status.

7) NIGHTCRAWLER (DIR. DAN GILROY, USA)
Hollywood screenwriter Dan Gilroy (The FallReel SteelThe Bourne Legacy) made his directorial debut with Nightcrawler and doing so brought to the screen a career best performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, as aspirational anti-hero Louis Bloom. The film takes it’s cue from the post-recession job crisis, with Bloom as an ultra-opportunistic news cameraman who dispenses with all moral values to succeed in the business. His ambition leads him to film increasingly grisly crime scenes, as he simultaneously loses contact with the reality of what he films. The film is a thrilling romp, starring an unusually manic Gyllenhaal, which also works as a critique of the potentially exploitative nature of American news broadcasting.

8) 22 JUMP STREET (DIR. PHIL LORD & CHRISTOPHER MILLER, USA)
22 Jump Street is an unexpectedly great sequel, to an unexpectedly great feature adaptation (21 Jump Street), of a late 1980’s TV police comedy primarily remembered for kicking off Johnny Depp’s acting career. The beauty of 22 Jump Street is the way in which it comedically writes itself off as a pointless sequel. The irony of the film is that this bold sense of flippancy (embodied through the perfect buddy-chemistry of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill) is precisely what makes the Jump Street films relevant. After years of terrible sequels, remakes and computer game adaptations, these films are the evidence that someone in Hollywood is finally thinking what the audience has been for a long time.

9) BELLE (DIR. AMMA ASANTE, UK)
Following her 2004 debut A Way of Life, Streatham born writer/director Amma Asante made a strong return with Belle. The film tells the story Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – the daughter of Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman in the West Indies, and Captain John Lindsay, a British career naval officer – who encouraged her uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (and Lord Chief Justice) to recognise slavery as illegal in England and usher about its formal end. The film is directed with elegant style and frank sincerity, influenced no doubt by the 1779 Johann Zoffany painting that it was inspired by, in which a headstrong Belle appears animatedly alongside her cousin Elizabeth Murray.

10) THE ROVER (DIR. DAVID MICHOD, AUSTRALIA)

David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom was one of the most striking debuts of 2010, showing Michôd to be one of the most gifted directors of contemporary Australian cinema. The film was a dense and engaging drama of a Melbourne crime family, made with an impeccable grasp of tension and great style. With The Rover Michôd stripped down the scope of his vision, focusing primarily on Guy Pearce’s mysterious protagonist who harbours an undisclosed agenda. The minimalist approach to his second feature pays off, with Michôd delivering a lean, bleak and thrilling film with excellent performances and a beautifully simple central conceit.

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Film Review 12 Years a SlaveSince Steve McQueen first delivered to our screens Hunger (2008) and later Shame (2011) there was a raw, great talent yearning to be established. Utilising his Art School learnings and ambition, and having won the Turner Prize award in 2006, McQueen in his previous two feature films had already established a niche to the burgeoning auteur inside. He was the man most likely to.

So when it was announced he was being given a large, partly Brad Pitt funded, budget to adapt the memoirs of Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave, expectations were understandably high. McQueen has taken on the political and personal of the human condition, here his aim is to combine the two in to the most prolonged institution of inequality known to man, it’s roots still felt centuries later in the present, and in the directors own words make a film about slavery because it “is a very important subject which hadn’t been given any visual platform when I started to make the film.”

In a year where exploring America’s horrific slave-owning past was wide-spread from the eyes of white diplomats (Spielberg’s Lincoln) or in violent buddy comedies (Tarantino’s Django Unchained) nothing even remotely comes close to how vital this film is. It’s almost difficult to explain, such an unbelievable experience is the film that it’s pretty tough to find the words to do it justice. Never in my life, certainly of Hollywood “blockbusters”, has a film managed to be so striking, so convincing, unsentimental and ultimately, so crucial.

Steve McQueen has created a triumph here; managing to control such a difficult subject and presenting it with stark realism, as well as a frankly incredible cast. Long-term collaborator Michael Fassbender gives his trademark stunning performance from as the abhorrent yet tangibly human, self-loathing slave-driver Edwin Epps. Elsewhere Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and a break-out performance from the fragile heroine Lupita Nyong’o all seem to relish the opportunity to work with such a monumental director and story. Even Brad Pitt manages his annual attempt to derail a great film with his presence, just about getting away with being the only person who doesn’t seem to fit.

Crucially though, this film would be nothing without it’s central lead performance from Chiwetelu Ejiofor as the (sub-)titular Soloman Northup. The film would quite simply fall apart without his incredibly moving role. If we do not believe in the British actor’s immersing into a world a long way prior to African-American’s rights, then the impact would be lost and seem gratuitous. Set 20 years or so before abolition, as a freedman in the North who is educated and a talented artist, Solomon is stripped of his human traits and slowly re-builds his character to remain both defiant and survive. He is dehumanised, made to make unspeakably awful decisions and finally give in when all seems lost, all conveyed from a range of subtle moves from Ejiofor.

This is felt no more resolutely, not just at the moments of extreme violence and suffering inflicted towards Northup, but when, at his lowest, he joins his fellow slaves in a gospel song which rattles around the periphery of much of the film. It may not seem much, but complexities in his deciding to sing because there’s nothing else left to do but to assimilate into his forced community, is such a powerful, bitter-sweet moment that it typifies the unrelentingly cruel struggle we observe. When we do reach the narrative’s climax with Northup, it is an incredibly moving moment, after every inch of trauma over the previous two hours has been felt and culminating in one of the most uplifting and upsetting final scenes recorded to film.

But make no mistake, 12 Years a Slave is an unapologetically brutal film. The film’s trailers intentionally do not pay justice to what a difficult watch this film often is. And yet it is completely essential to the film to feel every injustice served against not just this man, but an entire race in disrepute over where they stand. For instance, Alfre Woodward as the house mistress seems to actively enjoy her role as a sexually exploited African-American, such are the fleshed-out complexities served to every character, regardless how small a role.

Whereas Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was violent to the point of exploitation, here it serves an important message of, to some extent, guilt but also realism. These horrific experiences are lifted almost directly from Soloman Northup’s real autobiography detailing his (and others) harrowing ordeal. Epps’ brutal wife (played exquisitely by Sarah Paulson – who should be nominated for best supporting actress at the Oscars) is often the purveyor of shocking white supremacist violence, adding yet more layers to this incredibly complex issue and period.

Ultimately, 12 Years a Slave is surely the most deserving film to sweep up at awards season (not that the Academy always work with logic). Nelson Mandela’s biopic’s timing notwithstanding, 12 Years a Slave is an important film that should be viewed by as many people as possible. I fear of talking it up too much, but I feel that the torrent of hugely positive reviews that will surely follow in this country (and already exists in America with a staggering 96% on rotten tomatoes) should make this happen. Such a stunning film McQueen has created here, he and his actors will surely get the recognition they deserve in handling such a delicate story with such integrity.

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1) ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (DIR. NURI BILGE CEYLAN, TURKEY)

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While Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s previous offerings left this viewer a little apathetic, his new film adds a new found steeliness to bring to the vivid landscapes and existential angst. Following a troop of detectives and police officers as they seek to find the victim of their recent arrest, the film explores the idea of machismo in a sensitive and penetrating manner. Ceylan paints a portrait of a group of men all stumbling through the darkness, each trying to find a peace of mind in the Anatolian foothills. The serious nature of the crime lends the drama a mournful gravitas, while the landscapes are haunting and beautiful.

2) THE MASTER (DIR. PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON, USA)

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When it was announced PTA was making a film based around Scientology, many expected a scathing, incisive assassination of the cult. However, the director has foregone that route for a looser, relationship based drama; Joaquin Pheonix’s vagrant loner pitched off against Phillip Seymour Hoffmann’s dapper, cultured leader. The film is a bit of a curiosity- there is no real character arc to speak of for either characters, just a few minor lessons learned, and the mixture of exotic images and elliptical editing gives it an elusive, distant air. It’s the two central performances which elevate it to a higher level, and Pheonix will surely struggle to top this. His twitchy, desperate portrayal of a man too restless to know what he really desires will linger long after the credits have finished.

3) AMOUR (DIR. MICHAEL HANEKE, FRANCE)

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Michael Haneke is now so sure of his craft that he can almost turn his devastating gaze onto any taboo subject and nail it in one. This time he has chosen to focus on the ageing process and what that does to our basic human values. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva play the elderly couple, two ex-musicians, in their Parisian apartment, as they struggle to deal with Riva’s loss of mental and physical capabilities. Haneke pulls no punches in his depiction, and it is not an easy watch, but there are moments of hope and compassion that break through the Austrian auteurs notoriously bleak world view.

4) HOLY MOTORS (DIR. LEOS CARAX, FRANCE)

Maverick director Carax comes back from the wilderness with this anarchic, mind boggling oddity. The film stars his regular conspirator Denis Lavant as a man whose job is to be driven around in a limo to various locations and using different disguises, inhabit a melee of obscure roles, from leprechaun to ninja. There seems to be no obvious reasoning to his exploits, and months after seeing it, I am still befuddled by it, but there are hints of Carax’s masterplan; all of his films have been to some degree been excited by the idea of performance and theatre, so this film has a lineage. But to analyse it too deeply is to miss the cerebral pleasures of the film, from the triumphant accordion band in the church to the beguiling neon ninja.

5) KILLING THEM SOFTLY (DIR. ANDREW DOMINIK, USA)

Australian Andrew Dominik had a lot to live up to after his last effort The Assassination of Jesse James…, but his latest work can hold its own against that masterpiece. Dominik seems to be one of the few directors who can get the best out of Brad Pitt and they strike up their fruitful collaboration again here. Pitt plays a hitman hired to take out two lowlife criminals who have bungled a card game robbery. Killing Them Softly works brilliantly as a piece of genre cinema; there are the lowlifes, the gangsters, the shootouts, the double crossings and a barrel full of tension, but what elevates this from your standard gangster fare is a sense of contemplation, a workmanlike depiction of the trade. Dominik draws shrewd parallels between the US recession and the underworld; the unrelenting desire for money and profit and the fall guys who suffer when it all comes tumbling down.

6) SHAME (DIR. STEVE MCQUEEN, UK/USA)

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Steve McQueen’s follow up to Hunger was a similarly icy, visually striking drama, this time honing in on sex addiction. Michael Fassbender plays a wealthy corporate drone in upscale New York struggling to deal with deep seated intimacy issues, burying himself in pornography and meaningless flings. The arrival of his sister, played by Carey Mulligan, brings his problems to the foreground as they both seek to exorcise their demons. Shame is not a warm, emotional drama, but an unflinching, sterile work that nonetheless brings a difficult issue to the wider public. Fassbender and Mulligan give uncompromising performances as the troubled siblings.

7) TABU (DIR. MIGUEL GOMES, PORTUGAL)

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Alternating between modern day Portugal and an unnamed colonial era African country, this Portuguese arthouse fantasy drama was one of the smaller gems from this year. An elderly Portuguese woman, Aurora, is doted on by her maid and next door neighbour, with hints of her exotic past life gradually emerging. In the second half of the film, we see a young Aurora living with her husband and expecting, on a colonial farm in Africa. A dashing neighbour arrives to break up the monotony of her homelife and soon she has a decision to make. Tabu, named after the FW Murnau silent film, is both a tribute to the silent era and an exploration of place and memory. Gomes injects the film with a sense of childlike wonder and mystery, leaving the viewer enchanted by the travails of the doomed love triangle.

8) LE HAVRE (DIR. AKI KAURISMAKI, FINLAND)

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Sometimes it takes an outsider to really capture a culture, and here deadpan Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki expertly observes both French community and its troubles with immigration. Andre Wilms plays an ageing shoeshiner who takes in a African stowaway who miraculously crosses his path. The film includes Kaurismaki’s customary kitsch mise en scene and dry humour, but the director is reinvigorated by the new locales. There is a genuine sense of local community running through the film, which makes it one of the most upbeat and optimistic of the year.

9) INTO THE ABYSS (DIR.WERNER HERZOG, USA)

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The capital punishment system in the US has often been scrutinised, but this time Werner Herzog brings his inimitable ‘truth’ to the subject. This austere, often harrowing documentary, follows various inmates as they recount their crimes and tell their life stories. Herzog steps back from the camera, allowing the tragedies to unfurl themselves, while families of the victims and the law authorities throw their voices into the ring. The mindlessness of the crimes and the inherent violence in the landscape are the two points of the film that will linger in the mind.

10) RUST AND BONE (JACQUES AUDIARD, FRANCE)

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Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard deliver knockout performances in this character driven drama by Jacques Audiard. Following up his successes in A Beat That My Heart Skipped  and A ProphetAudiard continues his theme of flawed characters with a burning passion; Cotillard is a devoted whale trainer and Schoenaerts a brutal amateur fighter. When their lives are turned upside down, they find solace in their outsider statuses. An offbeat, raw drama.

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In light of the British Government’s Film Industry Review and David Cameron’s comments about Britain’s need to compete with Hollywood by producing more mainstream films, it is interesting to consider the theatrical release of Steve McQueen’s Shame, the other key British filmic event of last week. Shame is not by definition a mainstream film, but it is one that has garnered significant interest from both the media and the public in the UK and the USA. The film has become something of a sensation, presumably for two reasons – firstly it’s taboo subject matter of sex addiction and secondly the quality of its execution.

Sex addiction is not a subject that springs to mind when talking about box office success, but Shame had a very successful debut weekend in the states taking $361,181 in just 10 screens. This was the third best limited debut for an NC-17 film ever (following Bad Education and Lust, Caution). This tells us that audiences (specifically American audiences) are happy to pay for British films if they offer something challenging and unique. It’s opening weekend in the UK saw it selling out screens across the capital, with numerous screens in art house cinemas and multiplexes.

Following David Cameron’s statement last Wednesday the Guardian reported how former culture secretary Lord Smith, who is head of a panel evaluating the British film industry, proposed to take a significantly more tactful approach to the industry. With the release of Shame this seems appropriate. The tactic was to market the British film as a brand of quality assurance. Veteran director Stephen Frears reacted to this notion saying: “This country has been making intelligent films, films that are different from American films, for some time… If Lord Smith is now to say we need to keep doing more of the same, rather than trying to recreate Hollywood over here, that sounds eminently sensible.”

Becoming a brand of quality assurance is something that seems natural for British film to achieve at this point in time. With recent films including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Kill List, Dreams of a Life, Senna, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The King’s Speech and of course Shame Britain is all set to put a stamp of individuality on the international film scene. It is a question of successfully marketing these projects to an audience outside Britain and developing the stamp of quality for years to come. With the talent currently emerging within the British film industry this seems achievable.

It is greatly encouraging to see the British government taking a serious interest in the film industry as part of the British economy. However, the notion that the British industry should attempt to emulate Hollywood by predicting what will earn the most money seems misguided. While The King’s Speech has been regularly discussed as a shining example of British box office success, it is important to remember that this was not a result of market research, but instead it was an independent film that captured the heart and minds of critics and cinema-goers.

As Shame shows us, British film has the capacity to tackle challenging human subjects with artistic and commercial credibility. Star of the film Michael Fassbender is now a significant Hollywood player, but it is important to remember where he came from. Shame director Steve McQueen’s previous film Hunger also starred Fassbender; this film is where Fassbender really made a name for himself. Britain must continue to provide talent like Fassbender the opportunity to shine in films like Hunger and Shame, because these films can make money and be more than a product of market research at the same time.

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With Hunger, Brit director Steve Mcqueen had the strong foundations of a real life event to draw upon. His reconstruction of Bobby Sands’ hunger strike in a Northern Irish prison cell was startlingly realised and uncompromising for a first time filmmaker. In Shame, he and co writer Abi Morgan have conjured an original story between them, and now we see McQueen working on his own initiative. Shame is another visually striking, stark and chilly film, this time centering on the topic of sex addiction.

Refreshingly, this is a film that doesn’t clutter itself with unnecessary sub threads or issues. It is simply trying to reflect the existence of someone suffering from the condition in the most effective way possible. McQueen and Morgan acknowledge this is an important issue and, perhaps, with the domination of the internet, a burgeoning concept.

The main players are Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and Sissy (Carey Mulligan) two Irish American siblings in New York.  Brandon is a high flying, attractive city worker with a pristeen apartment, while Sissy is a nomadic wild child who drops back into his life unexpectedly. We are quickly informed of their characters; Brandon is a sex addict, a compulsive user of pornography, prostitutes and flings, while Sissy is loose and craves attention. It is clear that something in their background had informed their unfortunate way of living, but we are barely given any hints.

Mulligan is good in her role, but Fassbender is towering. At turns charismatic, pathetic, tortured, and confused, Fassbender is De Niro like in his commitment to the role. You’d have trouble finding a current Hollywood actor willing to put themselves on show as nakedly as Fassbender does here. While his life seems stable and even flourishing, McQueen reveals Brandon as someone unable to practice intimacy, and in his sharp dress and minimalist apartment, someone unwilling to let go. This is perhaps where the film can relate to a wider audience.

Visually McQueen does not quite hit the heights of his previous effort, perhaps reining the stylistic flourishes in to focus more on the characters. Having said that, there is a terrific extended track across the nighttime streets, and like Hunger, the mise en scene is often almost Kubrickian in its sterility. While Shame is a difficult film to love, it transcends its original aim of reflecting sex addiction to create an authentic portrait of two people who are isolated and quietly struggling to function in society.

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