Saturday 25 November 2017

Exploring roots of shameful history

Film Reviews

Injustice: Michael Fassbender plays an unhinged plantation owner
Injustice: Michael Fassbender plays an unhinged plantation owner
Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

12 years a slave

12 YEARS A SLAVE
(15A, general release, 134 minutes)
Director: Steve McQueen. Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano.*****

 

In 1841, a freeborn black man called Solomon Northup was enticed from his home in upstate New York with offers of a lucrative stint with a travelling circus as a musician. It was a trap, and in Washington DC he was abducted, ferried south and sold into slavery. Steve McQueen's film is based on Northup's memoirs, and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as the cultivated New Yorker who for 12 years endured a living nightmare.

In New Orleans, Northup is sold at auction to a relatively benevolent plantation owner called William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford senses that Solomon's educated, and in the charming parlance of the time declares him "an exceptional nigger". But in the twisted world of the southern plantation, an educated slave was the ultimate provocation for overseers intent on preserving the fiction that blacks were not people, but livestock.

Solomon Northup's accomplishments make him a target for Ford's carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano), who tries to lynch him. Thereafter he's sold on to another master, one Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who's unhinged and totally unpredictable. Only then does Solomon truly understand what a horrific lottery is the life of a slave.

It's faint praise to describe 12 Years a Slave as the best movie ever made about slavery, because there are so few and most are either glib or criminally disingenuous. Using dialogue sparsely and shocking images relentlessly, McQueen's movie brilliantly explores the implications and legacy of slavery, and debunks some of its more cherished myths.

 

Russell's stinging tale is just the trick

AMERICAN HUSTLE
(15A, general release, 138 minutes)
Director: David O. Russell. Stars: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner. *****

For me there's always been a touch of the Preston Sturgeses about David O Russell: even in his more serious films, screwball farce is never far from the surface, and his characters spit out reams of words like there's no tomorrow. Russell's frenetic, giddy approach doesn't always work, but in his last film, Silver Linings Playbook, the writer/director scored a bull's-eye with his story of a love affair between two neurotics.

Just as good and possibly better, American Hustle is loosely based on a real FBI sting in the 1970s, when scam artists were used to entrap corrupt public officials. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a conman with a ludicrous comb-over who's grafting to keep histrionic wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and highly strung mistress Sydney (Amy Adams) happy when he falls foul of an FBI agent called Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper).

Di Maso forces Irving and Sydney to ensnare a well-meaning public official called Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) as part of a larger sting. And when things get good and complicated, everyone begins to lose their way.

Russell brilliantly and mischievously recreates the nervous decadence of the late 1970s, and nominates scamming as the true language of American laissez faire capitalism. The performances are excellent, and Robert De Niro delivers a lovely cameo as a tetchy mobster, but Lawrence steals the show as the flappy but resourceful Rosalyn.

For me there's always been a touch of the Preston Sturgeses about David O Russell: even in his more serious films, screwball farce is never far from the surface, and his characters spit out reams of words like there's no tomorrow. Russell's frenetic, giddy approach doesn't always work, but in his last film, Silver Linings Playbook, the writer/director scored a bull's-eye with his story of a love affair between two neurotics.

Just as good and possibly better, American Hustle is loosely based on a real FBI sting in the 1970s, when scam artists were used to entrap corrupt public officials. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a conman with a ludicrous comb-over who's grafting to keep histrionic wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and highly strung mistress Sydney (Amy Adams) happy when he falls foul of an FBI agent called Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper).

Di Maso forces Irving and Sydney to ensnare a well-meaning public official called Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) as part of a larger sting. And when things get good and complicated, everyone begins to lose their way.

Russell brilliantly and mischievously recreates the nervous decadence of the late 1970s, and nominates scamming as the true language of American laissez faire capitalism. The performances are excellent, and Robert De Niro delivers a lovely cameo as a tetchy mobster, but Lawrence steals the show as the flappy but resourceful Rosalyn.

 

Biopic a walk too far

MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM
(12A, general release, 146 minutes)
Director: Justin Chadwick. Stars: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Terry Pheto.***

If ever a film was blessed with perfect timing, it's Justin Chadwick's long and worthy biopic. Released just a month after the statesman's death, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a sweeping and ambitious attempt to dramatise Nelson Mandela's slow transition from radical terrorist to sublimely talented and charismatic statesman. Idris Elba plays Madiba, a member of the Xhosa tribe with royal heritage who as a young man becomes embroiled in South Africa's anti-colonial movement.

After the introduction of apartheid, he worked as a campaigning lawyer but became disillusioned when he realised the system was rigged. As a member of the ANC he helped plan a campaign of sabotage bombings, which earned him a life sentence in Robben Island, where he slowly began to rethink his whole philosophy.

Long Walk to Freedom is entertaining and briskly paced and endeavours to cover an awful lot of ground. It's also quite informative, but the strain of doing so much begins to tell early on and at times Mandela has the frantic and febrile atmosphere of a TV mini-series. Idris Elba is fine in the lead role, and the film is careful to portray Mandela as a man rather than a saint, but in the end this worthy biopic's overreaching ambition is its undoing.

 

Missed delivery

DELIVERY MAN
(12A, general release, 105 minutes)
Director: Ken Scott. Stars: Vince Vaughn, Cobie Smulders, Chris Pratt, Simon Delaney. **

The oafish, bear-like appeal of Vince Vaughn has always eluded me: he ambles his way so sleepily through the broad romantic comedies he favours that one suspects he has trouble remembering which one he's in. He's perfectly alright I suppose in this stiff but tolerable yarn, playing a middle-aged slacker who thinks he's achieved nothing until he hears some very unsettling news. Dave Wozniak drives a truck for his father's butcher shop and is not coping well with his girlfriend's pregnancy. One day he comes home from work to find a lawyer waiting for him.

Back in the 1990s Dave donated sperm to a bank to earn money and his bodily fluids were used to create 533 children. Now they've taken a class action against the sperm bank to find out who their anonymous father is.

While the lawyers bicker Dave decides to track his babies down and connect with them. All of this sounds like a reasonably clever idea until you realise that Delivery Man is incredibly similar to the 2011 Canadian Film Starbuck. Furthermore it lacks the original's charm and decent turns from Chris Pratt and our own Jack Reynor are ultimately in a lost cause.

Irish Independent

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