12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013) – Film Review by Paul Laight

12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013) – Film Review by Paul Laight

**THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS + CLIPS**

The artist/director Steve McQueen is a very important filmmaker and his films to date include the searing character study of Bobby Sands in Hunger (2008) and the pulverising sex-addict study of Shame (2011).  His latest epic is another intense offering based on the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup, a New York State-born free man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery.  Indeed, in just 3 feature films McQueen has proven himself a genuine cinematic artist and a beacon of real quality and must-see drama.

Whereas Sands in Hunger was driven by political motives and Sullivan in Shame unable to control his animal instincts then Northup’s character is a family man, a proud and free individual living with his wife and child in Washington.  It is there that the story cross-cuts with later events and Solomon’s unjust capture into slavery. He is a dedicated family man and his character is epitomised at the beginning when he turns down the sexual advances of a female captive; my understanding being he could not compromise his fidelity despite being imprisoned in this Louisiana hell.

From the start you’re really rooting for Northup as he is shown to be intelligent, musical and scholarly gentlemen both proud and faithful.  His kidnapping is a press-ganging of the most heinous kind as he led away from Washington with the promise of lucrative work then tricked when seemingly at his most content. The subsequent journey through the plantations of New Orleans is a most despicable crime against humanity and McQueen shows this is many scenes of physical, verbal and mental abuse perpetrated against Northup and other characters.  Here pain and suffering has never looked so beautiful with stunning cinematography by Sean Bobbitt. It’s a story of sunshine and pain with McQueen utilizing Northup’s life microcosmically in regard to the slave movement as a whole.

The cast are incredible from Chiwetel Ejiofor, in the leading role of Northup to evil slave-zealot Michael Fassbender, benign yet complicit Benedict Cumberbatch and many more including Paul Dano, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, standing out in supporting roles. It has received nine Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director for McQueen, and Best Actor for Ejiofor, and Best Supporting Actor for Fassbender, and Best Supporting Actress for Nyong’o and I would be shocked if it doesn’t win something.

McQueen treats the subject matter with the reverence and power it deserves and literally paints a brutal, inhumane and devastating set of images with which to tell the story. He often favours long takes notably the scene where Solomon hangs clinging by his toenails to life. This is a stand-out iconic scene and it is too much to bear because we have so much invested in Solomon’s character by this stage and really want his suffering to end.  But that’s where Fassbender’s Epps enters the play and the intensity is ratcheted up and then some.

For well over an hour 12 Years a Slave is majestic filmmaking of the highest quality. Northup’s characterisation is incredible, however, this is to the detriment of the other characters who dip in and out of the narrative notably Benedict Cumberbatch’s Ford, who to me was the most interesting of the white slavers as he appeared to be a compassionate man trapped within a vicious societal circle of hate.  Fassbender’s maniacal Epps I feel deserved a better introduction because even though the actor is once again breath-taking I felt the performance MORE than the actual character.  The two wives of the slavers were one-dimensional and interchangeably evil, plus, I was disappointed Paul Dano’s character left the narrative too early.  The major casting disappointment is the glory-hunting role Brad Pitt gave himself as the kind Canadian carpenter who assists Northup in his quest to escape.  Pitt is a great movie star and I love his work but he’s too big in my opinion to appear so late in such a story as this.  I was deeply involved only to suddenly be reminded I was watching a Hollywood movie.

Steve McQueen is a master craftsmen and has made a near-flawless work of cinema even though I must admit the ending left me very frustrated.  There is power and emotion for all to see but I wanted more satisfaction for Northup’s character and some kind of retribution to be dealt to his captors. McQueen had cooked up such an intense soup of pain and suffering I wanted more of a release. Indeed, it seemed quite a passive denouement to me especially when compared to a film such as Glory (1989) and the Roman Slave action epic Spartacus (1960). However, this is a more personal epic and the filmmakers have clearly stayed true to the honour of the original book so my personal desire for cinematic revenge on the slavers will just have to be met by Tarantino’s dancing-horse-bad-ass-Blaxploitation-Western Django Unchained (2012) I suppose.

THE LEGO MOVIE (2014) – Movie Review by Paul Laight

THE LEGO MOVIE (2014) – Movie Review by Paul Laight

**PLEASE NOTE THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS – NOT THAT IT MATTERS AS THE PLOT IS LIFTED WHOLESALE FROM THE MATRIX ANYWAY**

Have you ever been urinated on from a great height with lemonade while simultaneously being crapped on by a chocolate log?  No, nor have I. But in my mind that’s what watching the sweet sickly Diabetes: The Motion Picture AKA The Lego Movie (2014) felt like to me. Not for a while have I failed to enjoy a film so much yet admired the technical expertise and all-round skills of the makers involved.

Is it the film’s fault or mine?  I am a jaded cynic but usually I can put that aside when reviewing family movies like this and analyse the story objectively but I can’t do it this time for some reason.  I just couldn’t shrug off the feeling I was watching one long one-hundred-minute advert for Lego Co. Corp. PLC. I had the choice to either give in to the Matrix or resist it.  I resisted and wish I hadn’t because after I felt like I’d been on a rollercoaster having just drank eighteen Oreo milkshakes. Thus, as an objective reviewer I have failed.  I remember when product placement was subtle. Not anymore. This and the recent Google film The Internship (2013) have moved the goalposts; so much so there no one knows where the goal is anymore or the pitch.

The story involves Emmet Brickowski, an ordinary construction worker, who falls into a hole and finds the mystical Piece of Resistance. Various factions then pursue Emmet including the Master Builders led by Wizard Vitruvius (good) and — winging-it Will Ferrell — Lord Business (bad).  The Piece of Resistance acts as the archetypal Macguffin as we are led through a cavalcade of Lego Worlds and Lego characters lifted wholesale from popular culture including: Batman, Gandalf, Wonder Woman etc.  Emmet is given a reasonable character arc as he moves from someone who always follows instructions to someone who can use his imagination and become the ‘Chosen One’ blah, blah, blah!  Throw in a romantic subplot and you basically have The Matrix (1999) but in Lego form.

The film opens really well with a satirical dig at a homogenised society not too dissimilar to ours while the colourful sets, fast-paced action and imaginative set-pieces really drive the movie forward. But unlike the genius of Pixar I did not care for one moment who did what and what was going on.  In fact, there was TOO MUCH going on and it was happening too fast to take on board.  The most interesting character for me was Liam Neeson’s Bad Cop as he had some element of duality plus there’s some fine gags in there especially at the expense of Nolan’s take on the Dark Knight.  But by the end I felt ill as it lays on a glaucomic message within its mildly intelligent but very obvious final act reveal.

The Lego Movie (2014) is basically Ketamine-for-Kids storytelling; capitalism at its most insidious.  Vacuum-packed product placement wrapped beautifully in state-of-the-art animation and an overly-knowing and satirical script. The filmmakers deserve much credit for their genius in making a presentable bit of entertainment out of a soulless toy brick.  These extended moving billboards are the movies of the future, made by uber-smart college geniuses with no life experience; incubated in a shiny, postmodern void with no heart, soul, nor humanity.

I remember Lego being the best creative brick type toy you could play with when growing up. Then as I got older and had a kid myself I recall screaming in agony as I trod on it barefoot, quickly followed by a performance of a hate-filled Native American swear-dance. Only then for my son to get bored with Lego when he discovered Xbox and it was consigned to the attic to  gather dust. Now Lego is back puking all over the cinema with colours and sounds and a horrifically and deliberately repetitive song. No!  Everything is not awesome.  And I know the film is striving for satire on our conformist and capitalist times but it does it while conforming to the most horrific section of capitalism: namely advertising.   The Lego Movie (2014) is Nazi-efficient filmmaking of the highest quality.  The kids will love it.  But you have a choice: to take the red or blue pill. I took the red pill. I wish I had just given in but there’s still resistance in my jaded mind. Damn you brain – damn you to hell!

MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE – #1 RYAN GOSLING by PAUL LAIGHT

MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE – #1 RYAN GOSLING  

**THIS CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS, CLIPS and REFERENCE TO ADULT LOVE DOLLS**

To compliment my post last week which featured films with dark or extreme love, today I am hailing the romantic impact of movie heartthrob Ryan Gosling.

#1  – DRIVE (2011)

This is a very romantic film with great chemistry between Gosling and Mulligan. It is also uber-cool with Gosling doing his post-modern Steve McQueen thing really well while Mulligan does sweetness personified.  It’s very pure cinema with minimal dialogue and just a longing, passionate look here or there to drive the love story.  Winding Refn is known for his brutal and violent films and this one erupts at the end but The Driver’s motivation is not revenge but rather protection of loved ones; namely Mulligan’s single mum and son.  Is there anything more romantic on screen than killing to protect the one’s you love?

#2 – LARS & THE REAL GIRL (2007)

This is such an original, quirky and goddamn touching movie.  Gosling’s character – sporting a Pupkin style moustache – has had some kind of personality breakdown and in an attempt to comfort himself he purchases a ‘human’ doll online. So far so weird.  He then treats her as he would a real girlfriend.  What is amazing is that the townsfolk where he lives also join in the “make-believe” and slowly but surely Bianca (playing herself) becomes part of the community.  The writer/filmmakers could have gone down a road of smut and low-brow humour but instead deliver a really humble and slyly humorous portrayal of grief, mental breakdown and loneliness. Gosling is understated brilliance throughout but it’s the Doll which steals the acting honours.


#3 – BLUE VALENTINE (2010)

This is one of the most realistic portrayals of a relationship ever committed to the screen.  It features the beginning, middle and end of Gosling and Michelle Williams’ love for each other; although not necessarily in that order.  The chemistry between the two is electric and it is so painful to see a couple break apart as they do by the end, having witnessed such a beautiful coming together previously.  What I loved about the film was the humanity of the relationship showing both men and women as both negatives and positives in the story.  Both romantic and heart-breaking in equal measure this is definitely not a film to watch on your own on Valentine’s Day having just broken up with someone.


#4 – CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE (2011)

I really enjoyed this ensemble comedy from the writers of Bad Santa. A  sexy looking cast full of fine young and mature Hollywood talent was very much a surprising like for me.  There was pleasant chemistry between Carell’s downtrodden husband and his wife played by the ever-lovely Julianne Moore and fine cameos from Kevin Bacon and Marisa Tomei.   Gosling nicely satirises his Hollywood heartthrob good looks playing a gigolo who is able to conquer women with the merest flutter of his get-your-kit-off eyes. The scenes where he trains Carell’s romantic loser up as a womaniser are funny and a nice reversal of the usual Hollywood cliches which show an older man training up a young rookie.  Emma Stone is pretty hot too and can act as she showed in the films Easy A (2009), Zombieland (2010)  and The Help (2011). Her scenes with Gosling are very funny and I liked her feisty character as she actually steals his heart by initially refusing to give in to his ample charms.  


#5 – THE NOTEBOOK (2004)

I am a massive cynic and it takes a lot to melt my iceberg heart but this film attacks you with not one, but TWO heartfelt, tear-jerking stories interweaved simultaneously.   Based on super-schmaltzy literary work of Nicholas Sparks I’d kind of avoided watching it but am glad I succumbed as it is a lovely film. It’s the kind of movie you enjoy watching with the heating cranked up while the rain smashes down outside.  In the present an elderly couple attempt to reconnect despite her Alzheimer’s, while in the past a young chap from the wrong sides of the tracks tries to woo a Southern Belle despite her families protestations.  It’s a sensory overload of sloppy sentimentality and black-belt romance clichés but the film fully embraces these conventions, telling us in the process that love for another human is the main reason for living.  The cast are breath-taking including Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner and Gena Rowlands and they really raise the material above the standard Mills and Boon plot. It’s easy to dismiss Nicholas Sparks’ writing but it is phenomenally successful so you have to admire his and the filmmakers’ ability to make such cheesy romance so highly entertaining.  This film embodies the definition of a guilty pleasure in my (note)book.

BLOODY VALENTINE: EXTREME DATE MOVIES

YOUR BLOODY VALENTINE:  EXTREME DATE MOVIES by PAUL LAIGHT

**THIS THING CONTAINS CLIPS, SPOILERS AND VAGUELY SATIRICAL SEXIST LANGUAGE**

It’s Valentines soon and being an unoriginal hack I started thinking about my favourite romantic movies.  30 seconds later I got bored so decided to write a different kind of list. So, if you want an alternative to the usual Valentines-clichéd-cosy-rose-petal-drenched-chocolate-card-Love-Actually-rip-off-Day – here you go!

Basically, it’s an excuse to list some great movies with elements of extreme love. And violence. And horror. My kind of cinema.


SIGHTSEERS (2012)

The perfect date movie. I promise.  There’s romance, soul-searching and bloody murder.  This is one of the best British films released in a long while. I hate it when writers say a movie is “something meets something”  but this is like Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May meets Kalifornia, kind of.  I hate myself for saying that. Just watch it.


SECRET IN THEIR EYES (2009)

This is one of the best films you haven’t seen.  Or maybe you have. It rightly won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2010.  It has so many great elements: a vicious murder mystery, obsessive pursuit, revenge, political espionage and a painfully touching love story at its’ heart.


AUDITION (1999)

As date-movies go this is a real screamer.  What starts as one man’s attempt to find a wife via his own creepy version of the casting couch is turned into a violent proto-feminist-carve-up-par-excellence!  I’ve dated a couple of nutters before but not like this. You won’t look at a hessian sack the same way again.  Or cheese wire.  Or open your eyes ever again after seeing  this.




TEETH (2007)

Mixing comedy with coming-of-age movies this is a brilliant little horror film.  A girl with Jaws in her vagina starts cutting men’s cocks off!  Who said romance was dead eh?  She did – that’s who!


IRREVERSIBLE (2002)

Just one of the most brutal and beautiful love stories ever told on film.


MISERY (1990)

I still think that if Annie Wilkes hadn’t been such a violent mentalist her and Paul Sheldon may have had a chance of romance.  But she was and love for Kathy Bates and James Caan’s characters was not to be. Shame. Despite the torture they were such a lovely couple.


HAROLD & MAUDE (1971)

A story for outsiders as young man, slightly off-kilter Harold, falls in love with free-spirited octogenarian, Maude. It’s a wonderfully dark comedy full of brilliant scenes especially Harold’s fake “suicide” attempts. But the chemistry between Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon is really touching. Ruth Gordon proved in this and Rosemary’s Baby what a great actor she was.


SNOWTOWN (2011)

Your boyfriend or girlfriend are giving you the hump and you want to pump and dump them.  What do you do?  Sit them down while you watch this movie while sharpening your carving knife collection.  You won’t see them for dust!  Jokes aside this Aussie serial-killer movie is one of the darkest films I have seen in a long while. Brutal, grim and worst of all based on a true story.


EVIL DEAD (1981)

You go to a cabin in the woods hoping to get a bit of sugar from your girlfriend  and accidentally raise a Canderian demon using the Book Of The Dead.  Don’t you just hate it when that happens!  I know I do!


LES DIABOLIQUES (1955)

Watch this French film and Psycho in a double bill and you’ll never ever go into the bathroom again.  This is an absolute classic and they genuinely do not make them like this anymore.   Mainly because it’s in black and white, oh, and it has a story, suspense, plot-twists and doesn’t rely on green-screen-CGI-Superhero-blowing-shit-up!


THE SKIN I LIVE IN (2011)

As retribution goes Antonio Banderas’ vendetta in this takes some beating.  It’s a slow burner but the pay off is incredible as Pedro Almodovar movie combines: science-fiction, horror, melodrama, psychological torture etc. to create a date movie you won’t forget.   Banderas is a revelation in a role which turns his usual romantic leading man status on its head as he seeks transformative revenge.