12 YEARS A SLAVE directed by Steve McQueen (UK/USA, 2013)
The Academy members undoubtedly did the right thing by naming 12 Years A Slave the best picture and, if there was any justice, Steve McQueen would have been awarded an Oscar for best director in place of Alfonso Cuarón. Gravity is a remarkable technical achievement but directing technology is less deserving of a statuette than man management.
McQueen not only gets the best out his actors but he also knows how to pace a movie. The huge temptation in telling Solomon Northup’s story is to revert to Hollywood clichés and crank up the sentimentalism. It is to his credit that he doesn’t milk the emotional content and heroic lines like “I don’t want to survive, I want to live” are few and far between.
In one remarkable scene, Northup is strung up and has to desperately cling on while waiting for ‘the master’ to cut him down. In conventional films there would be dramatic music and close-ups of the man’s life and death struggle. Instead, the camera pulls back so show life going on around him and makes us realise how commonplace such torture was.
Northup (Chiwetel Ejofor) quickly learns that maintaining a low profile and keeping schtum about his education are the only ways to guarantee survival. Patience and will power are the main reasons why he lived to tell his remarkable story.
It is only right, therefore, that the movie never has the quality of an action movie. The power of the drama comes from the systematic abuse and degradation he and his fellow slaves have to endure. View full article »
AMERICAN RUST by Philipp Meyer (Pocket Books, 2010)
Philipp Meyer is routinely likened to the blood and dust writers like Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy but the Baltimore-based author actually cites his own influences as Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and James Kelman.
A point of connection between these British authors is that they all like to get inside the heads of their characters and that’s just what Meyer seeks to do in his debut novel. The story may begin like a state of the nation saga but evolves into a series of psychological portraits criss-crossing between two generations.
The two protagonists are men in their early 20s – Isaac English and Billy Poe. Isaac is academically gifted while Poe is a talented American football player. Their lives should be full of promise but are blighted by their own aimlessness and, more significantly, by a botched act of self-defence which gets treated as first degree murder. Poe takes the fall for the ‘crime’ while Isaac refuses to be swayed from hitting the road in some Kerouac style fantasy of being the “Duke of all hoboes”. View full article »
SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN directed by Malik Bendjelloui (Sweden/UK, 2012)
On the forum of page of the website of Sixto Rodriguez, fans write to tell the world when they discovered this American singer-songwriter. Although his only two albums – Cold Fact and Coming From Reality – were released in 1970 and 1971 respectively, the vast majority of those posting say they first heard his songs after 2012. It is Bendjelloui’s affectionate documentary which has been instrumental in bringing him to the attention of a wider audience.
Until this time his fame was, bizarrely, confined to South Africa. There, his following was so huge that his admirers were not exaggerating to say that he was “bigger than Elvis”.
The albums had made little or no impact on American audiences but by a fluke they came into the hands of South African record buyers who identified with the singer-songwriter’s anti establishment stance and his compassion for life’s underdogs.
Stories circulated that Rodriguez had committed suicide onstage in the 1970s, so when an investigative musicologist found that rumors of his death were exaggerated his fans were incredulous and flocked to hastily arranged concerts.
I first discovered him yesterday after my daughter saw the movie at a one-off screening and came home raving about it. I watched it today on You Tube and understand why she was so enthusiastic. This is an amazing and heartwarming story which is astonishing in this day and age. View full article »
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE directed by Tobe Hooper (USA, 1974)
The cannibals dining at home.
I am not an afficiando of horror. I never made it past the first level of ‘Saw ‘and only saw ‘The Exorcist’ when I was well into adulthood.
I like psychological thrillers in the Hitchcock mode bit go out of my way to avoid slasher movies or anything linked to Clive Barker. It’s not that I’m particularly squeamish or have a fear of suffering from nightmares. It is simply that I don’t see the point of watching movies where the main aim appears to be push the boundaries of good taste.
All this explains why, at the age of 55, and 40 years after it was made I have finally gotten to see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (TCM). This movie, along with Driller Killer (which I still haven’t seen!) achieved notoriety when it was released but looks fairly tame now. Once it was banned and branded as a corrupting influence, now I can rent it from local library in a double-DVD box set complete with a booklet praising the film as a classic, groundbreaking work. View full article »