Tag Archives: Aristotle

FILM REVIEW: 12 Years A Slave

note: review originally published 2014

12 Years a Slave is the third film from young British director Steve McQueen. Adapted from the diaries of Solomon Northup, the film is set before the American Civil War and tells the true story of a free black man from the northern United States who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south, subsequently spending 12 years trying to get back to his family.

There’s a big buzz around 12 Years a Slave. It seems to be this year’s in vogue film, dealing as it does with controversial subject material (blacks, slaves, impregnated black slaves). But let me tell you a secret, dear reader, something nobody dares speak, that nobody even dares think: the film, err, isn’t that great.

So it’s bad, then? Not at all. It’s actually fairly solid. But the glowing praise and universal acclaim that it’s garnered, along with the multiple Oscars that it will land**, have simply not been earned. Sadly, this film is exactly the kind that the lovies and wannabe intellectual journalist-types adore. Nobody wants to say the Emperor has no clothes because they’re scared it might make them look insensitive or, worse, uncultured(!) Gulp. But the film just doesn’t work. And how I desperately wanted it to work, how I crave to say this blew my mind.

So what is wrong with it?

It all comes down to one thing: you just don’t care what happens to Solomon. He’s clearly a good man, but his struggles and the eventual conclusion of the film leave you feeling rather cold. Crescendo, big moment, obstacle overcome at last, tears on screen – and yet I was left unmoved. Time after time. I thought: Am I bad? Have I become desensitised? Do I not care enough because he’s not white? Am I secretly heartless and/or a racist? Some of my best friends are… I looked around the cinema to see if someone, anyone was crying. But thankfully, my white middle-class liberal angst was for nothing, because nobody in the cinema cared either. All I could see in the half-light were puzzled faces looking around as if to say, “Oh, okay…?”. It’s not that the film’s bad – it’s not. It’s more that we simply don’t give a monkeys what happens to Solomon. He’s a good, upstanding man, sure, no real evil in him. He doesn’t deserve his plight. And he doesn’t do a single bad thing in the whole film. But then again, he doesn’t do a single good thing either. Indeed, he doesn’t do a single thing at all.

The film can be summarised thus: Solomon gets kidnapped, sold into slavery, keeps his head down and does a whole lot of nothing for two hours, Fin. Sad fact though it may be, a heart-rending true story does not a heart-rending drama make. Drama isn’t life, and we the audience need more reasons to emotionally invest in the guy and his journey other than, “he’s a normal bloke who gets kidnapped”. What kindness does he show his fellow slaves? What friendships does he make along the way? And, if you can forgive me a wanky film critic moment, how is the drama of the piece advanced in any way whatsoever by his actions be they instigating or reactive? Answer: it isn’t.

True story or not, the screenwriter and director needed to give us a reason to cheer for Solomon even if that means not being “true” to what really happened. The film presents Solomon with many opportunities to show his kindness, to forge relationships with others that we can really emotionally invest in, and yet he doesn’t. And no amount of understated performances, subtle plays on the material, or beautiful cinematography can disguise the fact that the central narrative of this film violates one of the fundamental rules of drama uncovered as long ago as by Aristotle: things shouldn’t just happen to the characters, but it should be through the characters’ actions that drama unfolds. Unfortunately, in 12 Years a Slave, stuff just happens to Solomon, and he just doesn’t do anything about any of it except occasionally to serve his own ends (and even then, in the most undramatic and inept fashion). The effect is we sit through two hours and thirteen minutes, and we just don’t care. A commanding performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor is nowhere near good enough to rescue the material.

But it’s not all bad. Indeed, and here’s the real tragedy: it’s most fairly good.

The film features relative unknowns in the lead roles, but also some heavy hitting A-listers in support: Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, and Benedict Omnibatch (I mean Cumberbatch: sorry, didn’t you know? New Hollywood rules state that a film is not allowed to go ahead unless Benedict Cumberbatch is cast… in any role… somewhere).

Fassbender in particular is mesmerising as slaver Edwin Epps. He’s a borderline alcoholic with conflicted emotions about his slaves. Yeah, they’re his property, but he doesn’t delight in brutalising them. He seems more a victim of his alcoholism and his henpecking wife (played well by Sarah Paulson, despite a lack of material to work with). And slave girl Patsey is richly portrayed by newcomer Lupita Nyong’O. The film is worth watching for her performance alone. Yet Brad Pitt’s cameo was slightly jarring: I couldn’t stop thinking, “Look! It’s Brad Pitt doing a Brad Pitt!”

Much to the film’s credit, it also does not slide into the predictable tropes of the slave genre. No, the slavers are not all evil; no, the blacks do not all form loving bonds with each other and sing Kumbaya round a campfire; no, the pretty black slave girl does not get knocked up by the white slave master. And for this, the film is to be commended; it gives us a fresh take on a familiar story. It shows the shades of grey that the situation engendered whilst still leaving us in no doubt as to the brutality and unspeakable wrongness of slavery. And yet it also doesn’t show caricature slavers joyfully lashing slaves for the yeehaw of it, nor does it go for sensationalism.

The direction was gripping. A reveal of one character’s whip wounds early on produced a collective gasp from the screening room. And there’s one particular shot in the field where the camera is locked on the scene for what seems an age without moving: the effect is disturbing and brings home the evil of slavery better than a thousand lashes ever could.

In short: I desperately wanted to say “best film since Schindler’s List”. But this “one of the best films ever” [Telegraph] isn’t fit to tie the emotional and dramatic boots of Toy Story 3, and was, sadly, much, much less than the sum of its mostly majestic parts.

**The film did indeed go on to win three Academy Awards.

3/5

review originally published in 2014
featured image from http://i.huffpost.com/gen/1329181/images/o-12-YEARS-A-SLAVE-REVIEWS-facebook.jpg

© 2014-2020 Bryan A. J. Parry

Netflix Film Review: Ghost Story (2017) @Netflix @ghoststorymovie #GhostStoryMovie


Starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, this is A Ghost Story told from the perspective of the ghost. But unlike classic Oscar winner Ghost, where being a ghost is portrayed much like being alive, A Ghost Story paints a more realistic picture (if ghosts are realistic at all, which they aren’t): the ghost is silent, unable to effect change in the world, and robbed of all that made him a personality in life, such as voice, memory, and that dreamy Patrick Swayze quiff.

Ghost Story makes some interesting choices. It’s shot in 4:3, although it’s not apparent why. The ghost is portrayed as a man with a sheet over his head which, believe it or not, does actually work and isn’t ridiculous as it surely deserves to be. And our spectral protagonist never utters a word in death. The film is a tale of loss and how you struggle to come to terms to loss.

Well, “protagonist”, “tale”, “struggle”. Perhaps those aren’t the best words. The film actually has no plot whatsoever, let alone “tale” or “struggle”, and the “protagonist”, such as he is, doesn’t “tagonise” anything. And when I say “no plot”, I don’t mean in that hyperbolic jargonised English that “his head LITERALLY fell off”; I mean, quite actually, there. is. no. plot. Therefore I can plot spoil without plot spoiling for there is no plot to spoil. The unnamed couple cuddle in bed for several minutes without talking. Affleck’s character dies, which we don’t see. Mara’s character then sits around doing nothing, and I mean nothing: we see her eat a pie, in real time, for a full ten minutes. Eventually, she moves out of their house, someone else moves in, then they move out, then someone else in, and so on, until the house is knocked down. The ghost silent watches all of this. Fin. Literally nothing happens, and there is no character arc for our ghost or plot development.

Aristotle wrote in his Poetics, some 2300 or so years ago, that drama needs the following elements: a beginning, a middle, an end; plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, music; a single central theme whose elements are logically related; that the dramatic causation and probability of events hangs on the characters’ actions and reactions; and catharsis of the spectators, that is, “to arouse in” spectators “feelings of pity and fear, and to purge them of these emotions so that they leave the theatre feeling cleansed and uplifted”.[1] A Ghost Story has none of these apart from “spectacle” (nice cinematography and visual effects) and “music” (sound effects, which were effective in building atmosphere). The whole film, in fact, feels exactly like a five minute A-Level student’s film project which has been inflated to 92 minutes and a massive budget.

Here are some snippets from IMDb user reviews.

“Worst film I’ve seen in a long, long time. 1/10”
“What a total waste of time. 1/10”
“Like watching paint dry. 1/10”
“Enough to make you think you have died! Do not bother! 1/10”
“Truly awful. 1/10. Boring, pretentious, irritating, amateur, self-indulgent”
“High rating on IMDb is inside joke about this movie. 1/10”
“The director thinks he’s Bergman and he is not. 1/10”
“A wonderfully hypnotic and philosophical film exploring the enormity of life. 8/10”
“A mind-alteringly realistic depiction of human life. 10/10”

This film isn’t so much “Marmite: love it or hate it”, as it is “hate it, or brainwash yourself into thinking you love it”. Do not believe the many wanker reviews or critics that have boosted this to a very respectable 6.9 on IMDb and, extraordinarily, a 91% Fresh Critical Consensus on RottenTomatoes.com, who declare that this film is “powerful” with a “passionate couple” at the core. The film is no such thing. It is self-indulgent crap at its worst. This really is a case of “the Emperor has no clothes”; fearful, mindless, cretinous film critics rate it highly as they are scared that to do otherwise would make them appear uncouth and uncultured and probably get their next schmooze fest invitation cancelled. Above all, nobody wants to say the emperor has no clothes.

The film’s not even saved by the “so bad it’s good” factor; this is the most tedious, boring piece of shit I have ever watched. And I do mean “ever”. Good news, though; that I managed to make it through the film without turning off or tearing my own eyeballs out means that the instanews social media whizz-bang world we now inhabit hasn’t completely destroyed my patience. One out of five — for spelling its own name correctly.

1/5

[1] https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/a/agamemnon-the-choephori-and-the-eumenides/critical-essay/aristotle-on-tragedy

review originally published 23 August 2018

© 2018 Bryan A. J. Parry

featured image from https://image.tmdb.org/t/p/original/sD94aixD7fMAc2e9ugbv4KQprBL.jpg