Director: F. Gary Gray
Starring: Jason Mitchell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Paul Giamatti, R. Marcos Taylor, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Knight Jr.
It is said that history is written by the victors and to an extent that is what you get with Straight Outta Compton, F. Gary Gray’s biopic of trailblazing West Coast gangsta rap group N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes). Among the film’s producers are two of the group’s founding members, Dr Dre and Ice Cube. Dr Dre is now CEO of Aftermath Records and Beats Electronics and ranked the richest figure in American hip hop by Forbes magazine. Ice Cube is a successful rapper, producer and movie star. They are the victors and the film they present is a mythologising of their origin story which takes us back to when these establishment figures were dangerous outsiders.
In 1986 we meet our three principals: charismatic drug dealer Eric “Eazy E” Wright (Jason Mitchell), aspiring DJ Andre “Dr Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins), and teenage rapper O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (O’Shea Jackson Jr). Not content with his regular gig which has no interest in rap music, Dr Dre approaches Eazy for capital to record an album. With Dre’s beats, Cube’s rhymes and Eazy’s business acumen, they found N.W.A. Continue reading
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Brian Blatt, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt
In 1853 Solomon Northup published his memoir 12 Years a Slave which told the story of how, as a free man living with his wife and children in upstate New York, he had been kidnapped and sold into slavery, spending the next twelve years of his life working on the cotton plantations of America’s South before finally being reunited with his family. The book was hugely influential in the years leading up to the American Civil War, exposing the inner workings of slavery and opening the public’s eyes to what it really was to be owned by another person. Now, 160 years later, British director Steve McQueen has brought Northup’s story to the screen in a film with the potential to be equally influential.
Despite being one of the defining periods of American history, antebellum slavery has not been widely explored cinematically, particularly from the point of view of the slave. The significance of 12 Years a Slave comes not only from the fact that it is a vivid portrayal of American slavery from the point of view of the slave, but also that it is the product of a the collaboration between a black British director and an African American screenwriter.
With his previous films Hunger and Shame, McQueen has established himself as a filmmaker who does not shy away from difficult and provocative subject matter and does not pull his punches. It should therefore be no surprise that his exploration of 19th century slavery is brutal and unrelenting. McQueen uses a number of long takes, holding the image and forcing us to take it all in. A lot of screen time is given to faces, allowing us to watch emotions unfold and develop within characters.
British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a powerful performance as a man thrust into an intolerable situation. Part of the appeal of 12 Years a Slave as opposed to other slave narratives for McQueen was that the narrative was the inverse of what we usually get, with our protagonist going from freedom to slavery. Having Northup start the film as a free man made him an effective surrogate for the audience. Slavery is as foreign and horrific to him as it is to us. It does, however, make for a less all-encompassing tale as in the confines of this narrative the injustice is that a free man has been kidnapped into slavery, not simply that any human being might find themself in slavery.
Northup’s story has the quality of an odyssey. This story of hope, of overcoming and refusal to surrender to injustice, is the story of Solomon Northup’s journey home to his family. It is a journey which takes place over a long period of time with constantly changing circumstances as he is sold from one owner to another, some seemingly benevolent, others ruthless.
McQueen regular Michael Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, the plantation owner under whom Northup spent the majority of his time. Fassbender is a brave actor unafraid to take on difficult characters, but the violent, hate-filled and insecure Epps might just be his most repulsive character yet.
The significance of this project, along with McQueen’s steadily growing reputation, has helped in assembling a tremendous supporting cast including the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and Brad Pitt, who was also one of the film’s producers.
A harsh but incredibly powerful film, 12 Years a Slave is one of the finest films of the year and could already be the most important film made on this important subject.
Rating – ★★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Carlo Carlei
Starring: Douglas Booth, Hailee Steinfeld, Ed Westwick, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Paul Giamatti, Damien Lewis, Stellan Skarsgard
The Bard is back on the big screen and with this latest adaptation of Romeo & Juliet producer Ileen Maisel – the driving force behind the project – has opted for something quite novel, a traditional telling. In recent times the fashion when it comes to adapting Shakespeare has been to use contemporary setting and dress, but Maisel believed that modern audiences had not been exposed to a traditional, romantic vision of Shakespeare’s most famous play. It has, after all, been 45 years since Franco Zeffirelli’s famous adaptation, still a classroom staple. So director Carlo Carlei’s vision of the greatest love story ever told takes us back to fair Verona in Italy and delivers beautiful mediaeval costumes.
A traditional retelling this may be, but a truly faithful adaptation it is not. The screenplay was adapted by Julian Fellowes of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey fame. Turning an approximately three-hour stage play into a two-hour movie requires a bit of script wrangling, but in addition to this work Fellowes has also carefully and covertly updated some of Shakespeare’s language. The aim was to prevent the language from excluding a younger audience without losing the poetic cadence of the original text. To the untrained ear it all still sounds Shakespearean, but every now and then Fellowes has dropped in a phrase which slightly grates – sayings like “strike while the iron is hot” and “the best intentions pave the way to hell sneak in, and at one point Juliet’s nurse compliments her on her “taste in men.”
Romeo & Juliet assembles a reasonably strong cast of British and American talent. Unfortunately, the two leads don’t quite hit the mark. Hailee Steinfeld established herself as one of Hollywood’s most promising young actresses with her Oscar-nominated debut performance as the headstrong Mattie Ross in True Grit. However, she isn’t nearly as well suited to playing the sweet, innocent Juliet. British actor Douglas Booth, best known for his work in the mini-series Great Expectations, is a very pretty man indeed but also very bland. Kodi Smit-McPhee, on the other hand, is quite good as Romeo’s friend Benvolio and arguably would have made a more interesting and age-appropriate, if less dreamy, lead. Without a doubt though, the film’s scene-stealing performance is Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence. Giamatti makes the Romeo’s counsellor and the young lover’s co-conspirator the most vibrant and emotionally engaging character in the film.
While visually appealing, this largely uninspiring adaptation fails to unlock any new meanings in delivering the story to a new generation. It won’t have the cultural impact of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adapation, but could well become the go-to version for high school English classrooms around the world.
Rating – ★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean