12 Years A Slave” is that Rare Thing, A Serious Film.

12 Years A Slave.

12 Years A Slave.

In 1967, the now leg­endary Stax Records sent its mod­est ros­tra of fledg­ling stars on a minor tour of Britain and France. It was a sensation.

Otis Red­ding, Sam and Dave, Book­er T and the MGs and co couldn’t believe it. Audi­ences in Britain were respond­ing to them as if they were the Rolling Stones. Actu­al­ly, most of the Stones were there in the audi­ence, and they were as blown away by what they were hear­ing as every­body else.

The legendary Stax Records Tour of 1967.

The leg­endary Stax Records Tour of 1967.

But what real­ly got them, was dri­ving around Eng­land on the mod­est Tour bus that Stax had orga­nized for them, they’d occa­sion­al­ly stop off at some sleepy town at the back end of beyond in rur­al Eng­land, get out the bus, and go into a shop! In the front door! And there, they’d be served their stale sand­wich­es and fizzy pop, as if this was the most nor­mal thing in the world.

It wasn’t. In those days, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, black peo­ple were expect­ed to refrain from con­t­a­m­i­nat­ing polite soci­ety by remov­ing them­selves from every cor­ner of it. Being treat­ed in Eng­land and France like nor­mal human beings, indeed, like stars, was a com­plete rev­e­la­tion for them all. (Actu­al­ly, it kind of ruined them. But that’s anoth­er story.)

That was 1967. Less the 50 years ago.

No won­der Oba­ma took that self­ie at Mandela’s funer­al. Even he must occa­sion­al have to pinch him­self. Imag­ine, bare­ly a gen­er­a­tion after that, there’s a black man in the White house.

The book that it was based on.

The book that it was based on.

Slav­ery is to race what Hiroshi­ma is to the atom­ic bomb. It’s its nec­es­sary con­se­quence. And togeth­er with Hiroshi­ma and the Holo­caust, slav­ery is one of the three colos­sal, unfath­omable ques­tions marks that punc­tu­ate mod­ern his­to­ry. Any film that tries to tack­le it has a hun­dred and one ways of get­ting it hor­ri­bly wrong.

Look at Schindler’s List. By focus­ing on the one good Nazi, Spiel­berg was able to cloak the holo­caust with a begin­ning, mid­dle and end, and there­by turn in into A N Oth­er Hol­ly­wood film. Which is unforgivable.

Remark­ably, 12 Years A Slave gets every­thing absolute­ly right. It’s helped by the nature of its sto­ry. Solomon is an edu­cat­ed, afflu­ent, artis­tic man liv­ing a priv­i­leged life. He is in oth­er words what we all aspire to be. So when he’s kid­napped and sold into slav­ery, our sym­pa­thy for him is immediate.

If on the oth­er hand you were to tell a sto­ry of some­one who was already a slave, there’s the dan­ger of see­ing them, how­ev­er unin­ten­tion­al­ly, as the Oth­er. As one of them. Can any­one imag­ine Spar­ta­cus play­ing the vio­lin in evening wear? By begin­ning in this way, you nec­es­sar­i­ly feel for him and his predica­ment in a way that you mightn’t have done had they approached the top­ic in a dif­fer­ent way.

The fact that he is a clas­si­cal­ly trained musi­cian could have encour­aged the film mak­ers to drape their film in reams of music. Their deci­sion to use music but sparse­ly through­out is again exact­ly the right one. As ever, less is more.

Fassbinder and Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave.

Fass­binder and Ejio­for in 12 Years A Slave.

But at the heart of the film are the cen­tral per­for­mances. Chi­we­tel Ejio­for has been hov­er­ing on the fringes of star­dom for some time now – he was par­tic­u­lar­ly mem­o­rable in  Joss Whedon’s crim­i­nal­ly over­looked Seren­i­ty, see here . That will obvi­ous­ly change now. And Michael Fass­binder con­firms, again, why he is one of the hottest prop­er­ties any­where in the world.

And as for direc­tor Steve McQueen. As intrigu­ing as his first cou­ple of film, Hunger (’08)  and Shame (’11) were, this is a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent cal­i­bre of film.

12 Years A Slave is that rare thing; mov­ing, pro­found and seri­ous. You can see they trail­er here.

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Joss Whedon’s “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Shimmies and Shines.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

After the all con­quer­ing suc­cess of Buffy and Angel, every­one in Hol­ly­wood was des­per­ate­ly pray­ing for Joss Whe­don to fall flat on his face. And sure enough, both Fire­fly and Doll­house duly bombed.

But Amer­i­cans do it seems have sec­ond acts after all. As a mat­ter of fact, all of them do. It was just Fitzger­ald who proved to be the excep­tion. And sure enough, Whe­don bounced back com­mer­cial­ly with the spec­tac­u­lar box office smash Avengers Assem­ble — reviewed ear­li­er here. And then, on a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent scale, with the much admired Much Ado About Noth­ing – reviewed by me ear­li­er here.

The ludicrously overlooked Firefly prequel "Serenity".

The ludi­crous­ly over­looked Fire­fly pre­quel “Seren­i­ty”.

And now he’s mar­ried those twin strands and has returned to tele­vi­sion with yet anoth­er Mar­vel prod­uct from their per­pet­u­al­ly revolv­ing assem­bly line.

There was real­ly only one of two ways that this could have gone. Either it would be one more depress­ing dilu­tion of what was once an inter­est­ing idea in the nev­er-end­ing pur­suit of point­less­ly amass­ing impos­si­ble to ever spend quan­ti­ties of pieces of coloured paper with num­bers on them. Yes Star Wars, we’re look­ing at you.

Or, some­how, we’d get a series that man­aged to mar­ry the panache, wit and exu­ber­ance of Buffy to a whole new fam­i­ly of characters.

Remark­ably, actu­al­ly amaz­ing­ly, he’s giv­en us the latter.

It’s some time in the future, and in the after­math of a dis­as­trous War the world has been reduced to a pri­mor­dial strug­gle between the forces of good and evil, but a world in which the tech­no­log­i­cal advances have ren­dered that bat­tle all the more per­ilous. And fun.

Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy.

Sarah Michelle Gel­lar as Buffy.

Impec­ca­bly struc­tured, and plot­ted with the kind of con­fi­dence that pro­duces reg­u­lar sur­pris­es, as ever it’s the smart, fast and con­stant­ly wit­ty dia­logue that both pro­pels the action for­ward and gives the show a gloss that com­plete­ly sets it apart. You can get a good sense of all of which from the Agents Of Shield trail­er here.

Whether or not they man­age to main­tain that daz­zling qual­i­ty through­out the rest of the show that they man­aged to squeeze in to the pilot only time will tell. But the first episode was flaw­less. And if you missed the Joss Whe­don space age trip first time around, jump on board.

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Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” a Classic Romantic Comedy.

Much Ado About Nothing.

Much Ado About Nothing.

After they’d fin­ished prin­ci­pal pho­tog­ra­phy on Avengers Assem­ble, its direc­tor Joss Whe­don was told that he was con­trac­tu­al­ly oblig­ed to take a week off before they could begin edit­ing it. This is what he did with his week off.

Avengers Assem­ble, which I reviewed ear­li­er here, went on to become the biggest box office suc­cess ever. So it’s easy to under­stand the attrac­tion of some­thing like this for some­one as cre­ative­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed as Whe­don. Essen­tial­ly, it’s the exact opposite.

Shot over 12 days with a bunch of friends on loca­tion at his house in the Hol­ly­wood hills, Much Ado About Noth­ing is as light and frothy as straw­ber­ry frap­pé. In oth­er words, it’s the sort of thing that so many peo­ple get hor­ri­bly wrong.

Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting.

Bruce Willis and Cybill Shep­herd in Moonlighting.

Roman­tic come­dies are just that, romances first, and come­dies sec­ond. As such, they rise or fall on the chem­istry between their leads. And Amy Ack­er and Alex­is Denisof sparkle. Though the film is some­what stolen from under their noses by the com­ic pair­ing of Nathan Fil­lion and Tom Lenk as the mag­nif­i­cent­ly hap­less cops. The for­mer pair will be rec­og­nized (just about) by fans of Angel, and the lat­ter from the out­ra­geous­ly over­looked Seren­i­ty.

Per­haps not quite up there with Smiles Of A Sum­mer Night, or that just­ly famous episode of Moon­light­ing, it’s a won­der­ful­ly deft adap­ta­tion of one of Shake­speare’s trick­i­er come­dies. And it’s only when you think of the many, many dread­ful attempts at roman­tic com­e­dy that you can lux­u­ri­ate in its casu­al charm. You can see Much Ado About Noth­ing’s trail­er here.

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Avengers Assemble: Superior Blockbuster, Disappointing Joss Whedon Film.

What you think of the new Avengers Assem­ble film will depend on whether you too are a fel­low Joss Whe­don groupie. Whe­don was the brains behind the cult clas­sic Buffy, which ran for 7 series from 1997–2003. Remark­ably, the spin-off fol­low-up Angel was a pret­ty impres­sive stab at repeat­ing the magic.

The lat­ter tend­ed to lose its way when­ev­er it veered off onto oth­er plan­ets, but for the most part Angel was as air­i­ly con­fi­dent and sure-foot­ed as Buffy.

Con­sis­tent­ly com­pelling sto­ries about impec­ca­bly delin­eat­ed char­ac­ters who all spoke in effort­less­ly smart dia­logue, and almost all of whom were giv­en three glo­ri­ous dimen­sions by the near per­fect cast (not with­stand­ing Drusil­la and her accent, which clear­ly came from anoth­er dimen­sion entirely). 

Some­how, Whe­don had man­aged to casu­al­ly tap into the vein of that all-impor­tant demo­graph­ic, youth cul­ture. Inevitably what fol­lowed was, box office wise, some­thing a of a dis­ap­point­ment. First up was Fire­fly, which was can­celled by Fox before it had even com­plet­ed its first sea­son – though not before he’d man­aged to shoot a fea­ture pre­quel, Seren­i­ty. Then there was Doll­house, which last­ed just two sea­sons before being axed.

So Whe­don was very much of the fall­en vari­ety and on some­thing of a retrieval mis­sion with his lat­est effort. Which cer­tain­ly goes some of the way to explain­ing quite how safe Avengers Assem­ble feels. But the truth of the mat­ter is, the very nature of the project pro­hibits nar­ra­tive ambition.

What we are talk­ing about after all is a film with (at least) six heroes. So on the one hand, you need to give six dif­fer­ent pro­tag­o­nists equal weight and time. And on the oth­er, the fran­chise demands of sequels and mer­chan­dis­ing mean that they all have to sur­vive and live to see anoth­er day. So nec­es­sar­i­ly, there can nev­er be any­thing real­ly at stake. Unlike then Buffy, or indeed Seren­i­ty, where it’s han­dled bril­liant­ly, there can be no death.

If you want to see what Whe­don is capa­ble of when not shack­led by the con­fines of a fran­chise, have a look at the ridicu­lous­ly under-viewed Seren­i­ty.  Seri­ous­ly, watch it. 

The script bril­liant­ly bal­ances the per­son­al and the uni­ver­sal, the big and the small, and the sto­ry pow­ers for­ward with an elec­tri­fy­ing pace (has any­one ever pro­pelled nar­ra­tive using dia­logue with such gay aban­don and dev­as­tat­ing force?). Whilst the care­ful­ly placed fight scenes boast a bal­let­ic inten­si­ty com­plete­ly alien to your run-of-the-mill, bog-stan­dard, sum­mer blockbuster.

And that ulti­mate­ly is all Avengers Assem­ble real­ly is. And as such it could com­fort­ably lose 15 or so of the open­ing and clos­ing 20 min­utes. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, all the reviews have raved about it. And undoubt­ed­ly, in a sea of medi­oc­rity it clear­ly stands out (even more so if you see it in one of those fab­u­lous new Isense cin­e­mas, reviewed here). But there’s no get­ting away from it, as the new Joss Whe­don film, it’s ever so slight­ly dis­ap­point­ing. Let’s hope all those brown­ie points he’s now accu­mu­lat­ed can be used by him for some­thing a bit more personal. 

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