“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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