Director Steve McQueen charts the harrowing true story of a free man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) sold into slavery in the Oscar-tipped historical drama 12 Years A Slave
12 YEARS A SLAVE (15)
Steve McQueen’s debut film Hunger recounted the story of Bobby Sands through the eyes of fellow Irish Republican prisoners while his incendiary 2011 follow-up, Shame, dealt candidly with sex addiction.
For his third feature, McQueen considers the slave trade from the perspective of a free black man, who was kidnapped in 1841 and suffered 12 years of abuse on the plantations of Louisiana before he was reunited with his loving family.
Based on the autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northup and adapted for the screen by John Ridley, 12 Years A Slave is a masterpiece that sears into the retina with every artfully composed frame.
Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives with his wife Anne (Kelsey Scott), daughter Margaret (Quvenzhane Wallis) and son Alonzo (Cameron Zeigler).
An encounter with two seemingly respectable gentlemen – Messrs Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (Taran Killam) – changes Solomon’s life forever.
He wakes up in chains and learns he has been sold into slavery.
Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) takes delivery of Solomon and ignores pleas for leniency, snarling, “My sentimentality stretches the length of a coin”.
Solomon’s first master, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is kind but fate delivers the lead character to sadistic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
Epps takes a shine to one of the slave girls, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), to the chagrin of his unfeeling wife (Sarah Paulson).
Solomon is caught in the crossfire, finding a means to orchestrate escape with the help of an abolitionist called Bass (Brad Pitt), who also believes that “slavery is an evil that should befall none”.
12 Years A Slave is the deserved frontrunner for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars and it would be impossible to deny McQueen’s film an entire mantelpiece of gold statuettes.
Ejiofor breaks our hearts as an honest, decent man, who retains his humanity in the face of unspeakable cruelty.
Nyong’o is equally eye-catching in her big screen debut while Fassbender simmers with rage and self-loathing.
McQueen’s directorial brio comes to the fore, memorably in a horrific whipping sequence shot in a single take.
It’s not a film that demands repeat viewings – like a sledgehammer to the solar plexus, once is enough.
But McQueen’s sensitive yet unflinching portrait of suffering will stay with us forever.
THE RAILWAY MAN (15)
Ghosts of the past haunt a former British Army officer in Jonathan Teplitzky’s respectful and polished drama.
Based on the bestselling autobiography of Eric Lomax, The Railway Man uses a patchwork of flashbacks to recount the writer’s treatment at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army after the fall of Singapore.
Director Jonathan Teplitzky doesn’t shy away from the most harrowing episodes of Lomax’s story, including a torture sequence which depicts Japanese officers using water-boarding to extract information from their prisoner.
Another scene, much closer to home at a Scottish train station, is equally chilling.
While Teplitzky’s picture lands a flurry of punches, it doesn’t quite deliver a knockout blow, even in the final act when Lomax attempts to confront a Japanese officer he holds responsible for the war raging inside his head.
Like the smartly dressed man at the story’s centre, the deepest emotions remain tightly buttoned.
When we first meet ardent train enthusiast Eric (Colin Firth), he is safely ensconced in a first-class carriage, casting nervous glances at the lady sitting opposite.
Eventually he strikes up a conversation with Patricia Wallace (Nicole Kidman) and learns she is visiting the north of England based on recommendations from a friend.
“With all due respect to your friend, if all he’s mentioned is vodka, he’s only scratched the surface of Warrington,” sweetly blusters Eric.
He engineers another meeting with Patti further up the line and they fall in love and marry.
It quickly becomes clear to Patti that there is something in Eric’s past which is troubling him, but her efforts to help are swatted aside.
“You will never again attempt to discuss matters which do not concern you. There’s no objection, I hope?” Eric firmly tells his wife.
So she seeks out best friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard), hoping he can reveal the scars of the past and ease her spouse’s suffering.
“A lot of men went through something you can’t even begin to imagine,” Finlay tells her.
Ultimately, he recounts to Patti, and us, the horrors faced by young Eric (Jeremy Irvine) and fellow soldiers at the Sakamoto Butai camp.
The Railway Man chugs back and forth between 1940s Singapore and 1980 Berwick, which makes Teplitzky’s film feel far more sluggish and laboured that it actually is.
Thankfully, Firth and Kidman are both excellent in emotionally demanding roles.
Irvine is mesmerising as the younger incarnation of Eric, who is beaten to near-death by the Japanese after a daring attempt to construct a radio from spare parts.
Direction is measured throughout and the tone suitably sombre, honouring the memory of countless young soldiers who resisted their captors, sometimes with their dying breath.
DELIVERY MAN (12A)
When Hollywood remakes a critically acclaimed foreign film the original director, more often than not, stands by as their work is re-interpreted, sometimes beyond recognition, by another filmmaker.
Occasionally, though, the same creative force takes the helm for both versions.
Two years ago, French-Canadian filmmaker Ken Scott charmed critics and audiences with his bittersweet comedy Starbuck.
He remains in the director’s chair for this brasher remake, which transplants the action from Montreal to the mean streets of Manhattan.
In most other respects, Delivery Man is the identical twin of its predecessor, repeating scenes virtually word for word in an effort to recreate the winning formula.
A romantic subplot feels underpowered second time around but does thankfully find leading man Vince Vaughn in restrained form.
He plays David Wozniak, a delivery truck driver for the family meat business run by his Polish immigrant father, Mikolaj (Andrzej Blumenfeld).
David is deep in debt and repeatedly lets down his brothers Victor (Simon Delaney) and Aleksy (Bobby Moynihan), as well as his girlfriend Emma (Cobie Smulders), who is expecting their first child.
Out of the blue, David learns that frequent donations to a sperm bank in his student days have resulted in 533 children.
Of those, 142 have launched a class action to force the fertility clinic to reveal the identity of the man they know as Starbuck.
David turns to lawyer pal Brett (Chris Pratt) to keep the records sealed.
However, David complicates matters by visiting some of his children, including a busker called Adam (Dave Patten), an aspiring actor Josh (Jack Reynor) and a down on her luck salesgirl called Kristen (Britt Robertson).
“I could be their guardian angel,” David tells Brett forlornly.
Delivery Man is a surprisingly touching second helping that remains true to the heartfelt intentions of the original film.
Vaughn is likeable throughout but there’s a lack of on-screen chemistry with Smulders so the emotional waters of their relationship never break.
Pratt is hysterical as a single father stumbling blindly through legal loopholes while Patten, Robertson, Reynor and co deliver spirited performances as youngsters searching for the man who gave them life.
“It may be a bit strange and a bit oversized, but it’s my life,” David comments towards the end of the film.
He can add haphazard and slightly mawkish to that fair summation.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES (15)
Horror movies breed like rabid rabbits.
Collectively, we jumped, gasped, shrieked and recoiled at our first encounters with Psycho, Night Of The Living Dead, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, The Amityville Horror, Alien, Friday The 13th, The Evil Dead, A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Blair Witch Project and Saw.
However, our love for these diabolical cinematic milestones has been gradually eroded by myriad sequels, prequels, spin-offs and contemporary remakes.
The same is true of the original Paranormal Activity.
Made on a shoestring budget by writer-director Oren Peli, the found-footage horror became a global sensation in 2007.
Since then, the mythology has been expanded in three further hauntings and Paranormal Activity 5 is scheduled to spook audiences at Hallowe’en.
In the meantime, Christopher Landon writes and directs this bridging chapter, which centres on teenager Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) in June 2012 as he graduates from high school in Oxnard, California.
Jesse celebrates his academic success with his father (David Saucedo), sister (Noemi Gonzalez) and best friends Hector (Jorge Diaz) and Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh).
Festivities are punctuated by speculation about one of Jesse’s downstairs neighbours, Anna (Gloria Sandoval).
“You know what everyone says in the neighbourhood – that she’s some bruja or witch,” he confides to the omnipresent video camera.
Soon after, Anna is murdered in her apartment by Jesse’s valedictorian classmate, Oscar (Carlos Pratts), who goes on the run.
The boys decide to play detective.
“Dude, I bet we could find clues and stuff,” Jesse tells Hector as they break into Anna’s apartment and make a grisly discovery in one room.
Jesse subsequently discovers a bite mark on his arm and begins to exhibit alarming powers.
As fear takes hold, the 18-year-old learns he has been chosen to fulfil a grim destiny that tips the balance of power in favour of the forces of evil.
For the opening hour, The Marked Ones seems to be a self-contained story that owes more to the 2012 rites-of-passage film Chronicle than the Paranormal Activity saga.
Then writer-director Landon adds references to the past including a brief appearance by Ali Rey (Molly Ephraim), whose parents were killed in Paranormal Activity 2.
For a clunky final flourish, he introduces a hellish portal that facilitates travel through space and time, thereby allowing one character from this film to gatecrash an earlier instalment.
Scares are largely recycled and, as with previous films, characters abandon common sense at crucial junctures to place themselves in harm’s way.
The introduction of the Simon electronic memory game as a makeshift Ouija board is rather neat with the green and red lights indicating yes and no responses.
Alas, like other elements in Landon’s script, the device runs out of juice.