12 Years A Slave

It’s easy being cynical around movie award season.  A rash of films arrives ticking the boxes voters presumably find appealing.  Soul-defying drama, triumph over adversity, scenes full of tears and eloquently written speeches are all part of the mix.  ’12 Years a Slave’ has these in abundance.  Making it stand out from the glut of Oscar-baiting movies is its authenticity and refusal to delve into melodrama.  It spins a tale worthy of attention and maybe a few awards as well.


During the 1840’s, black violinist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives in New York with his young family.  Venturing out of town on a supposed music gig, he is abducted and sold to slavery.  Over the next 12 years, he struggles as a slave in America’s Deep South.  Among many masters is Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) who enjoys inflicting intense cruelty.  Determined to be re-united with his family, Solomon aims to be free of his injustice and re-obtain the dignity he deserves.


Based on a true story and directed by Steve McQueen, ’12 Years A Slave’ is often difficult viewing.  The many scenes of abject brutality makes you wonder how such things occurred.  Unfortunately they did with the attitudes of the time becoming a historical mark of shame.  That Solomon struggles to endure such horrible treatment shows strength of character against his oppressors.  Despite occasionally not having the emotional connection his character’s scenes need, Ejiofor injects true compassion and determination.


He is ably assisted by a uniformly strong cast, including Fassbender who makes his role a study in calculated evil.  Much has been made about the violence shown although this aids in depicting the true horror of what Solomon and others went through.  How racist masters aimed to strip every last vestige of their slave’s humanity is awful to see.  The level of hope played an important part in maintaining the diminishing spirit of the slaves with being free to live their lives paramount.


Although ’12 Years A Slave’ may adhere to what award voters desire, it’s more honest than most biographical films.  Unflinching in its portrayal of surviving pure hatred, it can be only be wished that such thoughts will one day finally be eradicated.


Rating out of 10:  8


Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

The saying goes ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again’.  This is especially true for film.  If an ongoing franchise falls off the rails, it’s easy hitting the refresh button.  The Jack Ryan series has had more than its fair share of new beginnings.   Having already re-booted with 2002’s ‘The Sum of All Fears’, the series starts anew with ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’.  On this evidence, the re-set is only partially successful with author Tom Clancy’s fictional character still trying to find an assured cinematic footing.


Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) works as a junior CIA analyst in its covert intelligence office.  Uncovering evidence of a terrorist attack, he is sent to Russia to investigate where he meets wealthy businessman Viktor (Kenneth Branagh).  Sensing danger, Ryan soon unearths a sinister plot to destroy the world economy.  Racing against time while escaping a horde of assassins, Ryan faces his enemies in order to prevent global catastrophe.


Although having Jack Ryan’s name in the title ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ has its own deceptive mask.  It isn’t based on any Tom Clancy novel and instead crafts its own story.  Whilst many film franchises have done this, it doesn’t quite work for this fifth Ryan movie.  The biggest hurdle is its slavish copying of moments from recent James Bond films.  What worked for Bond doesn’t necessarily work for Ryan being a completely different character. 


This identity crisis extends to the action sequences. Whilst full of tension and excitingly staged, they conjure a whiff of déjà vu.  Character motivations are never clear with more explanation needed for their actions.  Pine does his best in the role by giving qualities missing from previous versions.  Directing as well as performing, Branagh keeps the momentum going with visual flair hiding the gaping leaps of logic.


‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ is a passable action movie being better than the previous instalment. It isn’t a patch on the initial movies with its lack of depth a millstone even a dedicated agent would find hard to discard.


Rating out of 10:  6