Michael Fassbender

“12 Years a Slave” is not the sweeping historical epic the trailers are selling, and it certainly isn’t the world-changing, Oscar-destined cinematic revolution the early reviewers declared it after its premiere at Telluride Film Festival. Instead, it’s a quiet masterpiece — an affecting narrative that’s equally riveting and horrifying.

Based on the true story of Solomon Northup, “12 Years a Slave” chronicles the journey of the New York violin player, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. When Northup is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South, he lands on the plantation of the reasonable and kind Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). After Northup clashes with one of Ford’s hired hands, he’s sent to work for Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a horrifying, impulsively violent plantation owner who promises to make Northup’s life an unpleasant affair. 

Director Steve McQueen never shies away from the ugly details of slavery, and the film has several starkly frightening moments, capturing the depth of slavery’s cruelty without reveling in it. Thankfully, McQueen purposefully balances his most painful moments with the smallest of triumphs, keeping the film ever watchable and emotionally engaging.

“12 Years a Slave” is penned by John Ridley, whose last script, “Red Tails,” was a disaster that handled similar material very clumsily. His work here is among the best of the year, boasting a wealth of eloquent turns of phrase. His dialogue is appropriate to its period setting, yet never antiquated, and as the dark reality of Northup’s situation begins to sink in, Ridley nails every stroke of the character’s dueling assimilation and defiance. If there’s one criticism to aim against “12 Years a Slave,” though, it’s that the passage of time isn’t especially well communicated, and what should be a powerful reminder is more of a titular courtesy.

Ejiofor hasn’t had a leading film role since 2008’s “Redbelt,” but he’s never been used quite as effectively as he is here. Even as Northup slowly surrenders to slavery, notably in a scene where he joins his fellow slaves in singing, Ejiofor always retains his basic hope and optimism, which makes every moment of submission enormously powerful. It’s an outstanding, soulful performance, the kind that defines careers and wins Oscars, and Ejiofor plays beautifully off of the rest of the cast.

The film also boasts an incredible ensemble, with even the smallest of roles filled by actors like Michael K. Williams or Dwight Henry. With only a few scenes each, Scoot McNairy is deceptively jovial, Paul Giamatti is shamelessly slimy and Paul Dano is pathetically reprehensible. Fassbender nearly steals the show as Epps, Northup’s master. Epps is full of self-loathing, expressing it through impulsive bursts of violence, and Fassbender is terrifying in the role, putting viewers on edge every time he’s on screen. Over and over again, Epps extinguishes every glimmer of hope in Northup’s life, and Fassbender is fearlessly evil here. Equally effective are Sarah Paulson, subtly toxic as Epps’ wife, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a fellow slave whom Northup befriends.

There aren’t many films this year that are going to evoke such powerful emotions as “12 Years a Slave,” and the film is nothing less than essential viewing. McQueen’s work is so powerful and measured, Ridley’s script so well written and Ejiofor and the rest of the cast so perfectly portray their roles that it’s impossible to deny their greatness.

Editor’s note: Two Life & Arts staff writers discuss big releases that are garnering buzz for the awards season. This week they focus on “12 Years A Slave.” 

Colin McLaughlin: “12 Years A Slave.” Wow. Just wow. I’ve been doing my best not to jinx the movie or send people to see it with ridiculously high expectations, but I find it hard to see how anyone can be disappointed by Steve McQueen’s brutal examination of slavery. “12 Years” has yet to see a wide release, and so “Gravity” still looks like the film to beat. I don’t want to be like some other unnamed Oscar bloggers and state that “12 Years a Slave” is, without any doubt, this year’s Best Picture winner. At this early point in the race I think the question about this film isn’t, “Will it win?” but, “What could prevent it from winning?” Thoughts?

Lee Henry: Well, a week ago I would have had an answer for you, and that answer would have been “Saving Mr. Banks.” It was supposed to be the “King’s Speech” equivalent for this year: feel-good period piece based on a true story and featuring several beloved actors exchanging witty repartee. From what I’ve read, the movie only delivers on the last item. While that’s certainly enough to propel Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks into individual nominations, it’s not going to be enough to compete with “Gravity” and “12 Years.” Both Hanks and Thompson are Academy darlings with two wins under their belts, and both are as charming as anyone else in the business. Thompson has a much tougher category than Hanks though, who is being predicted by several pundits as a frontrunner to win.

 

CM: From what I’ve heard, “Saving Mr. Banks’” best bet is a supporting actor win for Hanks as Walt Disney. Not only will the role likely gain him a second nomination for this year, it also poses a serious threat to Michael Fassbender, whose role as the sadistic slave owner in “12 Years a Slave” had many calling the supporting actor race early. But Fassbender is giving the Academy the cold shoulder, refusing to campaign for supporting actor. We may see Hanks take home his third Oscar this year. 

LH: Yeah, Fassbender had a nomination all but ensured and he’s ruined it by playing the “I’m an artist” card. He’s not thinking about how this move negatively affects “12 Years a Slave’s” momentum. Regardless of Fassbender’s anti-campaign strategy, I think he’ll still get in. The award for supporting actor seems to be becoming a three-man race between Fassbender, Hanks and Jared Leto for “Dallas Buyers Club.” We both saw “Dallas Buyers Club” over the weekend, and I think we can agree that his work as a male-to-female transgender HIV-positive drug addict is stellar. Now this may sound like an over-the-top made-for-Oscar role, but Leto owns it and creates a fully developed, tragically funny character. 

 

CM: I see Leto as the real potential upset in the supporting actor category. He’s never been nominated and he’s not much of a household name, but he’s delivered a solid body of work over the last decade in movies like “Requiem for a Dream” and “Lord of War.” With Fassbender’s status now up in the air, this year’s supporting actor race could become a battle between young first-time nominee Leto and two-time winning legend Hanks. The most exciting races in recent years have been defined by the old versus the new. 

LH: Agreed. Leto has an uphill battle ahead of him though. The Academy has rewarded women playing female-to-male transgender characters multiple times, most notably Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry,” but that’s never gone the other way. That’s a big hurdle for Leto to jump and he may not have the name recognition or actor cred. It all depends on how Focus markets him and his co-star, the equally awesome Matthew McConaughey. 

 

CM: McConaughey’s physical transformation alone was impressive. But, he radically alters his body and still manages to deliver the best performance of his career. He’s completely overhauled his career in the last 18 months with strong, varied performances in “Mud,” “Bernie” and “Killer Joe,” and “Dallas Buyers Club” could be one that sends him home with the Oscar.

Two of the most faithful book-to-film adaptations in recent memory are “The Road” and “No Country for Old Men,” both based on works by Cormac McCarthy, whose writing style is so inherently cinematic that very little had to be changed to fit the big screen. It stands to reason then, that McCarthy’s screenwriting debut, “The Counselor,” would be a winner — especially with Ridley Scott directing and Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt in starring roles. Unfortunately, “The Counselor” is a frustrating work whose elegant, talky screenplay is both its greatest asset and detractor.

McCarthy’s screenplay is frustratingly vague, right down to its unnamed main character, played by Fassbender. Fassbender plays a counselor dipping his toes into the murky waters of drug trafficking with the help of accomplices Westray (Pitt), Reiner (Bardem) and Reiner’s lover Malkina (Cameron Diaz). Once an unlucky series of coincidences puts the Counselor on the wrong side of the drug cartels, he finds himself scrambling for his life.

Though “The Counselor” assembles an outstanding cast, several of its members are somewhat stranded within McCarthy’s narratively slack script. Both Pitt and Fassbender, enormously charismatic actors capable of shouldering challenging material, do their best with the vagaries of the film’s story, but neither does particularly memorable work. Even as Fassbender’s character descends into misery, which Fassbender plays very effectively, there’s so little emotional attachment to his character that his fairly wrenching performance fails to evoke any emotion. Diaz, on the other hand, plays a surprisingly adept femme fatale, and Bardem’s bug-eyed delivery sells some of McCarthy’s best lines.

If McCarthy’s overly-talky script wasn’t so gorgeously written, “The Counselor” would be interminable. His dialogue is punchy, with stunningly polished turns of phrase showcasing McCarthy’s gift for minimalist, hard-boiled poetry. But the dialogue mostly pads out scenes of characters sitting around discussing the plot, and there are far too many monologues that ultimately go nowhere.

McCarthy is so taken with his characters and their peculiar rhythms of speech that he willfully breaks one of the principal rules of screenwriting: Show, don’t tell. Almost every major dramatic event in the film seems to take place off-screen, and McCarthy’s stylized script mostly finds the characters obliquely discussing their situations rather than taking action. It’s a shame, too, since the few scenes of genuine action are among the film’s best. Scott directs with a visceral eye, making every gunshot thud hit home and orchestrating one of the best decapitations to ever grace the silver screen. Even the film’s climactic moments are thankfully left to the viewer’s imagination.

The Counselor” is not an easy movie to love as it veers between pulpy fun and bleak nihilism with startling ease and traps its characters in a slowly contracting noose of circumstance. There’s little struggle or opportunity for the characters. They seem to be lost in the consequences of actions that are spoken of, but unseen, and the script’s free-floating, contemplative nature that ultimately derails any narrative momentum or engagement. What results is a film full of people trying to make up for the script’s shortcomings, and while Scott and his cast do their best, “The Counselor” proves to be a surprisingly un-cinematic debut for McCarthy.

Two of the most faithful book-to-film adaptations in recent memory are “The Road” and “No Country for Old Men,” both based on works by Cormac McCarthy, whose writing style is so inherently cinematic that very little had to be changed to fit the big screen. It stands to reason then, that McCarthy’s screenwriting debut, “The Counselor,” would be a winner — especially with Ridley Scott directing and Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt in starring roles. Unfortunately, “The Counselor” is a frustrating work whose elegant, talky screenplay is both its greatest asset and detractor.

McCarthy’s screenplay is frustratingly vague, right down to its unnamed main character, played by Fassbender. Fassbender plays a counselor dipping his toes into the murky waters of drug trafficking with the help of accomplices Westray (Pitt), Reiner (Bardem) and Reiner’s lover Malkina (Cameron Diaz). Once an unlucky series of coincidences puts the Counselor on the wrong side of the drug cartels, he finds himself scrambling for his life.

Though “The Counselor” assembles an outstanding cast, several of its members are somewhat stranded within McCarthy’s narratively slack script. Both Pitt and Fassbender, enormously charismatic actors capable of shouldering challenging material, do their best with the vagaries of the film’s story, but neither does particularly memorable work. Even as Fassbender’s character descends into misery, which Fassbender plays very effectively, there’s so little emotional attachment to his character that his fairly wrenching performance fails to evoke any emotion. Diaz, on the other hand, plays a surprisingly adept femme fatale, and Bardem’s bug-eyed delivery sells some of McCarthy’s best lines.

If McCarthy’s overly-talky script wasn’t so gorgeously written, “The Counselor” would be interminable. His dialogue is punchy, with stunningly polished turns of phrase showcasing McCarthy’s gift for minimalist, hard-boiled poetry. But the dialogue mostly pads out scenes of characters sitting around discussing the plot, and there are far too many monologues that ultimately go nowhere.

McCarthy is so taken with his characters and their peculiar rhythms of speech that he willfully breaks one of the principal rules of screenwriting: Show, don’t tell. Almost every major dramatic event in the film seems to take place off-screen, and McCarthy’s stylized script mostly finds the characters obliquely discussing their situations rather than taking action. It’s a shame, too, since the few scenes of genuine action are among the film’s best. Scott directs with a visceral eye, making every gunshot thud hit home and orchestrating one of the best decapitations to ever grace the silver screen. Even the film’s climactic moments are thankfully left to the viewer’s imagination.

The Counselor” is not an easy movie to love as it veers between pulpy fun and bleak nihilism with startling ease and traps its characters in a slowly contracting noose of circumstance. There’s little struggle or opportunity for the characters. They seem to be lost in the consequences of actions that are spoken of, but unseen, and the script’s free-floating, contemplative nature that ultimately derails any narrative momentum or engagement. What results is a film full of people trying to make up for the script’s shortcomings, and while Scott and his cast do their best, “The Counselor” proves to be a surprisingly un-cinematic debut for McCarthy.

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class

The massive cast of "X-

Photo Credit: AP Exchange | Daily Texan Staff

Genre: Action, Adventure
Runtime: 132 minutes
For those who like: Thor, Green Lantern
Grade: A

Since “X-Men” debuted in 2000 to massive box office success, it’s been credited with shaping the modern superhero genre. After a tremendous sequel, the series faltered; first with a mediocre third film and then with an abhorrent prequel based on breakout character Wolverine. “X-Men: First Class,” another prequel to the series, is not only the best film in the series since “X2,” but is also summer filmmaking at its best — a smart superhero film with strong, well-acted characters.

Following an opening scene ripped from the first “X-Men” film, “First Class” chronicles the early ’60s when Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) assemble their first team of mutants to stop the nefarious Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who is relentlessly pushing America and Russia to the brink of nuclear war.

With prequels, there’s always a chance of the film falling short simply because we know where the story is going. Charles Xavier will always end up in a wheelchair and Erik Lehnsherr will always become Magneto. Director Matthew Vaughn, fresh from last year’s memorable “Kick-Ass,” makes the smart move of staging the film as a tragedy, sending the characters on an unstoppable collision course with their destinies and letting the audience watch the pieces slowly fall into place. Vaughn’s brisk pacing and strong character work makes the slow march to a predetermined destination entertaining and surprisingly suspenseful.

The film’s massive cast is almost flawless. James McAvoy more than fills the shoes of Patrick Stewart. The radiant Jennifer Lawrence is compulsively watchable, even when buried under a layer of blue makeup as the perpetually conflicted Mystique. Nicholas Hoult stands out as the quiet, ashamed Hank McCoy. That’s not even mentioning the strong turns by Rose Byrne, Oliver Platt and many others. The only weak link is

’ Emma Frost, mostly thanks to the icy delivery that Jones manages to call acting, but director Matthew Vaughn wisely sidelines her for most of the film’s second half.

Despite the amount of talent on display, no one shines more than Michael Fassbender as Erik. Fresh from a memorable turn in “Inglourious Basterds,” Fassbender oozes movie star charisma, especially in his early scenes, which play like a classic Bond film. Fassbender steals every scene with minimal effort and his slow descent into villainy is truly something to behold.

A big summer action film is nothing without good action sequences, and Vaughn delivers here as well. The film’s mutants all have uniquely cinematic powers and it’s a sight to behold when they come to blows, especially in the film’s climax. Two fleets of American and Russian warships are on the verge of firing on each other while the X-Men face down their first formidable antagonist.

After the massive misstep of the past two films, “X-Men: First Class” almost single-handedly redeems the once laughable franchise, thanks in no small part to director Matthew Vaughn and the fantastic Michael Fassbender. Despite working with a recipe for disaster, “First Class” manages to be one of the most ambitious, intelligent and purely entertaining films of the summer so far.