Reviewed by
Tricia Youlden

12 Years a Slave ★★★★ MA

In 1841, violinist Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free and eminent citizen of Saratoga, New York — until he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. It will be 12 gruelling years before he again sees his wife and children in Saratoga.

Solomon’s first owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) comments that his new slave, despite his best efforts not to disclose his identity or literacy, is “clearly no ordinary nigger, but I fear that no good will come of it”. After running foul of Ford’s overseer, Solomon is transferred to the custody of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a crazy, erratic cotton plantation owner.

From the time of his capture, Solomon endures and witnesses extreme physical and verbal abuse by southern white folk who treat the African American workers worse than they would treat animals. Almost as obscene as their sadism and white supremacism is their pious invocation of the Scriptures as justification. The most sickening instance of Epps’ warped sensibility is his treatment of tragic Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), the young woman whom he regularly rapes and beats. This incites his spiteful, jealous wife (Sarah Paulson) to further maltreat the poor girl. It is little wonder that Patsey begs Solomon to kill her, to “do what I ain’t got the strength to do”. While we do not know Patsy’s fate, Solomon’s encounter with a Canadian builder, Mr Bass (Brad Pitt), eventually leads to his rescue and return to Saratoga and his family.

12 Years a Slave is an uncomfortably confronting film in its graphic portrayal of extreme brutality, including several lynchings. It is, however, a timely reminder that we still need to actively fight against the many contemporary instances of man’s inhumanity to man.

The film has received nine Oscar nominations.

Nebraska ★★★★ M

Despite his family’s attempts to convince him otherwise, addled Korean War veteran Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) doggedly believes that he has won a million dollars in a sweepstake. Clutching the marketing letter that he believes to be his winning ticket, Woody sets out to walk the 1200km miles from his home in Billings, Montana to collect his money from the prize office in Lincoln, Nebraska. Realising that his father will not be dissuaded, son David (Will Forte) decides to drive him there.

A series of incidents en route leads to a “pitstop” in Hawthorne where Woody and his hilariously shrewish wife, Kate (June Squibb), grew up. She and David’s newsreader brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), arrive for an impromptu family reunion at Woody’s brother’s home. When word inevitably gets out that Woody is a “millionaire” everyone thinks they deserve a piece of his purported wealth, which leads to some darkly comic scenes.

As they drive their cantankerous parents around the town they left over 30 years ago, the brothers are better able to understand what has made Woody and Kate who they are, and why they left Hawthorne. While they can see why “drinking starts early around here”, both men develop a fresh appreciation of their roots.

Written by Bob Nelson and directed by Alexander Payne, Nebraska is a tragi-comic celebration of everyday people, flaws and all. Shot in black and white by Phedon Papamichael, each frame tells us at least as much about the characters as the dialogue. Production and art design are superlative, while Mark Orton’s score is spot-on.

Nebraska has six well-deserved Oscar nominations.

Blue is the Warmest Colour ★★★★ R

At school, the girls tell Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) how pretty she is. They tease her about the admiring looks that she receives from even senior boys. However, when she begins a relationship with handsome, sensitive Thomas (Jeremie Laheurte), the teenager feels more melancholy than fulfilled. While their break-up is inevitable, we feel for them both.

An unexpected kiss from a girl, however, makes her feel happy. Out clubbing with a gay male friend, Adele is approached by Emma (Lea Seydoux), an attractive blue-haired fine arts student whom she had noticed in the street a few days before. By Adele’s 18th birthday, their friendship has progressed to an intense love affair. While Lea’s middle-class parents accept them as a couple, Adele’s working-class parents seem deliberately oblivious to the true nature of their relationship.

Over the next three years Adele fulfils her dream of becoming an infants school teacher and Emma becomes an acclaimed artist. While Adele’s love of books makes her a knowledgeable conversationalist about literature, Emma’s friends are heavily into philosophy and art, so Adele assumes a secondary role in the relationship. Inevitable though their separation might be, it is nevertheless devastating. “I have infinite tenderness for you. I always will,” Emma tells Adele. The last stages of the film show Adele coming to terms with the end of the relationship.

So much more than simply a love story, Blue is the Warmest Colour is a dissertation on literature, philosophy, art, education and society. It explores not only Adele’s sexual and emotional awakening, but her intellectual, political and social coming of age. Adapted from Julie Maroh’s comic book Le Bleu est une couleur chaude by director Abdellatif Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix, Blue is the Warmest Colour won the 2013 Palme d’Or at Cannes. Although they are beautifully played, designed, lit, and filmed, there are several explicit sex scenes, hence its R classification.

The Past (Le passé) ★★★★ M

From acclaimed Iranian writer- director, Asghar Farhadi, comes this sensitive portrait of a family in crisis. Divorced from the father of her two daughters, pharmacist Marie Brisson (Berenice Bejo) is now divorcing her second husband Ahmad (Ali Mossafa) in order to be with Samir (Tahar Rahim) who, with his small son Fouad (Elyes Aguis), has moved in with Marie and her girls. Fouad’s mother has been on life support in hospital for eight weeks, following a suicide attempt, which the child witnessed. Marie’s eldest daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), is openly hostile towards Samir and rude to her mother. Although Ahmad deserted them to return to Iran four years previously, Marie is hoping that he might be able to help her with Lucie on his return to France for the divorce hearing.

While Ahmad’s presence adds a further layer to the domestic tension it serves as the catalyst for revealing the truth about the suicide and the precise source of Lucie’s distress. Like Burlet’s heart-rending portrayal of the distraught teenager, the totally natural acting of Elyes Aguis as Fouad, and Jeanne Jestin as Marie’s younger daughter, Lea, add to the extreme poignancy of the tragic situation. Indeed, the most affecting scene for me was little Fouad’s conversation with his father in which the child asks what would happen to his mother if they remove the machines. “Elle veut mourir” (“she wants to die”) he states, but Samir is not so sure.

In a masterful, albeit frustrating, stroke, Farhadi has chosen to leave us pondering the outcome.

Dallas Buyers Club ★★★★ MA

Matthew McConnaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConnaughey lost an incredible amount of weight to convincingly play Ron Woodroof, the homophobic, fast-living rodeo rider whose ignorance and excesses result in him being diagnosed as HIV+ and given 30 days to “put his affairs in order”. Moving from initial denial to determination to beat the disease, Woodrooff researches HIV-AIDS and alternative treatments. This leads him to Mexico where a Dr Vass (Griffin Dunne) runs a clinic. On the cocktail of vitamins, aloe and essential fatty acids and peptides that Vass prescribes, Woodroof’s health improves.

His friends having disowned him, believing in their red-neck ignorance that only “faggots” get AIDS, Woodroof finds himself in the company of people he formerly would have despised or even beaten up. He is not a particularly nice man. He seems to mellow somewhat as he fights for the right of individuals to import for personal use pharmaceuticals that have not been approved by the FDA. In order to legally buy medicine for other AIDS sufferers he sets up the Dallas Buyers Club, which he runs with transvestite drug addict Rayon (a consummate performance by Jared Leto). As more and more AIDS sufferers buy their $400 membership, Woodroof and co. are constantly harassed by the police and the FDA.

A sympathetic, pretty doctor (Jennifer Garner) is involved, presumably to provide a hint of heterosexual romance. The most credible characters for me, however, are the other AIDS patients, particularly a couple of elderly gentlemen who provide a rent-free space for the “clinic”.

Written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack and directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, Dallas Buyers Club does make a pretty good attempt to tell it how it was. Scenes towards the end of the film evoke strong memories of St Vincent’s 17th floor, where the care and devotion of the staff to their AIDS patients was legendary.

The film is up for six Oscars.

Tricia Youlden teaches drama at Willoughby GHS. She also recommends Her, Inside LLewyn Davis, Labor Day, and even Grudge Match (for the boxing tragics).