Brad Pitt

12 Years A Slave (2014)

Artist and film director Steve McQueen is a bit of a mixed bag in the eyes of this reviewer. Whilst Hunger was a taut and compelling vignette of Bobby Sands, Shame wasted what started as an interesting premise on flabby pacing, aimless meandering and an awkwardly outdated portrayal of homosexuality. However with 12 Years A Slave, McQueen seems to have finally found his perfect balance, that of a lingering character study presented against the larger political backdrop of an uncomfortable theme. 12 Years A Slave tells the real life story of free man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is duped and drugged before being sold into slavery, based on his own 1853 autobiography. States away from his family and unable to produce his freedom papers, Solomon must endure cruelty upon cruelty whilst keeping his being literate a secret. Needless to say, 12 Years is brutal but necessary viewing.

Surely no one can claim to being ignorant of the viciousness of America’s history of enslavement, but McQueen finds innovative ways of truly and bleakly presenting the human experience at the hands of such a regime. When Solomon awakens to find himself in chains, his claims of being a free man are met with the unforgiving and repeated smack of a bat on his back, and the excellent sound editing coupled with McQueen’s absolutely unwaveringly stationary camera placement make for a visceral and terrifying few minutes.

McQueen is a director known for unrelenting shots on discomforting scenes, but whereas in Shame it amounted to an aura of self-indulgence, in 12 Years we as an audience become unwilling participants in the acts of cruelty, our complicit and silent observation as damning as the horrifying acts unfolding. This is a film that grabs you and forces you to acknowledge the sheer awfulness of a past not explored enough by cinema. For example, in the slave market scene where Solomon and others are forced to stand, degraded as animals in a zoo, some naked, and being presented as no more than pieces of meat, whilst wealthy white men like William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) price them up. McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s camera weaves in and out of rooms, past slave after slave as if we ourselves are being given the sales pitch. It’s a gut churning way of making us connect with the subject emotionally rather than through an objective history textbook lens, and it’s extraordinarily successful throughout the film.

Hans Zimmer’s score is equally haunting, punching through the film like Solomon’s petrified heartbeat. But this really is Ejiofor’s film. It’s impossible not to feel his despair, often when it is simply his eyes doing the talking. Ejiofor’s portrayal of Solomon as man who refuses to give up on his hope and dignity is beautifully judged, a state of mind completely counter balanced by fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who becomes a victim of plantation owner Edwin Epps’ (Michael Fassbender) lust and feels utterly defeated. Nyong’o and Fassbender are both utterly fantastic. Where other actors are concerned, there are strong performances going on, but after a while it can feel like there’s a factory line of Oscar baiting going on as a list of famous names perform their racist monologues and leave the story.

But the worst part of 12 Years A Slave, one which is truly my only complaint about the film, is the inclusion of Brad Pitt in the cast list. Whilst he is to be thanked and commended for his contribution as a producer with his Plan B company, his inclusion as an actor is woefully misjudged. Whilst there are a string of big names lending their services to the story (Ejiofor, Fassbender, Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, and Paul Giamatti) they are much more chameleonic than a man like Pitt. This is not to discredit his acting, he does everything perfectly in his brief scenes, but Brad Pitt in a film nowadays is always some facet of Brad Pitt; two time winner of People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive ‘accolade’, and having him smack in the middle of a film of such as this as one of the only sympathetic white characters just feels awkward and hokey, and the Jesus-like carpenter image he casts is just too much.

That being said, 12 Years A Slave is ultimately a brilliant film, one which had my fellow cinema goers silenced, a respect unfortunately not awarded to most films at the best of times. Visually innovative, brutally presented and excellently acted, 12 Years A Slave is an important piece of a cinema that I hope lingers on in discussion long past the standard award season hype.

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World War Z (2013)

Okay. We think everyone was ready to lynch World War Z weren’t they? It’s the joy and wonder of this brave new world of social media. When something or someone gets a kicking by the media, we all scrabble over to get the boot in. In World War Z’s case, the film, produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B company, has been getting a merry pasting with a belt buckle for 6 years. The press has constantly reported on the troubled shoot, which involved recasting, reshoots and rewriting. As critic Giles Hardie pointed out, this is the film where they literally had to edit out countries to get it to the finish line.

So what are we left with?

Brad Pit is Gerry Lane; full time house husband and retired UN trouble-shooter. When he and his family find their school run interrupted by a pack of screaming, violent Philadelphians, they are taken in by the Deputy Secretary-General (Fana Mokoena), who explains that the world is under some sort of viral attack.  Before anyone has a chance to come to terms with this, Gerry is packed off to discover the source of the virus.

If you’re a massive fan of the book on which it’s based, there is the potential for the film to disappoint. World War Z takes the brooding, slow boiling political allegory of its source, gives it a few cardio lessons, wipes the grave dirt off its face and sends it on its way. As such, it’s more of a spiritual successor to 28 Days Later with a detective story, than it is a true zombie film. In fact, like Shaun of the Dead, when the z-word is first mentioned, it’s immediately derided and never discussed again. However, without making the book into a mini-series, Gerry’s globetrotting paper chase seems to be the most logical to push the narrative forward.

Marc Forster, who is well known for pretty much not doing these kind of films, has been given the thankless task of helming the constantly shifting narration that changed with each draft of screenplay. It’s either down to him or the editors, but World War Z is very much like a patchwork quilt. There are lots of little storylines stitched together, but a lot of them could have easily been forgotten. And in some cases, the film does it for us by either dropping characters or resolving their arc in the most unsatisfactory way possible! This is really apparent with Mirellie Enos, who must have signed on to the film to do more than hang onto a walkie talkie and pine after Brad her onscreen husband. Meanwhile, Elyes Gabel’s virologist feels like a leftover from the first draft and treated as such.

There’s also the issue of the ‘zombies’ themselves. If you believe zombies don’t run, then this film is not for you. World War Z has them running, jumping, spitting and at one point, clucking. If you do venture in, just keep repeating to yourself ‘It’s just a movie. It’s just a movie.’ Because, despite all that’s wrong with World War Z, there is so much right with it as well.

There are some great flourishes of innovation that really do help it stand on its own. Gerry uses the most unlikely of items to measure how long zombification occurs. Believing they may be infected, a character contemplates suicide. Then there’s that finale… There will be those who know the original filmed ending to World War Z and trust us, they made the right choice in dispensing with it. Despite his previous vocation, Gerry is still the everyday family man, so it is tonally and narratively right to go the way they do. Subtle and a stark contrast to the finales found in summer blockbusters, it’s a satisfying pay off.

World War Z may not be a classic of the zombie genre, but its strengths outweigh its weaknesses enough to make it a pleasing piece of escapist cinema.

Killing Them Softly (2012)

Killing Them Softly finds gangster cleanup man, Brad Pitt, being called up by the local mafia to an illegal poker night supervised by Ray Liotta. Liotta has MO for robbing his own poker nights in the past and so naturally all the fingers point to him. Unbeknownst to everyone, the real culprits are a couple of ne’er do wells, (Scoot McNairy & Ben Mendholson) whose boss wants them to seize upon the opportunity to use Liotta’s reputation against him.

Andrew Dominic’s last two films dealt with the lifestyles of real criminals. The neon fury that was Chopper brought him and former stand-up comic, Eric Bana, to everybody’s attention with the tale of infamous Melbourne gangster, Mark ‘Chopper’ Read. His follow-up, The Assassination of Jesse James, was the polar opposite to Chopper, bringing with it a melancholy atmosphere that stayed under your skin and demanded repeat viewings. With his third feature, Dominic tackles the fictional underworld, but projects it against the backdrop of the Bush administration, the Credit Crunchtm and Barack Obama’s induction.

Even though the film is based on a novel from the 70s, it’s not hard to see why Dominic chose to modernise the narrative and set it during this turbulent, financial time. This isn’t just gangsters shouting and hollering, it’s a financial drama. The actions taken by McNairy and Mendholson ripple through the underworld community. People demand to know what’s happened to their money. Liotta, a personification of the banking world, is called to answer for his previous sins. He’s got away with it before and that’s what seems to make people most upset. They want justice. If you can’t trust a criminal who can you trust? Pitt, like a PR man, is called in to ensure that business starts running smoothly again.

It’s an obvious allegory and, to some extent, it’s commendable that Dominic tries to pin the action down with this conceit. It’s just none too subtle in its approach. Characters manage to switch their radios on just as Bush et al give key political speeches, which just so happen to relate to the action on screen.  In the final scene we’re treated to a two minute ‘America is a business’ monologue as Obama’s inauguration speech floats through the scene like some sort of musical accompaniment. In terms of subtlety Avatar, with its tale of evil corporations, was gentler in touch. We were reminded of Keenan Ivory Wayan’s sporadic cry of ‘Message!’ during key moments of Don’t be a Menace to South Central Whilst Drinking Your Juice in the Hood.

Maybe we’re being too flippant. If you sweep away the economic topsoil, you can find some nuggets amongst the mud. Dominic’s direction is straightforward enough, but he really pushes out the boat; a roadside assassination played in slow motion would make Dredd 3D weep. Tony Soprano is great fun to watch as a hitman who has just reached a turning point in his life. Unable to do much to benefit Pitt, due to a restriction set down by the law, he comforts himself with prostitutes and minibars. All charged to Pitt’s company account, of course. Mendholson is equally enjoyable as druggie antipodean, Russell, whose dream appears to just remain constantly high and dispel stories of mysoginism. In fact some of the best, albeit thoroughly depraved, lines come from him. Mendholson’s delivery never really giving the game away to whether he even understands what he’s saying is wrong.

Still, the fact of the matter is for us Killing Them Softly is not an interesting movie. It’s like having a pitbull being set upon you, for it to fall on it’s back wanting it’s tummy tickled. There’s so much going for it, it’s almost a shame.

Moneyball (2011)

Romantically speaking, Sport’s fans are in the game for the drama, the unpredictability, the “did you see that!” factor. Artistically, that makes sport the biggest, broadest theatre in the world (EBFS is playing fast and loose here but go with us) where countless plots, subplots, vengeances and vendettas are played out every hour of every day to the delight and despair of millions. The crucial factor is that the ending is not known. It can be pontificated about, predicted and willed against but until the whistle goes everything is up in the air (and if it isn’t, well that’s just another drama to enjoy). Film, a medium set in stone, has had and will always have problems translating the ephemeral successfully. The best sports movies aren’t even about sport, Bull Durham, a romance that happens to involve baseball, Raging Bull, a biopic that just happens to be about a boxer, Mean Machine (the original), a mean spirited political allegory that still found time to hit a guy in the crotch a few times during an amazingly filthy, American football game finale. When films are made with just “sport” as their central theme, confusion, then boredom sets in. Why do they bother making them then? First, there is a perceived, ready made market of millions ready to watch them (not always true but Hollywood grasps at any straw) and secondly, because sometimes the story needs to be told. Welcome to the Oakland Athletics just after the turn of the century. How much the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane and the phenomenon known as “Moneyball” will end up changing the sporting sphere is unquantifiable. Safe to say though, that the ripples spread like wildfire, the creed adopted and adjusted to fit any sport, any situation.

Screenwriter’s Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian have dragged a story arc out of Michael Lewis’ superb, accurate essay Moneyball. Moneyball was a carefully and excellently explained book about how the Oakland A’s managed to compete, and surpass the big money giants of baseball (during the regular season at least) on a shoestring budget of just forty million dollars, the Yankees and the Redsox spend upwards of one hundred and ten million dollars on players wages. Explaining how a Harvard graduate (Yale in the film, Haha) of economics looked at statistics differently and convinced general manager Billy Beane to re-assess how he picked players is the theme of the book. However, conveniently, Sorkin and Zaillian pull out a heroic underdog story from the numbers, with players injured, out of position, over the hill, washed up and forgotten forging a formidable team that somehow managed to win twenty games in a row during the 2002 season.

The forced double act central to Moneyball is between Brad Pitt’s athletic, ex-pro, all American, GM Billy Beane and Jonah Hill’s schlubby, tubby, geeky stats man Pete Brand. Brand and Beane are nicely opposite and both need each other. The scene in which a byzantine maze of deadline day deals is conducted by the two of them in Beane’s office is  their standout moment, perfectly encapsulating the madness of professional sports and the importance of victory on any plane. The dynamic is perfect filmic fodder so it seems a shame that it is also a conceit. The real Brand (named Paul DePodesta) is an athletic, handsome man. So, although the reasons for the change are totally logical and justified and the thought of Pitt and another suave, chisel jawed hero marching around saving baseball might be a bit too bastardy, it still ruins the integrity slightly. Ever so slightly.

So we have a tightly structured and witty screenplay, professional direction from Bennet Miller, an emotive score, standout performances from the leads, an excellent supporting cast of grumpy coaching staff and goofball players (every sports film worth it’s salt needs grumpy coaching staff and goofball players, we all know this) and a great big montage, obviously, in the middle explaining just why winning 20 games in a row is such a big deal. Topped off with an ending that is poignant in one of THE churches of baseball and some nice information about what happened next, which is the only similarity EBFS could see with The Social Network (down at the back!). Everything is in the right place and pitched perfectly, the story ticks along leaving little room for complaint BUT, for one of the great sporting tales of the twenty first century, make no doubt about that, there is a little flatness or lack of flag waving about proceedings. The guys that not just changed baseball, but possibly the way we look at all sports forever should be jumping about on the roof screaming it, not sitting in a well crafted film, behind a nice desk, drinking coffee quietly. More bombast please.

The Tree of Life

Mother and Father make the child. Not God, not the universe. those two bohemoths run through everything. There has always been a drift in Malick’s films, an ebb and flow between man and nature, between creation and destruction. The Tree of Life is no exception. Minutes and then hours creep by, gently imparting a feeling or a memory here, a kick or nudge of recognition there.

The biggest (and most obvious) conflict here is between the two parents. Mother espouses a to enjoy life you must love philosophy whilst Father hard noses his kids with his own theories on how the good rarely succeed. Brad Pitt sticks his jaw out and plays the father with wounded pride and an unknowable quality. It’s unclear why a man with three kids, a loving wife, decent house and an unsullied America to live in would be so upset with his lot. There is a suggestion that he may be a good man being unfair on his kids on purpose to prepare them for the much tougher world that will follow. He imparts his love of music to them and demands affection. Pitt has never been better playing this modern Job (a constantly revisited theme).

We learn that one son has been killed (probably in combat) and both Father and Mother blame themselves. Jumping forward through time we find Sean Penn, playing one son still hurting from the loss of his brother. He lives in a hard, expensive, glass apartment that screams fiscal success. He is his father’s son, not surprised to find himself rich but unfulfilled. He lights a tea light for his brother then the universe explodes.

Twenty minutes of the birth of all follow, planet’s form, nebulae swirl, sea’s boil and life emerges. Classical music streams from the speakers and we feel mans place in the universe. The music (which father loves) underpins the link between this sequence and the soul that Pitt is unwillingly trying to remove from his sons. It’s a brave attempt to impart ideas into a film packed full of them and it mostly succeeds.

More fifties childhood memories follow but by now the narrative is set. We see the older son (destined to be Sean Penn) follow his father to the point of almost becoming him whilst the doomed middle son follows his mother into love.

Sean Penn then re-appears and meets everyone (past and present) on a beac h for a period of closure. This is borderline mawkish and nearly derails the film, sending it to a syrupy demise. A scene where Penn can’t walk through a doorway on the beach is hopelessly pretentious. Fortunately what’s come before drags you to the sunflowers at the close and imparts it’s message of precious memories, tough decisions and unconditional love. This tree is one that will grow and grow, deserving it’s pace alongside 2001, Solaris and Koyaanisqatsi. Films that spring to mind all the way through this opus.