Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

There have been several films made about the horrors of American Slavery. Some, like Roots, have been cultural phenomenons. Last years Django Unchained appeared to revel in it’s slightly cartoonish exploitation. Also last year, was Lincoln, which dealt with the end of slavery as the law of the land. Few have the barbaric impact of Twelve Year a Slave. Director Steve McQueen has made a film that grabs you from the very first frame, and slowly tightens it’s grip on the viewer as two brutal, unflinching, raw, and sobering hours pass.

Solomon Northup is a talented musician and a free black man living in Upstate New York with his family in pre-Civil War America. He accepts a seminally lucrative offer to travel with a touring circus for a short stint, playing his violin for the dramatic enhancement of the show. Near the end of the tour, Soloman is kidnapped, shipped down south, and sold into the American Slave Trade. The next twelve years he is made to endure hard labor on one plantation after another, enduring all manner of horrors and unspeakable cruelty.

Here is the trailer.

It’s been a while since I felt like I was worked over like a punching bag in the theater. The last time was probably Schindler’s List, back in 1993. As then, I left the theater drained and speechless. I’ve needed a few days to process before I could even think about writing about it. There are scenes in this film that will haunt me for a very long time. Images burned into the back of my head that are not pleasant to revisit, but won’t go away.

It’s too easy to say that Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as Soloman is magnificent. It is, but it is also much, much more. The camera makes us witnesses to terrible acts of human brutality, but Ejiofor’s reaction is our reaction. Through his eyes, we feel the horror, the shame, the helplessness.

High marks also to Michael Fassbender, who, if you’ll forgive the comparison, is every bit icy cold and evil as Ralph Fiennes was in the aforementioned Schindler’s List. He plays his role as a psychotic slave owner so well, that there is tension the moment he walks on screen. You know there will be violence, and blood, lots of blood, but he keeps the performance from settling into a groove, so you never know when or how it’s coming. Best to be alert.

Lupita Nyong'o is also incredible as Patsey, a slave woman caught between the unwanted lustful advances of Fassbender’s Master Epps, and the scorn of his jealous, spiteful wife.

Of course, the entire cast is exceptional. Paul Giamatti (who just may be the greatest character actor alive today) appears as a slave trader to the upper crust of society, while Benedict Cumberbatch plays Soloman’s first slave owner. Brad Pitt shows up near the end as Solomon’s one true ray of hope.

The film is well edited and beautifully photographed, but at the end of the day, I can’t escape how this film made me feel. Much of todays cinema dwells on laughs, thrills and awe. This film made me physically uncomfortable and had me squirming in my seat.  It’s not for the faint of heart. Director Steve McQueen has made a Masterwork, and it deserves your attention.

Film Review: Gravity

Let’s cut to the chase - Go see Gravity right now in IMAX 3D, or on the largest 3D screen you can find in your area. I almost never recommend seeing anything in 3D, as I feel it’s too often tossed in as an afterthought. A marketing gimmick. Not the case here. Gravity isn’t just a film, it’s a heart pounding, jaw dropping experience that took my breath away on more then one occasion, and left me stunned at the dazzling showcase of technical brilliance. It’s ability to deftly immerse you into it’s surroundings and provide a “You-Are-There!” feeling of dread and anxiety is astonishing.

Gravity is a very simple story told in a new way. Astronauts, making repairs to a Hubble like telescope, find themselves caught in a satellite debris storm that causes catastrophic damage to their shuttle and wipes out communication with Houston control. Adrift, with oxygen and power in their suits dwindling, the crew must find a way to seek shelter, and get back to Earth.

It is said that God is in the details, and the degree to which the effort is made to explore what a situation such as this might actually be like is handled with great care. You can sense the filmmakers desire to get it as right as they can. Respect of the science and physics involved makes the action so much more real and therefore, more terrifying.

Director Alfonso Cuarón utilizes the 3D element with a firm command of it’s drawbacks and possibilities. Here, it contributes to, and accentuates the texture of the film’s reality while still able to indulge in a few nicely timed moments that may have you ducking for cover.

Yet, for all the technical wizardry on grand display, high marks go to Sandra Bullock, and George Clooney for adding a dose of humanity to the digital landscape. They give us something to grasp onto as we drift aimlessly through the dark, cold, unforgiving space above the Earth.

Gravity is a fun, scary, breathtaking wonder of a film, and I urge you to get out and see it  immediately.