Chuck Koplinski: '12 Years a Slave' devastating tale of U.S. slavery
Perhaps it was inevitable that an outsider would be the one who would make the film that would portray America's "Peculiar Institution" for the truly horrific practice that it was.
We are too far removed to properly understand the practice of slavery as it existed in the United States. Time and comfort make us soft and cynical, and no amount of reading history or watching movies about this subject can ever hope to convey the magnitude of this atrocity. We often forget how lucky we are to be so far disconnected from this blight.
British director Steve McQueen knows the limitations and strengths of film as a medium, yet he powerfully wields the tools he has at his disposal in his latest, "12 Years a Slave," an exhausting, vital examination of slavery through the eyes of one who lived through it.
Adapted from the book by Solomon Northup, the movie is an examination of this practice through the unblinking eye of a filmmaker with no agenda. McQueen knows his responsibility is to shepherd this story to the screen and tell it with little embellishment. He's smart enough to realize that the power of the film lies in the story itself and modest enough not to call attention to himself as it plays out.
Northup, rendered by Chiwetel Ejifor in a devastating performance, was a professional musician with a wife and two children who was abducted in 1841, taken to Louisiana and promptly sold into slavery. Heeding the advice of a lifelong servant, he keeps his identity to himself, knowing that to reveal it would lead to harsh treatment, hoping to remain inconspicuous until an opportunity to escape presents itself. During his 12 years of enslavement, he passes from one owner to the next, enduring physical and psychological abuse at every turn, somehow managing to keep his spirit alive along the way.
The violence on display is graphic but never gratuitous as to present the atrocities at the film's core any other way would be a disservice to its subjects. These moments are shocking, but what I found to be most powerful were the quiet moments of indignation that Northup and his brethren are forced to endure.
The sight of eight naked slaves washing from a single bucket in view of potential buyers, the way in which they are treated no better than horses when put up for sale and a horrific sequence in which Northup is left hanging from a tree, his feet barely touching the ground, over the course of an entire day and night, while the work of the plantation goes on around him, prove to be the most powerful in the film. These moments display the callous indifference under which our society operated, accepting this practice either without question or a blind eye.
"12 Years a Slave" is an emotionally shattering film that's effective not simply because it portrays the atrocities inflicted upon slaves during this period, but because it also shows how in allowing such a practice to exist, it ultimately affected the souls of those that lived within its midst.
At times it is nearly too brutal to watch — yet it should be required viewing for all.
'12 Years a Slave' (4 stars out of 4)
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt, Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry.
Directed by Steve McQueen; produced by Dede Gardner, Anthony Katagas, Jeremy Kleiner, McQuuen and Brad Pitt; screenplay by John Ridley, based on the book by Solomon Northup.
A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. 134 minutes. Rated R. (violence, cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality). At the Savoy 16.
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Or could it be a redemption myth in which salvation is achieved when its main character acknowledges his faults?
Then again, like "Gravity," it could be a commentary on our modern way of life in which so many of us feel as though we have no control over our own lives, buffeted by far too many crises to contend with.
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The film is a model of narrative simplicity. The main character has no name — he's referred to as "Our Man" in the credits — and we learn little about his past. We hear him read a letter of regret and apology during the film's opening moments, which is nearly the entirety of the dialogue spoken, before we're taken back to events that occurred eight days prior when his small yacht runs afoul of an errant shipping container that rips a huge gash in the side of his craft.
What follows has been referred to as "Life of Pi" without a tiger, yet there's far more at play here as we see this man grapple with his own faults and the elements in his bid to survive on the open sea.
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Redford's reactions sustain the reality of the film, and in portraying this man who goes raging into that good night, he proves that he, too, will not go quietly during the twilight of his career.
Marvel formula alive and well in rollicking "Thor 2." (3-1/2 stars) Without question, Marvel Films has fashioned an effective formula for bringing its superheroes to the big screen.
Each of these adventures sports intelligently written scripts, are impeccably cast, contain the proper balance of action, pathos and humor and are rendered with the best special effects millions upon millions of dollars can buy.
What with the billions the studio's films have made and the mostly positive critical response they've received, producer Kevin Feige has wisely adopted the "if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it" approach to the sequels and crossovers that have been made since "Iron Man." And hopefully he will stay this course for years to come.
All of these elements are firmly in place to great effect in "Thor: The Dark World," a rollicking sequel that improves on the God of Thunder's first big-screen adventure. The enemy in question is a malevolent race known as the Dark Elves, led by Malekith (Christopher Eccelston), who have come to exact revenge on Asgard for past wrongs.
Meanwhile, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is more than a bit distracted, pining for Earth woman Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who inadvertently becomes embroiled in her love's latest quest when she stumbles upon something that Malekith desperately needs. That he has to take his half brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as an ally only complicates matters.
While the film gets off to a slow start, hobbled by dense narrative exposition, it quickly rights itself. As directed by TV veteran Alan Taylor, the film effortlessly switches gears, going from moments of grand spectacle to quiet scenes of heartbreak without missing a beat.
There's a confidence at play here, whether it be in composing a grand, somber funeral for a main character and hundreds of other fallen warriors, or during the rousing, humorous climax that has the characters, monsters, jet planes and car keys falling through portals that have opened among nine different worlds.
It's all great fun and proves that far from overstaying its welcome, the Marvel superhero franchise continues to delight viewers by giving them exactly what they want — without taking itself too seriously.
For DVR alerts, film recommen-dations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to http://www.news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at email@example.com.