Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

Finally a movie about racism whose ultimate message is not “Racism is Bad”

12 years

Steve McQueen crafts a gut-wrenching, personal tale which, from the moment of its cinematic conception, was guaranteed a high berth in the Oscar race.  Drawing from 160 year-old source material, McQueen taps into a deeply human story and rightly steers clear of the pitfall of a simplistic moralism message.  Naturally shot and chockfull of award-winning performances, it rightly earned its 2014 Academy Honors.

The title spells it out from the beginning: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African-American violinist, is seized one day by two enterprising gentlemen who sell him down South into a prolonged term of enslavement.  Following the Odysseus-like travails of his passing from one plantation to another, the audience is subjected to the demolition of a determined, educated, optimistic man.

The film shines in its incredible casting.  Chiwetel Ejiofor blends into his character, feeling right at home in this antebellum setting. If nothing else is said for McQueen, he knows how to direct actors – particularly those in supporting roles.  Lupita Nyong’o is a revelation to this genre, entirely sympathetic without appearing overly pitiful.  Cumberbatch and Paul Dano also bring wonderful performances, though the former shows signs of editing to avoid his only passable Southern accent and the later provides his usual crazed bit-part.

Further, the editing enriches the film, though not without some dry spots. Particularly, the scene of Northup’s transportation by steamboat builds fantastic tension with the editing rhythms and audio mixing of the paddlewheel as it chops through the water. On the other hand, certain moments linger too long: especially a shot of Ejiofor in the woods sobbing. Because of its length, it diminishes the scene’s emotional value. Overall, however, the cadence of the film beautifully captures what the film is about.

My deepest appreciation for the film comes from its approach to the subject matter.  Often stories dealing with American slavery tend toward blunt, overbearing morals about how slavery is bad – a correct ideology but one condescending to its audience.  Rather than assuming the viewer is racist, 12 Years steers towards the more impactful story of a human being, his needs, and the systematic way they are stripped from him.  What is mortifying about this film is not the scenes of physical or sexual violence, but rather the slow denigration of hope inside the strong-willed protagonist.  By forcing us to watch Northup renege his statement “I don’t want to survive. I want to live”, the narrative becomes universal and a part of man’s nature is laid bare.

Steve McQueen has found a rare way to take a well-trodden concept and make it disturbingly fresh. Performances fuel this biopic and it is a shame Ejiofor will have to look elsewhere for his first statue. The slow unraveling of a gentleman, 12 Years a Slave crafts an excellent “Show don’t Tell” story that reminds us all of what we would hate to lose.



SFC12: Sideways

It’s time for another Summer Film Challenge 2012 review, and this time we turn towards the indie…I mean winery.  This movie was one that I had been looking at for sometime now and it proved itself to be a very well thought out, intelligent comedy (not a common occurrence in today’s world).  Brilliantly written and beautifully performed, Sideways is exactly how the comedy genre is turned in this 2004 award-winner.

This film has always been in front of me for some reason.  Perhaps it is the unique quality of the film, or the all-star cast, or perhaps it is just that extremely loud shade of green that the cover sports.Regardless, I have been wanting to see this film since I was in high school and, thanks to Ryan, I now had the perfect excuse to see it.

Sideways surprised me with how well thought out it was.  It started with an over indulgent intro/credits sequence and a soundtrack that immediately put in mind all of those great “indie” films which we love to angst over.  I was afraid that the central metaphor between the cultivation of wines and the difficult task of building a relationship would be too heavy-handed, but I found myself impressed by how the filmmakers managed to make it obvious but not blunt – ever present yet not hammering me in the face.  And the telling of a very deep and emotional story in such a funny way really sold it for me.  The humor was spot on at every moment and it accentuated the moodiness of the film rather than cheapening it.  It was a great relief to see a truly intelligent, realistic comedy amongst the modern raunch and absurdity.

And of course how could I not like a film with one of my favorite actors:  Paul Giamatti!  Beautifully subtle yet perfectly funny, Giamatti brings his trademark sad eyes to this role and I can’t imagine anyone else pulling it off.  The supporting cast was good as well, though I was sad to see Sandra Oh reduced to a stereotypical “sex toy”.  She was brilliant six years later in Rabbit Hole and while she did keep her pot-smoking gambit in that film, I was let down that a very good actress was so under-utilized.

I think the best way to sum up my thoughts on the film is to say that I want to be to story what Miles is to wine – a connoisseur, lover, and evangelist of sorts for that which is good.  Sideways is a beautiful story full of pain and laughter that draws out the dilemma of the artist and the common man.  Funny and poignant, the film drips of High Art and is one that all should see.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to go sample a few dozen wines. 🙂

Rating:  9//10

Film number 10 done and only 6 more to go.  I have seen several more of the Challenge films and I will be posting those reviews soon.  Until then, you can enjoy the ramblings of Ryan and I in our somewhat weekly podcast, where we review this film and one that I enjoy thoroughly, Zoot Suit:

Next week I will be taking a hop, skip, and jump across the pond to the great nation of Britain, and begin my double-header of Kevin Kline films.  So, join me again soon for my SFC review of
A Fish Called Wanda.