12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

October 27, 2013

slave1 Greetings again from the darkness. Should this be labeled a historical drama? Is it one man’s extraordinary tale of strength and survival? Does this fall into the “art film” category that so divides the movie-going public? The answer to all is YES, and I would add that it’s a masterfully crafted film with exquisite story telling, stunning photography and top notch acting throughout.

The movie is based on the real life and writings of Solomon Northrup, a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery from 1841-53. Northrup’s story provides us a look inside the despicable institution of slavery. Needless to say, it’s a painful and sad process made even more emotional by the work of director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame). McQueen takes a very direct approach. Not much is left to the imagination. Torture, abuse, cruelty and misery take up the slave2full screen. The only subtlety comes from the terrific work of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northrup. His facial expressions and eyes are more powerful and telling than any lines of dialogue could be.

You will not find many details from the movie here. This is one to experience for yourself. It lacks the typical Hollywood agenda when it comes to American history. Instead this era is presented through the eyes of a single wronged man and his quest to return to his wife and kids, no matter the inhumane obstacles. We see Paul Giamatti as an emotionless, all-business slave trader. Benedict Cumberbatch is a plantation owner who has a heart, but lacks business savvy. And finally we enter the world of cotton farmer Michael Fassbender, who twists Bible scripture into threats directed at the slaves – his “property”.

slave3 Fassbender dives deep into evil to find his character, and along with Ejiofor, Sarah Paulsen (who plays Fassbender’s icy wife), and Lupita Nyong’o (who plays slave Patsey, the center of the two most incredible scenes in the film), provide more Oscar worthy performances than any one movie can expect. You will also note Quvenzhane Wallis (as Northrup’s daughter) and Dwight Henry (as a slave) in their first appearances since Beasts of the Southern Wild. Other strong support comes from Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam (SNL), Michael K Williams, Alfre Woodard, a nasty Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt and Adepero Oduye.

Steven Spielberg gave us a taste of the holocaust with Schindler’s List, but not since the TV mini-series “Roots” has any project come so close to examining the realities of slavery. Northrup’s story seems to be from a different universe than the slave4charming slaves of Gone with the Wind. I would argue that what makes this watchable (though very difficult) is the focus on Northrup’s story. While tragic, his ending actually deflects from the ongoing plight of those not so fortunate. It’s a story of a man who states he doesn’t wish to merely survive, he wants to live a life worth living.

McQueen’s direction will certainly be front and center come awards season, as will many of the actors, John Ridley (the screenwriter), Sean Bobbitt (cinematographer) and Hans Zimmer (score). The only question is whether the subject matter is too tough for Oscar voters, who traditionally lean towards projects a bit more mainstream.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see filmmaking and story-telling at the highest level and based on the true path of one man during one of America’s most despicable periods.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: slavery, complete with explicit scenes of turture and cruelty, is something you would rather read about than see depicted onscreen.

watch the trailer:



July 8, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. So many movies take advantage of our expectations and have a basis of familiarity in everything from community to setting to character personality and reactions. Every so often a movie comes along that reminds us there really is no such thing as “typical”. People and communities are all different. Some are more different than others, but none I have witnessed come close to the Bathtub … a self-contained world on the “wrong” side of the levee.

This small community of folks are clearly poverty stricken by societal standards, but their ability to live off the land and support each other is a world that will fascinate, frighten and inspire you. Wink is not the warm-hearted single dad we are often spoon-fed by Hollywood. Instead he is a fierce protector and teacher of survival techniques to his equally fierce daughter Hushpuppy. She is a force of nature and displays a near-feral intensity that will leave you speechless.

There is no need for much detail here as this film is best experienced with little upfront knowledge. First time director Benh Zeitlin lives in New Orleans and co-wrote the screenplay with Lucy Alibar, whose one-act play the story is based. They wisely chose two non-professional actors as their leads, and both are stunning. Dwight Henry is a local pastry baker and family man, but you will struggle to believe that as you watch him fight the elements, time and a serious disease.

 As terrific as Mr. Henry is, the one who left me breathless was Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy. She is a six year old girl and hits the screen like no one you have ever seen. She is in-tune with the animals, nature and this wilderness life she is leading. Despite her internal strength, we are periodically reminded of the imagination and life-through-the-eyes of a 6 year old. A prime example is when she accidentally starts a fire, she immediately hides in a cardboard box assuming she is safe if she can’t see the flames. Just as quickly, Hushpuppy proves just how unusual she is as she stakes her claim in being remembered in the Bathtub long after she is gone.

**NOTE: it’s unusual to be talking about Oscars midway through the year, but young Ms. Wallis must receive consideration for this performance

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of independent filmmaking or take particular pleasure in unusual stories and characters

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: light-hearted entertainment with precocious well-trained child actors is your preferred movie type

watch the trailer: