Movie Review: Twelve Years a Slave

October 29, 2013

Twelve Years a Slave (2013)
133 minutes
Rated – R
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o

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Grade: A

Note: This review contains spoilers

Steve McQueen has separated Twelve Years a Slave from other films about slavery. Here, there are scenes to make you cringe and scenes that are difficult to understand. It’s a movie that reminds us of such an era and how cruel humanity can be. There is pure power that stems from the heart of film through to the tear-jerking conclusion. Every element from the dialogue to Hans Zimmer’s score intensifies each moment. It’s also a film of hope and that even though our current society isn’t out in the clear yet from racial issues, we’re getting there.

Based on Solomon Northup’s autobiographical writings of the dozen of years he spent as a slave from 1841 through 1853, this film doesn’t hold back with shock-value and dialogue censorship. There are some very gruesome scenes involving rape, hangings, and whippings. All to justify what Solomon went through and saw as he bounced from one slave owner to the next. Specifically, the scene when Solomon is left hanging in the yard until his owner returned while the other slaves ignored him… that extended scene was extremely difficult to watch with Solomon tip-toeing to stay alive as he struggled for a breath of air. It’s one of the most effective scenes in the movie.

As the story goes, Solomon Northup was a free man who lived in Saratoga, New York with his wife and two young children. When he traveled to Washington D.C. to play violin, he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold as a slave to Louisiana. His first slave owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), was a decent man who benefited from Solomon’s intelligence and skill set. But his vicious friend, Tibeats (Paul Dano), grew furious of Solomon over time where Ford knew his property was no longer safe for Solomon to stay. He gets sold to Edwin Epps (Fassbender), a cruel, drunken slave owner who takes pride of controlling his slaves. Here, Solomon doesn’t stand a chance.

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It’s impossible not to mention the great (and Oscar-worthy) performance by Chewetel Ejiofor, who dominates the film at every corner of every scene. He takes advantage of a handful of extended close-ups where he’s able to portray a variety of deep emotions as he’s living the life of a slave. His interactions with the other slaves and the slave owners is essential to moving the story forward and for sympathizing for Solomon. And at the very end, Ejiofor lets it all out with a heart-crushing, controlled moment when he’s reunited with his family. It’s the perfect finale for an outstanding performance.

In addition to Ejiofor, the supporting cast matches the intensity making Twelve Years a Slave as one of the best ensemble casts of the year. Particularly, Lupita Nyong’o who plays Patsey, the slave who Epps takes a specific liking to and who Epps’ wife detests. Her handful of scenes opposite of Ejiofor make for some of the most riveting of the entire film. Then there’s Michael Fassbender who plays Edwin Epps with the passion of being a slave owner. There’s never a doubt watching Fassbender that Epps only considers his slaves as properties, not people. Make no mistake that he seems to show a sense of compassion, but it’s really a show to control what he believes belongs to him. This could not have been done without Fassbender’s memorable performance.

Twelve Years a Slave is one powerful piece of cinema that will have your mind replaying certain scenes well after the movie has ended. Unlike last year’s Django Unchained, it doesn’t glorify anything with vengeance and violence. What you’re left with is an uneasy feeling of guilt and the compassion for Solomon and the millions of other slaves from the past. McQueen has accomplished a great feat here.


Review: Prometheus (2012)

June 15, 2012

Prometheus (2012)
124 minutes
Rated – R
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Logan Marshall-Green, Charlize Theron

Grade: B

Ridley Scott returns to the sci-fi genre with this epic, out-of-this-world tale of human explorers traveling to an alien world to find answers. The year is 2093, but flamethrowers and iPods are still useful enough to carry along on the journey. There is a lot going on in Prometheus, which is a burden and a blessing simultaneously. Sometimes, Prometheus is too big for its own good and there are plot points that just don’t work. On the other hand, the ideas the film explores are so big that it remains on your mind long after the credits roll.

The leaders of this mission are Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Marshall-Green). The two have been researching cave paintings and have come to the conclusion that humanity’s creators, or as they like to call them “Engineers,” are inviting them to make contact on a distant moon. The assembled team, which includes an android named David, land on the moon and explore a large structure. The scientists soon discover that the aliens aren’t in the mood to sit down and have a conversation.

There are a lot of things that stood out to me in the form of excellence, the most glaring one being how Scott mastered the use of 3-D technology to present us an entire world in the way Avatar did in 2009. It avoided the common mistake of a dark 3-D film because even with the glasses on, Prometheus was bright and crisp to the very end.

The film wasn’t perfect though and the biggest problem was its screenplay. For a film with such high concepts circling every frame, the characters sure were one-dimensional. The acting was as good as it could be with a strong cast, but the screenplay barely provided them with material to show off their chops. Fassbender plays an alien that doesn’t feel emotion, so don’t expect anything spectacular from him. Theron remains cold and fierce, not budging from the single note whether she’s being hit on or sprinting from an aggressive alien.

The star of the film was Noomi Rapace, who made her presence known in the Swedish adaptations of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. Here, she has the most depth of every character, which isn’t saying much. But she runs with the film and exploits the strong, female heroine in the face of danger. I’m sure we’ve only seen the beginning of a very promising career.

Even though Prometheus has its shortcomings, it’s a very thrilling film that presents plenty of questions about the origin of human beings and life in outer space. In typical horror fashion, there are a lot of deaths and gore in the film, but none that we really care about since there is hardly a moment we learn anything about the characters. Despite this, Prometheus is beautifully shot and should keep the fans of sci-fi and horror at the edge of their seat, screaming for more. That’s good because you can expect at least one sequel following in the near future.


Review: X-Men First Class

March 7, 2012

X-Men: First Class (2011)
132 minutes
Rated PG-13
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon

Grade: B

Let’s forget about the disaster that was X-Men: The Last Stand. Let’s even forget that X-Men Origins: Wolverine was released. If you’re able to do that, X-Men: First Class is a great way to remember your favorite team of mutants. This prequel goes back to the 1960′s and concentrates on the relationship of Professor X and Magneto while they were still on the same side of the line. Everything that the recent X-Men films did wrong, First Class avoided.

Beginning with the tragedy that plagued Magneto’s life and then transitioning into Professor X’s life, it’s clear what paths both mutants will be following (even if you have no knowledge of X-Men prior to the movie). But the journey of them standing side-by-side with each other is still an enjoyable one for the die-hard fans or simply the ones who just want to watch a super-hero movie.

The ball starts rolling when Charles (McAvoy) begins recruiting other mutants who will inevitably make up the army to battle the villainous Sebastian Shaw (Bacon), who wants to destroy the inferior race of humans by manipulating them into a nuclear war. We get a small sampling of mutants including Mystique, White Queen, Beast, Banshee, Havok, Darwin, Azazel, and Riptide. The setting is the Cuban Missle Crisis that had America and Russia in a staring match with both countries anticipating the worst. While it was sort of neat seeing how this alternate universe where mutants and humans live together would have impacted actual historic events, I didn’t think it enhanced the plot at all. It was merely a gimmick of more interesting things to come.

The stars of the film are James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, Professor X and Magento respectively. Both share chemistry and really push the film forward when it seems to stall for a bit, especially when the film gets a bit talky. Other notable actors are Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence, and January Jones. With such a talented cast of actors, X-Men: First Class benefited from the mind-less super-hero films of recent memory with more than just loud noises and explosions. There was actually acting being done. Surprise!

X-Men: First Class does a good job with visual effects, showing off the mutants’ special powers through the length of the entire film. Even though the plot is uneven, the movie’s best scenes make up for the dull moments. Overall, this is a very good comic-book film with plenty of action. It might not be as good as X-2, but it’s definitely the best X-Men film in a while.


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