12 Years A Slave

12 Years a Slave is slow, overly long and filled with disturbing scenes. It is also one of the year’s best movies.

The true story is simple. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in Saratoga, NY. He has a wife and kids. An accomplished musician, he is recruited by two “magicians” to provide music for their act.

After dinner at a restaurant in Washington, Northup wakes up in chains. He is kidnapped and sold at a slave market. Paul Giamatti appears as a slave broker, with the ironic name, Freeman.

Northup’s first owner in Louisiana is Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). He is, despite his participation in slavery, a decent man. He treats Northup with a bit of respect. He gives Northup a violin. His overseers, however, are brutal idiots. One of the overseers (Paul Dano, who is becoming typecast as a weasel) fights Northup and loses.

Later Northup is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), an abusive slave owner. The depictions of inhumanity are overwhelming. Brad Pitt plays Bass, a contractor who works on a building for Epps and utilizes Northup’s skills. The slave tells his story, Bass gets word to the folks back in New York and, in short order, Northup is freed and returned home.

Director Steve McQueen tells Northup’s story in a plodding, deliberate manner. But that’s appropriate. Life in the Antebellum South—even during cotton harvest—moved at a slower pace. It’s obvious that screenwriter John Ridley had to condense a good deal of the real-life Northup’s book to tell his story and to depict the life of a slave.

Movies have been around for over 100 years. Racial attitudes in America have changed greatly during that time. (See D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation for a century-ago depiction of black Americans.) It seems odd that Northup’s story would not have been brought to the screen until now.

12 Years a Slave is not light entertainment. It stirs emotions. It might make you cry. Chitwetel Ejiofor could be this year’s answer to Quvenzhané Wallis, the young girl who amazed in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Like her, he has a challenging name and owns his movie. (She, by the way, has a tiny roll in 12YAS as one of Northup’s daughters.) Like her, he is likely to be mentioned when awards nominations are announced. Unlike her, a rookie when she made Beasts, he is a film veteran who has now found his breakout role.

12 Years may be challenging for some audience members, but it has the basic elements that  make a great film: strong characters, a compelling story and a nuanced telling of the story. This is not the Gone With The Wind or even the Django Unchained version of slavery. This is brutal and stark. See it and be impressed.

42

Like most recent crowd-pleasing biopics, 42 presents a series of opportunities, challenges and successes for its hero. As we saw in films about Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, and now here for Jackie Robinson, talent and determination win the day.

Jackie Robinson is played ably by Chadwick Boseman. The movie’s depiction of Robinson reveals few flaws, other than a temper. No addictions, no womanizing here. He has a wife, but few other characteristics that flesh him out as a real person, not just a ballplayer.

The story of Jackie Robinson is also the story of Branch Rickey, the white man credited with bringing Robinson to the bigs. Harrison Ford plays Rickey with restraint. Not many of those intense tirades we’ve seen in other Ford roles, but a couple of good speeches give Ford his moments to shine.

After Rickey determines that Robinson has the guts and the self-control to handle the abuse, Rickey deals with managers and players who aren’t happy that Robinson is part of their team.

Acceptance is slow in coming, but winning ballgames helps heal some of the hard feelings. Robinson leads the Dodgers to the 1947 pennant, is named Rookie of the Year and the audience leaves the theater with a warm, Hallmark Channel-like upbeat feeling.

Following Django Unchained, hearing the “n” word in a mass market film like 42 is not so shocking. I heard the word four times through the first half of the movie. But after Robinson joins the Dodgers, he hears the word many more times—mostly from Phillies manager Ben Chapman. Chapman is played by Alan Tudyk, who was Steve the Pirate in Dodgeball.

42 attempts to capture the feeling of 1946 and ’47. On some levels, that goal is achieved with the typical tools: cars, phones and costumes of the era. What the film fails to communicate is how big baseball was in those days, as compared to other amusements. The depictions of real ballparks of the era are partly successful. The film has a major anachronism with a shot of modern seating in a minor league ballpark.

42 is not a great movie, but tells its story in an entertaining enough way to click with many groups of moviegoers: men and women, white and black, baseball fans and non-fans. Like Ray and Walk the Line, 42 is destined to be a crowd-pleaser.

 

My Top Ten Movies for 2012

  1. The Dark Knight Rises—The story, the soundtrack, the villains, the heroes, the emotion. TDKR is satisfyingly stunning on so many levels.
  2. Argo—An amazing true story (with Hollywood embellishment) that fires up our American pride, from a period when our country was humbled. Efficient storytelling at its best.
  3. Silver Linings Playbook—An adult son with a mental illness moves back in with his sixty-something parents, following his court-ordered hospitalization. It’s funny and heartbreaking, often within the same scene.
  4. Moonrise Kingdom—From the wild imagination of Wes Anderson comes a story of very young love. Luckily for him (and for us), the two rookie actors who star in the key roles are fantastic.
  5. Django Unchained—Quentin Tarantino rewrites history again with a visit to the antebellum South where he fearlessly takes on the topic of slavery. Inspired performances from an impressive cast take this over-the-top story to spectacular heights.
  6. The Hobbit—This fantasy has a perfect mix of humor and peril. Martin Freeman brings a proper bemusement to Bilbo. The 48 frames per second technology takes cinema to a new level.
  7. The Hunger Games—The novelist’s compelling story is brought to life by a talented filmmaker and an excellent cast. Much of our modern culture is reflected in the film’s characters and events.
  8. Skyfall—The best and most memorable Bond movie in years, if not decades. To breathe this much new life into a 50-year-old franchise is an impressive feat. A toast (martini, of course) to all involved.
  9. Life of Pi—One of the most gorgeous films ever made. The story is good, but the images will endure. To borrow a cliché, this movie truly is “a feast for the eyes.”
  10. Hope Springs—One of the many good movies for older audiences in 2012.  A couple played by two of our best actors, Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep, visit a counselor who helps them communicate again. After a four-year sex drought, their clumsy efforts to reconnect are funny and poignant.

My Top Ten Movies for 2012 list does not include those that will not be released in St. Louis before year’s end, such as Zero Dark Thirty or Amour. And, while Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln was one of the year’s best acting performances, the movie itself was flawed: too long, too ponderous and too theatrical.