12 Years a Slave
In “12 Years a Slave,” Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Solomon Northup, a married black man born in freedom in Upstate New York. It is 1841, and he awakens in chains after a drunken evening with conniving business partners. He is spirited off to a plantation in Georgia where he is sold into slavery. Humiliated and degraded beyond description, he loses all concept of reality as you watch in profound disbelief.
Based on a Northup memoir written after his return to freedom 12 years later, British director Steve McQueen gives the viewer a firsthand look at the racial degradation going on in the antebellum South. Blacks are treated like property in the same fashion as horses or cows, with the men viciously whipped while the women are forced to consent to sex or face death. McQueen unashamedly exposes the cancerous sore that haunts the United States, a country founded on the principle that all men are created equal while unashamedly embracing bigotry.
Additionally, the movie is dominated by stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender. Cumberbatch plays Ford, a slave owner with a troubled heart who first purchased Northup. He tries to be kind and caring, but also buys a young woman while failing in the attempts to keep her young children with her. That moment is as heartbreaking as anything to appear on the screen in recent years.
Ford is forced to sell his slaves for business reasons, and Northup finds himself being owned by Edwin Epps and his wife, two people devoid of both moral principles and shame. Fassbender embraces his role as the wretched Epps, a man who will torture his slaves while then forcing them to engage in a dance for his amusement. Fassbender provides a galvanizing performance as a supremely hateful soul, and seldom will you be so captivated by someone so utterly contemptible.
Additionally, look for unforgettable performances from Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and Brad Pitt. Giamatti plays a slave trader with the ironic name of Freeman, a man who sells human beings as if he works in a hardware store. Dano is a twisted gem, here appearing as the offensive overseer working under Ford. He loves belittling all slaves with intense glee. As for Pitt, he surfaces late in the game as a construction worker working for Epps, and it is his complete distaste for the concept of slavery that leads Northup back home.
And wait until you see the performance given by Lupita Nyong’o. Capturing the role of Patsey, a beautiful slave sexually abused and disfigured by Epps, you will share her agony at every turn. Looking at Northup’s bloodshot eyes, she begs him to kill her.
As I watched “12 Years a Slave,” I was left in despair thinking of the treatment of African-Americans across our country to this very day. As a people, we can’t possibly know who we are if we don’t know who we were. “12 Years a Slave” is that reminder.
Thor: The Dark World and All is Lost
While combining movie reviews is normally a foolish artistic enterprise, sometimes there is simply no choice. While “All Is Lost” is a title likely to reflect your feelings when you leave the theater, “Thor: The Dark World” will entertain even you cynics. It combines foolishness with a sarcastic edge, and it comes alive with a supporting cast that is a gift that keeps on giving.
I must admit that “Lost” tantalized me, as it appeared to be Robert Redford’s swan song to a brilliant career. He has always been at his best playing rebellious iconoclasts as in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) and “Jeremiah Johnson” (1972), and this film seemed to play to his strength. Disappointingly, it begins with some hope as he is lost at sea, but everything from that point on seems to sink quicker than his boat.
Sadly, you know absolutely nothing about his past, and as a result it is incredibly hard to care what happens to him. The film spans eight days as Redford’s character tries to survive, increasingly desperate and alone. You almost sense that director J.C. Chandor is telling the audience to do little more than embrace indifference.
Clearly, there have been great films about loners lost at sea. Think of Spencer Tracy in “The Old Man and the Sea” (1958) and last year’s magnificent “Life of Pi.” It made me wish that “Lost” would have put a Bengal tiger on board, as maybe the film could have been saved with the title of “Life of Redford.”
On the other hand, there is a reason why moviegoers have completely rejected critics’ dismissive reviews of the “Thor” sequel. Sure, you have Chris Hemsworth in the starring role as nature’s gift to women, as you could actually hear amusing moans in the audience when he appeared without a shirt. Yet Hemsworth’s Thor has only one love, so I’m sorry, ladies.
Nobody plays the human equivalent of God better than Anthony Hopkins, so I’m sure his role as Odin, Thor and Loki’s father, came as second nature. However, pay attention to Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Kat Dennings as Darcy Lewis, as they both have a pissy irreverence that immediately draws you to them.
Hiddleston’s Loki may be the most acerbically enchanting villain to hit the silver screen. Sure, the gifted Natalie Portman doesn’t miss a beat as Thor’s earthly lost love, but she has the grace to let Ms. Dennings, her associate, capture every scene.
In addition, Christopher Eccleston is memorable as Malekith, the ornery leader of the Dark Elves trying to take over the universe. And Stellan Skarsgard is memorable as the gifted but unfortunately insane scientist named Erik Selvig, a guy who prefers to wear only his underwear with a shirt and tie in office meetings as it helps him think more clearly.•
Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. When he is not in the courtroom or working diligently in his Pennsylvania Street office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters watching and preparing to review the latest films. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.