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12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)
Hunger director Steve McQueen’s latest film delves into the harrowing true story of Solomon Northup, a free-born black man who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841. Based on Northup’s book of the same name, 12 Years a Slave stars Chiwetel Ejiofor in a role that accentuates the British thespian’s impressive range and incredible skill. Ejiofor carries the moving film with an effortless grace and confidence that is impossible to ignore. Ejiofor’s performance was elevated even more by an equally impressive supporting cast consisting of Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt and Alfre Woodard. 12 Years a Slave is a film that explores America’s sordid past through the experience of one man - an experience that is devastating in its showcase of the breaking of the human spirit. 
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It should go without saying that the film is difficult to watch. So much suffering is depicted on screen, which was unfortunately the very real experience of many men and women during that time. McQueen expertly trains the camera on the scenes that are especially disturbing, forcing viewers to acknowledge the horror of bigotry and the even more appalling apathy of bystanders who allowed these things to happen. One scene in particular stands out for its heart-wrenching despair - a scene showing Solomon hanging, struggling to stay alive by the strength of his tiptoes, as everyone else goes about their day like nothing is wrong. The juxtaposition of Solomon brutally straining to survive against the backdrop of a setting sun while his fellow slaves milled around flower-picking, farming and nonchalantly executing their daily duties was really unsettling. This one scene encapsulated the entirety of America’s history with slavery - the public turning a blind eye to travesties that occurred on a regular basis for so long. A holocaust was happening right in America, and the stories of millions of abused and tormented men, women and children will never see the light of day. 12 Years a Slave does them a service because it tells of their plight through the eyes of Solomon, while leaving the scary ramifications of such events to the imagination. I also thought the parallel scenes of a slave being rescued by his master early on with Solomon screaming at him desperately for help as he left, and Solomon in turn eventually being rescued by his own master later in the film as Patsy (Nyong’o) wails behind him was really powerful. 
McQueen was able to translate what these people were going through in a language that resonated with viewers. It was impossible not to feel hopelessness and self-pity as the story progressed, and even during brief instances of relief, it was difficult to come up for air. On this note, I found it interesting that the film wasn’t relentless in its depiction of pain and suffering. Solomon sometimes experienced brief moments of calm and hope, only to have them cruelly snatched away. It’s incredibly complicated to successfully capture the feeling that all is lost, and McQueen does this through a careful balance of nuance and audacity that is unseen from many filmmakers today.

Lupita Nyong’o was a revelation in this film. It was breathtaking to see her move on screen - her character transforming from a woman with sort of a childlike innocence about her, to seeing this destroyed and reduced to a ghost of her former self. She acted with absolute careless abandon, and in one scene where she begs Solomon to put her out of her misery, I couldn’t bear watching her jubilantly ask to die. I understood why she wanted this, and were I in her shoes I would gladly welcome the same deathly respite from what seemed like a lifetime of endless torment. The way she surrendered herself to the role and inhabited the character in and out was amazing to watch. Paul Dano also made quite the impression in this film with his terrifying portrayal of a hate-filled slave driver. His intensity and commitment to delivering a performance with such vitriol was commendable. Finally, Michael Fassbender really shone in the film as the complex character of plantation owner Edwin Epps. He wasn’t the embodiment of evil like some films tend to simplify their villains as. Rather, Epps is a man whose vices - constant inebriation and serial adultery - turn him into a cruel buffoon who feels like he has to assert his power over everyone else to save face. We hate Epps for his actions, but we also can’t help but feel pity for such a contradiction of a man. This is no easy feat to relay to audiences and Fassbender, like Dano, commits to the character and gives it his all. Sarah Paulson was also phenomenal as Epps’ resentful wife Mary, who has fits of jealousy over her husband’s infidelity with a vengeance that is terrifying but very human. Paulson’s performance was much quieter compared to Fassbender’s and Dano’s, but it certainly wasn’t lacking in its own brand of intensity. Paulson delivers her lines with precision, intent on capturing and relating the mindset of a woman scorned. 

At the end of the day, however, it is Chiwetel Ejiofor who breaks our hearts with his performance. We weep for the injustice he suffers because early on, he seems so bewildered by it all. We want so desperately to assure him that everything will be OK, but we can’t muster the strength to cheer him on because our cries are stifled by the weight of this man’s burdens. The way McQueen and Ejiofor involve the audience in this traumatic experience is careful but generous, and the result is a feeling of camaraderie that makes us want to burst into song right there along with Solomon during the burial of one of the slaves who dies in the cotton fields. Like Solomon, we learn to find solace where there seems to be none. And in this scene, amid chanting and cries out to the sky in hopes that what God is out there can wash away all this pain, we beg for comfort through song. As Solomon sings “Roll Jordan Roll”, we see the catharsis on Ejiofor’s face and it gives us a brief feeling of peace.   
12 Years a Slave is a haunting portrait of Solomon Northup, and an indictment of American slavery. It imparts a message without being pedagogic, and calls for reflection without being saccharine. McQueen tells the story in a pretty simple fashion. He doesn’t bother with the trivialities of mood-setting, breathtaking panoramic shots, atmospheric scores, or over-the-top performances because the story and characters speak for themselves, thanks to a powerful script by John Ridley. 12 Years a Slave is a must-see because it is a film that enriches our understanding of not only the abomination of slavery specifically, but also the inexplicable nature of human brutality. It leaves viewers speechless by the end, with images that are emblazoned in our minds well after we’ve left the theater. 

12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

Hunger director Steve McQueen’s latest film delves into the harrowing true story of Solomon Northup, a free-born black man who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841. Based on Northup’s book of the same name, 12 Years a Slave stars Chiwetel Ejiofor in a role that accentuates the British thespian’s impressive range and incredible skill. Ejiofor carries the moving film with an effortless grace and confidence that is impossible to ignore. Ejiofor’s performance was elevated even more by an equally impressive supporting cast consisting of Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt and Alfre Woodard. 12 Years a Slave is a film that explores America’s sordid past through the experience of one man - an experience that is devastating in its showcase of the breaking of the human spirit. 

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This is a very eye-opening press conference and one I recommend that everyone watch because it shows how some journalists can be very hung up on themes and questions that have little to do with a film and more to do with their own issues about addressing certain material. In this press conference for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which has been getting rave reviews after its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, it is quite obvious that director Steve McQueen and the cast of the film were disappointed (and even somewhat irked in most instances) that they were getting unimaginative questions that seemed designed to paint the film in a certain light. For instance, the first question right out of the gate was such a vague and floundering one that seemingly intended to force the panel to comment on the inability of “North America” to talk about topics like slavery. The irony in this line of questioning was evident in the fact that the interviewer herself seemed uncomfortable raising the topic, as though she was tiptoeing around the subject for fear of saying the wrong thing. This seemed to suggest to me that all that interviewer took out of the film was the theme of slavery and how difficult it must have been to depict it in a movie. To her 12 Years couldn’t have been about more than slavery, which is so unfortunate because it really does seem like the film tries to transcend that kind of limited thinking. There was even a question about comparing Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which is a completely different story told in a drastically different style that it’s unimaginable how anyone could have thought that putting these two movies side by side would make any sense at all. But since both movies are set in the era of slavery, they must be worth comparing, right? Don’t even get me started on the journalist who asked Lupita Nyong’o about having been born in Mexico, which had nothing to do with her performance in the film but everything to do with journalists having zero creative questions to ask a talented actress who is a POC. 

This press conference gave me so much secondhand embarrassment.

THE COUNSELLOR

Ridley Scott assembles an all-star cast consisting of Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz, Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem and Cameron Diaz in this film written by The Road and No Country for Old Men author Cormac McCarthy. The story will follow a lawyer (Fassbender) who gets mixed up in a drug trafficking scheme. The Counsellor is expected to hit US theaters in October 2013.

SATURDAY NIGHT’S ALL RIGHT FOR FIGHTING

Like Steven Soderbergh, I too was shocked to find out that Haywire was Gina Carano’s first feature film, considering the woman is drop dead gorgeous and amazingly talented in mixed martial arts to boot. This fight scene from Haywire is an awesome sequence because not only is it reminiscent of the rough-and-tumble style of the Bourne movies, but also because it starts off looking like these two people are merely a lovely couple enjoying each other’s company. Little does the audience know that they are in for a deadly confrontation.

FUN FACT: Michael Fassbender and Carano filmed this hotel room scene with each other, no stunt doubles. Director Steven Soderbergh revealed at last year’s Comic-Con that Fassbender had a difficult time in one part of the hotel room brawl because his character was supposed to get smashed in the head with a vase, and apparently when someone is coming at you with a weapon, your instinct is to look said weapon. Fassbender was repeatedly being told not to stare at the vase for a few reasons: (1) not only was his character a trained assassin, so he would instinctively look away from the weapon to protect his face and vital parts like eyes, etc, but also (2) probably so Fassbender wouldn’t get smashed in the face with a vase. Gotta protect the mug when it’s the moneymaker, right (among other body parts…)? Fassbender also admitted that although he wore padding to protect himself from the blows, they still hurt coming from a powerhouse like Carano!