by Steve Habrat
In early October, Alfonso Cuarón’s space drama Gravity was on everyone’s lips as a shoe-in at the upcoming Oscars. It was king of the box office throughout the month and it seemed impossible to meet someone who wasn’t raving about how great the film is. In the past few weeks, the hype has cooled around Gravity and has begun to heat up around director Steve McQueen’s sobering 12 Years a Slave, an unflinchingly graphic look at the horrors of slavery. Based on the autobiography of the same name, 12 Years a Slave tells the devastating story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was ripped from his family and sold into slavery. Impeccably acted from a cast of A-list talent and featuring some of the most handsome cinematography I’ve seen all year, 12 Years a Slave lives up to its reputation as being an emotional wrecking ball that shatters your heart. McQueen allows his camera to highlight the raw emotional anguish of his characters, but its also his refusal to pull the camera away through some of the more violent images that really brings the audience to their knees. The end results are unforgettable, guaranteed to haunt you for the rest of your days.
12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York. He makes a good living as a prominent musician and he stands as a well-respected member of the community. One day, while out on a stroll, Solomon is approached by two men, Brown (played by Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (played by Taran Killam), who claim to be traveling artists looking to employ Solomon as one of their musicians. Solomon graciously accepts their offer over dinner and drinks, but the next day, Solomon wakes up in a dank cell with chains around his wrists. After enduring a savage beating, Solomon is told that he is being transported to New Orleans to be sold into slavery, despite his insistence that he is a free man. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Solomon is sold to William Ford (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), a kindly plantation owner who is receptive to Solomon’s ideas and even gives him a violin after learning he is a muscian. After a nasty confrontation with Ford’s overseer John Tibeats (played by Paul Dano), Ford is forced to sell Solomon to Edwin Epps (played by Michael Fassbender), a brutal plantation owner who enjoys relentlessly tormenting his slaves. Fearing for his safety, Solomon begins plotting a way to get away from Epps and to be reunited with his family.
Last year, Quentin Tarantino delved into the topic of slavery with his grindhouse revenge tale Django Unchained, a film that was accused of allowing one of the darkest chapters in American history to morph into a blood-splattered cartoon. Despite the attacks, I still thought that Django Unchained struck a chord with some of its material and it really sent a chill with the way it presented the seething racism of the time (It also topped my list of the best of 2012). While it’s undeniable that Tarantino padded portions of his film with dark humor and winking nods to obscure spaghetti westerns, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave never even considers softening on the viewer. He keeps his camera fixed on the weary faces of those forced to labor away in the hot sun, allowing the anguished cries of a woman separated from her two young children to slice our soul, and the souring hope in Solomon’s eyes etch itself into our brains for the rest of our days. When he pauses to show us the overkill brutality of a lashing, there is no eruption of candlewax blood that calls attention to the fact that you’re just watching a slice of escapism. It’s a bit too realistic, especially when the cries of pain jolt you in your seat. McQueen is careful not to exploit the graphic violence, refusing to give long glimpses of slashed skin or puffs of blood. He drives its impact through constantly allowing us to see the faces of those who are enduring the beating—something that is sure to cause certain audience members to break down in tears.
Further securing 12 Years a Slave’s place in cinematic history is the A-list talent, especially the barbaric Fassbender and the crushed Ejiofor. A good majority of Ejiofor’s performance is in his wide eyes as he constantly stares just past the camera or down at the dirt under his feet, attempting to make sense of his current situation. It seems like he is always holding back tears and reassuring himself that he will not bow to the cruel overseers that patrol around with guns and whips. His passion sucks the air out of the theater as he is beaten down in the jail cell, told repeatedly that he is bluffing about being a free man and that he is simply a runaway from Georgia. We feel his desperation, fear, confusion, and anger as he pleas to be unlocked from the chains that imprison him. On the plantations, its unbearable to see him forced into submission, the only bright spots coming when the impressed Ford realizes the potential in him. A sickening dread takes over in the second half of the film when he is sold to Fassbender’s Epps, an abusive monster that enjoys waking his slaves in the night, dragging them up to the main house, and forcing them to dance for his amusement. He never passes up the chance to humiliate them; giggling at their trembling anxiety while he weighs the amount of cotton they picked for him that day. He’s also consistently at odds with his lust for the frail slave girl Patsey (played by Lupita Nyong’o), who he awakens in the middle of the night to have his way with, only to give way to instant disgust in himself. You won’t believe your eyes as he drools down on her, choking and slapping the poor girl for no reason at all.
As far as the secondary performers are concerned, Cumberbatch’s Ford is a gentle individual who hasn’t blinded himself to the fractured humanity in the men and women before him. Paul Dano’s John Tibeats is a stringy racist who forces the new slaves to clap their hands while he cheerily sings a menacing song about a runaway slave being caught and severely punished. Paul Giamatti shows up briefly as Theophilus Freeman, the man in charge of selling these petrified souls to leering plantation owners who act as though they are purchasing livestock rather than a human being. Brad Pitt gives a small but pivotal performance as Samuel Bass, a Canadian who is sympathetic to the cowering individuals aiding him in his construction. Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam will earn your disgust as Brown and Hamilton, the two men responsible for kidnapping Solomon and selling him into a world of constant suffering. Nyong’o is fantastic as Patsey, Epps’ favored slave who is loathed by his wife, Mary. Sarah Paulson brings Mary Epps to life with plenty of terrifying gusto. Don’t be fooled by her glimmers of kindness, as cruelty is always close behind it.
As far as some of the technical aspects are concerned, the cinematography from Sean Bobbitt offers us some natural beauty in between some of the more disquieting moments of the film. Also worthy of mention is the score from Hans Zimmer, who trades in the pounding drums of The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel for a much more intimate score that captures the film’s wounded spirit. In the film’s darker sequences, the tranquility is traded for wailing strings that will make the hair on your arms stand up. One complaint I have with the film is that I would have liked to have seen just a little bit more of Solomon’s life before he was sentenced to the fields. We get a handful of flashbacks that get the job done, but considering the length of the film, I was left wanting just a bit more than I got. Overall, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a searing experience that is elegantly shot, sharply written, courageously realistic, and superbly acted by all involved. This is an emotionally taxing and startlingly powerful film that sends you away at a loss for words. I find it difficult to believe that there will be another film this year that challenges its status as the best of 2013.
by Craig Thomas
As Marvel’s The Avengers continues to break box office records and has received (almost) universal critical acclaim (see Samuel L. Jackson’s Twitter tirade against the NY Times film critic for one of the few exceptions), it’s amazing to think that it is only the director’s second big screen effort. It’s even more amazing when you discover three out of four of the shows he made for TV were cancelled and his big screen debut, despite widespread critical acclaim, failed to recoup its budget at the box office. That film was Serenity, and this is its story.
Serenity is the big screen adaptation of the much loved (and much cancelled) TV show, Firefly. Lasting a mere 14 episodes, shown at no particular time and in no particular order (the first episode was the last to air, three didn’t even make it that far) nevertheless found a home on DVD. If you’ve not seen the TV show, I would recommend watching it first (mainly because it’s awesome) but is in no way vital to understanding or thoroughly enjoying this film. Despite being an opportunity to tie things up after cancellation, it still manages the difficult task of successfully appealing to its hardcore fan-base as well as the casual viewer, making it both a vital part of the canon as well as a great stand-alone feature in its own right.
Simply put, it’s a sci-fi western. There is a lot of back story, including the destruction of the earth, the colonization of another solar system and a war of independence between the sinister central government and the pioneers on the frontier-esque outer planets, all of which is explained at the very beginning of the film so that a child could understand, literally.
We then move to a laboratory where Alliance scientists are performing experiments on River Tam (played by Summer Glau) who we learn has psychic abilities. She is rescued by her brother, Dr Simon Tam (played by Sean Maher). We are then introduced to the man brought to bring her (and the secrets she may have) back to the Alliance, a shadowy figure known as the Operative (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a mild-mannered killer with his own particular code of honour. Here the events are set in motion, which drive the rest of the film.
When we are introduced to Serenity for the first time, a Firefly-class spaceship to which River and Simon escape, we are taken on a four-minute, one shot tour and meet the ship’s ragamuffin crew as they prepare for the next job and try not to crash at the same time. There’s Captain Mal Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion), the pilot, Wash (played by Alan Tudyk), second-in-command and Wash’s wife Zoe (played by Gina Torres), the gun-loving muscle-for-hire in the form of Jayne (played by Adam Baldwin), and the mechanic Kaylee (played by Jewel Staite), as well as Simon and River. During this one shot we get a feel for each of the characters and their relationship to Mal.
That’s a lot of characters to be sure, but this is very much (in the words of writer/director Joss Whedon) Mal’s story told through River’s eyes.
Being based on a TV show and having a director whose only experience is directing for TV, it does at times feel like a feature length episode. Which is not to say it’s a bad thing, giving a sense of continuity and familiarity that fans of the TV show will appreciate, but it will probably be more of an issue with newcomers.
The CGI effects are good, but do have a kind of homemade feel to them and have you wishing they could have spent a bit more money to make them seamless, but that is nitpicking in quite a major way. Even so, this is not a film that would benefit from being seen in an IMAX cinema. That said, the epic battle scene in space is done very well and is very much for the big screen.
The script is excellent, being dramatic and moving, but never losing its sense of humour, even during the darkest moments. There’s more genuinely funny lines here than you find in most comedies which is not surprising given Whedon started his career writing for the TV sitcom Rosanne and such language has permeated his entire catalogue of work from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Toy Story (for which he was nominated for an Oscar).
To a man (and woman) the performances are spot-on, which is no surprise to fans of the show. Yet special note should be made of performances by Nathan Fillion who has to play a much darker version of Mal than fan are used to, and Chiwetel Ejiofor whose brutal, yet never malicious character is truly one of science fictions great villains (think Hannibal Lecter killing out of duty rather than pleasure).
Unusually, the director’s commentary is also worthy of a mention. Forgoing the usual time-filling anecdotes about funny things that happened during filming, Whedon sticks almost entirely to the technical aspects. Camera angles, choice of lens, story structure and why some scenes were included and why others were cut are all covered (even the deleted scenes have commentary), providing an invaluable insight to the film-making process. Yet it is never dull, for Whedon is (like Kevin Smith of Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma fame) a born raconteur.
If you are a fan of sci-fi or westerns then this is a film you must see. If you’re not a fan of either genre this is still a film you must see. Like all his best work, this is a film about characters, about people facing their demons (literally and metaphorically), but with fighting and explosions. Made on a relatively modest budget the team work wonders to create an enjoyable and engaging work and you can’t help but wonder how great it could have been with an Avengers-sized wad of cash.
Whilst it may be forever overshadowed by the success of Marvel’s The Avengers and the giant projects that should now inevitably fall into his lap, for many Whedonites this is the film against which everything else is measured, and rightly so.
Serenity is available on Blu-ray and DVD.