Monday, November 11, 2013

12 Years a Slave

By Sati. Monday, November 11, 2013 , , , , , , ,
Based on true story of one man's fight for survival and freedom. In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty, as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon's chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist will forever alter his life.

I really wanted to love 12 Years a Slave. I'm a big fan of McQueen's previous two films - Hunger and Shame, the latter getting one of the very rare 10/10 from me. Unfortunately, 12 Years of Slave is far from greatness in almost every aspect and most shockingly - it didn't move me. I observed there are people out there claiming if this film didn't move you, you must be a racist. I'm gonna go ahead and disagree with that profoundly moronic statement.
The problem with 12 Years a Slave is that it's two movies in one. On one hand we have minimalistic approach which is McQueen's trademark - scenes involving just few or two actors, often with very little dialogue. Those are the film's best moments. On the other - we have scenes trying to convey the amount of horrifying injustice happening, epic scale of the issue. These two just don't fit together and they make the film feel disjointed.

There are too many characters here and neither of them gets enough material or screen time. In attempt to portray Solomon's journey, the writer John Ridley gets completely lost. Solomon encounters many different people on his way, yet very rarely they leave any impression on the audience. Worse than that - those scenes often contain simplistic dialogue and lack depth. Almost every single character in this movie deserves much more than was given to them.
McQueen found the right leading man - Ejiofor's talent and grace make his Solomon likable and we root for him to survive and get home. But it is only because of the actor's talent that we feel this way. There are several moments here that match his performance in terms of direction -  mainly the camera focusing on Solomon's face as he got rescued - but there is not enough of them. Because of that sense of detachment from Solomon McQueen and Ridley inadvertently created the film that didn't move me as much as it should have.

Had McQueen stripped the film out of all the extra scenes and secondary characters and focused his movie on Epps's plantation that could have been a masterpiece. He is a good director but he has limitations - he can convey loneliness, grief, determination, but when the scale gets bigger and it involves the whole ensemble, he gets lost. He is no Steven Spielberg and that is most certainly not Schindler's List. In fact I find the very comparison insulting, considering how far and above to this one Spielberg's movie is, in spite of many parallels between the two (as soon as the film hits the DVD you know it's my future Visual Parallels, right?)
All those scenes with Giamatti, Dano (just embarrassingly awful), Dillahunt and Alfre Woodard take our focus away from Solomon. Yes, they are connected to his character and his journey, but because of McQueen focusing so much on them and so little on our protagonist in the scenes they share, our focus is away from the emotional core of this film - which technically is Solomon's desire to get home - for way too long.

In the result 12 Years a Slave is a good movie with many great scenes but far from actual greatness as a whole. The focused moments are powerful - Epps rape of numb Patsey, jealous and drunk Epps chasing Solomon, Solomon getting the beating for refusing to say he is a slave. Those are the moments that are simply unflinching and shocking in their power - McQueen doesn't cut away and makes us pay attention.
Unfortunately, those scenes almost get lost in all those attempts to get us to understand the horror of slavery - the killings of slaves, the punishment of Solomon for fighting back against white man, the cold dealings and presenting slaves to potential buyers as if they were objects. It just feels too cold, too detached - it was just that, but it shouldn't leave the one watching it cold and detached. Solomon isn't as well established as, say, Oscar Schindler. It wasn't enough for me to care simply because he is witnessing all of that.

There are many complaints against the movie calling it slave porn. I thought that the violence at least infused the film with powerful emotions. Yes, the scenes that are violent or show the aftermath of senseless cruelty were, unfortunately, the only ones to elicit a response from me. I wouldn't say McQueen used them aware of the fact that those will make his film moving, but given how bland many of the other sequences are, for me that was the effect.
It really didn't feel like McQueen's film to me. Hunger was a study of sacrifice and desperation, Shame - of loneliness and addiction. Both were powerful and affecting. 12 Years a Slave didn't feel like the study of anything - it showed us some of the most shameful time in United States' history but it failed to say anything new or particularly meaningful about it. We all know it was terrible. And the film will never fully reflect the horror of actual events.

It could come close, with better script and director suitable for this story. The film lacks both. Its saving grace is the cast and four performances that in spite of the film's shortcomings all have shining moments and stay in your mind after the film is over. But because of the script, while almost everyone is giving their best, they don't have enough to work with. Michael Fassbender is chilling as unpredictable and confused Epps. Fassbender is a link between all three of McQueen's films, but I felt that for the first time the director let him down - his performance deserved much more focus on it.
Fassbender's performance is masterful but I wish he was given more scenes. His Epps is frightening because he is a drunk and you never know when he will unleash his irrational and savage fury on someone. He is also fascinated with one of the slaves - young girl named Patsey. His interest in her brought to mind the feeling Goeth had for his servant in Schindler's List, but neither Fassbender nor Nyong'o or the scenes given to them came close to the horror, sense of longing and pain depicted by Fiennes and Davitz and their sequences together.

I really wish more time was spent on the relationship between Epps and his wife. I also wish more praise was given to Sarah Paulson for her outstanding performance here. She is the only one who doesn't have obviously meaty scenes like Nyong'o, Fassbender or Ejiofor but she is just as good. She creates layered work and she is even more terrifying than Fassbender is - she is cold, but her cruelty hides pain and rejection. If anyone should be getting raves it's her - for truly elevating the material she was given to work with.
Sadly, come Oscar time, it's not Paulson who will be getting the nomination but Lupita Nyong'o. I'm saying sadly because Paulson deserves some praise. However Nyong'o performance is worthy of accolades for sure. She has the most baity moments in the movie - the role requires her to be scream, cry, depict unimaginable pain. She does all those things and yet still she manages to show so much grace, innocence and dignity in her Patsey. She breaks your heart.

It's Nyong'o who is responsible for the film's most heart wrenching moments. The whipping scene involving her being punished is horrible but it wasn't as well edited as I would expected it to be in McQueen's film. But the following scene with Patsey crying as others tend to her wounds is very powerful.
Ejiofor just like Fassbender is a wonderful actor who delivered great work, but is largely let down by the movie as a whole. I'm sure he will walk out of most ceremonies with Best Actor prize. His talent deserves it, but his performance? No, but it would if only he gave it in a better movie that would value his character more.

He does have some incredible moments here, though, like his argument with a woman missing her kids or the scene where he watches Patsey after she was whipped. His single tear running down his face has more power than loud and obnoxious sequence on the ship in the film's beginning.
Out of the many, many supporting actors only Benedict Cumberbatch is a clear standout as a gentle but ultimately helpless slave owner. His conflicted character was one of the very few memorable ones there. Brad Pitt is doing what he can, but he just feels out of place in the film.

While Hans Zimmer goes overboard with bombastic score in some sequences, his main theme for the film is powerful and memorable and added a lot of emotion to the scenes it was featured in. The cinematography is often beautiful, but the editing is far from the best.

12 Years of Slave is a good movie, but it's the worst among McQueen's films. The director tried to do too much here without adjusting his usual approach which worked so well in his more focused films. It's still worth seeing, mostly for superb acting and several magnificent scenes.

12 Years a Slave 
(2013, 134 min) 
Plot: In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. 
Director: Steve McQueen 
Writers: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (based on "Twelve Years a Slave" by) 
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender

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30 comments:

  1. I really liked Sarah Paulson in the film though it's obvious she is going to be overlooked in the awards as I think her performance is crucial to the film as she is almost just as dark as her husband but also likely to be someone who is far more brutal when she's being pushed.

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    1. I thought she was even more evil than Epps - he was mostly drunk and confused, she was just vindictive, all the time being clearheaded.

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  2. Ohhh I did not want to hear that Paul Dano is "embarrassingly awful!" I still want to see this, if my city ever gets it. Instead they're showing The Butler AGAIN! That was already here in the summer! And half of it isn't even true! ugh.

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    1. He really was :/ Usually he doesn't bother me or I like him, but he was so annoying here.

      That's Oprah power :P

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  3. Good review Sati. I agree with you that this is definitely not the best of the year, or as perfect as everybody makes it out to be. However, I think it's just because the movie just felt like a series of horrific events, without any real message behind it other than "slavery sucked, so look at how terrible it was". I know I sound morbid and insensitive saying that, but that's what it honestly seemed like it was for awhile and didn't fully satisfy me at the end.

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    1. Thanks! Same here, I just didn't find the story too consistent and it didn't move me because of that. It was just a bunch of scenes stitched together, it didn't feel like a whole film but many little ones combined only by the character being there.

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  4. Great review Sati! I still haven't got around to writing mine though I'd agree with you that whilst this film is powerful and heartbreaking, it's not as perfect as some critics made it out to be. I actually think there are perhaps a bit too much attention paid to Epps, though I do appreciate that there's a point of view from the master as well. Without having seen McQueen's previous films, I can't comment on them, but this one could be a study of perseverance perhaps? I like what Solomon said that he doesn't want to just survive, he wants to live.

    I thought Paul Dano was so over the top here too, though generally he's a great actor. And yes, on Sarah Paulson as well, I too felt she was scarier than her husband as she sees herself as a victim too. The way she looks at Patsey sends a chill through my heart!

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    1. Thank you! I'm honestly quite surprised as both this and Gravity are so ridiculously hyped but I'd normally think I'll like a movie like 12YaS more. Now Gravity is something that I think should be even more loved and 12yaS praise seems quite ridiculous.

      Wait, wait, you haven't seen Shame and Hunger? I can get why not Hunger - it's so unpleasant to sit through this one - but Shame is really, really worth seeing and not as explicit as people make it out to be.

      Paulson was freaking awesome. She is so insanely talented.

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  5. Fine, fine write-up Sati. I'm a little disheartened to hear it's not as good as Hunger or Shame but I suppose it was was always going to be hard to top those films. I'm still very much interested in this, though.

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    1. Thank you! Well, it wasn't as good for me but there are plenty out there who absolutely loved this one :)

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  6. I liked this movie, but I did have a few criticisms of certain parts. I see it as being a movie with at least a few nominations down the line.

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    1. I'm sure it will bag some wins, Academy loves movies about slavery.

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  7. Fabulous review! Love reading it. Really interested in seeing this next week. Lots of interesting comments about this film. I'm anxious to chime in.

    Can I just say that it didn't surprise me that Dano was horrible. I'm really not a fan of his and he often times hurts films with his performances. For me there is such a specific role that he can play. Anything even slightly outside of that tight zone is too much for him.

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    1. Thank you! It's definitely getting people to talk about it, that's for sure. I just find the praise to be excessive - it has 34 100/100 reviews on Metacritic.

      I'm usually OK with him, but he isn't a very talented actor. He doesn't have much range and he can be extremely annoying.

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  8. It's definitely high on my to-see list. Steve McQueen is such a talented filmmaker, his films have so far never failed to grip me from start to finish.

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    1. He is talented, but I think he wasn't the best choice for director here.

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  9. "Solomon isn't as well established as, say, Oscar Schindler."

    But don't forget that Solomon, the plot and the discrepancies you found are all strictly from the novel, which the movie follows relatively closely. As someone from New Orleans, I can, without hesitation, tell you this is McQueen's most important film to date. I'll explain ALL of what I mean in my review...it's a lot to digest.

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    1. It's not an excuse. Nobody ordered them to follow it closely.

      Most important for you. I'm sure many would say Hunger is more important, others would say Shame is. And why is it important? We know about racism, we know about slavery. As for the way it was made, I didn't find anything outstanding about it.

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  10. McQueen swept me off my feet with Shame, I can't wait to see both this and Hunger now. I love your quote there! Probably a good thing that my expectations were lowered a bit now, though. The disjointed bit is interesting – I can really see that happening, and the minimalism in Shame was terrific, but adding a majestic part? Huh, no.

    Characters make or break many films for me, and it's sad to hear they were underdeveloped. One of the saddest things that can happen in a film. I'll keep an eye out for Paulson, then, too. Great review, as always. ;)

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    1. It really feels odd - the scope here is big because of the passage of time, amount of characters and the big issue the film is about but McQueen is trying to use the minimalistic approach while also making a movie with so many actors and so many implications of slavery. It's just a horrible fit and it doesn't go together at all.

      There are promises of great characters here, just never realized.

      Thank you! :)

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  11. Yours is one of the first reviews that I can agree with although I'd probably give it somewhere between 80-85. It's a good film but I don't think it nearly reaches the genius that critics have made it out to be. I preferred Shame for sure.

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    1. Oh, Shame is a true masterpiece compared to that one.

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  12. Great review. I still prefer Gravity, but this is currently in my top 5 of the year. I'd love to see the cast rewarded at the Oscars.

    It's interesting that it didn't move you, but it wasn't one of the most moving films I've seen, even if it was a powerful experience. I also wanted more of Fassbender, and I agree that Pitt feels out of place. Still, I thought it was great overall.

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    1. Thank you! Oh, I'd be shocked if something beats Gravity for me.

      Yeah, it wasn't necessarily Pitt's fault, he wasn't cast well.

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  13. Great review, Sati. It sounds like our views on 12 Years a Slave and Gravity are flipped. :) But yeah, I'm really hoping Paulson gets some recognition for her performance. It will be tough considering how stacked this cast is, but she deserves it.

    BTW, I'm looking forward to your future Visual Parallels post with this!

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    1. Thank you! VP post will have to wait for the DVD :)

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  14. Excellent review Sati, still need to see this one as I have heard so many good things about it.

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    1. It's not as good as most say but it's worth seeing.

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  15. I couldn't agree more with you. This review is fantastic. I'm also a big big fan of McQueen's previous films and this amazing tandem he created with Fassbender and this was a big disappointment for that reason. Loved all you've said about the actors who deserved better roles, the problems with the script, etc.

    Oh and loved your review of Shame starting with that Sylvia Plath's quote. I love Sylvia a lot and that is one of my favorite quotes from her, you couldn't have picked up a better way of starting to talk about Shame.

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    1. Thank you so much! I was so disappointed. I thought this will be a masterpiece but the film was really messy and everyone involved deserved better script to work with.

      Thanks! I sometimes think of a quote I heard when watching a movie and this one seemed perfect.

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