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MOVIE INFO

Director:
Steve McQueen
Cast:
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch
Writing Credits:
John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (original book)

Tagline:
The extraordinary true story of Solomon Northup

Synopsis:
From acclaimed director Steve McQueen comes this "deeply evocative and brilliantly acted" film (Claudia Puig, USA Today) based on the true story of Solomon Northup. It is 1841, and Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor in a gripping performance), an accomplished, free citizen of New York, is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Stripped of his identity and deprived of all dignity, Northup is ultimately purchased by ruthless plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and must find the strength within to survive. Filled with powerful performances by an astonishing cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years A Slave is both an unflinching account of slavery in American history and a celebration of the indomitable power of hope.

Box Office:
Budget
$20 million
Opening Weekend
$923,715 on 19 Screens
Domestic Gross
$49,077,220

MPAA:
Rated R

DISC DETAILS
Presentation:
Aspect Ratio: 2.40-:1
Audio:
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
English Descriptive Audio 5.1
Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles:
English
Spanish
Closed-captioned
Supplements Subtitles:
None

Runtime: 134 min.
Price: $39.99
Release Date: 3/4/2013

Bonus:
• “A Historical Portrait” Documentary
• “The Team” Featurette
• “The Score” Featurette
• Previews and Trailer


PURCHASE @ AMAZON.COM

EQUIPMENT
Panasonic TC-P60VT60 60-Inch 1080p 600Hz 3D Smart Plasma HDTV; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.

RELATED REVIEWS


12 Years a Slave [Blu-Ray] (2013)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 24, 2014)

Based on a true story, 2013’s 12 Years a Slave takes us to upstate New York circa 1841 to meet Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ojiafor), a free black man. A working musician, he enjoys a middle class life with his wife Anne (Kelsey Scott) and young kids Margaret (Quvenzhané Wallis) and Alonzo (Cameron Zeigler).

Solomon takes a gig in Washington, DC, but this doesn’t end well. His “employers” drug Solomon and sell him into slavery. Now named “Platt”, Solomon attempts to plea his case, but he lacks proof of his free status and no one believes him.

This sends Solomon on a cruel journey over more than a decade of slavery. He goes to a couple of different locations, with most of his time spent as a cotton picker on the plantation owned by borderline psychotic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). There he endures a fair amount of abuse, though he continues to hope he will eventually regain his freedom.

And of course, he does – the title alone tells us that Solomon will leave slavery behind after a dozen years. That means we know that Solomon will find a way out not related to the Civil War.

Because Slave comes with a preordained time span to be covered, it runs into a mix of narrative problems. It needs to tease us with Solomon’s potential freedom, but it can’t grant this to him until 1853. So how does it maintain a character arc?

Answer: it doesn’t. In truth, Solomon becomes a near cipher rather than a fleshed-out personality. While he goes through a lot of harrowing experiences, the film doesn’t develop him especially well; instead, it tends to use his vantage point as a way to show the experiences of others.

That’s really the main emphasis of Slave. One might think it’d become something akin to the Kunta Kinte parts of Roots, as we see one man’s frequent struggle to escape slavery, but that doesn’t become the case. On occasion, we see Solomon attempt to regain his freedom, but much of the film focuses on the characters around him and their lives.

Which is why I refer to Solomon as something of a cipher: he just doesn’t get a lot to do during the film. Obviously I can’t fault the movie’s decision to keep him semi-passive, as that probably followed the historical record. Nonetheless, it creates an odd hole at the center of the tale, as we find a lead character without a lot of prominence.

Arguably the highest level of drama comes from the relationship between Epps and his slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o). Though married, Epps uses his position to repeatedly rape Patsey – much to the dismay of his wife (Sarah Paulson). This leads to multiple conflicts, some of which involve Solomon.

At times, Slave feels like it’s mainly about Patsey – and that might not have been a bad thing. She comes with a more obvious dramatic tale than Solomon – at least on a day-to-day basis. In theory, the concept of a free man sold into slavery seems highly intriguing, but as I mentioned, the actual events don’t present much meat in terms of Solomon’s particular arc.

I suspect that’s why it relies so heavily on the events that surround Solomon: since it can’t take too many liberties with his actual story, it needs to find drama elsewhere, and Patsey becomes the most obvious party. She gets into the viewer’s heart more powerfully than does Solomon, partly because she comes with an unknown fate; while we’re keenly aware that Solomon will eventually go free, we have no clue if Patsey will live or die, stay a slave or gain freedom.

Even within Patsey’s story, though, I think Slave lacks in real character/narrative development. The Passion of the Christ comes to mind as the film most analagous with Slave, largely due to their emphasis on brutality. While neither offers truly unrelenting violence, those elements dominate.

I understand the choice to do this in both cases. Slave doesn’t want to sugarcoat slave live, so it pours on the whippings, beatings and other forms of abuse, both emotional and physical. As with Passion, I think this emphasis backfires.

At times Slave feels like nothing more than 134 minutes of brutality – and 134 minutes of brutality in search of a story. Slave comes with a much broader narrative than Passion - the Mel Gibson film really did little more than catalog Jesus’s last moments – but it still feels like it exists to depict pain and suffering first, with character/story in the background.

Obviously slavery was a horrible institution; even without the violence, it would’ve been an abomination, but the severe cruelty and degradation make it worse. Those elements need to be a component here if Slave wants to tell an accurate tale.

But I don’t think it requires the severity on display, and the nearly unrelenting brutality threatens to alienate the viewer. Violence presents greater emotional impact if used sparingly; while I get the point of the movie’s heavy level of savagery, I don’t think it serves the narrative in the end.

Unlike Roots, which managed an appropriate balance. Though made for 1970s TV, the epic mini-series clearly conveyed the misery and pain of slavery; for instance, the scene in which Kunta Kinte gets his foot amputated haunted me for years. But Roots also told a broader tale and involved us in the characters.

Because Roots addressed slave life so well, does that mean no one else should touch the subject? Of course not, and I think 12 Years a Slave comes with a valuable story. However, I feel it tells the tale in an off-putting manner that blunts much of its natural impact. Slave has powerful moments but so overwhelms us with its brutality that it loses a lot of its natural human drama.


The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B/ Bonus C+

12 Years a Slave appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.40:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. This became a consistently satisfactory presentation.

Sharpness was usually fine. A few slightly soft shots occurred, but those remained infrequent, so the majority of the movie looked accurate and concise. I noticed no issues related to jagged edges, shimmering or edge haloes. No source defects marred the presentation, either.

One wouldn’t anticipate bold colors from a period film about the 19th century, and Slave went with a sepia look. Soft teal and greens also popped up at times, but the majority of the flick stayed with a desaturated look. Within those parameters, the colors appeared fine. Blacks were dark and dense, while shadows looked clear and distinctive. The image came across as a good representation of the source.

The movie’s DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack suited the material. Given the film’s emphasis on character drama, it didn’t come with tons of room for involving material. That said, it delivered a few dynamic scenes – like one on a boat – and gave us a good feel for the different settings. The soundscape didn’t often have a lot to do, but it always created a positive sense of place.

Audio quality seemed pleasing. Music was lively and full, while speech seemed concise and natural; no issues with edginess appeared. Effects displayed good accuracy and clarity; they lacked distortion and showed strong range. Overall, I thought this was a “B” presentation.

A few extras fill out the set. 12 Years a Slave: A Historical Portrait runs 41 minutes, 21 seconds and includes comments from director Steve McQueen, Harvard University professor/historical consultant Henry Louis Gates, Jr., biographer David Fiske, producers Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Bill Pohlad, writer/executive producer John Ridley, director of photography Sean Bobbitt, editor Joe Walker, makeup department head Ma Kalaadevi Ananda, and actors Chiwetel Ojiofor, Adepero Oduye, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender, Alfre Woodard, Lupita Nyong’o, and Sarah Paulson.

The program covers the source story and its adaptation for the screen, historical elements, McQueen’s approach to the material, cast and performances, cinematography, editing and makeup, and general thoughts. “Portrait” offers a fairly good look at the film. It lacks tremendous depth but it touches on the expected topics and does so in a satisfactory manner. I’d prefer a commentary from McQueen but this ends up as a useful show.

Two featurettes follow. The Team lasts seven minutes, 43 seconds and delivers notes from McQueen, Gardner, Kleiner, Ananda, Bobbitt, Pohlad, Walker, Ejiofor, key costumer Aaron P. Mastin, production designer Adam Stockhausen, and actor Rob Steinberg. “Team” looks at costumes, locations and production design, makeup, and similar elements. “Team” touches on some of the technical aspects of the film’s creation and it does this in a satisfactory enough manner.

The Score goes for three minutes, 55 seconds and provides info from McQueen and composer Hans Zimmer. As expected, this piece examines the movie’s music. It’s too short to tell us much but it offers a few decent notes.

The disc opens with ads for The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Book Thief, The Counselor and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Sneak Peek also delivers promos for MGM’s 90th Anniversary, Homeland Season 2, The Bridge Season 1 and Baggage Claim. The disc also includes the trailer for Slave.

While it manages some powerful moments and tells an important story, 12 Years a Slave too often threatens to alienate the viewer with its emphasis on brutality. With so many scenes of degradation on display, the audience may lose touch with the characters and feel lost amid the darkness. The Blu-ray presents very good picture and audio but lacks substantial bonus materials. I want to like Slave but find it to keep me at too much of a distance to embrace it.

Viewer Film Ratings: 2.8947 Stars Number of Votes: 19
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