FlixChatter Review: 12 Years A Slave (2013)

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In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.

I saw this film two months ago and it was an early screening at 11 in the morning. I made the mistake of going back to work after this, as I was so shaken by it I could barely concentrate on even the simplest tasks. It’s the kind of film that’s perhaps seen alone or at least not with a big group of friends, because it would leave you so speechless afterwards that one would not be good company for a lively conversation.

The title says it all, it’s an incredible story of a formerly-free black man ended up sold to slavery and having to endure it for twelve agonizing years. Based on an autobiography written in 1853, the fact that Solomon survived this ordeal doesn’t exactly make this retelling any less harrowing, director Steve McQueen makes sure of that. The way the story is told is pretty straight-forward, we see Solomon with his family in Saratoga Springs, New York. An educated man and trained violinist, he lives a good life with his wife and two kids, until one fateful day when two men claiming to be from a touring circus duped and drugged him. That following morning, Solomon finds himself chained to the floor, no doubt it’s the start of the darkest decade of his life.

This is the first film of British filmmaker Steve McQueen that I saw. As I wasn’t familiar with McQueen’s previous works, the main draw for me is Chiwetel Ejiofor and he absolutely delivered. It’s as if I wasn’t watching an actor simply playing a role, Ejiofor became Solomon and everything from his mannerism to his soulful gaze lends authenticity to the character. What happened to Solomon is tragic and he’s a victim to be sure, but there’s a defiant strength in him that’s so compelling. “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” He says, at one of the pivotal moment in his journey, and as life deals him one nasty blow after another, he clings to that glimmer of hope that one day he’d live again.

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McQueen doesn’t spare us the goriest and most vicious details of Solomon’s, as well as his fellow slaves. It’s truly an emotionally—and at times physically—draining experience watching this film as we’re subjected to several unflinching & sadistic violence that seems to go on forever. Though I appreciate the fact that McQueen doesn’t sugarcoat the story to make it more palatable, at times the extensive whipping scenes feels like it overpower the story. The whipping scene is bound to be one people talk about most, but there is also one incredibly disturbing scene involving Solomon half way through the film. It’s particularly harrowing not only because of the act itself, but the reaction of his fellow slaves around him. McQueen kept this scene on screen for a long time, too long for comfort, and that’s exactly the point. Yet it’s not just the brutal violence that really tug your heartstrings, I was practically sobbing watching the scene where Solomon was trying to write but simply couldn’t make the ink solid enough to use. It made me think how I’ve taken for granted the seemingly-simple things I have in my life.

The film intermittently shifts its focus from Solomon to the slave owners, particularly Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), whose brutality is matched only by his own wife (Sarah Paulson). In many ways, Mrs. Epps is actually scarier than her husband. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, they say, and boy it’s never more true here seeing a woman so madly-driven by jealousy that she couldn’t even recognize the intense suffering of fellow human beings. The subject of that sheer jealousy is Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) as she’s the subject of Epps’ sexual urges. Her scenes are the toughest to watch, even the scene containing only dialog between her and Solomon is utterly heart-wrenching.

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This film has one of the best ensemble cast of the year and the actors delivered solid performances pretty much across the board. Paul Giammatti and Paul Dano played against type portraying some evil characters, though Dano overacted in his brief scene that it made me cringe. Benedict Cumberbatch gave Solomon a fleeting hope as a compassionate slave owner, but in the end he didn’t really make any real difference. There’s much buzz about the Kenyan newcomer Nyong’o with her devastating performance and she deserves them, but I think Paulson deserves equal kudos for portraying such a wicked persona convincingly. Speaking of which, it’s hard not to think of Epps as a devil-incarnate, yet there’s something in Fassbender’s eyes that somehow make us believe he’s not a soulless creature. Alfre Woodard has a bit part here as well, though I wish her character were explored just a bit more. Lastly, Brad Pitt, who also produced the film, showed up towards the end and it was clear even from the promos that he’s made to be the hero in the film. Well, I’m glad to see his character appears in the film though I didn’t think anything of it about his performance. The heart of the film is no doubt Ejiofor, portraying a man who’s down but not defeated, he somehow remains hopeful despite seemingly-impossible odds. I sure hope this role opens even more doors for him in leading man roles as he’s certainly got the talent and charisma.

As powerful as this film is though, it’s not exactly flawless nor would I call it a masterpiece in the same vein as say, Schindler’s List. As my friend Terrence pointed out in his review, I too feel that the treatment of time passing is way too subtle. I didn’t even notice so much about Solomon aging, which should’ve been more obvious in a matter of 12 years under such duress. John Ridley’s screenplay felt a bit too poetic at times which lessened the sense of realism. I also wish there were more continuation with certain scenes and characters, i.e. the flashback scene where Solomon was approached by a slave whilst he shopping with his family, as there’s no follow-up to that encounter later in the film. I also wasn’t too impressed by Hans Zimmer‘s score. For the life of me I simply can’t remember what it sounds like now, perhaps it was a bit too similar to his previous works.

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Final Thoughts: Even with the flaws, I still think this is a brilliant film that merits the praises it’s been receiving. McQueen’s meticulous direction with his no-holds-barred approach proves that he’s one of the most talented filmmakers working today, quite a feat considering this is only his third film. This film shows the absolute horror of what the worst of us are capable of, enhanced as well as contrasted by Sean Bobbitt‘s breathtaking cinematography. This is one of those essential films that ought to be seen. Even if it may take you days to recover from, it’s such a worthwhile cinematic experience.

four and a half stars out of five
4 out of 5 reels


What did you think of 12 Years A Slave? I’d love to hear what you think!

Five new-to-me actors I’d love to see more of – based on 2013 viewings

Since I started last year, I’m going to make this post an annual thing (well, for as long as I have this blog that is). I mentioned in the first post that one of the joys of watching movies is discovering new talents. Again, I may not necessarily love the film they appear in, but the actor(s) in question could still make an impression to me to make the list. The obvious case for me this year is last year’s Honorable Mention Oscar Isaac (who in hindsight should’ve been on my MAIN list) in Inside Llewyn Davis. I’m not terribly fond of the film but I LOVE his performance and I’d love to see more of him in Hollywood.

So like last year, I’d like to focus on those I either wasn’t aware of prior to 2013, or that for some reason I just didn’t notice them until last year. Some of these actors have been working steadily and relatively well-known to some, but they were ‘obscure’ to me until recently. It’s perfect timing that I had just read the BAFTA Rising Star nominees earlier this week, and a couple of their nominees make my Honorable Mentions.

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In any case, based on my 2013 viewings (not exclusive to movies released last year) , here are five new-to-me actors I’d like to see working more in Hollywood.

[In alphabetical order]

Riz Ahmed

FiveNewFaves_AhmedI had never heard of Riz Ahmed before but apparently the British Pakistani from Wembley London is a pretty well-known actor and rapper. Well he didn’t rap in the movie I saw him in, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but he gave a pretty soulful and affecting performance as a Pakistani man pursuing the American dream. I was pretty mesmerized by the 31-year-old, though apparently he also had a bit part in Michael Fassbender’s swashbuckling actioner Centurion in 2010.

What’s Next: Well according to IMDb, he’s got supporting roles in Nightcrawler and Violent Talent, not sure yet about the release dates. I hope he’d get a leading role again in the future as he definitely has the talent AND gravitas to pull it off.

Lake Bell

FiveNewFaves_BellApparently miss Bell has been acting in various movies and TV shows like The Practice and Boston Legal, but I haven’t seen a single film of hers until her directing debut where she also starred. The film was this comedic gem In A World … which I saw at the MSP Film Festival in a sold-out showing.

The leggy and beautiful actress could’ve been a fashion model (and she probably was at some point), but she made herself to be a disheveled mess in her own movie, but yet she’s so fun to watch! I hope she does more comedies as she’s so naturally goofy and has quite a knack for physical comedy. As a voice over talent trying to break into a male-dominated industry, she proves her mettle both in front and behind the camera. I love that she explored a plot that hasn’t been explored much but definitely ripe for a hilarious comedy!

What’s Next: I just saw her in the trailer for sports drama Million Dollar Arm with Jon Hamm, and she’s also up for a thriller with Owen Wilson (??) and Pierce Brosnan called The Coup. But what I’m looking forward to is Bell teaming up with Simon Pegg in British comedy Man Up, now I don’t know what the premise is yet, but it sounds like fun!

Daniel Brühl

FiveNewFaves_BruhlNow, I’ve already been aware of Brühl from his memorable supporting role as a Nazi officer in Inglourious Basterds. But everyone’s performance in that movie was practically eclipsed by that Austrian Christoph Waltz. But this year, I was impressed by the 35-year-old German actor in not one but THREE films: RUSH, The Fifth Estate, and Joyeux Noël. I’m thrilled that he’s nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as Niki Lauda in RUSH, but hopefully Oscar won’t overlook him.

There is a quiet charisma about him that I like, not to mention his versatility. Apparently he’s part Spanish as his full name is Daniel César Martín Brühl González Domingo (wow!) and he’s fluent in German, Spanish and French on top of English, of course. No wonder he’s able to pull off different accent, which is key to being offered roles of various nationalities.

What’s Next: I saw him in the John le Carré’s spy thriller A Most Wanted Man with Philip Seymour Hoffman, but looks like he’d have a more prominent role in the drama The Face of An Angel with Kate Beckinsale.

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David Oyelowo

FiveNewFaves_OyelowoHe’s one of the trio of British-African actors I’m really loving lately, along with Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor. I first noticed him in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and then The Help, but last year I saw him in Jack Reacher and Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Now, it’s the latter that REALLY made me take notice as the 37-year-old actor somehow can pull off playing a teenager and college freshman believably. Not only that, the Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) graduate also has the on-screen charisma to match his natural acting talent.

Like many British talents, Oleyowo are often mistaken for being an American as he effortlessly pulls off various accent. In fact, most of the roles I saw him in was him playing an American. Many Brits might recognize him from earlier season of Spooks (MI-5) as well, so he’s perhaps one of the most successful Spooks-alum as Hollywood’s taken notice of him.

What’s Next: He’s got no less than seven projects listed on his IMDb page, yay! One of them is Interstellar. But what I’d love to see is him in leading roles as he surely deserves it. Sounds like he’s the protagonist in Nightingale and Five Nights in Maine, and a supporting role (rumored) in Jurassic World.
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Andrea Riseborough

FiveNewFaves_RiseboroughWhen I first saw Riseborough in Disconnect, I was blown away by her performance… only to be floored later on when I realized she’s British!! I’d say her role as an ambitious journalist was one of the most grossly-overlooked performances of 2012! Later in the year I saw her in OBLIVION where she uses her natural accent and she was truly the best performer in that entire movie!

The third film I saw her in, Shadow Dancer with Clive Owen, she plays an IRA member-turned-informant and pulls off an Irish accent beautifully. She reminds me of my favorite actress of all time Cate Blanchett, who has the same chameleon-like ability with not only her looks but her accent, demeanor, etc. The 32-year-old English actress was trained at Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), so I guess we can expect quality work from this future thespian.

What’s Next: She’s part of an ensemble cast of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s upcoming film Birdman (also starring Emma Stone, Ed Norton and Naomi Watts), as well as The Silent Storm with Damian Lewis. Hopefully she’s got a bigger role in the latter.


Honorable Mentions:

These five names did an impressive performance last year, though two of them (Robinson and Nyong’o had not acted before). Poulter and Nyong’o are one of this year’s BAFTA Rising Star nominees year’s nominees, too.

Tye Sheridan (Mud)

Somehow I didn’t notice him much as Brad Pitt’s son in The Tree of Life, but here he’s definitely memorable. As one of the two young boys in MUD who befriended a man with a shady past (Matthew McConnaughey), Sheridan’s character was the heart of the film. I’d love to see what else he’s got going on next.

Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)

It’s definitely one of the most talked-about performance of the year but her sensational performance hopefully won’t be a one-hit wonder. The Mexican-born Kenyan actress was a graduate of the Yale University School of Drama’s Acting program and she has a pretty extensive stage credits. She’s starring with Liam Neeson next in the actioner Non-Stop [sigh], let’s hope Hollywood finds a project worthy of her talent soon enough.

Nick Robinson (The Kings of Summer)

Soulful. That’s how I’d describe this newcomer. Though it’s his feature-film debut, the 18-year-old has a certain confidence and charisma to carry off a leading role. He also seems wise beyond his years which made him so perfect in this coming-of-age tale.

Will Poulter (We’re The Millers)

Here’s another young Brit who manage to fool me as an American. I totally forgot he was in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader but the tall, lanky 20-year-old was absolutely convincing as an geeky American teenager who somehow got entangled with a small-time pot dealer pretending to be a family vacationing in Mexico. His rendition of TLC’s Waterfall alone proves that this kid has amazing comic timing, it’s worth seeing just for that part (I’m sure it’s on Youtube).

James Badge Dale (Iron Man 3, Parkland)

Here’s another actor who I’ve never heard of before then suddenly I saw three of his movies in one year (same as Riseborough above). I didn’t really remember him in World War Z but he was definitely memorable in Iron Man 3 and Parkland, two VERY different roles that he pulled off nicely. In the former, he somehow reminds me a bit of Robert Patrick in Terminator 2, though perhaps not quite as iconic. As in Parkland, as Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother Robert, the 35-year-old displayed his dramatic chops. I hope he won’t get stuck playing supporting roles in the future.


Thoughts on any of these actors? Are you a fan of their work?