12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a SlaveReleased: November 8, 2013. Directed by: Steve McQueen. Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch. Runtime: 134 min.

Imagine you’re at home enjoying your life as a free black man in upstate New York. Your beautiful wife and kids go away for two weekends, and when two men approach you with an opportunity to make some money, why not say no? One couldn’t predict that by saying yes to making a paycheck, they would then be drugged and sold into slavery. That’s exactly what happens to Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a real person sold into slavery in 1841.

The premise is part of what makes “12 Years a Slave” such a powerful film. In any case, anyone being uprooted from their life is a terrifying reality, even today. Back then, it seems that many were a bit more clever than staging a home invasion. Solomon is backstabbed by business parters he trusted, portrayed by Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam. This film might just be the one to open people’s eyes as to why the black people of today are so protective of their rights.

It’s an educational feature, and the most powerful film of the year. It’s one of my favourite slavery films as well, at least for educational purposes. I’d give this a rewatch with pleasure, which would also allow me to watch a few scenes again that I didn’t comprehend completely. I prefer Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” but that and this cannot be more different in tone. “Django,” to sum it up in so many words, is an entertaining treat. Another similarity is that both films probably hit the 100-mark with using derogatory statements, mainly the ‘n’ word. Paul Dano might have said it about 40 times it one cruel Southern tune.

John Ridley (director of “All is By My Side” which I didn’t like) adapts Northup’s 1853 novel very well, and director Steve McQueen knows what makes humans tick. This film is the platform for a harrowing odyssey of a man’s bravery and will to survive. Solomon’s drive is his family and he is making sure he does not sink into despair, by keeping their memory alive. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever see them again, but he tries to be as cooperative as possible in order to survive – which isn’t very at times, when he cares about fellow slaves. One of his friends is a woman named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) who plays a critical role in the film. He meets her on Edwin Epps’ plantation/farm.

Epps is portrayed by Michael Fassbender, in a haunting villainous performance. Don’t be surprised to get chills from him in a few scenes. Epps is known famously in those parks for breaking his slaves’ spirits, it seems – even if his wife (Sarah Paulson) thinks he could do a better job. He is a malevolent soul, and he makes a previous slave owner of Northup’s (Ford, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch) look like a saint – and he already was a very considerate man. Northup meets several characters along his long journey, helping this film have a star-studded cast, even if some big-name actors have about seven minutes of screen time (like Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti and Garrett Dillahunt – to name some).

There’s one main problem that the film has, it never really allows viewers be aware of what year it is. The only clue is the title. It starts out in 1841, and since there’s a scene at the beginning that shows up again in roughly the third act, we know that we’re caught up – but we still can’t tell what year it is. It doesn’t affect one’s enjoyment severely, but even cues like older make-up for Solomon would assist the film. It would give us an idea of how long he has been slaving for. There are some scenes that feel like they will go on forever, but that is purposeful in one scene to show that slaves cannot interfere when someone is being punished, so to speak. That being said, this has quite a few shocking moments – so it’s not for the faint of heart!

The film’s power is greatly prominent in Ejifor’s performance, as he tries to hang onto his humanity, not give up his hope and not sink into despair. Many slaves give up much faster than Solomon Northup, but he has something to fight for; and that’s what makes this film so inspiring and moving. It also helps it become an unforgettable experience.

Score95/100

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Prisoners (2013)

PrisonersReleased: September 20, 2013. Directed by: Denis Villeneuve. Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard. Runtime: 153 min.

Thought-provoking and engaging, “Prisoners” represents a type of film that I I love. It asks the question: What would you do if your child was kidnapped? What lengths would you go to get them back?

Thanksgiving for the Dover and Birch families start out like any other, but takes a horrifying turn after dinner. When a young daughter is taken from each family (Anna from the Dover clan, Eliza from the Birches), it is hell on earth. They call the police and, later, the RV their children were playing by is found. After a suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is released by police because he has the IQ of a ten year-old, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) must take matters into his own hands. He is convinced this man has kidnapped his daughter and her friend.

Meanwhile, the lead detective, Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is following leads and attempting to find the girls before time runs out. Dover is doing the same, but with a different form of vigilante justice.

As an ethical exploration, “Prisoners” is fascinating. As a kidnapper-revenge crime story, it’s dark and complex; if predictable at times. There are plot twists upon plot twists, but many are “Ooooh, I shoulda known.” It is an enthralling ride, either way.

The ethical questions raised throughout are how far would you go to get your kids back? It’s a story about parental instincts, but the mothers take backseat roles in the film. Viola Davis portays Nancy Birch, who learns of the drastic plan Keller has hatched later on. Maria Bello, who plays Grace Dover, has the smallest amount of screen time out of the primary cast, as she is popping insomnia pills like they are M&M’s throughout the movie.

So, to many, it might seem as if the film is predominantly about fatherly instincts. Hugh Jackman’s character (Keller Dover) represents the desperation of fathers who will be the backbone behind a drastic plan, and wish to see it through to the end as to see his baby girl again. Terrence Howard (Franklin Birch) is the father who is a bit more reluctant to going to these illegal heights at seeing his child again. Most fathers will go through this plan, but he just represents the fathers who will be a bit more heartbroken about it… But won’t stop it. Personally, my fatherly instincts might be a bit more akin towards Howard’s.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s Loki is the only main male character who doesn’t have a child. He represents the rational law-man, who’s fighting for what’s right. His heart goes into this case, as well. This situation is intense for him, but it’d be much scarier if he had children. His contribution to the story is leading the case; but Keller thinks he could be doing his job a helluva lot better.

Those of us in the audience without children, can understand the lengths Keller and Franklin would go through to get their children back. It’s unsettling and heartbreakingly shocking. What is a heartbreaking aspect to it is that, even though we might not be the one doing the beating, all humans with a heart will go to these lengths to see their child again. This is what makes these characters so real. The only unrealistic part of the film is the recurring cop cliché of who the hell needs back-up or partners?

The Controversial Oscar Nominee Squad Beating On A Villain (that’s what I like to call them) aspect of the film makes us sympathize with a potential villain. Paul Dano plays the softly-spoken Alex Jones, a suspect in the case – and a character who will keep you guessing on how much he knows about the girls’ disappearance. Another memorable performance is from Alex Jones’ aunt, Holly Jones, portrayed by Melissa Leo in a nearly unrecognisable role.

Writer Aaron Guzikowski knows what solid storytelling is all about, and director Denis Villeneuve knows how to create a intricate and dark atmosphere, coupled with great imagery. It seems as if he’s been taking a tip or two from David Fincher; as this feels as intense as “Zodiac” in more than a few scenes; making me think of this as one of the more suspenseful films of recent memory. Villeneuve also knows how to get incredible performances out of his talented cast.

No matter how small the performances of those involved, they are emotionally involving and, most importantly, believable. Gyllenhaal is great as Detective Loki, relentless and powerful in his pursuit of the girls. He continues to play a believable detective. Jackman’s emotions are believable because many fathers will react the way he does. His mind is focused on seeing his daughter again, and the way he remains strong under this extraordinary pressure, and how he breaks down under his desperation is heartbreaking. He is one of the only people staying strong when others are crumbling. Jackman is phenomenal because he pours his heart and soul into this film. There might just be another Oscar nomination for Jackman on the way.

What is impressive about the movie is its truly emotional impactful story. It’s engaging in so many ways. There’s a lot of power when a movie can be simultaneously terrifying and heartbreaking. It’s phenomenal at 153 minutes, but I wonder how much better it would be if it were about ten minutes shorter. It’s a really fascinating puzzle to piece together, that’s certain. Unforgettable and hard to watch; the ethical debates people will have about this film is what cinema is all about.

Score95/100

Looper (2012)

Looper

Release Date: September 28, 2012

Director: Rian Johnson

Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt

Runtime: 118 min

Tagline: Face your future. Fight your past.

Johnson brings us action, and science fiction, moviegoers one heck of a unique ride.

It is the year 2042, where time travel hasn’t been invented quite yet. Thirty years in the future, though, it has been – and criminals send back people they no longer want to deal with. They send them back illegally to a group called ‘Loopers’, where a Looper awaits the victim with a gun. Joe is one of the best Looper’s there is, despite his drug problem. One day, Joe’s future victim turns out to be his future self. In turn, it puts both Joe’s on the run from their once trusted group.

Looper offers a fairly unique experience, and a lot of great action sequences. The character development is pretty awesome, too. It’s a fairly awesome story that can drag on in areas, but is still quite enjoyable.

There isn’t a lot of material that has been done before. This time travel story is fresh and unique. There are a lot of moral dilemmas thrown into the screenplay, so that makes for really good character development.  Jeff Daniels’ character of Abe was sort of awesome; he had the whole nice-crime-boss-who-could-be-ruthless-when-he-wanted-to-be bravado going on. Some of the subplots are a little tired and not explored quite enough.

The performances from the cast are really good, and the whole thing is easily enjoyable and entertaining. Bruce Willis definitely brings his great badass-ness to the feature. Looper brings together elements of great action, science fiction because of the time travel concept, thrilling moments, and there are even a few laughs to be offered.

Even some of the supporting actors did well, like Paul Dano as Seth, Noah Segan as Kid Blue and Pierce Gagnon as the cute child, Cid. The numerous antagonists tended to make some parts of the screenplay a little crowded. It is a film that has a cool concept and it executed itself quite well. That’s admirable because a lot of films have cool concepts, but wasted the opportunity – like Clockstoppers, for example.

Looper stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt (with some really cool makeup on to make him look like a younger Willis), Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels, Pierce Gagnon, Qing Xu and Garret Dillahunt.

Looper offers quite an action experience that should be cherished because of its unique entertainment value, along with a memorable story and characters. It is one of the finest action films of the year thus far, and the only other great action film so far this year that is nearly as good as this is The Dark Knight Rises. Looper may beflawed because of its crowded areas, numerous antagonists and sometimes lack of non-stop carnage.  It really can be quite easy to follow despite one scene, but I was back on track in a hurry. I thought that was impressive because it seems like a concept that could easily confuse if it got much too complex. The concept is intelligent, and it doesn’t aspire to be any smarter than it has the right to be. Its action sequences are extremely memorable, and don’t drag on too long. It’s a flawed film, that nonetheless offers one of the most entertaining action experiences of the year.

88/100