Movie Review ~ Philomena

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A world-weary political journalist picks up the story of a woman’s search for her son, who was taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent.

Stars: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Anna Maxwell Martin, Mare Winningham, Peter Hermann

Director: Stephen Frears

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

ReviewPhilomena provided an interesting challenge for me.  Being a huge Judi Dench fan I was happy to see the actress back on screen in what looked to be a tearjerker drama, affording the esteemed actress another chance to shine.  On the other hand, I’ve found it very hard to warm to the other star of the film, Steve Coogan.  I’ve found his previous work to be a chore to sit through and his style of comedy unappealing.  Though I enjoyed Coogan’s very meta comedy The Trip from 2010, the horror of 2008’s Hamlet 2 still was scuffling about in my mind.

When I read more about Philomena’s true life origins and with the added involvement of celebrated director Stephen Frears, I knew that there was no keeping me back from this dramedy and I’m so happy that I went into the film as unbiased toward Coogan as I could be because he’s one of the key reasons the film winds up so damn good.

Coogan wears many hats in the film in addition to being co-star (and really, second fiddle to Dame Dench).  He co-wrote the script adaptation from Martin Sixsmith’s novel The Lost Child of Philomena Lee and he also produced the film – a lot of responsibilities but he seems to have balanced it all well.

Playing Sixsmith, a disgraced political journalist used to writing hard hitting news stories that finds himself traipsing over the UK and US with the aged Philomena to find what happened to the baby boy she was forced to give up for adoption, Coogan has strong contributes to the film but mostly just gets the hell out of Dench’s way.

Dame Dench (Skyfall, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is luminous as ever as Philomena, who starts the film as broken and perhaps a bit simple but gradually finds an inner strength through forgiveness that adds a hefty fuel to the film’s fire.  I won’t spoil the secrets of what Philomena and Martin discover on their journey because once you think you know where the film is headed, it opens up another door of mystery that you didn’t even know was there.

Though the film does fall into some trappings of fitting the defined beats of a real story into the framework of a movie, it overcomes them by the grace of Dench’s nuanced and heartbreaking performance and Coogan’s strong support.  Frears, too, tends to keep things moving along at a brisk clip so that you aren’t considering how convenient many of the happenings really are.

This is one of those films that creeps up on you in ways you least expect it.  You’ll want to have some tissues handy for there are multiple moments that you’ll find you’ve got something stuck in your eye.  Dench should be assured a trip to the Oscars this year for her rich work here, a complex character that has more layers that anyone could ever have originally conceived.  It’s a brilliant performance in a well groomed film.

 

Movie Review ~ Nebraska

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.

Stars: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk

Director: Alexander Payne

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  If one were to look at through the seven films that Alexander Payne has directed, one could conclude that the director loves a good road trip.  Four of his films (Sideways, About Schmidt, The Descendants, and now Nebraska) deal with the central characters making some sort of journey from their home to a destination not totally familiar.  It’s through this trek that they discover new truths about themselves and the people that surround them.

You’d think that after three films this trope would get old but Payne once again demonstrates dexterity as a film craftsman that helps keep Nebraska on a focused course.  He’s not alone in his success, though, thanks to stark black and white cinematography from Phedon Papamichael.  Papamichael’s luscious lensing of the dense tropical locations of The Descendants is countered quite nicely with the way he turns his camera onto the vast open expanses of the Midwest.

Skilled directing and excellent cinematography aside, a movie this delicate has to have the right cast to convey its message and Payne has assembled another ensemble that works in harmony with Bob Nelson’s script to create an array of broken (and hilarious characters).

Center stage is veteran actor Bruce Dern who delivers a career high performance in an already richly celebrated resume of films from the last four decades.  He’s Woody Grant, an alcoholic of creaking bones and wispy hair that could be either drifting into senility or simply not caring what he remembers any more.  When he receives a letter in the mail from a Publishers Clearing House-like compay letting him know he’s a millionaire, he becomes fixated on getting to Nebraska to claim his prize and buy that truck he always wanted.

Much to the chagrin of his brusque wife Kate (June Squibb, About Schmidt), his stereo salesman son David (Will Forte) agrees to pack up his car and take his dad those many miles…because Woody has already tried to walk there on more than one occasion.  During the road trip there’s your typical father/son bonding but a stop in Woody’s hometown for a visit with old family, friends, and friendly enemies threatens to derail the journey altogether.

What Payne does so well is find new ways of exposing family secrets in a way that doesn’t feel trite or forced.  There’s a definite history of the Grant family in this rural rest stop where they find themselves and anyone that’s come from a small town will get a good laugh out of the way that news spreads fast amongst even the most out of touch townspeople.  The funniest moments (and Nebraska has quite a few) spring from the most mundane goings on and that’s the beauty of the discoveries Payne offers up.

Even at nearly two hours, the film doesn’t have a lot of slack moments.  You’d think that once Woody and David get off the road and basically wander around this quiet town that there’d be one or two moments where the film would lose some steam but in fact it only gets more interesting as its then that we truly learn more about Woody’s past and how his character influenced how he formed and raised his own family.

Deeply funny with a hint of a somber future, Nebraska still is one of the more entertaining films I’ve seen this year.  Curmudgeonly Dern and the irascible Squibb are sure-fire Oscar nominees but special mention should also go to Forte for stretching his dramatic chops far beyond the confines of his previous post-Saturday Night Live opportunities.  Hitch your wagon to this cross-country comedy and enjoy the ride.

Movie Review ~ Frozen

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Synopsis: Fearless optimist Anna teams up with Kristoff in an epic journey, encountering Everest-like conditions, and a hilarious snowman named Olaf in a race to find Anna’s sister Elsa, whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom in eternal winter.

Stars: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Maia Wilson, Ciarán Hinds, Edie McClurg

Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee

Rated: PG

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Perhaps it’s the kid that still bounces around within me, but I still get a little twinge of excitement every time a new Disney film is about to open. Though I’ve long since given up hope that the hand drawn animation of the late 80’s/early 90’s age of Disney films will ever truly make a comeback, I find myself remaining interested in what projects the studio is working on.

The latest output from the House of Mouse is a wintery musical (very) loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, refashioned as a tale of sisterly bonds and the embracing of our own individuality.  Featuring a welcome return to the musical roots of the Golden Age of the studio, Frozen boasts some very appealing tunes by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez heartily sung by a roster of Broadway actors that help to keep the movie afloat during several slow stretches.

After their royal parents are lost at sea, sisters Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell, Hit and Run) are left to rule the Nordic land of Arendelle. The sisters rarely speak due to a childhood accident involving Elsa’s powers to turn anything she touches to ice.  With the help of some magical trolls, the royal parents and Elsa decide to keep her away from Anna, adjusting her memory so that no harm can come to Elsa or the villagers that may not understand her powers.

This separation has come at a price, though, because Anna doesn’t understand why her sister has cut her off.  That all changes when Elsa comes of age to inherit the throne and accidentally unleashes a massive winter freeze on the sunny village and hills of Arendelle.  With Elsa fleeing to a wintery castle of her own creation, Anna treks after her to bring her sister home and end the chill of a winter without end.

Bell gives Anna just the right amount of pluck and spunk, not to mention a clarion singing voice that is a nice fit to the various musical styles of the Lopez/Anderson-Lopez score.  There’s some classic Disney princess-ey whimsy going on here and Bell skips right along with it.  Whether she’s dealing with a handsome prince (Santino Fontana, also lending strong singing chops) or bumping heads while climbing a mountain with the local (and now unemployed) ice delivery man (Jonathan Groff), Bell keeps Anna in good spirits and great voice.

While Menzel brings her Broadway belt with her for the Act 1 power ballad “Let it Go”, there’s something about her voice that doesn’t match up with the character that’s been animated for her.  The booming timbre and slightly raspy tones sound great on the CD but strangely feel awkward and out of place when you see it onscreen.  It’s a disappointing wrinkle and the fault lies with the concept animation, not in Menzel’s performance.

I’m not a huge fan of Josh Gad (Thanks for Sharing, jOBS, The Internship) but I have to say that this is probably the most I’ve enjoyed him in anything so far.  As charmingly daft snowman Olaf, Gad pretty much walks away with the movie thanks to his stellar timing and easy-going approach to what could have been a much sillier role.  There’s a welcome tenderness to this particular character that gives the movie extra oomph.

While the 3D animation is, as usual, crisp and intriguing I found myself less interested in it than I have in previous efforts like Tangled.  As pleasing as the voices are and as soothing as the snowflake heavy animation is, it all feels vaguely familiar…and not as original as I wanted it to be.  On the other hand, there’s something to be said about the magic of a Disney film and how it can somehow overcome its shortcomings.  Though initially pleased but not overwhelmed by the film, I find myself humming the tunes and thinking about the characters…and that’s nice when you consider how rare animated musicals are nowadays.

A special note, Frozen is preceded by a brand new neat-o Mickey Mouse animated short that gives a nice nod to the black and white cartoon origins of Disney before breaking through (literally) to a more modern day feel.  Don’t be late…and stay through the end credits of Frozen too!

In Praise of Teasers ~ Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

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I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately. It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot. So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

I still feel that Halloween III: Season of the Witch gets a bum rap.  Look, it’s no classic and is pretty silly overall but most of the ire directed toward the film is because it doesn’t feature Michael Myers, the masked killer who stalked Jamie Lee Curtis through two previous films.  Original writer/director John Carpenter originally thought about making the Halloween series an anthology…but the audience reaction to this one and the overall popularity of Myers effectively killed that dream.

This teaser for Halloween III: Season of the Witch is pretty creepy, not giving any indication the series was about to take a step in a different direction.  Probably a good idea considering I’m not sure how many people would have gone to see it had they known in advance Michael wasn’t stopping by.  Also included at the end is the final trailer that incorporates parts of the early teaser in it as well.

Like Halloween?  Check out my reviews of the Halloween films from my 31 Days to Scare last year:
Halloween, Halloween II, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, Halloween: Resurrection

Missed my previous teaser reviews? Check out my look at Alien, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Showgirls, Jurassic Park, Jaws 3D/Jaws: The Revenge, Total Recall

Movie Review ~ Enough Said

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A divorced woman who decides to pursue the man she’s interested in learns he’s her new friend’s ex-husband.

Stars: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Toni Collette, Ben Falcone, Eve Hewson, Tavi Gevinson, Tracey Fairaway

Director: Nicole Holofcener

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 99 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Are you as weary as I am with the slate of romantic comedies that have been released in the last several years?  If so then Enough Said may be the movie that could cure your blues.  A wise film for mature adults made by mature adults, this is a sweetly winning romantic comedy that goes against some of your typical Hollywood norms.  The leads aren’t your traditional bankable hot/buff stars likely to be featured on the cover of US Weekly the same week their film opens in the #1 spot at the box office, nor are they especially bankable…certain death when it comes to major movie studios.

Director Nicole Holofcener knows her way around awkwardly real situations and displays again here what she does best: showing real life people in real life situations reacting believably.  So the result is a film that feels very naturalistic and true to the predicaments we find ourselves in…especially where romance is involved.

I always find it odd that Julia Louis-Drefyus hasn’t become a bigger movie star…then again perhaps her sly talent for wry comedy is perhaps better suited for the small screen where actors can get away with her brand of sharply observed comedic beats.  Movies don’t often give comedic actresses the chance to display the kind of range that Louis-Dreyfus gets to take on here, especially those that are primarily known for their television work.

Even more of a surprise is the late James Gandolfini (Zero Dark Thirty) in his first lead in a romantic film.  Showing teddy bear-ish warmth and sensitivity that’s a far cry from the gruff mob men that made him such an in demand character actor, he fits right into the sweatpants of the character Holofcener has written.  It’s a shame that it took so long for Gandolifni to get a role like this because he’s really quite good, effectively navigating some emotions that until now had gone undocumented on the big or small screens.  The chemistry displayed between Gandolfini and Louis-Dreyfus is strong, and even better its believable unlike so many movies (like the recent Thanks For Sharing) that can’t muster up the same in their interactions between characters.

The supporting cast is also uniformly strong, if a bit tangential to the overall arc of the film.  Catherine Keener (Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding) is her usual acerbic self as a new friend to Louis-Dreyfus and the ex-wife of Gandolfini.  It’s nice to see her playing a woman that comes across as a self-centered bitch but who we gradually come to see is just hopelessly lonely and desperate for attention.  Toni Collette (The Way Way Back, Muriel’s Wedding) and Ben Falcone (What to Expect When You’re Expecting) pop up as friends of Louis-Dreyfus with marital issues of their own.

All the characters are really just swimming around in the same universe as Louis-Dreyfus because it’s really her movie.  What I liked so much about the film and what others may find frustrating is that there’s not a lot of follow through or wrap up when it comes to these secondary characters.  Even the central plot involving Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini isn’t fully completed by the final reel…but that’s the beauty of what Holofcener achieves in her films.  She allows us to peek in on the lives of people to see what makes them tick…we don’t’ necessarily need to know where they came from or where they’re going but instead she wants us to focus on the here and now.  As in life, some things come to their own natural conclusions while other events need a little time to sink in before they can find resolution.

With two strong lead performances and a general bucking of the status-quo for these types of films, Enough Said is a nice breath of fresh air…and another winning film from the observant eye/mind of Nicole Holofcener.

In Praise of Teasers ~ Total Recall (1990)

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I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately.  It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot. So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Total Recall (1990)

Arriving right at the true peak of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (The Last Stand) popularity, Total Recall was a sci-fi action pic through and through that would up being a highly profitable snazzy summer blockbuster.   It’s also the movie that really introduced Sharon Stone (Lovelace) to audiences as well as cementing director Paul Verhoeven as someone to keep your eye on (Stone and Verhoeven would team up again 2 years later for the controversial hit Basic Instinct).  A remake was released in 2012 but it couldn’t hold a candle to the original which had a style and star that couldn’t be replaced.  This teaser trailer featuring a red-tinged Schwarzenegger ominously staring at the camera was a perfect way to let everyone know that a trip to Mars was in their future.

Missed my previous teaser reviews? Check out my look at Alien, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Showgirls, Jurassic Park, Jaws 3D/Jaws: The Revenge

Movie Review ~ Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa

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The Facts:

Synopsis: 86-year-old Irving Zisman takes a trip from Nebraska to North Carolina to take his 8 year-old grandson, Billy, back to his real father

Stars: Johnny Knoxville, Jackson Nicholl

Director: Jeff Tremaine

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Sometimes it’s just good to laugh and not have to think too hard about it or hate yourself the next day. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is a departure from the normal Jackass set-up that gives you free reign to laugh and not worry that you’re doing it at the expense of others.

Though I’ve sat through the first three Jackass movies with a mixture of both horror and laughter I wasn’t sure what to think about their newest film.  The titular character was introduced in previous Jackass films and was used to good effect in the brief segments but how would a feature length film based on the character pan out?  More importantly, what of the gags that the Jackass troupe is known for?  Would they work as well in a structured setting or would they prove to be better suited for the free-form style that had already been successful in the previous entries in the series?

Well, much to my surprise the film is a lot better than I thought it was going to be with more of a focus on funny gags rather than moments to make you gag.  Gags aside, at its heart Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa has a nice message about the bonds of family and the relationships between the young and old.  There’s also a healthy dose of penis jokes…and that never hurts.

Though the film takes a little while to get going, when it does take off it hums along nicely.  After his druggie daughter can’t take care of her son (Jackson Nicholl, Fun Size), she enlists the help of her dad Irving Zisman (Johnny Knoxville, The Last Stand) to deliver the boy to his loser father via a cross country road trip.  Along the way they stop at male strip clubs, beauty pageants, bingo halls, and country kitchen-esque restaurants which provide the settings for quite a few well set-up and usually bravely foul but always bravura pranks.

This film goes beyond one off pranks and finds ways to make these situations actually funny…rather than being funny at the price of humiliating others.  There are some nice slices of life moments when the prank targets wind up making some surprisingly sensitive and honorable decisions when faced with the choices Knoxville and director Jeff Tremaine offer them.  Their reactions may be funny but they also show the good in people at the same time.  Maybe there’s a small softening of the Jackass troupe and there’s a big pay-off to be had if you can just go with it.

The movie actually works best when its just Knoxville and Nicholl in the car during exchanges that feel unscripted but clearly have at least some structure to them.  Both actors are game for fun but it’s not hard to imagine that Nicholl will look back at this in 10 years and cringe at the some of the things he’s asked to do and say to total strangers.

Still…it all seems in good fun and that’s what these movies are ultimately going for anyway.  I think this movie came along when I just needed to laugh – and isn’t that what these films have always been about?  It’s not the throwaway distraction that the other Jackass films have been but a harmless and enjoyable prank-filled trek across the US.

In Praise of Teasers ~ Jaws 3-D (1983)

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I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately.  It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot. So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Jaws 3-D (1983)

It had been five years since JAWS 2 was released to boffo box office so the time was probably right for Universal Studios to revisit its popular franchise.  What started as a second sequel intended to be more of a comedy, ala National Lampoon, turned into something different but no less silly.  I have a certain fondness for JAWS 3D with its ugly grainy picture and lame-o 3D effects…maybe it’s because it’s so earnestly goofy now or maybe it’s because JAWS: The Revenge was so much worse but the film has a certain (albeit resistible) charm.

I remember seeing this teaser trailer when YouTube first went up and thinking it was well done.  1983 was the year of the 3D resurgence and I’m sure audiences were unnerved not only about having another reminder about what dangers look in deep water but also wondering how the technique was going to bring that mean ‘ole great white shark into another dimension.   I’m not sure how well the movie played in theaters but having only ever seen it in 2D, I think the intended effect has been lost.

Bonus! 

Check out the teaser for the final nail in the coffin of the Jaws franchise:

Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

And check out my reviews of the full slate of Jaws films : JAWS, JAWS 2, JAWS 3-D, JAWS: The Revenge

Missed my previous teaser reviews?  Check out my look at Alien, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Showgirls, and Jurassic Park!

In Praise of Teasers ~ Jurassic Park (1993)

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I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately.  It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot. So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Here’s my favorite kind of teaser: one that shows no actual footage from the movie itself.  I had all but forgotten this ad for 1993’s Jurassic Park, a clever intro to audiences not only that the movie was coming their way but in how the dinosaurs would be coming back to life in the first place. Though the movie did take ample time to explain the process, having the teaser give some info up front that there was some science behind it all couldn’t have hurt.

Now that the movie has spawned two (inferior) sequels, had an IMAX 3D re-release of its own, and is readying for an all-new adventure (Jurassic World) in 2015 it’s nice to be able to look back and see how Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking adventure first caught the eye of moviegoers.

Miss my other teaser reviews this week?

Check out my musings on Alien, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Showgirls!

Movie Review ~ 12 Years a Slave

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The Facts:

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

Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alfre Woodard, Chris Chalk, Taran Killam, Bill Camp

Director: Steve McQueen

Rated: R

Running Length: 134 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: How do you say that you loved a movie that’s about the horrors of slavery and not sound like a backwards monster?  That’s the question I’ve been pondering weeks after seeing the truly remarkable 12 Years a Slave and perhaps why it’s taken me a little longer to move forward with a review of the movie.  No doubt about it, this is one of the finest films of 2013 and its handsome production design, score, cinematography, and almost flawless pacing make it a triumph on a technical level too.  Still…the subject is so horrifying that it’s thrown me for a loop how to praise it respectfully.

An adaptation of the 1853 novel by Solomon Northrup, 12 Years a Slave is a chronicle Northrup’s abduction from Washington D.C. in 1841 and how he winds up in slavery on several southern plantations.  Though he was born a free man in New York City, Northrup’s rights are discredited and he endures over a decade of life as a slave.  How Northrup survives to write his tale shows a fortitude of the human soul that’s at the heart of this powerful work from director Steve McQueen (no, not that one…the one that directed Shame and Hunger).

Chiwetel Ejiofor is the name you’ll want to familiarize yourself with because you’ll be hearing it at the top of the awards buzz as the end of the year draws near.  A familiar actor with a diverse background of roles, Ejiofor takes the reins of the film ably and leads a starry cast of A-List actors…but make no mistake, this is Ejiofor’s movie all the way.  With a wise earthiness that gives humanity to his oppressed character, Ejiofor delivers a performance of dignity and thoughtfulness that makes the movie even more electric.

Ejiofor is just but one of a long list of impressive performances in 12 Years a Slave…so impressive that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Ejiofor not being the only winner come Oscar night.  Making a powerhouse film debut is Lupita Nyong’o as Patsy, a slave Solomon meets when he comes to live on the plantation run by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus).  Nyong’o’s role is ever so tricky and she’ll knock your socks off the way she handles several of the cruelest scenes the film has to offer.  Fassbender too is monumentally effective as the evil owner that delights in working his slaves throughout the day and whipping them when they don’t meet his criteria of daily success.  This is McQueen’s third collaboration with Fassbender and while Fassbender’s work in Shame and Hunger were strong, they pale in comparison to how he navigates into the truly unforgivable places Epps has to venture.

Among the other impressive actors are Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek: Into Darkness) as the first plantation owner Solomon encounters and the one that does the best he can for him even as he struggles with his morality, Adepero Oduye is heartbreaking in her brief turn as a slave separated from her children, and Alfre Woodard is positively dynamite in her cameo.  The only actor striking an off note here is the biggest star of all…producer Brad Pitt (World War Z) who shows up late in the film in the kind of role that probably should have gone to someone else when you consider how it factors into the overall scope of Solomon’s tale.

Yet the reason why the film hits you at such a deep level is the way that McQueen never lets anyone (good or bad) come off as merely “acting”…the characters all feel like real people because they are played with a commitment that was essential.  As evil as the most wicked person is in the film (that’d be either Fassbender, Mud‘s Sarah Paulson as Epps cruel wife, or Paul Dano, even more frightening here than he was in Prisoners) McQueen never lets us forget that these are people with their own set of beliefs and are acting upon them as they feel is right.  We, the audience, know that slavery is wrong but it would have been too easy to craft these characters as simply soulless…that they are following what they were brought up to know gets the message home loud and clear that the root of the evil lies in the history, not the present.

Though the agony of slavery has been captured before in films such as Steven Spielberg’s 1997 Amistad, the landmark mini-series Roots, and yes…even Django Unchained there’s a different feel to McQueen’s work on 12 Years a Slave that sets it apart from the rest.  It’s such a well-made, worthy film that I’m hoping audiences and Oscar voters aren’t turned off by the themes and horrific violence (there’s a whipping scene that I wound up having to avert my eyes for).  To miss the movie would be missing a film that I believe will stand the test of time.