Movie Review ~ Passing

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1920s New York City, a Black woman finds her world upended when her life becomes intertwined with a former childhood friend who’s passing as white.

Stars: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård, Bill Camp, Gbenga Akinnagbe

Director: Rebecca Hall

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Movies are by design a visual medium so it’s always worth noting when one comes along that manages to hit several different senses at one time.  Audiences are so trained to respond to what they see flash across the screen in bold exclamation points that a quieter, more fragile film like Passing may require a bit of an adjustment period.  As black and white images slowly fade in and come into focus while lilting sounds of voices layer in, the viewer is brought into this dream-like period-piece based on novelist Nella Larsen’s acclaimed, but often little known, 1929 novel.  Adapted by actress Rebecca Hall (The Night House) making her directorial debut and streaming on Netflix, it’s a delicate portrait of two women living complex lives nearly a century ago.

Out shopping for a book her children desperately want at an upscale store in New York City, Reenie Redfield (Tessa Thompson, Sylvie’s Love) is “passing” and hoping to not be found out.  Her ancestry has allowed the black woman with light skin to move among white society at times, but fear of discovery weighs heavily on Reenie and her marriage to a man of color and children that could not pass makes full immersion in that life impossible.  This day however she retreats into a posh whites-only hotel to get out of the heat and is spotted, but not for the reasons she is afraid of. 

Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga, Ad Astra) is also at the hotel, sees her childhood friend across the room, and instantly reaches out to reconnect.  Married to a smug racist (Alexander Skarsgård, The Aftermath) who isn’t aware of her mixed heritage or her life passing as white, she now longs to be with “her people” and sees Reenie as a lifeline to her past.  Used to getting, or rather taking, what she wants, Clare invites herself into Reenie’s circle of friends and community, attending events for the Negro Welfare League and using her allure to charm Reenie’s children and husband Brian (André Holland, A Wrinkle in Time).  All this while continuing the charade that she’s a white woman with another life outside the Redfield’s Harlem home. 

Don’t think that Passing is some sinewy thriller in the Fatal Attraction vein though. Hall’s film is very much a character study of Clare and Reenie and how both women have adapted to the norms of society, albeit in different ways.  Clare has used the advantage of hereditary and a bit of performative ambition to carve out the life of luxury she dreamed of growing up without much of anything while Reenie has found a different way to achieve equality with her neighbor and even the opposite gender.  There is a constant threat of danger in the way Clare was living; you get that sense just by the few breathless moments that Reenie felt she was found out in the early part of the movie.  To fully live a life passing as white, the film is telling us you had to be willing to deal with the ultimate consequences.  Reenie understands this but can’t accept that Clare wants to have it both ways – and that’s where the conflict between the women grows.

The two actresses have a heavy task in balancing their power struggle that rears up in the final act.  It’s less of an all-out brawl but there is some maneuvering, though how much of it exists only in the mind of the increasingly tenuous Reenie is debatable.  Hall and Thompson go down that instability route bravely and humanely, always paying respect to the high wire both intelligent characters were walking.  Thompson’s impressive as always but it’s Negga’s performance that stands out just a little more and I think it’s intentional.  Clare is meant to be this galvanizing force that commands attention and draws focus and Negga can only oblige the script and Hall’s sensitive direction.

Shot by Edu Grau (Boy Erased) in a smaller aspect ratio to give it an even greater feeling of the era and largely free of incidental music outside of a rather onerous piano refrain from composer Devonté Hynes (Queen & Slim) that is purposely repetitive to a wincing fault, Passing is just a gorgeous movie from performance to design.  Even in black and white you can tell how rich the costumes from Marci Rodgers (BlacKkKlansman) are and see the intricate details in Kristina Porter’s production design.  I always worry about how a deliberate film like this will play on a streaming service where a viewer can be easily distracted, and I wish I had seen this on the big screen where I could be totally brought into this experience.  There’s little doubt that Hall has made a wonderful first feature; one that engages history, culture, and class in a sophisticated dialogue with two iridescent performances forming its core.

31 Days to Scare ~ Monsterland

1


The Facts:

Synopsis: Encounters with mermaids, fallen angels, and other strange beasts drive broken people to desperate acts in this eight-episode anthology series.

Stars: Kaitlyn Dever, Jonathan Tucker, Charlie Tahan, Nicole Beharie, Hamish Linklater, Marquis Rodriguez, Bill Camp, Michael Hsu Rosen, Taylor Schilling, Roberta Colindrez, Adria Arjona, Trieu Tran, Kelly Marie Tran, Mike Colter, Adepero Oduye

Created by: Mary Laws

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Before this pandemic began the concept of binge watching was something that always sounded like a good idea to me and one that I only occasionally was able to participate in…but it had to be for the right show.  Even then, I would motor through a 10-episode season over a long weekend and then emerge from those three days a bit dazed and not exactly sure what I had taken in. Had I really invested the time to let the story, characters, and ideas enter my brain and take root or did it just fly by as quickly as I clicked into the next episode?  What’s worse is that by the time the next season of a show rolled around in a year, it had been so long since the last batch of episodes I blazed through that I barely remembered plot details.

Recently, I’ve found that I can do a sort of binge watch but stretch it out to make it like a long meal I am snacking on for a week or so.  This helps me process and, if the show is good, extends the pleasure of the piece even further.  So I have to say that getting the chance to see Hulu’s new horror anthology series Monsterland early was a treat but I wasn’t quite able to take my time with it like I was with other multi-episode shows that are released all on the same date.  Working on a deadline, I watched the eight episodes in two blocks and while it helped me get to them all, it wound up easily exposing what chapters stood out from the rest and the overall weakness of the show in general.

When Hulu announced they were working with creator Mary Laws who was a co-writer on the 2016 film The Neon Demon and produced the cult-favorite TV program Preacher for AMC on a show based off of Nathan Ballingrud’s short-story collection “North American Lake Monsters”, there was considerable interest in what that partnership would yield. Produced by Babak Anvari and Lucan Toh who had already worked with a Ballingrud adaptation in the past, this seemed like an interesting path for Hulu to take. While the title of the book and show implies a creature feature this is more of a “monster within us” sort of deal with a healthy dose of the supernatural and mythological thrown in to spice things up.

Each episode is named after a town and while some of these anthologies don’t need to be watched in order, I would say there are a few chapters that do include a tiny bit of overlap (I won’t say what or which ones) so would suggest you go in order.

Things get off to a promising start with Port Fourchon, Louisiana featuring Kaitlin Dever (Booksmart) as a single mom working as a waitress that encounters a drifter (Jonathan Tucker, Charlie’s Angels) at her oceanside dead-end diner.  We know he’s got a station wagon full of boxes labeled with the names of missing girls but what’s in them is…well, you’ll find out. Dever’s having a nice run of things lately and she makes this character a realistic entity struggling to make ends meet while dealing with her feral child that could be more dangerous than the stranger who takes a peculiar interest in her.  The second ep features a lonely teen taking care of his ailing mother in a familiar plot that honestly almost feels irresponsible being recycled in 2020.  I quite liked the third episode set in New Orleans, Louisiana that puts Nicole Beharie (Miss Juneteenth) through a night of hell as a socialite who came from nothing dealing with her world crumbling around her.  It’s all predicated on the question of if she knew about a secret involving her family from years ago and looked the other way just so she wouldn’t lose out on a life of privilege that was within her grasp.

It’s back to ho-hum-edness for the New York setting in episode four with Bill Camp (Joker) as a Trump-ian business mogul that gets punished for his evil transgressions by literally being possessed by a god-like figure (kinda tacky, IMHO) as his family and business team watches on in a mixture of horror and glee.  This one is so obviously aiming its message at an audience of one that will never see this episode that it feels like you’re watching someone’s angry letter to the White House.  The one thing about this episode that I found fairly entertaining is Tina Benko as a deadly serious medium brought in to communicate with the spirit that has taken residence in the businessman.  Benko’s voice cements her being so hysterically committed to the role that I can’t tell if she was trying to be comical or if she really was attempting to be serious.  Either way, she’s the gold star highlight of this drab episode.

Episode five features Taylor Schilling (The Lucky One) and Roberta Colindrez as married lesbians dealing with Schilling’s bi-polar disorder that eventually leads to a dark place, leaving Colindrez to literally pick up the pieces of her wife.  Very strangely, when I checked just now this is the episode that has the highest rating from viewers so far even though I found it an oddly talky vamp on the zombie narrative.  Which, come to think of it, is probably why it’s so popular.  It’s the most straight-forward of all the tales in that deals with mental illness (a content warning precedes the episode) in a humanistic way…though it is essentially about learning to love your zombie wife.

After the first episode, Episode 6 and 7 are likely the star players of the lot.  Taking place in Palacios, Texas, episode 7 finds a disfigured fisherman (Trieu Tran) who finds an injured mermaid (Adria Arjona, Life of the Party) on the beach and brings her back to his double-wide where he attempts to nurse her back to health.  Trouble is, this is no fairy-tale mermaid and she has a craving for red meat and isn’t the friendliest fish in the sea.  In all of Monsterland, my favorite tale by far was from Iron River, Michigan and it finds Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker) as Lauren, a sweet bride preparing for her wedding day but still haunted by the legend of the local woods where her friend disappeared when they were teenagers.  An opening prologue and flashbacks alter the storyline of the events of the vanishing, suggesting Lauren may have been more involved than originally thought.  What starts off seeming like it will be a standard “Did she do it” becomes a simmering Grimm’s Fairy Tale and it’s by far the best of all the episodes.  Which makes the bizarre (truly, bizarre) finale featuring Mike Colter (Girls Trip) and Adepero Oduye (12 Years a Slave) as grieving parents of a missing girl given the opportunity to heal thanks to mysterious “angels” that have fallen from the sky, that much more of a letdown.  I was really put off by the ending, I have to be honest.

Wildly inconsistent from episode to episode with even the good ones having their own problems, Monsterland feels like an enormous missed opportunity.  The production has gathered an intriguing mix of casts and directors that create dynamic work but the scripts didn’t serve any of these players well.  Only a few of these episodes wound up being inspired by Ballingrud’s short stories and even then I know his work is more cerebral – so perhaps this was always the world Monsterland was going to create.  My main beef overall is that I would have liked to see the episodes tied together a bit more.  There is one connection that made sense to me but another that is of absolutely no consequence to anything else and that just felt strange.  It’s as if the actor was just passing by the set that day and they decided to let them in the scene without thinking anything through.  Linking these up in a more clever fashion would help give the overall breadth of the work a more finished feel.

Movie Review ~ Joker

2


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A clown-for-hire by day, strives to be a stand-up comic at night…but finds that the joke always seems to be on him. Caught in a cyclical existence teetering on the precipice of reality and madness, one bad decision brings about a chain reaction of escalating, ultimately deadly, events.

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, Marc Maron, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Josh Pais, Shea Whigham, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olsen

Director: Todd Phillips

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’ve almost been dreading the day I had to see Joker ever since I saw the first preview for it.  Though the internet lost their minds when they got a look at Joaquin Phoenix in costume and there were plenty exclamations of “Take My Money!” (What does that phrase mean, exactly? Anyway…), I didn’t understand what this movie was meant to do.  For audiences.  For the studio.  For the character.  The Joker has been played indelibly before by the likes of Caesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Heath Ledger…did Phoenix really want to walk a mile in those clown shoes and be compared to those titans?  Also, the movie just looked skeevy and drab, clearly aiming to distance itself far from any vision yet of Gotham City.

So it came to pass that the day the screening arrived nothing seemed to go right.  Waking up on the wrong side of the bed doesn’t even begin to describe it.  The day was gloomy, the night was rain-soaked.  The topper was a crazy security line to get into the preview that had the effect of setting a somber mood.  Being slowly wanded by a security guard made me feel like there was something to be wary about, the early buzz of the movie’s excessive violence bouncing around in my head.  Were critics worrying the movie might stir unrest not all that unfounded?  I was on edge from the beginning.

Perhaps all that build-up and early fretting helped me stave off some of the higher expectations others may have going into the movie this weekend.  While it’s certainly as violent as I’d heard and more deeply upsetting than I was imagining, I watched Joker with a transfixed gaze without being able to turn away.  I didn’t always like what I was seeing but I couldn’t take my eyes off of the screen.  It’s a film that starts with a bleak outlook and just goes downhill from there with little reprieve, hope, or kindness offered along the way.  Even so, there’s a certain beauty in all that ugliness.

A standalone story that doesn’t involve the caped crusader (no mention of the B-word at all), Joker basically gives the Clown Prince of Crime the Wicked treatment and makes the character we’ve come to know as the villain the protagonist of the story.  Director Todd Phillips (The Hangover Part III) co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver (The Finest Hours) and borrows liberally from Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed classics Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.  Setting the action in 1981 NYC gives Phillips the opportunity to let production designer Mark Friedberg (Noah) and costume designer Mark Bridges (Phantom Thread) pull out all the stops and the Big Apple is indeed recreated in all its seedy, smoky glory.  It’s almost worth the price of admission alone to see the way the filmmakers have crafted not only the look of the time but also the mood.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix, The Master) makes a meager living as clown hired out for odd jobs while dreaming of making it as a stand-up comic on the Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, Cape Fear) show.  Living with his mother (Frances Conroy, Falling in Love) in a one-room apartment, he suffers from brain trauma causing him to laugh uncontrollably when faced with stress.  Entertaining a new friendship with a neighbor (Zazie Beetz, Deadpool 2), Arthur becomes more infatuated with the thought of fame.  His weekly therapy sessions hint at a man with diagnosed mental health issues not getting the kind of significant treatment he needs and, eventually, not even having the benefit of meeting with his psychiatrist. Soon, he’s a man on the edge finally pushed to his breaking point.

While dressed as a clown, he’s assaulted on a subway and strikes back.  Though his identity goes unnoticed, his actions do not, inspiring the lesser thans in a city roiling in unrest to find a common bond and uniting in their shared anger.  Though he claims to not stand for anything, deep down Arthur shares in their feelings, wondering why the world is so messed up and people have become so rotten to one another.  Finding a newfound strength with his painted on persona and with his inner circle closing in around him, Arthur sets his sights on a broader audience and when his path crosses with his favorite television star, he seizes an opportunity to take the Joker global.

There’s a few ways you can look at what Phillips and Silver are going for with Joker.  You can view the movie from a perspective that a terrible society without feeling or order breeds people like Arthur Fleck.  He’s pushed aside and forgotten, left to fend for himself without any real chance to succeed.  How can we expect people to be better, do better, if they aren’t given some kind of opportunity or a means of support?  There’s another way to look at the film and I think it’s more dangerous.  Maybe it’s a thinly veiled battle cry against a humanity that has become self-absorbed and aims to restore some order by introducing a violent messiah messiah-figure to idolize.  I doubt the filmmakers knowingly were aiming for this but our culture isn’t that great at reading into the deeper meanings in metaphor so if some kind of statement on the dangers of societal violence was being made I think it was lost in the telling.  The fears some people have voiced that the movie may be pro mob-mentality aren’t that off the mark.

At the epicenter of it all is Joaquin Phoenix’s polarizing performance as Fleck/Joker which hits the bullseye at times but is wildly weird at others.  Backed by a surprisingly alert performance from De Niro and an eclectic mix of character actors, Phoenix is never off screen, which gets exhausting. Phoenix is known for immersing himself in roles to sometimes concerning levels and I spent most of the movie wondering how long it took for him to bounce back after filming had completed.  That’s a problem.  I was always aware it was a performance while watching his gaunt and greasy figure move from scene to scene.

Losing weight for the role gave him the wan visage intended but you can see him angling his body or sucking his stomach in to show each rib and bone – so it’s clearly all for show.  Strangely, it’s when Phoenix is in make-up as Joker (actually, anytime he’s in clown make-up throughout the movie) that he’s nothing short of electric.  Especially as the film ramps up to its troublesome final act, Phoenix positively comes alive and sheds the more pithy acting choices he’s made up until that point.  Now, there’s more than danger present in Arthur’s eyes, there’s glee in the dread he’s inflicting on Gotham City and happiness he’s being noticed for the first time in his unhappy life.

We’ve had so many interpretations of Batman over the years that maybe it wasn’t all that bad of an idea to have a different take on one of the players in his rogue gallery of villains.  I’m not sure Joker is exactly the movie we needed right now at this point when our nation is so overwhelmed with negativity and a general aimlessness, but it’s a well-made and in your face film that will surely open up conversations.  You can argue the intentions of the filmmakers but you can’t argue that the movie isn’t intriguing in its own weird way.

Movie Review ~ The Killing of a Sacred Deer


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A teenager’s attempts to bring a brilliant surgeon into his dysfunctional family takes an unexpected turn.

Stars: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Alicia Silverstone, Raffey Cassidy, Bill Camp

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  We’re moving into a busy time for movies and that means a packed screening schedule. On these plum-full days this part-time critic has to get creative with his multi-tasking if doesn’t want to go hungry between movies. That’s how I found myself unwrapping and justa bout to sink my teeth into a sandwich when Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer began. Lanthimos opens the film with a graphic (and real) shot of open heart surgery, his camera lovingly lingering on the organ coming back to life and pulsing with blood. It’s an arresting image and one that pretty much demands your attention, as does the rest of the movie. Clearly, my sandwich was going to have to wait.

Surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell, Saving Mr. Banks) has it all.  A successful career, a beautiful house, a loving wife (Nicole Kidman, Stoker), and two children that haven’t yet met their trouble-making days.  He’s also taken a young boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk) under his wing for reasons not entirely clear as the movie begins.  All we can tell is that Murphy obviously feels paternal toward the boy, a boy that has a strange way about him.  Actually, everyone in Lanthimos’s parable on suburbia and privilege has a strange way about them.  Murphy and his wife play out some kinky fantasy with her lying prone on the bed as if under general anesthesia, their daughter (Raffey Cassidy, Tomorrowland) is on the cusp of womanhood and awkwardly makes her first steps into her femininity with Martin as her fellow traveler, and Murphy and his wife speak about family matters in public with little regard for privacy.  There’s a staid, robotic-like quality to the line delivery and it’s not unintentional in the slightest.

For the first half of the movie we’re just getting our feet wet with these people and trying to figure out why Martin’s actions feel so odd and what his game plan could be.  When it’s revealed why he’s getting so close to Murphy and his family the movie almost instantly gets a bit less interesting in plot but not necessarily in character.  Martin makes a proposition, an impossible request, to Murphy and the rest of the movie is about how Murphy chooses to respond.  One by one Murphy’s family members start to come down with a mysterious, near-supernatural illness that Martin seems to have control over…or is the other way around?  Lanthimos and his co-writer Efthymis Filippou leave audiences with little concrete answers and we’re never quite sure who the man (or woman) behind the curtain is.

While the plot tends towards the formulaic in its skeleton, it’s the sinews of muscle and tissue that the cast brings to this that make it one that has nagged at me almost daily since I saw it.  The movie can be seen as a twisted take on suburban perfection and personal responsibility or as an outright Fatal Attraction-like potboiler where no one is a winner by the time the credits roll.  Having worked with Lanthimos on his previous film (the equally mind-bending The Lobster), Farrell is aces as a flawed man asked to take action no father or husband should ever be tasked with and Kidman continues her streak of finding the deepest complexities in a seemingly straight-forward role.  Keoghan is a bundle of nerves and energy, presenting a character obviously on some sort of spectrum that feels just in his actions so has no fear of judgement.  That frees him to express himself openly and unfiltered, a refreshing presentation to be sure but unsettling all the same in our current climate of niceties above all else.  Alicia Silverstone (Clueless) has a brief but memorable scene as Martin’s mother, grieving the loss of her husband (whom Murphy operated on) and following her son’s lead on a plan to unite the two families in his twisted imagination.

As you’ve probably guessed, The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn’t easy viewing and the ending is sure to prove problematic.  Lanthimos doesn’t let anyone off easy and that includes the viewer.  Still, it’s a handsomely made, eerie film and even when you know where it’s headed it still has one or two twists to keep you alert.  Darker than The Lobster but just as interested in social norms and providing commentary on justice, The Killing of a Sacred Deer might not be the hunt you thought you’d be going on but it’s worth the journey.

Movie Review ~ Midnight Special

midnight_special
The Facts
:

Synopsis: A father and son go on the run after the dad learns his child possesses special powers.

Stars: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Paul Sparks

Director: Jeff Nichols

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Hot on the heels of 10 Cloverfield Lane comes another film where spoilers and too much information will pretty much ruin your enjoyment.  My best advice, dear reader, is to go in to Midnight Special with the least amount of knowledge available.  Even if that means you bookmark this page and come back to it after you see it, I won’t mind because I want you to get the maximum impact out of the newest feature from Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter).

OK…you’re either brave enough to trust in my spoiler-free pledge or you’ve just returned from seeing Midnight Special…either way…thanks for being here!

Let’s start off with what I can divulge, which is that Midnight Special is one of those rare movie-going experiences where the filmmakers are wise enough to not let audiences get too far ahead of the events that transpire.  In fact, don’t be ashamed to admit when the movie starts you have no clue what’s going on…it’s ok…I felt the same way.  Nichols plunges you right into the middle of the cross-country pilgrimage of a father (Michael Shannon, Man of Steel) and his son (Jaeden Lieberher, St. Vincent, Aloha) that turns out to be a trek into the unknown.

Nichols draws on elements from old-school paranoid chase films and Steven Spielberg’s late 70s/early 80s sensibilities to fashion his tale of a boy who may or may not possess special powers that the government wants to exploit and who members of a religious cult in the Texas boondocks use to guide their sermons and instruct their belief system.  Shannon has taken the boy from the cult and roped in his childhood friend (Joel Edgerton, The Great Gatsby) to help transport them both to an unnamed location only the boy seems to know.

Picking up the boy’s estranged mother (Kirsten Dunst, Bachelorette) and avoiding a curious NSA analyst (Adam Driver, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) along the way leads to more unexplained phenomena that keep the military and spiritual disciples in hot pursuit.  Through it all Nichols never tips his hand as to what the outcome will be, throwing in multiple surprise moments that act as nifty curveballs in an already eventful ballgame.

Nichols is making his large studio debut with Midnight Special and it would have been easy to style an easily accessible commercial feature and pick up a swell paycheck.  Instead, Nichols has produced a crowd-pleasing sci-fi drama that’s exciting, entertaining, and downright refreshing in its execution.  Even the ending, which could have gone oh so wrong and still may be hard to swallow for the more jaded flock amongst us, feels just about perfect.

One of the nicest surprises here is Shannon’s sensitive turn as a father willing to protect his son at all costs.  Shannon tends to give me the willies but he’s arguably the least creepy he’s ever been here.  Edgerton continues his run as a dependable presence whether in a supporting role or as the leading man. He’s given a lot of good material here and makes the most out of what could have been a low wattage auxiliary role. Driver is well-cast too, though he tends to come up lemons when he’s asked to play overly nebbish and Dunst nearly outshines them all with her understated and delicate performance that’s believably maternal.  The film revolves almost entirely around Lieberher and he proves again he’s a young actor to watch, infusing every line or wordless moment with a truth that’s hard to fake.

They say the fun is in the journey, not the destination and that’s apropos here.  While the ending to Midnight Special is sure to divide audiences, there’s little denying that the events leading up to it are mighty captivating.  Definitely check this one out.

Movie Review ~ 12 Years a Slave

twelve_years_a_slave

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.