Review: “X-Men: Days of Future Past”

Days of Future Past

If there is a series of superhero movies with a more inconsistent timeline than the X-Men films, I’d love to see it. After six films with five different directors, the series is in need of a little shaping up.

With “X-Men: Days of Future Past”, the director of the first two installments, Bryan Singer, steps back behind the camera and adapts one of the most acclaimed comics to ever be graced with the X-Men name.

“Days of Future Past” finds two generations of mutants teaming up via time travel to stop a cataclysmic war that will be the end of their species and possibly mankind. This gives us the opportunity to see Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) teaming up with the cast from Matthew Vaughn’s “First Class” film. Given the broad nature of the film, there are many cameos, but the notable characters from the past include Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and a young Charles (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender).

After his mind is sent back to his 1970’s body, Wolverine must find the X-Men and bring them back together after the events of “First Class” and the Vietnam War sent them their separate ways. Their main mission involves Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), a man who fears mutants and has gone to great lengths to build robots called Sentinels that could one day wipe out the mutant population.

One of the best things about “First Class” was allowing us to see McAvoy and Fassbender play out the younger versions of Charles and Magneto, characters that had been so iconic. Fassbender was especially great in the role and here he delivers again. The best addition to the film is Peters as Quicksilver. Though he’s only in about 1/4 of the film, his scenes are the best stylistically and give the film a healthy amount of playfulness. It should be interesting to see how Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays the role in Marvel’s Avenger series, but, in this universe Quicksilver is a scene-stealer.

“Days of Future Past” not only has a massive time travel story to work with, but the film also tries to right a few wrongs from Brett Ratner’s abysmal “X-Men: The Last Stand.” While I won’t spoil those details, they certainly improve the worth of this film.

Though I really enjoyed the film, there were a few things that kept me from absolutely loving it. One, Jennifer Lawrence is completely uninteresting as Mystique. It hurts to say, but J-Law really doesn’t seem right for the part and the character has lost almost all of its edge from the original trilogy. This is especially unfortunate as the character plays a large part in this story. Also, the finale of the film is a little anti-climactic. Instead of a big fight scene, it’s basically a telepathic conversation between Magneto, Mystique and Xavier.

Between Quicksilver pulling a jailbreak, a ton of cameos and the apocalyptic future depicted, there are a lot of cool things to like about “Days of Future Past.” As with all superhero movies these days, stick around after the credits for a preview of what’s next for the franchise.

Grade: B+

Happy viewing.

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Review: “Non-Stop”

Liam Neeson in Non Stop

Even a depressed, alcoholic Liam Neeson is someone you don’t want to mess with.

The latest in a long line of early-in-the-year releases from the 61-year-old Neeson, “Non-Stop” is a Hitchcockian murder mystery set at 30,000 feet. Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) is a burned-out air marshal on a flight from New York to London. Going about his usual flight routine of drowning his sorrows and smoking in the bathroom of the plane, he receives a series of text messages from an unknown origin claiming that unless $150 million is transferred to an account, someone on the plane will die every 20 minutes. As he tries to discover the assailant’s identity, the air marshal himself is implicated as a terrorist.

After films like “Taken” and “The Grey” have cemented Liam Neeson as a man’s man, we’ve come to expect these winter action tales where he gravely threatens someone or beats up a room full of men. While “Non-Stop” does have a couple of fights, the setting limits the carnage a good bit. This results in the first 2/3 of the film mainly relying on suspense, which it does rather well. A crowded plane is a small place to get away with murder, but when you are one of 150 suspects anonymity can be your friend.

What makes the guessing game interesting is that the film has a pretty good cast of secondary characters, none of which has an identifiable motive. Aside from Neeson the film features Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, recent Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, Linus Roache, Anson Mount and a few other faces that stick out.

Part of the reason why Neeson has been so successful with these 50+ male action movies is because he is great at playing a character with a tortured soul and playing villains, both of which come into play one way or another. We really don’t get to see much about Bill Marks aside from a news report that profiles him at one point in the film, but Neeson sells the character.

Just so you don’t think this is an entirely character-driven movie, there are a few good action sequences and some of the kills are well done. The former, however, is choppy most likely to hide the fact that Liam Neeson is 61. I don’t care what age he is, grabbing and shooting a gun in zero gravity is about the coolest thing I can think of.

As is often the case with films like this where the premise is promising, the film starts to lose steam somewhere around the start of the third act. There isn’t anything too far-fetched considering the genre, but in order to escalate the stakes and move the film along, a few less-than-plausible things happen. These would be fairly easy to overcome if the reveal of the killer was better, but even that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The motive behind the attack is silly and, when you think about it, unravels some of the really good things the film was doing for the majority of its duration.

“Non-Stop” stumbles at the end, but the first 80 minutes or so are solid suspense and Neeson brings some real class to the film. When your only other choices right now for action or suspense are “Robocop” and “3 Days to Kill”, “Non-Stop” could be just the ticket.

Grade: B-

Happy viewing.

Review: “3 Days to Kill”

Film Title: 3 Days To Kill

After a successful career in the CIA, Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) is finally forced to retire when he is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Upon returning home to Paris, he finds that squatters have taken over his apartment, his ex-wife (Connie Nelson) is seeing someone new and his daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) is no longer the little girl he remembers. Just when he starts to mend some of these relationships, an operative named Vivi Delay (Amber Heard) presents him with a final mission which, if he completes, could present a drug that will increase his life expectancy.

There are few working directors today that carry around more baggage with them than McG. From the “Charlie’s Angels” franchise to his absolutely dreadful “Terminator Salvation”, many film lovers shudder just at the mention of his name. While his work on “3 Days to Kill” doesn’t exactly earn him any points (more on that later), he has proven to be a good TV producer with shows like “Chuck”, “The O.C.” and “Supernatural”.

While McG is pure garbage when it comes to filmmaking, Luc Besson, the writer for “3 Days to Kill”, is more of a mixed bag. He is responsible for great films like “Leon: The Professional”, “Taken” and “The Fifth Element” but also wrote some really bad ones (“Lockout”). Combining these two guys is just asking for trouble and, shockingly, that’s what happens with “3 Days to Kill”.

McG’s direction basically consists of quick cuts and zooms during anything action-related. He’s almost afraid to show anyone die onscreen as if it would offend us at this point. His past experience shooting music videos really shows up in this film and it doesn’t help things.

Let’s go down a little checklist for what makes a great spy/action film: 1. Are there great action sequences? Answer: Not in the least. There is one decent car chase near the end and a little shootout at the beginning of the film. 2. Are the characters memorable? Answer: The bad guys are named The Albino and The Wolf and we see them do next to nothing the whole film. Also, Amber Heard plays a 13-year-old’s idea of what a female CIA agent would be like and her name is Vivi freakin’ Delay. You tell me if those sound cool. 3. Is the plot intricately executed? Answer: The plot is easily the worst thing about the film and it is so basic you could nap through half the film and be totally up to speed.

It’s clear that this film isn’t taking itself too seriously because Costner only speaks in bad grumpy-old-man jokes for the majority of the film and it tries way too hard to be funny above all else. To its credit, a few of the jokes actually land, but when you pack in as many as this film does, it’s pretty inevitable.

One thing viewers might want to be aware of heading into the film is that “3 Days to Kill” is not a spy film. While that may be the framing for the story, almost the entire film is about Costner’s character, Ethan, rebuilding his relationship with his daughter. He teaches her to ride a bike, how to dance and they braid each other’s hair. Okay, maybe I just added that last one on for effect. To be honest, if the father-daughter element was done well enough, I could forgive the amazingly poor spy storyline. Instead it basically amounts to Hailee Steinfeld’s character magically changing and also being too stupid to realize that her father is kidnapping/killing people.

As for the performances in the film, it’s hard to be too upset with anyone considering how bad the script is. Heard’s character is one of the dumbest characters I’ve seen on film in quite some time, but she tries to make it work by playing up the silliness. Most of the cast is stuck playing caricatures, so there’s nothing worth remembering.

If it sounds like I hated “3 Days to Kill”, you would be correct. The film never knows what it wants to be as it continually switches themes, tempo and genres and ends up failing in just about every way it can. I’d tell you to wait for it to come on TV, but time is still a very precious commodity and you deserve better.

Grade: D

My 25 Favorite Films of 2013

Already 2014, huh?

Like always, my end of the year list is comprised of the films I personally liked the most rather than which films are the best from a scholarly standpoint. There are already smarter people than me writing that kind of calculated piece and, honestly, most of these “best of” lists put out by major publications are the same criteria I’m using here.

25. 42

42

Sport movies and biopics are two genres of film that can be lazily put together and still turn a profit based on their subject. “42”, however, did well to capture the spirit of Jackie Robinson and the era of baseball he played in. Throw in a surprising performance by Harrison Ford and you’ve got something worth checking out. My original review can be found here.

24. Still Mine

Still Mine

This was a quiet little film that made roughly $1 million in only a handful of theaters, but the characters and feel of the movie were great. James Cromwell, in a rare leading role, plays an elderly handyman who wants to build
a house for his wife (Genevieve Bujold) whose mind is starting to slowly fade, but realizes along the way just how much the world has changed in his lifetime. The aging romance between Cromwell and Bujold and the rugged Canadian landscape make for a nice, small-scale story.

23. The Great Gatsby

Gatsby

When it was first announced that “The Great Gatsby” would be shot in 3-D and feature rap music throughout, I immediately thought it would be a failure. The new adaptation provided a fresh perspective on the film, though, and made things interesting. Leonardo DiCaprio is almost too easily cast as Jay Gatsby and Joel Edgerton, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan also turn in great performances.

22. The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines

“The Place Beyond the Pines” is another cheery tale from “Blue Valentine” director Derek Cianfrance. It runs a little too long and its message about fathers, sons and fate gets muddled because of that. On the other hand, it has a great score, is shot beautifully and features great performances from Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn and Ray Liotta.

21. Pacific Rim

In a summer that featured a lot of misses, “Pacific Rim” was arguably the best blockbuster of the season. I think I fell for this movie roughly around the time that a giant robot warrior swung a shipping vessel like a baseball bat at an alien monster. “Pacific Rim” had great visuals and breathed new life into the alien invasion sub-genre.

20. The Book Thief

The Book Thief

Stories about the Holocaust, much like slavery (spoiler alert), can be a little tiresome after a while because we feel like it’s often the same story re-told over and over. “The Book Thief”, based on the popular bestseller, manages to overcome this fatigue by keeping us from the concentration camps and showing us what life is like in a typical German neighborhood through the eyes of a young girl. Heartbreaking at times, the film features strong efforts from Emily Watson, the always charming Geoffrey Rush and relative newcomer Sophie Nelisse.

19. American Hustle

American Hustle

After the success of David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook”, it should be no surprise that re-teaming with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence and adding Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams would lead to one of the year’s best films.

18. Blackfish

One of the best indicators of whether a documentary is effective is to look at the changes it brings to its subject. After indicting the treatment of killer whales kept in captivity at SeaWorld, stories like this and this began popping up everywhere. If CNN ever broadcasts it again, don’t miss a free chance to watch a great documentary.

17. The Wolverine

The Wolverine

Bear with me here. By providing audiences with a more bare-bones superhero story, “The Wolverine” delivered a more personal touch than “Iron Man 3” and “Thor: The Dark World” could have ever hoped for. It wasn’t a perfect film, which you can read more about here, but there were a couple of great fight sequences and the best characterization of Wolverine put on film.

16. Dead Man Down

Dead Man Down

This noir thriller was the first film of 2013 worth seeing outside of a Redbox kiosk and, though it had a few faults, Noomi Rapace and Colin Farrell make up for its shortcomings.

15. Inside Llewyn Davis

_MG_4818.CR2

Anything by the Coen brothers is worth giving a watch, but the somber tale of Llewyn Davis is an interesting look into the folk music scene featuring some great songs and a breakthrough role for Oscar Isaac. More on the film here.

14. All Is Lost

This old man vs. the sea drama snuck into the end of the year lineup and may earn Robert Redford an Oscar nomination soon. Its visuals are both haunting and beautiful and Redford does more with his facial expressions than 98% of the other actors this year did with an entire script. You can read more about the film here.

13. Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips

This film has grown on me a little bit since I first reviewed it. Now that I’ve seen what this year has to offer, I think this modern-day pirate tale had the proper amount of suspense and filmmaking prowess to make it to number 13 on my list.

12. Nebraska

Alexander Payne is no stranger to these “best of the year” lists as both “The Descendants” and “Sideways” have been very popular in their respective years. This time he tells the story of a son (Will Forte) who is essentially forced to travel with his father (Bruce Dern) across state lines to pick up a $1 million reward he knows isn’t there. Along the way there are the usual discoveries made between a father and son and a few laughs to share.

11. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Walter Mitty

There weren’t a whole lot of family choices at the theater this Christmas (part of the reason why “Frozen” and “The Hobbit” are enjoying a boost in revenue), but “Walter Mitty” turned out to be the best bet for those who didn’t want to suffer through 506 F-words in “The Wolf of Wall Street”. Ben Stiller’s best directorial effort to date (and possibly his best acting) was lost on many critics but audiences are eating it up. It is a heartfelt film that is inspiring, funny, and features some of the year’s best visuals.

10. The World’s End

The World's End

I have been a long time fan of the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost/Edgar Wright combo and they really didn’t disappoint here with the conclusion of their trilogy started by “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”. Complex characters, hilarious fighting sequences and an alien invasion plot? How could I not be in? Read more of my review here.

9. Philomena

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are an odd, but perfect, pair in this drama about a woman searching for the son she gave up decades ago. You can read more about this film in my last post before this list.

8. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug

If you love “Lord of the Rings”, you probably love these movies. That’s basically what it comes down to. It’s understandable why book purists are upset over new characters and such, but when you turn an average-sized book into a trilogy of films it has to happen. This sequel delivers on the action and introduces a handful of new characters better than I imagined it would. A more in-depth review is here.

7. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Two sci-fi sequels back-to-back? Don’t worry, I’m not saying either of these are “The Empire Strikes Back” (although they are new examples of sequels that out-do their predecessors). “Catching Fire” is one of the best book adaptations I’ve seen in recent memory and it is perfectly paced. More glowing words of approval can be found here.

6. Man of Steel

Man of Steel

Is anyone still reading this? Put down that pitchfork. While I understand the many problems people find with the film, I still think it overcame them and then some. “Man of Steel” is the first superhero movie to make me care about a character I previously hated. It’s also one of the most entertaining superhero movies ever made, as scenes like the Smallville fight prove. Here’s more on the film.

5. Frances Ha

Frances Ha

The second black-and-white film on my list comes from director Noah Baumbach and the love letter he made for the great Greta Gerwig. This quirky film about a quirky girl is not just quirky for the sake of being quirky (thanks for helping me win that bet with myself) but actually has a lot to say about growing up and how it affects the relationships around us. For a sneak peek, here’s the trailer. Also available on Netflix.

4. Mud

This was only the first of three films this year where there was Oscar buzz for Matthew McConaughey. A small film featuring a big cast (McConaughey, Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon), “Mud” gave Arkansas the Hollywood treatment and made an excellent crime drama. Here’s more on the film.

3. Gravity

GRAVITY

I love Alfonso Cuaron’s work as a director so I can’t skip over this impressive film that’s finally pushing him into the spotlight. “Gravity” features the best visuals of the year and manages to keep the suspense up for a solid 90 minutes. Throw in some great performances by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney and you’ve got a winner.

2. Prisoners

Prisoners

I honestly don’t understand how little this film has been talked about the past month or two. Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal are electrifying and its one of the best crime mysteries since “Zodiac”. Just goes to show that the best films aren’t always found in November and December. Here’s more of my thoughts on the film.

1. 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave

Like I said years ago when you started this list, movies about slavery can often be predictable or feel too familiar. It takes a special kind of film to reinvent the genre like this film has. I had a feeling when I first saw it that it would end up at the end of this list. The performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender are arguably the best of the year and the film is beautifully directed by Steve McQueen. Here’s some more reasoning on why I think it deserves the top spot.

If you made it through the end of the list, thanks for sticking around. Though January isn’t known for stellar new releases, I will be covering the Golden Globes and Oscars on here and Twitter at @VC_Reviews. Happy viewing.

Review: “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug

When it was first announced that J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel “The Hobbit” would be adapted into three films, my first thought was that the second film would be the weakest of the three. It’s easy to drag both the beginning and the ending of a book out into their own individual films. The first would have the excitement of a new adventure plus a cast of characters to introduce and the last would have the epic conclusion that serves as an exclamation point to the series. However a middle chapter could be difficult because it may come across as merely a bridge between the first and last film. Thankfully, this was not the case with “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”.

Picking up where the first film left off, this second chapter follows Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and a band of dwarves led by heir-to-the-throne Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) as they journey to defeat a menacing dragon and reclaim their homeland.

In order to expand the original novel into three films, director Peter Jackson and his writers had to shoehorn some new material in to fill gaps in the story. This allowed the opportunity to bring back characters like Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who “Lord of the Rings” fans will be happy to see again.

One of the biggest complaints of the first film was that there wasn’t enough action to balance out the talking and walking. In roughly 2-3 scenes, Legolas gets the opportunity to slice, dice and behead as many orcs as he can get his hands on. One scene has Legolas and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) teaming up with the dwarves to take out what feels like a thousand bad guys as the latter tumbles down a river in barrels. Even Bilbo becomes a bit of an action hero this time around, at one point taking out 6-foot spiders in an enchanted forest.

Before you get too worried that this film is all blood and guts, there are plenty of long conversations as well. After reaching their destination, Bilbo has an exchange with Smaug the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) that is quite reminiscent of his game of riddles with Gollum (Andy Serkis) in the first film.

“The Desolation of Smaug” does a good job continuing to develop characters while, at the same time, introducing brand new ones like Bard (Luke Evans) and Tauriel. It’s still a little hard to distinguish between a couple of the dwarves in Bilbo’s party, but through the course of two films it feels like we’ve met them all one way or another.

The only thing I really didn’t care for in this film was how much it felt that the audience needed to be reminded of “The Lord of the Rings”. It’s hard to go ten minutes in this film without hearing about Sauron or the Ringwraiths, etc. Of course “The Hobbit” is a prequel of sorts to the other trilogy, but it almost comes across as the team behind this film doesn’t have enough confidence in the storyline at hand. As if the stakes in the current series aren’t high enough so we have to allude to this much darker villain that threatens the entire world.

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” benefits from great performances in Freeman, Armitage and Ian McKellen (who will always be Gandalf/Magneto to me) as well as great source material to pull from. You know it’s a good film because it doesn’t feel like you’ve been in the theater for 160 minutes and soon as the final shot goes dark, there is an instant echo of “Aww man!” in the audience. There may have been a few wavering fans after “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” but “The Desolation of Smaug” will win them back with another great outing in Middle Earth.

Grade: A-

On a completely different note, I’m currently doing a YouTube series called See These Movies with a few friends where we review older movies. Right now we are going through some Christmas classics, the latest of which is “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”. Check it out.

Happy viewing.

Review: “Thor: The Dark World”

Thor The Dark World

Ah, finally. Summer is over and we can get to the best films of the year in the fall. Wait, Thor what? Dang.

One would think that “Thor: The Dark World” would have found a better home this summer amid the utter failures of “R.I.P.D.” and “The Lone Ranger”, but seeing as it’s already made $345 million worldwide against competitors like “Free Birds” and “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa”, Marvel is probably totally cool with it.

This latest trip to Asgard picks up where “The Avengers” left off: Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is imprisoned, but the nine realms are somewhat in disarray. Just as things return to normal, an ancient enemy, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), returns to find a weapon known as the Aether and destroy the universe.

Aside from bringing in Eccleston (of “Doctor Who” fame), the sequel brings back pretty much every character from its predecessor. Yes, this means more comical abuse at the hands of Kat Dennings’ character, Darcy.

I can’t be the only one feeling superhero (mainly Marvel) fatigue. Bringing the Avengers together was a great idea, but we aren’t even to “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” yet and it feels like these films are just going through the motions. Just so you don’t think I’m a total downer, though, I am anticipating the next Captain America film. I think the first one misfired too often but the character is a great one.

As for this film, it suffers from a problem that it shares with the first “Thor”: the romance between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Jane (Natalie Portman) is one of the most forced pairings ever seen in a comic book film. Instead of chemistry, it’s just Jane fawning over the size of Thor’s arms and acting like a little kid.

Another problem the film, and often Marvel, has is that villain is completely forgettable. There’s not even a single line Malekith speaks that I can recall at this moment. It’s all very generic stuff and subtitled. The bad guys in this film belong in a bad episode of Star Trek or a good episode of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. The worst part being that Malekith is actually a pretty good villain in the comics.

Ok, so maybe the characters are a little underdeveloped. At least the action is cool, right? Sorry, the action sequences in “Thor: The Dark World” are mostly boring. Poorly shot, poorly choreographed and too much CGI. Why should I care about Asgard under attack when everything is either too fake or shown in such an uninteresting way? There are 3 scenes that pass for decent action and they total about 2 minutes of the film. Even the final fight scene is boring, with only a barrage of humor to make it enjoyable.

And, boy, is it a barrage. This film has so many jokes tucked into it that Robert Downey Jr. would tell it to slow down. Some of these jokes work quite well, but by the end of the film it gets to be too much. There’s a reason why it’s called “comic relief” and not “comic drowning”. There’s a red line of comedy you can’t cross in a film like this or else the laughs become detrimentally superfluous and steal from any tension or drama you’re trying to create. We cross it here long before the finale.

The one character that saves the film from the trash bin is Hiddleston’s Loki. He is both the best source of comedy and drama in a film that is mostly forgettable. It seems his character is always the driving force behind Thor/The Avengers and, not to spoil anything, his actions have repercussions at the end of this film as well. The appearance of another Marvel hero in the film is also one of its biggest highlights.

“Thor: The Dark World” is enjoyable at times, but overall feels like another missed opportunity for Marvel. As always with these movies, be sure to stay through the credits for a bonus scene.

Grade: C

Review: “12 Years a Slave”

12 Years a Slave

For the last few years I have felt that Chiwetel Ejiofor was one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood. With convincing roles in films like “Children of Men”, “Serenity”, and “Redbelt”, it’s been a long time coming for him to get some recognition. Throw in some great reviews coming out for “12 Years a Slave” earlier this year and it would be fair to say I was more than excited.

Ejiofor plays the true-life character Solomon Northup, a talented violinist from New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. A story that is almost impossible to believe today, Northup was lured with a promising business opportunity and then betrayed, leaving him a slave in Louisiana for 12 years.

No doubt some people hear the subject matter of “12 Years a Slave” and think “Do we really need to go there again?” It’s not a ridiculous question, but I believe the American system of slavery was so dramatic, widespread and alarming that there are still many untapped stories to tell from it. If we can have a million cop movies that all run together, a few of these every now and then should be fine.

What makes this film stick out from almost every other of its kind is that the majority of its characters are unique. Throughout his time in the South, Northup works for several different masters, no two of which are quite alike. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a gentleman who takes care of his slaves about as well as one can in such a system. Judge Turner (Bryan Batt) is more strict, but a fair man who allows Northup to earn a wage as a violinist. Then you have Michael Fassbender’s Mr. Epps who is the stereotypically evil (but plenty memorable) master who Northup spends most of his time under. Though each of the characters involved with the slave trade have at least some blame for Northup’s plight, they have their own personalities and prejudices.

The slaves are a little more on the generic side with one notable exception: Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Patsey is a young female slave who has the misfortune of being her master’s favorite toy. Some of the film’s most brutal moments are interactions between her and Fassbender’s Mr. Epps. Despite being her first feature film role, Nyong’o makes a strong case for Best Supporting Actress. I also wouldn’t be surprised to find Ejiofor and Fassbender on an Oscar ballot next year.

Something that really breathes authenticity into the film is the way the dialogue is written. Instead of falling into the same old slurring of words that every film about this time period likes to place on the English language, John Ridley’s script calls for more thoughtful expression and savory word choice.

Director Steve McQueen captures the brutality of the slave trade with an unflinching eye throughout the film. The first time we see Northup beaten in chains, the camera is motionless while a man literally breaks his paddle on Northup’s back. Another time he is strung up from a tree with only the tips of his toes keeping him from asphyxiation and the camera simply gazes from afar. Though it hides none of slavery’s evil, “12 Years a Slave” never goes into the borderline parody of films like “Django Unchained”.

There are only two criticisms of “12 Years a Slave”, neither of which hurt the film irreparably. First, the film doesn’t handle the fear of the situation as well as it could. There are two scenes in the film where Northup is being chased or threatened by one of his masters and there is little to no suspense. In fact, he is being chased around the Epps home by a knife-wielding Fassbender and the scene is mostly played for laughs as Epps slips or trips over his own feet. Northup’s situation is incredibly frightening but the film doesn’t do its best to capitalize on this emotion at times. Secondly, almost no one ages over the course of 12 years. If you didn’t know the title of the film, you would probably think the protagonist spent 3-5 years a slave. The passage of time is not particularly felt by anyone except for a couple strands of gray hair on Ejiofor’s head at the end of the film. This is actually a film that could have used another 15 minutes to help convey the length of its story.

“12 Years a Slave” is carefully and beautifully shot with outstanding performances and great characters. It is easily one of the year’s best films.

Grade: A-

While the horrors of the African American slave trade were horrible, I would like to point out that slavery is not just a thing of the past. There are currently more slaves in the world today than at any point in human history. If you would like more information on human trafficking or slave labor, the people at International Justice Mission are a good resource. You can also take a survey to find out how many slaves currently work for you around the world. It’s pretty eye-opening.

Happy viewing.