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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt Pratt@moviecitynews.com

DVD Geek: 12 Years a Slave

Marred only by the obnoxious casting and performance of Brad Pitt as the hero’s savior—the sequence should have been better written and thought out than it is, and Pitt ought to do something, anything, other than grin like an idiot—the 2013 Best Picture Oscar winner, 12 Years a Slave, available from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, is a superbly constructed historical film, exploring details of the antebellum South that are fresh and largely free of cliché, gathered within a strong emotional narration about a man separated from his family, a heartstring plot that justifies its time spent on getting the details of the past correctly.  Directed by Steve McQueen, who was also one of the film’s producers to receive a statuette, the film is a masterful blend of incident, texture, suspense and revelation.  Utilizing the classic ‘journey’ story to explore the anguish of the hundreds of thousands of African-Americans (millions of Africans were abducted from Africa, but most were sent to Central and South America), who escaped enslavement only by death, through the eyes of one individual, who was just unfortunate to have that horrific fate befall him for a modest period of his adult life (by and large, it is a true story, based upon an autobiography), the film deftly utilizes the exception to portrait the rule.  One of the two great scars that will forever blemish the American ideal—the second, of course, is the Native-American pogrom—slavery is such an overpowering subject for a drama that it requires an exceptional aesthetic approach, lest the narrative momentum become sodden in emotional reflex to the point of inertia.  How can the beatings rise to a crescendo without deafening a viewer’s sensitivities on the very first note?  How can the random displacement of humans being distributed as property sustain a consistent intrigue of character?  How can modern actors embody any of the characters, black or white, truthfully, without going insane?  McQueen oversees all of these challenges, creating a powerful, beautiful work—no more or less violent than many great films that have addressed violence—that is entertaining and exciting throughout its 134 minutes.  12 Years a Slave bears witness to a damned institution that was in place far longer than it has been out of place, and one that created social disparities which linger still.  It is not a final word on the topic of slavery, but it is a good word, and will enlighten all who pause to share in it.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback.  The image is smooth and sharp, and the cinematography is exquisite.  The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound is also thrilling.  The cicadas, in particular, are magnificent.  There is an audio track that describes the action (“Solomon grimaces in pain, his mouth agape.  A barred window with an open wood shutter gives a view inside the darkened cell.  Behind the bars, Solomon brings his anguished face to the window.  Our view rises up the brick building’s outer wall.  Upon reaching the top, a view over the building’s roof gives us a glimpse of the Capitol Building in the distance.”), alternate French and Spanish tracks in standard stereo, optional English and Spanish subtitles, and 13 minutes of passable production featurettes about the crew supporting McQueen’s vision.  Chiwetel Ejiofor stars, with Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, and others.

One Response to “DVD Geek: 12 Years a Slave”

  1. theschu says:

    As great as the movie is (including Pitt’s scene and performance which didn’t bother me), the one thing that sort of bothered me was that I never got the sense that Solomon was a slave for 12 years. It seemed more like 2 or 3. His hair and weight seemed to stay the same throughout the whole film. His face also always seemed to be shaven. This might sound like a minor quibble but when the film is called 12 Years A Slave and the journey doesn’t really ever feel like it takes that long, it lessens the impact.

The Ultimate DVD Geek

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin