The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari

Release: Friday, December 9, 2022 (limited)

👀 Netflix

Directed by: Rory Kennedy

Starring: Mark Inman; Matt Urey; Lauren Urey; Jesse Langford; Geoff Hopkins; Kelsey Waghorn; Brian Depauw; Ngaroahiahi Patuwai Maangi; Tim Barrow; Mark Law; John Funnell

Distributor: Netflix

 

 

****/*****

The power of Mother Nature is not the only thing on display in Rory Kennedy’s latest documentary, a gripping account that takes viewers up close to the disaster that unfolded off the coast of New Zealand in December 2019 when White Island, an active volcano, erupted with several dozen tourists still on it. In covering the chaotic aftermath as well as the daring, multi-pronged rescue mission in response, The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari captures humanity in a spectacle that’s both inspiring and ugly.

Prior to the 2019 eruption White Island, known to the indigenous Maori as Whakaari, was a popular tourist destination, offering cruise line passengers and locals alike a rare opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with one of the planet’s most active volcanoes. Accessible by a 90-minute boat ride from the town of Whakatāne on New Zealand’s North Island, the martian environment ensconces the curious (and brave-footed) in alien greens and mustard yellows, crystalline streams of superheated water and gaseous pockets. That the vast majority of the volcano is submarine puts it all the more in reach — you could actually walk right up to the edge of the crater and peek into the acid lake (just be sure to wear your mask).

Kennedy is an Oscar-nominated documentarian whose experience dealing with raw and emotional human stories serves her well here. Inspired by an April 2020 article published in Outside Magazine, she depicts the catastrophic event with incredible urgency, grace and empathy, immersing the viewer in a minute-by-minute procedural, and in a place that goes from picturesque to pure hellscape in the blink of an eye. The visuals are both stunning and terrifying, a pulse-pounding mixture of cell phone footage and dramatic aerial shots.

The cinematography is but one element that gives you a sense of the scale and severity of the situation. Adding to that is the perspective offered by the far-flung pilots who dropped what they were doing to fly into a dangerous environment and against government protocol. But it’s hearing from those who lived through the explosion, such as American newlyweds Lauren and Matt Urey, who chose the spot for their honeymoon, that makes The Volcano a moving account of survival and perseverance — a testament to pain but also bravery and selflessness. For some, the decision to help others was a simple calculation.

Yet not everything is so black-and-white. The film becomes more complicated when addressing the bigger picture, the ethical debate surrounding who should be held accountable. The day-trip-turned-nightmare was an international tragedy in which 22 tourists lost their lives and another 25 sustained horrific burns. Availing herself to the expertise and experience of a variety of sources, from the tangata whenua to passionate tour guides, young helicopter pilots to first-aid responders, Kennedy allows the discussion to unfold from a number of perspectives, never inserting her own opinion or putting too fine a point on things.

Her work, as thrilling as it can be sickening, doesn’t need a scapegoat to be effective as a reminder of nature’s cruel indifference to our curiosity.

Moral of the Story: A thoroughly gripping documentary, full of emotional power and acts of bravery, and that can be hard to watch at times. Although director Rory Kennedy remains respectful by largely avoiding graphic imagery, the details shared in interviews are grisly and can be upsetting to hear. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 98 mins. 

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.outsideonline.com 

All Quiet on the Western Front

Release: Friday, October 28, 2022

👀 Netflix

Written by: Ian Stokell; Lesley Paterson; Edward Berger

Directed by: Edward Berger

Starring: Felix Kammerer; Albrecht Schuch; Daniel Brühl; Devid Striesow; Thibault de Montalembert 

Distributor: Netflix

 

****/*****

All Quiet on the Western Front is an intense experience, mostly by virtue of its realistic depictions of wartime violence. Based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, Edward Berger’s adaptation loses some of the detail found on the pages but nevertheless adopts the powerful anti-war stance of its source, a descent into hell experienced through the eyes of a young man during World War I. It’s not subtle with its messaging, nor should it be.

The material has of course been adapted before (in 1930 by Lewis Milestone, widely considered the definitive version, and for TV in 1979) but Berger has the distinction of directing the first German adaptation of the property. The result is a breathtaking and completely devastating account that follows 17-year-old foot soldier Paul Baümer (Felix Kammerer in an impressive big screen début) as his romantic notions of becoming a war hero are quickly broken once he’s exposed to the realities of the front line.

The grim opening is a masterclass, establishing tone and theme with machine-like efficiency. A teen-aged soldier named Heinrich is killed in action and the scene cuts to show his uniform being stripped from his corpse and sent to a cleaning facility where it will be sent back out for a new recruit to call his own. When Paul, who’s forged his parents’ signature so he can join his mates in the good fight, receives his uniform and notices Heinrich’s name tag still attached, he’s simply told the uniform was too small and that “this happens all the time.” The moment passes as an afterthought — the adrenaline in Paul, galvanized by the patriotic speech delivered by his school teacher, overriding whatever concerns he has.

That excitement passes just as quickly when Paul and his friends Albert (Aaron Hilmer), Franz (Moritz Klaus) and Ludwig (Adrian Grünewald) arrive at the water-logged, disease-riddled trenches near the northern French town of La Malmaison and their first night gives them a taste of what they were never told in the pamphlet. It’s not long before shell-shock takes hold, transforming exuberant boys into statues. With the emphasis on Paul, Kammerer’s gaunt and wide-eyed countenance makes for a powerful canvas upon which the loss of innocence plays out.

Meanwhile, in a radical but still impactful diversion from the book, a second plot thread follows the efforts of German official Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) as he scrambles to put a stop to the mounting casualties in what he and other top brass already know is a lost cause. News of the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II turns up the pressure to capitulate, yet Erzberger remains optimistic for productive discussions with the Allied forces. Brühl is very good portraying a pivotal historical figure, peaking with his high wire act of initiating peace talks with Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch (Thibault de Montalembert), who isn’t in a particularly merciful mood. The German Imperial Army has 72 hours to surrender, no negotiations.

From a standpoint of narrative flow the compromise here is apparent. The cuts back and forth sometimes feel disruptive, taking us away from what seems most urgent. However these pauses in the action are suffused with such tension and fatefulness they feel like essential inclusions, hinting toward the circumstances that fueled resentment and ultimately gave rise to a much darker period in German history. One of the most overt indications of where things are going is General Friedrichs (Devid Striesow), an overzealous power-monger who’s willing to sacrifice any number of faceless patriots in order to secure his own personal victory.

While the movie is extremely violent — there are a few sequences here that rival the opening stanza of Saving Private Ryan in terms of the disorienting, overwhelming pace and perversion of the situation — there is a bluntness about the presentation that disturbs even more. Throughout the camera remains a cold and objective observer while Ian Stokell and Lesley Paterson’s screenplay shares none of the idealism of its gung-ho protagonists who, on the cusp of manhood, are swayed by the idea of fighting for honor and courage for The Fatherland. In drawing attention to the endless cycle of death the narrative structure feels more like a machine itself.

All Quiet isn’t just intense; it’s exhausting and depressing. And that’s how it should be as well. A war film shouldn’t be easy to watch. Despite a final act that betrays logic (and history) somewhat, Berger’s approach is laudable for its brutal honesty and adherence to the spirit of the landmark source material.

Moral of the Story: Parts Dunkirk and 1917 with its immersive you-are-there POV, but more memorable for its Saving Private Ryan/We Were Soldiers-level of realistic violence, All Quiet on the Western Front is a war film that, as hard as it is to endure, might just be essential viewing. 

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 147 mins.

Quoted: “What is a soldier without war?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Fury

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Release: Friday, October 17, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: David Ayer

Directed by: David Ayer

There’s no such thing as a politically-neutral war film. That’s why David Ayer (End of Watch; Sabotage) should be praised for focusing not on the ideals and goals of war but rather its consequences. In his film there is a whole lot of loss and not a great coalition for reason. Few times before have camera angles remained so calm while also telling a thousand tales of the brutal atrocities of these violent outbursts in human history.

Death, destruction and psychological damage are bigger players in this hellish game than Brad Pitt could ever be. And this, it ought to be mentioned, is Brad Pitt operating at the top of his. There’s an almost journalistic approach taken by a director who has become comfortable with painting morally bankrupting scenes with the transparent brush of objective reality. Seeing a body being squashed by a platoon of tanks as they roll on down the road into the heart of Nazi Germany is just a fact of Fury. If we’re facing facts, we have to acknowledge there was a hand sticking out of the mud, that those weren’t just clothes being soiled and destroyed.

On the other hand, Fury is actually ironic when debating the merits of its Hollywood components. Brad Pitt is pretty. War is anything but. Make no mistake, though: as Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier, he’s the identifiable head of a body of strong-willed men who have been fighting the good fight for far too long. The film picks up on the defensive, as a very specific Sherman tank, affectionately labeled ‘Fury,’ is escaping intense aerial attacks after sitting like a duck amongst wreckage that doesn’t look too far removed from what we might imagine physical Hell to look like. It is 1945, a month before the official surrender of Nazi troops and at a time when Hitler was never more desperate. Opening title cards set the scene, and Ayer swings in with cameras immediately thrusting us onto the front lines.

German men, women and children are all armed and treated equally: they’re dispatched dispassionately by Collier’s men and then some. Collier is immediately backed by a ragtag group of good-old boys (plus a Mexican). We have Trini ‘Gordo’ Garcia (Michael Peña) as the primary tank driver; Grady ‘Coon-Ass’ Travis (Jon Bernthal) as a loudmouthed sumbitch; and the film’s biggest surprise in Shia LeBeouf’s man of faith, Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan.

A film is almost always automatically bolstered by performers showing up to perform their duties, and that’s precisely what happens here. There isn’t a false note in any performance, and these aren’t exactly what you’d describe as easy or predictable characters. They are characters we have seen before, true, but they operate under virtually impossible circumstances, and with each passing day the odds stack up exponentially against them.

Fury is primarily concerned with showcasing the fortitude and gung-ho spirit of this unit as they face some of the heaviest opposition relative to the second Great War, patrolling muddied, pot-hole-filled country lanes and tiny ramshackle towns that otherwise would be quaint were it not for the hostility. It commands attention via an easy to follow, simple story that shadows this tank until it runs out of luck (and ammo). What begins as a platoon of at least five Shermans is whittled down to just one as the superior firepower and construction design (though to a lesser extent) of the German tanks prove to be too much for the Allied Forces.

Adding to the chaos is a fresh-faced 18(ish)-year-old typist, a Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) who has been transferred to the Fury squad. Perhaps if there’s anything outstandingly cliché about this film it’s the hard time the preexisting members give the newcomer as he joins their ranks. Understandably, the kid is instantly overwhelmed and can’t face the reality of having to kill people on a daily basis. A great deal of the emotional heft exists as a result of the tension between an idealistic young lad who sees no good coming of harming Germans who have surrendered, and an experienced vet in Wardaddy who is concerned the newbie might get them all killed if he doesn’t toughen up.

Ayer pumps his film full of pain, rage, profound sadness. Cinematic liberties can be found every where you turn and you won’t have to look hard to find them, but buried deep within this familiar tale of fighting against impossible odds is a deeply disturbing, revolting truth. Men are not monsters before war. Men aren’t even monsters afterwards. But war is just another thing men are capable of. And the unrelentingly bleak Fury is, apparently, something that David Ayer and his fantastic company are capable of.

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4-5Recommendation: Grim and gory, Fury is undoubtedly a large-scale war film but the focus is much more personal than that. Ultimately this is about the individual efforts that helped shape the Allied Powers’ remarkable surge against a German army hell-bent on taking over the world. Ayer does an incredible job of setting atmosphere, elevating tension constantly and producing characters we can truly root for. I can’t imagine a single reason any fan of war films would be missing out on this one. That said, this isn’t one for the squeamish.

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “Ideas are peaceful. History is violent.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

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Release: Friday, August 22, 2014

[Theater]

Okay so there apparently is a major self-destructive streak in me, for I went to see the purportedly ill-advised Sin City sequel and walked out a happy customer. Perhaps more so than I rightfully should have been, too.

Has it really been ten years since the last time we wallowed in the streets of Frank Miller’s sick and twisted imagination? (Actually, it’s been nine but who’s counting?) Point being, its enough time for a follow-up film to be rolled out to the sound of crickets chirping. Moderate fans of the first have all but forgotten that there ever were plans on revisiting this place. Diehards likely even struggled to maintain a reasonable level of optimism. Everyone else simply went about their lives.

See, these aren’t the kinds of films that really move the viewer. And A Dame to Kill For had no intention of changing that, but in a twist of irony it kind of did. It moved people to the point of total disinterest. I had five people in my screening on opening night. Five, myself included. And I didn’t go to the crappy theater at the mall this time, either. Grossing a measly $6.4 million over the weekend (approximately $22 million less than its predecessor), one of its competitors that was already three weeks into its own theatrical run, Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps snatched that up within a couple of showings over that weekend alone.

I suppose me going on to say that Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is back but only for a paycheck won’t help anyone still on the fence about seeing this. Sure, Bruce’s here, but he’s literally in the background. Instead we get a new group of desperados born and bred in the filth of two of Miller’s graphic novels. He, along with returning director Robert Rodriguez, merges the titular novel with one called Just Another Saturday Night, along with two new stories created solely for the film. We first stumble upon a returning hard-man in Mickey Rourke’s battered and bruised Marv, who is seen picking himself up in the wake of a car crash. He starts recounting the last things he remembers and what brought him to this new low point. This part represents the second of two graphic novels used for the story.

Then, some new blood. Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears out of the blue (okay, the black-and-white) as a cocky but composed card player whose good fortune seems to know no bounds. Unfortunately, neither does his ego as he pits himself against one of the most ruthless scoundrels in all of Basin City — the one and only Senator Roarke (Powers Boothe). The Senator is back and more ruthless than ever, making it his personal mission to track down Johnny and reclaiming the money he “stole” at the game. Yeah, it doesn’t end well for Johnny.

And finally we come to the third main thread in Josh Brolin’s Dwight (played by Clive Owen in 2005), a man with a horrific past now doing his best to stay sober. That is, until the titular Dame comes into the picture, tempting Dwight back into a life he thought he had successfully gotten out of. Eva Green in this film doesn’t fit the description of ‘femme fatale;’ she doesn’t even epitomize it. She’s something else entirely, and it’s terrifying. (Well, I say ‘terrifying;’ others might have another word for it.) Macro-psychotic? Sexy? What?

Let’s actually talk about that for a second. How does A Dame to Kill For compare in its thematic presentation? If you recall, the day Sin City was released wasn’t exactly a red letter day for actresses the world over. Violent, sloppy and misogynistic to a fault, the movie indulged in sequences that had Jessica Alba’s hips gyrating, Rosario Dawson cleavage-ing, Devon Aoki compensating for her looks by just being a raging lunatic. But back then the over-the-top toplessness was. . .and forgive me for saying this. . .unique to the production design. The sheer lack of boundaries in terms of violence and sexuality contributed to the experience that was a solid graphic novel adaptation. Fast-forward nine years and the fact that Eva Green spends 90% of her scenes naked just comes across as sleazy and lazy.

Fortunately Nancy Carrigan’s story has an ever-so-slight silver lining to her dark cloud. Slipping into despair, the concubine chops her hair, mars her face with shards of glass (if women aren’t going to be sexy, they may as well destroy those useless good-looks, right?) and ultimately abandons her post dancing at the bar. Thank goodness. She makes moves to overcome her own personal hell, following Hartigan’s selfish act of suicide. Nancy then decides to partner up with Marv, who similarly has seen enough of this dirty old town.

Audiences clearly have already reached that threshold. But in the same way I find Rodriguez’ and Miller’s need to overcompensate for truly original storytelling with even more sexually explicit imagery and brutal violence an act of desperation (watch for an amusing cameo from All-State insurance guy Dennis Haysbert as Manute. . .and what happens to his poor eyeball), I view the mass amount of negativity heaped upon this release similarly desperate.

No, this is not Frank Miller’s Sin City, but it’s the next logical step and it is still a Frank Miller creation. It’s just too bad those who cared enough had to wait this long. There’s something to be said for the amount of power this trio of stories has likely lost after nearly a decade laying in wait.

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3-0Recommendation: An all-around consistent film in terms of appealing to its uniquely deranged fan base, A Dame to Kill For steps up the intensity of its thematic elements in an attempt to draw in fringes of a general interest audience. It may have failed in that regard, but for returning customers there’s enough to like here to warrant a ticket purchase, if not then definitely a rental at some point. On the other hand, if there was anything that put you off in Sin City, you probably could avoid this.

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “Never lose control, never let the monster out.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

For No Good Reason

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Release: Friday, April 25, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

If there’s any good reason to go see For No Good Reason, it’s the chance to see an extended slideshow of some of Ralph Steadman’s more provocative paintings.

Sure, you know who this guy is. His illustrations have probably even made an appearance in your nightmares at some point. Grotesque, emotionally raw and occasionally quite graphic, the splatter-art that has defined a couple of Hunter S. Thompson novels and the subsequent cinematic adaptations thereof has been a phenomenon you can’t quite ignore. The 78-year-old artist is simply too prolific. He has illustrated children’s books almost as much as he has detailed horrific imagery depicting some of the darkest corners of the human heart. While he has at times proven to be the voice of reason, other times he represents chaos and disorder, using his unique style to express deep frustration and even outrage at humanity’s capacity for evil, wrongdoing.

It is possible Steadman and his ideas are perhaps too big to fit into the home video format, which is essentially what For No Good Reason boils down to. His iconic work deserves much more detail and arguably even it’s own, separate film. Set Pink Floyd’s Saucerful of Secrets as the soundtrack to a collage of his best work, and you’re set; you have an instant classic on your hands. Neither the subject nor his art belong in a documentary quite as pedestrian as this. Director Charlie Paul and his wife, Lucy, a producer on the film, have good intentions, though, and they clearly revere the man and cherish the time they get to spend with him.

It’s certainly obvious what the film’s narrator — Hunter S. Thompson aficionado and puppeteer Johnny Depp — thinks, too. (Everything presented here is “amazing” to him. . .though he can’t really be faulted for saying the word over and over again, the work really is just that.) Ignoring all of the film’s blandness and a general failure to launch, the argument that the subject matter isn’t treated with respect cannot be made.

Any fan of the artiste or those with a general interest in the collaboration between Steadman and the father of gonzo journalism — a style of writing in which the narrator/author is not only spectator to the events surrounding him, but becomes a part of the drama himself, and writing from a point of view that’s not necessarily objective — will find themselves intrigued as Steadman regales the small camera crew that hangs about in his Kent, England home about a time in his life, something slightly more than a decade, that would prove to be both exciting and critical for his career. Touring the country with the crazed writer after bumping into him at the 1970 Kentucky Derby, Steadman would go on to experience great success as his frequent collaborations with Thompson gave him exposure he likely wouldn’t have received otherwise. In reflecting, Steadman’s nostalgia and passion for those days is palpable and these moments justify some of that ticket price.

But Johnny. . .oh Johnny: “Amazing.”

The documentary also is quite helpful in providing a first-hand account of how Steadman physically sets about creating his work. This is fascinating stuff as well. It could arguably be the main event. What blossoms out of a simple splattering of black paint is likely to leave the mind reeling. During this creative process the intimacy of the home video is actually beneficial. We always feel like we want to get closer to the artist and his canvas, and here we do.

Watching the soft-spoken Steadman go to work feels somewhat like a privilege, but elsewhere the production feels amateurish. The documentary doesn’t assume it’s audience has read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which seems a little counterintuitive since this documentary is all but catered to the fandom thereof. (Well, it’s not. It’s catered to the artwork. But the gonzo journalism-obsessives are likely to comprise the majority of the audience. This is a safe assumption, no?)

Outside of seeing the artist at work, there is not a great deal of payoff. Audiences paying to see this movie ought to have a decent background already on the Thompson-Steadman dynamic, but the Pauls make the mistake of assuming those in attendance haven’t yet accessed these beyond-ridiculous pages, this depraved adventure spewed forth from the collective minds of two men hell-bent on doing drugs and living the ‘American dream,’ as it were. There’s too much exposition and back-tracking, on top of a very awkward use of Depp. There’s a sense that we should all be paying more attention to this Hollywood celebrity more than the subject itself at times.

The film features additional interviews with the likes of Terry Gilliam (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), Richard E. Grant (Dracula), and Jann Wenner (Jerry Maguire) but their talking time is limited to unforgettable segments.

For No Good Reason means well, and it required a lot of effort and time to create. Apparently 15 years in the making, the final result unfortunately stoops to treating its audience as if it has deteriorated to the level of dumb beasts. Unless we have been casually sipping on gin and ingesting ether on a somewhat regular basis, there’s simply not enough here to justify a 90-minute production.

GALLERIA 

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illustration for ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ a dystopian novel by Ray Bradbury

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‘Earth Belly’

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‘Queen and Alice,’ an illustration for Alice in Wonderland

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2-5Recommendation: Although fans of Hunter S. Thompson, gonzo journalism, and Steadman’s unique art will undoubtedly find something to appreciate about the small window into the man’s life, this rather insignificant documentary ultimately comes off as slapdash, underserving both its subject and target audience by providing redundant information and failing to make proper use of Steadman’s utterly fascinating imagination. There are a few artistic flourishes throughout, but even these feel cheap and tacked-on. Somewhere out there lurks a better version of this film, and the faithful should stay vigilant for whatever that may be.

Rated: R

Running Time: 89 mins.

Quoted: “It’s what we’re thinking in the back of our heads, but aren’t capable of getting it out.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.ralphsteadman.com 

12 Years a Slave

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Release: Friday, October 18, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

Every so often there are those releases that stir up a buzz unlike any other; a certain climate that generates perhaps as much interest in the film as the film itself. This feverish talk might be about the cast involved and the work they have turned in, or the timing of such a film, or simply the subject matter. The hype can become so great as to almost assume a deafening roar, becoming something unto itself.

In the case of Steve McQueen’s telling of a free man being abducted into slavery in pre-Civil War America, the graphic contents of this particular journey certainly reached this kind of level for me. A great deal of discussion stemmed from the accuracy of its depictions of human suffering and cruelty, of violence and bloodshed, and what may be worst of all, the language and dialogue. 12 Years a Slave was thereby rendered as something more than what it perhaps should be viewed and appreciated for.

Even if personal expectations were skewed because of this unique psychological component, it would be wildly inaccurate to say the film did not do what it needed to. My bracing for some extraordinary scenes helped me get through them a little bit easier, but that’s not to say the rest of the material is easy, either. Yet, if there’s any beauty to be found within this piece (and there is, for if you want to tell me that this man’s true story doesn’t end well you’d be dead wrong), it’ll likely take several views to actually appreciate such beauty. Unfortunately most of the film is just miserable enough to make sitting through it all a second time a rather unreasonable proposition.

But maybe this speaks to the true scope of McQueen’s vision and the transparency of John Ridley’s screenplay adaptation of the memoirs penned in 1853 by Solomon Northup. There are beautiful moments to behold, but there’s a heavy, heavy price to pay. Like reflecting back on any number of societal injustices as through a textbook or studying up on it in class, the meaning is in the details but you must read to find it.

There is no question that 12 Years will become 2013’s most notorious film, and this will be for a variety of reasons — most of which are good, though some will be more difficult to understand than others. Among the more shocking revelations, the simplicity to the story will eat at the viewer for the entire two hours. Not only is it the ease in which Solomon disappears off the streets of his hometown that’s disturbing, but the constant physical and psychological abuse he suffers is mostly derived from his inability to proclaim his true identity.

In Saratoga, New York in 1841 Solomon is approached by a couple of gentlemen who have a business proposition for him. As a talented violist, Solomon has a great reputation, and is always away from home playing for a variety of special events. These men need some music for one of their own events, and they convince him to join them on a trip to Washington D.C., where he shall be treated well and paid for his efforts.

The deceit is unnervingly simple. One day, he wakes up not in his bed, but instead chained to a dirt floor by his wrists and ankles. Two men enter the dank room and tell him that he’s no longer who he says he is; from hence forth he is Platt, a supposed Georgia runaway. When Solomon begs to differ, he is beaten within an inch of his life and left to cry out for help, as a camera pans out, revealing the truth about his undisclosed location. Solomon is forced to put on new clothes — the pajamas he once was wearing being the last item from his home that he had on his person — and is then sent away from this place and put on the slave market, bound for Louisiana on a ferry.

Solomon will bounce from a couple of different plantations where his workload and conditions become more dire and degrading. First he becomes the property of William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man who seems to possess at least some tangled thread of humanity. He is the one to provide Solomon with another violin, perhaps the single good deed that will befall him for the next several years. However it’s on his property where Solomon also clashes with a particularly nasty slave driver named Tibeats (Paul Dano), and incurs his wrath after Solomon proves himself more than a hard-working slave. This event results in a protracted pseudo-lynching scene — arguably one of the most difficult scenes to view throughout — and furthermore, it forces Ford to turn over Solomon to another man because of a mounting debt Ford has to pay off.

This transfer will land Solomon officially in hell, as he winds up the property of none other than Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a ruthless man with a reputation for being an “n-word breaker.” Simultaneously, Epps has heard some things about this Platt, about his work ethic and his reputation for questioning his Masters. Being the maniacally drunk, perversely racist man he is, Epps makes it his mission to go out of his way to really break him down, make him sorry for ever having shown up on his plantation. As if he could help it.

Mind you, while all this is going on, Solomon’s family is growing up. The man spends over a decade in the south under a new identity and not being able to communicate at all to the outside world. All the credit possible must be bestowed upon McQueen and Ridley here for their ability to convert their southern plantation settings into the scenic yet stifled pits of inhumanity that they effectively were. It is in these moments, these scenes where you truly feel cut off from civilization, suffocated. The difference between where Solomon starts off and where he winds up is really felt.

In his last year of being enslaved at the hands of Epps and the perhaps even more hateful Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson), Solomon comes across a carpenter named Bass (Brad Pitt) who’s originally from Canada. A believer in the abolition of slavery, he is inexplicably friendly with Epps and these moments offer up some poignant lines that address directly what is being put in front of our eyes. . .as well as Epps’. The pair’s views on the matter couldn’t differ any greater; yet as strongly written as this moment is, and as accurately as these characters may be rendered, this oasis of peace seems very strange. At the very least, a little oddly timed.

We toil along with Solomon throughout this whole saga, feeling the weight upon his shoulders as he watches in horror at the pain others are also enduring. A mother whom Solomon is traded with earlier on is unable to reconcile her grief after being taken away from her young children. On Epps’ plantation, he meets a young woman named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) who is the center of all of Epps’ affections. While she may be the most tragic victim on display, there are many others.

So we trudge through the weight of all of this, and yet there is a moment or two of tranquility. What does any of it mean? Is it just the sheer randomness of his abduction that we should be the most attentive to or is it the collective poison of slavery’s influence not only over those in the southern cotton fields, but over the spirit and soul of the nation at large? What are we to take away from this aside from receiving an update on the barbarity of the white man at his worst? It’s a little difficult to say really, because while McQueen does limit the violence to really only six distinct moments, the atmosphere of the movie will ultimately be more memorable than the miraculous survival of Solomon as a slave and his freedom finally regained.

Perhaps what hurt my own viewing was the aforementioned and self-imposed psyching out. I certainly elevated my expectations going in, most all of which were met (good and bad). However, what I recall the most after walking out is feeling a great sadness. This creation is undoubtedly a masterpiece, but yet it seems strange to only feel gutted after watching, and not something more akin to being enlightened. Yes, slavery and racism is pointless, but we knew that already.

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4-0Recommendation: Raw, visceral and unrelenting, 12 Years a Slave sets a new standard for cinematic displays of human suffering, not only in its realism but with regards to the nature of the treatment. At times, it can be certainly heavy-handed, though there’s no denying its a journey virtually everyone must see. Through graphic depictions we can start to get an appreciation for the barbarity of it all. It wouldn’t have hurt for an extended conclusion, but I suppose there’s enough there to nominate McQueen’s third project as one of the most powerful and well-crafted (and damning) pieces of the year.

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “A man does as he pleases with his property.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com