Google+ Followers

Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: Blue Is The Warmest Color

Blue Is The Warmest Color (2013): Written by Abdellatif Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche.  Starring: Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux.  Running Time: 179 minutes.  Based on the graphic novel Blue Angel by Julie Maroh.   

Rating: 3.5/4 

            Having finally seen Blue Is The Warmest Color (La Vie d'Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2 in the original French), it’s no longer a wonder to me why the jury at Cannes decided to break with tradition and give its highest award, the Palme d’Or, not just to the director, but also to the two lead actresses.  The level of determined commitment necessary to produce two such performances is beyond my ability to quantify, and watching the two main characters be so vividly brought to life over the movie’s immense running time is a marvel to behold.  And believe or not, I’m not just talking about the movie’s much-lauded, heavily-debated, and frequently-criticized sex scenes.  There is a lot of nakedness in this movie, but only a fraction of it is physical.

            Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a fairly normal French teenager- she goes to school, she studies, she flirts- and as the movie opens, she is just beginning to explore her budding sexuality.  Partially due to constant urging by her friends, she decides to give "regular" sex a shot with a guy from another class, only to feel afterwards that it was nothing special.  Shortly afterwards, she’s spontaneously kissed by a girl from her class, and begins to think she might be a lesbian.  She has a gay friend of hers take her to a few bars, where she stumbles into a blue-haired woman she passed on the street awhile back, named Emma (Léa Seydoux). 

            In a short amount of time- it’s not quite clear how short, the movie makes no effort to keep track of time- they start dating and having very intense sex, and after a few years they are living together.  Adèle is a Kindergarten teacher while Emma pursues her painting in the hopes of being shown in a major exhibit.  This normal, everyday existence starts to inevitably cool their once white-hot passion for each other, leading to a seemingly inevitable separation, which Emma seems to handle far better than Adèle can.   

            I’ll drop my summation of the story there, because that’s really all there is to it- this 3-hour marathon of a film is focused solely on a tale of once-passionate romance slowly fading away.  While there are ten thousand and one other movies that tell the exact same story, what makes Blue so unique, so engrossing, and so very much worth seeing is its determination to show every gritty part of Adèle’s growth (or lack thereof) from a frustrated, lonely teenager to a frustrated, lonely young woman.  And I really do mean every gritty part- her wonder, her happiness, her feelings of attraction and love, her orgasms, her pains and fears, and eventually, her heart-rending agonies- everything is put on full view for us in the audience, and the end result is something wholly, and in my opinion beautifully, unique. 

            Having read through quite a few reviews and commentaries ranging from the overwhelmingly positive to the harshly negative concerning the film’s depiction of a) sex and sexuality in general and b) homosexuality specifically, and having spent the better parts of two weeks trying to figure out what I can add to the debates, I think I fall somewhere in the middle in regards to both those topics and the quality of the film as a whole.  I definitely think it’s one of the year’s better films and is definitely worth watching, but it won’t crack my Top 10 list, mostly because long, slow-burning relationship dramas, no matter how well made (and this one is very well-made) simply aren’t my cup of tea. 

            In regards to the two more controversial aspects of the film, I’ll start by addressing its treatment of sexuality.  Yes, even though it’s a movie about an ostensibly “normal” relationship, both female leads fit right into most conventional definitions of what makes a woman “sexually attractive.”  Yes, they are being filmed by a straight, male director (who, according to the actresses themselves, was an absolute terror to work with).  And yes, the camera lingers for very long periods of time on just about every part of their bodies, sometimes for several minutes at a time.  Given all that, although I personally didn’t find the film to be voyeuristic, pornographic, or sexist in its tone and treatment of the female body, I can definitely understand why those labels and many, many others have been applied to the film by a great many viewers and critics.  I too am a straight man, so it is entirely possible that that fact alone made me less inclined to feel offended said scenes.  

            It has also been noted time and again that, even though this is “supposedly” a lesbian film, no out-of-the-closet lesbian was involved in its production, either on- or off-screen.  This has been the basis of a great many criticisms that the movie is trying to “accurately” show female homosexuality without actually having an understanding of it, thus making it less of a great movie and more of a pretentious, arrogant, arthouse display of the male gaze in action.  I disagree.  Yes, it’s a relationship drama, and the relationship in question happens to be that of a lesbian couple, but there’s nothing else in the movie, be it in the dialogue, the shot composition, or anything else, that tries to reach out and make any sort of statement about homosexuality.  Even Adèle’s identity as a lesbian can easily be called into question- she never openly declares herself to be a lesbian, and even at the end, when we learn about various post-Emma affairs she’s had, we learn that plenty of them were with men, suggesting that her entire relationship with Emma was less of a realization of who she really is, and was instead merely another part of her personal journey, with no indication by the end where said journey will end, or even if it will end.  Which, for me, is ultimately one of the film's greatest strengths.

            So, honestly, I think that discussions about the film’s pedigree as a “lesbian” film are sort of missing the point- it’s not trying to be a film ABOUT homosexuality any more than it tries to be a film about French philosophy.  The only thing it tries to be is a straightforward, undistracted, and brutally unyielding glimpse into a relationship made achingly real by the power of its leads.  And what a glimpse it is.  Whether you end up loving or hating it, and there will be a lot of people in both parties, if you can stomach the running time, this is another must-see for the already-crowded holidays. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Review- The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013): Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, and directed by Peter Jackson.  Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, and Orlando Bloom.  Music by: Howard Shore.  Running Time: 161 minutes.  Based on The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            As good as Desolation of Smaug is- and it is very good, in some ways better than last year’s opening feature- I can’t help but feel worried for the finale next year, because Smaug chooses to end before any of the really major events of the book go down.  Given the fact that, in addition to the story of the book itself, this trilogy has also committed to throwing in an outside story about the Necromancer, next year’s conclusion to the Hobbit trilogy is going to be stuffed to the gills with plot.  That’s not to say that Jackson can’t pull it off- he did so handsomely in Return of the King, and there’s no indication thus far that he can’t do so again, even though this series will never hold a candle to its predecessor.  However, that is a question to be dealt with in a year’s time, when the trilogy will be complete and we can finally look at this new set of LOTR movies as an aggregate whole.  For now, I’m content to enjoy Smaug for what it is; another rollickingly enjoyable Middle Earth adventure. 

            After getting a glimpse of how and why Thorin and Gandalf teamed up to start the quest, we jump right back into the middle of the main story.  Bilbo and the dwarves take brief refuge in the home of Beorn, a Skin-Changer who agrees to guide them to the edges of Murkwood, through which they must go if they are to arrive at the mountain on time to open the secret door mentioned in the last film.  They are still being pursued by good ‘ol Whitey, but he is soon called back to the lair where the Necromancer is building a new goblin army to prepare them for war (this part should actually tie into the end of the book very well). 

            Unable to find their way through the woods, the dwarves are briefly captured by man-eating spiders before Bilbo is able to save them using the ring.  Said salvation is brief though, as they are almost immediately captured again, this time by the Wood Elves, led by Prince Legolas, who at this point in his life was still very anti-dwarf.  It’s actually quite nice to see Orlando Bloom back in a role that suits him.  Obviously his presence is a marked deviation from the book, but it’s a welcome one.  Another deviation is his companion/obvious love interest, Tauriel, Captain of the Guard, one of Jackon’s better deus ex machine devices, who soon develops feelings for the dwarf Fili.  Thus far, this setup barely qualifies as a love triangle, and if Jackson knows what’s good for him, he’ll keep it that way.  I actually don’t mind the idea of a dwarf-elf romance as a subplot, it would let the movies dig a bit more into the complex inter-species politics of Middle Earth.  What DOES bother me is that the one dwarf singled out for a romance is the one that looks much less like a dwarf and more like a Vogue model in mini. 

            Bilbo, in yet another clever rescue attempt, is soon able to steal the keys and ushers the dwarves into a collection of empty wine barrels bound for Esgaroth, the small lake-town built by the survivors of Smaug’s attack on Dale.  They eventually run into Bard, descendant of the old rulers of Dale, who smuggles them into the city, currently under the iron fist of the fat and greedy Master of Lake Town, who agrees to help Thorin for his own blindly selfish reasons.  Unlike Legolas or Tauriel, Luke Evans’ Bard is a character from the book, but his role here as the proverbial “good guy” is a significant expansion of Jackson's making.  And like with Legolas and Tauriel, it's a good one, as it allows us to have a more emotional connection to the people who eventually bear the brunt of Smaug’s wrath. 

            Before you ask, yes, the barrel-riding scene is a VERY gratuitously long sequence, but it’s the abjectly and absurdly fun kind of gratuitous.  It may, strictly speaking, be “unnecessary,” but bringing the word “unnecessary” into discussions of cinematic fantasy is a slippery slope when not carefully managed because, strictly speaking, no fantasy tale, no movie (or any art for that matter), is “necessary.”  So I prefer to content myself with the question, “Is it fun enough to justify its existence?”  And in my opinion, hell yes, it absolutely is, although I fully sympathize with those who find it as excessive as the Misty Mountain fight in An Unexpected Journey

            Even more fun, though, is pretty much the entire third act of the movie, after the dwarves enter the mountain and finally encounter Smaug.  It’s rather telling that out of the FIVE full-length movies he’s appeared in this year (no really, FIVE), Smaug is the finest performance Benedict Cumberbatch graced us with in 2013.  With a voice so rich, so mellow, and yet so full of viciously clever villainy, the appearance of Smaug and his entire conversation with Bilbo is more than enough to justify the price of admission.  The Hobbit series, thus far, has had many, many flaws, and has probably broken a few hearts as well, but thank Jesus, they nailed it with Smaug.  Like with Gollum in the original trilogy, Smaug could have gone so horribly, terribly wrong, and they just GOT it here.  It’s a shame they don’t give him a belly covered in gemstones, like in the book, but the voice and writing is so spot-on, I couldn’t bring myself to care. 

            Again though, like its predecessor, Smaug is brought down a peg by what is, in the end, the only flaw of any real consequence in these films, and that is the relatively large stretches of time where Bilbo is literally nowhere to be seen.  Again, like with the last one, the time away from Bilbo and the quest is not really bad, per say- we get some great world building with the petty Elvin King Thranduil, Gandalf gets some cool moments investigating the mystery of the Necromancer (who is really Sauron, completely unnecessary spoiler), we get a strong feel for the corrupt poverty of Esgaroth, and all of it is very well-made and acted.  In a rather perverse way, the only real problem with all that is that Martin Freeman is just so damn good as Bilbo, it almost feels like a waste when we’re deprived of more time to watch him grimace, gulp, and do constant double-takes when something newly horrible comes along, only to find a way to overcome it. 

            For me, this is epitomized by the fact that the movie never once mentions that the day of the gang’s arrival in Esgaroth is Bilbo’s 51st birthday.  For all the tiny tidbits Jackson brings to life with his cinematic magic, that piece was apparently too small to worry about.  And, if I am to be honest, when I first realized that as the credits rolled, I felt a small yet distinct sadness.  In a world full of powerful races, kings, wizards, and schemers, the hobbit characters consistently provide the heart and soul that make Middle Earth a world caring about.  And when that heart is missing, the rest of the movie suffers as a result.  It’s there in the beginning, it’s there in the end, but in the middle it drops out a few times too often.  It does not ruin this particular movie for me, but how it’s handled in the final installment will be the crucial dividing line between this trilogy being truly great, and being just very good.           

-Noah Franc   

Friday, December 20, 2013

Review: Catching Fire

Catching Fire (2013): Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn, directed by Francis Lawrence.  Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, and the Master himself, Donald Sutherland.  Running Time: 146 minutes.  Based on The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. 

Rating: 3/4 

            I’m really quite astonished at the difference in quality between Catching Fire and The Hunger Games.  Any of you who actually read my Top 10 list of 2012 last winter may recall that The Hunger Games was (in my opinion) the least well-made movie I happened to see that year, and nearly 12 months later, I stand by my initial opinion of the film- it’s characters and reality-show spin on the well-known Battle Royale formula interested me enough to get me to pick up the books (of which I am now a shameless fan), but I can’t call it a “good” movie by any stretch of the imagination.  The direction and screenplay were average at best, the acting was astonishingly wooden given the high-caliber cast they’d thrown together, the settings, designs, and effects were depressingly cheap, and the whole effect was further damaged by truly awful camerawork.  Thankfully, Catching Fire is a big step up from the first film on almost every level, and even if it falls shy of being a truly great film, it’s encouraging that the franchise seems to be picking up some much-needed steam heading into its second half. 

            We pick up where the first movie ended, with Katniss and Peeta returning “triumphantly” to District 12 after the Games, where they now live in stately, comfortable houses built solely for victors.  Nothing returns to normal though, because not only are they haunted by memories of the Games, they are also haunted by the “perfect love story” reality-TV ruse that got them out of it, because- as we learn in bits and pieces- most of the Districts never bought the love story, and are instead using Katniss as a symbol of resistance and rebellion. 

            For obvious reasons, this leaves a bad taste in the mouth of Donald Sutherland’s President Snow, who is still the best character being given the best performance in the entire series.  He shows up at Katniss’ house to lay down the gauntlet- either Katniss fully immerses herself in the innocent, love-struck girl she’s pretending to be, to the point where even he believes it, or her family will be killed, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.  Oh, and Kale will be killed too.  Remember him?  No?  Well, no worries, you’ll never have any reason to.    

            Her trial-by-fire soon arrives in the form of the Victory Tour, visiting each District in turn to honor their dead, and her resolve is immediately tested when she arrives at 11 and finds a massive, holographic image of Rhue staring at her from the middle of the square.  Right away we’re off to a good start, as the tour gives Catching Fire a lot more time to flesh out the many economic and cultural features of the world meant as analogies and/or parodies of our own- massive structural inequality, the cult of celebrity, the vapid shallowness of reality TV and popular culture, etc. etc.  It’s a crucial bit of world-building that the first movie never took the time to dig into, and the psychological strain it puts on Katniss finally gives Jennifer Lawrence the chance to show off the acting skills that BOTH of her big movies from last year determinedly tried to hide. 

            She’s not the only one to make strides though- Josh Hutcherson was as blank a slate as it gets last time around, but here, he also gets to break out a bit of emotional variety for Peeta, and the movie takes a few tentative steps towards making the burgeoning relationship between him and Katniss somewhat believable.  And no, that’s not a spoiler- nothing involving the awfully unnecessary love triangle counts as a spoiler.  Also, Woody Harrelson deserves due credit for proving that, like Javier Bardem, he is one of the few actors skilled enough to work through a terrible haircut.    

            As I said though, this movie is still far from perfect.  Philip Seymour Hoffman is criminally underused as the new Gamemaker; for whatever reason, he seems to have mysteriously left his charisma at home the day they shot his scenes.  There are two excellent moments where Katniss and Peeta delve into the PTSD side of surviving a blood sport, but both are over in a heartbeat and are never revisited again.  Which is a real shame, because this whole series is a golden psychological playground, and a bit more focus on how brutally the whole scenario begins to warp Katniss’ psyche would have done wonders.  The movie also starts to repeat most of the first film when we inevitably return to the Games (that’s not a spoiler either, it was in the trailers), and nearly all of that is just another 10 rounds of Forest Tag.  However, both that and the love triangle are flaws directly carried over from the books, so it would be churlishly unfair to fault the movies for them. 

            There are also plot-holes out the sports arena, and the entire political system that supports the Games seems so hilariously flimsy that you can’t help but think, “It took them a whole 75 years to get a revolution off the ground, and even then it’s started by berries?”  Hell, President Snow even ADMITS how ridiculous it is that simple berries could unwind decades of oppression.  The books can be easily accused of this as well, but I tend to overlook this because it's ultimately secondary to the series’ primary purpose, i.e., to rail against economic inequality, and to deride how pop culture and celebrity cults can (and indeed are) used to distract people from noticing systematic injustice.  In a way, it’s similar to the many story issues with the Marvel movies- I can’t blame people for harping on them, but on the other hand, I think focusing on them mostly misses the point of the series. 

            I think what I appreciate most about Catching Fire is that it achieves a sense of bigness that the first film, once again, sorely lacked.  For all its aspirations to be a social and political commentary, The Hunger Games is also meant to be a sprawling, sci-fi epic, and this time around, the world of the films really starts to come into its own.  We don’t see nearly enough of any of the Districts, but we do get to see a LOT more of the Capital, and even though the second Games takes place in yet another forest, it’s shot far better than the first one, making it easier for the viewers to keep track of exactly where Katniss and her friends are within the maze. 

            It won’t crack my Top 10, but Catching Fire is a well-made, well-acted, and very engaging sequel, and if they manage to pull off the finale right, we’ll look back at this flick as the franchise’s key turning point.  It seems the odds are finally in this series’ favor. 

-Noah Franc

Friday, December 13, 2013

Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013): Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.  Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, and Garrett Hedlund.  Running Time: 105 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4 

            Fans of the Coen brothers, possibly my personal favorite pair of directors currently in the business, have long noted that a great many of their films are just as much about capturing the essence of a specific time and place as they are about story and characters (if indeed there is a “story” at all).  It’s hard to imagine the plot of Fargo having the same emotional resonance outside a land as numbingly flat and a culture as unfailingly polite as that of the northern Midwest.  Take the characters of No Country For Old Men away from the crime-ridden border between Mexico and Texas, and the entire story simply wouldn’t happen.  True Grit is a Western, and like any proper Western, the vast, lonely landscape is an entire character in and of itself.  A Serious Man, while not relying so much on a specific location, is a film very much set within affluent Jewish-American culture.  In their latest entry, a meandering tale of a young musician struggling to make it, the Coens choose as their setting the New York Greenwich Village music scene circa 1961, just before the folk music revival sparked by the arrival of legends like Bob Dylan. 

            Llewyn’s sad, jaded, and cynical face is both the first and the last thing we see.  On both occasions, he’s performing at the Gaslight Café, singing a mournful ballad of a man who’s less afraid of death than he is of lying alone and cold beneath the earth for Lord knows how long.  Like all of the songs Llewyn sings over the course of the film (the aptly-named Oscar Isaac, along with the rest of the cast, did his own singing for the soundtrack), you can hear a great amount of himself in the music and words.  He is clearly talented, and clearly passionate about what he does, and yet his career appears to be leading nowhere.  In part, this is because of difficulties with his efforts to reinvent himself as a singer following the death of his longtime collaborator Mike (whose voice in several recordings is provided by Markus Mumford).  The frustration all this brings him is kicked up a notch when he learns that a fellow aspiring performer has already landed a major record deal with a good agent, despite the fact that, in Llewyn’s view, he lacks “higher brain functions.” 

            He's one of the more sympathetic Coen protagonists we've gotten in awhile, but being able to sympathize with Llewyn doesn't mean we are able to like him very much- his constant streak of bad luck is topped only by his incredible ability to offend everyone who tries to help him, along with his tendency to get other people’s girlfriends pregnant (while also trying to borrow money from them).  Even his reverence for music is pushed to an alienating extreme- he’s offended when friends ask him to play at parties and disgusted when an audience sings along with a performance.  His life seems to consist of one long, endless cycle- perform, record a song or two, grab a few bucks, infringe on the hospitality of a small checklist of friends, insult everyone in the room, get thrown out, rinse, wash, repeat- and by the end you can’t help but feel that, like Sisyphus pushing his boulder, he’s damned to repeat this cycle forever.  This conclusion is aided by the fact that it’s left deliberately vague how often all this has happened before. 

            This journey through Llewyn’s own personal Hell is broken only by the musical numbers, where the movie graciously pauses to let the sound of the music fill out the corners of the scene. There is no effort to rush through any of them or push them into the background- when it’s time for someone to sing, that becomes, for a brief moment, the center of the entire film.  Although I could understand some claiming these scenes are superfluous non-sequitors, I felt they served the crucial purpose of reminding us why Llewyn cannot bring himself to stop performing, even as his chances at success grow longer with each passing day.  In a way, music is the only thing that really humanizes him time and again.  He lies, he smooth-talks, he insults, he sinks to a number of lows in just the few short days of his life we see, but when he sings, he can’t help but abandon all of his otherwise omnipresent pretensions and worries.  The music simply doesn't allow it.  He’s certainly no hero, but neither is he a villain.  Like most people, he’s somewhere in that every-murky middle area. 

            For the attentive viewer, there are a few amusing shout-outs to previous Coen films.  In a brief detour to Chicago, Llewyn shares a car with John Goodman’s sharp-tongued jazz musician and his “chauffeur,” a man whose scarcity of speech can’t help but remind one of Steve Buscemi’s recalcitrant partner in Fargo.  Llewyn himself, a man struck by one round of seemingly random bad luck after another, may remind others of the equally hapless Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man.  And in a particularly apt turn, we learn that the cat whose escapades keep getting Llewyn into trouble is named Ulysses, after the Greek legend whose adventures inspired O Brother Where Art Thou (and which also featured an exploration of American musical genres). 

            It’s always an odd experience watching a film with a protagonist who’s constantly deceptive, yet feels so genuine in their own way.  That’s one of the great strengths of how the Coen brothers exercise their craft- they can make even their most extreme, weirdest, off-beat characters feel like real people they happened across in a pub, in some tucked-away corner of the world.  That strength is on full display here, but it's not the only thing that makes this movie something special in a year full of retreads, sequels, and reboots- more than being about any one character, Inside Llewyn Davis is also about music as an art form in and of itself, and how devotion to an art can both elevate us and pull us down, and how there's sometimes no real reason for either one to happen.  It's a small film, and a quiet film, and it certainly won’t please some, but there are few other films in their canon that find the Coens in such solid artistic form.   

-Noah Franc 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Legend of Korra- A Book Two Breakdown

***note: this post assumes you have watched all of Legend of Korra, Book Two, and will spoil everything.  If you have not yet watched the finale, turn back now.  You have been warned.***

            And just like that, Book Two, aka “Spirits,” of Legend of Korra is also over and done with.  With another two seasons already greenlit, we are now about halfway through this much-beleaguered follow-up to Last Airbender.  I won’t draw this post out by recapping my likes and dislikes in regards to Book One, since you can read them yourself at your leisure.  I also won’t do a point-by-point breakdown of the many, many ways in which this season mirrored Book One to an alarming degree- others have done that far better than I can.  Instead, like with my previous analysis of Book One, I will simply go over what I felt worked and didn’t work in this latest season (a video version of my thoughts can be viewed via my Youtube channel). 

            For starters, I think it’s safe to say that, on the whole, this was a pretty broken and scattered season.  It’s not bad- far from it.  In fact, I still defend this show as the best thing American animation has going for it at the moment, with the exception of perhaps ParaNorman from Laika, Disney’s recent Frozen, and the How To Train Your Dragon sequel by Dreamworks.  But the cracks in this show got real, real big this time around, although the mostly-solid finale gives me hope that, with the possibility of no future seasons no longer hanging around their necks like a millstone, Mike and Brian will be able to right this ship in the next Book, which will be called “Change.”  I’ll dispense with the format I used last time (good first, bad second) and run through the more frustrating aspects of Book Two before praising what I liked about it (and there was plenty of stuff I really liked in this season). 

Problem #1: Way, way too many plot threads

            For all its flaws, Book One was exceptionally tightly written, and that was what ultimately made it work so well by the end.  This Book, which had two more episodes to play around with, tried to stuff in so many extra plot threads and character arcs that a great many ended up being dropped altogether, or resolved as bewilderingly fast as Book One was.  Ironic, given that I listed a lack of filler as one of Book One’s flaws.  For example, I said in my first vlog of episodes one and two that I was actually pretty intrigued by the history of Korra’s father and uncle.  Shame that it was then dropped for nearly ten episodes while Korra ran around sticking heads into Nagga’s mouth, and was then hastily tied up with a well-animated but disappointingly brief fistfight. 

            This ties into pretty much every plot thread involving Unaloq, who is easily the weakest Avatar villain we’ve yet seen.  None of the various threads involving him were adequately completed.  Why did he want to be an Anti-Avatar?  How did he manage to get in touch with the dark spirit in the first place?  How long was he planning all this?  We don’t know.  I assume we’ll never know, since he’s dead now.  He has no understandable motivation like Tarrloq or Zuko, and he lacks the pure evil charisma of Zhou, Ozai, Azula, or Amon to make up for it.  Which is a particular shame, given how great all of those characters worked as antagonists.  Hell, even Verrick was a bad guy for a mere two episodes, and he still made more of an impression than this dude.  Villains, like female characters, have always been among this franchise’s biggest advantages, so to get a villain this bland and so utterly without a reason to do what he was doing is, in a way, even worse than if he’d been straight-up poorly written. 

            There are other loose threads in this season- a lot of them, actually- but instead of listing them all, I’ll just roll the biggest ones into the next point, since that needs to be dealt with on its own. 

Problem #2: There was no reason to drag us back to Republic City 

            This was not my biggest problem with “Spirits,” but it’s a close second.  Nothing that happened in Republic City needed to happen.  They go there to get military support for Korra’s father.  Doesn’t happen.  Korra stupidly decides to try and get General Iroh to break the friggin’ law and start one anyway.  Over in a heartbeat.  Bolin becomes a movie star in a parody of war propaganda.  Cute, sometimes funny, but aside from giving him a good character moment he could just as easily have gotten somewhere else, that also led nowhere.  Verrick’s turn as the bad guy?  Interesting, but also leads to an utter nothing. 

Problem #3: Love Triangle retread 

            This is one of the lesser issues with this Book, because unlike in the last one, it was mercifully brief.  Like getting a tooth yanked out without Novocain, we get one scene of awkwardness with Korra, Mako, and Asami, and then the pain quickly recedes into a dull ache, lingering in the background, but little enough to be ignored. 

Problem #4: Korra.  I mean, Jesus Christ girl

            And here we come to the biggest problem with this season- a main character who succeeded in spending the entire first half of the season pissing me off every time she opened her mouth.  What the hell happened?  We start off with her yelling at poor Tenzin (again) for not being the right kind of teacher for her (again) and thus being the source of all her shortcomings as an Avatar (again), and it all pretty much goes straight downhill from there.  She’s misled by the villain (again), is surly and difficult with her friends (again), and her default response to any problem or obstacle is, once again, a loud and aggressive, “Let me at it!  I’ll PUNCH it!” 

            The only real difference between this and the first season is that her levels of blinding aggression are pumped up to Ultra-Super Saiyan levels (DBZ lore minutiae for the win), culminating in a terrible, terrible scene where she is inexplicably angry towards Mako for not blandly agreeing to go along with her very bad plan to incite an open war, and is then completely shocked when he breaks up with her.  Yes, she comes around in the end, and we finally do see her learn and grow, and establish a real, adult relationship with Tenzin.  BUT, that only happens AFTER she gets eaten by a spirit animal, is punted to the sidelines for two episodes, loses all her memories, and THEN gets shrunken down into a little girl for another whole episode. 

            The rest of the issues with this season I can ultimately get by with (or at least press the fast forward button if needed), but there is no getting around a poorly-written main character, the person we’re supposed to be rooting for through the whole thing.  Korra is still not a bad character, but I really, really hope we’re done with the immature, overly-aggressive phase in her life, because I don’t think the show can handle another season of that. 

            And now, finally, on to the good stuff.   

            And there is a LOT of really good stuff in this season, my above complaints notwithstanding.  As gratingly unnecessary as, well, EVERYTHING in Republican city was, we got some great moments at the air temples and in the spirit world.  And for all the backwards nonsense we had to endure from Korra and the villain, we got some powerful character development from others.  My personal favorites are as follows-

The animation:

            This really goes without saying.  They switched up animation companies at least once this season, but the difference is most notable between the physical world and the Spirit World, which should look different anyway.

Everything with Tenzin and his family:

            For all the lack of development of the younger characters, we got a lot at the air temples from these guys.  Tenzin had several great moments with each of his kids, again being one of the only characters to noticeably grow and learn from others.  I would have liked a bit more interaction between him and his siblings, but at least we got to see Bumi save the day, in a scene reminiscent of some of Sokka’s best moments in the original show. 

            The best of Tenzin came towards the end though, when he is the only one able to realize the secret of the fog prison in the spirit world- the fog only exists as long as you have demons within you.  By realizing that all he needed was to be at peace with himself, he dispelled the fog on his own and rescued both his siblings and his daughter.  It was one of my favorite moments in the show for another reason too, but we’ll get to that in a bit. 

Korra’s journey in the Spirit World:

            The lone episode of Korra journeying through the spirit world as a small child was a lot better than I’d thought it would be after they shrunk her.  It was the first chance that we got to get an idea of what Korra was like earlier in her life, and how going back to that place allowed her to grow beyond some of her earlier mistakes as the Avatar.  How the journey ended- with Korra returning to her grown self my saving a phoenix, and with her sheer terror at failing to find Jinora, was also one of the better cliffhangers this show has given us so far. 

Iroh and Zhou in the Spirit World:

            Both of these reveals made me cheer out loud.  Iroh going to live in the Spirit World “when his work was finished.”  Fantastic.  The guy is basically the Gandalf of the entire franchise now.  And I have no problem with that. 

            However, it was the reveal of Zhou’s fate that really caught me off-guard, because there was NO way to see it coming.  And what a great ending for that character- forced to spend eternity tormented by his own egotistical anger.  AND he mistakes Tenzin for Aang.  Just fantastic. 

The Ending (the real one this time):

            This time, the real end of the season was very solid, despite the intrusion of yet another Deus ex Machina to save the day.  We got some great bending between Korra and Unaloq (although the giant Kamehameha waves lost me for a bit).  This time, it looks like Korra really has lost part of her Avatar self (although I’m not yet convinced that it’s permanent), and she will finally have to confront at least some consequences for her actions.  Finally, we see her grow.  She makes a major decision to keep the portals between the worlds open, and it will be really, really exciting to see how this plays out.  This time around, the finale did not make me want to throw my shoes. 

Beginnings (both parts):

            Best part of the entire Book.  Without a doubt.  Not only that, both of these rank as two of the greatest Avatar episodes ever.  I shouldn’t even need to bother explaining why, but why not?  These episodes deserve to be gushed over.  Wonderful Ghibli-esque animation.  A wonderful return of the original theme from Last Airbender in the music.  Note-perfect expansion of the show’s lore, delving into the personal history of the first Avatar, the origin of bending by humans, and more.  I found it particularly ironic (but in a good way) that the only reason there needed to even be an Avatar was because Wan got duped by the dark spirit, and had to make up for it by dedicated his life to reinstating the balance he disrupted.  We learn why the physical and spiritual realms are separate, and why it’s so rare for both humans and spirits to pass from one into the other.  They are perfect, perfect episodes. 

            And those are just a few of my thoughts on the second season of Legend of Korra.  It was, on the whole, a good ride, and I am excited for the next one.  Hopefully it will take less than a year and a half for us to get it though.  We shall see.  Until then, keep enjoying the site! 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Review: Frozen

Frozen (2013): Written by Jennifer Lee, directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck.  Starring: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, and Santino Fontana.  Running Time: 108 minutes.  Based (very, VERY loosely) on The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson. 

Rating: 3/4 

            Now this is more like it.  It’s been a tumultuous decade for Disney since the turn of the century and the end of what is coming to be called the “Second Disney Golden Age.”  Since 2000, Disney films have been largely hit-or-miss, releasing plenty of very good works (The Emperor’s New Groove, Princess and the Frog, Wreck-It Ralph), but also a fair number of lesser-caliber films (Brother Bear, Home On The Range, Treasure Planet).  I think part of the issues plaguing a number of these films was that they represented Disney’s efforts to move out of the musical-style princess fairy-tales that they’ve become synonymous with, in an effort to have more variety to counter the explosion of success Pixar and Dreamworks were experiencing during this time.  As a result, many of their projects over the past 13 years have felt a little schizophrenic, like the company has been trying to do too much too quickly.  With their latest entry into the canon, however, it looks like the studio has now firmly set their sights on returning to their “roots,” and if that is indeed the case, Frozen is a solid, albeit incomplete, step in that direction.    

            This time around, the story centers around two princesses, Elsa and Anna, daughters of the king and queen of Arendelle.  Through a brisk but well-paced opening montage, we learn that Elsa, the older daughter and heir to the throne, was born with the ability to create and manipulate ice.  While playing with her sister years before, though, she accidentally injured Anna with her power.  In order to keep Anna safe, Elsa and her parents decide to wipe Anna’s memory of her sister’s abilities, and Elsa soon locks herself away completely, refusing to play with her sister for years on end, even after their parents are tragically killed in a shipwreck.  This entire opening is effectively built around one of the movie’s signature song numbers, “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?”   

            Elsa is forced to end this self-imposed isolation a few years later when she comes of age and has to open the gates of the palace to visiting foreign dignitaries, once of whom wastes no time in introducing himself to the audience as Herr Evil McHeinous.  The only other side character here of note is Hans, a rote clone of every Disney prince every created ever, for whom Anna, desperate for pretty much any kind of affection after years of forced isolation, falls head-over-heels (of course).  Their instant engagement creates a rift between Anna and her sister, who finally releases all her pent-up emotions and, in an immense display of her very X-Men-esque power, throws the kingdom into perpetual winter and seals herself away inside a massive ice fortress halfway up the mountain.  This segment features the show’s other main number, “Let It Go,” easily the best show-stopper in a Disney film we’ve had in years, giving Idina Menzel the first chance she’s had to really show off her pipes on the big screen since Rent

            With the dignitaries and the regular citizens in danger of both freezing and starving, Anna immediately takes it upon herself to find her sister and get her to lift the curse.  During her trip through the mountains, she meets a young ice-seller named Kristoff, his reindeer Sven, and a talking snowman created by Elsa named Olaf (voiced by Book of Mormon’s own Josh Gad).  As they battle the elements, other not-so-friendly snow creatures, and sinister forces back in Arendelle, Anna’s devotion to her sister is put to the test as the dangerous consequences of wiping her memory become more and more evident. 

            In many aspects, Frozen is less of a direct throwback to the Golden Age films, and more of a spiritual successor to Disney’s other recent CGI princess/musical mashup Tangled.  Both are efforts to revive the Golden Age Fairy Tale formula, but in updated, 21st-century ways, with stronger, more active female characters, more pop-esque soundtracks, and touches of Shrek-style self-aware parody thrown into the mix for those disillusioned with said fairy tale classics.  I’m all for updating a tried-and-true formula whenever it starts to age, and in my opinion, Frozen succeeds at this far, far better than Tangled did.  Not to say that I didn’t enjoy Tangled, I did, but it was palpably trying to be a somewhat-serious version of Shrek, right down to the bar-room side characters swiped wholesale from Shrek 2.  

           The characters in Frozen, conversely, feel much more like their own unique creations.  Elsa and Anna are both deliberate breaks with the more traditional princess stereotype, but it's never in an in-your-face way- the film merely presents them as their own people, two individuals both ill-suited to lives of standing still and looking regal.  Kristoff is also a fun side character, whose nonchalant acceptance of all he sees (even talking snowmen) makes for a few good laughs.  Even the talking snowman has some great moments, including two of the funniest lines I have ever heard in a Disney film (and they even come up with a pretty creative reason for having him around).  There is romance, obviously, but it's downplayed- Kristoff and Hans never rise above side characters.  The focus here is strictly on the sisters.  It’s fascinating (and indeed encouraging) to see a Disney film with a focus on relationships between siblings as opposed to opposite-sex love interests, and I sincerely hope we get more of this in their next project.  

            Another part of Tangled that never sat well with me was the soundtrack, which stretched itself thin trying to include, by my count, four different genres of music (Guitar Pop, Broadway Classic, The Soft Love Ballad, and Barroom Comedy Romp).  As a result, each song felt like a perfunctory, check-list-mandated distraction, a screeching halt in the middle of an otherwise perfectly good story with perfectly functional characters.  To be fair, this issue is only halfway solved in Frozen- most of the songs are stuffed into the first half of the movie, and only about half of them feel like organic parts of the orchestral soundtrack (which, all on its own, is excellent), with the others feeling just as out-of place as those in Tangled.  However, even when they distract, they’re still all-around better songs- I’ve already given “Snowman” and “Let It Go” their dues, and “Frozen Heart” and “For The First Time In Forever” deserve mention as well.  All four of these tunes have been in my head ever since I left the theater.  I wish they’d spread the vocal local love around a bit more evenly, and gone for a more cohesive sound as a whole.  I'd have loved to see the "Let It Go" and "Forever" themes brought back once or twice more, or that the sisters had gotten their own unique duo at the very end.  Thankfully, the rest of the movie is so well done that harping on that feels like very determined nit-picking. 

            I’m still irked by the continued decline of traditional hand-drawn animation (at least, within the US), especially since it used to be Disney’s strong suit, but as a fan of any form of animation period, it would be remiss of me to not mention that this is a very, very beautiful movie.  It looks like the whole story is taking place inside a crystal ball.  And it’s not all white either-the animators succeed in bringing in some wonderful rushes of color at just the right moments- the red glow of a sunset, the sharp purple of Elsa's cloak or the green of Anna's on a white mountainside, or the sharp, clear blue of Elsa's post transformation, "I am the Ice Queen" dress.  It's some of the best CGI animation we've yet gotten from Disney, good enough to rival many of the better Pixar works. 

            I’m deliberately bouncing around going into more details about the plot at this point, which is frustrating, because while it’s easily the best part about the movie, and what makes it the first Disney film to truly rise above the company’s own princess “standard,” bringing it up would necessitate spoiling, well, everything, and like any movie that executes its twists properly, Frozen deserves to be seen sans spoilers.   Yeah, it’s that good.  Perhaps I'll do a follow-up reflection on the movie in a few months, after the insanity of Oscar season dies down.  With any luck, Frozen will be the first Disney film to beat out a Pixar work for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars (Monsters University was good, but not great), and I would not be surprised at all if “Let It Go” also manages to top “Fare Thee Well” for Best Original Song.  Definitely go out and see this one as soon as possible. 

-Noah Franc 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Doctor Who Review- The 50th Anniversary Special

**spoiler alert: this article assumes you have full knowledge of the contents of the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special.  If you have not seen it yet (unlikely if you are a fan of the show), turn back now**

            Well, it’s official- with last month’s premiere of “The Day Of The Doctor,” Doctor Who, which can rightfully stand next to Star Trek and Star Wars as one of the most extensive and influential sci-fi series of all time, reached the golden age of 50.  I cannot count myself a “true” Whovian, as my experience with the show only extends to the first five seasons of the reboot, but I can definitely say that I am a big fan of our favorite bow-tie-wearing, fez-nipping, screwdriver-waving time traveler.  I’m a sucker for any show, book, or movie that plays around with big, out-there, universe-sized ideas and themes, and Doctor Who, even at its campiest, is chock full of curiosity-tickling concepts. 

            I don’t think it’s possible to understate how hugely anticipated this birthday special was- I am friends with a number of Class A Whovians, people whose metric for how good each episode is centers around exactly how many tears they shed by the end of it, so my Facebook feed was filled with updates for nearly every major reveal involving the special for at least 6 months prior to it actually happening.  With all this build-up, even my distanced and less-invested expectations were raised fairly high by the time it finally aired (after which my feed once again exploded with statuses describing “feels,” “squeeees,” and “OMG WTF’s.”  So after all that build-up, when I finally sat down to watch the special a few days after it aired, what did I think?  Well…..

            Okay, let me say up front that I did enjoy the special a lot- although it would have benefited immeasurably from the presence of Eccleston, it was great to see Tennant back as the 10th, I really like Matt Smith’s Doctor, John Hurt was an excellent bring-in as the “first” Doctor, and having “The Moment” take the form of Rose in order to connect with the Doctor’s future was a clever way to bring back Billie Piper, while also showing off her acting chops by giving her a role to play other than that of a love-struck companion.  The effects were great, and it also reenergized my desire to push through the remaining two seasons of Smith that I have not had the time to pursue in recent months. 

            However (and I realize merely voicing this will inflame a great many devoted Whovians), if I am to be honest, I have to admit that I found the special somewhat unsatisfying, no better or worse than your standard Who Christmas special- fun and diverting, certainly, but nothing worth breaking the piggy bank over.  It was certainly nothing worth six months of “this is everything my personal life has built up to” hype.

            One issue I had involves the show’s obsession with always having some sort of weird alien with a way over-the-top design as the reason behind whatever happens to be going on in a given episode.  Not that there’s always a problem with that- it’s a sci-fi show about a space/time traveler, so the show needs its aliens.  I get that.  What I take issue with is how often a great set-up or an episode with a flawless first and second act is partially, and sometimes completely, marred by the big, revealed alien being something so ludicrous-looking that all the tension, fear, and drama they’d spent 30-40 minutes carefully crafting deflates like a hot-air balloon in a Pokemon episode (I plan to tackle a particularly egregious example of this in a future post- but not until after Oscar season ends and my inevitable rage fits subside).  I’m beginning to suspect that the show’s growing budget has been tied to one of those awful “spend it or lose it” contract clauses that force directors to regularly stretch x amount of pounds over sets and aliens in episodes that might not necessarily need it. 

              The 50th special, sadly, is a prime example of this- the designs of the aliens and monsters in the show range all across the quality/subtlety spectrum, and in this case, the Zygons rank alongside the Slitheen and the Cybermen as one of the show’s more distracting antagonists.  The idea of shapeshifting aliens that can make themselves near-indistinguishable from the humans they copy is a great idea for providing a suitable threat to the Doctor.  But why does their original form have so many suckers?  Even if that’s how they get the DNA data they need to change shape, why have them all over the body?  Why not do the suckers and skin-color using makeup instead of sticking the extras in massive body-suits they can obviously barely move in?  Yes, this is a relatively minor issue, but it’s one I have with an unfortunately large number of episodes.  Doctor Who has so much great writing behind it that it can easily afford to go smaller more of the time.  Some of the best episodes I’ve yet seen, works like “Blink,” “Midnight,” and “The Waters of Mars,” have the most minimal and least-intrusive costume and makeup designs in the show.  Just because there needs to be aliens doesn’t mean they always have to be AAAAALIEEEEENS.    

            While we’re on the issue of disappointing reveals bruising solid set-up, let’s talk about the decision to actually show part of the Time War.  This War has loomed big-time over the revival of the series, especially during the melancholy-heavy Tennant years, and its aftereffects- the continued animosity between the Daleks and the Doctor, all the planetless alien refugees who seek to invade Earth not out of malice, but simply out of desperation, etc.- have driven whole reams of the show’s plot.  The mystique surrounding it has only been increased by how little we know about what actually happened- we know it nearly ripped apart all of reality, and we know that the Doctor was forced to end it by basically sealing away both the Daleks and his own people into a time pocket (which comes back to haunt him at the end of Tennant’s days, as we all know).  Given how little we know about what happened, and with a name like Time War, how could you not feel compelled to conjure up the strangest and most indescribable images whenever it’s mentioned?  The imagination of the mind is always far more interesting than anything you could possibly show, and the Time War is no exception.  I was immensely disappointed when we finally get scenes from the end of the war itself, and it’s just your standard spaceships and ground forces firing lasers at each other.  Boooooooriiiiiiiing. 

            This inclusion of the Time War in the episode’s plot brings me to the biggest and yet most nebulous concern I have with the show, and it’s been growing ever since Smith came on board.  After seeing this special, the first season with Smith, and watching a few reviews about what’s gone down in Seasons 6 and 7, I think the show is starting to loop around on itself a bit too much.  There are only so many times the Doctor can literally save reality itself before it starts to get a touch blasé.  All of the known universe has now been brought to the brink of annihilation and back again so many times, I’m surprised every living thing in it is not suffering from the unending effects of severe whiplash.  Doctor Who has, of course, never been a doctrinal show, and has changed its internal rules whenever it has the whim to do so.  Also, what brings us back time and again, in the end, is the Doctor himself, and how incredibly fun he is to watch, whether or not what’s happening around him makes sense or not, or whether it even bothers to be exciting- there have been plenty of episodes before that would have been utter snooze-fests without Tennant or Eccleston or Smith around to chew the scenery. 

            I get all that, and I am still on board with this show, but as I said earlier, this show really can take more risks than Moffat seems willing to take at the moment.  It can branch out of universe/reality level threats more often.  Give us some adventures outside of Britain.  Give us more stuff on other planets.  Or keep it small- keep showing us famous figures and eras where there’s some sinister mystery going on.  But not every season has to end with all of history and the future and the past and every pocket alternate dimension about to be destroyed by more Daleks.  Don’t always try to throw absurd monster designs in our face for cheap jump-scares. 

            While those larger, more general problems spoiled parts of the special for me, however, what really threw me off-kilter was its stunning lack of an ending regarding, oh, about half the entire episode.  The entire plot thread that brings the Doctors together is another threat from this new alien species that wants to take Earth away from the humans.  Through a clever bit of technical trickery, Tennant and Smith cause the aliens and humans to forget who is who, to make sure a proper settlement is reached.  Then they run off to stop the Time War together, and……that’s it.  No word on what happens with the aliens.  No word on whether or not the Doctors try to spirit away all the horrible weapons Torchwood 2.0 has stashed away in a vault.  No resolution whatsoever.  Nothing.     

            This was particularly disturbing to me because, for all of its flaws, for all the criticisms that can be fairly leveled at the show, the one thing you could never accuse it of was writing so lazy that an episode failed to resolve its own story.  Even the most absurd, out-of-left-field plots this show has dregged up were tied together in some way come the 45-minute mark (90 minutes if it was a two-parter).  This is the first time that, to my knowledge, an episode or special was so uninterested in itself that it actually just sort of stopped and didn’t even try to provide some form of conclusion.  It was the same prickly sense of fear I felt at the end of Into Darkness, when the screen may as well have started flashing the words, “Sorry, we just gave up!” in glowing red letters. 

            I realize I’m being rather on harsh on this special, but I do so because I care.  No show can last half a century without doing a lot of things right.  I’m merely using this special as an opportunity to express my thoughts on where I’d like to see the show go in the future, especially since we have a new Doctor coming up, which will be a good opportunity to freshen things up a bit.  Until then, keep watching, and keep enjoying, the adventures of the strange and silly man in the policebox.  I know I will!  

-Noah Franc 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review: 12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave (2013): Written by John Ridley, directed by Steve McQueen.  Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulsen, Brad Pitt, and Alfre Woodard.  Running Time: 134 minutes.  Based on Twelve Years A Slave, by Solomon Northrup. 

Rating: 3.5/4 

            In terms of size, scope, and duration, America’s original sin of slavery is second only to our other original sin, the centuries of wars and (to put it politely) diplomatic backstabbing against the Indian tribes that resulted in the destruction of most of North America’s pre-Columbian population.  And, like the Indian wars, slavery also has a long history of being romanticized and/or whitewashed (pun intended) when it’s depicted in movies.  When it isn’t being ignored entirely, that is.  While I, as a general rule, am against romanticizing or “cleaning up” historical figures/societies/events/etc. in any form, regardless of the when, the where, the who, and the how terrible, this treatment in regards to slavery is a particularly egregious bee in my personal bonnet.  I tend to get far more worked up over depictions of slavery in film than those of other major human crimes, mostly because such depictions can and have helped perpetuate the mythic fog surrounding the Old South in the minds of far too many people- said mythos includes such misguided beliefs as “the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery,” “most slaveholders were actually decent, Christian guys,” and “all in all, slavery wasn’t really that bad an experience for the majority of salves.”  To say that I hold nothing but utter contempt for such thoughts is a gross understatement. 

            This is why I am so relieved to see 12 Years A Slave join the ranks of other great films like last year’s Django Unchained and older films like Amistad, movies that actively work to break out of the chaffing handcuffs of traditionally clean depictions of slavery, ala Gone With The Wind, as well as movies like Lincoln, which dissuade the viewer from falling into the trap of separating the secessionist movement from the existence of slavery.  The fact that it’s also a true story, often a double-edged sword in cinema, gives its no-holds-barred presentation of slave life a bit more weight than fictional treatises like Django (although its images of slavery also bore little to no embellishment). 

            I am willing to bet most people were not previously aware of the book this movie is based on, an 1853 memoir of the same name by our main character, Solomon Northrup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Living about as comfortably as a free black man could in the pre-Civil War North, Northrup is one day conned by two men claiming to want to hire him to play violin for them.  He is drugged, put in chains, beaten when he asks to see be set free again, and is taken down south to be sold into slavery.  His first owner is a man named William Ford, played by the recently omnipresent Benedict Cumberbatch.  Northrup recalled this owner in his memoir as a kind, gentle, and Christian man, possibly intending to play to the common belief (both then and now) that there was an important difference between “good” and “bad” plantation owners, but as the movie very distinctly reminds us, even a “good” plantation owner like Ford would not have been personally inclined, nor practically able, to hear the pleas of someone in the position of Solomon, no matter how legal their freedom may have been. 

            After Solomon snaps and whips one of Ford’s more vicious overseers (a short but effective cameo by Paul Dano from There Will Be Blood), Ford is forced to sell him to yet another owner, this time the far less gentle (and, pretensions to the contrary, far less Christian) Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender at his very Fassbenderiest.  This is where the movie takes its darkest turns, forcing both Solomon and the audience to stare directly into the face of just a few of slavery’s worst horrors, and reminding us that for every Ford the Old South had, there were just as many Epps, men and women taking part in a brutal institution that forced them, in turn, to be brutal to themselves just as much as to others in order to be able to accept it. 

            Ejiofor and Fassbender are both Oscar-worthy in their respective roles, each carrying the movie above its occasional flaws.  I would have preferred it if the film had taken a slower track in the beginning, giving us more time to see Solomon with his family and to get a stronger feel for the life that is snatched away from him.  There are also a few brief jumps back and forth in the narrative that seem a bit random.  Those are minor nitpicks though- once the film settles in, it’s paced quite well, and the glue that holds everything together is the unyielding focus on Solomon.  He gets a few overly dramatic moments, but for the most, both his performance and the film’s treatment of him are far more subtle and underplayed than you might expect from a film like this.  There are a great many scenes shot in near-darkness, contrasted sharply with the brutally strong sun under which Solomon and his fellows had to spend day after day toiling away for the gain of others. 

              Be warned- those with queasy stomachs will be in for a rough two hours.  This movie will put a great number of viewers through the proverbial emotional wringer.  If there’s a silver lining to the litany of beatings, whippings, and lynchings we must endure, it’s that none of it is played up to extremes for the sake of yanking a horrified reaction out of you.  It’s all treated- as indeed it was- as a normal part of daily life for all involved.  And in its own way, simply showing how normal such things were makes them seem far more terrible than if McQueen had tried to shove everything in our faces while screaming, “Look!  How horrible!”  Such theatrics are, thankfully, hardly present, because they simply aren’t needed. 

            12 Years A Slave may fall short of being the “best” movie of 2013, but its powerful acting and the fact that it has the guts to not blatantly romanticize a story that seems too good to NOT get the standard Hollywoodization treatment will definitely earn it a spot on most people’s Top 10 lists come January.  Highly recommended. 

-Noah Franc