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Picks and Pans Main: Movies

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12 Years a Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt | R |


Twelve Years a Slave forces Americans to have the brutal conversation we’ve been ducking for 150 years. It is the first film to capture the truth of the physical, sexual and psychological torture of human chattel by those who would think themselves good people. A bruising viewing experience, 12 Years would be impossible to sit through but for its virtuosic performances, poetic script and masterful direction by Steve McQueen (Shame). It is, quite simply, a film for the ages.

The story, for all its dramatic flair, is based on a real-life memoir. Born a free man in New York, violinist Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Stripped of his given name, Solomon is passed between masters, starting with the mild-mannered Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and ending with Epps (Fassbender), a psychotic white supremacist who quotes Scripture to his pernicious purpose. All of the actors deserve Oscar attention, from Cumberbatch as a man so morally compromised he refuses to see the plain truth of Solomon’s past, to Fassbender, who fills an empty soul with enormous complexity. As for the women, Alfre Woodard and Lupita Nyong’o play roles that reveal the twisted intimacy of slavery, one raised up to surprising heights, the other the coveted plaything of a monster. But this is Ejiofor’s triumph. He brings tremendous dignity and strength to Solomon, his wide eyes reflecting unconscionable horror, forever shocked by his altered circumstances.

The genius of McQueen’s vision, though, is that he refuses to make Solomon special. The moment you think that as a free man he never should have suffered like this, there’s a moral hip check, the truth dawning anew: no one should have. As Americans, we all stand on the backs of slaves. It’s about time we acknowledged it.

The Fifth Estate

Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl | R |


More a bio of WikiLeaks than of its founder, Julian Assange (Cumberbatch), Estate never gets a handle on the man behind the secrets. Though Cumberbatch is solid, neither his cloak-and-dagger crusader nor Assange’s idealistic partner, Daniel Berg (Rush’s Brühl), are compelling enough to surmount the drudgery of watching two guys on computers for two hours. Surely there’s a ripping story to be told about the infamous whistle-blower website. This isn’t it.