12 Years a Slave

“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” — Solomon

12 Years a Slave (2013) is a historical epic drama directed by Steve McQueen (Shame) and written by John Ridley. It tells the story of a free black man from New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Georgia. The film is based on the memoir of the same name, by the film’s protagonist Solomon Northrup.

When I first heard the premise for this movie, I was incredibly excited to see this film. I was very curious to see what was sure to be an incredible film. Just don’t make the same mistake I made: do not see this film on a 2nd date. It’s just not a good idea.

12 Years a Slave centers on Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a violinist and free man in New York. He has a wife and two children, a nice house, and a respectable and happy life. He is approached by some members of a traveling circus who need a good musician. He accepts, since his wife and children are gone for a month. At a dinner of celebration, the men take advantage of Solomon’s trusting and unsuspecting nature and get him drunk. Once incapacitated, the men sell him into slavery. At that point, the film follows his journey to get back to his family and documents the many experiences he has along the way.

The film begins somewhere in the middle of his life in slavery, with a shot of a group of slaves getting instruction on how to cut sugar cane. They all have a blank expression, blank yet irritated, as the overseer communicates to them as if they can’t understand his instructions. There are a few more scenes explored — Solomon pleasing a slave woman in the night and Solomon attempting to write a letter with a shaved stick and blackberry juice — and then the film starts from the beginning in New York. It helps provide a stark contrast between his clean and comfortable life and the hardships faced in slavery. There have been many slavery films made, but I think McQueen made some poignant choices with showing suffering in this film. Many times, cruelty and malice are introduced or hinted it and then quickly hidden so as not to disturb the viewer too much. In 12 Years a Slave, McQueen lingers on suffering to emphasize the pain. An example is when Solomon is almost hung. He’s saved, but only can Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) cut him down. What follows is an incredibly uncomfortable and striking scene, where Solomon still tied with his hands behind his back and his neck in a noose only has his toes on the ground. He struggles to stay on his toes and all that can be heard is the wrenching sound of his stifled windpipe as he struggles to breath. What makes the scene even more uncomfortable is that other slaves in the background begin to leave their living quarters and run errands and do work while he’s struggling to survive. Even children begin to play and laugh, an awkward sound to mix with the sounds of his throat. The scene goes on for quite a while, driving into the viewers just how horrible this is.

The film as a whole is incredible with very strong performances, particularly by Michael Fassbender (as slave owner Edwin Epps) and Lupita Nyong’o (as Patsey). Fassbender portrays the brutal slave driver with such nuance and rage. He mixes together a sweet and gentle nature with over-the-top anger that creates an awkward blend of a human being. Epps is in love with Patsey, the slave, and Fassbender deftly expresses fury rooted in discomfort whenever he has to lash out and punish Patsey. His terrible wife (Sarah Paulson) drives her husband to hurt Patsey, for she understands that he loves Patsey more than he loves her. His performance is incredible and it’s a relief that he finally receives an Oscar nomination after his snub for Shame. Nyong’o gives an incredible performance as well. Patsey is the queen of the slaves at the Epps estate. She picks more cotton than any man by a startling margin. She gives off an air of strength and resilience, but when Mistress Epps gets involved, she’s humiliated and abused worse than any other slave in their homestead. Nyong’o truly shines when her character hits desperation. There’s a scene where Patsey asks Solomon to end her life so that she may find peace. Solomon doesn’t want to live with the weight on his soul to take the life of someone, but her reasons are all true. She’s truly desperate, begging for the peace she so severely needs, and Nyong’o performs sincerely. Fassbender and Nyong’o are the strongest performances in the film.

Ejiofor gives a strong performance as well, but I struggled to connect with him. His performance felt insincere, like he was trying too hard to find the character. As a free man turned slave, it’s understandable for Solomon (or Platt as he was called in slavery) to hold on to his identity and mannerisms that constitute who he is, but they felt too forced and too proper for this role. It continually disengaged me from what was occurring in the film. However, his performance at the end of the film is incredible. After twelve long years, he’s finally reunited with his family. He sees his children grown. He meets his daughter’s husband and child, who is named after him. He realizes that they never forgot him. He begins to weep, apologizing for his composure, and his family embraces him and weeps with him. It’s an incredibly moving end to the film.

This will win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, even though I would choose something else. Its biggest weaknesses are Ejiofor’s performance and its score, but its strengths are far more. It’s not a common-told story about slavery, which makes for an enthralling and moving experience: about the injustices of slavery and the resilience that the memory of family can give someone.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) is the second installment of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, following Star Trek in 2009. The film brings back the all-star cast in the newly altered Star Trek universe, where anything goes.

The 2009 Star Trek film gave a breath of life to the decrepit Star Trek franchise. Mix together a cast with great chemistry, that goes to the absolute core of the original characters, with an exciting and unprecedented story line  and a great action blockbuster is formed. While many devoted Trekkies were scandalized by Abrams’ complete dismantling of the entire Star Trek universe, it opened many doors for new — and equally as important — familiar stories. The first film excited and shocked audiences, and the second film makes use of its most valuable tool: reinterpretation.

Many criticize Star Trek Into Darkness  as being a mere remake of A Wrath of Khan, but to believe so is to miss the whole point of the first film. Changing time as we know it opens the door for anything. It was entirely possible that the Enterprise would never encounter Khan in this new timeline, but isn’t it exhilarating that even though time was altered so significantly, this epic encounter still exists? It’s almost as if the confrontation is fated, an idea that I imagine Spock would seriously disagree with, yet this theme can now be considered due to Abrams altered timeline.

The film exhibits scandal from the very beginning, at least it does for Trekkies. The crew of the Enterprise is on planet Nibiru, inhabited by a primitive alien race, and they plan to drop a device into the planet’s volcano to make it dormant, which would alter the natural course of life on Nibiru — a overt violation of the Prime Directive. This violation of the most important regulation in Starfleet is highly shocking, but it develops Captain Kirk’s (Chris Pine) character: a brazen young Captain without accountability. One of the film’s transformations is that of Captain Kirk, from egoistic impulse to selfless leader.

A similar transformation is scene in Spock (Zachary Quinto). Quite possibly after Vulcan’s demise in the previous film, Spock has made even greater effort to stifle his human half. Even after Kirk saves Spock from volcanic doom, Spock struggles to make any emotional connection with Kirk. After relationship trouble with Uhura (Zoë Saldana), experiencing Admiral Pike’s (Bruce Greenwood) dying moment, and experiencing that same moment with Captain Kirk, Spock’s human half surfaces in a shriek of absolute anger, an homage to A Wrath of Khan.

This film’s brilliant villain, Khan, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. His peculiar countenance lends to being a villain, and it’s backed up by an incredible performance which includes subtleties like sitting up perfectly straight and speaking with arrogance — after all, he’s better at everything. Khan’s climactic (though, to some, anti-climactic) identity revelation brings much scrutiny. Because of the way Khan’s character was introduced in the Original Series, The Wrath of Khan is filled with a heavy intensity. To viewers new to the franchise, Khan’s identity does not mean as much, but it is still packed with superhuman and eerie mystery which keeps viewers invested. The meaningful part of this entire film is that it tells the same story in a new time; while details change, a new generation can participate in and appreciate an older story.

The film’s brilliance culminates in a few wonderfully shot scenes. These scenes focus on four different characters and their facial expressions, which are meaningful in that they express emotions seemingly opposite of what those characters embody. The first is Kirk; as Admiral Pike is chastising him for lying in his report, Kirk slips into a state of vulnerability. The camera stays on his reddened face, peering into his deep blue eyes which show a softened quality hardly ever seen from his character. The magnificence of that shot is that Kirk retreats inwardly instead of acting aggressively. The next scene showcases Pike. As he lays dying before Spock, the camera again stays on his face, which is usually strong, sure, and fearless, but what the camera shows is terror. It’s a terror that is shocking, especially on a face that’s never shown such fear. His eyes are absolutely moving, even to stoic Spock. Thirdly, as Khan explains how he and his frozen crew became part of the picture, the camera yet again stays on his face. As he tells his story, about trying to save his crew — his family — the anger takes over his face, flaring his nostrils and bringing tears to his eyes. The camera doesn’t move away from his face, letting the viewer fully appreciate this surprisingly show of emotion from this ruthless killer. This scene denies any sense of one-dimensional villainy for Khan. The last scene is for Spock, at his transformation in the film. He’s speaking with Kirk as he lays dying, again expressing his vulnerability. Spock, who has only lost his composure over his mother’s death and Vulcan’s demise, is clearly emotional. His colleague — and friend — lays dying and can’t control himself. The camera, again, stays on his face as tears fall from his eyes, a particularly stark sight from anything ever expected from Spock. That, followed by the iconic “KHAAAAAAN!”, express a side of Spock never seen. These four scenes are the magic of the film, taking four characters and turning them inside out in ways never experienced.

This film is an exciting and captivating story — all up until its coda. After Kirk’s death, the film is aimless and wraps up much too quickly. The story could have benefited from the way A Wrath of Khan ends, which would have been more emotional, as well as quite the cliff-hanger for any sequel. Along with those criticisms fall the characters of the rest of the crew. Uhura, who has the potential of being a strong and badass character unfortunately falls into the role of “girlfriend” for Spock. Even though she has a big scene with the Klingons, the majority of her actions are motivated by her being with Spock, not for the good of the order. Karl Urban, who portrays Dr. McCoy exactly, along with Anton Yelchin, as Chekov, received little roles in this film. Even John Cho, as Mr. Sulu remains mostly secondary in this movie. These characters have the potential for more than just comedic relief, something that Simon Pegg’s Scotty was able to achieve. Scotty in the first movie was only humor, but he basically saves the day in this film. Perhaps the rest of the crew will get more screen time and plot lines in the next film.

Star Trek Into Darkness is the first voyage into Star Trek’s new alternate universe. It brings the Enterprise together with a familiar villain in an entirely new light. With plenty of action, lens flares, and  Michael Giacchino’s fantastic soundtrack, Star Trek Into Darkness brings a story and villain back to life in an entirely new light.