Hidden Figures

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2016

Fox 2000 Pictures/Chernin Entertainment/TSG Entertainment/20th Century Fox

Directed by Theodore Melfi

Produced by Donna Gigliotto/Peter Chernin/Pharrell Williams/Jenno Topping/Theodore Melfi

Screenplay by Alison Schroeder/Theodore Melfi

Based on “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly

There are two stories of heroism running side-by-side in HIDDEN FIGURES. There’s the one we all know because it’s been so documented, told and re-told in so many ways (most memorably in 1983’s “The Right Stuff”) that it has become part of American legend. It’s the story of the 1960’s space race between America and Russia as NASA struggled to put a man in a spacecraft into orbit with the eventual goal of putting an American man on the moon before Russia.

Then there’s the other story that I myself had never heard of before in any way shape or form and I am just grateful that this story has at last been told. Because it’s just as much a heroic tale as that of those Project Mercury astronauts. In the 1960s, NASA did not as yet have electronic computers so they had to rely on women with extraordinary mathematical skills to calculate the data needed. These women were actually called “computers” and they were African-American.

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In 1962 the American space program is in trouble. Sputnik 1 has been successfully launched and is merrily orbiting the Earth. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is the director of the Space Task Group, the team primarily in charge of getting astronauts up into space. Hopefully without the rockets blowing up on the launch pad. Harrison is under a lot of pressure to get America into the space race in a big way and he needs someone who can do analytic geometry, do it quickly and do it right. The acting supervisor of the Colored Computers Group Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) says that there’s only one woman for the job; Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) who as a child was a mathematical prodigy, beginning college at the age of 15.

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Mathematical genius or not, Katherine is still a black woman in the Jim Crow South and as such is still looked at as being just that: a black woman. No more and no less. She can’t even drink coffee from the same pot as her co-workers and has to walk/run half a mile back to the building where she used to work to relieve herself as the building housing the Space Task group has no Colored restroom. Not to mention the harassment she has to deal with from her immediate supervisor Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) who gives her incomplete data, saying that she does not have the proper security clearances but yet he still expects her to make sense out of it and turn in accurate calculations.

Meanwhile, Dorothy engages in a battle of wills with her supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) who not only refuses to promote Dorothy but actively looks forward to the day when the technicians from IBM will finish installing an IBM 7090 that will replace Dorothy and her girls. But Dorothy has a trick up her sleeve: she’ll teach herself how to program the 7090. Their friend Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) who is working on the space capsule itself correctly identifies a flaw in the heat shield which impresses her boss, Dr. Zielinski (Oleg Krupa) to the point that he demands she go to school at night to get an engineering degree so that she’ll be fully qualified to work on the project. Problem is that engineering schools are segregated. But every problem has a solution and Mary’s is that she will go to court and petition for her right to go to school.

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The three stories of how these women work together and separately to accomplish their goals, achieve their dreams and oh, yes…help put American astronauts into space is an incredibly fascinating one told with an astounding amount of heart. And as much as I cannot stand anything having to do with math, if you had told me I’d be on the edge of my seat worrying about the fate of mathematicians I’d have thought you had lost your mind. But thanks to exceptionally strong acting and solid directing, HIDDEN FIGURES does turn out to be quite suspenseful at times, even though we all know that the space program was eventually a success. But this isn’t that kind of movie. It’s the revealing of a secret part of what up until now I had always thought was one of the most well documented periods of American history.

The cast is top notch. Kevin Costner recognizes that he’s got a supporting role here and so stays in his place, only taking center stage in one or two pivotal scenes but then quietly stepping back to let the real stars of the movie continue to do their thing. A couple of people I know upon hearing that Taraji P. Henson was one of those stars said to me; “You mean Cookie from ‘Empire?’ Can she act?” Which told me that they didn’t know a thing about her because Taraji P. Henson demonstrated years ago that she can act very well indeed. My wife Patricia pointed out something to me that I didn’t notice but upon reflection of certain scenes I can see exactly what she’s talking about. When you see the movie (and you will see it) notice how skillfully Taraji uses her glasses as a prop to enhance, disguise, amplify and demonstrate her emotional moods. And we all know Octavia Spencer turns in Academy Award performances like she invented them so there’s no reason to even go there. But I will say look for one pivotal scene she’s in which I’m convinced is a homage to a very famous scene in “The Right Stuff.” And as in his TV sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” Jim Parsons plays a brilliant manchild who’s a dick. But this one is way meaner in spirit than Sheldon Cooper. It’s a nice change of pace for him. Kirsten Dunst really surprised me in this one and she makes a fine adversary for Octavia Spencer to spar with.

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But it’s Janelle Monae who walks off with the MVP title for this movie. She was clearly born to be an actress and she never steps one foot wrong the entire running time of the movie, easily holding her own with her far more experienced co-stars. She’s a joy to watch anytime she’s onscreen, the rapport between her, Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson genuine and uplifting. I don’t say this very often about a movie but I’m pleased and proud to be able to say this about HIDDEN FIGURES: everything you’ve heard about it is true and if you haven’t seen it yet, please do so at your earliest opportunity.

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Rated PG

127 Minutes

The Right Stuff

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1983

The Ladd Company/Warner Bros.

Directed by and Screenplay by Philip Kaufman

Produced by Irwin Winkler/Robert Chartoff\

Based on “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe

Music by Bill Conti

Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel

One of the reasons why THE RIGHT STUFF stands out in my memory is because I saw it during its original theatrical run in the theater. And when the end credits played, a good 75% of the sold out audience I saw it with gave it a standing ovation. And I was right with them. I’ve heard felgercarb from modern day “movie fans” who are so very worldly and sophisticated and think it’s oh so very silly to applaud a movie. What’s the point? they say. The filmmakers can’t hear your applause. But in the case of THE RIGHT STUFF that isn’t the point. That audience and I stood and applauded because we’d just seen a three-hour epic about heroism done with style, respect, humor and grandeur. And we had to show our appreciation for how the movie made us felt. And the bottom line is that it made us all feel damn good. Was a lot of the movie made up? Sure it was. THE RIGHT STUFF is a great example of that magnificent line from “The Legend of Liberty Valance”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

I say that to let you know right up front that there’s a lot of legend in THE RIGHT STUFF. Yes, it’s based on historical events involving real people but the filmmakers didn’t let them get in the way of telling a good story. Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) didn’t fly the X-1 on a whim as the movie would lead you to to believe but damn if it doesn’t make for a great scene. Especially when he breaks a couple of ribs chasing his wife Glennis (Barbara Hershey) on horseback in the desert surrounding the future Edwards Air Force Base and falls off his horse and still gets in the X-1 the next day to break the sound barrier.

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And it’s fun to see the friendly rivalry between Yeager and Scott Crossfield as they break each others speed records repeatedly. This is while hungry young pilots such as Gordon “Gordo” Cooper (Dennis Quaid) Virgil “Gus” Grissom (Fred Ward) and Donald “Deke” Slayton (Scott Paulin) are pouring into the base, looking to make their mark and prove they have “The Right Stuff.” Okay, maybe some of this is made up but if you want the facts, go look them up for yourself. We got these things called libraries. You might have heard of them. Make use of them.

But exactly what IS “The Right Stuff”? nobody ever says. It’s one of those grand and glorious Man Things That Cannot Be Given A Name. Chuck Yeager doubtless has it. In fact, he may have it more than anybody else even though he is deemed not worthy to be invited to join the space program. In one of the movie’s best scenes Gus Grissom is being ridiculed by the media and fellow pilots for his insistence that the explosive bolts on the hatch of his capsule exploded on their own during splashdown. The common consensus is that he panicked. But Yeager comes to Grissom’s defense;” You think a monkey knows he’s sittin’ on top of a rocket that might explode? These astronaut boys they know that, see? Well, I’ll tell you something, it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that’s on TV. Ol’ Gus, he did all right.” Now, maybe Chuck Yeager said that or maybe he didn’t. But it matters in the context of the movie and the story that the movie is telling and that’s enough.

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The bulk of the movie is taken up with the 1960s Space Race, accelerated by the Russians launching Sputnik in 1957. NASA is tasked with putting an American in space and that initiates a near hysterical search for astronauts. Ironically, pilots like Yeager are excluded because he doesn’t “fit the profile” but after extraordinary grueling physical and mental tests, The Mercury Seven astronauts are chosen; Cooper, Grissom and Slayton along with John Glenn (Ed Harris) Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) Walter “Wally” Schirra (Lance Henriksen) and Charles Frank (Scott Carpenter). But even though they are trained to be pilots, the engineers of the project (and it’s very clear that the majority of these engineers used to work for the Third Reich in WWII) see them as nothing more than passengers. You add to this is extensive publicity machine surrounding these proceedings and you’ve a situation as ripe for comedy as it is for drama.

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And one of the thing that takes people by surprise about THE RIGHT STUFF when they see it for the first time is that is a very funny movie. In fact, at times, it almost plays like a comedy, especially where Dennis Quaid is concerned. Those of you who have seen the movie know what I mean. But just about everybody gets their chance to be funny, even when they’re not being funny. If you know what I mean. Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum get a lot of laughs out their bit as a pair of recruiters looking for candidates for the fledgling NASA program. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of the cast don’t get their funny moments as well.

This movie may have just have the greatest cast of talent on screen since “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World.” Here we go: Fred Ward. Dennis Quaid. Scott Glenn. Ed Harris. Sam Shepard. Lance Henriksen. Scott Paulin. Barbara Hershey. Veronica Cartwright. Harry Shearer. Jeff Goldblum. Pamela Reed. Charles Frank. Donald Moffat. Scott Wilson. Kathy Baker. Royal Dano. John P. Ryan. William Russ. John Dehner. And Chuck Yeager himself. He shows up as the bartender at Pancho’s, the joint where all the pilots hang out. It’s an utterly extraordinary cast and what’s even more extraordinary is that the script and the director gives them all a chance to shine without detracting from the overall story the movie is telling.

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And the musical score by Bill Conti is absolutely magnificent. It won the Academy Award that year for Best Original Score and rightfully so. A large part of the reason why THE RIGHT STUFF is still so highly regarded is because of that heroically soaring score. The special effects are also worthy of note because they’re practical effects, done with models. I don’t have anything against CGI and fully understand that a lot of my favorite movies of recent years couldn’t be done without them. But practical effects have a weight and realism that can’t be duplicated. When Chuck Yeager is in that X-1 and says that it’s still going up like a bat outta hell, we believe him.

Chances are that most of you reading this have already seen THE RIGHT STUFF and agree with me. But for those you who haven’t seen this movie, do yourself a favor and check it out at your earliest opportunity. THE RIGHT STUFF is one of the finest American movies ever made, period. And it’s a whole lot of fun to watch as well. Enjoy.

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192 Minutes

Rated PG

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Birth of A Nation

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2016

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Screenplay by and Directed by Nate Parker

Based on a story by Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin

Produced by Nate Parker/Kevin Turen/Jason Michael Berman/Aaron L. Gilbert/Preston L. Holmes

“Aren’t you tired of slave movies?” “Why can’t we make anything else except slave movies?” “But I don’t want to see another slave movie.” “When I go to the movies I just want to turn my brain off and be entertained.”

That usually was what I heard from some of my friends of color whenever the subject of THE BIRTH OF A NATION came up. Funny how I never hear any of my Jewish friends complaining when a new movie about The Holocaust is in theaters. Slavery is The Holocaust of the African-American in America and me; I don’t think we can talk about it enough. Slavery is woven into the very fabric of America’s DNA and until and unless we all decide to be honest about that fact and deal with it, we’re always going to have racial issues. But, everybody’s movie choices are their own and if you don’t want to see THE BIRTH OF A NATION, God Bless. There’s always another Kevin Hart comedy or all-black remake of a twenty year old Lifetime thriller that is more to your movie-going taste, I’m sure.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that THE BIRTH OF A NATION is more of a biopic than anything else. If for nothing else the movie should be seen if just to get acquainted with Nat Turner if you don’t know much about him and be encouraged to do more reading about him on your own. Nat Turner led a slave rebellion in the summer of 1831 that caused the deaths of nearly three hundred people, black and white. We do get to the viciously bloody rebellion but before that we spend a lot of time with Nat Turner and grow to understand why he led this rebellion as he is a complicated man who lives in several worlds at once.

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There’s the slave world he lives in and his complicated relationship with his white childhood friend Sam Turner (Armie Hammer) who becomes his master when they grow into adults. As a child, Nat learns how to read thanks to the benevolence of Sam’s mother Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller.) The only book she’ll allow him to read is The Bible and this leads to Nat’s spiritual growth as he becomes a man of faith, living in the world and word of God, preaching to his fellow slaves on his plantation at first. But then, other plantation owners persuade Sam to bring Nat around to preach to their slaves, figuring that he’ll preach them to be good, docile Tobys.

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It has the opposite effect since because he gets to travel to other plantations where the treatment of slaves is truly and horrendously barbaric. Nat’s inner struggle with his faith in the face of such raw brutality and savagery is what sets this movie apart from other movies with similar themes. There’s also a very interesting added layer in that we see slaves who are not that far removed from their African culture and indeed, have integrated tribal rituals and ancestral rites into their Christian beliefs. Nat embodies this as he has visions both Christian and African as if they are both working in his soul. It’s a layer that’s not explored enough for me but it does provide religious fuel for THE BIRTH OF A NATION that powers the engine of Nat Turner’s eventual breaking point and his transformation from man of God to bloody-handed revolutionary leader using The Bible’s words no longer as loving instruments of peace but as swords of war.

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If there’s any flaw with THE BIRTH OF A NATION it’s that we spend too much time with Nat Turner. I was on good footing about his beliefs, his feelings and his thoughts and Nate Parker most likely won’t win an Academy Award for Best Actor but he should. As the adult Nat Turner he’s on screen for most of the movie’s running time to the detriment of the other characters in the movie, I felt. Most of whom we really don’t get to know all that well with the exception of Roger Guenveur Smith as Isiah, a house servant who tries to counsel Nat away from his plan and Jackie Earle Haley as Cobb, a slave catcher. I’ve enjoyed the work of Mr. Smith and Mr. Haley for many years now. They’re actors who guarantee that when they’re on screen, you can’t take your eyes off them. Mark Boone Junior provides what little comedy relief we get in the movie as the boozehound Reverend Walthall. Gabrielle Union is also in there somewhere in what amounts to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her cameo.

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Usually I end my reviews with asking you the question should you see the movie or not. THE BIRTH OF A NATION is a movie I would venture to guess that most of you have made up your mind about already and have either seen it or passed it by so that question is moot. Me, I enjoyed it. Not as light entertainment to waste a couple of hours. I’ve seen enough of those movies this dismal movie year. THE BIRTH OFA NATION is an intelligent, historic biographical drama that I appreciated for not being “just another slave movie.” Yes, the character of Nat Turner is still a controversial one and some may criticize me for characterizing Nat Turner as much an authentic American hero as any other, black or white that you can name. But be mindful that his revolution began with the same spirit as America’s revolution to break from England. He also wanted to be free.

120 Minutes

Rated R

Free State of Jones

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2015

IM Global/STX Entertainment

Screenplay written and directed by Gary Ross

Produced by Scott Stuber/Gary Ross/Jon Kilik

Story by Leonard Hartman

I’m a huge fan of summer movie season counter programming. I appreciate film studios that realize not everybody wants to see CGI heavy superhero blockbusters, sci-fi spectacles or hyper violent action movies. So they’ll throw out movies that are for audiences who maybe want a little more meat on their cinematic bones to chew on. So you think that FREE STATE OF JONES would be a slam dunk to draw in audiences. Well, reportedly it’s not and after having seen it for myself I know why. This movie wouldn’t have drawn in audiences no matter what season of the year it was shown. Matthew McConaughey gives it his all along with solid supporting work from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali and Keri Russell but it’s just not enough to sell the story which is at best rambling and at worst, downright confusing.

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Matthew McConaughey (center) and Mahershala Ali (center left) star in THE FREE STATE OF JONES

In the middle of the horrendous hell that is one of the most brutal and savage battles of the Civil War, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) watches as his son is killed. Knight promptly deserts from the Confederate Army and returns to his home in Jones County, Mississippi, hiding out in the swamp with other deserters and runaway slaves. Knight gradually becomes aware of the outrages committed against local farmers whose crops and livestock are stolen by the army who leave the rich plantations unmolested. Knight organizes the deserters, slaves and farmers into a very effective guerrilla militia and their reprisals against the Confederates cause such carnage that the Confederates actually have to turn their attention from the Union Army to try to deal with this threat.

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Knight attempts to make a deal with the Union Army that is rebuffed and so, feeling as if he and his people have been abandoned by both sides, establishes the Free State of Jones. At least for about two minutes of screen time and then it’s quickly forgotten. Which left me disappointed as I found the concept of this truly ragtag and highly unlikely band of founding fathers attempting to form their own independent state amidst the turmoil of the Civil War a highly fascinating one. And like many fascinating stories, this one is based on events that actually happened. Indeed, a man named Newton Knight led a band of Confederate army deserters known as The Knight Company that fought against the Confederacy during the Civil War. Now that’s the story I wanted to see.

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Unfortunately, FREE STATE OF JONES settles for being just another Great White Savior Movie as most of the movie’s running time is taken up with Knight establishing a post Civil War mixed-race community and his relationships with his black wife Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and his white wife Serena (Keri Russell). Some obligatory runtime is given to his friendship with Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali) an ex-slave who becomes Knight’s right-hand man and later on is instrumental in organizing free blacks to vote. There’s also an unnecessary subplot taking place 85 years after the events of the movie as one of Knight’s descendants finds himself in court defending his right to marry a white woman. The movie jumps all over the place and there are way too many scenes that start promisingly and then go nowhere. They just end abruptly and go onto something else, leaving me sitting there saying; “Wha hoppen?”

Despite the strong acting of McConaughey, Mbatha-Raw, Russell and Ali, the movie lacks energy and drive. Most of the cast we never really get to know at all and there’s far too many scenes of McConaughey standing around looking pained and heartbroken at the various injustices being committed against his black friends who he has come to love and acknowledge as his extended family. FREE STATE OF JONES is a movie with a lot of potential that left me frustrated as there’s actually a great story in there that should be told and I hope that someday it will be. Wait for this one to show up on Netflix or some other streaming service.

139 Minutes

Rated R

 

 

 

 

The Fallen

 

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2015 

Directed by Alex Popov

Written by Bradford James Jackson

YouTube is a trap. You and I both know it. How many times have we gone to YouTube just to look up one video and ten hours later we come up for air, having totally lost ourselves in just watching one video or movie after another? And with good reason. The amount of really good stuff to watch on YouTube considerably outweighs the crap. And Odin knows there is well and truly a whole lot of crap on there.

But that’s if you only want to watch crap. And there’s a lot of people who deliberately seek out the worst stuff to watch. But that’s them. Me, I’d rather spend my time watching good stuff and when I get a recommendation to watch something like THE FALLEN it makes me appreciate YouTube all the more.

On a ragged, blood-soaked plain in Scandinavia, 613 A.D. two bands of rival Vikings clash in savage combat. The winners survive at a high cost; their king is sorely injured and they face a long and difficult trip home across cruel, wintery mountains. The Vikings make a litter for their king and set out on their journey. They run across a strange metallic object that one of their number claims is a Valkyrie come to take them to Valhalla. The metallic object opens and what emerges from it is a being who will indeed send the Vikings to Valhalla but is certainly not a Valkyrie.

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It doesn’t take long before you realize that what we have here is pretty much “Vikings Vs. Predator” as the alien creature begins to hunt the Vikings who in turn decide to hunt the alien right back. The conflict that ensues is horrifically, even gleefully violent. It’s also entertaining as hell.

THE FALLEN is listed as a “proof of concept” short film. My understanding is that such films are made to generate interest and perhaps spark funding for longer, feature length versions of the short film. And THE FALLEN does end with a teaser that could indeed lead into a longer movie. And let’s face it, who doesn’t want to see badass Vikings with swords and battle axes taking on high-tech alien warriors?

The special effects and production values are the real stars of this short film. That’s not to say that actors aren’t good at what they do but let’s face it, in a 20 minutes short film you don’t have a lot of time to build deep, meaningful characterization. Most of the Vikings are there to get killed in deliriously gory ways. The special effects are quite imaginative and surprisingly sophisticated as is the costuming and location shooting. You can see that the people who worked on this movie truly and honestly cared about what they were doing.

I’ve provided a link so that you can check it out for yourself if you’re so inclined. And with a 20 minutes running time I think you will be. I’ve never heard of Alex Popov before but he’s a director to watch. He knows how to direct action and he knows how to direct quiet, thoughtful scenes as well. There’s a scene with the Vikings sitting around a campfire talking about their situation and their dying king that manages to do quite a lot in a short amount of time. THE FALLEN is an impressive piece of work and everybody associated with it should be proud.

The Revenant

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2015

Anonymous Content/Appian Way/New Regency Pictures/RatPac-Dune Entertainment/Regency Enterprises/20th Century Fox

Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu

Produced by Arnon Milchan/Steve Golin/Mary Parent/James W. Skotchdopole/Keith Redmon

Screenplay by Mark L. Smith

Based on “The Revenant” by Michael Punke

See, THE REVENANT should have hit theaters during the spring or summer. Oh, I know it’s out now because it had to qualify for The Academy Awards. And believe you me, from the first shot to the last it’s got Oscar Bait stamped all over it. But here’s my point: its winter here in Brooklyn and to go through a cold environment to see a movie that for two hours and thirty-six minutes immerses me in a frigid environment is kinda like adding insult to injury.

And when I say immerse, that is exactly what I mean. Director Alejandro Inarritu insisted on filming in remote locations. Reportedly crew members quit due to the difficulty of shooting on the locations and I can believe that. The cast looks as if they’re absolutely freezing throughout the whole movie. It couldn’t have been an easy movie to make. It isn’t an easy one to sit through.

Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) are scouts for a party of trappers hunting for pelts in the Louisiana Purchase territory of 1823. Saying that it’s a savage, barbarous wilderness barely does justice to how untamed this land is. But the hunters quickly find out as Arikara Indians attack them and most of them are wiped out. Glass, Hawk and about ten others manage to escape on a boat which Glass insists they have to abandon as soon as possible because the Arikara know the river and they will easily flank them and have an ambush waiting.

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This plan doesn’t sit well with John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) who already doesn’t trust Hugh’s son because he’s half Pawnee. But the commander of the party, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) agrees to Hugh’s plan which saves them from the Indians. But it doesn’t save Hugh from being attacked and hideously mauled by a bear while separated from the party. Hugh manages to kill the bear but he’s left barely alive himself. Although Henry and the others do their best to stitch him up and bring him along, the consensus is that Hugh is only slowing them down and will die soon anyway. Hawk and another member of the party, Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) say they will stay with Hugh and when he dies, give him a proper burial. Once he’s promised a fat financial bonus, Fitzgerald also offers to stay behind.

As soon as the hunting party is out of sight and Bridger goes to the river for water, Fitzgerald tries to kill Hugh. Hawk tries to stop him and is killed. Fitzgerald hides the body and tells Bridger that they have to leave as he has seen Indians in the vicinity, the lying bastard. Up until then, Hugh Glass had pretty much been resigned to dying but now Fitzgerald has given him a reason to live and horribly, painfully, Hugh Glass sets out to find Fitzgerald and get revenge.

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THE REVENANT from start to finish has a wild, brutal kind of beauty. Even the bear attack on Hugh Glass is both horrifying and yet somehow artistic at the same time. Hugh’s odyssey of vengeance takes place across a spectacular landscape that is stark and forbidding but also gorgeously stunning. Few movies have ever made such a barren wasteland look this enthrallingly fascinating. THE REVENANT is downright exquisite to look at. You’ll be reminded of the films of Terence Malick at times, I’m sure

Far as I’m concerned, every one of the actors in THE REVENANT oughta get a Oscar just for surviving this movie. Everybody looks cold, dirty and miserable in every single scene. If realism is what Inarritu wanted from his actors then realism is what he got. It makes for a pretty grim movie watching experience. Hugh Glass has to first drag himself for miles until he gets the strength to crawl for even more miles and then at last walk. All the while surviving blizzards, hostile Indians (there’s a subplot about an Arikara chief looking for his kidnapped daughter and in his rage slaughters any white man he comes across) French trappers that kill just because they’ve got nothing else to do as well as the land itself which in its own way is an enemy trying to kill Hugh. An enemy more pitiless than any human could ever be.

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Leonardo DiCaprio shows again why he’s one of our best actors working today. This truly is a different role for him and there’s long stretches of the movie where there’s no dialog and he communicates very well with his body and face what Hugh Glass is thinking and feeling. But its Tom Hardy that is the movie’s MVP. In fact, I felt I got to know John Fitzgerald better than I did Hugh Glass as Fitzgerald/Hardy gets the lion’s share of dialog and he can articulate himself and his motivations in a way the other characters never do.

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So should you see THE REVENANT? Well, it’s no “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” that’s for fargin’ sure. That’s not to say that its entertainment value is any less. But it’s a movie that you have to put yourself in a certain mindset to see as it absolutely is not chewing gum for the brain crafted simply for spectacle and histrionic melodrama. It’s an uncompromising, adult story of survival and revenge that isn’t afraid to be ferociously, even mercilessly brutal and yet achieves a fascinating level of breathtaking beauty in the telling of its story. Recommended.

156 Minutes

Rated R

 

 

 

12 Years A Slave

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2013

Regency Enterprises/Film4/Plan B Entertainment

Directed by Steve McQueen

Produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Bill Pohlad

Screenplay by John Ridley

Based on “Twelve Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup

 

Let me say this up front so that you won’t waste your time reading this review: if you’re the type of movie goer whose mantra is “When I go to see a movie I just want to turn off my brain and be entertained” then you should give 12 YEARS A SLAVE a pass. And I’m not saying that to put you down. Your movie choices are your own and God Bless. But 12 YEARS A SLAVE simply isn’t that kind of movie where you can turn off your brain. It won’t let you. It’s not mental bubble gum that you enjoy while it’s on the screen and then can barely remember what it was about the next day. And it’s not a casual date night movie. It’s not a movie you approach as light entertainment. I actually hesitate to call 12 YEARS A SLAVE an entertainment because of the subject matter and the way the story is told. It’s a movie that transports you right into the middle of the hell of slavery. It doesn’t turn away from the brutality, violence and dehumanization of slavery. I honestly haven’t had feelings like this watching a movie since I saw “The Passion of The Christ.” Unlike “Django Unchained” which uses slavery as a backdrop for its pulp spaghetti western inspired revenge epic, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is about the pure horror of slavery from start to finish and never once during its 134 minutes does it let you forget that.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in Saratoga, New York in the Year of Our Lord 1841. Solomon supports his wife and two children as a professional violin player. He’s a true gentleman of education and manners, quiet spoken and compassionate. He’s a man of property who owns his own home and he’s treated with respect by his white and black neighbors alike. So Solomon doesn’t attach any nefarious doings to two seemingly respectable white men who approach him about touring with their travelling show. The pay is good and they assure him he’ll be back home by the time his family returns from their own out of town trip. Solomon agrees.

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Solomon goes out for dinner and drinks with his newfound friends and passes out from what he assumes is too much drink. Actually he’s been drugged and when he awakens it’s in chains as he’s been sold into slavery. His protests that he is a free man only earns him hideously savage beatings. Renamed ‘Platt’ he’s transported along with other Shanghaied free black men and women to New Orleans where he is purchased by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and taken to work on his plantation. Master Ford actually isn’t that bad a master, Solomon says to Eliza (Adepero Oduye) whose children have been sold to another plantation. Eliza points out to Solomon with wickedly barbed common sense that just by the very way Solomon speaks it’s obvious he isn’t just another uneducated field nigger but Master Ford pointedly ignores that fact since that means he might have to acknowledge some facts that could land him in jail.

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Solomon’s real trials are still yet to come when in order to save his life from a sadistic overseer (Paul Dano) Ford has to sell him to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) who demands that his slaves pick 200 pounds of cotton a day. Each. If they don’t they are whipped. If that wasn’t horrific enough, the slaves are used as living pawns in a vicious war between Epps and his wife Mary (Sarah Paulson.) The main pawn being Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) a beautiful slave girl Epps uses as a spittoon for his sperm, brazenly flaunting it in front of his wife. Not only does Patsey have to endure being raped by him but suffer frenzied attacks from Mary. Solomon has to walk a fine line with the Epps, both of whom are clearly insane and possibly derive some kind of sexual satisfaction from their mutual abuse of their slaves. Solomon clings to the shreds of hope that somehow, someway he’ll be able to get word up north and get somebody, anybody to come down south with his papers proving he’s a free man and save him from this waking nightmare.

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I can’t emphasize enough that 12 YEARS A SLAVE is a difficult movie to sit through. Some may question if we really need a movie this graphic in its depiction of slave life on a southern plantation and I think we do. Sometimes movies shouldn’t be all about having a good time. It should be about making us feel and think about things we’d rather not feel or think about and on that level, this movie succeeds magnificently.

I really can’t pick out one actor over the other to award the acting honors to as everybody brings their A game to the court. I’ve enjoyed Chiwetel Ejiofor in other movies such as “Kinky Boots” “Serenity” and “Dirty Pretty Things” and in this movie, just as in those three he uses his incredibly expressive eyes to maximum effects, especially in a gutpunch of a scene where through his joining in singing a spiritual with the other slaves we realize that he has accepted his fate and committed himself body and soul to being a slave.

Michael Fassbender is utterly demonic as Epps and never less than believable. It would have been way too easy to have turned Epps into a mustache twirling Simon Legree but the complicated relationship he has with his wife and Solomon allows him to explore his character in interesting ways. Like many of the other white characters in the movie, Epps is aware that there’s something radically different about this slave. It’s that difference that causes Epps to alternately elevate Solomon at times and at others try to kill him.

Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey is nothing less than extraordinary. This is the kind of film debut that earns actors and actresses Academy Awards. There are some really disturbing scenes involving Patsey and Lupita Nyong’o handles them with sensitivity and real emotion. I can’t sing her praises enough.

Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t have a major role here but he more than makes the most of his screen time. This is a guy who I can easily see having a career like Michael Caine or Albert Finney as he’s that good. Michael K. Williams from ‘The Wire’ and ‘Boardwalk Empire’ has a pivotal cameo here as does Brad Pitt.

So should you see 12 YEARS A SLAVE. If I could I’d pay for all of you to see it, that’s how important a movie I think this is. But I also have to be fair to those of you who may be too sensitive for the horrendous brutality depicted so graphically and do not wish to see such. And there are many scenes of graphic violence. I can’t put it any plainer than that.

But if you want to see a movie that has the courage to not sugarcoat or trivialize the cruel, soulless brutality of slavery and is relentless in showing the atrocities done then by all means go see 12 YEARS A SLAVE as this is about a true horror story. One we all still live with today.

134 minutes

Rated R for extremely graphic violence