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a Slave turns to recorded history to gather the evidence, but because it’s an R-rated movie rather than a primetime-friendly TV show, the ghastly sights and accompanying sounds on display in this new piece will disturb far more deeply. Based on the same-named 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup, this shows how Mr. Northup (superbly played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is enjoying life as a happy husband, a proud papa and, most crucially, a free black man in 1841 New York when his life takes a calamitous turn. Lured to Washington, D.C., under the pretense of employing his musical skills for the benefit of a traveling show, he instead is chained, beaten and provided with a new identity as a Georgia runaway named Platt. He’s taken to a particularly capitalistic slave trader (Paul Giamatti), who in turn sells him to a soft-spoken Baptist preacher named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford, who owns a vast Louisiana plantation, admires Northup for his engineering skills, but trouble arises when one of his foremen (Paul Dano) takes it upon himself to teach this slave a lesson. Circumstances dictate that Northup be shuttled off to another owner, but unlike Ford, the sadistic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) likes nothing about his new slave and seeks only to keep him down. Knowing the story’s outcome does nothing to lessen the potency of what’s shown on screen, largely because of the courageous manner in which McQueen holds certain shots as if he’s daring us to look away for even a second. We don’t — out of respect as much as anything else — although it’s especially hard during an excruciatingly lengthy sequence in which Northup, with his hands still tied and a noose still around his neck after an aborted lynching, stands on his tippy toes in an effort not to hang himself. Audience unease also solidifies when the focal point is Patsey, a young slave who stirs the lust of Epps and earns the hatred of his wife (Sarah Paulson). Making her feature debut, Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised and Yale-educated Lupita Nyong’o is outstanding in the role, as Patsey is willing to learn what it takes to survive (as Northup has done) but too boxed in to really persevere. While Ejiofor and Nyong’o should emerge as the film’s award contenders,
Fassbender and Cumberbatch deserve mention for presenting wide contrasts in the banality of evil. Brad Pitt also turns up, although his character of Samuel Bass, a beatific Canadian laborer who believes in equality for all, would come across as a deus ex machina were he not based on fact. But Northup’s memoir verifies that Bass was present, descending upon the scene like a shaggy angel. After two hours of witnessing Hell on Earth, viewers will take whatever Heavenly creature comes their way.
It’s been a long time coming, but best-selling author, Brigham Young descendant and all-around tool Orson Scott Card has finally decided to let someone make his popular 1985 novel Ender’s Game into a motion picture. Card had held out as long as he could, even saying that his book was “unfilmable,” but the author (or his accountant) finally relented, with Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) being handed the plum assignments of writer and director. Not having read Card’s novel, I couldn’t say whether it was truly “unfilmable,” but what ended up on the screen is indeed “filmable” in that we’ve seen these narrative threads countless times before in science fiction cinema. It’s the future, and the great military leader Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) has successfully defended Earth against hordes of insect-like invaders. Fearing they might return, Colonel Hyram Graff (Harrison Ford) searches for a new champion and finds one in Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a boy who believes in beating his opponents so thoroughly that they won’t even think of attacking him again. Ender is shipped off to hone his skills as both a warrior and a leader, making friends and enemies alike and questioning authority almost every chance he gets. Best known for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Butterfield is a likable actor, and that innate charm is necessary for us to warm up to a character with such fascistic tendencies. Indeed, the strength of the film is not in its conventional sci-fi elements but in the manner in which Ender relates to everyone around him, particularly the other kids. The rest is rather rote, though the late-inning twist provides a nice jolt.