12 Years A Slave

Last night, Kish and I watched 12 Years a Slave. It is a well-made, gripping film that features an exceptional performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup, a free man who is lured away from his New York home, drugged, and then sold into more than a decade of slavery.

For all of its beautiful cinematography and superb acting, the movie is incredibly difficult to watch because of the oppressive reality of slavery and the bloody and terrible beatings, the hangings, and the lashings of Northrup and his fellow slaves. Of course, that’s the point — at least in part. For too long, in movies like Gone With The Wind, the reality of slavery in America was sugarcoated and airbrushed into fantasyland. 12 Years a Slave, with its depiction of the story of one man’s hellish experience on several plantations in the deep South, helps to balance the scales.

Movies can make us laugh, make us cry, make us think, and make us wonder. 12 Years a Slave falls into the latter categories. One of the great values of the movie is its exposure of the many different people who participated in the slavery system and facilitated its enormous evil. For every brutish slave owner and sadistic overseer there were a host of slave auctioneers, jailers, tradesmen, ship owners, and fugitive slave hunters who helped to keep the system running. 12 Years a Slave shows them all doing their jobs, apparently untroubled by the fact that they are trading in the lives of human beings. How did that happen? How did those people come to accept and participate in such a perverse and inherently wicked institution?

In our fast-moving modern world, where everyone focuses on the future and things a decade old are viewed as the distant past, it’s important to remember that there is a deep and rancid stain on the history of the United States that grew and endured for decades. 12 Years a Slave is a fine movie in its own right, but its powerful message about the dark corner of our heritage makes it a must-see film.

Potter’s End

This week Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, will be released to a breathless public.  It will be the last installment of the Harry Potter series of movies — movies that, since the first film was released 10 years ago, have generated huge sums for Warner Brothers and theatre owners everywhere.

The Harry Potter movies probably have been the most financially successful series of films ever made.  There have been seven installments, and all have ended up in the top 70 box office hits of all time.  The lowest-grossing film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, grossed just below $250 million and comes in at number 64 on the list; the highest-grossing film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, generated $317 million and is number 26.  The producers have managed to keep the cast of actors playing the principal characters together for the entire ten-year run — excluding Richard Harris, who died after playing Professor Dumbledore for the first two films and was replaced by Michael Gambon — and the youthful actors playing Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) can still plausibly play teenagers.

Critics argue that the Harry Potter movies are not excellent films.  They obviously don’t stack up with Citizen Kane or Gone With The Wind or other classic cinematic landmarks, but that really is not their goal.  Instead, the movies seek to faithfully bring to life a beloved set of books so that the stories can be enjoyed, again, by Harry’s millions of fans.  By this measure, I think the movies have been a huge success.  Parts of the written story have been cut, which is not surprising given the length of some of the books, but the core elements and places are there.  And the actors who have created the principal adult roles — like Alan Rickman with his terrific Severus Snape, Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort, and Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange — have put memorable flesh and blood on characters that could have been mere caricatures.

I’ll go to see the last installment in the series and will watch it with pleasure.  I’m particularly interested in seeing how Rickman fills in the final elements of the Severus Snape story, how the filmmakers deal with the curious meeting between Harry and Dumbledore just before the climactic battle at Hogwarts — and whether the somewhat controversial coda to the final book is included.

Sequel Fatigue

Last night Kish and I went to see Toy Story 3 in 3D at the Easton movie theatres.  It was well done, I suppose, but I found myself thinking about how little true creativity we see in popular culture anymore.  As nice as it was to see Woody and Buzz Lightyear in a new adventure, I would rather see the team that made Toy Story 3 devote their considerable talents to creating something totally new and different.

It seems like 75% of the movies showing at any given time are movie versions of TV shows or comic books, or sequels of prior successful movies, or remakes of old movies, or even remakes of sequels.  Everybody seems to be searching for a “franchise” that they can ride for a few sequels until diminishing quality and declining audience interest have irreparably damaged the memory of the excellent original movie.

Contrast the current approach with the golden age of Hollywood, during the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.  The most popular movie ever, Gone With The Wind, ended with a cliffhanger if there ever was one, but the studio resisted the temptation to crank out a sequel.  There was no sequel to The Wizard Of Oz, High Noon, or Rear Window, or It’s A Wonderful Life.   After Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a big hit, Walt Disney made Pinocchio, not Snow White 2:  Grumpy’s Revenge.

I sometimes wonder whether the focus on sequels has caused writers, directors, actors, and animators who are at the peak of their abilities to take the path of least resistance, rather than breaking new ground and creating new characters, story lines, and techniques.  What potential masterpieces have gone unmade as a result of the emphasis on producing sure-fire sequels?