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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: 12 Years a Slave

March 15th, 2014

12 Years a Slave - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

12 Years a Slave recently won the Best Picture Oscar. This creates huge expectations. I am a little worried the expectations are so great the film will be weak by comparison. Is that the case? Or is the film really as good as its reviews and accolades would indicate?

The Movie

The film begins with Solomon Northup as a slave in New Orleans before flashing back to his life in Saratoga Springs, New York City. He is a free man and married with two children. He works as a skilled carpenter, but also plays the violin at functions. His wife, Anne has a job as a chef and will be gone, along with his kids, for nearly a month working. Shortly after her wife leaves, he is walking in the park when he is approached by Mr. Moon. Mr. Moon was talking to two gentlemen, Brown and Hamilton. Apparently these two work for a circus of sorts and need to hire a violinist to play during their performances. They are offering $1 a day plus $3 a performance, plus return fare from Washington, D.C., to Saratoga Springs once the performances are over. He naturally accepts.

At first the the job goes amazingly well. In fact, Brown and Hamilton take Solomon out to dinner to celebrate and pay him a bonus for his work. However, when Solomon wakes up, he is in chains. We see a few flashbacks about how he became sick after celebrating with Brown and Hamilton. While in chains two men come into the cell and he explains he's a free man, but the one man, Bruch, tells Solomon that he is an escaped slave from Georgia and when Solomon disagrees, he beats Solomon. He soon meets other captured "slaves", including Eliza and her two kids. Soon all of them are loaded onto a paddle boat and sent to New Orleans.

We are only about 20 minutes into the movie and I really haven't described much of the plot, but I'm going to stop there. Watching the movie was hard enough, writing about it is more than I can take. I really hope the next movie I have to watch is something not so oppressive and soul-crushing. (I just checked, it's a 1970s TV movie starring William Shatner. That should lighten the mood, even if it is not supposed to.)

12 Years a Slave is one of the most difficult movies I've had to watch, but in a good way. It deals with an incredibly difficult subject, slavery, and deals with it in such a brutally honest way that one could call it one of a kind. To be honest, I had to pause the movie several times and walk away so I could cool down. That said, it is an absolute easy recommendation, as the movie is fantastic in every way. The acting is incredible and I really think Chiwetel Ejiofor was robbed on Oscar night. Lupita Nyong'o was amazing as Patsey and I'm glad she won an Oscar and she better get some strong roles in the future. The supporting cast is also outstanding, while Steve McQueen's directing was in-your-face and brutal, but in a way that was necessary to tell the story. Finally, as a period piece, the film looks fantastic. There is nothing about this film that isn't praise-worthy. Some have complained that the film is repetitive at times, but that is needed to get across the horror of living as a slave. It is one thing to have a bad day, but it is something else to know that tomorrow will be the same, as will the day after that and the day after that, etc. Worse still, good days (like proving you can transport logs over the bayou) will get you punished for making the white folk look bad. This repetitiveness and the grueling nature of the movie is absolutely part of what makes it effective. It is also part of what makes it so hard to watch.

The Extras

On the downside, there are not a lot of extras on the DVD. There is just an eight-minute behind-the-scenes look at the crew. There is also a four-minute featurette on the score. That's not enough. On the other hand, the Blu-ray also has a two-part, 41-minute long look at this film, starting from Steve McQueen deciding to make a film about slavery and searching for the right story. It also includes Chiwetel Ejiofor reading excerpts from the book. The Blu-ray still isn't loaded with extras, but it is enough that I don't feel ripped off.

The technical presentation is excellent, but not reference level material. The movie was shot on film, but grain is not an issue. The level of details is always sharp, as are the colors. Shadows are deep, but never swallow details. This is important, as there are many key scenes that take place at night or in poorly lit places. The 5.1 surround sound track is not overly active, but that is to be expected given the nature of the film. We do get some activity in the surround sound speakers, while the dialogue is always clear.

The Blu-ray costs just $18, which is $3 or 20% more than the DVD. That's an excellent deal.

The Verdict

12 Years a Slave is a brutal movie to get through, but it is worth seeing. It is the best movie of the year and possibly the best movie of the past several years. It deserved all of the Oscars it won, and probably should have picked up a couple others. If you just want to rent it, possibly because you think the film might be too difficult to sit through more than once, then the DVD is worth it. However, the Blu-ray is the better deal.

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Filed under: Video Review, 12 Years a Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taran Killam, William Shatner, Tony Bentley, Scoot McNairy, Adepero Oduye, Kelsey Scott, Steve Rodney McQueen, Lupita Nyong'o, Christopher Berry