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Featured Blu-ray review - Amistad

May 5th, 2014

Amistad - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

I don't think it is unfair to call Amistad Oscar-bait. It is a film based on a powerful real life story that came out in theaters in December, right in the heart of Oscar season. However, it didn't live up to expectations, either with critics or at the box office. It did pick up four Oscar nominations, but it failed to convert any of those into wins. Then again, "Not quite good enough for Oscars." is hardly a damning statement. Was the movie hurt by unrealistic expectations? Has it aged well in the years since it came out? And is the Blu-ray worth picking up?

The Movie

The movie begins in a slave ship, La Amistad, with one of the slaves working his fingers bloody to remove a nail from the wooden hull. Once he accomplishes that, he is able to use the nail to free himself, and then the other slaves who then arm themselves and kill most of the crew. They spare two sailors to help them get back to Africa. One of the former slaves, Sengbe Pieh, doesn't trust the Spaniards, and for good reason. They sail the ship close to the Atlantic coast where, after a close call, they find themselves low on water and while on land collecting fresh water, the ship are spotted by an American navy vessel. They are captured, put back in chains and arrested.

This causes a lot of confusion for the courts, as before they can be charged with murder, mutiny and piracy, several people lay claim to the slaves, including Queen Isabelle (it was a Spanish ship); the captain of the American ship that discovered La Amistad, who claims the slaves as salvage; and the original slavers, who have a receipt from Cuba. Two abolitionists, Theodore Joadson and Lewis Tappan, are also trying to free them, but they need legal council. They try to get former president John Quincy Adams, but he's old and not interested in taking another case. They are approached by Roger Sherman Baldwin, who wants to win and thinks the best way is to treat the slaves like property. If they are property, then they can't be charged with murder. And if they are property, but are not naturally born slaves, then they are stolen property. However, when there is a language barrier, it is hard to prove where someone is from.

They do get a break and find the ship's manifest, which seems to bolster their case. However, Senator John C. Calhoun begins to make waves that if the slaves are set free, this will end in Civil War. As a result, President Martin Van Buren interferes with the case to remove the judge and get one more sympathetic to the slavers. Theodore Joadson goes to John Quincy Adams to ask his advice. He says in court, the person who wins is the one tells the best story. They need to tell the story of the lives of these slaves, but in order to do that, they need to know their stories. In order to do that, they need to find someone to speak their language. They come up with an ingenious idea. They learn how to count to ten in Mende and go to the docks saying the numbers to various people hoping of them them recognizes the words. It works and they find Ensign Covey.

From here on, we begin to run into serious spoilers. Actually, how they found Ensign Covey might be too much of a spoiler, but I wanted to include that because it is useful for my review.

The easiest way to review Amistad is to compare it to 12 Years a Slave, and not just because Chiwetel Ejiofor is in both. Obviously they are both about slavery and both are based on real life events. Both opened during Awards Season and both earned at least some measure of success during Awards Season. So how do these two movies compare? In a nutshell, Amistad isn't as powerful as 12 Years a Slave is, but it is also easier to watch. The acting is excellent here from a talented ensemble cast. Both Djimon Hounsou and Anthony Hopkins earned major Awards Season nominations, while other members of the cast, Morgan Freeman, Matthew McConaughey, etc. are also great. On the other hand, it does feel a little emotionally manipulative at times instead of being genuinely moving. Maybe a slightly lighter touch would have helped the movie be more effective. It is absolutely worth checking out, but I understand why it wasn't a big winner on Oscar night.

The Extras

There only extra on the Blu-ray is a 26-minute long making of featurette.

The technical presentation is excellent with a high level of details in most scenes. (There are several scenes that are much darker than others and these don't have quite as high level of details.) The colors are strong, as is the contrast. There are no compression issues, digital artifacts, or signs of digital manipulation. The audio is clear, but for the most part uncomplicated. It isn't devoid of activity in the surround sound speakers, but this isn't a highly dynamic track either. It's a dialogue driven drama, so the this is what you want.

The Verdict

I would have liked some new extras for the Amistad Blu-ray debut, but for what we get, the $15 price is worth paying.

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Filed under: Video Review, Amistad, 12 Years a Slave, Morgan Freeman, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nigel Hawthorne, Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou, Arliss Howard, Matthew McConaughey, Anna Paquin, Stellan Skarsgård