“We may be evolved, but down deep we’re still animals.” Disney’s Zootopia

Zootopia

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This political season is arguably the most distressingly fascinating one I can ever recall. Whether #ImWithHer or #FeelingTheBern or #MakingAmericaGreatAgain or #DumpingTrump, the vitriol and shenanigans, the dramatic tension and circus-world comedy, and the reality-television-fueled debasement of what it even means to be “presidential” are as titillating and train-wreck exhilarating as they are shocking and horrifyingly confounding.

Into this topsy-turvy world, where GOP elephants compare “hand”-sizes and Dem donkeys trade an endless stream of cocktail napkin memes, comes a funny little kids’ movie from Disney, an animated fable with mobster rodents and badge-wearing rabbits, hustling foxes and pencil-pushing sheep (who may or may not be political wolves). Disney’s latest effort Zootopia may very well be the allegory for our times, a medicinally incisive piece of camp that pierces the heart of our political juvenilia, not as a heavy-handed polemic but as a frothy noir merringue that still manages to offer timely (and timeless) critique of our national propensity toward ugliness, be it in the form of sexism, racial profiling, class distinctions, ageism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, crass marketing, leveraging abject fear to erode any and all civil liberties, or, yes, speciesism.

If George Orwell’s Animal Farm had been reimagined by Bugs Bunny‘s Chuck Jones, you’d have Zootopia, as close to classic Looney Tunes‘ satirical irreverence as middle-class-family-friendly Disney may ever get. 

“Zootopia” (the place) is an urbane promised land where anthropomorphic animals of all species coexist amicably – think Richard Scarry’s Busytown on steroids or Watership Down, Jr., with predator and prey working and playing side-by-side and setting a far better example than humans can ever seem to manage. Zootopia is a Manhattan-esque place, brimming with hustle and bustle, composed of boroughs distinguished by their unique climates (e.g. polar, rainforest, desert, etc.)

Judy Hopps (effervescently voiced by Once Upon a Time‘s Ginnifer Goodwin) is a brave bunny who defies her expected station (as a carrot farmer) to become a cop (a role typically taken by larger, more aggressive male creatures, like cheetahs and buffalo). As in human life, Hopps is quickly marginalized (for her gender and her size) by her co-workers, assigned the menial task of traffic duty.

Yet, something dire is afoot in this magical land, and the balance of animalia power is challenged as traditional “predator” animals revert to more violent ways of the past. (This is still a Disney movie, so that basically means angry eyes and lots and lots of snarling.) Lt. Hopps seizes the moment, and, with the aid of a con man fox named Nick Wilde (Bad Words‘ Jason Bateman, finding his animated doppelganger), cracks the case.

Or do they? That‘s really where the cheeky fun begins as the third act of the film inverts all of our notions of Zootopia, landing a stinging indictment of how society offers a phony face of inclusion and acceptance as long as things run smoothly with safety, security, and prosperity ostensibly guaranteed for all.  The minute the “natural order” (which we mindlessly take for granted) is revealed as the wobbly house of cards it actually can be, all bets are off, and life starts to resemble a Trump rally or a Promise Keepers meeting or Hitler’s Nuremberg, with fiery, fearful rhetoric of us-versus-them, boundary walls, torture, and police states. Zootopia – accidentally or intentionally or both – holds a mirror to this truth and presents its audience, young and old, a cautionary hopefulness that we can still pull ourselves from the mire.

Yet, the magic of this film (not unlike similarly smart animated fare like The Lego Movie, Inside Out, or Wall*E) is that the message never comes at the expense of entertainment  (maximizing impact and influence). This picture is just so. much. fun. In addition to Goodwin and Bates, there is sparkling voice work from Thor‘s Idris Elba (Police Chief Bogo, a blustering water buffalo), Whiplash‘s J.K. Simmons (Mayor Lionheart, a scheming king of the jungle), Jenny Slate (Bellwether, the mayor’s browbeaten lamb assistant … lion and the lamb, get it?), Nate Torrence (Officer Clawhauser, a dispatch policeman cheetah for whom food is quite literally love), and Alan Tudyk (Duke Weaselton, a shifty little informant weasel). Uni-named pop star Shakira rounds out the cast playing uni-named pop star Gazelle, nailing some witty moments as a well-intentioned if misguided celebrity trying to bring cross-cultural unity through superficial lip-service. (Sounds like some recent Oscar speeches, eh?)

Zootopia is a visually stunning film throughout, and one viewing will unlikely do justice to the rich detail (and hidden references) of this animal planet. Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) have realized a sumptuously immersive world here that is simultaneously transporting and sobering. Mayor Lionheart exclaims, “We may be evolved, but deep down we’re still animals.” These words (other than the disparaging implication of “animal”) are as true (if not truer) of we humans, struggling through as fractious an historical moment as many of us may see in our lifetimes. Zootopia may just be the tonic we all have needed. Lt. Hopps notes repeatedly through the film – as much warning as mantra: “Zootopia … where anyone can be anything!” Maybe we Americans should give that idea a shot again? What do you think?

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img_0083Enjoy this recent radio show, featuring The Penny Seats (and yours truly!) … “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris: Feelings that Connect Us All” – https://t.co/E9YMfoZN0C

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Guest “Homeward Angle” column – Don Draper redeemed … Million Dollar Arm (redux)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

My mom’s latest Homeward Angle column is actually written by yours truly – as she notes here

“I’m turning my column this month over to my kid Roy ‘Inky’ Sexton (www.reelroyreviews.com). I was so taken by the message in this review he did of a movie I absolutely loved – Million Dollar Arm – that I wanted to share it with you. The concepts of appreciation and of kindness, of living in the moment and of acknowledging the contributions of others are so crucial, no matter your background or philosophy. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did! … and I am Don Draper’s and Jerry Van Dyke’s love child, I figured out! You can read his original post here.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Below is the scanned copy of the column … enjoy! Find out more about my mom, her books, columns, and other writing at www.susieduncansexton.com – I’m very proud of her!

For those of you in the Fort Wayne, Indiana-area, save the date as she filmed an episode of the “Patty’s Page” talk show with wonderful Patty Hunter. The show will air Saturday, June 7, 5:30 pm and Sunday, June 8, 9:30 am on 55 (comcast) and 25 (frontier). For those not in Northeast Indiana, the show will also be posted by Patty on YouTube shortly following the broadcast.

Million Dollar Arm Column

Here’s an excerpt from the column: “No one can play an admirable cad quite like Hamm, and, as noted above, he is subtle perfection, no easy feat in a Disney summer blockbuster. His transformation from a machine who views his fellow man as ‘investments’ to someone who appreciates the heart and soul, fears and hopes intrinsic in us all is more inspiring than any slow-mo, symphonic-scored baseball-pitching at the film’s conclusion.”

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Don Draper redeemed: Disney’s Million Dollar Arm

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Everything in life is a transaction. Success of any kind – be it in love, in wealth, or in notoriety – comes with a price. This was certainly the central theme of last winter’s The Wolf of Wall Street, and it’s the key message of the decidedly more humane and lovable summer Disney flick Million Dollar Arm, starring Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm.

Yes, snooty cineastes, I just compared a feel-good Mouse House sports movie to a Scorsese-helmed orgy of sex, drugs, and Leo DiCaprio. Like it or lump it.

I loved every minute of Million Dollar Arm, which, like Wolf, offers us a predatory anti-hero whose adoration of a life fueled by supermodels, million dollar paychecks, sleek Porsches and swanky mid-century Eames chairs gives him license to try one get-richer scheme after another. Unlike Wolf, however, when our hero J.B. Bernstein (Hamm) hits bottom, he doesn’t double down and snort a yacht-ful of cocaine; rather, he finds the joy of unconventional family, risks his pristine world for the future success of others, and rediscovers his soul. Don Draper redeemed.

(Don’t get me wrong, I was a big fan of The Wolf of Wall Street as well – see here – and I suspect no one else in their right mind would compare the two … but I’ve never claimed normality.)

My parents were gaga over Million Dollar Arm too, with my mother emailing me, “An exceptional low-key film concentrating on human beings … happens to deal with sports incidentally, else I would not have loved it so! Hamm blends in and does not play ‘leading man’! Terrific film undeniably!” I couldn’t agree more with that succinct and apt assessment.

I’m not a sports fan either, but Disney has a marvelous track record for co-opting sports (MiracleGlory Road, The RookieInvincibleRemember the Titans, to name a few of my favorites) as tear-jerking, heart-tugging metaphors for underdogs overcoming daunting adversity – ageism, racism, xenophobia, socioeconomic disparity, classism, sexism … heck, even species-ism (yup, Air Bud, I’m talking about you and all your countless direct-to-video sequels and spin-offs). Million Dollar Arm is no exception, and likely is my favorite one to date.

In short, Hamm plays a Jerry Maguire-esque sports agent whose days are numbered. He loses a key client that could have turned his fortunes around, and, in a very funny twist of remote control fate, he finds himself inspired by late-night channel-surfing between Susan Boyle singing “I Dreamed a Dream” and an Indian cricket tournament. He heads to India to scout out potential cricket players whom he can transform via American Idol-style pageantry into star American baseball pitchers. It is his last hope to reignite his sputtering career.

No one can play an admirable cad quite like Hamm, and, as noted above, he is subtle perfection, no easy feat in a Disney summer blockbuster. His transformation from a machine who views his fellow man as “investments” to someone who appreciates the heart and soul, fears and hopes intrinsic in us all is more inspiring than any slow-mo, symphonic-scored baseball-pitching at the film’s conclusion.

Hamm’s Bernsetin does find two potential baseball stars in Dinesh Patel (portrayed by a transfixing Madhur Mittal of Slumdog Millionaire) and Rinku Singh (played by Life of Pi‘s Suraj Sharma, also very affecting). He brings the two young men back to America, after a moving sequence where the boys’ families bid farewell with a heady mix of anxiety and aspiration. Dinesh and Rinku are accompanied by a manager of sorts, the very funny and very sweet Amit Rohan, portrayed by Pitobash. There are ups and downs as Dinesh and Madhur make their way to the inevitably uplifting conclusion, and, while some of the narrative is unsurprisingly predictable (it is a Disney movie, after all), the warmth and the humanity of all involved help keep the enterprise fresh and engaging.

The remaining cast members are all gems as well: Lake Bell’s sunny-but-pragmatic “Ms. Brenda” who rents Bernstein’s guest house and breaks into everyone’s heart; Bill Paxton’s left-of-center coach Tom House who cares as much if not more about heart and mind as he does body; Alan Arkin doing that same old (but still delightful) Alan Arkin-thing as Ray, a scout who assists Bernstein in India; Aasif Mandvi bringing light comic relief as Bernstein’s exasperated business partner; and Allyn Rachel as Bernstein’s helium-voiced assistant.

In a summer filled with mutants and dinosaurs and robots and spider-men (all of which I do indeed cherish myself), Million Dollar Arm is a welcome respite. It’s nice to spend two hours with human beings struggling as we all do with this human condition and how to make it through life without having a nervous breakdown. Million Dollar Arm is indeed a quiet film, albeit burnished in Disney gold, quietly inspiring in its message that no matter how preoccupied we may become with the material trappings of life, we can still stop, do the right thing, and appreciate those people who need us and love us.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“The beat goes on …” Cher’s “Dressed to Kill” tour at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena

Heart of Stone

Heart of Stone

This review of Cher’s “Dressed to Kill” tour stop at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena will not mention anything about how good she looks or how great she sounds or how well she moves or her stamina, all of which seem to be referenced by other reviewers with the qualifier “for her years.” These remarks annoy me for many reasons, chiefly that they are ageist and sexist and demeaning and, well, just plain dumb. Cher is an awe-inspiring pro regardless the era of her storied career.

A Woman's World

A Woman’s World

 

 

 

 

With that disclaimer out of the way, the show kicks ass. Yes, she employs the arena spectacle template that Madonna and Janet Jackson perfected in the 90s, but she definitely makes it her own. (Some might argue that Cher actually invented the genre with her “Take Me Home” tour in the 70s/80s.) There are plenty of Cirque du Soleil style moves from her backup dancers, a thunderously tight band, and all manner of pyrotechnics and digital displays.

And the costumes. Oh, the costumes. Rather famously, Bob Mackie had to withdraw from his long-time professional relationship with Cher because he couldn’t handle the demands of this tour. Well, whoever filled his sequined loafers did a fantastic job. Cher, with a knowing wink to her audience, proceeds seamlessly (pun intended) through just about every iconic outfit of her forty-plus year career, including the ginormous Native American headdress and that leather-thong-up-her-derrière get up.

Cher ... of Troy?

Cher … of Troy?

Unlike some other pop stars, who shall remain nameless, Cher sings full voice throughout, with no apparent backing vocals other than those provided by the onstage backup singers. She doesn’t seem to lip-sync for one moment. I know that should go without saying when you pay exorbitant prices for concert tickets, but I’ve seen plenty of stars in recent years quite obviously mouthing along to prerecorded vocals.

Cher covers all of the major hits, and even some forgotten ones. But her strongest moments are when she breaks through all the Vegas glitz, and talks directly to us in that inimitable, down-to-earth, saucy style.

Her tribute to Sonny Bono is touching without being maudlin, and her overview of her film career is surprisingly moving, given how uneven some of those movies have been.

The Beat Goes On

The Beat Goes On

(At one moment tonight, she let loose a delightfully irreverent diatribe about her addiction to Dr. Pepper and how the company has never given her any swag in her decades of drinking the stuff, save one shabby cooler filled with a lowly six pack after one of her recent shows. She also told the crowd that her cat was rescued from under a tour bus on another concert stop in Detroit years ago. “He’s a Malibu cat now,” she drawled in that distinctive contralto of hers.)

She is at her best when she just stands still and SINGS (!), including “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” an underrated gem from her last cinematic foray Burlesque. The song is lyrically perfect for a performer who has launched about four “farewell tours” in the last decade.

Benatar and Giraldo

Benatar and Giraldo

The mod 1960s montage of hits from “The Beat Goes On” through “Half Breed” is also a high point. Cher efficiently glides through those numbers, giving us just enough to remember how much we love those songs and not so much that we realize how darn silly they are.

Opening act, Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo are outstanding as well. They shred gleefully through all their 80s classics, having a ball tonight as they celebrated their 32nd wedding anniversary with all of us at Joe Louis Arena. Benatar’s vocals are crisp and throaty as ever, and Giraldo proves what an amazing guitarist he is over and over. And I really don’t give a hoot about guitarists, but I was impressed.

Finale

Finale

 

Cher and Benatar are wonderful examples of smart, savvy, witty women – no, strike that last word and replace it with people. They have given their all to the entertainment industry and yet retain strikingly distinctive senses of self. Their authenticity should give hope to all the young performers out there who may be tempted to sell their souls to the devil. Cher likely would wink and nod, flip her hair, and say, “Don’t sell your soul to the devil … just give it to him on consignment … whoooaaahhh.”

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Dinner before at Ferndale's Local Kitchen

Dinner before at Ferndale’s Local Kitchen

 

 

Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound, Common Language, and Memory Lane also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Countdown: 12 Years a Slave

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Only 2 days remain until the official release of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Please note that, in addition to online ordering, the book currently is being carried by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Memory Lane also has copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Here’s what Roy thought about 12 Years a Slave: “…a haunting portrait of an America in which religious fervor (and hypocrisy) corrosively coupled with economic disparity prop up a cruel caste system whereby our humanity is a commodity traded too easily for blood and cash.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Countdown: Her

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

My childhood home

My childhood home

The countdown continues! 6 days remain until the official launch of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Thanks to Kat Kelly-Heinzelman (read her blog here) for her friendship and support! She writes, “Check out my new profile picture; I think you will like it, Roy. LOL! Hope you’re having a good day … I love it [Reel Roy Reviews]. Have been reading since I got it. Good so far!”

Please note that, in addition to online ordering, the book currently is being carried by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Memory Lane also has copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Kat Kelly-Heinzelman

Kat Kelly-Heinzelman

Here’s a snippet from Roy’s review of HER: “Phoenix works those limpid blue eyes of his, falling head over heels for a sweet-and-saucy, ever-evolving artificially intelligent ‘operating system’ (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, turning in some of the better work of her career).”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Driving our collective spirit underground: Her and 12 Years a Slave

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Whenever the Academy Award nominations are announced, I suddenly feel pressure … like I’m in college again and I have an imminent final exam for which I haven’t read one chapter in our assigned texts the whole semester.

Blessedly, the various movie studios’ marketing departments kick into overdrive at Oscar time, and many movies we might have missed the first time around get a second run in theatres (and not only the art houses, but in those big stadium jobs with the good/lousy Sbarro pizza).

So, my Martin Luther King Day was spent in the multiplex for one of my stranger double feature combinations: Spike Jonze’s Her and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. This duo still doesn’t to compare to my high (low?) watermark when I paired the childlike whimsy of stop-motion animation Coraline with the Nazi-in-hiding sexual perversity of The Reader … I felt like such a creeper that day.

At first blush, Her and 12 Years a Slave would seem to bear little in common, other than critical acclaim and multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. However (and I don’t think this is just because I am force-fitting patterns that might not otherwise exist), both films, in very different ways and settings, address the disconnect that has long-plagued American life, in which religion or economics or technology engender empty separations and cruel abuses (physical, emotional, or plain neglectful), driving our collective spirit underground.

In the case of Her, which I found a slightly stronger film, Jonze paints a depressing near future – not quite dystopian, but burnished and bland and beautifully designed as if IKEA and Dwell Magazine bathed the world in minimalist chic – in which smart phone technology has become so integrated into our every waking moment that every human interaction is filtered and measured by a handheld device.

Looking like the nebbish-y hipster offspring of Charlie Chaplin and Kurt Vonnegut, Joaquin Phoenix is deeply affecting as a Byronesque romantic lost in a sea of bits and bytes after his author wife (Rooney Mara, continuing her sharp-edged roll) leaves him. Phoenix’s Theo just wants to feel something … anything

As you are likely aware from the ubiquitous advertising, Phoenix works those limpid blue eyes of his, falling head over heels for a sweet-and-saucy, ever-evolving artificially intelligent “operating system” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, turning in some of the better work of her career).

Amy Adams plays the third woman in Theo’s life, a longtime friend (and likeliest soul-mate of all), who also struggles to find meaningful interaction in a world where all the rough edges have been sanded to apathetic perfection. Adams shines in her scenes with Phoenix, and I enjoyed her performance here as Theo’s fellow lost soul so much more than I did her work in American Hustle.

The film borrows heavily from the aforementioned Vonnegut (Harrison Bergeron popped into my mind for some reason) as well as Ray Bradbury (I Sing the Body Electric) with a touch of Cyrano de Bergerac and Stanley Kubrick’s HAL for good measure. Theo spends his days composing hand-written notes for folks too busy to compose these missives themselves. (He doesn’t actually do the penmanship, but dictates into a computer that generates them.) And he spends his evenings, in an empty/disheveled apartment with fabulous views of downtown L.A., playing video games, pining for his ex, and wooing his computer.

Her is a starkly composed ode (and cautionary tale) to a society (ours) that has lost its heart, displacing flesh-and-blood dialogue with glib texts, microblog snark, and social media stalking. I don’t know that I loved it, but I sure can’t stop thinking about it.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

If Her worries about where American society is headed, 12 Years a Slave shows us where we’ve been and possibly how little we’ve changed. 12 Years a Slave gives us a haunting portrait of an America in which religious fervor (and hypocrisy) corrosively coupled with economic disparity props up a cruel caste system whereby our humanity is a commodity traded too easily for blood and cash.

I respect the work McQueen has done with this story, based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir. I will say, however, that I am not as transfixed by 12 Years a Slave as others seem to have been. Perhaps my judgment is affected by how delayed I am in getting to see this one, a film that couldn’t possibly live up to the expectation generated by months of critical praise.

Personally, I also have long-struggled with the idea of the very important historical film – be it Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan or others like them – the subject matter of which is so rightfully raw that one might feel discouraged to openly criticize the filmmakers’ artistic interpretation.

Regardless, this movie is extremely well-acted and, once it finds its narrative groove, is a powerful gut punch. I mostly had issues with the episodic and unconvincing (to me) first third of the film, from the set-up of Northup’s life as a free man in Saratoga, New York through his kidnapping in Washington, D.C., and onto his purchase by Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. (Yup, Cumberbatch again. I hope he earns a long vacation after the 118 films in which he appeared this year. He has been excellent in everything.)

Once Northup (portrayed with a weary incredulity by Chiwetel Ejiofor) lands with the cruel, equally defeated slave master Epps (Michael Fassbender) the movie has you on the edge of your seat. Fassbender does his best work to date, channeling the small-minded rage and belligerence of a Southerner deeply disaffected by life yet believing his faith and his race entitle him to bullying dominion over all creatures great and small. Sarah Paulson is equally crackerjack as his spiteful, heartbroken, spoiled belle of a wife.

The scenes between Ejiofor and Fassbender twist like a knife in the gullet, and viewers with modern sensibilities may reflect on how little some aspects of our country have changed since the horrific days when slavery was an American institution. Lupita Nyong’o is heartbreaking as Ejiofor’s fellow slave – an object of Fassbender’s economic admiration, sexual depravity, and violent tyranny – who is doubly damned for her race and her gender.

In this hectic awards season, as various film producers and their respective studios engage in ever-escalating gamesmanship to score trophies for the “home team,” it is easy to lose why some films speak to our souls. I think I will be reflecting for some time on both Her and 12 Years a Slave – well after the gold statuettes are all handed out – and what these films say about our uniquely American condition: ambition, cruelty, love, segregation, prosperity, racism, sexism, ageism, apathy, and … freedom.