Fury

furyHere are my initial thoughts on the film Fury directed by David Ayer and starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, and Jon Bernthal.

This movie is phenomenal. It is an awesome story, artfully shown. Heartbreaking to watch and yet inspirational. The beautiful characters show us where the ideals of life and faith meet the ultimate gritty reality of violence that determines our world’s history. LaBeouf truly redeems himself (from previous roles) as Boyd “Bible” Swan, a man of faith that must put his trust in God’s hand over the fate of the war. The film dives into that messiness with great respect. My only criticism may be the music and some of the fade overlays over-emote in a few parts. Overall I loved this and would absolutely recommend.

The film can be considered hard to watch because of the violence and realistic gore of total war.  The film is emotional and captivating.  However, I consider this one of the greatest assets of the film because it’s heart is to rock our sense of idealism and moral justification for our heroes.  The truth is that our heroes faced great moral hardship, their most beloved ideals were shaken, their faith in God’s sovereign hand met with a leap of risking their life and taking the lives of others, others that were in all likelihood also loved by God.  Ideals of God’s ultimate desire for peace are met with men at war, and the violent terror that God allows in our world.  A faith-filled pursuit of peace conflicts in war with the actions men take against one another, either instigated by hate of the enemy or in loving defense of the weak.  In theses scenes, peace is not an option, but faith must persevere.  Duty to God becomes more real than ever, and trusting that His love and grace will be with you amidst the violent fury.

Morality may be subjective in war; both sides committing trespasses against each other, likely praying they are right and that God would bless them with victory. However, real righteousness in these trenches may not be justifying oneself as right, but accepting God’s grace and dutifully enduring until “God’s will be done.”

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Logan Lerman plays Norman Ellison, a young man who does not welcome the reality of violence.  His resistance is noble, but ultimately shaken. Lerman has a coming-of-age arc that is the least appealing, possibly because it is the most tired of the bunch. His fellow tank crew have seen and done more to give them rich, unsettling consciences.  Brad Pitt’s “Wardaddy” Collier is an arrogant “father knows best” figure to Ellison, but underneath you see a man worn and beaten down, who possesses a curious appreciation for life, yet does not hesitate in taking it. LaBeouf and Bernthal both give remarkable performances.  Pena seems a little overused as relief, and his character is much more subtle, but undeniably central to the unit.

Great film. Hope you see it and enjoy.  I’ve given this film a 16/16.

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I, Frankenstein

i-frankenstein-posterI, Frankenstein is a dark-themed action fantasy film starring Aaron Eckhart.  Eckhart plays Frankenstein’s monster, who roams the earth 200 years after his creator passes on, leaving him lonely and bitter toward humankind.  Eckhart has the power to defeat demons, which attracts the attention of a couple gargoyles who are charged by God to protect the human race by defeating demons.  When the monster is invited to join the gargoyles in their quest he turns them down, but later the gargoyles capture the monster after deeming him a danger to humans.  Meanwhile a prince of the demons (played by Bill Nighy) is plotting to use a scientist, Terra (Yvonne Strahovski) to discover reanimation to his own ends, and so he seeks to capture the monster for research purposes.  Both Adam and Terra escape together and end up caught in the middle of the conflict between the gargoyles and the demons.

The story of I, Frankenstein is actually very basic.  There are very few twists and turns and even less that audiences won’t see coming.  However, what makes it worthwhile is that it remains a character-driven story despite the simple plot, fantasy creatures and action sequences.

Personally, I thought that there was much more than could be done to increase the drama of Adam’s soul-searching journey, and that is where the genre of the film found its limitations.  There were hints of great themes including what makes a monster or a man, and the heart of the human soul being altruism.  However, these were tremendously underplayed, sacrificed for more visually interesting aspects of the film.

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As it stands the majority of the film takes place over a matter of days building up to the impending finale battle between good and evil.  In order to make room for more development, the film would have needed a much different timeline.  In fact, in order to fit all the necessary character transformation within the existing timeframe, there are far too many convenient circumstances that happen in the right way at the right time.  Not to be too critical, such is the way most action films work, if there is any character development at all.  The actors are decent in their roles, but the pitfall is that practically everyone other than Adam remains the same throughout the film. There is no real drama, but a whole lot of chasing and fighting, trap-setting, and more fighting.

Director Stuart Beattie also helped write the adapted script, and so there was great cohesion between how the story was written and how it was told on screen.  You do get the sense that what you are watching is exactly what the writer wanted you to envision if you were hearing this story being told. The sound and music was also very well appropriated to the film.

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The photography was mostly excellent, very well done to capture the action, fantasy and horror elements in the film.  I had the opportunity to see the film in 3D and it was great. With a film like I, Frankenstein there is naturally a lot of attention on the quality of CG and special effects.  For the most part, the effects in the film were fantastic.  I would say the elements in the sky and structures were especially good.  The science elements, fire, smoke, electricity were all decent.  The character animation was probably my least favorite, especially on the lead gargoyle character.

Unless you consider yourself a major fan of the fantasy-horror genre, I recommend passing on I, Frankenstein until maybe you are in the mood for a B-movie rental night.  However, for those who enjoy cliché dark action fantasy flicks based on graphic novels, then I would recommend seeing this one in 3D.  Seriously, it wasn’t that bad, but yes, bad…in a good way…right?

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Jack Ryan Shadow RecruitThis review contains story details considered by many to be moderate spoilers.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is the story of the how Ryan becomes the legendary CIA operative known to fans of Tom Clancey novels including The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears.  It begins with Ryan (played by Chris Pine) as a student at London School of Economics, then joining the U.S. Marines and finally being recruited by Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) to work undercover for the CIA.  The film also shows the beginnings of Ryan and his future wife Cathy Muller (Kiera Knightly), whose relationship develops over the course of the primary story.

While working undercover on Wall Street, Ryan uncovers suspicious activity by Russian businessman Viktor Cheverin (Kenneth Branagh).  After sharing his concern with Harper that this could mean a Russian plot to crush the U.S. economy, Harper immediately sends Ryan to Moscow to investigate Cheverin covertly.  This leads to his activation as a field operative.  Ryan quickly discovers Cheverin is one step ahead of the CIA, and so together with Harper assembles a plan to outwit Cheverin and retrieve the information they need to foil his terrorist plot.

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This film is curiously plot-driven for an origins story.  The storyline is fairly unoriginal, resembling something from the Mission: Impossible playbook.  Jack Ryan’s origins lack the chemistry seen from recent reboots of Bond in Casino Royale and Wayne in Batman Begins.  Despite its prequel nature, the film tries to shed the origins focus as quickly as possible so it can resume its generic espionage thriller plot.  Though not “wowed,” I wasn’t necessarily disappointed either.  It moved well, maintaining interest by balancing suspense and action.

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I wasn’t on track with how the worst calamity that could take place was the devaluation of the dollar, causing a second great depression, sending Jack Ryan into absolute panic and leading to his activation and travel into “enemy territory.”  The idea that America being poor is so bad that it forces immediate and extreme covert action by the CIA akin to former Ryan scenarios that involve nuclear proliferation or assassination, that made me cock my head in disbelief (Really, that is the best supreme world threat they could come up with?).

As it turns out, there is more to the story, but not revealed until after Ryan and Harper are in full swing with their operation.  Along with some pretty awful lines sprinkled throughout the film, this was my major issue holding the film back from a better espionage story.

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I was also a little disappointed that there was a lack of interesting characters in the film.  For a film centered on the rise of Jack Ryan, the film failed to show any real development in Ryan as a character, or else exhibit his character in a new and interesting way.  Other than Ryan, we essentially had Cathy, Harper and Cheverin, of which we saw the most time spent uncovering Cheverin, his health, loyalty and relationship with his son.  Although, Kenneth Branagh having directed, I don’t know if I should be so surprised he got so much screen time.  In regards to acting, Branagh’s talent threatened to steal the scene every time.  Thankfully, he was able to raise the talent of all his actors to each deliver solid performances throughout the film.

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The directing of the film was fair.  I didn’t get the feeling Branagh is very comfortable with the action thriller format.  The best scenes were the ones with little action, where the actors interacted with high emotional tension and subtext.  The moments of silence were brilliant, and the addition of such emotional beats helped to save the film from having a lack of depth.

Conversely, Branagh’s action scenes were likely more attributable to his editor, Martin Walsh, and seemed to only say “there is action happening right now; you don’t need to actually see anything, just know there is a lot going on.”  So I felt divided on the use of photography as well between great dramatic and suspense sequences, and poorer action sequences.

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I was surprised this was yet another film about Russians undermining America involving undercover spies and all the tricks in the book. It was a very “classic cold war” plotline upgraded with modern technology and concerns. Despite all these criticisms, I felt that the film was worthwhile. It certainly was a good time, and would make a decent reserve in a DVD collection—though, probably more for the undercover operations and less for international politics.

Lone Survivor

lone survivorThis review reveals story details considered by some to be moderate spoilers.

Lone Survivor is the true story of a team of Navy Seals whose mission in the mountains of Afghanistan tragically takes a wrong turn.  During a reconnaissance stake out, the Seals encounter a small group of goat herdsmen.  Following rules of engagement, the Seals let them go despite suspicions that the herdsmen will alert the nearby enemy forces to the Navy Seals’ presence.  The soldiers prepare the best they can to be found, but the mountains cripple the team’s radio communication and mobility.  The team’s suspicions are correct and they soon are surrounded and a fire fight breaks out.  They are chased across the treacherous mountainside, and one member, Marcus Luttrell makes it down to a creek where he is met by a friendly Afghan who helps him to safety, despite Luttrell’s distrust and shock.

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The story of Lone Survivor is not the kind of “based on a true story” that inserts its own storyline into historical events; it is based on the account of real lone survivor Marcus Luttrell, and tries to bring his experience to life in the way he tells the story.  Granted, we are dependent on Luttrell’s account because he alone survived to tell the tale.  At the same time, despite Peter Berg’s great attempt, it still may be easy for audiences to only see it as “another war action film” and not see the personal reality it has for those involved in the true story and those like it.  Personally, I found the action and script to be appropriate for the telling of this story, and in the end very moving.

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One of my favorite aspects of the film was the treatment and acting of the characters.  In many war action films, I find that often the core team of soldiers tends to comprise typed parts as to distinguish them and create a façade of “character.” For example, typically one is “funny,” another is “alpha,” another is “shy,” and so on.  The characters in Lone Survivor feel more believable to me, in that they are all well-rounded.  They all have moods, relationships, soft spots, hard spots, drive, skills, and so it felt the actors didn’t have to focus on playing a “part” as much as playing a person.  It also led to the end of the film being that much more meaningful.  I wasn’t just watching characters in a movie; it felt like watching real people on the screen.  Of course, Peter Berg stresses this as much as possible by including real-world footage to open and close the film—I completely understand some thinking this was a bit overkill on emphasizing the real-story aspect of the film.  The actors did amazing work.  Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch, Mark Walberg and Ben Foster all put their souls to their characters, with Hirsch doing particularly superb work.  For all the intensity, none of the acting was over-the-top.

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Peter Berg did outstanding work in bringing this story to life, especially having only one man’s account to work off of.  He also worked with Director of Photography Tobias Schliessler to immerse us in the moments of the film and the perspectives of the characters.  There were times Berg wanted us to feel lost amidst the vast mountains of Afghanistan.  Other times we felt the duress of being trapped in tight spaces behind a rock or a tree.  In this regard, I would say the visuals in the film are highly appropriate to our immersion into the experience.  Beautiful establishing shots are not there simply to revel, but always to help our understanding of where the characters are geographically and emotionally.  The feelings he was able to draw out from the actors eyes in throughout the film was also very well done.

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Perhaps the one issue I had was with sound.  I think Berg gave us a lot to hear on purpose, bullets whizzing past, rocks crumbling, trees, brush, snakes, and I understand why he would want to make it overwhelming.  However, despite my understanding, sometimes I still felt the sound was unbalanced, like we could hear things far away that sounded very close, and it was distracting for me.  The music was good, the type of humble-yet-ominous chords you expect from Explosions in the Sky.  It helped balance out the high intensity of the fire fights, and added value to moments when characters met their destinies.

Overall, this is not a film to think about, it is one to feel.  The ethic is not a principal of truth or a postulation about meaning or purpose or politic.  It is feeling the ethos of men who live, fight and die with honor.  Not only the soldiers, but the Pashtun people as well.  It does not ask audiences to judge right or wrong, but just to feel for a moment living in their shoes, seeing them make decisions and understanding why.  I was honored to watch and be a part of that.

Her

herHer is about Theodore, a lonely man in an unspecified future when humankind is sinking further into virtual reality and losing its grip on humanity.  A new computer operating system is released with the most advanced AI ever, completely personalized to its user to the point it speaks and adapts like a real human being.  Theo purchases the operating system and meetings his AI, Samantha.  Theo and Samantha (no big surprise) hit it off really well.  They become intimate and eventually begin what they describe as a dating relationship, which throws Theo into a world of questions.

Her has a very topical story premise for today’s world, in which people in general are spending more and more time on computers and devices and less time engaging with other people in ways that are not computer-facilitated.  The story obviously takes this to an extreme using the assumption that the pattern will continue on into the future and eventually reach a point where a personalized AI will feel more intimate to us than another person.  Maybe that feeling of it “being so right” is because inside we would rather relationships be easy and tailored to what we are like, and less about dealing with differences, inconveniences, misunderstandings and hard decisions that come with human relationships.  The story, though, does not ponder these things too hard; instead it just lives and exposes the questions through the experiences and feelings of Theodore.

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What is great is that people are complicated, and Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is presented as a complicated person.  The problem is that Theodore is looking for an uncomplicated person to love, and unfortunately discovers that he cannot find one. That is, until Samantha.  Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) is rich in knowledge but surprisingly uncomplicated.  Thus, he falls in love.

Unlike a true antihero, Theo is not oblivious to the absurdity of his situation. He sees what we see, he asks the questions that we ask, and so I felt that Theo was a completely relatable character.  I enjoyed journeying along with him in the newness and awkwardness of his newfound relationship, and the haunting of others.

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Samantha is a very well-crafted character.  She manifests from an oversimplified questionnaire Theo completes within a matter of seconds, and from the second she appears you can hear her learning and adapting to Theo.  At the center of Samantha is that continual learning and adapting to Theo and the world; so, though not complicated, she remains consistent in her development as her own character.

Amy Adams plays Theo’s oldest friend, Amy, a foil character reflecting Theo’s situation back to him through words of wisdom along with her own relational experiences.  Adams does fantastic work in a performance that I believe far outshines her work in American Hustle. It certainly requires more feeling and vulnerability, which you see in every interaction she has with Theo, even in those glances of the eyes that intimate friendships can read.  At heart, this was another central feeling of the film, that though we yearn for this intimacy, it scares us beyond little else.

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It takes maturity to deal with real people, it takes courage and it takes patience and grace.  These are things that Theo wants to have, but are missing from his interactions with not only his separated wife, but even with Samantha.  A great aspect of the story is the thought Spike Jonze put into the world in which Theo lives.  He is not a loser that just can’t handle people.  Theo lives in a world that as a whole has gotten tired of dealing with people, even the ones they love.  He works for a company composing “hand-written” letters for people who lack the creativity or enthusiasm to do it themselves.  Not only are the letters not authored by the customer, they are completely fabricated, written by strangers looking at a few photos of the recipient, and printed using a handwriting font.  The kicker is that the recipients do not seem to care, they are completely ready to accept the phony for the real – an amazing metaphor for the film.

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The shortcoming of the film is that at heart I always knew Theo and Samantha’s relationship was absurd, that it would be absurd for it to work out, and that if it did the film would be a cheap fantasy.  Most of the time this made the story more interesting, but I also found myself getting bored when the relationship was going well.  Inside I was waiting for what was going to go wrong.  I wanted to see what Spike Jonze wrote as the ultimate destiny for these characters.  In the end, I found the destiny of Theo much more sound and hopeful than what was written for Samantha. However, Theo is the one we should relate to, isn’t he?

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There was not much to the photography that “wowed” me, although the film was shot very well.  The production design was wonderful.  The Los Angeles of the indistinct future was especially well-designed, along with the style of the characters’ wardrobe, hair, homes, and workplaces.  The design of the city is enhanced by additional skyscrapers and architecture that is well integrated with the existing skyline, completing the illusion that the familiar city has continued to grow over the years. The music was decent, but again not especially noteworthy.

The gem of this film is the idea, and the engagement we have with Theo as someone who represents feelings and desires we all experience, concerning both people and technology.  As such, I found the film as easy to love.

Highly recommend!

Saving Mr. Banks

This review may contain key spoilers.saving mr banks

Saving Mr. Banks is the story of Walt Disney’s pursuit of the rights to Mary Poppins from writer P.L. Travers.  The film is primarily shown through the eyes of Travers, who poses as a stuffy, disagreeable, shrew of a woman despite having written one of the most beloved storybook characters of the time.  The film continues to reveal pieces of Travers’ childhood alongside her travels to California where she attempts to spoil Disney’s dream of turning her book into a motion picture.

Her childhood reveals a father who himself emanates the spirit of Mary Poppins, but his job as a bank manager pushes him to become more like Mr. Banks and drives him into alcoholism.  Travers resulting difficulties with her father and mother leave her very leery of the magic and fantasy Disney envisions for Mary Poppins. Travers begins by contesting virtually every aspect of the film that either reminds her of her father or that would suggest unrealistic ideas.  However, through the heart and determination of the writers, Disney and even her chauffer, she comes to realize she is being unfair to the spirit of her father and begins to allow the story to redeem him and her painful childhood.

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I enjoyed watching the story of Saving Mr. Banks unfold.  Being based on the true story of P.L. Travers and Walt Disney, much of the storyline relies upon the real events that make up the story.

The film starts quickly, coming 20 years into Disney’s pursuit of the rights to Mary Poppins; and the flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in Australia begin early, before we realize why they are necessary to the story.  Alternating between two storylines frequently throughout the entire film is typically an issue for me.  In Saving Mr. Banks though, there were enough cues and parallels that it was not too overbearing. Only a few times I found myself asking “what does this have to do with Mary Poppins,” the question essentially central to the entire film.

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As the development of the Mary Poppins film ensues, the childhood flashbacks become more relevant and are the keys to understanding Travers’ character.  It also gives new meaning to the characters of Mary Poppins making it deeper and even more sentimental.  I appreciated the heaviness of Travers’ memories that kept her distanced from people and weary of hope.  It is a very moving father-daughter story; as such I expect it to be received as more meaningful by women than with men.

I did not get a sense for Travers’ personal resolution at the end of the film, as much as she was able to accept Walt Disney’s resolution as her own.  The resolution seemed to happen quickly and magically.  That Disney was able to call her out over a pot of tea and tell his own story is great insight into Disney as the man behind the icon, but also a bit unsatisfactory to understand why and how Travers was able to find peace with her story.  It certainly seemed to be so with the tears you see flow during the final movie premiere scene.

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The film does a wonderful job at creating P.L. Travers’ personal history in a way that develops her into a beautiful character full of conflict and layers, which Emma Thompson also brings to life beautifully.  

My next favorite characters were Robert and Richard Sherman, the songwriting brothers who developed the music and lyrics for Disney’s Mary Poppins.  These brothers, played by B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman, had the creativity and heart that bridged the ambition of Disney with the heartbreak of Travers.  Aside from Travers, I felt these were the most humanized characters of the film, showing both frustration and determination with the central conflict between Disney and Travers.  I would say this is more thanks to the actors than the writing, and was left with respect for the duo but also the mystery of wanting to know more about them.

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The film was well-shot, but not spectacularly visual.  The film is much more anchored in the dialogue and music that haunt its connections between the two stories.  Both the script and the music are excellent. The production design is also very well crafted for the spaces within the film takes place.

In total Saving Mr. Banks was certainly an entertaining and moving film.  I would say this is among the finest films of the year; although, I’m not certain the story provides enough for it to be a long-term favorite.  Other films like this one you may enjoy are Dead Poets Society, Little Women, A Beautiful Mind, and Finding Neverland.

12 Years a Slave

Image12 Years a Slave is a film telling the story of Solomon Northrup, a free man lured and kidnapped from his home and sold into slavery, turning his life upside down and forcing him to face hardships he never imagined.  He is convinced to leave his hometown of Saratoga, NY to play violin for a pair of traveling entertainers in Washington DC.  While in Washington, the entertainers get Solomon drunk, and he wakes up chained and locked in a room with other black men being kidnapped and smuggled to the South to be sold under the guise that they are runaway slaves.  His travel sharply awakens Solomon to the powerful reality of the oppression he is entering.  Although encouraged to fly under the radar, Solomon quickly earns favor with Ford, the man who first purchases Solomon.  His favor also gathers ill attention from a slave master, Tibeats, who eventually tries to kill Solomon.  Seeing he cannot protect Solomon, Ford decides to sell Solomon, but the only man who will take him is Edwin Epps, a cotton plantation owner with a reputation for being the harshest and tyrannical owner in the region.  After much hardship, heartbreak and betrayal Solomon is able to get a letter back north, and is rescued by his friends and family.

I found the story to be very moving, one that needs little interpretation because the events speak mountains for themselves.  It is a journey, and it moves with weight. At times there is a forceful momentum and others a slow, heavy burden. Yet, fully alive.

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Solomon is a fascinating character.  He is not idealized.  He has much honor and dignity, but even so, has a will to survive that at times defines his sense of justice beyond “black and white” morality.  He needs to be alive to experience justice—it is no good to him dead—and thus he is pushed to his limit of how far he will go (and how much he will sacrifice) to be a good man, or to stay alive.  This conflict is the heart of our connection to Solomon, not whether we agree with his decisions.  To see the vivid heartbreak of a man forced to choose earns respect, without regard to judgment of what we might have done in his place.

The characters in Solomon’s story are also moving, living, breathing, and on their own journey.  We don’t get the sense everything is all about Solomon, even though this is his story.  The characters are not overdrawn, as to sum them up in one look or one line. They are as deep as every one of us, and we see their pain, their shame, their love and hate.  Still, there are no excuses, this is not an attempt to justify the evils of oppression. Yet rather, we see a range of honor and dishonor amidst it.

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The story is told with gravity and toil.  Twelve years is a long time.  It is easy to get lost in time, uncertain of how much time had passed, how much we still had left.  To ask that would have taken away from the story, to make us spectators instead of journeyers, and I liked the journey.

The only snag is eventually mercy comes to Solomon in the form of an egalitarian hired hand who happens to work one summer with Solomon on the plantation.  The snag isn’t the mercy, of course, but that this character, being the saving grace, has a voice of preachiness in his conversation with the owner that probably only sounds high and mighty because we know it to be so.  The conversation seems to expose the perfectly opposite points of view too well, and it is only here that the characters feel a little pegged to play certain parts in an allegory.  The result was a dialogue between the two men that felt a bit too didactic, too well-laid out, to be a reasonably believable conversation.

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There is also a visual beauty to the film, which helps immerse viewers into the world of the story.  Director Steve McQueen edits in many wonderful shots of the natural landscape of Louisiana, at times in a fashion not unlike Terrence Malick, juxtaposing the pain and ugliness of humanity with peace and beauty.  In addition to these landscapes, Sean Bobbitt does well to capture the life and soul of every scene, and Steve McQueen does a phenomenal job at piecing together those moments in his story.  The entire cast does marvelous work. The music score, composed by Hans Zimmer adds another beautiful and moving layer to the emotions on the screen (although, still heavily reminiscent of The Thin Red Line and Inception).

In total this film is counted among my favorites of the year.  I feel it shows other films “how it’s done” in terms of storytelling, acting, and art.  I have a feeling this film will have a lasting legacy for many years to come.