12 Years a Slave and Thor: The Dark World

12 Years a Slave
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1841 with his wife and two young children.  A fiddle player by trade, Northup is invited by two circus performers to accompany and provide music for their act as they start a brief tour in Washington, DC.  To celebrate, the men share a meal at a restaurant.  Solomon feels ill and is put to bed by the two men.  The next morning Solomon wakes up chained to the floor in a basement.  He’s told his name is now Platt and he’s a runaway slave from Georgia who is being returned to the state to be sold into servitude.  Solomon is shocked that his life has been ripped from him so callously and without regard for his freeman status.  Soon, Solomon finds himself sold to a plantation owner named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Ford seems to be a decent man but the people who run his plantation are not and soon Solomon runs afoul of overseer John Tibeats (Paul Dano).  Ownership of Solomon is transferred to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a man who claims a faith in God but who lives his life in a much different way.  As a slave, Solomon has been the victim of and witnessed unspeakable cruelty.  Solomon believes if he can get a message out to his family or someone else in the North, he can be freed from his bondage.  The question is, who can he trust?  If he confides in the wrong person, he may wind up on the wrong end of a whip or worse.
“Twelve Years a Slave” is a painful to watch but not for the usual reasons that make watch a film unpleasant.  The movie is a raw and powerful statement on the plight of African-Americans in the time of slavery that’s made even more devastating by the fact it is based on a true story:  The autobiography of the real Solomon Northup.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is painful and brilliant as Northup.  His fear, strength, honor, integrity and more are what make the performance so riveting.  Ejiofor has been garnering major Best Actor Oscar buzz since the movie first debuted on the film festival circuit and that buzz is well earned.  Ejiofor brings Northup to life in a way that is honest without being preachy.  He portrays Northup as a man who does what he must to survive.  If keeping his real name and education quiet so he doesn’t incur the wrath of the overseers or plantation owners, then he keeps quiet.  His goal is to one day go back to his family and he will do whatever is necessary to achieve that goal; but this takes an enormous amount of strength and will to sublimate himself so thoroughly and to watch as his fellow slaves are treated like unwanted property.  The life he must lead is killing him both physically and emotionally.  There are quiet moments when Ejiofor is alone on screen, his face a storm of emotion with no words needed to convey his pain, frustration and guilt.  It’s the kind of movie that will leave a lasting impact on the audience.  It is also one most people will not want to see more than once as the cruelty and violence displayed on screen will sicken most thinking and feeling people.  That said it is a film everyone should see as it depicts a dark time in America that must never be forgotten.
“Twelve Years a Slave” is rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.  The violence of the film is graphic.  Beatings are common and one scene involving a female slave being whipped is especially gory as we see her flesh being ripped by several lashes and see the spray of blood from others.  The nudity is not to titillate but to degrade.  There’s nothing sexy about it.  The brief sexuality consists of a rape and a brief encounter between two slaves.  While foul language is minimal, the N-word is used liberally and never as a term of endearment.
No horror film I’ve seen is nearly as troubling as “12 Years a Slave.”  What makes the film even more effective is that these acts were overlooked and even encouraged for decades in America.  While we have a great deal of distance from the events in the film, one need only watch the news or read a newspaper to see humanity hasn’t moved all the far from the days when owning another human being was considered acceptable; however, this movie is a testament to what the human spirit can overcome.
“Twelve Years a Slave” gets five guitars out of five.
Thor:  The Dark World
Before the universe, there was darkness.  It was ruled by the Dark Elves led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston).  In a great battle eons ago with Asgard, Malekith was prevented from making the universe dark again by Bor, the father of King Odin (Anthony Hopkins).  Malekith planned on releasing a weapon called Aether which would annihilate everything but Bor and his troops were able stop him and hid the Aether where it was believed it would never be found.  Malekith was thought to be dead but had flown off in one of his ships with some of his troops and entered suspended animation.  Jumping to the present, strange things are going on in London.  Astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has been picking up odd readings on her equipment.  She discovers there are holes that, when you drop items into them, they disappear and sometimes reappear.  Jane is pulled into one of these holes and is standing before the hiding place of the Aether.  It attaches itself to her and she passes out.  Waking up in an abandoned warehouse, Jane is nearly arrested by the police for trespassing; but, when officers grab her they are hit with a pulse of energy and thrown several feet.  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been pining away for Jane ever since their first meeting and tries to keep an eye on her from Asgard.  He senses she’s in trouble and comes to Earth.  He sees the Aether’s effect on anyone who touches Jane and brings her back to Asgard.  Meanwhile, Malekith is awakened by the Aether’s interaction with Jane and plans on reclaiming his weapon to use in time for the convergence of the Nine Realms when the boundaries between all the Realms will be nearly nonexistent and the Aether will be most effective.  Malekith attacks Asgard and is only defeated by an energy blast from Odin’s scepter.  Fearing Malekith will take Jane and the Aether, Odin orders her to be held under guard; but Thor, with help from his treacherous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), takes Jane to the site of the last battle with the Dark Elves in an effort to destroy the Aether and Malekith at the same time.
“Thor:  The Dark World” is better than the first film but that really isn’t saying much as I thought the first visit from the god of thunder was kind of a hot mess.  While this film is somewhat more coherent, it still shares many of the problems of the first film:  Namely a choppy pacing and also a lack of chemistry between Thor and his so-called love interest.  Getting better control of the script is the first fix but I’m afraid fixing the second will require something more drastic.
While the pace of the film is certainly brisk, “Thor:  The Dark World” feels like riding in a car with a new driver that makes several jolting stops and starts.  We are given an entertaining bit of history to start the film with Malekith and all his shenanigans but soon we are bogged down with Jane and her annoying assistant Darcy played by Kat Dennings and the addition of a bumbling second sidekick.  I realize the filmmakers probably think they need to give us as many non Asgardian characters as possible so we don’t feel like we’re just dealing with these super beings.  They want to give us someone they consider relatable and that’s nice of them but it’s unnecessary.  It’s a comic book movie about the Norse god of thunder and his family of nearly immortal warriors.  You’ve already lost the battle for reality so why keep trying to ground the story.  It’s ok if we never come to Earth and keep the action in space or one of the other realms since that’s were all the real action is anyway.  
This would also give the movie a reason to not have Natalie Portman’s Jane character on screen at all.  I like Natalie Portman as an actress but she is so woefully miscast in this part it boggles the mind.  She and Hemsworth have no romantic spark at all between them.  It makes Thor’s rejection of Jaimie Alexander’s Sif as a possible love interest all the more mystifying.  Perhaps Jane can be recast but if not, the only ways to fix this problem are to kill off the character or just never come back to Earth except for the next “Avengers” film.  I do think there’s a way to fix this but it will require making some hard choices that will likely lead to a firestorm on the Internet.  Of course, there’s always another glob of excrement heading for a spinning fan somewhere in cyberspace, so the controversy would likely be short lived (see Batfleck as an example).
The brightest spot in the film is Tom Hiddleston as Loki.  Hiddleston is capable of chewing the scenery and still make it entertaining.  Loki loves being the bad boy and Hiddleston manages to make him a likable cad.  The character is so popular I understand there’s talk of a Loki spinoff film.  It would be interesting to see how a movie whose main character is the bad guy would play.  The character of Loki isn’t completely bad to the bone but is a victim of his own ambition and ego.  It might make for a fascinating look into the depths of a villain if the right story is handled the right way.  I’d at least like for Marvel to give it a try; if not in a full movie then perhaps in one of their DVD bonus short films.
“Thor:  The Dark World” is rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and intense sci-fi action/violence.  I’m not sure what it means by “suggestive content.”  I don’t recall anything sexual in any way.  There is a great deal of violence.  Thor takes a pretty good beating on a couple of occasions.  We see a couple of characters who are run through with swords and similar weapons.  A weapon is used that seems to fold and contort its victims in what appears to be very painful ways.  One character’s face is severely burned on one side.  Foul language consists of two uses of the word S**T.
I had hoped with the high quality of the “Avengers” and “Iron Man 3” films that Marvel and their crew had learned something of a lesson for the next Thor film.  Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case as “Thor:  The Dark World” is something of another hot mess in many of the same ways as the first effort.  While I’m sure it will make tons of money, this second Thor feature seems to lack a strong creative hand in control.  Perhaps Marvel is spreading itself too thin with all the projects it oversees and this one fell through the cracks a bit.  Whatever the reason, Thor’s second solo effort is a slight improvement over the first.  I was hoping for a much bigger jump in quality.
“Thor:  The Dark World” gets three guitars out of five.
Three new films are up for your consideration.  Vote for the next movie I see and review.
All Is Lost—A man sailing on the open seas alone is faced with malfunctioning navigation equipment, dwindling supplies and a leaking boat.  He must use all of his mariner’s intuition to save his life.
The Best Man Holiday— When college friends finally reunite over the Christmas holidays, they will discover just how easy it is for long-forgotten rivalries and romances to be ignited.
Diana—Come into the private realm of one of the world’s most iconic and inescapably public women -- the Princess of Wales, Diana -- in the last two years of her meteoric life.
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film of his choice currently in theatres or On Demand.
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.
Questions or comments should be sent to stanthemovieman@att.net.  Follow Stan on Twitter @moviemanstan.