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Blu-ray Review: '12 Years a Slave'

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The Film:

Few films are able to garner the amount of praise that Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” has. Its triumphs throughout awards season were numerous, culminating with the winning of three Oscars (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay) this past Sunday night. Did it deserve them all? Well, that’s debatable. However, what’s rather surprising is that a story this relatively simple has been able to touch so many people and elicit such a strong reaction. Starting in the 1840s, we follow Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freeman living in New York with his wife and kids. When his family goes off for a few days, Solomon is approached by two men who have heard of his excellent skill as a musician. They convince him to join their team of performers for a short time, and so he accompanies them to Washington. After a night of heavy drinking, Solomon awakens to find himself in chains and is accused of being a runaway slave from Georgia. From here, he is shipped to the plantation of Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a gentleman as far as slave owners go. However, one of his overseers, Tibeats (Paul Dano), is of a far meaner sort. After an incident causes Solomon to leave the service of Master Ford, he is brought to the plantation of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Solomon certainly thought Tibeats was an evil man, but it was nothing to what he would witness and experience in the service of his new master.

After watching “12 Years a Slave” a couple of times, I find it to be a decent film about slavery and the will to live, but I find it hard to call it great. It’s most comparable to Spielberg’s “Lincoln” in that there’s not much to the film itself, but the outstanding ensemble helped elevate it quite a bit. In fact, I think it can easily be said that this is the best ensemble of 2013. Boasting a cast that includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, and Brad Pitt, everyone plays their part marvelously. However, the real standouts here are Ejiofor, Fassbender, and Nyong’o. Ejiofor and Nyong’o pour their heart and soul into their respective roles, while Fassbender becomes an embodiment of cruelty, all three of which are incredibly believable. It’s no wonder that all three were nominated for Oscars, with Nyong’o very deservingly winning hers.

If this cast had not been in place, it’s hard to tell what the fate of the film would have been. Would anyone have given it a second thought if the performances had not been nearly as powerful as they ended up being? It wouldn’t have had as much of an effect, that’s for sure, because when you strip away the astounding ensemble, there’s not much else here but a man trying to live after being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Sure, it’s an emotional journey, but it’s somewhat stymied by a lax pace and a so-so screenplay, the latter of which ironically won an Oscar for screenwriter John Ridley. As far as the Best Picture Oscar goes, it wasn’t a terrible choice, but there were certainly more deserving films up for the honor (“Gravity” and “Her”). “12 Years a Slave” is definitely not a bad film, and in fact I do recommend that you see it, but just like with “Lincoln,” it’s doubtful that you’ll remember much else about it other than the outstanding performances.

Video/Audio:

“12 Years a Slave” comes to Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer of optimal quality. This is one of the sharpest, clearest pictures I’ve seen on a Blu-ray for a long time, with not a single trace of fuzziness to be found throughout the entire presentation. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is also of the highest quality, delivering the score, dialogue, and every little sound with crystal clear clarity. Both the video and audio could not possibly be better, giving you the best possible experience for the film.

Special Features:

A Historical Portrait: A fantastic 40-minute featurette that takes you behind the scenes of the making of the film, featuring interviews with all of the key players, including Steve McQueen, John Ridley, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, and many, many more. It starts with how the project came about and goes right through what it was like to work on it, with the actors discussing their characters in depth. It’s definitely worth the time to watch.

The Team: A seven-minute featurette that talks about the crew that brought the film to life. It’s an intriguing, although brief, look at the hard work that went into the making of the film. It’s another one that’s worth the time.

The Score: An extremely brief four-minute look at the music in the film, featuring interviews with McQueen and composer Hans Zimmer. There’s not much to be learned here, so it’s not particularly worth watching.

Conclusion:

While the praise for “12 Years a Slave” has been rather overblown, it’s still a recommendable film due to its incredible cast, which helps cover up its weaknesses. On top of that, this release is very well done, featuring the film in outstanding quality and a couple of great behind the scenes featurettes that will satisfy fans of bonus material. It may not have deserved the Academy’s top honor, but it’s one still worth adding to your Blu-ray collection.

Score: 3.5/5

Now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Recent Blu-ray/DVD releases: Oldboy (2013), Cold Comes the Night, Gravity, Mr. Nobody, The Americans: Season One, Hellbenders, Rocky: Heavyweight Collection, Chicago: Diamond Edition, All is Lost, Austenland, How I Live Now, Night of the Demons, Witchboard, Dallas Buyers Club, The Fifth Estate, Captain Phillips, You're Next, A Single Shot, Insidious: Chapter 2, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

Now playing in theaters: Pompeii, Labor Day, The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Also be sure to check out my lists of the Best and Worst Films of 2013.

Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.

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