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Movies: '12 Years a Slave,' 'The Counselor' & 'Escape Plan'

Updated 7:06 am, Saturday, November 2, 2013

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  • "12 Years a Slave," a movie based on a free black man's memoir, is playing in area theaters. Photo: Contributed Photo / Westport News contributed
    "12 Years a Slave," a movie based on a free black man's memoir, is playing in area theaters. Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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Following are Susan Granger's reviews of the latest movies in area theaters:

"12 YEARS A SLAVE"

In 1841, an educated, well-to-do, freeborn black man with a wife and children in upstate New York, Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), was lured from his Saratoga Springs home to work as a musician in Washington, D.C., where he was kidnapped and shipped in shackles and chains to New Orleans.

Renamed Platt Hamilton by a slave trader (Paul Giamatti), he was sold to genteel mill owner/Baptist minister William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who was impressed with Platt's skilled fiddle-playing. But Platt's obvious intelligence infuriated Ford's brutal, spiteful overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano), who hung him from a tree, forcing him to struggle to keep his footing for hours. To save Platt from another lynching, Ford sold him to despicably sadistic plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). That's where Platt met an itinerant Canadian carpenter, Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), an abolitionist who promised to contact Northrup's family, leading to his eventual release from bondage.

A British actor of Nigerian descent, Ejiofor ("American Gangster") embodies imprisoned Northrup's mental suffering and physical torment, displaying the dignified resiliency that enabled him to endure and survive. Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised, Yale School of Drama graduate Lupita Nyong'o delivers a heart-wrenching portrayal of Patsey, the long-suffering, cotton-picking slave who becomes psychopathic Epps' mistress, arousing the ire of his refined, yet intolerant wife (Sarah Paulson).

Based on Northrup's historically complex memoir, published in 1853, a year after "Uncle Tom's Cabin," it's episodically adapted by British-born director Steve McQueen ("Shame," "Hunger") and novelist John Ridley ("Red Tails," "Three Kings"), realistically photographed by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt at four Louisiana plantations and sensitively scored by Hans Zimmer.

Reminiscent of the TV mini-series "Roots," it's a heavy, serious, horrifyingly authentic and emotionally devastating slave drama, which, along with 2013's "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and "Fruitvale Station," unflinchingly chronicles the African-American experience.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "12 Years a Slave" is a savage, uncompromising 8. Gruesomely cringe-inducing, this true tale will shock you and anger you, but it may also touch you very deeply.

"THE COUNSELOR"

Notable as the first original screenplay from acclaimed southern-Gothic writer Cormac McCarthy and directed by Ridley Scott with a star-studded cast, this turns out to be a disastrous, muddled mess of a movie.

As an attorney, the titular Texas Counselor (Michael Fassbender) encounters all sorts of disreputable people: men like weird, wild-haired nightclub owner Reiner (Javier Bardem) and sly, smooth-talking Westray (Brad Pitt) and women like Reiner's femme fatale girlfriend, callously manipulative Malkina (Cameron Diaz), and a jittery jailbird, Ruth (Rosie Perez), whose son is a motorcycle maniac.

So when this rather naive lawyer, ignoring explicit warnings about the risks involved, makes a pivotal choice to participate in a dangerous, $20 million drug-trafficking deal, involving cocaine stashed in a septic truck that's driven across the border from Mexico to El Paso en route to Chicago, it's a fateful one that will not only affect his life but also that of his beloved fiancee, Laura (Penelope Cruz).

Novelist McCarthy ("No Country for Old Men," "The Road") weaves a clumsy, confusing plot, filled with ambiguous, yet archetypal characters who are totally detached, lacking in any emotional connection. His dense dialogue contains Shakespearean-like soliloquies, filled with pithy, psychological pathos, like, "You are the world you have created."

Coupled with that, there's Ridley Scott's ("Alien," "Blade Runner," "Gladiator," "Prometheus") surprising lack of visual excitement within an increasing sense of dread. Scott's coldly plodding pacing compels viewers to work hard to pay attention, despite the plethora of steamy, sexually graphic scenes and intense, unrelenting violence.

However, there are vivid, memorable moments: the opening sex-under-the-sheets sequence, elegantly collared cheetahs chasing their prey through the desert, tattooed Malkina's toying interlude in the church confessional and, above all, her ludicrous, gynecological gyrations on the windshield of Reiner's yellow Ferrari. Then there's the introduction of the bolito, a mechanical decapitation device involving a wire loop and self-powered motor.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Counselor" is a bleak, formidable 4. This brutal, depressing, cautionary tale may be an actor's dream but it's an audience's nightmare.

"ESCAPE PLAN"

Having spent much of their careers as box-office rivals, the muscle-bound, Austrian-born former governor of California and the Italian Stallion team up once again, following "The Expendables."

Structural engineer/former lawyer Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) is the author of the definitive, nonfiction tome, "Compromising Correctional Institutional Security," which finds the glitches in prisons around the country. Usually, he's an undercover consultant, incarcerated as a phony criminal, who then breaks free to illustrate the particular penitentiary's potential flaws and serve as an adviser in correcting them.

After escaping from a Colorado Federal Prison, Breslin is ostensibly hired for $5 million by a CIA operative to infiltrate a new, ultra-secret, privately funded, high-tech, heavily fortified, off-the-grid facility, known as "The Tomb," filled with underground glass cells housing "the worst of the worst" with masked, jackbooted guards patrolling on catwalks above them. Problem is: his evacuation code doesn't work and the warden who knows his real identity has gone missing.

Breslin and his co-workers (Vincent D'Onofrio, Amy Ryan, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson) have been deceived and double-crossed. Joined by gregarious, goateed, German-speaking fellow inmate Emil Rottmeyer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and an Islamic terrorist (Faran Tahir), barrel-chested Breslin is determined to outwit and outsmart soft-spoken, sadistic warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel), an amateur lepidopterist -- a.k.a. collector of insects like butterflies/moths -- and his heinous henchman, Drake (Vinnie Jones).

Generically written for these hulking, monosyllabic, sexagenarian relics by Miles Chapman and Arnell Jesko, it's burdened with slow-paced, banal, often unintelligible dialogue, except for Schwarzenegger's amusing one-liner: "You hit like a vegetarian!"

Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom ("1408") places heavy-handed, pedestrian emphasis on extreme close-ups and swaggering, yet sloppy, testosterone-laden, tough-guy violence, except when Sam Neill appears briefly as the kindly, none-too-bright prison doctor, experiencing a crisis-of-conscience that forces him to look up the Hippocratic Oath.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Escape Plan" is a creaky, chugging 5. Lumbering lunkheads!