Video Verdict: ’12 Years a Slave,’ ‘The Grandmaster,’ ‘Oldboy’

From left to right, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor star in “12 Years a Slave.” The movie won three Academy Awards, including best picture. Nyong’o picked up the coveted best supporting actress honor.

From left to right, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor star in “12 Years a Slave.” The movie won three Academy Awards, including best picture. Nyong’o picked up the coveted best supporting actress honor.

It’s a good week for home video, and this year’s best picture Oscar winner is the main attraction.

12 Years a Slave

4 stars (out of four)
Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality
20th Century Fox
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD and digital download

One could find many appropriate words to describe director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” but the best is, “epic.”

The 134-minute story about a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1800s America, is more than a film. It is an experience. It is a historical drama that everyone should watch both as a reminder of our nation’s troubled past and man’s remarkable resilience. It is a movie that is both heartbreaking and life affirming. That it can be so many things is a tribute to McQueen, his extraordinary cast and to Solomon Northup, the real-life slave who lived the depicted events.

At this point, “12 Years a Slave” is no secret. The 134-minute spectacle is based on Northup’s memoir, and it was an immediate critical success. Rave reviews and media attention led to nine Oscar nominations and three wins, including best picture.

Some say the film is difficult to watch, and it does contain scenes of dark brutality. It is not easy, for instance, to see a man hang from a noose, his feet barely able to reach the ground and prevent his strangulation. It is difficult to watch a woman mercilessly mutilated by a whip. Viewers see both of these things in astonishing detail, but “12 Years a Slave” is not all sadism and darkness. Look beyond the horror and one can find a testament to human nature.

Through all the torture and heartbreak, Solomon (portrayed passionately by Chiwetel Ejiofor) remains a free man at heart, retaining his humanity and doing his best to help other slaves, including a much-abused field hand named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).

The film is also noteworthy in its varying depictions of slave owners. Solomon’s first master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is shown as a decent man who defers to the customs of the day. The second master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), is best described as evil.

The acting is outstanding, and Ejiofor, in particular, turns in one of the finest performances of 2013. Nyong’o won the best supporting actress Oscar for her work in the film, paving the way for a sparkling future in the cinema. Even players with relatively small parts – Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti make appearances – imbue their characters with depth and emotion.

McQueen, of course, deserves much credit for the film’s success. Although it is long, it is not excessive. The director uses his time wisely, showing viewers what they need to see, but moving on once an idea is established. This allows us to learn about life as a slave, but the material is never overworked or boring. Rather, it is epic.

Blu-ray and DVD extras include featurettes on the filmmakers and the score.


The Grandmaster

3 stars
Rated PG-13 for violence, some smoking, brief drug use and language
The Weinstein Company
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD and digital download

In martial arts, a pupil’s legacy is important. There is an understanding that one cannot achieve greatness alone, so the success of a student has much to do with the skills of his/her instructor.

In “The Grandmaster,” director Wong Kar Wai pays homage to Ip Man (also known as Yip Man), a Chinese grandmaster who trained a number of influential martial artists, most notably the deceased action star Bruce Lee. Although Lee is better remembered than his master, things are changing thanks to several recent film projects centered on Ip Man and his legacy. These include “Ip Man” and “Ip Man 2,” Hong Kong action films featuring Donnie Yen as the title character. And let us be clear, the Ip Man we see in movies is a character, not an honest depiction of the human being. This aggrandizement allows filmmakers to make him something of a martial arts superhero, a practice that has long been accepted in the genre.

“The Grandmaster” begins when Ip Man (Tony Leung) is already an advanced practitioner, and the film focuses on a particular period in the development of the Chinese martial arts. Much of the early movie revolves around a contest proposed by retiring Northern grandmaster Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang). He announces that he has selected a successor in Northern China, but he wants an exhibition match with a worthy Southern practitioner. Ip Man is selected for the challenge.

As with most martial arts movies, the plotting in “The Grandmaster” is largely subservient to the fight sequences, which are long, artful affairs featuring outstanding choreography by Yuen Wo Ping (“The Matrix,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Kung Fu Hustle”). Although “The Grandmaster” is a kung fu movie, Wong Kar Wai treats the story much like opera or ballet. The art direction and costumes are gorgeous, and his camera drinks in the scenery, allowing even brutal fight sequences to play like high art. The visual beauty of “The Grandmaster” resulted in Oscar nominations for costume design and cinematography, but the artfulness extends beyond the camera.

Even, the dialog has a philosophical heft. Wong Kar Wai makes it clear that Ip Man is more than a warrior. He and other key players in the film live by a code of honor that distinguishes them, even when the code makes their lives more difficult.

Lueng does a fine job as Ip Man, and the movie features a strong supporting cast, the most notable additional player being Ziyi Zhang, who is striking as Gong Yutian’s daughter.

Because so much of “The Grandmaster” is centered on combat, there are limits to its appeal. To appreciate Wong Kar Wai’s achievement one must first appreciate the conventions and appeal of traditional martial arts films. Those who do, are in for a treat.

Blu-ray and DVD extras include several behind-the-scenes features.



2½ stars
Rated R for strong brutal violence, disturbing images, some graphic sexuality and nudity, and language
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

The 2003 Korean thriller “Oldboy” received numerous film awards, including the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, but director Spike Lee’s Americanized version is an off-kilter affair that struggles despite stylish presentation.

Lee’s “Oldboy” has reasonably strong performances, the most noteworthy coming from Josh Brolin as Joe Doucett, a self-centered, substance-abusing advertising executive. After he ruins a business deal by hitting on the girlfriend of a potential client, Joe is mysteriously kidnapped and locked in a windowless, hotel-like room. His horror grows when he realizes that his captor has no intention of freeing him and that his only contact with the outside world is a television set and the food that non-communicative attendants deliver each day. Soon, Joe learns through television news reports, that his ex-wife has been brutally murdered and that he is the prime suspect. Unable to escape and vindicate himself, his 3-year-old daughter becomes an orphan.

This melodramatic setup allows Brolin to take Joe through a cascade of emotions, and there is remarkable contrast between the character’s earliest incarnations and those at the end of the film. Brolin’s work is memorable, but it is also the main highlight of a project that never finds its groove.

At first, Lee presents “Oldboy” as a straightforward thriller populated by realistic characters and believable events. Later, it becomes a bizarre mix of martial arts action and Shakespearean drama. Plot points that are neither fully explained nor believable accompany the change in tenor. Because of this, the once-thought-provoking thriller morphs into a lightweight, comic-book-style, revenge film.

With the exception of Joe, all the characters are broad stereotypes. This includes key players portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, Elizabeth Olsen, Michael Imperioli and Sharlto Copley. The actors do well enough considering the inadequacies of the Mark Protosevich screenplay, but more depth would have given the film greater emotional impact.

Lee’s approach may be intended to honor the original, 2003 movie and the Japanese manga that inspired it. If that’s the case, his motives were honorable, but his execution poor. “Oldboy” has one foot reaching for the land of Asian action movies and the other teetering in the realm of American film noir. That’s a tough balancing act, and Lee isn’t up to the challenge.

Blu-ray and DVD extras include two featurettes on the making of the film.



“Hours”: This drama about a father desperately trying to keep his infant daughter alive during the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, will always be remembered as one of Paul Walker’s final films. The movie was written and directed by Eric Heisserer.

“Girl Rising”: Documentary focused on nine girls from troubled nations who attempt to overcome severe challenges and achieve their dreams. Directed by Richard Robbins.

– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at



Filed under Video Verdict

5 responses to “Video Verdict: ’12 Years a Slave,’ ‘The Grandmaster,’ ‘Oldboy’

  1. smilingldsgirl

    I just posted my thoughts on 12 Years a Slave too. Thank you for encouraging me to see it.


  2. smilingldsgirl

    with all the dramatic inhumanity I actually thought the repeated scenes of the slaves being forced to dance was one of the most cruel parts. That surprised me and made me think.


  3. You are welcome. Nice review, by the way!


  4. smilingldsgirl



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