12 Years a Slave (2013)

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Slavery and systemic racism are topics that make a lot of people uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean that we should avoid discussing them. It is almost with this kind of mindset that we approached Oscar Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave the other night. It provides a gut-wretchingly brutal perspective on what it meant to be a black slave in the south during the middle part of the 19th century. This movie is anything but comfortable and that’s almost the point.

Solomon Northup was a free man working as a carpenter and musician in New York, making what appeared to be a very comfortable living for himself and his family. After going out for a night of drinking with a couple of men promising a two-week gig, Solomon awakens locked in a cell, tied up in metal chains.

He gets transported to the south, is assigned a new identity, and is sold into slavery to a reasonably friendly plantation owner played by “Sherlock” Benedict Cumberbatch. He subsequently gets into a fight with one of the “masters” and is shipped off to another plantation, this time with a far harsher slave owner played by Michael Fassbender. While he wants to “live” and not merely “survive,” the latter becomes the primary motivation.

His spirit is broken. He gets beat. He watches as the other slaves get abused. It’s all very excruciating to watch, but this was the brutal reality of the time. Yes, 12 Years builds on the same kind of “white guilt” as films like Django Unchained (though in an entirely different way) and it will make you far more uncomfortable than fellow Oscar nominee American Hustle. And yes, we don’t really get a good sense of the passage of time and the pace can feel slow, but 12 Years a Slave is an otherwise terrific piece of film making, even if it hurts to watch it.

Bridesmaids (2011)

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Most of the crude comedy movies that we’ve seen over the years have been largely male focused. With Bridesmaids, Judd Apatow brings that same kind of bathroom humor to the female of the species. In it, we find bride Lillian (played by Maya Rudolph) enlist the help of maid of honor Annie (Kristen Wiig) for all of her pre-wedding adventures, only to see Annie get usurped by “new” friend with far more money, far more connections and far more high society inclinations.

This could have been taken in the standard direction of a safe comedy, but instead what we get are scenes with explosive diarrhea and the physical comedy of destroying an oversized cookie. While there is definitely no shortage of raunchy crudeness, Bridesmaids still includes some of the “girly” things that female audiences may enjoy, like the selection of the bridesmaids dresses or the pomp and circumstance of an extravagant bridal shower.

The entire ensemble cast is genuinely entertaining, from the more innocent Ellie Kemper to the bold confidence of Melissa McCarthy. Kristen Wiig does seem to revert to the “quiet speak” and one-upmanship of her SNL character Penelope, particularly when challenged by Rose Byrne’s character. Bridesmaids does a great job of finding the delicate balance between being just your typical “chick flick” and having enough gross out moments that’ll make you go “ugh.”

You know, in a good way.