The movie begins with a hurricane on Mars, a life-threatening debris storm, and a spaceship that might not be able to lift off in the chaos. And that’s the easy part. After the rocket finally blasts from the surface, an astronaut—presumed dead—is left behind on the Red Planet, and he’s got to figure out how to stay alive by himself until a very improbable rescue mission could pick him up. That will take many, many months, if it happens at all. So The Martian is a problem-solving movie: How will castaway Mark Watney (Matt Damon) figure out the fundamental problems of food, shelter, and communication? The movie doesn’t waste much time worrying about issues of loneliness; after we’ve spent time with Watney, who has a complete lack of introspection and neurosis, it’s no wonder.
The problems of squishing down a novel to fit a two-hour movie are familiar; when a complicated historical setting is added to the mix, things really get thorny. Half of a Yellow Sun tackles a decade or so in Nigeria’s tortured chronology, from its early years of independence to the disastrous Biafran war that divided the country in 1967–1970. The pattern is cut from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s prize-winning 2006 novel, and pattern is about all you can discern in the film’s dutiful but sketchy treatment.
The early scenes in post-colonial Nigeria are vivid and saucy. We meet two sisters, Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Dreamgirls dynamo Anika Noni Rose), who’ve been raised in wealth and educated abroad.
12 Years a Slave (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD), coming hot off an Oscar win for Best Picture as well as Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o, whose acceptance speech was a work of art) and Best Adapted Screenplay (by John Ridley), timed this release right. Still unavailable on VOD or On Demand, disc is the only way to see this at home.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the Solomon Northup, the free man who was kidnapped in the north and sold into slavery in the south where he survived for 12 years before he was able to return home, with Lupita Nyong’o as the young, abused female slave Patsey and a supporting cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Brad Pitt (who was also a producer).
What most impresses me about the film is the way it shows how slavery distorts humanity on all levels. When human beings are treated as property, it corrupts the owners as it takes away the self-worth of the captives. There is a vast gulf between the “bad master” played by Fassbender and the “good master” played by Cumberbatch, but he is a slave owner nonetheless and never considers another way.
Blu-ray and DVD with two featurettes, “The Team” and “The Score.” The Blu-ray offers an exclusive third featurette, “A Historical Portrait.” You’ll have to wait a couple of weeks for On Demand and VOD, which could spur even more sales for those not willing to wait. Or you could visit your local video store. They could use your business.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD, On Demand on Friday, March 7), the second film in the young adult dystopian series starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katnis Everdeen, a reluctant warrior and symbol of resistance, improves upon the original film in almost every way. Taking the same basic premise—a despotic government that keeps its citizens in poverty and reminds them of its power by drafting the young into a modern gladiatorial ring to kill or be killed on TV—this one digs deeper into the idea of power and control and the way media is used as a tool of oppression.
Director Francis Lawrence understands the novels better than previous director Gary Ross. Katnis’s District 12 doesn’t look like an ennobled patch of poverty in the majesty of the wilderness this time, it’s a rural slum caked in coal dust, and the districts are essentially open slave pens for people who will be worked to death without any hope of escape. The façade of the luxurious capitol is built within a veritable bunker. And Katniss is no selfless heroine, simply a young woman who acts on instinct to protect who she loves rather than simply protect herself.
How do you tell the story of something as enormous and horrifying as American slavery? In the case of 12 Years a Slave, the subject is played out on human bodies and in objects: a single sheet of precious foolscap writing paper, the juice of berries, a violin. Instead of taking on the history of the “peculiar institution,” the film narrows to a single story and these scattered things.
It is based on a memoir by Solomon Northup, a free man from Saratoga, New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. He is played by English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (Inside Man, Dirty Pretty Things), whose Spencer Tracy–like ability to observe and calmly draw us into an experience is quite powerful here.