Reel Reviews

‘12 Years a Slave’

L – limited adult audience, films whose
problematic content many adults would find troubling


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If you thought Alex Haley’s “Roots” was the definitive take on antebellum slavery in the United States, prepare for a harsh wake-up call with “12 Years a Slave” (Fox Searchlight).

Unlike Haley’s 1976 book, which became a landmark TV miniseries, this film focuses on man’s inhumanity to man, portraying it with brutal honesty and a degree of violence that is almost intolerable.

That alone would normally restrict the picture’s appropriate audience to a small group of adults. Yet at least some mature teenagers might benefit from this important history lesson with its searing depiction of the endurance of the human spirit against crushing odds.

Directed by Steve McQueen (“Shame”) from a screenplay by John Ridley (“Red Tails”), “12 Years a Slave” is based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who published the eponymous memoir in 1853 and became a prominent abolitionist. The beginning of the screen account finds Northup living happily with his wife and children in upstate New York, where he earns his living as a carpenter and violin player. Befriended by two strangers, Northup is persuaded to travel to Washington to earn extra money as a musician. There Northup’s nightmare begins. He awakens from a drunken evening in chains, sold by his new “friends” into slavery. Stripped of his identity and now called Platt, he is shipped to New Orleans and auctioned to the highest bidder.

The viewer shares Platt’s sense of disbelief and horror as he endures every possible indignity, not to mention repeated beatings and whippings. As bleak as the outlook is, Platt stays focused on regaining his freedom and returning to his family -- somehow.

“I don’t just want to survive,” he tells his fellow slaves. “I want to live!”

To do so, he must walk a fine line, not revealing his true identity or the fact that he is an educated man who can read and write, a threat to any slave owner. Over a dozen years, Platt has two masters, one benevolent, one not. Kindhearted plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) senses something unique about Platt and enlists his help as a musician and engineer.

Platt’s talents, however, are resented by Ford’s overseer John (Paul Dano), who abuses him. When Platt snaps and beats John to a pulp, Ford has no choice but to sell Platt to keep the peace.

His new owner is Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a sadist who quotes Scripture as justification for beating his slaves and raping women. As the years pass, the future seems bleak for Platt, until he learns to trust in the unexpected kindness of a stranger (Brad Pitt).

The violence in “12 Years a Slave” is relentless and an assault on all the senses, its tone and feeling reminiscent of “The Passion of the Christ.” Both films employ brutality to make an important point. Here it serves as a reminder of the sufferings of African Americans and the long, dark shadow cast by their bondage down to the present day.

The film contains gruesome bloody violence – including hangings, beatings, whippings, torture and rape – full nudity, nongraphic consensual but nonmarital sexual activity and some profane and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is L – limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R – restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

By Joseph McAleer, Catholic News Service

‘Free Birds’

A-I — General Patronage


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Talking turkey to youngsters

Parents be warned: Your kids will want you to revise the Thanksgiving dinner menu once they see “Free Birds” (Relativity), a 3-D animated adventure about two rogue turkeys who travel back in time to change the “main course” of history.

Jimmy Hayward (“Horton Hears a Who!”) directs this zany but good-natured comedy that has nothing to do with the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Free Bird.” There's something for every age wrapped up in a holiday-themed package, including cute-as-a-button characters, clever (but sometimes a bit rude) humor, a send-up of science fiction, and even a little (superficial) slice of American history. There’s also a good message for the youngest viewers: Look out for each other, or someone may end up as dinner (literally).

Our turkey hero, Reggie (voice of Owen Wilson), is an outcast on the farm. He doesn’t follow the dimwitted flock, and his warnings about the farmer and his ax go unheeded – until, for some, it’s too late.

“Thanksgiving is a turkey’s worst nightmare,” Reggie says.

Out of nowhere, the president of the United States (voiced by director Hayward) arrives to choose a turkey to receive the official pardon prior to the national holiday. Reggie’s the one, and he is whisked to Camp David, where he lives in the lap of luxury. Before long he is addicted to pizza (“much better than corn”) and obsessed with watching a romantic telenovela on TV.

His strange interlude ends when he is abducted by fellow bird Jake (voice of Woody Harrelson). As the founder of the “Turkey Freedom Front,” Jake enlists Reggie on a wild scheme: travel back to the first Thanksgiving in 1621, and keep turkey off the dinner table. And so these turkeys hijack a time machine (voiced by George Takei of “Star Trek” fame) and land in Plymouth, Mass. There they meet up with their feathered ancestors, led by Chief Broadbeak (voice of Keith David) and his spunky daughter, Jenny (voice of Amy Poehler).

For Reggie and Jenny, it’s love at first peck, while Jake butts beaks with Jenny’s tough brother, Ranger (also voiced by Hayward), over leadership of the master plan. The Pilgrims are a bumbling lot, grousing over the lack of food and ganging up on Governor Bradford (voice of Dan Fogler). It’s left to the sadistic Myles Standish (voice of Colm Meaney) and his pack of vicious dogs to hunt down the turkeys in time for that first dinner with the native Indians.

A rollicking adventure ensues, with echoes of the great escape in 2000’s “Chicken Run.” While some of the action sequences may be too intense at times for younger viewers (“Those turkeys are angry birds,” one Pilgrim quips), it’s all in good fun, and the tasty resolution, involving one of America’s favorite foods, is bound to please.

The film contains a few mildly perilous situations and some rude humor. The Catholic News Service classification is A-I — general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

By Joseph McAleer, Catholic News Service

Monthly List of Recent Film Ratings (November)


Across the Divide, A-II (no rating)

The Awakening, A-III (R)


Baggage Claim, A-III (PG-13)

Battle of the Year, A-III (PG-13)

Blue Jasmine, L (PG-13)

Bully, A-III (PG-13)


Captain Phillips, A-III (PG-13)

Carrie, L (R)

Closed Circuit, A-III (R)

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, A-II (PG)

The Counselor, O (R)


Despicable Me 2, A-I (PG)

Dream House, L (PG-13)

Don John, O (R)


Elysium, L (R)

Ender's Game, A-II (PG-13)

Escape Plan, L (R)


The Family, O (R)

Fast & Furious 6, L (PG-13)

The Fifth Estate, A-III (R)

Frances Ha, L (R)

Free Birds, A-I (PG)


Getaway, A-III (PG-13

The Grandmaster, A-III (PG-13)

Gravity, A-III (PG-13)

The Great Gatsby, A-III (PG-13)

Grown Ups 2, A-III (PG-13)


The Hangover Part III, L (R)


The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, L (PG-13)

Insidious: Chapter 2, A-III (PG-13)


Jack the Giant Slayer, A-II (PG-13)

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, O (R)

Jobs, A-III (PG-13)


Kick-Ass 2, O (R)

Killer Elite, A-III (R)


The Last Exorcism Part II, L (PG-13)

Last Vegas, A-III (PG-13)

Lee Daniels' The Butler, A-III (PG-13)

The Lone Ranger, L (PG-13)


Machete Kills, O (R)

Man of Steel, A-III (PG-13)

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, A-III (PG-13)

Much Ado About Nothing, A-III (PG-13)


One Direction: This Is Us, A-II (PG)


Paranoia, A-III (PG-13)

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, A-III (PG)

Phantom, A-III (R)

The Place Beyond the Pines, L (R)

Planes, A-I (G)

Prisoners, L (R)


Quartet, A-III (PG-13)


RED 2, A-III (PG-13)

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, A-III (R)

Restless Heart, A-II (no rating)

Riddick, O (R)

Runner Runner, L (R)

Rush, L (R)


Skyfall, A-III (PG-13)

The Smurfs 2, A-I (PG)

Something Borrowed, L (PG-13)

The Spectacular Now, L (R)


Turbo, A-I (PG)

2 Guns, L (R)

Tyler Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, A-III (PG-13)


Warm Bodies, A-III (PG-13)

We're the Millers, O (R)

White House Down, A-III (PG-13)

The Wolverine, A-III (PG-13)

The World's End, A-III (R)


You're Next, O (R)

MPAA ratings: G – general audiences. All ages admitted; PG – parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children; PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13; R – restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian; NC-17 – no one 17 and under admitted.