Twelve Years a Slave

Riveting Tale about the Human Cost of Slavery

What it’s about

Based on a true story. Solomon Northup, a free African-American, is promised a fortnightly job by Brown and Hamilton. However, after arriving in Washington DC, he realises that he has been sold into slavery.

What you will learn from watching it

This film provides an excellent insight into the human cost of slavery and does very well at avoiding telling people what to think by focusing simply on telling a story and allowing the viewer to form an opinion.

It also does well at avoiding making this a story solely about skin colour, there are just people and some are bad, some are good and some are slaves, it is just in this story the slaves are black and that’s why they are slaves.

A worthy winner of the best picture Oscar as no person who watches this can watch it without by the end coming to the conclusion that if the world was a certain way, they could have been Solomon.

Is the story any good

The story from this film is derived from the real-life memoirs of Solomon Northup, which was a bestseller back in its day in the 1850s. Despite this the book fell into relative obscurity until Louisiana University in the 1960s released a historically annotated version which thrust it back into public knowledge.

The memoirs provided an extensive account of just what it was like working as a slave in the deep South, as well as detailing Solomons experiences working on plantations. Considering this it is easy to see how this film could quite easily have turned into a history lesson that brilliantly presented what it was like for slaves in the deep South, but was boring as hell to watch.

Thankfully that does not happen as screenwriter John Ridley and director Steve McQueen have managed to find that perfect balance between focusing on the story while at the same time presenting an accurate image of the past.

What that means is this is very much a human story, and it is a human story that is told very well, so much so Solomon could have existed in any time and have been any person. And in that is the power of this story, and why it is such a brilliant one.

Final words

If you like historical dramas and are interested in learning about the slave trade, specifically what it was like for those trapped in it, then you will definitely like this film. But as this is very much a human story if you like dramas of the human kind then you will in all probability like this film, meaning this is a film which transcends its genre.

That means, all in all this film gets a solid thumbs up from me.

Director: Steve McQueen

Writer: John Ridley

Genre: biography, drama, historical

Year: 2013

Runtime: 134 minutes

Looper

Time travel thriller like no other

What it’s about

In the near future, the mob sends their victims back in time to get them executed by the loopers. Joe, one such looper, finds himself to be the victim of his own actions.

What you will learn from watching it

The concept is one moment has the power to define a person’s life, and in that moment a person may turn out to be good or bad. This is a fact that everyone knows to be true but the way it is shown in this film really drives home just how true it is.

Also the way this film shows the contrast between who you are today and who you may be tomorrow, and how you may react to each other should you meet is really quite brilliant.

Whether you will learn anything from watching this film though is debatable, one thing is clear it will most definitely make you think and as we always say here at Story Maniacs that is only ever a good thing.

Is the story any good

This is a very clever film which does its very best not to be confusingly clever, some may argue that it has succeeded in doing just that others may argue otherwise. But one thing is indisputable, and that is that the premise of this film is brilliant and is delivered in a smooth digestible fashion, a fact that writer/director Rian Johnson deserves much credit for.

That means the story is allowed to flow without hindrance meaning whether you understand what is going on in regards to the time travel is not important in regards to the entirely human story at the heart of this film.

And the story at the heart of this film, which is a grim but poignant story about the power of a mother’s love for her son and just how much that love can define a life, is one that will touch the heart strings of even the toughest of souls.

Final words

If you like time travel thrillers you will definitely like this film, but though this film has time travel in it, it is not a film about time travel, it simply uses time travel to push home its narrative and that narrative is an entirely human story about the power of love to define a life. If that’s something that appeals to you then you will like this film.

But be warned, this is not a happy film and in fact throughout makes for grim watching. So powerful and poignant it may be, but happy it is not. But poignant stories rarely are, at least in the world of film therefore that should not be held against it.

That means, all in all this film gets a thumbs up from me.

Director: Rian Johnson

Writer: Rian Johnson

Genre: action, drama, sci-fi

Year: 2012

Runtime: 119 minutes

Apollo 13

Nailbiting True Story of the Fated Mission to the Moon

What it’s about

Astronauts Lovell, Haise and Swigert of the Apollo 13 moon mission find themselves stranded when their spacecraft gets damaged. NASA must now find a way to bring them back before it is too late.

What you will learn from watching it

This film tells the true story of the fated Apollo 13 mission to the moon, one of its great selling points is the sheer level of technical authenticity there is in this film. That means unlike most films which are based on true stories, this one actually presents an accurate account of what actually happened and just how those involved overcame near insurmountable odds to bring to bring the doomed mission home.

Obviously the characters themselves despite the actors playing real people are fictionalised to an extent for the purposes of the narrative. But this does not take away from the fact that this film shows a true event in history, and in nailbiting fashion accurately portrays what it was like for those three astronauts stuck in space and the team on the ground trying to get them back down.

All in all, if you wish to understand the sheer amount of effort and ingenuity needed to get a man to the moon and back again, and just how much more effort is needed still to bring them home should something go wrong, then this film will leave you with little doubt as to the answer.

It also captures brilliantly the fickle nature of human interest in a subject, especially around the lack of interest in the follow up trips to the moon. But perhaps the greatest thing seen in this film is just how when a life is in danger people will rally round all around the world in an effort to save that life. The fact it is based on a true story and this really happened makes it all the more empowering to watch.

Is the story any good

Some films based on true stories, especially those that focus on technical authenticity end up being bore fests to any person without a deep interest in the subject.

This is not one of those films. The true story is an amazing story in itself, and this film captures that story in nailbiting fashion and presents it in a way that even people without an interest in the subject can digest.

Both director Ron Howard and screenplay writers William Broyles Jr and Al Reinert who derived the story from Jim Lovell and journalist Jeffrey Kluger’s book of the events of the fated mission deserve much credit for that fact.

Final words

If you are interested in spaceflight, and like films full of nailbiting drama, then this is definitely a film for you. And even if you are not interested in spaceflight if you like films which show the ingenuity of man in overcoming the odds then you will like this film.

That means, all in all this film gets a big thumbs up from me.

Director: Ron Howard

Writers: William Broyles Jr and Al Reinert

Genre: adventure, drama, history

Year: 1995

Runtime: 140 minutes

Gandhi

A Brilliant Look at One of History’s Greatest Practitioners of Nonviolence

What it’s about

A lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi, returns to British India from South Africa. He begins a nationwide campaign of non-violent resistance against the British rule, pressuring Britain to liberate India.

What you will learn from watching it

This film is not a documentary as such of Gandhi it is more a snapshot of his motivations and methods for bringing about independence, but in that is its power.

The majority of texts about Gandhi which that are worth reading are long and detailed, which means they are either unappealing or inaccessible to the majority of people, especially those with only a passing interest.

This film provides the solution to that problem. By presenting what it was Gandhi was fighting for, how he fought for it and what it was he had to overcome to achieve his goal, and presenting all that in an easy to watch narrative, any person can gain a simple understanding of just who Gandhi was.

And that’s what people will gain from watching this film, a basic insight into just who Gandhi was and what it was he fighting for.

Is the story any good

To put it simply, yes. Gandhi’s real-life story in itself is an amazing story, and the way a small part of his story is told in this film captures that brilliance, a fact that both director Richard Attenborough and writer John Briley deserve much credit for.

It is both riveting and gripping throughout, and most definitely does a good job of making clear just how not black-and-white things that we believe should be black-and-white are.

Final words

Whether you are interested in Gandhi as a person or not, this film is still most definitely worth watching even if only for gaining an understanding of the power of nonviolence for bringing about change.

That means, all in all this film gets a big thumbs up from me.

Director: Richard Attenborough

Writer: John Briley

Genre: biography, drama, historical

Year: 1982

Runtime: 170 minutes

Saving Private Ryan

Visual Masterpiece with the Most Human of Stories

What it’s about

During the Normandy invasion of World War II, Captain John Miller is assigned the task of searching for Private James Ryan, whose three brothers have already been killed in the war.

What you will learn from watching it

This film captures brilliantly just how grim World War II was, meaning if you don’t already understand just how grim war can be then this film makes it abundantly clear.

It also via use of the sole survivor directive which the US military practice shows just how difficult it is to choose which lives to save and which to sacrifice during war.

So there is much we can learn from this film, but this film’s strength is not in its ability to teach us something but more in its ability to make us think, and any film that can make you think has the power to change the way you think. Making this a very compelling watch for any person looking for a film that will help make them think about things in a way they perhaps otherwise would not have done so.

Is the story any good

Visually speaking this film is a masterpiece in the way it presents such a realistic and vivid account of what it was like on the front line during World War II. The opening sequence is especially impressive for its realism, basically Steven Spielberg has knocked it out of the park on the cinematography side of things.

But what makes this film stand out is it has substance to go with those visuals, as it tells an extremely powerful story which asks the question is it right to risk the lives of other soldiers to save one soldier, simply because that one soldier has lost all his siblings. 

And it tells that story in a very good way. Which means yes the story is really good, which means writer Robert Rodat who penned the script has also along with Spielberg in his cinematography knocked it out of the park.

Final words

If you like war films, without a doubt. Even if you dislike war films, as long as you can stomach the grimness it is still likely worth watching because like said from a story perspective it tells a brilliant tale.

That means this film gets a definite thumbs up from me.

Director: Stephen Spielberg

Writer: Robert Rodat

Genre: drama, action, war

Year: 1998

Runtime: 170 minutes

Jingle All the Way

Sometimes Wooden but Never Not Funny

What it’s about

Howard, a haggard salesman, promises his son a Turbo Man toy for Christmas. He is forced to fight every parent and travel all over town to get the toy after he forgets to buy it.

My thoughts

Basically if you like Arnold Schwarzenegger, like comedies and like Christmas films then in all probability you like this film. But if you are not a fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger, are not big on comedies and are not big on Christmas films, then you will likely find this film a bit rubbish.

And it really is as simple as that. Actor/comedian Sinbad plays Arnold Schwarzenegger’s nemesis, and puts in an excellent performance helping to make this film a non-stop bundle of laughs. But as the narrative progresses it becomes clear that the main nemesis is the titular character’s neglect of his son.

And it is the resolution to this neglect that gives this film its feelgood factor, and is what makes this film truly worth watching. That is to say this film is more than just an endless bundle of laughs, it has substance.

Not much, but as much as can be expected from what is a typical non-terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger film. All in all, that added to the fact it is a gloriously fun watch makes it a worthy addition to any Christmas viewing list, meaning from me it’s a thumbs up.​

​Director: Brian Levant

Writer: Randy Kornfield

Genre: comedy, action, family

Year: 1996

​Runtime: 95 minutes

Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

A film that will make you truly believe

What it’s about

This is the third remake and arguably the best version of a timeless Christmas classic the story of which was first penned by Valentine Davies, and sees a lawyer and a little girl fighting to save Christmas by proving that a man claiming to be Santa Claus is the real thing.

What you will learn from watching it

​What this film does really well is capture the fact that it is people that make Christmas what it is. People fighting for each other, people uniting with each other, more importantly people willing to believe in each other.

And really that’s what this film is about, the power of belief. And no belief is more important than a child’s belief that he or she has the right to believe what they wish. And that’s what this film does best, show just how important it is for a person to not only be able to believe, but to be allowed to believe.

Is the story any good

What director Les Mayfield along with screenwriters George Seaton and John Hughes perhaps do best is bring the story into the 90s world, many a great story has failed on screen when brought into a modern setting, but this is not one of them.

With excellent performances all round, most notably Mara Wilson as six-year-old Susan Walker, but also Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle this is a film with a story that reaches deep and will most definitely make you believe that Christmas miracles can happen.

Final words

Any person who loves Christmas films will surely appreciate this film, but even those who are indifferent to Christmas films will likely enjoy it. Is it one of the best Christmas films out there, probably not but it does tell one of the best Christmas stories.

That means without a doubt this film gets a solid thumbs up from me.

Director: Les Mayfield

Writer: George Seaton and John Hughes

Genre: fantasy, family

Year: 1994

Runtime: 114 minutes

Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

A film that will make you truly believe

What it’s about

To save Christmas a lawyer and a little girl must prove that a man claiming to be Santa Claus is the real thing.

My thoughts

This is the third remake and arguably the best version of a timeless Christmas classic. With excellent performances all round, most notably Mara Wilson as six-year-old Susan Walker, but also Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle this is a film that will most definitely make you believe that Christmas miracles can happen.

Is it the best Christmas film out there, no. Is it one of the best Christmas stories out there, yes. That makes it definitely worth watching meaning from me it’s a thumbs up.

Director: Les Mayfield

Writer: George Seaton and John Hughes

Genre: fantasy, family

Year: 1994

Runtime: 114 minutes