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‘12 Years’ powerfully tackles difficult history

Fri., March 7, 2014, midnight

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the lead role in best picture winner “12 Years A Slave.”
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the lead role in best picture winner “12 Years A Slave.”

The winner of the Oscar for best picture and an action sequel top this week’s new DVD releases.

“12 Years a Slave,” A: In 1977, the mini-series “Roots” awakened the national conscience to one of the most appalling periods in American history. The Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” adds an exclamation point to that production through the true life story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the New York State citizen – a free man – who was kidnapped and made to work on a plantation in New Orleans in the 1800s.

Through stunning performances by Ejiofor and Oscar-winning newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, director Steve McQueen has fashioned a film that will haunt your heart and mind.

These images come through the life Northup lives under the control of heartless masters and the constant threat from those who consider slaves to be less important than livestock. McQueen built the movie as a constant battle between one man’s efforts to maintain his humanity and the efforts of others to strip it away.

“12 Years a Slave” is set against the horrors of slavery, but it’s not just about slaves. It works so magnificently because it looks at how far a person can be pushed and still hold on to the last strands of dignity and basic human rights. It’s a message that cuts across all demographics.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” B-minus: Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) must fight again during the 75th Hunger Games. The second film in what will be a four-part series features the same elements as the first. The problem is that it also features a structure that is such a duplication of the first movie that it feels more like a rerun than a chance to move ahead.

Director Francis Lawrence has matched the visual splendor of the first movie from the landscapes to the costuming. He also shows a competence with the battle sequences, from a terrifying confrontation with mutated monkeys to a spinning cornucopia. But despite being presented with a more diverse group of Hunger Games competitors, he does little to play up their individuality.

“Catching Fire” is a good-enough representation of the second book that it won’t upset fans. Those who don’t know the book will find a film that is a mildly altered version of the first movie in the series. That makes it easy enough to skip and wait for the final two movies.

Also new on DVD this week:

“Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor”: Threat to the universe brings multiple Doctors together.

“Breaking Amish: Season 1”: Amish experience the outside world.

“A Cross to Bear”: Woman looks for help after tragic moment.

“Oldboy”: Man seeks revenge after being held captive for 20 years.

“Elmo’s World: All About Animals”: Children pretend to be different animals.

“The Last Days on Mars”: Liev Schreiber stars in this tale of what explorers to the red planet find.

“Dora the Explorer: Dora in Wonderland”: Dora goes on adventure based on “Alice in Wonderland.”

“The Agony and The Ecstasy”: Charlton Heston film is now on Blu-ray.

“Comet Encounter”: Documentary on comet that hurtled toward the sun in 2013.

“Cold Comes the Night”: Crime drama starring Brian Cranston.

“Noah and the Great Ark”: Three documentaries examine the legend.

“Teen Titans Go!: Mission To Misbehave, Season 1, Part 1”: Exploits of Robin, Cyborg, Starfire, Raven and Beast Boy.

“NOVA: Alien Planets Revealed”: A look at more than 750 planets.

“Super Bowl XLVIII Champions Seattle Seahawks”: Recap and interviews.

“The Visitor”: In this 1979 film, intergalactic warrior joins a cosmic Christ figure in a battle against a demonic 8-year-old girl.

“Ms. 45”: The 1981 release is a cult favorite.

“Rawhide: The Seventh Season, Volume One and Volume Two”: Both volumes feature 15 hours of digitally remastered episodes.

“Nature: The Funkiest Monkeys”: Crested black macaque.

“The Venture Bros. Season Five”: Animated series starring the Venture family.

“Bloodlust”: Wealthy hunter meets his new prey when two couples dock their boat on his private island.

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