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The Cricket
Sean P. Means
Sean is the movie critic and columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket.

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Tim (Domnhall Gleeson, left) tries to create the perfect romance for Mary (Rachel McAdams) in the time-travel romantic comedy "About Time." Courtesy Universal Pictures
Friday movie roundup: ‘12 Years a Slave,’ at last

One of the year’s best movies — and the odds-on favorite for the Best Picture Oscar — finally arrives in Utah.

The drama "12 Years a Slave" deserves all the hype and accolades being piled on it. It’s an unflinching, beautifully crafted and emotionally direct look at one of the darkest periods of American history: The pre-Civil War era, where slavery was legal in the South. Director Steve McQueen ("Shame," "Hunger") and screenwriter John Ridley ("Red Tails," "Three Kings") tell the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man in upstate New York who, in 1841, was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Northup, brilliantly played by the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, tries to survive the brutality and mercurial moods of his captors, as he watches for a chance at freedom. This movie is sometimes hard to take, but impossible to dismiss.

At a glance

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Another critically acclaimed movie arriving this week is the French lesbian drama "Blue Is the Warmest Color," winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes this year. Director Abdellatif Kechiche’s raw drama follows several years in the life of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), from coltish teen to mature adult, most of it in a passionate relationship with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a soulful artist. The romance includes some explicit sex scenes that earn the film an NC-17 rating. But beyond the titillation factor, the movie is a deeply felt and amazingly acted look at a relationship’s rise and fall.

The big Hollywood movie of the week is "Thor: The Dark World," the latest installment in Marvel Comics’ "Avengers" saga. Chris Hemsworth returns as the hammer-wielding thunder god, fighting an ancient enemy (Christopher Eccleston) to save Asgard, the universe and his eartly girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). The movie is slow to start, slogging through some Tolkien-esque myth-making on Asgard, before the action — and the strategic placement of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki — kick in.

For romantics, "About Time" is a welcome treat. When Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) learns from his father (Bill Nighy) that he’s inherited the family gift of time travel, he decides to use this power to find the perfect girlfriend. That turns out to be Mary (Rachel McAdams), and Tim works to woo and win her, sometimes employing his cosmic do-over to make things go well. Director-writer Richard Curtis ("Love Actually," "Pirate Radio") uses this "Groundhog Day"-like conceit to paint a sweet, funny portrait that captures not only the arc of a romance but the tender father-son relationship between Tim and his dad.

A brotherly relationship is at the heart of "The Motel Life," an earnestly morose indie drama. Emile Hirsch stars as Frank, working to support his troubled older brother Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) in Reno, circa 1991. When Jerry Lee gets involved in a hit-and-run accident, he and Frank flee to Elko — which is also where Frank’s lost love Annie (Dakota Fanning) has moved. The drama has some nice artistic touches, including animated passages, but a predictably depressing tone.

Lastly, there’s "Diana," a maudlin soap opera of a movie about the final years in the life of Diana, Princess of Wales (played by Naomi Watts). It chronicles her attempts to champion humanitarian issues (particularly a ban on land mines), and her secretive romance with a Pakistani-born heart surgeon (Naveen Andrews). The only upside to this dull tabloid drivel is the way Watts captures Diana’s spark.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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