Selma

And the occasional speaking engagement

SELMAAva DuVernay’s Selma is one of the most timely films in recent memory.  It’s not only an invigorating subversion of the flood of “white savior” films from the past few years, but it speaks to exactly what we as a country (an expression I deplore, but what can you do) have been facing in our recent history: Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, Eric Garner, and myriad race-motivated violences going unreported or ignored.  It’s not just a biopic about Dr. King; it’s a reminder of how far we are from (but how close we could be to) realizing his dreams.

Like 2012’s Lincoln, Selma is focused on one particular effort in the timeline of the influential person in question: the film concerns Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s (David Oyelowo) quest to grant African-American people their voting rights in the south.  But here’s the thing: they already legally have the vote, and are being bearded by the racist registrar and county authorities, who are seen forcing Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) to jump through ridiculous hoops, such as naming sixty-seven obscure white politicians, to even be allowed to register.  Dr. King decides that Selma is the ideal place for a peaceful demonstration, and during a rough patch in his marriage to Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), he organizes a march from Selma to Montgomery.  If you need plot details from here, you should be reading biographies and history texts, not movie reviews.

Oyelowo’s role as Dr. King has been plenty lauded, but should be highlighted as one of the most important in any recent film.  DuVernay, where lesser filmmakers may have focused simply on plot action (since most of us already have our own image, however blurry, of who Dr. King was), zeroes in on his personal life and motivations.  He’s not portrayed as an infallible superhero; long scenes are dedicated to the relationship between himself and Coretta, whether they’re discussing the motivations of Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), the potential violence that will result during the march (President Lyndon Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson, insists that it will be “open season” if Dr. King parades African-Americans through the artery of Alabama), or their own personal future.  Infidelity is highlighted, and Dr. King’s actions are never blamed on the notoriously manipulative and paranoid FBI under J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker here; depicted in far more films and TV series in the last few years than he really deserves).  The speeches he gives, whether or not paraphrased or rewritten due to copyright issues, are truly moving, and not used to transparently echo today’s race relations: all of that is already there in front of us; it’s just a matter of being able to see it, and furthermore, to refuse to ignore it, however exhausting it may be.

The ensemble cast is expertly used by DuVernay, who never overwhelms scenes with star-power. Martin Sheen and Cuba Gooding, Jr. don’t show up until two-thirds of the way through, and they do what they need to do without lingering in needless shots, while John Doar (lesser-known Alessandro Nivola, who’s had a pretty good year on film) receives a heavier share of scenes.  Keith Stanfield, perhaps the possessor of the greatest ratio of Most Adept to Least Known, and who shone in last year’s Short Term 12, appears here, albeit briefly, as Jimmie Lee Jackson, the unfortunate deacon/family man/activist/martyr whose murder inspired the marches.  His portrayal in the film, as well as that of the actions of the state troopers who savagely attacked him, his mother, and his eighty-four-year-old grandfather, is so poignant because it isn’t sensationalized or opportunistically embellished: these things happened.  These things still happen.  These things could stop happening.

The film also contains, just before Common’s unbelievably heart-rending “Glory,” the most unapologetic “where are they now?” end-titles ever, highlighting the Klan murder of Viola Liuzzo (Tara Ochs), and retaining absolutely no sympathy for that hick George Wallace (Tim Roth), whose apathy enabled much of the brutality that occurred in his state (even Johnson, whose actually-quite-fair portrayal here has drawn complaints from white people who need every film to be about them, wants nothing to do with this guy).

For once, here’s a mature film with something to say, something real to show, but that doesn’t capitalize on the horrors of history in order to win a bunch of filmmaking awards: Selma is a true call to candid thought about what every one of us is willing to ignore, and to nonviolent action to make real change in a world where the racket of bullets and explosions are enough to make us forget that any such thing exists.

Selma (2014); written by Paul Webb and Ava DuVernay; directed by Ava DuVernay; starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Egojo, Tom Wilkinson, and Keith Stanfield.

The Butler

We have no tolerance for politics in the White House

Lee-Daniels-The-Butler-Robin-Williams-Forest-WhitakerLee Daniels takes a page out of John Carpenter’s book: attempting to force us to give a crap about who directed the movie by putting his own name in the title.  This always fails.  Why not include the DP, the key grip, and the editor in the title as well?  What about the makeup artists who made Forest Whitaker look like an old man?  Or what about, y’know, the writer?  I’m not against everyone involved getting proper credit, but a film not written by the director belongs to the director insofar as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World belongs to me just because I bought a copy and had my own reading of what it was all about.

Thankfully, the film itself does not fail.  The Butler features Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, in part based upon Gene Allen, a black butler who served in the White House under several presidents.  Starring alongside Whitaker is Oprah Winfrey, who should really quit the talk show/phony philanthropy schtick and become a full-time actress, as Cecil’s patient wife, Gloria, who must deal with not only Cecil’s long hours at the White House (which he’s not allowed to talk much about anyway), but the absence of her son Louis (David Oyelowo), who embarks on a life of activism in spite of his father’s insistence that the family stay apolitical.  The film’s narrative runs through Cecil’s and David’s entire lives over several decades, showcasing the points at which they intersect.  Gloria’s home life is touched on to some degree as well: she battles her own alcoholism, the horror of not knowing what’s happening to her own family members while they’re away, the advances of her lecherous neighbor (Terrence Howard), and whatever Cecil himself happens to bring home from work (and she is left in the dark for so long that JFK’s assassination doesn’t seem like such a big deal to her).

The various presidents are played by a cornucopia’s worth of movie stars, including Robin Williams, who plays Eisenhower completely straight, John Cusack as the opportunistic Nixon, heartthrobby James Marsden as Kennedy, Alan Rickman as the characteristically befuddled Reagan, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, and Minka Kelly in a great (albeit tiny) performance as Jackie Kennedy.  Best of all is Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, whose hilarious vignettes could have carried an entire movie.  Each character fits into their sections well, but the star power becomes overwhelming sometimes – Vanessa Redgrave appears in a small role during Cecil’s childhood on a plantation, and Cecil’s coworkers (larger roles) are played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz.  The inevitability of another famous person showing up every ten minutes is not too distracting, but it’s a bit funny, giving the film a “meta” quality it probably doesn’t want.

Where the film falters is the use of thematic voiceover – something never necessary to a film’s movement; didn’t we learn that in Blade Runner?  Cecil’s rich voice sums up each section of film by restating exactly what we just watched and heard, while we see real archive footage of things that actually happened at that time.  This is not ancient history, however; this is historical information that everyone living today already knows about.  And when a film is already upwards of two hours, this stuff needs to be chopped.  There’s also some sloppy and obvious dramatic irony: Nixon tells Cecil, “I’m not going to resign, no matter what!” when the audience knows full well that he will.  Sentimentalism also nears full stride: piano music over melodramatic dialogue, and so on.  Much of the movie is genuinely emotional, but attempting to squeeze tears out of an audience using every device possible actually takes away from that.  We even get a Hollywood Mentor played by Clarence Williams III, who tells Cecil that the “N word” is “a white man’s word, filled with hate,” and after a lifetime of using the word, Cecil never speaks it again.  Is the character’s advice good?  Yes, of course it is.  But moments of epiphany are a sham, and scenes like this are designed for synthetic echoes later in the movie.

I’ll let you judge for yourself whether the film’s overt messages about racism are oversimplified (and whether the portrayal of the Black Panthers is as cartoony as what they showed us in school), but what cannot be denied is the genuine impact of seeing the Freedom Bus torched with Louis aboard (one of the historical events wisely dramatized and not shown entirely in archive footage); the cringe-inducing image of a segregated water fountain; our collective concealed rage at Cecil’s boss’s apathetic reactions to Cecil’s insistence year after year that the black staff be paid as much as the white staff.  In the showing I attended, there was plenty of cheering at triumphant moments (and, not surprisingly, in a theatre full of white people, an obnoxious amount of “What did he say?” in reaction to Cecil’s dialect [which, by the way, is spoken in an American accent!]  I consider myself adept at understanding dialect, but it sometimes seems like no one else is even trying).

In spite of its rigid narrative, The Butler manages genuine impact and a whole lot of true moments.

The_Butler_posterLee Daniels’ The Butler (2013); written by Danny Strong; directed by Lee Daniels; starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, and David Oyelowo)

Machete Kills

Machete don’t blog

Robert Rodriguez is the only director left who makes pure action films worth a damn anymore, and it’s in part because of his affectionate spoofing of the ’70s exploitation film genre.  The absurd action of Desperado still upstages anything John Woo has ever done – look at the differences in how seriously each film’s stunt-laden gunslinging takes itself.  The original Machete, which grew out of a fake prevue in front of Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (also a parody film), took time-honored grindhouse traditions (unbelievable violence, unbridled misogyny, unnatural levels of badassery, a plot too big for its britches, missing reels, and way too many characters) and rolled them into an hour and a half of nostalgia.  The roadblock I continually hit here, as much as I like the first film, is that when you do a sequel, people take it more seriously because they now have expectations.  Machete (Danny Trejo) may be a thin character, but by the time Machete Kills was released, viewers of the first film had already known him for several years, and cheered on his relationship with biracial Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba).  Thus, whether or not a common convention of cheaply made exploitation films is to kill off the “love interest” at the start of the next film as a throwaway excuse for the protagonist to go off on another killing spree, it’s not funny when Sartana is shot in the face by a luchador with a laser gun.  Uh, spoiler, I guess.

On that note, many women are brutalized in this film.  Yeah, it’s all tongue in cheek, but it’s still happening on screen, it’s still being acted out, we’re still seeing it and paying for it and swallowing it.  Sofia Vergara and Alexa Vega play a couple of prostitutes bent on revenge (on whom?  More later).  It’s supposed to be funny – look at the types of ridiculous characters that folks in the ’70s thought were empowering or this or that! – but the fact is, this movie was released this year, and we’re not past a lot of this stuff yet (plus, most know Vega as a pre-teen in Rodriguez’s Spy Kids, where she played a more layered heroine).  Vanessa Hudgens, one of the better actors in the film, plays an innocent bystander (figuratively) who is shot multiple times and tossed from a helicopter after becoming a victim of Rodriguez’s still-evident issue of immediately killing off characters when he does not know what to do with them in the plot.  Michelle Rodriguez returns as Luz, who was shot in the eye in the first film and miraculously survived as a result of being hilariously indestructible.  There, it worked.  Here, she’s shot in the other eye and becomes totally blind.  As funny as her continued invulnerability is, in theory (she’s still able to overcome her opponent without sight, and without caring much about the fact that she cannot see), it’s a bit of a bummer to see it happen, especially after the director’s heavily sound-bited insistence that he loves “strong women” (there’s that dangerous adjective again).  Amber Heard plays the turncoat handler Miss San Antonio, who acts as Luz’s foil.  I won’t spoil whether she gets shot in the face, but you can guess.

The story this time follows Machete as he is hired by the President of the United States (Charlie Sheen under his birth name, Carlos Estevez) to investigate Mexican revolutionary Mendez (Demián Bichir), who plans on launching a rocket at Washington, D.C.  Through one thing and another, Machete uncovers a conspiracy led by arms dealer Luther Voz (Mel Gibson): Voz has seen a vision in which the world is destroyed and everyone must move to space.  To expedite the process, Voz has installed a proverbial Mendez in every country, planning to launch several of these missiles at key locations all over the globe.  He wants to recruit Machete as part of the special group who will go to space with him, but our stoic hero wants no part of it (especially once he sees the collection of luchador masks in Voz’s headquarters).

Performances, again, are what hold this film together, especially when it feels like every actor understands the tongue-in-cheekness and the nuance.  Heard is a gem as Miss San Antonio.  Even Mel Gibson seems to get the joke.  In the film’s best stretch of subplot, a bounty is placed on the heads of Machete and Mendez, who are then hunted by a collection of colorful ne’er-do-wells.  These include a maniacal sheriff played by William Sadler, a vengeful cop played by Julio Oscar Mechoso, and a faceless/genderless bounty hunter called El Camaleón, played by four actors: Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lady Gaga, and Antonio Banderas.  It’s an ambitious idea and a very good string of scenes (especially when Banderas speaks deliberately bad Spanish with a forced Mexican accent), and may have been one of the most interesting film villains of any age, if not for the throwaway joke that brings the character to a narrative dead-end.

Two films, in any series, are enough for me.  When you plan on doing more than two, you enfranchise the series.  Franchises are bad.  They exist to fatten pockets and egos and stomachs and the shelves of people who collect mindless crap.  When it’s a film series, the second one is often an incoherent celluloid goo that merely connects the two important films.  If Rodriguez really intends to do a third Machete (which, if we’re going to believe what this film promises, will take place in outer space and feature Trejo, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Rodriguez with one of her eyes back, Alexa Vega, Mel Gibson, and Sofia Vergara), it’s going to require a lot more thought.  Either that, or it will be just plain non-ironically bad.

ImageMachete Kills (2013); written by Kyle Ward; directed by Robert Rodriguez; starring Danny Trejo, Amber Heard, Michelle Rodriguez, Demián Bichir, and Mel Gibson.  

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