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.

A Most Violent Year

Rage against the tough-guy melodrama

XXX MOST VIOLENT DAY MOV JY 3625 .JPG A ENTAbel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is the opposite of Ray Liotta’s character in GoodFellas – y’know, since everyone feels the need to (erroneously) compare J.C. Chandor’s fiercely suspenseful A Most Violent Year to every macho gangster film ever made.  Abel, the head of a successful heating oil company, is dead-set against resorting to violence when his trucks are hijacked by unknown assailants, costing him thousands of dollars and legions of customers.  His competitors, naturally, deny knowledge of these attacks, and Abel is pressured on all sides to retaliate: the head of the Teamsters (Peter Gerety) wants him to arm all of his drivers with handguns; his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father is a hair-trigger mobster who formerly owned the company, threatens to take matters into her own hands if Abel does not move to protect his family; and even Abel’s attorney (Albert Brooks) has a bit too much of an Al Capone vibe when discussing the company’s interests.  Abel protests: “It’s really come to this? We have to walk around outside like we’re fuckin’ gangsters?”

The film is actually more similar to Terence Winter and co.’s Boardwalk Empire than any Al Pacino vehicle, only it does Boardwalk’s ending better than Boardwalk did (read: same setup, seemingly inevitable “never saw that coming” swan song, but subverts the exhausted “stinger” ending – on another note, the film also features three Boardwalk actors).  Thus, the film feels a bit like an extended pilot for another heavy-handed serial about the danger, violence, and fallacy of the American Dream, but it ends before it becomes worn out, and it’s buffered by performances by some of today’s best working actors (Isaac, Jessica Chastain, and David Oyelowo), which despite its tissue-papery themes and symbolic imagery, keep it from being simply “good for what it is.”

Much of the narrative involves Abel’s attempts to purchase an abandoned fuel terminal on the East River, handing over a forty-percent down-payment to a group of Hasidic Jews who require Abel to close the deal in thirty days or eat the down-payment and be left with nothing.  Of course, this happens just as Julian (Elyes Gabel), a driver and close friend to Abel, is brutalized by the above thugs, later procures a handgun without Abel’s permission, and combats his attackers in a broad-daylight shootout when they try again.  The bad publicity causes Abel’s financial backers to pull out, and he’s left to come up with 1.5 million dollars on his own.  On top of that, he must deal with DA Lawrence (Oyelowo), who assumes that any moderately successful company must be riddled with corruption, and decides to invade Abel’s privacy whenever possible.

AMVY is populated with characters who pine for and attempt to recreate the days when “men were men” (English translation: when the word of a man was the only word, rich dudes traded profound threats over gambling tables, and wives were akin to property, good only to scold/bone/task with taking care of children).  Abel and Anna, though, are over that mostly-fictional fantasy time period, and the real struggle is the excruciating job of being the first to move towards progress in a world of dinosaur-ish tycoons who only discuss business from the backroom of a fancy restaurant and who say things like “You don’t want to take a loan from my kind of people.” Abel’s ordeal skates between this and his steadfast resistance to corruption, and only one of those, if either, can be completely satisfied in a story with such an inherently cynical premise (consider the film’s starkest image: the blood of an innocent person sprayed across the side of a leaking oil tank).

Isaac plays Abel, as he plays all of his near-heels, as sympathetic and genuine when anyone else would have played a villain.  Jessica Chastain’s Lady-Macbeth-like Anna, who always seems one clandestine step ahead of Abel, plays the game better than any of the faux gangsters, and her tendency towards mood-whiplash (entertaining children at a birthday party one minute, fearlessly intimidating the District Attorney while taking deliberately-timed drags from a cigarette the next) is the film’s most terrifying wildcard.  The standout performance, maybe, is that of Elyes Gabel (in part because Isaac and Chastain are reliably stunning in everything at this point) as the hard-luck Julian, who just can’t get a break.  Watching him struggle to make big decisions causes serious heartache, and one of the most effectively troubling things about the film is the later realization that his one-hundred-percent-undeserved misfortune actually contributed to the successes of the character we were made to root for, and that we’re pretty much okay with Pyrrhic victory over actual justice, when it comes down to it.

Like most of what comes out of J.C. Chandor, this is one of the most atmospheric, well-scored, and understated pieces of the year.  It is, however, worth wondering about one thing: how do the Morales’ daughters get any sleep with all that yelling?

A Most Violent Year (2014); written and directed by J.C. Chandor; starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Elyes Gabriel, and David Oyelowo.

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)

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