Archive for the Drama Category

The Last Five Years

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music, Musical on February 25, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Last 5 Years photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe Last Five Years begins on an elegiac note. Anna Kendrick’s beautifully sung “Still Hurting” is a mournful ballad about the breakup of her marriage. Yup, the couple breaks up….in 5 years according to the title.  You would call this production a romantic musical.  Although the tone for this genre is usually buoyant, you realize right from the start that this going to be anything but a happy tale.

Kendrick is Cathy Hiatt. Her story begins at the end and is told in reverse as we progress to her happy beginning. Actor Jeremy Jordan is Jamie Wellerstein. His account is told chronologically and reaches the same conclusion but in the opposite direction from her. Technically there are other people on screen, but the drama only involves these two characters. Back and forth their sagas are interwoven. When she’s singing, we’re going backwards. When he’s crooning, we’re going forward. In the middle they sing a duet. It chronicles the few ups but mostly downs in a five-year relationship between the rising novelist (him) and the struggling actor (her).

The Last Five Years is based on a 2002 Off Broadway production written by Jason Robert Brown, a 3-time Tony Award winner (Parade, The Bridges of Madison County). Forget the story because this one is absolutely rote. That doesn’t have to be a problem. Some of the greatest musicals of all time (Singin’ in the Rain for example) are nothing more than a fabrication designed to highlight a bunch of great songs. The tunes in this case are good, but not great. The best belong to Anna. Beside the aforementioned “Still Hurting”, there’s “I Can Do Better Than That” about her friend who ended up in Smalltown, USA.  There’s also a delightfully ubeat ditty “A Summer in Ohio”. It’s imaginatively staged as she’s talking from afar with her hubby via video internet chat. The creative number is performed with backup dancers practicing their routines at the theater .

The strength of any musical rests on its music. These melodies are odd. They’re not fabricated using a typical song structure made up of an intro/verses/chorus components. Instead they’re sung dialogue that propel a weak story. Sort of like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg but obviously not a film as sacred to aesthetes. What The Last Five Years has going for it is a nice showcase for Anna Kendrick to sing. She could sing the dictionary and it would sound delightful. She’s got a fantastic voice and she interprets the hell out of these songs. She employs just enough vocal interpretation to be interesting, but not so much that seems like she’s showing off. The play embraces its own artificial theatricality. The issue is that their “love” is never uplifting. There’s precious little chemistry between the two leads. This is partly due to the fact that they’re portraying a fighting couple through most of the picture. Their disenchantment with each other kind of rubs off on the viewer. However the sheer singing talent of Ana Kendrick compels me to give this a pass.

02-24-15

Predestination

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Science Fiction with tags on February 22, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Predestination photo starrating-3stars.jpgOw! My head hurts. After watching Predestination, my brain is trying to come to terms with the conclusion of this wackadoodle film. It’s actually kind of nifty at first. Ethan Hawke plays a time-traveling agent who attempts to prevent an elusive terrorist before he strikes. The thug is known as the “Fizzle Bomber” and his deadly explosive, if successful, will kill thousands of people. Right from the start we see our hero is badly burned in an attack. After reconstructive surgery he is sent back in time to March 1975 to stop the criminal.

The movie captivates your attention rather quickly. The proper drama really begins with Ethan Hawke assuming the role of a bar keeper. He strikes up conversation with an odd young man named John. Whether this gentleman is the Fizzle Bomber or not isn’t really clear. He is a writer that writes confession stories under the pen name Unmarried Mother. John tells the barkeep that he’s got an incredible story. He’s heard a lot and so the two make a bet over whether it tops everything he has heard before. When John begins with, “When I was a little girl…” you know it’s going to be a doozy.

That there’s something a bit off about this “man” (Sarah Snook), is immediately obvious. John’s revelation appears just 15 minutes into the picture so it‘s not a key plot point. However his tale will unite the two on a quest that will eventually lead them to a finish that will have not one, not two, but three revelations dropped in the final third. This reveal is so preposterous that it feels as if the writer came up with the convoluted ending first and then thought backwards as to how they could make this head trip a reality. Predestination is based on a science fiction short story by Robert A. Heinlein called  ‘—All You Zombies—’.  I suppose we might credit the author known for Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) as the root of this silliness, but ultimately the blame must rest with brothers Michael & Peter Spierig who not only adapted Heinlein’s work but also direct.

Predestination is the belief that everything that will happen has already been decided by God/fate and cannot be changed. The film utilizes this idea intelligently. The carefully constructed tale that Jane tells the barkeeper is a fascinating narrative that draws the viewer in for most of the adventure. The Spierig Brothers have fashioned a nifty little drama. “The most incredible story you ever heard” is indeed pretty bizarre. Yet the script thinks it’s smarter than it really is. A turn of events in the final third undoes an intelligent account until it becomes almost a parody. I wish I could explain it because it makes me laugh just taking about it, but trust me, it’s pretty ridiculous. Michael & Peter could have manipulated the source material utilizing any method they saw fit. As the resolution is presented here, it doesn’t earn these revelations honestly, but rather in a way that is desperate to shock more than it is trying to tell a coherent tale. True, these time travel sagas never add up upon close scrutiny but this aggressively exploits a gimmick ending. As a result the narrative falls apart to problems that other time travel movies do not. Watch Back to the Future or Looper for the gold standard.

02-20-15

Blue Ruin

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller on February 7, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Blue Ruin photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBlue Ruin had been on my “movies to see” list for the better part of a year. The American independent debuted at the Directors’ Fortnight section at the Cannes Film festival in 2013. It later toured the festival circuit where it racked up accolades in the form of positive word-of-mouth.  It got an extremely limited theatrical release coupled with a simultaneous video on demand (VOD) release in April 2014. DVD release followed in July 2014.

Dwight Evans is a sad sack of a man. He starts off looking like a homeless vagrant. Perhaps a “beach bum” is a more poetic way of describing his situation. He sleeps in a “blue ruin” of a car – a broken down old Pontiac Bonneville. Actor Macon Blair is Dwight, an unknown lead chosen because of his longtime friendship with the director since childhood. That’s not to say the unassuming fellow isn’t well cast because those unpolished qualities perfectly define this character. As the chronicle develops we realize there is much more to this man than meets the eye. For long stretches of this efficient 90 minute thriller, it’s virtually dialogue free. Blair is given some horrific news and he decides to act on this information. He’s a shell of a man, and so we can’t help but care.

A straightforward account of getting even is all this is but it’s imbued with such humanity. We are emotionally wrapped up in the stakes. How will Dwight accomplish what he wants? Can he get away with it? Will he survive? Much has been written about this classic tale of revenge from movie pundits. Some going so far as to mention director Jeremy Saulnier in the same breath as the Coen Brothers. There’s certainly a similarity with the Coens’ debut Blood Simple – that is, extracting dark comedy from a criminal plot. His plan goes horribly wrong in every way that a plan can go wrong. For example, he slashes the tires of his enemy’s car then realizes he must steal that car after leaving his keys at the scene of the crime. That’s tragic, but it’s also funny. when Dwight can’t hit a target that is only 2 feet away, it can relieve some of the tension, even in the most intense situations. The production strikes a nice balance between the two.

Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier understands the viewer should sympathize with the “hero” in order for us to be invested in his plight. You can appreciate Dwight’s emotionally damaged vagabond. I’m not so sure we should be rooting for him, but we do. He has suffered deeply. Now he is tormented by deep sorrow and so he has our sympathy. Yet his quest is made more captivating in the way it’s told, giving the audience pieces to make us root for the protagonist without really knowing everything. Even by the end, we never really know the complete story, just enough to understand what’s happening in the moment. Bursts of violence are used. Blue Ruin occasionally falls victim to excess. More restraint in the bloodshed department would’ve been appreciated. An extended scene where Macon digs an arrow out of his leg is gratuitous in its desire to shock. Storytelling is a craft. Blue Ruin does indeed have an artistic way of telling an uncomplicated tale. It doesn’t revolutionize the genre. It’s a simple saga, artfully told.

02-04-15

The Tale of The Princess Kaguya

Posted in Animation, Drama, Fantasy with tags on February 5, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Tale of The Princess Kaguya photo stars-3_zpsdbd867b4.gifA bamboo cutter find a tiny nymph inside a plant stalk. The child grows at a rapid rate into a beautiful young woman, desired by many. The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is the latest offering from Studio Ghibli. This is rumored to be Director Isao Takahata‘s swan song who hasn’t directed a film since 1999’s My Neighbors the Yamadas. You’re forgiven if you don’t remember that one. He co-founded the legendary Japanese animation house with long-time collaborative partner Hayao Miyazaki. Savvy moviegoers will likewise remember Miyazaki’s farewell The Wind Rises.

The animation is unlike the majority of what is being produced today. The look is reminiscent of the delicate approach of pre-war Japanese watercolor artists.  Hand drawn minimalist style – read unfinished – recalls the preliminary sketch cartoons that Disney commissions before making the actual feature. You know the ones. They’re often featured in the DVD extras in those behind-the-scenes featurettes. It is steadfastly old fashioned when compared with the cartoons of today. In fact the visuals have a traditional quality that make linking it to our contemporary times seem like an anachronism.  Takahata certainly doesn’t rely on comic relief either.  The saga is taken from an ancient Japanese text so it makes the timeless design most appropriate.  The story’s seeming existence in another time and place is one of its most positive attributes.

There is a magical credibility to the drama which is based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a Japanese fable.  Princess Kaguya has moments of genuine poignancy. There are also long stretches where the languid narrative is simply allowed to rest. There’s something admirable about an account that is unconcerned by time.  It’s akin to watching the undulating ripples of a pond. If gazing at the quiet beauty of nature can captivate you for 2 ½ hours this will surely enchant your senses.

The chronicle is a legend full of fanciful flourishes that myths are known to have. Princess Kaguya is a mysterious protagonist compete with a secret back-story like the heroine of any good yarn. However she isn’t a particularly warm person. When her childhood friend Sutemaru is beaten in front of her, she does nothing to help him.  She gives would-be suitors false hope by demanding they fetch items to court her favor. The kicker is she has no interest in any of these men to begin with, so her requests are for impossible to get items. One even dies in the process. At least Kaguya gets depressed about it. At first she seems to praise the simple value of her previous country life over her more exalted existence in the big city, but then the fantastical ending kind of throws that idea out the window. Fairy tales always have a moral and I’m sure this one is no exception. I just have no idea what that is given the bizarre resolution. I still enjoyed The Tale of The Princess Kaguya. It’s different and that’s saying something in today’s cookie cutter world.

02-05-15

Cake

Posted in Drama on February 2, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Cake photo starrating-3stars.jpgClaire is an embittered forty-something struggling with chronic pain as a result of a car accident. She attends a support group for other women dealing with the same issues. One of the group’s members, Nina (Anna Kendrick), has committed suicide and her death is only one of the tragedies with which Claire is trying to deal. There’s another which we don’t discover until much much later into the story. Beware of reviews that spoil this, because it’s a big component of understanding this woman.

First and foremost, Cake is an understated character-driven drama that highlights a really solid portrayal from Jennifer Aniston. Cake garnered Oscar talk at the Toronto Film Festival in September of 2014 when the actress received accolades for her work. Yet the movie debuted to rather mixed reviews in January. The thing is, her performance is indeed very good. I’ll concede it’s bolstered by two things: (1) Her totally unglamorous appearance, including faint scars on her face, and (2) that we are familiar with Jennifer Aniston’s career. A star most identified with the TV show Friends, she has never really stretched beyond the role of playing “woman from Los Angeles” or at least someone who could be from there. (Her role in 2002’s The Good Girl is an exception.) Cake is no different, she’s playing a contemporary woman from southern California. However this time she is able to extract more nuance. The role allows her to downplay her usual lively attitude and exposes a world weary frustration that is so sincere, it seems like an element of her actual personality. Without her enthusiasm to get you to identify with her, she has to work harder to cull the audience‘s emotion.

Cake isn’t a monumental achievement in film. It‘s small, quiet and a little maudlin. What’s admirable about Cake is that it doesn’t feel the need to make its main character warm and fuzzy. She’s a prickly individual damaged by grief and her temperament reflects that. Whether that element is a part of Aniston’s own personality or just something that she uncovered for the role is irrelevant. She is this woman and embodies her with authenticity. She receives strength from Silvana, her hired caregiver. You may remember actress Adriana Barraza from her Oscar nominated role in Babel. Her role is kind of similar here. They even take a trip across the Mexican border. But Silvana provides such genuine warmth that it nicely balances Claire’s understandable irritability with life. Even Sam Worthington turns up in a small role that permits him to act and not simply be the human actor in a special effects-laden spectacle. But in the end, this is Aniston’s picture. She makes you care about this grieving woman and that’s not easy to do.

A Most Violent Year

Posted in Action, Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on January 23, 2015 by Mark Hobin

A Most Violent Year photo starrating-4stars.jpgA Most Violent Year is similarly titled in the same deceptive way that There Will Be Blood was named. Yes it concerns violent acts but it’s nowhere near as bloody as the crime dramas of Martin Scorsese for example. The setting is New York City 1981.  Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) seeks to expand a struggling oil delivery company. There has been a rash of attacks on his drivers. Thieves are hijacking trucks and stealing the oil. Meanwhile he is trying to secure a loan that will help him grow the business.

There’s a familiarity woven into the production. Abel Morales is a character Al Pacino would have portrayed in the 70s. As his wife Anna Morales, Jessica Chastain is channeling early 80s Michelle Pfeiffer style if not the personality. Alright, I’ll admit I’m alluding to Scarface here, but The Godfather is a reference as well. The production kind of suggests the mob mentality of those films but they’re not a good comparison. A Most Violent Year is actually rather elegant. Oscar Isaac resists the impulse to be a hoodlum, despite the temptation. He understands the mobster lifestyle is the road to hell and opts for legally working within the system to rise above the mire of that behavior. He’s steely calm in the face of crisis. His Brooklyn born wife is another story. Jessica Chastain is more gangster than he is. She’s fantastic in this role. I mean we already know the actress can inhabit a part like few of her generation but she steals the spotlight here. Her delivery of lines like “This was very disrespectful” to David Oyelowo’s district attorney conveys so much with just a wave of her finger. In another sequence, the couple accidentally hit a deer in their car on the way home one evening. Chastain owns that scene too.

That’s not to say that Isaac isn’t her equal. As Abel Morales, he’s a charismatic guy that embodies the idea that “success and prosperity are attainable through hard work, determination, and initiative.” There’s an occasion early in A Most Violent Year when businessman Abel is conferring with one of his drivers Julian (Elyes Gabel). The Spanish speaking man starts to talk in his native tongue and Abel corrects him. “In English” he insists. Later he’s trying to get information from Julian’s wife and the exchange is completely in Spanish. It’s a telling moment. Abel has the ability to speak Spanish but he chooses not to unless it’s absolutely necessary. He has fully bought into the American way of life and assimilated into its culture.

A Most Violent Year is an interesting take on the American Dream. Columbian born Abel Morales is not the stereotypical all American boy next door. With his wavy black hair and dark eyes he rocks a camel-hair topcoat with a suave personality to match. Plus he’s got the work ethic that says he’s going places.  The wardrobe is key – so well dressed. The only thing that rivals Abel’s succession of double breasted suits, is Chastain’s seemingly endless wardrobe of outfits. Just try and watch the couple engage a potential investor at dinner and NOT stare at Anna’s plunging neckline. It complements her personality. What I’m really saying is I love the mood of A Most Violent Year. Along with a haunting score by Alex Ebert, Director J.C. Chandor weaves a deep tale of the American Dream that authentically portrays the time period as if it was genuinely filmed in 1981. Chandor has directed 3 critically acclaimed movies to date, and for my money, this is his most entertaining. If he’s reading, “Keep up the great work!  I can’t wait to see what you do next.”

01-22-15

Two Days, One Night

Posted in Drama, Foreign on January 19, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Two Days, One Night photo starrating-3stars.jpgBy now the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, have established themselves as a major force within the Belgian movie industry. They write, produce and direct their pictures together. They’ve been nominated for the Palme d’Or, the top prize at Cannes, SIX times and have actually won twice. Their latest is the French language Two Days, One Night, yet another one of their films that appropriates the aesthetics of directors like Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. The principles of 1940s Italian neorealism is updated to modern day Belgium in a tale that documents one working class woman’s journey to reclaim her job.

Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has suffered a nervous breakdown and has taken a leave of absence. While away, her colleagues pick up her slack by putting in longer hours. In exchange they are promised the hefty bonus of €1000 Euros. Now redundant, Sandra’s ability to return to work hinges on a vote amongst her co-workers. They must agree to either forgo their extra salary so she can be hired back OR keep their compensation and invalidate her position.

Marion Cotillard is a gorgeous woman and she’s naturally pretty here but not the unattainable beauty she often plays in American films. She is a working class mother and wife, dealing with the threat of losing her job. She presents a desperate woman persuading her co-workers to relinquish their bonuses. In this way, the small solar-panel factory where they’re employed, will hire her back. Sandra is not well. She has nightmares during the day, cannot stop crying, and is popping pills at an alarming rate just to stay calm. Cotillard conveys a world weary vulnerability. She is utterly believable as a woman still suffering from serious mental illness.

What isn’t credible is that a company would decide whether to rehire a sick employee back, by placing that decision in the hands of said person’s co-workers . Perhaps this kind of egalitarianism on the job is commonplace in Belgium but in the U.S. there is a distinct hierarchy in the workplace. At any level of responsibility, one reports to a person known as a supervisor and that boss is responsible for making decisions in the best interest of the company. Whether people get hired or fired is not left to one’s peers to decide. The premise is so contrived and far fetched that it makes the nature of the tragedy seem kind of ridiculous. Add to the fact that the entire movie consists of watching a woman, albeit a sympathetic one, beg for her job to one person after another for 90 minutes. Marion Cotillard commands your attention but the drama itself is awkward, demeaning and unpleasantly repetitive.

01-18-15

Mr. Turner

Posted in Biography, Drama, History on January 11, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Mr. Turner photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn Mike Leigh’s world, artist J. M. W. Turner (Timothy Spall) is a buffoon. An uncouth slob who grunts when he’s content and grunts when he’s despondent. An unpleasant beast that possessed a lot of skill but wielded it much in the same way a laborer would paint the walls of a room, with little care for passion or joy. The usual road for a biography such as this would be to present the master as a hero and tempt the audience with his impressive level of talent. There is no question in my mind that Turner was a genius in real life. I’ve seen his art. I knew this going in. What I was expecting was a deeper appreciation for the artist’s craft, technique or style. Oh you silly silly critic, I thought 75 minutes, merely halfway, into this interminable slog. This is a Mike Leigh movie. When has the director ever done what is expected? Unless of course it’s pitching a meandering chronicle with little plot or purpose. Then he sticks to the blueprint with rigid tenacity.

Mike Leigh’s filmmaking method is legendary. His lack of structure is pure catnip to those who worship at the altar of non conformity. In some circles, I suppose that’s the highest compliment I can pay – it’s a Mike Leigh production. The director has long been the cultural zenith for people who hate films that adhere to the norms of storytelling like having a climax or being like, ya know, interesting. Perhaps the lack of preparation has been exaggerated into more of a myth by now. No script. No order. Just a discussion with the actors on where to take the characters. The “story” will happen organically as the actors interact. Only after these improvised acting exercises does the narrative take shape. At least one would hope it comes together. As far as I’m concerned the jury is still out on that.

Mr. Turner spotlights the painter’s final quarter century of life when his more experimental side was being explored. He’s already in his 50s at the beginning of this tale. Leigh’s aim is to offer little vignettes in Turner’s life that almost subvert the traditional biopic. To Leigh’s credit, he doesn’t elevate his subject, so I guess that’s unexpected in a drama detailing the work of a great artist. The director’s focus is to wallow in the depths of a boorish clown – a man more inspired to shag his housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson) than to paint great works of art. His biography could hardly be used as a way to learn about the man. An array of historical figures are paraded before the camera with no regard for establishing who they are or why they‘re important. I learned more information from the first paragraph of Turner’s Wikipedia article than I did from this nearly three hour film. But for those who like some facts, Turner is a preeminent British painter, “the painter of light” noted for his gorgeous landscapes. The production’s biggest merit is the cinematography where several cinematic vistas are captured that do convey the picturesque subjects Turner paints. Unfortunately most of Mr. Turner is a limp portrait presenting a repulsive man that happened to create transcendent art. If that’s Mike Leigh‘s idea of an ironic joke, I’m not laughing.

01-11-15

Force Majeure

Posted in Drama on January 8, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Force Majeure photo starrating-4stars.jpgA Swedish family is on vacation at a luxury resort in the French Alps. They have been skiing on their second day. Husband Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two children Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren), have decided to break for lunch. The four of them are sitting outdoors on the terrace of the resort’s rooftop restaurant, the breathtaking view of the snowy mountain behind them. Suddenly a huge controlled avalanche is seen cascading down the mountain toward them in the distance. It grows ever closer at alarming speed. Watch closely. What happens next will shake Ebba to her core. Their relationship will never be the same.

Force majeure is a French phrase literally meaning “superior force“. It’s a legal provision used in contracts as well. A ‘force majeure’ clause outlines the extreme conditions under which one or both parties may be freed from obligation or liability. These events include but are not limited to acts of God, war, riots, strikes, etc. The title is clever because it relates to the physical force of an avalanche but it also suggests the institution of marriage as defined by a contract.

Force Majeure is a sharp, unsettling take on a marriage. The uncomfortably long takes, the static shots, the chilly milieu – everything about Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s work reminded me of the style of Michael Haneke, in particular his 2005 drama Caché. Dare I say that Östlund’s production even exceeds the Austrian director’s work? It has an ending at least. Granted the movie would’ve benefited from some judicious editing – a few less seemingly unnecessary scenes. Nevertheless the chronicle is artfully composed. And the music! The fervent Summer finale from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, rendered on an accordion no less, is a heart-pounding musical flourish that highlights the intensity of the production. The cannons go off above the ski slopes of the Alpine Valley . They’re supposed to trigger controlled avalanches, Early on, one in particular sets the events in motion. Let me tell you, the snowslide is a stunning piece of cinematic destruction. The camera still. It does not move, capturing in frightening detail the natural disaster that transpires. That cruel twist of fate throws a wrench into their well-to-do, idyllic lives of privilege. At the beginning husband Tomas is a handsome and fit alpha male posing with his beautiful wife and kids. Near the end, he’s on the floor sobbing, exhibiting the most pathetic man-cry ever manifested on film.

Force Majeure is Sweden’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film. As of this writing it hasn’t even been nominated, but given how good it is, I’d say it’s a pretty sure thing. What makes Force Majeure so compelling is the very immediacy of it all. In less than a minute, a horrific avalanche prompts a split second reaction. Ah but the lasting effects, trigger the gradually eroding bond of Tomas and Ebba‘s marriage. We witness the couple’s discussions, their awkward silences, the recounting of what happened, their uncontrolled arguments in front of friends and random hotel workers, the children’s rising anxiety. We watch uncomfortably at the sidelines. The camera captures everything in raw, unblinking detail. We are but a helpless observer. We can do nothing. But we can put ourselves in their place and question how we would react. Surely heroism and bravery are the qualities to which we aspire. Man is the protector, right? But when do survival instincts kick in? Force Majeure does a brilliant job at presenting the disintegration of a marriage, but it goes much deeper because it presents questions for the audience. The philosophical narrative will make you internally question how you would react while you outwardly profess your chivalry. It will prompt discussion. The subject won’t be forgotten and neither will this movie.

01-03-15

Selma

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on January 2, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Selma photo starrating-4stars.jpgSelma begins with a bang – literally – showing the horrific 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. That terrorist act by white supremacists became a catalyst in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement – a spiritual wake up call. The quiet solitude of pretty little girls in their Sunday best, interrupted by the deafening blast is a frightening crime that hangs in the viewer’s mind. It’s an inflammatory start that incites anger over the attack on innocent life. Selma recounts the three protest marches that traveled the 54 mile highway from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery. These were to challenge segregationist policies designed to keep black people from exercising their right to vote.

David Oyelowo is the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He is impassioned yet understated and utterly believable as the heartfelt orator. His addresses to the masses have all the influence you’d expect from an individual responsible for one of the most famous speeches we still quote. Yet his “I Have a Dream” speech never appears here. No Selma concerns the movement King spearheaded that contributed to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. A big part of the film is the relationship between President Lyndon B. Johnson (a memorable Tom Wilkinson) and Dr. King. The reverend exhorts Johnson to sign the proposed legislation into law. The provisions of which abolished the poll tax and other means of keeping blacks and poor people from voting. The Civil Rights Act of 1960 was already in place but King argued it didn’t go far enough. Their back and forth negotiations in the political halls are an interesting and sometimes depressing window into the deal making of the political process. His backroom sparring of words with the President are captivating.

Dr. King is aware that Alabama, under the leadership of Governor George Wallace, had a poor reputation when it came to civil rights. If Johnson comes across as more of a troublesome stumbling block that King needs to convince, George Wallace is the unrepentant racist devil that with whom King cannot reason. The pro-segregationist policies of the governor largely credited by his critics for creating an atmosphere of intolerance. King courts the cruelest nature of man with his civil disobedience. He understands that gentle protests confronted with the expected violent response will show the American populace the need for change. Indeed the first march ends with 600 peaceful citizens attacked by state and local police with batons and tear gas. It’s a galvanizing scene of epic proportions. The result has the desired effect. The horrific sight resounds as a call to action to every God-fearing churchgoer watching TV in the comfort of their own home. The demographics of the next march joining Dr. King is now a mixture of both black and white Americans from near and far.

David Oyelowo is mesmerizing at Martin Luther King, Jr. However it is important to note that the title of director Ava DuVernay’s movie is Selma and not King. For this is not a biography of the man but a chronicle of the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. The narrow focus affords the story the consideration needed to handle the detailed issues involved. The account does justice to a very specific moment. The narrative even details the various infighting amongst fellow protestors that don’t always agree with King’s methods. These are enthusiastic people and their passions frequently engage the audience. The drama judiciously extracts raw anger at the trampling of freedoms we take for granted. It’s hard not to get caught up in the blatant disregard for human rights. The police brutality on display resonates even more strongly today. It’s almost impossible to ignore how perfectly this tale corresponds with recent events. The story couldn’t come at a more appropriate time. It makes Selma an even more powerful film.

12-15-14

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