Talking Movies

February 5, 2015

Selma

Selma brings to vivid life the struggle for civil rights in 1965 Alabama with a fiery performance from David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr.

SELMA

Four schoolgirls are murdered in a church bombing in Selma. Any prospect for justice is defeated by the refusal of Registrar (Clay Chappell) to allow people like Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) to register to vote (on ever shifting sands of spurious tests), thereby ensuring all-white juries. And so MLK (Oyelowo) rolls into town to whip up a mass demonstration to pressure LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) to put aside the Great Society and pass a Voting Rights Act instead. Little does he know that as well as facing the obvious threat of Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), his henchman Col. Al Lingo (Stephen Root), and the vicious Selma Sheriff Jim Clark (Stanley Houston), he will face the shadowy threat of J Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) attempting to turn King’s wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) against him. Can MLK stay the course?

Oyelowo oozes charisma as he delivers three set-piece speeches during this film. But he also shows us a vulnerable side to King; riven by guilt over the deaths of protestors drawn by his rhetoric, self-doubt about whether his leadership will achieve civil rights, and shame at his infidelities. The other black leaders Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), James Orange (Omar J Dorsey), James Bevel (Common), Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), John Lewis (Stephan James), James Forman (Trai Byers), Rev. Williams (Wendell Pierce), and Rev. Vivian (Corey Reynolds), are, perhaps inevitably, less particularised; but the ensemble is equal to the challenge laid down by Oyelowo’s lead performance. Selma is especially interesting when it explores conflict between these men; with egoism and principle equally important in arguments over leadership and non-violence; and when Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) arrives in town.

But Selma has heavy baggage. Director Ava DuVernay’s Oscar snub is not that outrageous. Even if she did rewrite Paul Webb’s script as much as claimed she’d deserve a nod only for writing. The ones hard done by are Oyelowo and cinematographer Bradford Young; who once again does extraordinary things with warm shadows in MLK’s intimate moments of doubt. But the depiction of LBJ, as uninterested in civil rights and conniving at J Edgar sending a sex-tape to Coretta, has been hauled over the coals by Maureen Dowd, and her central charge; “Filmmakers love to talk about their artistic license to distort the truth, even as they bank on the authenticity of their films to boost them at awards season”; rings uncomfortably true. Rather David O Russell’s ‘Some of this actually happened’ than claiming your fictions are truer than history.

Selma is an extremely moving, often upsetting, chronicle of an extraordinary event, powered by a magnificent lead performance, but it’s not history and must be taken with much salt.

3.5/5

January 23, 2015

A Most Violent Year

1981 was the worst year on record for violent crime in New York City, and that threat hangs over director JC Chandor’s absorbing period drama.

A-Most-Violent-Year-5

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is a driven entrepreneur in the business of supplying the oil that gets New York thru its winters. He is buying a coveted piece of real estate from a Hasidic dynasty, but needs an awful lot of money to cover the sale or he loses his huge deposit and the tract of land; and with it the chance to trump his rivals. But things are unravelling. The government in the form of Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is ready to indict his business practices, somebody – possibly his rivals Peter Forente (Alessandro Nivola) and Gleen Fleshler (Arnold Klein) – are hijacking his trucks and stealing his oil, his protégé Julian (Elyes Gabel) has been severely injured in one of these jackings, and Teamster Peter Gerety (Bill O’Leary) is threatening a strike if Abel doesn’t arm his vulnerable fleet of drivers.

A Most Violent Year despite the menacing title isn’t a violent film. But from the outset, when you realise that driving a truck thru a toll-booth can lead to getting jumped, it has an unnerving tension. JC Chandor sets his film in 1981 New York, and seemingly sets out to replicate the 1970s New Hollywood in doing so. Frank G DeMarco who shot Chandor’s previous films Margin Call and All is Lost with a crisp clarity is replaced as cinematographer by Bradford Young. I raved about Young’s atmospheric under-lighting of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and here he channels 1970s DP Gordon Willis (aka Prince of Darkness) for rich, underlit interiors of browns and dark gold. And if certain scenes look like The Godfather then Oscar Isaac is on the same wavelength as a certain Pacino quality comes off his performance.

But this is Michael Corleone determined to remain on the straight and narrow. Abel’s wife Anna (Jessica Chastain in 1980s mobster moll mode) is the daughter of a connected man, but Abel is adamant that he wants to win by staying clean. Such morality confuses his attorney Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks), who foresees disaster if Abel doesn’t learn to play dirty in a bent town. The control on display by writer/director Chandor is intimidating. This is a very precise film. Even action scenes, like a thrilling truck chase in a tunnel, feel exacting; and a foot-chase along a spaghetti junction with a steadicam recalls Marathon Man. But, as with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, there’s a point at which this Biskind-led valorisation of New Hollyood becomes crippling. How can you make it new, as Pound demanded of art, if you’re in thrall to making it like they did in 1975?

Chandor is an intriguing film-maker – he’s made three films, all wildly different, but each time characterised by singular vision.

4/5

June 6, 2012

Red Tails

George Lucas produces and semi-directs a pet project about the heroism of the black fighter pilots of the Tuskagee Squadron in WWII’s segregated US Airforce.

Nate Parker’s earnest Marty ‘Easy’ Julian leads a rag-tag band of fighter pilots on low-rent missions over Italy attacking German transport trains. His best friend and most insubordinate officer is Joe ‘Lightning’ Little (Rise of the POTA’s David Oyelowo), the best pilot in the squadron but given to glory-hunting manoeuvres. Samuel ‘Joker’ George (Elijah Kelley) is, surprisingly given his moniker, the sensible one, while Ray ‘Junior’ Gannon (90210’s Tristan Wilds) is the youngster aching to be renamed ‘Gamma Ray’. Their commander Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard) faces down official racism at the Pentagon from Colonel William Mortamus (a cameoing Bryan Cranston) in his battle to secure better planes and more prestigious missions for his segregated Tuskagee Squadron. But can his men, wrestling with their own personal demons, live up to the strain of acting as paragons for their race?

Lucas started developing this movie in the late 1980s. Anthony Hemingway finally filmed John Ridley’s script only for Lucas to direct reshoots of new material written by Aaron MacGruder (creator of The Boondocks). Sadly MacGruder’s acerbity is hard to spot whereas Lucas’ trademark saturation CGI is everywhere. There are numerous set-pieces in this film that would be very exciting if not for their complete air of unreality. If you’re watching a patently fake plane dive-bomb a patently fake train traversing a patently fake landscape your mind has already checked out, and that’s the opening sequence… Easy’s occasional struggle with alcoholism and Lightning’s implausible engagement to an Italian woman (NCIS: LA’s Daniela Ruah) despite their inability to communicate across their linguistic divide exemplify the script’s weakness. The much debated historical inaccuracies then undermine the worthy rationale of this venture.

There are some nice touches, like Jaime King’s voice floating over the camp as Axis Mary, and the much feared new Messchersmit jet-planes roaring into the fray like sci-fi creations, but the actors are better than the material. Ne-Yo as the guitar-picking ‘Smoky’ and Wire star Andre Royo as the long-suffering mechanic ‘Coffee’ offer fine comic relief, Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr as his right-hand man are nicely authoritative, and Lee Tergesen and Gerald McRaney offer nicely counterpointed turns as the Colonel pushing racial equality and the purely pragmatic Lt Gen who offers a prestigious mission guarding bombers on the strict condition that, unlike the white pilots they’re replacing, they forego all chance of dogfight glory and protect the bombers. The film loses all momentum in its third act, before Lars Van Riesen’s absurdly comic-book Nazi villain ‘Pretty Boy’ attacks to provide a rousing finale that’s sadly familiar.

Red Tails is not worth a trip to the cinema, but it’s a very watchable film that will fit comfortably into Sunday afternoon TV schedules.

2.5/5

August 9, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

James Franco, as smugly self-satisfied as ever, develops a cure for Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately he also manages to bring about the apocalypse. Dude… Not cool.

This movie has been almost destroyed by its unusually long TV spots, which added to the cinema trailers that consisted solely of plot points and thematic statements masquerading as dialogue, leaves precious few surprises for cinema viewing. Franco’s scientist makes a breakthrough on a drug which repairs cognitive functioning in one chimpanzee, however, when she runs amok the entire research programme is canned. Everyone’s favourite slacker Tyler Labine doesn’t have the heart to put down the baby that chimpanzee had been protecting and so gives it to a reluctant Franco. Franco raises it at home where he discovers that it has inherited the effects of the drug, resulting in super-intelligence. Eventually he decides to test the drug on his own Alzheimer’s stricken father Charles (John Lithgow). Frieda Pinto’s vet warns him about messing with nature, but he convinces his boss Jacobs (a nicely cavalier David Oyelowo) to allow him develop an even more potent strain…

There are similarities with this week’s other chimpanzee release Project Nim, as Caesar is raised in a human setting, and shown using sign language and displaying very human traits, before his increasing viciousness sees him abruptly removed to live with chimpanzees who ostracise him. But this is a wild animal, a point made needlessly nastily when Caesar very deliberately bites off and eats a man’s fingers when attacking the angry next-door neighbour to protect a confused Charles. Caesar’s incarceration is interesting as Caesar is subjected to humiliation as the new inmate before using his superior intelligence to rise up the food-chain. It’s like watching Audiard’s A Prophet in a zoo. I’ve said it before but Andy Serkis is an unappreciated marvel as he does so much acting work in motion-capture. His performance as Caesar is wonderfully nuanced; you can see in his eyes the dawning of responsibility for his fellow less smart primates. John Lithgow does wonders with the material he’s given, though his transformation from mangling ‘Clair de Lune’ to concert pianist as the Alzheimer’s drug works is tasteless in its emotional manipulation. Characterisation isn’t this film’s strong point though. Frieda Pinto in particular has a barely written character.

There are a number of deliriously showy moments by director Rupert Wyatt, such as the montage of Caesar climbing a giant redwood that takes us thru 5 years in about a minute (please copy Terrence Malick), a panning shot thru a building as the apes rampage thru office space before tumbling onto the street, Jacobs entering a deserted building and not noticing what’s above him (a homage to The Birds), and a delightfully Spielbergian touch in the first arrival of the evolved primates in San Francisco being conveyed by a sudden gentle rain of loose leaves onto the joggers on a suburban road. Other highlights are an iconic line from the 1968 original, a hilarious moment when the signing circus orangutan gives the raspberry to Caesar’s grandiose plans, and a startlingly well-staged action finale on the Golden Gate Bridge.

This is a vast improvement on Tim Burton’s 2001 disaster but while it features a number of showy moments, and a nicely choreographed finale, the shallowness of characterisation holds it back.

2.5/5

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