Sunday, January 18, 2015

Movie Review: Selma

Movie: Selma
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson

With a brilliant cast, masterful cinematography, and superb direction by DuVernay, Selma is both a rousing tribute to a crucial event in the Civil Rights Movement and a spectacular character study in context, where Oyelowo’s gripping portrayal of Dr. King more than makes up for any of the film’s minor flaws.

In depth:
Crafting a fictionalized account out of historic events is always a challenge, especially when it comes to the Civil Rights movement.  The horrors described in Selma are still recent memory for those who lived it, and as with anything concerning race and discrimination, most moviegoers arrive with strong and deeply felt opinions on the matter.  And yet despite these hurdles, director Ava DuVernay managed to create a powerful and haunting docudrama that does justice to the horrors of the period without losing focus on the drama side of the equation, and in the process painted a riveting portrait of Dr. King and his comrades.  This delicate balance - of staying true to the actual occurrences without becoming what amounts to a failed documentary - is deftly handled by all parties involved, and the end result is nothing short of spectacular.

The cinematography is a crucial component to the film’s effectiveness; from the in medias res opening, where King’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize is juxtaposed to the tense build-up and tragic outcome of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, to the stirring speech given at the end, the story was enhanced and supported by the smart choices of cinematographer Bradford Young.  When filming in this genre, it’s all too easy to succumb to shooting it as if it were a documentary - complete with an unvarying camera angles and mock-up “interviews.”  Young eschews the well-worn path and instead puts focus on the emotional gravitas of his subjects, panning the camera out to capture the momentous “Bloody Sunday” event on Edmund Pettus Bridge, or zooming in for an intimate look at the vulnerability and uncertainty of the Civil Rights leaders in discussion of their next move - all done with consistency and without overwhelming the viewer.  

Of course, even the best cinematography would be just a tacky light show without strong actors to shine upon, and Selma definitely delivers a barrage of powerful performances, especially David Oyelowo in the central role of Dr. King.  While he was, admittedly, a surprising choice for lead,  he proved more than capable, igniting the screen with a galvanizing display of acting prowess.  As King, Oyelowo depicted both his power as a speaker, and his savvy social and political maneuvering; Oyelowo was equally comfortable at the preacher’s podium and in the White House before President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), pressuring the reticent politician to put a voting rights bill for African-Americans into action.  But for all his charisma and moral power, King is also a flawed and beleaguered  man, surprisingly vulnerable and torn between family responsibilities, his Civil Rights commitments, and his growing need to speak for the dispossessed of all races.  To that capacity, Oyelowo really shines, adding heartfelt humanity to a figure so often shrouded in myth by admirers and detractors alike.  King’s marital problems (including a tasteful yet pointed nod to his indiscretions), his insecurity over the success of his endeavors, and the despair on his face when he actually fails are all conveyed with clarity by Oyelowo, accompanied by Young’s stellar camera-fu, and quite unlike any depiction of the great man except possibly the American Experience documentary “Citizen King.”

While Oyelowo’s performance is the standout, the rest of the cast did a fine job of breathing life into their historical roles.  Special mention goes to Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King; while somewhat out-of-focus for the majority of the film - especially compared to her renowned public actions of later years -  she is nonetheless a continued and powerful presence, and is practically the locus of her husband's  humanization.  The interpretation of their marriage as close but permeated with a subtle tension drove home just how vulnerable King and his movement was to the workings of the human heart, and should be a blueprint for any movie striving to show the difficulty in reconciling life at home with the ambitions of a higher calling.  One particularly memorable scene - arguably the best in the whole movie -  showed how the continued threats and harassment the FBI and others inflicted upon Mrs. King and their children placed considerable strain on a relationship already on the rocks.  As his besieged wife gave a firm but quiet admonishing of how badly their home life had been affected by their Civil Rights crusade, King could only sit helplessly in his chair, enshrouded in the low light of the living room, completely open to a most timely onslaught.  The impact of this scene - in communicating the vulnerability of a man and a movement whose ultimate triumph was far from inevitable  - was the end result of all cinematic elements coalescing in near-perfect unity to exemplify the very best traits of this movie.

Obviously, any biopic or docudrama is open to the charge of historical inaccuracy, and Selma is no different, with most of the controversy swirling around its treatment of Lyndon B. Johnson.  While Wilkinson’s performance as an overstretched and weary politician with noble intents of his own design was a pleasure to watch, I was also uncomfortable with how the film played up the antagonism between him and King.  In reality, Johnson was relatively close to the Civil Rights icon despite their occasional disagreements, viewing him as an essential part in the construction of his Great Society.  While I don’t believe that a strict, by-the-letter adherence to historical source material is a necessary or even desirable aim for a docudrama, I question the choice to have Johnson descend into obstructionism on purely creative grounds, as the film had enough villains to carry the plot - Sheriff Jim Clark and Governor George C. Wallace, for instance, with the latter serving as both a better foil to King and a better representation of the corrupt institutions that enabled racism to thrive.  Although you can make the argument that Johnson's antagonism shows how institutions can fuel oppression without overt racism or even belligerence, a more true-to-life depiction would have added to the considerable nuance of the movie and really illustrate how two men, both pursuing separate but equally noble goals, can place an obstacle before any worthy cause if either fails to see the bigger picture.

Still, this and every other flaw in Selma are minor inconveniences at most, and fail to take away from its power.  As a humanizing biopic, a docudrama with modern relevance, and as a cinematic master stroke, Selma succeeds beyond all measure and carries its strengths up to and beyond its closing credits,  This is one of the few movies made in the past year that might just have you choked up in the end - not because of any cynical manipulation of sentiment, but simply due to the force and meaning of its message and the skill by which it's delivered.


Thursday, January 8, 2015

January 2015 Releases and Premieres

January Releases 

I know the first week of the month's already past, but I thought I'd share a few links showing what's coming out over the remainder of the month:



Sunday, January 4, 2015

Movie Review: The Interview

Movie: The Interview
Directed by: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
Starring: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Randall Park

The Interview managed to survive the stormy political intrigue that threatened to suffocate it, but despite the surprising likability of it’s two male leads and a near-brilliant performance from Randall Park as Kim Jong-un, the film’s torturously-long comedic sequences and muddled direction ultimately prevents it from being anything more than average.

The Interview has been out for over a week now, so I’m probably more than a little late to the party.  To be honest, were this any other movie I probably wouldn’t have bothered with a review to begin with.  Despite this, I strongly believe that it deserves one - and not for any of the hollow claims of “patriotic duty” that’s been flung around the Internet lately.  Rather, I think the film really deserves a fair and honest review - one apart from the politics and jingoistic fervor, and without a preconceived sense of what it should have been according to one armchair sociologist or another.  See my “Interview analysis” post if you want my take on the royal mess this movie’s made over the past few months, but right now, I'll keep the focus where it belongs - on how well The Interview works by its own merits, and nothing more.  This may well be an impossible task, but I intend to give it my best.

The story should be familiar to anyone with pulse by now. Franco and Rogen play manic celebrity talk show host David Skylark and his down-to-earth producer Aaron Rapoport, respectively, who, following Aaron’s sudden existential angst born of a run in with a former classmate-turn “serious journalist,” decide to cap off their thousandth-episode by landing an interview with their most high-profile fan: the Supreme Leader of North Korea himself, Kim Jong-un.  Unfortunately, their plans get hijacked by the CIA, who want to use this opportunity to “take out” the young tyrant once and for all.  Adding to the mix is Sook, North Korea’s Director of Communications, who has an agenda of her own regarding our two witless would-be assassins.   And, as the saying goes, “hilarity ensues.”  We’re going to ignore the excuse plot, as well as the ridiculous and implausibly convenient premise; this is a Rogen/Goldberg production, after all, where suspension of disbelief isn’t just a requirement - it’s a commandment.  The real thing of note here is the surprisingly able showing by Franco as the perverted, pop-culture talking, slightly racist, and generally moronic Skylark.  While I’m normally not a big fan of Franco’s acting, I must admit that he did a fine job with his portrayal of a character that probably looked absolutely horrid on paper.  Despite Skylark’s obligatory stupidity and off-the-cuff references to brown sugar, honeydicking, and “stank dick,” (there is a context for those, but I’d rather not delve any further) he is also a good friend to Aaron and possesses an amazing degree of empathy - or at least, to the extent allowed by an intentionally-offensive comedy.  Rogen’s Rapoport almost fades into the background in comparison, serving strictly as a hyper-thin foil to the much-more interesting Skylark.  While Rogen’s character is more firmly tethered to the “plot,” such as it is, it was Skylark that kept the first 45 minutes of the movie tolerable and even enjoyable at times.

The real acting heavyweight, though, belongs to Randall Park and  his rendition of Kim Jong-un.  While the script initially called for a militant depiction of the Great Dictator, Park wisely choose  a softer, more subtle tract, elevating the character from what would have undoubtedly been a cliche to the most nuanced performance in the film.  Park’s Kim successfully blends sympathy with terror, coming off as a funny, cigar-smoking, pop culture fanboy with daddy issues before switching to a dangerously violent psychopath at the proper provocation.  Even when told that Kim Jong is a master manipulator of the press, it’s still hard not to be drawn in by his seemingly disarming and self-effacing manner, and Park’s quality acting - which, in my  opinion, would have stood out even in a more “serious” movie - made the sudden mood transitions logical and the ending interview with Skylark more believable (relatively speaking) than they would have been otherwise.

But of course, no one comes to see a movie like The Interview for its acting chops; we want to laugh, and it’s in this area - very unfortunate for, you know, a comedy - that it falls somewhat flat.  The usual Rogen/Goldberg fare is on full display:  penis jokes, pop-culture references, and the blatant homoerotic (sub)text prevalent in bromances aimed at 30-something males, so anyone watching only for the lowest comedy denominator surely  got a few chuckles out of it.   However, the usual sharp dialogue and keen timing are noticeably absent, replaced instead by cliches and long comedic sequences that take up significant portions of screen time.  One particularly painful episode stemmed from an act of stupidity on the part of Franco and blossomed into a 10-minute long scene of Rogen crawling through the North Korean undergrowth at night, narrowly avoiding tiger attacks, and having to resort to hiding a tapered missile in his anus to avoid detection from Kim Jong's guards.  While that whole thing isn’t exactly an Oscar-worthy showcase, the problem is not so much with the scene itself as with its length; 10 minutes is a long time to endure a moronic set up for a spy outing, several bad anal sex jokes, and the continued and puzzling confusion of a tiger for a large dog.  Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s also integral to other forms of humor, and those 10 minutes lost could have been better spent  elsewhere - even if only to give more bathroom jokes in a different context.  When you stretch a gag out too long, you lose the humor along the way, and what had  been up to that point a decently-paced bit of comedic torture starts to feel more like actual torture - and I’m amazed comedy veterans like Rogen and Goldberg forgot that simple truth while making it.

Then again, it’s hard to know what, if anything, The Interview’s creators would have put in place of these comedic wastelands, since the film seemed patently unsure of what kind of movie it wanted to be.  Many of its most vocal defenders and “anti-critics” claim that it shouldn’t be judged by it merits as a smart political satire because it isn’t one, and never had aspirations to be anything more than a silly blue comedy.  I beg to differ; I believe the film did have some aspirations towards relevant satire - in addition to silly slapstick, with a bit of entertainment mass media parody thrown in.  This attempt to wear multiple hats is, in fact, the movies gravest and most damning sin, and the one to ultimately banish it to the dustbin of mediocrity.  The development of Director Sook is a major part of the blame here, for despite a competent effort by actress Diana Bang - arguably the best after Randall Park - her character, by introducing an alternate plan to bring Kim Jong-un down nonviolently by breaking him on television and invalidating his claims to godhood among his people, added a level of potential seriousness that, by this point, the audience wasn’t willing to buy.  The overly-long joke scenes and massive exposure of Kim Jong-un were all done in support of a storyline whose ultimate culmination was...what, exactly?  A maudlin display of affection that capstones the film’s media parody? A real attempt to address North Korea’s serious humanitarian problems?  Or just a great big good-natured mess that completely overturns any potential for biting satire?  The answer -  without giving anything away to the two or three of you who have yet to see the ending - is all three; The Interview by the end completely embraces its schizophrenic tendencies, and in the process falls short of either moving satire, tongue-in-cheek parody, or even convincing toilet humor.    

None of this is to say that The Interview is a bad movie.  So long as you have adjusted expectations, it can be an enjoyable and surprisingly clever experience.  It’s the lack of commitment at the heart of its story that really weighs it down; had it worn any one of its “hats” with full confidence (and yes, that includes even the slapstick, gross-out one) it would probably have a higher rating, especially with the surprising strength of its characters.  As it stands, the movie’s befuddlement subtracts from all quarters, and despite the outcry swarming around it, I would be surprised if anyone- friend or foe - remembers it a year from now.

Grade: C

Thursday, January 1, 2015

"The Interview," Propaganda, and the Power of Art (PS: Happay New Year!)

Unless you were living under a rock last week,  you probably know all about the buzz drumming on the media airwaves regarding the whole “ Interview” debacle (those of you who have been under rock can catch a summary of the whole sordid affair here).  While this is old news in most quarters, and I’d prefer to reserve an extended discussion on the movie itself for my review, I would like to note that although I applaud Sony’s decision to ultimately give the film its due release, the conglomerate rightly got a sound spanking from the media for its initial choice to pull the plug.  I’d rather ignore the usual round of “whodunnits-and-why” extrapolation, since other avenues have provided that angle with a substantial amount of coverage as is. Rather, I’d like to examine how  this story illustrates yet again the power and paradox of the creative media, and its impact - whether through book, film, or visual representation - on the minds of those who ponder its meaning.

In a perfect world, this lesson would need no reiteration, since history is littered with the metaphysical wreckage left behind by one creative whirlwind or another.  Think Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or The Jungle;  even if you’ve never read either book,  no one can deny the impact each has had on how slavery and industrial dehumanization, respectively, are viewed in America.  Yet despite this recognized influence across time, it’s often hard for writers, playwrights, and movie makers to get any respect from either politicians or paragons of “practical” industry .  This is not a matter of measuring the quality or merit of a particular work and finding it wanting.  Rather, it’s about whole segments of the human population who believe that any piece of fiction, however serious or lauded,  is fundamentally trivial, frivolous, and a waste of time.

The irony is that these perpetual pooh-poohers are often the very first to take up arms whenever these “trivial” arts do anything to upset their sensibilities.  The paradox of art’s power is that it’s simultaneously impotent and dangerous in the minds of ruling elites.  “Good art” is a nice moment’s distraction - or it’s an incendiary ready to destroy the status quo.  “Bad art” is an awful waste to be soon forgotten - or its a corrupting influence that must be bottled at all costs.  Whether good or bad, whether  popular or unpopular, those who fear art’s ability to seep into the skull and shape minds in an uncontrollable fashion usually find it more comforting to clothe the whole enterprise in insignificance.

These layers of self-deceit become complicated when a film like “The Interview” suddenly thrusts itself onto the national stage.  While the goofy, gross-out comedy centered around the assassination of North Korea’s supreme leader (read: dictator) is unlikely to be hailed as the next Citizen Kane, the hoopla surrounding its release was far outsized for a movie of any stature.  In the West, it became a clarion call for the Free Speech truckers, with everyone from author George R.R. Martin to the President himself criticizing Sony’s timidity.  Meanwhile, North Korea was willing to use military force in order to keep the movie out of its borders.  Big fuss for such a frivolous comedy film, right?  

Wrong.  North Korea, like most oppressive regimes, fully understands the subtle power of the arts; they are, after all, the primary vehicles of propaganda, which is really just creative fiction with an agenda, even when masquerading as “truth”.  The most insidious element of propaganda’s influence is just how many people don’t take it seriously  - after all, it’s just a war movie, just a Reconstruction Era film, just a painting.  And yet the very act of dismissing propaganda as harmless grants it a doorway into our minds and our hearts.  The thing is, while you can force someone to follow an order, you cannot force them to believe anything - like, say, the larger-than-life status of their “supreme leader”.  But with a fully functional propaganda machine in place, you can plant the seed of an idea even in the most resistant of minds, for while a persistent rebel can reject and protest any attempt at coercion, this modus operandi is not as effective against a siege on your mind.  You can sneer at the latest government-backed “documentary” on the greatness of the nation, crumble the newspaper extolling why your leader is practically God on Earth, and convince yourself that it’s all just propaganda swill.  Fiction masquerading as truth.  Bad art.  But since you can’t take up arms against a movie or a painting, the contrarian is usually left with no other recourse than to sit back and watch these fictions sprout around him and even within him.

It’s a very effective system, but it has one caveat for the would-be dictator: doubt can spread just as easily along the same channels.  This is way North Korea is willing to mount a military defense against “The Interview”; while I sincerely doubt the movie would spawn a legion of vigilantes gunning for Kim Jong-un’s head, the fact that no one can predict the type and magnitude of its effect is exactly what scares oppressive regimes everywhere.   To elites in the (so-called) free world, the triviality of the arts is a comforting fiction to soften the blow for when an Uncle Tom’s Cabin occasionally upsets business as usual. But for nations like North Korea, this same triviality is part of the psychological artillery used against their own people, and they’ll be damned if they let a silly foreign movie upset their delicate acts of manipulation.

I believe that this whole incident with “The Interview” will soon die down, and everything will go back to “normal.”  However, I do hope that a recognition of the power of the arts could linger just a little longer in the national imagination, as well as an understanding in elites everywhere - in both “free” and “unfree” nations - that their fortunes can rise or fall on the propagation of a simple, even silly, unrestrained idea.