Selma

January 9, 2015 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo
Directed by: Ava DuVernay (“Middle of Nowhere”)
Written by: Paul Webb (debut)

As such an important figure in the history of the United States, it is equal parts incredible and perplexing to think that there has yet to be a biopic of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. First out of the gate, however, is Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” and despite a few roadblocks in production, her film feels very much worth the wait.

In 1965, African Americans were legally allowed to vote, yet many in the South were still facing unfair restrictions as they tried to register. Unable to get President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass a law prohibiting these unfair voting restrictions, civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and other members of his movement decide to organize a march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama as the culmination of a series of dangerous protests.

Any discussion of “Selma” starts and ends with David Oyelowo’s electric portrayal of Dr. King. As magnetic as any performance this year, Oyelowo completely embodies King, bringing life, nuance, and often times subtlety to a larger-than-life figure. Oyelowo is, of course, at his absolute finest when he is delivering energetic and intense speeches, yet there are smaller moments such as a scene with the father of a member of the movement who has been killed that really show the depth of performance. As his foil, a hard-edged Wilkinson makes for a great LBJ, stonewalling King in his quest for legislation.

In an interesting wrinkle, the rights to King’s actual speeches reside with another studio and were not able to be purchased by the filmmakers of “Selma.” As such, director DuVernay was tasked with re-writing King’s speeches for the film. Her work is exceptional, as she is able to skirt by copyright law and give the character rousing material sounding exactly like King’s actual speeches. Of course, it helps to have Oyelowo giving her words such dramatic weight.

Though largely coincidental, “Selma” happens to be a film that is incredibly timely. Moviegoers will undoubtedly notice parallels between what they’ve seen on TV from Ferguson, Missouri and the events of the film, especially as police launch tear gas at protestors. If nothing else, the comparisons reinforce the still reverberating racial tension that reached a fever pitch in the most intense sequences of “Selma” and carry on through the country today.

By focusing on just the voting rights marches, screenwriter Paul Webb successfully avoids one of the most common pitfalls of biopics, which is casting too big of a net and spanning too much of a subjects life. In keeping things condensed, Webb’s story is able to resonate deeper and leads to a clean and powerful story arc. Anchored by Oyelowo’s performance, “Selma” is the rare Hollywood biopic that is as raw as it is polished and powerful, making it one of the better civil rights movies in recent memory.

Belle

May 22, 2014 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson
Directed by: Amma Asante (“A Way of Life”)
Written by: Misan Sagay (“The Secret Laughter of Women”)

In the last couple of years, films like “Lincoln” and “12 Years a Slave” have given some important historical context to the subject of slavery in the U.S. and the steps it took to eradicate and overcome it post-Civil War. That shameful part of history, however, was not exclusive to America as we see in “Belle,” a beautifully-shot true-life story set in England where one courageous woman attempts to understand where she fits in society since both her rank and ethnicity seem to contradict each other.

In “Belle,” actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as the title character, the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy admiral (Matthew Goode) who is called back out to sea and decides to leave his motherless young child in the hands of her wealthy great uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), and his wife (Emily Watson) despite their initial objection. As Belle grows up, she finds herself stuck in a sort of no man’s land of social status. While Belle’s lineage gives her privileges, she is not allowed, for example, to dine with the family when they have company or be matched with a suitor of equal rank because of the controversy it may stir up.

While much of “Belle” follows along the same path as most Jane Austen-inspired costume dramas, it’s not all that makes up this exquisite era piece. Sure, Belle is just as desperate to find a man as any of the Bennett sisters (although she hides it fairly well), but there’s more to this heroine than a fairy-tale ending. She knows there are more pressing issues in the world than finding the ideal husband. When she meets aspiring lawyer and abolitionist John Davinier (Sam Reid), she is introduced to a host of cases (in particular, one where a slave ship owner kills his slaves for the insurance money) that open her eyes even more to the injustices people like her mother faced their entire lives.

Anchored by a strong performance by Mbatha-Raw, “Belle” comes up short on an emotional level, which is surprising given the topics raised, but is fascinating enough to keep our attention on the more historically significant points rather than the conventional romance. There are still corsets, yes, but director Amma Asante’s (“A Way of Life”) ability to loosen them up a bit so our main character can fight the good fight is reason enough to stay invested in this little-known history lesson.

The Debt

September 2, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastin, Sam Worthington
Directed by: John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”)
Written by: Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass”), Jane Goldman (“Kick-Ass”), and Peter Straughan (“Sixty-Six”)

A friend turns to me an hour into the stimulating espionage thriller “The Debt” during a scene when retired Mossad secret agent Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) deplanes in the Ukraine only thinking of her intended target.

“It’s Jason Bourne’s grandma,” he tells me as Mirren bobs and weaves like a spy 30 years too late for the start of the Cold War. I’d join in with a couple of old-lady jokes if I wasn’t so convinced Mirren could probably Krav Maga my ass into couscous.

All teasing aside, Mirren proves she is one tough homemade cookie as she continues to explore more vivacious supporting characters. It was only a year ago in the action comedy “Red” when she showed us how trigger-happy she could be as a contract killer behind a semiautomatic. In “The Debt,” which is based on the 2007 Israeli film “Ha-Hov,” Mirren loses the smirk and gets serious when a dark secret from her paramilitary past is dug up after the death of a colleague.

Constructed by intense scenes shifting back in time to a young Rachel (Jessica Chastin) and her male cohorts (Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) hunting down a merciless Nazi monster (Jesper Christensen) in East Berlin in 1965, director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) allows the leisurely-paced narrative to unfold naturally when their mission goes awry.

Chastin carries most of the film’s emotional weight although a melodramatic love triangle doesn’t do the script any favors. Her interaction with Christensen in their handful of unnerving encounters set the tone, which is elevated by some dank-looking cinematography and grim location choices, specifically for the flashbacks.

Unpredictable throughout, “The Debt” may harp on the fine line between fact and fiction a bit much, but with Mirren in the passenger’s seat, there’s little chance the film isn’t going to reach its final destination with some style, class and riveting insight.

Valkyrie

December 11, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson
Directed by: Bryan Singer (“Superman Returns”)
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects”) and Nathan Alexander (debut)

Tom Cruise has been on some major public relations detail over the last year. When the release of United Artists’ first film under his watchful eye “Lions for Lambs” didn’t do as well at the box office last year as the studio would have liked, Cruise probably realized his stock had plummeted into uncharted territory.

What happened next?

Cruise joined the cast of “Tropic Thunder” to lighten things up (and was hilarious), zipped his lips about anything having to do with Scientology, and admitted that some of the philosophical messages carelessly blurted from his mouth were, to say the least, arrogant.

Now, with “Valkyrie,” the second film under his United Artists umbrella, Cruise is attempting to reintroduce himself to an audience on a clean slate. While it still might be a hard sell to his most diehard haters, Cruise has made a fairly entertaining thriller worthy of look especially from history buffs. The film follows one of the many assassination attempts on Nazi leader Adolf Hilter during WWII.

Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a German solider who has been recruited by his peers to help assemble a team to overthrow Hilter’s government. While the plan itself may take a while to understand completely – they want to use one of Hilter’s own military procedures against him – screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander write the accounts with such precision, it’s easy to get back on track if you’ve lost your way for a few moments.

The real challenge for director Bryan Singer (“X-Men”) is to drive the suspense throughout the film even when the audience (unless they failed World History class) knows the end result. Singer succeeds not because he has his head wrapped around the material entirely, but because he pushes the story forward the way he should: as a suitable action thriller with political undertones and not vice versa. You might know how the story ends, but it’s still intriguing to watch it all unfold.

Forget whether or not Cruise is using the correct accent (isn’t it funny that if he did use a German accent we’d be hearing from the same critics how fake the accent sounds?), the man can still command a screen. He, along with actors Kenneth Branagh and Bill Nighy, do a fine job making us empathize for the “good-guy” Nazis and have us still keep our distance. Singer also does a great job by never over-vilifying the soldiers in the Third Reich we actually want to see dead. The whole thing plays out like a football game on Sunday afternoon between two teams you don’t like. You really don’t have anything invested in the players, but it’ll be entertaining to watch them compete…at least until halftime.