Selma (2015)

SelmaWhile in Europe civil rights activist Dr Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) is free to receive the Nobel Peace Prize with the respect of his peers and to rapturous applause, back home in America he would still struggle to register as a voter. To this end, and following a sickening attack on four young churchgoers in Selma, Alabama, Dr King returned to the States with voting rights in his sights. The plan is to stage a peaceful march to the registration office, but when his protest ends in violence and prompts a retaliatory response at a later night march King realises that he is going to think bigger. Unable to count on the President (Tom Wilkinson), he uses the media to raise the profile of his cause, and when an attempt to march to the State capital ends in further brutality it is this time caught on film for the whole country to see. No longer able to ignore what is happening, supporters — black and white — begin to amass in Selma.

With the recent events in Ferguson demonstrating that despite the progress that has undoubtedly been made since King’s day injustice and inequality are still rife in at least some of the United States of America, Ava DuVernay’s Selma still manages to be timely and urgent even fifty years after the fact. In many ways the man in question has since been reduced to a harmless soundbite, and though most people are able to recite his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech from 1963 they would be hard-pressed to recount any more information on one of the most important figures of the 20th Century. Hopefully this film should change that, not simply adding the Selma to Montgomery marches to his pop-culture profile but stoking a deeper interest in the man behind the movement.

Oyelowo is exceptional as King, and together with Daniel Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln shows that Brits have not only conquered the American superhero genre but have now also infiltrated the nation’s pantheon of real-life heroes too. Charismatic and compelling but compromised and complex, this is King outside of his ideological dreamscape. His family is under threat, his supporters are being routinely beaten and killed, and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference is not just unwelcome in the eyes of Governor of Alabama George Wallace (Tim Roth) but sections of the native Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee too, even though they’re ultimately working towards the same goal. Many of the most powerful scenes aren’t rooted in victory at all but pain: as King consoles the father of the late Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), as he bears witness to the first fateful Edmund Pettus Bridge crossing from afar, and has he confesses a string of infidelities to his unerringly faithful wife (an excellent Carmen Ejogo).

It’s a frustrating and often infuriating watch, and King’s indignation and disbelief at the establishment’s conceitedness and complacency is matched only by your own. Roth is perfectly cast as Wallace, actor having long since mastered the contemptible sneer, while Dylan Baker is just squirm-inducing as an unusually reptilian J Edgar Hoover. It’s Wilkinson who will really leave you frothing, and as convincing as the actor is as Lyndon B Johnson it’s hard not to be shocked by or disappointed in that nice old man from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, particularly given his outspoken condemnation of slavery in last year’s Belle. The entire cast is on top form, from established talents like Martin Sheen and Cuba Gooding Jr to equally impressive turns from talk show host Oprah and rapper Common. As much of the ensemble prepare for their final march on Montgomery it’s hard not to get swept up in the moment, and like Belle or even Pride there is a triumph and joy in seeing historic injustices being overturned that is unlike anything else in cinema. As the latter reminds us in his rap over the end credits, however, the battle may be over but the war is still far from won.

A handsome and humbling period piece with untold present day relevance, Selma is one of the most important releases of the year. It’s also incredibly potent and powerful, and a crying shame that neither DuVernay or Oyewolo have been adequately recognised for their efforts.

4-Stars

A Most Violent Year (2015)

A Most Violent YearIt’s 1981, and Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is preparing to close a deal on a sizeable new premises that will provide his expanding but increasingly constrained company with access to the New York City river. A string of attacks on his fleet of drivers is threatening the heating oil business he runs with wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) and mentor Andrew (Albert Brooks), and short of arming his staff — something he is reluctant to do — finding a new method of transporting his product may be the only answer to his problems. As noble as his intentions may be, however, Morales still has to compete with other, less reputable providers (Alessandro Nivola) and protect scared employees (Elyes Gabel) while also remaining accountable to the law (David Oyelowo).

Seriously, will someone just cut Oscar Isaac a break? Hunted through Athens in The Two Faces of January, driven to resent his lover in In Secret and deprived the recognition he believes he deserves in Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac has made a career out of masochism and misery. A Most Violent Year, as its name might suggest, doesn’t mark much of a departure for the actor — Abel Morales is another good man apparently struggling to keep his head above water — but it does make for a marginally more interesting watch. Morales may be far from sympathetic, and the stakes more than a little uninspiring, but writer-director J C Chandor has nevertheless crafted an intelligent and engaging anti-crime epic that still impresses in other areas.

At first it looks to be another nostalgic gangster film, shot in wistful sepia and dressed in the finest trappings, but such first impressions are soon proven premature. The cinematography and costume design are both suitably handsome, but A Most Violent Year is more than just visually interesting. Morales himself may underwhelm but his relationships fascinate: a pacifist married to an ex-Mafioso, a fair businessman in an unfair business and a respected import threatened by the next generation of migrant workers, he is surrounded by people trying to emasculate, sabotage or take advantage of him. Unusually for such a film, A Most Violent Year isn’t attempting to romanticise criminality or corruption but condemn it. At a time when a prominent American businessman is blaming the Paris shootings on France’s strict gun laws, it’s reassuring to see a compatriot countering his claim in such a convincing manner.

The true stars of Chandor’s film are Chastain, Gabel and Oyewolo, all three of whom impress in supporting roles. Chastain in particular shines as Anna Morales, whether she’s noisily punching numbers into a calculator or shooting an injured deer dead on the side of the road. At once frustrated by her husband and infatuated with him, she can be both his best friend and his worst enemy — ready and almost eager to fight Abel’s battles for him. Gabel, meanwhile, is as weak as Chastain is strong, and continues to make things worse for himself — first taking a gun to work and then using it when his truck is targeted for a second time, causing a gunfight where there had previously only been fisticuffs and prompting an investigation spearheaded by Oyewolo’s district attourney. The three of them are never all onscreen together, but propel much of the plot between them regardless. A scene in which the DA’s department interrupt’s Anna’s daughter’s birthday party is one of the film’s best. Abel spends it moving boxes.

A Most Violent Year is something of a misnomer (A Most Trying Year might have been closer to the truth), but what Chandor’s film lacks in action it more than makes up for in nuance. Whether that’s endorsement enough I’ll leave up to you.

3-Stars

The Paperboy (2013)

The PaperboyWhile attempting to exonerate a man on death row accused of murder, brothers Ward (Matthew McConaughey) and Jack Jansen (Zac Efron) contact Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a woman who Hillary van Wetter (John Cusack) has fallen in love with through their correspondence from his prison cell. Their investigations take them to the swamp where van Wetter’s brother alleges to have information that will prove his innocence, but the key to their case is later attained by Ward’s colleague at the Miami Times, Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo). As Ward struggles with his own secrets and Jack himself falls for Charlotte, Miss Bless prepares to be united with the Hillary for the first time outside of the meeting room. But is he guilty, or isn’t he? Read more of this post

Red Tails (2012)

It’s 1944, and pervasive racism is jeopardising the future of America’s first (and at this point only) regiment of African-American fighter pilots. Under the tutelage of Major Emanuel Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), the Tuskegee Airmen are left to fly second-hand planes and carry out the missions that nobody else wants to do. When Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) comes through with a mission worthy of their abilities, then, namely to escort a squadron of bombers until they can deliver their payload, Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo), Martin “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), Samuel “Joker” George (Elijah Kelley) and Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds) lead their fellow pilots in rising to the challenge. Read more of this post