Thursday, June 25, 2015

"Selma" Offers a Captivating Story and Worthwhile Commentary on Present Day Race Relations

Critics argue Selma grossly misplays the dynamic between MLK and LBJ.
While watching Ava DuVernay’s Selma, I was reminded of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (reviewed here). Both films focus on iconic moments in the American civil rights movement, while managing the tricky tasks of humanizing the larger-than-life icons involved. More intriguingly, both also illustrate the forceful guile and cunning strategy required to make such sweeping change.

Yes, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. stood on high ground ideologically and morally, but they also were willing to poke, prod and even play a little dirty to ensure success. These aren’t just stories of saints standing on the side of justice until society came around to their way of thinking – these are tales of men pulling strings to manipulate America into bettering itself.

There’s something I find so incredibly interesting about all of that, about the notion that King (commandingly played by David Oyelowo) and his compatriots in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) specifically targeted Selma because the sheriff there was a hotheaded racist who could easily be baited into doing something oppressive to nonviolent protesters. The film suggests the SCLC wasn’t concerned with long-range grass rooting – they left that to other groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. No, what they wanted were headlines that would put pressure on Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), a president who supported black voting rights, but who had a difference of opinion about the timing of further legislation. “We negotiate, we demonstrate, we resist,” King says in one key scene. “We raise white consciousness. And in particular, the consciousness of whichever white man happens to be sitting in the Oval Office.”

The film has come under fire in some corners for its inaccuracies, particularly related to its portrayal of Johnson as an antagonist to King. The idea that people could watch this movie and come away incensed at the treatment of a white person is pretty mind-boggling, but what makes the whole thing especially odd is that the film delivers a mostly nuanced take on the King-Johnson relationship.

Johnson isn't really the bad guy; he supports change, but doesn't agree with King's time frame. He certainly stands in stark contrast to the film's actual villains, even considering his attempts to slow King down by using wiretap information to expose the good doctor's extramarital dalliances to his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo). Not only does he surround himself with fair-minded advisers like Lee White (Giovanni Ribisi), but he also rebuffs a suggestion by J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to shut down King "permanently and unequivocally" and chastises George Wallace (Tim Roth) by saying "I'll be damned to let history put me in the same place as the likes of you."

Is this exactly how it happened? Probably not, but it makes thematic and dramatic sense, and it seems a lot more logical than the assertion that Johnson masterminded the whole march or that he was totally innocent of wiretapping King (I think it's an injustice to show Johnson taking aim at King's marriage, but the dude was president of the United States, for god's sake; he damn well knew about those wiretaps). The New York Times and Washington Post have done fairly good assessments of the entire controversy for those interested in reading more on the topic, but as far as opinions go, I tend to agree with this take in Slate.

The film posits that MLK's mission in Selma was to change the discourse among the inherently good but generally apathetic multitudes within white America, to impress upon them the immediacy of the situation. Johnson becomes the major stand-in there, and the film argues that the work put in by King and his brethren eventually allows Johnson (and a large contingent of whites) to see the light, to transition from sympathy to empathy, as evinced by his words, “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.”

This message is one that's still incredibly relevant today, given all the present day upheaval surrounding unjust treatment of blacks by law enforcement and the recent church slayings in South Carolina. Watch the scenes that depict the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing or the beating of Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) and tell me they don't seem eerily familiar. It's easy to rationalize, explain or condemn certain situations on an individual basis while pretending there is no larger race problem in America, but on aggregate such justifications don't fly any better now than they did 50 years ago. Is black life better in America now than it was in 1965 when MLK led the march to Selma? Yes, certainly, it is, just like it was better in 1965 than it was in 1865 when Lincoln was trying to abolish slavery. But it isn't where it should be, and that's an American problem.

DuVernay gets that, and Selma encapsulates it, perhaps at the risk of smudging the role of Lyndon B. Johnson. But, I found myself cheering for the man when he put Wallace in his place and later when he spoke so passionately when presenting his bill. I believe that was the film's intent, so it's hard for me to say the film is casting Johnson in a negative light. It's much more accurate to say the film is turning him into a metaphorical beacon.

Is it incongruous that I'm defending artistic license here when I took a movie like Saving Mr. Banks to task for playing loose with history? Maybe. Maybe, I'm just blinded by my ideological persuasions in both cases. But, I have to call it the way I see it, and while I see a relevant thematic purpose in this instance, I only saw corporate propaganda in the former.

Selma is not a perfect history lesson, but if it encourages people to "interrogate history" as DuVernay suggests, and if it makes people a bit more empathetic in their considerations of race relations today, then it's a movie that offers a whole lot of value. When you toss on top of that the notion that it is a well-made and captivating story on the micro level, well that's really something.  A-

Monday, June 15, 2015

Soporific "Fifty Shades of Grey" Makes BDSM Seem About As Exciting As Waiting in Traffic

Clearly one of the most iconic images in cinematic history.
Fifty Shades of Grey plays like a neutered version of 9 ½ Weeks. Well, wait, no. Although that Mickey Rourke/Kim Basinger flick has been a punching bag for the last 30 years, it does have some depth to it – interesting psychosexual exploration, discernible character arcs and, most pertinently, actual eroticism. So on reflection, neutered is probably too kind of a descriptor. It would be more apt to say “Fifty Shades of Grey plays like the castrated version of 9 ½ Weeks."

Boom! Put that on a movie poster.

In all seriousness, I’m not trying to be harsh here. Well, that’s not true, I am trying, but I don’t really want to be harsh. Although I recognize my man card would be on the line if a review of this film wasn’t a slam, I would love to be attempting to convince readers why a smutty chick flick has cinematic merit. My ringing endorsement of Magic Mike is proof of that.

But, damn this movie sucks. The dialogue is wretched, the acting is stiff and almost nothing happens. Seriously, I can’t comprehend how this film clocks in over two hours – it makes the last few Twilight films look like intricate labyrinths of dense plotting.

Speaking of Twilight, my wife tells me Fifty Shades of Grey actually started as Twilight fan fiction, and having only experienced these stories via film, I can totally see that. Take the Underworld out of Twilight and blow past the sexual tension by just getting to the sex, and you’d basically have Fifty Shades of Grey. After all, both stories have the same essential misogynistic takeaway – women are weak, male-obsessed creatures of no substance that just want to be swept up and then knocked down by a well-off, strong man. I honestly can’t believe Bella Swan and Anatasia Steele are the pop cultural heroines of our age, nor can I believe they were created by female writers and not dirty old men. Thank God that Katniss Everdeen exists and that our books and movies are offering at least one strong, positive role model for young women (and that's in addition to a way better story -- #TeamHungerGames).

All this sexism is my biggest issue with this brand of fantasy, but I might be able to look past it if Fifty Shades of Grey had a couple I could believe in. Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are both fine physical specimens, but unfortunately they have no chemistry. In fact, I’d argue they somehow have negative chemistry. I wasn’t expecting Leonardo DiCaprio-Kate Winslet level heat, or even Ryan Gosling-Rachel McAdams energy, but this is a joke. I swear there’s a scene or two in this thing in which Johnson and Dornan look so bored that they might actually fall asleep. I guess, in that way, their both stand-ins for the audience.

And that’s the most unforgivable thing of all –  the movie is mind-numbingly dull. Thinking about it now, I'm reminded of a skit from a recent episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. While railing against the inequality and injustice of the American bail system, Oliver showed “Pretrial Services,” a parody segment of reality shows like Dog the Bounty Hunter that focused on humdrum and unexciting office work. I mention this because Fifty Shades of Grey is the erotic thriller equivalent of “Pretrial Services.” It has scene after scene in which the leads discuss an in-depth non-disclosure agreement, and it features the least taboo sexual fetishes imaginable – blindfolds, ice, and spanking, oh my. D-

Friday, June 5, 2015

Julianne Moore Earns that Oscar in "Still Alice"

Julianne Moore totally inhabits this character.  
Full disclosure: Over the past half-decade or so, I have watched my grandmother descend further and further into dementia to the point that she is now a safety risk, incapable of being left alone. I'm not sure if that clouds my evaluation of a film like Still Alice, which tells the story of a linguistic professor's bout with Alzheimer's and the affect her mental deterioration has on her and her family. Did my investment come easier, my tears more readily because this film hit a little close to the bone? I can't really be sure, but at least now you know where I'm coming from.

Based on the novel by Lisa Genova, Still Alice is a harrowing depiction of the personal destruction that accompanies Alzheimer's. It's pretty straightforward and so it does have a Lifetime movie of the week vibe to it, but the movie is elevated by a brilliant central performance and a restrained script that’s chock-full of insight and authenticity.

Julianne Moore took home the Oscar for her work as the titular character, and it's a long overdue victory. Moore is one of the greatest actors of her generation, so I was behind her win before even seeing the movie, but, now that I have, I can say this is one of those rare cases where a past-due actor is deservedly honored for the performance in question as well as for overall career achievement.

I’m not sure I’d say this is Moore’s best performance, but it’s certainly up there. What’s so impressive about how Moore slowly peels layer upon layer away from Alice’s identity is just how little you notice the acting. The character’s decline is rapid, but the performance is seamless. This is a full on clinic in subtle submersion.

Although Alice’s husband (Alec Baldwin) and three children (Kate Bosworth, Kristen Stewart, and Hunter Parrish) factor in to the narrative, the film intentionally keeps them on the margins. Generally, this works fine. The supporting actors all do fine work, and the reality is that the film is trying to capture Alice’s experience (as opposed to Away From Her, a film focused more on how a dementia touches those closest to the afflicted).

Still, even given that defense, it does feel like a bit of a cheat at times, especially concerning the Bosworth character. Alice is dealing with a genetic form of the disease and a blood test reveals that the Bosworth character has the gene and will therefore go through this exact trauma in about 20 years, and yet, outside of one clipped phone conversation, this developing is never really addressed with any sort of substance. It’s a dangling narrative thread that is jarringly pushed aside.

That gripe aside, Still Alice is a worthwhile film with a powerhouse performance from one of our greatest working actors. At one point, Alice pines “I wish I had cancer. I wouldn’t feel so ashamed. People put on pink ribbons if you have cancer.” It’s a salient point, one that highlights that Still Alice is the rare film that makes us both think and feel, all while never giving in to mawkishness. Its strength is in its matter-of-fact depiction of the shattering realities that accompany this terrible disease and in the grace that can occasionally shine through during such a devastating eradication of self. B+