Category Archives: Now Showing

SELMA

Producer: Christian Colson, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Oprah Winfrey
Director: Ava DuVernay
Writer:Paul Webb 
Stars: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Common, Henry G. Sanders, Oprah Winfrey, Martin Sheen, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Alessandro Nivola, Giovanni Ribisi, Lorraine Toussaint, Stephan James, Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, Omar Dorsey, Colman Domingo, Wendell Pierce, Corey Reynolds, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Trai Byers, Lakeith Stanfield, Stephen Root, Nigel Thatch and Dylan Baker 
Studio:  Paramount Pictures

B+

Just in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the historical event it faithfully recreates, Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” situates Martin Luther King Jr.’s March, 1965 Alabama voting-rights campaign within the larger context of the national politics of the day. The compelling docu-drama can serve as a valuable educational tool but is first and foremost an emotionally powerful narrative.

In dealing with King, DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb follow the scheme that Steven Spielberg used in “Lincoln.” They don’t attempt a full biography—something that would certainly require far more time than a feature-length film can offer. Instead they focus on a single paramount event in the great man’s career, using it to illustrate his tactical skill in employing the tools at his disposal to work toward a desired end. The genius of “Selma,” as with Spielberg’s film, is that it avoids portraying its hero as some sort of plaster saint, instead showing him to have been a man of eminently practical bent, personally flawed in some respects but a political tactician of the highest order striving to achieve a great goal, and often compelled to prod others to follow his lead.

It’s that latter point that has led to some criticism of Webb and DuVernay’s presentation. Little issue can be taken with the film’s overall portrayal of the events in Alabama, although there is necessarily some elision and omission. After what amounts to a prologue juxtaposing King’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 with the Birmingham church bombing of 1963, the focus shifts to what becomes the central issue of the scenario: the barriers blacks faced in trying to register to vote in the state despite the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, succinctly sketched in the humiliation of an African-American woman, Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), by a county clerk. And King decides to take up the fight, resulting in three marches—the first brutally suppressed, the second aborted, and the third continuing the more than fifty miles to the state capital at Montgomery. DuVernay stages each of them expertly, with the viciousness of the first, the confusion attendant to the second and the euphoria of the third all splendidly caught.

What’s exceptional in all this is how the filmmakers portray King’s arrival in Selma, along with the degree of calculation they’re willing to ascribe to him. The fact that he and his associates from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference weren’t joyously received by some members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who had been organizing the movement until then, isn’t overlooked; nor is the fact that King frankly presents himself as needing to provoke confrontation with local authorities in order to gain the press coverage, and thus the political clout, he needed. (Having recently suffered a setback in one Georgia campaign, when the police had refrained from violence, he pointedly asks whether he can depend on a nasty response from the Selma sheriff, and is pleased when he’s told he can.) But while doing justice to the strategic elements of King’s work—even touching briefly on the role played by King’s old rival Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) who, in this version, arranges with Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) to be used as a contrast to her husband’s peaceable approach—the film also manages to personalize the story effectively at street level, especially through episodes concerning elderly Cager Lee (Henry G. Sanders), who endured the murder of his son (Keith Stanfield) in the course of the campaign, and of Northern minister James Reeb (Jeremy Strong), whose killing drew national outrage.

Where “Selma” has caused controversy is in how it situates these Alabama events—which include the intervention of Governor George Wallace—within the context of Washington politics. It rightly points out President Lyndon Johnson’s reluctance to propose a Voting Rights Act as quickly as King would have liked, but debate has arisen over the extent to which the men disagreed. The film portrays the president as so infuriated by King’s attempt to force his hand on the issue that he goes so far as to consult FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover about smearing him, and going ahead with the legislation only after negotiations with Wallace have proven fruitless. Figures from Johnson’s administration have complained about that interpretation, arguing that the president’s decision was merely to postpone proposing legislation until chances of passage were better, and that he and King were actually working together, with the Selma campaign even part of their joint effort. The controversy won’t be settled quickly or definitively, of course—which ironically gives “Selma” even greater potential as an educational tool, if it stimulates discussion rather than simply being accepted as gospel. And at least it can serve as an antidote to “white savior” Civil Rights pictures like “Mississippi Burning,” which typically relegate the role of African-Americans to the rear of the cinematic bus (while extolling the FBI).

What there shouldn’t be any debate about, moreover, is the extraordinary quality of David Oyelowo’s performance. He doesn’t look all that much like King, but what’s important is that, just as Daniel Day-Lewis managed in “Lincoln,” he brings real humanity to an icon—and that he captures to a remarkable degree the cadences of his speech, a talent that makes the excerpts from King’s speeches incredibly powerful and moving. One can quibble about Tom Wilkinson’s turn as Johnson, which while capable doesn’t entirely transcend caricature, and Tim Roth’s as Wallace, of which the same can certainly be said. And Dylan Baker seems all wrong as Hoover, while Martin Sheen, after all those years as the principled president on “The West Wing,” comes off too much on the money as the federal judge who lifts an injunction prohibiting the final march.

On the other hand, Winfrey, Stanfield and Sanders hit home emotionally, and Ejogo subtly portrays a wife who’s loving and supportive but also concerned and even a bit suspicious about her husband. Other notables in the Civil Rights movement—Fred Gray (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), John Lewis (Stephan James), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), James Bevel (Common), Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), Amelia Boynton Robinson (Lorraine Toussaint), Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson), James Forman (Trai Byers)—are also nicely etched. And though the film is hardly massively budgeted, it’s been well served by its technical team, with Mark Friedberg’s production design, Kim Jennings’ art direction, Elizabeth Keenan’s sets and Ruth E. Carter’s costumes evoking the period without exaggeration and Bradford Young’s expert cinematography similarly doing the job while not calling attention to itself.

As history “Selma” may cause some controversy, but as a fact-based drama it’s exceptionally fine.

THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2: ANGEL OF DEATH

Producer: Richard Jackson, Simon Oakes, Ben Holden and Tobin Armbrust
Director: Tom Harper
Writer: Joe Croker
Stars: Phoebe Fox, Jeremy Irvine, Helen McCrory, Adrian Rawlins, Leanne Best, Ned Dennehy, Oaklee Pendergast and Jude Wright
Studio: Relativity Media 

D

One has to admire a horror movie that eschews the grisly gore so common in the genre nowadays in favor of more traditional devices like musty atmosphere and strange noises, but this one is so turgid and enervated that it’s more likely to generate snores than shudders. “The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death” is simply too old-fashioned and genteel to make much of an impression at all; it’s as ephemeral as the ghost in its title.

The first picture in the series from the rejuvenated Hammer studio was notable mostly for providing one of the first post-“Harry Potter” roles for Daniel Radcliffe. Based on a novel by Susan Hill and directed by James Watkins, the 2012 release was an Edwardian-era period piece about a young lawyer who went to a remote Yorkshire manor, Eels Marsh, to survey the papers of a recently-deceased client, only to find that the place was haunted by the malevolent spirit of a woman who’d lost her young son to drowning and has ever since been luring local children to their deaths. This follow-up, also based on a story by Hill, is set in 1941, when the German bombardment of London led many families to send their sons and daughters to the countryside for safety’s sake.

As part of the exodus, a group of eight youngsters are assigned to Eels Marsh under the care of pretty young Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox) and the far more rigid Jean Hogg (Helen McCrory). Unwittingly, the good women are in effect laying out a buffet of tasty morsels for the spirit that still inhabits the long-deserted, decrepit place, which is almost constantly shrouded in fog and also happens to be situated on a hill that’s cut off from the mainland at times of high tide. No wonder some of the little ones become targets, with somber little Edward (Oaklee Pendergast), whose parents have just been killed in the Blitz, the most obvious of them. Eve takes a special interest in protecting him, even as she becomes aware—from creaking doors, strange sounds and a rocking chair that moves even when no one is in it—of a strange presence in the house.

But Eve has her own demons. She has recurring nightmares about a child she bore but abandoned—a fact of which the ghost seems aware. And though Harry (Jeremy Irvine), a handsome RAF pilot she encountered on the train trip north, appoints himself her protector, he’s also tormented by the past, specifically a crash that took the lives of all his crew. Can two such damaged souls save Edward and the other children from the titular menace?

The best things about “Angel of Death” are visual. Jacqueline Abrahams’ production design is impressive, and George Steel’s lustrous widescreen cinematography drains much of the color from the images, leaving a painterly blue-and-gray palette. In its earlier incarnation Hammer made pictures that looked remarkably classy on low budgets, and on the evidence here, the studio hasn’t lost its touch in that respect.

But on the dramatic side the news is much less good. Tom Harper’s direction emphasizes mood to the near-exclusion of energy and tension, and even when he tries to add some shock moments—especially in the last third of the running-time—the effect is feeble. Things aren’t helped by Mark Eckersley’s humdrum editing, or by the drab performances of Fox, Irvine and Pendergast. McCrory is no better than they are, but at least her portrayal of stiff-upper-lipism is so over the top that it might provoke a few smiles. Ned Dennehy shows up briefly as a mentally unstable blind man who appears to be the only inhabitant of the derelict village near the manor (apparently depopulated since the time of the first film, where it was a thriving little place); he has no purpose except to provide a few cheap “gotcha” moments. Unfortunately, “Angel of Death” misses out on one of the nicest ironies of “The Woman in Black,” where the title character was played by an actress named Liz White. This time around, she’s been replaced by Leanne Best, and the witty juxtaposition is lost.

For a film about the supernatural, “The Woman in Black 2” is unremittingly mundane, and in that respect it’s no better than its tepid predecessor. Any hope that Hammer might have of continuing this series is probably just wishful thinking.