Monday, January 26, 2015

Selma

Decades removed from denunciations as a race-baiting Communist, Martin Luther King Jr. ranks alongside the Founding Fathers as a sanctified American. Aside from television (Boycott) and fleeting appearances elsewhere (The Butler) however, he's never gotten his own film. Ava DuVerna's Selma (2014) redresses that. It's a straightforward biopic, paying tribute to King while offering few surprises.

Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelwo) urges passage of the Voting Rights Act, overturning Southern poll taxes. He gets a cold response from President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who's more concerned with his War on Poverty. King alights for Selma, Alabama where a controversy over poll taxes generates tension; he proposes a march to the State capitol at Montgomery. Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) determines to stop King, leading to bloodshed at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. King and his confidantes regroup for a second march, becoming a cause celebre as the violent images spread throughout the country.

Though Selma starts with familiar imagery of Civil Rights marches and Southern bigots, its focus is refreshingly head-on. Paul Webb's script portrays tensions within the movement. The radical Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee resents King's SCLC as interlopers; John Lewis (Stephan James) splits with SNCC by supporting the Selma March. Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), humbled by his visit to Mecca, proposes using his heated rhetoric to make King more palatable. King's supporters debate the wisdom of provoking confrontation with heavily-armed whites: is the human cost worth the moral victory?


Selma crackles to life blending these big-picture concerns with everyday humiliation and feckless violence. The County registrar bars Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) from voting because she can't name every county judge in Alabama. Activists black and white are murdered with impunity; one affecting has King comforting an elderly man (Henry G. Sanders) who watched police shoot his son. Governor Wallace is an intriguingly craft villain: he abhors open violence while authorizing a night time "murder raid" against demonstrators.
DuVerna matches this ideological chess match with an observant characterization. Selma's King is a charismatic, unshakable public leader tormented by private doubt. In our eyes King's ossified into an angelic figure, yet Selma shows a multifaceted human, riven with emotion: his rage at Johnson's inaction, frustration at constant imprisonment anguish at the death and maiming of supporters. At one key moment he seems to falter, causing many to doubt. King responds that he'd rather have them angry at him than dead.

Selma doesn't avoid the usual biopic pitfalls, namely prettifying its protagonist. Discussion of King's womanizing is restricted to one oblique scene; Coretta Scott King's (Carmen Ejogo) mostly present to bolster her husband, never becoming a full-fledged character. Lyndon Johnson's portrayed as indifferent or hostile to Civil Rights until King forces his hand, a gross distortion of LBJ's beliefs. At a low point it makes Johnson responsible for FBI efforts at intimidating King by phone harassment and poison pen letters.

DuVerna's direction is equally uneven. She does well evoking the time period, and more straightforward confrontations like the courthouse scenes and King's jailhouse conversations are well-handled. The bigger the stakes however, the sloppiness shows through. The movie's big set piece, the Pettus Bridge confrontation, becomes a flurry of overdone slow motion and quick cutting that undercuts its effectiveness. Similarly, the conceit of FBI memos acting as onscreen commentary serves little purpose: if the intent's irony it doesn't come off.

David Oyelowo assayed supporting roles in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Lincoln and The Butler before now: this should be a breakout role. Besides his physical resemblance to King (he reportedly gained 30 pounds for the role), Oyelowo does remarkable job evoking the man. His measured delivery, focused anger and powerful gestures make King come to life in a truly great sense: this isn't just the figure from textbooks and TV commercials, but an engaging hero. This is a remarkable performance; it's inexplicable Oyelowo didn't earn an Oscar nod.

Tom Wilkinson makes LBJ equal parts conflicted idealist and crafty politician. Carmen Ejogo is mostly backgrounded, though she nails her big scene. Tim Roth's slimy George Wallace and Dylan Baker's arrogant J. Edgar Hoover make strong impressions with little screen time. DuVerna's deep cast contribute effectively: Stephan James, Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Common as King's allies; Giovanni Ribisi as Johnson's aide Lee White; Stephen Root as an Alabama State Trooper. There are brief cameos for Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr. and an unbilled Martin Sheen.

Cynics will ask why we need another racism-themed drama. One, because the issues Selma explores aren't dead, as recent events have tragically shown. Two, because so few of the extant films explore the issues directly, preferring white protagonists, marginal figures or flamboyant outsiders. Why did it take Martin Luther King 20 years longer to get a biopic than Malcolm X? Selma isn't a perfect movie, but it's probably as good a King biopic as Hollywood can produce.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Groggy on Moviepilot: Z

Another week, another piece on Moviepilot: this time on Costa-Gavras's Z. Writing this article required some actual research: certainly I know more about 20th Century Greek politics now.

I'm going to take a sabbatical from posting on Moviepilot, since it seems to be harming the blog's health. As the junta might say, the patient requires an operation - an infusion of new reviews, perhaps. I'll have a meaty new article by the end of Sunday!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Garden of Evil

Henry Hathaway's Garden of Evil (1954) is a badly overblown Western. The movie's graced by beautiful photography and three excellent leads, yet feels clunky and overdone.

American prospectors Hooker (Gary Cooper), Fiske (Richard Widmark) and Luke (Cameron Mitchell) stop in Mexico. They're recruited by Leah Fuller (Susan Hayward) to rescue her husband (Hugh Marlowe), trapped in a gold mine. They find Fulller and the gold, but tempers flare as Hooker and Fiske grow attracted to Leah. Hostile Apache Indians promise to make things even more unpleasant.

Garden of Evil's draw comes from Hathaway's gorgeous direction. Quite an expensive show, Garden shot on location in Tepotzolan and Guanajanto, Mexico. Milton R. Krasner's widescreen photography leaves a deep impression, contrasting our heroes against fathomless backdrops of sandy mountains and sagebrush deserts. The climactic action scenes are impressive, especially the incredible cliff-side stunt work. Garden's helped too by Bernard Herrman's robust score, which grants even banal scenes pathos.

But Garden falls down on a narrative level. Frank Fenton and William Tunberg's script feels clunky, overly verbose: Hooker and Fiske start trading arch banter, then endlessly debate their motivations. Leah's ultimately a headstrong temptress who can't help making trouble: she earns neither sympathy nor respect. Even at 100 minutes Garden seems overlong, with ponderous dialogue that neither develops characters nor advances plot. Westerns don't need complex plots to work, but Garden of Evil stretches its story thin.

Gary Cooper plays the taciturn straight arrow; Richard Widmark, the snarky sidekick; Susan Hayward the tough femme fatale. These roles aren't stretches for any of the stars, but they play well off each other. Cameron Mitchell, unsurprisingly, is an irredeemable cad; Hugh Marlowe a loser. Rita Moreno appears briefly as a nightclub singer. This is Typecasting 101, yet it doesn't damage Garden overmuch. 

At film's end, Gary Cooper stands against a gorgeous sunset declaiming a tin-earned epigram about Man's corrupt nature. This juxtaposition of beauty and pomposity sums Garden of Evil up in a nut shell. It's hard to dislike such a visually accomplished film, until a character opens their mouths.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Confession (1970)

After savaging Greece's military junta in Z (1969), Costa-Gavras targets Stalinist barbarity in The Confession (1970). Based on Czech official Artur London's memoirs, it's an unfailingly bleak depiction of Communism as raw, dehumanizing power. Don't expect a good time.

Gerard (Yves Montand) is a high-placed official in the Czechoslovakian government circa 1951. Police recently arrested a friend, and Gerard's tailed by men in unmarked cars. One day he's run off the road, kidnapped and thrown in prison. Through endless interrogations, Gerard discovers, who served in the Spanish Civil War's International Brigade. His wife (Simone Signoret) unsuccessfully petitions for his release, while his interrogator (Gabriele Ferzetti) urges swift confession to spare his life.

Like most Costa-Gavras movies, The Confession draws on a true-life incident: 1952's Slansky Trial, a purge of deviationists within the Czech Communist Party. Costa-Gavras spares his protagonist (and viewers) nothing: endless mind games, baffling Party illogic, mistreatment ranging from beatings to water torture to mock executions. Among other oddities, Gerard stands accused of "Titoism" for actions predating Tito's rise to power. It's rare to see such a harrowing look at Bolshevik atrocities: Hollywood anticommunism runs towards action flicks like Red Dawn. The closest I recall is Peter Glenville's The Prisoner (1955), a heavy-handed religious drama.

Compared to the darkly humorous Z, The Confession proves relentlessly crushing. Gerard's plight blends Kafka and Solzhenitsyn: he's arrested without formal charge, going from Cabinet Minister to criminal overnight. We're primed for A Man for All Seasons-style drama of conscience, but resistance merely invites retaliation. Even when Gerard cracks, he's rehearsed to ensure "sincerity." The film culminates in a show trial whose highlight is a suspect's pants falling down: the culmination of Bolshevik dehumanization. 

Costa-Gavras's direction begins straightforward, detailing Gerard's imprisonment and suffering in nuts-and-bolts fashion. Yet The Confession grows more stylized: slow motion and rapid cutting, flashbacks to Gerard and his colleagues debating Communist dialectic, hallucinated montages of Soviet history and Stalinist propaganda. Editor Francoise Bonnot develops a pounding staccato rhythm, plunging between interrogations and torture sessions with rhythmic monotony. An ironic epilogue brings us to the Prague Spring, but seems superfluous.

Yves Montand gives a marvelous performance. More than ever resembling a Gallic Paul Scofield, Montand devolves from complacency to bewilderment to defeatism. Montand plays marvelously with bewildered look and depleted physicality; his bone-weary exhaustion in later scenes seems genuine. It's a convincing portrayal: Gerard is less hero than victim, ground to dust by the ideology he once served.

Gabriele Ferzetti (Once Upon a Time in the West) plays London's affable interrogator, feigning objectivity while civilly tormenting his prisoner. Simone Signoret (Army of Shadows) isn't used much better than Irene Pappas in Z, less character than emblem of her husband's martyrdom.

Admittedly, The Confession isn't familiar Western anticommunism: rather it's New Left outrage at socialism's supposed betrayal. Nonetheless, its damning depiction of Stalinist atrocitiy remains largely unmatched.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Oscar Announcements

We start by recognizing that after Birdman, all the Best Picture nominees are shit.
First, another Moviepilot article to pimp, this one on The Day of the Jackal. Which seemed an appropriate follow-up to my last piece.

The Oscar nominees were announced yesterday. For the record:

Best Picture
  • American Sniper
  • Birdman
  • Boyhood
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Selma
  • The Theory of Everything
  • Whiplash
Best Actor
  • Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
  • Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
  • Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
  • Michael Keaton, Birdman
  • Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Best Actress
  • Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
  • Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
  • Julianne Moore, Still Alice
  • Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
  • Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Best Supporting Actor
  • Robert Duvall, The Judge
  • Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
  • Edward Norton, Birdman
  • Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
  • J. K. Simmons, Whiplash
Best Supporting Actress
  • Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
  • Laura Dern, Wild
  • Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
  • Emma Stone, Birdman
  • Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
Best Cinematography
  • Birdman
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Ida
  • Mr. Turner
  • Unbroken
Best Director
  • Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman
  • Richard Linklater, Boyhood
  • Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
  • Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game
Best Original Screenplay
  • Boyhood
  • Birdman
  • Foxcatcher
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Nightcrawler
Best Adapted Screenplay
  • American Sniper
  • The Imitation Game
  • Inherent Vice
  • The Theory of Everything
  • Whiplash
Best Foreign Language Film
  • Ida, Poland
  • Leviathan, Russia
  • Tangerines, Estonia
  • Timbuktu, Mauritania
  • Wild Tales, Argentina
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
  • Foxcatcher
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
Best Original Score
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Interstellar
  • Mr. Turner
  • The Theory of Everything
Best Costume Design
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Inherent Vice
  • Into the Woods
  • Maleficent
  • Mr. Turner
Best Documentary Feature
  • Citizenfour
  • Finding Vivian Maier
  • Last Days in Vietnam
  • Salt of the Earth
  • Virunga
Best Documentary Short
  • Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
  • Joanna
  • Our Curse
  • The Reaper
  • White Earth
Best Film Editing
  • American Sniper
  • Boyhood
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Whiplash
Best Animated Feature
  • Big Hero 6
  • The Boxtrolls
  • How to Train Your Dragon 2
  • Song of the Sea
  • The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Best Original Song
  • “Lost Stars,” Begin Again
  • “Grateful,” Beyond the Lights
  • “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
  • “Everything is Awesome,” The Lego Movie
  • “Glory,” Selma
Best Production Design
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Interstellar
  • Into the Woods
  • Mr. Turner
Best Animated Short Film
  • The Bigger Picture
  • The Dam Keeper
  • Feast
  • Me and My Moulton
  • A Single Life
Best Live-Action Short Film
  • Aya
  • Boogaloo and Graham
  • Butter Lamp
  • Paraveneh
  • The Phone Call
Best Sound Editing
  • American Sniper
  • Birdman
  • The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
  • Interstellar
  • Unbroken
Best Sound Mixing
  • American Sniper
  • Birdman
  • Interstellar
  • Unbroken
  • Whiplash
Best Visual Effects
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Interstellar
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past
Only eight Best Picture nominees this year? Guess they've realized the futility of padding. The lack of Gone Girl, Interstellar or Nightcrawler is surprising, though.

Right now, I'm definitely hoping Birdman cleans house.