Selma movie review

Featuring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenwriters: Paul Webb, Ava DuVernay
Movie website: www.selmamovie.com/
Australian release date: Feb 12

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A stirring reconstruction of a pivotal event of the 60s black civil rights movement, with an inspirational performance by David Oyelowo as Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

Review:
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 granted voting rights to black Americans, in effect formalising equal rights nation-wide, but in Alabama in 1965 little had changed. Segregation was still in force, whites jealously – and often violently – guarded their positions of privilege with the assistance of the all-white cops, terrorists bombed black churches, and in official capacities authorities resorted to dirty tricks to subvert the legislation.

In an early scene of Selma, a clerk at a voting registration office subjects a determined and formidably informed middle-aged black woman (Oprah Winfrey) to the indignity of having to complete a quiz on obscure details of government, refusing her registration papers when she cannot answer.

The film focuses on a 3 month period that proved crucial in countering the forces condemning blacks in Alabama to continued oppression. Dr Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists led the fight, which culminated in a dangerous and epic march from Selma to Montgomery. Saturation press coverage of the march and some horrendous police brutality in events preceding it set off a tidal change in popular opinion that forced President Johnson to enact legislation to force Alabama and its renegade redneck leaders like Governor George Wallace into step with the rest of the country on black voting rights.

Naturally, the march is the dramatic climax to the film, but the primary focus is the behind-the-scene machinations leading up to it, and the tensions dividing sectors of the black activist leadership.

King is presented as the great, inspirational leader and orator he was, but not mythologised as a saintly visionary with loyal disciples in tow. He is presented in very human terms, as a man unflinching in his faith, yet prone to dark nights of the soul, torn between his mission and family, struggling and in some cases failing to convince his detractors to persevere with non-violent protest rather than adopting the more forceful tactics advocated by radicals like Malcolm X.

The political maneuvering between King and Lyndon B Johnson during their meetings in the White House meetings is riveting, the glimpse into the political mind of the President deeply unsettling and disturbing. However, it is the nature of the poisonous game of politics that is under fire here, not so much Johnson himself. He is shown as a political animal whose main game is juggling priorities (although he doesn’t hesitate to play foul where necessary, conniving with J. Edgar Hoover to keep tabs on King and mess with his domestic life).

King’s cause is one of many on the President’s plate, and assisting it beset with political dangers. Humanity is barely in the picture, despite the indignities and injustice King confronts him with.

This is not a Martin Luther King biopic as such. The background to the pivotal Selma – Montgomery march and its outcome Is director Ava DuVernay’s main concern. However, the King character is so magnetic, so compelling, he steals the show regardless. David Oyelowo not only looks like King – his renditions of some of his lesser-known speeches are uncanny, capturing the cadences and tones perfectly, and damn near as inspirational in effect as the originals! It’s hair-raising stuff.

Indeed, all the performances are superb, the likes of Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Wallace (Tim Roth) ringing brilliantly true in their portrayals.

As reconstructions of pivotal historical events go, Selma is about as good as it gets. That is not to say it works perfectly as a drama – this is an inevitability of the genre. You would like more on King’s family life, for example, but there just isn’t room. Most importantly, you leave wiser for the experience and emotionally stirred, mostly by the movie, partly by the tragedy that was to cut King short, and partly by the awareness that half a century on the promise of the 60s seems more illusory than ever.

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Force Majeure movie review

Featuring: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius
Director: Ruben Östlund
Screenwriter: Ruben Östlund
Movie Website: www.magpictures.com/forcemajeure/

2014-15 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Somerville: 27 Jan-1 Feb, 8pm
Joondalup Pines: 3-8 Feb, 8pm

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A well-acted, mostly well-written and beautifully shot piece, marred by a couple of jarring and mystifying scenes

Review:
A Swedish family – successful husband Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), his luscious wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two kids (a boy and girl, completing an image of the perfect nuclear family) – are seated at a table at a top-floor restaurant of a luxe ski resort, looking out over the snowfields. The weather is gorgeous, their food has arrived, they are at the beginning of their hols and everything is dandy – then there is a rumble and a tsunami of snow rolls down towards them from on high. Controlled, assures hubby/daddy. But the rumbling builds and the snow looms up at them. Screams, the mother covering her kids with her body as best she can as the world turns white, visibility zero. Dad? Um, well…

This is not an original scenario, but the treatment of the doubts and hurt the father’s actions trigger in his wife and their children, his denial of his instinct-driven flight response, and his struggle to redeem himself, powers the movie to its conclusion, and is mostly superbly managed. Layer by layer, husband and wife reveal the turmoil lurking within. It’s a slow psychological strip tease, protracted but gripping, and culminating in a dramatic meltdown in which Tomas confronts the uncomfortable (and somewhat unconvincing) reality that he is a base creature enslaved to his primal instincts. A bit OTT. Well, more than a bit.

As is a baffling and jarring drunken bloke-bonding scene in the nocturnal snow outside a tavern that engulfs Tomas like an avalanche, erupting out of nowhere and seemingly having no other function but to emphasise the primal in the Swedish male (and by extension, males everywhere). One of those moments of ‘poetry’ that editors should strive to temper.

The skiing environment is most beautifully captured. The hissing of the skis carving through the powdery virgin snow, the enchanting enveloping quiet, the sense of natural perfection, will raise hairs on the arms of anyone who has experienced a snowfield in full splendour. Yet, as with the characters, there is always the sense that beneath the gorgeous white placidity lies danger, ugliness, mortal threat. This is enhanced by a refrain of unsettling booms throughout, issuing from periscope-like funnels in the mountainside intended to safeguard against avalanches by dislodging build-ups of loose snow. The plans of mice and men…

The performances are top notch, and while the piece is slow-paced, it is engrossing throughout, with most of the action in the well-steered dialogue between Tomas and Ebba as they negotiate an emotional minefield en route to resolving that which separates and threatens to tear them apart for good.

The ending is perplexing, and like a couple of other mystifying scenes, its purpose is not clear. It could be irritating for some, while others might be moved to engage in some lively post-viewing discussion.

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Jimmy’s Hall movie review

Featuring: Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Jim Norton, Andrew Scott, Brian F. O’Byrne
Director: Ken Loach
Screenwriter: Paul Laverty
Movie Website: www.facebook.com/JimmysHallFilm

2014-15 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Somerville: 19-25 Jan, 8pm
Joondalup Pines: 27 Jan-1 Feb, 8pm

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Enjoyable, beautifully shot and well performed, but undermined by a propagandist element that detracts from the humanism of the piece.

Review:
The focus of director Ken Loach throughout his long filmmaking career has been the fight of the battler to rise above the indignity and misery of exploitation and economic disempowerment through spirit, humour and the support of a working class community bound by shared values. This tale of Jimmy Gralton, the only Irishman to have been deported from Ireland, is typical Loach fare.

Set in the 1930s, with post-Civil War Ireland under a new government, the film opens with a definitively Irish scene of a cart and horse traversing a winding road through lovely green country. On board is Jimmy (Barry Ward), returning to his home county after a decade of exile in New York prompted by the Church and capitalist forces threatened and outraged by his Communist views and influence on locals while running a community hall encouraging free-thinking and non-traditional contemporary cultural expression.

His plan is to live a quiet life and look after his aging mother. It is not long, however, before bored young locals, for whom he has acquired legendary status, urge him to re-open the hall. Reluctant to risk antagonising the Church and wealthy landowners who have claimed the hall as their property, he initially declines, but it is not long before he follows his heart and reverses his decision.

With the community assisting to refurbish the dilapidated hall and the objections of the party-pooping landowners overcome, it is soon thrumming with activity: boxing, free-thinking discussion groups, and the latest in jazz dance moves brought back from New York by Jimmy, along with a marvellous new gramophone and a swag of groovy records.

It is not long before Jimmy is back in direct conflict with his old enemies. The local priest, Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), emerges as the villain of the piece, and he and Jimmy as figureheads for opposing philosophies and political forces: Christian fundamentalism vs free-thinking humanism, conservative vs progressive, socialist vs capitalist. There is no doubt, of course, about where Loach’s sympathies lie, and his black-and-white treatment of the two characters and the sides they represent is not much short of propagandist – always a weakness in a film in a dramatic context, and too often so in Loach’s work.

That said, Father Sheridan’s ego-driven fundamentalism, and his conviction that his values are right and absolute, and that those who do not share them are to be condemned if not eliminated in the name of righteousness, have tragic parallels in the loathsome terrorist scourge that besets us today. It is difficult to resist mentally hissing at this nasty, scheming, bigoted old bastard, and all he stands for.

Jimmy, on the other hand, is not the powerful personality he should be. Loach downplays his protagonist’s Communist ideology, thereby undercutting his supposed status as a formidable political adversary and threat to the Establishment. Jimmy comes across not so much as a free-thinking revolutionary as an importer of jazz and New World style, and Father Sheridan as a prude and killjoy, rather than a cleric who understands and recognises the threat represented by an ideology that would seek to liberate whole populations from the shackles of the Church and the capitalist system.

The film is at its best when the characters are allowed free reign, unhitched to any political agenda. For example, the high point of the film is a scene in which Jimmy and his ex-girlfriend Oonagh (Simone Kirby) dance alone in the notorious hall, she wearing for the first and probably only time a fetching New York flapper dress he’d gifted her. This touching dance of love unrequited and doomed, but enduring through all, is poignant indeed.

If Jimmy’s Hall is to be Loach’s swansong, as he claims, he has finished with a movie that is enjoyable, beautifully shot and well performed, but it could have been more. He has chosen to sign off as a propagandist in service of his political ideology, when it is his deep-seated humanism that has powered his best work.

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Birdman movie review

Featuring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianikis, Lindsay Duncan
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenwriters: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Movie website: www.birdmanthemovie.com/
Australian release date: Thu 15 Jan, 2015
(Advance screenings: Luna, Fri 9 Jan – Sun 11 Jan)

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A brilliantly directed and performed comedic nightmare excursion into the mayhem and anxiety that is part and parcel of theatrical productions as the clock ticks down to opening night.

Review:
Once famous for playing movie superhero Birdman, ageing Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is seeking to revive his flagging career and gain some artistic cred by staging his adaptation of a Raymond Carver play on Broadway.

Riggan’s ambitious project is beset with problems. His neurotic manager (Zach Galifianikis) is close to a crack-up, and more hindrance than help. Upping the tension, a cast member is injured, and with opening night approaching Riggan has no option but to replace him with temperamental, headstrong method actor Mike (Edward Norton) whose narcissism is out of control. While this talented spotlight-bogarting bighead brings edge to the play, there is the ever-present danger that he will push it over the brim.

The two female co-stars are also a worry: one is Riggan’s loose cannon girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), the other (Naomi Watts) a très sensitive and vulnerable Broadway debutante who must be handled with care. But Riggan’s woman trouble doesn’t end there. Out of parental obligation he has hired his troubled daughter Sam (Emma Stone) as an assistant. Just out of rehab, she is a resentful and distracting presence. Worse, New York’s most powerful theatre critic, fearsome nutcracker Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), is gunning for the hapless Riggan, outraged that a trashy Hollywood action star should dare presume he has anything to offer Broadway.

However, Riggan’s self-image is perhaps his greatest obstacle to success in his new stage career. He is shackled to the Birdman character, whose taunting voice is always in his ear, reinforcing his self-doubt and urging him to return to his superhero role. When his esteem is at its lowest following a mauling in a bar from Tabitha Dickinson, the Birdman character manifests itself accompanied by Hollywood comic-hero explosions and other big-action dramatic effects that mock Riggan’s current quest for artistic credibility.

Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu draws on Riggan’s inner chaos and that of the backstage theatre world in fashioning the film, creating a fascinating tonal weirdness by combining elements that should not work together, but mostly do. In the opening scene, for example, Riggan is in his dressing room, levitating cross-legged a metre above the floor in his underwear (not a good look, regardless of the apparent magic and mysticism afoot). The image is open to multiple interpretations. Are we in for a fantasy trip, a dose of magic realism, an externalising of Riggan’s inner imaginings/delusions, a pisstake? Yes, yes, yes and yes…maybe.

And so it goes throughout the film as Iñárritu lets loose, giving his considerable powers full reign. Using extended one-take shots, he stalks Riggan on his comedic nightmare excursion into the mad, volatile, frenetic, frightening mayhem of his newly adopted theatre milieu as the clock ticks down to opening night. Against a backdrop of personal and professional crises, rehearsals teeter on the balance, as last-minute script and interpretative changes force the play and its players into a painful and confronting metamorphosis, and the wild-riding cinematography expresses this.

This is virtuoso filmmaking, no less, and on one level it is deadly serious in its intent, but there is nothing precious about it; there is always an undercurrent of irony, of black humour. In the most memorable scene of the film, for instance, a near-naked Riggan accidentally locks himself on the wrong side of a side-exit and has no choice but to run through the crowded streets of Broadway to the main entrance of the theatre. It’s a funny sequence, yet sobering in its figurative allusion to Riggan’s past and present career, and to the self-exposing and sacrificing – and potentially humiliating – nature of acting itself.

Michael Keaton will be acclaimed for this performance, and deservedly so. He is in lockstep with Iñárritu’s direction; these guys were made for each other, and for this film. Other than Keaton, Norton and Stone are the standouts, but all the performers hit the right notes, which is no mean feat in a work of this complexity and tonal ambivalence.

Unfortunately, there are some wobbles approaching the finish line. The ending works, yet is disappointing at the same time. Perhaps Iñárritu is a victim of his own brilliance, setting up the expectation that he will demand his screenwriters pull something special out of the hat, yet accepting only a rabbit.

This is the smallest of gripes – Birdman is no bunny. It’s a free-flying fn dizzbuster of a film that should be seen on the big screen. Opens 15 January. Mark the date.

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Two Days, One Night movie review

Featuring: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salée, Pili Groyne, Simon Caudry, Baptiste Sornin
Screenwriters/Directors: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Movie Website: www.ifcfilms.com/films/two-days-one-night

2014-15 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Somerville: 5-11 Jan, 8pm
Joondalup Pines: 13-18 Jan, 8pm

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A beautifully written, directed and performed piece of realist cinema, with Marion Cotillard exquisite in the lead role.

Review:
Great to kick off 2015 with a terrific film like this. Hopefully, it’s a forerunner of a bumper batch ahead.

The narrative is as simple and slight as they come: a young Belgian mother, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), having learnt that she has been laid off, spends the weekend visiting her co-workers to try to convince them to forgo their annual bonuses so that she can keep her job. Just out of hospital after a nervous breakdown and meek by nature, the task before her seems insurmountable, but with the constant encouragement of her husband she plugs on, calling on one person after another.

In terms of action, there is not much more to the film than Sandra traipsing from one home to another, and pleading her case. However, as Monday approaches and her support numbers edge closer to the crucial majority she needs, the dramatic tension builds, and you find yourself on the edge of your seat, willing her on.

The simplicity of the narrative places Sandra in the full and unrelenting glare of the spotlight. There is nowhere for Cotillard to hide, but she is flawless in her sensitive depiction of Sandra’s courageous battle to overcome the low self-esteem that makes her humiliating mission so daunting, and riveting in her charting of her fragile character’s inching progress. She compels us along on her emotional rollercoaster ride: the tiny growth spurts in Sandra’s confidence as she scores small victories are warming, inspirational, yet just when she dares to hope, another co-worker turns her down. Her pain and despair as she crumples is palpable, but her husband is always there to pick her up and somehow she resumes the fight, running on empty save for his enduring love and support.

While this is an unremarkable suburban setting, and the characters ordinary people living small lives, all the dualities of large-scale drama are present: heroism and villainy, loyalty and treachery, self-interest and altruism, courage and cowardice…and the rewards for the viewer, as for the lead character who finds the guts to fight the good fight to the bitter-sweet sting-in-the-tail end, are rich indeed.

Two Days, One Night is realist cinema at its best. No guns, no ultra-violence, no lurid sex, no CGI – just an entirely credible narrative underlying a beautifully written, directed and performed piece of cinema, with Cotillard simply exquisite in the lead role. What more do you want?

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