“SELMA” (2014) Q & A w/Ava DuVernay,Common, Carmen Ejojo

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Yes, I should have done this review ages ago as it’s been a month since I attended an Oscar screening of this film along with an after-screening Q & A with Director: Ava DuVernay; Cast members Common, Carmen Ejojo, and Henry G. Sanders. Not even sure why I waited so long, but I will say I’ve thought some about it since then. Maybe it’s because the movie, while I’m not even going to pretend it isn’t a strong, powerful film, just missed a few things for me. And historical inaccuracies aside, as let’s be real, many prestigious movies take dramatic license with historical events and pretty much all bio-pics have them, I think I’ve just been trying to put my finger on what it was. Could be the slower pace of it or the fact that, some needlessly added small odd scenes, at times I thought I was watching a MLK biopic instead of a Selma one, or for me the too strong religious aspect of it. Yes I am fully aware and know MLK was REVEREND Martin Luther King..I am aware of the fact he was a religious man, but since they are taking liberties with some things, including re-writing the “I Have a Dream” speech, this would have been what I would have chosen to tone down some as some of it comes off unnecessary in parts. But whatever it was, I think a lot of it has to do with everything going on from Ferguson to New York to Paris, maybe I’ve been trying to come to terms with man’s atrocities against each other in every way and this film started that for me as it couldn’t have come at a more relevant time. Selma 1

As the opening of the film opens with a heart-wrenching explosion we move along quickly to the man “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” (David Oyelowo), pulling off a performance that seems true to the man without being a caricature or overly reverent. The film acknowledges that King was a man, with faults like any other, but in a way that makes him affecting. Oyelowo doesn’t look especially like King, but he does capture a good rendition of the heart & soul of the man. However, he’s only a piece of the puzzle, with this being a true ensemble film with at least a dozen good roles, from Carmen Ejogo as King’s wife Coretta, to pros like Wendell Pierce as “Rev. Hosea Williams”, musician/actor Common “James Bevel” and Martin Sheen “Frank Minis Johnson” as some of the allies King encountered along the way.
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The film does a great job portraying just how much the people in the march, from all walks of life, were risking their lives by participating, against a southern resistance ranging from ignorant yokels to devious politicians, to definitely more than a few sadists, who were so keen to inflict harm to the peaceful marchers that at times it’s painful to watch. There are scenes of people riding horses and brandishing whips, covering wood clubs with spoke-like wire to inflict as much damage as possible on the marchers. While some might think it’s puzzling as to where this hate comes from, but even more so in that the film tries to keep an even hand in showing both sides. Tim Roth as “Gov. George Wallace” could have easily played him as demonic, but he tries and somewhat succeeds to humanize him as much as he can, which is not easy when you’re playing one of history’s truly great evil bastards. Tom Wilkinson is very effective as “Lyndon Johnson“, who’s not above playing the good ol’boy card with Wallace, but also sympathizes with King, even if he’s reluctant to stir up trouble and makes a few horrible decisions along the way.
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In a cast of ‘names’ many of which I have been a fan of for a long long time, yes I’m looking at you Lorraine Toussaint “Amelia Boynton”, Tom Wilkinson, Giovanni Ribisi “Lee White”, Wendall Pierce, Tim Roth and yes, even Oprah Winfry as I wasn’t an ‘talkshow’ Oprah fan, but I am an ‘actress’ Oprah fan. My three standouts of this film that made me sit up and take notice are Stephen James as “John Lewis”, Trai Byers as “James Forman”, and lastly Alessandro Nivola as “John Doar”.

Hopefully the best thing about “Selma” that we can take away from it is that it’s not a movie about blame or hate. Rather, it’s hopeful in that it shows how people can come together and change things for the better in a non-violent manner ~ a message that should always be kept in mind when things get out of hand as they often do. Even with it’s faults,“Selma” is a strong film that sends a clear message to a new generation about what standing up against intimidation in any form is all about. It is a passionate work about a towering figure who left an enduring legacy, but one that, as recent events might indicate, is still short of completion. selma common 1

Additional note: I love Q & A’s after films with directors/producers/cast etc. They really give you insight sometimes into things about how the film got made or a fun antidote or two.. This Oscar screening was on Thursday, December 18th,2014 at The Landmark Theater with Dir. Ava DuVernay giving insight into that this project was really made because of David Oyelowo who took it and ran with it (which explains the large Brit casting also! 🙂 ) getting Oprah & her team including Brad Pitt & others involved, including picking her as the director, even though she didn’t have much experience and convincing everyone to get onboard. Also, reasoning behind not using the actual “I Have a Dream” speech..the rights to it are held by someone else who has never used them and they could not get them for this film so she ended up re-writing it herself. As for something I completely did not know, at the end of the film we see a shot of a bridge ~ it’s the “Edmund Pettus Bridge” ~ as DuVernay noted was named after the leader of the Klan back then..it’s name remains today.
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Grade: B-

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“A MOST VIOLENT YEAR” (2014) – REVIEW ~ Incl. Q & A w/Cast & Dir/Prod/Writer

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Truth be told ~ A Most Violent Year could come off sounding like the most boring movie ever about the most dry industry ever. Set in New York City in 1981, Oscar Isaac plays “Abel Morales“, the owner of a heating oil company in the early 80’s when people, instead of having to deal with the electric or gas company for heating, they negotiated heating oil prices with the providers directly. Odd but true. But life has been good for Morales. Being an immigrant, he’s risen through the ranks from driver to owner, married a beautiful, smart woman, “Anna” (Jessica Chastain) who has a rather wealthy & somewhat connected father herself, “Bill” (Peter Gerety) and he’s just about to close the biggest deal of his life.
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But all is not well at Standard Oil. Abel is trying to negotiate a deal to expand their business and gain ground by getting “Josef” (Jerry Adler) and his devoutly Jewish, not completely on the up & up, family to agree to sell their highly-valued, much in demand property to him vs. the competition. And he has 30 days to make this happen. All the while, his company is under investigation for fraud, the bank has pulled out of their real estate deal, trucks of oil are being stolen left and right from Morales’ and to make matters worse, now his seemingly perfect home life is starting to show cracks. It’s definitely a ‘violent’ year for Morales but not in how you might imagine.
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A Most Violent Year plays out like a gangster movie but not like one I’ve ever seen before as it’s done in a refreshingly understated, non-sensationalist gangster movie way as these are guys who don’t even carry guns, and are actually committed to trying to conduct their business in a non-violent manner which may or may not work out for them. This is really about as far from a Scorsese type gangster flick you can get. There’s no real flash in either the direction or the acting as everything is on a very different balance here though I will say, while it might be slow at times, it is never dull. It’s like ‘Casino’ but minus everything that makes it loud, brash or wild. What’s left is a quiet, almost pensive exploration of one man’s year long struggle to keep his business and his life on the path he’s chosen. And sure, there’s the occasional flash of violence but it rarely involves our lead character directly. In fact, the key players ~ Abel, Anna, “Lawrence” (David Oyelowo), “Walsh” (Albert Brooks) and O’Leary ~ are all locked in a power struggle that rarely resorts to violence though some of them really want to use it, Abel feels business can be conducted without it. Instead, the group handle their differences in heated discussions, occasional emotional blowouts and the always to be expected backroom deal.
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When Anna emerges as not only the saviour of sorts, in a pivotal scene of shockingly good grit and Abel blows up at her, is where the film breaks some truly fascinating ground. Not only does Anna emerge as the badass gangster who’s playing the angles and saving the day, but you really start to question just how moral Abel is. It’s here that you see begin to see the layers of movie really begin to reveal themselves. In possibly one of the best on-foot chase scenes that I’ve ever seen in a movie with Morales in dress shoes no less, though the scene some might say comes a little late in the game, I couldn’t help but love every second of it.

The film cements itself together not only by excellent performances from Isaac, Chastain and the strong supporting cast, but by small things like the locations and a truly fantastic step back into this world with even a great wardrobe of the time making it all the more realistic. A Most Violent Year may not be my favourite film of the year, but it will definitely emerge as a contender during awards season.
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Note: Following the film was a fantastic Q & A with Dir/Writer: J.C. Chandor, Actors: Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac, Producers: Neal Dodson, Anna Gerb; who really gave a wonderful detailed explanation of the idea & set, even his trenchcoat idea behind the film. Truly, if you haven’t seen a J.C. Chandor movie, you’re missing out. Like, seriously missing out. So don’t skip A Most Violent Year either, you should see it and then head back and check out the director’s previous work like the wonderfully brilliant, “All is Lost” & “Margin Call

Grade: B-

**Seen on Monday, November 17th at a PGA screening at the Arclight Theaters (Hollywood) ~ A Most Violent Year opens December 31, 2014.
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(See grading scale)