Selma – A Review

SELMA

Selma is the type of movie where no one moves even when the film is over; as the credit rolled, an eerie stillness came over the theater that no one seemed willing to disturb. Usually half the audience jumps out of their seats as soon as a movie fades to black – myself included – but I had no instinct to do that at Selma. As John Legend and Common’s Golden Globe winning song played, the most appropriate action seemed to be quiet reflection on how far we’ve come, as well as how far we have to go. On how though the events of the movie feel like that of a different time, they also feel very current. Though many people who see Selma are familiar with the history that is depicted, Selma is still a movie that quietly demands your respect and doesn’t feel rehashed. This is due to a stellar performance by David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. and the film’s decision to also focus on the organization that goes into a movement and not just the voting rights marches themselves.

Selma, as the title indicates, focuses on the events that took place in Selma, Alabama in 1965 to protest the institutional barriers that prevented African-Americans from registering to vote. African-Americans were systematically denied access to the voting booth, which not only denied them a voice in their government but that also prevented them from serving on juries. Those seeking to register to vote were additionally subjected to intimidation and physical violence. After failing to get President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to enact federal legislation to address this issue, Martin Luther King, Jr. (Oyelowo) and his group descend on Selma to participate in nonviolence protest to draw attention to the issue, mobilize the people and hopefully force the President’s hand. King’s arrival in Selma is not totally welcomed; not only are Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and many of the local residents and elected officials hostile, but he must also contend with the cold shoulder from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that view King’s arrival as invading their turf. Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) are also upset that King is trying to tell them what to do and alludes to them trying to sow the seeds of marital discord between Martin and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo). Selma is as much about the navigation and logistics of a movement as the big events of the movement, which I think only strengthens the film and provides a fresh perspective and background to these historic moments.

While I have never organized anything as important or large as the events of Selma, I have done my fair share of project management and I appreciated that the film delved into all the things that must be considered and addressed before something like the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches can happen. Not only are there the basic logistics that must be worked out, but there are a ton of strategic and political considerations that should be taken into account. A march like the one that took place in 1965 doesn’t just happen and the process of pulling something like that off is just as interesting as the march itself. King and his group are not operating in a vacuum and must navigate the many people and groups that are in play. Potential allies may differ on methods (Malcolm X, SNCC) or priorities (President Johnson) and figuring out when to make concessions and when to jeopardize these possible alliances, while not infuriating his core constituency, is a delicate balance that Martin must strike.

This is not to say that the film is a boring tutorial on how a social movement gets things done; thanks to a very talented cast, led by Oyelowo, Selma is a compelling drama even when it swells more on process than outcome. It really is a shame that David Oyelowa was not nominated for his performance because in my mind, he really personifies Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His soaring oratory is powerful and inspiring, despite the fact that the film couldn’t use any of Dr. King’s actual speeches. You’d be forgiven for not realizing that, since the excellent writing and Oyelowo’s transformative performance capture the spirit of King so completely. But there is obviously more to Dr. King than just some powerful preaching and the film does not shy away from depicting King as a flawed and imperfect man. Oyelowo is just as great in the more quiet scenes, when King is troubled or struggling, as he is in giving rousing sermons. The film makes clear that while Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an extraordinary man, he was just a man. He faced criticism within his group and wrestled with the harm in which he was placing many people with his activism. Oyelowo flawlessly handles all facets of King and by humanizing him a bit, makes him all the more impressive a figure. It’s a beautiful and powerful performance; he avoids all the traps of playing a legend like Dr. King and you’d be forgiven for getting so swept up that you momentarily forget that he is acting. The rest of the cast is also top notch – including a nice supporting role by Oprah and the always great Wendell Pierce – but this Oyelowo’s star making vehicle. I can’t wait to see what projects he does next.

As spectacular as the speeches are and as fascinating I found all the behind the scenes organization, the most powerful moments of Selma are the actual acts of protest in the film. The brutalization that the protesters meet in front of the county courthouse and on the march to Montgomery is difficult to watch, but historically accurate. Seeing so much hatred is difficult for me to process, but I also know that still exists in the world. At the same time, it is an uplifting reminder that people did not let the violence they endured dissuade them from a cause that was just. Even though it was fictional, I still found myself tearing up at these scenes – in sadness that only 50 years ago that this type of ignorance was so pervasive and public and in inspiration for all the brave men and women who would not be deterred.

There has been a lot of controversy about the depiction of Lyndon Johnson in Selma, with critics complaining that the movie unfairly paints the President as opposed to the marches and being less than proactive in addressing the issue of voter registration. I have no idea of Johnson’s actual feelings, but even as depicted I don’t think that that Selma hurts LBJ’s legacy. In the film, Johnson agrees the failure of African-Americans to vote is a problem, but wants to hold off addressing it until a later time. I don’t think that makes him a villain, but a realistic politician. It’s an issue of timing, not disagreement. As LBJ says in the movie, he doesn’t have one issue to address, he has hundreds. If anything, I think these scenes show the very real disconnect that sometimes occur between activists and government officials; every activist thinks that their issue is the most important thing, while government officials are often juggling multiple issues and have limited political capital. That may not be what an activist wants to hear, especially with an issue as important as access to the voting booth, but it is a very real hurdle that must be dealt with. Activists are idealists and government officials are often pragmatists, which leads to conflict. I didn’t think LBJ was a monster or a bad guy after Selma; if anything, those scenes made the movie more realistic to me. I also enjoyed that Selma avoids the cliché that other movies about the African-American civil rights movement feel they need to include – the “white savior” scene where the true success comes once white people get involved. There are allies of all races in Selma, but this is a movie that rightfully focuses on what the African-American community accomplished on its own. Courting the public opinion of white middle America is part of King’s game plan, but it is a tool in their strategy, not the ultimate goal. It’s a little distinction, but it’s important that Selma makes it.

I thoroughly enjoyed Selma, despite the difficulty in watching some scenes. It’s an important part of this country’s history that deserves to be revisited and contains some spectacular performances from David Oyelowo and the rest of the cast. By delving into some of the issues that surrounded the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march, the actual event is actually elevated and the viewer has a more well-rounded view of how things happened. In addition, the film’s willingness to look at King’s shortcomings results in a more realistic movie. Selma is a film that is definitely worth watching. It’s message is just as important today as it was fifty years ago.

Selma is currently in wide release.

American Sniper – A Review

 

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I was anxious to see American Sniper even before it received so many Oscar nominations, but I was dubious as to how much I would actually enjoy it. My disinterest in most “war movies” is well documented; for whatever reason, I have difficulty connecting with this genre of films. I find the battle scenes too chaotic and often the characters too underdeveloped. I continue to try these films with the hope that something will stick, but the results are decidedly not in the genres favor. Despite that track record, I enjoy Bradley Cooper and have liked many of Clint Eastwood’s (non-war related) directorial efforts so I was looking forward to giving American Sniper a try. I hoped that the focus on one man’s story and his role as a sniper, rather than a soldier on the front line, would eliminate many of the issues that I tend to have with films set on the battle field.

The more focused story and the minimal use of large battle scenes combined with a strong performance by Bradley Cooper made a film that I really liked, though I can’t say that I loved. Based on his memoir, American Sniper tells the story of Christopher Kyle, a Navy SEAL that was proclaimed to be the most deadly sniper in the history of the U.S. armed forces. While there are some flashbacks to flesh out his early years and military training, the primary focus of the movie is Kyle’s four tours of duty in Iraq and the effect that they had on him. Though he believed in the cause and as proud of what he had done to protect his fellow soldiers, American Sniper depicts the gradual toll that this takes on his psyche and his difficulty in adjusting back to civilian life in between tours. Not only do we ask soldiers to be prepared to lay down their lives for their country, but we also ask them to be prepared to take life. That is a burden for anyone. But for snipers, the act of killing is more intimate and personal in a way; you are basically hunting human beings – quietly stalking them and waiting for that perfect shot. Before you end a person’s life, a sniper has to watch them. To be a sniper requires a certain type of person, but it also brings with it its own special challenges. His first official kills are most likely not what he had in mind when he signed up.

Because of Kyle’s occupation, American Sniper is a far more quiet film than you might anticipate. While most of the film takes place out on the battlefield, Kyle’s relative isolation during many of scenes means that he is removed from the action. I think that is a real strength of the movie, because during these moments we are better able to understand Kyle as a person and how his effectiveness at his job does not come without baggage. This is a movie is more about a man than about a war; Iraq may be the backdrop, but with the exception of one climatic action sequence this is a much stiller movie. That doesn’t mean that American Sniper is boring; if anything, the judicious use of combat actually ramps up the tension and makes it slightly easier to get inside Kyle’s head a bit. To me, it is much more nerve wracking to have a person in your sights (literally) and waiting for the moment to pull the trigger. But if you are expecting Saving Private Ryan level epic-ness, you are going to be somewhat disappointed.

Bradley Cooper is to be credited for how effectively he brought Chris Kyle to life; not only did Cooper do the obvious things like bulk up and work on his Texas accent, but his nuanced performance does a beautiful job of showing the slow unraveling of Kyle with each additional tour of duty. Out on the front line with his comrades in arms, there is a vitality to Cooper’s performance. This is a man who loves the comradery of military life and wants to protect the lives of the other soldiers. This is where Kyle feels most comfortable. You only see the slightest hint of how this is impacting his psyche, until Kyle intermittently comes home to his wife and children. Civilian life is a mystery to Kyle and while he wants to engage with his family, he just no longer knows how to do so completely. This is when Cooper allows the cracks in Kyle’s armor to be most visible, but there is still a restraint. This is a man that is struggling, not because he is weak, but because of the tremendous burden that he’s been asked to carry. Kyle never completely loses it, but Cooper’s artful depiction makes it clear that this is a man that is slowly drowning. Cooper is so good that he completely disappears into the role. There’s no costume or prosthetics to hide behind; Cooper just becomes this character so completely that you forget that you are watching a movie star up on the screen. This is a natural performance that shows the conflict that was slowly bubbling up inside Kyle as the conflict raged on around him – not a conflict over the war or its justness, but in processing the taking of so many lives. This movie was a passion project for Cooper and it clearly shows.

I also have to commend Clint Eastwood for how he shot this movie. Despite its subject matter, this is a beautiful looking film and his use of camera angles and perspective serve not only to make the movie visually interesting, but compliment Cooper’s performance in helping the viewer understand Kyle’s point of view, both figuratively and literally. Eastwood knows how to film a movie about war and he shows of his skill in American Sniper.

Yet as much as I enjoyed Bradley Cooper’s performance, I can only saw that this was a good – not great – film. I can’t put my finger exactly on what limited my praise of the film, but I think it is partially the overall thinness of the story. All of the depth comes from Cooper’s performance, rather than the narrative itself. There is a fair amount of repetition, which is probably very accurate but not interesting to watch. I would have liked a balance that was more focused on his life at home and slightly less on his time in Iraq, simply to provide better context for his conflict. The film doesn’t take an overt perspective on the war, nor does it have to, but I think I would have enjoyed a film that had a little more complexity written into it. Cooper infuses as many layers as he can, but there are not a lot of layers inherently written into the narrative. Most biopics tend to whitewash a lot, and this film did take some creative license, but I think the inclusion of more shades of grey would have only strengthened the film.

Some other thoughts:

  • During the wedding scene, Kyle finds out that he’s being deployed and I had flashbacks to the wedding I went to where my date found out in the middle of the reception that he was going to be deployed to Afghanistan. Kind of put a damper on the evening.
  • There is a scene in the film where it is very obvious that they used a fake baby. Really obvious. Like, distractingly obvious.

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I have no idea what was going on in that scene because I was staring at the doll that they had swaddled. Even more disconcerting was that they piped in real baby noises. Turns out, I am not the only person who noticed this. Screenwriter Jason Hall even felt the need for an explanation. Still, I don’t know why they didn’t just re-shoot the scene or remove the baby from the scene. To use the doll was a big mistake, based on all the attention it’s getting.

  • Sienna Miller doesn’t get a ton of screen time, but she was very good as Kyle’s wife Taya.
  • I knew the fate of Chris Kyle before the movie, but if you are interested in reading more about the real life story, you can look here, here and here.
  • Chris Kyle appeared on Conan when his book came out:

 

  • I got surprisingly excited when Sam Jaeger (Joel, Parenthood) turned up in a small part. Jake McDorman (Evan, Greek) has a slightly larger role as one of Kyle’s brothers in arms.
  • Even I got a little teary eyed at the real life footage that they use during the end credits.
  • I saw the film in IMAX – a rare splurge on my part – and that only enhanced the film.

I thought American Sniper was a solid, not stellar, movie that is elevated by a fantastic performance by Bradley Cooper. This is a film that is more a character study than a war movie, which definitely contributed to my overall enjoyment of the film. I’m not surprised that it was nominated for Best Picture, but I’m not sure that it actually deserves to win. Still, it absolutely a movie worth seeing. There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the film recently, but I walked out of the film reminded of the tremendous sacrifice that our member of the military and their families make on a regular basis. I didn’t see any ideological slant or propaganda either way, but I also wasn’t looking for it either. Not my favorite film of this awards season, but worthy of being in the conversation.

American Sniper is currently in wide release.

 

 

Pop Culture Odds and Ends – Team Trivia Edition

 

I love trivia; as a kid, one of my favorite games was Trivial Pursuit and I always tried to steer people toward playing that over other board games. Part of the reason I enjoy trivia is because I am good at it – I read a lot, I’m up on current events and I have a good memory – but I also enjoy it because I usually learn something in the process of playing it. I’ve been playing Trivia Crack on my phone, but I’m hard pressed to find people that want to play as much as I do. My poor brother has been dragged into playing games with me in perpetuity and even he is taking longer and longer in between rounds.

One of my favorite things to do is to go to bars on trivia nights and play, but I have a tough time recruiting anyone to go. To me, it’s the greatest night out – have some beers, play some trivia and compete with other people – and I would do it all the time if I could. So when my friend Marty asked me if I wanted to go to a trivia night, I jumped at the chance despite the fact that I’m still not feeling 100%. I wasn’t sure when the opportunity was going to come along again. And here’s a little hint – having a pop culture blogger on your team dramatically increases your chances of winning. It might have been a light turnout, but we dominated the contest. It helped that there were a lot of questions about pop culture – the Oscars in particular – but I’m not bad at sports or history either. Geography is my kryptonite – we were asked to name the capitol of Guyana and I’m not going to lie – I had completely forgotten that was even a country. Thankfully, the geography-related questions were few and far between and the overall questioning of the night was more in our wheelhouse. Even the host of the trivia night came over to say how well we were doing. It was a lot of fun and it was nice to have a chance to showcase all that useless information that I have rattling around in my head. Plus I got to try peanut butter and jelly wings (yes – you read that right). Even if we hadn’t won, I wound have had a good time. Hopefully I can do this more regularly.

This week’s pop culture roundup is full of the kind of trivia that might come in handy. So put your team together (feel free to invite me) and study up on all the pop culture that you might have missed in the last week.

  • He seemed to have a sense of humor about the recent SNL skit about him:

 

  • This two year playing the drums is no joke:

 

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Time for some trailers…..

  • A trailer for the second season of The Strain:

 

  • The Walking Dead returns:

 

  • A teaser for the upcoming Game of Thrones special:

 

  • The 4th season of Veep:

 

  • A new trailer for Get Hard:

 

  • A teaser for the third season of Bates Motel:

 

  • A new animated film, Underdogs:

 

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  • The cast of The West Wing reunited to promote Big Block of Cheese Day:

 

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  • Nobody told me that a Batmobile stroller was an option; I might have made some different decisions:

 

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  • Inquiring minds want to know…could Kool-Aid man actually burst through a wall:

 

  • There are a lot of X-men; this video helps you keep all of them straight:

 

  • Conan got the Archer treatment and battled some Russian mobsters:

 

 

As always, we end with the mashups and supercuts….

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  • Cookie Monster sings “Fade Into You:”

 

  • A supercut of the bad acting from VCR board games (remember when those were the coolest thing ever?):

 

  • Fall Out Boy covering “Uptown Funk” is better than it should be:

 

  • This supercut proves women get asked terrible questions on the red carpet:

 

  • And finally, Boyhood meets Boy Meets World: