REVIEW: “Selma”


The process to bring “Selma” to the big screen began in 2008. Since then “Selma” has had director changes, producer changes, cast changes, and script rewrites. But now it has finally hit theaters with director Ava DuVernay at the helm. As expected the film has generated a lot of buzz, critical acclaim, and its share of controversy. Going into the film I was excited to see how well the story would be told. I was also cautious and concerned about how the historical liberties I’ve been reading about would effect the film’s impact.

“Selma” doesn’t set out to be a comprehensive biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Instead it focuses on the events surrounding the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. I appreciated the film’s disregard for the standard biopic blueprint. MLK’s entire life isn’t crammed into one story. This movie has a very specific story to tell, yet it allows us to glean much about this influential figure. We learn of his motivations, his faults, his fears, and his uncertainties all through observation. We also learn of his bravery, his sacrifice, and his determination.


This chronicle of the Selma march starts with Martin Luther King Jr’s (David Oyelowo) desire to secure true and unhindered voting rights for black Americans. We see him going to President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and urging him to give immediate attention to the matter. We see the festering racial tensions in the south particularly in and around the town of Selma, Alabama. We see King visiting Selma with his fellow SCLC members. He speaks in churches and spreads the message of change through peace and offers encouragement to the black community. We also see the violent backlash against the peaceful protests – something that weighs heavily on Dr. King’s heart.

“Selma” has the big showcase scenes that you would expect, but DuVernay also gives us the smaller more intimate moments. These personal strokes paint a much more detailed portrait of King. There’s a fun scene where he and his SCLC buddies arrive at a female friend’s house for breakfast. It’s a great scene filled with playful banter and jests. There is also a piercing scene between King and his wife Coretta (exquisitely played by Carmen Ejogo). It’s a low-key but intense family moment that DuVernay films with subtle but brutal honesty. We get a number of these touches which are much more than just emotional gimmickry.


And you can’t have a discussion about “Selma” without talking about the performance of David Oyelowo. The British actor loses himself in the role of Dr. King. He is a great match in terms of physical appearance, but he gives us so much more. I was blown away by the steadiness of his voice and his near perfect accent. He also conveys the passion and charisma that I imagine from Dr. King. We see this most in his speeches/sermons at a church in Selma. Oyelowo’s performance is graceful, committed, and nuanced.

“Selma” has so many important things to say and it hits head-on the disgraceful racism that was prevalent at the time. It’s a film that could be taken as an important historical reflection. Unfortunately it loses a portion of its credibility due its historical liberties. I generally stay away from controversies surrounding historical inaccuracies, but for me “Selma” genuinely suffers due to decisions made by DuVernay and writer Paul Webb. It has nothing to do with the racism and violence shown in Selma. All of that was shown with such power and potency. Instead it’s the decision to cast Lyndon B. Johnson as an antagonist, something that simply wasn’t true.

History has shown that Johnson had King had disagreements. But they also had a deep respect and worked together to accomplish the shared goal of equality. Even some close to King have come out to defend Johnson from the film’s characterization. The movie shows Johnson as an obstructionist who grows more and more annoyed with King’s efforts towards equal voting rights. But it doesn’t stop there. The film stops just short of calling Johnson a racist. It also shows Johnson callously using the FBI to hurt King and his family. Many have said this never happened and it depicts Johnson as cold and pernicious. And when he does finally put voting rights legislation forward, the film shows him to be motivated more by his legacy than doing what’s right.


But why did this hurt the film for me? Historical inaccuracies happen all the time in biography movies. For me it hurts the film because it strips it of a potentially strong and relevant message. I mean which would have more impact and resonance, the movie’s characterization of an obstructive and self-serving sitting white President or the true depiction of a white and black man standing side-by-side working towards true and meaningful change? The power and relevance of that message in the current climate is undeniable. Why did DuVernay choose the direction she did? Some of her comments about the making of the film may shed light on her motivations. Regardless it is a frustrating decision that seems unnecessary.

Sadly the “controversy” surrounding “Selma” isn’t without some merit. A lot of people, particularly younger viewers, may look at the film and take it entirely as historical fact. While that may not be completely true, the majority of the movie serves as a forceful and unflinching reminder of the faith and courage shown by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the persecuted black community of that day. The film forces us to experience the undeserved attitudes of hatred commonly thrown at black Americans at the time. It also raises our spirits by showing the determination of a brave community unwilling to sit by and have their rights trampled. The true story of Selma, Alabama has an inspirational power. “Selma” the movie also has that power except when it wanders off into its own revisionist world.


REVIEW: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”


Occasionally I will come across a movie that despite its obvious strengths and critical acclaim never connects with me. Often times it can be traced to a bad initial reaction or maybe to specific themes or performances that I didn’t care for. But there are also occasions where a movie will leave a slight mark in the back of my mind. These are films that deserve to be wrestled with regardless of my initial misgivings. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is one of those films. After a fairly tepid first impression I was ready to dismiss the movie, but overwhelmingly positive reviews and a tinge of curiosity convinced me that this film deserved a second viewing.

Acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman wrote the screenplay which was based on a story he created along with director Michael Gondry and Pierre Bismuth. It cleverly develops itself as a romantic drama but incorporates a subtle bit of science fiction to create a cerebral and multifaceted story. Kaufman and Gondry steer clear of any traditional mode of storytelling and instead engage the audience on an intellectual and emotional level. There’s nothing conventional about “Eternal Sunshine” and at times its lack of clarity may be a little frustrating. But having a firm understanding of the periphery allows you to better understand what is going on inside at the heart of the film.


The story starts by introducing us to a morose and withdrawn man named Joel Barish (Jim Carrey). One morning while waiting on the train for his morning commute he takes off on a whim and hops aboard another train heading out of the city. While aimlessly strolling down a Long Island beach he notices a woman named Clementine (Kate Winslet) who appears to be doing the same thing. A couple of chance meetings later and the two are on the same train heading back into the city. Eventually a relationship forms between these two lost souls, but before we get a good taste of it there is a dramatic narrative shift.

The film leaps forward in time which is the first of many transitions in Kaufman’s fractured storytelling. We find out that Clementine has visited a clinic called Lacuna, Inc. which specializes in wiping certain people or things from an individual’s mind. Clementine has had Joel erased. There is a real challenge here for the audience because neither we nor Joel know why she has done it. You have to wade through this information gap until Kaufman is ready to give you more. An angry Joel decides to enact his own form of revenge by visiting Lacuna himself and having Clementine wiped from his mind.


Lacuna, Inc. is the brainchild of Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). His staff is made up of his peppy receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst), his frazzly haired chief technician Stan (Mark Ruffalo), and his technician’s assistant Patrick (Elijah Wood). Each have their own surprising role to play in this absurd but utterly fascinating procedure that Joel undergoes. They also each have their own bits to add to a lightweight but intriguing side story. From there the majority of the film takes place in Joel’s mind as he has a sudden change of heart and tries to cling to and hide away any memory of Clementine before they can be erased.

The movie snaps back and forth between the surreal world inside Joel’s brain and the real world where an assortment of things play out between the Lacuna gang and Clementine. To go any further would be a criminal injustice to those who haven’t seen the picture but suffice it to say it’s some unique and compelling stuff. Also, you can’t simplify what is going on as I did during my first viewing. Kaufman and Gondry aren’t interested in a straight-line narrative or generic over-used tropes. There is a fragmented structure that is made challenging by the playing around with with chronology and order. But there is a method to the messiness that I didn’t appreciate before.


I also didn’t appreciate just how good of a performance that Carrey gives. Over the past couple of years the actor hasn’t help his sputtering career with some rather dopey decisions he has made. But this is a performance that shows a comedic actor embracing something different and really doing it well. Winslet is her usual rock-solid self. It’s an odd and erratic role but she never struggles with it. The supporting cast is also very good at handling what they are asked to do.

I still think “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a bit indulgent and I do think there are some moments where it doesn’t hit the emotional note that it is going for. But to say my opinion of the film has changed would be an understatement. I can honestly say that “I got it” during my second viewing and my appreciation for what the movie does is unquestioned. I still feel the need to see it again after the birth of my new feelings towards it, but this time it won’t be for the same reasons.


REVIEW: “The Lone Ranger”

Lone Ranger poster

“Pirates of the Caribbean” set in the old west. It’s an unavoidable comparison. It’s also a very accurate description of Gore Verbinski and Jerry Bruckheimer’s “The Lone Ranger”. Johnny Depp again takes center stage and is the ringleader of this wacky and sometimes absurd action adventure. The ingredients are all here. A charismatic and eccentric lead, a fun and action-packed story model, and a filmmaking team who has experienced success before. Maybe that’s why the end result is so disappointing.

As a kid I loved the old television reruns of The Lone Ranger starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels. Well let me say that it didn’t take long for me to see the mammoth sized differences between this film and the great original material. I mean to call this film a reimagining would be a gross understatement. There is almost no similarity between these film and the classic story other than the name and some of the basic cosmetics. There is the white hat and white horse. There are silver bullets and the black masks. There are also a few familiar names and familiar plot points. But you’ll be hard pressed to find many other resemblances. Who knows, maybe that’s where the first of the film’s many missteps begins.

Lone Ranger 2

Now I wasn’t expecting this to be an ultra-serious tribute to this classic character. Again this is from the makers of “Pirates of the Caribbean”. But I also didn’t expect it to be so drastically different and so blasted silly. It starts with the Lone Ranger character himself. Armie Hammer seems completely lost at times playing a character who is a bumbling oaf from the first time we see him until the final credits. The character has good intentions but he’s a far cry from the heroic masked administrator of justice I was hoping for. Hammer’s performance doesn’t help. He struggles through a ridiculous and sometimes numbingly lame script that drags him through a plethora of slapstick and oddball humor that admittedly works on occasions. But more often than not it lands with a thud and Hammer just can’t sell it.

The nuttiness isn’t just confined to Hammer and the lead character. Johnny Depp’s Tonto is in many ways a Native American Jack Sparrow. He channels his famed pirate character in a variety of different ways and I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions. But he also has his share of ludicrous, over-the-top moments. And that can be said for the entire film. It has several eye-rolling moments that are so insanely absurd that they’re impossible to digest. But it also sharply turns in other directions. “The Lone Ranger” has some jarring tonal issues. One minute horses are standing up in trees wearing cowboy hats and the next has a character cutting out and eating a human heart. The movie is literally all over the map.

But perhaps it’s biggest sin is that it’s just so boring in the middle. It starts with a some promise and there are hints of a good story throughout the picture. But soon the film bogs down in a mire of drab and pointless plot. There’s an underwritten and poorly serviced romance. There are throwaway characters such as Helena Bonham Carter’s ivory-legged brothel head whose story would better serve on the cutting room floor. Then there is the film’s general snail paced way of telling the main story. It takes way too long and it becomes a test of endurance just to make it through the arduous 2 hours and 30 minute running time.

Lone ranger 1

But I have to say that the big finale saves the film from being a total disaster. The huge set piece is quite the spectacle and I remember perking up the moment that the William Tell Overture suddenly kicked in. The ending almost feels like its own little short film. It doesn’t feel anything like a Lone Ranger sequence and there isn’t a semblance of realism to be found. But it is insanely entertaining if you can accept its cartoonish and exaggerated approach and go with it. For me it was easily the best part of the film even with its absurdities.

There are some beautiful locations and some of the action is really good. There are moments where the wacky humor works very well. I also enjoyed seeing an assortment of my favorite supporting actors (William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Barry Pepper, and James Badge Dale) even if their roles aren’t particularly well written. But in the end “The Lone Ranger” loses itself in its overbearing insanity and bloated, uneven plot. It never feels like a western and it never knows when to end. What really stinks is that this could’ve been a really good summer movie. Instead it’s $250 million dollars worth of mediocrity and a waste of some really good talent. I may be wrong but I would think Disney would want more from such an investment.