Monday, 2 May 2016

DEBUT FEATURES: Tammy (2014)


Tammy (USA, 2014)
Directed by Ben Falcone
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Allison Janney

It's frequently the fate of Saturday Night Live comedians to follow a successful television career with an immensely underwhelming one in film. The number of SNL cast members who have successfully transitioned to the big screen is relatively small, and the number of successful films based on SNL material is even smaller. For every effort like The Blues Brothers or National Lampoon's Animal House, there are pathetic failures like McGruber, Coneheads and It's Pat! which fall well short of the required standard.
What is ultimately required for any SNL cast member seeing to making the leap is to find the right vehicle, something which can showcase their comedic talents while allowing them to break out of the confinements of TV sketches and demonstrate their potential range. Melissa McCarthy may have already found considerable commercial success since Bridesmaids, but she has yet to find a leading vehicle which genuinely plays to all her strengths. The kindest thing you can say about Tammy is that it isn't the vehicle she needs - though given how trashy mainstream taste has become, it is probably the one we deserve.
Like We're The Millers from the year before, the central problem with Tammy is a total lack of effort on the part of the director in the face of half-decent material. The fact that Ben Falcone is married to his main star may lead to any number of snide remarks about Hollywood relationships, but the problem goes much deeper than any nepotistic tendencies. Falcone's track record in TV is hardly inspiring, helming the Friends spin-off Joey and odd episodes of New Girl - both shows which think they are a great deal funnier and cleverer than they ever had any hope of being.
McCarthy is a talented screen presence, and on a shallow level it's gratifying to find a woman succeeding in Hollywood without being stereotypically skinny. But try as she might, Tammy is a film which constantly conspires against her attempts to bring depth and likeability to her character. It may be more cinematic than a direct spin-off from SNL, insofar as it doesn't overtly feel like a drawn-out series of sketches, but it fails by constantly going for the cheap, low-end gag when it could achieve something funnier and more meaningful with just a little more effort.
Buried somewhere within the misplaced (or misjudged) comic intentions of Tammy, there is a potentially tender and pathos-ridden drama. The lynchpin of the film is the relationship between Tammy and her alcoholic, diabetic grandmother, played with cantankerous glee by Susan Sarandon. Her character takes heavily after Maude in Harold and Maude, being an elderly person definitely not acting her age, and their interplay is the only thing that manages to hold our attention throughout.
Had Falcone and McCarthy, who wrote the script together, had the confidence to play to an audience's patience and intelligence, this could have been a touching comedy-drama about women struggling to find their place in a society where men don't accept them for who they are, and where superficial appearances count for far too much. There are substantial sections of the story where we feel story for Tammy as a character: for all her grotesqueness, rough edges and bad decision-making, she's someone who doesn't deserve many of the problems which befall her. The opening act, involving her husband cheating on her, is a scene that could easily have ended up in The First Wives Club.
But whether through a lack of confidence, studio pressure or a simple failure in judgement, this is not the film which has resulted. Instead these patches of decently-constructed drama are interspersed with asinine, three-rate gross-out set-pieces. Under these circumstances the central relationship between McCarthy and Sarandon becomes like the Werner Herzog sequences with the nuns in Harmony Korine's Mr. Lonely: a diverting dramatic interlude with narrative gravity, punctuating an aimless, unfunny and poorly constructed mess.
Even by the low, throwaway standards of SNL, most of these sequences would have ended up on the cutting room floor. The bee routine is lazy and goes nowhere, and the arguments which Tammy gets into make too little sense to either be funny or advance the plot. The scene where Tammy robs a fast food outlet is badly paced and shambolically assembled, with lots of needless pauses as though McCarthy was waiting for the audience to laugh. Watching these sequences not only gives you the dull, depressing ache which comes from not laughing during a comedy: you also have a solid pang of disappointment in the knowledge that, on the form of Bridesmaids at least, McCarthy can and should do so much better.
McCarthy comes across as our generation's equivalent of John Candy - not only in any form of physical comparison, but also their ability to match a goofy sense of humour with genuine pathos. Both Candy and McCarthy take heavily after the world of clowning, following on the legacy of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin of marrying physical pandemonium with an underlying melancholy. In the hands of a good director, both aspects are balanced, but here McCarthy is all energy and no foundation, resulting in a performance which is increasingly aimless and arbitrary.
Sarandon's presence in the film may lead us to make a comparison with The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson's admirable but heavy flawed attempt to adapt Alice Sebold's equally problematic novel. Purely on a like-for-like basis, Sarandon's 'crazy grandmother' here is better than her performance in Jackson's film, and the moral choices that the characters make, while still questionable, are not actively reprehensible. Both films also have uncomfortable tonal lurches, with the shifts from silly and serious seeming random and incongruous.
In the midst of all this disaster and wasted opportunity, there are a couple of redeeming features which prevent Tammy from being a total waste of time. Some of the supporting cast do very well with the limited material presented to them, particularly Kathy Bates in a role which brings fond memories of her appearance in About Schmidt. Dan Aykroyd's brief cameo is all pretty good fun, or at least a lot funnier than many of the projects to which he has lent himself over the last few years.
Tammy also looks pretty accomplished from a visual point of view. Russ T. Alsobrook is in familiar territory, having worked with Falcone on New Girl and lent his cinematographer's eye to the likes of Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Paul Blart: Mall Cop. If nothing else, he makes Tammy's trashy beginnings look believable, and while his compositions and lighting choices are nothing special, he does provide some form of continuity to prevent the film from feeling too episodic.
Tammy is a disappointing outing for McCarthy which plays to too few of her strengths and fulfills on far too little of its potential. The central relationship, when it can get a word in edgeways, and the performances of the supporting cast prevent it from being an unmitigated disaster. But while it's basically watchable, there's precious little here to make it memorable or to generate a hearty recommendation. McCarthy remains a talent to keep on one's horizons, but this is not the project she deserves. 


NEXT REVIEW: My 250th review on Mumby at the Movies!

Saturday, 23 April 2016

LETTERS OF NOTE: Charlotte Brontë


Apologies again for a brief hiatus from content - things have been extremely busy with work and organising mine and Aimee's wedding. My review of Tammy is slowly coming together, and I certainly hope to have it out before the end of the month. In the meantime, hopefully this literary Letter of Note will fill the void.
In 1848 Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights, died of tuberculosis at the tender age of 30. Her family was greatly affected by her untimely passing, with her younger sister Anne succumbing to the same disease the following year. Charlotte, the oldest and most widely-read of the Brontë sisters, wrote to her publisher shortly after Emily's death, describing her fears for Anne and their father. It's a sad and touching read, as she struggles to reconcile her despair at her sister's passing with the knowledge that she is now at peace and safe from all the ills of this world.
You can read Charlotte's letter in full here. If you're still needing a dose of classic literature afterwards, you can check out this little morsel about Jane Austen here. Failing that, may I suggest you check out the classic 1939 version of Wuthering Heights, starring a young Laurence Olivier at Heathcliff. Check out the trailer below:

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

The Soul in the Machine


It's been quite a long time since I've blogged on here about the excellent work of Exeter YMCA. With me now firmly settled in Yeovil, my trips to Exeter have become sporadic at best, but I do my utmost to keep at least faintly in touch with what the charity is up to. And their latest big event, which happens next month, is something I strongly recommend you check out.
On May 21st, Exeter YMCA will be welcoming the Saltmine Theatre Company to perform The Soul in the Machine, a new production about YMCA founder George Williams. The play traces Williams' own life, from his early childhood in Bridgwater to his education in Tiverton (where I used to work) and his formative years in London. Here his exposure to the great social deprivation, lack of support for young men and the need for Christian renewal in Victorian Britain led him to found the Young Men's Christian Association in 1844.
Today the YMCA's activities are broader and different in shape in many respects compared to Williams' original vision, but at its heart its mission and values are the same: to heal this broken world through God's work, and to help people where there is neither help nor hope to be found. While Williams' own words resonated strongly in the age of steam and coal, they speak every bit as powerfully to our society. His fears for a world where people are slaves to mechanisation, a world which crushes and eradicates any sense of purpose as opposed to function, point to what is needed in our own society: a realisation of just how crucial the spiritual dimension is to understanding our world, our role in it and how to help each other.
I've had the pleasure of seeing Saltmine perform on stage only once: a production of C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, adapted by Riding Lights Theatre Company's brilliant playwright Nigel Forde. While my familiarity with Saltmine's work is therefore less so than that of Riding Lights, this is a production that will inspire and challenge you. Like all the best theatre, it will bring forth ideas which you never considered in depth before and leave you changed as a result. Check out the trailer:
The Soul in the Machine will be perfomed at Belmont Chapel in Exeter on May 21st from 7pm. Tickets are £10 and can be booked online here; for more information call Bethan Spencer on 01392 410530 or email If you can't make the Exeter show, don't despair: the production is touring from May 5th, including a date in London on May 14th, and will be heading to the Edinburgh Festival in August. You can find all the details for future dates on the Saltmine website here.


Sunday, 10 April 2016

GREAT FILMS: Still Alice (2015)


Still Alice (USA, 2015)
Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
Starring Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth

By any measurement you care to mention, Julianne Moore has had an extraordinary career. In an industry which remains obsessed with youth and all that is fleeting, her longevity has been little short of inspirational to actors and audiences alike. And in all the time that she has been in Hollywood, she's managed to maintain a good amount of box office pull while being able to choose smaller, more offbeat projects which other actresses her age might never get offered. Mark Kermode admires her work so greatly that in his autobiography, It's Only A Movie, he cast her to play his wife in the fictional film of his life.
Moore's Oscar win for Still Alice, after being nominated on four previous occasions, could be seen as the culmination of a career which has seen her work with such stellar talents as Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Altman, David Cronenberg, Todd Haynes and Ridley Scott. But even if you take the Oscar out of the equation - taking the Academy's decision with the typical kilo of salt - the film is a really powerful and tender experience. It's a million miles from the typical Hollywood approach to serious illness, and as its centre we find Moore at the very peak of her powers.
Because so much of its essence is about glamour and mystique, Hollywood's most common approach to terrible illnesses is to downplay the symptoms for as long as possible and then jump right ahead to the extreme endpoint. If the film is about, say, a cancer patient, the patient will look as healthy and as well-fed as any member of the cast before suddenly declining in the final reel and popping their clogs. Kermode dubbed it "photogenic movie sickness" in his review of Gus van Sant's Restless (think Harold and Maude but pretentious and unfunny). Long after the star system declined, Hollywood is still wary about letting its leading lights deliberately dress down, unless they do so in a manner which deliberately draws attention to their own so-called pain and suffering.
By contrast, Still Alice deftly avoids this enormously problematic pothole, showing Alice's decline in full and over a steady period. The first traces of her condition are so slight that they seem insignificant, the sort of thing that could be excused or attributed by her busy lifestyle and demanding personal life. But bit by bit the evidence grows and our hearts grow heavy as Alzheimer's begins to eat away at all the things that define Alice, whether it's her ability to do her job or to recognise her own family.
Moore's performance throughout the film is brilliant, refusing to go down the showy route and just letting the character unfold before us. She continuously resists any urge to fly off the handle and thereby makes her most painful and embarrassing moments ache all the more. Most painful is where we see her urinate herself because she cannot remember the way to the toilet. Like Naomi Watts' masturbation scene at the end of  Mulholland Drive, the scene takes an action which could induce a snigger and uses it to express how hollowed out a person has become.
By adopting such a naturalistic approach, the film is making a powerful point about the way that our society deals with long-term illness and a slow, painful decline in faculties. In this age of reduced attention spans, whether caused by technology or merely exacerbated by it, we want stories that cut to the chase; we don't want life to end, and if it has to end we want it to be quick and painless. Still Alice is a reminder that life isn't always like that; our perception of time can vary in speed, and in wishing for something to be over, we neglect to create the memories which in the end may matter the most to us. Our society drastically needs to decrease its pace and regain the meaning to be found in slow, close personal contact.
Still Alice is also an examination of identity, and how it can be retained through certain essential qualities even as other aspects of it are disintegrated. The title is an expression of eternal dignity towards the central character, with neither the directors nor the other characters ever drawing a line in the sand beyond which Alice no longer exists. Just as people like to characterise cancer as something which can be physically beaten back and fought, so Alzheimer's is not allowed to define or swallow up Alice: even when she can barely speak, we still believe that it's her speaking and her brain working hard to make that happen.
Much has been made of the fact that co-director Richard Glatzer suffered from ALS (motor neurone disease) while Still Alice was being made, and died shortly after the film was released. Peter Debruge, writing in Variety, speculated in detail about how Glatzer and his partner and co-director Wash Westmoreland used their personal experiences to bring realism to Alice's story. It's easy to overegg this point and conclude that the film is somehow semi-autobiographical, but what is undeniable is that every emotional development in the film feels gut-wrenchingly real. The script is tender yet understated, and the directors allow the material to speak for itself rather than force-feeding us sentimentality.
An additional theme within Still Alice is that of expectations and the relationship between culture and medicine. Alice finds herself at a confluence of both spheres of human endeavour, with her daughter entertaining ambitions of being an actress and her husband being offered a role at the prestigious Mayo Clinic. While the film tends to focus more on medicine, both are ultimately given value by Alice's experiences, and she struggles to match people's expectations of what she can still do against the high hopes she has for them. She wants the best for her husband and daughter, but her desire to support is balanced by a need to fight the self-loathing which leads her to attempt suicide late in the film.
Moore's brilliant performance is balanced in this regard by a brace of very fine supporting turns, from a pair of actors on surprisingly good form. Alec Baldwin has drifted into lazy brashness far too often recently, but here he manages to hold himself together, keeping his frustrations just below the surface and letting his posture do the talking. Likewise, Kristen Stewart has very consciously sought to broaden her range since the Twilight series concluded, and while not all her attempts at this have worked, here it pays off. We begin expecting yet another mopey, introverted china doll and end up really taking to her character.
Still Alice is also a pleasant surprise in terms of the talent involved behind the camera. Cinematographer Denis Lenoir doesn't have the greatest record, lensing such turkeys as 88 Minutes, Righteous Kill and So Undercover. But here he's on best behaviour, with some tender, bittersweet colours and compositions which serve the material very nicely. Equally good is the unobtrusive score by Ilan Eshkeri: his work here rivals his score for Stardust, adding subtle emphases in every scene without feeling the need to dominate proceedings.
Still Alice is an almost perfect film which knocks almost every other American film about illness into a cocked hat. Despite the occasionally repetitive mis-step or episodic moment, it rises to the complex challenges presented by its subject matter to leave us both heartbroken and inspired. Moore's performance is of towering brilliance and she lifts everything around her, resulting in a gripping, tender and believable drama whose importance will only grow in time.


NEXT REVIEW: Tammy (2014)

Sunday, 3 April 2016

DEBUT FEATURES: Bulletproof Monk (2003)


Bulletproof Monk (Canada/ USA, 2003)
Directed by Paul Hunter
Starring Chow Yun-fat, Seann William Scott, Jaime King, Karel Roden

In my review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I spoke about the ability to enjoy the physical spectacle of a film even if the story isn't able to hold your attention. I said that much of the appeal of martial arts films lay in their physicality and skilful choreography, with many people going to see the likes of Enter the Dragon and The Raid because of how fantastically Bruce Lee or his modern-day equivalents could move.
If you could picture a graph with 'substance' on the vertical axis and 'style' on the horizontal axis, Ang Lee's film would be perched near the top right, possessing plenty of both. Slightly further down you would find the likes of Hero and House of Flying Daggers by Zhang Zimou, which are utterly breathtaking to behold but somewhat thinner in the brain department. Bulletproof Monk belongs below this group of films, having next to nothing between its ears but holding our attention with a pulpy style and plenty of silliness.
One of the first things you can say about Bulletproof Monk is that it is testament to the lasting influence of Indiana Jones. More than 20 years after Raiders of the Lost Ark was released, filmmakers throughout Hollywood were still being influenced by it, borrowing from it, and trying to recapture its magic in their own action sequences. Some films from this period, like Dungeons and Dragons, borrowed from Steven Spielberg in a very candid way, with the maze sequences blatantly ripping off whole scenes from the original trilogy. But in a more general way, the films set the template for light-hearted pulpy adventure stories, just as the James Bond series had created the default style for escapist spy films.
The best section of Bulletproof Monk is the first 20 minutes, which play out like an Indiana Jones film with martial arts. I spoke in my review of The Boys from Brazil about how Nazis have become the go-to bad guys for Hollywood films, and this opening sequence is an excellent demonstration of how this still holds true. As with Raiders of the Lost Ark, the nationality of the soldiers is irrelevant: it's funny to see narrow-minded racist bigots get their arses handed to them whatever their creed or colour. This section is what Big Trouble in Little China always should have been like, and the open air setting also brings out the best in debut director Paul Hunter.
When I reviewed Atlantis: The Lost Empire, I criticised the fact that the plot of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade could be "easily transposed" onto its own, such was the laziness of its writing. Bulletproof Monk isn't in the same league in terms of narrative similarities: its plot does revolve around an ancient McGuffin and fighting Nazis, but the beats of its narrative are more entrenched in the buddy movie genre. Additionally, the film differs from Disney's disaster in the attitude it has towards its audience. While Disney displayed active contempt for the audience's intelligence, the film is as least partially aware of how silly it all is and invites those watching to relax and share in the silliness.
From this perspective, a more accurate (albeit general) comparison would be with Highlander, and again this film comes out pretty well. Both Russell Mulcahy and Paul Hunter come from a background in music videos, and both display this lineage in a way which affects the cinematic quality of their respective films. But while Highlander devotes most of its first hour to falling short in its exploration of potential-laden ideas, this is very clear how pulpy and trashy it is from the outset. The action sequences in the opening segment are nicely paced, and while there are no instantly memorable moves to speak off, we do at least get to see things play out without too many distractions.
Where things start to go awry is later in the film, where the fight scenes are predominately set indoors and there is a lot more talking to be done. Hunter's filmography as a pop video director includes videos by the likes of Snoop Dogg, Notorious B.I.G. and Busta Rhymes; rap and hip hop are genres visually distinguished by fast, flashy cuts and often distracting angles. It is possible to use these techniques in a way which enhances the storytelling - Requiem for a Dream is a very good example - but Hunter lacks Darren Aronofsky's skill with composition and lighting, and the action becomes increasingly hard to follow or invest in.
Outside of the action sequences, there is the small matter of our central pairing of Chow Yun-fat and Seann William Scott. Both were in the peak of their careers at this point, with the former riding a new wave of Western recognition after Crouching Tiger and the latter soaking up the fame (or infamy) generated by the first two American Pie offerings. It's hardly the most original pairing under the sun, riffing far too heavily on The Karate Kid for comfort and with not a shred of memorable dialogue between them. But considering how closely associated he has become with Stifler, Scott is surprisingly decent here, or at the very least isn't so overtly obnoxious that we wish he would just go away.
Once its opening sequence is out of the way, Bulletproof Monk quickly settles down into a by-the-numbers action movie-cum-buddy comedy. In terms of effort expended, it's only a hop, skip and a jump from Cradle 2 the Grave from hereon in, and had you missed the first 20 minutes and caught this on late-night TV, you could be forgiven for not remembering anything about it. None of it is offensively bad or overtly irritating, and moments in the script is vaguely witty as it takes the mickey out of pop-Tao philosophy. But beyond its desire to occasionally poke fun at generic convention, it's nothing to write home about.
This feeling of middle-of-the-road decency is reflected in the cinematography. Stefan Czapsky has had a very interesting career, lensing Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns and the terrific Ed Wood, as well as working with acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) and oddball Todd Solondz (Fear, Anxiety and Depression). This work, however, is much closer to his work on Child's Play 2: the colours are bland and uninspiring, the compositions are generic and the workmanlike camerawork is ultimately compromised by Hunter's penchant for rapid editing.
Hunter has not made another feature film since this effort, and the explanation for this is more complex than may first appear. He clearly has a number of obvious gaps in his filmmaking lexicon which don't do Bulletproof Monk any favours - he's not great with character development, his visuals are shallow and uninspiring, and his camerawork has no distinctive style. But equally his fate is one of many who are parachuted into Hollywood on the basis that they can shoot quickly and handle big-name talent. The script isn't exactly first-rate, and Hunter deserves some credit for marshalling what could be a total borefest into something which is entertainingly risible.
Because Bulletproof Monk has made clear how silly it is early on, it is entirely possible to overlook its technical shortcomings and just let it wash over you as a perfectly acceptable piece of escapist tosh. Whether it is in on the joke or just trying hard to win us over, there is a fair bit of humour to be found which ultimately sees us through the running time, even if we don't care about the story. As with Highlander and Logan's Run before it, it becomes most enjoyable at the very point where we cannot take it seriously, and while it's not spirited or boisterous enough to be considered a romp, it is a pleasant hour and forty minutes' excursion.
The one further similarity that this film has with Highlander is its anticlimactic final battle. The battle combines the search for the ultimate prize (itself a lift from Raiders) and elderly Nazis getting their comeuppance from The Boys from Brazil - and like the former, the final fight from Bulletproof Monk fails to deliver on anything like a satisfying level. The setting may be more ornately pantomime than Mulcahy managed to deliver, and it is more visually impressive than two elderly hams and their stunt doubles rolling around on the floor. But having built up Strucker to such an extent, having him fall off a building and be electrocuted is  both cartoonish (in a Disney way) and disappointingly brief.
Bulletproof Monk is a divertingly silly debut feature which is nothing like as bad as critics at the time made out. Hunter's only film to date has plenty of technical shortcomings which together conspire to make it unmemorable after the first 20 minutes, and the weak script generally leaves its reasonably talented cast with precious little to go on. But there is enough both in its glee-inducing opening and the odd pockets of energy dotted throughout to pass the time and leave a smile on your face.


You can listen to reviews of The Boys from Brazil, Highlander and other cult classics on The Movie Hour podcast here.

NEXT REVIEW: Still Alice (2015)

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

LETTERS OF NOTE: Eric Idle and John Major


I've been quite hard on Eric Idle in the past, criticising his lazy appearance in Shrek the Third and branding him "the most cynical and money-minded" member of the Monty Python troupe in my review of The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash. But even I, jaded Python fan that I am, will acknowledge that he has his moments - and today's Letter of Note is one of them.
On this day in 1993, Idle celebrated his 50th birthday - as did then-Prime Minister John Major. As highly as we may think of them now, neither man at the time had much cause for celebration. For Major, the 1992 general election win was a distant memory: his party's economic credibility was in ruins after Black Wednesday, and his government would slowly but surely fall apart in the wake of numerous scandals. Idle, for his own part, had just completed work on Splitting Heirs, an awful so-zany-it-hurts so-called comedy co-starring his fellow Python John Cleese.

Idle took the opportunity to write Major a brief letter, seeking to shed a jokey light on what might have been had the two somehow switched places. The letter, which you can read here, is hardly the wittiest thing that Idle ever put to paper, but considering the roasting that Major was getting at the hands of Spitting Image at the time, it probably produced a harmless chuckle in Number 10.
For a further dose of Monty Python mirth, you can check out my review of Monty Python and the Holy Grail or listen to my thoughts on The Movie Hour podcast on Lionheart Radio. For a pinch more politics, I recommend my review of Oliver Stone's Nixon or checking out the (sadly mothballed) Chat Politics channel, co-created by my good friend and fellow journalist Oscar Pearson.


Sunday, 20 March 2016

GREAT FILMS: Selma (2015)


Selma (USA, 2015)
Directed by Ava DuVernay
Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Andre Holland

When I reviewed 12 Years a Slave, I spoke about how the Academy Awards have to be treated with a combination of deference and distance. For all their self-importance and groan-inducing excess, the Oscars have not become so irrelevant as to warrant us ignoring them entirely, as we do with the Golden Globes. But this year's furore over whitewashing, with individual stars boycotting the ceremony in protest at the lack of non-white nominees, has brought their potential obsolescence into sharper focus. The Academy has promised to change, but it still has a long way to go to become any more than a conversation starter for the casual filmgoer.
It’s easy to think that the 2016 Oscars controversy is something that appeared out of the blue, the product of fluky slip-ups and structural oversights. But wind back just 12 months earlier and there was plenty of evidence of the same problem. While everyone was falling over themselves to praise The Imitation Game, Birdman and The Theory of Everything, Selma largely slipped through the cracks. Whatever the merits of these offerings – especially Morten Tyldum’s work - Ava DuVernay’s historical drama was worthy of a lot more recognition, being one of the finest films of the year.
There is an interesting discussion to be had about why Selma received relatively little attention at the Oscars while 12 Years a Slave walked away with Best Picture. Even before Ricky Gervais touched upon it in Extras, there was an underlying feeling that the Academy gives recognition to films about victims; the members tend to favour films which make you ponder and cry rather than laugh, scream or cheer (apart from The King’s Speech). It’s also arguable that the decision to recognise 12 Years a Slave was in itself a demonstration of Hollywood racism. A film whose main black characters were oppressed, tortured and brutalised was applauded, while a film in which black people play an active role in changing their own destinies was ignored.
Away from crying racism, another possible explanation lies in the attitude which America has to some of its social problems. Slavery and the civil rights movement have both left indelible scars on America’s history, but slavery – at least in its more obvious forms – can be distanced from us by history while Martin Luther King Jr. still feels recent. It’s only in the last few decades that Britons have come to feel ashamed, rightly or wrongly, of aspects of the empire which were once universally celebrated. In the same way, Americans are still reluctant to approach Selma’s subject matter; even without Steve McQueen at the helm, it’s still too recent to be tackled abstractly enough to make it palatable for audiences. That’s why Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln did so well, despite being far too well-behaved.
Whatever explanation you gravitate towards, the fact remains that Selma is a great historical drama. It doesn’t have the same visceral, harrowing quality as 12 Years a Slave, but equally its subject matter doesn’t automatically warrant a focus on brutality; not every murky political drama about the Deep South has to look and feel like Mississippi Burning. Where McQueen is primarily interested in dehumanisation and the destruction of the human body, DuVernay is concerned about the personal cost of beliefs: the burden that doing what it right places upon those closest to you, and how personal struggles can reflect and alter the identity of a whole country.
One of the very best things about Selma is that it manages to tackle this in a deeply un-showy way. In other films, we could spend hours staring at grief-filled close-ups of people struggling, weeping and wailing, in a manner which could quickly become manipulative. But DuVernay focusses on the stillness of the characters; she refuses to let David Oyelowo's King become a tub-thumping caricature, rooting his strength in his professionalism, maturity and stern courage. Perhaps this is another reason why Selma was overlooked: it’s not consciously worthy enough for the Academy's tastes.
Selma is a brilliant examination of how racism becomes institutionalised to the point where it becomes the norm. The early scenes of Annie Lee Cooper attempting to register to vote see her coming up against racism with a smiling face: not thugs with sticks, but unfair rules written by bigoted men who have the backing of the courts. Violence against black people is still prominent, with the murder of four young girls by the Ku Klux Klan being shown in close proximity to this. But DuVernay is making a very valid point about power manipulates people. Soft, insidious power, taking the shape of bureaucrats who are at best indifferent to people’s plight, does as much to demoralise and alienate a group as any amount of torches, pitchforks and lynchings.
This also leads on to the role of violence in the film, and how counterproductive it is as a form of protest. When Cooper lashes out at Sheriff Jim Clark, it leads to her, King and others being arrested and sets their cause back considerably. King realises that violence will only play up to the white man’s expectations of the black community, reinforcing the status quo. He reasons instead that they must demonstrate their willingness to submit to the law, albeit a law which is based on justice and equality rather than historical prejudice. It’s a great demonstration of what Mahatma Gandhi  called satyagraha, and DuVernay conveys it in a far more emotive way than Richard Attenborough ever managed in three hours of Gandhi.
One of the main – and thoroughly baseless – criticisms of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was that Tomas Alfredson presented John Le Carré’s tale of intrigue and treachery with so little bombast that it became nothing more than a bunch of old men in suits talking in rooms. Selma has a similar balance of locations, and a certain amount of espionage, but it avoids getting bogged down in either demagogy or political jargon. DuVernay’s direction always keeps the personal impact at the forefront, whether it’s in the threatening phone calls or the strain on King’s marriage. Rather than belittle the wider struggle, this makes it resonate all the more. These people are not parrots for historians or actors reciting finely-tuned speeches – their passionate desire for change lifts us just as their every setback burns our hearts with pain and righteous anger.
The issue of historical accuracy always rears its pedantic head with such films, just as it did with The Imitation Game. In the case of Selma, the main gripe appears to be the relationship between King and President Lyndon B. Johnson, superbly played by Tom Wilkinson. The real Johnson, people argue, was far more respectful towards King and was supportive of civil rights legislation. Joseph A. Califino, Jr. went so far as to accuse the filmmakers of “filling the screen with falsehoods”, believing that they were “immune from responsibility” because both men are now dead.
DuVernay's defence that she is "a storyteller, not an historian" is a thin one if you believe that we have a responsibility to accurately portray people who really existed. But within the context of the wider points the film is making, their relationship makes perfect sense. Johnson is not an obstructive stereotype: he is a man divided between his conscience and his political nous, not wanting to see another round of warring states 100 years after the civil war. He represents the problem, being a Southern president, but also the opportunity to do the right thing, and his scenes with Oyelowo are terrific drama.
Selma is a great historical drama which marries a brace of barnstorming male leads to an excellent balance between tension and thoughtfulness. It is a slow-burning film which is occasionally repetitive, but DuVernay's direction and focus on the characters lets its themes and principles unfold with great naturalism and dexterity. While it doesn't quite reach the filmmaking heights of 12 Years a Slave or The Imitation Game, it is still a must-watch and is thoroughly deserving of a wider audience.


NEXT REVIEW: Bulletproof Monk (2003)