January 15, 2015
Selma (*** ½) PG-13
Ava DuVernay’s film Selma is not your ordinary biopic in that it wisely chooses to focus on only three months in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Namely the period of King’s life leading up to the historic passage of the legislation that would ultimately prevent Africa Americans from being discriminated against at the voting polls.
It’s the same tactic that Steven Spielberg attempted with his Abraham Lincoln biopic several years back. The difference is that Selma has the upper hand because it’s a film that actually moves and is moving at the same time, something that can’t really be said for Spielberg’s critical darling Lincoln. That film may have had some moving moments but it was also saddled with a leaden pace that did it no favors. Selma is an incendiary piece of work that burns off the screen leaving the viewer with feelings of anger at injustices done, and ultimately a message that leaves the viewer with a hopeful feeling as well. The fact that the film is so explosively directed is doubly surprising considering that its director is of the female persuasion, which goes to show that given the chance a female director is as equally capable as her male counterparts in crafting important and lasting cinematic works. (Editor’s note: Director DuVernay won the Best Director award at Sundance, and has decades of experience at all levels of film & television production.)
The film’s script, penned by DuVernay and Paul Webb, illustrates the work King had cut out for him in terms of racial equality. In an early scene, an African American woman goes to vote but is given a ridiculous list of questions that she must answer in order to be allowed to vote.
David Oyelowo, center, as Dr. King
This was par for the course back then and though it seems like a long time ago it’s only been half a century, as the film is quick to point out.
When one considers more recent racially tinged events that transpired during the calendar year of 2014, DuVernay’s points seem to quickly become as relevant as ever.
There are scenes illustrating then-President Lyndon Johnson’s reluctance to pass national legislation banning such egregious acts of racism. Dr. King, time and time again, attempts to convince Johnson of the urgency of the matter only to have his efforts repeatedly stonewalled, eventually leading up to the climactic march from Selma to Montgomery, forming the film’s final and triumphant act.
In his lead performance as Dr. King, David Oyelowo has an unenviable task but manages to step up to the plate and fill the screen with the presence of the great civil rights leader in every scene in which he appears. The same can be said for actress Carmen Ejogo as King’s wife. Some of the other performances come off better than others but all are compelling in their own right. Selma doesn’t rely on its performers to carry the film as the aforementioned Lincoln did but instead lets the story speak for itself. In the end that’s what makes Selma the emotional powder keg that it proves to be.
Taken 3 (**) PG-13
The advertising byline for the latest installment in the Taken franchise reads, “It ends here” but rest assured that’s far from the case. The denouement leaves the franchise firmly open for yet another installment in an awkward and implausible moment wherein Liam Neeson’s character, Brian Mills, chooses to let one of the film’s myriad villains live instead of plugging him—as the audience is surely expecting.
It’s only one of the many things wrong with Taken 3 but then again perhaps I’m a little biased as I’ve never quite understood the enduring popularity of these films. The best thing about them has always been the interplay between Neeson’s character and that of his daughter (Maggie Grace) and estranged wife (Famke Janssen) and, sadly, there’s even less of that in this chapter of the series. Mostly it’s just scene upon scene of unlikely plot contrivance, coupled with tired and lazily directed action scenes.
The film’s director, Olivier Megaton, was at the helm for the last installment and he’s back again pulling the reigns on Taken 3. Unfortunately, he’s not adept at the action scenes that a film like this calls for, as evidenced by the confusing nature of some of his direction.
Neeson with Forest Whittaker; no bagel in this scene
I can’t help but think that the co-writer of all three of these films, director Luc Beeson, would have been a better choice. I would be interested to see some of the stylistic choices Beeson would have chosen to employ for the film but instead we get Megaton’s tired and confusing action sequences which barely conceal the film’s second-rate story.
It’s hard to say much about what sets the story in motion without giving something major away, but let’s just say that it has something to do with Mills’ estranged wife, Lenore (Janssen) and her jerk of a rich husband (Dougray Scott). Lenore’s ex is involved with a Russian gangster and, of course, Mills is called in to save the day and, eventually, his own name after being accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Mills is also doggedly pursued by an LA detective (Forest Whittaker), who solves crimes by eating bagels and seems to be unaware of Mills’ innocence—or at least until the film’s final ten minutes.
It doesn’t help matters that the film is peppered with the same racial stereotypes that populate the other entries in this series. It’s along the same lines of something you might find on a Saturday morning cartoon in the 1970s. The same can be said of the action scenes, which have had to be tamed down in order for the film to achieve its PG-13 rating and reach the widest possible audience. On second thought, I’m not sure even more potent action scenes could save Taken 3 from the tedium that envelops nearly every frame of the film.
Both films are playing in this area & in Charlotte.
Questions or comments? Write Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org.