Friday, July 3, 2015

Red rover, red rover, send Martin Luther King Jr. right over…


I feel bad for ‘Selma’.  Initially intended for a 2015 release, the post-production was pushed through in a seemingly weak year and the hype machine built this film as the socially important film of the year and immediately the faith the studio had in its Award’s chances started to seep into the prognosticators fingertips and, before it was shown to the world, it became the film to beat.  Then it was seen and reviewed and the response to the film was tepid, to say the least.  The social relevance was obviously seen and the importance of the message was heard loud and clear and yet, the film itself wasn’t warmly embraced.  Then Oscar season heated up and the word ‘racist’ started getting thrown around and the fight for this film became ugly, even though it had no chance to pull a win away from the two clear frontrunners.  When the nominations were announced, and ‘Selma’ managed the BP nom and…a Song nomination, the film in a way became a joke.  Its BP status was immediately questioned (no writing, directing, acting…not even a costume nod!) due to the fact that it was clear it wasn’t really liked that much.  This was a case of ‘we nominated you here because we had to’ and not a case of ‘we think you were one of the best films of last year’ and because of that, ‘Selma’ kind of has this stigma around it.

Like I said, I feel bad for ‘Selma’.  I was one of exploited that stigma after the nominations were announced.

I’ve seen the film now (I hadn’t seen it then) and at the end of the day, the fact remains that ‘Selma’ was not one of the best films from 2014.

It’s also not a joke, which is why the whole Oscar BP nom, in a way, hurts this movie.  If the film had just been regarded for what it was (or given the extra few months to hone and develop better and then been released, as intended, in 2015), then I think the film itself would have a better reputation.  Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

But enough about all that, let’s talk about the movie.



‘Selma’ does not tell the life story of Martin Luther King, Jr.; it tells the story of the marches, led by King, in 1965 to fight for equal rights in Alabama.  Chronicling just a few months, the focus here is much tighter and direct than one may initially expect, and because of that the story told carries a heavier, more secure weight.  Biopics can be tricky when they attempt to cover too much ground, and so while I feel like King’s story deserves a complete film, I understand the decision to keep this story more centrally compact (and Spielberg has exclusive film rights to King’s entire story, I believe). 

My issue with ‘Selma’ is this; when the film has its lens off of the actual marches, it lags.

There is such intensity and brutality conveyed in those marches that the rest of the film can’t compete.  It feels stuffy and longwinded and laborious, and so it starts to completely lose an audience, only to be shaken at its core by these electrified sequences of violence and injustice.  I’m shocked at how monotone so many scenes felt, because the material really could have sustained the intensity or at least the energy if it had been handled better.  Instead, everything from the cinematography to the framing to the performances (Ejogo and Wilkinson aside) felt stilted and unmoving.  Even Oyelowo, who commanded those monologue moments, gets lost in a sea of ‘mellow’.


But those marching sequences are astonishingly well directed, crafted, framed and edited.

This is a shame to me, because this story is so socially important.  I wish that DuVernay had been allowed more time to edit and compose this film, for maybe with that extra time she could have compiled a film that felt for alive, but unfortunately the heartbeat of the film was lost in the finished product.  If the media circus had left this film alone, it would have skated through Oscar season without a single nomination and it may have been regarded as a handsomely mounted portrait of an important man, but the unfair criticisms heaped upon a voting body have tainted this film forever.

The biggest shame about all this is that Tom Wilkinson’s scene stealing performance as Lyndon B. Johnson was soured by ridiculous controversy and thus excluded from the Award’s race early on, since his performance is the best in the film and was truly deserving of any Oscar attention it could have received.

Breathe, Tom...there's always next time.


B-

42 comments:

  1. Sorry I'm must be misunderstanding you. Where are the tepid reviews coming from? I checked RT and it's on 99% with a AVG rating of 8.7.

    It's interesting, from what I read there was a massive outcry when Ava Duvernay was not nominated and no sense of shock when Selma was nominated for Best Picture. The lack of a nomination for David Oyelowo was also a massive shock. So, from what I saw, it was the lack of nominations that was questioned rather than the nominations them selves.

    I do agree with the general jist of your review, when the film wasn't focused on King's speeches and the marches it was a bit, as you say, mellow. Good review.

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    1. Maybe I'm remembering wrong, but I remember there being quite a few 'good not great' reviews when this first premiered that caused a lot of pundits to question it's stance in the race...and then when Award's Season got into full swing and it was pretty much ignored everywhere (and it was, since I kept track of EVERY award given last season) it became a film no one really expected to make a serious Oscar impact.

      I didn't notice any shock when it was snubbed in Director and Actor, since DuVernay and Oyelowo really didn't factor into the race all season but a few spots here and there (and VERY few), but more confusion over a BP nomination (which, in an expanded field was predicted due to the nature of the film) and nothing else other than a Song nom. I mean, it was snubbed for it's Screenplay over the VERY un-Oscary Nightcrawler.

      But, Award's Season aside, the film itself was good at best, unfortunately.

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    2. I read The Guardian which is a very left leaning newspaper so the issues that the film discusses are probably right at the heart of the newspapers ideas, beliefs, aims and so on. Racial issues, especially, the American arm of the newspaper play a major role in the newpaper's output.

      So that may be the reason why I seemed to get the drift it was a favourite. The Guardian was very pro Selma. So perhaps that was the reason or maybe it was a vocal minority.

      It's quite interesting how in my review I discussed the shock at the exclusion of DuVernay and Oyelow and you came to the opposite conclusion.

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    3. Yeah, it's interesting to see the different opinions of the dynamics at play during Oscar Season.

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  2. Interesting to read this and view this film as it is meant to be viewed-as a film! This film became such a megastorm of throwing out "Racism" just because it is a film about a very important era and a very important man. One has to look at the film and not what it is representing. No one ever denies that this time in life was extremely important and must never be forgotten but I was getting sick and tired of all the finger pointing. One can dislike a film and call it boring or not that great even if it is about something that is totally the opposite. Even David Ojego spoke out, more than once, about the Academy and others being racist. Now I do have to see the film and I know the star and Tom Wilkinson will shine but I will be wondering if the director and all got caught up in the message of the film rather than making a really great film

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    1. I hate when the media storm around a film eclipses the film itself. It's a real shame.

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  3. "Then it was seen and reviewed and the response to the film was tepid, to say the least."

    Huh? This was the best reviewed film after 'Boyhood' last year! I'm convinced it would have received more noms if they got it out earlier and had a better campaign.

    I do agree it could have used some more of the energy in those marches though.

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    1. LOL, maybe I am talking completely out of my ass. I readily admit (and have admitted many times over) that I don't read every review, but I do tend to gauge the general consensus, and I must be remembering things wrong, because I remember this not being as well received as initially assumed.

      I can't believe this has the best reviews outside of Boyhood...but I could be way off.

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    2. Maybe you're confusing it with 'American Sniper', which premiered the same night to a less enthusiastic response. The reviews for this were phenomenal. At one point I thought it might win Best Picture.

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    3. That could very well be the case. Maybe I'm confusing those reviews with this film, based on this film's Award's journey, which we can all admit was...spotty.

      And then again, maybe it was the early tweets (damn those tweets) that were underwhelmed and caused a lot of people to question the film before it premiered.

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  4. You are very on point in your review. I think if they had spent more time in post-production, it would've been slightly better. It certainly wasn't perfect, but because the film is about racism, people think it should automatically be heaped with praise and they confuse the film with the message.

    Not only that, but when Ava DuVernay was snubbed, I think people were outraged by that mostly because of her race and gender rather than the work she did. A filmmaker's race and gender shouldn't be the reason they're not nominated, but it shouldn't be the reason they are nominated.

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    1. Yeah, the race and gender card is hard because I feel like so many times it is the reason they're NOT nominated, even though I wholly agree it shouldn't be the reason that they ARE nominated.

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  5. Great review! I remember seeing this the exact night it was "snubbed" on Oscar nominations day, and thinking it was just meh, and could've been better. I pretty much agree completely with your review. I remember everyone else's reviews being extremely highly rated and I just didn't understand why. I mean, the movie is pretty good, but I didn't find it to be anything overly special.

    But I agree, had DuVernay had more time in post-production, I think it then would've deserved the nominations everyone says it was "snubbed" from. But as it is, I don't really think it deserved things like Best Director or Editing or Screenplay. Sure David Oyelowo was really good, but he had a lot of competition, and I don't think he was even the biggest snub in that field, by far. It's too bad this didn't get more time post-production, because I felt like the movie was really close to being really great and not just "culturally relevant", but it just missed out (for me)

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    1. Selma had great intentions, and it could have been something special, but I really think the studio pushing this out a year early hurt it. DuVernay clearly needed more time.

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  6. This is a case where "we're" both right. The movie did have great reviews, average score of 89 on metacritic, but did seem to be downgraded by people during awards season. I mostly agree with your review of the movie itself. It is between marches where the movie drags. For me, the problem isn't with King, but the people around him. They are all so one note, they basically repeat their lines every time there's a discussion. I do think Oyelowo was snubbed for a nom because he's phenomenal. I'm okay with it getting a BP nom, because it totally fits with a lot of other films that have been nominated and won because they were deemed "important." However, I probably won't have it among my ten best for the year when I get around to actually ranking '14 movies. We'll soon see, I hope. And yes, Wilkinson was also great. Excellent review. My own take...

    http://dellonmovies.blogspot.com/2015/01/selma.html

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    1. I'll check your review out soon!

      Wilkinson would be the only Fisti nom this film gets from me, to be honest.

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  7. I praised this film quite a bit. I saw it and reviewed it right when it came out in theaters here the first week of January. I was quite moved by it and went easier on it despite having many of the same problems you did. It pretty much sits there, dead in the water, when the marches and protests aren't happening. Everything's just sort of basic. However, I actually was more taken with Bradford Young's cinematography than you, though it could've been better in a more gutsy movie. By gutsy, I mean fill this thing up with the same energy found in the march sequences. So many scenes were just so muted. I literally had trouble hearing dialogue in some places.

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    1. It's not that Young's cinematography (which is quite striking in parts) isn't good, it's just that combined with the overall tone and 'basic-ness' as you put it, it feels too somber and flat.

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  8. Hi Drew, I kind of like the fact that the film focuses on the event of the marches instead of a straightforward biopic on MLK. I agree the film hits the high notes on the marches scenes, but I was quite touched by the quiet moments too, like the part when MLK met with the father of a man who was gunned down by police at a restaurant. I thought those scenes highlight Oyelowo's versatility as an actor.

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    1. That man, at the morgue, his one scene (well, not his only scene but kind of his only scene), gives the best performance in the film (outside of Wilkinson). Like...hit me like bricks!

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  9. I found the film to be average to bad - it just bored me so much. The BP nomination was disgusting but even more was an article some big newspaper did about how Academy is racist because no black people were nominated. This just makes me sick. Are we obliged now to honor people of color because they are people of color? This is bullshit. The song was good though, but Lost Stars was waaaay better.

    And that director? Who the hell is she? Everyone felt so bad for her because she wasn't nominated and they felt bad just because she is black. Usually when I voice this opinion I get called a racist and told that black people suffered so much now we should honor them. NO. They have to earn their honors, just like everyone else.

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    1. Yeah, we had the racist vs. misogynistic discussion here before :-)

      You know where I stand.

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  10. I gotta say, I'm baffled by people's short term memory on this film. The Oscar outrage for this film was because it was seen as an excellent film, not only because the director was black or the film was about civil rights. If it wasn't good, it wouldn't have been in the Oscar discussion at all (as is the case with 90% of black films). This was a case of a good film that was primed for Oscar attention (are we forgetting all the love from Critics Choice and Golden Globe??) and mysteriously was absent come Oscar morning. Let's not distort the TRUTH, people.

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    1. I think the problem here is that the truth itself is a tough one to gauge fully. I'll be the first to admit that I don't read every review (I think I already said this), but I DO remember there being some lukewarm receptions to this.

      But I think the real reason that this is being remembered the way that it is is that it was wholly expected to be a prominent award's player...and it wasn't. Yes, BFCA gave it some love and Globes did also, but I followed that race VERY closely (as you know, since I posted EVERY SINGLE critics awards/nominations and kept a tally) and Selma was rarely seen, and a lot of times it snagged a mention for 'most socially relevant film' or a nomination for ensemble (and nothing else) or Best Picture in a field of SIX...and nothing else, and so towards the end of the race, Selma was perceived as a film that was tagging along on the subject matter alone, with zero passion. We all know that Globes and BFCA aren't really great indicators of what is...great...or even what is loved at a specific moment. In the blogosphere, Selma was not getting a great reputation. Yes, there were people who thought Selma deserved more, but the real oddity over the nominations was what it was nominated for, not really what it wasn't.

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    2. As far as the whole 'this wouldn't have been considered for awards if it wasn't a good movie' argument, I've addressed that before, but I'm not completely sold on that argument either.

      You are VERY correct that black movies do not get the attention they deserve. There are some remarkable films that center on black characters (this year's Girlhood comes instantly to mind), but Hollywood refuses to market any black film that isn't socially (or historically) relevant and so AMPAS (who, let's face it, only looks at the films that are thrust in their face) never gives those great films a second look (or even a first look). Hollywood exploits films like Selma BECAUSE they have Oscar written all over them, and so white or black, it's going to get attention.

      But we've had this conversation before.

      It's a sad reality that white films get priority over black films, unless those said black films are about slavery or civil rights or history of some sort (biopics like Ray). If Boyhood had been made by Ryan Coogler starring an unknown black boy in the lead and had someone like Denzel Washington as the father, it would NEVER have gotten the Oscar attention that film received (minus MAYBE a nom for Washington).

      That's a very sad truth.

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    3. Anyways (sorry, the comment box won't let you exceed a certain number of letters), I get what you're saying, and I'm not going to contest that I was off in my 'picture painted' of Selma's reviews. Like you said, I may have had this confused with Sniper's initial reception, but I don't have it confused with Sniper's Award's play (which was very similar, until rumblings started surfacing that the film had real passion behind it and then...OSCAR NOMS)...because I know how Selma performed with critics.

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    4. Yeh, I'm just gonna leave is as an "agree to disagree" situation. Cheers.

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    5. And that's cool, Shane. I hope you don't think I was trying to argue, because I wasn't. I was just trying to explain where some of these perceptions of Selma are coming from.

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    6. LOL at "The Truth". It's this kind of misguided and aggressive rhetoric from the film's fans that makes me ecstatic this movie crashed and burned.

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    7. You can LOL all you want. Everything I've said is true. The film had better reviews than every Best Picture nominee except for Boyhood (there is concrete evidence of this) and it received the important nods from BFCA and Golden Globes that usually indicate that a movie will do well at the Oscars. Pundits have used those awards as bellwethers for Oscar success for years now.

      All of us got caught up in the scandal about race, but these facts remain (i.e. strong reviews and precursor buzz). Really, the race-related reasons we argue about are purely speculative, as Fisti also pointed out and I accept that. I don't know why you have be so hateful, Sati.

      We'll never know if race was the main factor behind its Oscar performance, all we know is that everyone expected it to do well and it didn't, based on the usual criteria.

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    8. First I'm "distorting the truth" and now I'm "hateful".

      No worries Itsy bitsy, you're never getting attention from me again.

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    9. MLK wanted PEACE!

      Sati, I do believe that the 'truth' Shane was speaking of was my misinterpretation of Selma's reviews, not anyone's opinion of the film itself.

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    10. Yes Fisit, that's what I was speaking. Glad that's clear. Cheers!

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    11. Yup, all clear here :-D

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  11. Selma was one of the best-reviewed movies of 2014 as far as I can tell. I like both Birdman and Boyhood better but it was still one of my favourites of the year. Yes, I felt it lost momentum a bit when it focused on the private over the public but Oyelowo was compelling from start to finish for me.

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    1. LOL, I feel like I need to amend my opening paragraph...

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  12. I LOVED this movie and was crushed it didn't earn the nomintions it DESERVED, but it did get a lot of respect and a lot of great reviews, including mine. I loved Oyelowow and felt he handily should have had a slot over Bradley Cooper for sure. The movie wasn't perfect but I don't see any on that list of nominees that were, and this was better than most. I loved how it looked at such a small blip in the civil rights movement but made it feel representative even today. I was simultaneously inspired and deflated - they rallied and achieved so much, but would we\could we do that again today? We lack that brave and beautiful voice from MLK who gave a unifying message that's never been topped. I was moved by this film in ways The Theory of Everything or The Imitation Game just couldn't compete with, and I don't think I'm alone since at the screening I attended, the audience errupted into applause at its end. We were somber filing out of the theatre though, many lost in reflection, and there aren't many movies you can say that about.

    I don't think this was a good black movie, I think this was a good movie, period.

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    1. Love your passion. I wish that I could have felt that same passion, but I'm glad that you did!

      In my eyes, this was better than The Theory of Everything and Boyhood, for sure, and on the same level as American Sniper and Imitation Game. Birdman was heads above the rest for me, and Whiplash and The Grand Budapest Hotel were, in my eyes, better films than the competition.

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  13. "A Sea of Mellow" is right. I do think Oyelowo was worthy of a Best Actor nom over Cooper (But even Gyllenhaal was worthy over him soo...) and you're right about the "Hey look, we're not racist we nominated Selma!" nod kind of hurting them.

    They were a worthy Best Song win, I'll give them that. They had tough competition there too, but I'm absolutely fine with their win.

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    1. I don't think it was the strongest of the Song nominees, but Glory is a great song, so I'm ok with the win. Besides, the real winner wasn't even nominated (All of the Stars).

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  14. Yeah, the film doesn't balance the shift from the riot scenes to the more calm ones very well. Though I liked the film overall (B), it feels more like a footnote to 2014's movie catalog, unfortunately.

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    1. Yup, a footnote, and it could have been much more.

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