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AFI Fest 2014 presented by Audi
by Michael Dequina

all movies are graded out of four stars (****)

A Most Violent Year poster A Most Violent Year (R) ***
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The title A Most Violent Year refers to 1981, specifically in New York City, where crime hit a peak in an already notorious era, and given that setting, J.C. Chandor's film trafficks in the exact elements one would expect: the looming presence of underworld heavies; corruption being a rampant affliction infecting the spectrum from lowlifes to the upper echelons of power; literal survival being a day-to-day issue for even those the most seemingly removed, comfortable, and protected. However, it is on that last-mentioned demographic, not among the more commonly followed (and, frankly, more commercial)--criminals, that Chandor plants his focus, namely rising young entrepreneur Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac). As his ambitious expansion plans for his heating oil business inch closer to fruition, he is met with resistance from all angles, to all degrees. On the ground level, delivery trucks mysteriously start getting hijacked while on a larger level his newly minted money deals attract the increasingly suspicious scrutiny of the law, namely by the district attorney (David Oyelowo); not even the homefront proves to be off limits, as Abel and his wife Anna's (Jessica Chastain) luxurious new residence quickly proves to be less a safe haven than an open target.

Of all the characters to follow, a mid-level businessman dealing in home heating seems an odd and terribly specific choice for a protagonist, but that unique specificity speaks to the greater point that Chandor is making about how anyone is susceptible to the encroachment of the corrupt forces of the era, whether the outright violence of the title or the more insidious threat of compromised personal ideals and ethics. Where are a number of shocking moments of bloodshed, it's the latter issue that makes the film so compelling, personified by Isaac's terrifically layered and involving work as Abel's armor of seemingly unflappable confidence is consistently, increasingly under attack, most strongly by the growing self-doubt about his abilities and moral code. His chemistry with Chastain is especially believable in its loving but lived-in quality, with the genuine affection tempered with the frustrations and annoyances that such longtime, intimate familiarity entails. While Chandor's character-driven script is primarily designed to showcase the skill of the entire canvas of actors, its setting also gives the technical crew plenty of room to strut their equally formidable stuff. From John P. Goldsmith's production design to Kasia Walicka Mamone's costumes, all lovingly, handsomely captured by cinematographer Bradford Young's ever-artful lens, every shot oozes with early '80s authenticity without pushing hard into the realm of kitsch. But the most authentic of all is its portrayal of a person working hard to achieve and enjoy his American dream, and the ongoing struggle to maintain and survive without bowing to the pressures of a world seemingly determined to destroy the sense of self that got him there--an issue relevant to any time period.

Selma poster Selma (PG-13) *** 1/2 Q&A video with Ava DuVernay, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Common, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner, November 11, 2014 Q&A video with Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo, November 28, 2014 Q&A video with Ava DuVernay, Carmen Ejogo, Common, and Henry G. Sanders, December 18, 2014
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By her very own admission, Ava DuVernay would be one of the least likely filmmakers to tackle a major mainstream historical biopic. After all, her heretofore narrative feature stock in trade exemplifies just about the extreme antithesis of what one generally associates with such a project: introspective, perceptive, and, above all, honest dramas of the everyday (as seen in 2010's I Will Follow and 2012's Middle of Nowhere) as opposed to the glossy, bombastic self-importance and hyper-Hollywood-engineered, awards-baity calculation of the pro forma prestige picture. That fundamental contrast in cinematic sensibilities, however, is why Selma is such a standout work, period, let alone for its genre.

The very idea of the film itself would already be notable for being the first feature film to have Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (played here by David Oyelowo) as its protagonist, but even then the civil rights leader's life and work have been explored thoroughly and then some in a variety of other media. The first wise move is spelled out right in the very title, with the screenplay, credited to Paul Webb, zeroing in on the historic marches King organized and led from the titular Alabama town to the state capital of Montgomery to protest the systematic denial of voting rights to African-Americans. While one of King's defining endeavors, most know of it only in the vaguest, broadest strokes of (1) a march and (2) ultimately leading to President Lyndon B. Johnson (here played by Tom Wilkinson) signing the boundary-breaking Voting Rights Act of 1965. On any level it's an important and inspiring story (and inherently cinematic, what with its large built-in set pieces and personalities to match), but in DuVernay's film it's all the more so, even revelatory. Delving far beyond basic school textbook and Hollywood period piece history lesson to depict all of the tactical wheeling, dealing, and strategizing that went on behind the publicly visible actions of marches and speeches, DuVernay manages to achieve the seemingly impossible in finding a fresh angle to examine an oft-covered figure and era. Her straightforward, unadorned style is an ideal match for the subject matter, bypassing dumbed-down melodrama to matter-of-factly illustrate just how King deeply thought through taking on such a gargantuan task--or, more accurately, he and his equally committed team (ably played by a terrific ensemble including Andre Holland, Colman Domingo, Common, Tessa Thompson, and Wendell Pierce) did so. Their brainstorming and planning process as they continually learn from their own missteps and adapt to the ever-shifting and -shifty maneuvers of the powers that be is engrossing and actually quite instructive, particularly in how they savvily figure out methods to make the established legislative avenues work for them just as effectively as King's persuasive way with words and charismatic leadership.

Those two qualities also apply to Oyelowo's performance, for he takes on the oratory demands with ease and just as effortlessly commands the screen when not at a podium before a crowd. The true brilliance, however, of his work--and that of DuVernay, for that matter--lies in the delicate balance between duly respecting King as a historical icon and incisively studying King as a man. Using but a portion a subject's life to sketch the whole of his or her personality is not new (e.g. Lincoln, just a couple of years ago), but it particularly plays to DuVernay's strengths both as a storyteller and crafter of character. She's always recognized the use of silence and physical expression as a much more eloquent tool than any spoken word, and she and Oyelowo work in tandem to prove that point right from the jump, with a look on his face just before King is about to accept the Nobel Peace Prize; in a single beat (beautifully captured, as is the entire film, by DuVernay's regular ace cinematographer Bradford Young), one sees not only the greatness of the man and his accomplishments, but his very human feeling of the humbling weight of expectations and his own personal doubts. DuVernay also tackles those latter issues head-on in terms of the relationship with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), whose dynamic here is where the film most reflects the director's affinity for navigating the intricate complexities of human relationships and is most characteristic of her remarkably economical, understated, yet powerful style. In the government's ongoing efforts to undermine King, his infidelities are used as underhanded ammunition, and in one single, astonishing scene where Coretta and King are forced to finally discuss the issue, all of the raw realities of their entire relationship are laid vividly bare. The deep, unwavering love they have for one another is palpably clear, but even more perceptive and honest is how, at the point in time the film specifically covers, Coretta is used to, even resigned to, the distractions and long-felt frustrations and resentments caused by the time they spend apart. As such, this is scene is no histrionic, hysterical, prototypical "Oscar clip" dramatic moment per se, but a literally quieter one that is at once more layered and penetrating, rendered all the more truthful and devastating by Oyelowo and Ejogo.

Painful as they may be, those intimate costs paid by King and all involved in the movement only serve to further fuel and drive their determination to reach a greater goal--one whose accomplishment dwarfs any obstacles and setbacks, personal or otherwise; one whose accompanying glory is more gratifying because it could only have been achieved by a large collective working as one. The film itself functions in very much the same way. Oyelowo's star (and, in a just world, star-making) turn appropriately looms large, but Selma would not have truly earned the right to bear the name of that town if it does not convey a clear sense of the people, both the residents and those who converge there to fight on the front lines of the cause. Many of the supporting players may, in a screen time/character range sense, not be given a whole lot to do, but this is an ensemble cast in an ideal sense, with the actors (including no less big a name than the film's producer, Oprah Winfrey) checking all individual ego needs at the proverbial door to play their required role, regardless of size, for the greater good of the bigger picture. DuVernay reinforces culminates this point in a rather graceful fashion. It's no spoiled surprise to say the film ends on a King speech delivered to the rousing hilt by Oyelowo, but what is surprising is that it is not played as a ready-made Oscar clip for the film's lead. Instead, it centers on those listening: the movement's nemeses and, more importantly, the truly varied array of people who walked (in every sense) with King against such literally and figuratively violent opposition. As the latter group beams with inspiration and hope as they watch and listen to King, the cinema audience is in turn inspired by, via on-screen text, the many accomplishments those people went on to do in their own lives--and perhaps that legacy can continue to endure and thrive in the lives and work of those who see Selma.

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AFI Fest presented by Audi 2014 Reviews/© Michael Dequina

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