Film reviews: Selma | The Interview | Still Life

Siobhan Synnot reviews the new cinema releases this week
Seth Rogen (centre) with co-star James Franco in The Interview. Picture: ContributedSeth Rogen (centre) with co-star James Franco in The Interview. Picture: Contributed
Seth Rogen (centre) with co-star James Franco in The Interview. Picture: Contributed

Selma (12A)

Director: Ava DuVernay

Running time: 128 minutes

Star rating: ****

HAS it really taken 50 years to make a film about Martin Luther King? Strictly speaking, Selma isn’t a biopic but it is the first time that any movie has dared to tangle with his legend in anything but a peripheral way. Perhaps the notoriously litigious King family are a factor, but they can hardly complain about David Oyelowo’s representation of the civil rights activist, who mobilises a momentous 54-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery’s state capital in 1965 to protest against southern states discriminating against black people and preventing them from exercising their voting rights.

Selma takes in a sweep of characters, not just one person. Naturally King draws the eye but he’s not the only leader here, because this is a film about a unified will, and its effort at gamesmanship, with strategies and compromises discussed by activists like Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo) and James Bevel (played by rapper Common).

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It also touches lightly on some inner lives: Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, wearily confronts her husband with a discussion of infidelity. And inevitably, Selma producer Oprah Winfrey pops up as Annie Lee Cooper, a woman who can recite the US constitution, and knows how many county judges are in her state, but is denied the right to register because she cannot name all 67 of them.

It’s refreshing that, unlike The Help, Selma doesn’t lasso a white interloper to make the black experience palatable, or sanitise the grimmer aspects of racism, but the movie has already had criticism in the US for its historical elisions. An explosion in a church which kills four girls is shocking but it didn’t happen in the implied time frame. Supporters point out that Selma is a drama, not a documentary, but Ava DuVernay’s film fiddles the timeline unnecessarily at a crucial point when there were many racist outrages to enact.

Paul Webb’s script is also a bit hard on Lyndon B Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who spars with King about a Voting Rights Act. King wants the job done now; Johnson says there are more pressing issues and wants recognition for passing the Civil Rights Act. This Johnson also licenses J Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to spy on the Kings and send an incriminating recording of two people having sex to Coretta. In fact, Johnson didn’t need prodding by King to support the Voting Rights Act, partly because he wanted history to remember him as a great emancipator. There’s also no evidence that he wanted Hoover to undermine the Kings’ marriage. King was not short on enemies – and DuVernay does a delicate job of foreshadowing his early death – so why smear one of his supporters for the sake of a quick dramatic fix?

Don’t let this put you off Selma: it’s a good, although not great movie, that steers a coherent path through a weighty historical moment. It leans towards pageant parade rather than passion play, but when it contains its predilection for swelling music and speechifying, there are moments of urgency and power. If you are unfamiliar with the march, there is real tension in its storytelling, especially when the protest arrives at a bridge where police are waiting on the other side, all uniformed, all white and all armed.

Twitter @SiobhanSynnot

• On general release from Friday

The Interview (15)

Star rating: **

IT’S odd to reflect that the most contentious movie of the past 12 months is not about religion, race or brutality, but a comedy which portrays the leader of North Korea as a fan of The Big Bang Theory and Katy Perry.

The Dear Leader (played rather well as a margarita-quaffing manchild by Randall Park) is also a huge fan of chat show host Dave Skylark (James Franco). His producer (Seth Rogen) longs for a real scoop (“Eminem just said he was gay FOUR TIMES on our show!”), and sensing an opportunity, he negotiates an exclusive interview. In turn, the CIA sees a chance to assassinate Kim. However, no-one factors in the narcissistic Skylark bonding with the dictator over tanks and puppies.

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At its most sophisticated, The Interview makes jabs at the media. More typical is a scene where Rogen is forced to shove an enormous missile up his rectum. His pain is shared by all of us by the time The Interview reaches its senselessly blunt and bloody finale.

Meanwhile, at the Sundance Film Festival this week, a documentary premiered about US basketball player Dennis Rodman, his genuine friendship with Kim Jong-un, and an attempt to improve relations between North and South Korea by setting up a basketball game. “I’m not Martin Luther King,” explains Rodman, who apparently is not Einstein either. The problem for The Interview is that real life has better punchlines than Seth Rogan can confect.

• On general release from Friday


Shaun The Sheep (U)

Star rating: ****

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Aardman’s grass-fed hero graduates from TV to the big screen in an exuberant, child-friendly feature which sees Shaun and his flock venture into the city to retrieve their farmer. Along the way, there are wild and woolly adventures involving a runaway caravan and an implacable stray animal catcher called Trumper. Meanwhile, a posh meal where the sheep disguise themselves as human diners is a remarkable exercise in wordless comedy. Co-written and directed by Mark Burton (Madagascar) and Richard Starzack (the creator of the TV series) there’s nothing about this to frighten the horses, unless you count a momentary shot of a cat with a cone collar behaving like Hannibal Lecter. A neat auditory pun on barber shop quartets dismisses any further thoughts about the silence of the lambs.

• On general release from Friday

Still Life (15)

Star rating: ***

Eddie Marsan stars as a low-key council official trying to find the relatives of those who have died alone in Uberto Pasolini’s earnestly dull movie about quiet, lonely lives. Marsan gives it heft but the path he’s on is a predictable one.

• Glasgow Film Theatre, Friday until 12 February

Pelo Malo (15)

Star rating: **

Mariana Rondón concocts an intense oddity about Junior (Samuel Lange Zambrano,

above) a nine year-old boy in

the slums of Caracas who is obsessed by his bad hair, and tries to flatten his riot of dark curls into a more fashionably straight style. His single mother (Samantha Castillo) is more alarmed by his interest in singing, dancing and hanging around a hunky boy neighbour. A not especially cunning metaphor about homophobia unfolds. Staying in and washing your hair would be marginally more cheery.

On selected release from Friday