George Byrne finds much to enjoy in Selma but Jupiter Ascending and Patrick's Day don't fare too well
SELMA (Drama. Starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Giovanni Ribisi, Cuba Gooding Jr, Oprah Winfrey, Tim Roth, Common, Wendell Pierce, Colman Domingo, Martin Sheen, Nigel Thatch, Stan Huston, John Legend. Directed by Ava DuVernay. Cert 12A)
When attempting to structure a biopic of a major historical figure there are many traps lurking within the process to snare the unwary, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. Richard Attenborough's Gandhi managed to skirt most of the potential pitfalls whilst maintaining a gravitas and dignity which its subject richly deserved whereas last year's Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom seemed to steer straight towards every pothole in its path.
Despite a fine central performance from Idris Elba, that film tried to cover way too much ground with the result that it came across as a series of snapshots, fine enough in themselves but not enough to give us a true sense of the man which, say, concentrating on a specific time in his life may well have done. Thankfully, with Selma Ava DuVernay has made the correct decision to condense her story about Martin Luther King into a specific and crucial period in his life.
Although we open with King (David Oyelowo) reluctantly and nervously preparing his acceptance speech for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, most of the action takes place the following year in Alabama.
A shocking sequence shows us the bombing of a church in Birmingham in which four young girls lost their lives before we cut to the elderly Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) coming up against blatant racism in her efforts to register to vote.
It's this latter fight which prompted King and his associates to instigate a march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery, a 54-mile trek which would bring those taking part into the face of Southern bigotry at its most naked and violent but, crucially, would garner the kind of publicity for the cause which would alter the opinions of America and its president, Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).
It would have been very easy for DuVernay to let Selma slip into becoming an unsubtle hagiography but by and large she's managed to show King as a principled but flawed man, not least when it comes to the matter of his frequent extra-marital liaisons and the effect that had on his relationship with his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo).
From an historical perspective, LBJ certainly wasn't as entrenched as he's portrayed here but in any biopic there are bound to be a few truths swept under the carpet.
What Selma does particularly well is balance the ideological in-fighting within the Civil Rights movement - King's Gandhi-esque belief in passive resistance versus the more militant stance of Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) - with bursts of violence which cause the viewer to gasp. Chief among these is the unbelievably brutal response of Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Huston) and the men under his command when the marchers attempt to cross a bridge over the Alabama river, an event captured live on American TV and marking a watershed in the struggle.
David Oyelowo is magnificent as MLK, giving a career-best performance as a man driven but still prone to self-doubt while there's hardly a false note struck by any of the supporting players, Tim Roth in particular delivering a memorable turn as Alabama's governor George Wallace. Ultimately, Selma is a powerful and beautifully constructed piece of cinema about a turbulent time in US history and well worthy of your attention.
(Sci-Fi. Starring Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Tuppence Middleton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, James D'Arcy, Douglas Booth, Maria Doyle Kennedy. Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski. Cert 12A)
Dear Lord, it seems like such a long time ago since the Wachowski siblings were one of the hottest teams in Hollywood, with their debut feature Bound followed by the groundbreaking work that was The Matrix. Two increasingly rotten sequels to the latter were followed by the hyperactive headwreck of Speed Racer and the bonkers adaptation of the unfilmable Cloud Atlas and now, alas, we've come to this.
It's rarely a good sign when a big-budget epic with a topline cast is bumped from a planned July release to the wintry wastelands of early February but, in all honesty, a slow week for new releases is probably the only way Warner Brothers have of clawing back even a fraction of their investment in this farce.
A sci-fi mash-up so dumb it makes Flash Gordon look like Solaris, this thoroughly preposterous yarn centres around a Russian-born toilet cleaner Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), who's suddenly informed that she's some sort of alien princess and actually entitled to rule Earth but members of her intergalactic family are trying to have her killed. Chief among these are Balem (Eddie Redmayne) and Titus (Douglas Booth) but, luckily for her, hunky former Space Legionnaire Caine (Channing Tatum) arrives in his gravity-defying boots to save her in an effort to get his wings back, literally.
Rotten CGI, pointless 3D and an incomprehensible plot which involves lots of Kunis apparently falling to her doom only to have Tatum swoop to her rescue makes you wonder how on earth this ever got past its initial pitch. Really, any film which has Sean Bean - who's had to utter some pretty rubbish lines in his time - say "Bees recognise royalty. Bees don't lie" with a straight face is teetering on the edge of parody.
(Drama. Starring Moe Dunford, Kerry Fox, Philip Jackson, Catherine Walker, Aaron Monaghan, CFonor Mullen. Directed by Terry McMahon. Cert 15A)
Terry McMahon's debut feature, 2012's Charlie Casanova, was one of the worst films it's ever been my misfortune to see, a murky, muddy knock-off of The Dice Man which was an endurance test from start to finish. Well, for his second outing McMahon has decided to tackle the subject of mental illness and, on a positive note, it's infinitely better than his first effort.
Patrick's Day has good cinematography and three fine central performances from Moe Dunford as the schizophrenic Patrick Fitzgerald, Kerry Fox as his worried but overly controlling mother Maura and Catherine Walker as a suicidal air hostess who forms a relationship with Patrick but the film doesn't hang together with any real believability.
Part of the problem lies with McMahon's tendency to write speeches rather than dialogue which people might actually use, something of a drawback when he appears to be going for realism. Yes, mental illness is serious subject but that doesn't mean you should have to suffer a bad film about it.
ALSO RELEASED THIS WEEK
Those good folk at Aardman Studios have gifted parents with Shaun the Sheep: The Movie (General, 4/5), a thoroughly enjoyable romp involving a furry flock on a mission to the city to save their beloved farmer. Great fun altogether and a thorough joy.