Videophiled: Oscar winner ‘Selma’

Paramount

Selma (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), directed by Ava Duvernay (who also rewrote Paul Webb’s screenplay without credit), takes on the 1965 march led by Dr. Martin Luther King through Alabama as a benchmark moment in the fight for voting rights and, more generally, civil rights for black citizens in the American south. It’s the kind of film that can get lost in hagiography and simplification. Duvernay sidesteps both with a nuanced, complicated portrait of King (played here by British actor David Oyelowo, star of Duvernay’s previous film Middle of Nowhere) as a man aware of his power as an orator and as a leader, as well as a savvy campaigner with a keen understanding of the workings of the corporate media and local and national politics and powers. Selma was carefully chosen for this event because of, not despite, the potential for violence, one of the ironies revealed in the film: to get the news media to pay attention to injustice, King and his partners in protest had to give them conflict.

That comes at a cost and much of Selma is about the cost and the stakes of movement. Oyelowo plays King with grace and dignity, but he’s always aware of what people are putting on the line, including his wife (Carmen Ejogo), who is harassed by the FBI with evidence of King’s adultery. One of the film’s great triumphs is the maturity and seriousness with which it confronts the way this couple tries to work through it.

There are conflicts within in the movement and with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who was the greatest ally the movement ever had in the White House but was also a politician worried about how to spend his political capital for the greatest good. The film has been criticized for its portrayal of Johnson’s resistance to King’s insistence on moving ahead quickly with voting rights, a conflict partly engineered in the film for dramatic purpose, but I think the critics protest too much. Those scenes illustrate how even supporters of the cause cannot fully understand the reality of living under such repressive laws or the urgency for change. This isn’t a film about Johnson or even, at heart, about King. It is about a culture, a movement, a moment in history, a great injustice that should never be forgotten, and the lives affected by that injustice. Duvernay’s greatest accomplishment is in humanizing history and reminding us of why it matters.

The superb supporting cast of committed performers includes Wendell Pierce, Tessa Thompson, producer Oprah Winfrey, Common, Tim Roth as Alabama governor George Wallace, and Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover. Note that none of King’s speeches are included here. For reasons beyond my understanding, the King family would not allow Duvernay to use King’s speeches, but the film still manages to give us a sense of the power and passion of his words.

Selma received two Oscar nominations: for Best Picture and Best Original Song “Glory” by Common and John Legend, which it won. Many Oscar watchers thought that controversy over the LBJ portrait resulted so few nominations.

On Blu-ray, DVD, and cable and digital VOD. The Blu-ray edition features the supplements: commentary by filmmaker Ava Duvernay and star David Oyelowo, the featurettes “The Road to Selma” and “Recreating Selma,” deleted and extended scenes, and the music video for the Oscar-winning song, plus bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of the film.

Paramount Home Media Distribution is sending DVD copies of the film to every high school in the U.S., both public and private, for their libraries, and they are making companion study guides available for teachers free of charge. Educators can request a copy of the guide at http://bazaned.com.

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Videophiled: ‘A Most Violent Year’

MostViolent
Lionsgate

A Most Violent Year (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) should have been an Oscar contender. Written and directed by J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) and set in the crime-ridden culture of early 1980s New York City (which was the most violent year on record in the city’s history), smart, shadowy tribute to the crime dramas of the seventies and early eighties, when the culture of crime and corruption was treated as a systemic issue rather than an outlier problem solved in the final reel. Oscar Isaac plays an ambitious businessman in the oil heating market determined to succeed without mob ties and Jessica Chastain is his fierce, fearless wife, the daughter of a mobster who is convinced that he needs to mob up when his trucks and his salesmen are targeted and the assistant D.A. (David Oyelowo) is looking into his books (yes, he’s been paying off officials, which is business as usual in that culture). She’s got a bit of Lady Macbeth to her Brooklyn character but Isaac is determined to remain (relatively) honest even when his entire business teeters on collapse as he scrambles to raise money for a deal that will either make him rich or leave him broke. Isaac and Chastain are excellent (though Chastain is left to fill in what the script fails to provide in terms of dimension) and Albert Brooks is almost unrecognizable as Isaac’s pragmatic (and loyal) lawyer

Chandor expertly takes us through gray area between the culture of official corruption and the criminal underworld (organized and unorganized crime both) and favors the human drama over gangster spectacle. It is a violent world, and a shadowy one (the New York winter setting is beautifully shot by Bradford Young, who has a way of suggesting that even daylight is a shadow cast by something wicked), but the violence is all in personal, intimate terms, inflicted on real people who are not equipped for this kind of warfare. His direction is both gritty and graceful, if perhaps a little studied and removed. Though not exactly glorified, the film portrays this business battlefield as a historical set piece, seen from a distance and elevated to Shakespearean dimensions. There is a cost to every decision, including the choice not to fight criminals on their own terms. Isaac’s performance clarifies that conflict beautifully.

Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary by filmmaker Chandor and producers Neal Dodson and Anna Gerb, three featurettes, and deleted scenes. The Blu-ray also feature a bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.

Also on digital and cable VOD and at Redbox.

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Videophiled: ‘Selma’ director Ava DuVernay’s ‘Middle of Nowhere’

Lionsgate

Middle of Nowhere (Lionsgate, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) – As Selma opens wide to great reviews, Ava DuVernay’s second feature comes to disc, a small story about a woman who put her aspirations on hold when her husband goes to prison. Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) drops out of medical school and takes a nursing job so that she can be at home for daily calls from Derek (Omari Hardwick) and make the two hour bus ride from the Los Angeles suburbs to the prison every week. Ruby’s mother (Lorraine Toussaint) isn’t shy about letting her disappointment show and Ruby spends more time with her sister (Edwina Findley Dickerson), a single mother raising a young boy, to avoid such issues. She believes Derek regrets his mistakes and he probably believes so too, but as he becomes illegible for early parole the reality proves to be more complicated. Which is really what the film is about: life is more complicated than the parameters she has fenced around it. Ruby’s commitment to her husband’s support comes at a cost beyond mere professional success, and his past doesn’t go away so easily.

This isn’t about dramatic revelations and charge confrontations. DuVernay, who also wrote the original screenplay, has made a film about those moments lived between the decisions and is able to show Ruby coming around to see what has been obvious to others. She makes Derek a complicated and nuanced character in his limited screen time—the films stays with Ruby through her story, seeing only what she does—neither judging nor forgiving him as Ruby discovers that his mistakes are not over. The restraint leaves some issues a little vague and unsure, such as Derek’s child from a previous relationship and his past (and present) involvement in the gangs, which can be frustrating, but this isn’t his story. It’s about Ruby and the choices she makes.

The title is apt, and not just for her commitment to a husband who is locked up two hours away in the middle of the desert. Even in Ruby’s East Los Angeles neighborhood, DuVernay’s images pare away detail and separate Ruby from her surroundings and even her family, as if she has isolated herself from the world. Except for traveling to and from work (always by bus; there’s no car on Ruby’s salary), she hardly interacts with anyone but her family, and even with mom she keeps all interactions as a distance.

Emayatzy Corinealdi

Corinealdi gives a quiet but expressive performance as a woman who doesn’t recognize her own malaise and loneliness until she’s wooed by an easygoing bus driver (David Oyelowo, who stars in Selma as Dr. King) and she realizes how much of herself she’s sacrificed. In those moments, when friendly conversation and a little flirtation coaxes a smile from her, we get a sense of who Ruby might have been before she gave up her life. And DuVernay resists putting her transformation into words—even the lovely voiceover as she speaks her feelings for perhaps the first time is more poetry than proclamation—and instead lets the flowering of Ruby come through the way she allows herself to live and be. That sensitivity and grace won DuVernay the Best Director award at Sundance and, one assumes, proved that she had the talent to tackle Selma, where that promise is fulfilled.

Features commentary by director Ava DuVernay and actress Emayatzy Corinealdi and an Ultraviolent HD digital copy of the film. Also available to stream from Xbox Video.

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