David Oyelowo in SelmaSELMA

Movie violence is so prevalent - be it in horror films or action franchises (see Taken 3, if you must) or the PG-13 pummelings of every Marvel entertainment ever - that it's shocking to see one whose brutal acts have the power to make you cry. But within the first minutes of the extraordinary Selma, director Ava DuVernay stages a literal explosion of historical violence so frightening, repellent, and emotionally overwhelming that, in the awestruck moments of silence that followed, it was absolutely no surprise to hear viewers sniffling.

That explosion turns out to be the one that notoriously killed four African-American girls in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham, Alabama's 16th Street Baptist Church, and in Selma's narrative, it lands right after the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) receives his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, which took place in December of 1964. As we learn, however, this incongruous chronology isn't an error on the part of DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb. Rather, the bombing is an unannounced flashback that arrives exactly when the film needs it to - the nightmarish event that inspires every action to come. DuVernary and Webb have done many, many smart things with Selma, a film that could be easily and incorrectly summarized as a Martin Luther King bio-pic. But perhaps the smartest one was to make its focus so precise. By restricting the movie's coverage to the three-month period between Oslo and President Lyndon Johnson's introduction of the Voting Right Act, with the deaths of those four little girls serving as its impetus, DuVernay and Webb deliver a full vision of the (continuing) Civil Rights movement through intensely specific, and specifically moving, avenues.

Like Spielberg's and screenwriter Tony Kushner's Lincoln, Selma explores its Big Picture - in this case the historic, 50-mile march for voting rights that led hundreds from Selma to the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery - through a number of smaller social and political prisms. King and his advisers, Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and his staffers, Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and his allies, college student John Lewis (Stephen James) and his fellow non-violent protesters, grassroots volunteers throughout the South, empathetic ministers throughout the north - DuVernay and Webb give time and attention to each faction involved in the struggle. And each one reveals messy and fascinating (and, it should be mentioned, deeply engaging) insight on the era's political pressures and aching fight for morality; DuVernay and Webb are, of course, on the right side of history, but their film never feels like a screed. With Oyelowo offering a subtle, measured King portrayal that doesn't ever slide into easy sanctimony, Selma never feels generically good-for-you, either. Oyelowo's King is a complicated, frequently tormented man who's almost sure he's doing the right thing, and his internal battle between wanting to do what's correct and what's correct at this particular time makes him incredibly touching even when the reverend's thrillingly mellifluous sermons are raising the rafters.

David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo in SelmaThe whole movie, in truth, possesses rafter-raising power. Some of DuVernay's larger set pieces - such as the first attempt at the march, with dozens injured in the eventual melee and a horrified viewing public watching on live television - are so stupendously well-staged and -edited that you may feel like applauding even though you're too transfixed to move. But DuVernay is just as remarkably assured when the temperature lowers, such as in the devastating scene of King attempting to console an elderly man (the incomparable Henry G. Sanders) who's staring at the dead body of his grandson. I've just pinpointed two scenes that left me bawling, but another of Selma's greatest attributes is that the anger and sadness it inspires are just parts of an emotional collage that finds room for excitement and humor and surprise and triumph - and, in the personage of the marvelous Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, a goodly amount of marital tenderness. (Things aren't all tender between the Kings, however, and Ejogo has a stunner of a scene in which she confronts Martin with her awareness of his infidelities.)

You could practically fill a phone book with the number of brilliantly observed performances on-hand, delivered by faces both familiar (mosty from TV) and not: Oprah Winfrey, Wendell Pierce, Stephen Root, Lorraine Toussaint, Alessandro Nivola, Giovanni Ribisi, Colman Domingo, Ruben Santiago-Hudson. The only one whose presence is even mildly jarring is Martin Sheen, who's such a famous symbol for liberal causes that the former President Bartlett's appearance here - as a liberal judge, no less - seems both an inevitability and a cliché. But even Sheen contributes mightily to the spellbinding emotional tapestry of Selma. Over the closing credits, we hear an anthem by John Legend and co-star Common called "Glory," and if it hadn't already been used for another cinematic tale of civil rights exactly a quarter-century ago, that would've also been an excellent title for Ava DuVernay's majestic new movie.

 

Joaquin Phoenix and Benicio del Toro in Inherent ViceINHERENT VICE

It's probably a safe guess that Inherent Vice, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's famously surreal detective comedy, won't appeal to viewers seeking a controlled, or even very coherent, narrative. Missing millionaires, cheating spouses, untrustworthy ex-girlfriends, crooked cops, drug cartels, coked-up dentists, and a massage parlor with an incredibly specific all-you-can-eat special are all thrown into the mix, along with much, much more. And unless you've devoured Pynchon's novel (it's thus far evaded me), you might find yourself understanding the story on a scene-by-scene basis but frustratingly unable to glean the full plot by the time the end credits roll. Here, however, is a partial list of viewers to whom it likely will appeal: those who like Paul Thomas Anderson, those who like the '70s and '70s music, those who like weed, those who like movies about those who like weed, and, perhaps especially, those who like actors.

As someone who falls into more than one of those categories, I thought Inherent Vice was a trip, even though trying to follow the increasingly zonked-out adventures of shaggy investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) and his increasingly bizarre acquaintances bordered on the impossible. Yet at no point in Anderson's latest did my attention ever wane, because one ferociously good, generally whacked-out performer after another kept showing up to give this melancholic stoner comedy a burst of joyously unapologetic weirdness. There's Josh Brolin as a flat-topped detective and occasional TV extra, Benicio del Toro as a suave maritime lawyer, Reese Witherspoon as a prim assistant DA, Owen Wilson as an informant hiding in Hare Krishna wear, Katherine Waterston as a luscious former flame, Eric Roberts as a glassy-eyed real-estate developer, Martin Short as a decadent oral surgeon, Hong Chau as a helpful masseuse with a Kristin Chenoweth chirp ... . Every few minutes, they and roughly half of SAG - Maya Rudolph, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jeannie Berlin, Joanna Newsom, Jillian Bell, Martin Donovan, et al - show up and do something lively and inventive, and Phoenix, in a beautifully lived-in portrayal, stares at these eccentrics with growing, incredulous wonder. (Phoenix's sublime reaction shots are at their finest when he watches Brolin consume a frozen banana with oblivious suggestiveness, and when Jena Malone's drug counselor explains, "I try to talk kids into sensible drug use.") Photographed, in a haze of smoke and sweat, by frequent Anderson collaborator Robert Elswit, and with at least a dozen lines destined to become repeat-viewing classics, Inherent Vice is strange as hell. Yet for all of its inherent confusion, it's also strangely satisfying - a two-and-a-half-hour high that you don't crash from.

 

Liam Neeson in Taken 3TAKEN 3

Not long into Taken 3, there's a playful, uncomfortably flirtatious squabble between daddy Liam Neeson and daughter Maggie Grace that basically boils down to them arguing, "You're the predictable one!" "No, you're the predictable one!" Couldn't they just have called a truce and agreed that their movie was the predictable one? In the series' latest revenge thriller, one in which no one but the film's patrons are actually taken, retired CIA agent Neeson is framed for the murder of his wife (Famke Janssen, blessedly escaping the franchise) and sets off by foot and conveniently borrowed car to find her killer while Forest Whitaker tails him Fugitive style. I won't insult you by asking you to guess what happens next. If, however, you were imagining car chases, shoot-outs, terse phone calls, Russian gangsters who just vant their mow-ney, and the discomforting sight of Neeson continuing to treat 31-year-old Maggie Grace either (unpleasantly) like she was eight or (really unpleasantly) like his lover, you're on the right track. Making it all a little more interesting is Neeson's newfound ability to teleport, which is the only possible explanation for him going on the lam in a sweater and winding up, the next time we see him, staring at Janssen's corpse in his signature black leather jacket. (Apparently, one of the places he can teleport to is Men's Wearhouse.) Making it all much worse are some of the most staggeringly inept action sequences ever committed to celluloid, with director Olivier Megaton appearing to paste them together out of hundreds of random shots lasting less than a half-second each; it's like he's trying to make a newspaper out of confetti. Whitaker, seemingly amused by how little is asked of him here, makes his criminally dunderheaded cop somewhat endearing. (Why, though, is he given the nervous habits of twirling rubber bands and twirling the wooden knight from a chess set? Just how tic-y does this guy need to be?) But the actor is practically the only thing about Taken 3 you can't actively laugh at, especially in the mano a mano brawl between Neeson and Sam Spruell's heavily accented gangster, the latter of whom performs the entire vicious battle - to the audience's hysteria - in an open dress shirt and tighty-whiteys. I'll grant you: That part wasn't predictable at all.

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