It is not easy to film a historic moment that some viewers will remember, such as a critical juncture wherein the Civil Rights Movement focused on a single issue: electoral rights. Nonetheless, director Ava DuVernay delivers with Selma, an extraordinary film filled with solid performances and an intense atmosphere that is truly a cinematic experience.

The story of Selma is layered in history, politics, social awareness and a humanized biography. DuVernay tracks several people from different walks of life with real high stakes. As much as the film focuses on Dr. Martin Luther King, his leadership style and his family, the genius of DuVernay is that she humanizes the film by focusing also on everyday people in the south. The film goes beyond a biopic work and becomes an engrossing and relatable story about what it was like to live in Selma, Alabama in the early 1960s. It should be noted that DuVernay made history herself, by being the first African-American female director to earn a Golden Globe nomination — a well-earned nod.

Selma starts quietly with what seems to be a very positive moment for Dr. King, played marvelously by David Oyelowo. He is in Norway to accept a Nobel Peace Prize. He is charismatic, charming and even a bit hesitant about the life he has chosen. He jokes with his wife, Coretta Scott King (an equally amazing Carmen Ejogo), about being a preacher in a small college town. Through this and other even more intimate moments, DuVernay humanizes Dr. King. He is a leader with doubts, concerns, fear and in constant search of how to do what is both right for the struggle and right for the people he has mobilized.

That the film did not have access to the original speeches because of budget constraints does not in any way hinder the film’s outcome. Oyelowo plays King with a strength that shines through the screen guaranteed to stir an emotional response from the audience. The sequences with King delivering speeches show a passionate leader, who is speaking as much to himself as he is directing his words to a crowd. Oyelowo makes it obvious that there is self-doubt in this great leader. The fact that we are hearing these words for the first time actually helps the film, engaging the audience in the film itself instead of standing out as a reenactment of a moment in time that might be very familiar to some.

Among a remarkable ensemble cast, one of the highlights of this film is a standout performance by Ejoga as Coretta Scott King. As a supporting actress, Ejoga made the most of this film, and her representation of Coretta feels both authentic and fresh. I would not be surprised if she is recognized later on with a nomination for Best Supporting Actress from the Academy. Another solid performance came from none other than Oprah Winfrey, who plays Annie Lee Cooper, a woman willing the courage it would take for an African-American citizen to register to vote in Selma prior to the Civil Rights Act. Her tone and gestures are filled with an apprehensive strength, and in the quiet sighs and defiant gazes, she shows that the Civil Rights Movement went well beyond the marches, sit-ins and brilliant speeches. The everyday struggle was part of the mounting anger that later won the hearts and minds of supporters from across the country. Terms like second-rate citizen are often bandied about when talking about racial disparities in America, but in the performances of Winfrey, not to mention Henry J. Sanders as Cager Lee, the audience gets to witness what the term second-class citizenship actually means.

The film comes at an incredibly timely year, as 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The big issues of racial disparity, abuse of authority and the struggle of racial minorities to exercise the right to govern their own lives are still very much top of mind with the unresolved issues of Ferguson and the series of protests still being held under the umbrella hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Indeed, Selma is a well-timed film and a must-watch, even for the apolitical public, as the drama is compellingly constructed by DuVernay.

Ana Morgenstern

Selma is rated PG-13 (expect violence and some cursing), runs 127 minutes. It opens wide in the United States on Friday, Jan. 9. Get showtimes and tickets here. Paramount invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

Update: Selma is returning to theaters for an encore round of screenings on March 20 in recognition of the 50th anniversary of this important moment in history. For local showtimes, visit this link.

(Copyright 2014 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Wild is an ode to women’s inner strength. The film is an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir, which tells the story of how she hiked 1,110 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. The film starts off with Cheryl – played by Reese Witherspoon – sitting at the edge of a cliff in a beautiful landscape of the Northern Pacific pulling a toenail off a bloody, battered foot. She has been hiking for a few weeks at that point and Cheryl is in pain, but she is also resolute, refusing to allow that pain nor the vast landscape overwhelm her. The scene, though a little hard to watch, sets the tone for the journey we are about to embark on with Cheryl: a lonesome trail filled with physical pain and emotional mountains to be climbed. Cheryl decides to embark on the hike after finishing a painful divorce, still grieving the loss of her dear mother and feeling guilty about the missteps she took while mourning, such as casual sex with strangers and picking up a heroine habit.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s adaptation focuses on Cheryl’s inner struggle. Vallée’s portrayal of the open spaces and the solitude on the trail is quite stunning, but the real cause for admiration is his treatment of Cheryl’s guilt-ridden past, which appears as flashbacks scattered throughout the film. The fact that the novel Wild is a bestseller can be tricky for a director, as many will inevitably compare the film to their personal experiences with the novel. However, this film can stand on its own as a different experience. The film medium is not as personal, but it allows for further introspection by the viewer.


Cheryl’s memories of sorrow mixed with real happy moments that feature her mother (playfully portrayed by Laura Dern) are at the heart of the emotional baggage Cheryl lugs around the Pacific Trail. The memories seem few and scattered enough so that the story is not an expositional, linear sob story. Rather, Vallée invites the audience to join the journey, making connections on their own and offering a non-chronological narrative that showcases a deeply flawed heroin. While you might think it’s hard to root for a woman who engages in promiscuous behavior, has addictive tendencies and seems to have lost her vision; her redeeming qualities are so raw and real it’s hard not to feel for her. Her journey is as much a self-discovery as it is a re-invention. In a letter she writes to her ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski),  she ponders:

Here are some questions I’ve been asking myself:
What if I forgive myself? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do a single thing differently? What if I’d wanted to fuck every single one of those men?What if heroin taught me something?


As with the writing, Witherspoon has the ability to capture brutal honesty mixed with an intense vulnerability. To convey an internal struggle is not an easy feat, especially for an actress known for her comedic roles. In Wild, Witherspoon sets Cheryl free through a series of cathartic moments. Witherspoon has also earned a nomination for Best Actress from the Golden Globes, a well-earned nod for the actress who appears in almost every frame of the film.

The film’s cinematography captures the beauty of the Pacific Crest Trail, from the heat of the Mojave desert to the green and luscious forestry in Washington State. The emotional journey is also full of vivid imagery, from anger and deep sorrow over the mother’s death to forgiveness and heartache. One of the most poignant moments of the film comes when Cheryl encounters a boy, Kyle (Evan O’Toole), out on a walk with his grandmother. After a brief, polite conversation Kyle shares with Cheryl that he has some problems that he’s not supposed to talk about with strangers. Cheryl then over-shares too, opens up about her mother’s death and suddenly saying it out loud changes the tone of the conversation. The encounter is both a painful reminder of the sadness that has marked her and an acceptance of the past.

Wild runs 115 minutes and is rated R (sexual content, nudity, drug use and language). It opens this Friday in select theaters. In South Florida, the only indie theater showing it is O Cinema Miami Beach. For other theaters across the nation showing it, visit the film’s homepage.

Ana Morgenstern

(Copyright 2014 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Amour - poster artMore than any other foreign language film before it, Amour seems a sure-thing for winning the Oscar® for Best Foreign Language Picture of 2012. The year began with the Palme d’Or at Cannes where the film had its world premiere. It topped many critics’ award lists before winning the Foreign Language Award at the Golden Globes. It is even nominated for Best Picture in the Oscars®. I cannot remember the last time a foreign film crossed over into that category. Beyond the film’s accolades, director Michael Haneke has gained a reputation as one of the more important filmmakers working today. With every new film, the Austrian director has only ever upped his game. Amour is no less an example of his skill as an auteur. From his decisions in casting the lead roles to his efficient use of dialogue, Haneke has an awe-inducing ability to maximize the art of cinema to serve his end. Amour dwells on an elderly couple’s love as the wife debilitates from a stroke. The brilliance of the film lies in how Haneke takes such a simple premise to illuminate the viewer’s relationship with aging, and, in effect, living itself. The director, also the sole screenwriter, makes it clear that his film will be as much about death as it is about life when he opens the movie with the discovery of the body of Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) laid out on her bed, surrounded by decaying flowers. He implicates the viewer by next introducing she and her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) as part of a crowd in a theater staring right through the screen, as a mirror of the cinema audience. In the crowd, people murmur (living) and cough (dying). An announcer warns members of the crowd to shut off mobile devices. After more murmurs and coughs, they applaud before the film cuts to the next scene: a ride home on the metro, where we get a closer look at the elderly couple but still at a distance and among people. The camera maintains a distance to show these are people among people. Anne and Georges are only faces in the sea of coughs and chatter. They are among us, yet they also are us. They are alive and near death. Life goes on, despite it slowing down for them. And, the film implies more subtly, we will all reach that state at some point, as well. Amour2 As grim as it might seem, Amour spends much of its time reminding the viewer of his or her own mortality while humanizing this caring couple. Besides the initial establishing scenes in the concert hall and train, the couple is only ever presented in what will be Anne’s tomb: the couple’s culturally overflowing Paris apartment. They were musicians and teachers at some point before the events depicted in the film. A grand piano sits at the center of giant library, played only by a ghost at one point in the film. Paintings, CDs and books they have accumulated over their long lives together loom over their existence as the occupy their last few days on earth with mostly mundane things. Their kitchen is tiny by comparison, and it is here where Anne suffers her first stroke. Time seems to stop for her as Georges tries to get her attention, but she does not respond. When she comes back to awareness, she carries on as if nothing has happened. Sony-Pictures-Classics-AMOUR-2When Georges tries to explain what happened, Anne has no memory of the event. A frozen moment presents itself as the first shift toward the abyss. Haneke wastes no opportunity to present other frozen moments as eternity, such as Anne’s sudden desire to look at photo album and a beautiful and an exquisite, soundless montage of the paintings, some in detail, in Anne and Georges’ apartment. But the real game-changing moment, a sudden shift in awareness Haneke so skillfully plays with in his films, arrives during a conversation between the couple. There’s an exchange between the two about 45 minutes into the film. It’s a conversation loaded with speculation, what would to do for our loved one should something happen, such as the stroke Anne had so suddenly suffered. Every couple has imagined the thought whether aloud or in private contemplation.  Up until this moment in the film this angle of perception did not come up. They were a couple who did things together. They were a unit, a team who will get through Anne’s ailment together. They had similar tastes and interests that buoyed their many years of marriage. If they could not beat this thing together, they would deal with it together. He offers his view: “Put yourself in my shoes. Haven’t you ever thought it could happen to me, too?” “Sure,” she responds, and here arrives Haneke’s signature twist of perception: “But imagination and reality have little in common.” Thus, the great, unbreachable gulf arrives between the couple. AmourAs Anne deteriorates, they begin to more clearly lose their bond and unified place in time together. It happens in humbling and humiliating circumstances. As a nurse goes through the motions of changing Anne’s diaper, dictating directions to Georges. Anne’s mortified face speaks volumes. Haneke presents scenes like these with no sentimentality, and Riva dives in with him, giving a brave, self-deprecating performance that captures an awareness of the gradual suffering of a helpless, aged person that feels not only heart-rending to watch but uncomfortable (she has also been singled out for a Best Actress Oscar®). Discomfort is also part of Haneke’s aesthetic. He sets up one of these with a visit from a successful former student of the couple (pianist Alexandre Tharaud playing a version of himself). Though the student shows empathy to see his teacher with a useless hook of a right hand, he also has a flourishing career with a recording contract and sold out shows. Alexandre’s moment on earth at the height of his career especially hits hard when he sends them a card calling their strength in the face of Anne’s stroke “beautiful and sad.” Anne cannot bear to listen to his CD after that sentimental note. What does anyone know about dying when they have so much life ahead of them? Amour_013 There are many moments such as these to look for, including several featuring their daughter Eva played by the always wonderful Isabelle Huppert. Of course the subject matter is difficult, but Haneke’s anti-sentimentality— also captured magnificently by the two brave leads— offers as much respect to living as it does death. There is a poetic reveal of the intermingling of life, death and love that vividly comes to light throughout Amour, not least of all in the final gesture of love by Georges to his wife. The best poetry is unsentimental and life-affirming. With Amour, Haneke reveals himself as a true poet of cinema. Hans Morgenstern Amour is Rated PG-13 (growing old ain’t pretty, after all), runs 127 min. and is in French with English subtitles. Sony Pictures Classics provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. It opens in South Florida at the following theaters on Friday, Jan. 25:

Tower Theater, Miami
AMC Sunset Place, South Miami
Gateway 4, Fort Lauderdale
Cinemark Palace 20, Boca Raton
Regal Shadowood, Boca Raton
Regal Delray, Delray Beach

Up-dates: The indie art house Miami Beach Cinematheque has added Amour to its line-up. It premieres just after Valentine’s Day, Feb. 22. After you’re done celebrating love in all its commercialized glory, go see Amour for your reality check. Visit this hotlink: for ticket informationIt later arrives in mainland Miami’s art house, the O Cinema beginning March 1 (click here for ticket information and screening dates).

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)