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Here's a look at the new movies I saw this week.

Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, and Carmen Ejogo
Synopsis: In June 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down large portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In defense of the decision, Chief Justice John Roberts said “our country has changed.” The rationale was that, in the years since the decision, we had progressed as a society, and the strict protections the law afforded were no longer needed. Many in this country probably didn’t notice that decision, or take much stock of it, particularly younger generations who weren’t around to see the struggle that led to the passage of the law in the first place. Regardless, the sentiment that our country has changed to a great degree is either a glass half full ideology, or wishful thinking. In watching “Selma,” the new biopic that shows three months in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his associates as they pushed President Lyndon Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965, it’s impossible not to appreciate the passion, the struggle and the necessity of that legislation. And it’s easy to believe that necessity hasn’t left us even in 2015. It’s near impossible to do justice to the life and legacy of someone like Martin Luther King, Jr., in a two to three hour movie. Much as Steven Spielberg did with “Lincoln,” the filmmakers in “Selma” choose to focus on a small part of his life and a key moment in his career. And in that, they offer a beautiful look at the man, his passion, his struggle and one of his greatest successes. Some have been critical of the film on the basis of history — suggesting it paints President Johnson unfavorably. No matter what you think of Johnson, its undeniable that some great legislation was passed during his presidency. Doubtless he was passionate about restoring rights and dignity to groups who had been oppressed. The question raised in this film is more about timing, and what his order of priorities was at that time. In the film, when talking with King about the Voting Rights Act, Johnson is depicted as saying that while King had one issue, he had 101, and he had to find a way to balance the needs of every group in the United States. That’s probably a fair assessment. I would argue “Selma” doesn’t pain President Johnson as unsympathetic or unwilling to pass legislation to guarantee negroes the right to vote. Regardless, it seems unfair that a movie as beautifully and lovingly made, a movie as powerful as “Selma” to be marginalized because of quibbles with historical portrayals. “Selma” is a great movie, chronicling an important period in American history and something that’s as timely as ever. Race relations in America have been at the forefront of conversations for months, and it seems right that a movie like “Selma” would come out now. It’s a movie that asks hard questions, seeks to explore the idea of equality and freedom while paying tribute to a man who did a great deal to raise American consciousness. Director Ava DuVernay, working on a script from Paul Webb, does a great job of bringing this story to life. The story moves at a good pace, there are some powerful visuals and she draws out some powerful performances. Though all the actors in the film are good, “Selma” really hums thanks to the work of Oyelowo. He does an incredible job of bringing King to life, channeling the iconic figure beautifully. It’s a performance that elevates the level of “Selma” and should certainly have earned him an Academy Award nomination. “Selma” is a powerful story that’s beautifully told, and it’s easily one of the best films of the year. More importantly, during this difficult period in our country’s history, it’s a movie that everyone should see.
Rating: PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language.
Verdict: Four stars out of four.

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, and Thomas Sadoski
Synopsis: This is a different kind of role for Reese Witherspoon, and she tackles it voraciously, which is why she earned an Academy Award nomination. Equally as great is Laura Dern, who plays Cheryl Strayed's mother in flashbacks. Those performances, and some of the ideas in the film, are what keep it going. But this is far from a perfect film. It clocks in at one hour, 55 minutes. But I think it could have been easily 20 minutes shorter had it been more restrained. This is based on a true story. Strayed traveled the Pacific Crest Trail — a brutal and often solitary hike — as a means of finding herself. In the wake of the death of her mother, she strayed (a last name she gave herself after her divorce as a sort of punishment). She got into drugs, had random hookups, and treated her husband poorly. All that is conveyed in this film through some flashbacks. At first, these flashbacks give you a sense of Strayed's journey, and why she is walking as a sort of penance. The flashbacks involving her mom also provide a great deal of emotional heft to her journey. But in the later parts of the film, constant flashbacks to the same or similar scenes of her getting high and hooking up do little to serve the forward momentum of the plot. In fact, they frequently took me out of the narrative. But Witherspoon is good in the role, which is difficult and forces her to lay herself bare in front of the camera in a lot of ways. It was interesting to see how she grows through this journey in the wilderness and finds her way out of the darkness. This isn't a great movie, but it has some great performances.
Rating: R for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language.
Verdict: Three stars out of four.

Upcoming Releases:
Friday, January 16 — "American Sniper," "The Wedding Ringer," "Blackhat," "Paddington"
Friday, January 23 — "Strange Magic," "Mortdecai," "The Boy Next Door," "Black Sea"
Friday, January 30 — "Black or White," "Project Almanac"


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