Reviewed by
Tricia Youlden

Selma ★★★★ M

Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) is trying to register to vote in Selma. Although she can recite the preamble to the Constitution and knows precisely how many judges there are in the county, she is unable to actually name them all. Therefore, her application is sneeringly rejected by the white county court officer. Fresh from accepting his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) appeals personally to President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to legislate against such discriminatory practices which effectively disenfranchise millions of southern African Americans.

Although LBJ proposes a diversionary “war on poverty”, King is adamant that “This voting thing can’t wait.” Invited by the Dallas County Voters League to join them, King and fellow Southern Christian Leadership Conference activists Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson) and Andrew Young (Andre Holland), set out for Selma, Alabama in January 1965.

After two months of protests which lead to the arrest of over 3,000 people and the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), James Bevel (Common) proposes a march from Selma to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama.

The horrific events of March 7, “Bloody Sunday”, in which 600 marchers are set upon and beaten by Alabama state troopers, are beamed worldwide on television, sparking the conscience of liberal-minded people everywhere.

Even though the eyes of the world are now focused on Selma, Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and Sheriff Clarke (Stan Houston) continue to resist pressure from the White House, which forces LBJ to act. On March 15, in a televised joint sitting of Congress, he introduces and requests the passage of his administration’s bill on universal voting rights.

While these dramatic events make riveting viewing, so too do the backroom political machinations at both federal and state level, and within the various community groups working to mobilise support for the African Americans voting rights.

After his nonchalant offer to have King killed is dismissed by the President, J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) proposes to “go with the wife and dismantle [King’s] family”.

Coretta King (Carmen Ejogo) is systematically worn down by the “constant closeness of death” and a “fog of phone threats and filth”. Apart from the obvious fear that her husband will be assassinated like the Kennedy brothers and Malcolm X, Coretta is subjected to anonymous phone calls threatening their children and impugning her husband’s fidelity.

Although King is aware that Hoover’s strategy is aimed at ruining the movement by ruining him, he remains focused on “what God wants” and reiterates in his powerful, eloquent speeches that “we will vote and we will put these men out of office”. By March 25, the ranks of the marchers have swollen to 25,000 in support of African American voting rights.

Surprisingly, Selma has only received two Oscar nominations — Best Picture and Best Original Song. David Oyelowo’s magnificent performance, Ava DuVernay’s direction Paul Webb’s screenplay and Bradford Young’s cinematography surely deserve to be nominated.

See it and judge for yourself. Trailer

The Theory of Everything ★★★★ M

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Stephen and Anne Hawking. Both have been nominated for Oscars.

Based on the memoir Travelling to Infinity: my life with Stephen, by Jane Hawking, this bio-pic about this most extraordinary man is enthralling. Still alive 50 years after having been told that he had only two years to live, Hawking exemplifies the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity. As he says, “While there is life there is hope.”

Antony McCarten’s screenplay traces Hawking’s career from his postgraduate years at Cambridge into the 1960s through to recent time.

Equally fascinating is the concurrent story of his relationship with Jane. Under James Marsh’s direction, Jones and Redmayne successfully convey the strength of the bond between their characters. Jane’s love, devotion and determination have clearly been key elements in Stephen’s survival so far beyond the original prognosis. The script is laced with delicious wit, illustrating Stephen’s quite absurd sense of humour, the best medicine of all.

Not surprisingly, Eddie Redmayne has received an Oscar nomination for his amazing performance as Hawking, as has Felicity Jones for her portrayal of Jane — despite the fact that her face remains disconcertingly youthful and unlined throughout the film.

Although Marsh would have done well to banish certain over-zealous designers and stylists down the nearest black hole, The Theory of Everything earns its Oscar nomination for Best Picture. As well as the outstanding leads, it has a stellar supporting cast, comprising David Thewlis, Simon McBurney, Emily Watson, Charlie Cox and Maxine Peake. Trailer

Birdman ★★★★ MA

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has received Oscar nominations for both his direction and the original screenplay that he co-wrote with Nicolaas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. Michael Keaton, Ed Norton and Emma Stone have also been nominated for their performances in the film.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton), famous for playing super-hero Birdman on screen, has adapted Raymond Carver’s “What we talk about when we talk about love” for the stage. Although a leading New York theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) cruelly spells out how the odds are stacked against him ever being recognised as a legitimate actor, Riggan is about to open on Broadway, starring in his own play.

Whether it is a residual from years of playing Birdman or substance abuse, Riggan still hears his alter ego and believes that he possesses the character’s superhuman powers. He believes that he has caused the accident that lands his male co-star in hospital, necessitating the last-minute introduction of egotistical Mike (Edward Norton) into the company.

With Riggan and Mike behaving unpredictably both on and off stage, the two actresses Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), are thrown into emotional turmoil.

Meanwhile, Riggan’s daughter Sam (Stone), fresh from rehab, is slaving away backstage as her dad’s personal assistant in an attempt to finally gain his attention. Sam’s mother (Amy Ryan) is also hovering in the wings.

Birdman is a roller coaster of genres — drama, comedy, satire, magic realism all deftly blended to create an enthralling, if somewhat disturbing film. There is much to digest after seeing this film, as it certainly does not glamorise the acting profession and the theatre business. Social media is also fair game throughout. The script is rich in acerbic one-liners and ripostes.

“Why can’t I have any self-respect?”

“You’re an actress, honey.” Trailer

What we did on our holiday ★★★★ PG

Written and directed by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin (creators of the TV series Outnumbered), What we did on our holiday is a charming reminder that “every human being is a bit ridiculous”, to quote patriarch Gordie Mcleod (Billy Connolly), but “none of that matters in the end”. Gordie’s forthcoming 75th birthday is likely to be his last, because he has cancer.

Contrary to Gordie’s wishes, his elder son Gavin (Ben Miller) is organising a whopping great celebration at the latter’s stately home on the shores of Loch Lomond. Gavin’s micro-management of the event is exacerbating the fragile emotional state of his wife, Margaret (Amelia Bullmore), with hilarious consequences.

After a particularly fraught car trip up from London, Gordie’s younger son, Doug (David Tennant) arrives with his family. Although Doug and Abi (Rosamund Pike) are in the throes of a none-too-amicable divorce, they have decided not to disclose this fact so as not to upset Gordie. Their children are all complicit in this deception. Eleven-year-old Lottie (Emilia Jones) is taking the situation extremely seriously. She has written a list of the “Lies We Have to Tell” and is doing her utmost to ensure that her younger siblings Mickey (Bobby Smalldridge) and Jess (Harriet Turnbull) don’t give the game away.

Needless to say, none of this fools Gordie, whose candour and honesty are on a par with that of the children. To Gavin’s consternation, Gordie decides to spend his birthday with his grandchildren on the beach. There they discuss life and death and other topics of conversation that grown-ups usually don’t want to discuss with children. What Gordie tells them informs their subsequent decisions. In a bizarre role reversal, the children’s words and actions shock the adults into behaving less childishly and more responsibly than hitherto.

Using improvisation, Hamilton and Jenkin elicit delightfully natural performances from the three children. All the adult actors give lovely performances, too, with cameos by Annette Crosbie and Celia Imrie. Connolly as Gordie is particularly endearing.

Cinematographer Martin Hawkins should be paid a bonus by the Scottish Tourist Bureau for his presentation of the majestic scenery. Trailer

Tricia Youlden teaches Drama at Willoughby Girls High School. More by accident than design, Tricia has notched up 30 years of service in the NSW DEC, formerly known as the NSW DET formerly known as the NSW Department of Education.