The Art of Self-Defense (2019)

Director: Riley Stearns

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots

Screenplay: Riley Stearns

104 mins. Rated R for violence, sexual content, graphic nudity and language.

 

I knew absolutely nothing about The Art of Self-Defense before walking into the theater, and all I can say is this was not the film I expected in all the best ways.

Casey (Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) is not a strong person. He is uncomfortable in social situations, and he is unable to defend himself when attacked one night on the street. He joins a local dojo where he is trained by an odd and influential sensei (Alessandro Nivola, Face/Off, Disobedience). As Casey’s confidence rises, he begins to see problems with the way Sensei operates, and it causes him to question his leader.

It becomes very clear early on in The Art of Self-Defense that the world these characters inhabit is a strange and surrealist version of our own. Casey’s answering machine is sarcastic about the amount of phone calls he receives. There’s also a strange quality about the dojo. I’m still not sure if the Sensei’s teachings are lies in this world or if that’s part of the surrealist world that writer/director Riley Stearns (Faults, The Cub) has constructed.

Eisenberg does fine as Casey, but part of the problem is that he is essentially playing versions of previous characters I’ve seen from him. He’s good in the movie, but there’s no range or excitement about his role because I’ve kind of seen it before. Again, not bad in the bed, but he’s overshadowed.

The reason I’m not talking about Eisenberg is because of Alessandro Nivola, who plays the peculiar Sensei. Nivola steals every scene he’s in with a special quality of strange which makes him equally comedic and stone cold disturbing. He’s the character I’ll be talking about most months from now.

The biggest problem this movie has is that Stearns dawdles a bit near the end of the film and doesn’t focus on what’s important as the film nears a close. There are some revelations about Casey, the Sensei, and the dojo that feel more important than they end up being. The ending makes up for this because it is exactly what I wanted without me knowing I wanted it. It’s a bonkers ending that is perfect for a film like this.

The Art of Self-Defense is not a realistic depiction of karate, nor is it much of a realistic depiction of anything, and for that, it works quite well. Writer/director Riley Stearns has crafted a unique experience that’s weird and wild and different from a lot of other recent films, and while I would have liked more exploration into the plot threads at the end of the film, and I would have wanted something more surprising from the film’s lead, this is still a very worthwhile viewing experience.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

[#2015oscardeathrace] Selma (2014)

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Director: Ava DuVernay

Cast: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, Giovanni Ribisi, Lorraine Toussaint, Stephen James, Wendell Pierce, Common, Alessandro Nivola, Keith Stanfield, Cuba Gooding Jr., Dylan Baker, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey

Screenplay: Paul Webb

128 mins. Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief language.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Motion Picture of the Year [Awards Not Yet Announced]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song (“Glory” by Common, John Legend) [Awards Not Yet Announced]

 

Selma is the story of a key moment in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr (David Oyelowo, Interstellar, A Most Violent Year): the fight for the right to vote. King has tries to get help from President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, Batman Begins, The Grand Budapest Hotel), but to no avail. His wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo, TV’s Zero Hour, The Purge: Anarchy), would hope to keep him out of harm’s way. But in Selma, Alabama, a woman named Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, The Color Purple, The Butler) can’t even get registered to vote. King takes his civil rights movement to Selma in hopes of swaying Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth, TV’s Lie to Me, Pulp Fiction) to let them vote.

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While the film Selma isn’t perfect, it does contain some of the more perfect casting and performance work of the past year. David Oyelowo is the spitting visage of the late Dr. King. He has the look, he has the voice, and he has the mannerisms down to a science. Tom Wilkinson plays the former President filled with self-doubt and delusion. Rapper Common (TV’s Hell on Wheels, Smokin’ Aces) gives one of his best roles as James Bevel, as does Wendell Pierce (TV’s The Wire, Parker) in the position of Reverand Hosea Williams. We also get some great turns from some major Hollywood players, like Martin Sheen and Dylan Baker (Spider-Man 2, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), in small roles to elevate the craft of the other actors to something truly great.

Director Ava DuVernay’s camera is more stoic than static, offering what feels more like a live docu-drama than a sweeping picture, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it did mess with the flow slightly.

I really enjoyed the song “Glory” from Common and John Legend that plays over the closing credits. It displays a plethora of African-American cultural music from the time of Dr. King to present day.

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Ava DuVernay’s Selma is a film that must be watched, if only for the powerful messages it conveys. I honestly did not know as much about this facet of the Civil Rights Movement, in particular the events in Selma, Alabama, and so I found the film engaging and shocking at times, and definitely worth your time.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

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