A Trip To The Movies – Review: “A Most Violent Year” 3.29.15

I can think of at least three people I know, that had seen this film prior to my seeing it, and all three had the same thing to say about it – “I really liked it, but I think it would be something that you would love“. I didn’t quite know what to make of the comments other than mostly everyone I know knows that I have somewhat of a particular eye for film, and that my tastes seem to be a bit more aligned with independent or what some consider to be art-house films. So I interpreted this comment to mean that maybe it fell a bit on the artsy side of the film spectrum. Though people also know that I’m a big Oscar Isaac fan and consider him to be amongst the very best in the crop of young actors currently working in the film industry (the only two actors out there right now within his age bracket who are as good as him are probably Joaquin Phoenix and Jake Gyllenhaal). What I don’t think a lot of people know is how much of a fan I am of writer/director J.C. Chandor. Who’s maybe one of, if not the most promising up and coming young directors, who also happens to be pretty brand new to the film industry but whose two feature films prior to this one I really enjoyed. In 2011 he released “Margin Call”, a mostly overlooked and underappreciated film about one long night revolving around a group of business men and woman the night prior to the economic collapse of 2008. I was almost as equally impressed with his last film – 2013’s “All Is Lost” about a shipwrecked man played by Robert Redford (which deservedly garnered him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor). Then I saw the trailer for his latest film, this one, and started to think this guy might be one of the next true auteurs, because not only does he write and direct, but I began to start to realize that he may be the next true “genre” director as all of his films seemed to be entirely different then the one previous to it. Which is incredibly rare these days inside the studio system because a lot of directors (and there are several exceptions mind you) seem to make a hit film and then make subsequent films that don’t really deviate or stray away from the formula that originally worked for them. Chandor, like Bennett Miller (“Capote”, “Moneyball, “Foxcatcher”) seems to not really care about anything other than making high quality genre pictures. So when I heard that his newest film was a crime drama taking place in New York City in the early eighties to say my interest was piqued would be an understatement. Especially considering the number of people who said it was a very specific type of film for a very particular audience, that being someone like myself, my anticipation for it grew quite considerably.

“A Most Violent Year” centers around an immigrant, Abel Morales (played by Oscar Isaac), who lives in New York City circa 1981. Which we’re soon told was one of the most violent years for crime in the city’s history. Abel is a hard-working man who owns an oil business and who seemingly is trying to make a name for himself. At the beginning of the film one of Abel’s oil drivers is beaten down after an interstate hijacking. Abel’s wife, Anna (played by the ever so reliable Jessica Chastain), also his bookkeeper/accountant, comes from a Mob-like mentality family, as does the local teamster’s union reps, pressure Abel to fight violence with violence. Which puts him at a sort of inner conflict because he wants to be a business man and not a gangster. To top off his precarious situation with his business, he’s also informed by the local District Attorney (played by “Selma”‘s David Oyelowo) that he is being investigated for a number of different illegal activities that they think he is somehow involved with. Abel seeks council from his lawyer (Albert Brooks – great to see him back in tbe first role I’ve seen him in since “Drive”) in an upcoming deal he has lined up with a Hasidic owner of a local fuel oil terminal, which is the kind of deal that he’s been waiting an entire lifetime for. This deal is the major plot device that drives the story. But can he close it under the pressure of the number of oil competitors, a loving but seemingly untrustworthy wife, unreliable employees, teamsters union, and the District Attorney. Who with the exception of his loving wife, seem to be willing to do just about everything possible to stand in his way to try to make sure the deal doesn’t go through.

This was a brilliantly well made and executed film that defied my preconceived notions and wound up exceeding my expectations and then some. This is writer/director J.C. Chandor paying homage to the classic Hollywood gangster/crime family drama. Incorporating just about every element we’ve come to expect from the genre. The acting is also outstanding. Particularly from its two lead performances, in what felt like it should have been an Academy Award nominated turn by Oscar Isaac who is nothing short of exemplary, as well as Chastain, who wound up receiving a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for her fine work here. Chandor does a masterful job at recreating the look of early 1980’s New York City, filmed in a brown/yellowish color palette (what I call “cigarette stain”) where everything looks broken down, dilapidated, and decaying. A look that I thought was perfect given the context of the film. In terms of feel it felt like some of the seminal films of the genre like Francis Ford Coppola’s first two “Godfather” films (complete with Isaac putting on his very best Al Pacino/Don Corleone impression), Brian DePalma’s “Scarface” (in terms of its underlying theme of an immigrant trying to become an opportunist in the pursuit of the American Dream), as well as some of the crime films of Martin Scorsese (though much more subtle). At times it felt like it shared more of a direct influence with David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom”, which also took a rather stark and bleak look at the decimation of a crime family. The major difference here is that unlike the Michod film, Abel is not a criminal in the same sense as the characters in that film were but rather becomes one as a mere byproduct of the turbulent times he lives in. I was also thoroughly impressed with its deft storytelling which had me thoroughly engaged from the opening credits through its final frame. Not once did I look down at my watch the entire time (which admittedly I’m sometimes guilty of doing even in other good films just to see how far along we are in the story). There was a tense underlying feeling of unease that permeated as the events that unfold give the film an almost paranoiac feel. Last but not least, don’t believe anything you hear about it being a bit of a slow-moving story with little to no actual violence leading some people I’ve heard go so far as to say they have a hard time even considering it being labeled an actual “crime” film. Well let me be the one to dispel those myths. It is very much a crime film, containing almost all, if not every component contained within the genre. Also, if by “slow” people mean a potboiler/nailbiter that takes its time telling its story than I’m sorry. You just may not have gotten the director’s intentions behind delivering the story in the way that he did. The violence may be sparse yes, but when it comes boy does it pack a wallop. I can’t even count on two hands how many times both my myself and the people around me gasped at some of the film’s more shocking moments (and there were plenty of them). This is writer/director J.C. Chandor’s best work to date, as was the case with its star, Oscar Isaac. It’s an old school, classic, crime drama, that if been given a proper release date of last year like it did almost everywhere else, it would have most likely wound up earning itself a spot on my list of the best films of the year. In a year where we saw a slew of director’s making their masterpieces, here is yet another one that deserved way more attention than it got, marking J.C. Chandor as the new poster boy of genre filmmaking.

[strong B+]

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Review: “Force Majeure” 2.9.15

Winner of the Un Certain Regard award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival as well as receiving a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film at this year’s ceremony. “Force Majeure” was a film I had been highly anticipating as many of the films that have either been nominated or won the former award, which has only been around for 16 years, have churned out some of my favorite foreign films, only second to the world’s most prestigious’ category – the Palm d’Or, which is the Cannes’ equivalent of the Academy’s Best Picture. The Un Certain regard category in which I speak of is almost always reserved for films that the Cannes voting panelists find to be of great significance and importance in relation to the international film community. Some films that have either been nominated and/or won this coveted award are as follows: “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (2005 winner – Russia), “Tyson” (2008 nominee – America), “Dogtooth” (2009 winner – Greece – still one of my all time favorite foreign films), as well as director Andrey Zvyaginstev’s (“Leviathan”) remarkable “Elena” (a 2011 nominee), and the 1-2-3 punch of 2013’s boastful nominees “Stranger by the Lake” (France), “Omar” (Palestine), and “Fruitvale Station” (United States). As I often times do with seeing a film solely based on the directed of who it is attached to, I also see films (especially foreign) that garner nominations in categories in which I find to have great validity by means of reputation. This film was yet another example of that approach to why I watch certain films. Not knowing or having the faintest idea of what it was about but still trusting my intuition and the word of mouth that comes out of Cannes every year.

The film introduces us to a family taking “holiday” (as most of us know the Europeans call it). They’re what you might consider to be the perfect nuclear family – a seemingly strong-willed father Tomas, his wife Ebba, and young daughter Vera and son Harry. Their holiday at a wealthy ski resort in the French Alps seems like the idyllic family vacation. Which we’re shown through a series of photographs as the start of the story. Ebba is just happy to have Tomas to both herself and their children, as it is inferred that he lives a pretty demanding work life at home. They seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, and I couldn’t help but think of an American version of a trip to Disney World, where at the surface level, everything seems to be perfect. That is until one day they experience a catastrophic event, and the residual and lasting effects that it has on the family, particularly of Tomas’ wife Ebba,  while also acting as a sort of “reawakening” for each member to reevaluate both themselves and that of each of the other family members. This is essentially what the movie goes on to explore, without giving away any further plot details.

This wound up being both a beautiful and remarkable film that had my attention from the first frame to its final one. It works on almost all levels – from the story, to the acting, to the amazing cinematography of the French Alps, but even more importantly, how it explored the interpersonal dynamics of a family following a traumatizing event. The undeniably flawless direction by Swedish director Ruben Ostlund is truly a sight to see for any true fan with an eye for film. The film captures this devastating family tragedy amongst the backdrop of the beautiful French Alps. Not only that, but like Bennett Miller (“Capote”, “Foxcatcher”) it does so with such a restrained approach using long take techniques to capture a certain sense of stillness to everything. That and like the late great Stanley Kubrick, the director has an uncanny ability of filling up every single frame of the picture without a single inch going to waste. It also incorporates a beautiful classic score which I thought was right up on par with some of the best compositions of Kubrick’s films, which to me seemed so fascinating to the images being shown on-screen as it seemed to fit perfectly even if it comes off as a questionable choice for a movie score on behalf of the viewer at the beginning. The last but most verbose part of the review which I think is unquestionably worth noting in relation to this film is how deeply rooted it was in psychology. Anybody that really enjoys reading between a film’s lines for its underlying subtext should find this to be one of the more denser films they’ve seen. Evoking the works of the German director Michael Haneke (“Funny Games”, “The White Ribbon”, “Amour”) who acted as a reference point for me in its examination of traumatic events that shows how they manifest themselves from an individual standpoint. Looking at themes such as residual and vicarious trauma, self reevaluation, moral dilemmas, as well as the primitive instincts that make us human beings. This was just another example and further proof of a belief I’ve always held, in that foreign or international cinema, is operating at such a higher plane, than many if not all of its American counterparts that try to explore similar themes but that aren’t able to do so with such assuredness and a sense of realism. This wound up being a thoroughly engaging, well acted and shot, and probing psychological film that explores some very deep and heavy themes, that had my brain’s light switch turned on from start to finish. A must see for any fan even remotely interested in foreign or international cinema that challenges the viewer to really think, as opposed to merely sitting back and being entertained.

[B+]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “Foxcatcher” 12.21.14

Director Bennett Miller has only done 3 films up to this point in his 16-year career. But any serious film-goer or movie connoisseur understands the impact this evidently very talented and gifted young filmmaker has had on the rest of the entire film landscape and community. He has an undeniably assured approach to craft and is an A rate storyteller. In many ways he reminds me of the Coen Brothers with their almost storybook-like approach in the way their stories are told. Though without the Coens’ smaller-indie leanings or sense of obscurity. Miller is maybe the most accessible independent filmmaker that works mostly out of the studio system. With the growing popularity of other directors to make films that seem hip or cool, seemingly fitting for our times, what separates Miller from this crop is that he has a classic Hollywood style in the way in which he tells his stories. The sole exception being his brilliant debut, a documentary shot in black + white about a young New York City tour guide by the name of Timothy “Speed” Levitch called “The Cruise” (1998). I first saw “The Cruise” after hearing from believe it or not of all people, Edward Norton, who listed it as one of his top 5 favorite films of all time. It was around this time that I saw Miller’s second film and first feature film – the Academy Award winning “Capote” (2004), which arguably featured one of if not the best acting performances of the last decade by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. One that would garner him both an Oscar nomination and win for his spellbinding performance. The film also got nominations in the Best Picture, Best Director (Miller), and Supporting Actress (Catherine Keener) categories. It was a landmark achievement for the then 37-year old Miller, and brought him praise and accolades from the entire film industry at large. Then came in what I still consider to be Miller’s finest work to date (prior to seeing this film) 2011’s “Moneyball”, which also happens to be one of my favorite movies about the game of baseball. Like “Capote” it too garnered several Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Brad Pitt – in one of my still favorite roles of his second to only “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)), and Best Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill). Miller once again established himself as one of the most sought after directors in that within his only 2 feature films to date, he’s received more Academy Award nominations than any other director over the course of just 2 films. Which is an amazing achievement in and of itself. The difference between Miller and more traditional Hollywood Oscar bait directors is that Miller doesn’t seem to have a care in the world other than that of his own for the type of material in which he chooses to explore. Both “Moneyball” and “Capote” are films that inhabit another time and place, tackling themes that one could look at as still being prevalent today, but in worlds seemingly unfamiliar to the ones in which most of us exist in. And while some people felt like “Moneyball” was more of a “feel good film”. If you really read between the lines and underlying subtext there’s nothing cheery or happy about it. After waiting only 3 years between his last film and this, it almost felt like a treat in that we were being given another film from a director who seems to take considerable amounts of time (6 years if you average them out) off between them. Knowing my love for everything Miller has come out with up to this point (all 3 films of his have fallen in the “A” range for me) it was inevitable that I would be one of the first in line to see his next release, and I made a point of seeing it opening weekend.

Based on a true story the film first introduces to one its 2 main leads – a former Olympic gold wrestler named Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum. Mark seems to be in a bit of a slump, as he wants to train and continue his career in Wrestling. But he essentially has no way of supporting himself outside of living off of his about to run out of money that he earned several years earlier, all the while picking up small, humiliating jobs like talking to schools about what it means to be a former Olympic gold winner. He then by a matter of chance gets a phone call one day by John du Pont, played by the almost unrecognizable Steve Carell, complete with a prosthetic nose, teeth, and hidden under layers of makeup. Du Pont’s family is one of the wealthiest families in the country and have been for generations, and he has an enormous estate where he trains his Olympic Wrestling team that goes by “Team Foxcatcher”. Coach du Pont gives Mark the opportunity of a lifetime to come join his team, with full privileges to everything he could have possibly imagined in his wildest dreams. A guest house that would put any other guest house to shame, top class training facilities, and as much money as he could ever want. Mark has an older brother David (played by Mark Ruffalo), another former Olympic gold winner, who also happens to be Mark’s Wrestling coach. Not wanting to pass up a golden opportunity Mark takes up du Pont’s offer to join Team Foxcatcher. On the surface the offer seems too good to be true, but as Mark begins to train and win bouts he slowly starts to rebuild and regain the confidence he once had that went missing. Not to mention that through this process he starts to form a special bond with Coach du Pont and begins to look up to him as not only a mentor but a father figure. Though as the movie unravels we get to see that there’s a lot more than what meets the eye. And the mentor/peer dynamic starts to take a dramatic turn. As does the addition of David who also after some serious convincing, agrees to come work for Coach du Pont and join Team Foxcatcher so that he can train with his younger brother. Also like his brother he has an apparent drive to be the best again. And also like his brother he is convinced that only Team Foxcatcher can help bring him to the top. But at what expense and to what lengths will the brothers go under the increasingly suspicious and paranoid Coach du Pont?

This film wound up falling slightly below my expectations which admittedly were set pretty high. The first thing I think that needs pointing out are the very solid performances by the film’s two brothers – Tatum and Ruffalo, both of whom give career best performances. I will say this about the acting though, for all the Awards hype around Steve Carell being the second front-runner for Best Actor behind Michael Keaton in “Birdman”, I thought the other 2 actors outshined him. Carell’s character reminded me somewhat of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s in Miller’s “Capote”. However whereas Hoffman really shined acting-wise underneath his mostly physical performance, Carell doesn’t quite achieve a fraction of the same level of acting with his performance. Don’t get me wrong it’s a very fine one indeed. But I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I felt like I wasn’t really watching all that much going on underneath the prosthetics, fake teeth, and makeup. As his performance came much more from the outside than in. A truly great performance, certainly an Award nominated one, should have you thinking that there’s no one else out there could have played the role other than that specific actor. And I didn’t really feel that way about Carell here. But that aside, both Ruffalo and Tatum (who I’m starting to gain a lot more respect for as an actor) really were the stand outs and both give knockout performances that one can really only sit back and admire at. The story itself has a lot to say about the abuses of wealth and power and how some people abuse them in selfish ways to try to gain what they want, when in actuality they’re so blinded they can’t see the impact that their ways have devastating effects on others around them. Both the relationships between the 2 brothers Mark (Tatum) and David (Ruffalo), as well as that between Mark and Coach du Pont, are very complex and well depicted. Miller also adds an almost “Capote”-like restrained approach to the proceedings. There’s a a certain stillness about it all and at times it felt clinical in the way it looked at and portrayed its subjects. Music is essentially non-existent until the drama heightens in its last act. Within this approach though Miller captures some beautiful establishing shots of the team training in different environments along with picturesque shots at both dusk and dawn around the du Pont estate. It’s a calculated, assured piece of directing that shines through in almost every frame and shot, and it becomes obvious why he took home the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Films Festival. The few criticisms I had of the piece is that it felt tediously slow at times, like you’re waiting for something to happen outside of the central storyline of depicting the downward spiral between mentor (Carell) and mentee (Tatum). While those scenes were good in terms of context in building and driving the story, I felt like they could have trimmed down that portion a bit and the end result would have still been just as effective. Also, and this might be the most important thing I have to say about it, was that it was incredibly sad. So much so at times that it made a lot of the film borderline uncomfortable to watch. At least it felt that way to me. It’s a feel and tone that permeates throughout the film, from beginning to end, and is chock full of scenes that are bleak, tragic, and excruciatingly painful to watch. Do I think it needed to be in order to tell the obviously tragic true story? Well, maybe it did if it was trying to stay true to the story of showing exactly how the events unfolded. I just personally had a hard time with how Greek tragedy-like sad it was. While we watch one character get so psychologically damaged that his mental state slowly declines until there isn’t a semblance left of himself. While also watching another one of the other character’s reveal his true identity of the utterly despicable and deplorable man that he is. So for those reasons, even despite the stellar acting from its 3 leads, it becomes a bit tedious and too dark at times. Which I often times really enjoy. But when the feeling and tone is so despairing from beginning to end, it makes it very difficult for me to recommend it to anybody outside of the looking to be unapologetically challenged and wanting go to that really dark place. But if it’s something that you can endure and sit through despite that, what you’ll find is a compelling and thought-provoking story, with at least 2 of the better performances I’ve seen this year, and a pretty solid 3rd one as well. It also includes a shocking climax that had myself and everyone else in the audience gasping in their seats, not quite knowing what to do or think once the end credits rolled.

[B]