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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A Trip (Back) To The Movies – Review: “Aliens” (1986) 3.28.15

People ask me all the time what my favorite horror film ever is. I tell them “the answer is easy, Alien“. Then they’ll ask me what my favorite Science Fiction film is of all time is and I’ll provide them with the same answer. When people ask me what my favorite action movie of all time is my answer has always been the same – Aliens. Then people will often times ask me what my second favorite Science Fiction film of all time is and again, my answer to them is always the same – Aliens. I hold the first two Alien films in the same kind of regard that most people hold Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part 1” (1972) and “The Godfather Part 2” (1974) in. What’s so great about the first two “Alien” films is their ability to combine different genres and craft them so perfectly in the way that they do. The first “Alien” (1979), directed by Ridley Scott, and the second, “Aliens”, directed by James Cameron, couldn’t be more different from one another. So that’s why much like the first two “Godfather” films, you’ll find that you meet people who are almost split down the middle or completely divided as to which one they like better. Because they’re both really just so goddamn good. What the first film did so well and why it was and still is so revolutionary for its time is was because it took what was otherwise a cheap genre of the time – the “scary monsters in space” one, and gave it new life adding in exquisite cinematography, a high budget production value, and a mood, feel, and tone that was both downright nerve-wracking and completely terrifying. Director Ridley Scott produced genuine thrills and made incredibly tense dramatic use of the film’s claustrophobic corridors. The first “Alien” also had both an originally unique and brilliant set and art direction along with Oscar-winning visual effects, with one of the most creatively designed looking creatures in genre film created by the late, great H.R. Giger. It also gave birth to star Sigourney Weaver, making her in almost international icon and feminist leader overnight. About a year ago I was lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to see the original “Alien” on the big screen for the first time, and I have to admit my experience with it that particular night, seeing it among a sea of movie buffs and fans like myself was really something hard to express in words. It was as if I was seeing it for the first time in the way that it was always supposed to be seen, in a packed, dark theater that was so quiet you couldn’t hear a pin drop. A perfect (and really the only) way to see a film in my opinion. My experience that night was so great and left such a lasting impression, that I vowed to myself that I would jump at the opportunity to see the second one under a similar setting if I was ever given the chance to.

Well lucky for me there’s a local theater up the street from where I live that specializes in showing A+ quality prints of older films. To give people like myself and others a chance to see some of their favorite films that they were maybe too young to see or in a lot of cases, weren’t even born yet a chance to see some of their favorite pictures on the big screen for the very first time. And boy do people come out of the woodwork and pile into the theater in droves when these events take place. I’ll put it this way, I was taken aback when I showed up a full half hour before showtime, to a theater that seats almost 1500, and found a line around the block of people waiting to get tickets. Luckily I had got there in enough time, because by 20 minutes before the movie started, I looked around and saw that the theater looked completely sold out. Mind you for a movie that was released in 1986 almost 30 years ago. After a bit of discussion with a fellow film aficionado like myself about the reason why we were there, which was essentially the same, to see one of our all time favorite films on the big screen, the house lights went down and the movie started which was met by quite a bit of applause by its 1500 person capacity theater.

James Cameron’s sequel, which also happens to be arguably one of cinema’s greatest ones, picks up where the first one lets off and finds Lt. Ellen Ripley (Weaver) being recovered in the space craft pod that she put herself in at the end of the first. It’s 57 years later, and Ripley is unfrozen by a military-like group of explorers. This so-called team, led by a great supporting cast of Michael Biehn (who the audience applauded for when his name came up in the opening credits), a young scene stealing Bill Paxton, the iconic Lance Henrikson (who plays the team’s only android – like Michael Fassbender in the prequel “Prometheus” (2013)), and the slimy, lecherous Paul Rieser, who plays the sort of corporate leader in charge whose agenda may be much different from that of the others. An agenda which includes Ripley being sent back to the former colony from the first one with a rag-tag group of soldiers to see what happened to the planet and investigate to see if it still contains any of its former inhabitants. If Ridley Scott’s first entry was more of a haunted house space frightener, James Cameron’s sequel is much more visceral, relentless, and furiously intense. More akin to an action packed thrill ride in which we get to see a lot more of the creatures that come in at about the half hour mark and stay for the entire rest of the film in one suspenseful and thoroughly entertaining scene after the next as the team is confronted with each of the many creatures. Culminating in one of the most exhilarating climax’s and ending sequences in maybe any movie I can think of as Lt. Ripley fights off the mother of the species. As the movie ended and the credits rolled it sounded like every single person in the entire audience was clapping. Which to me is one of the best reasons to see such a beloved film such as this one on the big screen. As you can feel like you’re transported to another place and time almost 30 years ago where one can only imagine the audience might have had this very same reaction. A reaction of almost everyone leaving totally satisfied with a buzz in the air that at least in the humble opinion of this writer, is very hard to find outside of one of our last remaining experiences that can be collectively shared by a group of people in real time. And to me this film is one of the all time greats and yet another fine example of the everlasting power of cinema.

[A]