A Most Violent Year

January 28, 2015 at 2:06 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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A lot can be said about movie names, how they are chosen and how effective they are. Some are straight forward (“Selma”) and some pointlessly confusing (“Edge of Tomorrow”). Some are evocative and memorable (“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”) and others are not (“Two Days, One Night” or is it one day and two nights? Or three days and two nights?). When I heard the title, “A Most Violent Year,” I thought immediately of Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence;” a movie that started brilliantly and ended terribly in an explosion of cartoon violence that belied the thoughtfulness of the first half of that film. Here, I came expecting some similar level of violence. Instead, what I got was a thoughtful, slow moving and painstakingly honest period piece. Set in 1981, this film tells the story of a beleaguered business owner (Oscar Isaac, who has skyrocketed since staring in last years, “Inside Llewyn Davis”) who is trying to grow his company despite a government investigation and unknown crooks stealing from him. His mob-connected wife, played brilliantly by Jessica Chastain, keeps pushing him to deal with his problems in a less-than-legal way. He feels mounting pressure to resolve these issues while still maintaining his honesty. JC Chandor, whose two other films (“Margin Call” and “All Is Lost”) establish him as a director with a keen eye for and investment in realism, paces this story slowly. That is both its strength and its weakness. Everything that happens here seems completely believable. In fact, I imagine that something exactly like this was probably happening in the run-down and corrupt NYC of the early 80s. And, my guess is, if you actually lived it, it would feel like a pretty violent year. However, realistic levels of violence are not Cronenberg levels of violence and that means that “A Most Violent Year” may not satisfy standard movie-goer expectations. This is not “Scarface.” What it is, though, is an interesting window into a particular time in our history. It is also another vehicle for Chastain to prove that she is one of the best actors currently working. This performance, so full of quiet menace, deserved as Oscar nomination. She had all the best lines and her character crackled with potential, as though she could do something terrible at any moment. How much you enjoy this film will depend on how much you need to see that crackling explode and how much you are willing to simply bask in it’s glow.

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All Is Lost

October 28, 2013 at 6:15 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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When does a great actor bow out of films?  What does he want his last film to be?  Some, like Raul Julia (whose last film was “Street Fighter”), don’t get a choice.  After a stunning career, spanning over a half century, Robert Redford could do worse than to have this be his swan song.  At 76 years old, Redford is nothing short of remarkable in this physically demanding role as a man stranded alone in the Indian Ocean on a damaged sailboat.  He’s forced to scurry, jump, swim and battle elements that looked exhausting for a man half his age.  With scarcely a word said throughout the film, we watch Redford’s unnamed protagonist try desperately to save his boat and then his life and his situation gets more and more dire over the course of 8 days adrift.  Without needing to fallback on the sort of fantastical elements that propelled “Life of Pi,” writer and director JC Chandor is able to create a story that remains both completely believable and absolutely gripping for its entire 106 minutes.  Without a word said and without another person on screen, some scenes managed to be breathtakingly tense.  Redford carries every scene with tense resolve, anxiety, resignation and frustration playing out in his face.  With the exception of one dreadful moment involving a choral crescendo that sounded like an angelic visitation, the musical score was generally understated.  The scenes of the ocean were beautiful and incredibly real looking; in fact, I have no idea how they shot some of those scenes without being out on the open water.  In many ways, this film felt like the grown-ups version of “Life of Pi.”  Not to say that I didn’t love that film (which largely existed in the world of allegory), just that this one was much more understated and real and, therefore, more powerful.  This was a great example of sparse, taut, minimalist film making.  Here’s a vague spoiler, so go no further if you don’t want to read it: I would have much preferred it if the film had ended thirty seconds earlier and would have given it a half lozenge more.  That quibble aside, I strongly recommend “All Is Lost.”

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