A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (2014)

January 14, 2015

 

a most violent Greetings again from the darkness. The tar pits of La Brea. Michael Corleone. These are the two things that come to mind as I grasp for descriptive terms to use for writer/director JC Chandor’s latest film. Picture a slow simmer never quite reaching the boiling point … that’s the designed tone here. It’s certainly not the period piece crime thriller that the trailer might have you poised for. In fact, there is more focus on marital communication than the criminal element so prevalent for the times.

In 1981, New York City was in the midst of an era filled with crime, corruption, violence and filth. Enter Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) as a tough-minded, but idealistic owner of a heating oil business. Abel’s vision is to become the top oil distributor, and remain a really good guy in the process. When he tells his less-idealistic competitors to “have some pride in their work”, it’s good advice to an audience incapable of comprehending.  Despite regular violence and criminal activity against his drivers and trucks, Abel continues to deny he is at war … he truly believes if he can stay above the fracas, he can overcome the blight of his industry.

We never really see Abel have a good day. Even the high points are paired with hard knocks. A signed contract is followed by bank woes. A kid’s birthday party at the new house is interrupted by a search warrant. New market share is offset by a driver illegally defending himself. Each step Abel takes to realize his business vision is a potential land mine set by either his competitors or an ambitious District Attorney (David Oyelowo). And those aren’t even his most animated battles. See, Abel has willed himself to extraordinary self-control. He never blows a gasket, even if the moment calls for it. The only exception to this is with his vicious business partner and wife Anna (Jessica Chastain).

Anna grew up the daughter of a gangster … her dad once ran the business that she and Abel now run. Given the times, Anna takes a back seat to Abel and she handles the books, while he is the face of the business with banks, competitors and Teamsters. It’s not difficult to imagine a movie focusing on Anna rather than Abel, and a couple of times, she makes it quite clear that she views herself as the real backbone of the business – a much tougher leader than her doe-eyed husband.

Isaac and Chastain are exceptional here, and they both pull off very tough roles. Abel is a philosopher is a world of barbarians. He is the most polite angry person you have likely ever seen. Anna, on the other hand, is the pretty face masking a ruthless gangster. They each believe their own way is the best way. When Abel explains that ‘The result is known’, and that there is only ‘one path that is most right’, we immediately know he believes this and lives his life accordingly.

In addition to Isaac, Chastain and Oyelow, other actors deserve recognition for their work here: Albert Brooks is Abel’s consigliore, in a style reminiscent of his Drive character; Alessandro Nivola is the most frightening type of gangster – the quiet, powerful kind; Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) is outstanding in her only scene; Elyes Gabel captures the frustrated driver looking for hope; Peter Gerety is spot on as the Teamsters lead; and Jerry Adler is a most unusual Jewish business man.

The camera work of cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma) helps make the style and story work. He films two of the most unusual chase scenes – one on foot across the highway, and another with a car and truck on railroad tracks and through a dark tunnel. Both are critical to story and character, and provide a stylistic flourish that pumps things up in a movie otherwise devoid of traditional action.

The story is captivating because of things that are intimated, rather than things that are said. A couple of other films set in this era are Prince of the City and Serpico, and though the tone and look may be familiar, Chandor’s approach is unique. It’s not difficult to imagine Oscar Isaac took his acting cues from Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, and oddly enough, it’s possible to imagine him as Tony Montana in a Scarface remake! At the core of all of these characters … the American Dream.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are wondering if something is “disrespectful” … Jessica Chastain will let you know!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting The Godfather or “The Sopranos” … this is the most gangster non-gangster movie I’ve seen

watch the trailer:

 

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ALL IS LOST (2013)

November 2, 2013

all is lost1 Greetings again from the darkness. In Cast Away, Tom Hanks makes friends with a volleyball. In The Old Man and the Sea, Spencer Tracy talks to the whale. In Harvey,  James Stewart chats it up with a tall imaginary rabbit! It takes the great Robert Redford to show us how to face isolation with silent dignity (save one well-deserved F-word).

Writer/director J.C. Chandor brought us the very good Margin Call (2011), which was filled with many characters and mounds of dialogue. Here, he reverses field with a single character and no real dialogue – only the opening log entry and a couple of SOS calls into a short-circuited radio. This is one man’s struggle for survival. It’s that man vs nature. It’s our man facing mortality and isolation.

all is lost2 So you are probably wondering how this can hold your attention for two hours. The real answer is Robert Redford. At age 77, his screen presence is remarkable. Having never been a “showy” actor, his performance and this movie depend on facial expressions, his body language, and mostly his ability to connect with an audience immediately. In 1972, Redford was Jeremiah Johnson, another man of few words who fought nature (and native Americans in that one), but this one is more immediate with its pending doom.  Technically, All is Lost is exceptional, especially in sound design and in creating a terrifying and believable situation. But it’s Mr. Redford that causes us to feel thirsty with him, and to hold our breath as a storm shoves him underwater.

all is lost3 Alex Ebert’s music is subtle and effective, but let’s get real … Mr. Redford and his mop of red hair are the reason to see this movie. There is almost no back story on this character, other than what we infer from his opening log entry. We know his “I’m sorry” has many meanings to his family, but we soon realize his will to live probably comes from an internal drive connected to his apology. It’s nice to see a role for an older actor that doesn’t included stupid humor designed to make kids laugh. Not much humor in this one, and there is no need to be sorry.

**NOTE: Robert Redford’s acting career spans more than 50 years and 6 decades. Many think of a sexy Robert Redford in one of his numerous roles, but this is the first to pair him with a sextant!

SEE THIS MOVIE: for the extraordinary performance of Hollywood legend Robert Redford OR if you are tired of the incessant cute-talk featured in most movies and shows these days (this one gives your ears a break, though your other senses work overtime)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking guffaws or playful banter (it’s only filled with an excess of undrinkable water)

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lk_R04LfUQU


MARGIN CALL

October 22, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. It is absolutely understandable if you have reached your limit for dissecting and analyzing the 2008 financial crisis. However, if you can’t get enough, or are still trying to find someone to blame for looting half your retirement plan, this film offers a different perspective and one that proves more identifiable and personal. Wall Street is the new favorite bad guy in Hollywood these days and here we get faces for the targets.

Hopefully you saw Inside Job, a fine documentary that provided an overview of the collapse. HBO’s Too Big To Fail gave us a glimpse inside the Fed’s decision making process during the crisis. This movie narrows the focus down to a singular investment bank. Writer/Director JC Chandor serves up a dramatized story that begins with massive layoffs. We see the hatchet crew arriving replete with security escorts, as high paid executives are led out to the sidewalk. Stanley Tucci plays a middle manager in the Risk-Analysis department. As he is headed to the curb, he hands a flash drive to one of his young analysts (Zachary Quinto) and tells him to finish it and “be careful”.

 Flash forward a few hours and the surviving staff heads out for celebratory drinks while Quinto’s character starts churning away on Tucci’s formula. Once he realizes that the risk formulas on MBS (mortgage backed securities) show threatened stability of the firm, he places an emergency call. It is quite interesting to see how this emergency escalates as we are introduced, one rung at a time, to the hierarchy within the firm … Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Simon Baker. This culminates in a late night conference room meeting when the CEO (Jeremy Irons) arrives by helicopter.

 There are so many facets to this story. We see how some are in the game for money. Penn Badgley says it’s all he ever wanted to do, but his obsessive behavior over the income of each manager shows us why. Paul Bettany is a middle manager who realizes the “killers” such as Simon Baker have passed him by. Demi Moore plays the type who doesn’t mind finding a fall guy, as long as it’s not her. Kevin Spacey is 30+ year career man who has survived many crisis by being loyal to the firm, while also doing right by the client. Jeremy Irons is the charming, powerful CEO who laughs about being as smart as a Golden Retriever, but laser-focused on keeping the firm viable.

 What you can’t help but notice is the number of managers who point out that they don’t understand the charts and graphs and numbers, and just need someone to explain it to them in “plain English”. We also see self-preservation at its finest/worst and the struggle that some of the characters have in deciding what is the “right thing to do”. It is not surprising, yet frightening still, to see that the red flags were flying before anyone acknowledged their presence. No one wants to be the one to shut down a party.

When the CEO says the three ways to win are to: “be first, be smartest or cheat”, we realize huge decisions are made only in the best interest of the firm … not the economy, and certainly not an individual investor. Although this investment firm remains nameless through the film, I did find it interesting that Irons’ character name is John Tuld.  John Tuld … Dick Fuld … Just sayin’!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want as many perspectives as possible on what caused this latest financial meltdown OR you have any remaining doubts that corporations make decisions based on their own best not interest.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: 2008 is in your rearview mirror and you have no interest in looking back OR your blood pressure shoots up any time someone mentions Wall Street, investment bankers, etc.

watch the trailer: