Thursday, April 2, 2015

Vinsanity - The Oeuvre of Vin Diesel

"I don't have friends.  I got family," growls Dominic Toretto in the trailer for Furious 7, the latest installment of one of the hardiest action franchises in cinematic history.  The line is wholly applicable to the career of the man who's now played Toretto six times: Mark Sinclair Vincent, better known to audiences as Vin Diesel.

Diesel's best-known characters are practically like familiar relatives, anchoring both nascent (Guardians of the Galaxy's Groot) and long-running franchises (Toretto in the Fast movies, sci-fi badass Richard B. Riddick), each sequel catching us up with what Uncle Vin has been doing.  It's a career so franchise-dependent that Diesel hasn't portrayed a live-action character other than Toretto or Riddick since 2008.

Nevertheless, being the face of a franchise (or two) obscures the individual underneath.  It isn't unusual for movie stars to become brands unto themselves, but the schism in Diesel's career is so abrupt and severe that it bears closer examination: both the glowering, gravel-voice action star who causes a ruckus on the internet simply by singing or dancing, and the hungry Hollywood neophyte with designs on being the De Niro or Pacino of his generation.

Diesel's debut feature Strays (1997) invites comparisons to Rocky and the career arc of Sylvester Stallone.  Both films were written by their stars, and feature gritty urban settings and marble-mouthed mooks with hearts of gold.  This being the peak era of the no-budget, achingly personal Sundance film, Diesel also directed and produced his story of an unambitious hustler taking tentative steps toward maturity in order to romance the wholesome girl next door (Suzanne Lanza).

Strays is a feature-length argument for Diesel's sensitive side.  The movie's mission is to subvert expectations, presenting a romantic drama that's more like John Cassavetes filtered through the sensibility of Kevin Smith than the next Mean Streets.  If that sounds dubious, well, that's because it kind of is - beyond the clunky dialogue and jarring tonal shifts, the film's main pairing suffers from a lack of chemistry.  But there's something appealing in Diesel's unpolished sincerity, an admission that both the movie and its star are rough around the edges, and thus more vulnerable than the film's macho bluster or the actor's superhero physique would have you believe.

You can see that same mystique in Diesel's first mainstream roles, which often capitalized on the "less is more" theory - witness his supporting role as a chiseled Army grunt in Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the voice that launched a million tears in The Iron Giant (1999).  But he's most cleverly utilized in David Twohy's Pitch Black (2000), an entertainingly efficient sci-fi thriller that's a bit like Stagecoach in space: when a star freighter carrying a cultural cross-section of passengers - including a dangerous criminal named Richard B. Riddick - crash-lands on a deserted planet, the survivors must pull together and find a way off the rock before they're hunted down by nocturnal alien predators.

As Riddick, Diesel finds an ideal route to his signature archetype: the noble tough guy.  He laps up the character's humor, menace, and singular code of ethics.  Like the film itself, he's convincing enough to allow the audience to buy into the conceit without taking it too seriously.  At the same time, Pitch Black smartly positions Diesel as the featured player in a slowly dwindling ensemble cast, gradually building his ass-kicking aura instead of relying solely on his charisma to elevate a fundamentally silly premise - a good move considering Diesel's baseline of campy self-awareness is somewhere far south of Schwarzenegger.

Of course, that didn't stop the creators of xXx (2002) from betting the farm on Diesel's potential as an above-the-title action hero.  And though it's hard to blame them after the runaway success of The Fast and the Furious made Diesel a household name, xXx fails to capitalize on the actor's strengths, casting him as an extreme sports enthusiast named Xander Cage recruited by a national intelligence agency to infiltrate a terrorist group run by a Russian mercenary (Martin Csokas).  But asking Diesel to play the part of the suave, globe-trotting spy - a kind of in-your-face James Bond for the Mountain Dew generation - is like trying to crush an anthill with a boulder.  Unsurprisingly, he responds with the phoned-in performance that this cheesy, cynical cash grab of a film deserves.

Xander's initial recruitment resembles a theme park version of a Hitchcockian "wrong man" conspiracy thriller, which Diesel plays like a prickish volunteer at a magic show who refuses to go along with the deception.  xXx quickly gives way to strident soda commercial edginess with heroes who think and talk like middle-aged Hollywood executives desperately trying to grasp what those crazy kids are into these days ("Stop thinking proud police, start thinking PlayStation - blow shit up!" is a typical xXx bon mot).  There's also something weird about watching a physical specimen like Diesel ordered to pursue the delicate business of espionage, which sounds the premise of a comedy, not the beginning of the next huge action franchise.

Not that his track record in comedy is sterling.  While The Pacifier (2005) is a dreadful attempt at giving Diesel his own Kindergarten Cop, the courtroom comedy Find Me Guilty (2006) should inspire more faith based on its director, Hollywood legend Sidney Lumet, alone.  Diesel plays New Jersey mafioso Jackie DiNorscio, who boldly and eccentrically served as his own counsel during a massive organized crime trial in the late 1980s.  A wiseguy in every sense of the word, DiNorscio stumbles his way through the legal proceedings with off-color jokes, waggish questions, and a constant shit-eating grin - Diesel's chompers are indeed on frequent display, making up for nearly a decade of grim stoicism.

It's not hard to see why Lumet cast Diesel in the film - the actor's success comes from the same elixir of streetwise charm and chutzpah that, in larger, more dangerous doses, breeds an overreaching big city hustler like DiNorsico.  Alas, a creeping phoniness sets in when you realize that the movie is actually trying to garner an uncomplicated sympathy for DiNorscio and his shady associates, sloppily rationalizing their defense by casting the prosecution as a bunch of shrill, smug tricksters.  It falls to Diesel, swaddled in the bulkiest of '80s fashions to hide his He-Man physique, to try and sell the idea of the populist antihero - a tall order in a film this flippantly corny.

While Find Me Guilty might have been too much of a stretch for audiences, it's preferable to the disappointing familiarity of the abysmal Babylon A.D. (2008), in which Diesel once again plays a taciturn mercenary comfortable in the criminal element - but only for the right reasons.  It's not often that a movie has me clamoring for more exposition, but the lack of guidance through Babylon A.D.'s incomprehensible mythology made me pine for the idiotic simplicity of xXx (which is clearly the superior film where Diesel traipses around Russia in a giant winter coat).

With a lot of material obviously left on the cutting room floor or omitted entirely in a cynical appraisal of Diesel's fanbase, Babylon A.D. is setting up its star to fail.  Yet Diesel remains remarkably self-possessed throughout the ordeal.  On the other hand, there's not much he can do with a character as stunted as Toorop.  Babylon A.D. is, to date, Diesel's last starring role before retreating into the comfort of his multimillion-dollar franchises - and given the quality of such unchallenging, one-dimensional roles, it's hard to blame him.

Looking at the arc of Diesel's career, it looks like one of two things happened: either he learned to play exclusively to his strengths as a intimidating screen presence; or he resigned himself to the industry's lack of imagination about how to use him.  The truth might be a mixture of both.  Still, it's interesting to consider a couple of Diesel's deeper cuts, particularly the fascinating Boiler Room (2000) - where he gets to be light, funny, charming, and everything else that seems improbable at this stage in his career - and Knockaround Guys (2003), where he gives his most underrated performance as an avenging ass-kicker who's deployed with great restraint and thus greater meaning.  Somehow, some way - perhaps when we run out of ideas for implausible car stunts - Mark Sinclair Vincent will once again get to spread his wings.

Monday, March 23, 2015


Dir. Yenn Demange

3.5 out of 5

In the opening scenes of '71, Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) is part of a regiment of young British soldiers training for their eventual deployment overseas.  But the action they see will not be far from home - just across the Irish Sea, in fact - as the soldiers are ordered to ameliorate the internecine conflict between Catholic and Protestant militias in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the early years of what would quickly become known as the Troubles.  During his squad's first mission in the field, Gary becomes separated from his unit and embarks upon a dangerous journey through Belfast that exposes him to the ethical complexities and diverse combatants in this tangled sectarian conflict.

While Yenn Demange's film has an academic interest its many different factions vying for power in Northern Ireland - staunch Protestant loyalists, shady British military intelligence agents, and two squabbling groups of fiery IRA nationalists - it's ultimately about the corrupting nature of war in general.  Seen through Gary's relatively innocent eyes, the brutal violence is an almost apolitical byproduct of base human impulses that go beyond the immediate 20th-century concerns of government and religion.  Demange and screenwriter Gregory Burke aren't creating a historical document here - they are crafting a passion play within the structure of an urban action thriller, replete with stunning escapes, double-crosses, and unlikely allies.

Indeed, labeling '71 as simply a "war movie" belies its focused intensity and would muddle the broader message its creators are attempting to convey.  Its ideals are not glory or honor but a certain humanity - albeit a tragic one - that persists in some of the most hopeless situations.  On the other hand, the film's scale sometimes tips too far into the symbolic; the deeper Gary falls into his predicament, the more he functions as a plot point than as a character.  Demange also seems to squander '71's specificity in the characterizations of the supporting cast, whose motives either remain unclear or are spelled out in a somewhat clichéd language.  Still, '71 is absolutely captivating whenever lives hang in the balance and Gary is on the run - which is to say almost the entire time.  The filmmakers' general political ambivalence turns out to be a wise choice for the type of movie that '71 so frequently is: a tense, protracted chase sequence through a maze of crooks, charlatans, and collaborators.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Dir. Neill Blomkamp

2.5 out of 5

It takes a village to raise an automaton.  That's the most cogent takeaway from the sci-fi thriller Chappie, in which the architect (Dev Patel) of Johannesburg, South Africa's robotic police force uses a decommissioned machine to produce a sentient form of artificial intelligence.  But when the little guy, childlike and helpless, falls into the hands of some desperate street thugs, his development oscillates between the warm, compassionate wonderment supplied by his surrogate mother (who impulsively dubs him "Chappie") and his criminal exploitation at the hands of his father figure - played respectively by South African rappers Yolandi Visser and Ninja, better known as Die Antwoord.  Then there is the harsh, violent reality of Chappie's environment, where a stable urban society exists adjacent to a quasi-Mad Max wasteland, characteristic of director Neill Blomkamp's consistent predictions of a future starkly divided between the haves and have-nots.

Chappie, at its core, is not so different from Boyhood - if Boyhood also featured a beefed-up version of the ED-209 from RoboCop controlled by the thoughts of an ex-military hardass (Hugh Jackman).  The film's coming-of-age element maintains a critical emotional through-line within Blomkamp's loud, hyper-stimulated action aesthetic.  The tenderness and cute humor of Chappie himself - animated via the vocal and "poor man's motion capture" performance of Sharlto Copley - cuts through the static of an energetic but often hopelessly cluttered script.  Co-writers and real-life partners Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell have crammed enough ideas and subplots for multiple movies into Chappie, resulting in a film that feels disjointed for its first two-thirds, then hopelessly rushed once it's time to tie all the threads together.

But some of those threads, taken individually, can be quite intriguing.  Much like Ninja is obsessed with teaching Chappie all about the hard knocks of life in the slums - and the exaggerated macho hardness that's required to endure them - Blomkamp is preoccupied with the idea of authenticity expressed as coolness.  He's mashing up the worlds of Coachella and SXSW, alternating between the profanely-tagged abandoned rave site that is the criminals' hideout and the sleek, supermodern technocracy where Patel's and Jackman's characters are rivals jockeying for position in the pecking order of scientific and cultural innovation.  In the end, Chappie's own cinematic parentage is an amalgamation of Blomkamp's two previous films, Elysium and District 9; it's both a hopelessly confusing crackpot mess and a visually stunning work of ambitious social import.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

It Follows

It Follows
Dir. David Robert Mitchell

3 out of 5
We all know what happens to the sexually promiscuous (or even just the sexually active) in horror films: once the clothes come off, a grisly death usually isn't far behind.  The teen chiller It Follows, from writer-director David Robert Mitchell, magnifies this trope to movie size: after teenage Jay (The Guest’s Maika Monroe) sleeps with the older boy (Jake Weary) she's been dating, she's haunted by spectral visions taking the form of various people, often creepy-looking and disturbingly mutilated strangers.  Jay's lover has the courtesy to explain, post-coitus, that it's a condition passed down a long line of sex partners and that his only motive in courting her was to rid himself of the curse, as the visions will relentlessly hunt down and kill the most recent link in the chain.
It wouldn't take much to push this premise into exploitation territory, but Mitchell takes it in a more introspective direction, trying to examine the impact Jay's situation has on her relationship with her friends: younger sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), schoolmate Yara (Olivia Luccardi), bad-boy neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto), and childhood crush Paul (Keir Gilchrist).  Only the afflicted can see the visions, so they spend much of their time consoling Jay without knowing exactly why.  Jay herself is a fascinating character, contemplating the morality of her limited options in relieving herself of the curse.  Together, they all perform the duties of friendship in a sensitive interplay that would feel very realistic for a conventional coming-of-age drama, much less a horror film.
The premise lends itself to a metaphor for teen sex, one that Mitchell complicates with the ever-changing form of Jay's tormentors and the detail that they will only pursue their victims slowly, on foot.  They're never a powerfully overwhelming force but a consistent creeping dread in the back of Jay's mind.  What she is interpreting, Mitchell cannot truly say.  His script mines a motherlode of mental triggers, from post-pubescent confusion and anxiety about sex to a recalling of the emotional scars left by our earliest intimate relationships, even suggesting a component based on the repression of sexual trauma.
The last thing this movie needs is a moral, but it seems to be grasping at a larger purpose that is not made fully clear.  Granted, that's Mitchell's likely intention, but his lyrical approach short-sells the potential of the conceit.  He delights in constructing a formal mystery house of atmospheric slow zooms, pans that lead to nowhere, and nerve-fraying sound design.  It's top-notch horror movie affect.  It's also pretty frustrating without the right amount of payoff.  It Follows becomes a slow-speed chase film for almost its entire second half, a repetitive exercise no matter how many times the nightmare changes its disguise.  Mitchell's gift for wan understatement also doesn't mesh well with a young cast struggling to communicate the film's intensely psychological conflict.  It Follows is ultimately a great idea resting upon a wobbly framework, trying mightily to strike its own balance between the codification and deconstruction of horror tropes.

This review was originally posted to Screen Invasion.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman: The Secret Service
Dir. Matthew Vaughn

4 out of 5

The titular organization in Kingsman: The Secret Service is an international spy agency that's not MI-6, even though everyone involved just happens to be British.  Nor are its gentlemen agents who wear fine suits, deploy lethal gadgets, and infiltrate underground lairs supposed to be any kind of stand-in for a certain type of spy who emerged in the golden age of cloak-and-dagger during the Cold War.  (Their origin has something to do with tailors and the fortunes of wealthy casualties in World War I.)  Indeed, Kingsman borrows as many of its cues from modern fairy tales like Star Wars and Harry Potter as it does from spy movies.  Consider its protagonist: Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton), a poor London youth whisked away from his troubled home life to audition for an espionage program that tests the limits of his physical and psychological capabilities; whilst his mentor, top agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth), investigates a flamboyant tech billionaire (Samuel L. Jackson) for a litany of suspicious behavior, including but not limited to employing a personal assistant (Sofia Boutella) who sports razor-sharp foot prosthetics.

That last flourish is typical of Kingsman, a stylish spy thriller and love letter to the James Bond film series that does what many of the Bond films themselves cannot: land on the right side of the homage-parody divide.  Of course, this is the old-school '60s and '70s Bond we're talking about, the movies stuffed with outlandish megalomaniacs, gimmicky henchman, and grounded gadgetry.  But Kingsman is most intriguing in its attempt to best Bond in the personality department.  From their tony headquarters on Savile Row to their emphasis on expertise and teamwork, these guys (and gals) take their self-appointed status as gentlemen quite seriously.   It's a not-so-secret jab at the idea of a violent, vengeful Bond serving as a symbol of masculine cool; the Kingsman way is practically the opposite, according to Hart, who quotes Hemingway to his young protege: "True nobility is being superior to your former self."

It's another way of saying that you must be comfortable in your own skin, as director Matthew Vaughn certainly is.  With Kingsman he finally combines his visual panache and cheeky sense of humor with thematic heft, as the film's the out-of-nowhere commentary on wealth, class, and privilege is a vast improvement over solipsistic missteps like Kick-Ass.  This being Vaughn, the film is none too subtle, and several of its winks to other spy films are rather clunky.  Yet it succeeds all the same by taking a different tack than lesser Bond imitators, which so often try to declare their importance by either symbolically murdering or pantsing Bond in a fit of desperation.  Kingsman is the anti-anti-Bond film, working on multiple levels for many audiences: those who will recognize its tango with the history of the spy genre, those who appreciate a subversive product slipping through the Hollywood system, and those who simply want to sit back and enjoy the buoyant confidence of a movie that knows exactly how to find its own groove.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Seventh Son

Seventh Son
Dir. Sergei Bodrov

2 out of 5

Meryl Streep famously spoke of the difficulties that actresses face upon reaching a certain age - upon turning 40, she reportedly began receiving a deluge of offers to play witches, a role she resisted until last year's Into the Woods.  The starkly generic fantasy Seventh Son seems a lot like the type of movie that Streep was turning down years ago.  It's a film that has no use for female characters who aren't witches, or at least closely associated with the villainous coven led by Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore), a powerful sorceress who has returned after a decades-long exile to seek vengeance on John Gregory (Jeff Bridges), the "spook" - a kind of supernatural bounty hunter - who imprisoned her.

It's easy to read Seventh Son as a feature-length act of acquiescence.  The movie squanders a talented cast on a pro forma hero's journey invested exclusively in meat-and-potatoes fantasy clichés (gee, I hope this magic pendant comes in handy later).  As the last representative of an order dedicated to protecting people from evil magical creatures, Gregory is forever in search of a worthy apprentice.  When his latest one dies, he tracks down Tom Ward (Ben Barnes), a restless farmboy so blatantly Skywalker-esque he actually stares into the middle distance and verbally confirms that he's meant for something greater than this.  As they fight their way through Malkin's minions, Gregory gradually convinces Tom that bitches be crazy and that all witches should be summarily executed.  However, the boy nurtures a seed of dissent when he discovers that a mysterious young woman (Alicia Vikander) accused of being a witch might not be so bad after all.

There's nothing wrong with embracing the Joseph Campbell template, but you had better bring something new to the equation.  All of Seventh Son's flimflam about bloodlines and destiny amounts to little more than a few character beats in the film's loud, boring climax, when its sudden stabs at profundity feel completely unearned.  And while most of the cast more or less plays the material straight, Bridges tries way too hard in turning Gregory into one of his signature wizened drunks; for some reason, this one happens to talk like Alfred Hitchcock after swallowing a truckload of gravel.  (One of the movie's few interesting undercurrents is that the heroes progress through the story despite its wise man's consistent recklessness, hectoring, and hardline stance on witch genocide.)  Alas, when the montage of medieval fantasy images in the end credits suggests a deeper and more interesting world than anything in the actual movie, it's clear that Seventh Son suffers from a fatal lack of imagination.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Catch-Up: Winter 2014-15

I try to see as many movies as I can, so sometimes I need to purge the queue.  In this edition: catching up with cold weather diversions.

The Interview
Dirs. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

2.5 out of 5

In the wild weeks that took The Interview on its ride from mildly anticipated comedy to potential national security threat to free speech cause célèbre, it was difficult to imagine how we could ever talk about it as a movie.  Turns out it didn't take much - you just had to watch the thing.  Far from the supposedly inflammatory, outrageously disrespectful screed that motivated a group of hackers to raid Sony Pictures' hard drives and threaten moviegoers with violence, the satire of The Interview is more like the prepubescent reaction to a hidden cache of Playboy magazines.  It feels naughty and vaguely transgressive, but it doesn't fully grasp the possibilities.

Just in case you are reading this outside the white-hot political crucible of late 2014, The Interview concerns Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen), the veteran producer of a tabloid news show hosted by Dave Skylark (James Franco), whose quest to boost the program's prestige leads to an interview with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un (Randall Park).  Rogen and Goldberg are savvy in presenting Un as a madman who only pretends to play the buffoon, particularly as he butters up the venal, guileless Skylark with an over-the-top bromance.  Still, The Interview has trouble deciding which route to take, so it often settles on silliness for silliness' sake.  The slightly more serious themes that buttressed Rogen's other 2014 film, Neighbors, are not to be found here, and the result is an amiably goofy yet shapeless comedy.

Top Five
Dir. Chris Rock

4 out of 5

Chris Rock is rightly considered one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all-time - a cultural, comic, and critical voice like few others in his generation - but you wouldn't know that from a cinematic oeuvre that includes misfires like Down to Earth and Head of State.  Even though his overall legacy is quite secure, the winning romantic comedy Top Five is a big step toward rectifying that career blind spot.  Rock plays Andre Allen, a former stand-up prodigy turned star of the Hammy the Bear trilogy, a lowbrow yet wildly successful comedy film franchise that features Allen fighting crime in a bear suit.  He's trying to salvage his career and his self-respect by transitioning to drama, though he's also distracted by the sideshow of his impending televised wedding to a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union).  It all comes to a head throughout a busy day while Andre is in New York City promoting his newest project - a violent historical slave rebellion epic - and being shadowed by a reporter (Rosario Dawson) who forces Andre to come to terms with the decisions he's made, both in his career and in his life.

Top Five is a madcap, banter-heavy fireworks show in the classic screwball comedy tradition.  Rock is omnivorous in his influences, and has a blast combining the familiar - vintage Woody Allen, His Girl Friday, anything from Meg Ryan's late '80s/'90s heyday - with his own sensibility, forged within the traditions of African-American comedy and the fraternity of stand-up.  Though the movie rarely throws a true curveball, Rock follows his gameplan with energy and precision, keeping Andre's exaggerated plight grounded in details that paint a more robust picture of its lead couple as human beings.  Ultimately, Top Five's biggest advantage over more generic, focus-grouped comedies stuffed with cameos and throwaway jokes (which Rock admittedly takes advantage of as well) is its individuality - a quality derived from the movie's character-driven humor and Rock's own unapologetic point of view.

The Boy Next Door
Dir. Rob Cohen

1.5 out of 5

Noah Sandborn (Ryan Guzman) is the most impossible high school senior I've ever seen in a movie.  For the first 20 minutes of sleazy thriller The Boy Next Door, he's an incredibly buff, Iliad-quoting, garage door-fixing, great uncle-caretaking, surrogate-fathering fantasy for the recently separated Claire Peterson (Jennifer Lopez), a suburban schoolteacher whose current man of the house is her dweeby teenage son (Ian Nelson).  Noah and Claire inevitably bump uglies in classic late-night Cinemax fashion, but when Claire realizes her mistake and tries to break off their non-relationship, it doesn't take long for the boy to reveal him as an angry, manipulative psychopath - a even more preposterous character who tracks closer to "Batman villain" than "spurned jock."

There is nothing noteworthy about The Boy Next Door, a self-serious take on material that's one step above amateur erotic fiction and not nearly as fun as the Lifetime movie version would undoubtedly be.  Lopez's big comeback is limited to 30 minutes of lounging in various nightgowns and an additional hour of looking mildly concerned as feverishly dumb reveals pile up in a triumph of hackneyed storytelling.  (Though, to be fair, Claire's totally normal job as a classics teacher at a public high school allows the filmmakers to sprinkle in pretentious references to Oedipus and the works of Homer.)  Ultimately, The Boy Next Door exists solely for two scenes - the steamy May-December sexytime that's built up with all the subtlety of a softcore porno, and Claire's vigilante retribution against a lunatic who surely would have raised about a million red flags by now - presumably to pander to our most forbidden desires while reassuring us of our moral uprightness.  It's an annoying case of a movie trying to have it both ways.  Too bad neither of them work in the slightest.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending
Dir. Lana and Andy Wachowski

2.5 out of 5

The Wachowski siblings' quest to out-weird themselves continues with Jupiter Ascending, a sprawling space opera that proudly chooses quantity over quality when it comes to the ideas that shape its original sci-fi narrative.  And for a while, "quantity" doesn't seem like a bad choice: the film's whirlwind first act includes attempted alien abduction, cybernetically-enhanced bounty hunters, a caste of test-tube humans spliced with animal DNA, and the machinations of intergalactic aristocrats trying to gain control the most lucrative and resource-rich planet left to them in their late mother's will: Earth.  

Caught in the middle of this madness is Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a humble domestic worker and undocumented immigrant living with her large Russian immigrant family in Chicago.  However, this being a space opera, Jupiter is in reality a very important figure in these space politics, which becomes clear when she's rescued from the alien minions hunting her by a human-wolf hybrid named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum).  She's then whisked away beyond the stars to reclaim the royal birthright waiting for her, and to make decisions that affect the fate of the entire universe with only the slightest giblets of information about what in the holy hell is going on.

The film plays like the colicky love child of Dune and Flash Gordon, attempting to parlay its obsession with court intrigue and political ritual into big, dumb action setpieces.  Unfortunately, it's a fatally unbalanced equation.  Tatum is much blander than a wolf-eared super soldier who rides around on anti-gravity rollerblades should ever be, and the movie relies on a repetitive cycle of capture, rescue, and escape that belies the painstakingly detailed world in which it takes place.  Indeed, there's another, more interesting movie going on beneath Tatum's rote action hero exercises, one where Kunis' screwball charm elevates her secret space princess backstory, and where the Wachowskis manage to insert grace notes about personhood and identity (there's a wonderful sequence where Jupiter endures a labyrinth of bureaucrats and paperwork in an homage to Brazil) alongside indelible images of gorgeous gilded spaceships and the many Dr. Moreau-style hybrids that form a kind of galactic underclass.

Jupiter Ascending will undoubtedly receive plenty of scorn for its overstuffed and incoherent plot, its reliance on space fantasy clichés, and the nonexistent chemistry of its leads.  None of it will be unwarranted; despite a release date change, it still draws unkind comparisons to similar fare like Guardians of the Galaxy.  But to pillory the film for its unabashed weirdness is a fatal mistake, an act of myopia that not only discounts the fascinating marginalia and omnivorous influences present in the Wachowskis' world-building, but also discourages any sort of deviation from the status quo of big-budget pictures.  So many movies fail in the most boring, predictable ways possible.  We should be more grateful when a movie like Jupiter Ascending has the good sense to stumble with style.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Wide Angle: 2014 in Review

Awards are silly.

Still, that hasn't stopped me from posting an annual recap for the past three years.  And it won't stop me from doing it again.  Consider this an attempt to commemorate the year in film - to beat back the receding tide of memory and acknowledge all the good, bad, and weird stuff that showed up onscreen in 2014.  Simply put, this is my best attempt to contextualize another year of seeing, feeling, and believing in the movies.

Top Whatever

Since adding new feature articles and a podcast to my docket, I sadly don't have the time to review everything I see, but I'm glad I caught up with Blue Ruin - a propulsive revenge thriller that corkscrews its way through a brutally simple yet thoroughly compelling narrative about the sins of our loved ones unfolding across generations.  On a completely different tack, The Grand Budapest Hotel continued Wes Anderson's stellar run, a melancholy comic romp that dazzles with both pure sentiment and continental cool.

Are ambitious international collaborations the future of action movies?  While the idea certainly isn't new, two 2014 films took it to the next level.  The first, The Raid 2: Berendal was a mind-blowing beat 'em up of epic proportions - the ideal marriage of video game action with cinematic verve.  And the second, Snowpiercer, was the freaky, fancy-free blockbuster that Marvel wishes it could make; it's a shame that it was barely released in theaters, but it's already well on its way to cult classic status.

"Lifetime achievement" took on a couple different meanings in Life Itself, a moving tribute to the reigning people's champion of cinema, the late Roger Ebert, and in Boyhood, the poetic longitudinal study of life's milestones and the sometimes profound mundanity that surrounds them.

Frank introduced us to one of the most fascinating characters of 2014, a troubled musical genius trying to navigate his headspace by enclosing it in a giant fiberglass facsimile.  It's a movie about letting the right ones in, however tentatively - which is also the subject of the documentary Harmontown, a portrait of an admittedly self-destructive personality and his army of misfits moved to embrace their own shortcomings as part of themselves.

A trio of voices debuted last year in three films that struck at the gut and the brain with equal force.  Dear White People combined two decades' worth of art-house sensibilities to poke holes in the post-racial myth of the Millennial generation.  Whiplash presented a rivalry for the ages in a story of pride and perfectionism, nicely resolving its central feud while somehow allowing both antagonists to look strong.  And Nightcrawler made satirical hay of a toxic meritocracy arising from the unfiltered spillage of content that's propelling the new American culture.

Finally, A Most Violent Year spun compelling tragedy out of the harsh truth that one person's survival sometimes must depend on another's suffering and sacrifice.  The nobility of our intentions has little bearing on the outcome of our actions - the opposite of which is true in the exemplary Selma, which refused the easy catharsis of other tasteful museum pieces for a full, honest embrace of the interplay of emotions, deeds, and dreams in one pivotal series of events.  If that isn't the definition of great filmmaking, then I don't know what else to tell you.

Other Good Stuff

Quality was found in all corners, from formally and intellectually challenging salvos like A Field in England and Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 & 2 to the pure pop pleasures of Gone Girl and Guardians of the Galaxy.

There was a great film for every mood in 2014.  The quietly devastating The Immigrant and the achingly personal Documented showcased how the other half lives, while Inherent Vice played a swan song for the '60s in an intoxicating, offbeat key.

Other Things I Liked That Deserve A Brief Mention

- the diabolically catchy The LEGO Movie anthem "Everything Is Awesome"
- Muppets Most Wanted's Constantine, the give-zero-fucks poster boy of 2014
- Kathy Bates dancing at a lesbian barbecue in Tammy
- the sound editing and mixing during the crash sequences in Unbroken
- the robot buddy voices of Scott Adsit (Baymax in Big Hero 6) and Bill Irwin (TARS the robot in Interstellar)
- Anders Holm's increasingly ludicrous O-faces in Top Five
- the garish rococo set decoration of the du Pont estate in Foxcatcher

Just The Worst

To be the worst, you've got to really want it, and only one film last year could combine the incompetence of Vampire Academy, the needy indulgence of Chef, and the hackery of A Million Ways to Die in the West in a single foul globule of cinematic antimatter.

That movie is Dumb and Dumber Too, a soulless, depressing cash grab that's best described as a Dadaist simulation of humor meant to expose the bone-deep desperation and moral emptiness behind the human need for laughter.

Flawed But Fascinating

Let's take a moment to mourn what The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and The Giver might have been had they not been as hamstrung by poor execution or the lame demands of the marketplace.  However, my choice for so-confounding-it's-good(?) goes to Lucy, a heaping scoop of Luc Besson insanity about a party girl who has drugs sewn into her body that turn her into an increasingly intelligent and vengeful human computer.  (Don't you just hate it when that happens?)  Spoiler alert - she eventually morphs into a flash drive containing all the secrets of the universe.  And Morgan Freeman is there to explain it all via PowerPoint lecture.  It's audaciously entertaining stupidity of the highest order.

Biggest Disappointments

Hyped over the moon, The LEGO Movie was essentially a feature-length commercial that dispensed with any satirical pretense after its first 10 minutes.  It's not a bad film by any means, but it had the potential to be so much more.  I was similarly bummed by The Sacrament, which seems like a big step back for horror prodigy Ti West as he hops onto the found footage bandwagon and loses his unique voice in a musty Jonestown: The Movie premise.

And at the risk of exposing myself as an apostate, I must admit that I was incredibly let down by Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  In truth, I've never been fully on board with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Winter Soldier shattered any illusions that these films are anything but a salable product line, a way to string people along with half-resolutions and vague promises of cooler things to come - a way to make individual stories less satisfying.  That's an incredibly worrying trend.  To many, Cap 2 is the current apex of the MCU; to me, it looks more like the beginning of the end.

Most Pleasant Surprises

"Fat people comedy" is usually a slippery slope toward ridicule and/or condescension, so I was understandably wary when approaching Cuban Fury, a rom-com starring the stout Nick Frost as a former salsa dancing champion who rekindles his passion to impress his office crush.  But the movie hits all the right notes of sweetness and silliness thanks to Frost's effortlessly charming performance and a genial tone that lets its characters just be themselves without pushing them to extremes.

Whatever you decide to call it, Edge of Tomorrow was one of the freshest summer blockbusters in years, a strange brew of influences from other visual media - manga and video games - that typically have not lent themselves to cinematic adaptation.  Edge has style to burn, yet it's the rare popcorn flick that keeps you thinking after the credits roll; Tom Cruise's playful tinkering with his action hero persona is just the cherry on top. 

Best Performances

As always, my watchword here is inclusivity, which is another way of saying that I try to avoid the performances that have already been lavished with plenty of attention and awards.


Is there anything Tilda Swinton can't do?  From the doddering heiress of The Grand Budapest Hotel to a globe-trotting vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive to a gender-bending fascist martinet in Snowpiercer, Swinton's consistently positive contributions deserve greater recognition.  The word "chameleon" is used to describe a lot of actors who bring a physical affect - a paunch, a walk, an accent - to a role, but Swinton is one of the few who can also change their emotional timbre just as drastically.  Meek or assertive, compassionate or cruel, Swinton makes it all look easy.

Let's be honest: Jake Gyllenhaal has been a very good actor for quite a while.  Those who are trying to frame his 2014 as a renaissance of McConaughey proportions have either forgotten his filmography (there are more Zodiacs than Prince of Persias) or are ignoring the importance of both good timing and good material.  Gyllenhaal guided the audience through the inscrutable Enemy as a timid college professor and his more aggressive doppleganger, an arrogant actor with serious relationship issues.  Yet it's his amazing performance in Nightcrawler that impresses the most, a for-the-ages portrait of an ingratiatingly weird sociopath in which Gyllenhaal is bends the movie to his will the same way his character convinces the world to accept and reward his insanity.


One of these days - perhaps as soon as the release of the next Star Wars and X-Men installments - people are going to revisit the oeuvre of Oscar Isaac and discover gems like A Most Violent Year, where he gives another understated yet immensely impactful masterclass.  Playing a character who's both a
 beguiling rascal and a sympathetic underdog, Ralph Fiennes is the key cog in the clockwork comedy machine that is The Grand Budapest Hotel.  And Tyler James Williams is the not-so-secret superhero of Dear White People, a shy, gay black nerd who doesn't want to have to answer to any of those labels but finds it necessary to validate his identity in the face of ignorance.


Jenny Slate finally gets a showcase for her comedic gifts in Obvious Child, combining a flair for vulgarity with a low-key vulnerability that gives the film its unexpected emotional punch.  In a similar way, Melanie Lynskey elevates the generational comedy of manners in Happy Christmas by portraying a complex counterpoint to Anna Kendrick's self-involved Millenial - it's obvious that we're supposed to see the future of Kendrick's character in Lynskey, but she pulls it off with grace and subtlety.  Finally, Marion Cotillard absolutely nailed the "costume drama realism" vibe of James Gray's The Immigrant, a film that benefits immensely from her quietly heartbreaking performance.

Duo or Group

Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck were a pleasure to watch as they spun yuppie love into something cracked and twisted in the marital farce that was Gone Girl, simultaneously portraying and defining 21st century archetypes.  Type-A personalities clashed in Whiplash, where J. K. Simmons and Miles Teller took an exaggerated academic deathmatch and made it believable.  Bickering musicians also took center stage in Frank, but Michael Fassbender and his band ultimately showed that blood runs thicker than water, even in a makeshift family unit.

The Golden Ham

It's really difficult to overlook the inspired craziness of DMX singing/barking Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" during his brief cameo in Top Five for my annual salute to superlative scenery-chewing.  However, Alison Pill's manic turn as a pregnant schoolteacher cheerfully indoctrinating little ones on the brutal caste system of Snowpiercer is an all-timer.  In the space of just a single breathless, bug-eyed monologue, Pill unequivocally establishes herself as the most batshit character in a movie full of lunatics - an impressive achievement on any actor's résumé.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


Dir. David Koepp

2.5 out of 5

Ever since the first images of a mustachioed Johnny Depp began appearing in bus shelters across the country, the comedic heist film Mortdecai has been met with the same type of anticipation reserved for a plague of locusts.  Here was a film that represented the proverbial fish in the barrel, except you could imagine that the fish were already belly-up, and the barrel pre-drilled with bullet holes.  It was to be Depp's Norbit, Depp's Love Guru - the film that would effectively erase the career of a once-bright talent out of existence.

Shockingly, however, I do not come to bury Mortdecai; in fact, I come to praise it.  Sort of.  Depp plays Charlie Mortdecai - an unscrupulous art dealer, unsuccessful womanizer, and blatant tax cheat - in a globe-trotting farce that's ostensibly about locating a stolen Goya but in reality is about some kind of time-traveling dandy or perhaps an alien visitor who is simultaneously bemused, disgusted, and frightened by our modern world.  He's joined in pursuit of the canvas (which has its own convoluted backstory involving royal skulduggery and hidden Nazi gold) by his simple-minded manservant Jock (Paul Bettany), his far more competent wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), and the MI5 inspector (Ewan McGregor) who still carries a torch for her, not to mention various criminals and gangsters and the most disreputable agents of all - American art collectors.

Mortdecai's bizarre preoccupation with penniless aristocracy and foppish decadence defy 21st-century comprehension in a way that makes the movie seem almost admirable.  Its idiocy is neither cloying nor mean, but defiant, much like director David Koepp's previous film, the similarly brainless and brassy Premium Rush.  And Depp is convincingly unconvincing as a childish playboy; just as Mortdecai's opening narration boasts of his intellectual, physical, and sexual prowess, Depp quickly reveals him to be a simpering, buffoonish fraidy-cat who is generally mortified by human sexuality, with his consistent dog-like moans of discomfort serving as a reminder of his arrested emotional state.  

Make no mistake - Mortdecai is certainly no underrated gem, with large chunks of screentime devoted to its dull and nonsensical caper plot populated with faceless villains and predictable story beats.  Its general style of comedy is also broader than I am suggesting, though it does have its offbeat moments of inspiration (its preoccupation with mustaches surprisingly gives rise to the film's best running gags).  Yet while Depp's previous bombs exploited his quirkiness in desperate and misguided attempts to please, there's something attractive about the tug-of-war going on in Mortdecai, a film both revels in and is embarrassed by its most off-putting extremes.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Red Army

Red Army
Dir. Gabe Polsky

4 out of 5
In the 1970s and 80s, the Soviet national hockey team was one of the most dominant sports dynasties the world had ever seen.  Gabe Polsky's Red Army, is eulogy for a system that churned out world-class champion athletes with a ruthless consistency that somehow also works within the underdog narrative endemic to most fictional sports stories.  The film zeroes in the heyday of Russian hockey, briefly examining what made the Soviets such a perfect Hollywood foil for America's famous "Miracle on Ice" at Lake Placid, then telling the much less heralded, almost forgotten story of the group that emerged from that embarrassing upset to dominate international ice hockey for the rest of the decade.
The movie's Rosetta Stone is Viachaslav "Slava" Fetisov, the English-speaking former captain of the Soviet national squad, who describes the glory days with a fascinating mix of nostalgia and resentment.  Like all Soviet athletes, Fetisov and his teammates were supposed to represent the superiority of socialism with their elite level of play that emphasized teamwork over individual skill.  Yet such a system also demanded that players sacrifice their personal agency for the good of the collective, as coaches who moonlighted as Politburo members strictly controlled nearly every aspect of their lives.  In many ways, Polsky simply verifies the anti-communist talking points of the Reagan era with testimony from those who lived through it.
However, what makes Red Army interesting is its willingness to praise the system's achievements as it simultaneously condemns its methods and confound the conventional Cold War narrative.  Several of the film's experts note that the Soviet hockey juggernaut was built on style of play actually emphasized innovation and creativity, a style that ran contrary to the foreign stereotype of the Soviets as agents of a rigid, unfeeling communist bureaucracy.  The film also builds a convincing case for the success of puck-aided perestroika.  As the 20th century came to a close, hockey was one of the few Soviet institutions that could actually support itself, leading a cash-strapped government to take the unfathomable step of leasing its state property - its star players - to the National Hockey League.
Red Army admittedly relies a bit too much on Fetisov, seemingly the most accessible and charismatic figure from the era explored by Polsky, as its main conduit for information.  The old captain spins an interesting yarn, but the late-breaking revelation that Fetisov is now a cabinet minister in Vladimir Putin's Russian government suddenly casts his commentary in a different light.  (It also explains his contradictory tendency to be both blunt and evasive.)  Note that this does not have an entirely negative effect: if Fetisov was truly as insubordinate to Soviet leadership as he claims, his status in the homeland today is actually quite remarkable.  In the end, Red Army finds a novel way to deal with the heady conflation of sport and politics by illustrating how an ideology can take deep root within a culture, whether its comes from a government or a game.

Monday, January 19, 2015

American Sniper

American Sniper
Dir. Clint Eastwood

3 out of 5

If there is one quality I admire about Clint Eastwood, filmmaker - and it's probably a quality that contributes to the immense popular appeal of his films - it's that he has no interest in appearing fashionable.  His latest work, American Sniper, takes the memoirs of a famed Navy SEAL and spins it into modern day Sergeant York-style mythmaking, a mostly uncomplicated portrait of an American war hero and, by extension, the American mission abroad.  In the film, Bradley Cooper portrays Chris Kyle - considered to be the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history - during his four harrowing tours in Iraq, and the toll his job takes on his family, particularly his wife Taya (Sienna Miller).  It's another one of Eastwood's well-executed, fundamentally-sound blue collar art projects, a paean to the average man in extraordinary circumstances.

But is it extraordinary enough?  While American Sniper exists to honor Kyle, it also feels like a missed opportunity to delve deeper into the extreme lives of combat veterans.  Eastwood, along with screenwriter Jason Hall, quickly discards the biographical format for a more conventional good-versus-evil struggle, giving Kyle a nemesis in the form of an enemy sniper whose legend is nearly equal to his own.  It sets up a nice dichotomy with plenty of dramatic opportunities, but it also lends the story a slickness that turns most of Kyle's colleagues into one-dimensional ciphers, save for one SEAL (Luke Grimes) whose views on the war gradually evolve into a sort of agnostic professionalism.  (I'd love to see his movie as well.) 

American Sniper also suggests internal turmoil in Kyle's own increasing difficulties adjusting to life stateside.  This is as close as the film gets to thinking critically about any of the larger implications about what Kyle - and an entire generation of Americans - was asked to do.  Eastwood's movie has the whiff of propaganda, but in many ways its straightforward attitudes mirror those of its subject, a committed patriot, soldier, and family man.  Additionally, Cooper's portrayal hints at facets of puckish humor and philosophical intractability (he characterizes a comrade's doubts about the U.S. mission in Iraq as "giving up") that prevent the film from making Kyle a pseudo-saint.  American Sniper is about as good as an unchallenged reading of war can be, humanizing a war hero and mythologizing a war.  It isn't nearly as interesting or daring as other contemporary films on the topic (see: The Hurt Locker, Jarhead, and a dozen documentaries about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan), yet in today's balkanized cinematic climate, aiming for the middle might be a more radical move.

Sunday, January 18, 2015


Dir. Michael Mann

2 out of 5

Cyber-thrillers are notorious for aging poorly - the rapid progress of real-life technology makes it all but inevitable as the cutting-edge quickly turns into kitschy junk.  In one sense, that makes it easier to appreciate the efficiency of Blackhat, Michael Mann's film about a legendary hacker plucked from behind bars to hunt down and neutralize an unstoppable techno-terrorist.  Blackhat has the courtesy to be completely ludicrous right this moment, often for reasons that have nothing to do with its dull, prosaic approach to its otherwise timely subject matter.  One only hopes that technology advances far enough as to make Blackhat seem woefully obsolete and give audiences a reason to revisit the film, as there's almost nothing else to compel them otherwise.

After a shadowy figure commits a cyber-attack on a nuclear reactor in China and electronically manipulates the global commodities market, the U.S. and Chinese governments reluctantly team up to stop him.  The latter sends a brother-and-sister team of cyber security consultants to compare notes with the Americans' trump card: Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a convict set to win his freedom if he helps capture the bad guy.  Hathaway represents a new breed of the Hollywood hacker, which is actually the same as any standard action hero.  He's a computer whiz who's also found the time to become a top-notch detective, spy, combat strategist, bare-knuckle pugilist, and all-around MacGuyer-ish master of improvisation.  In fact, he's rarely seen behind a keyboard; it's as if Indiana Jones had been hiding in tech support all along.

Interestingly, Blackhat identifies technological supremacy as a feminine trait, at least early on.  The main Chinese agent (Leehom Wang) liaising with the FBI insists on deputizing his sister (Wei Tang), a hotshot systems analyst who falls for Hathaway almost immediately.  Viola Davis also co-stars as the American agent in charge of pursuing cyber crime, but she's given little to do besides take phone calls and stare at computer terminals.  Indeed, Blackhat's glaring flaw is its weak characterization, an issue that starts with its protagonist.  Hathaway projects an aura of invulnerability that dissipates any sense of tension the movie can muster, and his brassy confidence seems misplaced in a story that should be thriving on mystery and insecurity.  Further more, Hemsworth - best known for playing Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe - brings a god-like presence and a bad American tough-guy accent to a role that is completely wrong for him, but he's difficult to blame when saddled with such underwhelming material.  

The would-be thrills of Blackhat are too obscured by techno-babble and unclear objectives to make deciphering it all worth the effort.  It manages to be both bloated and underwritten, doddering along until its incongruously insane climax, which involves the villain - who isn't established until well into the second hour of the film - and Hathaway squaring off in the middle of an Indonesian spiritual festival.  Blackhat is also perversely banal for a Michael Mann film, as any visually compelling sequence is ruined by its far-fetched plot conveniences, or rushed character development, or shockingly bad audio dubbing.  A frustrating, confused misfire, Blackhat is an inept game of cat-and-mouse that unfolds at a snail's pace.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Dir. Ava DuVernay

4 out of 5

It's tempting for a film based on real events to take the easy way out.  I'm not speaking of the simplification of complex people and events, or tweaking historical figures to portray them in a more positive (or negative) light.  That is to be expected of fiction.  What makes Selma special, among many other things, is its sincere commitment to both mental rigor and visual dynamism; it proves that history written with lightning does not have to be glib or cloying, nor does it have to blindly and blandly follow a straight line to a predestined moment of uplift.  Selma is determined to earn all of its highs and lows by skillfully balancing the grit and the gloss in an example of Hollywood filmmaking approaching its noblest aspirations.

Explaining what I mean by this starts with the fact that I haven't even mentioned that Selma is nominally a Martin Luther King Jr. biopic.  It certainly is that in one sense, but it's also about a great many other things, chief among them the exhausting nature of activism and its attendant political sausage-making.  Selma picks up more than a year after the "I Have a Dream" speech, with Dr. King (David Oyelowo) returning from accepting the Nobel Peace Prize to help organize opposition to Alabama's discriminatory voter registration laws, culminating in a 50-mile march from rural Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery.

What Selma does, however, is show the gradual, grueling path to arrive at that last sentence being printed in a million history textbooks - the wheeling and dealing with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and his sympathetic administration, the squabbles over tactics with activist leaders of every stripe, and the threat of violence looming at every turn.  Director Ava DuVernay is especially diligent in spelling out the causes and effects of the violence in Selma during the spring of 1965, turning these incidents into small, tragic arcs of their own.  Two of the film's most powerful sequences come from the flashpoints that pushed Selma into the public consciousness (or as King astutely notes, the "white consciousness"): the murder of protester Jimmy Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) by Alabama state troopers and the events of "Bloody Sunday," the first attempt to launch a Selma march without the blessing or protection of the federal government.

Secretly an ensemble piece masquerading as an MLK biopic, Selma gets at something that's both specific and essential.  "Civil rights" is a slowly creeping river with many eddies, but DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb use one very famous - and yet still largely overlooked or misunderstood - example to show how a trickle becomes a mighty torrent, while neither scrubbing nor sentimentalizing the sacrifices along the way, while the magnificent cast brings the icons back down to earth: not just the brilliant Oyelowo, but also players like Tim Roth bringing a wry priggishness (and prickishness) to George Wallace, or Carmen Ejogo giving Coretta Scott King moments to be something more than a dignified, beaming wife.  Befitting a film that identifies inertia as one of its main antagonists, Selma moves the line forward, allowing us to embrace and engage with our feelings about the past instead of simply holding it up as a tasteful museum piece.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year
Dir. J.C. Chandor

4.5 out of 5

The sole shootout in A Most Violent Year consumes a small fraction of its two-hour runtime.  It produces no visible blood and no serious physical injuries.  The scene even ends with its adversaries fleeing the cops together.  However, it does have long-lasting repercussions for many people not present - and that, in a nutshell, is the film's entire modus operandi, showing how ill-fated, emotionally-compromised choices create a ripple effect that not only destroy years of careful planning, but also beget even more opportunities for frustration and chaos.

The film takes place in the winter of 1981 in New York City, where Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) owns a thriving heating oil business, built upon years of hard work, sacrifice, and his bootstrap-pulling attitude.  His next big move involves the acquisition of a waterfront storage facility that could give him a huge advantage over his competitors - a deal contingent on the approval of a critical bank loan.  Unfortunately for Abel, it's a rather inconvenient time for anyone to scrutinize his business.  Someone is sending armed thugs to hijack his delivery trucks, threatening the safety of his drivers and Abel's standing with the Teamsters union.  And if that weren't enough, a crusading district attorney (David Oyelowo) is investigating the heating oil industry for financial fraud, and is suspicious of the books kept by Abel's wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a old-school Brooklyn gangster.

Morales' tale unfolds like a Greek tragedy - and, at times, exhibits the same penchant for dramatic coincidence - while Isaac carries the film with the same commanding-yet-somber presence that propelled the equally excellent Inside Llewyn Davis.  A staunchly moral man, Abel is fighting for his family's future as well as his own mortal soul.  The character has his own kind of sanctimonious hubris, ignoring the counsel of his pragmatic legal adviser (Albert Brooks), but his greatest challenge is preventing the city itself from infecting him with its sleaze and corruption.  A Most Violent Year is obliquely a Mafia thriller, though writer-director J.C. Chandor wisely assumes that we've seen plenty of those.  Instead, he offers a spellbinding meditation on moral decay and the struggle to keep fear from compromising our deeply-held principles - a conflict that's just as gripping without any bloodshed.