REVIEW: “A Most Violent Year”

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Writer and director J.C. Chandor’s young filmmaking career has offered us two diametrically opposed films. His first movie was the wearisome, heavy-handed Wall Street critique “Margin Call”. His second film was the gripping, solitary survival drama “All is Lost”. “Margin Call” was a talky, dialogue-heavy film while “All is Lost” had only a few spoken words. “Margin Call” featured a huge impressive cast while “All is Lost” featured only Robert Redford. Two very different movies in terms of story and filmmaking approach, but two films that had me very interested in what Chandor would do next.

His third feature is “A Most Violent Year”, an unorthodox organized crime movie with a very deceptive title. This isn’t a prototypical gangster action flick. It’s a slow-burning drama set in 1981 New York City. As evident by Chandor’s other films, he is most interested in telling his stories through layered and well-defined characters. We may get that through copious dialogue or revealing observations, but his characters are his predominate storytelling tool.

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In “A Most Violent Year” our main character of focus is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a dedicated and hard-working owner of a heating oil company. It’s a tough business environment but Abel has managed to grow his company mostly through legal means. We get hints that there are organized crime influences not only within the heating oil business but also in Abel’s family. Yet despite possible connections, Abel seeks to do things the right way, in hopes of avoiding any possible conflict with crime bosses or the law.

That goal becomes more difficult after his trucks begin to be hijacked during delivery runs. This creates a number of problems for Abel. The oil being stolen is taking a financial toll on his company. His firecracker wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) urges him to fight violence with violence. A local Teamsters head pressures Abel to break the law and arm his drivers. And to make matters worse, an ambitious Assistant District Attorney (David Oyelowo) is investigating Abel’s company which threatens to derail a vital business acquisition.

Chandor slow-cooks all of these ingredients, meticulously building his tension at a deliberate but effective pace. There is a very strategic flow to the story and I can see where some may long for more action or a quicker tempo. But I think that would undo much of what Chandor is going for. This film isn’t about gunfights and physical violence. It’s about a man desperate to avoid all of that even though it lingers in the background and around every corner.

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There is something to be said about sitting back and watching good actors work. That is one of this film’s great pleasures. Oscar Isaac, with his well-groomed appearance and camel-hair coat, is wonderfully convincing selling us on Abel’s shaky confidence and good intentions. Chastain is also very good although there were moments when she came across as a little too big and showy. And I also have to mention Albert Brooks. Simply put he is just flawless playing Abel’s attorney who always seems to know more than he lets on. And while it is a relatively small part, David Oyelowo is always a delight.

“A Most Violent Year” is a very focused film that incorporates some of the tricks from J.C. Chandor’s other movies while also setting itself apart from them. The early 80s setting is impressively realized and the cold, wintry hues help relay the needed tone. The dialogue is sharp and intelligent. The performances are precise and confident. Most importantly the story itself pulled me in and what others may see as languid storytelling I see as uniquely fresh. Chandor’s third effort is a rich and gritty character-driven thriller that proves him to be one of the filmmakers that demands to be noticed.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Selma”

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The process to bring “Selma” to the big screen began in 2008. Since then “Selma” has had director changes, producer changes, cast changes, and script rewrites. But now it has finally hit theaters with director Ava DuVernay at the helm. As expected the film has generated a lot of buzz, critical acclaim, and its share of controversy. Going into the film I was excited to see how well the story would be told. I was also cautious and concerned about how the historical liberties I’ve been reading about would effect the film’s impact.

“Selma” doesn’t set out to be a comprehensive biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Instead it focuses on the events surrounding the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. I appreciated the film’s disregard for the standard biopic blueprint. MLK’s entire life isn’t crammed into one story. This movie has a very specific story to tell, yet it allows us to glean much about this influential figure. We learn of his motivations, his faults, his fears, and his uncertainties all through observation. We also learn of his bravery, his sacrifice, and his determination.

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This chronicle of the Selma march starts with Martin Luther King Jr’s (David Oyelowo) desire to secure true and unhindered voting rights for black Americans. We see him going to President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and urging him to give immediate attention to the matter. We see the festering racial tensions in the south particularly in and around the town of Selma, Alabama. We see King visiting Selma with his fellow SCLC members. He speaks in churches and spreads the message of change through peace and offers encouragement to the black community. We also see the violent backlash against the peaceful protests – something that weighs heavily on Dr. King’s heart.

“Selma” has the big showcase scenes that you would expect, but DuVernay also gives us the smaller more intimate moments. These personal strokes paint a much more detailed portrait of King. There’s a fun scene where he and his SCLC buddies arrive at a female friend’s house for breakfast. It’s a great scene filled with playful banter and jests. There is also a piercing scene between King and his wife Coretta (exquisitely played by Carmen Ejogo). It’s a low-key but intense family moment that DuVernay films with subtle but brutal honesty. We get a number of these touches which are much more than just emotional gimmickry.

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And you can’t have a discussion about “Selma” without talking about the performance of David Oyelowo. The British actor loses himself in the role of Dr. King. He is a great match in terms of physical appearance, but he gives us so much more. I was blown away by the steadiness of his voice and his near perfect accent. He also conveys the passion and charisma that I imagine from Dr. King. We see this most in his speeches/sermons at a church in Selma. Oyelowo’s performance is graceful, committed, and nuanced.

“Selma” has so many important things to say and it hits head-on the disgraceful racism that was prevalent at the time. It’s a film that could be taken as an important historical reflection. Unfortunately it loses a portion of its credibility due its historical liberties. I generally stay away from controversies surrounding historical inaccuracies, but for me “Selma” genuinely suffers due to decisions made by DuVernay and writer Paul Webb. It has nothing to do with the racism and violence shown in Selma. All of that was shown with such power and potency. Instead it’s the decision to cast Lyndon B. Johnson as an antagonist, something that simply wasn’t true.

History has shown that Johnson had King had disagreements. But they also had a deep respect and worked together to accomplish the shared goal of equality. Even some close to King have come out to defend Johnson from the film’s characterization. The movie shows Johnson as an obstructionist who grows more and more annoyed with King’s efforts towards equal voting rights. But it doesn’t stop there. The film stops just short of calling Johnson a racist. It also shows Johnson callously using the FBI to hurt King and his family. Many have said this never happened and it depicts Johnson as cold and pernicious. And when he does finally put voting rights legislation forward, the film shows him to be motivated more by his legacy than doing what’s right.

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But why did this hurt the film for me? Historical inaccuracies happen all the time in biography movies. For me it hurts the film because it strips it of a potentially strong and relevant message. I mean which would have more impact and resonance, the movie’s characterization of an obstructive and self-serving sitting white President or the true depiction of a white and black man standing side-by-side working towards true and meaningful change? The power and relevance of that message in the current climate is undeniable. Why did DuVernay choose the direction she did? Some of her comments about the making of the film may shed light on her motivations. Regardless it is a frustrating decision that seems unnecessary.

Sadly the “controversy” surrounding “Selma” isn’t without some merit. A lot of people, particularly younger viewers, may look at the film and take it entirely as historical fact. While that may not be completely true, the majority of the movie serves as a forceful and unflinching reminder of the faith and courage shown by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the persecuted black community of that day. The film forces us to experience the undeserved attitudes of hatred commonly thrown at black Americans at the time. It also raises our spirits by showing the determination of a brave community unwilling to sit by and have their rights trampled. The true story of Selma, Alabama has an inspirational power. “Selma” the movie also has that power except when it wanders off into its own revisionist world.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Interstellar”

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While some people may not love his movies, even they would have to admit that Christopher Nolan is a cinematic artist who has given us a number of movies known for their artistry and uniqueness. Personally I find myself smitten with every feature he brings to the screen. Nolan creates experiences. Through breathtaking visuals and challenging narratives, he takes his audiences places that must be navigating by the senses AND the intellect. I think he is a brilliant filmmaker, but even the greats sometimes miss the mark. There have been a lot of mixed opinions about Nolan’s latest work “Interstellar”. Is this his first shoot and miss?

Much of “Interstellar’s” divisiveness is rooted in extremely high expectations and/or the audiences’ willingness to not just quickly consume the film’s themes but to chew and meditate on them. It’s a film rich with ideas and questions, some of which are only barely touched on but which are still relevant and worth our attention. “Interstellar” is also soaked in science, not in the arrogant or haughty sense, but in a way that convincingly melds science fiction and reputable theory. It’s also ripe with emotion, something that I never expected going into it. In other words it’s a movie with a number of different components but none of which conflict thanks the masterful control Nolan has of his material.

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I firmly believe that the less you know about “Interstellar” going in the better. But to offer a little about its story, Matthew McConaughey plays a widowed ex-NASA pilot named Cooper who now runs a farm with his father-in-law, teenaged son, and 10-year-old daughter. It’s the future and times are hard for the human race. A devastating blight has ravaged crops and able farmers have become more valuable than pilots or engineers. Government programs like NASA and the military have been abandoned and the focus put on the urgent need of food. In reality Earth’s plight is incurable and Cooper is recruited by an old acquaintance Professor Brand (Michael Caine) to head a space expedition to find a habitable planet. But it would require Cooper to leave what he holds dearest in order to potentially save it.

Nolan takes his time developing his scenarios and his characters. It starts with McConaughey and his fabulous performance. His weather-worn face and calloused hands puts him right at home on the dustbowl that Earth has become. McConaughey has a natural and magnetic presence that helps him sell every scene he’s in. It may be a poignant scene with his young daughter Murphy (remarkably played by Mackenzie Foy) or a vigorous debate with a room of physicists. I connected with his character early on and stayed invested until the end.

There is also a host of fantastic supporting work. Anne Hathaway is great as Professor Brand’s daughter and fellow scientist. I also enjoyed David Gyasi as a physicist who joins the expedition. And later on Jessica Chastain appears and gives a performance that grounds and emotionally energizes the second half of the film. Once again she is fabulous. Other castings that I really liked included John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, David Oyelowo, and Ellen Burstyn. Only one performance stuck out like a sore thumb. Neither Topher Grace nor his character ever quite fit.

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But just having a great cast isn’t good enough. There has to be good material for them to work with and Christopher Nolan, along with his brother Jonathan, provide it. Their script pulls influence everywhere from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Alien”. From “Metropolis” to “Wall-E”. Yet despite that “Interstellar” is uniquely Nolan’s. Like many of his films it is cinematic brain food. It challenges us on a personal level by looking at our decisions and their consequences. It looks at self-sacrifice and the costs that some pay. It also challenges us on a philosophical level. What is our purpose of being? What is our place in the world?

And as I mentioned earlier there is a lot of science. This leaks into one of the complaints I’ve read in several places. Many count the film’s numerous science-laced conversations as a flaw. Some have seen them as nothing more than convoluted exposition. I couldn’t disagree more. Exposition is filling in gaps with back story or explanation and there is certainly some of that. But so many of the conversations center around the peril the characters are in and ways to handle it. They are dealing with unknowns, not providing filler. And of course I didn’t understand all of the talk about quantum physics, relativity, singularities, etc., but I believed it because the characters believed it and were passionate in their conversations about it. I bought into them so their knowledge was all I needed.

And then there is the emotional component of it. Surprisingly “Interstellar” is a film so full of emotion and some have had a hard time connecting with it. That’s a shame because emotion is the centerpiece of the film. At the core of “Interstellar” lies the one human force that transcends time and space. This is a movie about love. And it actually dares to be unashamedly sentimental, something else that many have viewed as a flaw. Again, I couldn’t disagree more. That’s because none of the heavy emotional scenes (all connected to the central theme of love) feel false or fabricated. In fact on several occasions I found myself deeply effected and more than once I was wiping tears from my cheeks. To add some perspective, that is very rare for me. But that’s not the only human side we see. Selfishness, cowardice, and deception all show their heads. Some at odds with love. Others born out of a twisted form of love.

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It should go without saying that “Interstellar” looks and sounds amazing. Whether it’s the dry, abrasive, decaying Earth ushering in mankind’s extinction or space and its beautiful palette of stars, planets, clusters, and wormholes, the film offers a number of stunning effects and visual treats. It’s never as spectacular as last year’s “Gravity” but it’s equally impressive. There is a style employed that reminded me of real archived footage. It made many of the sequences all the more immersive. I also loved the use of sound from the space ambiance to Hans Zimmer’s precise score. “Interstellar” is a technical delight.

So why is “Interstellar” a divisive film? I can see a few areas where some may struggle with it. Some may find it too talky. Some may find it to confusing. Some may find it too sentimental. I respect those criticisms yet disagree with each of them. “Interstellar” is a space opera that is inspired by many films but it lays its own course. It’s a contemplative adventure and an emotional exploration that captivated me from its opening moments. More than that, it is one of the deepest and most moving experiences I’ve ever had with a film. It challenged me to self-reflect. It asked questions that I’m still tossing around in my head. It entertained me in a way that few movies of the last decade have. In a nutshell “Interstellar” is the reason I love movies and I can see this film becoming one of my favorites of all-time. Boring, overly sentimental, convoluted? No way. It’s a graceful, stimulating, a beautiful movie that gave me a motion picture experience I won’t soon forget.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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5STAR K&M

REVIEW: “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”

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Lee Daniels’ 2013 drama “The Butler” is very loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American man who served as a White House butler for 34 years before retiring in 1986. During those years Allen served under 7 different presidents and became a beloved member of the White House staff. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is built on these handful of facts but goes on to invent its own story which is sometimes too overt and preachy but at other times intensely powerful.

In the film Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is the main character. His life is quite different from the real life of Eugene Allen. Cecil grows up on a cotton plantation and endures plenty of horrors. But a series of fortunate events sees him eventually being hired as a butler to the White House during the Eisenhower administration. During his years at the White House huge nation-changing events occur which not only effect the presidents he serves but his family at home.

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Speaking of his family, Lee Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong go heavy on the dramatic family dynamics. His wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is a boozing shrill whose attitude can change in a second. His oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) is a disgruntled young man who would rather be proactive in the fight for equality. His youngest son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) is the fun-loving baby of the family who enlists to go to Vietnam. They are all built for high drama and we get plenty of it. Some of it really works on an emotional level. Other times it feels contrived and utterly predictable.

The film seeks to create a historical profile chronicling race relations in the United States. Much of this is done surrounding the Louis character. He ends up going to a college down south where he partakes in various action groups. This leads to protests, arrests, and even encounters with the Klu Klux Klan. There are moments where the tension is incredibly well developed and the discomfort of what you’re watching is powerful. But there are also a few things that I couldn’t quite shake. For example Louis happens to be present at so many of the events that made headlines from the Alabama bus firebombing to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. His presence certainly helps out the story but feels more or less like plot devices.

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But it’s Cecil who is the real attraction and Whitaker is amazing. He is the real heart of this picture and watching him age as the film moves forward makes you feel as if you’ve been on a journey with him. It is hard to gauge at times what Daniels thinks of the character but I thought he was compelling. I also loved the work of David Oyelowo. The 37-year old actor actually first appears as a teenager and is very convincing. But he’s even better as his character springboards into some of the film’s more powerful scenes. The supporting cast is strong and features Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, and Vanessa Redgrave just to name a few. Then there is the unusual assortment of actors who play the presidents. The strongest performances come James Marsden who plays Kennedy and Alan Rickman who plays Reagan. Perhaps the weakest is Robin Williams who is oddly cast as Eisenhower.

Even with the film’s ambition and deeply moving moments, “The Butler” still comes across as a big Hollywood piece. That’s not always bad. There are several big moments that work very, very well. But the further I got into the movie the more it felt scripted. Unlike the more raw and organic “12 Years a Slave”, this film seems to be more dependent on plot gimmicks and melodrama. It also can’t help but get a tad political specifically in the final third of the film. Still, I can’t downplay the great work by the cast led by Forest Whitaker. He’s simply brilliant. I also really enjoyed the smarter and more focused scenes which can be both inspirational and challenging. I just wish we had been given a few more of them.

VERDICT – 3 STARS