Movie Review ~ A Most Violent Year

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In New York City 1981, an ambitious immigrant fights to protect his business and family during the most dangerous year in the city’s history.

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola, David Oyelowo

Director: J.C. Chandor

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Fans of the 70s and 80s potboiler crime dramas from the likes of Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View), Sidney Lumet (Serpico), and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) will want to make time for writer/director J.C. Chandor’s well-constructed look at NYC before it became the Disney-fied commercialized metropolis that it’s morphed into over the last 30 years.

Chandor (Oscar nominated for 2012’s talky Margain Call before going almost dialogue free for 2013’s All is Lost) sets his gritty period piece right on the precipice of the Big Apple exploding into a year of murder and crime the likes the city had never seen. Though strolling through Times Square and the upscale posh surrounding boroughs may seem carefree now, don’t forget there was a time when NYC was not the place to be and violence ran rampant in select (and populous) parts of town.

Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Won’t Back Down) is in the heating-oil field running a business he took over from his father-in-law. Industrious and looking forward, Isaac’s Abel Morales is pursuing the American Dream and trying to owe as few people as possible in his quest to achieve it. We get the impression that he’s a different businessman than his father-in-law was, as Abel resists the urge to go with the flow but rather to control his own destiny. That doesn’t always sit well with his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain, Interstellar, Lawless) who’d rather her husband assert dominance first and ask questions later.

After a series of violent hijackings of Abel’s fuel transportation trucks as well as escalating threats by his competitors with ties to shady dealings of the criminal underground variety, Abel must choose a path that will help him toward the future he envisions for himself and his family – but at what cost? There’s a lot of moral dilemma going on in A Most Violent Year, not the least of it involving the ultimate price of ambition. We know Abel is one of the good guys so we’re brought to the edge of our seats with interest when everyone around him seems to be nudging him toward ever darker solutions to his problems and wondering when/if he’ll break.

Isaac carries the weight of the film on his broad shoulders with a quiet ease, suggesting the internal struggle more than making a show of it on the outside. The stakes are high and though we never see him break a sweat, inside you know his heart rate is sky-high. With her platinum Dorothy Stratten/Galaxina hairdo and a manicure that wouldn’t be out of place on a Bond femme fatale, Chastain’s the Lady Macbeth of the film. Wise enough to know that the character could come off one-dimensional; Chastain gives Anna a valued aura of mystery so we’re never quite sure what her endgame is.

It all builds to a satisfying and necessary ending, one that rides the razor’s edge of being both too pat and ever so slightly ambiguous. New York wasn’t yet close to getting its make-over so we know what lies ahead for our characters, even if they think they’ve got it all figured out. This is a velvety piece of old-school filmmaking, very worth your time.

The Silver Bullet ~ Selma

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Synopsis: Chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition.

Release Date: December 25, 2014

Thoughts: Last year, Lee Daniels’ The Butler tried and failed to chronicle the Civil Rights movement as seen through the eyes of a fictionalized historical figure. Self-serving dialogue and a cast roster more interesting than effective sunk what could have been a film of importance. Slipping in at the end of the year just in time to qualify for the busy awards season is the drama Selma and it looks like a more focused work, brimming with the passion of a call to action Lee Daniels’ The Butler was so sorely lacking. I’ve watched the trailer a few times now and found my interest quite energized by the spark director Ava DuVernay has ignited and that stars David Oyelowo (Interstellar, Jack Reacher) and Carmen Ejogo (Sparkle, The Purge: Anarchy) look goose-bumpy good as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Corretta Scott King. Quickly moving to the top of my anticipated list, I’m ready to take the trip to Selma.

The Silver Bullet ~ A Most Violent Year

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Synopsis: A crime drama set in New York City during the winter of 1981 centered on a the lives of an immigrant and his family trying to expand their business and capitalize on opportunities as the rampant violence, decay, and corruption of the day drag them in and threaten to destroy all they have built.

Release Date:  December 31, 2014

Thoughts: Writer/director J.C. Chandor has had a most prosperous last few years after receiving an Oscar nomination for his debut feature Margin Call in 2011. He followed that up last year by giving Robert Redford one of the best roles of his career in All Is Lost which I loved but divided many a moviegoer. Chandor is back in 2014 with this highly anticipated crime drama starring Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Jessica Chastain (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them) that looks like an intriguing mix of styles that have echoes of of Scorcese, De Palma, & Cassavetes. Could be a sleeper hit thanks to its distinguished pedigree.

Movie Review ~ Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As Cecil Gaines serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect this man’s life, family, and American society.

Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Minka Kelly, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams

Director: Lee Daniels

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat.  Here’s what a lot of the reviews for this work of historical fiction aren’t telling you – it’s not a very good movie.  I’m not quite sure why so many are reluctant to admit that but after seeing the movie maybe you will have your own opinion as to why.  While Lee Daniels’ The Butler is filled with an impressive array of award-winning talent, the film itself is a Forrest Gump-ish mish-mash of coincidence that winds up squandering opportunities for real watercooler discussion material in favor of shoe-horning in more brushes with historical figures.

Inspired by a real life White House butler who served eight presidents, screenwriter Danny Strong and director Lee Daniels go their own way and fashion Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker, The Last Stand), his wife Gloria (Winfrey), and their two sons Louis (David Oyelowo , Jack Reacher) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley) into figures they can move through history into situations that suit the overall scope of the film in retelling key moments in the Civil Rights Movement.

The reason to see the film is Whitaker and, for the incredibly curious, Oprah Winfrey.  Whitaker takes Strong’s history 101 kitchen sink script and runs with it, creating a man of impressive worth with a powerful story to tell.  It’s too bad that his story and the story of his family are merely a device for the movie to manipulate as the years go by.  As written by Strong, Louis is present at every major pivotal moment in Civil Rights history and each president has a moment of solidarity with Cecil.  Where Forrest Gump could play off these coincidences as accidental and therefore instilled a sliver of believability, here it just seems like the poorly constructed maneuver it actually is.

Absent from the silver screen since 1998’s misfire Beloved, Winfrey makes the most out of a bad situation (and at least two abysmal costumes) and seizes each moment that allows her to emote.  With a laid-back, casual acting style, Winfrey may not win any awards for the role (and really, she shouldn’t) but it’s respectable work that you can tell she fought for.  I just wish she was in a better film because as her debut performance in 1986’s The Color Purple showed us, she’s a more than capable actress.

Rounding out the trio of leads, Oyelowo has the trickiest of the roles because his plot line is the most far-fetched and least fleshed out.  Starting off as a peaceful protester in his Southern college town during the beginning of the race riots, he soon joins the Freedom Riders only to be swept up into the violence of the early days of the Black Panther movement.  Oyelowo and his girlfriend (gorgeous Yaya Alafia) take on not only Ruth E. Carter’s impressive array of period costumes but handle their historical movements with skilled dedication.

Playing presidents and others to largely successful results is a starry line-up that runs the gamut from spot on (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as The Reagans, Liev Schreiber as LBJ) to the “Okay, if you say so” (John Cusack as Richard Nixon).  Broadway vets Coleman Domingo and Adriane Lenox also turn in well-rounded supporting performances.

Cinematographer Andrew Dunn favors a gauzy look which gives the film a humid fuzz that didn’t work for me.  It creates a swampy feel whenever we aren’t at the White House and as the years go by and some questionable old age make-up is applied to our actors, the movie feels deliberately out of focus.  The score by newcomer Rodrigo Leão sounds like a re-working of The West Wing theme and is neither memorable or telling of the talents of the composer.

The movie unspools like clockwork with pretty much every event foreshadowed in an earlier scene.  It’s so workmanlike and designed for mass consumption that I’m actually surprised director Daniels wanted to be a part of it.  Directing the hard-hitting Precious and the lurid The Paperboy, Daniels seems to like to take his audiences on a journey but here he’s merely a passenger like the rest of us.  Originally intended as a project for Spike Lee, the movie feels more convenient than timely…the kind of film viewers can see and pat themselves on the back afterward.

Aimed squarely at gaining Oscar nominations, the film made headlines before it was even released when Warner Brothers sued distributor The Weinstein Company over the title.  It seems like Warner Brothers had a short film in its vaults from 1916 also called The Butler that they didn’t want the public to confuse with this work from 2013.  The comprise was to include the director’s name in front of the title…something I’m sure Lee Daniels had no trouble with.  That anyone would confuse the two movies is a mystery to me because I’m sure the earlier film didn’t have a scene with LBJ on the toilet barking out orders.

That the film winds up with some small measure of success is thanks to the performances of Whitaker, Winfrey, and Oyelowo with work that rises above Strong’s less than profound script.  It’s not a great film but it’s not boring or a total write-off.  If anything, I left the screening wanting to know more about the real characters and situations the movie touches on.  In the end, any film that brings up the discussion on the evolution of Civil Rights (however ham-fisted the discussion is scripted) in our country earns a qualified recommendation.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Butler

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Synopsis: A look at the life of Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents as the White House’s head butler from 1952 to 1986, and had a unique front-row seat as political and racial history was made.

Release Date:  October 18, 20113

Thoughts: I find myself at a crossroads with Oscar nominated director Lee Daniels.  Though I felt his work on Precious was deserving of his Oscar nomination his other work has produced a strong reaction in me – a negative reaction.  His first feature, Shadowboxer was a rumpled mess even with star Helen Mirren and his Precious follw-up The Paperboy was an loony exercise that tested the mettle of even the most forgiving audience member.  So I’m approaching The Butler with some angst that it will be another Daniels pic with a strong cast that ultimately fails to deliver.  On the other hand, this first trailer hints at a movie without its own agenda that could conceivably call upon the strengths of many of the talented cast involved.  Releasing in October, I’m hoping this works because I think there’s a good story to tell here.