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 ~ 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 ~ All Is Lost

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After a collision with a shipping container at sea, a resourceful sailor finds himself, despite all efforts to the contrary, staring his mortality in the face.

Stars: Robert Redford

Director: J.C. Chandor

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  I have to be honest; I’ve never been the biggest Robert Redford fan.  Though he represents a time in Hollywood and filmmaking that’s nearly forgotten, I’ve sometimes struggled with his films and a general aloofness that’s hard to warm to.  It hasn’t helped that Redford has spent the last three decades in front of the camera and behind it in mostly serviceable cinematic excursions, chosen less as opportunities to produce strong work but rather as a showcase of impressive landscapes (The Horse Whisperer) and people he wanted to work with (The Company You Keep).  The days of Ordinary People-esque work were pretty much over.

So you’d imagine how high my eyebrows arched when I heard that Redford’s latest project was just him in a boat on the ocean for one hour and forty five minutes.  What kind of Redford performance would we get?  Turns out, Redford is a sneaky devil and has provided to audiences the chance to watch a screen legend remind us why he’s been an A-List star for much of his career. 

With next to no dialogue to speak of (aside from a brief opening voice-over, the most we get out of Redford is a four letter no-no word) and no leading lady to romance, the movie is entirely on the broad shoulders of a fully present Redford and he more than rises to the challenge as Our Man, an interesting choice of name for this All-American movie star.

Woken from sleep by a collision aboard his sailboat, Our Man doesn’t respond with a kneejerk reaction of racing around the ship, bailing water and yelling for help.  He silently and calmly moves into action, using his resources and resourcefulness to fix the problem at hand.  Over the next days the problems start to stack up and it’s left to our experienced sailor to navigate through storms, fires, and other maladies that can happen at sea.

Even with all the bad stuff happening, the movie never feels like it’s piling it on for poor Redford.  Through no fault of his own, Our Man find himself in a tricky situation and he responds like any practiced man of the sea would…by taking stock of the situation and making the best choice at the moment.  Redford’s weather-worn face speaks volumes, adding the character some extra wrinkles (literally) that tells his back-story without having to spell it out for everyone watching.

The movie doesn’t deal with the past or the future but the here and now, an excellent choice by writer/director J.C. Chandor (an Oscar nominee for the screenplay to 2011’s Margin Call).  It doesn’t matter what brought Our Man to the center of the ocean or what he may be escaping from, it just matters that he keeps going forward and doesn’t give up.

Redford keeps our attention even when the movie sags ever so slightly around the halfway mark.  Even with that minor quibble, it’s a strongly recommended film for its engaging narrative and star performance that proves that old sea dogs may not need new tricks to get the job done.