Friday, January 30, 2015

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at an indie art house near me (and a few multiplexes):


(Dir. J.C. Chandor, 2014)

The poster picture for this movie lists actors Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in succession with the description “New York City, 1981.” That seems to suggest that New York City, circa ’81 is as much a star of the movie of those two leads. But really it’s just the NYC skyline, with the World Trade Center’s twin towers present in many shots, that counts as a principle player here.

Isaac commands the screen with cool, cunning confidence as Abel Morales, a Columbian immigrant who’s looking to close a major waterfront land deal (that happens to have an amazing view of Manhattan) so he can expand his heating oil company. 

With his delicately coiffed hair, Armani suits, cashmere camel coat, and cultivated demeanor, Isaac channels GODFATHER PART II-era Al Pacino. Close-ups of Isaac even brought to my mind Mort Drucker’s caricatures of Pacino in old ‘70s issues of Mad Magazine.

But Isaac’s Abel is like if Pacino’s Michael Corleone actually meant it when he told his wife he wanted the family business to be completely legitimate. “I've spent my whole life trying not to become a gangster,” Abel tells his wife Anna, sharply played by Jessica Chastain, dressed in chic ‘80s fashions.

Abel believes in the American dream, but Anna, the daughter of a local mob boss, has a more lived-in cynical perspective, especially since recent events involving their trucks getting hijacked by unknown rivals, and a smooth district attorney (David Oyelowo, in quite a distinctly different persona than MLK Jr. in SELMA) building a case to charge them for white-collar tax fraud, have placed their deal in jeopardy.

Because of the violent hijackings, one of which put a young driver (Elyes Gabel) in the hospital, a Teamster rep (Peter Gerety) tells Abel to arm his employees but he refuses, saying that it “would be the end of everything we worked for. If one of these guys shoots someone, they will bring me down for it.”

Abel also refuses to live in a fortress with guards, even after he chases off a man with a gun lurking outside his new palatial mansion in the suburbs of Westchester.

Albert Brooks, who, like in his Oscar-nominated part in DRIVE (which also featured Isaac), is again playing against type, this time with a wig of thin blonde hair as Abel’s wise lawyer and confidant. Except for a couple of well-worded scenes, notably one in which he asks Isaac: “Why do you want this so badly?”, Brooks isn’t given a lot to do, but his presence is still seriously appreciated.

The pressure is on as time is running out for Abel to raise the needed cash, and find out who’s behind the hijackings, but Abel keeps his cool. That is until he personally involves himself, chasing down one of the hijacking thugs and trying to beat out of them who they work for.

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, which is only intermittently violent, doesn’t much resemble writer/director J.C. Chandor’s previous films - the financial cliffhanger MARGIN CALL, and the Robert Redford lost at sea drama ALL IS LOST - except in being about practical-minded people trying to survive. Just three films in, Chandor is already building an impressive filmography, one that’s steeped in styles learned from the masters, yet tempered by his own edgy vision.

While Chandor layers his film with echoes of Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Sidney Lumet, and Martin Scorsese, the cinematography of Bradford Young, who also shot SELMA, brings to mind the darkness of the late, great Gordon Willis’ camerawork. The spare lighting adds shadowy nuance to the proceedings, particularly in a scene involving the meeting of the oil company heads around a table in the back of an Italian restaurant (yes, another GODFATHER-ish bit).

Sadly this excellent, moody, impeccably acted film was overlooked Oscar nomination-wise. For her tough, take-no-shit, New Jersey-accented performance, I thought Chastain would get one for sure. When she takes charge, like when she shoots a deer that they hit with their car because Isaac was hesitating to kill it with a crowbar or when she calls her husband a “pussy,” she’s completely convincing as a woman who’s been around and knows the real stakes.

But Isaac is the true owner of the film. A simple closing of his eyes in disappointment conveys volumes, and his determination to gain more power and control (witness the aforementioned war council scene) without losing his dignity provides the foundation for Isaac’s finest acting yet. Despite his headlining the Coen brothers’ INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS and a bunch of other choice roles, Isaac isn’t a household name yet, but while roles in STAR WARS and X-MEN sequels may change that in the next year, this film is the one that really deserves to be his breakthrough.

The film strains to emphasize that this guy is a better, more moral minded man than Michael Corleone, but as much as he feels that he’s immune from corruption, it’s a necessary evil with which he must compromise.

So many New York movies set in the same period shy away from showing the WTC towers in the skyline, but here they are always present – often out of focus, way off in the background, but always present. Chandor’s film doesn’t have to spell out what they represent in Abel’s quest for success in a harsh, dangerous economy; one can feel it every time they are glimpsed.

More later...

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Lucinda Williams’ Pick For Film Acoustic: John Huston’s WISE BLOOD

Late last year when I heard about a new series starting up at the Carolina Theatre, programmed by The Modern School of Film, called “Film Acoustic,” which pairs special guests with their favorite movies, I was very intrigued. Yet, I regretfully skipped the first installment in December with Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips presenting and discussing a 40th anniversary screening of Liliana Cavani’s THE NIGHT PORTER. Yeah, sure wish I’d gone to that.

So, the second in the series, I made sure I attended, especially when I heard that it would feature Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams, one of my favorite artists. 

Williams’ pick was WISE BLOOD, John Huston’s 1979 adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 debut novel of the same name. It was announced that in addition to taking part in a talk about the movie with Modern School of Film founder and Duke graduate Robert Milazzo, Williams, unlike when Coyne appeared, would be playing a few songs after the screening. But the real kicker was that the event was, scheduled by happy accident, on Williams’ 62nd Birthday! (Monday, January 26th)

The Birthday girl’s choice, the darkly humorous WISE BLOOD, is one of the weirdest in the iconic Huston’s filmography, far removed from the Humphrey Bogart classics he helmed (THE MALTESE FALCON, TREASURE OF SIERRE MADRE, KEY LARGO, THE AFRICAN QUEEN), and way less epic than the film that came before it, his 1975 Rudyard Kipling adaptation THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine.

Brad Dourif, best known for his roles in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, Deadwood, and, as Milazzo reminded us in a trivia question, as the voice of Chucky in the CHILD’S PLAY franchise, stars as Hazel Motes, a young Southern man who’s trying to establish what he calls the Church of Truth Without Christ.

Although referred to as the town Taulkinham (from the book), the film is clearly set in Macon, Georgia (the name Macon can be seen on buildings throughout). Dourif’s Motes travels to the area to set up his ministry, which is basically just him and his constantly breaking down Essex automobile, which he stands on the hood of to preach to people on the street.

Somewhere around the time that Motes finds himself a room at a boarding house, chosen because Harry Dean Stanton as a scam artist posing as a blind preacher and Amy Wright as his airheaded, horny daughter live there, I realized that I had seen this before. Or at least a large chunk of it, because a lot of its imagery, acting, and story points were very familiar to me. Ned Beatty’s role as Hoover Shoates (love that name), a boisterous guitar-playing rival to Motes, and an odd subplot involving Dan Shor as a needy, racist halfwit who steals a gorilla suit, rang bells of recognition in my mind too.

I believe I had happened upon it when devouring every movie I could as a kid watching cable in the mid ‘80s. What I saw of WISE BLOOD back then had been locked away in some file in my mind, and this special screening rekindled those memories.

That was a cool thing to recall, and it enhanced this viewing quite a bit. But, of course, what really elevated the evening was Williams. Relaxed, drinking a glass of red wine, the woman who Time Magazine once called “America’s best songwriter” came out to warm applause, and yelled birthday wishes, and seemed very satisfied with how the movie had been received by the audience there in Fletcher Hall that evening.

One of the key points of her discussion with moderator Milazzo was Williams’ recently passed father, award winning Arkansas poet Miller Williams (1930-1915), who was a student of O’Connor’s.

Williams spoke about how her father’s agnosticism influenced understand what Motes meant by a church of Christ without Christ, and, alone with only her acoustic guitar, she performed two songs that were directly influenced by the film: “Get Right With God,” from her 2001 album Essence; and “Atonement,” from its 2003 follow-up Worlds Without Tears.

Williams’ comments around those striking performances were priceless. On “Get Right With God” winning a Grammy: “It won Best Female Rock Vocal Performance, which doesn’t make any sense – it wasn’t a rock song.” On the new solo arrangement of “Attonement”: “That sounded really cool, we might have to start doing it that way.”

Among some more lively discussion, which included her amusing recollection of meeting Bob Dylan for the first time, and some nifty audience Q & A, Williams also performed a blistering cover of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breakin’ Down,” which appeared on her 1979 debut album Rambling, and a sweet version of “Compassion,” adapted from one of her father’s poems, from her excellent 2014 album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.

All in all, a great evening. Seeing WISE BLOOD, a pleasingly warped piece of Americana in the presence of one of its biggest fans, the wonderful Lucinda Williams, who sang its praises in both meanings of the phrase, on the occasion of her birthday, is something I’m sure I’ll never forget.

The next Film Acoustic, set for Monday, February 23rd, looks incredibly promising as well: Neko Case presents Alex Cox’s 1984 cult classic REPO MAN, with Very Special Guest Mike Nesmith. Being a big fan of Case, both solo and with the New Pornographers, and even a bigger fan of Nesmith, who executive produced REPO MAN, but, of course, is best known for being one of the Monkees, there’s no way I’m missing that.

More later...

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Releasing this week on Blu ray & DVD:

(Dir. Jorge Gutierrez, 2014) *

This Mexico-set CG-animated musical comedy adventure is a vast improvement over the animation studio Reel FX’s first feature, last year’s FREE BIRDS.

While that unfunny fiasco was about time-traveling turkeys, THE BOOK OF LIFE, the directorial debut of long-time television animator Jorge Gutierrez, has a lot more ambition by way of a fantastical storyline that pays vividly colorful respect to Mexican folklore. That Guillermo del Toro (PAN’S LABYRINTH, PACIFIC RIM) is one of the film’s producers gives it a bit of cinematic gravitas as well.

Unfortunately, it’s often clunky and cluttered, with hard-to-care-about experiences and loads of jokes that were met by silence at the screening I attended – one packed with families with kids.

The characters are accurately described as wooden; through the framing device of a museum tour guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) telling the film’s tale to a group of snotty school children, the major players are represented by handcrafted wooden figures that come to life as marionettes without strings.

Via Applegate’s narration, we are taken to a Mexican landscape sometime in the unspecified past on the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday, and introduced to a love triangle in which two young suitors – the sensitive Manolo (Diego Luna) and the cocky warrior Joaquin (Channing Tatum, in his first animated feature) – compete for the hand of the beautiful, free-spirited Maria (Zoe Saldana).

Watching from above, the squabbling husband-and-wife deities, La Muerta (Kate del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, make a high-stakes wager on which suitor will marry Maria.

Manolo’s father (Hector Elizondo) wants him to carry on the family’s bullfighting tradition, but Manolo wants to be a musician. This gives the film the peg for both its transparent “follow your dreams” moral and its musical numbers. Annoyingly interjected into the action is a bunch of Latin-tinged American pop songs, including Rod Stewart’s “If You Think I’m Sexy,” Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” and even Radiohead’s “Creep.”

There are some decent original songs written by Oscar-winning composers Paul Williams and Gustavo Santaolalla and performed by Luna and Saldana. One entitled “I Love You Too Much” is catchy enough to be a hit. (It’s also a plus that they don’t make Tatum sing.)

Of course, every animated movie aimed at kids has to be in 3-D these days, and this one has more elements that can be enhanced by the format than most – like a sequence involving Manolo running through a mega maze before speeding boulders crash down the corridors and crush him. But it made very little difference otherwise.

The presence of Ice Cube as a cuddly, goofy ancient god called “The Candlemaker” is irksome. The rapper/actor’s performance is “on,” but it seems a cynical piece of casting designed to up the hipness factor. Still, he drew some genuine laughs.

Despite the fact that a character dies, parents won’t have to worry about the film being dark or disturbing enough to give children nightmares. But on the flip side, THE BOOK OF LIFE isn’t magical or memorable enough to really resonate later, either.

* This review originally appeared in the October 16th, 2014 edition of the Raleigh News & Observer.

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