A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
America’s Most Promising Director
JC Chandor Hits a Trifecta
Writer-director JC Chandor’s first three films (“Margin Call,” “All is Lost,” and “A Most Violent Year”) reveal a masterful auteur building a singular filmmaking career that overshadows Hollywood’s relentless barrage of garbage. Considered together, Chandor’s movies reflect his energizing depth of dramatic sensitivity and concentration of stylistic variation. Over a period of four short years JC Chandor has come into his own as an individualistic filmmaker, whose fully-formed ideas about cinema resound with greater clarity than most of his American peers. He’s a director to whom talented actors flock.
As with “Margin Call” (2011) and “All is Lost” (2013), Chandor’s latest is a detailed study of complex characters responding to extreme pressures — personal, social, and physical. The film’s violent setting is 1981 New York when the city was ravaged by exploitation.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is on the verge of purchasing a large Jewish-owned riverside facility for the fuel-heating company he purchased from his wife Anna’s mob-connected father while working his way up through the family business. By the way, Jessica Chastain’s fiery performance as Anna is smashing.
Ambitious immigrant Abel worked for years as a driver for the company, so he has the skills necessary to poach clients from his competition, something that has earned him his share of enemies. Being honest, determined, and proficient in your chosen field isn’t always a good thing in the land of the free.
One of the film’s many powerful scenes has Abel instructing three recently hired employees in the precise methods they need to employ in order to close deals with potential customers. Abel instructs the young upstarts about on how long to study an oil-stained rag before looking up to stare into the eyes of the potential client before speaking.
“Hold their attention longer than you should.”
“If they offer coffee or tea, say tea.”
Oscar Isaac’s bravura performance during this sequence, and throughout the film, smolders with resolute intent. There is no finer film actor.
Abel is a hard-working man who takes great pride in his work and in his approach to everyone he comes in contact with. So, it is especially disturbing to Isaac’s character that federal authorities (led by David Lyelowo’s character) have been busy building a case against him for the past two years.
He has other serious problems. An unknown group of thieves has been hijacking Abel’s fuel trucks and stealing the his oil. Drivers have been getting hurt to the point that there is pressure on Abel to arm them, something he staunchly refuses to do. Abel sees the trap of “war” that outside forces want to draw him into. Herein lies one of the film’s central themes, that war is a trap; participating in any kind of violence is a ruinous proposition. The premise is never overstated, but it is perfectly clear.
Over the course of the story JC Chandor methodically peels away onion layers of Abel’s resilient persona reveal who this man really is. That Abel is an immigrant American citizen being bullied, threatened, and attacked from all sides of society is only part of the story. “A Most Violent Year” is essential viewing for film -lovers and for the people least likely to see it.
Rated R. 125 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Reese Witherspoon Stumbles
Cheryl Strayed, and So Did This Movie
“Wild” is an unsatisfying self-help drama that exposes the limitations of Reese Witherspoon’s range. If her performance here were your first time seeing the Oscar-winner’s work, you’d never guess that Reese Witherspoon has what it takes to be a leading lady. Adapted by Nick Hornby (from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found of the Pacific Crest Trail”), the story is “Into the Wild” lite — albeit dorky-proto-feminist-style.
The death of her 45-year-old mother (Laura Dern), from lung cancer, sends the 22-year-old Cheryl Nyland on a slippery downhill trajectory. Serial adulterer and junkie, Cheryl decides to hike the 2,663 mile-long length of the “PCT” after being divorced by her thoroughly humiliated husband. Cheryl is just as quick to have sex with multiple unfamiliar men in an alleyway, as she is to leave civilization behind without proper planning for a hike that tests even the most skilled hikers. The Pacific Crest Trail runs from Mexico to Canada, although Cheryl starts her summer of 1995 trek in the Mojave Desert, and finishes at the Oregon-Washington border.
Our reliably fickle heroine gets an a-ha moment when she lays belly-up on her hotel room floor, unable to stand up because her pack is too heavy. The scene is played for comedy, but the tone is all wrong. The joke fails miserably.
Shortly after hitting the trail, Cheryl realizes that she is unable to cook the many packets of food she lugs around because she brought the wrong fuel for her stove. It’s one thing to have an unsympathetic leading character, but it’s a whole different matter to have one who is willfully ignorant to the point of being cavalier.
Sheryl has the insufferable habit of writing quotes from great authors on the trail’s sign-in sheets, and then signing her own name as a co-author. Emily Dickinson is rolling over in her grave.
“Wild” commits a cardinal sin of character development during its opening scene, from which the film can never recover. Cheryl “Strayed” (that’s the name she gives herself after her divorce) sits on the side of a reasonably high mountain she has just ascended. The weary traveller takes off her hiking boots to tend to her hurt foot. We see the set-up from a mile away. Cheryl isn’t paying attention to where she set her boots. Bonk, and she knocks one of the heavy-duty shoes that make hiking possible, down the steep mountainside at her feet. If the subconsciously driven mistake weren’t offensive enough, Cheryl responds to her self-inflicted dilemma by chucking the other boot down the ravine. Ah yes, Cheryl Strayed is a keeper if you like your protagonists not too classy and dumb.
The movie takes an advertising detour for REI during a product-placement sequence that serves as nothing more than an extended commercial for the adventure wear company. I wonder if REI will send me a gift card for mentioning them in my review. Well, I don’t really wonder about that.
The cinema of 2014 is all about how we are all bad people leaning toward suicide as an almost respectable response to our self-loathing. The predominant thematic trend shows up in films such as “Two Days One Night,” “The Homesman,” “The Skeleton Twins,” the upcoming remake of “The Gambler,” “Bridman,” “Force Majeure,” “Wetlands,” and even in Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher.” Perhaps a symptom of having our privacy stripped from us by the NSA and Google is a preemptive suicide that will jam any kind of possible public humiliation we might suffer.
Jean-Marc Vallée (the director on “Dallas Buyers Club”) could never have made lemonade from the lemon-source-material that he undertook with “Wild.” Nick Horby’s script doesn’t have the right stuff.
The fact that Reese Witherspoon co-produced “Wild” speaks to the dearth of roles for actresses. For her part, Witherspoon works plenty but hasn’t been in a good movie since “Mud” (2012), and even there her subplot was one of that film’s weaker links. Her upcoming performance in “Inherent Vice” is notable only because the movie stinks so much. “Don’t Mess With Texas” is an upcoming comedy directed by Anne Fletcher (“The Guilt Trip”) that could pan out well for Witherspoon because she has Sofia Vergara to play opposite in a humorous context. Based on the misstep that is “Wild,” perhaps Reese Witherspoon is better off in a co-lead comedic role.
Rated R. 115 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Trial By FIre
Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons Tempt Oscars
Writer-director Damien Chazelle has made a powerhouse drama about the level of dedication it takes to be great at something. “Whiplash” refers to the title of a complicated 1972 Hank Levy jazz standard played at “double-swing” tempo that Andrew, a drum student at a Julliard-like music conservatory, strives to master under the abusive tutelage of a bandleader from hell.
Andrew's music instructor, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), wants to produce the next jazz great. Little does Mr. Fletcher realize that the reason there hasn’t been another Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, or Duke Ellington to come along in a half-century has more to do with cultural, political, and economic realities than with his flawed trial-by-fire approach to creating the next Be-Bop master. Fletcher chooses to ignore the fact that Miles Davis dropped out of Julliard during his first semester in exchange for on-the-job training, playing trumpet every night in Charlie Parker's band.
The intimidating Fletcher has personal demons that he likes to release by yelling off-color insults and throwing physical objects, such as folding chairs, at his fearful students. He's a master manipulator who knows how to get under a student's skin. The film misses an otherwise obvious subtexutal opportunity to provide the audience with a glimpse of Fletcher's home-life. We only witness the demanding brute when he's teaching.
The film’s suggestive title implies the “abrupt snapping motion or change of direction resembling the lash of a whip.” Andrew’s treacherous journey toward jazz greatness suffers dramatic reversals under Fletcher’s daily theater of cruelty. Andrew is predisposed to having thick skin by virtue of being raised by a single father in an extended family that prizes achievements in sports above all else.
One of its most telling scenes occurs during a dinner-table discussion where Andrew lets his fangs show regarding a comparison between his musical achievements and his cousins’ football accomplishments. Andrew’s nimble verbal defense mechanisms are as precise as his command of drum rudiments. When Andrew bites back against his family's trite attempts to minimize the results of his hard work, he hands them their ass in compact package tied with a bow.
Miles Teller’s performance as Andrew is utterly convincing. The young actor’s drumming is as much a part of the film’s unequivocal success as his acting. Oscar nominations could well be in the offing for both Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons.
The story loses some credibility in the practice methods Andrew uses to achieve the quick tempos that Fletcher imposes to cut heads in his "core" band. Any competent music student knows that working with a metronome is the only way to reliably work up to playing at fast tempos, and sustaining them. And yet, we never once see Andrew working out with a metronome and practice pad. Instead, he attacks his drum kit with such wild abandon that he has to soak his bloody hands in ice water after going though boxes of Band-Aids. Notable too is the film's lack of attention to Andrew's other music classes, which could have given essential insight to the practices of other teachers at the school.
Still, these are minor details in a movie that raises important questions about how greatness is achieved at a time in American culture when all value has been drained out of once highly regarded disciplines such as music, literature, knowledge, etc.
Terrence Fletcher is desperate to hang onto a kind of music (Jazz) that hasn’t had popular venues or audiences to fill them for years. What’s the point of trying hard if you have nowhere to perform the skill you develop? As far as Fletcher’s abysmal approach to teaching; what was the last successful musician you heard of that graduated from a music conservatory?
Rated R. 106 mins. (A-) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
LOVE IS STRANGE
John Lithgow and Alfred Molina Get Married
Though it suffers from a glaring third act jump that makes you wonder where four or five ostensibly missing scenes went, “Love Is Strange” resonates as a heartfelt allegory about committed gay relationships in modern-day America. Two of Broadway’s most reliable actors, John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as an elderly New York couple, capture the audience’s imagination before the movie starts.
Co-writer/director Ira Sachs builds upon the recent legalization of gay marriage to explore lingering, underlying hypocrisies that twist what should be an equalizing influence into a double-edged sword for gay couples who tie the knot.
“Society Is Mean” might be a more applicable title, for it is not the palpable human connection of tenderness that seems “strange,” but rather our culture of intolerance that comes across as bizarre.
Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina) are like two gay uncles everyone wishes they had. They’ve been together for 40 years, living in a comfortable Manhattan apartment. Even if one member of the couple hasn’t always been monogamous — a fact referenced in one of the film’s beautifully intimate scenes between Ben and George — their desire and admiration for one another is sincere.
George teaches music at a Catholic prep school and gives private piano instruction to young would-be classical pianists. Chopin is in the repertoire, and throughout the soundtrack. Ben, the elder of the pair, paints.
Thanks to the endorsement of the State of New York, Ben and George get married in a small outdoor ceremony that introduces us to their loyal friends and family members. Sadly, the harmony of so much goodwill for these two rare men is soon broken by the archdiocese overseeing the school where George teaches. Without regard to how well George does his job, or how much his students love him, or even considering the fact that the school’s staff and pupils are familiar with his gayness; George is abruptly fired. The Catholic Church’s sucker-punch to George’s and Ben’s marriage and financial reality leaves them unable to keep their apartment, and their way of life.
Humbled but optimistic, the newlyweds are driven to ask friends and family to put them up until George finds a new job so the couple can find a new apartment. While George takes up residence with a gay couple of New York City police officers he calls “policewomen,” Ben is relegated to his nephew Elliot’s (Darren Burrows) top-floor apartment. It doesn’t take long for Ben to wear out his welcome with Elliot’s stay-at-home author wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their gawky teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan).
Living apart from one another, however briefly, magnifies the malice inflicted on Ben and George by a Catholic Church that effectively trashes their life and speeds up their aging process.
Love — in this case between two older men — is revealed as a defiant political act. Still, its fragile, personal nature means that the couple’s union has no traction in a society that treats something of such rarity with abuse and scorn.
“Love Is Strange” turns on Ben’s distantly positive influence on Joey, whose resentment toward his uncle morphs into an internalized sense of romantic hopefulness. But the question remains; how long will that precious attitude hold up in a society that values guns and money above all else?
Rated R. 94 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Richard Linklater Hands Over His Pearl
Just when you thought there was nothing new under the sun, Richard Linklater goes and makes the most anti-Hollywood movie ever conceived. In Linklater’s case, concept was everything — execution was quite another. Planning an unprecedented narrative experiment that took 12 years to create and film is not something that Los Angeles bean counters would or will likely ever be able to wrap their heads around. That Linklater’s groundbreaking project comes during one of Hollywood’s worst years — it has yet to release a movie of better than mediocre quality — adds to “Boyhood’s” bittersweet positioning as a dynamic filmic record of generational progress in America. With certain multiple Oscar nominations in the offing, there is every reason to expect that "Boyhood" will earn Richard Linklater his long overdue Academy Award.
“Boyhood” is a one-of-a-kind film that ticks and functions on its own terms, and therein lays its most powerful gifts. It is a movie that John Cassavetes would have admired for its bold vision, forthright performances, breadth of human experience, and for Richard Linklater’s plainspoken approach to generating authentic dialogue and formula-defying storyline. The closest cinematic comparison to watching “Boyhood” would be a Cassavetes movie like “Opening Night.” But even that presents a very distant likeness.
Linklater instinctively de-emphasizes anything that might be construed as “dramatic“ while following the life trajectory of a boy named Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) from age six to 18 growing up in Texas. Confrontations with an alcoholic stepfather or an unwelcome haircut present the kind of day-to-day challenges that Mason must navigate. Apparently loaded situations that would signify looming disaster in any other movie arrive and pass as they would in normal life. A rifle given as a present does not foreshadow any type of violence. It is a cultural signifier, nothing more.
That Linklater was able to cast such a gifted young actor capable of returning every year for 12 years to participate in making the movie speaks to the filmmaker’s intuitive nature.
Ellar Coltrane’s implied personal status as an outlier living in Texas — he was homeschooled — informs the actor’s quietly persuasive performance. Purity of intention and a silent rebelliousness permeate Mason’s personality. He’s an observer and a listener. This is a kid who doesn’t need to be told anything twice. He makes calculations, internalizes them, and moves on.
An air of suspense is built into the story’s form, inciting the audience to anticipate how Ellar will transform from boyhood into the young adult that he will most certainly become.
From the beginning, Mason’s parents Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) and Olivia (Patricia Arquette) are separated. Mason’s concerned and mentoring dad drives a black muscle car. He lives a fairly rudderless existence. Olivia, on the other hand, wants to go to college to get a degree. She also wants to marry a man capable of providing a comfortable existence for her family.
The genuineness of Mason’s growth from a thoughtful kid— put upon by a snotty older sister (played by Linklater’s real-life daughter Lorelei) and a mom who is not a good judge of marital mates — to a sensitive young man whose open heart is nevertheless not worn on his sleeve, is a revelation of character development that gives promise for the broken state of modern day America.
The enigmatic person that Mason becomes, speaks to an integrity of emotional and intellectual spirit in line with character traits and social themes found in Linklater’s other movies — from “Slacker” to “School of Rock.”
As with all of his films, Linklater allows ethical and political subtext to breathe through the story without ever putting a fine point on anything. No matter what expectations the audience brings to the movie, they will be shattered by the film’s closing frame. There are no moments of spectacle or outrageous surprise — only subtle recognitions of expanding character traits and modern social realities.
The invisible mechanics of “tempo, tone, mood, time, and place” that Linklater uses to flesh out his preplanned narrative form fit almost perfectly within the rules of a “Dogme 95” film. Every action and circumstance is germane to personal experience. Nothing is forced.
Linklater collaborated with his three main actors (Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, and Patricia Arquette) by phone and email to flesh out the set pieces that would fulfill the map of his story’s arc. The film’s viewpoint starts out from that of the child before shifting gradually to the parents’ perspective, and finally to a formal composition that equalizes the film’s context. “Boyhood” is a very special film worthy of repeated viewings. As with the method of its creation, it is a movie you can come back to on an annual basis. You are sure to discover untold resonance with every screening.
Rated R. 166 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
A Temporary Condition
Samuel L. Jackson Pays Homage to Russia
“Pulp Fiction” star Samuel L. Jackson delivers his directing debut with a poignant and sexy melodrama rooted in 1930’s Moscow, Russia. “Mishkin’s Complaint” pushes the envelope on modern cinema’s trend toward A and B-list Hollywood actors engaging in full-fledged sex acts onscreen. The result leaves an impression. Keep an eye out for a dramatic cameo from Edward Snowden — it comes around the 35-minute mark.
Jeremy Irons plays Mishkin, a law-abiding attorney with a lust for life’s simple pleasures — smelling the cheese is always on Miskin’s list of things to do. He divides his time between eating things that make other people envious — and enjoying group-sex with his mistress Ilsa (Uma Thurman) and a bevy of interchangeable young women. Jackson’s outré set pieces of sexual expression run a gambit from tastefully erotic to downright sleazy. You’ll never look at Uma Thurman the same way again.
Mishkin plays violin with a small band of drinking buddies (played by Nicolas Cage, Chiwetal Ejoifor, and Billy Crudup). No one would ever accuse Mishkin of being a virtuoso. His tenuous command of the violin provides the group with a never-ending stream of lighthearted insults aimed at the band’s would-be leader.
“Mishkin’s Complaint” is about a man of minimal intelligence and resources who is completely satisfied with his life until he discovers that he has fathered a hermaphrodite girl by a woman who is now deceased. Mishkin’s intersex child Viktoriya — played with predictable accomplishment by Tilda Swinton — arrives in Moscow looking for work as a cabaret performer.
As Viktoriya indulges in every form of vice with both men and women, she takes a job at the bar where Mishkin and his friends play music. A budding romance between Nicolas Cage’s character and Viktoriya complicates matters for Mishkin whose grasp of his child’s sexual identity is less than well informed.
The theme of Samuel L. Jackson’s film seems to be that closure and resolution are merely crutches that citizens of weaker — read Western — countries fall prey to as a substitution for sexual satisfaction. In the film’s disquieting final scene, Jackson makes an unmistakable nod to the Motherland. Russia’s own Iksana Akinshina (“The Bourne Supremacy”) plays the tragicomic woman to whom Mishkin pledges his undying loyalty in exchange for an act of charity that hardly seems worth the effort. Mishkin’s complaint, as it turns out, was always only ever a temporary condition. Perhaps Russia is ahead of the curve when it comes to cinema. There’s no competition with this kind of exploitation around.
In the longstanding tradition of jokes applied to the first day of the month after March…
Not Rated. 101 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL
For his latest filmic exploration François Ozon addresses a complex mix of sexual, personal, social, familial, gender-based, and technological issues, inexorably honing in on a striking synthesis of generational catharsis. That he does so via a story about Isabelle (exquisitely played by newcomer Marine Vacth), a beautiful bourgeoisie and a 17-year-old DIY prostitute, reflects the growth of one of France’s most consistent filmmakers — one of few who develops in proportion to the promise of his well-seeded career.
Set over the course of a year, the film uses the age-old narrative form of seasonal changes to mark Isabelle’s fluid transition from virgin to sensual mistress. Most of her clients are men old enough to be her grandfathers. To call Marine Vacth’s fearless performance extraordinary barely scratches the surface of her finely crafted, transparent portrayal. Vacth isn’t merely precocious; she is a force of unbridled feminine and intellectual nature. Isabelle has important lessons to teach, as well as to learn.
Ozon takes “meta” liberties when he shows Isabelle and some of her high school classmates reciting quotes from Arthur Rimbaud’s poem “No One’s Serious at Seventeen.”
"On beautiful nights when beer and lemonade
And loud, blinding cafés are the last thing you need
You stroll beneath green lindens on the promenade.”
The unapologetically poetic direct-to-camera sequence captures much of the naiveté, seething lust, and directionless ambition that Isabelle seeks to shed through her computer-facilitated double life of erotic experimentation. Her journey will be a quicksilver submersion into a lifetime’s worth of sexual experience and ever-changing needs and desires.
In keeping with Ozon’s non-judgmental approach to his characters in such films as “Hideaway” and “In the House,” the filmmaker never veers into melodrama or exploitation regardless of how tempting the subject matter might seem on the surface. That’s not to say that Ozon doesn’t regard the erotic nature of Isabelle’s endeavors with the sexual directness they deserve. The audience experiences her erotic journey in relation to the sense of liberation she discovers along the way. If that freedom comes with a cost of cynicism, then the lessons are all the more truthful for her paying that price. There is a cost to wisdom — regardless of how it is achieved.
When Isabelle witnesses her judgmental mother Sylvie (Geraldine Paihas) secretly flirting with a man with whom she may be having an adulterous affair, it seems to support Isabelle’s bold if hazardous attempt at getting to the bottom of a romantic illusion that is too limited and naïve for her mature constitution. Isabelle always gravitates to the bottom line in human relations. An uncomfortable sequence where she gauges her step-father’s lustful ambitions presents one of the film’s more challenging scenes.
Gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Pascal Marti, “Jeune & Jolie” (“Young & Beautiful”) is a patient film that delves thoroughly into the generational mindsets of its age-disparate characters. Charlotte Rampling helps send the narrative to its evocative conclusion as a woman called Alice, the wife of one of Isabelle’s clients. You will never forget this truly mind-blowing film.
Not Rated. 95 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)