A Most Violent Year


Jessica Chastain sulks because Oscar Isaac just got the first installment of his Star Wars salary.

Jessica Chastain sulks because Oscar Isaac just got the first installment of his Star Wars salary.

(2014) Drama (A24) Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Peter Gerety, Christopher Abbott, Ashley Williams, John Procaccino, Glenn Fleshler, Jerry Adler, Annie Funke, Matthew Maher, David Margulies, Pico Alexander, Susan Blackwell, Myrna Cabello, Elizabeth Marvel. Directed by J.C. Chandor

Doing the right thing is often an act of will. In places and times where all those around you are taking the easy path – which is generally not the right thing – it becomes difficult to tread the straight and narrow. Despite your very best intentions, often the tendency is to lose your way.

Abel Morales (Isaac) is a man who keeps tight rein on his emotions. He has just signed a deal with a bearded Orthodox patriarch (Adler) for a parcel of land that will make give his heating oil business a river port that will enable him to receive and store an enormous amount of oil, giving him a huge leg up on the competition. He just has 30 days after having made the down payment to provide the remainder of the payment, roughly around $1.5 million. He figures he has got no worries. His lawyer, Andrew Walsh (Brooks), a canny lawyer used to working with the mob, seems to agree.

His wife Anna (Chastain) is not so sure. For weeks now their trucks have been getting hijacked, the contents stolen. While each truck carries only about $6,000 in oil, it has the union boss (Gerety) worried enough that he wants to arm the drivers and give them forged permits to carry. Abel finds this disturbing but the union can tell his drivers to walk away, and that would absolutely be a catastrophe.

To make matters worse, his business – his entire industry in fact – is being investigated by FBI Agent Lawrence (Oyelowo) and they’re handing down an indictment which suddenly makes the bank that Abel has been doing business with all his life turn tail and pull out of the loan they were about to give him for the remainder of the payment for the land. Now Abel is scrambling with days left in the deadline and the violence escalating when one of his drivers (Gabel), having been hospitalized in a hijacking, now carrying a gun against his boss’s wishes and without his knowledge, as he drives.

Watching this carried sharp reminders of 70s cinematic gems like Serpico, The Godfather, The French Connection and their ilk. The palate of the cinematic colors are definitely autumn and winter in tone, with a lot of rich dark browns, olive, ochre and mustard among the colors that are displayed. The movie is lit as if all the action takes place in the late afternoon, with the sun straining to reach inside through Venetian blinds.

The tone of the action is dark as well. Abel, the film’s moral center, is beset on all sides by people urging him to take short cuts, essentially because everyone else is doing it and the only way to get ahead in this place and this time (1981 New York City, a year that to that point had been the most violent on record in terms of the number of violent crimes) is to do the same. Isaac imbues Abel with a certain amount of gravitas, his leonine looks reminding me of Al Pacino in a lot of ways. But whereas Pacino’s character was eventually corrupted in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, here Isaac’s Morales more or less remains on point.

Chastain’s Anna is less sanguine. The daughter of a mobster, she is all Brooklyn sass and pepper, nagging her husband to be stronger; in many ways, she has much more steel in her backbone than he does. However like most of those around Abel, her moral compass is compromised, pointing at self-interest much more directly than the right thing to do.

Brooks, who impressed as a villain in Drive last year, continues to take on fascinating characters as he reinvents himself from a sad-sack romantic comedy lead. He imbues the lawyer with a subtle menace even while he shows loyalty to Abel throughout. He doesn’t always agree with Abel but he supports him mainly because he’s paid to; one wonders if he will turn on him throughout and that’s the genius of Brooks’ portrayal. Oyelowo, so brilliant in Selma isn’t quite as scintillating here but gives the conflicted Agent Lawrence that sense of being politically motivated but quite sure the guy he’s investigating is likely innocent.

Chandor, who has the powerful All is Lost from last year as well as the Wall Street thriller Margin Call to his credit, excels at creating tension in ordinary situations. I was reminded somewhat of The Sopranos in a sense but the mob in this case is outside of the frame, not really involved at all – although Agent Lawrence thinks they are. Abel is a man trying to keep his integrity as best he can in a time and environment when it isn’t prudent to do so. Nonetheless he has visions of success in his industry without compromising his morals, something which is difficult to do in any business. Something tells me that successful, capable men who refuse to give in to the temptation of the short cut are more prevalent in the real world than it would seem, but it’s the ones who give in who tend to be the ones who call the tune the rest of Wall Street and capitalism in general dance to.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful performances throughout the cast. Nice homage to cinema of the period.
REASONS TO STAY: Dimly lit and darkly hued.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of strong language and some occasional violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Isaac and Chastain were classmates at Julliard School of the Dramatic Arts. When Javier Bardem dropped out of the project, Chastain wrote Chandor a 3-page letter recommending her former classmate for the role. Chandor was already considering him for the part when he received the letter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lord of War
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: blackhat

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New Releases for the Week of January 23, 2015


The Boy Next DoorTHE BOY NEXT DOOR

(Universal) Jennifer Lopez, Ryan Guzman, Ian Nelson, John Corbett, Kristin Chenoweth, Lexi Atkins, Hill Harper, Jack Wallace, Adam Hicks. Directed by Rob Cohen

A high school teacher whose husband has recently walked out on her and her teenage son welcomes a new addition to the neighbor – a young teenage boy who becomes fast friends with her own son and takes an unhealthy interest in her. At first she is flattered by the attention; she’s just a little bit lonely and has been feeling under-appreciated as a woman for some time. But when things go too far and her husband moves to reconcile, the new neighbor won’t take no for an answer and he already has a few bodies buried to his credit.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for violence, sexual content/nudity and language)

A Most Violent Year

(A24) Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks. 1981 would be the worst year on record for violent crime in New York City. An immigrant looking to provide for his family enters a slippery slope of moral compromises and dangerous decisions. When violence threatens his business, an investigation further details the corruption that is rampant in his industry and in his business. His next decisions will define who he is as a man – and possibly put his wife and children gravely at risk.

See the trailer, clips and featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Crime Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for language and some violence)

Cake

(Cinelou) Jennifer Aniston, Sam Worthington, Anna Kendrick, William H. Macy. A woman in chronic pain takes out her anger, frustration and rage on everyone around her, including those unfortunate enough to cross paths with her. When another woman in her support group commits suicide, she finds herself obsessed with the woman’s husband and son, inserting herself into their lives and maybe finding what she needs to move on with her life. Aniston received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance here.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for language, substance abuse and brief sexuality)

Manny

(Gravitas) Manny Pacquiao, Liam Neeson, Mark Wahlberg, Jimmy Kimmel. Manny Pacquiao may well be the most popular boxer in the world and one of the all-time greats. He is revered as a national hero in his native Philippines where life comes to a screeching halt every time he fights. From inconceivable poverty to the height of the sports world, his life story could only have been invented by Hollywood – if it wasn’t already true.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex
Rating: PG-13 (for some sports violence/bloody images)

Mortdecai

(Lionsgate) Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewen McGregor, Paul Bettany. An English noble, art dealer, scoundrel, rake and dilettante named Mortdecai is quietly – or not so quietly – heading into bankruptcy and scandal when a member of MI-5 approaches him to assist with a stolen painting which will be used to fund international terrorism. With his jaw-dropping beautiful wife, his ever-suffering manservant with him and an array of Russian mobsters, terrorists and assassins against him, Mortdecai will try to save his dignity – and maybe save the day in the process.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Action Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for some language and sexual material)

Strange Magic

(Touchstone) Starring the voices of Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming, Alfred Molina, Maya Rudolph. Deep in the woods, creatures of myth battle for a magic potion and for the hearts of true love in a story inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream and with a soundtrack of popular music from the last six decades. From the studios of Lucasfilm, Ltd. and with the aid of Industrial Light and Magic comes this enchanting family film that arrives with almost no fanfare.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for some action and scary images)