Crimson Peak


Exploring Allerdale Hall can be hazardous to one's health.

Exploring Allerdale Hall can be hazardous to one’s health.

(2015) Gothic Horror (Universal) Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones, Jonathan Hyde, Bruce Gray, Emily Coutts, Alec Stockwell, Brigitte Robinson, Gillian Ferrier, Tamara Hope, Kimberly-Sue Murray, Sofia Wells, Peter Spence, Bill Lake, Jim Watson, Joanna Douglas. Directed by Guillermo del Toro

6 Days of Darkness 2015

Some see ghosts as echoes of memories; people who left behind some of themselves when they die. Others see it as a transitory period between this life and the next. Regardless of how you see ghosts, they can be terrifying.

Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) – likely named for the veteran Hammer horror star Peter Cushing – knows all about ghosts. As a child, the specter of her recently deceased mother came to her to warn her “Beware of the crimson peak.” Clearly a message from your dead mother is one that will stay with you for your entire life.

She lives in Buffalo at the turn of the 20th century with her industrialist father (Beaver). She has aspirations to be a writer, sort of a distaff Edgar Allan Poe and she has no time for men, although ophthalmologist Dr. Alan McMichael (Hunnam) would love to catch her eye.

However, her eye is caught by Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), a down-on-his-luck baronet who has come to Buffalo with his sister Lucille (Chastain) to convince her father to fund the construction of his experimental mining machine which he is using to mine a rare ore that exists on his estate. Her father is suspicious and hires a detective (Gorman) to check out the siblings.

However, despite her father’s misgivings, Edith falls deeply in love with the handsome young noble and eventually marries him, leaving Buffalo for his crumbling estate in Cumberland and by crumbling we mean it; the roof has a gigantic hole, letting the weather in. Red clay seeps up through the floorboards and walls, looking uncannily like blood. Electricity works intermittently so candle power and fireplaces provide heat and light. Edith is warned not to go below the main level as it is dangerous. And to make matters worse, she almost immediately begins seeing ghosts, angry ones which reflect her relationship with Lucille which is cold at best and hostile at worst.

The ghosts that Edith is seeing aren’t even the worst thing; she begins to suspect that her new husband and sister-in-law are not whom they seem to be. Her investigations further exacerbate her doubts and she soon realizes that if she can’t unravel the secrets of Allerdale Hall, she might just become a ghost herself and I can’t think of any hell worse than spending eternity in Allerdale Hall.

Del Toro has been one of the fan favorites of horror since beginning his career with movies like Cronos, Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone and of course the Hellboy movies. This is something of a passion project for him, one that has been in gestation for years. It is a grand vista that he has painted with, one not unlike that which he created in Pan’s Labyrinth. Allerdale Hall is a magnificent set, as Gothic a look as ever brought to the silver screen. It is a place made for ghosts and ghost stories.

Del Toro has assembled a stellar cast but curiously, two of the main performances leave something to be desired. Wasikowska who can be compelling underplays her role to the point of somnolence while Chastain, one of the best young actresses in Hollywood is shrill and overplays her role in an eyebrow-arching silent film villainess portrayal that seems archaic to my 21st century sensibilities.

The story is straight out of the annals of Shelley and Poe – A.O. Scott of the New York Times correctly described it as “Henry James …filtered through the lurid sensibilities of Mario Bava –  overset with a deep melancholy that pervades every nook and cranny of Allerdale Hall, stained red with the clay that is everywhere, even coloring the snow crimson. Ghosts creep and crawl, their eyes black and empty as the night, their mouths open in tortured expressions of sorrow. A florid description yes, but the movie lends itself to such language.

Some have complained that this isn’t strictly speaking a horror film and I can see their point although I disagree with it. There are plenty of images that will haunt your nightmares but there are certainly elements of Hitchcockian suspense, particularly in the tale of the Sharpe siblings who could easily have been characters in a black and white opus of the Master in the 1930s. While this is set in an earlier period, there is definitely a tension throughout that Hitchcock would have appreciated.

Not everyone likes this movie; some have felt misled by the marketing which emphasizes the horror aspects (in fact the movie was completed in January but held back because Universal wanted it to be their tentpole Halloween release). This is definitely not like modern horror movies which emphasize murder and mayhem and depends largely on atmosphere; those who don’t appreciate old school horror had best give this one a miss. However, if you’re like me and love those brooding old haunted mansions full of things that go bump in the night, this is right up your alley.

REASONS TO GO: Gothic atmosphere. Some genuinely creepy disturbing images. Great set design.
REASONS TO STAY: Wasikowska a bit bland. Chastain a bit over-the-top.
FAMILY VALUES: Bloody violence, gruesome images, scenes of terror, some sexual content and a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kingston, Ontario doubled for Buffalo in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rose Red
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness concludes!

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The Martian


Matt Damon takes a break.

Matt Damon takes a break.

(2015) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Peňa, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Nick Mohammed, Chen Shu, Eddy Ko, Enzo Cilenti, Jonathan Aris, Gruffudd Glyn, Naomi Scott. Directed by Ridley Scott

The exploration of other planets is a dangerous undertaking, maybe the most dangerous thing that humankind can do. So many things can go wrong. When compounded with human error, life or death can rest on a single decision made not always by ourselves but by others as well.

The Ares III manned mission to Mars is going well into its 18th day but then mission control in Houston detects an oncoming storm, a massive one that will force the crew to end their mission early and blast off into space. Already the escape vehicle is tipping over dangerously in the Martian sand. As the crew struggles to prepare for an emergency liftoff, the storm hits with brutal wind force. A piece of debris slams into astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) who is blown into the storm. His beacon and life signs indicator both are off. After a brief search in the storm fails to turn up Mark or his body, expedition leader Melissa Lewis (Chastain) is forced to leave Mars without him.

Except Mark isn’t quite dead yet, to quote Monty Python. Yes, he’s injured and his suit electronics non-functional but he’s alive. He gets back to the habitat and assesses his situation. He has food rations and water for a further 30 days but it will be four years before NASA can mount a rescue mission, assuming they realize that he’s still alive. As Mark says in his video logs that are to chronicle his struggle to survive, he’ll have to science the shit out of things in order to create drinkable water out of rocket fuel, grow potatoes from some vacuum packed spuds in an environment where nothing grows (let’s just say that he utilizes both the shit and the science), and manage to keep the atmosphere breathable in the habitat. It’s a daunting task.

Mark has a doctorate in botany so he’s a pretty smart guy. However, he knows that any one of a million things can go wrong. He has to contact NASA and once they realize that he’s alive, he has to stay that way until they can get there. However, it isn’t going to be just Mark on the line; when his crew discovers he’s still alive, they will put their own lives on the line to get their colleague and teammate back and what could be more heroic than that?

Ridley Scott is a prolific director who has a history of making screen worlds come to life, from ancient Rome to rural Provence to a doomed spaceship. Here the Red Planet – desolate and arid, although a mere four days before this movie opened NASA announced that water flowed on Mars – becomes a living creature, deadly as a cobra and majestic as a moose. Shot in Tunisia on red desert sands, The vistas are bleak and alien but realistic.

He got NASA’s cooperation on the movie which while it doesn’t come off as a two hour advertisement for the space agency, does portray it in a heroic light in much the same way Apollo 13 did. NASA doesn’t do movies that don’t have the right science; here they made something like 50 pages of notes in order for the solutions to the various problems that Mark Watney come up with are grounded in real science and are the lot of them quite ingenious.

Scott also had the good sense to put a stellar cast in place. While this is Damon’s movie without a doubt (more on that in a minute), he gets plenty of support including Daniels as a beleaguered NASA chief, Wiig as a press officer trying to spin the story the right way, Bean as a project manager whose first and only loyalty is to the crew who have placed their lives in his hands, Ejiofor as a NASA manager tasked with getting Watney home and Peňa as Watney’s closest friend on the crew. All of them do memorable work in parts that have in many cases much less screen time than they are used to.

But as I mentioned, this is Damon’s movie from start to finish and he responds by turning in maybe the best performance of his career. Certainly come Oscar nomination time he will have a very good shot at making the short list. He gives us exactly the heroic astronaut we’re looking for; one who is lonely and vulnerable but who faces his issues with intelligence and aplomb. He is a man who absolutely refuses to lie down and quit where many would have. Dying 145 million miles away from home is simply unacceptable.

The science in the film has been vetted by no less a personage than Neil deGrasse Tyson (who also recorded a trailer for the film) who proclaimed it accurate for the most part other than some minor details; for example, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena doesn’t work on manned missions, but the one element that doesn’t pass the science test is the storm that scrubs the mission; because the atmosphere on Mars holds 1% of the air pressure than the atmosphere on Earth, the dust storms there (and there are dust storms on Mars) are much less violent and only pick up the lightest of dust. Having a wind storm on Mars that has the capability of picking up debris and slamming it into the body of an unsuspecting atmosphere doesn’t work but of course it is necessary to the plot that the crew believe that one of their number is dead, otherwise they would never leave without him. Like our military, NASA leaves nobody behind.

But what we have here is a rare movie that promotes intelligence and individual scientific knowledge. Granted, we are unlikely to ever be put in a situation in which our science IQ is all that stands between us and oblivion, but it is a reminder of how important science is not just into making new cell phones for us to use but to our own survival as well. The kind of problem solving Watney exhibits is the kind of problem solving we need for our own future as our global climate changes, which may lead to famine and starvation. We’ll need a lot of Mark Watneys to get us out of that one. Nonetheless any movie that gives us this kind of portrayal of science and scientists and does it in a story that is this compelling gets the highest praise I can offer.

REASONS TO GO: Damon is brilliant. Gripping story with real life science. Maintains tension throughout. Realistic-looking Mars (other than the storms).
REASONS TO STAY: Not everyone likes science fiction..
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, images of injuries and brief male posterior nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ridley Scott delayed filming on his Prometheus sequel to make this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gravity
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Pan

New Releases for the Week of October 16, 2015


Crimson PeakCRIMSON PEAK

(Universal) Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones. Directed by Guillermo del Toro

After a family tragedy, an aspiring author in Victorian England is torn between a childhood friend and a dashing mysterious stranger. Needing a fresh start in a new environment and to escape the ghosts of her past, she is transported to Allerdale Hall, a home with ghosts of its own. In fact it is a home that has a life of its own – and may want her to stay permanently. This much anticipated horror movie from del Toro is the must-see Halloween movie this year.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, IMAX
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for bloody violence, some sexual content and brief strong language)

Bridge of Spies

(DreamWorks) Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan. A Brooklyn lawyer is called upon to defend a Soviet spy at the height of the Cold War. That task turns into a negotiation with Moscow to exchange the spy for the pilot of an American spy plane that was shot down over the Soviet Union. Director Steven Spielberg and writers Joel and Ethan Coen based this story on actual events and an actual guy who struggled to maintain his integrity and ideals in a dangerous political situation.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and brief strong language)

Freeheld

(Summit) Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell. When decorated police officer Laurel Hester is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, she wants to leave her pension to her domestic partner. Simple enough for most cops, right? However, Laurel’s partner is another woman which city officials won’t allow. With her hard-nosed straight partner and a gay rights activist uniting behind her, she would turn this into a national cause and what would become a watershed moment in the fight for LGBT rights.

See the trailer, interviews, a clip and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements, language and sexuality)

Goosebumps

(Columbia) Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Amy Ryan. After moving into a new neighborhood, a young teen boy discovers the girl next door is super hot. However, her father happens to be none other than the prolific author R.L. Stine. Stine has a terrifying secret; the monsters in his books are real and he protects the world by keeping them locked up in his manuscripts. However when they are accidentally released by the new kid on the block, he’ll have to team up with Stine, his daughter and a plucky friend to protect the town and return the monsters for safe-keeping.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Family Horror Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for scary and intense creature action and images, and for some rude humor)

Heart Like a Hand Grenade

(Abramorama) Billy Joe Armstrong, Tre Cool, Mike Dirnt, Jason White. The recording of Green Day’s classic American Idiot album is revisited with archival footage, contemporary interviews and more. Fans of America’s favorite pop punk band won’t want to miss this!

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater (Tuesday only)
Rating: NR

Thao’s Library

(ARC Entertainment) Thanh Thao Huynh, Elizabeth van Meter, Stephen Katz, Vicki van Meter. In Vietnam, a woman severely deformed by the effects of Agent Orange puts together a makeshift library in her fertilizer shed. In New York, a woman grieving over the death of her famous sister struggles to cope. Both women are brought together by a single photograph, a simple request and a shared compassion, which leads them to help heal one another.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs
Rating: NR

Woodlawn

(Pure Flix) Sean Astin, Caleb Castille,  Sherri Shepherd, Jon Voight. In the racially divided environment of Birmingham, Alabama in 1973, a high school football team undergoes a spiritual awakening from the water boy up to the head coach. In a school torn by racial hatreds, the team unites and serves as an example for the entire student body. The team goes on to play the largest football game ever played in that city and produce one of the biggest African-American stars of his time in the game.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Faith-Based Sports Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for thematic elements including some racial tension/violence)

New Releases for the Week of October 2, 2015


The MartianTHE MARTIAN

(20th Century Fox) Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peňa, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Chiwetel Ejiofor. Directed by Ridley Scott

During a manned mission to Mars, a savage storm strikes the landing site and forces an early departure of the astronauts. One of them is presumed lost during the storm and the team takes off without him – except he’s not quite dead yet. Alone, abandoned on a dead planet hundreds of millions of miles from home, the stranded astronaut has to first contact NASA or his space craft and let them know he’s alive, then find a way to survive until help finally does come. Neither one is an easy task.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a promo, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, 3D  (Opens Thursday)
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for some strong language, injury images and brief nudity)

Finders Keepers

(The Orchard) Shannon Whisnant, John Wood. When Shannon Whisnant buys a smoker from a storage unit auction, he is surprised to discover an amputated human leg being stored inside it. This unleashes a bitter dispute between Whisnant, who determines to keep the leg because it is bringing him the fame he craves, and John Wood – the smoker’s previous owner – to whom the leg has a very personal connection. It could only happen in the South, folks.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for language)

Hell and Back

(Freestyle) Starring the voices of Mila Kunis, TJ Miller, Susan Sarandon, Bob Odenkirk. Never underestimate the idiocy of a young white male. When a group of bros inadvertently open a gateway to Hell and one of them gets sucked down into it, his three buddies try to do the right thing and go down to the infernal regions to welcome their friend. Hell has no idea what’s about to hit them. From the same animation studio that is guilty of giving us Robot Chicken and Bo-jack Horseman.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Winter Park Village, UA Seminole Town Center
Rating: R (for pervasive strong crude and sexual content, language and some drug use)

Sicario

(Lionsgate) Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Victor Garber. An idealistic FBI agent is brought into the war zone that is the U.S.-Mexican border to join a task force with the mission of stopping cartel violence from reaching its tentacles onto American soil. A mysterious consultant with an enigmatic past and an elite government agent whose ambitions are only matched with his amorality force the agent to question everything she believes in as she must go to extreme measures just to survive. The latest from talented director Denis Villeneuve has been receiving critical accolades wherever it has gone.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for strong violence, grisly images, and language)

The Walk

(Tri-Star) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale. Only one man has – and ever will – walked on a high wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. That man is Philippe Pettit and his real life exploits were captured on the excellent documentary Man on Wire – if you haven’t seen it yet I highly recommend it. This is a dramatization of the events that took place way back when. Director Robert Zemeckis has apparently utilized modern technology to put the audience in Philippe’s shoes, so high above the ground in New York City. This may end up being one of the few movies Da Queen and I end up seeing in IMAX 3D this year.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes, premiere footage and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D (opened Wednesday)
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Large Format Screens
Rating: PG (for thematic elements including perilous situations, and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking)

Lawless


The Bondurants confront the law, or vice versa.

The Bondurants confront the law, or vice versa.

(2012) Crime Drama (Weinstein) Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Dane DeHaan, Chris McGarry, Tim Tolin, Gary Oldman, Lew Temple, Marcus Hester, Bill Camp, Alex Van, Noah Taylor, Mark Ashworth, Tom Proctor, Bruce McKinnon, Eric Mendenhall, Toni Byrd, Robert T. Smith. Directed by John Hilcoat

Crime movies about the Prohibition era tended to be centered in Chicago or other big cities and involved gangsters with Tommie guns in big cars shooting at coppers and other gangsters in glorious black and white. There haven’t been a lot of movies about the effects of bootlegging in rural areas except during the ’70s and those tended to be more corn pone comedies than anything else.

However bootlegging was a going concern outside of the cities as well. In Franklin County, Virginia, the Bondurant brothers have become legends since their heyday during the Depression. The three brothers are led by taciturn Forrest (Hardy), the brains of the operation, who never met an awkward silence he didn’t like. Middle brother Howard (Clarke), more brute than man, would be the brawn of the operation other than he partakes a little more of the moonshine than he probably should. Finally there’s Jack (LaBeouf), a kid with big dreams but little backbone as yet.

The Bondurants mostly sell their liquor to Floyd Banner (Oldman) who in turn puts their product into his speakeasies. It’s a pretty cozy arrangement with the local Sheriff (Camp) looking the other way. However, federal agent Charlie Rakes (Pearce) comes out of the big city with big ideas, a dandy fashion sense, a really swell haircut and enough corruption to rot every orange in Florida. He wants a piece of Bondurant pie and Forrest, well, he’s just not that willing to give it to him. So a kind of war erupts between the honest bootleggers and the corrupt federal agents. Welcome to the 1930s, Jack.

There are plenty of extraneous characters in the mix, like the waitress that Forrest hires to work their gas station/restaurant (Chastain), the daughter of a preacher that Jack falls for (Wasikowska) and the mechanical genius (DeHaan) who befriends Jack and becomes an integral part of the operation. There’s also plenty of violence, with gun battles erupting with a somewhat depressing regularity. Prohibition was no picnic after all.

Hilcoat, who teamed with Aussie alt-rocker Nick Cave (who wrote this based on a fictionalized account of the real-life Bondurant clan) on the highly praised western The Proposition (which also starred Pearce, come to think of it) has a good ear for period rhythms, not just in speech but in depicting the hard scrabble daily lives of those who lived in that era. He certainly managed to snag an impressive cast; even those in throwaway roles are high-powered and indeed they all deliver; there’s not a subpar performance in the bunch.

En route to becoming a punch line, LaBeouf had moments where his talent shown through and this was one of them. Although Hardy shows why he is today one of the biggest and most promising stars in Hollywood by making his character the focus of attention without using much dialogue to do it in, LaBeouf at least stays pretty much within shouting range of Hardy which is no mean feat. Both of them have to deal with Pearce’s highly mannered yet compelling performance as the movie’s ostensible villain which is ironic because he’s the cop and the good guys are the criminals. Oh, irony!

Speaking of compelling, the story is a good one and although not technically accurate – the real Bondurant brothers were not above being ruthless in their dealings and while the contempt they had for the federal government was likely quite accurately portrayed here, they weren’t saints. However, other than oral traditions about the boys, there isn’t a ton of information about them out there so we kind of have to rely on the words of witnesses long dead.

There are moments throughout when the story seems to lose its way and you can feel the movie sputtering a bit. However, Hilcoat is a director who I think should be getting a little more attention from the film cognoscenti than he has been and while nothing in life is certain, I think we’ll be seeing further interesting films from him in the years to come. Certainly with a cast like this he can’t go wrong and while the movie could have used a bit more judicious script editing, at least it’s never boring. Definitely a sleeper to look out for if you haven’t seen it yet.

WHY RENT THIS: Wonderful cast. Compelling story.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit aimless in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of violence (some of it graphic), a bit of swearing and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Composer/musician Nick Cave wrote the screenplay based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, the grandson of the Shia LaBeouf character and is based loosely on actual events.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the history of bootlegging in Franklin County, a featurette on the background of the Bondurant family and a music video by Willie Nelson.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $53.7M on a $26M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix. Amazon, VuduiTunes, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Road to Perdition
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Love and Mercy

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
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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)