BlacKkKlansman

Release: Friday, August 10, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Spike Lee; Charlie Wachtel; David Rabinowitz; Kevin Willmott

Directed by: Spike Lee

BlacKkKlansman is one wild ride. Loosely based upon the 2014 memoir of the same name (minus that little ‘k’ that writer/director Spike Lee threw in there), it recounts the experiences of an undercover black police officer in the late 1970s, when he cozied up to a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in an effort to bring them down from the inside. Despite the foul regions of humanity it must poke and prod around in, BlacKkKlansman proves to be a mightily entertaining movie. It’s intermittently even beautiful, but more importantly it’s alarmingly relevant.

In 1979* Ron Stallworth made waves by becoming the first black officer hired to the Colorado Springs Police Department. In the film he’s portrayed by an unflappable John David Washington (son of action superstar Denzel Washington), sporting a classic 70s ‘fro and an earnest face that has commitment to duty written all over it. It wasn’t a smooth transition of course. Not all members on the force wanted him around, like Master Patrolman/Major Asshat Andy Landers (Frederick Weller), who’s introduced as a kind of primer to the pleasantries we can expect later on.

Having the good fortune of working for Robert John Burke’s open-minded station chief, he eventually gets handed more meaningful work when he’s assigned to observe a rally that is to take place at Colorado College, where prominent civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, a.k.a. Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins, powerful) is set to deliver a speech addressing the escalating tensions between black citizens and police officers nationwide. There, he runs into a Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union. Harrier creates in this fictitious character a headstrong young woman, someone in whom Stallworth finds a reliable source of information and possibly something more. Spurred into action due to the harassment she and her peers have had to contend with on a daily basis at the hands of bigoted cops, Dumas is a staunch believer in retribution, rather than the more “diplomatic” tactics her newfound brother is trying to engage in. If only she knew.

The story of Ron Stallworth is one of dueling identities, not so much metaphorically but in an actual physical sense. The overarching reality is that he’s an officer sworn to protect and serve, but in order to do those things he will also become a rising star within the ranks of the white brotherhood. When he makes detective, it becomes his mission to pull out the weeds of hatred by their roots. To beat the Klan, he’ll have to join ’em. Finding a recruitment ad in the paper, Stallworth calls up Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), the president of the Colorado Springs chapter, and in a profanity-laced rant, pitches himself as the next-in-line to help “make America great again.” Watch as the heads in the precinct turn, including those of his soon-to-be inside man Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver — I love this guy) and underling Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi).

Breachway wants a face-to-face, but there are obvious complications — a major one being the fact that the newbie detective used his actual name over the phone. (He is, however, mindful enough to disguise his “black voice.”) So Stallworth will send Zimmerman, a non-practicing Jew, into the field as him. Two Stallworths, one ballsy mission, absolutely zero fuck-ups allowed. The newly-minted White Stallworth is swiftly integrated as one of them good old boys, with standouts being Finnish actor Jasper Pääkönen as the intensely suspicious Felix and Paul Walter Hauser’s dumber-than-a-box-of-bent-nails Ivanhoe.

From here, strap in and hold on for dear life as we stroll into the living rooms and basements of some of the most hateful people imaginable. As Zimmerman gets in deeper, finding himself doing and saying things he never imagined, the morality of the mission becomes further complicated. The writing team envisions Stallworth as a force for good but stops short of painting him an out-and-out hero. Occasionally he seems reckless in the pursuit of justice — perhaps more so than if it were actually him being threatened to take a lie detector test. As Zimmerman puts it after a close call, is this really anything more than a personal vendetta? Meanwhile, the threat of something big about to go down, as vaguely hinted at by Felix’s wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), makes it pretty clear the composited Stallworth has little option but to continue apace.

As BlacKkKlansman is a film largely informed by attitude and ideology, you expect Lee’s righteous anger to be ever present, and it is — that real-life coda at the end leaves little doubt as to how the writer/director feels about the progress we have made since the days of the Civil Rights marches. What you might not expect is for the film to also be amusing. If it isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, there are moments of such gratifying uplift that feel just as good as a fit of the giggles. The comparatively calming presence of producer Jordan Peele is undoubtedly responsible, and nowhere is that felt more than in a scene of glorious comeuppance, wherein an accomplished Stallworth finally gets to stick it to the man (“the man” in this case being KKK grand wizard David Duke, played by a very good Topher Grace). It’s a real team effort as far as realizing that tonal sweet spot, pinning you somewhere between being entertained and plain horrified.

* the film takes several dramatic liberties with its content, but the biggest edit is the timeline on which the events take place. In the film, Ron Stallworth joined the force seven years prior, in 1972. this was done in observance of the re-election of president richard nixon.

“Yo, what’s good man?”

Recommendation: Spike Lee’s latest is a bombshell that arguably saves its actual drama for the final few frames. While the events of the film are sent up for entertainment purposes, what’s also clear is that this is one of the outspoken director’s most urgent and unmissable works. Powerful stuff. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “With the right white man, we can do anything.”

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Free State of Jones

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Release: Friday, June 24, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Gary Ross; Leonard Hartman

Directed by: Gary Ross

In Gary Ross’ new film, inspired by the life of Civil War medic-turned-rebel Newton Knight, the firepower has been upgraded from crossbows to muskets and bayonets, but both the fire and the power in the former Hunger Games director are absent in Free State of Jones, a comprehensive but long, bloated and surprisingly boring look at a turbulent period in the history of a rural Mississippi county.

The movie opens promisingly with a scene that puts us right in harm’s way alongside Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight. French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme’s unflinching camera plunges us into the nightmare that is war. Things get really nasty as we follow him back and forth between battlefield and MASH unit, carting off dozens of casualties, including young boys (represented by Jacob Lofland‘s gun-shy Daniel). We’re witnessing the Battle of Corinth, the second such violent encounter this area, a key railroad junction, has experienced following a siege earlier that year (1862).

This bloodbath is catalytic for our hero, a farmer whose idealistic extremism is matched only by the extremes of poverty he lives in, as he abandons his post and returns home to his sister Serena (Keri Russell), no longer feeling it is his duty to support a war that only the very wealthy seem to benefit from. It’s back on his farm where he meets and befriends Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a slave woman who has been secretly learning to read and who will introduce him to an underground society of runaway slaves and a handful of other disenchanted southerners.

The thrust of the narrative focuses on Newton’s transformation and how he becomes perceived by those he has left behind. His new duty is to inspire the downtrodden into action and to lead them in a movement that would ultimately establish south-central Mississippi as a place free from slavery and other forms of oppression and persecution. As the war continues the population in Newton’s militia increases as more Confederate soldiers desert their troops, though the disintegration of the fabric of honest American living continues.

Large crops of corn are being confiscated and sold by Confederates who have conveniently reinterpreted recent lawmaking as their entitlement to 90% of whatever they happen to find, leaving farmers with a stash that’s precisely the opposite of what the law provides for. There’s a sizable chunk of film spent on Newton trying to persuade Union forces to recognize Jones County as a free and independent entity. That comes and goes. Later still, after the war has ended, we see Newton continuing to push for racial equality as he takes up the mantle for Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali), a former slave he befriended years ago in the swamps where the uprising began.

The screenplay attempts to develop Moses and Newton concurrently but that ambition also becomes its greatest downfall. Neither character is given enough perspective to seem truly changed. Ali gets a shade more attention later as we see him slowly succumbing to anger when violence is brought upon his family. Newton, seemingly the kind of individual who voluntarily shoulders more than his fair share of stress, chooses to help a dear friend in need. His dedication to the cause is consistent with many a vet who tragically struggle to leave the battlefield behind psychologically. You could consider his benevolence a symptom of some larger personal issue and it is in this regard his travails truly become compelling.

But before you start heading for the exits, we still need to finish talking plot. (I know, I’m in full-on ramble mode today.) While all of the aforementioned is being addressed on a timeline that stretches several long, grueling years — one look comparing McConaughey at the end of the film to his appearance at the beginning would be enough to confirm — there’s a bigger arc to consider: that of Newton’s great-great-great grandson, Davis (Brian Lee Franklin). In present-day Mississippi Davis is on trial for trying to marry a white woman. He himself is one-eighth black and therefore faces a five-year prison sentence for unlawfully cohabiting with a person of another race.

There are other things wrong with Free State of Jones, but among the more painful missteps is without doubt the editing, chiefly the decision to jettison the audience right out of the 1800s with a jarring flash-forward cut that jumps 85 years on the timeline out of nowhere. (Okay, so it’s not literally present-day Mississippi.) In the end the Knight case is tossed out by a Mississippi Supreme Court who think it’s better to maintain the status quo than to rewrite the rulebook. The courthouse scene, rather than tracing the legacy of Newton Knight, comes across as a superfluous and clumsy attempt at contriving a sense of epic-ness. (If you’re going to show us the significance of this story to Jones County residents of today, wouldn’t it be better to showcase the harsh realities of that court date in the closing scenes?)

When it comes to the reenactments, Free State of Jones is neither memorable nor utterly forgettable. And of course the question on everyone’s mind is how well its star fares. Well, the McConaissance hasn’t come to a grinding halt, but the party seems to be dying down. Still, this is a solid performance from an A-lister who just may be starting to experience the drawback of going on such a dramatic run in recent years, beginning with his humbled turn in Mud and “ending” with his crafty black-hole navigation skills in Interstellar.

Mbatha-Raw comes to mind next, with her quietly powerful and soothing presence as the self-educating Rachel. She’s a good fit for McConaughey on screen, even if the latter still casts larger shadows. Then there’s Mahershala Ali as the escaped slave Moses. Ali affects a stoicism that gets harder to watch as Confederate forces continue threatening (and carrying out) lynchings and dog hunts. Ali has presence here but he’s much more worth watching in Netflix’s very own House of Cards.

It’s hard to judge many of the supporting performances as the majority of them serve no greater purpose than to await their exit from the story. Death becomes the drumbeat everyone marches to. Invariably as time pushes on we say more goodbyes than hello’s and it becomes apparent towards the fraying ends of our patience that we were never meant to get to know the others. They exist simply to provide casualties. Or maybe it only seems that way since few beyond our trio of good guys have anything of significance to say or do.

In short, it becomes very difficult to care about a grassroots movement when all we see are actors standing around listening to a particularly high-profile thespian delivering his soap box speeches. Calling Free State of Jones a terrible movie is about as accurate as a bayonet, but it’s certainly forgettable and barely more than mediocre.

Free State of Jones

Recommendation: I still think Matthew McConaughey is the big draw here, and Free State of Jones‘ themes make it a fairly timely movie this July. Unfortunately the star doesn’t quite deliver like he has in recent films, though it’s hardly a turn for the worse. The story is simply all over the place and takes on too much to keep even the longest of attention spans focused on all that it has to offer. There is a lot of potential here and it’s so frustrating seeing it go to waste.

Rated: R

Running Time: 139 mins.

Quoted: “From this day forward we declare the land north of Pascagoula Swamp, south of Enterprise and east to the Pearl River to the Alabama border, to be a Free State of Jones. And as such we do hereby proclaim and affirm the following principles. Number one, no man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich. Number two, no man ought to tell another man what you got to live for or what he’s got to die for. Number three, what you put in the ground is yours to tend and harvest and there ain’t no man ought to be able to take that away from you. Number four, every man is a man. If you walk on two legs, you’re a man. It’s as simple as that.”

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Green Room

'Green Room' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 29, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jeremy Saulnier

Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier

Jeremy Saulnier continues to polish the edges on his unique brand of filmmaking in 2016. Green Room is electrifying. It’s intense. It’s bloody. It’s raw. It’s wrong. But man, is it watchable. And I’m liking the theme here: last time it was Blue Ruin . . . now it’s Green Room. What’s next, Red Rum? No, but seriously. So far all of his movies have involved or in some way been built around murders, and murders that go horribly awry.

His sophomore effort, the mysterious crime drama Blue Ruin, afforded the young up-and-comer a much larger and more intrigued audience following his 2007 crash landing with Murder Party. So it wasn’t really any secret to those whose allegiances had already been established that his next offering would be bloody as well. All the same, his third feature is still likely to catch everyone off-guard as it offers a wicked(ly original) premise, and a performance from Patrick Stewart so cold Saulnier’s begging to be trashed by every filmgoer expecting Professor X’s world-weary wisdom to offer our mortally endangered musicians some hope.

Then again, Saulnier’s just as likely to be venerated by anyone looking for the next great genre film, as Green Room seduces with one gut-wrenching twist after another, offering a thrill ride that’s difficult not to watch, even despite the cruelty and the gore. Down-on-their-luck punk band The Ain’t Rights are on the last leg of a failing tour that very well could spell the end of the band after the latest stint at a decrepit restaurant half-heartedly thanks them with a measly sum of chump change. It’s gotten to the point where they’re having to siphon gas from random cars they find just so they can make it from venue to venue, and they’ve been subsisting on a steady diet of rice and beans. Rice and beans and fucking attitude, man.

In a small Portland suburb, a mohawk-wearing rocker named Tad (David W. Thompson) hooks them up with a gig at a third-rate club in the backwoods of god-knows-where Oregon, a snake pit filled with neo-Nazis, leather-clad hooligans and possible future victims of dominatrixes, all expecting the next sonic boom of bad music to throw them right back into their nightly frenzy. Even though they tout themselves as an angry clash of misfits, this lion’s den ain’t right for The Ain’t Rights, but they do need the money. So they play a set and while they almost get booed off the stage they make it through without actually being mobbed, so that’s a good thing.

An already uncomfortable situation turns nightmarish when they — Pat (Anton Yelchin), Reece (Joe Cole), Tiger (Callum Turner) and Sam (Alia Shawkat) — are preparing to leave only to stumble upon the aftermath of a murder backstage. What ensues is a series of increasingly dire cover-ups, all orchestrated by the ruthless skinhead Darcy (Stewart), the proprietor of this hateful little establishment. He has one goal: to pin the death of a random groupie named Emily on the visiting band so he and his fellow Nazi sympathizers can carry on as they were. So he traps them in the back with Big Justin (Eric Edelstein) and Amber (Imogen Poots), a friend of Emily. If they have any hope of surviving, it lies in the band’s ability to outwit the horde of haters.

Green Room, complete with an inspired cast, a script provocatively grounded in reality, and a deeply cerebral soundtrack that evokes mood á la Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Drive, functions best as a slash-’em-up horror. Many of the deaths are played up for shock value — getting eaten alive by dogs works wonders in that regard. But this is every bit as compelling as a psychological mystery thriller given the perpetual shift in perspective as cameras rove in and out of the darkened facility, keeping track of both parties as one struggles to keep things under wraps and the other desperate to survive. It’s kinda obvious who we should be rooting for, but there’s also something darkly compelling about Darcy’s intelligence.

Saulnier keeps the suspense just this side of bearable as he powers toward a brutal final confrontation that somehow manages to match the intensity of everything that has preceded it. Implementing sparse dialogue, haunting and often claustrophobic shots of the surrounding wilderness, and, absent the trumpets of another bombastic score designed to signal that the movie is almost over, the standoff might be the very reason to see Green Room. But given everything that Patrick Stewart brings to the table, and the story’s grounded, simplistic composition, there are many elements supporting the theory that it won’t be long before Saulnier becomes a household name. He is a gifted filmmaker and the power that Green Room projects is proof of that.

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Recommendation: Bold, bloody, brutal. Jeremy Saulnier steps up the violence in this delightfully trashy backwoods horror-thriller hybrid that makes his previous effort look like a pleasant bedtime story. Fans of Patrick Stewart, be prepared for a wild ride. While others, fans of Saulnier perhaps, buckle in for the ride you’re expecting. He’s done it again.

Rated: R

Running Time: 94 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t die here with you.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Paul G — #3

Paul G logo

Last time we were here, Paul was being a real bastard to the beloved, but troubled Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson in the wonderful music biopic Love & Mercy. The character was another great demonstration of how unlikable the actor can become on screen, putting such distance (hopefully) between his on and off-screen persona with a suitably slimy and obsessive round-the-clock psychotherapist whose smothering practices eventually become the crux of the entire picture. Today we explore a character that might be even less likable and less redeemable, a nasty slave trader who plays a huge role in the fate of the film’s protagonist.

Paul Giamatti as Freeman

Paul Giamatti as Theophilus Freeman in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Drama

Plot Synopsis: In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.

Character Profile: Despite the character’s name being a bit overkill (do we really need the irony of a slave trader being named ‘Freeman?’) he nonetheless plays a crucial role both in shaping the very uncertain future of free man-turned-slave Solomon Northup and his cold, businessman-like personality in trafficking people around epitomizes the very institutionalization of prejudiced thinking. A blue collar worker likely perceived by his peers as a decent, upstanding man, Freeman’s job is to determine where the slaves are to be sent when they arrive at Port New Orleans. Despite Solomon’s protests of being a free man who’s been abducted, Freeman slaps an entirely new identity on him, that of Platt, a Georgia runaway. It is Freeman’s gruff hand that steers Solomon/Platt in the direction of slave owner William Ford, by comparison a saint of a plantation owner compared to the one he is sent away to later, the vile Edwin Epps. 12 Years a Slave demonstrates a number of terrible wrongdoings but it is Freeman’s intervention in New Orleans that has one of the biggest impacts on his harrowing journey.

Why he’s the man: Paul Giamatti shoulders the weight of playing a despicable racist, a character who is by definition of their job a terrible person, with aplomb. I doubt any of the roles in 12 Years a Slave were easy to play but Giamatti’s slave trader is so vile he comes only second or third fiddle to Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps. That’s company you don’t really want to keep, but if you’re a solid character actor who thrives on the challenge of embracing difficult-if-not-impossible-to-like individuals, you do accept the challenge and become one of the most memorable notes in a symphony of powerhouse performances.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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Photo credits: http://www.contactmusic.com

Race

'Race' movie poster

Release: Friday, February 19, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Joe Shrapnel; Anna Waterhouse

Directed by: Stephen Hopkins

No sports film is strictly a celebration of athleticism. Tethered to that name or group of names is the burden of understanding, not of themselves — the athlete knows specifically what he or she is — but rather that their actions represent a broader community even beyond family. Some names simply become associated with significant social, cultural or political shifts because of who, what and when they are. Timing certainly factors into the story of Jesse Owens.

It took 40 years before the White House officially recognized Owens’ accomplishments, before President Gerald Ford in 1976 bestowed upon him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and another 14 years (and several more presidents) before he earned the Congressional Gold Medal. Just as his accomplishments took far too long to become engrained into American culture, the wait for the definitive movie about the man is going to last a little longer.

The bluntly-titled Race is a film that dutifully serves as a highlight reel of an extraordinary figure, but its movements are a far cry from the elegance and power of this sprinter/long-jumper. As a dramatic reenactment of two key moments on the track — Owens’ record-setting performance at the Big Ten meet during which he broke three world records and tied a fourth and his four-time gold medal appearance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics — the film is a decent watch. Even though these insights come so infrequently as to threaten the film’s status as a sports film, at least the action looks good.

Race is thoroughly burdened by the weight of its champion on its back. Unfortunately it couldn’t even make that aspect entirely captivating either. Stephan James is nice enough as the mild-mannered and gifted young track star but this is a forgettable performance. Quiet power is actually a thing, but that’s not what we get with the 22-year-old Canadian actor, whose stoicism often teeters on the edge of being boring. Who knows though; if meeting the icon in real life were still possible perhaps the moment would be surprisingly innocuous. But boring?

The film opens as a baby-faced Owens is preparing to leave behind the grayish-blue of his Cleveland community, the first in his family to board the bus to college. The scene is as expected: mother hurries through a few last-minute words of wisdom while father, who has been out of work for some time, sits silent. The burden’s on us to interpret what he’s feeling. The departure happens with little fanfare. So far, so good. Race is clearly born out of a deep respect for the athlete’s humble beginnings. It’s unfortunately once he steps foot on Ohio State campus where the film starts stumbling over its feet uncontrollably.

Owens finds himself immediately embroiled in the racial tensions of the day, a major state university seemingly serving as the epicenter for hatred. (“But just you wait,” the film seems to caution us. “Wait until you get to Germany . . .”) Not even the locker room is safe. It’s not long before he’s summoned by Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), and the ensuing Obligatory Scene In A Coach’s Office deals with business as matter-of-factly as possible: “Your life is now mine. I don’t care about the girl you have back home, you have to prove to me how serious you are about winning. Blah, blah, blah.”

Sudeikis’ first lines are a literal check list of sports coaching clichés. Like a timid Owens we kind of just sit there, accepting them as they’re forced upon us. Sudeikis, typically a source of hilarity, takes on a seriousness that’s hard to take seriously. Lines that are meant to resonate prophetically, such as his dreaming of becoming an Olympic-bound coach once more, fall surprisingly flat. As it turns out, his hard-ass demeanor is just a front for a much more amenable, softer personality, one that’s even easier to access than the end of the 100 meter dash.

Less difficult to believe is Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage, President of the United States Olympic Committee. Irons exudes the kind of intensity suited to a role of this magnitude, as a man who finds himself in an uncomfortable position negotiating with Hitler’s close associate and Olympic overseer Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), telling him America is prepared to withdraw their competitors given the ongoing persecution of the Jews and the German government’s exclusive list of who they want competing in the Games. Brundage may have to sell his soul if he is to get what he wants out of these talks.

Irons may stand out as the only Olympic Committee member worth talking about — heck, one of the only characters in the film worth talking about — but not even he is immune to awkwardness in a story that’s written with such a sense of conformity. Race is a passionless affair, so obliging to the typical structure it’s hard to reconcile the unique brilliance of Owens the racer with Owens the cinematically bland inspiration.

At least the moral conundrum is presented clearly. In that way, it’s even more frustrating that it’s the less tangible stuff that the film actually juggles better than anything. There are a few scenes where hostility is truly palpable and the way the political climate is taken into consideration is well-handled. The Americans believed withdrawing would show solidarity with the oppressed while participating would carry with it the burden of winning, for the alternative would mean allowing the Nazis to keep thinking their Aryan competitors — their RACE — are superior. In big open rooms surrounded by his stuffy-looking peers Irons commands attention. And he must, because this is by design.

As is everything else here, including our desire to connect with Owens on a personal level. Nothing is executed with emotion, it’s all mechanical. Hagiographic may be one word to describe Stephen Hopkins’ big screen treatment of an American icon, a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, but definitive it definitely is not. It’s more of a burden to have to watch it.

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Recommendation: Utterly mechanical, obligatory, routine, predictable and any other adjective you might necessarily associate with a sports film, Race falls well short of the potential it had to tell the definitive story about Jesse Owens not just as a competitor but as a member of Ohio State’s elite team and as a citizen of the United States. Only those with almost no knowledge of Owens at all might stand to benefit from this thoroughly uninspired telling. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 134 mins. 

Quoted: “You can run. And boy, can you jump. What I want to know is — can you win?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

A Most Violent Year

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Release: Friday, January 23, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: J.C. Chandor

Directed by: J.C. Chandor

In what’s likely to shape up to be one of the year’s most misleading titles I have happened upon cinematic bliss in A Most Violent Year, a love/hate letter to the 1980s that trades in what is presumed to be grueling thematic material for authentic human interaction.

Writer/director J.C. Chandor wades out of the pretentious waters of All is Lost with a stunningly realized mood piece centering on a Columbian immigrant and his wife trying to make an honest living during an historically violent and dangerous year in New York City’s history. In the process, he extracts from the steadily-rising Oscar Isaac a career highlight as Abel Morales, a well-dressed man in charge of his own gasoline-based heating company, Standard Oil located on the banks of what appears to be Jersey City. While the setting is purportedly the Big Apple, on a number of occasions we seem to be standing alongside Abel on the opposite shore, looking out at a sprawling jungle of edifice and cold concrete that looms large and a little more than threatening through the lens of cinematographer Bradford Young.

Either way, this gritty, gravel-laden locale is Abel’s future, a spacious lot he hopes to secure by brokering a deal with a group of Hasidic Jews. In securing a 40% down payment on the property it’s clear Abel has a certain level of confidence in his ability to make the deal happen within a month’s time. Though there is sunshine, we’re being transported back to some dark times indeed. Lurking in the background, aside from his hefty obligation to the Chassidim, are random acts of street violence that have repeatedly caused impediments to the growth and stability of Standard Oil; incidences in which several truck drivers delivering several thousand dollars’ worth of gas are forced at gunpoint to relinquish their duties, or else be shot on the spot, often in broad daylight and in the middle of a busy road.

Isaac’s Abel Morales is a man to be admired, particularly in this time, in this place, where a clean business deal is as commonplace as an mP3 player. Crooked men are Walkmans. Abel stands alone as he refuses to stoop to his competitors’ fear-mongering sales tactics. But what price is he paying for his attempt to keep his head above water? After all, he and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) are guilty by association anyway: Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is in the process of going after several gasoline heating companies for assorted fraudulent business practices, his company included. Anna would rather her husband get his hands dirty too and silence his competition — if for no other reason than to keep his family protected — but Abel knows it would be one more thing for the suits to pin on them.

In A Most Violent Year, paranoia doesn’t run rampant; danger truly lurks around every corner. For men like Abel who are head-and-shoulders above their competitors in terms of being a decent human being; for women like Anna who’d rather act first and worry about consequences later, there is entirely too much to lose. Money is an object, but not really. Arguably Abel’s greatest challenge is convincing himself that his approach is right and his wife’s righteously trigger-happy tendencies ultimately are threats to what could become an empire. Stakes run high enough in Chandor’s time capsule without the melodrama some of the more prestigious crime dramas are all too eager to run away with, i.e. backstabbings, betrayals, sudden tragedies.

A Most Violent year is bereft of all but the latter. This beautiful film is an exercise in restraint, and while that was the aim in Chandor’s previous effort, here we can actually really dig into characters that deserve positive outcomes. We can dissect them and discuss them. Not dismiss them. It’s early in the year, but I might have found one of my favorites of 2015 in this gripping morality play.

amvy-3

4-0Recommendation: Though the promotional effort surrounding J.C. Chandor’s latest is somewhat misleading (this is hardly an action thriller), those wanting a realistic, humanistic piece will certainly get it in A Most Violent Year. Fans of the incredibly talented Oscar Isaac (and the rest of this cast) are sure to not be disappointed either.

Rated: R

Running Time: 125 mins.

Quoted: “When it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump, otherwise you end up staying in the same place your whole life, and that I can’t do.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

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Release: Christmas Day 2013

[Theater]

Nelson Mandela. Now there’s a name that has ‘Hollywood movie’ written all over it.

With the passing of such an extraordinary figure a mere month ago, the moment doesn’t seem to be any riper for a major motion picture about him to be sweeping across the globe. While it’s pretty difficult to conceive of this international release date being any more strategic than just being a ‘Christmas Day release’ (that’s a profitable enough decision to begin with), some of the more pessimistic of us are inclined to speculate that perhaps someone on the inside knew about certain developments in their subject’s health, on a medical level, on a level most of us wouldn’t care to know or recognize as being true. With the saddening foresight that this man might not be around for much longer, why not use that as leverage to potentially gain an even bigger audience?

That is, of course, to suggest: what would the box office turn-out be if this film was released, say this past summer? Next summer? Two Septembers from now? Would a later release date help the film fulfill its potential to move audiences?

Most people probably don’t think of movie releases being manipulative. And yet reality dictates that, with a time frame such as this (Mandela dying twenty days prior to the release), the subject would suddenly become more relevant; the potential for emotional connectivity would become much greater. If we didn’t have to come to terms with Nelson Mandela no longer being with us, this Christmas release would otherwise seem a little arbitrary.

Unfortunately, all of that is pure speculation. Some readers are probably shaking their heads at the level of cynicism on display. I don’t blame those people for thinking I’m overanalyzing the situation, but I think I’m going to stand by my conviction that Hollywood’s suits (i.e. some of the happiest people on Earth) really dug the idea of this suddenly becoming a much more timely tribute to Mandela. Especially when the film’s screenplay seems to support my perhaps off-kilter views.

At two hours and twenty minutes in length, Long Walk to Freedom is really a long sit. It overstays its welcome, a concept that must be difficult to believe if you have yet to see this, because it deals with one of the world’s most influential human rights activists. How, pray, does a topic like this wear thin?

Oh, how it does. . .

Written more as a thoroughly-detailed biography special on the History channel, director Justin Chadwick’s ambition isn’t to blame, entirely. As one can imagine, he had to sift through a tremendous wealth of information about the subject and the climate of South African politics of the time, so perhaps the condescendingly low-brow style of the film should be forgiven. Though this too often has the feel of a history class lecture, there’s ultimately nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s just not the film most are going to be expecting when it features one of the most rapidly-rising British stars at this moment.

The film is almost saved by London-native Idris Elba’s authentic portrayal of Mr. Mandela. Naomie Harris vies for some potential nominations as well, as she steps inside the role of Winnie Madikizela, Nelson’s second wife, an extremely frustrated woman who turned to more radical and violent measures of fighting for her fellow oppressed people. With both leads clearly committed to giving the film some gravity — Elba’s heavily-covered-in-make-up facial expressions are on multiple occasions heartbreaking and are effective in visually demonstrating the burden the real life figured carried with him for his long, long life — Long Walk can’t be dismissed completely as a ‘bad’ film.

Perhaps a more accurate description of the experience is underwhelming, which is a crime unto itself. Chadwick makes sure he maintains a reasonable number of inspirational quotes from the man himself, but it looks like we, the folks who were hoping to learn something about this iconic figure, might have to wait a few more years before being treated to the proper Mandela biopic. With absolutely no offense to the two lead performers — since they are virtually the only reason this film bears significance at all — Long Walk feels much too rushed, another sign this was a product of emphatic marketing to the public.

Elba and Harris do all they can with the material, but even their own personal, strong convictions about who their characters were drown in a sea of mediocrity and obligatory sentimentality.

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2-5Recommendation: It’s hardly an offensive film, even considering how middling the end results are. If you know literally nothing about the man (if that’s the case, shame on you) you will come away with a newfound respect for the struggles of these people and this man in particular. But if you’ve done any research whatsoever about this troubling bit of history, you’re not likely to be as moved by his dramatized on-screen plight. And to me, that just ain’t right.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 139 mins.

Quoted: “No person is ever born hating another person because of the color of their skin. People learn to hate. They are taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com