A Most Violent Year Movie Review 0 87

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In the space of just a few years, writer-director J.C. Chandor has marked himself out as an impressive new voice in the world of cinema. He burst onto the scene with his Oscar-nominated financial drama Margin Call, which showed off his talent for complex but utterly compelling dialogue even about the most dense of subjects. He followed that up with a powerful existential survival drama in All Is Lost, drawing out of Robert Redford perhaps the best performance of his career.

Now he’s back with another impressive, handsomely mounted film this time focusing on the seedy world of shady businessmen, back room deals and often violent corner-cutting to get ahead. Set in New York City in 1981, man-of-the-moment Oscar Isaac stars as Abel Morales, an immigrant oil businessman operating during what is statistically one of the most violent years in the city’s history. Despite his trucks being hijacked for months, turning his suspicion to one or more of his rivals, he preaches non-violence and respect in all that he does, doing whatever he can to prove that he runs, “a fair and clean business.” With his ambitious wife (Jessica Chastain) by his side, he does his best to find out who’s perpetrating these crimes and to expand his business without becoming the type of man he so desperately wants to avoid.

Chandor’s film serves as both a literal time jump back to the era in which it’s set, with superb period detail and beautiful cinematography bolstering an authentic atmosphere, and as an enjoyably gritty throwback to the films of that time. We find ourselves very much in a Serpico/Godfather/French Connection-esque world here, where seemingly no one can be trusted, corruption and shady dealing are more common than the famous Yellow Cabs and there’s danger lurking around every dark and murky corner.

Ironically it’s less of a violent, bloody affair than it’s title so overtly suggests – nae promises – but that seems like it would have been the easier option to take, perhaps resulting in a more visceral experience but probably an emptier one that doesn’t really stay with you. Chandor’s film takes a much subtler but far more effective approach that’s more to do with how the threat of violence and effect that violence has on the business expansion (read: capitalistic ambitions) of its characters, helping it linger long in the mind.

It reminded me of last year’s under-seen Locke, in which Tom Hardy played a respectful, strong-minded man desperate to complete a concrete pour he‘s in charge of even after he’s been fired . It’s oil here instead of concrete but the principle of the two films are the same; it’s not really about the materials, even if that’s what motivates the characters in a literal sense, but uses that as a metaphorical base from which explore their respective themes.

Strong performances helps give depth and empathy to what might otherwise have been cold and austere characters, with Isaac giving an effectively insular, restrained performance that evokes Pacino in The Godfather – the film and central performance is more reminiscent of Part I in Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster trilogy than it is Part II – and while Chastain is equally good as his faithful, quietly ruthless wife. The two have terrific chemistry together and the film is often at its strongest whenever they’re on-screen together, whether it’s exchanging subtle glances or full-on marital rows. David Oyelowo is also very good as the assistant D.A. investigating Abel’s business practices, as is Albert Brooks playing what is essentially the Robert Duvall consigliere role as Abel’s dedicated advisor.

The film may lack true originality as it covers much of the same crime-ridden ground and asks the same sort of morality question – about the likes of doing certain perceivably wrong things to get ahead – as many films before it. But, much like its central character, it does so with real class and respect, populating its unpredictable world of crime with well-written characters that we might not necessarily care about in the fullest sense of the word but who are nevertheless fascinating to watch.

A Most Violent Year is released in UK cinemas on January 23rd.

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I’m a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features.

I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 418

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 449

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10