Review – A Most Violent Year

Heating oil may not be the sexiest narrative device for hard-bitten cinema, but J.C. Chandor’s gripping paean to the crime dramas of yesteryear crackles with a slow-burning tension.

An assured step forward in Chandor's so-far unblemished copybook, A Most Violent Year is a timeless and engrossing chapter in America's cinematic crime genre

An assured step forward in Chandor’s so-far unblemished copybook, A Most Violent Year is a timeless and engrossing chapter in America’s cinematic crime genre

While the title suggests otherwise, A Most Violent Year eschews the brutality of Scorsese-aping gangster flicks for a more unconventional and understated drama about an immigrant businessman doing everything in his power to avert bloodshed and avoid being reduced to the level of those who would seek his downfall.

The violent year in question is New York’s annus horribilis of 1981, when 120,000 robberies and more than 2,100 murders were reported. Amidst such chaos, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) struggles to keep the plates spinning as he runs his up-and-coming heating oil firm, while his impetuous wife Anna (a formidable Jessica Chastain) looks after the books.

Things start to turn really nasty for Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) in A Most Violent Year

Things start to turn really nasty for Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) in A Most Violent Year

The hijacking of the company’s trucks by unknown assailants and an investigation into alleged price-fixing and other dirty tricks by ambitious Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) adds to the pressure on Abel, who enters into a potentially dangerous business deal with a group of Jewish Chassidim that could lead to his becoming a major player in the city.

When trouble visits their door, Abel’s reasonable business-minded approach is called into question by Anna, whose family connections seem to suggest violence is no stranger (“You’re not going to like what’ll happen once I get involved”).

Ms 45: Anna Morales (Jessica Chastain) in A Most Violent Year

Ms 45: Anna Morales (Jessica Chastain) in A Most Violent Year

This reveals itself in a key scene when a deer runs out in front of their car and, before Abel can bring himself to put it out of its misery with a tyre iron, Anna puts three rounds into the poor beast having decided that “she’s going to do something about it”.

In spite of their different outlooks on what needs to be done to survive and thrive, they nevertheless make for a formidable team, with Anna the power behind the throne as she propels her husband to greater heights.

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) with attorney Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) in A Most Violent Year

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) with attorney Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) in A Most Violent Year

As well as looking like a Godfather-era Al Pacino, Isaac’s softly spoken tones also bring to mind Michael Corleone, while his sharp suits and perfectly tailored camel-hair coat exude an authority in keeping with his measured demeanour.

In spite of his aversion to violence, Abel is not one to be pushed around, though and his ambition is unrelenting, as his attorney Andrew Walsh (a barely recognisable Albert Brooks) discovers when he asks him “why do you want all this so much?”, only to receive a blank stare and the response “I have no idea what you mean”.

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) makes his cast against Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) in A Most Violent Year

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) makes his cast against Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) in A Most Violent Year

The singular image of oil oozing like blood from an oil tank pierced by a bullet speaks to the fascinating battle Abel faces in A Most Violent Year. When violence erupts, it is sudden and striking, notably during a freeway set piece involving truck driver Julian (Elyes Gabel) that spirals out of control.

Comparisons to Sidney Lumet’s 70s/early 80s work, most notably Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Prince And The City (1981), and the output of Lumet’s torch-bearer James Gray (2000’s The Yards being the best example) are plain to see, but Chandor is no magpie and by making the strongest and most intimidating character in the film a woman subverts the normal expectations of the crime drama.

Scenes are juxtaposed between dimly lit rooms (a nod to The Godfather) and a yellow-tinged New York winter courtesy of Bradford Young’s crisp and moody cinematography, while the lack of a consistent score (an extended car, foot and subway chase is made more dramatic by the dearth of music) is refreshing.

An assured step forward in Chandor’s so-far unblemished copybook, A Most Violent Year is a timeless and engrossing chapter in America’s cinematic crime genre. As Abel would say: “The result is never in question; just what path you take to get there.”

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Review – Selma

A defining moment in a nation’s history gets the film it deserves in this sure-footed drama that forsakes hagiography and gets to the human story between the lines.

Containing a message that remains just as pertinent as it did almost 50 years ago, the masterful Selma takes you to the cinematic promised land

Containing a message that remains just as pertinent as it did almost 50 years ago, the masterful Selma takes you to the cinematic promised land

With such weighty material to work with, director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb could so easily have served up a Hallmark-friendly Martin Luther King, Jr greatest hits package that ignored the man.

However, without MLK’s speeches to work with following the decision by his estate not to allow their use, the filmmakers have instead been liberated from the baggage those words bring with them to show us that King was a man just like anyone else; one trying to make the right choices in the face of almost overwhelming circumstances.

Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) takes President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to task in Selma

Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) takes President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to task in Selma

The strength of Selma comes from showing us King the politician, King the opportunist, King the strategist; while also having the bravery to sideline MLK for stretches to focus on his fellow activists as they prepare for the crucial 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches.

The length of the journey ahead is powerfully juxtaposed in the opening reel as King accepts the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, while in the next scene a Baptist church is bombed in Alabama, killing four young black girls. This is followed by Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) having her voter registration form denied in Selma by a white registrar on ridiculously spurious grounds.

On the march: civil rights supporters get to work in Selma

On the march: civil rights supporters get to work in Selma

Despite being granted an audience with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), MLK’s (David Oyelowo) calls on the Commander-in-Chief to enact legislation that will enable black citizens to register to vote unencumbered falls on deaf ears, with Johnson stonewalling the “voting thing”.

With Selma chosen by King as the staging post from which to march, the town becomes a hotbed for racial tension as a brutal police force, led by its racist Sheriff stand in the way of the peaceful protesters and state Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) stokes the fires from a safe distance.

Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) prepares to accept the Nobel Peace Prize with wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) in Selma

Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) prepares to accept the Nobel Peace Prize with wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) in Selma

By narrowing in on a relatively brief, but critical moment in the civil rights movement, Selma gives itself the luxury of being able to spend a healthy amount of time with some of the key figures, including Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), James Bevel (Common), John Lewis (Stephan James) and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson). Just like any political movement, conflicting views exist on what strategy to take and DuVernay lets these scenes play out as tensions rise.

Oyelowo, meanwhile, presents King in a number of different ways, from the powerful orator with a gift for stoking a crowd with just the right amount of passionate indignation, to the leader getting his hands dirty on the frontlines. Away from the hullabaloo, Oyelowo paints MLK as a sinner doubting his path and struggling to maintain his marriage to the fiercely strong Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) in the face of huge pressure.

I fought the law: Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) in Selma

I fought the law: Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) in Selma

It’s a marvellously rounded and multi-faceted performance from Oyelowo and no mere caricature. The actor may have MLK’s preaching vocal inflections down to perfection, but there’s a lot more going on. Ejogo too gives an excellent account of herself as someone who isn’t just the wife of Martin Luther King, but a woman in her own right.

The infamous ‘Bloody Sunday’ horror show, when the protestors’ initial march on March 7, 1965 was thrown into chaos when they were brutally attacked crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge by police on horseback is distressing to watch and brilliantly shot by Bradford Young as terrified marchers flee through the eerie fog of tear gas whilst being mercilessly beaten.

Right-wing Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) in Selma

Right-wing Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) in Selma

Some have criticised the film for a heavy-handed depiction of Johnson, in particular for suggesting he authorised J Edgar Hoover’s FBI to dig up dirt on King. He’s portrayed as an opportunist (much like any other politician then) whose mind is reluctantly turned by the infamy of Bloody Sunday and at one point utters the ‘N’ word in conversation with the implacable Wallace (not one of Roth’s best performances). It’s perhaps fair to say that DuVernay doesn’t invest as much into these scenes as she does elsewhere, but every film needs its villain and the political establishment (led by the President) is it in the case of Selma.

Containing a message that remains just as pertinent as it did almost 50 years ago, the masterful Selma takes you to the cinematic promised land.

Review – The Butler

Forrest Gump may have been referring to life and boxes of chocolates when he remarked that “you never know what you’re gonna get”, but he could just have easily been talking about the films of Lee Daniels.

In trying to tick too many boxes and pull in too may directions The Butler only serves to weaken its message

In trying to tick too many boxes and pull in too may directions The Butler only serves to weaken its message

Following the little-seen crime thriller Shadowboxer (in which Helen Mirren stars as a contract killer – RED doesn’t seem so odd now), Daniels broke out with the rough and tough Precious before going completely off the reservation with 2012’s tawdry slice of American gothic The Paperboy.

The wild excesses and craziness of The Paperboy have been reigned in and sanitised with his latest offering, The Butler, loosely based on the true story of long-serving White House butler Eugene Allen.

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) within his second home - the White House - in The Butler

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) within his second home – the White House – in The Butler

The Forrest Gump analogy works on another level also, as The Butler is reminiscent of that film’s decade-spanning central character who finds himself brushing shoulders with America’s most powerful and influential figures. However, whilst Forrest’s encounters were largely down to fortuitous timing and dumb luck, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) becomes part of the fabric of the White House over the course of seven presidencies.

The film charts Cecil’s life from a brutal upbringing on a Georgia cotton farm in the 1920s, in which his father is murdered and his mother raped by the plantation’s sociopathic owner, through to his training as a servant which leads to him being employed as a butler at the White House in 1957 under Dwight D Eisenhower. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue becomes a second home for Cecil, much to the chagrin of his devoted, but frustrated wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey). Meanwhile, Cecil’s eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes a committed civil rights campaigner, while his other son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) chooses to fight in Vietnam.

Cecil's mother Hattie (Mariah Carey) toils away in the cotton fields in The Butler

Cecil’s mother Hattie (Mariah Carey) toils away in the cotton fields in The Butler

The Butler feels like a movie pulling in several different directions, with Daniels never quite sure which way to go. One minute it’s a sweeping historical epic, the next a hard-hitting depiction of the civil rights movement, while a minute later it’s a tear-jerking relationship drama between father and son.

Its opening scenes are a difficult watch and suggest a possible explanation as to why Cecil is so averse to speaking out or picking a fight as an adult. The film is at its strongest when dealing directly with the civil rights movement, which it does in an angry and harrowing way by portraying the shameful physical and verbal abuse meted out to those brave enough to smash through the petty racism that still existed in much of the South.

Cecil's volatile eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) in The Butler

Cecil’s volatile eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) in The Butler

Oyelowo does an excellent job as Louis, who risks his life and being ostracised from his father to fight for a more enlightened America, but only through peaceful means. His journey is arguably the most compelling in the film and it’s to Oyelowo’s credit that he doesn’t give in to Oscar-grabbing temptation.

Winfrey is also wonderful as Gloria, a complex character who dearly loves her husband but makes mistakes of judgement that etch themselves on her face. It’s performances like these that make you wish she’d spend less time interviewing people and more in front of the camera for different reasons.

Cecil (Forest Whitaker) and fellow White House butlers James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz) and Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr) in The Butler

Cecil (Forest Whitaker) and fellow White House butlers James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz) and Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr) in The Butler

As Gary Oldman so memorably proved in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the hardest performances to pull off are the ones that are dialled down almost to zero and Whitaker is similarly restrained as the ghost-like Cecil. Taught early on to silently blend into the background in order to become a successful butler, Cecil goes about his everyday business with the utmost professionalism while presidents come and go and the world moves on around him.

Despite being the headquarters of a world superpower, Daniels shows that very little actually changes within the White House, be it the Downton Abbey-esque stately formality or the attitudes among some senior White House staff towards the black servants.

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) in The Butler

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) in The Butler

A gamut of stars portray the various presidents, with the most notable being John Cusack’s clammy and paranoid turn as Nixon (including a slightly comical prosthetic nose) and Alan Rickman’s uncanny take on Ronald Regan.

Each president appears only briefly on camera, which lends weight to the argument that The Butler would probably have worked better as a mini-series. With so much to squeeze in, the film inevitably feels rushed and softens its impact as a result.

Daniels should be congratulated for bringing a serious film to the big screen  about the long and arduous journey African-Americans took before a black president finally occupied the White House, but in trying to tick too many boxes and pull in too may directions The Butler only serves to weaken its message.