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 – Interstellar

For a film that puts so much currency in science, Christopher Nolan’s most grandly ambitious work to date ultimately asks us for something far more down to earth – our faith.

As a spectacle, Interstellar is astonishing and its ambition is virtually unmatched, but an overblown final act means we're going to have to wait that little bit longer for Nolan's masterpiece

As a spectacle, Interstellar is astonishing and its ambition is virtually unmatched, but an overblown final act means we’re going to have to wait that little bit longer for Nolan’s masterpiece

In many ways Interstellar can be seen as a companion piece to Robert Zemeckis’ Contact. Aside from starring Matthew McConaughey and featuring imput from theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, the galaxy-spanning premise of both films is grounded by a seemingly impossible human connection between a daughter and her father.

The hard science at the core of each movie gradually gives way to a far more intimate tale wherein love is the rocket fuel that propels us to the closing credits and faith, when given into, can transcend time and space. In that respect it also bears more than a passing resemblance to Solaris (more the Steven Soderbergh version rather than Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Russian classic).

Watching Interstellar, the excitable talk surrounding the picture prior to its release was that Nolan had delivered his masterwork; his 2001: A Space Odyssey. While there are obvious threads to Kubrick’s magnum opus and Hans Zimmer’s use of organs is as direct a nod as you’re ever likely to get, this is a very different animal; one that, for good or ill, is a product of 21st Century moviemaking.

The Endurance crew - Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and Romilly (David Gyasi)  in Interstellar

The Endurance crew – Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and Romilly (David Gyasi) in Interstellar

Nolan’s script, written with his brother Jonathan (who originally penned it with Spielberg in mind to direct, interestingly), falls into the trap of so many sci-fi films before it (2001 notwithstanding, it must be said) of turning certain characters into walking exposition announcers. Michael Caine is particularly ill-served in this regard as Professor Brand, who very swiftly convinces NASA test pilot-turned-farmer Cooper (McConaughey) to leave his kids Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet) in the care of father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) in order to embark on a grand quest to save humanity.

Professor Brand (Michael Caine) spells it out in Interstellar

Professor Brand (Michael Caine) spells it out in Interstellar

The lapses in logic that marred The Dark Knight Rises (exactly how did a penniless/passport-less Bruce Wayne get back to Gotham City from the arse end of nowhere?) come back to haunt Nolan here. Glaring moments, such as when fellow crew member Romilly (David Gyasi) gives a ‘wormholes for dummies’ talk to Cooper as they are about to enter one (as opposed to before they’d even left Earth, for example), pull you out of the film.

The criticism often lazily thrown at Nolan that he’s too ‘cold’ and doesn’t invest enough in his characters doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny here, thanks largely to a committed cast who work extremely hard to overcome the occasionally clunky script. McConaughey anchors the film as an everyman who never forgets the reason why he’s risked life and limb travelling thousands of light years from home. He’s smart enough not to overdo it, which gives his big moment when an increasingly distraught Cooper watches a series of family videos transmitted from Earth that much more impact.

TARS comes to the rescue in Interstellar

TARS comes to the rescue in Interstellar

Anne Hathaway successfully convinces as Cooper’s fellow intrepid astronaut Amelia in spite of having to utter more than a few leaden lines, while Jessica Chastain’s flinty-eyed scientist adds heft to her scenes as she tries to save an Earth succumbing to blight and ferocious dust storms that resemble something out of The Grapes Of Wrath.

If the script doesn’t entirely convince, the visuals surely do and it’s here that Interstellar goes, well, interstellar. Right from his devious debut film Following, Nolan has proven extremely adept at knowing what to do with the camera and over the course of an increasingly revered career has continued to refine this skill. He also tries where possible to use physical effects in-camera rather than relying on CGI and by having his actors interact with replicas of spacecraft or go on location to an Icelandic glacier (captured beautifully by the director’s new cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema) to represent an alien world adds an authenticity that computer effects cannot match.

Interstellar goes, errrr, Interstellar

Interstellar goes, errrr, Interstellar

The film’s several set pieces are edge-of-the-seat stuff, in particular an enthralling sequence in which Cooper attempts to dock with a damaged mothership. It’s in these near-wordless moments when Zimmer’s bombastic score lifts the film, but too often elsewhere the soundtrack ends up overcooking the tension and drowning out sections of dialogue.

Murph (Jessica Chastain) faces the slow death of Earth in Interstellar

Murph (Jessica Chastain) faces the slow death of Earth in Interstellar

The crew’s robot companions TARS (humourously voiced by Bill Irwin) and CASE (Josh Stewart) – which resemble 2001-esque monoliths when motionless – are both believable in their functionality and engaging in their own right. We root for them in the same way we would Cooper or the rest of the crew and form a genuine emotional bond in much the same way as we do with Dewey, Huey and Louie in Silent Running.

As a spectacle, Interstellar is astonishing and its ambition is virtually unmatched, but an overblown final act means we’re going to have to wait that little bit longer for Nolan’s masterpiece. The question now is, where does he go from here?

Review – Zero Dark Thirty

As politicians lapped up the credit and thousands of people across America took to the streets to revel in the perceived victory, the ones who were truly responsible for the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden remained behind the scenes.

Kathyryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty

Kathyryn Bigelow’s “complex, challenging and totally gripping” Zero Dark Thirty

Their moment has come in director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s complex, challenging and totally gripping Zero Dark Thirty, the follow up to their Oscar-winning Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker.

Those expecting or hoping for a flag-waving, ultra-patriotic exercise in easy-to-swallow triumphalism will need to look elsewhere. What we get is a sobering, cerebral and, most importantly, apolitical account of the tireless work that went into tracking down America’s public enemy number one by a small band of Central Intelligence Agency and military personnel.

Zero Dark Thirty is a classic procedural in the mould of All The President’s Men and TV’s The Wire, with the crime here being the 9/11 attacks. Bigelow’s first masterstroke is not to show us those infamous images (they’ve been scorched into our psyches already); instead the film opens with a chilling montage of overlapping telephone calls made by people trapped in the Twin Towers played over a black screen.

CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) leads the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty

CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) leads the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty

The film then jarringly throws us into an undisclosed CIA site in Pakistan where new girl Maya (Jessica Chastain) witnesses ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (read: torture)  up-close for the first time courtesy of fellow operative Dan (Jason Clarke), a chameleon who looks as comforable in a shirt and tie as he does with his hands around someone’s neck.

Dan wants actionable intelligence and makes good on a repeated threat to his prisoner that “when you lie to me, I hurt you” by subjecting him to waterboarding and other forms of torture. Initially distressed, Maya is soon employing similiar tactics in her own interrogations.

CIA operative Dan (Jason Clarke) in Zero Dark Thirty

CIA operative Dan (Jason Clarke) in Zero Dark Thirty

Maya is a blank canvas, with no back story, personal life or friends, merely an all-consuming, evangelical zeal to find Bin Laden by any means necessary. She represents a post-9/11 America whose moral compass has been eroded by a willingness to justify increasingly unethical behaviour.

The only connections she has are with fellow CIA officers, in particular Jessica (the excellent Jennifer Ehle), an older, more wily operative who talks of baking a cake for a potential informant and having him killed if he doesn’t prove useful in the same conversation.

As coldly analytical as Maya and her colleagues are towards contacts or detainees, seeing them as nothing more than assets to drive forward the investigation, its constant dead-ends, labyrinthine complexity and mounting casualties breeds a frustrated thirst for vengeance. At her lowest ebb, a grieving Maya coldly informs a colleague: “I’m going to smoke everybody involved in this op, and then I’m going to kill Bin Laden.”

The Seal Team Six raid Bin Laden's compound in Zero Dark Thirty

The Seal Team Six raid Bin Laden’s compound in Zero Dark Thirty

In the hands of a lesser director, Zero Dark Thirty could have been reduced to a tub-thumping embarrasment, but Bigelow is too smart to poison Boal’s painstakingly researched script like that and instead maintains a measured detachment to the material.

The Navy Seal raid on the compound believed to house Bin Laden (only Maya is prepared to stick her neck out to categorically state he is in there) is a case in point. It could so easily have turned into a hyper-stylised action set piece akin to a video game, but in Bigelow’s hands Zero Dark Thirty‘s final act has a documentary feel, all be it a superbly filmed one (much of it shot using night vision lenses) that has a taut, nerve-jangling authenticity to it.

CIA senior officer George (Mark Strong) looks on nervously in Zero Dark Thirty

CIA senior officer George (Mark Strong) looks on nervously in Zero Dark Thirty

Bigelow is clearly fascinated with the dehumanising effect the so-called ‘War on Terror’ has on those fighting on the frontlines. In The Hurt Locker it was a bomb disposal expert; here it’s Maya whose soul is gradually eaten away by the things she sees and does.

During one scene Maya, angry at a colleague’s decision not to deploy a team to track down a key target, realises her bad cop approach isn’t working and gives him a beer to sweeten him up. It’s reminiscent of an earlier moment when she observes Dan using the same tactic to get a tortured detainee onside and serves as a subtle allusion to the lengths she’s prepared to go.

The fact that politicians and pundits on all sides have come out against the film means Bigelow and Boal have done their job. In one scene, Maya and Jessica watch impassively as President Obama states on TV that “America doesn’t torture” before carrying on their conversation. Just as with the rest of the film, Bigelow leaves it to us to read into it what we will.

The most explosive charge levelled at the filmmakers has come from those attacking Zero Dark Thirty for supposedly condoning torture (in many cases before they’ve even watched the film). Hard to watch they may be, but to omit these scenes from a film as important as this because they make politicians uncomfortable would have been to disregard a key chapter and inexorably damage the story Bigelow and Boal are trying to tell.

A fantastic cast is led by the compulsive Chastain, who knows exactly what to give in every scene. It’s a haunting performance, one appropriate to a film that, like Robert Redford at the end of The Candidate asks “what do we do now?”.

London Film Festival 2011 – Chapter 7

Out of all the days of the festival, this was the one I was most looking to as it had two of the films I was desperate to see – and boy did neither of them let me down.

Mathieu Kassovitz has never quite managed to reach the same heights as his hard-hitting debut feature La Haine (1995). In fact he was fast turning into a hack for hire with such lightweight US genre fare as the terrible Halle Berry ‘shocker’ Gothika (2003) and Vin Diesel-starring sci-fi dud Babylon AD (2008).

Well, Kassovitz is back in France and back to his best with the searing, heavyweight political thriller Rebellion, which chronicles an incident in 1988 in the French colony of New Caledonia when 27 hostages were taken by a group of indigenous guerilla fighters seeking independence, and the bloody military rescue operation that subsequently took place.

Rebellion

Kassovitz films the drama through the eyes and experiences of Philippe Legorjus (played by the director himself), a Captain with the French GIGN counter-terrorist special forces, which were called on to assist the army with tracking down the ‘insurgents’ and freeing the hostages.

Legorjus and his men are primarily trained to deal with hostage-takers through negotiation, but the Captain quickly gets the impression that talking isn’t the number one goal of the military brass and French minister Bernard Pons (played by Daniel Martin), especially when there’s a presidential election taking place in France and incumbent President François Mitterrand and his opponent Jacques Chirac are trying to out-do each other over their tough stances on the unfolding crisis.

Legorjus nevertheless tries to make contact with the group holding the hostages and succeeds after he is himself taken hostage. He wins the hard-earned trust of leader Alphonse Dianou (Iabe Lapacas) and is set free, promising to do what he can to give the group a platform in which to put their case for independence forward.

With the situation still tense, Legorjus works around the clock trying to convince the powers that be that the hostage-takers are willing to negotiate, but keeps running into brick walls until time runs out and a full military assault is ordered. With no time left, Legorjus realises he must betray Dianou’s trust in an effort to save as many of the hostages as he can.

Counting down over the course of 10 days until the dramatic, bloody assault on the cave where the hostages are being held, there’s a growing sense of inevitability that Legorjus is fighting a losing battle.

There are pointed remarks sprinkled throughout the film as to where this path is headed; when Legorjus tells a lawyer living on the island that the order to attack has been given, he asks the captain incredulously “the government wouldn’t do that would they?”. Another moment comes earlier in the film when Legorjus reminds his men that the population of New Caledonia are officially French citizens and therefore not ‘the enemy’. Needless to say these words ring hollow later in the film.

Thought-provoking and provocative, the anger of the film seeps out of every frame. It’s likely to cause controversy when it is released in France in November, but there should be no mistaking that this is brave, prescient film-making of the highest order.

Michael Shannon has in the space of just a few short years broke out from bit parts to become one of America’s most exciting acting talents.

His piercing stare and intense eyes singled him out for parts as unhinged lunatics in films such as Bug (2006) and Revolutionary Road (2008), for which he was Oscar-nominated. It probably wasn’t until he was cast as prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire that he was allowed to properly broaden his horizons and show there was more to him than that.

This has continued in 2011 with Return, the disappointing indie drama also shown at the festival which he nevertheless gave a thoughtful, restrained performance as the husband of a soldier returning from a tour of duty, and now Take Shelter.

Take Shelter

Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a loving husband to wife Samantha (the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). He’s your classic everyman, a guy doing the best he can for his family through his job at a sand-mining company in a small Ohio town.

But all is not well with Curtis. He is being plagued by apocalyptic dreams – massive storm clouds gather overhead; rain resembling motor oil falls from the sky; masses of birds fly ominously above and crazed strangers attack him and his daughter.

The dreams are so real to Curtis that he becomes convinced they are something far more frightening – visions of things to come. With these terrifying thoughts running through his mind Curtis gets to work on beefing up the storm shelter at the back of the house. At the same time he weighs up whether he is succumbing to the same mental illness that has left his mother in a home for the past 25 years.

To this end, he goes to the library to check if he has the symptoms and goes to see a counsellor on his doctor’s advice. At first the sedatives he is given to help him sleep seem to work, but then the dreams return, more frightening than ever and he re-doubles his efforts to get the shelter ready for what he is convinced is the storm to end all storms. However, his actions have serious ramifications on his friends who think he’s lost his mind, on his job and with his wife, who struggles to understand why Curtis seems so hell-bent on bankrupting them.

Shannon and writer-director Jeff Nicholls worked before on Nicholls’ debut feature Shotgun Stories (2007) and there’s clearly an understanding between the two of them on how to get the best out of each other. Shannon turns in a career-best performance as a man holding on by his fingertips in an unsafe world, who is struggling to comprehend the visions he is having and unsure whether he is protecting his family from harm or putting them in harm’s way by his actions.

Chastain is given a more rounded role than the angelic, ethereal one she played in Terrence Mallick’s The Tree of Life earlier this year and does a fine job, although quite why the scene in which Curtis finally tells her what’s going on doesn’t allow her a response is a bit mystifying.

The dream sequences are especially unsettling, while the ending, which makes you reassess everything you’ve seen before, is sure to be a talking point for those watching it. And watch it you should.