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 inĀ 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 – Ex Machina

The irony cannot be lost on Alex Garland that the release of his efficiently tense sci-fi parable about the dangers of playing god should follow Stephen Hawking’s apocalyptic warnings that mankind is ushering in its own doom with its unquenchable drive towards creating thinking machines.

Although hardly original, Ex Machina asks enough of the right questions to make it an enticing and worthy addition to the sci-fi canon

Although hardly original, Ex Machina asks enough of the right questions to make it an enticing and worthy addition to the sci-fi canon

While Hawking is more inclined to go down the road of judgement day when the moment of so-called ‘singularity’ arrives and machines finally gain conscious thought and the ability to reproduce, Garland has been quoted as saying that his sympathies ultimately lie with the robots rather than their creators.

It’s a philosophy that courses through the circuits of his low-key directorial debut Ex Machina, wherein computer coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a week with his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive billionaire owner of Bluebook, the world’s most popular search engine.

Guns out: Nathan (Oscar Isaac) shows seven-stone weakling Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) how to do it in Ex Machina

Guns out: Nathan (Oscar Isaac) shows seven-stone weakling Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) how to do it in Ex Machina

Nathan has brought Caleb out to his wayward mountain estate in order to perform the Turing Test on his experimental humanoid cyborg Ava (Alicia Vikander) to determine whether she/it can exhibit intelligent behaviour and pass herself/itself off as human.

In spite of the glass wall between them, Caleb and Ava form a bond that both troubles and allures the young programmer and this soon evolves into something far more complicated as questions over Nathan’s real motives start to emerge.

I Robot: Ava (Alicia Vikander) learns more about herself in Ex Machina

I Robot: Ava (Alicia Vikander) learns more about herself in Ex Machina

Ever since Dr Frankenstein brought life to his creation in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, writers and filmmakers have been fascinated by the dangers and enticements of playing god. This took the form of robots in Fritz Lang’s masterful Metropolis (1927) and has been spelling our doom ever since, most notably in The Terminator (1984); the film Hawking possibly most thinks reflects where we’re headed.

While acknowledging the tech fear of The Terminator et al, Garland’s chamber piece is more concerned with exploring the impact Ava’s behaviour has on the two men. When Ava subtly flirts with Caleb, he cannot help responding in kind in spite of himself. Likewise, when Caleb asks his boss why he’s sexualised his robot, Nathan the computer scientist gives a suitably technical response, while Nathan the red-blooded male follows it up with a playful shrug and an explanation that sex serves a primary purpose.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) - not replacing a contact lens - in Ex Machina

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) – not replacing a contact lens – in Ex Machina

Cooped up for all intents and purposes in a glass prison, we inevitably start to feel sympathy for Ava and it’s to the film’s credit that as it morphs into a tech-thriller and tries to throw us off the scent, that emotional engagement is maintained.

Vikander gives a wholly convincing performance as Ava and invests the cyborg with a complexity befitting such a well-rounded character. Her movement is both graceful and artificial and brings to mind Haley Joel Osment’s underrated turn as David, the robot who just wants to be a boy in A.I: Artificial Intelligence (2001).

Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) bond in Ex Machina

Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) bond in Ex Machina

The chameleonic Isaac is typically excellent as Nathan, whose arrogance and petulance are matched by his pathetic weirdness, not least during a drunken disco dance with his mute servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) which is as odd as it is amusing. Meanwhile, Gleeson (who will be teaming up again with Isaac in that other sci-fi movie later this year) builds upon his recent good work in Frank and Unbroken with another solid turn as the somewhat overwhelmed programmer who starts to question his own humanity as the truth of what is happening takes hold.

Although hardly original, Ex Machina asks enough of the right questions to make it an enticing and worthy addition to the sci-fi canon.

Review – Inside Llewyn Davis

The landscape of American film has changed considerably in the 30 years since Joel and Ethan Coen announced themselves with their blackly comic neo-noir debut Blood Simple.

It may be as difficult to pin down as its leading character, but Inside Llewyn Davis is achingly beautiful and melacholic and another masterpiece from the Coens

It may be as difficult to pin down as its leading character, but Inside Llewyn Davis is achingly beautiful and melancholic and another masterpiece from the Coens

Once dismissively bracketed as ‘arthouse’, the Coens are among a handful of gifted filmmakers to have transformed the cinematic panorama without compromising their unique sensibility; to the extent their bleakly violent 2007 masterpiece No Country For Old Men won Best Film and Best Director Oscars and made a ton of money at the box office to boot.

With this, their 16th film, the Coens almost out-Coen themselves with a Russian doll of a movie that’s as enigmatic as it is engrossing.

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) takes to the stage in Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) takes to the stage in Inside Llewyn Davis

The roster of seemingly cursed characters with a leaning towards self-destruction is a growing one in the Coens’ filmography and Llewyn Davis’ tractionless folk musician is right up there with Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There‘s Ed Crane Larry Gopnik from A Serious Man.

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is, like the songs he plays, “never new and never gets old” and spends his days drifting around New York’s early-60s Greenwich Village playing the odd gig and relying on the generosity of friends for a place to lay his head. You get the sense things have been this way since his former musical partner Mike committed suicide a few years earlier, while his only solo album, Inside Llewyn Davis, has fallen through the critical and commercial cracks.

Please Mr Kennedy! Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) performs session guitar for friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver) in Inside Llewyn Davis

Please Mr Kennedy! Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) performs session guitar for friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver) in Inside Llewyn Davis

His inertia has left him bitter, despite (or because of) it being almost entirely his own fault. Llewyn simply can’t fathom how or why the folk-by-numbers tunes of the innocuous Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) “connect with people” and can’t hide his derision when playing session guitar on the inane folk-pop pap Please Mr Kennedy (the film’s standout hilarious scene) written by his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake). Meanwhile, Jim and Llewyn’s ex-flame, the perennially angry Jean (Carey Mulligan), are also starting to make waves on the folk scene as a duet – another sign that he’s being left behind.

Opportunities present themselves, but Llewyn has a compulsion to snatch defeat from the jaws of something more prosperous. An audition for respected Chicago producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) comes to naught when, instead of playing something catchy, Llewyn instead chooses the sombre ballad The Death Of Queen Jane. Grossman’s pithy summation “I don’t see a lot of money here” firstly reminds us why it’s called the music business, and secondly underscores the fact Llewyn’s always going to be a square box trying to fit in a round hole.

The angry Jean (Carey Mulligan) in Inside Llewyn Davis

The angry Jean (Carey Mulligan) in Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coens’ very best films open themselves up to multiple interpretations and Inside Llewyn Davis is no different. For me, the oppressive sense of death hangs over the film like a shroud, to the extent that it could be argued the world we see Llewyn wandering around is some kind of purgatory.

Bruno Delbonnel’s chilly cinematography lends the film a ghostly pallor, while the eerie road trip Llewyn takes with beat poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and obnoxious Dr John-alike jazz muso Roland Turner (the one and only John Goodman) from New York to Chicago is like something out of a supernatural nightmare, with ominous-sounding vehicles screeching past their car.

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) and the cat he can't seem to shake off in Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) and the cat he can’t seem to shake off in Inside Llewyn Davis

Furthermore, the cat(s) that Llewyn cannot seem to escape from have long been regarded as a symbol of death, while the fact one of the cats is called Ulysses could be a reference to Tennyson’s celebrated poem of the same name (rather than James Joyce’s novel) about a man with the spectre of death hanging over him.

The songs Llewyn performs are also soaked in morbidity, from The Death Of Queen Jane, to Hang Me Oh Hang Me (“wouldn’t mind the hangin… but the layin in the grave so long”), while the film’s elliptical structure could be seen as purgatorial. Mind you, it just as easily be about a poor schmuck living day-to-day and who gets saddled with a cat. That’s the Coens for you.

The Dr John-alike obnoxious jazz muso Roland Turner (John Goodman) in Inside Llewyn Davis

The Dr John-alike obnoxious jazz muso Roland Turner (John Goodman) in Inside Llewyn Davis

Isaac gives a superlative performance as the downtrodden Llewyn, a curious figure who’s his own worst enemy but somehow illicits our sympathy. There’s something both maddening and admirable about his bloody-mindedness.

The Coens have been accused in the past of being unsympathetic towards their characters and it’s a charge that’s been levelled at Llewyn Davis. This is to miss the point, however. Llewyn is flawed, of that there is no doubt, but Isaac injects the character with real pathos.

It may be as difficult to pin down as its leading character, but Inside Llewyn Davis is achingly beautiful and melancholic and another masterpiece from the Coens.