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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Four Frames – The Godfather: Part II (1974)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that shows film in a wider context. It’s the festive season and The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews with the theme of ‘family’. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘family’ classic The Godfather: Part II.

Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer. As for family, well…

Towards the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s tenebrous portrait of a family eating itself from the inside, an aghast Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) asks his adopted brother Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) why he wants to wipe everyone out when he’s already won, to which he’s cooly informed: “I don’t feel I have to wipe everybody out, Tom, just my enemies.”

The Godfather: Part II

Just who isn’t an enemy in Don Corleone’s paranoid mind by this time is open to debate, but any hope of saving his corrupted soul from damnation evaporates when he has his own brother Fredo (Jon Cazale) killed. Fredo is a dead man walking from the moment Michael discovers his weak-willed brother has ties to Florida crime lord Herman Roth (Lee Strasberg), a former associate of their father whom Michael is convinced wants him dead.

The die is cast when, during a New Year’s Eve party in Havana, Michael dramatically embraces his brother and says “I know it was you… you broke my heart”. Despite seemingly acquiescing to his sister Connie’s (Talia Shire) pleas for Fredo to be brought back into the family fold following their mother’s death, it’s mere window dressing; Fredo is nothing more than an enemy in Michael’s eyes that needs to be “wiped out”.

The Godfather: Part II

The Shakespearian tragedy of this moment is lent even greater weight when Coppola flashes back to a Corleone family dinner party almost 20 years earlier in which a wide-eyed Michael defiantly resists taking after his brothers into the ‘family business’ by announcing that he’s signed up for the Marines following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Ironically, Fredo is the only one to support his decision.

This scene evokes the Michael we meet at the start of The Godfather (1972); a man determined to live a life governed by his American future rather than his Sicilian past, which is exemplified by his relationship with Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). However, just when he thought he was out, the family business pulls him back in.

The Godfather: Part II

When Kay reminds him of his promise to make the family’s affairs legitimate within five years of becoming Don (“that was seven years ago”), Michael swears he’s doing all he can. However, cinematographer Gordon Willis’ low-lighting tells another story. Indeed, darkness gradually envelops the film as the light of hope and redemption is extinguished.

Michael comes to see Kay as little more than a vessel to produce a son in order to continue the Corleone line and a revealing moment comes when, instead of enquiring about his wife’s health after receiving news of her miscarriage, he demands to know whether it was a boy.

The Godfather: Part II

A later confrontation accentuates the irrecoverable chasm that has opened up between them. So blinded by what he has become, he is indifferent to Kay’s heartbreaking admission that “at this moment I feel no love for you at all”, but reacts with volcanic rage when she drops a bombshell about their lost child. When Michael closes the door on Kay, he is also closing the door on any future happiness.

While the family business thrives, Michael’s other family lays in ruins, a victim of ruthless ambition and rampant neurosis. Sat alone at the end of the film, dead-eyed and paralysed by vengeful enmity, we see what it has cost him.

Directors Who Should Call It A Day

I recently ran the Debuts Blogathon with Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop which examined the first features of directors from the length and breadth of world cinema.

One of the areas I was keen for each entry to examine was whether a director’s early output matched their later work. It’s rare to find a director with an unblemished record, but there’s nothing sadder than seeing one whose work you once fervently followed becoming a shadow of their former selves.

In the same way that too many highly respected icons of the big screen gradually transform themselves into jobbing actors (I’m talking to you De Niro), there are unfortunately numerous examples of directors whose later films are a stark contrast to their early career.

You may disagree with some or all of these, but the following are five directors who really should call it a day for the sake of their professional credibility.

Who are the directors you wish would call it quits?

John Carpenter

John Carpenter

From his under-appreciated stoner sci-fi debut Dark Star, Carpenter went on a near-spotless run that included such undisputed genre classics as Assault On Precinct 13, Escape From New York, Halloween, Big Trouble In Little China, They Live and, of course, The Thing. It was always going to be a challenge to keep that sort of hit rate up, but the poorly received Escape From LA ushered in a slow, steady decline. Carpenter’s since limped on to direct a number of critical and commercial failures, including the ill-conceived Chevy Chase-starring Memoirs Of An Invisible Man, Ghosts Of Mars and, most recently, the little seen horror The Ward. Although Carpenter’s involvement in the numerous shoddy remakes/reimaginings of his best films seems to take up more of his time these days, one can only hope he decides not to tarnish his once great reputation by sitting himself down again in the director’s chair.

Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola

It can be argued that it’s a little unfair to include Francis Ford Coppola on this list as his last three projects – Youth Without Youth (2007), Tetro (2009) and Twixt (2011) – are smaller, more personal films, but the decline in the quality of his output is sad indeed when you consider what a titan he was. There was no greater filmmaker during the 1970s – The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979) is as incredible a run as you’re ever likely to find – and Coppola recaptured some of this magic in his 80s movies Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club and Peggy Sue Got Married. But the wheels started to fall off with 1990’s The Godfather Part III (not a terrible film by any means, but a pale shadow of its earlier chapters) and by the time of the Robin Williams ‘comedy’ Jack Coppola had turned into what we hoped he’d never become – a hack-for-hire.

M. Night Shyamalan

M Night Shyamalan

What the hell happened to M. Night Shyamalan? Or was he nothing more than a one-trick pony? The Sixth Sense announced Shyamalan’s arrival in some style, while its superior follow-up Unbreakable (his best film) and alien invasion movie Signs seemed to suggest he was the real deal (let’s forget the final five minutes of Signs just for now). Even 2004’s The Village had its moments, but the cracks started to show in 2006’s Lady In The Water, which features a film critic being horribly killed (in case you wondered whether Shyamalan has a sense of humour, that was your answer). From there his movies have continued to soil a once-promising career, most notably 2008’s The Happening, a film so baffling in its concept and so inept in its execution you have to admire the fact it got made in the first place.

Brian De Palma

Brian De Palma

Five years before Robert De Niro exploded onto the big screen in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets he got his big break in De Palma’s 1968 satire Greetings. De Palma actually gave De Niro his first screen appearance in The Wedding Party, released in 1969, but made six years earlier. For this alone De Palma deserves credit, although he didn’t need Bobby’s help to direct some genuine classics of late 70s and 80s American cinema, including Carrie (1976), Blow Out (1981), Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1986) and the troubling Casualties Of War (1989). His last great work – Carlito’s Way – was made 20 years ago and in the intervening period his career has gradually nose-dived, from clunky sci-fi Mission To Mars, to the heavy-handed War on Terror polemic Redacted and deeply disappointing The Black Dahlia, which merely underlined his status as the poor man’s Alfred Hitchcock. To make matters worse, his most recent film, 2012’s Passion pales in comparison to his earlier erotic thrillers. Time to bow out Brian.

Tim Burton

Tim Burton

There was a time when I awaited a new Tim Burton film with genuine anticipation. In the late 80s and 90s Burton was responsible for a whole new aesthetic in Hollywood moviemaking. Burton-esque even became a term to describe a certain brand of weird and wonderful cinema, while his surprising appointment as the director of 1989’s hugely successful Batman became the template used by Marvel two decades later (Kenneth Branagh being chosen to direct Thor, for example). Burton has generally been at his best when sticking to more personal material; the problem is that he doesn’t stick to this, choosing instead to clutter his filmography with ever-more disappointing big budget studio pictures, from the misguided Planet Of The Apes remake, to the lacklustre Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, woeful Alice In Wonderland and boring Dark Shadows. There was hope in 2012’s Frankenweenie, but when taken alongside his recent output this feels like a blip in an otherwise stalled career.