The Hard Road of A Most Violent Year

In his 2011 debut film “Margin Call“, writer/director J.C. Chandor has a Wall Street executive speak three supposed key skills to managing the world of stocks: “Be first, be smarter, or cheat.” With his latest feature, “A Most Violent Year“, Chandor presents the story of a man trying desperately to stick to the first two skills and whole-heartedly avoid the third. Chandor doesn’t make it look easy, especially considering he sets this test of a man in one of the most violent times in American history; New York City in 1981. Regardless, the soul of a dedicated man is hard to break.
That man is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an established immigrant selling heating oil in New York City. Amidst all of the dirty deals and bloodshed in the city, Abel tries his best to keep out of gangster life. He’s a decent man in an indecent time dealing with men stealing his delivery trucks and selling the oil to competitors, an irksome District Attorney (David Oyelowo), and trying to close on a new facility while being strapped for cash. Fortunately Abel has the support of his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain) a strong and stylish blonde who gets her thick skin from her father, a mob man himself. She is proud of her husband’s success and defends her family in the face of doubters, but she’s getting tired of her husband frowning upon dirty deals and not accepting them as the norm. With more robberies, money getting tighter and options running low, Abel must decide what kind of business man he really wants to be.
Chandor’s movie is one that requires great patience to be enjoyed. He doesn’t rush his actors or let the image of a faded and frigid New York City go to waste. With the help of cinematographer Bradford Young, Chandor never wastes a shot of his actors or his setting. He shows each emotion hit his characters and the imposing structure of New York City. His writing is solid as well, but nothing that truly flies off the page. Chandor gives Abel and Anna their own monologues that establish their character, then lets their physical actions speak for themselves. Again, it takes time in-between scenes and words to have these characters build to a boiling point.
Thankfully, Chandor knows how to pick his actors. Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis“) continues to make bids for being an acting heavyweight. He’s imposing, not for being scary but for his stature and composure. It’s as if he’s got the power of The Godfather with none of the criminal notes. He wears his soul on his sleeve and shows physical struggle when his back is against the wall. All the bite in this movie comes from Jessica Chastain (“Interstellar“), the mob daughter whose extended nails might as well be dragon claws. Everything from her posture to her hair bob screams something fierce underneath her red lipstick. Chastain sinks her teeth into this role and it feels effortless. She and Isaac, both Juilliard alums, are perfect foils for each other and their romance seems natural. Isaac’s Abel keeps his soul clean at all cost, while Chastain’s Anna keeps her family secure at all costs. They both crave success, but differ on how to get there. The plot could simply be about Abel and Anna’s clashes and comfort of each other and it would still be riveting. Both actors have great support in the likes of Oyelowo (also acting gold thanks to “Selma“), Albert Brooks as Abel’s lawyer, and Elyes Gabel as one of Abel’s desperate employees. Everyone around Abel is just picking away at his soul waiting to see the nobel man break.
If there are faults with “A Most Violent Year”, though there are few, it’s that it doesn’t dig deep enough into the mind of Abel and Anna. There are many more skeletons in Anna’s closet than she lets on, but Abel sees that ignorance is bliss. But he misses one of the points he gets across in the early going; the hardest thing anyone will do is look someone in the eye and tell him the truth. Anna has probably never done that to Abel, for her or her family’s sake, but it would’ve made a much more interesting movie. Look at “Gone Girl“; who is a better sparring partner than your sexual partner? It’s a shame that the movie missed out on that opportunity and go for a more subtle end product.

Final Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars

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Winter is Here for Captain America

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Iron Man can fight giant robots lead by a guy who can spit fire. Thor can fight gods and dark elves of the many realms in the universe. Hulk can basically smash anything he wants without rhyme or reason. With all of that said, what exactly makes Captain America’s life so exciting? Sure, he fought Red Skull and the Nazi side project Hydra during World War II and America is all the more grateful. However, he isn’t in the 1940s anymore: It’s 2014 and he has a lot of catching up to do. Steve Rodgers is a man out of time, meaning he’s not up to date America’s new government policy of red, white, and corruption. Yes, paranoia and bad politics round out the fast, fun, and stellar return of Marvel’s American hero in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

Chris Evans, the man formerly known as The Human Torch, is back playing Steve Rodgers as S.H.I.E.L.D’s star employee, Captain America. Despite the encouragement of fellow agent Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson) to get out in the world, Rodgers feels alone and out of place in the 21st century. He’s trying to learn about Thai food and Nirvana while completing the various vague missions issued by S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Fury is in the midst of issuing a worldwide police force through 3 massive flying warships, which Fury describes as stopping the threat before it happens but Captain America calls fear through firearms. Cap doesn’t trust Fury, but he’s going to have to considering a mysterious assassin named The Winter Soldier attacks Fury. Accused of being involved with the plot by S.H.I.E.L.D executive Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), Captain America is labeled a fugitive by the organization that saved his life. More paranoid than ever, Captain America must work with the sly Romanov and a former military pilot named Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to discover what’s really going on behind the closed doors of his own employers.

This is a plot with many moving parts, which is a big step for Marvel Studios. Thankfully, most of it locks into place and works nicely. The action is very impressive with a healthy balance of stealth, bare-knuckle brawls, and spectacular special effect-driven aerial attacks. Anthony and Joe Russo, the directors of the film, carefully balance the “politicians are evil” spy movie with the typical summer popcorn movie.

Captain America only has half of the charm of Iron Man, a quarter of the emotional struggle of Hulk, and 1/100 of the power of Thor (possibly less). Fortunately, he’s played by an impressive actor in Chris Evans, who plays Cap like a conflicted man with strong morals that are constantly being dated. The dimensions that Evans added to Cap in “The Avengers” are brought up front here, and it builds great character development. Evans also has great support from Johansson, Jackson, Mackie, and Redford. Basically everyone is here to help push Captain America into the public conscience and they succeed.

Granted, this movie isn’t flawless: It suffers from vertigo-inducing camera movement at times, a pretty obvious villain, and a mostly by the books ending. Redford, as great as he was in last year’s “All Is Lost,” seems to be phoning his performance in. The Winter Soldier himself is given very little character development (although his true identity is not that hard to figure out if one saw the first movie), along with Mackie’s Sam Wilson. It’s a bit frustrating because there is plenty of potential in some of these small characters.

While “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is not as smart or grown up as it would like to be, it’s still a great piece of pre-summer popcorn movie fun. It’s definitely better than its predecessor (and “Thor: The Dark World”) and also better put together by “Iron Man 3.” It’s action and plot is smarter than the average Marvel movie, though a little more wit and humor could’ve helped. The important thing is that this could’ve been worse (look what happened to the Thor sequel). Hopefully the cannon of humor will be filled by “Guardians of the Galaxy” come August, but the bar for summer movies has been set high by the man in stars and stripes.

Final Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars

It’s A Lemon

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When it comes to movies that have cars as a main element, there is a specific rule that needs to be followed: Have fun with it! There is a reason that “Smokey & The Bandit” and the 6 “Fast & Furious” movies are so beloved, and it’s not because of thespian acting or provocative dialogue. All viewers have to do is check their brains with their coats at the door, sit back, and expect the laws of physics and gravity to be broken with ease. Even a movie like “Bullitt,” with a dead-serious Steve McQueen on a hunt for justice, is famous for a car chase that dropped the jaws of young male baby boomers. Car movies are supposed to be fun, stupid, and aware of how fun and stupid they can be. Unfortunately, fun and stupid is not the first 2 adjectives that come to mind when one thinks of Jesse from TV’s “Breaking Bad.”

            The man behind Jesse, Aaron Paul, plays mechanic/street racer/smolder-faced Tobey Marshall. Tobey’s garage is behind on mortgage payments on his family’s garage, so he takes a job ramping up a Ford Mustang from a former friend, Dino (Dominic Cooper). Dino sells the car to a businessman and his snappy British daughter, Julia (Imogen Poots) and offers to settle Tobey’s money problems in a race with him and Dino’s brother-in-law, Pete (Harrison Gilbertson). Dino runs Pete off the road at nearly 200 mph and kills him, but Dino pegs the death on Tobey, who gets thrown in jail. When he is released after some time, Tobey reassembles his old crew (including rapper Kid Cudi as his airborne traffic monitor) to find Dino and get revenge. He plans to drive to California in the Mustang he restored and enter an illegal race Dino has entered to win cars. Julia accompanies him, making sure the car stays intact, as he speeds cross-country to avenge the death of his friend.

            Now the term “speeds” is not entirely accurate when describing this movie. At 130 minutes, this movie drags, skids, sputters, and any other slow car pun that comes to mind. The plot is a typical “I WILL AVENGE YOU” action movie, though with decidedly less action than normal. For a movie based off of a racing videogame that involved crashing and cop car chases, only 1/3rd of the movie has car chases. Further more, the chases are not the least bit exciting or fun. The cars used are certainly nice to look at, but there are no real exciting collisions or races in this movie. There are shots of crashes, but only from the view of the pedestrian cars that get sideswiped (because when one sees a car movie, he’d rather watch a Toyota Tundra get totaled more than a Bugatti speed off, right?). Former stunt coordinator turned director Scott Waugh (“Act of Valor”) wants the audience to take “Need for Speed” way too seriously and takes all the fun out of the movie.

            The acting is also a huge disappointment. There’s no doubt Aaron Paul is a good actor, but playing such a dark role on “Breaking Bad” has left a big impression on him. Paul has no charm or charisma and instead just keeps a grim stare throughout the entire film. Ms. Poots is a beautiful woman, but an annoying presence on screen. Her only purpose is to be the worrisome, semi-witty, British eye candy for male viewers to swoon over. The auto-crew of Tobey is meant to be the comic relief, but never show anything beyond general blandness, except for Kid Cudi, who is basically in this movie because the budget couldn’t afford Jamie Foxx. Dominic Cooper is terribly misused as the bland, boring villain who’s got nothing on Cooper’s epic portrayal of Uday Hussein in “The Devil’s Double,” which is way more fun and crazy than this boring piece of car porn. Not even the presence of a super hammy Michael Keaton as the host of the ending race can save the film.

            It’s unsure if this can be called another poor movie based off of a videogame or just a cheap “Fast & Furious” rip-off, but it is most definitely a bad movie. “Need for Speed” is supposed to be fast, fun, dumb, and painless: Instead, it’s slow, boring, numbing and painful. There was a lot of potential with such a hot young cast and some hot cars merged together, but audiences want destructive races instead of empty spaces of dialogue and grimaces. So with that said….can we get a “Burnout” movie please?

 Final Verdict: 1 out of 4 stars