Tag Archives: crime drama

Movie Review: A Most Violent Year (2014)

A Most Violent Year

Now that the Oscars are over I’m going to continue my movie reviews with a huge snub. For whatever reason, the critically acclaimed A Most Violent Year was not even on any radars this Oscars season, which is strange considering it features so many critic-pleasing characteristics — a unique premise, moral quandaries, superb performances, gripping drama, crafty action, and that solemn, Oscar-bait feel of a top-class production.

Written and directed by JC Chandor (previously best known for Margin Call), A Most Violent Year is set in 1981, widely regarded as one of New York’s most violent years. Oscar Isaac (Finding Llewyn Davis, The Two Faces of January) is Abel Morales, the seemingly upright owner of a heating oil company on the verge of a major breakthrough. But when his oil trucks begin to get hijacked, making him to lose not just money but also precious reputation, Abel finds himself being painted into a corner and forced to take drastic action. At the same time, a local assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) begins to target Abel for alleged anti-competitive practices and tax evasion.

A Most Violent Year, despite its name, is not a particularly violent movie by today’s standards. What it lacks in violence, the film makes up in tension, atmosphere and style, though the presentation is grounded firmly in reality. In an age where protagonists are typically remarkable people with otherworldly skills, experiences or attributes, Abel is portrayed as an ordinary man with real fears and emotions like you and me. Unlike typical modern crime thrillers, are no criminal masterminds in this film, no outrageous coincidences, no expert marksmen or world-class racing car drivers in getaway cars.

And yet, rather than coming across as dull, the film becomes actually more compelling because it enables us to genuinely sympathise and empathise with the characters and their predicaments. Overexposure to onscreen surrealism has made most of us numb, so it’s refreshing to be reminded that, hey, guns are scary; dealing with mafia people is scary; burglars are scary; police looking into your business — even if it’s perfectly legitimate — is scary.

None of this would have been possible, of course, without Chandor’s skilful direction and script, which prove that he is a filmmaker who has clearly studied the classic works of the genre and the techniques of the masters. Rather than loud and shaky, the action sequences are smooth, slick and suspenseful, notwithstanding the lack of explosions and rapid cuts. Rather than pretentious and dull, the silences and lingering shots actually have meaning.

The other key element is the central performance by Isaac, who is destined for stardom and will apparently appear in the next Star Wars movies. He’s a tremendous talent who deserved recognition for this controlled and charismatic performance where anger, desperation and fear are all delivered with nuance and subtlety. It’s perhaps not a stretch to say he channels a young Al Pacino’s portrayal of Michael Corleone.

All of the supporting actors are very good too, especially Jessica Chastain as Abel’s astute wife, whose father is implied as not being the most upstanding citizen. David Oyelowo, who got a whole lot of attention at the Oscars ceremony for his Selma snub, is also solid, as are Albert Brooks as Abel’s lawyer and Elyes Gabel as one of Abel’s troubled employees.

I will readily admit that it is not a film for most modern average movie-goers, who tend to expect a lot of things to happen on the screen at all times. A Most Violent Year has a deliberately measured pace I would have found slow in my youth, and it adopts a “less in more” mentality in its execution some might find dull. While it is undeniably interesting, I would not be surprised if others wonder what the fuss is all about.

This is a ultimately story about a good man trying to survive in a corrupt world, and having to make some very difficult choices and compromises along the way. Gritty and brooding, and powered by Chandor’s self-assured approach, A Most Violent Year harks back to crime classics like Goodfellas, Heat and even The Godfather. It’s of course not quite on the level of those epics, but it is still a classy, well-executed film that commands your attention and respect.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

pines

OK, I can see why the ladies love Ryan Gosling. If nothing else, the guy knows how to choose his roles.

We’re barely halfway through the year, but rest assured that The Place Beyond the Pines will be in my top 10 for 2013. As epic crime dramas go, they don’t get much better than this. Much like how Gosling’s 2011 classic, Drive, hypnotized me from the opening scene, Pines had me gripped all the way through. (But don’t be mistaken into thinking that the two films are in any way similar)

Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance (who previously collaborated with Gosling on the depressing Blue Valentine), Pines is an unusual film in that it abandons the traditional three act structure film students are told to adhere to. I guess you could treat it as three interconnected three-act pieces, or just one massive three-part epic. Whatever it is, it’s awesome.

It’s hard to go into plot details without giving away spoilers, so I’ll try my best to skirt around the edges. Ryan Gosling plays a circus motorcycle stunt rider who is forced to settle down when an old fling played by Eva Mendes drops a bombshell: they have a son. To make ends meet, Gosling finds a job at a shady auto shop run by Aussie Ben Mendelsohn, who teaches him how to earn lots of cash by making the most of Gosling’s amazing riding skills.

Meanwhile, Bradley Cooper plays a low-ranking but intelligent and ambitious cop who is given an opportunity to rise up the ranks, but at a cost that will challenge his sense of righteousness and morality. It’s probably not a spoiler to say that Ray Liotta plays a corrupt officer — I mean, what else could he be?

I don’t think the storyline itself is necessarily very original, but Cianfrance’s storytelling is sublime. He is a master of subtlety, atmosphere and tone — the film is dark, sombre and intentionally slow in some parts, but it draws you in with skillfully crafted tension and refuses to let go. Perhaps it was overly ambitious in some respects, though I can’t fault Cianfrance for trying.

The performances are some of the best I’ve seen this year. Gosling’s at his charismatic, brooding and vulnerable best — that I am used to by now — though I was completely blindsided by Cooper, who probably delivered the performance of a lifetime. He received an Oscar nomination for Silver Linings Playbook, but he is arguably even better here.

I just loved it from start to finish and was blown away by the conclusion. Pines won’t be for everyone, but those who get it will jump on the bandwagon.

4.5 out of 5!