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A MOST VIOLENT YEAR ***1/2
IDEA: In a violent, corrupted 1981 New York City, an immigrant entrepreneur attempts to expand his heating-oil empire - and retain his morals - as criminal competition threatens to vitiate his progress.
BLURB: A Most Violent Year is a lean, sophisticated, often exquisitely understated piece of genre filmmaking. Taking after the coolheaded precision of its main character, a dogged entrepreneur played with low key intensity by Oscar Isaac, J.C. Chandor crafts his film with deliberate, almost imperceptibly building force, always moving fastidiously forward. This concentrated approach is key to the film’s eerily naturalistic effect: never flashy or melodramatic, it plays like a classic 70s crime drama that’s been entirely stripped of its sensationalism. Here, bullets and fists make sudden, incontrovertible impacts. A chase scene may be thrilling, but the overwhelming feeling is one of exhaustion. Despite the title, Chandor rarely displays violent acts on screen, and when he does, they land with a brutal, shocking weight befitting real life. Most of the time, however, the violence is what is threatened and what is elided, what lurks beneath the becalmed surfaces of capitalism and domesticity but what must be constantly muffled or negotiated with. In making his protagonist about the most virtuous, straight-laced capitalist you could imagine, Chandor mounts his crime film like something of an anti-crime crime film, never allowing us to take pleasure in noxious impulses that are typically part and parcel of the genre’s appeal. Romanticism has no place here – a familiar notion A Most Violent Year makes hauntingly clear.
|Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on December 24, 2014 at 3:25 PM||comments (0)|
IDEA: An account of Cheryl Strayed, who sought to heal her personal demons and rebuild herself by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexico border to Canada.
BLURB: It’s so refreshing to see a modern, tough-minded mainstream movie centered around a strong female perspective, one is inclined to overlook or at least mentally diminish some of Wild’s more considerable problems. After all, Jean-Marc Vallée’s film is not without its merits: formally ambitious and sufficiently moving, with an impassioned performance from Reese Witherspoon, it is clearly a work into which much thought and care went. And while its motivational story retains traces of teary platitudinous moments, it is enlivened and complicated by a nonlinear narrative approach that enmeshes past and present in a swirling tapestry of image and sound. That impressionistic gambit, unfortunately, is both the film’s greatest asset and its most troublesome one, as genuinely poignant and evocative montage comes up against juxtapositions that seem strained and programmatic, either obviously telegraphing an emotion or else pushing ideas blatantly to the surface. Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby commit admirably to their sense memory, free-associative structure, but the effect is only intermittently successful, never clicking into gear in a sustained way. Still, Witherspoon is a worthy and compelling lead, and the editing by McMurphy and Pensa – not to mention terrific sound design that incorporates Leonard Cohen and Simon & Garfunkel into haunted physical and psychological spaces – keep things on course even as the bumpy narrative threatens to throw us off.
|Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on December 20, 2014 at 5:55 PM||comments (0)|
FORCE MAJEURE ***1/2
IDEA: Husband and father Tomas makes a dubious split-second decision when an avalanche seems to be headed toward him and his family. Nobody is physically harmed, but the emotional fallout begins to send shockwaves through a seemingly idyllic relationship.
BLURB: Force Majeure belongs to a tradition of formally rigorous art films that create atmospheres so eerily becalmed the most ordinary image becomes imbued with an insinuating dread. There’s always the feeling that fragile personal and social equilibriums are being held barely intact beneath a glassy façade, problems held at bay only until the slightest of pressures sends everything crashing to the ground. Collapse is always imminent; as Östlund maintains his fastidiously presented exterior, the people behind it are imploding with astonishing efficiency. Across two agonizing, spectacularly uncomfortable hours, we watch as a family unit’s precarious foundation visibly cracks underneath them, their assumptions, expectations, and insecurities – imposed by gender and self-perception – brought excruciatingly to the fore. Östlund gives neither us nor them anywhere to hide: the false, perhaps untenable ideals that underpin a relationship are dissected and scrutinized unblinkingly, long takes, wide shots, and stifling silences placing human interaction under an anthropological microscope. It’s grueling stuff, and perhaps a mite too studied for its own good, but Östlund’s formal shrewdness, eye for social behavior, and sneaky black humor keep the film’s personal and ethical quandaries alive and smoldering. Best of all, he leaves judgment up to us. The characters may at times be selfish, cowardly, accusatory, or myopic, but their problems, even if we’d like to think otherwise, could emerge at any moment as our own.
|Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on November 26, 2014 at 10:25 PM||comments (0)|
IDEA: John du Pont, heir to one of the US's largest fortunes, invites Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz and the rest of the American team to come train on his expansive estate, where things head toward inexorable tragedy.
BLURB: The real life story of an Olympic wrestler and his relationship with a sociopathic multimillionaire becomes the grounds for a dissection of the curdled American ethos in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher. Though perhaps somewhat dubious in its ascribing of determinants to a person who was likely mentally ill, as well as in its construing of these true events as a broader cultural statement, Miller’s film is never so conclusive as to read as disingenuous. Instead, he takes a critical look at a truly bizarre and shocking true story and mines it for all its (possible, probable) sociological and psychological implications, leaving the dazed viewer with just enough information to try to make sense of it all. Loyalty to facts or not, what is clear is this: Foxcatcher is quietly mesmerizing, a perpetually simmering portrait of souls lost and corroded on their way to perceived greatness that doesn’t have a hair out of place. With its sensationally able cast – Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo, among them channeling a spectrum of distressed physical states – it puts into place a roiling fabric of power relations that point up a cultural condition predicated on exploitation, violence, and delusion. Miller and ace DP Greig Fraser train an uncompromising, almost anthropological eye on masculinity, alternately wounded and inflamed, and the milieu that sublimates aggressive impulses into capitalism and privilege. It may be lots of speculation pertaining to ultimately inscrutable events, but that it seems so unnervingly plausible testifies to Foxcatcher's bruising emotional veracity.
|Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on November 14, 2014 at 6:15 PM||comments (0)|
DEAR WHITE PEOPLE ***1/2
IDEA: The lives of four black students at a predominantly white Ivy League school come under the fire of prejudice, identity politics, and institutional racism as the administration's randomized housing act threatens to dissolve the school's only black residence.
BLURB: For a topic still as incendiary as race relations in America, bringing it up at all is often enough to ignite a fire. It’s a double-edged sword: talk about the issue too much, and you’re exacerbating its presence; don’t talk about it enough, and you risk losing sight of it or denying the problem altogether. Thankfully, Justin Simien’s Dear White People is here to take the perilous walk along the blade, and it (mostly) does so with formidable and intrepid aplomb. Dialectical in a way too rarely seen in today’s cinema, Simien’s film is charged, prudent ideological filmmaking, daring to tackle pressing real world social issues in a way that accounts for all of their facets without pretending they’re actually reconcilable. The approach is highly effective, confrontational but not didactic: tracking multiple, often contradictory 21st century black perspectives, he manages to create a multilayered portrait of young black identities that never feels as if it’s picking sides or chastising. These characters represent the spectrum, and Simien allows them all to be seen and heard in equal measure. Even better, he creates a space for them that’s warm, witty, and equipped with wonderfully preemptive strikes against anyone who dares submit that centuries of entrenched racism have somehow vanished in Obama’s America. At the very least, Dear White People promulgates a sage discourse that ensures such inanity isn’t easily let off the hook.
|Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on November 5, 2014 at 8:25 PM||comments (0)|
IDEA: An aspring jazz drummer comes to a prestigious music conservatory, where he is subjected to the cruel, authoritarian mentorship of his ruthless instructor.
BLURB: Rarely has giving blood, sweat and tears to your art been depicted as literally as in Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s blistering, somatically exhausting portrait of unrelenting artistic pursuit. Through Sharone Meir’s dread-soaked cinematography and Tom Cross’s frenzied editing, the mastery of music becomes not only beautiful but potentially deadly, the act of drumming a visceral display of masculine violence that requires as much in the way of precision and elegance as in animal fury. In the combustible relationship between J.K. Simmons’ virulent instructor and Miles Teller’s increasingly fevered protégé, written and performed with great complexity, Chazelle finds a highly unnerving representation of the artist as sadomasochist, driving himself toward destruction while justifying internal and external abuse as necessary motivators. The dynamic is deliciously multifaceted, never settling for an easy mentor/mentee dialectic but shifting, in increasingly disturbing ways, the negotiation of power and dominance between the two and the dangerously symbiotic exchange of influences that reinforces the beliefs of both. Unfortunately, Chazelle often loses his thread of logic – the world he’s set up is rather ill-defined, both realistic and heightened, often veering into outlandishness – but any depiction of all-consuming artistic obsession that dares venture into territory this dark and provocative is one that can get away with spiraling out of control every now and then.
|Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on October 30, 2014 at 9:05 PM||comments (0)|
BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) ***1/2
Alejandro González Iñárritu
IDEA: Riggan Thomson, a fading movie star made famous for his Birdman superhero films but unable to move beyond them, mounts a big Broadway play in the hopes of winning back his relevance.
BLURB: Films about show business have always been among Hollywood’s specialties, dual celebrations and invectives of an insular, narcissistic culture made by and largely for people from within that very culture. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) carries on the tradition, mobilizing distinctly 21st century idioms to show what happens when that world of illusion and delusion enters into the realm of the hyperreal. Though in many ways a recitation of the backstage drama recipe with additional razzle dazzle, Birdman rises above the fray through its astonishing formal daring, a conceit that, far from mere showboating (although it is that, too), is the film’s raison d’être. González Iñárritu and Lubezki’s flabbergasting work is more than a neat trick; the camera’s uninterrupted simulation of verisimilitude and artifice is the discombobulating point, serving to push all of Birdman’s nested realities onto the same heady plane. Toying liberally with diegesis and audience perception/recognition, we are forced into a nebulous universe of endlessly mirroring quotations and associations as life and art, authenticity and performance, become absolutely enmeshed. Many films have had fun with the meta-textuality afforded cinema, but Birdman, in its deliberate navel-gazing and hypertrophic self-awareness, takes it all just a hair further. This is cinema as ouroboros, as simulacrum, referential of everything and yet nothing but itself.
|Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on October 24, 2014 at 6:10 PM||comments (0)|