Friday, January 16, 2015
A Most Violent Year
The story is set in New York City in the 1981. Neatly dressed Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) runs a successful heating oil company that he inherited from his wife Anna's (Jessica Chastain) late gangster father. However, Abel is not a gangster, and he refuses to be one despite that his oil trucks are constantly robbed by thugs lately and he is under scrutiny by the assistant DA Lawrence (David Oyelowo) for fraud and tax evasion, which Abel categorically denies.
With an ambitious business plan in mind, accompanied by his low-key lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks), Abel puts down all he has for the down payment to purchase an oil holding facility from its Jewish owner. When his banker backs off from him due to the problems he is facing, Abel has little time left to close the deal and save his business.
J.C. Chandor surely knows the art of telling a compelling story: special effects and big explosion don't necessarily win the audience over, but well-written and finely acted characters certainly take root with the audience. Almost every role in this film, big or small, has a unique and mesmerizing personality. He never wastes a single scene and completely captivates his audience with his story from the beginning to the end.
Oscar Isaac terrifically plays immaculate Abel who strikingly resembles Al Pacino in "The Godfather: Part II" (1974). He hardly raises his voice and never loses his cool. He always speaks eloquently with reasoning and confidence. He believes that he can win relying on his intelligence and his earnest hard working, instead of violence and mafia activities.
Unlike many films that treat female characters as a prop on a movie set, J.C. Chandor presents us a delightful character Anna. She is not only somebody who loves and supports Abel, but also is tough and smart. Jessica Chastain's superb performance makes Ann even more alive. You will never forget how she hits a calculator with a giant pencil before the era of personal computers.
Just like how Abel trains his employees how to make a sale, by making this film, J.C. Chandor gazes his audience right into the eyes saying: "if I tell another story in a new film, you better come to see it." We will.
Fifty-year-old Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is an accomplished linguist professor at Columbia University. Her daily routines both in the classroom and at home can't seem to be any better, until she experiences disorientation while jogging and begins to forget things. Her neurologist (Stephen Kunken) diagnoses that Alice has early-onset Alzheimer's disease. The news gets worse: it's very possible that the unfortunate gene has already been passed to her three grown children: Lydia (Kristen Stewart), Anna (Kate Bosworth), and Tom (Hunter Parrish).
Refuses to give in but also facing the reality, Alice courageously struggles to control her fate as much as she is able to, while the rest of the family, including her loving husband John (Alec Baldwin), offering comforting and support.
Clearly, the writer-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, are making a very personal film that reflects their own lives. After Richard Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS, his husband Wash Westmoreland becomes his caregiver. Perhaps that experience helps them to tell Alice's story from a unique compassionated perspective.
Giving the poignant subject matter, the film is remarkably unsentimental. Julianne Moore sensitively portrays Alice's heartbreaking transforming process from a vigorous and intelligent woman into a fragile and empty-minded shell. The constant close-up shots capture subtle changes that reveal the impact of this terrible disease.
The film places Alice at the center throughout, and lets us understand the impact of the disease from her point of view. However, that also overshadows other characters and makes them under-developed. One exception is Alice's youngest daughter, a free-spirited actor-to-be Lydia who is impressively played by Kristen Stewart. The scenes with Alice and Lydia together are always touching, sincere, and memorable.
Without any ice bucket, filmmakers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland bring awareness about Alzheimer's by telling Alice's story in this film and roll out the red carpet for Julianne Moore to receive her Oscar next month.
Growing up in religious and gun-loving Texas, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is taught by his father that people in the world can be classified as sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. He naturally assumes the role of a sheepdog. Realizing that being a cowboy doesn't seem to get him too far for that role, he joins the Navy SEALs.
Between his intense SEAL training, Chris meets a young woman Sienna Miller (Taya Kyle) during a bar outing. He quickly wins Sienna over with his charm and they get married. Once he is deployed to Iraq, their connection can only rely on the phone conversations, which are often cut by intense gun battles in a war zone.
Chris is extremely good at what he does. He takes out of enemies with incredible precision and earns himself a nickname "Legend" among soldiers. However, the war also has a tremendous impact on him. He withdraws from his family and lives in a war zone even when he is at home. Despite the plea from Sienna asking him to stay, he returns back to Iraq not once or twice, but three times.
Being a legendary director, Clint Eastwood is savvy in telling war stories and waving guns in his films. It's admirable for him not only showing us how Chris shoots in the war, but also how he struggles when he returns home. The film shows the enemies are destroyed by a superb sniper and his fellow soldiers, it also demonstrates that the war damages the body and mind of US soldiers as well.
The film dramatically simplifies the moral complexity of a war similar to how Chris is taught by his farther to view the world: there is evil out there, and Chris feels obligated to be a sheepdog to protect his fellow soldiers. That also appears to be his motivation to go back to Iraq repeatedly, because he cannot get over with the trauma of how his comrades were killed or injured. But what if these soldiers were not in Iraq at the first place? Would Chris be a carefree cowboy until today?
The film could have gone deeper about the war, the US soldiers, the soldiers' families, and the enemies. Instead, we can barely remember the names of other characters, and Sienna is conveniently put on the screen only when she is needed.
While many of the battle scenes are superbly constructed, but they are often less convincing. For example, the opening scene shows a woman and a child come out of a house while Chris is aiming at them. Then the woman openly hands over the child a giant grenade and provokes Chris to take action. Obviously the dramatic scene is setup for the audience, otherwise the kid would have come out the house with the weapon already under his clothes. Also, why does Sienna always manage to pick up the worst moment to chit-chat with Chris?
There is no doubt that Chris was an extraordinary war-hero. Unfortunately, we are unable to get to know him better through this film.
Friday, January 9, 2015
The film is set in the '70s in Los Angeles when Charles Manson is in the headlines and love-in, be-in, and getting-high are trendy. Private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a chain-smoking pothead with very dirty feet and furry face. His ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) surprisingly shows up at his beach house to tell him that Shasta's rich lover Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is gone missing. She thinks that Michey's British wife Sloane Wolfmann (Serena Scott Thomas) and Sloane's boyfriend kidnapped Mickey. For reasons unknown, Doc begins his investigation about where Mickey is.
Doc begins his investigation by visiting Chick Planet, a massage parlor whose manager Jade (Hong Chau) cheerfully demonstrates "today's special." But before he can enjoy the show in more details, he is knocked out. When he wakes up on the ground next to a dead body in the court yard of Chick Planet, he is in the custody of a hot-tempered chocolate-covered-banana sucking cop Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). After Doc's lawyer Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro) gets Doc out of the police station, Doc continues his detective work running into seemingly endless characters as if you are watching a Robert Altman's film. These characters include a recovered doper Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) who is looking for her supposedly dead husband Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a flirtatious District Attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), and a comical dentist Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short). In case that's not confusing enough, Doc's former employee Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) narrates in the background non-stop by reading the best lines in Thomas Pynchon's novel.
Unlike his previous masterful work such as "There Will Be Blood" (2007) and "The Master" (2012) which tell compelling stories with mesmerizing characters, Paul Thomas Anderson breaks loose in this film and takes us on a wild ride. Almost everyone in the film smokes pot, and almost every scene has some weed lighted up, but that's no excuse for telling a confusing, incoherent, and unconvincing story. The characters are constantly talking and smoking, but they hardly communicating. The scenes are randomly piled up like a stoner runs amok on streets.
If you enjoy pot like Doc, you might be thrilled and entertained by the film, especially by its jokes. Or, you are probably already laughing at everything anyway if you are at a pot-fueled screening in a state like Colorado where weed is legal. The film literally brings back the good-old-time in the '60s and the '70s.
However, if you hate smoking and don't give a damn about the '60s love-in, you might feel the film's two-hour-and-half running time is unbearable, even without the nasty smell from the hippies-wannabe on Haight Street.
Like a rotary dial phone which appears pretty much in every scene, the '60s is history. Let's wash the Doc's feet and move on. Sure, you can light up a joint if that helps, but don't tell a boring story.