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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26


Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Published Thursday February 5, 04:18 pm
Wunderkind filmmaker J.C. Chandor skewers the American dream

A Most Violent Year

One of the least talked-about but most egregious of this year’s Oscar snubs, A Most Violent Year is a master-class in substantial filmmaking. Writer/director J.C. Chandor’s story of an immigrant striving for higher ground simultaneously serves as a study of masculinity in modern times, even though the film is set in 1981.

Pre-Giuliani New York was a nightmare. Crime was at an all-time high, corruption was rampant and the city seemed to be rotting from the inside out. Even so, the Morales family seems to be thriving. Abel (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewelyn Davis) is an immigrant who’s done well for himself, and he’s about to close a real estate deal that could make his heating oil distribution company even more successful.

The business world Abel inhabits is thoroughly corrupt, but he prides himself on running a clean operation — in spite of being married to a mafia princess (a wonderful Jessica Chastain) whose solution to any problem is to call her dad. An assault on one of his trucks places Abel at odds with less scrupulous competitors, an overzealous prosecutor (David Oyelowo, Selma) and even his own wife, who’s nursing a Lady Macbeth complex. All of this in the middle of a make-or-break deal.

Despite the setup, A Most Violent Year isn’t a morality play: Abel’s stance has less to do with ethics and more with executing a smart business model. (Idealism is a liability, we learn.) A constant feeling of danger underscores every action taken, adding an extra layer of distress to an already bristling storyline.

A good point of comparison for A Most Violent Year is the objectionable smash hit American Sniper. In Sniper, Chris Kyle finds his moral compass in the protection of his fellow soldiers. The only way he believes he can answer the call is by eliminating the enemy with extreme prejudice. Abel isn’t nearly as simple: he perceives alternatives, and he can also foresee consequences. His options may be baffling and he may appear emasculated on a regular basis, but Abel sticks to his plan — other people’s opinions be damned. Kyle is perhaps more macho, but Abel is the real man in this comparison.

J.C. Chandor is a tremendously interesting new director who’s just getting started. His first feature (Margin Call) relied heavily on dialogue, while his followup (All Is Lost) had nary a word spoken. A Most Violent Year digs into emotional complexity and cinematography as language, which were previously seen as Chandor’s weak spots. It’s great to see a filmmaker self-aware enough to identify his shortcomings and work through them publicly.

Chandor is also a superb actors’ director. The often demure Jessica Chastain takes her inner femme fatale for a spin and leaves an impression, while Isaac is clearly a leading man in the making — a tightly coiled spring that keeps you on your toes, even though he seldom goes off. His relationship with his lawyer (Albert Brooks, killing it) is reminiscent of that between Michael Corleone and Tom Hagen, and it’s not far-fetched to identify The Godfather Part II as a source of inspiration for the film.

The ending might initially feel like a cop-out, but it’s absolutely not. It just highlights the fallacy at the heart of the American dream, pointing out that one person’s triumph must necessarily be another’s defeat.



Vladimir Putin’s government may not be as openly against freedom in all its forms as were the Soviet regimes of yesteryear, but the current Russian establishment definitely enjoys asserting control in all sorts of nefarious ways — like jailing adversaries on trumped-up charges (hello, Pussy Riot), or banning “unbecoming” behaviour (i.e. homosexuality).

So I can only imagine how shocked and dismayed Putin and his flunkies were to discover that a movie they helped to finance (and which is now nominated for an Oscar) would become a massive thorn in their side. Leviathan explores the matter of widespread corruption in Russia, and its effect on the population as a whole, through the smallest of microcosms.

In a coastal town in northwest Russia, an impoverished mechanic named Nikolai finds himself fighting a corrupt mayor and the establishment as a whole to keep his home. The location is valuable due to the stunning view it offers, but (at least in theory) the law is on Nikolai’s side. He recruits a former comrade-in-arms-turned-big-city-lawyer to help with the case, unaware of the effect the outsider’s presence could have on his much younger wife.

Along with a compelling story and strong characters (none of them are particularly likeable, but they’re all undeniably well-written), Leviathan depicts life at a dead end: from Nikolai’s teenage son to the town mayor, nearly everybody on screen has self-destructive tendencies and must rely heavily on vodka to endure. (A family picnic involving alcohol, guns and kids is particularly harrowing.) The slow pace of the movie is the only real negative here, but a hearty cup of coffee should get you through. It’s worth the effort.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water

Prior to the release of The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, I thought the Saturday morning cartoon staple was long gone. Boy, was I wrong: now 10 seasons and 215 episodes strong, SpongeBob has outlived far better Nickelodeon shows like Rocko’s Modern Life, Rugrats and the grossly under-appreciated Hey, Arnold!

But in his second trip to the multiplex, SpongeBob is showing his age. The film is goofy as heck, but it lacks the element of surprise — or even a shred of originality, for that matter. In fact, the plot is driven by the series’ longest-running source of conflict: Plankton’s efforts to steal the recipe for the Krabby Patties. (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Ask your kids.)

Midway through Plankton’s most elaborate bid yet, the recipe vanishes into thin air. Everybody blames Plankton, except for the only witness to the disappearance, SpongeBob. As the town of Bikini Bottom descends into post-apocalyptic anarchy in record time, it begins to appear that a mysterious pirate-slash-food-truck-impresario (Antonio Banderas) holds the answer.

I have no problem with senseless absurdity, but the absence of internal logic here can only be interpreted as laziness. A magic book is key to the entire operation, but it’s never clear why, or how it operates. Banderas is an upgrade over the main human (David Hasselhoff) in 2004's The SpongeBob Movie, but he’s still annoying.

True, I’m not the movie’s target audience (a kid or a stoner) — but there were children at the screening I attended, and they didn’t seem impressed either. Maybe Millennials who grew up with the show will get a kick out of it — but if that’s not you, give this one a pass.

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