DVD Round-Up: 1/15/2015

Night Moves (1/15/2015)

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I haven’t been the biggest Kelly Reichardt fan over the years but I do think she’s an interesting talent.  I thought her breakout film Wendy and Lucy was a decent enough slice of life but I didn’t understand the extent of the critical hype for it and I just plain didn’t understand her follow-up film Meek’s Cutoff.  Her latest film, Night Moves is probably her most accessible work but also her least exciting.  The film revolves around eco terrorism, which immediately reminds me of a similarly themed movie from last year called The East, which took the form of a more conventional thriller but was also perhaps more successful within that mold.  Night Moves is also a thriller of sorts, but perhaps a more restrained and realistic one.  The film is all about three people who commit and act of eco-terrorism and then have to deal with the guilt once it turns out this act had more fallout than they expected.  In a sense it’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with left wing activists, and it isn’t bad at being that exactly.  It’s shot fairly well and it has some pretty decent performances in it, but I can’t say that the execution here is so great that it will stick out in my memory for all that long and the story itself isn’t quite enough to hang the movie on either.  All in all, I’d say this movie is pretty okay, but it’s nothing too special.

*** out of four

Finding Fela (1/17/2015)

It’s sometimes easy to remember how culturally isolated the world of popular music can be.  90% of the musicians we consider to be icons seems to be American, British, or Canadian.  Every once in a while a Jamaican or a Latin American will break through if we’re feeling adventurous, but for the most part ethno-centrism tends to win the day.  That’s why it’s occasionally nice to be reminded that other countries have their own icons which, in their own sphere, are just as important as someone like Jimi Hendrix is to us.  One such figure was Fela Kuti, who was a major icon in his native Nigeria but who was completely obscure pretty much everywhere else.  Fela was the subject of this documentary from Alex Gibney which seeks to both tell Kuti’s life and also explain why he was a revolutionary figure in Nigeria.  The film does a pretty good job of laying the story out, but it runs a tad long and is also brought down by its use of behind the scenes footage from the making of a Broadway play about Fela’s life.  This material about the Broadway show threatens to take over the documentary at times and almost makes it seems like a marketing tool for the play rather than a biographical documentary.

*** out of Four

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Calvary (1/20/2015)

1-20-2015Calvary When I saw the movie In Bruges back in 2008 I mostly saw it as a comeback for Colin Ferrell but the actor who really got a career boost from it was almost certainly Brendan Gleeson, who went from “that guy” status to having a sort of second career as the star of dark Irish comedies directed by members of the McDonagh family.   This latest movie is from John Michael McDonagh and is probably the least violent of the three McDonagh/Gleeson movies we’ve seen so far and almost certainly the least flippant.  The film concerns a priest who is put into a state of crisis when one of his confessors says that he’s going to come back and kill him, not for any slight on the priest’s part but as revenge against the Catholic Church as a whole.  The film has the usual McDonagh wit but it does take its themes of spirituality and institutional responsibility seriously.  Looking back on it I feel like the movie rather impressively walks a fine line but I’ve got to say that I wasn’t really feeling it while actually watching it.  The narrative is a little too episodic and prone to tangents for my taste and I have long thought that John Michael McDonagh’s writing was never quite as sharp as his brother’s.

*** out of Four

Virunga (1/22/2015)

When I tossed on Virunga I can’t say I was overly stoked.  All I really knew about it was that it was about an attempt to preserve a park with endangered gorillas, which kind of led me to assume that it would be yet another movie about wide-eyed middle class activists self-riotously fighting “the system.”  Fortunately the situation at the center of this runs a lot deeper than that.  This is actually about a group of local forest rangers (who more closely resemble commandos than cops) that are trying to protect an important national park in the Congo from a group of rebels and from the oil company which is in cahoots with said rebels in certain ways.  Yes, Gorillas are ultimately part of why they’re trying to save the park, but that’s kind of secondary to the documentary and more of a McGuffin of sorts than anything and the film isn’t overburdened with nature footage.  The real attraction here is the way it profiles the various people who are dedicated to saving the park.  What’s more, this is better produced than most documentaries with subject matter like this.  It’s got very clean photography and is edited to give the film a real narrative flow.

***1/2 out of Four

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Love is Strange  (1/31/2015)

1-31-2015LoveIsStrange Love is Strange is an unassuming little indie about an elderly gay couple who have their lives upended after they marry and one of them is fired from the Catholic school he works at forcing them to find new living accommodations.  I don’t want to sound like I’m insensitive to how unfair the firing being depicted in the movie is but… I don’t know, not being able to afford a New York apartment just strikes me as kind of a flimsy problem to build an entire film about and both characters face the problem with the kind of stiff upper lip that suggests both have faced much worse.  Still, if you’re going to make a relatively low stakes character drama this is probably the right way to do it.  John Lithgow and Alfred Molina both give really strong understated performances and a number of the interactions in the film ring pretty true.  It would be fair to say that this is a character piece more than a plot oriented narrative, and if what you’re looking for is a small movie about pleasant people put through mild tumult, this will serve that purpose well.  Personally, I wasn’t really feeling it.

*** out of Four 

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A Most Violent Year(1/20/2015)

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What’s up with this J.C. Chandor guy?  He seemed like a decent but fairly ignorable talent when his debut film, Margin Call, came out.  That movie was well liked but no one was really praising it for its visual style, Chandor just kind of seemed like a screenwriter that somehow got the job directing his own script and I kind of just expected the guy to fade into the background of the film world but that hasn’t been the case at all.  His follow-up film, All is Lost, felt like a conscious effort to be the opposite of a talky drama about economics.  It was an ocean adventure that was nearly devoid of dialogue and only had one character.  Had it not had the misfortune of coming out within a year of Life of Pi and Gravity it probably would have been a bigger splash and while it didn’t really light up the box office or win a ton of awards, it did prove that he was a director to watch even if it wasn’t entirely clear what kind of auteur he’s turn out to be.  Now he’s come out with his third film, a crime film set in the early 1980s called A Most Violent Year, which seems to be his biggest shot across the bow yet, a sort of formal announcement that he wants to be here for good.

The titular violent year is 1981 and the place is New York City.  Out protagonist is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a businessman who runs a heating oil business that has been making inroads in the industry and as the film opens he’s entered into a deal which will allow him purchase of a new facility in a month that will make him an even bigger force.  As it turns out, this opportunity couldn’t have come to him in a worse month.  Morales’ trucks have been getting hijacked by a pair of thieves and on top of that he’s been told that the district attorney is planning to file charges against him for various business practices.  From there the film becomes a sort of procedural of what Morales needs to do in order to get through this month and the things he needs to do in order to put out the various fires that emerge along the way.

I can’t say I knew the heating oil business was a cesspool of corruption in the early 80s, actually coming from a place with natural gas infrastructure I barely knew heating oil was a thing.  Here it’s depicted as an industry that’s so surrounded by corruption that it is almost impossible to be what Morales believes himself to be: an honest businessman.  In the world of this film Morales’ competitors are willing to steal in order to get ahead of him, the teamsters he’s dependent on are willing to run around with illegal guns in order to protect themselves, and even the district attorney who’s supposed to be policing this stuff is ultimately willing to compromise himself for certain political favors.  The one question mark is Morales and whether he’s really as honest as he says he is or whether he’s perhaps delusional about just how far his business has descended into the lawlessness he claims to hate.

The wildcard in the whole equation is probably Morales’ wife played by Jessica Chastain.  She seems a lot more comfortable with the idea of her husband’s business being a criminal enterprise and generally gives off a Lady Macbeth vibe through the whole film.  Oscar Isaac is also great in the film and for the first time in his career really seems like he has what it takes to break out of the character actor tier and really become something of a leading man/movie star of the Robert De Niro variety.  The rest of the cast is filled with great East Coast talent and the whole film seems to really “get” the vibe of New York in the early 80s.  The whole film has a fairly original milieu to work with and that make it feel pretty special.  Also, despite the title it should probably be noted that this is not a particularly violent movie.  There’s one really great chase scene towards the end but for the most part the film’s aggression is less overt and happens primarily behind the scenes.

There are a couple things holding the film back from the greatness it aspires to.  In particular there’s one rather weak sub-plot involving a truck driver played by Elyes Gabel who goes on the run after engaging in a shootout with a pair of crooks who try to rob his truck.  I know that New York has pretty strict gun laws, but this is still America we’re talking about, I don’t see someone being made into public enemy number one simply for defending himself against thugs trying to accost him.  Quite the opposite, I could see someone like that being turned into a hero, especially given how public opinion tends to turn during crime waves.  Also I found the way this plotline culminates to be contrived and rather ridiculous.  Also, the film was lensed by a cinematographer named Bradford Young who also shot the movie Selma.  I kind of hated the cinematography in that movie because the black levels seemed washed out and oddly gray.  This movie has the same issue and it did annoy me but not as much, possibly because this movie has its roots in grainy 70s movies rather than epic prestige biopics.

So what did this film finally solidify an identity for this J.C. Chandor guy?  Not exactly.  If anything it probably just muddied the waters. His three films have been shot in very different styles and on a purely visual level I’m inclined to say that the guy just isn’t an auteur.  However, there are certain themes that run through his work.  Margin Call and A Most Violent Year are both ultimately movies about business and about the gray areas that are encountered therein.  Then there’s All is Lost, which still seems like something of an outlier but which has occasionally been read as a sort of metaphor for one percenters finding themselves in over their heads out of a sort of sense of invincibility.  The guy clearly has some really interesting ideas about society and he hasn’t made a bad movie yet, but I don’t know that I see him becoming a true master just the same.  At the moment he still mostly fits the profile of a screenwriter who directs rather than a director who also screenwrites, which is a difficult distinction to spot but an important one.  Hell of a movie though.

***1/2 out of Four