Academy Award Also-Rans

A Most Violent Year finally arrived in wide release yesterday, following its initial Oscar-qualifying release in select cities on December 31st. So I caught the late show at AMC’s John R 15, in a screening room that had been surprisingly renovated into having recliner seats, rather than standard seating.

The film is the third feature written and directed by rising star JC Chandor, whose previous releases, All Is Lost (which I described here) and Margin Call (one of my favorite films of 2011), received wide acclaim. This time Chandor paired with actors Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo and Albert Brooks, along with a wide range of supporting characters, to deliver a complex period piece about a violent time in New York City’s history and one family empire’s role in a competitive business.

While all the performances were uniformly strong, I felt that Isaac didn’t offer particularly new shadings from previous roles. Interestingly, the film may or may not have deliberately made several winks to his role in Drive, where he played a character called Standard, involved with a shady organization led by Albert Brooks. And here he led the Standard Oil Company, which may or may not have come from questionable roots, and Albert Brooks appears as his principle advisor. Meanwhile, Chastain offered a slow burning performance that masterfully builds from demure to aggressive, with a key turning point happening when she and Isaac are out for an evening drive that suddenly turns a bit more violent. However, her character seemed to disappear from the last third of the narrative, perhaps as a reflection of Isaac’s independence from her interference.

The film delights in its ambiguity, although that made for a problematic viewing experience at times, as in trying to figure what was exactly driving the character motivations. The production worked hard to recreate NYC’s look of over 30 years ago, and a recurring theme of snow on the ground is an apt metaphor for the light and darkness of the story.

My Rating: ***1/2

Foxcatcher finally reached the Detroit area sometime just after the new year. I’d had a chance to see this film at Thanksgiving and again at Christmas in the Delaware area, not far from where the real life events took place, but held off until last week back at the Main Art Theatre.

Steve Carrell and Mark Ruffalo have received acclaim and Academy Award nominations for their work in this film, but Channing Tatum has been curiously overlooked and offers an arguably more impressive performance as he turns his easygoing screen persona inside out and works hard to portray a conflicted series of life events for real-life former wrestler Mark Schultz.

It was hard to shake the cold, alienating feel of this film, although it was also certainly well-made and very carefully put together by filmmaker Bennett Miller and his team. It was not hard to understand why the actors have been quoted as saying it was a difficult set to work on and they didn’t want to do much of anything after the day’s shooting.

I’ll close by saying that Miller’s nomination for Best Director seems particularly well-deserved here, and it would be a very different film if he hadn’t guided the story into a unique dark and thoughtful place.

My Rating: ***


Her, Him or Them? (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby)

The film criticism will likely continue to keep a slower pace over the next few months, but I’ll still be doing it.

The Birmingham 8, formerly my distant arthouse/indie film destination, is now a local destination of choice. And so I made another visit there yesterday to catch The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, the first installment of a trilogy of films telling the same story.

Having known about the “bigger picture” of the other films, I question the necessity of this one, subtitled Them, after seeing it. The story gets a detailed outline in this two hour version, but there are multiple instances where it feels like something is missing, or it’s an awkward switch from one perspective to another. I can’t completely tell if the decision to truncate the longer versions was solely a commercial decision, though I’m glad to know that the full version will still be coming to theaters in October, and hope that it will appear locally – perhaps again at the Birmingham 8.

eleanor rigbyJessica Chastain and James McAvoy give passionate performances as the central couple, subtly shading their characterizations as the story jumps around in time, showing both their initial attraction and later distancing after an (unseen) traumatic event. As the title character, Chastain particularly impresses with her initial free-spiritedness changing to a trauma-induced restraint and (seeming) coldness, until she (as the character) begins to let the changes settle in and re-focus her life. McAvoy does the opposite challenge, both in reacting to Chastain’s changes and conveying his own redirected journey.

The central pair is supported by a handful of supporting characters, and the film feels like it could be an intimate stage play at times with that narrow yet compelling focus. And I suspect that the full version (subtitled Him and Her) may feel like a reverse-persepctive novel brought to film.

Viola Davis, who previously appeared onscreen with Chastain in The Help, stands out in the supporting cast. (Why is Davis not top lining a film???) She delivers several initial tart lines with relish, and easily conveys a seasoned (yet weary) point of view as a college professor interacting with Eleanor and trying to get her back on her feet. Isabelle Huppert appears in a rare English – speaking role as Eleanor’s French mother, who seemed to always have a glass of wine in her hand. Oddly, the full view of the character is only expressed in scenes when she is not with Eleanor, but I suspect that is a writing trick to show what family members do and don’t say to their other relatives. Similarly, William Hurt conveys restraint as Eleanor’s father, but isn’t given a chance to show his full feelings until the very end of the film.

Additional supporting roles are filled by Jess Weixler, Ciaran Hinds, Nina Arlanda and Bill Hader. I’m sure that the full film gives more shadings to each of those roles, although Weixler and Hader do get a few notable scenes in the abbreviated take, and Hader also shows a surprising ease with the drama, given his status as a better – known comedy actor.

It is unfortunate that economics seemingly dictated the release of this abbreviated version of the story, but I’m relieved to know that the full film will still appear, where it received an apparently appreciative festival response and would certainly stand out as a novel take on how to tell a cinematic story.