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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: ***

An actress lightens up and the summer screens get tuneful

I often forget that British actress Keira Knighley is one year younger than me. She has more or less pigeon-holed herself into a dour screen persona that rarely expresses a happier state of mind, which also makes her seem older than her age. So when she does lighten up, as in the current release Begin Again, it’s a breath of fresh air.

I was pleased to catch an early screening of this film at Landmark’s Main Art Cinema in Royal Oak, which often gets first dibs on independent film releases in the Detroit area. Knightley gets top billing as Greta, a British ingenue who is making her way in New York City with her rapidly ascending rock star boyfriend, played by Adam Levine. One night, a series of circumstances leads her to a grungy club somewhere in the city, where her path intersects with Dan (Mark Ruffalo) – a down on his luck music executive who feels like her song could hit the big time.

The rest of the film follows their journey to get Greta’s record made, which takes several twists and turns as she does not want to sacrifice her own vision while Dan navigates a modest midlife crisis. They are joined by several memorable characters as the film unfolds, including James Corden as a friend of Greta’s, Mos Def as Dan’s business partner, Halle Steinfeld as Dan’s estranged daughter and Catherine Keener as Dan’s estranged wife.

The film is a cheery tale that is hard to be critical about… but I’ll try to make a few comments. It bears a number of similarities to the director’s previous film, Once, and could almost serve as a sequel to that project with Knightley taking the role of the female singer in the previous film. There are probably too many montages in the film, with most accompanied by songs from the soundtrack, as the story attempts to cover a large amount of narrative in a 90 – 100 minute time frame.

The storytelling does yield one interesting choice in the use of a “flash-forward/flash-back” structure to set up both Greta and Dan’s story lines. I always appreciate when films or plays choose that particular narrative, as it keeps the audience members guessing and anticipating, and sometimes creates some surprises along the way. As well, the film keeps the audience guessing if Greta and Dan will keep things platonic or get to know each other on a more intimate level.

In spite of the formulaic approach, the actors seem to be having fun with their process, with Ruffalo taking on a familiar character (in the context of his previous roles) but showing more humanity and older mentor-style energy than before. Keener only gets a few notable scenes, but continues to maintain her strong screen presence and mature character persona. Steinfeld leads the rest of the cast, and while more emphasis is placed on her character in the first half than the rest of the film, she continues to show strong command of her roles and great potential for future opportunities.

I’m sure this film will take its seat as the Summer Indie Crowd Pleaser of 2014.