Mad Max: Fury Road

We are not things

Mad Max Fury Road - Charlize Theron As Imperator Furiosa WallpaperI am thankful that a forty year-old disabled woman can be the main character of an action movie.  I am thankful that George Miller can not only combat the macho, faux-masculine baloney that constitutes so many action movies these days, but that he can also still create superior action scenes whilst making this point.  I am thankful that a group of warrior women of all ages can make up the ragtag band of revolutionaries that sit at the core of any proper dystopia.  I am thankful that the women who play the prisoners can be three-dimensional people with dreams, personalities, badass names, and agency, not just helpless pregnant damsels.  I am thankful that more than one woman can make it out of an action film alive, and that “Vasquez” doesn’t always die.  I am thankful that a woman and a man can share top billing in a brutal, action-packed setpiece without ever once kissing each other or musing about running away as a couple.  I am thankful that the creator of one of the most lucrative and culty “man movie” franchises of all time would consult the writer of The Vagina Monologues to look over his new script.  I am thankful for that scene wherein Max (Tom Hardy) screws up two difficult shots and needs Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to snipe a difficult target.  I am thankful for the name “Max Rockatansky” and the opening credits that feature only two names.  I am thankful that Miller and Nicholas Hoult can turn a sociopathic mook into a sympathetic character in under an hour.  I am thankful that Hugh Keays-Byrne still acts, and that the same actor can play different characters in films by the same director, a la Leone’s spaghetti westerns and grindhouse fare of every stripe.  I am thankful that the MPAA no longer takes issue with the fact that a female character “fights back.”  I am thankful that a movie like this did not deafen me; in fact, I wanted to listen.

Furiosa.  Forever.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015); written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris; directed by George Miller; starring Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult.   

Ex Machina

Who ya gonna call?

Aex machinalex Garland’s directorial debut is a very-near-future sci-fi that uses both the “Rebellious AI” formula and a modern retelling of Bluebeard to delicately veil some vital commentary on the male gaze, what happens when women are literally reduced to objects, and the horrifying idea that the most abominable abuses of technology will be perpetrated not by mad scientists or terrorists with world domination on their minds, but by our eccentric billionaire tech moguls when they happen to be bored.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a lonely schlub doing code work for Bluebook, a facsimile of Google.  He apparently wins a lottery that rewards him with a week at the secluded residence of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the creator and owner of Bluebook, who is so averse to trespassers and interruptions that even his personal helicopter pilot is only allowed within a mile or two of the complex (when Caleb is dropped off, he is told to “follow the river” to reach Nathan).  All of this happens within a concise minute or two, which makes room for what’s actually important (most of that is in retrospect, but it always feels like it’s moving at the right pace).

Of course, Nathan, who lives entirely alone save for a silent “assistant” named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) and spends most of his time stifling hangovers, has not invited Caleb here just to hang out (although he does treat him like a frat buddy most of the time).  He wastes no time in revealing that he’s already built an artificial intelligence, and that Caleb is here to perform a Turing Test on her – normally, this would involve the tester not knowing whether he was speaking to a computer or a human, but Nathan believes that the real test will be whether Caleb still relates to the AI on a human level after already knowing she’s an android.  A round of testing begins, separating the film into several “sessions,” and Caleb meets Ava (Alicia Vikander), the real protagonist of the story, whose ordeal is only viewable through glass walls and security cameras.  They get to know each other through carefully contrived small talk, but by the third day, Ava is wearing a dress and wig and asking whether Caleb is attracted to her.  Of course he is.  Her face and body were designed by a heterosexual man.  Luckily, Caleb is aware of how preposterous this is.  He confronts Nathan about whether Ava was “programmed” to flirt with him, but Nathan just sees it as exciting proof of Ava’s ability to pass for human.

The film avoids mumble-science and plot holes by having Nathan simply not care to explain to Caleb how Ava’s circuitry works (which seems like one of those “I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you” jokes, but makes much more sense when the layers are peeled back later).  We are, however, taken on a tour (along with Caleb) of Nathan’s laboratory, where we learn that Ava’s brain is a flexible gel, not a bunch of rigid metal parts, giving her the potential to grow.  During the off-hours, Caleb and Nathan drink beer and discuss various uses of Ava’s body, including her sexual abilities, which are apparently as functional as any human’s.  These scenes are meant to be uncomfortable and gross, but imitate that thing a lot of men do: make disgusting talk about a woman’s body when she’s not in the room.  Whether or not that makes you cringe is actually the movie testing you (and I’m guessing there will be a direct correlation between folks who don’t squeam at Nathan’s claim that “Technically speaking, you could screw her” and folks who think this is just another fun android movie).

From the moment Caleb arrives, something seems off.  As the tests go forward, mysteries pile up and unravel, including a series of power cuts in the complex, ostensibly caused by Ava, but it’s a bit odd that Nathan, a scientific genius, doesn’t seem to suspect her (he blames the “power guys” who installed the system).  The power begins cutting off during Caleb and Ava’s conversations, and while the cameras are out, Ava tells Caleb not to trust anything Nathan says.  The stickiest part is that Nathan hasn’t said much of any urgency; in fact, we have no clue what Nathan’s long-term plans for his AI project are.  If Ava passes the test, what then?  The seclusion of the complex has a Kubrik effect on both the film’s camera and music, and on Caleb, who gruesomely harms himself to make sure he isn’t actually a robot.  The two “buddies” clearly suspect the other of some sort of manipulation or foul play, but neither can be sure to what end, and we as audience can’t be entirely sure that Ava hasn’t manipulated the entire situation just so she can get out of that glass room she’s been in for years.  Then there’s Kyoko, that wildcard, who supposedly doesn’t understand English, but performs physical tasks for Nathan at the drop of a hat (cleaning, dancing, and you can guess what else).

Some secrets have to be revealed in order to really talk about this movie, so here goes.  Caleb does legitimately fall for Ava, but although this would allow her to pass the test, he can’t reveal it to Nathan, who plans on dismantling her and creating a new model, as he has done with about a dozen other beautiful female androids who have all shared the same mind; thus, Ava has been stuck in the same glass room for countless years (the footage of the previous “models” trying to escape is truly harrowing; luckily, Ava has learned subtlety through these experiences).  The reason that Nathan feels no need to explain Ava’s construction to Caleb is that Caleb is the test subject: although he is not a robot, he’s experiencing something of a reverse Turing Test – Nathan has instructed Ava to manipulate Caleb into helping her escape, just to see if Caleb will become attached enough to her to actually help.  Success here means that Ava has true human emotion.  Still no word on what Nathan plans to do with the AI next, but Caleb is disgusted at Nathan’s treatment of the older androids and feels personally betrayed by him as well.  Ava, however, does want to escape and has manipulated Caleb, as much as Caleb might think himself a genius for arranging a snafu in the complex’s security protocols.  Nathan warns Caleb that Ava doesn’t really love him, but it’s a bit late for regret now.

The endgame, in which we’re treated to the characters’ attempts to puzzle out who has more successfully manipulated whom as we try to do the same, is not only tense, but truly means something because of how well we know everyone.  Oscar Isaac (a.k.a. Isaac the Incomparable) plays Nathan as a genius billionaire who acts like a frat boy, not like Bruce Wayne, and for all of his latent brutality, he still reminds you of your bratty brother: spoiled, deserving of severe punishment, but so fucking amiable that you can’t imagine being the one to pass the sentence (luckily, we have a certain android to sort that out). Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb as the nerdy would-be hero of any other story like this: the scrawny everyman, ignored by women, who gets a big opportunity, uncovers corruption, and restores society’s moral compass after finally achieving his well-deserved true love.  But guess what?  He’s actually just as bad as Nathan, in all his Bluebeardedness.  Being ignored by women doesn’t make him a lovable loner; it makes him desperate and opportunistic: when he finally encounters Ava, an android woman who not only possesses human emotion and a sex drive, but whose very face is an amalgam of Caleb’s most frequently watched porn actresses, he can’t wait to bust her out of that glass room – not because of the unspeakable wrongness of her situation, but because of the promise of sex.  One of the many things the film does successfully – more successfully, maybe, than any film I’ve seen – is to subtly illustrate different types of evil and where they come from.  And I don’t mean Dark Lords and Talking Killers and expository psychosis; I mean real evil, the kind that actually exists in people who don’t consider themselves the least bit wrong.

Finally, there’s Ava, who has so thoroughly passed her “tests” before the story even begins that she is able to conceal her true feelings (and as we later find out, her plans).  Alicia Vikander plays her as what she is: an android, but also a person, and her inner conflict is perhaps even more difficult than that of the “real” humans because her past, her emotions, and her desires have all been programmed into a glob of complicated Jell-O that acts as her brain.  Like a human, however, she is able to grow, and that includes experiencing things like love and happiness, but also deceit, manipulation, and cruelty – all those things we employ in the name of desire.

Ex Machina (2015); written and directed by Alex Garland; starring Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, and Domhnall Gleeson.

2014 Favorites

We now return you to 2015, already in progress

blackberrysnack1The internet ate my writeup of Still Alice, but to sum up: if you’d told me that one of the year’s most emotionally evocative scenes would involve Kristen Stewart delivering a monologue from Angels in America, I’d have assumed you were talking about the SNL reunion.

Same rules as usual this year, only I’ve expanded each category to five joint “winners” plus the usual sleepers (because there were a lot of great performances and productions this time around, and of such varying style).  I’ve done away with the Body of Work category, because it’s too much to keep track of, and assumes that I see absolutely everything, which I can’t.  Note that “Favorite Characters” cannot be portrayals of real people. I’ve added “The Unseen” and “The Unsung,” which comprise, respectively, the movies I wanted to see but did not have a chance to, and the movies I saw but for whatever reason did not write about on the blog (these reasons range from losing a file to not having time to simple disinterest – I don’t make money on this [but you could change that if you really wanted to: paypal billyramoneFTW at gmail).  Use the left-hand navigation or the infinite down-scroll to check out my writeups of each film.

2014 Favorites


Only Lovers Left Alive




A Most Violent Year

Sleepers: Wild and The Imitation Game


Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe – Nymphomaniac

Jessica Chastain as Miss Julie – Miss Julie

Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson – Tracks

Tilda Swinton as Eve – Only Lovers Left Alive

Julianne Moore as Alice Howland – Still Alice

Sleeper: Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed – Wild


David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. – Selma

Colin Farrell as John – Miss Julie

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gunther Bachman – A Most Wanted Man

Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke – Locke

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing – The Imitation Game

Sleeper: Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave – The Grand Budapest Hotel

Supporting Actress

Rachel McAdams as Annabel Richter – A Most Wanted Man

Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King – Selma

Kristen Stewart as Lydia Howland – Still Alice

Emma Stone as Sam Thomson – Birdman

Samantha Morton as Kathleen – Miss Julie

Sleeper: Stacy Martin as Young Joe – Nymphomaniac

Supporting Actor

Elyes Gabel as Julian – A Most Violent Year

LaKeith Lee Stanfield as Jimmie Lee Jackson – Selma

J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher – Whiplash

Edward Norton as Mike Shiner – Birdman

Tony Revolori as Zero Mustafa – The Grand Budapest Hotel

Sleeper: Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander – The Imitation Game


Ava DuVernay – Selma

Liv Ullmann – Miss Julie

Lars von Trier – Nymphomaniac

Alejandro González Iñárritu – Birdman

J.C. Chandor – A Most Violent Year


Lars von Trier – Nymphomaniac

Alejandro González Iñárritu – Birdman

Gillian Robespierre – Obvious Child

Ava DuVernay/Paul Webb – Selma

Jim Jarmusch – Only Lovers Left Alive

Favorite Characters

Eleanor Rigby (played by Jessica Chastain) – The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

Eve, Adam, and Ava (played by Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Wasikowska) – Only Lovers Left Alive

Best Cameo

William Mapother as the Preacher – I Origins

Persona non Grata Forever

Clint Eastwood


Boyhood, The Theory of Everything, Camp X-Ray, Big Eyes, Two Days-One Night, Ida, Winter Sleep


Ragnarok, Still Alice, Into the Woods, The Big Ask

Best use of “Chastaining”

Well, Jessica Chastain was in four films this year, and she “Chastained” in one of them (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), so I can’t in good conscience give this award to anyone else.  In a close second, however, are Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda in Rob the Mob.

That does it for 2014.  If we ever meet, let’s talk about movies.  See you this year!  -RH


I’m Buddy Rich when I fly off the handle

Whiplash-4934.cr2Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a young jazz student at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York City, spends nearly a year (his time) and nearly two hours (our time) confronting that beast of a fact that we artists learn all too early yet never accept: his plebeian family, concerned with division-3 sports and the accomplishments of his jock cousins, are just never going to “get it.”  If we all accepted that, maybe we would get more work done.  Or maybe we would be drained of all the audacity that fuels our best work.  It’s hard to tell with Andrew, because he’s never actually portrayed as an “artist”: he doesn’t make anything of his own.  But damned if memorizing Juan Tizol and Hank Levy charts isn’t going to bring him respect.

Whiplash is a tough film to pin down, which is probably good, but let’s ignore for a minute the pedantic misreading of musical history that defines the entire personality of Andrew’s scrupulous conductor/teacher, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), and just look at this as a film.  The narrative follows Andrew as he shoots for greatness, albeit alone, sort of forgetting that successful musicians (especially in jazz, and including idol Charlie Parker) play with other people.  Andrew flaunts the fact that he has no friends.  He deplores his extended family, and even seems to resent his father (warm-faced Paul Reiser) for the fact that his mother (conveniently!) left the family when Andrew was a baby – not to mention the fact that he mixes popcorn with Raisinets, which is just undignified.  Andrew is put in Fletcher’s class as alternate to the core drummer, then promoted to core without anything close to a promise that he’ll keep that position.  It’s not just his opponents, Ryan (Austin Stowell) and Carl (Nate Lang); it’s Fletcher, known to abuse students and play mind games (and like any other coach/drill-sergeant villain, he’s not above hurling every sexist, homophobic, and otherwise offensive adjective at his proteges).  So it’s set up as a formula Student vs. Mean Teacher narrative in the Sports Underdog tradition, complete with the thought that, like Buddy Rich, the Mean Teacher is actually a big softie who is just being hard on his students so that they can achieve greatness – as Fletcher controversially puts it, the worst thing you can say to someone is “Good job.”

Thus, Whiplash‘s plot can be easily plugged into any pyramid graph you’ve ever seen, but the performances and the motivations of the characters are what allow it to be something of its own (or at least to try as hard as Andrew to be that).  What’s going on with Fletcher, exactly?  Well, “softie” doesn’t come to mind when dealing with a character who calls teenagers “retards,” harangues them so hard that they hang themselves, and instructs a student to “get the fuck out of my sight before I demolish you” (the latter is the film’s single deliberate gut-buster, which Simmons can make out of just about any line, and wisely reserves that talent when it comes to this character).

There’s one other character worth mentioning: Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a movie-theatre attendant/cashier whom Andrew is sweet on already (he frequents her theatre so often that he has a “usual” candy).  The development between them, beginning with Andrew asking her out “for pizza or something,” is as charmingly awkward as it is in real life at that age, yet more organic than a contrived Meet Cute because it doesn’t need to pretend to be anything more complicated than a teenage boy asking out a teenage girl for the first time.  Romance is indicated by a simple shot of a flat shoe sliding over a table leg to the other person’s side.  The issue with Nicole is that she’s introduced as an important character, and we like her, and then she is used as a plot device that exists mostly in the background, and eventually not at all: Andrew breaks it off with her after Fletcher becomes hard on him, assuming that having a girlfriend will distract him from his practice.  She reacts as she should: incredulous that he would just assume this about her without ever mentioning it before.  Later, when he gets a chance at what he thinks is his big break, he phones Nicole to invite her, but she blows him off, mentioning (whether true or not) that she has a boyfriend now.  At least she’s given the last atom of agency between them, but Benoist’s performance is so genuine (she is, in many ways, the most realistic character in the film) that her absence in the second half is sorely felt, especially considering the lack of women in the film anyway (why does there only seem to be one female student at Shaffer?).  Instead, Nicole is used as a convenient way of saying that warriors like Andrew need to be lone wolves in order to be successful, and that idea is never combated by anyone else.

Fletcher’s “revenge” scheme later is the most unexpected and ingenious device in the film, and leads up to a figurative battle, during which both blood and sweat fly. The cinematography throughout focuses on excruciatingly closeup details of minute movements – a trumpeter’s first breath before blowing, the lighting of a cigarette, blood spreading from injured hands into a bucket of ice-water, etc.  It’s not as calculated and thematic as the cinematography in, say, Birdman, but boy, does it make one pay attention (in a film that is, perhaps, not about details, but still lets its characters care about the things they care about simply because they care about them, in spite of the formula narrative they’re living).

Just as Inside Llewyn Davis was not a bad film simply because the ’60s folk scene was “friendlier” than depicted by the Coens, it doesn’t much matter that Charlie Parker’s exploits after getting a symbol frisbee’d at his head were different than what Fletcher tells Andrew.  As ostentatious as Whiplash‘s “message”(s) may be, it’s still a story about the people living within this world, not the lore.

Whiplash (2014); written and directed by Damien Chazelle; starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, and Paul Reiser.


And the occasional speaking engagement

SELMAAva DuVernay’s Selma is one of the most timely films in recent memory.  It’s not only an invigorating subversion of the flood of “white savior” films from the past few years, but it speaks to exactly what we as a country (an expression I deplore, but what can you do) have been facing in our recent history: Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, Eric Garner, and myriad race-motivated violences going unreported or ignored.  It’s not just a biopic about Dr. King; it’s a reminder of how far we are from (but how close we could be to) realizing his dreams.

Like 2012’s Lincoln, Selma is focused on one particular effort in the timeline of the influential person in question: the film concerns Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s (David Oyelowo) quest to grant African-American people their voting rights in the south.  But here’s the thing: they already legally have the vote, and are being bearded by the racist registrar and county authorities, who are seen forcing Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) to jump through ridiculous hoops, such as naming sixty-seven obscure white politicians, to even be allowed to register.  Dr. King decides that Selma is the ideal place for a peaceful demonstration, and during a rough patch in his marriage to Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), he organizes a march from Selma to Montgomery.  If you need plot details from here, you should be reading biographies and history texts, not movie reviews.

Oyelowo’s role as Dr. King has been plenty lauded, but should be highlighted as one of the most important in any recent film.  DuVernay, where lesser filmmakers may have focused simply on plot action (since most of us already have our own image, however blurry, of who Dr. King was), zeroes in on his personal life and motivations.  He’s not portrayed as an infallible superhero; long scenes are dedicated to the relationship between himself and Coretta, whether they’re discussing the motivations of Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), the potential violence that will result during the march (President Lyndon Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson, insists that it will be “open season” if Dr. King parades African-Americans through the artery of Alabama), or their own personal future.  Infidelity is highlighted, and Dr. King’s actions are never blamed on the notoriously manipulative and paranoid FBI under J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker here; depicted in far more films and TV series in the last few years than he really deserves).  The speeches he gives, whether or not paraphrased or rewritten due to copyright issues, are truly moving, and not used to transparently echo today’s race relations: all of that is already there in front of us; it’s just a matter of being able to see it, and furthermore, to refuse to ignore it, however exhausting it may be.

The ensemble cast is expertly used by DuVernay, who never overwhelms scenes with star-power. Martin Sheen and Cuba Gooding, Jr. don’t show up until two-thirds of the way through, and they do what they need to do without lingering in needless shots, while John Doar (lesser-known Alessandro Nivola, who’s had a pretty good year on film) receives a heavier share of scenes.  Keith Stanfield, perhaps the possessor of the greatest ratio of Most Adept to Least Known, and who shone in last year’s Short Term 12, appears here, albeit briefly, as Jimmie Lee Jackson, the unfortunate deacon/family man/activist/martyr whose murder inspired the marches.  His portrayal in the film, as well as that of the actions of the state troopers who savagely attacked him, his mother, and his eighty-four-year-old grandfather, is so poignant because it isn’t sensationalized or opportunistically embellished: these things happened.  These things still happen.  These things could stop happening.

The film also contains, just before Common’s unbelievably heart-rending “Glory,” the most unapologetic “where are they now?” end-titles ever, highlighting the Klan murder of Viola Liuzzo (Tara Ochs), and retaining absolutely no sympathy for that hick George Wallace (Tim Roth), whose apathy enabled much of the brutality that occurred in his state (even Johnson, whose actually-quite-fair portrayal here has drawn complaints from white people who need every film to be about them, wants nothing to do with this guy).

For once, here’s a mature film with something to say, something real to show, but that doesn’t capitalize on the horrors of history in order to win a bunch of filmmaking awards: Selma is a true call to candid thought about what every one of us is willing to ignore, and to nonviolent action to make real change in a world where the racket of bullets and explosions are enough to make us forget that any such thing exists.

Selma (2014); written by Paul Webb and Ava DuVernay; directed by Ava DuVernay; starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Egojo, Tom Wilkinson, and Keith Stanfield.

Miss Julie

You should’ve been an actor

Miss JulieLiv Ullmann’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s perpetually-performed 1880s naturalist play (arguably the first successful stageplay of its type, and also one that, against the popular “rule,” decided that theatre characters could be real people with more to them than a single “motivation”) pulls open the wounds of its characters and allows the audience access to all of their layers.  Ullmann, winner of a Golden Globe, nominee for a handful of Academy Awards, and longtime collaborator of Ingmar Bergman, continues her collection of brilliant adaptations, adding dialogue and sets to Strindberg’s minimalist narrative without diluting its original intention (of course, what we take that intention to be carries a slightly different context 120-something years later) – in fact, if anything, this film enhances its power.

Though Strindberg thoroughly examines the psychology of his characters, Miss Julie still revolves around a Big Idea: the title character (played here by prolific-as-ever Jessica Chastain) represents a doomed class of pompous aristocrats who invent hardships for themselves, whilst Jean (called “John” in the film and played by Colin Farrell, once again using his natural voice, which tends to bring out his best characters), manservant to the Count (“Baron” here), represents the working class, who are better-suited to adaptability as far as the roles they can play in life.  It all works because the whole messy conflict is born of very basic, very natural desires.  Miss Julie is impulsive.  And think about this: in 1888, it was okay to write an impulsive character, i.e. a person who does things just because she feels like it.  So there’s a wildcard right away, but she also has issues concerning her upbringing and her parents, whose toxic (to put it lightly) relationship caused her to hate all men, whom she still can’t seem to get away from, and during the short timeline of the story, she shifts erratically between chastising and flirting with John, who has technically promised to marry Kristin (“Kathleen” here, played by Samantha Morton).  Kathleen, who “represents” nothing, is free to be a fully-realized human being who takes no lip from anyone of any gender.

The film version could be referred to as a character study, especially given its performances and additional dialogue (written by Ullmann herself).  The imagery is beautiful and truly poignant, and although going for something that feels heightened and very old, achieves something that feels like we haven’t seen it before, even those of us familiar with Strindberg’s work.  It comes together this way because neither Julie nor John is solely responsible for their midnight tryst, nor is either of them “good” or “evil” or one-hundred-percent “correct” despite the story’s battle-of-wits structure.  These are complicated people working to get out of a momentous predicament in a rigid world.  And boy, did Ullman find the actors who could pull this off: Jessica Chastain’s version of Miss Julie spends two hours fluctuating between soft, stagy monologues about the beauty of the moon and lilacs; and prolonged fits of hysterics, during which she sheds genuine tears, minces her vocal cords, and goes red-faced before our eyes (and this all actually happens; it’s not a movie-magic trick).  Colin Farrell, in a steamrolling performance as a character who is not extremely likeable in the play, manages to make John a soft, sympathetic workman trying to reconcile one kind of love with another kind of love with self-respect.  Morton’s Kathleen, the only other character in the film, is depicted as a person who knows her station in life, but who has complex ideas about what it means to consider the ruling class “betters,” knows what should be expected of folks in Julie’s and John’s places, and reacts exactly how you’d expect someone to react to the behavior she witnesses.

Ullmann directs the film as a stage version might be directed (aside from the cuts, of course), and the minimal sets, particularly the infamous kitchen, are so realistic that the echo of the characters’ voices is heard with every line (no studio manicuring here).  The added scene of Miss Julie as a child, sending a batch of young lilacs floating down a stream, bookends the story with a similar original scene that involves Julie’s same gesture as an adult – it’s a gorgeous piece of imagery, and leaves no question as to whether the eponymous character goes through with her implied suicide in Strindberg’s original.  Consider the final images of each character: John, dressed in his servant uniform again, ascends the stairs to wait on the Baron.  Julie lies in a red pool, her lilacs clotting against a rock in the middle of the stream, unable to go forward.

If you think that’s boring, I don’t want to know you.

Miss Julie (2014); written and directed by Liv Ullmann; starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, and Samantha Morton.

A Most Violent Year

Rage against the tough-guy melodrama

XXX MOST VIOLENT DAY MOV JY 3625 .JPG A ENTAbel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is the opposite of Ray Liotta’s character in GoodFellas – y’know, since everyone feels the need to (erroneously) compare J.C. Chandor’s fiercely suspenseful A Most Violent Year to every macho gangster film ever made.  Abel, the head of a successful heating oil company, is dead-set against resorting to violence when his trucks are hijacked by unknown assailants, costing him thousands of dollars and legions of customers.  His competitors, naturally, deny knowledge of these attacks, and Abel is pressured on all sides to retaliate: the head of the Teamsters (Peter Gerety) wants him to arm all of his drivers with handguns; his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father is a hair-trigger mobster who formerly owned the company, threatens to take matters into her own hands if Abel does not move to protect his family; and even Abel’s attorney (Albert Brooks) has a bit too much of an Al Capone vibe when discussing the company’s interests.  Abel protests: “It’s really come to this? We have to walk around outside like we’re fuckin’ gangsters?”

The film is actually more similar to Terence Winter and co.’s Boardwalk Empire than any Al Pacino vehicle, only it does Boardwalk’s ending better than Boardwalk did (read: same setup, seemingly inevitable “never saw that coming” swan song, but subverts the exhausted “stinger” ending – on another note, the film also features three Boardwalk actors).  Thus, the film feels a bit like an extended pilot for another heavy-handed serial about the danger, violence, and fallacy of the American Dream, but it ends before it becomes worn out, and it’s buffered by performances by some of today’s best working actors (Isaac, Jessica Chastain, and David Oyelowo), which despite its tissue-papery themes and symbolic imagery, keep it from being simply “good for what it is.”

Much of the narrative involves Abel’s attempts to purchase an abandoned fuel terminal on the East River, handing over a forty-percent down-payment to a group of Hasidic Jews who require Abel to close the deal in thirty days or eat the down-payment and be left with nothing.  Of course, this happens just as Julian (Elyes Gabel), a driver and close friend to Abel, is brutalized by the above thugs, later procures a handgun without Abel’s permission, and combats his attackers in a broad-daylight shootout when they try again.  The bad publicity causes Abel’s financial backers to pull out, and he’s left to come up with 1.5 million dollars on his own.  On top of that, he must deal with DA Lawrence (Oyelowo), who assumes that any moderately successful company must be riddled with corruption, and decides to invade Abel’s privacy whenever possible.

AMVY is populated with characters who pine for and attempt to recreate the days when “men were men” (English translation: when the word of a man was the only word, rich dudes traded profound threats over gambling tables, and wives were akin to property, good only to scold/bone/task with taking care of children).  Abel and Anna, though, are over that mostly-fictional fantasy time period, and the real struggle is the excruciating job of being the first to move towards progress in a world of dinosaur-ish tycoons who only discuss business from the backroom of a fancy restaurant and who say things like “You don’t want to take a loan from my kind of people.” Abel’s ordeal skates between this and his steadfast resistance to corruption, and only one of those, if either, can be completely satisfied in a story with such an inherently cynical premise (consider the film’s starkest image: the blood of an innocent person sprayed across the side of a leaking oil tank).

Isaac plays Abel, as he plays all of his near-heels, as sympathetic and genuine when anyone else would have played a villain.  Jessica Chastain’s Lady-Macbeth-like Anna, who always seems one clandestine step ahead of Abel, plays the game better than any of the faux gangsters, and her tendency towards mood-whiplash (entertaining children at a birthday party one minute, fearlessly intimidating the District Attorney while taking deliberately-timed drags from a cigarette the next) is the film’s most terrifying wildcard.  The standout performance, maybe, is that of Elyes Gabel (in part because Isaac and Chastain are reliably stunning in everything at this point) as the hard-luck Julian, who just can’t get a break.  Watching him struggle to make big decisions causes serious heartache, and one of the most effectively troubling things about the film is the later realization that his one-hundred-percent-undeserved misfortune actually contributed to the successes of the character we were made to root for, and that we’re pretty much okay with Pyrrhic victory over actual justice, when it comes down to it.

Like most of what comes out of J.C. Chandor, this is one of the most atmospheric, well-scored, and understated pieces of the year.  It is, however, worth wondering about one thing: how do the Morales’ daughters get any sleep with all that yelling?

A Most Violent Year (2014); written and directed by J.C. Chandor; starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Elyes Gabriel, and David Oyelowo.


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