Friday, January 2, 2015

The Interview, A Most Violent Year, Cake

The Interview

A Most Violent Year

Capsule reviews on three of the last four films of 2014. Only “Leviathan” remains and I’ll see it tonight.

Strip away the hacking, the scandalous e-mails and the PR machinations, and what is the paying viewer of Sony’s “The Interview” left with? A thuddingly unfunny and defiantly artless movie that seems to go on for twice its actual two-hour length. God only knows what kind of chemical stupor Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen were in when they concocted this glum scenario unconducive to comedy and devoted most of the script to their bizarre emphases on scatology and homophilia. “The Interview” looks like it was slapped together on the cheap and shot over a single weekend with no retakes. For Randall Park, the movie’s Kim Jong-un: a future on the back of a Trivial Pursuit card.

Fortunately, the weekend brings two good choices for those who are already up to speed on the year’s other releases. Writer-director J.C. Chandor, of 2011’s fine “Margin Call,” has earned comparisons to Sidney Lumet for “A Most Violent Year,” a movie that’s stylish and serious – occasionally self-serious, but no more than its protagonist. Abel Morales (a star-making turn by Oscar Isaac), a self-made player in the NYC heating oil business, prides himself on his integrity but clearly views cooking the books – a job he delegates to his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), a mob boss’ daughter – in a less serious light. He puts their nest egg into a promising parcel of undeveloped land at water’s edge, but the enormous cash deposit is at risk when the D.A. (David Oyelowo) hands down a fourteen-count indictment and his longtime bank backs out. This forces Abel to come hat in hand to his biggest competitors, an uneasily allied oligopoly of half a dozen, one or more of whom must be behind the string of attacks on his fleet of drivers by hired guns who hijack the trucks and make away with thousands of gallons of fuel.

Chandor gives “A Most Violent Year” a strong sense of time and place. New York in 1981 looked nothing like the revitalized destination of today, and cinematographer Bradford Young captures a dark and dusky city of locals into which light pours in harsh bursts or not at all. Alex Ebert’s beautiful soundtrack further enhances the mood. While “A Most Violent Year” will serve primarily as Isaac’s calling card for major studio productions, the cast is uniformly excellent, from Chastain and Oyelowo to Alessandro Nivola, Peter Gerety and Annie Funke as Abel’s racket of rivals to John Procaccino as the banker who wants to extend Abel’s credit (wants this immigrant’s success story to play on) but can’t and Elyes Gabel as Julian, a driver who models himself after Abel but lams it after firing several shots from a handgun at the thugs who come for his truck a second time. Albert Brooks deserves special mention in a part not unlike the one he played in “Drive.” As Abel’s soft-spoken but straight-talking consigliere, Brooks scores several big laughs without breaking the movie’s dramatic and suspenseful spell. My only real criticism is the fair amount of contrivance in Chandor’s script. At times it seems as though neither Abel nor Anna nor any of their men can get into a vehicle or walk 100 paces without coming under attack. A few moments of relief would go a long way to grounding the film firmly in reality.

I also like Jennifer Aniston’s Golden Globe-nominated performance in Daniel Barnz’ “Cake,” one the haters are gonna have a hard time ripping. Aniston really knows how to walk that line between brittle and wry. Some actors you know are just reading lines; with Aniston, you’re drawn in because you see her brain working, calculating how many of her character’s secrets to reveal and when. Here, as Claire, a criminal defense attorney who lost her son in an automobile accident that left her in chronic pain, she finds intellectual and emotional subtleties that might elude an actress content to play up the physicality of the part. She also mines some genuine laughs from the gallows sensibility of Patrick Tobin’s script. 

“Cake” is more a series of episodes during a particular time of Claire’s life than a plot-driven affair. The strong supporting cast includes Chris Messina as her now-estranged husband, Lucy Punch (one of the evil stepsisters in “Into the Woods”) as her cut-through-the-BS rehab nurse, Anna Kendrick as the ghost of Nina, a member of Claire’s former support group who committed suicide by jumping off a freeway (and who seems to want Claire to kill herself too), and hunky Sam Worthington as Nina’s widower, who takes baby steps toward a possible relationship with Claire. But special mention must be made of veteran Adriana Barraza as Silvana, Claire’s indispensable maid and caretaker. She and Aniston forge a screen relationship that’s true to those between many Angelenos and their household help – relationships too infrequently portrayed bilaterally on film. And the last shot's a keeper.

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