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Entries in Oscar Isaac (5)

Wednesday
Dec312014

A Most Violent Year

“A Most Violent Year” is a movie with a somewhat misleading title. Despite one that implies action or, at the very least, some graphic content, the film rarely depicts onscreen violence, nor does it show anything particularly sexy or exciting. No, “A Most Violent Year” is instead a slow burner, a masterful crime drama that would feel right at home alongside the best the genre has to offer.

The year is 1981 and Abel (Oscar Isaac) is a business owner of a New York oil company. He is currently working on closing a deal on some prime real estate that will give him significant business advantages over his competitors. However, he finds himself struggling because his trucks keep getting robbed and the oil sold to one of those competitors. On top of that, there is an investigation underway in regards to his company, along with the entire industry as a whole. Some serious charges are going to be brought against him and his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), who may be responsible for many of them in the first place.

It may not sound like much, but this set-up leads to some suspenseful, emotional and sometimes even frightening scenes, exemplified in an early sequence when Abel walks around his darkened house looking for an intruder. And watching these scenes unfold is like watching a brilliant play come to life. Aside from one chase scene and one shootout, the movie maintains a small scope, usually opting to focus on its characters.

And with characters like this, such a decision should be applauded. Abel is a confident and sharp-tongued businessman who never backs down from threatening or uncomfortable situations and tells it like it is. But at the same time, he’s honorable. Despite the impending charges that could threaten his business, he does his best to keep on the good side of the law. The few moments where he does take action in potentially unlawful ways come as an effect of unlawful actions being taken against him. What he does is understandable, even as his priorities of business first and everything else after ensure he never becomes a completely sympathetic character.

Then again, flawed characters are generally more interesting and such is the case here in nearly every regard. Anna, anchored by an outstanding performance from Jessica Chastain, is the least conscientious of the two, the moment her true colors come out as she emotionlessly kills a deer being a standout scene of the film. Chastain brilliantly crafts a strong, intelligent female out of a character stuck in an era when women were more expected to abide by traditional gender roles than they are today. She plays the good wife to those around her, but her motivations and actions show there is much more bubbling beneath the surface, perhaps a genetic trait from her father, a well-known gangster from the area who has, presumably, since passed.

All of this is enhanced by a truly magnificent score, as it perfectly punctuates each scene. Otherwise rote dialogue, like early on when Abel gives a motivational speech to his salesman, is enhanced by a score that implies some sinister desires beneath his seemingly simple words. The score beautifully hints that the characters aren’t all they seem to be at first and while those character arcs and revelations aren’t exactly surprising, the score nevertheless remains a fascinating and integral component to who they eventually become.

“A Most Violent Year” isn’t going to be for everybody. After a little more than two hours at a sometimes slow and occasionally uneventful pace, some viewers may want more. But for those with a little patience to spare, “A Most Violent Year” is guaranteed to be one of the most interesting movies you’ll have seen this year, with a thoughtful ending that will leave you with plenty to ponder over when the credits finally roll.

A Most Violent Year receives 4.5/5

Friday
Dec202013

Inside Llewyn Davis

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen are two of the most celebrated filmmakers working today. Their films, even those that fail to reach the lofty standards some have set for them, manage to be insightful, poignant and sometimes even frightening. However, their films have also been more adored by critics and film connoisseurs than the everyday filmgoer. Their latest, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is perhaps their most accessible film to date. Gone are the religious complexities of “A Serious Man” or the isolating dark humor of “Fargo” and “Burn After Reading.” Instead, it’s a (mostly) straight forward drama about a struggling man trying to live day by day. It’s not their best—in fact, it hardly even feels like a Coen brothers movie at all—but its majestic musical numbers and fantastic performances elevate this well above the humdrum lesser filmmakers churn out.

Oscar Isaac, in a star making role plays the titular role of Llewyn Davis. He’s a struggling musician whose life is in the gutter. No matter what he does, seemingly everything goes wrong. After a performance one night, he’s assaulted in the alley behind the club, he’s currently homeless and living off the generosity of those closest to him who, despite their aggravation, give him a place to crash and a winter coat to wear, his solo career isn’t taking off and he even finds himself in the possession of an unwanted cat after it bolts out of one of the apartments he had been staying in. To top it all off, one of his friends and romantic flings, Jean, played by Carey Mulligan, is pregnant and it might be his.

Before any of the above becomes known to the viewer, the film encapsulates it all, opening with a melancholy song about the troubles of one’s life. The folky twang of the strings, the subtle quietness of the vocals and the profundity of the lyrics set the stage perfectly for a movie that is going to be all of those things at once. A fan of folk music or not, it’s hard not to find yourself sucked in while listening to this beautiful, but heartbreaking song. Though not a musical in the traditional sense, the film is filled with similar moments like these, all coming at a time in the story that builds character, when Llewyn needs a release, something to take his mind off his troubles.

These songs are complimented wonderfully by Oscar Isaac, a typical “that guy” of cinema, one whose face is known, but the name eludes. He is magnificent here, smartly downplaying the extravagance of many musical performers and instead opting to let the pain show through. His habit of closing his eyes while performing shows not a sign of smugness, but one of passion and emotional agony. Llewyn Davis is a person who wears his emotions very close to his chest. He doesn’t let them show while out doing his day-to-day business; it’s in the quiet musical moments that they become apparent and Isaac plays it damn near perfectly in what is sure to be an underappreciated performance.

Throughout Llewyn’s journey, characters pop up and disappear as if they were never there, hardly making a blip on the overall picture’s radar. This gives the film an uneven structure, but it’s one that fits its themes, working to show the uncertainty of this man’s unhappy life. When these moments end, most are never brought up again and any type of resolution is left on the table, but it’s okay because the character himself has no resolution in sight. However, the gravity of certain stories outweighs the unobtrusiveness of others, like the aforementioned pregnancy, and it's a shame they aren’t explored in more detail. Later in the film, Llewyn even finds out he actually has a kid with a former lover, but the impact this has on his emotional state or his life in general is left frustratingly vague. Neither this nor Jean’s pregnancy have the narrative impact they should. While they should make Llewyn’s life even more complex and uncertain, they’re instead just kind of there.

The film also ends on a somewhat unsatisfying note, when you finally realize that nothing is going to be resolved, but perhaps that’s the point. This isn’t a “happy ending” type of Hollywood film, nor is it one of crushing sadness. It doesn’t leave you with hope or fear or any other feeling because Llewyn’s life has become one of apathy and the apathetic don’t bother with such feelings.

The Coen brothers have really done something interesting here. They’ve created a movie that is missing their trademark style—the style that allowed them to create jokes via the simple movement of a camera like when it passed over a corpse like a speed bump in their 1984 debut, “Blood Simple”—but they haven’t lost their touch. Their abilities are downplayed and they let the performers onscreen shine. So many directors want top billing, to practically scream that they were behind it all, but there’s a refreshing lack of vanity in their approach. This isn’t going to go down as one of their best, but “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a treat all the same.

Inside Llewyn Davis receives 4/5

Friday
Sep212012

10 Years

When you’re younger, ten years seems like an eternity. With so few years under your belt, the thought of ten years passing is unimaginable. It isn’t until you’ve lived through those years that you realize just how quickly they went. With my ten year high school reunion not too far off in the future, I’m finally beginning to understand this. I don’t really know what life holds for me or where I’ll be in the next 10 years and I’m longing to hold onto my childhood, but I know I have to grow up. It’s a sad, but inevitable revelation. The characters in writer/director Jamie Linden’s movie, 10 Years, are transitioning through the same time period I am and having the same thoughts. Perhaps this is why I connected with it so much, but by the end, I, strangely, didn’t feel sad about my now gone childhood. Instead, it gave me a newfound appreciation for those years and the good times I had while also giving me an excited optimism about the years to come.

The story follows a group of friends as they reunite for their 10 year high school reunion. Jake (Channing Tatum) is now dating Jess (Jenna Dewan-Tatum), but he still seems to hold some feelings for his high school flame, Mary (Rosario Dawson), and he needs to sort that out. His buddy, Cully (Chris Pratt), is using the event to make up for past mistakes, apologizing profusely to any “nerd” he may have bullied back in the day. Their mutual friend, Reeves (Oscar Isaac), has actually become a world famous musician and, despite the annoyance of his former classmates’ desires to take pictures with him, he begins to connect with his old science class buddy, Elise (Kate Mara). Meanwhile, their two reckless friends, Marty (Justin Long) and AJ (Max Minghella), are causing their own trouble and attempting to get close to the girl they considered the hottest in school, Anna (Lynn Collins).

Throughout each story, a lesson is learned; lessons about expectations, friendship, love and even waiting for love (they say love is patient, after all). Most of these stories involve characters who miss their high school days. Some are stuck in jobs they hate and long for the carefree days of high school while others, like Reeves, have done something interesting with their lives, but feel like they have unfinished business to take care of. What each story has in common, though, is that they’re all about growing up and moving on. They’re about holding onto the good old days while forging new memories in what will hopefully be better days to come. For someone who is relatively new to this whole “being an adult” thing, I understood what these characters were feeling, as will anyone who has made that bittersweet transition into adulthood.

As with any movie of this type, one that tells multiple stories with many different characters, it’s a bit uneven. Some are unpredictable while others you’ll see coming from a mile away. Some are genuinely emotional, while others are a tad too cheesy for their own good. Some feel incredibly real, while others seem like little more than manufactured melodrama. The surprise, one that deviates from your typical intertwining vignette picture, is that the better stories don’t completely overshadow the others. Most are so close in quality that the word “superior” becomes a relative term.

This is no doubt thanks to an incredible cast full of names and faces you’ll instantly recognize who craft characters that are charismatic, three-dimensional and likable. Even the ones who clearly had a shady past in regards to the way they treated others, like Cully, are genuinely redemptive, even if their attempts at that redemption are too forceful to reach full effect. In the end, 10 Years turns out to be an unexpected delight. It’s a happy and optimistic movie with a love for life, both for what is to come and what has already passed, and it will leave you with a smile on your face.

10 Years receives 4/5

Friday
Sep162011

Drive

Now, here’s a movie that gets things right. Drive blends tones, genres, feelings and perceptions to the point where you’re waiting for it to go wrong, but it never does. It takes things that, in a lesser movie, wouldn’t work and shifts and shapes them perfectly to fit its narrative flow. Drive is an incredibly well rounded movie that only falters in minor areas.

Ryan Gosling plays an unnamed character known simply as Driver, a movie stunt driver and mechanic by day and getaway driver by night. He lives alone in a small apartment complex where he meets Irene, played by Carey Mulligan. She’s the girl-next-door, literally, and she begins to break through his tough outer shell while he bonds with her son. However, her husband, played by Oscar Isaac, has just been released from jail and is coming back home. Unfortunately, he owes protection money and his inability to pay threatens his wife and son. Because he has grown close to the two, Driver takes on another job to earn the money and protect them, but things go horribly wrong.

Drive is the best kind of movie: one that takes you by surprise. It sits you down and keeps you calm before smacking you over the head with a sudden and shocking narrative turn—not many movies can do that these days in a cinematic world of remakes and sequels. This sudden shift is carefully set-up, giving us only glimpses into a man that is quiet and reserved. Aside from his illegal side job, he’s a normal, though seemingly lonely, young man. In these early moments, his character reminds most of George Clooney in last year’s The American. He’s calm and collected, but he is somewhat emotionless, confined to the four walls of his room (or car) and, though only subtly suggested, longing for companionship.

In a movie that begins as a slow, thoughtful drama, its shift into a dark, gruesomely violent and sometimes hard to watch revenge picture is abrupt, though certainly recognized (and intended) by the director who effectively uses sound effects at an increased volume to create the jarring effect. At this moment, the entire feeling of the movie changes, eventually running itself into even blacker territory and, in one particular scene, recalling a masked killer film, but it somehow gels together. Sometimes, there’s no explanation as to how this happens; it just does.

Of course, Driver isn’t the most likable character in the world, but that’s the point. He’s a flawed individual, an anti-hero that strikes women and is perhaps a bit too quick to anger, but the wonderful screenplay and terrific performance from Ryan Gosling keep him grounded. While you certainly won’t approve of some of his actions, you still hope for redemption because Gosling keeps a glimmer of hope alive in him. As one of the most versatile and underrated actors working today (just look at the contrast between this role and his last in Crazy, Stupid, Love), Gosling does wonders and he’s only strengthened by strong supporting actors that include Bryan Cranston and the aforementioned Carey Mulligan, who is perfectly cast (as she always is). She has a real world type of attractiveness, not like the glossed up Hollywood ladies we've become accustomed to, and she brilliantly communicates how her character is feeling with the slightest of expressions.

The lone casting flaw comes in the form of Ron Perlman, who usually comes through when given good material, but he overdoes it here. His over-the-top approach to his character comes with profane language that isn’t offensive because it’s profane, but because it’s excessive and distracting. Similarly out of place are a few unnecessarily long sustained close-ups and the awkward synthpop soundtrack that comes off as somewhat laughable given the dark subject matter (despite the attempted 80’s vibe). All in all, however, Drive is a terrific movie. It’s not always fun (actually, it never is), but it’s gripping, nerve-wracking and well made. If you have a weak stomach, it may not be for you, but for everybody else, it’s a must see.

Drive receives 4.5/5

Friday
May142010

Robin Hood

Robin Hood is a noble character. With his motto of “steal from the rich and give to the poor,” it’s hard not to like the old chap. Or so I’m told. I wouldn’t know personally because, well, I don't really like the old chap. Despite literally dozens (perhaps hundreds) of Robin Hood adaptations in film, television and literature, I’ve never become accustomed with the green-tighted fellow because his antics always bored me. Not much has changed with the 2010 Robin Hood.

Like how last year’s Sherlock Holmes brought the titular character to modern times, Robin Hood modernizes our hero and introduces him to a new generation. Gone are the green tights and feathered caps. Gone is the neatly groomed facial hair. This Robin Hood is rugged, always sporting a rough beard, and wouldn’t be caught dead in sissy green tights. However, also gone is the traditional story of the character. Following suit with most Hollywood films these days, Robin Hood is an origin story of sorts, so he hasn’t quite begun to help the poor through thievery.

This time he is played by Russell Crowe and is in the midst of the Crusades in England in the late 12th century. On his way back from battle, he finds a dying man clutching a precious sword who was on trek to Nottingham to inform the people that their king had died in battle. Robin, being the righteous man he is, takes over the duties and after delivering the information, the new king John (Oscar Issac) is crowned. Power changes, but unrest continues under John. In light of this, France, led by a treasonous Brit named Godfrey (Mark Strong), sees an opportunity to invade and as they plan their descent on the English, Robin Hood and his Merry Men begin to unify the people and plan a defense.

Boring and cliché are two adjectives one would hope not to use when describing a film as promising as Robin Hood, but no other words will do. We’ve seen this basic story arc before—a man fights for his wavering country—right down to the freedom speech with swelling music in the background and it's told in a manner that makes the eyelids heavy, full of dense exposition and forced romances that weigh the entire thing down.

But more goes into movies than the story and it, as important as it may be, does not reflect the rest of the film. Sure, the story may be hogwash, but the presentation is terrific. Russell Crowe gives another great performance as per usual and watching Ridley Scott, a highly esteemed director, tackle such a formidable tale is interesting. Though he stumbles here and there, his direction is quite dashing overall.

Perhaps most remarkable are the extravagant costumes and sets. If ever I found myself drifting away from the lackluster narrative, I could always find eye candy in what was presented before me. Like many period pieces, Robin Hood nails its time period dead on and it is a sight to behold.

However, the saving grace of the film is the action. These battles are epic and watching thousands of men bum-rush each other is fun to watch, even if it does feel a little too familiar. The aforementioned boredom that besets the film comes not from these moments, but rather from the downtime in between.

Robin Hood is not a film that I feel I can firmly define. I’ve struggled as I’ve typed away here because it is neither terrible, nor great. It rests somewhere in the middle and as I watched it, I never truly found myself leaning one way or the other. I was merely in a state of neutrality. Upon reflection, however, I feel the good outweighs the bad and it’s worth a look, as faint a praise as that may be.

Robin Hood receives 3/5