‘Doubt’ Examines The Crippling Power of Uncertainty

Doubt movie poster

Doubt” follows the goings on at the St. Nicholas Catholic school in the Bronx of New York back in 1964. Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) becomes concerned Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) may have developed an unhealthy relationship with the school’s sole black student, Donald Muller (Joseph Foster). This is brought to her attention when Sister James (Amy Adams) notices Donald acting strangely after he has been in the private company of Father Flynn, and Sister James also mentions she smelled alcohol on Donald’s breath. Sister Aloysius becomes convinced of Father Flynn’s guilt even though she has no real proof, but he denies any wrongdoing on his part. From there, it becomes a battle between Aloysius and Flynn which involves not just the accusations, but the state of the school and its students as well.

The fascinating thing about “Doubt” is how its story is simple in its construction, but the characters and the situations they get caught up in prove to be very complex. As the fight goes on between Aloysius and Flynn, you begin to wonder if the conflict doesn’t involve any specific student as it does the direction things are going as the threat of change often frightens people into defending what they believe to be their domain. Sister Aloysius represents the old guard and of the way things have always been. Father Flynn, on the other hand, represents the change many are quick to resist. When he suggests to Aloysius that they need to be nicer to the students, she takes it as an insult.

To watch Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman face off with each other is to watch a master class in acting. God only knows how hard these parts were for them to play. But the fact these two were among the best actors working back in 2008, you come into this movie knowing they are more than up to the challenge. It’s not just the delivery of Shanley’s dialogue they have to work at; it’s also what they show the audience through their eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul, and I’m sure that these two actors have thought their roles out through and through to where they never have to spell anything out to the audience, and it makes their journey all the more enthralling as we can never be absolutely certain of the thing they have and have not done.

Streep has given us an endless number of great performances in which she created characters so memorable which can never be easily erased from our conscious minds once we have seen her onscreen. Sister Aloysius Beauvier is another character she can rack up with her most memorable work, and the character’s introduction is brilliant as we see know from the back of her head who she is as she gets the young children to pay full attention to Father Flynn’s sermon. Without even seeing her face right away, Streep quickly makes an impact as a strong and frightening authority figure to the students and the nuns under her tutelage. Her performance will quickly bring back memories of the awful teachers you were forced to learn under to where you realize the psychological scars are still very raw. She’s the kind of teacher where everything she says is right, and the students are wrong. I hated teachers like that! Hated them!

Hoffman, as always, is brilliant here and matches Streep from one scene to the next. We keep waiting to see if there will be a slip where all will be revealed, but Hoffman keeps his cards close to his chest. Flynn’s explanations for the private meeting between him and Donald are not implausible, but Aloysius remains unconvinced. Hoffman is great at showing how the simple feeling of doubt can easily destroy a person to where guilt and innocence doesn’t matter. Flynn’s fight to prove his innocence threatens to bring out the worst in him, and he continues to sink deeper into a hole he is desperately trying to climb out of.

Along for this morally complex ride is Amy Adams who plays Sister James, and her character is essentially stuck in the middle between these Aloysius and Flynn. Watching Adams here made me wonder if there was another actress who could the same empathy and kindness which she gives off here, and no one quickly comes to mind. Adams shows the love Sister James has for her job as a history teacher ever so perfectly, and she also shows the desperation her character exudes in her search of absolutely certainty. Sister James is the first to suspect Father Flynn is up to no good when she sees him put an undershirt worn by Donald in his locker, but she knows this proves nothing. At times, Sister James seems rather naïve when it comes to how people act around each other, but she proves to be the most morally grounded of the three main characters as she never loses her sense of right and wrong.

There is also a fantastic performance from Viola Davis who plays Mrs. Miller, Donald’s mother. She shares a tense scene with Streep as they discuss their individual suspicions which proves to be one of “Doubt’s” most unforgettable moments. Mrs. Miller likes how Father Flynn has been so nice to her son because she admits her husband beats him severely when he misbehaves. When Sister Aloysius confides her suspicions to Mrs. Miller, it doesn’t change the level of worry for her son’s welfare as it is already extremely high. Instead, she fears more about what Donald’s father will do to him if the allegations against Father Flynn prove to be true. With only ten to twenty minutes of screen time, Viola does a brilliant job of making you feel her character’s heartbreaking dilemma, and of how she has been with left little choice over how to resolve this potentially unhealthy situation she is just now being made aware of. It’s one thing for an actor to show what their character is going through, but it is quite another for them to make you feel what they are experiencing.

With “Doubt,” Shanley brilliantly shows how the state of doubt affects everyone equally. No character comes out of this story the same, and we are left with a deep uncertainty which cannot be easily dismissed while walking out of the theater. Everyone is harmed deeply here, and it binds them as strongly as it tears them apart. You have to feel for those caught in its ugly wake because they end up having to live with something they did not necessarily bring on themselves. It’s a brilliant play which has been made into a great movie filled with outstanding performances, and of this I have no doubt.

* * * * out of * * * *

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No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Super Fly’ (1972)

Super Fly 1972 poster

With the remake about to be released, it was time to check out “Super Fly,” the 1972 blaxploitation crime drama which is considered one of the biggest classics of the genre. I have been aware of this film’s existence for years, and the photo on its VHS cover of Ron O’Neal holding a gun and looking ever so cool in his white suit and pants has been burned into my memory for decades. But like many movies I perused at local video stores, all of which have since vanished, I never got around to watching it until now.

While I certainly understand why “Super Fly” is long considered a classic blaxploitation film, it is not necessarily a great movie. On one hand the signs of its low budget are very much on display throughout to where I was reminded of what John Carpenter once said about the rule of making independent movies: “Shoot as little film as possible and make it as long as you can.” But on the other, it presents us with a New York time which no longer exists in modern day America, and the gritty realism of the city streets is on display throughout to where the movie’s existence is especially important as you can only fake this kind of realism in today’s cinematic world.

Ron O’Neal plays Youngblood Priest, an African-American drug dealer who enjoys a luxurious lifestyle in Harlem, New York. He got the name Priest because of the cross he wears around his neck. While this cross may or may not reflect his belief in God or any religious deity, a closer inspection reveals that the tip of the cross is fashioned in the shape of a spoon, and this allows him to do lines of cocaine whenever he needs a hit. In addition to his high-class apartment, the kind which would fetch at least a million in today’s New York real estate market, he also has a dedicated girlfriend in Georgia (Sheila Frazier), a white girl mistress named Cynthia (Polly Niles), the best set of clothes any man would be lucky to own and wear at the time, and he drives around town in a 1971 customized Cadillac Eldorado. Looking at Priest is to be convinced this is a man who has a lot of power and confidence you would be foolish to question, and this is something he does not have to spell out to anyone in words.

But as successful as Priest is, he yearns for a life outside of the underground drug business. This, of course, leads to him to plan one last “big score” which he believes will allow him to retire and go straight, but those of us who have watched countless gangster movies know this last big score will be the one fraught with the most danger. It gets to where there I expected the one scene where Priest just shakes his head as if to say to himself, “I should have gotten out of the life sooner, and now it’s too late.” Still, Priest is much smarter than his friends and foes realize, and we watch as he plots his way to his biggest drug deal ever, and then attempt to stay one step of everyone else who wants to do him in.

It has been said that the screenplay for “Super Fly” was only 45 pages long, and this is why we get exposed to so many shots of people walking, driving and talking in restaurants. This is the kind of film editing you would never see today as everything needs to move at a fast pace. This ends up dragging the movie down a bit as certain moments play themselves out for much longer than is necessary. Still, it allows us to take a look back at the New York that was before it, for better or worse, was cleaned up to where much of the state if unaffordable to live in. This helps to make up for other scenes which are staged rather pathetically, especially one in which a character gets hit by a car.

O’Neal immediately comes across as the personification of cool from the first moment he appears onscreen. He was in his 30’s when starred in “Super Fly,” but his face has the look of a man who has seen a lot in life up to that point, and this makes his performance as Priest feel all the more powerful and authentic. I never got the feeling he was trying to glamourize Priest’s lifestyle, and he was not afraid to make this character a rough and unlikable dude at times. He simply portrays Priest as a man who makes his way through life the only way he knows how, and his methods as you can imagine are not always morally sound.

As for the rest of the cast, their performances range from okay to pretty good. Charles McGregor, who was released from prison before “Super Fly” began filming, has some good moments as Fat Freddie, and Carl Lee, who plays Eddie, has a strong scene in which he tells Priest if it wasn’t for him, he would have overdosed. This line of dialogue would later prove to be tragically ironic as Lee became a heroin addict, and he died of a drug overdose back in 1986.

When “Super Fly” was released, many African-Americans were said to have been displeased with the way the movie glamourized people like themselves as drug dealers and pimps, but it resonated deeply with others who saw the movie as an example of how to rise up in the American class system. Does this movie glamourize the lifestyles of drug dealers? Well, perhaps it does, but the scary truth is there is always an allure to a life like this as it affords us a wealth which constantly seems out of our reach. Still, it should be noted how we never really see Priest enjoying himself much in the movie. While he has many things a person would want in life, we see right from the start how he has long since tired of his role in society to where it is believable and understandable why he yearns to do something legitimate for a change.

For those who think “Super Fly” provides audiences with a rather ambiguous look at the world of drugs and drug dealing back in the 1970’s, you need to take the time to listen Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack to it which, by the way, is one of the best of its kind ever. An exhilarating fusion of soul and funk music, Mayfield also provided lyrics which were very socially aware and took an even closer look at drugs and poverty in society. When you read the lyrics of the song “Freddie’s Dead,” you can see the evidence of this very clearly:

“Everybody’s misused him

Ripped him up and abused him

Another junkie plan

Pushing dope for the man

A terrible blow

But that’s how it goes

A Freddie’s on the corner now

If you want to be a junkie, wow

Remember Freddie’s dead

We’re all built up with progress

But sometimes I must confess

We can deal with rockets and dreams

But reality, what does it mean

Ain’t nothing said

‘Cause Freddie’s dead.”

Looking at this, it is no wonder the soundtrack ended up making more money than the movie itself, and the movie did make a huge profit.

So “Super Fly” may not be an example of great filmmaking, but it should be noted how its production succeeded in offering advances for African-Americans. The city of Harlem went out of its way to back the movie financially, and many black businesses helped with production costs. Furthermore, the majority of the crew were in fact African-American, something which was very rare at this time in cinema. Taking all this into account makes “Super Fly” all the more enjoyable as it was a movie made with passion and respect as the filmmakers sought to tell it like it is. Despite its glaring flaws, it is a very cool movie to experience, and I am glad I finally got the chance to check it out, especially before I went out to see the remake.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Cloverfield’ Lives Up to the Hype

Cloverfield

The fact that “Cloverfield” is any good is something of a miracle. This movie was released in January, a month where Hollywood tends to dump all their crappy movies because they have no idea of where else to put them. Plus, this is a movie which could have easily collapsed under the height of anticipation and expectation which preceded it with its brilliant marketing strategy. We all saw the brilliant teaser trailer showing the severed head of the Statue of Liberty being thrown down into the middle of Manhattan. We didn’t see the title for the film until months later, and we couldn’t stop thinking about it. This trailer was analyzed like it was the equivalent of the Zapruder film which captured the Kennedy assassination, but now the movie is finally here and has gotten 2008 off to a strong start.

“Cloverfield” takes place in the city of New York which has seen its fair share of destruction on and off the big screen. It starts off with some color bars on the screen and there is a message stating the footage we are about to see is from the area “formerly known as Central Park.” Those are ominous words indeed, and it leaves us in a state of suspended tension as we already know something very bad is going to happen. We first meet Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) as he is filming the apartment of the woman he just slept with, Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman). We see them hanging out in Coney Island throughout, but the movie then jumps ahead to a month or so later when Rob is about to leave New York for a new job in Japan. It turns out Beth and Rob never really hung out with each other again after the great day they had, and the time they had together is always on their minds. But just as they try to sort out their personal issues, the earth shakes beneath them and, of course, all hell breaks loose.

The movie does take its time getting started which is not a bad thing as it takes time to establish the main players and their backgrounds. The script doesn’t flesh them out completely, but they are fleshed out enough to where you do care about them. The big surprise party thrown for Rob is filled with people who look like, at the very least, got a callback for one or more of the shows on the CW network. It would have been nice to see the filmmakers add more ordinary people into this party who did not have the perfect body or such Noxzema clear faces, but anyway.

What makes this monster film particularly effective is how it is told from the ground view. We are there with the people as they experience this disaster firsthand, and the characters are not just simple clichés who look and feel like they belong in a typical watered-down sitcom. This is what drove me nuts about Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla.” Like Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” it is not caught up with the military as they make decisions on how to destroy this enormous beast. It is more concerned with people like you and me and how we might struggle to survive in this situation. The adrenaline keeps running high as Rob and a few others make their way through the decimated city to get to Beth who is trapped in her high-rise apartment.

Another key factor is that “Cloverfield” doesn’t show us the monster right away, and this as a result makes the thought of the monster becomes more terrifying than anything else. We do get to see the monster eventually, but not in its entirety until the latter half. I would love to describe the monster to you, but I’d rather you discover it for yourself as I really don’t want to spoil the surprise. Nothing will compare to the first time you watch this movie.

The movie is also dominated by the shaky cam work which threatens to become an overused method of filmmaking these days. For those of you who have serious motion sickness problems, don’t sit too close to the screen. As for myself, I actually dealt with it just fine. I was starting to think I might have reached my limit with shaky camerawork after watching “The Kingdom,” and it fails in comparison to the brilliant camerawork accomplished in “The Bourne Ultimatum.” But here, it’s fine and it keeps you on the edge of your seat.

“Cloverfield” is not exactly brilliant filmmaking, but it does get the job done and with no real music score might I add. We don’t get to hear a score until the end credits where Michael Giaachiano composed a piece of music which serves a tribute of sorts to the monster movies of the past. Credit, however, should go to director Matt Reeves who directs his first movie here since “The Pallbearer” which was made back in 1996. He keeps the action grounded enough to where we have no problem following the characters even if their situation is not entirely probable. Anyway, we go into a movie like this to have a good time, not to think too hard about everything going on.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Black Swan’ is a Tour de Force for Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman

Black Swan movie poster

JESUS CHRIST!!! This was my immediate reaction after witnessing Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.” A combination of “The Wrestler” and “Requiem for A Dream” with a dose of “Rosemary’s Baby” thrown in for good measure, it is a brilliantly over the top psychosexual thriller which continually ratchets up suspense and tension all the way to its horrifying climax. And unlike Mia Farrow’s character in “Rosemary’s Baby,” Natalie Portman has a really nice haircut.

Just as it was with “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan” serves as an expose sorts on the athletic arena it focuses on. The backstage world of ballet dancing is highly competitive, and the career of a dancer can easily be short-lived if an unexpected injury, either a big or small one, occurs. Many view ballet as being very boring and would rather tune into Monday Night Football. Try dragging kids to a production of “The Nutcracker” and watch how they run for the hills. This is the reaction I get from most people I know, although I’m sure there are exceptions.

But don’t let any preconceptions about ballet turn you off from seeing this film. It is anything but boring, and both Aronofsky and Portman brilliantly capture the physically and psychologically draining aspects of ballet to where you feel as wiped out and crazed as they do throughout. Like any other art form, ballet demands years of training in order to reach a level of perfection few can achieve. It is also shown to be an isolating career because, with so many people going after the same lead role, making friends is a struggle as you wonder what they are saying behind your back. With the bitterness level sky high, ballet threatens to be more damaging psychologically than physically.

Portman plays Nina Sayers, a member of a prominent New York City ballet company. After years of hard work, Nina gets her lucky break when she snags the lead role in “Swan Lake,” a show is as overdone as many of Neil Simon’s plays. This show has one of the most coveted roles in any show as it is incredibly challenging. Nina has to play the White Swan who is a creature of innocence, and also the Black Swan who is one of a sensual and dark nature. Basically, it is the dancer’s “Hamlet.” While her director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) thinks she is perfect as the White Swan, he has doubts about her ability to play the Black Swan as she is so technically precise in her movements, and the latter role requires her to lose herself in the passionately dark nature of the character.

Once we see Nina walk down the streets of New York past a woman who looks exactly like her, we are caught up in her downward spiral which she is helpless to stop. We watch as she encounters people and situations which feel real, but later turn out to be nothing more than hallucinations. There are times where she even looks like she is turning into a swan. While this may sound ridiculous on paper, it is brilliantly conceived visually from the rash on Nina’s back to those blood red eyes she develops. There are even points where she is dancing in front of a mirror, and her reflection turns around to glare at her malevolently.

The line between what is real and what is not becomes completely blurred, and neither the audience or Nina are able to tell the difference between the two. Many may be maddened at not being able to understand all of what is happening, but that’s precisely the point. Aronofsky puts you directly into Nina’s mindset, which has already proven to be an emotionally fragile place, and we are instantly caught up in her psychological disintegration. This makes “Black Swan” all the more visceral to experience. We are not just watching Nina go mad, we feel like we are going mad with her.

Portman does truly give the performance of her career here. She trained in ballet for a year or so, and her preparation really paid off. Throughout, she captures the sweet nature of Nina as well as the paranoia and resentment which overwhelms her the closer she gets to the opening performance. Watching Portman practice her dancing to no end is emotionally exhausting as it is for her physically, and she makes us feel like we are right on the edge of disaster with her. Portman has always been an amazing actress, but her work in “Black Swan” represents the culmination of a great career which is more than ready to head into adulthood.

Mila Kunis, looking even sexier here than she did in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” co-stars as another dancer, Lily. Unlike Nina, she is free with her body and mind, and what she lacks in precision she makes up for in unbridled passion. She’s at times friendly, wanting to break the ice between her and Nina, and her power of seduction is one Nina desperately wants to capture for herself. Kunis has become an increasingly fascinating actress, and seeing her go from sweet to a cold back stabber of a human being is made very believable by her work.

Oh yeah, there is a sex scene between Portman and Kunis which will have people checking out “Black Swan” for all the wrong reasons. Then again, any reason to get people to see this film might not be so bad. Furthermore, to dismiss this as a simple lesbian sex scene will only show how short sighted you are.

Aronofsky again employs his frequent collaborators to excellent effect. His director of photography, Matthew Libatique, almost makes this film look like a remake of “Suspiria” as the colors become overpowering once they become blacker and infinitely vicious. “Black Swan” is as much a sensory experience as it is a psychological one, just like “Requiem for A Dream” was. Libatique makes the special effects appear seamless in scenes where CGI is clearly utilized. As the background dancers pass by her, Nina sees her face in all of them. It’s such an eerie moment to where it doesn’t even feel like a special effect.

Then there is the fantastic Clint Mansell whose work on Aronofsky’s movies has become a main character in each of them. Mansell takes Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and breathes fresh life into it which is exhilarating to take in. His score becomes as intense as the images we see on screen, and I loved how visceral and thrillingly alive it all feels.

The movie also offers great performances from actresses we don’t see as much of on the silver screen: Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey. Ryder clearly understands the frustration her character of veteran dancer Beth MacIntyre is going through, and she captures this deeply hurt and excessively bitter character perfectly. At once an empathetic and at other times a pathetic person, we see just how much Beth has lived for ballet, and now that it has been cruelly taken away from her, she has little else to devote her life to. To be placed on a pedestal so high only to be yanked from it leaves her with nothing but desperation and deep self-loathing which is hard to dig oneself out of.

As for Hershey, she remains a phenomenal actress as she has been for many years. In movies like “A World Apart” and “Portrait of a Lady,” she has created indelible female characters who are never easily forgotten. Her role in “Black Swan” is no exception as she takes the clichéd role of a stage mother and makes her a loving person as well as an overbearing one. When we come to see how her character failed at a dancing career, it becomes frighteningly clear how much of her happiness is based on how successful her daughter is at hers.

“Black Swan” once again shows how brilliant a director Aronofsky is as he mixes up different genres to create one hell of a movie going experience. Portman’s magnificent performance really is one for the ages, and few other characters have been as physically demanding for an actor as Nina is. Even as things get more and more horrifying, Aronofsky keeps your eyes focused on the screen to where looking away from it would feel like a crime. Is it more intense than “Requiem for a Dream?” No, but it sure does come close!

One thing’s for sure, this will not be a good recruiting film for dancers. They’ll want to go into accounting or dentistry after watching this one!

* * * * out of * * * *

John Carpenter Looks Back at ‘Escape From New York’ and ‘Escape From LA’

John Carpenter Escape From New York photo

“Escape Artist: A Tribute to John Carpenter” continued with the exploits of Snake Plissken in the double feature of “Escape From New York” and “Escape from LA” at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. These films featured some of the collaborations between Carpenter and Kurt Russell who first worked together on “Elvis.” They quickly became great friends and went on to work together on several other films including these two and “Big Trouble in Little China.”

The emcee warned us that the print of “Escape From New York” was pretty faded as it was an original print and the only one American Cinematheque could get their hands on. This was being generous as it looked like it had been slaughtered by countless film projectors, and the color was faded to where everything looked pink. It is astonishing it didn’t break apart in the projector. Still, the fans still enjoyed watching the film, one which they have seen hundreds of times before. They laughed when “1997 NOW” came up and when Lee Van Cleef speaks into this enormous cell phone no one would have today, let alone in 1997.

After “Escape From New York” ended, Carpenter came to the stage and was greeted with another thunderous standing ovation. Carpenter quickly acknowledged the crowd by saying, “Thank you for coming out to see the movie tonight, but I got to tell you this is the worst fucking print. My fucking God! There’s no color in it!” The audience laughed loudly as they were in complete agreement.

Escape from New York poster

The discussion started off with a question about the genesis of the project. Carpenter talked about writing the script back in the early 1970’s when there was a great sense of cynicism in America about our President and in response to the hostage crisis in Iran. He also admitted he was inspired by two of his favorite movies back then, “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish.” Those two movies involved men driven to the brink emotionally and who took it upon themselves to wreak vengeance on those who wronged them. Like those characters, Snake Plissken gets the job done, and this brought a lot of satisfaction to audiences as nobody in the real world seemed to be accomplishing anything.

Carpenter said he initially wanted Clint Eastwood to play Snake Plissken. For one reason or another, it did not work out. He also said he had shopped this screenplay around to several studios which rejected it outright, but fortunately he had a multiple picture deal with Avco Embassy which had produced “The Fog.” Ironically, they wanted Charles Bronson for the title role. Somehow, everything came together when Russell got cast as Snake Plissken, and he portrayed the character as an asexual human being who cares about nothing more than staying alive. In the process, he created one of the most memorable anti-heroes ever seen in a movie.

Carpenter also talked about Lee Van Cleef, a favorite actor of his from Sergio Leone westerns, who played Police Commissioner Bob Hauk. Lee had seriously injured his knee during the filming of another movie and had never gotten it fixed, and as a result he was in constant pain while making “Escape from New York.”

With a budget of only $5 million dollars, “Escape From New York” needed to be filmed as quickly as possible. Carpenter said the rule of low budget filmmaking was to shoot as little film as possible and to make it as long as you can. In fact, there is actually only one real shot of New York in the entire movie which features the Statue of Liberty, and it pans from there and dissolves into a set in Los Angeles. A lot of what you see of New York in the movie are actually models and matte paintings done by artists from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, among them James Cameron. Much of the movie was filmed in downtown St. Louis which had had a huge fire that destroyed several city blocks. The city let Carpenter and his crew film there in triple digit temperatures, and they even shut the power down for them when they filmed at night.

Escape from LA movie poster

When it came to making “Escape from LA,” Carpenter had a budget of around $50 million to work with. But while he and Russell had more time and money, Carpenter said he had the hardest time writing the screenplay for it because he felt that everything he was writing was “bullshit.” What got him to revisit Snake Plissken was that Russell was so keen on playing the character again, and they solved their script problem by moving the action to Los Angeles which was in a constant state of denial with all the earthquakes and natural disasters occurring there. They simply took the same scenario of the original movie and updated it to reflect the current state of the city while filming.

“Escape From New York” may have had only one real New York shot in the entire movie, but all of “Escape from LA” was filmed in Los Angeles. The sequel was shot over a period of one hundred and three nights, and Carpenter said he found filming at night to be very “soul draining” as it changes the way you see things and the darkness infects you in a very unhealthy way.

One audience member brought up how at one point it looked like Carpenter and Russell might do a third movie called, “Escape from Earth.” This never panned out because “Escape from LA” unfortunately bombed at the box office. There was also supposed to be a video game based on the movies, but the company involved with it ended up going back to the past by resurrecting Pac-Man. There was even talk of a television series which would act as a prequel to the movies and even an anime movie chronicling the further adventures of Snake Plissken, but neither of those projects became a reality. Despite the box office failure of “Escape from LA,” there are still many people out there who are intent on continuing the exploits of their favorite antihero.

These days, Carpenter said he is content to sit at home and watch the NBA Finals or play video games. He told the audience he had just finished playing “Ninja Gaiden 2” and would be moving on to “Metal Gear Solid 4” next. It doesn’t seem like he is in a big hurry to make another movie, but this could change if the studios pay him a lot of money. Carpenter feels the movie business keeps changing on him, and he does not appear to be as enthusiastic about making films as he once was.

Carpenter closed out the evening by saying he had to go meet with his drug dealer. Before he left, the moderator gave him a gift saying Carpenter had given so much to us that he wanted to give something back. This something was the “Escape from New York” board game which is, apparently, the most complicated board game ever.

After the discussion ended, he did take some time outside the theater to sign autographs and pose for pictures with fans who still see him as a big inspiration. If you look at movies of recent years, you will see Carpenter’s influence over many of them both in their visuals and the music. To this day, he remains one of the important directors of the sci-fi and horror genre, and his cult following remains as strong as ever.

As the evening wore on, many came back inside to watch “Escape from LA.” The print was in much better condition, but this didn’t stop it from breaking down during the movie’s last seconds. For those who know how this sequel ends, it only seemed comically appropriate as Snake shut down… Well, you know.

William Friedkin Discusses the Creation of ‘The French Connection’ Car Chase

The French Connection car chase

William Friedkin’s “The French Connection” was shown as part of American Cinematheque’s tribute to him, and he went into great detail about how the famous car chase came together. It is still one of the best car chases in cinema alongside “Bullitt,” and it’s the kind Hollywood doesn’t dare do anymore.

The French Connection movie poster

Actually, it turns out there was never a car chase in the original script for “The French Connection,” but Friedkin felt it needed one as this was a police procedural, and the audience would need a temporary release from it. Also, Friedkin didn’t do any storyboards to prepare for it. In fact, he has never done storyboards for any of his movies because he feels he has to see it in his mind. The shots captured on film come together from what he sees at the time, and he doesn’t even use a second unit to shoot any footage. All that you see on screen in “The French Connection” comes from life as it happened in front of Friedkin.

In coming up with the chase, he and some crew members walked down 50 blocks of New York streets to figure out how it would work best. As Friedkin kept walking, he suddenly felt the subway under his feet. Now logistically, he couldn’t do a car chase with a subway as it was underground, but it made him wonder if there were any elevated trains left in New York. The production team ended up finding one in Brooklyn, so Friedkin went to the Transit Authority to get their cooperation in pulling this chase off.

The first thing to figure out was how fast the trains could go. Friedkin said if they went over 100 mph, they couldn’t do the chase as it would be impossible for Popeye Doyle to follow the train by car. The train supervisor he talked to said the trains go at 50 mph, so what seemed impractical suddenly became possible. Not only did Friedkin want to have a car chase the train, he also wanted to crash the train for the chase’s climax. But the train supervisor said it would be too difficult because they had never had an elevated train crash or even heisted. Having heard all this did not deter Friedkin, and he planned to steal the scene if the transit authority’s cooperation was not going to be granted.

As Friedkin and his crew headed for the exit, the train supervisor suddenly said, “Wait a second. I told you it would be difficult. I never said it would be impossible!” He told Friedkin that if he were to help him with this, then he would need $40,000 and a one-way ticket to Jamaica. His reasoning was if the movie was to be done Friedkin’s way, he would be fired, and retiring to Jamaica was always in the back of his mind. Sure enough, the supervisor was fired, and he moved to Jamaica like he said he would, so it’s safe to say he lucked out.

In filming the chase, the shots were picked up just as they happened in real life. There’s no way they would ever be able to film a chase like this today without prior approval from the city, but Friedkin and his crew were young and reckless, and they unleashed mayhem New York never saw coming. There were not supposed to be any accidents while filming it, but there ended up being many of them which forced the crew to fix the car after each take. I’m pretty sure they ended up using more than one as a result. Friedkin ended up saying they did a number of things he would never even think about doing today, and that they were very fortunate no one got hurt.

Taking all this information into account, this car chase feels even more thrilling than when I first saw it. The way it was filmed was completely insane, and the fact they pulled it off at all was a miracle. When Gene Hackman finally brings the 1971 Pontiac LeMans he is driving to a complete stop, the sold-out audience at the Aero Theatre applauded loudly which shows how powerful the sequence remains today. “The French Connection,” like many of Friedkin’s movies, has deservedly stood the test of time.

‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ Gives the Web-Slinger a New Lease on Life

Spiderman Homecoming poster

The thought of another “Spider-Man” reboot had me rolling my eyes as this comic book character has already gotten through one too many versions already. But after watching Tom Holland portray him in “Captain America: Civil War,” I found myself getting excited about where the character could go from there. So, it’s my relief and delight to tell you all that “Spider-Man: Homecoming” proved to be a really good movie which successfully breathes new life into a franchise suffering from misdirection and too many chefs in the kitchen. With Holland, we also get the best incarnation of Spider-Man/Peter Parker yet as he gives the role a spirited turn full of youthful energy and boundless enthusiasm.

Director Jon Watts and the screenwriters, too many to name here, wisely avoid regurgitating Peter Parker’s origin story the way “The Amazing Spider-Man” did, and they instead hit the ground running. Peter has received a new Spidey suit courtesy of Tony Stark (the always welcome Robert Downey Jr.), but he is not quick to welcome Peter into the Avengers fold. Instead, Peter has to spend his days at high school like any other teenager and with his equally intelligent best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon). But when a new villain who even the Avengers don’t see coming called the Vulture starts wreaking havoc in Queens, New York, Peter finds himself too impatient to just sit on the sidelines and let him get away with his felonious deeds.

Holland really hits it out of the park here, and his boundless enthusiasm is set up perfectly through a home movie Peter Parker makes which encapsulates his time with the Avengers and battling Captain America. While the character remains the conflicted superhero who has trouble balancing out his school life with his crime stopping job, Holland makes the role his own and brings such an infectious spirit which makes the proceedings endlessly entertaining. Whereas Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield made Spider-Man too emo for his own good, Holland doesn’t go the same route, and his interpretation is much closer to the character we grew up reading in the comic books. I was frightened he might become too enthusiastic for Spider-Man’s own good, but his performance never becomes ingratiating and he also shows us a vulnerability which feels genuine and not easily achieved.

Of course, comic book movies need a good villain, and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” has one and, thank goodness, only one. The Vulture is an interesting choice as the person who inhabits him, Adrian Toomes, is as regular a guy as Peter Parker is a regular kid. Adrian is not so much a bad guy as he is a man who feels betrayed and left behind by those who have it all. His belief is that those in power couldn’t care less about the little man or anything he could possibly contribute to society, so he does many villainous things for his own benefit. But unlike many James Bond villains, he is not out for world domination. He just wants to provide for his family like any parent does.

It is a great pleasure to see Michael Keaton return to the world of comic book movies, and he arrives here just as “Batman Returns” celebrates its 25th anniversary. As Adrian Toomes/The Vulture, Keaton renders him into someone all too human even as he lays waste to Queens, New York and anyone foolish enough to get in his way. Even as the character sinks deeper and deeper into the criminal life, Keaton gives Vulture a humanity, albeit a corrupted one, which makes him seem more threatening and morally complex.

The rest of the cast is excellent, and it’s great to see Jon Favreau here as Happy Hogan gets more screen time here than he has in previous Marvel movies. One of the last scenes he shares with Holland is especially good as Hogan comes to see just how much attention he really should have paid to Peter. Downey Jr. continues to bring a sharp attitude to Tony Stark/Iron Man, but he also allows the character to evolve as Tony finds himself becoming a father figure to Peter, albeit a reluctant one. Even Chris Evans shows up in a cameo as Steve Rogers/Captain America, and he steals every scene he is in.

There has been a lot of talk of how Marisa Tomei was too young to play May Parker in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” but that’s ridiculous. If May Parker is the sister to Peter’s mother, she wouldn’t be as old as Rosemary Harris now, would she? Either way, she brings a wonderful sass to this role, and she remains an enormously gifted actress after all these years. All the same, I wished we got to see more of her here as she has a wonderful chemistry in her scenes with Holland. I kept waiting for Tomei to be the Yoda to Holland just as Harris was to Tobey Maguire, but I guess we will see this come about in the inevitable sequel.

Watts previously directed “Cop Car” which was about two young kids who steal a police car from a corrupt sheriff. Essentially, that movie was about kids getting into the kind of trouble they would be smart to avoid, and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” has the same thing going on. Peter eventually comes to see he is in over his head to where Tony has to take away his Spidey suit. This sets up the third part of the movie where Peter has to see there is more to being a superhero than having a really cool suit. With great power does come great responsibilities, but this Spider-Man comes to see how great power needs to come from within as it cannot simply be co-dependent on nifty gadgets.

Some of the action scenes are a little too frenetic to where it’s hard to tell what is going on, and I was hoping for a little more in the way of emotional gravitas which highlighted Raimi’s first two “Spider-Man” movies. Still, it is a surprise to see how wonderfully inventive “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is as it gives us what appears to be a formulaic story, and yet it keeps giving us one surprise after another, all of which are too clever to spoil here. Just when you think you know how things will play out, the script veers in another direction you don’t see coming, and it makes the movie more interesting as the conflicts become increasingly intense.

I came into “Spider-Man: Homecoming” believing it could never top “Spider-Man 2” which has earned its place among the best comic book/superhero movies of all time. This one doesn’t, but it lands at number two among the “Spider-Man” movies as it is endlessly entertaining and wonderfully cast. My hat is off to the filmmakers for breathing new life into this franchise during a summer where so many others are suffering from fatigue, and I am infinitely eager to see where Spider-Man will go from here. For now, Columbia Pictures appears to have learned from the mistakes made with “Spider-Man 3” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” as this iteration is neither an overstuffed bird or a 2-hour long trailer for movies which never materialized. Here’s hoping the filmmakers keep from making those same mistakes in future installments.

And yes, there are two post-credit sequences, and both are worth sitting through the end credits to get to. The second one is priceless and brilliant. Trust me, you’ll see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

Exclusive Interview with Alfred Molina about ‘Love is Strange’

Alfred Molina Love is Strange

He has played a variety of characters in movies like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Prick Up Your Ears,” “Boogie Nights,” “Spider-Man 2” and “Not Without My Daughter” to where it seems like he can play anybody (and he probably can). Now Alfred Molina takes on a more intimate role in Ira Sachs’ “Love Is Strange” where he plays George, a Catholic school music teacher who, as the movie starts, marries his lover of 39 years, Ben (played by John Lithgow). They have a joyous ceremony, but once word reaches the school of George’s wedding, they subsequently fire him. This leads to a great deal of upheaval in the newlyweds’ life as they are forced to sell their apartment and spend time apart for the first time in years as they search for more affordable housing. The situation weighs very heavily on George to where he feels like he’s failing Ben and everyone around him.

It was a great pleasure to speak with Molina while he was doing press for “Love Is Strange.” It turns out that he and Lithgow have been friends for many years, so the fact that they have great chemistry onscreen should be no surprise. In addition, I also asked Molina about how sees the world of independent filmmaking today, why Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” inspired him to become an actor, and of what it was like to shoot this film without any rehearsals.

Love is Strange movie poster

Ben Kenber: Since you and John Lithgow have been friends for a long time, did the chemistry you two developed onscreen come easy to you?

Alfred Molina: Yes, it did. I think the advantage of being friends with John, having had a relationship as friends, helps us both in a way. For me, it just meant there was shorthand already in place. There was an ease and a rapport and a relaxation between us that was very easy and also very conducive and helpful for the roles we were playing. I think we would’ve still enjoyed the fact that we are friends if we had been playing adversaries in a movie or a good guy, bad guy. But the fact that we were playing a couple in a long-term relationship, I think our history as friends only helped and sort of aided that.

BK: What I really liked about this movie is that what the characters go through is quite ordinary, but it takes on a different feeling here. We don’t see enough movies these days about regular ordinary people, and the problems the characters go through here feel quite epic.

AM: Yeah. People lose their jobs, people lose their homes and it’s always bad news. But it happens very often for the most trivial of reasons, and I think the fact that Ira Sachs and (co-writer) Mauricio Zacharias created a couple who, by their very ordinariness, when this crisis happens to them, it takes on epic proportions. And like most crises that happen to ordinary people it becomes huge because normally in our own lives we don’t have the power or the means to overcome them quite so easily. It takes time and I think the fact that George and Ben are, for all intents and purposes, a very ordinary and a very anonymous couple adds to the strength of this story.

BK: I also wanted to congratulate you on receiving the Spotlight Award from the Creative Coalition at Sundance for your work in independent films. How do you think the world of independent films is faring today? Has it gotten easier to make them or harder?

AM: Well, I think it all depends on one’s perspective. Independent moviemaking is always a challenge. I think whenever you’re working on projects that don’t have immediate commercial appeal and you’re working outside of the studios, especially on low budget films where you’re really scrambling to raise $2 or $3 million to make a movie or however much it is, you’re working under all kinds of restrictions and challenges and the biggest one of course being time. You don’t have time. You very often don’t have time to absorb any mistakes or any accidents or anything that happens that kind of works against your schedule, so it’s always a challenge. But I think the fact that there are so many independent movies finding an eager audience means that there’s something being done right and well. There is an audience out there for good stories. There’s an audience out there for well-made, well-crafted, sincere movies about real people in real situations, and I think the reason why there’s an audience is because of the way cable TV, for instance, has welcomed movies. So many directors and writers and actors are now working on cable shows because that’s where some of the best movies are being made where young directors are getting the chance to make their films and tell their stories. The relationship between the product and the audience has changed a lot. There was a time when you were working on television that you were very much the guest in someone’s house. But now cable has changed all that because you’re paying for it. Also, our TVs have gotten bigger so it’s like watching a movie, and if you’ve got a 50-inch screen in your front room, the ratio is pretty typical of a small movie house. You can be watching movies at home and I think that changes the dynamic between the product and the audience, and there’s an audience out there for small films. The independent industry lurches from one crisis to another, and in those ups and downs there’s some great movies being made.

BK: I’ve talked with a lot of indie filmmakers recently and they usually get a shooting schedule that’s 30 days if they’re lucky, but those schedules keep getting shorter as time goes on.

AM: That’s right, yeah, because making movies gets more and more expensive. But there will always be an independent director, writer, actors who want to continue to work in that milieu because ultimately that’s where the most interesting stuff is happening. I can only speak for myself, but I think that’s where the best films are being made.

BK: Your character of George has a great line in this film where he says, “Life has its obstacles, but I’ve learned early on that they will always be lessened if faced with honesty.” I think it’s very interesting in that George teaches at a Catholic school and has for many years, but the school doesn’t always respect the individual that he is.

AM: Absolutely, and I think that’s a great shame for anyone who’s in the same position as George; losing your job or losing your home or being chastised by society in some way because of who you choose to love and who you choose to spend your life with. As a heterosexual that’s something I’ve taken completely for granted. I can take it for granted that I can love whoever the hell I want and no one can stop me, but my gay friends have only recently begun to enjoy that right. So I think that’s why lines like that in the movie are terribly important and very, very resonant not just for gay men and women but for everybody. I was talking today with John (Lithgow) about how… He’s only been to a few gay weddings in recent years, but we both found them incredibly moving. Weddings are moving anyway. Anybody who confidently stands up and says I want to spend the rest of my life with this other person is making a very dramatic and a very moving and emotional statement, but when it’s two gay people you know that it’s not just full of the romantic and emotional power of the moment. It’s full of years, sometimes decades, of struggle to reach that point, so it has even more significance.

BK: That’s a very good point. In recent years, we’ve had movies like this and “The Kids Are All Right” which are about gay couples, but the fact the couples are gay becomes irrelevant because they deal with the truth of what married life is like and the struggles which come with it.

AM: You ask anyone who’s active in any kind of human rights or equal rights campaign and I’m sure they would say that their ultimate goal is to no longer have to have conversations like this where one sexuality is no longer relevant. Whenever I come across any kind of vaguely homophobic sentiments I’ve gotten to ask people, “When did you first realize that you were straight?” It’s amazing the reaction that gets because they don’t know how to answer, and the truth is that no one should have to put up with being asked that.

BK: I once read that you said you have to believe in what you’re saying in the same way your character does. Whether it’s Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler you’re playing, you have to portray them honestly and accurately regardless of whether they were good or bad. A lot of actors like to change material to where it suits them better, but I liked what you said because it goes the fact that the part is not about you, it’s about the character you’re playing.

AM: I’ve always regarded my job as being about serving the character regardless of who the character is. At a certain point taking on a job and then once you signed the contract and taken the money then saying “oh by the way I don’t think my character would say this” or “I don’t think my character would be like this,” that’s a conversation that one should have before you sign the contract and take the money. Once you have committed to something, you should be committing to the same things that everyone’s agreed on. Just as an act of creativity, you’ve got to give the same amount of dedication to whether you’re playing Adolf Hitler or Mother Teresa.

BK: I also read you were inspired to become an actor after watching the movie “Spartacus.” What was it specifically about the movie which inspired you so much?

AM: You know, I don’t know myself. It was so long ago and I must’ve been about nine years old when the film came out. I just remember coming out of that film just knowing that’s what I wanted to do. I don’t mean I wanted to be a gladiator, but I just wanted to be doing that; making films, being in films. I’m not quite sure what it was that prompted that, but it was a very powerful feeling.

BK: There were no rehearsals of scenes when it came to filming “Love is Strange.” How did this affect you as an actor?

AM: Well it was an interesting process really because normally you have rehearsals and work things out. I would hate for you to think that it was due to a lack of preparation; it wasn’t that. Ira Sachs, our director, came to the project impeccably prepared. What he didn’t do though was that he didn’t have us rehearse the scene and then play into the camera what we had rehearsed. He just wanted us to go into the take with the camera running and to just discover it in the moment. That was a very refreshing way to work, I loved it. I’m looking forward to doing it again. It’s very rare that directors give you that kind of freedom and also, given the fact that we were under the severe constraints in terms of time and money, it worked out well.

BK: “Love is Strange” seems to give the audience a very unique look at New York whereas other movies tend to portray it as a crime ridden place among others things. Would you say this movie gives a more accurate view of New York than other recent films have?

AM: Well, I think it’s as accurate a view of New York as any other movie. I don’t think the view of the city that the movie has is a negative one by any means. The city looks beautiful in this movie especially in that last sequence with that sunset and the two young characters on their skateboards. It’s a beautiful, beautiful ending to the film. Because it’s the most photogenic city in the world, any film that takes place in New York has to deal with New York as a character in the film. There’s nothing nondescript about New York. It’s a unique looking place. No other city in the world looks quite like it, so I think it’s something any filmmaker has to embrace.

BK: The interesting thing about the way Ira Sachs frames this movie is that it could’ve taken a huge political stance but he doesn’t which feels quite appropriate. He’s not taking issue with anybody, but he’s takes good observations of the Catholic doctrine and how it affects certain people.

AM: Yeah, absolutely. It’s not a political film; it’s not a diatribe on the state of gay culture or the Catholic Church. It’s a domestic story. It’s a love story set against some real events that happened to real people, and I think it makes some very wry observations about the city and about New York real estate and about the conditions a lot of people live under. It’s not a message movie. What drives the movie is a kind of deep humanity.

I want to thank Alfred Molina for taking the time to talk with me. “Love is Strange” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

 

The Performances Make ‘3 Generations’ Worth a Look

3 Generations movie poster

I prefer to review movies for what they are as opposed to what I wanted them to be, but with “3 Generations,” this proves to be a bit of a challenge. For the most part, I think it is a sweet and thoughtful movie about transgender issues. But yes, it could have dug deeper into an issue many struggle with in life as this one touches on the family dynamics at play when one member decides to transition to another gender. For many, this is a volatile issue with many psychological scars being inflicted on those who do not deserve to be misunderstood, but director Gaby Dellal and her co-writer Nikole Beckwith at times take this story in a comical direction to where it borders on becoming a sitcom. Still, I can’t help but like this movie for what it is as deals with its subject matter in a sympathetic way and features three terrific performances which alone make it worth the price of admission.

Elle Fanning stars as Ramona who is now going by the name Ray because she sees herself as “a boy with tits.” Ray sees herself (excuse me, himself) as a boy trapped in a girl’s body, and he is determined to undergo gender reassignment to correct this. The main obstacle, however, is getting the consent of her parents to go through with it. His mother, Maggie (Naomi Watts), is willing to sign off on the procedure even though her anxiety and concerns over Ray’s decision make her smoke close to a full pack of cigarettes a day. His father, Craig (Tate Donovan), has been out of the picture for so long that Maggie would rather everyone believe he is dead. As for Ray’s grandmother, Dolly (Susan Sarandon), she wonders why he can’t simply be a lesbian like her.

At the center of “3 Generations” is Fanning who gives an excellent and heartwarming performance as Ray, and she fully invests in her character’s commitment to changing his identity into something far more acceptable to himself. Watching her is also a strong reminder of how teenagers are brilliant at seeing straight through their parents’ hypocrisy and bullshit to where they threaten to be more mature than those raising them. Whereas the other characters around him face an intense level of worry and anxiety, Ray knows exactly what he wants and shows zero doubt over what he feels he needs to do, and it represents the bravery I wish I had as a teenager.

You can never go wrong with Watts in anything she appears in, and she inhabits Maggie as your average mother; always wanting the best for her child while constantly worrying about the future. Maggie is almost convinced Ray will come to her one day with a beard on his face saying he made a mistake, but she is also the one closest to him willing to grant his wish to become a boy. Watts makes Maggie’s suffering all the more relatable as she reminds us all of how life is all about suffering, but through it all, we can find a happiness which a lot of times feels out of reach.

Sarandon is a wonderful presence here as Dolly who lives with her lover Frances (Linda Elmond), Maggie and Ray all under the same roof in a big apartment in New York’s West Village. This Oscar-winning actress is always great at playing the veteran mother who has seen it all and approaches her daughter’s problems like the pro she is. At the same time, her scenes tend to get overwhelmed by sitcom-like humor which threatens to take away from this movie more often than not. Still, Sarandon won me over as she always does, and the moments with Elmond remind us of the constant struggles couples go through. And by this, I mean any couple.

“3 Generations” works best when it focuses on Ray and his struggle become the boy he was always meant to be. We see him working out trying to build muscle, and he is determined to switch schools in order to get a fresh start in life once his transition is complete. At times, it focuses a little too much on the adults in this situation, and this is even though their concerns deserve our attention as well. While humor does come in handy in stories like these as they can become painfully too real, the filmmakers go a little overboard especially in a scene where Watts and Sarandon try different ways to treat Ray’s black eye.

Yes, this is a flawed movie that should have been better, but I still found myself liking “3 Generations” quite a bit as the performances are strong, and it has some surprises up its sleeve as it heads towards the finish line where we are reminded of how parents are never, ever perfect human beings. It all leads up to a final scene between a mother and her child which brought a real smile to my face as the constant struggles we face in life can lead to moments of true happiness.

Perhaps the transgender community deserves a strong movie than “3 Generations,” or maybe there are several out there we haven’t bothered to watch yet. All the same, I enjoyed this movie for what it was, and for me, that was enough. Still, it is a little hard to believe a family like this can afford such a big apartment in New York. You know the rents out there are ridiculously expensive, right?

* * * out of * * * *

“3 Generations” was originally given an R rating, but The Weinstein Company managed to succeed in getting the MPAA to give it a PG-13 which makes a lot more sense. This movie is certainly appropriate for teenagers, and this subject matter really shouldn’t be off limits to them. Then again, the MPAA has made many mistakes throughout the years, and it is unlikely this will be their last.

A Most Violent Year

a-most-violent-year-movie-poster

A Most Violent Year” takes us back to the New York City of 1981 which was statistically the most dangerous year in the city’s history. It was just before crazy hairdos, Madonna, “Miami Vice,” and MTV became a reality, and it was also a time where doing business in the Big Apple became fraught with unbearable tension. Many people fled to the safety of the suburbs as immigrants arrived who were searching for the American dream, and I don’t just mean Tony Montana. In some ways, the movie’s title is misleading as this is not one filled with wall-to-wall violence. Instead, it’s more about the violence hiding beneath the surface which is just waiting to burst out as one immigrant in particular looks to start a legitimate business, but he soon discovers that the road to success is paved with devious intentions.

Oscar Isaac stars as Abel Morales, and this movie starts with him putting a down payment on a piece of land in Brooklyn where he looks to expand his small heating-oil business to a significant degree. Abel has a strong business partner in his wife, the straight out of Brooklyn Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father, a known gangster, he bought the business from. Abel makes it no secret that he intends to run this business in a legitimate fashion, but it doesn’t take long to see how incredibly difficult that will be for him.

Just as Abel’s plans look to be coming together, he finds himself dealing with competitors who are ever so eager to snag a bigger share of the market. On top of that, thieves keep attacking his drivers, stealing his fuel and selling it to illegitimate markets, and Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is investigating Abel’s accounting practices which just might reveal that he’s not the law abiding citizen he constantly claims to be. Suffice to say, this man has a lot on his plate and he now has only three days to finalize his deal on the land he wants to purchase.

What’s fascinating about “A Most Violent Year” is how all the characters are stuck in a morally gray area throughout. The difference between right and wrong is impossible to sort out because the overriding concern for Abel and Anna is to close the deal before everything falls apart and their dreams are destroyed. The movie really puts you in Abel’s shoes to where you get a full sense of his desperation to keep his head above water. What he comes to discover is that he cannot depend on others in the business community to help him with his escalating troubles. In his attempt to expand his business, he finds that he’s living in a time where it’s every man for himself.

I loved watching Isaac as he imbues Abel with such a strong aura of confidence (some may say overconfidence) as he tries to gain the trust of those who are in a position to help him. To be honest, it’s that kind of confidence I would love to exude in my own life. As “A Most Violent Year” goes on, we see that confidence start to slip ever so slightly which leads to a number of intense moments Isaac has no problem delivering on. This is the same actor who so memorably broke through into our consciousness with his performance in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and with “A Most Violent Year” he shows just how far his range as an actor goes. Even when his character becomes desperate in his attempts to make his business expansion a reality, Isaac maintains a commanding presence throughout.

But as good as Isaac is, he almost gets the movie stolen out from under him by Jessica Chastain. Her performance as Anna is a scorcher as she makes clear who the better businessman is in the family, and Chastain molds her into a Lady Macbeth-like character who is far cleverer than anyone will ever give her credit for. Knowing she’s a native of Northern California, I thought casting her as someone born and raised in Brooklyn might be a mistake. Well shame on me for thinking that because Chastain once again proves why she is a talent to be reckoned with.

“A Most Violent Year” was written and directed J.C. Chandor who also gave us “Margin Call” and “All is Lost.” All of his films to date have dealt with people caught up in crisis situations that continue to spiral out of their control, and this one proves to be every bit as enthralling. Chandor gives us a highly specific view of 1981 that never feels clichéd or obvious to the decade, and he takes us on a very tense journey with someone who may dress far better than I ever will, but who also exhibits the same anxieties and concerns we all do. His attention to character is exemplary, and he leaves on the edge of our seats in more ways than one.

It would be so nice to do business without having to go against the things we were taught to believe in, but we eventually learn business in general is never fair (and I don’t just say this because I live in Los Angeles). I found myself never quibbling too much about the things Abel ends up doing in “A Most Violent Year” because I have a very nasty feeling I wouldn’t approach his situation all that differently. Back in a time where the established way of doing business ceased to exist, I imagine I would have made the same compromises Abel is forced to make here. Whether one can live with that is a whole other story, and “A Most Violent Year” tells it in a very compelling manner that holds your attention throughout.

* * * ½ out of * * * *