This week’s got some new and old favorites, some things that aren’t favorites, and some things that have to do with New York City. For the last time, THERE ARE NEVER ANY THEMES IN THIS COLUMN. Except Blu-ray and DVD of course. What else do you put on shelves? Books? Trinkets? Pictures of people? Get the hell right out of your own head!
1981 was apparently a bad time to be in New York City. Well before Giuliani cleaned up the streets, there was crime everywhere and people weren’t safe. It was, if you believe a little thing called “statistics,” the most violent year in the history of the city. This kind of seediness and threat of harm extended to businesses also, apparently, as is depicted in J.C. Chandor’s film A Most Violent Year. This is a movie that walks very closely along the line of being a gangster movie but never actually is one, and I think that’s entirely the point; these are people who vehemently aren’t gangsters yet can’t help engaging in some pretty mafioso shit.
Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, an immigrant who has pulled himself up by the bootstraps to become one of the biggest oil and fuel-shippers in the city. There is a small consortium of people who have these businesses and the teamsters drive the trucks, so it’s a very insular group, and they aren’t getting on too well. Morales’ trucks have been stolen multiple times recently and the fuel in them stolen; he’s sure one of his competitors is behind this, but he refuses to do anything illegal about it, especially after he comes under scrutiny by the local ADA (David Oyelowo). Morales’ wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) is the daughter of a mob boss and she is always threatening to get really mobby about the problems their company is having, mostly because he argument is that they’re at war already, whether Abel wants to believe it or not. Things continue to escalate as the Morales company continues to be hit and Abel is pushed ever closer to the breaking point, both legally and personally.
The acting in the film is phenomenal, especially from Isaac and Chastain who are truly brilliant. Both continue to be the best in their field these days. The cinematography by Bradford Young is also a real standout, as he’s able to photograph the clearly frigid New York winter in a way that makes it oppressive without being bleak. My problem with the movie, I guess, is what we’re supposed to take away from it. Is this about people who aren’t gangsters but are dangerously close to being them, about gangsters who are trying their hardest not to be, or about people who just act like gangsters but really have no business doing so? I honestly couldn’t tell you. Things seem to just happen for plot movement sake and are out of left field a lot of the time, which gets hidden a bit by the performances and the way it’s shot. Ultimately, I think I enjoyed this movie but I couldn’t say for sure. I’m not sure I even knew what I was watching.
They made a TV show out of that Woody Allen movie? No, Dingus, they did not. This is the first season of Sam Shaw’s excellent period-set drama which aired on WGN last year. The title refers to The Manhattan Project, a clandestine mission by scientists to win the nuclear arms race, which led, eventually, to the bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending WWII. But it took a long time to get there, and the two groups working in Los Alamos, New Mexico, were populated by interesting characters and their families. It’s a show about science, but also about secrets and lies, which affect everybody in the small community where life and death literally hang in the balance of everyday life.
If you haven’t seen this show, now would be a good time to get into it. Season 2 will be hitting airwaves this fall. The cast of the show is really brilliant, a good mix of people you know and people you should know, and it doesn’t try to be Mad Men or anything but what it is. Really worth a look.
One of the best-loved films of the era of Red Scare alien invasion movies was William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders from Mars, a flawed yet enjoyable film about a kid who discovers his whole town is slowly being overrun by Martian imposters and no one is to be trusted, even his parents. It was a paranoid thriller with some fun if silly special effects. Then in 1986, Tobe Hooper remade it. Why remake a 1950s allegory to the Communist scare in 1986? Because they could. The “They” in question is none other than Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the Israeli cousins who owned ’80s schlock factory Cannon Films — the studio behind such ridiculousness as Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra, Chuck Norris vehicles like Delta Force and Missing in Action, and even dance movie Breakin’ and its sequel with the infamously great name, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.
Invaders from Mars is not nearly as schlocky as these films, and maybe that’s the problem. It was directed by Tobe Hooper, he of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist, and most importantly Lifeforce fame. It was Lifeforce (his first picture for Cannon in a three-picture deal) that necessitated another Texas Chainsaw film, which he would come out only a couple of months after Invaders. Three films in two years is ambitious, even for Cannon, especially because by this point Hooper was known for utilizing fairly extravagant special effects. But, he could still make a movie on a budget, something Golan and Globus surely relished.
The visuals in the movie are truly great, with excellent Rob Bottin-designed alien creatures and effects; the trouble is this movie is too kiddish to be loved by grown-up sci-fi/horror fans and too scary to have been embraced wholeheartedly by kids, and so we’re left with a movie that feels like it should be rated R but written like it’s a mild PG. Worth a look but certainly not on par with some of Hooper’s work.
Inside Amy Schumer Seasons 1 & 2 – Both seasons of one of the funniest sketch comedy shows on TV.
Silent Running – Effects wizard Douglas Trumbull’s directorial debut was about conservation and respecting nature, but is also the reason Mystery Science Theater exists, with a guy in a jumpsuit in space with robot friends.
The Immigrant – Marion Cotillard plays a woman tricked into the dazzling world of burlesque and vaudeville. Apparently that happened.
The Voices – A weird dark comedy where Ryan Reynolds plays a psychopath whose animals talk to him and tell him to murder people. It was directed by Marjane Satrapi, the writer and illustrator of the landmark graphic novel Persepolis. I have no idea why she directed this movie.
Breathless – An ’80s American remake of the Jean-Luc Godard French New Wave film. Again, WHYYYYYYY?