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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

If you are looking for a good, standard action-thriller to put into your Netflix queue, Triple Frontier is a safe bet. Maybe it’s too safe, in fact, but regardless, after a one-week theatrical release, the movie is now available for streaming.

The latest from the streaming giant sends the likes of Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal and Charlie Hunnam into the jungle to rob a South American drug lord’s house of millions of dollars.

Former special-forces operative Santiago “Pope” Garcia (Isaac) has become bored to death as a military adviser to police making drug busts. During a particularly bloody mission, he overhears a captured dealer divulge the location of a drug lord’s personal home, where he keeps all of his money. Pope gets to thinking and then calls upon some of his former Special Ops buds to pay the kingpin a house call and relieve him of some of his dirty money. The catch: The mission will be off the books, of course, and totally illegal.

After years of military service with nothing to show for it, Pope and his buddies Redfly (Affleck), Ironhead (Hunnam), Ben (Hedlund) and Catfish (Pascal) are looking for a little payback. Tom “Redfly” Davis is the most reluctant at first, but a divorce and child-support payments prompt him to eventually go all-in.

The first stage of the mission has the men attempting what is supposed to be a quick, easy theft of the money while most of the family is at church, and the drug lord is left behind. This gives director J.C. Chandor (A Most Violent Year, All Is Lost) an opportunity to present an effectively chilling heist inside a jungle mansion. Of course, things don’t exactly go according to plan.

The next stage has the boys getting into some skirmishes in the jungle and in a small village; again, things aren’t going as easily as Pope proposed in his initial plans. The third stage has the men moving hundreds of pounds of money toward and eventually through the Andes—first on mules and then on their backs, as they try their darndest to salvage the mission’s booty.

All three stages are well-done, although there are not many surprises. Triple Frontier doesn’t rack up points for originality, but it does score with the casting, with all five main leads making solid contributions. They are all good enough to distract you from the fact that the movie itself is almost completely devoid of originality.

That’s OK. Sometimes a great cast and some decent firefights are all you need to quench your action-thriller thirst; in that sense, Triple Frontier hits the marks.

Also, it’s fun to watch this movie if you pretend that Affleck’s character is actually a retired Batman who has come upon hard financial times and is forced to sell condos for a living. I admit that this notion was playing in my head, especially in the moments when Redfly (That could be a bat’s nickname!) gets all dark and brooding.

Of the performances, Isaac’s is the most memorable—no big surprise, considering he’s easily the best actor in the bunch. Pascal is good as the down-on-his-luck pilot who needs some scratch to offset the legal cost of his latest blunder. Hedlund offers some decent comic relief as the angriest and most impatient of the group.

The movie does boast one sequence—a helicopter flight over mountains that is in danger of crashing due the large quantity of cash dangling from its bottom—that is a truly original moment. Otherwise, Triple Frontier is the sort of film like the ones Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger used to turn out. While that’s not high praise, it’s hardly a condemnation. There’s a time and a place for a good junk-food movie—and Netflix knows it.

Triple Frontier is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in Reviews

The hunt for Holocaust architect Adolph Eichmann is chronicled rather blandly in Operation Finale, director Chris Weitz’s lost movie starring Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley and Mélanie Laurent.

When Eichmann (Kingsley) is discovered in Buenos Aires living a modest life and working at an automobile plant, secret agents led by Peter Malkin (Isaac) and Hanna Elian (Laurent) set up shop where he resides. They hatch a plot to grab Eichmann and return him to Israel to stand trial for his war crimes.

Up until the moment where they grab Eichmann, the movie is pretty good—but when the movie becomes about Malkin and Eichmann chatting in a dark bedroom, it loses its sting. A better movie would’ve had Eichmann standing trial for his crimes, thus educating those of us who haven’t seen his trial.

Too much of this film is spent showing Eichmann trying to persuade Malkin that he was just a normal guy taking orders. Hey, maybe that happened, but cover it in five minutes, and stay focused on what a monster this guy was. We already know he’s despicable, and I’m pretty sure the folks who risked their lives to grab him weren’t conflicted about whether he was really a nice guy forced to do a bad job. Yes, the movie shows a little bit of his trial, but this is one time where I found myself wishing that more of a movie took place in a courtroom.

Operation Finale is showing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

After watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi again, I can say that it I liked it even less than I did the first time.

To be clear (or, maybe more confusing): I like the movie just fine. I just have major reservations about some choices made by director Rian Johnson. For example, a few months haven’t lessened my annoyance with a frozen Princess Leia flying through space to save her own ass; Kylo Ren with his shirt off; and just about everything Johnson did with Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac). Too much of this feels decidedly non-Star Wars to me.

However, the stuff with Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is so good that it saves the movie. Their bickering on that island as Luke basically goes through a bit of a wuss phase is great moviemaking, and feels right at home in the Star Wars universe. Having Hamill back as a different version of Luke—a version that still feels like Luke—was a nice feat.

The film gets a pass, but I want to be a little more emotionally wowed the next time out. This Star Wars is the first one I didn’t watch multiple times in a theater. Usually, I march right back into the theater after a Star Wars release for a second and third viewing. That didn’t happen this time.

J.J. Abrams will right the ship with Episode 9. I’m sure of it.

Special features: There’s a behind-the-scenes doc that is feature-length and better than the movie, along with some deleted scenes and a director’s commentary.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Annihilation, director Alex Garland’s film starring Natalie Portman, bills itself as a science-fiction/fantasy flick.

It is indeed sci-fi/fantasy—but on top of that, it is one of the scariest movies you will see this year. It’s also a legitimate horror film.

This alien-invasion movie, loosely based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, explores themes of self-identity and love (as did Garland’s 2014 debut Ex Machina) while mixing in environmental terror involving nightmarish creatures and transforming landscapes. It also features a startlingly brutal take on the ravages of infidelity. And did I mention it’s freaking scary?

There’s a lot going on in this movie—yet Garland and company balance it all out to make it a stunning piece of brainy entertainment.

In an opening sequence reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing, an object enters Earth’s atmosphere and crashes to the planet. The zone surrounding the crash site becomes something known as The Shimmer, an environmental phenomenon featuring a visually swirling, bendy, translucent barrier no one can figure out. Numerous expeditions into The Shimmer have resulted in the loss of many people—but one man, Kane (Oscar Isaac), does return a year after his disappearance.

Kane is the husband of Army biologist-turned-professor Lena (Portman), and he doesn’t seem all there when he sits down at the kitchen table shortly after his mysterious return. He starts convulsing and spitting up blood, which prompts a trip to the hospital. Agent types overtake the ambulance, and Lena wakes up in a strange facility next to The Shimmer, in the care of Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Before long, Lena is following Ventress into The Shimmer, accompanied by Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Josie (the increasingly amazing Tessa Thompson). Carrying guns and rations, their mission is to reach a lighthouse near the Shimmer’s origin; collect data along the way; and, unlike most who have preceded them, return with their observations.

Fat chance: It’s crazy in The Shimmer, unkind in so many ways to those who enter. Among its horrors: terrifying videos left behind by former explorers; messed-up wildlife, including mutated bears and alligators; and a general tendency to make those inside it batshit crazy. There are at least three scenes in this movie that made me want to die rather than watch them, because they were so damned scary; I was uncomfortable during a good chunk of the running time. That’s high praise for a horror movie.

To go with the dread, Garland adds a layer of sci-fi and mixes in some scary elements involving the Lena-Kane marriage. The results are a movie that goes to great lengths to challenge your mind—as much as it freaks you out.

Portman is great—Isn’t she always?—as a person determined to find out the root cause of her husband’s illness, so much so that she will endure psychological and physical fuckery. As her cohorts, Rodriguez, Novotny and Thompson all have shining moments, while Leigh provides a nice anchor. While he doesn’t have much screen time, Isaac (who also starred in Ex Machina) makes the most of his moments.

While he’s only two movies into his directorial career, Garland is proving he’s capable of many things. He’s a first-rate sci-fi auteur; he’s no slouch with pure drama; he captures stellar performances. And, without a doubt, he possesses some major horror chops. You think I’m exaggerating, but there are moments in this movie that will make even the most die-hard horror fans cringe and squirm. I would love to see him do a ghost story or pure monster movie.

Annihilation owes a lot to Ridley Scott (Alien), John Carpenter (The Thing) and any incarnation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers—yet it also feels very original. It’s 2018’s first masterpiece, a rare film that is a shining example within many genres.

Annihilation is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, we finally get the movie with both older Luke and Leia. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher get to do what Harrison Ford did in The Force Awakens: They spend a little more time (in the case of Hamill, a lot more time) in their iconic roles.

Both stars shine as they play in the Star Wars sandbox 40 years after the original’s release. When this film focuses on the saga of Luke and Rey, it is nothing short of epic. When the camera is on the late Carrie Fisher—who gets more quality screen time than she did with her glorified cameo in Force Awakens—it’s heartwarming and, yes, sad. (The Leia stuff gets a little kooky at times, but I’m trying to make this a spoiler-free zone.)

When writer-director Rian Johnson takes the action to the characters of Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and a new character named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), the film falters. Poe, so engaging in Force Awakens, seems underdeveloped here. While the Resistance fights an oddly prolonged and bizarre space battle against the First Order, Poe just whines a lot—the point where you’re actually happy when Leia smacks him across the head.

The film picks up where The Force Awakens left off, more or less, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Luke in a stare-down: Rey is looking for tutelage, but Luke wants nothing to do with that Jedi stuff anymore, and desires to be left alone with his alien milk. While on the island, Rey starts having some sort of psychic Force conversations with Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo (Adam Driver). Will Luke train Rey? Will Rey find out who her parents are? Will Adam Driver engage in his obligatory partial nudity in this film? I’m not telling.

What I will tell you is that there’s too much going on in The Last Jedi, and a lot of it feels like filler. Besides that stalled-out space battle, there’s a clunky sequence in a casino that goes on far too long; a lot of distracting cameos; and new characters inhabited by Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro who bring little to the proceedings.

Am I overthinking this? Yeah, I am—but I’m a dude who has spent the last 40 years worshiping Star Wars. Anything you put onscreen that’s a Star Wars production is going to have me (admittedly, a loser) breaking down that shit. I’m saying that some of this movie seems a little half-baked, and also overstuffed. If there’s any movie I want to be more than 2 1/2 hours long, it’s a Star Wars movie—but at that length, it needs to be a really good Star Wars movie, not a so-so one. The Last Jedi is so-so.

I’m of two minds when it comes to The Last Jedi. It’s part Best Star Wars Ever (Luke, Leia, Rey, Ben Solo) and part Worst Star Wars Ever (Poe, Finn, the girl with the flip hair, and just about any time Domhnall Gleeson speaks). I’m recommending it for the Luke and Leia goodness, Daisy Ridley’s continued greatness as Rey, and inspired moments of fun and humor. But, man oh man, it nearly goes into “Jar Jar” territory a little too often for my tastes.

Johnson has been given a new Star Wars trilogy on which to work—a saga supposedly away from the Skywalkers. I’m hoping the guy gives us something a little more balanced. He’s made great movies (Brick, Looper) and crap movies (The Brothers Bloom) in the past. The Last Jedi falls somewhere in between.

So, as Yoda would say: A great Star Wars, this is not. Like it just fine, I did, but there is a tremor of over-indulgence in the Force. Be mindful of this for future times in edit bay, you must.”

One final note: Porgs are awesome.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

After scoring a huge critical and box-office success in 2014 with X-Men: Days of Future Past—Bryan Singer’s triumphant return to the franchise—20th Century Fox wisely brought the director back for X-Men: Apocalypse.

However, in an utterly baffling move, Fox cut the budget for the current installment, while padding the cast and upping the action. (Well, this is the studio that screwed up The Fantastic Four, so maybe the shortchanging of a reliable franchise isn’t all that surprising.)

The result: Portions of the movie look much sloppier than Singer’s usual offerings, with quite a few moments featuring cut-rate-looking CGI. The movie alternates from looking great to looking terrible. The flaws eventually pile up, and while there are some nice, enjoyable stretches, X-Men: Apocalypse is a mess in the end, despite powerful work from Michael Fassbender as Magneto, and a great performance by new-to-the-franchise Oscar Isaac as the menacing villain, Apocalypse.

Before the opening credits (which, by the way, look like shit), we get a quick back-story for Apocalypse. En Sabah Nur, an ancient Egyptian, morphs along with some sort of ancient mystical being, thus becoming the world’s first mutant, or something like that. He’s then buried under a crushed pyramid for centuries. Cue the cheap-looking opening credits.

Cut to the 1980s, 10 years after the events of Days of Future Past. A bunch of random people are standing around chanting in the pyramid ruins, and En Sabah Nur awakens as Apocalypse, a blue monster that looks like a cross between Jeff Bridges in Tron and the Emperor from Star Wars. Even though he’s buried under a bunch of makeup and voice modulation, Isaac makes every moment count. He looks like he’s having a lot of fun.

The same goes for Fassbender, whose Erik Lehnsherr has been masquerading as a mild-mannered factory worker in Poland since the events in Washington, D.C.; he’s happily married with a daughter. Erik is loving life—but when Apocalypse awakens, he causes an earthquake that jars something loose at the factory. Erik stops an object from falling on a friend, thus blowing his cover—and starting a series of events that leads him toward becoming the evil Magneto.

Apocalypse builds an army of four (like the four horsemen), including Magneto, Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn). They jet all over the Earth in some sort of energy bubble (kind of like Bill and Ted in their phone booth), eventually winding up at the school run by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). Xavier has a power that Apocalypse craves—and this leads to all sorts of wham-bam, chaotic showdowns involving crumbling buildings and telekinetic battles.

With all of this going on, Singer tries to make time for a back-story involving Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) while also upping the screen time of Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters). Oh yeah, the film also features an upstart actress by the name of Jennifer Lawrence, doing her Mystique shtick. There’s even memorable sequence involving Quicksilver (this time set to a Eurhythmics song) during which the guy with knives shooting out of his knuckles makes a big, if forced, cameo. In other words: Singer tries to do too much, and the movie wears out its welcome with its 144-minute running time.

The weakest of the new entries is Turner as Jean Grey. The Game of Thrones actress is simply outmatched by the talent around her, and fails to make her Jean Grey compelling. She’s just kind of pouty and grouchy. Lawrence is fine as Mystique, but her storyline feels tacked on.

Had the movie spent a little more time with Magneto and cut back on some of the characters, X-Men: Apocalypse could’ve been another worthy entry, thanks in large part to Isaac. It’s ultimately a near-miss, and the worst movie in a franchise that hadn’t previously delivered a bad film. (Yes, I was OK with the third one.)

Whatever happens next, it might be time for Singer to take a sabbatical from X-Men.

X-Men: Apocalypse is playing at theaters across the valley in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

The new Star Wars doesn’t suck! The new Star Wars doesn’t suck!

What a relief, right? Ever since Disney absorbed the Lucasfilm empire, some fans and cynics have speculated that the Mouse plus George could equate to shite. Then the Mouse handed the reins of the Star Wars universe to that bespectacled guy who reinvigorated the Star Trek universe.

Fret not, for director J.J. Abrams and crew have done exactly what they did with Star Trek: They created a fun movie that not only respects the blessed canon of a beloved franchise, but stands on its own as a piece of supreme entertainment. It is 2015’s most entertaining film, and a movie that stands up proudly in the realm of Star Wars movies.

In many ways, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the best movie in the franchise. I won’t say it’s my personal favorite. (I think The Empire Strikes Back still holds that post; a little more time will tell.) Its storytelling is solid; its special effects are first-rate; and the performances are easily the best the franchise has ever seen.

That’s due in part to Daisy Ridley, an incredible talent who is now an instant star as Rey, a scrappy scavenger on a Tattooine-like desert planet. She delivers the best all-around dramatic performance in the Star Wars universe. She does some of the year’s best “face acting”; you’ll have to see the movie to find out what I’m talking about. With this new star at its center, the revitalized Star Wars universe takes life around her with a bevy of new characters and, of course, returning oldies.

Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, who happens to be the guy who wrote Empire, combined on a screenplay that follows a lot of the familiar beats from past Star Wars films. They took over writing duties after Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) took a failed stab at the task. (Arndt still gets a credit.)

The universe is being tormented by the First Order, an offshoot of the former Empire. Rey, after rummaging around in a fallen Star Destroyer, discovers a lost droid (BB-8, who is adorable), and eventually finds herself on a space adventure with familiar and new faces.

That’s it. That’s all I’m saying about the plot.

Harrison Ford, cryptic and snarky about his Star Wars pedigree in the past, returns as Han Solo, and his newfound enthusiasm for the part is infectious. Ford slips back into that laid-back, charmingly sarcastic smuggler role with ease, while his old buddy Chewbacca has become some sort of comedian in the last 30 or so years: The old Wookiee scores some of the film’s biggest laughs. Seeing the pair together again is an invaluable movie gift to be treasured.

As the movie’s central villain, Adam Driver is multi-layered and appropriately disturbing as Kylo Ren, a masked, obvious riff on Darth Vader who is a bit of a fanboy of the long deceased Sith Lord. I’m a Star Wars fan, and I have a few nice toys in my possession—but Kylo Ren has the Holy Grail for Star Wars collectors in his chambers!

John Boyega brings a new, welcomed dimension to the Stormtroopers. (Hey, there are actual people under those helmets!) Oscar Isaac a brings funny charisma to Poe, the best pilot in the galaxy.

I think I got through this review with no major spoilers, so no Star Wars geeks will kill me. My life force will not be extinguished, and I will make it to next year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Episode VIII, which is due in the summer of 2017.

Gone are the days when we waited decades for new Star Wars chapters. Oh, the spoils of Disney.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is playing at theaters across the valley in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

Men playing with microchips learn that highly intelligent robots aren’t the best of ideas in Ex Machina, a competent and exciting directorial debut from Alex Garland, who also wrote the script.

Computer-programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) gets a weekend to hang out with his eccentric, reclusive boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at a secluded house in the middle of nowhere. Shortly after arriving, Caleb learns that he is to take part in an experiment in which he must interact with Nathan’s latest creation: a mightily attractive and lifelike robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander).

Caleb is told to analyze Ava’s legitimacy as full-blown artificial intelligence—a thinking robot with emotional capability. He does this, and develops a crush along the way. In many ways, Ava seems constructed to be Caleb’s ideal woman—and Nathan’s motives are quickly called into question: Not only is Nathan playing god, but he’s using Caleb as a guinea pig.

While Garland could’ve easily made this a Caleb vs. Nathan affair, he tosses in enough variables and curveballs to keep the audience guessing. The film works as a thriller, a science-fiction piece and a mystery; it even passes a few horror-movie tests.

As the tensions mount, and the film races toward a surprising conclusion, the performances become more tour de force, especially that of Isaac. Thanks to a Garland script that harbors a huge brain, Ex Machina winds up being a convincing piece of sci-fi. The future depicted in this movie feels like it could happen within the next 10 years. Heck, judging by all the crazy shit my iPhone can do, it probably will happen within the next 10 years.

Ava is a nice special effect, fortified with nice acting from Vikander. Ava has many human attributes, including her beautiful face, her charming demeanor and her otherworldly butt. (Creator Nathan is clearly an ass man.) Much of her body is see-through, allowing her mechanical innards to be in full view. She is consistently visually interesting to behold, and Vikander fleshes her out nicely.

Gleeson, who has been doing a lot of outstanding work recently (Frank, About Time, Unbroken), doesn’t break his streak with this one. His Caleb is a confused young man being used as a pawn in somebody’s game. He also brings a sinister edge to later scenes that make Caleb far from one-dimensional.

While those two performances are exceptional, Isaac’s work is even better. Isaac is developing into one this generation’s best actors—and he’s quite the chameleon. His Nathan is a slithery, hard-drinking, narcissistic brilliant mess of a human, a far cry from the grouchy folk singer he played in Inside Llewyn Davis.

Given the isolated setting for the film, this is largely a three-performer show, although Sonoya Mizuno does give a haunting performance as Kyoko, Nathan’s live-in servant. Kyoko rounds out the general nastiness of the Nathan character: He’s a control freak with a god complex who has some nice, chummy moments, but is really somebody who is looking out for himself, and himself only.

Garland’s debut is quite original, although he does take some visual cues from Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, who combined (posthumously, in Kubrick’s case) for the great robot epic A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Ex Machina plays like A.I.: Artificial Intelligence’s first cousin.

Garland has been kicking around Hollywood for years, delivering solid screenplays for the likes of 28 Days Later …, Dredd and Sunshine. His work behind the camera here definitely points to a directing future.

Isaac and Gleeson will be together again this year in Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens; I would say they are the two front-runners for Science Fiction Kings of 2015. Vikander’s 2015 slate includes The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Light Between the Oceans, the latest from director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines), so she has a shot at Breakout Performer of 2015. At this point of the year, she’s my pick.

As for a future with robots that act and think on their own: Ex Machina will have you wishing for a future that draws the robotic line at Siri and Roombas.

Ex Machina is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The cast and crew do admirable work in A Most Violent Year, but the script and pacing make the movie a near-miss.

Considering the talent on hand, that’s a shame.

The film is a shining example of art direction, and it boasts a firecracker cast with the likes of Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks and Jessica Chastain. It’s set in New York in 1981, and the look of the city is perfect. (I lived a half-hour outside of Manhattan at the time, so I know.) If only the storytelling had been done better.

Writer-director J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost) takes a slow-burn look at the life of Abel Morales (Isaac), a fuel-company owner trying to grow bigger in the face of lawsuits and constant criminal attacks on his drivers. The film opens with one particular driver (Elyes Gabel) getting hijacked outside of a New York City tollbooth; he suffers through a vicious beating. His story becomes one of the threads that run throughout the movie.

Meanwhile, an assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) has informed him of impending charges that will threaten the life of his company. This puts Abel’s wife, Anna (Chastain), on edge: She’s the one keeping the books, and she claims everything is on the level. Abel’s business associate Andrew (Brooks) fears for the company’s business future while advocating that, perhaps, their drivers should arm themselves against attackers.

The plot seems to be going somewhere at first, but it never really does. Chandor gives his film the look of an early Coppola production (that toll-booth scene echoes Sonny’s execution in The Godfather), but a lack of depth, and inexplicable behavior by some characters, doom the film.

There are moments in the movie that, while dramatically impactful, don’t make sense. An example: When Anna puts three slugs in an injured deer, she fails to tell her husband before firing the shots. She just walks up right next to him, a few feet away, and fires a gun into the injured animal. This sort of thing would give a somebody a heart attack. Yes, Anna is a tough hombre, but this particular action seems far-fetched in a movie that’s supposed to be grounded in realism. Year has a bunch of moments like this. Meanwhile, Brooks’ character is present in the film for no apparent reason. His Andrew winds up providing little along the lines of plot development.

Much of this movie focuses on Isaac, talking really slowly, sitting at tables and trying to work out details for loans. It gets tedious. Isaac almost always fascinating, in any role, but he can’t save the movie.

It’s appropriate that a substantial aspect of A Most Violent Year involves the robbing of fuel trucks, because the movie is full of talented performers who have been robbed in the last few years. Isaac should’ve been Oscar-nominated for his performance in Inside Llewyn Davis, and his Year co-star Brooks was unbelievably passed over for Drive (also which happened to co-star Isaac). Oyelowo was perhaps this year’s biggest Oscar snub after he failed to garner a nod for his remarkable work in Selma. Chastain is the only one who has actually gotten Oscar nods in recent years (Zero Dark Thirty and The Help.)

I’ve watched the film twice, and it stands up even more poorly during a second viewing. Despite how real it looks, with some credible moments and performances, the film is dull and implausible.

You can do a lot worse than watching Isaac, Brooks and Chastain performing together. But that doesn’t make A Most Violent Year worth your time.

A Most Violent Year is now playing at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

We get a nice reminder of what a great actor Viggo Mortesnsen is in The Two Faces of January, a fine piece of suspenseful filmmaking from writer-director Hossein Amini, the man who penned Drive.

While vacationing in Athens, Greece, in the early 1960s, Chester, an investment broker, and his wife, Colette (Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), come across Rydal (Oscar Isaac), an American tour guide who tricks young college girls out of their cash. Chester and Colette seem innocent enough—until a private detective shows up at their hotel, looking for payback on some of Chester’s bad investments. It turns out Chester, who presents himself as a wealthy stock market mogul, has a checkered past.

The couple needs to flee Athens, and solicits the help of Rydal and his connections. Rydal assists—assured that he will make a lot of money. His intentions shift when more is revealed about Chester’s past and personality. Colette slowly but surely becomes Rydal’s romantic target.

This is one of those stories in which a happy ending doen’t seem at all possible. The three main actors do an excellent job of making you care for their characters, even as they do increasingly stupid things. Nobody in the movie is evil, exactly, yet their actions lead to unforgivable crimes and a body count.

While The Two Faces of January works as a good suspense thriller, the film also works as a brutal case study of a man gripped by jealousy. The more trouble in which Chester finds himself, the more he becomes obsessed with the notion of his younger wife cheating with the handsome Rydal. Chester’s predicament leads to long drinking binges, ill-timed naps and far too many opportunities for his wife to go astray.

Mortensen is fantastic at portraying meek men with molten underbellies. His Chester isn’t too far removed from Tom Stall, his career-best character in A History of Violence. Chester has a gentle heart, it seems, but a violent war past and his willingness to swindle shady characters makes him into a potentially monstrous man who will not only go down swinging, but take loved ones with him.

As this film’s ingénue, Dunst gets perhaps her most mature role yet. It’s been 20 years since what may be her second-most-mature role role, that of the permanently youthful but scarily mature blood sucker in Interview With the Vampire. Her work here stands alongside her performance in Melancholia as some of her best work.

Isaac is one of the more reliable young actors out there, judging by his work here, in Inside Llewyn Davis and in Drive.

This is the feature directorial debut for Amini. He has a great eye for the 1960s period and exotic locations, something helped greatly by the fact that he was able to shoot on location in Greece and Turkey. Much about the film recalls Hitchcock at this best. The casting of Dunst reminds of Grace Kelly in Rear Window.

In a strange way, The Two Faces of January becomes a story about redemption, as it provides Mortensen with a final scene that gives compelling closure. It’s his best film since 2009’s The Road. The film is about mistakes, and how those mistakes can rip through lives like shark teeth through a seal’s torso. It’s a brutal story, elegantly told.

The Two Faces of January is available via video on demand and online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com. It also opens Friday, Oct. 10 at Cinemas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730).

Published in Reviews

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