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Films I Neglected To Review: The Nom Of The Game Is. . .
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Leviathan," "A Most Violent Year," "Selma" and "Still Alice."

Having absolutely nothing to do with the dopey 1989 underwater horror film designed to capitalize on the hype surrounding "The Abyss," "Leviathan" (just nominated for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar) is a jumbo-sized Russian drama that is both grim and powerful in equally hefty measures. Set in the Kola Peninsula off the Barents Sea, the film tells the story of a gruff mechanic, Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) who, along with his wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and son from a previous marriage, is in danger of losing his home and land for a fraction of their true values to the greedy clutches of the local mayor, who wants it as part of a development scheme. To help, Koyla brings in Dima (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov), an old friend working as a Moscow lawyer, to help with an appeal. Taking advantage of the mayor's past misdeeds, it seems as if Dima may save the day but things take a turn for the worse that are further exacerbated when Kolya discovers that Dima and Lilya are having an affair.

Andrey Zvyagintsev's film is melodrama writ large--it is long, the emotions are suitably over-the-top and the metaphorical allusions to life in contemporary Russia, where corruption is everywhere and justice goes to the highest bidder, are not exactly what one might refer to as "subtle." In a lot of cases, this approach might come across as too much--the kind of turgid and largely unwatchable "issue" films that Stanley Kramer used to crank out back in the day--but in this case, it goes a long way towards allowing viewers to understand the oppressive nature of the lives of the main characters. The film is not exactly enjoyable--it is as bleak and forbidding as anything you will ever see--and at 141 minutes, it may be too much for some viewers but those who can handle such relentlessly dark and depressing material are likely to find "Leviathan" as fascinating as I did, though my guess is that few of them will be willing to put themselves through a second viewing.

Having taken viewers from the heart of the 2008 financial meltdown to the stormy seas in his first two films, "Margin Call" and "All is Lost," writer-director J.C. Chandor now goes back to New York City circa 1981, statistically the year with the city's highest-ever crime rate, for his effort, the gritty drama A Most Violent Year. The film stars Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales, a man who appears to be living the American dream--he has a beautiful wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), and kids, a lavish new home and he is just about to consummate a major real estate deal to expand his heating oil business to a new level. However, his company is plagued by a series of hijackings of the trucks carrying his fuel and when one devolves into violence, it attracts the attentions of the cops and they begin looking into Abel's empire, which may not be as clean as he believes it to be. While he is trying to keep his business from collapsing despite the pressures brought on by the police and his unknown antagonist, Anna, who is the child of an organized crime family, is more than willing to go to the mattresses in order to fight for what is hers and Abel's

As was the case with Chandor's two previous efforts, "A Most Violent Year" is an ambitious and decidedly adult-minded drama but this time around, the results are a little more uneven. The basic problem is that the story is just a little too familiar at times for its own good--with its tale of political machinations, familial conflicts and a take on the immigrant experience in America, Chandor has essentially given us a James Grey film this time around and we keep James Grey around precisely for that reason. That said, Chandor does do an excellent job of evoking the period without resorting to tacky outfits or soundtrack cue and notches up tension without succumbing to unlikely action beats. (Although the film is nowhere near as violent as the title might suggest, the few moments alongs those lines are staged in a manner that is both low-key and powerful.) What ultimately makes "A Most Violent Year" worth watching are the performances--Isaac is strong and touching as a man helplessly standing by as his entire life collapses around him, Chastain is fearsome as all get out as his determined wife and there are nifty supporting turns as well from the likes of David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola and the great Albert Brooks. There contributions may not quite elevate the film to the level of modern masterpiece that some of its supporters have claimed but it is still a smart and reasonably strong effort from one of the more interesting new filmmakers to emerge as of late.

When the Oscar nominations were announced yesterday, much of the ink that was spilled was concerned with how the highly touted docu-drama "Selma" was largely snubbed by the Academy--while it did earn a Best Picture nomination, the only other category it earned a nod in was Best Original Song. This is a controversy that I am of two minds of because on the one hand, yes, it does feel as if the voters went out of their way to overlook the film in key categories, most notably in their unwillingness to nominate David Oyelowo for Best Actor for his undeniably riveting turn as Martin Luther King Jr. However, my desire to criticize the Academy is somewhat compromised by my belief that "Selma" is not that great of a film. Sure, it is noble and well-meaning and put together with undeniable skill by director Ava Duvernay but at its heart, I just thought that it lacked a certain fire that one would think that a film dealing with the subject matter at hand--King's 1965 attempts to stage a march from Selma, Alabama to Mobile in an effort to call attention to civil rights violations and to force Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law against the wishes of many in his own party--would have in abundance.

A film like this should soar and stir audiences but outside of Oyelowo, it just never came to life in the way that a more incendiary work like "Malcolm X" was able to do in its best moments--essentially, Duvernay has given us the kind of safe, solid film that Stanley Kramer might have offered had he made a film on the topic, right down to the occasionally distracting gallery of familiar faces turing up in supporting roles like Martin Sheen, Cuba Gooding Jr. and, most distractingly of all, Oprah Winfrey, who gets to suffer mightily and nobly virtually every time she appears on the screen. This isn't to say that "Selma" is a bad film or that it is not worth seeing--it is pretty much worth a look, if only for Oyelowo's performance and to be reminded of how far we have come as a country in terms of civil rights and how far we still have to go in order to ensure that all people truly are treated equally. However, if you come away from it thinking that maybe it wasn't quite as good as the hoopla has suggested, it doesn't mean that you are a terrible person--it just means that it is another well-meaning film that doesn't quite live up to the hype.

Barring any unforeseen developments (such as a surprise win by Marion Cotillard), this year's Oscar ceremony will most likely see the often-nominated Julianne Moore finally score the Best Actress prize for her work in "Still Alice". While it will be gratifying to finally see one of America's best actresses finally honored in this way, I only wish that it had been in the service of a better movie than this melodrama about a brilliant linguistics professor whose life begins to cruelly slip away from her after she is diagnosed with a rare form of early onset Alzheimer's disease. This is not to say that the film is an embarrassment along the lines of "Scent of a Woman," the epic-length monstrosity that would have faded into the mists of time were it not for the fact that it was the film that inexplicably earned Al Pacino his long-overdue Oscar. However, the story, adapted from Lisa Genova's novel by the writing-directing team of Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland, is an occasionally icky construct that milks the disease for all the drama that it can muster and there are times when it goes a little too far in its attempts to jerk tears from viewers (with the low point being an exceptionally shameless and drawn-out sequence involving a somewhat-gone Alice dazedly following the suicide instructions she left for herself when she was more lucid) that may strike those who have seen loved ones endure the disease as somewhat offensive. That said, Moore is very good in the role and she is ably assisted by Kristen Stewart, in one of her best performances in a while, as the flighty wannabe actress daughter who winds up assuming much of her mother's care when her father (Alec Baldwin) and perfectly poised sister (Kate Bosworth) fail to pick up their share of the slack. I guess their efforts make "Still Alice" relatively watchable but when Moore goes up to collect her award next month, just close your eyes and pretend that she is getting it for "Boogie Nights" or "Far from Heaven" or any of the better films that she has graced with her presence and talent in the past.

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originally posted: 01/16/15 10:01:37
last updated: 01/16/15 10:35:14
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