A Most Violent Year (2014)

A Most Violent Year is set in New York City in 1981, the most violent and murderous time in the history of the city. Oscar Isaac plays ambitious immigrant Abel Morales, manager of a successful oil enterprise, and Jessica Chastain plays his beautiful wife/accountant. On the eve of a major business deal, Abel must simultaneously contend with a federal investigation into his practice and a band of hijackers attacking his drivers.

Things fall apart fast for Abel, A Serious Man style, with pretty much everyone turning against him, and it’s in this set-up that A Most Violent Year seems like it’s going to be a pretty great gangster film. Abel is beaten down but never defeated, constantly levelheaded and rarely unprideful. In one scene he speaks to three new employees about business procedure, and though we know he should probably be frantically dealing with everything that’s happened to him in the past week we find him here instead, describing sales tactics with such gusto that Jordan Belfort would buy oil from him. In scenes like this Isaac’s Abel recalls Pacino’s Michael Corleone more fully than any character you care to name, stonefaced as he looks people directly in the eye, staunch in his beliefs.

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The Affair 1.7

After last week’s episode of The Affair I had an acid flashback to the first season of Homeland. Appearances to the contrary as Noah and Alison lounge around Montauk for the summer, The Affair moves pretty quickly. They meet, they imagine themselves with each other, they make love, they make love a lot more, and then they fall in love. They also bring the affair to a screeching halt along the way, essentially calling it quits last week and then going one step further this week by telling their respective spouses about the whole thing. The Affair just deployed an entire series worth of plot in the first seven episodes.

Nevermind what season two or three or four could hold — what the hell could possibly even go down in the final three episodes of this rookie season? Aside from simply knowing that three more hours of story will be told, this seventh episode is concerned with that uncertain ending too. “Looks like you got away with it,” taunts Oscar as he proceeds to blackmail Noah. But no one, not Noah nor we viewers, actually believe that to be true.

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1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)

I think of Ridley Scott as a badass. Chalk it up to me being a little tyke when Gladiator and Black Hawk Down came out, or to his most famous films being the sleek and surefooted sci-fi flicks Alien and Blade Runner. I watched his most recent film Exodus: Gods and Kings, in which Moses is played by Batman, and the reaction was more or less the same: this dude just made the Bible badass. Let’s be clear in stating that Exodus is a pretty poor effort, and so I don’t mean “badass” as a full compliment. But that sleekness and that direct, immediate pacing holding a healthy amount of action is what I associate Scott with, and if nothing else Exodus certainly was a spectacle.

Then I watched 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Gérard Depardieu plays Christopher Columbus, discoverer of America, fighting to explore what he knows to exist past the European horizon. The film opens in 1490 or so, as Columbus gathers a head of steam for his royally-financed expedition — the always-superb Armand Assante plays the nobleman Sanchez, and Sigourney Weaver plays Queen Isabel. Columbus pushes for his dream. Sanchez and Co. conspire to gain from the ambition of the explorer, and there’s an overwhelming sense in this opening half-hour that — for lack of a better descriptor — shit is about to go down. Maybe Sanchez will plant a spy on the Santa Maria, or maybe he’ll do something even more dastardly.

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The Man in the High Castle 1.1

This isn’t the first time that Amazon’s pilot season — which sees the simultaneous launch of a dozen or so opening episodes of a variety of new shows — has been mostly a waste of time. Most of these shows don’t deserve a second episode. Finding The Man in the High Castle, the diamond in this season’s rough, might not be an altogether uncommon occurrence either; Amazon’s Transparent just took home a fistful of Golden Globes, so the streaming service is slowly catching up to Netflix when it comes to quality series.

But make no mistake: The Man in the High Castle is anything but common. Like any great what if? story, only one thing has been changed here. This could easily be our world, the exact one we live in today, if not for this one change; though the America of The Man in the High Castle is utterly unrecognizable, that revisionist tectonic shift was borne entirely of the initial tremor, the single change. That change, admittedly, asks the grandfather of all what ifs: what if the Nazis had won the war?

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American Sniper (2014)

Around the 30-minute mark of American Sniper there’s something that’s not quite a montage, not quite a self-contained series of events, not quite comfortable in that first half-hour of the film. Sniper Chris Kyle spots an insurgent in his scope and he takes him out. A few more lone insurrectionaries crop up, and Kyle fires again. Again. Again. It sounds like a montage, but director Clint Eastwood doesn’t let it play out as such. And it’s fairly quick, cutting from one shot to the next inside the space of a minute and a half. Still, though, there’s something brutal and cold and darkly affecting about this life-of-Kyle in 90 seconds, something that almost singlehandedly elevates American Sniper to the level of a modern classic war film.

I assumed that Sniper would be a lot like The Hurt Locker, judging from the trailers and a few reviews and my admittedly vague knowledge of Chris Kyle’s story. Sniper is a lot like Hurt Locker, to be sure, but it’s not exactly in the way I expected. The similarities, really, are resigned mostly to the aesthetic — and visually, they’re so similar that you might expect Kyle to peek through his scope and spot Will James strutting down the sandy street in his EOD blast suit.

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Prisoners (2013)

I’m not typically a genre purist. I don’t believe an artist should be constrained to single genres, and I have a great admiration for movies that blur the lines to create something fresh. There are two very different, but very good movies in Prisoners that, in this case, don’t exactly result in synergy. The first is about two families dealing with the disappearance of their daughters. It’s haunting, gut-wrenching, and hyper-realistic. To me, this is the stuff of reality. The second is about the mysterious detective trying to catch the abductor. It’s creepy, riveting, and grotesque. This is the stuff of crime thrillers. Frankly, each one would be nearly perfect on its own. But together, in the form of Prisoners, they feel like a cheap blow below the belt.

Anna’s parents, played by Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, attend Thanksgiving dinner at Joy’s parents’, played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis. When the two girls don’t return from playing outside, and it starts to rain, and a mysterious RV is spotted, the families go into panic mode. Days later, with the authorities on the case 24/7 and vigils being held for the missing girls, the families continue mourning and start resigning to the bad news that’s likely to come. But Keller Dover (Jackman) never really leaves panic mode. There was one suspect–the child-like, catatonic owner of the RV (Paul Dano)–but the cops had to let him go. So Keller does what any frustrated father who’s built like Wolverine would do and takes matters into his own hands. Next thing you know, he’s leading Terrence Howard into an abandoned apartment complex where the suspect is chained to a sink and badly beaten. Continue reading Prisoners (2013)

The Affair 1.6

The Affair took home a few surprise awards at the Golden Globes this past weekend, including Best Drama Series (beating out the likes of Game of Thrones and House of Cards) and a Best Actress trophy for Ruth Wilson. Dominic West was nominated as well, but lost out to Kevin Spacey for Cards. As a consolation prize (and because episode six was very much The Dominic West Show), this review will be very Noah-centric. You’re welcome, Dominic.

We catch up with Noah as his best friend Max visits him out in Montauk. They go drinking, clubbing, and guess who they meet during their night of revelry? I may have said this before, but Noah and Alison running into each other constantly just seems a bit contrived. This time, though, that aspect is at least partially left to the imagination. Noah plays it like he has no idea who Alison is, for the sake of appearances in front of family friend Max — but as Max’s taxi pulls away from the club later that night, Noah spins and scampers back up the stairs like a child on Christmas (in reverse) and promptly and passionately kisses Alison. So it could have been the case that this particular run-in wasn’t at all accidental, and Noah’s getting more and more bold in his fling. More importantly, West absolutely nails that giddy super-romantic childlike glee.

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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

As with our recent article on Batman Begins, this won’t exactly be a traditional “review” of The Dark Knight Rises so much as an examination of the comics that directly inspired the film, previous iterations of the character on the big screen, and the things that Christopher Nolan chose to pinch and blend together from the two of those in order to give us a recognizable version of Cinema Batman. Some of the most legendary moments in Nolan’s trilogy are those of true originality, but it’s good to remember every now and then that Bruce Wayne has been around a hell of a lot longer than Nolan and Co.

And if we’re talking comics that influenced Nolan’s last Batfilm, the only one really worth mentioning is Knightfall. Yes, there are a whole host of comic arcs that can claim to be influences for parts of Rises — the No Man’s Land arc sees Gotham cordoned off from the rest of the world; the four-part story The Cult has a villain operating from the sewers; Bane is the explicit right-hand man of Ra’s al Ghul in 1999’s Bane of the Demon; and Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns has a similar premise and conclusion to Nolan’s Rises, which we’ll come back to in a moment.

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Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)

Movies have the power to foster a true emotional experience in its viewers at times while at other times movies can bring characters or people, though deceased, back to life. The documentary Dear Zachary reminds all of its viewers of this potential by making us feel both a deep connection to the Bagby family—on which the movie focuses—and unadulterated emotion towards their tragic situation.

Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne follows the heartrending story of the murder of his friend Dr. Andrew Bagby as well as the aftermath of the senseless crime. The documentary takes on several different forms throughout, which is part of what makes it so powerful. Kuenne rightly glorifies the life of the deceased Bagby through interviews with all those people around the country whose lives he had touched in his all-too-short 28 year life.

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Agent Carter 1.2 – “Bridge and Tunnel”

Blah blah Agent Carter blah. The second episode of the series (which premiered immediately following the first) was fine — but forget that! The Ant-Man teaser debuted during the commercial! Isn’t that so much more exciting?!

This is how I feel sometimes when I’m watching in-universe Marvel stuff, be it Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or even lesser MCU films like Iron Man 2. Even if the plot at hand is going along smoothly, a heavy-handed mention or knowing wink toward an entirely different Marvel thing places a pothole right in the path. “Bridge and Tunnel” progressed the plot of the pilot episode “Now is Not the End” fairly well, but it had the added obstacle of a teaser for the Ant-Man teaser during every single commercial break. Agent Carter could be one of the most distinct and independent entries in the grander MCU once it gets over the Peggy-and-Cap romance, but not if trailers for trailers and endless winks toward other shows and movies keep getting shoehorned into the middle of it all.

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