I had a chance to see a few movies while aboard ship during the past couple of weeks. Here are some of the results.
A Most Violent Year (2014)
Director: J.C. Chandor
How did I miss this fantastic drama a couple years ago? In a way I’m very glad that Hollywood is still making movies like this: it is a direct throwback to the old-school “social commentary” dramas of the 1970s but has state of the art set design and production qualities. The more I thought about this movie after it ended I was finally able to figure out why it appealed to me: this is basically a noir film. It has many of the standard noir motifs.
The plot: an intense-looking Abel Morales (played by Oscar Isaac, whose understated energy resembles the young Al Pacino) is a small businessman in New York in the early 1980s. He owns a heating oil supply and delivery company. Staying (for the most part) on the right side of the law, his business appears to be targeted by one of his competitors seeking to force him out of business. His trucks are getting hijacked, and his fuel loads stolen. Not only this, but he has just closed a real estate deal and needs to come up with a lot of money to fulfill his side of the contract. And to make things worse, the local district attorney is threatening to indict him for fraud and tax evasion.
Unless Morales can figure out who is screwing him over and come up with the money for the real estate deal, he is finished. Director Chandor captures perfectly that patina of corruption and decay that hung over New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Isaac plays his character with just the right combination of first generation immigrant idealism balanced with cold-hearted street toughness. We get the sense that here is a man who will do whatever it takes not to lose the trappings of success in gringo-land. And how all this plays out shows that–above all–in America, everything is negotiable, even law and order. A first-rate film in every way.
Director: Yann Demange
This British film gives a different perspective on the violence that shook Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Most of the films that have dealt with the subject have done so from the perspective of the civilians living through the unrest. This movie, however, takes as its main protagonist a young British recruit thrown into the cauldron of “peacekeeping” duty in Belfast. On that level, it is very effective. Who can fail to identify with the image of a fresh-faced youngster plucked out of his environment and tossed into the middle of seething sectarian antagonisms?
The problem is that director Demange opts for an “action film” treatment of his subject matter. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, I suppose, but it does limit the depth to which a director can go. Our soldier (played by Jack O’Connell) is accidentally abandoned by his unit in “hostile” territory in Belfast and has to find a way to get back to his base before the local IRA riddle his body with bullets. There are some interesting plot developments and chase sequences, but the end result feels like a conventional action film where everyone has Irish accents. ’71 isn’t a bad film, but one constrained by its self-imposed limitations. Deduct a couple of points as well for the terrible choice of film title.
Director: Dennis Gansel
You don’t go to a Jason Statham action movie for the plot, character development, or deep meanings. You’re there to see him kick ass, blow things up, and crack one-liners. I had no preconceptions coming into this movie, so for me this was a good ride. The plot (does it even matter?): super assassin in retirement Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham) is called back into action when his evil nemesis kidnaps Bishop’s woman.
The evil nemesis bounces Bishop around the globe to do some hit jobs for him, at the end of which (of course) Statham comes looking for the nemesis for some payback. It all plays out wonderfully against the backdrop of international locations, well-shot action scenes, and tongue-in-cheek performances where everyone is in on the joke. And it’s hard not to like Statham. He has that down-to-earth quality that makes all of his roles accessible and happily free of affectations.
(The opening scene was shot in Rio, something I personally enjoyed seeing.)
Blood Father (2016)
Director: Jean-François Richet
This is the worst of the lot. As much as I like Mel Gibson and would see anything he appears in, even his slightly unhinged charisma can’t save this uninspired B-movie action flick. The plot: wayward American teenager Lydia (Erin Moriarty) is heavily involved with a gang of criminal thugs. But she ditches her gang after shooting one of them in a dispute during a robbery. Who does she turn to for help? To dear old dad, of course. And this is Mel, who is living a marginal existence as an ex-con tattoo artist in a trailer on the edge of nowhere.
The gang comes looking for revenge but heroic Mel fends them off and protects his delinquent daughter, whose bullshit caused all the trouble in the first place. It’s just hard to warm up to a movie like this when you see self-destructive white-knighting and female irresponsibility heralded as virtues. There have been a lot of these “badass daddy saves daughter” movies in recent years (e.g., Liam Neeson’s Taken franchise).
While some are better than others, the cowardice of the directors of these movies is inescapable: the audience is served up chivalric clichés about how men must sacrifice themselves to rescue irresponsible women from self-destruction, while at the same time nearly every aspect of masculinity in America is repressed and shamed. Movies like this play into this fantasy and reinforce feminine delusions while keeping subservient males firmly in line. Women in America want their masculinity their way and on their terms: they want to cherry-pick the things they like about the traditional world while conveniently ignoring their own duties and responsibilities. And the world doesn’t work that way.