“Most Violent Year” tests how long a man can go before going gangster

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“A Most Violent Year,” J.C. Chandor’s final film in his Rich Folks Trilogy, is a markedly enjoyable ride until it starts to beat its message into the viewer like a Brooklyn hoodlum getting pistol-whipped on the cement.

Chandor has had a lot of success telling tales of the affluent and their troubles, beginning with his remarkable debut, the economic collapse tale “Margin Call,” and continuing with Robert Redford’s voyage of solitude in “All is Lost.” This time out, we’re treated to Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), owner of an upstart heating oil outfit in 1981 New York that’s fending off mobbish competitors, government investigators and the specter of corruption that still looms from the gangster ways of the previous owner (who happens to be Abel’s father-in-law).

In his tan suede coat and perfectly Flowbee-ed hair, Abel is the picture of a Empire State wiseguy — only he’s trying with all of his heart to be a legitimate businessman in the vein of Michael Corleone rather than an unbridled crook a la Tony Soprano. At times, Isaac conveys a remarkable naïveté for Abel — he seems to be the only person who doesn’t understand that he’s the lead in a mobster movie.

Abel seemingly hasn’t been privy to as many those movies as we have, so we can excuse him a bit when he doesn’t see the writing on the wall when his erstwhile consigliere Walsh (Albert Brooks) advises him to make peace with his truck drivers when they start getting beat up along their routes. We also can appreciate the Lady Macbeth qualities of his born-into-the-life wife Anna (played by Jessica Chastain, made up like a caricature of Michelle Pfeiffer in “Scarface,” albeit with even more gratuitous neck-line plunges) — she offers up textbook reactions to each and every threat their business and family faces, right along with dramatic one-liners like, “We are at war,” or perfectly choreographed twirls of her massively manicured fingers to signal the disrespect she won’t let stand.

It’s nothing if not refreshing to see the story of the would-be gangster treated in this way: A man fighting at every turn to avoid becoming corrupted, yet facing an avalanche of Bronx-style Murphy’s Law. The less-cynical viewer will have a tremendous protagonist to root for in Abel — while everyone else watching will know that our hero is offering less comfort than a raw steak on a bruise when he tells his battered workers that their assailants are “cowards.”

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Whatever side of that crucial fence you fall on, “A Most Violent Year” is nevertheless a beautiful piece of cinema, lensed with rich, “Godfather”-mimicking photography by Bradford Young. It also packs a few solidly executed scenes of tension — including two tied to an uninvited guest outside Abel’s home — to help spice up the core story, which boils down to Abel taking out loans to buy a riverside property.

But even if you can appreciate the absurdity or innocence of Abel’s Boy Scout aspirations, sooner or later the level to which he flounders in a rising sea of vices goes beyond comical and into the realm of tedium. Even Michael Corleone made sure he had a gun waiting for him inside the bathroom of the Italian restaurant — Abel marches into the same kind of room armed only with Pollyanna exhortations about having pride in doing clean business.

In much the same way that Chandor’s “All is Lost” left viewers divided on the ultimate fate of its seafaring protagonist, “A Most Violent Year” serves as a litmus test for the audience as to whether they view the well-meaning Abel as a tortured vessel of a man beating against the criminal tide, or simply a bumbling schmuck in a proto-gangster film who could end up getting himself killed by not playing by the rules of the game.

“A Most Violent Year” is rated R for language and violence. Running time: Two hours and five minutes. Three and a half stars out of five.

Oyelowo delivers year’s-best performance in focused, powerful “Selma”

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Great movies have their eyes on the prize from the start. “Selma” is no exception.

The film, a historical drama about the civil rights movement in the, opens on Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejobo) and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) preparing for his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, one which will focus heavily on those who would not live to see the fruits of the civil rights movement’s labors — including the four girls killed in the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.

The genius of Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” is that it remains tightly focused on this particular chapter in the civil rights movement without attempting to tell the full MLK life story; it also allows that crucial theme — of highlighting the sacrifices made by so many beyond King’s immediate family and inner circle — to play out with as much focus as King’s own work to lobby the Johnson White House while organizing marches in the American South preceding the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Whatever this story loses in terms of context of the larger movement, it gains in intimacy with King, his inner circle, the clergy who came to his aid in Alabama, and especially his wife, Coretta, and her struggle to reconcile the ever-present threat of violence and death for those walking the hard road against discrimination. It’s filled with quiet and personal moments that allow Ejobo and Oyelowo to put their ample skills to work to humanize the lives of these larger-than-life figures of 20th century American history. Oyelowo in particular gives one of the finest male performances by an actor of the past year, not for being able to tap into the energy and aura of King’s powerful speechifying and preaching, but for showing him as a father around the kitchen table, showing him as a worried leader in search of the answers himself, and as a persuasive force one on one in the Oval Office with Lyndon Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson).

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That intimacy also amplifies each tragedy along the way, making “Selma” perhaps one of the finest dramatic recreations of the era on the big screen. The voting registration woes of people such as Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey) and the cruelty visited upon people such as Jimmie Lee Jackson (played by Keith Stanfield) are given their proper attention while at times the strategic moves by King and Malcolm X (played by Nigel Thatch) stand secondary to the hundreds and thousands who are driven to make the pilgrimage to Alabama in support of the march.

As the key players in the civil rights movement were intended on elevating “white consciousness” of the plight of black Americans in the tumultuous 1960s, the film gives plenty of weight to this angle of the struggle, almost going well beyond what was necessary to do justice to the history of those — the white clergy and people of all races who adopted Dr. King’s message — that stood alongside him. The focused script from Paul Webb — with uncredited revisions from DuVernay — also allows “Selma” to unfold and give credit many of the lesser-heralded players in the civil rights movement.

Much has been made in the lead-up to the release of “Selma” about whether Johnson’s administration gets a fair shake. Such concerns ought be shrugged off at the mere suggestion, given that this is a dramatic narrative and not a straightforward documentary. Just like with “Foxcatcher,” there is a larger message being delivered, and any allegiance to every last detail and written record owed by the film is a silly notion. Despite that, “Selma” does allow for multiple on-screen reminders of the field reports filed by the FBI as they chronicled King’s every meeting, phone call and step along the way — one of the many ways in which the Johnson administration is taken to task. But ultimately, LBJ is heralded on-screen as the man who slowly came around to championing the CRA while standing up to another white Southern politician, Alabama Gov. George Wallace (played with a tremendously awful Southern accent by Tim Roth).

But in terms of what’s already been said about “Selma” and the debate over its historical accuracy, past will not be prologue. Rather, seeing this fine film will leave you with an entirely different scope for discussion: In how David Oyelowo, a British actor, has managed not just one of the best performances in a year but also one of the best approaches to bringing Dr. King to life again. You also will marvel at the superb photography of cinematographer Bradford Young, which lends every bit of degree of authenticity to the story with its depictions of 1960s Alabama as the actors do with their marvelous work.

The film’s message and its connection to today’s debate over race in America are undeniable, but even without that factor, DuVernay has crafted an evocative piece of storytelling for those who lived through the era and a memorable introduction to the history for younger viewers. Whether “Selma” is honored with a smattering of Oscars almost seems beside the point, as its prize will likely be a firm footing throughout the years as one of the great American films about the civil rights era and the lives that made it happen.

“Selma” is rated PG-13. Running time: Two hours, eight minutes. Four and a half stars out of five.

PTA living up to Altman-esque ideal with masterful “Inherent Vice”

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” exists directly above a great California fault line.

Operating full of archetypes of classic noir – a free-wheelin’ private eye, an overzealous cop, and any number of mysterious women and hired henchmen – it manages to feel incredibly inventive and fresh despite parallels to any number of gumshoe genre companions and its rigid adherence to the voice of its source, Thomas Pynchon’s sprawling 2009 novel.

It’s a clash that plays out via narrative, the temblors emerging from the frictions between the Nixonian class and the ebbing tide of hippies at the start of the 70s – and just like any seismic activity, it starts to feel strangely common to see the long-haired likes of Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) in the grips or under the heels of the likes of the flat-topped Det. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).

Like Elliot Gould’s version of the Marlowe private-eye character, Phoenix’s Doc moves from one thread of the mystery he’s unraveling to the next with seemingly no payment, just cashing in favors and hits off joints as he follows a tip from his old flame Shasta (played by Katherine Waterston) about her real-estate developer boyfriend (Eric Roberts), supposedly taken out of the picture by his wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her own sidepiece.

Trying to detail the remaining pieces of this beguiling puzzle — including the roles played by saxophone player Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), Doc’s attorney Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro), and prostitute Jade (Hong Chau) — would be a supreme disservice to you, the first-time viewer. Nevertheless, they all find surprising ways to pop up into the main storyline across the film’s two hours and 28 minutes, lending great depth to an already packed house of characters.

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Phoenix did perhaps career-best work in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” and his turn as Doc isn’t nearly as showy, but he navigates it coolly in his bedraggled hippie-gone-pro denims and sun-bleached shirts, allowing the eccentricities of his parade of co-stars to come through, not the least of which is the drug-fueled, velvet-suited Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, played with a Henry Gibson-esque zeal by Martin Short. Phoenix also has remarkable chemistry alongside Jena Malone (playing Coy’s wife, Hope) and Reese Witherspoon (as the secretly hip Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball).

As imbalanced and unpredictable the characters and the storyline are throughout, Anderson seems to be using every tool in his cinematic tool box to even things out and hold the narrative together as it quakes between screwball physical comedy, stoner comedy, period piece and classic caper mystery. Hallucinatory scenes wash out onto the sandy dunes of a soon-to-be-overdeveloped Pacific coastline and give way to procedural inquisitions, but PTA and a handful of his longtime collaborators — editor Leslie Jones (“The Master”) and cinematographer Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood,” “Magnolia”) — smooth those edges, giving “Inherent Vice” a cohesive aesthetic that allows the story to tread into its wide-ranging thematic territories without leaving viewers behind.

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In some respects, this feels like one of the most-restrained films Anderson has ever made. It doesn’t indulge in the long shots that were pronounced in “The Master” or “Boogie Nights,” nor does it bask in visual wonder the ways that “There Will Be Blood” and “Punch-Drunk Love” did. While it certainly maintains Anderson’s Altman-esque approach to crafting an organic ensemble cast, the energy of the film flows unlike anything he’s filmed to date. There’s no cataclysmic convergence of the various subplots a la “Magnolia,” just a mellow yet honed path for Doc to traipse through.

Anderson’s work has become all the more difficult for the average writer to encapsulate as it becomes all the more nuanced and rich. It’s cinematic work that masters multiple forms of comedy and drama yet reins them in with a genre-defying atmosphere. I feel like I’m writing about Altman but know I’m writing about Anderson. The lines between these two great American directors have blurred almost beyond recognition, the difference being that Anderson’s storytelling features a wealth of talent on par with what Altman had at his peak — and there somehow seems to be room to grow from here.

“Inherent Vice” is rated R for nudity, drug use, violence and language. Running time: Two hours, 28 minutes. Five stars out of five.

‘Foxcatcher’ toys with history, but nails quiet, strong recounting of American wealth and violence

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The trajectory of “Foxcatcher” seems inevitable, and director Bennett Miller doesn’t miss an opportunity to prepare viewers for what transpires between troubled millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) and the lives he manipulates.

As Mark Schultz wrote of du Pont in his book about he and brother Dave and their rise to Olympic glory and later their mutual patronage from du Pont, he succinctly surmised the goals of the eccentric heir: “He gave in order to take.”

Throughout Miller’s quiet and slow-paced recounting of how the Schultzes came to know du Pont and live on his farm to train, the viewer is reminded of the history of violence that has brought these men together. The du Pont family in America, before becoming the largest chemical company in the land, made a killing providing munitions as the nation tore itself apart in the Civil War. Even the name of the farm and the film — “foxcatcher” — refers to a hunt.

Carell’s du Pont was born into that world, left to seek out the kinds of strange pursuits — mollusk shells, rare stamps, etc. — that are the province of the ultra-wealthy, much like the thoroughbreds raised by his mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave). But the story of how John buys his way into being the largest benefactor of America’s Olympic-level wrestlers isn’t so much akin to creating a stable of men such as the Schultzes to groom and allow to thrive — it’s more like a colony of bees, with John positioning himself as the royal center of all the buzzing.

The animal allusions are apt, as “Foxcatcher” has so few moments of truly meaningful human dialogue — it operates more so in primal grunts and the dreadful silence of du Pont’s cavernous mansion. An early scene of Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo) grappling together to warm up for practice operates as a brilliant conversation between the brothers through movement alone, Mark’s despondence and reluctance to go along with the normal routine translate into a painful and bloody exercise between brothers.

Tatum goes to great lengths of physicality and intensity for his role, and Carell has an unnerving quality of capturing du Pont’s awkward self-pity and scornful overcompensation. But Ruffalo truly is the main attraction in terms of acting, enlivening each scene with a fully fleshed performance as a brother seeking to temper a spiraling Mark and manage the leverage du Pont has by way of his checkbook.

Those extremes Ruffalo’s Dave faces is matched in the polar-style filmmaking. “Foxcatcher” alternates between giving us just enough to understand what’s happening (such as the relationship between John and his mother) to later bordering on being didactic (such as how often we see John’s vain obsession in showcasing himself).

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But “Foxcatcher” suffers from the paradox of being too perfect at times. Bennett Miller has been a grand storyteller of true American tales (“Capote,” “Moneyball”), but at the same time this effort doesn’t feel like it took much effort, treading familiar ground by using archival footage and artifacts to ground the viewer in the authenticity of the story. Miller is gifted as any director in tackling history in this fashion, but the allure is lost in seeing those mechanics again with little to no invention. I’m far more in love with this film in terms of how it operates as a Piketty lecture-cum-psychoanalysis of du pont.

Even the music feels too precise. In one of the few moments not scored with hauntingly ominous compositions from Rob Simonsen, David Bowie’s “Fame” plays, brilliantly commenting on the story as a whole and reflecting the arrogance and zeal with which du Pont drives it. But in context it feels out of place despite being a deft choice that some filmmakers miss out on making. It’s certainly not a deft as the poignant use of Bob Dylan’s rendition of “This Land Is Your Land” and an instrumental reworking of his “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”

Most great films manage to be complex without being complicated. “Foxcatcher” is littered with the contradictions of du Pont, rendered by Carell with a sobering attention to detail, which tends to leave it with more complications than complexities but still more to appreciate than to dismiss.

Foxcatcher” is rated R for language, violence and a brief scene of nudity. Running time: Two hours, 14 minutes. Four stars out of five.

“Imitation Game” typifies the safe and tidy Oscar contender

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The awards season thrives on the promise of tidy yet dramatic works such as “The Imitation Game.”

They require winning a sort of Oscar-bait Bingo, usually consisting of aligning a true story, a period piece, big-name English actors and an unheralded story on a grand scope. This film – exploring the life of British mathematician Alan Turing and his efforts to crack the Nazi Enigma code during World War II – is precisely the kind of material studios look for come the end of the year.

But it would be wrong to say this story is only being told because the producers dream of Oscar gold; Turing’s work for the Allied forces – and the struggle he endured in the face of the British government’s discriminatory laws – is a truly monumental period in 20th century history that few films could ever even begin to detail.

Problem is, “The Imitation Game” not only fails to deliver on the overwhelming enormity of Turing’s accomplishments – it also severely underplays the forces in the world that ultimately brought him down at a young age.

For his part, Benedict Cumberbatch (“Sherlock”) is an impressive talent working through Turing’s awkwardness, his impassioned pleas with the British government to understand his unorthodox approach to trying to decipher the Germans’ until-then-impregnable code – and his pained acceptance of the secrets he must keep from his both closest colleagues and eventual fiancee, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley).

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Matthew Goode (“The Good Wife,” “Stoker”) remains eternally delightful as the relatively affable fellow cryptographer Hugh Alexander, perplexed daily by Turing’s “think different” approach (The use of the Apple Computer slogan is proliferate enough to make this film almost qualify as yet another Steve Jobs biopic unto itself). Rory Kinnear (“Skyfall”) also does solid albeit brief work as Detective Robert Nook, whose inquests into Turing’s post-war affairs amplify the film’s use of the Red Scare as a thematic stand-in for the homophobia Turing faced.

The characters, as assembled by screenwriter Graham Moore, exist mainly through the prism of their work during or obsession with World War II. The film spends quite a bit of time reminding us of the worried faces of British children, huddled on trains or in bunkers during the Luftwaffe’s raids above London – the stakes are made impossibly clear that each day that Turing and his crew don’t break the Nazi code, more lives are lost.

In some respects, director Morten Tyldum and editor William Goldenberg (“Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) are entirely too efficient with Moore’s already trim script, bouncing between mirthful asides and the tense frenzy with little buffer, discombobulating the viewer and never letting the comedic elements pay off beyond the dry, thoroughly British way they do.

But when it comes to Academy Awards and end-of-year honors, this sort of straightforward and largely non-confrontational fare many have come to expect, regardless of whether it truly satisfies them as a viewer or does justice to the story itself. The issue of Turing’s private life – which is crucial to understanding the full scope of his cultural impact beyond his technological achievements – feels not quite as an afterthought, but certainly not treated with the gravity that a more-forceful film would have.

But it’s Christmastime, and many viewers and Oscar voters alike want to feel good about winning wars and being leaders of innovation – and the ugly truth doesn’t always jibe with the big-screen sentimentality. That’s a code that’s not often broken by the big studios, and despite the fine acting and suitable camerawork, “The Imitation Game” leaves the sordid world Turing lived in and left behind as much an enigma as it was to him.

“The Imitation Game” is rated PG-13 for sexual references and mature thematic material. Running time: One hour, 54 minutes. Three stars out of five.

Fracking, God and charity: A man and a nation seek answers in “The Overnighters”

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Along the Highway 85 corridor in Adams and Weld counties, folks have some sense of what happened in Williston, N.D., when the oil boom took hold. Stop by any hotel in the area on any given day, the vacancies are harder to come by. Or travel the highway for any amount of time, alongside the growing number of trucks devoted to oil-and-gas industry activity — fluids, heating, drilling and beyond.

Being part of the boom is an amazing cultural phenomenon, and just as it is in Colorado as part of the Denver Basin boom, fracking was the key to the Bakken shale boom of Williston.

But more often than not, the common traits of boomtowns easily hide what’s happening under the surface. That was the case of pastor Jay Reinke, the focus of director Jesse Moss’ landmark documentary, “The Overnighters.”

“It’s easy to become a façade … and the result is always pain,” Reinke intones in the film’s opening minutes. That façade includes the vision of prosperity associated with becoming an economic powerhouse when O&G comes to town. The new business and tax revenues also mean new faces — dozens and then hundreds of people who have made the pilgrimage to Williston on the promise of jobs that, by and large, have largely been filled by the time they arrive.

Reinke knows the reality is uglier than the vision the migrant workers were sold on, as he opens his church to the many of them who have nowhere to stay. When the church floors are filled, he opens the parking lot for those who wish to sleep in their cars. After that, he welcomes some into his own home.

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But it’s not the mass of humanity that has come to town with nowhere to turn that makes the situation ugly — it’s the reaction from Reinke’s neighbors and city officials, who have no answer for the overcrowding beyond questioning Reinke’s charity and handcuffing his efforts.

The drama that unfolds between Reinke, his current parishioners and the town as a whole raises questions of what truly is the Christian thing to do — especially when questions arise in the local newspaper as to whether the pastor is harboring sex offenders.

The tensions throughout also provide a foreshadowing for a personal drama developing between Reinke and his family. We get a sense of what is building up as Reinke consoles one of the many men he’s welcomed into his church: “I’m broken,” he admits, “We’re broken.” The pastor’s private struggle is one that threatens to leave him as lost and looking for answers as the hundreds he’s managed to shelter and care for amid Williston’s boom and subsequent housing crises.

Moss took it upon himself to stay in Reinke’s church for months on end, learning the stories of those who became part of the “overnighters” program there and the daily battle Reinke faced in trying to warm the people of Williston to the work he was doing. It’s an incredibly up close and sometimes painfully personal look at how this one community behaves when tested by the unthinkable influx of souls in search of the American dream out on the well pad — and it’s a sobering reminder of tremendous costs involved when one man sacrifices as much as he can for what he sees as the only right thing to do.

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“The Overnighters” is unfathomably poignant not just for Front Range communities such as ours that are currently enjoying the swell of economic growth from O&G activity, but for an entire country that sees a horizon of better days ahead but all too many reminders of the Great Recession still around us — and the human lives that feel it all, through both bad and good.

“The Overnighters” — one of 15 films selected for the Academy’s shortlist of Best Documentary Features for 2014 — opens Dec. 5 for a weeklong run at the Alamo Drafthouse in Littleton, followed by a run at the Sie FilmCenter in Denver starting Dec. 19. Running time: One hour, 30 minutes. Four and a half stars out of five.