Intense ‘Year,’ Mixed ‘Cake,’ Charming ‘Paddington’

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By FS

Contributing Writer

 

 

 

 

From left, Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac as Anna and Abel Morales in “A Most Violent Year.” -Photo courtesy of michtheater.org
From left, Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac as Anna and Abel Morales in “A Most Violent Year.”
-Photo courtesy of michtheater.org

“A Most Violent Year” 

The home heating-oil delivery business might not seem a scintillating subject, but J.C. Chandor uses it to spin a tale of the underside of the American dream in “A Most Violent Year” (Angelika).

Set in the New York-Jersey area during the early 1980s, it focuses on Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a former driver who’s married the boss’s daughter (Jessica Chastain) and taken over the business, which he attempts to run honestly.  But he has to contend with competitors who are hijacking his trucks and harassing his sales staff.  That threatens not only his plans to expand the company but its very survival.

Abel is also being investigated by an ambitious district attorney even as he’s trying to save one of his drivers who used an illegal firearm to protect himself on the job –  with unfortunate results.

Well acted and crisply directed, “A Most Violent Year” recalls the gritty urban dramas like “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Serpico” Sidney Lumet made in the seventies.  That’s high praise.

“Mortdecai”

Johnny Depp plays to the rafters as “Mortdecai” (wide release), a flamboyant aristocratic con-man who’s called in by Britain’s MI5 to help in the investigation of an art restorer’s murder.

Sporting a walrus moustache, a gap in his front teeth and an indecipherable accent while flailing about wildly in a futile attempt to garner laughs, Depp takes his penchant for playing odd characters like Jack Sparrow to new heights.  The result is embarrassing.

With a plot that’s complicated but tedious, and flatly directed to boot, the only positive factor in “Mortdecai” is its lavish production.   It’s an expensive, extravagant folly, a total misfire.

From left, Paul Bettany as Jock Strapp and Johnny Depp as the titular character in “Mortdecai.”
From left, Paul Bettany as Jock Strapp and Johnny Depp as the titular character in “Mortdecai.” Photo courtesy of collider.com

“Cake”

Jennifer Aniston strays far from her comfort zone in “Cake” (Angelika), playing an acerbic woman suffering from chronic pain syndrome as the result of a car crash.  Her almost jovial reaction to the suicide of a fellow patient in group therapy is so bizarre that it leads to her expulsion.  But when she’s visited by the dead woman and meets her grieving husband and child, her attitude gradually mellows.

Aniston is surprisingly effective as the sharp-tongued protagonist, and plays beautifully against Adriana Barraza as her devoted housekeeper.

Unfortunately, the picture goes soft toward the close, turning manipulative and obvious.  That’s a pity, since it undermines Aniston’s strong turn.

“The Boy Next Door”

Jennifer Lopez is a high school teacher who’s terrorized by a psychotic student in “The Boy Next Door” (wide release), an unintentionally funny thriller that wouldn’t even pass muster on a cable-TV channel.

The movie is idiotic from beginning to bloody end, but perhaps the stupidest element involves the AP course Lopez offers on Homer, which seems to be pitched at a sub-kindergarten level.  At one point her stalker gives her a tattered copy of a translation of the “Iliad,” and she enthuses that it’s a valuable first edition.  It’s a small mercy that she doesn’t claim that it’s inscribed by the poet himself.

“Still Alice”

The same sort of calculation creeps into “Still Alice” (Magnolia), in which Julianne Moore plays a university linguistics professor struck by early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Moore gives a masterful performance that captures the sad decline wrought by the disease.  But the filmmakers pull their punches, resorting too often to disease-of-the-week film clichés.

Moore will probably win an Oscar for the film, but it doesn’t fully realize the story’s devastating potential.

“Two Days, One Night”

In “Two Days, One Night” (Angelika), Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, who specialize in naturalistic dramas about members of society’s marginalized struggling to survive, paint an unflinching portrait of a woman trying to save her job by persuading her fellow workers to forgo their bonuses to cover her salary.

Marion Cotillard abandons every trace of glamour in playing the desperate woman, whose efforts end in a shrewdly-conceived denouement that allows for the survival of idealism even in a society obsessed with the bottom line.

“Paddington”

Finally, anybody looking for an excellent family film is directed to “Paddington” (wide release), which brings the lovable Peruvian talking bear of Michael Bond’s popular children’s books to the screen with a degree of charm and wit that should appeal to youngsters and adults alike.

A villain has been added in the form of a taxidermist who wants to stuff Paddington, but the essential story about the bear’s gradual adoption by a quirky London family remains the same, and it’s told with visual dash and some inspired slapstick.

The result is simply the best film of its kind since “Babe.”

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