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Feb 8/15

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: A Most Violent Year and Mr. Turner (Movies)

A Most Violent Year (Movie) written and directed by J.C. Chandor; starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel, Jerry Adler, Peter Gerety, Glenn Fleshler

If you haven’t read or heard much about this one, it may take you a while to figure out what’s going on. First, we see a guy and his wife at their morning routines. He’s jogging, she’s doing her makeup. Then ominous music. Cars arriving in a desolate parking lot. Suspicious-looking brief cases. A cluster of spooky-looking Orthodox Jewish men with hairy faces, black clothes and big black hats.

It turns out, actually, that what’s happening is not so very extraordinary. Our hero, one Abel Morales, is purchasing a decrepit waterfront terminal from an elderly Jewish man. Abel’s in the business of selling heating oil to homes and he wants this terminal because it will give him better access to oil tankers. But things do get rather complicated. Seems there’s a lot of competition among oil companies like Abel’s. That’s where the "violence" of the title comes in: somebody’s highjacking his trucks, stealing his oil and beating up his employees. Also, the District Attorney is investigating Abel’s company for possible fraud.

There’s some justification, then, for the portentous way that the scenes proceed: solemnly, layering the plot points step-by-step. But everything seems too scripted, too deliberate. Necessarily, there’s a lot of expository dialogue. None of it sounds off-hand or spontaneous. People speak in such a ponderous way that it almost sounds like a soap opera.

But, then, along come some scenes that startle you with their originality. Such as the one where the D.A. arrives at a man’s house with a passel of cops to search the man’s files. At the time, though, the man and his wife are celebrating a birthday party for their ten-year-old daughter. The wife goes outside, introduces herself to the D.A. and asks if he could grant five minutes for her guests to leave quietly before the cops pounce. The D.A. agrees. The wife gives him a piece of birthday cake.

And then there’s the scene where an oil truck is being highjacked in a traffic jam on a bridge. The driver of the truck exchanges shots with the highjackers. When they hear cops’ sirens, the highjackers start running. So does the truck driver, because he doesn’t have a permit for his gun. The highjackers and the driver end up taking refuge in a stone tower that looks like part of a pumping station. The highjackers are yelling instructions to the driver about how to exit the building without being caught by the cops. How often do you see perpetrators and their intended victim thrown together that way?

One of my favourite scenes is the one where Abel approaches another oil company for an urgent loan. The original owner of the company is an elderly man who appears to be on the verge of his dotage. He has turned the company over to his granddaughter, a plumpish woman of about forty. As grandpa looks on, she very calmly negotiates with Abel about what her company will or will not do for him. The scene takes place in a dingy office. The woman is back-lit by the light from the window, with the result that you can’t see her face very well. It’s so like an incident from every-day-life, the kind of non-glamorous thing that we all encounter constantly, not what you’re used to seeing on screen.

That kitchen-sink, real-life look has a lot to do with the overall feel of the movie. Much of it takes place in industrial yards and scruffy wasteland in and around New York of the 1980s. If it weren’t for the fact that we occasionally switch to glitzy interiors, the movie would almost be an example of American rural grunge – a genre that includes movies like David Gordon Green’s George Washington and All the Real Girls or Thomas McCarthy’s The Station Agent. One of the distinctive features of those movies is that they reveal an unexpected beauty in abandoned, neglected settings.

This movie being a lot like that, it’s not one of those hip, cool exposs of the financial world, even though it deals with some high-stakes business matters. It took me a while, in fact, to figure out just what kind of movie this is. Adventure? Suspense? Crime? Ultimately, I think, it’s a movie about a man who is trying to maintain his equilibrium while facing difficult odds. He’s the besieged individual who is "up against it" big time. There’s almost something Shakespearean about it. (I kept thinking of The Merchant of Venice, for lack of any better example.)

Oscar Isaac, as the man who’s feeling the crunch, comes across as a stoic, courageous, decent guy, but it’s hard to know much about what he’s thinking or feeling. His sculpted good looks have an impassive quality. There’s not a lot to read in his features. I looked in vain for any hint of the guy who played the title role in Inside Llewyn Davis. Maybe that’s a compliment to an actor, to say that you can’t recognize him from one role to the next. But I did feel more connection with his character in the earlier movie, even though he wasn’t exactly an admirable guy.

As Abel’s ballsy wife, Jessica Chastain also brought Shakespearean models to mind. Mostly Lady Macbeth. Abel’s wife is always goading her husband, urging him on, accusing him of not being proactive enough, questioning whether he’s really taking care of his family. I began to wonder if this was a case of a scriptwriter/director creating a woman who is constantly carping, just for the sake of dramatic conflict. But I began to appreciate these people as a real couple when I could feel the sexual chemistry underneath all the sniping.

I’m not sure that I could follow all the legal implications of the story. I can’t even say whether all of them were resolved satisfactorily. And I felt that a death that occurs at the end of the movie was a melodramatic touch that wasn’t earned. It seemed to be happening only because the writer/director wanted that note of tragedy. But the movie as a whole was interesting enough that it made me feel that there is still hope for movies that are a bit unusual, that don’t fit easily into the familiar formulae.

 

Mr. Turner (Movie) written and directed by Mike Leigh; starring Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, Joshua McGuire, John E. Mayall....and many others.

This isn’t your typical artist biopic . No childhood highlights. No discovery of one’s artistic vocation. No struggle to get recognized. Instead, we encounter J.M.W. Turner in what appears to be the last decade of his life. Well established as an artist, he’s living in comfortable, if not lavish, circumstances. He goes through his days, taking one thing at a time. Problems crop up but there is no major crisis. No huge drama.

In fact, you could say that director Mike Leigh’s intention is anti-dramatic. He appears to want to show that the great artist bumbles along. There’s no big "story." In this sense the movie functions almost in defiance of conventional narrative expectations. As you watch Turner living his life – working at his easel, hobnobbing with the aristocracy, visiting the seaside, attending salon openings, grabbing a bit of sex when he can – you might be asking yourself: what is the point of all this and where is this story going? Is this just a tribute to Turner, a re-creation of a few years in his life by way of honouring him?

While there may not be anything like a plot pulling the movie forward, some aspects of Turner’s private life tug on our curiosity. He’s living in his elderly father’s house. The senior Turner, referred to as "Daddy," acts as his son’s helper – stretching canvases on supports, buying paints and such. Daddy is also his son’s closest friend. The only other occupant of the house is Hannah, a mostly silent and subservient housekeeper. But are we meant to intuit that she has strong feelings for the artist that she isn’t allowed to express? Another woman, a Mrs. Danby, who appears to be the mother of Turner’s daughters, shows up now and then to complain that he isn’t supporting them sufficiently. Who is this lady? What is Turner’s responsibility to her?

Meanwhile, we gradually see that he is beginning to develop another life, one that is utterly separate from the one in Daddy’s house. Turner goes by a different name in this other life. But there doesn’t appear to be any conflict between the two lives, no upheavals or revelations. It isn’t until the very end of the movie that we get a glimpse of how this divide in Turner’s life might have affected someone else.

Writer/Director Mike Leigh goes to great lengths to create the ambiance of the mid 19th century. It all looks rather like a Jane Austen setting but with more sweat and dust. People speak in what seems to us a rather formal style. For instance: "If you do be needing anything....." Turner frequently tosses off words like "cogitate" and "peruse" where we’d be more inclined to say "think" or "view." We get a hint of the mores of the times when a man, commenting on a meal, tells a woman, "Nothing’s too salty for me." You wonder why she bursts into giggles, and then you realize that she takes his remark as a risqu quip. One of the most telling indicators of the times comes when we see a woman reacting with shock and fear to the thought of having her picture taken by one of the new-fangled daguerreotype machines. And then there’s the steam engine billowing its way down the tracks, soon to be captured in a Turner painting. To flesh out the dramatis personae of those times, we get appearances from painters like John Constable. Rivalries in the Royal Academy are touched on. The young John Ruskin shows up as a loquacious budding critic.

Although the creation of an authentic Victorian feel to the movie was obviously a labour of love for everybody involved, you have to wonder if something has gone wrong when you, the viewer, find yourself wondering how much trouble it took to barricade those sections of contemporary London, to bring in the horses, to have the women in hoop skirts and the men in tail coats and top hats strolling along the cobblestones. And some of the interior scenes are so beautifully arranged that they look like still lives of Vermeer: jars and flowers arranged just so on a window that the sun is pouring through. Perhaps my becoming absorbed in these arty touches had something to do with the length of the movie. At two and a half hours, it seemed long and slow moving.

This being a British movie, however, you might expect excellent acting in the many roles. And you would be right. A few of them stand out in my view. First, there’s that Mrs. Danby, played as a rather ungainly creature, by Ruth Sheen. Her struggle to hang onto her dignity in dire circumstances makes your heart ache for her. As Daddy, Paul Jesson conveys a wonderfully warm, kind man; you wish everybody could have a father like him. As for Dorothy Atkinson in the role of Hannah, it’s hard to say you enjoy her performance, given that she’s such a pathetic creature, especially when she acquires a disfiguring disease, but you’ll be haunted for a long time by Ms. Atkinson’s gaunt expression.

The actor in a supporting role who totally captivated me was Marion Bailey, as Mrs. Booth, a landlady in Margate, where Turner makes studies for his seascapes. This is one of those rare instances where you encounter a character whom, as far as you know, you’ve never seen on screen. Maybe that’s because there’s nothing theatrical or comic or amazing about Mrs. Booth. She’s just a genuinely good person, the kind we all meet now and then, but not the kind that usually makes it into a movie. Apparently Ms. Bailey has a notable career in Britain to her credit but she portrays this character so well that I’m guessing that the rest of the world will be seeing a lot more of her in the future; I hope all her roles can draw on her talents as fully as this one does.

And Timothy Spall in the role of Turner? Mr. Spall is one of my favourite of the less well known, less frequently seen actors. But I’ve only seen him in supporting roles before this. First in Intimacy, a 2001 movie, in which he played a husband whose wife was having a torrid affair with a more glamorous guy. Mr. Spall was unforgettable as the loser who knew perfectly well that his wife was attracted to a more desirable man but who could do nothing about it. So I was very much looking forward to his foray in this major role. (Really major: he’s hardly ever not on screen).

Regrettably, the performance was not as satisfying as I’d hoped it would be. But I don’t know whether that’s because of Mr. Spall or Mike Leigh or Turner. Sometimes you hear it said that the camera reads a lot into a certain actor’s face. After watching Mr. Spall for such a long time, you can’t help coming to the conclusion that the camera doesn’t respond to him that way. You don’t get much from his Mr. Turner other than a look of impatient disgust with the world

And then there’s the fact that the artist was a rather opaque person, at least as portrayed in this script. He doesn’t have much to say for himself. His automatic response to most things is a pig-like grunt. He lumbers around like a trained bear trying to break free of his chains. Somebody asks him at one point, "Don’t you have any feelings?" Good question. In a few private moments, we do see him succumbing to strong emotion but, for the most part, we don’t get much insight into what’s going on with him. He’s an inscrutable, enigmatic guy. You feel that you’re watching somebody interesting but it’s difficult to engage with him.

If there is one theme that keeps you thinking when you leave the theatre, it would be the idea that the genuine artist has to work doggedly to be true to his or her artistic vision. People were scoffing at Turner’s later works. They deplored what they saw as his complete abandoning of form. Even such an astute critic as Queen Victoria is seen here dismissing his work as a disgusting mess. But Turner just kept plodding on, turning out paintings that anticipated the emergency of abstract art some fifty years later. Far from demonstrating the careful, precise brush work that was in vogue in his day, he sometimes stabbed at his canvases as if he was angry with them. It was all about stubbornly doing his own thing.

There are instances where the Turner of this movie shows himself to be a man of high principles – very high – in his own obstinate way, and yet there are examples of what appear to be his meanness, even irresponsibility. That Mrs. Danby and her kids, for instance. Maybe Mike Leigh’s ultimate goal is to show us that there’s nothing marvellous about a great artist, apart from his art. He’s a human mixture of good and bad. His life is as mottled as anybody’s. It’s not about glamour, heroism, spectacle, glory. As the saying today goes: it is what it is.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com