AND THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY: Movie Reviews of A Most Violent Year and Mommy by Howard Casner

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most violentHow you feel about A Most Violent Year, the new neo-noir written and directed by J.C. Chandor, will probably depend on how you feel about the central character, Abel Morales, an up and coming entrepreneur; you know, the to dream the American dream type person, which in this case means playing with the big guys when it comes to the heating oil business.

He has worked long and hard to create a business than is not only as successful as others who have mainly inherited their companies, he is slowly encroaching on some of their territory. To make room at the top for him and his family, he has just signed a contract to buy his own storage facility, but has less than a month to come up with the remaining $1.5 million to secure it, which he expects to get in a loan from a bank.

He also wants to do it honestly and not break any laws, including taking money from his wife’s less than ethical family.   And honest he is. We know this because we are told this, over and over and over again. So I guess it must be true (and there’s no real evidence to doubt it).

In many ways there is much to admire in this young turk. What he’s doing isn’t easy and, as I said, it is the American dream, after all.


So if you watch the movie and really get into his character, you’ll quite possibly love the film. Because in many ways, it’s a very well done piece of cinema. It looks great. The dialog has a stylized realism to it. The characters are solid and often above average. The whole thing has a good rhythm (I give it an 8, I could dance to it). Chandor’s timing as a director is spot on.


But to be ruthlessly honest, I couldn’t stand this guy, Abel. I just found myself unable to become emotionally involved in him and his goal.


I wasn’t always sure why, but I have a few theories, so I’ll do what I can.


It should be noted that along with the above summary of the plot, there is a little more going on. For the past two years, someone has been hijacking his trucks and stealing his oil. The District Attorney is looking into his company for possible misconduct. Someone comes to his house one night and, in being chased off, drops a gun that the Morales’s five year old finds and plays with. And one of his salesman is beaten up while on a call.


Abel is a smart man and great at business in many ways (he has a genius at finding alternative methods of raising money when under pressure). But he’s also narcissistic and morally judgmental and thinks only of himself and his business goals.


That might be fine, but he also has a flaw. He also lacks nerve at important times and is even often cowardly when it comes to really fighting for his business and family. (This is symbolized one night when his car hits a deer and he can’t bring himself to put it out of its misery while his wife takes a pistol and shoots it three times with all the graceful artistry of Barbara Stanwyck.)


And then he has the gall to not understand why everyone acts like he has this flaw, so he’s also incredibly self-deluded.


I suppose this quality of his personality (or lack of it) can best be encapsulated in the through line with his truckers (Teamsters) who have been attacked and trucks stolen for the last two years. He won’t let them have guns and defend themselves because it’s against the law and he doesn’t need trouble with the authorities.


All right. Fine. Makes sense.


So what does he do about it? I mean, it has been going on for two years. Does he hire armed security guards to accompany the trucks? Does he hire a private investigating firm to try to figure out who is behind these hijackings? Does he even hire someone to follow the trucks to get pictures of the culprits and their license plate numbers?


No. He just tells everyone he’ll take care of it, but never does.


And so when one of his truckers, who had previously been viciously beaten, goes rogue and brings a gun with him and is involved in a shoot up on a freeway, does Abel blame himself for not leaving the driver any choice?


No, again. He takes the driver’s actions as a personal affront to him and holds him responsible for making it more difficult for him to pay off what he owes on his business as well as putting his lifestyle into jeopardy.


Which all leads to a tragic finale in which Abel is given one of the most fatuous pieces of dialog in some time (“It just wasn’t meant to be”—you have to hear it in context) and a series of lines that I just couldn’t help but laugh at (to the annoyance of my fellow movie goers I’m sure).


And then what happens happened when I find myself unable to become emotionally involved in the central character: I start looking at the plot which more and more just didn’t work for me.


Not only was there the issue of his trucks being attacked for two years and his doing absolutely nothing about it but spouting platitudes, it’s a little unclear why the police won’t do anything about it (the suggestion is that there is so much crime going on in New York, that they don’t have time and anyway, they’re all assuming it’s just inner conflicts between oil companies and they just don’t care—but then, again, all the more reason for Abel to do something about it himself).


And this lack of doing it himself is made even more ridiculous when you find out who really is behind it—a couple of rogue pirates with no real connection to any competitor (the most interesting scene in the whole movie here is when the hijackers and the trucker are running from the police and the hijackers help the trucker get away).


Though I actually liked this twist and though it a smart decision, still, it just begs the question: how hard would it have been for Abel to take care of this himself when the people doing it are so inept they do nothing to hide who they are and operate so brazenly in broad daylight?


In addition, Abel’s business is being investigated, but there’s no explanation as to why his is and no one else’s.


And when the police come with a warrant to search the house and he has to hide the books for the last ten years under the house at his wife’s direction, he never really asks why he had to do that. One would think that this bastion of honesty would really want to know just what his wife was scared of and what she’s been doing to the books for so long that he has to shove them out of sight under the house at the last minute.


I’m also not sure why he buys a house when he can’t really afford his new business property and his trucks have been under fire for two years. (The one thing he never considers doing is selling this new home to raise money when his bank refuses to guarantee a loan for his new venture).


In addition, when his salesman is viciously beaten on a call, he doesn’t look into it and find out who is behind that. After all, they now have an address and eyewitness, but this subplot is dropped with no real explanation. In fact, when it turns out that this attack and the man with the gun at Abel’s home have nothing to do with the hijacking of the trucks, the plot just forgets all about them as if they never existed.


To be honest, by the time it was all over, Abel Morales, for me, had become one of those characters that I actually hoped would not succeed in his goal since I disliked him so much and found his American Dream values to be so self-serving and vain glorious.


This is writer/director’s Chandor’s third feature, the first two being Margin Call and All Is Lost. All three have been solidly directed, but though Margin Call was quite a fascinating film, all three have suffered somewhat in the screenplay area (Margin Call focused on a character played by Kevin Spacey for reasons I never understood—his through line was quite uninteresting and had little to do with anything; and All Is Lost focused on a character who really wasn’t all that intriguing).


But again, it should be said that Chandor’s movie is a handsome film to look at and it is rather well made.


And there is some marvelous acting here. David Margulies of Manhattan Murder Mystery and The Sopranos is remarkably deft as the Orthodox Jewish businessman who sells his business to Abel. Albert Brooks, with The Driver and this movie, has reinvented himself as a strong character actor in roles with dramatic weight. And David Oyelowo seems so comfortable as a District Attorney with his own American Dream ambitions, but in the political arena.


Jessica Chastain plays Abel’s wife and she’s fine, but I think she’s hampered by the role. If the story were stronger and made more sense and Abel’s character was more intriguing, I suspect she would have worked a lot better for me.



mommyMommy, the new drama by French Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan, starts out as sci-fi. It posits a near future in his country where new Canadian health laws have been passed, the most pertinent, when it comes to the story being told here, is a ruling that allows parents, nay, even encourages them, to forcibly place a child who is acting out, who is violent and can’t be controlled, into a mental hospital.


It’s an odd approach in starting the film in many ways. I mean, at first read it feels like a great idea. But I’m not convinced that it really has enough bearing on the story to justify including it.


By the time the narrative is over, and the mother here does to her child what you know the story has been leading up to and what the law allows, even demands in a way, it’s unclear that the law was even needed for her to do so. But more of that later.


Outside of that, there is much that is remarkable and even brilliant at times in Dolan’s new film. There has always been a couple of areas that Dolan excels in. His films are often visually stunning. As a director, he is very impressive.


He also has an amazing knack of knowing what song is perfect for what moment, at times picking music that is unusual while still being familiar, but somehow almost invariably adding emotional depth to the action on the screen.


And when he adds the two together, the visual and the aural, as he does here in such scenes as the three central characters loosening up and singing and dancing to a pop song, or when the mother has a fantasy sequence near the end, it can have a stunning emotional effect.


Mommy is probably Dolan’s most satisfactory film since his first, I Killed My Mother (at the age of 19, the bastard).


He has made a few films since then, including Heartbeats and Lawrence Anyways, and they’ve all been great to look at, but the screenplays have always been a bit problematic for me. I would love to see what he could do with a screenplay that was written by someone else.


But here, he has created a solid piece of writing that has many powerful and heartbreaking moments with larger than life characters who feel very real and down to earth and are often quite fascinating.


The story begins when 15 year old Steve is thrown out of his boarding school when he sets a fire in a cafeteria that sends a classmate to the hospital with second and third degree burns. Diane (“Die”), his mother, knows he’s trouble but loves him too much to want to put him in a mental hospital, and is determined to handle his issues herself.


But Steve has problems. Oh, does he have problems. Die describes him as having ADHD and hyperactivity, but it seems deeper than that. He also seems manic-depressive and/or bi-polar and emotionally stunted. He flies into fits of rage and throws tantrums and falls from extreme highs to serious lows and often has no filter when he speaks or acts.


At first, things aren’t going well, but Die meets a woman, Kyla, who lives across the street. Kyla has a speech impediment that started a couple of years earlier (the suggestion is that it started as a result of the death of her young boy). She somehow has a calming effect on Steve and has a way to handle him in his difficult moments. In return, Steve reminds her of her late son and she begins to find new life (and a lessening in her impediment) the more time she spends with Die and Steve.


And just as you think that maybe Die and Steve can make it, Die is sued by the parents of the young man who ended up in the hospital. Her attempts to get legal help ends in a final confrontation that leads to the last thing a mother would ever want to do to a son she loves.


It’s often a deeply moving and difficult movie to watch.


True, it does has some issues. The story stalls here and there (there’s a MTV type music scene when Steve goes skateboarding that doesn’t really work) and it has one of those false endings. It also has some lose ends—Die is being sued for around $200,000 dollars, can barely make ends meet, but suddenly can afford a brand spanking state of the art new $75,000 car (this might have been the result of an insurance settlement, but it’s never mentioned).


And when it comes to the use of the new Canadian Law, I wasn’t sure why it was necessary. It could be the laws are different in the U.S., but the final straw for Die is when Steven cuts his wrists. At that point, he would be taken to a hospital and held for a certain amount of time for observation, and one would think that Die could commit him on that reason alone.


But then again, I’m not a legal expert. It just seemed odd.


And Steven is played by an actor that is probably too old for the role. Antoine-Olivier Pilon is in many ways very good, but he looks a few years older than 15 (in real life he’s around 18 and looks it), so some of his actions throw you off as you have to keep reminding yourself that this is not an older teen doing immature things, but a bare high schooler.


Suzanne Clément gives a very empathetic performance as Kyla, and one a bit more subtle that when she played the girlfriend in Dorin’s Lawrence Anyways.


It’s Anne Dorval who holds the movie together, though, going all out as the mother desperate to control her situation, but who finds everything slipping through her hands. Dorval also played the mother in Dolan’s maiden effort and has had parts in other of his film. Here she gives

a vibrant, passionate performance that is riveting and not easy to forget.


It should be noted, before I close, that Doran does something somewhat interesting when it comes to filming. He uses an unusual aspect ratio of 1.1, or a square. It certainly heightens the tension in some scenes (it’s very claustrophobic) and then allows Dolan to expand the screen at times to a more typical ratio to make a point.


All in all, recommended.


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