The Last Honest Businessman

A Most Violent Year isn’t as good as Margin Call or All Is Lost, the two previous films by J. C. Chandor, but it is still a fine film. What stands out here is the screenplay: there is very little actual violence, no grandstanding, no soul-searching, no deus ex machina, and no lucky coincidence. If Abel Morales can save his NYC heating oil distribution business, it’s by smarts and perseverance, not by some last-minute con. The threats to his firm come from outside: someone is stealing his trucks. There are armed goons observing his mansion at night. The DA (David Oyelowo) waves a warrant in his face during his daughter’s birthday party.

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The film evokes the early 1980s effortlessly: Reagan, street crime on the radio. It features a lot of meetings, talks, negotiations. At the same time, crime is never far away: truck drivers get beaten up, trucks get stolen, a newbie on his sales team is hijacked. Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac, wants to keep his nose and his books clean at all costs. His wife and business partner’s goal (Jessica Chastain) is the same, but she is ready to do what needs to be done. A Most Violent Year has been compared to The Godfather: Part II – maybe because it is its opposite. It’s hard not to think of Scorsese or Coppola or Tony Soprano, especially if you cast Jerry Adler, but Morales is the principled center of the story while things fall apart around him.

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The film’s weakest spot is its plot: if everyone around you turns out to be cheating, you can no longer stay clean. The fact that everyone is dirty is the opposite of a spoiler – it’s a stereotype. And the DA’s work does no longer seem to be a smart move, but a lazy, random stab: take any businessman to court, and you will find the dirt on him eventually. Seen that way, the movie slowly deflates. Juding from his earlier movies, J. C. Chandor’s strength is racking up tension by showing us characters who have created situations that slowly turn uncontrollable, so what will be their fate? Morales might give in to backroom deals, or he may refuse and go bankrupt.

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This film is probably too predictable if you compare it to Margin Call, but it is interesting to watch. I’ve had my problems with Oscar Isaac, but he plays his role understated and straightforward. Jessica Chastain reminded me of Lady Macbeth because if her husband can’t take care of business, she will. And I didn’t recognise Albert Brooks or Jerry Adler until after the movie. New York City looks derelict, on the edge; apparently, 1981 was the year with the most murders. There is an early scene in a hospital where the corridor is strewn with litter. The outlook is bleak, not because business is bad, but because the people around you make it so hard for you and your business.

Some snyde remarks, part three

I am the guy who thrashed Eden Lake and The Social Network. I am the guest author of this blog, so I am not really behind most of the interesting and well-informed entries around here. That is someone else, and he is in no way responsible for the whining and whingeing about how bad this or that movie is. In fact, he is much more careful in choosing his drug of choice.

So, hey, part three. You’ve been warned. And since you’re still reading after the warning, here’s a promise: I’ll find a movie that I like, and will write about it. So much disregard for your own mental well-being must be rewarded.

Sucker Punch is all style on the outside, and evil smut at its centre. It’s like that golfball that’s supposed to contain poison. There’s that girl, played by Emily Browning, whose mother is dying of some unknown disease. Shortly after, her uncle or stepfather goes after her younger sister, and she dies, too, but I am not sure how, or whether there was any paedophilia involved, as the scene seems to suggest – I think someone became jittery about a possible NC-17 rating and screwed up the stylish display of kiddie abuse by re-editing. She is carted off to a mental asylum, where, strangely enough, the inmates are all teenage girls. Maybe there are other wings, one for old men, one for…

Hang on, where am I? Oh yeah, the staff. There is one half-way sympathetic character, their therapist Dr. Gorski, played by Carla Gugino. There is also the janitor, a shady guy named Blue, who recommends to the stepfather that the girl get a lobotomy, because then his visits would require only one consenting adult, while she will be no longer consenting to anything, nor ever see adulthood. Stepdad agrees, and so the doctor, who looks deceptively like Jon Hamm, points his tool at her forehead. I am talking about that metal needle they use for the lobotomy, and I take exception to the way you think, but it’s Zack Snyder’s fault, not yours.

And just when he wants to insert the needle into her eye, someone says stop, and we are in the Browning character’s psyche, where the asylum is a brothel ruled by Blue the pimp, and the girl orphans, who are all dressed in skimpy school uniforms that would break any school unform rules anywhere, take dancing lessons under Madame Gorski, the dance instructor. The girl, who is now called Baby Doll, is by far the best dancer, but we never get to see her dance, because when she does, the movie switches to yet another level, where a guy who looks deceptively like Scott Glenn tells Baby Doll about a quest she and the girls must go in order to be free: They have to recover a map, a lighter, a knife, a key and another mysterious object. It was at this point that I remembered that whenever a movie goes into cheap CGI mode, it is a good idea to think fondly of the fact that the whole of the Muppet Show is out on DVD.

Baby Doll has to distract the staff by dancing so the other girls can steal the items they need. The second dance shows the girl gang in some sort of super-Gothic bombed-out Dresden. I guess Baby Doll must have liked 20th century history, but got confused on the details, because the real Nazi soldiers were not zombies powered by steam and clockworks. This scene is so ridiculous that it made up for the rest of the movie. I mean, the Third Reich could have used zombies without the machinery, if only to save on the overhead, but never mind. So the gang kill a lot of the steamheads and shoot down a lot of fighter planes, although their mission is to steal a map from a messenger on foot.

And so on. At some point, the music for Baby Doll’s dance stops, and they are discovered. All of the gang except for Baby Doll and Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) are shot by Blue, who finds out about their plot. It is here that the movie definitely is confused and confusing: We are still in Baby Doll’s mind, so why oh why does she allow for Sweet Pea and herself to be saved, but let the others die? Horror vacui is a real, real thing, people. In the very end, Baby Doll allows Dr Hamm to go through with the lobotomy so Sweet Pea can run from the asylum and board a bus driven by someone who looks like… oh, forget it. Dr Hamm, right after his umpteenth lobotomy, realizes that lobotomy is… WRONG! He will have a great career in advertising. Blue is arrested, but poor Baby Doll is lobotomized. Ha! Didn’t see that one coming, but maybe she did. The movie shows her slightly smiling, suggesting that she has won. But won what?

Sucker Punch has a feminist message, and it is this: Girls rule, especially those with the semi-automatics and the samurai swords, and never mind the skimpy dresses. I have a message for Sucker Punch: show me a kind of feminist statement that involves names like Baby Doll and Sweet Pea, where the female protagonists have to do what their fatherly mentor tells them, and I suggest to you an improved kind of feminism involving spirited debate about equal rights and passionate demands for the improvement of the women’s cause, free of charge, and I don’t even have to try too hard. Because you see, even I, a guy, can see that all that fighting and killing while flashing your cleavage and gusset can wear even the angriest girl out. Me, too.

It is beyond me how Abbie Cornish, who stood up for herself in Bright Star and who impressed me in a small gem of a movie called Somersault, could have said yes to such a piece of guano as this. And Emily Browning is not a moron, I’ve gathered from a few interviews. There will be a movie with her called Sleeping Beauty that seems to feature those sexual politics that Sucker Punch relegated to its own screwed subconscious. Seems like Baby Doll wasn’t the only one lobotomized.