Most violent, most wanted, most magic

Fri. January 16, 2015 12:00 AM
by Gregg Shapiro

If you were a gay man in NYC in 1981, a city far grittier and more dangerous than it is now, the news that probably caught your attention was the story in The New York Times about the discovery of the "rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals." But, as A Most Violent Year (A24/Participant), the new film from J.C. Chandor (director of Margin Call, starring out actor Zachary Quinto) indicates, the rest of New York had other things on its mind, including the regular hijacking and theft of tankers carrying heating oil and other petrol products.

Beginning with the commandeering of a truck at a toll booth, and the brutal assault of driver Julian (Elyes Gabel), A Most Violent Year focuses on what promises to be a potentially prosperous year for refinery owner Abel (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant trying to attain the American dream, and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain channeling Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle), the daughter of a Brooklyn gangster. Striking a deal with Hasidic businessman Josef (Jerry Adler) to purchase another refinery, Abel pays a portion of the purchase price with his life savings and then must come up with the rest from various sources in order to close the deal.

But that will be easier said than done as everything that can possibly go wrong does. Abel's business is under investigation by District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) who is in the process of bringing a case against the company. Abel's competitors, including Peter (Allesandro Nivolo), are as cutthroat as possible. Driver Julian goes missing after thwarting another hijacking by using an unregistered weapon. If that wasn't enough, the bank on which Abel was depending for a loan backs out of the deal.

A Most Violent Year is nothing if not a story of perseverance. There is violence and death (not to mention a high-speed truck chase) and corruption. But there is also honesty and dedication and the desire to help others (while helping yourself, of course). Filmmaker Chandor has become a master of suspense (see All Is Lost) and A Most Violent Year is no exception.

The death of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) in early 2014 came as a shock to many. His final performance in a starring role, as German spy Gunther in A Most Wanted Man (Lionsgate), based on the John Le Carre novel, is of the highest level. Unfortunately, the film itself is rather drab, boring and disappointingly un-suspenseful.

Set in post-9/11 Hamburg, where intelligence agents such as Gunther are always on high alert, the "most wanted man" of the title is escaped Chechen militant jihadist Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin). He is in Hamburg to seek asylum (he was tortured in prison and has the scars to show for it) and try to arrange a meeting with banker Tommy (Willem Dafoe) in order to claim an inheritance worth at least 10 million Euros.

The intrigue occurs when Gunther, as well as American intelligence people including Martha (Robin Wright), sees Issa's presence as an opportunity to take down another on the most wanted list, businessman Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), who may be funneling money to Al Qaida. Gunther, who has been burned by the Americans before, is understandably hesitant. However, it doesn't stop him from utilizing questionable techniques to enlist the aid of lawyer Annabel (Rachel McAdams) to convince half-radical/half-rich kid Issa to donate the "dirty money" left to him to Abdullah in order to legitimize the arrest of the businessman.

Directed by Anton Corbijn, the man behind the amazing Joy Division biopic, as well as countless classic music videos, A Most Wanted Man feels dates, in spite of its timely subject matter. Ultimately, it's a reminder of why Hoffman will be missed. Special features on the DVD/Digital version include a pair of featurettes and more.

In Magic In the Moonlight (Sony Pictures Classics), one of Woody Allen's subtlest comedies ever, the writer/director revisits the past, specifically the 1920s, a period of which he is especially fond (see Midnight In Paris, Bullets Over Broadway, Zelig and Shadows and Fog). This time out he tells the tale of skeptical but accomplished English magician Stanley (Colin Firth), who performs in Chinese costuming as Wei Ling Soo. When he's not making elephants disappear or slicing women in half, Stanley vigorously debunks spiritualists.

Childhood friend and fellow magician Howard (Simon McBurney) solicits Stanley's aid in discrediting an American psychic named Sarah (Emma Stone), who seems to have cast a spell on a wealthy American family residing on the French Riviera. Sarah and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) are guests of the Catledges, including widowed mother Grace (the wonderful Jacki Weaver) and son Brice (Hamish Linklater). Brice, who serenades Sarah with songs on his ukulele, is smitten with the telepath, and proposes to her. Grace, desperate to communicate with her late husband, falls for the séance shenanigans. Stanley has his work cut out for him.

But the more time Stanley spends with Sarah, including a visit to the home of his Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) and an unexpectedly post-rainstorm interlude at an observatory, the more he is convinced that she may be the real thing. At the same time, Stanley finds himself falling for Sarah, forcing him to question everything, including his disbelief in God. Just as he's about to reevaluate his entire belief (or non-belief system), he has a revelation that could potentially change the course of his life.

Perhaps too understated for its own good (especially following the dazzling Blue Jasmine), Magic In the Moonlight is still pleasant and entertaining, even if it's one of Allen's more imperfect efforts. DVD + Digital special features include the Behind The Magic featurette and more.