Saturday 6 June 2015

Reviews: A Most Violent Year, Ex Machina, and Girlhood

A Most Violent Year
Director: JC Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo
Running Time: 125 mins

An atmospheric, slow-burning drama from Chandor (Margin Call, All is Lost) that somehow makes the business of selling heating oil utterly compelling. Set in New York in 1981 (to that point, statistically, the most violent year in the city’s history), Isaac plays immigrant businessman Abel Morales. He is successful and ambitious but lately has seen his drivers assaulted and other parts of his operation under attack, presumably from one or more of his many rivals. Worse still, he is being investigated for tax evasion and price fixing by Oyelowo’s Assistant District Attorney, while his mob-connected missus (Chastain on top Lady Macbeth form) is urging him to take robust action against the saboteurs. If A Most Violent Year was merely a portrait of a flawed man desperately trying to hang on to his sanity, dignity and humanity in the face of enormous provocation, it would already be a very good film. The fact it offers so much more than that – superb performances, a critique of US capitalism, a vivid recreation of the period, and sumptuously-shot views of wintry New York – is what makes it one of the finest dramas you’re likely to see all year. It would have been easy for Chandor – who also wrote the screenplay – to do the predictable thing and turn this into a typical mob drama full of wiseguys trading blows and bullets, but he’s far cannier than that and his film is all the better for it.

Rating: WWWW

A Most Violent Year is available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD now

Ex Machina
Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander
Running Time: 108 mins

The ridiculously versatile Oscar Isaac crops up again here, this time playing a reclusive and hubristic alcoholic who just also happens to be a brilliant tech billionaire. Isaac’s character Nathan chooses Caleb (Gleeson), one of his employees, to spend a week at the vast, sprawling and remote estate he calls home. There, Nathan shares the secret of what he has been working on – a walking, talking Artificial Intelligence named Ava (Vikander), upon whom he wants Caleb to perform a “Turing test” to gauge whether she has attained independent thought. Ex Machina is an expertly woven three-hander that starts off as an engaging bit of sci-fi exploring ideas of consciousness, humanity and attraction, but ends up as an out-and-out thriller. Garland’s directorial debut (if you discount his reported input into the disappointing Dredd) is a tense and tight affair, with some fine twists that invite you to try and figure out who is manipulating who and to what end. There are moments when it reminded me of last year’s Joaquin Phoenix/Scarlett Johansson AI movie, Her. But, in truth, Ex Machina is a far darker and altogether more satisfying piece of work.

Rating: WWW

Ex Machina is available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD now

Director: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh
Running time: 113 mins

French writer/director Sciamma’s film (her third) couldn’t be more different to last year’s similarly-titled Boyhood. Where Richard Linklater’s much-celebrated coming of age tale was all about a typical middle-class American kid and his family, Girlhood is set in and around one of the tough estates on the outskirts of Paris and focuses on the members of a black girl gang. Never mind growing up and going to college, in Sciamma’s story it’s all about surviving. Marieme (splendid newcomer Karidja Touré) escapes life’s hardships – no father, no job, insufficient schooling, and a bullying older brother – by hooking up with Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Mariétou Touré). They rechristen her Vic (for Victory) and together the four bond over trips into the city, shoplifting clothes, punch-ups, and, in one of the film’s finest moments, miming along to Rihanna’s sublime Diamonds. Of course, membership of the gang only offers temporary respite from Marieme’s troubles, a situation that comes to a head when she is physically attacked by her brother for sleeping with a boy then flees the estate to commence a short-lived life of crime. Sciamma – a white woman – has been criticised in some quarters for portraying black characters and their lives negatively but this is as much about the limited choices and pressures faced by young women as it is a film attempting to chronicle the black or immigrant experience in France. Besides, at no point does Girlhood seek to denigrate its main characters or their choices. In fact, Marieme is an empowering, inspiring creation; a strong, determined and resourceful young woman who simply refuses to buckle under the weight of a difficult life. Eventually, you know, she’ll be just fine.

Rating: W

Girlhood is in cinemas now


WWWW = Wonderful
WWW = Worthwhile
WW = Watchable
W = Woeful

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