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A Most Violent Year: Blu-ray + Digital HD Review

A Most Violent Year (2014) movie poster A Most Violent Year

Theatrical Release: December 31, 2014 / Running Time: 125 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: J.C. Chandor

Cast: Oscar Isaac (Abel Morales), Jessica Chastain (Anna Morales), David Oyelowo (Lawrence), Alessandro Nivola (Peter Forente), Elyes Gabel (Julian), Albert Brooks (Andrew Walsh), Catalina Sandino Moreno (Luisa), Peter Gerety (Bill O'Leary), Christopher Abbott (Louis Servidio), Glenn Fleshler (Arnold Klein), David Margulies (Saul Lefkowitz), Jerry Adler (Josef), Ben Rosenfield (Alex), John Procaccino (Arthur Lewis), Ashley Williams (Lange), Pico Alexander (Elias Morales), Matthew Maher (John Dominczyk), Elizabeth Marvel (Mrs. Rose), Jason Ralph (Ian Thompson), Daisy Tahan (Annie Morales), Giselle Eisenberg (Catherine Morales), Taylor Richardson (Elizabeth Morales), Patrick Breen (Instructor), Annie Funke (Lorraine Lefkowitz)

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In just a few years, J.C. Chandor has risen Hollywood's ranks, from his Academy Award-nominated original screenplay for his debut Margin Call to steering the Robert Redford survival drama All Is Lost to high acclaim. Chandor looked to take another big leap as writer-director of A Most Violent Year, a drama that opened at the end of 2014 with a seemingly genuine shot at competing for Best Picture honors. Violent won top honors at the National Board of Review,
an early December event which often sets the tone for the awards season. That early promise did not hold up, though, with Violent getting shut out by the Oscars. Its other recognition, from the Golden Globes to the Independent Spirit Awards to my own Online Film Critics Society, did little to attract moviegoers as the film ended up disappearing from theaters without securing a 4-digit theater count or coming all that close to the weekly top ten. The movie closed with a $5.7 million domestic gross and has barely touched the big screen outside of North America.

While you could easily understand moviegoer resistance to All Is Lost with its bare minimum of dialogue, action, and plot, Chandor's third film offers a far more conventional and accessible narrative with character development. A crime drama with the in-demand Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain as its leads and very favorable reviews from critics, Violent should have interested the general public. That it didn't raises questions over struggling mini-major distributor A24's timing and marketing. The film itself -- a mature, intelligent, artful piece -- does not obviously deserve blame for the commercial failure (which with a production budget of $20 is not insignificant).

Violent is set in New York City. The titular year is 1981, one that has brought record levels of crime to the Big Apple. Abel Morales (Isaac) has been on the receiving end of some of that crime. The self-made independent oil tycoon has been seeing his truck drivers beaten and their fuel trucks stolen, the valuable liquid inside getting taken and resold, presumably by competitors. Abel is in contact with the police and district attorney Lawrence (Selma star David Oyelowo), but they don't have any more information than him and don't seem to consider the matter any more serious or pressing than the countless other violent crimes occurring around the city.

"A Most Violent Year" stars Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales, a businessman trying to succeed in crime-ridden 1981 New York.

The threat to Abel's empire is real and so is the one to his family. His wife, company accountant Anna (Jessica Chastain), is bewildered to inform him that one of their three young daughters has found a loaded gun on their lawn.

These unsettling issues could not be coming at a worse time. Abel has just laid down a non-refundable deposit on a piece of land owned by rabbis that could significantly increase his business. Uncomfortable with the 14-count indictment the DA has just unleashed on Abel, his trusted longtime bank backs out of a loan, leaving him with just three days to come up with the $1.5 million he needs to close the land deal.

A Most Violent Year captivates with its exploration of the agita that comes from pursuing the American Dream in a not entirely legal way.
The film reminds you of movies like Scarface and Goodfellas, but departs from them in one major way: Abel Morales does not want to be a gangster and his reluctance to budge from his moral comfort zone might just be keeping his business dreams from becoming reality. For once, there is nothing glamorous about a life of criminality.

Easily the richest and most substantial of Chandor's first three films, Violent is beautifully shot by rising cinematographer Bradford Young. In tone, this appealingly atmospheric production evokes New York films of the 1970s, like The French Connection and Serpico. It doesn't ape them (or Scorsese, whose depictions of crime and family are only mildly recalled) and it is set several years after they are, but there is a kinship that goes beyond the comparable time and place dramatized.

Abel's wife Anna Morales (Jessica Chastain) explains to D.A. Lawrence (David Oyelowo) that she's not her gangster father and her family deserves respect.

The cast is uniformly terrific. Isaac and Chastain both shine as characters we haven't seen either play before in their productive recent years. Others make the most of their limited screentime, from Oyelowo and Alessandro Nivola to seasoned vets Albert Brooks and David Margulies, who are rendered unrecognizable by a wig and age, respectively.

There are certainly some nitpicks you can make. The plot hinges on Abel being improbably helpless to defend against these highway robberies and entirely uninformed regarding who's behind them. The way that changes is a convenient excuse for a chase scene, which nonetheless ranks among the film's best sequences. The tense penultimate scene will strike some viewers as unnecessary or unrealistically tidy. Others will question the logic and specifics of Abel's loan scrambling. None of these factors is enough to undo the many positives of this steady, inviting study, which I would easily rank among 2014's worthiest cinematic endeavors.

A Most Violent Year: Blu-ray + Digital HD cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.40:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English, English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: April 7, 2015
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99 (Reduced from $24.99)
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Eco-Friendly Blue Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on DVD ($19.98 SRP $14.98 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

The handsome cinematography of A Most Violent Year looks terrific in the Blu-ray's 2.40:1 widescreen presentation. At any given moment, you can randomly pause and wind up with an intriguing composition that is as sharp and detailed as 1080p video should be. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack also satisfies, although it does startle a few times with loud jolts. Some of the rare Spanish dialogue is translated by burned-in subtitle.

Writer-director J.C. Chandor wears a cap bearing the logo of Abel's Standard Oil Company in his "Behind the Violence" interview. Co-stars and former Julliard classmates Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain catch up in three short chats, looking nothing like they do in "A Most Violent Year."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The full slate of extras begins with an audio commentary by writer-director J.C. Chandor and producers Neal Dodson and Anna Gerb. Heavily led by Chandor, the track is screen-specific to nearly a fault, as the three speakers identify the filming locations, conditions, and visual effects of practically every scene.
There are lots of character names traced back to All Is Lost crew members and the pride expressed approaches hubris at times. Still, it's easy to appreciate their obvious passion on a project of such obvious merit.

The all-HD video side kicks off with "Behind the Violence", a 44-minute making-of documentary arbitrarily split into two even parts. Oddly devoid of behind-the-scenes footage, the piece unfolds primarily with talking heads. Still, those heads give thought to the movie, its intentions to recreate an era, and its ability to attract such talent.

"A Conversation with Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac" consists of three shorts -- "The Early Years" (4:03), "A Shared Foundation" (3:58), and "Mastering the Craft" (4:49) -- allowing the two to talk with one another about their calling. The lack of an interviewer distinguishes this piece nicely, as Chastain and Isaac discuss their attraction to acting, their overlapping training at Julliard, their varied experiences, and their collaboration on this film. There's even a little bit of behind-the-scenes footage the previous documentary lacked.

"We Can Cure Violence" demonstrates how you can stop violence with the right kind of computer-animated handshake. Tight-lipped lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) shows up in this deleted scene set at a graveyard.

"We Can Cure Violence" (1:32) is a little PSA discouraging violence with computer animation. It seems like a silly cause for this movie to take up, but who could object to the message?

"The Contagious Nature of Violence: The Origins of A Most Violent Year" (3:10) is a short conversation between J.C. Chandor and Gary Slutkin, the chairman of Cure Violence,
which further emphasizes the film's opposition to violence and the importance of Slutkin's organization's work.

Five deleted scenes (7:44) show more of the Morales kids (a family dinner on the floor of their new house and a contentious drive turned roadside argument) plus a cemetery chat between Abel and his lawyer and a soccer game talk between Abel and Peter.

A Most Violent Year kindly has its marketing preserved. Included here are a theatrical trailer (2:28) and a teaser trailer (1:23).

"Inner City Crew" (1:20) finds the crew joining Oscar Isaac on his film's Marvin Gaye-accompanied opening run. Makes me wanna holler.

Finally, "Trailers" repeats the disc-opening trailers for Ex Machina, While We're Young, Cut Bank, and Revenge of the Green Dragons.

The menu loops a montage of stills and clips. The Blu-ray kindly both resumes playback and lets you set bookmarks on the film for fast access to any scene.

The lone insert inside the slipcovered eco-friendly keepcase supplies a code and directions for redeeming the Digital HD UltraViolet included with your purchase.

Anna (Jessica Chastain) and Abel (Oscar Isaac) have a tense conversation after their daughter finds a loaded gun on their lawn.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Writer-director J.C. Chandor shows growth on A Most Violent Year, easily his most compelling and fulfilling film to date. This slow, 1981-set crime drama takes its cues from gritty, slightly older New York movies. As evidenced by its box office underperformance, and slightly above-average user rating and largely disapproving message board threads on IMDb, not everyone will enjoy this. But those who watch a lot of movies and find it difficult to be excited by much should side with the critics who sung its praises.

Lionsgate's Blu-ray offers a high quality feature presentation plus a hearty supply of substantial extras. It's a release that is easy to recommend.

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Oscar Isaac: Drive Inside Llewyn Davis 10 Years W./E. | Jessica Chastain: Lawless Zero Dark Thirty Interstellar Coriolanus
David Oyelowo: Selma Lee Daniels' The Butler The Paperboy | Albert Brooks: Taxi Driver Broadcast News Finding Nemo
The Godfather Trilogy Scarface American Hustle Thief | 2014 Movies: Foxcatcher Big Eyes The Immigrant Rob the Mob

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Reviewed April 17, 2015.



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