Tag Archives: Oscar Isaac

“Ex Machina” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

I was protected in high school from the abuse of hazing because of my sister. Four years ahead of me, she went to the incoming seniors before she graduated. She said if they hazed me, she would be back for them, and they wouldn’t be happy about it. They never touched me.

I tried to extend that shield when I could, and a few times I was able to for certain friends. I discovered earlier this year that one of those friends went on to sexually assault a number of women, using his position as a publicist within the music industry to grope them and attempt to pressure them into having sex.

When I found out, I felt like I had done something wrong by protecting him at 14, that I somehow should have known better. I felt what he did in the future was some failing of mine by taking some momentary part in his life in the past. I described the feeling to one of the closest people in my life like this:

You work to make sure there isn’t a fire at your feet. You stamp out what you can, you keep the people that you can safe in the ways you know how, and you be there for them when you can’t. And you feel like maybe, you’ve made a change, that maybe the small effect you’ve had can make a difference. And then you look up from your patch of ground only to realize the whole city’s burning, and you feel lost and it feels overwhelming. You’ll return to making what change you can, but in that moment, you’re lost. The damage done in the world is irreversible.

As a society, we are hateful to women. There is no argument to be had that we are not.

“Ex Machina” felt like looking up and seeing the city on fire. It can be a problematic film to champion because of that. In order to make a horror film from the lessons we teach men about possessing women, it demonstrated that possession in no uncertain terms. It does so through creating an A.I. and then asking its protagonist – and its audience – whether she’s human. If she isn’t human, she’s a thing kept, a possession, an object. If she is human, the very act of keeping her entrapped, of possessing her, is an act of assault. “Ex Machina” uses the Turing Test as a code through which we judge our own social assumptions. While the most blatant of its transgressions are suggested rather than shown, the space in which “Ex Machina” suggests them is as claustrophobic as cinema gets.

After its opening weekend, I experienced something that rarely happens. Through the window of discussing the movie, I had dozens of conversations with men about the lessons we’re taught regarding women, the things society ingrains in us to endorse and ignore. These conversations are normally extremely difficult to start with other men. They’re easily dismissed. They don’t happen. When they do, they run the course of shallow agreement, declining the real work of self-analysis.

For a few weeks, “Ex Machina” changed something in the men who had seen it. We talked about these things. We shared stories of what we’d seen, of things that some people had done, of realizations, of opportunities to help that we missed, of friends and loved ones who were forever changed because of acts of male possession. Men need to look up and see the city is burning, and we need to do it together, and we need to believe and support the women who have been shouting “Fire!” all their lives to us.

And for a minute, because of a movie that made a horror out of the gender roles we’re taught when young, I felt as if many men looked up together and saw the fire and talked about it as we rarely do. I only wish that could be the norm. I wish it didn’t take a movie to make that happen. I wish it wasn’t a momentary effect. I wish we didn’t all lower our eyes to our patch of ground again and pretend the city’s not burning down around us.

Ex Machina poster

Images are from Hollywood Reporter and Tale of Two Dans.

“A Most Violent Year” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

“A Most Violent Year” is a unique accomplishment. It’s essentially a gangster film about the one virtuous man in the entire plot, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac). What’s unique is that it is not a plot of suffering or loss. Abel’s dedication to doing things the right way is itself a power that stands toe-to-toe with those who rob him, beat his employees, steal his trucks, and kidnap his salespeople.

His biggest fault and his biggest advantage is Anna (Jessica Chastain). She’s the heir apparent to a mobster, but she’s given up that life in order to build a family and a business with Abel. Yet she’s clearly finagled the accounting. She’s clearly kept things from him. And she will take on the war he refuses to engage in if things get much worse.

Abel must outmaneuver both sides as they clamor for outright war, as well as a district attorney who wants to make an example of him. There are also shades of the immigrant experience. As a Hispanic immigrant who’s become a business owner, it’s important to Abel that he subscribes to doing things according to the American dream. If he’s been sold on the idea this is the land of opportunity, then he will treat it that way even if no one else does.

As he maneuvers, as he makes concessions, as he forgets about those who have sacrificed to get him where he is, does he remain connected with the virtue he champions? If cheating is part of the game, and you have no choice but to ally yourself with cheaters to survive, are you still playing by the rules yourself? And are these the rules of business that “make America great?”

“A Most Violent Year” keeps you in the dark about many of its truths, but it also keeps Abel in the dark, and we feel allied to him in his determination to shed light on what’s been happening to his business. It’s one of the least predictable movies of the year, but while it draws from 70s crime drama, it takes its own path. It’s a surprisingly unassuming film, and it will not do the work of reading into its layers of meaning for you. If anything, “A Most Violent Year” suffers for being quieter than the films we usually acknowledge as American masterpieces. It’s a shame, because “A Most Violent Year” deserves that consideration.

a-most-violent-year-poster

Images are from Way To Blue, The Guardian, and Collider.

The Power of Myth, The First Act of Violence — “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

by Gabriel Valdez

“The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply.”

– Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”

– bell hooks

These are not mutually exclusive ideas. They share words like “power” and ideas like spiritual pain. Campbell would seem to say you should swallow your pain. Hooks would seem to say the pain itself is unneeded.

Yet reverse these concepts and consider them in steps.

I grew up learning to be a man. I psychically self-mutilated myself. I look upon that demon in me now. What is it? An enemy, or just an entity? Do I reject its very existence, or acknowledge the pieces of itself it buried deep inside my spirit? Do I refuse to acknowledge this part of me, or do I greet the demon when he looms and sit down with him?

It is not the only demon that I know.

My descent is half-Mexican, half-European white. I was born in 1983. My heroes in movies were white men like Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise. If a Hispanic was in a film, he would be the villain. He would be evil, untrustworthy, and bested in the end. If there was a Hispanic woman, she would be a reward for the white hero.

When I stepped outside the door of my house, our media, our politicians, our world, and especially the children who were my classmates reinforced the pride I had in half of my ancestry. The other half? They reinforced the shame I should feel at being Mexican.

These demons are twins, and I wrestle with their shadows still. They each play off the other. Sometimes they win, sometimes I can sit down with them and be a friend. If I can calmly understand more of their nature, I can understand and change more of my own.

In this wrestling, I can open whole parts of myself to those I love, and yet I still protect so fiercely my innermost natures, my most closely-held beliefs. I once protected them from the self-mutilation that was asked of me, and that’s a difficult survival mechanism to break. I protected them from the criticism of half of who I am. It is hard to learn when to stop protecting, or even that I am, so I can sometimes exist too externally in my closest relationships. There’s a guarded cross-section of myself, right over my heart, where it’s difficult to allow vulnerability. I can resent this guarded nature in myself, but at the same time struggle with why the world can’t communicate better with it.

So: What the hell am I going on about?

General Leia has sent her best starfighter to search for Luke Skywalker. That’s what the opening scroll to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” informs us.

Note that Leia is recognized for the role she played most often in the original trilogy now – a general in a war room, not a princess in a metal bikini.

Her best starfighter is Poe Dameron, played by Oscar Isaac. He’s not done up to look white, as he has been in some of his films. There’s no effort to mask his Guatemalan-Cuban ancestry.

You see, some viewers would sooner see giant slugs with sex slaves on-screen before they’d allow a Hispanic or Black or a woman hero to save the galaxy.

And that’s when we meet Finn, played by John Boyega. As a storm trooper, the First Order makes Finn kill indiscriminately. They demand his violence on behalf of the militarized dictatorship that’s succeeded the Empire. When he displays feelings like hesitance, regret, and empathy, he is sent for “re-programming.”

Finally, and most importantly, we meet Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. She’s a scavenger in a desert wasteland, a woman who stays put in a hopeless existence because she still has hope her family might one day return for her.

How these characters come together, I’ll leave for you to discover. The space battles are wonderful, the visual effects are grand and colorful, the droids and aliens full of life and personality. Yet “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is far more interested in its conversations and the sweeping vistas of its lonely planets. It feels the crucial emotions of the relationships its characters share. It builds a living archaeology of the original trilogy all around them. It makes the myths we saw as children seem as myth to them.

Director J.J. Abrams manages to translate these characters’ inner struggles onto screen while rarely speaking them aloud. A look, a glance, a quick juxtaposition: these are lived-in lives, powered by what spiritual sustenance characters can manage amid fear and loss. These are no longer archetypes bounding about a space western. These are no longer heroes and villains. These are people who stumble across their own story and exist with one foot gently in and one foot squarely out of wanting to take part in it.

As spoiler-free as possible: Later in the film, we are presented with the ultimate moment. One figure is possessed by anger and wrath. The film’s villain, Kylo Ren, is a man who’s carved emotional chunks of himself out so that he can embrace power. He is spiritually unfulfilled, and so rages at the universe around him. He has created a figure of himself, and strives to be closer to this figure, this icon. This draws him further from himself – he is nothing but the external image of who he believes he should be.

The other figure is possessed by loss and disappointment. Rey is a woman who has nothing left, yet is driven by hope, by self-chosen beliefs and convictions. The crushing realities that the universe has made her suffer are experiences that draw her closer to herself. Yet she erases the external. She remains herself. She chooses to be closer to her inner life, no image, no shield, no guarded nature.

Kylo Ren wears a mask, not because he is mutilated visibly like the original trilogy’s Darth Vader. No, he wears it because he is mutilated inside. His pursuit is spiritual self-mutilation. He rages at his demons, making more room in himself for them to reside, multiplying them, mistaking the rage of his own dissatisfaction for power he can turn against others.

Rey is bright-eyed and intelligent, savvy, confident without being cocky. She is introduced wearing a mask. She removes it, and we never see it again. She suffers alongside her demons, accepts them, embraces the calm that arrives from acceptance, the patience she’s practiced through hope, the faith she’s chosen in herself and the convictions she’s embraced – even after that hope’s been dashed.

No “Star Wars” film before this has so succinctly or successfully captured the notions of a dark and light side, of why these things matter as more than simple storytelling devices. “The Force Awakens” makes these things matter.

I’d set “The Force Awakens” as the second-best of the “Star Wars” films behind “The Empire Strikes Back,” if such things must be measured. As a sequel for the original trilogy, it not only succeeds in telling its own story, it also succeeds in having a reason to be told, and in giving the previous films added weight.

Yet “The Force Awakens” is the best “Star Wars” film in one regard. It is the best of these movies off-screen. It is the one that matters. This Christmas, children will take their action figures and Legos and video games or just go outside and grab some sticks. And Rey will save the galaxy by coping with loss. And Finn will save the galaxy by rejecting the spiritual self-mutilation that’s been asked of him. And Poe Dameron will save the galaxy by being friendly and trusting.

They will save the galaxy millions upon millions of times, in millions upon millions of hands. A woman, a black man, and a hispanic man will save it from a man who believes anger is power, while love and sympathy must be carved out of himself to achieve it. And his weaknesses in believing this will be exposed again and again and again.

If play is practice for adulthood, those children will have excellent training. “Star Wars” has always been culturally significant. “The Force Awakens” makes it culturally important.

Children will step out of their door and young women, young blacks, young hispanics all will feel like more than they were before, because now they have heroes in the world’s biggest franchise who represent them fully.

Young men and women of all races may learn that they have fewer demons to face, and better tools to face them. Here’s to children growing up with fewer demons, and being able to accept, face, and understand the ones they still must sustain.

The feature image of Daisy Ridley is from Collider here.

An Oscar Snub? “A Most Violent Year”

Jessica Chastain A Most Violent Year

by Gabriel Valdez

A Most Violent Year follows a virtuous man in a time of thieves and gangsters. Its style recalls 70s crime films like The Godfather and The French Connection.

Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, an immigrant in New York City who’s trying to expand his successful heating oil business. It’s 1981 and his fuel trucks are being hijacked at toll booths and on-ramps, his drivers beaten and left barely breathing in the middle of the road. His competitors, who are either gangsters or rely on gangsters, want to put him out of business.

What’s an honest businessman to do? Most modern Hollywood films would see him pick up a gun and start getting even. In the style of those 70s crime dramas, however, Abel chooses to respond to this as a businessman first. He knows arming his drivers will result in shoot-outs and all-out war. He knows staying the course will be more difficult and more painful, but he has a vision.

His wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), is the daughter of a gangster, the one from whom Abel bought the company. She constantly threatens Abel that if he won’t rise to his aggressors, then she will. You’re given the feeling that she could end all this in one vicious heartbeat: a street war or a bloodbath. That’s not what Abel wants. He’s dedicated to taking the high road and earning his victory by outmaneuvering his opponents. And yet he trusts Anna enough that when she hides the ledgers from investigating police, he sits hidden along with them.

A Most Violent Year Isaac Chastain

Avoiding the violence in which everyone else partakes doesn’t mean the film is void of action and tense sequences. A Most Violent Year features a shoot-out and the best chase scene of the year, involving cars, trains, and a plain old footrace. There are strong shades of Dustin Hoffman classic The Marathon Man in these moments.

All that’s not to say that A Most Violent Year quite lives up to these films, but being a half-step away from greatness still means you’re very, very good.

It also carries a deliciously mixed message. Abel’s shadow is a gang lawyer named Andrew, played perfectly by Albert Brooks. While Abel’s marriage to Anna is contentious at times, his business marriage to Andrew is all too perfect. These two figures, Anna cooking the books on one end, Andrew treating Abel on a need-to-know basis on the other, means that Abel can take the honest and virtuous path, but only so long as he enables and ignores the actions of partners who don’t.

It offers a theory on American business that may not be popular, but is in keeping with the gang and crime movies of the 70s: that cheating is part of the game, that being an honest success is very possible, but it may require you to ignore all the dishonest things that have allowed your success. It may require you to sacrifice some of the people who worked so hard to get you there.

A Most Violent Year contains tragedy, but it doesn’t treat this concept as tragic, just inevitable. It leaves the viewer to pick up the pieces and draw his or her own conclusions. In that way, it’s a chilling portrayal of American business politics. I wouldn’t call its treatment especially conservative or liberal either. It has a strong enough story that it doesn’t need to make political metaphors. In fact, it’s thankfully drained of these, relying on its ideas, tension, and superb acting to play out the concepts according to the rules of this 1981 New York City we’re given.

The ensemble also includes David Oyelowo (Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma) as a District Attorney investigating Abel. Elyes Gabel is emotionally resonant as a driver whose truck is hijacked.

A Most Violent Year is a film that got overlooked at the Oscar nominations, not as Best Film, but certainly for its acting and writing successes. All its tension comes from not knowing what’s going to happen next, how characters will respond to the larger story and to each other. So many movies follow the same structures these days that being this “in the dark” as a story progresses is a refreshing reminder of one of classic cinema’s strengths. A Most Violent Year is able to feel tense by slowing down and making you think and learn about its characters.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does A Most Violent Year have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Jessica Chastain is incredible as Anna Morales. The underappreciated Catalina Sandino Moreno appears in one scene. Annie Funke plays Lorraine Lefkowitz, the owner of a competing heating oil company.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Unfortunately not.

3. About something other than a man?

This question is dependent on question 2, which it doesn’t pass, but when women do speak, it’s about business or escalating conflict. It’s always directed to men, but it’s never about men.

The Bechdel Test is a tool, not a hard and fast guide to a film’s worth. They could have featured more women – I’m not about to excuse it for that. The women they do feature, however, are all capable professionals. The dynamic between Abel and Anna is fascinating. In some ways, he’s the “rock” of the family only because Anna has decided he’s better suited to that guise.

They are both willful characters, but you get the sense he has no real control over her. Oscar Isaac might dress the part of The Godfather‘s Michael Corleone, but it’s Chastain who’s the real threat. Anna contains herself not because Abel makes her, but rather because you get the sense the conclusion is never in doubt for her. She is patient with him and it’s revealed in clever ways that, no matter how capable Abel is, he is in many ways her Lieutenant and not the other way around. It’s an important difference that manages to avoid the old Lady Macbeth route.

The Lady Macbeth route means that he’s powerful and she knows how to manipulate that power. It can be done well, but it’s all too often abused on film. Not so here – Anna is the more powerful, but she restrains herself because Abel is the more legitimate face for the business. There are moments where she seizes that power from him in other parts of their lives, and when she gives it back it isn’t because she’s a wilting flower, it’s because she’s done with the moment. She’s patient, and you get the sense her Plan B is so violent and terrifying that she can afford that patience.

The tagline for the movie doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue: “The result is never in question, just the path you take to get there.”

The fork in the road is the very definition of Abel and Anna’s marriage and business partnership. His path speaks to the struggles of legitimacy in a world that devalues such things. Her path speaks to doing what needs to be done, no matter the price. And yet, that marriage works because she could win every battle between the two, but relents on enough of them to allow him his continued belief in legitimacy and honesty. And, in that way, she is one of the most powerful characters on film this year.

A Most Violent Year could have done better on the Bechdel Test without changing the course of the rest of the film, but it does give us one of the most interesting, confident, and dynamic women of any film from 2014.