JOY (2015)

December 26, 2015

joy Greetings again from the darkness. The movie is inspired by the true story of entrepreneur Joy Mangano (listed here as an Executive Producer) and her 1990 invention of the Miracle Mop. You should know that neither “Mangano” nor “Miracle Mop” is mentioned, and much of the story sprung from the mind of writer/director David O Russell. Also, if you have been a fan of Mr. Russell’s past few Oscar nominated films (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter), you should be warned that even though there is a large cast of familiar supporting players, it doesn’t play like his usual ensemble piece, but rather as a true star vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence (who plays Joy).

This is a working class Italian-American family, and the multi-generational aspect is in full play as Joy (a single, working mom) and her two kids share the house with Mimi (Joy’s grandmother played by Diane Ladd), Joy’s mom (Virginia Madsen) who is a recluse dressed in 60’s party attire and addicted to daytime soap operas, and Joy’s dad (Robert DeNiro) and her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) who share the basement. Tony is the rare combination of slacker-Tom Jones impersonator. Also involved are Joy’s agitating and envious step-sister Peggy (Elizabeth Rohm) and Dad’s new wealthy girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini). This family makes The Royal Tenenbaums look suburban stale.

Flashbacks and dreams, along with the supportive words of Mimi, convince us that Joy is a creative genius, whose once promising abilities have been stifled by the harsh realities of raising kids, and overseeing a bunch of free-loaders who mostly never miss a chance to steal a bit of Joy’s light. All of that changes one day thanks to glass shards in her palm and the close proximity of crayons and drawing paper. Poof! Just like that, Joy has invented a revolutionary new kind of mop.

Given her family history and current situation, even when things go right for Joy, they never go all the way right. Having to borrow money from Trudy and depend on those who may or may not have her best interest at heart, makes for an endless chain of obstacles and challenges. But Joy is all about perseverance and self-actualization. The story emphasizes Joy’s stick-to-it-ness, and the process of learning about the legalities and pitfalls of starting and running one’s own business. Even those who should be supportive often ridicule and voice their doubts.

The film shifts when Joy meets Neal Walker (Bradley Cooper) who runs QVC. This was the time period when TV home shopping was in its infancy. Joan Rivers (played here by her daughter Melissa) was one of the early stars, and Joy’s Miracle Mop was one of the early successes. It’s a new world to Joy, but she’s a quick study and her tough-mindedness and sense of fairness and right come in to play on multiple occasions.

The above is much more story than I would typically describe, but it helps make the point that although Jennifer Lawrence continues to prove she is something quite special as an actress, the story is a bit of a mess and the pacing of the film is clumsy – slapstick blended with ultra-serious. It’s impossible to connect with this oddball group of folks, who mostly seem to be pulled right off of various TV sitcoms. Even using the soap opera (complete with Susan Lucci, Donna Mills, and Laura Wright) as a parallel to Joy’s life never quite works.

Jennifer Lawrence’s performance deserves to be ranked right with Joan Crawford’s in Mildred Pierce, but the different styles of the two movies results in only one being unforgettable. Director Russell mines the fractured family/group in many of his projects, and given his immense talent, we can be sure future projects will be more in line with the level of his recent past.

watch the trailer:

 

 

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AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

December 21, 2013

american1 Greetings again from the darkness. Over the years, there have been some very entertaining con artist films, and they range from outright comedy (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) to cheeky (The Sting) to dramatic (The Grifters). My personal favorite is David Mamet’s House of Games, a very quiet and subtle look at the con. The stylistic opposite of Mamet’s gem is the latest from director David O Russell. It’s like comparing Duke Ellington to Donna Summer – both of which are featured on this soundtrack.

For the past few months, I have said that this film’s trailer is one of the best I have ever seen. The energy and visuals were enthralling and have had me anxiously awaiting a chance to see the film. So please understand when I say that american2the movie does not quite match the expectations, it’s not really a criticism … more of a tip of the cap to the marketing efforts. This is one showy, flamboyant, often frenetic wild ride that is also a bit messy and sometimes even clunky.

Hair, clothes, cars, music … the best and worst of the 1970’s … are on full display. Christian Bale sets a new standard for worst (and most elaborate and labor-intensive) comb-over in film history. Bradley Cooper’s perm wins the contest for tightest curls over Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks. Jeremy Renner’s pompadour would make any rockabilly performer envious. And let’s not forget the women. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence provide a steady stream of flowing and floppy locks that would keep any shampoo or blow dryer american3company in business. The soundtrack, usually coordinated to story events, also includes Steely Dan, Jeff Lynne, Elton John and many others.

Director Russell’s most recent films include The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. He is obviously infatuated with odd characters who are slightly off center from society. What better topic than con artists so desperate to be liked that they spend all effort trying to rip off the gullible types? Now mix that trait with the overly ambitious persona of Bradley Cooper’s FBI Agent and the US Attorney played by Alessandro Nivola, and you have a collision of worlds that results in a fictionalized account of the ABSCAM events of the late 70’s and early 80’s. I say fictionalized because the film starts with a banner that states “Some of this actually happened”. What did or what didn’t really doesn’t matter here.

Who is playing whom? What is real and what is part of the con? Those are the questions that we as viewers ask, and oddly enough, these are the same questions the key characters ask. If they can’t tell, we certainly have little chance.

american4 This one is all about the characters. Mr. Bale (40 lbs heavier) bears no resemblance to Batman, or even Bruce Wayne. He embodies the falsely confident con man. Cooper is a bit over-hyped in his role, while Adams is at her best in a role that is the film’s most diverse. The real explosion comes every time Jennifer Lawrence is on screen. Not only do things blow up in her kitchen, but she jolts the film in each of her scenes. Some may be tired of Ms. Lawrence’s recent success, but as a film lover, I put her screen presence very near that of Marilyn Monroe. She grabs our attention and squeezes like a vise. That’s talent that very few possess.

Supporting work that should be noted includes Louis CK as Cooper’s reluctant supervisor, Michael Pena as a fake sheik (can they do that?), Jack Huston and Shea Whigham (both from “Boardwalk Empire“), and the great and rarely seen Anthony Zerbe (one of the all time TV villains). There is also a high profile cameo that seems right in line with Russell’s adoration of Scorcese’s Goodfellas.

If you are looking for a film to analyze and dissect, you will be most disappointed in this one. If you are looking for a fun, wildly visual and very entertaining retro film, this one should fit the bill. Just keep your hand on your wallet and don’t be one of the suckers.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are up for a wildly entertaining movie OR you want to see some of the craziest hairstyles packed into a single movie

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: scary hairstyles, bizarre characters and exemplary acting aren’t enough to distract you from an inconsistent script

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ST7a1aK_lG0


SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012)

November 24, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The film is exactly what you would expect from a screwball romantic comedy steeped in drama based on bipolar disorder, depression, OCD, Philadelphia Eagles fanatics, a ballroom dancing contest, adultery, Hemingway, and a lead character who jogs while wearing a trash bag. Maybe not exactly what you would expect, but likely much more.

If you were told instead that the story is based on two damaged souls who help heal each other through dancing, you would have every reason to skip this one. However, as written and directed by David O Russell (The Fighter) and based on Matthew Quick‘s novel, this story is a frenetic, emotional roller coaster ride that provides a glimmer of hope for the two damaged lead characters, while reminding that each of us may be a bit off-center in some way. Now add in the best young actress working today (Jennifer Lawrence just turned 22), a rare performance from Robert DeNiro where he seems fully engaged, a pulling back the curtain on Bradley Cooper as much more than a pretty face, and one of the best and most pointed soundtracks in recent history …and  you have one of the best films of the year.

What you notice very early on is that what could be considered a trite story line, is instead pounding you with sharp, witty dialogue that pulls no punches in directness. The many aspects of family and emotional support are given time thanks to Pat (Bradley Cooper) being released after 8 months in a mental institution. He was sent there when he snapped after finding his wife in a compromising position with another man. Perfectly understandable if you ask me, but clearly he is the explosive one despite his claims to the contrary. An uncomfortable dinner party introduces him to Tiffany (Ms. Lawrence) whose husband has recently died and her coping skills have been shared with most of those in her workplace. This odd couple spark immediately and the wild ride begins.

Pat’s wife Nikki (Brea Bee) has issued a restraining order and his strategy to win her back consists of a positive attitude and maintaining control of his emotions. His supporters include his mother (Jacki Weaver, who was so great in Animal Kingdom), his OCD father (DeNiro) who so wants to re-connect with his son, his friend (John Ortiz) whose own marriage (to icy Julia Stiles) is a messy mess, his buddy from the asylum (a funny and not over the top Chris Tucker), and of course, Tiffany. The only real problem is that each of these supporters are teetering in their own way – just like Pat.

 The brilliance of this movie is the balance struck between the near violent emotional outbursts and the sharp, exacting words spouted by each of the characters. Director Russell once again shows his flair for working class northeasterners. He understands these tough as nails people who wear their emotions on their sleeves. These people are as likely to punch you as hug you … both being acts of love.

The soundtrack deserves special mention. It is very unique and varied, with each song serving an exact purpose. Especially keen are Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour”, Led Zeppelin’s “What is and What Should Be”, and “The Girl from the North Country” a Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash duet. When the music strikes a harmony with the scene, the movie is all the stronger. Rarely do we get the perfect storm of script, direction, acting, music and relevance.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: complex relationships between characters facing life’s daily battles carries a certain artistic symmetry for you OR you just want to see acting of the highest quality led by a fabulous Jennifer Lawrence, a resurgent Robert DeNiro and a surprisingly talented Bradley Cooper

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your Rom-Com’s to be lightweight and light-hearted for easy laughs

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lj5_FhLaaQQ


THE FIGHTER (2010)

December 15, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t let the hype or the fear of just another “boxing” movie keep you from this one. Yes, it is based on the true story of “Irish” Micky Ward, a boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts, but this is every bit as much a story of family and commitment and tenacity as any story you know.

Directed by David O Russell (I Heart Huckabees), the film does a terrific job of dumping us right smack into this blue collar community and this oh-so-colorful family. Mark Wahlberg stars as Micky Ward, the younger brother of former boxer Dicky Ecklund (a no-holds-barred Christian Bale). Ecklund’s reputation lived for years off his fight against Sugar Ray Leonard, where Leonard either was knocked down or slipped down. Either way, Dicky is as close to a local legend as it gets. In the mid-80’s, younger brother Micky joined the fight game – with Dicky as his trainer and his mother (Melissa Leo) as his manager.

As realistic and believable as the boxing is in the film, the real trick was in presenting Micky’s family. The first impression of his mother and gaggle of sisters is that it’s a cartoonish presentation. In fact, it’s a very realistic portrayal! When local bartender Charlene (Amy Adams)becomes involved with Micky, she tries to set him straight on exactly what his family is doing to his career.

 Oh, did I mention that Dicky was a crackhead? Did I mention that his mother pushed him into fights against upper weight classes because she needed the money? Did I mention that Micky tries to remain loyal to the family … even to the extent of nearly costing him a shot at a legitimate career? There are some real emotions going on all over this well-paced film. Thanks to the Amy Adams character, we really get to see how an “outsider” views the family, and vice versa. It’s not a pretty sight!

I can’t say enough about Bale’s performance as Dicky. He has the movement and gait of both a boxer and a crackhead. His mannerisms mirror that of the real Dicky, as seen over the ending credits. This is crazy good acting. Melissa Leo is fast becoming the hardest working actress in Hollywood. This is the third film I have seen her in this year! Her performance, when combined with Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom, really generates terror for any kids with creepy mothers! Amy Adams is totally convincing as the pretty, tough love interest and guiding light for Micky. As for Wahlberg, he is quite convincing as a boxer. His physicality is without question. The only thing I didn’t like was the couple of times he slipped back into his mumbling, whiny persona. Luckily that effect was minimal.

This is a film I would recommend to most. The only word of caution is the language is quite realistic for working class Lowell, Mass. In other words, the “F” word is utilized in every conceivable manner throughout. It’s just part of the community fabric. Also, be warned that the boxing is also quite realistic … it’s a violent sport and that comes across very well. I loved how the boxing matches were filmed digitally for effect. Just a wonderfully well made film with terrific performances … and actually quite uplifting!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy uplifting films based on a true story OR you have always wanted to see someone punch Marky Mark in the face

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the overuse of the “F” word with a Massachusetts accent gives you nightmares OR those nightmares intensify when you see Christian Bale after a 40 lb weight loss