CAROL (2015)

December 26, 2015

carol Greetings again from the darkness. When Patricia Highsmith first wrote her novel “The Price of Salt”, she had it published in 1952 under a pseudonym (Claire Morgan). This was a sign of the unforgiving social conventions of the era, which also play a key role in the story. At the time, no author would publically admit to writing a book about lesbian lovers, much less admit their participation in such an affair. Highsmith’s novel is the source material for director Todd Haynes’ bookend to his stellar 2002 film Far From Heaven. In that film, Dennis Quaid’s character struggles with his secret life as a gay man while married to Julianne Moore. In this new movie, Cate Blanchett is a married upper class socialite trying to deal with her true feelings for the opposite sex, while fighting to not lose custody of her young daughter.

Haynes has a real feel for attraction … what causes two people to be attracted to each other, and how do they handle it? He re-teams with cinematographer Ed Lachman to create yet another beautiful film with camera work, sets, costumes and a score (Carter Burwell) that complement the romance depicted by the two outstanding lead actresses: Cate Blanchett (Carol) and Rooney Mara (Therese). Ms. Blanchett is a 2-time Oscar winner (5 time nominee), and has become one of the few actors who make each of their films a must-see. She is a true force here as she sweeps into the captivating first sequence (a wonderful long take) and has her first interaction with wide-eyed shopgirl Therese as the two dance together through words and innuendo. It may be the best scene of the movie … at least up to the stunning final shot.

At its core, this is a pretty simple romance of two opposite worlds colliding at a time when their attraction was just not tolerated. 1950’s social conventions, being what they were, meant Carol’s husband (Kyle Chandler) could use her sexual preferences as evidence of immorality in his fight to gain sole custody of their daughter. Cinematically, it’s much more about style. Carol is a beautiful mink-wearing work of art, while Therese is seeking her place in the world, while trying to make sense of her feelings. Every scene drips with style … the cars, the clothes, the restaurants; even cigarettes become a fashion accessory between the fingers of Carol.

Carol and Therese take a road trip, and it’s not until Iowa that the relationship is consummated – a scene that finds neither actress shying away from the moment. Fittingly, this occurs in a motel located in Waterloo … leaving little doubt the turn this story will take.

Supporting work is provided by Sarah Paulson (“American Horror Story”) as Carol’s friend and ex-lover, Jake Lacey (“The Office”) as Therese’s would-be suitor, John Magaro (The Big Short) as her friend and supporter, and Cory Michael Smith (“Gotham”) as a double-life salesman. But this show belongs to Blanchett and Mara. They are terrific together – capturing the unspoken, subtle gestures required by the repressive era they find themselves.  Mara’s character is difficult to describe, but most intriguing to watch and absolutely vital to the message.

Phyllis Nagy adapted Ms. Highsmith’s novel (which was re-published in 1990 under her own name), and her care for the material is clear. Todd Haynes then worked his magic with the look of the film, and the two lead actresses deliver a clinic in nuance and dealing with oppression. As it plays, the strength of the film is with the internal struggles faced by the two lead characters. It leaves us to wonder if the film might have been more powerful had it delved a bit deeper into what the characters would have faced from the outside world.

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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.

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THE WEDDING RINGER (2015)

February 14, 2015

wedding ringer Greetings again from the darkness. The only real determination of success for a comedy … does it make you laugh? If it makes you laugh, the movie has served its purpose for you. These movies are made for audiences, not film critics, which is why so few mainstream comedies play the film festival circuit.

Comedian Kevin Hart has seemingly been EVERYWHERE the past five years. He is funny, hard-working and talented. Unfortunately, most of his film projects are elevated by his talent rather than the other way around. This first feature film from director and co-writer Jeremy Garelick has an interesting premise … a much better premise than HITCH … and benefits from an on screen connection between Hart and Josh Gad, despite scene after scene taking the cheap laugh rather than the smart one.

Gad plays Doug, a socially inept nice guy who is marrying well above his pay grade. Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting (“The Big Bang Theory“) plays his fiancé – the rich girl forcing Doug to come up with 7 groomsmen for their wedding. Since poor Doug has no real friends, he jumps at the chance to capitalize on the services of Hart’s Best Man, Inc. Evidently there are so many men without friends that it’s necessary to have a business of best men and groomsmen-for-hire.

There is nothing subtle or smart about the approach here, and the story line and ending are absolutely predictable if you watch the two minute trailer. Still, there are some very funny moments courtesy of Hart and Gad, and my guess is most viewers will enjoy a few laughs, even if they forget most of this once they leave the theatre.

Supporting work is provided by Ken Howard, an on-fire Cloris Leachman, Mimi Rogers, Jorge Garcia and Josh Peck. Olivia Thirlby (Juno) plays sister to the bride, and it’s yet another example of a film wasting the talent of this terrific actress. Why is she always the friend, the sister or some other second fiddle role? In a bizarre football sequence, there are cameos from Joe Namath, Ed “Too Tall” Jones and John Riggins. Where the film missed a huge opportunity was in the casting of the “groomsmen”.  Think back to Michael Keaton’s The Dream Team (1989) where Christopher Lloyd, Peter Boyle and Stephen Furst contributed laughter, rather than just the absurdity we get here from the groomsmen.

The film is content hanging out in the middle as a no-apologies mainstream comedy, and has no aspiration for comedic greatness, or social commentary on the differing ideas of friendship between men and women. Still, the moments of laughter courtesy of Hart and Gad prove that making people laugh is a valuable talent, and laughter is good medicine … no matter how short-lived.

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THE JUDGE (2014)

October 11, 2014

judge Greetings again from the darkness. It’s hard to beat a good on screen courtroom drama for tension and conflict. Despite centering around a long time judge accused of manslaughter and being defended by his estranged son, a hotshot defense attorney, this one eschews gritty courtroom action in favor of uncomfortable and explosive family dynamics. And thanks to the acting abilities of Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr, that’s a good thing.

Mr. Downey’s Iron Man/Tony Stark character has ingrained in movie goers his motor-mouthed smart-aleck persona that fits very well with the lacking-a-conscience cocky defense attorney who only defends the type of white collar criminals who can afford his unmatched courtroom savvy. When Hank (Downey) returns home for the funeral of his mother, we quickly witness the strained relationship with his demanding-perfection magistrate father (Duvall), and the historical family details slow-drip for the next couple of hours.

Hank’s older brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) was once a promising baseball player whose career was cut short after an automobile accident (with a crucial component). Hank’s younger brother (Jeremy Strong, who played Lee Harvey Oswald in Parkland) is a mentally handicapped young man attached to his video camera. Hank also (of course) runs into his high school sweetheart (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter (Leighton Meester), as a reminder of what he left behind in his quaint hometown when he chose fortune and big city life.

John Grisham has made a career, actually two (books and movies), dissecting lawyers and courtrooms. As you might imagine, director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus) doesn’t have Grisham’s eye and ear for the courtroom, so the script often slips into manipulative melodrama during the trial (think Grisham-lite). But the scenes between Duvall and Downey more than make up for the fluffy parts. The kitchen confrontation and the bathroom sequence couldn’t be any more different, or any more powerful. One is the exorcism of a parent-child relationship gone bad, and the other is a vivid depiction of old age and disease.

This is old-fashioned mainstream movie-making. It’s about relationships and family and personality and life choices. There are no explosions or CGI or car chases. Even the key crime happens off screen. It’s also not breaking any new ground, and if not for the acting, could be just another TV movie. A perfect example is Vera Farmiga, who brings an edge to a role that otherwise would be superfluous. Same with Hank’s brothers. Both roles are severely underwritten, but D’Onofrio and Strong somehow make them work. Billy Bob Thornton brings a presence to an otherwise not-believable role as a slick special prosecutor wearing $1000 suits. Even Dax Shepard plays his comic relief country-bumpkin attorney slash furniture re-seller in an understated (for him) manner.

Other support work is provided by Ken Howard as the judge, Emma Trembley (Hank’s daughter), Balthazar Getty as the deputy with a grudge, Grace Zabriske as the victim’s vengeance seeking mother, David Krumholtz as a District Attorney, and Denis O’Hare as Duvall’s doctor.

In better hands, the script could have become much sharper and the film much crisper. Prepare for cheese and schmaltz, but it’s difficult to imagine more fun than watching Duvall and Downey go nose to nose and toe to toe. If you stay for closing credits, you’ll hear Willie Nelson wobbly warble through a Coldplay song.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see two excellent actors battle each other as only resentful father and sons can

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: even a single teaspoon of courtroom schmaltz is more than your movie doctor recommends

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