Joy

David O. Russell’s best films are the ones that touch you emotionally, like Joy does. It is not always easy to cheer for a movie character, but Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) inspires audience hopes and dreams. She is an empowered woman.

The characters who populate Joy’s world add life and humanity to Joy. Her father Rudy (Robert DeNiro) moves in with Joy when his second wife dumps him. Joy puts him in her basement where he has to share digs with Joy’s ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez). Her mother (Virginia Madsen) spends most of each day perched in her bed watching soap operas. Grandma Mimi (Diane Ladd) is the film’s narrator.

Rudy finds a new girlfriend, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini). When Joy mops up spilled wine on her Trudy’s boat, she gets glass shards in her hands. This leads the clever Joy to make her own mop that she can wring out without touching it. Soon, she is making the “Miracle Mops” in dad’s garage and selling them wherever she can.

Trudy, a widow whose husband left money behind, helps Joy fund her company so she can make the mops. Joy’s big break comes when the fledgling QVC channel agrees to sell the mops. QVC honcho Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) tells Joy to prepare to deliver 50-thousand mops. But the segment is a mop flop.

She convinces Walker to let her do the segments herself. A friend conspires to call in and tout the product. Sales skyrocket.

But more trouble awaits as suppliers try to take advantage of her. And a man who claims to have registered a similar product wants royalties for each sale. Joy faces the challenges head on and emerges triumphant.

The only thing about the story that’s baffling is Joy’s lack of romance as she takes care of business. Her ex is in the picture, but as a friend, not a lover.

Jennifer Lawrence is at her best in portraying this woman who accomplishes what she needs to get done, while others around her seem to be going through the motions of life. At the young age of 25, J-Law is more convincing as a mature woman in Joy than she is as a young warrior in the Hunger Games films.

Joy is a feel good movie for grownups. And, after the year that some of us have experienced, this upbeat story is exactly what many of us need. Big thanks to writer/Director David O. Russell and well as to Jennifer Lawrence for Joy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino’s new film The Hateful Eight is not among his best. It has QT trademarks including over-the-top violence, a quirky mix of characters and the great Samuel L. Jackson. The Hateful Eight has an excellent original soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. The film even has an overture and an intermission! But the pacing is off.

Have you ever had someone tell you a joke that has a long set up before you finally get to the punchline? And then the joketeller repeats the punchline for emphasis? That’s what The Hateful Eight reminds me of.

Let’s meet the eight who end up in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a roadhouse in a desolate area of Wyoming, during a blizzard. The time is a few years after the Civil War. Bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is bringing in murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) for a reward. (Ruth, with his overgrown moustache and boisterous manner reminds one of a taller Yosemite Sam.)

The stagecoach he’s chartered picks up bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a Civil War veteran (Union side) who hears the N-word many times during TH8. Another passenger who begs a ride is Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims he’s to be the new sheriff of nearby Red Rock.

Already at the roadhouse are four more individuals: British dandy Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsden), “The Mexican” Bob (Demian Bichir) and former Confederate General Smithers (Bruce Dern).

The Hateful Eight meanders a full hour and 45-minutes before intermission. The long-awaited plot resolution after the break is violent but often funny in that QT way.

Tarantino has said that TH8’s story was modeled after certain plots on old TV westerns with episodes that took their time in revealing whether a stranger was a good or bad guy. Maybe QT just wanted his audience to become more familiar with the eight, but the first chapters of TH8 slog along at turtle speed. Don’t nod off.

The Hateful Eight is being shown screened in selects theaters (including Ronnie’s in St. Louis) in a 70mm wide-screen format using film instead of a digital system. (The digital version I saw showcased the film in a wider-than-usual aspect ratio.)

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to have a Tarantino film back on movie house screens. But after his successes with Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, TH8 falls short.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Concussion

Concussion is an important movie that will change lives. It will lead some parents to forbid their kids from playing football. It will cause some football players to step away from the game.

Concussion tells the story of retired NFL players whose brain damage has led them to take their own lives. Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a Pittsburgh medical pathologist, investigates and finds that these players suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). When his information is presented to the NFL, it is rebuffed.

This is not new information. News of these suicides has been widely reported. The GQ magazine article that the script is based on ran in 2009. PBS’s Frontline covered the story two years ago. But Concussion is the first presentation of these facts featuring a major Hollywood star. (The 2012 death of NFL Hall of Famer Junior Seau is mentioned at the film’s end. News of Frank Gifford’s CTE diagnosis apparently came after the film was finished.)

Despite being too long and failing to provide a big payoff, Concussion offers a few reasons to check it out: Will Smith does a better job with a Nigerian accent than Alec Baldwin does with a Louisiana accent. Character actor David Morse brings a world of gloom to his portrayal of longtime Steelers center Mike Webster. Albert Brooks is wonderful as Omalu’s smartass (but supportive) boss. Omalu enjoys romance with Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a woman he meets in church; she soon becomes his wife.

Will Concussion damage the popularity of the NFL? I don’t think so. Football continues to be the most exciting sport to watch on TV. The combination of grace and violence is compelling. Love of football and teams is well-entrenched in the hearts and souls of millions of Americans.

But any impact Concussion has will be another step that may lead the NFL to do more for player safety now and for players welfare after their careers end. It took many years and tons of evidence before the tobacco industry admitted what we all knew for decades… that smoking kills. Is it time for the NFL to concede that football—in some cases—kills?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Short

The Big Short is one of the more clever, creative and different films to come down the mainstream movie track in a long time. It contains one of the year’s best acting performances. It is, unfortunately, a failure.

Why? Because it is too cute. Because it tries to explain arcane financial information in silly ways. Because it attempts to assign white hats and black hats where many hats should be gray. Because, ultimately, it is hard to cheer for these few winners when there were so many losers.

We all know what happened in 2007-2008. Okay, we don’t know exactly what happened but we know how the nation’s economic collapse affected each of us individually. The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis’s book, tries to tell part of that story with humor.

Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is a Deutsche Bank employee on Wall Street who serves as narrator, occasionally turning directly to the camera in the middle of a scene to share a point of exposition. He drips smugness.

Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a California doctor who leads an investment group. Burry, a man with tons of nervous energy (the real life Burry has Asperger’s), guesses that the housing market will collapse in ’07 when many subprime mortgages are scheduled to adjust significantly higher. He makes huge bets (using his investors’ money) that the mortgage banking industry will suffer defaults on home loans. Bale’s performance as this quirky but self-assured gambler is among his best.

Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) is part of a New York-based investment consortium which receives much of its funding from Morgan Stanley, a major Wall Street institution. Baum has a strong moral compass. He is concerned about right and wrong, yet he proceeds with betting against the banks—including Morgan Stanley.

Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) is a Boulder-based investor who wants to get in on “shorting” the mortgage market but his capitalization is too low. With help from Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former banker who has cashed out and retired, he gets in on the action.

Director Adam McKay (who co-wrote) includes clever quick montages of timely images to reflect the times. They include a Britney Spears clip to represent 2000 and a 1st generation iPhone to indicate 2007. The segments with Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez (alongside a real economist) attempting to simplify some of the complexity of finance are funny. Are they informative? A little.

McKay gets an “A” for ambition and a gold star for trying to relate the stories in Lewis’s book in a lighthearted manner. But The Big Short fails to accomplish its mission. I am betting against it.

Youth

A movie called Youth stars two men who are 82 and 76. Funny, huh?

Of course, the story is filled with reminiscences of their younger days, plus encounters with several youthful individuals.

The setting is a resort in the Alps, sort of a Grand Tyrolean Hotel with similarities to The Grand Budapest Hotel from last year’s Wes Anderson film. It is a spot for the rich and famous from all over the world to escape, enjoy quiet days and nightly entertainment and, maybe, become healthier.

Youth is not as madcap as GBH but it has a its own goofy moments and characters.

Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is a retired conductor and composer. Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel, who also appeared in Grand Budapest Hotel) is a film director and screenwriter. They are old friends who are sharing a suite at the hotel.

Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) is being dumped by her husband, who is Mick’s son. She stays at the resort and begins a flirtation with a mountain climber.

Among the story lines is an effort by the queen to recruit Fred to conduct a command performance in London of a song he composed. Fred repeatedly refuses for personal reasons.

Late in the film an actress who has had a long personal and professional relationship with Mick shows up at the resort. Brenda (Jane Fonda) has big news to deliver. For her brief appearance Fonda received a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress.

Favorite scenes in Youth include Fred sitting on a log while “pretend conducting” cows and their bells, a guest hackysacking a tennis ball and Mick and his co-writers literally putting their heads together as they script his next movie.

Sort of a running joke: Smoking is forbidden throughout the resort but we see guests and staffers frequently lighting up. Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), an actor who is visiting the resort, smokes shamelessly. By the way, Youth contains a significant bit of gratuitous nudity.

Youth is a lark, not a “must see.” But if you like Michael Caine—and most of us do, don’t we?—you will enjoy sharing his holiday in the mountains with him and the other guests.

 

 

 

The Danish Girl

 

Talk about perfect timing! The Danish Girl arrives at the end of a year when the world’s trangender population has received more attention than ever before.

And those stars! The Danish Girl’s title role goes to the incumbent Best Actor Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne. Alicia Vikander, the gorgeous Swedish actress who appeared in Ex Machina and The Man From UNCLE this year, is his wife. Both have been nominated for Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards for their performances in this film.

The problem with The Danish Girl is, to borrow the Gertrude Stein line, there’s no there there. The story is weak and fragile. Husband Einar (Redmayne) and wife Gerda (Vikander) are artists in century ago Copenhagen. She asks hubby to slip on a gown so he can pose for a painting. He finds likes it!

Gerda paints more pictures of her new model and Einar hits the streets in a dress and wig. He even strikes up a relationship with a man, Henrik (the ubiquitous Ben Whishaw).

She and Einar (now going by Lili) take their art to Paris. They encounter Einar’s old friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) who is not particularly surprised by Einar’s new alter ego.

The support that Gerda gives her husband as he transitions to his identity as a woman is remarkable. It recalls the support given Caitlyn Jenner this year by her family members. (There is a fringe benefit for Gerda: her paintings of this “woman” are a big hit.)

In time, Lili pursues and undergoes surgery to make the transition complete.

Even with this sensitive treatment by director Tom Hooper, it is not easy to fully grasp what exactly sent Einar on this path. He and Gerda appear to be a happy, loving, sexually active young couple. Then, in short order, the movie’s story is set in motion.

Because of its subject matter and its topicality, The Danish Girl will likely receive huge amounts of praise. But there are, I hope, better, more substantial stories about the transgender population waiting to be told on screen.

Sisters

 

Amy Poehler was acclaimed for voicing the role of Joy in the beloved Inside Out this summer. But, as winter beckons, there is no Joy in Mudville. Amy Poehler has struck out.

Tina Fey was one of the brains behind the Netflix hit The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, released in March. But, come December, Kimmy may want to go back underground after seeing Tina’s latest film Sisters.

The setup for this comedy is pure gold. The sisters, Maura (Poehler) and Kate (Fey), are heading back to their childhood home to visit mom and dad (Dianne Wiest and James Brolin). But when they arrive, they find that mom and dad have sold the house and moved into a condo.

The house is empty and ready for final inspection before closing. Okay, empty except for everything that remains in the girls’ rooms. Kate and Maura find their old diaries and other memorabilia. That scene should have made for some solid laughs. It did not.

They decide to throw one final big party before the home is passed along to the new owners. Here comes a problem: too many Saturday Night Live cast members who fail to deliver the goods. Their names: Bobby Moynihan, Kate McKinnon, Rachel Dratch and Maya Rudolph. (SNL alum Chris Parnell appears near the film’s open.) Despite raucous behavior galore, the party fails to generate commensurate guffaws. Even Samantha Bee, who regularly kills on The Daily Show, fails to connect in Sisters.

Amy and Tina are to be applauded for their efforts. They both try their damnedest to make Sisters work. But teen sex comedy style debauchery is not their forte.

I did like wrestler John Cena as a stoic drug dealer whose menu of intoxicants is ridiculously long. Also, I wonder about Bryan James D’Arcy. He’s in the cast, is seen a time or two but contributes little to the film.

Sisters looks great on paper: Two funny, likable ladies in a situation that portends strong comedy potential. Sadly, it doesn’t look so good onscreen.

My Top Ten Movies of 2015

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Impressive stuff this year from the men and women who make movies! That includes the folks both in front of and in back of the camera.

It is always difficult to narrow down the list to just ten. (That’s why I included a second ten.) Here we go with the best of the best…

  1. Trumbo. A stellar cast, led by Bryan Cranston in the title role, performs memorable scene after memorable scene. The true story of Hollywood’s postwar blacklist is serious business, but Trumbo has plenty of entertaining lighter moments as well.
  2. Brooklyn. A classic. Beautiful story with lots of real sweetness. Saoirse Ronan is my pick for Best Actress.
  3. Ex Machina. The best artificial intelligence film since Bladerunner. Strong acting among the three leads, particularly Oscar Isaac as the techie who alternates between extreme workouts and binge drinking.
  4. Spotlight. How remarkable to see a media outlet (The Boston Glove) think first about serving its readers instead of influential institutions and advertisers! The acting ensemble is one of the best ever. That includes bit players as well as the familiar stars.
  5. Room. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are mother and son held captive in backyard shed by a man who abuses her on a regular basis. Their escape and recovery provide an emotional upside to their horrible imprisonment.
  6. Joy. Writer/director David O. Russell’s best films are the ones that touch you emotionally…like Joy does. Jennifer Lawrence stars as a woman with spunk and drive, a character you can’t help but love.
  7. Steve Jobs. The acting is flawless. But it is director Danny Boyle’s structuring of this non-biopic and Aaron Sorkin’s script (not to mention Daniel Pemberton’s momentum-building soundtrack) that make this revealing look at the Apple legend a winner. (I’d love to see this script performed at the Rep next season!)
  8. Love And Mercy. The story of Brian Wilson is a tender, loving and, ultimately hopeful, view of the man. Beach Boy Wilson, a talented, troubled genius, is played by the award-worthy Paul Dano (young Brian) and John Cusack (older Brian). Of course, the music is wonderful.
  9. Creed. Michael B. Jordan brings a strong presence to the title role, but it is Sylvester Stallone’s return as an older, wiser Rocky Balboa who makes Creed a special movie and reminds us why Rocky took Best Picture four decades ago.
  10. Me And Earl And The Dying Girl. Three high school seniors, one of whom has leukemia. Despite this grim circumstance, the movie delivers a good bit of fun, some of which comes from the goofy parody movies shot by Greg and Earl. Olivia Cooke as Rachel gives a beautiful performance.

Okay, how about ten more? My second ten…

  1. Mad Max:Fury Road. This loud, angry spectacle of female empowerment sizzles as Charleze Theron kicks ass. The vehicles, the costumes, the settings, the soundtrack are all way over the top. My daughter saw this movie seven times.
  2. Bridge of Spies. Solid storytelling from Steven Spielberg, solid performance by Tom Hanks. This is how you make a great movie.
  3. The Martian. Matt Damon gets stranded on Mars. Kind of a serious situation but there’s plenty to chuckle about here. Director Ridley Scott demonstrates why he’s one of the best in the business.
  4. The Walk. Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s French accent is ridiculous but this is an emotional film. The depiction of the walk between the Twin Towers is stunningly realistic and nerve-wracking. And seeing the towers standing thirty years before 9/11 is moving.
  5. The Gift. Joel Edgerton wrote, directed and starred in this creepy tale about an old acquaintance who won’t go away. Tense and suspenseful.
  6. Shaun The Sheep. My favorite animated film of 2015. No dialogue, just grunts, sighs, burps, gasps, farts, chuckles and, of course, baaas. Cool characters and story.
  7. Inside Out. Pixar’s comeback film gets inside the head of a young girl where her emotions compete for control. It took incredible imaginations (and maybe some killer weed?) to fuel the creation of this trippy inner sanctum.
  8. Southpaw. Jake Gyllenhaal as a boxer whose world falls apart. The redemption story is familiar but his performance is award-worthy.
  9. While We’re Young. Ben Stiller plays a forty-something filmmaker who tries to stay hip and relevant. Brilliant satire from writer/director Noah Baumbach. Charles Grodin who play’s Stiller’s father-in-law deserves a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
  10. Black Mass. Depp, John Depp. Whitey Bulger is a ruthless killer but he’s nice to his mom. Based on a true story of a criminal who made deals with the feds that allowed him to get away with murder, literally.

And, furthermore, 2015’s most disappointing films…

  1. Hot Tub Time Machine 2
  2. Jupiter Ascending
  3. Hot Pursuit
  4. Rikki and the Flash
  5. Tomorrowland
  6. Fantastic Four
  7. Terminator Genesys
  8. Minions
  9. Our Brand Is Crisis
  10. Blackhat

In The Heart Of The Sea

That damn whale! Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) wrote the classic American novel Moby Dick. You may have read the book—or maybe skimmed the CliffsNotes—in high school.

Melville, it turns out, was inspired by a true-life story that occurred a few decades before he wrote his novel. In The Heart Of The Sea presents that story as told to Melville by Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) whose younger self (Tom Holland) joined the whaling crew of the Essex when he was just a teen.

Though old Tom keeps threatening to stop, the series of flashbacks continue. His wife (Michelle Fairley) urges him on, as does the eager note-taker Melville.

As In The Heart Of The Sea gets in gear, you know that the whale is going to wreak some major havoc. Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt concoct a slow buildup to the encounter with the enormous and violent sea mammal.

Nantucket is the heart of the whaling world two centuries ago. Hunky hero Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) expects to be named captain of his next expedition, but that honor goes to the less capable George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). At sea, first mate Chase disagrees with Pollard when the captain chooses to confront a storm head on, so as to give the crew experience. The outcome is not good.

The voyage of the Essex continues around South America and up the west coast to Ecuador. In a bar, the crew is told of a remote spot in the Pacific teeming with whales. They are also warned about a “demon whale.”

The confrontation with this huge, angry animal is intense. The effort to procure whale oil quickly becomes a mission of survival. The details of the crew’s recovery are some of old Tom’s more agonizing memories.

In The Heart Of The Sea is a well-constructed piece of storytelling. There is drama and conflict throughout. The visual depictions of life and catastrophe at sea are convincingly real, though not quite perfect.

The main thing that bothered me about ITHOTS was this: When he began the voyage around 1920, young Tom Nickerson was 14. Now, he is telling the story in 1850. In the movie, he appears to be much older than 44. (Gleeson is 60 but with his beard and weight looks older.)

In The Heart Of The Sea is a decent, though not great, film. With many solid films having been released recently and others due out in the next two weeks, if ITHOTS is not on your list of films you really want to see, I understand completely.