Joy


Jennifer Lawrence anticipates another Oscar nomination.

Jennifer Lawrence anticipates another Oscar nomination.

(2015) Dramedy (20th Century Fox) Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Röhm, Susan Lucci, Laura Wright, Maurice Benard, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Ken Howard, Donna Mills, Melissa Rivers, Ray De La Paz, John Enos III, Marianne Leone, Drena De Niro. Directed by David O. Russell

The world isn’t designed so that the little guy achieves success. It is even less designed so that the little gal achieves it.

Joy (Lawrence) is not your ordinary housewife. For one, she is surrounded by a family that seems tailor-made to bring her down. Her father Rudy (De Niro) owns a body shop and after being tossed out on his ass by his girlfriend, moves into the basement of Joy’s house where Joy’s ex-husband Tony (Ramirez), a budding Latin singer, is living. Also in the house is Joy’s mother Terry (Madsen) who has withdrawn from everything, staying in her bedroom and watching her soap operas. Only Joy’s grandmother Mimi (Ladd) – who is narrating – believes in Joy other than maybe her daughter and her son. Also in the mix is Joy’s super-critical and bitter half-sister Peggy (Röhm).

Joy has always had an imagination and a willingness to make things but has been held back by circumstances; she is basically the one who cooks and cleans in her household; she also is the breadwinner, although her Dad helps with the mortgage. Then, after an outing in which she is required to mop a mess of broken glass and ends up cutting her hands when she wrings the mop – regularly – she comes up with an idea for a mop that not only is more absorbent and requires less wringing, but also wrings itself. She calls it the Miracle Mop.

But a good idea requires money to become reality and she is forced to convince her Dad’s new girlfriend Trudy (Rossellini) to invest. Attempting to market and sell the mop on her own turns into dismal failure but it’s okay because that’s what everyone expects out of Joy. Heck, that’s what she expects of herself. But with the unflagging support of her best friend Jackie (Polanco), she takes her product to something new – a home shopping network on cable called QVC and an executive there named Neil Walker (Cooper) and a legend is born, not to mention a whole new way to market and sell new products.

Loosely (make it very loosely) based on the life of the real Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, the movie has a lot of David O. Russell trademarks; a dysfunctional family that seems hell-bent on destroying the dreams of the lead character, resolve in the face of insurmountable odds and an extraordinary performance by Jennifer Lawrence.

Say what you want about Russell (and there are critics who make no secret of the fact that they think him overrated) but he seems to be a muse for Lawrence. Perhaps the most gifted actress of her generation, Lawrence has received most of her Oscar attention (and she’s pretty much a lock for a nomination here after winning the Golden Globe last weekend) in films she has been directed in by Russell, including her win. Some have criticized the film for a variety of reasons, but you can’t fault Lawrence. She has given yet another outstanding performance as Joy, going from a nearly abusive lifestyle that seems bound to keep her down to becoming a wealthy, self-confident self-made entrepreneur whose success is like a protective shield. In the latter part of the movie, there is an almost emotionless feel to Joy who has erected barriers even when expressing warmth to women who were in similar circumstances to herself. I found Lawrence’s range inspiring, and even though her character keeps a lot in, it’s there if you know where to look for it.

In fact, most of the cast does a terrific job here, with De Niro once again showing he can do comedy just as well as anybody, and the trio of Rossellini, Ladd and Madsen all wonderful as older women with at least some sort of quirky characteristics to them although Ladd is more of a traditional grandmother as Hollywood tends to imagine them. Madsen in particular impressed me; she has been to my mind underutilized throughout her career which is a shame; she has given some terrific performances in films like Creator.

Where the movie goes wrong is in a couple of places. For one, the middle third is tough sledding for the viewer as the pace slows to a crawl. The ending is a little bit off-kilter and I left the screening curiously unsatisfied, sort of like craving good Chinese food and eating at Panda Express. One of the complaints I’ve noticed about the film is that most of the characters in the film are really not characters as much as caricatures. I understand the beef; there are actions taken by some of them that for sure don’t feel like things real people would do. However, I think this was a conscious decision by Russell and although at the end of the day I don’t think it worked as well as he envisioned, I understood that this was part of the comic element of the film in which Joy’s family was somewhat ogre-ish, particularly towards her dreams.

I blow hot and cold when it comes to Russell; I think he has an excellent eye for good cinematic material but other than The Fighter there really hasn’t been a film of his that has blown me out of the water. Joy is in many ways the most meh of his movies, neither hot nor cold, good nor bad. It hasn’t lit the box office on fire and quite frankly I’m siding with the moviegoers on this one; it’s certainly one worth seeing on home video but there are plenty of other movies out there in the theaters that I would recommend you see before this one.

REASONS TO GO: Another fine performance by Lawrence. She gets plenty of support from the rest of the cast.
REASONS TO STAY: Lags in the middle. The ending is ludicrous.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Joy Mangano, one of the main sources for the Joy character, developed the Miracle Mop (as seen on TV) in 1990 – the same year Jennifer Lawrence was born.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jobs
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Carol

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Meskada


It's the sweet tender moments that make life bearable.

It’s the sweet tender moments that make life bearable.

(2010) Mystery (Red Flag) Nick Stahl, Rachel Nichols, Kellan Lutz, Norman Reedus, Jonathan Tucker, Grace Gummer, Laura Benanti, James McCaffrey, Michael Cerveris, David Aaron Baker, Michael Sirow, Kerry Bishe, Rebecca Henderson, Kathy Searle, Charlie Tahan, Max Antisell, J.D. Rosen, Johnny Hopkins, Rachel Heller. Directed by Josh Sternfeld

In 21st century America, the difference between haves and have-nots is like night and day. In rural Meskada county in the Appalachians, the difference is even greater.

Noah Cordin (Stahl) is a cop in upscale Hilliard. The people who live there are the well-to-do of the county. Noah himself hails from Caswell, the proverbial other side of the tracks. Blue collar and proud of it, Caswell has been hard hit by the recession; work is hard to come by although trouble is not.

During a home burglary in Hilliard, a young boy is killed. The boy’s mother, Alison Connor (Benanti), sits on the county planning commission and she is putting a whole load of pressure on Noah and his partner Leslie Spencer (Nichols) to crack the case quickly and bring her son’s killer to justice. The school of thought is that the killer must hail from Caswell and signs are definitely pointing in that direction.

In truth, the killer does hail from Caswell – a couple of low-life losers named Eddie (Lutz) and Shane (Tucker) did the robbery. They didn’t intend to kill the boy, it was just a wrong-place-wrong-time kind of thing. The case soon pits town against town and Noah is forced to call into question his own loyalties – to the place he came from, or the place he’s making a life in.

This is a movie that had enormous potential – a nice socio-economic premise wrapped in a murder mystery (although it’s not much of a mystery – for whatever reason the filmmakers decided to let us in on the identity of the killers from the get-go so any tension was blown right out of the water). Given the current political climate that has our country increasingly turning into class warfare, there is a certain amount of resonance in the idea.

Unfortunately it isn’t executed as well as it might be. Sternfeld has assembled a pretty impressive cast, many of them unknowns or barely-knowns when it was filmed but were shortly to gain prominence in their craft. Stahl is probably the best-known in the cast at the time of filming although Reedus, who played Noah’s roommate who briefly comes under suspicion for the crime and knows a lot more than he lets on, has probably surpassed him due to his involvement in Walking Dead – and not undeservedly so as Reedus is a big reason for that show’s popularity.

The cast does a fine job but the framework they’re in is almost damaged. The editing is almost choppy, as if someone had gouged out great hunks of celluloid with an Exacto knife. It feels like there are some important expository scenes missing and some of that exposition is done rather clumsily with one character basically saying “tell me about so and so” and another dutifully doing so. There is a certain artlessness here that can be charming in certain films but here it feels like I’m watching a rough cut rather than a finished product.

However, it must be said that the rough cut I watched was better than a lot of finished products. Stahl is one of those actors who seems to never fail to give an outstanding performance but never seems to get a role that will really get him the notice he deserves. Noah’s anguish is palpable as he knows what desperation can drive people to but observes the ugly side of privilege as well. Along with Stahl and Reedus, Gummer as Eddie’s barmaid/girlfriend, Nichols and Kerry Bishe as Noah’s wife all do some fine work.

I’m not sure what happened here. It’s possible the filmmakers wanted deliberately to create a movie in which the audience was put off-balance but it’s also possible that budget constraints reared their ugly head. Sternfeld’s only other directing job thus far was Winter Solstice, a very strong and moving film.  He can and has done better than this.

I’m all for leaving an audience to fill in the blanks off a basic framework, but that framework needs to at least support some meat on its bones. I shouldn’t leave a movie wondering what I missed, at least in terms of the information I’m being given to reach whatever conclusions that might be had. I liked some of the things that Meskada did and I liked a lot of the things that it attempted to do – I just wish I’d liked the movie overall just a bit more.

WHY RENT THIS: Pretty good cast, many of whom were largely unknown at the time of filming.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Confusing and choppy, as if large scenes were cut or went unfilmed.

FAMILY VALUES: Bad language and violence and plenty of both, with a scene of sexuality thrown in for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sternfeld teaches filmmaking at the NYU Film School and Tisch School of the Arts.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lantana

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Much Ado About Nothing

The Tree of Life


The Tree of Life

Brat Pitt's so hungry he could eat a baby.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Joanna Going, Will Wallace, Cole Cockburn, Brayden Whisenhunt, Irene Bedard, Dustin Allen. Directed by Terrence Malick

We have a connection to life that goes back to the first single celled organisms and indeed to the Big Bang itself. Some see the universe as a series of coincidences both fortunate and otherwise; others see the hand of a higher power involved.

For the O’Brien family of Waco, Texas in the 1950s, the choice was simple – the path of nature and the path of grace. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, perhaps literally. We flash forward to the parents being informed of the death of their son at age 19. We are then shown the beginning of time (if you’re going to make a movie, you might as well begin at the beginning but Malick took that a bit literally), the beginnings of life as the first single celled organisms begin to split and divide into more complex creatures such as, say, dinosaurs.

Be that is as may, Mr. O’Brien (Pitt) is far more concerned with preparing his sons for adulthood with fierce determination and will. Some would say he’s borderline abusive – he is certainly strict – and he is also loving. Mrs. O’Brien (Chastain) is more of a path of grace sort, playful and nurturing, shielding her boys from the worst of Mr. O’Brien’s ill humors.

There are three O’Brien boys but the oldest is Jack (McCracken) and it is through his eyes that we see these events, both as a child and as an adult (Penn). The adult Jack is pensive, rarely speaking and apparently a successful architect. He is distant from his wife (Going) and not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of his dead brother R.L. (Eppler) whom he was closest to as a boy.

The boyhood in Waco is seen through the blinders of nostalgia; idyllic summer days, family picnics at the local swimming pool (where the fleeting nature of life is first encountered by a young Jack) and a DDT truck that dispenses clouds of toxic pesticide that was to his way of thinking the opportunity to dance in the clouds.

But there are snakes in Eden too. The arguments of his parents briefly glimpsed through open windows and overheard through closed doors. His own inner rage at never being good enough in his dad’s eyes, his love/hate rivalry with his brother, and the seductive call of doing something wrong and getting away with it. Young master Jack has the ability to be a royal douchebag upon occasion.

Our mortality is inevitable; what happens to those who pass? And why would a good and loving deity allow a mother to suffer the loss of a child before his time? Answers to questions like this are never forthcoming. It is the path of grace that tells us that we must have faith that the universe will unfold as it should. That doesn’t make it any easier to cope.

Describing this movie is very much like juggling Jell-O. It’s amorphous and not always well-defined. Just when you think you have something, it slips through your fingers. The first part of the movie is presented in a series of images that aren’t really fully developed scenes as such, but more like fragmented memories. There is little dialogue early on other than portentous voice-over narration.

Malick is one of the most imaginative directors working. He has never been prolific (this is only his seventh movie since 1973) but he has dedicated himself to quality, crafting his films with meticulous detail and this is no exception. He recreates the Waco of his childhood and it feels organic, with unlocked front doors, mothers keeping an eye on their children and the other children in the neighborhood, and strolls down the street.

A quote from the Book of Job opens the movie and it has been suggested that this is a thinly-veiled translation of the Biblical story. While I agree there are references to the notorious account and the story does show some parallels, I don’t think the director’s intention was to update Job in a more modern setting, albeit one nearly 60 years prior to now.

The movie becomes a bit more traditional in its storytelling about a third of the way through, with the focus on the dynamic between young Jack and his parents. Young McCracken does a decent enough job, speaking with that petulant Texas twang that only the young men of Texas know how to properly effect with the proper mix of sullen and respectful. Texas boys are adept at making “yes sir” sound like “screw you.”

It’s Pitt who takes over the movie. His presence is so powerful that even when he’s off-screen his presence is palpable. He is hard on his children but he is equally as fierce in his love for them. He is strong in his hugs, and also strong in his smacking around his sons – which was perfectly acceptable in the culture of the time, although some will look upon this treatment with aghast expressions.

Chastain is also a presence but in a different way. She is a nurturing, enfolding presence. She is only seen as sexual when she is in the process of procreating, as if the only use for her sexuality is to provide her husband with sons. Mrs. O’Brien is strong in her own way and while post-feminist sorts may find the portrayal a bit misogynistic, it isn’t in the least. Chastain’s task is to embody the ideal mom – not in an Ozzie and Harriet way, but as a nurturing spirit. Mrs. O’Brien is almost ethereal here, at home with angels both literally and figuratively.

This is not a movie to go into with faint heart. It requires the viewer to wrestle with some pretty basic questions and establish a perspective for our place in the universe and within the flow of time. There are times when I thought that there was a certain amount of sacrificing storytelling for artistry, but there’s no doubt that some of the cinematic images are as compelling as any you’re likely to see period.

It’s a movie that stays with you and gets under your skin. I suspect that it’s the kind of movie that will be remembered with more affection the farther away you get from actually seeing it. It has developed a reputation for being polarizing for audiences. At the packed screening I attended, the end credits were greeted with a deafening silence and then a smattering of applause. Critics have been effusive in their praise, and caustic in their criticism.

I characterized this as a movie you’re either going to love or hate, and to be honest I’m not sure which I feel for it at the moment. Since I haven’t decided, I’m going to split the difference and give it a rating in the middle which really isn’t accurate – this movie is anything but mediocre. However, the movie’s yin and yang are so at war within me that I can’t really decide whether to recommend it or not. I suppose it could be said you should probably go and see it and make up your own mind – and perhaps that is a recommendation of a sort. It might also be called high praise as well.

REASONS TO GO: Unusually ambitious and epic in scope. Pitt gives a bravura performance that may well be remembered at Oscar time.

REASONS TO STAY: Pretentious in places, non-linear storytelling appears as snippets of memory rather than cogent scenes which can be annoying.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the material may be too intense for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Burial is released next year, it will mark the first time in Malick’s nearly forty year directing career that he will have released films in consecutive years.

HOME OR THEATER: The scenes depicting the birth and death of the universe as well as the epoch of the dinosaurs should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Eden Lake