I saw David O. Russell’s Joy (D+) so you don’t have to. Loosely based on the life of a divorced mom who transforms herself into the entrepreneur of the Miracle Mop empire in the early days of television home shopping, this maudlin seriocomedy takes roughly 90 minutes before it gains a pulse. By the time the story stirs any momentum in a prolonged TV studio sequence, Russell has already failed to generate any consistent tone or believable characters. Bits of the inspirational loosely true story and some facets of Jennifer Lawrence’s occasionally compelling performance as the title heroine (Mother of Invention? Mopping-Jane?) are the only components that bring any life at all to the proceedings. The auteur’s usual repertory ensemble including Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper are painfully dull and inconsistent in their roles. The final reel unspools unceremoniously to the finish line but can’t compensate for the inert narrative that led us there. For a film about a magnate of retail, the writer/director fails to make the sale.
A Felliniesque fantasia on life, love and art, Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth (A-) is an answer to cinephile prayer. There will be many who dismiss this Swiss Alps resort set comedy-drama as pretentious drivel or avoid the film altogether for fear of glacial pace; but those seeking an appropriately contemplative requiem on the choices made in the sunset of life will treasure the movie’s nontraditional narrative structure, formalist art direction and unconventional approach to character development. Giving late career-best performances as an aging composer, filmmaker and actress, respectively, Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda (in a potent extended cameo) are a master class trio bearing wisdom and fortitude. They’re also really funny in their wry honesty. Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano are both strong as generational counterpoints. David Lang’s music, especially the work he created for Caine’s fictional composer, is sheer bliss. Sorrentino captures a grotesquerie of fascinating people against gorgeous backdrops in conversations that comprise a protracted art house aria. Like the film’s spas, green pastures and alpine wilderness, the film leaves room for characters to breathe and discover one another in harmony. Some may argue there’s very little plot, and they’d be pretty much right. But the film is impeccably perceptive in peeling back the layers of humanity and stripping its characters bare of the familiar. The wit and wordplay devised by an Italian writer/director is stunningly universal; and despite its older stars, this autumnal film beats with a youthful heart.
Related article: Fellow friend and critic Aaron West writes about Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning 2013 film The Great Beauty in this review on Criterion Blues.
Among many of the film’s great qualities is its exquisite music including this original work:
The 1950’s New York City of Todd Haynes’ Carol (B+) is gorgeous to behold. A stardust fantasy inked in pinks, draped in lavender and spiced with holiday peppermint sticks, it is also home to a burgeoning forbidden romance between an unhappy housewife played by Cate Blanchett and a timid shopkeeper played by Rooney Mara. Haynes films key sequences of this slow-burn drama via raindrop covered glass panes, through architectural lines that separate characters from one another and in front of mirrors that reflect tender love blossoming amidst the suffocating funhouse of a society in transition. The lead actresses are note-perfect in their commitment to characters and provide a fascinating portal into the sometimes too formalist unfolding of the proceedings. Haynes may be the ideal director for this austere work, skilled at keeping his heroines and the audience at safe distance from their surroundings and capturing the longing of outsider protagonists hoisted in space and time to alien earthly environments. If folks are left wanting a bit more, well, that’s sort of the point.
Here’s a clip to see the splendid art direction and these two master actresses in action:
The central gimmick of Lenny Abrahamson’s Room (B) – of mother and son imprisoned in a secluded shed for many years – peaks early; and after the inevitable escape attempt, there’s nowhere else to go as the plot plumbs the psychological aftermath. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay give breakthrough performances as a family forged in trauma, and the close bond they form is a highlight of the film. The heavy-handed symbolism of the early sequences that feel virtually in utero (is the room actually the womb?) versus a wider expanse of the great big world as its own mental prison never gather the intended gravitas. Still, much of the film is gripping, and the performances are fresh and affecting. Once the central duo is expanded to a more established stunt-casting ensemble including Joan Allen and William H. Macy, it just doesn’t get more compelling. The film simply continues to long for the confined spaces and finer acting of the mysterious opening moments.
Brute force awakens as writer/director Ryan Coogler successfully reboots the Rocky franchise with the effective sports drama Creed (B+). Michael B. Jordan shines as the title character Adonis “Donny” Creed, working out issues of identity and legacy to fulfill the destiny of his late father Apollo. Salvaged from a declining series of film sequels and even a botched Broadway musical, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa gets his comeuppance as Donny’s trainer, and the veteran actor is exceedingly charming in the role. Together Donny and Rocky become an unexpected family, and their chemistry together is the heart of the film. Although it’s hard to overcome the retread factor of what has become one of history’s most formulaic film series, Coogler infuses the enterprise with a sense of discovery, camaraderie and high stakes. The result is the sleeper hit of the season and proof that the Fruitvale Station director and his muse are a team to watch.
Best known for directing Will Ferrell larks, director Adam McKay sets his eyes on a work of gravitas by tackling the American housing market collapse through the eyes of a few investing misfits who saw it all coming in the wry dramedy The Big Short (B). Treading familiar territory of big data chic honed to more entertaining effect by the same author’s Moneyball, this film suffers from a paucity of likable protagonists. That’s likely intentional but unfortunately undercuts the film’s sharpness. Steve Carell, Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling are standouts as guys who hope to strike it rich by betting against America and its institutions. The ultimate story is an important one to tell, and McKay sprinkles in some meta flourishes to ensure viewers can keep up. A civics lesson wrapped in the arch of a paranoid thriller, it’s close encounters of the earned kind. It’s a lot of exposition for the plaintive payoff.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant (B) blends western epic, revenge thriller and Christ allegory to often stunning effect on a blood-drenched American frontier. Leonardo DiCaprio gives new definition to suffering for one’s art as he undergoes a cavalcade of emotional and physical scars in an extremely gory story. In the grunts and groans of passages that feel like a silent movie with music, the expressive actor doesn’t miss a beat. He is a veritable force of nature, even if this isn’t the best use of his talents. Tom Hardy is very effective as the hero’s morally challenged foil. Iñárritu’s direction borders on overlong and overindulgent, but it’s hard to argue with all the lush camera work and scenery chewing when the stakes are this high. The spare dialogue serves to frame what is ultimately a man versus nature and man versus man battle. A little of this onerous oater goes a long way; and despite the palpable effects of all the violence and vistas, it doesn’t tread that much new ground.
Quentin Tarantino’s hybrid western mystery gangster epic The Hateful Eight (B+) has all the trappings of the writer/director’s best work from outstanding ensemble acting to wicked dialogue to twisty plot conventions to pulpy action and inventive use of music. To some extent, it’s at times a bit too much of a retread of his most common conventions. Filmed as a Cinerama presentation in classic 70mm Panavision with gorgeous Ennio Morricone overture and an intermission, the saturated colors of this post-Civil War tale come vividly to life. Unlike his experiments with grindhouse double features, this homage to cinematic history pays off. As long as it is, it’s a film that nonetheless will reward repeat viewings. The pre-intermission proceedings appear to be too preoccupied with exposition and campfire tales before Act Two truly delivers the mixtape of Agatha Christie style mystery and vicious bloodbath that fans of the auteur will crave. Kurt Russell is impressive as a villainous vermin channeling John Wayne on a bad day, and Samuel L. Jackson steals the show as a charismatic bounty hunter with a surprising past and nearly all the film’s most iconic lines. Walton Goggins is a revelation as the sheriff of Red Rock with unlikely cunning, and Jennifer Jason Leigh unfurls a crackerjack of a performance as a duplicitous prisoner. Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern and Channing Tatum are all effective in their roles. The only weak link, possibly from misdirection, is Demián Bichir. Expect extreme language and violence and vintage Tarantino. It falls just short of some of his tighter and tidier work, but it’s more splendid fire in his canon.
Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino describe the “Roadshow” engagement and technology behind the film on TrailerAddict.
Over the years as latter films in the Star Wars pantheon have produced diminishing returns, there’s been a bit of a grading curve – “pretty good acting … for someone in a Star Wars film,” “fairly cool action scene … in an otherwise lackluster prequel” and the like. So it’s good news indeed that J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (A-) earns its accolades outright in terms of solid acting, layered characters, genuine high stakes, some earned comic relief and relentless action. The film achieves most of its delirious highs in the first hour as it splendidly introduces four fantastic new characters (Daisy Ridley as fierce scavenger warrior heroine Rey, John Boyega as naive reformed Stormtrooper Finn, Oscar Isaac as cocksure pilot Poe and the precious spherical astromech droid BB-8). There’s considerable descent into incomprehension (alas Abrams gets rather Lost) during the final acts with strange pop psychology that only works in spurts and some tedious retreads of some action moments already depicted in six previous films. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren makes for a so-so villain, albeit with an awesome lightsaber, and his CGI mentor is a bit of a misfire. Harrison Ford is a highlight reprising his role as everyone’s favorite rakish scoundrel Han Solo, this time showing more of his soft side along with his trademark quips. The art direction and physical production are gloriously rendered and are such a welcome return to form: sequences in the desert are lush and the first glimpse of evil TIE Fighters sleek indeed. The film works best when it functions as an archaeological dig into the myths and iconography of the original trilogy; in fact, much of the most spectacular parts of the quest – rescuing antiquities, piecing together lost maps, being chased in the desert and around sinister corners and plumbing the well of characters’ souls – resemble an Indiana Jones installment. The fresh storyline of new characters is actually the film’s novelty since Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill are shamelessly underused. But it’s hard to begrudge a big studio enterprise that is this packed with thrills and adventure, good characters and surprises. It largely hits the mark and sets the stage for some great new revelations.
The repeated refrain, “There’s a good story in there somewhere” is extraordinarily prescient in Jay Roach’s Trumbo (C), a rather tedious true story that finally gets compelling in its final act. Bryan Cranston plays the titular protagonist, an eccentric blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter and family man who improbably manipulated a Tinseltown underground to coax the powers that be out of their heavy-handed paranoia. Cranston shape-shifts into the role with wild abandon as a veritable Gandolfian gadfly and sly provocateur. Diane Lane gets the thankless spouse role and Dame Helen Mirren is wasted in her annual Golden Globe bait performance, in this case as a sassy socialite. Roach meanders and holds tight to too chronological a narrative, blunting the impact of the proceedings and clamping down on fruitless nuances. The tone never really gels. Some of the best bits involve actors playing real-life stars such as John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, who factor into the controversy. Ultimately far less than the sum of many interesting contributions, the film is an okay biopic that has a lot to say a little too late.
Given the film’s depiction of the joys and promises of immigrating from Ireland to New York boroughs just six decades ago, John Crowley’s Brooklyn (B) should be required viewing for a few presidential aspirants. Saoirse Ronan carries the drama on her capable shoulders and shows her character mature right before our eyes; the actress is rather magnificent in coming-of-age mode. Her central character falls head over heels for a working-class Italian suitor (a charming Emory Cohen), and the film’s primary conflict involves this burgeoning love in The States versus the promise of a different life with another man in her homeland (Domhnall Gleeson in an underdeveloped role). The plot really stacks the deck given the mounting successes of life in America, but the overall journey is enjoyable as Ronan’s character pulls considerable empathy. The art direction and costuming are authentic and lush, and what could have devolved quickly into melodrama is lifted in Crowley’s skilled hands. On both sides of the Atlantic, there are women as peers and elders who want to hold our heroine down, and her ability to be resilient and push forward is inspiring.
Check out the trailer for Brooklyn below: