Joy (2015)

Another year (or two), another David O. Russell film starring Jennifer Lawrence, in what is becoming something of an end-of-year holiday tradition by this point. However, unlike 2013’s American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook before that, here Bradley Cooper is relegated to what’s little more than a supporting role, leaving Robert De Niro (another recent Russell stalwart) to step in as the main support to Lawrence, which doesn’t entirely pay off. Still, it does mean that romance very much takes a back seat to the ‘based on real events’ story of Joy, a frustrated American housewife who invents… a mop. You get the sense that this aspect of the story, the very ordinariness of her invention, was the draw for Russell, who uses it to craft an arc from Joy at home watching TV soap operas with her agoraphobic mother (Virginia Madsen), to a literal soap opera in which her sudsy invention conquers living rooms across the country via the Home Shopping Network (which is where Cooper comes in). Along the way there’s plenty to enjoy, including a big performance from Isabella Rossellini as Joy’s financier Trudy, but it all fades in the memory rather quickly once the film’s finished.

Joy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer David O. Russell; Cinematographer Linus Sandgren; Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Édgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Isabella Rossellini, Virginia Madsen; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 28 December 2015.

Three Short Reviews of Recent Popular Films: Gone Girl, Interstellar and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (all 2014)

Unlike in 2013, I haven’t been writing reviews of every film I’ve seen this year. I also had trouble finding enough enthusiasm to write about some of the big tentpole blockbusters of the year, mainly because so many others have cast in their two cents, that mine seem entirely beside the point. Still, you’re more likely to have seen these films, so I thought I should at least write a few sentences to give my opinions, and you can disagree with me in the comments if you wish! (For what it’s worth, I’ve also taken to adding my ratings for unreviewed films on my film reviews by year page.)

Continue reading “Three Short Reviews of Recent Popular Films: Gone Girl, Interstellar and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (all 2014)”

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Perhaps I’m just getting weary of superhero movies now, but it’s not just me, surely? Days of Future Past, while hardly being terrible (sorry, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), is not the equal even of its immediate predecessor, X-Men: First Class (2011, although I’m setting aside 2013’s The Wolverine). I had hope for Marvel movies after the surprisingly enjoyable Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but that was made by a different studio. By comparison, Days of Future Past just seems lazy and bloated. There’s an end-of-days apocalyptic plotline, including a thin excuse to bring together the different timelines (and their respective actors), but it’s no more compelling than Star Trek: Generations so many years before, another franchise to which Patrick Stewart has lent his considerable actorly gravitas. As with that franchise, here too it’s ultimately the younger generation who are more convincing and enjoyable in their roles, James McAvoy as Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto nicely playing off one another, though Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine remains dependable across both timelines. There’s also an expanded role for Jennifer Lawrence, and it’s just as well she’s such a fine actor as she’s required to express plenty of fairly uninflected rage and caprice. Indeed, if there’s anything I’ll remember about Days of Future Past in years to come, it won’t be the special effects or the big setpieces or the now-canonical protracted final battle sequence, but the sense of so many very talented actors (those named above, along with a smaller role for Peter Dinklage, and poor Anna Paquin all but left on the cutting-room floor) being wasted on over-extended big-budget bloat.

X-Men: Days of Future Past film posterCREDITS
Director Bryan Singer; Writer Simon Kinberg (based on the Uncanny X-Men comic book storyline “Days of Future Past” by Chris Claremont and John Byrne); Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel; Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Thursday 22 May 2014.

American Hustle (2013)

We’ve not really had much of the year, so it’s a bit of unwarranted hyperbole (or backhanded sarcasm) to start proclaiming this the best film so far this year, but I did enjoy it a fair bit. I might even go so far as to say that if I’d seen it last year, I’d have included it somewhere in my ‘best of’ list. It’s a story about storytellers, and it lets them get on with telling their respective stories with fairly little practical interest in the plot details (they’re there of course — it’s even loosely based on real events — but they’re hardly emphasised). It’s more of a series of character studies interconnected by music-focused setpieces — in fact, so foregrounded is the contemporary pop music that the film strongly brings to mind the cinema of Martin Scorsese (and his later imitators, like Paul Thomas Anderson), helped along by the cameo appearance of one of his key collaborators of the 1970s. As a pastiche of period style and set design it’s very accomplished, and as an entertainment it’s certainly enjoyable; I’m not convinced it’s very much deeper than that, but there are worse people in whose company to spend a couple of hours at the movies.

I say it’s without deeper meaning but that’s not strictly true, since in a sense it deals with that most evergreen of US cinematic themes, the pursuit of the ‘American dream’. Each of the characters is scrabbling desperately after a slice of something better, and while the intentions of most — both crooks and cops — are self-interested, there are also characters like the mayor, Carmine (Jeremy Renner), who are acting out of some sense of obligation to a greater social good. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The key players here are Christian Bale’s shlubby Irving and his partner-in-crime Sydney (the talented Amy Adams), whose strictly small-time swindles are rather forcibly taken to a bigger and more dangerous stage by the intervention of FBI agent Richie (curly-haired Bradley Cooper). Irving is content in his shady little corner of the New Jersey underworld, and Sydney is trying to escape her south-western upbringing by affecting the title of Lady Edith and a generic English accent which is only good enough to convince the local marks of her apparently upstanding intentions. It’s Richie and his boss’s boss who are the ones motivated by their own professional gain to try to net Mafia and the government (first the local mayor and then Washington figures) in the scam operation.

But that’s all just a framework on which to hang these multiple tales, interwoven like a Tarantino or Anderson narrative with a propulsive 70s pop-hit-laden score, and overlaid with personal testimonies from the key figures, presenting almost Rashomon-like their own takes on what’s going on. It’s all cannily edited together, and as I’ve mentioned already, shot and made with a fastidious (almost overbearing) attentiveness to glossy contemporary detail, but this is primarily a performer’s film, and you can see why people continue to want to work with director David O. Russell. Even smaller characters get to tell their stories, and there’s an increasingly hilarious running gag involving Richie’s boss Stoddard (Louis C.K.) who’s trying to impart some advice to his younger charge.

Of the core cast, Jennifer Lawrence is one of the most talented young actors around and even with credits as excellent as The Hunger Games and her breakout in Winter’s Bone, and even with a relatively small role here, she still manages to stand out in every scene she’s in by sheer force of character. But then again, Russell and Eric Singer (who wrote the original screenplay) have put together a collection of larger-than-life characters — or maybe caricatures, as after all they are indeed quite a bit more showy than anyone in real life — and all the actors get a chance to twirl in front of the cameras. If Lawrence gets the histrionic part, then Amy Adams has a far more shaded character, which she just hits perfectly, while Christian Bale stands out primarily in the extent to which he’s underplaying Irving, an underplaying which oddly makes the character even more compelling than he has any right to be.

All of this adds up to a film that feels loose, like a shaggy-dog story that seems rather easily led away down winding digressive paths, but is in fact really quite tightly structured. It probably does seem unfocused to those who are looking at it as a rendering of the historical Abscam events from which it draws its inspiration, but as a film that’s ultimately about performance — there’s even a literal stage at one point — and about people’s capacity for telling (and believing) stories, this is as carefully put together as they come.

American Hustle film posterCREDITS
Director David O. Russell; Writers Eric Warren Singer and Russell; Cinematographer Linus Sandgren; Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Sunday 5 January 2014.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Blockbuster franchises by their nature always seem to be perfect for teenage viewers, more than ever in recent years. I suppose that Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations skew a little older, just as that seemingly unending Harry Potter series went for the younger ones. But even amongst the crowded marketplace, The Hunger Games has set itself rather above the competition to my mind. That said, I haven’t read the books, and I don’t think the films are perfect by any means, but they flesh out a credibly multilayered world with a more dystopian bent than you might expect given the target audience, and occasional flashes of cutting satire. Most of all, the series has for its lead actor Jennifer Lawrence, who’s been carving out quite a niche in playing resourceful young women since her breakout performance in Winter’s Bone (2010). This second film in what’s shaping up to be a tetralogy is another notch in her acting belt and a proficient change of pace for the franchise.

Last year’s first film in the series was certainly enjoyable, but it was primarily pursuing a sort of The Running Man-crossed-with-Battle Royale pastiche featuring teenagers let loose in an inhospitable environment tasked with killing each other off to survive and claim the victor’s prize in this deadly game: a life of ease — though the extent to which this is true seems to depend on the relative comfort the contestants grew up in. For in this world of Panem, created by novelist Suzanne Collins, the population is divided into districts according to what resource that area can contribute towards the wealth of the Capitol. Two from each district fight in the eponymous games, and our heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), like her Hunger Games partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), has grown up in District 12, a dirt poor world of coal miners. Thus, following the duo’s success in the first film (depicting the 74th iteration of these Games), their victor’s life seems just as monochrome and depressing if somewhat less impoverished as the lives they left behind, and the District’s only other Games victor — Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch — just spends his time drinking himself into a stupor in the gloomy shadows of his own mansion.

In starting out the sequel depicting Katniss and Peeta’s fairly underwhelming lives on this forlorn gated victors’ estate in District 12, the series determinedly sets out to move towards a critique of Panem society (a world of panem et circenses, clearly). And while there is a move towards restaging the first film’s Hunger Games — this 75th edition is cunningly engineered to kill off the surviving victors from all the districts — the film, over its somewhat overextended running time, is far more interested in the political dimensions of their fight. A new gamesmaker has been brought in (Plutarch, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), though Stanley Tucci’s brightly coloured and superficial gameshow host is still front and centre in the media of this skewed society. There are some undisguised barbs at media manipulation before things settle down to the apparently familiar conflict.

I won’t say the film is perfect at filling out the world’s politics, and I was personally left desiring more details. All we see of the other Districts is conveyed through the gatherings on Peeta and Katniss’s victory tour. So we get hints at militarisation and oppression but little more than that. Then again, this is a world whose media is so tightly controlled that each District apparently knows very little about the others, so it makes some sense that we as viewers don’t learn very much, but it does make it difficult to know what the stakes are in the rebellion to which Katniss has apparently been co-opted as the figurehead.

No doubt more will become evident in the final (two) films, but for now Catching Fire feels like a mere way station (if a fairly entertaining one) on this ongoing journey. Even given the restaging of the title’s Games, it largely seems to avoid rehashing too much from the first chapter. The film’s palette is more dour and shadowy — a lot of the action seems to take place at night or under lowering skies — and admits of far more shadings of emotional resonance, but it remains a clear-cut fight between the forces of rebellion and repression, and makes me greatly look forward to the inevitably drawn-out conclusion.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire film posterCREDITS
Director Francis Lawrence; Writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (based on the novel Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins); Cinematographer Jo Willems; Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci; Length 146 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 24 November 2013.

Winter’s Bone (2010)

One of things I like about movies is that they take me places I’d never otherwise visit, and set their stories amongst people I’d never otherwise meet. I can’t say how accurate this depiction is of the Ozarks (a mountainous area roughly in the centre of the United States), but it certainly feels close to the bone, and has an excellent control over its atmosphere.

This is a hard-edged world where people are wary of one another and resort to desperate means to make ends meet. The film is best when it’s setting out the elaborate rituals that people in this part of the world follow; in many ways, it is these that motivate the entire drama. Just in visiting her friend’s home, Jennifer Lawrence’s character Dolly must ask her friend’s husband for permission to enter, and this overly-polite pas de deux is repeated on several occasions. Even the police officers approach others with caution, though that may partly be that Dolly’s uncle ‘Teardrop’ (John Hawkes) is somewhat unhinged. These are, relatively-speaking, the ‘good guys’ though; when Dolly comes up against the really dangerous characters, she comes out rather the worse for it. And again, there appear to be delicate issues of etiquette even around violence: it’s the female family members of local kingpin ‘Thump’ Milton who dole out the punishment for Dolly’s transgressions.

These transgressions are all deviations from an unspoken code, for Dolly is asking difficult questions about her absent father, whose disappearance has put their home under threat. It turns out her father was involved in the production of crystal meth, which had brought him into conflict with not just the law (he was on bail, and his home was his collateral), but the local thugs. Dolly’s mother is certainly not equal to the task of raising her children, suffering from some unspoken mental illness (presumably depression), and Dolly is only just clinging on. Her search for her father is not so much out of affection for him (she has no expectations that he’s alive) but so that the family can avoid eviction, and in her search she calls on family kinship with the other townsfolk — clearly this is one of her transgressions: you can see in the faces of the people she asks that they cannot refuse these ties, but will exact a punishment for Dolly’s invoking them.

This points to one of the great strengths of the film, which is its unshowy but beautifully controlled acting performances. John Hawkes, in particular, shines as ‘Teardrop’, a tightly-coiled crystal meth-snorting character, who very rarely does anything violent, but manages to give off the constant impression that he might snap at any point. But it’s Jennifer Lawrence who carries the film, being in just about every scene, and she excels at what is a film of small details, almost subliminal at time, building to a denouement which avoids southern gothic clichés or a forced showdown (of the kind as seen in, for example, Mud), but which is in many ways just as painful.

Of course, one of the dangers in depicting this kind of milieu is of falling into poverty tourism — parading the deprivations and misery endured by one group of people to allow those of us more fortunate to feel smugly superior — but I don’t get this impression from Winter’s Bone. The rural setting is treated without any overt (hillbilly) stereotyping, and if the characters are enduring tough times, it’s not something that the filmmakers linger over. There’s none of the kind of sneering at accents or backwards ways that you might get in, say, a Coen Brothers film: this inhabits a quite different world.

In its unflashy way, this is an exemplary American film with some excellent and convincing performances. It has the kind of attentiveness to details that you’d get in a police procedural, which in a way this bears some relationship to, if only because the police seem to be outsiders to this world and therefore little regarded. And though it has a bleakness to it, it’s not one that overwhelms the film. One gets the sense that Dolly at least may yet prevail where those around her have not.

Winter's Bone film posterCREDITS
Director Debra Granik; Writers Granik and Anne Rosellini (based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell); Cinematographer Michael McDonough; Starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 16 July 2013.