Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015


Every movie I saw in a theater in 2015, ranked on a 5 star scale. In chronological order:


Unbroken - 2.5 -   Selma - 3.5   -   Inherent Vice - 4 -    Imitation Game - 3 -     Foxcatcher - 2 -    Wild - 3.5 -    Cake - 2 -    Whiplash - 3   -    American Sniper - 3.5  -    A Most Violent Year - 4  -  Jupiter Ascending - 1  -    Kingsman: The Secret Service - 1.5  -    Mr. Turner - 4  -    The Duff - 3.5  -  Run All Night - 3  -    Still Alice - 3  -    The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - 2  -    It Follows - 3.5  -    Leviathan - 4  -    Furious 7 - 2  -    While We're Young - 4  -    Ex Machina - 3.5  -  Mad Max: Fury Road - 4  -    Far From The Madding Crowd - 3  -    Aloha - 2.5  -    Jurassic World - 2  -  Inside Out - 4  -    Love and Mercy - 3.5  -    Dope - 3.5  -    Me and Earl and the Dying Girl - 2  -  Magic Mike XXL - 3.5  -    Trainwreck - 3  -    Amy - 4  -    Ant-Man - 3  -    Ricki and the Flash - 3.5  -    Paper Towns - 2.5  -    Irrational Man - 1  -     The Gift - 3.5  -    Diary of a Teenage Girl - 4.5  -  Mistress America - 4  -    A Walk In The Woods - 1.5  -    Grandma - 3.5  -    Black Mass - 2.5  -    Sicario - 3.5  -    Sleeping with Other People - 2  -    The Martian - 3  -    Bridge of Spies - 4  -  Crimson Peak - 2  -    Steve Jobs - 3.5  -  Truth - 2.5  -    Spectre - 2  -     Suffragette - 3.5  -  Spotlight - 4  -    Brooklyn - 4.5  -    Creed - 3.5  -    Trumbo - 3  -    Star Wars: The Force Awakens - 4 -   Joy - 3

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Joy



Joy is a Christmas gift for those who like their Jennifer Lawrence films pitched to manic heights. Now that the Hunger Games franchise has concluded and Lawrence’s work in the X-Men films is wrapping up, can we expect more projects like this one from America’s champion of celebrity privacy? Joy is Lawrence’s third film with writer/director David O. Russell, and like American Hustle and the Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook it is filled with an energy and bustle that eventually resolves itself into something more conventional. Russell loosely based his script on the life of Joy Mangano (Lawrence), whose early ‘90s invention of the “Miracle Mop” ended her paycheck-to-paycheck existence and made her a fixture on cable shopping channels. While Mangano’s career sounds like a fine case study for business schools, what David O. Russell has turned her life into is a fable of Lost American Ingenuity. As a girl, the film’s Joy (played as a child by Isabella Crovetti-Cramp) is endlessly creative but the divorce of her parents (played with great relish by Robert DeNiro and Virginia Madsen) puts her on a track through marriage to a failed singer (Edgar Martinez), motherhood, and a series of dead-end jobs.

When Joy is telling the story of Joy’s disappointing home life and subsequent inspiration the film keeps up a surreal comic tone that’s as fun as anything Russell has ever done. Some of Lawrence’s best scenes come when she’s struggling to balance the needs of her kids and her bickering parents and ex - all of whom are for a time in the same house - with her own frustrations. Russell stages a dream sequence that puts Joy inside the soap her mother watches obsessively (cheers to Susan Lucci for agreeing to parody her own image), and when Joy is confronted by her unhappy childhood self the little girl reminds her that “We used to make things.” I half-expected an Arcade Fire song to begin at this point, but in fact it’s just this on the nose sort of writing that starts to drag the film down. Once Joy has the idea for the mop the rhythm that Russell has built up begins to dissipate in a blizzard of details about molds, production costs, marketing, and Joy’s jealous half-sister (Elisabeth Rohm). When Joy takes her mop to the then brand-new QVC channel Russell first holds on Lawrence seated; he shoots the stomachs of the men she’ll be pitching to as they talk over her head. If the rest of the sequence had been that pointed it might have been great fun, but the film stops so that the QVC boss (Bradley Cooper) can cut off a subordinate’s dirty joke and then deliver a sermon on his own resume and how the channel operates. There’s no irony here save for Melissa Rivers doing a cameo as her mother Joan, but QVC boss Barry Diller is mentioned with great reverence. (Barry Diller is the former head of 20th Century Fox, the studio whose logo appears at the beginning of Joy.) For a moment it’s as if we’re watching one of those How-They-Did-It documentaries on CNBC.

Joy ends with an epilogue flash-forward to a wealthy Joy and Cooper’s now suppliant executive. Family members are posed outside Joy’s office door, now merely hangers-on. Joy’s grandmother (Diane Ladd) tells us in voice-over of all that Joy will achieve in years to come, but it would have nice to see some that inspiration while the film was still going on. As Joy comes to the brink of financial ruin, Lawrence’s performance becomes a study in doggedness. Joy’s father and his wealthy girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini) keep explaining to her that she doesn’t understand “business”, but instead of dramatizing that Joy is smarter than they are all Russell can do is have Joy save herself through the force of Lawrence’s personality. There is even self-administered haircut to signify Joy’s sense of purpose. Jennifer Lawrence is a movie star who’s also a good actor, and she pulls off the final confrontation easily - the other guy was never in the game. Joy may in fact be the best role that Russell has given to Lawrence, it contains the most opportunity for shading, but Russell’s script front-loads the character arc and then it’s as if he got distracted. When Lawrence struts away from the scene where Joy’s future is secured, she looks happy but also as exhausted as the audience feels. When the real Joy Mangano left that meeting - which surely occurred under different circumstances - I’ll bet she was thinking about what came next.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (mild spoilers)


(I slapped a spoiler warning on this to be safe, but I went out of my way not to get plot-heavy here. As always, read at your own risk.)

 2015 has been an unhappy year for those of you uncomfortable with the idea of Women Doing Things in Movies. First there was Charlize Theron in George Miller‘s Mad Max: Fury Road, playing a woman whose every action was a middle finger to the damage men had wreaked upon the world. Theron’s performance upended the movie to such a degree that it’s difficult to imagine Tom Hardy coming back for another round as Max; the world he’d be returning to is one he left in hands that manage quite well on their own, thanks very much. The commitment that Miller made to making Fury Road about women angered certain dark corners of the Internet, and anyone who had a problem with Imperator Furiosa will be driven to rage by a moment that occurs early on in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Our collective allergy to spoilers means that much of the discussion about the J.J. Abrams-directed Star Wars must be had in quiet conversations between people who first reassure themselves they’ve all seen the movie. (Those slackers who haven’t will be sent to buy the drinks.) So, I’ll be as vague as I can…..

When Abrams introduces us to Rey (the wonderful Daisy Ridley), she is scraping out a life on a desert planet that could be (but isn’t) Tatooine. Shortly after meeting the mysterious Finn (John Boyega) - whose origins we know long before Rey does - the two come across a cherished piece of the Star Wars universe sitting almost forgotten, as if no one knew the battles it had seen. The image of Rey taking control, actually steering the story in a new direction, is an unexpectedly powerful one. The moment works not just because Ridley is a gifted actress; it’s also the signal of a generational shift. “This is not the Star Wars you’ve known,” Abrams is saying. “It now belongs to you, and you, and you.” There is room for everyone in the new Star Wars universe, and Abrams (co-writing with Michael Arndt and Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi writer Lawrence Kasdan) takes the time to spell out just what kind of lives Rey and Finn might have had if not for stumbling into the first stirrings of a new galactic war. But stumble they do, right into the path of Kylo Ren (played with terrific force by Adam Driver). Ren (Or should I call him Kylo?) is the biggest surprise of The Force Awakens, a villain in conflict over his relationship to The Force. Abrams expands an idea implicit in the original trilogy - that even someone who has mastered the Dark Side has a boss - to great effect here, and he’s helped by Adam Driver’s gift for playing fine shades of immaturity.

If you don’t understand the political situation depicted in The Force Awakens, you’re probably not alone. Kylo Ren is part of the First Order, a group seeking to restore some version of the old Empire. Rey and Finn soon find themselves part of the Resistance, where they each find purpose and meet some characters familiar to us. (Harrison Ford, bringing welcome vigor to the role, is especially touching as Han Solo.) There is also a Senate that keeps the lights on, but let’s not sweat the details. The Force Awakens is a piece of thoroughly enjoyable franchise cinema that is better than almost anyone had a right to expect. Even the scenes of ships shooting at each other have a kick I don’t think I’ve ever gotten from a Marvel movie, and the ending promises that whoever is writing Episode VII will have plenty to work with. The one criticism that The Force Awakens is vulnerable to is the recycling of plot elements from the earlier films, but even recognizing that fact won’t spoil the experience. The decision to have Rey and Finn believe the events of the original trilogy are folklore feels odd at first, but I think it gives Abrams permission to evoke the older films. It’s important that Rey meet Han, Luke, and Leia and understand that these people are real and that these things happened. How you’ll feel about The Force Awakens depends on the degree to which you want the film to feel familiar. It’s hard to deny the pleasure of the warm feeling that The Force Awakens brings up, but there is also an energy and drive at work here that the prequels sorely lacked.. I’d call it….. A New Hope.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Trumbo



Trumbo is a civics lesson, but it’s a very entertaining one. The life of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) feels like a passion project for director Jay Roach, who is helped enormously by a game and talented cast. Trumbo was one of Hollywood’s most celebrated and best paid screenwriters in the late 1940’s, just at the time when Congress was looking for Communist influence in the movie industry. Trumbo’s refusal to disavow Communist Party membership or name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee led to his jailing and the beginning of the blacklist. “The Hollywood Ten” - Trumbo and a group of other writers including Arlen Hird (a composite character played by Louis C.K.) and Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk) - couldn’t work and were forced to write schlock movies under pseudonyms for the likes of producer Frank King (a very funny John Goodman). Roach and writer John McNamara have fun with Hollywood conservatives of the period; Helen Mirren makes a cold Hedda Hopper and ex-TV leading man David James Elliott caricatures John Wayne. But the film’s heart is with Trumbo, his colleagues, and his family. Diane Lane is underused as Trumbo’s wife Cleo, but when she finally gets a scene of confrontation with her husband she makes the most of it. The same goes for Elle Fanning as the oldest Trumbo daughter; Lane and Fanning’s strength gives Cranston something to play against.

Bryan Cranston is good at playing arrogant men, but as Trumbo he’s allowed to show flashes of wit, intelligence, and kindness that those who only know him from Breaking Bad may not have seen. McNamara’s script doesn’t elide the fact that the B-movie script mill Trumbo set up took a toll on his family, but it also kept his friends in work. Louis C.K.’s Arlen Hird (the most politically rigid character in Trumbo) points out an irony the film celebrates, which is that Trumbo was a man of genuine principles who also thoroughly enjoyed the attention and money that the movies offered. If there were ever moments of doubt, the film’s version of Trumbo doesn’t mention them. As more famous Hollywood liberals like Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) are forced to betray themselves, Trumbo keeps working to the point of exhaustion. Dalton Trumbo won two pseudonymous Oscars during the blacklist - including one for Roman Holiday - and after a decade of struggling his talent enabled him to reclaim his identity thanks to the intervention of producer/star Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) on Spartacus. The film concludes with a speech Trumbo (who died in 1976 at age 70) gave to the Writers Guild, one which Cranston plays beautifully as acknowledgement of all that was lost during a time when America turned on itself. Trumbo is a message movie, and the message is this: We survived, but just barely.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Creed



The very existence of Creed is as unlikely as Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson, and the film itself is a bracing left turn for a franchise that has always stood outside of the discussion about Hollywood’s love of a sure thing,. Rocky came out in 1976, but the Oscar-winning original (Best Picture and Director; Sylvester Stallone received nominations for acting and writing) is neither part of the narrative of that decade’s outsider cinema nor remembered as an early blockbuster in the manner of Jaws. Creed arrives almost a decade after Rocky Balboa seemed to mark the series’ end, and the new film is a tribute both to the imagination of cowriter/director Ryan Coogler and to Sylvester Stallone’s willingness to get out of the way. Adonis Johnson is bounced around inside the foster system as a boy after his mother dies; we first see him in 1998, brawling with another boy and being placed in solitary confinement. Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) is Adonis’s lone visitor; she adopts the boy and tells him the truth. Mary Anne is the widow of former heavyweight champion Apollo Creed and Adonis is his son, the product of an affair.

In 2015, Adonis (played as an adult by Michael B. Jordan) is restless despite a comfortable life and a good job in Los Angeles. He fights in Tijuana but the trainer (Wood Harris) at his father’s old gym doesn’t want him in the ring with real contenders. It’s when Adonis moves to Philadelphia that Creed really begins. He seeks out a reluctant Rocky Balboa as a trainer and begins the committed life of a champion-in-training. The affection and specificity with which Ryan Coogler portrays the insular Philadelphia boxing community is my favorite thing about Creed. The gyms that Adonis trains at are differentiated in detail, with Rocky’s gym being of course the more authentic and down-at-the-heels. Rocky Balboa is known wherever he goes in his city, and Sylvester Stallone gives a warm, self-effacing performance that suggests a physically powerful man in the autumn of his life. Rocky dispenses a lot of wisdom in Creed, and Stallone has the gift of making each maxim seem like a new thought. Coogler found more than a match for Stallone in Michael B. Jordan, with whom he worked in the auspicious Fruitvale Station. Jordan is cast in that film and often in his television work (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood) as man whose demons threaten to overtake him, and that’s the case here too. The physicality- Jordan is more than believable as a boxer - and commitment the role demands erase any thoughts of repetition though, and Coogler and Jordan even pull off a sequence in which Adonis leads a group of bikers through the streets in a kind of aria of self-definition. The flashes of playfulness and vulnerability that Adonis does show with his musician girlfriend Bianca (strong Tessa Thompson) are welcome. Bianca, a woman with her own life and concerns outside of her relationship, is a complement to Adonis and not just a cheerleader. She’s the girlfriend that he - and the film - both need and deserve.

Creed presents a rich world, but it’s also operating within the superstructure of the sports film. Coogler tries to his best to leap past all the exposition about why the current champ (Tony Bellew) would want to fight Adonis, but those scenes serve as drag on a movie that runs over 2 hours. As much as Michael B. Jordan is physically right for the role of a top-flight boxer, the training scenes don’t suggest that Adonis has the ability to do anything more than out punch an opponent who’s more than a physical match for him. Rocky can (maybe) make Adonis a champion, but does he really have the stuff of a great fighter? More importantly, the anger and ambivalence that Adonis feels about the name “Creed” don’t entirely track given that the Creed family took him in and that Apollo didn’t exactly leave his family by choice. The chip on the shoulder that Adonis has to have for motivation, the one that has caused him to act out both as child and adult, is a note that Creed keeps coming back to without providing any more context.

Creed ends with a shot of two men looking into a future that, despite their abilities, is still one circumscribed by luck and the limits of the sphere in which they move. It’s an honest end for a 2015 film that delivers most of what it promises and that always looks out for the underdog.