Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Joy


Even David O. Russell's weaker films are interesting and fairly idiosyncratic in that they challenge viewers to work a little harder than they must for conventional film fare. Such is the case with Russell's Joy, which stars his usual posse of players -- Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. Russell seems drawn to stories about failed (or failing) people whose lives are truly studies in interpersonal conflict and complication. These characters are mostly sympathetic, like the hardworking divorced mother of two of this film's title, but the lead character's gullibility or greed or lack of healthy boundaries makes them also a bit tarnished and pitiful. Joy (Lawrence) is an imaginative, resourceful but duty-bound young woman, locked into familial commitments but struggling, when she has time, to find a way to make her life less miserable. She gets loving encouragement from her grandmother (Diane Ladd) but little from the other members of her family -- her insensitive father (De NIro), self-involved mother (Virginia Madsen) or envious half-sister (Elizabeth Rohm). Her stargazing, under-employed ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) offers her moral support and little else that's bankable. Joy's ingenuity leads her to design a product that she fully expects will change the lives of American housekeepers and, ultimately, her own. But, alas, her plans for financial independence are threatened by the world of commerce, which she, frankly, doesn't understand and swindlers eager to take advantage of her ignorance. Russell's Joy is an often entertaining but not entirely satisfying fable about a modern woman who refuses to succumb to circumstances or the limitations of the imaginations around her. Recommended.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Concussion


Journalist and filmmaker Peter Landesman's Concussion will no doubt resonate with those who love tales about waging the good fight on behalf of those who cannot fight for themselves. In this story -- adapted from a GQ article on the rising frequency of suspicious, seemingly self-inflicted deaths among veteran NFL players -- Landesman sets at center stage a meticulous Nigerian immigrant pathologist in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who conducts the autopsy on former Steelers center Mike Webster (David Morse). Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) finds anomalous injuries in Webster's brain that were either ignored or hidden by team physicians and which, he is convinced led to Webster's madness and death. He shares his findings with the county coroner (Albert Brooks), who supports Omalu's investigation of other NFL deaths despite the inevitable shitstorm in the league's universe his findings would turn up. Omalu finds a few friends in his quest to be heard, among them, love interest Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and former players physician Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) but he also finds himself outmatched by the NFL, which, as Brooks' character says, "owns a day of the week." But Omalu asks, genuinely mystified, why the league commissioner would not want to know the truth and protect the players. The answer is obvious to all who grew up in America, but not so clear to a relatively new arrival, and, further, might make the question even more pressing. Landesman has an ear for story and an eye for the intimate elements contained therein. Scenes between Smith and Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Beyond the Lights) are radiant and in one instance late in the film, heartrending. It would be difficulty for me to overstate how terrific I found Smith to be in this picture. Maybe the real-world celebrity marital / parental drama clouded my memory of just how fine an actor he is when he's got a character to pour himself into (Pursuit of Happyness, Seven Pounds) and he has found another here. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Big Short


Adam McKay's name has been attached to Will Farrell's Anchorman series, which McKay wrote and directed. Though the subject of his latest film is high finance, McKay's comedic sensibilities are not entirely benched for The Big Short, which is by turns delicious and disheartening. McKay's film is a treatment of Michael Lewis's bestselling chronicle of the chicanery that led to the implosion of the American housing market and the world economy in 2008. Because Lewis's book drilled deep into Wall Street's byzantine money-making mines, McKay stages hilarious and helpful explainers delivered either by one of the picture's primary characters (mainly Ryan Gosling) or guest presenters (among them chef Anthony Bourdain and singer Selena Gomez). This exhuberant movie has two settings -- simmering contempt and roiling outrage -- funneled through Christian Bale's Michael Burry and Steve Carell's Mark Baum, both independent financial investors who in 2006 detected the stench of corrupt mortgage lending practices and bet against the continued growth of the subprime housing market, convinced it would implode in a matter of months. Though all indications were that this was a certainty, it didn't come when expected, which revealed another layer of corruption -- complicity between Wall Street and "independent" ratings indexers who refused to downgrade the bundled subprime mortgages (as one character describes them "dog shit wrapped in cat shit"). As history has shown, the whole affair ended with bank failures and bailouts but no arrests of those who lied and cheated the American public, costing millions of people their livelihoods, homes and retirement funds. McKay's The Big Shot is smart, layered and, hopefully, instructive. But don't bet on that. Highly Recommended.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Room


Irish director Lenny Abrahamson puts a lot of devastation on the screen in his remarkable film Room. But, for me, the picture's resonating power lies in what is not told and the deep sadness that comes from trying to assemble the pieces. Abrahamson has filmed fellow Irelander Emma Donoghue's screenplay of her bestselling novel of the same name. She tells the story of a young mother (Brie Larson), known only as Ma, and her 5-year-old son (Jacob Tremblay) who are captives of a terrifying man called Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). Ma has been locked in Old Nick's garden shed for seven years; her son, all of his life. The circumstances of the boy's birth, how he and his mother have been sustained, how they came to create the worlds that keep them sane are weighty imponderables.  Abrahamson has crafted the first half of the film so carefully that these claustrophobic confines never feel oppressive, primarily because Jack's innocent wonder about life, as stiflingly artificial as it is, is so genuine and marvelous -- and, yes, tragic. When Ma finally decides they have to escape, the viewer is torn because in doing so she must dismantle Jack's world. The scene of his tearful rejection of her talk of "the world" is nearly more than one can stand. But escape they must and do and that sequence is wrenching and terrifying. The two are finally reunited with family (Joan Allen, William H. Macy and Tom McCamus) but this new chapter feels as perilous for Jack and Ma as their imprisonment had been. Such a beautiful, heartbreaking story.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Chi-Raq


Spike Lee's films are often honest and artful, but rarely at the same time. This usually results in movies that have colliding tones and atmospheres -- the serious and the comic, the theatrical and the dogmatic. In that regard, his films are more like Kevin Smith's than Quentin Tarantino, with whom he has been compared. All three are auteurs, though Smith's work tends to be more purely satiric, not as political, than the others.Tarantino's more violent and less intimate.
Lee's best ideas and images are inspired by the lunacy he finds in governmental corruption and political perfidy and in the conflicts that arise among the races and between the sexes. Confict is at the core of his latest film, Chi-Raq, the name given to inner city Chicago where gang wars have torn communities apart and have been especially deadly for children, innocent bystanders killed by stray bullets fired by bangers who, frankly, couldn't care less. Warring chief bangers, Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) and Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), spew bullets and rhyming invectives as those around them scurry for cover and the unlucky are laid to waste. When the daughter of a young mother (Jennifer Hudson) is killed, the community, led by a firy Catholic priest (John Cusack) will not be stilled and the molls of the beefing thugs borrow an idea from Greek playwright Aristophenes and agree to withhold sex until guns are surrendered and peace is declared.
The head of the women's movement, Lysistrata (the captivating Teyonah Parris) orders a take-no-prisoners posture, commandeers the National Guard Armory with nothing more than a winsome smile and a thong, and faces down every male opponent from horny husbands to befuddled city police. Her "No Peace / No Pussy" campaign sparks an international "withholding" movement and, in pretty short order, shit gets real.
When Lee is not painting scenes and characters with the broadest of strokes or staging rousing dance numbers, he's preaching, not altogether effectively but certainly fervently, to stop the violence. He and co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott (CSA:Confederate States of America) merge their polemics with poetics, in keeping with the classics model, and cast Samuel L. Jackson as big pimping narrator Dolmedes. (South Cackalackey makes it into the film, quite explicitly, with reference to the Emanuel 9 and Dylann Roof.)
Chi-Raq is a generally entertaining mishmash of ideas but, frankly, most of Lee's films are. If one understands that, and knows, further, that the film will both delight and frustrate then the moviegoer will not be disappointed. Recommended.

Queen & Slim

In the soon to be iconic photograph from Melina Matsoukas's distressing Queen & Slim, stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith...