Wrongly Dismissed: A Review of David O. Russell’s Joy

KAY'S BAPTISM

The backlash against David O. Russell is strong. Such can be the ire of fanboy cinephiles when you morph from the idiosyncratic young voice behind unique films such as Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees into a respectable director of Oscar-friendly fare such as The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. Nowadays, Russell is regarded as a empty auteur. A guy who has nothing to say, and is content with riffing on Scorsese to satisfy his filmmaking needs. “I can’t imagine it being anything but terrible”, said a friend of mine when he saw an advertisement for Russell’s latest movie, Joy.   

The straw that broke the camel’s back -and young cinephiles’ goodwill toward Russell- seems to have been the moment when American Hustle scores a surprisingly high number of Academy Award nominations. Ten, more than any other movie except Gravity, including one in each of the four acting categories. Sure, American Hustle had some good moments, but ten nominations? People who had complained about its thematic emptiness, and its superficial similarities to Goodfellas were enraged. Russell had become a hack.

Joy, Russell’s biographical drama, which stars frequent collaborator Jennifer Lawrence as the woman who made a fortune after she invented the Miracle Mop, transformed in a couple of months from presumed Oscar front-runner to a movie that wasn’t even “certified fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes. In that sense, the movie has encountered the same kind of adversity that its protagonist must face from a group of friends and family that disregard her as a failure, and her ideas as a bored housewife’s way of passing the time. It seems like it’s going to be hard, at this point, for Joy, the movie, to overcome these obstacles the way Joy, the character, does, but here’s hoping, because this is a much better movie than most people are giving it credit for.

It’s not a perfect movie. I can’t decide if what it really needed was another re-write on the script or another pass on the editing bay, but neither of those things would’ve hurt. As he did with American Hustle, Russell has re-written another writer’s script -in this case “story” credit goes to Annie Mumolo, best known for co-writing Bridesmaids– and there is a clear dissonance between the movie’s amount of kooky stylistic ideas and the development of its main thematic concern: the story of an ordinary woman’s struggle to become extraordinary.

This is unquestionably Jennifer Lawrence’s movie. She gives the most impressive and magnetic performance of her career. I am not a huge Lawrence fan, and her previous work with Russell leaves me particularly cold, but something seems to have finally clicked in this instance. Still, even if Lawrence is the shining center, the movie is overflowing with supporting characters. From a plot and story level, very few of the supporting players get the perfect amount of screen time.

A couple examples. Isabella Rossellini plays one of Joy’s main investors, and while Russell gives her a gratifying amount of freedom to play her character’s crazy quirks, she pops up throughout the film more as an obstacle than a character.Meanwhile,  Diane Ladd narrates the story as Joy’s grandmother, but the movie doesn’t spend much time with the relationship outside of setting it up at the beginning, and coming back for an emotional moment toward the end. Because there was little development, the moment isn’t as powerful as the movie wants it to be.

There are so many things going on in Joy. The script is not quite as chaotic as American Hustle‘s, but it shows that Russell has developed a soft-spot for overstuffing his films with characters. He has also developed a quite exceptional skill at handling ensembles. Friend of the blog Nathaniel Rogers observed that Russell is the rare director who can take many different styles of performance and make them feel at home in the same movie, and he is completely right.

Russell also seems to provide actors with fertile enough soil to cultivate their performances. This sometimes results in the unmeasured bigness of Melissa Leo in The Fighter or the baffling choices of Christian Bale in American Hustle, but it also allows the supporting players to make an impact when an impact is needed. I’m thinking in particular of Dascha Polanco, who plays Joy’s childhood friend, and very economically sells some of the movie’s most emotional moments.

There are quite a few interesting things going on in Joy. First of all, we have a truly touching story about a woman making it big in a man’s world. This is not a post-feminist individualistic parable either. Joy encounters as many haters and nay-sayers on her way to the top as she does collaborators. Particularly interesting on this front are her relationships to two very attractive men. Edgar Ramirez plays Joy’s ex-husband, who begins the movie as a slob who still lives in her basement two years after the divorce, but ends up becoming a trustful ally.

Similarly, Bradley Cooper plays an executive who helps Joy sell her products on television. Before signing the contract, he warns her that the nature of the business could have them become adversaries in the future, and suggest making a point of, above all, remaining “friends in commerce”. Outside of the flashbacks that show us how Joy met her husband, she doesn’t have a romantic relationship with either one of these men.

The movie’s strongest decisions come in the character relationships. That is why I’d argue for an edit, because the strength of the relationships shine through the fact that the amount we see from each character is off. It expertly captures the many emotional pulls within Joy’s life. The pull of belonging to a family, the pull of wanting to be successful, the pull of being told you aren’t worth it, and the pull of believing in yourself. The movie conveys that the decisions Joy must make are not easy.

Joy is a touching story because it’s complicated. This may seem, at first glance, like the story of a woman forcefully stomping around and showing all these men how it’s done, but it’s really about a woman working hard, believing in herself, and finding trust and collaboration in her allies. This is not a movie where the main character is always right and her enemies wrong. The characters that surround Joy are more complex, her journey bumpier, and the movie she stars in more interesting.

Grade: My mind says 7, my heart says 8. Make of that what you will.

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Nihilist Penis: A Review of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight

THE HATEFUL EIGHT

Vague spoilers for The Hateful Eight, in case you care about such things.  

“I just don’t want to be an old-man filmmaker. I want to stop at a certain point. Directors don’t get better as they get older. Usually the worst films in their filmography are those last four at the end. I am all about my filmography, and one bad film f—s up three good ones. I don’t want that bad, out-of-touch comedy in my filmography, the movie that makes people think, ‘Oh man, he still thinks it’s 20 years ago.’ When directors get out-of-date, it’s not pretty”

Those are the words of Quentin Tarantino, an obsessive fan who forever changed the face of cinema. It’s curious that he talks about wanting to retire after his tenth film, and “old-man” directors losing touch, because he is getting up there himself. It’s been more than twenty years since he made his directorial debut. Tarantino has matured in some interesting ways, but as he’s gotten older, his interests have become more narrow. He hasn’t grown “out-of-date” -at least not yet. His finger can still identify the conversations that mark America’s pulse. Politically, he’s evolved; but stylistically, he’s regressed.

It seems unlikely that the enfant terrible who led the cavalry of American independent film has grown into a political animal, but here we are, and the guy who once represented the detached coolness of the nineties has become a man who’s engaged in the most contemporary statement imaginable: he’s gone out to protest police brutality. Tarantino has always had a lot to say, but for most of his career -and outside of giving the Palm D’Or to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11– he hasn’t been as opinionated about politics as he’s been about film, especially in his movie. Now that Tarantino wants us to know that he cares, one becomes ver interested in what he has to say. So, what does he have to say?

Unlike the revisionist fantasies of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, which search for emotional satisfaction in humanity’s darkest moments, Tarantino’s latest movie offers no catharsis. The Hateful Eight is a Western of pure cynicism. Set in the early nineteenth century, and in the middle of a cruel Wyoming winter, the film finds eight (or so) deadly creatures trapped under the same roof, waiting inside a remote cabin for the blizzard that rages outside to be over.

Who are these eight grotesques? The arguable star of the show is Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a black ex-Union soldier turned bounty hunter. Warren carries with himself a couple of corpses that he wishes to exchange for some cash when he gets to the town of Red Rock. The other bounty hunter in the cabin is John Ruth (Kurt Russell), who prefers to bring in his bounty alive, and thus, brings the deadly and despicable Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as his prisoner.

The tension between captive and captor is strong enough without the presence of Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the racist rebel who claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock, and old Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a legendary Confederate General himself. Fancy Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir), and cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) all play key roles, even if they aren’t quite as big as the others’.

Once all these characters are in the same room together, the movie becomes a chamber mystery in the style of an Agatha Christie novel. Jackson plays the part of a deadlier and more intimidating Detective Poirot, as it becomes clear that someone in that cabin is not who they say they are. In true Tarantino fashion, it all culminates in a flashy spectacle of bloody explosions. But in the end, there are no winners. In the movie’s final moments, it becomes clear that these vile characters are meant to represent the agents that inhabit the remote cabin that is America, and they have trashed the place, leaving nothing but blood-splattered walls and corpses on the floor.

This is an unusual and interesting message for Tarantino, who is usually at least as interested in sentimental passions as he is in allegory (one thinks his infamous staging of Hitler’s death had as much to do with crafting a satisfying story than any political messaging). I bring this up because, unlike most Tarantino movies, it is very hard to enjoy watching The Hateful Eight. Sympathizing with any of these maniacs is impossible, and as soon as a character shows any nobility, it is undercut with a brutal elbow to the nose.

One can only try and fail to like any of these characters, even if the actors are doing some pretty satisfying work playing them. Samuel L. Jackson gets to deliver the meatiest speeches Tarantino has written for him since Pulp Fictionand he does so with gusto (even if I still admire his defiantly cartoonish performance in Django best). The stand-out in the cast is Walton Goggins, who adds a surprising amount of layers to an already well-layered character. The weakest link is Tim Roth, who gets the Christoph Waltz part and plays it in the most predictable way imaginable.

Quite a few people have accused Tarantino of misogyny in his treatment of Daisy. I find the question of whether or not the director is a misogynist not as interesting as the presence of these particularly problematic elements in the film. It’s true that the casually comedic tone with which Daisy is punched and abused through the movie’s first half is off-putting, but I can’t agree with people who interpret the movie as a story in which men with all kinds of opposing agendas agree to come together against a “lying bitch”.

This read of the film would classify Daisy as the ultimate evil within the film, the most hateful of the eight. It’s hard to buy this argument, not only because Jennifer Jason Leigh brings a childish innocence that makes it easy to find humanity underneath Daisy’s grotesque exterior, but because she never truly gets to a position of power, not even in the film’s third act, when things start to go her way. Daisy has to bargain, negotiate, and tolerate abuse throughout the whole film. I find her an essential part of Tarantino’s bleak portrait of America, which he argues has been built on misogyny, racism, and greed.

Which brings me to the other uncomfortable accusation leveled against the film: Tarantino’s excessive use of the n-word. This is a complain that has accompanied Tarantino since he became famous, and that has resurfaces not only because of how many times the word is said in the movie, but by the fact that it is used for comedic effect a couple times. But such is the nature of our diverse times, and it will always be easy to spot certain social blind-spots in an aging man, especially one as over and uncensored as Tarantino.

But if we’re talking about blind-spots, the most fascinating -and problematic- moment of the film comes halfway through the film, in the form of an impassioned speech delivered by Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Warren. The speech is meant to be ugly, but also triumphant and shocking. It derives its power from two uncomfortable premises. First, that there are few things more humiliating than homosexual sex. Second, that black men have long penises.

Now, both of these premises -as eye-rolling as they are in 2015- work to scandalize within the film, and yet, they linger with the audience, because they are the thematic center-piece of one of the movie’s solitary moments of triumph. The very last scene of the movie frames The Hateful Eight as a nihilistic indictment of America, but not all of it is an ice-cold examination. Tarantino is a virile filmmaker, one that cannot escape his fetishes. He is a penis.

And why not use that metaphor? Tarantino is obsessed with guns, with swords, with stand-offs that only end in splashing blood. What are Tarantino’s scenes of extreme violence, those that drench the screen in bright red, if not the cinematic equivalent of an ejaculating penis? Especially in The Hateful Eight, which is structured as a long and winding dick-measuring contest between the men trapped in this cabin.

How to reconcile, then, Tarantino’s seeming disdain for the brokenness of American society with his total excitement for bloody images? Tarantino has repeatedly used terms such as “hard-on” to describe movie violence. This is a movie about the death of America that has a hard-on for the violent results of America’s failures. Wouldn’t it be fascinating, if indeed, Tarantino is dealing with the realization that his pleasure derives from the results of true nastiness?

Not that this movie is particularly interested in such ironies. If anything, the movie can only skim the very surface of this conversation before drowning in Tarantino’s indulgences. Not in the amount of violence, or the amount of N-words, but the movie’s length and structure. One of The Hateful Eight‘s biggest failures is that the reason it’s so hard to sit through the movie is not its nasty soul, but its overlong and boring familiarity of Tarantino’s old tricks.

Is Tarantino interested exclusively in staging long conversations that stretch out forever? This seems to have become his prime interest for a while, but after achieving amazing tension in Basterds, he repeated the trick to diminishing returns in Django, and has now built an unnecessarily long and winding movie around it. By the time The Hateful Eight gets to its intermission (an hour and forty minutes into the movie), things are just starting to get going. Later, toward the end, the movie detours into an unnecessarily long flashback.

Perhaps the ultimate irony of The Hateful Eight is that this piece of pure cynicism has been released as a “roadshow” experience meant to showcase Robert Richardson’s Panavision cinematography, and allowing the projection of the movie in 70mm film around the country. This seems like an exciting idea on paper, but it’s weirdly ill-fitted for The Hateful Eight. A more exciting, less grim, movie like Django or Basterds would’ve been a much better fit. Not to mention the fact that outside of some snowy vistas, the “glorious 70mm” is used almost exclusively -and rather inappropriately- on claustrophobic interiors.

Why choose this “Roadshow” release if the movie isn’t an epic in the vein of Gone with the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia? (both movies mentioned in the Hateful Eight program as examples of Roadshow attractions of the past). Why pay extra for the Panavision when the movie is going to be shrunk and projected in a 1.85 screen anyway? Why promote the 70mm so heavily when the projector is going to shake incessantly and the image is going to be out of focus because no one will pay the money to train projectionists? Tarantino fetishizes the experience of watching film as much as the movies themselves. With this release experiment, he has recreating the details of the experience, but not the essence.

Grade: 5 out of 10

Greatest Hits: A Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

fin and rey

It was only a matter of time until we got a new Star Wars movie, and yet, for those of us who were deeply disappointed pre-pubescents when George Lucas’s prequel trilogy hit theaters in the mid-2000s, the possibility that someone could recapture the magic we felt when we first encountered Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Backand Return of the Jedi seemed like a pipe-dream.

Recapturing the magic is the bar that The Force Awakens needed to clear, and I’m here to say that, at least in most ways, it cleared it. The seventh installment in the Star Wars saga is very self-aware. Some people have called it a straight-up remake of the original Star Wars, but it is more like a remix. It is sampling the best moments from the original trilogy and using them to establish a new set of characters. The plot does not develop in the most original and satisfying way, but that doesn’t mean it’s not successful.  If this movie’s main job was to get me excited about Disney’s new trilogy, then it was undoubtedly successful.

Director J.J. Abrams is as big a Star Wars fan as any, and his devotion for the original trilogy informs this movie deeply. The first 30 or so minutes of the movie are blockbuster filmmaking of the highest quality. We meet orphan scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), who lives inside an abandoned AT-AT, and waits for the parents who abandoned her to come back to the desert planet of Jakku. After a long day of work, Rey sits down to eat a meal and look at the horizon, but before she does, she puts on an old Rebel helmet. It’s a moment that directly calls back to Luke’s binary sunset, but is charged with nostalgia for the adventure of the movies we love.

Rey, like Abrams, is a fangirl. She has heard about Luke Skywalker and the Jedi (although she thinks it’s all a myth). She has also heard about the famous smuggler Han Solo, and how he made the Kessel run in *fourteen* parsecs. This is the most effective way in which The Force Awakens rhymes with the original trilogy. It has become, once again, a mythical adventure. Rey, like Luke, is the regular teen who will soon get to part of the battles that fuel her dreams. Abrams goes back to the most elemental fantasy of heroes and villains, and re-invents the original myth in the process.

Rey’s call to adventure comes in the form of a little droid called BB-8, which holds a map that could lead to the whereabouts of the legendary, and disappeared, Luke Skywalker. But Rey doesn’t know about the droid’s importance until she meets Finn (John Boyega), a sensible Stormtrooper who has defected, and is trying to escape the fascistic First Order. The meeting of these new heroes culminates in the movie’s most exciting action sequence. We are re-introduced to the Millennium Falcon, and the myth-making is finally complete.

It’s in the movie’s second act that things start to get a little shaky. This is when we finally see some familiar faces, most notably Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), both of whom join our young heroes in their journey. This is also when Abrams’s remixing of the original trilogy start to show its weaknesses. The callbacks are so evident, that it becomes easier and easier to spot what moment from the original trilogy is being referenced in each scene. By the time we get to the third act -which revolves around the destruction of yet another Death Star-like base- we know exactly what beats the movie is going to play.

Plot has never been Abrams’s strong-suit, but his direction is so strong, and the first act has done such a great job of establishing our main characters, that we can excuse the familiarity. Even if we are familiar with the plot points and story beats of the movie, we can find refuge in the characters’ reactions to everything that is happening around them. This is without a doubt the best acted Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back, and the performances are crucial in getting us invested in the new characters who are going to be at the center of this new trilogy.

Daisy Ridley and John Boyega have fantastic chemistry as Rey and Finn. Ridley is a wonderful discovery, and a great action heroine, while Boyega is immensely charismatic and very funny in what -somewhat surprisingly- ends up being the funniest Star Wars movie yet. But they’re not the only great new characters. I must mention Oscar Isaac, probably the best actor of his generation, killing it as Resistance pilot Poe Dameron. And Adam Driver, who gets to play Kylo Ren, the most complex villain so far in this saga.

Kylo Ren can be summed up as a more interesting version of what Lucas tried to do with Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. He is an overly emotional and temperamental young warrior. He prays at the alter of Darth Vader, and wishes he could be as menacing and evil as his idol. The problem is he has doubt. He is temped not by the dark, but by the light side of the force. There is good in him that he wants to annihilate. The struggle to be evil is one of the few thoroughly original ideas in The Force Awakens, and one that will surely play a big role in the movies that will follow it.

However, if we’re talking about great characters, then we must talk about BB-8, the most miraculous creation of this movie, and a immediate candidate for the best character in the history of Star Wars. An awesome silent robot with all the personality of a great silent comedian, I hope to see much more of him in future movies.

To put the whole thing into perspective: The Force Awakens has some of the most fascinating characters this franchise has ever seen, and they’re stuck in what is not exactly the greatest story. By adhering so closely to A New Hope, the movie gains the power of myth-making, but it loses in originality. Whatever emotion there is to the movie’s last act comes not necessarily from what happens, but from how our characters react to it. I never thought I’d say this about a Star Wars movie, but a lot of the emotion comes from the nuance in these actors’ performances.

I was excited and I was skeptical, but I think J.J. Abrams succeeded. I wouldn’t call The Force Awakens the best movie of the year or anything like that. But it is incredibly entertaining, always fun, often exciting, very funny, and I most definitely looking forward to spending more time with these awesome characters when Episode VIII comes around.

Grade: 8 out of 10

The Snow is a Metaphor for Snow: A Review of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant

revenant

The big story surrounding The Revenant is how hard it was to shoot. The film is based on the true story of frontier legend Hugh Glass, who not only survived a deadly bear attack, but made his way through the cold wilderness just to get revenge on the men who wronged him. Conveying the immediacy of the danger was crucial for director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, and so, instead of using computer technology to render the movie’s icy landscapes, he and his team ventured into the Canadian mountains in what ended up being an unexpectedly long shoot. So long, in fact, that they started to run out of ice, and had to move the production all the way down to Argentina.

Much has been written about how exhausting the filming process was, and how star Leonardo DiCaprio struggled to act through the unbearably cold weather. Articles have been written about how Iñárritu and DiCaprio “survived” the filming of the film (my guess is they were just filming a movie, and thus, were probably not in actual danger). All of this talk begs the question: was this overwhelming struggle for authenticity worth it? In some ways, it was. Cold weather is one of hardest things to convey in film, and The Revenant does a pretty great job of constantly reminding us how cold the characters are. In others, it wasn’t. Because this is an Iñárritu film through-and-through, which means the director’s usual strengths, and overwhelming weaknesses are sharply in focus. Iñárritu is a talented man who knows his way around a camera. He knows how to create visceral, memorable images, but he is also fairly hollow and superficial in his thematic obsessions. The Revenant fits perfectly within the rest of his filmography.

What makes Iñárritu such a frustrating filmmaker is the fact that he is so talented. The action sequence that opens The Revenant, for example, is quite fantastic. Credit has to go to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (a true virtuoso of the camera if there ever was one), who uses his now trademark long takes to convey the inescapable outburst of chaos that disentangles when Native American warriors attack a fur-trapper camp. The sequence is gruesome and relentless. It sets up the tone for the film quite effectively, but it also foretells the film’s excess. This is, after all, the story of a man going through hell and back, and Iñárritu really hammers on the “hell” part. Take, for instance, the now infamous bear attack, which is so violent, and goes on for so long, that it’s hard to take it seriously. I couldn’t help but laugh.

There is another very telling moment during that bear attack. At one point, the bear’s face comes really close to the camera, and his breath fogs up the lens. I don’t know if this was an accident caused by the use of an actual animal, or if the breath was added to a computer generated bear in post-production; nevertheless, there were one or two moments like this throughout the film, and they clashed very loudly with the ultra-realistic aesthetic of the rest of the movie. There was a Q&A with Iñárritu after my screening, and I was really glad when friend Abie (who was my plus-one that night) asked him about these weird moments of self-reflexivity that had stayed in my mind throughout the whole movie. The director’s response confirmed what I had suspected. It was a coincidence, an accidental moment of beauty he had decided to keep.

Happy accidents exist, and they can make a movie better. Iñárritu’s accident looked pretty, that’s for sure, but did it make the film better? This is not to say that every aspect of a film has to be micromanaged to an inch of its life, but this is the kind of thought that overwhelms me when watching Iñárritu’s films. They are, in many ways, so well done, that I refuse to accept the fact that they could be as superficial as they are. I search for little bits and moments that will grant me a bigger understanding of what the director was going for, but at the end of the day, it is all in vain. The Revenant is a story about a man who comes back for the dead for revenge, and that’s that. There is nothing else beneath the thick furs and the piles of snow.

This isn’t necessarily bad. There are tons of superficial movies from which I derive enormous pleasure. For example, I wouldn’t describe Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive as particularly deep, but it is so well executed that I love it nonetheless. Also very important in Drive‘s case, is the fact that the movie is very transparent about the story it is telling. The Revenant is anything but. The movie’s whole second act is piled with hallucinations, fever-dreams, and other kind of esoteric moments that hint at a bigger theme that runs through the movie. There is an inexplicable shot of a comet flying by for God’s sake. What does that comment mean? Probably nothing. It’s probably a visual shorthand to invoke a more complex understanding of the world and humanity that Iñárritu has no interest in exploring. Strip away all of this bullshit, and The Revenant becomes a pretty solid action movie.

But that’s the movie I wish we had, not the one we got. The movie we got is more than two hours long, and is mostly about Leonardo DiCaprio suffering his way from one snowy landscape to another. The Revenant is the culmination of Iñárritu’s unstoppable obsession with suffering. To him, there are no triumphs, only pain and suffering. Humanity is rotten, and nature deadly. But if there is nothing else, then what’s the point of anything? Life is empty, and so is his movie.

Grade: 5 out of 10