' Cinema Romantico

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Tu Dors Nicole

The title of writer/director Stéphane Lafleur’s sleepily incisive “Tu Dors Nicole” translates in English to “You’re Sleeping Nicole” which is a late film comment made to our titular protagonist (Julianne Côté) but hangs over the entire film nonetheless. She always feels asleep, even when she’s awake, emblemized in the sterling opening shot that finds Nicole in some nameless guy’s room after a one night stand, shot like a hazy dream in the film’s pristine 35mm black & white, with a tall photograph of a waterfall on the nightstand, the sound of its flow echoing throughout the room, as if Nicole is standing right before it. When the guy asks if he can call her again she asks in all earnestness “What for?” What for indeed.


She’s just graduated college and we all know how that goes, both in real life and at the movies. It’s not merely that it’s not easy, but that you feel lazy, not particularly ready to engage with life, as the wise elders call it, because why would you when you have so, so, so much of it still to live? “You’re still young, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you,” the walking fortune cookies will say before doubling back twenty-two seconds later and wondering “So what are you going to do with the rest of your life?” That’s Nicole; caught between that ancient tug of war and content to let the ropes fall away while housesitting for her parents in Quebec over the summer with her best friend, Véronique (Catherine St-Laurent). Not long after, however, her brother Rémi (Marc-André Grondin) turns up with his band, transforming the house into a makeshift recording studio as the omnipresent hum of guitar, bass and drums replaces the whisper of wind in the trees and the relaxing chirping of birds as her summer soundtrack. Her brother’s perfectionism stands in contrast to her aimlessness.

The summer dawdles forward. Teensy dramas arise, whether issues at work, disagreements with her best friend or a romantic affectation for her brother’s band’s drummer, J.F. (Francis La Haye). Another movie might have pressed this last one much more, making it some sort of threshold that Nicole must cross in order to find out who she is, or some such, but Lafleur’s film thankfully never goes all in for “answers”, because “Tu Dors Nicole” knows answers at that age all fill in the blank questions are meant to have no answers. And so instead Nicole and J.F. dance around the idea, such as in a wistful and mischievous late night sequence inside a bedroom where their mutual flirtation hangs in the air, Rémi’s guitar provides the melodious soundtrack through the walls, before it dissolves like mist.


While coming-of-age films are often reliant on voiceovers to explain its main character’s headspace or a quest the main character must complete in order to achieve the key to the front door of adulthood, “Tu Dors Nicole” is refreshingly absent either of these. Yes, Nicole and Véronique book a trip to Iceland, on a credit card that magically appears to the lilting sounds of harp, but that is talked about theoretically – even with the tickets – more than tangentially. And with no inner monologues whatsoever, we are left to wonder about Nicole, much like Nicole is left wonder about herself, stricken with insomnia wandering the eerily empty town in the middle of the night, eerie passages that impeccably capture the sensation of being you, when every night feels like forever, like the sun will never rise again.

On one after-hours stroll she passes a house and sees an old man son a step-ladder dusting a ceiling fan. This, you can practically feel exuding from Nicole’s furrowed brow, is the adulthood of which everyone speaks? Who in their right mind is any hurry to get there? That paradox is underscored in the form of Martin (Godefroy Reding), a pre-teen whom Nicole once babysat who the film, in a bit of heightened delirium (?), outfits with a suave adult voice, comically illustrating his desperation to grow up while Nicole, of course, merely wishes she could stave off adulthood forever and ever. And it’s somewhere there in the middle where “Tu Dors Nicole” lurks, never completely committing to the idea of adulthood’s greener pastures, never totally surrounding adolescent desire to just let existence drift by, its unresolved issues building and building until it finally erupts in a metaphorical conclusion that wonderfully, turbulently lets it all just figuratively hang in the Quebec sky, as if perpetually suspended rather than eventually resolved, which the older I get the more I begin to suspect is less an affliction of youthful malaise than of life in general.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Swing Vote (2008)

This is a re-posting of a review I first offered four years ago, feeling chagrined in the midst of the election cycle. The election cycle here in these United States is re-rearing its ugly head, of course, for another interminable slog into November and I’ve been feeling chagrined all over again.

When I was younger, much younger, I was enraptured by politics. I voraciously read biographies of Washington and Jefferson and Madison. I probably knew more about the nuts and bolts of the Continental Congress than anyone my age had any right to. I engendered verbal arguments with Mr. Calvert, my history teacher in high school, who would always open class with discussions of current events, and I happened to take his class at the same time Clinton was attempting to oust the First Bush. Mr. Calvert was a conservative and I was a liberal and I was all in on Bill. (To this day I still think 1992 is the most excited I’ve ever been for an election, and I couldn’t even vote!) Granted, I was a liberal mostly because I grew up in an exclusively liberal household and only knew the basic generalities of what I was talking about, but the point remains......I had a passion for politics. That passion, however, has long since festered.


We’re all friends here, right? I can admit something to you, can’t I? I can? Good. Here it is: I didn’t vote in the infamous 2000 election. I would have voted for Gore if I had, but I found the whole process, the whole campaign, the whole election, the divisiveness of it and of the nation, so nauseating and depressing that I simply couldn’t take it. I lost all interest. I genuinely stopped caring. In the wake of what that election wrought I felt profoundly guilty, and not voting (even if Gore did carry my state) remains one of my greatest regrets, and I have never missed the voting booth since, though my trips there still too often feel born more of civic duty than fervent optimism.

“Swing Vote” is a decidedly necessarily absurd story about a New Mexican yokel named Bud – played by Kevin Costner in such a way to suggest what Gardner Barnes might very well have become long after the “Fandango” credits rolled – whose 12 year old daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll), dismayed by her father’s routine drunkenness and failure to vote in the day’s Presidential election, attempts to cast her father’s vote for him only to have it go electronically awry. As it happens and as it must, the election is a dead heat. And that dead heat all comes down to New Mexico’s electoral votes. And New Mexico’s electoral votes hinge entirely on that single vote that went awry. In other words, Bud will decide the nation’s President.

The national media and, in turn, chaos descend upon Bud and Milly’s trailer, and both candidates, incumbent Boone (Kelsey Grammar) and challenger Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper), arrive to court his vote. Their campaign managers, played by Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane, have, respectively, never lost and never won, thus they will do whatever it takes to make their boss’s do whatever it takes to earn that vote. So we find Boone, the conservative, winning the hearts of the EPA and Greenleaf, the liberal, threatening to clamp down on the Mexican border, though the film remains notably even-handed, never tipping into conservative screed or liberal fantasy. The Presidents are revealed as generally good guys, having been led astray by their hyper-controlling managers. Bud is at first amused by the process before taking the slope downward to a pit of nicey-nice depression at the tail end of the second act when America and the town turn on him so he can rise back up to recite the obligatory speech to the Presidents as the music swells, ditching his political apathy for patriotism.

It’s all handled well enough, maybe even a little better than you think, with often predictable humor that still can induce chuckles simply on account of its goodwill, and Costner (and Costner’s amused giggle) are surprisingly solid. But even if Bud is the principal character, I really saw “Swing Vote” through the eyes of young Molly.


She opens the film full of ideals. She embraces the right to vote, so much more because she still does not have this right herself, and she is sad that her father does not merely refuse to embrace it in the same way but that he does not embrace it at all. And as the film’s story grows larger and larger, as she meets the President and TV reporters and others, as she sees the Political Machine for what it really is, a place where ideals go to die and victory overrides principals, her passion for the process threatens to wane.

Her father, I think, senses this too and goes to bat. Costner, smartly, never plays the part all that differently, he just slightly adjusts his attitude. Sometimes that’s all it takes. And his daughter’s ideals in the end are able to remain intact. Hopefully they stay that way, though I have my doubts.

Monday, February 08, 2016

30 for 30: The '85 Bears

Games in the National Football League, as some incisive announcer might tell you, are won on the football field, which is why teams like the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins and the multiple Super Bowl winning squads such as the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 70's, San Francisco 49ers of the 80's and modern day New England Patriots are considered the cream of the crop. And yet the '85 Chicago Bears, the subject of director Jason Hehir's documentary in ESPN's ongoing 30 for 30 series, arguably hold more cultural cache than any of the aforementioned teams put together even though that iconic Chicago squad did not achieve a perfect record and earned but a single Super Bowl title. And that's because the '85 Bears, more than their legendarily ferocious defense and record-setting Hall of Fame running back, were a team of towering personalities.


Fridge. Sweetness. Jimbo. L.A. Mike. Fencik, the guy whose name just sounded like a nickname. They had a punky quarterback with sunglasses who fired shots directly at the NFL commissioner with magic-markered headbands. A defensive coordinator, Buddy Ryan, who thought he was bigger than the coach and a coach so big they just called him Da Coach. Much like they called the '85 Bears Da Bears. Make no mistake, John Fox and Jay Cutler and Mike Brown, my beloved ex-Cornhusker from the non-glory days of Dick Jauron, were not Da Bears. The '85 Bears were Da Bears, then, now, forever. All this is why Hehir barely even bothers to discuss the on-field specifics of their historic Super Bowl thrashing of the Patriots. The game itself was subordinate to the team's compelling temperament.

Strangely, though, for a team of such brash pizzazz, Hehir's aesthetic conspicuously, disappointingly fails to honor that flamboyance. Like so many of the recent 30 for 30 docs he forgoes any kind of narrative ingenuity to chart the squad in basic narrative terms, its rise from a bungling outfit with a solid defense and no offense, beyond the astonishing late Walter Payton, to a championship behemoth to its eventual fall when those personalities finally went bust. He recounts this with a formidable series of talking heads and NFL Films-ish on-field field footage, but not a whole lot else. There are moments when Hehir serves behind the scenes footage, like McMahon drinking a can of Bud Light in a press conference right after being drafted by the Bears or Ditka sucking down a cigarette on the practice field, that don't come across cut and pasted from a hundred other sports documentaries, and you're desperate to see more of them.

Still, for all the formal blandness, these Bears, particularly McMahon and defensive tackle Steve McMichael, speak with an incredible candidness that leaves you wishing for more tell-it-like-it-is from today's athletes, though as is pointed out if players behaved now like the Bears did then they probably would have all been arrested. In other words, it's not simply the dominance that will never be replicated but the demeanor.

For all the echoes "The '85 Bears" is sure to awake, however, Hehir, to his credit, does not ignore cause and effect, addressing the reality of concussions, like the team's safety, Dave Duerson, who in 2011 took his own life and was consequently discovered to have CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Linebacker Otis Wilson says he has no symptoms as of today, but also notes he has made preparations with his family if that changes, and his manner betrays a fear that it will change which I'm certain is applicable to nearly every player, former and current, too. Even so, Wilson, and all the others, make clear, as ex-players in pain so often do, that they would not do anything differently.

Films like this, for better and worse, are exercises in nostalgia. The sportswriter Joe Posnanski has written that baseball "will never stop being the game it was when you were 10 years old. That's the charm. That's the nostalgia. That's the trap." When I read that I immediately thought how I'm endlessly wishing that college football, my preferred sport, existed now exactly as it existed in 1987.....when I was 10 years old. And I feel fairly confident in thinking that all the players featured in this documentary, and that all the fans watching along at home, wish that in terms of the Chicago Bears it was still 1985. How could they not since that's when it was perfect. That's the charm. That's the nostalgia. That's the trap. You watch and wish player personalities could still be this outsized, concussion was a hazy word that meant nothing and Ditka was a Polish god who would not go on to trade every draft pick the New Orleans Saints had to acquire Ricky Williams.

Near the end McMichael summarizes that his "whole experience was about walking out that tunnel and hearing that crowd. That's when you're really alive, baby. And do you ever get back to that point once it's gone?" He answers his own query so quickly and pointedly that it wrecks your heart.

"I haven't," he says.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Friday's {Not So} Old Fashioned: Any Given Sunday (1999)

The first shot of Oliver Stone’s pro football opus “Any Given Sunday” is the pigskin and its conspicuous Wilson trademark, the game and the game’s commercialization standing hand-in-hand. The ball is clutched by taped, bleeding fingers and then snapped to a quarterback who we see first not in a full shot but in close-up, his frenzied eyes scanning the field. Stone gives these instants a religious grandiosity, emblemized in another shot not long after, the camera looking straight up from below the goalposts at the sun streaming down from the clouds, as if the Almighty is watching, which I assume the team preacher – “I got out my playbook” he says clutching the Bible and quoting Scripture after the loss – believes is true.


This entire opening, as the Miami Sharks - a fictional NFL-ish franchise - wage gridiron war, is bravura filmmaking by Stone, ever the moviemaking maximalist, who empties out his bag of tricks, employing Zuul-like growls on the soundtrack as linebackers bear down on quarterbacks and then cuing up strings when he cuts to the owner’s box where poodles are pet and Chablis is drunk. When the Sharks’ veteran quarterback Cap Rooney (Dennis Quaid) is hit and injured, Stone cuts directly to a Metrix commercial, a reminder that even a player’s gruesome injury is an advertisement, and when Cap, against the advice of his medical betters, climbs to his feet and hobbles off the field rather than going by stretcher, Stone calls on a jubilant processional melody, as people cheer. In other words, he is a warrior sacrificed for the greater good of the people buying tickets to massage the ego of the owner’s box.

This is “Any Given Sunday” in capsule, brutal, entertaining and operatically unsubtle, where the field is simultaneously a triage station and a modern Colosseum. Stone, however, is not content simply with documenting on-field action; he goes off the field, mining drama for the innumerable maneuverings that contribute, for better and much, much worse, to this gladiatorial Sunday afternoon spectacle. The paradox, however, is that the film has both too many characters and no characters that are inessential, meaning that even if the film feels over-long and over-heated, it is nonetheless effective and entertaining.

A myriad of satellites are made to orbit around Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino), legendary coach of the Sharks, whose dialogue is conveyed almost exclusively in shouting matches or clandestine whispers, aside from occasionally heartfelt conversations with Mandy Murphy (Elizabeth Berkley), who happens to be a lady of the night, meaning even their gravity is fogged up. But you can hardly blame D’Amato for just wanting some talk that sounds real as he is forced to navigate an organization of surreptitiousness, as the team’s owner, Christina Pagniacci, played by Cameron Diaz with a rich girl fury, tries use the threat of moving the team to L.A. (sound familiar?) to get the city of Miami to finance a new stadium, and who also pressures the team’s physician, Harvey Mandrake (James Woods), to lie about certain players injuries. Diaz chews through scenery as a woman in a man’s world, of which there is something to respect, even though she is as cutthroat as all the rest of ‘em. There is something righteous and equally disturbing about the moments she parades into the locker room – righteous because she’s winning at a man’s game; disturbing because she’s a white person lording over a plethora of black men whom she willingly sends out to injury for the sake of her own amusement and pocket book.


Mandrake, played with textbook slithery oil by Woods, is a villain, sure, putting players like linebacker Shark Lavay (Lawrence Taylor) in harm’s way, yet simultaneously the one acting with a bizarre candor. If D’Amato harangues him for ethics, it’s only, in Mandrake’s estimation, because the coach is in denial. “These men are gladiators!” Mandrake declares. “Warriors! And long ago, they made that choice, not me, not you.” It’s a speech that comes coated in the stench of save-my-job B.S., but it’s also not wrong, and reminded me of the same attitude one Barack Obama copped to having about the whole deal not long ago.” “There’s a little bit of caveat emptor,” he said of pro football. “These guys, they know what they’re doing. They know what they’re buying into. It is no longer a secret. It’s sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?” Or as Mandrake puts it: “Getting killed? Maybe, maybe not, it’s one chance in a thousand, but nobody blitzes like The Shark, right, Tony?” In that line is the NFL and our entire relationship to it, even POTUS.

D’Amato, of course, is no paragon of virtue, telling Cap, “You just need the needle”, shrugging off his vet’s admission of blank spots in his memory and having Shark sign a waiver to go put himself at grave risk. Meanwhile D’Amato also must traverse a quarterback controversy between Cap, the stalwart vet, revealed behind the curtain to be a fragile King of Scotland to Lauren Holly’s vicious Lady Macbeth, and Steamin’ Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx), who, in retrospect, was Michael Vick the very same year Michael Vick’s star was first beginning to rise in college. Beamon’s arc is unbelievably swift – he goes from throwing up in the huddle to recording a rap video in what’s, like, a week and a half. And yet even if its narrative logic seems wrong, it’s actually just right, a perfect expression of the meteoric rise and fall and rise and fall, etc., in the sports world, where Heroes & Villains move at warp speed.

Perhaps the film’s best scene is also its most dire and most histrionic, Beamen meeting with D’Amato at the Coach’s home. Stone lays it on thick, thunder rumbling in the distance and a big screen on the premises reveling in violent flashes of “Ben Hur”, as D’Amato and Beamon hash out everything, from Beamen’s place on the team to a black man’s role in the game to rules that get broken because the rules are antiquated hogwash to the advent of a new century and a new brand of football. This whole gonzo scene is like a soliloquy for what football was, or what it masqueraded as, and what it would become, and what it pretends to be, and D’Amato is powerless to stop it just as Beamon, despite all posturing to the contrary, isn’t quite ready for it.


Eventually all this builds, as it must, to the Big Game, though it’s not the Biggest Game, just a playoff game where mettle will be tested, and with the myriad of issues Stone has brought to the forefront, “Any Given Sunday” is primed to explode into a refutation of its titular cliché. Behold, it doesn’t. Instead Stone has Pacino unleash a pre-game locker room oration registering 800 megatons on the cinema speech scale. It’s spellbinding...and it’s full of clichés. It’s everything Stone has been rejecting for two hours suddenly served sincerely with Pacino’s patented holler. And the game that follows – the Sharks falling behind, and coming back, and Cap standing down so Beamon can stand up, and Shark suffering a concussion before he heroically comes to, and a final play that Stone majestically draws out to Moby’ “My Weakness” like it’s the most important moment that ever has and ever will be which in that moment is exactly what it is – is the zenith of football’s romanticism, where winning washes away all ills, where the injured have served the greater good even they suffer a lifetime for it, and we are disgusted even as we simultaneously embrace the holy hell out of it. It’s too much, but we can’t get enough. It’s our weakness.

“That’s football,” D’Amato says. “That’s all it is.”

Thursday, February 04, 2016

5 Coen Brothers Movies Performances That Really Tie The Film Together, plus one

As Dianna Sletten writes at SheKnows, “Tying a room together doesn’t mean having to spend a lot of money or buying several new items for the room. In most cases, you can tie a room together successfully with the furniture and accent pieces you already have, by displaying them properly. Or you can add one or two new items that will make the room pop.” She does know. She knows like The Dude knew in The Coen Brothers’ “The Big Lebowski” when he so desperately just wanted his fair-to-middlin' rug back because it really tied the room together. And I like to think The Coen Brothers added this little plot complication because they knew it was simultaneously nothing and everything. Because The Coen Brothers know that what truly ties their often intricate films together are not the star-making performances - like Jeff Bridges as The Dude, like Frances McDormand as the immortal Marge Gunderson, like Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis. No, it’s often the support to the supporting performances that ties a Coen Brothers movie together, like the little thought that goes a long way in a bit of fine dining plate presentation.

5 Coen Brothers Movies Performances That Really Tie The Film Together, plus one

Josh Brolin, True Grit

For most of this western opus, a US Marshal, a Texas Ranger and the spunky fourteen year old Mattie Ross try and track down the villainous Tom Chaney, the man responsible for killing Mattie’s father. Innumerable westerns have taught us to assume that Chaney is obligatorily vicious, requisitely unkillable, except when it comes to our heroes. But when we meet him, Brolin does a 180, playing the part like the filing cabinet of his mind is missing a lot of folders. Like, you know how there is speculation that mentally Billy the Kid wasn’t all there? Brolin plays that Billy the Kid.

Tara Reid, The Big Lebowski

Still, and probably forever, Tara Reid's singular silver screen moment, made famous by a single tawdry line that her scratchy voice turns into extraordinary Z-grade art.

Petra Boden, Fargo

She’s in a single scene, manning the cash register at the diner where Jerry Lundegaard, his father-in-law and Stan Grossman (who could appear in a different version of this list) have just held council. Upbeat to the nines, she ignores the distracted vibes emanating from Jerry to merrily ask how everything was. He offers a standard-issue reply followed by a rhetorical wondering of how she is. She doesn’t say anything because she doesn’t have to – she just improbably enlarges her grin like it’s literally her happiest day on Earth, which it probably is, until the next day.

Patrick Cranshaw, The Hudsucker Proxy

Most my age likely remember him as Blue, the ancient fraternity brother in “Old School”, but he’ll always he Ancient Sorter to me, the not-really-at-all apprentice to Norville Barnes’ first-day-on-the-job mail clerk. Every time I’ve dared to daydream about how I’ve got big ideas I’ve heard Cranshaw’s voice disinterestedly responding: “I’m sure you do.”

David Rasche, Burn After Reading

There’s an awful lotta plot happening in the Coens’ noirish screwball comedy, especially when the CIA finds itself involved in a myriad of strange goings-on involving a woman they don’t really know and that doesn’t really know as much as she claims to, and the few times when a Langley boss (J.K. Simmons) needs a briefing on all that what-have-you, it’s Rasche’s CIA officer Palmer who provides it. Really these sequences are un-essential because Rasche, with a laconic, Churchill-martini-dry voice, is merely explaining what has already happened. But then, that’s their innate beauty – the finer points of Central Intelligence bureaucracy rendered in Rasche’s poetical monotone “Ums” and “Uhs.”

Simon Helberg, A Serious Man

“Look at the parking lot, Larry.”

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Mustang

Watching Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s French/Turkish film “Mustang”, I could not help but think of the magnificent 2011 Norwegian film “Turn Me On Dammit” in so much as they both center on the complicated lives of teenage girls. Now granted, as the title implies, “Turn Me On Dammit” trends more toward the risqué, like an American teenage sex comedy except far more earnest and nowhere near as dumb, but still lewd and suggestive and sometimes not suggestive at all, while “Mustang” is a movie focused on a family of exceptionally conservative Muslims steadfast in marrying off their five daughters to the proper suitors.

Yet despite these opposite sides of the spectrum, what shone through was how the inner nature of all these girls, whether (seemingly) agnostic or devout Muslim, was not all that different. It can be difficult sometimes through western eyes to see the beliefs of people like this, and it can be dangerous to paint with a broad brush and simply assume that everyone in this kind of culture finds it oppressive, but “Mustang” astutely implies a universality, a desire for all girls growing up not simply to have fun, which is a right all its own, but to lead lives of their choosing.


The film opens with five orphaned sisters, together, almost intertwined, laughing, frolicking with boys on the beach, which only gets them into deep, dark trouble. Even though it hardly seems anything other than teenage innocence to our westernized eyes, to their devout Uncle and Aunt, they may as well be demonized in the eyes of God. They are taken into a room one by one and beaten, and then taken into a home in the country that might be idyllic if not for the bars over windows and gates at doors, a prison stripped of anything “perverted” where they are to be taught how to be women. Of course, how to be women in this context means how to be a wife, and as they eat they listen to scratchy videotapes about being in the service of men. Erol sits there like an army instructor; the girls giggle.

Despite the ominousness of the jail-like features of the home, the film never overloads with ominousness, making it seem as if they are eating gruel and reduced to nothing beyond menial labor. There is still a stunning amount of joy that pulses through the cracks, often when Erol (Ayberk Pekcan), a character drawn far too broadly, like a dictator out of uniform, is out of the house, and in these moments it becomes striking to see how the older women of the house are more than accepting of the sisters’ wants and desires. When they sneak off to a soccer match, in fact, and the aunts see the girls on TV, they go to awesome and comical lengths to protect the secret rather than call them out. They understand the young girls’ plight, even if they willingly further it, bound to tradition too.

Though “Mustang” bears hallmarks with Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides”, based on Jeffrey Eugenides novel about five sisters in 1970s Michigan, that film was seen through the eyes of the neighborhood boys, while “Mustang” is seen specifically through the eyes of Lale (Güneş Şensoy), the youngest of the quintet. Though these sisters are quite consciously portrayed as a group, and one that is eventually severed, they are also individuals, and Erguven does a stellar job tracing the influence of girl to girl, from the oldest on down to Lale, who watches what becomes of those ahead of her, and doesn’t plot so much as let all this information wash over, and when the moment of truth comes, it registers as both spontaneous and a long time coming, hitting back at her family and, in turn, the whole social order.

And while the title “The Virgin Suicides” gives away the game, “Mustang”, despite its culture, retains more hope, with a denouement that at first seems simply like a lark before suddenly transforming into something very real, like a storybook twist that you’d never allow yourself to believe might actually come true. And what awaits these characters is not some magical land but a place willing to look forward rather than backward, and nurture their true selves, which, when you think about it, to these characters, probably seems pretty magical indeed.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Joy

There is a moment in “Joy” before the real-life titular character’s Miracle Mop has taken off when she’s desperately peddling her invention in a K-Mart parking lot to shoppers passing by without a second glance. Eventually she concocts a ruse, putting her best friend in charge of sales and then masquerading, along with her daughter, as a disinterested shopper suddenly intrigued by this self-wringing mop, which she takes and studies and uses like it’s the best thing since Gwen Stefani’s Urban Decay Eyeshadow before offering a few kernels of housekeeping wisdom, and voila! Other shoppers are drawn in. Sure, sure, the cops are called and kick Joy and her daughter and her best friend out while confiscating the mop prototype, but how many successful television stars had their first show cancelled?


Jennifer Lawrence’s previous two cinematic unions with writer/director David O. Russell, “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle”, involved, at least partially, the idea of storytelling, whether it was the latter’s role-playing in the name of Abscam or Lawrence’s character of the former penning fake letters to her burgeoning love interest to hold him at bay. And in its own way, “Joy” is all about storytelling too, a biopic that isn’t really a biopic at all, never calling Joy “Joy Mangano” and never referring to the Miracle Mop by its officially designated name. Instead Russell’s film is all about a woman named Joy, played by Jennifer Lawrence, beaten down by her too-busy life who finally stands up and through a little hard-nosed ingenuity decides to re-write her own life story.

As the movie opens, Joy is no star; she’s a supporting character in her own madcap family. That begins to change, however, in an at-sea sequence that finds her cleaning up red wine from a boat deck spilled by others who predictably leave her to do the grunt work. This leads to shards in the mop head which leads to blood on Joy’s hands when she tries to wring the mop head out which leads to her A Ha! Moment, inventing her own mop head and eventually pitching it as an idea to a burgeoning TV exec for QVC, Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper). He might give her the platform she needs to ascend, but she’s the one who makes it happen, taking the stage at a delicate moment to peddle her wares, a re-take of that scene in the K-Mart parking lot that she nails. And Lawrence takes a moment that in real life is so often nothing more than a monotonous Saturday morning televised sales pitch and transforms it into something , taking embodying such a radiant warmth that you almost want to find the nearest telephone and make a call.

Admittedly, the film’s tone wobbles, kicking off as a dysfunctional family screwball sorta comedy before morphing into the mobilization of a one-woman empire, but that’s because Joy herself is trying to break free from her dysfunctional family and their screwball hijinks and star in a solo act. Tone is of less importance to Russell then the believability of his heroine navigating the minefield of an ever-evolving environment apparently existing at every turn to try and smite the fortune awaiting her, and the believability is grounded in Lawrence’s performance, one that isn’t as manic like her other Russell collaborations and more about exuding a fierce inner cool. And if her fortune accrual is foregone, well, the entertainment of “Joy” isn’t derived from suspense of Will She? Or Won’t She, because we know she will, but the I-Won’t-Be-Stopped mentality Joy thrillingly adopts as she does. And when the story she is authoring for herself as the Miracle Mop Maven is threatened, whether by her own oblivious family members or nefarious manufacturers, she goes to great lengths to retain rights to her own underdog tale.

Russell seems unsure how to end the film, tacking on what’s really an afterword as an epilogue, which is unfortunate but not fatal, and simply a disappointing sign that he didn’t recognize he already had the perfect end in the form of a wordless shot, down in the Lone Star State, Texas’s nickname very much becoming the perfect epithet for our leading lady, where her character must go to haggle with a cowboy who thinks he knows best until he’s made to realize he doesn’t because Joy does. Before this sequence, however, we see Joy in movie star sunglasses, on the sidewalk, outside a Christmas-themed store where paper snow falls and ensconces her, a little Hollywood magic which is a look that suits this entrepreneur just right. She’s ready for her close-up.