Joy (2016)

★★★★

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Joy PosterDirector: David O. Russell

Release Date: December 25th, 2015 (US); January 1st, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Drama

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Édgar Ramírez

Hey, look. Another film starring Jennifer Lawrence and another star turn from Jennifer Lawrence. The can-do-no-wrong actor is back alongside Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro in Joy, all three under the familiar guidance of director David O. Russell. This is better than their last collaboration, American Hustle, solely because it pits Lawrence in the driver’s seat. It’s not better written, nor better shot. It is simply better shepherded by its central player, whose is clearly one of the best performers cinema currently has to offer.

She plays Joy Mangano, a multifaceted individual struggling to keep her domestic life on the straight and narrow. Her grandmother Mimi (Diane Lane) narrates in parts, telling us about Joy’s childhood and what the youngster had before divorce sent things by the wayside: family, pets, love, a non-idealistic attitude (“I don’t need a prince”). Now a grown women, Joy still doesn’t need a prince nor is she an idealist, but the inventor could do with a degree of leeway in terms of luck.

Mum Terri (Virginia Madsen) is obsessed with television, unwilling to interrupt her bed-based viewing for anything apart from the bare essentials. Like the lone passive smoker living in a cigarette guzzling household, you can see the obsession rubbing off on Joy. In Terri, O. Russell seems to be highlighting our inherent desire to live vicariously through others, and why this can be both good and bad (which is rich coming from a movie). We learn early on that Terri’s TV-induced laziness -cum-ineptitude meant she failed to get her daughter a patent for a potentially profit spinning invention years back.

See, Joy is an inventor. At least she should be. Unfortunately, her house has taken the form of a hotel for relatives. Whenever she visits her father’s (Robert De Niro) vehicle repair shop, the ideas woman walks past men taking aim at empty glass bottles. It’s as if her dreams and aspirations are shot to pieces every time she spends time with her family: Joy does the washing; Joy does the plumbing; Joy does the bedtime reading; Joy does the cooking. Joy even has to mediate verbal jousts between dad and ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramírez). Home life is a mess.

And yet there isn’t that same underlying darkness present in O. Russell’s latest offering that was there in, say, The Fighter. This threatens to leave the story hanging, particularly during the opening hour when the family shenanigans bear a fun streak despite boasting life-halting ramifications — heck, Joy and Tony are “the best divorced couple in America”. Lawrence does wear exhaustion well though, allowing only brief bursts of spark to shine through. It is obvious that Joy is the level-headed one, admirably unshowy despite having the intuitive capacity to back up any arrogance. The rest of them are oddballs.

De Niro’s recent filmography doesn’t exactly reflect his irresistible earlier stuff, but he does work well alongside present company. The veteran is as good here as he has been in a while, snarky and showing pinpoint comedic timing. Tony grates a little, especially when we see him in his basement setting without any character depth towards the start, but he fares better as the film advances. He is a singer and, like Joy, the screenplay wants to protect him — O. Russell has penned a celebration of creativity after all.

The film trundles along appealingly, though without too much in the way of bite or real depth. That changes in the second act, when the Miracle Mop takes shape and sales pitches are invoked. Cooper turns up as a distanced TV exec with more business acumen than generosity. Energy levels heighten as he shows Joy around the QVC studio. The piece comes to life and starts to really feel like a David O. Russell production: Melissa Rivers barters before our eyes as her late mother (uncannily by the way); words suddenly have urgency; a western twang sounds out; the camera swoops left and right as ringing telephones carry the frantic calls of seduced customers.

Real life Mangano has the spotlight but the film is really an amalgamation of many exceptional tales (“Inspired by true stories of daring women” are the first worlds we see on-screen), and as such you sometimes get the sense our central character is too good to be true — when she needs Miracle Mop personnel, Joy hires a bunch of female immigrants and turns her father’s male workplace into a sort of gender-balanced haven. Lawrence absolutely makes it work though: like her character’s family, the camera relentlessly pesters the actor, worried it might miss a moment of her brilliance.

Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is crisp but the film does parade an idiosyncrasy in the way it is structured. We get flashbacks that serve to fill some life gaps, but then there are these silly dream sequences dressed up as episodes of a melodramatic soap opera. They feel more suited to American Hustle than Silver Linings Playbook, and given Joy falls tonally on the side of the latter, the sequences don’t really mesh well with the surrounding drama and are ultimately superfluous.

Like American Hustle, it is a film that ages well; certainly, there were moments that had me feeling a bit blasé about the whole thing, but then it won me over and continued to do so even hours after the credits had rolled. Sure you can telegraph certain plot points, but you aren’t really paying for plot: you’re paying for Joy and Jen. The movie is about a functional mop. Isabella Rossellini appears as a bonkers love interest. There is a hotel room standoff involving a guy wearing a cowboy hat for goodness’ sake. What’s not to like?

Joy - Jennifer Lawrence

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright: 20th Century Fox

Out of the Furnace (2014)

Out of the Furnace PosterDirector: Scott Cooper

Release Date: December 6th, 2013 (US); January 29th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson

Scott Cooper’s film tells the story of two brothers left short-handed by the frankness of life, but more specifically it’s a look into the psyche of one sibling, Christian Bale’s Russell, emotionally shot and physically trapped. Out of the Furnace itself received a rough ride upon release. The cast, wasted, supersede the inefficiently constructed narrative, seemed to be the most common argument. It’s too slow, too poorly paced. Quite the opposite. The film is marvellously paced and the narrative is steeped in authentic poignancy. Sure the screenplay would benefit from a dose of balance, but Out of the Furnace is not a missed opportunity. It’s a really, really good piece of cinema.

A heart-on-sleeve type of guy, Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works three jobs. Aside from earning a meagre living at the nearby mill — the same one that has rendered his father incapacitated — Russell cares for his ailing dad whilst also attempting to keep his younger brother’s mind straight. Rodney is a solider whose deployments to Iraq are as scattered as the head on his shoulders. The brothers just about get by, but their lives are quickly shattered when a horrific accident suddenly opens demon-infested floodgates.

Realism seeps into every frame, every projected wooden crevice. We’re slap-bang in the centre of a hereditary coal and steel town, North Braddock, Pennsylvania and the camera rams this home. A huge factory is often shown looming in the background, the greyish smoke pillowing skyward a constant reminder of toxicity and waste. It hosts the eponymous furnace and endeavours to promote the air of struggle of its nearby citizens, but also their honest willingness to work. Already we’re drawn to Russell who embodies this mentality, a grafter by trade. Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is musky — you’d be forgiven for any eye-rubbing to remove dust — and perfectly captures the mood of the town; filled with hard labourers and harder folk. It screams ‘get me out of here’.

Russell is a hearty soul, a trait that beams as he interacts with those close to him. Lena is his girlfriend at the beginning and their playfulness is infectious. Uncle Gerald, or ‘Red’, is another whom we watch engage positively with Russell. But it’s the latter’s relationship with his wayward brother Rodney that’s most genuine. They share an at times awkward yet always nurturing bond, one that is believable partly due to how Bale and Casey Affleck play it, but we’re also convinced by the harshness of reality and their subsequent eternal earnestness as a duo. Not much is going according to plan but these two remain decent guys with admirable qualities who are not impervious to the odd mistake. (Some mistakes very serious — Scott Cooper doesn’t shirk away from complexity).

Existing subserviently in manner but not meaning to this sibling relationships is Russell’s own personal battle with day-to-day existence. He’s mentally more mature than his brother; at one point it’s suggested that Rodney “might be safer over in Iraq” than wandering the chalky streets of North Braddock. The screenplay simmers patiently, as does Cooper’s precise direction, allowing us to connect with Russell and his unluckiness. But even as pillar after pillar collapses in the manual worker’s life, we’re afforded the chance to acknowledge the sincerity of each problem because they’re all completely applicable within the prevailing context.

In Russell, Cooper revives the teetering tragedy of Crazy Heart’s Otis Blake. In some ways the two mirror each other: in their jobs, slaving away without much financial reward; in their protectiveness, one for a son he never had and one for a brother he fears losing; in their mentality, both close to defeat yet deeply defiant and inspired by externalities. Out of the Furnace is the director’s second character study of two and is equally as effective as the first. The camera likes to linger on glances and facial expressions — not Russell’s exclusively — and so we’re able to feed off of each characters’ strained thoughts and the cast’s wholesome portrayals.

Christian Bale does for Casey Affleck here what Mark Wahlberg done for Bale in The Fighter. He underplays the performance, clearing room for Affleck’s hysterics. These range from anxiously proud to uncomfortably harrowing, but are consistently sterling. Bale’s is certainly the toughest role because restraint is absolutely key. He nails it. However, as Rodney, Affleck is stand out performer. Which is some feat considering the truly excellent efforts relayed by the remaining cast members. Woody Harrelson appears as Harlan DeGroat, an invasive and psychotic drug dealer whom Rodney owns money to. Harrelson’s recruitment is a great choice, his character a real baddie. A grizzled, rugged no good son of a bitch. Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker and Willem Dafoe complete the star-studded selection and the trio each donate valid performances.

If there is a fault to be picked and presented, it’s the unfortunate imbalance in narrative. The runtime is fine at almost two hours, but over half of that is enlisted as set up leaving only around 50 minutes for retaliation. The problem is not catastrophic — it likely would be in lesser hands — but it does dent an otherwise foolproof outing, incurring unevenness as opposed to equity. In an attempt to disguise the issue, we’re subject to interplayed cuts between scenes that actually do end up harmonising well together.

Out of the Furnace is another winning film from Scott Cooper. It’s worth pointing out the effective soundtrack that shifts between a Western twang and a mellow ambience, and one that is capped off by Pearl Jam’s Release. For that’s what the piece is all about, release. A very sombre picture with sporadic healing tendencies — though not enough — it is the recognisable mundaneness that really hits home.

Rating: 4 (White)

Out of the Furnace - Bale

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Relativity Media

American Hustle (2014)

★★★★

Director: David O. Russell

Release Date: December 20th, 2013 (US); January 1st, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama

Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner

“Some of this actually happened.”

These are the first words you see on screen as American Hustle rolls along the runway in preparation for a turbulent take-off. The next thing, an obtuse, balding Christian Bale spends a good few minutes chained to mirror, meticulously attempting to glue hair to his head. And it’s brilliant. One minute the film is poking fun at itself, the next it’s indulging in extended Hollywood grooming. Whether or not you actually believe that any of what is to come actually happened is irrelevant. Batman is fat and bald. Only he’s not Batman, he’s the first of five characters who, placed in any other film, could easily be dismissed as unlovable. Yet these characters, these jaded and faulting human beings are the epitome of most things great in American Hustle — and trust me, most things are great.

After a string of loan scams gone right, con-man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are caught cheque-handed by exuberant FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Along with a reluctant Sydney, who is posing as a Brit with banking connections, Irving is manipulated into joining DiMaso in a plan to take down four potentially corrupt political figures, including the well-meaning New Jersey Mayor, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). If Irving does not oblige, he fears the loss of his adopted son from his marriage with an uncontrollable wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).

First thing’s first: American Hustle serves up an abundance of heart to go along with bountiful amounts of razzmatazz and wild hair-pieces, and this is no small part down to David O. Russell’s focused direction, a direction particularly zoned in on his characters. Since making The Fighter in 2010, Russell has admitted that people are the most important elements of his films, that they infuse soul into his work, and this is certainly true here. At best the plot is slightly overloaded, but then it probably should be given the elaborate scam unfolding on screen. Russell deflects all attention away from these various narrative layers and strands though, and gives his characters the limelight. Unselfishly too — this character-based production style is something that doesn’t always necessarily invite directorial attention, rather the actors take most of the plaudits. However Russell’s passion for people, which is as much on display in both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook as it is here, means he most likely doesn’t want all the plaudits no matter how much he deserves them.

It’s not often that a truly A-list cast amalgamates where each actor delivers a tip-top performance. Normally, either there’s not enough material to satisfy so many hungry egos, or a severe case of weary cheque-collecting goes on. This could not be further from the truth in American Hustle, as the five stars bring out the absolute best and most flamboyant in one another. As Irving Rosenfeld, Christian Bale is the centrepiece of events, the instigator of many of the crazy goings-on (whether he likes it or not). “He had this air about him.” Sydney is absolutely correct. At the beginning, you get the feeling Irving is growing tired of his surroundings, he’s let himself go but not so far as to come across as weak — what we see externally is carefully tended (the hair), what we don’t see is tucked away (the stomach). It’s not until the glamorous and vibrant Sydney Prosser glances over into his life that Irving experiences an ambience of regeneration. Adams embodies seduction; she mesmerises the viewer as much as she does Bale and it’s obvious her character Sydney (or is it Evelyn?) has had a lot of practice in hiding charmingly behind a veil of otherness.

Bradley Cooper, who put in a career-best performance in David O. Russell’s previous film, is astoundingly funny as Richie DiMaso. He has the 70s jumping off him: a curly perm, outlandish clothing and that wise-cracking demeanour, one which harks back to more serious crime outputs such as Goodfellas, and even Scarface. DiMaso manoeuvres in the opposite direction to that of Irving — he becomes too cocky, dragged into a world of madness. As American Hustle trumpets on, it becomes an electric game of one-upmanship between Irving, Sydney and DiMaso. Nobody really knows who is playing who. There’s an air of unpredictability about proceedings. All of this makes for more compelling viewing as the sentiment hanging-on-every-word becomes agreeably essential.

Irving’s estranged wife Rosalyn is another firecracker in this celebration of absurdity and Jennifer Lawrence throws herself at the character. She delivers many of the funniest lines very well (“Don’t put metal in the science oven”) yet still manages to evoke heartfelt sympathy. It’s clear Rosalyn is under appreciated, struggles with demons and craves some consistent attention from Irving, or anyone really. To be able to stand on, and subsequently pull off, both sides of fence — the staunchly comedic and starkly vulnerable — is a testament to Jennifer Lawrence’s ability as an actor and storyteller. Newcomer to the David O. Russell school of actors (perhaps the coolest club going in Hollywood) is Jeremy Renner, a welcome addition. As Mayor Polito, Renner is more likeable than ever in a very different role from those he has partaken in recently. His outrageous facial expressions during a sing-a-long with Bale is a standout moment.

Harking back to David O. Russell’s preferred filmmaking style, behind all of the madness, these characters still feel like real people (they listen to each other’s phone calls in the other room for heaven’s sake). None of them really want to be where they are. Perhaps they are wearily sucked in, or can’t seem to find a way out. Better lives, that’s all they’re after. They create attractively unattractive personas in order to acclimatise to the anarchy. Yet you still want to love them in the end. Unlike the plot, which arguably outstays its welcome, not one single character does.

The saying ‘never a dull moment’ has rarely been more fitting. Everything here is so over the top and brash. When names such as Carmine Polito and Victor Tellegio are sprayed around, it’s not hard to imagine the kind of entertainment on show. There absolutely is a sense of indulgence, but it’s more than simply self-indulgence, rather a communal kind between filmmaker and audience. A conversation about coriander and perfume smelling like “flowers, but with garbage” essentially sums up American Hustle: it sort of doesn’t make sense, but the circus-like pandemonium makes the film great because it allows people to thrive and evolve.

I left the cinema thinking American Hustle was a good film, and many hours later it is still growing on me. There is a good chance it will for a long time. It’s euphoria and desolation. Furious and funny. Organised chaos which descends (or ascends) into disorganised chaos. Somewhere along the way, Bradley Cooper, in his most vociferous New Yoik accent says, “You might even get sick of me!” He could be referring to the fabulous five on show (or six, if you include David O. Russell).

If so, honestly Bradley? Not in the slightest.