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Posts Tagged ‘Bradley Cooper’

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is a film seeking to evoke that warm nostalgic glow you get when thinking back on the crazy things you did when you were young and a bit over-excitable. It’s part of a long and honourable tradition of such movies and TV shows, going back to things like The Wonder Years and American Graffiti. Licorice Pizza itself sounds like a bit of a fridge title unless you are particularly well-versed in Californian pop culture from the early 1970s – apparently it was the name of a chain of record shops, ‘licorice pizza’ being the nickname of a vinyl recording. If that sounds like a rather niche and in-jokey title, that’s perhaps not an entirely unfair conclusion, but the film itself is engaging, crowd-pleasing stuff, directed by Anderson with his usual deftness.

I think it is necessary to stress that the film isn’t as self-indulgent as it may come across as in a summary. Alana Haim plays Alana Kane, a woman in her mid-twenties trying to settle on a direction for her life, who is working as a photographer’s assistant in California as the film opens. An assignment taking high school yearbook pictures leads to her meeting Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a supremely confident and energetic fifteen year old – in addition to being a successful child actor, Gary is also very active as an entrepreneur. Not one to pay much attention to the reality of an age gap, Gary asks Alana out to dinner. She nearly laughs in his face, but ends up going along anyway for some reason. An unlikely friendship forms, but Alana is very clear that there is no prospect of anything romantic developing between them…

Nevertheless, their friendship deepens: she chaperones him on a publicity trip to New York, and then finds herself involved in Gary’s latest money-making scheme: a company selling water-beds. He even encourages her to pursue an acting career of her own. Some of these inevitably lead to moments of tension and downturns in their relationship, but it seems that there is always something drawing them back together…

Much of the charm of Licorice Pizza comes from the fact that this isn’t just another straightforwardly nostalgic coming-of-age comedy-drama – the nature of the central relationship, not to mention the fact that one of the lead characters is a precocious teenage entrepreneur, marks it out as something much more offbeat and oddball. Perhaps the oddest thing about it is the fact much of it is apparently based on actual events – the film was apparently inspired by various stories told to Anderson by his friend (and Tom Hanks’ long-time production partner) Gary Goetzman, who really was a child actor and waterbed salesman fifty years ago.

Nevertheless, the sheer weirdness of much of the story just adds to the infectious sense of fun and energy that permeates the movie. Perhaps this is in part a result of the fact that it is such a friends-and-family piece – Anderson’s partner and children appear, he is a long-time friend of Alana Haim and her own family (the Haim clan naturally appear as Alana’s relatives), making his acting debut as Gary is Cooper Hoffman, the son of Anderson’s frequent collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman, and so on.

While the ups and downs of Gary and Alana’s friendship are at the heart of the film, surrounding this thread are various other sub-plots, set-pieces and running jokes, most of them light-hearted if not actually silly. I was particularly amused by a plotline about a restaurant owner who can’t actually speak Japanese, despite being married to a succession of women from that country; his attempts to communicate with them are very funny (though I should note that this element of the film has met with furrowed brows and sucked teeth in some quarters). There are pop-culture references aplenty, with many of the supporting characters clearly very lightly fictionalised versions of real people – Christine Ebersole plays a character based on Lucille Ball, Sean Penn plays a version of William Holden, and Tom Waits a version of Mark Robson (director of several of Holden’s films).

Most peculiar of all is a ferocious cameo by Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters, a hairdresser turned film producer long renowned in Hollywood circles as a bizarre and outlandish figure (Peters’ unlikely plot stipulations while working as producer on the abortive Superman Lives have become legendary in and of themselves). Bradley Cooper’s casting alone virtually qualifies as some sort of convoluted in-joke, given that Peters produced the 1976 version of A Star Is Born (he was Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend at the time) and managed to land himself a producer’s credit on Cooper’s own take on the story. It’s not unfair to suggest that the film depicts Peters as some variety of maniac; what makes it quite so peculiar is that Peters is not fictionalised at all, but presented under his real name, and Peters himself was apparently completely on board with this (with the proviso that one of his best pick-up lines be incorporated into the script).

This is just one of the film’s incidental pleasures, though, of which there are many. Linking all of them are two fantastically winning and appealing performances by Haim and Hoffman, both of whom bring great naturalness and warmth to the film. The script is carefully judged: Gary is precocious for his edge, she still perhaps struggling to find herself, which makes their friendship more believable; but at the same time, the eruptions of jealousy and childishness which cause them occasional problems are entirely credible.

It’s a piece of feel-good entertainment, not anything deeper or more profound than that, and with less darkness around its edges than most of Anderson’s more recent films. I find that Anderson is another of those directors who I’ve been keeping tabs on without particularly meaning to – I still remember going to see Magnolia early in 2000 and having my mind well and truly blown, a seminal moment that changed my whole perception of what modern cinema was capable of. None of Anderson’s subsequent films have quite matched that for me, but Licorice Pizza comes closer than most, being his most accessible and purely enjoyable film in years.

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If you’re one of those people who takes their cinema seriously, sooner or later you develop a list of directors who you follow – you keep an eye out for a new film and do your best to get to see it. Sometimes, though, you find yourself having seen most of someone’s filmography without having consciously made an effort to. So it is with me and Guillermo del Toro – I always feel slightly smug about having gone along to del Toro’s debut, Cronos, at the art house in Hull. Didn’t see Mimic or The Devil’s Backbone, I admit, but after that I’ve pretty much seen the lot, with the exception of Crimson Peak. This is usually the point at which I mention my regret at the del Toro films I haven’t seen, because they haven’t been made – his take on the Hobbit trilogy, and his adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness.

Having won Best Picture for his last film, The Shape of Water, you might have expected that the world would have been at del Toro’s feet and he would finally have managed to persuade a major studio to finance the Lovecraft movie. But no. (The latest word seems to be that the director is looking to do a version of the story with Netflix.) Considering that his past work has been nothing if not eclectic – it includes an idiosyncratic take on the vampire myth, one of the best Marvel Comics adaptations of the 2000s, a magic-realist fable about the Spanish Civil War and a big-budget homage to Japanese tokusatsu movies – it’s pushing it to describe any new project of his as an unexpected choice, but Nightmare Alley very nearly qualifies.

Nightmare Alley started life as a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham; the 1947 film adaptation starring Tyrone Power is not especially well-regarded or well-known – I had no awareness of it until the advertising for the new movie started to appear. Bradley Cooper plays Stanton Carlisle, whom we first meet burying a body under the floors of a remote farmhouse, which he then proceeds to burn down. Clearly he is a man with a Past. He leaves all of this far behind and travels across the country, eventually finding himself drawn to the bright lights and questionable pleasures of a travelling carnival.

Carlisle persuades the proprietor of the carny, Clem (Willem Dafoe), to give him a job, and he makes friends amongst his new co-workers – fortune-teller Zeena (Toni Collette) and her partner, alcoholic former mind-reader Pete (David Strathairn). He also finds himself very much drawn to the carnival’s ‘electric girl’, Molly (Rooney Mara). Carlisle’s quick wit and natural savvy leads him to quickly discover many of the dark secrets on which the functioning of a carnival is based, but one eludes him – Pete’s old code-book, the basis of a potentially brilliant and lucrative act. Pete refuses to share it, insisting it is dangerous – successful mentalists invariably start to believe they really have special gifts, which inevitably results in a sorry downfall. But that won’t happen to Carlisle – will it?

As I mentioned, virtually all of del Toro’s past projects have been tied to the horror and fantasy genres one way or another, so it is a little unusual to find him at the helm of a psychological thriller with a distinctly noirish edge to it (indeed, a special edition of Nightmare Alley in black and white played a few engagements just to emphasise the connection). However, this is a thriller with particularly grotesque and macabre elements to it – the story itself is a cautionary tale of hubris and nemesis, the dark side of human nature and the underbelly of the entertainment industry, but del Toro’s handling of it takes it right to the edge of being an actual horror story in earnest.

Certainly, in the carny-set portion of the story, which makes up the first half of the film, there are various subtle references to Tod Browning’s Freaks, almost as you might expect, but these take the form of half-glimpsed things in pits and cages and assorted bottled nasties, rather than the actual human deformities so prominent in the 1932 film. It feels very much like a gothic melodrama, populated by all the stock characters you might expect – though brought to life with great skill by script and performers.

Only in the second act of the story does it really begin to resemble a film noir in earnest – Carlisle finds himself moving in higher echelons of society, only to find that the possession of wealth and taste does not necessary make their owners any less flawed or morally compromised. Here we find Cate Blanchett, seemingly channeling Veronica Lake as she gives a magnificent performance as a crooked shrink, and a rather scary Richard Jenkins as a millionaire with a dark past. It seems like there’s little to connect the two parts of the story, but this is a smartly structured script – the first half is carefully setting up everything that will happen later. The result is a film which develops a powerful sense of its own inevitable momentum – you know that things are going to go wrong, and go wrong bloodily, and the canny viewer will likely also be able to figure out well in advance what the final pay-off of the film is.

Del Toro handles proceedings with his usual powerful visual sense and aptitude for atmosphere, and the film is well-played by its ensemble. In some ways it does resemble a traditional awards-season studio movie – a lavish period-set adaptation with an all-star cast, and nobody taking an extended nap or having sex with a car – but it also has the slightly askew feel to it of the director’s other work, as well as being a skillful genre pastiche. On paper it sounds like an oddity more than anything else, a coming together of various talents, ideas, and sources that don’t sounds especially cohesive. But the result is a film which is always striking to look at, and quickly becomes an enthralling, if dark, story. Del Toro’s great achievement with The Shape of Water was to dress up an obviously derivative fantasy-horror story in such arty trappings that the academy voters forgot they were giving the Best Picture Oscar to a genre movie. I could imagine something similar happening with this movie too.

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There was a point about fifteen or twenty years ago where you couldn’t move for big-screen adaptations of popular TV series from twenty or thirty years earlier. I don’t just mean the Star Trek movies, although these are particularly notable for their role in getting the show back on the telly for a very substantial run – there were also the Charlie’s Angels movies, Mission: Impossible (nowadays pretty much existing solely as a Tom Cruise vehicle), Scooby-Doo, Lost in Space, Starsky and Hutch, Miami Vice… even really obscure things like The Mod Squad and SWAT were dusted off and sent to the cinema. It almost got to the point where you were surprised when an old TV show wasn’t turned into a movie: apparently The Six Million Dollar Man got tied up in rights issues, thus possibly sparing us from a comedy version starring Jim Carrey, while the big-screen take on Knight Rider hit a snag when mooted star Orlando Bloom declared his role as David Hasselhoff’s son to be insufficiently demanding for an actor of his abilities (now that’s a criticism).

It’s fairly self-evident that some of these movies took a distinctly tongue-in-cheek approach to the TV shows that spawned them, which I must confess that I wasn’t always a particular fan of, although this probably depended on how much I enjoyed the original programme. Of course, there are worse things than being irreverent, as I discovered in 2010 when Joe Carnahan’s big-screen version of The A-Team finally arrived (I say ‘finally’ as the movie had been in development for fifteen years, arriving notably after the peak of the small-to-big-screen-transfer craze).

The film opens in Mexico, presumably in the early 2000s, where hard-bitten US Army Ranger Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith (Liam Neeson) is intent on bringing a corrupt local general to justice. In order to do so he must first rescue his sidekick, a smooth-talking lothario nicknamed Face (Bradley Cooper). But Hannibal doesn’t have a ride! His only option is to carjack the first person who happens along. This turns out to be bad-tempered mechanic B.A. Baracus (Quinton Jackson), who is driving along in his beloved red and black van minding his own business. Hannibal shoots B.A., just a little bit, to prove he is serious about the carjacking, but then notices B.A. has a Ranger tattoo just like his. What are the chances? Such is the bond of comradeship between US Rangers that B.A. completely overlooks Hannibal shooting him and off they go to rescue Face together. (No, really. And this is just the first ten minutes.)

Having saved Face from being barbecued alive, the next priority is to get out of the country, which they do by borrowing a helicopter from an army hospital. But who is to fly it? Well, it turns out that one of the patients has an outstanding record as a combat pilot, the problem is he’s just completely insane. Yes, it is Howling Mad Murdock (Sharlto Copley), and he whisks them all off to safety.

Your heart sinks a bit as this opening section concludes, because you realise it has nothing – nothing! – to do with the rest of the plot, and is just there to show how the four members of the A-Team first met (the movie doesn’t bother including any of the non-core characters from the TV show). Why have they bothered to do this? It is puzzling – the premise of the story is that the characters all have a background in the military; it’s not like you have to contrive a way to get them all together.

Well, anyway, we then jump forward to the present day where the A-Team are hanging out in Iraq having done their bit to bring long-term peace and stability to the Middle East (‘You guys are the best!’ Hannibal tells some local soldiers he’s been training). But then word reaches them of some forged plates for making counterfeit American money which are due to be smuggled out of Baghdad very soon. A convoluted jurisdictional tussle breaks out between US army intelligence, the CIA, and private security firms over who is going to capture the plates, involving slippery CIA dude Lynch (Patrick Wilson) and Face’s old girlfriend (Jessica Biel), who’s in military intelligence. Needless to say the A-Team are given the nod to go ahead with the op.

However, they have been set up, it all goes bad, the plates disappear and their authorisation for the mission disappears in a ball of flame. As a result they are all court-martialled and sent to four different glasshouses to serve their sentences (Murdock is even sent to Europe, though this also serves the plot). But Lynch approaches Hannibal with a proposition: if he can retrieve the plates and find the man who stole them, Lynch can bust him out of jail and see to it he and the team get a full pardon…

Now, I was discussing the state of modern TV with a friend the other day and really lamenting the fact that hardly anybody does episodic television any more: nearly every programme is essentially serialised to some degree or other, making it a lot harder to dip in and out of them. I do think there is a certain craft and skill involved in making this kind of entertainment, certainly for the long haul, and that this kind of show had its own particular charm.

On the other hand, I am currently between jobs which means I can, if I so choose, watch three episodes of The A-Team on re-run, most days, and in this situation you do very quickly realise that the bare bones of the series’ format were seldom very deeply covered. The plot of an episode of The A-Team nearly always goes something like this:  a small mom & pop outfit somewhere nondescript is being bullied by small-time hoods. One of the victims makes tentative contact with the team and manages to hire them. The next time the hoods show up, they are properly slapped about by Hannibal and the others. There is a plot twist where it turns out the hoods have a bigger plan which bullying mom & pop is only a small part of, followed by a reversal which sees the bad guys locking the A-Team in a garage with a lot of welding gear and washing-machine parts. The A-Team build an armoured car or helicopter gunship out of the washing-machine parts and blast their way to freedom for the climax. They proceed to fire 37,000 rounds of .223 ammunition at the bad guys, destroying all inanimate objects in a half-mile radius but leaving their human opponents miraculously unscathed. The bad guys go to jail and the A-Team are paid their (presumably hefty) fee: there are smiles all round.

(Mixed in with this are the scenes where the individual team members get to do their schticks – Hannibal puts on a ridiculous disguise, Face either scams someone or romances the only female character, B.A. snarls a lot and says something motivational to a child, and Murdock – well, Murdock’s schtick is that he gets a different schtick every week, so it depends.)

There are coats of varnish with greater depth to them than the typical A-Team script, but while this is undeniably schlock TV aimed at the very young and the very undemanding, it remains oddly likeable and perhaps even watchable (up to a point at least). The movie’s problem is that it doesn’t want to be schlock, but hasn’t figured out a way to not be schlock while still remaining recognisable as The A-Team. The problem isn’t just that the film opens with a sequence providing unnecessary back-story for the team: the whole movie is unnecessary back-story for the team, as it concludes with them just about to commence their careers as good-hearted soldiers-of-fortune operating on US soil, at which point all the familiar A-Team plot beats will presumably start to occur and it will genuinely begin to resemble the TV show. (I mean, the movie is two hours long and the most prominent use of the theme music is diegetic. Also, they write off the A-Team van in the opening sequence. I mean, really…)

But as it is, it’s like the A-Team have accidentally wandered into a particularly downbeat Mission: Impossible movie, or possibly a Bourne, where they keep going off to Germany and getting double-crossed. You don’t expect to have to work quite so hard to follow the plot of The A-Team, to be honest, but there’s a lot of slightly baffling exposition going on here (‘I found it a little confusing and I was in it,’ Liam Neeson later commented). Plus there’s a subplot where Face doubts his own ability to put a plan together, and another one where B.A. becomes a pacifist… the writers don’t seem to have realised that to give these characters extra depth is to lose what makes them recognisable and distinctive. You do wonder about the extent to which the success of the TV show was just down to the charisma of the main four leads, the simple pleasure of watching stuff blow up, and how reassuringly predictable it all was to watch.

If the movie never quite feels like the A-Team TV show, an equally big problem is that it never really feels like a very good movie, either. Quite apart from the problems with the plot, the action sequences are not particularly spectacular or exciting, and the use of CGI is also quite obvious. The performances, I should say, are not bad, given the material the actors have to work with, but they are fighting a losing battle from the beginning of the film to the end.

George Peppard was long gone by the time the movie came out, and Mr T refused to take part, but the other two original cast members (Dirk Benedict and Dwight Schultz) do turn up for cameos – however, these don’t appear until the very end of the closing credits. Supposedly this was for timing reasons, but there is something very odd about this sequence – it feels grudging and uneasy, almost like a contractual obligation. The movie seems to have little interest in or affection for the original TV show, so why else would the film-makers have invited the cast back? This film was underwhelming at the time, joyless and dour where the TV series was silly but diverting. It would probably be quite difficult to make a big-screen A-Team that was both faithful to the show but also good, but the movie shows that doing one which is at least as bad as the TV series while barely resembling it and having little of its entertainment value was entirely possible.

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The thing about a movie like A Star is Born is that, when it comes to doing a properly pithy review, all the best lines have probably been taken already. The new version (directed by Bradley Cooper) is, after all, the fourth iteration of this particular story, which has a strong claim to be the most remade film in history – I know there have been 27 versions of The Three Musketeers, or whatever, but here we are talking about something originated for the screen, not an adaptation of a novel or a play. I will be honest and admit I have not been able to come up with anything as good as the Village Voice‘s verdict on the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand, ‘A bore is starred.’

The long gap between the most recent A Star is Borns does not preclude a tiny bit of behind-the-scenes continuity between the two – presumably for obscure contractual reasons, hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters is credited for both despite having no career worth mentioning these days – but otherwise the new film is its own thing – or at least as much of its own thing as one can reasonably expect, given that it credits both the Streisand and Judy Garland versions as contributing to the story.

Cooper plays hard-living country rocker Jackson Maine, a successful musician who is beginning to have serious trouble with various personal demons. One night, after a gig in New York, he drops into a drag bar while desperately searching for something to drink (hey, we’ve all been there). His mind is taken off the booze when he sees a performance by an unknown singer named Ally (played by Lady Gaga, who is played by Stefani Germanotta as usual). He is much taken by her incredible vocal stylings, and soon after the rest of her, even the nose which she claims has been such a brake on her career: shallow and worthless music industry professionals are only interested in superficial appearance, not real talent.

Well, they have a lovely evening together and then part, and Ally assumes that’s the end of it. But what’s this? Jackson sends a car to whisk her off to his next gig, which she of course ends up going to. He drags her on stage for an unplanned duet, and the rest is, well, not quite history, but certainly very late-stage prehistory. (Well, this is one way of picking up girls, I suppose.) Stardom soon beckons for Ally (as you might have anticipated if you were paying attention to the title of the film) – but will Jackson be able to deal with his girlfriend’s fame and talent threatening to eclipse his own?

As I say, all the best lines about A Star is Born have already been taken, and it was Mark Kermode who observed with typical sagacity that the film has two main challenges as a piece of drama: it has to convince you that Bradley Cooper is a famous rock star and Lady Gaga isn’t. Well, I would say it manages to pull this off – Cooper has a decent voice (not sure if he’s doing his own guitar-playing though) and does the business when his character is on stage, while – and I didn’t know this – apparently Germanotta spent ten years taking method acting lessons at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that there is really nothing much wrong with her performance at all.

That said, it’s when Cooper is acting and Germanotta is singing that the film feels like it’s operating at full power. Cooper as director seems fully aware that, as a musical (even a diegetic one, which is strictly speaking what this is), having a singer of her range and technical ability in the lead role is the film’s trump card. Where most trailers for forthcoming attractions build up to a big dramatic moment or special-effects money shot, the one for A Star is Born is based around the moment when Gaga lets rip with a (let me just check with a popular lyric-transcribing website) ‘Oooooaahaaaooouoooouooooohaaaa’ and practically lifts the roof off any cinema where it is showing. It is a properly spine-tingling moment and I expect the musical number it accompanies to be inescapably ubiquitous from now until next year’s awards season concludes.

It’s a bit which comes fairly early on in the film, which until this point has been skimming along almost irresistibly, with a very well-judged mixture of grit, warmth, and romance. The opening section is certainly the film’s best – not because the rest of it is actually bad as such, but it’s just not quite to the same standard.

There’s just a bit too much of it, for one thing – the movie feels like it could comfortably absorb ten or fifteen minutes of cuts from its middle section – as it is, it occasionally feels like it’s laying everything on a bit thick. Then again, this is a chunky, crowd-pleasing, manipulative musical melodrama, so maybe that’s kind of the point.

Even so, I did find myself wondering what this story is supposed to be about – is it trying to make a point about the brutal nature of the fame game, or is it really just about the stresses and strains on this particular relationship? The story is obviously trying to tick all the bases, by showing Ally’s rise to stardom while depicting Jackson’s decline and fall, but it almost feels as if these things are happening in isolation from each other – the film makes it clear from its opening moments that Maine is a man with serious issues, which only get worse as the story continues. It’s not difficult to imagine his story following a vaguely similar trajectory even had he never met Ally – as a result, they almost feel like ships passing one another, the ups and downs of their actual relationship incidental, and this inevitably impacts on how affecting and moving the drama of the film is.

Nevertheless, this is the kind of big, sentimental movie that audiences often take to their hearts in a very big way, and I can imagine A Star is Born becoming a major success, both critically and commercially. Is it too soon to talk about next year’s awards? Possibly, but the Academy in particular has a distinct weakness for this kind of new-take-on-an-old-favourite offering. And while I don’t think this is a particularly great film, it’s a substantial one with some wonderful individual moments.

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Is it my imagination, or are there still not that many new films being released at the moment? Films for grown-ups, I mean; if you’re after CGI animations aimed squarely at the family audience, you don’t have anything to worry about – but Disney’s heavy investment in the stellar conflict industry seems to have frightened nearly everyone else off.

Still, there are some people at least attempting to stick to How Things Are Usually Done, and how things are usually done is that January is when the films hoping for a big awards season tally start to make their presence felt. And, lo, this is beginning to happen, and one of these films is David O Russell’s Joy.

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This is one of those films which is theoretically based on a true story, but which casts loose from the anchor of historical accuracy so energetically that the movie-makers haven’t really bothered emphasising its basis in reality. Certainly I hadn’t heard of the person whose life-story it purports to tell, one Joy Mangano, played in the film by Jennifer Lawrence.

The film seems to be set in an intentionally non-specific past (I would have said early 80s, probably, but it turns out the events portrayed actually happened in in the late 80s and early 90s), with Joy working for an airline and contending with all manner of disasters at home: her mother (Virginia Madsen) is a virtual recluse, obsessed with absurdly glossy TV soap operas, her father (Robert De Niro) has just been thrown out by his third wife and is living in the basement with her ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez, who it must be said looks a bit like Bradley Cooper – this is confusing, as Cooper is in the movie too). All this and looking after her children too has taken its toll on Joy, who has had most of the creativity and promise she showed as a child ground out of her. The only person who remembers and believes in her is her grandmother (Diane Ladd, who looks a bit like Meryl Streep – this is less confusing, as Streep is not in the movie).

Well, anyway, life goes chaotically along until one day some wine gets spilled in a place it shouldn’t, and the ensuing trauma inspires Joy to design a new kind of mop to help with this kind of crisis. This is a mop like no other. This is a mop that could change the world. Or so Joy thinks, and so she sets off to make her dreams a reality (her dreams being of her new mop).

But the path to success is a hard one, and Joy finds herself sinking deeper and deeper into debt as she struggles to give her mop the success it deserves. Finally there is a glimmer of hope, when her ex-husband manages to help her get a foot in the door at the revolutionary new shopping channel QVC, where she meets thrusting young visionary Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper – told you he’d turn up). Is this the chance she has been waiting for?

Well, given it’s fairly rare for Hollywood to spend $60m on a biopic of a bankrupt inventor, you can probably guess the answer to that one yourself, but there are several more twists in the tale before the closing credits start to roll. It is an undeniably engaging and curious story, very much in tune with the mythology of America (unemployed single mother becomes multi-millionaire due to enterprise and hard work), although some of the subject matter is slightly less, er, heroic, than one might expect in this kind of film. Or, to put it another way, this is probably the most significant film ever made concerned with mops and the shopping channel.

I feel like I now know more about Joy Mangano’s mop than I do about many significant human beings in recent world history. People go on about the mop at great length, as well as several associated topics, such as injection-moulded plastic and the intricacies of patent protection law. It’s a sign of the cachet that David O Russell clearly has around Hollywood, following Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, that he was permitted to make a film about such unpromising subject matter.

It probably helps that, firstly, Joy is primarily the kind of relationship-based comedy drama the director has previously shown such facility for – there’s an undeniable warmth and humour to the satellite characters whirling around Joy that makes the film quite pleasant to watch. And, secondly, the appearance of Russell’s rep company of actors (Lawrence, De Niro, Cooper), all of whom the Academy have a marked fondness for, probably helped the suits at the studio decide to greenlight this movie.

That said, this time round Cooper has a decidedly supporting role (he is as solid as ever), and the focus is definitely on Lawrence. She is turning into one of those performers who the Academy seems to feel obliged to nominate for something every year, almost on principle, and this film feels very much like a vehicle for her, almost precision-tooled to permit her to show off her always-impressive range as an actor – she gets to be emotional, show strength, and so on. The various scenes of her building her mop, pitching for funding for her business, and then finally fly-pitching the thing in mall car parks do sort of summon up the spectres of The A-Team, Dragon’s Den, and Only Fools And Horses, but the fact that it never quite becomes absurd is probably largely due to the strength of Lawrence’s performance.

In the end this isn’t the subtlest of movies: the message about empowerment and self-realisation may as well flash up on a caption at key moments, and the contrast between Joy and her in-retreat-from-reality mum is handled with a broad brush, too. But it’s never actually tedious to watch, and the performances and writing are strong throughout. I’m not sure the topics of mopping and shopping are quite deserving of the skill and talent that have gone into this movie (I thought there was frequently a distinct whiff of bathos pervading the whole thing), but I can think of many worse things people could be making films about. I don’t really believe in portents, but if Joy is pointing the way for the rest of 2016’s films, they’re going to be impressively made, quite enjoyable, but also just a little bit weird.

 

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Any gambler, whether professional or recreational, would be in awe of the run of luck enjoyed by Marvel Studios since 2008. These people have released film after film in the notoriously unpredictable superhero genre, only to be met with ever-increasing popularity and financial reward. They have attempted what looked like the impossible, in the form of a fully-connected, open-ended series-of-series, and not only seen it work, but expand to include a growing number of TV programmes and other spin-offs. You get the impression, almost, that the top people at Marvel have become intent on pushing their luck to see just how far it will go.

This could be one reason why, with relatively major characters like Doctor Strange still untapped, Marvel have chosen to make their latest original release an adaptation of an obscure comic book featuring a selection of characters virtually unknown to anyone but dedicated fans of the genre. The result is Guardians of the Galaxy, directed by James Gunn (just to compound the boldness of this gamble, Gunn is the director of the bravura-icky horror film Slither and the deeply twisted superhero satire Super).

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Central to the action is Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), who was abducted from Earth as a child in the late 1980s and who has risen to become a minor-league space pirate in a wild and wacky cosmos. A mysterious orb comes into Peter’s possession, which is his bad luck as it is also being sought by powerful cosmic forces: principally the genocidal alien warlord Ronan (Lee Pace), a sometime ally of Thanos (the behind-the-scenes villain in The Avengers). Peter finds himself pursued by Ronan’s renegade enforcer Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the unlikely bounty-hunting duo of uplifted procyonid Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and tree of few words Groot (the great Vin Diesel). The four of them are packed off to prison where they make the acquaintance of monomaniacal psychotic Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista).

The ill-matched quintet hit upon a plan to get rich by selling the orb to enigmatic alien the Collector (Benicio del Toro), little realising that Ronan is still in pursuit and plans to use its cosmic powers to devastate a large chunk of the galaxy. Does this disparate band of thieves, killers, lunatics and imbeciles have it in them to actually become heroes…?

It is quite difficult to overstate just what a departure Guardians of the Galaxy is from the last few Marvel Studios movies. It’s their first non-sequel in three years, for one thing, and there is notably less connective tissue to other projects – much has been made in certain circles of the presence of Josh Brolin as Thanos, but this isn’t much more than a cameo appearance to keep the character on the radar. There are only highly oblique references to other movies in the series and even the obligatory post-credits scene is telling a joke rather than trailing a future film (for all that it features a notable Marvel character unseen in movies for a number of decades).

Then again, perhaps all this is fortuitous from Marvel’s point of view, given that it’s their first release since the departure of Edgar Wright from next year’s Ant-Man amidst what sounds like some bad feeling. There was much speculation that Wright’s vision had been deemed to be too far removed from the house style of the other Marvel films, which some – myself included – took to be confirmation that maintaining the massively profitable Marvel brand had taken precedence over making genuinely interesting, creative films.

Ant-Man is still looking like a troubled project for various reasons, but in its own way Guardians of the Galaxy delivers a mighty rebuttal to any suggestion that Marvel are simply opting to play it safe when it comes to their movies: for, readers, Guardians of the Galaxy is absolutely bonkers.

The film opens with a genuinely moving sequence depicting a youthful Peter’s final moments with his dying mother, before blasting off into space and jumping forward to the present day. Here we see Star-Lord on a hostile alien world, apparently intent on a serious search for something – until he pops on a vintage walkman and proceeds to bust some funky moves across the surface of the planet. This is closely followed by a lavish, FX-slathered action sequence.

This generally sums the film up: moments of apparently sincere emotion jostle with full-blown space opera pyrotechnics and absurd comedy. Gunn has cast Bradley Cooper as a raccoon and Vin Diesel as a tree, and those characters are every bit as preposterous as they sound. As you can probably tell, this is by no means intended to be a serious drama, but it is highly-accomplished entertainment.

The plot itself – a struggle for control of an apocalyptic McGuffin – is not exactly innovative, and you can probably predict the team’s trajectory from misfit outcasts to responsible defenders of liberty yourself. Certainly the climax, which has about three different battles going on simultaneously at one point, is done very much by-the-book for this sort of film and seems in no hurry to conclude itself, and the presence of a remarkable supporting cast (including Glenn Close, John C Reilly, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou and Peter Serafinowicz) can only do so much to cover for the familiar nature of much of the story.

What really lifts the film and makes it work, other than its comedic elements and a revelatory, star-making performance from Chris Pratt, is the decision to give Star-Lord his walkman. This allows Gunn to soundtrack the film with a selection of rousing, feel-good tunes from the 70s and early 80s that add tremendously to its cheery, freewheeling atmosphere: Guardians of the Galaxy has a sense of fun about it that’s incredibly infectious and almost impossible to resist.

Once again, Marvel are probably looking at a massive hit (and a sequel has already been announced, to say nothing of various other spin-offs and crossovers) – if these guys had been visiting a casino, they would surely be being politely asked to leave town by now. This is a deeply atypical Marvel movie, and certainly by no means perfect, but as a piece of entertainment it’s incredibly difficult not to like.

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There are some film-makers whose fondest dream is to oversee a franchise of billion-grossing summer blockbusters and, basically, retire to their own solid gold private island. Others seek gold of a different kind – they are the ones more interested in credibility, critical acclaim, and the odd gong. The very lucky ones amongst this latter group find their way into what I call the Gong Club: that elite group who, it seems to me, are permanently under observation by the people who decide the awards shortlists.

Tom Hanks has been in the Gong Club for a couple of decades now; others, like Judi Dench, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, and so on, are similarly long-term members. A recent addition to their ranks seems to be the writer and director David O Russell – 2010’s The Fighter did terribly well, 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook landed a Royal Flush of the acting Oscar nominations, and his new movie American Hustle is generating serious buzz for this year’s awards.

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Various familiar faces from his previous movies show up here, starting with Christian Bale. Bale plays late-70s con man Irving Rosenfeld, who embarks on a breathless romance with ex-dancer Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). They are initially very successful in persuading people to simply give them money as non-refundable application fees for non-existent savings opportunities, but this particular good thing comes to an end when they are busted by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).

However, Richie offers them a deal: if they help him entrap and arrest enough corrupt businessmen and politicians, he will let them go free. Irving and Sydney have serious misgivings, but eventually realise they don’t have much choice. And so begins a frankly bizarre sting operation, involving a fake sheikh, millions of dollars of the FBI’s money, the mayor of New Jersey (played by Jeremy Renner), and Irving’s loose-cannon wife (Jennifer Lawrence)…

American Hustle has, for the most part, received extremely positive notices, and I can sort of see why: it does bear more than a passing resemblance to several other very respectable films. The true-life con-job angle, not to mention the late 70s setting, inevitably recalls the very successful Argo (and, indeed, Ben Affleck was attached to this project as director for a while), while another major focus of the plot – the lives and relationships of people caught up in criminality of different kinds – brings with it a definite whiff of Scorsese (Russell’s deft handling of a classic pop and rock soundtrack adds to this).

And in many ways American Hustle lives up to the standards of the films it is trying to imitate. This is a big, ambitious movie with a lot going on in it, and Russell marshals the various strands of the story with considerable skill – it works both as a caper comedy-thriller and a serious drama, if never quite both at the same time. The cast is largely made up of very talented performers really going for it with meaty, rounded parts, and there are many great moments, some visually arresting, some funny, some surprisingly gripping – a brief cameo from a thankfully on-form Robert de Niro is genuinely chilling.

On the other hand, I couldn’t quite shake the impression that this is a film going for it just a little too much, just a little too often. A 70s setting is a well-worn backdrop for a certain kind of American movie, and here the trappings appear to be getting a little out of control. At the start of the film, we meet the main characters and their defining features – Bale (insanely elaborate comb-over), Cooper (ostentatious perm), Adams (wardrobe slashed to the navel and beyond), Renner (gargantuan quiff) and Lawrence (huge hair). All of these things were just a bit too OTT to be completely credible, for me; the film seemed to be waving them in my face somehow. There’s quite a serious scene developing the relationship between Adams and Cooper, but both of them have their hair in curlers throughout, which inevitably undercuts it. Some of the performers also occasionally give the impression of getting stuck into their roles with a bit too much relish, as well – their characters are frequently as grotesque and unlikely as their personal grooming.

Perhaps there’s a touch of this in the plotting, too: as I said, it’s a sign of the film’s ambition that it sets out to fuse a fairly complex thriller plotline with an ensemble character drama, but I even got a sense of wild abandonment on the part of the film-makers here as well – an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, with moments of comedy, romance, and drama piling up on top of each other as the story continues.

This is an enjoyable film, but not really one notable for its sense of restraint. I found watching it to be not entirely unlike my visit to the breakfast buffet of a major Las Vegas casino hotel several years ago – there’s nothing wrong with eating eggs and bacon, nor with eating waffles, nor with eating cowboy biscuits, or sausages, or pancakes. Eating large quantities of all of them in one sitting, on the other hand, is likely to produce distinct and not always pleasant sensations. So it is with American Hustle‘s let’s-do-everything-and-do-it-A-LOT approach. At least this time I don’t have myself to blame for it. A good film, I think, but not really disciplined enough to make the best use of its various assets.

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Is it my imagination, or are the Oscars happening earlier than they used to? I know it’s early to start talking about the gong season, but something seems to be afoot – the mature, thoughtful, serious films that studios release in order to try and secure a little gravitas always used to come out around new year, but now it feels like a fair number of them are showing up earlier and earlier. Christmastime seems to be dominated by blockbusters more than ever, which may also be a factor.

Anyway, if nothing else this means that sensible films for grown-ups are in cinemas across a much wider period, which has to be a good thing. As ever, responsible for a goodly proportion of these are the Weinstein brothers, late of the phenomenally successful Miramax company: their new outfit made The Master, which is surely a shoe-in for nominations, and also the slightly more audience-friendly Silver Linings Playbook, written and directed by David O Russell.

As this is a seriously-intentioned movie, Russell has arguably taken a bit of a risk by casting Bradley Cooper in the lead role, Cooper being best known for – er – broad comedies and dubious blockbusters like The Hangover and The A-Team. Cooper plays Pat Solitano, who at the start of the movie is released from a psychiatric institution. His presence there was a result of discovering his wife in flagrante and nearly beating her lover to death, following which he was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder.

Now he moves back in with his parents (Robert de Niro and Jacki Weaver), still intent on winning back his wife, despite the advice of everyone around him that his expectations may be unrealistic. Through friends, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow who has experienced serious psychological issues of her own. Putting aside the instant, if somewhat spiky, chemistry between them, Pat and Tiffany strike a deal: she will take a letter to his wife for him (a restraining order prevents him from contacting her directly), in return for which he will be her partner in a forthcoming dance contest. What could possibly go wrong…?

Well, I was accompanied to this movie by my former Special Advisor on Latin American Affairs and Motorsport, who has requested a transfer to the post of Senior Dubious Comparison Wrangler. As his response to Beasts of the Southern Wild was ‘Waterworld meets City of God’, I thought he was in with a shot at the job, but what clinched it was his summation of Silver Linings Playbook as ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest meets Dirty Dancing’. On one level this is a spot-on description of what the film is about, but it’s also utterly misleading in terms of what it’s actually like to watch.

What this film is, is an extremely well-assembled and well-acted comedy-drama with a strong romantic element, and very engaging to watch. There are laughs in the right places, but also darker and more moving scenes, and the odd bit which actually made me Feel Good (which is no mean feat given that most so-called ‘feelgood movies’ make me contemplate opening a vein).

That said, I was a little uncomfortable in some places while watching the film, mainly because it seemed to me that a lot of the comedy could be intepreted as being predicated on the idea of ‘Look at these wacky mentally ill people! How funny they are!’ I discussed this afterwards with the newly-appointed Comparison Wrangler, and he pointed out that what the film is saying is that everyone has their own issues of some kind or other, and it really doesn’t make a distinction between people with issues and those without. The film’s depictions of bi-polar syndrome and OCD are sympathetic, honest, and non-judgemental, and the more comic moments should probably be viewed in the context of the rest of the film.

This is a Proper Acting Drama, and as such possibly something of a watershed moment in the careers of both stars: Bradley Cooper is really good, giving a proper, nuanced performance. Jennifer Lawrence has made something of a name for herself doing superior work in dodgy blockbusters – it’s not that difficult to look good in that sort of film, but a Proper Acting Drama is a different proposition and she is customarily superb here too. Robert de Niro is not perhaps as magnetic as his reputation might suggest, but neither does he embarrass himself. Perhaps most startling of all, Chris Tucker is in the movie, and not only is he not intensely annoying, he’s actually quite funny. Cripes.

I got a strong sense of Silver Linings Playbook working hard to keep the audience onside, mainly through the inclusion of the comedy and also a tried-and-true dramatic structure like the concluding dance competition (suffice to say, much is riding on the outcome). Parts of it are not terribly original or challenging, which may affect its chances when the gongs are handed out next year – but, on the other hand, the psychiatric disorder stuff is sufficiently integral to the plot for it not to seem like a standard rom-com-dram with a peculiar gimmick. I liked it; worth seeing.

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