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Posts Tagged ‘David O Russell’

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.

joy

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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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.

amhustle

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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