Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Review: "Joy"

Director: David O. Russell
Runtime: 124 minutes

If you find it odd that Joy opens with voice over from the main character's grandmother, don't expect coherence or justification to follow. David O. Russell's new free-wheeling, rambunctious dramedy is a puzzler from start to finish, and not for the best reasons. Adapting the real-life story of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, Russell has applied the same energetic style that distinguished his last three films (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle). Yet all of the roving, dynamic camera-work and snappy music choices in Joy's 2 hour runtime are enough to give a sense of life or necessity to this rags-to-riches tale. 

That's not to say that Mangano's tale is undeserving of dramatization, but Russell's execution here doesn't do it justice. The loud, dysfunctional family that surrounds Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) feels like a watered down version of what Russell presented in both Silver Linings and The Fighter. Yelling and bickering take the place of actual character growth, as if enough familial sparring will eventually turn into quirkiness. 

And it might have, were it not for the flatness that permeates just about every performance from the ensemble. Russell has assembled a typically excellent, charismatic cast, but none of them seem terribly invested in the material. The actors glide through the dialogue as if waiting for inspiration to strike, yet it never does. At worst, everyone in Joy sounds just a bit, well, bored. Whatever your opinion on Russell's recent films, they have enough energy flowing through them to make them at least passable entertainment. Joy, however, moves along mostly on autopilot, despite the lively, in-your-face photography. 

Perhaps the lack of energy comes down to the cluttered, discordant nature of the story. Joy brings in characters and subplots, but the wider the film's scope becomes, the weaker its impact. The closest the film comes to evoking joy (or any other emotion) arrives in the midsection, when Mangano starts to plug the Miracle Mop on QVC. Whether cramming in a cameo from Joan Rivers (played by her daughter, Melissa), or showing Mangano's eventual triumph on live TV, the QVC scenes introduce a sense of coherence and purpose. 

But the drive that highlights the rise of the Miracle Mop empire is stranded in a film that never quite figures out where it's going or leading up to. Diane Ladd's voice pops up sporadically with eyeroll-worthy narration, trying to turn Joy's story into a late 20th century entrepreneurial fairy tale. But much of what transpires just happens for the sake of filling up time over the course of a plodding two hours. The worst example is when Joy's shut in of a mother (Virginia Madsen) strikes up a relationship with a repairman. It adds nothing to the narrative, and there's nothing in the material that makes the messiness of the subplot feel acceptable. Like most of the story in Joy, it's just sort of there. One great shot in the film involves Mangano confidently strutting down a street. Unlike his subject, Russell is unable to match Joy's single-minded confidence or swagger. 

Grade: C-

Monday, December 21, 2015

Review: "The Revenant"

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Runtime: 156 minutes

So much for levity. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, fresh off an Oscar win for Best Director is back, and unlike Birdman, his new project is very, very serious. And yet, after the emotional and technical highwire act of Birdman, something seems to have shaken loose in the director's approach to darker material. The Revenant, despite its share of heavy going and brutal events, may mark a return to expected territory for Inarritu, but it does so in a way that suggests the director's approach to straight drama may finally be evolving. By turns plodding and powerful, this bleak anti-Western has enough going for it that it manages to overcome several gaping weaknesses.

Those weaknesses take some time to become apparent, as Inarritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith waste no time in plunging the viewer into an intense, visceral story. After a quick, Malick-esque opener, The Revenant kicks off with a stunning battle made all the more immersive by Emmanuel Lubezki's roving, deep-focus photography (it plays out like a Herzog movie on steroids). As in Birdman (albeit to a lesser degree), The Revenant is mostly comprised of lengthy, unbroken shots. And, perhaps to better effect here than in Inarritu's showbiz black comedy, the camera work feels more purposeful in terms of drawing one in to a different place and time. 

Set in the first half of the 1800s, The Revenant's eventual plot concerns Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, playing a fictionalized version of a real frontiersman), a fur trapper with some of the worst luck imaginable. The opening confrontation with a Pawnee tribe sends Glass' expedition scrambling for a new route home, and it doesn't get much better from there. Though most in the crew (including characters played by Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter) respect Glass' knowledge of the local terrain, there is understandable division in how to proceed. Leading the opposition is John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), driven purely by a desire to get to a trading post ASAP and collect their earnings. Everything goes (further) south when Glass has an absolutely horrific encounter with a grizzly bear, which is - like most of the setpieces in the film - presented in an unflinching shot that represents a visual endurance test. Soon Glass, with no help from Fitzgerald, is left for dead, which of course he isn't. 

It takes close to an hour for this first leg of the journey to transpire, though the constant sense of movement prevents the film from drowning in its own dour atmosphere. Inarritu's previous dramas have often been met with criticism for either being overbearingly heavy or obnoxiously contrived. With The Revenant, based in part on true events, at least now the director has found a story where his tendency towards self-important dramatics actually fits the material. 

So much of The Revenant works so well that it's not until near the finale that one of the biggest issues with the script rears its head: DiCaprio's Glass is not a terribly well-formed character. While the film's other roles allow for (admittedly straightforward) characterization, Glass himself remains a bit vacant. The decision to shoot just about the entire film on location pays off in spades from a filmmaking standpoint, but this has somehow happened at the expense of the writing. Aside from grunting in pain, DiCaprio spends most of the movie doing stunts, rather than building a character. Physicality can a be powerful component of a performance, but when the entire role is built around strenuous activity, it's hard to feel even a passing intellectual connection or sense of empathy. DiCaprio does at least get one strong moment before the final showdown, but with so much time spent just watching him survive, it feels a bit thin in retrospect. 

With Glass' characterization left out in the wilderness, the emotional core of the film resembles the frozen-over quality of the visuals. The other actors, at least, get to do something other than function as human rag dolls. Gleeson does some fine work as a co-leader of the expedition convinced that Glass is dead, while Will Poulter is excellent in his limited scenes as a crew member concealing the ugly truth. The film's emotional high points arise not from Glass' arc, but from interactions between other characters about Glass' fate. Hardy, trading in the scorched earth of Mad Max for the snow-covered American frontier, is a solid villain as well, even though much of his dialogue is difficult to decipher. 

What The Revenant lacks in in-depth character development, it oddly makes up for with broad-strokes symbolism. Inarritu's hand can be a bit too heavy to create something truly transcedant, but he manages to extract some striking moments of poetry out of all of the chaos. Dreams and flashbacks play a key role in giving the film a broader historical context, and are often more informative than what takes place in the present. Glimpses of Glass' Native American wife, as well as the rampant decimation of Native tribes at the hands of white colonizers, do a compelling job of subverting the traditional cowboys-and-indians notion of classic Westerns. 

Bridging the gap between dream and reality is a subplot centered on a group of Pawnee warriors going after a missing woman from their tribe. This narrative thread, a head-scratcher at first, ends up working in the film's favor as an inverted parallel of the central plot. Glass seeks revenge for being left for dead (as well as the murder of his mixed-race son) to try, now that he has nothing left to live for despite living in land taken by force by his fellow white explorers. The Pawnee tribe, meanwhile, is out to reclaim one of their own, taken by the same white explorers, so that they can do their best to stay united as their numbers dwindle as a result of the bloody path cut by "Manifest Destiny." Whether or not Glass gets revenge, he has the option of continuing to build a life for himself. The Pawnee, however, are faced with literal extinction. The film's final scene merges these two angles together for a disquieting end. It positions the The Revenant not as a heroic tribute to human endurance, but rather a bitter and mournful condemnation of the whitewashed, not to mention hideous, violence that formed modern America, and continues to poison its collective moral conscience to this day.

Is this slow-building symbolism enough to justify the lack of development for DiCaprio's role? Well...kind of. Actual investment in Glass as an individual would have only heightened the film's eventual message. Juxtaposing one man's suffering against the destruction of entire races is a smart idea, but it requires more than a noteworthy face to make such a conceit hit home beyond intellectual understanding. The Revenant does so much right, however, that the thinly sketched ideology is elevated above being merely serviceable. It's a oddball case of style emphasizing and fleshing out substance in ways the source can't quite grasp. It's in the periphery, not the central journey, where the The Revenant starts to thaw out and push beyond its immaculate surface. 

Grade: B+

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

Director: J.J. Abrams
Runtime: 135 minutes

Everyone who cares even a little about Star Wars has their own set of expectations for the next wave of films. Films 1 - 6 (technically 4-6/1-3) spawned such a vast empire of media that story options for a new trilogy seem endless. And yet, by reaching back to what made audiences flip out for A New Hope in 1977, director J.J. Abrams has taken on a herculean task and somehow delivered. The Force Awakens, despite years of expectations and millions and millions of dollars powering it, carries the same scrappy spirit of George Lucas' first journey to a galaxy far, far away. The final product, regardless of whether or not you were caught up in the hyper machine, has its flaws, mostly when it comes to balancing the old and the new. And unlike the much-maligned prequels (galactic senate meetings, midichlorians, the shadow of Jar Jar Binks), The Force Awakens is a legitimate fresh start for the series, with a speedy plot that takes audiences from planet to planet and starship to starship. Even with nods and winks to the audience, this is, finally, the 21st century Star Wars movie we both wanted and needed. 

Abrams, Disney, and Lucasfilm have tried to keep as much of The Force Awakens under wraps, and even though the movie is out now, I'll do my best to refrain from spoilers. Even so, in terms of structure, there isn't much to spoil. For better and for worse, Abrams and co-writer Michael Arndt have stuck with Lucas' concept of having the trilogies "mirror" each other in terms of plot developments and character arcs.

This concept has ups and downs, but it mostly works as a pleasing middle ground compromise. Despite the PG-13 rating, The Force Awakens doesn't try to get away with as much as it can (versus, say, The Dark Knight), as it's trying to bring in old fans and stir the imaginations of new ones who might not even be 10 yet. Diehards looking for the franchise to leap forwards and mature (in the way the Harry Potter books and then films did) might be left wanting. When making a movie that's designed to please as many people as possible while also playing to a core fanbase, it's hard to come up with something that checks off every box.

The sense of compromise (pandering seems a bit too harsh/negative) that permeates The Force Awakens might seem like a red flag, but it's far from a dealbreaker. When it comes to the "mirroring" aspect, the film's hit-to-miss ratio winds up being rather good. This is especially true of the first hour or so, which is almost entirely filled with the next generation of heroes and villains. Among the good eggs are desert scavenger Rey (the instantly-winning Daisy Ridley), AWOL stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega, a charming and bumbling accidental do-gooder), and ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, cutting loose and having fun with limited material). If ever there was a sign that this Star Wars was a creation of modern times, it's the much needed diversity found among this key trio. 

Yet where there is light, there is also darkness. The Sith and the Empire may be extinct, but that hasn't stopped a new wave of devotees from arising. Most compelling is the masked and hooded Kylo Ren (Adam Driver...yes the guy from Girls), a temperamental student of the Dark Side with a Darth Vader complex. He is the film's own mirror for Rey, a mysterious loner drawn to the supernatural gifts of the Force, and his desire to hide his past is one of The Force Awakens' most compelling angles. 

And with so much going on in The Force Awakens (starting anew while also tying into the original films), the actors deserve immense praise for being so charismatic in their roles. The film hops and skips around so much, and the characters could have gotten lost in the shuffle. Yet even when Abrams pushes his young leads to go a little too broad (we get it, they're in over their heads/wide eyed with amazement), the actors still deliver. Ridley and Boyega are a great deal of fun as a pair of loners forced together by chance (or maybe fate...), and Isaac's swagger further grounds the film in a tone more in line with the adventure serials that originally inspired Star Wars. Driver is a hoot as well, especially as his mood and presence adjusts when he removes his helmet. 

So much of what's new is so invigorating that the arrival of characters from the first films throws off The Force Awakens' balance. As pure nostalgia it's bliss to see Harrison Ford back as Han Solo. But as Solo becomes integral to the plot, The Force Awakens starts sliding a little too far backwards. The new torchbearers of the franchise slip into the backseat for a while, leaving the midsection a bit rudderless. Seeing Han and Leia together is great on its own, but it's hard not to think that such scenes might have been better spent developing Rey, Finn, etc...

Despite this issue, Abrams brings it all home in the final stretch, even though the conclusion boasts the most overtly derivative moments from a structural standpoint. It takes a while to get there, but Abrams and Arndt do thankfully get around to resetting the chess board for future installments. Like any good adventure saga, The Force Awakens wraps up enough to function as a self-contained story, yet also ends in a way that begs for another chapter. In these final stages, Abrams restores the earnestness and charm of the series while also boldly positioning it for bigger and better things. And, at the very least, Abrams managed to combine a 'hello' to the next generation with a proper 'goodbye' to the old. It's hard to ask for more than that. 

Grade: B

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Review: "Macbeth"

Director: Justin Kurzel
Runtime: 120 minutes

There's rugged beauty in everything from the landscapes to the people in Macbeth, but sadly little poetry. Australian director Justin Kurzel has made a handsome and gritty adaptation of one of Shakespeare's best and most iconic plays, but never pushes beyond the surface of the Bard's language. In an odd twist, the best and most consistent aspect of this Macbeth comes from the lone non-native English-speaker among the principal players. In fleeting moments, Kurzel's stylstic ambitions find harmony with the source material, but these instance are the exception, rather than the norm.

Not much has been changed in this latest telling of the Scottish play. There are some key omissions (no "double double" chant from the witches; no "stars, hide your light" from Macbeth), but when it comes to words, Kurzel has hardly bastardized the material. At least on the page. Right from the start, this Macbeth strains for ominous atmospherics through Adam Arkapaw's rich, primordial images and Jed Kurzel's sinister, droning score. Were this an experimental, dialogue-free production, things might have turned out differently. 

Yet when the actors open their mouths to start working their way through the centuries-old dialogue, they fumble. Yes, even Michael Fassbender in the titular role. Most of the cast appear to be saying the words as if at a first glance at the script. There's some authenticity thanks to the guttural, mouth-full-of-glass accents, but no true connection. The words hang there when they should draw one in to this sordid tale as much as the visuals. Yet when Macbeth wonders aloud about whether or not he should kill King Duncan (David Thewlis), none of the source material's complexity registers. Shakespeare chose words carefully. Most of the actors here just try to get through them as if having a banal exchange over coffee.

A pity, then, that there isn't more of Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) in Kurzel's film. The French actress, perhaps because she has to work harder to navigate the dialogue, ends up dominating the entire film. By the time the film is over, you'll be left wanting a revisionist take on the play that centers around Cotillard's interpretation of the character. Without even trying to put on an unnatural accent, she not only gets through the dialogue, but actually sounds as if she truly understands every little nuance of what she's saying. Though this production firmly relegates Lady Macbeth (one of theater's all-time great characters for women) to supporting status, there's no question as to who the star is here. Thankfully, one of the times in which Kurzel's direction works comes at the iconic "Out, damned spot!" sequence, a marvel of simplicity that is mostly done in a lengthy close up. Clad in white robes, illuminated by a pale shaft of wintery light, Cotillard almost makes the whole film worth it just for her work in this one scene. 

Other well-known moments from the play don't fare as well. The witches who deliver Macbeth's prophecy and Banquo's ghost are presented in visually inert scenes that do little to add mystery or distortion. Some allowance can be given to the witches, but when Macbeth addresses Banquo's ghost in a room full of people, it feels as if everyone else can see the specter as well. There's no sense of perspective, and a moment that should unsettle and haunt instead plods along. 

In trying so hard to pump up the visual component of his adaptation, Kurzel often misses the power of the dialogue. Had he stripped the text to the core and cut out as much dialogue as possible, this wouldn't have been such an issue. But in trying to keep the dialogue while also shoe-horning in visual flourishes (super slow-motion! apocalyptic red filters on the camera!), the film feels at odds with itself. Macbeth's talk of "sound and fury/signifying nothing," has, unfortunately, rarely felt more appropriate.

Grade: C+