Movie Review ~ Joy

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Joy is the story of a family across four generations and the woman who rises to become founder and matriarch of a powerful family business dynasty.

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Édgar Ramírez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Elisabeth Röhm, Bradley Cooper

Director: David O. Russell

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  The good news to report about Joy is that it’s eons better than American Hustle, the last film that teamed up director David O. Russell with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro.  The bad news is that, like American Hustle, it’s largely a watch it and forget it kind of experience with only Lawrence’s performance lingering in the memory after the credits have rolled and the lights have come up.

Working with the same three actors for his last three pictures, one could argue that Russell is gathering a bit of a cinematic repertory of talent that he finds a way to plug into his films.  That’s an interesting concept and one I’m not totally opposed to, but the problem arises when the roles being offered to these stars don’t fit them, forcing them to be the square peg valiantly sucking in their guts to fit into Russell’s round hole.

Touted as being “loosely” based on the life of Joy Mangano (c’mon Russell, it’s either based on her life or it isn’t…you can’t ride the middle ground), Joy is all over the map when it comes to its narrative.  Much of the movie is recounted by Joy’s grandmother (a divine Diane Ladd)…except when it’s not.  Long stretches of the movie go by without the grandmother’s guiding voice so the narrative device becomes a tool to assist in transitions when simple filmmaking alone can’t do the trick.

Mangano’s life plays like an ‘80s sitcom: she’s a divorcee living in her mother’s house and her ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez, Point Break) lives in the basement.  Her mom (Virginia Madsen) hides away from the world, losing herself in her soap operas (hilariously recreated by the likes of Susan Lucci and Donna Mills) and letting her daughter do most of the household upkeep.  When Joy’s hot-tempered father (De Niro, Cape Fear) moves in after his longtime girlfriend kicks him out, the dynamic of the already erratic household is thrown into disarray.

The first hour or so of Joy is an awkward mix of family situational comedy and pallid drama.  Joy’s airline job is going nowhere and her attempts at promoting a new kind of mop of her own invention isn’t attracting any business.  When her dad starts dating a rich Italian widow (Isabella Rossellini, Enemy), Joy sees a potential investor for her creation and enters into a business deal with the woman, along with her father and half-sister (Elisabeth Röhm)

It isn’t until Joy winds up in the offices of upstart company QVC that the movie starts to take some kind of shape.  Meeting the brainchild behind the business (Bradley Cooper, American Sniper), she’s encouraged to go big with her idea, leading to her becoming the first “real” person to pitch a product on the network.  The scene where Joy first appears in front of the camera to demonstrate her Miracle Mop was the only time in the entire movie that I felt something magical was happening.  That’s largely due to Lawrence’s ability to shed the skins of her previous roles and totally disappear into this woman.  A relatively short scene, it’s stuck with me in the weeks since I first saw it.

Sadly, the film reaches its peak at that moment and the rest of the time is spent tracking Joy’s bumpy ride to the top, complete with epic failures and miracle reversals of fortune.  How much of it is actually accurate I couldn’t tell you but in the eyes of Russell and co-writer Annie Mumalo (This is 40) the journey is one of pure will and unflinching drive.

The main issue I had with the movie is also the one thing that makes it worth seeing…Jennifer Lawrence.  Though she’s entirely believable as a young mother looking to make ends meet, she becomes less successful as the years go by and her character has to move into the early stages of midlife.  By the time we see her in a power suit and French manicure, all plausibility has left the room and it comes across as a great actress playing dress-up for her favorite director.  I know Lawrence and Russell have a deep fondness for each other, but both need to see that there are limits to the roles they can work on together.

The story being told here is interesting and the actors are attention-grabbing in and of themselves.  Yet something kept everything from gelling in a way that made a lasting impression.  Russell is known for his quirky tone and unexpected performances…it’s why Silver Linings Playbook worked so damn well…but his two follow-up films haven’t been able to latch onto that same magic.

Movie Review ~ The Intern

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The Facts:

Synopsis: 70-year-old widower Ben Whittaker has discovered that retirement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Seizing an opportunity to get back in the game, he becomes a senior intern at an online fashion site, founded and run by Jules Ostin.

Stars: Robert De Niro, Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway,Rene Russo, Anders Holm, Adam DeVine, Andrew Rannells,Linda Lavin, Christina Scherer, Celia Weston, JoJo Kushner,Zack Pearlman, Jason Orley, Nat Wolff

Director: Nancy Meyers

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Let’s start this review off by going the full disclosure route and saying that I’m not a huge fan of the movies that Nancy Meyers started to make after splitting with her husband, Charles Shyer.  Together, the two were responsible for films like Private Benjamin, Baby Boom, Irreconcilable Differences, and the remake of Father of the Bride and its sequel (let’s skip over their clunker I Love Trouble).  As a standalone writer/director, Meyers has been responsible for a trio of films often described as white-women fantasies: The Holiday, Something’s Gotta Give, and, most recently, It’s Complicated.  All three of these have had dynamite casts with strong female leads…but they all seemed to take place in an alternate universe where every surface is spotless, every arm is covered in taupe cashmere, and no problem can’t be solved over a glass of white whine, oops…wine.  It’s escapist entertainment, I get it, but they’re carb-free meals for this critic that craves some starch.

So I came to The Intern with some pre-conceived notions of how it would all play out.  In all honesty the film came at the right time for me and caught me in the perfect mood, it’s a guilt free bit of whimsy that wasn’t as interminable as previous Meyers outings.  Bouncing around in development hell for quite some time, it was originally imagined as a vehicle for Tina Fey and though the high-powered career woman intended for her has had a few years shaved off, it’s not hard to see how Fey would have fit into the central character now played by Anne Hathaway.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Opening with the kind of “let me bring you up to speed” monologue that Meyers excels in, Robert De Niro’s (Silver Linings Playbook) Ben details how he came to be applying for a senior internship at About the Fit.   A widower, after 40 years in working his 9-5 job the retired Ben has traveled the world, doted on his grandkids, learned a few new languages, and now doesn’t quite know what to do next.  A chance glance at an ad tacked outside his local grocery gets him in the door at the fashion start-up.

Clearly overqualified for the job, he’s matched with none other than the founder (Hathaway) of the company who, in true Driving Miss Daisy fashion, tells him he’s not needed or really wanted.  It doesn’t take a genius to see that the two will be at odds on the outset before becoming a cohesive unit so let’s focus more on where the film turns up some unexpected delights.

The good news starts at the top with De Niro and Hathaway (Interstellar) clocking in surprisingly charming performances.  De Niro doesn’t seem to be very discerning in his role selections as of late but he’s a good fit with the kindly elder who isn’t merely there to offer sage advice but to lend a hand as well as a shoulder to his young boss.  Hathaway too is downright delightful as Jules (because, of course that’s her name) and I couldn’t help but feel like the character was a more seasoned version of the one she played in The Devil Wears Prada.

Echoing Baby Boom, the main question The Intern seems to be asking is ‘Can women have it all?’  Can they have the high paying job, can they run a business, can they stand on their own two feet and still manage to keep a stable family life?  Jules’ husband (Anders Holm) is a stay-at-home dad, parenting their girl while his wife is working and Meyers illustrates often the sacrifices both are making to keep up with the daily grind.

The problem is that the question doesn’t seem to be as relevant as it was back in the late 80s and for a film set in the new millennium it feels a bit backward in its thinking.  Yes, we know that wage equality between males and females still has a long way to go and that the roles of wives and husbands have had some fluidity in the past decade.  But are we really saying that women have to choose between the two?  Alarmingly, Meyers puts her female lead to that test several times and it’s proof of Hathaway’s charisma that she’s able to overcome that dinosaur of a notion and still maintain some semblance of professionalism.

Making our way down the cast list, things get a bit rocky.  Rene Russo (Nightcrawler) is always a welcome presence and since Meyers can’t clothe Hathaway in her favorite cream colors, Russo is the model for an array of perfectly ivory and billowy beige ensembles.  She’s the company masseuse that takes a liking to De Niro and while that relationship is only explored when the movie remembers to do so, it’s a welcome reminder that age-appropriate couplings are alive and well in Meyers’ world.

It’s never quite clear what Andrew Rannells (Bachelorette) actually does at the company (is he a co-founder? is he co-owner?) but he disappears halfway through the film so it’s quite possible he was Jules’s imaginary friend.  Linda Lavin, looking positively mummified, pops up all too briefly to try and get De Niro in the sack and a trio of bro-ish, dumb-ish, co-workers of De Niro (lead by the always annoying Adam DeVine, Pitch Perfect, Pitch Perfect 2) seem to have been crafted for an ill-advised foray into slapstick comedy that occupies a labored fifteen minutes in the middle of the film.  Holm strikes out big time as the benign husband that may not be quite as content to play second fiddle as he appears to be.  Reading his lines as if he’s making fun of their supposed sincerity, he’s the one thundercloud in an otherwise sunny film.

I’ll admit that even though it has its faults, The Intern was more pleasant than it had any right to be.  It’s lead by two strong performances and, while Meyers doesn’t seem to have anything new to say about the state of affairs in business, she has produced a crisp apple of a film, tart when it has to be and juicy when called for.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Intern

intern

Synopsis: 70-year-old widower Ben Whittaker has discovered that retirement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Seizing an opportunity to get back in the game, he becomes a senior intern at an online fashion site, founded and run by Jules Ostin.

Release Date: September 25, 2015

Thoughts: I resisted doing a write-up of The Intern for several months now because my parents always told me if you can’t say something nice don’t say it at all.  Then I remembered that this blog was designed to cast a critical eye on all things film so why not just go for it?  Ok? Here we go.

I do not like Nancy Meyers.  I don’t like her directing and I don’t like her writing.  “But Joe”, you say, “what about The HolidaySomething’s Gotta GiveIt’s Complicated?”  I’ve seen them, I’ve enjoyed them…but I don’t feel good about it afterward because Meyers seems only able to represent the privileged white woman’s point of view. Her films are awash in taupe and cream…the same color as the skin of all of her characters.  The lack of diversity in her films is shocking and it’s baffling to me no one has called her on it in a public form yet.

So I approach her new film with a great deal of angst.  It looks like another white-washed affair full of life lessons and jokes only a Wellesley grad would appreciate and one that should be watched while sipping white wine and munching on celery stalks.  Taking on a role once occupied by Tina Fey and then Reese Witherspoon, Anne Hathaway (Interstellar) seems right at home, as does Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) who hasn’t made a truly discerning film decision in almost a decade.

I’ll see it…but Nancy Meyers…I’ve got your number.

The Silver Bullet ~ Joy

Joy

Synopsis: Joy is the story of a family across four generations and the woman who rises to become founder and matriarch of a powerful family business dynasty.

Release Date:  December 25, 2015

Thoughts: Here’s the deal: I loved Silver Linings Playbook, the first film that brought together Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men: Days of Future Past), Bradley Cooper (Aloha), and director David O. Russell and I hated American Hustle, the film that reunited the three.  So my interest in Joy is marked with more than a little trepidation.  On the one hand, it places the best thing about Playbook and Hustle (Lawrence) front and center, telling the true life tale of the woman that invented the Miracle Mop.  On the other, I’d hate to see it drown in its own love of self which was what torpedoed Hustle for me.  It looks like a wild ride, one everyone in Hollywood is waiting for to see if Lawrence finds herself in the Oscar race yet again.

Movie Review ~ The Family

family

The Facts:

Synopsis: The Manzoni family, a notorious mafia clan, is relocated to Normandy, France under the witness protection program, where fitting in soon becomes challenging as their old habits die hard.

Stars: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo, Domenick Lombardozzi

Director: Luc Besson

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going in to see The Family.  As a fan of Michelle Pfeiffer, I knew that my seeing this was an inevitable event but based on the trailer and seriously boring title I just didn’t know how the whole thing was going to turn out.  Would it be another in a long line of Robert De Niro films that seemed to get made only because he signed on the dotted line?  Or would it be the kind of daring European action film that director Luc Besson first rose to fame for?

Well, it turns out that the movie can’t ever really decide what genre it wants to fit into so it instead just lays down and rolls around several different themes all at the same time.  That may not work for most movie audiences and it’s not surprising that people are coming away from the film feeling a little empty, but I found the film to be an interesting potpourri of tones that worked more often than not – even if it’s more than a little odd.

Moving into a new European town after an incident necessitated their hasty retreat; a family in the witness protection program find themselves in the quaint/quiet town of Normandy in France.  Taking up residence in a money pit-esque dwelling, the Manzoni’s clearly are getting old hat at the process of moving from one town to another.  Dad (a more low-key than usual De Niro, Being Flynn, Silver Linings Playbook) just wants to settle in and write his memoirs, to the horror of the long-suffering FBI agent (Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln, Hope Springs) assigned to their case.  Michelle Pfeiffer (Dark Shadows, People Like Us) is De Niro’s wife with anger issues of her own, eventually turning to the church for help, spilling her secrets in confession that leads to a moderately nice payoff.  The kids (Diana Agron and John D’Leo) are fashioned as doppelgangers of their parents and both give off a playful vibe, even as they find themselves in hot water at school.

As the family is getting acclimated to their new town, we also follow a creepy crime henchman (Jon Freda) that continues his hunt for De Niro and his brood after De Niro became a turncoat to his Mafia family.  It’s in these scenes that wind up leading to an out of left field tension filled finale that the film may confuse some people.  The passages with the family are given a light touch that belies the darker tone brought on by Freda’s intense chase.

For me, it worked.  I enjoyed that the film feels different than what it would have been were it produced in your typical Hollywood fashion.  That it was made in Europe by a European crew and director has given the film a golden hue and the chance to take risks with its twists and turns.  By the time the film reached its finale I wasn’t sure how it was all going to work out for everyone involved.

Sure, the film has several extraneous storylines that could have been trimmed to keep the running length to 90 or so minutes but the actors play these moments so well that it’s forgivable.  It may be harder to forgive one of the most laughably contrived cases of coincidence since, well, ever, but by that point the movie had won me over enough to just brush it off.  There’s also a wonderfully weird bit where De Niro is feted by a local film society who has asked him to come and speak to the finer points of the classic film…no…no…I won’t spoil that moment for you.

Returning after several years of being absent from the director’s chair, Luc Besson (Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element) brings his trademark cinematic flair to The Family and navigates it’s up and down and crisscrossed tones with ease.  I’ve always enjoyed Besson’s creative way of cutting from one scene to the next and he keeps the pace going, even when his screenplay based on the novel Malavita doesn’t fully support itself.

The Family isn’t a movie that you’ll need to see in the theaters but would make for an interesting watch when it finds its way into the home viewing market.

The Silver Bullet ~ Killing Season

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Synopsis: Two veterans of the Bosnian War — one American, one Serbian — find their unlikely friendship turn tense with one of them reveals their true intentions.

Release Date:  July 12, 2013

Thoughts: Y’know, every time that I make up my mind to give Robert De Niro the benefit of the doubt he goes and makes a questionable decision on film choices.  De Niro is a well respected actor and is at the point of his career where he can honestly do whatever he wants, kinda like Meryl Streep.  The difference is that Streep’s outside of the box choices tend to give the actress the kind of stretch opportunities in unorthodox roles that don’t ultimately ding her past credits.  I consider any pairing with John Travolta to be a risky move and Killing Season looks like a gobbling turkey of a survival thriller.  I’m not quite sure what’s growing on Travolta’s face or where he pulled his accent from but it doesn’t bode well for us, the moviegoers.  De Niro made good with 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook so it’s extra disappointing that his 2013 films (The Big Wedding, The Family, and this) look so bad.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Family

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family

Synopsis: The Manzoni family, a notorious mafia clan, is relocated to Normandy, France under the witness protection program, where fitting in soon becomes challenging as their old habits die hard.

Release Date:  September 20, 2013

Thoughts: Despite having one of the most lackluster titles in film history (why not just call it, That One Film with Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer?) it’s hard for me to feel like I want to pass up a movie with Pfeiffer (Grease 2, Dark Shadows) because she works so rarely now and seems to choose projects that are of real interest to her.  True, they may not always be on the money (see Dark Shadows) but they are rarely boring.  DeNiro (Silver Linings Playbook, Being Flynn) is another story with the veteran actor making some ghastly films in the past decade.  Another bit of interest is that the film is directed by French auteur Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, La Femme Nikita, The Professional) who has stuck to producing action flicks (Taken 2, Lockout) so his return is welcome in my book.  Looking like a dark mix of mafia comedy, The Family (originally titled Malavita) probably won’t rank as career highs for anyone involved but it might turn out to be a decent romp.  We shall see.

The Silver Bullet ~ Last Vegas

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Synopsis: Three sixty-something friends take a break from their day-to-day lives to throw a bachelor party in Las Vegas for their last remaining single pal.

Release Date:  November 1, 2013

Thoughts: Headlined by four Oscar winners, Last Vegas is a movie your mom will probably ask you to take her to.   That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it says something about the type of film this will end up being…a matinee crowd pleaser for those of a certain age that have worn out their copies of Grumpy Old Men on VHS.  I’m an old soul at heart and a fan of the four men so I’ll overlook this unremarkable trailer and try to focus on the positives here…most notably being Morgan Freeman (Oblivion, Now You See Me) cutting loose near the end of the preview.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Backdraft

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Two Chicago firefighter brothers who don’t get along have to work together while a dangerous arsonist is on the loose.

Stars: Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Scott Glenn, Rebecca De Mornay, Donald Sutherland

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: R

Running Length: 137 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

ReviewBackdraft was one of those films that I responded to fairly well when I first saw it at a second-run theater in the summer of 1991.  Already familiar with the work of director Ron Howard (Parenthood) and as the proud grandson of a firefighter, I remember liking the drama created between two firefighting brothers and enjoying a secondary storyline involving an arsonist that seems to know a thing or two about setting buildings ablaze. 

Viewed nearly 22 years later (!),this film which once seemed epic to me now feels a little too soap opera-y, a feeling aided by the fact that it’s filled with some off-the-mark performances.  Don’t get me wrong, Howard stages some still impressive eye-popping sequences involving fire up close and personal but seen now there’s a curious lack of restraint that made the movie feel longer than it was.

Russell and Baldwin aren’t totally believable as brothers but they find some cohesion in their macho roughness that helps color the film  We’re told that Baldwin has flitted around a lot, much to the disapproval of his older brother who has followed their father’s career path and has become a respected fireman.  When the younger brother gets into the family business and is assigned to the same station as his elder sibling there’s some old wounds that re-open…especially when deadly fires start being set that Russell’s character may be involved with.

This being a Ron Howard movie, there’s a lot going on at all times and the large supporting cast of familiar character actors pop up here and there and are generally put to good use.  Sutherland (Ordinary People) has two short scenes as a jailed arsonist but makes the most of his onscreen time.  De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) and De Mornay (Mother’s Day) make the most impressive impact in their roles…the most fleshed out in Gregory Widen’s slight script.  While I appreciate Leigh for some of her more out of the box performances her work here is embarrassingly poor…

If the film has lost some heat over the last two decades, it’s only the fault of some changes in taste.  There was a time when these type of emotion-driven, large-scale films played quite well and there’s still value to be found in the film thanks to some strong performances (I forgot to mention that Russell is particularly good here) and Howard’s trademark immersive production design.  If the script could have been elevated a bit and some recasting done we may have had a film that weathered the furnace of time.