When a Song Gets Bigger than the Movie: Shallow

It feels like only yesterday the world fell in love with Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, the third and most recent remake of the classic ill-fated romance between two lovers in showbiz whose career trajectories are trending in opposite directions. Maybe it doesn’t feel like the two years it has actually been considering how thirsty the internet still is for that Cooper-Gaga hook-up IRL. Their rendition of their hit single “Shallow” at the Oscars that year helped calm exactly no one down. In Cooper’s modern update, one that changes the discipline from acting to singing/songwriting, Gaga takes on the role originally portrayed by Janet Gaynor in 1937 while the writer/director mimics Fredric March.

While it is always going to be remembered more for the doomed romance (as it perhaps should, for Cooper and Gaga give us an on-screen couple for the ages), you just can’t sleep on A Star is Born‘s soundtrack. There is so much quality music in here — actual musicianship, not catchy ear-worms (even though those are good too!) — that you basically get two forms of entertainment for the price of one. I could probably have chosen other songs to highlight here. Cooper’s opening rock anthem “Black Eyes” is a real barn-burner that kicks the movie off with some good energy. And Gaga’s “Always Remember Us This Way,” with its really beautiful vocal inflections layered on top of a haunting melody, is maybe the next strongest candidate.

However no song blew up quite like the sentimental ballad “Shallow,” which you could hear playing on any given radio station throughout the rest of the year and well into 2019. Written by Gaga, Mark Ronson, Andrew Wyatt and Anthony Rossomando, the lyrical content of “Shallow” is rooted at the very heart of the movie, with each character asking each other whether they feel comfortable being the person they are. The intimate duet received widespread acclaim from critics, landing at the top of many music charts across the globe and providing Gaga her first Oscar win when it took home Best Original Song at the 91st Academy Awards. It also snagged a Grammy for Best Song Written for Visual Media and a Golden Globe Award. Of all the things the movie does well, it is the fact that a song ultimately secured A Star is Born‘s lone Oscar win (out of a total of eight nominations) that proves what a massive success “Shallow” turned out to be.


Shallow (lyrics by Lady Gaga and Mark Ronson)

Tell me somethin’, girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there somethin’ else you’re searchin’ for?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself
Longin’ for change
And in the bad times I fear myself

Tell me something, boy
Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?
Or do you need more?
Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself
Longing for a change
And in the bad times I fear myself

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
We’re far from the shallow now

Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
Whoah

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
We’re far from the shallow now


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The Mule

Release: Friday, December 14, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Sam Dolnick; Nick Schenk

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

The Mule marks the 37th time Clint Eastwood has directed a movie. Remember that the next time you go out for Trivia Night. From The Eiger Sanction (1975) to his Best Picture-winning western Unforgiven (1992); Mystic River (2003) to Gran Torino (2008), the man has cemented himself as a national treasure who has done a little bit of everything — oh yes, I nearly forgot The Bridges of Madison County. How dare I? His latest effort won’t ever be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and contemporary successes like Million Dollar Baby (2004), yet The Mule seems destined to always have a place in my heart. It’s a quietly profound drama about aging, regret and misplaced priorities that finds an ever-more introspective Eastwood returning to acting for the first time in six years.

The Mule is inspired by a true story about an 80-something-year-old horticulturalist fallen on hard times who unwittingly becomes a prolific coke smuggler for a dangerous Mexican cartel in an attempt to reclaim his home and way of life. Names and locations have been changed. His character, Earl Stone, a Korean War vet whose age, race and spotless criminal history help him maintain a low profile while doing multiple drives from the border city of El Paso, Texas to Chicago, Illinois, is based upon the real Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran who became a courier for the infamous Sinaloa Cartel and eluded capture for more than a decade.

Eastwood sets up a deliberately paced journey into the soul of a lonely man who has always put work before everything else and now finds himself having to come to terms with certain realities. The character is a perfect fit for the big screen veteran whose larger-than-life persona grafts well with Earl’s social butterfly. There is an interesting dichotomy within this man, someone who’s well-recognized around town for his gregariousness and those beautiful, award-winning (and world-renowned) hybridized lilies, all while being a complete stranger to his own family. That dynamic becomes even more pronounced as he begins making serious dough doing dirtier work and turns into this Robin Hood-esque character who funnels his ill-begotten cash into worthy causes, like renovating the facilities of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post.

The stakes really couldn’t be higher despite The Mule‘s lack of physicality and bloody conflict. The passing of time plays a major role in building tension. Time is Earl’s most precious resource and despite the unsavory characters he ends up getting in deep with, time is also his greatest enemy. He hasn’t spent it well and his future is as uncertain as ever, with the proliferation of internet-based floral shops making small businesses like his relics of the past. You might argue that The Mule isn’t really about the things he is doing to survive but rather the things he isn’t doing or not doing nearly well enough.

The Mule really becomes an elegy for time wasted when it comes to exploring Earl’s personal failings. His absenteeism hasn’t just affected his immediate family; it ripples across generations. His granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) is a prime example, her naivety towards Earl and his propensity for disappointing the people who matter most setting her on a collision course with a rude awakening. Meanwhile his long-ignored wife Mary (Dianne Wiest, heartbreaking) and estranged daughter Iris (real-life daughter Alison Eastwood) have learned to adapt. Sort of.

There is a disturbing real-world parallel that is all but impossible to ignore when you consider the revelation of this past December, when Eastwood was spotted at a promotional event for the film alongside someone who had rarely been caught in photos before. This younger woman was none other than Laurie Eastwood, reportedly the daughter he had given up for adoption in 1954 and whom he had never acknowledged until now. A 1999 biography — Clint: The Life and Legend — attempted to shed light on the matter, but the book’s publishing was met with serious opposition and no other media outlet ever attempted to confirm.

Despite Earl’s initial reluctance to commit to more than one run, his stock quickly rises and his loads increase exponentially — at one point he is carting around in his truck bed something like $3 million in product. His reliability, not to mention his remarkably calm composure around his new employers, earn him the respect of low-level street dealers and big-time suppliers alike. “El Tata” eventually ingratiates himself with el jefe, Andy García’s El Chapo-like Laton and his many curvaceous mamasitas. His status amongst the cartel is challenged with the sudden and violent coup staged by the power-hungry Gustavo (Eastwood’s ex-son-in-law Clifton Collins Jr.), who seeks to put the clamps on El Tata’s liberal interpretation of the rules governing his employment (no delays, no unplanned pitstops, etc).

Tension is further amplified by the circling vultures of Chicago’s DEA agents Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (a disappointingly under-used Michael Peña). They’re seeking a number of significant busts to satiate their higher-ups, represented by Laurence Fishburne‘s Special Agent and Pete Burris’s DEA Regional Manager. Time isn’t on Earl’s side, but it isn’t exactly in favor of Bates and his partner either. Their bosses want the results Bates’ hard work simply isn’t yielding. Kilos upon kilos of white powder are flooding the city. The two narratives become increasingly interlinked, with Cooper and Eastwood getting a few interesting (if perhaps far too coincidental) moments of shared screen time as they exchange pleasantries under the canopy of well-crafted dramatic irony.

The culmination of events certainly won’t be to everyone’s satisfaction. The Mule goes out quietly but not without a sense of closure. No big shoot-outs, no grand-standing, no soap-box taking. No glorifying. No pretense of making drug running a sexy, enticing lifestyle. In short, no (or very little) Hollywood gloss. I appreciated that level of restraint. The story is familiar and riddled with cliché but I still find it hard to resist Clint Eastwood in this mode, seemingly repenting for aspects of his own life he is none too proud of.

Recommendation: As it turns out, the promotional material has been selling quite a different experience, the trailers suggesting a harder-hitting, more action-driven adventure than what you end up getting. Where there might have been action or at least more snarling intensity in an Eastwood picture some twenty years ago now there is more solemn reflection. This isn’t a bad thing, but maybe set expectations accordingly.

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for everything.”

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A Star is Born (2018)

Release: Friday, October 5, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Eric Roth; Bradley Cooper; Will Fetters

Directed by: Bradley Cooper

Bradley Cooper has been a star for some time, but alongside the inimitable pop star Lady Gaga he seems to burn even brighter. Legitimately honing another craft within the framework of one of his best acting showcases to date, Cooper, aided by a beard, a guitar and a mic, manages to hit all the right notes, on both ends of the camera.

With A Star is Born, the 43-year-old isn’t exactly stepping out on a limb when it comes to finding a subject for his directing début. Famously A Star is Born tells of two careers in showbiz trending in different directions — one star rising as the other fades. The luminous Judy Garland beat Lady Gaga to the role by more than half a century (that film, although about a woman yearning to become a Hollywood starlet rather than a world-touring singer/songwriter, is the template I’m told this one adheres closest to) while Cooper shares a similar arc with the likes of Fredric March, James Mason and Kris Kristofferson in years past. So yes, the story Cooper is telling has already been told several times before, but that doesn’t mean his version has nothing to offer. The craftsmanship and character work make the movie worth savoring. That Gaga and Cooper make quality music together is the cherry.

In the 2018 rendition Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a big time performer who sold out stadiums in his prime and whose tired eyes and gravelly, baritone voice have seen and sung it all. Years of demanding tour schedules have taken their toll on him physically and mentally. Drugs and alcohol have become better roadies to him than his older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott). Each successive gig finds Jackson deeper and deeper into a bottle, until one night there is no more and he’s compelled to scout local dives to quench his thirst. As fate would have it, he stumbles into the same drag bar Ally (Gaga) spends much of her free time singing and dreaming of a different life. Worlds collide when Jackson is permitted a meet-and-greet. A deep connection is formed and instantly.

Nowhere is the evolution of a classical romance more apparent than in Cooper’s casting of Gaga as the meteorically rising Ally, who has been told ten times too many how people like how she sounds but not the way she looks. Mother Monster, as her fans call her, is of course the embodiment of a modern culture and a modern industry, a chameleonic performer whose flashy stage presence often obscures reality. Not that all the colorful accoutrement tell an untruth, but there is certainly a sense of dressing down, or a veil being lifted both in terms of wardrobe and in her performance as she confesses her insecurities to a sympathetic stranger. And it isn’t just in this first intimate moment, some of her own numbers at the piano (“Always Remember Us This Way”) feel like revelations in their own right.

The film features an assortment of impactful performances, evidenced by smaller but still significant supporting turns from the likes of Dave Chapelle as Noodles, an old drinking buddy who has cleaned himself up but still finds himself having to help a spiraling Jack out of the gutter, and Andrew “The Dice Man!” Clay as Ally’s father who once imagined himself a knock-off Sinatra. Still does. But none hog the gravitas all to themselves like the mustachioed Elliot as Bobby who is helpless, like Ally, to do anything about the demons that continue to plague his younger brother.

Quite honestly Elliot deserves an entire paragraph dedicated just to him. He is that good here and that voice of his always deserves more press. But this isn’t his show. This is unequivocally Cooper and Gaga’s time. A Star is Born dramatizes aspects of the entertainment industry, namely the tug-of-war between artists and their vision and managers/producers who have their own agendas, as well as the stresses of not simply finding success but trying to make it last. More fundamentally though this is a love saga and the enduring power of love. If there is any justice, this movie too shall endure.

Recommendation: A Star is Born is given a modern facelift with the innately likable Bradley Cooper and a revelatory Lady Gaga, and the results are surprisingly powerful. Beyond the professional fakery, the music is genuinely good. Who knew Rocket the Raccoon had such pipes? 

Rated: R

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “Can I touch your nose?”

Song played most frequently during the writing of this review

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Release: Friday, May 5, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: James Gunn

Directed by: James Gunn

One of the things that struck me about the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy is how obviously the returning cast carry their swagger around. It’s as if they just got done saving the entire galaxy. But has this level of cockiness really been earned? All they needed to do was stop a villain with the personality of a toaster. Forgive me for sounding arrogant here — I haven’t saved any galaxies myself (yet) — but they made it look pretty damn easy.

I have been so on the fence about this movie since it came out. It’s both everything fans wanted from a sequel and not quite enough ironically for the same reason: it’s Volume 1 all over again; yet the law of diminishing returns already seem to be kicking in. You argue there’s a new villain, with new circumstances, but really what we’re talking about here is a parts exchange. The formula is very much the same. Everyone jokes around a lot — too much at times — bickers a lot, procrastinates a lot, and then, just in the nick of time, do some firing of some lasers and engage in some exciting fisticuffs just before end credits usher them off the screen like an acceptance speech on Oscar night.

Vol. 2 backtracks to the source of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt)’s heartache — his mysterious family history. Kurt Russell is in as the powerful Celestial PlanetmanbeardMacReady, a creation that dates back to the early Bronze Age of Marvel Comics. He’s got a proposition for his estranged son, whom he suddenly finds — after millions of years of scouring the Greater Universe — on a cast-off planet to which the Guardians have narrowly escaped after doing a very Guardians-y thing (well, Rocket does a very Rocket-y thing, stealing an important battery thingy from a race of people called the Sovereign, who all look like Shirley Eaton circa Goldfinger).

Russell’s Ego (but really, that’s his actual name and yes he’s also a planet — that part I wasn’t being silly about) tells Peter about his higher calling. But this attempt to rip him away from his custodial services as a Guardian of the freaking Galaxy is poorly conceived. Granted, not by Ego himself, but rather the script, which once again lay at the feet of the one-man wrecking crew James Gunn.

Guardians 3 would have been a much tougher sell should Star Lord have gone to the dark side. (And someone remind me, how did that work out for Tobey Maguire?) We’re well aware of the acrimony that has arisen amongst the crew before, but this isn’t like pondering whether or not we should be concerned about Anakin Skywalker’s hot temper. Gunn doesn’t necessarily force us to draw that exact comparison, but that’s the nature of the father-son dynamic here. It’s old-hat, the suggestion of breaking bad feels awkwardly episodic, and Russell’s utterly forgettable within it.

Elsewhere, the others are sorting through relationship issues of their own. It’s like a soapy space opera. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is confronted with her own guilt when she’s forced to spend more time with her psycho sister Nebula (Karen Gillan, wooden as she’s ever been). Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) is still the least subtle thing since Donald Trump, yet he’s actually endearing with his sledgehammer, awkward commentary. He cuts through the crap we humanoids generally like to call social etiquette like a combine harvester, especially when he strikes up a friendly rapport with Ego’s bug-eyed personal assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff).

Where Vol. 2 does manage to find separation, however, is in the exploration and comparison of Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Yondu (Michael Rooker)’s criminal pasts. As the film expands and fractures the foursome into their own little thematic camps, it’s the insight we get into the lonely life of a space-bound raccoon and Yondu’s fall from grace that really hits a nerve. There’s legitimate gravitas attached to their character arcs, something a film as outwardly flamboyant and noisy as a Guardians of the Galaxy installment kinda-sorta needs more of.

The production design remains as elaborate as anything Marvel has created before. In fact, it’s dazzling to the point of eyeball overload. But of all the problems this new and underwhelming iteration has, that’s at least a good one. The cosmic wonders of the universe work overtime to compensate for another lacking story. Overcompensatory is a fairly accurate way to describe the characters this time around as well. Baby Groot is cute, we get it. Drax doesn’t get the art of subtlety. We understood as much within the first ten minutes of his first appearance. Amusing, but one-note. Also, Gamora and Quill continue to act like magnets when you try to put the wrong ends together.

Vol. 2 is of course not a bad film. That’s ridiculous. In fact it inherits many of the qualities that made its predecessor an enjoyable and endearing farcical adventure. The characters are well-established and unique, only they’ve lost some of that novelty and a few limitations might already be on display. The cast-director chemistry is as palpable as ever. Listen, they’re all good vibes, but let’s hope the next mixtape is more inspired and has more memorable hits.

Recommendation: More of the same, for better as well as for worse, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 I believe has done just fine without my recommendation. Hasn’t it made a trillion dollars at the box office by now? 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “He may have been your father, Quill, but he wasn’t your daddy.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

War Dogs

'War Dogs' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 19, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Todd Phillips; Stephen Chin; Jason Smilovic

Directed by: Todd Phillips

The unbelievability factor really works in War Dogs‘ favor. It has given a director of outrageous comedies and indeterminate skill considerable leverage. It has given actors who like playing jackasses free range to be themselves and we would never know the difference because this true story is ridiculous to begin with. For blind devotees of Todd Phillips getting to know the actual truth is not as important as having an approximated version of it delivered in an amusing and crass way.

See, there’s one thing you kind of have to be in order to enjoy movies made by The Guy Who Brought You The Hangover: you have to be easy to please. You need to be unapologetically so. Take the guy who sat behind me and to my right, for example: this man(-child) laughed at damn well every line that came out of Jonah Hill’s mouth. To this satisfied customer, Phillips could not put a foot wrong. You need to be in that mindset if you are to get the intended amount of entertainment out of War Dogs, a dramatic comedy about how two dopes wind up landing a $300 million arms-dealing contract with the American government.

Despite much of the film being heavily fictionalized — the drive through The Triangle of Death and that pit-stop in Fallujah, yeah that never happened . . . although I bet that towel falling off that rich client’s ass did — this bumpy ride across foreign borders and into legal gray areas becomes a pretty good watch. I mean, a lot of this stuff really happened and you just can’t help but become curious as to how and when their ultimate downfall begins. Maybe it’s when they violated the American arms embargo against the Chinese by repackaging 100 million rounds of AK-47 ammunition — 42-year-old, substandard Chinese bullets to be more accurate. Maybe it’s the fact they forgot to get their boys paid for those efforts. Maybe it’s that both of them — high school buddies Efraim Diveroli (Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller) — really were just money-hungry douchebags utterly deserving of the stigma attached to their line of work.

Yes, I think it’s that last one, a sense of fatalism, that makes War Dogs entertaining on any level. The peace of mind knowing that no matter what sequences of success-building and montages of money-stockpiling are put in front of us these unlikable, completely out-of-their-depth numbskulls are going to get their comeuppance. Phillips works pretty hard at steering us in another direction though, and yet there is a surprising amount of fun to be had while it lasts. Of course, the whole thing’s rigged with many of his unimaginative storytelling methods, like the lazy voiceover provided by Teller and highly interruptive chaptered segments with cutesy titles like ‘God Bless Dick Cheney’s America’ and ‘That Sounds Illegal.’

His film is based upon a Rolling Stone article later expanded for a novel based on the rise to prominence of Efraim’s start-up company AEY, which would eventually become a major weapons supplier for the Department of Defense. Ultimately AEY totalled $200 million in contracts dealing in ammunition and assault rifles, amongst other weapons, and its demise inspired the government to reevaluate how they would secure contracts for the future. (In other words, gone were the days of hiring stoners to do the dirty work. Fucking pot heads, man.)

Hill and Teller provide an easy repartee that won’t be difficult to find in other, albeit more traditional, stoner comedies. Even if Hill is now typically a decade older in real life than the characters he chooses, he’s still believable as a 21-year-old arms-dealer (or is that gun-runner?) because . . . well, that freedom to believe whatever you want rule as I mentioned above. Believe all of it or believe none of it (both of which would be too extreme of a reaction in my opinion). Teller has gone back to playing less interesting individuals. All he gets to do is set a bad example for husbands and new fathers everywhere. He becomes the guy who has to explain his lies to his wife when the story needs some tension.

Very little about War Dogs‘ presentation or execution strikes you as incendiary but the source material is so outlandish you’d be forgiven for thinking Phillips wanted to make this just for the opportunity to blow certain aspects out of proportion. Casting regular collaborator Bradley Cooper as a shady intermediary named Henry Girard counts as proof. We didn’t need another famous face in the mix but seeing Cooper appear in a war film that’s very, very un-American Sniper is more than a little amusing. I cackled like a hyena* when he states that he’s “not a bad man, but sometimes [he] asks [him]self what a bad man would do.” I’m not sure if I was supposed to, but I did. I felt like my friend in the row behind me there. It took me until the very end of the film, but finally I felt my money had been decently spent.

I guess what I’m saying is that despite my problems with Phillips’ generic brand — though it must be said generic isn’t the same as incompetent, lest we forget things like Old School and yes, The Hangover, two genuinely great comedies — if you give him the right material to run with anything is possible. You might have a really good time if you can let go of preconceived notions for long enough.

Jonah Hill and Miles Teller in 'War Dogs'

Recommendation: Further confirmation of Todd Phillips’ unspectacular vision as a filmmaker, War Dogs pursues an outrageous true story with the kind of attitude and conviction fans of his should expect. It’s a passable comedy made more intriguing by the facts, and another good, if loud and obnoxious, performance from Jonah Hill. Not a film you probably want to spend money on if righteous anti-war sentiment is what you seek. And I suppose that’s one more credit to the film: a lack of political lean grounds it somewhat close to neutral. Like Hill’s Efraim says, think of it not as pro- (or anti-) war, but pro-money-making.

Rated: R

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “We drive through all triangles . . . including your mom’s.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Joy

Joy movie poster

Release: Christmas Day 2015

[Theater]

Written by: David O. Russell; Annie Mumolo

Directed by: David O. Russell

Does a movie have an obligation to become the very thing its title advertises? Should we feel duped if that title says one thing and then the story goes off and does something else?

No, Joy is not a movie about the emotion. It’s about the person who came up with the Miracle Mop. It’s a vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence post-Hunger Games. It’s depressing and frustrating and strange and cold and a lot of other things that don’t necessarily sell movie tickets. It’s about women’s empowerment, a tip of the hat to entrepreneurship and a Cliffs Notes guide on how to get a product patented. And right now it’s my favorite David O. Russell movie.

Lawrence’s rising starlet may not be the most convincing canvas upon which to base a portrait of struggling 1950s housewife Joy Mangano — there was a crowd of giggling teenaged girls in my screening, three of whom left about halfway in after realizing this wasn’t quite the movie they were expecting. But Lawrence did manage to turn a completely fictitious girl who could shoot arrows more accurately than William Tell and wore dresses that caught on fire into a living, breathing sensation that the world fell in love with. Why couldn’t America’s favorite twenty-something thespian take this role and own it too?

The story of Joy isn’t so unlike the story of anyone who has had to sacrifice most of themselves, including their own happiness, in order to support and care for others. In a time where gender inequality dictated employment opportunities for women, Joy shouldn’t necessarily be thought of as heroically selfless so much as being remarkably resilient, doing what she must to try to make ends almost meet . . . although there is something sort of heroic about having to endure these specific conditions.

She lives at home with her highly dysfunctional family: mother (Virginia Madsen), who never leaves her bedroom or turns off the TV; father, (Robert DeNiro) who has recently moved back in because it once again hasn’t worked out with his significant other; and Mimi (Diane Ladd), who at least provides some moral support. Joy also has two kids. Of course the house isn’t big enough for everyone and dad must share the basement with Anthony (Édgar Ramírez), Joy’s ex-husband, someone whom he doesn’t much care for. The family dynamic is hectic and its important we feel it. Although a rather unconvincing final scene overcompensates for the quagmire that has been Joy’s life up until that point — it’s 10 years on, she’s wealthy and her problems have all but disappeared — the movie proper really takes place in the first half.

Out of these humble, somewhat oppressive environs a billionaire inventor and businesswoman would emerge. Unfortunately she would be totally unprepared for the fiercely competitive nature of commerce. She enlists the help of her father and his new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), who has a very strong business sense about her, to give her some financial backing and perhaps even some confidence that she could finally legitimately pursue her ambition of bringing an idea she had to the attention of the masses.

So, I guess I take it back. This movie really is about joy, but not in the way you might expect. This is a much subtler, less palpable sense of satisfaction, the kind that one might experience after selling their home but for a much, much lower price than they originally had asked. In what has been for sometime a difficult market to sell in, they should be pleased they sold at all. Lawrence proves once again she is wise beyond her years, shading a character that’s meant to be much older than the actress actually is with layers of humility, dignity, courage and a crumbling, though still existent, sense of humor. This kind of tough skinned exterior is tailor made for Lawrence, and it is a joy to behold once more.

Screen Shot 2016-01-03 at 3.57.19 PM

Recommendation: David O. Russell reunites with Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and DeNiro for the third consecutive film, though this one has much more modest ambitions than arguably either of his previous two projects. It’s particularly small compared to the likes of the hoopla surrounding American Hustle. The Lawrence faithful should warm to her character here while others are sure to gain some insight into how products are converted from pet projects into marketable items. Joy is fascinating on several levels.

Rated: R

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “Never speak on my behalf about my business again.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Burnt

Burnt movie poster

Release: Friday, October 30, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Steven Knight; Michael Kalesniko

Directed by: John Wells

Brad Cooper is a dish best served cold in this kitchen drama, starring him as a lunatic chef in what seems to be the pinnacle of culinary kick-assery in downtown London. There’s not much fat on these bones but Cooper and some of the other actors — Daniel Brühl is becoming reliable — aren’t exactly gristle. There’s not a very good story around them but these are some pretty great performances.

To use another cute food metaphor, Cooper’s Adam Jones is far from a savory personality. He’s a former drug addict and possessor of virtually every vice one could be accused of having. He barks orders and berates his fellow chefs when things go wrong; he owes a great amount of money to some strangers; he’s generally an intense and unpleasant person to be around. He’s almost superheroic in his distrust of others.

One day Adam decides to get clean and go take over an old friend’s son (Brühl)’s kitchen and cook, you know, the really good stuff. Because that’s how it happens; you can sometimes cook yourself back to sanity. His goal is to achieve a three-star Michelin rating, by all accounts an arbitrary bestowing of honor to all those who don’t spend most of their lives making food. Jones has been a two-star chef for sometime, but to achieve one more would be to become a Kitchen God. You achieve immortality. You become Gordon Ramsey.

Burnt is co-written by a man named Steven Knight, a name that’s likely unfamiliar to those who have yet to experience his brilliantly minimalist Tom Hardy-driven (literally) drama Locke from yesteryear. Minimalism plays a hand once again here, only it’s not to the benefit of the production. Characters, including Cooper’s prima donna, are uniformly underwritten and after a few brief visits to Emma Thompson’s psychiatrist and a few brief flirtations with Sienna Miller’s Helene it becomes clear Burnt is very much a movie of the present, and could care less about fully investing in Jones’ past or his life away from the kitchen.

It’s odd that Knight couldn’t produce a more palatable dish out of Michael Kalesniko’s story. I ponder this not because these characters feel unbelievable or that the food doesn’t look appealing. Neither case is the issue here; in fact the decision to place actors in an environment where all props are not props at all but are instead the genuine articles, contributes to credibility. And Cooper has shown in times past he’s comfortable playing the not-so-nice guy. Rather my concern is over consistency. Knight was onto something with his 2014 psychological drama but now it seems he’s settled back into more crowd-pleasing confectionaries.

Burnt can only justify itself as a cinematic release on the virtue of its star wattage. In every other way this is a package made for television. It would sit beautifully alongside popular shows like Hell’s KitchenKitchen Nightmares or even Chopped. Not to downplay the power of TV drama. Watching good-looking people slave over even-better-looking cuisine and listening to Daniel Brühl romanticize his relationship with one of Europe’s most overblown egotists wouldn’t be the worst way to spend time around the box in the living room.

Yet with a cast this good — one that includes Omar Sy as an ‘old friend’ of Adam’s from his days in Paris, Alicia Vikander as a former flame, and Uma Thurman as an infamously difficult-to-please food critic — it’s more than a little disappointing this run-of-the-mill tale of redemption is as expendable as the next late night McDonald’s run a night shift worker is all but forced into making for the sake of convenience.

Brad Cooper is pissed off all the time in 'Burnt'

Recommendation: Star power is the name of the game here. Fans of Brad Cooper probably will have a hard time resisting this one and he’s definitely great in the lead. But Burnt seems a cheap cash-in on the recent trend of celebrity chef dramas on TV which I, personally, have great difficulty in finding the appeal. I can’t say this movie is a waste of time but it’s a waste of a lot of great talent.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “I don’t want my resturant to be a place where people sit and eat. I want people to sit at that table and be sick with longing.”

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American Sniper

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Release: Friday, January 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Jason Hall

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

In Dirty Harry’s return to slightly more confident filmmaking, Bradley Cooper is one bad man. I mean, his Chris Kyle is a good man, but a bad . . . ah, never mind.

The Odessa, Texas native is the center of attention in a biopic entrusted to one of the biggest names in the business, but somehow the math just doesn’t add up. Cooper may never have been better, Eastwood never more patriotic, yet American Sniper is a slog and somewhat this. Somehow, following along with Chris as he leaves his family on four separate occasions to go fight against insurgents in Iraq between 1999 and 2008 feels less inspired as it does repetitive. Eastwood’s style here may suit the subject but perhaps it’s the subject that doesn’t really lend itself to major blockbuster filmmaking. Why do I smell a missed opportunity for a heartbreaking documentary here?

There’s another issue at play, one that isn’t necessarily the film’s fault, but absolutely is worth mentioning. American Sniper falls victim to its trailer, a tense two minutes that can’t help but fess up to Eastwood’s most sincere depictions of the kind of pressure that rides on snipers as they determine whether or not to take that shot. I do understand it’s not really fair to judge the film proper on a particularly revealing piece of marketing; after all, one could theoretically ruin their Interstellar experience by watching those clips of Gargantua too many times. But it’s so easy to do just that here, even if there aren’t any black holes in the Middle East. Far be it from me to tell you how to consume your entertainment but if you’ve watched the trailer for American Sniper then you are privy to virtually as much information as those slapping down $10-12 for tickets at the box office.

Eastwood’s directorial touch doesn’t help matters as he provides only a cursory look into the domestic life of an increasingly despondent soldier. A thoroughly masculine figure to begin with, Chris’s former life as a cowboy is halted abruptly by his interest in contributing muscle to the American cause after seeing a story about recent terrorist activity in the Middle East on T.V. He is motivated to the point of signing up for the Navy SEALs, though he is initially rejected. Some indeterminate time later he comes across a gorgeous brunette at a bar. Jason Hall’s script affords a modicum of humanity to this soon-to-be relationship, a level that is somewhat respectable. Sienna Miller would be compelling as housewife Taya but the switching back and forth between Chris’s duties in Iraq and her location in sunny Texas leaves a lot to be desired.

What’s more concerning is that Eastwood’s lazy construction makes mundane the soldier’s return(s) to Iraq. Aside from what’s easily observable — the escalation of violence during each subsequent visit, and the fact that a bounty is put on the head of the most deadly sniper in American history — Tour One looks just like Tour Four. Perhaps that’s how it really is. I have never served; I cannot talk at any great length about that. And I want to be careful in describing how I feel about these sequences as I don’t want to give the impression I don’t respect what multiple tours mean to those who have undergone them. From strictly a creative standpoint, American Sniper wears out its welcome and begins firing blanks much too soon.

Scenes built entirely out of fist-clenching tension, however, do not wear out theirs. And as a corollary, the violence Chris is perpetually surrounded by — and that which understandably upsets Taya the most — is an element Eastwood appears comfortable handling. I guess such is his duty. Reduced in intensity as they may be thanks to the trailers, the hair-raising shoot outs play a large part in defining Chris as a sniper, as a soldier, as a human being. More importantly it gives the film’s version of Chris an obstacle to get over, an enemy if there ever were one. Widely regarded as the “legend” of the Iraq War, his estimated 160 kills via sniping from obscure rooftops function in the film as not simply a plot device but this character’s responsibility to country and to his fellow soldiers. The film does a wonderful job of emphasizing the sniper’s compassion in a time and place where such a quality is rare if existent at all.

It’s the kind of reverence you can easily tie in with Eastwood’s emphasis on fatherhood and the paternal instinct, both evident in his prolific career as a filmmaker in both acting and directorial capacities. It doesn’t factor into American Sniper as much, though the opening scenes featuring Chris with his father together hunting deer in a forest tinged golden from the low angles of the sun’s rays suggest he is still concerned about constructing a layered character study. It’s yet another interesting angle overshadowed by the director’s predilection for predictable story structure.

There’s nothing offensive about the way Clint Eastwood, himself a legend, has put this story together. American Sniper is just not the most interesting version that could have been told, nor is it the most original. Like Sienna Miller in that black nightgown of hers, we wish we could have been shown more. The more testosterone-filled among us anyway.

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3-0Recommendation: Clint Eastwood wears his patriotism on his sleeves and Brad Cooper wears Extra-Large in American Sniper, a very average war film centered around a not-so-average American finding his life’s calling. Between Cooper’s dedication to his character and Eastwood’s devotion to exemplifying courage and obsession in equal measure, the film is not something you should miss if you have served any amount of time overseas (or at home — just not in prison, of course). For everyone else, this is going to be one of the best uses of Redbox/Netflix you’ll have in a while.

Rated: R

Running Time: 132 mins.

Quoted: “I’m ready. I’m ready to come home. I’m ready to come home, baby!”

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Guardians of the Galaxy

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Release: Friday, August 1, 2014

[Theater]

I wish I could say I am hooked on this feeling, but I’m not high on believing that indifference is what I should be feeling right now. Especially for a movie that hasn’t even made it through opening weekend, yet is already being touted as Marvel’s masterpiece.

At the very least, such lofty praise seems just a little capricious given the source material wasn’t widely accepted as anything close to ‘cool’ until about. . .oh, I don’t know what an accurate estimate is — say, two or three weeks ago? Listen, I’m no hipster; I won’t not like Guardians of the Galaxy just for that very particular thrill of not liking something most everyone else, in our universe anyway, does. Sitting in a sold-out showing at 11:45 on a Friday night kind of proves that enough people have invested interest in this, and it’s reached the point where I no longer need to worry about me shouting into the wind with this review. Indeed, it’s more like a hurricane and really, I’m just whispering.

Maybe my fate had been sealed long ago, before this project was even announced. I, like millions, hadn’t known a thing about the Guardians of the Galaxy aside from that one teaser attached to that one Marvel movie. Yours truly was never moved enough to give their comic book roots an exploration. Obscure Marvel to me is not lesser in quality, its just more obscure and interests me, personally, less.

As such, I hadn’t received the proper introduction to any of these characters. Forgive me, but Chris Pratt’s recent success in The Lego Movie isn’t quite enough to make me want to go shouting the fact his next character’s name will be Peter Quill/Star-Lord from the rooftops. Nor is Vin Diesel’s muscular physique as ironic as it maybe could have been if I knew Groot before. This kind of unusual casting certainly pops the characters up off the page from one-dimensional drawings and into three-dimensional bodies, but I’m emotionally invested in their plights insofar as the music is shoehorning my feelings in, one classic ’70s track at a time. In other words, the story structure is pretty manipulative.

The picture begins inauspicious and in a Missouri hospital room as Peter’s mother lies on her deathbed, making her last wishes known to a small group of family and close friends. Peter, unable to deal with everything, runs outside where he is quickly abducted by — and get this — a band of space pirates known as the Ravagers and who are led by a very blue dude named Yondu (Michael Rooker, hamming it up nicely). The Ravagers “raise” Peter, though Peter doesn’t allow much of the miscreant creatures’ general shittiness to rub off on him, though early on in the movie he’s a far cry from what he will become. Peter indeed has an arc and he does improve as time goes on, never stooping to the level of the likes of Yondu and his redneck friends. (Yes, there are even redneck aliens on display.) He spends his time roaming the galaxies, bedding multi-colored women and stealing. .  .things. Hardly a noble life. His journey becomes slightly more interesting when he discovers a small round object, whose power he clearly is ignorant to.

This, the infinity stone, will be responsible for magnetizing the film’s meandering plot from one corner of the galaxy to the next, as Quill and a ragtag group of other equally curious individuals attempt to avoid the wrath of the mighty Ronan (Lee Pace), the murderer responsible for the slayings of millions of families throughout the universe. (When I put it like that. .  . . . damn, that’s pretty heavy.) We ought not think too highly of Ronan, though, nor his crazy anger nor his impressive army of ships and bald-and-blue Karen Gillans (still not as sexy as Jennifer Lawrence). Nor the super-jaw of Josh Brolin in his fittingly hammy turn as Thanos, a supervillain with skin the color of Welsch’s Grape Soda. These jerks are just mere bumps in the road in what’s mostly a thoroughly enjoyable, if too casually diverting, journey throughout the cosmos.

Director James Gunn and Marvel studios together go for broke in this spectacularly colorful and silly affair. On more than one occasion the film manages to strike a precarious balance of being simultaneously jaw-droppingly gorgeous and hilarious. Rare are the films that find both pleasures combining against such a dramatic backdrop. Still, it’s hard not to become distracted from much of the epicness. The goofiness becomes a plot unto itself. Between Star-Lord’s nobility post-narrow escape from death, or Ronan’s confusion at seeing said character bust out a few dance moves mid-battle, the film treads an awfully thin line between being taken seriously and being dismissed as comedy.

Maybe it’s late-stage MCU Phase 2 burn-out I’m navigating through at the moment. Perhaps I’m simply lost in Knowhere, scrambling for something that could possibly appeal to my sensibilities in this landscape of comic lore. I guess, shouldn’t the entire movie, because after all it’s all one big inside-joke, anyway. Guardians of the Galaxy was once obscure and now it no longer isn’t. Seems there really ain’t no mountain high enough for Marvel Studios to get over.

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3-5Recommendation: I am probably going to be alone on this. May I recommend this one less to devoted fans of the comic than to fans who loved the atmospheres of The Avengers and Thor. Although Guardians does appear to be upping the ante on every front. It’s bigger, sillier and louder than both those films and its far more obscure. I’m not sure where this lands the film in terms of placing it on a scale from Marvel’s least successful to it’s most heralded. I actually do not care. This was such an odd experience, even beyond the source material that it’s hard to really define who this really is geared towards. This is just one to go to if you find yourself curious about what the big deal is all about.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “I’m pretty sure that the answer is ‘I am Groot’. . .”

“I’m gonna die, surrounded by the biggest idiots in the galaxy.”

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American Hustle

American-Hustle-Poster

Release: Friday, December 20, 2013

[Theater]

Catch Me If You Can‘s little brother decides to show its face in 2013, sporting a cool name, a slick, sexy visage and the necessary wardrobe/make-up department to cover up all the acne pimples and skin blemishes its suffering from as it starts to stumble awkwardly into adolescence.

To that end, little bro has turned out to be quite the attention whore as well (if guys can be whores). My, how the previews have hyped this one up; puffed up its chest to the point where one might think if it were pricked by a pin, the entire thing would explode. But the only thing that would rush out — don’t worry, it wouldn’t be all gory and bloody — would be a substantial amount of air. That would be the sound of an ego slowly deflating as the excessive two-hour runtime plods ever onward.

The story of American Hustle is similar to the story of Frank William Abignale, Jr., at least structurally, in that it purposely meanders, it likes to take its time developing, and (here’s some great news) it makes outstanding use of a cast that is to die for. That last quality applies more to David O. Russell’s follow-up to Silver Linings Playbook, considering it has possibly the best one of the year.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a con man with a hairline not many would be jealous of. His fashion-oriented, equally cunning partner-in-crime Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) finds the man to be a little physically out of shape but his confidence and mental tenacity far outweigh his belly. Together they con people out of thousands of dollars, posing as art appreciators or collectors. . .or, whatever they are. Getting hung up on those details is not so important. What is, though, is the fact that their good luck of making money illegally eventually will run out, and indeed they get busted by the loose cannon FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (an incredibly fun Bradley Cooper).

DiMaso strikes a deal with the pair, telling them that if they apply their skills to a sting operation in which he’s targeting some of the nation’s most crooked politicians and power brokers, both Irving and Sydney will be pardoned of their previous crimes. They need four major busts, which will include nabbing Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). They soon embark on a wild journey through some of the most politically corrupt and criminally-linked tiers of society that inhabit the streets of 1970s New York City.

While it features a grab-bag of talent, little bro is pretty reluctant to get out of bed in the morning. The opening act drags us deeply into the slightly questionable relationship between Irving and Sydney. But O. Russell realizes we need to have an anchor point somewhere with a cast this large; he attempts to root our emotions the deepest with this only slightly more empathetic duo. But once we are through the first thirty or so minutes, the real fun and glamour commences.

American Hustle seriously benefits from O. Russell’s direction, as he cleverly infuses a substantial bit of humor with some scenes of solid tension and applies it to the entire colorful cast in nearly equal measure. Jennifer Lawrence plays up Irving’s unstable wife Rosalyn perfectly — it’s nearly impossible to think the actress is a mere 23 years old (two years older than my little brother for crying out loud), as her performances, perhaps capped off by this one, are marks of an incredibly matured, seasoned actress. The director’s hand and the talented cast blend for some truly brilliant scenes that make up for American Hustle‘s otherwise rather bland and frankly disappointing story.

After you strip down the fancy clothes, the over-the-top characterizations and lush, elegant settings, what you have left might be best described as a pissing contest between professional liars and cheaters. Who shall come out on top? Chances are, it won’t be the ones most are expecting from the outset. And chances also are that none of them are quite as adept as Frank William Abagnale, Jr., to invite yet another comparison. Unfortunately such comparisons are hard to avoid when the essence of the story is so similar. This may be a more glamorous cast to stick with, but expectation levels are so high with this film that anything less than perfect feels a little like a con in itself.

True that the art of conning is made more complicated here, since it will involve the government (whereas DiCaprio’s character was constantly outlasting and outsmarting it). Still, there’s a lot left to be desired when this one concludes.

American Hustle is nonetheless a pretty fun time at the movies. Reiterating, there are some sequences and moments that shout Oscar potential and there’s no denying each incredibly talented performer here is having a blast with the material. A lot of that can also be pinned down to what they get to wear, though. Brad Cooper’s hair in curlers is downright chuckle-worthy. The banter back and forth between Cooper and Bale is priceless. The last thing that springs to mind when seeing Lawrence here is Katniss Everdeen. Heck, even Amy Adams is decent.

Throw in a couple of silly cameos and you’ve got a little brother that flaunts his swagger so casually you don’t really mind because you know he’s putting it to good use more than you are.

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3-0Recommendation: American Hustle is a raucous comedy that is mostly successful in bringing forth the laughs. It’s story is a little confusing at times and it won’t be until the very end that things become clear (if they do at all), but as long as you go in with an open mind and expectation levels at a reasonable height, this should be the fun you might necessarily expect out of all this excess bullshot. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “I believe that you should treat people the way you want to be treated, didn’t Jesus say that? Also, always take a favor over money. Effin’ Jesus said that as well.”

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