Movie Review: “Joy”

Starring
Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Elisabeth Röhm, Édgar Ramírez, Virgina Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Diane Ladd
Director
David O. Russell

David O. Russell has developed a repertory of players akin to “American Horror Story” creator Ryan Murphy. Including Russell’s new film “Joy,” Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper have been in each of his last three films, while Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Elisabeth Rohm have been in two of his last four. Russell had some hiccups with actors early in his career (George Clooney and Lily Tomlin come to mind), so it’s nice to see that Russell has found the balance between the directorial process and ego management, and that is crucial to a director’s continued success. If you have a reputation for treating actors poorly, you will no longer have good actors auditioning for your films, or accepting your calls.

With “Joy,” Russell has a motherlode of talent ready to carry the weight, but his own script undercuts them. It begins with an “American Hustle”-style bolt of adrenaline, but it quickly shifts into ‘kick the shit out of Joy’ mode for the rest of the movie. Joy is dealt a terrible hand, and the movie’s message seems to be that that is why she became a success, that it was her awful family that gave her the drive to succeed. So for you parents out there who are encouraging their kids to think positive and believe in themselves, we’re all clearly doing it wrong. If you want your kids to be super-rich, you clearly have to raise them to be sociopaths.

Joy (Lawrence) was encouraged at an early age by her grandmother (Diane Ladd) that she was meant to use her creativity to do greater things for her horribly broken family. She has a half-sister Peggy (Rohm) from her father Rudy’s (De Niro) first marriage, and by the time Joy married singer Tony Miranne (Edgar Ramirez), Rudy was on his third marriage, which of course ended in divorce. Now divorced herself with two kids, Tony living in the basement, and her mother (Virginia Madsen) watching soap operas nearly nonstop, Joy has yet to act on her promise, until a moment on the boat of Rudy’s new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) gives Joy the idea of a lifetime: a mop that people can clean without touching the strands. Joy draws it up with the help of her daughter, and meets nothing but disapproval and resistance from the people who have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, from her success.

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Movie Review: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2″

Starring
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin
Director
Francis Lawrence

Amid the glut of YA book-to-film adaptations, “The Hunger Games” has always stood head and toe above the competition – a movie franchise that actually improved upon its source material by treating the audience with respect. That’s what makes “Mockingjay: Part 2” such a hard pill to swallow, because while it seemed like the stage was set for an exciting finale after the tedious third installment, it’s yet another incredibly slow burn that only highlights just how boring the final book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy is. If anything good comes out of “Mockingjay: Part 2,” it’s that it will finally convince studios to stop dragging out these stories for the sake of their own greed.

The film picks up almost immediately after the events of the last movie. As Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) recovers from the brutal attack by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), rebel leader President Coin (Julianne Moore) plots her assault on the Capitol now that all 12 districts have been united under one cause. Katniss wants to go fight on the frontlines, but when Coin refuses because she’s too valuable to the rebellion, she sneaks into the Capitol on her own to assassinate President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Coin and her right-hand man, Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman), decide to use Katniss’ defiance to their advantage by assigning her to a specialized military unit – which also includes Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and a mentally unstable Peeta – to shoot more propaganda videos on the war-town streets of the city. With Capitol soldiers and deadly booby traps awaiting them at every turn, Katniss and company slowly make their way to Snow’s mansion. But as is usually the case with war, casualties are inevitable, and that’s something Katniss has difficulty accepting.

For a franchise that’s always relied on deliberately paced storytelling that gradually builds towards each film’s climax, “Mockingjay: Part 2” never really gets going. It hits all the major moments (including the countless deaths) within Collins’ grim novel, but there’s very little emotion to it, as if director Francis Lawrence is just ticking off boxes as he goes along. There are a couple of good action sequences once Katniss arrives in the Capitol, but while the story tries to replicate the feeling of being inside the arena with the addition of booby traps (called “pods”), it doesn’t provide the same thrill. In fact, it’s actually quite repetitive, as the second act is largely comprised of Katniss’ unit scanning for pods, safely activating said pods and resting for the night. Wash, rinse, repeat. Further compounding the lack of action is the monotony of the dialogue scenes, which dwell on the same issues (the love triangle, Peeta’s condition, Coin’s true intentions) over and over again.

“Part 1” may technically be the worst installment in the series, but at least that movie felt like a necessary evil in order to deliver a satisfying payoff in “Part 2,” which is why the latter is a much bigger disappointment. It doesn’t even have the strong performances to fall back on this time around, because with the exception of its main trio, no one else has very much to do. Julianne Moore fades into the background for most of the second half (likely due to some adjustments made as a result of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s untimely death), while Hoffman himself is in maybe two scenes total, his big speech at the end now awkwardly delivered by Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch via a letter that Plutarch penned. Even Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t appear particularly enthused about having to slog through this downer of a finale, and it’s hard to blame her, because instead of going out on the high note that the franchise and its loyal fans deserved, my first thought when the film ended was, “Thank God it’s finally over.”

  

Movie Review: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1″

Starring
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks
Director
Francis Lawrence

Upset over Lionsgate’s decision to release “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” as two films instead of one? Blame Harry Potter. That was the first movie franchise based on a popular book series to split its last installment into the dreaded two-part finale. But while that decision appeared to be made only partly due to studio greed (this was Harry Potter, after all, and it was an event meant to be celebrated and savored), every successful YA book-to-film adaptation since has taken it upon itself to use a similar strategy for no other reason than to squeeze more money out of moviegoers. The “Hunger Games” trilogy (except that it’s no longer a trilogy at all) is the latest series to go this route, and quite predictably, it’s resulted in a “Part 1” that’s almost completely void of excitement, proving once again why this model is never a good idea.

After being rescued from the Quarter Quell by a secret resistance group headed by former Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is transported to District 13 along with her fellow Tributes, Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), and the survivors of District 12. It seems that Katniss’ actions in the last Hunger Games have stoked the flames of rebellion throughout Panem, and District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) intends to use her as the figurehead for the revolution. Katniss agrees on a few conditions – namely, that they rescue Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who’s being tortured and used by the Capitol as the voice against the resistance, as soon as possible – and begins filming a series of propaganda videos intended to recruit more soldiers for the war effort.

One of the biggest problems you typically run into with two-part finales like “Mockingjay” is that the filmmakers are no longer forced to think economically in terms of what material is essential to telling the story. Though it made sense to split up “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” due to the sheer size of J.K. Rowling’s book, “Mockingjay” doesn’t have that issue, especially when “Catching Fire” (which is the exact same length in book form) was adapted just fine into one movie. Add to that the fact that “Mockingjay” is hands-down the weakest entry in the series, and it was always going to be an uphill battle for director Francis Lawrence and writers Danny Strong and Peter Craig. There are some really powerful emotional beats littered throughout, but it often feels like Lawrence is just twiddling his thumbs in fear of getting too far ahead, with most of the film spent setting up the next installment. It’s a necessary slog in order to get to the good stuff (and one that fans of the Harry Potter and “Twilight” series will be all too familiar with), but it’s a slog all the same.

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Movie Review: “X-Men: Days of Future Past”

Starring
Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage
Director
Bryan Singer

Just when it seemed like Fox was engineering a smart reboot of its X-Men franchise with “First Class,” the series’ original director, Bryan Singer, has returned to combine the old with the new in “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” That’s not exactly bad news for fans who appreciate the lengths that Singer has gone to in an attempt to fix the continuity issues within the X-movies, but by doing so, he’s tethered the prequels to the earlier films in a way that ensures they’ll never be able to exist on their own. And considering the potential of where the franchise was headed prior to this “sidequel,” it’s a little disappointing to see Singer turn his back on that initial vision. Granted, there’s still quite a bit to like about “Days of Future Past,” but it feels more like a step backward than the creative leap forward that Matthew Vaughn’s prequel pointed towards.

In the near future, mutants are being hunted down by advanced versions of Sentinel robots that can instantly adapt to any situation, making them impossible to defeat. With only a handful of X-Men remaining, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) uses her powers to send Logan’s (Hugh Jackman) consciousness back in time to his younger body circa 1973 in order to reunite Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) for a single purpose: stopping Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from murdering the creator of the Sentinel program, Dr. Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), in the hope that it will alter the course of history. Meanwhile, the X-Men from the future must hold off an impending Sentinel attack to provide Logan enough time to complete his mission, although that’s much easier said than done.

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Movie Review: “American Hustle”

Starring
Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K, Michael Peña
Director
David O. Russell

David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” opens with a title card that playfully states: “Some of this actually happened.” But considering that the movie was originally titled “American Bullshit” and is populated with characters who are bullshit specialists, it’s meant to be taken with a fairly large grain of salt. Loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late ’70s and early ’80s, Russell has adapted what was an already outlandish story into a ’70s-styled farce filled with a flying circus of conmen, feds, politicians and casino mobsters. Immensely entertaining, impeccably structured and featuring excellent performances from its entire cast, “American Hustle” is one of the year’s absolute best films and a serious contender for every major award.

When we first meet Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), he’s seen carefully assembling his elaborate comb over with a combination of a toupee, glue and lots of hairspray. But what the paunchy conman lacks in good looks, he makes up for with confidence and intellect, which is what’s made him so successful at ripping people off. Everything changes when he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a former stripper who partners with Irving under the guise of a British businesswoman with royal connections named Lady Edith. Their business practically triples overnight, drawing the attention of ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who catches the pair red-handed and forces them to work undercover for the bureau. Richie wants to make a name for himself by taking down some white-collar criminals, and his first target is Camden mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a family man so desperate to revitalize the New Jersey economy that he’s willing to get his hands a little dirty in the process. It quickly turns into a game of who’s conning who, and yet the one thing that threatens to bring the whole thing crashing down isn’t their mistrust in each other, but Irving’s unpredictable wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).

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