joyIn a tradition that spans the ages, and much like brussel sprouts and not enough beer, it wouldn’t be Christmas without a David O Russell movie featuring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. 2012 gave us the disappointing (for me, at least) Silver Linings Playbook. 2013 had the far more impressive American Hustle. 2014, if you remember, didn’t have a Christmas. And now this year, we have Joy.

If you saw the early trailer for Joy a few months ago, as I did, you may be forgiven for not having much of an idea as to what it was about. We had lots of Jennifer looking hopefully skyward, De Niro doing that shrug, family gatherings, some background sparklers. If that wasn’t enough of a clue, it turns out it’s a biopic of Joy Mangano, QVC queen and mop magnate. Maybe it’s no surprise that this wasn’t apparent in the previews. No matter. Mops it is.

At the start of the movie, we find Joy (Lawrence) divorced with a couple of kids, living in a small house with her mother, grandmother, her father and ex-husband, desperately trying to hold things together while her job and her family contrive to trip her up. Only her beloved grandmother truly believes in her and it’s this belief that helps turn the innocuous spilling of red wine on a yacht into the life-changing invention of Miracle Mop. Yay! After some difficulties in finding a market, she gets her break when her ex sets up a meeting with QVC’s main buying guy (Cooper). However, with family squabbles and legal wrangles about plastic molds, Joy’s successes are never long-lived.

In the hands of David O Russell, and performances from Lawrence, Cooper, De Niro and a surprisingly sinister Isabella Rossellini, we’re in assured hands but much like the customers of QVC, everything feels a little dialed-in.

Motivations, other than the steadfast belief of a grandparent, are never entirely clear so actions can be confusing and for a movie whose title is also an emotion, there are very few moments where any sort of reaction is generated. Stuff happens. Joy bounds from one setback to the next. Her family juggle crazy and jealousy while hurling spanners with astonishing accuracy at the works. More stuff happens. And then two hours later, stuff stops happening and everyone gets to go home.

I dare say there’s an interesting movie in here, maybe one that allows us to understand the family dynamics a bit more rather than focusing on patent law and mop absorbancy, one that lets us into Joy’s determined spirit. Sadly, this mediocre effort isn’t it.

Here’s hoping everyone concerned pulls up their socks in time for next Christmas. It’s the children I feel sorry for.

pointbreakI have memories of things that didn’t happen. For example, I remember as a five-year old taking my trike to the top of the stairs, climbing aboard, and launching myself Evel Knievil style from the upstairs to the downstairs. It’s a rich, vivid memory that I absolutely know didn’t happen, mainly because I have never owned a trike. Now, I’m aware I don’t get to choose which memories are real and which are false, but if at all possible, and really as soon as is convenient, I’d like to remember the two hours I spent watching the reboot of Point Break as time I spent doing something even vaguely more enjoyable. Like throwing myself down a flight of stairs.

Johnny Utah, played abysmally by Luke Bracey, feels responsible for his best friend (bro) Jeff dying in a ridiculous motorbike accident during the opening sequence. Jeff gets off lightly. Blaming himself (quite rightly) he turns his back on his old life and decides to join the FBI where he’s immediately on the hunt for a gang of other extreme sport guys who are inexplicably partnering their extreme sport shenanigans with daredevil heists and distributing their wealth to the poor, all because they’re chasing some mystical 8 Ordeals of the Bro that leads a bro to nirvana. Brovana, if you will.

“I believe that like me, the people behind these robberies are extreme athletes, using their skills to disrupt the international financial market,” says Johnny Utah and no one laughs.

For 113 minutes, which is a long time, these heavily tattooed, man-bunned extreme sports fans say similarly stupid things to each other in indecipherable accents, things that would be funny if the movie didn’t take itself so seriously, all in support of a plot that makes no sense. When not conversing with these idiots, the only black character Utah talks to is an angry FBI boss. The only female character he talks to is a ditzy new-age hippy type who, immediately after having a depressing conversation about dead parents and things worse than ideas, wants to sleep with him. Oh, how far we’ve come since 1991. It’s enough to make Bigelow blush.

Okay, so it’s not a movie that depends too much on narrative drive then. It’s all about the stunts, right? Well, yes and no. The problem when we start picking at that hopeful thread is that, with the exception of a rock climbing piece in Venezuela — a sequence that while exhilarating literally makes no sense in terms of the plot — the action is duller than everyone’s second game of bowling. It’s like someone’s drunk a six pack of Red Bull, taken an extreme version of SportsCenter and tried to stitch a movie out of it.

No amount of dramatic music can make these scenes dramatic. No amount of tie-fighter noises during the squirrel suit sequence (far too many, by the way) makes it interesting. No amount of bored Ray Winston makes you less bored.Seriously. Jeff got off lightly.

The only point of interest during the entire affair was trying to spot the moments where profanity was toned down in the post-production pursuit of a PG-13 rating. You guys are funny assholes, was my favourite even though the more believable intent was lost in the toned down version.

Okay, false memory. I’m ready. Even something with James Franco will do. Please. Do it now.

tbs_1-sht_teaserIf you remember anything about the financial crisis (or credit crunch, to give it its friendly, breakfast cereal type name) you’ll remember that it was all the fault of those nasty bankers. You’ll maybe not remember exactly why it was the fault of the nasty bankers and maybe, actually, it’s played out for so long that you’re a little bored with blaming the nasty bankers or it’s got to a point where they’ve achieved some kind of cartoon villainy about the whole affair and they were only doing their jobs so they weren’t all that nasty, and isn’t it all the fault of immigrants anyway?

The Big Short, the new film by Adam McKay, based on the Michael Lewis bestseller, is betting your memory has become a little fuzzy over the last seven or eight years, if you ever really knew anything about it in the first place. And it sets out to do something about that.

This is a really dull topic, full of unsympathetic characters, lots of maths, so perhaps the biggest highlight of the movie is how interesting and fun it is to watch. And it does it in a rather cute way by frequently breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge that what we’re watching isn’t interesting and then it drafts in the likes of Selina Gomez playing blackjack to explain how betting for or against someone else’s CDO works. It also explains what a CDO is.

The movie even has the good grace to let you know when its dramatic license differs from the truth. More tellingly, it points out the parts that happened exactly as it’s just laid out, no matter how unbelievable that is.

The performances across the board are great but particular mention has to go to Steve Carell and Brad Pitt who are certainly worthy of a few nominations in awards season. The real star of the show, however, is director Adam McKay (Anchorman) who co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Randolph. This is a laugh out loud movie about the collapse of the global economy, for goodness sake. It’s a thoroughly entertaining movie about how we all got screwed over to a greater or lesser degree and how it’s taken years to recover. That in itself is a remarkable achievement.

But the movie also remembers at vital moments, that this is a true story and while it is partly about the corruption and downright idiocy within the banking system and how a select few became stinking rich as a consequence, on a more micro level it’s about people losing homes, losing jobs, losing everything they’ve ever worked for and while this is personified by a sole character living in his car with his kids, there’s a certain poignancy that makes the impact all the more effective.

Go see it. Go get angry. Try to remember where the blame really lies.

creedI, II, Rocky Balboa, IV, III, V. Or maybe I’d swap IV and III around. And maybe I’d swap I and II. I dunno. Either way, I love Rocky movies. Even when they’re bad, I still love them. So, Creed then. Or for all intents and purposes, Rocky VII. Where does this fit in to the mix?

Well, pretty high up, to be honest. The focus, as the title suggests, has shifted on to Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of former world champion Apollo Creed who died way back at the start of IV, before Don was born. After a tough start in life, we find him in pretty good shape: successful in work, living very comfortably off his father’s wealth, harboring a peculiar habit and penchant for heading to Tijuana at the weekend to box Mexicans. To each their own, I guess.

Unfulfilled with this life for whatever reason, he packs in the job, bids his disapproving mother and Mexico a fond cheerio, and heads to Philadelphia to talk Rocky into training him for the big time.

Rocky, for his part, is happily seeing out his remaining years working in his restaurant. He hasn’t talked to Apollo’s widow since the funeral, he hasn’t been to Mickey’s gym in years. His wife and brother-in-law are dead. But it isn’t long before, with very little coaxing, he’s talked into coaching the kid. It wouldn’t be much of a movie if he’d said no.

Enter Bianca (Tessa Thompson) at this point; Don’s love interest, local singer who is gradually going deaf and who serves as a warbling metaphor for enjoying your talent while you have it, because no matter how great your love, you’re going to lose it sooner or later.

Meanwhile, in one of several nods to the original Rocky, the current world champion is desperately seeking a new contender for his final hoorah and the prospect of Creed’s son, coached by Balboa, proves too tasty to resist.

As you’ve perhaps gathered, there’s nothing particularly original about most of this, but writer and director Ryan Coogler obviously loves the series as much as I do, so it’s done with a certain flare, warmth, and charm. The fight scenes, surely the key to any boxing movie, are done brilliantly, particularly the middle one where the camera never seems more than a few feet away from the blood and sweat, dragging the audience into the ring, leaving everyone in need of a shower afterwards.

Sylvester Stallone is seldom better than he is when he’s playing the Italian Stallion and he’s great in this outing. All those amusing mumbling asides, like when he’s wondering if they’ve installed more steps at the Art Museum, are as endearing now as they were thirty-nine years ago when he once queried the location of Adrian’s hat.

My only real issue with the movie is that every time it had a chance to deliver a knockout punch, it flinched. Don’s motivation is one example. Rocky’s is another. Additionally, preparation never feels complete, montages are missing the final image, and montage music stops abruptly when, as we all know, it should always — always — fade out. In boxing parlance, what we have here is a potential KO in the third round, but it ended up being a split decision on points. But it’s still a win.

So to update, then. I, II, Creed, Rocky Balboa, IV, III, V. Or maybe I’d swap Creed and Rocky Balboa. Gimme a minute. I’ll get back to you.

amyShe didn’t stand a chance.

That’s the thought that enters the mind about half an hour into Asif Kapadia’s documentary, Amy, and it’s a feeling that stays for the rest of the movie, the stroll back to the car, the drive home, and beyond.

I’ll confess here that I was never much of a fan of Amy Winehouse, either the songstress or the persona that the media shoved down the public’s throat. I mean, I own a copy of Back to Black and I listen to it occasionally, seldom all the way through, usually just the hits and I enjoy it. I mean, I can appreciate that she was a great singer. It’s more that she was never really my cup of tea.

So I went into the documentary in much the same way as I did with Kapadia’s previous effort, 2010’s Senna, which brought Formula One racing to life in a way that actually watching Formula One has consistently failed to do for me. I loved Senna far more than I loved Senna.

The style between the two films is pretty much identical. Take some stock archive footage, intersperse it with private home video, throw some stills and some audio interviews, never ever have a talking head. Take what you have and put it together in such a way that the story tells itself and do it in such a way that it seems ridiculously, and deceptively, simple.

The denouement as well is cut from related cloth. We know there’s no happy ending here. Where it differs from Senna, though, is that there’s not much of a happy beginning, either. The moments of joy seem fleeting and quickly crushed by another new depressing low.

As this sad, compelling story unfolds, I found myself yearning for someone to step in and pull her away from her father, her husband, her manager, her hangers-on, for someone just to put their foot on the brake and say enough is enough. Knowing from the outset that this doesn’t happen in no way lessens the impact, it just makes the situation more hopeless.

There are many moments during the two hour running time where Kapadia lightens the doom a shade or two and allows her humour and her talent, both as a singer and a writer to shine through. Amy as herself, beneath the beehive and without the drugs, is a warm, charming, often funny young woman, frequently awestruck by her heroes and influences. Beneath that, she was never short of a demon or two and when they were pushed out time and time again in front of a battery of exploding camera flashes — which more than once forced me to look away — we’re left with the feeling that the end was always going to be this way. The variable was the speed at which she would crash head first into it.

Either way, she didn’t stand a chance.

minionsIf excitement could be measured by the number of times I shout “banana” as I push my way through slow-moving children in a busy cinema foyer then, thanks to a number of trailers over the past few months, I was officially four excited in the minutes leading up to seeing Minions.

Sadly, the first thing to note was the downside of consuming all those trailers. If you’ve been keeping up, you’ll have seen the first twenty minutes to half an hour of the movie and all those jokes and visual gags that so charmed you back in December? Yeah, not so funny any more. The net effect of this is that even in a cinema packed with (slightly disorientated) kids, the opening was met largely with silence, which doesn’t do an awful lot to get anyone in the mood for the following hour’s antics.

So, as you probably know, we start at the dawn of time and watch the minions move through the ages, trying to find the ultimate bad guys to worship, with disastrous results that were hilarious last Easter. Eventually, in the 1960s and lost in a polar wilderness, three minions set out on journey to find a bad guy they can all get behind. They don’t all go looking at the same time because plot.

Our diminutive heroes — Kevin (the smart-ish one), Stuart (the funny-ish one), and Bob (the cute one) make it to New York where, through a plot point so dreadful I can’t bring myself to write about it, they discover a convention of villains is about to take place in Orlando so, thanks to a different but no less dreadful plot point, they’re soon on their way. Once there, they win their place at the side of evil-genius-super-villain Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock) who has hatched a dastardly plot so vile that it would perhaps be among the top five items in the local news. They want to steal the crown jewels! Gasp! In England! Double gasp! On The Buses on Holiday! A go go!

If this doesn’t sound like an utter disappointment of a storyline then I’m doing it far too much justice. If on the page it flatters to deceive, on the big screen all the faults are there for all to see. For an extra $2, you can see them in 3D.

But even weaker than the story is the fact that Scarlett Overkill is a terrible villain, and not in a good way. Rather than planning to steal the crown jewels herself, she gets the minions to make a plan and execute it entirely on their own while she stays at home with her tiny feet up. Rather than invent her weapons, she gets her husband to do it. Rather than want to hold the world to ransom, she wants to dress up and be Queen of England. She’s such a badly executed character, the only way she could be any worse is if she was played with no vigor or presence or humor. And that’s where Sandra Bullock comes in.

On both child and adult level, it isn’t as funny as it should be. I sat with a smile on my face most of the way through but the number of times the movie upgraded that smile to an actual laugh was surprisingly low, and usually came because either their gibberish language struck a chord, Bob did something outrageously cute, or an English person drank tea at a time when tea drinking would be ill advised.

I can give it no more damning a verdict than to say it was simply okay and note that it should’ve been something much much better. Given a choice between this and Inside Out, it’s a simple decision. I’d be pushing kids out of the way to see the latter. But I’ll probably still shout “banana”.

inside_outLooking back to my youth and teenage years, I’m not sure if it ever felt I had competing forces operating in my head. That said, there was the year when I was convinced my life was a movie. Mostly, though, I was an uncomplicated child and whatever forces I possessed mostly determined the infrequency of my visits to the barber and upped my overall body temperature whenever I was within a mile radius of a girl I liked. There were many. I kept my options open, options which remained unrealized. I always suspected girls were a bit more nuanced.

Eleven-year-old Riley has five dominant emotions literally working the controls in her head: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black). Of these, Joy has ruled the roost since Riley was born. Everything about Riley’s life has been viewed through Joy’s positive lens. She lives in Minnesota with loving parents, is an ace at hockey and is surrounded by friends. Thanks to this, she has a sizable collection of little glass balls, colored yellow to represent a happy memory. Other emotions, particularly Sadness, are kept at arm’s length from these memories for fear of turning them blue and unhappy.

But then, Riley’s world is ripped two thousand miles apart as she and her family move to San Francisco to follow her dad’s job. The new house is dingy and unfurnished, her room is bare, her friends are two time-zones away and suddenly Joy and Sadness find themselves torn from the control room of Riley’s head and consigned to the high-stacked shelves of long-term memory, determined to negotiate their way through danger and peril to get back to their HQ and make Riley smile again.

If you’ve got high-level summaries of Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3 running through your head, then yes. Pixar loves the “traveling back from the unknown to normality and arriving there changed” plot line almost as much as they love giving inanimate objects emotions. Even giving emotions emotions. But let’s not worry about that.

The premise is great, particularly around the glass balls, the most important of which are promoted to core-memories and are fiercely guarded by Joy as they form the basis of Riley’s personality. If this sounds like a visualization of a psychological dissertation, yep, that’s pretty much how it works. And it kinda makes sense and it’s well controlled and managed as the movies progresses. Soon we find ourselves turning slightly against the effervescent Joy and instead root for Sadness, who never seems to be allowed to exist. The personification of Sadness is pitch perfect. From voice to uneasy mannerisms, it resonates far better than any of the others and is a definite highlight.

We’re used to looking at Pixar movies on two levels; one for the kids and another for the adults who’ve been dragged along but I couldn’t help wonder if this was a movie aimed primarily at the adult audience. It’s directed by Pete Docter who also directed Up so you know he has honed his emotion tugging skills to Olympic standard, but it goes so far that you could be forgiven for thinking Werner Herzog was at the helm. There are some very heavy themes explored here, Riley’s young life goes pretty dark, and the darkness is something that transfers itself into the portrayal of the city. I can’t remember San Francisco ever looking so bleak but it’s an effective method of demonstrating how mood can influence the way we see and approach life.

Never fear. While the storyline may be sophisticated and challenging, there are plenty of jokes crammed in there to keep the overall mood light. Jumping into Riley’s dad’s head during a dinner table conversation where his mind had wandered somewhat was great and for members of the audience too young to be squirming at the accurate portrayal of adult male thought patterns, the antics of Anger and Fear, particularly in a dream creation scene, are hilarious. It’s only Disgust who has a hard time stamping her influence on proceedings.

It’s a great movie. Charming, powerfully emotional, funny, and beautiful to watch. You can let Grumpy and Cynicism take the night off here; give Contentment room to stretch their legs.

A triumph.

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