The Girl on Fire Burns No Longer

It feels like just yesterday when I first watched the “Girl on Fire,” Katniss Everdeen, arrive on a black, fearsome chariot, expressionless and, well, in flames. For three years, Jennifer Lawrence maintained this image, but even the most beautiful of fires must be extinguished. Among the ashes is the last installment of The Hunger Games franchise, Mockingjay Part 2, marking the curtain call for the dystopian world known as Panem. And I have to be honest: a tiny part of me is going to miss it . . . slightly.

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Transcendent

A show whose politics are as progressive as Transparent always confronts the potential for indulgence. The showrunners’ own progressiveness can blind them. They can fall into a self-congratulatory hole, where once they dare to be politically savvy, don’t bother to dare anymore. But Transparent, whose subject matter really is as progressive as they come, never stops daring. Rather than offering flat characters solely defined by their marginalization, we are given real people who struggle with their identity and who, like all of us, often feel unfulfilled, question themselves, and fear the future.

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Reunited And It Feels…Just Alright

Midway through the movie, I realized that Sisters, the newest collaboration from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, was not made for me. My first hint should have been the movie theater crowded with women in their 40s and 50s. While the Generation Xers cracked up at 80’s reference after reference, I—the only person under 40 in the theater—was left out. Sisters will be a great family movie night rental with parents, but for the college kiddos hoping for another Girl’s Night In addition to the repertoire, you will be disappointed.

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Go Long on the Big Short

Adam McKay’s The Big Short opens with an image of a Salomon Brothers’ bond trading floor in the late seventies. At that time in history, the voiceover explains, working at the bond department of a bank was “downright comatose.” Bankers were no different from accountants. That perception drastically changes with the invention of the mortgage-backed security, a financial innovation that renders bonds sexy. The images on the screen fast-forward thirty years, and suddenly, we see people lining up at a job fair during the 2008 economic crisis. The boring trading floors of the seventies somehow precipitated a financial catastrophe. The voiceover asks, how did this happen? How did a bunch of stodgy traders cause a global meltdown? And what, in heck, is a mortgage-backed security?

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Russell Takes a Joy Ride

While anticipating its release back in November, I awarded Joy’s trailer an uninspiring D on our P/D/F scale. Following the success of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, I assumed that lackluster promotional content must have done a poor job of portraying yet another winning effort by Mr. David O. Russell. Unfortunately, it seems I was quite mistaken.

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A cursory knowledge of household entrepreneur Joy Mangano’s climb to home-shopping stardom suffices to guide one’s grasp of the film’s premise. Russell introduces us to our protagonist via a montage sequence of her idyllic childhood as an intelligent, creative, and fiercely independent girl, upon whom her supportive grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) has pinned some ambitious, albeit old-fashioned, expectations of becoming a “strong matriarch” with a perfect family. We are then confronted with Joy’s ugly 1989 reality as an overworked and underappreciated divorcée, simultaneously caring for two young children and an emotionally dependent mother (Virginia Madsen). If that weren’t bad enough, she’s also housing in her basement her ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez), an aspiring musician, and her disgruntled father Rudy (Robert De Niro). Joy couldn’t be farther from her dreams of being an inventor until an unpleasant experience with broken glass inspires the product that will catapult her to financial security: the self-wringing Miracle Mop. The film follows Joy as she tackles the innumerable obstacles to her successmost of them financialwhile navigating the troubled relationships within her own family.

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if your main characters barely fit into the living room, you may have a problem

Russell’s latest film suffers from a festive yet unproductive cacophony, from its sound to its characters. The music grows shrill enough at times to drown out the raucous chatter of Joy’s extended family, an impressive feat indeed. Said family comprises an array of poorly developed characters, which I suspect were passably performed by their respective actors though I cannot say for certain given the mere glimpses offered of each individual over the course of the film. Indeed, where Joy quickly loses its footing is in maintaining a supporting cast so large that it becomes unwieldy. Lacking the screen-time to reflect true nuance, otherwise decent actors are relegated into mere caricatures of the people they were meant to play. Joy’s token black friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco) and plumber Touissant (Jimmy Jean-Louis) are unceremoniously shoehorned into her world for little conceivable purpose besides diversifying a predominantly white cast. Though Russell goes out of his way to show you Joy is not a woman who needs a man, romantic relationships are also clumsily set up and fleshed out. Lawrence and Ramírez share almost no chemistry, and Bradley Cooper’s role as QVC executive Neil Walker only generates unfulfilled promises of intrigue. 

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“just” business partners

Although most of Joy’s dialogue is as sharp, funny, and naturally-delivered as we’ve come to expect from Mr. Russell, several of the lines are so wordy as to become nearly unsayable, and worse yet teeter on the brink of clichéd and unrealistic. Several scenes, too, alternate between these two vices. When all goes wrong, Joy cuts her hair and sticks it to the man by daring to have a gorgeous, flattering bob. When she finally makes it, Joy becomes a corporate saint, free to bestow her admirable yet humble generosity on budding inventors. The choice to have a dead grandmother sporadically narrate the film is not nearly as effective as Lawrence’s own monologue in the trailer, and the repeated turns to the soap opera Joy’s mother so enjoys are not so much thought-provoking as they are distracting.

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My initial fears about Lawrence playing a mother in her thirties proved unfounded, if only because Joy’s motherhood hardly takes up any substantial screentime save a few awkward interactions with her daughter Christie (Aundrea and Gia Gadsby) and none whatsoever with her son (no doubt neglected for his lack of thematic import in the film’s feminist message). By casting her in a maternal light as infrequently as possible, Russell wisely allows Lawrence to shine with the full wattage of her indisputable star power, leaving Cooper and De Niro to orbit her like lesser planets in the wake of a brilliant sun.

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At one point during the film, Rudy takes responsibility for Joy’s failures, stating dismissively that “It was [his] mistake for making her think she was more than she was.” The same lines might have as easily been addressed to the audience, all of us apparently overconfident in Russell’s ability to turn an unexciting premise and rigid writing into art. Lawrence impressed in Silver Linings Playbook because she, Cooper, and the film itself were collectively charming, and effortlessly so. In Joy, she manages to stand out all the same, though sadly this is mostly in stark juxtaposition to the rest of the film.

Grade: C-

Barring the yet unsullied gleam of Jennifer Lawrence’s brilliant star, Joy is a real mess of a movie, one that would take a miracle to mop up.             

Unbreakable, Yet Unexceptional

Before seeing Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant, I had to look up the word “revenant.” According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, it means “a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead.” This dictionary entry succinctly sets the stage for the film: The Revenant centers around Hugh Glass—an explorer, tradesman, and military man played by the ever-popular and Academy Award-nominated Leonardo DiCaprio—and his incredible survival in the harsh wilderness of the Midwest after being mauled by a grizzly bear and subsequently abandoned by his troops. The film also features British actor Tom Hardy, who plays John Fitzgerald, the dishonorable and cruel member of Glass’ platoon who abandons Glass. While the film succeeds in highlighting the tenacity of the human spirit and the unforgiving environment of the American landscape, it unfortunately suffers from a rigid storyline, a muddled use of Glass’ memories, and, for much of the film, a surprising lack of suspense.

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Diving Into “Dark Waters”

“The past three seasons have been very dark,” they said. “For this season, we’ll use a lighter tone,” they said. They lied. Working on the fourth season of Arrow, the writers and executive producers decided to sprinkle the show with less doom and gloom than in previous seasons. Not only did they have these self-imposed restrictions (or delusions), but they also had to create a plot captivating enough to let their audience forget the overhyped and utterly lackluster third season, with its glamorous promise of a great villain and its failure to deliver on that promise. Yet, with these high hurdles in place, nothing stopped them from creating the mesmerizing midseason finale, “Dark Waters,” and boy did I forget season three! Continue reading Diving Into “Dark Waters”

Of Race and Justice, the Strengths of The Hateful Eight

“A Weinstein Company Production. The 8th Movie by Quentin Tarantino” begins The Hateful Eight, introducing the film and its legendary director in the same moment. We are not just seeing a movie called The Hateful Eight or even a Western; we came to the theater to see Tarantino’s latest masterpiece. And this film does not disappoint.

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Risk for Romance

“Ask me things, please.” The eager request, posed gently by the titular character in Todd Haynes’s film Carol, embodies the spellbinding atmosphere of the film. Its main characters, Carol and Therese (played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, respectively), begin to question their claustrophobic, routine lives. Both open and concealed, dangerous yet careful, Carol juxtaposes daring pursuits of love and independence with the tedium of everyday life as it follows Carol and Therese searching for when, where, and how they might be free to love one another.

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A Film and Television Review

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