“Joy”—To Behold



Joy is based on the true story of a divorced Long Island entrepreneur, Joy Mangano (played by Jennifer Lawrence), who invented the Miracle Mop in 1989. In the process she overcomes significant personal and business obstacles. Mangano develops an immensely prosperous business empire, first with QVC and later with the Home Shopping Network (HSN). This is all before retail stores realized their distribution channel was going to be decimated—first by QVC and HSN, and later by Amazon.

This film (written and directed by David O. Russell) reveals a deeply poignant story about a young intelligent woman, from a working class family, who battles a marginally functional mother, divorce, two young kids, a jealous step-sister and corporate risk-aversion. Joy ultimately is a modern fairly tale about believing in yourself and your dreams.

Joy, the inventor, comes up with the idea for the Miracle Mop while mopping her own floors, frustrated that her mop is smelly, couldn’t be washed, and had to be wrung by hand, particularly disgusting after cleaning around the toilet. So Joy improves on the old standby by creating the Miracle Mop, which wrings the water out with grapple handles, not the hands, and is removable for washing. She wants to show other homemakers how this small invention can improve their lives.  As a teenager, Joy had previously developed a brightly-colored flea collar for pets but no one was interested. Later, Hartz Mountain releases a similar product and as a result Joy vows to patent her next invention. We see the grandmother (Diane Ladd) encouraging Joy to keep on inventing, after her flea collar invention went nowhere. In addition, we see an investor (Isabella Rossellini) who takes a chance on Joy. Her family also props her up when she most needs validation.

Bradley Cooper, as a QVC executive, delegates the sale and promotion to a feckless executive. Joy goes out to meet the mop sales challenge herself. Bradley Cooper teases the viewer that romance may be in their future.

No one wants to be told that hard work and strong will are almost never enough to succeed in this world, and, as a whole, Joy does just that. That being said, Joy still is inspirational, a joy to behold as well as a force to be reckoned with, interlaced with some fine comedic scenes, particularly those of the soap-opera addled mother (Virginia Madsen) and her ex-husband (Robert DeNiro).

Jennifer Lawrence’s compelling performance—as in almost all of her movies—is noteworthy but, while nominated for an Academy Award, is certainly not her most challenging (which I still believe is “Winter’s Bone”). However, Lawrence takes you on an emotional, heart-aching journey about creating your own opportunities when others stand in your way. Go rent a copy of Joy for a feel-good movie.

The Hunger Games Revisited: Part 2– “Catching Fire”

Catching FireIn what has to be the biggest blockbuster franchise since Twilight and Harry Potter, in this sequel to the first Hunger Games film (see my April 8, 2012 review–“The Hunger Games”–Our “Harry Potter”), the post-apocalyptic Panem is still a hell on earth.   Former victors are forced to participate in a Quarter Quell, marking the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games.

Survival through fake social relationships which the victors all know will end in death is still the tense spine of the narrative.  In “Catching Fire” the means to survival grows darker and more intense. Explicit scenes of Katniss in flashback (to the murders she had to commit and to the death of the little girl Rue) are riveting, with stellar acting by Jennifer Lawrence once again, the camera steadily zooming in on  her eyes for emotional response.  All game “victors” have been radically changed:  Katniss is cynical and guilt-ridden; Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) is even more of an alcoholic, and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is numb.  “Nobody ever wins the Games,” declares Haymitch and “Catching Fire”, true to Suzanne Collins’ book, underscores that sentiment in the final scenes.

All the performances are spectacular including the over-the-top Elizabeth Banks (Effie), Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci and Lenny Kravitz. Donald Sutherland’s sinister character becomes even more ominous as President Snow, the smarmy ruler who has to destroy his nemesis, Katniss Everdeen, whom we never get tired of watching.  Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright are new additions who provide dramatic surprises.

Sequels are notorious for being a disappointment but this series…so far…belongs in the same category as “Harry Potter” and “Twilight”.  It just seems to get better and better!

“Silver Linings Playbook”–Behind Every Cloud

The best comedies go for truths, not laughs.  And, although “Silver Linings Playbook” is billed as a comedy, it is more a romance between two young adults with bipolar disorder whose families and friends have to deal with the turmoil that mental illness creates.

David O. Russell, the director of this blockbuster multiple Academy Award winner, wrote the screenplay partly as an acknowledgement of his son’s bipolar disorder and as a message about this form of mental illness. Russell has delivered two sympathetic characters to raise  our awareness.  In this way, “Silver Linings Playbook” is more than a very likable movie with two amazing dramatic performances. Rather it is a journey of a young 30-something man, Patrick Solatano (played by Bradley Cooper)  and a young 20-something woman, Tiffany Maxwell (the Oscar-winning performance by  Jennifer Lawrence of “A Winter’s Bone” and “Hunger Games“) who both suffer from bipolar disorder.

In the opening scene Pat is released from a mental institution after eight-months of therapy.  Slowly and painfully he tries to integrate back into his Philadelphia neighborhood, living with his parents (Robert de Niro and Jacki Weaver perfectly partnered for the family dynamics). Pat and everyone who loves him–friends and family–are determined not to let his condition break them apart.  Then the beautiful and promiscuous Tiffany enters his life. The core of the story is the healing of these two wounded people.

This film is nevertheless buoyant and touching, not depressing, and the essence and heart of the drama is not a comedy but a romance. There are some exceptionally funny scenes, which do not go after the cheap cringe-inducing laugh. The art of “Silver Linings Playbook” is in the balancing act between the bipolar patient who believes he or she doesn’t need medication and the hope that survival in the world of family and friends is still possible. Moreover, Bradley Cooper gives the performance of his career playing against type.  (His claim to fame previously has been for the “Hangover” man-child films.) There is no miraculous cure for bipolar disorder.  It permanently clouds the mind.  But there is a silver lining and that is what makes this movie a charming romantic narrative.  
 No matter what your personal experience may be with bipolar disorder, you will find “Silver Linings Playbook” an entertaining and tenderhearted movie.


“The Hunger Games”–Our “Harry Potter”?

“The Hunger Games” is  part “Harry Potter” meets the “Truman Show” with a dash of “American Idol” and “Lord of the Flies.”

The blockbuster trilogy by Suzanne Collins is set to be an equally sensational trilogy on the silver screen.  Like the Harry Potter series, Collins’ trilogy is targeted to a young adult audience. “The Hunger Games” is a dystopian tale about a country called Panem (from the Latin meaning–“bread and circuses”,  loosely referring to the government’s providing food and recreation to prevent discontent and revolution.)  Panem is a mythical country ruled by a totalitarian government situated in a Capitol owning all the wealth. The Capitol maintains order through nationally televised blood sports known as the Hunger Games, in which two young “tributes” from each of twelve districts, a boy and a girl, must participate in an annual winner- takes-all bloodbath. President Snow oversees the annual Hunger Games, with a villainous cunning to suppress all dissension from the masses.

A sixteen-year old girl, Katniss Everdeen, is paired with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), to represent District 12, intended to be Appalachians (think Harlan County, Kentucky mining towns).  Katniss is played by Jennifer Lawrence (nominated for the 2010 Academy Award for Best Actress in “Winter’s Bone” –see my review at www.womensmemoirs.com),  She imbues the character Katniss with a blend of grit and strength, the camera lingering on her every expression and gesture.

Narrated in the voice of Katniss, the book “The Hunger Games” gives  little background detail or context of scene.  In fact the book reads as a book conceived as a movie.  The author, Suzanne Collins, is a former writer for Nickelodeon TV, and her vivid storytelling actually lends itself to being amplified onscreen.  The context of the remote control of the environment, the surveillance cameras, and the games becomes vivid in the film in a way that the reader cannot fully imagine.  Usually the opposite is true when a book is converted to film: visualizing the scenes in the book are a disconnect from the movie.  Not in this case!

Nonetheless, here are a few inevitable quibbles about the book vs. movie storyline, remembering that a novel and a story on the silver screen are two very different forms of creative expression. Perhaps most egregious of all is that the mockingjay, a creation of the Panem government’s experiments on the environment,  is not explained in the movie. The symbol of the mockingjay, emblematic of the environmental and political wounds of the people of Panem,  becomes increasingly important in books two and three of the trilogy, so this may have been a misstep that hopefully is rectified in the sequel.

President Snow is barely mentioned in the first book, but his role (played by the indomitable Donald Sutherland) is much more prominent in the movie.   His prominence may also be a cinematic device to iterate some of the thoughts Katniss has towards the government, which could only otherwise be accomplished through voiceovers or monologues.  Sutherland is more effective.

In the final analysis, “The Hunger Games” is a winner-takes-all home run–even for those of us who are not young adults!