The new update of A Star Is Born almost—almost—makes the 1976 Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson version look like a coherent movie. And that, my friends, takes some doing.
You know A Star Is Born: fully ripened Hollywood melodrama, usually served with music. A well-established star, struggling with sobriety, romances an unknown talent and watches her career outrun his. Joy holds hands with tragedy, because as somebody once said, love is never as soft as an easy chair.
David O. Russell wrote (or rather, rewrote) Joy (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, 4K UltraHD) for Jennifer Lawrence, who he directed to an Academy Award in Silver Linings Playbook(2012) and an Oscar nomination in American Hustle. Lawrence score another nomination for Joy, based on the true story of Joy Mangano, the divorced single mother turned entrepreneur who invented the Miracle Mop, the first of more than 100 patents in her name. It’s an inspiring true life story and a great showcase for Lawrence, who evolves from overwhelmed mother and unappreciated foundation holding up a dysfunctional extended family to ferocious businesswoman and beloved on-air pitchwoman on the shopping network QVC to self-made mogul over the course of the film.
Also reuniting with Russell and Lawrence are Robert De Niro, who plays Joy’s blue collar father, and Bradley Cooper in a smaller role as a QVC executive with sparkling blues eyes suggests romance even as the script makes him strictly a mentor. This businessman is one of the few allies in Joy’s life. Her mother (Virginia Madsen) dropped out after being abandoned by husband De Niro to lay in bed all day watching soap operas (the same show seems to play 24-7) and her dad moves back into the family basement, where Joy’s ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez) is also camping out between gigs as an underemployed singer. They demand more attention than Joy’s own school-age children, and she juggles it all with a full-time job at an airline counter. When she comes up with the design for the Miracle Mop, which she engineers herself and has produced on a small scale, every step is beset with obstacles, from bad advice to crooked manufacturers to a disinterested QVC pitchman, which sends Joy in front of the camera to sell it herself: the working class everywoman selling the American Dream directly into homes across the country.
A movie starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper was made available through Video On Demand before it played theaters in the U.S. This might lead to conclusions about a) how dramatically the release model for Hollywood films is changing, or b) how quickly superstars can drop from the stratosphere. Neither is true. Serena is simply a one-off botch, signifying nothing about the value of VOD or its stars’ undiminished red-hotness. Shot in 2012, it’s being dumped because it’s a major bummer, despite the cast. Based on a novel by Ron Rash, it has an outdated style and subject matter—the kind of thing that might have worked in the 1930s, which is when the story is set. In fact, the setting of the thing vaguely recalls that of Come and Get It (1936), a timber-baron drama with the ill-fated Frances Farmer’s best role.
There was a time when American Sniper would’ve been an ideal Oliver Stone project—a story of the battlefield and the homefront, of ideals and damage. Its subject is Chris Kyle, the sharpshooter whose action in four Iraq War tours reportedly made him the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. A Texas rodeo rider before he joined the Navy SEALs, Kyle was nicknamed “Legend” by his fellow soldiers and the “Devil of Ramadi” by Iraqi fighters. His life had a lurid ending—a terrible irony that reframes his story in a larger context of troubled veterans and PTSD.
Imagine Oliver Stone’s high-strung emotionalism and blunt-force style brought to bear on this scenario. Now imagine its opposite: That’s Clint Eastwood’s deliberately neutral take on the material, a measured directorial approach that is likely to disappoint those looking for either a patriotic tribute to the troops or a critique of war and its effects.
The giant apparatus required to create a 21st-century comic-book/sci-fi/action movie is expensive and unwieldy. Little wonder so many of these behemoths eventually collapse under their own weight, content to destroy a city while laboriously setting up the next installment in the franchise. Even the good stuff—Robert Downey Jr.’s antic presence in the first Iron Man, or the cheeky political thrust of Captain America: The Winter Soldier—must make way for grim destruction.
Therefore, give thanks to the Marvel gods for Guardians of the Galaxy. If you’ve ever had to suppress a giggle at the sight of Thor’s mighty hammer, this movie will provide a refreshing palate-cleanser
We should mention right off that the New York Film Critics Circle, which decided it needed to be first in the stampede of awards groups doling out accolades this year, bestowed its best-picture prize on American Hustle. That was back on December 3, which means NYFCC members likely saw the film a few days (if not a few hours) before voting on it.
This suggests something about American Hustle: If this isn’t a great movie, and it’s not, it sure is a fireworks display, designed to make an immediate and dazzling impression. The latest concoction from director/co-writer David O. Russell is full of big roundhouse swings and juicy performances: It’s a fictionalized take on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s, in which the FBI teamed with a second-rate con man in a wacko sting operation involving a bogus Arab sheik and bribes to U.S. congressmen.