These days, Michael Bay is best known for his seemingly endless stream of “Transformer” movies but he’s also this country’s most unabashedly pro-military director; since “Pearl Harbor” (2001), he has demonstrated an enthusiasm for artillery-laden features whose guiding principle seem to be “Keep it butch, boy.” All lickety-split edits, percussive soundscapes, deafening blasts, grunted one-liners, and searing pops of primary color, it’s an aesthetic perfectly suited to Hollywood’s oddly bland code of neo-masculinity but one that doesn’t exactly lend nuance to, well, anything. Put bluntly, this makes him both the best and worst living director to tackle “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” the adaptation of Mitchell Zuckoff’s book about the six ex-military security contractors who defended two American bases in Benghazi, Libya, during the September 11, 2012, attack that killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three others. Continue Reading →
“Joy,” David O. Russell’s latest, is not an adaptation, though it would have benefited from being one. Based on the story of Joy Mangano, the real-life woman who invented the Miracle Mop and became a major entrepreneur on the QVC network, it is co-written by Annie Mumolo and Russell, who has said that he believes “strong women are the key to great cinema.” Certainly he puts his money where his mouth is. Even in his male-centric films like “The Fighter,” strong women run the show. But Mangano’s can-do spirit is somewhat muted by this muddle of a melodrama, which swings tonally between a Pedro Almodóvar-inflected telenovella, a 1990s update of “You Can’t Take It With You,” and a Preston Sturges comedy on a cutting-room floor. An antecedent memoir might have provided much-needed signposts.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Mangano, which goes a long way toward cutting through the fog. Not since Julia Roberts has Hollywood found itself such a bright light, and Lawrence comes with the added benefit of being a strong actress who, at the ripe old age of twenty-five, has already shed any fear of un-likeability; she seems to take more cues from 1940s screwball dames than her less self-possessed contemporaries. As Mangano, she channels the weary brassiness of a woman who’s been soldiering her family’s burdens since before she was an adult. She even speaks in the clipped tones of a Barbara Stanwyck or Irene Dunne. (No vocal fry for this millennial.) Continue Reading →
Nobody crafts an opening credits sequence like Shelton “Spike” Lee. In “She’s Gotta Have It,” photo stills of old-school Brooklyn are accompanied by his father, the legendary jazz composer Bill Lee. BK local Rosie Perez busts out her hip hop-boxing moves to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” at the start of “Do the Right Thing.” “Clockers” starts with a montage of taped-off Gowanus crime scenes as Marc Dorsey sings “People in Search of a Life.” Kids run through the Crayola-hued streets of 1970s Fort Greene as The Stylistics sing “People Make the World Go Round” in “Crooklyn.” “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” begins with the gorgeously fluid dancing of Charles “Lil Buck” Riley set against the Red Hook waterfront. It’s one of the auteur’s many signatures: that big, beautiful heart worn proudly on his sleeve from the moment he fires each film’s starting pistol.
Relatively speaking, the opening credits sequence of “Chi-Raq” is pretty straight-up. I suspect this is not just because it is set in Chicago but because Spike is grinding his biggest axe since 2006’s very fine “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” which channeled the righteous anger of New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina. In bold, primary hues, the lyrics of “Pray for My City” – It’s Chi-Raq and my city’s lost/ I can’t fall victim to Satanflash – flash across the screen as they’re rapped by Nick Cannon, who plays the film’s titular character, the head of a fictional gang known as the Spartans. His street moniker stems from Chicago’s insidious nickname, which references that the number of the city’s homicides surpasses the number of American soldiers dead in Iraq. Continue Reading →