A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

A perennial on "best films in history" lists, Battleship Potemkin is certainly one of the best-crafted movies ever. No matter how hokey and manipulative it seemed, I sat enthralled through my most recent viewing as the pounding, throbbing endless crescendo of music and editing surged toward the political victory of the Potemkin over the Czar's fleet. (The music on this version was Edmund Meisel's, which was performed at the Berlin premiere in 1926.) Because of the celebrated "Odessa Steps" sequence, which is cited in every textbook on editing and montage and in every tribute to Sergei Eisenstein or documentary about propaganda, I had forgotten that the real climax of the film is its final sequence. I had also forgotten how truly epic the film feels, with the great massing of crowds before the massacre on the steps. But is it a great film? Not if you're judging a film by any standard other than the way it gets blood pumping. It lacks insight into any human emotion other than resentment and the herd instinct. It's a masterpiece of propaganda. As with other such masterpieces, such as Leni Riefensthal's Triumph of the Will (1935), it lies to us. Which is all right, as long as we know it's lying and can keep our eye on the truth.

Joy (David O. Russell, 2015)

A thoroughly conventional movie with an exceptional cast that features what seems to be the core of writer-director David O. Russell's stock company, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, Joy is the kind of feel-good underdog-against-the-odds movie with screwball touches that could have been made at almost any time in Hollywood history. I can easily imagine it in the 1940s with Rosalind Russell and Fred MacMurray, for example. Joy Mangano (Lawrence) was a brilliant student in high school, but she didn't go on to college, and now struggles to make ends meet, while dabbling with ideas for inventions. A divorcee, she lives in an unusual household: In addition to her two children and her grandmother (Diane Ladd), the ménage also includes Joy's mother (Virginia Madsen), who spends her days in bed watching soap operas, and Joy's ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez), who lives in the basement. Joy's father (Robert De Niro) also joins the household after splitting from his latest wife, but he soon takes up with Trudy, a wealthy widow (Isabella Rossellini). When Joy comes up with the idea for a self-wringing mop, Trudy agrees to help finance it. Joy has to contract the manufacture of some of the mop's parts, and she struggles to market it until the idea comes to sell it on TV. She approaches the QVC shopping channel, where an executive, Neil Walker (Cooper), takes an interest in the product. It becomes a big seller, but then the company Joy contracted to make the parts claims ownership of the design. Facing bankruptcy, Joy fights the claim, wins, and becomes a huge success, marketing other household products. There's a real-life Joy Mangano on whose story the film is based, with the usual disregard for accuracy. Lawrence got an Oscar nomination for her performance, which is, as always, wonderful. She gives the film more than it deserves, and the supporting cast measures up to her. But there are few surprises in the story or in Russell's treatment of it, unlike his previous films with Lawrence and Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013).