Behind the scenes at QVC in Joy
Our review of David O. Russell’s latest is forthcoming, but suffice it to say there’s about 20 minutes in the middle where it feels like he’s making the movie he wants to make — and they’re only tangentially related to his protagonist. The sequence in question finds Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) visiting QVC, attempting to convince them to sell her miraculous new hand-crafted mop, and catching the attention of network honcho Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper). As he shows her around their soundstage, explaining what the network is and how it works, they end up watching a live broadcast (where one of the co-hosts is Melissa Rivers, playing her mother Joan — a nice touch), which Walker runs like an orchestra conductor: pushing in the camera, cueing the phones, bringing in an enthusiastic caller, etc. It’s got the improvisational energy of recent backstage films like Birdman and Steve Jobs; a Russell movie about the creation of QVC would’ve made a nice double feature with that King Brothers picture.
The bear mauling in The Revenant
There’s a rather fascinating dialectic happening between audiences and films when a marquee star is in grave danger — we know they’re not actually going to knock off the advertised protagonist thirty or so minutes into a movie, so we’re watching with presumptions that the filmmaker can either subvert (most famously, in Psycho’s shower scene) or toy with, which is what happens in the latest from Alejandro González Iñárritu. The bear attack on Leonardo Di Caprio has been spoiled a bit, thanks to a hilariously misreported “scoop” by sentient fedora Matt Drudge, but you can almost understand how someone — a stupid someone, but still — might come away from that sequence certain they’d witnessed something particularly extreme. It sort of goes on and on, the bear batting at our hero, throwing him this way and that, biting and clawing, generally treating him like an Oscar-courting piñata. It’s brutal, harrowing, and (thanks to some expert CGI) thoroughly convincing stuff, setting a bar that the rest of the movie seldom reaches.
A visit to Mamie Claire’s in Mistress America
The surprise drop-in on the Connecticut home of Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) orchestrated by her former pal and current nemesis Brooke (Greta Gerwig) is lengthy enough — a healthy chunk of Mistress America ’s second act, in fact — that perhaps it’s cheating to throw it in with the comparatively brief scenes considered here. But that’s also sort of the point: movie comedies are usually so impatient, rushing from one scene to the next, that we seldom get this kind of throwback farce set piece anymore. Not to imply that the sequence is slowly paced; co-writers Gerwig and Noah Baumbach (who also directs) overlap their dialogue with screwball guile, bounce their characters off one another like bumper cars, and know precisely when to ring the doorbell and throw another weirdo into the mix.
Brian d’Arcy James takes a walk in Spotlight
In absence of any actual complaints about the picture’s skill or intelligence, the current (and weak) line of backlash against Tom McCarthy’s A-plus muckracking drama is that it’s too stylistically dull, meat-and-potatoes without enough sizzle. Aside from the relevant notion of form following function, I’d direct your attention to a remarkable scene about an hour in, as the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team is just beginning to realize the implications of their investigation of sex abuse in the Catholic church. Reporter Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) is at home, going through a directory of the “treatment centers” for priests the Church is hiding and reassigning, when something stops him cold. “Holy shit,” he says, and walks out his front door. He moves through the dark of night, first a brisk walk and then a jog, McCarthy’s camera following him the whole way, until he arrives at an average-looking white house on the next block. McCarthy then cuts to the reporter taping a note to the refrigerator, warning his kids away from that house and the men who live there. It’s a powerful moment, visually dramatizing the emotional realization that this isn’t some distant, inaccessible thing: it’s right outside his door, and once the note is written to his kids, he’s got to get the same warning into the pages of his paper.
N.W.A. takes a stand in Straight Outta Compton
The fury and danger that pulsed through N.W.A.’s records is abundant in the best scenes of F. Gary Gray’s sturdy biopic, particularly the sequence recreating their notorious performance in at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. Recently presented with a letter from the FBI discouraging the performance of their protest song “Fuck Tha Police,” and assured by local authorities that they’ll not tolerate its performance at the venue, the N.W.A. crew hits the stage, feels the energy of the crowd, feels them demanding the song, and taunts the cops who are watching closely (“Motherfuckers tried to tell us what we can’t say”). And as the camera performs a glorious, gliding crane over the entire arena, they unleash their angriest song — with predictable results.
“I Want It That Way” in Magic Mike XXL
Counting Compton, a full 50% of this list is comprised of musical numbers; what can I tell you, the notion is music-friendly. And besides, few scenes in any movie this year were as out-and-out delightful as everybody’s favorite scene in Gregory Jacobs’ Magic Mike sequel, which finds our title character betting buddy Richie (Joe Manganiello) that he can make the deadpan clerk at a convenience store smile, purely by the force of his charisma and Backstreet Boys-dancing skills. It’s a giddily goofy premise, with an execution to match — and exactly the kind of thin clothesline upon which filmmakers have hung dance numbers since the golden age.
“The Reflex” in Man Up
This delightfully subversive rom-com came and went far too quickly last month; it’s totally worth your time, if for no other reason than this gloriously left-field scene, in which Simon Pegg and Lake Bell, who are pretending to be a couple (don’t ask) continue a spirited argument over the merits of marriage as the dance floor music switches from a ballad to the 1984 Duran Duran classic. There’s something wonderfully offhand and charmingly eccentric about the choreography, which feels less like a big movie dance number than an example of how, as Pegg told me, “we all have a dance routine somewhere that we learned unconsciously as youngsters in the discos.” It’s sweet, and goofy, and funny as hell — much like the movie.
“I Can’t Go for That” in Aloha
Cameron Crowe’s oddball romantic comedy was one of the most openly maligned movies of the year (somewhat unfairly, I’d attest). But even those who loathed it — the many, many people who loathed it — would have to admit, somewhere in the cold recesses of their souls, how great the Bill Murray/Emma Stone dance number is. It comes out of nowhere, makes no narrative sense (Murray’s millionaire tells Stone’s pilot he hears she’s a great dancer, something he’d have never heard form anywhere), and stops the movie cold for three minutes. But in that time, two of our most charming and charismatic performers dance to a silly old Hall & Oates song, and it’s pure movie-star pleasure.
“Diamonds” in Girlhood
The scene happens unexpectedly, seeming at first like an ordinary music cue, in a beautiful close-up of our heroine Merieme (Karidja Touré) at peace. Then she starts to nod her head along with the song; it’s “Diamonds,” by Rihanna. And then she gets up to dance, because she has to, joining her three new friends in their nightclub best, as they groove and lip-sync and sing along, overtaken by the pure joy they feel towards the song, and each other. In two perfect minutes, director Céline Sciamma beautifully captures what it is to be young, to be with the people who know you like no one ever has, and to have a song that feels like it’s yours and yours alone. I’ve been watching this movie since January, and this scene still gives me goosebumps.