Monday, December 31, 2012

Love: Django Unchained

With the exception, perhaps, of Four Rooms, Quentin Tarantino has yet to direct a film that wouldn't make my top 10 or 15 in any given year.  It's safe to say I'm a fan, yes, the type of fan who has the complete unchopped Grindhouse on Blu-Ray and actually enjoys Death Proof.  It's also safe to say that the only conceivable way Django Unchained could have fallen short of my expectations would be if it hadn't pillaged from the files of Ennio Morricone for its soundtrack - which, let's face it, was never a possibility. So, I'm a built in audience, the target market, and essentially a sucker. For my fellow Tarantino fans, I can tell you that Django satisfies a taste for more of a very specific same: it's a mashed-up tale of revenge served ice cold with a well-blended $5 shake of crackling dialogue snatched from disparate genres. It's a darkly funny cartoon opus of vengeance, violence, and undying loyalty. Like Inglorious Basterds, Django is a revisionist history that offers a chance at cathartic retribution so satisfying, so deserved, that it seems a wonder the film medium hasn't been saturated with a million blaxploitation western hybrids since its inception.   
The film opens just a couple years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War and is set entirely in the slave owning south, where it opens with a scene that mirrors -in some ways- the dairy farm sequence in Basterds.  Here, though, Christoph Waltz gets a chance to play the 'righteous' man as Dr. King Shultz, a bounty hunter who steps into the path of a pair of slave traders hoping to purchase a particular individual from their shackled line up. The man in question is, of course, Django (Jamie Foxx), and as Shultz takes the traders out of the picture, he cuts Django free and offers him a position as partner and aide.  Django will be a free man, but Shultz requires his assistance identifying a trio of criminals first.  Django agrees, but insists that if he does his part that Shultz helps him track down his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). It's a premise that opens up innumerable potentials for conflict and action, and one that also allows its characters to shift and evolve as they carry out their mission.
For all that's been made of Django thus far, I have yet to hear anyone comment on how fully the friendship between Django and Shultz develops as the film gallops on.  Waltz has proven his ability to deftly deliver Tarantino's idiosyncratic dialogue, and to an extent his character speaks very much like Hans Landa smugly chowing down on strudel.  Foxx, however, is doing something a little different.  Django is a quieter character, a man who has been forced to practice extreme caution and patience throughout the entirety of his life.  We meet him at the moment when he is suddenly released from that burden, when he finds that he is able to develop a personality that is not hampered by submission or cruel punishment.  He can be, at long last, exactly who he wants to be, and Foxx plays him with a great deal of restraint. While Django is given quite a few excellent lines, the real work comes through in the way he carries himself, the small facial expressions, tensions, and glances.  Prior to the all-out, knock-down revenge extravaganza at the plantation of the despicable Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), there's a curious level of satisfaction that can be derived from the ways we see Django step into himself and begin to open up in the presence of Dr. King Shultz.  They can read each other, and it's clear that what begins as a business relationship becomes something far richer.
All the while, of course, Django Unchained is operating according to a set of guidelines that only Tarantino can make work. It's a big, overblown, labyrinth of a film that seems to constantly turn inward on itself or grow a new appendage where the dust of a previous denouement has only just settled.  It chooses the elements of past genres and pre-existing films and artfully, lovingly arranges them to create something that never feels anything but brand new.  It has a soundtrack that splices hip hop into the soundscape of the spaghetti western and we don't dare roll our eyes because, well, there's nothing here that falters or gives us pause to second guess what we've seen.  We love the violent characters we're supposed to love, and we loathe the despicable men because we understand that, at the end of the day, no matter how many gun battles and explosions the film possesses, Django Unchained is a simple tale of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Under 250: The Queen of Versailles

Queen of Versailles was my Christmas Eve morning movie, a weirdly appropriate look at a case of extremely conspicuous consumption.  Lauren Greenfield's documentary follows Jackie and David Siegel, a couple engaged in a grotesque level of indulgence in the American dream.  David is the 74-year old CEO of Westgate Resorts and, thus, a real estate magnate with so much money he's planning to move his family from their 17-bedroom mansion to a 30-bedroom, 10-kitchen, skating rink, baseball field, separate wing for the children, Florida replica of Versailles.  Jackie is David's 43-year old trophy wife: an ex-model and pageant queen who leads the viewer through the unfinished husk of her future palace and flatly shows you a future closet the size of a large master bedroom. The building is an insane endeavor, and brilliant raw material for a documentary.  When Greenfield started filming (in 2007), the Siegel's were on track to completing Versailles without incident...then, the economy tanked. As everything falls apart, we watch the Siegels confused attempts to scale back, keep up appearances, and hold on to a modicum of pride.  It's a fascinating approach to economic ruin, and the Siegels are such an oddly lovable bunch of brats that I found myself almost feeling bad for them as they cluelessly bring home a half dozen carts of impulse buys because they're "saving money" shopping at the Wal Mart.   

Under 250: The Grey

The Grey was a film I'd written off almost entirely.  As I'm sure you'll recall, The Grey had a seemingly omnipresent, incredibly annoying trailer last winter. It was known as "the one where Liam Neeson fights wolves," and if you're like me, you probably found yourself convinced this was Taken with animals: an absurd, testosterone-driven, man vs. wild face off featuring Neeson making grumbling threats at fanged beasts.  I didn't believe all the mid-year talk of the film being secretly great, but after seeing the film resurface on several 2012 wrap-ups, I queued up The Grey and prepared to battle the wolves.  Let this be a lesson: you really shouldn't underestimate Liam Neeson.  The Grey is a remarkably solid survival thriller boasting impressively strong performances from its suffering cast.  Neeson plays Ottway, one of the seven men who wake up in the inhospitable Alaskan wilderness upon surviving a plane crash.  Ottway is a struggling soul, a dour man suffering from suicidal impulses in the wake of a separation from his wife.  Though he seems to have nothing to live for, he takes responsibility for the survivors as they face not only the elements, but a territorial band of exceptionally dangerous wolves.  Though the film follows a fairly predictable path, The Grey is dark, uncompromising, and filled with many a memorable moment that never, ever paints a happy face on nature.     

Under 250: The Watch

There was a time, not so very long ago, when a concept comedy starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn could have opened on top with only a trace amount of advertising.  The Watch plays out like a death knell for their individual brands, proof that relying on the same old techniques and character archetypes just doesn't work.  In fact, The Watch feels like a late nineties/early aughts retread; a dirty Men in Black or Evolution in which all of the primary characters are horned out morons who yell and bicker constantly.  Stiller stars as Evan, a well-meaning Costco manager who, of course, is incredibly uptight.  When one of his employees is found dead and covered in slime, he tries to start up a neighborhood watch and manages to round up three losers looking for a distraction from their real life responsibilities.  This is where Vaughn comes in (alongside Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade), and while Stiller is tolerable, Vaughn is not.  His loud, bombastic shtick is exceptionally trying here, and his loud mouthed scenery chewing clashes with Stiller's nervous energy in a way that makes the film entirely too grating.  The Watch seems to want to be an adult Attack the Block, but winds up slipping lazily in a deep, too easy pit of dumb dick jokes and Vince Vaughn's supremely irritating buffoonery.  There are funny moments, however, and ultimately while the film is bad, it's simply played out and not fully deserving of the "worst of the year" status many have assigned it.     

Monday, December 24, 2012

Like: The Guilt Trip

The Guilt Trip attempts absolutely nothing new.  It's a buddy movie, a road-trip movie, a movie about the relationship between a son and his overbearing mother.  It doesn't try to be edgy, it doesn't seek out drama where it doesn't need to, it never dares to make its characters anything less than likable.  If you were to evaluate The Guilt Trip on its raw contribution to the film arts, you'd be forced to cast it off with a sneer as essentially just not worth a mention.  Then again, if you were to evaluate The Guilt Trip based on its merit as a piece of art you probably don't belong talking about film in the first place.  The Guilt Trip is not art.  It's not Oscar bait.  It's a mildly amusing, charming enough, cute without being cloying movie you take your mother to when you both just need a break from everything life throws at you.  It's that type of movie, and making a successful, passable version of that type of movie must be a more difficult venture than it would appear, because - let's be real - for every dozen or so You Agains and Mad Moneys released, there's only one general audiences can swallow without throwing up.
The Guilt Trip is not vomit-inducing.  In fact, if you have a parent (mother or father) who could be cited as having typical Jewish Mother traits (a term I employ quite lovingly), chances are you'll find the film not only palatable, but accurate and oddly endearing.  Since my own mother is a fan of not only Barbra Streisand, but Seth Rogen as well (she loves his muppet laugh), The Guilt Trip was a non-negotiable outing from its inception, and one I have to admit I wound up smiling through without incident. Rogen stars as Andrew, a vaguely melancholy young organic chemist who is struggling to get his invented cleaning product stocked on the shelves of your local big-box store.  He's embarking on a driving tour of America, traveling to corporate headquarters near and far to pitch his organic cleaner to anyone willing to buy it.  An early stop finds him visiting his widowed mother Joyce (Streisand), and as a pang of pity mixes with stroke of good will, Andy decides to ask Joyce if she'd like to take the trip with him, though he knows full well how overwhelming she can be.  From New Jersey to San Francisco: hijinks ensue.  
The Guilt Trip could easily tip the scales towards "too much."  It could easily become a one-wrong-move-after-the-next comedy along the lines of Due Date in which the script seems to subscribe to Murphy's Law.  Thankfully, it doesn't.  Considering the character archetypes and the dynamic in play, the film exercises a tremendous amount of restraint.  While Joyce may be occasionally irritating and Andy stubborn to a fault, we are shown the perspective of each and turned towards a middle ground as they are.  There's a gentleness to the turn here, a sweetness that's pleasant instead of saccharine, and I appreciated that I didn't have to roll my eyes during The Guilt Trip.  Rogen and Streisand are an odd mix, and while both are bending their individual styles to meet the other, that compromise in itself yields surprising, relatively unexpected results in an otherwise predictable movie.

Like: This is 40

There were points during Judd Apatow's brutal dramedy This is 40 where it was easy to laugh, where real life woes were mined to biting comedic effect and the barbs were traded without incident.  For all of these honest, funny points, there seemed to be just as many scenes I had trouble digesting, where I felt like I was trying to convince myself that something redeeming was happening on screen.  This is 40 is a tonally imbalanced piece of work with unclear motivations and characters who are frequently hard to sympathize with.  The film technically stands as a "sort of sequel" to surprise hit Knocked Up in that it focuses on the family of the Katherine Heigl character's sister, all of whom served comfortably as supporting characters in that film.  While thankfully Heigl and Seth Rogen's couple do not make an appearance in 40, at times we wish they did merely to break up the wearisome, often awkward time spent with Pete and Debbie, our struggling couple. 
Like almost all of Apatow's complicated comedies, This is 40 stretches itself beyond the two-hour mark and seems to be greedily trying to process and illustrate every single exhaustive aspect of the apparent meltdown his characters are undergoing upon hitting an aging milestone.  The exact timeline was unclear to me, but the film seemed to take place over roughly a week or two, a period in which Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd) each celebrate their 40th birthdays, hit the rock bottom of their upper middle class money problems, have twin mid-life crises, and decide to self-inflict a "we're going to live longer, healthier, and happier" dramatic lifestyle change-up upon themselves.  Their first-world problems seem to be innumerable: Pete eats too many Sprinkles cupcakes from an endless supply they must have delivered to their house daily, Debbie is convinced her too attractive employee (Megan Fox) is stealing money from the boutique she owns, Pete's self-made indie record label (boasting a $20,000 neon sign) is hemorrhaging money, Pete took viagra and this offends Debbie, and their daughters (played by Mann and Apatow's own kids, Maude and Iris) are bickering and freaking out about being banned from wi-fi.  They're the California movie family who lives in a beautiful, tricked-out house, who drive beautiful, pricey cars, and who look - as Melissa McCarthy's character aptly notes here- like they're a fake couple from a damn bank commercial.  In other words: sometimes caring about their self-created screw ups can be difficult, and when the film tries to strike a serious chord, it seems almost tone deaf.
Apatow doesn't seem to know how to edit himself, and as he continues making movies he seems to get further away from the simple jokes and far more interested in crafting films that desperately try to find the humor in often painful, trying, real life experiences.  This is 40 ultimately feels like a follow-up less to Knocked Up than to Funny People -- a film I honestly liked because it didn't do anything the easy way and successfully crafted characters far deeper than we anticipated.  40 is working with the same formula as Funny People. It wants us to care, it wants to show us the nuanced moments in the lives of these characters, it wants to paint a thorough, warts and all portrait.  Where it differs is that this time - though our sympathies may be minimal - the point of entry doesn't focus on how 'hard it is' to be funny, it just is.  Apatow himself likes these characters (we can probably guess why), he's close to them, obviously, and doesn't want to see them flail to the point that would make the film more successful.  Where we might expect to see Pete & Debbie  held up for reflection as much as they need to be, they don't get there. Their plights aren't satirized or skewered, they're just documented and peppered with visits from much funnier guest stars.  Ultimately, I liked This is 40, but I didn't love it...and I'm not really sure I can effectively tell you why.  Apatow gives us a bright, sunny world of minor heartaches and vignette set-pieces where the characters can come together in a blaze of hysterical profanity; and though I laughed a decent amount, I wanted more. This is 40 allows itself to crack a joke where it needs to, but at times, it's just too lovingly.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Love: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I wasn't particularly excited about The Hobbit. If we're being really honest, I'd been sort of down about the whole endeavor.  It was one thing when the film was just supposed to be one storybook sized film, quite another when Peter Jackson ballooned the novel out to a three film stretch.  J.R.R. Tolkien's book is, of course, one for children. Compared to its semi-sequel trilogy The Lord of the Rings, it's a relatively loose, frothy, fairy story adventure; one that does not need the nine or so hours of screen time it's about to get in a time-released delay between now and the end of 2014.  Yet, the decision has been made.  We have two films to go to complete this Unexpected Journey. Whether you read the split as a money grab or buy into it as a labor of love, my problem with the division has shifted in the last week.  Where before I'd been annoyed it would take as many films to round out the simplest book as it did the trilogy, now I'm just pissed off I have to wait until 2014 to finish the goddamn story.   
 I liked An Unexpected Journey significantly more than I'd expected I would, which ultimately shouldn't be that surprising.  When The Lord of the Rings ran its course I was certainly a fan, though nowhere near as bewitched by the films as many (including my dear cranky younger sibling, who carted around a lucky Frodo action figure for a good year or so) in my peer group.  Like many, I'd read Tolkien's books at a pretty young age (they were required reading in my house), I read compulsively, and took in a decent amount of fantasy fare. I longed to see the creatures and worlds described in these genre works manifest on the big screen, and, frustratingly, the fantasy films of my pre-adolescence couldn't cut it.  I loved them, but they were light, airy, puppet-filled trips.  Neverending Story and Labyrinth; those were about as good as it got, which is to say: nostalgic, but cheesy almost to a fault.  What Jackson accomplished in Fellowship of the Ring (and I should note, Harry Potter's 2001 arrival was a second half of this turning point), was nothing short of astounding.  LotR were big, healthy works of cinematic fantasy unlike any I'd ever seen.  They forged new worlds, beautifully, and converted just about everyone into a willing, frenzied, wizard-loving nerd.
Yeah, yeah, you're thinking. You're preaching to the choir, everyone remembers how those films hit, what does that have to do with why we're getting a three-movie Hobbit now?  Well, quite simply, the opening chapter to The Hobbit transported me back to that theater a decade ago, but in a way that settled firmly in a comfortable, worn nostalgia.  It's true that The Hobbit has become somewhat bloated on a hearty diet of small battles and monstrous run-ins, yes. It's also true that characters have been snuck in and the menace of what's to come hangs heavy over many a head between the odd songs and strange, juvenile jokes of our merry band of dwarves.  Yet, many critics have been too quick to ask questions that seem completely irrelevant: do we need this movie at all? Is Jackson just making this series in an effort to remake his last trip to Middle Earth? The answer, I think, is a caveated yes. Where LotR was a frenzied, often terribly serious war epic, The Hobbit's storybook nature allows for something I'd been conveniently overlooking: it's a soaring, visually stunning work of old school imagination. While the technical advances make it a modern marvel, the simplicity of the story, the repetitive nature of its encounters, the tonally 'silly' dialogue and visual jokes, and the Potter-style goofiness of some of the creatures (stenographer goblin, anyone?) take the film away from the stakes of the ring trilogy and make it a brilliant children's film.
While The Hobbit reads as slight for hardcore cinephiles and adult fans of LotR, if the opener is any indication, we're looking at a trilogy I would have killed for at eight or nine years old.  There's a comforting, spellbinding once upon a time tone to the film.  Ian Holm's elder Bilbo Baggins opens up the story in a charming flash forward.  He's writing his tale for posterity from the comfort of Bag End, looking fondly back at something without fear.  We know Bilbo will survive, we know he will be a hero, now we can just sit back and enjoy the ride. As young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) embarks nervously on his quest, the film succeeds in striking a balance between the more sophisticated Rings films and the friendly, gently enchanted worlds of the Narnia or early Potter films.  While it's undeniably designed for a younger audience, The Hobbit never plays down to those kids, and seems to strive for relative timelessness.  Jackson is trying to attract a new audience, to rope a younger generation into a world of imagination that inspired him at that age, and in entrusting them with material that reads as almost grown-up, I suspect he will succeed. While the occasional goblin head may roll and a sneaky shroom joke may pass by, there's surprisingly little 'excess baggage' here.  Instead, An Unexpected Journey is a simple, optimistic tale that never underestimates the capabilities of someone small.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Love: The Sessions

Here's what happens in The Sessions: John Hawkes says clever things from an uncomfortable position, Helen Hunt gets naked.  Not just once, not like 'kind of naked', no, Helen Hunt gets naked, and if you remember when Helen Hunt was just on Mad About You, then you will feel awkward about this.  If you are me, you will want to insist that Helen Hunt please take her privacy and you will make that face that says 'what are you doing? stop that!' and you will remember Paul Reiser is a person who exists.  Then you'll think about how both of the stars of that show just were not people you'd ever even realized had human bodies before, and then Helen Hunt will speak very clinically about having a human body in a way that makes you feel like she's shaming you because you're an immature jerk who just giggld about Helen Hunt being naked.  This is sort of a source of comedy in The Sessions, and sort of supposed to be heartwarming because, of course, Helen Hunt's character Cheryl is in the nude for a very specific purpose: she's a sex surrogate.  It's her job to serve as a hands on therapist and instructor for Mark (Hawkes), a 38-year old virgin who has spent most of his life in an iron lung.
The film is based on the true-life experiences of Mark O'Brien, and follows the account he wrote about in an magazine essay entitled "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate."  If you read the piece (and you can, here), the film adaptation serves as an often to-the-letter illustration of Mark's struggles and triumphs.  For all his time in the iron lung, he's an accomplished individual, a well-educated poet with a keen sense of humor and a quick-witted way with words. We spend time with him in the 1980's where, upon being hired to write an article in which he interviewed other disabled people about their sex lives, he falls for his lovely young assistant and begins to contemplate the 'what ifs' of his own wholly absent sex life.  She's not into him, but that's ok.  Mark begins casual, conversational confessions with a relatively easy going priest (William H. Macy), and with Catholic approval, Mark signs on to see Cheryl for a max of six sessions.  It's a different kind of rehabilitation, one that will allow Mark to feel as though he's in contact with his own physicality in some way while also giving him a sense of personal pride.  Cheryl is not a prostitute, of course, she's a caring, very gentle medical professional, and while their sessions are equipped with several awkward moments, the film succeeds in making the viewer really like Mark.  We want him to succeed.  We want him to get laid.      
Of course, the film is essentially a quiet comedy, and the outcome is relatively predictable.  The Sessions has been buzzed about for months as a dizzying, happy-making triumph - a film you can really feel good about without an Oscar-season backlash.  I wouldn't go that far, but yes, as the theaters begin to slowly curate a collection of movies about misery, The Sessions is innocuous fare boasting an impressively warm and charming performance from the occasionally terrifying Hawkes.  He has a face capable of alarming transformation, and here the cult leaders and criminals fade away in favor of something heartbreakingly sincere. He's a different character than what we've seen before, and Hunt is too.  This feels like a comeback role for her, a naked declaration of her own relevance after a decade of slipping under the radar.  Yet, for all the hopeful, triumphant niceties and sparkling little performances, I didn't feel much in the wake of The Sessions. It seemed like I was supposed to, like something should have resonated, but nothing did.  Just as I didn't know how to react to the surprise (yes, I know, I really just didn't think it was possible) of having to see Helen Hunt naked, I frequently wasn't sure whether I was supposed to laugh or let my heart quietly bleed.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Fantasy Oscar League + Golden Globe Nominees

This week I feel like I've gained a sudden understanding of sports fans.  A few of my friends and I have been indulging in a certain brand of nerdism for the past several years: we go through the process of nominating and voting in our own miniature version of the Oscars.  It's mainly an excuse for a party, but because we enjoy it so much the idea of a fantasy football style awards league has been thrown around for awhile.  This year, we actually decided to devise a system and go for it; not just with the Oscars, but with a whole calendar of awards show and end of the year top 10 lists.  Now, we're by no means the first people to ever do this, and our self-appointed "Movie Commissioner" (we'll just call her S.) went through the process of conducting the research on working methods, pulling up the data, and setting up one hell of a master spread-sheet.  She started with the process from the guys at Getchya Popcorn Ready, and we've adapted it from there.   

Last Sunday the five participating members of the newly established "Sweet Jesus, What Have I Done?" league (yes, in honor of and because we're so sick of seeing Hugh Jackman talk about his interpretation of that song) gathered to pick our draft picks and put the finishing touches on the rules.  This is how we went about it:

1. We decided on a snake draft and each drew a number.  Beginning with one, up to five, backwards back down to one, and continuing in an ouroboros.  

2. We would each pick TEN standard films, ONE documentary, ONE Academy eligible foreign film, and THREE purposely "shitty" picks. 

3. We decided we would be counting points for nominations and winners in each of the following awards shows.  The established and professional awards:  Academy Awards, Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, Spirit Awards, Critics Choice, BAFTAs, Producers, Directors', and Writers' Guild.  The two "wild cards":  People's Choice Awards (which we hadn't realized were already selected) and The Razzies.

4. We also decided to count four established Year End "Top 10" lists: Roger Ebert's, The Chicago Tribune's, The New York Times, and the American Film Institute's.  As the National Board of Review's had just been released the day prior, we opted to ignore it.

5. Any film nominated for the equivalent of a 'Best Picture' receives 5 points, if it wins it receives 25.  Technical, acting, and directing awards receive 2 points upon nomination, 10 points for a win.  If a film makes it on a top 10 list it receives an automatic 10 points. 

I won't share everyone's (I'll leave that up to them if they so desire), but here are my picks. Seeing as I was number three in the draft and smack in the middle, I'm pretty happy with the way it panned out:

Zero Dark Thirty
Silver Linings Playbook
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Moonrise Kingdom
Killer Joe
Holy Motors
The Promised Land
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
21 Jump Street
Queen of Versailles
The Third Half
Rock of Ages
Twilight: Breaking Dawn pt. 2
Dark Shadows

My strategy on the 'shit' picks (which I think several shared) was to pick a thing or two that could just as easily sneak into a People's Choice or random Globes category as it could into the Razzies. 
As this was a huge week for awards show nominations, the e-mails and texts have been flying with friendly, soon to be vicious competition (my favorite email thus far simply said "HOPE SPRINGS BITCHES").  The big contenders (Lincoln, Les Mis, Argo, Django, and Zero Dark Thirty) are spread across the league, so the claws will soon come out and it's anyone's game.  Since I'm feeling insanely ambivalent about the awards this year, I'm weirdly alright having a reason to cheer on the Kathryn Bigelow movie I'm not particularly excited about even seeing (honesty).  

Now, on to yesterday's Golden Globe nominations.  Hit the jump...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Love: Silver Linings Playbook

I got in a conversation with someone a few weeks back that consisted, mostly, of her complaining about the lack of comedy recognition come awards season.  She's right, of course. We tend to take comedy for granted, though it's something most of us know from experience is very difficult to manage.  The Oscars, certainly, are guilty of maligning any number of ballsy comedic performances, and when the stakes come down to a question of whether to recognize a harrowing dramatic role vs. a masterful exercise in comic timing, there's little question on who the victor will be.  For a comedy to sneak successfully into the awards lineup it needs to hit us with pathos, but veer away from sloppy melodrama.  Its characters need to be comically human, suffering but sparkling, drawing attention to some simple truth in a way that makes us side - laughing- with them.  Annie Hall and Little Miss Sunshine stand as comedies that have managed this balance best, and  Silver Linings Playbook can be added to their ranks. It's a film that doesn't hit us while we're down, that opts to ignore deep dramatic turns, and which keeps us laughing.   
Silver Linings Playbook runs as a sibling to David O. Russell's last feature, The Fighter.  The Fighter had a bubbling comic energy just at its surface in the form of the Ward family, but was plagued by the truths of circumstance.  The truth behind the adaptation dictated that we had to go through some tough times with Dicky, that things had to be a little sad, a little desperate.  In Silver Linings, the potential to run that route rears up time and again.  Pat (Bradley Cooper) has just been checked out of a mental institution, after all, and he suffers from the bipolar bouts of rage that sent his now ex-wife's lover into the hospital.  He's your prototypical loose cannon, and his complete lack of a filter opens up avenues of anxiety and argument at nearly every turn.  Pat's re-acclimating to society at his parents' house in the Philadelphia suburbs.  His father (Robert De Niro) is a rabid, superstitious Eagles fan and his mother (Jacki Weaver) is a nervous sounding woman who preps snacks on game days and quietly defies her husband's wishes.  Russell shines in this regional milieu, and he does for Pennsylvania what he did for Massachusetts, exploring the colorful personalities of so-called regular folk in a way that feels honest, loving, and accurate.  This is the best performance we've gotten from De Niro in a long while.  He's devoted, playing to and against type simultaneously to become a dimensional caricature of your own sports-addled uncle.  It's also, of course, a real star turn for Bradley Cooper, who here manages to solidly break away from playing pompous, pretty boy assholes to play an unwitting, well-meaning jerk of a different color.
Cooper plays Pat with just an aura of crazy. His voice is modulated and friendly, but drifts towards emphatic hyperactivity the moment he gets riled.  He's ever-so-slightly frightening, his face just dead enough to make us want to avoid him on a crowded street.  Pat's return home is a source of neighborhood curiosity, and this is the kind of place where a kid repeatedly returns to the front door asking if he can interview Pat for a project on mental illness.  In spite of this, Pat has a plan. He's latched onto some motivational psycho-babble about silver linings and believes, insistently, that everything has one.  He's going to find them, he's going to get his wife back. He's going to read all the books on her high school teaching syllabus, show her he's a reformed man, and bring her back.  In trying to get his life together, Pat connects with an aggressive, recently widowed neighborhood girl named Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a match for his own socially inept behavior. Lawrence, of course, has already proven herself as an actress, and here she's a paradoxical blend of immature maturity; tough, harsh, and kicking violently against life even as she's oddly innocent. Tiffany promises to help Pat reach his goal, on one very big condition: he dances as her partner in a ballroom competition.  It's this sort of strange, ebullient turn that makes the film really work as a comedy.  The steps along the way are open, always, to rapid backsliding. It would be so easy for Pat to mess up, to wind up checked back into the mental institution, to have his aging parents suffer any number of ailments, to situate him miserably on top of a pile of wreckage.  That said, it would be equally easy for the film to turn towards saccharine, seasonal hope, for full-cycle redemption to take place or for precious miracles to permeate the darkness in some sort of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close bit of emotional pornography.
Silver Linings manages to resist that impulse just enough.  It's a bit sweet, sure, but it's tough to call it precious. That said, some already have.  Since checking the film out a couple weeks back, I've stumbled across a few comments to the same effect: there's a tonal shift towards the end; [spoiler alert] the wrap-up is too easy, are we supposed to believe that Pat has undergone a magical recovery? Is this a romantic comedy? What are we supposed to take from this?  My advice? Take it at face value.  To an extent, Silver Linings Playbook is indeed a romantic comedy, and what's wrong with that?  Russell has given us a smartly scripted, brilliantly cast, relentlessly funny, "feel good movie" without the guilty calories of schmaltz, cheese, and lite fm pop music Hollywood tries to shovel down our throats on a regular basis.  Silver Linings is an unquestionably successful comedy in a season of otherwise dour affairs.  Can't see the bright side in that?  That's your own damn problem.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Under 250: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Melancholia gave us a doom and gloom opera of macrocosms and microcosms. Another Earth played out like a saw-sung dirge for the end of days.  Take Shelter dug a hole in the ground and capitalized on our uncertainty.  After the big-budget actions wreak their own havoc, what's left for a small apocalyptic romance like Seeking a Friend for the End of the World?  Answer: the in-between things.  Seeking is a film trapped between the what if doomsday scenarios of the blockbusters and the intellect of the art house. It delivers on its promises of chaos while rooting itself deeply in a human, character-driven terrain.  There's a quirky melancholy to the film, one that's touching even as it manifests itself through humorous absurdities.  In the opening scene, we watch as Dodge (Steve Carell) and his wife sit in a parked car listening to the announcement of the Earth's impending destruction on the radio.  The end is near, and Dodge's wife responds to the news by fleeing, as fast as she can, out of the car and to an off-screen lover.  As the infrastructure of civilization begins to crumble, Dodge meets his goofily spastic neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley), and in an emergency turn they embark on curious adventure through the end of days. Carell is, of course, good at playing any number of sad, lonely guys, and Knightley builds her character away from accusations of standard issue MPDG-syndrome to give her real dimension and purpose. First time director Lorene Scafaria guides her odd couple through dangerous tonal shifts and surreal scenes with surprising dexterity given the story's brooding, calamitous nature.  Given the subject matter, though, Scafaria can't stop Seeking a Friend from being slippery and occasionally frustrating. Par for the course, and definitely forgivable.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Under 250: Savages

If you're looking for a star turn from Blake Lively in Oliver Stone's Savages, you'll be sorely disappointed. Then again, if you're looking for a star turn from anyone in Savages, you're just about screwed.  It's a movie that could have made a cult splash in the early 90's mixed in with a handed-off Tarantino script or two (True Romance, Stone's own Natural Born Killers), but feels mistreated and kicked around.  Nothing is subtle in Savages, and from the over-saturated colors on down the best thing that can be said about the film is that it's entertaining enough and seems to fully aware of its own ham-fisted absurdity.  That said, I mention Lively's abilities because, well, one of the film's primary flaws is that it revolves a bit too heavily upon not only her character Ophelia's (I know, right?) punny voice over narration, but also our ability to care about what happens to her character.  See, Ophelia is this California blonde who mumble-boasts about the drug habit she's had since eighth grade and who's head over heels in love with two strapping young drug lord BFFs (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson).  Whether Ophelia is a wandering sex toy or the boys are hers is of little consequence, because either way, she's the thing the Baja Cartel believes will force the boys to bend to their will, and evil Elena (Salma Hayek) has big plans for our dear narrator.  If you can survive the first five minutes of groan-inducing dialogue (Ophelia on sex with Kitsch's angry ex-Navy Seal: "I have orgasms, he has wargasms"), Savages is a fun enough, over-the-top adrenaline romp with moments of trash auteur brilliance.  As a Stone film, too, it carries far more kinetic energy than most of his lifeless, bloated recent entries, and if you're looking for a break during this season of prestige pictures...this fits the bill.  

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Love: Life of Pi

 I have something of an aversion to stories and movies that concern themselves overtly with spirituality.  It usually plays out like this: I'm alright accepting that a film can be an experience that could be described as spiritual in that it's beautiful, transcendent, and grappling with major philosophical undercurrents on the nature of existence (The Tree of Life, for example, does not bother me).  When the film takes a turn towards dealing explicitly in the language of organized religions as it walks steadily towards a thesis on spirituality and belief in a defined 'Him', I start getting pretty damn antsy. While art may be a church, I do not want a film to sneakily take me to church, if that makes sense.  I mean, Signs was too baldly Christian for me.  In literature, an author can get away with a bit more wandering spirituality.  The questions on paper often appear more secular and are loaded with doubts, with allegory, and with a presence of voice that does not translate to the screen.  So, I'd read Yann Martel's Life of Pi during its peak popularity.  I recall finding it a charming, lovely adventure story and somehow in the years since I'd completely excised the existence of 'God' from the tale of a boy, a tiger, and a boat.   
 Which is exactly the reason I sat through the first half hour or so of Ang Lee's Life of Pi questioning my memory and feeling something I can only describe as twitchy disinterest.  You may refer to me as 'ye of little faith' if you so choose, and you would be correct: I am so accustomed to complete secularism that when a film opens up promising me that the story it tells will "make you believe in god" I start to think "wait....why is that a thing we're talking about?" and then quickly jump to a "you have part of my attention."  Indeed, the opening chapters of Life of Pi take their sweet time etching out a space for the story to come.  Through a slightly clunky flashback framework we are being told the life story of young Piscine Patel, aka Pi (Suraj Sharma) by middle aged Pi (Irrfan Khan).  Before we can arrive at the ordeal of the boat, we must be walked through a cinematographically inferior section on the adolescence of Pi and the conditions of his semi-eccentric maturation.  The stories of Pi's youth are really quite charming when taken on their own: we are given the amusing tale of his naming, the way he imposes his nickname on his classmates, some excellent scenes of everyday life growing up on the zoo owned by his father, and his accumulation of religions.  By the time he's a preteen, Pi fancies himself a Hindu-Christian-Muslim and appreciates the perspective afforded him by all three.  That openness, in itself, is fantastic and certainly what allowed me to read the book without question.  The merger is a lovely sentiment and the ways in which young Pi takes to practicing his various religions speaks to an understanding that's quite productive.  On paper, you need to have adult Pi narrating this.  The context for the story, if it's in first person, must exist with a commentary that child Pi perhaps cannot provide.  Yet, in maintaining this approach, the film version becomes overly preachy and prone to sentimental treacle.
 The framework is truly frustrating as in imposing adult Pi's conversation with an unnamed writer, Lee is all but knocking us over the head with the allegorical implications of the story.  The director (now the author) does not appear to trust the viewer/reader with being able to derive meaning from an otherwise beautifully told story and instead of getting a pure, slightly patchwork vision of a curiously spiritual, very independent and open minded young boy in these opening chapters, we are told repeatedly that the story to come will make us believe in the existence of god; a refrain far from necessary given the nature of the character and the context clues pre-loaded into the story itself.  Dear Ang Lee: show don't tell. All of this makes for a rather shaky, humble beginning to what is otherwise a legitimately dazzling bit of filmmaking.  Once Pi experiences the shipwreck that strands him on a lifeboat alongside a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and yes, a tiger named Richard Parker. the adventure unfolds in fascinating, frequently mesmerizing detail.  When the storytelling retreats into the background, we are left with a luxuriantly illustrated tale of survival in the face of impossible odds.
 The core of Life of Pi is an exquisite display boasting realistic special effects and a bold, graphic quality that really paints a striking picture.  The character's struggle on the sea has been rendered as a meditation, a period of conjoined reflection and adversity manifested as epiphany.  There's much that's amazing, and the use of the 3D technology here is quite artful. During our extended stint on the boat, Life of Pi becomes a technological achievement to be reckoned with as well as a compelling, sophisticated fable with a rich, experiential quality.  Sharma plays against tigers real and imaginary quite believably, and if I had to guess, I'd say that most of the cast and crew's consideration went towards filming these sequences and not towards the significantly blander scenes on shore.  Life of Pi is 2/3 of a great film and 1/3 mediocre one.  Where it succeeds, it breezes past effortlessly and speaks for itself.  Where it falls flat it slows down, shares too much, spells out its secrets, and drops in Gerard Depardieu for no apparent reason.  Still, 2/3 of greatness? That's enough to sit through a bit of preachy talk for.

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