Friday, January 25, 2013

'Silver Linings' offers honest exploration of the healing power of love

Writer/director David O. Russell's adaptation of Matthew Quick's novel "Silver Linings Playbook" is an uncommonly honest film exploring an unlikely pairing of subject matters: mental illness and love.

The film, as with the book, centers on Pat (Bradley Cooper), who is returning home to live with his parents (Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver) after an eight-month stint in a mental institution for an incident of extreme violence upon discovering his wife with another man.

Pat is bipolar with paranoid delusional episodes brought on by stress. He is obsessed with getting his wife back even though it is clearly a fool's errand. A restraining order is merely an obstacle to be overcome.

Into his life enters Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow who has her own bouts with depression, mood swings and anxiety. They begin a tentative friendship based on a pact: Tiffany will get Pat's wife a letter if Pat will join a dance competition with her. The film builds to that climatic dance competition. It will surprise no one that Pat and Tiffany are meant to be together, but what is surprising is how touchingly real these characters are.

The idea of a bipolar love story probably sounds bleak and "Silver Linings Playbook" does indeed have intense moments, but it also builds to something truly uplifting and romantic.

Most love stories have their potential lovers go through manufactured plot devices to keep them separated for 90 minutes. In contrast, Pat and Tiffany have real problems that they've been struggling with for years, for the most part, with no real support. In each other, they find understanding and someone who can make them better versions of themselves.

This is more than just a love story using bipolar disorder as a cheap gimmick to enliven a formulaic love story. "Silver Linings Playbook" is a serious character study of people dealing with mental issues. It doesn't just dismiss them as being crazy. We get to see the root of both Pat and Tiffany's issues.

In Pat's case his father is a ball of obsessive-compulsive superstitions and rituals associated with his favorite football team. Pat's father also has his own anger issues that got him banned from the local stadium. As for Tiffany, the way her husband died drove her to a promiscuous lifestyle that only fed into a depression she was already grappling with.

Mental illness is a subject matter that can easily become overwrought and maudlin. It is a tricky thing to capture because it requires the actor to go to dark places within themselves. It is easier to overplay the emotion instead of truly facing the subject.

Cooper and Lawrence, thankfully, do dig deep into these characters. Cooper, who to date has never been this good, creates a delicate and controlled performance. And control is the key word because Pat is a man constantly striving to stay in control and often failing even when his big heart is in the right place.

Cooper is required to have several explosive episodes, but we always empathize with Pat because Cooper and Russell make sure we understand the triggers behind these outbursts. Pat becomes overwhelmed by his emotions (ranging from deep-seated hurt to his burgeoning feelings of love) that he doesn't know how to process.

Lawrence's performance is every bit as good. Like Cooper her performance has an emotional rawness that feels authentic. There's also an unpredictability to her performance that fits a character who is attempting to understand her ever shifting emotions.

She makes Tiffany blunt, direct and fast talking. The way she confronts Pat's father about his theory that Tiffany spending time with Pat is creating bad "juju" for his team shows a woman that is strong and confident. It is a highlight of the film.

But Lawrence also reveals Tiffany's vulnerability especially in regards to her growing feelings towards Pat, which go unnoticed or reciprocated for much of the film.

Cooper and Lawrence have a chemistry that is volatile, which is fitting given their characters, but also sweet, in its own way, and believable. Moments like when Pat first asks Tiffany out and when they first hold hands are good examples of their unique chemistry.

The supporting performances throughout the film are equally strong. DeNiro in particular hasn't been this good in years. He gives a genuine performance instead of just a parody or watered down version of his previous work. A scene in which he admits his faults and limitations as a father is heartbreaking.

Chris Tucker, best known for the "Rush Hour" films, gives a surprisingly restrained performance as one of Pat's friends from the mental institution. In his other films, Tucker often seems to be trying too hard to be funny by relying on manic energy and shouting. Here he is relaxed and earns his laughs instead of forcing them.

"Silver Linings Playbook" is a rare kind of film. It tells a story that is, yes, romantic and often funny, but also portrays characters and difficult issues in a way that feels both real and true. This is a film to be treasured.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

'Promised Land' a well acted message film

"Promised Land" is not a religious film, but the elusion of the title to a holy and sacred place is intentional as the film is an unapologetically earnest case against the practice of fracking, the process of extracting natural gas from rock buried deep in the ground.

Written by its stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski and directed by Gus Van Sant, "Promised Land" will be dismissed by many as nothing more than liberal propaganda. You wouldn't be entirely wrong in calling it that. This is a movie that clearly has a message and doesn't pretend to be anything that it isn't. This is an issue movie and while it is, at times, a bit preachy it is well acted and well written with a sly sense of humor.

Damon and Frances McDormand are representatives of a large natural gas company sent into a small, impoverished farm town to lease the townspeople's land for drilling. What, at first, is an easy sell becomes complicated when a high school science teacher (Hal Holbrook) raises issues about the fracking process and an environmentalist (Krasinski) comes to town to make sure Damon and McDormand don't succeed.

The tone of film recalls the work of Frank Capra, albeit it with some coarser language. All the Capraesque motifs are in place: an idealized view of small town living, a corporation being presented as corrupt and evil, and a good-hearted protagonist, who learns what is most important in life.

Damon's Steve Butler is a bit more complex though than the traditional Capra hero. Steve is a good man, but he is sometimes difficult to like as he has a tendency of being smug and condescending. He truly believes he knows what is best for the people of the town and so is quick to become flustered, dismissive or snide when confronted with an opposing view.

At the same time, he is genuine in wanting to help small town America as he saw his own home town fall apart when times became economically challenging. He can be warm and quick witted especially when flirting and bantering with a local teacher (Rosemarie DeWitt).

The arc that Steve goes through from a company man towing the line to someone who questions his employer's methods is a familiar one. Damon is such a strong actor though he makes Steve's transformation ring true and feel unforced.

His performance always feels present and in the moment. Damon has always been a very quiet, controlled and expressive actor. He is not a showy performer rather he is the kind of actor who doesn't seem like he is acting at all. His innate likability, even when he is saying or doing unlikable things, makes a viewer follow him anywhere.

Krasinski brings the same charm and wit that helped make him so endearing as Jim on TV's "The Office." He has several snarky verbal battles with Damon that are good for a laugh, but he is also effective in a monologue about how his family lost their farm to the lasting effects of fracking.

There's an over confidence to Krasinski's character though that is slightly off putting and there's a final reveal of his character that is surprising. It puts a different shading on his entire performance.

McDormand helps to add a healthy dose of humor to the film. She is a company woman through and through who is willing to do anything to win over the townspeople including singing at an open mic night. McDormand's character isn't painted as completely cold though and she has a nice chemistry with Titus Welliver as a supportive shop owner (who sells guns, gas, groceries and guitars).

Damon and Krasinski's script clearly leans more towards to the anti-fracking position, but does present both sides of the issue. Fracking does allow for the release of natural gas, a cleaner form of fuel, and the leases do inject money into towns that are financially struggling. On the negative side though there is the chance of destroying the surrounding environment.

The film isn't so heavy-handed as to saying that fracking is inherently wrong, but that states there is no guarantee that the process will be 100 percent safe.

Fracking is a complex issue and "Promised Land" doesn't really uncomplicate it, but it does work at starting a dialogue. It also succeeds as a showcase for Damon and Krasinski both as actors and writers. The script has a good voice and is often quite funny and clever, which helps make the film's message go down much easier.

"Promised Land" is playing at the Majestic Theatre at the Conway Cafe in Conway Village.

Friday, January 18, 2013

'Lincoln' brings history vividly alive

"Lincoln," director Steven Spielberg's extraordinary look at the final months of Abraham Lincoln's life, has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards and has been receiving many other accolades. It is absolutely deserving of all the praise.

Spielberg, who has had a fascination with the 16th president of the United States since he was a boy and spent 12 years researching the film, hasn't made a bio-pic spanning Lincoln's whole life. Instead he focuses on Lincoln's efforts to pass the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery. This is a wise choice as this is Lincoln's greatest achievement and his lasting legacy.

Much of the screen time is taken up with House of Representative debates and behind-the-scenes political maneuvering. This is a dialogue-heavy film full of various politicians bantering and bickering back and forth. In lesser hands this could have become deathly dull — and for some audience members it still might be — but thanks to Spielberg's share-handed direction, a sharp script by Tony Kushner and a stellar cast, the film is always engaging.

Lincoln is presented as a good, passionate man, who realizes he's in the rare position to do something for the greater good. At times, Lincoln almost comes across as saintly, a clear sign of Spielberg's reverie for the man, but Spielberg doesn't shy away from complex issues.

Lincoln needs to participate in some shady, even potentially impeachable actions, to get the 13th amendment passed. The ends justified the means and so history puts Lincoln down as a great man, but what if his cause had been less noble? Would we then look at his more morally gray choices differently?

The biggest key to the film's success is acting powerhouse Daniel Day-Lewis, who doesn't so much play Lincoln as inhabit him. Day-Lewis captures Lincoln's well-known ability to tell engaging stories with warmth and humor. Throughout the film, Lincoln tells long-winded seemingly irrelevant anecdotes. His easy-going oratory skills are what made Lincoln a beloved man, and Day-Lewis is able to portray that quality beautifully.

Clearly, we have no audio or visual documentation of Lincoln to go by, but Day-Lewis is so convincing in the role that you come away thinking you just spent time with the actual man. Just with his body language, facial expressions or the way he pauses in his reading of a line, he is able to create a characterization of a man rather than a myth.

This isn't solely Day-Lewis' show though. He is surrounded by one of the best casts collected in recent years, and everyone (with one exception) is in top form. Remarkably, Spielberg manages to juggle a large cast with everyone disappearing into their characters. Familiar faces include David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jared Harris, Jackie Earle Haley, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Lee Pace, and, most valuably, Tommy Lee Jones.

Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, a radical abolitionist who is a key player in getting the 13th amendment passed. Kushner's screenplay gives Jones some fantastic acid-tinged verbal barbs which he delivers in his signature gruff style. It is a controlled and subtle performance that makes Stevens more than just a quip machine. The final reveal of what has been the driving force behind Stevens' passion is a surprising and touching moment.

Spader, Hawkes and Nelson provide comic relief as a trio of lobbyists hired by the Secretary of State (Strathairn) to bribe voters to get the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the amendment. They provide amusing color commentary during the House debates, and their backdoor political dealings are both fascinating and often rather funny.

The only weak link in acting is, surprisingly, Sally Field as Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd. Mary was notoriously known for being emotionally tortured, particularly about the loss of one her sons. Field plays this anguish in a broad, hamfisted manner that feels very actorly.

Field struggles to capture the humanity of Mary, which stands out all the more when placed next to Day-Lewis' formidable performance. She does have one stinging put down in an exchange with Jones that is memorable, but otherwise the performance is shrill and distracting.

Everything else about the film is so superior, though, that Field's performance becomes a minor issue.

There is a more subtle ending that Spielberg could've chosen, but that is nit-picking. The ending doesn't take away from the overall power of the film. This is a compelling portrait of not only a man, but of an important time in our history. Spielberg has managed to bring history vitally alive. This will surely become a staple in history classes for a long time.

Friday, January 11, 2013

'Django' provides audacious mix of drama, action

The ever audacious Quentin Tarantino's latest film, "Django Unchained," is perhaps his most controversial. It is an unflinching portrayal of slavery in the form of a spaghetti Western featuring a vengeful freed slave getting bloody, bullet-laden retribution.

As was also true of Tarantino's previous film "Inglourious Basterds," a revisionist take on how World War II ended, "Django" is a revenge fantasy blended with historical fiction.

The titular character (Jamie Foxx) is a slave bought in the opening scenes of the film by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist turned bounty hunter, who needs Django to identify a trio of men he is pursuing. Schultz promises Django his freedom and a cut of the bounty once these men are found.

Schultz discovers that Django has a wife (Kerry Washington) he wants to reunite with. Feeling obligated to help this man he's freed, Schultz agrees that after a winter together as a bounty hunting team, he will help Django rescue his wife from the particularly deplorable slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Tarantino doesn't shy away for the ugliness of the era. The N-word is used quite freely throughout the film. There is brutal violence against slaves including fights to the death for sport. While this is often a rich film full of the precise character details, clever dialogue and outlandish plot developments that Tarantino is known for, it is also not an easy film to watch. It is not for the squeamish.

The film's more difficult elements to watch are made palatable by the exceptional acting from everyone. Once again, as he did in "Inglourious Basterds," Waltz steals the show. Following his Oscar-winning turn in "Inglourious Basterds," Waltz was typecasted as villain, so it is wonderful to see him use his considerable talents for a character we can simply love to love rather than love to hate. Waltz is an actor perfectly suited for Tarantino's intelligent, wit filled, eloquent monologues. He delivers them with humor, warmth and, when necessary, menace.

Foxx makes a compelling lead. Obviously, he has the most complete story arc of the film going from an uneducated slave to a sophisticated, smooth talking, gun-totting Western hero (or in this case Southern hero). Foxx keeps the performance grounded in a place that is real. He plays his anger at a controlled simmer that is effective.

DiCaprio, who doesn't appear until an hour into the film, seems to be relishing playing a villain. Tarantino has written a truly despicable character. Playing a character this unlikable is freeing, and DiCaprio clearly enjoys the freedom to be truly detestable.

Samuel L. Jackson gets a juicy role as Candie's head house slave. Jackson at first seems to be playing a stereotypical Uncle Tom, but slowly Jackson and Tarantino turn the cliche on its head. It is a subtle and focused performance that is among Jackson's best.

As has been true of Tarantino's film's since "Kill Bill," the tone of "Django" is often wildly all over the place. The film features a little bit of everything: affecting drama, intense suspense, over-the-top action, understated wit and slapstick. Not all of this sits together perfectly.

"Django" is made as an homage to spaghetti Westerns and blaxploitation films. Combining these elements with a stark presentation of the pre-Civil War South creates some surprisingly powerful and even moving moments.

Unfortunately, Tarantino's tribute, at times, turns into outright parody. There's a scene involving the KKK that plays like a Monty Python sketch that is equal parts funny and uncomfortable. It isn't a bad scene, but it feels extraneous and like something that would be more interesting to watch as a deleted scene.

Similarly, toward the end of the film there are moments that are played very broadly. These frankly silly moments get cheap laughs that do a disservice to the rest of the film although certainly don't go as far as to ruin the overall experience.

Much like Peter Jackson with "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," Tarantino is a director who puts all his ideas, both good and bad, on the screen. In both cases, it makes for films that could be improved with some tighter editing. At least with Tarantino's film though you can say it is never boring. Tarantino's choice are, at times, questionable, but certainly not boring.

"Django," even with its flaws, is an exhilarating film-going experience. Tarantino's throw-everything-in approach is both a handicap and an asset because it makes his film unruly and unpredictable. Where most filmmakers play it safe, Tarantino takes risks. Sometimes these risks don't work, but it is always a blast to see him take those chances.

Friday, January 04, 2013

'Les Misérables' packs a powerful emotional punch

"Les Misérables," Victor Hugo's classic novel has been filmed numerous times, the first dating back to 1934, but the significance of this latest movie is that it is the first version of hugely popular musical version.

First staged in 1985, "Les Misérables" went on to become a global phenomenon and the second longest-running musical in the world behind "The Fantasticks." That it has taken this long for it to be adapted to the screen is surprising.

"Les Misérables," set in 19th century France, centers on Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a slave prisoner who has survived 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. As the film begins, he is a free, but marked man unable to rebuild his life. He breaks his parole and sets out to create a new life, but forever lives in fear of the relentless Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).

In addition to being the first film version of the musical, this "Les Misérables" is noteworthy because all of the actors are singing live on camera. Traditionally, when making a film musical, the cast records their vocals in a studio and then lips syncs on the day of filming. By having the actors sing live, the emotions of the performance are very much present.

As a musical, "Les Misérables" is light on dialogue making it closer in spirit to an opera. Nearly everything is sung, which makes the fact that everyone is singing live all the more astounding.

Purists may complain that the vocals aren't as technically perfect as they would've been pre-recorded, but there's an immediacy and vulnerability to these performances that could only be created in the moment.

The intimacy of the show is increased by director Tom Hooper's choice to shoot most of the film in close ups. This changes the way many of the songs are sung. The actors no longer need to project to the back of the theater. Introspective lines that would have to be belted out to reach the balcony can be whispered and capture an emotional honesty that would be difficult to achieve on stage.

This choice pays off throughout the film, but never more powerfully than during Anne Hathaway's extraordinary version of "I Dreamed a Dream." Hathaway's Fantine has just succumbed to a life of prostitution as a means to support her young daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen). The song represents her heart and spirit breaking. Hathaway's performance is raw, completely exposed and heart wrenching. It is hard to imagine anyone not being moved by it.

A now wealthy Jean Valjean comes to an ailing Fantine's rescue and vows to take care of Cosette. The story jumps ahead several years as the older Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls in love at first sight with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is part of a group of students preparing a rebellion. This reluctantly pulls Jean Valjean into their conflict and exposes him to Javert.

Other characters include the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), con artists who temporarily cared for Cosette before Jean Valjean and who amusingly continue to pop into the story. Cohen and Carter provide the film its much needed comic relief. Their song "Master of the House," is very funny and comes in just when we need it as we've just received some heavy emotional punches.

The other key character is Éponine (Samantha Barks), who secretly loves Marius. She sings "On My Own," a beautiful ballad of unrequited love.

Everyone in the cast, many of which are not known for their singing, are strong and everyone gets their moment to shine. Jackman, who has sung on Broadway, gives an emotionally bare performance that shows the growth of a man from broken and lost to compassionate and selfless. Seyfried reveals an amazing vocal ability, particularly in a song towards the end. Redmayne sings a vulnerable version of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," a song for his friends lost in battle.

The weakest singer is Crowe, who, although his voice isn't bad, doesn't seem comfortable singing and appears to be struggling with singing live. Because of this, his performance while singing often suffers. He is strongest when not singing although his final song does have weight and power behind it.

Overall, this is a profoundly moving and sweeping rendition of the musical. Not only does it find a way to distinguish itself from the stage version, but it manages to be a complete and robust filmgoing experience in its own right.