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Dramatizing mental illness has always been a tricky proposition for the
movies. How often have we seen such attempts devolve into either freak
show comedy or horror movie madness? "Silver Linings Playbook" is one
of the few to get it right. It's not that writer/director David O.
Russell doesn't see the humor in the situations he's depicting - there
are some very funny scenes in the movie - it's that he sees humor as
just one small aspect of what turns out to be a far more complex and
multi- layered condition.
In a tour-de-force performance that finally put him on the map as an actor of extraordinary talent, Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a young man who suffers from a severe case of Bi-Polar Disorder, so severe that Pat has been spending the past few months since the dissolution of his marriage in an institution. But Pat has chosen to move back in with his parents, who work hard at trying to understand Pat's condition and to cope with his often bizarre and incomprehensible behavior. While he nurtures the fantasy that he will one day reunite with his estranged wife, Pat meets Tiffany, a local girl who seems to have as many issues as he does when it comes to functioning in the real world.
"Silver Linings Playbook" makes the not entirely novel case that all of us suffer from our share of personal quirks and idiosyncrasies - Pat's dad's superstitious obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles isn't too many steps away from the irrational concerns that dictate Pat's life - but that BPD just ratchets them up to a much higher level. The screenplay, which was adapted from the Matthew Quick novel, goes from the comical to the serious to the heartbreaking to the romantic without any noticeable grinding of tonal gears. Ditto for the nearly perfect ensemble cast which includes Robert De Niro as Pat's father, Jacki Weaver as his mom, and Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her work.
But it is Cooper who makes the movie his own. There is scarcely a moment when he does not appear on screen and the actor casts a spell over the audience from first frame to last. He avoids the role-given temptation to chew the scenery, opting instead for understatement in his portrayal of a man whose desire to fit into the world is often at odds with his ability to do so. The result is a performance that elicits both laughter and tears from the audience, but which never feels contrived or manipulative while doing so. He draws us so deeply into the core of the character that we even accept his potentially trite belief that one must look for the silver lining in even the darkest of clouds since, when you think about it, what alternative does one really have? It's a career- defining performance for an actor clearly concerned with making the most of his time in the spotlight.
Seems James Bond, aka 007, ain't quite as young and as spry as he used
to be. After years of chasing the bad guys and suffering one too many
injuries and wounds on the job, the world's premier secret agent is
beginning to feel his age.
In this outing, a noticeably creakier Bond goes in pursuit of an ex-agent who's targeting MI6 and particularly its chief, M, for wrongs he believes he's suffered at their hands.
In addition to providing a more relatable Bond - replete with autobiographical back story - and M, "SkyFall" is that rare action movie that actually finds time to probe some surprisingly heady themes amid all the obligatory shootouts and chase scenes (which are excellent, by the way, especially the tour de force opening scene).
For instance, the script ponders whether MI6's old-school reliance on secret agents has become a hopelessly antiquated business model for a world in which technology has begun to replace time-consuming footwork and in which the enemy is no longer out in the open but operating in the shadows.
The movie also questions M's practice of cutting loose her most loyal and valued agents (Bond included) - essentially treating them as disposable assets - when a greater goal is to be achieved through their sacrifice.
The dialogue between Daniel Craig as Bond and Judi Dench as M is some of the best in the whole Bond series, and there is a genuine connection between the two individuals who, although they're working for the same team, often seem more like adversaries than allies.
"Skyfall" also provides us with one of the most effective villains we've come across in quite awhile, in the person of Javier Bardem as the former operative who's decided to exact his revenge on the people and the organization that he feels have done him wrong.
Director Sam Raimi even manages to achieve some genuine lyricism in his direction, something one almost never finds in an action film.
It seems to me that the Bond franchise has really upped its game since Craig hopped aboard in 2006's "Casino Royale" (despite the stumble of "Quantum of Solace"). Happily, "Skyfall" restores that upward trajectory.
2009 was only a few minutes old when a 22-year-old African American by
the name of Oscar Grant was fatally gunned down by a white police
officer in a BART station in Oakland, California (he died in the
hospital the next morning). Oscar was unarmed and lying flat on the
ground when the officer shot him before a crowd of horrified onlookers,
an event caught on cell phone and video cameras by a number of the
witnesses. Almost immediately, the videos went viral, prompting
national outrage, mass protests in the Bay Area and a trial for murder
(the officer was convicted of manslaughter and served less than a year
of his two-year sentence). "Fruitvale Station" chronicles Oscar's final
24 hours of life as he and his friends and family prepare to celebrate
the coming new year.
How "Fruitvale Station" failed to garner an Oscar nomination for Best Picture - let alone Michael B. Jordan for Best Actor - is a complete mystery to me. The movie marks an extraordinary debut for writer/director Ryan Coogler and features a career-making, off-the- charts performance by Jordan, who has impressed us in a variety of TV roles ("The Wire," "Friday Night Lights," "Parenthood"), but who here really comes into his own as a leading man.
As scenarist, Coogler avoids the obvious temptation of casting his subject in a heroic light. Oscar has clearly had his share of run-ins with the law, but he is just as clearly in the process of trying to get his act together, be it as a loving son and boyfriend (despite the occasional carousing) and doting father to a little girl. What Coogler recognizes - and so many even more seasoned movie makers don't - is that actual human beings are rarely either villains or saints, but are instead a complex mixture of weaknesses and strengths. The tragedy of Oscar's case is that, for all his faults, he seemed to be growing into full manhood when he met a senseless fate, partly the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time but wholly the result of another man acting badly. Because we already know where the narrative is headed, we are alert to the many ironies that are being brought into play as the story heads to its pre-ordained conclusion. This feeling of omniscience also heightens the poignancy of the story as we watch an ordinary man going through the motions of an ordinary day not knowing that it is to be his last.
Coogler's direction is so naturalistic in tone and style that we could swear we are watching real life unfolding before our very eyes. This is particularly the case in the final stretches of the film in which he recreates the fateful event with a you-are-there immediacy that is positively breathtaking. The measure of a true artist, Coogler never pushes his points, allowing even the highly volatile racial and police brutality aspects of the incident to speak for themselves.
It would be impossible to overrate Jordan's beautifully modulated and understated performance, but that should not keep us from acknowledging the stellar work of Octavia Spencer as his mother, Melonie Diaz as his girlfriend, Ariana Neal as his daughter and Chad Michael Murray ("One Tree Hill") as Officer Ingram.
Given the newsworthy circumstances of his death, Oscar Grant could easily have become either just another statistic or a larger-than-life figurehead in a movement for social justice. "Fruitvale Station" rescues him from that fate by showing us that the man we lost really was a man, with all the contradictory and glorious messiness that that entails. His story also drives home in a vivid way the very fragility of life itself, the sense that we are all just living on borrowed time, and that, because we never know when the end will come for us, we need to make the most of the time we are given here. Oscar Grant was trying to do just that when he met his senseless end at the barrel of a gun. "Fruitvale Station" is a moving tribute to his legacy.
From the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction file comes "Argo," a movie
based on a true-life story so unlikely and improbable that it could
never have sprung full-blown from the mind of a screenwriter. And if it
did, it would certainly never have been green-lit by any
self-respecting studio. That it WAS based on a true story made it
possible for director Ben Affleck to bring it to the screen and to win
a Best Picture Oscar for his efforts.
The saga of "Argo" begins in the fall of 1979, when, in response to President Carter's providing sanctuary for the deposed Shah, anti-Western demonstrators stormed the American embassy in Tehran, capturing and holding sixty-some-odd foreign service workers there as hostages for 444 days. However, unbeknownst to the Iranians - and virtually everyone else in the world - six of the people working in the compound managed to escape to the Canadian embassy, where they spent the next several months in hiding. When the state department finally learned of their presence there, a plot was hatched to get them out and to safety. And this is where things really got weird. It was CIA operative Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) who came up with the bizarre, longest-of-long-shots plan to pose as a Hollywood filmmaker scouting locations for a sci-fi epic he hoped to shoot in that country, passing off the six embassy staff as his crew. In order to pull off the ruse - one fraught with untold risk and peril for all concerned - Mendez enlisted members of the movie industry as co-conspirators and allies, some cognizant of the truth but most not. "Argo" was the actual script that Mendez found lying in a pile of discards and around which he wove an elaborate hoax, even going so far as to take out ads in the trade papers in case the Iranians needed a little convincing that everything was indeed on the up-and-up. Like a modern-day Henry Higgins with the lives of six innocent people at stake, Mendez had to train these bureaucrats to act, speak and behave like a movie crew or face possible execution if their true identities were discovered. It was truly a special op to end all special ops, though the full truth of it remained hidden until the mission was finally declassified in 1997.
The screenplay by Chris Terrio mines a rich vein of dark humor as it juxtaposes the kitschiness and cheesiness of early '80's movie-making against the backdrop of a life-and-death real-world event. John Goodman plays makeup artist John Chambers and Alan Arkin portrays film producer Lester Siegel, two of the Hollywood bigwigs whose professional expertise was instrumental in securing freedom for the group. Bryan Cranston (with a full head of hair) and the seemingly ubiquitous Kyle Chandler (having also appeared in the similar "Zero Dark Thirty") provide some of the more familiar faces in a large and impressive cast.
There's breath-bating suspense as Mendez shepherds his "crew" past one security checkpoint after another with the Iranian authorities in hot pursuit. Will they make it to the plane on time, and, once aboard, will they be able to reach freedom or will they be somehow thwarted in their effort?
As with most movies based on true events, "Argo" faced its share of criticism from a predictable chorus of nitpicking naysayers for fudging some of the facts and for overdramatizing the beat-the-clock nature of the narrative. Well, get over it, folks; this is a movie, and, as such, a certain amount of dramatic license must be afforded the storytellers in pursuit of their art. And art it turns out to be, a canny combination of social drama and pulse-pounding thriller than never fails to astonish and entertain.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Chris Pine ("Star Trek") is the latest actor to portray the late Tom
Clancy's signature hero, Jack Ryan, an honor that has gone to Alec
Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck in previous movie incarnations.
In the latest, "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," which is an original story designed to reboot the series, our hero is an ex-marine turned undercover financial analyst for the CIA who discovers that the dastardly Russians are plotting to crash the dollar while simultaneously launching a terrorist attack on American soil.
To no one's real surprise, perhaps, the skilled hand of the original author is sorely lacking in the Adam Kozad/David Koepp screenplay, which seems intent on resurrecting the old Cold War thriller genre in a post-Cold War world. For the most part dull and claustrophobic, "Shadow Recruit" suffers from a lack of credibility from the get-go. We're somehow supposed to believe that Ryan, who was severely injured in Afghanistan and who has been basically a desk jockey ever since, suddenly blossoms into a full-blown James Bond bad ass able to do just about everything short of leaping tall buildings in a single bound the moment he's confronted with some real danger. Even more outrageous is his girlfriend (Keira Knightely), a nurse who not five minutes after she learns her boyfriend of three years is a secret agent is smooth-talking a dangerous bad guy (Kenneth Branaugh with a full Russian accent) in a way that would put Mata Hari to shame in the femme fatale department.
If Hollywood is truly serious about sustaining this legacy franchise without Mr. Clancy himself being around to keep feeding them fresh material, they're going to have to do a whole lot better than this.
"Zero Dark Thirty" chronicles one of the greatest successful manhunts
of all time - the one that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden in
Pakistan on May 1, 2011. With a screenplay by Mark Boal and direction
by Kathryn Bigelow, the movie provides a methodical, step-by-step re-
enactment of the decade-long hunt as seen through the eyes of Maya
Lambert, a fictional CIA analyst who is actually a composite of several
female analysts who played key roles in locating the ever-elusive al
Much has been made of the fact that the movie seemingly endorses the view that the use of torture led to the discovery of bin Laden's whereabouts. This assertion caused such a controversy at the time of the movie's release that many felt it ultimately hurt its chances of walking home with the Best Picture Oscar that year. In all fairness to the movie makers, however, the film actually doesn't seem to be making that case, since the scenes early on depicting torture all lead to eventual dead ends, while the piece of information that initially sets the investigators onto the right path clearly comes much later, after torture is no longer being used as a tactic. Yet, had the filmmakers NOT shown torture being used in the early stretches of the film - which take place not too long after 9/11 - they would not have been truthful to the times in which the story is set.
But it is as a drama that we must ultimately judge "Zero Dark Thirty" - and, in that respect, the news is mainly positive. The movie stays intensely focused on the matter at hand, not allowing itself to get distracted by side forays into too many irrelevant factors or overly- detailed character back stories. Yet, while this is generally a virtue, it does result in a certain weakness as well, mainly, a lack of depth in the characters, particularly the main one. One need only compare "Zero Dark Thirty" to something like Showtime's "Homeland" to see the advantages the long-form format has over the short-form when dealing with subjects as complex as this one. And one need only compare ZDT's Maya with "Homeland"s Carrie (Claire Danes) to see how much more fully developed the latter is as a character. Maya is allowed to register fear, anger, frustration, determination, disappointment, etc., but we never feel that we really get to know her as a person. For one thing, we never see her in a single relationship with anyone other than her colleagues (or even hear of one mentioned, come to think of it), even though the movie spans nearly a decade.
That being said, the movie does convey, through Jessica Chastain's riveting performance, the very real toll exacted on individuals who dedicate their lives to a dogged pursuit of terrorists and who feel heavily the burden of heading off any attacks in the future. Perhaps the lack of any reference to Maya's personal life is an implicit acknowledgment of that fact. Regardless, Chastain provides so luminous a beacon for us to follow along the journey that we can't help but connect with the pursuit on a deeply human level.
Chastain gets strong support from Jason Clark, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, James Gandolfini and Chris Pratt ("Everwood," "Parks and Recreation") in the atypical role (for him) of a heroic Navy Seal.
In fact, the movie's meticulous re-enactment of the Navy Seals' successful raid on the Abbottabad compound is alone worth the price of admission. It really does make us feel as if we were a part of history.
Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" is essentially "A Streetcar Named Desire"
with flashbacks and a slightly altered back story. Jasmine is a
booze-swilling, truth-bending, mentally unstable socialite who is
forced to move in with her lower-class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins),
after she falls on hard times, a result of her scheming, womanizing
Bernie Madoff of a husband (Alec Baldwin) being imprisoned for fraud
and subsequently committing suicide. Ginger's boyfriend, Chili (Bobby
Cannavale), is the rude, crude Stanley Kowalski of the piece who
resents Jasmine's sudden intrusion into the couple's life.
Despite serving as a showcase for a bravura performance by Cate Blanchett, "Blue Jasmine" is clearly one of Allen's lesser works of recent times. This isn't the first time that Allen has reached back to the classics for inspiration, yet, since he's borrowing much of his themes and insights from Tennessee Williams anyway, why not at least apply some of his trademark comic spin to the material? Alas, humor is strangely lacking in much of the screenplay, which plays out the class conflict between Jasmine and Chili in largely predictable fashion.
What makes "Blue Jasmine" ultimately worth checking out, however, is Blanchett's richly textured portrait of a woman who has always been too willing to put her fate in the hands of others, principally men, and too willing to look the other way when not to do so could jeopardize her own position of privilege in society. She is clearly a woman who refuses to take even the slightest bit of responsibility for any of the choices she's made in her life. Yet, for all her oddball attributes, Jasmine, thanks to Ms. Banchett, can't help but touch the viewer's heart with her air of unquiet desperation. Jasmine may be utterly self-absorbed, but one senses that she speaks constantly about herself and her tribulations to anyone who'll listen (and even to those who won't) for the simple reason that, to her mind at least, if she were ever to stop doing so, she would simply cease to exist as an entity in the world.
In a large cast, Louis C.K. and Peter Sarsgaard provide additional love interests for Ginger and Jasmine, respectively.
The parallels to "Streetcar" are numerous but by no means slavish ("Stanley" here is a much more decent fella' overall and "Mitch" is not one of his buddies), but the movie is at its best when it moves away from those parallels and heads off in its own direction, freeing Blanchett up to do her own thing.
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is a highly fictionalized account of the life
of Eugene Allen, a black man who served as butler in the White House
for 34 years (he was even there to greet the first black president in
2009). It's so highly fictionalized, in fact, that even the character's
name has been changed to Cecil Gaines.
Allen - and by proxy, Gaines' - years of service coincided with one of the most volatile periods in the nation's history in terms of civil rights advances. As conceived by screenwriter Danny Strong, Cecil is a near-Zelig (or Forrest Gump, if you prefer)-type character who stands witness to history as a cavalcade of presidents, policy makers, racists, civil rights activists and seminal events go marching by on their way to the future.
Though it has its share of undeniable shortcomings, "The Butler" does a couple of things very well. First, it effectively drives home the very real reasons blacks in the pre-civil rights era had for deferring to whites. At a time when even the slightest hint of reproach or of standing up for oneself could result in society-sanctioned death (be it through beating, shooting or lynching), it's understandable that many blacks developed a go-along-to-get-along mentality just to survive. And that's where the second quality aspect of the movie comes in: the illustration of just how much courage it took for the early "agitators" to stand up against the deeply entrenched system of Jim Crow laws that for decades allowed such atrocities to go unpunished. Cecil is caught between the old-school view of not rocking the boat and the new era of radical change in which blacks - along with their sympathetic whites allies - have begun to assert their right to be treated as equals. This leads to much butting of heads between Cecil and his son, Louis (David Oyelowo), a Freedom Rider who refuses to stand back and wait for change to come incrementally and at the white man's behest, opting instead to take a more proactive role in actualizing his own future - even at the risk of being beaten, imprisoned or even murdered for his efforts. And at what point should non-violent passive resistance yield to violent self-defense and retaliation when the former seems to be yielding few tangible results?
"The Butler" is at its most compelling when it is dealing with such issues. On the debit side, the movie provides an array of none-too-impressive impersonations of famous people - Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, James Marsden as Kennedy, Minka Kelly as Jackie, Liev Schreiber as Johnson, Alan Rickman as Reagan, Jane Fonda as Nancy, Nelsan Ellis as Martin Luther King, Jr. - doubly hampered by less-than-convincing makeup jobs in many of those cases. Moreover, the movie can't entirely avoid that taint of smug self-righteousness that inevitably attaches itself to movies whose main purpose for being is to Do Good. It's particularly egregious in the lugubrious narration delivered by the main character. Yet even that is kept to an acceptable minimum.
Forest Whitaker does well with a role that is too sketchily written at times, for when a character is being called upon to be Everyman, he often emerges as No Man. One often gets the sense that the events that happen to him are less the product of a life being organically lived and more contrivances designed to make him a symbol of the times in which he lived. By its very nature, the schematic nature of the storytelling deprives the man of his much of his individuality, which should definitely not be the case in a movie in which individuality and personhood are at the very core of its message.
Of the supporting performers, it is Oprah Winfrey who makes the deepest mark as Cecil's alcoholic, philandering wife, a woman whose combination of virtues and flaws makes her a convincing, relatable character. Other well-known faces in the cast include Terrance Howard as her love interest, Vanessa Redgrave as a plantation owner, Maria Carey as Cecil's young mother, Cuba Gooding, Jr. as the White House's chief butler, Clarence Williams III as the man who inspires Cecil to become a butler, and Lenny Kravtiz as a fellow butler at the White House.
For all its flaws, "The Butler" ultimately reminds us that it takes both the Cecile Gainses and the Louis Gainses to truly change society. And that's a lesson well worth heeding.
An offshoot of the "Cars" franchise, "Planes" sets its classic
be-all-you-can-be underdog story in the context of a lowly crop duster
(Dane Cook) who dreams of one day competing against the big boys of the
air (i.e., all those planes built for speed) in a race around the
world. With the help of a fuel truck (Brad Garrett), two forklifts
(Terri Hatcher and Danny Mann) and a retired navy bomber named Riley
(Stacy Keach), who imparts his wisdom and pointers to the eager,
fresh-faced lad, Dusty sets out to prove that he is every bit the flyer
that those bigger, sleeker and more aerodynamically advanced airplanes
are. Just one slight problem though: turns out little Dusty is deathly
afraid of heights.
With its roots planted firmly in the tradition of "Around the World in 80 Days" and "The Great Race," "Planes" has grace and charm to spare, as Dusty swoops and soars through the heavens on his way to realizing his dreams. Along the way, he meets up with an international potpourri of fellow aircraft, including Bulldog (John Cleese ) from England, El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui) from Mexico, Rochelle (Julia Louise-Dreyfuss) from Canada (the French part, of course) and Ishani (Priyanka Chopra) from India.
And off we sail into the wild blue yonder, thanks to a witty script by Jeffrey M. Howard, clean direction by Klay Hall, and top-notch visuals that beautifully create a familiar-looking modern world that's totally devoid of people (even the Statue of Liberty is in the form of a patriotic forklift). All those elements combine to make this animated version of "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" (minus the men, of course) a delight to behold.
In fact, "Planes" is what "Cars" logically should have been but wasn't, that is a freewheeling adventure built on movement and speed; instead, the original movie, for some reason, allowed itself to get mired in that dull small town for so long that it eventually stalled out. "Planes," on the other hand, keeps the narrative in full-speed-ahead mode throughout - and that makes all the difference.
In "The Master," set in 1950, Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a
World War II vet apparently suffering from alcoholism and PTSD, who
comes under the influence of a mind reprogramming cult called The Cause
(modeled, obviously, on Scientology). Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays the
Svengali-like leader who personally befriends Freddie while casting a
spell over both him and his entire flock of believers.
Paul Thomas Anderson will never be a crowd-pleasing filmmaker. His movies revel in "strange" plots and "weird" characters. The themes and narrative lines are not always clear-cut or easily discernible. But for the more adventurous moviegoer, there is always much to appreciate and mull over in a PTA film. And "The Master" is no exception. In fact, it may be his most demanding work to date.
It certainly provides a challenge to the casual moviegoer, for "The Master" is one of those rare films that doesn't have even a single character who could be classified as sympathetic and likable - a fact that many in the audience may find off-putting, to put it mildly. This makes the performances by Phoenix and Hoffman particularly impressive since they are called upon to make generally unappealing central characters interesting and compelling.
Anderson's screenplay does its best to keep the characters deliberately opaque. Freddie is both intrigued by and strangely resistant to Lancaster Dodd's influence, quick to defend him - even to the point of physical violence if necessary - when faced with one of the leader's many detractors, but strong-willed enough to make a run for it when the opportunity presents itself. It's hard to tell whether Freddie's uncontrolled outbursts and bouts of antisocial behavior are strictly the result of the PTSD from which he's suffering or whether he is just an S.O.B. by nature and the illness is just exacerbating those tendencies.
Dodd is no less inscrutable a figure. He is clearly a power-hungry charlatan, but he seems to have a genuine fondness for this deeply troubled young man who has stumbled onto his path. Yet, since we never get to see Dodd in even one genuinely unguarded moment - never once is the public mask dropped to reveal the man within - the movie becomes the cinematic equivalent of a Rorschach's Test, with the audience free to project whatever it sees fit onto the character in terms of personality and motive. This goes for the other characters as well. Dodd's wife (Amy Adams), daughter (Ambyr Childers), son (Jesse Plemons) and son-in-law (Rami Malek) remain largely peripheral figures in the drama - which is, I suspect, a deliberate move on the part of the writer, showing how living in the shadow of The Master has left them with no identity or persona that they can truly call their own.
None of this is really intended as a criticism of the film, for I'd much rather grapple with a movie whose characters are filled with ambiguity than one in which they are too easily understood and read. But it does explain why the movie isn't always easy to like and relate to. But that is what makes movie watching interesting and rewarding, after all.
And on a final side note, I'd like to point out that whoever hired dead-ringer Jesse Plemons for the role of Hoffman's son should have received a special Oscar for casting. Rarely have we seen a more fit choice to portray another actor's offspring. Well done, Sir or Madam!
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