Monday, January 21, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

David O. Russell knows his way around dysfunction and does that peculiar variety we find in families (witness The Fighter, Spank the Monkey) especially well. His Oscar contending Silver Linings Playbook plumbs the depths of modern day mental illness (bi-polar and other affective disorders) with remarkable insight and humor. It takes a unique vision to be able to see the light side of such personal pain. Russell, who also wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Matthew Quick, tells the story of a manic-depressive young Philadelphia man named Pat (an outstanding Bradley Cooper) who was institutionalized after beating his wife's lover nearly to death. His mother (Jacki Weaver) signs him out of the hospital despite warnings from physicians that Pat is not quite ready. His father, Pat Sr., (Robert De Niro) who has his own mental health issues, is skeptical but quickly comes to feel his son's new-found optimism might come in handy as Pat Sr. makes book on his beloved Eagles. Pat Jr. is less interested in his father's enterprise than he is in getting back with his estranged wife, Nikki, who everybody says has moved on. But Pat does not heed the warnings. In the course of moving closer and closer to an encounter with his wife, Pat meets another damaged party, Tiffany (a wonderfully engaging Jennifer Lawrence), who has been on a promiscuous binge since her cop husband was killed three years before. She convinces him that he could win Nikki back if he enters a dance competition with her, proving he is "focused, collaborative and disciplined." Cooper and Lawrence have terrific chemistry and rhythm in roles that require that they pounce all over each other -- verbally, emotionally, physically. It's enormously entertaining to watch them.  The film itself is thought-provoking and affirming although some some scenes are quite difficult to watch. Highly Recommended but not for children or those disturbed by raw familial aggression.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker (2008) won a boatload of awards in 2009, including the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director. Bigelow has not been nominated for an Oscar for directing Zero Dark Thirty, and, though it's a quality picture I won't argue with the Academy's decision. In fact, I suspect the reason the film has been included among the 9 contenders for Best Picture has more to do with its subject matter (the dogged post 9/11 hunt for Osama Bin Laden) than anything else. This episodic movie follows a young female CIA counter-terrorism agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain) as she and her fellow operatives, principally chief interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke), try to pull information out of detainees through torture and intimidation only to be thwarted repeatedly by the prisoner's resistance and Al Qaeda caginess. Shortly after joining the team, which is stationed first in Pakistan and then Afghanistan, Maya discovers the identity of one of Bin Laden's couriers. It is her pursuit of this ghostly figure that lies at the heart of the film. Chastain plays Maya with an edginess that is not altogether inappropriate in the male-dominated field of counter-intelligence, but occasionally feels off-key -- too much profanity, too many threats. But because there is so little conventional character development in this film, I was not able to determine if the ambivalence I felt toward Maya as a person was the script (written by Mark Boal, who also wrote the much tighter and much more graceful Hurt Locker), the directing or the acting. Still, Bigelow is a master at staging close-quarter action sequences and the siege on Bin Laden's compound that ends the film is wonderfully constructed and worth the wait. Recommended but way too intense for children.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Quvenzhane Wallis

This remarkable young lady -- Quvenzhane Wallis -- has been nominated for an Academy Award as BEST ACTRESS for Beasts of the Southern Wild. I'm pretty sure she's the youngest nominee in this category EVER. Do see this amazing film.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Holy Motors

Leos Carax's fantastical and puzzling film Holy Motors is a string of surreal and disconnected vignettes set in Paris that revolve around various personalities played by the same actor, Denis Lavant, and that range in tone from the touching to the repulsive. Lavant's M. Oscar, an apparently spectral figure, is an actor and master of disguise who travels from appointment to appointment in a white stretch limousine driven by Celine (Edith Scob). Over the course of 24 hours, M. Oscar contorts his body into that of a crippled beggar, assassinates a banker, kidnaps a fashion model (Eva Mendes), and reunites with a doomed former lover (Kylie Minogue), all in different guises. The film is all unsettling, though entrancingly shot, stream of consciousness with themes of mortality and emotional torpdiness woven into each of M. Oscar's appointments. Carax, who has not directed a feature film since 1999, clearly has a lot on his mind and much of it is on the screen, I suppose, but, in the end, it's nearly anybody's guess what it all means. Explicit nudity and general confusion.

Queen & Slim

In the soon to be iconic photograph from Melina Matsoukas's distressing Queen & Slim, stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith...