Friday, February 8, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

David O. Russell, 2012  (8.7*)

This is a surprising romance, better than I expected, largely because the screenplay is refreshingly different, with some witty and original dialogue, and because the cast is uniformly excellent, especially actress Jennifer Lawrence who was just 22 when she filmed it, the film is transported beyond the sum of its parts. As a result, Lawrence has already won 14 acting awards for this performance (and 43 in her short career – even though she started on tv at 14, she’s still only made about 11 feature films, with three more currently in production. Apparently she’s a natural – I didn’t realize that she was an amateur from Kentucky with no acting lessons and was literally discovered while walking on the sidewalk (at age 14) when I was stunned by her Oscar®-nominated performance in Sundance Winner Winter’s Bone, expertly and subtly directed by Debra Granik back in 2010.

Don’t forget that Natalie Portman was discovered at age 12 at a laundromat with her mom on a Saturday by a fashion model agent, invited to a photo audition on Monday, but was instead then sent to a movie audition for The Professional (aka Leon), and by Wednesday had the lead part in that cult-classic action film from Luc Besson. ..and she was excellent.

Lawrence as Tiffany (L) and herself on IMDB

Bradley Cooper plays a semi-psychotic young man, diagnosed as bi-polar, Pat Solitano, inside an asylum in the beginning, who we soon find out caught his wife in their shower with another man and nearly beat him to death in justifiable rage. He is now being released, but has a long list of jittery townspeople afraid of him, and a local blue that checks on him regularly. In what some describe as cruel punishment, he is forced to live with his parents to ensure his anger is at least being managed. His father, hilariously played by Oscar®-nominee Robert De Niro, who has shined lately in comedies as all you Fokker fans know (“I got my eye on you”), is high level OCD here, and makes book on all Philadelphia games – he’s particularly obsessed with the Eagles in the NFL. He blames losses and victories on the absence or presence of his son in the living room during the games, for he is banned from Veteran’s Stadium in Philly for life for constantly getting into fights with other fans.

His mother is capably played by superb veteran actress Jacki Weaver from Australia, who started in movies in 1968, and was a well-deserved supporting actress nominee for the vicious Aussie crime film Animal Kingdom (2010), in which she played the proud mother of four bank robbing and murdering sons –  she was also the family accountant. In this film she wasn’t given a very strong part to exercise her acting ability, but was still perfect enough to get her 2nd Oscar® nomination. She’s won 14 awards for her acting in her career, in all honesty, too low a total for someone of her caliber – she deserves many more parts like the one in Animal Kingdom, for which she won 8 of those awards, including one from the National Board of Review. (Melissa Leo in The Fighter beat her out for the Oscar®that year – I preferred Weaver)

As soon as he is released, and still obsessed with getting back together with his unfaithful wife, he goes to a dinner at a best friend’s house, where he meets equally wacky Jennifer Lawrence, whose husband was a policeman killed on duty, a life changing experience that pretty much turned her into the local tramp. This begins what is one of the more engaging cinema friendships, with sharp enough dialogue that the actors seem inspired to give the screenplay their best; this is certainly a career best for Bradley Cooper, and he’s been rewarded with an Oscar® nomination for best actor, but has the daunting task of robbing master thespian Daniel-Day Lewis of this third best actor statue. (And he should be going for his fourth, as his creation of Bill the Butcher in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York is one of the most memorable in cinema history, and perhaps his best performance – certainly his most evil creation.)

The story likely moved a bit slow for some, and is perhaps a little Hollywood for others, but for me I enjoyed the slow evolution of the bizarre friendship between Pat and Tiffany (which at times is like that of Harry and Sally), and the growing understanding of his father’s obsession. There’s enough humor in the dialogue that the films keeps it spark while the story develops. It’s another gem for the Weinstein company, who has a knack for these indie films that turn into Oscar® winners. like The King's Speech in 2010 (which wasn't nearly as riveting to me as Winter's Bone). They bought the rights to the book, intending it to be produced first by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, who both died in 2008. So it went to David O. Russell due to some personal experience in this mental arena, and he also wrote the excellent screenplay along with directing.

This now belongs on a short list of enjoyable film friendship-romances like Groundhog Day, Shakespeare in Love, When Harry Met SallyA Room With a View, Annie Hall, The Shop Around the Corner, and The Philadelphia Story. Each of these is also a comedy, which I think helped them succeed, especially if you imagine each as a straight dramatic romance instead. Silver Linings is the type of film that often wins Oscars, and I think Jennifer Lawrence has to be the front runner for actress, while the film could win a few more, like director, picture, screenplay, though personally I prefer Beasts of theSouthern Wild for those three, and would love to see young Quevezhanie Wallis upset Jennifer Lawrence, who will have a long career and more Oscar® chances. [..and young Nazie is “the man”, while Jennifer is most decidedly “a woman”]

Silver Linings is the first film since 2004’s Million Dollar Baby to be nominated for the big five Oscars®: picture, director, actor, actress, screenplay, which won four of those (only Eastwood lost as actor, while Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman both won) – and the first since Reds in 1981 to get nominations for all four acting categories - none won, but Warren Beatty won his only Oscar® to date, as director.


Friday, January 4, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild *10*
Benh Zeitlin, 2012
Sundance Award

This is a mesmerizing and powerful film by debut director Benh Zeitlin, from a play by Lucy Alibar, a fellow writer that Zeitlin met in a writers workshop as a teen. The unlikely star of the film is six year old Quvenzhané Wallis, who had to pretend to be six when she was five to beat out 4,000 others for this part in auditions.

The basic story is that of a motherless girl called Hushpuppy in a bayou region of an island in the Mississippi River delta area of Louisiana, the part past land's end. As you will see early in the film, this is a much more responsible child than we were at age six, her survival depends on it.

This quote from Hushpuppy's narration tells the situation succinctly:
"If my daddy doesn't get back soon, I'll have to start eating my pets." 

Her father, Wink, is brilliantly played by a New Orleans 7th ward cafè owner, Dwight Young, also with no previous acting experience, and already two awards for best supporting actor. He plays dad Wink, who has heart trouble, and knows he won't be around while Hushpuppy grows up, so he is raising her to be the man. He demand of her "who's the man?" and she flexes her biceps and says "I'm the man!" This is probably going to be repeated often by fans of this film.

Her name is Hushpuppy likely because she feeds all the animals, their only source of food other than the river, where they catch catfish, crawfish, and other local bounty. Wink even shows her how to catch a catfish by hand in the bayou, by grabbing him when you feel him on the bottom. These people are living in danger like everyone in low coastal areas, here in a makeshift village known as The Bathtub. Without any connection to the mainland, they are constantly endangered by storms, flooding, and global melting, which will easily inundate these low lying areas.

This is the best made coming-of-age story since To Kill a Mockingbird, and Wallis' performance is much tougher and more demanding than Mary Badham's, and seems more natural - you get the feeling that Nazie is not far out of her element in boats and mud in the delta.

Rather than ruin this film by too much story or analysis, as its a magical journey of myth-making proportions, I'll let you see through these links the impact of this film, which Barack Obama called "a spectacular film - even my 4 year old niece was captivated".

Awards and Nominations
Currently Beasts leads with 35 (six so far for Nazie Wallis), including wins at Sundance, and four at Cannes (next high film is Zero Dark Thirty at 21, The Master with 20, and Argo with 19):

Film Trailer
The film's trailer from Cannes

The film page at Facebook, where people are telling their stories of this film's impact on their families or children, as well as many other links.

Unfortunately for the Academy Awards,  Beasts debuted at Sundance last January, and often an early release in a film season loses Oscar® attention to films timed to attain academy recognition, which this year would be Life of Pi, The Hobbitt, and Lincoln. That would be a shame for Nazie Wallis, as she has given the child performance of cinema history - she deserves the lead actress Oscar®.


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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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