Saturday, December 29, 2012

Playbook has its Silver Linings

Two twenty-somethings have dinner at a nearby diner. He orders cereal. She orders tea, but it's not a date. They talk about her dead husband and her sexually-charged grief. The not-date ends in screaming, insults and shattered plates.

This is not your average romantic comedy.

Director/writer David O'Russell manages to balance both romance and comedy. Here, he proves, once again, he's capable of tackling any genre. He borrows action from 2010s The Fighter and comedy from 2004s I Heart Huckabees and adds some romance, based on Matthew Quick's novel, and fuses these elements to bring us one action-packed, laugh-out-loud romance.

Pat (Bradley Cooper) is trying to connect to his estranged wife, after being released from a mental institution, where he's treated for bi-polar disorder. He moves back in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) and focuses on getting his life back by working out and reading novels. However, Pat's goal is complicated when he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, Hunger Games), a recent widow with problems of her own.

Is Silver Linings Playbook predictable? Ultimately, but O'Russell is such a powerhouse of a filmmaker, he won't drag you through tedious get-to-know-you conversations, sedentary dinner "dates," polite family conversations and hand-holding montages. Playbook punches through those cliches and makes us want to see Pat have his re-imagined Hemingway ending. But not before a few more emotional breakdowns, family fist fights, and unprofessionally choreographed dance lessons.

The film's pace dictates Pat's disorder. There are some touching moments then sudden manic episodes. The film moves quickly, but there's little problem connecting to Cooper and Lawrence's characters. Why? He's blunt, honest and has "no filter." He also goes into MMA mode when he hears a particular song. We're so engaged in this character, we forget Lawrence is soon on her way and when she finally pops onscreen during the second act, it just adds to all the fun and chaos. Tiffany is just as honest, harsh and unstable. Watching them both go at is is like a fairly-paired match--you don't know who's gonna win.

Cooper re-teams with his Limtless co-star De Niro, showing us his versatility playing a father who loves his son more than his beloved Eagles. Cooper again proves he's a leading man, capable of holding a film on his own, which is a tough act to follow after O'Russell's last film. I don't think any one's gonna forget Christian Bale's performance...or Melissa Leo's or Amy Adams' or Mark Wahlberg's--What the hell, they were all good!--but the performances in Playbook most certainly sufficed.
Not only are O'Russell's films well written, but his actors are so engaging. The dynamic between his main players, particularly De Niro, Lawrence and Cooper is what makes Playbook such a fun experience.

The film also stars Chris Tucker, John Ortiz, Julia Stiles and Anupam Kher.

You may feel you already know the experience you'll get by the end of the film, but let me ask you: Does knowing your destination ever make the ride less fun?

Rating: B+

Friday, December 28, 2012

Les Miserables is exactly the experience you get

If you're not on board from the first song that opens the film, you're sure to drown in the film's over indulgence.

King's Speech director Tom Hooper was certainly the ideal person to helm this adaptation set in 18th century France. He managed to capture some beautiful shots--we see Hugh Jackman against a plain wall with a cross on it, hinting at his religious struggles earlier in the film; Russell Crowe in blue uniform against a nicely juxtaposed red brick wall; and Aaron Tveit's character waving a flag over the city's barricade, it's all a set but the beauty of it is not lost on us.

We also get some nice performances from this A-list cast. Anne Hathaway's interpretation of perhaps the play's most famous tune "I dreamed a dream" was emotional. Amanda Seyfried's voice was tender and delicate, perfectly matching her character's persona. Isabelle Allen, playing Seyfried's younger character was exactly what you would hope for, also tender and evoking the right amount of pity. And Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn), is sure to breakthrough for his performance as a love struck rebel.

"So, Cristina, what's wrong with the movie?" Glad you asked.

Les Miserables fails at a film adaptation: it's too long and in translating it into a film narrative it became less narrative and more of a pre-recorded live Broadway musical. In attempting to capture the songs as direct sound (recorded at the time of filming) the film became so self-indulged in the performances it sacrificed basic technicalities. During long takes the characters moved in and out of focus and camera jerks were noticeable during long tracking sequences. It almost defeated the purpose of preserving or trying to capture these moments. In one scene, Jackman sings a soliloquy in a church--it's his repent for past sins, he wants to start over--but the close-ups, in trying to capture every tear, every bead of sweat, every spit producing vocal, are beyond wearing. Most exhausting of all was Russell Crowe's monotonous baritone voice.

Yeah, you probably guessed it, I don't care for musicals, but I can admire one when it's done right. Cabaret managed to balance song from story, even Sweeney Todd knew when to scale it back. What's wrong with Miserables is its beautiful moments, and there certainly were plenty--I mean the movie was like three frickin' hours long--were lost in the grand spectacle of it all. Almost every scene, every moment, every line of dialogue was milked for a tune. Screenwriter William Nicholson is to blame here. There was a lot that could have been cut out and more that could have been better translated for film, say a couple of normal conversations here or there.

But, as I said, there were some real moments captured here. There's a scene where Jackman's character is singing in a court yard and his vocals are accompanied by a church choir we know to be in the adjacent building--quite beautiful. Although I wasn't completely invested in the story, Jackman was at least believable. And who could hate Hathaway for that performance? Perhaps this is the performance that will earn her a little golden statue.

And I'm not quite sure if it's a compliment to say Sacha Baron Cohen's (The Dictator) scenes were the best part of the movie, but they were. His and Helena Bonham's Carter rendition of "Master of the House" added some much appreciated comic relief and a much needed montage to break up some of the tension from long close-ups throughout.

If you're on board from the get-go, you'll enjoy the proceeding three hours. There's much to be admired here, but ultimately stunning visuals and memorable tunes get lost in the over achievement of replicating a faithful adaptation of this much-loved Broadway hit.

Rating: C

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Django a certified Classic

 Dear Readers, 

In the months since first watching this film, I have acquired a different viewing perspective shaped by time, my readings and brilliant professors that have caused me to have a change of heart. And I feel it is drastic enough for me to have to correct myself. I misinterpreted important themes displayed in the film and egregiously allowed myself to be a fan first, rather than a critic. 

Tarantino is an inspiring filmmaker, who I will forever hold a debt of gratitude for contributing to my love of cinema. However, I would be doing an injustice to myself and those of you who kindly read my reviews to grant any filmmaker immunity from an intelligent analysis of their work. For this reason, I must apologize. This review does not reflect my current opinion on Django Unchained or Tarantino. I hope you will forgive me, as I attempt to correct an ignorantly conceptualized review.

As I continue with my education and attempt to find my niche in film writing I hope to find a comfortable area that allows me to incorporate more theory in my reviews, because as more time goes by I feel myself gravitating towards theory rather than criticism. I'm currently planning a theoretical essay on racial stereotypes in American cinema that I hope will address my concerns and regression with Django Unchained that I will post here on this blog. I will keep you updated. 

For those of you who read my reviews, thank you for indulging me. It's both a pleasure and a privilege to be able to find a platform that allows me to write about something I'm passionate about.

P.S. An extra apology to Spike Lee (in case you're reading).

Sincerely Sorry,
Cristina Lule
The 2:50 showing was packed with theater goers wrapped in holiday scarves that were surely under the tree earlier that morning; even though we arrived there 20 minutes early, my family and I almost didn't get seats together; I had failed to notice the nearly three hour running time and didn't eat before leaving the house; and the guy next to me wreaked of cigarettes, but I didn't care. I was happily waiting for director/writer Quentin Tarantino's pre-Civil War revenge/drama to start. And let me say, he did not disappoint.

Set in the antebellum South, Django Unchained follows Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter, disguised as a traveling dentist, searching for three brothers who only our protagonist and titular character (Jamie Foxx) can identify. In acquiring Django's help, Schultz sets him free and offers him a third of the reward for helping kill the men Schultz is looking for. We learn Django takes great pleasure in getting paid to kill white folks, as he puts it, but also discover he yearns to find his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) and rescue her. What ensues is perhaps the most controversial and violent love story I have ever rooted for.

Tarantino is no stranger to controversy or even racial themes for that matter, i.e.: 1994's Pulp Fiction. But as uncomfortable as a subject this may be, he allows his audience to laugh, balancing brutality with some comical moments. In one scene, we see a group of KKK members struggling to see through their white hoods. Then, he quickly plunges us back into the seriousness of this era, particularly with flashbacks involving Broomhilda. How does he manage this? By rewriting history and turning ex-slave Django into a sort-of superhero, of course. Think Captain America with *eh-hem* some obvious differences on the ideals of freedom. Violent scenes are shot with a comic-book style. The blood that squirts out of Django's targets are so grotesquely glamorous, we awe more than cringe. We want to see it.

Tarantino is also no stranger to rewriting history. He killed Hitler after all, in 2009's Inglourious Basterds. There are some parallels to be drawn here: in Basterds, the Jews were the heroes, conspiring against German Nazi's, and here we watch a freed slave acquire a blood lust for slave owners. However, he's also playing off his theme of redemption with his actors. Here we have Waltz playing a slavery hating, German bounty hunter, where in Basterd's, the film that won him an Oscar, he played Col. Landa, a merciless "Jew Hunter." See how Tarantino reverses roles? Just take a look at his name: Dr. King Schultz. Or consider (my favorite character) Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) an aristocratic plantation owner with a deplorable hobby in making his slaves fight to the death. With DiCaprio, we're so used to seeing him as the leading man/hero it's almost scary how much fun he appears to be having encouraging his fighter to kill his opponent.

Tarantino also marks this film with his trademark style. It's hard to make pop-culture references in the 1800's before pop-culture existed, so we get some nice historical references to the like of Hercules, Alexandre Dumas and German folklore. This also allows freedom in the music department, featuring a soundtrack with classical pieces like "Fur Elise" and a track from Rick Ross. There's also a beautiful Alexander Nevsky homage, specifically the "Battle on the Ice" sequence when we see the Klan members riding over a hill. We're also indulged in Tarantino's fascination with spaghetti Westerns and his employment of his trademark quick zoom on our gun-slinging hero is not lost on us. Waltz's character is perhaps the most enjoyable to watch, well versed and with a colorful vernacular, Tarantino puts his witty dialogue to good use with his character.

It's difficult to ignore the elephant in the room, so I'll just address it. It's easy to see how some audience members would accuse this film of negatively exploiting African American stereotypes. At times, the film did teeter-totter on the line of what is acceptable and what is socially deconstructive, but if we look at Tarantino's history, there is nothing to suggest the latter. For example, Tarantino's character in Fiction (and yes, expect him to make a cameo here again) goes on a rant filled with racial slurs when he finds out there's a dead black man in his garage and wants him gone before his wife comes home. Unbeknownst to us, at the time, his wife is, in fact, black. Is this racist? Probably, but we have to look at his intentions. In Django's depiction of slavery, did he go too far? I don't try to assume I know what goes on in the mind of a genius, but with a filmmaker as bold and as outspoken as Tarantinto, I can only guess he would justify it by asking if slave owners went too far. Oh, wait. I don't need to; he said it here in a recent interview. Maybe the film did go too far, but I didn't go see this hoping Tarantino played it safe. That's not his style, man.

The film also stars, Walton Goggins, Don Johnson, Franco Nero (the original Django), David Steen, Dana Michelle Gourrier, and Tarantino regular Samuel L. Jackson, giving a memorable performance as Mr. Candie's slave and confidant.

 Unfortunately, 2012 is nearly over and I have yet to cross off all the films I had planned to see this year. Now, unless the Oscar-hopeful The Guilt Trip manages to surprise, I think it's safe to say Django Unchained is my favorite film of 2012.

Sorry Spike Lee, but this is why I go to the movies.

Rating: A

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Dominik and Pitt team up again

We see a man walk into an empty stadium, trash flying around him. In the background we hear senator of Ill., at the time, Barack Obama giving a speech, calling for change, harshly juxtaposed with the opening credits. In the background, we see a billboard of then senator John McCain and Obama. Right away we know this film isn't just about crooks and gangsters.

Killing Them Softly marks writer/director Andrew Dominik's third film and second collaboration with Brad Pitt. Pitt plays Jackie Cogan, an enforcer of sorts who comes in to clean up a card game robbery by two amateurs. Ray Liotta (Goodfellas) plays Markie Trattman, the mob member who hosts the card games and who everybody thinks staged the robbery, because he had drunkenly stated he was responsible for the last robbery. Of course, no one cared, because, hey, everyone likes Markie. But this leaves him open and vulnerable for anyone who figures out he'll be the one the mob comes looking for first. However, the guys hired to clean out the card game aren't exactly "clean," despite the dish washing gloves they wear. "You'll take what you can get," one of them says to the other before putting on their pantyhose masks.

Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn play Frankie and Russell, respectively. Although they have the most screen time, it's Pitt's face you see plastered on promotional posters. Dominik employs Pitt's star quality like he did with 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, playing the iconic Ford. Pitt is just as mysterious and ominous here. In his first scene in the film, we see him park his car and walk towards a construction site. We don't even see his face until a few shots later. We see his back and feet all to the tune of Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around;" yeah, we know he's important.

McNairy, last seen in this year's Argo, and Mendelsohn, The Dark Knight Rises, play very well off each other, bouncing off obscenities and girl problems off one another. Mendelsohn is perhaps the stand out, portraying a dirty heroine addict with too much confidence and an interest in dogs.

Throughout the film's entirety we see and hear Obama giving a speech on some television in the background; we hear then president George W. Bush and commentators discussing the nation's economy on the car radio while our enforcer goes to make a hit. In one scene, Pitt comments on Obama's words, saying we are not all equals. The classification of socio-economic groups separates those who are financially stable from the rest trying to make a living. Here, the crooks and robbers are us, just trying to make enough today for tomorrow. In one scene James Gandolfini (oh yeah, he's in it too) tells a hooker the money's on the table. "No tip?" she asks and he proceeds to tell her if she wants a tip to orally position a contraceptive device next time. The economy's hard on everyone, I suppose. Pitt crosses a street towards a bar to meet Frankie and we see a man get shot over what appeared a turf war. During an early scene, Pitt looks out a car window and says "there's a plague coming." But that plague is already present.

Softly oozes with political innuendos, social ideologies and economical undertones, well not so much undertones--they're pretty easy to catch, which makes the film that much more entertaining. But perhaps one of the best aspects is Dominik's directing style; he obviously loves long scenes and interesting camera maneuvers. We see Frankie go in and out of focus after Russell shoots heroine. There's also a very stylized stop light shoot out shot oddly romantically. The use of sound is also something to admire. Pitt and Gandolfini's characters meet at a bar, and Gandolfini begins talking about his soon-to-be ex-wife and we faintly hear a woman's voice in the audio mix. He puts on his yellow-tint glasses and the process very subtly sounds like the cock of a pistol. It's all stylized and intentional.

Killing Them Softly is based on the book "Cogan's Trade," by George V. Higgins. The film also stars Richard Jenkins (Cabin in the Woods).

This may not be up for any awards this season, but watch out for Dominik in the future. He's on the path to success, even if our economy isn't.

Rating: A-

Lincoln Long but not Dry

Director Steven Spielberg takes on a tall order approaching a film centered on the 16th U.S. president on his quest for emancipation. And he fulfills his task quite well.

Set during the Civil War, president Abraham Lincoln (the uber talented Daniel Day-Lewis) plans a strategy with his Cabinet on how to convince the Republican party to vote for the 13th Amendment. This is problematic for the Southern states--ending slavery will free their labor force and dissipate their economy. Lincoln then faces the hurdles of which to end first: the war or slavery?  Ending slavery before the war will result in more fatalities on both sides. Ending the war before the 13th Amendment passes will kill it automatically; without the promise of ending the war, Republican House representative have no incentive for passing it.

Although the ominous presence of war is present during this film, Spielberg concentrates more on Lincoln's attempt towards emancipation and passing the 13th Amendment *spoiler alert: it does*. He also doesn't shy away from depicting Lincoln in a gentle nature. There are these quiet moments Lincoln shares with his son Tad (Gulliver McGrath), carrying him to bed, watching him play with wooden soldiers as he waits for the House's final vote, holding him after he hears the church bells' ring when the votes are tallied. He also appears aloof, yet wise at times, recounting stories--about Ethan Allen, telling his men what scares the shit out of radicals--he had once heard as if lost in a contemplative trance. This is where Day-Lewis shines. He becomes stern and upset when the situation requires him to, like when he argues with Mary Todd (Sally Field) about his lack of grievance over his son, but his tranquil moments are what stood out to me.

And with a running time of 150 minutes, Spielberg had plenty of time to showcase these moments. In moments without Lincoln, these long takes seemed unnecessary. And yet despite the film's length (and trust me I become restless after an hour) I found myself completely engaged from start to finish. There may have been a minute or two, at most, of war action depicted, but the real battle was in Washington, in heated debates between Thaddeus Stevens, Democrat, (Tommy Lee Jones) and Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), a slavery advocate. Lee Jones is just superb, he appears cold and disinterested, but he is perhaps the most passionate during these House debates going back and forth with Pace with witty banter and political rhetoric, even slimy Republicans are equal, Stevens shouts. Again, Spielberg could have done without showing so much, particularly when we see Jones come home with the Amendment. Sometimes less is more.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing Lincoln's son Robert, also felt unnecessary and underused. However as lengthy as the film was, it was not dry with performances. Lee Jones, Day-Lewis and Field were the clear attention grabbers here, but also worth mentioning were Jared Harris playing Ulysses S. Grant, Hal Holbrook playing a foul-mouthed Preston Blair and a always amusing James Spader playing W.N. Bilbo, a cohort of Lincoln trying to gather Amendment votes.

Visually, Lincoln was almost distracting in how beautiful it was. Spielberg teams up with D.P. Janusz Kaminski yet again and produce aesthetic awe. Everything from the production design (Rick Carter), costumes by Joanna Johnston, make up and overall look of the image were striking. The candle desk lamps that illuminated scenes added more depth and shadow to Lincoln's face, showing his age; during the end of the war Gen. Grant tells Lincoln how in the past year he has aged ten years. There's also a really nice shot in the beginning where we see Lincoln and Mary Todd's reflections in mirrors during a bedroom conversation.

Spielberg hasn't quite lived up to his reputation in past years, but Lincoln is a step in making up for it.

Rating: B+