‘Silver Linings Playbook’ is One of 2012’s Best Movies

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I always wonder about people who have been diagnosed with a psychological problem like bipolar disorder. Some of them have a tremendous zest and passion for life which makes me begin to wonder if it’s even fair to say they are sick. Everyone else gets so beaten up and run down by life to where it robs the smiles off their faces, and yet people like Pat Solitano, Bradley Cooper’s character in “Silver Linings Playbook,” seem so inspired by everything around them. Despite Pat’s problem, I came out of this movie desperately wanting to feel the way he feels as it seems like such a waste to become so infinitely numb to everything and anything in life.

Of course, Pat’s boundless zest for life has come at a huge price for him. “Silver Linings Playbook,” which comes to us from writer and director David O. Russell, starts off with Pat being released from a mental institution after being locked there for eight months. It turns out Pat was a former school teacher who went off the deep end one day upon coming home and finding his wife Nikki in the shower with another man. Pat did not take this well to put it mildly, and he went ballistic on the guy in a way no one will ever quickly forget.

Now that Pat’s been released, he is forced to move back in with his parents (played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) as he has lost his home and job, and his wife has since moved away and filed a restraining order against him. Pat is determined to move his life forward in a positive direction and win Nikki back, but he is still troubled by the discovery he made all those months ago. It also doesn’t help that a certain Stevie Wonder song, the same one played at Pat’s and Nikki’s wedding, was playing on the stereo when Pat found his wife at home but not alone. The song acts as a terrible trigger for him, and you feel his excruciating pain whenever it starts playing near him.

Cooper is best known for his work in “The Hangover” movies, but this role really shows the kind of actor he is truly capable of being. Cooper makes you sympathize with Pat’s sincere intentions to be a better person even when he flies off the handle for unexpected reasons. Just watch him go ballistic after he finishes reading Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” From start to finish, Cooper is a dynamo as Pat, and you relish in the joy he gets from playing this character.

Cooper is also well matched with Jennifer Lawrence who provides a passionate and fiery turn as Tiffany. Now a widow after her husband passed away, Tiffany speaks her mind bluntly and without apology, and it is clear she is still coping with a devastating loss. Lawrence blew us away with her breakthrough performance in “Winter’s Bone,” and her talent as an actress has never been in doubt since. She more than rises to the challenge presented to her in “Silver Linings Playbook” in creating a character who on the surface is not exactly pleasant, and yet she still lets us see the wounded humanity which Tiffany’s tough exterior cannot hide.

The film also features a number of terrific supporting performances as well. Robert De Niro gives one of his best performances in a long time as Pat’s father who is as hopeful for his son’s recovery as he is for the Philadelphia Eagles to win every single football game they play. Jacki Weaver, best known for her Oscar nominated performance in “Animal Kingdom,” also lends strong support as Pat’s mom. There are also some inspired turns from John Ortiz as Ronnie and Anupam Kher as Dr. Patel, and even Julia Stiles shows up as Tiffany’s sister Veronica.

But one supporting performance which really stands out in “Silver Linings Playbook” is Chris Tucker’s as Danny, Pat’s friend who leaves the mental institution only to find he’s not really allowed to just yet. Not only is this the first movie Tucker’s done in a long time without “Rush Hour” in the title, but he also dials down his manic comic energy to give a surprisingly naturalistic performance. Tucker is a lot of fun to watch here, and he fits in perfectly with the rest of the cast without ever upstaging anybody.

“Silver Linings Playbook” is based on the book of the same name by Matthew Quick, and it is the perfect fit for David O. Russell. His films, whether it’s “Flirting with Disaster,” “The Fighter” or even “Three Kings,” deal with complicated characters who are trying to salvage what is left of their souls so they can move on to better things. This one is no different as Pat and Tiffany need each other to get past the traumas which have come to define their lives in the present. Russell presents their story in a way which never feels the least bit formulaic, and he never ever takes the easy way out with these characters.

What I’ve come to love about Russell’s movies is how they feel alive in a way most don’t. With “Silver Linings Playbook,” you are watching lives unfold in front of you, and it is directed to where you experience what’s happening instead of just watching it. Regardless of the problems these characters face here, there is something strangely positive and fulfilling in seeing them overcome all which is holding them back. It is also exhilarating to watch characters so filled with passion and a love for life, and this film is full of them. This is really one of the most entertaining and enjoyable movies I saw back in 2012.

* * * * out of * * * *

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‘Black Swan’ is a Tour de Force for Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman

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JESUS CHRIST!!! This was my immediate reaction after witnessing Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.” A combination of “The Wrestler” and “Requiem for A Dream” with a dose of “Rosemary’s Baby” thrown in for good measure, it is a brilliantly over the top psychosexual thriller which continually ratchets up suspense and tension all the way to its horrifying climax. And unlike Mia Farrow’s character in “Rosemary’s Baby,” Natalie Portman has a really nice haircut.

Just as it was with “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan” serves as an expose sorts on the athletic arena it focuses on. The backstage world of ballet dancing is highly competitive, and the career of a dancer can easily be short-lived if an unexpected injury, either a big or small one, occurs. Many view ballet as being very boring and would rather tune into Monday Night Football. Try dragging kids to a production of “The Nutcracker” and watch how they run for the hills. This is the reaction I get from most people I know, although I’m sure there are exceptions.

But don’t let any preconceptions about ballet turn you off from seeing this film. It is anything but boring, and both Aronofsky and Portman brilliantly capture the physically and psychologically draining aspects of ballet to where you feel as wiped out and crazed as they do throughout. Like any other art form, ballet demands years of training in order to reach a level of perfection few can achieve. It is also shown to be an isolating career because, with so many people going after the same lead role, making friends is a struggle as you wonder what they are saying behind your back. With the bitterness level sky high, ballet threatens to be more damaging psychologically than physically.

Portman plays Nina Sayers, a member of a prominent New York City ballet company. After years of hard work, Nina gets her lucky break when she snags the lead role in “Swan Lake,” a show is as overdone as many of Neil Simon’s plays. This show has one of the most coveted roles in any show as it is incredibly challenging. Nina has to play the White Swan who is a creature of innocence, and also the Black Swan who is one of a sensual and dark nature. Basically, it is the dancer’s “Hamlet.” While her director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) thinks she is perfect as the White Swan, he has doubts about her ability to play the Black Swan as she is so technically precise in her movements, and the latter role requires her to lose herself in the passionately dark nature of the character.

Once we see Nina walk down the streets of New York past a woman who looks exactly like her, we are caught up in her downward spiral which she is helpless to stop. We watch as she encounters people and situations which feel real, but later turn out to be nothing more than hallucinations. There are times where she even looks like she is turning into a swan. While this may sound ridiculous on paper, it is brilliantly conceived visually from the rash on Nina’s back to those blood red eyes she develops. There are even points where she is dancing in front of a mirror, and her reflection turns around to glare at her malevolently.

The line between what is real and what is not becomes completely blurred, and neither the audience or Nina are able to tell the difference between the two. Many may be maddened at not being able to understand all of what is happening, but that’s precisely the point. Aronofsky puts you directly into Nina’s mindset, which has already proven to be an emotionally fragile place, and we are instantly caught up in her psychological disintegration. This makes “Black Swan” all the more visceral to experience. We are not just watching Nina go mad, we feel like we are going mad with her.

Portman does truly give the performance of her career here. She trained in ballet for a year or so, and her preparation really paid off. Throughout, she captures the sweet nature of Nina as well as the paranoia and resentment which overwhelms her the closer she gets to the opening performance. Watching Portman practice her dancing to no end is emotionally exhausting as it is for her physically, and she makes us feel like we are right on the edge of disaster with her. Portman has always been an amazing actress, but her work in “Black Swan” represents the culmination of a great career which is more than ready to head into adulthood.

Mila Kunis, looking even sexier here than she did in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” co-stars as another dancer, Lily. Unlike Nina, she is free with her body and mind, and what she lacks in precision she makes up for in unbridled passion. She’s at times friendly, wanting to break the ice between her and Nina, and her power of seduction is one Nina desperately wants to capture for herself. Kunis has become an increasingly fascinating actress, and seeing her go from sweet to a cold back stabber of a human being is made very believable by her work.

Oh yeah, there is a sex scene between Portman and Kunis which will have people checking out “Black Swan” for all the wrong reasons. Then again, any reason to get people to see this film might not be so bad. Furthermore, to dismiss this as a simple lesbian sex scene will only show how short sighted you are.

Aronofsky again employs his frequent collaborators to excellent effect. His director of photography, Matthew Libatique, almost makes this film look like a remake of “Suspiria” as the colors become overpowering once they become blacker and infinitely vicious. “Black Swan” is as much a sensory experience as it is a psychological one, just like “Requiem for A Dream” was. Libatique makes the special effects appear seamless in scenes where CGI is clearly utilized. As the background dancers pass by her, Nina sees her face in all of them. It’s such an eerie moment to where it doesn’t even feel like a special effect.

Then there is the fantastic Clint Mansell whose work on Aronofsky’s movies has become a main character in each of them. Mansell takes Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and breathes fresh life into it which is exhilarating to take in. His score becomes as intense as the images we see on screen, and I loved how visceral and thrillingly alive it all feels.

The movie also offers great performances from actresses we don’t see as much of on the silver screen: Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey. Ryder clearly understands the frustration her character of veteran dancer Beth MacIntyre is going through, and she captures this deeply hurt and excessively bitter character perfectly. At once an empathetic and at other times a pathetic person, we see just how much Beth has lived for ballet, and now that it has been cruelly taken away from her, she has little else to devote her life to. To be placed on a pedestal so high only to be yanked from it leaves her with nothing but desperation and deep self-loathing which is hard to dig oneself out of.

As for Hershey, she remains a phenomenal actress as she has been for many years. In movies like “A World Apart” and “Portrait of a Lady,” she has created indelible female characters who are never easily forgotten. Her role in “Black Swan” is no exception as she takes the clichéd role of a stage mother and makes her a loving person as well as an overbearing one. When we come to see how her character failed at a dancing career, it becomes frighteningly clear how much of her happiness is based on how successful her daughter is at hers.

“Black Swan” once again shows how brilliant a director Aronofsky is as he mixes up different genres to create one hell of a movie going experience. Portman’s magnificent performance really is one for the ages, and few other characters have been as physically demanding for an actor as Nina is. Even as things get more and more horrifying, Aronofsky keeps your eyes focused on the screen to where looking away from it would feel like a crime. Is it more intense than “Requiem for a Dream?” No, but it sure does come close!

One thing’s for sure, this will not be a good recruiting film for dancers. They’ll want to go into accounting or dentistry after watching this one!

* * * * out of * * * *

Brie Larson on preparing for her role in ‘Room’

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Brie Larson is best known for her performances in movies like “Short Term 12,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” “21 Jump Street” and “Trainwreck,” and she also has a singing career and released an album entitled “Finally Out of P.E.” But if you’re not familiar with whom she is, that’s alright because you won’t be able to forget her after watching her emotionally exhausting performance in Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room.” She plays Joy (a.k.a. Ma), a young woman who was kidnapped several years ago by a man who tricked her into helping him find his lost dog. Joy has since been imprisoned in that man’s garden shed located in his backyard, and she occupies it with her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay). But as time flies by, Joy becomes increasingly determined to escape the prison she and her son have been forced to grow up in, but the outside world provides them with even more challenges than they could ever have expected to endure.

Larson was at the “Room” press day held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California where she was lauded by many reporters for her brave acting. I read how, when she accepted the role of Joy, she decided to lead a more reclusive life and reduce her social interaction with others in order to better understand her character’s mindset. I asked her what that preparation specifically entailed, and her answer proved to be endlessly fascinating.

Brie Larson: “I really love the myth about my reclusive life (laughs). The words that have been used today have been so interesting. How it started was in trying to understand those two years of basic silence of being alone in this place, and I meditate so I was little familiar with trying to get to mental silence and how hard that is. And then I had some friends who had been on silent retreats and I was fascinated by the reactions because some of them could go 10 days and they do it every year and it’s just this time that they absolutely love. You’re not allowed to speak and you’re not allowed to look at anybody because that’s also seen as a form of communication. There’s no connection to the outside world. But I had other friends who couldn’t last 24 hours. They just panicked and left and so there was this sense of just sitting with yourself and imagining Ma at 17, 18 and 19 years old sitting with herself in the way most teenagers don’t. That’s a period of time where it’s all fleeting. It’s all just getting away from everything and wanting to move out and pushing away a parent. In some ways I felt that period of time to be this bizarrely mature experience and set in a horrible setting, but in a way that she has to come to terms with who she is now and this new individual that she’s become that is completely separate from her friends, from her home and from her parents, and it’s the time right before she has a child which becomes her next identity as being a mother. So for myself, it was just seeing what that mental chatter felt like and if it was something to feel that painful moments of it, to feel eureka moments. They were moments that I remembered from my childhood that I had forgotten that were so beautiful and other moments that I completely had forgotten that were more painful. And so having that time to just very simply reflect I felt became a huge part of getting to know her better. But it wasn’t like painful. I found it kind of fun to be honest. I didn’t mind it.”

Larson later won, and deservedly so, the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance, and it has since opened up a number of opportunities I can’t wait to see her take on. “Room” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

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