Silver Linings Playbook (A-)
U.S.: David O. Russell, 2012, Starz/Anchor Bay
Silver Linings Playbook is a semi-Capraesque, semi-Paddy Chayefskyesque drama/comedy for the new millennium: a smart and amusing movie felicitously co-starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jackie Weaver, Julia Stiles and Chris Tucker in roles meatier than we usually expect and played with great big dollops of joyous spontaneity, live-wire energy, bristling wit and just a touch of psychological darkness. A multiple Oscar nominee, it was definitely one of 2012's best romantic comedies and Cooper and Lawrence one of the year's shining couples.
The movie was adapted by writer-director David O. Russell from a novel by Matthew Quick, and it's about Russell's favorite subject: a dysfunctional family. Here the family, the Solitanos, live boisterously together with their dysfunctional friends and neighbors, in a sort of semi-functional Philadelphia suburb -- a likable but nutty community whose ailments and oddments include bipolar disorder (Cooper), severe depression and seemingly loose morals (both Lawrence), gambling addiction (De Niro), adultery (Brea Bee), a penchant for jogging while wearing a trash bag (Cooper), and -- the most inexplicable and frightening of these various disorders -- an obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles getting into the Super Bowl.
At the core of the comedy is the emotional condition of Cooper as Pat Solitano Jr. -- a performance that vaults him into a some kind of new serio-comedy stratosphere. Pat Jr. is an ex-teacher suffering from that bipolar issue, who has undergone months of mental institutionalization after beating the bejeezus out of a colleague who was sleeping (and showering) with Pat's wife Nikki (Bee). Sprung from the hospital, along with his gabby pal Danny (Chris Tucker), Pat goes back to the house of his parents: his salty Eagle-loving bookie dad Pat Sr. (De Niro) and his tolerant mom Dolores (Weaver, who was the terrifying mother of the Australian crime drama The Animal Kingdom). Also around: Pat Jr.'s bro-pal Ronnie (John Ortiz), who has a bossy wife, Veronica (Julia Stiles), who in turn has a seemingly very available cop's-widow-friend, Tiffany (Lawrence). A nice therapeutic romance is on everyone's mind here, though Pat Jr., unfortunately, is obsessed with engineering a marital reunion with Nikki.
With Cooper, who zoomed to stardom in the epic buddy-buddy comedy The Hangover, and Lawrence, who conquered the critics in Winter's Bone and then zoomed herself in The Hunger Games, chemistry isn't lacking here. Cooper plays Pat Jr. with a mix of obstinacy and nervous intensity, plus a phony bravado, and a disguised vulnerability that make a sharp contrast with the unshakably self-confident stud he played in The Hangover. As for Jennifer Lawrence, she adds naturalistic comedy to her resume to go along with the mastery of naturalistic drama she showed in Winter's Bone and the heroic young womanhood of The Hunger Game.
Then there's the acting titan turned post-Focker sitcom papa Robert De Niro, playing the meatiest and juiciest of all his recent papa roles. De Niro's Pat Sr., like his son, is a hothead, and he's been banned from the Philadelphia Eagles stadium for fighting. But he still makes his living off pro sports betting, and as the plot thickens, Pat Sr. engineers a complex betting parley that involves the Eagles winning and Pat. Jr. and Tiffany placing high as a couple in a dance contest -- something she's asked him to do as payment for her help in getting an illegal letter to Nikki.
This is all corny as hell of course, but corny is okay sometimes as long as it keeps us laughing. De Niro, a master of dramatic improvisation, here shows (again) he's also a master of comedy disguised as dramatic improvisation. He knows how to make us laugh (and to get us scared and make us cry as well). And so do do Cooper and Lawrence.
David O. Russell doesn't work often enough, maybe because he makes the kind of hybrid offbeat movies -- these mostly dysfunctional family rom-coms, with hooks ranging from incest (Spanking the Monkey) to adoption problems (Flirting with Disaster) -- that are harder to get financed. But Russell can do something that often seems a nearly lost art in movies these days. He writes smart, snappy, funny comic dialogue that we can buy psychologically, and that the actors usually do with infectious verve and spontaneity. Russell also assembles fine casts -- probably because they want to say his lines. In general he can (and does here), turn out the kind of adult, unsentimentally appealing and sharply funny entertainment that we need more of in the movies. (Extras: deleted scenes; featurettes; dance rehearsal; Q & A highlights.)
U.S.:Andy Muschietti, 2013, Universal
Remember the good old, bad old days of movie horror, when screen frightmeisters didn't always seem to try to turn our stomachs to make our hair stand on end? Remember when blood and gore and paranormal high jinks and lousy, deliberately amatuerish-looking camerawork weren't the names of the game, when audiences could get scared at a movie without also getting revolted? Some pretty good movies helped make that grisly transition -- shows like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead and Nightmare on Elm Street, and even not so good but interesting pictures like The Blair Witch Project -- but that doesn't mean those same movies weren't also responsible for an awful lot of crap.
Mama is something of a throwback, and at times a stunning one. At its best, this state-of-the-art modern ghost story -- another scare saga from the Guillermo Del Toro factory -- recalls those earlier, less bloody days of fear and (not necessarily) loathing, when horror films were made for adults, and when they could even strive to be a little subtle, and literate. Filled with elegant, spooky images of otherworldly phantasms plaguing fairly real-seeming people, Mama spins a yarn about two little feral girls, Victoria and Lilly, left in the forest in a shabby cabin after their distraught father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) freaks out, following a financial wipe-out, and hustles the girls out to the forest. His goal: trying to kill them both, followed by his own suicide.
The girls, however are rescued by a sinister-looking wraith-thing that is (or was) apparently their mother (played by Javier Botet, with lots of CGI). And five years later -- after somehow surviving in the woods by themselves for all that time -- the girls are discovered and brought back to civilization.
So the lassies are set up in a fairly posh home by an inquisitive doctor interested in their psychology (Daniel Kasha as Dr. Dreyfuss). They are cared for by their late father's brother, a Bohemian-style artist named Lucas (Coster-Waldau in the second stanza of a double part) and his punky-pretty girl band girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain). Needless to say, the two little girls -- the tamer and more civilized Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and younger, wilder Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) -- prove quite a handful. Not as much of a handful, though, as the flying, swooping, totally spooky creature who is apparently their very protective mom. Or what she's become.
I like most of Del Toro's work, and I enjoyed this one. Del Toro was the executive producer; the director-cowriter, making his feature debut, is Andy Muschietti. He's no Del Toro, but he's an imaginative chap with a very spiffy visual sense. Besides, starting Mama off with a big financial crisis demonstrates that the movie has a good sense of what's genuinely scary about contemporary society -- and who the real monsters are.
The Kid With a Bike (A)
Belgium/France: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2011, Criterion Collection
The Kid with a Bike is another first-class film by those fabulous film realists Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne from Belgium. And it's a beauty -- a quietly naturalistic and tremendously moving fiction feature done in the Dardenne brothers' trademark quasi-documentary style, telling a story that seems as real as the street outside your window and the people walking or riding by on it -- especially the kids with bikes. It's also another of the Dardennes' stories about fathers and sons (like 2002's The Son or 1996's La Promesse), and about the dividing line between generations and also between ordinary people and lawbreakers.
The setting is, once again the industrial, largely working-class city of Seraing in Belgium, the Dardenne brothers' home city and the location for most of their films. The central character is an 11-year-old boy named Cyril (played by the remarkable child actor Thomas Doret), a child who has lost his father and had his bike stolen -- and can't adjust to either loss.
When Cyril gets the bicycle back, thanks to the kindness of a stranger (Cecile de France as Samantha, a social worker at the place where the boy lives), he both attaches himself to his benefactress Samantha and sets off on a quest to reunite with his dad Guy (Jeremie Renier), who has moved to another city without telling him. But, just as Cecile is the unexpected angel who brings him familial love, there are two antagonists who frustrate his search: the local young criminal kingpin Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a young dealer who tries to recruit Cyril as a gang member, and Guy himself, who has intentionally abandoned his son (after the loss of his wife), and clearly doesn't want to see him again.
The Kid with a Bike consists mostly of short, swift scenes with Cyril racing though mini-dramas of social and familial conflict. The dominating image is the boy with this bike, caught in fast-moving tracking shots following him as he runs down the sidewalks or rides on the streets. These are very kinetic sequences -- they will probably remind many of you of the special childhood sense of freedom and speed kids get in driving a bicycle. And Thomas Doret is a very kinetic actor. His energy seems boundless, his will indomitable. When Cecile is asked, by her irritated boyfriend, to choose between helping Cyril and being with him, she actually chooses the boy, and we're not surprised. It's not a semi-romantic attraction, at least not overtly so. But Cyril is a human comet, and that unshakable will of his keeps asserting itself and speeding past the rest of the slower, more pedestrian world, What happens to them all finally is both shocking and, in a way, inevitable.
The Dardenne Brothers' film deals with complex themes and deep emotions, and it's profound in its grasp and portrayal of everyday humanity. Only if you ignore that humanity and those depths does it seem unimportant or minor. A good deal of this movie's powerful effect comes from its ability to make us see through the eyes of a child, and feel with the heart of a child -- or, more accurately, think and feel in sympathy with a child who, because of his abandonment, is increasingly being thrust into premature maturity -- in contrast to his irresponsible father.
The resolution of all these problems, which I won't described, conveys a very mixed, strange feeling -- and that's when we may realize how much the Dardennes have come to identify with -- and have made us identify with -- this kid on his bike and what he's gone through.
Doret is, in fact, an astonishing actor. Tirelessly energetic, thoroughly unself-conscious, yet chillingly aware of everything around him, he dominates every scene he's in -- which is almost every scene in the movie. The cinema has been graced recently with a number of excellent child actors, from the younger Dakota and Elle Fanning to Saoirse Ronan, and Doret is one of the best of them, a child actor with an incredible sense of natural behavior and unforced realism -- with the presence of a little Depardieu or Brando or Steve McQueen. Doret, without a false note, portrays a boy hungry for experience, not yet spoiled by the world and its hypocrisies, someone who believes in people as they seem, and is surprised when they betray him -- and themselves.
The Dardennes tend to work with the same actors over and over again, and I imagine we'll eventually see Doret again too. Jeremie Renier, who plays the despicable Guy has been working with the Dardennes since he was a boy actor himself, in La Promesse, and he has by now an extraordinary simpatico with everything they do. The brothers' other main player. in most of their films, is back again too: the chunky, bespectacled Olivier Gourmet, who has a style reminiscent of John Goodman's, shows up here in a small but memorable role as a phlegmatic bar owner.
The radiant blonde Cecile De France, of course, is not only new to the Dardennes' unofficial stock company, but a major French and international star as well. (She co-starred in Clint Eastwood's Hereafter.) Yet, in a way De France's film stardom and beauty fit the movie as well as the old Dardenne hands do. As Samantha commits herself more and more to caring for and protecting Cyril, she begins to seem a kind of beautiful fairy godmother, a surrogate mother out of a dream.
The Dardennes also rarely use music, but here they play on the soundtrack, several times, a heart-breaking passage from the slow movement of Beethoven's "Emperor" Piano Concerto No. 5 -- my favorite classical piece in all the world. It got me here again, too.
The Dardennes always seem to be conveying life as it is, without any filters of subjectivity. We follow Cyril's journey but we're not trapped in his point of view -- or, seemingly, in anyone else's. At the end, we've lived a piece of his life with him, a very important piece. (Extras: conversation between Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Kent Jones; interviews with Cecile De France and Thomas Doret; documentary Return to Seraing (2011), in which the Dardennes revisit locations from the film; trailer; booklet with essay by Geoff Andrew.)