Friday, November 30, 2012

Review: Silver Linings Playbook

David O. Russell is turning into one of the best dialogue directors in Hollywood.  What I mean by this is that he seems to have a knack for both writing and shooting realistic and fresh verbal interactions amongst his characters in his films.  Going to a screening of an Russell film you know you're going to get straight grounded dialogue that draws you into the movie.  Russell's last effort was The Fighter in 2010 which ended up being my second favorite film of that year.  Silver Linings Playbook picks up right where The Fighter left off by showing us another slice of tough suburban family life featuring a totally committed and talented cast.  As a bonus, Russell adds in one of the best depictions on screen of what it's like to be a rabid American sports fan.

Bradley Cooper stars as Pat Solitano, a bi-polar son of an Eagles-loving family in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  Pat has just been released from a mental institution after having witnessed a shocking episode with his adulterous wife.  As he tries to re-acclimate into society and win back the love of his estranged wife, he meets a beautiful young widow named Tiffany played by the uber-talented Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss from The Hunger Games).  A solid supporting cast featuring Robert De Niro (in one of his more realistic roles in recent memory as Pat's football-and-gambling-loving father) helps round out the acting acumen and allows Russell to do his thing.

As Pat tries to win back his ex he ends up becoming involved with Tiffany (who has a similar type of social disorder as Pat does).  The drama of Pat trying to beat his illness and help Tiffany get over the death of her former husband is brilliantly set against the real-life sports scene of 2008 in Philadelphia.  We get to witness a whole town get behind the Eagles playoff run (as well as a Phillies World Series appearance).  The fandom is shown in full force within the Solitano household as hopes and dreams live and die with each Eagles game.  Pat's dad continues to encourage him to watch games together but a fateful trip to an accurately-depicted Eagles tailgating becomes one of the major catalysts of the fim.  Russell is able to weave a multitude of comical moments through genuine scenes of drama and true-to-life scenes of what it actually feels like to whole-heartedly follow your local sports team.

Cooper gives his best performance as an actor to-date by a long shot.  He comes across as likable, human and genuine as we see his flaws play out time and time again.  Thankfully we get all of the comic timing he brings to his roles in Wedding Crashers and The Hangover mixed in with some major dramatic acting chops.  His chemistry with Lawrence is spot-on and Jennifer once again gives a performance that is years beyond her young age of 22.  I can see both of these actors getting Oscar nods next year and Lawrence really has all of Hollywood ahead of her.  She has the most potential of any actress working today.

What Russell, Cooper and Lawrence have created with Silver Linings Playbook is one of the funnier movies of 2012 and one of the best "rom-coms" I've ever seen.  Simply put this is acting, directing and writing at an extremely high level and Playbook earns my fourth 5 out of 5 JR rating for this year.  While you can probably wait for video on this (this movie does NOT NEED to be seen on the big screen) I would still recommend going to see it before awards season comes around.  Especially if you are even a casual sports fan.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Review: Life of Pi

Ang Lee, the acclaimed director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain has managed to adapt Yann Martel's best-selling novel Life of Pi, about a young Indian boy trapped at sea, into one of the most visually stunning motion pictures ever made.  Working with of a cast of no-names (excluding the where-is-he-now Gerard Depardieu in a weird and worthless role),  Lee manages to tell an epic talk of struggle, spiritual awakening and perseverance that is highly enhanced by the effective use of 3D technology.

The movie begins with an older Indian man named Pi (Piscine is his given name of French origin but we see early-on why he decided to shorten it) telling the remarkable story of his life to a journalist.  The bulk of the film is a flashback on the significant event in Pi's life, a shipwreck that takes the lives of his brother, Mother and Father and disperses a ship full of zoo animals in the process.  Pi (played with remarkable conviction by Suraj Sharma) manages to survive the sinking freighter only to find himself stranded on a lifeboat with a hungry Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker (the origin of this name is rather humorous).  We witness the struggle of Pi as he fights off hunger and Richard Parker himself during months of isolation at sea.  The middle part of this movie reminded me of Cast Away on steroids.

Outside of the surprisingly strong acting performance put forth by Sharma, the real stars of this movie are the visual effects geniuses at Rhythm and Hues who manage to create "this-can't-be-CGI" representations of a wide range of animals, from Meerkats to Zebras to Sharks and Orangutans.  Having won an Oscar for 2008's The Golden Compass, R&H manages to out-do themselves with the quality of the computer effects used in this film.  The animation of Richard Parker alone should seal an Academy Award nomination for this movie.  As the second main character of the film, the CGI Tiger is a living breathing co-star to Pi and conveys a wide range of emotion that harkens back to the wizardry done by Weta Digital in animating Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.  The key to the believability in the animation is all of the natural movements the animators give to Zebras, Hyenas and other animals that are in immediate peril as a result of the disaster at sea.   

Lee seems to be at home weilding the latest in 3D technology.  He uses the depth of field effortlessly in depicting the isolation of the open water as well as the beauty of nature as a whole.  I can see this film eventually being showcased on the Discovery Channel as a vivid showcase of both the visual splendor and dangerous aspects of the natural world.  As an audience, we get to experience all of these amazing landscape visuals alongside of Pi through the total 3D immersion.  It's hard to imagine a similar experience if this movie were to be viewed on Bluray outside of the theater.

Life of Pi is a remarkable technical achievement that matches Avatar as the best use of 3D storytelling to-date.  The immersive way that Lee places the audience directly in the scenery is extremely effective.  I was not expecting this movie to be this good and I encourage everyone to see this in 3D in the theater (even Doe B. Kim).  This is soooo close to a 5 out of 5 for me but due to some slowness early-on and a rather lackluster final few scenes, I have to give this a very strong 4.5 out 5 JRs.  This is one of the best movies of the year without a doubt and probably Ang Lee's best directorial effort of his filmmaking career.

Review: Lincoln

There's no doubt in my mind that the best actor of this generation (and quite possibly the greatest actor EVER) is Mr. Daniel Day-Lewis, a consumate professional who puts his heart and soul into every single performance he gives.  In his long awaited follow-up to There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis shines yet again in an amazing portrayal of one of the most loved presidents in American history.  In a first-time dream collaboration of Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg, Lincoln tells the detailed story of Abraham Lincoln's political struggle to pass the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives, effectively ending slavery and sparking an end to the Civil War.

Instead of focusing on the entire life span of the 16th president, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner cover a few months of Lincoln's presidency which highlights the lobbying of wavering Democrats in an attempt to secure the two-thirds majority needed to pass the Amendment.  Spielberg and producer Kathleen Kennedy have put together an amazing supporting cast that compliments Day-Lewis.  Tommy Lee Jones (in one of his best performances in years as Thaddeus Stevens),  Sally Field, David Straitharn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the hardest working man in showbiz this year), John Hawkes, James Spader and Hal Holbrook all add to the believability of the drama set in 1865.  Spielberg does a fantastic job making every detail seem authentic to the era depicted.

The obvious star of this movie is Day-Lewis.  He completely embodies Lincoln from his folksy and spirited voice to the tall brooding way in which he carries himself beneath his trademark top hat.  Thanks to an amazing job by the film's makeup artists, it only take a few scenes to forget that Day-Lewis is playing a character.  He is simply unbelievably believable as Abraham Lincoln.

This film has without a doubt the smallest amount of visual effects for a Spielberg-helmed movie.  Spielberg instead uses a lot of long takes to showcase the amazing acting talent that has been assembled.  The visual effects in this film are the actors themselves who deliver sharp lines of dialogue in a meaningful and precise manner.  Spielberg is able to make politics seem actually exciting at times.

Lincoln is an important film that should be seen by everybody especially on the heels of the spirited political election this country has just been through.  I can't rate this movie higher than 4 out of 5 JRs however due to the extreme amount of political content that's served up here.  Someone who can't get enough of the political world (*cough*  Burt Hall *cough*) will be in heaven sitting through this film.  Personally I found all the vote-lobbying rather overwhelming after a while.  All of the insight into 19th century politics could not overshadow Day-Lewis, who dominates the screen every time he's featured and should be a shoe-in for yet another Best Acting Oscar award.  His Lincoln comes across as a very likable president who helped the Republican party get off to a monumental beginning.