Monday, January 28, 2013

Find Your Silver Lining: Silver Linings Play Book

Directed by: David O. Russell

Directed by David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook is a look at a modern American life and the strange and often uncomfortable truths we deal with in our relationships. To be honest, I am not a huge fan of romantic comedies. I find that 90% of the time they portray unrealistic expectations of men and women, and appeal to the lowest common denominator. But, before you go running for hills, in an attempt to avoid sappy dialogue and cliche themes, let me say that this film does romantic comedy right.

What makes this film funny is its honest portrayal of two damaged people and their stubborn unwillingness to accept or deal with reality. The film follows Pat (Bradley Cooper), a bipolar man recently released from a psychiatric facility and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) a young widow with a sorted past and a less than flattering reputation.  It is not clear from the beginning what Pat did to land himself in the psyche ward, and we meet him as he returns to his parents house and starts to readjust to a regular life.

Tiffany is an amazing character, however, I don't know how much of my opinion of her comes from my love of Jennifer Lawrence. Tiffany is the sister of Pat's best friend's wife and lives in a converted garage in her parents back yard. She is highly emotional and says what she feels when she feels it. She has a spit-fire attitude and is incredibly reactionary to the people and situations around her. While she can be over the top, she is mostly fragile and emotionally unstable after the accidental death of her young husband. We see her go from aloof, to enraged in seconds, causing scenes without any reservation. We all know a crazy chick like Tiffany, but the film taps into the nuance of her character and shows us what makes her the way she is. She is not a weak woman, she is very real in all her beauty and chaos.

Tiffany's character can be summed up by one particular scene. The first time she goes out with Pat, he takes her to a cheap diner and orders cereal, to prove that they were not on a date. The two begin to discuss their messy lives in graphic detail. Pat discusses his relationship issues with his wife and his time in the hospital, and Tiffany talks about how many people she slept with after the death of her husband. Pat insists that everyone else is to blame for his problems, and that he is a victim of circumstance, while she was clearly just crazy slut.

This accusation sets Tiffany off, and she flies into a rage complete with yelling, smashing dishes, and storming off. Pat follows her out onto the street and we see a glimpse into Tiffany's inner dialogue as she chastises Pat for judging her. She goes through a rapid succession of emotions, from angry to hurt to vengeful to apologetic, in just a few minutes. It is the type of emotional roller-coaster a lot of people can relate to.

Pat is also a deeply complex character and is played perfectly by Bradley Cooper. In the words of my friend, "damn, who knew Bradley Cooper could act?" Pat is a former teacher and on the outside a generally normal guy. But we learn thought out the course of the film that he was in the hospital after nearly beating his wife's lover to death in a fit of bi-polar rage. He was sentenced to 8 months in a psychiatric facility and served a restraining order by his estranged wife Nikki (Brea Bee).

Pat is obsessed with Nikki and believes he can win her back if he loses weight and gets his illness under control. He adopts the slogan, "find your silver lining" as his mantra and desperately tries to find the good in every situation, even when things are clearly out of control. While it seems like a good practice for someone being treated for mental illness, we see how self-destructive he can be. He is manic and hyped up all the time, and seems to never sit still. You can can't tell when Pat is going to laugh or fly off the handle at any given time and it causes everyone around him to walk on egg shells.

As a condition of his release, Pat was put into the care of his parents. Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver). As older parents of an adult child, they are unsure how to act around their son. They are torn between wanting to allow him freedom, and wanting him to stick to a routine with medication and therapy. Pat Sr. and Dolores urge Pat to forget Nikki and focus on himself and family. But Pat ignores these requests and follows his own selfish path which puts him at odds with his concerned family and friends.

The most compelling scene in the film starts when Pat finishes talking with his therapist and returns home to look for his wedding video. He starts out calm, checking closets and boxes, but quickly becomes angry. Dolores comes in and attempts to help him look for the video, in hopes of calming Pat down. The situation becomes out of hand as Pat loses control, tearing apart his room and yelling. Pat Sr. intervenes and beings to fight with Pat which causes Dolores to become hysterical. The whole situation dissolves to the point that Pat hits his mother, knocking her to the ground. Pat Sr. then pins Pat to the bed. Pat relents as he gains control over himself and begins crying and apologizing.

The pain and the shame reflected in him in that moment underscores the struggle Pat faces daily, and how his mantra, while lacking in substance, seems to be the only thing that gives him a sense of control.  We also see the confusion and helplessness Pat Sr. feels looking down at his crying son. I think the film does a good job of portraying the difficulty mentally ill people face and lack of control their families feel. Robert DeNiro does an amazing job portraying Pat's obsessive compulsive, football crazy father, who blames himself for Pat's illness.

American culture has this resistance to dealing with mental health issues. When mentally ill people are portrayed in film, they are often portrayed as the villain, or lack nuance and complexity. What struck me about Silver Linings Playbook was the humanistic way they approached Pat's issues with being bi-polar and Tiffany's struggle with grief.

But it is not all serious, there are lots of comedic moments provided throughout the film by supporting characters like Danny (Chris Tucker) and Ronnie (John Ortiz). Danny is Pat's friend from the psychiatric facility who is always sneaking out of the hospital to see Pat. He portrays the lighter side of mental illness with his quirky enthusiasm and obsession with hair. Ronnie is married to Tiffany's older sister Veronica (Julia Stiles) and struggles to live up to her expectations and expensive taste. Ronnie is over all a good husband, but he is the type who complains about his wife behind her back, but always smiles and tries his hardest to please while in her presence.

The film unfolds rather predictably to be honest, and at the end of the film all the loose ends are tied up, which audiences love. After careful consideration I have concluded that all the accolades and the 8.1 rating on IMDB are all a bit overrated. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed this film and it is absolutely worth seeing. But you will be rather disappointed if you go in expecting to see something new. It is a great movie about an often hidden side of the American family, but the cut and dry nature of it doesn't really feel right in the end.

(Ladies, if you are having a hard time talking your man into seeing this movie, tell him that they talk a lot of football, especially if he's a Eagle's fan.)

B+ : Over all a great film and worth seeing, but a bit too predictable in my opinion. It would be rather forgettable if it wasn't for all the award nominations/wins.

Pictures off of google

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: Question Everything You Know

Zero Dark Thrity
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain 

There is so much to say about this film, it is impossible to know where to start. However, as I type that, I realize that I start out many of my reviews with this exact refrain. But, this film is an exception and has throughly surprised me in theme, style and subject matter. It is incredibly thought provoking and I found myself full of questions at the end, it made me want to see more. This review will be full of spoilers, though I doubt they will matter because this film is going to read different to everyone based on your beliefs and your willingness to question them. While this film is not fact, it does reveal things that we would rather forget. Ideas that I don't think are talked about enough in civil tones.

This is the political film for a generation.  The film opens with the terrified phone calls made from the Twin Towers, which was emotional for me. I was 12 years old when 9/11 happened. I remember the day so clearly, and the fear it struck in me, even 1,000 miles away from New York. I remember being stressed out, over-whealmed and wanting desperately to turn off the TV. But my family was glued to the news, even as we blew out my mother's birthday candles.

Osama Bin Laden and all Muslims and Arab people by an unfortunate extension were vilified in the media. Too many Americans played into the hysteria and nationalism that griped the country. We invaded Afghanistan, which to many seemed justified. And a few years later, we invaded Iraq, for reasons that have never been clear. Either way, justified or not, our country attempted to defeat an enemy we didn't understand, an enemy that we didn't even know. We were driven by fear and we made many mistakes. Politicians used the wars for their own political gain, and rabbled fiercely while accomplishing little.

What this film does is expose a side of the war that has always been spoken of in hushed tones. It is based on a real individual within the CIA, and dramatizations of real events, which makes the story so much more compelling. The character,  Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a CIA officer who is one of the few people in the world focused solely on the intelligence hunt for Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. She is one of a hand full of people doing America's dirty work, while people in Washington took credit.

At its heart, this film is a look at a character and her extraordinary journey through horrors of modern warfare. Maya is strong, brilliant dedicated and often times obsessive, but she makes things happen. She is also empathetic and the work she does effects her on a deep emotional level. However, I found myself thinking, as much as I love this character, she is complicit in activities that I find reprehensible. Though on the other side, I can see that certain things were out of her control, and she did what she had to do to complete her mission. She is a complex person living in a complex world, and who are we to say we would have done something different?

The film poses many interesting questions. Can we ever justify torture? What are we willing to sacrifice to find one man? Do the ends justify the means? Just about everyone is going to say that torture is barbaric and we are far too advanced as humans to engage in such a brutal practice. But the film shows that, in at least a few cases, torture made a difference and may have ultimately lead to the killing of Osama bin Laden. But, do we as a nation think that it was worth it in the end? I would say no, but I also realize how little I understand about the subject.

The film depicts horrible scenes of torture which are hard to watch. One of Maya's colleagues in Afghanistan, Dan (Jason Clark), is an interrogator who subjects prisoners to water boarding, sleep depravation, humiliation and a host of other atrocities. But Dan is not portrayed as a monstrous human being, he didn't seem to relish in the torture, and he eventually burns out from the work and returns to the US. In the end we sympathize with Dan because he is just another person engaged and damaged in the dirty business of war.

The complexity of the characters is by far the biggest strength. The audience isn't told how they are supposed to to feel about Maya or Dan, which is why I say that this film will play different to everyone. Your reaction to the film will also have a lot to do with your political affiliation.

However, for Maya and Dan, the hunt for Bin Laden had nothing to do with patriotism. Soon after Maya began her mission, it became personal. She was not interested in playing politics, or making friends. She was not looking to rise up to power, or pad her resume. She had one goal, and refused to stop until she accomplished it. Her friends and colleagues were killed while in the field, and she felt the need to finish what she started, not for the country, but for the people who sacrificed their lives.

The last few scenes of the film were my favorite. I really enjoyed seeing the Navy Seals learn about, and execute the siege on Bin Laden's compound. It was shot beautifully, and used dark space in ways not often seen. The scenes in the compound were difficult to watch, but it gave a perspective that I think is lost in the real life politics of the situation. Many people around the US celebrated the death of Bin Laden, with out knowledge of the women and children who were effected by the violent attack.

This film made me question everything I thought I knew about war, torture, and al-Qeada. This film made me question my morals, and how I feel about my role as an American citizen in such a complex world. It will do the same to anyone who experiences this film. I encourage everyone to go see it alone, or with a friend who has a different set of beliefs. It will set off a debate that needs to be had.

Kathryn Bigelow is a brilliant director, and I have so much respect for her. She has done what too many directors are afraid to do, which is create a film that has complex characters, defies stereotypes and forces the audience to participate. The last line in the film is, "where do you want to go?"It is a question to all of us. And I don't know what the answer is.

A+ : This film is, so far, the best film I have seen this year. The writing is incredible, the characters are very complex, and it will make you question everything you thought you knew.