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Monthly Archives: December 2012

When I was in Cannes this past summer, I was fortunate enough to see a rough cut of “Silver Linings Playbook.”  Although had you told me it was a final cut, I would have believed it.  The film felt totally complete and in no need of further tweaking.  In fact, I almost ran my review of that version when the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, hoping people assumed I was there and saw the theatrical cut.

Now that I’ve seen the movie for a second time, I’m definitely glad I did not run a review on the rough cut.  The film improved by leaps and bounds over the four months in which David O. Russell and company worked out the kinks in the film, and most of the things I would have griped about in my review of the rough cut disappeared.

On the surface, everything is relatively the same: the story still plays out in the same way, the rhythm of the film kept in tact, among other things.  But I noticed a much more complex visual scheme, one that made “Silver Linings Playbook” feel like a David O. Russell film, not your run-of-the-mill romantic comedy.  Rather than the standard back-and-forth, he’s-talking-now-she’s-talking editing, Russell opts to go deeper and use the camera to probe his characters psychologically.  Rather than merely capturing the plot like the rough cut, Russell ultimately found ways to suggest levels of depth extending far below a single shot.

Russell is able to make the performances shine by keying off the wacky family dynamics that made “The Fighter” such a hoot (and also harkening back to the zaniness “Flirting with Disaster” –  for fans of Russell’s early work).  You wonder how these relationships can possibly function in any way other than what Jim Morrison called “mutual wierdness,” or love.  He draws us in with characters who wear their flaws on their sleeves yet keeps us engaged by continuing to show how they motivate the character at their core.

SLP

With the focus shifting towards the characters and away from the plot, which is entertaining but decidedly cursory on mental illness and other issues it raises, “Silver Linings Playbook” is a joy to watch (and will be to rewatch as well) because of the way we find ourselves in the characters.  Russell takes us through the fire with Bradley Cooper’s Pat Solitano in the first act, really managing to get us tense and high-strung along with the rest of his family as he attempts to reenter society after an eight-month stint in a psychiatric hospital.

While Pat is in a bit of a tailspin, we are also introduced to Jennifer Lawrence’s Tiffany, a widow who refuses to bear her pain in humble silence.  She opts instead to make everyone painfully aware of her every feeling and thought, facing life with a blunt honesty that jolts Pat’s insistence on positive thinking.  They butt heads at a dinner party with each’s unique stubbornness leading to low points for all.

But since rock bottom is the starting point for Pat and Tiffany, we root for them as they attempt to put their worst days past them and make each other better.  Now that Russell’s editing facilitates emotional rapport, the two feel like parts of ourselves that we usually try to pretend don’t exist.  But on screen and embodied by Cooper and Lawrence, we embrace them and allow them to illuminate the crazy that lives within us all.

JenLaw

Despite their 15 year age difference, the chemistry between the two leads is absolutely pitch-perfect.  It starts out with an appropriate skepticism, not utter repudiation as current genre convention dictates, and then gradually progresses into understanding and feeling.  Cooper and Lawrence expose such wonderful truths in each other and show such humor and heart through their interplay.

Cooper is surprising as he marches firmly and confidently into commanding leading man territory.  As Pat, his performance is slowly revelatory of great thought and depth, although it often manifests itself as ridiculously misplaced puppy love for his unfaithful ex-wife.  His funny bone, which we all knew was there from “The Hangover,” works for him here, but his strongest asset in “Silver Linings Playbook” is an almost theatrical sense of dramatic timing.  He knows when to tone down his performance and let his lack of manic action speak loudly.

Lawrence doesn’t really shut up, but in some ways, that just makes her performance that much better.  You can’t get enough of her when she’s on screen spinning Russell’s words into insightful gold.  In the hands of a lesser actress, Tiffany’s line about how there will always be a part of her that is sloppy and messy would lead you to dismiss her as a harlot.  But Lawrence not only prevents that outcome, she makes her character more real, more like us.

Perhaps its her very lack of traditional discipline, letting her mouth and emotions run wild, that draws us all the closer to Tiffany.  She’s brash, brazen, yet totally believable.  Whether she’s afraid or assertive, there’s some part of this character where Lawrence reflects a part of you.  The question she, through Tiffany, asks is whether you are comfortable enough to identify and associate with that very aspect.

DeNiro

Along with an ensemble cast of kooky characters, including Robert DeNiro as Pat’s obsessive-compulsive father in a very post-modernly introspective role, Cooper and Lawrence bring “Silver Linings Playbook” home for genre gold and pure moviegoing delight.  It may not pack the punch of “The Fighter,” but taking in mind the different tones and audiences, I think this will be the one I always stop to watch on television while I’m channel surfing on the weekends.

It’s such a magical feeling when a movie gets you intoxicated not only on itself but on the entire craft of cinema as well.  You go into a dark room and carry in whatever baggage from the day, but you emerge joyful, reinvigorated, and transformed.

That’s how I felt when I walked out of the theater after a rapturously good time with “Hitchcock.”  Sacha Gervasi’s slice-of-biopic flick, focusing on the time when the master of suspense struggled to get “Psycho” made, strikes the right chords throughout the film.  It respects the mastery of Hitchcock but does not fear him as an untouchable deity, treating him as a man and artist just like anyone else.

But Gervasi’s film is more than just about Hitchcock or even the artistic climate into which he released what is still one of the best horror films ever made.  Clear parallels are drawn to the current day world of film production.  You know, the world where an unambitious movie like “John Carter” gets greenlit and causes a $150 million write-down while a masterpiece like “Black Swan” has to scrap together a budget but reaps it back 25 times over.

We now know Alfred Hitchcock as the legendary Hitchcock, but in his time, he struggled to have studio support for a movie that did not fit neatly into convention – even when coming off the enormous success of “North by Northwest.”  Thankfully, Hitchcock had faith in his own vision and was willing to finance it himself at enormous financial risk.

And Gervasi has wielded the knife of excoriation to jab at executives who were only looking to make a profit out of movies.  There are also a number of well-placed ironic remarks about the supposed failure of “Vertigo.”  You know, that movie that recently replaced “Citizen Kane” as the best film of all time according to Sight and Sound.  The myopia of Hollywood is lade bare to be mocked and criticized.  History has repeat itself with a vengeance.

Hitchcock

But beyond an allegory for the trouble state of the movies, “Hitchcock” delights on a number of other levels.  It’s got that “My Week with Marilyn”-esque joie de vivre, a behind-the-scenes look at an iconic figure that explores the side of their profile hidden from public view.  We get to see Hitch’s marriage, his jealousy, the way he treated his actors (particularly cruelly to Scarlett Johansson’s Janet Leigh and Jessica Biel’s Vera Miles), and the way he ran a set.  Something tells me the next time I see “Psycho,” I’ll look at it in an entirely different manner.

The movie also boasts a very touching love story at its core between Hitchcock and his wife, Helen Mirren’s shrewd shrew Alma Reveille.  Unbeknownst to many, she was an integral part in crafting some of his most famous movies.  And she was always the opinion he valued most.

But in “Hitchcock,” tensions arises when Alma tries to create a screenplay for herself with Danny Huston’s slimy womanizer Whitfield Cook.  It leads to the surfacing of plenty of questions and frustrations that bubbled under their relationship for years, and they only get heightened by the agonizing process of getting “Psycho” filmed.  Their fights are compelling to watch as Mirren and Hopkins, both feted for their incredible powers of assertion on screen, manage to tear each other apart but somehow draw us inwards towards them all the more.

Yet through the struggle, they fall in love all over again.  And we fall head over heels for them – and movies too.

Plenty of movies have in jokes – that is, little Easter eggs or bits of humor that will only be recognizable to those who pick up on the clever references.  And part of the fun of Hitchcock, the biopic of the master of suspense opening December 14 here at a/perture, is that it rewards those who know their classics.  As such, I’m going to be publishing posts about four movies that are essential to the fully enjoyment of Hitchcock.

The first of which is Vertigo.  As you may or may note know, the once-a-decade poll in the prestigious British film journal Sight & Sound (the across-the-pond equivalent of Film Comment that we sell in the lobby) named it the best movie of all time.  Yes, even better than Citizen Kane, their perennial best for 50 years running.

James Stewart and Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.

But Vertigo wasn’t always, well, Vertigo.  Upon release in 1958, it was greeted with mixed reception with critics.  In that time, there were no blogs and Internet sites for a multitude of film enthusiasts to voice their opinions, so only a few were heard … and their voice mattered a lot.  They were lukewarm on the film.  And audiences followed suit; the movie barely broke even.  For whatever reason, the film wound up getting re-evaluated and is now a beloved classic.

But in 1960, the film had yet to receive such a second glance.  And as Hitchcock struggles to get Psycho made, a number of studio executives can be heard importuning him not to make another Vertigo.  They refer to it as a flop, a dud, a disaster … among many things.  Little do they know, ironically pokes the film Hitchcock, what it will become.  How funny the past looks when viewed with the 20/20 perspective of hindsight.

Vertigo 2

But is Vertigo all that great?  Is it the best film ever made, as Sight & Sound would have us believe?  I’ve only seen the film once and definitely need to give it a second viewing before I fully make up my mind, but it is not nearly my favorite film directed by Hitchcock.

I went for an academic perspective and asked the director of the Film Studies department at Wake Forest, Dr. Woodrow Hood.  He prefers Citizen Kane to Vertigo.  “Vertigo is a rather mundane melodrama told brilliantly well.  Each shot and every moment builds most satisfyingly to its climactic finish.  The acting is riveting,” he said.  “Maybe the difference is that Vertigo is more satisfying as an audience experience.  But, as a person who has devoted a life to the study of film, performance, art, and design, I’m always voting for Citizen Kane.”

He also added: “We have a new film about the life of Hitchcock, not Welles.  That is significant.”

So I guess my take on Vertigo is as followed, and I’m fully prepared to take a lot of heat for what I’m about to say.  In fact, as I ponder making this statement in my head, I myself wonder if I’m a humongous hypocrite.  What I’m about to suggest could spark some serious outrage, perhaps on the level of suggesting Citizen Kane isn’t all that great.

I’d like to see Vertigo, with the same script, comparable actors, and the same Hitchcock penchant for filmmaking, be remade in the present day.

There, I said it.  It’s out there, I can’t take it back.  But while watching Vertigo, I was struck by the powerful and affecting portrait of a mentally disturbed policeman played by James Stewart.  I found Kim Novak’s work as the woman who claims to be possessed by the spirit of a dead woman to be frightening.  I felt Hitchcock’s masterful storytelling with the camera to be totally present.  I was totally engaged by the smart writing, which harkens to a mystery of almost mythical proportions.

Vertigo 3

Yet the visuals just felt so … outdated.  Yes, this is obvious given that the movie is over half a century old.  Obviously, it was about as good as it got back then.  But this is 2012, and when the camera is stuck in the past while the story remains timeless, it can’t help but be distracting.  In fact, it goes beyond that – it detracts.  The movie’s style now alienates us from the movie, pulling us out to remind us, “Oh, this is a movie, and this is how they could visually represent the fear of heights back then.”

So to maintain that pervasive sense of acrophobia, why not remake Vertigo with modern technology that would make this classic story work so much better for the audiences of today?  Isn’t that why we should be remaking movies?  Not just to be lazy or to sloppily “update” it to market to younger crowds, a remake of Vertigo that preserved the timeless integrity of the acting and storytelling would be perfect.  Because, perhaps with the exception of historic visual achievements, the look of a movie is something that should hold power no matter if it’s being shown in 1958 or 2012.  I’m convinced that it would have rocked me to my core had my eyes been borrowed from that era.

If you had Christopher Nolan directed a remake of Vertigo with say, Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the Jimmy Stewart role, it would be absolutely incredible.  Although I don’t think we will ever see it since Gus Van Sant’s Psycho made Hitchcock’s ouvre untouchable.  Nolan has been exploring the themes of Vertigo for nearly 15 years in his work and could do an excellent job retelling it for a new generation.  But we’re romantically married to the film as nostalgia and a relic.