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The Family (2013)

The_Family_2013_Movie_Poster_convertedThe most impressive thing I can credit The Family, an otherwise adequate action-comedy with identity issues, is that it makes each member of its titular family worth watching. Robert De Niro is the patriarch of a family on the run from the Mob, who used to serve as De Niro’s chief employer. They’re hiding in Normandy, France, and trying to blend in, with very mixed results. I was worried that everything was going to be too obvious, but the movie does a fine job of rounding out its cast, giving each family member a personality, flaws, and a reason you want to keep tabs with them. I enjoyed the son’s single-minded manipulation of his school, able to suss out everyone’s needs and how to turn alliances. De Niro starts writing his memoirs as a therapeutic exercise, but really nothing comes from this obvious plot catalyst. The nagging problem that dogs the movie is an inconsistent tone. The violence can be rather brutal and much of it is meant to be silly, but it doesn’t come across that way. In fact, most of the film’s laughs are tied up in over-the-top, and often, bloody violence. But the movie isn’t dark enough to work as a twisted comedy, holding back to become something of an uneven mob cartoon with plenty of hoary Italian stereotypes. As a result, when the third act is all bloody mayhem, it feels like The Family is three half-baked movies badly stitched together. I laughed enough and was passably entertained but The Family is too dark to work as a lark, too juvenile to be substantial, and too predictable by half.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

I am in love. It’s been days since I watched Silver Linings Playbook and I’m still under its spell. It’s a movie that gave me such rapturous emotional peaks, a deeply satisfying crowd-pleaser that doesn’t just nail the big moments, it crushes them. This is a movie that works so well with just about every facet of storytelling, from acting to writing to directing, that you’re liable to be in awe as I was.

Pat (Bradley Cooper), a high school history teacher, came home one day to find his wife in the shower with another man. He admittedly lost it, beating the man bloody, and has been remanded to a state psych ward for the past eight months. It’s determined that Pat is an undiagnosed bipolar case, and the court orders him to stay on his meds and stay 500 feet away from his now ex-wife, Nikki. Having lost his home, Pat is living with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver), both of whom don’t know how to help their troubled son. Pat is convinced he can win back his wife. He starts conditioning by running, wearing a garbage bag to better sweat off the pounds, and meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). She’s been fighting through depression after coping from the sudden death of her police officer husband. She agrees to help Pat get in contact with his ex, passing a letter, but at a price. He must compete with her in a dancing competition. They spend hours practicing their routine, getting to know one another, and stabilizing one another, providing a foundation for healing and success.

The story itself isn’t anything groundbreaking; you could glibly label it as the “bipolar rom-com” and it does adhere to that structure for the second half. But this is David O. Russell we’re talking about, the man behind 2010’s The Fighter, yes, but also offbeat dysfunctional family comedies like Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster. The man has a way of working within the framework of conventions and finding the rough edges, to make stories at once familiar and excitingly new. Is there anything groundbreaking with Silver Linings Playbook? It’s your boy-meets-girl formula at heart, but the execution is so extremely sure-footed, so exceptionally handled, that the movie leaves you buzzy and beaming. Once it ended, I wanted to run around, shouting from the rooftops for people to run out and see this movie. You want others to share in something so special and affecting. I felt a similar passion after seeing the unconventional romance Safety Not Guaranteed, and I’d advise any fans of Safety to certainly check out Silver. Being a rousing, crowd-pleasing sort of movie is not necessarily a yoke to weigh down its artistic integrity. As if enjoyment and creative accomplishment are opposing forces. I freely admit that Silver Linings Playbook is a masterful movie that knows what it takes to get an audience cheering, and I was thrilled to be part of that cheering throng. Here is a movie that just makes you feel good, and when was the last movie you saw that made you feel glowing with happiness?

This in an emotionally rich film; I was so happy after my screening that it felt like a high I didn’t want to come down from. To engineer a reaction that enhanced, that enlightened, that potent, well I must sing the praises of Russell and his actors. I bought into the love story and family drama big time. The payoffs are meaty and numerous, and I often found the film to be sincerely moving. There’s a great satisfaction in watching two oddballs find their special someone’s, and when the characters are this interesting, this human, and so well portrayed, it makes every stop along the journey that much more engaging and emotionally triumphant. It’s got an ending that pulls it all together in spectacular fashion, giving us exactly what we want while feeling earned and on its own eccentric terms. This is a deeply felt and compassionate film, one with as much uplift as acerbic rebellion. You feel like these people really do love one another. Silver Linings Playbook has memorized the playbook on how to win over an audience, but it always comes down to the same Xs and Os: strong characters, a compelling story, and people we genuinely care about, and that includes distaff supporting characters too.

The characters are so interesting and beautifully flawed, and the actors are so in tune with one another, delivering bar-raising performances that take the movie into another realm of enjoyment. When actors are given plum roles about people with mental illnesses or disabilities, it must be very enticing to overindulge in tics and self-conscious mannerisms. That doesn’t happen with Silver Linings Playbook. Beyond an uptick in tempo, the actors portray their parts as characters rather than ailments. If anything, the acting in this movie is practically restrained given the circumstances. What’s more, Silver Linings Playbook is a fine example of what can happen when the cast works in tandem, challenging one another to up their game. It’s like every actor felt revived from all the talent on display. Russell knows how to push his actors like few other directors, and while this has lead to notorious Internet videos of his actors losing their cool, it’s also given way to raw performances that burn in your memory. Russell gets his actors to bring their A-game and then some. The Fighter got three Oscar nods for acting and I wouldn’t be surprised if Silver Linings Playbook gets three as well (I think Lawrence and De Niro are locks).

Cooper (The Hangover) has always had a certain smirking, leering quality about him, a guy used to portraying louts with charisma. I have never seen him tackle anything nearly as challenging as what he does with Pat. He’s unpredictably combustible, ready to explode at any moment, but also empathetic, trying to do better. Pat isn’t meant to be seen as a loveable loser. This guy has serious problems he’s working through. Cooper is simply incredible, showcasing skills and nuance you didn’t know the man had, radiating with an intense outpouring of spontaneous energy that doesn’t ever feel forced. Cooper is not bouncing off the walls here as some wild-eyed loony, playing upon codified ideas of what a bipolar person behaves like. He’s a deeply complicated guy, processing challenging and contradicting feelings in a brain that doesn’t necessarily follow the rules. He has so many impulses leading him in different directions. Pat is obsessed with his goal of impressing his wife, so much that he seems blind to the tangible connection he’s formed with Tiffany, and we yearn that he realizes the catch in front of him. I was won over completely by Cooper’s committed, attentive, anxious, and lively performance.

Readers will know that I harbor a serious crush when it comes to the talented actress, Lawrence (The Hunger Games). I was expecting her to be great in this movie, as this is pretty much my default setting with the actress at this point. I was not expecting what she delivered, a performance that is so enthralling, so astonishing, that you’ll be left stupefied that a woman at only the young age of 22 could be this phenomenally gifted. Lawrence had several scenes that just left me speechless. Lawrence is in elite territory now as far as I’m concerned. Her command of the character is just about impeccable, and you perk up every moment she’s onscreen. She’s a damaged woman recovering from her own powerful grief, but she’s so many things at any one moment. She can be lusty, provocative, angry, sullen, commanding, vulnerable, and hurtful. There are scenes where she will bounce around a plethora of emotional states, but each one gradually shifts to the other, making the transformation genuine and another layer to the character. If she were just some crazy girl we wouldn’t care if she eventually got her happy ending with Pat. With Lawrence’s talents, and Russell’s sharp writing, Tiffany becomes a figure worth fighting for, a bruised romantic that finds her rare kindred spirit who accepts and appreciates her messiness.

The supporting cast from top to bottom may not be at the same level as Cooper and Lawrence, but their output is also impressive. De Niro (Limitless) hasn’t been this good in ages, delivering a few monologues that will hit you square in the gut. Weaver (The Five-Year Engagement) is something of an enabler for the family, but she also gets her moments to shine and reassert her strength and dignity. Chris Tucker (in his first non-Rush Hour movie since 1997) is the least Chris Tucker I’ve ever seen him. He’s downplayed his motor mouth tendencies completely, and he’s a wonderful presence as he ducks in and out. He even teaches Tiffany how to “black up” her dance, a fact that most heterosexual males in the audience will be thankful for this time of year.

Russell deserves serious credit for portraying mental illness in a manner that doesn’t dance around the seriousness of the condition. Statistically one in three people suffer from a mental illness at some point in their life, and I’ll even admit that post-divorce, I too fell amongst those ranks (I’m a statistic!). In the case of Pat, He’s not just some unfeeling jerk who says inappropriate things or has problems reading social cues. He’s a guy going through serious personal struggles, same with Tiffany. These are not jokes. They are not send-ups of mental illness; they are people. At no point does the humanity of these characters get lost. We will laugh at their inappropriate comments, sure, but we are never laughing at them from some cushy sanctuary of superiority. I also think Russell examines an interesting, more socially-acceptable form of mass mental illness, namely the OCD-nature associated with sports superstitions. Smart and capable people can get caught up in the allure of superstitions, and when it concerns sports in general, groupthink overpowers. I consider myself a sports fan as well (I’m a double statistic!) and fully accept the ridiculous nature of fandom, but I thought it was a clever move for Russell to hold the mirror up to our own cracked community and its irrational behavior. And as any Philadelphia sports fan will acknowledge, they take fandom to a whole other level.

At this point, I don’t know what more I can write about this movie without coming across as a complete, frothing madman. Football, mental illness, ballroom dancing! I’m smitten big time with Silver Linings Playbook. I’m completely in the tank for this film. Future viewings (already planning one soon) will probably highlight certain minute flaws I’ve failed to notice the first go-round. And even if those flaws become more apparent (yes the final dance is something of a contrived climax) I simply do not care. The movie’s many virtues far exceed any shortcomings that could potentially arise. It plays to some familiar rom-com elements but it goes about its business with its own funky charm. The acting, writing, and directing are all on such a heightened level of excellence, it’s amazing just to watch all the parts work together so masterfully. I wasn’t just won over by this movie; I’ve become its disciple. I preach the gospel of Silver Linings Playbook. Here is a rapturous feel-good movie that doesn’t feel like it’s pandering or dulling its edge even after it takes some conventional turns. Cooper is terrific, Lawrence is astounding, and together they form the couple you cheer for. Silver Linings Playbook is everything you’d want in a stellar movie. I can’t wait to watch it again and get caught up in its wondrous spell once more. It took a long ten months but The Grey has finally been knocked off the perch. Silver Linings Playbook is nothing short of the best film I’ve seen this year.

Nate’s Grade: A

Limitless (2011)

With a dream premise for a pill-popping culture, Limitless is a visually fervent thriller that manages to stay a step ahead of the pack. Bradley Cooper takes a pill and can unlock full potential of his brain, which involves, obviously, scoring big paydays and women. It’s a silly fantasy but a universal curiosity of what we could do if given full access to our noodle. Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) uses every visual trick in the book to represent the new brainpowers, as we watch words, numbers, and memories drift through a colorful explosion of imagery. It’s all very pretty to look at. Burger’s visual prowess elevates the more pedestrian moments of Limitless, but the film has a way of surprising you. The Mob takes an interest in this wonder pill, operating at a new peak of production. A woman being hunted down takes the magic pill and is able to quickly formulate an escape. So what if the profound existential questions regarding human capacity and possibility are thrown aside, we got some nifty visual flourishes and foot chases here people. The pacing is relentless and the plot manages to find intriguing ways to keep a superbrainiac in danger. Limitless is a perfectly enjoyable movie with enough juice to forgive its lamer moments and contrived ending.

Nate’s Grade: B

Machete (2010)

Based on a fake Grindhouse trailer comes a tasty Tex-Mex exploitation film that manages to be an incendiary political statement wrapped in the flour tortilla of silly, bloody, and redeemably entertaining B-movie schlock. Only occasionally will the pacing slack, and co-director Robert Rodriguez’s film actually desires to become another trashy B-movie rather than sending them up with a wink, which was also an issue with his half of Grindhouse. All credit must go to the towering lead played by 66-year-old tough guy Danny Trejo. The man is unmistakable with an appearance like he was carved out of wood. His stoic, humorless main character (“Machete don’t text”) that becomes a superhuman enforcer for the rights of illegal immigrants. Machete satirizes xenophobic politics and race-baiting politicians (“If we don’t do something, Texas will become Mexico… again”) with aplomb, notably thanks to Robert DeNiro?s slimy state senator. The film slices up opponents of immigration as outsized zealots abusing immigrants for cheap labor and railing against them for cheap political points. I actually read that some conservative pundits were concerned that Machete would incite a race war, as if any movie had that kind of power today. The reason this movie works and The Expendables doesn’t is all tone. Machete never tries to be a straight movie from the opening seconds. Stuffed with over-the-top violence, slapstick comedy, bodacious babes (Michelle Rodriguez with an eye-patch has never looked more yummy), and Steven Seagal and his hair plugs as a Mexican drug lord, Machete is trashy fun but exceedingly trashy and exceedingly fun.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Score (2001)

Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, three of the greatest actors of three generations. This draw alone warrants a stroll to view The Score one would assume. But not so fast my friend. If you venture out to witness this movie chances are you will fall asleep within the first hour.

The plot runs through the all too familiar terrain of so many crime capers and heist flick predecessors. There’s the old pro who wants to retire (Robert De Niro) who gets pulled into a risky heist planned out by a young pup with some bite (Edward Norton). Will the old pro forgo his plans of retiring on a beach side with little umbrella drinks for one last shot at the big score? If you have to think about this question then you need to get out more. The scheme is to break into the Montreal Customs building and steal a scepter that could be worth as much as 30 million dollars. Stealing a scepter from French Canadians? Was this idea written on the back of a napkin at a bar?

This is in essence the plot of The Score. The characters are mere shells and never fleshed out. With any heist picture there should be the scenes where the characters engross themselves with the ins and outs of their scenario, the rehearsing and practicing, and finally the big move. The Score decides to lightly touch the first, skip the second, and barely give the audience much of the third. The film just isn’t playing by the rules it gives.

The Score is muddily directed by famed puppeteer Frank Oz. He has directed comedies over the past few years but his first foray into drama, or action, or whatever you want to call it, is downright embarrassing. The entire film waddles in muggy darkness, as if they didn’t have enough money to light the damn picture. After so many scenes of watching the outlines of actors or making out just their faces it just becomes fruitless to even watch. Maybe some of the money should have been poached from the stars’ hefty salaries to make sure that they were adequately lighted.

The beginning hour of The Score may very well be the worst time I’ve had in a theater all year. It’s drawn out beyond its own bounds to establish a set-up that could have been done properly with only a few minutes. This half of the film is leaden and wallowing in boredom, and it feels like it’s never going to end. I think I was actually contemplating suicide at one point.

The structure of The Score is easy to diagram. The first half has to do with the superfluous set-up, then we have ten minutes of the actual heist sequence, and then… it’s done. The film actually ends about three minuets after the heist complete with the now requisite twist ending that anyone with a functional brain will see coming a mile away. What needed to be done is to consolidate that slow-as-a-glacier beginning into something like twenty minutes, then double the length of the heist sequence and actually give it tension. Finally then have the rest of the movie play as a cat-and-mouse game of who has the upper hand with their burgled prize. This would have played with the actors more and at least keep the audience guessing and awake. As it stands, The Score is an incredibly unsuccessful effort when it comes to story structuring. This could be a future classic example of how not to tell a story.

Norton is the only real punch of intensity in the movie. When Norton reappears onscreen it’s as if The Score regains a sense of renewed life. He’s great to watch, either as the young ambitious hotheaded criminal or as his mentally retarded janitor cover. De Niro must be getting a good long distance plan because he phones in yet another performance. He plays his character too smooth that the audience can never fear that he is actually in any danger. Brando is basically for comic relief, that is, if you can understand him through his garbled mumbles. Did this man have a stroke or something? Angela Bassett is useless in this film and wasted. Her role is the frequently off camera girlfriend who urges her man to settle down and let this last one go.

The Score is a lousy heist picture and a lousier attempt at entertainment. It lacks tension, proper story structuring, and even basic movie fundamentals like proper lighting. The Score is a wasted ensemble of a great cast that could only echo the silly cartoon that was Con Air. See The Score if you dare, but make sure to take some NoDoz for the first half.

Nate’s Grade: C-

15 Minutes (2001)

Let me say this now and clear so everyone knows – DO NOT PUT EDWARD BURNS IN THE LEAD OF ANYTHING! Burns falls under that league of actors that can contribute and possibly do fine as supporting players but cannot carry a film. Now, moving on…

Robert DeNiro plays the head of a police force, but he’s also a local celebrity with his face everywhere from newspapers, to People magazine, to his own coffee franchise (I made up one, guess it). The woman from the NBC show ‘Providence’ with the gigantic Jersey hair plays the reporter that fawns over him and the girlfriend that reports him. She’s meaningless. Kelsey Grammar plays a heavy-handed out for blood journalist of a tabloid TV show that panders to our primal desires of violence. The show is seen as exploitative and possibly subversive – not to mention in poor taste. You may be asking how does Edward Burns get caught up in this? Well he’s an ace arson investigator that crosses paths with mega-star DeNiro. But see, Burns’ character HATES the media. Quite a contrast, eh?

Burns and DeNiro form an unlikely team and go through the rigid “Buddy Cop Movie” drill that’s been played numerous times before. They dislike each other, they tease and try to show up one another, they come to respect and appreciate the other and work as a team. Yawn.

DeNiro phones in a performance in like none he has ever done before, even Rocky and Bullwinkle. Grammar hams up his over-killed role. Burns is his typical atrociousness. If you look closely you’ll find the actor who played the older brother in Family Matters a.k.a. The Urkle Show in this flick. Man, his career time with Jaleel White must be paying off.

The real spirit of the film is in its two debut actors who also serve as the villains. These two are from Eastern Europe and search for old friends that seem not so friendly anymore. Some altercations happen and a killing spree begets them trying to rub out the lone red-headed witness of their murders. Along the way they discover they can sell the videotapes of their crimes to the top bidder and make a fortune. The two baddies are fun to watch and a joy to see whenever they return back to the screen. They seem to punch up 15 Minutes particularly during the tedious dead spots. These two actors seem to be the only life of the film, and it’s a terrible shame when we must veer off back to our lame storyline with Burns. credit this as another case of the villains being far more interesting than the heroes — the Austin Powers syndrome.

The major disappointment of 15 Minutes is what it looked like it would be. With the early teaser trailer it looked like it would be a scathing satire on media and our glorification of criminals as heroes. When the full length trailer came out it dropped to looking like another crazy serial killer flick. Sadly, it never rises above this. There are a few moments with some bite but 15 Minutes gums it along as far as satire is concerned. It’s more concerned with a standard by the book plot. The whole notion of using the videotapes and selling them to Grammar’s TV tabloid doesn’t even show up until twenty minutes before the film is over!

15 Minutes is a thriller that tries to be smart and savvy but tries to be by staying under standard conventions. The very ending to this film could have gone in a million different ways, some very satisfying, but it goes the predictable action-thriller way. Yawn. That’s what you’ll be doing a lot with 15 Minutes – regaining lost sleep.

Nate’s Grade: C

Meet the Parents (2000)

Ben Stiller is adept at playing everyman nice guys the audience yearns for to succeed. Something in his look, a twinkle in his eye – I don’t know. What I do know is put skilled comic Stiller, add a dash of stodgy Robert DeNiro as a foil counterpart, mix with ongoing catastrophe of errors, bake for twenty minutes at 450 and you have hilarity. Or at least, Meet the Parents. The premise is nothing new (in-laws from hell), but ‘Parents’ manages to find new laughs with an old concept. The chemistry between Stiller and the gruff DeNiro is fantastic and proves to produce numerous humorous situations. The laughs are genuine and keep stacking as the film continues on with more and more calamities happening for Stiller. Supporting characters all add something to the mix. Meet the Parents is likely the funniest film you’ll see all year without a man being stabbed in the head with a penis. What? I’m sentimental.

Nate’s Grade: B

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