Review – Silver Linings Playbook

A quick glance at the plot for Silver Linings Playbook and you’d be forgiven for expecting yet another excruciating Hollywood romantic comedy, the kind that Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston seem to find themselves in.

Silver Linings Playbook

David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook – “smart and spiky screwball comedy for the internet age”

What should make this film even worse is that its central figure Pat Jr (Bradley Cooper) has bipolar disorder, which normally results in the sort of turned-up-to-11  manic performance that cries out for an Academy Award.

The fact that Silver Linings Playbook manages to avoid the trap doors and skirts around the clichés is largely down to the mercurial David O. Russell, who adapts and directs this smart and spiky screwball comedy for the internet age from Matthew Quick’s short story.

Pat is diagnosed after attacking his wife’s lover in the shower and, after eight months in a psychiatric institution is released into the care of his OCD-afflicted, Philadelphia Eagles-obsessed father Pat Snr (Robert De Niro) and long-suffering mother Dolores (Australian actress Jacki Weaver). Without a job or a wife, Pat is determined to rebuild his life, believing that if he gets fit and stays positive he can save his marriage.

At a friend’s dinner party he meets the self-destructive Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who has tried to overcome her grief at the death of her husband by sleeping around. Tiffany offers Pat a deal – she’ll help him reconnect with his wife as long as he becomes his dance partner for an upcoming ballroom competition.

Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) and Pat (Bradley Cooper) audition for Strictly Come Dancing in Silver Linings Playbook

Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) and Pat (Bradley Cooper) audition for Strictly Come Dancing in Silver Linings Playbook

Russell knows the rom-com tropes – Pat and Tiffany are clearly made for each other – but in the best tradition of those classic screwball comedies, all the fun comes in how these two broken souls finally realise what the audience have known all along.

Crucially, the chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence is fantastic. They fizz off each other like a pair of firecrackers, from the amusing dinner party when they swap anti-depressant stories like Christmas cards to the sultry dance sequences.

The two are equally tactless, whether it be Pat asking Tiffany how many people she slept with in her office before being fired, or Tiffany saving Pat the bother of reading Lord of the Flies by summarising it for him and throwing the book away, annoyed he’s only reading it because it’s on the high school syllabus his estranged wife is teaching (reflecting an earlier scene when Pat throws a copy of A Farewell to Arms through the window because he’s disgusted with the pessimistic ending).

"Go Eagles!" Pat Jnr (Bradley Cooper) and Pat Snr (Robert De Niro) celebrate in Silver Linings Playbook

“Go Eagles!” Pat Jnr (Bradley Cooper) and Pat Snr (Robert De Niro) celebrate in Silver Linings Playbook

This is no smooth ride to love of course; Tiffany attacks Pat for being “afraid to be alive” and feels increasingly used by her dance partner as nothing more than a tool in which to win back his spouse. Pat feels guilty for getting closer to Tiffany and suffers a number of violent bipolar episodes, including one in the reception of his therapist Dr Patel (Bollywood favourite Anupam Kher).

Pat Snr, meanwhile, faces his own struggles. In one moving scene, beautifully played by De Niro, he has a moment of guilty realisation that father and son are perhaps more alike than he thought and tries to find some common ground over their shared love of the Eagles.

Cooper has never been better, which admittedly isn’t saying a lot as his output, until now, has hardly been stellar. He isn’t afraid to make Pat unlikeable and restrains himself from falling back on the pretty-boy mugging he’s been guilty of in the past.

Pat Jnr (Bradley Cooper) tries to stay on top of his bipolar disorder in Silver Linings Playbook

Pat Jnr (Bradley Cooper) tries to stay on top of his bipolar disorder in Silver Linings Playbook

After years of picking up the pay cheque, it’s great to see De Niro back on form. For once, he looks fully engaged and appears to enjoy playing opposite Cooper again (following the patchy Limitless).

In lesser hands, the role of Tiffany could have become unbearably kooky or flaky. Apparently Russell originally had Zooey Deschanel in mind for the part, so one can only imagine how painful that would have been to watch.

Instead, Lawrence forgoes the crazy and brings a vulnerability to the role that’s refreshing to see. Instead of relying on a pout or a flailing of the limbs, she does a lot of her work with her eyes, expressing confidence, defensiveness or pain in a single look.

The exaggerated family dynamic and pent up emotions bring to mind Russell’s previous film The Fighter, but while that film somewhat lost its way, here he maintains a sharp focus and sweeps you along so persuasively that come the final dance contest you’ll be willing them on along with the rest.

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Review – Lincoln

There’s a moment at the start of Lincoln when you fear Steven Spielberg isn’t going to be able to resist going all Amistad on us and clubbing you over the head with the film’s message.

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln

The scene is thus: following a brief prologue of Civil War carnage involving black and white soldiers (proving that everyone is equal on the battlefield), a black union soldier respectfully gibes the President about inequality. Two white unionists approach separately and in worshipful tones quote Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (“Four score and seven years ago…”) back to him, but stumble over the final words, leaving it to the African-American trooper to complete the recital before rejoining his company.

On the face of it, this opening four minutes or so brings to mind the sort of heavy-handed approach Spielberg has so often been guilty of in his historical epics. Yet, delve a little deeper and it becomes apparent Tony Kushner’s script and Spielberg’s direction are very cleverly revealing two contrasting perceptions of Lincoln; on one side is the saintly Honest Abe figure common to school textbooks, on the other the crafty politician with a gift for oratory who nevertheless knows that deeds, not words are what’s needed.

Lincoln focuses tightly on the final four months of the Republican president’s life, centring on the politicking and increasingly frantic horse-trading that took place in the darkened corridors of power in early 1865 to secure passage through the House of Representatives of the crucial 13th Amendment to the US Constitution to formally abolish slavery.

Lincoln

Honest Abe (Daniel Day-Lewis) mournfully surveys the battlefield in Lincoln

With the Civil War in its final death throes, time is of the essence for Lincoln, who is worried his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation decreeing that all slaves be freed will be thrown out by the courts once the war is over and the 13th Amendment defeated by the returning slave states of the south. Warned not to do it by those closest to him for fear of tarnishing his revered reputation, the President realises the opportunity could be lost and leans heavily on his colleagues to help him get the vote through.

Needing a two-thirds majority in the House, Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward (David Straithairn) send lobbyists William Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson) out to procure the crucial votes of on-the-fence Democrats by any means necessary.

Tommy Lee Jones as fiery Republican Congessional leader Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln

Tommy Lee Jones as fiery Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln

Three distinct threads run through the film – the war of words in the House between Democrats and Republican congressmen enjoying the sound of their own voice, the behind-the-scenes machinations, and the strain on Lincoln’s marriage to First Lady Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) – and it’s to Spielberg’s great credit that we never lose focus of any of them.

Kushner’s witty script is necessarily talky, and it pays not to lose attention, but the enormity of the stakes is always clear and the dialogue positively crackles in the hands of probably the greatest cast assembled for any Spielberg film to date.

Tommy Lee Jones, in his best role for years, has a ball as Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, a radical anti-slavery advocate who can’t stop himself insulting Democratic leaders for sport, but knows when to keep his cards close to his chest when the need arises.

There’s a levity to the efforts of the lobbyists to curry the Democrats’ favour, although the grave seriousness of their task is not lost, and the vote itself is expertly handled by Spielberg, who ratchets up the tension like the old pro he is.

Daniel Day Lewis as Honest Abe in Lincoln

Daniel Day Lewis as Honest Abe in Lincoln

The ideologically led politics of Lincoln serves as a timely parallel to the entrenched state of today’s American party political system where petty in-fighting and belligerence can often push progress to the sidelines.

It seems appropriate that America’s most beloved President is played by arguably today’s greatest living actor and Daniel Day-Lewis is stupendous in the title role. He plays Lincoln as a kindly uncle who chooses to win people over with an amusing anecdote or a subtle observation and, ever the politician, engages in a lot of hand holding.

First Lady Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) in Lincoln

First Lady Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) in Lincoln

Day-Lewis makes it look effortless, finding a pause here or a change of tone there to give what will probably become the definitive take on this most adored of presidents. It’s a masterclass in the power of knowing when to underplay a role, to the extent that when some of the cast look in awe of the President you wonder whether it’s actually Day-Lewis they are marvelling at.

We see a more vulnerable Lincoln when he shares private moments with Mary, who has fallen apart following the death of their son and begs her husband to stop their other sibling Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from joining the war effort. Their pained arguments are powerfully wrought, and Field is excellent as a figure who, like Abe, must compartmentalise personal grief for the good of the country.

Despite this being Spielberg’s most mature and discliplined work to date, he still can’t help himself on occasion, whether it be the rather obvious symbolism of a ticking clock and Lincoln glancing at his watch to show how time is running out, or the saccharine moment when the President walks to a window bathed in light upon hearing the vote has been passed.

Bringing to life a significant moment in the turbulent history of the world’s only superpower, who’d have thought a film where little happens for long periods could be this engrossing?

Review – Safety Not Guaranteed

Looking to fill a blank space in the September 1997 edition of Backwoods Home Magazine, employee John Silveira wrote a pithy classified ad as a joke.

Safety Not Guaranteed

Safety Not Guaranteed – “there’s enough heart here to earn a smile come the closing credits”

The ad stated: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before”.

Little did Silveira know that his throwaway paragraph would prove the inspiration for the low-budget Safety Not Guaranteed, a comedy-drama equal parts whimsical and melancholic from the mumblecore stable of American independents.

Disconnected and disillusioned Darius (Aubrey Plaza) interns at a Seattle magazine and volunteers with fellow staffer Arnau (Karan Soni) to assist writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) in tracking down the ad’s author in a sleepy seaside town. This turns out to be Kenneth (mumblecore alumnus Mark Duplass), an eccentric and paranoid supermarket employee who deals in conspiracy theories and is convinced secret agents are out to get him.

She poses as an applicant with her own reasons to want to travel back in time and wins the trust of the slightly obsessed, but kind-hearted loner, who sees in Darius a kindred spirit and someone who’s not afraid “to stare fear and danger in the eye and say ‘yes'”.

Darius at first indulges the child-like Kenneth’s plan to build a time machine, believing it to be nothing more than a fantasy, but as they spend more time together she finds herself increasingly attracted to the fellow misfit and starts to wonder if what he’s claiming is actually the real deal.

Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Kenneth (Mark Duplass) in Safety Not Guaranteed

Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Kenneth (Mark Duplass) in Safety Not Guaranteed

Safety Not Guaranteed brings to mind the offbeat 1980 film Somewhere In Time, in which Christopher Reeve’s writer becomes so obsessed with a picture of an actress (played by Jane Seymour) that he travels back in time to 1912 to be with her.

Memory, in particular the desire to recapture and revisit a specific moment in time, is a prominent motif throughout the film. Darius, who has resigned herself to simply “expect the worst and try not to get my hopes up”, would rather return to when life was easier and made more sense.

According to Kenneth, the whole point of building his time machine is to prevent a tragic event from occurring, although as he lets slip to Darius, it’s actually more “about a time and a place” when he believes he was happiest.

Darius (Aubrey Plaza), Arnau (Karan Soni) and Jeff (Jake Johnson) try to track down the mysterious author of an unconventional ad in Safety Not Guaranteed

Darius (Aubrey Plaza), Arnau (Karan Soni) and Jeff (Jake Johnson) try to track down the mysterious author of an unconventional ad in Safety Not Guaranteed

The melancholic yearning for younger, less complicated days is also present in the character of Jeff, who uses the assignment to look up his first love, whom he has reminisced about and wondered ‘what if?’ for years. He also urges Arnau not to waste his youth and, in scenes reminiscent of Roger Dodger prises the young intern away from his laptop to introduce him to the world of girls.

Director Colin Trevorrow gives the film a lightness of touch that dilutes the sadness of Derek Connolly’s script. Duplass, who has made a career out of directing inward-looking adults with arrested development excels as Kenneth, bringing the right mix of oddball innocence to the role.

Plaza (from TV’s Parks and Recreation) has the face-slapped-with-a-wet-fish look down to a tee, but finds an endearing sweetness in her scenes with Duplass. Indeed, the moments when the two are training for their ‘mission’ are the highlights of the film.

Whether you buy the ending largely depends on how invested you are in the characters. Trevorrow for one tries his best to sell it, as do the cast, and while it doesn’t entirely convince there’s enough heart here to earn a smile come the closing credits.

Review – Berberian Sound Studio

There’s something wonderfully outrageous about fruit and vegetables being used by serious, technically-gifted individuals to represent the sound of a body slamming onto the ground or a neck being broken.

It’s a side of filmmaking normally hidden from the audience, a process that takes place long after the cameras have stopped rolling and the actors have moved on to other projects.

Berberian Sound Studio

Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio – “a masterclass in sustained dread”

In director Peter Strickland’s astonishing Berberian Sound Studio, this is turned completely on its head, wherein the mechanics of sound reproduction (known as foley) take precedence. Moreover, Strickland sets the film in the 1970s, when warm and fuzzy analogue equipment like tape recorders and magnetic tape was used, in contrast to the clinical digital apparatus employed today.

Strickland used a modest inheritance and relocated to Transylvania to shoot Katalin Varga, a striking, outré revenge drama that marked him out as one to watch. The writer/director has taken a massive leap forward with his sophomore feature, a head-spinning psychological horror-thriller that plunges buttoned up sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) into a frenzied whirlpool of his own making.

Gilderoy has flown from Britain to Italy to work on The Equestrian Vortex, what he assumes is the sort of nature documentary he has made his stock in trade from his garden shed in Dorking.

Unbeknownst to him, The Equestrian Vortex is in actuality a sadistic, stomach-churning giallo horror film, the sort of supernaturally-charged splatter-fests made famous by such maestros of the genre as Dario Argento and Mario Bava.

Toby Jones as Gilderoy in Berberian Sound Studio

Toby Jones as Gilderoy in Berberian Sound Studio

As the images of torture, rape and mutilation are projected to Gilderoy for the first time, we see his facial reaction contort between voyeuristic intrigue and disgust. All the audience sees of the film are its opening credits, with its blood-red palette and shots of terrified women.

Sitting alongside the film’s irritable, unforgiving producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) in the claustrophobic sound studio, he goes to work recording marrows being hacked to pieces, cabbages being stabbed and radishes having their tops violently ripped off (all of which are left to rot in a none-too subtle moment of symbolism). He also records the bone-chilling screams of several women, in particular the paranoid Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou), who is angry for allowing herself to be exploited by the film’s suave, oily director Santini (Antonio Mancino) and warns Gilderoy against making the same mistake.

A homesick stranger in a strange land, he gradually finds himself being dragged deeper into the cesspool of moral filth and degradation that is playing out on screen and clings onto letters from his mother describing the untainted day-to-day mundanities his increasingly fractured psyche is losing a grip of.

Gilderoy allows his work to overwhelm him, in much the same way as Gene Hackman’s suveilance expert Harry Caul in The Conversation, and before long he’s no longer able to differentiate between reality and his nightmarish paranoia where each disturbing sound is amplified and the silence is almost as deafening.

Psychological horror at its very best in Berberian Sound Studio

Psychological horror at its very best in Berberian Sound Studio

Strickland fearlessly takes his protaganist  into a vortex of his own making and nods to David Lynch and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona in the way he portrays Gilderoy’s mental breakdown on screen. It’s deeply unsettling stuff, rivetingly played by Jones in a career-best turn. Jones has one of those faces that can exude gentility and cruelty at the same time (if ever a remake of 10 Rillington Place was made, he would be perfect as unassuming serial killer John Christie) and we’re left to make our own mind up as to whether Gilderoy’s experiences have corrupted him or merely held a mirror to the darkness he (and we) fear has always been there.

The process of producing the sounds are as lovingly shot as the equipment on which they are recorded (Strickland holds the camera on tape spools or the analogue sound desk). In spite of the film’s suffocating grip, there are many moments of black humour and scenes of real beauty, in particular when Gilderoy shows his colleagues how he can create the sound of a UFO by scraping a light bulb against a wire brush.

For a film where sound is everything, foley artist Heikki Kossi must get special mention, while ethereal electro band Broadcast provide a suitably haunting score.

Utterly unique, Berberian Sound Studio is a masterclass in sustained dread and the first of what could well be a slew of masterpieces from this vital, gifted filmmaker.

Review – Beasts Of The Southern Wild

New Orleans and the wider gulf coast of Louisiana have been forced to endure more than their fair share of disaster, grief and suffering since the terrible devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

The impact of the hurricane has been the foundation of numerous documentaries, including Spike Lee’s exhaustive When the Levees Broke and the superb TV series Treme.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild – “a gothic fairytale of real beauty”

The city was front and centre of Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, while other films have used the area’s devastated locations as backdrops to the story they are telling, whether it be the moral decay that permeates the Brad Pitt-starring Killing Them Softly or the apocalypse in The Road.

However, none have found such beauty in decay as Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a beguiling, magical fairytale that must count as one of the most striking directorial debuts of recent years.

The film follows Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a strong-willed six-year-old girl who lives with her ailing, hard-drinking fisherman father Wink (Dwight Henry). The two live hand-to-mouth in separate rickety shacks that look like they’re about to collapse, surrounded by a menagerie of animals.

They live in a tiny bayou community of eccentric souls called the ‘Bathtub’, so called because it has been cut off from the outside world by a levee, with the “dry world” as Hushpuppy calls it on the other side. Hushpuppy and the other children are taught by the charismatic Miss Bathsheba on how to survive in the face of impending global warming, a consequence of which, little do they realise, will be the release of the giant prehistoric boar-like Aurochs from the melting ice caps.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) out-guns her daddy (Dwight Henry) in Beasts of the Southern Wild

Miss Bathsheba points to her cave painting tattoos of the Aurochs, something that inspires Hushpuppy to draw her own images so that “in a million years, when kids go to school, they’re gonna know once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub”.

When a giant Katrina-style storm floods the Bathtub, the resilient Hushpuppy realises the universe as she knows it has been thrown off balance and she must do all she can, including searching out her mother, to save her dying father.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is as beloved to some as it is infuriating to others. Although entitled to hold their opinions, the naysayers are missing the point.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) comes face-to-face with a prehistoric Auroc in Beasts of the Southern Wild

Any film featuring a child as the protaganist and narrated by that same youngster will instrinsically be equal parts illogical and fantastical. In the wrong hands, a film such as this can bury itself under an avalanche of too-cute whimsy, but Zeitlin admirably walks the tightrope and produces a gothic fairytale of real beauty.

The world of the Bathtub is so convincingly realised by Zeiltlin, you can almost smell the cajun spices and feel the water lapping under your feet. When you’re removed from it, as the characters are against their will by the authorities following the storm (evacuated to the ironically-titled Open Arms shelter), you feel as desperate to get back as they do.

Wallis is a force of nature as the headstrong, enchanting Hushpuppy, more adult than the grown-ups at times, in other moments a needy child who wants nothing more than to be held by her father, or mother if she can find her. You accept without reservation the father-daughter relationship she has with Henry, a non-professional actor who owned the bakery Zeitlin would use for breakfast while casting the film. Henry gives a raw, heart-breaking performance as the weakening Wink who loves his daugher dearly but struggles to find the proper words or deeds.

Credit must also be given to the wondrous score, heavily influenced by Michael Nyman and Philip Glass, which serves as another way into this magical kingdom.

Does everything work here? No; the whole side narrative involving the Aurochs feels like a step too far, while some of the characters are a little too eccentric for their own good.

However, Beasts of the Southern Wild remains a bewitching, poetic fable, a real one-off that, as Hushpuppy puts it is a “little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes things right”.