Monday, January 21, 2013

Looking for a silver lining: January capsule reviews

Silver Linings Playbook
“Reckless” is not usually how I would describe a movie, but Silver Linings Playbook is such an egregious misfire that no other characterization would be appropriate. That’s not to say that David O. Russell's film, which has all the moves of a tired romantic comedy, doesn’t have some satisfying features. These include strong turns from Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro and an evocative rendering of the blue-collar outskirts of Philadelphia. But a handful of good performances and skillful visual grammar cannot overcome the unsettling reality that Silver Linings Playbook unforgivably trivializes a sensitive and difficult subject—mental illness—with silly plot contrivances and a dubious underlying message about blind faith. *½

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild takes you to a flood-prone locale outside New Orleans called The Bathtub, where a young girl named Hushpuppy sets off on an odyssey. Despite its problematic tendency to ennoble the girl and other members of this community with penetrating insights into the mysteries of life, Beasts nonetheless authors a rich portrait of a world far removed from the social and commercial restraints of modern society. Moreover, the film’s most distinctive trait is that it seamlessly melds a gritty brand of realism with sweeping emotional gusts and fantastical visions of folk legend that come to play a major role in Hushpuppy’s coming of age. ***

Looper has everything a good science fiction film should offer, including a new spin on an old concept (time travel), a bold depiction of the future, and most importantly a character-centric story. The plot is too detailed to recount here, suffice to say that director Rian Johnson approaches it only as an extension character, an emphasis that deepens the film's many bursts of intense violence. Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are both in fine form (playing, respectively, an older and younger version of the same man), but this is Johnson’s show, from the crisp writing to the distinctly understated visuals. Not every beat is successful, but Looper’s moving treatise on grief and remorse approaches greatness. ***½

The Deep Blue Sea
The Deep Blue Sea has an unbound emotional core, and yet it is defined by its reserve. Director Terence Davies adapts this play as if it were for the stage, giving us only a handful of characters and locations in telling this tale of a woman whose infidelities in post-World War II England magnify her deeper sadness. A stirring opening with sumptuous music and color set the tone for what becomes a somewhat muted and yet atmospheric work. The supporting characters are rendered too thinly for such challenging material, but the film is elevated by Rachel Weisz, who has no easy task in transmitting the suffering of a suicidal woman. Her restrained portrayal of transient hope and lingering depression is stunning. *** 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Critical Distance: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The critical response to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first part in Peter Jackson's new film trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, suggests that it's bloated and deficient of the propulsive energy that typified the Lord of the Rings films. The likely cause of dissatisfaction stems from Jackson's approach toward adapting the book. Whereas Jackson and his writing team condensed each volume of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy into its own film, with The Hobbit they've opted to adapt a considerably more straightforward narrative into three films. Thus, An Unexpected Journey only represents a small portion of the book. Critics have seized on this and critiqued the nearly three-hour film for being padded and flabby. While not necessarily untrue, these charges have fueled an abundance of banal commentaries bereft of any real insight into or about the movie. What's most discouraging about this is that An Unexpected Journey, though certainly vulnerable to criticism, is a more layered film than we've been led to believe.