At long last, Silver Lining’s Playbook– David O. Russell’s story of love in a hyper-diagnosed, over-medicated, label-dependent society – is available on DVD. Bradley Cooper plays a damaged man returning home to Philly from an institutionalized stint. He returns to a football obsessed father with undiagnosed OCD (Robert DeNiro – and he’s actually acting, everybody!), and his own unrelenting determination to win back his estranged wife. And then he meets an unbalanced, brooding, unquestionably hot neighbor (Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence). Both leads are fantastic, buoyed by an excellent supporting cast and a screenplay that bends to enough Hollywood tropes to be a crowd pleaser but subverts enough to be a real surprise.
We’re not going to pretend we championed Lawrence since her TV days on the Bill Envall show, but with Winter’s Bone, she impressed us and everyone else who saw her gritty, Oscar-nominated performance. As a young woman in the Ozarks wading through family secrets while searching for her father, Lawrence is never less than frighteningly real. She is surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast, most notably John Hawkes and Dale Dickie. Director/co-writer Debra Granick crafts a latter day Deliverance that grabs you early, not letting go until you feel that you’ve survived an experience, not merely seen a movie.
Jeff Nichols’s criminally underseen Take Shelter was the best film of 2011. Poetic and understated, steeped in the mores of small town Ohio, this story of a man haunted by visions of the apocalypse benefitted from a treatment fully at home in its setting. (It was also buoyed by faultless performances from Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.)
Nichols relocates to riverbeds in Arkansas for his follow up, Mud, a soulful, Huck Finn-style tale about modernization and the romantic notions that struggle against it.
Ellis (a powerful Tye Sheridan) lives with his parents on a ramshackle houseboat, where they eke out a living selling the fish they catch. His buddy Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland) lives with his Uncle Galen (Shannon), who survives on whatever bounty he can dredge from the river bottom.
To shake off the summer blues, the boys go seeking adventure on a little nearby island. There they find more than they bargained for in Matthew McConaughey as the fugitive Mud.
Last year, McConaughey turned around an increasingly craptacular career with a steady stream of magnificent turns in edgy, unique, independent films like Killer Joe. Mud shows the lanky Texan is still interested in being an actor as opposed to a star, and his charming rogue-in-need commands attention. More than that, his generous performance allows the younger actors to really shine.
Sheridan proved himself in 2011’s The Tree of Life, but here he shoulders the bulk of the film and does so with aplomb. Through his eyes we see the bittersweet beauty, confusion and longing required in any good coming of age tale. His thoughtful performance draws attention to the unhappy truth that the more someone means to you, the more likely they are to inadvertently disappoint you.
With only three films under his belt, Nichols is proving himself a powerful storyteller. Beautiful compositions, lyrical pacing and imagery, a profound sense of place, all animated with raw and engaging performances – his approach simply hasn’t yet misfired.
Mud lacks the disturbing punch of Take Shelter, but replaces it with thematic beauty. It becomes a richly textured image of the punishment and resilience of youth. At the same time, Mud uses that familiar adolescent struggle to mirror the quickly disappearing freedom of those beleaguered souls looking to make a life on the river.
Is it hyperbole to say this is the most exciting weekend in the history of the Columbus Blue Jackets? Is it?!
They’ve been playing out of their minds, and if they keep that going Saturday night in NWA, they could land a #8 seed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And let’s be honest, unlike last time, this year it really feels like they could do some damage (especially after a #8 seed just won the cup!)
And so, in honor of this weekend’s hockey fever, let’s lace ‘em up and count down the top 5 hockey films!
5. Rocket: The Legend of Rocket Richard (2005)
No, we did not throw this in just to avoid including Mighty Ducks or Youngblood, but man, were we happy to find just one more decent hockey movie. The film echoes the life of Montreal Canadiens great Maurice Richard in an elegantly filmed biopic on overcoming adversity to become an iconic sports figure and national hero. Sure, that sounds familiar, but this time it happens in Canada.
4. Mystery, Alaska (1999)
Here’s a perfectly enjoyable, needlessly cluttered underdog tale where decent writing and generous performances outweigh trite themes. The alum of a tiny Alaskan town brings an NHL match home when the NY Rangers agree to play Mystery, Alaska’s hard-nosed local boys. Good-natured fun follows.
3. Goon (2011)
We can’t get enough of this Canadian minor league hockey gem, written by Jay Baruchel and starring Sean William Scott, who plays against type as a sweet natured, dunderheaded hockey goon who can’t skate but sure can beat the crap out of people.
2. Miracle (2004)
This great looking, family-friendly biopic boasts an excellent Kurt Russell, some fantastic hockey footage, and swelling emotions. Authentic, understated and weirdly compelling given the fact that we all know how it turns out. (Dude, we totally beat the Russians! Those douches.)
1. Slap Shot (1977)
What Caddyshack is to caddying, what The Bad News Bears is to little league – Slap Shot is best hockey movie ever. Paul Newman is hilariously salty in a story about a failing town soon to lose its minor league hockey team, and the player whose career is over if he can’t figure out how to save it. Does salvation wear thick glasses, travel in threes, and pack toy trains?
In fairness to director Michael Bay (did I just write that out loud?) turning a real life murder case into a comedy is not unheard of. Just last year, Ricard Linklater pulled it off with the delightful Bernie.
It can be done, but judging by Pain & Gain, Bay doesn’t know how.
The film is based on the exploits of two Miami bodybuilders currently sitting on Death Row. In the mid-1990s they kidnapped and tortured wealthy businessman Marc Schiller until he signed away nearly all his fortune. They attempted to kill him as well, but even though he survived, Schiller struggled to get police to buy his story.
Thinking they got away once, the “Sun Gym Gang” eventually tried the scheme again, and two people died grisly deaths.
In the right hands, this story could become a dark, satirical comedy that uses the wretched excess of South Beach as a platform to skewer the misplaced values of a consumer culture run amok. The possibilities are there, but Bay doesn’t do nuance.
Instead, the gang is sympathetically portrayed as a group of bumbling clowns just taking a kookier path to the American dream. Ringleader Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) attends get rich seminars and calls himself a “doer” while roping the steroid-crazed Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) into his plans. For extra muscle, they recruit the gigantic Paul (Dwayne Johnson), a rehabbing, Jesus-loving ex-con character reportedly written as a composite of other real life gang members.
Wahlberg and Mackie are fine, Johnson’s growth as an actor continues to impress, and there is solid supporting work from Tony Shalhoub. All are hamstrung, though, by how their respective characters are conceived. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the Narnia series) hit a target that’s just a few “nyuk nyuks” away from the Stooges, which is a few miles away from where they should have been aiming.
Ironically, with all the slo-mo, voiceovers and onscreen text, you get the feeling Bay actually thinks he crafted a Natural Born Killers for a new generation.
Still, he’s trying, in his own misguided way, to say something here. That, along with the capable performances, is all Pain & Gain needs to stand as Bay’s best film to date.
Our film opens on a black and white photo. Looks like it could be any grainy old shot of a vacation spot – palm trees, empty beach chair, water in the distance. As writer/director Todd Berger slowly pulls back, we eventually see the mushroom cloud beyond the water.
Sometimes a “couples’ brunch” can feel like the end of the world. I supposed that’s why it makes such a fitting location for Berger’s dryly hilarious It’s a Disaster!
The film follows Tracy (Julia Stiles) and her new beau Glen (David Cross) as they approach the site of Tracy and her buddies’ monthly tradition. It’ll be Glen’s first contact with Tracy’s BFFs, a set of self-absorbed thirtysomethings with their own very lived-in dynamic.
What begins as a comedy of manners (one that expertly showcases Cross’s abilities as a straight man) progress toward something grander.
The dark comedy comes rife with articulate jabs at couplehood, circles of friends, and the balance of harsh judgment and loving acceptance found therein. Once the party realizes that the apocalypse is nigh – dirty bombs have been dropped in cities all over the nation, including the city center just 12 miles from their very brunch – those elements boil down to their most undiluted.
People show their true colors, secrets are exposed, bonds are broken, others are formed, cocktails are imbibed, duct tape is sought, quiche grows cold. Just as prophesied.
Berger’s concept is large but his handling is confident, and a likeable and well defined ensemble keeps the chaos interesting and the storylines crisp.
Cross’s warm, generous performance casts Glen as the one level head, the one good soul – the guy you want on hand when the world comes to an end. But Berger has more in mind for ol’ Glen, thankfully.
Stiles offers another strong performance (following last year’s ball-buster in Silver Linings Playbook). Meanwhile, America Ferrera gets the chance to show her humanity and comic timing while cooking up some X.
“The world’s about to end and you’re going to do extacy?”
“Can you think of a better time?”
Gallows humor is rarely employed so well, but Berger balances silliness with more insightful and biting comedy to mine his contrived situation for all its gold.
The quick 88 minute run time keeps the necessary claustrophobia from growing too tiresome, yet each character evolves believably. It’s a credit to Berger’s script and to the talent of the cast he’s assembled.
Out on DVD this week: the underseen, Oscar-nominated The Impossible. The sheer size of this movie feels impossible. Based on true events, the film follows a vacationing family of five torn asunder by Southeast Asia’s 2004 tsunami. Though an overwhelming score and a too-tidy ending threaten the film’s power, brilliant performances across the board – in particular, by Oscar nominee Naomi Watts – and a staggering recreation of the tsunami itself keep you breathless most of the time.
For a more fictional, but no less harrowing adventure, check out The Grey, a man-against-the-elements tale from early last year that also flew under the radar of most moviegoers.
Liam Neeson stars as an oil rigger who, while lucky enough to survive a plane crash, is then left to battle nasty weather and nastier wolves lurking in the Alaskan wilderness. Director/ co-writer Joe Carnahan has more in mind than just adventure, crafting an effective subtext of existentialism that makes it easy to forgive the moments of melodrama and the curiously weak wolf effects. Tense, gritty and intelligent, The Grey is an unexpected winner.
Rob Zombie returns to film after a blessed hiatus with the hot mess Lords of Salem. In it, Zombie’s talentless wife Sheri Moon Zombie plays a radio DJ haunted by Salem’s past.
Try to ignore the ludicrous radio station situation: Boston’s most popular DJs are actually based at a Salem station. Sure, they’re patterned after a hyperbolic morning show – sound effects and all – even though they appear to be a nighttime program. They also play no music save snippets of hardcore weirdness, but I’m sure that’s the kind of thing a major market really goes for.
What can’t be ignored is Zombie’s mishmash of horror gimmicks, recalling Kubrick and Argento as well as the slew of witch films popular in the late Sixties and early Seventies. This is not a knock, really. It’s Zombie’s overt fandom that has defined his directorial style since his first film. But don’t recall Kubrick unless your film can stand up to the comparison. Lords of Salem cannot.
Overly designed sets and loads of disturbing nudity hope to draw your attention away from weak dialogue, weaker plotting, ridiculous acting and general pointlessness. More than anything, though, the film is dull – just a whole lot of nothing really happening. A lot to look at, but no action at all.
Just Sheri Moon Zombie and her acting prowess. Yeah, that’s really scarier than anything the film does intentionally.
If there’s one thing movies have taught us, it’s to stay out of the woods. If there’s a second thing, it’s that only a knucklehead would screw with the fine folks of Boston. It didn’t work out that well for the British, or for most anyone else, as these films clarify. These citizens are a hardy sort, and our hats are off to them.
The Departed (2006): Scorsese and DiCaprio closed themselves up in a mental institution in Boston Harbor for 2010’s Shutter Island, but the insanity they unleashed back in 2006 resulted in their real Beantown masterpiece. Hometown boys Mark Wahlberg (never better) and Matt Damon mix with accent-appropriate DiCaprio and an unhinged Jack Nicholson to let Scorsese work out his Catholicism-and-bullets fixation in a new town with a new ethnicity. Dropkick Murphys tag along.
The Verdict (1982): Writer David Mamet and director Sidney Lumet echo Boston’s hard boiled, thick skinned belief in redemption. Stubborn but wearied Beantown lawyer – a brilliant Paul Newman – decedes not to take the easy money and instead takes a Catholic-run hospital to trial. A tremendous supporting cast helps, with bonus points to James Mason, whose creepy-charming malevolence is chilling.
Gone Baby Gone (2007): For his own career redemption, once-laughingstock Ben Affleck returned to his hometown (and the town that inspired his first Oscar) for his first directorial effort. Shot on location and filled to brimming with local actors (OK, maybe we didn’t need 3 actors with a hairlip), Affleck’s flick makes Dorchester as much a morally ambiguous character as Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck), the hometown investigator looking for a missing girl. Amy Ryan astonishes – truly – as the girl’s mother.
The Town (2010): Affleck returns home for his second effort behind the camera, this time to make Charlestown less of a tourist destination than it had already been. The best low-brow heist movie ever, The Town boasts excellent performances all around – even from Blake Lively. It serves up generations of bone-deep, hardened Towny criminals including Chris Cooper, still fighting the fight as a lifer, and Pete Postelthwaite creeping everybody out as kingpin/florist.
Mystic River (2003): Eastwood’s spin on a Dennis Lehane novel reignited Hollywood’s romance with Boston flicks. Three neighborhood buddies grow up and grow apart, each with his own connection to the criminal element that tainted their childhood and threatens to unravel their lives. Moody and dramatic, with a winding, melancholy mystery to puzzle out, the film nabbed two Oscars (Sean Penn, Tim Robbins) and racked up four more nominations.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973): Most of these films involve a code, one of silence and violence that’s accepted and practiced because without it the business couldn’t go on. Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) breaks that code because he’s facing a stretch in the joint he’d just as soon avoid. A never-better Mitchum upends snitch stereotypes, drawing our sympathy as he works through his dilemma. Slower paced and filmed with less panache than its Boston Mob counterparts, this film develops slowly and leaves you feeling more like you’ve been punched in the gut.
Good Will Hunting (1997): Hello, Southie. Hometown boys Ben Affleck and Matt Damon started their Hollywood takeover by writing a story about two low rent kids upending MIT’s elitism, finding love, and breaking out of a history of poverty and violence. Well, Damon broke out, but Affleck got to deliver the best Boston character in any film ever.
The Boondock Saints (1999): Jesus, these brogues are terrible. Just awful. But writer/director Troy Duffy’s sordid story of the righteously violent McManus twins did find an audience. They’re out to clean up the Boston they love – or at least ensure that it’s the Irish, not the Russians, allowed to shoot up the neighborhood. Steeped in Catholicism, blood, pathos and, again, the worst imaginable accents, Boondock Saints is weirdly watchable. It helps that Willem Dafoe tags along as one bat shit insane FBI agent.
The Fighter (2010): Another Boston tale of redemption, fucked-up Irish families and low-rent hustling, David O. Russell’s brilliant The Fighter mines authenticity from this true life tale. Brilliant performances across the board owe their merit to actors who never judge or condescend. Oscar winner Melissa Leo shines as mother/manager for her boxer sons, and every scene she shares with her seven daughters – who hate son Mickey’s (Mark Wahlberg) girlfriend – is genius. But it’s Christian Bale’s epic performance as Mickey’s crackhead former boxer/older brother Dickey that seals this picture as among the best of 2010.
Honestly, Oblivion is a film that is a challenge to critique.
Not that it doesn’t have weaknesses. The problem is, it’s assembled from parts of many other science-fiction movies, and naming those films would necessitate one big spoiler alert.
Spoiler alerts are for the weak, so let’s tread lightly and say that Tom Cruise stars as Jack (can we give this character name a rest please?) one of the last “drone repairmen” on Earth. After decades of war with the invading Scavs, the planet was left devastated. Though victorious, most of humanity has relocated to a moon of Saturn, while Jack and his sparse mop up crew hang around to harvest resources and keep the drones working efficiently.
When a strange vessel crash lands, Jack defies orders and investigates, setting in motion a tumultuous chain of events.
While it may be true that sci-fi films have been borrowing from each other forever, Oblivion takes it up a notch. Not only are certain themes and plot devices instantly recognizable, but images and scenes considered at least famous (and at most, iconic) are shamelessly recreated.
Director/co-writer Joseph Kosinski, in just his second feature (after TRON: Legacy ) expands the story he first pitched as an eight –page treatment for a graphic novel. It seems he was thinking visually from the start, and it shows.
Oblivion is gorgeous, showcasing a wondrous sci-fi world full of eye-popping cinematography (especially effective in the IMAX version). From Jack’s outpost-in-the-clouds to his trips to the Earth’s surface in a pretty bitchin’ spacecraft, there is fertile ground for the type of poetic message Kosinski is after.
For a while, the substance keeps pace with the style, but it’s slowly bogged down by a script that ultimately can’t deliver the profundity it strives for. There is some humanity here, but not enough originality to keep the film from feeling overlong .
Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise, with the usual brand of charming intensity we’ve come to expect. Kosinski is still new to the game, but if his storytelling skills ever match his visual flair, he’ll be a player.
If you could catch Kim Kardashian’s cold, would you?
This is the intriguing concept behind writer/director Brandon Cronenberg’s seething commentary on celebrity obsession, Antiviral. Young Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) works for a clinic dealing in a very specific kind of treatment. They harvest viruses from willing celebrities, encrypt them (so they can’t spread – no money if you can’t control the spread), and sell the illnesses to obsessed fans who derive some kind of bodily communion with their adored by way of a shared herpes virus. Gross.
But the ambitious Syd pirates these viruses by injecting himself first, before the encryption. Eventually, his own nastiness-riddled blood is more valuable than he is, and he has to find a way out of quite a pickle. Maybe vitamin C?
As unfair as it may be to compare the work of a son to that of the father, Brandon Cronenberg seems to invite it. He obviously does not worry about suffering by comparison, treading as he does on ground so strongly associated with his father. Antiviral is not just a horror film, but a corporeal horror – a subgenre David Cronenberg basically owns.
Antiviral plays a bit like Videodrome – Cronenberg the Elder’s commentary on his era’s preoccupation with media. In both films, a salesman becomes as obsessed as his clients and watches his own body turn monstrous because of it. Junior inserts celebrity for technology, making his effort more timely, but he lacks the biting humor that elevated his father’s work.
Still, Brandon’s feature debut exposes an assured style uncommon for such an early effort. Visually chilly – all washed out whites with splashes of blood red – and emotionally distant, the world of Antiviral is as antiseptic as a hospital ward.
In lieu of character development, the film is filled with grotesquely fascinating ideas. Unfortunately, the tale is ultimately superficial because its focus is so one-sided. The celebrity-obsessed that populate the film are parasites, even cannibals, but the celebrity is inanimate. While I’m sure there’s a point being made there, the final image lacks any real punch because, while we’re made to revile the non-celebrity population and its vampiric adoration, we have no sense that they feed off anything human at all, so who cares?
Had the filmmaker explored the concept of celebrity – either to clarify their equal responsibility in cultivating this culture, or to hint at their corrupted humanity – the film would have felt fully formed rather than just very clever.