Archive for December, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

Monday, December 31st, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

One of the questions nagging David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” as it divides critical opinion like so many of the filmmaker’s previous movies asks whether his adaptation of Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel wallows in the feel-good, romantic movie clichés Russell once (seemingly) rejected. Has Russell, following seven Oscar nominations and a pair of acting wins for “The Fighter,” acquiesced to the corporate conventions demanded of so many Hollywood hit machines? Is filmmaking somehow less “personal” if the story involves impossibly attractive stars playing characters “struggling” with mental illness?

Some answers might be found in the pages of Quick’s often funny book, one of those buzzed-about debuts optioned for cinema prior to its publication. In an interview with Mike Ryan, Russell describes receiving the novel from Sydney Pollack as a project that was to have been made prior to “The Fighter.” The filmmaker worked through multiple drafts of the script, significantly altering story elements, dropping several subplots, reimagining characters, and perhaps most notably overhauling Pat Sr., a figure whose presence in the novel is as cold and authoritative as Robert De Niro’s performance is tender and fluid.

The principal romantic relationship, between Bradley Cooper’s bi-polar Pat and Jennifer Lawrence’s grieving Tiffany, makes the transition from the page largely intact, and Russell doesn’t blink at the obvious genre requirement demanding the final reel union of the pharmaceutical-dependent pair (it wasn’t a problem for Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, or Gregory La Cava either). Ostensibly, Pat is wholly committed to reconciliation with his estranged wife Nikki, whose adultery triggered the physical outburst that landed Pat in an institution and now places a restraining order between them, but from the moment Tiffany shows up, Pat will be the only one convinced he still has any hope of restoring his old life.

Like nearly any classic screwball comedy, Pat’s relationship with Tiffany is predicated on the unlikely: because she has the necessary access, she will deliver Pat’s letters to Nikki as long as Pat agrees to dance with Tiffany in a competition. Quick’s novel arguably makes better use of such a harebrained premise, but Russell apparently sees less value in the mechanics of plot when opportunities for charged dialogue and physical closeness are so ripe. Quick is specific about the music that so deeply affects Pat, but the movie capitalizes on different selections. One look at the delightfully amateurish medley mashup choreographed by Tiffany for the dance finale explains why: Russell aches for the unexpected shifts in tone that might otherwise threaten the consistency of a less interesting world.

“Silver Linings Playbook” reiterates the director’s strengths, from his confidence with noisy ensembles to his appreciation for unfiltered, truth-hurts declarations. Russell’s respect for the messy, impolite exchange has manifested in some of the director’s greatest moments (often around dinner tables, as “Flirting with Disaster” and “I Heart Huckabees” attest). “Silver Linings Playbook” starts as a story about a delusional young man but by the time the title reaches fruition, it might have transformed into a story about a young woman just as determined to find her own redemption from the past.


Monday, December 17th, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

When Stephen Rebello’s “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” was published in 1990, cinephiles drooled over the riveting account of the landmark movie’s production history. Praised by fellow film historians and hardcore admirers of the Master of Suspense, Rebello’s work remains, more than two decades later, one of the most entertaining discussions of the construction, care, and feeding of a movie. A non-fiction film adaptation chronicling the events described in the book might have made the better choice as a theatrical motion picture, but instead we are left with Sacha Gervasi’s colorful, odd fabrication.

Fixing its gaze on the behind-closed-doors dynamics of long-married Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville, “Hitchcock” will never be mistaken for the precision-engineered narratives brought to life by the great filmmaker. Expectedly, Anthony Hopkins can’t quite escape the long shadow that comes with playing an iconic figure whose voice and physicality prove tough, if not impossible, to effectively crack. Helen Mirren keeps a straight face and fares better than her co-star, breathing some life into Alma’s position as the wounded, overlooked, and undervalued “behind every great man” device. The unfortunate surprise is that “Hitchcock” fails to burrow deep into “Psycho,” content instead to synopsize the most predictable and superficial anecdotes when it is not inventing fodder for the marital melodrama.

There are few things “Hitchcock” doesn’t manage to goof up, from the lurching shifts in tone to the ill-advised decision to bring Ed Gein to life as a phantasm that haunts Hitchcock’s dreams and stokes his anxieties about Alma. The broad portrayal of Anthony Perkins by James D’Arcy as a twitchy, closeted homosexual exploited for his “duality” would be simultaneously laughable and insulting, if Perkins wasn’t treated like a minor player. Scarlett Johansson’s Janet Leigh functions apparently to argue that Hitchcock wasn’t always a creep to his leading ladies, but Raymond Durgnat, whose “A Long Hard Look at Psycho” matches Rebello’s writing as the most detailed examination of the film to date, would likely have been disappointed that the filming of the shower scene comes and goes with little fanfare.

The most crushing disappointment of Gervasi’s film is twofold. First, the movie takes very little interest in the fascinating nuts-and-bolts details of the actual production process of “Psycho.” Hitchcock’s collaborators are given short shrift onscreen, feeding into the mythology of singular auteurism even as Alma at one point decries that very idea. Gervasi leaves out any really meaningful interactions with the likes of Saul Bass and Bernard Herrmann. Joseph Stefano sweats nervously in the surprising form of Ralph Macchio in one brief scene. Robert Bloch’s misfortunes in life translate to the fiction: he does not even appear as a character in the movie.

Second, the filmmaker wholly misjudges the necessity of a rotting red herring in Hitch’s suspicions of Alma’s flirtatious relationship with Danny Huston’s prowling Whitfield Cook – the previous Hitchcock collaborator who doesn’t even rate a mention in Rebello’s book. One can only imagine why Rebello, who provided rewrites to John J. McLaughlin’s script, would advocate for shifting attention away from “Psycho” to speculation about Alma’s fidelity. No saint himself (as a pile of starlet headshots in his study and a naughty peep through the wall of Vera Miles’ dressing room attest), Hitchcock is positioned in the movie as the victimized spouse when the dramatic focus might have been more effective and more accurate had the polarity been reversed.

Searching for Sugar Man

Monday, December 10th, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Even though Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” presents its narrative as an enigma concerning the disappearance and rumored suicide of singer-songwriter Rodriguez, once the movie gets underway the true mystery emerges: how could a brilliant artist release a pair of masterful, transcendent albums and not be recognized in his native country for contributions to recorded music? There are many possible answers to that question, and the cynics have dismissively suggested that the quest to uncover a lost, slept-on, or forgotten classic overshadows and overpowers the art. Either way, engaging Rodriguez’s sounds is like stepping into a time machine.

Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, the Dylanesque poet of Detroit’s inner city impoverished and working class, is the very embodiment of the rock cliché “but we’re big in Japan,” except that the international audience in this particular case was comprised of anti-apartheid protesters in South Africa. Even as Rodriguez’s sounds fell on deaf ears in America, South Africans like Craig Bartholomew-Strydom and Stephen Segerman assert in the movie that in their country, Rodriguez was every bit as popular as the Rolling Stones, with record sales estimated between half a million and a million copies.

As a story of rediscovery and delayed appreciation, “Searching for Sugar Man” avoids too many tangible villains. The film is justifiably more interested in silver linings and happy endings, but Bendjelloul does see fit to include a section detailing the recording industry’s shameful, execrable treatment of performers who never saw a dime of royalties from record sales. Some follow-the-money sleuthing leads the investigators to producer and Sussex Records founder Clarence Avant, whose on-camera defensiveness and irritability do him no favors regardless of whether he personally profited on the distribution deals that so widely disseminated Rodriguez’s music throughout South Africa.

Aside from the muddiness over Avant’s possible culpability in Rodriguez’s lost earnings, the greatest deficiencies in the film are easily recognizable as deliberate choices made by Bendjelloul. Information is withheld, in large measure to lay the foundation of Rodriguez’s growing status as a legend. The filmmaker also delays the appearance of Rodriguez longer than necessary. Fortunately, the late arrival of Rodriguez in person is not similarly applied to his songs, and there is no question that the recordings are as important to the story as the presence of the man himself.  The music is so good, “Searching for Sugar Man” will introduce scores of new fans to masterful tunes like “Crucify Your Mind” and “Cause.”

In addition to the content from “Cold Fact” and “Coming from Reality,” Bendjelloul includes material from Rodriguez’s unfinished third record. “Can’t Get Away” appeared as a bonus track on the 2009 U.S. re-issue of “Coming from Reality,” and it makes one wonder how the songcraft might have evolved had Rodriguez found an enthusiastic audience in his prime. “Searching for Sugar Man” never attempts to address Rodriguez’s feelings about the long, strange trip he took. The singer talks about working in construction and demolition after he left the record business. His daughters describe a failed Detroit city council campaign. No discussion of Rodriguez’s romantic partner or partners is included. “Searching for Sugar Man” leaves so many questions unanswered, Rodriguez emerges at the end every bit as unknowable as he was at the beginning.

Killing Them Softly

Monday, December 3rd, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Hard-boiled crime fiction writer George Higgins’ 1974 novel “Cogan’s Trade” is the basis for writer-director Andrew Dominik’s self-conscious genre entry “Killing Them Softly,” a jazzy acting showcase that embraces both the crime-as-business and style-above-all dicta that have steered gangster movies since the birth of the form. Brad Pitt is comfortable as a calm, exacting mob enforcer hired to clean up the mess resulting from a card game robbery. The actor reteams with Richard Jenkins and James Gandolfini, two previous co-stars whose presence instantly increases the aggregate performance I.Q. of the cast.

Pitt, whose interest in working with Dominik helped secure financing for “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” is more relaxed and arguably better when playing the morally compromised antihero. His best scenes in “Killing Them Softly” are the ones in which he discusses strategy with Jenkins’ suit-and-tie messenger and recognizes the error of bringing in Gandolfini’s no longer competent muscle. Gandolfini’s grotesque is riveting, and as soon as he appears on screen, Dominik downshifts the pace, accommodating the actor’s formidable skill in a manner not unlike the way Peter Yates appreciated Robert Mitchum in “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” another film adapted from a George Higgins book.

Dominik’s least necessary update to Higgins – and really the only deliberate indication that the movie could not take place in the 1970s – moves the action to 2008. Televisions and radios playing soundbites from George W. Bush and Barack Obama highlight the sense of impending economic doom descending on America’s poor and working class. Unlike the similar “recent period” tactic employed by the Coens in “The Big Lebowski,” however, Dominik does not know when to quit, and the unsubtle motif wears out its welcome soon after the slick, arrestingly sound-designed opening title sequence.

The worlds Dominik chooses to investigate pulse with testosterone and masculinity. There is little room here for women and the only female with a significant speaking role in “Killing Them Softly” is Linara Washington’s degraded prostitute, who appears in a brief exchange with Gandolfini’s coarse alcoholic. The absence of women signals many things, but chief among them may be the failure of the corporate model Dominik explores via crime metaphor. That women are so invisible as human beings in the realm of wiseguys, driven as it is by unrelenting physical violence, is not particularly surprising. Dominik’s reliance on the misogyny cultivated in the filthy talk of Higgins’ ugly brutes, is, however, problematic.

Alongside the bleak, shabby, industrial environments inhabited by the lowlifes and outcasts who populate Higgins’ imagination, a crafty sense of very black comedy accompanies the unsavory felonies. Dominik cited “Blue Velvet” as one of his favorite movies in the “Sight & Sound” “greatest films poll” coverage this year, and the influence of David Lynch’s noir masterpiece is in evidence during a slow-motion, rain-soaked hit underscored by Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters.” Less overtly, Lynch’s gallows humor weltanschauung leaves its mark on what may be Dominik’s saving grace. With the exception of Pitt’s savvy operator Jackie Cogan, who knows how to get paid, the denizens of “Killing Them Softly” are hapless and hopeless underclass goons ready to be sacrificed for their foolishness.