The Crazy Love of Silver Linings Playbook: Steve Recommends One of 2012’s Best Movies

You’d have to be crazy not to love Silver Linings Playbook. It is one of the very best movies of 2012. In many ways, it is a typical romantic comedy slpor maybe dramedy, but any movie written and directed by David O. Russell is not going to be simply typical. Anyone who has seen one of his off kilter comedies, such as Flirting with Disaster or I Heart Huckabees, or his gritty drama, The Fighter, knows that he brings an edge to everything he does, even to a rom-com. It is that edge that elevates this film from being merely typical to being one of the year’s best.

In this case, the edginess comes from the struggles with mental illness facing the lead characters, Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Although these struggles occasionally lead to humorous moments, fortunately they are not simply played for laughs. The difficult issues that face those afflicted with mental illness, as well as their families and friends, are taken seriously. Thus, the love that arises here is not simply the sweet feeling of most rom-coms, but is a gift with healing power. This makes Silver Linings Playbook not only one of the year’s best, but also one of the most hopeful.

Russell provides a solid script. Even though it falls into rom-com clichés at times, overall it has emotional depth. His earthy direction adds to the emotional resonance. He certainly puts his stamp on the movie, but for a movie like this to work the acting performances are vital and Russell’s actors serve him well. So well that they are represented in all four acting categories at the Oscars, which is a rare achievement. Cooper impressed me with his ability to portray Pat’s bipolar mood swings, from the anger and rage to the euphoria of seeking his silver lining. Cooper’s natural charm makes it possible to like Pat, even though there are plenty of reasons to dislike him. As solid as Cooper’s performance is, the movie truly takes flight when Lawrence arrives onscreen. Even as she deals with grief and depression, using sex in a misguided attempt find solace, Lawrence’s Tiffany electrifies every scene in which she appears. Her ability to project hope in the face of great hurt gives credence to the possibility that anyone can find a silver lining. This young woman deserves an Oscar. (How moved was I by her performance? I cried tears of joy when she won the SAG award!)

Lawrence and Cooper make the movie work. Robert DeNiro (Pat Sr.) and Jackie Weaver (Dolores, Pat’s mother), along with the rest of the solid cast, give it the depth that moves it to the level of greatness. Pat Sr.’s own neuroses are on clear display, including his obsessive compulsions, especially related to his superstitions regarding his beloved Philadelphia Eagles and what it will take for them to win, along with his gambling addiction. This is vital because it reminds us that mental illness is not a black and white issue, but rather a spectrum that affects all of us in some way. I’m a survivor of both cancer and clinical depression, so I understand the connection between physical and mental illness. Neither one can be easily compartmentalized. They both affect a person physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually and, therefore, the healing must also touch upon all those aspects. What I experienced with the clinical depression was different from other times of depression in my life, but it was a difference of degree, not of kind. Pat Jr.’s condition was diagnosed, but seeing him along with Pat Sr. reminds us that we all have issues to deal with. As Pat’s psychiatrist tells him, we need a strategy for dealing with the bumps along life’s road. It is my belief that the strategy is grounded in the faith, hope, and love that Paul writes about in 1st Corinthians 13.

Of the four actors in Silver Linings Playbook receiving Oscar nominations, some folks are amazed that Weaver was recognized for her work as supporting actress. Admittedly, she doesn’t say much, but no one no one acting today shows more emotion through facial expression and body language. I love her work here, as I did in Animal Kingdom (for which she also received an Oscar nomination.) Regardless of the nod from the Academy, her role is crucial. She plays the classic enabler, doing whatever is necessary to keep the family functioning in the midst of the craziness. Being an enabler means that one is also in denial, which is on clear display at the beginning of the film when Dolores checks Pat out of the mental institution before he is ready to go. Do you ever prefer to cover up a problem, pretending that it isn’t as serious as it is, rather than face what is necessary for healing and wholeness?

Often in life our struggles are passed on from parent to child, through both genetics and learned behavior. (This can be quite scary for a parent. Sorry, boys!) Pat inherits his father’s compulsiveness and anger issues, as well as his mother’s denial. Pat believes his silver lining will be found through reconciliation with his wife, despite the fact that it was beating up the man she was having an affair with that landed him in the mental institution. He takes the blame for her infidelity and believes that if he can prove to her that he is now a better man then she will take him back. Pat clings to this dream despite clear signs that it isn’t going to happen. Certainly, one of the trickiest things in life is knowing when to pursue a dream and when to let it go. Are you clinging to any impossible dreams that are keeping you from experiencing the very real joys that are available to you?

In addition to all the other wonderful stuff in this movie, Russell has done a great job in compiling the soundtrack. Bob Dylan’s duet with Johnny Cash on ‘Girl from the North Country’ plays during a key scene and there are three Jack White songs (two White Stripes and one Dead Weather.) I will never again hear Stevie Wonder’s ‘My Cherie Amour’ without thinking of this movie. But that’s alright, because being reminded of this fine film will be a good thing. Case in point: the sequence leading up to the climax felt contrived, yet it had me on the edge of my seat and then the tears started flowing. The bottom line for me in a movie like this involves two interrelated issues, do I care about the characters and does it make me cry of hope and joy? Obviously, the answers for Silver Linings Playbook are yes and yes! Silver linings, indeed!

The Odd Life of Timothy Green: a Recommendation from Steve

The Odd Life of Timothy Green isn’t, but it is. It isn’t all that odd, despite the fact that Timothy is a child who comes out of hole in the garden and has leaves growing on his shins. A little more oddness might have made it a better movie, but despite its flaws, it is a mostly charming movie that is worth seeing. It is also a movie that had me shedding a fair share of tears (which was clearly the intent), but not too many when it counted the most. Why should you see it? For starters, Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Garner deliver effective, and sometimes quite moving, performances as the parents, Jim and Cindy Green. I really liked Edgerton in Animal Kingdom and Warriors. His performance here cements my impression that any role he is in is worth a look, so I’m looking forward to seeing him in Zero Dark Thirty and The Great Gatsby. I’m not a big Garner fan, but she was good in Juno and is even stronger here in a similar role. CJ Adams didn’t knock my socks off (get it…socks…) as Timothy, but he was cute as all get out, which is about all the part really required. David Morse added some complexity to an otherwise clichéd role as Jim’s father, but the smaller roles that I most enjoyed were played by Dianne Wiest and M. Emmet Walsh. In both cases, this had something to do with past performances in movies that I adore, Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters and Walsh in Blood Simple and Raising Arizona. Wiest gives a nice turn here as the cranky co-owner of the pencil factory where Jim works. It was a delight to see Walsh again. He’s aged quite a bit, but is wonderful in the limited role of Uncle Bub.

The Odd Life contains enough strong scenes and surprises to raise it above mediocrity. The opening sequence in which Cindy and Jim face the news that they are unable to conceive a child was moving. I especially liked the resulting scene where they describe their dream child as a way of letting go of the grief. I also thought that the appearance of Timothy was handled well. Should Jim and Cindy have been more overwhelmed by this strange turn of events? It’s hard to say how someone would react in real life, because such things don’t happen in real life, but I felt that the tone was right for the movie. I found the ‘Lowrider’ rock out scene to be delightful. I liked the way that Jim and Cindy followed Timothy’s lead and just let it all hang out, not worrying about what anyone else thought. That scene gave important undergirding to one of the key themes of the movie, that it is o.k. to be who you are. The directing and camerawork were solid, simply allowing the story to be told. Maybe fancier camerawork or creative editing would have given the movie a more magical feel (which it could have used), but it just as likely could have been distracting. There were a few scene shifts that I thought were quite effective.

If saying that the movie was raised above mediocrity sounds like faint praise, it isn’t. Too many movies remain mired in mediocrity and there were a number of elements that could have trapped Timothy there. One problem was clichéd characters, especially Jim’s boss and Cindy’s sister. Overall, the strength of main characters counteracted the problems with the supporting cast, but the leads were not without their own issues. At times, the parents seemed, well, odd. When Timothy starts hanging out with a girl, Joni (played by Odeya Rush), Jim and, especially, Cindy are concerned. That’s a normal parental reaction, but rather than trying to find out something about Joni, Cindy goes after her, accusing her of being a bad influence on Timothy, even though there was no evidence of this. Did they think that she was too old for Timothy? She did appear to be older, but, of course, girls do mature sooner. However, all the kids around Timothy seemed to be older, or, at least, bigger. Was Timothy small for his age? For that matter, what age was he? How do you determine the age of a child who crawls out the garden in the middle of the night? Maybe they should have put him in a grade with younger students. Of course, having him be the small kid who gets picked on sets him up as someone we know we should root for. In this way, though, the film ends up feeling somewhat manipulative, which needs to be avoided as much as possible in a movie like this. Overall, the movie does avoid those kinds of issues often enough to make it fairly effective. However, I felt that the movie lost steam as it moved along. The beginning was much stronger than the ending. I cried at various points throughout the film, but not at the climax and only a few tears during the epilogue. A stronger film would have had me gushing at that point. Despite those drawbacks, I still recommend The Odd Life of Timothy Green, because, if nothing else, we do need that reminder that everyone is special in their own way.

Brief Grief: Steve’s Quick Reviews of 3 2011 Films

I’ve recently viewed three more movies released in 2011: We Bought a Zoo, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Interestingly, they all dealt in some way with issues of grief. I’ll give them each a short review here and also add them to my 2011 rankings.

The most entertaining of the three was We Bought a Zoo. This is a family film in the best sense, a movie for families to watch together and talk about afterward. The grief dealt with here is the death of the wife/mother, which has happened before the movie begins. Matt Damon plays the father and delivers his usual strong, likable performance. The family is trying to come to terms with life without mom. As the title indicates they buy a rundown zoo and their determination to save the zoo (with help from the zoo staff) serves as a metaphor for their own restoration of life. The story contains no surprises, but it works. It had my tears flowing a number of times. There are no standout performances, but the rest of the cast, along with Damon, do a good job of delivering this delightful and life-affirming tale.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a much, much darker movie. In a number of ways it is a better movie than Zoo, but not nearly as entertaining. Kevin is a high school boy who apparently kills a number of his classmates. The precise nature of his crime is never made clear. The movie focuses on Eva, Kevin’s mother, powerfully portrayed by Tilda Swinton. The story is set in the time after Kevin’s conviction as Eva deals with her grief over the horrendous deed of her son, the disintegration of her family, and the community’s anger at her for what her son did. Much of the story is told through flashbacks to her struggles raising Kevin. The constantly shifting time-frames gives the movie an appropriately edgy feel, but sometimes seems over-directed. The early struggles of a parent wondering what to do with a difficult child ring true, but as Kevin ages, he seemed more and more to simply be an evil person and I felt less engaged by the movie.

The most incredible thing about Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is that it was nominated for Best Picture. It simply is not that good. On the other hand, though, I wouldn’t quite say that it is a bad movie. This time it is the father, Thomas, played by Tom Hanks, who dies. He dies in the World Trade Center on 9/11. The movie just doesn’t carry the emotional weight necessary for a film that draws a connection to that event. Thomas Horn plays Oskar, Thomas’ son. He is a social misfit. A discovery in his father’s closet sets him off on a search through New York for an answer that he hopes will help him make sense of the tragedy that took his father’s life. The story doesn’t quite work, especially the twist at the end involving his mom, played by Sandra Bullock. The biggest drawback to the film was that I didn’t like Oskar. He is rude and self-centered in a way that didn’t work for me. This was clearly meant to be a tearjerker, but I didn’t shed a single drop. The greatest strength of the movie is Max von Sydow’s performance as a renter in Oskar’s grandma’s apartment.

Steve’s Look at Upcoming Movies

So far I’ve only seen one movie released in 2012 (The Hunger Games), but that’s about to change. With the release of The Avengers this weekend, the floodgates will be opened. I’ve added a new page to my blog on which I rank 44 movies coming out between now and the end of the year. Take a look to see what I’m most looking forward to and then leave a comment to let me know which movies you are most anticipating. For each movie I’ve included the release date and reasons why and why not to see it. See you at the movies!

War Horse and Real Steel: Steve’s Surprising Recommendation

This weekend I watched two movies with connections to Steven Spielberg. The first was the Spielberg-directed War Horse, which was nominated for Best Picture, along with five other Oscar nominations. The second was Real Steel, a movie about boxing robots, for which Spielberg was an executive producer. It did receive one Oscar nomination for Visual Effects. I’m not a huge Spielberg fan. I have liked, but not loved, most of his movies. My favorites all date from the early 80’s (Raiders, E.T., The Color Purple). The last one that I really liked was Minority Report from a decade ago. I rented War Horse because I’m somewhat obsessive about seeing all the movies that are nominated for Best Picture. I was not expecting to be blown away by War Horse, but given its pedigree I figured I would at least enjoy it, and that is just how it turned out. Good movie, but not great. Deserving of its Best Picture nom? I can think of about twenty films that were more deserving, but War Horse has enough going for it to give it a fairly strong recommendation. My son requested that we rent Real Steel. The trailer made it look fairly entertaining, but, if I wasn’t expecting much from War Horse, I was expecting even less from Real Steel. I just hoped it wouldn’t turn out to be a waste of two hours. It most certainly wasn’t a waste of time. I am quite surprised to report that I enjoyed Real Steel much more than War Horse!

The key word there is “enjoyed.” One could argue that War Horse is a “better” movie in many respects (and I would grant many of those arguments), but I found Real Steel to be more enjoyable, more fun, and more moving. I shed a few tears during War Horse, but there were more tears flowing more often during Real Steel. I guess I’m more of a sucker for father/son movies than I am for horse movies, but, apart from my emotional response, I think that does get at the heart of why Real Steel is a more effective movie than War Horse. Both movies are shamelessly tearjerkers. Both are manipulative, but aren’t all movies manipulative in some way? Isn’t that the point of making a movie? Both are hopelessly cliched much of the time. Both depend on ridiculous plot-points. Both lead to inevitable endings (although there is a bit of a surprise in Real Steel’s conclusion.) Most importantly, both struggle with the fact that the title “character” is non-human, but the important difference is that Real Steel isn’t actually about the robot, it is about a father/son relationship, whereas War Horse really is about the horse. Alright, you could claim that it is about the relationship between the farm-boy Albert and his horse Joey, but that doesn’t change the fact that half of that relationship is animal rather than human. I know some folks really love their animals, but they are still animals and that limits the emotional impact of a movie. Besides, Albert and Joey are separated for over half the movie and the story follows Joey to war, which, for me, deadened the movie’s emotional impact. The story became so episodic that I felt disconnected from it. (It also seemed over-long at two and a half hours.)

In our blog description, we say that the most important element of a movie is its ability to tell a story and to create relationships that we care about. This is where Real Steel beats out War Horse. Sure, War Horse is a good looking movie, but its story-telling is weak. I didn’t really care if Albert and Joey got back together, although I knew they would. (That is not a spoiler, that is the inevitable ending I mentioned earlier.) On the other hand, I did care about Charlie and Max, the father and son, in Real Steel. Their story drew me in. Sure, it’s a story that’s been told many times before, the errant father who eventually sees the errors of his ways, but it is a storyline that still works for me and at least it gives a sense of hope, which our world desperately needs. That, in a nutshell, is why I rank Real Steel higher than War Horse.

In closing, I’ll offer a few particulars about each movie. As I’ve said, War Horse is a good looking movie. The cinematography is often beautiful. The war scenes are generally effectively filmed. Fortunately, Spielberg avoids an overuse of back-lighting. Overall, it felt like an old fashioned, Disney animal movie. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not necessarily a good thing either. Overall, the acting was good, but there was precious little in the way of great performances. Unfortunately, Jeremy Irvine was in the good, not great category, as Albert, which may not have been enough in such a key role. I did especially enjoy Emily Watson as Albert’s mother and Niels Arestrup as French grandfather. Given the episodic nature of the story, most of the other actors had little to work with. One annoying aspect of the movie was the Germans and French who spoke in English with their national accents. I’m not sure that having them speak in German and French with subtitles would have resolved the issue given the attempt to make this a family film. In that regard, the violence of the war scenes is kept to a minimum, but is still probably too much for younger children. Finally, yes, the horses look good. Horses are, after all, magnificent creatures. Most everyone in the movie, except for a few cold-hearted military officers, recognize how grand Joey is. Spielberg and his team do all they can to give Joey a strong sense of personality. They are fairly successful, but Joey is not Mr. Ed. I will mention, on behalf of my co-blogger Bill, who loves savior motifs in movies, that there is one scene where Joey “volunteers” himself in the place of another horse. I am sure that this scene makes some folks misty-eyed. It made me chuckle.

Although, I’ve said that it is in the story that Real Steel beats out War Horse, I would argue that it is also a good looking movie in its own way. The cinematography may not be as grand, but it works well. The opening sequence where Charlie drives up to a fair with the camera catching the reflection of the carnival lights in the windshield of his truck is as effective as anything in War Horse. The various underground arenas where the robots fight are well designed, each with a unique feel. The fight scenes themselves really aren’t all that special. How much can we be expected to care about robots beating on each other? But, the movie isn’t really about the robots anyway. I greatly enjoyed Hugh Jackman as Charlie. I join my son in saying that we are looking forward to seeing him in Les Miz later this year. Dakota Goyo brought great enthusiasm to the role of Max. Many of the other roles were cliched, but the performances still served the story well. In addition to the father/son storyline that I greatly enjoyed, the movie also offers the classic sports underdog motif. This movie is a surprise winner!

Crazy, Stupid, Love: a Recommendation from Steve

Crazy, Stupid, Love is a bit crazy. It is also somewhat stupid. I didn’t exactly love it, but I did like it enough to recommend it. This romantic comedy starring Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Julianne Moore has a broader emotional palette than many movies of its type. That is clear right from the opening scene. Cal (Carell) is having dinner out with his wife, Emily (Moore). He’s trying to decide on dessert and he asks her what she wants. Her response is that she wants a divorce. It gets worse. On the way home she confesses to an affair. How’s that for a setup for romance and comedy?

Cal moves out, leaving Emily at home with their son and daughter. The 13-year-old son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo) is having problems of his own. He is in love with his 17-year-old babysitter. He considers her to be his soul mate. She sees him as a kid. The notion of finding one’s soul mate is an important theme in the movie. Cal meets Jacob at the bar where Jacob spends his time picking up women. He takes great pride in his ability to get women into bed and he decides to help the newly single Cal learn the tricks of the trade. I was worried that the film would glorify cheap sex as so many movies these days do (for example, that attitude ruined 50/50 for me). There is a lot of implied sex (none of it is shown), but fortunately the movie takes a turn and proclaims that true happiness is found in a sustained relationship with the aforementioned soul mate. Actually, the movie takes a few unexpected turns that help to set it apart from most rom-coms. There are some great laugh-out-loud moments and a tear-jerker scene towards the end. This scene is somewhat clichéd, but it still worked for me. There is one other story line involving a woman, Hannah, that Jacob falls for. Hannah is played by the always delightful Emma Stone. She and Gosling have a wonderful extended scene together. Gosling shows here that he can do it all. He is funny and oh so cool as the playboy Jacob. He and Carell have good chemistry together. I’m not a huge Carell fan, but I thought he was effective here as Cal. I love Julianne Moore and was pleased that her character progresses from the rough start she gets off to in the movie.

The movie is somewhat lightweight, but its main theme is a good one to ponder. At one point Emily asks Cal, “When did we stop being us?” Cal’s response is, “When you slept with David Lindhagen.” The movie makes it clear, though, that the problem is deeper and older than that and that there is plenty of blame to go around. Are you taking any of your relationships for granted? Well, stop before you lose your soul mate! Even if things are really messed up (and they get very messed up in Crazy, Stupid, Love), there is a chance to start again. That kind of hope is well worth hanging on to.

Moneyball Scores! A Recommendation from Steve

I used to be a big baseball fan. I’m not anymore. Back in those days I would get quite irritated by those who said baseball was too slow, boring even. I considered them to be barbarians. They couldn’t see and appreciate the subtlety, the poetry of the game. Each inning, each at-bat, held its own drama. I now find it difficult to sit through an entire game. (Although last night’s Game 6 was delightful!) Football has regained its place as my favorite sport. I mention this not simply because Moneyball is about baseball, but because watching it is a bit like watching baseball. In movie terms, football is like a summer blockbuster, whereas baseball is more often like a character-driven drama. Baseball is subtle. Baseball is nuance. Baseball is poetry. When a poem works for us, there is nothing more beautiful, more powerful. When it doesn’t work, when we can’t make the connection, we wonder what the fuss is about. Moneyball worked for me, so much so that it currently sits at the top of my 2011 movie rankings.

Moneyball is a good looking movie, but there is nothing flashy about it. The director, Bennett Miller, leads with a sure hand, but doesn’t show off. With this and the equally wonderful Capote under his belt, he is a director I’ll be keeping my eye on. The writing by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (who also penned The Social Network) is also strong, witty and poignant, without being overly sentimental. Look for their names at Oscar time. The flashiest element of the movie is the name of its star: Brad Pitt. His name provides the flash, but his performance as Billy Beane is powerful in its subtlety, its nuance, yes, its poetry. He could have used this as a star vehicle and swung for the fences, but he didn’t and the movie is all the better thanks to his restraint. One of the themes of the movie is that getting on base leads to scoring runs, which leads to winning games. A player’s true value is determined by how he uses his skills for the good of the team, even if that means being patient at the plate in order to draw a walk. The cast understands this premise, so the movie is filled with quietly effective performances, including Philip Seymour Hoffman (as the manager, Art Howe), and, especially, Jonah Hill as Peter Brand, the computer geek who provides a new way to evaluate players. I’m not a big fan of the kind of movies that have filled Hill’s career so far, but he blew me away here. He is able to convey so much with a glance, a raised eyebrow, a softly spoken line. Incredible. Again, look for his name at Oscar time.

If there is a weakness to the movie it is that, other than Beane and Brand, the characters are under developed, but I see this as a minor problem. I can understand Howe’s complaint that the movie does not give him the credit he is due as manager, and given that the A’s let him go after seasons of 102 and 103 wins seems to indicate that the team, or especially Beane, didn’t value his talents highly enough. If the movie’s goal was historical accuracy, Howe’s character may have been presented differently, but the movie is not overly concerned with such accuracy. It is tricky business to make a movie based on a true story, especially of events that happened less than a decade ago. But, more than history, the film seeks to give us metaphor, and the movie is all the better for this, also. The historical events do provide wonderful drama. It is the classic story of the triumph of the underdog as the poor team that is gutted of its superstars by the rich teams finds a way to win. This would have made a good movie. Indeed, I had tears rolling down my cheeks during a number of the game sequences. Yes, baseball can be exciting and quite moving in its drama. A simple, historical view of the 2002 A’s would still have been better than most of this summer’s movies, but Moneyball offers us even more. I’ve read reviews that complain that the movie ignores players that were instrumental in the team reaching 103 wins and a trip to the playoffs, especially the starting pitchers Zito, Hudson, and Mulder, who accounted for 57 wins. True, they are nearly invisible in the movie, but there is an obvious reason, they don’t fit in the metaphor. They were with the team before Brand showed Beane the new way to evaluate talent, or more importantly, a player’s value to the team. The movie focuses on Bradford and Hatteberg because they were players who the old system undervalued. That is the true power of this film. It gives us an opportunity to look at things in a new way. The great irony is that the new system, which relies on a computer and cold, hard facts, gave an opportunity to players who were left out in the old system that relied upon, among other things, the intuition of the scouts. See this movie and then ponder these things: how can we best uncover the gifts that the Bible tells us everyone has? How can we best use our gifts for the good of the team, or more broadly, for the good of others? What is truly the difference between losing and winning?