Star Trek Into Darkness (9 minute IMAX preview)

I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last night in IMAX 3-D (more on that later, if I’m not too lazy to write about it). I knew that before the feature, I would be treated to what I had heard advertised as “the first 9 minutes” of the new JJ Abrams Star Trek movie, Into Darkness. Below is my reaction to the extended preview. There are some SPOILERS below, mostly for what is seen in the preview, but also a few outside details (that have been revealed elsewhere) and just some speculation from yours truly.

Before jumping into a my quick thoughts on the preview, I should briefly explain my level of Trekkie-ness. I fall somewhere between a hard-core Trekkie and a casual viewer. I’ve actively made an effort to see every episode of the first three Trek TV shows (four if you count the animated series), though I’ve seen none of Voyager or Enterprise. I’ve also seen all of the feature films. I was lukewarm on the 2009 Abrams reboot. I thought it was a solid action movie (as Abrams always provides) and it was kind of fun seeing new introductions to familiar characters, settings and situations. However, I didn’t think the new Trek had the heart/soul of The Original Series. It was a slick movie, better made (and arguably better) than some of the weaker entries in the Trek film series, but I don’t think it quite won the uphill battle it was fighting to be a smash hit and still please most of the fans. I’m still excited for Into Darkness and will definitely be there on (or shortly after) opening day.

The preview begins in London 2259.55 with two characters we’ve never seen (at least I didn’t recognize them) waking up and driving their hover car to a hospital (that looks kind of like Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, and Wayne Manor, and the mansion where Rachel Weisz lives in The Brothers Bloom). The couple goes in to visit what is presumably their sick daughter. The mother, played by Nazneen Contractor (the annoying daughter of the president of “Kamistan” in season 8 of 24, and recently a reporter on Last Resort, if anyone watches that) holds the daughter’s hand and the father (Noel Clarke, apparently of Doctor Who fame) looks on in anger. Dad goes out to a balcony and is spoken to by an unseen individual who claims that he can save the girl. Turns out the guy talking to him is Benedict Cumberbatch, who, reports generally say, is the antagonist of the film.

If this is indeed “the first 9 minutes” of the new film, it starts out on the wrong foot. As I said, we don’t know either of these characters, and giving them a sick child is no way to force us to care about them. Cumberbatch’s introduction is appropriately ominous, which I quite liked, but I don’t think it packed the oomph necessary to open a new Star Trek movie. We don’t get a demonstration of his power and we don’t know anything about this little girl or her parents and why he’s helping them. It’s hard to say whether this scene would work better later in the film, but considering the action takes place one year earlier than the next scene (thanks to an on-screen title) I think it’s stuck where it is.

The rest of the preview deals with a big action sequence on a very striking “Class M” planet filled with Dr. Seuss-like red trees and populated by what appear to be primitive, pale, white-skinned (or at least white-painted) natives with all-black eyes. In a scene that takes a few cues from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the natives chase two figures (who turn out to be Bones and Kirk) through the red tree forest, firing arrows and throwing spears at them. It seems the two have stolen an artifact from the natives as a distraction while Uhura, Sulu and Spock take a shuttle into the planet’s gigantic active volcano in order to neutralize it and prevent the destruction of the native race. This involves Spock being lowered into the volcano from the shuttle to plant a device. Of course, Spock’s cable snaps and the shuttle has to abandon him. Bones and Kirk leave behind the artifact and jump off of a cliff into a large body of water. Turns out they have underwater breathing equipment and little shoe-jets to propel them along (a reminder of some of the sillier gadgets Sydney Bristow made use of in Alias). They scoot through the water and come upon…

…The Enterprise! It’s a pretty cool reveal with the ship hiding underwater so as not to tip off the natives that they are there. How they got it down there without causing a commotion (within a couple minutes’ run of the community’s center) I have no idea. Maybe they entered on the other side of the ocean? Anyway, everyone (but Spock) is back on the bridge and they need to decide how to rescue Spock without disobeying the Prime Directive. Somehow they have communication with Spock, who tells Kirk that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” It’s a nice reference, though I can’t imagine they’d have Spock “die” in the “first 9 minutes” of the new film. Still, the situation goes unresolved as Bones tells Kirk that if Spock were in his shoes, he’d let Kirk die.

I really enjoyed this second part of the preview. It’s a really fun action scene–or more of a chase scene and also CGI Spock bouncing around in a CGI volcano–which is what I’ve come to expect from Abrams. If the movie puts together a couple more scenes like this and figures out how to sell us on Cumberbatch’s villain after the weaker opening sequence (which shouldn’t be hard, since he’s Benedict Cumberbatch) I think Into Darkness will be just as good as the previous film. I know that’s not especially high praise, but I’m honestly hoping that Abrams tops the first film. Whether that means I’ll like it more as a Trek fan, or simply enjoy it as a second installment of a fun sci-fi action franchise remains to be seen.

Before the preview ends, we get a few clips of “sizzle reel” action from other parts of the film. There is at least one shot that appears to be the Enterprise skimming through the surface of water (in daylight). We see a very Elizabeth Dehner-like Alice Eve (though apparently she’s playing Dr. Carol Marcus, another familiar figure). We also see two people’s hands on either side of a pane of glass, reminiscent of The Wrath of Khan, of course. I could see Abrams going the Khan-like route and “killing” Spock to take us “into darkness” and set up the third film. I can only imagine him actually killing off one of the major characters without offering a chance of return. I can’t see it happening, but if it does, my money is on Uhura (an admittedly problematic choice which would certainly raise questions given her race/gender). Or, now that I’m thinking of it, maybe one of the crew dies or is dying and Cumberbatch needs to “save” him/her. It’s equal parts fun and difficult to speculate as to what might happen in the new film. I guess all will be revealed in May.

If you’re going to see The Hobbit, and you have the choice to go in IMAX, just do it. Even without the Trek bonus it’s worth it.

Killing Them Softly

[Politics aside, I love the poster art for this film. Found at: http://www.ropeofsilicon.com]

Most people couldn’t find one reason to get out and see Killing Them Softly. I had three. First, despite the little advertising I had seen for the film, I had read a lot of positive things about it including some reviewers saying it was the best film of the year so far. Second, it stars Brad Pitt. I’m not head-over-heels for Pitt by any means, but of late (I’d trace it back to Babel in 2006) he’s had a pretty good track record of picking interesting films and he’s usually a solid performer in everything. Third, it is directed by Andrew Dominik.

I admit that I haven’t seen Dominik’s first film, 2000’s Chopper, but as a big fan of the Western genre I adore his second film, 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The cast in Assassination is great, led, I suppose, by Pitt, who’s low-key performance as Jesse gives way for Casey Affleck to shine in his Oscar-nominated supporting role as Robert Ford, his best performance to date and one of my favorites of that year. Assassination gained high praise when it first came out, particularly as an under-seen and underrated film. Recently, I read a review that called it overrated, so I guess the pendulum has started to swing the other way. I understand why some might not enjoy an action-light, 2-hour, 40-minute film when 3:10 to Yuma is playing in the next theater over, but I really like this film. It doesn’t hurt that it’s beautifully shot by Roger Deakins (recently of Skyfall fame). As a western history buff, I think it’s a bold decision to start the film years after the most well-known event in Jesse James history (beyond his assassination, of course): the Northfield, Minnesota Raid. That 1876 event has been depicted in almost every other Jesse James movie I’ve ever seen, but Dominik begins the film in 1881, the year before Jesse’s death. Assassination is more of a psychological character-study then a traditional western film, and I think it, and the genre are all the better for it. [NOTE: for those interested in Jesse James history, I highly recommend Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War by T.J. Stiles]

In Killing Them Softly, Pitt is the one doing the assassinating. He stars as a hit man brought in to fix the problems caused by the armed robbery of a private poker game. Honestly, there isn’t much more to the plot than that, but that’s no matter because it’s the characters that really shine. Though he doesn’t appear until 20 minutes into the film, allowing for his on-the-nose entrance to Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around,” Pitt is engaging throughout. He keeps an even keel as Cogan, turning in a restrained performance that is free of the flash found in his earlier star-making roles.

The rest of the cast is just as solid, particularly Scoot McNairy (also seen recently in Argo, my take on that film here) as Frankie, one of the two men who rob the poker game. Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kindgom, The Dark Knight Rises) is Russell, the other stickup man. Honestly, McNairy could be considered the lead character of the film, kind of like Affleck in Assassination, as he’s around for the entire film. Richard Jenkins as Driver, a representative for the mafia acting as a contact for Cogan, and James Gandolfini as Mickey, another hitman, also put in memorable performances. The major players are all very believable in their roles, from slick hitman to slimy mafia middleman to grimy hoodlum. Rounding out the cast are Ray Liotta, Vincent “Johnny Sack” Curatola, Max Casella and Sam Shepherd, in what’s essentially a cameo. Nope, there are no women in this film (apart from a prostitute and Curatola’s girlfriend).

Mendelsohn and McNairy via: http://www.flicksandbits.com

Killing Them Softly has been noted for its violence. I didn’t find it particularly gross or gory, though it is rather brutal, beginning with a punch-sound-effects-heavy beating in the rain. The first scene of killing in the film is also delivered in lyrical slow motion. It isn’t entirely original given its violence-as-dance appearance, but it is a standout scene in the film, well shot and well staged. It exists in contrast to the other kills in the film. One of which is done at a greater remove (or even more “softly”) and another of which comes as a viscerally effective shock. Dominik also allows himself some flash with a memorably stylized scene between McNairy and Mendelsohn, with the latter drifting in and out of a drugged-induced haze.

Like Assassination, Killing is also contemplative, giving its audience time to listen to long conversations (of which there are several) and sometimes to revel (or squirm) in its silences. Pitt shares dialogue scenes with Jenkins, Gandolfini and McNairy that I could watch over and over. I love it when a film or TV show (notably Breaking Bad) takes the time for a real conversation to run its course. The words are important in this film, which reminded me more than a few times of Killer Joe (dir. William Friedkin), adapted from a stage play by Tracy Letts. Friedkin’s film is more violent and crazy-over-the-top, but I think the films share a few things and perhaps a more in-depth comparison is due.

The leisurely pace of each scene in Killing Them Softly stands in contrast to the film’s 97-minute run time, a brevity that caught me off guard. When the film ended, I thought that perhaps I had missed something, or maybe there were reels missing. Adding to my suspicion of an incomplete print was the fact that Dominik seems to leave the fates of some of the characters dangling, or decided off-screen. While it was somewhat curious initially, in hindsight I think it’s a great touch. The film doesn’t show us everything, but it shows us enough to tell its story.

If there’s one criticism I have, and several others have, of Killing Them Softly, it’s the blatant references to the faltering American economy. Killing is set in 2008 and it seems like every other scene (including the opening credits sequence, which I quite liked) features a speech about the state of the nation’s economy by either then-president George W. Bush or presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain. TV or radio broadcasts of these speeches appear in the background of several scenes, sometimes interrupting them in a “do you guys get it yet?” manner that I feel distracts and detracts from the much stronger balance of the film. This is a curious choice given that the film is an adaptation of a 1974 novel titled Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins. It makes one wonder what a straight adaptation might have looked like without the heavy-handed commentary on the economic crisis in the US.

Jenkins and Pitt via: http://www.filmxtra.co.uk

In the end, I can’t say I liked Killing Them Softly as much as The Assassination of Jesse James, though it has a lot working in its favor. Dominik has directed a pretty good follow-up to his previous effort. I think it’s too bad that more people aren’t seeing this film, as I enjoyed it just as much as some of the higher profile awards-contender films I’ve seen this fall. Political views aside, Killing Them Softly is a nice “short story” of a film with an able cast and engaging dialogue. It’s certainly not as bad as its box office receipts suggest.

Argo

It’s time for round 2 of “dumping on surefire Oscar contenders.” After my lukewarm response to David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, I decided it was time to write about a film from another director I like, Ben Affleck’s Argo.

Affleck’s first effort, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone was one of my favorite films of that year. It was the second notable performance by Casey Affleck that year (the first being his amazing turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and it’s a film that I’m always fond to revisit. 2010’s The Town was also a film I enjoyed, though not as much as Gone Baby Gone. I don’t know if it was the story, or if I felt Affleck was being a bit indulgent in casting himself as the lead, but it didn’t draw me in quite as much as the earlier film.

With Argo, Affleck has again cast himself in the lead role, but in a film where the most important aspect is the story. Argo is a period piece set in 1979/1980 during the Iran hostage crisis. Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA specialist who is tasked with trying to rescue six employees from the American embassy in Tehran who were able to escape and are hiding out in the Canadian embassy. With the help of Hollywood makeup artist and some-time CIA collaborator John Chambers (John Goodman) and film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) he concocts a far-fetched extraction plan. The trio begins pre-production on a sci-fi movie called Argo, a fake film that will potentially shoot in Iran. Using Argo as a cover, the 6 embassy refugees will be able to escape by posing as part of the film crew visiting Iran on a location scout. Mendez himself will act as the shepherd to the group of 6, first getting into Iran and then getting all of them out safely.

The performances in the film are all very good, but not distracting or showy. There’s been some mention about Affleck’s Tony Mendez being bland or boring. Personally, I love that he’s not an action hero. It adds a level of reality to this (based on a true) story about the nuts and bolts of getting people out of a bad situation. Goodman and Arkin get most of the funny and memorable lines in the film, but I was surprised how little they were actually featured in a film where they among the top 4 performers billed (along with Affleck and Bryan Cranston as Affleck’s CIA superior). The two are great character actors who refrain from chewing the scenery and simply deliver solid supporting performances. The film is also filled with “that guy” actors, people you have seen everywhere before, but who you might not be able to name. The list includes Kyle Chandler, Victor Garber, Chris Messina, Željko Ivanek, Titus Welliver, Bob Gunton, Philip Baker Hall, and Richard Kind. Also, props to Affleck and the casting directors for avoiding the temptation to get bigger, more recognizable actors to play the 6 embassy escapees. Sure, you may have seen these people before, but I only knew Clea DuVall (from Identity) and Kerry Bishé (from Scrubs and Red State).

I mentioned above that the story is the main focus of this film, and that’s probably what I like most about it. Argo is fairly straightforward history lesson about an unorthodox and unique operation that I had never heard about (and I’m assuming a lot of viewers, or at least people who weren’t around during the crisis, hadn’t heard about either). The film doesn’t get bogged down with extraneous plots, action scenes, love triangles, twists or shocking elements, probably because none of that existed in the actual historical record. It’s just an interesting story, well told.

Here is where my biggest nitpick with Argo comes in. Yes, this is an interesting slice of history, but I get a sense that Affleck didn’t think it was quite interesting enough. I must admit that I haven’t researched the actual events, so I could be completely wrong about what I write next. The final act of the film, the escape attempt, is filled with manufactured tension that isn’t in line with the rest of the story and makes it feel just a bit too “Hollywood” for my taste. Certainly, a “Hollywood” ending is in keeping with the film being about a fake movie, but the sheer number of problems the group runs into was a bit much. Affleck (and/or perhaps screenwriter Chris Terrio) stacks snag after snag on top of difficulty, close call and obstacle. By the time Goodman and Arkin were being held up by a film shoot, unable to reach their office where, unbeknownst to them, at that exact time the most important phone call of the whole operation was coming in from halfway around the world, I had to shake my head.

It doesn’t kill the movie entirely, as we’re still rooting for Affleck to succeed and these people to get out, but unfortunately, it’s still a mark against an otherwise very good movie, in my opinion. This last act letdown is unfortunate, because the film has already given us a good example of real tension that springs organically from the situation. Once Affleck arrives, the 6 are forced to go on an actual location scouting trip through the heart of Tehran, after having less than two days to learn their cover identities. There are some real moments of suspense during the scouting trip, and honestly, I wouldn’t have minded if Affleck had milked this sequence a little more, rather than back-loading all of the tension into the escape. A side story about one of the escapees not trusting Affleck to get them out also doesn’t work for me, as it’s a development that we know the resolution to as soon as it begins. Perhaps if we had spent a little bit more time with the escapees (another slight knock against the film) it wouldn’t have seemed so unnecessary. Another side story involving the housekeeper at the Canadian embassy being a potential threat to the operation is a bit more interesting, but ultimately, it isn’t developed enough to make me care a lot about it, though I liked that it was included.

The real group of six meeting with President Carter. – White House Photo via: slate.com

I have to say that I began this response prepared to criticize Argo more harshly, but the more I reflect on and write about it, the more I find that I liked the film. Overall, I liked Argo quite a lot. The care taken with the film’s 1979/1980 look and feel, emphasized by the historic photographs shown during the credits, makes evident the love these filmmakers have for history; a love shared by yours truly. It’s no surprise that the film is co-produced by George Clooney and his frequent collaborator Grant Heslov who brought us period-piece/television industry films Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck. (as well as Leatherheads, a semi-successful love letter to the screwball comedies of Preston Sturges). That said, I understand that any dramatic film adaptation of a “true story” needs to be embellished and condensed, and perhaps requires an increase in the level of conflict in order to sell the film to a studio and/or an audience. Still, Argo does so well at playing things low-key that I don’t think it needed to lean on the crutch of contrived suspense in its climax.

I’m glad that Argo is getting a good bit of awards buzz for Terrio, Arkin, Affleck and the film itself. Compared to everything else I’ve seen this year, which isn’t all that much as far as awards contenders are concerned, the film is probably near the top of the list. Still, as much as I like Argo, and Affleck as a director, I’m not convinced it’s a winner in all categories.

Silver Linings Playbook

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Disclaimer: I never meant to write 2000+ words about Silver Linings Playbook, and I typically try not to write this much about something I don’t have the immediate opportunity to watch again (and again) to support or challenge my opinions. Basically, I’m saying that I only saw this movie once (a couple of weeks ago) and my thoughts may change if/when I see it again. I may be over-analyzing this romantic comedy and I’ll admit that I haven’t read the Matthew Quick novel that it is based on, so I can’t comment on the adaptation. That said, I welcome any thoughts or criticisms that might allow me to consider the film from a different perspective. Also, there are a lot of SPOILERS below (particularly after the plot summary section). You probably wouldn’t find this post interesting, if you find it interesting at all, unless you’ve seen the film anyway.

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As I began to hear the positive buzz about Silver Linings Playbook, I was interested and hopeful that the film would be a return to what I loved about the work of director David O. Russell.

I’m not a David O. Russell fan from way back. I’ve never seen his debut feature, Spanking the Monkey, and I only recently caught up with and enjoyed Flirting with Disaster, but when I first saw Three Kings, I was blown away. In 1999, a year featuring several great movies, Three Kings just might be my favorite. It is a wonderfully offbeat mix of comedy (and comedy styles), action (I remember Cinescape magazine perhaps overpraising it as one of the top 25 action movies of all time), and human drama (though admittedly, it falls a bit short on this front). It plays like a comedic heist caper, set against the backdrop of the Gulf War, a conflict seldom explored on film either before or since. One thing I especially loved was Russell’s stylistic flourishes including flashbacks, fantasy cutaways, desaturated colors and one of the most unique shootouts put to film.

Russell followed up Three Kings with I Heart Huckabees, a film that was highly anticipated by yours truly. The strangeness (or quirkiness?) present in Three Kings is taken to another level in a film about existential angst explored through Russell’s wacky visuals and set to philosophy-heavy dialogue that is, perhaps knowingly, impenetrable, but often insightful. The “science” isn’t as important as the connections these characters in Huckabees make and break throughout the film. In the end, it’s a messy, sometimes confusing, but entirely enjoyable and original bit of film-making.

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Then came The Fighter. As an aside, I’d LOVE to finally see a version of Nailed, Russell’s filmed, but unfinished 2008 film, which sounded like it would be a more fitting follow up/addition to Russell’s ouvre as it existed at the time. I don’t dislike The Fighter, but upon seeing it, I had a difficult time finding David O. Russell anywhere in the film. It seemed as if Russell had given up on his unique style to direct a film that could arguably be considered the definition of Oscar bait. Of course, Russell is known for several behind-the-scenes difficulties and Huckabees was far from a hit, so maybe he needed to get back into the good graces of the Hollywood community (there’s a broad generalization for you). Nominated for seven Academy Awards (including a directing nod for Russell) and winning two (supporting awards for Christian Bale and Melissa Leo), The Fighter clearly increased Russell’s status.

So here we are with Silver Linings Playbook. I think it’s a step up from The Fighter, but I wouldn’t consider it a return to Russell’s roots. The film begins with Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) being released from a psychiatric hospital. Diagnosed as bipolar, Pat has been there since he had a psychotic break after walking in on his wife cheating on him with one of her co-workers. Now Pat is out and he wants to get his life back on track and try to rekindle his marriage, despite the fact that everyone around him seems to know it’s over, and the fact that he has a restraining order so he can’t see or talk to her.

Pat moves in with his parents Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver). Pat Sr. is a small time bookie who has an unhealthy obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles. He’s also ridiculously superstitious about Eagles games, going as far as dictating where the remote controls need to be and also who gets to hold his lucky handkerchief. Pat Sr. wants to raise enough money with his bookmaking to open a restaurant. Dolores is a put-upon homemaker who has dealt with Pat Sr. for so long that she’s forgotten any other life. She’s reduced to making “crabby snacks and home-mades” over and over again on game days, while looking timid and concerned.

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Things change a bit for Pat when he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the sister-in-law of a friend of his. Tiffany is dealing with her own problems, the biggest of which is the death of her police officer husband, Tommy. She and Pat start a (mostly) good-naturedly antagonistic relationship which eventually begins to grow into something more as these two broken people start to heal.

Obviously, there are more ins and outs of the plot and more characters filling this world—including Chris Tucker as a fellow psych patient, Julia Stiles as Tiffany’s sister and Boardwalk Empire’s own Shea Whigham as Pat’s older brother—but you can see the movie for all of that (and hopefully you already have, if you’re going to continue reading this). The cast isn’t an issue with Silver Linings Playbook as everyone of consequence is played incredibly well. This may even be De Niro’s best work of the past decade (or longer). My biggest problems with the film are the odd tonal shifts which, in my opinion, don’t entirely work for a film that is being sold as a romantic comedy-drama.

Much of the humor in Playbook is found in Pat’s awkward interactions with others, and the playful parts of his relationship with Tiffany. That said, wherever I found a laugh in the film, I also found myself second-guessing my reaction. Should I really be laughing at this man who clearly has mental issues that are tearing at him and his family? I guess that’s the definition of dark humor, but I don’t think it plays out like that. I think Russell (or at least the studio) is trying to sell the film’s humor to broad audiences, who may not consider Pat’s mental state as thoughtfully when they’re getting a superficial chuckle out of him meeting Tiffany by asking how Tommy died. Maybe I’m overly sensitive, maybe I’m more concerned about Pat than I really should be, and maybe this is just nit-pickery, but I think the film’s troubles with balancing tone are more far-reaching.

Beyond the dark humor, Playbook deals with some heavy issues: institutionalization, mental health disorders, death of a spouse, familial dysfunction, etc…. There are a couple of intense scenes between Pat and his parents where the shouting, crying and emotional and physical violence are a bit disturbing. Notably, these scenes take place before Pat goes back on his meds. I don’t believe that Russell is advocating for modern medicine, but the frequency and severity of Pat’s manic mood swings significantly decrease for the rest of the film. Regardless, these scenes stand in contrast to what we might expect from a comedy. Sure, it’s funny when Pat throws A Farewell to Arms through a window and proceeds to go on a rant about how terrible Hemingway is for making us feel so bad after reading his novel. However, when he’s doing this at 3AM and waking up his parents, I can see how clearly affected he is by this and the laughs don’t come quite as easily. Once he’s on his meds, Pat’s moods are more leveled which eases some of the tension. Still, I was anticipating another episode–which dramatically probably should have happened after Pat learns something about a certain letter from his wife–though it never comes.

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Also, as fun as De Niro is playing the tough, sports-obsessed and frustrated Pat Sr., it’s evident upon reflection that his relationships with everyone else in the film are tragically stunted, if not irreparably broken. He’s a father who never learned to connect with or love his children traditionally. Sure, he’s probably had the hard life as a provider and all that, but it’s incredibly sad to see him fail in his attempts to bond with his son through sports, the only thing he knows. The fact that the outcome of a football game plays a part in “saving” his family in the end is perhaps appropriate, but also a convenience that undercuts any real growth for this group of people. We never get any catharsis or deeper healing with Pat Sr., we just get reinforcement of the status quo (and perhaps a new restaurant).

Then there’s the romantic comedy. The romance between Pat and Tiffany, two people who are recovering from having their worlds shattered, is played and written well. There’s a degree of predictability involved in some of their interactions (particularly surrounding Tiffany’s acting as a go-between for Pat and his oft-mentioned, seldom seen wife), but I think their relationship is probably the best part of the movie, along with some of the more dramatic moments early in the film. I’m sometimes surprised that Lawrence is only 22, although she does look rather young to be a widow, which then makes me wonder if it’s weird that Cooper is 37.

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As fun as the romance between the two leads is to watch, the climax of their story is just a bit too “easy” for a film that has decided to present us with so many difficult human issues. Tiffany has convinced Pat to be her partner in a dance competition in return for promising to pass a letter on to Pat’s wife. When Pat misses an important dance practice because he’s trying to bond with his brother and please his father by going to an Eagles game (a game on which Pat Sr. has bet all of his restaurant money because he thinks Pat is good luck) everything comes to a head. Pat and his brother are involved in a fistfight with some other Eagles fans in the tailgate area. They never see the game and the Eagles lose. Superstitious Pat Sr., feels let down, plus he’s lost everything. A betrayed Tiffany shows up and a huge shouting match takes place in the Solitano living room. Everyone is yelling and crying so much that it seems like a Cassavetes film. Then things abruptly change as a solution presents itself. In a funny, though tonally ill-fitting moment, Tiffany convinces Pat Sr. that she is really the good luck charm for his Eagles. Pat Sr.’s buddy agrees to give him a chance to win his restaurant money back, double or nothing, by betting on another Eagles game as well as betting on Pat and Tiffany scoring at least a 5 (out of 10) in the dance competition. We’ve gone from kitchen sink melodrama to “let’s win a dance contest to save the family” in less than 3 minutes. It’s crazy.

From there we get the final act with the football game on TV, the dance competition, and the added pressure of Pat’s wife showing up to watch the performance. It plays out as expected. The Eagles win. Pat and Tiffany dance, which I quite liked, and mange to score exactly 5. Their subsequent elation at achieving the lowest score out of every couple is funny in the moment, but it kind of plays out like the “let’s celebrate our own individuality” moment when the entire family gets on stage at the beauty contest in Little Miss Sunshine. It’s not a new situation, and thus not surprising when the outcome is exactly as it should be, though that’s the nature of rom-coms. Also in keeping with tradition, we get a last bit of tension as Tiffany runs away thinking that Pat and his wife are getting back together. Pat chases after Tiffany and the two declare their love for each other with a triumphant long-distance dolly-out on their kiss.

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So where do I stand? I don’t dislike the film, and the more I write about it, the more interesting I think it is. I think I see more of the Russell I like in Playbook than I did in The Fighter, but I also see a lot that seems too familiar. I feel like Russell is trying to maintain the mass appeal and good will he achieved with The Fighter by turning this story of dark dysfunction into a film that is more predictable and palatable. Something is lost in the transformation. There’s half of a really interesting, dark comedy-drama character study in here, and there’s half of a slightly more offbeat romantic-comedy, but these two halves are at odds, each pulling a bit too far in their own directions for the film to cohere completely. I feel like the beating, bleeding heart of the film is too easily bypassed with the quick fixes of traditional romantic-comedy tropes.

Silver Linings Playbook is often as bipolar as its main character, a quality which is potentially brilliant if it is a conscious choice, but which is more likely an indicator of a film that isn’t exactly sure what it wants to be.

The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 6 – “Hounded”

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I must admit, I wasn’t the biggest fan of this episode as I was watching it. Then, while constructing this post, I realized what the writers were doing with certain parts of the story, which increased my enjoyment significantly. Whether by design, or not (I’m guessing not), this episode contains a parallel to a celebrated piece of classic literature. Not everything in the episode ties in, but I think there’s enough there, so just go with it.

We open with Merle and three guys out on the hunt. Initially it seems like they’re looking for Daryl (as the “previously on…” suggests), but it turns out they’re hunting for Michonne on the Gov’s orders. They come across a “biter gram” that Michonne has made out of walker parts, telling them to go back. I really liked the biter gram. It was weird and funny, though it seems like a lot of work to go through, stopping to leave an elaborate message for the people who are chasing you. Neil Unpronounceablelastname, one of the guys with Merle, seems a bit upset by this whole “hunting a living human” affair. He doesn’t have too much time to complain before Michonne appears, killing the other two randoms and running away, but not before getting shot by Merle who shouts “are we having fun yet?” apropos of nothing (but a love of Party Down).

"So that's why they call you Neil."

“I knew there was a good reason I decided to call you Neil.” [rim shot]

Later, after convincing Neil to start growing a pair, Merle and Neil track Michonne down again. Of course, they’re all attacked by walkers. Michonne neatly slices open the abdomen of one walker, who promptly spills his guts all over her. It’s appropriately gross and hilarious. She gets away and Merle and Neil argue about whether to go back and tell the Governor that they’ve killed her (Merle’s idea) or to follow her into the “red zone” and finish her off (Neil’s idea). In the end, Merle provides the more persuasive argument, shooting Neil in the head (but not before making an attempt to pronounce his last name, a nice touch). Merle starts back to Woodbury.

Well there's 8 bucks wasted at Woodbury Martinizing.

Well there’s 8 bucks wasted at Woodbury Martinizing.

Meanwhile, at the prison, Rick is on the phone with the phantom caller from last week. It’s not Jacob Marley jangling the chains he forged in life, but a woman who claims that she and her group are in a safe place “away from them,” likely meaning the walkers. Rick pleads with her to let the gang join up with her and she says she has to check with the rest of her group. It’s a nice sincere moment as Rick clearly shows he has the gang’s best interest at heart and that he really just wants to be in a place that is far away from all of this death and (re-)killing. The woman on the phone then tells Rick that will be visited by three ghosts who will teach him that he needs to change his ways before it’s too late. Certain that this caller is not simply “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard or a crumb of cheese” Rick rationally decides to go have breakfast with everyone. He walks into the room as if nothing really happened last week. They ask him about clearing the cell block and after telling them he’s killed a bunch of walkers, he leaves abruptly to await the arrival of the first spirit.

Herschel, seriously, leggo my Eggo.

Herschel, seriously, LEGgo my Eggo.

The Ghost of Christmas Past is a guy who asks Rick about the sins of his youth, or at least the last two seasons. He wants to know how many men Rick has killed (the answer is 4). Also, in a clear parallel to showing Ebeneezer Scrooge how he “lost” his fiance, the ghost also asks Rick how he lost his wife. Rick is suspicious that the guy knows so much about him. After the call, Herschel hobbles in and Rick tells him about the phone calls. I don’t think Herschel really believes that Rick is receiving calls, but he plays along anyway.

As for the rest of the gang, Glenn and Maggie decide to go out shopping for supplies and Daryl, Oscar and Carl take a walk through the prison. Daryl continues to be awesome, telling Carl a story about how his mother got drunk and fell asleep while smoking a cigarette, which then lit her on fire and burned her to death. Happy stuff, but at least he’s trying. Carl shares his own uplifting story about killing his mother and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t deliver his lines about such heavy subject matter in a non-grating/annoying way. Way to go Carl! They guys kill a walker who just so happens to be wearing Carol’s knife in his neck. It’s a sad reminder for Daryl.

Back in Woodbury, the romantic comedy continues. Andrea tells the Gov that she wants to start pulling her weight in her new hometown and he gives her a chance to learn to shoot a bow up on the wall. Andrea and her bowhunting instructor, we’ll call her Katniss, swap stories about killing their own family members, until a walker shows up outside the wall. Katniss misses three shots and Andrea says “screw it,” jumps over the wall and takes out the walker with a knife. This may be the happiest Andrea has been since entering Woodbury.

Booyah!

Booyah!

Andrea visits the Gov’s office, where he tells her that she can’t be on wall duty because jumping over is a breach of the rules. Andrea admits that she’s a woman of action and she secretly liked last week’s Walxing match, though she wasn’t glad that she liked it. The Gov tells her that he knew she liked the fights. He also informs her that she likes him, because he’s super-confident and clearly knows where this storyline is going. I’m happy to at least hear about some inner conflict with Andrea, though it doesn’t slow her initiation into the cult of Woodbury.

Glenn and Maggie arrive at the strip mall. They kiss, they look happy, they joke about an unseen duck toy. Little do they know, Michonne is watching them. Worlds colliding people! The trio becomes a quartet when Merle arrives on the scene. He pretends to be friendly and excited to see Glenn, who tells him that Daryl is still alive. Of course, the good feelings last only so long before Merle takes Maggie hostage and forces Glenn to drive the three of them back to Woodbury. Michonne remains hidden.

Another nice master shot. I guess I'm just a sucker for extreme high angles.

Another nice master shot where we can see Glenn, Maggie and Michonne. I guess I’m just a sucker for extreme high angles.

Andrea and the Gov share a drink and clumsily veiled talk about the last time they had sex. I guess that means they’ll have sex soon. They kiss. Later, they have sex. The afterglow is interrupted by Merle, who has returned with the new captives. He explains the deaths of his three companions and tells the Gov that Michonne is dead. The Gov is upset that Merle didn’t bring back her sword and also her head, as the helicopter pilot is getting lonely in the penthouse aquarium. Merle makes an excuse and the Gov goes back in to Andrea. “Everything okay?” she asks him. “Hell yeah,” he says, presenting us with the most awkward line/delivery of the episode (season?). These lovebirds are too much.

"Maybe I'm taking things a little fast, but I'd like you to meet my daughter."

“Maybe I’m taking things a little fast, but you like kids, right?”

Back in prison, Rick receives a call from the Ghost of Christmas Present, a woman who tells him that it would be good for him to talk about his wife’s death. He needs to accept that she’s gone and open up to those around him now. Also, it might be a stretch, but in keeping with the Dickens parallel, the next two scenes we see are scenes of happiness with Glenn and Maggie arriving at the store and Andrea and the Gov sharing a drink. Of course, the Cratchit family celebration probably didn’t lead to kidnapping or sex, or at least not kidnapping. The Ghost of Christmas Present also uses Rick’s name before hanging up on him, raising his suspicions even more.

Distraught Daryl sits in the hallway stabbing Carol’s knife into the floor and the wall. I’m not entirely sold on the relationship that Daryl and Carol had. It helps to think of them as friends and confidantes, rather than a traditional romantic couple. Perhaps they loved each other in a platonic way. While Carol has still been a frustrating character, I think considering their relationship in this light adds weight to their past interactions. Did I mention how much I liked last week’s Cherokee Rose scene? That’s kind of undercut by the fact that Carol is alive. Of course, I was pretty sure she had to be alive, despite the show throwing us a curve by filling in her grave. Daryl finds her in a closet and carries her to safety. This truly is a Christmas Carol!

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So this is where the writers have been keeping you. How unnecessary.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come calls Rick, and she’s much more vocal than Dickens’ version. It turns out she’s none other than Lori, and she informs Rick that the first three ghosts were Amy, Jim and Jacqui (from way back in season 1). Rick finally has a chance to tell his wife how much he loved/loves her. The call breaks up as Lori tells him something to do with their kids, “take care of them,” perhaps (or something more sinister?). Rick is transformed by his experience. He decides to change his sullen, serious, distant ways and embrace the group, the family that he still has. He returns and picks up his baby daughter, holding her close.

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Carl, Beth, Herschel, Rick, and baby all walk out into the courtyard. Who should they see at gate, but Christmas carolers, in the form of a group of moaning walkers and an entrail-soaked Michonne hoping to share in the merriment, and perhaps a bit of the Christmas goose! To conclude the episode, who could say it better than Herschel:

Next week on The Walking Dead: The group invites the Woodbury gang to help them tackle A Tale of Two Cities.