Friday, January 25, 2013


"TOMMY" (1975)
Based upon the rock opera by The Who
Musical Director Pete Townshend
Written For The Screen and Directed by Ken Russell

"Tommy" has been a part of my life even before I heard one note of the original 1969 album by The Who, before I ever saw the film which I am about to grandly commemorate or even before I ever knew what it was.

Before I plunge ahead, I must inform you that I have hesitated many, many times from writing about this film for you. This is simply because I have already written about it once before and typically for me, when it's written, it's written and there's no looking back. To explain, over 10 years ago, I wrote a mostly autobiographical (and yes, unpublished) short story in which the experience of the film version of "Tommy" provided the core and catalyst for a brisk, comical piece set during the college years and is partially about how art is never finite. How as we grow, change and build our experiences, the art we encounter along the way never remains the same as it was when we first met. Simply stated: The art changes with us.

In the story, my fictional alter-ego passionately recounts his life long love and obsession with "Tommy" and how that love is challenged on one bizarre evening at a local movie theater when his beloved film is being presented, as he consistently exclaims, "on the BIG SCREEN with the BIG SOUND." He is soon accosted by another "Tommy" enthusiast in the adjoining theater seat, with whom he strikes up a friendship and who also eventually presents to him a surprising and unwanted suggestion thus altering his cinematic state of bliss. It was a fun story to write, so much so, I uncharacteristically entered it into a creative writing contest (I lost). Only a couple of people have actually read it, entirely due to my fear of something so personal and something I have loved so much being rejected and therefore, being proven that I just may not have any talent with writing at all.

For the purposes of this feature, this latest edition of Savage Cinema's Favorite Movies, I will open the vault, as it were, and give you a glimpse into the story as it pertains to this film which I have seen countless times over the last 30 years. So without further adieu, and jointly inspired by my recent viewing of Tom Hooper's "Les Miserables" and my current reading of Pete Townshend's recently released and excellent memoir, Who I Am, I celebrate Director Ken Russell's phantasmagorical rock opera musical "Tommy," a cinematic experience that re-defines what it means to be original and so voluminous that the word "extravaganza" is too small to describe it. Trust me, dear readers, you ain't seen NOTHIN' like it!!

I first saw "Tommy" when I was 14 years old in 1983. But the seeds of that life altering cinematic meeting were planted five years earlier when I was obsessed and so deeply in love with Director Michael Schultz's universally maligned to the point of the film still being referred to as one of the worst movies ever made, the Beatles' inspired rock musical "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1978) starring Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees. Aside from that film's box office failure and massive critical bashing, I am convinced to this day that I am the only person on the face of the Earth who has ever liked, let alone loved that movie...and believe me, dear readers, I LOVED that movie...and in many ways I still love that movie, its many flaws and all. (As a side note: My own Father, on the other hand and in line with the rest of the planet, couldn't even take it as he spent a good half of the movie waiting in the theater lobby for it to be over. Yet he never had the heart to tell me how much he hated it. God bless that man forever!)

Anyhow, the "Sgt. Pepper" movie led me to "Tommy" in a most auspicious fashion sometime during the fall of 1978 just before I exited my school bus to head into my 4th grade homeroom. Returning to the story I wrote, my fictional alter ego recounted this peculiar yet seismic moment in the following passage:

Louise, the husky-voiced, shaggy haired and deceptively sultry bus driver took hold of my jacket, pulled me close to her ear and whispered to me, "If you dug 'Sgt. Pepper' that much, you're gonna LOVE 'Tommy'." Those words lingered in the air for a second. I could almost see them travel from her mouth to my ear as I took in this cigarette breath laced secret. "Tommy"? I had no idea what she was talking about but the seed had been planted.

Flash forward to the winter of 1983, when my family purchased our very first VCR. My Father entered the  house on a Friday evening with three rented movies in tow, one of which, inexplicably, was "Tommy," especially as I had NEVER mentioned anything regarding that film to him even once. I began to watch the film for the first time very late that night. At the beginning, I was curious, skeptical and even a tad apprehensive at what I was about to see. Throughout my viewing of the film, I was blasted with an ocean of sound and vision unlike anything I had ever seen in my life and I just barely hung on. By the film's conclusion, and as promised by the film's advertising tag line, my senses would never be the same ever again.

Beginning near the end of World War II in 1945 Britain, "Tommy" stars Ann-Margaret as Nora Walker, a woman rapturously in love with her husband Captain Walker (Robert Powell), a pilot called to military duty, leaving a pregnant Nora behind. Captain Walker's plane is soon shot down and as Pete Townshend's lyrics proclaim, Walker is "believed to be missing with a number of men. Don't expect to see him again." On the day the war ends, Nora gives birth to a son she names Tommy and believing Captain Walker has perished, she bravely sets forward with raising her son alone.

Five years later, while on a vacation to an English seaside tourist camp, a lonely Nora is charmed and seduced by holiday camp employee Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed). The two fall in love, young Tommy (Barry Winch) grows enchanted with his gregarious "Uncle" Frank and a new life together as a family seems idyllic. But not for long...

On one fateful night, a disfigured Captain Walker returns! Shocked to find Nora in bed with Frank, a scuffle ensues and concludes with Captain Walker's murder by Frank, which occurs in full view of young Tommy. "What about the boy????? He saw it all!!!!!!!!" shrieks Nora. And the pivotal moment in Tommy's life arrives when Nora and Frank furiously command of him, "You didn't see it!! You didn't hear it!! You won't say nothing to no one ever in your life!!" Traumatized, Tommy then retreats into an aural/visual/spoken silence, rendering him unable to communicate or respond with anyone and also serving as a constant, agonizing reminder of Nora and Frank's crime.

Nearly ten to fifteen years pass and Tommy (now played by The Who's Roger Daltrey) remains "deaf, dumb and blind." An anguished Nora and increasingly irritated Frank feverishly try to have Tommy cured through various bizarre attempts, including a Marilyn Monroe cult worshiping Preacher (Eric Clapton), a slick and sleazy medical Specialist (Jack Nicholson) and the nearly horrific dealings of The Acid Queen (ferociously played by Tina Turner), an LSD pushing prostitute. Tragically, all of these attempts are to no avail. Life at home for Tommy is even worse as he is subjected to one tortuous event after another as he is brutalized by his sadistic Cousin Kevin (Paul Nicholas) and molested by a pedophile, his Uncle Ernie (played for sickening comic effect by The Who's masterful drummer, the late Keith Moon). Yet, deep within the recesses of Tommy's mind and spirit, he is one with the sensations and vibrations of existence, flowing and flying through adventures with images of his deceased Father as spiritual guide and urging inner pleas to anyone and everyone to "See me, feel me, touch me, heal me."  Soon, Nora and Frank grow troubled by Tommy's endless fascination with mirrors. To them, Tommy is unable to see his own reflection. But to Tommy, his spiritual transcendence is just beginning...and is soon found through the game of pinball.

Despite his physical afflictions, Tommy soon becomes "the master of the game" after defeating The Pinball Wizard (Elton John) and as a result, he becomes rich, famous and a spiritual hero to a new generation. The eventual return of all of Tommy's senses propels him into becoming a modern day messiah, as well as a cause for religious exploitation by Frank. The ensuing clash between Tommy's idealism and the growing fury of a public looking for guidance and transcendence but met with soulless consumerism brings Tommy to an epic new phase in his on-going evolution.

In the weekend of my first meeting with "Tommy," I watched the film for a total of four times. At that time, I wasn't even sure if I had even liked the movie. But, I felt enormously compelled to ride this enormous cinematic wave all over again. And then, as my fictional alter-ego further explains:

I couldn't get it out of my head! "Tommy" became a part of my consciousness and sub-consciousness, much like a dream that you're unable to shake. This thing lived in me and I just had to get to the bottom of this...So, I rented it again. And again. And again. I would watch it between two and four times during each rental period, going deeper inside and emerging slightly more enthralled than the previous viewing. Before I knew it, I was so in love with this movie that discovering some set-in-stone meaning didn't matter. I knew what it meant to me. It was almost a spiritual conversion, like if you went to church all of your life, every Sunday and heard the same message over and over and finally, it sank it and you it! That's what it was like when "Tommy" showed its clarity to me. It just made sense and there was no way to explain it all. It simply...WAS!

Ken Russell's "Tommy" is indeed an opera in every sense of the term and genre. The nearly two hour film contains not even one stitch of spoken dialogue and it is a film that is unapologetically grand in scope, conceptual and emotional tonality as well as containing more than its share of high drama. As a rock opera, especially during the middle of the 1970's, the film is a tribute to excess, flash, garishness, outrageousness, decadence and yes, the whole thing can feel a little silly while also defiantly wearing its heart on its sleeve, daring you to challenge it. In the cinematic world of rock musicals, "Tommy" was, is, and shall always and unquestionably be one of the very BEST the genre has to offer.

"Tommy" is truly one of those rare "one-of-a-kind" films that arrives every once in a while, announcing itself proudly and confidently as an experience you will receive absolutely, positively, undeniably NOWHERE else but with it! It is a film with no middle-ground whatsoever. You will either go with its flow or you won't. You will love it or you will hate it. I think that a recent example of a film in this unique category would be something like Director Edgar Wright's "Scott Pilgrim VS. The World" (2010), a film that sits in a movie universe so completely of its own making. Usually films of this sort are relegated to cult status or they are so out of the box that audiences don't respond to it at all. "Tommy" defied those odds by not only becoming a box office smash in 1975, but also for receiving high recognition from the Hollywood industry. Pete Townshend was nominated for an Academy Award for his original score and vast re-working of his original material for the film. Ann-Margaret was also nominated in the Oscar category of Best Actress and she received the Best Actress award at the 1975 Golden Globes. And most deservedly so.

As Nora Walker, Ann-Margaret takes what could have been an impossible role to play due to its far reaching arc and just crushes it! Her performance is flat out phenomenal and fearless as she takes Nora from a sense of normalcy and familiarity to the furthest reaches of agony, sorrow and the depths of madness and then spiraling upwards to supreme elation and a subsequent swan dive into tragedy. This is a performance where you will witness an actress grabbing a role with both hands so tightly that you can nearly witness the blood draining from her knuckles. The go-for-broke showstopper for her is undoubtedly during the song "Champagne," as a newly wealthy Nora, blasted into an alcoholic haze, watches Tommy defeat The Pinball Wizard on television as she sits in a pristine and endlessly white bedroom. She sings about the riches she is now able to lavish in due to Tommy's growing celebrity but the worthlessness of it all as her son cannot see, hear or speak. Her drunken stupor and increasing rage leads her to destroy her television after which she falls into a wild hallucinatory sequence where items from commercials (soap bubbles, baked beans, chocolate) flow from the broken screen submerging her inside to writhe around in. Yes, "Tommy" is that kind of movie and Ann-Margaret is an absolute POWERHOUSE!

As Frank Hobbs, Oliver Reed is her equal. What he may lack in...ahem... tunefulness, he more than makes up for it with his own go-for-broke comic energy which is nearly "Falstaff-ian." He elicits terrific range through his sense of romance, sinister malevolence, and consumer driven megalomania. Frank begins as a comic romantic yet quickly descends into murderous fury. While he seems to be an unsympathetic con-man for much of the film, he does allow hints of regret to surface when confronted with the damage he has done to Tommy, especially when it arrives in the form of the lascivious Uncle Ernie or the terrifying Acid Queen. Oliver Reed may not seem to be an obvious choice for a movie such as this one, especially being a rock musical, but when you see it, you will realize that he was the perfect and only choice.

Roger Daltrey is a true revelation. To witness one of the greatest rock music golden gods in a fully realized  acting performance was a sight to behold as he truly becomes Tommy instead of playing Tommy. Certainly, quite a bit of this accomplishment must be due to the immense work he had already poured into this character as he originated it on vinyl and perfected it in The Who's concert performances. Yet, with this film, Daltrey reaches an entirely new level as he gives himself over to such vulnerability and is supremely convincing as one who has lost all of his senses yet projects a vast interior life. Once Tommy regains his senses and becomes a spiritual leader, Daltrey's full command of the role and therefore, the screen itself is massive. And somehow, someway, he finds new layers and emphasis vocally, taking the character of Tommy to stratospheric heights. When he reaches the film's finale of "Listening To You," the feeling is awesome and majestic.

In Ken Russell's hands, "Tommy" is a film that grabs you from the very first shot and refuses to let go. In one striking image after another after another, it is a film that continuously tops itself while always remaining consistent with itself. It threatens to spiral completely out of control time and again yet Russell's directorial hand magically remains rock steady while his imagination flies to another galaxy. Not an easy feat even within Russell's own ouvre which often found his films, which include "Lisztomania" (1975) and "Altered States" (1981), blasting apart under the sheer weight of his madhouse creativity.

The marriage of Ken Russell with The Who's classic album is one of amazing symbiotic brilliance. On the album, the story is straightforward while also impressionistic as long instrumental passages do nothing to advance the actual plot but do everything to emulate Tommy's inner world, therefore leaving so much to interpretation. While Russell made some changes to Townshend's original storyline (from changing the time period from World War I to World War II and most notably, having Tommy's Mother and lover murder his Father instead of the album where Tommy's parents murder the lover), he is faithful, almost reverential to the album as he utilized every song for the film plus added a few more. Again, Townshend's story leaves much to interpretation and that is where Ken Russell is able to do what he does best, create a dazzling display of images designed to entrance, surprise and blow your head apart. The "Eyesight To The Blind" sequence featuring Eric Clapton builds with menacing intensity and religious satire while Tina Turner's "The Acid Queen" section grows more hypnotically harrowing with each passing image merged with the pounding music. And for a film where every moment is designed to be a GREAT moment, it would be hard pressed to scale eve higher than "The Pinball Wizard" sequence, which is so brilliantly composed, filmed and edited that Russell makes you feel as if you are inside that pinball machine as blinding lights and sound assault and caress you. It is outstandingly kinetic!

And for all of the jaw dropping entertainment, "Tommy," for me, has grown over the years with a certain seriousness in regards to issues of spiritual enlightenment and religious hypocrisy. Additionally, I have been extremely moved by the film's disturbing images and themes pertaining to child abuse ("Cousin Kevin" and "Fiddle About") and the even more provocative suggestions concerning autism. As I encounter more and more children with all manner of special needs in my life as a teacher, I often think to myself that if I were able to purchase a ticker for a ride inside of a particular child's mind, what would the experience be like. How is the world perceived through their unique perspective and emotional landscapes? And what of the children who are truly unable to communicate to others in the so-called "normal" ways? The children I have known and worked with over the last 14 years of my teaching life have provided me with an increased awareness and insight to the vast reaches of the mind and language that it means supremely more to me now when I witness the characters of Nora and Frank continuously ask of their non-communicative child, "Tommy, can you hear me?" Or when Nora sings late in the film, "I often wonder what it is he's feeling. has he ever heard a word I've said. Look at him now, in the mirror dreaming. What is happening in his head?" In its own hyperactive way, "Tommy" works magnificently to shed light, understanding and solidarity with those who may be unable to speak for themselves in traditional ways but perhaps are speaking for themselves, if only we will take the time to try to hear them and feel them.

Ken Russell's "Tommy" is a powerful experience that, for my sensibilities, has been unmatched as it is in a class by itself. It is a testament to Pete Townshend's original musical vision and The Who's masterful musical reach for the cosmos and beyond. It is a film that continues to sweep me away via its sheer force and boundless creativity. No, it is not for everybody but not every film needs to be for everybody. But, it is one that I hope that I have convinced you to try for the first time or revisit if you have not seen it in some time.

"Tommy" delivers the spectacular and will forever hold a firm place in my cinematic heart as one of my most favorite movies.

And remember...PLAY LOUD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Monday, January 21, 2013


And now, onto Part 2 of the Savage Scorecard series commemorating the movie year of 2012.

I have to admit that I surprised myself this year by how many films I awarded with a four star rating. Yes, this year was just that strong cinematically as there were films I was just certain would end up on my final Top Ten list but then, a new terrific movie would be released and I would have to shift the list all over again. As there can obviously only be ten film on the Top ten list, this section celebrates those films that would sit just slightly underneath those ten films. That is why I have named this installment "NUMBER 11."

"BERNIE" Directed by Richard Linklater
Jack Black delivered what I felt was the finest, most fully realized and nuanced performance of his entire career thus far as Bernie Tiede, a genteel, soft spoken, gracious, musically gifted, effeminate mortician who completely ingratiates himself with the entire town of Carthage, Texas, including the deeply despised wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). The journey of their relationship unfolds in darkly surprising ways and the resulting experience is one of crime and punishment with the town and inhabitants of Carthage serving almost as a Greek chorus. Richard Linklater beautifully placed the unique regional flavor of this town front and center in "Bernie," making this the very best film of its kind that I have seen since The Coen Brothers' "Fargo" (1996).
Originally reviewed May 2012

"BULLY" Directed by Lee Hirsch
I firmly believe that if any of you reading this posting care about children and their development into successful human beings, therefore having the potential to make the world a better place overall, then this excellent, wrenching and even inspiring documentary is essential viewing. At the very least, this film should be required viewing in every school in the country, perhaps beginning in late elementary school (possibly 5th grade). In "Bully," Hirsch follows a small collective of children who are the victims of hazing to the point where two of them committed suicide. We see how bullying in perpetuated by an indifferent and sometimes fully responsible school administration and even worse, the communities in which these children live. The film is blistering in its outrage and deeply sobering in its presentation that all it takes is one person to destroy or save another's life.
Originally reviewed April 2012

"THE HUNGER GAMES" Directed by Gary Ross
The first major blockbuster film of 2012 was a signal that perhaps this would be the year when big budget movies would return to the past glories of being simultaneously artful and entertaining. Director Gary Ross' grim and outstanding adaptation of Suzanne Collins' best selling novel, in which during a dystopian future, impoverished teenagers are forced by the government to fight to the death on live television, was a film that actually improved upon the source material. Ross found the proper balance of creating a propulsively exciting film while also housing a political allegory, a brutally satirical commentary on the increasingly lowest common denominator status of reality television, and an action film that never descends into a mindless bloodbath by always keeping the senseless death of children firmly in place. At the center of the proceedings is the sensational leading performance by Jennifer Lawrence, whose intense portrayal of heroine Katniss Everdeen is a wonderment of physicality, psychological torment and unshakable humanity. Here's hoping that 2013's second installment can match the creative high bar set by this excellent film.
Originally reviewed March 2012

"LES MISERABLES" Directed by Tom Hooper
This adaptation of the classic Victor Hugo novel and equally classic stage musical was a gargantuan film production beautifully conceived and executed and deeply felt. Director Tom Hooper exceeded any conceivable expectations I could have had for a film such as this, especially considering that there was absolutely nothing within his previous film, the Oscar winning "The King's Speech" (2010), that remotely suggested that he could handle material this politically, morally and emotionally complex on such a massive scale while simultaneously not forsaking the intimate connection an audience needs to have for this film to fully resonate. The nearly three hour and almost dialogue free film flows wondrously and wrenchingly and every actor gives it everything they've got and then some. The only thing that kept this film from finding a spot on my final Top Ten list was simply because there were ten films I loved even more. That said, "Les Miserables" was an outstanding experience.
Originally reviewed January 2013

"PROMETHEUS" Directed by Ridley Scott
Yes, this film has its share of flaws as well as some plot hiccups but all of that being said, Ridley Scott's return to the cinematic universe that hatched "Alien" (1979) was a smashing piece of dark science fiction that rattled the cages and shook the theater walls powerfully. What I loved about this film so much was how "Prometheus" was almost a throwback to the days when science fiction films were about ideas and Scott has definitely swung for the fences as he has taken on nothing less than the meaning and origins of the human race's creation. With that, Scott has also made a very grim to the point of being nihilistic experience as his universe is cold, unforgiving, meaningless, violent and willing to snuff you out within a moment's notice and without any stitch of regret or care. And for a film as bleak as this one, Ridley Scott is clearly having fun behind the camera again, seemingly for the very first time in over 20 years for my tastes. He delivers the goods with his action set pieces, the showstopper being an excruciatingly wild sequence featuring an angry tentacled creature, our heroine played ferociously by Noomi Rapace and a risky self administered medical procedure while being trapped inside a tiny rotating pod. Plans are underway for a follow up and I am already anxious to see where Ridley Scott heads next.
Originally reviewed June 2012  

"SKYFALL" Directed by Sam Mendes
Now I have to say that this one truly hurt to leave off of the Top Ten list as it was indeed the finest James Bond adventure I have seen in my lifetime. Daniel Craig proves once and for all what a towering James Bond he is and even more than the excellent "Casino Royale" (2006), I loved how "Skyfall" humanized James Bond more than ever before thus creating a cinematic experience that pulsated with humane urgency and was more intensely felt than what is typically the norm within this series. Additionally, "Skyfall" essentially turned everything we know about James Bond upon its head as it cleverly eschewed with all of those nifty gadgets to which we have grown to be overly accustomed to, especially during the gripping climax which almost functions as a 21st century western! Javier Bardem emerges as the best Bond villain in ages while Dame Judi Dench miraculously uncovers new layers as M. From the gorgeous cinematography, white knuckle action sequences and from even having the best opening credit sequence of any film I saw in 2012, "Skyfall" takes James Bond to a level of greatness I have never seen before. Now that the bar has been reset so highly for 007, wherever he goes next it cannot be anything less than this terrific.
Originally reviewed November 2012

"THIS IS 40" Directed by Judd Apatow
A friend of mine recently told me how much she did not like this film because she found it to be "too stressful." That is precisely why I loved it! What Judd Apatow has accomplished, in what just may be his best, most fully realized, and most personal film to date was to find the comedy in the everyday desperation and disappointment that houses life in middle age. Using the characters of Pete and Debbie (wonderfully played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) from "Knocked Up" (2007), Apatow explores the difficulties of marriage, parenting, being adult children of completely indifferent parents, economic stresses, and issues of mortality while also the drama that occurs when the person you wanted to be when you grew up never quite materializes. Apatow's film really sneaks up on you as he almost lulls you into a comfortable state of enjoyment for lengthy spells and before you know it, you have been sucker punched by a painful truth that is so recognizable within your own life and relationships that it nearly upends you. Yes, this is a funny film. but so more than that, it is a perceptive, minutely observed, brutally honest, raw, real and sprawling episodic journey through middle age with warm affection and blindsiding pathos.
Originally reviewed December 2012

Before I reveal the my final Top Ten list of 2012, I must take one last shot at the films at the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum. Part 3 is coming soon...

THE OCCUPY OPERA: a review of "Les Miserables"

Based upon the novel by Victor Hugo
and the musical "Les Miserables"
Music and Lyrics by Claude-Michel Schonberg & Alain Boublil
Screenplay Written by William Nicholson, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer
Directed by Tom Hooper
**** (four stars)


I uttered that exclamation to myself the precise moment the end credits began to scroll in Director Tom Hooper's adaptation of "Les Miserables," and to think, I almost did not see this film.

You see dear readers, my relationship with "Les Miserables" is essentially a non-existent one. I am only vaguely knowledgeable of the basic plot of Victor Hugo's novel and I know absolutely NOTHING about the legendary musical. Honestly, I know not even one note of music. Even including the famous "I Dreamed A Dream," of which I was scantly familiar and never knew was from the musical at all. My interests never led me towards the story or the musical, so when the film version had been announced, my interest was still not piqued. But such is the power of word of mouth combined with Oscar nominations. In order to gather a larger picture of the nominees as well as to feel that I could complete my personal 2012 wrap up in earnest, I would indeed, after quite a lengthy spell sitting upon the fence, to make my pilgrimage and see what "Les Miserables" was all about. Now that I have seen the film, I can say while I was not as over the moon with the film as I am certain many of you happen to be, Tom Hooper has gives us all an unquestionably mammoth achievement in the cinematic year of 2012 and any and all recognition the film receives are more than deserved and magnificently earned.

Set against the backdrop of political turmoil over the course of 17 years and culminating with the French student uprising of 1832, "Les Miserables" begins in 1815 with the release of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) from prison after serving a 19 year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. As Valjean has been released on parole, he is forever under the watchful eye of the stoic prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe), ensuring that he will never truly be a free man in society. After being given food and shelter by a Bishop at his church, Valjean steals the Bishop's silver and flees into the night, only to be apprehended by the police and brought back to the Bishop. Surprisingly, the Bishop secures Valjean's release by proclaiming that the stolen silver was indeed a gift. Deeply moved by the Bishop's grace, Jean Valjean vows to life a clean life albeit under an assumed identity. Jean Valjean then breaks his parole alerting Javert to begin an epic manhunt for his whereabouts.

The film's second act occurs in the year 1823 when Jean Valjean, completely submerged within his new identity has become a factory owner and the Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. From this point, Jean Valjean's journey becomes increasingly complicated and morally conflicted as his life intertwines with Fatine (Anne Hathaway), a worker in his factory who soon loses her employment and descends into a life of prostitution; her daughter Cosette (played as a child by Isabelle Allen and as an adult by Amanda Seyfried), whom Valjean vows to a dying Fatine that he will care for; the continued and relentless pursuit by Javert, as well as issues of mistaken identity, captures and escapes, lifelong secrets that threaten to become exposed, a tragic love triangle and the aforementioned student uprising.

To begin with my enthusiastic praise, I have to say that I was extremely impressed that for a story like this one, which is conceptually complicated and features a collective of characters who possess their own equally complicated motivations, Tom Hooper has performed a masterful job of keeping all of the plot threads easily understandable, recognizable and emotionally resonant. To that end, the scale of "Les Miserables" is so massive and could have gone wrong 100 different ways that I am equally impressed to the point of my jaw being propelled to the ground in awe that Tom Hooper directed this film with a confidence and skill I never knew or thought that he possessed. Think about his previous film, the Oscar winning feature "The King's Speech" (2010). There is simply nothing and I mean nothing in that film that expressed to me that this was a filmmaker who could handle a project such as this one. Hooper has helmed this experience with such a sure handed flow that the intimate and epic are in lockstep as they walk together hand in hand.

Just the fact that "Les Miserables" is just a hair under three hours in length with really a minusucle amount of actual dialogue as nearly every moment in the film is sung is a difficult task to harness successfully yet Hooper keeps everything moving along beautifully, never overwhelming you with the amount of music but properly overwhelming you with the magnitude of the story, drama and sheer emotion of the piece. At times, the film is a true steamroller but Hooper's sense of directorial control is firm. He never allows "Les Miserables" to get away from him.

Another aspect I loved about the film was actually an element it shared with films like Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" and Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," and that was how the story, despite taking place in the 19th century, is a perfect echo to and examination of our current sociological/political/economical dialogues and dissents that are occurring at this exact point in our collective history with our current civil war between the 99% and 1%. The voices of the poor, the destitute, the desperate and society's forgotten are all presented as an operatic howl from the gutters, not solely for the deaf ears within the story but for all of us as we think about the world that we share with those whom are less fortunate than ourselves. In our own economically turbulent times, how easy would it be for any of us to fall from our own place of prosperity into a dark existence like Fatine's? Additionally, the student uprising section of the film, primarily the movie's third act, is not only presented as history but potentially as a warning, regardless of any potential outcome. With "Les Miserables," Hooper passionately asks of us about our sense of compassion and therefore, sense of  societal justice and fairness in a world where the cards are cruelly stacked against so many by so very few. With the very best films I saw throughout the year, Hooper's presentation has transcended the act of just being entertaining (no small feat) into being a work that is designed for everyone viewing to mentally and emotionally chew upon and ruminate long after we have exited the theater. "Les Miserables" is an experience impossible to ignore.

With that, Hooper's visual aesthetics have taken some heat by some critics who felt his cinematography was too overactive. While I could imagine this may have something to do with already being a fan of the stage performance, I would agree that the swoops and dives and other visual extravagances  Hooper's work alongside the outstanding work of Cinematographer Danny Cohen would feel more at home in a rock opera like Ken Russell's "Tommy" (1975) or even Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge! (2001). But for me, I felt everything worked so magically as the restless camera conveyed the life-altering urgency of the time period as well as the tumultuous emotional urgency that exists within all of the characters. The visual dynamics gave me that sense of blood and fire underneath the history and regardless that I was watching a musical, everything felt to be real.

All of the actors should indeed be commended for their gargantuan work in "Les Miserables" especially as Hooper had everyone sing live on set, a risky technique I felt only added to the realism of the story's turmoil and upheaval. The praise that has been heaped upon Hathaway is much deserved and furthermore, I don't think I have ever been as impressed with Hugh Jackman as I was with this Herculean performance. And truth be told, I absolutely LOVED Russell Crowe's work despite the criticism that has been launched against him. His presence was as commanding as it was anguished as the film went along and his singing voice felt to be supremely strong and filled with conviction to my ears. However, if I had any quibble with casting, it had to be found in the presence of Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the comically fiendish thieves, the Thenardiers. While they both performed admirably, I did find them to be a bit distracting as if they wandered from the set of Tim Burton's latest film or if they had some selections from "Sweeney Todd" to inject. Maybe if different people had played these roles, I would not have had some trouble but even so, they certainly did not derail the film overall by any means.    

All of that being said, remember this was the very first time I have even heard this musical and to my fresh ears, I did have trouble discerning one song from the next as the proceedings almost felt to be one long song. This isn't that much of a criticism but it was my initial impression. With that, there were several sequences I particularly enjoyed. The Shakespearean influenced meeting between Cosette and French student rebellion organizer Marius Pontmercy (Eddie Redmayne) was especially touching. I also loved Eponne's (Samantha Banks) wrenching solo in the rain. The film's final moments in a convent between Cosette, Jean Valjean and Marius also reached me magically and again, Javert's conflicted, climactic selection was appropriately grand. 

In a cinematic year that was filled with surprises and artistic triumphs, Tom Hooper's "Les Miserables" was a most surprising triumph indeed. The creative cinematic ambition combined with the story's themes redemption, atonement, enormous sacrifice, bottomless courage, devotional honor, a desperate, aching need for truth, hope, and love in a increasingly grim world should be embraced, celebrated and honored. SHAME on the Academy for NOT nominating Tom Hooper for his undeniably stellar work and accomplishment. For that, I will continue to dream a dream that Oscar will one day get their nominating systems in order.

Yet, regardless of the industry accolades, the artistry on display stands so powerfully tall. This is a wondrous piece of filmmaking, beautifully executed and enormously felt.

Friday, January 18, 2013


In all of my years as a film enthusiast, I am so pleased to say that 2012 was an especially fine year to go to the movies! In fact, as I look back, I think 2012 was one of the very best in recent memory. It was a year of creative highs, where filmmakers, new and veterans, consistently worked to the peak of their artistic powers surprising, entertaining, enchanting and enthralling me over and again, making my trips to the cinema so very treasured throughout the year.

One thing to know about me and my exploits on Savage Cinema and something I feel that I must convey to you is that I DO NOT receive one solitary cent for my writings. I do not have any connections to any filmmakers or studios or entertainment news outlets or sources. And therefore, every movie I see is one that I pay for with my hard earned wages, exactly like all of you! Savage Cinema exists completely as a labor of love.

Deciding to venture out to new films comes down to a variety of criteria for me. I will always see a new film from a favorite filmmakers. For me, it is like reading a cherished author's latest novel or purchasing a favorite musical artist's new album. Beyond that, there may have been films I have heard scant details about that have piqued my interests enough where I will seek them out once they are released. Sometimes, the tenor of critical responses will sway me either way as well. And then, there is just my general interest to consider. There have been many years since 2000 where I have not attended first run feature films simply due to my complete lack of interest with what has been released. I can easily remember summer months where I have chosen to not go to the movies for five or six weeks as I could not imagine plunking down my wages for what was being offered to me.

2012, by contrast, was a year where I went out to the movies nearly every single week!! The selection was bountiful and the quality was uncommonly high. So now, I present my annual tradition of my four part series commemorating the cinematic highs and lows of the year, my Savage Scorecard. I am so happy to begin with THE HONOR ROLL, films I awarded a rating of three and a half stars, albeit with a couple of notable exceptions as I do not want those films to be overlooked or forgotten.

And here they are.....and as always, you can find FULL reviews of all of the following films housed right here if you wish to read them.

"2 DAYS IN NEW YORK" Directed by Julie Delpy
Actress Julie Delpy proved to me that there is so much, much more to her creatively than the very little I knew about her from Director Richard Linklater's wondrous "Before Sunrise" (1995) and "Before Sunset" (2004) features. Delpy so confidently directed, wrote, produced, starred and even scored this highly perceptive and hilarious romantic and family comedy about the social and near irrational yet lifelong emotional strains that occur when Delpy's boisterous French family arrives in New York for a visit, whose presence threatens to upend her blossoming relationship with new boyfriend Chris Rock.
Originally reviewed November 2012

"ARGO" Directed by Ben Affleck
The cinematic resurrection of Ben Affleck continued to ascend even higher this year as he delivered a terrifically taut and enormously entertaining political thriller/caper picture and Hollywood satire about the true story of the secretive U.S. government plot to free six hidden U.S. Embassy staffers at the dawn if the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 by posing as a film crew of a fake science fiction exploitation picture. Affleck handled all of the varying material and his largest cinematic canvas to date like a champion while also delivering what I felt to be a sly and provocative re-examination of our foreign policy during the Carter administration when brain power and creative thinking were placed bravely ahead of bullets and bombs. With an increased sense of Hitchcock-ian intensity and suspense to the action sequences, sharply placed insider Hollywood knowledge for the comedy and a glorious attention to period detail, so much so that the film looks like it was from the 1970's, "Argo" confirms wholeheartedly that Ben Affleck is a creative force to be reckoned with.
Originally reviewed October 2012

"THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN" Directed by Marc Webb
It was a film that truly did not need to be made. Or at least one that felt to be so cynically driven as this series re-boot arrived a mere five years after Director Sam Raimi's blockbuster, yet deeply flawed, trilogy. But somehow, someway, Director Marc Webb created an experience that was fiercely committed to carving its own artistic path by making the story of Peter Parker's emergence as our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man a darker, gritter, moodier affair and the opening act of a new trilogy. For me, my enthusiasm for this film arrived through the terrific leading performance from Andrew Garfield, the seamless special effects and a much more grounded and intensely emotional center that pulsated with urgency and melancholy. With "The Amazing Spider-Man," Webb masterfully achieved in one film what Raimi struggled with over three films. While this film did not quite scale the heights set by Raimi with his superlative "Spider-Man 2" (2004), Webb's dark and more humane new vision came pretty damn close. But I do have one note to pass along to Webb and his writers for the second installment: Please, please, please give Emma Stone more to do than to stand around and be pretty and/or frightened. She is too talented of an actress to just be utilized as window dressing.
Originally reviewed July 2012

"CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER" Directed by Lee Toland Krieger
Love stories and romantic comedies in particular, were graced with a creative resurgence in 2012 as one film after another triumphantly explored the matters of the heart with freshness, vitality, emotional urgency, sharp humor and a perceptive attention to the details of how real people would really behave in certain romantic situations. "Celeste And Jesse Forever" was one of the year's very best and it is a career calling card for the strong talents of Rashida Jones who co-wrote, produced and stars in the film as Celeste, who at the beginning of the film is divorcing her husband Jesse (a surprisingly solid Andy Samberg), her lifelong best friend. While Celeste and Jesse are determined to make their romantic separation "the perfect breakup" by promising to remain best friends, they both discover just how difficult such a well-intentioned and heartfelt plan actually turns out to be. Filled with warmth, honest romance, exquisite pain and accompanied to a terrifically soulful soundtrack, "Celeste And Jesse Forever" lovingly presents the deeply layered and multi-faceted emotions that are recognizable to all of us when we fall in and out of love.
Originally reviewed September 2012

"CHRONICLE" Directed by Josh Trank
One of the very best directorial debuts of the year arrived with this latest entry in the "found video footage" genre which details the dark story of three high schoolers (terrifically played by Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan and the grippingly excellent Dane DeHaan) who all gain superhuman powers after coming in contact with a sinister and giant glowing blue object underground. With "Chronicle," Trank merges the science fiction thriller, an intimate family drama, a teen comedy, a superhero origin story and a grim tale of uncontrolled hubris beautifully. Employing some of the most photo realistic CGI effects of the year (even more surprising considering the film's tiny budget) "Chronicle" arrives with a high level of such well conceived awe and heft that well worn cinematic images of flight and epic cataclysm felt fresh all over again.
Originally reviewed June 2012

"THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT" Directed by Nicholas Stoller
While this feature from the triumvirate of Producer Judd Apatow and Actor/Co-Writer Jason Segel and Co-Writer/Director Nicholas Stoller failed to ignite the box office this past Spring, I found this droll, dry and deeply perceptive romantic comedy to be the very type of film that is rarely made: a love story that extends itself beyond the act of falling in love and tells the story of the precarious act of staying in love. Segel and Emily Blunt star as Tom and Violet, who "meet cute" at a costume party, begin to date, fall in love and plan to marry. But the road to their wedding day is consistently interrupted by the ever shifting presence of life obstacles which arrive in the form of career desires and failures, selfless decisions that end up as deep and unspoken regrets and resentments that threaten to explode and derail an entire relationship regardless of how much they love each other. While this is a funny film, Stoller has helmed a sadder, more painful and therefore more truthful account of what it means to be helplessly in love and compromise proves to be a difficult process, especially when it just may upend the plans for your own life at the expense of the other's happiness. Please do not allow the melancholy nature of this film to scare you away. Segel and Blunt make Tom and Violet a couple to root for, to hope for and to fully recognize in your own relationships. Much as it did for me.
Originally reviewed April 2012

"THE GREY" Directed by Joe Carnahan
What could have existed as yet another increasingly brain dead entry in the action film sub-genre I like to call "Liam Neeson Gets Mad," I was profoundly affected by this visceral thriller about the members of an oil drilling team who survive a horrific plane crash and try to also survive the brutally frigid Alaskian wilderness as well as a pack of hungry wolves. What made "The Grey" so provocative for me, aside from Neeson's brooding, lion-esque performance was how Carnahan ultimately made the film serve as a nearly philosophical and existential mediation upon death as we all make our way in a bleak, cold and possibly meaningless universe. While you do receive the thrills and excitement, "The Grey" made for an experience that was as disturbing as it was humane.
Originally reviewed July 2012

Arriving nine years after the superlative, definitive cinematic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's wondrous trilogy, Peter Jackson brought us all back to Middle Earth with a flawed but ultimately terrific first installment in a new prequel trilogy. While the film's bloated mid-section had its share of problems due to Jackson's too reverential treatment of and attention to Tolkien's universe, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" did indeed conjure up a more innocent, whimsical tone and beauteous glow that was reminiscent of a child's dream world while also delivering the intoxicating landscapes of New Zealand and epic battles as well. And once our reluctant hero Bilbo Baggins (the wonderful Martin Freemon) meets the wrenching, conflicted Gollum (the brilliant Andy Serkis), the film locks into place and begins to rise and soar towards the previous magnificent heights of Jackson's past work. Here's hoping 2013's second installment is even better.
Originally reviewed December 2012

"THE INTOUCHABLES" Directed by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache
The French import and international box office smash, critical darling and award winning story of a wealthy white quadriplegic (Francois Cluzet) and his black caretaker/physical therapist (a hugely charismatic Omar Sy) who hails from the Parisian projects is an enormously entertaining, congenial, agreeable, unsentimental experience that is copiously sprinkled with razor sharp humor. "The Intouchables" represents a type and style of film I thoroughly enjoy. This is a film that is not about plot yet is entirely about character and the characters portrayed by Cluzet and Sy are so well constructed and beautifully performed that the three dimensional on-screen relationship they create is one that will reward you handsomely.
Originally reviewed August 2012.

"JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME" Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass
This completely charming film was one of many cinematic surprises I received in 2012. Jason Segel stars as   the titular Jeff, an unemployed, perpetually stoned layabout whose sincere belief in life's inter-connectivity leads him on a day long odyssey involving his uptight brother (Ed Helms), his lonely Mother (Susan Sarandon), a fractured marriage, a secret admirer, a vending machine truck, the continuous presence of the name "Kevin," an obsession with the movie "Signs," and other seemingly disparate elements. How these parts, plus a variety of others, all fit together is for you to discover and what results is a lovely, unassuming little film that is indeed a huge treasure.
Originally reviewed July 2012

"LINCOLN" Directed by Steven Spielberg
In some ways, I am considerably softer on this film in comparison to others. But, I can wholeheartedly admit that there is an enormity to admire as Steven Spielberg has crafted a decidedly (and refreshingly) adult experience that is a meditative, cerebral, and wholly unsentimental exploration of the process of governing as well as providing parallels between the past and the present, illustrating just how much our political process has and has not changed. While Daniel Day-Lewis will certainly continue to receive the lion's share of the attention for his completely immersive performance as President Abraham Lincoln, I am hoping that the awards season lights will shine brightly for Tony Kushner's outstanding, luxurious screenplay and for Tommy Lee Jones' impassioned performance as Republican congressional leader and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens gave the film a real sense of the blood and fire that existed alongside the politics of that history altering period.
Originally reviewed December 2012

"THE MASTER" Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
This may have been the year's most polarizing film as critics immediately touted "The Master" as the best film of the year as well as a classic of unprecedented greatness while audiences may have found this to be an impenetrable head scratcher. As for me, I feel that Paul Thomas Anderson is the one young-ish American filmmaker who can even claim space in the cinematic neighborhood where Robert Altman and Stanley Kubrick reside. With this film, Anderson takes a more Kubrick-ian "bird's eye" view of religious fundamentalism which houses a tumultuous battle of wills between a psychologically damaged World War II veteran and drifter (played by Joaquin Phoenix) and the leader of a new spiritual movement called "The Cause" (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). For those of you who may have expected or even have wanted a film that would be a scorching expose about Scientology, "The Master" is not that film. Besides, Paul Thomas Anderson is a filmmaker with much more on his mind than some prurient  simplistic take down. While Anderson has created a film that is executed to the highest order and featuring strong performances from Hoffman, Amy Adams and a searing, career best performance from Phoenix, this is a difficult, demanding and defiantly ambiguous film that requires you to perform some heavy lifting. "The Master" is a philosophical and psychological showdown between two seeming immovable forces. It is a film that is so thematically and conceptually packed to the brim that I truly believe that this film's full greatness is yet to arrive.
Originally reviewed September 2012

"MOONRISE KINGDOM" Directed by Wes Anderson
As with Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson (no relation) is one of our most idiosyncratic, original filmmaking voices working today as he has created, in film after film after film, cinematic universes unlike any other. "Moonrise Kingdom," his lovely, nostalgic ode to the pangs of first love between two pre-teens in 1965 at the end of summer is no exception. Meticulously designed and yet so emotionally truthful, Wes Anderson has confidently created another dollhouse movie in which he has joyfully invited all of us to come inside, look around and play. This is truly one dreamy wonderland of a film.
Originally reviewed June 2012

"RED TAILS" Directed by Anthony Hemingway
George Lucas' long gestating passion project inspired by the history and events surrounding the Tuskegee Airmen World War II fighter pilots finally arrived at the beginning of 2012 and as Lucas himself advertised in interviews, it was an old fashioned, corny, flag waving, classically presented WWII film but with an almost entirely African-American cast driving the story. I thoroughly enjoyed this hugely entertaining film, which of course showcased Lucas' glorious special effects work with high-flying dogfight sequences. But moreso, I was truly moved to see Lucas and his director Anthony Hemingway inject a clever subversive streak into the otherwise innocent film. To have the sight of young, strong, attractive African-American men in the lead, driving the story and flying the planes into and out of battle so spectacularly, we are receiving a history lesson without it ever feeling like a dry history lesson. And "Red Tails" is also a rousing antidote to all Hollywood films which tell stories of and about the African-American experience through white characters. Additionally, the broadly designed characters make it easy for absolutely anyone to identify with them, therefore making the issue of race something to transcend while keeping race firmly at the center of the experience. While the film opened very high at the box office, it nose--dived quickly and was ignored critically. Such a shame as this film was so obviously a labor of love and while I was indeed entertained terrifically, it moved me to see these men finally shown, in a big budget film, as patriotic heroes to celebrate and honor.
Originally reviewed January 2012

"TO ROME WITH LOVE" Directed by Woody Allen
No, this film is not in the same creative league as Allen's previous effort the astounding "Midnight In Paris" (2011), but this wonderfully inviting, funny, sexy film (Allen's 42nd!) is indeed the perfect movie to see on a hot, summer night. "To Rome With Love" features a quartet of love stories set in Rome and while not absolutely everything works, do not fret as one moment will glide into another like the best warm bath. This film features Woody Allen at his most playful. It is not a movie meant to move mountains or wrestle with the human spirit. There is not one moment meant to emotionally tax you. Allen is not in any hurry to get anywhere with this film and neither should we be in a hurry either. Just soak up the sights, the language and the luscious spirit of Italy and just enjoy!
Originally reviewed July 2012

"YOUR SISTER'S SISTER" Directed by Lynn Shelton
This unassuming, gentle film struck me as yet another antidote to the glut of pitiful romantic comedies, especially as it took what could have been a contrived, wacky plot and treated it as if it played out realistically. Mark Duplass stars as an unemployed thirtysomething lost in depression and alcohol when his best friend, played by Emily Blunt, suggests that he take some time away from it all at her family isolated cabin. He agrees but upon arrival, he is surprised by the presence of Blunt's sister, played by the lovely and frisky Rosemarie Dewitt, who is also nursing deep emotional wounds. One thing invariably leads to another and soon, all three leading figures are in the cabin, all wrestling with whether to expose their true feelings for each other or keep them buried forever. I loved how this film extended beyond a standard love story as it was also a love story between best friends and siblings. It is an autumnal film. A melancholy film. But also a celebratory one as it tenderly speaks to the familial bonds we are born into as well as the ones we create.
Originally reviewed September 2012

Stay tuned, dear readers for PART TWO where I will spotlight the films that I awarded four stars but did to make the final TOP TEN list. That's why I call this upcoming section, "NUMBER 11."

Monday, January 14, 2013

PROPERTIES OF PROPAGANDA: a review of "Zero Dark Thirty"

Screenplay Written by Mark Boal
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
** (two stars)

Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" is a propulsive and ruthlessly effective piece of filmmaking that takes our nation's search for Osama bin Ladin and depicts a cinematic hybrid of the political thriller, action film, and detective drama with supreme confidence and craftsmanship. It is also, however, a highly over-rated and disingenuous experience to such a large degree that the film becomes an irresponsible one.

Now, despite my feelings, "Zero Dark Thirty" is not a film that I would discourage you from seeing. On the contrary, it is a film that I would encourage you to see, for if the collective "we" are to have a conversation surrounding this film, then to be part of said conversation, the film must be seen, like Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" and especially Quentin Tarantino's explosively controversial "Django Unchained." In fact, I am actually more than thrilled that the cinematic year of 2012 gave audiences so many movies to mentally chew upon and yes, "Zero Dark Thirty" is indeed a must see film as it is designed to inspire debate about our current political process while also engaging us with an intensely delivered action film framework. But, "Zero Dark Thirty" left a considerable bad taste in my mouth. Not exactly for the brutal and lengthy sequences of torture which front load the film but in the fact that Kathryn Bigelow has apparently chosen within subsequent interviews to completely sidestep the issue rather than firmly engage us with it. A daring, very confusing and frankly, downright cowardly choice coming from a filmmaker who has presented us a film honoring the collective courage of so very many who placed their lives upon the line for the benefit of our nation.

Now dear readers, I do not want for you to gather the impression that I am reviewing the person rather than what is on the screen. not at all. But I do believe that the art and the artist should work together in tandem to the point of being inseparable  for if the artist does not believe in the art they have created, it reduces everything to being irrelevant. I have written time and again on Savage Cinema about filmmakers being fearless when it comes to their work. With "Zero Dark Thirty," Kathryn Bigelow essentially tosses a bomb into the room and runs away instead of withstanding the blast and the shock waves. That very decision completely undercuts her already troubling film in its entirety.

Utilizing an episodic structure, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a fictionalized dramatization "based on first hand accounts" (as the film states right from the start) about the pursuit of Osama bin Ladin, beginning with the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, concluding with bin Ladin's execution on May 2, 2011 and with false leads, blind alleys, continued terrorist attacks, a significant change within the U.S. Presidential administration and devastating dead ends all in between. At the center of this epic manhunt is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA officer recruited out of high school who spends her entire career, from 2003 to 2011, completely consumed in the pursuit.

In a movie year that has given us several sharp politically themed films, Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" almost seems to function as the polar opposite of Ben Affleck's "Argo" in regards to how the United States handles international conflicts. Where Affleck presented a time when the government utilized brains and creative thinking over bombs and bullets to navigate dangerous international waters, Bigelow's extremely brawny film depicts a government ready, willing and more than able to utilize any means necessary, no matter how brutal or unethical or immoral they just may be in order to bring the man responsible for the deaths of 3000 Americans to justice.

Just as she displayed with an often masterful hand in her previous and Oscar Best Picture winning feature "The Hurt Locker" (2008), Bigelow again shows why she is one of our very best action film directors as she is able to weave suspense, incredible tension, and near whiplash inducing shocks and surprises with muscular aplomb and complete attention and devotion to her story and agenda. Bigelow has crafted a film that completely honors all of the people who serve our country, especially during a time of war. Most importantly, Bigelow sheds a much needed spotlight on the very people who never get the attention, notoriety or credit for their efforts. The people behind the scenes as well as the people who are behind the scenes of the ones behind the scenes.

With the character of Maya, we get to follow the evolution of a deeply behind the scenes investigator from novice to seasoned and increasingly feverish veteran almost as if we were a fly on the wall of her cubicle. There is a slight moral murkiness at work in "Zero Dark Thirty" that is initially presented with Maya's trepidaciousness during the film early torture sequences but as the film continues, her thirst for blood and punishment is definitely palpable. At the start, she is a tad skittish but by the end, and due to the complete commitment to her work and duty, Maya's journey becomes especially painful as she is the one who always remains behind when the boys go out to battle. She performs the mental and investigative heavy lifting yet she will never reap the rewards or the satisfaction of killing bin Ladin herself. And by film's end, after spending every moment of eight years of her life in pursuit, once it is all over, what now? The odyssey of "Zero Dark Thirty" is essentially Maya's Heart Of Darknesswith Osama bin Ladin as her personal Colonel Kurtz and her soul completely transformed from the experience. And I have to say that I loved her choice words in her first meeting with CIA Leon Panetta (played by James Gandolfini).

Through the character of Maya, Kathryn Bigelow also very cleverly explores sexual politics within her story  and quite possibly her own personal hurtles and battles that she has had to overcome within the film industry. "Zero Dark Thirty" is a film with a heroic woman driving the story and in complete command of her abilities but even after bin Ladin is executed and the body has been identified by Maya, she is still dismissively referred to by colleagues as "the girl." As for Bigelow herself, it is a complete shame that in 2013, she, a filmmaking veteran, still has to be confronted with an industry that treats her as a novelty: a female who directs action films, political war films and even after she won the Oscar for Best Director four years ago. This film is filled with a righteous indignation against those who second guess or ignore solely on the basis of gender and I do applaud Bigelow for adding this element into the cinematic mix so seamlessly.

And yet, any enthusiasm I have towards the film is weak at best. As I stated at the outset of this review, Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" is indeed an extremely effective film. Now, "effective" does not necessarily mean that it was "good." While not a "bad" film by any stretch, it did represent the the very type of "right wing fantasy film" that I have an immediate knee-jerk reaction against. The very kind presented in films like Director John Millius' "Red Dawn" (1984) and especially Rambo's return to Vietnam in "Rambo: First Blood Part II" (1985). Both of those film are ones that glorify violent jingoistic fantasies created to imaginatively correct some historical or political injustice. "Zero Dark Thirty" is not a pulpy experience like those films. It is an "A list" production but it does indeed have a crystal clear agenda which at times borders on tastelessness.

Bigelow establishes her tone and intent in the film's very first moments. On a black screen, we are given a sensationalistic audio collage of phone messages from people in dire peril on September 11, 2001. This is a most effective tactic to take the audience back to that horrific day and re-insert a sense of fear, moral outrage and a hunger for retribution that is voluminously delivered within the film's first thirty minutes or so, as we are then subjected to various lengthy sequences of torture, most of which feature Dan (Jason Clarke), an officer at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan and Ammar (Reda Kateb), a detainee with ties to several Saudi terrorists. The extreme problem I had with this effective tactic was that the opening moments of the film felt to be unnecessary. For a filmmaker as skilled as Bigelow, I found it difficult to believe that she could think of no other way to establish the exact same tone because what was presented and what I saw was exploitative. I guess to use the real world voices of those who died on September 11th to launch your supposedly fictional yet based on first hand accounts story line to surreptitiously ignite a moral outrage that already exists felt to be tasteless and honestly beneath the talents of someone like Bigelow, who should most certainly know better.

But then there are the torture sequences to deal with. Those scenes were disturbing to me, not entirely for what was being presented visually but mostly for what they function as conceptually, for in Bigelow's cinematic universe, it was through the acts of torture and only torture that produced any and all viable information that was needed to discover the whereabouts of Osama bin Ladin. Now, dear readers, I am not going to take this time to try and debate the film on those counts or spend copious time recounting each and every report that has emerged over the years that has expressed the exact opposite of Bigelow's film: that torture, while certainly immoral, is also in fact completely ineffective. Truth be told, I would not be surprised in any conceivable fashion that our government has utilized the acts of torture in the past as well as the present. That is not the issue to me, especially when we will most likely NEVER ever know all of the details regarding the hunt for Osama bin Ladin.

What has disturbed me has been Kathryn Bigelow's surprising reluctance and feigned indignity in regards to acknowledging the film that she has made openly and honestly. You cannot tell me that she could not have possibly thought that she would make a film like this one, have it released and not be asked any questions about what she has placed into her film and the agenda she has behind it.

Whenever she has been questioned, Bigelow has elicited inoffensive MOR answers like the following for PBS"Everybody's entitled to their opinion. And there's certainly a moral complexity to that 10-year hunt. But what I'm most proud of is that the film sheds light on the individuals, the professionals in the intelligence community that spent -- in 10 years, gave their -- dedicated their lives, some who sacrificed their lives, to this very successful operation."

Or how about this one, as she accepted an award for Best Director from the New York Film Critics Circle on January 7, 2013: "I thankfully want to say that I'm standing in a room of people who understand that depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices; no author could ever write about them; and no film-maker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time."

"Depiction is not endorsement." Think about that dear readers. "Depiction is not endorsement."

Of course, the depiction of torture is not the full endorsement of torture. I do understand that. Hell, I believe that anyone who watches movies understands that! But, what needs to be fully understood as well is that Kathryn Bigelow has created a film where she has included torture sequences of waterboarding, beatings, sleep deprivation, being forced to stand and maintain stressed positions for extended periods of time, being aurally assaulted by heavy metal music, being deprived of food and water, sexual humiliation, being walked around while chained to a dog collar and even being physically placed into a small box. While not presented in a gratuitous fashion, this is indeed much of the film's first thirty minutes. What's more is that Bigelow shows that it was entirely through those acts of torture towards detainees, that any and all valuable information to find and ultimately execute bin Ladin was gathered. I honestly have no idea of how anyone watching "Zero Dark Thirty" could not arrive at the same conclusion because this is indeed what she shows.

Remember, Kathryn Bigelow did not make a documentary, a film where she could remove herself and just present the hard cold facts. She has made a pulsating docudrama, a film that blurs the line between fiction and reality so (here's that word again) effectively that "Zero Dark Thirty" becomes a work of propaganda. This is a film which proclaims that the United States government not only should have utilized any means necessary, including torture, to find Osama bin Ladin but furthermore, to show that the methods of torture actually worked thus implicitly validating President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney's ideological stance while also implicitly painting President Barack Obama (who is shown in one interview segment which is scoffed at by one character) as a liar and one who piggybacked upon the work of others for ultimate success.

If that is what Kathryn Bigelow indeed believes, then that is fine and she should make her film based upon her beliefs regardless of whether I or others disagree with her politically or morally. That said, then she needs to have the GIANT SIZED BRASS BALLS to stand by her film unequivocally.To me, what is happening here is that Bigelow is not standing 100% by the film she has clearly made by giving non-answers that will offend absolutely no one, especially as Awards season has arrived and box office dollars need to be counted. But frankly, if this is the film she has made then, to hell with the awards and the money and just stand by your own art, consequences be damned! How can she possibly make this film that depicts the fearlessness of this CIA investigator and then cower when people have questions about the intent and purpose of her work? Does Bigelow believe in what she had made? If so, then take your slings and arrows and stand by it! If not, then it begs the obvious question: Why did you make this film at all? And if you can't answer why you made your film honestly, then why does "Zero Dark Thirty" exist?

The bravery that comes with being an artist cannot be underestimated. To be in a position where you have something inside of you that you just have to express and then combine that with the opportunity and willingness to share your innermost creations with the world, never knowing whether it will be accepted or rejected must contain a hefty amount of simultaneous excitement and terror. But, once the release happens, it is time to also have the bravery to stand by what you have created absolutely completely regardless of the response. Of course, mistakes and missteps will occur along the way. Of course, some of the art may not turn out as one may have wished or intended. But if you have the bravery to create and then present your work to the world, then you have to have the bravery to to live and die by your art.

Just look at the beating Oliver Stone endured for "JFK" (1993). Or what Michael Moore or Spike Lee have endured over the years as well. Just look at what Quentin Tarantino is dealing with right now with "Django Unchained," and you can see that he is not giving an inch to any criticism or detractors. And neither did Stone, Moore or Lee for any of their past efforts. With "Zero Dark Thirty," Kathryn Bigelow obviously meant to stir the moral outrage and fear the entire nation felt on September 11, 2001 and let it boil to a punishing deliverance of righteous bloodshed. But to cave into canned answers whenever she has been rightfully questioned about her intents and purposes is to disrespect her material and relegate it to irrelevancy.

I have absolutely nothing against Kathryn Bigelow. I have been a fan of her work for over twenty years and I feel that "Strange Days" (1999), her dark, dystopian collaboration with James Cameron is a career high point. She has handled a wide variety of genres with style, force and complexity for so many years that I cannot believe for a second that she had no idea of what she was doing in regards to "Zero Dark Thirty." Look, it is a film made with supreme skill. The performances are all of high quality although I do think that Jessica Chastain's work, while solid, is not nearly as strong or as riveting as what Claire Danes has delivered in the similarly themed Showtime series "Homeland."

But, it was the entire one-sidedness of "Zero Dark Thirty" that troubled me. That an experience so complicated could be watered down into a black and white, wild west world making the film not much more than an extended episode of "24," which is indeed an insult to that series when it worked at its very best. Sure, it would be nice if there were a Jack Bauer figure out there to single handedly save the world but there isn't one. The fantasy of that character is what made the series so much fun for a spell. But the events of our very recent history cannot be boiled down into fantasy and nor should it be. It's a disservice to all of us and an insult to the memory of those 3000 people who died at the hands of Osama bin Ladin and his terrorist organization and allies.

I certainly do not wish to sound hyperbolic but "Zero Dark Thirty" just felt to be so wrong and even moreso that Kathryn Bigelow cannot even defend or, at least, honesty engage with us what she has placed into the world. Honestly, if you are going to have the audacity to open your movie with the voices of the dead, don't you think that you should deliver a motion picture that completely honors the multi-faceted, profoundly dense moral complexities of the lives in which we all lead...and that some of us have lost?

Friday, January 11, 2013


And the cinematic horses have been let out of the gate!!!

Dear readers, no matter how many words I write, I do not think that I could ever fully express to you the unbelievable anticipation I feel when the Academy Award nominations are about to be announced. Due to my preschool teaching obligations, it is almost torturous for me to have to wait and wait and wait until I have reached my lunch break and I am, at long last and finally, able to get myself to a computer to read the results of which films from the past year have been coronated with the honor of an Oscar nomination. Today, I thankfully was able to scurry away to a computer early and briefly and print out the nominations for the 85th annual Academy Awards which I was then able to study closely a bit later. And while I was absolutely thrilled with many of the nominations, I was more than surprised, and sometimes shocked, with what had been omitted.

As of this writing, I have seen six of the nine Best Picture nominees ("Les Miserables" and "Zero Dark Thirty" are both on my MUST SEE list, while "Amour" is not currently playing in my city) and I have to say that I am overall so very pleased with the breadth and variety found on this list overall. While there were a couple of films I just knew would be on the list, I feel that Oscar truly has gotten this aspect of the nominations more than correct. Also as of this writing, I am preparing my annual four part Savage Scorecard series in which I will run down all of the films I loved and hated throughout the previous movie year. My plan is to slowly roll out each installment until around mid-February (if not a tad earlier), all of which will lead to my Oscar predictions before the telecast on Sunday, February 24th. I have a really strong idea of which films will end up in my final Top Ten of 2012, and I was indeed extremely happy to see that several of my picks also ended up as films nominated for Best Picture.

Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," a film that I admired and appreciated more than I actually liked, was the clear victor today and expectantly so as that film carries the type of nearly regal pedigree that Oscar loves while also being a decidedly adult, mature and even cerebral experience that marked some uncharted artistic territory for Spielberg. What made me jump out of my seat was the placement of David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook," Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" and especially Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" as Best Picture nominees. Even Ang Lee's masterpiece "Life Of Pi" was not necessarily a shoo-in so I was also ecstatic to see it in the running.

Other nominations that made me completely elated were Joaquin Phoenix's nomination for Best Actor in Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master," as this performance was a career best, a transformative piece of work in which Phoenix seemed to be acting to save his life! Additionally, I was very happy to see Denzel Washington's nomination for Robert Zemeckis' "Flight," his finest performance in many years and complete return to the tip-top peak of his formidable talent.

But the two acting nominations that made my cinematic heart soar were for Jacki Weaver's rock solid, deeply complex and undeniably unglamorous role in "Silver Linings Playbook" (I told you to watch her closely in my review, didn't I?). Most especially, I was over the moon for young Quvenzhane Wallis' ferocious, commanding performance in "Beasts Of The Southern Wild." Now aged 9, it must be noticed that Wallis was only 6 years old at the time of filming and while more seasoned, established actors may resent Wallis' nomination in a leading performance, reportedly the youngest to ever receive the nomination, I ask those people, and you as well, to truly take some time and think hard about what it takes to carry a film with a leading performance. The very kind of emotional and intellectual journey an actor can take to, and share with, an audience, regardless of age. Quvenzhane Wallis carried "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" on her small shoulders like an amazon warrior and she completely deserves any notoriety that she is blessed to receive.

In regards to the Best Adapted and Best Original Screenplay categories, Oscar was indeed 100% correct with the nominations for Tony Kushner's work with "Lincoln" and Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" respectively. Both of those screenplays gave actors the kind of luxurious, sumptuous, multi-layered dialogue that I would imagine actors would salivate to receive. Kushner and Tarantino, without question, supplied two of the very best screenplays of the year. I was also so, so happy to see Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola's imaginative and nostalgically romantic and urgent work for the wonderful "Moonrise Kingdom" recognized. And I was also and especially pleased to see John Gatins' original screenplay for "Flight" in the running as that film, in addition to providing rich characterizations and a grippingly wrenching moral core, provided us with a rare and openly spiritual layer that most films would dance away from.

But the snubs left my jaw upon the floor. While Christoph Waltz was deservedly nominated for his tremendous and wonderfully loquacious work in "Django Unchained," I was surprised that neither Leonardo DiCaprio  Samuel L. Jackson or Jamie Foxx were nominated at all, especially as all three reached new heights and displayed new layers to their uniquely gifted talents. Perhaps this is due to the deeply controversial nature of the film where Oscar feels more comfortable celebrating the piece in its entirely and not so singularly for the elements that are nothing less than powder kegs.

But that said, Oscar just blew it with the Best Director category and to a disastrous degree. Without getting too technical and lost in film criticism jargon, the "Auteur Theory" is one that states that the director is the true "author" of a film. With that, it absolutely flabbergasts and even angers me when Oscar thinks that films have somehow directed themselves!!

The omission of Quentin Tarantino in the Best Director category is a seismic oversight in my mind as he has constantly been a filmmaker where his skills as a writer and director are in lockstep and his directorial work with "Django Unchained" set his own creative bar that much higher. In addition, why were Kathryn Bigelow ("Zero Dark Thirty"), Tom Hooper ("Les Miserables") and really Ben Affleck ("Argo") not nominated as well? To me, it feels to be stupidly simple. If you are going to bother to nominate nine films for Best Picture, then you not only need to have the same amount of nominations for Best Director, the directors of the Best Picture nominees should all automatically be nominated. I don't understand the criteria, or better yet, the politics involved in these decisions but I strongly feel that the Academy seriously needs to rethink how filmmakers are to be recognized.

Yes, I was sad that films like Sam Mendes' extraordinary James Bond film "Skyfall" was not given any attention within the major awards. And for that matter, why no love for Joss Whedon's "The Avengers," aside from the token Best Visual Effects category? That film was a masterful comic book epic that showcased the genre at its finest and it more than deserved the attention and accolades from the industry. But, I do have to ask the following question: What does the Academy have against Christopher Nolan?! I am just beside myself that "The Dark Knight Rises," his grim and grand finale to his Batman trilogy received in any category. Nolan has been consistently snubbed in the past but this time, as far as I am concerned, is completely inexcusable, especially as he is a filmmaker who has shown and proven time and again how exactly to merge grand ideas, supreme craftsmanship, elegant artistry and white knuckle visceral intensity over and again. He is truly one of the finest we have and his work on his self-described "Dark Knight Trilogy" has been nothing less than game changing. Shame on Oscar for ignoring this giant talent so glaringly.

Yes, I know that Oscar cannot make room for everything (and you have no idea of how happy I am that Meryl Streep was not nominated yet again) but I think that with the variety of the nominations combined with everything that was completely left out speaks to the unusually high quality of the 2012 movie year overall.

Before February 24th, there are more films to see, reviews to write and lists and predictions to compile. But on the night itself, I'm gonna grab myself a nice, big bowl of popcorn and my trusty notepad and pen and enjoy my personal "Superbowl" as much as I am able.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

TOUCHDOWN: a review of "Silver Linings Playbook"

Based upon the novel by Matthew Quick
Written For The Screen and Directed by David O. Russell
**** (four stars)

Happy New Year to me!!!!

I'm telling you dear readers, this film completely surprised me and to think, I almost didn't see it. "Silver Linings Playbook" marks a terrific return to form for Writer/Director David O. Russell, a most idiosyncratic talent who has specialized in making films that clash all manner of subject matter together in splendid storytelling and completely unpredictable fashion...usually. I remember being captivated by the bizarre late adolescent angst and incest enhanced dark comedy of Russell's debut feature "Spanking The Monkey" (1994) as well as the sexual screwball farce of of his second feature, "Flirting With Disaster" (1996). But it was with "Three Kings" (1999), Russell's Gulf War themed dark satire/action thriller starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube, where David O. Russell completely had me in the palm of his cinematic hands and firmly announced himself as a filmmaker who was going to be fearless with his storytelling and possess an almost magical quality with keeping a collection of seemingly disparate conceptual plates simultaneously spinning in the air.and merging them together seamlessly. Unfortunately, with the entertaining and ambitious yet extremely messy philosophical satire "I Heart Huckabees" (2004) and especially, with the highly acclaimed but for me, completely mediocre and pedestrian drama "The Fighter" (2012), I feared that Russell had lost his unusually sharp creative edge. 

The initial trailer I saw for "Silver Linings Playbook" certainly did nothing to encourage me to see it as what I was viewing seemed to be mannered, forced and creatively undisciplined. Furthermore, the presence of Bradley Cooper was not an easy sell for me to say the least, as I have found him, so far, to be less of an actor and more of a good looking guy who just got lucky. Through word of mouth and high critical praise, I ventured out to see "Silver Linings Playbook" and inside of mere moments within the film, I knew unquestionably how wrong I was concerning the talent of Bradley Cooper and the supposed loss of David O. Russell's mojo. "Silver Linings Playbook" is a marvelous film, filled with that electric unpredictability and emotional resonance of David O. Russell's finest work. In fact, I think that not only does "Silver Linings Playbook" stand shoulder to shoulder with "Three Kings," I think it is one of 2012's very best offerings.   

As with certain select films that I have reviewed in the past, I feel that perhaps the less I describe, the better the experience and enjoyment of "Silver Linings Playbook" will be for you. Bradley Cooper stars as Pat Solitano Jr., a man suffering from bipolar disorder, who at the beginning of the film is being released from a mental facility, after eight months of treatment, into the care of his parents, Dolores and Patrizio Sr. (Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro). 

As Pat attempts to piece his life back together, he is soon introduced to the fiery Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), a friend of friends in the same neighborhood and also suffering from depression and living in the close care of her parents. Once Pat and Tiffany meet during an intimate dinner with friends, and continuously intersect as they each jog through the neighborhood, the two begin to form a tentative and tumultuous relationship. How the story of Pat and Tiffany combines themes of mental illness, sports obsessiveness, gambling, fractured marriages, an emerging romance and even a dance contest are all for you to discover for yourselves! 

Please trust me when I exclaim how emotionally honest, difficult, turbulent, and ultimately, life affirming David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" actually turns out to be. That cinematic magician from film's past left me spellbound once again by miraculously merging terrific comedy with a highly perceptive understanding of family and neighborhood dynamics plus the intense devotion found within the culture of sports fans. Additionally, it is yet another film that has rescued romantic comedies and movie love stories from irrelevancy by focusing so intuitively upon...and once more with real people behave and feel while in the throes of emotionally realistic situations. 

Yet for me, the greatest success of "Silver Linings Playbook" from the storytelling stand point is how David O. Russell treated the themes of mental illness, a topic which so many films have completely failed at depicting time and time again. Just think of films like "Little Miss Sunshine" (2006) and even worse, "Lars and the Real Girl"(2007), movies that treat mental illness as ironically delivered cutesy quirks with characters who solely exist inside of quotation marks and never feel like living, breathing human beings. Most distressing is when films are so afraid of addressing mental illness that they refuse to acknowledge it at all, even when the narrative is urging filmmakers to do the very opposite. A God-awful film like James L. Brooks' "Spanglish" (2004), committed this cinematic crime so shamelessly as that film featured Tea Leoni in a wildly manic performance as a woman who is clearly suffering from mental illness and/or is experiencing a full mental breakdown  yet absolutely no one in the movie at any point whatsoever makes mention of it. 

Russell never makes that mistake and I deeply appreciated how he never once treated bipolar disorder or depression as any cute cinematic quirk or gimmick designed to create some sickening, cloying sympathy for the leading characters, while also showing them to be emotionally and morally superior to everyone else around them. What Russell achieved was something pretty close to what Jonathan Demme accomplished with his brilliant "Rachel Getting Married" (2008), as Pat and Tiffany exist as deeply flawed characters with wrenching inner pain, who are living with their illnesses within families and a community that entirely defines them by their illnesses. How are either of them able to move forwards within their minds and lives if every single person around them keep throwing their past transgressions in their faces, constantly rooting them to the very spot of their failings? To that end, I loved how Pat's sense of optimism and fervent desire to find the silver linings in life was not due to any "pie in the sky" romanticism. It is optimism as a means of absolute survival. 

To my gobsmacked surprise, Bradley Cooper is just sensational as Pat. Tightly coiled physically, rapidly delivered speech mannerisms and with eyes that seem to be forever seeking for absolution and peace, he fully embodies an individual desperately attempting to live beyond his ailments and failings with the hopes of finding a positive future. Jennifer Lawrence, as I may have mentioned in my review of "The Hunger Games" last year, is the real deal. She is the film's firecracker, creating a vibrant heartbeat with Cooper. She constantly keeps Pat (and the audience) off guard through her forcefulness, directness and occasional wrath yet she instantly draws us into her own private pain and ferocious determinations so completely. And yes...ahem...I also have to mention that the camera just loves her! 

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence each give rich performances and achieve a fresh on-screen romantic chemistry that feels so urgent, so capable of imploding at any moment despite their best wishes that you root for the two of them to attain some sense of happiness in any way possible. Russell utilizes some fine poetic moments through their courtship as many scenes between them are conducted with the two either running or dancing. Yet, when the two are in moments of stillness, the emotions become even more unpredictable and potentially damaging are these are  people who exist without filters, therefore creating a combative sense of communication as every moment is so emotionally raw and without any sense of romantic game playing. If this element was a sly commentary from David O. Russell as to the state of current romantic comedies and movie love stories, then so be it as I would love to experience more honest, crucial dialogue and interplay in place of the wacky plots and convoluted motivations that have plagued too many films in recent years.      

To further compound the successful nature of how Russell captured and presented this theme of mental illness within "Silver Linings Playbook," I must make special mention of Jacki Weaver's performance as Pat's Mother and Patrizio Sr.'s wife as she perfectly captured the unshakable love and unending anxiety that occurs when one lives with another (or others) that are mentally ill and/or emotionally crippled. The emotional eggshells upon which she has walked for most of her lifetime has unfortunately never grown easier with the passage of time as outbursts  disappointments and eruptions can arrive without warning, provocation and via seemingly innocuous elements like displaced television remote controls, a pop song or a novel's unhappy ending. One standout sequence, scored to Led Zeppelin's "What Is And What Should Never Be" and involving one character's frantic search for a videotape, was an emotional powerhouse for all of the characters involved (as well as the audience). But through it all, I urge you to keep watching Weaver and you will see an older woman's turmoil with her lot in life combined permanently with her determination to keep her family together. She is a quiet boulder of strength throughout the film. And I must say what a pleasure it was to see Robert De Niro not lazily coasting upon his immense screen legend and eliciting a fully engaged performance once again.

2012 was a year where, as far as I am concerned, romantic comedies and movie love stories experienced a bit of a rebirth as film after film spoke to the truth of love and romance and engaged my heart in ways it has not been engaged for many, many years. David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" is one of the very best while also presenting great empathy and creative fearlessness in regards to the depiction of living with mental illness. 

Granted, and without spoilers, I am certain that for a film so left of center, it may be odd for some of you to see it end up where it does and how it does. But, as I think about it, for a film with such richly developed characters deeply hoping to find that bright spot of life, that safest of places, that location where everything is understood and accepted unconditionally, I would not have wanted it any other way. 

Welcome back, Mr. Russell. You have definitely been missed.