by Steve Habrat
After spending time with the boxer Micky Ward and his dysfunctional clan in The Fighter, writer-director David O. Russell decides to lighten up a bit and tickle our funny bones with the romantic comedy-drama Silver Linings Playbook. Based on the novel of the same name by Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook retains some of the grittiness and raw family drama that made up The Fighter, which turns this sappy exercise of love lost and love found into something very heartwarming and special. With his real-world tone set in the first few moments of the film, Russell then focuses on creating characters that are all a bit nutty, which instantly allows the viewer to fall in love with them. Russell even managed to make me really like Bradley Cooper, an actor that I have always felt was highly overrated and never as charismatic as he has been made out. With the character he takes here, Cooper makes a strong case for himself and actually manages to lure me over to “Team Cooper” if only for a little while (I hear there is another Hangover movie coming out this summer so my feelings may change once I see that one). Yet Silver Linings Playbook ultimately belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, the young but aggressive widow who befriends Cooper’s bipolar Patrick and attempts to keep his feet on the ground. It is the relationship between them that is the mushy core of Silver Linings Playbook and the part that you just won’t be able to shake off.
After catching his beloved wife Nikki (Played by Brea Bee) having an affair, Pat Solitano (Played by Bradley Cooper) suffers a violent melt down and is sent to a mental health facility for severe bipolar disorder. After eight months of treatment, Pat is released to his doting mother, Dolores (Played by Jacki Weaver), and his Philadelphia Eagles obsessed father Pat Sr. (Played by Robert DeNiro). With a new positive outlook on life, Pat spends his days refusing to take his medication, reading, exercising, and thinking up ways to win Nikki back, even though she has moved away and has a restraining order against him. Convinced he is on the right track, Pat reconnects with his friend Ronnie (Played by John Ortiz) and his overbearing wife, Veronica (Played by Julia Stiles). One evening, Pat attends a dinner at Ronnie’s house where he ends up meeting Tiffany, a beautiful young widow and recovering sex addict who he forms a quirky relationship with. As the two bond, Pat tries to convince Tiffany to help him communicate with Nikki but Tiffany will only help him if he enters a dance competition with her. Pat reluctantly agrees but he soon finds himself being pulled away from Tiffany by his football obsessed family. To make things worse, Pat begins to fear that he may not be able to win Nikki back.
While Silver Linings Playbook has some heavy moments that rival those found in The Fighter, Russell manages to milk some chuckles even from the most severe situations. The flashback scene where Pat catches Nikki having an affair is cleverly shot from Pat’s POV with a dreamy haze clouding the frame. It is a tense moment that throws a moment of hilarity our way just before Pat unleashes on the guy Nikki is having an affair with. Another scene finds Pat desperately searching for his wedding video. He bursts into his parent’s room in a panic and forces his mother out of bed to aid him in his search (this is just one moment where he bursts in on his poor parents in the middle of the night). As tensions rise and tempers flare, Pat suffers a breakdown that finds fists and slaps flying and the neighbors congregating outside the Solitano home in disbelief. It is a confrontation that should have us nervously shifting in our seats but there is something vaguely hilarious and absurd about it, especially when Patrick accidentally hits his mother. When we aren’t chuckling at the blow ups, we will be getting a kick out of a tour of Ronnie’s home, where Patrick and Tiffany continuously make one inappropriate statement after another (one involving iPod docks and Metallica is especially hilarious). Then there is awkward first date between Tiffany and Patrick on Halloween night, one that starts harmless enough but then spirals horribly out of control as tables are knocked over and the police respond to an argument outside of a movie theater as kids in Halloween costumes close in on poor Patrick. It is almost as if Russell is inviting us to observe the silver lining to these situations, to look past the seriousness and just laugh at our own insanity.
Then there are the spot on performances from Cooper and Lawrence, both that do crazy very, very well. I’ve never found Cooper to be particularly funny but I must say he really delivers the laughs here. He is pathetic in his constant state of delusion and stubbornness, insisting that he doesn’t need to take his medication because he thinks it makes him foggy and bloated. You can’t help but feel sorry for him as he insists that he will get back together with Nikki and everything will work out. When his extreme personality mixes with Tiffany’s, Silver Linings Playbook really soars. Tiffany is just as erratic as Cooper’s sporty Patrick, but she hides behind tangled mess of dark hair and thick eye make-up. It is certainly the most mature role that Lawrence has taken yet, one that dips into pure teary-eyed emotion and shies away from the chilly, closed-off intensity she brought to Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games. On the outside, she is strong and firm, but the more she opens up, the easier it is for her to break. Meanwhile, DeNiro gives one of his strongest and emotionally charged performances in years as Pat’s father. A scene where he begs to spend more time with his son is heart wrenching and, yes, hilarious. Weaver is in top form as Pat’s fussy mother, who really enjoys making snacks for her boys as they huddle around the television. Chris Tucker is also present in a small role as Danny, a fellow patient from the mental heath facility who keeps trying to break out.
At two hours, I feared that Silver Linings Playbook would begin to loose steam in its second half but thankfully it doesn’t. The second half of the film focuses heavily on a bet made by Pat’s father and a fellow buddy with a bad gambling problem. Naturally, the bet centers on the Eagles and the big dance competition that Tiffany and Patrick are participating in. When we finally get to the big dance competition, the big moment seems all too brief and, dare I say, rushed. Either way, the dance routine is wonderfully handled and ends up being a bit of bubbly fun. As far as the family drama is concerned, Russell once again proves that he really knows how to handle this type of material and make the emotions relatable. Maybe it is the lack of polish that really allows these scenes and characters to come to life. Overall, Silver Linings Playbook is a pragmatic reminder that we are all bit crazy, some just a more than others. It is a touching, funny, sweet, and irresistible love story that really has us rooting for the emotionally shattered Patrick and Tiffany. It is a comforting reminder that every moment is another chance for us to heal, we just have to watch for the signs.
by Steve Habrat
After the massive success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the hype around Quentin Tarantino was through the roof. He put a creative spin on the gangster movie with Reservoir Dogs, made Pulp Fiction, which was labeled a modern day masterpiece, and then turned around and nabbed a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for it. Everyone was wondering what this exploitation-obsessed film guru would do next. Rather than writing another original screenplay, Tarantino chose to pen an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch. Reworking the title as Jackie Brown and swapping the heroine’s race from white to black, Tarantino makes a modern day blaxploitation film that actually turns out to be his most mature work in his catalogue. Leaving behind the countless pop culture references and dialing back on the knee-jerk violence, Jackie Brown is a slow moving drama that lacks the instantly iconic characters and razor sharp humor that peppered his first two films. In true Tarantino fashion, he has gathered an ensemble cast and even found a way to revitalize the careers of blaxploitation queen Pam Grier and B-movie actor Robert Forster, who went on to earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role. Despite being more mature, Jackie Brown does sag a little under its weight and lengthy run time, but I’ll be damned if Tarantino doesn’t put up a fight to keep the film off the ground.
Jackie Brown (Played by Pam Grier) is a beautiful but lonely flight attendant for a small Mexican airline called Cabalas Airlines. On the side, Jackie, whose career has hit a snag, smuggles money from Mexico to the United States for charismatic gunrunner Ordell Robbie (Played by Samuel L. Jackson). It turns out that Ordell is under surveillance by the ATF. After one of his employees, Beaumont Livingston (Played by Chris Tucker), is arrested, Ordell visits bail bondsman Max Cherry (Played by Robert Forster) and arranges for a $10,000 bail to spring Livingston out of fear that he may become an informant. It turns out that Livingston already blabbed to ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Played by Michael Keaton) and LAPD detective Mark Dargus (Played by Michael Bowen) while in custody and the two men intercept Jackie while she is arriving at the airport. Fearing that Jackie may also become an informant, Ordell once again visits Max and arranges her bail. After meeting Jackie, the mild mannered Max begins developing feelings for the tough flight attendant. Meanwhile, Ordell plans to murder Jackie but instead, she negotiates a deal to smuggle $550,000 of Ordell’s money out of Mexico, enough cash for him to retire. Ordell agrees, unaware that Jackie may be helping out the ATF agents. To make sure he ends up with the money, Ordell hires a stoner beach bunny named Melanie Ralston (Played by Bridget Fonda) and former cellmate Louis Gara (Played by Robert DeNiro) to help out with the job. With this much money involved, all the thugs begin devising way to make off with the cash for themselves but Jackie has other plans.
At two and a half hours, Jackie Brown certainly has its fair share of backstabbing, double crosses, and scheming going on. While it seemed appropriate in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown seems to just be rambling on and sometimes not in a good way. The first hour of the film is fun, a little sexy, and funny in spurts, but after a while, I was left wishing that Tarantino would pop the cork on crazy and get the party started. He never really does and it is slightly disappointing. However, you can’t really blame Tarantino for toning it down a bit after his rambunctious behavior in Pulp Fiction (Who could forget the Gimp?). And then there is the trademark dialogue, something we really look forward to when going into his movies. In Jackie Brown, you feel as though Tarantino is blending his dialogue with Leonard’s and the results are mixed. There are a few funny lines here and there and only a few moments where it is truly memorable, but none of it comes close to what was in his first two films. Despite lacking the shock and crazy of his first two films, Jackie Brown does prove that Tarantino can pile on the emotion and really hook us with a touching love story. You really root for the romance between Jackie and Max, a love that is really the heart and soul of the movie. It is like Tarantino revealing his softer side, something he doesn’t really seem to enjoy too much (just watch an interview with him). Dare I say that Jackie Brown makes us feel a little warm and fuzzy inside?
If the bloated plot of Jackie Brown begins to wear on you, you may find some relief in the performances, mostly the ones from Grier and Forster. Grier is in fine form as the sensitive but fierce Jackie, one tough mama who doesn’t put up with any of the torment dished out by Ordell. Age seems to be holding Grier back from really kicking ass and taking names but she is as sharp as a tack when it comes to staying one step ahead of everyone but Max. Forster is measured, gentle, and subtle as Max Cherry, the kindly bail bondsman who develops a crush on the curvy Jackie. You can’t help but love him as he jams out to crooning R&B classics in his car, music he heard from our badass heroine. Together, the form an unlikely romance but I suppose that opposites attract. Plus, you feel like Max really deserves this romance. Jackson tones down the intensity he brought to Pulp Fiction and brings a menacing cool to Ordell. Watching him manipulate the thugs around him will have your knuckles whitening, especially when he shows up at Jackie’s apartment to settle some business. DeNiro is quiet fun as the loose cannon Louis, a slouchy thug who never can resist the bong in front of him. He gets some great moments with Fonda’s Melanie, a perpetually stoned and horny beach bunny who is always taking too long to get ready. Keaton is on point as the hotshot ATF agent who is always chewing on a piece of gum. We also get a funny and jumpy performance from the rarely seen but always welcome Chris Tucker as Livingston. Tucker isn’t here long but you’ll certainly remember his character.
Even if things are a little too drawn out, Jackie Brown still manages to entertain you even in its slower moments. I really enjoyed the scenes where Louis and Ordell sat around and discussed firearms over beer and weed as Melanie rolls her eyes in boredom. These scenes crackled with Tarantino’s punchy dialogue and humor, his usual trademarks. I also enjoyed the way Tarantino laid out the climax of the film, dropping all of his characters into a busy shopping mall and letting them try to outsmart each other while the money bops around in a shopping bag. Then there is the final confrontation, which does flirt with Tarantino’s unpredictable flashes of violence and bloodshed. Overall, I do like Jackie Brown and I have to say that I did fall head over heels for Grier and Forster. I also love the idea that the film is a big fat valentine to Grier and her feisty roles from years past. Yet as a tribute to blaxploitation cinema, Jackie Brown is a little clunky. It seems to lack the sass of the blaxploitation subgenre. I give Tarantino credit for breaking away from his usual formula but Jackie Brown left me starving for his crazy side.
Jackie Brown is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II could very well be one of the greatest sequels ever made. I hesitate to say the greatest because I still favor the 1972 original slightly more than I do the 1974 follow up. Yet Coppola doesn’t just make a sequel for the sake of making one and getting another paycheck. The Godfather Part II has purpose and it actually enriches the story that was told in the first film. By giving us more of the characters that we only briefly saw in The Godfather and whipping up an absorbing back-story for Vito Corleone, The Godfather Part II actually ends up being more epic in the way it dances from Corleone, Sicily to Lake Tahoe, Nevada all the way to Havana, Cuba. The Godfather Part II turns out to be much darker and moodier than the 1972 original, all the characters barely visible in all the shadows cast in this sordid world of crime. The film also continues to explore loyalty to family and the ugly side of the American Dream, cutting much deeper than they did the first time and turning The Godfather Part II into a sullen tragedy that would have wrapped thing up perfectly.
The Godfather Part II balances two storylines this time around and piles on even more characters that we are supposed to follow. The first storyline is the background of Vito Corleone (Played by Robert DeNiro), how he made it from Sicily to New York and his rise to power in the criminal underworld. The second plotline follows Michael Corleone (Played by Al Pacino), who has fully embraced his role as the uncompromising head of the family business. Michael is looking to move into the gambling industry and has started negotiating business deals with Jewish gangster Hyman Roth (Played by Lee Strasberg). After two hit men try to assassinate Michael in his Lake Tahoe compound, Michael begins to suspect that there is a mole hiding within the family and he is determined to seek him out. Michael leaves his compound and leaves consigliere Tom Hagen (Played by Robert Duvall) to watch over his wife Kay (Played by Diane Keaton) and his two children. Michael then begins his business with Roth even though he is met with protests from Frankie Pentangeli (Played by Michael V. Gazzo), who took over the Corleone family territory in New York after comporegime Peter Clemenza’s death. As the business becomes more and more dangerous, Michael finds that his wife and children are slipping away from him and his family is falling apart.
The Godfather Part II digs deeper into the idea of prosperity and everything that comes along with the American Dream. Coppola and returning screenwriter Mario Puzo suggest that corruption and deceit are everywhere, making the viewer question if there is any honesty in America itself. A side character, Senator Pat Geary (Played by G.D. Spradlin), speaks of his dislike for the Corleone family right to Michael’s face at his son’s First Communion, which takes place near the beginning of the film. He attempts to stand up to Michael but later finds himself bullied into cooperation with the Corleone’s. Coppolla and Puzo portrayed Michael as the most honest member of the Corleone family in the original film but here, Michael has become even more monstrous than we could have ever imagined. His father’s office was shady and ominous, but there were still hints of warmth within it. Michael’s is even darker and downright intimidating, Michael himself barely visible as he sits in an arm chair and listens to his sister Connie (Played by Talia Shire) beg for more money. All the good that Michael possessed has crawled away. We also see Vito embrace a life of crime, fleeing from Sicily to escape the clutches of a ruthless gangster only to find himself back in it in America. At first, Vito starts out trying to make an honest living but that quickly evaporates when he is suddenly thrust into the criminal underworld. He doesn’t put up much of a fight to not get sucked all the way in.
The Godfather Part II does leave the viewer in a crumpled heap by the end of its three-hour plus runtime. The film is a tragedy, a family falling apart from lies, secrets, and neglect. Kay announces that she plans to leave Michael, who slumps in armchairs and stares into space. We question if Michael really even feels anything for Kay or if he only keeps her around to provide him with heirs for the family business. Michael also begins to see his older brother Fredo turn on him, bitter that he has been passed over in the family business and waved off as a fool. The Godfather Part II maintains its tragedy through the tainting of Vito and Michael, both who had promising futures but chose to throw it all away. Further tragic is the way that Michael alienates his family members, intimidating them and pushing them around. He’s a far throw from the soft-spoken war hero that we saw at the beginning of The Godfather.
Both Coppola and Puzo water their characters and then watch them grow in The Godfather Part II. Michael is fully engulfed by the demons he so desperately wanted to bottle up, transforming into a vile piece of humanity every time he walks into frame. While this is Pacino’s show, DeNiro gives a discreetly powerful performance as the young Vito Corleone. What I absolutely love about DeNiro’s performance is that he becomes almost transparent when he studies the ways of the criminals around him. We can see him absorb the knowledge on how to manipulate and con his way to the top. I found it incredible the way that DeNiro allowed us to see the wheels turning. Strap yourself in because Vito has explosive violent rages, ones that come when you least expect them to. I also enjoyed John Cazale as Michael’s older brother Fredo, a hotshot wannabe who puts his foot in his mouth and who is unable to stand up for himself. Fredo is a pathetic soul who has a heart of gold underneath the flashy suits. Diane Keaton is also given more room here to prove herself as Kay. When her rage and disgust with Michael pours out and she reveals a secret that she has kept from Michael, you will simultaneously feel like you’ve been kicked in the stomach and have goosebumps.
The Godfather Part II does run a bit long and the amount of ground that is covered is almost exhausting. The understandable absence of Marlon Brando is what knocks The Godfather Part II down just a peg for me. I still find the film absolutely flawless, from the technical aspects all the way down to the background performers, but I just miss his character so much. DeNiro does pad the blow of his absence and he gives one of the finest performances of his career. I do favor this installment’s darker tone over the originals and the original is a pretty gloomy film to begin with. Given the length, Coppola does divvy up the action expertly and never allows the film sag, making the film incredibly consistent. Much like The Godfather, The Godfather Part II is an undisputed classic in the cinema realm, earning just as much respect as the original, if not more. Many consider this to be even better than the original and I can understand why, with the plot thickening and its emotionally draining climax. Heavier than the original, with intensity and pessimism to spare, The Godfather Part II is a spectacular follow up, a true testament to epic filmmaking and storytelling.
The Godfather Part II is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.