Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Double Feature: Silver Linings Playbook and Red Dawn

I've been having major problems with the Internet at my place lately, to the tune of days at a time without service on the network. That's mainly what caused my recent difficulties with posting, so hopefully the new cable modem and the threatening letters to my service provider means I'll be posting with regularity for the extended future. Of course, that also means I'm catching up on some serious movie reviewing, so today will be another double feature from flicks I've seen recently.

I've been looking forward to Silver Linings Playbook for a while now, for a number of reasons. For one, it's director David O. Russell's much-anticipated follow-up to his excellent The Fighter. Second, it carries a talented cast including Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro. Third, it featured what appeared to be a unique and somewhat comedic look at the world of mental illness, a move that is either very brave or very, very foolhardy. The story focuses on bipolar sufferer Pat Solitano (Cooper), who returns to his parents' home after eight months in a mental health facility and the violent outburst that landed him there in the first place. As he struggles to cope with his illness and tries to win back his wife, he meets Tiffany (Lawrence), the widowed sister-in-law of one of his friends. Tiffany suffers from issues stemming from her late husband's death, and soon the pair strike up a somewhat antagonistic friendship in preparing for a local dance competition. But while Pat still pines after his departed wife, does Tiffany hold a torch for Pat?

They agreed to never speak of that photo again.
Silver Linings Playbook is definitely an actor's dream, and its performers are probably the reason it has received such universal acclaim. Russell did an amazing job putting together his cast, who carry the story on their immensely-talented shoulders. Cooper continues to grow as an actor, showing even more depth here than he did in September's The Words, and continues to look like the next generation's superstar. But it's Lawrence who commands the screen, and not just because of her looks. It's easy to forget how young she was when this film was made, as her performance makes her look decades more experienced. It's almost a shame she's locked up for three more Hunger Games sequels, as she really should focus on this side of herself as an actress; more mature performances and a strong presence will not go unnoticed. De Niro and Jacki Weaver do good work as Pat's parents, and their additions create one of film's better family dynamics. Together, their highly dysfunctional family will speak to those who come from similar circumstances, funny and sad all at once. It certainly hearkens back to the familial struggles of The Fighter, and Russell definitely takes advantage of the chaos of an arguing family to make for some singularly impressive scenes.

Scenes with just the two of them are fine, as well.
Unfortunately, the film has a few problems. One is that despite immense acting talents, very few of the character are likable at all. You don't find yourself rooting for them to recover so much as you hope the redemption angle makes its way about so you CAN root for someone.The characters are so mired in their issues that they somehow forget that we have to like them for the story to have any meaning. Also, for all the use of mental illness as a twist on the usual romantic comedy genre, that's the extent of the differences between Russell's film and everything else. Behind the mental illness smokescreen, this is just another romantic film, complete with the usual tropes. The result is that Silver Linings Playbook is not nearly as original as it would have you believe. If you're okay with a slightly upgraded romantic comedy and can sit through some completely unlikable bits, Silver Linings Playbook is worth your time. But it's just not the awards darling critics are making it out to be, and you might be happier waiting for DVD than catching this in the theater.

I actually enjoyed the delayed remake of Red Dawn better than the romantic comedy, surprisingly. I was introduced to the 1984 original while at a friend's house just a few years ago, as we played a drinking game based on the DVD's oughta-be-classic "Carnage Counter", which kept track of deaths, explosions and other gooey occurrences. As you can imagine with a movie based on the idea of a Russian military invasion of the United States, the counter climbed quickly, and the group of us proceeded to get drunk off of our asses. The 2012 version, which sat on a shelf for two years thanks to MGM's bankruptcy problems, features a bevy of young actors, and Chris Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson have turned themselves into genuine stars in the years since its filming. So it's nice to see early, rough performances from them in a remake that replaces Russians with Chinese, and then digitally into North Koreans to avoid pissing on the Chinese box office.

In Spokane, Washington, the world is just as it should be. Jed Eckert (Hemsworth) is home from a tour of duty in the Middle East. His younger brother Matt (Josh Peck) is a young school football star with loving girlfriend (Isabel Lucas). Jed and Matt have always had issues with one another, but when the North Korean military suddenly and violently invades the country, they must put that aside and escape capture. Teaming up with other teens who managed to evade the army, they dub themselves Wolverines, and under Jed's leadership wage a guerrilla war against the occupying force.

At 5'11, Palicki makes Hemsworth not seem quite as tall.
One distinct advantage Red Dawn has over its progenitor is that even if you've seen the original, you won't be able to predict the outcome of the remake. Sure, the overarching storyline is more or less the same, but the way former stunt coordinator and first-time director Dan Bradley uses his cast and story is so far removed from its inspiration that they barely resemble one another. While the script uses the usual action cliches, the young cast that also includes Connor Cruise and the perpetually up-and-coming Adrianne Palicki make it work for them. Bradley shows a real know-how for the action genre, quickly establishing himself as a potential go-to for future projects. His film features the right amount of drama, action and humor, and while the characters aren't especially deep, they are typically likable for a number of reasons. Peck is also surprisingly strong in a co-lead role, an unexpected development when he's surrounded by many more talented performers (and as he's one of the few actors not to have broken out since its filming).

A new take on Gladiator?
Bradley's film does have a few hiccups; in one scene a couple of teens die rather unceremoniously and without actual certainty that it happened until much later, and the entire concept of a North Korean invasion is way more far-fetched than 1984's Russian/Cuban attack. As I mentioned before, it was supposed to be the Chinese invading our shores, but with China's box office now being one of the top moneymakers on the international scene, it's seen by many as foolish to make China seem aggressive in movies. And so MGM made some changes to avoid being blacklisted completely. The problem is that what would have made China more believable was it's massive population. North Korea can't make that same claim, and the idea of their military managing a successful invasion of our home is so ridiculous that it makes Red Dawn feel more like the blatantly 2'nd Amendment-thumping piece I thought it would be. The movie does its best to make up for that issue, but leaves it an obvious play for Chinese dollars. Still, Red Dawn is a pleasant surprise from a first-time director, and if MGM had managed to stick it out for another year, I wonder what this, Cabin in the Woods and Skyfall could have done to reverse its financial windfall. It's a moot point, and those films all eventually got their time in the sun. If you're hankering for a good action flick, you can safely nab a ticket to this and enjoy the experience.

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