Tag: jennifer lawrence

Red Sparrow


Red Sparrow (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A common complaint is the lack of sexual and romantic chemistry between Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton, the former portraying a Russian ballerina who becomes an asset for the Russian intelligence after a career-ending injury and the latter a CIA contact who is protecting the identity of a mole within the Russian government. After all, their relationship, however it is defined, revolves around the idea of what sacrifices one is willing to make to do what is right toward a moral obligation. But to criticize the film from this point of view is informative in that the person does not understand what the movie is about.

It is not supposed to be sexy, alluring, or romantic. Rather, it is supposed to be the opposite: methodical, clinical, and cold. Their world of espionage, double-crosses, and violence is meant to horrify and intrigue. On this level, “Red Sparrow,” directed by Francis Lawrence and based on the novel by Jason Matthews, is a success. It is able to weave together complex strands with enough precision that by the end it all makes perfect sense. The material demands that the audience is capable of paying close enough attention through several twists and turns of plot, including motivations that undergo constant states of evolution. It is not for those simply wishing to sit back and be entertained by generic action sequences. There is no explosion to be had here.

Implosions occur within our heroine. They take their toll. We observe the many horrifying events that unfold in and around Dominika, wondering at some point whether her strength, intelligence, and resolve would finally dissolve. We are meant to wonder if we have the same capacity to endure and think on our feet. I admired that Justin Haythe’s screenplay does not shy away from the struggles Dominika must tolerate so she can play the long game. She is raped, humiliated, and tortured. Early in the film, our protagonist is given a choice between death or attending what she refers to as “whore school,” led by an older woman simply called Matron (Charlotte Rampling—perfect for the role), where potential Russian assets are trained to seduce and manipulate targets using their bodies. Yes, we even watch the character being humiliated—sometimes because it is a part of her job.

Although different types of violence occur, these are never gratuitous since each one is relevant to the plot. The story is not simply an exploitative exercise of what filmmakers can get away with. Emphasis is placed on the effects of trauma and what it requires to overcome. Credit to Lawrence for playing the character with unwavering pluck and grace. (I wished, however, that her voice is dubbed at times given her inability to maintain a consistent Russian accent.) It is critical that she portrays Dominika in such a way that even though nearly everything is looking grim, there is always hope, even though it is minuscule, that she might regain control of the situation eventually. I enjoyed that Dominika’s political loyalty is a challenge to read while her personal loyalty is clear as day.

“Red Sparrow” invites viewers into a stressful world of espionage from the perspective of a woman who just wants to be able to provide for her ailing mother. It tackles a handful of subjects like fighting for personal freedom in a country that considers there is no such thing, the power of a woman’s body and intuition, what strength means for people who hold certain job titles or positions, and the like. These elements are there to be recognized, but they are never so ostentatious to the point where they distract from the project’s elegant, tension-filled entertainment.

mother!


mother! (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Too many movies of today are so bland, so vanilla, they are forgotten even before the credits roll. I believe the great thing about “mother!,” written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, is that the viewer will not walk away from it without an opinion or, at the very least, a strong impression—even if, at the time, one is unable to put into words the blender of emotions that come with the experience. Yes, it can be maddening at times, particularly the final forty minutes, but it is also intriguing as a horror film. Polarity is interesting.

There is curiosity in the story because it appears to follow a familiar horror template of a couple (Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem) living in isolation whose peace is disturbed by strangers (Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer). We observe as the elements are introduced and fall into place like clockwork until we come to a conclusion as to what might be going on underneath the niceties and sudden passive-aggressive remarks. I thought the revelation is going to be deathly similar to a certain psychological horror film from the 1960s that was written and directed by Roman Polanski. I was elated to have been proven wrong.

Although not the most digestible work, I enjoyed putting some of the pieces together and realizing eventually that these pieces can also fit together a different way, paving several other ways to interpret the message of the story. To me, it is a criticism of how our society, certainly applicable to American standards, has normalized women having a certain place and for them to defy or step over the line that has been drawn by patriarchy is considered to be horrific by those in power. An evidence of this observation is when Lawrence’s character finds herself reluctant to take action or ashamed when she feels the need to speak up and inform her guests, whom her husband has welcomed, that they need to leave. After all, we have this idea that women are supposed to bear the inconvenience of having a chaotic home and get it all under control.

But interesting messages do not necessarily make a good movie. There is craft to appreciate here, particularly in how the writer-director builds the tension behind the mystery. It is done through showing curious images like a mass of deformed tissue clogging up a toilet, a strange bloody hole on the wooden floor, a possible hidden door in the cellar. One can even study the face of the husband when his wife attempts to encourage him through his writer’s block. There is almost always a hint of annoyance and frustration there. Perhaps a part of him considers that the mothering is contributing to his state of stagnancy.

Most problematic is the final third of the project because the metaphor is so heavy and long-winded that it tests the viewers patience more than it demands to be carefully considered, to be thought about. Credit to Aronofsky for making the assumption that some viewers would be willing to look past the extreme and desultory images. However, this portion of the film comes across as self-congratulatory, perhaps even self-masturbatory, rather than something to be appreciated in silence. Sometimes subtlety and silence is the correct way to go about an allegory.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

If I could pick only one word to describe this film (and the series as a whole), it would have to be “brave.” It requires courage to tell this story in such a way that it entertains and makes one think a little deeper about its themes, characters, and ironies. It could easily have been just another movie designed to steal money from casual viewers and diehard fans. Thus, despite the emotional and grim events that unfold in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2,” directed by Francis Lawrence, it is ultimately an example of optimistic filmmaking. It would not be an exaggeration if one were to claim that “The Hunger Games” series is a benchmark when it comes to dystopian future young adult fiction that has been translated on screen. Others would be wise to follow.

Right at the heels of brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) attempting to kill Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) with his bare hands, the human suffering caused by the war between the rebels, led by President Coin (Julianne Moore), and the Capitol, led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), is becoming all the more intense and apparent. Frustrated with constantly being used as a pawn behind the political machinations, Katniss decides to go on a one-woman mission to assassinate Snow herself. However, the Capitol is already littered with brutal yet ingenious traps designed by Gamemakers, people who designed and controlled the country’s annual tournament to the death.

Although action-packed once the gears start rolling, the film remains true to its human relationships. Painted beautifully is the complicated dynamics among Katniss, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and Peeta. But unlike other dystopian films targeted toward young adults, the story does not revolve around choosing a boy. It is impressive that it has never been about that. Instead, topics such as friendship and betrayal are explored. It touches upon forgiveness, too, and what that word entails whether it be through actions or words. There is a small but excellent exchange between Gale and Peeta when Katniss is supposedly asleep. There is humor in that conversation. And mutual respect.

Look at how the camera is so close to the performer’s faces when they reveal their characters’ thoughts, hopes, and motivations. Lawrence, Hemsworth, and Hutcherson are not only there to look cute or pretty. There are real emotions behind their eyes and so it becomes easier for us to understand and perhaps identify with their characters’ respective inner turmoil. Yes, even when there is war happening and although they are on the same side, we feel that their priorities when it comes to specific things they value vary. The screenplay Peter Craig and Danny Strong treats these characters as if they were in a dramatic picture, not just an action movie where buildings blow up and lives are taken for the sake of delivering a body count. Many of the deaths are felt and given meaning.

There are two standout action pieces. The first involves what appears to be black tar—an ocean of it—making its way through flights of stairs as our protagonists run for their lives. The second is a terrifying trip underground where white-skinned, eyeless monsters wait for them. During these two scenes, I caught my face contorting in horror and my hands felt cold.

When I watch a movie, especially horror and thrillers, it is a habit that I try to figure out possibilities of how characters could extricate themselves from a challenge. Here, I was floored; I had no idea how they could possibly make it out alive. I took comfort in knowing that it is only natural that at least some of them would live to face President Snow.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” commands a feeling of coldness about it precisely because of these reasons: it understands that war is rarely black and white, that the costs of war are significant and do not just end when victory is announced, and that war hardens people. The sadness of Katniss and her story touched me in such a way that many movies of this type—even those outside the sci-fi action genre—does not. This is due to the story and its execution being tethered with something real.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

With seven out of the eleven remaining districts revolting against the Capitol, led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), it is most critical, according President Coin (Julianne Moore), leader of the rebellion, that Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) embraces her role as the prime symbol of the uprising. But with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) presumably dead and the post-traumatic stress of having to kill innocent people for two consecutive years looming overhead, Katniss may neither be willing nor ready to help take down the Capitol’s totalitarian regime.

Like David Yates’ “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” and Bill Condon’s “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1,” a question worth answering is whether the material, based on the novel “Mockingjay” by Suzanne Collins, is necessary to be split into two. The answer is not a resounding “Yes!” but a case can be argued that this approach for this film does make room for details that otherwise might have been lost. This is an example of delayed gratification and it is severely under appreciated especially if what we come to expect is rousing action scenes.

First of these details is the emphasis on the escalation of war. This makes the first half particularly powerful because we see entire communities in raggedy clothes, bloodied, exhausted, with nothing left to lose except for their lives. We see the wreckage of infrastructures and burnt bodies underneath and amongst the rubble. The camera is not afraid to show the wounds, the trauma in people’s eyes, corpses wrapped in sheets. There is talk of a mass grave in District 8.

Another point the picture conveys successfully is Katniss being just another pawn. Although the oppressed have embraced her as the symbol of the revolution, she is also just meat to be placed in front of the camera and she must do what she is told. Despite being the most grim entry of series so far, there is room for humor in Peter Craig and Danny Strong’s screenplay, particularly the scene in which our protagonist is filming propaganda to feed to the masses. Though she knows the script word-for-word, the feelings or emotions required to make an impact are simply not there. She is meat without flavor and that won’t do.

The Achilles heel of this installment is its curious lack of character development when it comes to Snow and Coin. Already three movies in, there is no good reason for us to not understand Snow completely. While we know he enjoys having power and the amenities that come with it, there must be something more to him than looking stern and trying to keep his frustrations under wraps when things do not go his way.

We also do not learn much about Coin. We observe that she is right to the point when delivering speeches and there is room for compromise behind her leadership, but what does this uprising really mean to her? Because her more private motivations are so vague, there is an undercurrent that maybe we are not supposed to trust her. Both characters are solidly played by Sutherland and Moore but I wished they had been challenged to do more.

Directed by Francis Lawrence, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” is accused for not having enough payoff. I agree—to an extent. For many, payoff in sci-fi dystopian future action-dramas goes hand-in-hand with deaths of characters we have grown to like or love. But for some, payoff means scenes that we take with us, those we are able to remember vividly after the picture ends. For me, there are three: a visit to a hospital, a surprise in the forest, and a destruction of a dam.

X-Men: Days of Future Past


X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Since the development of the Sentinel program, spearheaded by Dr. Trask (Peter Dinklage), humans with special powers, collectively known as Mutants, have been hunted and eradicated. But the Sentinels, non-metallic machines that can quickly adapt to their environment, have gone haywire throughout the years: Instead of killing only Mutants, they somehow gained the ability to detect non-Mutant humans who are capable of having children with special mutations on the X chromosome.

This had lead to the planet being reduced to an apocalyptic wasteland and it is up to Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to send the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to the 1970s and convince former partners, Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), to team up and prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Dr. Trask—the very action that pushed the Sentinel program to pass.

Despite the first “X-Men” live-action film having been released almost fifteen years ago, it really is quite a feat that its sequels and spin-offs, which peaked in quality during “X2,” both, including this installment, having been directed by Bryan Singer, remain relatively fresh even though the franchise is not the most consistent. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is, in a handful of ways, a return to form—it offers solid action entertainment, jokes and references to previous installments that are actually funny but not distracting, and, by the end, it hints at the raw potential of future sequels. The final scene rewards those who have seen the entire series. I will say only this: I enjoyed how it plays with time travel and acknowledging the gigantic, if not maddening, miscalculations of previous entries. Yes, I am referring to you, “X-Men: The Last Stand.”

Not allowing every Mutant to become the center of attention is a smart move. We get only a glimpse or a few seconds with once familiar faces like Rogue (Anna Paquin), Havok (Lucas Till), and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), and they are not given a lot to do. Instead, the writer, Simon Kinberg, makes the right decision by focusing on Wolverine, the eyes in which we see the story through, and the challenges of getting the young Professor Xavier and Magneto to come to terms with each other and their own personal demons. These are men with a lot of anger, a lot of conviction, a lot of power—watching McAvoy and Fassbender navigate their characters through an archipelago of emotions is like watching a good old-fashioned drama. Take away their superpowers and they remain interesting.

Less effective are scenes with Mystique. Although Lawrence is more than capable of delivering the requisite emotions to play a conflicted character, the speeches between Professor X and Mystique—as well as Magneto and Mystique to an extent—as to why killing Dr. Trask will not solve anything become a bore eventually. Instead of being moved by the push and pull of Mystique’s morality, I found the whole charade somewhat disingenuous. Instead of being invested in the conflict, I noticed the syrupy attributes of the lines. Clearly, the writer is very smart and creative when it comes to how action sequences and overarching plots are going to play out. However, getting to the core of the emotions and allowing us to care in a deep way is an Achilles’ heel.

A character that does not get enough screen time is a teenager named Peter (Evan Peters), later known as Quicksilver, a Mutant with very special talents—so special that Professor X, Wolverine, and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) ask for his help to break into the Pentagon. The sheer brilliance of the scene at the Pentagon must be seen to be believed. I had not experienced so much excitement and glee since Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike’s duel in “X2.” To me, it is the essence of what makes “X-Men” so great: Its content need not be “dark” to be considered great—it just needs to be smart and cheeky.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” provides what one expects of a superhero film: astonishing special and visual effects, eye-opening action sequences, as well as characters worth getting to know and rooting for. However, it fails to surpass my expectations because it does not get the build-up of emotions—which lead to key realizations—exactly right. Alas, perhaps less discerning viewers will be more forgiving for this.

American Hustle


American Hustle (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

For all its twists and turns, “American Hustle,” based on the screenplay by Eric Singer and David O. Russell, can be digested as a straightforward story because of its overarching theme: desperate individuals who will do just about anything to procure better lives. It is irrelevant whether the word “better” is defined by money, celebrity, love, or improving the community. It is about a person who embodies a dominant motivation and how he or she clashes and struggles, forming partnerships—tenuous and durable—along the way if necessary, to get to an endpoint. The whole dance is ruckus fun.

Duplicitous characters—deliberate or otherwise—are front and center. It is made clear that not one of them is trustworthy. Part of the enjoyment is trying to figure out how they think and anticipating what they might do in order to dislodge themselves from sticky situations. The screenplay uses the ‘70s milieu—flamboyant suits and dresses, big hair, attention-grabbing soundtrack—to serve as a complement for moral ambiguity.

At one point, one character tells another, while looking at a painting, that the world is not exactly black and white—bad or good, dirty or clean—but is extremely gray. While the idea has been explored many times prior, it is a way of asking us whether we are we supposed to root for any of the characters. I found it interesting that I was on all of their sides eventually. But the picture highlights the dangers of wanting it all, that it is foolish to expect that everything will work out perfectly just because a plan is planned ever so carefully.

The four central performances are colorful and entertaining. Christian Bale plays a conman named Irving Rosenfeld whose so-called business involves luring unsuspecting people—desperate folks looking to make a lot of money by “investing” five thousand dollars. Irving meets Sydney (Amy Adams) at a party, shows her his laundromat, and the two begin an affair. Irving is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) but they might as well be divorced. She insists they stay together because her mother and grandmother never divorced their husbands. Meanwhile, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an FBI agent, has picked up the stench of Irving’s scam. It is such a joy how the actors are able to hit the right comedic and dramatic notes so consistently while managing to avoid making their characters so quirky that it distracts or takes away from the narrative momentum.

But the real magic is in the details. David O. Russell’s astute direction is most welcome and fitting when the camera lingers on a face for a couple of seconds longer than the standard close-up. This enables him as a storyteller to truly capture his characters’ quiet desperation. When they seem happy, perhaps they are really not. When things appear to be going right, whether it be a con or one’s love life, the eyes remain unconvinced—there is worry and anxiety that maybe everything is going too right. What is the Plan B? When doubt or uncertainty paces to and fro in the back of the mind, is that happiness?

Notice I mentioned the main players but I did not describe the con. The reason is I do not think the con is important the story. It drives the plot—to keep it going so that we can observe how the four characters will—or fail to—survive and acclimatize to new situations.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Though she has triumphed over the 74th Hunger Games, an annual ritual in which a male and a female are randomly chosen to represent their district of residence and fight against other Tributes—as well as one another—to the death, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself in a post-traumatic dirge, seeing faces and hearing voices of those who did not survive. Meanwhile, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has begun to worry about a possible uprising because Katniss has inadvertently become a symbol of hope—toxic to the totalitarian regime.

The point of the yearly custom is to instill fear among the twelve districts but since Katniss’ victory, more are willing to step forward and express their disdain for the status quo. Snow wishes to eliminate Katniss as soon as possible, but a new gamemaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman) explains that if she is killed, people will surely overthrow the government. Instead, he proposes that Katniss, along with her friend and co-winner, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), be pitted against past—and deadly—winners for the 75th Hunger Games.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a strong sequel because the main goal of Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt’s screenplay is to expand its dystopian universe while the thrilling action sequences are allowed to fall into place. Upon closer inspection, this approach shares the same genome as superior second chapters, from Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” to Bryan Singer’s “X2.” Though we are familiar with the central characters, there is a freshness in what we come to experience because there is a consistent and defined point of view. Through Katniss’ anger, guilt, and fear, we learn to appreciate not only who she is as a protagonist but also the type of world she lives in. The filmmakers make an active decision not to simply rely on the good-guy-versus-bad-guy template and assume that just because someone “good” is up against a “big bad” does not mean he or she is worthy of our time. They work for it. Those in charge of the material are willing to go into specifics and so the final product is transportive.

Lawrence has so much range and she is the reason why Katniss is worth knowing—lightyears more interesting than the likes of Bella Swan or Melanie Stryder. For instance, part of the essence of the picture is the characters’ relationship with the media. Katniss and Peeta must pretend to be a couple when the districts and the all-seeing Capitol are watching. Katniss is instructed to smile, be happy, and act in love. Lawrence makes interesting choices on how to present Katniss during interviews. While we see the character following instructions she has been given, there are split-second moments—subtle body movements—when Lawrence allows Katniss to appear uncomfortable and communicate how much she hates participating in the charade. In other words, the actor is completely pulling the strings while her character attempts to put on a show. There is a difference and it is a challenge to accomplish with grace.

It is most interesting that the picture spends well over an hour to expand the circumstances and build what is at stake. When we get to the tournament—which, admittedly, I looked most forward to—it is almost less engaging compared to the machinations and politics in Panem. I found this appropriate. Because the first half gives us a chance to appreciate the film’s universe, the game itself has gone stale, almost shallow. What I wanted to see more is the growing rebellion. President Snow expresses great concern—building up to silent panic—about the government being overthrown but we are not yet provided distinct factions to allow the threat to be personified. The next chapter should prove most fruitful.

I do not mean to suggest that the challenges that the Tributes face in the strange tropical island are not exciting. On the contrary, it offers some moments of real suspense. For instance, it features the most menacing white cloud of terror since Frank Darabont’s “The Mist.” I also enjoyed being suspicious of Katniss and Peeta’s competitors. I never trusted any of them (Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Sam Claflin, Lynn Cohen, Alan Ritchson, Jena Malone)—even if a few have proven several times that they are allies. I caught myself looking for the smallest hints—to anticipate the acts of betrayal. A good movie dares to keep you on your toes. I knew then that I was engaged.

Based on Suzanne Collins’ novel, “Catching Fire,” directed by Francis Lawrence, is great entertainment because it cares about details not only when it comes to what is seen on screen but also what is felt by the characters and how we feel toward them. Notice the significant contrast between Katniss’ drab grayish-blue world—one that she covets nonetheless because of her family and community—and the pavonine, lush celebrations in the Capitol—a world that does not earn an iota of her respect due to what it represents.

House at the End of the Street


House at the End of the Street (2012)
★ / ★★★★

Hoping that a life away from the city will bring them closer together, Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) decides to move to the suburbs with her daughter, Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence). They rent a very spacious home for a great price, but it is only several yards away from a house where a girl named Carrie Anne is said to have murdered her mother and father four years ago. The house is now occupied by Ryan (Max Thieriot), the son who happened to be away at the time the killings occurred. The neighbors want him out of their town, but Elissa gets the chance to meet him one night after a party and discovers that he might not be as bad as the rumors make him out to be.

It is most disappointing that “House at the End of the Street,” directed by Mark Tonderai, turns out to be an exercise in confusion because its lead actors, Lawrence and Thieriot, are attractive and at times manage to share good chemistry. It takes too long to get its gears running and when it finally does, the result is underwhelming not only because genuine thrills are lacking, it lies in front of our faces for the sake of pulling a would-be interesting twist late in the narrative.

At times the picture feels as though it might have been better off as a drama. Shue and Lawrence seem game in playing a mother and daughter who do not have a deep relationship but are trying. Their exchanges, though simple, have occasional punches that can hurt. For instance, we feel Elissa flinch internally when her mother tries too hard to force herself to wear the shoes of a mother who is always available. Her idea of being there is being protective and constantly checking up on her daughter. It is easy to imagine how Elissa reacts to the coddling when she feels–and we can see–that the attempts are forced. Unfortunately, the screenplay is not a drama. Although it helps to have an understanding of the characters, the mystery and thrills should be at the forefront. There are long periods of time where we are left wondering what central conflict propels the material forward.

The conflict, if one decides to call it that, is lacking meat on its bones. We meet Tyler (Nolan Gerard Funk), the honor student who may not be as innocent as his perfect grades suggest; the neighbors who reek of prejudice; a police officer (Gil Bellows) who Sarah finds attractive; and others who enter and exit the picture to buy time. In the meantime, the romance between Elissa and Ryan blossoms. The threads are introduced but they remain separate with only a strand of hair connecting them temporarily for the convenience of the plot. It feels deathly slow, a bore, to watch all of the pieces march to the inevitable sequences involving Elissa trying to escape and defend herself in the dark.

The writers, David Loucka and Jonathan Mostow, are responsible for the so-called twist in the third act. Instead of using conscientious sleight of hand to create a convincing trick, the script employs a lie that relates to the first scene which left a disgusting flavor on my palate. It is laziness and is a conscious act of stealing our time. The writers should be ashamed because they spit upon the story that they supposedly wish to tell.

The writers fail to respect the audience. It is always personal when someone insults your intelligence and thinks that he or she can get away with it.

Silver Linings Playbook


Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Pat (Bradley Cooper), diagnosed with bipolar disorder accompanied by severe mood swings, has been institutionalized for eight months by the order of the court. His mother (Jacki Weaver) picks him up from the hospital and takes him home so that he can try to get into the groove of living his life again. But Pat is on a mission. He believes that if he works hard enough to get in shape, learns to be more knowledgeable about classic literature, and puts his life back together, his wife, whom he caught sexually involved with a much older man, would want him back. Meanwhile, everybody knows that the restraining order is there for a reason but no one dares to break him out of wishful thinking.

Dozens of movies about a man and a woman meeting and getting together romantically released throughout the course of a year consistently prove that romantic comedy is a tough sub-genre to get right, but “Silver Linings Playbook,” based on the novel by Matthew Quick, is a shining and welcome exception. Consistently going for the big laughs and the picture might be criticized for not having enough heart, unrealistic because life is not as simple as a series of sketches. Too much sad moments and the film might be denounced for being too dark and depressing, not at all fit for couples and hopeless romantics who wish to validate their beliefs.

Perhaps one of the toughest challenges the film faces is the question of when–or if–it is okay to laugh at a character with a mood disorder. I admired that the writing is very discerning between the man and his ailment even though at times it is very difficult to separate them. I liked that, in a way, it asks us what we consider to be politically correct. When some of Pat’s unstable behavior is played for laughs, it is never mean-spirited. There is always an ironic twist, a parallel joke, or insight that accompanies what some people may easily dismiss as offensive. For instance, Pat wearing a trash bag every time he goes running around the neighborhood may be considered as a behavior by “a crazy person.” Yes, it’s amusing that someone from a middle-class family would willingly wear trash bag in public. But the way we may choose to see it is it might be our protagonist’s way of acknowledging that it was wrong of him to almost beat a man to death after he has caught his wife having an affair. Trash is what is considered to be an unwanted thing. Deep down, knows he is unwanted by the community and he wishes to do better, despite his stubborn personality, and so we want to be on his side.

Embers of romance smolder when Pat and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) meet over dinner hosted by Pat’s friend (John Ortiz) and Tiffany’s sister (Julia Stiles). With the help of a sharp script that allows Pat and Tiffany to say what is on their minds without filters, Cooper and Lawrence imbue their characters with a fresh vitality through their eyes. Even though they are, in a lot of ways, unhappy and damaged people, we want them to get to know each other and perhaps become a couple. Each time they interact, we can feel that they were once happy and are still willing to reach a new version of what they think makes up happiness. The screenplay amps up the ante by forcing Pat and Tiffany to be a part of a mostly one-sided, unglamorous romance. We may not have a bipolar disorder or depression but they remain relatable because we grow to understand their personalities and the way they think.

“Silver Linings Playbook,” based on the screenplay and directed by David O. Russell, is about people who need emotional healing with plenty of unexpected humor along the way. It is an atypical romantic comedy due to its reliance on utilizing silence, especially to build drama between father (Robert De Niro) who thinks he has not given enough to his younger son, to go for the big emotions that feel genuine thereby taking away elements that might be perceived as manipulative. Why use music to give us a hint on what to think or how to feel when we have the brains (and hopefully the empathy) to read between what is communicated and the unsaid? The music, however, is required for the dance competition. It is executed with such joy and creativity that if it fails to make you smile, you just might be taking life a bit too seriously.

The Beaver


The Beaver (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Walter Black (Mel Gibson) had been suffering from major depression for two years. His wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster), could no longer put up with his illness because it began to affect their kids, Porter (Anton Yelchin) and Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), so she decided to kick him out of the house. Right after a failed suicide attempt, Walter began to speak through a hand-puppet called The Beaver. With a promise to make his life better, Walter agreed to all of Beaver’s demands. Written by Kyle Killen and directed by Jodie Foster, “The Beaver” was an honest look at how depression could demolish even the strongest families. It was challenging because we were asked to identify with a character who took the puppet everywhere, British accent and all, and somehow take him seriously. It could have been a disaster in less capable hands. However, the writing and direction were focused on the human elements rather than the inanimate object. Foster was wonderful as the wife and mother who clung onto any hint that maybe her husband was getting better. We stuck with her because we knew as well as she did that, deep down, Walter’s condition was getting worse as long as he had the puppet in hand. Denial was her greatest coping mechanism. Foster excelled in reaction shots in which she had to shift from one side of the emotional spectrum to another. For instance, the happiness she felt when she saw her husband finally spending time with their youngest up until she realized that trigger of the sudden change in Walter wasn’t quite normal. I wouldn’t necessarily have made certain decisions she took on, but it was difficult not to be reminded that she was an exhausted wife and mother and perhaps she needed to escape. There was subplot that involved Porter, very angry but a smart and sensitive young man, and Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), the valedictorian of their graduating class. Although interesting because of their atypical chemistry, their relationship was less powerful and less urgent than the family that was essentially rotting from the inside. When the film switched to the teenagers’ emotional struggles, I questioned where it was ultimately heading. Though the reward was present at the finish line, we received it too late. Perhaps if Porter and Norah were not always front and center, the material’s momentum would not have staggered. Furthermore, the heavy symbolism weighed down an already astute material. Images involving a broken wall, roller coasters, and someone floating passively on water felt forced. It might have sounded great on paper but it verged on melodrama on screen. “The Beaver,” Gibson’s notoriety aside, deserves to be commended because of its strong performances and its fearlessness in portraying depression as a contagion. That is, if gone untreated, a downward spiral was inevitable. A snide “Get over it” doesn’t help anybody.

The Hunger Games


The Hunger Games (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) was declared by fashionably ostentatious Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) as one of District 12’s two contestants to participate in a televised tournament to the death, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), Primrose’s older sister, bravely stepped forward and volunteered to be in her place. The next name randomly chosen from a fishbowl was Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) with whom Katniss shared a complicated history. The brutal tournament, officially coined as The Hunger Games, served as a yearly reminder of the repercussions of the twelve Districts’ failed uprising against the Capitol. Based on Suzanne Collins’ novel, although one could argue that the most jaw-dropping scenes in the film consisted of teenagers (Alexander Ludwig, Amandla Stenberg, Dayo Okeniyi, Leven Rambin, Jack Quaid, Isabelle Fuhrman) taking various weapons and using them to murder for their own survival, I was most fascinated with the rituals that the Tributes had to go through before they entered the domed battlefield. During the silences between dialogues, a great sadness percolated in my gut because it was similar to watching prisoners taking calculated steps before capital punishment was imposed upon them. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that a metropolis called The Capitol was the heart of the post-apocalyptic North America. The most obvious sign that supports this hypothesis was the amount and quality of food Katniss and Peeta were offered just because they were now considered special. Having grown up in District 12, the poorest among the Districts and most of its residents being coalminers, the actors did a wonderful job in masking their characters’ disgust of the system. If I were in their shoes, I’m not so sure if I would be able to eat. I’d be too aware that each chew was a countdown to my very public demise. The chosen ones also had to lobby for support via a parade, a graded demonstration of their skills, and a televised interview. If the audiences liked a contestant, they could send food, medicine, and other supplies when their favorite was in danger. Although Peeta had no trouble appealing to the masses, Katniss found it difficult to be ecstatic in being a part of something that she didn’t believe in. Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a clothing designer and the winner of the fiftieth Hunger Games, respectively, provided much needed moral support. They were veterans to the game and Katniss was smart enough to listen to and follow what they had to say. As Tributes dwindled in number, the picture touched upon Peeta and Katniss’ potential romantic feelings toward each other yet it didn’t feel hackneyed. Considering their circumstances and what they had to endure to remain alive, it was logical that they yearned for something that reminded them of home. We were then forced to ask ourselves whether what they felt for each other was simply a matter of an illusory convenience or, in a fact, a truth in which they were just too young or too inexperienced to acknowledge. Fast-paced yet insightful, violent but never exploitative, “The Hunger Games,” directed by Gary Ross, kept my stomach grumbling for another serving of delectable bloody treats. Although we rooted for Katniss to survive every time she or a friend was attacked, almost immediately after a life was taken, a sadness washed over the reptilian part of our brains and we were reminded that they were all disposable pawns.

Like Crazy


Like Crazy (2011)
★ / ★★★★

Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones) met at the end of senior year in the university. He was an aspiring furniture designer, she had a passion for writing. After Anna confessed her feelings for Jacob on a note she left on his car, the two decided to hang out and, over time, their relationship naturally blossomed to the next level. Summer arrived and Anna was scheduled to go back to England for two months because her student visa was about to expire. While she was in the U.K., the plan was for her to acquire a working visa and return after two months. However, Anna decided to stay last-minute because she feared the prospect of being apart from her boyfriend for so long. Written by Drake Doremus and Ben York James, “Like Crazy” rubbed me the wrong way not because Anna foolishly decided that rules did not apply to her. After all, everyone is entitled to make a mistake once in a while. The picture was supposed to be a romantic drama but I didn’t find anything romantic nor dramatic about it. While Jacob was bearable, I found Anna to be completely detestable for her selfishness and neediness. Their symbiotic relationship was parasitic rather than mutualistic which was toxic because the basis of the film was for us to root for the protagonists to be together when they were apart and discover small details about themselves when they were together. Since I could only relate to Jacob, it sounds rotten but I actually wanted him to find another girl when Anna wasn’t looking. Sam (Jennifer Lawrence), Jacob’s assistant at work, seemed to be a very good choice. Not only did Sam look gorgeous, it seemed like she knew what she wanted and how she was going to get it. That’s more than I can say about Anna, consistently looking uncouth at work and whose idea of relaxing was drinking. Moreover, the way in which the film presented the difficulties of sustaining long distance relationships felt superficial. There were scenes involving missed calls, voice messages about how late it was and how the couple was exhausted from work, and platitudes about maybe trying again the next day, but what did people in Jacob and Anna’s lives have to say about it? For instance, in my experience, friends get really frustrated when one of their friend’s relationship takes over his or her life. I didn’t like that the social angle was treated like it wasn’t important. Reality is, sometimes, friendships can make or break romantic relationships for whatever reason. However, the film was most exciting when Anna’s parents (Alex Kingston, Oliver Muirhead) interacted with Jacob and Anna. It was a refreshing change because even though we didn’t know much about them, their chemistry seemed effortless. The manner in which they spoke with one another sounded genuine, like a real married couple who had been together for many years. Still, there was one masterstroke I spotted in the film. That is, when the mother looked at her daughter and told her that she’d changed ever since Anna got together with Simon (Charlie Bewley). The line was delivered so succinctly, I wasn’t sure if the mother considered the change as good or bad. “Like Crazy,” directed by Drake Doremus, is an example of how improvised dialogue can lead nowhere. While the actors sounded like a real couple, I was never convinced that the people they were portraying were worthy of each other’s feelings.

X-Men: First Class


X-Men: First Class (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

A spy for the CIA, Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), had been tracking Sebastian Shaw’s (Kevin Bacon) activities for quite some time. Initially unknown to her, he was a mutant and it was his goal to start World War III between the United States and the Soviet Union. He believed that by having the world’s superpowers obliterate one another, Mutants could finally rise and rule. Shaw was also the man who murdered the mother of Erik Lehnsherr, future Magneto, during the Nazis’ evil rule in Germany. Through rage and other negative emotions, he trained Erik to control his ability. Fast-forward to the 1960s, Erik (Michael Fassbender) hunted the men responsible for his terrible past. Shaw was the final man on his death list. Directed by Matthew Vaughn, I found “X-Men: First Class” to be admirable not because of its action sequences but because its attention was largely on its story. It focused on the complicated relationship between Erik and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). The former favored violence while the other valued diplomacy. We learned that Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), also known as Mystique, were childhood friends and how her loyalty shifted over the course of their friendship. We also met Professor X’s first students: the intellectual Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), the timid Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), the assured Armando Muñoz/Darwin (Edu Gathegi), and pretty boy Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till). The cast had great chemistry, especially Fassbender and McAvoy, but I wish the younger actors were given more screen time. The film would have been more fun and exciting if the politics wasn’t always at the forefront. I thought it was wonderful that the screenplay treated us like intelligent audiences by choosing a specific time to establish the parallels and eventual divide in Magneto and Professor X’s beliefs and ethics. But I have to admit that the picture had a certain energy that made me smile with scenes in which the students showed each other their powers and did a bit of destruction while being held by the CIA. Those parts made me realize that maybe it was taking itself too seriously. There were moments of humor dispersed throughout but it needed more to allow the material to breathe. Perhaps two or three grand speeches by Magneto should have been left on the cutting room floor. Furthermore, I’ve heard a lot of negative feedback involving January Jones’ performance as Emma Frost, one of Shaw’s most loyal henchmen, a telepath and whose skin could turn into diamonds. While I thought her acting wasn’t great, I didn’t think she was terrible or distracting. The way I saw her character was she grew up pretty and privileged, though not exactly intelligent despite being able to read minds, and so she was apathetic to the politics around her. To me, all she cared about was being Shaw’s trophy. With some girls, it’s enough for them to have a guy next to them. I want more superhero movies like “X-Men: First Class” because it was clear that it had ambition. Although its tone was vastly different from its predecessors, it made itself an important piece of the package.

Winter’s Bone


Winter’s Bone (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A seventeen-year-old girl named Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) had to take care of her younger brother and sister (Isaiah Stone and Ashlee Thompson) because their mother had reached a mental breakdown and therefore could not take care of them. Their situation turned for the worse when their father, who recently spent time in prison for making illicit drugs, skipped bail and put their house as collateral. With nowhere to go and not knowing what to do, the eldest child started asking her relatives about the whereabouts of the father but no one was willing to come forward and divulge information. When you live in a metropolitan area in America, it is easy to forget people like Ree and her family who had to cope with extreme poverty. As heartbreaking to see the children suffering from not having enough food day in and day out, I admired that the film did not rely on pity to tell a compelling story. The material had a defined understanding behind the meaning of this family’s specific circumstance. Ree was probably one of the bravest film characters I’ve encountered in quite some time. I immediately rooted for her because of the way she, if necessary, put herself in harm’s way so that she would be able to continue the already difficult task of raising a family. She was smart, resourceful, and determined but those were not positive attributes from the perspective of a community that used drugs to make a living. Even though the many families in question had a strict code of silence that prevented Ree from arriving at certain truths, I did not hate them because I knew that they had to look out for their own survival as well. Like Ree, they, too, had families. Two key supporting characters were the intimidating uncle named Teardrop (John Hawkes) and an older but strong woman named Merab (Dale Dickey). The most touching moments were the simple ones. When Ree interacted with her brother and sister, such as teaching them how to shoot a gun or how to skin a squirrel, there was so much love even though their living conditions were far less than ideal. The kids looked up to her and they should because their big sister constantly tried to set a great example. One of the most memorable scenes was when Ree tried to enlist in the army. Lawrence did a fantastic performance especially in that scene because I felt beyond her pain and desperation. I also felt her fear of getting into something that she was not quite sure was truly about. Written and directed by Debra Granik, “Winter’s Bone” painted a memorable portrait of people living in rural America. It showed that sometimes the smart decision is not necessarily the right one.