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Month: March, 2013

Seven Psychopaths

Film #12 – Seven Psychopaths  (Writer & Director: Martin McDonagh)

I’ve been digging into the Filmspotting podcast, and while I enjoy main hosts Adam and Josh, I really like it when they add Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips. He has a great dry sarcasm that I appreciate and he always manages to sidestep arguments in a biting, yet friendly way. And although I’ve only listened to a handful of episodes, I’ve already caught on to what a huge His Girl Friday fan he is. It must have rubbed off on me because I sat down the other night and revisited the film. It is so incredibly good, but what is most striking to me is that a film that is 70+ years old can feel fresher and more inventive than anything I’ve seen in years. It has to be the fastest film of all time. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell just blow through their lines and the jokes hit before you even realize it. There are parts where it’s like a choose your own adventure story: you have to pick which one of the 6 characters on screen you are going to listen to, something unimaginable now. It’s a film that puts so much faith in its audience and is willing to do insane things as a result. As I was watching, I was thinking just how sad it was that they don’t make ’em like this anymore. While there are many great comedies, I had a hard time thinking of any modern comedies that didn’t rely more on sight gags than the spoken word. Almost every joke in His Girl Friday happens through dialogue.There are some great, subtle physical gags, but most of the film is just rapid-fire dialogue.


Although his stuff is much different, I think Martin McDonagh is one of the few modern writers/directors who puts that much faith in his written comedy (the others being the Coen brothers). In Bruges is so clever in the way the spoken comedy builds that it isn’t surprising it has stayed a cult hit. With Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh has tried something more ambitious and commercial, but the joy of the film still rests in language: how people speak, how they react, how they connive. It isn’t a slapstick riot, but like His Girl Friday and the great talking comedies, it takes so much pleasure in the power of words.

For this type of movie to be successful, you’ve got to have capable actors. While Colin Farrell stunned me with In Bruges, Sam Rockwell is just so good here as Billy. Unlike Cary Grant’s Walter Burns, who uses language and comedy to charm, Billy is funny in spite of himself. He says hilarious things, often off-handedly, without any purpose or intent. McDonagh plays on this to create hilarious discord. Lizz’s and my favorite example is that Billy always takes the question “What?” to mean “Repeat” rather than “Explain”. So he constantly gets in these verbal entanglements with people because his brain thinks literally rather than metaphorically.


In a movie that plays with irony and metatextual genre shit, it is so fantastic that McDonagh made his lead a completely unironic, genuine person. Everything he does is motivated by his desire to help his friend Marty (Colin Farrell). Marty is writing a screenplay about psychopaths, so Billy takes out an ad for psychopaths to come by his house. Billy wants to keep everyone in the desert, so he starts their car on fire. Billy is worried about Marty’s drinking, so he bluntly, seriously, and repeatedly tells him to quit drinking (to amazing comedic effect). Sam Rockwell just plays Billy so straight that there is never a glimmer of recognition in his face about what’s happening (I guess he’s sort of an insane version of Robert Downey, Jr.’s Harry from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang [SUB-NOTE: Why hasn’t McDonagh made a movie with RDJ?!?!!]).

While the characterization is straight, the narrative isn’t. This is a film about film, and things fold in on themselves in brilliant ways. But it isn’t cynical, critical, or masturbatory. What McDonagh is doing serves the narrative, and things that at first seem like deus ex machina quickly become explained logically (that I can’t elaborate on here for spoilerz). The film folds in on itself in an interesting way that actually becomes crucial to the story itself. There were plenty of moments of genuine surprise that kept the story moving and I always felt a step behind McDonagh.

All this being said, I think the film loses some momentum in its final third. It can’t quite find that spark and ingenuity that had propelled it from the start. Locking the narrative in the desert limits some options, but most importantly, the film stops being as much about the interactions between characters as the narrative events that are going to happen. It isn’t that the conclusion is bad, its just that it isn’t as zesty as the rest of the film. A small quibble, though, for an otherwise wonderful film.

Holy Motors

Film #11 – Holy Motors

(Writer and Director: Leos Carax)

Since I first read about it following last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors has been the film I’ve been most eager to see. Since then, I’ve avoided most internet and podcast discussion of it, but did let myself indulge (repeatedly) in its glorious trailer. It’s one of those movies I knew I wanted to approach as blindly as I could.

This isn’t a normal film. It’s chaotic, weird, and so meta-textual that meta isn’t even the right word for it. The film follows Oscar (Denis Lavant) as he travels around Paris in a white limo going to his 9 appointments. At each appointment, he takes up a new role that requires unique costuming, make-up, and performance. These 9 appointments are loosely based around traditional cinematic genres: action, romance, musical, family drama, etc, but they happen in the real world, whatever that is, and their only audience is presumably us. For example, in the first appointment (the shortest and most easily described), Oscar dresses up like an old woman and begs for change on the Paris street. We get a voiceover from her that roughly echoes the old neo-realist films, but Carx plays with the performance. As the camera stoops to follow the hunch-backed Oscar, a “real” old woman stumbles past behind. She’s just barely visible on the edge of the screen, but it’s enough to emphasize the meta-textual nature of the rest of the film.
Holy Motors 4

When I say the film’s meta, however, it isn’t entirely accurate, at least in the sense that it is normally used. Holy Motors isn’t playing up and indulging in film history for nostalgia’s sake (Hugo, for example). But it also isn’t offering a polemical critique of cinema like Godard. Instead, it’s responding to the idea that cinema is dead, that digital has erased the last shred of humanity from the artform, and that nothing new is possible. The film opens with a seemingly comatose audience watching a screen and the most striking line of dialogue asks, “What if there is no beholder?” Carax is clearly worried about cinema, but I don’t think he believes the answer is in the past. For example, although he has bemoaned the death of celluloid, Holy Motors is shot on digital. Given this new form, Carax has taken it upon himself to show what is possible, that even within these dead genres, there is merely a need for willing creators and, more importantly, willing financiers.Holy Motors 1For the most part, Carax succeeds. The opening hour and a half of Holy Motors is intoxicating, strange, and thrilling. In one appointment, Oscar works on a motion capture stage, first performing acrobatics and fight moves, then recreating a bizarre, trantric sexual encounter with a contortionist (it makes sense in the film!). In another, he plays a ravenous leprechaun who kidnaps a famous model and takes her to his underground lair. Each sequence offers its own pleasure, and the appointments begin to build on each other, both in scope and creativity. There’s a momentum to the strongest appointments that forces you to take things as they are, no matter how ridiculous they seem.

Holy Motors 3
I’m not sure that Carax is fully able to sustain it though. The last two appointments are the film’s slowest, and both times I watched it, the last thirty minutes were my least favorite. For one scene, we watch a niece and her dying uncle have one last conversation at his bedside. Although Carax naturally twists this familiar scene, it just isn’t as lively and engaging as the others. I think one problem is that the scene is so “small”. The actors don’t move and the camera stays contained with the uncle’s room. In the other scene, Oscar meets a (presumably) fellow actor, Eva Grace (Kylie Minogue), and the two wonder through an abandoned building as she sings a sad song lamenting what could have been. Through the sequence, we learn a lot about the world of Oscar, and that the two may have once been in love, but then again, it could just as easily be another act entirely. Whatever the case, I think this sequence wains because Carax isn’t carrying the action. He’s merely a passenger as Minogue takes the forefront, and as a result, it just isn’t as engaging.
Holy Motors 2Although these last two sequences aren’t the film’s highlights, they are definitely intentional. In the end, this is a film about death:  the death of film, art, performance, culture, whatever, and there is a definite sense of gloom as the film comes to a conclusion. Or maybe it is the fact that the film itself has become exhausted: it pushes too hard and as a result, it can’t quite make it all the way. Certainly Oscar loses steam as the film continues. He becomes increasingly erratic and affected by the roles he takes on. So when Eva Grace takes the lead, it is perhaps symbolic of his own state of exhaustion. His driver, Céline (Edith Scob), is constantly begging him to eat or drink something, but Oscar’s forward momentum throws him from sequence to sequence with little chance to relax or reflect. I suppose it’s only fair that the film feels the same effects.

This only scratches the surface of what Holy Motors has to offer. It’s a film that begs to be rewatched, scrutinized, dissected, and written about. Just finishing this up, I feel new ideas popping up that will only push this further (like when the film seems to implode on itself narratively only to breeze forward without question). If you take nothing from this, at least watch Dat Trailer.


I’m feeling a film resurgence, and I’m determined to not only catch up with the films of 2012, but also stay more on top of 2013 movies. I’m starting a working list of things coming out I want to see so I’m not scrounging through top 10 lists at the end of the year to figure out what I want/need to see. I’ve got about 20 titles so far. The films I’m most excited for are fairly easy: Only God Forgives and Gravity. First, seeing Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling team back up is almost too much. I’d be happy with Drive 2. With Gravity, we finally get Alfonso Cuarón’s new film. Children of Men is one of the best film of the last 10 or 20 years and Cuarón helming a sci-fi epic? My only reservation is Sandra Bullock.


But sadly, right now, I’m entirely too excited for Spring Breakers. I can’t really explain why beyond the fact that it seems like a provactive, avant garde Hollywood genre film. And I haven’t seen any of Harmony Korine’s films, I know his reputation, and I’m excited to see what he does with Disney stars. Plus, NEON!

Finite Oppenheimers

Ryan Browne fills in for Nick Pitarra on The Manhattan Projects and enters the brain of Joseph Oppenheimer. Holy crap.

manh proj003

Yes, that’s a faceless horse…

manh proj002I’m back teaching 3 classes, so things are sure to pick up a little bit, which means things might pick down here. Hopefully not.

Timeshare Versailles

Film #10 – The Queen of Versailles
(Director: Lauren Greenfield)

I love documentaries that don’t really figure out their subject until they are halfway through. I remember watching Gimme Shelter in a history class and being blown away by the nightmarish second half. The Maysles had started off documenting the greatest rock band in the world and ended up profiling the death of the 60s. Similarly, A Time for Burning started as a profile of a new Omaha pastor and ended up showing that racism wasn’t exclusively a Southern problem. In both films, reality is twisted, not by the perspective of the filmmakers, but by the world itself. That’s the beautiful possibility of documentary.

Beginning this post with references to two of my favorite films of all time should tell you all you need to know about The Queen of Versailles by Lauren Greenfield. Like the Maysles and Bill Jersey, Greenfield set out with a basic goal: document time-share mogul David Siegel and his trophy-wife Jacquie as they attempt to build the largest home in America, just because they can. Maybe the goal was a Cribs-like look into the lives of the fabulously wealthy. But then something interesting happened. In 2007, right in the middle of filming, the housing bubble burst and the lending market dried up. For a company that made its fortune on real estate and easy access to loans, the effect was devastating. Instead of filming the construction of a new Versailles, Greenfield began to capture the fundamental disconnect between the wealthy and the poor.

First, although the film is named after Jacquie, the truly interesting character is David. He’s the perfect emblem for the inherent ills of capitalism. While the wealthy claim the poor simply want free handouts, it’s absolutely wonderful watching a billionaire blame the banks for giving him too much money too easily and then suddenly taking it away. The whole movie is him trying to scrounge together hundreds of millions so he can pay off his debts, and he absolutely refuses to take personal responsibility for his role in his company’s near collapse. When this is juxtaposed to an earlier claim by his son that the people interested in time-shares are “takers” and mooches, the irony is almost too obvious. This is an asshole who made his fortune urging those who couldn’t afford it to take out huge loans to “buy” motel rooms.

The whole film works on this ironic edge. The Siegel’s have to cut expenses, but Jacquie, who is basically a 40 year-old teenager, can’t do it. In one fantastic scene, she stoops to shopping at Wal-Mart for Christmas, but she fills up like five carts with worthless toys. When she gives her husband Monopoly, he asks, “What am I going to do with this?” and she lies about having bought it a long time ago as a joke. My favorite is when the family’s nanny has to struggle past a mountain of bikes to get inside (probably 30 kids bikes) even though Jacquie just bought more. When Jacquie has to rent a car for a trip to New York, she asks the Hertz guy who their driver will be. His genuine shock is perfect. There’s just an endless string of these types of moments. Greenfield didn’t need snarky voice-over to emphasize the ridiculous of what was happening; it was perfectly obvious.

There is certainly something engaging about Jacquie, which is why she steals the title and poster for the film, but she’s really a tragic figure. Although she has seven kids, she isn’t a mother. She isn’t once seen doing anything close to parenting. Although she’s married, she isn’t a wife. Her husband despises her (and given his economic situation, can’t afford a divorce), and his joke that when she turns 40 he’s going to turn her in for two 20 year-olds has obviously infested her brain. Her whole existence is built around spending money, and when that possibility dies off, she’s left a useless shell. Although her situation might not be relatable, it’s pretty heartbreaking to watch her realize the sham that her life has been. If she were to leave (or die), it wouldn’t affect the rest of her family one bit.

The reason that The Queen of Versailles ultimately succeeds is that Greenfield clearly empathizes with the Siegels, and Jacquie in particular. This film isn’t designed to overtly critique their wealth and it isn’t crammed with contextualization to explain that the Siegel’s will be just fine. Instead, the characters speak for themselves and Greenfield simply observes. I think its a testament that Jacquie comes off as such a tragic figure. In another documentary, she would be the butt of the joke, but here, regardless of her plastic body, overdyed hair, and kitschy style, she’s undeniably human.

As a “sign of the times” film, I think The Queen of Versailles does a stellar job of explaining the basic contradictions occurring in our country and around the globe. In its observant way, it does a better job than any polemical film could.

Respite in Turkey

Film #9 – Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
(Writer and Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Last weekend, as I was mourning Arsenal’s loss to Tottenham, I knew I needed to watch something that embraced that mood and turned into something valuable on its own. To truly appreciate happiness, you have to go through some dark stuff. Embrace the dark, don’t pretend it doesn’t exist, or so I tell myself as Arsenal crashes out of another tournament. (Fandom is another topic entirely, but why can’t I just change teams? What is this weird, arbitrary connection I’ve formed?) All of this, I suppose, is to say I watched a three-hour Turkish movie called Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.

I suppose that intro doesn’t serve as an enticing advert for Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film, but it really comes from a place of strongest admiration. Anatolia is a film you have to give yourself to; once you’ve relinquished control, it will take you to beautiful, funny, sad, and contemplative places. I just so happened to already be in its state of mind, which made giving myself to it easy.

Superficially, Ceylan structures Anatolia as a procedural. After a context-less opening sequence, the rest of the film follows a group of Turkish policemen, a doctor, and a prosecutor into the countryside as a confessed killer leads them to a body. Only the killer can’t quite remember where the body is; he was drunk and it was dark. We don’t learn much about the crime and the killer doesn’t do much speaking. He knows the body was buried near a fountain, a large round tree, and a plowed field. Beyond that, the film only hints at what happened.

This foggy sense of what happened pervades the entire story. This is a slow, brooding film. The search team goes to no less than four different places before they find the body (spoiler alert), and it seems that Ceylan put the discovery off as long as possible so that he could beautifully exploit the Turkish countryside. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is stunning to look at. The cinematography is so perfectly composed and orchestrated that each frame becomes a painting. What is really miraculous is that the film never feels cold or clinical; it is actually a warm, vital cinematography that delights just as much in faces as it does rolling hills. And like Zero Dark Thirty, Ceylan exploits the possibilities of digital by shooting nearly half the film at night. He uses natural lighting, particularly car headlights, to cut through the countryside and visualize the search.

Ceylan has also filled the frame with interesting characters and wonderful actors. This is a true ensemble piece with no central character; the head detective, doctor, and police chief each take turns in he lead, and side characters enter the frame, get their time to shine, and disappear just as quickly. The result is that the search for the deceased is really just the backdrop to numerous stories, each given just enough time and weight to provoke us. Some are quite funny, most quite sad, and some even reaching the level of Greek tragedy. It’s a film that rewards careful attention. You’ll gain much more out of what’s hinted than you will out of what’s made explicit.

If it seems like I’m being vague in my description, I apologize. But I think the vagueness of the film is it’s strength, and I hesitate to give away anything for fear or lessening your own viewing, should you choose to try Once Upon a Time in Anatolia out. It’s streaming on Netflix, so you’ve got no reason not to.

Sex and Superheroes



(Writer: Joe Casey; Artist: Piotr Kowalski; Colorist: Brad Simpson; Letterer: Rus Wooton)

First, can I just say that I fucking love title pages in comics? Not regular story-art with the production info dropped in a corner, but a specialized double-page spread that’s sole purpose is to give us the chapter title and production credits; it’s as close as comics get to movie credits, and I love when books indulge in them. Hickman’s been doing these in most of his new stuff, Spencer and Rossmo have it in Bedlam, and the first thing you get when you open Sex is a two page, purple-toned skyscape. There’s something about it that just sets the mood for the rest of the issue.

While you can’t avoid the title, Sex (or the fact that it is sold bagged up so as not to pervert the minds of browsing youths), Casey really is playing a game of misdirection. It’s not exactly a subtle misdirection, especially if you’ve read any of his pre-release interviews (or the letter column in this issue). The premise of Sex is simple: what happens when a superhero retires? Dressing up in costume and fighting crime is its own kind of delusional, pornographic fantasy, so how would a retired cape fill that void?

The mis-direction of this issue is that our retired hero, Simon Cooke hasn’t stopped crime-fighting voluntarily; it was at the behest a dying old woman, Quinn. So, he’s retired back to Saturn City and his business. (What kind of superhero isn’t the owner of a fantastically wealthy conglomerate?) Only, he seems incapable of filling his superhero-sized hole with work, and within minutes, is back in the gym. Although he has no intention of picking up the cowl of the Armored Saint again, it isn’t easy to instantaneously become something you never were.

Similarly, when the issue finally does get around to the actual sex, it certainly isn’t sexy. As Simon watches two girls go at it in front of him, he is daydreaming about the dying Quinn and the promise he made her: to hang up the cape and actually live. His daydream is broken when one of the girls yells out, “Hey asshole – you gonna jerk off or what?!” Even sex is no substitute for costumed ultra-violence.


Of course, Casey introduces a nemesis of sorts and a fellow retired superhero to instigate the plot, but the success of the series will rest in how fully he is able to create intrigue and momentum without Cooke putting on his costume. I think that inherent tension could be really interesting to see play out.

It is admittedly a slow burn here, but it seems purposeful on Casey’s part. If he’s playing against our traditional superhero fantasies, it has to be paced a little differently. It’s like the European version of a superhero comic. That also means that an awful lot rests on the art, and luckily, Piotr Kowalski is a perfect fit. There is a total Moebius vibe from the coloring down to the lettering. Kowalski’s character-work is more realistic, but you can definitely see what the team was going for. It feels like the 1980s, but in the year 2080. The coloring is bold and expressive and even the lettering feels unlike anything in modern comics. While the setting is decidedly futuristic, this feels like an old comic in the best possible way.


Now, whether Sex can sustain itself and really put the hooks in the reader is yet to be seen. I could definitely see it getting tired or forced, but for now, I’m really intrigued as to where Casey and Kowalski are going.

Film #8: Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty
(Writer: Mark Boal; Director: Kathryn Bigelow)
I think we’ve passed the point where we can bemoan the rise of digital filmmaking without sounding stupid. A key reason for this is directors like Kathryn Bigelow who, instead of trying to manipulate digital to look like film, embrace it for its own possibilities and create visually stunning films like Zero Dark Thirty. Yes, I’m going to skip over the whole “torture on film” debate because hundreds of people who didn’t even see the film have already told you what to think (no, it doesn’t condone torture. No, it doesn’t reject it. Yes, it just documents it.) and get straight into the good stuff. The Seal Team 6 raid on Abbottabad is one of the best action sequences in recent memory.

I’m jumping ahead of other things too, of course, and there is much to say about the fantastic ensemble performance from this cast (Jessica Chastain is so good), the meticulous unravelling of the hunt itself, and the obsessive way that Bigelow presents the story without politicizing it, but the entire film hinges on the final raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound. Had this sequence failed, the whole film would have failed. Luckily, Bigelow is proving herself to be the best action director in Hollywood.

We all know what happened that night, or at least we know the core events. But in the ruthless way Bigelow documents those events, a tension forms that seemed impossible. This is the darkest action sequence in history. Shot in nearly no light, you are forced to concentrate in ways that most action films purposefully ask you not to. The Seal Team ghosts against, between, and through bin Laden’s compound, and it is often difficult to tell exactly what is happening. Most of the sequence follows the Team moving throughout the compound, but the darkness is interjected with occasional night-vision cameras as the we shift to the Team’s perspective. Then, shockingly, the darkness and silence is pierced with an explosion as the Seals come across a male member of the compound or a door they can’t open. These short bursts of action, though infrequent, play against the visual style and create a momentum that builds to the inevitable encounter with bin Laden himself.

Bigelow is smart to keep the film focused on the compound itself in this sequence. In an earlier sequence at a base in Afghanistan, she switches between the base and Maya following the scene from her office. There’s a cross-cutting here that sort of tips Bigelow’s hand about what’s coming. But during the raid, she never cuts to Maya (Jessica Chastain) waiting for updates, which I was anticipating. It all stays with the Seal Team. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t cross-cut, but it stays focused to Abbottabad. As the Team inside the compound searches for Osama, the team members outside have to deal with the fact that their entrance hasn’t gone unnoticed by the surrounding neighborhood. As an angry mob closes in on them, there is a fantastic sense of insecurity (again, the fact that most people know what happened and, yet, this tension still exists is a testament to the filmmaking).

Once Geronimo is down, the team turns on the lights, and you can unclinch your fists and relax. The hard stuff is over. It’s about 30-40 minutes of riveting cinema and one of those film sequences that I can’t wait to watch again and again. On Blu-ray, it is going to be a thing to behold.

I think the reason that Zero Dark Thirty has been the victim of so much political criticism is that it is decidely non-political. Or rather, it refuses to contextualize itself in any political discussions that center on right and wrong. For the film, it is never a matter of right and wrong, but of cause and effect. Most people have decided that the film is somehow pro-torture (or at least accepting of torture), but just because torture is shown doesn’t mean it is condoned. Instead, torture was used and it had effects, both positive and negative. Certainly, the information about Abu Ahmed, Osama’s personal carrier, emerged from interrogation, and without it, who knows what would have happened. But the people who partake in the interrogation are obviously negatively affected. Dan (Jason Clarke) has to go back stateside and Maya is a socially stunted, awkward person who’s single-minded focus on capturing or killing bin Laden had serious effects (visualized in the final image of the film). Bigelow refuses to treat torture as a black and white issue, which makes interpreting the film actual work, something most people don’t have time for.

That being said, my biggest problem with the film does follow political lines (IRONY!). The film opens with an audio montage of calls from inside the World Trade Center and from the hijacked flights on 9/11. I’ve heard those calls before, and they are so visceral, raw, and personal, that it feels exploitative as a base point for this film. And given that many were used without permission, I just have to think there was a better way to open the film. The logical start point seems to be President Bush on the rubble addressing the work crews, but I actually don’t think we needed anything at all. Everyone who could possibly see the film knows what the plot is. There’s no need to mine the actual deaths of these people to create emotional interest. For most Americans, that emotion is already present; just tell the story.

As I said earlier, there is much more to say about Zero Dark Thirty, but I think I will wait until I have a chance to see the film again. It’s such a dense experience that I’m anxious to get a chance to rewatch it. Maybe I’ll even do an in-depth breakdown of the raid itself. There are a number of images from this section that I wish I had access to for this post, but alas…

Christian David Petzold O’Russell

Boy howdy, I got way behind on writing about movies I’ve seen. Instead of giving them each their own, extended due, I’m going to approach them in chunks. Here’s the first batch.

Film #6 – Barbara

(Writer and Director: Christian Petzold)

I took Lizz to see this in Lincoln and to attend the follow-up film talk by my old advisor Marco Abel at the Ross Theatre. It was sort of payback for Les Misérables. When I was in undergrad, Marco organized a festival for films from the burgeoning Berlin School movement, and amongst the handful I watched, Christian Petzold’s Gespenster (Ghosts) was one of my favorites. This feels similar, but Petzold’s style and approach have certainly matured. Barbara is a beautiful, brooding, and atypical approach to films about East Germany.


In this film, Barbara (Nina Hoss) is sent from East Berlin to the countryside after she applies for an exit visa. She works in a provincial hospital with André (Ronald Zehrfeld), who we find out has also been sent to the countryside as a sort of punishment. While working at the hospital, she is also conspiring with her West German boyfriend to escape the East (I guess it is important to note this takes place in the early 80s), and given her visa request, she is right in the spotlight of the Stasi.

What I love about European cinema, at least European art cinema, is that they take a plot like this, which in American hands would be a political thriller (The Lives of Others), slow it down and de-thrill it. You never feel the force of plot; things just happen. This gives Petzold the opportunity to really zone into his cinematic style. The sound design is just incredible. That isn’t generally something that sticks out to me, but he plays with sound in a very interesting and overt way. And his cinematography is so perfect; I could watch the film on silent and be content. It’s a clinical film, which understandably turns a lot of people off, but for me, I love watching great directors direct (and Nina Hoss is pretty fantastic too).

Film #7 – Silver Linings Playbook

(Writer and Director: David O. Russell)


After it seemed like David O. Russell was never going to work in Hollywood again, it’s nice to see him playing the game and getting back to his kind of movie. This seems like a nice compromise between his more idiosyncratic stuff and the type of thing that actually gets people work in Hollywood. While Silver Linings Playbook isn’t revolutionary in terms of plot, I think it does a fantastic job of presenting mental illness in a new and truthful way.

Silver Linings Playbook is a weird film to approach because it takes mental illness and ostensibly uses it for comedic and romantic purposes. This isn’t how mental illnesses are generally treated on film, and although the film traces a conventional romantic-comedy arc, it doesn’t follow a conventional mental illness arc. In fact, it knowingly plays against the stereotypes: In the film’s most difficult sequence, Pat (Bradley Cooper) desperately searches his parents’ house for his wedding video. It’s the middle of the night, and in the process, he accidentally elbows his mother in the face and gets into a fight with his father (Robert De Niro). Although it’s an uncomfortable sequence, Russell never turns it into the lynchpin sequence it would serve in a traditional movie. Pat isn’t so appalled by what he’s done that he changes; similarly, it doesn’t affect his parents enough to realize they need professional help with him (and themselves). In fact, it isn’t a sequence about mental illness at all. It’s about the unstable nature of families.

I think we move forward here rather unceremoniously because Russell paints mental illness a little differently. It is a uniquely human problem, and more importantly, a universal problem. Every character on screen could be diagnosed in some way, yet Pat, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), and Danny (Chris Tucker) are the only ones with psychiatric labels. For the film, mental illness is just human variation and a truly “sane” person would be the most crazy. In fact, the mental illness of the characters is what makes them likable and unique. What kind of person would Pat Sr. be if he was cured? What about Tiffany? Russell finds beauty in Pat’s bluntness, Tiffany’s insecurity, and Pat Sr.’s compulsions. If they aren’t crazy, they aren’t anyone.

This certainly isn’t to say that Russell doesn’t think mental illness exists or that it doesn’t need to be addressed. But I think he plays against the idea of treatment. Instead, the characters in the film succeed or fail in managing their mental state, and management is more of a process of self-work than it is of taking a pill. As a result, I can forgive the film’s predictable and saccharine conclusion. In the film’s climactic dance sequence, Pat and Tiffany are their best selves, and who’s to deny them a chance at lasting happiness?

(And no, I’m not sure that Jennifer Lawrence deserved the Oscar, but she’s goddam adorable, so who cares?)

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