by Tony Dayoub
I'm wading through about sixty-plus screeners (and counting) as we head into the end of year awards season. What I'm really saying is please forgive me for allowing the blog to lay fallow. With two kids to watch after while my wife is running our business and a hard deadline for voting for the upcoming Online Film Critics Society awards I've neglected the blog. I'm going to compromise a bit then and post some quick and dirty capsule reviews as I catch up on 2012 films (and if you're lucky, I may preview some as well... including one in today's post). The first crop comes after the jump.
Deadfall, directed by Stefan Ruzowitsky (The Counterfeiters), is an above-average, intimate neo-noir that offers something for everybody. Olivia Wilde (House) fans get a nude scene. New Hollywood aficionados get Kris Kristofferson, Sissy Spacek, and Treat Williams in smallish but pivotal supporting parts. And I get two of my favorite actors, Eric Bana (Hanna) and Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) facing off in a Desperate Hours-type setup over Thanksgiving dinner. For once, Kate Mara (127 Hours) rises to the occasion (sister Rooney must be spurring some competition) as an underestimated sheriff's deputy. She has just the right temperament to deal with the confluence of fugitives that overwhelm her tiny, snow-covered town. The fact that it's located somewhere between Detroit and Canada means that Deadfall extends the streak of wintry films that, for some reason, always seem to captivate me. I can't explain why; it must be the limitless, white isolation that fills the screen.
Speaking of isolation, Ang Lee's latest stunner is Life of Pi is about an Indian boy who ends up adrift on a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker after the freighter they were travelling in is lost at sea. Based on Yann Martel's 2001 bestseller, the film depicts a lush, vibrant world in which the saturation of color fluctuates based on the vividness of the events experienced by its hero Pi (played mostly by Suraj Sharma as a youth). From the clever explanation of why the boy shortened his given name, Piscine, to the Technicolor/CGI hijacking of the nature film genre stylings that characterize Pi's time as a castaway, Life of Pi often flirts with becoming a humanistic tale mired in syrupy, New Age sentimentality. In the meantime, Lee takes advantage of the setup to push the boundaries of effects filmmaking yet again. The final revelation by the story's unreliable narrator, a now adult Pi superbly interpreted by Irrfan Khan (The Amazing Spider-Man), darkens the preceding story considerably, delivering quite another film than what one initially expects. If you freely give yourself over to the lightness of Life of Pi then the potency of its darkness makes it, as I said before, a first-class stunner.
I wish I could say I enjoyed David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook as much. Its two leads, Bradley Cooper (The Words) and Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games), are far more winning here than they usually come across. But the two bipolar characters they play resemble just about any neurotic protagonist in your typical romantic comedy more than any living person who actually has this disorder. Not good when you're vying with other major films for a shot at the movie industry's top prize. The film's showcase of Philadelphia helps achieve a great sense of place, par for the course for Russell and company who did the same for Lowell, Massachusetts in the flawed The Fighter. Supporting roles are given a riotous boost by actors like Robert De Niro, John Ortiz (Luck), Julia Stiles, Jackie Weaver (Animal Kingdom), Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire), and the long-lost Chris Tucker. But it all amounts to kind of a waste in this formula romantic comedy in which a psychological condition is applied as if it were only the latest wrinkle on a tired genre breathing its final gasp.