Film Review

The Human Centipede 3: Final Sequence (2015)

After the euro-gloss of Human Centipede: First Sequence and the exploitation arthouse of Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence, director provocateur Tom Six returns with the much threatened Human Centipede 3: Final Sequence. And boy howdy, it’s hard to decide what to make of it.

The stars of Six’s last two films, Dieter Laser (First Sequence) and Laurence R Harvey, (Full Sequence), returning roles that are polar opposite to those they made famous. Laser’s calm and calculated Dr. Heiter is replaced by Bill Boss; a ranting, racist, raping prison governor looking for order by any means necessary. Harvey’s childlike Martin is swapped for Dwight Butler, Bill’s overly patient and brow beaten assistant who may just have the solution he needs

A squishy stew of castration, shouting, sexual violence and Eric Roberts, Human Centipede 3 is liable to offend pretty much everyone. Stacked up against the first two, it’s perhaps not as technically brilliant. Nor is the ‘centipede’ the main focus of this third entry. Bill’s experimentation in castration and arm-breaking to quench his prisoners’ wrath remains at the forefront for the majority of the film’s narrative. Accusations then that the film is boring seem to be a little misguided. Like Tom Green’s Freddy Got Fingered, Human Centipede 3 is deliberately polarising. There are long periods of nothing happening, which are punctuated with waves of deplorable behaviour. Laser screams at the camera for what seems like hours on end. There are some extremely uncomfortable scenes with Bree Olsen. And then, from seemingly nowhere, we’re in slapstick territory. You’re not leaving the film feeling bored. No no. You’re feeling polarised with yourself.

If it sounds like we’re like we’re sitting on the fence, then we are. Tom Six is definitely trying to get a reaction and he’s not bothered how you respond. We’re flummoxed but we think that’s the point.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

After Kick Ass, Matthew Vaughn returns to the material of l’enfant terrible, Mark Millar with Kingsman: The Secret Service, loosely based on Millar’s comic book The Secret Service.

Taron Egerton plays Eggsy, a London kid from the wrong of the tracks who is taken under the wing of Colin Firth’s Harry Hart, a gentlemen spy for a secret service known as Kingsman who set up shop, literally, on Saville Row. Whilst Eggsy tackles his spy training head on, internet tycoon Richmond Valentine (a lisping Samuel L Jackson) is traversing the globe looking for the rich and powerful to join his solution for global warming. Spoilers: he’s up to no good. Can Eggsy and Hart stop him before it’s too late?

Based on a script co-written with his usual collaborator Jane Goodman, Vaughn’s Kingsman is an explosive and blackly humorous response to the po-faced spy thrillers such as the Bourne Trilogy (there is no fourth) and Daniel Craig’s Bond. It’s also spectacularly violent, with a key scene set in a Westboro Baptist type church being the most gloriously vulgar and memorable. Anyone raising an eyebrow at Colin Firth being in an action film will be pleasantly surprised as he fights his way through a scene that feels like both The Raid movies compressed down to five minutes.

Whilst the film never lets up, there are some missteps. Kingsman was clearly filmed in the UK, and its apparent in many a scene that steps foot outside the British Isles. Admittedly not the crime of the century, but it does take you out of the film. There’s also a crude joke towards tot eh end that attempts to heighten and satirize the typical conjugal rights ending to a Bond movie, but instead rewrites Eggsy character unnecessarily.

However, these are minor quibbles in a film that for the most part is a blistering, balls to the wall comic book adaptation.

The Inbetweeners 2 (2014)

Considering the success of the original Inbetweeners movie, it’s no surprise that the boys from Channel 4 are back for another round of farts, belches, misogyny and fweinds. This time Jay, Neil, Simon and Will step foot on antipodean soil after Jay takes a gap year in Australia. Once there Will meets up with an old sweetheart and does everything in his power to divert their trip in her direction.

Fans of the original show and movie will be quick to discover there’s a lot here that they’ll have seen before. Jay talks about gash, Simon has girlfriend trouble, Will is destructively posh and Neil is edging ever closer to his future as a full time manchild. Whilst this will be fine for most, and to be fair, it is a very funny movie, there’s that niggling doubt that this could have been something more.

When we last saw the boys, they were beginning to shed their adolescent skin and grow as people. They’d even formed stable relationships. The Inbetweeners 2 jettisons most of this character development in favour of more jokes. It’s kind of disheartening, as there was potential for growth. Poo poo jokes are all very well good, but we followed the characters through a resemblance of a story arc.

Like 22 Jump Street earlier this year, everybody on board the good ship Inbetweeners rightly assumed we’d be up for more. Unfortunately, they didn’t know when more of the same should stop.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The Wolf of Wall Street plays like a Martin Scorcese greatest hits album. Whirling camera work, extensive, continual jukebox selection, amorality, marriage breakdown, rise and fall stories, law breaking, cocaine, bad metaphors, cocaine, pills, asides to the camera, paranoia, sharp suits and most of all, cocaine all make plenty of appearances. Scorcese appears to have made a homage to himself and in particular, Goodfellas. In Goodfellas, however, all he asked of us was to empathise with gentlemen who made money off theft, blood, prostitution, drugs and protection. The Wolf of Wall Street asks us to empathise with REAL scumbags – corrupt stockbrokers. Fortunately it doesn’t ask too hard.

The plot, which could be explained with the equation; ((Wall Street x 10) + Goodfellas) x amateur pornography, is based on the life and subsequent book of Jordan Belfort who together with Donny Potash (Donny Azoff here) formed the Stratton Oakmont brokerage firm which existed primarily to swindle people out of money with a “boiler room” fake stock strategy. Starting out ripping off average joes, Belfort realised if he applied his selling principles to the “real stock market he could defraud the richest of clients. Greed is good multiplied by a factor of one thousand. In the film, Belfort shows the same contempt for his audience as he does for the people he defrauds (legally and illegally), repeatedly turning to the camera and telling us we don’t need to understand how they are making millions, just that they are. Or he begins to explain financial procedure and gives up on us, a nice nod to the labyrinthine structures of finance created by rich men to make themselves richer. In Belfort’s world money only flows to him. The client is as unimportant as us.

As Jordan and Donny begin to make serious money their egos increase and their appetites spiral downwards. Scenes of such consumption fly past at a rate impossible to remember. EBFS stopped counting the jaw dropping moments where swaggering pricks consider themselves both invulnerable to and above the law and any reasonable code of ethics. Within the opening two minutes, car based blow jobs and cocaine blown up posteriors has occurred and that’s just to get us up and running. Offensive conversations about dwarves, dwarf tossing, Jonah Hill masturbating in public, plane based orgies and “hilarious” racism follow. One scene involving DiCaprio’s rectum and a lit candle has joined Tommy Lee Jones and Joe Pesci spray painted gold and whipping each other in JFK at the top of our “things we thought we’d never see” list. Cars are crashed, boats are crashed, helicopters are crashed, lives are crashed. Not that our protagonists notice. They just carry on with gleeful, sadistic abandon, assuming they’ve unlocked life’s secret and refusing any responsibility. The sheer volume and length  of some scenes of depravation are presumably there to desensitise us to the acts in the same way Belfort and his cronies have been, whilst distracting us from the lives at stake off screen, just as the stockbrokers attempts to get more and more “fucked up” presumably distracted them. It works, just, only occasionally falling into heavy handedness with all the subtlety of the rat/city hall interface that close The Departed.

DiCaprio, who’s acting has been on a spectacular run of late all the way up to Monsieur Candie in Django Unchained, has improved with every Scorcese collaboration after a shaky start in Gangs of New York. His tortured, undercover cop in The Departed showed real pain. If anything, this may be his best performance yet. Slick, confident, disgraceful and a tour de force of persuasion, his sharp suits clashing with his dyed hair, his drug sweats and gluttonous eyes. Avarice glitters through every move he makes. Jonah Hill, by contrast, is grotesque, a leering, chubby, watery, horse toothed sloth of a man, riddled with inferiority but blessed with enough chutzpah and money to try to cover it up. He’ll get an Oscar nomination because the academy members probably struggled to avert their eyes. His performance is the wound you can’t itch. The two of them are supported by a willing cast of circus freaks, gurners and grifters (Spike Jonze, Jon Favreau, Matthew McConaughey…..erm, Joanna Lumley, that guy who can’t see the sailboat in Mallrats, Jean Dujardin) who hang out, fuck up and gradually drop out. Oh, and Kyle Chandler does his best Max Cherry impression as the FBI agent on Belfort’s case who is rewarded with the loneliest scene in the movie. So, well done him.

As the third hour lurches into life, Belfort’s monster begins to unravel. Scorcese sets up a teasing, fake ending then yanks it out from under us, exposing us more harshly to the following scenes of domestic violence, paranoia, backstabbing and mortality from which the Stratton Oakmont people thought themselves immune. The comeuppance, we think, the deserving comeuppance that must surely be coming is right around the corner. The wimper that follows is the most devastating thing of all. At the end, as the loop is completed, there has been no downward spiral, no learned life lessons. These people were contemptible to begin with. At best, they go from utterly amoral to venally immoral. Like Henry Hill’s “the rest of my life as a schmuck” speech, Belfort whines and moans at his meagre punishment, then celebrates how the rich never really have to suffer. Utterly repellent to the end, Belfort’s rise and fall may be both a familiar Scorcese trope and filmic theme but the lack of any effect on it’s King Lear lends a vicious poignancy to proceedings. Still way too long, mind.

Trifecta of Horror: Psych 9 (2012), Storage 24 (2012), Orca: The Killer Whale (1977)

Psych 9

Sara Foster plays Roslyn; an admin assistant working the night shift packing up the medical files of a recently closed hospital. Seemingly not the complete deck of cards when we first meet her, Rosalyn begins to suspect her abusive husband maybe a serial killer who prays on people on the hospital grounds. Psych 9 tries to be half a dozen things at once – A slasher movie, a meaningful psychological drama, a TV movie on domestic abuse… It fails on all accounts. Barely sustaining a plot, let alone any real scares, the denouement is as welcome as trapped wind from a corpse, suffering as it does from an attitude of let’s throw lots of shit at the wall and see what sticks.

Storage 24

Noel Clarke gave us the rather good Kidulthood and Adulthood. He changes tact in this straight to DVD schlocker, which he co-write, about a group of people trapped in a storage centre with a flesh eating alien. Billed as a comedy horror, it is neither. The only real scares coming from the film’s faint smell of misogyny that starts with a needlessly long shot of a Nuts centre spread and continues with its only two main female characters being nothing more than screaming harpies that need to stay close to Clarke’s frowny face.

Orca: The Killer Whale

In this Jaws rip off from Dino de Laurentiis, Orca is the heartwarming tale of a killer whale going on a bloodthirsty rampage in retribution for Richard Harris killing his mate and offspring. Preceding Jaws: The Revenge and its google map using shark by several years, Orca manages to track down Harris and lead him on a merry chase to the frozen northern waters for a smackdown to end all smackdowns. Opportunistic it may have been, but by Christ it’s a lot of fun. If it’s not Orca’s eidetic memory, it’s his ability to understand how he can use the fuel lines to his advantage. Go, Orca, go!

Much Ado About Nothing (2013) (1623)

Well, doesn’t this feel like a gift? In between helming mega franchises, Joss Whedon has crafted this little, sex-comedy bauble. Shot in his own home on a $20,000 shoestring budget and starring a cast of trusted friends and seemingly anyone who was knocking about, Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is faithful to Shakespeare and still indelibly a part of the whedonverse. Fanboys will be sated.

Whedon has professed a love of Much Ado above Shakespeare’s other comedies, possibly explaining his decision to make this so relatively recently after Kenneth Branagh’s justifiably exalted version from 1993. Although, in a world where Spiderman origin stories exist  barely a decade apart, perhaps this isn’t such a shock. Whilst Branagh’s film was a bawdy, Tuscan romp (with Keanu as the bad guy), Whedon’s version is a tighter, more world weary vision, a careful observation of love shot through with pathos rather than a saucy seaside postcard if you will.

Ostensibly a play about Claudio (stoner from Cabin In The Woods) trying to secure Hero’s (new) hand in marriage despite the scheming machinations of Don John (doctor from Firefly), Much Ado is much more focused on getting sparring ex-lovers, Beatrice (Fred from Angel) and Benedick (mini-Giles from Angel) to fall in love despite their collective bitterness concerning the ideals of marriage. These plots are helped, hindered and investigated by Hero’s father, Leonato (SHIELD guy from The Avengers), Don Pedro (some guy from Dollhouse, which we never watched) and bumbling flatfoots, Dogberry (Firefly captain) and Verges (one of the nerd-herd from Buffy). This familiarity of cast is a stroke of genius as firstly, they worked for free and, secondly, for the warmth and comfort with which they deliver their lines, the cadences and syntax of Shakespeare’s flowery, old english rendered into twenty first century gossip and bickering, flowing as free as the ever present wine.

Whedon’s skill has always been in being fully aware of the rules of the genre he’s working within and subsequently subverting them gently, yet plausibly. Here, he takes Shakespeare, remains faithful, albeit with a cut here and there, and shoves it through his knowing prism, fracturing a brash comedy into a fragile, delicate, worried tramedy. He bravely leaves in a racist slur from the original, instead using it to highlight our discomfort and ability to turn a blind eye to such things. His decision to shoot in the softest of black and white’s  gives this comedy an austerity that grounds it in reality (despite the conceit of a woman “dying” of shame, which must of stunk in the sixteen hundreds as much as it does today) and lends an honesty to the broken relationship of Beatrice and Benedick.

So, Whedon gives us this, a deft, little gem, blending a classic with his own comfortable style, creating a work as pleasurable to view as it clearly was to make. A Shakespeare adaptation that can sit with McKellen’s Richard III, Branagh’s trio of this, Hamlet and Loves Labours Lost and er….10 Things I Hate About You as the best of recent times. Let’s see him do that with the Avengers sequel……

Spring Breakers (2012)

Spring Breakers is lurid, unpleasant and hollow, three adjectives that somehow become complimentary when thrown through Harmony Korine’s twisted-eye view of the vapid corruption of youth. If this is the writer of Kids bid for mainstream attention, the mainstream may have to watch through its fingers.

Candy, Faith, Brit and Cotty are desperate to make the pilgrimage down to the Florida Keys to join in the annual celebrations of thousands of like minded college students, as they drink, smoke and dance into oblivion in the hot and humid tip of America’s mainland. Finding themselves with barely enough money, they logically decide to rob the local Chicken Shack with sledgehammers and water pistols. However, after a few days of “spiritual” partying, they find themselves arrested and in prison. Then a mysterious local, calling himself Alien, bails them out and their downward spiral into the dark heart of America’s black market, economic structure begins. At this point Faith has had enough and leaves, the girls, bereft of their moral compass, find their descent complete and the endgame begins, in the form of a violent, slow motion, bikini clad shootout at a local drug-dealers opulent house.

The casting of sweet, television sensation Selena Gomez, some Disney princesses and Korine’s young bride as our four hedonism seekers works in much the same way as Verhoeven’s inspired decision to use plastic himbos and gleaming toothed soap stars to heighten the absurd fascism on display in Starship Troopers. It’s tempting to ask the question about whether these four actresses have already been corrupted by the almighty House of Mouse before Korine convinced them to do beer bongs, rob diners and fuck in swimming pools. Indeed, America’s current fallen angel, Britney Spears is referenced throughout, Alien sings “Everytime” on a baby grand by an outdoor pool as the girls request something sensitive from him. Her presence here is an effective and obvious metaphor, mirroring our four protagonists attempts at self-destruction.

James Franco deserves kudos (mad props?) simply for saying yes to the role of Alien, a corn-rowed, drug dealing rapper whose celebrations of excess for excesses sake are complimented and accelerated by the liquorice blunt permanently clenched between his gold plated teeth and the southern drawl of a snake-oiler. He gets his moment in the sun during a brilliantly, low level, capitalist, “look at all my shit” speech. He talks the girls through his “dark tanning oil”, his “shorts in every colour”, his “two types of Calvin Klein, wear ’em both at once, smell nice” and all his drugs, weapons and “Franklin’s”. It’s a speech highly reminiscent of Hudson’s “sharp sticks” speech in the director’s cut of Aliens. Franco pulls it off laconically, almost breaking character and sniggering at the bare-faced ridiculousness of what he is being paid to say. “Look at my blue Kool-Aid…” he smirks, loud and proud.

The pounding, distorted score by Cliff Martinez (Requiem for a Dream, Solaris) and Skrillex (assorted “club-bangers”, EBFS is reliably informed by a passing young person) screeches along, heightening each drugged out, party scene. The colour palette on display is turned up to about a million, Korine calls the effect “skittles” and he isn’t lying, even the font for the credits makes the eyeballs ache. There is an Enter the Void sense of nihilism to the ebb and drift of most scenes, so it’s no surprise that Korine chose Gaspar Noe’s DoP, Benoit Debie, to provide his visuals. An excellent, one take shot of a car crawling round a diner as we see the robbery taking place within through each window is particularly noteworthy. the other obvious visual reference points are MTV, particularly Jersey (or Geordie) Shore, shows that actively encourage their “real” people to behave like airhead hedonists, safe in the false knowledge that youth is immortal and infinite. However, like Icarus before them, when our girls get closer to danger (and therefore, reality) in the form of Alien and his feud with former friend, Archie (Gucci Mane, a rapper, Wikipedia this time), the film’s visual style changes once again, to that last bastion of cinema verite, internet pornography. Korine admits to having collected images from spring break porno sites, so the appearance of harsh lighting, grim faced men surrounding vulnerable women has a creepy frame of reference. The script is loose, almost Malick like, with lines repeated over and over and not lip synched for effect. Alien breathes “spring break” again and again in voiceover like a mantra for a religion only he is privy to.

In the end, Spring Breakers purposely drowns in its own vulgarity, with its endless shots of beer soaked breasts and glassy-eyed revellers, operating on autopilot, getting fucked up and fucking for the sake of it, or because everyone else is doing it. Korine has crafted a morally moribund piece, without the answers to the anachronisms on display. Whether it’s a good film or not is hard to say, it’s certainly grotesque and that may be the real point.

Parker (2013)

We should jump in with both feet. Far from the most annoying thing about Parker is that it SHOULD work. A talented, journeyman director (Taylor Hackford) takes on a genre revenge picture based on a series of novels by Donald E. Westlake that have been adapted into successful movies several times before (Payback, Point Blank), the current go-to hard man, Jason Statham is rounded up and joined by sassy (contractually obliged to say sassy) Jennifer Lopez, semi-reprising her best role from Out Of Sight, they are helped out by a supporting cast of grizzled toughs (Nick Nolte, Michael Chiklis, er….the drug dealer from The Rules of Attraction) and helped out by the ever popular “one big score” and “sort of a love triangle” tropes from noir 101. Works on paper for us, almost entirely fails up on the big screen.

Take a deep breath. The eponymous Parker is played by Jason Statham, he is a morally questionable thief with cast iron morals on things he thinks are important, he heads to Palm Beach to stop his former crew succeed on their next heist and kill them for betraying him on the last one. Parker is helped by Leslie, inhabited by J-Lo, a realtor who knows Palm Beach like the back of her sassy (sorry), latino hand. Nick Nolte, played by a distraught, melting, waxwork dummy of Nick Nolte, helps Parker out with information, which is interesting as Nick Nolte was the person who set Parker up with the gang who betrayed him in the first place, showing a shocking judgement of character and completely oblivious that they were “connected up the ass” in Chicago, making Parker’s attempt at revenge even more foolhardy. That’s okay though as Parker is sleeping with Nolte’s daughter, who is fine with having a stupid thief father, a silent, unsmiling, thief boyfriend who disappears for weeks on end and has more scars than the entire cast of Jaws. So that’s your plot and in skilled hands like Kubrick’s for The Killing or Soderberg’s for Out Of Sight, to pick two out of hundreds and hundreds, convolution works brilliantly, adding layers of intrigue and suspense. Here, handled by the director of The Devil’s Advocate and the writer of Man About The House it falls flat and lies there lifelessly whilst the poor editor tries to put the pieces together coherently.

Whilst Statham is poised, gruff and stares well and Jennifer Lopez is confident, desperate and clever the rest of the cast are either cardboard cut-outs, grimacing or panicking like good cow actors should or completely over the top, maniacally bad scenery chewers with indigestion. The gang who betrayed Parker are a case in point. They don’t communicate with each other, just shout or whine lines as if reading them off their co-stars foreheads. Michael Chiklis, particularly, thuds out words as if trying to start a fight with himself in a phone booth. He couldn’t be less convincing if he was fully made up in his Thing make up from Fantastic Four. In fact, the gang of four are so incompetent, snivelling, infighty and generally sociopathic that the idea of them completing one successful heist, let alone two is so unlikely that belief, like many of Parker’s enemies, crashes out of the window. Parker has precisely two good lines, one has been used extensively in the trailer and the other is so close to the end (of which there are four) that it may simply be growing relief that elevates it’s delivery by Lopez.

For the undeserved sake of balance, Parker does contain an excellent fight in a hotel room between our hero and a mob assassin (who inexplicably insists on using what appears to be a craft knife at all times). Visceral, intelligently shot, brutal and culminating in a bathroom with plenty of references to the countless other great moments of violence in bathrooms in cinema such as True Romance and Psycho to pick the obvious ones. This is everything the rest of Parker isn’t. Every blow comes through the screen and the blood splatters like only the best film blood can. It sticks out like a sore (decapitated and trod on) thumb and makes everything else seem an even paler shade a gray.

In the end, Parker is a genre flick delivered with no respect to it’s genre, no consideration for it’s audience, no intelligence in it’s narrative, not enough time spent balancing a wild script and crucially, no love for the almost set in stone rules of either it’s practically mythical legend nor the weight it holds in the pantheon. Ugly without trying.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

When Kathryn Bigelow underdogged the oscar from Avatar, a sigh of relief audible from space was omitted by cinephiles everywhere. In retrospect, The Hurt Locker turned out to be an interesting, well made film, looking at war from an unusual, positive angle that, on repeat viewings, turned out to have about a teaspoonful of narrative amidst it’s machismo. Now, with Zero Dark Thirty, a tale that begins with the horrific events of 9/11 and ends with the horrific events in a compound on the Iran/Afghanistan border, Bigelow has, if anything, a massive surplus of narrative, a whole truckload of twelve years of muddled, secretive counter intelligence, wars and further terrorist action to refine into a cohesive film that we should probably be grateful only lasts two and three quarter hours.

Scripted by Mark Boal, also responsible for The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty draws an uncomfortably straight line that leads the CIA directly from 9/11 to “justifiable” torture to the public transport bombings in London to The Marriot bombing in Islamabad to the discovery of Bin Laden’s whereabouts. Simplifying a globally fraught and politically nightmarish 12 years might have been narratively necessary but feels obliquely disingenuous to an audience, all of whom will bring their own personal viewpoints and experiences to bear. One wonders how this film is playing in Iran or Afghanistan or China. We should stress that no money, equipment or assistance from the US Military was requested, which is admirable, and the film tries so very, very hard to walk the molecule thin line between right and wrong. However, when it falls off it is invariably onto the gung-ho American side.

This film is expertly made. Shot beautifully by Greig Fraser in very suitable, faux documentary style, structured well by an elegant script, scored by music that builds gradually and remains perfectly backgrounded throughout. Performed professionally by actors with skill and absolutely no showboating and all held together with the tightest direction of Bigelow’s career. Zero Dark Thirty is gripping, slick and paced perfectly. It’s hard to imagine anyone making a better film on this subject (United 93 remains the best reflection of 9/11 film making fallout), it just trips over it’s own tangled shoelaces.

The torture scenes are dispassionate, functionary and unbearable. As they should be. Dan (Jason Clarke) portrays the CIA interrogator featured most prominently. He’s jaded, viewing it as just a job and barely seeing humanity anymore. He pointedly shows his pet monkeys more compassion than the human being he has just shoved into a tiny box. He initiates Maya (Jessica Chastain deserves the Oscar) into his world, where she initially balks, but then becomes complicit within. A scene where we are asked to feel sorry for Maya and her terrible, necessary duties and the weight it leaves on her shoulders is far too rich and absolutely the film’s low point. When the crucial piece of information that leads to Bin Laden’s discovery is revealed to have been in the CIA’s possession for years, rendering the, now shut down, rendition programs seemingly meaningless, Zero Dark Thirty claws back a lot of respectability. As does a scene where a CIA operative incredulously asks how they are supposed to obtain information without recourse to torture now Obama is in office.

As soon as Bin Laden’s compound is identified, the film could logically end. In All The President’s Men, as soon as the link between the burglars and President Nixon is discovered, the credit’s roll as the rest of the story, Nixon’s impeachment, was so widely covered already. The grey, high walled building occupied by Bin Laden and several other families was so ubiquitous on the rolling news channels that it leaves the (worryingly Call Of Duty like) denouement, although brilliantly staged and shot, feeling somewhat pornographic as we wait and guess and jump and expect the next frame to contain the death of the world’s most wanted man. Bin Laden’s death in May 2011 means this film has been turned around in eighteen months and some of the joy masquerading as relief that was visible (from an outsider looking into America) seems to have seeped into this admirable attempt to remain dispassionate about a necessary, unpleasant, almost entirely justifiable chapter in America’s history. Perhaps as more distance is achieved more perspective will arrive. However, as of now, Zero Dark Thirty remains an uneasy proposition, marred by ethical dilemmas that were never really dilemmas in the first place.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

David O’Russel is no stranger to the family unit, subverting it oedipully (?) in his debut, Spanking The Monkey, exposing the dynamics within the army as family in the fifty percent great Three Kings, very nearly pulling off an “everything is connected” universe family in I Heart Huckabees and then coping comfortably with a genre flick that dealt with nothing but brotherly love and hate in The Fighter. With Silver Linings Playbook we find him cosy in his wheelhouse as he adapts Matthew Quick’s novel about a dysfunctional family with a streak of mental illness in Philadelphia into a loose, shaggy, wry tale of obsessive behaviour, love and loss and the American Football team that binds them all together.

Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a man released into his parent’s care (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) from an institution where he has been incarcerated for eight months for assaulting the man he found graphically involved with his wife when he returned home one day. Armed with a plan for mental health called “Excelsior” and a fitness regime designed to win his estranged wife back, Pat sets about re-integrating with society, meeting old friends, bonding with his spiky father over Philadelphia Eagles games and finally meeting Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Tiffany has lost her cop husband recently and reaches out to Pat for companionship. Pat begins to use her in a scheme to get a letter to his wife who he is restrained from seeing by a court order. In a totally non-shocking cliché Pat and Tiffany begin to fall for each other as they practice for a dance competition…who would’ve thought it?

Silver Linings Playbook (awful title, we kept forgetting it prior to our screening.) treads that very tricky line between comedy and drama, too funny and the mental illness’ would be viewed as trite handles on which to hook jokes, too serious and the bittersweet edge of comedic reality would be lost in a shower of pathos. Fortunately, O’Russel skillfully navigates this track to deliver possibly his most balanced, enjoyable film yet.

Using the Philadelphia Eagles (the birds, as their fans call them) as a focal point for its characters and their community, Silver Linings Playbook accentuates their rivalries with the New York and Dallas teams to accentuate the rivalries within the families. Every Sunday is game day, the family gather, eat snacks cooked by Mom and argue over every play, every comment and every past hurt, this is a much more effective form of therapy for Pat than the state provided psychiatrist. Even Tiffany, who ostensibly hates football, knows every stat and result, such is the import of the Eagles.

Bradley Cooper manages to pull off an impressive “not being smug” performance which is good news for those who watched The Hangover, A-Team and Limitless with a lingering urge to never stop punching him. De Niro manages to summon some fire back into his eyes, playing Pat’s OCD father with verve but Jennifer Lawrence is the star here. Bruised, vulnerable and resolutely unapologetic for a promiscuous period following her husband’s death, Lawrence gives Tiffany an edge that feels as if it could be shattered any moment. A scene in which Pat and Tiffany argue in a diner and then in front of a movie theatre showcases both her highly visible broken heart and the skillful writing that O’Russel has supplied her with. Tiffany is unable to keep the emotion from her face and Lawrence uses this to portray a woman on the brink of slipping into alcoholism and self-pity. Her roles following this film will be scrutinised closely.

The whole thing builds to a brilliantly handled, multiply important dance-off climax that is funny and charming and perfectly integrated with the rest of the film (Unlike Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine, films that exist solely to try and impress you with a quirky dance at the end and are instantly forgettable.). Important to every character and wonderfully pathetic, the win/lose conclusion is emotionally satisfying and at least semi-plausible, managing to avoid leaving a Hollywood sheen over proceedings that would have rung hollow with the preceding honesties revealed.

O’Russel seems to be getting into his groove and his (relatively) inexpensive movies, which have actors clamouring to appear in them (for knockdown fees, presumably) should continue to expose us to familiar forms of the human condition skewed through his off kilter, left field eyes for a long time to come.