Engaging ‘Hitchcock,’ Artificial ‘Anna,’ Pretentious ‘Pi,’ Moody ‘Killing,’ Misguided ‘Playbook’

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FS, Contributing Writer

“Hitchcock”

Though it will appeal primarily to film buffs, Hitchcock (Angelika) is sufficiently amusing to entertain wider audiences too.

It’s about the great director’s bucking the studio system to make Psycho, which even some of his closest colleagues considered unsavory material.  Putting his own financial future at risk, he financed it himself and made it inexpensively, coming up with a box office smash that has also become a classic shocker.

The script changes a good many facts and invents major plot elements.  But it’s certainly correct in emphasizing the importance of Hitchcock’s wife Alma, both in his domestic life and in his professional one.

And though Anthony Hopkins doesn’t look or sound much like the director, his hammy enjoyment is infectious, and Helen Mirren is a rock as Mrs. Hitchcock.

Hitchcock is hardly a classic itself, but it’s an engaging tribute to a great filmmaker.

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“Anna Karenina”

There have been numerous screen adaptations of Tolstoy’s novel, but none quite like the new Anna Karenina (wide release) from director Joe Wright.

Tom Stoppard’s script actually follows the book fairly closely, but Wright has decided to stage it in a highly theatrical fashion, with sets that are deliberately unrealistic. Even the outdoor scenes are like painted backdrops, and Vronsky is a plastic soldier, looking as if he’d just stepped out of The Nutcracker.  

All the artifice is in line with the idea that Russian aristocratic society of the time was a ritualized construct that punished anyone – like Anna (Keira Knightley) – who broke its rules of conduct with a kind of excommunication.

That’s a defensible dramatic conceit, but it quickly grows tiresome, and the story’s fire and passion are lost. This Karenina winds up a vacuous bauble, pretty but empty.

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“Life of Pi”

Director Ang Lee loves a challenge, and bringing Life of Pi (wide release) to the screen certainly represented one.  Most of the film is devoted to the long journey of an Indian teen and a Bengal tiger in a lifeboat they share as the sole survivors of a shipwreck.

From a technical perspective Lee has succeeded.  The interaction between human and animal is extraordinarily realistic, though accomplished through CGI wizardry, and the images of sea and sky are spectacular, especially as subtly enhanced by 3-D effects.

The problem with the film is that it loads the story, which is basically a Disney-style live-action adventure, with portentous meaning, including lots of “God talk.”  That would be fine if the religious subtext amounted to much, but it really doesn’t.

The result is a film that’s visually striking, but little more.

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“Killing Them Softly”

Brad Pitt reunites with writer-director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) for Killing Them Softly (wide release), a slow-burning but moodily effective gangster film that uses the 2008 financial crisis as a backdrop.

The plot begins with a clumsy assault on a mob-controlled card game.  Pitt plays the cynical hit man called in to find out who was responsible and handle him.  But he’s stymied by the gang’s corporate mentality, which demands a consensus before any action is taken.  

The juxtaposition of the criminal underground with the country’s political-economic system gets heavy-handed at times, but in Dominik’s stylish hands, Killing Them Softly is an atmospheric tale of wiseguys who frequently pause to deliver existential reveries about the perplexing new world they find themselves in.

And the fact that the movie also stars James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano himself, as a burnt-out killer hooked on booze and broads, only adds to the effect.

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“Silver Livings Playbook”

Bradley Cooper tries to stretch in Silver Livings Playbook (wide release), a highly affected tale of a mentally challenged young man who overcomes his bipolar disorder by teaming up for a dance contest with a high-strung neighborhood widow.

David O. Russell’s film is meant to be a comically uplifting tale of a troubled man who tames his demons.  But almost nothing in it rings true, not least Cooper’s frenzied but unconvincing performance.

Jennifer Lawrence is more compelling as the woman he’s obviously meant to be with.  But the actual silver lining in Playbook is Robert De Niro, who brings real heft to the part of Cooper’s father, a fanatical Philadelphia Eagles supporter who moonlights as a part-time bookie.  He reminds you what real acting is like.

1 COMMENT

  1. For your review on “Life of Pi”, I don’t think pretentious is the right word, or any synonymous term of pretentious for that matter, to describe this film. Most University of Dallas students are Catholic, and most likely the same goes for the faculty, so the religious would find “Life of Pi” thoroughly engaging. Yet you must understand that the film, as well as the novel, is much more than just religion, and the beauty and aesthetic of the visuals and story only adds to the appreciation for the film as a whole. It is more a film less of “God talk”, but rather a means of finding oneself, as Piscine did through his miraculous and philosophical journey. The film is more subtle in its approach to religion and spirituality, leaving it to the open-minded audience to soak it all in. What we mostly see, is the interaction of Pi and Richard Parker, a parallel to us and the faiths and beliefs we have. Just like the end of the film, the tiger as well as our beliefs are there, but are not the ones that dwell on us. It is our understanding and yearning for the same that bind us to the relationships we have and the experiences we encounter, very much an appreciation of it all. The closing monologue from the young Pi near the end of the film is as thought-provoking and moving as anything one will see in a film for a long time. Let’s all keep our minds open to life’s experiences, and leave the pretentious at the door.

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