“Silver Linings Playbook”

Richard's review: 2 1/2 stars

Bradley Cooper’s continued push to distance himself from his most famous character, the slime-ball Phil of “The Hangover” fame, continues with “Silver Linings Playbook,” a David O. Russell film that pioneers the genre of mental illness romcom.

Cooper is Pat Solitano a separated substitute teacher who had been jailed for beating his wife’s boyfriend half to death. Now his wedding song, “My Cherie Amour,” sends him into rages and he has severe control issues.

After eight months of being institutionalized Pat is released into the reluctant care of his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver). His recovery is slowed by a fixation on his ex-wife, but helped along by a kindred spirit, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a troubled widow who needs Pat’s help to win a dance competition.

Cooper stretches here, displaying his well-honed comedic skills but tempering the jokes with some serious dramatic chops. Pat is desperate to rebuild his life and Cooper shows us how this character slowly gets the building blocks in order to achieve his goal. It’s nice work that turns on a dime from manic to awkward to disheartened, often in the same scene.

Director Russell (“The Fighter,” “Three Kings”) visually echoes Pat’s various states, using the camera zooms and fast cuts to give us an idea of the mental state of the main character.

Vying for attention are Lawrence and De Niro. Lawrence brings considerable charm and chops to Tiffany. Her understanding, but slightly icy stare as Pat meets her for the first time with the greeting, “You look nice. How'd Tom die?" is skilled, subtle and effective.

Ditto for De Niro. He hands in a broad performance as a father who could never relate to his son. Their relationship is based on a mutual love for the Eagles football team and dad’s belief that Pat provides some sort of mojo for the team during the playoffs.

This film has good performances all around. That said, the last half of this movie is marred by too much repetitiousdialogue such as arguments that go nowhere and football superstition – all of this  leads the story far afield from where it began.

Mental illness is a complicated subject that the film doesn’t exactly treat lightly. Instead “Silver Linings Playbook” uses it as a plot device.

“Hitchcock”

Richard’s review: 4 stars

At one point in “Hitchcock,” the master of suspense (played by Anthony Hopkins), says, “Audiences want to be shocked -- they want something different.” He’s referring to the content of “Psycho,” his ground breaking 1960 horror film. While 2012 audiences may not be shocked by the content of this new biopic, they will get something different -- at least if they are expecting a blow-by-blow account of the shooting of the story of Norman Bates and the infamous shower scene. It’s not a retelling of the making of a movie. It’s the story of the most important relationship in Hitch’s life.

Following the release of “North by Northwest” Alfred Hitchcock was struggling to make a change from the big-budget, elegant thrillers he was known for to something shocking. Trouble is nothing grabbed his attention.

As we see in the film, novels that were over for his approval are dismissed as “sleeping pills with dust jackets.” Then one day Hitchcock picks up a down-and-dirty book by Robert Bloch called “Psycho.” It’s “low budget, horror claptrap,” says his wife Alma (Helen Mirren), but Hitchcock is determined to make it, even if he has to pay for it himself.

That’s the Hollywood portion of the movie, the part Hitchcock would have called “MacGuffin” -- the story element that gets the rest of the plot in gear, but isn’t terribly important to the overall story.  The main thrust of the movie is Hitchcock’s quest to be relevant, to take risks, to be free as he was before the fame, and the effect this has on his relationship with Alma.

Based on Stephen Robello’s book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,” “Hitchcock” is a fast-paced and surprisingly touching marital drama peppered with lots of insider Hollywood legend.

We learn about Hitch’s troubled relationship with Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), who chose motherhood over the director’s offer to make her a star. We see his cordial relationship with Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), who says, “Compared to Orson Welles he’s a sweetheart,” and get an up-close look at familiar Hitchcock themes of voyeurism, sexual repression, betrayal, obsession and identity.

What is unexpected is the depth of the relationship between Hitch and Alma. She is seen here in a professional capacity as an assistant director, screenwriter and editor. But it is as muse, lifeblood and the lone redhead in a sea of blondes that Alma bewitched Hitch, which is the most important part of the story.

The role of Alma is underwritten, but Mirren brings it to vibrant life, creating a character that is not supplemental to Hitchcock’s success, but the very reason for it. 

It is Hopkins, however, who has the most fun here. There’s a playfulness in his performance from his narration that opens and closes the movie to the little ballet he does as he listens to the opening-night audience shriek and scream as they watch “Psycho’s” infamous shower scene.

Hopkins doesn’t exactly look like Hitchcock, but gets the essence in a buoyant performance that betrays the fun the actor must have had in creating it. He has the movie’s best lines -- “I only wish (“Psycho” inspiration) Ed Gein looked more like William Holden and less like Elmer Fudd,” he says to reporters.”  But Hopkins’ works also provides many subtle shadings of the sadness Hitchcock carried with him. It is a performance that ironically could earn the Oscar that was denied to the famed director during his lifetime.

“Hitchcock” is a stylish film that pays homage to not only “Psycho,” but to Hitchcock’s other films, most notably the umbrella scene in “Foreign Correspondent.” It’s also a tribute to one of the great film partnerships in Hollywood history.

“Life of Pi”

Richard’s review: 4 stars

I have a feeling that “Life of Pi’s” success as a novel -- which sold seven million copies and won the Man Booked Prize -- lays in its ability to be all things to all people. Readers projected their own interpretations on the story of a boy set adrift in a small boat with only a tiger for a companion. Some saw a touching coming-of-age story, others an adventure tale, while other saw it as a spiritual allegory à la Saint Bette of Midler’s “God is watching us… From a distance,” scripture.

The movie, from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” director Ang Lee brings all those themes to vivid life in a film that adheres to the book, but is completely cinematic.

Based on Yann Martel’s popular 2001 novel, Suraj Sharma stars as Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, a 16-year-old boy orphaned and literally set adrift after the freighter his family was taking from India to a new life in Canada, sinks. He escapes in a lifeboat with a several wild animals, refugees from Pi’s family zoo including an orangutan, hyena, a wounded zebra and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Using ingenuity, plus his instincts for survival and spirituality, he keeps the tiger tame until his destiny becomes clear.

“Life of Pi” is a risky movie that doesn’t take many big chances. Bringing this metaphorical and introspective story to the screen was a challenging and risky venture in itself, but in its execution Lee leans on old-fashioned storytelling. Two-thirds of the movie involves man and beast, alone at sea. While there is considerable use of computer generated images -- the computer generated tiger is completely believable and beautifully done -- the focus is always kept on the Pi’s journey from inquisitive kid to self-reliant survivor.

It’s during this long section that Lee’s hand is most evident, particularly in a few tense moments when the main character and the tiger try to forge an uneasy truce. The unusual story is complimented by many startlingly beautiful images, like a full moon illuminating a sea brimming with jellyfish, turning them into incandescent underwater lanterns or an island overflowing with meerkats.

The segments that book end the film, however, are less successful. The set up involves a writer (Rafe Spall) discussing the wild story with a middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan). It’s an old-hat way of providing context, and while Khan’s performance is terrific the exposition that drives these scenes is of the “so what happened next” variety.

Like the main character, “Life of Pi” drifts off course from time to time. Despite some ill-advised magic realism and some repetition, Lee steers the story into safe, comforting waters.

“Rise of the Guardians”

Richard’s review: 4 stars

"Rise of the Guardians" takes familiar characters and transports them into a modern 3D fairy tale, complete with superhero nicknames. Santa becomes North, the Boogeymen is Pitch and the Sandman is Andy. The last one doesn't sound all that superhero-ish, but the nap-maker is the most mysterious and capable of the bunch. He's definitely not sleeping on the job.

North (voice of Alec Baldwin) is the leader of the Guardians, a group of childhood fantasies come to life, who protect the kids of the world. That they do when they aren't busy exchanging quarters for teeth, ensuring good dreams and organizing Easter egg hunts. When old enemy Pitch, (voice of Jude Law) reemerges, the Guardians put aside their daily duties and reunite.

Assigned a new recruit, Jack Frost (Chris Pine), by Manny (or the Man in the Moon as he is more formally known), some of the Guardians find it hard to accept a new member. "All he does is freeze pipes," says the Easter Bunny. Despite the icy mayhem Jack seems to inspire everywhere he goes, he has a warm heart. He is on a search for meaning in his life. "I've tried everything but no one can see me," he says. He's on a quest for identity, to be recognized and soon discovers that the Guardians -- and Pitch -- hold the key to his locked-down memories.  

"Rise of the Guardians" is beautifully animated. From the ethereal unicorns that lull Sandman's kids to sleep to the darker vision of the Boogeyman's horses -- the personification of fear and bad dreams, this film is guaranteed to spin your eyeballs around in their sockets. The details are lush and the character work beautifully even for the minor characters -- if there is a sequel expect North's army of Yetis and clumsy elves to become major characters. The film also imparts a good message about believing in yourself as you believe in others.

But there is also something grim in this fairy tale. Despite the presence of the Easter Bunny and the lovable and delicate Tooth Fairy, the movie contains some images that may upset younger viewers. Pitch's dark legion of wild-eyed horses may inspire nightmares in kids and a detail in Jack's backstory is intense, so judge your child's ability to process the scares before shelling out for tickets for the whole family.

"Rise of the Guardians" is about keeping the wonder of kid's lives intact, but the animators have also done a good job of transferring some of that wonder onto the screen.

“Red Dawn”

Richard's review: 1 1/2 stars

"Red Dawn," starring Chris Hemsworth, Josh “The Hunger Games” Hutcherson and  Connor Anthony Kidman Cruise (yes, he’s their son!), is contrived, silly and even just this side of racist -- just like the original. But is it, like its fore-bearer, also so bad it's good? Or is it just bad?

The new movie has a new set of bad guys and an updated cast of chisel jawed stars, but boiled down to its basics it’s a faithful remake of the 1984 film. The Russian communist hoards have been replaced by North Korean invaders and Chris "Thor" Hemsworth steps in for Patrick Swayze.

Set in Spokane, Wash. the movie sees a ragtag group of rebels fight off the North Korean Army who have somehow managed to launch a surprise attack on the entire United States. "We inherited our freedom," says Jed (Hemsworth), "now it's up to us to fight for it."

Released at the tail end of the Cold War, the first film was a fist-pumping all-American freak out; a violent tour de force guaranteed to make patriotic hearts swell with pride. A Red, White and Blue Dawn.

The new film wants to be the same kind of crowd pleaser, but it’s too talky-talky and not enough boom-boomy.

For a small militia up against a well-organized, ruthless army they seem to spend a lot of time reminiscing and bonding. They talk and laugh, I suppose to give the audience a chance to get to know them. The trouble is not one of them is terribly interesting unless they’re shooting at or blowing up the enemy. When they're not getting mushy they state the obvious, like, "We can't just call 911." To say they are cardboard characters is an insult to the pulp and paper industry.

The fun of these kind of movies lies in the action scenes and the cheese-ball dialogue. To its credit the movie gets going in its last 40 minutes. New characters are introduced and the North Koreans say things like "The vicious rodents are attacking!" Also, the relationship nonsense that bogged down the first half is replaced with the stuff you expect from a movie like this -- explosions and good triumphing over evil.

By then, however, you almost hope the North Koreans take over. They might be more interesting than these bland American stars.