By Steve Greene | Criticwire November 16, 2012 at 8:01AM
Back when we did "The Great Fall Criticwire Movie Wager," our attempt to predict the best-reviewed films of the last few months of 2012, one of our self-imposed categories was Best Literary Adaptation. Since our guesses were made post-Toronto and festival films were ineligible, there were a number of strong choices we had to leave on the table. Two of those make their theatrical debuts today.
The Pick(s): If you're looking through the reviews for "Silver Linings Playbook," the latest from director David O. Russell, you're likely to stumble upon the phrase "black comedy." Sure, there are chuckles to be had, but in any comedy that honestly deals with overcoming mental and emotional trauma (and doesn't veer too far into satirical territory), there are going to be some serious streaks as well. The premise may even sound well-trod, but positive reviews of the film credit Russell's adaptation of Matthew Quick's novel and how not (please forgive me) by-the-book it is. CriterionCast's Joshua Brunsting describes the film as "a relatively simple narrative structurally," explaining that "Russell (who also wrote the film) never looks down upon his characters, despite his deft ability to bring light into the darkest of situations. Russell’s camera is as fluid as ever, basking in the beauty of the dance between our two leads, both physically and romantically." But Time Out's Keith Uhlich theorizes that even though Russell is making choices that few others would, he's making choices that he's made before. "It’s impossible to shake the sense that what felt thrillingly, cohesively alive in the director’s earlier movies," Uhlich writes, "plays here with more laurel-resting creakiness than go-for-broke verve. Russell’s once-mercurial assets have become a formula."
Meanwhile, as "Playbook" tells a story rooted in modern-day Pennsylvania, "Anna Karenina" takes a literary eye to the Europe of a century past. Joe Wright's fifth full-length feature (and third collaboration with star Keira Knightley) tells the story of Leo Tolstoy's novel with Wright's usual stylistic flair. While critics are nearly unanimous on the film's visual merits ("sumptuous" wraps it up concisely in many reviews), many are divded over the plausibility of the film's romantic core. Indiewire's Caryn James is less impressed with the performances governing the plot's motivating relationships. "Early in the film, in one of the epigrammatic lines of dialogue that run through it like annoying bits of Morse code, Levin's disreputable brother tells him that 'romantic love will be the last delusion of the old order.' He may be right, but in order to grapple with that idea we first have to believe that Anna and Vronsky's romance is warmer than those snowy Russian vistas," James writes. Box Office Magazine's David Ehrlich is of a different mind, even using the "m-word" to describe how Wright, Knightley and lauded screenwriter/adapter/playwright Tom Stoppard manage to control all the moving parts that helped make the source novel the size of a phonebook. "All the same, Wright's commitment to the ABCs of his approach ("Always Be Crescendoing") makes it difficult for the finale to land with impact, instead doubling down on the idea that Anna's drama is of her own design and for which she herself is the ultimate audience," Ehrlich describes, adding of Knightley, "the actress' fierce loyalty to her character sells Anna's most damningly selfish moments, her resolve allowing the movie to comfortably straddle the line between florid melodrama and Synecdoche, St. Petersburg."
Doc Roundup: Although many of the past few installments of Criticwire Picks have been devoted to narrative films, there are plenty of documentaries currently available in various platforms that have enjoyed some postitive critical response.
"The Zen of Bennett," profiling the legendary crooner Tony Bennett, currently has a "B" average in its early stages. Jason Bailey ended his Tribeca review with a ringing endorsement: "You just want to bathe in the warmth of his glow, to soak up the vibe in those rooms, to find this life as much a treat as he does. What a lovely film this is." Curious to see if your opinion stacks up against his? The film's now available on Netflix Streaming. (Also newly available on Netflix? "A Man's Story," a glimpse at the life of celebrated fashion designer Ozwald Boateng.)
This week's entry into the top documentary circle is "Chasing Ice," Jeff Orlowski's look at one photographer's attempt concrete, time-lapse evidence of climate change. Despite what he perceives as some tricky navigation through the "human element" side of the film, Daniel Walber frames his Film School Rejects review in the wake of the recent East Coast storm activity. Viewed through that prism, he writes, "these unforgettable images make 'Chasing Ice' instantly more memorable than some prior films in the genre, 'An Inconvenient Truth' in particular. Our awe at such impossibly tumultuous events inspires in a single moment more than any number of Gore’s graphs."
Tomas Hachard's Slant Magazine review echoes some of the same shortcomings of tying in photographer James Balog's story. But apart from the staggering visuals, Hachard also recognizes the way "Chasing Ice" also captures the political debate around the disappearing glaciers. The attitude of those who dismiss Balog's findings "doesn't leave much hope for fixing climate change in time to save the planet. That frustration hangs in the air throughout the film, especially because Orlowski bookends it with footage of adamant naysayers of climate change."
Top Fans Picks: As much as we seek to highlight which films are performing well among critics, we value the opinions of fans as well. As of now, there's one film with three or more grades that has an "A" average or higher: Drew Goddard's "The Cabin in the Woods." It's not a particularly surprising development, given the fervor that the film has inspired ever since its SXSW unveiling. Then again, considering that "The Avengers," another lauded audience favorite, stands at a "B-," maybe that's a noteworthy achievement. If there's another film deserving of a special Fans' Pick designation, let us know in the comments.
This Week's Underachiever (and Why It Might Be Faring Thusly):
"Price Check": "While Parker [Posey] can still throw those awesome sassy punchlines (and she sure does here), the film relies heavily on her wacky comedy, which ultimately doesn't give the story and other characters much room to please. Mabius' characterless Peter is just as fun to watch as the opening credits in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey." - Chase Whale
The New Untouchables: Last week, we mentioned that "Rosemary's Baby" had achieved Criticwire immortality by achieving the elusive "A+" average. A few other notable films from the past have ascended the ranks, confirming what we already knew about them before: they're classics.
For the newest films looking to vie for 2012 classic, click through for the grades and pages of this week's releases.