These reviews appeared in the December issue of ICON and are reprinted with permission.
Dying to Do Letterman (Dirs: Joke Fincioen and Biagio Messina). Diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer, stand-up comic Steve Mazan sets a goal in January 2006: to perform his act on Late Show with David Letterman within a year. (For comparison’s sake, Ray Romano tells Mazan he spent 11 years before Letterman proffered an invitation.) An Internet campaign gets attention, but not in a good way. An executive producer informs Mazan, who has at worst five years left, that appearing on the show is impossible. Determined to get there on skill, he develops new material, hits the clubs, and deals with mounting pressure from creditors and his wife, Denise, who is eager to start a family. The earnestness and dignity of Mazan, who is actually quite funny, makes you pull for him as he navigates his personal issues and the frequently frustrating world of professional stand-up comedy. An entertaining and enlightening documentary. [NR] ***1/2
Funeral Kings (Dirs: Michael and Kevin McManus). Starring: Dylan Hartigan, Alex Maizus, Jordan Puzzo, Charles Kwame Odei, Kevin Corrigan. The not-so dangerous lives of altar boys. It’s another typical week for friends Andy (Hartigan) and Charlie (Maizus)—copping altar wine, leering at cleavage, cutting class—filled with a few eventful developments. Andy’s wayward older brother has left behind a locked trunk. The new altar boy (Puzzo) is kind of a square, though he did star in a big movie with alleged nudity, which makes him a millionaire. And there’s a high school party—with beer and girls—they have to figure out how to attend. Deliberately paced, slice-of-life comedy/drama is more concerned with moments and tone than an actual narrative arc, which is a bit frustrating. Cast that aside and you get a gentle reminder of how big and scary and wonderful the world is as a 14-year-old boy. At that age, survival is based on how much bluster you can muster and endure. The McManus Brothers’ feature directorial debut. [R] ***
Anna Karenina (Dir: Joe Wright). Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson. I have not read Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel, but I will after thoroughly enjoying Wright’s haunting adaptation. Here, the scenes are set up as a play, giving a sweeping theatricality to the title character’s epic late-19th century tale of woe. Anna (Knightley), a devoted mother married to a government official (Law), is perfectly content as a pillar of St. Petersburg high society. When Anna visits Moscow to help alleviate the rift between her sister-in-law (Macdonald) and her relentlessly cheating brother (Macfadyen), she meets the dashing Count Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson). Knowing the trouble in betraying her dull husband, Anna initially resists Vronksy’s advances but ends up eschewing convenience for love—and discovers the consequences in following your heart. Terrific story, which (sadly) still has relevance today, becomes electric thanks to the breathtaking work of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and production designer Sarah Greenwood. You cannot look away as Anna’s world turns from magic to misery. Knightley is excellent. Screenplay adapted by Tom Stoppard. [R] ****
Silver Linings Playbook (Dir: David O. Russell). Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, John Ortiz, Anupam Kher, Julia Stiles. Against all good judgment, Pat, a troubled young man (Cooper), leaves a Baltimore insane asylum early for the comfort of his Philadelphia-based parents (De Niro, Weaver) determined to find his silver lining: reconciling with his wife and returning to substitute teaching. Such optimism, given the restraining orders involved and Pat’s unbalanced behavior, is delusional—until he’s introduced to young widow Tiffany (Lawrence), another tortured, attractive soul. Tiffany agrees to reach out to Pat’s wife, if he becomes her dance partner. Philly native Cooper, shedding his handsome guy act, and Lawrence are terrific together, so you occasionally forget Russell’s heavy-handed treatment of the material. Again, The Fighter director uses the feel-good genre as a club, slamming us with inspirational dialogue (conveniently listed on the poster) and sweep-us-off-our-feet camerawork, giving the movie a disingenuous feel. But what’s particularly galling is how Russell, working from Matthew Quick’s novel, keeps honoring the lower middle-class by caricaturing them, burying Pat and his family’s dignity with each Eagle jersey and working class accent. Silver Linings Playbook is a snob’s version of how real people live, so it will probably rule the Academy Awards in three months. [R] **