Archive for January, 2013

Shadow of a Doubt

Year of Release: 1943     Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.     Starring Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright, Henry Travers, Patricia Collinge, Edna May Wonacott, Macdonald Carey, and Hume Cronyn.

When one thinks of Thornton Wilder, the first work that comes to mind is probably his beloved play, Our Town, or possibly his short novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.  What Thornton Wilder is not commonly associated with is his screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt.  Shortly after seeing Our Town, Hitchcock himself approached Wilder and asked him to write a screenplay for one of his next movies.  The movie would take place in a small, quiet American town, the same setting used in Our Town, but instead of celebrating the value of life, Shadow of a Doubt threatens to destroy it with a looming shadow of evil.

The film centers around the relationship between Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) and her beloved uncle and namesake Charlie Oakley. (Joseph Cotten)  As the film opens, Uncle Charlie decides to leave his residence in New Jersey and travel to California to visit his sister and her family as a surprise.  Simultaneously, young Charlie wants more excitement in her family’s life and decides to invite her uncle to visit them.  Shortly after he arrives, Charlie says to her uncle, “We’re not just an uncle and a niece. It’s something else.  I know you…I have a feeling that inside you there’s something nobody knows about… something secret and wonderful.   I’ll find it out.”

That speech both summarizes her relationship with her uncle and foreshadows the remainder of the film.  In her childlike innocence and eagerness, Charlie strives to learn more about her uncle.  As she does so, a shadow of doubt begins to darken her idyllic image of him and creep between their relationship.

Most write-ups of Shadow of a Doubt tell the reader what young Charlie’s doubt is.  The back of the DVD box not only mentions the doubt, but it reveals whether or not that doubt is true.  Even though an alert viewer will figure out the answers fairly quickly, I think both approaches are mistakes and that is best to experience the clues and questions along with young Charlie.  Since the “mystery” is not that mysterious, the film is not suspenseful in the same way Vertigo is.  The viewer is not on the edge of his seat trying to solve a crime and figure out what happened.  The suspense arises from wondering what will happen.  The main conflict is: what will young Charlie do with the information that she learns, and when will she learn it.  That is why I think it is best for a viewer to experience this film from as close to a perspective as young Charlie’s as possible.

Shadow of a Doubt showcases two worldviews: one filled with hope, the other with despair.  At the beginning of the film, both Charlies are in a similar, pessimistic state of mind.  Both of them abandon that pessimism upon seeing one another, but their choices after that are very revealing.  As they spend time together, the viewer is able to see the contrast between viewing the world and people as full of goodness and viewing the world only as full of evil.

There are many examples of Hitchcock’s talent and genius throughout the entire film.  When both Charlies are first introduced, they are lying on their backs in their bedrooms, bemoaning the current state of their lives.  The camera is placed at identical angles for these two scenes to reinforce their similarities.  Offhand comments have more significance than anyone realizes.  When Charlie’s mother first enters out of breath, her casual comment returns in a true Hitchcockian fashion towards the film’s conclusion.  A waitress’ remark at a diner sheds more light on the proceedings as well.  Jokes that fall flat hint at a character’s true state of mind.  The ballroom waltz that plays underneath the opening credits figures into the plot at crucial points.  And Hitchcock structures brilliant comic relief from the increasingly dark proceedings with the mystery loving neighbor who concocts murder scenarios with Charlie’s father.

Hitchcock said several times throughout his career that Shadow of a Doubt was his favorite of all his films.  I think it certainly deserves to stand alongside his commonly accepted masterpieces, such as Vertigo and Psycho, using the same clever foreshadowing and calculated suspense that those better known films utilize.

Content Advisory: Scenes of menace and peril and dark themes.              Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Kids and up with much discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Silver Linings Playbook

Year of Release: 2012     Directed by David O. Russell.  Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, and Chris Tucker.

“Excelsior.”  So reads a prominent sign in the mental hospital where Pat (Bradley Cooper) has been staying for the past eight months.  The Latin phrase serves to remind the patients to aim even higher, always striving to rising above any negativity that surrounds them.  Pat has taken this motto to heart, and upon being released, he is determined to put his life back in order and reunite with his wife, Nikki.

Pat was sent to the mental hospital after a psychotic breakdown triggered by discovering his wife in the shower with one of her coworkers.  He attacked both of them, lost his house and his job, and he had to spend eight months in a mental hospital where he learned that he suffered from bipolar disorder.  The film opens with Pat’s mother (Jacki Weaver) coming to take him home, on the condition that he continues to take his medication and to visit with a local psychiatrist.

Upon arriving home, the viewer discovers that Pat is not the only one in his family to have behavioral and mental issues.  His father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) is OCD, highly superstitious, and also prone to violent episodes.  Pat Sr. has been banned from the Eagle’s football stadium due to beating up fans in the past.  He is most excited about his son being home, because he expects Pat to help him conjure good juju so he can collect on his football bets.

Meanwhile, Pat is obsessed with reconnecting with his wife, even though there is a restraining order that prevents him from seeing her or communicating with her.  He asks his parents for her new address and her phone number; he tries to get his psychiatrist to give her a letter that he wrote.  All of them tell Pat to respect the restraining order and encourage him to move on with his life, suggesting that Nikki is permanently gone.  Shortly afterwards, Pat meets Tiffany, (Jennifer Lawrence) the grieving young widow of a police officer, who has her own share of psychological issues.

Pat and Tiffany eventually strike up a dynamic friendship, and they agree to help one another.  She will secretly transmit his letters to Nikki; in return he will be her partner for an upcoming dance competition that she wants to enter.  Due to the large amounts of time he spends with Tiffany, Pat begins to question his loyalty to Nikki.  This is where the film makes its only mistake.  Pat and Tiffany form such a likeable couple that the viewer naturally wants them to be together; they have similar personalities, they both understand what the other one is suffering, and they help each other recover.  But Pat is married, and this scenario requires the viewer to root for the dissolution of a marriage.

Admittedly, as every other character knows, Pat’s marriage has seemingly been dissolved since Nikki left him.  She has done nothing to help him, and quite clearly wants to stay away from him.  However, they are still legally married.  Tiffany is helping Pat to be the best person that he can be, and he is helping her.  These factors may seemingly mitigate the problematic nature of their relationship, but it does not excuse it.  Marriage is an institution that should be defended and fought for.  At least Pat’s best friend did that and succeeded with his marriage.  Perhaps the film does recognize the importance of marriage; it just does not realize that Pat is still married.

Despite this morally murky scenario, Silver Linings Playbook still manages to be an endearing and uplifting film.  The performances are uniformly excellent.  The dialogue is frank and awkward, but simultaneously funny and empathetic.  The exchanges reveal many misconceptions and prejudices about mental illness that should be overcome in order to treat those who suffer from it with charity and compassion.  At one point Pat’s father tells him that he should avoid Tiffany, because “She goes to a lot of therapy; she’s really messed up.”  Pat instantly responds, “I go to a lot of therapy; am I really messed up?”

There are even examples of misjudgment between mentally ill characters, demonstrating that one may find his own illness socially acceptable but view anyone else who suffers a mental disorder as crazy.  One of Pat and Tiffany’s first exchanges goes: “You have poor social skills.  You have a problem.”  “I have a problem?  You say more inappropriate things than appropriate things.”

Throughout all of this, the film acknowledges that the most important aspect of interaction with those who are mentally ill is love.  Judging another character’s motives and intentions is what causes the most hurt.  Pat and Tiffany are both lonely individuals searching for someone to understand them and with whom they can connect.  While mentally ill persons can try to adapt to societal norms, they should not try to hide their illness or deny its existence.  Healing can only come with accepting the disorder as part of oneself.  As Tiffany says to Pat: “There will always be a part of me that is dirty and sloppy, but I like that, just like all the other parts of myself.  I can forgive.  Can you say the same for yourself?  Can you forgive?  Are you capable of that?”

If it had not been for the morally questionable central relationship, Silver Linings Playbook would easily have been in my top five films this year.  However, the empathetic characters, humorous and witty dialogue, and respectful portrayal of mental illness will probably land it in my top ten or definitely my runners-up.  Despite some flaws, the movie still has a strong silver lining celebrating the importance of transcending negativity and focusing on love as the center of all relationships.

Content Advisory: Two scenes of adultery with nudity, much obscene and vulgar language, some sexually explicit dialogue, and intense scenes of family discord.                     MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: B+

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