Silver Linings Playbook

Mental illness doesn’t seem like a likely subject on which to anchor a comedy. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates about a quarter of Americans are living with a diagnosable mental disorder—ranging from depression to schizophrenia to autism—but it’s not exactly a go-to film trope. Nevertheless, David O. Russell’s optimistic, joyful film Silver Linings Playbook manages to capture the experience of mental illness in a way that is both truthful to the reality of bipolar disorder, and a life-affirming portrayal of recovery.

The movie opens as Pat (Bradley Cooper) prepares to leave the mental institution where he’s been treated for the past eight months. Silver Linings Playbook relies on Pat to convey the experience of a healing mental patient, and Cooper delivers wonderfully. Pat’s determination to change, and his frustration when he backslides are portrayed with enough passion to be effective, but Cooper never goes overboard into melodrama territory. The actor, who is best known for appearing in the Hangover films has, through a series of smart choices, managed to elevate his career to that of Serious Actor. Pat’s mood swings and outbursts, which could have become overbearing in another actor’s hands, are instead moments in which the audience gains insight into his troubled experience.

Pat and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) come to see that they share the right kind of crazy.

Pat and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) come to see that they share the right kind of crazy.

Did I mention that this film is a comedy? Despite the heavy subject matter, Russell (who also wrote the movie, based on the novel by Matthew Quick) deftly sets up a narrative that is funny, engaging, and original enough that the last half hour is just as enjoyable as the first. A large portion of the jokes are dealt out to supporting players, including a surprisingly sweet role by Chris Tucker, in his first non-Rush Hour film in 16 years. Robert De Niro, who’s taken to phoning in most of his credits of the past decade, is less cartoonish and more honest than we’ve seen him in years. De Niro plays Pat Sr., a Philadelphia Eagles fan-turned-bookie so enamored with his hometown team that he literally only appears onscreen wearing Eagles paraphernalia.

And then there’s Jennifer Lawrence. Though she doesn’t appear until 30 minutes into the film, Lawrence quickly establishes herself as a major presence, and a perfect foil to Cooper’s character. She plays Tiffany, a tough, dramatic young widow who’s not particularly sane either. Both Tiffany and Pat speak entirely without subtext, voicing what everyone around them is thinking, often at inappropriate moments. Pat’s speech is spiced with psychiatric jargon, and his and Tiffany’s dialogue, particularly her righteous diatribe near the end of the film, is some of Russell’s best work ever.

Pat’s motivation for getting better is entirely based on reestablishing his relationship with his wife, who’s filed a restraining order against him after his breakdown. Tiffany promises to get a letter to her … if he’ll be Tiffany’s partner in a ballroom dance competition. I know this premise sounds a little weak, but Russell handles the story with clever delicacy, and the combative relationship between Tiffany and Pat becomes the backbone of the film. Lawrence elevates everything she’s in, and this role, for which she won a Golden Globe just last week, is no exception.

Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) tries to understand his troubled son.

Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) tries to understand his troubled son.

Lawrence isn’t the only one getting acclaim for Silver Linings Playbook, which itself has decent odds of winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards next month. Russell, who was also nominated last year for The Fighter, has again gotten a Best Director nomination in addition to a nod for Best Adapted Screenplay. Cooper, De Niro and Jacki Weaver, who plays Pat’s mother, are all nominated in their respective acting categories. In fact, this film is the first since 1981’s Reds to have a horse in all four acting races.

Much of the film’s brilliance can be attributed to Russell’s direction. He employs a risky filmic technique, whirling the camera around the actors’ heads and using a variety of quick zooms, close ups and rapid cuts. But the approach pays off. The camerawork wordlessly conveys Pat’s range of emotions, from anger to hysteria to love. Danny Elfman’s classic rock score, with just a dash of Jack White thrown in, builds upon the expert acting and direction to pull the audience further into this off-kilter endearing little world.

Silver Linings Playbook strikes a delicate balance, dexterously avoiding sappiness in favor of candid joy mixed with a touch of misery. Rarely have I emerged from a theater with such genuine happiness. Who would have thought that a film about bipolar disorder might just be the feel-good movie of the year?

Advertisements

Asian Pacific Heritage Month celebration

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

March 6, 2012

Image

A young woman stands perfectly still, arms tilted inwards, the pink fan clutched in her hand fluttering faintly.

Suddenly she jumps forward on beat with the traditional guitar plucking in the background. The fan flies open, revealing a long, rose-colored trail of fabric flowing from its curved folds. As the woman dances about the stage, striking traditional Chinese poses, the crowd responds with cheers, calling her name. This is Asian Pacific Asian Heritage Month at Brandeis.

APAHM is always a fun time on campus, full of colorful cultural events and engaging speakers. This year’s APAHM is particularly significant, as it marks the 40th anniversary of the Brandeis Asian American Student Association, which sponsors APAHM, as well as the 20th anniversary of the Intercultural Center. BAASA co-presidents Stephanie Lee ’13 and Vicky Lee ’13, event coordinator Karen Hu ’12 and treasurer Adam Chow ’12 began the opening performance by praising all 23 members of the executive board for their hard work in creating this year’s events.

Image

All three of Rooftop Pursuit’s members share the surname Lee.

The ceremony took place on Saturday night in Levin Ballroom. The theme, “Making Our Mark,” underscores BAASA’s emphasis this year on modern Asian accomplishments. Two musical groups that have gained popularity on YouTube, Ben Clement and Rooftop Pursuit, performed. Clement, who opened the show, is currently studying music at Biola University in California. He created a calm peaceful atmosphere with his romantic songs and acoustic guitar, accompanied by a band member playing rhythms on a wooden box. Clement, who considers himself a “hopeless romantic” told the crowd that many of his songs were written about previous relationships, eliciting awws from the audience. Though many of his original songs had a singer-songwriter, John Mayer-type sound, it was his last number, Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” that was most popular with the audience. Though Clement didn’t quite have the vocal ability to make the song as strong as it could have been, the song’s message of social change was clearly appreciated.

After Clement’s performance, Ayan Sanyal ’14 came on stage to sing Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” a nod to “kids who grew up in the ’90s.” Then the newest student group under the BAASA umbrella, the Taiwanese Student Association, begins its performance with a loud, striking drum solo by Aaron Yang ’14. As the drum was rolled off stage eight female dancers took their places, standing like posed statues in traditional Taiwanese dress. One by one they moved to the front of the stage, demonstrating cultural fan, ribbon, handkerchief, sword, martial arts, umbrella and peacock dances. While each performer moved with clarity and purpose, it would have been more entertaining to see the dancers interact with one another. Instead, each demonstration ended before the next began, leaving seven dancers still as one moved.

After the formal grace of TSA’s performance, the ceremony’s mood changed abruptly as the Southeast Asian Club began their skit, “The Crystal Heart,” based on a traditional Vietnamese story. The skit, which imparts the story of a fisherman’s unrequited love for a snooty princess, was intentionally silly, and put the audience in a celebratory mood leading into a song by the Korean Student Association’s band. Seven KSA members took the stage to play a Korean pop song complete with impressive trumpet solos and heartfelt singing.

Rooftop Pursuit, the other professional group to perform, opened the ceremony’s second act with several original songs and covers, including Christina Perri’s “1000 Years.” Lead singer and keyboardist Phil Lee made a few humorous remarks about the three-man outfit of Korean-Americans, saying, “Our last names are all ‘Lee.’ … We didn’t do it on purpose.” Like Clement, many of Rooftop Pursuit’s songs were about romantic love, though guitarist Paul Lee’s wailing guitar riffs added some heat to the ballads.

Dan Ding takes a break from his MC duties to perform an original piece.

Dan Ding takes a break from his MC duties to perform an original piece.

Dan Ding ’12, the ceremony’s deep-voiced announcer took a moment away from the mic to perform an original classical song called “Piano Impromptu,” inspired by a swift change in weather Ding experienced while practicing with his high school sailing team. The audience was riveted by Ding’s obvious skill, and the reverent silence was broken only by applause as he concluded his piece.

The Brandeis Chinese Cultural Connection was next to perform, as seven members showed off their dance skills, combining hip-hop moves with traditional Chinese dances as they swayed, kicked and spun to Chinese artist Show Lo’s “Show of Love.” The dancers, outfitted in red and black and decked out in sunglasses, certainly looked the part of a professional hip hop group.

Siddhi Krishna ’12, representing the South Asian Student Association brought another serious moment to the ceremony as she played a piece of Carnatic music, the classical music of South India. Krishna plucked notes and melodies on her violin, playing an ode to Lord Ganesha, Hinduism’s remover of obstacles. Krishna struck an interesting silhouette, kneeling on the stage rather than standing of sitting in a chair, as most Western musicians would have.

The APAHM opening ceremony concluded with a group number combining several popular Asian songs into one high-energy dance number called Project BAASA: PANDAmonium. The entire BAASA e-board plus other dancers were clearly having fun with the performance, which, according to the program, “shows how Asians got more than smarts. They also got SWAG.” After watching this year’s opening performance, I’d have to say I agree.

APAHM continues throughout March, including the SKINS Fashion Show on March 16 and theTemptasian 40th Anniversary Party on March 23.

AraabMuzik and Basic Physics concert

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

Feb. 14, 2012

Basic_Phyiscs___Brandeis_8__mailchimp__poster

Fast-paced, thumping electronica and mashups were the designated genres of the night.

The signs on the doors to the Levin Ballroom read, “Strobe lights will be used during this performance.” Let the party begin.

As I walked into the ballroom on Thursday night, a small group of students had already gathered, eagerly anticipating the opening performer of Student Events’ February concert, Basic Physics. When the disc jockey stepped onto the stage, the audience surged tighter together, clamoring for a taste of the hip-hop flavored jams for which the young mix-master is known.

Basic Physics is a one-man operation. The mash-up artist first hit it big in 2010 when his mix “Stuntin’ with a Milli,” which combines songs by Lil Wayne, Phoenix and Pretty Lights, became a hit on YouTube and SoundCloud, a popular music streaming site. At the time of publication, the song has been viewed over 42,000 times on each site.

Since 2010, Basic Physics has released two mixtapes: Nightlife in the Northwoods and Liftoff.

Back in Levin, Basic Physics did not disappoint. The entertainer—that’s truly what he was—played infectious beats featuring many top-40 artists like Katy Perry, Ludacris, Lady Gaga and Maroon 5. He knew just when to let the beat slow down, creating tension in the crowd until the speakers suddenly exploded with the chorus of a well-known song. Basic Physics was clearly enjoying himself as well, singing along to his mash-ups as well as waving his hands back and forth, nodding his head and occasionally encouraging the audience with yells of excitement.

AraabMUZIK poses with his MPC, a synthesizer he uses to recreate the sound of a full drum kit.

AraabMUZIK poses with his MPC, a synthesizer he uses to recreate the sound of a full drum kit.

After Basic Physics’ 45-minute set, AraabMUZIK took the stage. An up-and-coming performer, AraabMUZIK was different from any other DJ I had seen before. He didn’t simply take samples of popular songs and mix them together. Instead, using an Akai Music Production Center drum machine, he created rhythms of his own, throwing together beat after beat in increasingly rapid succession. The MPC is similar to a synthesizer; it looks like a large pad containing 16 square buttons configured in four rows of four. Each of these buttons makes a different drum sound. When AraabMUZIK played the MPC, it sounded like he had an entire drum kit in front of him.

This style of performance may seem futuristic, but it’s a natural progression for this performer. According to AraabMUZIK’s official website, “When I first started making beats, I went from the keyboard to a software program and to an MPC. My motivation at that time was just for the fact that I wanted to hear and make my own music. All my old beats on the keyboard were like a good three to four minutes long and as I got better, so did the beats.”

AraabMUZIK doesn’t just use the MPC as a way to get around real musical talent—he knows how to play the drums for real and breaks out a full kit at some performances. But by combining the MPC with other electronic equipment, he has the ability to create heart-pounding beats and add in samples of other songs as well. At the concert, a large screen was connected to a camera that filmed directly over the machine. That way, the audience could see AraabMUZIK’s fingers flash over the keys as they danced to the rhythm.

Throughout the show, AraabMUZIK was immersed in his music. His whole body rocked back and forth as he slammed his fingers down on the buttons, seemingly lost in the musical world of his own creation. Clothed in a dark hoodie and flat-brimmed baseball cap, he looked like a stereotypical rapper or MC.

But his songs had no words and he rarely spoke to the audience. He was too engaged in making rapid-fire beats that washed over the dancers on the floor. For its part, the crowd seemed to love it, grooving to the vibrations and expressing their disappointment when the beat-maker finally left the stage.

Boston Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

Nov. 8, 2011

Highflying acrobatics stunned audiences at "Romeo and Juliet."

Highflying acrobatics stunned audiences at “Romeo and Juliet.”

Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the most well-known of Shakespeare’s plays. Its themes of love and loss are classic and it has been interpreted in hundreds of ways—into plays, movies, songs and works of art since it was first written four centuries ago. One of the most brilliant of these interpretations is composer Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet, which first premiered in Germany in 1962.

This week, the Boston Ballet officially opened its season with Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. JustArts was able to speak with one of the performers, MelanieRiffee, a dancer from Vienna, Va. who joined Boston Ballet in 2010. Riffee is a member of Boston Ballet II, the two-year pre-professional program for dancers ages 16 to 21, hosted by the Boston Ballet. There are currently nine dancers in the program. Of Boston Ballet II, Riffee said, “We get to be involved in almost all the performances and share the stage with [the Boston Ballet dancers]. We’re learning all the time.”

The ballet opened with a memorable fight scene between members of the Montague and Capulet families. The stage was filled with an array of bustling townsfolk conducting their business in the center of Verona, which then gave way to the classic duel between the rival families. Despite the lack of dialogue, I was able to clearly follow the action of the scene. The music, though it is a classical score without lyrics, also helped explain the plot through its emotional highs and lows.

Bayadere

Boston Ballet II, the Ballet’s pre-professional company, rehearses a number for their upcoming season.

Indeed, the music itself, conducted by Boston Ballet’s Music Director Jonathan McPhee, is worth studying. The different instruments seemed unwilling to let their voices go unheard. The passages overlapped one another, one beginning before the former had died out. Additionally, the pieces arranged for specific characters, such as the Duke of Verona, embodied their characters’ personalities and provided a particular thrill. I was also very impressed that the clashing of the swords during the fight scenes matched perfectly with the beat of the music. This precision reminded me that every tiny detail, down to the number of steps a character takes or the length of a pause between spins, is meticulously choreographed and rehearsed to perfection.

Of the rehearsal process, Riffee explained, “We were rehearsing for about two months before we opened. We worked on individual parts before we brought the ballet all together. We rehearse typically Monday through Friday, from 9:45 in the morning to 6:30 at night.” The company works at their studios on Claredon Street in Boston, and only came to the Boston Opera House, where Romeo and Juliet was performed, the day before the show opened.

All of that work seriously paid off. The dancers were exquisite. The show is double-cast, meaning that most main characters were played by different dancers on different nights. On opening night, Misa Kuranaga of Osaka, Japan played Juliet. She was clearly a crowd favorite and the true star of the show. Kuranaga is a tiny person, but when she flitted and spun around the stage, she was in complete control of the entire performance. Of the male dancers, I thought that Yury Yanowsky, who played Tybalt, was the strongest performer. He too commanded the stage, and had the swagger and self-confidence that his character is known for.

Other than these two principles, Bo Busby, who plays Paris in the other cast, was terrific as the Carnival King, a role not found in the original play. Busby, along with his troupe of four clowns, provided the biggest laughs of the night as a group of carnival performers who impress the crowd with their notable feats of balance and gymnastics in the second act.

Riffee said that the double casting is typical of professional ballet companies, and that “it’s fantastic because every pairing has a different interpretation and tells a different story.” This is not only because the dancers are performing with different partners, but also because of the diverse backgrounds of Boston Ballet’s cast. Of the company’s 10 principle dancers, only three are from the United States. The rest are from Latin America, Asia and Europe. This diversity exists not only in the group of principles, but throughout the entire 55-person cast. Riffee explained, “It’s really neat. Every day is a new experience. You get [dance] styles from around the world. It makes for a really well rounded production and company. It also gives a lot to the audience, because there’s something for everybody.”

That statement certainly applies to Boston Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet. The production had beautiful music, detailed staging and dramatic costumes, and of course exquisitely skilled performers. As Riffee said, this is one show “not to be missed.”