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AFI Fest 2012: “Rise of the Guardians” & “Silver Linings Playbook”

Generally, for a person like myself, living in Los Angeles means constantly battling skin cancer (surprise, I’m really pale) and traffic jams and preparing for earthquakes. However, this past weekend was the start of AFI Fest Presented by Audi, the annual film festival sponsored by the American Film Institute. With gala screenings of films like HitchcockLincolnLife of PiRise of the GuardiansSilver Linings Playbook, and scores of other films from countries around the globe, this is a cinephile’s Candyland. The best part? Tickets are free and the festival continues through November 8th, so if you’re in the Los Angeles area, make a point of going out and seeing some awesome films this week. If you’re not in the LA area, then tough cookies, but you’re welcome to crash on my couch next time.

Rise of the Guardians – My disappointment at finding out I didn’t get a ticket for the gala screening of DreamWorks Animation’s Rise of the Guardians was only matched by my excitement when I was invited up to their campus in Glendale to see an advance screening of the film and spend the morning with director Peter Ramsey and producers Christina Steinberg, Nancy Bernstein, and Guillermo del Toro (!). Over the course of the day, I was treated to in-depth presentations on how Rise of the Guardians went from concept (Bill Joyce’s then-6-year-old daughter Mary Katherine wondered if Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were friends; being an awesome dad, he said “yes!”) to completion, which will be forthcoming in a larger piece later this week. This is a film of which DreamWorks is extremely proud and it shows; describing the stories of Bill Joyce, Guillermo del Toro cracked a wry smile and remarked, “I drink his milkshake.” After spending the day with them, I think I do too.

While I can’t give you my full thoughts on the film just yet thanks to a Cold War-esque embargo (no one likes spoilers anyway),  I can say that Rise of the Guardians is a darkly beautiful film that brings the larger-than-life stories of Bill Joyce to animated life. Anchored by a stellar voice cast (Jude Law, if you’re reading this, never stop doing voiceover), it’s a family film that is unsettling in the best way, carrying on the tradition of animated features like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland. This has been an unusually great season for animation (Wreck-It Ralph, Paranorman, Frankenweenie), and on November 21st, it’s going to get even better.

It would be rude of me to leave you without a little gift to tide you over, though, so check out the brand new “Making Dreamsand” featurette above, which sheds some light on to how they brought the Sandman’s sleepytime pocket-sand to life.

Silver Linings Playbook – Okay, this one I actually did manage to catch at AFI Fest and, in all honesty, despite having one of the worst titles I have ever heard (on par with Zero Dark Thirty), it is one of the best films I have seen this year. Both David O. Russell and Bradley Cooper were in attendance for the Egyptian Theater screening, and it was evident from both their faces and their remarks before the film that they are extremely proud of it – and rightly so. Judging by the multiple mid-screening applause breaks and the applause following the closing shot, this is an excellent film that resonates with viewers.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am one of the few people who was not head-over-heels for Russell’s Oscar-winning 2010 film The Fighter. Some of the film’s emotional peaks missed their mark for me and, despite great performances, it ultimately left me cold. I had no such issues with Silver Linings Playbook, however. Russell brings Matthew M. Quick’s neurotic 2008 novel of the same name to cinematic life, eliciting some truly terrific performances from his cast. With solid turns all around from an all-star cast including Robert De Niro, Chris Tucker and the always fantastic Jacki Weaver, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper deserve several extra thumbs up for their compelling performances and starkly honest portrayals of damaged people on the path to recovery.

Cooper, as Pat Solitano, is wholly engaging as a man who lost his job, his house and his marriage after a mental breakdown brought on by catching his wife in the shower with another teacher. Forced to seek psychiatric help, Pat’s release from the mental hospital is our point of entry into the film’s world, giving us insight into his tenuous mental well-being and preparing us for his subsequent attempt to rebuild his life. Unfortunately for Pat, a restraining order, an obsessive-compulsive, gambling addicted father (Robert DeNiro), neurotic mother (Jacki Weaver) and inability to cope with even the most minor of stresses look to be insurmountable odds for the manic-depressive. The film really picks up speed once he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who suffers from a similar condition and is trying to mend the pieces of her own broken personal life. With rapier wit and a biting rapport, Lawrence and Cooper share an undeniable on-screen chemistry and make for a compelling trip down the rabbit holes of broken psyches and instability. Mental illness can be a difficult (and sensitive) subject to portray on screen, but Lawrence and especially Cooper (in what may be my favorite performance of his – sorry Wet Hot American Summer) bring heart, pathos and realism to their performances, giving the viewer an inkling into the realities of living with a condition like bipolar disorder or manic depression.

Proving that he’s more than just a solid director, Russell shows that he’s a deft screenwriter too. Based on Matthew M. Quick’s novel, the film keeps a brisk pace, moving the action along rather nicely, and captures the cadence and rhythm of the Solitano family in such a way that you’ll feel like you’ve known them for years. There’s a Solitano family in every neighborhood, dealing with their own inner turmoils, trials and travails; the colorful cast of characters in Silver Linings Playbook don’t feel like characters – they feel like your neighbors, especially if your neighbors are rabid Philadelphia Eagles fans. Deftly dancing a bittersweet waltz – quite literally at one point – of neuroses and recovery, Silver Linings Playbook is a sweetly cynical story, a case study in romantic dysfunction that will stay with you long after the credits roll.

Are you excited for these films? Quemment below and let us know! In the meantime, enjoy this gorgeous gallery of Rise of the Guardians artwork, courtesy of DreamWorks Animation.

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