Jacki Weaver

Photo Credit: Courtesy Photo | Daily Texan Staff

“Parkland,” the first film by director Peter Landesman, is not concerned with conspiracies. 

The latest film to focus on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963 ignores the ‘mysteries’ that have spawned in the half century since the national tragedy of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Prior examinations, most notably Oliver Stone’s 1991 thriller “JFK,” tend to involve discussions of multiple shooters and secret autopsies. “Parkland” chooses instead to chronicle the morning of the shooting and the various doctors, lawmen and citizens who were directly affected. This November marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination, and “Parkland” addresses the event not with conjecture but with an emotional tale of shock and grief. 

The film is named for the hospital where Kennedy and, two days later, Lee Harvey Owsald were taken after being shot and it takes place primarily in the trauma room. Zac Efron, Colin Hanks and Marcia Gay Harden play the surgeons and head trauma nurse that tried to save Kennedy’s life when he was brought in. Paul Giamatti plays Abraham Zapruder, the woman’s clothing store owner who captured the footage of the shooting. Finally, James Badge Dale and Jacki Weaver play Robert and Marguerite Oswald, Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother and mother. 

Surprisingly, the film spends a significant amount of its 93-minute runtime on Oswald’s family. Though there is not a single weak point in the sizable cast, Dale and Weaver stand out for their characters’ differing reactions to the crime. Dale is heartbreaking in his portrayal of Robert, a man trying to accept the fact that, because of Lee’s actions, the Oswalds have become the most hated family in America. Weaver is darkly comical as Marguerite, who spent the rest of her life claiming that Lee was actually a spy for the U.S. government. 

The film, which partially adapted Vincent Bugliosi’s 1,600-page tome “Four Days in November,” brings to light a number of little known facts about that fateful day. Dr. Jim Carrico (Efron), the surgeon who was with the president for more than 15 minutes before the chief of surgery arrived, was only the chief resident of Parkland Memorial Hospital. Secret Service had to brawl with Texas Police to get the body onto Air Force One. 

While the movie should attract plenty of history buffs for its authentic restaging of a major historical moment, the real appeal of “Parkland” is as an emotional drama. By wholeheartedly rejecting everything to do with conspiracy and mystery and focusing just on the short period of time following the shooting, the film is able to frame a portrait of raw horror and shock that captures the stunned reaction of an entire nation.

“Parkland” focuses primarily on the witnesses to the crime, but major players including Jackie Kennedy (Kat Steffens) and Oswald (Jeremy Strong) make brief appearances. Refreshingly, they are played as humans rather than the larger-than-life historical characters they’re known as today. The portrayal of Jackie as nothing more than a woman whose husband just died violently is representative of the film as a whole. 

“Parkland” is not about the politics or the history of that November day. It is a character-driven drama about a horrific crime and the fallout of the immediate aftermath. “Parkland” captures the wounded spirit of a shocked nation, and the result is both a new way to view an already heavily analyzed moment in history and one of the best movies of the year so far.

Silver Linings Playbook stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Photo courtesy Mirage Enterprises. 

David O. Russell is one of Hollywood’s most unpredictable working filmmakers. Russell’s journey from war comedy “Three Kings” to Oscar-winning boxing drama “The Fighter” is one that’s fairly hard to chart, especially because one of his interim films, “Nailed,” is likely never going to be released. His new film, “Silver Linings Playbook,” is another unpredictable step for Russell, a romantic comedy dressed up as an inspirational examination of mental illness.

Set in Philadelphia, “Silver Linings Playbook” tells the story of Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), who is discharged from a mental hospital in the film’s opening scene. He returns home to his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver), who are instantly on edge about a possible repeat of the incident that got him incarcerated in the first place. Pat’s erratic behavior doesn’t help their concerns, but once he meets the just-as-nuts Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) and agrees to participate in a dance contest with her, things slowly start to come back together for Pat and his family.

When you think of this generation’s best dramatic actors, Bradley Cooper is by no means the first name that comes to mind, but he is quite impressive as a man who’s just starting to figure out how deep his mental deficiencies run. Cooper is imposing here, always on edge, and when he loses control of his illness, there’s an intensity to his performance that’s only matched by the sorrow he feels once he recovers. It’s unexpectedly harrowing and moving work, and Cooper would be receiving some serious awards-attention if not for an overriding factor.

That factor is the stupendous Jennifer Lawrence, who turns in her most accomplished performance to date. Between launching a film franchise with “The Hunger Games” and this film, Lawrence is having an incredible year. She plays so many different notes, hitting all of them perfectly. In just one scene, Lawrence can go from sexy to wounded to furious. At one point she even goes nose-to-nose with Robert De Niro and wins, something very few actors can say. If there’s one reason to see “Silver Linings Playbook,” it’s Lawrence’s work, because there really aren’t enough good things to say about her performance.

The rest of the cast is filled with essential performances, some bigger than others, all of them ranging from good to excellent. As Pat’s bookie father, De Niro is just as crazy as his son in an entirely different way. Weaver and Shea Whigham round out Pat’s family, both instrumental to exploring Pat’s mental issues while turning in solid performances.

“Silver Linings Playbook” isn’t directed with the precision that we’ve come to expect from Russell, but some of that has to do with the emotional messiness of the material. Mental illness is a difficult thing to make cinematically compelling, and Russell mixes some very dark material with big laughs. The film gets a bit shrill at times and the pacing a bit spastic, but there’s some creative, evocative staging by Russell. David O. Russell has made another crowd-pleaser with “Silver Linings Playbook,” one that plays in heavy emotional territory. Strong performances and a solid handle on tone keep the film from becoming too overbearing, but an ending that’s too sweet by a significant measure concludes the film on a remarkably convenient note. Even so, it’s an entertaining, engaging film and worth seeing, even if only to see Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper give their best performances to date.