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Monthly Archives: December 2011


Ten Words or Less Review: Market Crash:  The Movie!

A typical disaster movie kicks off with a group of scientist suddenly discovering some Earth shattering piece of data which will forever change the world for the worse.  An asteroid is on a collision course for the planet, a mega storm is forming which will freeze us in a block of ice, the sun is about to bake us alive, penguins are mating at an unstoppable rate and threaten to over take humanity as the dominate species.  Portentous statements fly across the room, ominous projections are made about how many people will perish, politicians meet around big tables, the President speaks to the nation in a solemn tone, Bruce Willis flys off to space with a drill bit to save us!  This type of movie is thick with silliness and its tongue isn’t just in cheek, it stabs right through it.  The ironic thing is, scenarios like these aren’t always so far fetched. Margin Call is a small scale dramatization of 2008’s economic meltdown, a real life disaster of epic proportions.  Like a disaster movie, a smart person makes an alarming discovery, superiors are informed, calculated decisions are made as people talk around large tables, lives are then destroyed.  This time though there are no explosions, recognizable landmarks don’t come crashing down in an orgy of CGI mayhem and Bruce Willis and his drill bit have to stand by idly to wait and see if they have a job in the morning.

The economic downturn of 2008 is something the world is still living through now and will continue to struggle with for the foreseeable future.  Margin Call takes place at an unnamed investment firm shortly before the roof caves in.  On a morning where layoffs are taking place, a departing supervisor (Stanley Tucci) hands off a troubling piece of information to one of his unfired subordinates (Zachary Quinto) as he walks out the door. After looking through it, subordinate discovers that the economic model which the company’s fortunes have been resting upon is about to collapse, taking the entire company, and much more, with it.  It’s speculative drama but believable enough in style and execution to accept as a likely scenario someone witnessed in the boardrooms of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac 4 short years ago.  Men in expensive suits struggle with the ethical dilemmas of what they’ve done, are about to do, and whether or not they’ll survive the whirlwind of shit about to befall them all.

Though a viewer may expect some kind of grand vilification of some detestable individual who knew all along what was happening, no one in Margin Call is transparently evil or dripping with sinister intentions. It’s a movie with a realistic, sometimes impenetrable, slant to it.  It doesn’t expect the viewer to fully understand the nuts and bolts of high finance and it doesn’t bend over backward to make its comings and goings crystal clear.  Its characters are all portrayed as hard working men and women of various character.  Some of these people are better than others, others worse than some.  What’s here is a collection of complex people, presented warts and all.  Margin Call gives adequate glimpses into their lives and make them more than just lousy suits looking to rip off the American people.

Kevin Spacey puts out one of his best performances in years as a supervisor mortified by what’s transpired, but unable to do anything about it.  In the end he, like so many, is forced to make a reprehensible decision and let the chips fall where they may, all in the name of job necessity.  Zachary Quinto is the young and unfortunate discoverer of the fallacy which will set in motion world altering financial ramifications.  He’s a smart, young man suddenly faced with the real possibility he has no future.  Paul Bettany, Stanly Tucci, Simon Baker and Demi Moore (!?!) all turn in solid work as a group of business people who have no real answers and no life saving course of action to take.  They’re as trapped by circumstance as the people they’re about to ruin.  Jeremy Irons, as the company CEO, is the only character who comes off as unapologetically oily.  A craven opportunist, Irons makes his CEO knowingly scuzzy, but still believable and not over the top, even offering a birds eye view of events that viewers should listen closely too.

This is the third film in a year to tackle the same difficult subject.  The Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones vehicle The Comapny Men could be seen as a spiritual sequal to the events of this movie.  Margin Call detailing the events which lead to corporate implosion, while Company Men focuses on what happens after employees are pushed out the door. The documentary Inside Job stands as a engrossing, clear and clinical overview of what lead to the economic meltdown as a whole and where responsibilites should be placed.

When the stock market floundered and thousands of home owners found themselves up shit creek, their paddle not only gone but never had to begin with, the people wanted blood.  They wanted a name to curse, a face to spit on, someone to point at and say ‘THEM! They ruined it all for us!’  While there are scores of names to bandy about as culpable to various degrees, Margin Call makes the case that it’s more a fault of system than individual.  An entire economic boom was kicked off on a faulty premise and people, being opportunistic, jumped on board with reckless abandon to make a buck regardless of long term viability of what they were doing.  Warnings were ignored because dollars were being made.  Unlike the movies, there was no hero to jump in and save us, no noble hero to steer us past disaster.  Bruce Willis and his drill bit wound up out of work and on unemployment.  Margin Call methodically shows us that the entire world can be drastically set back because a few people with creative math skills go unchecked by wiser beings.



Ten Word or Less Review: Dragon tattoo girl is back, again.

The phenomenon status of Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy is now entering its fourth year and kicking things off is the long awaited American adaptation of the first part, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  An impressive array of talent has been assembled for this much anticipated endeavor.  The ever reliable David Fincher is behind the camera directing a cast which includes Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, and the much touted Rooney Mara.  If you can handle one more trip through Larsons’ narrative of vengeance, disappearances and snow bound intrigue then Finchers’ adaptation should please you to know end.  If you’ve gotten worn out on Tattoo, it’s probably time to take up with something else.

Tattoo stars Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist, a Swedish journalist whose reputation has just been obliterated in court.  Blomkvist has been found guilty of slandering a crooked business tycoon in the pages of his investigative magazine, Millennium.  As he retreats to lick his professional wounds he’s approached to visit Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), a reclusive man with a 40 year mystery hanging over his aging head.  Four decades ago Henrik’s niece disappeared from the family island without trace.  Henrik challenges Blomkvist to look into the event, as well as his twisted family, and see what kind of new insight he can provide.  Hovering around all of this is Lisbeth Salander, a gothed out, tattooed, emotionally damaged and physically dangerous computer hacker/investigator who slowly becomes part of the pursuing of a serial killer whose been at large for the better part of 5 decades.

It was not going to be easy to bring Dragon Tattoo to an American multiplex with much sense of freshness or immediacy.  Being in the literary discussion for four years, as well as already being notably adapted to film in its native land, Dragon Tattoo has become the kind of property many people know at least something about without having even read a page of it.  It says something for Fincher’s adaptation that even though this will be the third variation on the same story, there’s still a lot to appreciate about the craft at hand.  Tattoo is a very watchable thriller of a very high order.  Fincher has one of the most meticulous eyes for editing and style of any director working today.  He brings his considerable amount of talent to Tattoo, and makes would could have been a rote experience an engrossing one.  Though he’s directed two other far superior thrillers within the the same genre before (Seven, Zodiac), Dragon Tattoo is nothing to scoff at.  He doesn’t shy away from the source materials edgier sequences but never does the film feel exploitative.  Though often cited as a great crafter of visuals, Fincher doesn’t always get his due for his work with actors.

Daniel Craig turns in good work as the intelligent but overwhelmed Blomkvist.  It can be difficult to swallow some leading men as less than capable, especially Craig.  He exudes such confidence and physical prowess as James Bond that buying him as an aging journalist may have backfired, but he gets away with it.  But the real show here is relative newcomer Rooney Mara.  What really elevates Larson’s potboiler out of the scores of mystery muck is his lead heroine.  Lisbeth Salander is the kind of raging, unstable protagonist not often found in the pages of a run-of-the-mill whodunit.  She endures humiliations at the hands of monsters quietly and replies with the kind of fierce retribution that gets an audiences blood going.  Mara embraces the physical exposure and emotional reclusiveness the part demands.  With so many young actresses out there unwilling to bare much of anything, it’s great to see one bare everything and feel completely believable as she does it.

While Fincher and his crew deserve no small amount of credit for delivering a very capable thriller they can’t get past certain obstacles inherent to the material.  Larson’s story is about as graceful as a three legged dog in some places.  The entire first half of Dragon Tattoo is basically made up of two competing movies which run side by side but have little to do with one another.  Our central characters don’t meet until the story is well into itself.  The mystery itself is also nothing to blow the doors off the genre either.  The Salander character has always been the overriding element which made this story something more, while the narrative driving it is serviceable boiler plate material.  It’s a whodunit.  A good whoduniot.  But not much more than a whodunit.

If The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is still fresh to you, or you still haven’t bothered to learn what all the fuss is about, Fincher’s adaptation is a great place to begin.  It’s a well crafted mystery with top tier talent contributing on all fronts.  Though two more novels lay in wait Fincher wisely gives the story a sense of conclusion which doesn’t mandate they ever be made.  I.E. you won’t be left hanging, forced to wait for a resolution in another movie.  In this day and age that is a rare commodity indeed.


Ten Word or Less Review: You can accept this mission.  It’s safe.

Reaching just its fourth installment in 15 years, Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol shows that patience may be the better way to keep a franchise going.  This uneven series of films got off to a rocky start with not one, but two clunkers.  Brian DePalma’s first film is lethargic and boring.  John Woo’s M:I 2 was as dumb as it was successful, which is to say very.  Six years went by between parts 2 and 3 and in that time star Cruise took a public shalacking for being all kinds of nuts.  Jumped the couch!  It was a shame because JJ Abrams M:I III pumped life, energy and excitement into the series which it had always failed to find.  That invigorating spectacle looked to be the end of things, but with his last nugget of clout on the line, Mr. Cruise has gotten one more M:I movie to the screen.  Helmed by Pixar star Brad Bird (Ratatouille, The Incredibles), Ghost Protocol feels in line with the style and rhythms and Abrams third film, still a producer here, is fun, occasionally exhilarating, in enough places but doesn’t quite reach the razor sharp pace set by the last effort.

Ghost Protocol opens by reshuffling the deck from where we last left it.  We find Ethan Hunt (Cruise) locked away in a Russian jail for reasons which aren’t known.  His wife from the last film has vanished and is mentioned only cryptically.  Ving Rhames, Laurence Fishburne and everyone else not named Simon Pegg are also ejected.  Hunt’s cohorts (Pegg and Paula Patton) break him out as he’s needed for a new operation.  A Russian nutcase (Michael Nyquist) has eyes to steal codes for launching nuclear missiles.  His goal?  Make the world destroy itself.  That about sums it up.  If Ghost Protocol has one overbearing failing it is this.  This paper thin conceit for big budget action shenanigans is barely enough to hang a shirt on, much less a super sized action movie.  But despite the anemic idea driving it, Ghost Protocol squeezes out enough catchy antics to keep us just this side of happy.

Though irrevocably damaged by too many goofy inquiries into his whack life, the simple fact is that Tom Cruise can hold a camera’s attention and when coupled to a good action vehicle, he’s hard to make arguments against.  He’s played this character for 15 years and knows exactly what he’s doing at every second.  Where Ghost Protocol changes things up just a touch is that this is an actual team effort.  Previous Mission films typically turned into Cruise solo efforts as his supporting cast gradually flittered away with each progressive act.  As the first act ends Jeremy Renner shows up to become an unexpected and mysterious asset.  Renner works fine in supporting roles like his here and could be seen as future proofing the series on some level.  Simon Pegg works his irresistible charms as comic relief.  He actually gets to stay on for the duration of the story, and not just by phone.  Paula Patton also does some solid, sexy work as action sidekick babe.  If only the movie had a villain worth a damn.  Swedish actor Michael Nymqvist gets nothing interesting to do and nothing interesting to say.  He’s basically a MacGuffin on two legs.

Director Brad Bird is the wild card here.  Though it’s his first live action feature, as an animator he has not one but three beloved animation classics under his belt.  The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille are some of animations finest features, ever.  It isn’t easy for animation people to make their way into live action but Bird has been given an interesting test, to keep a fledgling franchise going as it comes into its fourth go around.  We all know that the fourth time is often not the charm for movie series.  Though handed a weak idea Bird works it for all he’s worth.    Shooting several sequences with IMAX cameras, Bird gives his action scenes pop but doesn’t over edit.  The extended second act sequence in Dubai, which involves Cruise hanging off the worlds’ largest building, playing a neat game of switcheroo in said tallest building and having a chase sequence in a sandstorm kicks things into a nice high gear.  The script doesn’t have the constant slam bang pacing that the last one did, we miss Philip Seymour Hoffman greatly, but as Ghost Protocol hits its stride just in time and starts to pay off just as you think it might turn into a wash out.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol gives fans of this series a nice dose of what they’ve enjoyed in the past.  It’s far more engaging than either parts one or two but is a step or two behind three.  Tom Cruise may be completely bonkers but that shouldn’t deter viewers who enjoy a spirited, big budget action romp from seeing this.  The IMAX sequences are stellar, Cruise is in good form and maybe we can even hold out hope that should a fifth part come about, we won’t have to live in fear of it.


Take Shelter (2011)

One of the years’ more intense and engrossing features.  Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a man having horrifying nightmares and ominous visions.  Thunder storms, dog attacks, floating furniture.  He’s either falling prey to paranoid schizophrenia, his mother fell victim to its destructive effects when she was his age, or something much more doomsdayish is at hand.  Michael Shannon is a performer with few equals right now when it comes to portraying subtle and seering.  When his fuse ignites all bets are off.  On his performance alone Take Shelter establishes a constant sensation of pressure and dread few movies could sustain for a few minutes, much less an entire film.  It acutely portrays the seemingly senseless acts that people with deteriorating mental conditions perform, but it leaves a door open for other suggestions as to what’s transpiring.  Maybe Curtis is going nuts, maybe he’s not.  What you bring to the table will largely decide on how you feel about it when it’s over.


Ip Man (2008)

People don’t watch chop socky flicks for great plots or moving performances.  These movies range from arc and simplistic to outright senseless but that’s mainly because the audience is there to see fight scenes.  Kick ass fight choreography is as invigorating as two Oscar winners hamming it up when it’s done right.  It’s doubly refreshing to watch such well photographed physical skill in this age of constant CGI and/or jittery editing.  Ip Man sets the bar high with stunning fight sequences from front to back.  They feel fierce, sharp and powerful and remain just on the this side of conceivable.  Total cartoonishness can bring things down a notch if handled wrong.  There is precious little in the way of CGI assistance though some amount of wire work seems obvious.  Regardless, Ip Man works as quality kung-fu mayhem not only because of its top tier action but because the movie itself isn’t a complete joke.  You probably wouldn’t watch it sans fisticuffs but it’s a sturdy enough historical epic with a sympathetic lead in Donnie Yen.  He can actually act, unlike Jackie Chan, and looks to perform most of his own very impressive stunt work.  Action fans should see.


Tokyo Drifter (1966)

Colorful, disjointed and unorthodox, it’s like someone took a gangster movie, threw it in a blender, poured primary colored paint all over it, pumped the resulting mess full of caffeine and then threw it all in a movie projector.  Tokyo Drifter is a jazzy, blazing work from 60’s Japanese helmer Seijun Suzuki.  I have little doubt that Tarantino must worship this film as it’s candy colored fingerprints can be seen on the likes of Kill Bill.  It’s ostensibly about a gangster named Tetsu trying to leave behind Yakuza ways and go legit with his boss, there’s a despite about a debt and a building, a gangster in red wants Tetsu killed, on and on it goes for it’s swift 80 minutes.  But if you can’t quite follow what’s happening don’t fret.  Drifter has been made with an eye for style and atmosphere while it’s plot remains purposefully sketchy and haphazard.  Scenes feel like they are missing (intentionally?), characters move around as if time and space can be conquered with mere thought, logic is something to be dealt out sparingly.  Definitly not for everyone but fans of the deviant and singular will probably love it.

Ten Word or Less Review: The end of the world and everyone feels like shit.

So Melancholia is about Christine (Kristin Dunst) getting married to a nice guy who’s clueless about what a basketcase she is.  Christine is two hours late for her wedding reception but she runs away to see her damn horse.  This pattern of retreat and avoidance repeats ad nauseum.  She takes a golf cart out to the links to take a lonely piss under the moonlight.  She ignores things to take a nap with her sleepy, little nephew.  She ignores the cutting of the cake to take a long bath and stare at the wall.  The guest get impatient and annoyed.  Why they don’t leave is beyond me.  Her mother says some horrible shit during the toast about how awful marriage is.  Only in art movie fantasies do people do this.  Her father is there with two dates, both named Betty.  This is horseshit as well.  He comes off like a jovial, self-centered prick.  Her sister (Charlotte Gainsborough) and her brother-in-law (Keifer Sutherland) keep getting irked at her for disappearing.  Keifer’s voice is so deep he sounds like Barry White sucking sulfur hexafluoride.  Christine’s boss has a lackey following her around trying to get a tag line out of her.  She works in advertising.  We don’t give a flying fuck about this either.  When she and the clueless husband retreat for the wedding night, Christine leaves him behind again, pants at his ankles, dumbfounded and unamused.  She winds up screwing the ad lackey on the golf course.  By morning he’s decided to leave her and the whole damn thing has wasted everyone’s time.  Did I mention this is just the first half of Melancholia?  Did I mention that there’s a 7 minute prologue to this movie which culminates in a passing planet slamming into the Earth and obliterating it?  Did I mention I didn’t stick around for the second half of this ponderous, retarded movie?  I figured I knew what happened at the end anyway.  I did!  So I went home and watched Beavis and Butthead instead of sitting through anymore of Lars Von Trier’s bullshit.  Beavis and Butthead was hilarious.  This movie was far sillier than anything they did.


Ten Word or Less Review: The Texas Chainsaw Parody

Peanut butter and chocolate.  Chicago and pizza.   Hillbillies and horror movies.  These things go go hand in hand with each other.  Put a pack of cliched college kids in an SUV, send them to the hills for a weekend of drinking, pot smoking and debauchery and before you know it some cannibalistic family of flesh, fiending freaks will crawl out of the ground and start lopping off teenage cranium to wear for a hat.  This debased formula is tired and worn out, wasn’t too sharp to begin with and could really use a reinvention if it’s going to continue.  So crack open a Pabst and introduce yourself to Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, a clever parody on one of horrors most grating genres.

Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are a duo of polite country boys out to fix up their crappy, new vacation cabin.  It looks like an untouched set from Evil Dead.  Dale is the big, shy lug of the duo.  A bearded bumpkin who hates fishing because it hurts the fish, Dale is shy to a fault and bad at standing up for himself.  When Tucker encourages Dale to talk to a pretty coed at a gas station, with Dale oblivious to the 7 ft. scythe in his hand, the stage is set for a huge misunderstanding.  Bad coincidences and preconceived notions begin to mount and before you can crack open a cold beer these teen morons are killing themselves off in one gruesome accident after another in vane attempts to ‘defend’ themselves from Tucker and Dale, much to the duos dismay.

First time filmmaker Eli Craig is the writer and director of Tucker & Dale.  It’s not often you see a filmmaker blend strong creative effort, sharp humor and gross out antics to such winning effect.  Though about as disgusting as its straight ahead horror brothers, the squeamish won’t dig this, the gore always comes with a huge dose of humor.  Impaling, gun shots, massive head trauma and a wood chipper accident make for a hilarious, blood soaked cartoon of a movie.

What makes Tucker & Dale even better is that we genuinely like the two leads.  The films working as inspiration for T&D are always handicapped because everyone in the movie is disgusting and cretinous.  There is no one to like or root for and the audience simply waits for the next victims deserved demise.  Alan Tudyk (Firefly) and Tyler Labine (lots of random stuff) have a believable, good ol’ boy chemistry which makes the movie work better than its grim ancestors.  The teens, your usual pack of frat boys, a pot smoker, some bimbos and a token black guy, are there to act like they’re in your standard horror romp, oblivious that their ruining the vacation of two nice guys who have no ax to grind, literally.

Tucker isn’t perfect, it’s been over plotted a bit, but it works as a great horror parody and as a legitimate b-movie on its own right.  Even if you aren’t very familiar with what Craig and company are poking fun at this is still a satisfying black comedy.  In a year which has seen a lot of off beat movies wildly miss the mark Tucker and Dale vs. Evil delivers the goods.

Ten Word or Less Review: Very beautiful, very voluptuous looking and very, very dull.

The importance of film preservation and the significance of silent movies to the birth of movies themselves are noble movements to embrace and to champion.  An uncountable amount of silent era cinema has been lost at the hands of times oppressive weight.  The amount of films destroyed destroyed by time can only be estimated and the recovery of lost gems can only be an increasingly infrequent occurance.  Many masterpieces will never bee seen again.  What still exist must be saved and current and future generations need to understand the importance of preserving cinematic culture, past and present.  We must also sit and ponder why Martin Scorsese has chosen to so heavily embed these causes into the fabric of Hugo, an ornate, opulent and gorgeous children’s movie which is as beautiful as an antique clock, and about as alive.

Based on the acclaimed childrens book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo stars Asa Butterfield as the character of the title, an orphan living in the walls and clock towers of a Paris train station circa 1920’s.  Hugo is trying desperately to avoid detection and capture by the Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen), a ruthless, limp legged authoritarian adamant about rounding up the orphan rabble which drifts into his world.  Hidden away in the innards of the station, Hugo attempts to rebuild a mysterious automaton, a mechanical man which stands as the last connection to his father who died in a museum fire.  In opportune moments Hugo steals trinkets from a grumpy, sullen toy maker working in the station, hoping to find the right parts which will bring his machine to life.  One day he’s caught thieving and the toy maker takes Hugo’s sketch book of the mysterious machine.  Hugo has to repay his debt of stolen items to reclaim his book.  He strikes up a friendship with the toy makers’ granddaughter Isabelle and the two begin an investigation which wraps around from Hugo, to his automaton, back to the emotionally troubled toy maker.  The world of silent movies are explored, forgotten pasts are dug up and the significance of cinema is made abundantly clear.

Hugo is a meticulous visual creation with few equals.  Director Martin Scorsese pours attention and detail into every frame as if its starved for more and no amount of beauty can be enough.  He exquisitely deploys 3D, showing a true eye for the medium as if he’s worked in it scores of times, though this is his first.  Hugo is so full of depth and dimension that it should be used as a tutorial about how to properly use the often maligned and misappropriated 3D format.  His camera effortlessly moves through crowds of people, clock parts tick in fully realized dimensions, it’s all quite perfect looking.  But that’s where the glowing praise must come to an end.  Despite the lavish nature of the production and the abundant skill on display regarding its construction and look, Hugo is agonizingly inert as a story.

Running two hours and feeling every bit of three, Hugo has a leaden pace from which it does not arouse itself.  With enough story for a briskly paced 90 minute childrens movie at his hands, Scorsese has needlessly indulged himself, filling out the sides of his narrative with padding and filler at every corner, leaving his movie feeling languid and adrift.  Each individual scene left to itself would play nicely, but as things keep stacking up Hugo sustains a slow rut of narrative lethargy.  It’s like the great classic trains running through the station of the movie, except most of the coal has vanished from the boiler and the massive, gorgeous creation can go no faster than a crawl.  As Hugo finally comes to a head Scorsese launches his story into PSA territory, staring boldly into the camera and stating ‘This stuff is important! You should care about this!  Watch a silent movie!’  Most things about Hugo run contrary to the usual demands and conventions of kid oriented cinema which would normally be great, but Hugo isn’t subversive or challenging, it’s simply tedious.

The lack of a compelling narrative is doubly unfortunate because Scorsese demands top quality casts and he’s not let down here.  Asa Butterfield aquits himself well as Hugo though he’s not quite a captivating lead.  Frequent scene stealer Chloe Moretz (Let Me In) once again shines and shows she’s an amazing young actress, but Isabelle is sadly a supporting player, not the lead.  Her pluck and energy would’ve made a better center for the story.  One reason Hugo feels emotionally unsatisfying is because as the story progresses it becomes less about Hugo and Isabelle and more about Ben Kingleys’ toy maker.  The mystery wrapped around this emotionally damaged and withdrawn man becomes the center of the movie and it’s his emotional journey which occupies the finale of the movie, not the kids.  They become passive observers in their own story.  Not quite in line with everyone else is Borat star Sasha Baron Cohen.  His part has a nice payoff but he’s mostly relegated to chasing Hugo through the station with his doberman and gammy leg.  Jude Law, Brendon Gleeson, Emily Mortimer and Christopher Lee round out the very capable cast with small supporting roles.

It’s quite possible that audiences will see no better looking movie than Hugo anytime soon.  It is a well adorned, sumptuous, resplendent looking movie with few equals in the visual realm.  It’s the kind of painstaking creation that only a master of form like Scorsese could successfully pull off.  But it’s saddled to a dull story that few adults will embrace and even fewer children could care for.  For die hard film appreciators and aficionados Scorsese has made a love letter exclusively for them.  Everyone else will probably feel left out in the cold.


Ten Word or Less Review: High quality mellow drama.

There is something inherently mellowing and peaceful about Hawaii that cannot be gotten around by movie makers.  If they go to Hawaii, they will touch upon their inner zen no matter how much they try to avoid it.  The Descendants begins with a short monologue by Matt King (George Clooney) about how the illusion of Hawaii as tranquility and paradise is horse shit.  People have problems in Hawaii just as much as anywhere and Matt’s problems are plentiful.  Lying across from him as he delivers this speech is his comatose wife, Elizabeth.  Unconscious for three weeks and with hope for recovery nearly gone, he sits across from her stuck in a place of remorse and petrifying analyzation, desperately trying to keep life together.  Also weighing on him is the inevitable sale of a huge part of Hawaiian real estate left to his family for several generations.  Should he throw aside the wishes of his ancestors from the past to satisfy the material demands of irresponsible family members in the present?  Times are tough, terrible revelations are afoot, hard decisions have to be made, but there’s just something about Hawaii that makes it seem a little less traumatic, despite what we’re told.

Matt King knew everything wasn’t right before his wife went into a coma after a boating accident, but he had no idea how wrong things were.  In addition to the coma, Matt is suddenly thrust into the role of Dad for his emotionally belligerent 10 year old daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller).  He’s never dealt with Scottie on a day to day basis and is in over his head.  He brings home his 17 year old daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) to help and is greeted with hostility and resentment.  But before Matt can have a cliched encounter with his bitchy teenage daughter about her hating him, she reveals the root of her anger.  She’s mad at her mother because she knew she was cheating on Matt.  Matt and his slowly crumbling world totally explodes.  His daughter knew, even his friends knew, but he didn’t.  As his wife lies in a hospital bed slipping away, Matt starts a quest to discover who she was with behind his back and what kind of life he will be able to salvage from the wreckage at his feet.  But this is Hawaii, so it can’t be all that bad can it?

The Descendants marks the directorial return of Alexander Payne.  Payne solidified himself as a creator of characters who are quasi-pathetic with a sense of humor which is witty but always laced with the delightfully profane.  Sideways, Election and About Schmidt stand as some the best screen comedies of the last 15 years.  Then Payne pulled a Keyser Soze and disappeared.  At the height of his abilities he withdrew from movie making.  What he did in 7 years off I don’t know but it has mellowed his bitter attitude by several degrees.  Perhaps it’s just Hawaii working to soften his sharper tendencies.  The moments of bite and shock which stood out in his past works have been left behind for subtler moments of humor.  Clooney trying to run downhill in flip flops, and an obnoxious kid getting slugged is as outwardly funny as it gets.  While The Descendants claims that people’s problems on Hawaii are just as hard hitting as anywhere else, true to a point, but having pristene beaches, transcendent sunsets and an ocean surely helps one maintain their calm.  The Descendants has all the material for something hard hitting, but it mostly feels a reserved and laid back.  Since everyone is always on a beach or the camera is taking in breathtaking scenery, how can things not stay sort of okay?  This isn’t a complaint so much as it is an observation about how the environment has seeped into the nooks and crannies of the story.  Even at moments of its highest drama, Descendants feels as if it is sitting on the beach, watching a sunset with no more than a grim expression upon its brow to express its worries.

Clooneys’ King is very much the Payne protagonist, a guy running out of luck, starting to come apart at his core and looking a little pathetic in the process.  But Paynes’ typically schlubby leads, Paul Giamatti and Matthew Broderick, have been replaced with the ever dashing Clooney.  Clooney has often been compared to Cary Grant and in some regard it’s very true.  Grant could only ever be Grant, always smooth, charming and attractive and Clooney could be accused of the same at times.  He does have considerably more range as an actor than Grant ever did but like Grant, he doesn’t seem inherently suited to play a clueless everyman in over his head.  He looks too suave, too fit and projects too much intelligence to completely sell me on the idea he’s oblivious and unable to deal with the slings and arrows of misfortune.  His performance here feels misshapen at first, as if he’s caught in between a farce about death and a serious drama about the same, with Payne refusing to tell him which is going down.  This kind of tonal ambivalence doesn’t go away easily.  But as the movie moves along, eventually settling on what kind of movie it is, Clooney becomes a better fit for the role.  Matt slowly grows a spine and becomes less passive about his situation.  The Descendants hints at Matt’s burgeoning sense of outrage and anger and his confrontation with his wife’s lover (Matthew Lillard) finally brings his character around to a place we can fully appreciate and respect.

After Clooney is a line up of very able supporting cast members that Payne sometimes flirts with turning into two dimensional jokes.  Robert Forester plays Clooney’s father-in-law, an old, angry man with an Alzheimer stricken wife struggling badly with the inevitable death of his daughter.  Payne mishandles the grief here and doesn’t save the character until the end, humanizing him in a touching way.  Payne does this with a couple of Descendants inhabitants.  He flirts with making supporting players annoying jokes, only to salvage them at a crucial moment and make them more than a running gag.  Doing very well for herself is Shailene Woodley, escaping the confines of ABC Family teen soaps to show real dimension and promise.  She carries the family weight Matt cannot and encourages him to do the things he may not be able to do on his own.

The Descendants ends in a place of growth and comfort after a long emotional hardship.  Terrible things have happened among family and after turmoil has passed family comes back together, maybe not appreciative of the experience but stronger and more at ease with itself.  Making things even better is that they’ve gone through all this turmoil in Hawaii.  A land of unending scenic perfection which helps make all problems in life just a little bit easier to deal with.  Even though our storyteller would have us believe otherwise.  The Descendants has all the elements of a grim, gut wrenching family drama but it rarely feels like one and maybe that’s for the better.  But part of me firmly believes that a slightly sharper, edgier movie would exist if it had been set somewhere away from all the sandy beaches.  Maybe Illinois?