Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"The Descendants"

The Descendants - Directed by Alexander Payne, written by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, and Robert Forster - Rated R

An excellent drama that doesn't try to force tears from you.  And it has Clooney at his best.

The Descendants has all of the elements to potentially be one of those miserable tear-jerking dramas begging for an Oscar: a dysfunctional family, a cuckolded husband, a wife in a coma, etc. But the film rises above mere Oscar bait because it paints a realistic portrait of a troubled family. Sure, there are plenty of scenes in which characters sob, but the majority of the film is about how a family, the father in particular, deals with tragedy and, thankfully, they don’t deal with it through quiet desperation.

Writer-director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) is no stranger to films about main characters in miserable situations. He is also no stranger to making those films surprisingly watchable and even funny at times. Payne continues to impress with The Descendants and, as with previous films, strong performances elevate the already great material.

George Clooney stars as Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer/land baron whose wife has recently fallen into a coma after a boating accident. Matt has plenty to deal with. On top of his wife being in a coma, he is in the middle of completing a deal to sell his family’s land holdings (which date back to the mid 1800s), he has no idea how to deal with his two daughters, and it turns out his wife had been cheating on him in a marriage that was running on fumes. That would normally be the set up for a quiet, depressing film. Perhaps it’s the tropical setting, Clooney’s performance, or simply the writing (or all of these things, of course), but The Descendants is a surprisingly light-hearted film. Sure, there are bouts of sobbing as expected but this is not a movie in which everyone sobs hysterically. Nothing against tearjerkers, but a film is much more interesting (and entertaining) if grief is only a small portion of the plot.

The Descendants has enough subplots going on that the wife in a coma doesn’t take center stage. Instead, the film is part comedic detective story as Matt searches the islands for his wife’s lover. A portion of the film is about fatherhood as Matt tries to deal with daughters Scottie (foul mouthed and acting out) and Alex (rebellious with a partying streak). There’s the part about the land of Hawaii, as well, which adds a much different element to a typical drama.

The plot is interesting and varied enough to keep things moving at a fine pace, but the acting makes this film memorable. Clooney is in absolute top form and at this point (after great turns in The American, Michael Clayton, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Up in the Air) is easily one of the best actors working today. This role could easily have been one of those “staring” roles that Clooney has perfected in films like Solaris and Michael Clayton, in which he conveys a multitude of emotions in a glance or eye twitch. That element is there, but this is a role that requires Clooney to be open about his feelings. He shows true range in The Descendants as he deals with his daughters very frankly. It is very refreshing to see a troubled Clooney actually tell someone he is troubled. More importantly, though, you believe him.

Clooney’s performance has a bit of help. Shailene Woodley is the standout as older daughter Alex. She has to share the most scenes with Clooney and she handles herself quite well. Amara Miller is convincing as Scottie in a role that could’ve easily become annoying and/or cutesy. Instead, it’s realistic and touching. Nick Krause gets to provide most of the comedic relief as Alex’s stoner boyfriend Sid, but he also gets to share some important scenes with Clooney and their unlikely pairing provides some of the film’s best moments. And Robert Forster provides some surprisingly emotional scenes as Clooney’s father-in-law.

The Descendants isn’t Oscar bait, but that doesn’t mean you won’t hear about this film in the next few months as awards season kicks in. It is a great film and if you get the chance, you should definitely check it out. The Descendants is a complex film in that it is a complete portrait of a man and his family rather than a singly focused snapshot. Put the story in the interesting setting of Hawaii (shown in a realistic rather than fantastical light) with some great performances and you have a film that is worthy of being mentioned come Oscar time, even if it isn’t demanding it.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
How great was it when Robert Forster punched Sid?  Oddly enough, my only complaint was that this film needed a few more punches.  It would have been great to see Clooney punch Sid once or twice and Matthew Lilliard has a face ripe for punching.
Speaking of Lilliard, not sure if it was his acting or just his character but I detested that character much more than I sympathized with him.  Judy Greer was great in her one emotional scene as his wife, though. 
Beau Bridges definitely looks and acts like a dude who grew up in Hawaii.  (This coming from an expert on Hawaiian culture as I type this in southern Indiana.)
I thought Alex's underwater crying scene was the most emotional part of the film (with Forster's goodbye to his daughter a close second).  Those scenes also show what is great about this movie since subtle comedy surrounds both.  With Alex, her question about why Clooney felt the need to tell her about her mom while she was in the pool added a bit of humor as it showed just how clueless Clooney was when it comes to dealing with stuff like this.  As for the Forster scene, we see this as Clooney, Alex, and Sid peek through the hospital door like children.  A couple of fine examples of how you can be dramatic but a bit on the light side as well.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Immortals - Directed by Tarsem Singh, written by Charley Parlapanides and Vlas Parlapanides, starring Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, and Freida Pinto - Rated R

Shocking that this got a Kurgan, I know...

Some may have seen the preview for Immortals and been excited to see the next 300 since the previews boasted that it was from the producer of that stylized, violent Greek action film. Viewers going in for a movie like 300 will likely be pleased by elements of this film, but “Immortals” is trying for something a bit different. Immortals may be produced by someone involved with 300, but, more importantly, it is directed by Tarsem Singh.

Tarsem Singh’s previous two films, 2000’s The Cell and 2006’s The Fall, are known for their interesting visuals, especially the latter film. So the bar is already set for Immortals to at least be a striking film. On top of that, the director has stated that he set out to make a film that looks like Caravaggio paintings. (Don’t feel bad if you need to look up Caravaggio paintings; I certainly had to.) Tarsem Singh has certainly succeeded with Immortals as far as the visuals go. The movie looks great. The design and color of the film makes it one of the more interesting films of the year. If anything, though, the visual style of the film could stand to be stranger. Those who are familiar with Tarsem’s work will see this film as his most normal film by far. Don’t worry, though, there are plenty of out-there visuals in the film.

Of course, a film about Greek mythology is very open to strange visuals. Immortals is loosely based on Greek mythology. I say loosely because the film features plenty of figures from Greek mythology like Theseus, Zeus, Athena, Aries, Hyperion, the Titans, etc. but it doesn’t really stick to any set myth. That is actually a strong point for the film since it can be its own story set to the backdrop of mythology. Theseus (Henry Cavill) is a warrior who lives only to protect his mother. King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), meanwhile, is on the warpath throughout all of Greece, searching for the Epirus Bow, which will allow him to release the Titans and start an all out war with the Gods. Of course, Theseus gets wrapped up in it and there are plenty of epic battles.

Immortals has a great style to it, but it is still primarily an action film. The action is great and never gets old. By that, I mean that each action sequence is different from the previous one. There are slow motion elements, sped up moments, traditional battles, hand to hand combat, and absolute chaos at times. It all looks great, especially in 3D. It’s rare that a film is actually worth seeing in 3D, but because of the action, Immortals is a film that benefits from the third dimension. This is a gory, brutal film, and the 3D really adds to the brutality of it all. The scenes featuring the Gods in action in 3D are some of the best moments of the year, action-wise.

This is an action film with a point, though. Immortals attempts to say something about belief, destiny, heroism, and duty and while nothing profound or surprising happens in the film, it’s nice when an action film strives to be more than just an excuse to spill blood. What elevate the themes of the film are the performances. Cavill makes an impressive debut as a leading man and fits into the hero role perfectly. Superman fans should breathe a sigh of relief as Cavill should do just fine as the Man of Steel in that series. Rourke is an excellent counterweight as the evil King Hyperion. He mumbles creepily through every scene. He seems to be constantly indifferent and that somehow adds to his menacing character. Stephen Dorff gives a surprisingly fun performance in a supporting role. Freida Pinto holds the fort down as one of the only substantial females in the film (though one could argue that this film is a bit sexist since only men make any difference in the world of the film). John Hurt easily inhabits a grandfatherly role. And Luke Evans is a commanding presence as Zeus. Anytime he shows up in the film, you can’t help but pay attention.

Unfortunately, the Gods are not prevalent in the film. Their few action scenes will likely leave viewers wishing the film had been told from their point of view. But then again, watching the Gods lay waste to mortals for two hours could get tiresome. Either way, their scenes were jaw dropping at times.

Immortals is a nice diversion full of mythology and violence as Hollywood gears up for the awards season. This film would have fit perfectly in the middle of summer, but thankfully it dropped in during November to break up the boredom. Don’t expect a lesson in mythology, though; just sit back and enjoy some beautiful, brutal action.

Friday, November 11, 2011

"The Tree of Life"

The Tree of Life - Written and directed by Terrence Malick, starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain - Rated PG-13

A few years ago I would have given this film a "Bruce Banner's Dad," but now it gets a "Vader."  I have no explanation.

Terrence Malick. That name is very divisive in the cinematic world. Some people are transfixed by his melodic films, which almost always focus on nature and feature whispered, poetic narration. Others find him terribly pretentious to the point that no beauty on screen can make up for it. Oddly enough, I fit into both camps. You can read my full transformation here, but to keep it short, I started off absolutely hating all of Malick’s work and I now consider him one of my favorite filmmakers. The Tree of Life fits right into Malick’s canon so it is definitely a “love it or hate it” movie. I loved it.

The Tree of Life is certainly Malick’s most difficult film. It is very disjointed and lacks any semblance of a normal narrative structure. Anyone watching just to see Brad Pitt or Sean Penn’s latest will likely turn it off in less than an hour. Those who go in knowing it is Malick are much more likely to enjoy it, though that isn’t a guarantee. While the film isn’t told in a typical, straightforward way, it is still quite easy to pick up on the themes of the film. (Stop reading if you want to know absolutely nothing about the plot of this film, but, to be honest, who is reading this that hasn’t watched the film?) With a title like The Tree of Life, this film obviously deals with life and death, but also with the importance of one’s childhood. One (me, for example) could claim that Malick is comparing childhood in 1950s Texas with the birth of the universe. That’s where some could start to scoff and the word “pretentious” might show up. It’s hard to argue with anyone who calls this film pretentious because…it really is. Since the childhood moments in Texas supposedly mirror Malick’s own childhood it’s easy to condemn the film as pompous when twenty minutes or so into an autobiographical childhood film we are shown the birth of our universe.

Of course, this is just my interpretation and everyone is free to take from this film what they will. I found the film pretentious. I find most of Malick’s films pretentious, but I love them anyway, mainly because Malick makes absolutely beautiful films and this may be his most beautiful yet. The scenes detailing the origin of the universe and planet Earth are obviously the standout scenes especially since Malick, much like Darren Aronofsky did with The Fountain, used practical effects for most of these scenes. The violence of nature and creation has never looked better. But the scenes that take place in modern world are just as beautiful. The modern scenes have that Malick style, as the camera meanders around and with the characters, but what makes this film stand out is Malick’s ability to find beauty in nature and civilization. The present day scenes with Sean Penn are just as, if not more, impressive than the more natural shots during Brad Pitt’s segments.

The Tree of Life is beautiful not just visually, but atmospherically. At times, you may feel like you’re in the middle of a strange dream. After watching the film it can feel like you’ve just woken up and can’t quite put your finger on what the dream was about, you just know you want to go back to it. The disjointed nature of the film adds to the dream-like quality and yes, there are also elements and images that make no sense in almost any interpretation (much like how dreams contain random elements). That could be seen as problematic but it is very likely that it is all intentional. Who doesn’t look back on their childhood as if it was some distant dream? In that regard, Malick really captured the emotions of a childhood. Everyone cannot exactly identify with growing up in Texas in the 50s, of course, but most can identify with the feelings they had during their childhood.

As a dream, The Tree of Life works very well, but it is still a film and acting is a part of it. Thankfully, this film was cast perfectly. The child actors, mainly Hunter McCracken, are great. They are not professional actors and that is a good thing because they seemed very natural on screen. Jessica Chastain (who is currently attached to every single movie coming out in the next two years…) gives an equal parts happy and melancholic performance. Sean Penn (who has stated that he had no idea what he was supposed to be doing in the movie) is absolutely fantastic. Malick most likely didn’t tell Penn exactly what he was supposed to be doing because the character himself is lost. Whatever the circumstances were, they worked. Finally, Brad Pitt is very convincing as the complicated, overly stern father. Pitt has been on an absolute roll lately, opting for challenging roles. He continues to impress.

The Tree of Life can be enjoyed just by focusing on visuals and performance, but the narrative may disappoint and even infuriate some viewers. If you let yourself be taken in by the film, though, it can be an extremely rewarding experience. It’s all a matter of deciding if the film is worth thinking and reflecting about. If you decide it is worth your time, you won’t be disappointed. If there’s one thing you can say about Malick, it’s that he doesn’t disappoint his fans.

Monday, November 7, 2011


Melancholia - Written and directed by Lars von Trier, starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, and Kiefer Sutherland - Rated R

Melancholia might seem boring at first, but if you let it sink in you may come to love it, as I did.

Lars von Trier is a bit of an egomaniac and it can be hard to separate the filmmaker’s comments from his films. It’s hard not to mention the director since he makes his name as big as the title in Melancholia and even goes so far as to include that name on the title card…above the title. He is certainly a gifted enough filmmaker to warrant attention, but von Trier’s more outrageous statements should be ignored while the actual films should be scrutinized.

Those well-versed in von Trier’s work know that his films are not always easy to sit through. That was certainly true of Antichrist, and while Melancholia lacks the complete shock value of his previous film, there are still elements that make this a difficult watch.

Melancholia is mainly a film about the relationship between two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Much of the film is set during Justine’s wedding reception and it is a fairly basic drama about these two women and their problems. But there is one other plot element: a planet is moving past Earth and could possibly destroy it in the coming days. That certainly ups the interest factor in a sibling drama.

The planet, Melancholia, adds a sense of foreboding to the film that becomes its saving grace. This is a film that is all about atmosphere and what creates a greater, darker mood for a film than Earth’s potential destruction? Too often end of the world movies have been about the scientists trying to stop it and all the action that entails. It’s refreshing, and a bit depressing, to see a film that just accepts it and uses it as a backdrop for a troubled familial relationship.

The relationship is the main point of this film, though. At no point does this actually feel like a film that is focused on the sci-fi element. Melancholia is completely about Justine and Claire. That might cause a problem for some viewers as the destruction of Earth is a bit more interesting than two bickering sisters, yet if you allow yourself to be drawn in by the film then the sisters should completely hold your interest and that planet that may or may not destroy Earth can stay where it belongs: in the background.

Justine and Claire are just as interesting as Melancholia because of their mental problems. Justine suffers from immense depression and Claire seems to be in a constant state of anxiety. Their problems can be of the infuriating kind as there are so many scenes of unspoken issues. You may find yourself urging them on to just cut the crap and yell at each other. Aside from that, though, it is quite clear that something is wrong and most of their scenes are compelling, especially when the rest of the family is involved.

Melancholia also works because of the insanely talented cast. Dunst (who took home Best Actress at Cannes) gives a great performance that completely embodies depression. Gainsbourg gets the less showy role but handles it with impressive understatement. The rest of the cast has their moments as well: Alexander Skarsgard, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, and Stellan Skarsgard all keep the film moving nicely in their supporting roles.

Then there’s the last star of the film: Lars von Trier. As usual, he has made an absolutely beautiful film. The first ten minutes of the film are like watching slowly moving paintings. The rest of the film never lives up to those first images but the camerawork still makes the film interesting on a visual level. And since this is von Trier there are plenty of ways to look at the film. Just scan the message boards for some wild theories. While most of the theories as to what Melancholia represents and what some of Justine’s actions really mean are quite ridiculous, it’s still fun (or perhaps interesting is the better word since fun and von Trier occurring together just seems wrong) to look deeper into a film. Theories can be applied to absolutely any movie out there, sure, but von Trier’s work earns a closer, deeper look.

Whenever theories are thrown around about movies like Melancholia there is the backlash that viewers are looking for things that are not there because the movie taken at face value is simply boring. I certainly felt that way after my initial viewing and I can completely accept anyone condemning Melancholia as boring, pretentious crap. You’ll hear no argument from me because that is a completely valid opinion. What saved the film for me was the intense atmosphere of the film. After I finished it my response was along the lines of, “What the hell was that, von Trier?” I didn’t think it was a bad film so much as a disappointingly boring film. But the next day I couldn’t stop thinking about the film and had an intense need to watch it again (I couldn’t, though, because of those damned 24-hour On Demand rental time limits). And as I thought back on the film I realized that those “boring” moments (the wedding reception that goes on nearly as long as the notorious celebration in The Deer Hunter) were actually captivating because of everything that wasn’t happening. It’s a strange way to explain a film, I know, and it’s definitely a pretentious “critic”-type way of looking at it, but it is what it is.

In short, Melancholia is not a film for most people. I can’t imagine von Trier ever making a film for most people, anyway. In fact, I wasn’t one of those people this film was for after my initial viewing. It just grew on me. And perhaps all films should be taken at face value, but when you watch hundreds of movies a year, something as different as Melancholia deserves a second thought. Casual filmgoers should probably skip this one, but the more obsessive watchers should give Melancholia a close look.

"In Time"

In Time - Written, produced, and directed by Andrew Niccol, starring Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, and Cillian Murphy - Rated PG-13

In Time has an interesting world and premise, it just isn't deep enough.

Sci-fi movies usually contain some kind of commentary on present day affairs, and In Time is no different. With the Occupy Wall Street movement going on it is impossible not to notice the similarities between the sci-fi world created in writer/producer/director Andrew Niccol’s film and our own. Commentary aside, “In Time” is a serviceable thriller that proves, if nothing else, that Justin Timberlake can handle a leading role.

In Time takes place in an alternate reality in which humans are genetically engineered to stop aging at 25. Once they turn 25, a clock on their forearm starts counting down from 1 year; once it runs out, they die. So the people work not for money, but for more time. Basically, it’s like our world, but time is literally money. Since time is money that means there are the poor people, living day to day and there are the rich people who are, barring an accident, immortal. The world is divided up into “time zones” which keep the rich separated from the poor.

The concept of In Time is easily comparable to present times as people are protesting the financial sector as they struggle to make ends meet while a small percentage of the population owns the majority of the wealth. This film is an exaggeration of that scenario in that the poor masses are dying because of the rich few. Some timely social commentary is fine in a sci-fi film, but this one stretched imagination. The world of In Time isn’t controlled by the military or anything yet the people just shuffle along like sheep, struggling to earn a few hours each day. It just seems like this world couldn’t sustain itself because the poor should be rebelling. We are talking about a country that once rebelled because of taxation. Are we supposed to believe that this same group of people wouldn’t rebel when their lives were at risk on a daily basis? But this is a sci-fi movie and suspension of disbelief is required for enjoyment, but a good film should have more answers.

Will Salas (Timberlake) is one of the people scraping by, trying to provide for himself and also keep his mother (an underused Olivia Wilde) alive. Things change for Will when a bored immortal decides to die and leaves Will over a century worth of life. This allows Will to mix it up with the rich crowd and he decides to change the world, one minute at a time. Giving time to the poor, however, doesn’t sit well with the bankers and Will is forced to spend his time on the run with Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of one of the richest men in the world.

In Time is essentially a chase film with most of the characters constantly on the run, by foot and car. As far as that goes, the film is mediocre. The chase sequences aren’t that interesting or suspenseful. A couple of the car chases have some flair, but as an action film, there isn’t much here, although Timberlake does get a pretty decent hero moment.

This is a film that strives more on the world of the film. Niccol has made some films that have very defined worlds in Lord of War and Gattaca. The setting of In Time is just as interesting as those worlds; it is not as clearly defined, though. Aside from a bit of opening narration, the how and why of the world is left up to the audience to figure out. That’s fine, as it is nice to let the audience think about something on occasion rather than just be told about it. The problem with In Time is that there isn’t enough info to let the audience figure it out. For example, here are some questions you might have leaving the theatre: So all diseases have been wiped out? What’s the policy concerning pregnancy? Where does the time come from? Who is in charge of the government? Why are electric cars around but people still use pay phones?

In other words, In Time doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. With a high concept sci-fi movie, that’s not a terrible issue for a film to have, but it is an issue nonetheless. The world is still very interesting and is the highlight of the film, but it’s not fully realized. Some of the questions are just too hard to ignore. Take the time keeper (policeman) Raymond (Cillian Murphy). He is much more interesting than Will, but he’s relegated to a slightly villainous role. We never get to know who he answers to, though. The bank owners don’t control him because he threatens to arrest one of them, yet he still has an unseen boss. Plus, he seems like a conflicted man, yet we never see what he does off duty. Just like the setting, you’re left wanting more.

In Time is a harmless enough movie that should entertain. The gimmick of the concept is interesting enough to sustain the running time of the film, even if it is kind of flimsy once you start to think about it. It’s really a shame. In Time is a decent movie that could have been something special if it left the viewer with more answers than questions.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Amanda Seyfried was apparently hired just for her wide-eyed stare. She spends her first dozen scenes just staring lustily at Timberlake. I can understand one, maybe two scenes like that, but this movie goes into overkill with it.

Why even cast Olivia Wilde? It’s not as if she’s an unsubstantial actress these days since she’s had some major roles. Why relegate her to what is essentially a cameo role, especially when 90% of her scenes are shown in the trailer?

Vincent Kartheiser is perfectly cast. I know he’s just doing his “Mad Men” thing here, but it’s exactly what is needed for the role.

The Johnny Galecki subplot was laughable. So Timberlake gives him a decade, fine. Then he looks at the bar after Timberlake leaves. Ha ha, he gets time and the first thing he does is start partying; what a wacky friend! Then we find out later that he went on a bender that killed him? What? I can kind of see why they killed the character off, but why kill him off after his last scene was slightly comedic. And if that last scene he was in wasn’t meant to be comedic, then the filmmakers should’ve gone to greater lengths to show that the guy had a serious problem. If they still needed him dead, just point out the fact that having a decade in that part of town will get you mugged/killed.

Finally, isn’t Weis right about the world when he says they can only mess it up for a generation or two? I think so. Ultimately this is a pointless film because the change they bring is fleeting. Even if they do somehow topple the time system, guess what comes next? A currency system and then they’ll be in the same boat all over again. This film is a borderline Communist fantasy that didn’t attempt to realistically look at what might happen to the world it takes place in. Of course, all of this could have been avoided had they just explained who was in charge of it all. Maybe they were afraid to go the Matrix route and peek behind the curtain. But why create a world if you don’t plan on fully investigating it?