Tuesday, December 27, 2011

THE DESCENDANTS--Life Comes Back to Bite Ya

Alexander Payne has directed a trio of serio-comic films about middle class families. First there was ELECTION(1999) with Reese Witherspoon as a dynamo high school over-achiever who manipulates and ruins the life of her teacher, played with perfect underdog sadness by Matthew Broderick. Then came 2002's ABOUT SCHMIDT with a perfectly cast Jack Nicholson as a sour widower who discovers there are still pleasures in life and family. And in 2004 Payne surprised the industry with his indie hit SIDEWAYS, an often hilarious road trip picture with Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church as two pals hitting the wineries of Napa Valley. There are tinges of sadness and disappointment in all of these films. But that's just a side effect.

In his new film THE DESCENDANTS, Payne still shows a comic touch, but the film is far more introspective and deals with questions of infidelity, middle age crises, and impossible choices when a loved one is hopelessly lost to a coma. From previews and reviews, you probably have a good idea about the plot. Suffice it to say, Matt King (George Clooney), a wealthy lawyer in Hawaii, has more than his share of problems, all of which cause him to look at himself and his family in a more sober, responsible way. But it is a tough journey. He hardly knows his two daughters, a rambunctious pre-teen (Amara Miller) and a bitter teen (Shailine Woodley). He is the sole trustee for an inherited area of natural beauty that his cousins want to sell for millions. And is on the hunt for his wife's paramour. He quickly realizes that he has been clueless about his family, his life, and his future.

George Clooney has had an amazing career. He is natural and naturally attractive. He can play the suave leader of the OCEANS 11 films. He can take the back seat in his own directorial film GOOD LUCK, AND GOOD NIGHT (2005), a tense drama about Edward R. Murrow versus not only McCarthyism but also his network CBS. And he was hysterical in the Coen Brothers' classic comic tale O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000). But his performance as Matt in THE DESCENDANTS is a revelation. The slickness, the ease, and charm have been mostly erased, and we see a man on the edge, a man who either learns to love and deal with his kids or lose them. An Oscar nomination, if not a win, is in order. Amara and Woodley are perfect complements to Clooney. They are both adrift and have been for years, and it's not all Matt's fault. They display their anger and confusion with strong believablity. THE DESCENDANTS is a family film (not the kiddies, though) that parents and teens should see together. It not only entertains but also heals.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Switches and Coal for SHERLOCK...Delectable goodies for HUGO

The Christmas blockbuster bloat has begun, and so far, we are one up and one down, way down. First the bad news, the first Michael Ritchie Sherlock Holmes was a plotless, frenetic wreck, so they had to make a sequel. But did they have to do it so blandly and lacking in any wit or substance? If I remember correctly, Conan Doyle's brilliant detective depended on his wits and his use of logic, not his brawn. In SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS, director Ritchie continues his absurd use of slow motion, stop action, Kung Fu, you name it. The only interesting character is his Dr. Watson, played with intelligent humor, by Jude Law. Again, these two play the protagonists as a love-hate bromance. Robert Downey, Jr., the least British Sherlock I have ever seen or heard, is reduced to pratfalls and lame jokes. Go at your own risk!

Now for the good news. Martin Scorsese, that great director of mean streets movies (GOODFELLAS, TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL) and a leading force in film restoration, has produced and directed HUGO, based on the imaginative graphic novel of the same name. HUGO takes place in the early 1930's where the title character lives in a secret garret above a huge train station. His father has taught him the love of inventions and movies, but, when he dies, Hugo is forced by his alcoholic uncle to run all the clocks in the station. Fortunately the old drunk wanders away, and Hugo has the run of the place for himself, except for the police guard who is always on the outlook for derelict children he can send to an orphanage.
Hugo has two life-changing encounters in the station, one with an imaginative girl and the other with a mysterious old toy seller(the great Ben Kingsley). To tell more of the plot would spoil it.

However, Hugo and his new friend Isabelle have a great adventure, giving Scorsese the freedom to exploit 3-D in its best incarnation since AVATAR. The kids are chased up and down the machine-like innards of the towers and the clocks in dizzying tracking shots. The sets, costumes, and decor all convey the beauty of a tintype of Old Paris and we see many of the great monuments in a magical light. The two young actors are perfectly cast and give touching performances. Scorsese loves movies, and this is his valentine to the art he has given so much devotion and talent. DON'T MISS HUGO!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

DiCaprio Comes of Age

In 1992 Jack Nicholson added putty and make-up to take on the lead role in HOFFA, a loose biography of one of our toughest union leaders. The film, though made with care and a script by David Mamet, was leaden, sort of like the fate that may have happened to the real HOFFA. So, it must have been with some trepidation that Clint Eastwood decided to helm J. EDGAR, the new biographical take on one of the most controversial American officials of modern times.

The real surprise of this film is that Leonardo DiCaprio stars as J.Edgar Hoover, a man who came to resemble an unhappy fire plug as he aged. Eastwood stages the highlights and backgrounds of Hoover's career, and he is careful to give his subject both steel and cowardice, strength and weakness. His technique is to link key moments in the Hoover story with other important events. Among these are his relationship with another steely battleship, his mother, played to perfection by Judi Dench, his handling of the Lindberg kidnapping case, his face-offs with every president he served, and, most importantly, his latent homosexuality with his chief assistant played by Armie Hammer.

This technique gives us some idea of how Hoover built the FBI into one of the most secretive and powerful agencies in U.S. history. He realized early on that if he was to be attacked, he should be ready with a stronger counter attack. In other words, keep a list and be sure it's full of incriminating dirt. His files ranged from the Kennedys to Barbara Streisand to Martin Luther King. No one of influence was exempt.

DiCaprio, first known for his intense juvenile roles in movies like WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE and later for his romantic idol qualities in TITANIC and ROMEO AND JULIET, gives his Hoover a gravitas that is more than the superb changes in make-up and weight. For the first time, we totally forget about the kid who yelled, "King of the world." Martin Scorsese used DiCaprio somewhat effectively as a young unionist in GANGS OF NEW YORK, but not particularly well as Howard Hughes in THE AVIATOR. Frankly, his playing footsie with Kate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn was ludicrous. But in J.EDGAR, he earns new respect as an actor forging a memorable character, full of flaws, unattractive in appearance, shocking in his lack of judgment and morality, and yet somehow a man who earns our sympathy. The credit goes to both the star and his director the estimable Clint Eastwood, who knows what it means to change his persona.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Immortals vs. Vampires: Less than the sum of their body parts

When I was a youngster, I loved Edith Hamilton's take on Greek Mythology. Each story had one simple illustration, an idealized drawing of Icarus falling from the sky or Psyche discovering Cupid's face. And the stories were even better. Edith has been the go-to gal for most young people, but now movies, tv, and games have taken over, and the tales are now mismashed into a steady stream of confused mayhem.

Consider the pre-CGI films that featured Ray Harryhausen's inventive stop-motion monsters battling C-list actors as Jason and his crew. Jason must rout screaming harpies, animated skeletons, the hydra (my favorite), and so on. JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS did have some good moments and it did hew fairly closely to the Jason/Medea/Golden Fleece legend. Plus there was the great Bernard Herrmann's "original" score which was created from six or so of his great films of the past like VERTIGO. In 1981, Harryhausen returned to form with the surprise hit CLASH OF THE TITANS, featuring A-list actors as the gods (Laurence Olivier as a doddering Zeus) and Harry Hamlin as Perseus. This time Medusa is his best creation, a slimy multi-headed female monster turning Perseus's men to stone. Again, the story is not too far from the original, and the movie is a delightful and cheesy funfest.

But, times and special effects have changed, as seen in last year's dismal remake of CLASH OF THE TITANS and the recent entry, THE IMMORTALS, which purports to be the story of Theseus, the Minotaur, and the war between the Titans and the Gods. All of this is so crudely sloshed together that it's difficult to tell who is who and what is happening. Theseus, a buff Henry Cavil (soon to be the new Superman), must lead a rebellion against the evil Hyperion (Mickey Rourke?) who seems locked in his role from THE WRESTLER. Theseus spends one fateful night with Phaedra, the virgin oracle, and after becoming a martyr in the final battle, becomes a demigod who will lead the next battle between the Titans and the Gods. Hmmm, I suspect a sequel post haste. The film itself is curious. Some of the scenes are beautifully designed and lit. The director himself chose to imitate his favorite painter Caravaggio, known for dark chiaroscuro and dramatic, often steamy scenes from mythology as well as the Bible. These work, but the clunky dialogue and Cavill's bland performance don't. Both the gods and the warriors fight with little more than sandals and aptly placed shields, and like the similar 300, this film looks as if the cast was recruited from Venice Beach, California. The time period is before that of the Troy legends, yet we have Roman arches, classical Greek sculptures, and a corruption of the Minotaur legend. So, if you are looking to introduce your kids or grandkids to Greek tales, forget THE IMMORTALS.

You would also be wise to skip the fourth installment of the TWILIGHT series, BREAKING DAWN, in which we witness the wedding, deflowering, pregnancy, and "turning" (becoming a vampire) of our heroine Bela. Most of this is not pretty, especially the last few. There are montages of pulsing blood that owe much to previous Dracula films. ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE EXORCIST are also heavily used. And the delivery itself is a great tool for Planned Parenthood. Except for these scenes, the film's pace is leaden with full close-ups of the dreamy lovers, both of whom look stoned throughout. I will say this for Kristen Stewart; she has developed into a fine actress and looks terrific, except when pregnant. The same cannot be said for her male co-stars, especially Taylor Lautner, who simply doesn't understand the lines he has to say. After BREAKING DAWN 2, he won't have to...in anything.