Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Saturday, November 26, 2011
A train crash occurs somewhere in the middle of Martin Scorcese's Hugo, and unfortunately, it's the perfect metaphor for the film as a whole. Despite the earnestness of Scorcese's efforts, the end result is a curious and curiously underwhelming film that suffers from a clumsy script and poor pacing. Coupled with the uneven Shutter Island, Hugo is enough to make one wonder if perhaps Scorcese's best days are at last behind him.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Perhaps a better title for Like Crazy, the Sundance favorite from debut director Drake Doremus, would have been Crazy, Stupid Love, with an extra emphasis on the ‘stupid’ part. Despite Doremus’ earnest efforts as co-writer and director, and the generally solid work from his cast, there’s something rotten at the core of how he treats his characters. What starts as an attempt at an honest and heartfelt examination of young love tested by separation gradually devolves into a classic case of characters being allowed to do whatever they want, as the audience is expected to feel that it’s justified.
After a quick meet-cute between T. A. Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and student Anna (Felicity Jones) in class, the pair very quickly fall head-over-heels for each other. Things are going along just fine, until Anna makes the decision to overstay her student visa for the summer (as opposed to returning to England for two months so it can be renewed). And it's at this very moment when Like Crazy starts its downward spiral. To summarize, this very simple, very stupid decision turns the couple's period of separation from one or two months to one of several years.
Yet Doremus insists on treating his characters as incapable of ever being guilty of anything more than minor transgressions. One could find plausible reasons for Anna’s forsaking of the imposing Stuart, but Jacob’s treatment of his temporary girlfriend (Jennifer Lawrence) is abysmal. That the pair’s love is supposed to be worth all of this only makes the viewing experience more unpleasant. Only in the film’s final scene does Doremus give some hint that Jacob and Anna have changed too much to be compatible once more, but it’s an ambiguous conclusion, and not an effective one at all. Doremus falls into the classic trap of making the film entirely about the central duo’s relationship, meaning that every misstep hurts the film more than it would were there a minimally larger plot.
It’s a shame, because some the performers are trying. Jones and Lawrence are especially effective, the former because she sells her character despite some of things she does, and the latter earns sympathy despite limited screentime. However, it’s probably not a good thing when you have more sympathy for a character with less than 15 minutes of screen time than one of the leads. Which brings us to Mr. Yelchin. Having given a strong performance earlier this year in The Beaver (which also featured Lawrence as a love interest for him), Yelchin disappoints here. Doremus doesn’t make him an interesting figure whatsoever. He’s simply there, little more than a sounding board for Anna’s problems, problems which she brought upon herself. In the end, it’s all not worth caring about. Those who have recently been in a passionate relationship may find something powerful in Doremus’ depiction of troubled love. The rest of us, however, will likely be left indifferent at how the director uses the film to make the statement that when you meet your soul mate, you can get away with almost anything in the name of love.
Friday, November 18, 2011
Alexander Payne's The Descendants may be set on the lush islands of Hawaii, but the journey that the film takes us on is anything but a vacation. Quite the opposite; the road is pretty rough. But even though the territory that Payne is navigating is generally familiar (one major plot thread requires zero effort to guess its outcome), the journey, even at its leisurely (though never sluggish) pace is worth taking. The film, one of the director's kinder, less bitter projects, is a far cry from Payne's best work, possibly his least interesting, but it is strong enough to warrant a look from casual movie-goers and hardcore cinephiles alike.
Adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel of the same name, Payne's film centers around Matt King (George Clooney), a father struggling to manage his family after his wife gets injured in a boating accident. In addition to receiving constant trouble from his daughters Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), Matt has to deal with the revelation that his wife may have had an affair. For all of the drama on the surface, however, The Descendants packs a surprising amount of humor, which helps the somewhat familiar character and story arcs easier to get through.
The biggest obstacle that the film has, familiarity aside, lies in its opening. Rather than establish Matt's character through real interactions with other people, the opening stretch is flooded with his narration while we watch (but don't hear) him sit at his desk, eat lunch, and meet with family members. It's an off-putting way to open the story, especially when the film completely drops the narration after the opening scenes. Consequently, the opening is also where the characters, even the protagonist, are the least interesting, and the film feels the most mundane. Thankfully, once The Descendants trudges through this, the film only gets stronger, even if it never quite makes its mark as anything spectacular.
All in all, this is a showcase for Clooney, whose work here is worth the price of admission. Less concerned with maintaining his movie-star looks and image the past few years, the actor is starting to settle more and more into characters who are less similar to, well, George Clooney. The role of Matt isn't necessarily some radical departure from the slick, suave characters Clooney usually plays, but at the very least, it allows the actor some room to truly distance himself from his star persona, and sell the role based on more than mere charisma. Once he's given more to do than narrate, Clooney is able to actually dig his teeth into the role, and the result is one of the actor's strongest performances to date, despite the role's relatively straightforward characterization. But even though Clooney is the film's biggest asset, the rest of the cast certainly pulls their weight. That is, when they're actually given enough to do. The closest the film has to a major supporting role is Woodley's Alex, Matt's older daughter who tells him about the possible affair. The actress, previously known for TV's The Secret Life of the American Teenager (AKA the show that featured a high profile guest part for an android, er, Bristol Palin) makes quite the leap in quality here. Maybe it's Payne's way of working with his actors, or her strong father-daughter chemistry with Clooney; either way, the film proves that Woodley is capable of much more than teen soap opera-level acting.
That seems like a lot of issues to take with the film, but rest assured there's still plenty to like here outside of Clooney and Woodley. The film's trickiest obstacle, mixing elements of tragedy, dysfunction, and comedy, is actually pretty remarkable considering the specifics of the plot. Only once does a transition between drama and comedy come off as awkward, and the awkwardness is little more than fleeting. And however familiar the arcs may be, there's no denying that they've at least been executed well. Payne may not have made any revelatory statements about family relationships, but at the very least he's pulled them off with a level of maturity and sincerity that rises above syrupy Hollywood sentimentality. This makes for a good film, but not quite a great one (which it very well could have been). What it all comes down to in the end is that, writing issues aside, is that The Descendants lacks any real surprises. For all that's done well, which is quite a bit, the film's overall impact feels muted because there's nothing outside of the lead performance that feels like anything to write home about. The Descendants represents a nicer, more accessible Alexander Payne, but also a less interesting Alexander Payne.
Monday, November 14, 2011
Sunday, November 13, 2011
Whatever your opinion on J. Edgar Hoover is - unwavering patriot, paranoid witch-hunter, a bit of both... - the man is undeniably one of the most fascinating figures in American history. With such rich material to mine from, one would think that a film maker like Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who won an Oscar for his look at Harvey Milk in Milk) would be able to create a film as fascinating as its subject. Unfortunately, that's not quite the case. Eastwood's directorial career, recently in a bit of a funk, doesn't get the reinvigoration it so desperately needs from J. Edgar. It's not a horrible film, just a terribly simple and unremarkable one.
Friday, November 4, 2011
Ever since No Country for Old Men, the art house can't get enough of ambiguous endings. It's as if the Coen brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel opened indie cinema to the possibility that small, challenging films could take things a step further, and have endings that lacked concrete resolution. The latest indie film to try its hand at this trope is T. Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene. Does it implement the device successfully? Well...let's get to that later.