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Friday, December 30, 2011

War Horse (Release Date: 12-25-2011)

        There is one reason why War Horse exists, and that is to win Oscars. There's no point in beating around the bush, because the film itself makes no buts about it. From the opening shots, sweeping aerial views of perfectly green pastures, to the rusted golden hue of the film's final moments, there's nothing about this movie that is unassuming or small. Here we have STEVEN SPIELBERG, WORLD WAR I, and TWO AND A HALF HOURS OF FOOTAGE. This is big entertainment at its biggest, overwhelmingly concerned with its status as an epic, looking to emulate the massive melodramas that took home the bulk of Oscars throughout the 40's. This movie lays awake at night dreaming, no, LUSTING after tiny golden men, willing to do anything just to finally hold them. This might be the way to win awards, but this is not, my friend, a very good way to make a movie.

        Our story begins on a magical day, where the sun and the plains and the sky all gleam and glisten with surreal beauty, when a mystical, awe-inspiring horse is born. Young lad Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is taken by the beauty of the event, falling in love with the beast, and when his father (Peter Mullen) foolishly buys the steed as a plow-horse, the boy promises to train the savior-figure pony. He names him Joey. Joey is a special horse. We know this because Joey does special things, and when he does them, he shines, basking in a special glow, with everyone around making special faces at him. But due to rampant misfortune, the family is forced to sell the poor horse to the British army, a fate that we know saddens Joey because of the longing look in his magical horse eyes. This, however, does no stop him from continuing to inspire mirth and awe in all who meet him, falling under the care of a French farm family, a pair of youthful deserters, and some evil, eeeeeeeevil Germans.

        This isn't just a film capable of prompting snide remarks: This movie NEEDS to be made fun of, it REQUIRES of us that we laugh in its face. There are so many problems with the flick, too many to name in one short article, but let's start with the easiest to deduce: This is a completely soulless, passion-free effort. It introduces us to character after character, all of them perfect cardboard cut-outs of stock types that we've seen a million times before (Drunk War-Vet Dad, Precocious Pre-Teen Girl, Over-Bearing-Mother-With-Good-Intentions, World-Weary Older Man, Honorable Military Captain, Greedy, Merciless Landowner... Stop me when you've heard enough), each as impossible to care about as the last. I understand that War Horse is trying to represent a bygone era of pre-snark earnestness, but it does so by going through the motions in the most unimaginative way possible, like making lousy photo-copy of an annoyingly perfect portrait, and calling it art. Movies like How Green Was My Valley, or All Quiet on the Western Front, great as they probably were in their day, can feel more tacky than emotionally gratifying in today's day and age. Seeing all of the cliches from this outdated form of cinema get lined up and apathetically knocked down like dominoes is almost as frustrating as it is numbingly boring. Almost...

        Here's what I will say in favor of War Horse: It's battle sequences are strong (albeit, short lived), and the episodic nature of the film helps its two and a half hour runtime pass slightly less painfully than one might expect. Also, I can imagine a really, really fun drinking game being made out of it. And that's it. Everything else on display is primed and ready for the Five Dollar box at Wall Mart. John Williams' score is quite possibly the most putrid of the whole year, cloying and obvious and over-bearing at every turn, and the picturesque beauty of the landscapes is undermined by its overpowering desire to be noticed, not to mention more than a hint of artifice. There's not a single line of good dialogue in the film, and despite this fact, screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis clear out space for lengthy, empty, Oscar-clip-ready speeches about Valor, Bravery, Courage, and whatever other charged words you can think of that the Academy would just eat up. What's more, the idolization of the Horse is just plain creepy, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski filming him as a golden god, a figure to be worshipped, and the fetishism of it is off-putting in a sort of twisted way. The fact that Albert can think of nothing but the horse, tells everyone about the horse, carries a portrait of the horse into war, only makes the film's affection for the mammal that much stranger.

         But enough allusions to beastiality: It's much more fun to laugh mockingly, scornfully at the film's wrong-headed attempt at transcendence. The cast and crew of this movie though they had the exact blue-print on how to make an Oscar winner, and they followed the format without a hint of variance, care, or an ounce of true meaning. There's no love in the thing, and the fact that it was created for the sole purpose of being loved makes this fact that much more jarring. You know that 5 minute stretch at the end of every romantic comedy, the one where they make grand-standing declarations of their love as you cringe, and feel ashamed for having kind of liked the movie up to that point? Imagine two and a half straight hours of that, and you have War Horse. This movie thinks that the Academy (and you, for that matter) is the biggest group of suckers, morons, and idiots on the planet, and its willing to bet the house on that hunch. Please, Oscar, don't let it be right.

Grade: D-

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Release Date: 12-21-2011)

        Looking for a big way to cap off the year in movies? How about a Steven Spielberg double-feature? The director has not one, but two films in theaters right now, their release dates slotted a mere 4 days apart from one another. It's quite the under-taking, but it becomes even more impressive when one considers a few particulars. The man hasn't helmed a flick since 2008's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (he hasn't made a movie that anyone actually liked since his 2005 double-header of War of the Worlds and Munich). What's more, both of his newest under-takings are truly Spielberg-ian in size. On friday, I'll be taking a look at his latest battle epic, War Horse, and today, I'll be diving into The Adventures of Tintin, his preliminary experiment with both animation and 3-D.

        Based on the famous-everywhere-but-in-the-U.S. writings of Hergé, Tintin is the story of the titular boy-reporter (portrayed through motion-capture technology by Jamie Bell), his trusty dog Snowy, and a model ships that sets them on the course of a globe-trotting adventure. The aforementioned trinket prompts the attention of Sakharine (Daniel Craig), a clearly evil type (Goatee, Spectacles, Walking Cane, Pet Hawk... you get the drill) who eventually kidnaps Tintin, taking him aboard his ship, believing the boy might have knowledge of a precious secret. While onboard, Tintin meets the vessel's former Captain, Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis), and the two manage to escape the ship, and set off on a quest of their own, Sakharine ever-close behind.

        The plot of this movie is a trifle, providing the characters with excuses to go here, and look for that, and it's, 'See you next time!' ending makes it feel even that much more trivial. No, Tintin is not much of a movie in terms of story-line, because the technology on hand seems to be Spielberg's true focus, and, trust me, it'll be yours as well. This is the very first motion capture movie I have ever seen where the human characters didn't look like they had dead souls behind their shallow eyes. That might sound like faint praise, but this is an animation style that people have been toying around with for years now, and Tintin is honestly the very, very first that I've seen where the humans are at least passable as humans. The texture of the film, always a strong-point for this style of animation, is marvelous, the desert dunes, and the endless oceans appearing tactile and lavish. There's even a single-take action shot that traces through an entire crumbling city which is as impressive as any Five minute stretch of film this year. Not unlike this summer's Transformers movie, Tintin is kind of heartless, and can become exhausting with its endless desire for action, but said action is top-notch, and it never forgets to bring the wow.

Grade: B

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Artist (Limited Release Date: 11-25-2011)

        It's not very often that you see a movie in theaters that you expect to win Best Picture. Last year, when I finally laid eyes on The King's Speech, it was still looking like The Social Network, all the way. Who could have known, when walking into a sparingly populated theater in the summer of 2009, that The Hurt Locker would eventually take the crown (Funnily enough, I saw it with a friend as part of a double-feature with the goofy mumble-core comedy Humpday; We both preferred the laugher). So yes, it's a rarity to walk in with such absurdly lofty expectations, a burden on the film, really, but these are the exact conditions in which I finally met The Artist, the first silent film with a legitimate shot at winning Oscar's top prize in decades upon decades.

        Yes, you read that right. Silent. With the exception of a few choice moments of sound, The Artist plays by almost all of the rules of the silent era, including being filmed in a fuzzy black and white, and being presented in a 1.37:1 ratio (a square that only occupies a slight majority of today's rectangular screens). The story comes secondary to all of these choices, but, of course, still merits explanation. In the year 1927, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a massive silent-film star. Along with his trusty, omnipresent Jack Russell, he struts and yucks it up with everyone who will give him attention (who is everyone), his wily, cocky demeanor driving his producer (John Goodman) up the wall. Almost on a whim, Valentin decides to promote the career of a young, energetic beauty named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), and the two flirt at a romance, despite the fact that Valentin is still in the middle of a loveless marriage. Time, however, is not kind to Valentin, and after the studio decides to go in the direction of talkies, George's star starts plummeting, just as Peppy's is rising.

        There are times, while you're in the middle of watching The Artist, where it can feel like the homework session that it sounds like on paper. These moments, mostly sectioned off into the woe-is-me middle third, hint at the fact that, even while clocking in at only just over an hour and a half, this movie might not have enough story to carry a proper narrative. But, as previously stated, this one was never about story anyways. It's about showmanship, charm, and nostalgic pinning, all of which The Artist has in spades. The performances are just peerless, walking an impossible line between proper emulation of the over-acting of the day, and the more subtle emoting required of today's screen performers. Dujardin and Bejo just look and move like 20's and 30's film stars, the former blessed with unique physical gifts, and a smile with enough wattage to power a small city, the later as bouncy and lovely as the heroine's of the day.

        Writer/Director Michel Hazanavicius gets so much right. The costumes, the sets, and the melodramatic tone are all just spot on, as if the flick was dug out of a forgotten time capsule. He does, however, break away from these tropes from time to time, as in those aforementioned uses of sound, and a few camera movements that would have likely proved impossible at the time (not to mention a much-debated use of a piece of the Vertigo score, a movie that came out decades after the time period). At first, I was a tad up in arms over these choices, wondering why Hazanavicius couldn't have just followed his thesis all the way, but with time, I've decided that they are actually his real stab at transcendence. The man takes us through a tour of early technical film history, and as boring as that sounds, it's not... at all. His eye catches and silently explains so much of what makes both silent films, and those blessed with sound extraordinary in their own right, describing the magic of cinema without a sound. As the days have passed since I saw The Artist, the film has grown and grown in my mind, many of its individual scenes likely to stay with me forever. It's not what I would pick to win Best Picture, but as a loving, dazzling, fun trip back in time, and a love-letter to all the things that have pushed movie to where they are today, it's more than well-qualified.

Grade: A-

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Release Date: 12-21-2011)

        David Fincher is a master, but that doesn't mean that everything he touches is a masterpiece. Fresh off the heels of The Social Network, a movie that myself and others seem to think is pretty alright, it's easy to confuse Fincher with someone like who hits it out of the park every time, but proof otherwise is right there in front of us. Praise Fight Club and Se7en all you want, but no worship of those films will make Alien 3, The Game, or Panic Room anything other than largely forgotten efforts, and depending on who you are, you might just find The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to be a hokey and over-long bore (I'm on it's team, but I've heard it beat down more times than I can count). No, Fincher is not, in and of himself, a promise of a good movie. It all comes down to the material he's given, and whether it befits him or not, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's seedy, depraved worldview seemed like it would slip on like a glove.

        The protagonist of the story, at least in Fincher's version, is not the titular heroine, but rather Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a disgraced journalist who has just resigned from his job in the wake of having wrongly smeared the reputation of a local tycoon. He's summoned to the estate of Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), a gracious, aging gentleman with one last wish; To unlock the mystery of what happened on a fateful day 40 years ago, when his niece inexplicably went missing forever. The extended Vagner family, made up of former Nazis and generally ill-behaved house guests, all have homes within eye sight of Henrik, but none of them speak to one another, largely because of the fleeting suspicion that one of them is to blame for the girl's disappearance. Mikael travels from home to home, having conversations and looking through records, before deciding that a partner in crime will be necessary. Nothing could prepare him for the research assistant he finally gets; The tattooed, pierced, and fiery Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), as brilliant at hacking computers as she is awful at gentle small talk. Her verve and grit pull the two further down into mysterious hell that is the Vagner family tree.

        I have no previous experience with this story, having not read the phenomenally popular books, nor seen the original Swedish films, but I can now tell you that this one's a doozy. Clocking in at over two and a half hours, Dragon Tattoo is a ridiculously dense murder mystery, one that would almost undoubtedly require multiple viewings (or previous experience with the material) to fully understand. It's also, well, kind of totally horrific in spaces, indulging in extended sequences of rape, torture, violence, and general abundance of sin. Where most film-makers would only imply the kinds of atrocities that take place during the film's runtime, Fincher chooses to revel in them, putting many of their dreadful details on full display. It's a brave choice, but there's an inescapable sense that much of this explicit content exists largely to brand the movie as edgy and fearless, rather than actually aiding the story at hand. Specifically, rape and sexual abuse are pretty charged and graphic images to put on screen, and Fincher's total aversion to simple implication renders a few of his scenes sickening, and almost unwatchable. It's easy to applaud him for, 'going there,' but I'm still working through the, 'why,' of so many images of tortured, powerless females.

        My best guess, at this point, is that this has more to do with the book than Fincher's specific take. The most damning evidence? Given his track record with structure and pacing, I simply don't buy that anything other than loyalty to source material could have caused the beginning of the movie to transpire in such poorly-plotted fashion. The first hour or so is spent cross-cutting between Blomkvist's search for the answers, and an entirely unrelated story wherein Salander is abused by a state official who, much to Lisbeth's misfortune, is now in change of her funds. Everyone knows that two and a half hours is not an ideal runtime for a film, and the fact that a good chunk of it is spent on something that has no real baring on the story at hand has just got to be the book's fault. One could argue that this is all character development, but if the fleshing out of Mikael's character (and that of almost every character from every story ever told, for that matter) can happen within the confines of the established plot, why can't Lisbeth's? The answer can be found in the original Swedish title for the book, Men Who Hate Women. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in this incarnation as well as (I would imagine, at least) previous versions, wants to talk about the evils that women experience at the hands of men, but it doesn't have anything to actually say on the matter. The heinous and skin-crawling crimes displayed on screen, as well as the foolish initial story structure, come as a result of not realizing that being edgy isn't the same thing as being important. No matter how hard it wants to mean something, Dragon Tattoo, on this evidence, is a pretty hollow story.

        But that doesn't mean that it's not a good pot-boiler, one to which only the most expert craft has been applied. There are lengthy stretches in the middle of the film that are just electric, drawing the audience into the mystery by giving them just the right amount of information at the right time. Many of Fincher's Social Network cohorts are again in attendance here, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth once more painting the screen in icy, wintery blue, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross serving up another film-defining score. Editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall are also here, but struggle with how exactly to pace and fit this thing together. Craig plays the straight-man with efficiency, looking haggard and adding smart little character ticks to fully flesh Blomkvist out. But the real treasure here, the real reason to see the movie, in fact, is Mara's performance as the wrong girl to mess with. You can almost feel the heat lofting off of the screen, the smoke billowing from her nostrils, and the scenes when she's finally permitted to breath fire are nothing short of magnetic. Her tiny body, appearing even smaller in her ever-baggy clothes, can somehow tower over men of greater stature, proving terrifying, sexy, damaged, and badass. The manner in which she confuses all of these emotions is mesmerizing, justifying this movie's existence all by itself. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is, in my eyes, something of a throw-away entertainment, but its one crafted with a master's touch, and featuring one of the most impressive, iconic performances of the year. That's not enough to place it with the best of Fincher's canon, but its plenty to recommend a viewing.

Grade: B

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol (Limited Release Date: 12-16-2011)

        Don't you hate it when someone brakes a promise? I sure do. I feel spurned, taken for a fool, used. Nothing hurts worse than being deceived by a friend or family member, but that's not to say that false advertising doesn't smart some as well, and Hollywood is one hell of a guilty party in that regard. Sometimes, they promise heartfelt drama that they cannot deliver; Other times, it's big laughs. But nothing hurts worse than expecting a high-octane action flick, and being handed a lousy, undercooked plot with a couple of fight sequences tacked on. There's only one reason that anyone went to see the likes of Tron: Legacy, 10,000 B.C., or Clash of the Titans: They wanted tinseltown to deliver the goods. Less dumb plot, more dumb explosions. Is that really too much to ask for? Because Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol sure doesn't think it is.

        The plot, if you want to call it that, is a mishmash of just about every action flick story ever put on screen. After botching a mission intended to steal deadly nuclear launch codes from a Russian thug nicknamed Colbalt, the Impossible Missions Force is decommissioned, leaving Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and the rest of his squad without an official job title. But nothing can deter for this group of fighters, as they continue on with their plan to stop the evil Russians from destroying the world (Yes, evil Russians bent on world destruction. Heard that one before?), all the while knowing that if any of them are caught, they'll be branded terrorists, and served up on a spit.

        Ghost Protocol is probably one of the easiest movies I've ever had the pleasure of reviewing, because breaking down its strengths and weaknesses is absurdly simple. The dialogue is often stilted, the acting wooden, the plotting incomprehensible more often than not. In many ways, the movie represents some under-whelming story telling and film-making, but none of that really matters. What does is the 80% of the flick's runtime that is dedicated to the absolute most heart-pounding, exhilarating, jaw-dropping action sequences caught on film for years. Director Brad Bird, making his live-action debut after years in the field of animation (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille), is just as good at orchestrating mayhem in this medium as he was in his last. These things are taut, visually dazzling, and suspenseful even when you know the outcome. It's been a long, long time since a movie has gotten raves from me just for its choreographed chaos, but this Mission: Impossible entry probably contains about 9 of this year's 10 best action set-pieces, absolutely laying waste to every single film this Summer that had the audacity to call itself an action movie. This is the be-all, end-all of soulless movie magic, and please don't read that as an insult. You don't go into Mission: Impossible expecting an expertly crafted story arch, or engaging, evolving characters. You come for the action, the gadgets, and the general badass-ery. Ghost Protocol delivers the goods, ten-fold and then some.

Grade: A-

Monday, December 19, 2011

Young Adult (Limited Release Date: 12-9-2011)

        At the ripe-old age of 34, Director Jason Reitman already has a good deal to brag about. With only three films to his credit, the auteur has not only established himself as a fine film-maker, but he's also become something of a chief chronicler of the modern American experience (David Fincher also comes to mind). His debut, Thank You For Smoking, made zippy fun out of diving into the mire that is corporate America. His second flick, and first real Oscar player, was Juno, a film with its finger firmly on the pulse of the arrogance, confusion, and hyper-speed of present-day youth culture. His last big-screen outing, 2009's Up In the Air, observed modern notions of class and identity as they relate to occupation, not to mention keeping an eye on the effects of a crumbling national economy. He's back for more of the same with Young Adult, his newest comedy about the addiction, self-image and prolonged adolescence issues presently being worked over by our country's 20-40 set.

        Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) might have been the coolest girl in the room back in high school, but times have most certainly changed. Now 37, the ghost-writer of Young Adult chick-lit is a mess of too much make-up, too many hair extensions, and far, far too much booze. Seemingly on a whim, Gary decides to return from Minneapolis to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota to rekindle her romance with High School sweetheart Buddy Slate (Patrick Wilson). The fact that he is now married with an infant daughter doesn't seem to matter much to her, as she confides her plans and devices to Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a battered, depressed former classmate who is willing to accept all of Mavis' put-downs just to momentarily bask in her fading, dying glow.

        Diablo Cody, the screenwriter behind Reitman's own oft-quoted Juno, returns again here, but you'd be wise not to expect hamburger-phones or characters who are, 'Honest to Blog.' Where the High School Pregnancy comedy lightly poked fun at its too-clever, clearly-compensating protagonist, Young Adult absolutely skewers her alive, showing you layers upon layers of awfulness that this woman has managed to cake on after years of being treated as a goddess. She's an absolute, undeniable train-wreck, belittling and self-agrandizing to no end, the movie even examining her severe problems with alcoholism with an unforgiving, unwavering eye. She essentially operates as the monster in a monster movie, and just like the creatures of those films, her grotesque nature renders her both revolting, and captivating. You know you shouldn't be going for her, but in some twisted way, you also want to keep seeing her rack up one victim after another.

        Young Adult is an intense, in-depth character study of a throughly-unlikable person going through a sizable personal crisis, the kind of movie that flies-or-dies on the power of its central performance, and my god, does Theron have the goods. She commits completely to the vapid, deranged disposition of her character, evaporating into the marrow-deep egomania from which Mavis suffers. The cast that surrounds her is similarly top-notch, but none more so than Oswalt. Following his criminally over-looked lead turn in the criminally under-seen sports drama/black comedy Big Fan, Oswalt again shows that he's just as strong an actor as a comedian, his hurt and wounded admiration lofting off of the screen.

        Jason Reitman seems to become a little more special with each film that he creates. His visual stylings, while far more subtle than many of his peers, deftly convey ideas and feelings where words would have likely proved too clumsy, and his rapport with actors is as good as anyone working today. What's more, he made Young Adult at a time when he could have really made anything he wanted, focusing instead on a dark, cruel comedy and think-piece that will undoubtably prove divisive among audiences, and will likely be a no-show on Oscar nomination morning. Who needs a golden man, anyway? Reitman has again tapped into the American Zeitgeist, returning to his favorite theme, the willful distortion of one's self-image, and using it to put up a fun-house mirror to the self-entitled way in which most of us live our lives. Sure, we're not all as bad as Mavis Gary (hopefully none of us are), but I cannot deny that I saw shades of my bad-days self in her that caused me to shutter, and I've got a feeling that it might do the same for many of my similarly privileged peers. Young Adult can be a difficult movie to watch, but its craft is true, its performances are undeniable, and it is one of the most bravest, sharpest, and most cutting American social critics to make its way across the big screen in many a moon.

Grade: A

Friday, December 16, 2011

Shame (Limited Release Date: 12-2-2011)

        A lot of 2011's best movies have been the hardest to watch. Unlike last year, where mainstream Hollywood releases like The Social Network, Inception, and True Grit managed to tell meaningful, compelling stories while still appealing to the masses, this season has seen tinseltown provide next to nothing of real heft or bravery. That task has been left almost exclusively to a few very daring, very divisive Independent pictures, such as Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter, and The Tree of Life. What do all of these movies have in common? They all have a profundity and clarity of vision, but they can also prove difficult to sit through (I personally don't really feel this way about Tree, but I see where it comes from). And so, as 2011 wraps up, we enter another weekend where millions of people will be checking out the new Alvin at the Chipmunks movie, while the smartest movie-goers squirm impatiently through the powerful, difficult Shame.

        Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a man with a problem: He's hopelessly, debilitatingly addicted to sex. His computers, both at home and at work, are littered with a thousand dirty downloads, and many of hims nights are spent with some paid company. This life of debauchery of put on hold with the arrival of Sissy (Carey Mulligan), his externally peppy and clearly troubled sister. Their interactions, alternating between natural and strained, cause confusion and frustration in both of their lives, and lead them to some extreme situations.

        This is only Director Steve McQueen's second movie, and it confirms beyond any doubt that he is a talent that ought to be celebrated. As if his first feature, the masterful, troubling Hunger, weren't evidence enough, McQueen uses Shame to put on an utter tutorial of how much can be said with mere visuals. His eye, along with that of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, is observant and unwavering, lingering on single takes for long enough to allow scenes between actors to develop, capturing the beauty and allure of swanky New York living while subliminally depicting its wretched emptiness. The film wants nothing more than to turn the screws on you, and it does this with ease. Those without the stomach for extreme intensity and unabashed, prolonged sexuality (the movie's NC-17 rating is well warranted) would be better off skipping this one, though it would be a shame for them to miss two of the year's finest performances.

        Fassbender has had a terrific year, beginning with Jane Eyre, and proceeding through X-Men: First Class, and A Dangerous Method, but this has to be his most shining moment. Many parts of the movie seem to operate almost exclusively because the man is so utterly magnetic, wholly and completely convincing as a charmer, a monster, and a woefully lost soul. Mulligan is no less impressive, shedding every last inch of the, 'polite, innocent British Girl,' with whom she has made her name, replacing her with someone damaged, mangled, and true. The way that McQueen captures their interactions, as well as the interactions of everyone else in the film, has a real, 'fly on the wall,' feeling to it, coming off as naturally as if you were watching them in person.

       As part of a bigger film community, Shame gives us a lot to look forward to. Mulligan loses herself in the role so thoroughly that she'll never be looked at as a one-note thespian again. McQueen establishes himself as one of the truly essential young voices in the world of film. And Fassbender only continues to pile it on, one sensational performance after another, and the fact that he seems primarily interested on working with young and/or impassioned film-makers (McQueen, Cary Fukunaga, David Cronenberg) bodes well for a lengthy, extraordinary career. But more than that, Shame is an up-close, no-holds-barred examination of addiction at it's most dominant. There's hardly any story here, arguably even enough to fill its modest 101 minute runtime, but the feeling and the ambience of the film is both unsettling and unshakable. 2011: The year where movies were meant to be marveled at, not enjoyed.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Oscar Predictions 2011: Round Three

       It's been a busy last several days in the awards season blitz, and it's only going to get crazier from here. A slew of different critics organizations announced their, 'Best of,' lists this week, as well as the National Board of Review, and the American Film Institute. Most importantly, however, the Screen Actors Guild, the biggest body of voters that the Academy has, announced their choices this morning. Here's how everything is shaking out:

Best Picture:
1. The Artist (Previous Ranking: 2)
        Finally, a true frontrunner has emerged! It's hard to believe that we're seriously talking about a silent French movie as Oscar's most favorite flick, but after just about every critic organization in the land handed it their highest honor, all bets are off. The SAG nominations only furthered its stance as the film to beat.
2. The Descendants (Previous Ranking: 1)
        At the front of the pack for all of two seconds, The Descendants is already seeing diminished buzz. Winning the prize seems a bit far off, but grabbing a nomination, after the SAG and others have all declared their love for the film, is a foregone conclusion at this point.
3. Hugo (Previous Ranking: 18)
        What a week it's been for Hugo! The film had the honor of being thrust right into the thick of awards season by being named the National Board of Review's movie of the year, and has since enjoyed a heavy stream of love from critics across the country. The quality of the film puts it in contention; The fact that it's directed by Martin Scorsese makes it a lock for a nomination.
4. War Horse (Previous Ranking: 3)
        Reviews have only started trickling in, but War Horse sounds like another Spielberg winner. An epic of this size, with this name attached to it, is all but certain to grab a nomination, and might even put up a good fight for the night's top prize, assuming it can build some buzz upon its Christmas Day release.
5. The Help (Previous Ranking: 9)
         I've been holding out on ranking this one among my predicted nominees, but it's time to finally own up to my faulty previous picks. All doubts went out the door when it led the SAGs this morning with four nominations, the most of any movie.
6. Midnight in Paris (Previous Ranking: 5)
        The hanger-oner of this year's awards season, Midnight has stood a solid chance since its initial release way back in May. That status feels even more solid today, with the movie grabbing a SAG nod for Best Cast in a Motion Picture.
7. Moneyball (Previous Ranking: 10)
        I still have my doubts about wether a film about numbers and baseball can drum up the passion needed to get those first-place votes and play with the big boys, but with a slew of critics love, the NBR and AFI, and now the SAG showing it major love, it seems like a good bet.
8. The Tree of Life (Previous Ranking: 8)
        Missing completely from the SAG nominations this morning, we still have yet to see inner-Academy love for The Tree of Life, but the well-spring of critical adoration, along with being the most passion-provoking movie of the year, keep it in the hunt.

As of now, I am predicting that these will be the Eight that get nominated (I don't have some crazy math problem that helped me determine the number, these just seem like the ones). The following is where I rank the next movies in line.

9. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Previous Ranking: 4)
        Last month, I was boasting to the heavens about how I was calling this one while no one else was. I suppose there might have been a reason for that. While Dragon Tattoo is having a go with the critics this week, and will be the beneficiary of a late-year push, it failed to snag a single SAG nomination this morning, which is pretty damning.

10. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Previous Ranking: 6)
        The presence of Oscar-favorite Director Stephen Daldry, as well as lovable stars (Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock) and serious 9/11 subject matter will keep the movie in the race until the end. One just wonders if they've waited too long to press start on the hype machine.

Best Actor:
1. Jean Dujardin (The Artist) (Previous Ranking: 1)
        This one is a true three-horse race, but I have to side with the performer who A) has yet to be recognized (sorry, George), and B) headlines the biggest flick of the night.
2. George Clooney (The Descendants) (Previous Ranking: 2)
        As the lead of a Best Picture lock, and one of America's true acting sweethearts, he's every bit as in this thing as Dujardin.
3. Brad Pitt (Moneyball) (Previous Ranking: 4)
        The final member of the inner circle, Pitt would have what it takes to slot number one if his performance wasn't up against the leading turns from what look to be Oscar's big frontrunners.
4. Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar) (Previous Ranking: 6)
        I still have my doubts about this one, but a big name among the eight actors with a fighting chance, this morning's SAG nominee is looking alright for the nod.
5. Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) (Previous Ranking: 3)
        He's been shut out of the Critic's Choice Awards, and the SAGs, but considering Oldman as a zero-time oscar nominee is almost embarrassing for the voters, and this would be a pretty perfect time to change that.
6. Demián Bichir (A Better Life) (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        Possibly the biggest surprise of this morning's SAG nominations, Bichir went from delirious long-shot to legitimate possibility, but his movie remains very small and unseen.

7. Michael Fassbender (Shame) (Previous Ranking: 5)
        Still a real possibility because of his stunning performance, and great body of work on the year. Still a long-shot, because of his film's NC-17 rating.

8. Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) (Previous Ranking: 7)
        A small actor from a smaller movie, but the performance is strong, and the critics have been singing about it all year long.

Best Actress:
1. Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) (Previous Ranking: 2)
        An annual nominee, Streep has failed to actually win the prize for decades now. With a role this juicy, and a field this open, the Oscar is her's to lose.
2. Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs) (Previous Ranking: 1)
        I feel no where near as awesome about this one as I have in the past, as the critics seem to have weakened her campaign thus far, but a SAG nod and her veteran status ensure that she's still a good bet.
3. Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn) (Previous Ranking: 6)
        Treated fairly well by the award's circuit, Williams is an actor who Oscar has already shown love to, playing one of the Oscar-baitiest roles of the year.
4. Viola Davis (The Help) (Previous Ranking: 3)
        Solidified by her SAG nomination this morning, Davis looks like a lock for a nod, and remains in the race to snag the actual golden man.
5. Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin) (Previous Ranking: 8)
        Her movie might be impossibly small, and especially dark, but the early awards season has shown her lavish praise, and being slotted in by the SAGs this morning showed that she has real clout with the acting branch.
6. Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) (Previous Ranking: 4)
        Absurdly showy role right at the center of a buzzy, late-year release. Oscar often likes to invite a new face in this category, and being directed by David Fincher doesn't hurt either.
7. Charlize Theron (Young Adult) (Previous Ranking: 5)
        Jason Reitman tends to coax strong performances, especially from his ladies, and this one's late release date ensures that it will not have lost steam by the fateful night.
8. Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia) (Previous Ranking: 8)
        A pretty big outsider at this point, but there's been all kinds of critic love, so who knows?
9. Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) (Previous Ranking: 7)
        Ditto above.

Best Supporting Actor:
1. Christopher Plummer (Beginners) (Previous Ranking: 1)
        The biggest frontrunner in a major category of all of the Oscars, Plummer has not only slaughtered the competition in the critic's awards so far, but also received a boost when two of his major competitors, Albert Brooks and Max von Sydow, both failed to snag nods. It's his to lose.
2. Albert Brooks (Drive) (Previous Ranking: 2)
        His omission from the SAGs this morning is a heavy blow for what looked like the only other sure thing in this category, but up until today, Brooks had been tearing it up with publications across the land, so until a more sold #2 arrises, here Brooks stays.
3. Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn) (Previous Ranking: 3)
        This category is such a crap shoot that betting against a known actor, playing an iconic thespian is strictly for fools.his SAG nomination this morning doesn't hurt either.
4. Jonah Hill (Moneyball) (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        A winning turn in a Best Picture player. That's about as solid as I'm going to get from this group, I suppose.
5. Ben Kingsley (Hugo) (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        There's no real grounds for assuming that this will happen, as Kingsley has been a no-show thus far, but as the only actor with any chance at being recognized from what might be a real Oscar favorite, I say he has a chance.

Best Supporting Actress:
1. Octavia Spencer (The Help) (Previous Ranking: 4)
        Now that I'm willing to admit that The Help is a real Oscar player, I'm beginning to accept that the Academy might look to reward the film somewhere, and this seems like the most likely choice.
2. Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) (Previous Ranking: 1)
        Lauded performance in support of Oscar's heaviest heavyweight so far. Throw in her status as an exciting unknown, and you've got a contender.
3. Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids) (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        I never thought the day would come when I'd have her this high up on the list, but here she is. Comedic turn or not, McCarthy has already snagged a slew of precursors, and her SAG nomination this morning showed that even her peers think she deserves the honor.
4. Jessica Chastain (The Help) (Previous Ranking: 5)
        I'm still pretty worried about a voter's split between this and her zillion other movies in release this year, but this is looking like the one that they'll use to praise her sensational 2011.
5. Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) (Previous Ranking: 3)
        A very troubling no-show on this morning SAG list, Woodley still seems like a good bet because of the size of her movie, even if former front-runner Vanessa Redgrave waits patiently to strike.

***All categories are ranked according the how I PREDICT things will turn out, not what I would wish.***

***Links to the imdb pages of each of he individual titles, where you can read cast lists and synopses. This is already a lengthy article; Explaining every movie would be pretty rough***

Monday, December 12, 2011

Winter 2011 Playlist

***Each title is a clickable link to its respective song on Youtube***

1. The Birth and the Death of Day---Explosions in the Sky*
        Perhaps a bit heavier than one might expect from a first track, but an epic of this song's size can really only go first or last. The tune is perfectly befitting of its title, booming into life before receding into mellow beauty, only to burst all the more gloriously at the track's conclusion. No vocals required, Explosions make ridiculously emotive music without uttering a word, and this is a prime example.

2. Alien Observer---Grouper
        Portland's own Grouper released a double disc of material earlier this year, and to my mind, this song is easily her finest creation of 2011. Filled only with endlessly looped vocals, and a stray, echoing guitar part, Alien Observer uses simple parts to weave a dense, immersive sounds. Both eerie and beautiful, the song is filled with strange, wintry enchantments.

3. Winter '05---Ra Ra Riot
        Decidedly more fun that either of my previous choices, Ra Ra Riot opens this one up with strings that drip with romance, Wes Miles' love-lorn declaration that, "If you were here, Winter wouldn't pass quite so slow," repeated over and over again over the chorus.

4. The Wilhelm Scream---James Blake*
        Minimal isn't really a word often associated with Dub-Step these days, so thank god for James Blake, who keeps on fighting the good fight. Like many of his best tracks, Wilhelm is sparse and uncluttered, Blake's echoing auto-tune sounding distant and worn over small beats that grow and grow as time passes.

5. Take Care---Beach House
        You almost can't hear the beginning of Take Care without envisioning snowfall. The track is somehow both warm and cold, like sitting in a warm living room and watching the frost blow outside, simple gorgeous sounds repeated until they sink deep into your being.

6. NYC---Interpol
        From what is, without a doubt, the finest album of their career (Turn on the Bright Lights), NYC seems to float into existence, a night-time number without even a touch of the grit and rock often linked to the band. It's a swoony sing-a-long, perfect for ill-lit drives in the planet's coldest season.

7. Run---Air
        Loopy and disorienting, Run is a strange song written by a strange band, but but that doesn't prevent its second half from revealing a startling beauty to the thing. At first mind-bending, and them heart-warming.

8. Ocean of Noise---Arcade Fire
        One of the truly, 'big,' songs by a band who goes big unlike anyone else on the scene today,  the verses of this epic are dreary and cold, held together by a gentle guitar hook, and a thudding, ominous bass. The track builds and builds, exploding into brass and strings as Win Butler wails away at the troubles of the universe.

9. Lovecrimes (Somehow Unavailable on Youtube)---Frank Ocean*
        Frank Ocean is all about being silky-smooth, and Lovecrimes might just be his most accomplished song yet in this regard. The beat is simple and sexy, allowing space for Ocean to not have to yell over his backing. Scaled back R&B masterclass.

10. Lovesick Teenagers---Bear in Heaven
        In contrast to Lovecrimes, Lovesick hits like a ton of bricks upon arrival. The tune is powered by unrelenting synths, straight-forward and enveloping, with a chorus that opens up into something massive and taut.

11. Winter's Love---Animal Collective 
        Though Winter's Love comes from an odder, more divisive period in Animal Collective's career, the track itself should prove appealing to just about everyone. There's something undeniably tribal going on here, from the light taps and chants of the song's first half, to the pounding, jovial tomfoolery of its second.

12. Snookered---Dan Deacon*
        One of the craziest, most singular artists working today, Deacon employs his mad-cap take on electro-indie to marvelous effect in Snookered. Unfolding slowly over the course of 8+ minutes, the song sees xylophone tinkering proceed a dazzling fury of vocal samples and computerized mania, always retaining its inherent loveliness.

13. Epilogue---The Antlers
        On a playlist full of heartbreakers (It is Winter, after all), Epilogue is doubtlessly the more wrenching. The closing statement on the band's beautiful, miserable Hospice, the tune is built only on an acoustic guitar, and Peter Silberman's pained, impassioned wailings.

14. What's a Girl to Do?---Bat for Lashes
        Dark and spacious, this Bat for Lashes track fills up the room with the pounding of a bass drum, a tricky little keyboard ditty, and more echo than you could even imagine. The chorus is where the thing really blooms, Natasha Khan's voice sailing above it all. Be sure to watch the Music Video.

15. Flume---Bon Iver
        As if the sound of Justin Vernon's project weren't enough, the words Bon Iver even roughly translate to, 'Good Winter.' This isn't exactly sunny music, a sturdy, weary steel-string guitar powering Vernon's miraculous falsetto, the tune's well of sadness seeping under your skin.

16. Colorado---Grizzly Bear*
        One of my very most favorite closing tracks ever, Colorado is a psychedelic experience that makes use of crushingly deep piano chords, and about a million layers of vocalist Ed Droste's ghostly call. The song is bold and confrontational, benefitting from both to become one of the most expansive knock-outs to come from indie music in years.

*---Artist Pictured

Friday, December 9, 2011

Netflix Instant Watch Picks for December 2011

Youthful Tomfoolery Edition

A Hard Day's Night
        Before The Hangover, before Wedding Crashers, before Animal House, there was a movie about nothing but a bunch of awesome dudes screwing around and causing havoc. A Hard Day's Night might not be where everyone sees the genesis of the crude-humor/light-plot comedy genre that has reached extreme prominence today, but the wacky antics of the fab four are still as reckless and fun as they were upon the film's 1964 release. It's nothing but a simple day in the life of the Beatles, filled with frenzied girls, and totally square managers, all filmed in sumptuous blank and white, soundtracked by... well... the best band ever. It's entirely meaningless entertainment, but it's a complete blast while you're watching it, and seeing young George Harrison read lines with purpose is always going to be pretty awesome.

Before Sunrise
        If you're the type that thinks the sexiest thing that two actors can do on screen together is hold a conversation, then Before Sunrise (and it's sequel, Before Sunset, also on Instant Watch) is just the movie for you. Ethan Hawke stars as Jesse, an American on an extended trip through Europe who has a chance encounter with a native named Celine. The two have an instant connection, and Jesse convinces Celine, on a whim, to spend his last hours on the continent with him, chatting it up, and roaming night-time Vienna streets. Before Sunrise is a bit light on plot, but that's because it wants to dedicate the entirety of its runtime to character development, a choice that makes the talks had by the pair both real and alluring. Despite its languid pace, the movie has a real youthful zest to it, as a couple of people with their whole lives ahead of them try to just figure out what to do next. Both smart and romantic, Before Sunrise is a miniature little wonder.

Harold and Maude
        The definitive Coming of Age movie (along with The Graduate), wherein hugely-underrated director Hal Ashby tells the story of Harold (Bud Cort), a staggeringly strange young man with a far greater love for morbid pranks than any of the women that his doting mother introduces him to. His general aversion to interaction is suddenly challenged by his meeting of Maude (Ruth Gordon), an elderly but vivacious woman who stokes Harold's curiosity with her endless myriad of eccentricities. Wes Anderson (among others) owes just about every trick in his bag to this movie, which still remains handsome and stylish 40 years after its initial release. But more than the warm tones and Cat Stevens music, Harold and Maude is a unique, personal, and enduring take on one youth's slow journey from witness of society to participant.

Party Down
        For the last few months, several of my friends have been trying to convince me to watch this show. What lesson did I learn? Trust your friends. The Starz Original series follows the exploits of what is likely the worst catering company that Los Angeles has ever seen, lead by eager-to-please former party animal Ron (Ken Marino). The Office is an obvious reference point here, the show shot on a hand-held digital camera, the plot often focused on the on-again, off-again romance of meant-for-eachother co-workers Henry (Adam Scott) and Casey (Lizzy Caplan), but Party Down has a life all its own. PD is blessed with a stacked supporting cast, featuring the likes of Jane Lynch, Martin Starr, and a slew of recognizable guest appearances. The humor is also unafraid of going to dark places, arriving at morals that you wouldn't quite expect. I'm a sucker for the, 'I hate my job,' sub-genre of comedy, and this is one fine example.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Leftovers: November 2011

Leftover Movies:
        There are a lot of different things that you could accuse Danish Auteur Lars von Trier of, but being talentless is not one of them. His previous effort, Antichrist, is a beautifully rendered and occasionally stirring schlock-fest, bouncing between scenes of visual magic, coming back with ones both offensive and vile. What a treat it is, then, to see Trier craft as full and moving a film as Melancholia, realizing potentials that he had recently only explored. Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg star as Justine and Claire, a pair of sisters with some true disasters to address. We spend the first half of the film at Justine's wedding, where her crushing, dominating state of depression rears its ugly, all-encompassing head. The second half, however, is primarily spent with Claire and her inattentive husband (Kiefer Sutherland), as they worry about the appearance of a formerly undiscovered planet named Melancholia, which is hurling towards the planet earth as we speak. The movie is perfectly performed, most especially by Cannes Best Actress winner Dunst, and the slow-motion visuals of end times, arriving in perfect contrast to the digital, hand-held style of the rest of the film, are nothing short of mesmerizing. Despite how insane the whole thing sounds, Trier's human-anilation-equals-depression metaphor is impossibly deft, explaining the pain and utter helplessness of the mood through themes of (literal) cosmic dread. Both Dunst and von Trier have had publicly documented battles with depression, and their efforts in front of and behind the camera show a fierce, unwavering determination to be able to explain the sensation in detail. Mission accomplished.

Puss in Boots
        From a heavy work with some of the loftiest aspirations of the year, to a feather-weight afternoon matinee, Shrek-spin-off Puss in Boots is one of the year's finest flights into complete and total triviality. The triumphant Tabby, voiced as always by Antonio Banderas, is here seen in his younger years. Having been banished from his hometown, Puss aims to make things right by scoring enough scratch to make up for his dastardly deed that is at first only alluded to. His plan: to steal the magic beans that are currently being held by the dunder-headed Jack and Jill. To accomplish this, he'll need the help of old friend Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), and a sexy sleuth by the name of Kitty Softpaws (Selma Hayek). Going against the grain of all that's common in kids-pics these days, Puss in Boots tells a very straight-forward story, refusing to crowd its tidy plot with useless side characters and time-consuming asides. The movie might feel a bit slight as a result, but the animation is dazzling, plenty of the jokes hit their mark, and you won't look at your watch once. This isn't a Pixar-style triumph, but in a year that has been shockingly low on proper cartoons, this is easily the best plotted and paced of the bunch.

Leftover Music:
Frank Ocean: Nostalgia, Ultra.
        The hype and spotlight on Odd Future, San Francisco's hip-hop/R&B/offense-athon collective, have always been squarely focused on Tyler, the Creator, the group's chief provocateur and MTV's Best New Artist Winner, but it might be Frank Ocean who's making the best music. Besides contributing a slew of catchy-as-hell hip-hop hooks in the last several months, Ocean released his own stellar mixtape, an offering that it somehow took the better part of a year to finally catch up with. Singles Novacane and Songs for Women are as silky and catchy as you would expect from a champion of the genre, but its the playlist's surprises, such as the smooth-as-can-be beat on Lovecrimes, or the myriad of unexpected samples that range from Coldplay, to MGMT, to The Eagles. Ocean's voice doesn't ever ascend to heaven the way that R. Kelly and The Weeknd are known for, but rather glides along on top of subtle, textured backings. There's a reason I wasn't in love with Nostalgia, Ultra. from first listen: It's a grower, made out of softer, more laid-back sounds than the genre is used to, but give it a fair chance, and you won't be able to stop listening.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Black Keys: El Camino (Release Date: 12-6-2011)

        Of all of the indie-ish up-and-comers attacking today's mainstream music scene, The Black Keys are perhaps the group that has garnered the largest fan base. Sure, the likes of Vampire Weekend, Bon Iver, or Arcade Fire might be on as many or more ipods nationwide, but none of those acts can be played at parties, on long drives, during homework sessions, and amidst sultry times behind locked doors with equal aplomb. Some of this boils down to their less serious-minded outlook, but I would like to venture an additional reason of my own. More so than just about any musician working today, you know EXACTLY what you're getting when you put on a Black Keys album, and this complete and total lack of surprises allows one to tune out and tune back in as they please. Have you ever tried focusing on something else while listening to Arcade Fire's My Body is a Cage, or Bon Iver's Perth? Doesn't work too well, does it? Ever try having a conversation to The Black Key's last album, Brothers? The 15-track, hour-long affair is over before you know it. For a band that trades in grimy sexiness, The Black Key's sure do go down easily.

        There's a sense that they know this in El Camino's lead-off track and first single, Lonely Boy. The song is much more immediate than we're used to from the duo, faster off the blocks, and featuring a goofy, peppy guitar hook where grittier, more southern-leaning axe-playing usually takes place. The tune is a joyous shuffle, even if a listen or two is required to warm up to it. The chorus even has another unexpected trick waiting for us: as Guitarist/Frontman Dan Auerbach wails the line, "I've got a love that keeps me waiting. I'm a lonely boy," a choir of background singers joins in to help his proclamation hit that much harder. Follow-up Dead and Gone does nothing to take down the MPH, Drummer Patrick Carney pounding away to open the tune, Auerbach holding longer, bluesier notes than we knew he could handle. More pounding, more clapping, more mini-guitar solos, more background singers, and El Camino is steadily on track.

        But that's really just the thing, isn't it? The Black Keys are always firmly on track, one of the most consistent radio acts in years. El Camino certainly has some new tricks up its sleeve: Auerbach seems ten-fold more willing to mess with tuning and effects on his guitar, and Carney takes center stage far more frequently, his merciless pounding serving as the driving force behind Money Maker, Hell of a Season, and Nova Baby. And while this sense of experimentation is commendable, its, 'blast of fresh air,' runs out quickly when the band becomes too comfortable with using their new-found bells and whistles on every single track. Seriously, the background singers are present for just about every single song, and the mindless pounding that both band members take part in becomes a tad neanderthalic, if still worthy of a steady head-bob. While a noticeable departure from much of what they've done before, El Camino still falls in line with the band's other efforts in terms of the sort of lull of similarity that it slips into about midway through. If it's not painfully obvious by now, I've never been a huge fan of the band, but I certainly wouldn't call myself a detractor, either. I'm certain that the next party that I attend will feature at least one tune off of this disc, and I will be grateful for it, and nod my head along with everyone else. I just probably won't be listening to it on my own, trying to pick apart its eccentricities and minor details. That kind of fetishism is better reserved for bands who are harder to hold a conversation to.

Grade: B-

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Descendants (Limited Release Date: 11-16-2011)

Alright (*Cracks Knuckles*), time for a take-down:

        As long as I can remember being non-sensically interested in the Oscar race, there's been one movie invited into each Best Picture hunt that I simply couldn't stand. Last year, it was The Kids Are Alright, the year before, The Blind Side. It's odd that, even when the number of nominated films was raised from 5 to 10, my number of detested flicks remained a meager singular. Most of the time, a vast majority of the time, in fact, I find most of Oscar's nods to be reasonable, but there is simply no way that you will ever be able to sway my stance on the likes of The Reader (2008), Babel (2006), or Million Dollar Baby (2004) (Crash is pretty bad too, but at least it had the common sense to be entertaining). Almost every other movie that was up for the big one during that time period gets a sturdy thumbs-up from me... but there's always one. This year, it's The Descendants.

        Writer/Director Alexander Payne's first feature since Sideways stars George Clooney as Matt King, a 50-something Land Baron who works as a lawyer on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. King's life is presently in a state of extreme crisis: He's in charge of finding a buyer for the massive amounts of land that has been passed down to his family through their royal ancestors, and his wife has just suffered a boating accident that's left her in a coma. That leaves him in charge of his two girls, the young and surly Scottie (Amara Miller), and her older, rebellious sister Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), his relationships with both being strained at best. To make matters worse, Alexandra reveals to Matt that his wife had been cheating on him at the time of her accident, just as the three are about to embark on a trip to report the news of her ailing health to everyone she knew.

        Praise where praise is due: Both Clooney and Woodley are fantastic in this movie. Who knew Gorgeous George would be so believable as a khaki-wearing, sloppy-haircut-sporting everyman? His character flips between moments of clownish social clumsiness, and piercing, tangible hurt. Woodley, whose part is written to color between the lines, makes something out of her standard teenage angst-athon, her arch and emotions never less than believable, her father-daughter chemistry with Clooney completely undeniable. Alright, there you go, Descendants, I gave you you're praise. Now, on to the main attraction:

        The Descendants is a movie that is designed to coax emotion out of its viewers, and while it certainly has a few successful moments in this regard, almost all of them are cheap, and unearned. Clooney's King is supposed to have three major concerns in the movie: The health of his wife, the love of his daughters, and the land that he must sell. The movie fails in all three regards. Payne completely forgets to explain what there is to like about his spouse, placing emphasis on her infidelity and the rough patch of marriage that immediately proceeded her indiscretion, failing to describe her actual personality in any way, save one scene where corny faux-hawaiin music all but drowns out King's complimentary musings. Having any sort of sense of what they were like together in their good times kind of seems like a must to make this story and its structure work. The bond between Clooney and Woodley is well-developed, but he never has a single moment of genuine connection with his younger daughter, a character who was seemingly invented only to flip off other minor characters as a means for comic relief. Finally, the issue with the land is such an after-thought through-out the film, that the moments near the end where it reminds you to care about the sub-plot are almost laughable. And what happens when he is finally about to make a statement on the land that might be of interest? Yep, you guessed it; more corny hawaiian music drowning out a scene that might have required some real writing.

        You might think that the reason for these short-comings is a simple issue of biting off more than you can chew, but you'd be wrong. The Descendants has all kinds of time on its hands, an exhaustive two hours, in fact, but it prefers to spend its minutes dolling out endless establishing shots of Hawaiian landscapes, at least ten we're-going-from-this-place-to-this-place montages, and one person after another being as horrible as humanly possible to poor Matt King. I understand that his constant trials are supposed to further endear us to him, but when so many scenes are constructed with the sole purpose of throwing your mostly-kind-hearted protagonist to the damn wolves, it starts to feel like a frustrated, mean-spirited exercise. As if King's trials weren't enough, Payne distributes a parade of Oscar-friendly problems to minor characters to make sure that as many tissues meet their end as possible. Didn't think you'd care about King's tough-as-nails father-in-law? Well, how about when we bring in the fact that his wife has Alzheimer's? Thought Alexandra's dumb-ass tag-a-long boyfriend was just here for comic relief, did you? WRONG! He has a dead parent, too! Now you have to care about him and take him seriously! No one here besides King is actually developed; We simply learn one or two details about each of them that are meant to define them as a character from that point forth.

        I've always been up and down on Payne, only that my ups are absurdly high, and my downs are perilously low. Both Election and Sideways strike me as some of the best dramadies of the last many years, but About Schmidt lost me with its slow-motion pacing. The Descendants has the same problem in terms of keeping its heart-rate up, but its issues run far deeper than that. I honestly view it as offensive; Offensive in the way that it uses real-world problems and ailments in shallow, under-developed ways in order to extract emotions that it hasn't earned, and offensive in the way that it expects its audience to fall for such a transparent hoax. I'm sorry to go all, "fire and brimstone," but it seems like I might be the only one out there who feels this way about this movie, so I'm going to shout it. The simple inclusion of sickness and familial trauma does not make a good movie. You have to actually do things with those elements, expand on them, explain them, justify them, go deeper with them, rather than spending two straight hours bending my arm backwards until tears fall out as I look at some lovely scenery. Any lousy story-teller can make memory loss and comas emotionally effecting; they're charged subjects that will always get a knee-jerk reaction. Playing them as your trump card and expecting to win Oscars for it is just plain manipulative and wrong. Clooney and Woodley are good enough to bump this thing up a letter grade: Without their terrific efforts, this one might have been the very first F in the history of Hype Starts Here. Instead, it's in the hunt to be the movie of the year. Go figure.

Grade: D-