The Descendants (A)
U.S.: Alexander Payne, 2011, Fox Searchlight
Good things can be a long time coming. It took director-writer Alexander Payne seven years to make a new film after his Oscar-winning/box-office/critical triumph with Sideways in 2004.
The Descendants is a perfect George Clooney role and movie. Everything that makes him attractive on screen -- likeability, smarts, vulnerability, earnestness in the face of chaos, that wry sense of being at the center of things but not letting it carry him away, and the ability to kid himself -- is present in the character he's playing here: Matthew King. King, a Honolulu lawyer, comes from an old respected (Anglo) Hawaiian family, and is the trustee of a 25,000-acre stretch of mountain, forests and beach on Kauai that the majority of his more spendthrift, less affluent cousins (headed by Beau Bridges, near-perfect in a wily slob role as Matthew's cuz Hugh) want him to sell.
First, though, Matthew has to handle a family tragedy in the making. His adventurous wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) sustained grievous head injuries in a water skiing accident off Waikiki and now lies comatose, on life support. She is due to be unplugged, as per her own wishes, after the doctors' unanimous verdict that she will never wake up. This leaves Matthew in charge of his two daughters, the impudent, mouthy-beyond-her-years 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and rebellious and willful 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) -- an obligation complicated by Scottie's precociously foul mouth and Alex's propensity for drugs and booze, and her insistence on the presence, during the crisis, of her seemingly dull-witted weedhead boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause).
Things are bad. But things get worse. Alex spills a secret she knows about her mom, that Matthew doesn't. Elizabeth was having an affair: a revelation that sends Matthew into a desperate tizzy, and sets him on the trail of the guy who cuckolded him -- a slick local real estate agent named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). It also forces him to confront, by turns, some of the worst and best inside him. Privy to Matthew's moral and emotional journey: his daughters, his irascible father-in-law (Robert Forster), Elizabeth's lover and his wife (Lillard and Judy Greer) and all those cousins lined up behind Hugh, hands out.
All of them, from Clooney on down, act so selflessly, immerse themselves so completely and whole-heartedly in their roles that one reacts to the entire movie not as a theatrical piece bent on eliciting laughs or tears, but as something close to an actual life experience.
The laughter here is as totally earned as the tears. Clooney plays Matthew with seemingly heartfelt sympathy, knowingness and without vanity, subtly but clearly shifting the focus whenever needed to all his cast-mates. Watching The Descendants is like watching a piece of life, slightly elevated and drained of the dull spots -- or like watching an immaculately executed trapeze act, done with no net, with acrobats who flawlessly soar and whirl and, at the crucial moments, clasp hands.
Denmark: Lars von Trier, 2011, Magnolia
Depression: It can be a state of anxiety and of sorrow, a deep-spreading funk in which the world seems to swallow you up. Lars von Trier, who is nothing if not depressive, reverses that process in his new film, Melancholia. He, the artist, swallows the world up instead -- using his art as a filmmaker and his fears as a human to hurl our planet (and all of us) into his private darkness and funk, plunge us into his own gloom and (final) doom.
Melancholia begins and ends with the end of the world -- and imagines that climax in the most extravagantly arty 19th-century way, with a musical lament from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" Prelude, falling birds and images of star Kirsten Dunst, who plays the movie's sad, explosive heroine Justine (von Trier's emotional stand-in), floating by in the water like Millais' Ophelia, while images of apocalypse resound like Wagnerian chords, or the prelude of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, restaged for some lunatic Festival of Armageddon. It better be beautiful -- or von Trier will look like a fool. It better be striking; it better be memorable. It is.
After Melancholia's gorgeous angst-ridden prelude to (or prediction of) catastrophe, von Trier takes us into a contemporary but somewhat Rules of the Game-ish world where the rich and privileged are gathered for a party: a wedding celebration for melancholy Justine and her painfully indulgent new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsagrd), who forgives her everything -- and there's a lot to forgive.
Accompanying this odd, mismatched, doomed couple is a huge, beautifully dressed assemblage that includes Justine's initially well-adjusted, can-do sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, of von Trier's nightmare Antichrist), Claire's rich, ultra-rational husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), Justine's nasty mother and nutty father, Gaby (the great Charlotte Rampling) and Dexter (the superb John Hurt), Justine's money and ad-conscious boss Jack (played by Stellan, the elder Skarsgard), and dozens of others. A fine cast, all of whom excel at partying and theatrical disintegration.
Von Trier began his career with films that were highly theatrical, visually flashy, almost Wellesian (The Element of Crime, Zentropa/Europa), then made a marked shift to the bare-bones, ultra-indie, jittery-camera style of Dogma 95 and Breaking the Waves. At first, his story's victims were men; then they became women -- preferably famous, beautiful, finance-able and adventurous movie stars like Nicole Kidman or, here, Dunst. Now, he seems somewhere between the two, and I wish he'd stay there. Dogmatism of any kind can wear you out.
In this movie, the staging is complex, the acting is emotional, and the visuals are both spontaneous and lush. The structure is simple. The Melancholia party goes seriously off the rails. Then we discover that our universe is going off the rails as well. A large dark planet named Melancholia is heading toward Terra, and, within days, this world will collide with us, and wipe us out of the skies. Life, movies, politics, financial collapse, love, hate, the Cannes Film Festival: none of it will matter. The chords will crash, the world will end. Kaput. Why was the wedding party so oblivious to impending doom? Why is Michael still so convinced it won't happen? Why does Justine seem now not self-indulgent or mad, but prescient, right? Is she?
In any case, the film is beautiful. Extremely beautiful and very anxious. Depressing, but what did you expect? We will probably never see a happy Lars von Trier movie. Or maybe this is the one.
The Adventures of Tintin (A)
U.S.: Steven Spielberg, Paramount Pictures, 2011
Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin shows us again that he's still a kid at heart and maybe always will be. Based on a French-language Belgian comic strip that was so popular throughout Europe that it became legendary and remains so decades after the 1983 death of its creator/writer/artist Herge (pseudonym of a fascinating figure whose real name was Georges Prosper Remi), the movie treats us to the nonstop exotic adventures of an intrepid young cartoon reporter/detective named Tintin (according to Herge, he was 14 or 15), who's accompanied everywhere by his equally intrepid and darned well unstoppable white fox terrier Snowy.
Three of Herge's original Tintin tales have been combined into the script for this movie -- in which our daring boy sleuth and his resourceful pooch get caught up in the perilous treasure hunt and epic battle between the serpentine dandy of a villain Sakharine (voiced by Daniel Craig) and the likable but usually inebriated Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis). Both Sakharine and Haddock are chasing after a ship model and three scrolls, which contain the clues to a fortune in gold that was secreted somewhere, back in the 17th century, by Sakharine's swashbuckling pirate ancestor Red Rackham (Craig's voice) and/or Haddock's ancestor Sir Francis Haddock (Serkis).
All three of them (four, counting the dauntless Snowy), are constantly hurled into perilous exploits involving galleons aflame, crashing airplanes, scorching desert sand dunes filled with camels, sheiks and villainy, plus one of the most spectacular one-take car and motorcycle chases ever (a dam bursts just as the chase gets under way), and a climactic industrial crane battle (done, like the other action scenes, in what look like super-crane shots).
All this exciting fast-motion cinematic action-painting is rendered in motion-capture, the real-life-to-animation process Robert Zemeckis used in The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol to meld a weird realism with dazzling visual technique. I actually don't like motion-capture or performance-capture much -- it makes the characters look strangely stiff and lifeless, like animated waxworks -- but though I didn't think the movie was a complete success, it certainly held my attention. It also made me eager to sample a Tintin tome or two.
Herge wrote and drew the strip for 54 years, beginning in Le Petit Vingtieme, the youth section of a right wing Catholic Belgian newspaper, starting in 1929, when he was 22 or so, and continuing until his death in 1983. All of them became wildly popular throughout Europe, but not, for some reason, in the U.S.
This movie -- a longtime labor of love for Herge buffs Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson -- was assembled out of three Tintin tales from the 1940s: "The Crab With the Golden Claws," "The Secret of the Unicorn," and "Red Rackham's Treasure". The two champion filmmakers plan to favor us with even more Tintin, a trilogy's worth, with the next one to be directed by Jackson.
The script -- by Steve Moffat, Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) and Joe Cornish (Attack fhe Block) -- is a little thin and, I thought, light on wit. It pales next to the usual Pixar script. But the voice actors are fine and the Spielberg team (editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams) make their usual perfect-business-as-usual contributions.
My Week With Marilyn (B)
U.S.: Simon Curtis, 2011, The Weinstein Company
Marilyn Monroe. A dream of sex, a dream of the movies, and the ultimate blonde fantasy. She was a smart girl who got rich and famous playing dumb. She was an innocent who played with fire and whose angel-wings burst into flame. Since 1962, when Marilyn died under still-mysterious circumstances, we still watch her obsessively, think about her obsessively, write about her obsessively. And now comes a movie, based on the two memoirs by a man who might have been her lover, and at least knew her well for a while: Colin Clark.
Colin was an assistant on the 1956 production of The Prince and the Showgirl, co-starring Marilyn, written by Terrence Rattigan and costarring and directed by Sir Laurence Olivier, Hamlet himself: an acting god who, in 1957, was at his peak and regarded as international theatrical royalty.
It's a nice little movie, done in that precise, intelligent, well-mannered yet humane style we associate with good British literary or stage adaptations. It was written by Adrian Hodges, based on Clark's two memoirs, My Week With Marilyn and The Prince, the Showgirl and Me, and it was directed by the prolific Simon Curtis (who made the BBC David Copperfield). It's well-shot and lit and staged, and mostly a pleasure to watch.
And it's filled with famous or somewhat famous show people, playing other people sometimes even more famous than they. Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier (Marilyn's costar and director), Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh (who played Marilyn's role on stage with Larry), Dame Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike (Marilyn's supporting actress), Dougray Scott as Arthur Miller (Marilyn's playwright husband), Karl Moffat as Jack Cardiff (Marilyn's cinematographer), Zoe Wanamaker as Paula Strasberg (Marilyn's maddening acting coach), Toby Jones as Arthur Jacobs (Marilyn's publicist), and finally Eddie Redmayne as Colin Clark (Marilyn's pal for a week and perhaps her spill-the-beans consort). They're all good; the weakest link is Redmayne.
Then there's Michelle Williams as Marilyn herself. Williams comes close to capturing Marilyn's magic. She does a wonderful job, manages to get some of her body and a bit of her soul.
Michelle Williams understands some salient points about playing the goddess of all movie blondes (especially the dyed ones): that there's something great about MM, but also something primally willful and confused, that in certain very basic respects, she never grew up, partly because we didn't want her to. How could we? That's what we loved about her, or thought we did.
Happy Feet Two (B)
U.S.: George Miller, 2011, Warner Home Video
I've got to admit: The first 10 minutes or so of Happy Feet Two had me worried -- even though I was quite partial to the original, George Miller's 2006 tale of a tap-dancing penguin named Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood). But this sequel's super-busy opening shots, with thousands of cute little penguins dancing in unison in a spectacular long shot, pounding and shuffling and flapping away to Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation," made the movie look as if it would be pretty hard to keep track of any of the little critters, much less to get really involved in whatever new stuff they were bringing on.
I had liked the first Happy Feet, which deserved the best animated feature Oscar it won -- loved its sass and brashness and joyous wit, its unabashed pro-ecology theme, and its incredibly virtuosic animation. (The water visuals in the first Happy Feet alone are worth a cheer). But nothing in life or movie sequels is certain. Director/producer/co-writer George Miller may have a top-chop track record. But when it comes to endless-looking shots of animated penguins, much less an animated swarm of krill (which this movie also has), more might well be less, and vice might well be versa.
The plot seemed a little dicey too: yet another story about a outsider penguin, this time non-dancing little Erik (Ava Acres), the pipsqueak progeny of Happy Feet's tap-dancing' star Mumble and his wife Gloria (voiced and sung by Pink, replacing the late Brittany Murphy) and about Erik's attempt to find his place in a world full of vast dancing ensembles of emperor penguins, along with surly elephant seals, con artist puffins, and globally warmed ice-walls that go sliding off into the sea, trapping everybody on an ice and snow island with no food supply.
Oh, and then there's the two krill, Will the Krill (Brad Pitt) and Bill the Krill (Matt Damon), who break away from their swarm in the ocean and try to follow their dream, while engaging in pun-strewn badinage that includes the not-quite-priceless "one in a krillion."