The Descendants

Please press the red button

For the sake of keeping precious brain cells, I will refrain from trying to figure out why The Ides of March received an immediate wide release and The Descendants, a far superior film, had to wait a week.  Of course, my system of reasoning is by way of staunch idealism, and the only real connection between the films is the appearance of George Clooney, who gives us much more to believe in his characterization as the struggling single parent than as the mustache-twirling politician.

The Descendants is a dramedy by Alexander Payne, director of Sideways and About Schmidt.  Normally, when walking out of a film in which the dram trumps the edy, I get a bitter and unsatisfied taste in my mouth, but in this film, it’s the dram we relish.  Even in its funny moments, The Descendants never loses sight of its goals.

The story follows Matt King (George Clooney), a wealthy lawyer descended from a nearly endless lineage of Hawaiian royalty and white missionaries, living in Hawaii and acting as the sole trustee on 25,000 acres of land on the coast of Kaua’i.  He and his numerous cousins have decided to sell the land for development, which will net them a fortune even their royal ancestors couldn’t have dreamed of.  The main line of tension in the story, however, is the predicament involving Matt’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), recently rendered comatose after a boating accident.  Matt, who refers to himself as the “backup parent,” is now in charge of his two daughters, Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), who, with their respective personal issues (which range from profanity to underage alcohol abuse) don’t give him much chance to be a good dad (at least not immediately).  When Matt finally gets Alex, the older of the girls, to sit and speak to him, he not only breaks the news to her, but receives a shocking bit of news himself: before her accident, Elizabeth had been cheating on him.  From here, the film becomes not quite an exodus, but an adventure of sorts, involving Matt and Alex’s journey to discover the identity of the other man, while the land-selling situation, (which Matt actually wants no part of since the land is full of not only rich history, but also many memories with his family) looms overhead.  Scottie comes along, as does Alex’s seemingly simple-minded surfer friend, Sid (Nick Krause).

The screenwriters wisely forgo the antagonistic relationship between Matt and Alex in favor of making the latter a sympathetic character.  Tension remains, as their views differ on certain things, but being family, they have almost no choice but to gel as companions and to root for each other.  The performances of Clooney and Woodley steal the screen, and Woodley, to my understanding, has already begun collecting supporting actress awards for her portrayal of Alex.  Rightfully so.  An inexplicable beauty lies in her voice, and her every movement, every switch in posture, reveals multitudes.

Beau Bridges, the older brother of Jeff, appears as Cousin Hugh, the eldest of Matt’s money-grubbing family members.  His presence is soothing when he’s being friendly, and rather uncomfortable when he displays his ruthless side.  Bridges creates a memorable character who knows his limitations in film but not in his own world, and given the fact that he appears in only two full scenes, this is an accomplishment.

The Descendants is many parts drama and charm, but also respect and love.  When it became a road movie, I wanted to be in the car.  When Matt and Alex confronted the other man (Matthew Lillard), I wanted to be part of the family distraction team.  Most of all, when the tearful goodbyes finally came, I wanted to put my arm around every character and tell them “it’s going to be okay,” regardless of how many times I have to be told that myself in real life.  Having suffered a death in the family this week, I had trouble maintaining composure during certain scenes, but the final shot, a long one, ended on such a moment, so perfectly understated yet glimmering beneath, that I definitely do not regret seeing this film so soon after.  It’s beautiful.

Alternately, if you want this post to end on a more cheerful note, you’ll be glad to know that March of the Penguins is now old enough (or wholesome enough) to be a metafilm.

The Descendants (2011); written and directed by Alexander Payne (based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings); starring George Clooney and Shailene Woodley.

P.S. I just found out I’m only two degrees from the author of the original novel, Kaui Hart Hemmings: we share a mutual friend, writer Mayumi Shimose Poe.

The Ides of March

Stop the presses: politicians are scum!

In the second film this year that ends with a very long shot of Ryan Gosling’s face, we get The Ides of March, the newest installment in George Clooney’s directing career.  It’s a political drama, and Clooney doesn’t hide the fact that he’s a democrat (not that he ever has), while also suggesting that even the “correct” side isn’t perfect.

Politically, the film covers nothing new, and is about as enlightening in that area as Crash was about racism (going as far as saying “it exists” and leaving it at that).  The magic lies in the performances, namely those of Ryan Gosling, who stars as Steven Meyers; Philip Seymour Hoffman as Paul Zara; and Evan Rachel Wood as Molly Stearns.  Gosling plays the arrogant, up-and-coming brain trust of Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), managing the latter’s campaign while looking to further his own career in any way possible.  Along the way, he starts a superficial romance with Molly, an intern barely out of her teens, and is tempted by Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager for Morris’ opponent, to join the other side.

The story may not play out like you expect it to.  It seems, at first, the narrative will be broad, following Morris’ campaign trail and sticking close to Steven’s troubles along the way, and it does, to an extent, accomplish this, though politics for the sake of politics don’t remain the focus for very long.  We soon learn that although Morris may be the “good guy” in the political arena, he is, as all politicians must be, scum, and Steven is left to make a few moral decisions.  The question remains, though: for whom is he making these decisions?  Himself, or the people who were wronged?  It’s not evident that Steven truly cares about anyone else, as he isn’t given enough time with any individual character, and two-thirds of the way through the film Gosling seems to morph into his stoic, hardboiled character from Drive before our eyes.

The film keeps us engaged all the way through, albeit through abounding use of the Manfluence Principle (see the Glossary).  Women are portrayed as either sexually-obsessed and immature (as seen in Molly), or jaded and snakelike (as seen in a reporter played by Marisa Tomei).  We get one scene between Morris and his wife, which seems thrown in and accomplishes little besides letting us know the power of Steven’s influence on everyone around Morris.  When the women are out of the room, they’re spoken of with zero respect (including but not limited to gratuitous use of the word “fuck” to describe activities shared between multiple characters and a now-dead woman).

Spoilers ahead.  After Molly reveals that the Governor impregnated her, Steven helps fund an abortion and seems to be looking out for her.  However, after Duffy tricks Steven into leaving Morris’ camp, Molly kills herself out of worry that Steven will reveal her secret in order to damage Morris’ chances of winning the primary.  Steven, having indeed planned to reveal this information to the other side, instead uses it to blackmail Morris into firing Zara and making Steven Senior Campaign Manager.  In a sense, Steven “wins,” though in the final shots, we get the sense that Steven realizes he’s done exactly what Duffy warned him about: betrayed his principles for the sake of revenge and career success.  While beautifully shot in a fully-realized Shakespearean tragedy (reflecting the film’s title), I actually found myself caring more about whether Steven missed/cared about Molly after her very young death.  Sorry, but the sad look on his face upon seeing her dead body isn’t enough.

Despite the glowing performances, it’s occasionally difficult to sympathize due to the editing.  Whenever I said to myself, “Yes; I’m with the characters here,” the film cut to a wide shot of Morris standing at a podium with a thousand people surrounding him, as if to shout, “This is George Clooney’s movie, remember?  Listen to what he has to say about what just happened!”  On the other hand, Wood’s performance is superb (despite the flat writing behind her character), and the film feels wounded when she leaves it.  Philip Seymour Hoffman once again proves he’s such a good actor that he can make things like opening a water bottle seem interesting, and even though his character is a bit of a worm, I rooted for him.  Jeffrey Wright even appears (having lost weight since Source Code) as Senator Thompson, and nets an easy paycheck.

This is one of those stories wherein I become frustrated while also enjoying the in-the-moment experience of digesting it, similar to a T.C. Boyle story.  The technical pieces are there, but questions about the real story linger long after you’ve left the theater or closed the cover.  In this case, I feel like I was meant to “learn” something, and unfortunately, it’s these vain, big-headed narratives that shove a film into Best Picture contention.  Make no mistake – the film deserves whatever accolades it receives.  Just don’t show it to your Poli-Sci class to replace a lesson, nor to your Playwriting class to replace Coriolanus.

The Ides of March (2011); written and directed by George Clooney; starring Ryan Gosling, Evan Rachel Wood, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and George Clooney.

The American

Range?

americanAnton Corbijn’s The American is packed with achievements other filmmakers in this genre attempt but fail: a truly gripping story, genuine sympathy for the Boring Hero, and a disguise so convincing that a fairly run-of-the mill thriller (based on a run-of-the-mill novel) becomes a thoughtful drama.  I once thought I was coming close to the latter with a screenplay I was working on, but alas, my hard drive crashed, and the only person with a copy still refuses to hand it over for reasons I will never know.  Anyway, in addition to what other filmmakers try, this film also achieves a few things other makers of thrillers forget about entirely – generally accurate portrayals of firearms (not just what they look like, but how precise a shooter can be at what range with what gun, what a silenced gun actually sounds like, etc.), an extra mite of thought into characterization, and artful direction.

The story centers around “Mr. Butterfly” (also known as Jack and Edward), played by the aging George Clooney.  Jack is an assassin and a maker of firearms, which he can apparently finagle from the simplest of items when he needs to.  In his age, though, he has become paranoid and bored.  His personality has become stony and impenetrable, a technique that often results in an uninteresting and underdeveloped character in a film like this (see Jason Statham in every American film he’s in), but here, the Boring Hero is redeemed.  He doesn’t act this way for the sake of the audience; he’s actually afraid.  Rival assassins are after him, and for good reason.  Love and all other forms of attachment evade him, and after being forced to execute a loved one to protect his identity, he’s resorted to seeing a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido) with whom he can fake fidelity.  Jack works for a sun-dried criminal who calls himself Pavel (the great Belgian actor Johan Leysen).  Pavel fills in another routine thriller role, the Shadow Premiere.  We never really find out who he is or what his reasons might be; we just know Jack has to do what he says.

For being based on a novel that tends to be shootout-y, the film focuses on Jack’s paranoia and attempts at living a life in Italy while he goes through the motions of his job.  A classic femme fatale called Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) is his newest client, asking for a blah-blah-blah gun with blah-blah-blah specifications for a blah-blah-blah murder.  She pops up three separate times in the film, each time with completely different hair.  Refreshingly, we don’t get the sense that this is intended to “symbolize” anything; it’s just an indication of the kind of shady and dangerous life she lives.  Clooney and Reuten, who played the sweetheart innkeeper in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, share a wonderful scene at a picnic area, during which the dialogue is so well delivered that the inclusion of bullets and butterflies in the same conversation doesn’t seem odd in the least.  The cast also includes Paolo Bonacetti as Father Benedetto, a kind old priest who befriends Jack, but his involvement in the story yields no real results in the end.

The final eighth of the film falls into thriller formula – running from bad guys, finding out who characters are “really” working for, twists that surprise Jack but not the audience, camera shots from within a sniper’s scope, and head-shots aplenty.  What saves the day is that Corbijn doesn’t change the tone – everything is still understated.  Death is never glorified nor accompanied by a crescendo.  The artfully-done love scenes with Clara become longer each time they happen, while the gun-construction and workout scenes become shorter, perhaps suggesting that Jack is more focused on love again, though he still doesn’t know whether he can really trust Clara (or, for that matter, anyone else in the film) until the final five minutes.  We share his paranoia because Corbijn wisely never leaves Jack’s perspective (until that final eighth I mentioned, and even then, only long enough to state two lines of dialogue that make us fear for Jack more than ever).

The American is a film that will put a smile on the face of those who (incorrectly) believe that “every story has already been told” and that “you can only tell old stories in new ways, not new stories.”  The film follows a specific formula comprised of stock characters, but it’s one of those gems in which the casting is picture-perfect, the care put into the storytelling is brilliantly evident, and our sympathies allow themselves to lie with a killer, because for an hour and forty-five minutes, he becomes a real person.  From the staggering opening scene to the sobering and inevitable conclusion, the audience walks a dark corridor with Jack, observing his decisions but never quite judging them, because as Al Green once said,  “Love’ll make you do right, love’ll make you do wrong.”

The American (2010); written by Rowan Joffé (based on the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth); directed by Anton Corbijn; starring George Clooney, Violante Placido and Thekla Reuten.

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