Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Descendants

Alexander Payne's "The Descendants" is a well-directed yet extremely clumsy film that succeeded in rattling me mostly due to George Clooney's brilliant, moving, spellbinding performance. Previously adored to absurd degrees or dismissed as not worth taking seriously, Clooney here takes on a role much like the one he brought little life to in "Up in the Air" (the narration here brings Ryan Bingham to mind) and unreservedly digs deep into it. If only the writing had been as good as his acting (and not tremendously shaky); some sort of historic cinema wonder could have resulted. Clooney gives weight and interest to a plot that needs total audience involvement to carry it through its many turns.

Adapted by Payne et al. from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, "The Descendants" chronicles the downward spiral of native Hawaiian Matt King (Clooney) after an accident sends his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) into a coma. King knew his marriage was in trouble beforehand and thought that, following this ordeal, he could reconcile things. When he gets the notice that she isn't going to get better, he realizes he'll have to place his energy in helping his daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, also strong) and Scottie (Amara Miller) get on with life. He also is planning to tell all of the family friends about what will happen, but a terrible revelation makes things ever the more complex.

There's a subplot about selling Hawaiian land (which the wealthy King has a lot of) to make a resort or something, but to me it was far less interesting than the main, emotional strand of the film and far more expository and cluttered than it should have been. I can see why Payne was interested in it, but he doesn't do such a good job of making it captivating for the audience. He's excellent at harnessing the devastating plot points from the novel and helping the actors getting into their characters; however, some of what he takes from the book is pretty poor (the writing especially; I haven't read the book though so all of this is assumption).

"The Descendants" goes down some fascinating roads, but the journey is less mesmerizing than Clooney as the tour guide. A movie that complimented his extraordinary strength here would have been a masterpiece. B-

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Attack the Block

"Attack the Block" is a minute pleasure at only 88 minutes long, a film that often confuses concise with slight. All the same, it puts the considerable talents of its director Joe Cornish on display. This man has a way with visuals, concepts, and characters, and he could make a monumental success one day. The film moves probably a bit too fast for its own good, making the situation at its center more surreal than probably intended and making the relationships of some of the characters seem hastily developed, but all-in-all this intense pacing does Cornish some favors, as he is adept with narrative economy.

The film centers on a dangerous neighborhood in London over the course of one tumultuous evening. Sam (Jodie Whittaker) is walking home when she is mugged by a group led by Moses (John Boyega, quite a presence). Just as the robbery is reaching its apex (and Sam is about to be harmed), something flies out of the sky and smashes into a car nearby. Moses goes after this UFO, which turns out to be one of many aliens to come to Earth that night. These creatures are distinct for not having any facial features besides a glowing, glowering blue mouth, and are a pretty solid monster creation on the part of Cornish.

After this initial incident, he splits the film off into two narrative tracks (that eventually come back together later), the primary one following the gang. It seems as if we'd be made to identify with these guys, but the film wisely chooses to see them as a bunch of FIFA-addicted, misled youngsters instead of as noble heroes. That being said, Cornish hardly puts together a social commentary (as some who've compared it to "District 9" seem to think it is); aside from a couple of muttered, downplayed lines by Moses about how the government unleashed drugs and guns on the blacks of London so they'd kill each other faster, nothing much is imparted. The group is contrasted against a white, uptight, and outta sight fellow pot smoker and zoologist student named Brewis (Luke Treadaway) and the building's pot dealer Ron (cult favorite Nick Frost, unusually tolerable here).

What I admired most here were the consistently amusing asides and the masterful visual style. As the film gets more and more strange, the humor serves as an anchor, balancing the tone. The imagery works to the opposite end, making things ever the more delirious. The shot of the aliens crawling up the building is terrifying, as well as the woozy, disturbingly foreshadowed one where one of the gang members is spinning around in a cloud of smoke. Such arresting style is often absent from creature features, and thus is a wonderful surprise here.

"Attack the Block" ends abruptly and could have been better polished. But, in spite of the qualms I had about it, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I would definitely champion it over other recent underground classics, even if it doesn't quite stand on its own. B-

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Ides of March

I'd say it's a tad ambitious to try to go behind-the-scenes of politics without being able to write one line of realistic dialogue, but George Clooney tries anyways with play adaptation "The Ides of March." Everything here is exposition; even when characters are having sex, a television in the background is helpfully supplying a live feed of a town hall debate. A cast of extremely talented actors is forced to play with their hands tied, having to make what they're saying sound legitimate when it sounds quite obviously written. The plotting keeps things tolerable, but, all-in-all, this is hardly something Clooney (only skilled at directing himself) should be proud of.

The film follows a campaign making a hard push for the Democratic Primary, as whoever wins this supposedly has a guaranteed shot at winning the election. Mike Morris (Clooney) is the candidate, a personable governor who seems to have a pretty solid platform.Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is his right hand man, and Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), the movie's main character, is his inimitable media guy. The election hangs on getting the endorsement of an influential, delegate-heavy Ohio senator (Jeffrey Wright), and both sides are desperately wooing with cabinet positions and the like. Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who has Paul's capacity on the opposite candidate's team, is simultaneously trying to win Stephen over to the other side. And, all the while, Stephen is finding time for romance with his connected intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood, who is poorly directed in excruciating scenes), who ends up being pivotal.

A technically sloppy yet narratively calculated and blasé configuration of confrontations and one-liners, "The Ides of March" ends up failing to fulfill the potential intimated by the opening minutes. When was the last time a movie like this was even somewhat incendiary? "Michael Clayton" broke the mold for brainy nostalgic '70s-style thrillers; Clooney unfortunately tried to strike gold twice. C

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Messy, incredibly pointless, but jarringly well made, Evan Glodell's "Bellflower" (named after the street in Los Angeles on which most of the action takes place) pays no attention to film conventions. Rules are meant to be broken, sure, but all the same, it's good for a narrative feature to have some structure. Like the lives of its characters, "Bellflower" is devoted to ridiculous, involved ventures and ultimately goes into ambiguous territory, lacking a regard for the audience and not really giving a shit.

Nothing substantial is known about roommates Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson) except for the fact that they have an intense obsession with "Mad Max" and are willing to go to extreme lengths to make that film into a reality. With the excuse that an apocalypse will come, they've set aside a lot of time and money (the latter of which is weird, since they don't seem to have jobs or family to inherit from) to build a flamethrower and pimp out a car they call Medusa. They also have time to try to pick up women at a dive bar. Woodrow, the more (at least initially) personable of the two, loses a cricket-eating contest to Milly (Jessie Wiseman) at said bar and a kinetic relationship begins. I say kinetic because after Milly says she wants to go somewhere trashy on their first date, the two take an impromptu cross-country road trip to Texas to eat at a dingy redneck establishment that Woodrow and Aiden visited a while back. This sojourn takes up roughly 1/5 of the film's running time, and veers sharply into precociousness. It's touching, but further emphasizes that "Bellflower" is (deliberately or not) far out of touch with reality.

Perhaps due to the fact that Milly spends so much time with Woodrow at the onset, or because Woodrow is a little too soft-spoken for his own good, but their setup eventually caves in with Milly cheating on Woodrow with her roommate. This sends the film down a road seething with aggression, where delirium abounds.

This film makes the viewer do acrobatic jumps through hoops probably more than any recent example that I can think of, at one point splintering off from an image of decision to explore a terrifying narrative detour before coming back and heading off in an entirely different direction. This can be much better appreciated as an idea than as an actual technique, especially since nothing really comes when both shoes have dropped. Glodell needs to realize this before he makes more movies like this one. However, "Bellflower"'s craft, from the ultra-saturated photography to the techno/spare-acoustic juxtapositions on the soundtrack, is astonishing and something that Glodell can lean on for his future works as keystone. If only all other components of the film could have gripped me so intensely. B-

Thursday, November 3, 2011


"Weekend" by Andrew Haigh is built on strong acting and Urszula Pontikos' careful, brilliant cinematography that works well to pierce the viewer. It follows a guarded lifeguard named Russell (Tom Cullen, in a gloriously natural performance), as he begins to form a relationship with Glen (Chris New, also very good), an outspoken, high concept artist who makes works concerned with sexuality. Russell is looking for a boyfriend to alleviate his loneliness, whereas Glen has just gotten out of something very messy and believes himself unfit for such romances. But wherever they stand on what will ultimately come of things, the two see that they fit together with an unparalleled chemistry.

This territory has been mined before, and "Weekend" is hardly groundbreaking in terms of plot structure. What sets it apart is Haigh's superb execution of his excellent script. The film says a lot about what it means to be gay right now and how suffocating the secrecy even those out are privy to. One of the film's most powerful images, a long-range view of Russell's apartment building with activity only occurring in his flat, not only underscores the intimacy at the center of the story, but also emphasizes the isolation of gays as a minority group.

The movie would also fall short without its lead performers, who invigorate the material and draw the necessary emotions to give the film a startling impact. "Weekend" does has its flaws: one scene in particular, involving Glen's roommate Jill (Laura Freeman), drags mightily and should have been revised by Haigh. But the film is a tremendous character study with some of the most vital character observation this year has had to offer. B+