Sunday, January 8, 2012

December 2011

      I can’t imagine many plot scenarios less appealing: workaholic father forced to reengage with his children after a boating accident leaves his wife comatose. Yet in the hands of Alexander Payne, who has few equals in filtering serious issues through his offbeat sense of humor, this pitch-perfect picture offers an unusually truthful portrayal of both modern family relationships and the comedic aspects of even the gravest circumstances

       Central to making the film work at such a high level is yet another impeccable performance by George Clooney, easily the most reliable barometer of Hollywood quality working today. Whether he stars in a wacky comedy (“O Brother Where Art Thou?” “Intolerable Cruelty”), an intense drama (“Michael Clayton,” “Syriana”), the combination of the two (“The Three Kings,” “Up in the Air”)  or is sitting in the director’s chair (“Good Night, and Good Luck”), Clooney’s name on a film is as close as you can find to a guarantee that it will be among the year’s best.

      Here he’s Matt King, a well-connected Hawaiian real estate lawyer and descendent of island royalty King Kamehameha. While he’s dealing with his wife’s condition and coping with being a fulltime parent to two daughters—a precocious pre-teen and a rebellious college-age girl—he is representing his family as they negotiation with developers to sell a large parcel of beachfront property on Kauai.

       Just when you think you know where the film is headed, a very natural, but unexpected plot turn sends King and his daughters (along with Sid, the elder girl’s thick-headed friend) to Kauai for some sleuthing.

      It’s the rare movie that offers such a complex and subtle father-daughter relationship, superbly written by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel and fueled by two exceptional performances. Shailene Woodley, the star of the TV series “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” gives a star-making performance as Alexandra, the older daughter who can be a total pain, but shows the maturity to straighten up and take on responsibility when it’s necessary. This isn’t a one-way relationship, as Clooney, surprisingly convincing as a rather ordinary father figure, finds a center to his life while facing a series of extraordinary events with his daughters.

     But the film overflows with well-written, superbly acted characters, including Amara Miller as younger daughter Scottie, a 10-year-old growing up too quickly for her father to handle; veteran actor Robert Forrester as Clooney’s feisty father-in-law; Judy Greer as the wife of a real estate agent who becomes entangled with the King family business; and Nick Krause as the continually amusing Sid.

     Despite a resume that features “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “Sideways,” this may be Payne’s best film. “Descendants” walks a narrow path between the tragedy and absurdity of life to create one of the most entertaining and insightful family dramas in recent years.

     Why is it that the rest of the world manages to enjoy and appreciate American films without feeling the need to remake them in their own language?

     There’s no French version of “The Bourne Ultimatum” or an Italian-language adaptation of “The King’s Speech.” Where’s the Japanese take on “The Fight Club?” Sounds ridiculous, yet, in this country, you can’t get people into the theater unless England-speaking movie stars are playing the major roles. Thus, the superbly made and admired Swedish film, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” has been made palatable for American audiences, the remake hitting the nation’s theaters barely a year after the original.

     Putting aside the redundancy of its existence, this David Fincher-directed remake is a first-rate thriller, slicker and more direct than the original, but equally fast-paced and involving.

     Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading Swedish journalist (the actors are English speaking but the setting remains frigid Scandinavia), whose work with the magazine Millennium has just resulted in a massive court ruling against him for libel. Out of sorts, he’s persuaded to investigate the long-ago murder of the teenage niece of Henrik Vanger, a retired businessman (Christopher Plummer). Blomkvist moves into a servant’s quarters on the island where various family members reside, even though most haven’t spoken to one another in decades.

      While Blomkvist’s probe into this dysfunctional family methodically unfolds, the film cross-cuts to Lisbeth Salander, a multi-pierced, emotionally repressed young computer expert—who investigated Blomkvist before he was hired by Vanger—is dealing with a new court-appointed guardian (she’s a ward of the state) who’s a repulsive sexual predator.

       Though Rooney Mara, who had a small role in Fincher’s “The Social Network,” doesn’t quite match the unrestrained ferocity of Noomi Rapace in the original, the relative newcomer brings a welcomed touching sadness to Lisbeth even as she’s enacting violent revenge or doing her best to steer clear of the world. It’d be easy to lose sight of Lisbeth’s humanity while portraying this spiked-haired, impossibly cool character, but Mara proves up to the task and, in doing so, makes the film something special.

     Eventually these two master sleuths (Lisbeth can seemingly hack into any computer system or e-mail account) join forces; Mikael bringing out the best in Lisbeth as they get dangerously close to the shocking truth behind the mystery.

     If my memory is to be trusted, there are only slight differences between the two versions: Fincher brings a flashier filmmaking style to the film, intensifying some of the action, while Steven Zaillian’s screenplay provides a bit more interaction (sexual and otherwise) between the two leads. Topping the original are the crisp cinematograph by Jeff Cronenweth and a pounding score by Trent Rezner and Atticus Ross.

   All of which shows that this fascinating, if unwieldy, tale of long-hidden family secrets and the two quirky individuals charged with investigating would probably be just as good in Chinese.  

SON OF THE GODS (1930) and OLIVER TWIST  (1922)
      While most film depictions of racial prejudice address injustice in the past, “Son of the Gods,” a rarely screened melodrama, tells a contemporary story of racism against Chinese Americans.

      Unfortunately, this early sound film from Frank Lloyd (director of best picture winners “Cavalcade” and “Mutiny on the Bounty”) is undercut by casting of unmistakably Caucasian Richard Barthelmess in the lead and an utterly compromised ending.

     Barthelmess plays a wealthy Chinese businessman’s son, who, when the film opens, is attending college and attempting to fit into mainstream society. Because he looks no different than any of his white friends, it’s a shock when a group of girls at a nightclub go ballistic when they find out he’s a “chink” and that he might touch them.

     Later, after quitting school and travelling in Europe, a well-to-do woman pursues him, only to publically humiliate him when she learns he’s Chinese.

     Understandably, Sam grows bitter and forsakes all his father stood for, making life difficult for the whites he does business with and shutting himself off from society.

     I won’t reveal the surprise conclusion, but it allows for a Hollywood happy ending even as it weakens the film’s point.

     Barthelmess, who always looked as if he was about to face his executioner, is unconvincing as a man anyone would think was Chinese or even raised in a Chinese community. I can only guess that he was cast in this role because he played a Chinese man (using heavy makeup) in “Broken Blossoms.”

    Constance Bennett, as the woman who grows to love Sam despite his differences, shows here why she became one of the top stars of the 1930s, going on to star in “What Price Hollywood?” (1932), “The Affairs of Cellini” (1934), “Topper” (1937) and “Merrily, We Live” (1938). She’s already comfortable acting with sound, in sharp contrast to Barthelmess.

     While the direction isn’t up to Lloyd’s high standards (camera movement is severely reduced because of the limited range of the microphone), there’s a short flashback sequence to Sam’s youth in San Francisco that truly looks like a clip from a film shot at the turn of the century. It’s a moment of emotional gravitas in a film that ends up pulling its punches.

     Lloyd’s 1922 condensed version of the Charles Dickens’ classic is a better example of the director’s keen ability to tell a story on film. Beautifully staged and shot, “Oliver Twist” also benefits greatly from the presence of two of the era’s best actors, Lon Chaney and Jackie Coogan.

    Coogan is as plucky and unpretentious as Oliver, the orphan who suffers the indignities of 19th Century England, as he was in his legendary role in “The Kid” (1921).

      Chaney is surprisingly restrained as the notorious Fagan, avoiding the Jewish caricature than has tainted the book over the years, including in Alec Guinness’ performance in the David Lean film version.

     Even with those two legends in the key roles, George Siegmann gives the showiest performance, bringing out the masochistic evil of henchman Bill Sikes. Siegmann, who started in movies in 1909, had roles in D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” and “Hearts of the West” and played Porthos opposite Douglas Fairbanks in the 1921 version of “The Three Musketeers.”

     The tinted print of “Oliver Twist” has been superbly restored and probably ranks as one of the better silents still existing from the early 1920s. It’s worth seeing out.

    Though he worked sparingly after World War II, Lloyd didn’t retire until 1955. “The Last Command,” starring Sterling Hayden as Texas legend Jim Bowie, was his final film.

HUGO (2011)
    As unimaginable as it seems that the director of “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “The Departed” would make a 3-D children film, it’s clear what drew Martin Scorsese to “Hugo.”

     Beyond the cute, episodical tale of a young orphan living in the clockworks of the Paris train station in the 1920s, avoiding the clutches of a heartless security guard and befriending a prickly magic shop proprietor, the soft-hearted movie is about the rediscovery of French film pioneer Georges Méliès. When Scorsese’s not making movies, he’s one of the country’s foremost film historians and supporter of preservation and he clearly enjoyed recreating the studio and movie sets of Méliès’ groundbreaking pictures.

      Méliès invented such filmmaking techniques as the dissolve, split screen and double exposure and essentially created movie special effects while making hundreds of shorts from 1986 to 1913. The magician started making movies, and soon created one of the first movie studios, after seeing an early demonstration of the Lumière brothers’ cinématographe, the first movie projector, in 1895.

     Méliès most famous production, the 15-minute-long “A Trip to the Moon” opened in 1902. But his fame lasted just a few years as his short works lost popularity to more realistic and longer films. He lost his studio by 1910 and was out of the business three years later. More than a decade later, his contributions to the cinema began to be recognized and he was award the Legion of Honor by the French government. He died in 1938.     

    While it is a worthy effort to shine a light on Méliès’ accomplishments (though I wonder how many viewers will even realize he’s an actual historical figure), the film’s production design is the only reason to see the picture. The Méliès recreations and the wondrous world of the train station, especially the intricate workings of the station’s clocks, should win designer Dante Ferretti his third Oscar.

    The story and acting leave much to be desired, as the adventures of young Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and the shopkeeper’s daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz, trying way too hard) grow tiresome quickly and the angry adults (Ben Kingsley playing the mysterious shopkeeper as a Dickens-like villain, and Sacha Baron Cohen as the fascist security guard) playing out cliché roles.

    Don’t let the reviews fool you: This really is a kids’ film; a very elaborate, expertly construction one, but a movie not made for real fans of the director.

THE TRIP  (2011)
     As we all have learned, it’s all about the journey, not the destination. For better or worse, that’s the theme of this extended comic skit between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing characters based on themselves as first introduced in Michael Winterbottom’s “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.”

     This time, Winterbottom, one of Britain’s most adventurous directors (“The Claim,” “The Road to Guantanamo,” “A Mighty Heart”), sends the constantly bickering pair on an eating tour of Northern England. During their stays at beautifully tended country inns, their meals at chi-chi restaurants and driving through the astonishingly picturesque countryside, we’re treated (aka subjected) to Brydon’s endless vocal impressions of Anthony Hopkins, Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Ian McKellen among others and Coogan’s constant putdown of his talents. (At one point, they do dueling Woody Allen impressions across the dinner table.)

     Coogan, the more successful of the two (as long-running British TV character Alan Partridge and in various Hollywood films), plays the arrogant, needy superstar, picking up every young woman he meets and spending countless hours on the phone with agents. Brydon, also a staple of British TV comedy, simply misses his wife and newborn baby.

     Everyone has friends who they enjoy spending time with….up to a point. And at that point, you’re tempted to strangle them. Both Coogan and Brydon fit that description. Depending on your tolerance level, “The Trip” will feel excruciatingly endless or wildly hilarious. And, if you can’t get enough of these guys’ humor, the film is actually a trimmed down version of the six-episode British television series. I think I’ll pass.

    Despite two superb portrayals of movie legends—both going well beyond impersonations—this depiction of the making of the Laurence Olivier-Marilyn Monroe 1957 movie, “The Prince and the Showgirl” never rises beyond stagy recreation.

      Based on the recollections of Colin Clark, a young assistant on the British film, the movie paints Monroe as needy, manipulative, naïve, disturbed, fun-loving, a great actress, a terrible actress, irresponsible and totally dedicated. Just like the other thousand remembrances of the actress since her death in 1962, this one offers a Marilyn everyone can pick their favorite personality for. I think that’s an important reason why this slightly talented pin-up girl from a half-century ago remains such an object of interest: you can select whatever Marilyn you want to like and it’s just as viable as anyone else’s.

    This cult has turned her into the most overrated actress in film history and “My Week with Marilyn” does its part to validate the myth. Director Simon Curtis, making his feature debut, is clearly enamored of Marilyn.

     It’s the classically trained British performers, led by Olivier (played to perfection by Kenneth Branagh) and Sybil Thorndike (Judy Dench), who are painted as elitists for expecting Miss Monroe (played by Michelle Williams in a performance beyond what the real Monroe could ever hope to give) to know her lines and show up for work on time. It’s really the fault of her sycophant, soul-sucking personal assistants (especially acting coach Paula Strasberg, well played by Zoe Wanamaker) who don’t really care about Marilyn the person. And, of course, it’s the terrible life of a Hollywood star that slowly eats away at her sanity. Who can blame her?

     One feels pity for this woman who couldn’t handle the pressures of her chosen profession and ended her life at 36 (if it wasn’t suicide, it was pretty close), but thousand of other performers have faced the same stress, the same temptations, the same expectations and done quite well. Sometimes, listening to the Marilyn story—in this film and elsewhere—you would think she was the only beautiful woman who ever faced hardship in Hollywood.

     My rant on the real Monroe aside, the film’s focus on Clark’s (played by Eddie Redmayne as a wide-eyed, dopey schoolboy) time spent with Monroe after her husband, playwright Arthur Miller, goes back to the states, doesn’t bring out anything interesting or new about the actress.

    But Williams finds a way to create a character who is probably more complex and interesting than Monroe ever was, showing this bundle of contradictions as doomed to a life of despair, in spite (and because of) her fame. It’s an excellent performance, but how much of it is Marilyn is anyone’s guess.

     Though Williams was equally impressive in “Blue Valentine” (2010) and “Wendy and Lucy” (2008), this performance officially moves her into the major leagues and part of the discussion of Hollywood’s best actresses.

     Just as remarkable, especially considering the film’s clunky and unimaginative script (by Adrian Hodges), is Branagh’s turn as Sir Larry. He captures the great man’s vanity and bravado along with the subtle ways he altered his voice, used his eyes and mouth when acting and even how he held his head. For fans of Olivier, Branagh’s performance is worth the price of admission.

      It’s especially ironic that Branagh (amazingly, at 51, a year older than Olivier was in 1957) would portray the acting legend, after repeating Olivier’s triumphs as an actor-director with his remakes of “Henry V” (1989) and “Hamlet” (1996) early in his career. Since then, Branagh’s career has stalled until his recent television work as the moody detective “Wallander” has rejuvenated his career. This role may score him an Oscar nod and accelerated his film opportunities.

     The actual “The Prince and the Showgirl” was a major disappointment and my dim memory of it (I haven’t watched it in 20 years) is as a stiff, embarrassingly unfunny waste of everyone’s time and effort.  On top of that, many survivors from the production have cast doubt on the veracity of Clark’s recollections about his and Monroe’s time together. But who cares: it’s just another piece of Marilyn memorabilia that fails to offer any sense of perspective to this oft-told tale.

THE ARTIST  (2011)
     There’s nothing worse than coming into a movie with preconceived notions. In this case, I expected to see a silent movie about the real consequences of the arrival of talking pictures. Instead, “The Artist” is a parody of a silent movie; an artificial movie in which the people act like characters in a silent movie, not real people who acted in movies in the 1920s. “Singin’ in the Rain,” a musical comedy, brought a more realistic portrayal of the era to the screen.

      How can I believe in these characters if they act as if they’re silent movie clichés instead of a flesh-and-blood people dealing with the complete changeover of their industry? French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, who wrote and directed the film, seems to have a surprising hit on his hand along with a shoo-in for a best-picture Oscar nomination, but, to me, the movie fails in almost every aspect.

      Jean Dujardin, a French actor best known for his turn as a comic spy in two “OSS 17” films for Hazanavicius, plays George Valentin (a little too close to Valentino for my taste), a star of American silents who finds his career all-but over when sound sweeps the business in 1927-28. At the same time, a perky extra (Bérénice Bejo) Valentin meets at an opening and gives a break to, emerges as a matinée idol of the re-tooled art form.

     So begins the “A Star Is Born” plotline as these two lives head in opposite direction while never losing sight of one another.  There’s little more to the script and, beyond a few beautifully staged and shot scenes, the film is slow and visually uninteresting.

Dujardin, though handcuffed by the director’s insistence for artificiality, has a handful of emotionally truthful moments, but not enough to salvage this shallow film.

      One of the film’s better performances is given by Penelope Ann Miller as Valentin’s unhappy wife. It’s eerie how much Miller looks like actress Dorothy Comingore, who played a thinly veiled version of silent star Marion Davies in “Citizen Kane,” another movie this silent copies. (Later, it lifts sections of the score to “Vertigo” to intensify a key dramatic scene—that seems like cheating.)

       It seems that the allure of a 21st Century black-and-white silent—forget about its content or purpose—was all that was needed to turn “The Artist” into a critical hit.

     In fact, even with all the technical advances of the past 80 years, I have my doubts that “The Artist” would make a Top 10 if it was competing against films from 1928. In many ways, this film is made for moviegoers who haven’t seen that many silents. For those who know silent filmmaking, this has to be a disappointment in that Hazanavicius makes little attempt to replicate any of the stylistic touches of the late silents or even direct the film with any of the flair of the era. This is a silent film made as if it were a 2011 Hollywood release—with little camera movement and predictable composition. Some of the most innovative filmmaking the cinema has ever seen took place before sound, but you’d never guess that from “The Artist.”

    Maybe I was expecting too much. It’s not a bad film, but if it was in color and with a soundtrack would it even have been released? Like many believed about talking pictures, “The Artist” is purely a novelty.


Dana King said...

I'm guessing here, but I can think of two reasons Americans remake foreign films off the top of my head:

1. American audiences like recognizable names to open a movie. This version of TGWTDT has James Bond--sorry, Daniel Craig in it, not some guy they never heard of with an unpronounceable name.

2. Godzilla Syndrome. We've made fun of dubbed movies for so long, it's impossible to take them seriously. So much content moves from the US to Europe, they either A) don't mind, or B) speak English well enough to enjoy the original.

Either movie has to be better than the book, which might be the most overrated thing I've ever read.

Anonymous said...

We enjoy your article a lot.

Anonymous said...

You really see 200 movies a year?? Not this year!
Chou Tai Tai