The Descendants (2011) Review

14 03 2012

Copyright 2011 Fox Searchlight Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★

This was the final film that was a major contender in this year’s awards season that I had yet to see.  In retrospect, though an enjoyable flick, I’m not upset we missed this one in the theaters.

George Clooney plays Matt King, a real estate attorney who lives in Oahu, Hawaii.  More importantly than his profession, however, is that he belongs to a family who has a long-line of land ownership on the Hawaiian islands, specifically on Kauai, that has been set up in a trust for years.  The large land ownership is what is left of a royal inheritance his great-great-great grandmother received in the 1860s from her lineage in the Hawaiian royal family.  With just seven years until the trust is absolved and being the primary beneficiary, Matt, along with his cousins, are planning a sale of the lands that will make all of them multimillionaires.  During this process, however, his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), is put into a coma from a boating accident, which leaves Matt to also deal with raising his semi-estranged children, Alexandra(Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller).  Around the same time that he learns of Elizabeth’s imminent death because of her will, which states she doesn’t want to live in a persistent vegetative state, he also learns from his daughter that his wife was having an affair and planned to leave him anyway before the accident.  All of these personal events begin to reshape his perspective as he tries to cope with this newfound knowledge.

I have a love/hate relationship with Alexander Payne’s movies.  There are some that are just totally boring to me, like About Schmidt; then there are others that I absolutely adore, like Sideways.  This film fell somewhere in between.  As a whole, it was an enjoyable and interesting character study set in the beautiful Hawaiian islands, but I have to admit that there were several times I looked at the clock during this film.  As with most of Payne’s adaptations, the film did have a tight script and actually won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, Payne’s second in that category.  Clooney’s performance is a high point in the film as he manages, quite successfully, to transcend his movie star persona and is very believable as every-man Matt King.  The inner turmoil of the character plays out nicely and, as an audience member, its quite easy to feel the empathy needed for his character that makes the film itself succeed.

Personally, I could have shaved 15 minutes out of the third act and been happier with it, but all-in-all, it was a solid production with a great performance by Clooney in the lead.





Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) Review

12 03 2012

Copyright 1979 Columbia Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Maddie had never seen this film and it had been probably 7-10 years since my last viewing, so we decided to fire it up on Netflix Instant Watch on Saturday night to wind down the evening.

Dustin Hoffman plays Ted Kramer, an NYC art director at a Madison Avenue advertising firm, who his quickly climbing his way up the corporate ladder.  At home, he has his wife, Joanna (Meryl Streep), and son, Billy (Justin Henry).  After learning he has just scored a huge account with the company that could be his ticket to success, his wife announces that she is leaving him and Billy.  At first, he thinks it’s some kind of a joke, but soon realizes that Joanna is serious about deserting her family, leaving him to raise their six-year-old son.  For a man who has constantly focused on his occupation, the added responsibilities of raising Billy are a hard-learned process.  However, as time passes, he and Billy grow quite close and their relationship blossoms.  After nearly a year and a half away, Joanna decides to return to New York from California, and wants to take custody of Billy.  Having now built a life with his son, Ted refuses to had over custody and the issue ends up in court, where many settlements are given to the woman out of gender stereotype alone.

This is a very solid film.  By synopsis, it might sound simple, but it is the sum of the parts that make this film such an enjoyable and wonderful experience.  The unobtrusive direction and tight script by Robert Benton, amazing performances by Hoffman, Streep and 8-year-old newcomer Henry, and naturalistic cinematography by Nestor Almendros, all intertwine beautifully in creating this touching movie.  Henry became, and still is, the youngest nominee for an Academy Award in the competitive categories for his Best Supporting Actor nod, though he didn’t win.  Among other nominations, the film did win Best Picture, Best Actor for Hoffman, Best Supporting Actress for Meryl Streep, and Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Robert Benton.

There is nothing grandiose about this picture; it is simply a small film with the basic elements of telling a story visually.  However, it succeeds on such a level that I think nearly any audience member would enjoy Kramer vs. Kramer and find it immensely entertaining.  It goes to show how important a good story and solid characters are in motion picture production and makes me long for more simple, yet concrete stories like this one to come back to the forefront of American cinema.





The Rum Diary (2011)

5 03 2012

Copyright 2011 GK Films

★ ★ ★ 1/2

This film had an interesting spin for me.  When I first heard about it, it became one of my most anticipated movies of the year because of the source material (the book of the same name by legendary Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson) and the writer/director Bruce Robinson (director of Withnail and I and his first feature film in nearly 20 years).  However, once the film was released, the critics didn’t necessarily pan it out right, but the reviews were admittedly lackluster.  So, because of this, I put off seeing this movie and, rather than having too high expectations as originally was the case, I lowered my expectations greatly and went into the film planning on being completely let down.  After viewing, I can see how some people wouldn’t enjoy the movie, but for me, it still hit a chord in much the same way Withnail and I did for me.  Honestly, I had a hard time deciding whether this should be rated a three and a half star or four star film, I guess for me it’s somewhere in the middle.

Johnny Depp plays aspiring novelist and American freelance journalist Paul Kemp, a character who himself is an alter ego of author Hunter S. Thompson.  On assignment, he starts a job at the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico in the early 1960s writing horoscopes and other pointless articles for tourists under the discretion of editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), during a turbulent time in the country’s history, where island natives and the touristy expatriates from America are at bitter ends.  Kemp takes up eventual residence with the paper photographer, Sala (Michael Rispoli), and the two carry out many nights of drunken amusement, along with complete alcoholic Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi),  while in the day concerned with the changing culture on the island.  In addition, during his time on the island, Kemp becomes reluctantly involved with a plan to foster a military bombing island into a hotel/resort attraction with the insistence of self-proclaimed PR guru Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), whose girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard), becomes an infatuation during his tenure.

What struck me about this film was two things: 1) the camaraderie of being in constant limbo in a Catch-22 situation where alcohol and drugs seems your only escape to “normalcy” and 2) the analysis of Puerto Rico during this turbulent time in the country’s history.  I related and found interest in the first bullet point in much the same way I did in watching Withnail and I, in that, I have had a period of my life that felt very much like that.  A period of constant intoxication in need of normalcy, while striving to find a creative voice in the chaos that is our world.  To me, I think every young artist has this period and, I won’t hesitate to say, I would likely still be in this period had I been able to continue to pursue the dreams of my youth.  Not that I have given up on my goals, but I have had to suck it up and get a “real” job and become a bit more of a cog in society, as opposed to the meandering drink laden writer/filmmaker/musician that is more in character with my genetic makeup.  The second point is what really encompasses the story of this film; without it, the whole movie would just be one long binge, and that doesn’t work as a story.  However, I can see how some would find the essence of Puerto Rico at this time to not really be of interest; yet, for me, it kept my attention throughout.

I’ve not read the novel, so I can’t compare the book to the movie.  Speaking on the film’s merits alone, however, I think this presents an accurate vision of what life for a personality such as Kemp’s was and would react in this particular setting and time period.  Though it’s not for everyone, it worked for me.








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