Director Alexander Payne's (Election Sideways) new film opens over sprawling landscape shots of Hawaii's scenic suburbia accompanied by George Clooney's character Matt King summing up his current predicament: "Paradise can go fuck itself." The reaction unfortunately is reasonable.
We pick up with King an ancestor of Hawaiian royalty in the middle of deliberations over a plot of land handed down through his family over generations. With every uncle aunt and cosign whispering opinions into his ear King is suddenly presented with an even greater problem: taking care of his two daughters. A boating accident leaves his wife in a coma forcing Matt to take a true parenting role with his young socially-troubled daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and his rebellious teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who was previously shipped off to boarding school. Matt awkwardly hunts for the emotional glue necessary for the mismatched bunch to become "a family " but matters are made even more complicated when Alex reveals that her mother was cheating on him before the accident. Murphy's Law is in full effect.
With The Descendants Payne continues to explore and discover the inherent humor in life's melancholic situations unfolding Matt's quest for understanding like a road movie across Hawaii's many islands. Simultaneously preparing for the end of his wife's death and searching for the identity of her lover Matt crosses paths with a number of perfectly cast side characters who act as mirrors to his best and worst qualities: his father-in-law Scott (Robert Foster) who belittles Matt for never taking care of his daughter; Hugh (Beau Bridges) an opportunistic cousin who pressures Matt to sell the land; Alexandra's dunce of a boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) who always has the wrong thing to say; and Julie (Judy Greer) the wife of the adulterer in question. Colorful yet real Matt experiences a definitive moment with each of them yet the picture never feels sporadic or episodic.
Clooney and Woodley help gel these sequences together as they observe experience and butt heads as equals. Clooney's own magnetism stands in the way of making Matt a fully dimensional character but he shines when playing off his quick-witted daughter. His reactions are heartbreaking—but it's the moments when he has to put himself out there that never quite ring true. But the script by Nat Faxon Jim Rash and Payne gives Clooney plenty of opportunities to work his magic visualizing his struggle as opposed to vomiting it out like so many of today's talky dramas.
The Descendants is a tender cinematic experience an introspective and heartwarming film unafraid to convey its story with pleasing simplicity. Clooney stands out with a solid performance but like many of Payne's films it's the eclectic ensemble and muted backdrop that give the movie its real texture. The paradise of Descendants isn't all its cracked up to be but for movie-goers it's bliss.
There are two ways to judge Dan Rush's directorial debut Everything Must Go. You can look at the film itself and/or you can grade star Will Ferrell’s performance. To explain my rating I would give the actual film 4 stars while Ferrell’s performance earns a solid 5. Since they go hand in hand the average represents my rating: 4.5 stars.
The film follows Ferrell as a recovering alcoholic who relapses
after losing his job. He comes home to find that his wife has left him and
put all of his stuff on their front lawn prompting his decision to live on his yard. But local laws prohibit that (and some
neighbors don’t approve) so he is forced to turn the whole thing into a yard sale within
five days. If you can spot the metaphor between the things on the lawn
and his troubles congrats! You’ve cleared Metaphors 101. We’ll cover
similes next week. Anyway living on the lawn causes Ferrell to look
back and ponder over his life decisions. Helping him along the way is
newcomer Christopher Wallace (Biggie’s son) the precocious child that
helps teach him a lesson. Again a more overused cliche couldn’t be
found but it’s done right and Wallace is a joy to watch on screen.
Rebecca Hall as the pregnant neighbor who befriends Ferrell while he's camping on the lawn is a pleasant surprise as well holding her own against the star's incredible energy.
On Ferrell’s performance: It's by no means revolutionary for the craft of acting but is a breakout turn for the funny man. A more traditional dramatic actor could’ve lazily walked through the script and come out fine on the other end but Ferrell's portrayal is stark raw and real. You know the Will Ferrell scream? Imagine someone doing that not because it's funny but because it's their only means of expressing emotion. That’s what he does in this movie. He took the energy he employs in his comedies to reach new manic heights and channeled it into the darkest corners of the human psyche. The closest thing we can compare it to is Stranger Than Fiction since it's his only other dramatic role worthy of note (in that it's something most people know about and can compare to) but that film had a strong narrative hook that took care of all the whimsy so Ferrell could just be “normal.” Everything Must Go doesn’t have the benefit of that hook so Ferrell jumps headfirst into the pits of human emotion. I highly doubt it’ll garner him any award nominations but it was pleasing to see that he can actually act. And in hindsight it makes the crazy Ferrell that much funnier.
Onto the actual film: a fairly standard black comedy and that is by no means an insult. Standard can be good as long as it’s handled well and director Rush treads through the narrative carefully. The story jumps around a bit as the characters get the inspiration they need to move on to the next plot point awfully quickly but that affords cinematographer Michael Barrett more time to capture the beautiful South West landscape. Though there isn’t anything amazing about the film it is solid movie executed really well. A refreshing change of pace for Ferrell and a delightfully dark change of mood in the doldrums of the summer blockbuster.
What do the following movies have in common: Crash, Little Miss Sunshine, The Hurt Locker, The Kids Are All Right and Winter's Bone? Not only were all of them hit indie movies that were nominated for (and in some cases won) the Oscar for Best Picture, but they were all summer releases. The major studios spend their summers focusing on blockbusters and tentpole movies like Transformers and wait until year’s end to release more serious, artistic fare. Meanwhile, indie distributors take advantage of the dearth of mature, intelligent or just offbeat programming for more adventurous moviegoers, and this summer yields one of the strongest selections of such films to come along in a while. There’s a wide assortment of films from all over that bring the kind of diversity that this season’s major studio slate doesn’t provide, and they’re all hitting theaters over the next four months.
BIG STARS, LITTLE MOVIES
Just because it’s an indie doesn’t mean there are no names to entice audiences, and this summer’s indie selection offers some top names in smaller, more personal films…
Everything Must Go (May 13)
Behind every comedian is a serious actor just waiting to come out, and Will Ferrell is no different, here playing a man who loses everything in his life – his job, his marriage and his home – in one day, so he sells off his belongings on his front lawn for days on end. Based on a short story by Raymond Carver, it’s still got moments of humor, but it’s mainly a fine showcase of Ferrell’s dramatic gifts.
Hesher (May 13)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the mysterious stranger who literally walks into the lives of Rainn Wilson and Natalie Portman in this very offbeat and original comedy/drama from director Spenser Susser.
Midnight in Paris (May 20)
This year’s opening-night film at the Cannes Film Festival, Woody Allen brings us a comedic fantasy starring Owen Wilson as an American tourist who uncovers a mysterious portal that transports him to Paris in the 1920s. As usual, Allen lines up a star-studded cast (including Rachel McAdams, Adrien Brody, Michael Sheen and Marion Cotillard) and great locations in a film that promises good, old-fashioned movie fantasy.
Beginners (June 3)
Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) star in this comedy/drama from writer/director Mike Mills (not the R.E.M. guitarist) about the romantic foibles of a man (McGregor) who falls in love just as his aging father (Plummer) comes out of the closet.
Our Idiot Brother (August 26)
Paul Rudd stars as the title character, a lifelong slacker whose return after a stint in jail wreaks havoc on his sisters (Elizabeth Banks, Emily Mortimer and Zooey Deschanel).
Last year’s Toronto fest and this year’s Sundance fest held a record for amount of multimillion-dollar acquisitions, and most of them (such as the aforementioned Our Idiot Brother) are starting to make their way to theaters this summer, starting with Submarine (June 10), the acclaimed coming-of-age comedy from British comedian Richard Ayoade, best known in the U.S. for his role on IFC’s The I.T. Crowd… Another pair of famed British comics, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, join acclaimed director Michael Winterbottom on The Trip (June 10), which has already caused a viral video sensation online with Coogan and Brydon’s competing Michael Caine impersonations… The complications of young love in NYC hit Freddie Highmore and Emma Roberts in The Art of Getting By (June 17), which was originally titled Homework when it premiered at Sundance… Another Earth (July 23), co-written by and starring Brit Marling (who became this year’s breakout star at Sundance) takes a sci-fi premise – the discovery of a second Earth – but takes a more philosophical and dramatic approach to the subject… Another Sundance 2011 star is Dominic Cooper, who earned praise in the dual role of the sadistic Uday Hussein and the man picked to be his unwilling double in The Devil's Double (July 29)… Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga stars as a woman seeking spiritual enlightenment in Higher Ground (August 12), which also marks the Up in the Air star’s directorial debut… Finally, there’s Bellflower (August 5), one of the most talked-about films at both Sundance and SXSW, a true original about love, muscle cars, flame throwers and the end of the world. Tough to pinpoint, but this is one you’ll definitely be hearing about and is well worth seeing.
Some of the strongest titles of any movie year are usually the documentaries, and summer 2011 brings us some truly great ones, starting with Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times (June 24), which shows the inner workings at one of the world’s most powerful newspapers; it’s an absolute must for anyone interested in journalism and the changing information age… On the stranger side of the news comes Oscar winner Errol Morris’ Tabloid (July 15), the bizarre true story of a former beauty queen who abducts a Mormon missionary as a sex slave… And Oscar-winning director James Marsh (Man on Wire) returns with Project Nim (July 8), the account of a 1970s experiment that raised a chimpanzee as a human child.
If you want a better example of the wide variety of indie films coming out this summer, look no further than such oddities as Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun (May 6), starring Rutger Hauer in the title role (“Delivering justice… one shell at a time!”); The Troll Hunter (June 10), a Norwegian monster epic in which a documentary film crew uncovers a secret government agency whose job is to keep Norway’s trolls in line; and acclaimed Spanish director Alex De La Iglesia’s The Last Circus (August 12), the story of two circus clowns violently battling over the same woman in post-Franco Spain.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Carbon copying the already overly convoluted idea from the previous Final Destination movies the latest worst installment continues on the theme of one unlucky twentysomething being able to predict who’s going to die and when; this time it’s Nick. After attending a NASCAR race with his girlfriend Lori and their friends Hunt and Janet Nick has a premonition about an elaborate horrific accident that threatens everyone present. Naturally it comes true — and even though plenty of people die in the stands Death (you know the bogeyman) has only just begun. But Nick realizes that he might be able to save the survivors of that day by remembering the order in which they're supposed to die and warning them of their imminent demise. Unfortunately though not everyone believes him and they carry on with their dangerous activities ... like going to a hair salon or — gulp! — through a carwash.
WHO’S IN IT?
Up-and-coming actor Bobby Campo plays the main pretty young thing and he makes the best of what is ultimately an untenable and God-awful role to have to accept. Still fresh faces capable of pulling off his part are a dime a dozen and Destination’s past leads like Mary Elizabeth Winstead at least left us feeling their fear. Supporting actresses Shantel VanSanten as Lori and Haley Webb as Janet are there for little more than eye candy and ear-shredding screams while former MTV 'It' dude Nick Zano as the obnoxious clichéd — and obnoxiously clichéd — Hunt can’t even provide the occasional comic relief for which he was brought on. The lone bright spot comes courtesy of an evidently desperate-for-work Mykelti Williamson (aka Bubba in Forrest Gump) who plays a widowed security guard adding a shred of cred to the otherwise disposable cast (which includes a barely there Krista Allen).
Clocking in at a mercifully brisk hour and 15 minutes the makers of TFD find one way to not essentially call us stupid: They know we want our scares quickly and they deliver — except for actually scaring us. Aside from its running time the aforementioned credible performance by Williamson is literally all the movie has going for it.
Wow where to begin? Destination another in a loooong line of wholly unnecessary sequels is riddled with problems — from the are-you-kidding-me? “special” effects (even in 3-D) to the jaw-droppingly horrendous writing. Director David R. Ellis (helmer of the infinitely better Final Destination 2) should bear much of the blame. He seems uninterested in delivering anything that people go to the movies for; this Destination is nothing more than tenuously connected scenes of video-game-like deaths that try to one-up each other. And not one of the sequences is even mildly suspenseful or scary — just disturbing in the sense that some people will actually smirk in earnest at the cartoonishness of it all.
The writing though is the real culprit. Eric Bress’ (also an FD2 alum) script is incredibly unimaginative merely recycling similar but better executed scenarios from the three previous movies and swapping out the settings. With ideas so bad Bress makes it abundantly clear that there’s no inane death massacre left to explore at this point; it's basically a metaphorical surrender. And yet the dialogue is even worse — with stock stereotypical block characters muttering it to boot.
LEAST FAVORITE SCENE?
Not to completely give it away — lest we make the movie predictable! — but one of the death scenes is just so far beyond ridiculous that it transcends even sarcastic laughter. Hint: It involves water and it’s about midway through the movie … if you dare stay that long.
Even if you’re not a cinephile and you couldn’t care less about things like character depth and plot development and you’re looking for a very quick thrill The Final Destination is well beneath you. It makes recent straight-to-DVD releases look like fully coherent masterpieces. Whether in 3-D or 2-D it’s a mustn't-see!
In the Australian town of Jindabyne mystery flows like the river and the river is about to overflow. Racecar driver-turned-mechanic Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) goes on his annual fishing trip with three buddies (John Howard Stelios Yiakmis and Simon Stone) leaving his ill wife Claire (Laura Linney) at home with their son. While on the trip Stewart and his friends discover a young Aboriginal woman’s dead body floating in the water but lest the trout swim away they decide to wait till morning to alert the authorities. The four friends wind up paying for that non-decision in ways they hadn’t previously foreseen. Upon returning home they’re greeted by what they think is undue public outrage but none is heavier than the punishment levied onto Stewart by an already skeptical Claire. She was the last of the wives to learn of Stewart’s particularly unforgivable actions that day and she joins the rest of the community in not being able to look him in the eye. She demands he act like a man and show his face at the victim’s traditional Aboriginal burial ceremony as a last resort to some semblance of redemption. Meanwhile the actual serial killer remains at large and makes no attempt to run or hide from anybody. But as is the running theme of Jindabyne who is the real bad guy? Laura Linney the lone American in the movie headlines a cast of well-proven veterans. No contemporary actress not named Streep or Dench does “adult” quite like Linney and Jindabyne is another dazzling notch on her belt. As always Linney keeps things tense the whole way through even during the first half in which her character is fairly content; however she makes it clear that everything’s not OK despite seeming superficially so. But more than anything Linney’s Claire marks a welcome if much more dramatic return to her You Can Count on Me roots. Byrne who appeared alongside Linney in 2004’s P.S. turns in perhaps his darkest emotional performance to date. His Stewart turns into a pathetic shadow of a man towards the end with one shot at potential redemption and Byrne—an odd casting choice because he’s an Irishman playing an Aussie—really makes it stick. The rest of the largely Australian cast won’t be recognized by American viewers but they’re quite frequently employed in their native film industry and for good reason. Deborra-Lee Furness aka Mrs. Hugh Jackman especially stands out as one of the frantic newly ostracized wives. Jindabyne is director Ray Lawrence’s third film; his first was in 1985. For that reason it’s fair to say he’s Australia’s Terrence Malick. Every second of film for Lawrence like Malick is a labor of love. It shows but with Jindabyne it makes for a less enthralling—and less organic—viewing than his previous film 2001’s superb Lantana. Jindabyne is a pleasure to look at and listen to and the story—based on a short by Short Cuts author Raymond Carver—probably has a lot more to offer when read but Lawrence’s slooooow-burn technique with fade-outs in almost every spot that needs a cut is occasionally tough to sit (awake) through. Towards the end however it picks up speed and profundity and ultimately leaves your head spinning for mostly the right reasons. In other words it winds up a genuine Ray Lawrence experience which is a good thing. That said the movie is definitely not for everyone especially in the days of sequel season er summer.