Movie Monday: The Descendants

If George Clooney is in it, I’ll watch it. He’s like Harrison Ford. He may frequently play himself, but he tends to be fun to watch. He’s not always in the best movies, but when he’s good, he’s very good. He got an Oscar Nomination for The Descendants so I decided to check it out.

In The Descendants, Matt King (George Clooney) has a wife who was in an accident. Now she’s in a coma and not really expected to come out of it. Matt has been a real estate lawyer all of his life and not spent much time with his two daughters who are seventeen and ten. So he’s juggling his kids who he doesn’t actually know very well with a dying wife and a gigantic real estate deal that means everything to his extended family. Oh and to top it all off, it turns out his wife was cheating on him. I would normally consider this a spoiler but since it’s the focus of just about every trailer I saw for the movie, I think the cat’s out of the bag on that one.

The movie was shot entirely in Hawaii. Early on, Clooney says something about how his friends on the mainland think he lives in paradise and then he goes on to explain how it’s just like anywhere else. While it’s true that his story is the sort that could happen anywhere, the filmmaking does little to dissuade you from the fact that Hawaii is a very beautiful place. In fact there are some of the most beautiful shots I’ve ever seen of Hawaii in The Descendants.

There’s a trick to storytelling where you get the audience to care about the characters. There’s no one thing that works to do this. If your character is nice to other people or animals, that can help. If it’s a movie, sometimes all you need is the right actor. George Clooney is one of those actors. Even when he played Seth Gecko in From Dusk Til Dawn we were with him because he has that charm and he was kind of a bad ass. In the Descendants George Clooney plays the Anti-Clooney. He has no charisma and almost no charm. He manages to do something I haven’t seen him do since he played Batman; He made me not care about his character.

As Matt King and his family go around basically dealing with and cleaning up the mess his wife made of their marriage and their lives, it just didn’t matter too much to me what happened because at the end of the day, his character was still going to be fabulously wealthy and still going to have his daughters. The rest of it just didn’t matter.

This movie also has not one but two red flags for me. One is voice-over narration. I hate narration on a level that’s probably not appropriate. Sometimes it’s necessary. Sometimes it’s even good. But  most often it’s because the filmmaker is unsure how to get information across through storytelling so he just puts the exposition in the narration. It’s lazy and often insulting to the audience. The other red flag is the movie was filmed in a beautiful spot. If it’s not a big action movie, then basically the actors are getting paid to hang out in Hawaii or wherever while they film the movie. And if an actor is unsure of a script, the fact that they have to spend a month or two in the islands can usually make that decision a little easier. It also frequently results in a bad movie.

It probably sounds like I hated the movie. That’s not true. It was enjoyable enough. Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller are great as Matt King’s daughters. They’re fun to watch and feel like sisters. Nick Krause somehow channels a teenage Keanu Reeves for comedic effect as the older daughter’s boyfriend, Sid. There are also a couple of wonderful scenes with Robert Forster. So yeah, if you’ve got nothing better to do and you want to watch a movie, The Descendants isn’t a bad choice if you’ve never seen it before. But the first question I always ask myself after I finish watching a movie is if I’ll ever watch it again and when I did that with The Descendants, the answer was ‘No.’

– Jack Cameron

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Movie Monday: Beginners

I knew absolutely nothing about Beginners except that it had Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer in it and that Plummer won an Oscar for it. I put it in my Netflix queue because after Plummer won I heard someone say, “I hope this makes more people see Beginners.”

I think at this point, there needs to be a new genre called ‘Dead Parent Rom/Com’. With Garden State it was a dead mom. With Elizabethtown it was a dead dad. With Beginners it’s a dead gay dad. All of them seem to follow a fairly familiar pattern. Parent dies, adult son deals with the aftermath, meets beautiful woman, falls in love, has problems, but works it out amidst the backdrop of quirky friends and occasionally odd local customs. It should be noted that while this sounds like a formula, my understanding is that each of the movies mentioned above were labors of love for the filmmakers involved and that I don’t think any of them were ripping each other off. It should also be noted that none of this makes them bad movies.

Beginners starts after Oliver’s father has died. It then jumps back and forth through time showing the months leading up to his father’s death and occasionally flashing back to his childhood. Ewan McGregor plays Oliver with a quiet sadness that works for his character. Early on the in the film there is very little dialog and yet he manages to convey exactly how he’s feeling. This is the sort of thing good actors don’t get enough credit for. We often remember great lines but great silences are just as important.

Christopher Plummer’s Oscar winning performance as Oliver’s father, Hal is incredibly authentic. Hal stayed married for 44 years until his wife died. The entire time he knew he was gay. The curiosity with which he discovers things is fun. There’s a scene where he comes back from a gay nightclub and calls his son in the middle of the night to ask what they call the sort of music they play in places like that. Oliver says, “House music?” and Hal diligently writes it down. It’s a small scene that implies a lot and that’s really all you want in a flashback.

Mélanie Laurent plays Oliver’s new love interest, Anna. She and Oliver soon discover that they both have a history of leaving relationships. They also notice that they like each other far more than they’d each prefer. For whatever reason, I couldn’t really get into her character. I’m not sure if this was the fault of the writing or the acting, but I just found her to be there because Oliver needed a girlfriend. It’s the one part of the movie that just didn’t quite gel for me.

The most charming thing about Beginners is writer/director Mike Mills’ playful directing style. His sudden stock photo montages even when regarding things like cancer work well to lighten the mood along with Arthur the dog’s subtitles.

As Dead Parent Rom/Coms go, Beginners is a good one. I like it just fine. Though I must admit I like Elizabethtown better.

– Jack Cameron

Movie Monday: Game Change

Sarah Palin. There are few names more divisive than hers. Four years ago when she was plucked from obscurity literally from the wilds of Alaska, few people knew who she was. The new HBO movie Game Change is about how that moment happened and everything that happened after that.

Game Change is an impressive movie. It would have been easy to paint the McCain/Palin campaign as a bunch of morons who made mistake after mistake and basically do the whole thing as an extended Saturday Night Live sketch. Instead, they portray an incredibly balanced narrative about a presidential campaign in trouble and the methods they used to give the campaign the shot in the arm it needed.

It’s difficult to portray real people who are still alive and in the public spotlight. Julianne Moore manages to play Sarah Palin as a real person in extraordinary circumstances and does it all without falling into cliché or caricature. Ed Harris seems to disappear into the role of John McCain. The only time you notice it’s Ed Harris is when you hear his unmistakable voice. He plays McCain as an American hero really trying to do what ‘s best for the country while also winning an election. Much like real life, these two rarely share the screen together. Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of campaign strategist Steve Schmidt is easy to overlook but shouldn’t be. In many ways, his character carries the movie and symbolizes the momentum and drive of the campaign.

Before Sarah Palin, John McCain was losing. He was too old. He wasn’t popular with women. He didn’t have the charisma that Obama had. What he had was a long distinguished career was a politician and war hero. Sarah Palin was the exact opposite. She was a charismatic, female, with almost no experience and no real knowledge. She was flash. He was substance. On paper, I can see how it looked like a good idea and Game Change makes that clear.

Game Change also makes it clear that Sarah Palin simply had no idea what she was getting herself into. This was because she was a bit naïve and a bit stupid. Her folksy charm won over millions at the Republican National Convention. We’d seen this sort of down home charm in both Bush presidencies and there’s a good portion of America who are comforted by it.

Unfortunately, there was nothing behind the Sarah’s charm. She had no grasp of international politics and had difficulty understanding even the simplest of policies. Game Change shows how McCain’s people try to teach her but it’s impossible for her to listen because the entire time she’s being told by the people how much they love her. She thinks she doesn’t need to change because people love her. Though she doesn’t say it, her actions say, “I don’t have to be smart. I’m pretty and they like me.”

Towards the end of Game Change, it becomes a bit of a monster movie in that you can tell McCain’s people are thinking, “My god! What have we created?” as Sarah Palin continues to go against campaign policies and blatantly lies about things when she doesn’t like them. Though the movie does a good job of giving us insight into the mechanics behind the failure of the McCain/Palin campaign, I still had a hard time feeling bad for the character of Sarah Palin. This may be due to my own political opinions. Then again, it may have something to do with Sarah just being the sort of person I don’t care for.

Game Change is a good movie and a cautionary tale. It would be much better if it were fictional. The idea that this actually happened is a bit disturbing. The even more disturbing part is that as the presidential race heats up again, things seem to be even crazier. I wonder what HBO will do with this in four years.

–          Jack Cameron