Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review: The Descendants

The Descendants
Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Robert Forster
Grade: C+

As maudlin voiceovers go, Miranda July’s cat-on-a-deathbed soliloquy in “The Future” has competition for the prize of ‘most annoying of 2011’, as George Clooney’s opening gambit in the wearily-spirited “The Descendants” may narrowly beat it out. In a speech in which Hawaii is characterised as a pillar of heritage, Clooney’s Matt King divulges to the audience the exposition that director Alexander Payne (“Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways”) neglects to integrate into the narrative insightfully – which is that Matt’s wife Elizabeth is in a coma as a result of a boating accident, and that he’s struggling to take care of his two daughters. A fine premise for a film, given Payne’s history of resisting the urge to plumb the tearjerking sensitivities in his scripts for emotional effect, but as “The Descendants” proves: there’s always one exception to the rule.

Burgeoning talent Shailene Woodley’s entrance into the story as inebriated, frolicking teen Alexandra gives her the tag of the problem child, but is dismantled fairly soon after the daughters are rounded up to hunt down their dying mother’s fellow adulterer. The film charts Matt’s attempts to deal with the revelations of his wife’s recent behaviour, and his confrontation with the reality that many of his questions about their life together may well be left unanswered. In the midst of crises Matt’s relationship with his two daughters slowly comes together, revealing them to be a genuine unit, even as the early scenes had threatened to expose this as a hiding to nowhere. The genealogical angle employed to give the title added meaning sees Matt and his shareholder relatives in negotiations to sell the expanse of land on the island belonging to their ancestors, providing him with a secondary avenue in which to determine what ‘family’ means.

“The Descendants” boasts an unlikely setup for a comedy, but its blackness comes off as largely honest. The use of the Hawaiian setting to illustrate the film’s theme of disconnection works effectively in mirroring the tenuous nature of the frayed relationships within the family, and, whether as a result of having to make do with being thrown together or through the guidance of a director looking to develop the premise through the skills of his actors, the ensemble of “The Descendants” find a way to somewhat authenticate this band of people. There’s a makeshift sense of construction to their interactions which works within the film’s dramatic arc, and Payne’s presentation of familial solidarity-in-progress at least finds a way to resonate uniquely and effectively. Much of this can be attributed to the supporting performances surrounding Clooney, whose instincts for dry comedy have always felt like a neutered form of his zany “O’ Brother Where Art Thou” shtick. He has soulful moments but mostly relies upon the presence of Krause, Miller, and particularly Woodley alongside him, whose layered performance looks set to grab awards attention.

The problems lie in the strange tone of the film, and the tendencies of the humour to cheaply play to the audience. With alarming regularity, Clooney and his troupe go island-hopping at the drop of a hat, aided by tag-a-long Californian oaf Sid in the designated role of an outspoken jackass. There’s more than an element of “Little Miss Sunshine” to this family-outing setup, diluted by the morbidity and emotion of the predicament, but nonetheless indicative of Chabrol-style whimsy, alienating us from the characters as much as it draws us to them. Payne isn’t shy when it comes to big confrontation scenes, but he often uses directness to further the story when it doesn’t seem best appropriate, and his and Clooney’s attempts to extricate empathy for Matt occasionally fall on deaf ears.

There's something of Alexander Payne lurking in "The Descendants," beneath its unmistakeable plotting, infantile humour, and precious advocacy of togetherness. It has the midlife crisis-element of “Sideways,” the adolescent angst present in “Election,” but, more than anything else, exhibits the caustic charm of "About Schmidt" – albeit with a touch more humanity and considerably less nudity. Like Almodovar with the maligned “Broken Embraces” Payne’s auteurial gaze rakes over old ground, but lightly riffs rather than wickedly satirising, and ultimately feels like a backwards tread. However well its assemblage of young actors can pull off ‘artfully precocious’ with rounded aplomb, “The Descendants” surely represents this filmmaker’s most flawed work to date.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Anna Magnani

Anna Magnani in “Wild Is the Wind”
Lost the 1957 Best Actress Oscar to Joanne Woodward in “The Three Faces of Eve”

Grade: ***

Despite the pedestrian warbling of Johnny Mathis in the titular signature tune, “Wild Is the Wind” has clearly been made with the intention of ruffling feathers. The decision to cast impassioned actors Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani (Mexican and Italian-born respectively) can only help but add intensity to a story of unhealthy attraction and morbid obsession. It’s especially interesting to see the rural side of America explored in a narrative which, in its subversion of burgeoning coupledom, traditionally lends itself more to white middle-class suburban woe, with newly-united pairing Gino and Gioia undergoing domestic turmoil. George Cukor, in a rare outing from the studio, mirrors an earthy setting with the tempestuous nature of the film’s romance, and one suspects that he didn’t have to work too hard to get these particular actors to comply with the theatrical entanglement in the script.

We’re immediately aligned with Magnani’s Gioia, who enters the film as a stranger to the rural American paradigm, and must learn to co-exist with Gino and adapt to his way of life. Early scenes in which Magnani is afforded the freedom of her Italian accent underpin the emotional alabaster of this woman, her tentative interaction with the farm folk invoking the magnitude of the cultural leap she’s taking. While the film dismantles this language barrier in order to usher the plot towards more scandalous intentions, and the ever-clearer themes of lust, identity, and belonging, Magnani is able to shape the experiental pitfalls of the woman and strongarm some identifiable, go-getting charm into her homemaking character.

Yet, particularly when the script is intent on generating issues for the couple, the hypersensitivity of Gioia as a fiery, stubborn woman isn’t always condusive to the development of the character, and in the repetitive instances of kitchen-based barneys Magnani doesn’t deviate much from bouts of severe frustration. This actress’ trademark physical imposition can restrict access to Gioia’s internal conflicts, too definite when confronting her husband over his many failures, with less of a tremulous sense of edge or self-doubt than somebody relatively new on the scene. This is a woman apparently governed by her impulses, but whom demonstrates emotional maturity only when the story suits, and with scene partners Quinn and Franciosa straddling wildly uneven extremes of angst, Magnani must shoulder most of that burden herself.

Magnani reacts to the kindling of her tryst with farmhand Bene with too much visible horror – an approach which makes the character appear too fickle, and somewhat neutralises the tragedy of her missteps towards the end of the film. She does, however, bring a naturalistic candour to this desolate landscape, and feels at home within the Tenessee Williams-esque elements of the narrative more than anyone else involved. The misguided theatrics of her performance dilute the nuance, but it’s an acceptable climax to this woman’s brace of Academy notices.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Fay Bainter

Fay Bainter in “White Banners”
Lost the 1938 Best Actress Oscar to Bette Davis in “Jezebel”

Grade: ***

Perhaps the greatest comment on behalf of Edmund Goulding's understated “White Banners” is that it makes a great advertisement for small-town America: a place where issues can be presented and overcome with grace and solidarity. It must be conceded that, after the initial cosiness of the home is established, there’s a heavy dose of earnestness to this accessible melodrama. What makes the film in many ways superior to similarly moral-driven pictures is in the performances – of and either side of Fay Bainter – who help to shape it into a worthwhile model of family life.

Of the ensemble Bainter’s Hannah remains most noticeably intriguing, predominantly because her character is less receptive to, or dependent upon, the influence of others, and her role as the film's insistent maid intentionally places her as the figurehead of the household. There are elements of self-righteousness to Hannah, which Bainter uses to allude to back-story – both within her half-hidden arc and outside of it. She finds ways to show how this woman has grown from her experiences, developed into a makeshift matriarch, turned dedication and presence into a valuable commodity to suit her needs. Long before the sympathies of the character are revealed, Bainter manipulates without offending – partly because she encounters little to no resistance, but also because she’s very difficult to distrust.

But for all of these minor successes this method also works against her, and the nature of the film’s narrative in the first hour essentially limits the amount of impact that she can achieve. The dedication to a storyline involving Claude Rains’ inventor character consigns the performance to flashes of matronly self-lionisation which ultimately inhibit her greatly, and there isn’t enough teeth-sinking opportunity in the prolonged middle portion. “White Banners” takes until the hour mark to endeavour to really upset the apple cart, this coming in the form of an incrementally hinted-at revelation from Hannah’s past, which colours our view of her considerably, and allows this actress to finally furrow grief into a guarded pillar of efficiency.

Bainter admittedly furnishes guilt and regret with a degree of plaintive mechanism in the final segment, but she does extricate emotion through revealing the character’s outlook to be more malleable and ambiguous than previously suggested. Her performance crystallises when the moment she has anticipated for most of the film eventually arises, and her concession of weakness when others force her to confront these issues from a different plain of thought brings added depth to Hannah. She’s given inklings of this before, but there’s mild surprise to the way in which she deals with the fraught collision of events that threatens to destruct. It can’t quite boost the resounding impact of her performance from congenial warmth to serviceable excellence, but it’s nontheless befitting of this emotionally intelligent, unendingly modest feature.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Review: Anonymous

Directed by Roland Emmerich
Starring: Rhys Ifans, Jamie Campbell Bower, Sebastian Armesto, Vanessa Redgrave, Rafe Spall, David Thewlis, Joely Richardson, Derek Jacobi
Grade: C+

Whatever our preconceptions about history, it’s easy to take them for granted. When you begin to study the subject you realise that there is rarely a uniform view about anything, and that notions of ‘truth’ are much more murky and uncertain than they appear on the surface. An unlikely purveyor of oppositional theory, Roland Emmerich is more at home with adhering to the expectations of an audience than going against them, but nevertheless helms this tale of fiction’s indubitubly reprised hero William Shakespeare, who has his name on works as iconic as “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet,” but does that categorically mean that he wrote them? Emphatically, Emmerich suggests that he didn’t, and that instead these plays were written by the then-Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere – an accusation which represents one of the many theories as to the identity of the true author.

If all of this sounds like a far-fetched attempt at rewriting the history books, then consider this: RSC stalwarts Derek Jacobi and Vanessa Redgrave both star in “Anonymous” and advocate its claims. Beyond this film there is weight to the discussion, but Emmerich, protective of the mantra that entertainment supercedes debate, opts to forego cultural responsibility and craft a film that flaunts the factional warfare of Elizabethan politics rather than scrutinising the subject at hand. William Shakespeare (Spall) is portrayed as an illiterate, lecherous fool, and De Vere (Ifans) as the nobleman skirting the stigma of the artist’s profession. The Earl produces the plays, using poet Samuel Johnson (Armesto) as a go-between, and relays a left-wing political voice which opposes the royal aides who surround elderly Queen Elizabeth I (Redgrave).

A story littered with scandalous accusations of sex, betrayal, and incest, “Anonymous” is far too overstuffed and, frankly, ridiculous to achieve any rounded view of history. The goals of the film are in allaying facts and providing a gung-ho impression of Elizabethan England as a haven for self-interested charlatans, and as such asserts that the truth may be even stranger than fiction. But it’s self-parodical in its radicalism of history as laden with hateful, preposterous characters and cross-generational romances, integrating soapy melodrama into the narrative without riffing on artistic tropes the way that “Shakespeare in Love” did thirteen years ago. It’s probably the trashiest representation of the era since at least “Mary, Queen of Scots” in 1971, proffering snap political decisions as the catalyst for emotional grandstanding.

While many will scoff at Emmerich’s commercialisation of 16th century life, the film’s sheer audacity as an anti-history lesson, estranged from logic, is one of its key attributes. There are storylines and plot twists in “Anonymous” which defy belief, but watching them unfold is often tremendous fun, with Redgrave in fine form as the frothy, culture-loving monarch, and Ifans statuesque as the haughty, melancholy puppetmaster observing from the sidelines. There’s a great deal of character brought to the film, which likely benefits from shying away from straight-laced drama and a self-important tone. The inevitable problems emerge from interloping figures, cliched subplots, intercutting between timeframes (all of which have plagued Emmerich’s films before) and primarily the framing of the theory as a viable option in the first place. It’s difficult to imagine that anybody watching “Anonymous” would entertain this impression of Shakespeare as anything other than a fictional fancy, since so much within its approach spurns intellectual engagement for other exploits.

For Emmerich, “Anonymous” may have initiated a departure from his usual disaster movie blockbusters, but as a competent cinematic storyteller dependent upon familiar narrative beats and clichés, this isn’t a million miles away from his usual fare. Unfathomably, he has fashioned high-brow into low-brow; turned one of the most prestigious periods for literature into a crowdpleasing piece of frippery about profligates and schemers. It’s a loose cannon of a picture, enjoyably frothing with issues and intrigue, but often clumsily executed and manically curtailed in its final third. “Anonymous” even does its best to destroy the credibility of the argument it's founded upon. But for all of that, and irrespective of whether you view this as the work of a hack, a heathen, or a dillettante, it commands admiration for the gall of the venture alone. The world of the theatre may be shown up for its deception here, but it has rarely felt this alive and well.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Review: The Adventures of Tintin

The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig
Grade: B

If there’s a filmmaker more closely associated with the art of nostalgia than Steven Spielberg then his name eludes me. J. J. Abrams’ “Super 8” was an attempt to wrestle sentiment from Close Encounters and E.T. but, as “The Adventures of Tintin” proves: only Spielberg knows the workings of his own ouvre. When this project came to light the assumption that it would be a live action adventure was quickly hushed by an announcement that this was to represent this director’s first foray into the realm of animation. The finished product is somewhere in the middle of both, with the use of motion capture technology providing a hybrid clash of cartoon action and human instinct.

Hergé’s Tintin books are beloved in Europe, where they’ve gained more exposure, and where the continental sensibilities of this crime fighting, globe-hopping hero have more obvious appeal. The African country of Morocco is the destination for “Secret of the Unicorn,” which sees Tintin (Bell) as an already-established sleuth drawn into the mystery of the Haddock family, and the lost cargo of their long-since sunken ship. Accompanied by his dog Snowy he encounters one of their descendants, Captain Haddock (Serkis), but is continually thwarted in his mission of retrieval by the vengeful, greedy aristocrat Sakharine (Craig).

There’s a delicacy to Tintin as a character which makes him seem knowing, but an ultimate show-off, and it’s this vague arrogance that allows for the key elements of the quest to be outlined to an infant audience. As is the case with so many mystery stories aimed at kids (Nancy Drew, The Famous Five etc.) the story hinges on foreseeable plot points, which frequently feature objects or clues as the catalyst for revelations. And still, the thoughtful approach towards themes of heritage, kinship, and masculine inadequacy (there are barely any women in this film) extend “The Adventures of Tintin” into universal territory. In the mould of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” Spielberg shifts the dramatic onus upon uncovering historical truths, and uses the exotic setting as a handy platform for action sequences – one particular street chase a marvel in choreography and execution.

Shifting focus towards a more nautical-themed adventure allows Tintin’s burgeoning relationship with Haddock to take centre stage, and kingpin of the filmmaking medium Andy Serkis to have a ball as the incompetent drunkard with a heart. But ultimately, it’s a shame that Morocco doesn’t greatly contribute to the crux of the mystery, given the amount of television episodes dedicated to interweaving foreign intrigue into the story’s crimes and motives . Moreover, the ending of the film is a tad anticlimactic in the ease at which it shows us what we’ve essentially seen before, and then leads into the promise of a sequel with a very similar goal to this adventure. If the heavily-suggested sequel goes ahead then one expects the follow-up will have to considerably build upon “Secret of the Unicorn,” which lays the groundwork but likely won’t emerge as the model of attainability. It’s stoking the embers rather than blazing the world alight, and setting out its stall for a franchise.

This quirkily-conceived detective adventure meshes well with Spielberg’s cinematic tropes and represents a return to form which – however brief with the hotly-anticipated “War Horse” ready to emerge – will encourage those who had lost faith. It’s worth noting that many of this film’s shortcomings could also be said of the book and TV series adaptation, which itself is a confirmation that Spielberg has done right by this franchise. Some will simply be unable to fully invest in the neither-here-nor-there motion capture technique, but in terms of narrative and character “The Adventures of Tintin” captures the charm of the man, his friends and enemies, and the casual nature of criminal investigation as enlightening, brisk fun. Forget horses for a while, and instead turn your attention to the antics of one man and his dog.


As it’s been just over a month since my last blog post, I’d like to take this opportunity to state that, yes, I am still alive. If you take a look at the sidebar you’ll notice a section dedicated to the London Film Festival, which I had the pleasure of attending for the first time this year on behalf of InRO, and which has been the chief reason for my absence from the blog during October. I’m going to endeavour to compensate for this by posting full and capsule reviews of several of the titles I saw there in the coming weeks, including highly-anticipated awards contenders “The Artist,” “The Descendants,” and “Coriolanus.”

In the meantime, following this post is a review of "The Adventures of Tintin," which was not a part of the festival, but deserves attention nevertheless.