Day: January 16, 2012

Head Under Water: Review for “The Descendants”

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Making a good dramedy, or even black comedy, is not a science. Although, when watching them, one feels that it should be. Balancing out the drama and the comedic timing is often imperfect, but films like Gran Torino get away with it without pushing the audience way because it is not “serious enough”. It ends up being both impactful in an emotional aspect as well as a humorous one. The subject matter is also up for grabs, for as long as there is good writing and better acting, they can get away with murder (see: Fargo). Alexander Payne, whose last film was the critically acclaimed Sideways in 2004 which I have not seen) and before that About Schmidt (which I have seen), likes deadpan, dark humor. Probably a bit darker than even one of the darkest of comedies, Withnail and I. That means his films can often be a hit or a miss with viewers.

Here, Payne tries to balance the nuance of drama and the absurdity of comedy in The Descendants, whose working title could have been “White People Problems Starring George Clooney as a Handsome White People”. It is a family drama, one that begins with Clooney’s wife in the hospital after a water skiing accident and leads into Clooney learning he has been, as in all interesting familial dramas since Shakespeare’s Othello, cuckolded. His journey not only involves confronting the man with whom his wife cheated on, but also telling various family members of his wife’s now terminal condition and that, according to her will, she wants the plug to be pulled. The journey is taken with Clooney, whose character name is Matt King, as well as with his 17 year old daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley), his 10 year old daughter (Amara Miller), and this dopey kid Alex knows Sid (Nick Krause). All the while, King, who is the sole trust owner of 25,000 acres of Hawaiian land that his ancestor had as her dowry, must decide to whom he must sell this humungous plot.

It all goes down in rather dramatic fashion. That, right there, is one of the main problems. Not only is it sometimes terribly melodramatic, there’s barely a hint of comedy in the film. That is not always because it is not in the screenplay, but the comedic timing of both the director as well as the actors is so poor, they can manage to turn something that could have been highly amusing into something middling and unintentionally annoying. There is no balance here. There is no contrast of the dark drama of human life against the absurdity of it manifested as humor, unlike, say, Woody Allen’s ambitious “comedy up against drama” film Crimes and Misdemeanors. Granted, that film is broader in its comedic format, but even the Coen Brothers, who’ve mastered the art of dark comedy, made something insane and dark like Burn After Reading into something hilarious.

Maybe it is because that the two aforementioned directors (or three, depending on who’s counting) are superb screenwriters, legendary for their wit, pathos, and dialogue. The dialogue in this film comes to a screeching halt. It’s almost as if the actors were not only speaking in clichés, which would have been bad enough, but had been taking them directly from Lifetime Movies. Lines as hard hitting like, “You really have no clue, do you?” and “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” and the tender, “I love my family; I love my wife!” pepper the film’s uninteresting yet relentless melodramatic scenario. That being said, the use of voiceover is actually nice. Creating that kind of nuance and introspection that the films of Charlie Kaufman have been able to do, Clooney’s voice over is calm and nice to listen to. But, like all good things, it does not last. It barely takes up 20 minutes of the film, and thus comes off as inconsistent. The voiceover never actually returns. Regardless of it being presented in the present tense, this inconsistency seems kind of lazy.

Clooney’s performance is nuanced enough so that you can see all the stress etched into his face and his eyes. But because one can normally rely on him having some sort of comedic timing, such as in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy, his almost brute unfunniness is a shock and even a bit jarring. You often see him looking down at his shorts to something, contemplating why bad things happen to good people. The problem being, it takes too long for the film to get going for the audience to actually care about his situation. However, his performance, generally speaking, is very good. Just not great.

Shailene Woodley plays an angsty teenager, which is to say, to some extent, playing a character that is completely derivative. Her performance is unoriginal and unenticing. Being a regular on the ABC Family melodrama/teen soap The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Woodley is used to playing this archetype and also well acquainted with the concept of turning on the water works. Again, if only we (or I) cared.

Yes, the film covers a rather dramatic subject matter. But it all seems so trite and lazily done. There is to enough pathos in the film to render it believable or worthy, and it instead comes off as a movie about rich white people problems. With the cinematography being occasionally ostentatious (oh, hey, let’s punctuate each scene transition with pretty Hawaiian landscapes), the acting being pretty lacking with the exception of Clooney, and the dialogue being completely ridiculous, it’s kind of shocking how far off the rails this film went, when it could have been a moving, funny, and intimate portrait of a family going through a tremendous loss with scattered moments of humor. It ended up just being depressing, halfhearted, and lackluster.

Grade: C

Game On: Review for “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”

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The introduction of the “videogame aesthetic” – hyper kinetic editing, ultra-somewhat cartoonish-violence, ear splitting use of sound effects – in mainstream films has been rightfully condemned by critics. Let’s face it; it’s a chore to watch those movies. As “exciting” and “adrenaline pumping” as they are, it’s actually hard to keep up. If I wanted to watch a video game, I’d go over my friend’s house and say “Oh, no, I don’t want to ruin your kill-death ratio” and just watch him play. Video game aesthetics, or what one person called “chaos cinema”, are endless hogwash of attempted excitement that are generally used to cover up and distract from the mediocrity that is everything else.

Allow me to sound somewhat like one of those guys on infomercials and say, “But what if I told you there was a movie that used ‘video game aesthetics’ to its advantage?” The difference being that the video game aesthetics that the film emulates are retro, so to speak, and resemble something more along the lines of arcade games than first person shooters. Nevertheless, you still get a similar kind of adrenaline thrill from this iteration of graphics and editing style that you may encounter elsewhere.

The film in question is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, directed by British filmmaker Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), which was adapted from a series of comic books. The fact that it is based on a comic book, one that also tries to emulate arcade style, is telling about the film’s visual style. Not only does it feature that amusing 8-bit sound occasionally (especially in for the Universal Studios beginning), but it feels like a comic book. Sometimes the camera pans from a panel to another, other times there are clear descriptors of characters or actions or cuts in the edit that feel like a comic book. The last time something vaguely similar was pulled off well was in 2005’s Sin City, which utilized the original Frank Miller graphic novels as the actual storyboards. Scott Pilgrim does just as well, creating that same kind of nerdy, almost hipster vibe, without alienating the viewer.

I’ve babbled on long enough about technical details. But what about the film itself? Scott Pilgrim is a nerdy, kind of awkward 22 year old Canadian kid (Michael Cera playing Michael Cera again) who falls for an aloof American girl named Ramona (Mary, Elizabeth Winstead). But before he can date her, he must battle her Seven Evil Exes. Which is exactly what it sounds like.

Melding varying genres generally found in comic books, while it’s not the most premise I’ve ever seen, it is pretty interesting considering. Not only does the aesthetic make this very niche-made film work, the performances and script add more power to the punch. The witty and fast talking screenplay was written by director Wright and Michael Bacall, a script that never lets up. It’s speedy and fun, and I’ll probably get some crap for this, but it’s reminiscent of the fast talking screwball comedies of Howard Hawks. Did I mention it’s hilarious and quotable?

Michael Cera…well, he plays Michael Cera again, which is fine. It works for the character, who is, as per usual, dorky and a little awkward. Scott Pilgrim isn’t actually as awkward as Cera’ characters tend to be. It’s a fine performance, but nothing to rave about. The film pretty much rests on his shoulders, and one does come out surprised that he could actually battle those Seven Evil Exes.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, however, is a revelation. Playing the slightly broken, rather impulsive Ramona, her character is definitely reminiscent of Kate Winslet’s broken, impulsive Clementine from Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The character could have been perceived as fairly one dimensional, but her comedic timing is great and she gives the character a tender fragility.

The supporting cast is also great. From Kieran Culkin as Scott’s gay roommate Wallace, Audra Plaza (Parks and Recreation) as the sharp and foulmouthed Julie, and the Seven Evil Exes themselves, it ends up being a supporting cast that makes the film.

The thumping, probably hipster-esque music is a highlight of the film. Partly compiled and written by Beck, it thumps, throngs, and shakes with powerful bass and a dynamic sound that is, while completely self-referential, completely fantastic to listen to. It not only fits the generally hipster feel of the film, but also its Canadian locale.

Generally speaking, almost every element of the film is rendered perfectly. It does exactly what it is supposed to do and it’s a fast and fun film, a ride that is totally original and memorable. It’s the kind of film that, if it were a game, you would definitely be scrambling for more tokens so you could play it again.

Grade: A-