The tail end of November means it's award bait time for the studios as they unload films they hope will garner trophies, press and box office. The ultimate prize? Oscar. Last week I saw a couple of acclaimed films, The Descendants and My Week with Marilyn, one of them I liked, one of them I didn't care for at all. Read on for short reviews of both.
The Descendants. Alexander Payne, it's wonderful to have you back. The writer/director of such films as Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt has not helmed a movie since 2004's critical darling Sideways [one of my favorites that year]. Seven years is a long time for Payne to spend time producing rather than directing. If he's wasting his time executive producing on the HBO dud Hung instead of directing movies, someone needs to shake some sense into Payne to get him back onto movie sets that he's directing and off of not-so-great TV programs. Thankfully, The Descendants comes to us in 2011 and deliver Payne's usual mix of intelligence, dark humor, sympathetic and well-crafted characters.
George Clooney plays "Matt King", a lawyer who is a descendant of a 19th century queen of Hawaii, is head of the family trust that oversees 25,000 acres of gorgeous, pristine beachfront and forest property. Faced with the possibility of losing the land to the state, the large, extended family wants to sell the land for hundreds of millions of dollars. "King" grapples with whether or not the land should stay in the family while also dealing with his wife's coma. To further complicate his life, his angry 17 year-old daughter informs him that she's been having terrible arguments with her mom due to the affair that she was carrying on. Life should be great for him, but with all these complications, "King" goes on a quest with his daughters to locate the man his wife was having an affair with and to complicate his life in general.
There's a lot of good things in The Descendants. The script, the performances, the location of Hawaii. As usual with Payne, the script is sparkling. Co-written with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash [based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings], the film is chock full of wise, adult dialogue that capable actors handle with aplomb. Even the kids in this get to deliver non-kid type dialogue as they banter with the adults around them. Clooney will be nominated for a best-actor award. You can mark that down in stone. I'm not sure he deserves it, but this is the kind of role that will be impossible for nominating committee to ignore. Clooney carries the film, but the supporting cast is deep--Robert Forster, Beau Brigdes [channeling younger brother Jeff's "The Dude" a little bit!] and Shailene Woodley as the headstrong, teenage daughter.
Clooney carries the film like the movie star he is. Weightlessly. That's a good word to describe the acting style and screen presence of George Clooney. He just belongs on the movie screen. He's an old-school movie star in a culture where there aren't that many of those working in Hollywood. While the film has a few blips here and there, The Descendants is the welcome return of Payne and features one of the few bonafide, undisputed, old-fashioned movie stars in cinema at the very top of his game. Rating ***1/2
My Week with Marilyn. As I mentioned above, it's award season so, like clockwork, we have to have at least one Harvey Weinstein produced historically based picture that is created with seemingly the sole intention to get Harvey a close seat to the stage during the Oscar telecast. It's kind of sickening to me that these kinds of movies have become cliches in themselves. Go here to read a rant I gave about Weinstein earlier this year when he came up with the idea to release a censured version of The King's Speech to rake in some more cash. This is still the most despicable thing to happen to a movie in 2011 to me.
And, if ol' Harvey didn't produce it, someone else will ape his formula to the point it feels like he was involved. Yet, people seem to love the faux-art house flavor of these films. It's a gateway kind of cinema that makes people too turned off by the more dour foreign movies [subtitles!] to feel they are experiencing a bit of class and sophistication when sitting in the safety of their local multiplex. In many ways, these award-bait movies are just as predictable, just as formulaic and just as shameless as the movies they believe they are better than. The whiff of the self-congratulatory, heightened self-importance just reeks from these kinds of movies so much you can almost smell the stench of it as you sit in the darkened theatre.
Make no mistake about it--I want to see good movies, regardless of producer, director or star. I just find these biopics connected to some historical person tiresome, dull and not that engaging most of the time. When I reviewed J. Edgar a few weeks ago, I touched on why I have issues with films like this. In the comment section of that post, a reader and I [Eva] bantered back and forth about maybe they are better if we get a movie of just a tiny piece of celebrity's life. Well, this one is another failure. My Week with Marilyn strikes me just as cold as most of these sorts of movies have recently. It's a shallow, superficial, phony bit of silliness based around a damaged icon of Hollywood lore [Marilyn Monroe] as she spends a tumultuous few weeks in England filming a movie with Lawrence Olivier. The only thing that makes this a tiny bit watchable is Michelle Williams as Monroe. I'm not going to take that away from her, but, other than that, My Week with Marilyn is a phony, manufactured, manipulative piece of dross from beginning to end. Thanks for that Harvey, I can hardly wait to see what you've got planned for 2012! Rating **