The Descendants, the latest of Alexander Payne’s gender-blending inspections of American life, departs in a significant way from his other films. In Payne’s other films (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways), his protagonists move gracelessly through their middle-class lives, struggling with their self-deceptions. In The Descendants, protagonist Matt King (George Clooney) is a gloriously-wealthy Hawaiian land heir who works diligently as a non-descript lawyer. His most significant flaw is his passivity.
Rather than being about driving through problems or overcoming demons, The Descendants is about observing and contemplating about how to abide by a life of blessing, albeit one recently confronted by a tragic development- Kings finds out not only that his wife has entered into a irreversible coma as a result of a boating accident, but that she was cheating on him. Almost immediately after finding out the news from his spirited daughter, Matt King postures himself as a man open to the world, one who earnestly ponders what’s “right” to do. Not what fear, or selfishness, or convenience drives him to do, but what is right to do.
In following Matt King’s handling of his life’s recent developments—in addition to his wife’s accident, King’s family is going to lose control of their hereditary 25,000 acre plot in seven years if they don’t sell to a new party, and Matt King is the signatory heir to the plot—The Descendants is an exploration of what it means to be a gentleman. It is an exploration of combining the qualities of being gentle- respectful, graceful, and patient- with being a man- declarative, assertive, and principled. How much of each of these two words should be combined to make the ideal gentleman? Should he be more gentle or more man?
I would argue that the proper “gentleman” ratio depends on the climate of the culture, and that Matt King is more gentle than man. After all, his biggest flaw is being too passive in his life. Along with admittedly not taking an active enough role in his family, Matt King doesn’t stand up for himself. He lets his father-in-law abuse him emotionally and is strongly guided by his daughter as he searches for the right course of action in the wake of his wife’s tragic death and the revealing of her affair. In addition, he decides not to sell the family plot of land to any of the commercially developers, choosing instead to find a way to keep the land in the family and undeveloped.
The Descendants is a remarkable film because it presents a unique narrative structure not only for Payne, but for all filmmakers. In nearly all films, protagonists confront obstructions, often internal in Payne’s case, to their happiness. As a gloriously wealthy man who’s biggest flaw, self-admittedly, has been his passivity in his family’s life, a flaw he has recently corrected upon learning about his wife’s accident, Matt King is free of the typical obstructions. This vacuum creates space for a different kind of story—the story of a free man seeking to be a custodian of the traditions that have preceded him and resulted in his blessed life.
Carnage, Roman Polanski’s new comedy lacking manners is sharp and very funny. Excellently cast with Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, and Kate Winslet, the film touches on many of the most fundamental parts of living in society. Carnage reminded me of the Sartre quote: “Hell is other people.” But I think Roman Polanki would add: “Can’t live with ‘em [people, that is], can’t live without ‘em.” With all of the frustration and despicable behavior, there was a giddiness, a comfort in others, running through the movie.
One thing that could have been improved is the connection between Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet’s characters. As a married couple, they were very isolated in their thinking. But, then again, perhaps that’s how some marriages between professional and high-powered people are…
Rampart, Oren Moverman’s new docu-drama starring Woody Harrelson, amidst other heavyweights, as rotting LA cop Dave Brown, is a jumpy and awkward film. It seems to be confused as to whether it is giving an account or telling a story. The result is an odd mash-up of masochism, misguided mysogeny, and subsequent debauchery.
Woody Harrelson was surely the man for the job, and performed with typical gritty naturalism, but the film itself was an uncomfortable mix of crime-film excess and excitement and dramatic documentary case-study. The sad frustrations of a single man became a curiously glorified plight of the troubled anti-hero, abundant with rich and dirty pleasures of vice.
One of Brown’s glorified vices was his animalistic pursuit and attraction of Linda Fentress, a public attorney played by Robin Wright. I definitely wouldn’t mind finding myself in the torrid 0-to-60 sex-charged tangle Brown finds himself in with Robin Wright, and that’s the problem. In following typical glorified film movements (i.e. meeting a beautiful woman in a bar and having ferocious sex in a hotel room less than 3 hours later, etc.) Rampart either gave up or forgot its resolve to the story it was telling.
When dealing with a fictional character, film can and should blend man and myth, but when dealing with a real figure, whose publicly-documented actions occurred so close to the present time (the Rampart police scandal occurred in 1999), the decision between man or myth needs more clearly to be made, as they are mutually exclusive.
Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter present two very intimate visions of the apocalypse. In Take Shelter, Curtis (Michael Shannon) struggles to keep sane as he wonders whether the hellishly tremendous storms he sees are figments of his decaying mind or omens of a coming destruction. In Melancholia,Justine’s (Kirsten Dunst) menacing unpredictability is matched by the approaching planet for with the film is named.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is that Take Shelter asks you to imagine an apocalypse, and Melancholia asks you to imagine an apocalypse and a world exactly like ours, except that it periodically lacks the gravity of relationships, the emotional physics by which we live. Without this gravity, this push and pull that we use to calculate our movement and calibrate our expectations, Melancholia offers a story that can only be witnessed, rather than understood.
The visuals of Melancholia are exquisite, and the elements for grand cinematic devastation, emotional and physical, are there- the spellbinding beauty of Kirsten Dunst, a fantastical setting, and a stimulating hint of relation between Melancholia, the planet, and Justine’s erratic behavior. But Melancholia resigns its potentialby not being true to its characters- Justine’s radically destructive behavior is unwarranted and unbelievable considering the film’s upstanding bourgeois setting.
I don’t expect a filmmaker as original and inventive as Lars von Trier to follow all the rules of everyday social reality, but Melancholia asks one toimagine that too many rules, rules central to social experience, don’t apply. For one thing, which happens to be one of the main issues of the film, it is unfathomable that such a marriage at that between Michael and Justine would end merely hours after the reception… “Things could have been different,” says Michael (Alexander Skarsgaard), the groom. “You knew what to expect,” says Justine (Kirsten Dunst), the unpredictable bride. Is this something that an upstanding groom would say to his bride as they end their nascent marriage? No, this is something that is said after a girl invites a guy to a party and he leaves early because she is too busy talking to other people.
The problem with Melancholia is that it necessitates imagining conflicting circumstances: one, for example, where marriage, the weighty Western conception of marriage just as we’re familiar with it, is honored, and another where a groom and wife call off their marriage with all of the consideration of a middle or high school relationship. This is an imagining I couldn’t do, and because I couldn’t do it, I saw the characters as pretty objects whose fates I didn’t much care about.
Although Curtis, in Take Shelter, becomes as mentally impenetrable as Justine in Melancholia, he’s not nearly as incomprehensible. For one, his transformation from a respectable family man to a shelled and dysfunctional person is witnessed. As he questions the cause of his visions and terrors, the potential of his developing schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder, which his mother has, is revealed. We are able to understand, rather than just observe, as he takes seemingly irrational actions to protect his daughter and wife, as he is fired from his job, as he finds himself an outcast in his own social circle… Where Melancholia asks that the viewer observe and accept radical and ill-proportioned character developments without explanation, Take Shelter provides circumstances illuminating the story’s equally bizarre developments. Because of this, although Melancholia and Take Shelter are both dazzling films, Melancholia most assuredly the more beautiful of the two, Take Shelter is a more successful and satisfying film.
“Lake Tahoe”, the 2008 picture from Mexican writer/director Fernando Eimbecke, begins like an anti-movie, offering only the dullest of atmosphere, and breaking each shot with stiflingly long voids of black. These heavy breaks imbue the shots with an eerie question of meaning (i.e. is any to be found here?) and question the viewer’s commitment to the film (i.e. does one even want to continue subjecting himself to the punishingly slow and plain images?). Of course, if you’re like me, and you savor perhaps the basest joy of watching film, watching people- people moving through the world, people making phone calls, people smoking cigarettes, people- then you’ll commit to the thinness of “Lake Tahoe,” and, largely, you’ll be rewarded for it.
The film begins with a non-descript car crashing into a telephone pole on an empty road outside of a town. The teenager driving the car tries to start the car up again, but is unable to, and so begins the stuff of the story- him (Juan) meekly shuffling through the dilapidated Mexican town, seemingly languishing in the shadow of industrialization’s unfulfilled promises of efficiency and improvement, trying to find someone to fix his car. His absurdly unsuccessful exchanges with potential helpers (lone attendants of mechanic’s garages and a car parts store) are the stuff that Kafka would have been proud to write: markedly disjointed interactions held together by a faint resemblance to communicate norms.
Rather than help Juan with his problem, each person he interacts with entangles him in their obtuse disconnected world; each interaction is a blind and sluggish movement, like two moles trying to find their way around each other in a small hole. This awkward and lackadaisical progression works because Juan is a reluctant and good-hearted protagonist, in the vein of Forrest Gump. He inserts himself in situations, as he has a problem that he needs help with, but lacks any sort of gumption to coax the help he needs. Rather, he submits to the foibles of others, perhaps hoping that eventually the their interaction will flow towards his problem.
A critic, in reviewing Lake Tahoe, remarked that Eimbecke is a master of tone. Indeed, his combination of sparse storyline, sparse atmosphere, and distanced shots, frequently without anyone in them, creates a fascinatingly awkward feeling of alienation. For the first half of the movie, Juan, and those he seeks out for help, seem more like little creatures wandering in a terrarium than relatable hearts and minds. Although the shots move in as the film progresses, letting us further in to their emotional world, it’s debatable whether the heartfelt consolation between Juan and his little brother, whom he connects with over a bumper sticker saying “Lake Tahoe” that was of special importance to their recently deceased father, is earned or appropriate. Perhaps “Lake Tahoe,” which begins as an anti-movie, makes a mistaken final turn when it offers this cinematic episode of shared experience. I suppose this judgment depends on your interpretation of Juan’s development, and of your penchant for stories of emotional consolation.
Lovely, grand, in it’s own standard way.
In Happy Tears, Jayne (Parker Posey) flies from California to Pittsburgh to join Laura (Demi Moore), her older sister, in caring for their ailing father, Joe (Rip Torn). What ensues is a delicious combination of perversion, degradation, vindication, and reconnection. Happy Tears is skillfully enough written and directed (by writer/director Mitchell Litchenstein) that the realizations and reconciliations requisite for a comedy of family relations do not come off as a stale packaging of bourgeois emotion with the smutty humor of the film. When so many comedies oddly appendage “decent” and “wholesome” values to dirty shenanigans as some sort of redemption, or excuse, for the perversion of the film, it is quite satisfying to see a comedy that commits to the faults of its characters and produces a hilarious and positive, in its own uniquely mortal way, outcome.
Parker Posey (Best in Show, A Might Wind, and The House of Yes) and Rip Torn (The Larry Sanders Show, Dodgeball, 30 Rock) are veritable dream team comedy names. It shouldn’t surprise any connoisseur of subversion that these two, who balance gravity and concern with sly irreverence in the heaviest of situations (those involving the most revered and relied upon social conventions of life), perform with deft hilarity in Happy Tears. For my money, this comedy is viewing just for the fact they star in it. However, Demi Moore, not usually known for her comedy work, and Ellen Barkin, are also superior in the film. Moore plays straight (wo)man to Posey’s spoiled and self-involved Jayne, and Barkin plays a fabulously trashy nurse/prostitute for Joe, of whom he says to his daughters, “She’s had two kids, but she’s still real tight.” That’s but a taste of the sordid hilarity of Happy Tears.