Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Descendants Descends into the Incredible World of Blah

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg
The Good-Looking One's Rating: 3/5 Stars

© studiobriefing.net, 2011

Although I hardly keep up with all the Oscar-palooza that goes on throughout the year, my good buddy The Savant—obsessed with all things Academy, as I’m sure you know by now—has informed me that Alexander Payne’s recent release The Descendants is currently a heavy hitter in the race for “Best Picture”.  After seeing the film last week, I can only wonder why.

The film is based around how Matt King (George Clooney) and his two daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), deal with the boating accident and ensuing permanent vegetative coma of Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie)—his wife and their mother.  The tragedy is further brought to the forefront by the fact that Elizabeth’s will stipulates that she must be taken off of all life-support machines within a few weeks.

Right at the outset, we learn that the King family lives in Hawaii, and that nevertheless, their life is no paradise (this is revealed via banal self-conscious inner-monologue from Clooney; indeed, this trope was simply cloying). It seems that even before Elizabeth’s injury and subsequent coma, the family was disconnected from each other: Matt’s relationship with her seems to have significantly fizzled, his version of fatherhood could be described as distracted and clumsy, his oldest daughter Alexandra is in full-on ‘rebel without a cause’ mode, we eventually learn that Elizabeth was having an affair with a married man before her accident.

Alongside this primary plot is what we could call ‘The Hawaiian Heritage Plot’.  Matt’s descended (hence the title) from a serendipitous marriage between a Hawaiian princess and a European land acquirer (I know there’s a technical term for this), and thus through various dealings, he’s now the sole trustee of a hundreds-million dollars’ worth of Kauaian land.  And since some of his cousins are deeply in debt, Matt is searching for a developer to buy the land and make them all rich.  This causes somewhat of a stir in the Hawaiian community, as most hope that Matt doesn’t sell, in order to stave off the glitzy tourism such would bring.

Of course, Matt makes up with his daughters and decides to preserve his Hawaiian heritage in the end; it all works out (don’t worry about the spoiler, the plot isn’t really what matters in this movie; it’s more a character and relationship piece).

So, knowing all this now, what’s all the praise about, and why is it misguided?  Well, there is indeed much good in the film: Clooney is Clooney per usual, only Dad-style—but it kind of works.  Woodley imbues her character with complexity, and manages to create a unique identity rather than falling into the clich├ęd trap of being the ‘rebellious teen’—indeed, her reaction at first hearing that her mother will die is powerful, and well-directed by Payne.  The relationship between the family comes off as authentic and dynamic; it’s fun watching them (especially Woodley and Clooney) interact with each other.  One of the opening scenes—in which a mother at Scottie’s school calls to tell Matt that Scottie’s been bullying her daughter, and that they must come over and apologize—is fantastic in the way it interweaves all the themes of the story (this mother is a native Hawaiian who makes sure to give Matt her two cents about selling the land) and illustrates the psyches of and relationship between Matt and Scottie (by the way, is there anything more BS than someone else’s parent demanding that you force your child to apologize?).  The bouncy ukulele-filled soundtrack lightens the mood of a film that deals with something so, so dark.

For all these reasons, the film is deserving of praise.  But ultimately, it’s undone for one reason: it manages to take a plotline filled with such gravity, and turn you out of the theatre feeling---well, blah about it all.

I suppose this is accomplished (or failed at) for several reasons: The story makes Elizabeth out to be so unsympathetic (the affair with a married man, poor relationship with her daughters, risky behavior, jackass of a father, shallow best friend) that quite frankly, it’s difficult to care too much about her or what’s happened to her.  While we care somewhat about what Matt and co. are going through, the actual tragedy of her death is muted by her unlikability as a character.

Nonetheless, however, it’s impossible for us to get the warm fuzzies at the end of the film—when Matt and his daughters become a connected family and realize the importance of their bonds—because the situation that’s happened to them is still too weighty and muddled to just shrug off.  Thus, as an audience, we’re left not especially caring that Elizabeth will die, and not especially caring that Matt and his daughters have found true connections.  Overall, then, it seems to me that the topic itself and the Payne’s treatment of it alienate the audience from any sort of lasting connection to the film.

The film’s secondary ‘Hawaiian Heritage Plot’ also fails to resonate with us in its resolution.  In fact, this plot’s development is so disjointed that the resolution seems confusing and frivolous; the film only sparingly mentions Matt’s Hawaiian ancestry, and until the end, it seems that Matt could care less about it.  Rightfully, he’s so distracted by his wife’s accident that the land’s sale becomes unimportant to him; he seems willing to leave it all in the hands of his numerous cousins.  When Matt finds out, however, that the favored buyer will integrally involve the man with whom his wife had an affair, he suddenly starts to care again, flirting with the idea of selling to someone else.  Abruptly, however, Matt decides not to sell at all.  The filmmakers try to pawn off the reason to us as ‘Matt has a sudden epiphany that he truly does love Hawaii, and cares about its natural preservation’.

I’m sorry: this just doesn’t fly.  I can’t even remember once in this movie when Matt expressed anything more than passing appreciation for his native land; and certainly, it seems more plausible that Matt didn’t sell because he didn’t want the man with whom his wife had an affair to benefit at all from his sale.  Thus, the resolution of this secondary plot comes off as forced and inauthentic, and moreover confused in its motivations; as an audience, we don’t exactly buy Matt’s sudden love for the land.  And therefore, we find it difficult to feel much of a connection to the film in its resolution of this secondary plot.

There are other issues with the film—mostly dealing with disjointed and lazy character development (most of this is on the screenplay, I believe).  But what really stands out about this film is how despite its weighty plot and sympathetic characters, it manages to not really say anything powerful, and to leave us with—well, nothing.  So tell me, Academy, why shalt thou give this film your most precious award?


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wait...Did We Watch the Same Movie? (Taxi Driver)

By Alex "The Savant" Heisman

© avclub.com 2011

No matter what I may be doing, be it something as simple as a trip to the supermarket or going for a drive, my mind is often transported back to a great scene from the humorous 2006 movie The TV Set. Mike Klein (David Duchovny), a struggling writer who can’t seem to sell his script for a new pilot to any network, finally lets all his troubles overwhelm him and berates his assistant, Alice (Judy Greer), when he finds out she has never seen his favorite movie, Taxi Driver. As the two bicker, the comedic tension in the scene is brought to such a point that when Alice, still remaining completely ignorant of the entire situation, misunderstands the name of the movie and screams “I WILL RENT THE TAXI DRIVER OKAY?!”, it allows me to greatly relate to her character.

The secret I’m about to divulge may make me appear to be a terrible film buff, but I think it’s time to let the world know: until this past weekend, I had never seen Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. I do deserve brownie points, however, as I have started to watch it three, yes, THREE, times in the past. Despite progressively getting about ten minutes farther in each time, my finger found its way to the stop button as I never seemed to able to get into the groove of the movie. The reason I kept revisiting the movie was that, like Mike from The TV Set, literally everyone champions this particular film as being one of the single greatest accomplishments in the history of cinema. No less than Roger Ebert himself labeled this movie as “one of the greatest he has ever seen”. It must finally be stated that there was no specific reason or aspect of production that previously kept me from seeing Taxi Driver…there were just other movies I had never seen that I wished to watch first.

With my girlfriend at William and Mary for the weekend (I’m not bitter!), I used the ample free time I now had at my disposal to now watch the film in its entirety. I mean this in all due sincerity: I. was. bored. FREAKIN. stiff. the…entire…time. I knew the entire point of the film was to present an intense character study of a lonely, disillusioned “warrior”, but there is a distinct line between a film that accomplishes just that goal, and one that takes its message to the point of monotony. Special dishonorable mention must be immediately paid to Bernard Hermann’s famous (for what reason?) saxophone score. As Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) drives his cab all over New York City throughout the night, the wailing jazz solo that accompanies him creates a somber tone. Eventually this original score becomes excruciating and completely out of place when it changes key about halfway through.

Secondly, while VERY controversial for its time, this film has not held up well. Robert De Niro’s inward reflections seem almost childish as he attempts to produce a macho presence in his scenes with the girl he likes, Cybill Shepherd (remember her!), and a 12-year-old prostitute (Jodie Foster) he hopes to provide a new life for. Oh! Yes! What a gimmicky performance by Ms. Foster. I had hoped, being such an interesting character to undertake, that the normally outstanding Jodie Foster would provide a bright spot in this laborious production. Her scenes amount to a total run time of just over ten minutes and her character never hits such scandalous notes as probably befalls a child hooker (I say probably as I would have no way of knowing.)

All this is not to dispel the notion that I did not enjoy the film completely. The bloody ending absolutely captivated me as I certainly did not see it coming, and it truly is a gritty, realistic ode to New York for which Martin Scorsese ultimately became known. I was just expecting a whole lot more for all the championing done by scholars, family members, friends, and yes, Mike Klein. It was not the worst film I’ve ever seen (Hey! I’ve sat through Cabaret and lived to tell the tale!), but it thankfully lost all four of its Oscar nominations: Best Picture (we are going to pretend Rocky did not even come close to the Academy Awards and the masterpiece Network took this award that year), Best Actor (De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Foster), and Best Original Score (Hermann).

If you’ve enjoyed this review, please let us know! Paul and I have been toying with creating a new series out of this. We would choose, or you could suggest, a film (usually classic), that for one reason or another we should have seen but have not yet. Paul and I will record what we already know heading in/what we expect, and compare that to how we actually feel when we’ve seen it.


Monday, November 14, 2011

J. Edgar? No. More Like J. Foolish (Video Review)

By Alex "The Savant" Heisman and Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

The Savant's Rating: 1.5-2/5 Stars
The Good-Looking One's Rating: 2/5 Stars

Hey Guys!

Here's our review of Eastwood's J. Edgar, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.  Please pardon the delay in my side of the video; that's what you get when you buy a Dell and try to upgrade your software.

-The Good-Looking One

Here's the link to the Funny or Die Parody.


Monday, November 7, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau Has No Idea What It's Talking About

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

We're what you call 'Angels', folks. (image © entertainmentwallpaper.com, 2011)

Writer-Director George Nolfi’s 2011 film The Adjustment Bureau promised big things in its advertisements.  Statements like “If you believe in free will…” pounded on screen while images of Matt Damon and Emily Blunt running from some seeming MIB agents flashed by.

Although I admit that I was turned off by what seemed a superficial pander to an omnipresent human desire (free will), I was nonetheless interested in seeing the film, and what it would make of the whole ‘free will’ dilemma.

Well, the bottom line: I was entertained, but unimpressed.

A quick overview of the plot runs thus: David Norris (Matt Damon) is a young, successful, ‘voice of the people’ type politician.  Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) is a talented, aspiring dancer who has yet to make it big.  Both are single.

The two have a chance encounter in a bathroom (it’s not as creepy as it sounds, I promise), and they really hit it off—although Elise is forced to flee before either can exchange contacts.  However, David and Elise are able to see each other again, and all seems destined for a feel-good rom-com.

But “The Adjustment Bureau” (a secret, supernatural-ish organization made up of angels who look like corporate bigwigs, headed by “The Chairman”—i.e. God—designs people’s fates, and ensures that each fate happens according to plan) doesn’t want David and Elise to wind up happily ever after; it seems that the two of them aren’t destined for one another, in a very real sense, and that their falling in love actually is a violation of their respective destinies.

Eventually—through chance circumstance—David is becomes aware of “The Adjustment Bureau”, and the fact that “The Chairman” doesn’t want him and Elise to be together.  Thus, a certain quandary develops: should David follow the destiny that’s been properly set out for him, or should he seek his own? 

Of course, he seeks his own.  And those wonderful chase sequences ensue.

Now: The Adjustment Bureau is generally entertaining.  Its concept is fresh and mildly stimulating, some of its imagery is cool, Emily Blunt is fantastic (she manages to be sensitive, willful, and dignified all at once.  There’s a quiet beauty about her).  So, overall, the movie’s worth a watch.

And yet, there are many, many things wrong with it.  The way it visualizes and animates abstract, supernatural forces is ridiculous, many characters are overdrawn, a lot of the dialogue is cheesy, Matt Damon is annoying as hell (but really, when is he not?), the plot becomes overly intricate and contradictory, etc.

However, I’m going to focus on one fundamental aspect in which the film fails: its confusion about—well, the whole free will thing.

The Adjustment Bureau overtly deals with this conflict between free will and fate.  It reminds me of the innate contradiction many of us carry around: we want to have freedom, and to have the right to make our own choices; and yet, simultaneously, we want to feel taken care of—that ‘God’ or whatever you want to call it has a plan for us, and in the end, we’ll all wind up on the right track.  We desire freedom, and yet we desire fate (at least the good, this-person-is-destined-to-be-my-lover, kind).  And this film tries to draw a middle path, with its resolution being something along the lines of: God (“The Chairman”) has a plan for you, but if you come up with a better one yourself, then maybe God will be ok with it.

Now, before I dig too deeply into the movie’s conceptions of free will and fate, I’m gonna give you all a brief primer on the meaning of free will and fate (more academically deemed determinism).

Free will, essentially, is the belief that an individual has power over his/her present actions.  It’s the belief that you are free to pursue your own will, and that this will, moreover, is self-created and self-motivated, and not placed upon you by any higher power, or anything out of your control.

For instance, imagine that you are in an Olive Garden (God forbid) trying to decide between spaghetti and lasagna.  Now, if you truly have the ability to choose either the spaghetti or the lasagna—meaning that there’s no destiny, nor genetic determinance, nor socialization inescapably boxing you into one of the two—then in making your choice, you are exerting free will.

Fate, or determinism, is just the opposite.  It’s the view that, because of destiny, or because your genetics or socialization inescapably foster who you are, in the end, you have no freedom in the choices you make, and thus no control over yourself in any real sense.

So, re-imagining our Olive Garden situation above, a determinist would say that, although you might choose either the spaghetti or the lasagna, your choice of either one or the other is entirely out of your hands, and in a sense, is made before you even show up to the restaurant.

Ok.  So there’s the brief overview: free will is an individual’s power to choose otherwise, while determinism necessitates an individual’s choice being inextricably tied-down and out of his/her control.

So how does The Adjustment Bureau treat what it calls free will, and what it calls fate?

Well, obviously, the “Bureau” itself is supposed to be a symbol of fate.  But this isn’t so.  Why?  Because the movie never really stops to consider what true fate means: true fate, as I discussed, means that an individual has no power to choose otherwise.  It’s akin—in the sense of destiny—to God playing both ends of a chess board, and moving all the pieces (humans) around howsoever He wills.

But David does have the ability to choose otherwise.  Thus, he must have free will.  Thus, the “destiny” that the agents mean to protect isn’t really a destiny at all; since David has the power to simply disregard it, then it doesn’t ‘define’ him at all; he isn’t ‘destined’ to do anything.

What The Adjustment Bureau insists on calling “destiny” is really just coercion.  It’s more like “Hey buddy, if you don’t listen to what the Big Fella (God) says, then he’s gonna break yours and all your cousins’ legs (annihilate you)”.  Real destiny would mean David never even had the opportunity to make a choice different from the plan; in fact, it would be logically impossible for him to break from his destiny at all, since he would just be a mindless chess piece moved entirely at God’s will.

Therefore, although The Adjustment Bureau makes interesting, literary, quasi-stimulating attempts at discussing and breaking through the free will vs. fate argument, it’s mostly just lazy and illogical in how it treats the dilemma; thus, its fundamental premise is flawed.  And as such, the movie itself is fundamentally, inescapably flawed.