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Category: Reviews

The Descendants (Spoilers)

At the time, I found Sideways somewhat unapproachable. I wasn’t really sure why. Now I’m thinking I didn’t have the vocabulary, and I think it was a privilege problem. Alexander Payne made this great movie about the sad life problems of a pair of well-off guys. Yeah, Paul Giamatti is presented as a failure, and English teachers don’t make much money, but he can afford to take his pal on a week-long wine tour? That’s not realistic.

This is also the problem at the heart of The Descendants. George Clooney’s problems are more believable than Paul Giamatti’s. He’s not pretending to be more of a failure than he is. They’re still rich man problems, though. Adultery, family crisis, death — that could be anyone. However, much of the meat of Clooney’s woes are predicated on his status as one of the most important men in Hawaii. To emphasize with him, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of a guy who is about to make a $500,000,000 decision. Clooney’s a great actor, and he brings everything he has to bear in this, so it works. Still, despite his disclaimer about how Hawaii isn’t really paradise? He’s in pretty good shape.

His marital problems may also come from his money. He’s proud of the fact that he doesn’t spend the capital he’s inherited; he works every day (as a lawyer), and he spends only the interest. So he’s got a high-paying job, plus he has significant money coming from a trust. He can send his kid to boarding school and he doesn’t need to worry about health care costs. But he won’t buy his wife a boat, and there’s a strong implication that he lost her love due to his workaholic nature. It’s hard to be well-off; it’s hard when the less fortunate critique you for not spending money.

Some of his extended family have blown their money and are supposedly broke. We don’t ever see them, though. Cousin Hugh, in a very good Beau Bridges performance, is Clooney’s foil. He wants to sell the land to a local, though, so he’s a good guy. Dresses like a beach bum, drinks early in the afternoon, but he’s got a bunch of rental properties and it’s pretty clearly not going to ruin him financially if the sale doesn’t go through. He’s willing to pass up the higher sale value in order to keep the land in Hawaiian hands.

So. I don’t think Alexander Payne really has a handle on realism, as much as he likes to talk about it. Clooney made the right decision to keep the land, but Payne could and should have shown us the downside. It’s not just Cousin Hugh being pissed off, it’s someone who doesn’t have health insurance or a job and won’t get an influx of money when they badly need it. Payne’s world is a glossy one, untouched by mundane concerns. In the opening, Clooney tells us how much Hawaii isn’t a paradise. That’s the only time we see any signs that it isn’t. Show, don’t tell.

Simultaneously, he’s quite aware of race issues. The climatic speech, where Clooney acknowledges that his family — descended from Hawaiian royalty as they are — are “haole as shit.” But then he turns around and claims a connection to the land. I don’t know enough about Hawaiian issues to really judge this, so I’ll leave all that there.

All that said? It’s a spectacular movie. Clooney’s immensely good. I thought he was awesome in his supporting role in Ides of March, in the way he slowly let us see the complexities of the character. He’s better in this. I touched on it earlier: how do you create empathy for yourself when you’re as handsome and charismatic as Clooney? By being fearless about showing the character’s faults. There’s a very, very thin layer between his pain and the screen, and most of the time it dissolves. Kudos to Payne, too, because he’s good at hitting those notes.

Alas, Jaw

Very sadly, A Dangerous Method wound up being the weakest Cronenberg in a long time. The material was more or less perfect, but Keira Knightley let down the side. It’s not that she’s a bad actress, it’s that Cronenberg has never been the kind of director who draws forth the exceptional from his actors. And Knightley doesn’t know how to give her role weight. So instead of getting a damaged genius/patient, she’s playing another edition of the plucky young woman who stands up to the world. This time with more jaw tics.

Meat

Dinner tonight: Stiles Switch BBQ, which is conveniently half a mile from our house. The place just opened; the pit master used to be the pit boss at Louie Mueller’s up in Taylor. I am no barbecue expert but I hear Louie Mueller’s is very good, and Stiles Switch made me very happy. And it’s just a few minutes away.

Tattoo You

Briefly: Fincher’s directing and Rooney Mara’s acting make it painfully clear that Lisbeth Salander doesn’t make any sense next to Mikael Blomkvist. There are two potentially awesome thrillers in both the book and the movies: one stars Blomkvist, and it’s a story about an awesome journalist who’s pretty much an auctorial stand in. The other is a somewhat more interesting story about Swedish traditional culture and the horrible things it does to women, as personified by both Harriet Vanger and Lisbeth Salander. When you mash them together, however, you get a wish-fulfillment piece in which the awesome journalist is just another man using a woman. Blomkvist and Salander should never have met.

I don’t think Steig Larsson realized this. David Fincher might. (Edit: Fincher has mentioned Blomkvist’s misogyny.) Either way, the clarity of Fincher’s directing strips away all the awkwardness of the English translation, and it’s hard to pretend that Salander belongs with Blomkvist at all. You can’t hide the incongruity by making up your own images when they’re right up there on the screen. The parallel tracks of the two central female characters become really obvious. Consider disguises — I wonder, in fact, if that’s part of why Fincher kept the extensive coda. Larsson thought his hero was a different class of father figure, but Fincher lets the darkness through.

Worth seeing. Tremendously disturbing.

Shivery Timbers

Quick note, because I know some of you like Squirrel Nut Zippers a whole bunch: if you liked Squirrel Nut Zippers a whole bunch, you ought to check out White Ghost Shivers. immlass turned me onto these guys, and we took some time to see ’em playing this last weekend, and they were awesome: seven piece band doing 20s jazz, with a fairly punky modern attitude. The sound is way rooted in the 20s, but they aren’t afraid to sing about mullets and white trash. They’ve been playing together for more or less a decade, and are as sharp as you’d hope given that much experience together. Also the piano player played with Squirrel Nut Zippers some.

Everyone’s Got ‘Em is the first album after Cella Blue joined, and having a female vocalist available helped the music a bunch. Nobody Loves You Like We Do just came out this week and is also good. Audio follows.

American: The Bill Hicks Hagiography

There I go giving away my conclusion. Ah well. Anyways: American: The Bill Hicks Story is on Netflix streaming, and if you don’t know Bill Hicks you oughta watch it. If you do know who he is, you can watch it to get all pissed off all over again, or you could watch it because there’s some really cool footage of his teenage comedy act.

The problem I had is that the movie shows Hicks as a saint. Even when he’s going through his alcoholism, it’s not really his fault. He hung around with a dangerous crowd, right? And he got off alcohol soon enough, after which it’s smooth sailing until he dies of cancer in the most polite, family-oriented, sane way possible. The movie was authorized and supported by his family, who come across as really decent people. His parents didn’t object to his comedy, which is saying something. But I still suspect the seal of approval might have gotten in the way of any real examination of the man.

I’m still glad I saw it. There’s a 60 second clip of his infamous heckler routine — the bit in Chicago where he gets heckled early on and decides to turn the evening into a brutal, stop and go, stutter-step deconstruction of the relationship between audience and comedian. I’ve seen the whole thing, cause it’s on YouTube, and the brief clip in the movie is worthwhile all by itself. I just wish the movie spent more time thinking about the alchemy that transmutes anger like that into comedy like that.

YAPKDM

The Adjustment Bureau is carried a long way by Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, with an assist from Terence Stamp, but the directing was indifferent and the script wussed out in the end. And at a crucial point in the middle; watch for the library scene, where we find out that much of the central philosophical dilemma is completely irrelevant.

It’s a Philip K. Dick movie, so you kind of have to know the odds aren’t that good going in; you expect to get an interesting mindtwist of a premise executed without total commitment on the part of the director/screenwriter. Check on all counts. I put this one a bit higher than most, just because Damon and Blunt were so good. Awesome chemistry, great acting. But this is George Nolfi’s first movie, and man, even the experienced directors tend to hit the reefs on Dick adapatations. He also wrote the screenplay, so I can confidently blame him for everything I disliked.

Which is to say that the ending fails to take risks. It’s comforting rather than dangerous. You can read the original story, which is quite short. In the end of that one, our protagonist willingly compromises to save his own skin. In the movie, it’s not surprising that Matt Damon gets a happy ending, but it is disappointing. There’s a reading in which he sacrifices a great deal to get that happy ending, which is in fact the surface reading, but I’d point out that certain parties spend the whole movie lying to Damon and he knows it. I’m not sure he’s made any real sacrifice at all.

Also, someone better could have turned the hat chase scene into something really special. So lost opportunity all around. It’s still totally worth a matinee, because of the acting, but not more than that.

Two Ice Cream Books

I got two books on making ice cream. I’m very pleased with one; I am not so pleased with the other.

Perfect Scoop is really good. David Lebovitz was a pastry chef at Chez Panisse and he cares a lot about good ice cream; his cookbook gives a nice solid grounding in ice cream theory and then rolls into a ton of recipes. There are also sections on granitas, toppings, and things to serve ice cream in. It’s a very foodie cookbook but it’s also very practical — there are not a lot of super-weird ingredients and he’s not snotty about using just the right thing.

His blog has a lot of recipes, not limited to ice cream, but you can get a feel for his techniques and style with this one. Which sounds great, but I do like white chocolate. You may note that his recipes tend towards using less sugar than the average, which is a plus for me. Not that I don’t like sweet ice cream; however, a guide to less sweet ice creams is good.

Finally, it’s a really pretty book. Lots of nice ice cream photography. Ice cream isn’t the most interesting subject in the world (look, another scoop of frozen dairy in a glass bowl!). On the other hand it gives me a good idea of desired textures.

So that’s the good. Bad: Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream & Dessert Book. The history of the company is kind of interesting but the recipes, OK. They mostly have eggs, and there is no cooking of the eggs. It’s an entire cookbook full of raw eggs. Grrr. This tells me there’s not much thought given to the recipes, and it also tells me they weren’t that concerned with really giving away how their commercial ice creams are made, because I’m also pretty sure we’d figured out salmonella by 1987. Don’t buy this one, it’s not worth it.

Review: Sha Po Lang

I took advantage of a Christmas Amazon gift certificate to fill a few holes in my old Hong Kong movie collection plus make a gesture towards catching up on more recent Hong Kong flicks. I know the Hong Kong movie scene is never going to be quite what it was back in the day, but it’s not like the last decade was a wasteland or anything. I’m behind!

Thus Susan and I watched Sha Po Lang last night. (You’d find it on US video shelves as Kill Zone; despite Miramax’s reputation and the horrendous new title, it’s an unclipped unmangled version.) Simon Yam was the big draw for me, cause I’ve always thought he’s a great Hong Kong character actor, plus it’s got a great rep, plus of course Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen.

So that was a good choice. As heroic bloodshed movies go, it’s not all that heroic, plus it’s more of a martial arts movie than a gunplay movie. It’s coming from the same place as the old John Woo classics, though, just without the moral brightness. The fight scenes are superb, the brutality is sudden and deft, and the personalities are turned up to eleven.

Although, you know, I’m probably doing it an injustice there when I bring up heroic bloodshed. The thing that makes Sha Po Lang really stand out is that the characters are nearly universally dark. Yeah, the propulsive anger that powers the movie is related to Chow Yun Fat’s righteous fury from any number of movies, and the sense of brotherhood is there, but this movie — like Infernal Affairs, to which it owes a great debt — is a deconstruction of the heroic bloodshed myth. Rogue cops are not always forces for good.

Possibly Sammo Hung’s role as a villain — “the first time I’ve done that in twenty-five years” — was also part of that. I’d love to ask Wilson Yip what he had in mind there.

Oh, and if you’re the kind of sad person who won’t go out and rent a movie on my say so, you could always watch this fight scene, which is awesome, but you ought to let the movie build up properly instead of watching it out of context.

“Mother Hen”

We started a new year of glorious movie-going with Sherlock Holmes. It was better than I expected, but it did not rise to brilliance.

The raw material is pretty raw. Checking — yeah, fairly inexperienced screenwriters who haven’t written anything great; I don’t imagine the script gave anyone a lot to work with. I give the writers credit for knowing their Alan Moore, though. (Blackwood is Gull. Ritualistic killing of women in order to bring about a future in his own image? Been there, read that.) Despite stealing from the best, though, the story was simple and uninspired.

Guy Ritchie is Guy Ritchie. Things explode. On the whole it was a touch more subtle than anything else he’s ever done, which may or may not have been due to the acting. I found his camera work on the frenetic side, and I’m usually highly tolerant of quick cuts. It wasn’t a work of great craft, really. The epitome of this would be the Holmesian fighting style.

There’s a fun bit in the first five minutes where Holmes pauses for a split second, maps the fight out in his brain based on his observations of the target, and then executes. It occurs to me tangentially that perhaps the writers know their Grant Morrison JLA as well. Shades of Prometheus? I may be overanalyzing. In any case, Ritchie gives us the sequence twice: once as imagined, once as enacted. It ought to be great, but it isn’t, perhaps because there’s never any payoff. It’s just a thing, and it’s only used in the trivial unimportant fights. You’d expect him to use it and fail to demonstrate how scary an opponent is, or at least to use it, but nope. It vanishes a third of the way through the movie, never to be seen again.

So obviously and in retrospect unsurprisingly, it’s up to Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr. to elevate the thing. Which of course they do. Downey’s Holmes hooked me in the sequence where his need to show off undercuts his friendship, because it’s played for laughs — ha ha, look at Holmes get pissed off and incisive — until he’s actually wrong about a key point. Which leads to bitterness. Which transitions directly into a sequence of self-destructive Holmes. Which is perfect.

I loved this vision of the characters. Holmes is a dangerous, angry, haunted man. Watson is compelled by his friend’s brilliance, and is also pretty dangerous. Ex-army, so he should be. Great work from both actors.

The women have much more thankless tasks. Kelly Reilly’s Mary is surprisingly strong, and is one of I think two characters in the film who ever get the best of Holmes. I think this is absolutely necessary in order to maintain the Holmes/Watson/Mary love triangle, but still, it’s a good bit. In fact, I think she has the edge on him twice. Still and all, it’s a very slight role.

Alas, Rachel McAdams is stuck with the “major” female part, in which Irene Adler is relegated to a helpless pawn. For a master criminal, an awful lot of people out-think her, and she needs rather a lot of saving. I was disappointed.

One line review: rompity romp romp romp. I liked it.