December Film Reviews

00:00 November 21, 2011
By: David Vicari, Fritz Esker
[Courtesy of Fox Searchlight]


by David Vicari

3 1/2 stars

The premise of The Descendants, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, may sound like a schmaltzy made-for-Lifetime-TV-Movie, but it is far from it. This is Alexander Payne we're talking about, the filmmaker responsible for About Schmidt (2002), Citizen Ruth (1996), Election (1999) and Sideways (2004). He makes human dramas filled with moments of truth that can be either serious or very funny.

George Clooney plays Hawaiian land baron Matt King, whose life is in crisis. His wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), had a terrible boating accident and is in a coma as a result. The doctors soon tell Matt that there is nothing more they can do and that Elizabeth has to be taken off life support. If that isn't bad enough, Matt's rebellious 17-year-old daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), informs him that Elizabeth was having an affair. Following that information, he takes his two girls to Kauai to locate this guy that his wife was having an affair with.
Matt's bonding with his daughters (Amara Miller plays his youngest) plays out naturally, and never forced as to speed up the film's running time. Clooney and Woodley work off each other very well. It totally feels like a true father-daughter relationship. I like how Matt and Alexandra constantly trade information to figure out the mystery of who this adulterer is, and where he can be found.

The scene where Matt finally confronts his wife's lover (Matthew Lillard) plays very real, as does the scene in which Matt spills out his rage, frustration and heartbreak directly at his comatose wife. Once again, Clooney is effectively understated.

Another interesting aspect of the movie is that it was filmed in Hawaii, but it isn't the standard travelogue we see in movies and Brady Bunch episodes. The Descendants shows Hawaii as a lived in place. We are shown the suburbs and the slums, and they are fresh cinematic environments.
In the end, The Descendants is a warm and often funny film about a man re-connecting with his daughters as well as himself.

Tower Heist

By David Vicari

3 Stars

I'm a sucker for a good heist picture. The Hot Rock (1972), Le Cercle Rouge (1970), Grand Slam (1967) and Rififi (1955) are superior examples of the genre, and though Tower Heist isn't on their level, it is still a highly-entertaining effort. Alan Alda is the slimy villain Arthur Shaw, a Bernie Madoff-type character who screws his employees out of their pensions with his illegal financial wheeling and dealings. Shaw owns a luxurious condo skyscraper and lives in a penthouse on the top floor. Recently-fired building manager, Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller), plots to put together a crew and crack open the safe that is located in Shaw's penthouse. Eddie Murphy is on hand as an obnoxious, two-bit thief. His character is funny, but he never highjacks the film. Throughout, he remains part of an ensemble, which includes Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick, Michael Peña and Gabourey Sidibe. You have to take a leap of faith on a few logical issues, but there's much to like in Tower Heist. Stiller plays it pretty much straight and gives a strong performance. He has good chemistry with Téa Leoni's FBI agent. The sight of a car dangling off the side of a high rise building, and then later stacked on top of an elevator, is pretty amazing. Christope Beck's music, which seems to be influenced by David Shire's score to the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), is pretty infectious. All in all, Tower Heist is an enjoyable caper. The Muppets

By Fritz Esker

3 Stars

There's an endless array of remakes, "reboots," and sequels in cinemas today. Most are forgettable, some are terrible, very few are good. So, it's nice when one is entertaining like The Muppets.

The new film, starring and co-written by Forgetting Sarah Marshall star Jason Segel, finds the Muppets scattered across the world and their theater in disrepair. An oil tycoon (Chris Cooper) is about to demolish it, and it can only be saved if they raise $10 million. Naturally, they decide to put on a show to save their theater. The hitch is that no one knows who the Muppets are anymore, so their attempts to drum up interest and a celebrity guest for the show are met with indifference.

It's not a perfect film. Like a lot of sequels, it has the problem of trying to introduce new characters while bringing back all of the old ones and fit all of them into the same movie. As a result, some characters disappear for long stretches of the film. But the film has enough laughs to please adults and kids alike. It has the same mix of slapstick, obscure jokes, throwaway gags and sincerity that made the original show fun.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

By David Vicari

2 1/2 Stars

I liked Martha Marcy May least until it stopped. I appreciate ambiguity and not having everything spelled out for me, but Sean Durkin's film seemed to be gearing up for a third act when it abruptly ends. Through hints, though, I personally feel the story will actually end on an incredibly downbeat note. Maybe it's good we didn't see that. There are top-notch performances in this pin-drop thriller about a young woman, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), escaping a cult and attempting to rebuild her life. Her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), takes her in and tries to understand Martha's haunted past. Olsen (yes, she's the younger sister of the Olsen twins) delivers a quiet, affecting performance, and it is clear she will be a major star. John Hawkes (Winter's Bone, Higher Ground), as cult leader Patrick, gives off a sinister vibe in the simplest gestures. Hugh Dancy, as Lucy's new husband, and Paulson are also quite good. From the get-go, Durkin's movie is saturated with a feeling of dread, and it never lets up. I just wanted to see what happens next, and wished that there would be at least a twinkle of hope for the character of Martha—but that wasn't meant to be, because the movie leaves us in limbo.

J. Edgar

By Fritz Esker

2 1/2 Stars

Two-time Academy Award winning director Clint Eastwood returns with J. Edgar, his sprawling, uneven biopic of J. Edgar Hoover, father of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Like many biopics, J. Edgar's biggest flaw is that it tries to cram too much into a feature film. Hoover led a fascinating life—he founded the FBI, pursued bank robbers and gangsters in the '30s, investigated the Lindbergh kidnapping, fought with JFK and RFK, and tried to blackmail Martin Luther King. And all of that leaves out the fact that Hoover (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) was a closeted homosexual with a complicated, devoted relationship to his second-in-command (played by Armie Hammer). To adequately tackle a life this big, it probably needed to be an HBO mini-series, not a 2 hr, 20 minute film. Eastwood's film would have been better served to follow the lead of Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator (which also starred DiCaprio), which didn't try to capture all of Hughes' life, just a significant part of it. But despite its flaws, J. Edgar is still an interesting film. A life as eventful as Hoover's is not boring to watch unfold on screen, even if the end result feels choppy at times.

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