“The Descendants” –Decent But Not Great

 

I recently saw “The Descendants” at the Napa Valley Film Festival. I had high expectations. What’s not to like about either George Clooney or Alexander Payne?  Both of them are very talented entertainment superstars.  However, neither George Clooney’s pretty face nor Alexander Payne’s mastery of comedy and pathos (“Election”, “About Schmidt”, and “Sideways”, to say nothing of the hit TV series “Hung”) are sufficient to render this movie anything but mildly entertaining.  It’s decent, but not great comedy or acting.

Clooney’s Matt King, a workaholic, emotionally distant Honolulu attorney and land baron, is descended from royal Hawaiian blood.  His great-great-grandmother was a Hawaiian princess who married a haole (non-Hawaiian).  As the executor of an enormous land trust of beachfront property, Matt must decide to keep the land unspoiled or sell it to developers so that his relatives can reap millions of dollars from the proceeds.

But Matt’s major problem is with his family. A boating accident has left his wife comatose, challenging his negligible parenting skills.  Their two daughters are a ten-year old girl,  Scottie (Amara Miller, a scene-stealing newcomer),  and a stereotypically sullen teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), whose behavior has landed her in boarding school. Matt is blindsided not only by grief, two daughters who need emotional support, but also by betrayal.

What did I like about “”The Descendants”?  First, I liked the lived-in feeling of seeing Hawaii’s real residents–some of whom are scruffy, overweight, and wear muumuus instead of teeny-weeny bikinis.  This is not the postcard version of Hawaii.  The Hawaiian sound track reinforces the island culture.  Second, small roles by some of the supporting actors have the dazzling portions of the dialog, especially the father-in-law (Robert Forster) and Judy Greer, whose scenes are memorable: subtle facial expressions, suggesting a nobility and integrity of spirit. The wise but fragile character portrayed in a disarming way by Amara Miller keeps this film from devolving into TV soap.  Flashes of humor in some of the dialog between Clooney’s character and the two daughters are hilarious.

However, it is the scenes in which Clooney dominates the screen, which shred even the thinnest threads of plausibility.  In one scene Matt King, after saying goodbye to the last of his friends, drops to his knees outside his home’s circular driveway.  This canned acting gesture, purportedly conveying intense emotion, has been overdone and is overwrought– just a lazy shortcut for anguish and grief, like throwing a glass across the room to depict anger.  Clooney and Payne–you are both much better than that!

The Descendants has received widespread critical acclaim. The film scored an approval rating of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert gave the film a perfect four stars.  I would give it two stars– light fluff for the rainy night when you want to be entertained with a forgettable, but decent flick.

“J. Edgar”—Investigating the Investigator

 

Based upon a script by “Milk” screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, and directed by Clint Eastwood, “J. Edgar” is a biopic of the controversial FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover. In this spellbinding movie, Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Hoover, ages five decades, as he grows from an ambitious young law enforcer to the most powerful, controversial,  and intimidating FBI director the US has ever known.  Even presidents feared him.

“J. Edgar” depicts Hoover’s early career (the 1930’s), including raids on Communist “radicals” and organized crime, the Lindbergh kidnapping, and his most brazen surveillance for the purpose of destroying the presidency of John Kennedy, the career of Robert Kennedy, as well as that of Martin Luther King.  However, it is the secret life of Hoover that is the most compelling and successful part of the narrative, because the film tries to humanize him.  For a man whose life was devoted to extracting and exploiting the secrets of other powerful men and women, Hoover’s own secret life as a closeted homosexual takes central stage as the biography moves between his lifelong relationship with his protégé, Clyde Tolson (superbly played by Armie Hammer) and his domineering, demented mother (the always exceptional Judi Dench).

 

Hoover’s own obsessive-compulsive tendencies–his hidden psychic wounds– drive his relentless concern with his image and the image of the FBI.  Ironically, the primal image of the name “J. Edgar Hoover” today denotes government investigation gone rogue.

 

The structure of the movie and its cinematography, however, are the weakest elements of “J. Edgar”. The overdone flashbacks disconnect important events by decades–moving from the Lindbergh kidnapping to long scenes of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and then back to the Lindbergh kidnapping and trial. Eastwood shoots this story in a washed-out sepia color palette for most of the scenes from the 1930’s through early 50’s with more color added as the dramatic 1960’s emerge in the story. But these visual cues are not enough to maintain a seamless continuity of events. This is the best movie Eastwood has directed of the last four (the other three being “Changeling”, “Invictus”, and “Hereafter”) but not among the best he has done (“Letters to Iwo Jima”, “Mystic River”, “Million Dollar Baby”). Nonetheless, I highly recommend this movie for the actors’ bravura performances–especially DiCaprio’s, which defines his career to date.

***Possible spoiler alert!***The scene where DiCaprio dresses in his deceased mother’s clothes triggers a similar scene from “Psycho” and is well worth an Academy nomination in itself for DiCaprio’s chilling, wordless performance!


Napa Valley Film Festival–Is this the next Sundance?

Last week (November 9-13) I attended the inaugural Napa Valley Film Festival (NVFF) with a friend who lives in Calistoga and has volunteered in the festival’s planning.  Over 100 films were presented, many for the first time at any film festival, in 12 screening locations from Napa to Calistoga.  Along with viewing films we had the  pleasure of tasting fine wines from local wineries and delicious food at the welcome party (for holders of Pass Plus and patrons).  In the next two or three posts, I will be reviewing several of my favorite movies from NVFF.

While this year marks the 30th anniversary of Sundance,  walking through the Napa Valley circuit of theaters I kept imagining that Sundance was probably a lot like this in 1981, except for subzero temperatures and a smaller geographical area to maneuver.  Since my friend Caroline and I had been to Sundance several times, we had the experience to compare both festivals.  First of all, for those who prefer the autumn splendor of colored leaves, hills, and vines, Napa Valley is incomparable.  The rugged beauty of Park City, Utah definitely has its merits–especially for skiers–but the subzero weather makes long outdoor lines a form of human torture.

Second, the novelty of the film festival in the Napa area resulted in great flexibility among the friendly volunteers in greeting attendees, guiding them to the complimentary wine tables, and allowing the two of us into the theater after the first minutes of the movie’s showing.  Sundance would never let us do that!  We were quiet and moved stealthily to seats in the back near an exit.  Never an option at Sundance.

The films were overall of high quality with some first runs–“J. Edgar”, “The Descendants”, “Butter”, and “Hideaway”–all produced by major production studios.  Several of the indies were charming and original–“Becoming Santa”, about the history of Santa Claus and the training of Santas at a special school, “Jiro Makes Sushi”, about an 85-year old master chef in Tokyo’s only 3-star Michelin restaurant, and “Mamitas”, a coming-of-age film about two Mexican-American teenagers in Los Angeles.  The editing, sometimes a lack of subtitles, and infrequently amateurish cinematography in a scene or two marred some of the indie films we saw. As word gets out, however, there should be a broader selection of fine films to choose from.

There were perhaps two major indicators that the NVFF is just beginning its journey to being a major player in the long list of film festivals across the country.  One is the lack of adequate signage for finding some venues (Elementary School and Gliderport in Calistoga, for example), where anyone but locals would not be able to find the location.  Even my friend hesitated in finding the driveway for the Gliderport venue.  The second indicator was the absence of a shuttle bus system to transport attendees from one theater to another, and some were at least 45-minutes apart from point-to-point (Calistoga to Napa).  While over half of the attendees were locals this year, that will definitely change as the word gets out that this film festival means business about being ranked in the top ten nationally.  With the food (Zuzu, Market, Azzurro, Oxbow Market, Jole) and the wine (unique in comparison with Sundance), the Napa Valley Film Festival is definitely a contender for being a knockout star among film festivals going forward!  Check out their excellent website at: www.napavalleyfilmfest.org. (Sundance could learn some lessons in this department from Napa!)

Profile in Scribbles–“All About Me”

I will be reviewing some movies from the upcoming Napa Valley Film Festival in the next few weeks.  But in the meantime, I am posting a recent interview  profiling my background  writing “scribbles” in the newsletter by the same name distributed by my writers’ group, Central Coast Writers.  Some of you have been asking for more information about my future writing plans.  Here it is–“All about me”.

MEMBER PROFILE in the October issue of Scribbles, the newsletter for Central Coast Writers

 From semiconductors to Buddhism, Diana Paul’s writing subjects reflect a diversity that is evident in her employment history.  With a B.A. in psychology, an M.A. in philosophy and a Ph.D. in world religion (Buddhism), it’s no surprise that Diana would write three academic books on Buddhism— books she wrote while a professor at Stanford University (1974 to 1985). Likewise, when she was CEO of OCL Technology Center, “a think-tank US-Japan trading corporation backed by Japanese banks and high-tech companies,” Diana also wrote guest columns for the San Jose Mercury News, the San Jose Business Journal and the Christian Science Monitor “during the ‘semiconductor wars’ era in Silicon Valley (1988-1994) when trade relations were tense,” Diana says.

Though her foray into fiction writing spans only the past three years or so, Diana, also an artist and printmaker, has big plans for her writing future. She hopes to find an agent by the end of 2011, publish Unhealed Wound, a tale about three siblings growing up in the Midwest during the 1960s, in 2012, and have her novel optioned for a movie.

“The worldview of Buddhism has subtly permeated my novel with underlying themes of karma and recovery from injury,” Diana says. “The narrator/main character is a married woman who wishes her mother would die, while reflecting on her family, their past and their wounds. All have injured and scarred each other. The parenting effects they endured are now moving on to their own children’s lives.”

Excerpts from Unhealed Wound have already been published as two short stories, testimony to Diana’s ambition and dedication to her writing pursuits. As one who practices what she preaches, Diana says it’s important to “read and write every day and as much as possible. I also think movies are a great way to refine one’s storytelling skills. . . . And don’t be a harsh critic of your own work. Leave that to others. Just get the story down on paper and polish it afterwards.”

Though she declares herself a night owl, Diana says her best writing time is in the afternoon. “Since I get up around 10:30 a.m., that means I eat my first meal of the day around 11:00 and don’t start writing until around 1:00.”

An avid blogger known for her storytelling ability and movie plot revisions, Diana was inspired by the abundance of talent in CCW’s membership and enrolled in last year’s blog workshop, which changed her life, she says. Posts to her website (http://unhealeadwound.com) include movie reviews as well as commentaries on food, wine and art, “all the discoveries that make life worth living!”

 

[This article was written by Michelle Smith, who publishes for a wide variety of magazines.  Her website is: http://theebonyquill.com.]

 

 

“The Mayor of Casterbridge”–A Victorian Drama for Today

Victorian values seem remote — the language is obtuse, the character development Shakespearean in complexity.  However, I adore Thomas Hardy.  As the master of labyrinthine plots, Hardy surprises when the viewer least expects it.  And the BBC/A & E mini-series, “The Mayor of Casterbridge” (2003),  capitalizes on every deviant turn with brilliant acting, cinematography, and contemporary sensibility.

Hardy’s novel is immensely captivating in cinematic form.  “The Mayor of Casterbridge” is an astringent tale. The dark and mordant Michael Henchard, mayor of Casterbridge, (masterfully played by the underrated Ciaran Hinds) is deeply unlikable, a cruel, selfish drunkard who brutally humiliates his young wife and small child. But Thomas Hardy does not paint his characters in broad strokes of black and white.  His good and evil are much more complicated than that.  Personal failings morph into redemption and insight but devolve again into self-destruction and betrayal.  The pure-of-heart–Henchard’s wife Susan and her daughter Elizabeth Jane (Jodhi May)–can forgive the unforgiveable and love unconditionally. Lucette, Henchard’s mistress (the excellent Polly Walker) has a more guarded affection. Donald Farfrae (the superb James Purefoy), a young ambitious Scotsman, arrives in Casterbridge and soon is taken into Henchard’s confidence.   Wanting to achieve what Henchard has, through cooperation not competition, Farfrae introduces a revolutionary technological invention for mechanizing wheat cultivation, further enhancing Henchard’s reputation as a shrewd and successful businessman. Soon Farfrae is a more compassionate and effective manager than his employer.   When Farfrae wishes to court Elizabeth-Jane Newson, who at the time is living as Henchard’s stepdaughter, the relationship with Henchard begins to unravel, and Farfrae’s own ambitions cast a shadow over his relationship with Elizabeth Jane and Lucette.

The viewer does not expect the ending that unfolds, hoping instead for redemption, forgiveness, self-knowledge. Hardy’s study of human nature and all its failings is soul-piercing and unflinching. In spite of being loved, can the tormented soul be rescued from drowning in self-loathing? The mood of “The Mayor of Casterbridge” is wounded, ambiguous, and unforgettable.