The Morning After: Nov. 28, 2011

Welcome to The Morning After, where I share with you what I’ve seen over the past week either in film or television. On the film side, if I have written a full length review already, I will post a link to that review. Otherwise, I’ll give a brief snippet of my thoughts on the film with a full review to follow at some point later. For television shows, seasons and what not, I’ll post individual comments here about each of them as I see fit.

So, here is what I watched this past week:

The Descendants


Alexander Payne can always be called on to explore the landscape around his character as much as the characters he displays. The Descendants is no different as we are shown the beauty of Hawaii and advised that the remote island paradise is no stranger to hard times or human frailties. The film follows Matt King (George Clooney), an attorney who is the sole signatory on a piece of land that will revert to the state if not sold within 7 years. As he struggles to decide who to sell the property to, a serious boating accident, leaves his wife in a vegetative state from which doctors see no return. Once her living will kicks in, he must break the news to all of her friends and family. To help him do so, he retrieves his daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) from a private school and embarks on a difficult and melancholic task.

There are plenty of complications for Matt and his family, including revelations of infidelity and complications that impact his decision regarding the vast tract of land his family owns in trust. Clooney carries the film well, but it’s 20-year-old Woodley who gives the film’s most skilled performance. Equal parts fatalism, frustration and love, Woodley invokes all the simple emotions of a devoted daughter supporting a grieving father pretending to be strong for her and his youngest daughter. That’s not to diminish Clooney’s work, he’s in fine form, but Woodley takes control of every scene in which they share.

Payne’s films require a bit of patience to watch as they aren’t quickly cut together and pushed to extremes. It’s a relaxing effort that allows the audience to savor the rich dialogue and compelling characters. Unlike Sideways, there are moments that seem a bit too studious. And sometimes his colorful dialogue borders on the absurd, though that’s part of the point. Either way it’s a solid effort with much to say about human nature, grief, self-recrimination and strength in the face of frailty.

Hugo


With films like The Aviator, it should come as little surprise that Martin Scorsese is so enamored with film history that it becomes an otherworldly experience unto itself. While I find The Aviator one of the absolute best Scorsese has crafted, there’s something a bit too preachy about Hugo in spite of its style, wit and passion. The story, based on a French picture book about a boy named Hugo Cabret living within the walls of a train station in Paris where he pinches food to survive and small mechanical parts in hope of completing the strange automaton in his possession, the last remnants of his dead father, hoping it will contain a lasting message for him.

Where the film starts and where it ends are at odds with one another. Although Hugo does find someone to act as a surrogate father, it’s secondary to the plot that emerges once he finds the young girl of the station toy maker possess the heart-shaped key that will unlock the full capabilities of the automaton. As the devices works its magic, isntead of a written message, he is presented with an image and a signature that informs the rest of the picture. Georges Méliès was one of the earliest filmmakers to explore the medium as a method of telling stories and not simply as a cheap gimmick more suited to a carnival than a legitimate business. His A Trip to the Moon, which forms the backbone for parts of the story, is one of the most important works of early film history.

That’s not to say what’s presented isn’t rather spectacular. Leave it to a filmmaker like Scorsese to understand what 3D is best suited for. It’s not for tossing random objects at the screen, it’s for creating a depth to the frame that might otherwise be unobserved. Take for instance, the multiple scenes in the clock tower in the film where the camera is positioned high in the tower while Hugo mounts the stairs to the top, the massive pendulum swinging in frame giving us a frame of reference. The entire scene almost gives the audience a severe case of vertigo. And the vast landscapes and images in the film are well suited to the medium. This enables the art direction team to create a beautiful tableau in which the film can be set. And filling the screen in the foreground are a number of cute and wondrous characters that are reminiscent of the colorful persons dotting the best children’s films made. The Wizard of Oz had Dorothy’s three companions while Mary Poppins had a household staff of unusual creativity. That’s what helps Hugo succeed where many other kids’ films don’t.

As for the film historical perspective, I’ll save my opinions on that for my full length review.

Shame


Steve McQueen’s slate of films isn’t one that average filmgoers could name, but there’s no question that his biggest contribution to cinema may be Michael Fassbender whose performance in Shame is nothing short of superb.

Fassbender plays a sex addict Brandon Sullivan whose colorful past catches up to him when his freewheeling sister arrives in town. Crashing in his bachelor’s apartment only inhibits his ability to bring home the various women he seduces in bars and on the subway. Brandon’s unhealthy sex drive leads him not just to sexual encounters, but frequent bouts of masturbation either in front of his home laptop or in the bathroom at his office. He doesn’t know when to quit and it’s that struggle that gives him a natural depth uncommon in recent cinema.

While this film is entirely on Fassbender’s able shoulders, Carey Mulligan does excellent work as his chatty, emotionally starved sister. When the film finds itself focused on the sultry stylings of Mulligan as she sings a slowed down version of “New York, New York”, you begin to wonder just what kind of relationship Brandon and his sister have had. He watches her frustrated, angry, bitter and when she returns to the table and his married boss begins flirting with her, there’s jealousy and betrayal. She recognizes his uncomfortableness and seems to start playing it up with the boss, risking their sibling bond in the process. There has never been a more rich film dealing with sex addiction and as Brandon spirals out of control, we watch helplessly as he struggles to maintain sanity and only after he quenches his thirst does his mental anguish subside, but to what end? What does he care most about? Sex addiction in parallel to alcoholism and other addictions that threaten to destroy the lives of those they inhabit.

The Tree of Life


Terrence Malick is in love with landscapes and that passion is fully on display in The Tree of Life a film with deep philosophical concepts running in a current under a traditional story of 1960’s suburban life. And its in these beautiful images that the film soars, yet for all its beauty, Malick’s film feels a touch hollow at times. This has little to do with Brad Pitt’s able performance or Sean Penn’s meandering ruminations. Even the superb Jessica Chastain can’t keep the film from feeling like creativity and conventional narrative structure are fighting each other for dominance.

The film has great spans of film stock devoted to an unraveling of the creation of the universe. In a lengthy, yet beautiful series of brilliant Douglas Trumbull-created visual effects, the earth is created from a cluster of space dust, eventually drawn into the beautiful landscapes that surround us. Each historical interlude punctuated by recitations of scripture and lamentations to God, the film is unclear whether it supports the idea of an otherworldly being controlling the chaos or that we simply use the idea of Heaven and divine intervention as a way to alleviate the burden of pain. And its this latter sentiment that I feel prevails.

You don’t make an art film without finding flaws and there are certainly many. While the first act of the film is split almost fairly between the foundation of the universe, the present and the recent past, the film eventually settles into the 1960’s without seeming to look back. That narrative, in spite of its realistic elements reminding me partly of my own childhood in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, there’s nothing deep or interesting at that point in the story. You feel trapped in a slow, unexceptional narrative directive without a sense of purpose. The film wanders aimlessly through childhood angst, the desire to perform acts of rebellion and a crumbling, yet loving family environment.

There are two distinct films being made here and while the opening frames of the film are some of the finest in memory, there’s little in the middle-to-late section of the film worth noting. Matter of fact, had a fair chunk of the developing sibling relationship been cut from the film, it wouldn’t have lost much of its impact. While I understand this sets up the relationship between present day Jack and his late brother, explaining an early-film phone call with a mysterious listener and then the final act trip into the subconscious imagination, it drags down an otherwise impressive film.

Albert Nobbs


Glenn Close may give one of her greatest performances in Albert Nobbs, the story of a neglected woman posing as a man to find work and save up to buy a little shop he has his eye on. Close’s Nobbs conveys a strong nobility while performing his duty that crumbles away as he’s exposed to the threat of discovery by a short term boarder in his third-floor bedroom. Janet McTeer, who plays this invasive pest Hubert shares the same secret, something we guess early on in their relationship, and perhaps its Albert’s sobbing pleas to Hubert one late night that enable him to reveal his own secrets that gives the film its emotional weight.

Indeed, McTeer is every bit as fine as Close, both of whom giving the kind of heartfelt performances that would fit well in better films. The story is stretched beyond credibility in spite of Close’s best efforts. As Albert discovers he can wed a woman to find legitimacy and happiness, a perspective gained through his friendship with Hubert, his dream begins building. It’s the young parlor maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska) that gives him the hope he needs, but it is she who will ultimately bring him down. She is in love with the cantankerous boiler operator Joe (Aaron Johnson) who promises they will flee to America where they can live in peace if she can persuade Albert to give freely of his stored wealth to her.

There are a handful of subplots that weave through the story, setting up tragedy and heartache as Albert Nobbs drifts into melancholy. Although its titular protagonist has hope and forward vision, the events around him prevent any measure of future happiness. It’s a bleak story with only a glimmer of happiness. Sentimentality overloads much of the film and were it not for Close and McTeer, the film would crumble in its own conventional nature.

Rampart


The dirtiest cop you’ve seen on the big screen in some time, Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) does what he wants and doesn’t give a shit who stands in his way. The film opens on him and his rookie partner and another cop standing by their patrol cars eating lunch. The rookie protests about eating her French fries, yet Dave’s forceful demeanor and insistence on her completing the endeavor prepare us for the unreasonable nature of the character we’re about to see.

Harrelson has played some of the sweetest, kindest characters television and motion pictures has seen and although his complex soldier in Oren Moverman’s previous film The Messenger had his share of flaws, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Harrelson this in control of such a loathsome character. He came closest in his layered performance as Larry Flynt in The People vs. Larry Flynt, but in that film his snarky asides and courageous fight for free speech make him an ultimately likable character. Here, there is no such veneer. This is a crooked, vicious, hateful cop who handles justice in his own way damned be those who get in his way. And if you like Dave Brown at all, it’s because of his surprisingly tender relationship with his two ex-wives and daughters. The one time he finds serenity and sees how wrong he is comes in a reflection of how his daughters see him. His public life protrudes into his private and risks the few things he holds precious.

Moverman’s second film isn’t as emotionally powerful as his first, but one thing’s for certain. He knows how to wrench the best work out of Harrelson. There’s something relateable, yet repulsive about this carnivorous beast fighting for survival. You can’t help but feel for his sudden fall from grace while detesting every action the character makes. He is the outward vocalization of our inner demons, he simply isn’t in control of them. Rampart is far from the perfect film. There are some situations that feel all too familiar, but its in Harrelson’s performance that the film lives and breathes. Even experienced thespians Ned Beatty and Sigourney Weaver can’t help but be pulled along by his gravity. Beatty submits a fine performance, though perhaps one we’ve seen a handful of times before. It’s a rough, grave performance that supporting Oscars were made for.

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