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Everybody Wants to be Us

Graduate Student at Loyola University Chicago. Check out the blog for what I'm currently obsessed with in film and culture. Michael Fassbender, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Winslet, Christian Bale, Jesse Eisenberg, David Lynch, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, and Daniel Radcliffe are regulars here.

#2011

BEST PICTURES REVIEWED: “Moneyball”

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Problems are easy to spot, often they lie on the surface so big that looking at them seems defeating.  Many turn away, keep doing things as they’ve always been done.  A few experiment with slight diversions from the original path, only to return to the “devil you know.” Even fewer have an actual solution and the courage to lead others to change.  Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller, is about the latter and is one of the most compelling, gripping, and substantial films to come out this year.  All that and it manages to also be completely hilarious and winning.  

Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the manager for the struggling Oakland Athletics.  Like he says, “There are rich teams and there are poor teams…and then there’s 50 feet of crap, and then there’s us.”  Beane, a former player, knows there’s something wrong with the game. You can see him inwardly twitching and stewing knowing that recruitment, strategy, and money have all fallen in on itself to keep rich teams rich and everyone else irrelevant.  Beane’s notion is confirmed and emboldened when he meets Peter Brand (played wonderfully by Jonah Hill), a genius in love with baseball who recognizes the same problems in baseball through the statistics.  He knows the potential of every player, on every team.  Together, the man of experience and the man of numbers, decide to turn the Oakland Athletics around, recruiting players based on their stats alone and building a team they can afford and that could win- solely based on data.  

What really connected with me about Moneyball was the central story of two people, one informed by experience and the other by statistics, who see the world in a completely different way and have the courage to change it.  They’re attracted to each other because each represents the missing link in what they know is true.  Billy knows from his experience as a failed baseball player- traded to a half-dozen different teams after being touted by so-called expert recruiters he was a 5 tool player- that the system is broken.  Pete, a mathematical genius in love with baseball, looks past the glamour of star players to what a player can actually do. Players who can achieve runs are being undervalued for quirks- a weird throw or ugly girlfriend- while the shinning stars are completely over-valued. By taking on players that are viewed as damaged goods by the old model, Beane shines a light on unorthodox talent.  His faith in the players, something that has never been bestowed on them before, acts as a catalyst for their performance.  

The relationship Pitt and Hill form on screen was the most wonderful part of the film. They’re exact opposites, yet form this perfect unit- completing each other’s sentences and thoughts.  Also, Beane grooms Peter, training him to make the decisions necessary to run a team.  In another way, the two actors mirror their characters with Pitt as the experienced veteran star and Hill as the rising up start who might have been overlooked for a role in a blockbuster drama. Hill more than rises to the material and should be cast in more mainstream, serious roles.  His Peter is an obvious geek and shy, but incredibly passionate about baseball.  That devotion came through in his performance and made me invested in the story.

Pitt is great here, perhaps one of my favorite performances by the actor.  He’s restrained, but magnetic as Beane.  From his expressions and sly grins, he always gives you the sense he’s three steps ahead of every conversation he’s having.  He looks with amusement at the naysayers on the Oakland A’s, agitating them further against his campaign.  Only in scenes with Jonah Hill and his daughter, played by Kerris Dorsey, does he break to a more open and relaxed demeanour.  With those people, he wants to be stimulated and knows he can trust their criticism and advice.

Pitt also holds scenes, of which there are many, of Billy Beane stewing alone while listening to the games. Pitt conveys in these private moments what it’s like to really love something and invest your entire being in it. His performance draws the difference between professionals who take an interest in their jobs and people who love their jobs.  In the latter, the triumphs are taken with hesitancy while failures hurt with the force of physical injury.  I’ve felt that about the things I care about and could immediately relate to the character’s struggle.  In all, Moneyball really hit me. In the days after my screening I kept turning over the film in my mind and I plan to read Michael Lewis’ book. Not that baseball stats could ever get me riled up, but the idea of taking a chance on under-valued talent is an interesting aspect of the film that I would love to delve into further.  

BEST PICTURES REVIEWED: “The Descendants”

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On the sidewalks of Chicago I’ve been seeing the word “Forgive” painted in simple white script.  All over the city on my walks, this sign reminds me of this daunting action. Humbling ourselves to ask for forgiveness is no easy task, but appears more pleasant to laying down our pride and anger to forgive another. To complicate matters, how do we forgive “those who trespass against us” especially when they neither seek nor want our pardon? In his newest film “The Descendants” the Jesuit educated writer/ director Alexander Payne explores the barriers and challenges to forgive others. With his dark comedic style and intuitive sense of character, Payne offers some great insight on relationships and forgiveness.

Payne jets to the beautiful landscapes of Hawaii for “The Descendants.” The film stars George Clooney as Matt King, a father and husband whose wife is comatose due to a water skiing accident. Matt muses on everything he wants to apologize for when she wakes. His frequent business trips have created a distance in their marriage and family that he is ready to fix. At her bedside, Matt looks expectantly at his wife, praying for a chance to make Rup for it all. Yet two powerful revelations hit Matt just as he’s preparing this full transformation: his wife Elizabeth will die soon and she was having an affair. The second piece of information comes from his acerbic eldest daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) after Matt brings her home from a teen drug treatment center. Torn between his distress and anger, Matt must find a way to put Elizabeth to rest and raise his two daughters alone.

Payne cleverly dramatizes Matt’s dueling emotions towards his wife through vividly drawn and brilliantly acted characters. Alex represents his impulse to hate Elizabeth and discard every happy memory. He and Alex become allies in trying to discover the full extent of Elizabeth’s infidelity. They track down and confront her lover, finding he too has a spouse and family. Matt and Alex find a new understanding in their relationship through their shared anger at Elizabeth. With Scotty his 10 year old that knows nothing but a loving and admirable woman who she hopes will wake up again, Matt tempers his anger. In Elizabeth’s father Scott (Robert Forster), Matt is reminded of the woman he fell in love with, but often neglected because of his work.

Each scene leads Matt to confront another aspect of his wife. Elizabeth, portrayed by Patricia Hestie, could almost be considered the main character. Every conversation revolves around this mute and stationary character. In her hospital room, Payne alternates between wide shots that ensure Elizabeth is in our sights and close up shots on her agape, vacant face. We see Elizabeth from about every angle a person can be judged. Yet she remains a mystery and curiosity that we are discovering alongside Matt. Spurred on by Alex, Matt rages at his wife, laying out fresh and imagined grievances, quite different from his early scenes at her bedside. Seeing Scott mourn for his daughter, Matt finds pity for her. In Scotty’s sadness, Matt feels the loss of the mother of his children. And through an unlikely stranger played by Judy Greer, Matt learns he must forgive Elizabeth despite everything.

Payne sets Matt on a journey towards forgiveness that feels full and real because of these characters and their powerfully real interactions. Even compared to his role in “Up in the Air,” this is Clooney’s best leading performance. Definitely the most emotionally demanding role he’s chosen, Clooney traverses a range from anger to tenderness expertly. In “The Descendants” even Clooney”s fans will be surprised at how this normally cool, suave, and all-knowing actor is allowed to fail, look foolish, and be pitiful. In one such scene, after he chokes out an announcement of Elizabeth’s death to her closest friends, he watches their cars drive away and simply sinks to the ground. Matt is just like the rest of us, dealing with the pressures of life that can overwhelm our ability to stand. Most times it’s the actor that illuminates the character, yet Payne may have crafted a character with Matt King that allows audiences some insight into the actor. Clooney feels set free here and takes full advantage.

Woodley and Amara Miller who play Clooney’s daughters are wonderfully cast and flank the veteran actor like expert players. Woodley, a TV star on ABC Family, handles the role of the caustic and profane older sister with skill and grace. Woodley is able to deliver cutting lines and looks without ever seeming like a brat. Woodley brings out Alex’s desire to continue hating Elizabeth, while hinting at the young woman’s love for her mother. Alex says bitterly, “I’m just like you. In fact I’m exactly like you.” She means the line to wound, but Woodley shows us that Alex’s disappointment in her mother is rooted in her admiration for the woman. Payne has found a natural talent in Amara Miller who plays Scotty. It was refreshing to see a child actor who actually fit the age of the character. Miller is able to bring some of the mischievousness of Alex, while retaining that childlike hope that draws Alex and Matt away from their anger. Miller and Woodley are fearless, holding their own with and challenging Robert Forster and Clooney. They also deliver some of the best laughs with their surprising outbursts.

Payne’s films have been called sardonic in their portrayal of small town characters. In “The Descendants” I only saw great affection for the characters and a story of family that feels universal and necessary. The laughs here never come at the expense of the characters, but out of the relatable foibles and rashes of anger. We laugh deeply because the situations feel so grounded in truth. Payne shows us forgiveness is a journey, almost literally taking us across various Hawaiian Islands as Matt contemplates his family’s future. That journey takes Matt from confusion to anger to sorrow and finally lands in love; a love for Elizabeth despite her sins and the people she’s left behind who need peace.

BEST PICTURES REVIEWED: “Tree Of Life”

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The end of summer brings many new beginnings and reunions. Seeing friends again and hearing about exciting travels brings the grace needed to transition from heaps of sunshine to cloudier and colder days ahead. In one such catch up talk with one of my Jesuit friends, we both experienced what we termed a “Tree of Life” moments. We had both seen the film early in the summer and felt moved by it’s beauty and lyrical storytelling. For my friend, the quiet, peace of enjoying nature during his break called him back to the experience of seeing the film.

For me, it was stepping into the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, Spain. Walking into the church, I caught my breath taking in the magnificent beauty of the space. The bright stained glass windows, the sculpted turrets, and floating balconies along the high walls were all demanding my attention and praise. Eyes dizzying, mind soaring, heart swooning; all this at once made me think how beautiful this place was and wonderful God is. I think in many ways Terrence Malick’s film prepared me for that moment. As a looked at the windows in Sagrada Familia, my mind floated by to The Tree of Life and like my friend, made me even more grateful for having seen it.

I resisted writing my review for a long time, partly because the film evoked in me raw, undigested thoughts, memories, and feelings I couldn’t quite distill into coherent words. Also I thought Fr. James Martin SJ summed the film up for me perfectly in his essay found here.  His piece captures everything I thought and felt right after seeing the film.  My experience in Barcelona and others since has given me a bit more to add to the discussion. I found Tree of Life to be film that glorifies interiors as well as nature and explores relationship between grief and memory.

The first is simple, the experience I had in Sagrada Familia, transfixed by the elemental beauty of the church, the carvings depicting foundational scenes of my faith, and imagining having mass in that heavenly place transported me to something beyond that day and time. So too did Malick’s shots of Jessica Chastain and the three boys playing her sons running through their Texas home in the morning light, or Sean Penn rushing in a glass office building, or Brad Pitt playing the organ in a lofted, dark church balcony. Finding God in the created interiors, the places where we celebrate, dine, and commune with each other is as important as loving creation itself.

The second point has more to do with the “plot” in Tree of Life. I suspect if 5 people saw the film, you’d get 5 vastly different plot descriptions. Well, here’s my stab at it. In the beginning we know someone has died- the son of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain’s character. Sean Penn, their oldest son begins to remember childhood, trying in some way to bring his relationship with his brother into better focus. We see his father, a stern man insistent his sons respect him and not repeat his mistakes. Pitt’s character is a musician without an audience, an intellectual without a degree, and an entrepreneur without a business. He takes out his frustrations on his wife and sons, especially the eldest who dares to challenge him.

Chastain is the lovely counterforce to Pitt representing love, light, and beauty. She encourages and supports her sons, keeping the household in balance. Sean Penn’s younger brother, in memories seems like the best of the bunch. He brings a rare smile to his father’s face playing the guitar while he plays the piano. He trusts his older brother, submitting to his mild abuse and forgiving him after. Losing this good soul causes each family member a deep sorrow. Pitt wonders if he should have been kinder. Sean Penn revels in memories of their soft brawls in their Texas lawn.

Yet Chastain’s mother character experiences a grief so deep that it stretches to the beginning of time. We cast our sights to the creation of the world, dinosaurs, and the origins of human life to find out why this great human life is no longer with us. The loss of her son is so painful it changes the course of time itself so it is necessary to start anew, at the beginning of creation to heal. These three responses all mingle around each other, meeting on the beaches at the end of time- reuniting the family in a peace that escaped their mortal experiences together. That’s my take and I’m sure you’ll have your own response to this beautiful film.

I would not measure The Tree of Life by its greatness, it may not crack my top 20 of the year. However, more than most films I’ve seen this year, it sharpened my own awareness of the beauty around me and those transcendent moments that arise from being truly present. I would instead measure the Tree of Life in gratefulness. For it allowed me to ponder great questions and see great beauty. For that, I thank Mr. Malick for his imagination and artistry.

BEST PICTURES REVIEWED: War Horse

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From the sprawling fields of Devon to the dank trenches of WWI, Steven Spielberg keeps the courageous steed Joey at the center of “War Horse.”  Despite having a fleet of the finest British actors, no one (save Tom Hiddleston *yum*) holds the screen or your heart like this majestic horse.  The sequence where Joey speeds through No Man’s Land as cannons blaze perilous fireworks overhead may one the most beautiful film scenes of the year.  

We learn about Joey in how he incites awe and greatness in the people he encounters. To the Narracott family, he is their most desperate hope. Instead of buying a sturdy, hulking work horse Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) brings home this elegant, young animal.  His wife Rose (Emily Watson) berates her drunken husband’s poor judgement, but allows her son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) to train the horse.  Albert forges a bond with Joey, teaching the horse to answer to his unique call and preparing him for hard and impossible work.  Under threat of eviction, Albert and Joey plow the rocky Narracott field and save the family farm for another season.

As war comes, Ted sees an opportunity to make money off of Albert’s extraordinary horse.  Fortunately Captain Nichols (Hiddleston) sees the horse’s rare qualities and Albert’s devotion to the animal.  Nichols readies Joey for battle, honing his speed and drawing courage from the fearless animal.  Joey meets many others in his travels across Europe; two brothers looking to escape death on the front lines, a young girl looking to make a family after her parents are killed, and an unexpected friend in the brutal lines of the German army.  Joey inspires these people to be a little more brave and loving.  

The most beautiful example of this is the meeting of two combatants who must work together to free entangled Joey from barbed wire.  In this brief encounter the German and British are allied around Joey, working to save something instead of destroying each other. Together they name him War Horse, neither Allied or Axis, but a symbol for what each solider strives for: fearlessness. Against great odds, Joey and Albert are reunited in a series of scenes that will surely have you grabbing your hankie.  All the tears are earned because both boy and horse have been through so much suffering, they deserve to go home and live in peace.  

BEST PICTURES REVIEWED: “The Help”

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The Help, directed by Tate Taylor, succeeds as a women’s picture capturing the moments of sorrow and grace played out in bedrooms, kitchen tables, and living room parlors. However in terms of its social causes, The Help has little to offer in illuminating racial or class discrimination. The film tells several stories which meet in the collaboration of two African American maids, Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson, and a white aspiring writer, Skeeter Phelan to document the treatment of black domestics in Jackson, Mississippi around 1963.  The film at parts may get you riled- a nasty comment or hasty judgment may even earn your ire, but the film really wants your heartstrings pulled tautly and often.


The Help does little harm and is a sight better than the white protagonist centered narratives like The Ghosts of Mississippi or Amistad, mostly because of the strong performances from Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as Aibileen and Minny.  Davis takes this role and turns into something magical.  Like her turn in Doubt, Davis can do a lot with little, while completely breaking your heart in longer, emotional scenes.  In one scene, Aibileen implores Skeeter not to give up on writing their book, telling a horrific story of her son’s death.  The lines on the page aren’t much, but Davis injects such sorrow, anger, and pride into that scene, it doesn’t much matter what she says- only what we feel. Octavia Spencer as Minny gets the funner role, rolling off sarcastic lines, sassy looks, and memorable phrases (mostly surrounding a certain flavor of pie).  However, Spencer is more than comic relief, getting some real moments of compassion and frustration.  

Emma Stone is quite good here, but her story line never matches what Davis is bringing.  Skeeter’s an outsider on the inside of Jackson’s elite community.  She wants to write about something that  ”disturbs her particularly if it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else,” assuming she’s the only one bothered by segregation and racism.  Yet, her curiosity about Aibileen’s life and hardships seems genuine and rooted in her own upbringing by an African American domestic, played by the legend Cicely Tyson. Stone gets a tacked on romantic storyline, meant to show how her social conscious affects her love life, but it just doesn’t amount to much.  

Along with Davis and Stone, The Help features a host of stunning performances by Hollywood’s greatest actresses and delightful newcomers.  I loved Jessica Chastain (the enigmatic ginger from Tree Of Life) as Celia Foote.  I was never sure how Ceila fit into the story and I’m not sure she needed to be there, yet I came to miss Chastain’s bubbly, guileless, and heartwarming persona when she wasn’t on screen.  Bryce Dallas Howard, an actress I really like, is quite good here as southern mean girl Hilly Holbrook.  In a final scene with Davis, Aibileen calls Hilly “A God-less woman!,” Howard recoils at the whooping recrimination from Davis, yet before she can regain her bully powers, Davis follows with a softer, but even more powerful punch asking, “Aren’t you tired?”  Howard begins to melt before us, showing even this hated person has some issues of her own.  Allison Janney and Sissy Spacek get applause worthy stands in the film as well.  

So when you see The Help bring your Kleenex, but leave your protest signs at home.

"Drive" Out on DVD Today!

Sound is what a remember most about Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive.  Starting with the electro-pop opening credits of Ryan Gosling’s stunt man/ getaway car driver’s languid route through night-cloaked Los Angeles.  Against the song “Nightcall” punctuated with hot pink opening credits, Winding Refn’s film summoned that feel of timelessness, while showing a crystal clear picture of Hollywood’s city.  Sound continued to narrate as Gosling’s character began a cat and mouse chase with the LAPD’s patrol cars and helicopters- aiding his robber employers to the perfect escape. Every acceleration, turn, and shift in gear seemed to rumble through the theater.  

These exhilarating chase scenes were coupled with slower, melodic scenes of Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, as his neighbor Irene, falling in love while gliding around in his car.  In one scene, Gosling and Mulligan accompanied by Irene’s son Benicio drive through the abandoned space under LA’s highways in the shining sun.  Free and easy, the camera makes them glide across the screen.  These enchanting moments played like a visual lullaby, cooing me to a tranquil state.  

Yet, Drive is no lullaby. Winding Refn uses his brilliant composition of sound and visuals to abruptly wrest you out of the reverie established by the first half of the film. Gosling agrees to do a job that goes wrong and a character is surprisingly murdered before his eyes.  The shot rang so loud through me I felt as if I had been stabbed in the chest.  The rest of Drive proceeds like this, violent kills as Gosling fights back mob goons who sabotaged this last job.  Gosling, a restrained, laconic, and focused character becomes an unhinged killer, taking out each person in his way with horrifying precision.  Each deadly blow caused me to recoil and writhe in my seat, sometimes checking quickly if I had been wounded through the screen as well.  

Every player in Drive is wonderful to watch.  Albert Brooks menacingly croaks orders and threats, making me shrink in my seat each time he appeared on screen.  Bryan Cranston’s nervous and likable car dealer earned my pity and concern in his short scenes, building toward his unfortunate death scene.  Christina Hendricks is the resplendent ice queen who I wished had been in the film more. During an erratic, twisting car chase, Hendrick’s radiant beauty drew a stark contrast to the destruction and danger swirling in the frame.  Carey Mulligan was our and Gosling’s salvation, a serene presence through the film.  We long for these two scarred characters to find the peace they briefly share only in each other’s company.  And Ryan Gosling is spectacular as the nameless driver.  He maintains a sort of dignity above the other villains, even as he dispatches them.  His cool eyes hint at the cruelty hiding beneath his character that he so diligently suppressed in the beginning of the story.  His rules, his reticence with Irene, his silence- all intentional to hold his darker impulses at bay. He holds the piece together and kept me engrossed in the film.  

Most Disappointing Films of the Year

J Edgar

I thought this would be my favorite film of the year.  My hopes could not have been higher.  I’m an Eastwood fan- I even like “The Changling.” But it’s Eastwood that gets in the way of “J Edgar” being great. I hate to harp on things like a weak film score or off-putting lighting, but those aspects of the film sabotaged the great acting on display. Also, the makeup was distracting.

The Artist

As much as I’m determined to see this film crash at the Oscars, I had hoped it would be good. Maybe if the critical praise wasn’t so completely over-blown I would have been able to enjoy “The Artist.” There are charming parts and it’s technically lovely, but incredibly dull. 

Company Men

This film about the human toll of the financial crisis looked promising, but just fell flat. Ben Affleck and Chris Copper were pretty good, but something about the whole film just did not come together.  

Something Borrowed

This romantic comedy about love, betrayal, and friendship does not work because I never truly believed that Ginnifer Goodwin’s character would ever be friends with Kate Hudson’s Darcy.  I wish Darcy had been cast differently, perhaps a closer peer with Goodwin.  But I must thank the film for introducing me to Colin Egglesfield. Hello Gorgeous! 

The Help

I cried at the TRAILER for “The Help” and was super excited to see it. Every performance in the film is top notch, but the stories feel so disparate that I came away feeling confused.  If the film was more harmonious, instead of giving every actress an Oscar scene, I could have embraced it more.

The Debt

The plot of this film intrigued me along with the cast, but “The Debt” left me wanting for a coherent and thrilling story.  Chastain and Mirren are excellent, but Sam Worthington brings the whole ship down with his total lack of sexual allure. While being handsome, Worthington is hopelessly bland.  Also, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds are totally wasted in bit parts.  

Worst of 2011

Even though 2011 was a stellar year for film, there were a few clunkers I wish I hadn’t seen.  I generally know whether I’ll dislike a film from trailers or reviews. Therefore, this list won’t include egregiously terrible films like “Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star” and “Jack and Jill.”  These are the films that disappointed me or just slipped through my discerning tastes.

The Hangover Part II

I love “The Hangover” unreservedly, but the sequel isn’t funny, has no warmth, and just falls flat. Similar to the “Sex and the City 2,” the boys of “The Hangover” only make sense in the confines of Las Vegas. There’s something uncomfortable about the guys bashing around Thailand.  It reminds me of a child who can freely reign havoc in the home backyard, but embarrasses you when the kid acts the same way at a neighbor’s house. If the Wolfpack from “The Hangover” need to cut loose, I hope they do so in the comedic safety of the United States. 

The Future

I was excited for Miranda July’s film about two thirty-somethings who fret over adopting a cat.  The first half of the film completely works; it’s funny, engaging, and even the talking cat is sweet.  But I felt July sabotaged me.  Her character Sophie, a disappointed dance teacher, starts an affair with a random man.  The scene is so uncomfortable and the progression of the film becomes unbearable to watch.  I really hated this film.  

Cracks

Again I was excited for Jordan Scott’s girls boarding school drama “Cracks” and left incredibly disappointed.  This film really turned my stomach.  In it Eva Green plays an eccentric teacher to a group of alpha females led by Juno Temple. When a mysterious Spanish heiress joins the school, the students and teachers become enamored by her elegance and class. Green’s character becomes a little too interested in the young student.  Green and Temple are steadfast in their roles, but I could not embrace “Cracks” for all the needless suffering it heaps on this poor Spanish girl.  

No Strings Attached

When a “Period Mix” is perhaps the most inventive thing in your film, you know there’s a problem.  This romantic comedy of low expectations had little mirth or romance. Portman and Kutcher have little chemistry.  I prefer “Friends With Benefits” even though the premise of both films is pretty depressing. 

Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1

I’m good at avoiding films I’m bound to dislike, but as a favor to a friend I saw the latest “Twilight” installment.  The film is well made with a great soundtrack. The performances are incredibly flat and robotic.  For all the hoopla surrounding the consummation of Bella and Edward’s tragic love, the film had zero sensuality and romance. The honeymoon and any scene with Taylor Lautner completely bored me. The wedding was actually the best part- a lovely wooded ceremony and some really awkward wedding toasts. Also the nightmarish demon baby delivery was really INTENSE. If only the film had more thrills and humor, I could try and embrace it.  

Moneyball (2011) Coming to DVD January 10th!

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Problems are easy to spot, often they lie on the surface so big that looking at them seems defeating.  Many turn away, keep doing things as they’ve always been done.  A few experiment with slight diversions from the original path, only to return to the “devil you know.” Even fewer have an actual solution and the courage to lead others to change.  Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller, is about the latter and is one of the most compelling, gripping, and substantial films to come out this year.  All that and it manages to also be completely hilarious and winning.  

Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the manager for the struggling Oakland Athletics.  Like he says, “There are rich teams and there are poor teams…and then there’s 50 feet of crap, and then there’s us.”  Beane, a former player, knows there’s something wrong with the game. You can see him inwardly twitching and stewing knowing that recruitment, strategy, and money have all fallen in on itself to keep rich teams rich and everyone else irrelevant.  Beane’s notion is confirmed and emboldened when he meets Peter Brand (played wonderfully by Jonah Hill), a genius in love with baseball who recognizes the same problems in baseball through the statistics.  He knows the potential of every player, on every team.  Together, the man of experience and the man of numbers, decide to turn the Oakland Athletics around, recruiting players based on their stats alone and building a team they can afford and that could win- solely based on data.  

What really connected with me about Moneyball was the central story of two people, one informed by experience and the other by statistics, who see the world in a completely different way and have the courage to change it.  They’re attracted to each other because each represents the missing link in what they know is true.  Billy knows from his experience as a failed baseball player- traded to a half-dozen different teams after being touted by so-called expert recruiters he was a 5 tool player- that the system is broken.  Pete, a mathematical genius in love with baseball, looks past the glamour of star players to what a player can actually do. Players who can achieve runs are being undervalued for quirks- a weird throw or ugly girlfriend- while the shinning stars are completely over-valued. By taking on players that are viewed as damaged goods by the old model, Beane shines a light on unorthodox talent.  His faith in the players, something that has never been bestowed on them before, acts as a catalyst for their performance.  

The relationship Pitt and Hill form on screen was the most wonderful part of the film. They’re exact opposites, yet form this perfect unit- completing each other’s sentences and thoughts.  Also, Beane grooms Peter, training him to make the decisions necessary to run a team.  In another way, the two actors mirror their characters with Pitt as the experienced veteran star and Hill as the rising up start who might have been overlooked for a role in a blockbuster drama. Hill more than rises to the material and should be cast in more mainstream, serious roles.  His Peter is an obvious geek and shy, but incredibly passionate about baseball.  That devotion came through in his performance and made me invested in the story.

Pitt is great here, perhaps one of my favorite performances by the actor.  He’s restrained, but magnetic as Beane.  From his expressions and sly grins, he always gives you the sense he’s three steps ahead of every conversation he’s having.  He looks with amusement at the naysayers on the Oakland A’s, agitating them further against his campaign.  Only in scenes with Jonah Hill and his daughter, played by Kerris Dorsey, does he break to a more open and relaxed demeanour.  With those people, he wants to be stimulated and knows he can trust their criticism and advice.

Pitt also holds scenes, of which there are many, of Billy Beane stewing alone while listening to the games. Pitt conveys in these private moments what it’s like to really love something and invest your entire being in it. His performance draws the difference between professionals who take an interest in their jobs and people who love their jobs.  In the latter, the triumphs are taken with hesitancy while failures hurt with the force of physical injury.  I’ve felt that about the things I care about and could immediately relate to the character’s struggle.  In all, Moneyball really hit me. In the days after my screening I kept turning over the film in my mind and I plan to read Michael Lewis’ book. Not that baseball stats could ever get me riled up, but the idea of taking a chance on under-valued talent is an interesting aspect of the film that I would love to delve into further.  

A Year of Movies: 2011

The Best of the Year is covered pretty thoroughly here. 2011 was a busy and fruitful year at the multiplex.  I suppose with all the films i saw (101) and adding to that multiple viewings and special screenings like seeing “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “The Apartment” for a film class; I was watching a film in the theater on an average of every 3 DAYS.  I have my priorities straight.  

Here is an honest and detailed accounting of everything I saw this year.  

The Artist  ★ ★ ★ 
The Adventures of Tintin  ★ ★ ★ ★ 
War Horse  ★ ★ ★ ★ 
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo***  ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ 
Young Adult  ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows  ★ ★ ★ 
Tyrannosaur  ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Shame**  ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ 
Hugo **★ ★ ★ ★ ★ 
The Descendants ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ 
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ** ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ 
Twilight: Breaking Dawn ★ ★ 
The Muppets ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2 

Best of 2011

Out of 101 films, here are my favorites!

1) Midnight in Paris

This film gets better each time I see it. Woody Allen captures the magic of Paris beginning with a beautiful opening montage of the city in bloom. Owen Wilson gives a balanced and brilliant comedic performance as Gil, an aspiring writer who discovers his literary muses on his midnight walks through Paris. It’s easy to pass over how great he is in early viewings of the film, but I think he brings that trademark Woody Allen neurosis while making the dialogue all his own. Corey Stoll, Tom Hiddleston, and Allison Pill are wonderful as Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds. I treasure this film more than any other of 2011 because of the way it admires the magic of cities. The history, personality, and architecture of the great city can enthrall you more than any other art form.  See “Midnight in Paris” and then see it again and then go out and discover the wonders of your city.  

2) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo


Everything from the frenetic and beautiful credit sequence to the last surprisingly heartbreaking scene worked for me in David Fincher’s adaptation. This was my first encounter with Lisbeth Salander having not read the books or seen the Swedish films from last year. Fincher’s camera makes you co-investigator with Lisbeth and Mikael Blomkvist panning across evidence, collecting important details, and keeping you guessing.  Rooney Mara undergoes a fierce and convincing transformation into Lisbeth.  She gives one of the best performances of the year as the girl you don’t want to cross, but would love to be on your side.  Daniel Craig shows a whole new side as the intuitive and sometimes bumbling journalist and investigator. I would watch these two do just about anything.  The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is perfection, particularly Lisbeth’s theme which plays like a haunting lullaby.  

3) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2


The greatness of Deathly Hallows 2 (and the entire series) is rooted in the brilliant production design by Stuart Craig and the consistently enigmatic performance by Alan Rickman.  In the opening Gringotts heist scene, Harry, Hermione, and Ron walk through the wizarding bank lobby which is exactly identical to dazzling sight in the first film. Yet the stakes have completely changed and everything Harry does means life or death.  In the Snape’s memory scene, again we the the delicate blend of continuity and character development through Rickman’s work.  The scene melds new footage of Snape’s past with footage from all 7 films.  We see Snape look at young Harry in Sorcerer’s Stone, noticing now a mixture of disdain and wistful interest. That’s the wonder of JK Rowling’s books: nothing is ever as it seems. The last film was an exhilarating send off for Rowling’s fans. Yet also accessible to Muggles who enjoyed an action packed resolution to Harry’s quest to defeat Voldemort.  Radcliffe, Rickman, and Maggie Smith lead a cast of top notch performances. 

4) Hugo


My favorite director created a film that expresses all the things that are special and wondrous about films. Films not only capture our dreams, but also remind us of who we are and what we want to be.  Films can bring people together and mend broken spirits. Martin Scorsese takes the story of Hugo Cabret and creates something both personal and universal.  The use of 3D in “Hugo” is completely essential. The technology creates greater depth in each frame, enveloping the audience in the comings and goings in this Paris train station. Ben Kingsley is devastatingly good as filmmaker turned toy maker George Melies.  Asa Butterfield is an exciting new performer.  ”Hugo” is the real deal.

5) Shame


Unbroken takes, long silent stretches, and lots of explicit sex make “Shame” difficult to sit through.  Yet, these aspects make the film thrilling to behold. Michael Fassbender gives the best performance of the year as the isolated and broken Brandon. He can barely make it through the day without a sexual encounter. He looks predatory when he’s searching for his next “fix”, yet afterwards he seems empty and confused. His compulsions take him to dangerous places as his volatile sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to stay with him.  Their interactions are so uncomfortable as we try to piece together a relationship plagued by past traumas.  It’s a great film that forces us to relate our own brokenness and loneliness to Brandon’s. 

6) Moneyball


Some people see problems and concede change isn’t possible. Others see problems, find solutions, and decide change is the only way forward.  ”Moneyball” is a wonderful rendering of the true story of Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics. Instead of accepting the status quo, Beane takes a controversial view and lets it guide his entire approach to managing the team. Instead of looking for flashes of talent, the Oakland A’s looked for the right combination of skills and outcomes to fashion a team that could win at a price they could afford. I’m not a baseball geek, but I could relate to Beane’s desperate love of the game, brought vividly to life by Brad Pitt. Beyond all the baseball minutiae what captured me about “Moneyball” was its theme of embracing overlooked talent.  We all have something to offer and need someone to unlock those gifts.  Pitt as Beane unleashes the talent of Peter (Jonah Hill) to the great benefit of the team.  Hill and Pitt make a great screen pairing; sparring and riffing off of each other.  

7) King of Devil’s Island

This Norwegian film was the biggest surprise for me this year. Based on the true story of a revolt at the Bastoy boys prison, “King of Devil’s Island” is a powerful story of friendship and triumph over abusive power. At every level, the boys of Bastoy surrender their freedom to the oppressive rule of the Governor (Stellan Skarsgård). His power is challenged by a defiant new inmate Erling (Benjamin Helstad) who is determined to escape. When model inmate Olav (Trond Nilssen) begins to challenge the sanctimonious Governor for the crimes he wishes to ignore, the walls of control come crashing down. Despite being opposites, Erling and Olav build a friendship that keeps them from surrendering to despair.  The score by Johan Söderqvist is a haunting and beautiful piece of music.  I want fly to Norway just to buy it.  ”King of Devil’s Island” won Norway’s Oscar equivalent for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Nilssen, and Score. I hope it gets a release in the US.

8) Drive 

My opinion of Nicolas Winding Refn’s violent film has changed so drastically since I saw it. Leaving the theater, I could feel the film pounding against my chest, as if I had been shot. Yet, it has some of the most dreamy and beautiful scenes of the year.  That close mixture of sweetness and savagery makes “Drive” impossible to ignore.  The soundtrack of retro electronic pop ballads have permanent rotation on my iPod. Every time I hear the songs, I’m back in the theater, amazed and horrified by what is on screen. More than any other film, “Drive” got under my skin and finds a way to pop up in my day to day.  As the nameless driver, Ryan Gosling is perfect. His piercing eyes let you know he will never relent.  His sleek white Scorpion jacket becomes stained with the blood of so many enemies who underestimated his silence for disinterest and weakness. 

9) Bridesmaids


No film made me laugh more than Paul Feig’s ”Bridesmaids.”  Screenwriters Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo bring to the screen real female characters and relationships. The fear of being out of sync with the person who knows you best is explored with heart and humor.  Wiig gives a brave lead performance, taking Annie to some dark places for our comedic enjoyment.  The diverse cast of female talent in “Bridesmaids” shows a range of comedic power. In each woman you find something wholly familiar and unique.  

10) Jane Eyre


This was my favorite film for much of 2011.  Mia Wasikowska perfectly brings forth Jane’s fierce integrity and longing for happiness.  Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation brings the right amount of Gothic terror and romance.  His vision brings the dark Thornfield Manor to life, leaving us wondering what is really going on with Mr. Rochester. Michael Fassbender is also great as the brooding and temperamental Rochester.  He and Wasikowska build a cerebral chemistry in their long verbal matches, which explodes into a physical one.  

11) Martha Marcy May Marlene


Sean Durkin’s ”Martha Marcy May Marlene” will have you questioning everything you see and feel.  As Elizabeth Olsen’s troubled character becomes more unhinged between her past in a cult and present with her distant sister, we also become confused. Martha’s paranoia bleeds into the story and film making.  It’s the best kind of manipulation.  Olsen gives a completely open performance.  The camera puts every inch of her under our examination, making this difficult character impossible to not to emphasize with.  

12) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy


Forget international espionage and jet-setting to exotic locales. The real danger is the person you’ve known and trusted for years who holds the power to destroy you and your country. In “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” George Smiley must uncover a mole bleeding British intelligence to the Russians. To find the source, he must wrestle his darkest memories and question everything he thought was secure.  Gary Oldman gives a masterful performance as the economical and exacting Smiley.  For the first 20 minutes, he hardly says a word, but when he does he commands the screen.  On the surface, Smiley seems passive and still, yet Oldman brings a steady urgency to the character.  He conveys a sense that this mild looking bureaucrat could take off at any moment.  The supporting cast is full of Britain’s best actors all at top form.  

13) Bill Cunningham New York

The best discovery of the year was meeting the legendary New York times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham in Richard Press’ documentary.  On bike or on foot, Bill Cunningham is documenting the runway of New York streets and finding the eccentric, fun, inventive, and special tastes of ordinary people.  Cunningham could care less about celebrities and lives a life of remarkable simplicity. He lives for his work; dedicating each minute to finding something beautiful on the streets to celebrate.  ”Bill Cunningham New York” is the film I want everyone I know to see and love.  More than that, Cunningham has become a personal hero with his overwhelming integrity and loving personality. 

14) Fright Night


I like my vampires like Colin Farrell’s Jerry: deadly, intelligent, and sexy as hell. “Fright Night” is the most fun I had at the movies.  It builds suspense, while keeping you laughing at the clever lines and vampire mythology.  Anton Yelchin is great as the sardonic former nerd trying to save his loved ones from the bloodsucker next door. Farrell is doubly deadly as he can hunt his victims with reckless ferocity, but gently seduce them into his bloody embrace.  

15) The Descendants


Alexander Payne finds a whole new side to George Clooney’s cool persona in “The Descendants.”  Here we see him failing to connect to his teenage daughter, while becoming unglued as they search for his comatose wife’s lover.  ”The Descendants” makes great drama and tender comedy of the strains in our closest relationships.  The way back for Clooney’s Matt King is forgiveness and Payne takes us on an engaging journey through Matt’s anger, denial, and acceptance of his wife’s indiscretions. Shailene Woodley is a brave new talent as Matt’s caustic older daughter.  

16) Win Win


What does it take to do the right thing? Tom McCarthy’s excellent film “Win Win” answers “Whatever the fuck it takes.” Paul Giamatti plays a small town lawyer drowning in financial troubles of a small practice, broken boiler, and two kids to raise. Everyone is passing him by, taking the short cuts he neglected to become a respected member of the community. Since respect does not pay the health insurance bill, Mike decides to take guardianship of Leo, a disoriented and feisty old man, and pockets the $1500 monthly fee.  When Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up, Mike’s luck begins to change as Kyle makes his rag-tag wrestling team a contender, but complicates the benefits he’s getting as Leo’s guardian. McCarthy’s “Win Win” explores the stresses and the challenges to doing what is right.

17) A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg’s film creates a full and engaging portrait of a great thinker by exploring the most important relationships in his life. Carl Jung begins the film as the eager healer, teeming with enthusiasm for Sigmund Freud’s talking cure.  The volatile patient Sabina Spielrein allows him to work with his idol, but also challenges his professionalism. These pioneers of human behavior are revealed to be as petty, obsessed, and damaged as we are.  Jung most of all, played wonderfully by Michael Fassbender, is a hypocrite and victim of his pride. Jung tries to reject Freud’s theories, wanting their to be “more than one hinge to the universe” while also engaging in an affair with Sabina that proves the sexual roots to his identity.  The film is seriously funny with a series of quotable lines and verbal skirmishes.  Keira Knightly gives her best performance here, embracing Sabina’s madness, but also her intelligence and grace.  

18) The Interrupters


"The Interrupters" as a film does exactly what you might expect. Through Steve James’ camera we are taken into communities plagued by violence. Yet, "The Interrupters" isn’t an issue film or cultural vegetables to be taken with our noses closed. It’s a film about a city- my city- and the people that live in it. The people featured in the film, especially the three leads Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra, will stay with you long past your screening. I would place the film closer to Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee’s cinematic portraits of New York.  Like "Mean Streets" or "Do The Right Thing" "The Interrupters" agitates the heart not the head and will change how people see Chicago by simply showing it truthfully.

19) We Need to Talk About Kevin

Lynne Ramsay’s film adaptation of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” may be one film I love but cannot recommend to anyone. How could I knowingly encourage someone  to witness the unending suffering Tilda Swinton’s Eva goes through? How could I lead a friend to meet the cold Kevin and be forever haunted by Ezra Miller’s murderous stare? Despite the grizzly subject matter, there is great beauty in the film. We float between Eva’s memories of raising Kevin, constantly wondering why Kevin is so dangerous. Between her recollections, we struggle through Eva’s lonely life as a pariah in the community. Eva takes abuse from everyone and never fights back, as if she deserves punishment for giving birth to a murderer.  Tilda Swinton gives one of the best performances of all time.  

20) Beginners

"Beginners" is an incredibly touching and inspiring film that balances quirky indie qualities with great humor and drama.  I was completely involved in the film and affected by many scenes.  There is so much to love about this specific slice of life.  I think by getting the details so right of these people and their conversations, Mike Mills makes an emotionally accessible and enchanting film. 

I could easily rearrange the films on this list or exchange with ones I had to leave off. Just missing the cut were “The Trip”, “Super 8”, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, “Melancholia”, “Attack the Block”, “Tree of Life”, “Higher Ground” and “50/50”.  

The Adventures of Tintin

From the opening credits, I loved how much Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin” called back to his other films.  The animated opening credits against the John Williams score, reminded me of the clever opening to “Catch Me If You Can.”  The plucky ginger investigator Tintin (played by Jamie Bell) resembles so many of Spielberg’s other young heroes.  The breakneck paced, but fluid action sequences in exotic locales recall Indiana Jones’ adventures.  I nearly stood and cheered when Tintin, Snowy and Haddock all piled into a motorcycle with a sidecar during one of the great chase scenes.  

Motion capture technology allows Spielberg to maximize the action potential, while keeping it grounded in the mortal stakes with life like characters we care about.  I could read emotion on most of the animated faces and felt invested in their stories. Andy Serkis is a wonder as Captain Haddock, giving a complex performance as both clown and tragic hero.

Daniel Craig does some excellent voice acting as the conniving villian Sakharine.  As Bond and even in “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” Craig’s voice hovvers between mumbling and growling, but in Tintin there are whole new and expressive shades to his distinctive voice.  

Lastly, I adored the curious and intuitive Tintin, brought to life by Jamie Bell.  Tintin has a keen sense of what people are hiding that keeps him ahead of the baddies. Tintin loves finding answers, solving puzzles, and setting wrongs right.  He’s a pure hero because riches and fame hold no interest for him.  I foresee following young Tintin on many more adventures and cannot wait for Spielberg’s next tale.  

Friendship and Bravery: War Horse

From the sprawling fields of Devon to the dank trenches of WWI, Steven Spielberg keeps the courageous steed Joey at the center of “War Horse.”  Despite having a fleet of the finest British actors, no one (save Tom Hiddleston *yum*) holds the screen or your heart like this majestic horse.  The sequence where Joey speeds through No Man’s Land as cannons blaze perilous fireworks overhead may one the most beautiful film scenes of the year.  

We learn about Joey in how he incites awe and greatness in the people he encounters. To the Narracott family, he is their most desperate hope. Instead of buying a sturdy, hulking work horse Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) brings home this elegant, young animal.  His wife Rose (Emily Watson) berates her drunken husband’s poor judgement, but allows her son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) to train the horse.  Albert forges a bond with Joey, teaching the horse to answer to his unique call and preparing him for hard and impossible work.  Under threat of eviction, Albert and Joey plow the rocky Narracott field and save the family farm for another season.

As war comes, Ted sees an opportunity to make money off of Albert’s extraordinary horse.  Fortunately Captain Nichols (Hiddleston) sees the horse’s rare qualities and Albert’s devotion to the animal.  Nichols readies Joey for battle, honing his speed and drawing courage from the fearless animal.  Joey meets many others in his travels across Europe; two brothers looking to escape death on the front lines, a young girl looking to make a family after her parents are killed, and an unexpected friend in the brutal lines of the German army.  Joey inspires these people to be a little more brave and loving.  

The most beautiful example of this is the meeting of two combatants who must work together to free entangled Joey from barbed wire.  In this brief encounter the German and British are allied around Joey, working to save something instead of destroying each other. Together they name him War Horse, neither Allied or Axis, but a symbol for what each solider strives for: fearlessness. Against great odds, Joey and Albert are reunited in a series of scenes that will surely have you grabbing your hankie.  All the tears are earned because both boy and horse have been through so much suffering, they deserve to go home and live in peace.  

Personal Space: “The Descendants”

On the sidewalks of Chicago I’ve been seeing the word “Forgive” painted in simple white script.  All over the city on my walks, this sign reminds me of this daunting action. Humbling ourselves to ask for forgiveness is no easy task, but appears more pleasant to laying down our pride and anger to forgive another. To complicate matters, how do we forgive “those who trespass against us” especially when they neither seek nor want our pardon? In his newest film “The Descendants” the Jesuit educated writer/ director Alexander Payne explores the barriers and challenges to forgive others. With his dark comedic style and intuitive sense of character, Payne offers some great insight on relationships and forgiveness.

Payne jets to the beautiful landscapes of Hawaii for “The Descendants.” The film stars George Clooney as Matt King, a father and husband whose wife is comatose due to a water skiing accident. Matt muses on everything he wants to apologize for when she wakes. His frequent business trips have created a distance in their marriage and family that he is ready to fix. At her bedside, Matt looks expectantly at his wife, praying for a chance to make Rup for it all. Yet two powerful revelations hit Matt just as he’s preparing this full transformation: his wife Elizabeth will die soon and she was having an affair. The second piece of information comes from his acerbic eldest daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) after Matt brings her home from a teen drug treatment center. Torn between his distress and anger, Matt must find a way to put Elizabeth to rest and raise his two daughters alone.

Payne cleverly dramatizes Matt’s dueling emotions towards his wife through vividly drawn and brilliantly acted characters. Alex represents his impulse to hate Elizabeth and discard every happy memory. He and Alex become allies in trying to discover the full extent of Elizabeth’s infidelity. They track down and confront her lover, finding he too has a spouse and family. Matt and Alex find a new understanding in their relationship through their shared anger at Elizabeth. With Scotty his 10 year old that knows nothing but a loving and admirable woman who she hopes will wake up again, Matt tempers his anger. In Elizabeth’s father Scott (Robert Forster), Matt is reminded of the woman he fell in love with, but often neglected because of his work.

Each scene leads Matt to confront another aspect of his wife. Elizabeth, portrayed by Patricia Hestie, could almost be considered the main character. Every conversation revolves around this mute and stationary character. In her hospital room, Payne alternates between wide shots that ensure Elizabeth is in our sights and close up shots on her agape, vacant face. We see Elizabeth from about every angle a person can be judged. Yet she remains a mystery and curiosity that we are discovering alongside Matt. Spurred on by Alex, Matt rages at his wife, laying out fresh and imagined grievances, quite different from his early scenes at her bedside. Seeing Scott mourn for his daughter, Matt finds pity for her. In Scotty’s sadness, Matt feels the loss of the mother of his children. And through an unlikely stranger played by Judy Greer, Matt learns he must forgive Elizabeth despite everything.

Payne sets Matt on a journey towards forgiveness that feels full and real because of these characters and their powerfully real interactions. Even compared to his role in “Up in the Air,” this is Clooney’s best leading performance. Definitely the most emotionally demanding role he’s chosen, Clooney traverses a range from anger to tenderness expertly. In “The Descendants” even Clooney”s fans will be surprised at how this normally cool, suave, and all-knowing actor is allowed to fail, look foolish, and be pitiful. In one such scene, after he chokes out an announcement of Elizabeth’s death to her closest friends, he watches their cars drive away and simply sinks to the ground. Matt is just like the rest of us, dealing with the pressures of life that can overwhelm our ability to stand. Most times it’s the actor that illuminates the character, yet Payne may have crafted a character with Matt King that allows audiences some insight into the actor. Clooney feels set free here and takes full advantage.

Woodley and Amara Miller who play Clooney’s daughters are wonderfully cast and flank the veteran actor like expert players. Woodley, a TV star on ABC Family, handles the role of the caustic and profane older sister with skill and grace. Woodley is able to deliver cutting lines and looks without ever seeming like a brat. Woodley brings out Alex’s desire to continue hating Elizabeth, while hinting at the young woman’s love for her mother. Alex says bitterly, “I’m just like you. In fact I’m exactly like you.” She means the line to wound, but Woodley shows us that Alex’s disappointment in her mother is rooted in her admiration for the woman. Payne has found a natural talent in Amara Miller who plays Scotty. It was refreshing to see a child actor who actually fit the age of the character. Miller is able to bring some of the mischievousness of Alex, while retaining that childlike hope that draws Alex and Matt away from their anger. Miller and Woodley are fearless, holding their own with and challenging Robert Forster and Clooney. They also deliver some of the best laughs with their surprising outbursts.

Payne’s films have been called sardonic in their portrayal of small town characters. In “The Descendants” I only saw great affection for the characters and a story of family that feels universal and necessary. The laughs here never come at the expense of the characters, but out of the relatable foibles and rashes of anger. We laugh deeply because the situations feel so grounded in truth. Payne shows us forgiveness is a journey, almost literally taking us across various Hawaiian Islands as Matt contemplates his family’s future. That journey takes Matt from confusion to anger to sorrow and finally lands in love; a love for Elizabeth despite her sins and the people she’s left behind who need peace.

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