Monday, December 5, 2011

Movie Journal #3

The Descendants - Writer/director Alexander Payne is certainly back in form after seven years away (and I wasn't a huge fan of Sideways as it was; love About Schmidt though), creating a very real sense of place in a state (Hawaii) so often ill-represented. The beginning is frontloaded with enough voiceover exposition to kill Robert McKee ten times over, but once it moves past that it becomes a quite effective (and affective) piece of dramedy about getting the family back together, as it were. Payne certainly still has his chops when it comes to showing people at their pettiest, and the humor that comes out of this, though this is easily his most humorless film. Some of this could be attested to George Clooney's lead performance, which, while good, isn't up there with his best and belies his rather limited range. The man is as skilled at comedy as he is drama, but I've never seen him effectively mix the two, and The Descendants suggests he may be unable. But again, in the realm of "good story, well told" cinema, this is a very fine entry and makes for a rather emotionally satisfying evening at the movies, and I'd lie if I said I wasn't touched by the whole affair.

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil - I'm as much a fan of genre deconstruction as the next guy, though I think this one sets itself up for a premise it can't quite deliver on. It's taking hillbilly horror and pointing out the privileged, xenophobic perspective from which it stems, which makes for a series of good laughs, until it turns the tables and becomes a straightforward lost-in-the-woods horror film of a slightly different variety. Genre deconstruction is so often made by huge fans of the genre in question, and it seems like director Eli Craig (who wrote the screenplay with Morgan Jurgenson) wanted to have his subversion while still "playing by the rules" as it were, which doesn't totally gel or make for a satisfying whole. Still, I'd be lying if I said the movie wasn't a fun sit.

Margin Call - I mentioned on Twitter that I was already bored of this film well in advance of seeing it, so the good news is I ended up mostly liking it. It's nice to see Kevin Spacey this engaged in a role again after what's honestly been a pretty dreary decade, and he gets the film's most complex role just right. The dialogue, when it comes down from the ledge of profundity, is nice and snappy, the characters are well-drawn and instantly accessible, and the cast is pretty uniformly good. It's hard to totally buy Zachary Quinto as a rocket-scientist-turned-stockbroker (I know his job is more complex than that, but come on now), but he sells it remarkably well. In scenes that require him to say things his characters has said or thought about nine hundred times, he has a kind of hurried, nervous, let's-get-on-with-it approach approach that suits the character nicely. And writer/director J.C. Chandor, making his feature debut in both departments, does a fine job of condensing some rather complicated material (the whole insane practice of credit default swaps that got us into the financial crisis), thought he often resorts to the "tell it to me in English!" approach.

The film's biggest issue? Worst cinematography of the year. Easily. Unmotivated handheld mixed with Tony Scott lighting (look, we're being flashy) and zero sense of composition. If the visual element of filmmaking matters to you, Margin Call becomes almost unbearable to sit through at times.

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