Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Review: Enter The Village

If you’re reading this right now, congratulations.  You’re officially the member of a cultural elite devoted to pursuing intellectual activities like reading instead of badgering your neighbors in a stupid costume late one October night.  I honestly would have put this special scary edition of The Author’s Files up sooner, but none of you reminded me that today was Halloween except my brother earlier this morning, so I was forced to write up this review on short notice over the last 12 hours.  Life is hard for a part-time film critic who insists on being timely with his posts.

The late movie ‘critic’ Roger Ebert once wrote of The Village, “(It) is a colossal miscalculation, a movie based on a premise that cannot support it, a premise so transparent it would be laughable were the movie not so deadly solemn.  Eventually the secret... is revealed.  To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes.  It's a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream.”  Such is the dilemma of the best M. Night Shyamalan movie and possibly best horror movie ever made, that it will unavoidably divide viewers into those watchful patriots who fear “the village” itself and those narrow-minded thrill-seekers in the critical network who desperately want to fear the monsters lurking beyond this village but find their reason getting in the way.  Through clever, unpredictable writing and symbolically rich direction, Shyamalan masterfully interweaves an array of tones and themes into a film that seems not like a disjointed jumble of genres but a cohesive and powerful story that terrifies thoughtful audiences on both an emotional and a psychological level.  Far from being just a generic monster movie that the ad campaign might indicate, The Village is a harrowing, Gothic, and thought-provoking twist on the dystopian tale, drawing viewers into a small community governed by fear and constrained by deceit. All is not as it seems in this village, which one character declares has “secrets in every corner”, and those secrets are best discovered for onseself instead of prematurely absorbed through a blog review, so if you haven’t seen The Village yet, please bookmark and close this page immediately, then revisit it once you’ve watched the movie.

The titular village is a vaguely 19th century community situated on a praire that’s enclosed by an ominous and alien forest.  The villagers, by rule of a council of elders, have marked the forest’s borders with yellow (“the safe color”) flags and paint to ward off “those we do not speak of”, dangerous and territorial entities cloaked in red (“the bad color”) who separate this isolated village from the towns that lie beyond the Covington woods.  Central to the story is a trio of young friends in the village who live under the constant shadow of the wood’s inhabitants.  Lucius Hunt is a stalwart and seemingly fearless man of few words who reads prepared speeches to the elders requesting permission to brave the woods and retrieve vital medicines from the towns.  Noah Percy plays the village idiot, not so much by choice as by mental impairment, erratically shifting his focus, struggling to learn, and succumbing to violent bursts of fury.  The nearly blind but ever vibrant daughter of the village leader Tom Walker, Ivy sees through a dense and unrevealing haze but recognizes Lucius by the unique color he exudes, a relationship that has drawn the two very close over the years, though the shy man has thus far failed to express what they both feel.  Shortly after they confess their love for each other in a beautiful and marvelously underplayed scene, by a disturbing turn of events Ivy ceases to see Lucius’ color, and desperation drives her to complete her lover’s long anticipated journey through the woods to the towns, a foreign place the elders shun for its great evil. At this point, our heroine, so blind in more than just the obvious way, comes to discover that those we do not speak of, the village’s rituals, and even her whole existence have been built upon a foundation of lies, and here The Village morphs from an effective if tired experiment in using creepy sound design to elicit scares into a full-fledged, horrific assault on the audience’s mind and senses.

More so than anything else I’ve ever seen, The Village is an emphatically 1st-person film, especially in the final act, even without condescending to cheap handheld camera tricks and the other pitfalls trapping modern horror flicks that profess to unveil “found footage” of real events.  As Ivy wanders through the forbidden realm of the forest, directionless and confused, her surroundings appear to blur in front of the camera’s eye, everything dissolving into a bleak and undistinctive gray while eerie moans and sharp noises of the wild spring from no definite area.  When she emerges from a pit and finds the bright yellow of her coat masked under a heavy layer of mud, the change leaves not just her but the audience alarmed.  Possibly the movie’s most chilling scene occurs when she unwittingly walks into a clearing of red flowers and the camera zooms out overhead, letting the stark and violent brilliance of the shade illuminate the full peril of her situation.  We tremble not at the literal image but at its symbolic association, for we, like Ivy, have been nurtured for so long with symbols that we struggle to dissociate them from reality.  When she subsequently turns to her side and glimpses one of the woods’ creatures standing at a distance, we see only the glaring red of its cloak against the muted backdrop of the trees, while the rest of its body is obscured in shadow, left to Ivy and her equally blind followers in the theater to imagine.  It goes without question that The Village utilizes color and camerawork within its storytelling more effectively than virtually anything else; by refraining from disruptive angle switching in favor of lengthy, uninterrupted shots, Shyamalan lulls viewers into a kind of trance so that they overlook they’re watching a movie, and in withholding vibrant colors for the majority of the film’s run time, he makes their rare appearances even more dramatic and substantive in the narrative.  The violin-intensive score by James Newton Howard enhances the mood exponentially, helping to establish a sad and haunting world away from worlds.

But all of Shyamalan’s directorial techniques would be for naught had he been working with a lackluster cast.  A veteran of Shyamalan’s also noteworthy thriller Signs, Joaquin Phoenix is given as the star of the movie; fine though he is playing the honorable and uncommunicative Lucius, Bryce Dallas Howard is the true centerpiece of the film in the role of Ivy.  Though she was basically an unknown face at the time this was shot, she’s since come to appear in a number of high-grossing pictures, portraying, for example, one of the evil white people in The Help.  Needless to say, she’s a lot more memorable in The Village, which depends completely on her performance for the second half.  The old “watch a vulnerable and usually unrealistically sexualized woman survive terrors in a haunted place” trick has been played many times throughout history, dating all the way back to Alien, in fact, but rarely have actresses played the part with as much tact and raw credibility as does Howard, who conveys both determination and apprehension, strength and fragility at once.  That the film succeeds at inspiring horror even after Shyamalan assures us that the woods hold nothing to be feared is a testament not only to his prowess at visual storytelling but also to Howard’s force as a literally and figuratively blind woman who falters to accept the real state of things and is compelled by love to face her deepest fears.

The most frightening part of The Village, indeed, is not Those we do not speak of or the idea of becoming lost in the wilderness, but the sudden realization that one’s whole worldview and way of life have been based on a falsehood.  Whether one is deeply affected by this fear or simply perplexed by it, like Ebert, will largely boil down to the skepticism one bears towards authority figures.  The Village subtly raises many philosophical and sociopolitical questions, but Shyamalan wisely declines to spell out his verdict on them that plainly, as he unfortunately did with the spiritualist themes of Signs, which heavy-handedly pushed a rather simplistic and only vaguely theistic belief: “All things happen according to a plan/there are no coincidences.”  At its core, the movie obviously deals with the contrast between the idyllic fantasy and tragic reality; can the elders’ social experiment be morally justified, as they use deception and fear to protect their offspring from their world’s true nature, or is their retreat from civilization a moral necessity to keep men from harming each other in their self-interest?  Should we strive to “protect innocence”, and is such a goal even attainable?  Can a utopia be sustained apart from lies, and if not, can it really be called a utopia?

As with Shyamalan’s resolution to all these questions, The Village concludes on an ambiguous note, leaving its characters apparently contented regardless of whatever doubt has now infiltrated their minds.   Whether they choose to “move towards hope” and subdue that inner doubt or throw down their old beliefs to follow the gravel road towards truth falls ultimately to the individual viewer’s speculation.  The implications of those villagers’ decision are truly horrifying, enough so to make this one of the finest dramas I’ve ever seen.

Grade rating: AA (as in double-A, not Avatar: the last Airbender, which is frankly the polar opposite of this movie.  What happened to Shyamalan?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Rush to Your Bookstore

Serving humanity... and its best friend.  ~ Courtesy Fox Broadcasting Family Guy

In the grand scheme of history, books on current events have never fared too well as far as permanency and future appeal.  Whilst history does tend to repeat itself through human stupidity and historical ignorance, the worldviews and societal ills of one generation rarely correspond precisely with those of the generation directly preceding it or generations older still.  Commentaries by Mark Levin and Ann Coulter will generally soar to the top of bestseller charts and hover there for a few weeks until they and their specified grievances fade into perceived social irrelevancy, so recognized by political junkies who must keep their pulse on the constantly shifting problems and debates of their day.  So rare are the works of this genre which have lasted the test of time that I can only think of one outstanding example, viz. Thomas Paine’s Revolutionary advocacy pamphlet Common Sense.  With this in mind, the most astounding thing about Rush Limbaugh’s duo of books from 1992 and ’93 is how little they’ve aged relative to the political atmosphere of today.  The most unfortunate aspect of this phenomenon is that Rush’s media-spanning educational efforts have failed to significantly correct the United States’ self-destructive ‘Progressive’ direction, but the bright side to his books’ endurance is that readers can approach them as they would any contemporary political piece and unearth truths that apply equally to the present as to decades past.

Entitled The Way Things Ought to Be, the first of these books was written over the last year of George H.W. Bush’s presidency and concerns itself mostly with the shortcomings of liberalism, a Democrat-controlled Congress, and a moderate Republican willing to enact their agenda.  However, Rush shrewdly chooses not to open his debut novel with a diatribe on politics, instead giving a detailed examination of his career and all the difficulties he faced in becoming the #1 talk radio host in the nation.  Far from shooting straight to the top of his business, he had to inch his way to the position he holds currently with numerous small advances, starting as a DJ before getting a show on WABC, surviving the FCC’s “Fairness Doctrine”, and finally going nationwide with the EIB network.  Rush argues using his own history and other statistics that the American Dream cannot be handed to anyone on a silver platter or acquired instantaneously but must be earned through hard work, self-reliance, and perseverance.  From these opening chapters, the book segues from something unique into a more predictable Conservative Manifesto format, offering commentary on a smorgasbord of subjects contemporary to the 1990s, such as sexual harassment hysteria, Mikhail Gorbasms, animal “rights” and dolphin worship, man-haters/feminazis, condom distribution in government schools, homelessness advocacy, and Hollywood hypocrites, many of which persist to this day with only superficial changes. A lot of the controversies he dissects in the first book may seem outdated at first glance, as the flames of public opinion over Anita Hill, Rodney King, and the House Banking Scandal, for example, have diminished immensely over the past two decades, but in reality we see figures and outrages like these surface anew with every generation.  Herman Cain is the Clarence Thomas of today, an intelligent and principled black conservative whose reputation was unjustly smeared and slandered by, in his case, faceless and cowardly Democrat operatives who proliferated unproven and ideologically motivated attacks on his character in order to ruin his eligibility for American politics.  The Trayvon Martin racebaiting fiasco in the media also degenerated into something like the Rodney King coverage, wherein the news media edited and distorted material evidence in order to portray law-enforcement officers and not the true assailant as the perpetrators of crime.  As a result of the media’s racially driven reporting on the Rodney King affair, the defendants were subjected to a long, expensive, and ultimately fruitless judicial frenzy that yielded justice for no one, aggravated racial animosity across the nation, and allowed the true offendor to escape judgement for his violence.  Likewise, though we haven’t heard about representatives issuing fraudulent checks on so large a scale for a long time, Congress continues to put itself above the law, routinely exempting itself from the destructive legislation that it forces upon Americans and absorbing countless benefits and privileges denied to the people they rule.

If the first book recalls some isolated scandals that have despoiled politics in recent years, then the second, See, I Told You So, bears an even more striking resemblance to the Obama regime.  Barack Obama is so nearly the spitting image of Bill Clinton as articulated by Rush’s documentation that the book has essentially developed a resounding message over his last 5 years of governing: those who don’t learn from history are bound to repeat it, and the power-hungry will always exploit that historical ignorance to advance their interests.  Much like the current Messiah in chief, Clinton and his advisors devised a campaign strategy that in no way reflected his actual policy goals.  Masquerading as a “moderate” and a “New Democrat” who would unite Americans of all political leanings, he took great care never to honestly come out of the liberal closet and indeed campaigned on fiscally conservative promises of ending wasteful programs and reducing taxes on themiddleclass, which obviously cannot be identified by any objective standard and which probably doesn’t pay any taxes in the first place, depending on how you define said class.  Compare his statement in January of 1992 that “I want to make it very clear that this middle-class tax cut… is central to any attempt we’re going to make to have a short-term economic strategy” to his full reversal a year later: “From New Hampshire forward, for reasons that absolutely mystified me, the press thought the most important issue in the race was the middle-class tax cut.  I never did meet any voter who thought that.”  In fact, less than one month following his inauguration, Clinton was already peddling tax hikes on the very citizens he pledged to relieve of governmental oppression, all to pay for billions of dollars in new spending programs. 

This is just one of many instances illuminated by Rush where Sick Willie knowingly lied to the people so as to curry favor. Clinton insisted also that he would reverse the Bush administration’s “immoral” “racial politics” towards Haitian refugees and take a more humane position on their plight, but this too was an abject lie that he retreated from immediately upon taking office, in the same exact way that Obama decried Bush for entering expensive conflicts in the Middle East, then turned around and beat war drums against Syria earlier this year.  Clinton crony George Stephanopoulos lamented conservatives’ devotion to truth and consistency by saying, “We have become hostage to LEXIS/NEXIS.  The problem is an excess of literalism.”  Rush contends, on the other hand, that the problem is really a deficiency of literalism in the mainstream media and the public, which allow liberal politicians to escape rebuke for any falsehoods they sow or catastrophes they create.  It’s this lack of accountability which enables Obama to claim that he “will cut the deficit by the end of his first term” and close Guantanamo Bay and also to say that, “If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.  Period.  No one will take it away.  No matter what.”

On this note, Rush emphasizes throughout both books that words mean things, that symbolism is inferior to substance, and that the preservation of liberty and legible speech requires us to speak with discretion, using words thoughtfully with a full understanding of what they indicate.  To that end he often assumes the role of a modern-day Socrates, who implores his fellows to comprehend just what they believe and why, impeccably ripping into seemingly noble and unapproachable conceits like “raising awareness”, “the politics of meaning”, and Hillary Clinton’s “children’s rights”, defending such perceived crimes as “sexual harassment” and “discrimination”, and exposing the anti-American undertones of “hate crime”.  Rush has a knack for stripping away the heroic and demonic connotations that society has ascribed to certain words and clearly explaining what those words actually mean. E.g., in chapter 18 of Book 2, he writes:

“… liberals couldn’t care less whether a crime is committed with hatred – unless the hatred is of a politically incorrect variety.  If a murderer commits a crime based on his hatred of African Americans, Native Americans, homosexuals, probably even pornographers, he is committing a hate crime that is deserving of more severe punishment than if he murders because he hates white males or right-wing evangelists, for example…

“First-degree murder is first-degree murder.  Assault is assault.  And the full weight of the law should be brought to bear against the persons committing these offenses… Whether one does so because he hates something about the victim should be irrelevant in terms of grading the offense.  By carving out a new type of crime called a ‘hate crime’, we are delegating to the left power over our private thoughts… If government can make it a crime to be a racist or a bigot, why not criminalize other viewpoints?  Don’t be fooled by the argument that this is not an infringement of free expression because the thought is coupled with a criminal act and it is the act that is being punished… The thought itself that accompanies that act is what aggravates the penalty under these bizarre statutes.  This is the insidious way the thought police can get their feet in the door to impose the tyranny of their views on the rest of society through the awesome enforcement authority of the criminal justice system.”

As is clear from this selection, Rush writes very logically and his voice on paper is almost an unfiltered translation of his voice on the radio.  This is both a good and a bad thing.  One of the reasons Rush has ascended to the supreme throne of talk radio is that he’s very conversational, forthright, and plain-spoken. During any segment of his daily program, he gets straight to his point, whatever that may be, and presents it in a reasonable manner that any of his listeners can easily follow.  As he himself acknowledges in the opening pages of The Way Things Ought To Be, the first draft of his book was compiled mostly from interviews he made with John Fund, a writer for The Wall Street Journal, and hence the book feels like a very faithful and certainly readable extension of the Rush we hear transmitted through the airwaves.  The downside of Rush’s fidelity to his on-air schtick is that his charisma and force don’t really carry through to the written word, a fact that should already be clear to anyone who has tried reading transcripts of his shows online.  Nor is his writing style all that satisfying or sophisticated compared to the works of his neighbor in the business, Mark Levin, who’s purely argument-oriented, eschews humor almost entirely, and uses citations extensively to prove his assertions, columnist and author Ann Coulter, whose books ooze with bitterness and exasperation at liberal buffoonery, most of which is justified if suitably inflammatory, or his arguably superior fill-in host Mark Steyn, who has such a command of the English language and so keen an eye for spotting the fundamental absurdity of political discourse that I wouldn’t hesitate to call him the modern Joseph Addison.

In contrast to these three writers, Rush doesn’t include any appendix of sources or footnotes of any sort, which is a darn shame given that many of the stories he analyzes, like Tom Cruise giving an Earth Day speech after accidentally driving over a flock of seagulls for a movie, Martin Sheen declaring Malibu a haven for displaced species upon becoming honorary mayor, or Project Dignity designing custom shopping carts for homeless people so that they wouldn’t have to “liberate” them from supermarkets, are so ridiculous that the reader is left begging for more details.  Unfortunately, most of these stories are so old that they’re a pain to find and research even with the advent of Algore’s internet and its various search engines.  Rush does reference a lot of data and tables from the CBO and Treasury in his chapters dealing with Reaganomics, free enterprise, and the failures of wealth redistribution, but the inclusion of a more traditional source list would definitely lend credibility to his arguments and appease readers desiring additional information.

Still, Rush’s books are a delight to read whether one experienced the early 90s and all its woes or not, particularly because the problems enumerated here are so reminiscent of today’s headlines.  Fans of the Excellence in Broadcasting network will appreciate the many throwbacks to the program’s first days, from caller abortions (wherein Rush cut off guests with a roaring vacuum sound effect) to Dan’s Bake Sale, and those who, like me, were too young at the time to vividly recall the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton years will enjoy the immediacy and 1st-person perspective of Rush’s account.  His new children’s novel Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims should arrive in my mailbox today, and I may promptly devour it just to get that nightmarish, white whale Moby Dick out of my head.  More on that and the philosophical dimensions of the color white later…

Friday, October 18, 2013

Ironic Review: Heir of Fifth Estate Won't Pay Much Tax

Marking the first Ironic Review for The Author's Files...

There are few people in the present day who can testify to building a more polarizing reputation than Julian Assange, whom some will admire as a paragon of the Constitution and a Robin Hood-like rebel and others will despise as an arrogant, unlawful, lazy leftist and a Robin Hood-like rebel.  Whatever opinions one holds about Assange’s personal productivity, there can be no dispute that Benedict Cumberbatch is a very busy individual by actors’ standards, having traced a broad career spanning theater, film, and television and touching everything from Shakespeare to Sherlock to Star Trek to motion-capture in The Hobbit of all things, mostly to commendable results.  Unfortunately, as the first of at least four movies he appears in this Fall-December cycle, The Fifth Estate will be one of the least satisfying and, like its protagonist, most polarizing projects on which Cumberbatch has worked.  Although he has previously demonstrated an aptitude for portraying complex, multi-layered characters, he is nonetheless bound by the same article that guides and influences all actors, namely the script, which can be either a blessing or a curse, in this case the latter.  The Fifth Estate boldly invites controversy by the very nature of its subject matter, but fails to give a genuinely nuanced or thought-provoking take on the real people and events that inspired it.

Conceived from a script by Josh Singer, a veteran of the great political propagandrama “The West Wing”, that was itself based on two books I won’t bother myself to read and directed by Bill Condon of “Twilight: Breaking Dawn” in-fame, The Fifth Estate follows a haphazard outline that jumps around to various points in Assange’s lifetime but dwells predominantly on the years 2007 to 2010, during which he raised his creation Wikileaks into an independent news giant on the web that eventually drew headlines when it exposed numerous classified documents mostly relating to the U.S. military.  Assange sees himself as a warrior for government transparency and an informed populace, arguing that freedom of the press and the unrestricted flow of information trump laws enacted by Congress to safeguard details concerning the Armed Forces’ operations and to protect citizens from dubious terrorist threats.  “This is information the world needs to know,” he drawls.   Other players in this high-stakes, ADD-afflicted story of secrets and internet sabotage include Assange’s German partner in crime Daniel Domscheit-Berg, which is actually the real name of a real person who wrote a book about his once colleague, a couple of other forgettable hackers, and two State Department officials played by Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci, a.k.a. Caesar Flickerman in a marginally better movie.  While many of the supporting cast members have shown a distinctive pedigree in the past, their characters here are painfully underdeveloped and overshadowed by Cumberbatch’s enigmatic, convicted, and ever dangerous Assange.

Cumberbatch’s portrayal of possibly the world’s most famous leaker is one of the few things that saves the movie from total failure, giving audiences a portal into the mind of an elusive and little understood man who keeps his own secrets close but has no qualms about stealing and disclosing those of his enemies.  By little fault of his own, though, the depiction of Assange is also the most disappointing element of The Fifth Estate, as the filmmakers can’t really decide on a consistent portrayal of his character.  On the one hand it makes him out to be both a principled freedom-fighter and an ingenious technological innovater, yet on the other it emphatically suggests that he’s a mentally unstable and constantly paranoid maniac with an irrational distrust of public authority figures.  Nor does the movie have a clear and composed outlook on the expediency of the leaks themselves.  Rabid isolationist that he is, Assange insists that the U.S. government’s silence on reckless and indiscriminate warfare endangers civilians in foreign countries, but the movie simultaneously counters this claim with the security freak’s argument that secrecy is necessary to protecting American lives from unidentified terrorists who would exploit every hole they perceive in the nation’s surveillance state.  Neither side comes out on top by the credits roll, and so the viewer is left with a jumbled mess of political ideologies and themes that are roughly equal in their merits based on the script’s analysis.

Even if Universal Pictures had entrusted The Fifth Estate to a competent director and writer, the movie would still likely be doomed from the start, merely because Julian Assange isn’t all that interesting a figure, either as a person or as a political icon.  A fugitive of several countries who’s ever wandering, looking for embarrassing videos of soldiers defiling corpses, and having sex with various strangers, sometimes for longer than they consent to (although the movie doesn’t so much as probe these accusations [terrible double entendre intended]), he’s the kind of pathetic lifeform you might expect to find in the swamplands of an alien planet: a wretched, self-inflated, morally destitute, and rather worthless addition to human race.  None of the ‘secrets’ he has stolen thus far have been especially eye-opening or infuriating, and the movie largely reflects his life’s dearth of lasting achievements.  In comparison to Julian Assange, NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden would make a far more compelling basis for a biopic, not only because his history is more intriguing and philosophy more defined, but also because his leaks were so much more horrifying in their gravity.  The Wikileaks founder obsesses over tax evaders and malfeasant U.S. soldiers, while the renegade in Russia single-handedly exposed not one but several undeclared and sweeping programs that continually enable executive agencies to spy on Americans without warrant in a blatant violation of the 4th amendment.  Assange is just a revolutionary-lite when examined in the big picture, concerned not so much with unmasking widespread government corruption as with igniting momentary outrage against what he sees as American imperialism.  If he were to write for a mainstream newspaper, he would probably sign onto USA Today or Time Magazine first, two papers whose diction is roughly equivalent to this movie’s dialogue.

The Fifth Estate is a mildly engrossing, if clumsily edited story as far as biographical dramas come, but it apes Wikileaks’ own reporting by leaving the audience with one burning question: “Is this a story that needed to be told?”  Such is my reaction whenever I read about a new leak from Assange, and such was my reaction when I left the theater…

Grade rating: ?

… That is, if I had actually went to the theater and paid good money to see this piece of junk.  HA!  I’m waiting for the rest of the film to pop up on Wikileaks just as the official screenplay did a few weeks ago.  In other words, this whole review was fake, just like all the events retold in this film that alleges to be based on a true story.  Quoth the Sheldon J. Plankton: Psycheth!  Irony, right?  Whether this commentary is any faker than that of critics who really sat through the movie and still got the completely wrong idea is a whole other debate, one that’s probably worth having.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Descendants Into Hell

I used to think that the sound produced in kicking a dying animal was a harsh and heart-wrenching whimper, the pain of which only increases with each successive blow. Then I saw The Descendants, a made-for-Oscar* picture that delights not merely in kicking dying animals but in kicking a dying audience relentlessly for two hours of Hawaiian drama drenched in sorrow and intense emotional conflict.  Just when the viewer thinks that the film’s state of affairs can’t get much worse, writer and director Alexander Payne delivers another poisonous draught of misery to the lives of his characters, setting them free to rip each other apart even as the impending death of a family member hews away at their consciences.  Strangely, the result of this boldly depressing narrative is not a sadistic and one-dimensional melodrama that obsesses over human death but a thoughtful and understated examination of several outwardly stereotypical characters and the relationships that bind them.  The Descendants executed a remarkable achievement by breaking almost every cinematic rule concerning a story of this subject matter, most notably the one that Thou Shalt Not Have An Unhappy Beginning, Climax, and Ending All In One, and still managing to attract a flurry of awards and nominations, rightly so.

One of the few funny parts in the movie.

Matt King is a lawyer living in Oahu who already has enough problems, being buried in paperwork because of an expiring land trust in Kauai, when his wife Elizabeth lands in a permanent coma following a boat accident.  “My friends on the mainland think that just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise,” he narrates.  “Paradise can go (do something to) itself.”  Compelled by circumstance to take care of his long neglected daughters Scottie, a 10-year-old up-and-coming bad girl, and Alexandra, a teenage, fully-grown bad girl whose attendance at an expensive private school apparently hasn’t done much good, Matt is thrust unprepared into an alien land of active fatherhood which only grows more trying and complicated when his firstborn shares her revelation that his wife was having an affair with another man.  As Elizabeth lies wasting away in the hospital, her confused and vengeful husband forsakes his other duties to hunt down and confront the coward who partook in this heinous breach of trust, scouring Hawaii and dragging along his two descendants as well as Alex’s idiotic surfer dude of a boyfriend turned adopted brother, Sid, who nevertheless insists:

“I’m not that bad.  I’m smart.”
“You are about a hundred miles from smart.”

The final scenes, needless to say, spare to no one a Happily Ever After, and thus they initially seem abrupt and inconclusive; however, this has less to do with the movie’s own failings than with Hollywood’s great success at inuring viewers to perpetually expect uplifting conclusions which overlook the grimmer aspects of real life.

The Descendants, as a whole, is fixated on this thing called real life and draws its strength by communicating in a pure and unglamorous tone all the intricate tragedies that come with it.  None of the characters are perfect and everyone tends to clasp hatred before humbling themselves enough to forgive their enemies, the difficulty but necessity of which is one of the movie’s overarching themes.  The screenwriting is intelligent and original, never succumbing to clichés, and the acting is superb on all fronts.  As a struggling father and angry husband who was constantly occupied with business before his world dissolved into chaos, George Clooney brings a range of subtlety to a role that’s been explored numerous times, and Shailene Woodley, transitioning smoothly out of a career that had formerly spanned nothing besides a stupid TV bullsitcom, likewise instills depth and complexity in Alex where another actress might have reduced her to just another one-dimensional, foul-mouthed, and completely unlikeable teenager.  In all sincerity, I would earnestly be anticipating her starring performance next year in the movie adaptation of a post-apocalyptic, vaguely dystopian, young-adult novel with a kick-butt female protagonist called Divergent, if only it wasn’t based on a post-apocalyptic, vaguely dystopian, young-adult novel with a kick-butt female protagonist.  Nick Krause deserves a huge shout-out as a young man who masks his own personal suffering and intentions behind a veil of sloth and stupidity, Robert Forster wins a sizeble acknowledgment in the part of Matt’s bitter and grief-stricken father-in-law, and just about the whole cast merits an ample recognition for its talent.**  All the other aspects of the film’s production are exemplary, from the relaxed and methodical pacing by the editors, who naturally splice Hawaiian music into transitory sequences but wisely abstain from using it manipulate the audience’s mood in scenes with dialogue, to the spectacular Kauaian set and art design by God, which compares in beauty to anything we’ve seen in big-budget blockbusters like Jurassic Park.  Oh, wait… Still, the film is overwhelmingly somber for something billed as a comedy-drama, and while witty humor shines through briefly in scenes with the unintentionally hilarious Sid, The Descendants is definitely not in the same vein as The Blind Side or The Impossible, which aimed solely to lift audiences up rather than wearing them down (although the latter only lifts people after wearing them down to the point of exhaustion).  This is not a critique of the story itself, as I myself would argue that movies written to inspire thought are generally higher than those written simply to entertain, but it’s certainly a telling evaluation of the story’s limited appeal.

In spite of all its strengths, The Descendants does have a fair share of flaws that detract from its narrative’s impact.  Alexandra swears… a Lot, more than is necessary to establish that she’s a rebellious, ill-raised, and mourning teenager.  I had gathered as much by about the fifth F-bomb, and everything after that felt like either an attempt to shock the audience, in which case there are more positive ways to raise publicity, or to “show how teenagers really talk”, in which case there are more clever ways to depict realistic dialogue that don’t involve excessive profanity.  Call me a sexist if you like to entertain yourself with false delusions of moral superiority and political enlightenment, but I also contend that there are some things men can reasonably do in movies, like cursing profusely, getting stoned, and gratuitously beating each other up, which women as the fairer sex should not stoop to doing even in a fictional setting.  This philosophy explains why I don’t jump for joy in unison with mainstream, equality-at-all-costs movie critics when studios announce, say, Bridesmaids or The Heat, both of which prided themselves on giving leading actresses a license to do all kinds of disgusting and demeaning things which used to be reserved for their male counterparts in the industry, and it also informs why I despair somewhat to see a pretty young face like Woodley try to draw attention by spewing filth in contexts that don’t really develop her character or advance the plot.  Another possible weakness with the film is that we see nothing of the parents’ relationship prior to the crash, perhaps because Matt hints that such a relationship never fully existed due to his business engagements and personal withdrawal, or perhaps because the writers believed it wouldn’t mesh effectively with the rest of the story.  Either way, I felt that I was missing the complete impact of the loss that Matt and his family endure, as though I was glimpsing but a shadow of the sadness that afflicted them.  I could understand their deprivation on a distanced, observational level but not on a really personal one.  Nevertheless, I would much prefer a fairly detached and unassuming drama like this over a weepy and nauseatingly sentimental tearjerker that ignores meaningful storytelling to elicit a certain response from viewers.

As one might expect from any Oscar-considered work, The Descendants’ critical hype drastically overshadows its actual quality, but it possesses a richness of character development and subtlety of writing that’s rarely encountered in the modern day.  A wise and melancholy portrayal of real-world struggles, it makes no attempt to cleanly resolve the mess that faces its subjects, and is all the more profound for that reason.

Grade rating: B+

* Yes, I am aware that I prematurely ridiculed this movie, among other things, at length after the Oscars aired in 2012.  Given the opportunity to rewrite that blog post, I would probably ridicule it again, just for the ironic fact that Clooney’s character says he thinks, “You give them just enough to do something, but not enough to do nothing,” when Clooney’s actual creed is more like, “Give them just enough to do nothing, and give them much more on top of that.”
** Those are all Tim Conway Jr. Show sound bites.
*** The post title is a punny allusion to something you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re Mr. Perry.

One would think that casting such comedic legends as Jack Black of Nacho Libre and Kung Fu Panda, Steve Martin of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Three Amigos, and Owen Wilson of Weddings Crashers and The Google Movie (OK, that last one was a joke) in the same film as a trio of extremely dorky nature nuts would be a recipe for uproarious laughter; the main reason why The Big Year never delivers such comedy is that it takes so analytical and humorless a perspective on its characters’ ludicrous hobby.  Like director David Frankel’s and Wilson’s last joint venture, Marley & Me, The Big Year was billed as a comedy but occupies a nebulous space between the really funny and the really serious, never settling comfortably on a single tone.  That doesn’t make it a bad movie – after all, John Carter was advertised as mindnumbing, CG-intensive crap, though it actually had a fairly substantive story beneath its visual flair – but The Big Year is certainly an unexpected journey given the background of its stars.

The movie revolves around the exploits and ambitions of three avid birdwatchers, or birders as they prefer to be titled, competing to witness as many North American avians as possible in a single year, i.e. a Big Year.  Jack Black’s Brad Harris, whose voiceover unnecessarily runs throughout the movie, never clearly defines the distinction between doing said Big Year and doing this brand of extreme birdwatching without engaging in a Big Year, but the revelation that a fellow birder is going for a Big Year almost always yields strife and contention in the birding community.  Such is the case with Brad and Stu, a business executive nearing retirement who aspires, like his younger competitor, to unseat the national Big Year record-holder, Kenny Bostick.  “It’s Hitchcockian stuff.”  When the champion starts to fear that these two up-and-comers might seize his hard-earned crown as the world’s best birder, he ups his game considerably and travels all over the continent to glimpse the rarest of species, all but abandoning his wife at home in an effort to best his own record and retain his prestige.  Stu, for his part, remains happily married and grandfather to a newly born grandson, while Brad is recovering from a divorce that stemmed partly from his obsession with birding.  A modern dramedy like this would be neither complete nor reasonably marketable without a romantic interest, so master birdess Ellie fills the void handsomely – or beautifully, because girls aren’t handsome – and gives Brad something to think about besides the most ideal region to visit next on his literal goose chase across the country.  As the Big Years of these three competitive adventurers draw to a close, the prizes they once sought so ardently grow to be less and less attractive; their experiences mold them into better and wiser men, if not always happier ones.

The Big Year could have been much funnier had it spared more pains to mocking its relatively banal subject matter rather than to expounding it for the audience’s education, but it still works as a tried and true commentary on the things that really matter in life.  The movie essentially has two morals woven throughout the narrative: “severely indebting yourself and inconveniencing all your family members is alright so long as you’re following your heart/making your dreams come true”, and “the greatest trophies one can hope to win consist not of material possessions or prestige but of the love one shares with friends”.  The first is obviously BS, and the 2nd is a cliché, but in the era of Facebook, Twitter, and the media-sponsored clamor for fame at any conceivable cost, The Big Year resonates with an important reminder that there are better ways to dispose of one’s life than endlessly chasing after renown.   Such pursuits are vain and doomed to failure, their products buried in time with those men who earned them, according to the observation of Percy Shelley: “Look on my works, ye mighty and despair! Nothing besides remains.  Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
the lone and level sands stretch far away.”

One can only wish that this movie was as poetic as Ozymandias.  The Big Year doesn’t do anything remotely original in terms of storytelling, its normally funny cast flounders without anything funny to say, and the $40 million some idiotic ex-producer granted to this box-office dud appears to have been squandered on some of the worst effects-generated critters I’ve seen outside of Terra Nova.  Still, ridiculous-looking and expensive birds aside, this film has a long way to go before it reaches the depravity of Terra Nova.  “How many dinos have you sighted so far this episode?”  “I saw a CGI fish, a giant dragonfly, and a triceratops egg – does that count?”  “Wow. I saw a poisonous spider and a statist utopian village powered entirely by the clean energy of a single windmill, but nothing else.  You must be doing a Big Series!”  “I wish.”  

I’m done making fun of Terra Nova on The Files now.

Grade rating: B-