The Descendants

Descendants Clooney and WoodleyAlthough this movie might not be suitable for all ages because of language and some adult situations, it is nonetheless a family movie.  It deals with the issues people face, both as parents and as children, and ultimately it addresses the responsibility of generations to their family.

When Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) falls into a coma as a result of a boating accident, her husband, Honolulu attorney Matt King (George Clooney), is forced to grapple with the problems his youngest daughter, 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) has developed in her mother’s absence.  Scottie has begun to act out her own insecurities by sending offensive texts, bullying her fellow students, and posting pictures of her comatose mother.  The time comes when Matt is informed by their doctor that there is no longer any hope that Elizabeth will recover, and, per her living will, will be removed from the machines that keep her alive.

Matt and Scottie fly to Kauai to pick up his oldest daughter, 17 year old Alex (Shailene Woodley) who attends a private school.  Alex is drunk when they get there, but she comes home with them.  As they argue, Alex reveals that her mother has been having an affair, so Matt sets out to find out who the man is.  Alex insists that her friend, Sid (Nick Krause) accompany them on this journey.  They must tell Elizabeth’s parents about the decision of the doctors.  Her father, Scott (Robert Forster), is a bitter man who is trying to deal with his wife’s Alzheimer’s disease.  When Sid laughs at her behavior, Scott punches him in frustration.

They discover that the man Elizabeth was having an affair with is Brian Speer ((Matthew Lillard), a wealthy real estate agent.  They discover that Brian has taken his wife Julie (Judy Greer) on a vacation to Kauai, so they follow.

All of this very personal action takes place against Matt’s family background.  He is the sole trustee of a family trust dating back to the last Hawaiian kings that includes 25,000 acres of prime land on the island of Kauai.  This trust is set to expire in seven years due to Hawaiian law and Matt’s cousins, who have squandered their inheritance are pressuring him to sell the land now so they can all cash in.  It is a matter of some concern to the Hawaiian people, as the developers who have bid on the land want to turn it into another resort.

Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Nebraska) adapted the Academy Award winning screenplay along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from a novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings, who served as a consultant on the movie.  His style is characterized by simplicity so that what you see is pretty much what you get.  None of the camera work or lighting ever imposes itself on the action and that is sometimes a very good thing.

George Clooney is terrific as Matt, driving the film from beginning to end with a restrained and thoughtful performance.  Alongside him, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller are absolutely perfect as his daughters.  Wonderful performances by Judy Greer and Beau Bridges (as Matt’s cousin Hugh) add to the dramatically powerful, yet sometimes comedic story.

The movie is engaging, heartwarming, and flawlessly beautiful.  With the landscape of Hawaii constantly dominating the action, the eye is never disappointed.  In addition, the soundtrack of Hawaiian songs, befitting all of the moods of the story, is an absolutely perfect addition to the storytelling.  In spite of the subject matter, it will leave you feeling very good, comfortable, and content with the world.

In an industry that thrives on thrill-a-minute action, larger than life special effects, and a blaring soundtrack, more movies with the passion, power, and humor of The Descendants are desperately needed.  I highly recommend this film!

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Fargo

Fargo Paul BunyanAlfred Hitchcock would have liked this 1996 Joel Coen and Ethan Coen quirky thriller that contains so much comedy it transcends genres.  It borrows a number of techniques from the master of thriller movies, including a clever McGuffin, a villain with empathy, horrific incidents that are hilarious, and a tremendous environmental atmosphere.

The following review contains plot spoilers!

Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is caught in a deep financial bind during the winter of 1987 and hatches a scheme to hire two thugs, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) so that her wealthy father, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) will pay enough money to pay off the kidnappers and leave him high and dry financially.  At the same time, he has been working on a real estate deal that would leave him wealthy enough to quit the car business altogether.  He has been pitching this scheme to his father-in-law hoping that the man will loan him $750,000 to complete the deal.

Fargo William MacyHe drives to Fargo to give the prospective kidnappers a 1987 Oldsmobile Ciera to cement the deal, passing through the hamlet of Brainerd, Minnesota, home of Paul Bunyan.  Returning to Minneapolis, Jerry is shocked to find that Wade is actually interested in the real estate deal, so he hastily tries to contact the kidnappers to cancel the deal, but they are already on the road to the Twin Cities.  In a meeting with Wade and his financial officer, Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg), Jerry finds that they only want to pay him a finder’s fee and will not loan him the $750,000.  Although Jean puts of nominal resistance, Carl and Gaear wrap her up in a shower curtain (there are several reverential Psycho moments) and head back to Fargo.  When Jerry finds Jean missing, he tells Wade that the kidnappers want one million dollars for her return, thinking he can get the money for the real estate deal, but that the kidnappers will only deal with him.

Fargo Steve BuscemiOutside Brainerd, Carl and Gaear get stopped by a state patrolman because Carl has forgotten to put tags on the Ciera.  While he attempts to smooth things over with the officer, Jean moans under the shower curtain in the back seat and the trooper asks them to exit the vehicle.  On impulse, Gaear grabs the officer and shoots him in the head.  He tells Carl to move the body off the highway and while Carl is trying to drag the dead man out of the way, a car happens by and two people witness it.  Gaear puts the Ciera in gear, chases down the witnesses and shoots both of them after their car has flipped into a field.

Fargo Frances McDormandBrainerd Sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is awakened in the early morning hours by her deputies who need her at the scene of the triple homicide.  Her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), faithfully fixes his seven-month pregnant wife breakfast, jumps her patrol car, and sends her off.  Marge quickly figures out exactly what happens and launches an investigation that leads her to the Blue Ox Motel where the two men stayed on their way to Minneapolis.  She interviews the two girls who bedded the men and follows up on several phone calls made to Jerry’s mechanic, Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis) who had set the deal up for Jerry.  Following up this lead, she goes to Minneapolis only to find that Shep has disappeared.  She interviews an extremely nervous Jerry, ultimately growing suspicious of him.

Jerry’s plans are derailed when Wade takes the money and heads for a rooftop parking lot to meet Carl.  Jerry follows, but Carl gets annoyed by Wade and shoots him.  Wade gets in one shot that goes through Carl’s jaw.  Further annoyed, Carl empties his gun into Wade’s body and runs with the money, shooting the parking lot attendant on the way out.  Stopping on a lonely highway, he looks into the bag and discovers a million dollars.  He takes out enough to account for the original small ransom that Jerry had told him about and buries the bag in the snow along a fence, marking the spot with his ice scraper.

Thinking that Jerry may have lied to her, Marge goes back to the dealership, but Jerry storms out and disappears, so she puts him on the radar for the state police.  When Carl returns to their Moose Lake hideout, he finds that Gaear has killed Jean.  He gives the man his half of the money, but Gaear is upset that they were also supposed to divide the Ciera.  Carl yells at him, but on his way out, Gaear kills him, too.  A tip leads Marge to Moose Lake where she discovers Gaear feeding Carl’s body into a wood chipper.  She confronts him and when he tries to run, she wounds him and then arrests him.  On the way in, she adds up the deaths and remarks that the money wasn’t worth it.  Jerry is found at a motel and arrested.

Right from the very beginning of the movie, the atmosphere is stark and it sets up the cold northern winter that is the blanketing background of the movie.  A wash of white fills the camera and only fleetingly do we see Jerry’s car moving through the hazy bleak whiteness.  The cinematography is extraordinary and the use of color is truly dazzling.

The script and the editing are extremely tight, leading to a film that runs only one hour and thirty-eight minutes, yet tells a completely compelling story.  The dialogue is crisp and taut, full of the deep northern dialect that lends a comedic feel from the first time Jerry opens his mouth.  Each scene is so succinct and well written that the story moves inexorably to its conclusion.  There is only one plot element that slows it down: a subplot with an old acquaintance of Marge that makes her think Jerry might be lying.  It takes up more space than it probably warrants, but it is the only detraction from an intricate, well balanced script.

The acting is amazing, beginning with Frances McDormand and William H. Macy.  Although McDormand doesn’t even make an appearance until nearly 30 minutes into the movie, her presence takes it over.  Marge is a pretty simple character and she keeps everything in perspective, casually adding up the elements of the crime while dealing with her pregnancy.  Her Minnesota dialect is pitch perfect and it keeps the comedy always working for the good of the film.  Macy, a relatively unknown character actor before Fargo, is terrific as Jerry, a character that we instinctively don’t like, yet we feel his terror as the situation gets further and further out of hand.  It is a brilliant performance.

All of the supporting actors are great, from Buscemi and Stormare as the kidnappers to Lynch as Marge’s supportive wildlife artist husband, Norm.  Presnell is truly funny as Jean’s father.  Everyone works together to create a wonderful ensemble of acting that all goes back to support the script.

Fargo was amply rewarded with seven Academy Award nominations, with Oscars for Frances McDormand for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay for the Coen brothers.  It was also up for Best Picture (Ethan Coen), Director (Joel Coen), Best Supporting Actor (William H. Macy), Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins), and Best Editing (Roderick Jaynes).

It remains the best of a deep and impressive body of work by the Coen brothers.  In spite of the violence, it is a film that can be enjoyed over and over.  It is a classic of American cinema that should have a place in every serious film buff’s collection.  The DVD special edition contains a “making of” featurette, as well as a Charlie Rose interview with the Coens and Frances McDormand.

As I said at the beginning, Hitchcock would have loved this one!

The Best Years of Our Lives

teresa wright & dana andrews - the best years of our lives 1946The stark reality of surviving life after war is best faced with the aid of friends and loved ones and that is story that is told in this 1946 film which remains one of the best films ever made.

At the end of World War II, three men meet hopping a military plane back to their home, a fictitious mid-western metropolis called Boone City. The officer in the group, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) is returning to Marie (Virginia Mayo), a wife he barely knows, since they were married less than 20 days before he shipped out.  Although he was just a soda jerk before the war, his heroism as a bombardier in the Air Force brought him up to the rank of Captain.  Fellow passenger Al Stephenson (Frederick March), is a former banker who served as a Sergeant First Class in the Army.  The oldest and by far the wealthiest of the three, he is returning to his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy) and children, Peggy (Theresa Wright), who is in her early twenties, and Rob (Michael Hall) who is a freshman in college.  The third member of their party is Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a Navy man who lost both of his hands when his aircraft carrier went down in the Pacific.  A former quarterback, he now uses two hook prosthetics that he is quite deft with, but when he left for the service, he was engaged to his childhood friend, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) and now he worries how she will accept his apparent disability.

Although all three men are looking forward to their return home, there is also a deep feeling apprehension. They’ve all seen intense action, watched friends die, and suffered the many tortures of war.  How will their civilian loved ones receive them?  Will they ever be able to relate to anyone who hasn’t experienced battle?

Taking a cab together, they look around their old home town and Homer tells them about his uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael) who runs the best bar and café in town. Attempting to avoid the reunion with his family, he suggests that they get a drink first, but the others agree to meet at Butch’s some time for a drink.  As Homer expected, his family is hyper-sensitive to the loss of his hands and he feels estranged from Wilma, although she shows him that she still loves him.  He is haunted by the feeling that everyone is ether staring at his hooks or purposely looking away–he is different and he feels that difference intensely.

After checking in with his parents (Gladys George and Roman Bohnen), Fred goes looking for his wife, but she is not at her apartment, having already gone to work at her nightclub job, so he ends up at Butch’s.

Al has a difficult time adjusting to the fact that his children have grown up while he was away and he is nervous and edgy. When Milly finds that they are out of liquor, Al decides to go out on the town with her and Peggy.  During the course of the evening, Al gets progressively drunker, but they finally end of Butch’s and find Fred, who is already pretty well tanked himself.  After Homer spills a glass of lemonade in front of Wilma and the two families, he leaves in frustration and also ends up at the bar.  The three of them are like people out of time and out of place and getting drunk seems the only way to deal with having to face this return to civilian life.  Peggy takes a shine to Fred, even though he is pretty well gone.  They take him back to his wife’s apartment building, but there is no answer when he rings the bell and he passes out in the doorway, so Milly and Peggy load him into the back seat of the car with Al, who is passed out.

Back at Al and Milly’s apartment, Peggy puts Fred in her room, loosening his tie, taking off his shoes and tucking him in while Milly does the same with Al in their bedroom. Peggy sleeps on the couch, but during the night she hears Fred calling out in his sleep.  He’s having a nightmare, reliving the loss of a friend’s life.  Peggy wakes him and calms him, wiping the sweat from his face and he falls back into his drunken sleep.  In the morning, he can’t remember where he is or that Peggy is Al’s daughter.  She enlightens him over breakfast.  When Milly joins them, Peggy gives Al a ride back to his wife’s apartment and Milly busies herself with trying to salve a very hungover Al.

Marie is a gorgeous blond and obviously lives in a completely different world of nightlife, money, and men, but when Fred tells her to quit her job, she agrees and tries to support him, even though he can’t find a job. When the money runs out, however, she can’t stand the idea of being poor and their relationship begins to suffer.  Finally, he takes a job working in his old drug store, spending part of his day at the perfume counter and part of it as a soda jerk.

Meanwhile, Al receives a call from his former boss at the bank, Mr. Milton (Ray Collins). They not only want to take him back, but to promote him to Vice President in charge of handling GI loans.  Al is uncertain about going back to work at the bank, but the offer is too good for him to pass up.  Early on, he receives an application from a former Navy officer who wants to buy some land to begin farming.  Although he has no collateral, Al approves the loan and is then counseled by Mr. Milton that they simply can’t do business that way.  Al tells him that the man’s collateral is in his heart, in his guts, and in his patriotism, but they part ways each seeing the situation differently.

When Peggy runs into Fred at the drugstore, he takes her out for lunch and then kisses her in the parking lot. They are in love, but the situation of his marriage is a firm impediment.  That afternoon, Peggy calls Marie and invites her and Fred to join she and her date for a night out, hoping that if she sees Fred and Marie together, she’ll get over her infatuation with him.  It coincides with a bank banquet at which Al is the guest of honor.  Before they all leave for the evening, Peggy confesses to her parents how she feels about Fred and that she is going to use the evening to get over her feelings.

At the banquet, Al again drinks too much. Milly watches him with apprehension and when he is invited to speak, he tells the assembled that the only way America won the war was by taking risks, by stepping in even when there was no collateral and getting the job done.  At the same time, Peggy is sizing up Marie and finding out that Fred is in a loveless marriage to a woman who is not worthy of him.  When she gets home, she tells her parents that she is intent on breaking up Fred’s marriage and having him for herself.  While all of this is going on, Homer has isolated himself, convinced that he is no longer worthy of Wilma.

This film comes with a stunning pedigree of collaborators. Producer Samuel Goldwyn got the original idea from a Time Magazine article about the difficulties of servicemen returning home.  He spoke with novelist McKinlay Kantor about writing a screenplay and Kantor produced a novella in blank verse called Glory for Me, which was adapted into the screenplay for The Best Years of Our Lives by the brilliant playwright Robert E. Sherwood.

Director William Wyler, who flew in combat missions over Europe during World War II as a cinematographer, was signed to direct. Although he assembled a top notch cast of well-known Hollywood actors to play most of the parts, he wanted to part of Homer Parrish to seem as real as possible, changing the character from a man with a psychological disorder to a tangibly physical manifestation.  It was this director’s decision that led to the casting of  Harold Russell, a non-actor in the critical role. Russell lost both of his hands while handling explosives making a training film.

The film taps deeply into human emotions. Almost from the very beginning, the viewer is led into the emotional landscape of each of the three men and feels a deeply human bond with them.  Wyler brings forth the best that each actor has to give in crafting a deeply felt, realistic portrayal of human being struggling with recovery after traumatic experiences. 

One might think that this film is all about the men, but it is definitely about the women, too. Frederick March and Dana Andrews give deep, emotionally valid performances as Al and Fred, but Myrna Loy and Theresa Wright are both amazing as Al’s wife and daughter.  Throughout the early scenes after the men return home, you can feel the women’s love and empathy as the stabilizing factors.  For an amateur, which Russell must be considered, his performance is beautiful and deep.  Never for a one moment does the viewer feel a false step in his acting, but the role of his fiancé Wilma has its own difficulties.  To be so good and true is almost impossible to achieve without seeming false, but Cathy O’Donnell’s eyes show the heart of the little girl who loved Homer and child and still holds him dear.

The movie is full of amazing little performances. Roman Bohnen as Fred’s father is mesmerizing in his brief few minutes.  Virginia Mayo gives unexpected depths to Maria, a part that might have been played as a simple tramp with no heart.  All of these performances add up to a movie that is completely compelling.

In glorious black and white.

I still consider this movie one of the ten best films ever made. It was certainly amply rewarded at the Academy Awards, taking Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Frederick March), Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Best Music (Hugo Friedhofer), and Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell).  At two hours and forty-eight minutes, it’s a miracle that it even held anyone’s attention, but it is so well acted and directed, so well put together that time is no object here and time is something I take very seriously indeed.  For any movie to keep me engaged for much over an hour and a half, it must be a truly special film and there is no doubt that The Best Years of Our Lives is a very, very special film.

The emotional engagement is a such a level that once begun, it is difficult to disengage until it is over. Emotional involvement is so important, so much a part of what makes a good movie that it is truly elevating.

This is a very special film and as important and vibrant today as it was in 1946. It should be a part of every serious film buff’s film library and it should be watched every few years, just so we never forget what a truly great film can be.