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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 Save the Last DanceSave the Last Dance

Save the Last Dance is a surprisingly well-thought out film.  Although it is primarily concerned with dance, it also deals with some big issues.  Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick  Thomas are great as two dancers with completely different backgrounds who come together to merge classical and hiphop dance styles.  Lots of fun, great music, and some serious issues.


Viola and Shakespeare in bedShakespeare in Love

Written by Tom Stoppard (author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) and Marc Norman, this 1998 film is both a comedy and a romance–and it is very successful at both.  Great performances by Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, and Judi Densch fuel this terrific comedy and unpredictable romance!


Silence Lambs 01The Silence of the Lambs

When a serial killer dumps the bodies of several young women into various rivers between Ohio and Pennsylvania, with parts of their bodies skinned, newspapers anoint the unknown assailant as “Buffalo Bill.”  The head of Behavioral Sciences at the FBI recruits a beautiful young agent-trainee, who is earmarked for his division, to help him out by interviewing one of the most notorious serial killers of all: Hannibal Lecter, a cannibal.


Cooper and Lawrence Silver Linings PlaybookSilver Linings Playbook

This delightful comedy/drama was written and directed by David O. Russell, adapted from the book The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick.  Centered around two quirky people, both at a crossroads in their lives, the film presents bi-polar disorder as a condition that can be overcome.  Jennifer Lawrence gives an Academy Award performance opposite Bradley Cooper, with Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, and Chris Tucker.


Speak-Movie-kristen-stewart-7224892-960-540Speak

Here’s a 2004 film that really went under the radar.  It was screened at Sundance and aired on Showtime and Lifetime, but I’d never heard of it.  Based on the novel by Laurie Halse Anderson, it tells the story of a high school freshman, Melinda Sordino, who is brutally raped at a party by a senior boy.  Starring Kristin Stewart in a wonderful performance.


Shailine Woodley int The Spectacular NowThe Spectacular Now

The Spectacular Now aims much higher than any run-of-the-mill teen romance and its success in achieving a film that goes beyond the limits of genre is to be highly commended, yet there are problems in the movie and it would make the film an excellent study for any film theory class.


amy adams emily blunt sunshine cleaningSunshine Cleaning

Sunshine Cleaning is a delightful comedy and drama, with a great cast, a strong script by Megan Holley and crisp, clean direction by Christine Jeffs.  Although it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, the two performances at the center of it by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt really propelled the two actresses to the acclaim they so richly deserve.

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Allegiant by Veronica RothThis third and final installment of the Divergent Trilogy takes the bizarre, complicated plot even further and it relies even more on people making stupid decisions, rending it by far the worst of the three books that make up this ill-advised trilogy.

This review reveals the conclusion of the series, but it is for the benefit of the reader as you may not wish to read the whole thing knowing how it ends.

The battle between the factionless, led by Four’s mother, Evelyn, and the former factions, led by Four’s father, Marcus, heats up considerably, so Tris and Four leave Chicago and find the people who are really running this bizarre mess of a society, the Bureau of Genetic Welfare, and its leader David.  It turns out that these people have really screwed things up by trying to create better humans, so the Divergent are actually normal people and those belonging to factions are genetically damaged.  When Four discovers that he is genetically damaged, he stupidly joins in a plot against the Bureau, which, it turns out, wasn’t such a bad idea because they are in fact the big bad villains.  David decides that since their experiment was a failure, they need to release a chemical throughout the city that will wipe the minds of everyone, then they can start out all over again and do it right.

Reacting against this bizarre notion, Tris throws her life away trying to stop him.

It was established in the other novels that Tris has a death wish, but quite frankly, I never took it seriously, because in all other respects, she seemed (in spite of a steady spate of tears) to be a strong, fairly intelligent person.  She is, after all, the heroine.  Readers need to be aware that this trilogy is a *tragedy* in the true sense of the word.  We’re all so used to having happy endings, especially in Young Adult literature, that reading a dystopian YA tragedy is a pretty shocking affair.

Roth has tried to make her death seem organic, by repeatedly bringing up her death wish, but I really thought that it was perhaps the final thing she had to overcome in order to become a complete person.  No, it turns out that she really hasn’t grown that much at all.  She simply throws herself away.

Although the plot, and especially the ending, are serious problems in the novel, maybe the biggest problem is the “voice.”

In the first two novels, Roth established a wonderful voice for Tris and since both of the books are written in the First Person Present tense, it works very well.  The third novel, however, introduces the voice of Four as she alternates perspective in different chapters.  It is a bit of a shock, after having a consistent viewpoint in each of the first two novels, to have someone else speaking, but real problem is that Roth has not bothered to create a unique voice for Four.  He sounds so much like Tris that many times I had to flip back to the beginning of a chapter to find out who was speaking.  In terms of creating unique characters, this is a very serious problem.  Once I understood that Tris would die, the reasoning became apparent: she had to have someone continue speaking after Tris was dead.  In the end, I don’t think that matters at all.  As soon as Tris died, I closed the book and put it away because the voice I had listened to for several hundred thousands words was silenced and I didn’t care what happened afterwards.

Allegiant has the feeling, like Insurgent before it of being a rushed effort.  I don’t think that Roth truly took the time to think through her story before writing it, because there are so many things that don’t make sense, that don’t seem believable, that it seems unnatural, rather than an organically sound plotting.

My final advice to readers would be to enjoy the first book in the series, Divergent, and be happy with that, because it is the only complete, beautifully written, cogent novel in the trilogy.  It is pretty well designed, with strong characters, a terrific plot, and it is written in a style that makes for satisfying reading.

Of all the Young Adult dystopian trilogies in the market, the Divergent Trilogy starts out among the best and ends up among the worst.

The Spectacular Now

Shailine Woodley int The Spectacular NowThe Spectacular Now aims much higher than any run-of-the-mill teen romance and its success in achieving a film that goes beyond the limits of genre is to be highly commended, yet there are problems in the movie and it would make the film an excellent study for any film theory class.  Because this is a special film in many ways, this review contains spoilers, so beware if you haven’t seen the movie.

Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a high school senior who is the life of the party.  His girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), just happens to be the coolest girl in school.  He sits down at his computer to answer an essay question for a college entrance exam.  What was your greatest challenge and how did you face it?

His answer centers around how Cassidy has just dumped him.  Always helpful, he had been trying to set up a friend with a girl, but she happened to come with another girl and he just happened to be sitting with her in his car at lakeside drinking when Cassidy discovered them.  He’s almost always drinking, but he doesn’t see that as a problem and he figures that he’ll get Cassidy back pretty quickly, but she has already hooked up with the star athlete, Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi) and has left Sutter in her dust.

He goes out to party and ends up enormously drunk.  The next morning, he is awakened by a girl who finds him laying in someone’s yard passed out.  The girl, Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) is also a senior at his school, although he doesn’t remember her name.  A semi-geeky girl who likes science fiction and graphic novels, Aimee is way too normal for Sutter, but he can’t find his car so he helps her do her mother’s paper route and ends up having a lot of fun.  He asks her out to lunch, then to a party.  He still isn’t over Cassidy, but she can no longer deal with his lack of ambition and drinking.  Aimee, who has never had a boyfriend, is just happy that he likes her.  He might be a good student, but he just doesn’t care.  There is a certain ennui about him, even though he puts up a good front.  Part of his problem is that his mother, Sara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a single parent and she keeps him apart from his father.  Sutter remembers playing baseball with his dad and completely blames his mother for “kicking him out of the house.”  His sister, Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is married to a lawyer, doesn’t really care about their father.

Aimee falls in love with Sutter, but he continues to drift, fantasizing about getting back together with Cassidy.  He gradually comes to love Aimee as well, but he does not think he is good enough for her.  The sad thing is that he’s right.  Sutter doesn’t know what to do with himself.  He’s drifting through high school, he doesn’t want next year to happen, and he doesn’t want to make any plans.  In a scene with Cassidy, she begs him to think about the future, but he tells her that all that matters is the “now,” enjoying each moment as it happens.

Accepted into a college in Philadelphia, Aimee tells him that she can’t go because her mother won’t let her so they make a pact: if Aimee will stand up to her mother about going to college, then Sutter will confront his own mother about seeing his dad.  He asks her to the prom and gets her to start drinking alcohol, giving her a personalized flask when he picks her up.  Later, she tells him that she has decided to go to Philadelphia and tells him he should go there with her, that they could get a place together and get jobs while she goes to school.  He doesn’t commit himself to it, but he also doesn’t tell her “no.”  Marcus confronts Sutter about Cassidy, but Sutter tells him that there’s nothing between them.  When Marcus wishes he could make her laugh like Sutter does, Sutter advises him that all he needs to do is relax, to live in the “now.”

When Aimee badgers him into investigating his father, Holly finally gives him the phone number.  Sutter calls his dad (Kyle Chandler) and arranges a meeting, bringing Aimee with him when he goes to visit, but when he discovers that his father is an alcoholic skirt chaser, he sees his own future.  Depressed, he drinks heavily as he drives them back home.  Aimee tries to comfort him, telling him that she loves him, but he belligerently tells her to get out of the car.  When she does, she gets hit by another car.

Although she’s not seriously injured, Sutter’s depression reaches a whole new level.  They graduate, but he feels no joy in it.  She waits at the bus station for him to join her, but he drives by and lets her go off on her own.  Drunk again, he plows down the mailbox in front of his house and gets into a violent argument with his mother.  When he screams at her that she doesn’t love him, she comforts him and tells him that he is a gentle and giving man.  Sutter breaks down and sobs in her arms.

Confronting the computer screen and the question of what his greatest challenge is and how he overcame it, he types in a confession that he is his own greatest problem and that it is a problem he must solve every day going forward, finally recognizing that the “now” will come again tomorrow.  In the final scene, he joins Aimee in Philadelphia.

Even though this film is riddled with problems, there are also many things to like about it.  There is a simplicity in the script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (adapted from the novel of the same name by Tim Tharp) that is quite engaging and the realistic approach of director James Ponsoldt keeps the viewer constantly involved in the story.  Sutter is a complex person and I have to give high marks to the creative team for making such a deeply layered character and wonderfully consistent throughout the entire film.  Surely, the temptation to make the film a pure romance must have been quite strong, but the movie works hard to keep Sutter real and to deal realistically with his problem, which is immense for a boy of his age.

It is dramatic, it contains a theme that is built and explored in a way that many other films should aspire to, it is very carefully written and well-thought out.

In addition, there are a couple of excellent performances in the movie by Jennifer Jason Leigh (I didn’t even recognize her) as Sutter’s mother and Kyle Chandler as his father.  Each of these actors brings a depth and a reality to their roles that goes even beyond the well-crafted script.  All of the other supporting actors do a good job as well.

The problems are mostly in the production, but one problem in the writing really holds the movie back.  There is nothing likable about Sutter.  As I watched the movie, it was easy to identify him as the protagonist and to feel a certain amount of angst for him, but the writers did nothing to help me like him or really care about him.  My first instinct was to blame the performance of Miles Teller, but I realized at some point that the story should have shown something else to make me care about what happened to him.  That was missing.

Shailene Woodley gives a fine performance as Aimee, but I believe she may have been miscast.  Given the beauty of the actress and Aimee’s terrific personality, I found it simply impossible to believe that she never had a boyfriend or that she was a wall flower.  Girls that special rise to the top because those around them inevitably recognize what’s great about them and give them a special position in the social order.  In fact, Aimee is so special that it is really difficult to believe that in her isolation she could love someone like Sutter.

In his desire to make the movie realistic, I believe that Ponsoldt must have encouraged Teller and Woodley to improvise much of their dialogue because it seems so genuine, however, the constant use of “awesome” and “amazing” and “cool” becomes almost funny at some points.  Sure, it’s probably realistic.  One can imagine real teens talking this way, but it sure makes them seem a lot less intelligent.  There should be an argument on this point because the question of realistic dialogue comes up over and over again.  My own personal opinion is that the clever screenwriter will use just enough teen clichés to make the dialogue believable, but back off before it becomes a running gag.  I think what happened in this movie was improvisation on the actor’s parts.  I don’t know that for a fact, but it feels that way.  Good and bad.

The ending probably should have been retooled as well.

Although the scene of Sutter writing his new answer is effective, I never had the feel of a real denouement, a crystal moment of realization in which Sutter knows how he needs to change his life and dedicates himself to doing so.  Maybe it is more realistic that he has a hint of what he needs to do and points himself in the right direction, but in the interval between breaking down with his mother and writing his new answer, I would have liked to see something that really gave him a positive direction.

Even given all of these problems, I still recommend this film, not only to film students, but to people who want to see a teen romance that has some backbone to it, a film that challenges itself to do better and makes a very positive footprint in the right direction.

The good outweighs the bad.

Divergent

shailene_woodley_divergent-wideAdapted by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor from the novel of the same name by Veronica Roth, this 2014 movie is remarkably faithful to the original book, which is both good and bad.  See my review of the novel.

At an unspecified time in a dystopian future, the city of Chicago has been walled in to protect its citizens from the chaos outside.  Their society has been divided into five sects, supposedly to emulate traits that are desirable in this new society, Abnegation (selfless), Erudite (wise), Dauntless (brave), Candor (honest), and Amity (friendly).  Teenagers Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) and her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort), must be tested before they make their declaration of which faction they will choose for life.  Their mother, Natalie (Ashley Judd), and father, Andrew (Tony Goldwyn), who serves on the ruling council, are both Abnegation and want them to choose their own faction.  Beatrice, however, shows a strong regard for Dauntless and looks ready to take risks.

During the test, which consists of the administration of a hallucinogenic drug that simulates a series of choices, Beatrice tests out positive for more than one faction (Abnegation, Dauntless, and Erudite).  The woman administering the test, Dauntless Tori (Maggie Q) tells her that she is Divergent, but that she must keep this a secret, claiming only that she tested out as Abnegation.  The next day, Caleb declares himself Erudite.  Caught in a dilemma as to which faction to choose, Beatrice takes Dauntless and is immediately thrown into a new life of daring exploits.  Jumping off the train at Dauntless headquarters, she volunteers to be the first to make a three story leap into a gaping hole in a roof and she does so effortlessly.  Although she is obviously quite brave, her physical training falls short and she is near the bottom of her class.  Putting in extra hours, her training leader, Four (Theo James), gives her extra instruction and she quickly rises in the ranks.  During a field exercise, she demonstrates that she can use her mind to help overcome obstacles, then, when she is again administered a hallucinogenic in order to face her worst fears, she finishes in record time.  Four grows close to her and protects her.

The Erudite are in the process of planning the overthrow of Abnegation and have developed a serum that will place all of the Dauntless soldiers under their mind control, but Four and Beatrice (who goes by the Dauntless name Tris) are immune to the serum and must find a way to defeat the evil Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet).

If all this sounds a bit far-fetched, it’s because it is quite unbelievable.  The book has the same problem in that the factions with their self-important purposes just doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny.  Although it’s true that Americans are definitely prone to conformity, I find the concept of their adherence, especially among the young, to a single faction to be pretty ludicrous.  The very idea that dividing your society in such a way will lead to peace and prosperity is laughable.

That being said, once a reader or a viewing audience buys into the concept and becomes willing to suspend their disbelief, the story becomes quite compelling, especially the first half where Tris is fighting to be accepted into the Dauntless faction.  We love to see an underdog growing and changing, developing, and showing the big bad bullies that she can hold her own.  We also delight in her ability to be divergent and to live more than one faction.  The direction by Neil Burger is really tight and the movie is smartly edited, but the movie owes most of its success to the two performances by Shailene Woodley and Theo James.  Each of them, in their own way, possess a kind of offbeat beauty that is terrifically attractive, but their acting talents are undoubtedly very strong and they carry the film through its absurd premise.

It’s beautiful to watch.  The cinematography, art direction, and music are all superb and the editing carries the viewer along at a fantastic clip.  Although it runs an astounding two hours and 19 minutes, no time is wasted.  It might have been a better movie if 30 minutes had been cut, but it is fine at its current length.

A very entertaining film, quite well done, if based on a patently absurd premise.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

movies-divergent-shailene-woodley-trisDivergent, by Veronica Roth, is another in a growing list of YA Dystopian novels (trilogies, to be more specific) written in the first person present voice of a teenage girl. Like the others (Delirium, Hunger Games, etc. this book is set in the fairly near future when the United States has devolved into a ruling society and a bunch of outcasts. In this particular case, there are five factions, Dauntless, Erudite, Abnegation, Amity, and Candor. These names suggest the traits of the groups, intended by these ruling elite to balance each other.

Beatrice Prior, a 16 year old girl, tells the story, beginning shortly before her evaluation. She starts out in Abnegation, but, like all young people graduating high school, she must be evaluated to decide which faction she is best suited for–and then she must choose which faction she will devote her life to. The problem that turns up during her evaluation is that she is suited for more than one faction and this makes her Divergent. In a choice that shocks her family, she chooses Dauntless, the brave faction, known for wearing dark clothing, running around jumping on and off trains, wearing tattoos and lots of piercings. When she arrives, she changes her first name to the shortened version of Beatrice: Tris.

The book really moves quick, the characters are well-defined, Tris’s voice is unique and interesting, and even though the future world is a little far-fetched, Roth makes it work. The only thing that really bothered me was that Erudite emerge as the villains and I always wonder at writers to seem to feel that being smart automatically makes you untrustworthy. This is a weird thing that permeates America today: the notion that it is so much better to be dumb than smart. Another thing that bothered me–and it was a minor problem in Delirium as well–is that Tris seems to break down and cry a lot. I’d really like my teenage girl heroines to be a little tougher. It seems a more pronounced problem here, where Dauntless are supposed to be tough as nails.

I haven’t finished the trilogy yet, but I currently rank this at #3 in my YA Dystopian First Person Present Girl Heroine trilogies.

Anyway, once you get started, you won’t want to put it down.