New on DVD / Now Playing Review

Should Have Passed on Descendants; Pirates a Painful Plight

NOPE – I should have seen it coming. Some times you have to resist the films that everyone is talking about. The ones that have the Oscar buzz. I learned my lesson years ago with Clint Eastwood’s films; and, while I relapsed and struggled through Gran Torino (2008), I knew better than to go near J. Edgar.

But I bit on The Descendants, and now I’m suffering classic buyer’s remorse.

I was, however, sticking to one of my golden rules. The one that states with command that movie viewers are much better off following directors over actors. I have liked Alexander Payne’s films. Loved Election (1999) and Sideways (2004). Didn’t love About Schmidt (2002), but I admired its core and enjoyed the R.V. ride cross-country with Jack.

Well, Alexander Payne did not write The Descendants – and it’s obvious from the opening narration. Payne co-wrote the script with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel. Too many cooks? Afraid so.

George Clooney plays ‘Matt King,’ a distant distant distant descendant from Hawaii’s King Kamehameha. Consequently, he and his extended family own a massive chunk of virgin ocean front property on Kauai. The pressure is on ‘Matt,’ the chief executor, to close a deal and make his whole tribe a boat load of green. A tough decision for sure, compounded by the fact that his wife has recently suffered a boating accident and is in a coma.

We are supposed to feel pity and compassion for ‘Matt.’ I know this because the endless closeups of Clooney – doing everything in his  power to muster up puppy-eyed, exasperated, flustered, whoa-is-me reactions to everything ranging from his wife’s condition to his property dilemma, and his two mouthy daughters – tell me so.

I have been rough on Clooney over the years. Too precious for me. His soothing baritone voice wears me down. I did like him in Three Kings (1999) and Michael Clayton (2007), but here we are asked to buy him as a penny-pinching doofus in bad shorts and zero parenting skills (“I’m the backup, the understudy”), and it just doesn’t hold water. Maybe he should have become the new Bond instead of Daniel Craig? At least then his strengths would be put to better use.

The film runs nearly two hours, which is curious, especially once you notice the endless establishing shots of the scenic Hawaiian Isles – all accompanied by ukulele strummed luau music that runs wall to wall. The Descendants has more insert and establishing cuts of ocean views and glistening vistas than the pilot of Miami Vice.

The supporting casting is off too.

There is a sidekick character (Nick Krause) to the teenaged daughter (Shailene Woodley) that is just plain dumb and not funny, and an infidelity is revealed midway through the story that brings us Matthew Lillard to root against. Problem is, Lillard  starred in the ill-advised Scooby Doo (2002), so now he is forever ‘Shaggy.’ Not good for an actor who wants to be taken seriously.

It is an undeniably well-intended film, but for The Descendants to have hit its mark, the relationships needed more glue. Payne, Clooney, and his fellow writers surely had a ball in Hawaii, but the picture comes up short. They would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for their muddy script.

NOPE Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is the fourth in the franchise. With a $250m budget, Johnny Depp returning as the now iconic ‘Captain Jack Sparrow,’ cameos from Dame Judi Dench and ‘Sparrow’ inspired Keith Richards, and a fetchingly pregnant Penelope Cruz, it’s still a lackluster story about the fountain of youth and soul redemption. I will give a nod to the relative wholesomeness of the sequel(s), the violence is playful and the themes are safe – but I won’t mind when they decide to anchor this ship in the boneyard. I think Depp will be relieved as well. I mean, as our President likes to remind us, doesn’t there come a point when you’ve made enough money????

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