Alexander Payne has made a string of extraordinary films – “Citizen Ruth,” “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” – and adds another to the series with “The Descendants” (Angelika), a comedy-drama set in Hawaii that’s witty, poignant, perceptive and marvelously acted.
George Clooney stars as Mike King, a lawyer who’s arranging the sale of his extended family’s extensive holdings of pristine land on the islands – an inheritance from their ancestors who were early settlers.
But he also has a more immediate family crisis. His wife is comatose in the hospital as the result of a boating accident, and the doctors are recommending that she be taken off life support. And her condition has made him the primary caregiver for their two rambunctious daughters.
As King struggles with these responsibilities, he learns that his wife had been having an affair and determines to track down the man – not merely to confront him but to give him the opportunity to say goodbye, too.
As in his last two films, Payne does a masterful job of avoiding the pitfalls of both soap opera and sitcom as he blends the script’s dramatic and humorous dimensions, constructing a film that sensitively sets one family’s present-day tragedy against the backdrop of the larger historical arc of which it’s been a part. And Clooney is equally adept at juggling moments of searing pain with others that are almost slapstick.
“The Descendants” is one of the year’s best films, and another triumph for Payne.
“The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part I”
To go from the sublime to the literally ridiculous, there’s “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part I” (wide release), which follows the pattern of “Harry Potter” in dividing the final book in the series into two pictures. (The second is scheduled for next fall.)
The difference is that while J.K. Rowling’s “Deathly Hallows” had plenty of incident for two features, “Breaking Dawn” apparently doesn’t, and this fourth installment in the franchise is, until the last act, brutally slow. That’s especially unfortunate because it gives you far too much time to chuckle over the laughable dialogue and wooden performances.
There isn’t much plot to speak of. Tremulous teen Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) no sooner marries the pasty-faced ‘reform’ (no human, just animal nourishment) vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) than she finds herself pregnant. That’s dangerous because it’s doubtful a mere mortal can survive the trauma of giving birth to a bloodsucker.
The pregnancy also draws the wrath of the local herd of werewolves, because according to treaty the vampires aren’t supposed to increase their number. So Jacob (Taylor Lautner), the shape-shifter who was Edward’s rival for Bella’s affections, must decide whether to protect her – and Edward – from his comrades’ assault or join with them in insuring that the promised bundle of joy never arrives.
Nonsense like this can work if it’s played with some style, but “Breaking Dawn I” has none. Until the (very gross) birthing scene, it lumbers along like the pallid soap opera it is. There’s a distinct lack of action sequences, and when they do pop up, they’re undercut by mediocre special effects.
One also has to contend with some dreadful pop tunes that are used as background in several scenes, turning them into bad music videos.
It will come as no surprise that in the end Bella survives her maternal ordeal. But long before then the movie has expired.
“Happy Feet Two”
You can’t say that the makers of “Happy Feet Two” (wide release) haven’t tried to recapture the spirit of their 2006 mega-hit about singing-and-dancing penguins. They’ve copied the original not only in terms of the gorgeous computer-generated animation (here given the 3-D treatment demanded by kids nowadays) but also in the uplifting messages they deliver about being yourself, helping others, saving the environment and the like.
But this second time around the recipe results in a flavorless stew of song, terpsichore and noisy slapstick. The old characters are dull – the “Madagascar” penguins have a lot more personality than this bunch – and the new ones, like an elephant seal and a couple of wayward krill voiced by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, are no better.
Part bad Las Vegas stage show and part heavy-handed fable, “Happy Feet Two” is one “Feet” too many.