THE FILM YAP » george clooney We Never Shut Up About Movies Tue, 29 Oct 2013 19:28:39 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Gravity Wed, 02 Oct 2013 14:11:33 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Gravity - inside


Everyone knows they’re going to die, Dr. Ryan Stone muses during a rare peaceful moment in “Gravity,” but it’s an odd thing realizing that your death will happen today — most likely in the next few minutes. This gripping new science-fiction/dramatic thriller is the story of one woman accepting, and then rejecting, the embrace of her impending doom.

Director Alfonso Cuarón, who co-wrote the screenplay with his son Jonás, uses state-of-the-art cinematic technology to make a very old-fashioned type of movie. It’s classic “you are there” filmmaking, in which the audience is inserted right into the harrowing action, experiencing it as it unfolds from the perspective of the characters as it happens.

The characters aren’t very deeply drawn because they’re mostly there to serve as a stand-in for the people watching. Stone, played by Sandra Bullock in a mesmerizing turn, is something of an enigma at the start — a medical engineer given a crash training course by NASA to fix a faulty computer on the Hubble telescope. By the end of her journey, we don’t know too much more about her than when we started, other that her resignation has turned to resolve.

Using a mix of CGI and live-action shots, Cuarón creates a landscape in space hundreds of miles above the surface of the Earth that feels genuine, both in its eerie beauty and its utter lethality. A thoughtless mistake can quickly result in a horrible death, made even more dreadful by the knowledge that it will occur in total silence because sound doesn’t transmit in space.

Watching entire space stations rendered into dust without any corresponding sound effects somehow makes it even more terrifying.

It seems as if Cuarón’s camera is roaming freely through this space, so occasionally it is very far away from Stone and Matt Kowalski, the savvy veteran astronaut played by George Clooney. Other times, we’re right up in their faces, or even seeing things from out the claustrophobic viewport of their helmets.

Likewise, sometimes we’re assaulted by the sounds of Stone’s heavy breathing as she rapidly consumes her precious oxygen or by the musical score by Steven Price. The voice of mission control (Ed Harris) soon fades away completely, though Stone and Kowalski still keep transmitting as if they can be heard.

Ostensibly, it’s in case they do manage to get back into contact with those on the ground, but we get the sense their self-narration is mostly for posterity.

Things are set into motion mere minutes in, as a cascade of destroyed satellites creates a minefield of debris. Their space shuttle is shattered and the rest of the crew killed, and Stone is sent tumbling off into the darkness of night. Kowalski is a jabber and a teller of tall tales, but his bravado is comforting to the withdrawn, clinical Stone, and when they’re separated, she begins to panic.

I can’t go into all the different legs of Stone’s arduous journey to find a way back safely to Earth because it would spoil your experience. Suffice it to say it makes “Apollo 13″ look like a cakewalk. Stone must leverage her meager skills as a space voyager against her analytical mind, learn to risk all instead of playing it safe and improvise on the fly.

Watching “Gravity” is much more a visceral experience than an intellectual one. The movie grabs you by the chest and sucks the air out of your lungs, and while you’re sitting in the theater, it’s an utterly immersive experience. I’m just not sure if it’s the sort of film that lingers in your brain for months and years afterward.

Still, I’d be lying if didn’t call this one of the best films I’ve seen this year because it is.

4.5 Yaps

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INDIANAPOLIS! Win Passes to “Gravity”! Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:08:48 +0000 Continue reading ]]>

INDIANAPOLIS! Win passes to a special advance screening of the new movie “Gravity,” starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, Tuesday, Oct. 1!

To enter:

1) Go to The Film Yap (, find a story that interests you, read it, and leave a comment at the bottom of the story page.

2) Send an email to telling us which story you commented on!


In Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity, Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a brilliant medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney) in command of his last flight before retiring. But on a seemingly routine spacewalk, disaster strikes. The shuttle is destroyed, leaving Stone and Kowalsky completely alone–tethered to nothing but each other and spiraling out into the blackness.

The deafening silence tells them they have lost any link to Earth…and any chance for rescue. As fear turns to panic, every gulp of air eats away at what little oxygen is left.

But the only way home may be to go further out into the terrifying expanse of space.

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Reinventing Batman: Part One Sun, 15 Jul 2012 16:17:12 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Early Batman

Tim Burton took the reins from the 1960s camp TV show and transferred the character to the big screen with his 1989 blockbuster hit “Batman.” His Bat superhero was much darker and had an edge of dangerousness compared to Adam West’s portrayal in the TV series. It was more akin to Frank Miller’s darker series of Batman comics, “The Dark Knight.” Burton’s heavy gothic themes, though impressive, keep the character and Batman universe in the area of whimsy and remain, until a few years ago, still a sort of joke. Cinematically speaking, his and Joel Schumacher’s subsequent films, were more for the masses. However, Burton’s darker vision is still praised today and his Batman, Michael Keaton (1988′s “Beetlejuice”), is seen as the best among him, Val Kilmer (2005′s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”) and George Clooney (2010′s “The American”).

Director Christopher Nolan

No one really wanted to touch the Batman franchise again after the barrage of abuse aimed at the last Batman film, “Batman and Robin” (1997). Since then, studios have tried many times to regenerate the Batman franchise. Finally, keeping a tight lid on the project, indie-cult director Christopher Nolan was hired by Warner Brothers on a new Batman project. With him at the helm, it was fair to say that this was going to be a very new and different approach to the superhero. Fearful of anything leaking onto the Internet, meetings about the new Batman film were held in top secret at his house. Nolan says he was influenced by the Superman franchise, in particular Richard Donner’s 1978 film that explores the origins — something he felt hadn’t been covered before for Batman. He was also aiming for a darker and more realistic tone and wanted to use as little CGI as possible, preferring grand-scale sets, up-to-date costumes and sleek gadgets.

Batman Begins

Nolan and his co-screenwriter David S. Goyer go behind the mask, uncovering the mystery of Bruce Wayne and his transformation into Batman. The relationship between superhero and society and how society views the superhero/vigilante type is explored.

We go right back to when young Bruce first discovered the bat cave underneath his parents’ sprawling mansion and the circumstances of his parents’ death. Scenes before the tragedy seem almost bathed in light and warmth, then everything after is muted in shades of blue and black. Years later their killer Joe Chill (Richard Brake, 2007′s “Hannibal Rising”) is murdered by crime boss Falcone’s assassins for testifying against him, robbing Wayne of his chance of revenge. This sparks a quest to learn of the criminal underworld, leading him to the harshness of a Bhutanese prison and then training with the League of Shadows under Ducard (Liam Neeson of 2008′s “Taken”).

Wayne returns to Gotham City, reintegrating himself to society and creating his alter ego in secret — a hero who lives in shadows, creating fear in his enemies. Fear and guilt are big themes for Wayne and Nolan’s film in general. Wayne utilizes the bat symbol, a representation of his own fears, as it was this fear that led his parents out into the alley the night of their death. He feels incredible guilt over this and being unable to exact his vengeance, which becomes a motivator for him. Fear is also a very modern theme that resonates with the audience — fear of terrorism, of being afraid to go about daily life, and also fear of the corrupt government.

Bruce sees that his family was failed by the system when Joe Chill was allowed parole for testifying against Falcone. The people of Gotham (the cityscapes are a mix of real ones such as Chicago and New York, making Gotham more real for the audience) live in fear every day, not only from the sheer number of criminals and high crime rate but also because of the corruption in the city’s government — the people they should trust to protect them. Wayne/Batman is a crimefighter, but he is also in conflict within himself. Christian Bale’s Batman is clearly influenced by his previous roles as the very dark and monstrous Patrick Bateman in 2000′s “American Psycho” and the realistically pained Trevor Reznik in “The Machinist” (2004). In the end, his devotion to Gotham (something he shares with his father) and its people brings hope for them and the possibility of an end to the hold criminals and the corrupt have.

The After Effect

What a difference a few years make. We couldn’t be further from Schumacher’s trashiness and the camp TV show. The Penguin and the Riddler would look seriously out of place and out of their league in Batman’s modern city. Here we have a true vigilante for modern times, fighting back against the criminal underworld with all the swanky gadgetry money can buy. He’s saved the city and given hope back to its residents. Four and five stars are the average rating for the regenerated Batman film, the critics studios feared the most are satisfied and the crew can breathe a sigh of relief. The next challenge: the sequels.


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The Descendants Tue, 13 Mar 2012 04:23:11 +0000 Continue reading ]]>

George Clooney is having a spectacular film career. But at the age of 50, he was about due for a shakeup.

For years now, he’d been coasting by on roles that exploited his easy, natural charm and the rascally twinkle in his eye. Most of his leading men over the last decade fell into a recognizable pattern: loners who have a way with the ladies but have difficulty making a commitment to a relationship or to a cause.

Even his more ambitious roles, such as “Up in the Air,” featured some variation on this character recognizing the inevitable dead end of his ways. It is notable that the men he plays are almost invariably single.

That’s why “The Descendants,” aside from being one of the best films of 2011, was a really bold choice for Clooney and a game-changer for the path of his career.

He plays Matt King, a harried, hectored married father of two daughters whose existence is thrown into turmoil when his life is left comatose in a skiing accident. A detached “backup parent” by his own admission, Matt cannot grasp the level of resentment directed at him by his oldest child, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), until she reveals that Matt’s wife had been cheating on him.

For once, Clooney is not playing the suave guy with all the answers, but the befuddled and very vulnerable man searching desperately for a way to make sense of it all.

Here’s hoping that Clooney’s career in his 50s will continue down this audacious path — perhaps mirroring that of Jimmy Stewart, who set aside his aw-shucks persona for his most daring roles (“Vertigo,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” etc.).

Video extras are long on quantity but a little short on quality. The DVD version comes with just three featurettes — one about Clooney’s popularity, another about writer/director Alexander Payne and the third on the movie’s Hawaiian setting.

Upgrading to Blu-ray essentially brings more of the same, with featurette titles like “Working with Water” and “Waiting for the Light.” You do get a handful of deleted scenes, some music videos and a Q&A with Clooney and Payne.

Film: 4.5 Yaps
Extras: 4 Yaps

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Coming to DVD and Blu-ray March 13 Sun, 11 Mar 2012 02:24:36 +0000 Continue reading ]]>

The Descendants

George Clooney stars in this Academy Award-winning film about a father trying to make sense of his life after his wife is critically injured in an accident. With his wife in the hospital, Matt King (Clooney) struggles to find a line of common ground with his two daughters and comes to terms with the realities of his marriage.

Rated R

My Week with Marilyn

Michelle Williams stars as the iconic Marilyn Monroe in this film based on the book by Colin Clark. The story follows time Clark spent with the young Hollywood star when she was filming on location of Laurence Olivier’s “The Prince and the Showgirl.” Also starring Kennth Branagh.

Rated R

Also on DVD & Blu Ray this week:

“The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn” (Daniel Craig, Rated PG)

“Young Adult” (Charlize Theron, Rated R)

“Melancholia” (Kirsten Dunst, Rated R)

“The Three Musketeers” (Milla Jovovich, Rated PG-13)

“Happy Feet Two” (Elijah Wood, Rated PG)

“Stuck Between Stations” (Josh Hartnett, Rated R)

“Mama I Want to Sing” (Marvin Winans, Rated PG)

Coming Soon

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (Daniel Craig, 3/20)

“The Sitter” (Jonah Hill, 3/20)

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (Gary Oldman, 3/20)

“Hop” (James Marsden, 3/23)

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Oscar Picks and Predictions Wed, 22 Feb 2012 15:08:53 +0000 Continue reading ]]>
One of the few good things about a feeble cinematic year is there is no overwhelming favorite set to dominate the 84th Academy Awards. For 2011, things are especially up in the air.

Consider that the two films with the most nominations — “Hugo” with 11 and “The Artist” with 10 — have a combined box office total of less than $100 million. The also-ran — “The Descendants” with five nods — barely passed the $70 million mark.

Brisk ticket sales often don’t correlate with quality filmmaking. Just look at the 10 most popular movies of 2011, nine of which were sequels (and the other was “Thor”).

But when hardly anyone has seen the films being honored, that makes for little enthusiasm among potential Oscar-watchers. Even with the blessed return of Billy Crystal as emcee, I expect this year’s Oscar telecast to be among the lowest-rated.

For those of us who like to see the awards spread around based on actual achievement rather than following the bandwagon of a swaggering favorite, it’s an exciting time.

Here are my predictions of who will win the Academy Award in each category, followed by my personal pick of who I think most deserves the statuette. For fun, I’ll also suggest someone who should’ve been nominated, but wasn’t.


Winner: “The Artist”
Pick: “The Artist”
What About?: “A Better Life”

A very tough call here. It had appeared to be a two-way race between “The Artist” and “The Descendants,” but then “Hugo” popped up in a late rally to take the lead in Oscar nominations. There’s no end of love between the Academy and Martin Scorsese, flavored with a dollop of guilt because it took him until late in his career before he finally won an Oscar. But I’m betting my own pick, “The Artist,” will follow in the footsteps of “The Hurt Locker,” and the Academy will vote its conscience for a little film that truly is the best of the year. An even littler film that hardly anyone saw is the wonderful immigration drama “A Better Life.”


Winner: Michel Hazanavicius
Pick: Hazanavicius
What About?: Pedro Almodóvar

It appears the director of “The Artist” will pick up the directing Oscar and he deserves to. Hazanavicius won the Director’s Guild prize, which has proven one of the most reliable bellwethers for the Academy Awards — though, as noted above, the chance for a Scorsese upset is never to be discounted. Spanish auteur Almodóvar deserved more love for “The Skin I Live In,” his most dazzling movie in at least a decade.


Winner: Jean Dujardin
Pick: Brad Pitt
What About?: Michael Shannon

This category is as interesting for who was left off the list as who will win. There was much gnashing of teeth about Michael Fassbender (“Shame”) and Leonardo DiCaprio (“J. Edgar”) being passed over. But the most worthy snubee was Shannon in “Take Shelter.” Dujardin of “The Artist” won this prize from the Screen Actors Guild Awards, which usually preludes the Oscar winner. I would’ve thought George Clooney was the frontrunner for his game-changing role in “The Descendants;” the Hollywood establishment adores him. For my money, I thought Pitt gave the performance of his career in “Moneyball.”


Winner: Viola Davis
Pick: Meryl Streep
What About?: Tilda Swinton

Davis of “The Help” seems to have this award wrapped up despite early frontrunner status by Streep. It’s a familiar spot for the grand dame, who always seems to get passed by a younger competitor late in the race; despite 17 nominations, Streep is still looking for her first Oscar win in three decades. The feel-good political correctness of “The Help” seems to be buoying Davis; she would be only the second African-American woman to win this prize. Personally, I thought her role, in both scope and depth, was a supporting one. I have a lot of problems with “We Need to Talk About Kevin” — starting with that title — but Swinton is amazing in it.


Winner: Christopher Plummer
Pick: Plummer
What About?: Andy Serkis

Plummer, playing a septuagenarian widower who comes out of the closet in “Beginners,” has this category totally locked up. A lot of people were angry Albert Brooks wasn’t nominated for his turn as a gregariously malevolent mobster in “Drive,” but from my perspective it was just Brooks doing a very good Brooks impression … with razors. Serkis, whose digitally augmented performance carried “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” practically needs his own category.


Winner: Octavia Spencer
Pick: Spencer
What About?: Jessica Chastain

Another foregone conclusion: Spencer took a role in “The Help” that had been custom-written for her by a friend and knocked it out of the park with sass and soul. Ironic that Chastain was nominated for “The Help” when she was so much better in several other roles during a fantastic breakout year, including “The Tree of Life,” “Coriolanus” and “The Debt.” Her turn as a supportive but realistic housewife in “Take Shelter” was probably her best.


Winner: “Kung Fu Panda 2″
Pick: “Rango”
What About?: “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn”

Astonishing that “Tintin,” Steven Spielberg’s first animated film, was not nominated. It’s not a great movie, but head and shoulders above limp sequels “Puss in Boots” and “Kung Fu Panda 2.” Something tells me, though, that one or the other will win. The history of this relatively young category runs more toward “most popular” than “best.” “Rango” was clearly the latter.


Winner: “The Artist”
Pick: “The Artist”
What About?: “Rango”

Many were overjoyed about “Bridesmaids” picking up a screenwriting nomination, but for me it falls into that category of movies that aren’t nearly as funny as they seem to think they are. Plus, say what you will, it was a knockoff of “The Hangover.” Michel Hazanavicius, who wrote and directed “The Artist,” came up with the most truly inventive and fresh story of the year. The only challenger for sheer originality would be the wonderfully weird “Rango,” but animated films rarely get nominated for writing.


Winner: “The Descendants”
Pick: “Moneyball”
What About?: “The Skin I Live In”

A competitive category with several really strong nominees. It would seem to be between “The Descendants” and “Moneyball.” I thought the latter had the screenplay of the year, by script wizards Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. But the screenplay awards tend to be given out as consolation prizes, and I think Alexander Payne will be honored similarly to his last film, “Sideways,” which lost out on the biggest prizes but took home the writing statue.

Sure, it’s easy enough to make predictions for Best Actor or Best Picture. But what about those smaller, technical awards that are given out when most viewers run to the bathroom or warm up more popcorn? It takes a true prognosticator of mettle and grit to make picks for Best Soundwave Mix Editing. (That’s a fake category … I think.) Here are my stabs in the dark.


Winner: “The Artist”
Pick: “Hugo”

I have plenty of reservations about “Hugo,” but not its gorgeous look courtesy of Robert Richardson. I have no complaints, though, about Guillaume Schiffman’s vivid black-and-white photography winning for “The Artist.”


Winner: “Hugo”
Pick: “Hugo”


Winner: “The Artist”
Pick: “Anonymous”


Winner: “The Artist”
Pick: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”


Winner: “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory”


Winner: “Incident in New Baghdad”


Winner: “La Luna”
Pick: “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore”


Winner: “Raju”
Pick: “The Shore”


Winner: “A Separation”


Winner: “Albert Nobbs”
Pick: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2″


Winner: “The Artist”
Pick: “The Artist”


Winner: “Man or Muppet” from “The Muppets”
Pick: “Man or Muppet”


Winner: “War Horse”
Pick: “Drive”


Winner: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”
Pick: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”


Winner: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2″
Pick: “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”

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Return to Horror High (1987) Fri, 03 Feb 2012 06:54:28 +0000 Continue reading ]]>

“Return to Horror High” is somewhat of an enigma. On the surface, it’s your low-budget, schlocky treasure with boom mikes falling in and out of frame, bad dialogue and less-than-wondrous special effects. But a deeper look, I think, reveals a spoof wrapped in a a legit film’s clothing.

Going into “Return to Horror High,” I was expecting your typical slasher, blood-gushing-from-everywhere ’80s flick, and that’s more or less what I got. What I didn’t expect was the way the film is able to keep you in the dark about what’s hiding around the next corner. I’ll admit, I’m not a jumper, but I jumped a few times in this film. Kudos to you, Bill Froehlich.

Something else I didn’t expect was to find Marcia Brady and Dr. Doug Ross roaming the forgotten halls of Crippen High School. Maureen McCormick and George Clooney head a D-list cast of that includes Alex Rocco and Vince Edwards, all contributing their own brand of poor acting (with the exception of McCormick and Rocco).

Rocco is his typical solid self, but McCormick provides some of the best chuckles in the film with her actions and reactions. Definitely not what I expected. Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.

The movie starts with police on the scene and blood-caked body sheets filling the yard of Crippen High School. The police start to piece the story together with Arthur (Richard Brestoff, the film’s screenwriter), the lone survivor, recapping what happened throughout the shoot.

The movie centers around a film being shot at the high school five years after a series of murders rocked the town. The low-budget filmmakers decide it would be a great idea to film in the same location where the murders took place. When producer Harry Sleerik’s (Rocco) biggest requirements for the film are more blood and more nudity, a perfect recipe for disaster is set.

As the movie begins to shoot, crewmembers begin disappearing one by one, which the filmmakers attribute to the poor shooting conditions. In reality, the killer is masking his crimes in the blood and body parts scattered about the set.

The movie moves along to a predictable ending only to have one more twist left in store for us — saving the best for last. The logistics don’t really work out, but the idea is cool and a great way to close the flick.

“Horror High” is an odd bird. I loved the movie for its willingness not to take itself too seriously and the subtle schlocky touches that literally are “blink and you missed it” moments. The movies uses flashbacks to tell the story, and their clunkiness only adds to its schlock appeal. The main issue I had with the film was it didn’t go further. They could have painted the walls red and gotten away with it. It was definitely an opportunity missed.

“Return to Horror High” isn’t a master class in schlock, but it has enough of its elements to make it a nice watch. Watch for the creepy hand grab in the car scene — one of the film’s funnier moments.

3.5 Yaps


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Coming to DVD and Blu-ray Jan. 17 Tue, 17 Jan 2012 14:38:32 +0000 Continue reading ]]> “The Ides of March”

George Clooney leads an all-star cast including Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood and Paul Giamatti in this political thriller. A young, ambitious campaign manager (Gosling) finds himself in a political triangle when he discovers a secret about a presidential hopeful (Clooney) in the midst of a heated campaign.

Rated R


In virtually no time at all, one young man discovers the life he’s lived and loved is built on a foundation of lies. Now on the run and with the FBI determined to find him, he must seek out the truth and figure out who to trust.

Rated PG-13

Also on DVD and Blu-ray this week:

“Courageous” (Ken Bevel, Rated PG-13)

“Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star” (Christina Ricci, Rated R)

“Rocksteady” (Cedric Sanders, Rated R)

“Legend of the Sea” (Rob Schneider, Rated PG)

“Fake” (Fisher Stevens, Rated R)

“Perfect Student” (Natasha Henstridge, Rated R)

“Dirty Girl” (Milla Jovovich, Rated R)

“Division III: Football’s Finest” (Andy Dick, Rated R)

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The Ides of March Tue, 17 Jan 2012 05:09:55 +0000 Continue reading ]]>

“The Ides of March” is an ambitious, well-executed political drama that loses points because of its utter lack of freshness. From the inspiring presidential candidate with secret dark spots to the ambitious campaign insiders and journalists ready to cut throats to get ahead to the naive young thing who gets caught up in the crossfire, there’s virtually nothing in this movie that we haven’t seen before.

George Clooney directed, co-wrote and has a supporting role in “Ides” as Mike Morris, a liberal governor who’s the frontrunner for the race to the White House. Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen Myers, Morris’ number-two man behind grizzled political veteran Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Paul Giamatti plays the campaign manager for Morris’ main opponent, who’s got an ace up his sleeve as they head into the Ohio primary. Rounding out the cast are Marisa Tomei as a sly New York Times reporter and Evan Rachel Wood as a 20-year-old campaign volunteer who catches Stephen’s eye.

That’s a killer cast, and Clooney knows exactly how to exploit it, resulting in many winning scenes of dueling repartee and clashing egos. It’s during these times that the movie reminds one of other, better political flicks like “The Candidate” or “Primary Colors.”

But the screenplay by Clooney, his longtime collaborator Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, based on a play by Willimon, continually goes down paths far too well-traveled. The audience knows almost everything that’s going to happen long before it transpires.

Inevitability is a quality that may work when it comes to winning elections, but it turns otherwise promising films into cinematic also-rans.

Extra features aren’t a landslide, but certainly make a solid showing that should please the electorate of video lovers.

The DVD version comes with a commentary track by Clooney and Heslov plus two featurettes: “Believe: George Clooney” and “On the Campaign: The Cast of ‘The Ides of March.’ ”

Upgrade to Blu-ray and you get two more featurettes: “Developing the Campaign: The Origin of ‘The Ides of March’”  and “What Does a Political Consultant Do?”.

Film: 3.5 Yaps
Extras: 4 Yaps

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Yap vs. Yap: The Descendants Tue, 03 Jan 2012 21:18:38 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Oscar nominations are just around the corner, and the buzz for Alexander Payne’s latest drama, “The Descendants,” is growing louder and louder. This week, Joe Shearer and Sam Watermeier discuss whether a volume adjustment is in order.

Sam: Sometimes, living in this age of trailers and reviews can be a disadvantage. Such marketing and hype often strips films of their ability to surprise. To me, “The Descendants” is one of those victims. And ironically, the film is all about surprises, from the main character’s wife falling into a coma to the revelation that she was unfaithful to him, and much more. But by the time I saw the film, I was so familiar with, or hyper-aware of, its story, tone and how it was supposed to make me feel that when the emotional moments came up, I was left cold. Perhaps that was fitting considering the characters, too, are often left with nothing but a sense of inevitability. I can’t blame my reaction entirely on the hype surrounding the film, though. I think I would have found the movie predictable anyway, and I’ll elaborate later, but many critics, including you, Joe, were jolted by the film, so I’m curious: What surprised you?

Joe: I’d disagree that the film is about surprises; yes, Matt (George Clooney) is surprised at his wife’s sudden condition and that she was unfaithful to him. But it’s more about Matt coping with his failures as a husband and father. It’s also about him being too preoccupied with his career and the ancestral land for which he is the trustee, and his decision as to whether he should sell — and, for all intents and purposes, ruin — this land that’s been in his family for generations.

More than anything, I found “The Descendants” to be about the needs of being a husband and a father — and how ceasing to be one of those makes being the other all the more important. Matt suddenly had to pick up the things his wife did — things he largely ignored, like caring for the children — in addition to the things he usually does.

I’d agree that there wasn’t much that was surprising, but I’d argue that, narratively speaking, there isn’t supposed to be. The wife’s death, we know from the start, is inevitable, and it’s that waiting, and what happens in that space of time, that’s important.

Things that did surprise me, though, were characters who seemed to be in the background popping out for a run: Sid (Nick Krause), becoming more than the comedic relief, had a tremendous scene with Clooney, and Judy Greer absolutely owned a vital scene. Robert Forster had a couple of great moments as well.

Sam: I found the metaphorical connection between his wife and the ancestral land painfully obvious. The scene that embodies its skin-deep nature is the one in which Matt stares at the land solemnly and says, “Everything has its time” — a simplistic declaration of finality that, like much of the film, falls flat.

The film is full of broad, vaguely interesting ideas that never take shape. For instance, take the opening narration in which Matt speaks of the harsh realities under the sunny, seemingly happy surface of places like his home of Hawaii. This truth he exposes is, like the film itself, initially provocative but ultimately obvious and forgettable.

What did stay with me, though, was Matt’s open anger at his wife, his revelation that she often made his life harder. Unfortunately, his feelings towards her are wrapped up too neatly in the end when he refers to her as his “joy and pain.” But perhaps that is the only way to describe how he feels about her, as simplistic as it may seem.

In regard to the supporting players, the scene you mentioned between Clooney and Krause is definitely interesting, and it’s one of the few moments that genuinely surprised me. When Krause reveals that his father is dead, I expected Clooney’s character to utter a statement of sympathy, but he simply stares, as if startled, like the viewers, by the tender humanity and vulnerability beneath this character’s abrasive exterior. I guess that is the one moment in which Matt’s statement about sorrow lurking beneath the surface takes shape.

Joe: I would agree that some of those metaphors are less than subtle (the “joy and pain” line is certainly a cliche), but it was the family dynamic that impressed me most.

In some ways the movie itself is about the ultimate cliche — that of a middle-aged man realizing that he is a failure in life. In Matt’s case, his wife was unfaithful, one daughter is locked up at a special “school” because she’s out of control and the other is on the way to maladjustment herself. It’s the Forster character who, after spending most of his time onscreen lambasting Matt for not being good enough, rams this one home when he points out the irony that Matt’s coming into this incredible fortune just too late to take care of his wife with it. For middle-aged white males, it’s the ultimate nightmare — that your entire life’s work, everything, means nothing.

I mentioned the performances earlier, but I want to mention again how universally good they are. Clooney is reliably strong, Greer, as I mentioned, nailed one scene in particular, and Alexander Payne even got a good, if small, performance out of Matthew Lillard of all people.

But it was the girls who really hit a home run. When I initially heard that Shailene Woodley was in this movie, I cringed. I knew her because my wife watches “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” a horrific show centered around teen pregnancy, aimed at teenaged girls, where every character repeats the word “sex” over and over. (I’m not joking; I once counted in a preview for an upcoming episode; in the 30-second promo, they said “sex” seven times. IN 30 SECONDS.) Woodley, like everyone else from Molly Ringwald to the guy who played Bobby Baccala in “The Sopranos,” is TERRIBLE. But Woodley was tremendous in this film, and Amara Miller (as the younger daughter) acquitted herself very well too. Her best moment occurs in the slow-motion, music-swelled scene where there’s no dialogue. She was really great.

Sam: I think you’re right that the movie is sort of about a cliche, but I think it could have been addressed more explicitly. In terms of Alexander Payne’s other films, “Sideways” is a more direct address of a cliche, commenting on Peter Pan Syndrome through Thomas Haden Church’s character. I felt like “The Descendants” was indulging in cliche rather than commenting on it.

I must admit, though, that you’re making me like this movie a lot more, especially in regard to the performances. I initially thought Clooney was phoning it in, giving a solid but unremarkable performance. Now, I can’t remember seeing him play a more vulnerable character. And you’re right about the girls, especially Woodley.

Damnit, Joe, you’re swaying me over to your side!

Joe: And don’t forget in “Sideways” that Paul Giamatti as the whiny, tortured writer is a cliche as well, right down to quoting other writers.

There was perhaps a little indulgence, as you say, but there was enough there that wasn’t to lift it above. For instance, the scene where Clooney turns on the charm and kisses Greer’s character goodbye was terrific. He was so tired and morose up to that point, but he was pissed that this guy had been banging his wife, and even more pissed at the cavalier attitude he had about her, and it brought out that old Clooney sparkle in his eye at that moment and he enacted a little threat of his own.

It was Clooney, but it was also the character — once a dynamite charmer, now having settled into life and forgotten about impressing his wife. That’s something I’ve learned in my last decade or so as a husband. From adolescence on, men work hard to snare the mate, to make them feel special and appreciated. But once they’ve hooked them, it’s like “finding my soulmate” is just another checkmark on the bucket list. We forget about maintenance (if you’ll forgive that crude metaphor) and keeping that other person happy just because we are happy ourselves. That was Matt’s biggest problem and, indeed, the biggest problem any husband has: We forget to appreciate our wives, and there are plenty of other guys all too happy to appreciate them for us.

It was an awesome character moment, not to mention the bond that entire episode helped him forge with his daughter, who was also fully immersed in finding the scumbag who’d been defiling her mother.

That’s what Payne does for me; he gets past the cliche and finds what’s behind it. It’s only a cliche when it rings false. But here, for me, Payne digs into it, and the end result is it helps schlubs like me who have watched movies about snaring a mate my entire life: Rarely do movies tell you how to keep one.

Sam: Damn, that’s beautiful, man.

I can’t say I related to the film on that level, but I did connect to other aspects, such as illness in the family and the helplessness it evokes. That’s what I like about this story — it crosses generations. While the subject matter of Payne’s other films is super-specific and largely aimed at the middle-aged male psyche, “The Descendants” feels more universal.

But with all of his films, Payne achieves a fly-on-the-wall intimacy with his subjects and ultimately makes their feelings and worlds our own. In that sense, perhaps my reaction to “The Descendants” was one of human recognition rather than a sign of mere predictability.

Joe: So, sounds like you’re converted! I’ll admit this isn’t my favorite of Alexander Payne’s films. It may be his worst film (though I still would say I prefer it to, say, “About Schmidt”), but it’s still very strong, makes a statement and is full of under-the-surface emotion while it retains Payne’s signature biting wit. It’s certainly, from a weak year for film, one of the tops and should net multiple Oscar nominations this year.

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