Saturday, February 25, 2012

Clooney in Hawaii, German Cops in Venice

Shailene Woodley and . . . well, you know . . . . (from Fox Searchlight Pictures)

When Elizabeth and I attended a showing of The Descendants at the Piedmont Theater triplex the other night, we found the theatre it was playing in thanks to the mini-marquee by the door, signed with eloquent simplicity:


Well hell, who needs a title when we live in a George Clooney world? From here on, all new George Clooney movies need only be titled Clooney and we'll be lining the block!  

Joking aside, The Descendants (a Best Picture contender for this year’s Oscars, which I’ve sworn not to watch) is a pretty good movie--but not a great one, a surprise considering it’s from director Alexander Payne.

I’ve loved every single one of Payne’s movies, starting with the uproarious and transgressive Citizen Ruth, the classic Election, the heartbreaking Bergmanesque comedy About Schmidt, and the runaway cockeyed wine-country romance Sideways. Alexander Payne seemed incapable of writing a bad line or shooting a bad frame.

But of course, we all trip sooner or later. With this genuine auteur (a label I don’t toss around freely), the misstep came a little later, and it’s a perfectly forgivable one for a movie still worth seeing.

The Descendants  is about the troubles in paradise faced by Matt King (Clooney), lawyer and sole trustee to his family’s huge fortune, including a parcel of 25,000 pristine acres of Hawaiian wonderland held by Matt’s family for over a hundred years. The trust is now legally bound to sell off the land. You can hear the saliva running as developers circle about, threatening to flood the landscape with another dozen golf courses. What, we wonder, will Matt do?

Matt has other problems, serious ones. Just before the story begins, his wife Elizabeth is plunged into a permanent coma following a boating accident. As a result, Matt is forced to switch abruptly from “backup parent” to actual father to his two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie and 17-year-old Alex, each one an armful. Matt’s totally at sea where parenting is concerned, and becomes further unhinged when Alex tells him Elizabeth was having an affair and planning to divorce him.

The Descendants stumbles at the outset with a long voice-over narration by Matt that threatens to walk us through the film’s themes and how we’re supposed to feel. It’s as though Payne as both co-writer and director, lost confidence in his filmmaking skills. (I sometimes wonder if voice-overs are added as an anxious final touch; they rarely seem a good idea; see Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona.)

Eventually though, the story finds its groove and for the rest of the way, The Descendants is an entertaining, absorbing domestic comedy-drama. Sometimes it stumbles into credibility problems as Matt perilously maneuvers the minefields of love and death, family and legacy. Many scenes sting with real emotion and bitter humor while others stray into sitcom territory.

Like other Payne’s films it’s peopled with colorful oddballs, including Elizabeth’s brusque but deluded and worshipful father (Robert Forster), and the wife (Judy Greer) of Elizabeth’s lover whose flailing attempt at  face-to-face forgiveness to Elizabeth only uncovers her own rage in a sequence both funny and sad.

The oddest ball in this Hawaii is Sid (Nick Krause), Alex’s numb-nuts, tag-along slacker friend. Sid’s only skill is saying the worst possible thing at the worst possible moment; he’s a paragon of surfer-dude cluelessness. For much of the way, Sid is uproarious comic relief until near the end when this magnificent doofus suddenly makes one of those Hollywood character arcs to become a wise sage from whom Matt seeks advice one lonely dawn. Ridiculous.

Clooney is, almost needless to say, wonderful, as his handsome and now-craggy face captures all the subtle edges and shades of this confused, troubled man and he’s pulled from love to rage and back again. He is truly one the best actors we have and gets better as he gets older.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with him is Shailene Woodley who portrays Alex’s welter of conflicting emotions toward both her parents: one minute their devoted daughter, the next minute their resentful opponent and hitting her mark every time.

Scored throughout with Hawaiian music, this film’s central point is that paradise is not always a paradise to those who live in it day to day, even for its most privileged citizens. Life, with its disappointments, corruption, betrayals, and accidents, keeps happening, even in paradise. People are still people and life is still life. And, in a particular sense, Hawaii is just another place in the world.

I sense this idea is the reason for the muted colors of the cinematography (in the print I saw), as though The Descendants were trying to keep us from watching it like a Travel Channel show. Stay long enough and the bloom will fade, if only slightly

It’s a proof of Alexander Payne’s artistry that he ends the movie with Matt and his daughters not sitting on a golden beach watching the sun set over a turquoise ocean (a Lifetime movie cliché), but indoors, sprawled together on the living room couch watching March of the Penguins. They could as well be a family living in director Payne’s native Nebraska.


Actor Uwe Kockische as Commissario Brunetti

“Ach du lieber!” I muttered the first time I watched Donna Leon/Commissario Brunetti on MHZ’s criminally addictive International Mystery series. “The Germans are at it again!”

This time a small army of them has infiltrated Venice, Italy, taken over the city’s police department and now are investigating crimes and arresting the perps, all right under the noses of the Venetians, without their awareness, assistance, approval, or even disapproval. And they all speak perfect hoch Deutsch (though they’ve picked up a few Italian words, such as “basta” and “commissario”).

OK, I'm kidding! Now I’ll try to explain: The “Donna Leon” of the title is the author of a well-regarded series of police procedural novels set in Venice featuring police detective (“Commissario”) Guido Brunetti. For reasons I’m unable to determine, Ms. Leon does not allow her books to be translated into Italian.

Further, when it came around to producing films based on the novels, a German production company stepped in and stocked the series entirely with Germans from lead actor Uwe Kockische, as Brunetti, down to the grips and prop guys. Not even an Italian around to man the honey wagon, from what I can see.

If you can wrestle past the cognitive dissonance of supposedly native Italian characters speaking eloquent German, Commissario Brunetti is a good show, as are most of MHZ’s mystery series. Each film is well written, directed and eloquently photographed, with excellent performances by an appealing cast, including the attractively scruffy Kockische; Michael Degan as Panetta, Brunetti’s vain, lazy, and incompetent superior; and Karl Fischer as his frumpy sidekick Sergeant Vianello.

Of course, the best performance of all is given by the city of Venice, the mystery lurking in its canals and endless, shadowy mazes a perfect complement to the mysteries its characters struggle with. From whatever angle you view Venice, it never seems the same.

Brunetti shares the best qualities of other MHZ mystery series: deliberate pacing, attention to detail of both characters and their environments, a willingness to linger and savor the worlds they live in.

Still, even after decades of tolerating WWII Nazi movies cast with non-German actors barking “Ve haf vays of making you talk!”, I can’t quite get my poor head around German actors, no matter how good, playing everyday Italians. A similar problem arose last year with the PBS Mystery series Zen, this one featuring an entirely British cast playing Italian cops in Rome. It feels like the 19th century all over, as though Italy were being carved up by European powers once again.

Commissario Brunetti (like Zen) never rings true, never rings Italian. It lacks the homegrown spice of the other International Mystery series, all of which draw their cast and crew from the nations they’re set in, including another good German series Scene of the Crime and the captivating Inspector Montalbano¸ which is set in sunny Sicily and feels Sicilian to its core.

Commissario Brunetti, for all its professionalism and good intentions, is just too darned  . . . German.

(re-edited 2/27/12)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.


John-Ivan Palmer said...

Excellent film analysis. Burchfield is better than reading Rotten Toms.

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks, John, but I'd guess moviegoers find Rotten Toms is a little more efficient.

Marty Jukovsky said...

The big problem with the Brunetti series (and to a lesser extent, Zen) is that the actors remain very un-Italian in their body language. They do nothing with their hands, unlike Italians, whose active hands and body are part of their language. (Did you notice, by the way, that Brunetti and his family are played by different actors after the first four episodes. Further disconcerting.)

--Marty Jukovsky

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks for chiming in, Marty! You're absolutely right. The actors, while good actors, don't embody the cultural tics of the characters they're playing. I noticed the change in casting, but don't know the story behind it.