Ah another week, another batch of movies. This week two really strong character-driven pieces are hitting screens, which will give you hope for cinema. Alexander Payne’s The Descendants and Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur actually offer thoughtful entertainment for adults. It’s enough to make you think that maybe the movie industry is finally moving away from teenager-focused spectacle.
Don’t get too excited though. You see, the reason small movies like that are amongst the major releases this week is because no studio wants to compete with the inexplicably popular Twilight phenomenon. That’s right, the latest Twilight movie is also coming out this week to further lower the bar for mainstream film entertainment. Thankfully there are two strong alternatives opening up as well that deserve attention, but even just to see those movies you’ll have to pass by a huge line-up of Twi-hards anxious to attend the latest round of shirtless melodrama.
I suppose I should be happy that The Descendants and Tyrannosaur are opening this week, but with Twilight also vomiting onto screens and guaranteed to break box office records, it feels like we’re breaking even at best. Sigh
The Good: The Descendants
When Alexander Payne jumped from a cult comic filmmaker to a critically adored auteur after the heaps of perhaps overblown praise slathered onto Sideways, there was the hope that the Election director would finally get a chance to get a few movies made without struggle. Sadly all the Oscar-winning glory from that small character piece got him was a career as a blockbuster script doctor and a directing gig on the pilot for Hung.
A full five years has passed since Payne’s last feature and it was starting to look like the director buckled under the pressure of suddenly becoming a name auteur. Fortunately Payne has finally returned behind the camera with The Descendants. Even though the film isn’t his finest hour, it’s still nice to know that his low-key humanist comic touch hasn’t been lost during his filmmaking exile.
The film stars George Clooney as a Hawaiian land baron struggling to re-connect with his daughters while the plug is about to be pulled on his comatose wife. What sounds like weepy movie-of-the week territory is transformed into a delicate character comedy in Payne’s hands, with plenty of melancholy peppered throughout that thankfully never turns into Oscar-bait monologuing (Payne’s too subtle for that).
Clooney gives a strong restrained-and-pained performance, though it’s always hard to buy the smirking star as a down-on-his-luck malcontent. His public persona is just too hard to set aside when watching him in those roles. Fortunately the realism-slack is tightened by the two amazing young actresses (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) who play his lovably bratty children. Payne also gets strong work from his collection of comedic supporting players from the likes of Rob Huebel, Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster, and the scene-stealing Nick Krause.
The only thing sadly absent from the film is the mischievous streak of satirical dark humor that flavored Payne’s earliest movies. The director’s writing partner Jim Taylor is curiously missing from the writing credits on this movie and hopefully that doesn’t mean that they’ve stopped working together.
It’s great to see Payne working again and The Descendants is a perfectly sweet and enjoyable movie, but Taylor’s absence from the equation is noticeable. Hopefully it’s a brief separation because a valued filmmaking voice that lovingly satirized middle America from the inside will be lost without those writing talents collaborating. Rich guys in Hawaii just aren’t as relatable as the almost frighteningly real comic characters from the likes of Election and About Schmidt.
The Bad: Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1
What’s left to be said about the pathetically placid teen vampire series Twilight? These movies are romantic fantasy hogwash that get deservingly trounced by critics every year. The gothic horror setting is never really explored, with the vampires and werewolf elements merely in play to make the male love interests “dangerous” in a way that will make teenage girls and middle-aged women swoon.
Most of the running time is dedicated to either Robert Pattinson or Taylor Lautner whispering about undying love with embarrassingly flat line deliveries and normally without their shirts. The movies sell sex to teen girls, but in a story that preaches abstinence before marriage in a way that makes the movies creepily religious (perhaps that’s why there’s been no outcry over the series amongst the same religious fanatics who tore down the Harry Potter books).
This latest entry in the irritating franchise involves marriage, pregnancy, and a cliff-hanger ending so that the studio could milk the final book of the series for as much cash as possible by splitting it into two movies. All of the criticisms slathered onto the previous films still apply. It's boring, overblown melodrama split up by bad CGI set pieces. At this point, there’s no point in getting worked up about it though. The Twilight films are recognized as trash outside of the rabid fanbase and nothing will keep the obsessed Twi-hards from spending millions of dollars on tickets this weekend.
If you’ve fallen into the Twilight trap, you ain’t getting out now nor are you likely to suddenly realize that you missed some key component in the last three movies that will make you reevaluate the entire series as a masterpiece of modern romance. You’ll either be going to the theater to hoot at shirtless 20-somethings this weekend or rolling your eyes when you see the vast lineups of people desperate to share that experience. At least this franchise is almost finished and we’ll all be able to pretend that it never happened soon. That’s something to look forward to.
The Tyrannosaur: Tyrannosaur
Finally, we wrap up this week at the movies with one of the most depressing and powerful films of the year: Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur. Considine has been one of the finest character actors in Britain for about a decade now, lending his chameleon-like aptitude for transforming his appearance and incredible emotional intensity to films like 24 Hour Party People, Dead Man’s Shoes, and In America. Tyrannosaur is his directorial debut and it’s an impressive piece of work, if one that’s quite difficult to watch. How difficult? Well, the first scene features long-underrated Scottish actor Peter Mullen emerging from a pub enraged and kicking his dog to death. Somehow, things manage to get worse from there.
The film is the latest in a long line of movies examining depressing lower-class British misery. Typically these films can be easily dismissed for exploiting despair, but something about Tyrannosaur works shockingly well. Perhaps it comes down to Mullen’s protagonist, a miserable man for whom killing his dog is merely the latest chapter in a lifetime of self-destruction. He’s a monster who has clearly abused everyone around him since youth, yet the film isn’t about him being bad and getting punished. It’s about the journey of a man finally recognizing how deeply wrong he’s lived his life and struggling to work out of the pattern. His journey is aided by a desire to help a young boy across the street with an abusive stepfather and a kind thrift shop owner who decides to help Mullen as an escape from her abusive husband (Peep Show’s Olivia Williams who is riveting in a rare dramatic role).
There’s no sweeping turnaround for Mullen’s character in the film or any sort of pat “love conquers all” message. Considine is too smart for that. His film instead offers a brief glimmer of hope in the life of an endlessly destructive man. It’s undeniably a tough film to watch, but also a perversely fascinating experience. Considine proves to be a strong director, admirably playing his out his story with the solemn intensity it deserves while also giving his actors room to delivered incredible work.
He’s such good actor that hopefully he won’t be tempted to give up his day job, but Considine could very well have decent side career as a director. Though it will never be a big hit for obvious reasons, Tyrannosaur is a film that should be sought out by audiences who can stomach it. At the very least, it’s definitely a cinematic experience that’s almost impossible to shake.