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It wasn’t much more than seven years ago when Alexander Payne blew audiences away with his masterpiece “Sideways.” His witty, yet heartbreaking story, coupled with sharp and intricate dialogue won Payne the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Now, Payne returns in top form with his adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ “The Descendants.” Payne has joined Nate Faxon and Jim Rash in this adaptation of the 2007 novel. The script isn’t perfect, but the actors do the best they can to elevate the material as much as possible.
“The Descendants” follows Matt King, a man whose wife has suffered from a boating accident and is in a coma from which she won’t wake up. King has to cope with being the “back-up parent” to his two daughters, played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller. Amidst the grief, Matt learns that his wife has been having an illicit affair. The family makes the journey across the islands of Hawaii to find out who this other man is, and create a unique bond along the way.
Clooney carries the film with grace and a quiet pain. His character’s journey is unique and Clooney handles every difficult emotion, from sadness to anger to anxiety, with ease. The most compelling aspect of the story is Matt’s relationship with his oldest daughter Alexandra (Woodley). Woodley handles the role far beyond her experience. The most touching and powerful scene in the film is when Matt informs Alexandra of their mother’s condition, while Alex is taking a dip in the family pool. The scene exemplifies everything Payne is trying to convey: heartbreak, the strain of a relationship, and Alex’s quiet pain.
However, there is a bit of an identity crisis. If Payne and company had stuck to the more dramatic elements of the script as opposed to forced moments of comedic relief, the film’s message would had been more effective; particularly out of place moments are a line from Miller’s character during an intense moment between Clooney and Woodley, where she yells “you got served” and the entire character of Sid (Nick Krause). Sid acted as a companion for the family during the entire film, and, more times than not, distracted from the heart of the story. His inclusion, and his relationship to Alexandra, is still a mystery to me. The story did not need to be funny, and the moments where it tried came off as awkward and unnatural. Also a subplot involving real-estate ends up playing second fiddle to the core conflict.
Payne’s films often leave audiences with much to discuss and a better understanding of the human condition. Payne’s subtle and effective direction, coupled with the powerhouse performances from Clooney and Woodley, make “The Descendants” one of the year’s most precious gems.
“She’s different” says Stieg Larsson of his mysterious and stalwart heroine Lisbeth Salander in his wildly successful “Millennium” trilogy. Larsson’s words helped his readers capture the essence of Salander and set a near insurmountable challenge for the young actress who would have to play her in a movie one day. The ominous task of lifting Salander’s wild spirit off the pages was put in the hands of well-respected director David Fincher and newcomer Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
The story follows Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), an investigate journalist recently found guilty in a libel case against the very wealthy industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström. Blomkvist is chosen to investigate the disappearance of a wealthy Swedish patriarch’s grandniece Harriet, in exchange for incriminating evidence against Wennerström. Blomkvist is joined by the damaged and mysterious Lisbeth Salander (Mara) and the two begin a tumultuous and dangerous investigation.
From the moment Mara is on screen, you’re addicted to her. The way Fincher shot her first scene makes you feel the anticipation and hype surrounding her. Mara’s ghostly make-up and cold eyes intrigue you from the moment you lay your eyes on her. You begin to wonder what her story is, why and when did her she get her piercings and the large dragon tattoo wrapping around her left shoulder.
As the story begins to unfold, the sexual tension between Salander and Bloomkvist increases. The chemistry between Craig and Mara is electrifying and when the two are in a scene together, it’s though you can almost see the sex, and-dare I say-love between them. The two characters not only have an intense chemistry but also a palpable compatibility rarely seen on film. It’s as though neither would be complete without the other.
The glue that holds the film together is the staggering and brave performance from Rooney Mara. From the first moment she is onscreen to the heartbreaking look on her face in the closing shot, she is astonishing. Mara adds layers to Salander that aren’t easily detected in Larsson’s novels. In addition to perfectly portraying the tough as nails attitude, Mara also adds an intriguing layer or heartbreak and quiet sadness that makes you wonder-what has happened to this girl? Mara, pardon the cliché, literally disappears into the role and embodies every little aspect of Salander-a truly magnificent performance.
Craig leads the film more than adequately. His role is meant to be a much more subtle character than Mara’s and has a much lighter tone overall, which leads to the perfect mesh of the two. “Tattoo” is also rich with successful supporting performances from Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgaard, Robin Wright, and Joely Richardson.
The film’s success can also be attributed to the stunning direction from David Fincher. Beginning with the lavish opening sequence, you truly feel Fincher’s passion in every scene. Fincher’s direction is beautifully accompanied by the haunting score of Trent Renzor and Atticus Ross, which acts as an adhesive for a near perfect film.
Upon leaving the theatre, you may not feel the initial impact of this masterpiece. But as you continue your day you’ll begin to feel Lisbeth Salander is with you, like a friend of yours. Once she gets in, you won’t be able to get the girl with the dragon tattoo out our your head