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THE DESCENDANTS The must-see George Clooney vehicle of 2011 — The Ides of March sure wasn't it — The Descendants might be set in Hawaii, but it's hardly a film defined by its postcard prettiness. Right at the start, director and co-writer Alexander Payne (adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel) shows us a downtown as gritty as that of any sprawling metropolis, while George Clooney's character, Matt King, informs us that Hawaiians have the same miserable problems as those of us living in the contiguous United States. With all romantic notions dispelled, the movie gets down to business. Matt's having a rough time of it, with life coming at him hard from all directions. His wife has had a boating accident and now rests in a coma; to make matters worse, he later learns that she had been having an affair with a realtor (Matthew Lillard) and was possibly going to leave him. His daughters, rebellious teenager Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and socially awkward Scottie (Amara Miller), don't respect his authority. And as the family member legally entrusted with prime acreage that has belonged to the clan for generations, he must decide between selling it to capitalist opportunists and making himself and his relatives millionaires or holding onto it and winning the approval of those who would hate to see this beautiful land razed. Payne, who also was a guiding force behind Sideways, About Schmidt and Election, has made another terrific movie about recognizably flawed people and the decisions they make that either improve or irrevocably damage their lives. No situation is ever easily digestible in his complex films: Here, Matt doesn't know whether or not he should forgive his wife since she's in a coma, and his children, his father-in-law (Robert Forster) and Alexandra's boyfriend (Nick Krause) alternate between infuriating us and earning our sympathies. Marked by stellar performances (particularly by Clooney, Woodley and Judy Greer as the realtor's wife) and an incisive screenplay, The Descendants packs a real Hawaiian punch. ***1/2
EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE The 9/11 melodrama Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has been dubbed Extremely Long & Incredibly Dull by industry wags, but in all fairness, it doesn't especially feel overextended (even though it runs 130 minutes) and it manages to retain some measure of interest throughout. No, its problems register more deeply than that. Based on Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, it seeks to be the definitive film centering on that tragic day but instead feels hopelessly contrived and shamelessly manipulative — a punch to the stomach rather than a balm to the heart. The central character is Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a young boy whose behavior suggests that he has Asperger's syndrome. Inquisitive yet socially awkward, Oskar shares a special bond with his father Thomas (Tom Hanks), with his mother Linda (Sandra Bullock) clearly placing second in the parental sweepstakes. Thomas is in one of the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, and it's only some time later, when Oskar discovers a key that apparently belonged to his dad, that the healing process can truly begin. Armed with precious few clues, the lad scours the Big Apple looking for the lock that matches the key, aided in his efforts by a silent neighbor (Max von Sydow) who communicates only through note cards. Marked by improbable characterizations (Bullock and von Sydow are the main victims), constantly tripping over its many gimmicks (a tambourine, a telephone answering machine, those note cards), and doggedly determined to wring tears from every foot of celluloid, EL&IC is a classic case of trying too hard, less interested in examining the legacy of 9/11 than covering every pandering base in an effort to earn those desirable year-end honors. Admittedly, there are individual scenes that register strongly, and the performances by Horn, von Sydow and Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright (as a divorcing couple) occasionally draw us into the drama. But for all the chatter about EL&IC serving as a catharsis, that's not only wrong but also simplistic in the face of such a game-changer of an event. Besides, 9/11 has already been tackled with more candor and less sensationalism in such works as The Guys, 25th Hour and, of course, United 93. Those fine efforts soberly noted the horrors and paid tribute to the heroics of that fateful day; by comparison, this new picture mainly pays tribute to its ability to pat itself on the back. **
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO Think of it as the "close but no cigar" brand of cinema, where American adaptations of foreign hits prove to be better than expected yet don't quite trump their predecessors (e.g. Let Me In, The Departed). But now there's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which manages the impressive feat of emerging as superior to the internationally admired Swedish version from 2009. In many ways, this adheres closely to what audiences witnessed in the first version (both were based on the book by the late Stieg Larsson, the first installment in his Millennium trilogy). As before, two characters leading separate lives find their destinies intertwined: Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a punkish, bisexual computer expert who's suspicious of everyone around her, particularly men; and Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a wrongly ostracized journalist who accepts a personal assignment from wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the decades-removed disappearance of his niece. Only when Mikael realizes he needs an assistant does Lisbeth enter his life, becoming unlikely allies as they solve the mystery together. The 2009 Swedish version is a fine film, but this one is nevertheless an improvement, right from the dazzling opening credits (perhaps the best I've seen during 2011) to an epilogue that's unexpectedly poignant. Director David Fincher works in a crisp, efficient manner, and while the original's Noomi Rapace made for a memorable heroine, Mara is even better, retaining this great character's steely resolve and unfiltered intelligence but confident enough to allow us to see the hurt child residing within. After helming the zeitgeist hit The Social Network, Fincher has been accused by some critics of slumming with this pulpy material, but I beg to differ. Just check out the climactic scene that's set to Enya's "Orinoco Flow" — perhaps not since Michael Mann employed Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" at the end of Manhunter has a filmmaker so imaginatively, and perversely, merged music with moving imagery. ***1/2
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You apparently haven't ever read the novel. I suggest that you do, its smugness and…
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