The Descendants

The Descendants is an escape to the ordinary. Alexander Payne’s first feature since Sideways is also his second since leaving Nebraska; it proves afresh that you can take the director out of Omaha, but you can’t take Omaha out of the director. At least that’s the message encoded in the opening monologue—one I was happy to receive. His patently everymannish protagonist, Matt King, addresses the audience directly—in Payne’s patently novelistic fashion—and gripes that life for natives of the Aloha State isn’t all luaus and leis. Considering that he’s the great-grandson of a Hawaiian queen, Matt’s surname seems to be heralding yet another a regality that his demeanor does not. Despite those vestigial crumbs of chocolate-lava cake, and the fact that he’s played by George Clooney, he’s pretty darn vanilla: a middle-aged attorney, father of two, soon to be a widower, and even sooner to learn that he’s a cuckold. The first shot of the movie shows his wife on water-skis—skin tanned, hair sunned, smile divine. A motorboat’s purr echoes somewhere in the distance. That’s the last time we see her out of a vegetative state.

If she had specified that she be resuscitated, the film might’ve been about a future Schmidt. Matt calls himself the “backup parent”; his 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) bullies schoolmates for having premature pubic hairs (an unverified accusation); his suburban-Honolulu villa is a mess; and so is his 17-year-old daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley). Or at least she’s perceived to be more of a mess than most girls her age; it’s unclear whether being hauled off to boarding school was something Alex’s behavior warranted or whether it’s a sign of negligent parenting. Either way, she seems to be the wisest member of the family. Alex uses drugs to take the edge off the benign blandness that seems to emanate from her busy-body father, rather than from the idyllic archipelago. She uses drugs the way her mother was unfaithful. In About Schmidt, the melancholy of being clueless, and being too old to change that, was lyrically cogent; Schmidt played by the rules his entire life, and still couldn’t score a goal. Matt says that his father-in-law (Robert Forster), who looks like a living memorial—weathered enough to have fought in every war since the invention of gunpowder—has decked him now and then; and it’s easy to see how a rule-abiding softie like Matt could get on a hard-ass’ nerves. There’s something protean about him; he reeks of old affidavits and older coffee. Clooney gives a fine performance, but, beyond the expected range of feelings, Matt’s inscrutable—aloof to his own midlife crisis. He’s Ozzie Nelson struggling to get by in the alliterative age of Don Draper and Walter White. In the beautifully understated end, when the Kings flock around March of the Penguins on TV, it’s clear that they’ll spend more quality time together; but he looks like he’ll still push papers in his skull.

As the title implies, Payne—who adapted Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash—gives the theme of putting family first, as it were, a very macro view. The queen has other descendants, and not all of them are Kings; as a lawyer, Matt oversees the trust that contains her bequest in Kauai: seafront property that’s been pristine since the 1860s. Cousins like Beau Bridges’s beach-bum—a lifer in Margaritaville—show how little a drop of royalty can do for a bloodline; they want to do the expedient thing and sell each breathtaking acre of Granny’s dowry. Mainly, this is good as a mechanism for comedy: Matt seems to have cousins everywhere—the sort of family reunion one only expects at the reading of a will. But there’s also the unbidden gleam of Chekhov’s gun in this sitcommy set-up: You know which decision Matt’ll make from the moment the problem is introduced, and why. And since a woman with more direct Islander lineage condones of his keeping the land in the buff, and thus free from Rum Diary-esque real-estate swindles, there’s no P.C. unpleasantness about this essentially whitebread clan keeping Arcadia as their own. (I say this with all due deference to the screenwriters; their own inheritance seems to come with a few riders. A more P.C. solution, like donating the land to the Park Service, would’ve come off as phony.) Reverse Shot says that “The Descendants almost dares you to take it seriously,” and in such details as Alex’s paleolithic surfer-dude companion (Nick Krause), I was on the verge of selecting “truth” instead.

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Hugo

Big airports have always fascinated me. Thousands of passengers zipline back and forth on any given day: maybe on business, maybe coming home, maybe for a layover—perhaps as a tourist or gadabout. It’s a model U.N., with representatives from every part of the world trying to get to every other, but few transients stop to swap anything bigger than small talk; everyone’s on a timetable, outpacing the road hogs with their strollers and canes, trying to avoid the here and now, save for the smart phones that seizure in their chinos, or the occasional burger at Johnny Rockets or impulse buy at Bose. It’s like being in limbo, especially at a major hub: You’re not really in a place, just a means to get to other places. Since the cachet had by passenger trains has long since lost its steam—at least in the United States—big airports have taken the cultural place of flagship train stations. But in terms of design, airports have never supplanted the ornamental old guard of railway terminals, which were calibrated to a slower-paced past—when the idea of travel inspired an awe worthy of marble balustrades and gargoyles.

Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s 3-D début, is Grand Central Station in the age of L.A.X. Take this for an opening shot: Starting amid the snowflakes, above the 24-karat twinkle of the City of Lights, Robert Richardson’s camera bears down on a train-station platform, perks up like a groundstroke, and glides parallel to the rush-hour hustle like a hawk piercing the locomotive steam. It’s a bravura use of technology: The extra depth lends a heightened tension to the people and luggage so narrowly averted; and yet the motion is deifically smooth: Like a 3-D-simulator ride at Universal Studios—or riding shotgun on God’s road test. I prefer the latter because the shot pairs grandiosity, and mammoth cinephilic self-consciousness, with a thwack of surprise. We’re aware of the trick, but still fall for it: as if in the sway of an illusionist who’s eroding our skepticism. Considering that this is a movie about magic, it makes sense that, after this first wave of his wand, the flashy Scorsese we all know and love virtually disappears.

For a film of its scale, Hugo is remarkably small in scope. And despite being a movie about thaumaturgy, there’s nothing in it that can be classified as fantasy: Orks and aliens need not apply. The idea of an orphan squatting at a Victorian-gothic railroad station in 1931—an invisible waif among inattentive masses at a gilded gateway to the world—matches these ironies like P.B. with J. Having lost his clocksmith father (Jude Law) to a fire, the title character (Asa Butterfield, with eyes blue enough to blind Yves Klein and a name that conjures images of Oz under a dusting of Land O’Lakes) became the ward of a krunky uncle who looks, and probably smells, like the carny who hocked the Elephant Man. When the uncle, in turn, clocks out, he bequeaths to Hugo a responsibility more consequential than the boy knows: to keep the clocks ticking at a Parisian gare—the rafters of which he calls home—like a renegade intern without college cred to recoup. If Hugo can dodge the station’s Dickensian inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) artfully enough, he noshes on unguarded croissants, lifts tchotchkes and curios from the shop kept by mysterious Georges (Ben Kingsley)—he of the gloomy demeanor and bristly white chin—and tinkers with an equally enigmatic automaton that his dad didn’t live to fix. Georges gives Hugo a shoulder cold enough to melt Frosty, but his god-daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz)—wearing a beret in 1931 but maybe Wayfarers in 2011—has a book-bred thirst for adventure too sharp to typify nerdiness. And Hugo’s totally crushing on her!

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The Artist

People speak of The Artist as if its being a black-and-white silent film were a liability. As if the Weinsteins were taking a risk tantamount to installing hand cranks in the whole bevy of new Beamers. But that assumes that The Artist is an audacious work of art, and not the screen equivalent of the gimmick books by the register at Urban Outfitters. It’s a sweet-natured throwback—an impressively faithful simulacrum—and fun till the plot gets a little tedious and the novelty wears off. Grandma may approve of it more than she does of your apartment’s toilet-side edition of Everybody Poops; but both are processed quickly, and are just as quickly flushed away.

The lineage is so obvious and well-established—the director, Michel Hazanavicius, has cribbed from A Star is Born and Singin’ in the Rain—that plot explication is nearly irrelevant. But here goes. It’s 1927, and movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) basks his adoring public in a smile broad enough to sprain his jawbone. Enter Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) who—thanks in part to George’s tutelage—becomes the new It Girl, just in time for sound to come into play and dethrone the king of silents. Her meteoric success is in direct variation with his career’s demise; but she pines for him, and he’s got a hankering for her, so George’s John Gilbert grows up and becomes the Fred Astaire to Peppy’s Ginger Rogers. In sum, the plot’s as thin as George’s mustache—and light as a communion wafer: Although it stretches only as far as the early ’30s, the storyline is pure Post-Code morality. Peppy would be a contemporary of Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West—but she’s the kind of gal who makes whistles look filthy. Perhaps she’s kinkier on screen—we aren’t shown the source of her star appeal; her career isn’t elaborated on beyond the titles of her vehicles. But Peppy the civilian is selfless, sexless, and one- dimensional enough that a more opprobrious critic might find the film’s sexual politics reactionary. Even this less opprobrious critic thinks it odd that we become as easily inured to the movie’s antique attitudes as we do to its antique format, itself a surprisingly easy sell. Maybe, because of the medium, we tolerate the message?

Hazanavicius doesn’t just replicate the texture of silent films with camera angles and lenses, or from the boyish spring in Bejo’s Charleston step, or the craggy facial canyons of the ever-abiding stock-character chauffeur (James Cromwell); he recreates a context in which we accept the conventions—some may say inanities—of an earlier era of storytelling, with a minimum of irony. This produces some wonderful moments, such as when Peppy’s hand caresses her thigh from the sleeve of George’s unoccupied jacket, or George’s nightmare—synched to glaringly artificial sound effects. But The Artist is imitative rather than innovative; its dramaturgy and camerawork aren’t interesting beyond the fact that they are convincingly old-fashioned. It doesn’t have the insatiable ambition of the German Expressionists, or the intricate stunts of Keaton and Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, or the show-stopping song-and-dance numbers of Singin’ in the Rain. And when he threatens to stray beyond the pale of nostalgic novelty, in an allusion to Vertigo—30 years, and about as many genres, off—Hazanavicius cops out completely. The Artist is winsome but negligible. But if the blue-haired ladies who were applauding in the audience keep clapping as loudly as they did for The King’s Speech, giving the Oscar to this silent may be a sound choice.

The Muppets

It’s easy to get a Jim Henson contact high from watching The Muppets—even if, as Dana Stevens eloquently puts it, it’s just as easy to “kvetch and cavil about the details” like Statler and Waldorf, the ever-senescent season-ticket holders counted on to lob verbal tomatoes from the balcony. We begin the journey in Smalltown, U.S.A., a frog’s leap away from the Simpsons’ Springfield on the map. (This is the first mistake: It’s a parody of a kind of corn that grew well before Kermit emerged from his swamp, a little too generic for the gang that took Manhattan or followed the Rainbow Connection to Hollywood.) This place has cheer enough to kill a caroler—even the locals collapse in exhaustion after their introductory musical act—but Walter (Peter Linz), a fleece homunculus among flesh-and-blood just folk, never quite fit in, despite the support of his significantly fleshier “brother” Gary (Jason Segel). Pensive Walter thought he was alone in the world until he saw The Muppet Show. So when Gary takes his supremely patient lady friend—this is their 10th anniversary, and Gary never produces a ring, perhaps as a warm up for Segel’s future projects—Mary (Amy Adams) to L.A., Walter tags along, much to Mary’s politely masked chagrin. When they tour the defunct and dilapidated Muppet Studios, Walter overhears a clandestine meeting held by oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), who says he’s buying the property to create a Muppet museum, but actually intends to scrap it and drill for oil beneath. (Good luck working with Los Angeles city planning on that one.) Our heroes bring this to the attention of Kermit—living like Norma Desmond, implicitly because he’s still secretly smitten with Miss Piggy, now plus-size editor at the Paris office of Vogue. They decide to buy back their land the only way they know how: Reunion Special! And so the backstage-musical gears begin to grind.

Pace the Occupy Sesame Street camp, I think the movie’s flaws have less to do with depriving children of their oil-soaked brainwash than depriving adults of some of their favorite celebrity sock-puppets. (For the record, the principals never state their position on fossil-fuel consumption; Kermit knows how hard it is to be green. And don’t the filmmakers get credit for making Gonzo a job-creator: a toilet tycoon? If you’re blue, it’s easy to make the green.) Gonzo, Fozzie, Rowlf, and the others get relatively short shrift—even if it’s justified, more or less, by a very Muppety montage: a little bout of self-awareness in which the characters order the film editor around. Which gets to my overarching point that, even if Segel and Nicholas Stoller’s screenwritten portrait of their childhood idols is crooked, it’s crooked at the right, sweet-but-silly angle. So there’s little use in getting too worked up about how some of the musical numbers—the director, James Bobin, has previously plied his trade on Flight of the Concords—seem a pinch half-assed, with fine songs like Adams’s “Party of One” (when she’s doing a little Kristen Wiigling at Mel’s Diner) and Cooper’s gangsta rap ending a bit too early. Or how Segel, a rubber monument to schlubbiness, has a smile that looks forced, even if it isn’t, and like it’s always struggling to conceal despair. I’ll even forgive the ad hoc framing story, about blandly uncompelling Walter, because its purpose—introducing the younger generation to the troupe their parents have brought them to see—is evident, if less essential than feared.

It’s my impression that these weaknesses indicate that The Muppets was explicitly not conceived in terms of focus-grouped Disney shapeliness, and that the sentimentality—nostalgia is sentimentality—is at least of the genuine sort. Just as the sentimentality embedded in the question that both the movie and the media have asked—are the Muppets still relevant?—is also genuine. It answers itself and begs for a “yes.” I don’t remember half as much fuss over the Smurfs being cinematized last summer, or the Chipmunks and their ear-piercing squeakquels. Relevance is not a germane factor in attaining precious P&A. But the Muppets hold a special place in the hearts of people in the same age bracket as those who wrote this movie and its attendant barrage of think-pieces, and who enlisted in its army of cameos. (Except for a dim walk-on by Selena Gomez, the guest stars are 30 and up.) Although he donned their duds, Henson wasn’t a hippie; but he was very invested in the generation gap that grew in the 1960s. The Muppets came to represent a compromise between the variety-show values of yore and a counterculture that strove to break down formal and artistic conventions as part of its purgative program. The Muppet Show didn’t just pioneer this formula, it fed it to the young—to children who went on to make The Simpsons and the Pixar movies and Modern Family. Its impudence can be blamed for making legions of kids think they’re cleverer than they are, but it was a gateway drug to a type of comedy that’s now pervasive: virtually the only style that brings the critical class and the hoi polloi (if the two can still be distinguished) together. The experiment was a success. And I can objectively prove that the filmmakers’ intentions were sincere because, in the segment in which Gonzo’s poultry-fetish girls sing a cover of Cee Lo Green, they resist the refrain “Cluck you.”