“The Descendants” amongst the most touching American films I’ve yet reviewed.

Clooney's fractured family in the superb "Descendants".

One of the great dilemmas, I find, in composing film reviews, is exactly how large of a part I, the reviewer, should play in the text. Am I to objectively review it, coolly and at a distance, as a supposed professional should do? Or, since cinema is a personal art medium, meant to provoke a reaction, should I make each and every film a personalized, individual experience, and every review a narrative reflective of that?

Being the fairly passionate individual that I am, I naturally lean towards the second option. The fact that I bring it up in this review is indicative of that. And another strong argument for this argument is my reaction to Alexander Payne’s new work “The Descendants”.

I am a Hawaiian. My white father (a “haole”, as natives call it) married my Pearl City-native mother 23 years ago, and have made it a point to get us out to that state as much as they possibly can. The result is my fairly deep knowledge of Hawaiian culture, and if not knowledge then a sentimental passion. All the memories I hold there and will continue to make there carried over into my viewing of “The Descendants”, set on the Hawaiian islands. That alone would have made it an emotional trip for me, but the fact that the film itself is a raw, messy, unfiltered mess of emotions turned something poignant into something transformative. This is an amazing work.

“The Descendants” continues George Clooney’s untouchable run as the premier, capital-M movie star of this generation. He plays Matt King, a man whose family is forced to sell a fairly unique generational heir-loom — 250,000 acres of premium Ka’aui real estate. All the while, he’s juggling trying to keep his troubled daughters’ heads above water as his wife lay in a coma that, his doctors say, she probably won’t ever wake up from. When his elder daughter, Alex, casually drops the revelation that prior to the coma she was cheating for quite some time, things really spiral out of control.

In a world soaked with animated films, sequels, films based on toys and films made to sell toys, experiences like “The Descendants” are hard to come by. It’s a film without much flash or pizzazz to its direction, simply a faith that we, the audience, can connect with and be moved by the characters’ experiences. It works. Writer-director Alexander Payne has been biding his time since 2004’s “Sideways”, and working with such emotional material as this, I can see why.

“The Descendants”, like all of Payne’s work, strikes an uncanny balance between the humorous and the heartbreaking. It’d be a crime to undersell just how funny Clooney, his daughters, and Alex’s imbecile boyfriend Sid are together. But at the same time, a lot of the humor stems from the imperfections and flaws these characters carry with them, giving every laugh a wounded resonance, bordering on discomfort.

It almost seems redundant at this point to praise Clooney — I feel like every year he drops a performance or two labelled as Oscar-worthy, (“Up in the Air”, “Michael Clayton”, this year’s own “Ides of March”) but it’s only because he’s willing to dig deeper and take on greater challenges than any of his contemporaries. This may be the first film I’ve seen where the guy actually begins to show his age — Clooney de-glamourized, if you will.

But where “The Descendants” really surprised me were the performances of his family. Clooney’s younger daughter, Scottie, serves as both the film’s comic relief and sense of purity. It seems everyone in this film is damaged but her, although her profanity-laden one-liners certainly suggest otherwise. The pothead tag-along in the family, Alex’s boyfriend Sid, is hysterical. Scenes where he interacts with his elders are among the funniest of the year. But this being an Alexander Payne film, he too gets an exchange later in the film that strips us of our assumptions of his character.

But what may be the finest performance of the film is Shailene Woodley as Matt’s hard-partying daughter, Alex herself. She takes what could have been a whiny, one-note character and infuses her with life — yes, sarcasm and sass, but also warmth and humor, grace and intelligence. One scene where she learns her mother’s condition and screams furiously underwater in a pool is unforgettable.

And Hawaii in this film — I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect representation. It’s set more in the suburbs of the islands rather than the postcard-esque vistas, and is a superb, but most importantly accurate realization of an amazing place. Simply put, “The Descendants” is one of the most unique, touching American films released in the time since I began reviewing. Through the eyes of one of the most glamorous men on the planet, it faces some very ugly truths dead in the eye — truths about dysfunction, jealousy, family, and how the three will always to some extent be intertwined. A


“The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part I” retroactively ruins other films in franchise

The unofficial, unfortunate faces of popular American cinema in “BREAKING DAWN: PART I”.

At the end of “Breaking Dawn: Part I”, I leaned over to my mother and said, “Please, for the love of God, get me out of here before someone spots me.”

I said this not out of some misguided fear for my masculine image, nor social status, or whatever you opt to read into that. But rather, it was my actual pride as a consumer and appreciator of the arts that I wanted to flee that theater. “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part I” is among the most laughable products of entertainment I’ve ever witnessed, comparable to a 5-year old’s stick-figure-dinosaur in its simplicity and ineptitude. Sorry, parents. And sorry to the moviegoers whose $139 million this past weekend further fueled one of the greater follies on American pop culture of the last decade.

Why so harsh, Ryan?

Considering I actually gave the last installment, the surprisingly competent “Eclipse”, a B, why such a drastic U-turn? Simply put, it’s because “Breaking Dawn” is so bad, the ineptitude is not only contained to it, but actually spreads to the first three films in the Twilight canon, two of which were fairly watchable exercises. Yes, friends, “Breaking Dawn” actually retroactively ruins other movies. To critique the acting in this film would be redundant — not when I’ve written reviews of what’s essentially an identical performance for this film’s three predecessors. The leads Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner all seem to see the light at the end of the tunnel and totally phone it in here. I can’t blame them, nor can I say I don’t resent how such little work can still yield so much attention. Stewart is the best of the trio, conveying a feeling that must be difficult as an actor — literally being broken from the inside out, aided by extremely impressive visual-effects work.

This doesn’t answer my question I guess – why so harsh, Ryan?

To answer this question, I direct your attention to the recent conclusion of the “Harry Potter” franchise. “Deathly Hallows”, when put together, comprises a 5-hour epic with massive ambition and scope — but there isn’t a minute in either halves that isn’t dedicated to fleshing out the characters or propelling the story forward. The decision to make it into two films was a prudent one for the story being told. Compare this to “Breaking Dawn”. There’s literally stretches of this film dedicated to glances, ponderous beats, slow-motion shots of garbage cans closing, prolonged sequences of chess-playing. The whole thing is — and this is a word I strive as a critic to avoid — boring.

In “Breaking Dawn: Part I”, vampire Edward and human Bella marry, embark on a honeymoon, have sex, realize that for whatever reason they didn’t employ protection, and face the consequences of a multi-species beast growing in Bella’s stomach. Also, there’s a clan of angry, poorly animated werewolves. How they stretched these events out to 108 minutes still amazes me.

The grand flaw that’s always left “Twilight” behind in one way or another behind rival franchises is its dependency on character-driven moments — be it one-liners, glances, reveals, etc, when the franchise did such a poor job of building their personalities & foundations to begin with. Think about it — “Harry Potter” often achieved absolute hilarity (and at times, heartbreak) because over time you’d become so familiar and responsive to the characters. “Twilight” stumbled with this development right out of the gate, so the moments where it tries to play off our fondness for the characters fails. And that’s really all that “Breaking Dawn: Part I” is — a film built on moments playing off a relationship with the audience that doesn’t exist. D

“Anonymous” dull Oscar bait

William Shakespeare, figure of adoration, and as "ANONYMOUS" asserts, a total fraud.

We’ve all had that one kid in some class or another who thought that by using large words and elongating their sentences as long as possible, that they were smarter than all the other kids. Now imagine that kid getting to make his own movie about one of the most universally adored artists ever to walk the planet. You now understand my annoyance with Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous”.

Emmerich is a bit of a symbol of everything I hate about Hollywood. The maker of “Godzilla”, “The Day After Tomorrow”, and “2012”, he’s an unrelenting purveyor of destruction, death and noise; with obscenely high box-office receipts to boot. So his suitability for “Anonymous”‘ subject matter is certainly up for debate — a tangled web of political intrigue, relationships, creative disputes and family feuds. It’s all centered around the Earl of Oxford, who to shift public opinion, decides to release several plays to make a large splash. Hiding a tremendous talent for writing, he uses a middle-man as a public facade. This fraud’s name? William Shakespeare.

If there is one major achievement to the credit of “Anonymous”, it’s the dynamic digital re-creation of 16th-century-era England. Done with the seamless blending of practical stages and digital effects, it’s as vivid and textured as any digitally-created landscape. The fact that it was done on the film’s reputed $30 million budget makes it all the more impressive.

Rhys Ifans is the Earl of Oxford and lead character — and he’s something of a blank slate throughout the film — never really readable for the first two-thirds of the film, which make his sudden outbursts of emotion in the latter 40 minutes all the more baffling. He’s servicable. Further roles include Vanessa Redgrave as Elizabeth I, never escaping the shadow of her peers’ Cate Blanchett & Judi Dench’s wonderful work as the same character. David Thewlis is charming and persuasive as William Cecil, the Queen’s advisor.

“Band of Brothers” scribe John Orloff is credited as the scribe. Never in this film are the believable, richly human interactions of that miniseries displayed. “Anonymous” has faced a lot of venom from historians disputing the film’s veracity, which makes me wonder — will anyone actually take this film as fact? Doubtful. Rather, what I think should be analyzed is how such a potentially intriguing concept was conveyed in such a dry, listless fashion. Perhaps the greatest fault I can find against “Anonymous” is that — at face value — it’s a film about relationships, about how different groups and alliances tangle. But in all his career, one thing Emmerich has never done is convincingly develop a genuine, authentic character. Without this very basic skill, character-driven films fall apart. “Anonymous” is dead on arrival. D+

“A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” a defiant middle-finger to holiday tradition. It’s awesome.

Harold and Kumar after accidentally taking out Santa Claus -- with a shotgun.

Babies taking ecstasy, Ukranian mobsters, womanizing celebrities pretending to be gay, mens’ privates being frozen to a pole, claymation animation, Santa Claus taking a shotgun shell to the face, killer waffle-machines, car chases and 3-D cocaine snow-storms aren’t everyone’s idea of a traditional Christmas film. But then again the “Harold & Kumar” franchise never really was crafted with the majority in mind, instead catering to the audience craving a comedy a little more raunchy and radical than common, bland PG-13 offerings. (key example: this film’s counter-programming this weekend, “Tower Heist”) This critic is one such example, although that doesn’t necessarily mean I go to movies seeking the above criteria. I don’t.

That said, “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” has its doses of sweet, although its awareness of traditional Christmas cinema doesn’t bode well for the sincerity of them. With these films we’ve tracked the stoner duo’s misadventures, and set several years afterwards, it appears they’ve settled down. The newly-married Harold is now a successful Wall Street executive, where Kumar’s life is about as static and blown (literally) as it was before. But when, I kid you not, a magical joint brings the two back together, they must scramble to replace the “perfect” Christmas tree Harold’s menacing father-in-law provided — that is, until the joint put it all into flames. Literally.

This quest for a simple tree turns into something much wilder, pushing the boundaries of the R-rating often. But “Harold and Kumar” slyly subverts a lot of trends we as a culture hold dear — simple family gatherings, our penchant for 3D, anti-Wall Street sentiment, pro-Wall Street sentiment. Nothing is held sacred here, and although the movie never really says anything meaningful about whatever its tackling, it holds a defiant middle-finger up to it nonetheless.

John Cho and Kal Penn are in top form as the titular duo. This series has brought them nothing but goodwill, landing Cho a spot in “Star Trek” and, in a bizarrely wonderful twist of fate, scoring Penn a spot in the White House. In bit roles, Patton Oswalt as a drug-dealing mall-Santa, Danny Trejo as the fearsome father-in-law who sets it all into motion, and Neil Patrick Harris, returning as himself for the third straight time in the series. Harris electrifies this franchise as he consistently has.

“A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” has a massive amount of shenanigans to condense into 89 minutes, coming at the expense of cohesion and clarity. It’s shoddily edited and stitched together, more often than not feeling like a rough-cut with awkward transitions, introductions, and actions randomly repeated twice. Oddly enough, had he waited a little longer for the actual Christmas period, I’m sure director Todd Strauss-Schulson could have worked out the nitpicks and kinks fairly easily.

Yeah, characters are underdeveloped, racial stereotypes are repeatedly employed, and the 3-D technology is only really used whenever the makers want to throw a bodily fluid in your face. And believe me, they throw EVERY bodily fluid in your face. But if it offends audiences it’s no one’s fault but their own, given these films’ reputations at this point. For what it is and who its for, “Harold and Kumar” is a near-perfect Christmas film, subverting and offending near everything in its path while actually being a fairly heartfelt contribution to the holiday genre. I’m excited to see the continuing path of one of the more daring, radical, and charming comedic franchises out there at this point. B+