The Descendants (2011) ****
Alexander Payne returns with his first feature since the highly celebrated and slightly overrated Sideways, but this time he manages to cut through any cutesy clutter and reach some genuine emotion. Set in Hawaii, the movie is all about a family’s reaction to loss, both past and impending, and captures a true sense of the solemn responsibilities and mortal fears caused by generational change. George Clooney does some of his best work ever as a laid-back lawyer attempting to care for his distracted teen daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) while their mother lies comatose in the hospital after an accident. He’s also trying to settle the family patriarch’s enormous estate, while keeping a slew of eccentric siblings and useless cousins happy in the process. There’s comic relief aplenty, much of it deriving from Hawaiians’ refusal to wear proper shoes. But Payne doesn’t pull any punches with the film’s coda, and its air of vulnerability mixed with sobering finality feels profoundly real. Don’t be surprised if The Descendants does well on Oscar night.
This tale of shifting romance set in London seems like a script that accidently fell out of Woody Allen’s portfolio. Writer-Director-Star Mike Binder is a highly competent creator of rom-coms, and his work here perfectly ok, if a little safe. He has the good sense to generally get out of the way and let his real stars, Colin Firth and Irene Jacob, do the heavy lifting. The story concerns a group of TV industry professionals who spend the next 87 minutes falling in and out of love with each other. Mariel Hemingway is on board as well, completing the Allen adumbrations, and Steven Fry is a scream as a labor mediator pressed into service as a marriage counselor. It’s all fun and relaxing fluff, with Jacob and Firth doing what they do best – pushing the envelope of adorableness.
César and Rosalie (1972)****
No one’s invented a time machine yet, but this film is an acceptable substitute for those nostalgic for the 1970s, especially that era’s emergent mainstream feminism. Yves Montand and Romy Schneider portray the title couple - he a wealthy bourgeois scrap dealer and she a free spirited divorcee – and the film deals with their often changing dynamics and expectations. Adding a decisive complication is the return to Paris of David (Sami Frey), a chisel-jawed publisher of underground comics and the wrecker of Rosalie’s marriage. As Frey and Schneider rekindle their feelings, Montand, pushing middle-age, finds himself in a strange world where women no longer have any interest in subservience or monogamy, nor will they cook his supper. Adding to the fun are the ridiculously young Isabelle Huppert and Bernard Le Coq, barely recognizable in the roles that would launch their lengthy careers. Schneider’s ultimate solution is perfect for 1972; like something from a Helen Reddy song. Unearth this hypnotic time capsule and enjoy.