Friday, December 30, 2011

War Horse: A truly incredible journey

War Horse (2011) • View trailer
Five stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense war violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.30.11

The first act is breathtaking.

The second act is grim, horrifying and heartbreaking.

The third act is transcendent.
Albert (Jeremy Irvine, center) defiantly holds onto his horse, after realizing that
his father (Peter Mullan, right) has just sold the animal to Capt. Nichols (Tom
Hiddleston, far left). The "Great War" has begun, and horses are needed at the
front; Albert knows what this likely means for his beloved, four-legged friend.

Once again demonstrating a facility for extracting compelling, first-person narratives from the faceless, senseless morass of war, director Stephen Spielberg has delivered another masterpiece on par with Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.

The twist, this time, is that the “person” is a horse.

War Horse — sensitively adapted by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, from the celebrated novel by Michael Morpurgo (with additional material from Nick Stafford’s inventive stage play) — is alternately exhilarating and shattering. The film is riveting from the first frame, the plot points — major and minor — delivered with such skill and imagination that one wonders how this saga could have been anything but a visual experience. (A book? Really?)

Spielberg, acutely aware of the emotions to be stirred at any given moment, orchestrates this World War I saga with a brilliant blend of subtle suggestion and harsh, jarring brutality. The juxtaposition is both unsettling and ferociously clever; time and again, we’re set up for what seems a welcome lull in the dramatic intensity, only to be caught off-guard as grim events once again overtake apparent tranquility.

As one character bitterly reflects, along the way, war takes everything from everybody.

But that’s getting ahead of things. War Horse actually opens gently, majestically, in the dappled English countryside of Devon. Young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) watches as a hunter colt is born in a neighboring farmer’s field; the boy remains close, as time passes and the animal matures into a regal thoroughbred with four white socks and a white diamond on its forehead.

Come auction day, Albert’s father, Ted (Peter Mullan), attends with the intention of purchasing a strapping plow horse. But something about the skittish, four-legged youngster touches a chord; goaded into a foolish winning bid, Ted returns home with this wholly impractical “farm” animal, much to the vexation of his wife, Rosie (Emily Watson) ... and the delight of their son.

But harsh reality merely emphasizes the folly of Ted’s purchase. Having spent what should have been the rent money, Ted gambles his entire farm on the ludicrous promise that this new horse — which Albert has named Joey — can successfully plow an impossible, stone-laden lower field, so that a crop can be planted and brought to market.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin: Thrills, spills and great 3D frills

The Adventures of Tintin (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG, for plenty of peril and action violence
By Derrick Bang

Director Steven Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson respectfully honor their source material during the opening scene of The Adventures of Tintin, which finds the intrepid boy reporter having himself sketched by a street artist ... who bears an uncanny resemblance to the character’s Belgian creator.
A "simple" plane ride is anything but, when intrepid boy reporter Tintin is
involved; our young hero and his faithful canine sidekick, Snowy, barely
survive a crash-landing in the desert. The bigger question: Will the nasty
jolt stir long-forgotten memories in Tintin's companion, Captain Haddock, so
that they can get on with their treasure quest?

Better still, the finished drawing — granted a nod of approval by its subject — is Tintin, as illustrated for close to half a century, from 1929 to ’75, by Georges Prosper Remi, better known by his pen name Hergé.

It’s a brilliant prologue by Spielberg and scripters Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, because it immediately connects Hergé’s style and vision with this film’s motion-control characters. Call it a hand-off: much the way George Lazenby faced the camera after his pre-credits escapade in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and, acknowledging his having taken over the role of James Bond from Sean Connery, cheerfully quipped, “This never happened to the other fella!”

Spielberg actually begins The Adventures of Tintin with a smashing title credits sequence: very much in the vein of both Hergé’s work and the equally memorable opening credits to 2002’s Catch Me if You Can. As was the case with that earlier Spielberg romp, soundtrack maestro John Williams delivers another deliciously retro title theme, echoing the “cool jazz” mode of his emerging career in the late 1950s and early ’60s. (Williams, let us remember, was the pianist in Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn sessions.)

I place a lot of weight on opening credits, as slick credits often signal great things ahead. That’s absolutely the case here: The Adventures of Tintin is a marvelous mash-up of comic book thrills, movie serial clichés and — most particularly — ferociously clever animation that allows exhilarating action sequence “camera angles” that simply wouldn’t be possible in a live-action film.

And yet this rich, suspenseful fantasy feels very much like a live-action film, thanks to next-gen motion-control visual effects geniuses Joe Letteri, Scott E. Anderson and Jamie Beard. The “dead eye problem” — which turned the children of The Polar Express into creepy zombies — is no longer an issue; Spielberg also wisely avoided the trap of using animated characters who resemble the film’s “stars,” which made Jim Carrey’s version of A Christmas Carol equally weird, for different reasons.

No, with the exception of that initial tip of the hat to Hergé, these characters look like fully dimensioned versions of their graphic novel selves, and definitely not like the actors voicing the parts. Tintin and his spectacularly resourceful dog, Snowy, are realized superbly; I’m also impressed by the fidelity with which bumbling inspectors Thomson and Thompson have been brought to life.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

We Bought a Zoo: Lions and tigers and anxiety ... oh, my!

We Bought a Zoo (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG, for no particular reason
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.28.11

Writer/director Cameron Crowe, absent from the screen for far too long, has returned with the season’s sweetest, gentlest family film.
The care of exotic animals can't be learned from books, despite Benjamin Mee's
(Matt Damon, center) effort to do so. To his growing frustration — and the
tolerant amusement of zookeepers Robin Jones (Patrick Fugit) and Kelly Foster
(Scarlett Johansson) — poor Benjamin keeps revealing his ignorance. And so
he begins to wonder: Can willingness and hard work ever be enough?

We Bought a Zoo is adapted from journalist Benjamin Mee’s engaging 2008 memoir, which boasts the much more irresistible title of We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals that Change Their Lives Forever. The setting has shifted from England’s Devonshire to the California countryside, and the Mee family has been compressed a bit, but Crowe has retained the saga’s essential plot points and — most of all — its heart.

Thanks to an engaging ensemble cast of misfits, eccentrics and one incredibly adorable child — along with Crowe’s always excellent ear for dialogue — the result is an easygoing, crowd-pleasing charmer.

Sadly, it may get lost in the holiday glut of noisier, flashier competition. That’d be a shame, because Crowe’s film is the perfect all-ages alternative to the third Chipmunks flick (too dumb for adults) or Hugo (probably too high-tone for children, much as I hate to admit it).

Benjamin (Matt Damon) introduces himself, via a voice-over montage, as a veteran Los Angeles newspaper reporter with a thrill for adventure and the skill to finesse a story from reluctant and dangerous subjects. Unfortunately, nothing could have prepared him for the biggest adventure of all: functioning as a single parent in the wake of his wife Katherine’s untimely death ... still a raw, recent wound as this film begins.

This tragedy has left the family at forlorn loose ends, with Benjamin wondering — on a daily basis — if he’s doing anything right. Seven-year-old Rosie (the beguiling Maggie Elizabeth Jones), wise beyond her years, points out that he hasn’t lost his hair like some of her classmates’ fathers. She does this while carefully making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the next day’s school lunches: one of many details that Benjamin invariably overlooks during early-morning chaos.

Fourteen-year-old Dylan, alas, is a different story. He’s an angry, withdrawn kid whose artistic talent leans toward shocking depictions of gory decapitations. He also has been expelled from school, which gives Benjamin an excuse to attempt the impossible: eradicate Katherine’s memory entirely, by moving to someplace where he won’t be surrounded by constant reminders of their giddily happy times together.

Benjamin and Rosie subsequently take a house-hunting excursion with a newly minted Realtor (J.B. Smoove) who nervously wears his inexperience on his sleeve, but nonetheless has his heart in the right place. He therefore advises caution when Rosie, paging through scores of listings that aren’t quite right, sets her heart on a rustic home surrounded by 18 acres of California countryside (actually Thousand Oaks), nine miles from the nearest store.

There’s a catch, and a big one: The home comes attached to the dilapidated Rosemoor Animal Park, complete with scores of exotic animals and a dedicated but long-unpaid staff.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Not tough enough

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for brutal violent content, rape, torture, strong sexuality, nudity and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.23.11

David Fincher exhausts all his creative juices on this film’s opening credits.

The director who disturbed us so effectively during Se7en and Zodiac delivers a truly creepy set of credits for his handling of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. They unspool like some rancid afterbirth of classic James Bond credits, with oil- and rubber-covered figures, barely human, punctured by various sharp-bladed instruments.
Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) should be unhappy when he learns
that Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) has been eavesdropping on his laptop
activity; indeed, he could have her arrested. But Blomkvist recognizes
investigative talent, and instead asks Lisbeth to help him solve a
40-year-old murder mystery.

Fincher certainly establishes a mood.

Trouble is, he never matches it from that point forward. Yes, this is an uncomfortable, edgy thriller, with Steven Zaillian’s script reasonably faithful to the late Stieg Larsson’s iconic, best-selling novel. But Fincher brings little to the party in the way of visceral oomph; he simply goes through the motions, as if hamstrung by the heavy expectations riding on this project.

As a result, his film remains in the shadow of Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev’s far more satisfying 2009 version: the first adaptation of Larsson’s book, and clearly the superior effort.

Fincher’s remake simply doesn’t sizzle. At no time does he come close to the suspense he generated with Panic Room, particularly during that tension-laden thriller’s final half hour. The climactic confrontation in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo should have the same edge-of-the-seat suspense ... but it doesn’t.

Possibly because — as most definitely wasn’t the case with Oplev’s version — the “big reveal” regarding the clandestine villain’s identity isn’t much of a surprise here.

Zaillian made several intelligent decisions with his script. He clarified the relationship between crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and his publisher/partner, Erika Berger (Robin Wright); Zaillian also dumped an unnecessary — and eyebrow-rolling — affair that Blomkvist has with Cecilia Vanger (Geraldine James), once he begins his investigation for her uncle, Henrik (Christopher Plummer).

Unfortunately, by minimizing Cecilia’s involvement and compressing the rest of the extended Vanger family — we only meet them en masse once, during a fleeting scene in a hospital waiting room — Zaillian whittles down the likely suspects to ... well, very few. After all, we can hardly worry about people the script scarcely bothers to introduce.

Oplev and his scripters, Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, did a far better job with the various members of the arrogant Vanger clan, and therefore kept us guessing.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol — Fourth time's the charm

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense action and violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.21.11

Four films into this series, and we finally get a director/writing team willing to acknowledge the classic TV show’s longtime viewers, while still delivering the improbably ferocious, stunt-laden action that star/producer Tom Cruise loves so much.
Ethan (Tom Cruise, right) looks less than convinced when Benji (Simon Pegg)
insists that these spiffy high-tech climbing gloves will allow a man to crawl up
a sheer wall of glass ... particularly since the team's gadgets have been failing
to work at the most inopportune moments.

In fairness, 1996’s first entry is a solid thriller, although fans were enraged — and justifiably so — by the storyline’s deplorable treatment of Jon Voight’s Jim Phelps, so honorably played by Peter Graves in the TV series.

Installments two and three also had their moments, although their plots were muddy and Cruise’s Ethan Hunt dominated both to an eyebrow-raising degree. The frequently egomaniacal star apparently forgot the whole concept behind Bruce Geller’s original series — that every caper is a team effort — in a desire to showcase himself at all times. This is Mission: Impossible, not some lone-wolf Jason Bourne clone.

Happily, director Brad Bird and writers Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec understand the distinction. Both Appelbaum and Nemec served as writers and producers on television’s Alias, a series very much in the mold of Geller’s ensemble cast approach to Mission: Impossible, which nonetheless showcased a core star (Jennifer Garner).

Bird also has action-saga cred in his background, although in the quite different world of animation. The Incredibles is laden with subterfuge and spy-type capers, albeit with a superhero twist; perhaps the most impressive aspect of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is the apparent ease with which Bird has transitioned to live-action directing.

In a word, this puppy moves. Bird deftly orchestrates a well-paced blend of exposition, back story and pell-mell action sequences, each one choreographed with increasing snap by Academy Award-winning editor Paul Hirsch (for the first Star Wars, back in 1977).

Although this film’s most visually impressive — and impressively perilous — sequence is Cruise’s exterior climb of Dubai’s cloud-scraping Burj Khalifa, don’t assume that things will quiet down after this bit of cinematic legerdemain. Appelbaum, Nemec and stunt coordinator Gregg Smrz have one more audacious skirmish up their sleeves, wisely saved for the third act climax: a brutal, body-slamming melee in a setting that must be seen to be believed.

But all is not brawling and gravity-defying stunt work. The script also injects some welcome character drama, most of the angst courtesy of co-star Jeremy Renner: a welcome addition to the team.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows — Nothing elementary about this sequel!

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, and rather generously, for intense action and violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.16.11

Mention Sherlock Holmes, Prof. James Moriarty and Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls in the same breath, and even the most casual fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed consulting detective will have certain expectations.
With certain death via gunfire and even cannon fire hurrying their flight, Holmes
(Robert Downey Jr., center) and Watson (Jude Law) try to lead Simza (Noomi
Rapace) to the safety of a dense forest, as trees, shrubs and even rocks
explode around them.

Director Guy Ritchie delivers on those expectations, albeit in a roundabout, cheeky and visually exhilarating manner. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is much more audaciously stylized than its 2009 predecessor, which is to say it’s a throwback to the gleefully demented Ritchie who brought us 2000’s Snatch.

This outing with the analytical super-sleuth feels more like an unholy mash-up of Quentin Tarantino and classic Jackie Chan movies, with just enough vintage Holmes — I’m thinking Basil Rathbone’s era — to satisfy Baker Street Irregulars wanting to hear at least some of Doyle’s immortal prose.

Indeed, it’s difficult to repress a shiver of delight when, after Holmes’ unsatisfying face-to-face encounter with Moriarty (Jared Harris) — and the elliptical conversation it contains — the detective eyes his demonic counterpart and says, with the utmost solemnity Robert Downey Jr. can bring to bear, “If I were assured of the former, I would cheerfully accept the latter.”

And if that line doesn’t resonate, then hie thee hence to the nearest copy of Doyle’s “The Final Problem,” in order to best appreciate the phrase’s pregnant implications.

But that suspensefully charged meeting comes well into Ritchie’s film, by which point we’ve already had a great deal of fun.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows opens with an extended prologue that reunites Holmes (Downey) with the larcenous Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, also returning from the first film), the only woman whose intellect ever impressed the master detective. Adler has fallen in with ill-advised companions; one nasty skirmish later, Holmes possesses a bit more information regarding the criminal mastermind pulling the strings connected to a series of recent calamities.

London — indeed, the entire Western European continent — has been plagued with a series of bombings and other acts of sedition, reflexively blamed on vaguely defined “anarchists” supposedly hoping to topple governments. But Holmes suspects a more sinister plot behind these various attacks, and believes that everything can be traced to a brilliant mathematics professor whose reputation is so spotless that he counts the British prime minister among his closest confidants.

Absent physical evidence, Moriarty can’t be touched ... and, certain as he is, Holmes lacks proof.

Friday, December 9, 2011

New Year's Eve: Classic Hollywood froth

New Year's Eve (2011) • View trailer for New Year's Eve
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for fleeting profanity and some sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.9.11

New Year’s Eve is a lighthearted throwback to classic Hollywood ensemble dramas such as 1932’s Grand Hotel, with star-laden casts that played isolated clusters of characters involved with their own little dramas.
Trying to get a conventional cab on New Year's Eve is impossible, so when
Tess (Jessica Biel) suddenly must get to the hospital right now, lest she deliver
her baby on the sidewalk, husband Griffin (Seth Meyers) does the best he can,
and flags down a pedal-cab.

Additionally, New Year’s Eve is very much like last year’s Valentine’s Day, also directed by Garry Marshall and co-written by Katherine Fugate, who assumes solo scripting chores this time.

And, as was the case with Valentine’s Day, Marshall’s newest effort will be embraced as a fun date flick by folks with romantic souls, and loudly dissed by cinematic snobs who can’t get beyond the calculated pretense and contrived star turns.

A pox on the latter’s houses, and may they be alone on New Year’s Eve.

Sometimes a movie is just a movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Marshall knows how to craft slick Hollywood product, and Fugate deftly sketches a dozen or so mini-dramas, adding just enough backstory — in most cases — to involve us with each set of characters.

And we can’t help being impressed by a cast that includes three Oscar-winning best actors, a couple more Oscar nominees and several dozen familiar faces from both television and the big screen. A few are notorious scene-stealers, but Marshall maintains a steady hand and somehow grants everybody equal time.

That’s an impressive accomplishment with a cast this large, and a set of stories this diverse. Which only matters in an abstract sense, because our sole obligation with a film such as New Year’s Eve is to sit back and have a good time.

As the title suggests, the events take place during a single day in and around New York’s Times Square, as a massive cluster of humanity jams the streets in order to watch the big ball drop at the stroke of midnight. This year’s annual ceremony is being supervised by Claire (Hilary Swank), the newly promoted vice president of the Times Square Alliance.

She arrives early, with plenty of time to test the ball. Which — horrors! —gets stuck halfway up the massive pole, with only a few of its many lights flashing.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ho-ho-ho: The best Christmas movies of all time (plus some turkeys) — 2011 edition

By Derrick Bang

[Author's note: I first wrote this article for The Davis Enterprise in December 2005. When reviving it for this blog in late 2009, I was surprised by how little had changed. Indeed, the lists themselves remained constant; it was necessary only to mention a few more holiday duds which — although dreadful — weren't quite bad enough to make the turkey list. Nothing changed in 2010 either, but 2011 is a different story entirely. The only sad news: A new entry to the list of classics also means that one must be retired to the related selection of near misses. What follows, then, is the original article with minor introductory modifications and one major update.]

Next to Thanksgiving, Christmas remains the most popular time to gather friends and family members, surround yourself with food and enjoy a holiday-themed movie or two ... or three or six, depending on your level of commitment.

Far too often, though, the roster of movies for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day suffers from an acute lack of imagination. Everybody can rattle off It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and Home Alone, but where do we go from there?

While you'll find all three of those films cited below, I worked hard not to simply state the obvious.

To a degree, the challenge becomes harder every year, because — with a few exceptions — most of the best Christmas-themed films are decades and decades old. Many are in black-and-white, but try to be patient; I promise, the absence of color won't kill you. After all, story rules everything else; you might be surprised, halfway through one or more of these selections, that you're so wrapped up in the characters that you've completely forgotten about trivialities such as film stock.

In this article's first draft, I expressed the belief that one cannot truly judge a film's impact until it has been given a chance to stand the test of time. As a result, nothing on the "classics" list had been released more recently than 1993. I also wondered where our modern holiday classics-in-the-making were hiding, and worried that Hollywood had lost its ability to produce a poignant, well-made Christmas movie. My doubts were valid, given recent trash such as Surviving Christmas, Fred Claus and Four Christmases.

Happily, on this year's first day of Christmas — actually the waning days of November — my true loves in Tinseltown brought to me ... a bona fide, game-changing movie classic. No test of time necessary for this charmer. And so the list changed, for the first time in years.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Arthur Christmas: Plenty of Christmas spirit

Arthur Christmas (2011) • View trailer for Arthur Christmas
Five stars. Rating: PG, and quite pointlessly, for very mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang

My list of favorite holiday movies just got amended.

Arthur Christmas is a treasure: a heartfelt, joyous romp with plenty of action, hilariously snarky dialogue, dollops of poignance and oodles of yuletide spirit. Not to mention plenty of Christmas magic, all lovingly gift-wrapped and topped with the most perfect bow.
Arthur (right), terrified of heights, isn't wild about Grandsanta's risky plan to
use his old sleigh for a Christmas Eve "rescue mission" designed to bring an
overlooked present to a little girl who otherwise won't find a gift from Santa
beneath her Christmas tree. But Arthur also realizes that he has no other
options ... and, after all, he's the one who insists that every child should
waken to a share of holiday magic.

Indeed, yes: As Bryony — an Elf Wrapping Operative, Grade Three — repeatedly insists, there’s always time for a bow.

Director/co-writer Sarah Smith and fellow scribe Peter Baynham deserve the largest possible round of applause. Working from a question every child has asked for centuries — how does Santa deliver all those presents in one night? — Smith and Baynham have crafted a clever Christmas fantasy that explores every facet of Santa’s ingenious North Pole operation.

The story involves five well-crafted characters, not to mention a massive cast of supporting elves, flying reindeer and Gwen, a trusting little girl who lives at 23 Mimosa Lane in Trelew, Cornwall, England, whose Christmas morning is about to be ruined.

Like countless other children around the world, Gwen has sent a letter to Santa Claus: a missive laced with the usual impressionable curiosity and hope, along with a request for a pink bicycle. Her note — complete with crayoned illustration — is routed to a staff member in Santa’s massive Letters Department: the gangly, accident-prone, overly enthusiastic Arthur.

In the noble Kris Kringle lineage, poor Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy) is little more than a subordinate clause. Christmas has become an ultra-efficient, high-tech delivery operation, and Santa’s younger son has been designated a spare part. The boy is allergic to snow, and suffers from a fear of heights, reindeer and high-speed travel.

But he loves, loves, loves Christmas — every enchanting aspect of it — and his tiny office is a chaotic mess of snow globes, pictures of Santa, and Arthur’s favorite letters from children. Indeed, Arthur reads every single letter that comes to the North Pole, and answers each with an astute precision that preserves the child’s most crucial trait: belief.

Arthur is the ultimate Christmas fanboy, although his giddy enthusiasm prompts tolerant smiles from the hundreds of elves who certainly like the boy, but nonetheless make mildly condescending remarks behind his back.

Arthur’s older brother, Steve (Hugh Laurie), the hereditary heir to the Claus reign, has made the annual Christmas Eve operation a masterpiece of military precision. The centerpiece of this high-tech procedure is the S-1: a mile-wide sleighship with stealth cloaking technology and a veritable army of elves who descend in precision teams of three, taking no more than a carefully calculated 18.14 seconds per home.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Descendants: Doing the right thing

The Descendants (2011) • View trailer for The Descendants
4.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity and coarse sexual references
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.2.11

One of Janis Ian’s typically insightful songs, released on a 1978 album, is called “Silly Habits.” In part, it goes:

I used to say “I love you,”
But one day I forgot.
Silly habits mean a lot.
Matt (George Clooney) and his daughters — Alexandra (Shailene Woodley,
left) and Scottie (Amara Miller) — take one final, lingering look at the
unspoiled family land soon to be turned into a beach resort by the
highest bidder.

Some relationships explode in passion and fury; many simply fade away. Small, thoughtful gestures — spontaneous acts, so lovingly granted in the early days — fall victim to increasingly busy schedules or diverging interests. Impulsive cards, flowers or teddy bears. The promise to always have breakfast together. A book or new CD recently commented upon: not on a birthday or some other holiday, but just because.

We initially register these missed opportunities: pangs of guilt, mental promises to do better. Eventually, though, even the regret and intent get lost in the shuffle.

Then, one day — a day seemingly like any other — we look across the dining table and see a stranger. In that moment, the revelation strikes: True intimacy has been lost.

The Descendants opens as Matt King (George Clooney) has just such an epiphany. It’s a wake-up call; he suddenly, genuinely understands that business affairs have pulled him away from his wife and family. In his own words, he acknowledges being the “back-up parent” to their two daughters. He resolves to change course: correct the heading and do better.

He makes this promise as his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), lies in a hospital bed, submerged within a deep coma: the result of a boating accident.

Alexander Payne’s previous film, 2004’s warm, whimsical and bittersweet Sideways, probed and dissected friendship and courting rituals with the precision with which its protagonist extolled the similar complexities of his favorite wines. Payne and co-scripter Jim Taylor shared a well-deserved Academy Award for their effort; Payne also garnered a nomination as director.

Now, seven years later — apparently not one to be hurried — Payne has returned to the director’s chair for The Descendants. He shares scripting duties this time with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash; they have adapted the 2007 book by Hawaiian-born Kaui Hart Hemmings, who based this debut novel on her earlier short story, “The Minor Wars.”

The Hawaiian setting is as much a character as the fractured King family and their friends and relatives; Payne understands this, and many scenes — particularly many brittle exchanges of dialogue — are amplified or given counterpoint by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s lush vistas of (mostly) unspoiled Hawaiian land.

This land actually is a significant plot point. Matt’s missionary ancestors who came to the islands were financially and culturally progressive; one even married a Hawaiian princess, making Matt a royal descendant and one of the state’s largest landowners. Indeed, stewardship of this property, along with the responsibilities of his own legal profession, bear the blame for his absentee husbanding and parenting duties.