February 22, 2012

ARE WE DOING THE RIGHT THING?: Wesley Deeds (Tyler Perry, left), the successful CEO of Deeds Corporation, is having second thoughts about going through with his impending marriage to Natalie (Gabrielle Union), who is a successful realtor. Wesley finds Natlie to be a shallow person, and she thinks that he is boring and predictable. To add to the tension, Wesley finds himself attracted to a homeless war widow who has a young daughter.

Wesley Deeds (Tyler Perry) seems to have it all. He is the CEO of the Deeds Corporation — a thriving computer software company — and is about to marry a successful, if shallow, San Francisco realtor Natalie (Gabrielle Union). Wesley was chosen to be the CEO by his mother (Phylicia Rashad), who picked him over his hot-headed brother Walter, (Brian White), to replace their late father, the former CEO of the Company.

However, it seems that Wesley has spent most of his life trying to satisfy his domineering mother, and it looks like he might be getting married more to please her than himself. Even Natalie finds Wesley to be boring and predictable, despite his being a great catch.

Then, as the couple is putting the final touches on their elaborate wedding plans, an unlikely other woman, Lindsey Wakefield (Thandie Newton) — who is a single mother living in a car with her 6-year-old daughter, Ariel (Jordenn Thompson) — enters the picture.

Lindsey’s world crashed around her after her husband was killed in Iraq. She was forced to drop out of nursing school and was able to find a job as the night janitor in Wesley’s office building.

The gruff woman initially rubs Wesley the wrong way. She is definitely not the class of women that he is accustomed to meeting.

However, the tension between the two starts to dissolve the night she offers to give him a back massage while he’s burning the midnight oil at work. And upon hearing all the details of her pitiful plight, Wesley altruistically offers Lindsey and Ariel an apartment to live in indefinitely.

Will Wesley develop deeper feelings for Natalie? If so, will he be able to summon up the courage to break off his engagement and defy his mother?

That difficult dilemma is the center of the plot of Good Deeds, the latest morality play written, directed, and starring Tyler Perry. Avoiding his usual staples of comic relief, courtesy of Madea and clownish support characters, Perry presents this soap opera in a straightforward fashion.

As a result, the plot is not only perfectly plausible, but remains refreshingly grounded in reality from start to finish. The veteran lead actors, Tyler Perry, Thandie Newton, and Gabrielle Union generate a convincing chemistry that will keep you interested right up to the surprising resolution of the love triangle.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, violence, profanity, and mature themes. Running time: 129 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

February 15, 2012

HOW DID THOSE GUYS KNOW WHERE WE WERE?: Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington, left) and Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) barely manage to escape alive from the CIA safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. Now they must figure out who compromised the location and bring the guilty parties to justice.

Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) is a veteran CIA agent who has been on the run for close to 10 years after he was suspected of selling military secrets to America’s enemies. However, Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a newcomer to the agency who’s been itching for some action. Unfortunately, he’s stationed in South Africa where he’s been assigned to maintain a backwater safe house that’s never been needed for a clandestine operation.

Until now. The two meet soon after Frost decides to come in from the cold in Cape Town because an army of assassins is closing in on him. The renegade spy surrenders himself at the U.S. Consulate, which in turn is directed by the CIA brass to deposit Frost in the safe houuse with Weston for debriefing.

However, all hell breaks loose right after the team of interrogators arrives, and the safe house unexpectedly comes under attack by a gang of mercenaries. Frost and West barely escape with their lives out the back door while the rest of the CIA agents perish during the siege. With no idea why the supposedly secure location had been compromised or whether there’s anybody whose word they can trust, the rookie and the rogue realize that their survival depends on their mutual cooperation.

That is the intriguing point of departure of Safe House, a riveting espionage thriller with non-stop action. The film is best described as a combination of The Bourne Identity (2002) and Taken (2008), with the former’s “spy on the run desperate to clear his name” theme and the latter’s wanton slaughter and sense of urgency.

The movie is the English language debut of Swedish director Daniel Espinosa, who has obtained a great performance from Denzel Washington. In addition, he has also allowed Ryan Reynolds to show that he is a capable actor.

The co-stars not only acquit themselves well in the fight sequences, but the chemistry that develops between them enables the audience to forgive the periodic holes in the picture’s plot. They are helped by powerful support performances from Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, Brendan Gleeson, and Ruben Blades.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity and graphic violence. In English, Afrikaans, and Spanish, with subtitles. Running time: 115 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

February 8, 2012

WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THAT?: In the process of exploring a mysterious cave that suddenly appeared in Steve’s (Michael B. Jordan, center) backyard, Steve, Matt (Alex Russell, left), and Andrew (Dane DeHaan), encounter a mysterious object glowing in the cave. At this point the three boys pass out and when they awake, they realize that they have been magically imbued with super powers.

Andrew (Dane DeHaan) bought a camera so he could videotape every waking moment of his day. The proverbial 98-pound weakling is routinely teased by bullies, but fortunately his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell) frequently intervenes on his behalf. The situation at home is just as bad because he is the butt of his disabled father’s (Michael Kelly) verbal abuse while he is watching his terminally-ill mother (Bo Peterson) slowly die.

Everything changes the evening Matt invites his cousin to attend a party with him. Once there, Andrew is asked by a classmate Steve (Michael B. Jordan), to bring his camera outside to film a strange hole he’s found in the woods. The three proceed to descend deep into a cave where they encounter a mysteriously glowing object and instantly pass out.

Fast forward a few weeks where we find that all three teens have been magically transformed — they have developed psychic powers, superhuman strength, and the ability to fly. Initially, they use their newfound powers by doing some sophomoric pranks such as telepathically moving a parked car to a different spot on a lot, or scaring a child in a toy store by levitating a teddy bear.

Matt and Steve are satisfied with such benign experiments, however, social outcast Andrew sees this as his opportunity to turn the tables on the cruel world that has treated him so badly. After running an annoying tailgater’s car into a ditch with the wave of his hand, he ignores his buddies’ pressure to employ his powers only for good things. Instead, he indulges his darker impulses, while Matt and Steve become increasingly worried about him.

That is the premise of Chronicle, a riveting, science fiction thriller marking the directorial debut of Josh Trank. Given that this is a “found-footage” film, it makes sense that much of the dizzying production would have been shot from the perspective of a shaky, hand-held camera. However, the movie measures up well against movies such as Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project.

Surprisingly sophisticated for a teen-oriented adventure, Chronicle’s script has intellectual asides about the philosophies of Plato, Jung, and Schopenhauer. My only complaint about the film is the pessimistic picture it paints of humanity, implying that we might be naturally more inclined towards malice than compassion.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for profanity, mature themes, sexuality, teen drinking, and intense violence. Running time: 83 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

February 1, 2012

THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS: When George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, left) was at the top of his cinematic career as a silent film star, he chose to ignore the ugly rumors about Peppy Miller (Berenice Bijo) that were being printed in the tabloids, and hired her to co-star with him as his dance partner. That role served as the beginning of her career as a movie star in the new talking movies, while George quickly became forgotten by the fickle public because he couldn’t make the transformation to the talkies.

It is 1927, and George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the height of his career as a matinee idol. But that is also the year that talkies were introduced, an innovation which signaled the demise of the silent movie era.

Unfortunately, because George doesn’t realize that the talkies are about to transform the movie industry, he is caught by surprise when he is no longer in demand as a leading man. Then, with the loss of income and the stock market crash of 1929, he ends up losing all of his money and also his wife (Penelope Ann Miller).

After moving from a sprawling mansion to a modest apartment, George lays off his longtime chauffeur (James Cromwell), whom he can no longer afford. At this point, the dejected has-been feels like his only friend in the world is his Jack Russell Terrier (Uggie).

Meanwhile, the career of emerging ingénue Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) is in sharp contrast to George’s. However, she owes a debt of gratitude to George because, despite an ugly rumor printed in the tabloids, George had still cast her as his dance partner in one of his pictures even she was an unknown aspiring actress.

Although sparks had flown between the two on the set back then, nothing had become of the mutual admiration. However, now, with Peppy on top of the world, the question is whether she will remember George, who had given her her big break.

So unfolds The Artist, a silent, black & white film which celebrates a bygone era. This cinematic masterpiece is entertaining as it chronicles a critical moment in the evolution of the cinematic art form.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for a crude gesture and a disturbing image. Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

January 25, 2012

HURRY UP AND WAIT: The Tuskegee airmen were trained as fighter pilots in 1940, but were relegated to an isolated base at the Tuskegee Institute because the armed forces were racially segregated at that time. Even when the United States entered the second world war, it took several years until they were allowed to enter into combat. Their competence, bravery and valor in over 1500 missions showed that they were as good, if not better, than other units in the armed forces, and helped eliminate racial discrimination in the U.S. military forces.

The Tuskegee airmen is the nickname given to the 332nd Fighter Group, the first squadron of African-American aviators ever trained by the U.S. Air Force. Formed in 1940, the historic unit was stationed at a base on the campus of the Tuskegee Institute in Macon County, Alabama because the armed forces were still racially segregated.

After America entered World War II, the government was still reluctant to deploy these pioneering pilots overseas, out of a concern that the presence of black officers in the midst of white soldiers might have a negative effect on military morale. Consequently, the Tuskegee airmen languished stateside for several years, seeing no action until they were finally cleared for combat in the European theater of operations.

Upon arriving in Italy, their second rate airplanes were upgraded to state-of-the-art P-51 Mustang fighter planes, which they flew to escort B-17 bombers on dangerous raids deep into Germany. The untested pilots performed admirably on over 1,500 successful missions and demonstrated their competence and valor.

Red Tails is an eye-popping special effects movie which portrays these unappreciated veterans’ daring exploits in the war, while simultaneously chronicling their uncompromising quest for dignity in the face of the ever present humiliation of discrimination. The movie marks the feature film debut of Anthony Hemingway, who is previously best known for having shot episodes of several TV series, including The Wire, True Blood, Treme, The Closer, and CSI:NY.

The picture was produced by Lucasfilm where it has been a pet project of the studio’s founder, George Lucas, for the past quarter-century. It features an ensemble cast headed by Academy Award-winner Cuba Gooding and Oscar-nominee Terrence Howard.

Aside from raising the question of the arbitrary color line, the plot reads like a typical war movie, with its typical tight knit crew of colorful characters. Each is a simplistic archetype, like the ill fated pilot you know isn’t long for this world the moment he’s shown sitting in his cockpit gazing fondly at a picture of his fiancée right before he takes off.

Another familiar figure is the cigar chomping major (Gooding), a paternalistic pontificator who delivers inspirational speeches about God, mom and apple pie. He cares about each of the men under his command, including alcoholic “Easy” Julian (Parker); daredevil “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo); class clown “Joker” George (Elijah Kelley); and “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds), a youngster who yearns to be taken seriously by his teasing colleagues.

Meanwhile, at the Pentagon, we find Colonel A.J. Bullard (Howard) tirelessly lobbying the military brass to put an end to racial discrimination against the Tuskegee airmen. In the end, the film is more memorable for its spectacular action sequences than for the corny dialogue which ranges from “We’re on the side of God Almighty!” to trite declarations such as “Let’s give those newspapers something to write about!”

Nonetheless, Red Tails is a long overdue tribute to a group of intrepid World War II heroes who never let their second-class status diminish their patriotism.

Very Good (HHH). Rated PG-13 for violence and profanity. Running time: 125 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

January 18, 2012

When the Sacred Divinity Church’s choir director Bernard Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson) passes away unexpectedly, Pastor Dale (Courtney B. Vance) finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. Should he move the late deacon’s assistant, Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah) into the vacant position, or give it to the late director’s grieving widow, G.G. (Dolly Parton)?

After agonizing over the decision, the reverend settles on Vi Rose Hill, thereby potentially risking the survival of the church, since the well-to-do Sparrow family is the church’s major benefactor. By comparison, life’s a struggle for Vi Rose and most of the other citizens of Pacashau, Georgia.

As a consequence of the economic recession, the once thriving town has become a decaying metropolis complete with foreclosure signs, a soup kitchen packed with homeless people, and a business district that is dotted with vacant storefronts.

G.G.’s grudging ratification of the promotion of Vi Rose has answered the prayers of Pastor Dale who desperately wants to avoid creating a rift in his congregation. He hopes that with Vi Rose, the choir will have a chance to place first at the upcoming National Gospel Competition. This would bring a measure of pride to the church and the town of Pacashau.

That unlikely event is the essence of the plot of Joyful Noise, a modern morality play with musical numbers. The soulful singing performances are the film’s forte, such as Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson’s heartfelt duet of “From Here to the Moon and Back,” Keke Palmer and Jeremy Jordan’s interpretation of “Maybe I’m Amazed,” and Ivan Kelley, Jr.’s spirited rendition of “That’s the Way God Planned It.”

At the point of departure, we see that Vi Rose has her hands full. She is leading the choir and raising two teenagers alone because her husband (Jesse L. Martin) has joined the military because he couldn’t find a local job. Their son, Walter (Dexter Darden), needs help handling his Asperger’s syndrome, and their daughter, Olivia  (Palmer), has a thug for a boyfriend (Paul Woolfolk).

Everything changes the day G.G.’s grandson Randy (Jordan) unexpectedly comes home from New York City. Although a little rough around the edges, the misunderstood young man is just the answer for everybody’s problems.

First, he falls in love with Olivia at first sight and then he becomes a surrogate big brother to Walter. When he joins the choir it’s only a matter of time before he mends the fences between Vi Rose and G.G., as they are on the road to the finals at the Joyful Noise contest in Los Angeles.

Very Good (**½). Rated PG-13 for profanity and a sexual reference. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

January 9, 2012

MADAM PRIME MINISTER: Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) is shown here as the prime minister of Great Britain. She shepherded her country through several tempestuous periods during her tenure, namely the troubles with the Irish Republican Army and the Falkland Islands war. (Photo by Alex Bailey

Over the course of her career, Meryl Streep has landed more academy award nominations (16 and counting) than any other actor. Blessed with a great emotional range and a knack for foreign accents and regional dialects, the versatile actress has repeatedly demonstrated her uncanny ability to disappear into whatever role she’s been asked to play.

Such is the case with The Iron Lady, a comprehensive biopic about Margaret Thatcher, who served as the prime minister of Great Britain from 1979 to 1990. The movie was directed by Phyllida Lloyd who has collaborated with Streep on Mamma Mia! in 2008.

Ms. Streep will undoubtedly receive another Oscar nomination for her spot-on impersonation of Margaret Thatcher’s persona, such as her pursed lips, steely demeanor, and haughty tone of voice. She further rises to the challenge of capturing Ms. Thatcher’s descent into dementia.

Unfortunately, Streep’s sterling performance has been squandered by an overambitious screenplay by Abi Morgan which bites off more than it can chew in a less than two hour film. As a result, the movie fails to do justice to the touchstones in Thatcher’s life and career, and teases the audience with allusions instead of presenting the material in depth.

Presented as a series of flashbacks, the movie superficially presents events such as Thatcher’s coming of age during World War II, her college days at Oxford, her marriage to Denis Thatcher (Jim Broadbent), their starting a family together, her developing a feminist consciousness, and her entrance into politics. The bulk of the film’s focus is devoted to her tempestuous tenure at Number 10 Downing Street, a period marked by both domestic and international unrest such as the troubles with the Irish Republican Army and the war in the Falkland Islands.

Overall, this empathetic portrait paints the prime minister as a headstrong conservative who was dedicated to her family and to her country. But by the film’s end, we really haven’t learned much more about Margaret Thatcher beyond her enduring love for her devoted husband who predeceased her.

An underwhelming production that is singlehandedly elevated by Meryl Streep’s tour de force performance.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for violent images and brief nudity. Running time: 105 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

January 4, 2012

WHY DIDN’T I JUST TAKE THE ELEVATOR: Crack undercover agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is the human fly who is scaling a skyscraper in Dubai, as part of his assignment to recover the activation codes for Russia’s nuclear device. To find out if his team succeeds in their quest, see the movie.

Cruise and Company Go Undercover in Dangerous Assignment

Before he could intercept a courier carrying the activation codes for Russia’s nuclear devices, an American spy (Josh Hollaway) was slain in Budapest, Hungary by a blonde assassin (Lea Seydoux). She was working on behalf of Cobalt (Michael Nyst), a person of interest whose identity can only be determined by infiltrating top secret files that are located inside the Kremlin.

That dangerous assignment is accepted by the latest crack IMF team assembled by Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), with the usual understanding that the secretary will disavow any knowledge of its existence if they are killed or captured. So, when Cobalt blows up the Kremlin during the operation and America is accused of the bombing, the president of the United States has no choice but to issue a Ghost Protocol declaring them as rogue agents.

This means that Hunt and his crew have been blamed for the attack, and the only way they can clear their names is by tracking down the real culprit and retrieving the codes before he can trigger a weapon of mass destruction. That, in a nutshell, is the plot of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, the fourth and arguably the best movie in the international espionage series.

Directed by Brad Bird (Ratatouille), the picture ups the ante in terms of state-of-the-art gadgetry and eye-popping feats on land, sea, and air. Besides the scenes of action that unfold against breathtaking backdrops of such exotic locales as Moscow, Dubai, and Mumbai, the production also has a plot compelling enough to hold your attention throughout the film.

Tom Cruise is in top form, displaying a sophisticated savoir faire instead of the easy boyish charm that’s served him so well in the past. His talented supporting cast includes Simon Pegg who offers comic relief as Benji Dunn, Hunt’s bumbling new sidekick. Joining them are Paula Patton as the sultry agent Jane Carter, and Jeremy Renner as William Brandt, an IMF bureaucrat pressed back into field duty by unusual circumstances.

Michelle Monaghan and Ving Rhames reprise their roles as Hunt’s wife, Julia, and his best friend, Luther, respectively, but only in short cameo appearances.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence and intense action sequences. Running time: 132 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

December 27, 2011
Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

NO COMMENT: As he is exiting the courtroom, Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig, center) is besieged by reporters seeking a statement from him about the trial in which he lost the libel case against a powerful billionaire Ulf Friberg.

Fincher Makes First-Rate Adaptation of Swedish Mystery Novel

Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig) resigns in disgrace from his position as the editor of Millennium Magazine after being unable to substantiate in court the allegations he’d made about a corrupt billionaire (Ulf Friberg). Fortuitously, the disgraced journalist is secretly approached by an intermediary representing recently retired industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) who wants Mikael to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his beloved niece, Harriet (Moa Garpendal), in 1966.

Mikael accepts the offer in order to escape the media circus surrounding him in Stockholm because the investigation of the case will be based at the family’s secluded estate where the niece had disappeared. An additional incentive is Henrik’s promise to provide the proof necessary to overturn Mikael’s libel conviction.

So he moves up to the remote island of Hedestad in northern Sweden and starts sifting through boxes of 40-year-old evidence. After unearthing an array of sordid skeletons in the Vanger family closet ranging from anti-Semitism to sadomasochism, he realizes that he needs help, and takes Henrik’s suggestion that he collaborate with Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), an eccentric and brilliant computer expert.

Mikael is willing to overlook the young hacker’s tattoos, piercings, and hairstyle because her computer skills complement Henrik’s interviews of surviving witnesses. However, as they close in on solving the mystery they find that both of their lives are threatened.

So unfolds The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a remake of the Swedish language movie of the same name that was released in 2009. Directed by David Fincher (The Social Network) the English version is actually a rarity because it is an improvement over the original film.

Both movies are based on the first book of the trilogy of novels by the late Stieg Larsson, and Sony Pictures has already committed to adapting the other two books to the screen. In the movie reviewed here, Rooney Mara is riveting as Lisbeth and Daniel Craig disappears into his role as Mikael so well that you forget that he has portrayed James Bond in the past.

Excellent (****). Rated R for rape, torture, brutal violence, profanity, nudity, and graphic sexuality. Running time: 158 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

December 20, 2011
Sherlock Holmes 2

WATSON, HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME?: An unhappy looking Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr., left) is witnessing the marriage of his faithful companion Dr. Watson (Jude Law, center) marry his bride Mary (Kelly Reilly). Little does Holmes know that soon he and Watson will be on a trans-European escapade trying to foil the evil plot of the nefarious Professor Moriarty (not shown).

Holmes and Moriarty Match Wits in Action Packed Sequel

Guy Ritchie has once again created an interpretation of Sherlock Holmes that will undoubtedly have Sir Arthur Conan Doyle purists squirming in their seats. Nonetheless, the movie is a cinematic treat that is both cerebral and visually captivating.

Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law reprise their roles as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, respectively, and Jared Harris is the pair’s diabolical archenemy, the evil Professor James Moriarty.

At the point of departure we find Holmes throwing a bachelor party for Watson who will be getting married to Mary (Kelly Reilly) the next morning. However, after the wedding, the newlyweds’ travel plans go awry due to a series of errors that result in the bride being unceremoniously thrown off the train. As a result, Watson and Holmes find themselves sharing the honeymoon suite aboard the Trans Europe Express.

It’s just as well, because Holmes has been the only detective who is able to connect the dots among a series of recent murders of, among others, an Indian cotton tycoon, a Chinese opium trader, and an American steel magnate, as well as some suspicious bombings in Strasbourg and Vienna. Holmes has figured out that it must be the work of his archenemy Moriarty, and that the maniacal madman is trying to create an international incident.

From this point on, a frenetically paced cat-and-mouse mystery unfolds in which the protagonists chase the professor through France, Germany, and Switzerland. Along the way, they are assisted by Holmes’ brother (Stephen Fry) and a gypsy fortune teller (Noomi Rapace), who has a proverbial heart of gold.

Prepare yourself for the stylized high impact fare for which director Ritchie is best known. Aside from the bravado and over-the-top derring-do, the movie also has intellectual interludes during which Sherlock and his Moriarty match wits.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for drug use and intense violence. In English and French with subtitles. Running time: 129 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

December 15, 2011
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

PLAYING A DEADLY CHESS GAME: George Smiley (Gary Oldman) has been assigned the task of ferreting out the Soviet double agent who has infiltrated the highest echelon of Britain’s famed MI6 agency. To make the job even more difficult, he must work alone in order to avoid tipping off the mole.

Dateline: Budapest, 1973. It is the height of the Cold War, and British spy Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) has been sent behind the Iron Curtain on a covert anti-Communist mission. But when the operation is badly botched and blood is shed, there are consequences back in London at MI6 headquarters where both the head of the organization (John Hurt) and his right-hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), are forced to resign in disgrace.

However, it isn’t very long before Smiley is secretly rehired by Undersecretary Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), the member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet responsible for overseeing the intelligence agency. It seems that there is good reason to believe that a Soviet mole has infiltrated the “Circus,” the government’s name for MI6’s highest echelon. As it turns out, Prideaux was in Hungary in search of the double agent whose identity has been narrowed down to four suspects referred to by their codenames Tinker (Toby Jones), Tailor (Colin Firth), Soldier (Ciaran Hinds), and Poor Man (David Dencik).

It falls to the wily Smiley to match wits with a savvy and inscrutable adversary. What makes the task particularly perilous is that Smiley dare not risk suspicion by confiding in any of his contacts inside MI6. Instead, as a lone wolf, he must rely on a combination of experience and his finely-tuned personal radar to ensnare his elusive prey.

Is the traitor the ambitious Percy Alleline (Tinker), the unflappable Bill Haydon (Tailor), the rough-edged Roy Bland (Soldier), or the officious Toby Esterhase (Poor Man)? The result is a spellbinding espionage thriller.

It should be no surprise that the multi-layered mystery is so intriguing, because it’s based on the bestseller that many fans of the genre consider to be the best spy novel of all time. Author David John Moore Cornwell, aka John Le Carré, who wrote under a pseudonym as required by MI6 of its former agents, appears in a cameo in the picture as a guest at a Christmas party.

This adaptation is considerably denser compared to the miniseries the BBC shot in 1979 that starred Sir Alec Guinness. Director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) has distilled the 400-page opus down to its essential elements while remaining faithful to the source material.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, profanity, sexuality, and nudity. Running Time: 127 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.

December 1, 2011
Movie Review: "The Descendants"

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER: Matt King (George Clooney, center) has finally realized how much he has neglected his two daughters Alex (Shallene Woodley, left) and Scottie (Amara King) and has promised not to let it happen again.

Attorney Matt King (George Clooney) can trace his lineage back to the 19th century marriage of the last Hawaiian monarch to a European missionary. Today, as the family patriarch, he’s very busy managing 25,000 acres of prime real estate on behalf of his extended clan.

Sadly, he has neglected his wife, Liz (Patricia Hastie), and they have drifted so far apart that he’s unaware that she is having an affair virtually right under his nose. Her partner is the local realtor (Matthew Lillard) who stands to make a fortune in commissions if Matt follows through with his tentative plans to sell all the property in the trust to a developer.

Unfortunately, Matt has also grown distant from his two daughters. Ten-year-old Scottie (Amara King) has no qualms about disrespecting her father, and her teenage sister, Alex (Shailene Woodley), is using drugs and dating boys who are a lot older than herself.

Everything changes when Liz is left in a coma after a boating accident. Shaken out of the doldrums by the tragedy, Matt vows to be a better husband and father. But when the doctor’s dire diagnosis indicates that Liz is unlikely to emerge from a vegetative state, the best he can do is to try to repair his relationship with his daughters.

This is the point of departure of The Descendants, a drama based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ debut novel of the same name. Directed and adapted to the big screen by Oscar-winner Alexander Payne (for Sideways), the film stars George Clooney as a parent filled with overwhelming regret.

Unfortunately, Clooney fails to demonstrate the requisite gravitas to convince you that his character Matt has been deeply affected by his wife’s imminent demise or that his decision to spend quality time with his childrens is heartfelt. The problem is that, as narrator, he often merely informs the audience of his feelings via voiceover, as opposed to portraying the emotions with his facial expressions and acting.

However, even if Clooney is the picture’s weak link, the rest of the cast turns in such splendid performances that they make up for his shortcomings. As an additional bonus, the movie unfolds against the visually captivating backdrop of Hawaii’s island of Kauai.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity and sexual references. Running time: 115 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight