Lipstikka (Jonathan Segall)
An absurd late-breaking plot twist undoes the largely credible relationship drama Lipstikka. Spanning a decade or two, the film examines the mostly unrequited relationship between two Palestinian women who relocate to the United Kingdom. There’s an odd distance between them when they meet in the present day, and director Segall uses flashbacks to fill in the gaps. The pivotal moment here occurs back in Israel, when the two have an unfortunate encounter with some Israeli soldiers, lending the film some political power that it can’t quite seem to focus into anything productive. Back in the present, their mindgames make for trashy fun. The two lead performances play well against each other and the director is unafraid to indulge in his salacious instincts. Still, the script can’t resist fucking things up. A final revelation about one of the women renders all of the interactions that have come before totally incoherent and leaves the viewer with unsatisfactory questions that distract from the emotional core of the film.
The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
Heartfelt to a fault, Payne’s latest sees him largely dropping the satiric edge of his earlier work and working in a much more conventional tone. The question of “what’s really important in life” is central here, and Payne’s answers are all clichés. The plot, involving a workaholic’s recentering brought about by his wife’s impending death, begs for an airing of resentment and pain that has built up, but what we get is considerably kinder and gentler than one would expect. It is telling here that the best scene of the movie, in which a black sheep daughter learns of her mother’s inevitable decline, is probably the film’s rawest (Shailene Woodley is the lone performance of note here). Payne resists anything remotely biting, which is odd, given that an early scene involving a forced apology among children suggests a comedy of manners about behaving nicely under terrible circumstances. There’s the rare line here that suggests a movie with something to say about the rage that must surely be felt in this situation (e.g. “You were putting lipstick on a corpse!”), but trite homilies win the day. A subplot involving the future of a patch of unconverted Hawaiian beachfront property offers plenty of opportunities for Payne to pander with so-called hard-won wisdom. A braver movie would be far more direct and less willing to comfort us with lessons learned from sitcoms.