Tag Archives: The Descendants

Review // The Descendants (2012)

8 Feb

Fans of director Alexander Payne have been a patient bunch. His last film, the critically acclaimed, wonderfully warm and witty Sideways, was released eight years ago. Since then it’s been a long wait for the follow-up but The Descendants lives up to every expectation you could hope for in a Payne film.

Hawaiian lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) is struggling to cope with the responsibility of looking after his two daughters Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) when his wife is left in a coma after being in a boating accident. It’s not long before Matt learns that his wife will die, and the pressure of trying to secure a land deal and the revelation that his wife was having an affair helps to bring the family together in unexpected ways.

With the exception of Election, none of Payne’s films are laugh-a-minute comedy romps and the shadow of death and grief hangs heavily over The Descendants, perhaps even more so than the bittersweet About Schmidt. However, despite the heavy subjects lying at the core of the film, the events and excellent screenplay often lighten the mood and bring witty relief. Even Payne’s direction lends an airy tone to much of the film – quick, quirky close-ups of building projects and some occasionally inventive editing lighten the mood, while long, languid shots of the Hawaiian landscape help you appreciate and ponder upon the beauty and urbanisation of the four islands, helping the audience to interact more with Matt’s involvement in the land deal. Even the traditional music helps to connect with this exotic and still mysterious place, helping to make the landscape a leading character in the movie.

In terms of characterisation, George Clooney’s star quality could have detracted from the sympathy the audience needs to feel for Matt, but the layers of his real-life persona seem to be stripped away and replaced by someone entirely believable. Clooney’s performance is pitch-perfect and he moves comfortably from try-hard dad to grief-stricken husband. His comic timing is also better than ever: his comedy credentials have been proved previously, most notably in Coen Brothers movies like Oh Brother Where Art Thou and Burn After Reading, but here he turns everyday, sometimes throwaway comments into quietly humorous remarks. That said, despite Clooney’s presence and dominance over the film, the supporting roles are also excellently acted. Amara Miller as Scottie and Nick Krause as Alexandra’s best friend Sid provide the extra comic relief: they are often handed hilarious gems and the exchanges between Clooney and Krause provide some of the best scenes in the film.

Some critics, however, say that the film is ingrained with subtle misogyny, that Matt is a man suffering because of women. Of course, some of this feeling comes from Payne himself. All of his movies to a greater or lesser extent feature women who complicate the lives of the men around them, from the devilish Tracy Flick in Election to Schmidt’s estranged wife in About Schmidt. But it has to be pointed out that although Matt seems to resent his wife at some points, he also comes to terms with his own failings during the course of the film. In a way, his dying wife isn’t what causes chaos in this film, unlike other Payne works, but instead manages to restore harmony without even knowing it.

The Descendants is a darker prospect than Sideways, but still maintains an uplifting feel through the entire length. It is a humorous bit often touching examination of what it means to be a family, whether it be the immediate or the ancestors, and the connection people can make with each other and the past in difficult circumstances. It may have been a long wait since Payne’s last film, but this beautifully crafted tale more than makes up for the absence.

This post was originally written by me for FreedomSpark

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Classicism: The By-Word For the 2012 Oscars

25 Jan

Watching the nominations for the 2012 Academy Awards yesterday, it dawned on me that there’s a very distinct theme running through this year’s nominees. I thought of a decent (though perhaps not 100% accurate word if you’re gonna get really technical!) word to sum this up: classicism.

Let’s take the nominees for Best Picture first. Now, let’s look at what must be the front-runners for this prize. Since 1980, every winner of Best Picture has gained at least a nomination in the Best Editing category too – lending weight to my constant argument that the editing of a film is perhaps one of the most important aspects of making a good movie. So using this formula we can whittle it down to The Artist, The Descendants, Hugo and Moneyball. In true Rolf Harris style: can you guess what it is yet? Hugo is, give or take, about George Melies and the birth of cinema, while The Artist centres on the trials of an actor at the birth of sound in cinema. The Descendants is in a long line of famiy-based dramas, while Moneyball is a sports film (which are, if you look at nominations from past years, pretty popular with old Oscar).

The Best Actor category is perhaps the best for showing what I’m trying to point out here: if we exclude Demian Bichir in A Separation (of which I’m very happy – a foreign film being nominated in something other than the Best Foreign Film category! Huzzah!), then we’re left with Jean Dujardin in The Artist, George Clooney in The Descendants, Brad Pitt in Moneyball and Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Dujardin seems like the odd one out here – but he does play a classic actor (albeit fictional, but the sentiment is still there). Clooney, Pitt and Oldman all seem either to be classic actors and distinguished and towing that line between “serious” acting and superstardom, much like bygone days.

Oscar Trio: Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in Moneyball

So really, doesn’t old Oscar seem like he’s picking old-timey production values and star quality this year? There are probably two contributing factors to this: firstly, the fact that the 2011 Oscars were dominated, at least in the major categories, by The King’s Speech – i.e. America and Hollywood was defeated somewhat by Britain (at least on paper: if we look at the funding and all that, America contributed more to the success of The King’s Speech than you’d imagine). Secondly, the unconventional contest between Avatar and The Hurt Locker in 2010 brought the increasingly technological nature of Hollywood cinema to the fore: if Avatar had won, it would have meant that Oscar acknowledged big bucks and flashy CGI over general filmic integrity. Oddly though, I agreed when people suggested that using motion capture is still acting – but there’s still good acting and bad acting, whether you do it in a bobbly suit or not.

Few of the nominations in the Best Picture category this year can be said to be making big bucks, or indeed that loads of money was spent on them – Moneyball and The Descendants are what I’d like to call ‘indie-Clooney’ and ‘indie-Pitt’ (which they do much better in than your standard commercial fare) and so far The Artist has made less than a million at the Box Office. Yep, seriously. People have even demanded their money back because it’s silent. Yep, really. Despite all that publicity. The directors acknowledged this year are also mostly of the 70s old-guard or are very much in step with that movement – so we have Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick and Steven Spielberg (sort of) nominated. Maybe they’ve all perfected their art.

So perhaps we can say that Oscar is acknowledging three things: that big money doesn’t necessarily make a good movie, that artistic merit is best, and that artistic merit is even greater when it’s American. This return to a sense of classicism might seem a bit mean of Oscar in a technological age, but there are more truly great movies nomiated this year than in previous – so a classic feel might just bump up the excitement about who’s going to win on the night.

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