The Descendants

This review was originally written for French Toast Sunday, as part of my USA Road Trip series.

When his wife suffers a boating accident and is thrown into a coma, wealthy land-owner Matt King (George Clooney) finds himself having to deal not only with his wife’s tragedy, but also their two daughters, an important land deal and some revelations about his wife’s life. Continue reading

Top 10… Active Directors

I recently appeared on episode #164 of the Lambcast, along with Nick from the Cinematic Katzenjammer, Pat from 100 Years of Movies and Kristen from Journeys in Classic Film. Our chosen topic of discussion was our top five active directors, and provoked some interesting thoughts including why none of us like Terrence Malick. I recommend listening to the episode, if only to hear us ruthlessly mock Nick for his first-time presenting skills, but the show also inspired me to expand upon my list for this week’s Top 10.

So today, here is my list of Top 10 Active Directors. My choices are generally based on two things: the director’s recent body of work, and their upcoming work or last film(s). This prevented me from putting, say, Steven Spielberg as no. 1 purely on the basis of Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan, because technically he is still working today, but in my opinion he peaked a good few years ago

Honourable mentions:

Fincher

This is a list for which there could potentially be dozens of honourable mentions, but I’ve managed to narrow it down to just a few. First up is David Fincher, who has yet to make a film I haven’t at least liked, if not really loved. The reason he hasn’t placed higher is that although I’m always eager to see his films, I’ve never actually made it into the cinemas to see them, and I’ve had the DVD of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo sat on my bookshelf for almost 6 months and still haven’t watched it. There’s no real reason for this other than finding the time to watch it with my girlfriend not around – there could be more rape scenes than she’d enjoy – but I feel my lack of excitement excludes him from the list. Next is Joss Whedon, whose Avengers Assemble was every bit as awesomely exhilarating as I’d hoped, and the trailer for Much Ado About Nothing looks decent too. Plus, the dude made Serenity, and has Avengers 2 on his slate. Other names I’d considered include Zack Snyder (who alas has had two unappealing flops for his most recent films, but Man of Steel looks promising), Martin Scorsese (I don’t deny he makes incredible films, but I don’t actually out-and-out love any of them as much as others seem to) and Sam Mendes (I loved Skyfall, Away We Go, American Beauty and Road to Perdition, but I don’t think he has any films in the works). The likes of Andrew Stanton, Danny Boyle, Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron, Adam McKay, James Gunn and Gore Verbinski can be considered as honourable mentions for the honourable mentions list. Continue reading

The Descendants

I’ve had The Descendants, currently the only Blu-Ray I own, sat on my shelf for a few weeks now, ever since I won it from the Empire Podcast, by answering a question about E.R., even though I’ve never seen a single episode. All praise IMDb. I’m something of a fan of Alexander Payne, and both Sideways and Election are just wonderful, so I’d been looking forward to sitting down and watching this, especially with all the Oscar buzz it had garnered earlier this year. The Descendants was nominated for five awards in all, including Best Picture, Director, Editing and Actor, and eventually won for Adapted Screenplay.

George Clooney, the aforementioned acting nominee, is Matt King, a wealthy landowner living in Hawaii,  and on the brink of a massive retail deal, in which his family’s historic heritage is to be sold, as requested by many of Matt’s less wealthy cousins. As if life weren’t stressful enough, Matt’s sporty wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) suffers a horrific speedboat accident, leaving her in a coma, and Matt boosted from his former role as ‘back-up parent’ to the sole guardian of their two children, 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), and soon becomes lumbered with Alexandra’s lunkheaded friend Sid (Nick Krause).
There’s a certain level of expectation for an Alexander Payne movie. The ones I’ve seen (not including Citizen Ruth or Inside Out 1 and 3) have all dealt with a story with dour aspects – be it failure, adultery, fraud, unhappiness or Kathy Bates’ backside – yet the sadness has been all but shrouded in comedy, yet here Payne’s reputable light touch is fighting against a brick wall of melancholy with the probable impending death of a spouse and mother. Such a morbid topic is no match for any level of wit, and the film almost always retains a depressing tone. This isn’t to say its a bad film, far from it in fact, its just that I was expecting a much more enjoyable watching experience that didn’t leave me deeply moved and my girlfriend literally in tears.
Payne made exactly the right casting decision in Clooney as Matt. The character is, let’s be honest, a bit of a dick. Yes, he’s a hard worker with a balanced head on his shoulders (he believes in giving his children enough money to do something, not so much that they’ll do nothing) yet he is practically absent when it comes to being a father and husband. Frequently away on business, he has little-to-no knowledge of his daughter’s lives, and it comes as no surprise to learn that prior to her accident, his wife was having an affair. It’d be a heartbreaking moment in most other actor’s hands, but Clooney breaks the tension with a ridiculously stone-faced flip-flop run. Under his command Matt is almost likable, and definitely relatable, even though he’s obscenely wealthy. Clooney is, in my opinion, a thoroughly under-rated comedic actor, and in one memorable scene (pictured) he has some genuinely hilarious eyebrows. Matt always seems to do the right thing and have the best of intentions at heart, yet his methodology and timing aren’t necessarily sound.
The revelatory performance of the film however is Shailene Woodley as Matt’s eldest daughter Alex, who lives on a different island to her father both literally and figuratively. Woodley is perfect in the role, her first in a film after appearing regularly on television since 1999, aged 8. Here she captures the exact transition from petulant teenager to woman-of-the-house, becoming a surrogate mother to her younger sister and a confidante to her father. Nick Krause is also great as Sid, a cliched dumbass who still gets to set up some of the film’s funniest moments. His first interaction with Matt’s father-in-law is just genius.
Beau Bridges and Judy Greer crop up in small roles, and Matthew Lillard does surprisingly well as a guy you really should hate deeply. The script has subtlety – offhand remarks to Elizabeth’s alcoholism and Alex’s drug taking – and definitely deserved at least the Oscar nomination, and whilst much of the action is fairly predictable, there are still a few unexpected turns along the way. This is still probably the least enjoyable of Payne’s films that I’ve seen – mostly due to the subject matter – but it’s still moving, well acted and performed, and all the locations are stunning.
Choose Film 8/10

Election

Apologies, I watched this over a week ago, but haven’t had a chance to write anything until now, sorry. I’ve got a soft spot for Election that is also one of the reasons I don’t necessarily get on well with the film. Growing up, I was always a Tracy Flick kind of student. If there was ever a hand up in class, chances are it would be mine, I took my schoolwork very seriously and wasn’t necessarily the most popular person at school (shock horror),  although I can’t say I distinctly remember sleeping with any members of staff, but I’ve blocked out a lot of my formative years so who knows what happened. So although I empathise with Flick, pitch-perfectly played by the Golden Globe nominated Reese Witherspoon, I feel sorrier for Matthew Broderick’s ethics teacher Jim McAllister, and even more so for my own previous teachers, who had to endure a real life version of Flick’s character.
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