The Descendants

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Re: The Descendants

Postby Sonic Youth » Mon Dec 05, 2011 8:30 pm

Crying scenes as actors' showcases are very interesting these days. Directors want so much to bestow a memorable one to their stars that lately they're finding new ways to film these attention-grabbers. In A Mighty Heart, Angelina Jolie curled herself up and screamed. In Fair Game, Naomi Watts sobbed with a toothbrush in her mouth. In The Descendants, Alexander Payne finds a new approach. George Clooney's cry is a quiet one, a tender one. He bends over to kiss his comatose wife lying in bed, and due to the angle of his face his tears take on an interesting trajectory. This veteran spewer creates a drippy snail trail down the bridge of his nose where it will presumably meet with its identical twin in the center... a poetic metaphor for two soulmates coming together as one.

As an indulgent star showcase, The Descendants isn't as disgusting as The Adjustment Bureau, but maybe I'd think differently had I never seen The Adjustment Bureau. It's also nowhere near as gratifying as Certified Copy, and that I can say with greater assurance. In this tale of life, death and family strife, it poses one of life's burning questions: How will Clooney react? The dominant mise-en-scene is the top one-third of George Clooney as we see him angered, befuddled, distraught, serene, sometimes a combination, most memorably putting on a smile on the behalf of others when he really wants to break down. His words and smile say one thing, his pained eyes say something else. (Unfortunately, I don't remember why he's doing this.) We see him in overhead shots as he grasps his temples. We see each profile in quick edits, in a (very) rare show of filmmaking technique. Each story development serves an excuse to see Clooney's reaction to it, and since there aren't many scenes that allow him to sustain a mood for long without either changing it as according to the script or cutting away from it to the next scene, reacting - rather than acting - is all his performance is.

And the movie itself is nothing but a melancholy pose. There's no true examination of his character or his development. So, when he (SPOILERS, I guess) changes his mind about whether to sell his land trust, or when he finally bonds with his daughter, I never really understood why. There's no explanation, and I guess we're supposed to take it as a given that what his character goes through is enough to change him, or that the little adventure he has with his daughter is enough to overlook all that came before and draw them closer. I suppose the argument to that is that it insults the audience's intelligence to have everything explained, that some things should be left unspoken. But in this case, it's narrative laziness, as if Payne feels no obligation to delve deep into the characters and their relationships with each other. That said, I will grant that maybe it was just me. I lost interest long before, so maybe I had given up following it altogether.

The supporting performances, outside of a few exceptions, grate. I often wince when Italiano criticizes a youth performance as too precocious and too American. But he has my deepest blessings to go after the soon-to-be nominated Shailene Woodley, the shrillest young actress to grace my eardrums since Kat Dennings. Beau Bridges is in maybe two scenes (poor guy, is that all he can get anymore?) and his delivery is all sing-songy affectation that seems to be very popular today and which, needless to say, I hate. And frankly, I'm at a loss to explain what the purpose of Nick Krause's character, as the older daughter's friend, was other than to crack obnoxious jokes. He's not a boyfriend. He's just a tag-along, and not even the older daughter who invited him appreciates his company. Fortunately, Robert Forster as the ornery father-in-law provides some welcome roughage, and the ten year old daughter played by Amara Miller was way cool. Her I loved, and I'd rather spend the day with this unpretentious, oft-distracted, emotionally underdeveloped kid than Woodley. Granted, she probably wasn't even acting, which would explain why her portrayal came across as more authentic than Woodley's.

Not that I'm an expert on cinematography, but I was surprised at how flat the visuals of the Hawaiian coast were. They lacked any sort of crispness that would give one the sense of being there. And I hated the fucking music. It was constantly solo acoustic guitar, solo acoustic guitar, solo acoustic guitar, etc. and I don't think I need to tell you that the result is no "The Third Man". When you have that same instrument throughout the movie, there's no variety and no dynamics, and it dulls the film as a result. During a quietly emotional scene, the guitar quietly starts plinking right where an orchestra would normally take up the cue. I will admit that it probably would have been worse if Payne HAD used a soupy orchestra, but then... why shoot your scenes in such a conventional manner where a music cue is expected?

And yet, there's some hope. The Alexander Payne of old, the satirist and dark humorist, is very nearly buried in this exercise of star vanity and sentimentaility, but on rare ocassions he emerges from the gloom. And when he does, the snap of that good old nastiness made me suck my breath in. And then there's the final, wordless five minutes with Clooney and his daughters in the boat where everything comes together. It's flawlessly edited, beautifully shot - finally, Hawaii looks gorgeous - and that solo guitar at last finds a truly haunting melody to play. The sense of finality is perfectly conveyed. What a shame there was all this flailing about until we finally arrived at this point.
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Re: The Descendants

Postby Sabin » Sat Dec 03, 2011 1:51 pm

nightwingnova wrote
I finally caught the first minute of the movie that I had missed. It does help set the background for the story and helps us frame the characters in the story's context. Nevertheless, the movie is still not a deep effort. Worse, the opening makes a gratuitous point about Hawaii being just like any other place, replete with traffic jams, homeless people, etc. Pretentious posturing that adds nothing to the story.

Not pretentious. Just snarky. #stopcuttingawaytoherfaceinacomaitsinsensitiveandcheap
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Re: The Descendants

Postby nightwingnova » Fri Dec 02, 2011 10:18 pm

I finally caught the first minute of the movie that I had missed. It does help set the background for the story and helps us frame the characters in the story's context. Nevertheless, the movie is still not a deep effort. Worse, the opening makes a gratuitous point about Hawaii being just like any other place, replete with traffic jams, homeless people, etc. Pretentious posturing that adds nothing to the story.

Not great, but an enjoyable enough movie. George Clooney's subtle acting worked better for me the second time around.


nightwingnova wrote:I think it's the story depth that affects how much we feel for the characters. We never get to know Elizabeth. In that way, we are not invested in all sides of the relationships. We also don't get to know to much about how the characters (in particular, Clooney) feel about her. The relationships are more generic than substantial (cold husband/wife seeks comfort, mom/young daughter, mom/daughter fight over infidelity). The tad too broad humor only distances us more from the characters. From all this, I was not moved as much as I wanted/expected to be.


nightwingnova wrote:I feel that I need to see the film again. Maybe it is because I walked in about a minute after George Clooney’s monologue began and I did not get the full set-up to the film. I really liked director/writer Alexander’s previous ventures (Sideways, About Schmidt). Maybe my expectations were too high. But, I just liked the movie; I did not love it.

It is a truthful, real and affecting enough movie to be enjoyable and likeable. Yet, the drama is not very complex or plumbed very deep. Also, the humor is just a tad too broad for a tragicomedy. (The only really bad thing about the movie is the gratuitous, moralizing, plausible but still not really believable conclusion to the land deal.)

Clooney is ok but not smashing. Shailene Woodley as the older daughter, however, is. A sensational mix of anger, rebellion mixed with early maturity demanded by the circumstances. Rising above everyone is Robert Forster as the father-in-law: a complex character full of toughness, anger, hurt, and fierce love for his daughter. His is the only performance in the movie that made me cry.

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Re: The Descendants

Postby Sabin » Mon Nov 21, 2011 8:40 pm

I have not seen The Artist, but it could happen.

I would be so stunned if The Descendants won Best Picture. So utterly stunned. I can't imagine industry people loving it. I can't imagine it crossing over with the general public. It's aesthetic sensibilities are incredibly middlebrow, so unlike The Social Network there is no possibility of mistaking atmosphere or new methods of filmmaking for thematic depth as some here have claimed. I think The Descendants is an also-ran waiting to happen, just like Up in the Air and Michael Clayton, now that I think about it.

It's such a shame that Moneyball is becoming an afterthought but The Descendants will likely have enough momentum to steamroll towards a nomination before the general public and voters clue in.
"If you are marching with white nationalists, you are by definition not a very nice person. If Malala Yousafzai had taken part in that rally, you'd have to say 'Okay, I guess Malala sucks now.'" ~ John Oliver

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Re: The Descendants

Postby Greg » Mon Nov 21, 2011 7:33 pm

Sabin wrote:On a side note, this is an utterly fantastic year for movies that are not for everyone. Movies that you can discuss, you can hate, you can love, you can argue about. This is an abysmal year for Oscar films.


Would it not be highly ironic if, basically by default, the Best Picture Oscar goes to a black-and-white-silent film at the time Hollywood is attempting to use modernized 3D as its saving grace?
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Re: The Descendants

Postby Sabin » Mon Nov 21, 2011 7:24 pm

Yikes.

The question isn't whether or not this is Alexander Payne's best film, but rather whether it's possible to tell if it's worse than About Schmidt. About Schmidt is a more controlled work of condescension. There is innately more compassion in The Descendants (you have to work really hard to entirely fuck it up), but ti's the work of a man who has either forgotten how to juggle humor with pathos or he never knew to begin with. Payne just shouldn't have tackled this material. It took three writers to adapt this book, which is something I don't understand. However it should be said, this isn't a bad narrative on paper. It's a reasonably well-written film that could have become a completely affecting piece of work. But Alexander Payne stages each scene with a degree of disconnect such that every note of emotion is punctuated with a snide gesture, and every note of humor is punctuated with something we're supposed to find serious. It just doesn't work at all.

This is also likely his worst conceived film visually. There are loads of awkward shots panning over so that we can see one more time what people are looking at that cut awkwardly into routine signposting visuals so that he can transition into people driving in a car, where a simple audio cue could have aided just as easily and far more affecting. This isn't simply an issue of taste. He is removing the sense of interior of these peoples' lives with his mise-en-scene. Perhaps this is his desire to make this a more "authentic" Hawaiian film. That's a fool's errand for even trying! This is just a pretty homogenized piece of work and he should have focused more on the family. Everyone in the cast is game, although Nick Krause might just be the most annoying presence on film this year. But he doesn't stage these scenes like a family. There is an absence of nuance between father and daughter, sister and sister, husband and wife that reads like Made for TV Movie. Shailene Woodley probably comes off best because she is allowed the freedom to emote. George Clooney is just coasting on his persona. He's a terrific actor and Up in the Air looks better and better all the time (especially after this), but Matt King registers as a litany of acting moments and not a specific person. I think the pairing of Payne and Clooney was just a mistake. Clooney makes it look too easy and Payne's actors need to compensate for some of his shortcomings with energy. The Coen Brothers understand that you need to make Clooney act like a goon to up his energy.

I don't like this film. I hated the way that Payne kept cutting away to Elizabeth's face in a coma to make us realize that there is something at stake here. It's such a cynical gesture that we need to be reminded of how someone looks in a coma. I know! I am aware! But you are using a woman's brain-dead suffering as a fucking cut-away!

On a side note, this is an utterly fantastic year for movies that are not for everyone. Movies that you can discuss, you can hate, you can love, you can argue about. This is an abysmal year for Oscar films. And I am a notoriously horrible barometer this far in advance, having dismissed both Finding Neverland and The King's Speech as non-starters. The Descendants devastated the people in my audience. It's getting in most likely. I anticipate nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay pretty easily. Although it does reek of easy exotic touches, I liked the Cat Stevens-y soundtrack quite a bit, and were it not ineligible I'd think it a decent bid. Any other year, Woodley would be out. This year, I think she has a chance but I wouldn't bet on her yet. If Sideways can't get an editing nomination, I doubt this can. It certainly should not. So, I'd say four nominations on the low end, maybe five on the high.
"If you are marching with white nationalists, you are by definition not a very nice person. If Malala Yousafzai had taken part in that rally, you'd have to say 'Okay, I guess Malala sucks now.'" ~ John Oliver

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Re: The Descendants

Postby nightwingnova » Sun Nov 20, 2011 7:18 pm

I think it's the story depth that affects how much we feel for the characters. We never get to know Elizabeth. In that way, we are not invested in all sides of the relationships. We also don't get to know to much about how the characters (in particular, Clooney) feel about her. The relationships are more generic than substantial (cold husband/wife seeks comfort, mom/young daughter, mom/daughter fight over infidelity). The tad too broad humor only distances us more from the characters. From all this, I was not moved as much as I wanted/expected to be.


nightwingnova wrote:I feel that I need to see the film again. Maybe it is because I walked in about a minute after George Clooney’s monologue began and I did not get the full set-up to the film. I really liked director/writer Alexander’s previous ventures (Sideways, About Schmidt). Maybe my expectations were too high. But, I just liked the movie; I did not love it.

It is a truthful, real and affecting enough movie to be enjoyable and likeable. Yet, the drama is not very complex or plumbed very deep. Also, the humor is just a tad too broad for a tragicomedy. (The only really bad thing about the movie is the gratuitous, moralizing, plausible but still not really believable conclusion to the land deal.)

Clooney is ok but not smashing. Shailene Woodley as the older daughter, however, is. A sensational mix of anger, rebellion mixed with early maturity demanded by the circumstances. Rising above everyone is Robert Forster as the father-in-law: a complex character full of toughness, anger, hurt, and fierce love for his daughter. His is the only performance in the movie that made me cry.

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The Descendants

Postby nightwingnova » Fri Nov 18, 2011 7:02 pm

I feel that I need to see the film again. Maybe it is because I walked in about a minute after George Clooney’s monologue began and I did not get the full set-up to the film. I really liked director/writer Alexander’s previous ventures (Sideways, About Schmidt). Maybe my expectations were too high. But, I just liked the movie; I did not love it.

It is a truthful, real and affecting enough movie to be enjoyable and likeable. Yet, the drama is not very complex or plumbed very deep. Also, the humor is just a tad too broad for a tragicomedy. (The only really bad thing about the movie is the gratuitous, moralizing, plausible but still not really believable conclusion to the land deal.)

Clooney is ok but not smashing. Shailene Woodley as the older daughter, however, is. A sensational mix of anger, rebellion mixed with early maturity demanded by the circumstances. Rising above everyone is Robert Forster as the father-in-law: a complex character full of toughness, anger, hurt, regret and fierce love for his daughter. His is the only performance in the movie that made me cry.


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