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Matt King is an indifferent husband and father of two girls, living in Hawaii, who is forced to re-examine his past and embrace his future when his wife suffers a boating accident. The event makes him try to re-connect with his daughters while he wrestles with a decision to sell the family's land handed down from Hawaiian royalty and missionaries.
For more about The Descendants and the The Descendants Blu-ray release, see the The Descendants Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on March 13, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: George Clooney, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Beau Bridges, Shailene Woodley, Michael Ontkean
Director: Alexander Payne
» See full cast & crew
The Descendants Blu-ray Review
Trouble in Paradise
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, March 13, 2012
Charting Alexander Payne's directorial career is a bit like watching a rock band age, starting with youthful, sneering, satirical punk (Citizen Ruth) and mellowing out into adult contemporary soft pop (Sideways). If we're going to continue this analogy, his latest film, The Descendants, is something akin to a Coldplay album—it's lushly produced, suffused with readily identifiable emotions, and palatable to an extremely broad audience. So broad, in fact, that you can imagine, say, seventeen-year-old girls and their grandfathers enjoying it equally. It's not a bland film —it's charming and funny and, in brief moments, genuinely moving—but it doesn't quite have the edge of Payne's earlier work. That's no judgement, just an observation.
Here's a judgement call: As far as comfy, adult contemporary cinema goes, The Descendants is a winner. No, it didn't sweep the Oscars— though it won Best Adapted Screenplay and got four other nods, including Best Picture—and yes, it plays it relatively safe dramatically, steering clear from any real existential painfulness. But The Descendants is unstoppably likable. It's hard to rag on it—at least without coming across like some sort of grumpy, a film should be the ax that breaks the frozen sea inside us elitist—and it's impossible to deny the movie's populist, all-encompassing appeal. I mean, it's got George Clooney as a sad-dad who reconnects with his kids when his wife falls ill. What's not to love? It's shot on location in Hawaii. It's a tear-jerker and a feel-good heart-warmer. You'll like it. Your college-aged nephew will like it. Your grandma will shake her head and her purse her lips when the kids in the film curse, but she'll secretly like it too. It's that kind of movie.
The Descendants is faithfully adapted from the acclaimed but under-read novel by native Hawaiian Kaui Hart Hemmings, who wants to make it abundantly clear that life in The Aloha State is no stroll on the beach, that the families there are just as dysfunctional as those on the mainland. "Paradise can go f--k itself," says wealthy-but-frugal lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) at the start of the film. Descended from haole missionaries and a genuine Hawaiian princess, Matt is now the sole controller of a family trust that has laid claim to 25,000 acres of prime Kaua'i real estate since the mid-1800s. A state law against perpetuities is forcing the family to sell the land to whichever bidder they deem fit, but this isn't what's getting Matt down. His thrill-seeking wife, whom he's had a strained relationship with for the past several years, was recently in a high-speed boating accident and is now comatose in a Honolulu hospital. Her living will stipulates she be removed from life support if there's no chance of recovery, and her doctors think the outlook is bleak. Matt's obviously got a lot on his mind. He has to inform the family that his wife is about to die, he has the land deal coming up in a few days, and he's suddenly a single father to two daughters—the self-destructive teenager Alex (Shailene Woodley), who's been away at boarding school, and her ten-year-old, middle-finger-flipping kid sister Scottie (Amara Miller)—where he previously thought of himself as "the back-up parent, the understudy." Alex gives him one more thing to worry about when she reveals a juicy secret she's been keeping—that before the accident, mom was having an affair.
Much like Alexander Payne's previous two films, Sideways and About Schmidt, The Descendants explores the emotional terrain of an aging male character who has suddenly had the proverbial rug pulled out from under his life. The news of the affair blends Matt's mental state into a confused and conflicting mixture of grief and guilt and jealousy and rage, and Clooney sells them all simultaneously. Some of the film's most powerful scenes feature Matt spewing out everything he feels while standing over his brain-dead wife's body, her chest stoically rising and falling with each pump of the respirator. This kind of material can get soppy faster than Hawaii during the rainy season, but Payne and Clooney are careful not to overplay the emotions, both seemingly aware that too much wet-tissue stuff would tip the balance of the film from comedy-laced drama to outright schmaltz. Clooney is perfectly cast; he's got the confident swagger of a man who's well-off but still works for his living, and at the same time he's capable of showing great vulnerability. He's the living embodiment of that old adage about wine—he just gets better with age—and I have no problem tipping my hat to his Best Actor Oscar nomination. (Though, I've gotta say, if he deserved it for anything this year, it was for The Ides of March, which he starred in, directed, wrote, and produced.)
Eventually, the film settles into road-movie mode—another one of Payne's frequent thematic touchstones—as Matt shleps across Hawaii, trying to track down his dying wife's lover, partly out of curiosity, partly out of rage, and partly because he's just a damn nice guy who wants to give the "other man" a chance to say goodbye at the hospital. Matt's kids come along for the ride, and one of the The Descendants' key pleasures is in seeing how the father/daughter relationships evolve throughout the course of the grieving process. Much of the drama goes right over young Scottie's head—she thinks they're just on vacation—but Alex, who initially seems like a rebellious brat, gradually becomes her father's ally, even prodding him on when his courage fails. Alex's thick surfer boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) hangs with them too, though he's mostly here for comic relief, getting bopped in the face for laughing at Alex's Alzheimer-afflicted grandmother one minute and dispensing sage stoner wisdom the next. There is a weirdly touching scene where Matt wakes up Sid in the middle of the night just to have someone to talk to about his daughters, and their conversation is a good microcosm of the film's alternately tragic and comic tone, veering from the sad revelation that Sid too has lost a parent, to the sleepy-eyed pothead's suggestion that they find the guy who cuckolded Matt, put his balls in a vice, and beat them with a baseball bat.
It doesn't play out that way, thank goodness, but Matt does find the dude, a married real estate agent named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) who's plenty surprised when Matt comes a'knockin' at the door of his rental vacation house. I'd hate to give away what happens next—so I won't—but I will say that the script is smart about how it handles the two men's psychologies and satisfyingly understated in the way it deals with their conflict. These aren't teenaged boys who are all-too-willing to come to blows; they're grown-ass men who really aren't sure how to act in this particular situation. There's a supreme awkwardness in this that jives with Payne's previous work about men adrift in middle age, unsure what they should or shouldn't be doing. And I haven't really even mentioned the subplot about Matt's money-hungry cousins—led by a particularly Big Lebowski-ish looking Beau Bridges—and the selling of the land, which brings along its own uncertainties and complications.
In terms of attitude and editing and pacing, The Descendants is Hawaiian to the core. It's buttoned-downed, relaxed. It meanders in flip-flops to the tune of strummed ukuleles. It coasts along on emotional waves that are slow to crest. This is all part of the film's charm, of course—and it's great to see a cinematic vision of contemporary Hawaii, which doesn't often get featured on the silver screen—but I can also see how some might feel that the movie is too breezy and easygoing. You could make the argument that the film just doesn't get into the ugly realities of adultery and unexpected death, that it only skips along the surface of deep emotions it could've dived into headlong. And that's fair. But The Descendants has no aspirations to be darker, more biting, more niche. It wants to be accessible to a wide multiplex audience, and it delivers just enough bitterness in the beginning to make the happy, gather-the-family-together ending all the more sweet.
The Descendants Blu-ray, Video Quality
New releases from 20th Century Fox/Fox Searchlight almost always look fantastic on Blu-ray, and The Descendants is no exception, with a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that's as sun-drenched and colorful as Hawaii itself. The movie was shot on 35mm and has a very naturally filmic look here, with a warm grain structure that's untouched by digital noise reduction, edge enhancement, or other unnecessary types of post-production filtering. (And it should almost go without saying that the print itself is in pristine condition, with no white specks or debris.) Clarity isn't the absolute sharpest I've seen this year, but there's plenty of fine, high-definition detail in the picture, from the individually visible whiskers of Clooney's perpetual five o'clock shadow to the straw stitching of Judy Greer's sunhat. The color grading is wonderful too. Reds and grass-greens are especially vibrant, skin tones are realistically tanned, and the image has consistently deep black levels and punchy but not overcranked contrast. Sitting pretty on a dual-layer, 50 GB disc, there are no compression problems to worry about either. What else is there to say? The Descendants is an eye-catcher.
The Descendants Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Nearly—but not quite—as impressive is the film's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, a breezy, dialogue-driven affair. Like the movie itself, the mix is low-key and laid-back. You'll hear a modicum of oceanside ambience in the rear speakers—distant waves, bird calls, lapping water, quiet wind— but there are very few explicitly directional effects. You won't exactly feel like you yourself are sitting on the beach, surrounded by the surf and spray, but the sound design is strong enough to give us a good sense of the environment. The rest of the mix is occupied with the almost non-stop Hawaiian music score—expect lots of ukuleles and gentle crooning—and the characters' dialogue, which is always clean, clear, and easy to understand. This is by no means an aggressive or even particularly active track, but it suits the film's purposes just fine. The disc also includes a descriptive audio track, Dolby Digital 5.1 French and Spanish dubs, and English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
The Descendants Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Descendants Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
I don't think The Descendants necessarily deserved to sit at the very top of as many "Best of 2011" film lists as it did—not in a year that boasted several bonafide masterpieces—but it is an enjoyably bittersweet comic drama that practically beckons its audience in with a welcoming aloha. It's funny and tender and charmingly awkward, and it features great performances from George Clooney and relative newcomer Shailene Woodley, who's definitely a young actress to watch. As you've come to expect from 20th Century Fox titles, the film looks fantastic on Blu-ray, and it comes with a large selection of special features. Recommended!
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The Descendants Blu-ray, News and Updates
• The Descendants Blu-ray - February 27, 2012
Next month, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment will bring The Descendants to Blu-ray. Director Alexander Payne's first full-length feature since the Academy Award-winning Sideways, the film stars George Clooney (Michael Clayton) as Matt King, a suburban ...
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