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Our chance to see Oscar contender 'The Descendants'

POSTED: January 26, 2012 12:30 a.m.
Merie Wallace /Fox Searchlight Films/AP

George Clooney, left, and Shailene Woodley are shown in a scene from "The Descendants." The film was nominated for both a Screen Actors Guild award for best ensemble cast and Academy Awards for Best Picture.

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The Academy Award nominations have been announced, and studios are beginning to seize the Oscar buzz and re-release their films into more theatres. Hence, "The Descendants" is finally coming to Gainesville.

The George Clooney starring vehicle first went into limited release in mid-November and has played in almost 900 theatres, grossing over $51 million domestically. That's a very good performance for a movie whose release was built around awards season and which has played in so few theatres.

The film has already won several awards and this week earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, a Best Director nomination for Alexander Payne, and a Best Actor nod for Clooney. Many people, including me, believe it should have also earned Shailene Woodley a nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

So "The Descendants" comes to town with quite a pedigree. This amount of hype is rather strange for such an understated movie.

Based on Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel, "The Descendants" tells a story about the King family in turmoil. The Kings are the descendants of bona fide Hawaii royalty, but their fortunes have declined over the years thanks to mismanagement by some and their waning stature in Hawaiian society in general. For those of indigenous lineage, the Kings have become the bitter personification of Hawaii's colonial past.

We focus on Matt King (Clooney) and his two daughters, Alexandra (Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). Teenaged Alexandra has been attending a boarding school for a while, an attempt to reform her rebellious ways. Preteen Scottie is an awkward kid with behavioral issues of her own.

Matt is out of touch emotionally with both of his daughters and struggles to be the patriarch of the large King clan, whose cousins look to him to safeguard their dwindling fortune.

All of this tension comes to bear after Matt's wife is injured in a boating accident and falls into a coma. Matt brings Alexandra home so he and his daughters can cope together. Then Matt discovers his wife had been having an affair and had decided to divorce him.

How does one muster the proper degree of indignation and anger about an affair, when his wife is in a coma with a likely mortal injury? And how does a father build a new relationship with his children in the midst of all this?

Payne has a distinctive filmmaking voice. His movies ("Sideways," "About Schmidt," "Citizen Ruth") are billed as comedies and at times are hilarious, but each has some grave situation as its foundation. The humor is dry and the outlook cynical.

However, when Payne wants to lift us up, the effect is ever greater because we travel so far emotionally with his characters.

Clooney translates Payne's tone perfectly in "The Descendants." His performance is similar to his work in "Up in the Air," but this time Clooney relies much less on his irresistible movie star charm. This might be his best performance simply because he never gets cheeky.

Clooney is supported wonderfully by Woodley, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Beau Bridges and others.

Over the years, many people have told me how frustrating it is that so few art films and anything outside of the mainstream make it to Gainesville theaters. I feel your pain.

But to point out the obvious, a theater manager, like any other business owner, has to be reasonably sure a product will sell before she invests overhead in it.

So now is the time to vote with your dollars. "The Descendants" is one of the best movies of 2011 and worth a trip to the theater. If we don't seize these opportunities and buy a ticket, we can't complain when local theaters offer us nothing more sophisticated than Chipmunks movies.

Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.



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