The Descendants

Shailene Woodley, George Clooney, Amara Miller and Nick Krause

A movie for every day of the year – a good one



21 August

Hawaii becomes 50th US state, 1959

Today marks the day when, in 1959, Hawaii became a part of the United States. It came about as a result of revolution which unseated the local Republican party, which had been in power in an almost unbroken run since the country had become a constitutional monarchy in 1887 (though that didn’t last long – it was shortly after annexed by the US in 1898 and became a Territory).

The Republicans had close ties to a number of companies known as the Big Five, originally sugar plantation owners and processors, whose oligarchic power allowed them to set high prices and make huge profits from the islanders.

The Big Five had imported labour to work the plantations, most of whom were denied citizenship and lived in camps. Their children, however, could become citizens, and became increasingly vocal as, at the same time, unionisation of the plantation workers started to lead to strikes in favour of higher wages and lower prices, political freedom and full rights.

In the 1954 elections this groundswell, and a Democrat party which had organised itself effectively, finally won a majority at the elections. The Democrats immediately set about changing the tax system, introduced a health insurance scheme, environmental protection and workers’ rights. President Eisenhower responded by appointing a Republican governor to veto many of the reforms, so the Democrats went all out for statehood. Which, after a 93% vote in favour on the islands, and against concerns that to admit Hawaii was to admit communists and the possibility of a dark-skinned senator, was granted in 1959.



The Descendants (2011, dir: Alexander Payne)

The Descendants is an unusual sort of comedy. A brain dead wife, a cuckolded husband – it’s not really a comedy at all. It’s built around George Clooney, reassuring us in voiceover as Matt King that he’s a good rich guy, rather than a bad rich guy – “you give your children enough to do something but not enough to do nothing” – having already laid out the mess of his life (adding estranged kids to the comatose, unfaithful wife). Clooney/King we’ve met, having been told that the estranged wife has had a boat accident and is now in hospital in a persistent vegetative state. His job is to pull the kids out of boarding school, bring them home, to say goodbye to their mother, and then…?

The film is part written and entirely directed by Alexander Payne and like his Sideways it’s a road comedy. Again like Sideways it’s gentle, but this time it’s ever so gentle; there’s no Thomas Haden Church to firecracker away. Instead there’s Clooney doing his dependable velvet thing, lots of lovely shots of picture-postcard Hawaii as Matt drives the kids from one encounter to the next, a soundtrack of either finger-picked guitar or a baritone singing Hawaiian songs.

They’re an odd contrast, this sun-kissed wave-lapping scenery and a brain-dead wife/mother plus familial bickering by Matt’s two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) who resent Matt’s valiant lone parent act. The throughline is a quietly stated double Maguffin – should the wife’s life support be switched off, in accordance with her wishes? And should the King family sell a valuable piece of real estate on the island? Selling will make a whole heap of cash, but it will end a tradition – this was the plot that first bound the family’s and Hawaii’s destiny together.

On the way to Matt’s do-or-die moment Payne entertains us with characters. He’s good at this. The daughters, Shailene Woodley full of teenage sarcasm, Nick Krause as he dudeish Sid, the spaced out boyfriend of Alex (Woodley) who isn’t as dumb as he’s making out. Matthew Lillard turns up, the lizard grin of yore bulked out with middle age, as the guy who’s been seeing Matt’s wife, possibly, Matt learns, while he was still trying to make a go of the marriage. Robert Forster is the wife’s father, angry and confused. Beau Bridges a member of the wider King family pressuring Matt to sell, reminding us how good Bridges is at affable malevolence.

In the end it’s a journey, around a beautiful territory, in the company of some interesting people, who meet other interesting people on the way. It’s almost possible to just take it all in as a travelogue with a bit more family business than you usually get. Remove the sotto voce Maguffin – the land deal, the insensate woman – and that is pretty much what it is. But with it in, and Clooney’s calm, almost hypnotic voice, Payne makes it a drama about the slow, almost tectonic emergence of a new land mass – Matt’s humanity, dignity, nobility.



Why Watch?

  • Another smart Alexander Payne comedy
  • George Clooney’s anchoring performance
  • The emergence of Shailene Woodley
  • The cinematography of Phedon Papamichael



The Descendants – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014


Election

Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick in Election

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

23 July

 

Monica Lewinsky born, 1973

Today in 1973, Monica Samille Lewinsky was born, in San Francisco, USA. Best known for giving a US president a blow job, which the US president bizarrely later claimed did not equate to “sexual relations” (since he was receiving rather than giving the favour), Lewinsky was a 22-year-old intern at the White House at the time her relationship with President Clinton took place. It came to light because Linda Tripp, a fellow worker at the Pentagon – where Lewinsky was moved by superiors concerned at the amount of time she was spending with Clinton – decided to record all the telephone conversations she had with Lewinsky about Lewinsky’s relationship with the leader of the free world. Tripp also persuaded Lewinsky not to dry-clean the notorious blue dress, which bore evidence of presidential ejaculate. After the scandal broke, Lewinsky at first tried to capitalise on her fame, appearing on TV, designing handbags, contributing to Andrew Morton’s book Monica’s Story, before changing tack, moving to London and enrolling at the London School of Economics. She graduated in 2006 with an MSc but has found gainful employment a tough nut to crack.

 

 

 

Election (1999, dir: Alexander Payne)

When Election debuted in 1999, almost every reviewer pointed out that Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick was some sort of stand-in for – or was modelled on, or satirised a society that could lionise – Monica Lewinsky. This didn’t really hold up at the time and stacks up even less with hindsight. But it was a peg and you can see why it might have been useful. Because Tracy is the sort of politicking eager beaver who always has her hand up in class, who is a member, if not president, of every school club, who has it all and does it all with a cheeriness bordering on the demented. And in the other corner we have her teacher, Jim McAllister, played with a dog ear and a tweed jacket by Matthew Broderick, a man whose life of quiet desperation and compromise is challenged by the very existence of Tracy. He kind of has a thing for her too, which just makes things worse. Doubly so because he’s friends with the teacher Tracy seduced the previous year.
The film plays out from McAllister’s point of view, as he first tries to recruit someone (a nice dumb jock turn by Chris Klein) to stand against Tracy in her bid to become school president, and then has to deal with fallout as the unintended consequences start to pile up. McAllister has the same defeated tone of voice Payne would entertain us with in Sideways – his comedy about two midlife sad sacks on a wine tour of California – but it is to Payne’s credit, and makes the film feel less like a rant, that he gives Flick the whip hand.
Watch it as an unusual underdog comedy – the underdog being the guy in charge this time out – or watch it as a satire on the whole electoral process, whereby some perky do-gooder who’s secretly only out for themselves sets off on getting themselves elected to something at an early age, doing whatever is required, smiling winningly, handing out bribes (480 cup cakes in Tracy’s case) and setting in train a process that will last the entire rest of their professional lives. Either way Witherspoon’s performance is a thing of wonder to watch – after the arch Pleasantville and Cruel Intentions this is the film that really confirmed her as an actress of devious subtlety – and Broderick matches her with a variation on the weak puppy role he seems to have settled into too easily, and has fans wondering whatever happened to Ferris Bueller. A classic high school comedy, and an unusual one, since this time around it’s not really aimed at a teenage audience.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The career redefining film for Witherspoon
  • One of Broderick’s best performances
  • Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s biting script
  • A smart political satire

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Election – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Nebraska

Bruce Dern in Nebraska

 

Staggering along under a weight of folksiness, much like its old-guy hero is staggering along on his beat up legs, Alexander Payne’s latest movie is sweet and wry but let’s not all get too excited. The film certainly doesn’t.

Bruce Dern is the old guy, an amnesiac oldster with a “beer isn’t drinking” drink problem who reckons he’s won some obviously fake mailout sweepstake – “you could already have won a million dollars” kind of thing. With nothing else to live for, and getting under the feet of his wife (June Squibb), Woody decides he’s going to get to Nebraska any old how to pick up his winnings, even if it means walking.

Enter Woody’s second son (Will Forte), a milquetoasty soft touch who decides, eventually, after harsher counsel from both his mother and older brother (Bob Odenkirk), to take the old guy to Nebraska where the winnings will most certainly not be waiting to be collected, rub the old guys face in the fact, and then be done with it once and for all.

The stage is set for a road movie that also functions as a rite of passage – the child becomes the father of the man and grows a pair, while the old guy slowly, through what may be entirely bogus mental confusion, slowly comes to realise that this trip is his last hurrah.

While this is happening, Payne lays on the full Frank Capra – a film shot in black and white like some dustbowl photograph by Andrea Lange, a host of faces from the back end of the casting catalogue, a down-home soundtrack of country fiddle and lonesome piano, long shots of the highway, the road to nowhere.

Add to these sobering stylistic choice the fact that the film is a good 20 minutes too long and if you’re anything like me you’ll be just starting to get restless by the time the end starts pulling into view.

I feel terrible even saying this, but there it is, I got a bit “meh” somewhere on this journey, even though I was particularly enjoying Dern’s sly old dog performance as the perhaps not so befuddled oldster, June Squibb as the wife obsessed with who wanted to get into her pants when she was 50 years younger, Stacy Keach as a friend from Woody’s hometown who’s not quite the friend at all. And in particular Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray as Woody’s thick-as-pigshit odious snickering nephews sharing about one half of either Beavis or Butt-head’s brain.

Squibb gets the best lines, and spits them out with style, which is absolutely as it should be since the film is so much about the sheer weird inadequacy of men unless they have a project on the go – entire rooms full of guys who can only break away from the TV when the talk turns to cars.

Because Payne made About Schmidt, which was about an old guy, and Sideways, which was about a road trip, it’s tempting to describe Nebraska as being a hybrid of the two. But it isn’t. Though it does share the elegiac tone – for its characters and the USA – of those films, that’s something Payne is always interested in. Even in films, such as Election or The Descendants, which swim in more youthful waters.

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013