Descendants, The (US - BD RA)
Jonathan revisits one of his favourite films from last year on Blu-ray..
To save time and get this review out near the Blu-ray release date, I'm adapting my thoughts from my Top Ten of 2011 article for the feature section of this review.
You'd be hard-pressed to find an actor working today better than George Clooney. He's proved himself time and again, and now he finds himself paired with Alexander Payne; the master of biting satire and mixing touching personal stories with awkwardly realistic humour. The two of them working together makes too much sense. I'm not sure why I hadn't imagined it before. The Descendants follows a difficult chapter in the life of Matt King (Clooney). His wife, Elizabeth, has always been around to take care of their kids, but after a recent boating accident she is left in a coma. Suddenly he is having to step up and learn to be a parent to his troubled children in their time of need, and in the process he learns that his wife was having an affair with a real estate agent. They decide to travel around to tell relatives the news about Elizabeth while making a stop in Kauai to confront her secret lover.
Part of what makes Alexander Payne's films work so well is his willingness to revel in the awkward moments of life. The Descendants has plenty of those, and he approaches each one with startling humour and grace. I don't know what it is that attracts Payne to these characters going through difficult times, but his dignified approach that never feels manipulative or exploitative is masterful. He owes much of the success to Clooney, who arguably gives the best performance of his career (though I feel like I say that every time he stars in a drama). And he's not alone. Shailene Woodley, who plays his daughter Alexandra, is terrific. This was the first I'd ever seen of her, and she has the looks and the acting chops to be a star. Hopefully she'll continue to work with great storytellers. Payne doesn't fill the movie with the same razor sharp satire that is present in some of his other films, but the story of The Descendants doesn't call for that approach. His dark sense of humour is completely intact. There is a subplot involving Hawaiian heritage and legacy that never perfectly gels into the personal story at the foreground, but both aspects of the plot are engaging and heartfelt, and still entertain along the way. I found my emotional responses ranging from debilitating laughter to fighting back tears. It's an impressive balancing act that Payne navigates with expertise.
The Descendants comes with a 1080p/AVC transfer that looks very consistent with how I recall the film looking in theaters. It was shot on 35 mm and has a very consistent grainy appearance that looks quite nice. The overall detail is a little soft, but I don't see any signs of digital tampering. Artefacts are restricted to some very minor blocking in large patches of colour, but it is very infrequent and difficult to notice unless you're looking for it. Overall it looks quite good, and the sun-drenched Hawaiian environments look very warm and inviting. Skin tones are slightly overcooked by the movie's warm palette, but there are overcast scenes as well where the skin tones look far more accurate. The gorgeous greens of Hawaii's hills and trees are a big standout. This high definition transfer won't blow your mind but it is a very faithful representation of the theatrical experience I had with The Descendants.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is another example of how faithful this Blu-ray release is to the theatrical presentation. The Descendants doesn't have the kind of sound mix that puts an expensive sound system to good use, but it is filled with a lot of delightful subtleties and ambient noises that help trap the viewer in the Hawaiian landscape. In beach scenes you can hear the constant sounds of waves hitting the shore or birds making noises in the surround channels. None of these sounds every drown out the dialogue, which is perfectly leveled and appropriately kept to the front channels. I never had to adjust the volume to understand what was being said. The music, which goes a long way to help prevent melodrama during the heavier scenes in the movie, consists of relaxing, light tropical Hawaiian music. It sounds very pleasing and rich, if not especially dynamic. There isn't a lot of separation between the instruments and the sounds of the environment, but the pristine quality of the sound is unmistakable.
Deleted Scenes (05:46, HD): There are two of them, and each has a text introduction that explains a little bit about the scene and why it was cut. The first is an extended version of the scene where Matt goes to pick up his older daughter from school. The second is a scene of dialogue between Matt and his older daughter that was cut to keep the momentum of the film going. It's a great scene.
Everybody Loves George (07:27, HD) is a segment dedicated to George Clooney where the filmmakers and actors all talk about how much they enjoyed working with him. There's some interview footage and a clips of Clooney messing around on set. For example, in a scene where they were sitting in an airplane cabin with a bunch of extras, Clooney broke out a fart button application on his iPhone. It's a fun look at the on-set environment. This feature is followed up by Working with Alexander (13:34, HD). There is some footage of Alexander Payne talking on set. He's a very excitable guy, which is hard to imagine given the somber mood of his films. As with the Clooney feature, most of this segment is interviews of fellow crew members and actors taking about how much they like working with Payne. Payne also talks himself about his collaborations with the writers and set workers.
The Real Descendants (12:06, HD) is a short but interesting look at some Hawaiian history and a real land tycoon family like the one portrayed in the film. There are some comparison shots of the beautiful land as it looks today with old photos.
Hawaiian Style (16:47, HD) is a look at how drenched the filmmaking process was in Hawaiian culture. It was blessed by a Hawaiian priest before production started. There's so much attention dedicated to details like pillow casings, wall paintings and the types of plants in the yard. All of it in service of creating an authentic Hawaiian setting for the film. This featurette does a wonderful job of heightening my appreciation for the attention to detail. One bit of trivia I found particularly humorous is that when Hurricane Iniki hit Kaua'i in 1992, it blew apart chicken coops and now the island is overrun with feral chickens. You can see them throughout the film.
Casting (08:11, HD) is very similar in nature to the Clooney and Payne featurettes. It features interview footage, mostly of Payne, as he talks about the casting process and how they used a lot Kaua'i natives. They share some stories about the stressful auditioning process. For instance, the actress who plays Scottie, Amara Miller, was not cast until a couple weeks before shooting. Matthew Lillard, and some other actors, share stories about how he got involved. Comedian Rob Huebel plays back the voicemail of Alexander Payne's personal call telling him he got the part, while making funny gestures.
Working with Water (10:58, HD), as the title suggests, is a look at what a pain it is to shoot scenes on water. There aren't a lot of scenes on the water in The Descendants but it is a fun look at something you don't often consider when you watch movies where the ocean is a big setting. Next up is Waiting for the Light (02:52, HD), which is a very short but charming featurette where the crew is standing around on the Hawaiian land waiting for the light to come out so they can get the shot they need.
The World Parade - Hawaii (09:55, HD) is an awesome little short from the silent film era that shows some lovely footage of Hawaii from the early 1900's. One shot includes a Hawaiian native that climbs a very tall coconut tree. There's some footage of Kilauea, the world's largest active volcano, some hula dancing and even some surfing. I loved it and thought it was a great addition to the extra features.
A Conversation with George Clooney and Alexander Payne (11:58, HD) is a segment of Clooney and Payne conversing about their inspirations and thoughts about film and working as a director. Payne mentions the great Make Way for Tomorrow as one of his greatest influences, mentioning that it was a drama made by a comedy director. It's not extremely relevant to The Descendants, but it's always nice to see two people passionate about film swooning over the films they love.
There is also a Theatrical Trailer and some Music Videos (10:29, HD) of compositions from the soundtrack set to lovely images of Hawaii.
Nobody melds drama and humour with the same grace and finesse as Alexander Payne. The Descendants fits comfortably next to other great films in his career like Sideways and Election, and it features George Clooney in one of his finest performances to date. Fans should be pleased with the faithful video and audio presentation that Fox delivers with this Blu-ray, and though I would've liked a commentary track, there are plenty of wonderful extra features that enhance one's appreciation of the film.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD releases and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 13th March 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 English Descriptive Audio, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, Dolby Digital 5.1 French
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Everybody Loves George, Working with Alexander, The Real Descendants, Hawaiian Style, Casting, Working with Water, "Will I Ever See You Again" Music Video, Postcards From Paradise Music Video, "Honolulu's Whisper" Music Video, Waiting for the Light, The World Parade - Hawaii (Silent Film), A Conversation with George Clooney and Alexander Payne, Deleted Scenes, Digital Copy, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Patricia Hastie
Genre: Comedy and Drama
Length: 115 minutes
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