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The Descendants

The problem with The Descendants is a lack of direction. From the workaholic father (Clooney) to the unruly teenage daughter (Woodley) and her younger, cuter counterpart (Miller), we’ve got a paint-by-numbers American family with a twist.

The twist is that mommy is in a coma. Sometime before film start she smashed her pretty head in a boating accident, so she spends the 115 minute running time a mute totem through which the active characters discover important stuff about themselves. And the truth about mommy.

Clooney plays Matt King, heir to an enormous and colossally undeserved fortune – 25,000 acres of prime Hawaiian real estate. He is the Descendant (get it?) of a line of Hawaiian aristocrats and the sole trustee of the family trust that controls the land. He’s got a large cluster of extended family waiting for him to decide what to do with it as, due to the rule of perpetuity, the trust is set to expire soon – meaning if they don’t sell the acres now, the land defaults back to the government and the family gets nothing.

Now maybe I’m an idiot, but I have No idea why that subplot was in there. Ostensibly this story is about Comamom and the effect of her pre-coma shenanigans on the King family. Clooney discovers things about her that he might never have wanted to know, he and the unruly daughter team up in the face of adversity and intrigue, and as they unravel the secrets of their near-departed mom they both grow up and cop on a bit.

However, this does eventually tie (loosely) into said monkeyshines when we discover that Mrs King had a special friend that Mr King didn’t know about, and said special friend also happens to stand to gain a hefty ransom should Mr King choose to sell his piece of Kauai to one buyer in particular. See: That buyer happens to be the brother-in-law of special friend. Special friend is played by Matthew Lillard.

But special friend wasn’t doing it for the money – in fact, he was risking everything by having his special friendship with Mrs King, since Mr King holds the sole voting right to the sale. On top of that, he wasn’t even really Into Mrs King, he’s just a horny douchebag. So right when the movie came very close to tying itself all together it turns out naw, they was just fucking around.

It’s a good movie. The little daughter is cute and incorrectly funny; the big daughter is a bitch teenager but played very well by Woodley. The family incurs a tagalong, ‘Sid’, the airhead savant friend of big daughter who helps them through it all by being woefully inappropriate and never shutting up. Robert Forster (Heroes’ Arthur Petrelli) plays Comamom’s dad, an unapologetic sexist who walks away to cry.

There’s a Wes Anderson feel to some of the scenes – Clooney breaking from his characteristic stoicism to freak out a little, big daughter crying underwater in a leaf strewn swimming pool, any scene with Sid – and these give the film a little, albeit depressing, character. But though director Alexander Payne has long had it in for contemporary America, offering up dark satires about modern desperation like About Schmidt, Election and Sideways, this is probably his most hopeful film so far.

J. Edgar

The problem with J. Edgar is a lack of colour. While the facts of Hoover’s life are interesting for sure, he’s a man characterised by inaction – as a son he ignored his invalid father, as an FBI agent he made no arrests, and as a man he never acted on his feelings for other men.

After opening to some narration from an older Hoover about the difference between hero and villain in the eyes of history, the film cuts to the bombing of the Attorney General’s home – an event Hoover claims to have been present for earlier in his life. This typifies the structure of the story. J. Edgar paces his office, dictating his exaggerated memoirs to a series of typists – all men, and all of whom disappoint him in some way (including Gossip Girl’s Ed Westwick and one who looks like a young Barack Obama)

No doubt in an effort to make everything look period-appropriate; Eastwood made everyone look the same. All of them men wear near identical suits & sport matching of-the-time haircuts – once in particular I noticed Hoover and his protégé Tolson were wearing the exact inverse of each other: grey coat over black jacket with a grey hat – black coat over grey jacket with a black hat. I’ve no doubt this was intended to signify the bond developing between the two, but in a picture this monochromatic it just felt silly.

Hoover’s relationship with women is touched on a total of three times. The first is with his mother, who serves as prophet of his future as the “greatest man in this country” and a mirror to his soul – often inexplicably spouting exactly what Hoover is thinking, just in case the audience wasn’t keeping up. The second is his long-suffering secretary-and-almost-girlfriend Ms Gandy, one of the only two truly loyal people in J. Edgar’s life – loyalty being that which Hoover values above all else. The third depicts Hoover uncomfortably refusing the advances of a trio of women, giving us a small insight into his fragile and defensive nature.

It’s not a Bad movie. Some scenes that should be hard-hitting end up falling flat for lack of arc or impetus, but there’s a wealth of good material here. The scene between Hoover and Jeffery Donovan’s Bobby Kennedy was equal parts gripping and comic – gripping because of the characters involved, the weight of their discussion and the power of the two actors combined, comic because of the truly silly accents they both had to keep up; as the scene wore on it actually seemed like they were encouraging each other to go full retard.

Eastwood also takes the crossdressing scene, one that could’ve been a disastrous laugh-riot, and makes of it something tender and heartrending – a window into the hollow sadness of Hoover’s personal life. Equally compelling is the scene where J. Edgar is finally forced to confront his feelings for his protégé.

Obviously this film is carried wholesale on the Atlas shoulders of Leonardo DiCaprio, who breaks off a bit of his Howard Hughes character in certain scenes (a meticulous Hoover wiping his hands after every handshake, a beleaguered Hoover eloquently espousing the urgent need for and immediate benefits of his Federal Bureau of Investigation at a congressional hearing), and portrays this conflicted, driven and often tragic individual with his trademark careful, studied grit.

Despite these saves though, the film still feels like an outrageously well-acted documentary.