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Film Review: Virunga

March 21, 2016 Leave a comment

Virunga (2014; Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel)

The long-plateau renaissance of the documentary feature since the turn of the millennium has affected not only the non-fiction documentary form but fiction film as well. Imagined narratives incorporate documentary mainstays such as shaky steadicam cinéma vérité camera work, scrupulous realism of detail, and subject interviews; everything from Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, to American television sitcoms like Arrested Development and Modern Family display such formal characteristics. But the membrane is porous and the osmosis is mutual. Documentaries have become slick, compellingly edited machines of not only observation and persuasion but also entertainment, incorporating genre elements to narrativize their chosen story in particular ways.

This is part of what makes Virunga such an effective and potent film, although the material itself is plenty compelling and elegiacally inspiring. Director Orlando von Einsiedel travels to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that beautiful, resource-rich, eternally exploited and troubled land in the heart of Africa, to document one oasis of enlightened, determined resistance to the alternating (and often collaborating) human tenderizers of capitalist goods extraction and brutal civil war. At Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of spectacular landscapes, dramatic volcanoes, and abundant wildlife including the last mountain gorillas in the wild, a dedicated cadre of rangers tries to maintain a fragile balance in this natural wonderland. This is difficult enough when their task is to combat poaching of wildlife or to raise young gorillas orphaned by those poachers. But their job becomes almost impossible when the newly-ascendant M23 rebel army ramps up hostilities with the Congolese government and threatens to overrun the park, while at the same time a British multinational corporation called Soco International begins oil exploration activities in Virunga’s Lake Edward.

In the absence of any other compelling authorities, Virunga’s rangers under Belgian administrator Emmanuel de Merode become a defacto stabilizing political faction, undercover police investigators, and biological scientists. André Bauma cares for four orphaned gorillas like his own family. The patrician de Merode rallies his men, lobbies government bodies and international organizations to aid in the park’s plight, and organizes evacuations in the face of the rebel advance. One ranger, Rodigue Katembo, spends his time off from his patrol post obtaining hidden-camera footage of Soco operatives seeking to bribe park officials for their cooperation. A French investigative reporter, Mélanie Gouby, runs similar surveillance missions with white European Soco employees and contractors as well as with the M23 itself. What emerges is an unholy (but entirely too common) alliance between the arrogant European corporation and the violent local rebel group to push aside any opposition to oil extraction in the park, an effort to be buttressed with violence if necessary.

Virunga bursts with life, conflicted emotion, and gravitas through genre-type episodes. Spectacular natural vistas and African megafauna are imparted with the artistic HD and swelling music of a prestige nature doc like Planet Earth, grounded by Baume’s endearing personal interactions with the frankly adorable gorillas orphans. The intrigue around Soco’s secretive plot to rob the Congo of its potential oil just as previous private actors have stripped it of rubber, coltan, ore, diamonds, and copper is an espionage thriller with ample night-vision hidden-camera footage full of shocking revelations. And when the M23 close in on the park station, editing and sound builds up to an unnervingly visceral montage of gunfire and explosions out of a war movie.

What Virunga‘s mixture of established political agit-prop documentary features and genre elements adds up to is a powerful piece of entertainment advocacy for a particular precinct of a grand African problem that the West has not only proven unable but ambivalently unwilling to solve. The Congo has been cynically exploited by foreign actors and their local Congolese agents for as long as those foreigners have known that it existed. Millions upon millions have died needlessly in several genocide-level bursts; imagine multiple Holocausts, Holodomors, or Irish famines happening decades apart without meaningful punishment or restitution or even significant commemoration, and you have some idea of the D.R. Congo’s dispiriting cycle of mass trauma. The West occasionally deigns to notice (that’s what Heart of Darkness was, after all) but it changes nothing.

What might Virunga change? The film did contribute to an international campaign to discourage Soco’s oil exploration in the national park, which has apparently seen the multinational back out of the project at Lake Edward. It has provided a galvanizing and aesthetically impressive document of unquestionably selfless dedication to an ideal on the part of the park rangers, often at tremendously dire personal risk (the post-script at the film’s conclusion mentions near-fatal attacks on both Katembo and de Merode, likely at the behest of Soco, M23, or both).

It also provides at least a partial blueprint for an overdue regeneration of the Congo and Africa beyond it. The Soco contractors that Gouby goes out to dinner with opine with the smug supremacist presumption that the only way to tame the “savage” local population and steer them towards capitalist prosperity is re-colonization, which Soco and other like-minded corporate strip-miners have essentially enacted in disturbing continuity of the exploitative order of King Leopold’s Belgian Free State. Virunga Park’s rangers offer a humble alternative: dogged quotidian labour in the service of laudable goals. If the Socos of the Western world can allow work ethic to do its best in Africa, and can turn their efforts towards improvement and empowerment instead of exploitation and dependence, then the Congo, a land of enormous gifts, might stand a chance of turning them to the advantage of its long-suffering people and animals alike.

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Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Make American Violent Again: Donald Trump and the Fabulist Utility of Force

March 16, 2016 Leave a comment

Donald Trump is well advanced in his quest to bully his way to the Republican Presidential nomination. His rivals watch as their tepid assaults bounce harmlessly off his overtanned ramparts, and find themselves either forging on against his wave of resentment and demagoguery with dogged and perhaps hopeless determination (Ted Cruz and John Kasich), shaking their heads in disbelieving regret at his continued extremity and popularity (Marco Rubio), or endorsing him, kowtowing to His Orangeness in abject diminishment (Ben Carson, Chris Christie). The force and aggression of Trump’s dismantling of the legion of (admittedly hapless) Republican hopefuls arrayed against him, indeed his levelling of the GOP as it had come to be defined after eight years of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in the White House and nearly eight more of Barack Obama in their place, has a ground-level expression in his fierce rallies. These have taken on an increasingly heated and dangerous tone, with protestors, media, and even curious attendees of visible minorities facing not only the standard verbal abuse to be expected in public expressions of American political rhetoric but growing levels of physical violence as well.

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Or, Make America Violent Again

I’m not here to debate if Trump rallies are becoming violent. They quite clearly are. Nor will I argue if Trump’s rhetoric in his speeches, full of demonization of groups and individuals and lionization of violence and threats of violence as solutions to problems of all stripes, has encouraged or incited this violence. Trump has not only roused his followers to violence, he has offered to indemnify their acts of violence by covering any legal fees they may face for their brazen assaults. There is a disturbingly high likelihood of serious injury or even death resulting from this escalation, especially if Trump becomes the nominee and campaigns into November. Should anything that extreme happen, of course, Trump and those clustered around his bright neon glow will surely shift blame to the victims themselves, or to the “politically correct” culture that does not allow them to inflict pain and death without consequence, or to whatever dubious opposing force they might choose to point a finger at. So much for the party of personal responsibility.

As Ezra Klein explores at Vox, Donald Trump believes violence and threats thereof to be lost arts of American civil society. Trumpism’s core ideology is that America has become weak and sensitive in the face of its enemies, internal and external, and must save its future by stiffening its spine and crushing disagreement and dissent, with brutal physical force if necessary, wherever it opposes American interests (at least as he defines them). This is the dark message that lurks behind (but not at all far behind) the nostalgic hypernationalism that Trump expresses with his campaign motto/catchphrase “Make America Great Again”. The way to Make America Great Again – besides handing the reins of its power over to Donald Trump, of course – is to Make America Violent Again.

Like many of Trump’s public utterances, there’s a penetrating inadvertent truth to his barely-a-subtext views in terms of violence that unsettle his paean to a faded history of American glory, if not openly contradict it. A cynical view of American history (ie. a realistic one based on historical evidence rather than comforting myths) would reveal a nation that was indeed made great through the application of violence to achieve its ends. The United States was politically founded in a Revolutionary War, won its land largely from battles, massacres, and forcible dispossession of Indian peoples, built its society on the brutalized bodies of African-American both enslaved and free, and has generally acted as an arrogant Us that has warred, shot, bombed, and otherwise eliminated millions of Them figures, on foreign soil and on their own. To whatever extent America ever was great, it could be argued that violence made it so. And for many people, that greatness was not so great.

Maybe Donald Trump grasps this to some extent, though his reification of a fabulist American past (which is always already an inherent white past, devoid of the despised diversity that is one of his rhetorical targets) would preclude him from admitted that American greatness was anything other than fundamentally righteous. What is clear is that Trump sees utility in force, sees it as an aid in achieving what needs to be achieved in restoring American prestige and primacy in the world. Conservatives in America and beyond have more than flirted with this idea for decades. Their persistent approval of the use of torture as a helpful tool in waging the War on Terror demonstrates this, despite ample evidence that it is not effective at obtaining useful information. But Trump has magnified the general approval of torture in and around the Republican Party to near-erotic levels of enthusiasm, unwittingly exposing the nasty cravenness of this belief with his sheer bombast. So it is with sabre-rattling foreign policy and iron-fisted responses to crime and public protest.

The admiration of strength, force, and violence is, of course, an authoritarian characteristic, and this description has been applied to Trump and his supporters for quite some time. In the fascism of 1930s-40s Europe, to which Trump and his following is often inelegantly but not inaccurately compared, violence was assigned an aesthetic value of the highest order. From the Italian Futurists whose artistic theories underscored Mussolini’s brownshirts to the inhuman scope of both the art and the atrocities of Nazi Germany, strength and its inevitable expression in violence was considered to be a beautiful ideal. War itself, with its mechanized mass murder and indiscriminate destruction, was conceived of as art. Adolf Hitler, a failed artist, sought to achieve an idealized order in politics and society that he could not achieve in his painting. The Nazis rendered horrors not only as necessary to a larger project of achieving symmetrical perfection, but as symmetrical perfection in their own right, and thus girded their heinous acts in aesthetic justification.

Trump’s aesthetic eye is not quite so refined, as anyone who has stepped into the lobby of one of his hotels can attest to. The ludicrous, kitschy idealization of the infamous painting of his younger self to the right will lend support to the AdonisTrumpmind-boggling statement that Donald Trump’s taste in art is worse than Adolf Hitler’s. But the aestheticization of force, the beauty of violence, is not what attracts Trump to it, and might even reduce violence in his eyes by associating it with pantywaist artistic creativity. Indeed, Trump himself, a product of wealth and privilege with small, soft hands, doubtless abhors the thought of personally applying physical violence. But the fantasy of violent strength invigorates him and dovetails with his alpha-male self-conception, and it melds with the explosive anger of his base of support at forces and institutions that are beyond their control and even their comprehension. The idea of violence, the fantasy of its utility, is an irresistible lure within Trump’s frightening quasi-political movement, for its avatar and for its faithful. The chief hope of those who oppose him is that the utility of violence is fabulist, or at least is a vestige of a fading America that, “great” or not, will not be returned or remade. If a Trump victory in the Republican primaries or, even more unthinkable, in the general election results at least partly from this employment of force and violence, this hope may well prove fruitless.

Documentary Quickshots #1

March 14, 2016 Leave a comment

Best of Enemies (2015; Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville)

Best of Enemies reifies its subject, the televised debates between conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. and liberal Gore Vidal on ABC during the 1968 American election, as a key (and unfortunate) moment in the development of American public discourse on politics. Directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville see the contentious debates, and their transparent personal rancour, as the gestation of a toxic, crippling polarization between the over-generalized opposing poles of American politics: conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat, rural and urban. The seeds of the intractable “both sides have their equal say” paralysis of America’s discourse were planted in 1968, according to Best of Enemies, and it’s not yet clear what the end point of this growth will be.

The documentary builds towards the climactic moment of the debates: Vidal referring to Buckley as a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley retorting that Vidal was a “queer” and threatening to punch him in the face. That two bright lights of America’s privileged elites, consummate intellectuals responsible for a series of talked-about best-selling novels (Vidal) and the modern conservative movement as we basically know it (Buckley), could devolve to name-calling and schoolyard threats of violence on national television seems a predictive instance to the ugly point to which the discourse had sunk. That Vidal’s success in getting under Buckley’s skin in this key moment and thus “winning” their war of words has been largely swept away by Buckley’s much greater and lasting political legacy (who reads Vidal’s then-provocative 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge anymore, honestly?) is an irony that Gordon and Neville do not allow to slip past them.

Buckley’s long-term triumph over Vidal is, indeed, at least partially a result of the devolution of rhetoric and polarization of political ideology that allowed Vidal to win the debates on points in 1968. The over-simplification and emotionalization of complex political and social issues serves the right-wing agenda much more than the left-wing one. As Donald Trump’s bullying run for the 2016 Republican nomination for President has made alarmingly clear, the peculiarly American form of political theatre is an guided missile constructed of alloys of personal attacks and weaponized policy and issues. What Buckley and Vidal’s debates did not quite predict was the increasing importance of identity politics. Both men were patrician elitists who purported to speak for vast political constituencies from above at all times and never pretended to everyman humility. American politicians still stem from the elite, but they have sharpened their ability to marshal and even embody any number of tribal identities from across the society. Still, if American political discourse (especially on television) can now often seem like two antagonistic voices shouting past each other’s ears without absorbing a word, the genesis goes back to Buckley vs. Vidal, and Best of Enemies capably documents that genesis.

Back in Time (2015; Directed by Jason Aron)

Movie fandom documentaries are a veritable cottage industry in American independent film. Name an enthusiastic genre film fan community and there’s sure to be a documentary feature or two or three about them: Star TrekStar WarsThe Lord of the RingsHarry Potter, and the list no doubt goes on. Compared to these extensive, pop-culture-spanning franchise colossi, Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future trilogy seems quaint and limited in comparison, but it inspires no less fanatical devotion, as Jason Aron’s Back in Time demonstrates.

Back in Time draws from the film and behind-the-scenes footage, material from various fan events, and surprisingly comprehensive interviews with principle creative figures. Aron gets great stories and opinions from Zemeckis, writer/producer Bob Gale, stars Michael J. Fox (witty as hell, even through his advancing Parkinson’s), Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, and more (the only major missing onscreen figure is Crispin Glover, for pretty understandable reasons), as well as fans from the famous (Community and Rick & Morty comedy doyen Dan Harmon, The Goldbergs creator Adam F. Goldberg) to the humble and everyday to the rather extraordinary.

The most extraordinary of those fans generally have one thing in common: they own DeLoreans, the iconic time-travelling car from the movies, and have often customized it to closely resemble the Back to the Future vehicle. These fans range from the professional to the more amateur: there are the restorers of the Universal Studios backlot tour DeLorean, which had fallen into decay over years of unprotected display; a Massachusetts family that runs its own custom auto restoration business and owns not only one of the movie’s DeLoreans but also Marty McFly’s Toyota truck; and, most endearingly, a couple who picked up a DeLorean when the male partner was diagnosed with terminal cancer and customized it with makeshift folk-art flourishes based on what they could glimpse from a paused VHS copy of the movie. The latter now drive their homemade flux capacitor around the United States to raise money for Fox’s charity foundation.

Back to the Future, with its speculative tinkerer’s scientific inquisitiveness, attracts like-minded individuals. But its finely-tuned screenplay also inspires comedic minds like Harmon and Goldberg, both for its flawless structure and its subtly brazen rule-breaking (a lead character without a real arc of development, that whole dramatic-irony Oedipal thing about a mother wanting to bang her son). Aron’s documentary is not as tightly structured. It divides itself in parts (“Film” and “Fans”), but jumps around willy-nilly within those loose categories. But it engages with most every element of BTTF that any fan, from the casual to the obsessive, would want to see covered: the production, the reception, the music, even some of the social and political implications of the film, as well as fan engagement. Back in Time is hagiographic and not as adventurous as its subject matter managed to be, but it gets the spirit of its subject broadly correct, and that’s all any fan might reasonable hope for.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Ant-Man

March 11, 2016 1 comment

Ant-Man (2015; Directed by Peyton Reed)

Marvel’s Ant-Man is inherently ridiculous. A superhero who can shrink himself to the size of an insect and who has an army of formicidae at his command? A ludicrous idea, even for comic books. Even in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that stands astride the Hollywood blockbuster like a colossus, such patent silliness would require more than a spoonful of sugar in order to go down easy with audiences. A movie about Ant-Man would need to balance precariously on a very thin line between acknowledging and laughing at its own goofy central concept while also treating it with the species of furtive seriousness common to the Marvel movies that aids in compelling acceptance from audiences.

Ant-Man, every inch a professional and capable product out of Disney’s increasingly sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, achieves this balance well enough, relying on the entwined crutches of the genre conventions of the heist movie and the fast-paced action-comedy. If it’s disappointingly limited as the former, it’s successful enough as the latter, although mostly as a tantalizing shadow of what it might have been. Ant-Man was initially green-lighted with Edgar Wright, the energetic auteur of independent-minded cult action-comedy funfests like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End, as writer and director. Wright eventually left the project due to those hoary old “creative differences”, although Ant-Man is one instance where those “differences” between director and studio, between the creative and the money men, aren’t at all difficult to fathom. The final product, helmed by veteran comedy director Peyton Reed (whose previous career highlight was, perversely, Bring It On), plays like a watered-down Edgar Wright film (he retains a story and an executive producer credit), with echoes of delirious ideas and set-pieces remaining but without the borderline-dangerous and unstable verve, momentum, and buried political rebelliousness that distinguishes his best work.

Like previous Marvel films, Ant-Man is an accomplished mixture of world-building, excitingly-staged action sequences, familiar thematic development, and emotional character motivations. It begins with a pair of separate plot strands that meet and weave together part of the way through the film. First, there is the technology business tension and conflict between Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a scientific genius, inventor, and retired secret shrinking superhero, and Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), a brilliant but unscrupulous protégé of Pym’s who has taken over his company and his research into subatomic particles and is obsessively seeking the key to the technology that will harness it for weaponized purposes. Such applications attract the interest of former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents with much more sinister current loyalties, which alarms Pym, who resigned from S.H.I.E.L.D. himself decades before in order to keep his shrinking suit technology out of their hands. Pym’s semi-estranged daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) becomes involved in his plot to stop Cross as a useful double-agent in a central role in Cross’ company.

Meanwhile, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is released from prison in the San Francisco Bay area. A physically capable man with a degree in electrical engineering, Lang was put away for a semi-activist electronic theft of funds from an unsavoury corporate employer. The laudable morality of his petty crime neither reduced his sentence nor his barriers to reintegrating into straight society, however. He can’t hold down a job due to his criminal record, even getting fired from a position slinging ice cream at Baskin-Robbins (the manager thinks it’s really cool that Lang is a criminal, but still lets him go), and it also costs him a closer relationship with his beloved daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), whose mother Maggie (Judy Greer) has remarried a cop named Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) who understandably takes a dim view of a crook inserting himself into their family life.

Thus failed by America’s broken convict rehabilitation system, Lang falls in with his former cellmate Luis (Michael Peña) and his crew of thieves and reluctantly agrees to follow up on a suspiciously juicy tip about a promising score in an old mansion. With the support of his crew, Lang displays cleverness and ingenuity in infiltrating the house and the safe therein, but finds only what appears to be an old motorcycle suit and helmet. He takes it anyway, but finds when he tries it on that it shrinks him to the size of an ant. The whole heist turns out to have been stage-managed by Hank Pym as an elaborate recruitment test; he has his eye on Lang as his potential successor as Ant-Man and a collaborator in his plan to swipe Cross’ Yellowjacket technology, much to the chagrin of Hope, who feels herself eminently capable of stepping into the suit.

This set-up is achieved with good humour, narrative intelligence, and simple-but-potent character development. Rudd, who took a leading role in the screenplay as well as onscreen after Wright’s departure from the project, smooths over Lang’s burglar-ish side with good-natured rakish charm and steers the film along that trajectory at least as much as Reed’s formalistically pedestrian direction does. There’s plenty of visual cleverness displayed on the effects level, with Lang’s rapid size shifts front and centre as a tiny speck darts across the screen, punching out anonymous baddies and, in a tangential sequence almost cynically foregrounding Ant-Man’s coming role in Captain America: Civil War, duking it out with Falcon (Anthony Mackie) while attempting to snatch a device from the Avengers HQ. His climactic battle with Cross/Yellowjacket, encased in a suit that grants him simlilar and perhaps superior powers, plays out in Cassie’s room with a witty irony that represents the closest Marvel’s films have come to a self-effacing puncturing of the massive balloon of the self-consistent importance of their shared universe. As the diminuitive foes go toe-to-toe amidst a toy train set, lobbing train cars at each other and derailing the locomotive, Reed cuts from the mythic action in miniature to a wide shot that wrily diminishes their exertions, placing them on the level of a little girl’s toys.

Both this sequence and a repeated jokey cut-away montage of characters re-enacting Luis’ idiosyncratic dudespeak account of learning through various sources about heist opportunities will wring appreciative chuckles or more from the viewer, certainly. But they are stylistic approximations of Wright’s furious, quick-cutting comedic and action riffs in a neutered form. Not only that, but Ant-Man in general lacks the dense sociopolitical thematic elements of Wright’s work, and indeed even of most Marvel films. The aforementioned implications about ex-cons’ structurally-predetermined difficulty in reintegrating into American life are mostly rote and played for laughs, and the usual alarums over corporate power and defence-contracting dangers have been drained of blood after three Iron Man movies and two Avengers outings. Ant-Man is fun (Peña is pretty enjoyable, and Douglas is having a grand old time with this froth himself), emotionally and thematically consistent, sometimes even ingenious, but basically never more than a shallow diversion. Marvel movies are usually the first three and more than the fourth, and Edgar Wright’s movies are exhiliratingly inventive and sometimes rather subversive recombinations of similar genre pieces.

It’s a worthy ambition (that I have mostly failed to live up to) to attempt to judge Ant-Man for what it is under Peyton Reed’s stewardship, rather than pining for what it might have been under Edgar Wright’s. It’s quite possible that Disney and Marvel and the considerable moneyed interests arrayed behind a summer MCU tentpole release got the sweats when faced with Wright’s surely more singular and challenging vision, whatever it was, envisioning with terror a repeat of the talented but distinctive director’s Scott Pilgrim film, a creative burst that was a painful commercial flop. Marvel has, at least on the surface, built a popular and generally compelling big-screen world by entrusting talented moviemakers with their comics’ characters and storylines, and not merely by throwing money and professional craft at the material with hacks rather than artists holding the reins. Ant-Man‘s final form, suggesting Wright’s particular style even though it slipped away from him, is not exactly a full-on compromise; Reed and his collaborators are too capable for that to be the case. But it does suggest, in its story of a big hero who becomes very small, that perhaps the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in terms of artistic scope at least, is not as large as it might seem.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Descendants

The Descendants (2011; Directed by Alexander Payne)

The Descendants is the kind of film that at least a handful of critics inevitably pronounce, usually in a tone of self-satisfied relief, as being “for adults”. This epithet does not imply that it’s sexually explicit, violent, gory, or otherwise full of “strong” content, but that it calmly, realistically depicts reasonably normal (read: socioeconomically comfortable white) people proceeding with their lives and all the struggles and anxieties and hurt therein. It might also imply, in a double-edged way, that the movie is frankly a bit boring. This need not be the case; a movie can be about problems of a smaller nature than, let’s say, existential threats to the planet or the universe settled by furious fight scenes between superhumans in colourful suits and still not be boring. The Descendants, a movie for adults, is about such human problems. The Descendants is a bit boring.

Alexander Payne has carved a critically-acclaimed arthouse-lite career out of well-made, nicely observed, basically good and fundamentally boring films like The Descendants. Generally adapted from unpretentious contemporary novels (this one is by Kaui Hart Hemmings) and featuring white middle-aged leading men in humbled circumstances coming to terms with any number of difficult things, Payne has settled into a certain recumbent pattern since breaking into independent film prominence with the subtly wicked satire Election. He hasn’t ventured near material with that kind of barbed underbelly since, and The Descendants is no exception.

The personified American male mid-life crisis this time is George Clooney as Matt King, an attorney based in Honolulu, Hawaii. He’s married with two daughters, but as the opening moments of the film tease and subsequent scenes more firmly establish, his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is in a coma after a serious boating accident. As Matt is informed that she will not awake and will soon be removed from life support as per the stipulations of her will, he faces up to his regrets about their relationship and his anticipated struggles in raising his daughters alone. To complicate matters, Matt learns from his 17-year-old daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) that his wife was having an affair with local Oahu real estate agent Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard).

Although Elizabeth’s passing may be imminent, Matt decides to seek out Speer on the island of Kauai, where he is vacationing, to inform him of her condition. He island hops on this species of redemptive quest with his daughters and Alex’s mega-laid-back boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) in tow, a subtly tense family unit with all outward appearances of relaxation (which might be genuine, because how can one be anything but relaxed in Hawaii?). The Kauai backdrop is vital, as Matt is also at the centre of an important land deal on the oldest island in the archipelago. His family holds 25,000 acres of untouched land as a trust, and with the trust due to expire and Matt as sole trustee presiding over a gaggle of disagreeing cousins, a lucrative sale to developers appears imminent.

Elizabeth King’s impending death and the land trust’s impending sale are metaphorically linked by Hemmings and thus by the Oscar-winning adapted screenplay by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash. The Descendants, as the title suggests, is about legacies, about what we leave behind us when we’re gone. For Matt, his legacy is his daughters and the land, and they become more closely linked in his mind and his heart with his wife dying. A more submerged element of the legacy theme has to do with Hawaii itself, an archipelago taken from its indigenous population by Matt’s own ancestors (a likely role, though not openly implied in the text) in one of America’s more minor imperialist actions. Matt admits that he and his family are extremely haole, a complex and more than a little derogatory native Hawaiian term for off-islanders, especially those of European descent. But they are descended from one of Hawaii’s last indigenous royals as well, and the Kauai land trust came direct from the royal family (this is an autobiographical flourish from Hemmings, who also has such illustrious family history).

Matt’s family legacy is thus inextricably linked with Hawaii, its land and its culture. A voiceover as they fly from one island to another explicitly analogizes his family to an archipelago, scattered and separated but deeply connected, too. These connections are imparted with impeccable visual beauty near the film’s end, as Matt and his daughters paddle out in an outrigger canoe to scatter Elizabeth’s ashes in the Pacific Ocean off Honolulu. Their three leis float together on the shimmering blue surface of the water, shot and composed by Payne from underwater (assuming Elizabeth’s perspective?) as a gorgeous expression of their togetherness, their connection to each other, to the islands, to the dead. Their legacy is one of belonging, which might be a critiquable justification of the history of American colonialism in Hawaii but is still heartfelt despite that.

The Descendants is frequently a lovely movie. Payne and his DP Phedon Papamichael are quite visually capable, though one hardly needs to be when shooting in Hawaii; almost anywhere you point the camera reveals a spectacular panorama, especially in locations like the jaw-dropping Hanalei Bay on Kauai, where Matt tracks down Brian Speer. Clooney expertly conveys Matt’s interconnected thoughts and feelings about his situation, especially his conflicted and dissatisfied reaction to finally meeting Speer. Woodley found her breatkthrough role here, and Robert Forster shows up as Matt’s gruff father-in-law. It serves its themes and emotions well. But what’s it all for? What’s at stake, besides the legacy of a well-off haole lawyer who wears a Hawaiian short and shorts to work? The Descendants is “real”, it’s “for adults”, it’s genuine and sometimes even moving. But there always feels like there ought to be something more to draw the audience in, to implicate us in what is happening in Matt King’s (mostly charmed) life. There never quite is, and that’s a little boring, to be honest.

Categories: Film, Reviews