The Descendants

Descendants Clooney and WoodleyAlthough this movie might not be suitable for all ages because of language and some adult situations, it is nonetheless a family movie.  It deals with the issues people face, both as parents and as children, and ultimately it addresses the responsibility of generations to their family.

When Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) falls into a coma as a result of a boating accident, her husband, Honolulu attorney Matt King (George Clooney), is forced to grapple with the problems his youngest daughter, 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) has developed in her mother’s absence.  Scottie has begun to act out her own insecurities by sending offensive texts, bullying her fellow students, and posting pictures of her comatose mother.  The time comes when Matt is informed by their doctor that there is no longer any hope that Elizabeth will recover, and, per her living will, will be removed from the machines that keep her alive.

Matt and Scottie fly to Kauai to pick up his oldest daughter, 17 year old Alex (Shailene Woodley) who attends a private school.  Alex is drunk when they get there, but she comes home with them.  As they argue, Alex reveals that her mother has been having an affair, so Matt sets out to find out who the man is.  Alex insists that her friend, Sid (Nick Krause) accompany them on this journey.  They must tell Elizabeth’s parents about the decision of the doctors.  Her father, Scott (Robert Forster), is a bitter man who is trying to deal with his wife’s Alzheimer’s disease.  When Sid laughs at her behavior, Scott punches him in frustration.

They discover that the man Elizabeth was having an affair with is Brian Speer ((Matthew Lillard), a wealthy real estate agent.  They discover that Brian has taken his wife Julie (Judy Greer) on a vacation to Kauai, so they follow.

All of this very personal action takes place against Matt’s family background.  He is the sole trustee of a family trust dating back to the last Hawaiian kings that includes 25,000 acres of prime land on the island of Kauai.  This trust is set to expire in seven years due to Hawaiian law and Matt’s cousins, who have squandered their inheritance are pressuring him to sell the land now so they can all cash in.  It is a matter of some concern to the Hawaiian people, as the developers who have bid on the land want to turn it into another resort.

Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Nebraska) adapted the Academy Award winning screenplay along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from a novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings, who served as a consultant on the movie.  His style is characterized by simplicity so that what you see is pretty much what you get.  None of the camera work or lighting ever imposes itself on the action and that is sometimes a very good thing.

George Clooney is terrific as Matt, driving the film from beginning to end with a restrained and thoughtful performance.  Alongside him, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller are absolutely perfect as his daughters.  Wonderful performances by Judy Greer and Beau Bridges (as Matt’s cousin Hugh) add to the dramatically powerful, yet sometimes comedic story.

The movie is engaging, heartwarming, and flawlessly beautiful.  With the landscape of Hawaii constantly dominating the action, the eye is never disappointed.  In addition, the soundtrack of Hawaiian songs, befitting all of the moods of the story, is an absolutely perfect addition to the storytelling.  In spite of the subject matter, it will leave you feeling very good, comfortable, and content with the world.

In an industry that thrives on thrill-a-minute action, larger than life special effects, and a blaring soundtrack, more movies with the passion, power, and humor of The Descendants are desperately needed.  I highly recommend this film!

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Gravity

Gravity Sandra BullockAlfonso Cuarón’s 2013 science fiction film Gravity is extremely well-made, a tight thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat for an hour and twenty-four minutes holding on for dear life.  It is almost a perfect movie.

This review includes vital information about the plot that may prevent a first-time viewer from enjoying the movie. Please read on if you’ve already seen the film.

On a mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), on her first space shuttle mission, works to install upgrades to the system. Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) flits around her using his maneuvering back pack as he attempts to break the record for the longest space walk, knowing he will never have enough time to do it.  Mission Control interrupts them to abort the mission.  Apparently, Russia has demolished one of their satellites using a missile and debris is now hurtling through space toward them.  As they make their way back to the shuttle, Houston tells them that the debris is taking out other satellites and they will probably lose contact, which happens almost immediately.

Before they can get back into shuttle to return to earth, the junk comes shooting through their area. Although it misses the two astronauts, the shuttle is destroyed and the other mission specialists are killed.   Kowalski and Stone must now take a very long space walk to reach the International Space Station (ISS).  Time is of the essence because the debris will returns once it has made its way around the earth.  Unfortunately, the ISS has also suffered damage.  One of the two Soyuz escape modules has been used to evacuate the station and the other has been rendered useless because the parachute has already been deployed.  In spite of this Kowalski believes that they can use this useless module to reach the Chinese space station and use their escape module to return to earth.  Their approach is fast and they bounce off the craft, but finally Stone’s foot becomes entangled in the chute lines.  As Kowalski flies by her, she grabs his tether and holds him tight, but Kowalski’s momentum means pulls against her hold.  To save her, he unhooks his tether and drifts away.

From that point on, the film is sharply focussed on Stone’s survival from the Soyuz capsule to the Chinese space station, which is disintegrating in the upper atmosphere, to her entry into its escape module and flight to earth.

Obviously, in winning seven Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing, it was clearly the best movie of the year and probably should have won Best Picture as well.

Cuarón’s hand is in most of the movie. Not only did he direct it, but he co-wrote the script with his son, Jonás, co-produced and co-edited it, so he deserved all of his awards, which also included six BAFTA Awards, including Outstanding British Film and Best Director, the Golden Globe Award for Best Director, and seven Critics Choice Awards.  The other artists that he surrounded himself with all made major contributions to the success of this movie.  The score by Steven Price is amazing, complimenting the action exactly as it should to keep the suspense at a high level.  The sound was so good that it was breathtaking at times.  Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is both flawless and inspired and the special effects by British artists Framestore is simply stunning.  Considering that nearly 80% of the movie consists of computer generated graphics, they certainly deserve a huge share of the praise for this awesome movie.

The human heart of the movie exists in Sandra Bullock’s inspired performance. Although George Clooney contributes somewhat to the action, his character is gone by the time the action really gets rolling and the only other in the movie is Dr. Stone.  This is Bullock’s film and she carries it from beginning to end with a high-energy emotional presence perfectly in compliment with the music, sound, cinematography.  Bullock has grown tremendously as an actress in the last ten years, especially with her role in Blind Side, but she tops that performance in Gravity.

Although it must be considered one of the best space films ever made, right up there with Apollo 13, there were a few things that bothered me and would probably keep the movie out of the top ten best science fiction films on my list.

There are many inaccuracies in the film, most of which can be easily overlooked, but not all. First, I do not believe that neither Kowalski’s mass, nor their speed would have realistically created the situation that forced him to un-tether himself so that Stone might be saved.  Their attempt to grab onto the ISS, hurtling into it and bouncing off, is a violent scene.  When Stone finally makes it inside, I expected to see bruises and contusions all over her body, but instead, she emerges from her space suit looking squeaky clean.  When she finally boards the Chinese space station, the same thing happens, but her grabbing a handhold while hurting at a prohibitive speed with the clumsy glove is extremely unrealistic.  The final problem for me occurred during her attempts to figure out how to operate the Chinese capsule as she pushed buttons at random and finally found the one that magically allowed her to re-enter earth’s atmosphere at the proper angle to avoid a complete burn-up.

I might be overly critical on these scenes—I’m sure most people wouldn’t have an objection—but I thought that all of these problems, with a little tweaking, could have been easily made more realistic and would have really made it a flawless film.

This is still a great and powerful film, a rollercoaster of a movie that shoots its way along an arc that is tightly plotted, with every aspect of the film working in complete harmony, and it does it with no discernable fat in terms of scenes or timing. Everybody should see this movie!