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Countdown to Top Ten 2K11: “The Descendants”

Countdown to Top Ten 2K11: “The Descendants” (photo)

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Countdown to Top Ten 2K11 is a column with one simple goal: to help you decide what films you need to see before making your end of the year top ten list. Each installment features my thoughts on a critically acclaimed 2011 movie, a sampling of other critics’ reactions, the odds of the film making my own list, and the reasons why it might make yours.

This time we’re covering “The Descendants,” in which George Clooney plays a family man besieged by personal and professional crises. The film’s already racked up a Best Picture award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and a Best Actor and Supporting Actress from the National Board of Review. But is it worth selling your first born child to see it? Let’s find out.

Movie: “The Descendants”
Director: Alexander Payne
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%
Plot Synopsis: A distant father and husband (Clooney) is forced to reassess his priorities after his wife is severely injured in a boating accident while he’s trying to decide what to do with his family’s inheritance: the last piece of unspoiled land left in Hawaii.
What the Critics Said: “A serious movie that happens to have a sense of humor,” Leonard Maltin, indieWIRE
“The noblest kind of satire: cruel and yet, in the end, lacking the killing blow,” David Edelstein, New York
“Clooney anchors the film with his customary rock-solid charm,” Eric D. Snider, Film.com
Were They Right? I would agree with all of these critics. “The Descendants” is less of a comedy than an occasionally funny drama; it’s a warm and not especially cruel satire; and Clooney certainly anchors the film with dependable charm. But I think I also liked the movie less than these fine gentlemen. Yes, it’s a serious movie with some laughs — but it would be a serious movie with more laughs if the jokes and observations in it were a little bit funnier. The satire could use a little edge; maybe not a “killing blow,” but at least one hard punch to the gut. And Clooney… all right so Clooney is pretty fantastic. His performance as Matt King, Honolulu lawyer and accidental land baron, is as beautiful as his family’s parcel of priceless beachfront property and as casual as his wardrobe of Hawaiian shirts and khakis. He’s the reason to see this movie.

The film is ultimately about something I recently heard Jerry Seinfeld describe on his current stand-up tour: the fact that everyone’s life sucks but that the divide between “sucks” and “great” isn’t as wide as you might think. Matt lives in Hawaii, but as his opening voiceover insists, the place isn’t the utopian paradise we imagine. The people who live there have problems as real and as painful as ours. They just deal with them while wearing sandals and watching the sun set over the Pacific.

The set of circumstances Matt finds himself in are curious ones, and it’s incredible to watch Clooney develop the character as those circumstances continually evolve over the course of the film. As “The Descendants” begins, Matt’s wife gets into a terrible accident during a boat race. A few weeks earlier, Matt was probably an uncomplicated, easygoing guy who thought he had everything figured out. But now the shock causes him to rethink his life. Maybe he should spend more time with his wife and two daughters. And maybe the land deal he and his extended family are considering, which would make them all rich but turn the last virgin piece of land on the Hawaiian islands into a condo and box store ridden nightmare, isn’t such a good idea.

“The Descendants” has a few more twists in store for Matt and his family, and while they’re good for a few chuckles, a lot of them also distract from these more interesting moral dilemmas. Payne seems to be trying to infuse his wandering narrative with the laid-back tropical vibe adopted by so many island residents. He may have nailed it a little too perfectly. He may have also tried to cram too many plot threads into such leisurely paced film; for a movie about life and death and million-dollars decisions, there are too many digressions and not enough urgency. In the end, the gravity of Matt’s choices feels totally diminished. His daughters, played by Shailene Woodley and Alexandra King, are both good young actors, but some of the other supporting cast members around them seem unsure whether they’re in a comedy or drama. Again, that might have been Payne’s intent, to portray life as a mixture of laughter and tears, but some of these people feel like they’re from two totally different movies. The tone, material, and the acting, are all less assured than Payne’s last film, the wonderful “Sideways,” which was another (but far more effective) movie about a morally confused middle-aged man learning to let go.

“The Descendants”‘ problems aren’t reason enough not to see it; it’s still a fine film. It’s not that far from being a great film. But as we’ve already established, the line between sucks and great is perilously close.

Worthy of an Oscar Nomination For: Best Actor (George Clooney).
Chances of Making My Top Ten: About as good as me inheriting virgin land in Hawaii.
It Might Make Your Top Ten List If: that whole “distance between sucks and great” thing strikes a really profound chord; you love when movie stars remind us they can also act; Beau is your preferred Bridges brother.

“The Descendants” is now playing in limited release. If you see it, tell us what you think in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

Previously in Countdown to Top Ten 2K11
“We Need to Talk About Kevin,” directed by Lynne Ramsay
“Point Blank,” directed by Fred Cavayé
“The Arbor,” directed by Clio Barnard
“Cold Weather,” directed by Aaron Katz
“Meek’s Cutoff,” directed by Kelly Reichardt
“Margin Call,” directed by J.C. Chandor
“Bill Cunningham New York,” directed by Richard Press
“Hanna,” directed by Joe Wright

Have a movie you wanted covered in a future installment of Countdown to Top Ten 2K11? Let me know on Twitter.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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