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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,
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.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

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

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


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

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.