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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.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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