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The Descendants (2011)
What is he going to do next?
I watch movies as a sociologist of cinema. My primary interests lie neither in the artistic qualities of a film, nor in the craftsmanship of the acting, direction, writing, or other aspects of the film's production. These are not unimportant to me, but what I care about most of all is the film's story and its depiction of human action and interaction. On this basis I rate "The Descendants" a fine movie. Not a perfect movie, not even a flawed masterpiece, but a fine movie nonetheless. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I watched it a few days ago. Not many films affect me that way.
"The Descendants" is a highly understated film. True, it is regularly punctuated by moments of intense pathos -- Payne allows many of the film's main characters (and a few of the minor ones) to have their emotive close-up moments -- but I found myself unmoved by any of them. However, I didn't see this as a problem; somehow it didn't bother me that I remained aloof from all the drama. What kept me engaged from the beginning to the ending was one central question: "What is he going to do next?" And the film never failed to deliver an engaging and provocative answer to that question.
At the beginning of the movie we meet Matt King, an affluent and affable character, to be sure, but more "reactor" than "actor" in his life. He lets his wife parent (sort of) their two children, he lets "the cousins" lead him, as the sole trustee of the family's real estate holdings, to a necessary decision about a land transaction, and on a bigger scale, he lets his routine work as a lawyer substitute for intimacy with his family -- he is completely blindsided by his daughter's revelation that his wife was cheating on him before a boating accident puts her in a coma.
Throughout the rest of the movie, we get to see Matt reckon with one decision after another. Virtually all of these decisions are put in motion through circumstances he has inherited. In this sense "The Descendants" is an appropriate title for the film. Like all of us, Matt King inherits a social situation largely not of his own choosing, but then he must actively choose what to do about it. How will he handle his difficult daughters? What should he do about his older daughter's new companion? When and how will he talk to his younger daughter about her mother? What will he do with the revelation about his wife's infidelity? Will he confront his wife's lover? Will he make trouble for that other man's wife and kids? How should he respond to disturbing new information about the land deal? And so forth. Not every decision is life-altering, but one by one they disclose the depth of Matt King's character. He turns out to be in possession of more nobility and grace than we are initially led to believe. Perhaps more than even he believed about himself. He's still human, but he's fundamentally a good guy trying to do the right thing the best way he knows how.
Curiously, the story relies on a legal mechanism to compel Matt to take action in both major story lines: a law forcing the trust to be dissolved within a particular time frame, and his wife's legally binding advanced directive requiring that she be removed from life support. He can't not act. This forces him to learn how to do what he's been able to avoid doing up until that point. And the more practice he has at it, the more he realizes that he can do it -- indeed, that he must do it if he wants to truly live his life. There are a couple of surprises and twists along the way, but nothing earth-shattering. It's not that kind of a film. It makes its point quietly, subtly, underwhelmingly.
Early on in the story Matt explains to the audience why he chose to live off his own income rather than off his inheritance. He says something to the effect of, "You want to give your kids enough for them to do something with their lives, but not so much that they do nothing with their lives." It appears that that was good advice. Like Matt himself, his daughters rise to the occasion when tested by trial. The closing scene is full of hope and promise of new beginnings as a family truly united.
Payne appears to follow that same advice regarding his audience. I've read a lot of reviews that describe this film as a melodrama or "soap opera." I disagree, and I never would have drawn that conclusion on my own. Payne gives his viewers enough to do something, but not so much that we do nothing but wallow in the tragedy. There's no tragedy here, just real life. What are you going to do next?
The Muse (1999)
Gets funnier every time I watch it
Brooks is the West-Coast doppelganger of Woody Allen, despite the fact that he's about twenty years younger & takes on characters decidedly white-bread Middle American Gentile. All of Brooks' movies are about him entering a critical transition period of life (or death). Like Allen's films, his variations on this familiar theme range in quality. 'The Muse' is a solid effort. Most Brooks films have funny zingers; this one has a whole filmful plus a clever story to boot, and a big-budget cast. The more you know about Hollywood and the motion picture industry (I recommend 'The Big Picture' by Epstein), the more true-to-life you understand the film to be, and thus the funnier the jokes become.
I'm not sure why it did poorly, and reading others' comments yields little insight. All I can say is that Brooks is never a fully sympathetic character--he is always at least partly to blame for his predicament--never quite the "aw-shucks" underdog. At least this time he and Johnson introduce other characters who are even more sympathetic to generate audience goodwill. Not to mention that the two leading ladies are both stunningly good-looking. Plus the whole Hollywood self-referencing is a lot of fun. Bottom line is, I believe that this is among the best of Albert Brooks' films. It has many winning qualities which permit it to transcend the Brooks formula. It shares a certain affinity with another wry comedy, "Being There"; both are stories about people being drawn in by the mysterious among us.
Soul Searching (2007)
Accessible and relevant analysis of the religious lives of teenagers
This documentary film was produced as a companion to the 2005 book of the same name, co-authored by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. It presents the main findings of their National Survey of Youth and Religion, as illustrated by profiles of about a dozen teenagers from around the United States. At least one teenager, Kelsey, also appears in the book. Most of the screen time is devoted to letting the teenagers speak for themselves, although there are other voices, including parents, coaches, religious leaders, youth workers, and Smith and Denton, who offer on- and off-camera summaries of their research.
Among the important items of discussion: teenagers are people, and as such they deserve the serious attention of all adults -- not just sociological researchers or youth workers; there is much diversity in the religious attitudes and practices of teenagers, so the news is mixed no matter what your personal position on religion; religious teenagers tend to 'do better' than non-religious ones, for a variety of reasons; most teenagers follow in the paths set by their parents, both in terms of the content as well as the intensity of their beliefs; and even intensely religious teenagers could use more religious instruction, lest they lapse into what the authors call 'moral therapeutic deism,' a generic and watered-down approach to their specific faith tradition.
The film was produced by a team of Christians, so religion receives a favorable treatment despite the apparent attempt at objectivity. This of course is supported by the research findings which highlight religion's salutary effects while avoiding some of the less savory and more controversial aspects of the history of organized religion. I'm presuming that its intended audience is youth workers, so the tone and stance both seem appropriate.
The book is a useful resource, although it can be a dense read in places; the film is a more accessible way of approaching this important research. It is also visually interesting and well-made.