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The Descendants: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy Review

The Descendants (2011) movie poster The Descendants

Theatrical Release: November 16, 2011 / Running Time: 115 Minutes / Rating: R / Songs List

Director: Alexander Payne / Writers: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash (screenplay); Kaui Hart Hemmings (novel)

Cast: George Clooney (Matt King), Shailene Woodley (Alexandra King), Beau Bridges (Cousin Hugh), Robert Forster (Scott Thorson), Judy Greer (Julie Speer), Matthew Lillard (Brian Speer), Nick Krause (Sid), Amara Miller (Scottie King), Mary Birdsong (Kai Mitchell), Rob Huebel (Mark Mitchell), Patricia Hastie (Elizabeth King), Barbara Lee Southern (Alice "Tutu" Thorson), Matt Corboy (Cousin Ralph), Laird Hamilton (Troy Cook), Karen Kuioka Hironaga (Barb Higgins), Celia Kenney (Reina), Scott Michael Morgan (Barry Thorson)
The Descendants is one of DVDizzy.com's Top 100  Movies of the Half-Decade (2010-2014).The Descendants ranks 39th in our list of the Top 100 Movies of the Half-Decade (2010-2014).

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Alexander Payne adds another human dramedy to his filmography with The Descendants, his first feature film since 2004's Sideways.

Adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings' 2007 novel of the same name, The Descendants centers on Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer in Hawaii with two big things going on in his life.
His wife of many years, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), has been in a serious boating accident and lies in a coma. Meanwhile, a 25,000 acre plot of land on the island of Kaua'i that has been passed down the King family for generations, is on the verge of being sold. The family trust will expire in seven years and though many cousins hold a stake and opinions, Matt alone will decide the land's fate as the sole trustee.

The first of these two matters has been occupying more of Matt's time. As "the backup parent", he is ill-equipped to single-handedly look after his two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara King) and disrespectful 17-year-old prep school student Alex (Shailene Woodley). Upon learning that Elizabeth will not be making a recovery, Matt picks up Alex and begins making preparations. Along with plenty of attitude, Alex drops a revelation on her father, that Elizabeth had been cheating on him.

Matt King (George Clooney) receives the sad news that his longtime wife will not be recovering from her boating accident injuries. Grief is just one of the processes Alex (Shailene Woodley) finds herself in the middle of.

Matt looks into the realtor accused of the adultery, taking his daughters and Alex's outspoken friend Sid (Nick Krause) on a spontaneous Kaua'i vacation for reconnaissance purposes and as a needed break from executing Elizabeth's will and voting on the land sale.

The Descendants doesn't sound all that special or appealing in straightforward synopsis, but then Payne's movies never really have. Their power has come in their presentation, which the director packs with wit, personality, and poignancy. All three of those elements are supplied in abundance here in what is Payne's most sophisticated and satisfying film to date.

I can think of no actor better suited to play Matt King than George Clooney. He is one of the few bona fide movie stars to bring both familiar comfort and distinct prestige to every vehicle he accepts. He's been a leading man of film for less than twenty years, aging slowly and gracefully while appearing in a varied array of material for the likes of Steven Soderbergh, the Coen Brothers, and himself. Rarely does he dazzle you with a surprising characterization, even when he stretches. Never does he give a film any less than what it needs. In a departure from the suave confidence he usually exudes, you buy Clooney in this role as a man who has relegated child-rearing to his wife and suddenly finds himself dropped in the deep end of the parenting pool. The actor simultaneously conveys warmth, love, flaws, and incompetence. The family bits are funny without being too broad, smart without being overly aware, and soulful without overdoing sentimentality.

As Cousin Hugh, Beau Bridges isn't much more kempt than his younger brother's Dude. Matthew Lillard makes his first appearance as realtor and "other man" Brian Speer on a bench advertisement.

You needn't be as accomplished as Clooney for Payne to draw a knockout performance from you. The director's knack for giving choice opportunities to deserving parties continues here. The Descendants establishes Shailene Woodley, star of ABC Family's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager", as a serious dramatic talent (and Golden Globe nominee).
It also gives veteran actors as diverse as Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, and Robert Forster resonant turns that are sure to jump to or near the top of their distinguished credits lists. Among the most memorable cast members is Nick Krause, who steals scenes as the immature but not entirely insubstantial voice of his generation.

The Descendants was nominated for five major Oscars, including Best Picture, for which it was the only R-rated nominee. It won the adapted screenplay honor, Payne's second, this time shared with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who seem to have handled a first draft. That was a fitting accolade for a film not flashy enough to win anything bigger or stylish enough to compete for any awards more technical than editing. It is easy to take such a movie for granted, especially one whose broad appeal (evidenced by its robust box office showing of $82 million domestically and $88 M and counting overseas) might well elude younger viewers. But it really takes unique talents to make a film like this, which doesn't rely upon hullabaloo or history to bore its way into your heart and tickle your soul.

The Descendants is now available on DVD and in this review's subject, a 2-disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack.

The Descendants: 2-Disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

2.40:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish, English DVS)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, English DVS), Dolby Surround (French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
DVD Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: March 13, 2012
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9)
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in standalone DVD ($29.98 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Any film that shoots in Hawaii is bound to be handsome, a fact upheld by The Descendants which boasts much lush scenery of the colorful islands. The picture isn't the sharpest around, but it is clean, vibrant, and highly pleasing. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio also satisfies with its suitable presentation of mostly nonverbal Hawaiian music (which Payne has provided in lieu of a traditional score). The dialogue that drives the film is always crisp and clean. There is also a decent amount of atmospheric sound.

Alex (Shailene Woodley) opens up to her father in the more significant of two deleted scenes. Alexander Payne makes an omelette in "Working with Alexander."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The hearty supply of bonus features is entirely exclusive to the Blu-ray Disc on this combo pack, which presents them all in high definition.

The extras begin with two deleted scenes (5:46), presented with formal text introductions by director Alexander Payne.
The first is a brief moment, while the second presents a father-daughter heart-to-heart that touches on the subject of drugs. It wouldn't have added anything, but it's nice to get here.

"Everybody Loves George" (7:27) gathers high praise from Clooney's co-stars and crew members. This vanity featurette borders on self-parody, but it is lightened by a bit of sarcasm and behind-the-scenes levity including Clooney's impressions. "Working with Alexander" (13:34) applies the same treatment to writer/director Payne, with fewer tongue-in-cheek remarks, more insight from the subject himself, and, in lieu of fly-on-the-set hilarity, some omelette making.

"The Real Descendants" (12:06) discusses the lineage of the actual owners of the featured land, a subject probably of little interest to most viewers, except perhaps Hawaii history buffs.

In "Hawaiian Style", Robert Forster shares his favorite Hawaiian phrase: aloha pau 'ole. Rob Huebel shares with us the voicemail Alexander Payne left him to offer him the part of Mark Mitchell.

"Hawaiian Style" (16:47) shows the impact of local flavor on the production, beginning with an Hawaiian priest's blessing and moving towards things like culture and geography. It soon devolves into the cast and crew pouring praise on the location, its food, and native phrases. It's the closest to a general making-of featurette we get here.

"Casting" (8:11) opens up about the diverse lot of actors assembled here and how they were chosen for their roles, from auditions to a desperate search for the part of Scottie.

"Working with Water" in boat scenes is shown to be mildly challenging. Three music videos treat us to rainbows and other beautiful Hawaiian imagery.

"Working with Water" (10:58) explores the challenges of filming scenes on boats and underwater with some tangential reflections.

Three music videos (10:28) are provided, but don't expect to find your favorite bands performing among film clips. Instead, the songs -- Makana's "Will I Ever See You Again", James "Bla" Pahinui's "Gabby Kai (Postcards from Paradise)", and DNA's "Honolulu's Whisper" -- are instrumentals and the videos simply feature apropos Hawaiian scenery. That makes these more artistic and of greater interest to some (especially Hawaii lovers) than the typical commercial film music video.

"Waiting for the Light" (2:52) is a short montage of footage of cast and crew members waiting for clouds to pass and give them the light needed.

A man proudly displays a collection of one of Hawaii's local fruits in Castle Films' "The World Parade: Hawaii." George Clooney and Alexander Payne talk about their movie and others that inspire them.

A random and unexpected inclusion is The World Parade: Hawaii (9:55), a silent short film from the 1940s shot and edited by Eugene W. Castle.
This rough-looking one-reeler captures the sights and flavor of the islands (flowers, surfing, hula) before they became the fiftieth state. It's an interesting curiosity, though one wonders what the reasoning (aside from the obvious geographic relevance and public domain licensing) behind its atypical presence here.

"A Conversation with George Clooney and Alexander Payne" (11:58) finds star and director talking about their film with humor but seriousness. They chat about classic films and performances they admire (from To Kill a Mockingbird to Casino), their past experiences in film and television, and working with each other. It's a nice little interview and probably the disc's best extra.

The extras conclude with The Descendants' original theatrical trailer (2:14). Fox has become the one major studio reliably (and appropriately) including these on every film's DVD. The Sneak Peek submenu provides access to the three promos with which the disc opens, for We Bought a Zoo, Fox World Cinema, and Snow Flower & the Secret Fan, and, fulfilling Weinstein-Fox cross promotion, adds a trailer for My Week with Marilyn.

The DVD sold on its own includes just three of these many bonus features: "Everybody Loves George", "Working with Alexander", and "Hawaiian Style." Here, though, it has no extras, only digital copies of the film in iTunes and Windows Media formats for easy transfer to a computer or portable device.

On both discs, the menu employs Hawaiian music and a floral border. Showing that Fox is one of the best studios around in disc authoring, the Blu-ray resumes playback and supports bookmarks too.

The eco-friendly Blu-ray case is topped by a glossy cardboard slipcover. Inside, we find two inserts: one supplying directions and code for the digital copy, and the other promoting My Week with Marilyn with a not-too-shabby $4 off manufacturer's coupon that expires at the end of June 2012.

On a father-daughter reconnaissance mission, Matt (George Clooney) and Alex (Shailene Woodley) get their first look at Brian Speer in bench advertisement form.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Descendants lives up to its buzz as one of last year's most human and enjoyable films. With a dry, low-key tone and a pretty even mix of comedy and drama, this will not be everyone's cup of tea, but if you've enjoyed Alexander Payne's previous movies, you are likely to like or maybe even love this one.

On the merits of the film, Fox's combo pack is worth checking out. Its Blu-ray presentation is stellar, although there is not too much of interest in the nearly two hours of extras.

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The Descendants Songs List (in order of use): Gabby Pahinui - "Ka Makani Ka'ili Aloha", Keola Beamer and George Winston - "Kalena Kai", Ozzie Kotani and Daniel Ho - "Paka Ua", Steve Di Laudo and Andrew Lein - "Jean's Theme", Sonny Chillingworth - "Hi'ilawe", Anthony Natividad - "An Artist's Vision", Sol Hoopii's Novelty Trio - "Ka Mele Oku'u Pu'uwai", Keola Beamer - "Kalena Kai", Gabby Pahinui - "Kaua'i Beauty", 'Elua Kane - "Papa Sia", Gabby Pahinui - "Leahi", Ray Kane - "Auwe", Keola Beamer - "Poli'ahu", Gabby Pahinui - "Hi'lawe", George Kahumoku, Jr. and Richard Ford - "Interlude with Ukelele", Keola Beamer - "'Imi Au Ia 'Oe", Jeff Peterson - "Holoholo Ka'a", Sudden Rush - "In Ya System", Jeff Peterson - "Pua Lani", Jeff Peterson and Riley Lee - "Night Blooming Cereus", Jeff Peterson - "Hawaiian Skies", Makana - "Deep in an Ancient Hawaiian Forest", McCoy Tyner - "Miss Bea", Gabby Pahinui - "Wai O Ke Aniani", Makaha Sons with Dennis Pavao - "Ka Loke", Rev. Dennis Kamakahi - "'Ulilie", Jeff Peterson - "'Ulilie", Rev. Dennis Kamakahi - "Pua Hone", Pancho Graham - "Pine Tree Slack Key", Eugene Kulikov - "Wonderland", Danny Carvalho - "Sanoe", Nani Wai'ale'ale - "Kanak Attack", Kanak Attack - "The Yodel Song", The Flutterbies featuring Maureen Davis - "Faith in Rain", The Flutterbies featuring Maureen Davis - "Hummingbird Heart", Gabby Pahinui and Sons of Hawaii - "He'eia", Charles Michael Brotman - "Hapuna Sunset", Alex Wurman - "The Harshest Place on Earth", Lena Machado - "Mom", Ernest Tavares - "Hi'ilawe"

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Reviewed April 1, 2012.



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