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Featured DVD / Blu-ray Review: The Descendants - Blu-ray Update

March 12th, 2012

The Descendants - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray Combo Pack

From the minute Alexander Payne decided to work on an adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel, The Descendants was an Awards Season favorite. His previous three films each earned at least one Oscar nomination and he won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Sideways. Will this film live up to his career average? Is it really his best, as many are claiming?

The Movie

The film is set in Hawaii and begins with a shot of Elizabeth Thorson King enjoying herself on a boat. We next hear a voiceover from Matt King, her husband, talking about Hawaii and how living in paradise doesn't stop horrible things from happening. Shortly after the shot we saw of his wife, she was involved in a crash and was left in a coma. Now he is in charge of raising the younger of his two daughters, Scottie, while the older, Alexandra, is away at a boarding school. This would be tough at the best of times, as he is, shall we say, inexperienced at being a hands on father. And with their mother in the hospital, she is acting out. Their family life wasn't perfect to begin with. For a while, the relationship between Matt and Elizabeth was distant.

Meanwhile, Matt also has to deal with his extended family on business matters. Matt's family are direct descendants of the last King of Hawaii, and thanks to this, they have huge tracks of land that have provided a lot of income over the years. However, a new law has come into effect and they have to sell the land. Some of his cousins are looking forward to the sale, as it could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars and not all of Matt's cousins were as wise with their money as he was. Other cousins don't want to sell the land to a developer, because they don't want this pristine land turned into more hotels and golf courses. Those who do want to sell are trying to choose between two land developers.

Throughout all of this, Matt is convinced his wife will recover, but when he gets the bad news that she is all but gone, he's has to tell his family. The shock is a little too much and he just wants to pretend it's not happening and just be a normal family, even if it is just for a little while. But first he will have to retrieve his older daughter from boarding school. Scottie is thrilled to have Alexandra home, but Alexandra is less thrilled. After Matt tells Alexandra the news about her mom, she reacts about as well as you could expect given the circumstances, but she doesn't want to talk about her mother, and she certainly doesn't want going around to family members helping her dad give the bad news. By this point, Matt is losing his patience with Alexandra and tells her whatever her mother and her were fighting about, she needs to drop it. That's when Alexandra drops a bombshell. Elizabeth was cheating on Matt before the accident.

Technically that's a really big spoiler; however, it's given away in the trailers so I'm not worried about revealing it here. This is a good place to end the plot summary, on the other hand. It does set up the three main plot threads: Matt King trying to raise two daughters after his wife is out of the picture, Matt King dealing with the shock of finding out his wife was unfaithful, and Matt King dealing with the land his family owns and the different sides wanting different outcomes. The script does a wonderful job of developing these three threads and then weaving them together. We get to know these characters, who are much more complex than at first glance. As we watch them move through their journeys, we quickly become emotionally attached to them.

This is partially due to the amazing writing, but also due to the award-worthy acting. I'm disappointed George Clooney didn't win the Oscar for Best Actor, but I'm just as disappointed Shailene Woodley didn't at least earn an Oscar nomination. She did earn a number of major nominations and even won the Independent Spirit Award, so her work didn't go unnoticed. I'm not a fan of The Secret Life of the American Teenager, but her performance here has given me a lot more respect. On a side note, she's like this year's Mila Kunis, in that she earned a lot of nominations and even some awards, but missed out on the Oscar nod.

The Extras

The extras on the DVD are limited to a trio of featurettes. Everybody Loves George is a seven and a half minute long featurette on George Clooney and how much everybody loves him. Working With Alexander is close to 14 minutes long and is about Alexander Payne and how much everybody loves him. Finally, Hawaiian Style runs 17 minutes and it is about the locations and how the spirit of Hawaii is infused into every part of the film.

The Blu-ray has arrived and only a day late. There were plenty of exclusive extras, although they don't push the technology. These start with two deleted scenes with intertitles explaining the cuts. The Real Descendants spends 12 minutes talking about the real life history of the family this film is loosely based on. The 8-minute featurette, Casting, is self-explanatory. Working With Water is an 11-minute featurette on trying to film on the ocean. Waiting for the Light is a 3-minute behind-the-scenes featurette while the filmmakers wait for a cloud to pass by so that the light it right. There is a short, silent film called The World Paradise: Hawaii. This archival 10-minute short film shows off all of the attractions of Hawaii and it is quite interesting, although it would have been nice if some background music was included. A Conversation with George Clooney and Alexander Payne has George Clooney and Alexander Payne talking about filmmaking for 12 minutes. Finally there are three music videos. Like I said, it doesn't push the technology, but it certainly provides a lot of additional value to the Blu-ray.

As for the tech specs, the film looks amazing with excellent details and fantastic colors. This is most important while the movie showcases the Hawaiian natural beauty. There are deep black excellent contrast and absolutely no compression issues. The audio is nearly as strong, but as a dialogue driven drama, its audio mix is not very complex.

Finally we get to the price. The Combo Pack costs 33% more and does have some exclusive extras and looks and sounds great in high definition. None of the extras push the technology, nor is this a visual / audible feast, but it is still worth paying the extra money.

The Verdict

Overall, The Descendants isn't the best film from 2011 I've reviewed, but it is clearly in the top ten, and I've reviewed more than half of the Best Picture Oscar nominees. The DVD is absolutely worth picking up, while the Blu-ray Combo Pack is Pick of the Week material.

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