May 29, 2015

Alternative to What: "The Descendants" (2011)

Left to right: George Clooney and Shailene Woodley
Welcome to Alternative to What: a weekly column that tries to find a great alternative to driving to the multiplexes. Based on releases of that week, the selections will either be thematically related or feature recurring cast and crew. The goal is to help you better understand the diversity of cinema and hopefully find you some favorites while saving a few bucks. At worse, this column will save you money. Expect each installment to come out on Fridays, unless specified. 

THIS WEEK:
The Descendants (2011)
- Alternative To -
Aloha (2015)



This weekend marks the release of the latest film to try and turn Hawaii into a trouble in paradise situation. Aloha is a film by director Cameron Crowe that features long lost lost and a very strange mission that most critics have derailed as the film's breaking point. This is especially odd considering that it features Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone, fresh off of Oscar-nominated turns from last year. It may go down as the director's worst film and may continue to raise the question on what exactly makes Hawaii so special to cinema that it needs to have continual conflict?
Then you'll find films like The Descendants. Coming out in 2011, it was a big sensation, even earning a Best Picture nomination. It was a film about a family who were dealing with an affair and a dying woman. It was comical, bittersweet, and featured one of George Clooney's most mature performances. It also features Shailene Woodley in an early film role, fresh off of The Secret Life of the American  Teenager, as his daughter who bonds with him as they uncover more and more secrets. As a whole, it was a familiar family drama wrapped around a tragic catalyst.
There isn't much that's necessarily exceptional about Hawaii in the film. While it serves as the backdrop for the location, it subverts most of the trends with conflict. Any visit to the beach isn't to look at the happy people, but to uncover something that has left the characters feeling sad. The beach is almost stripped of its exotic nature, replaced at times with an espionage-esque look into a life that they don't understand. Most of all, the pettiness paved the way for eventual understanding.


It does help that it is from director Alexander Payne, who has made a career out of focusing on family dynamics. While most of them are in the middle of America, this one escapes to a state that few filmmakers have dared to go. Even with this change, he manages to bring his penchant focus to the family dynamic and emphasize personalities over set pieces. Any comedy that is derived from the film is from the traits and not illogical pratfalls. Even then, it's mostly a story about family realizing that they're not perfect, but they can get through it.
There is little to suggest that Aloha is going to set the world on fire. In fact, its bad reviews likely will hurt it in the long run. Even then, the history of cinema in Hawaii is a small breed that has produced a lot of interesting work - most involving a twist on a love affair. In the case of The Descendants, it is about trying to come to terms with it while losing the one you love. It's a double-edged sword and one that plays out beautifully with a nice backdrop and goofy shirts. Luckily, it's so much more than that.

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