Nebraska

Nebraska is one of the year’s best movies and Bruce Dern gives one of the year’s best performances. Huge credit goes to screenwriter Bob Nelson and director Alex Payne for their story, their characters and their settings.

If you’ve ever heard or read about Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, or if you have spent time in a rural plains community, you’ll recognize many of the people and places in Nebraska.

Hawthorne, the town in Nebraska where much of the movie takes place, has both Lutheran and Catholic churches, plenty of bars and large plots of farmland surrounding the town. It’s the hometown of Woody Grant (Dern) and his wife Kate (June Squibb). They live in Billings, Montana now.

The journey to Nebraska begins when Woody gets a letter in the mail naming him the winner of a million dollars. He wants to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash it in. Woody’s son David (Will Forte) finally agrees to drive his dad from Billings to Lincoln. After an accident slows them down, they decide to stop in Hawthorne and spend the weekend with Woody’s brother and his family.

Kate and David’s brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) also head over to Hawthorne and a family reunion of sorts gets underway. Old memories are recalled. Will runs into his former business partner and town blowhard Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) who stirs up old turmoil. David learns things about his family that he never knew.

A favorite scene is a cemetery visit where tombstones elicit memories of past family members, friends, lovers and enemies. (I lived a version of that scene in my own life in 2009 with a visit to Gully, Minnesota, where my father-in-law and many more of my wife’s relatives are buried.) A visit to the old abandoned homestead brings back memories, some unhappy, for Woody.

Nebraska has several side characters that add spark to the film, especially David’s two cousins who are hilarious. Woody’s brother Ray, incidentally, is played by Rance Howard, father of Ron “Opie” Howard.

Director Alexander Payne shot Nebraska in black and white, which is perfect for showcasing a town that probably looks about the same as it did 50 years ago. He punctuates the film with lingering shots of plains landscapes, which communicate the sense of being in the middle of nowhere.

Dern won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival and is a likely candidate for an Oscar nomination. His character appears to be simple, but is revealed to be complex, with demons and resentments that have haunted him for a lifetime. Dern should be ever grateful to Payne and Nelson for handing him such a wonderful role, especially at this point in his life. He’s 77.

84-year-old June Squibb brings spunk to her role as the wife who has endured much during her marriage to Woody. She should also be mentioned in awards conversations.

Nebraska is engaging on many levels, but mainly for capturing true human emotion. I highly recommend you see this film and, if they’re still around, take your parents and grandparents.

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Philomena

Two things I wanted to do after seeing Philomena: I wanted to drink a Guinness. And I wanted to punch a nun.

Philomena (Judi Dench) is an elderly lady in the UK who has always wondered about the child she bore out of wedlock in the early 1950’s. Her memories include a fling with a boy, a pregnancy lived out in secrecy in a convent and hard labor to repay the convent for its services. The film’s true story is set in the early 2000’s, when the son would be about 50 years old.

Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is an out-of-work British journalist who offers to help Philomena locate her son, in exchange for her allowing him to tell her story. He’s a jaded media type while Philomena is a generally upbeat woman, despite the lifelong pain she has suffered due to losing her son. They make an interesting duo.

Their search takes them to the convent in Ireland where only minimal information is forthcoming. Philomena flashes back to the one hour each day she was given to bond with her son. She then recalls the anguish of seeing a wealthy family take her son away for adoption when he was 3.

Eventually their quest takes them to the United States where answers are found and Philomena gets some closure. There are no spoilers in this review, but Martin’s affinity for Guinness provides a clue to the puzzle’s ultimate solution. And the nuns in the convent are presented as particularly unlikeable. (If you’ve ever encountered an unpleasant nun, maybe in school, wait til you see these women!)

The story is entertaining and offers a few surprising turns and emotional moments. Coogan, in addition to providing a strong counterpoint to Dench, co-wrote the script.

Judi Dench is excellent as usual. She is lively, energetic and occasionally funny. Her onscreen charm makes Philomena a movie for grownup audiences to enjoy and savor.

(Note: Philomena was initially rated R because it has two occurrences of the f-word. After an appeal to the MPAA, it has now been rated PG-13.)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

In The Hunger Games: Catching Fire everything is amped up. Everything is more, compared to 2012’s The Hunger Games.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is more skillful, more passionate, more political, more focused. Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is more mature, more confident, more clever. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is more calculating and more concerned about the power and influence Katniss and Peeta are able to command.

After emerging as co-victors of the Hunger Games, the pair are presented to the nation of Panem as a romantic couple. They are heroes. Snow wants them to use their personal appearance tour to trump up support for his political system. When that backfires, he and advisor Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) hatch a plan to kill them off: a new Hunger Games featuring previous winners.

As for the actual kill-or-be-killed game, the competition again closely resembles TV’s Survivor. The game is closely monitored and every element is subject to being reset and reordered. The events of THG:CF deliver a satisfying outcome but leave much unresolved. This film, of course, is designed to set up the next two films.

Two over-the-top characters are even more outrageous in THG:CF. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) wears more eye makeup and her costumes are more ridiculous. Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) as host of the Hunger Games TV show is smarmier this time around. He almost seems in his announcing style to be channeling Michael “Let’s get ready to rumble!” Buffer.

Director Francis Lawrence, whose credits include Constantine, I Am Legend and Water For Elephants, brings amazing visuals and near perfect pacing. Happily, he did not feel compelled to resort to 3D.

It was wonderful at last year’s MTV Movie Awards to hear The Hunger Games actors thank novelist Susan Collins for providing the story that has fascinated millions of readers and moviegoers. Her narrative, her characters and her vision of Panem society are entertaining and thoughtful. I can’t wait for installments 3 and 4.

 

 

Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club lives up to the buzz it has generated. Along with the one standout performance that’s been hailed in blurbs galore, there are a couple more that are impressive. The fact that this movie is inspired by true events in the life of a real person adds to its impact.

Ron Woodroof (Mathew McConaughey) is a typical mid-1980’s Texas redneck. He’s a blue- collar worker who lives a hedonistic lifestyle off the job. That includes drugs, booze, strip clubs and casual sex. Although he is straight, he contracts AIDS which, in this time period, is still new and baffling to the medical/pharma community and frightening to everyone.

Upon being told his condition is terminal, he does research and reads about AZT, which is not yet legally available pending tests and FDA approval. Upon procuring AZT and other drugs for himself, he finds there’s a market for these drugs among other AIDS victims.

He forms a “buyers club,” where those who pay a $400/fee can help themselves to whatever meds he has available. To work around existing regulations, such clubs prospered in several cities in the 80’s.

Dallas Buyers Club presents Woodroof as a bit of a hero, one who goes to extreme lengths to obtain medications for AIDS victims, most of whom are gay. But Woodroof’s basic motivation is keeping himself alive.

When an actor gains or loses a significant amount of weight for a role, it generally garners attention. (Think DeNiro, Hanks, Zellwegger, Bale and others.) When this change is accompanied by a great performance, the effect is amplified. McConaughey’s work in DBC is outstanding.

During one hospital stay, Woodroof meets Rayon (an unrecognizable Jared Leto), a cross-dressing gay drug addict. His performance is eye-opening.

Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) is sympathetic to Woodroof’s cause, despite his upset at doctors and the FDA. Garner shows that she, too, like McConaughey, can handle the serious stuff.

Those of us who were around in the 80’s recall the developing AIDS epidemic, aka the “gay disease.” That’s when dentists started using rubber gloves, lest they be exposed to tainted blood.

I lived in Dallas in 1984-85. I worked with a gay newsman at my radio station. He moved to Miami a few years later where he died of AIDS. I wonder if he ever knew Ron Woodroof or someone like him.

McConaughey has to be considered for an Oscar nomination. Added to his work in Mud earlier this year, 2013 has been a year of redemption for him.

Dallas Buyers Club is rated R for many reasons, including sex, language, drug use, etc.

 

Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World is a big, loud live-action version of a cartoon version of a comic book story. The effects are good, the surprises are enjoyable and the comic relief is so random that some hardcore fanboys may get upset.

Chris Hemsworth is a better Thor this time than he was two-and-a-half years ago. He’s less stiff and more comfortable doing all those Thorian things he does.

As Thor jumps back and forth between his fantasy realm and our good ol’ ordinary modern Earth, bad guys who existed before time began (not sure how they managed that trick) plot to destroy Asgard. To defeat them, he calls upon his weasel brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), even though Thor knows he can’t really trust him.

Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Thor’s earthly love, is a walking billboard for girlish pursuits of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), long thought to be the domain of males. Her chum Darcy is played by Kat Dennings, who keeps ‘em covered up in TTDW. You’ll have to watch “2 Broke Girls” to get that Kat fan service.

They come to the rescue of eccentric science guy Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) who they spot on TV being arrested for walking around naked at Stonehenge. He, like everyone in the cast, is waiting for the “convergence” when, supposedly, many things will hit the fan. He generates a good number of TTDW’s chuckles and sets up Stan Lee’s cameo line. Selvig also has a hand in the film’s climax.

After Thor fights these wicked and particularly ugly dark world rivals in parts unknown (actually Iceland, on whose stark terrain battles were filmed), they follow him to modern day London to be clobbered again with that mighty hammer.

Thor: The Dark World is not a perfect movie. But it has a near perfect vibe for this story and this Marvel superhero. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), don’t leave until the screen goes dark and the theater staff comes in to clean up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Time

Time travel is such a hokey plot gimmick. A few decades ago, time travel was used sparingly. Now, it’s a part of so many fantasy/sci-fi movies and TV shows that it has become ho-hum. Am I fatigued with time travel? God, yes!

Having said that, in About Time, the device of time travel delivers a romantic comedy with that’s sweet and funny. Sure it’s a gimmick, but in this case, it works.

About Time is written and directed by Richard Curtis who is best known for writing Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and, in his debut as a director, Love, Actually. He also wrote the scripts for the two Bridget Jones movies. His movies are romantic, sensitive and, happily, funny. And generally set in the UK, as is this one.

Curtis does two daring things in About Time. First, he has cast as his male lead a relatively unknown, Domhnall Gleeson, a lanky ginger who was Bill Weasley in the last two Harry Potter movies. Gleeson is up to the task as Tim. He is fun and funny as a guy who uses the time travel trick to great advantage.

Second, Curtis has a scene where two guys meet two girls in a restaurant that’s totally dark. That’s right, the screen is black for a good couple of minutes as the guys chat up the ladies without benefit of seeing them. I’m not sure this literal blackout scene is a success, but it is memorable.

One of the unseen ladies is Mary (Rachel McAdams) who becomes Tim’s chosen love, thanks to a little time traveling by Tim. She’s earned her rom-com cred in The Vow and The Notebook, not to mention the raunchy rom-com Wedding Crashers. She is sexy, but in a non-sleazy sort of way. (Her dimples appear to get deeper with every film she makes.)

Tim’s Dad and Mum are Bill Nighy and Lindsey Duncan. Nighy is in great form as the one who shares the gift of time travel with his son. Curtis has handed him some good laugh lines and he lands them neatly.

Traveling in time cleans up many of life’s messes for Tim, just as it has for his dad. And that hokey gimmick is what gives About Time its charm.

The big question: Does Rachel McAdams have the star power to generate ticket sales? Because Domhnall Gleeson, as good as he is, is not a star. About Time will need good word-of-mouth to get bodies into movie houses. Here are my words from my mouth: If you like good rom-coms, you’ll like About Time.

 

 

 

 

12 Years A Slave

12 Years a Slave is slow, overly long and filled with disturbing scenes. It is also one of the year’s best movies.

The true story is simple. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in Saratoga, NY. He has a wife and kids. An accomplished musician, he is recruited by two “magicians” to provide music for their act.

After dinner at a restaurant in Washington, Northup wakes up in chains. He is kidnapped and sold at a slave market. Paul Giamatti appears as a slave broker, with the ironic name, Freeman.

Northup’s first owner in Louisiana is Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). He is, despite his participation in slavery, a decent man. He treats Northup with a bit of respect. He gives Northup a violin. His overseers, however, are brutal idiots. One of the overseers (Paul Dano, who is becoming typecast as a weasel) fights Northup and loses.

Later Northup is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), an abusive slave owner. The depictions of inhumanity are overwhelming. Brad Pitt plays Bass, a contractor who works on a building for Epps and utilizes Northup’s skills. The slave tells his story, Bass gets word to the folks back in New York and, in short order, Northup is freed and returned home.

Director Steve McQueen tells Northup’s story in a plodding, deliberate manner. But that’s appropriate. Life in the Antebellum South—even during cotton harvest—moved at a slower pace. It’s obvious that screenwriter John Ridley had to condense a good deal of the real-life Northup’s book to tell his story and to depict the life of a slave.

Movies have been around for over 100 years. Racial attitudes in America have changed greatly during that time. (See D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation for a century-ago depiction of black Americans.) It seems odd that Northup’s story would not have been brought to the screen until now.

12 Years a Slave is not light entertainment. It stirs emotions. It might make you cry. Chitwetel Ejiofor could be this year’s answer to Quvenzhané Wallis, the young girl who amazed in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Like her, he has a challenging name and owns his movie. (She, by the way, has a tiny roll in 12YAS as one of Northup’s daughters.) Like her, he is likely to be mentioned when awards nominations are announced. Unlike her, a rookie when she made Beasts, he is a film veteran who has now found his breakout role.

12 Years may be challenging for some audience members, but it has the basic elements that  make a great film: strong characters, a compelling story and a nuanced telling of the story. This is not the Gone With The Wind or even the Django Unchained version of slavery. This is brutal and stark. See it and be impressed.