Every year independent cinema is filled with movies about young people lost, feeling disenfranchised without any idea of what to do with themselves. It’s true that a lot of young people feel this way, but they aren’t alone. So why, then, are so few movies made about older men and women who feel exactly the same way. Alexander Payne has done just that with Nebraska, a movie that shows Woodrow Grant (as played by Bruce Dern) as a listless man toward the end of his life feeling completely worthless and resigned to live out his days sad and drunk.
That is, until he gets a letter in the mail claiming he’s won a million dollars and all he has to do is get to the office in Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. Of course, the letter is just a bogus sweepstakes form that probably got sent to ten million other people, but it gives Woodrow something to live for. Something to be excited about for the first time since who knows when. He’s so determined to get to Lincoln that he attempts to walk there. After being stopped a couple times by the police, his son David (played by the hilarious, but not here, Will Forte) decides to call off from his own miserable job to drive him.
So begins an entertaining journey that somehow manages to be laugh at loud funny at times and downright depressing at others. Bruce Dern plays Woodrow perfectly, very still and quiet. He comes from a generation of rural men who felt actions were stronger than words, and after fighting in the Korean War he said even less. His brother, David’s namesake, died of scarlet fever at the age of 2, his sister at 19. His other siblings, all brothers, are just as resigned as Woodrow is in their old age. More content to sit in silence and watch television than talk to one another.
Woodrow’s wife, Kathy, is a spitfire of a woman played by June Squibb. As much Oscar buzz as Dern has garnered, Squibb is equally worthy. Her character is the complete opposite of Dern’s. A spark plug of energy that never finds herself speechless. I laughed at almost every line she said, whether she’s talking about all the boys in Hawthorne that wanted to get in her bloomers or calling Woodrow’s sister a whore while standing in front of her gravestone. Dern and Squibb play wonderfully together, and if you know any older couples you’ll see right away that they’re portrayal is very realistic.
I don’t want to say much more about the movie. To describe the scenes would be depriving you of enjoying them yourselves. I’ll point out a couple of key things, though. The decision to film in black and white was a good one. It gives the movie a classic look, and keeps your eye from being distracted so you can focus on the conversations the characters are having. Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray play David’s cousins Cole and Bart, and they are a riot. In one scene they ask David about his car and he says he drives a Subaru, his brother a Kia, and his sister a Nissan. “So,’ one says, “you all drive Jap cars?” When David replies that Kia is actually a Korean company, the look on their faces is brilliant.
Alexander Payne has a track record of critically-acclaimed movies, and Nebraska is no different. I fully expect it to see a few Oscar nominations when the time comes. This is my favorite film Payne has made since Election way back in 1999. The Descendents and Sideways carry an air of pretentiousness, and About Schmidt I just didn’t find all that entertaining. Nebraska has it all, though. Poignant and funny with spot on acting by all involved, including the excellent Stacy Keach in a very important supporting role. The film touches on the themes I mentioned above, as well as the death of small town America and the relationship between fathers and sons.
I’ve always been a fan of Steve Coogan. Since I first saw him in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People I’ve tried to seek out everything he does. He’s perfected the dry British wit so much that I would imagine it’s near impossible to have a conversation with him, never knowing whether he was serious or just pulling your chain. If you’re not familiar with him, go watch everything he’s made with Winterbottom, then grab the Alan Partridge series. He’s a genius. And like all geniuses, he’s bored of being such a comedic icon. Now he’s trying to show off his dramatic chops. Earlier this year he and Winterbottom put out The Look Of Love, and now Coogan has co-written and starred in Philomena, one of the best movies I’ve seen all year.
The story is a heartbreaker about a young girl forced to give up her child as a young teen, and her search fifty years later to find her son. Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, an Irish woman now in her sixties and completely worn down after keeping her personal tragedy a secret for so long. Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a disgraced spin doctor who decides to look into Philomena’s story as a way to return to glory. What starts as a selfish act disguised as a good deed turns into a sincere friendship.
Philomena isn’t terribly bright. Initially Sixsmith writes her off as a bit of a dullard. It doesn’t take long for her to prove that she’s got more working upstairs than he initially thought. She may not have his Cambridge education, but she’s been around long enough to have picked up a few things. They travel together through the Irish country side to the convent where her son was taken from her, and where the nuns kept her in indentured servitude until she was 18. While there Martin realizes there might be more to the story than either of them realize.
After doing some digging, Martin finds out that the convent was selling children to Americans in the fifties because they would pay more for them. So the two travel companions make their way to the US to track down the lost little boy, who by this time would be fifty years old himself. This is where the story takes a turn I won’t reveal here. It’s about the halfway point of the movie and it completely changes the tone of the film for a while.
What’s most surprising about the movie is how it handles some really serious and dark moments and gives them proper due, but still peppers in enough comedy to be highly entertaining. Coogan and Dench have great chemistry together which is good since they’re in almost every scene together from about the fifteen minute mark on. I’ve never been a huge Dench fan-she’s a good actress, but I’d never see a movie just because she’s in it-but I enjoyed her performance a lot here. If the movie gets overlooked at Oscar time, it won’t be the fault of the stars. Their performances perfectly bring the script to life-all the laughs and tears are earned.
Stephen Frears directed the film, and he continues to do great work every time out. I think he never gets his due credit because he switches up the kinds of movies he makes, but consider this list of films: Dangerous Liaisons, Grifters, High FIdelity, Dirty Pretty Things, and The Queen. All top-notch pieces of moviemaking. Here he sets the camera and lets the actors carry the movie, as they should in such a strong character piece.
Every year it seems it’s harder and harder to find interesting and passionate films among all the blockbusters and Hollywood garbage. But every year there seems to be a handful of films that take the idea of moviegoing seriously and provide a full emotional experience along with entertaining you for a couple of hours. I definitely didn’t think Coogan would be the guy to make my eyes well up, but his script (written with Jeff Pope) is one of the very best of the year.
Have you ever been driving down the road or walking through an alley and spotted really great looking graffiti and wondered how it got there and who the artist is? It’s happened to me, so I was really pleased to have a chance to watch Bomb It 2. This is the follow-up to Jon Reiss’s documentary about American street artists and the fight for public space. In this sequel Reiss goes globetrotting to find some of the best taggers working out there to get their story. It’s a quick trip, but one worth taking if you’re into the world of street art or just a supporter of public art.
We get to see a lot of different areas of the world, from southeast Asia to Australia and northern Europe it seems this form of art is popular everywhere. There’s an unexpected vignette in the movie where they go inside a Palestinian refugee camp to talk to two artists who have very different points of view. One believes they should keep adding to the art on the walls they’re enclosed in. The other thinks that the wall is a symbol of their oppression, and any attempt to beautify it is insulting to their struggle. It’s an interesting discussion, and they both make good points. I wish we could spend more time with these two because they’re easily the most interesting segment in the film.
Not that there aren’t other intriguing characters. We get to meet the giant monster squid artist Darbotz in Jakarta, and he’s a character. Even though the laws are extremely prohibitive, he seems to be ok openly defying them. He’s shown creating a huge piece on the wall of an overpass in broad daylight with tons of traffic passing him. Then there’s the guy in Hong Kong who was arrested for tagging in a public place, but then hired to make a mural by the government.
One thing the documentary makes clear in every location is that these people are artists, not delinquents. Too often people see graffiti on a building and assume that it was done by some thug or gang. A lot of the people doing this are really good artists who don’t have access to a gallery or a workshop to create. They just want their work to be seen and this is the best way they’ve come up with.
Each person that gets interviewed has their own take on why they participate in this art form. What’s surprising is how they differ from location to location. A lot of the taggers in Asia have similar stories about religion and hope. One guy in Copenhagen named Great Bates is quick to admit that he just wants to be famous-and in certain circles he’s achieved this fame. A few have a more altruistic ideal of their art, trying to give back to their community by painting over old dilapidated buildings.
Reiss does a really good job of getting these artists to talk about their work, and we get fairly engaging bits from pretty much everyone. There are a couple that could probably be cut in favor of longer scenes with a few of the more compelling characters, but for the most part the short run time is filled with good information and gives us fully formed humans we can relate to.
I liked Bomb It 2 more than I expected, but I wish it had been a bit longer. It’s right around 75 minutes as it stands now, and in that time we meet about 30 different people. After a long journey through film festivals and special presentations, the 2010 film is finally out on DVD and VOD today, November 5th.
We’re already to the midway point of the NFL season, and it’s been flying by so quick. One thing I like to do during the offseason is watch a movie that gives me at least a hint of football action. It doesn’t necessarily have to revolve around the sport. I just need a few scenes to wet my beak a bit. These are ten of my favorites-you’ll see the amount of football in each varies quite a bit.
10. The Program (1993) James Caan, Omar Epps
9. School Ties (1992) Brendan Fraser, Matt Damon
8. Everybody’s All-American (1988) Dennis Quaid, Jessica Lange
7. The Longest Yard (1974) Burt Reynolds, Eddie Albert
5. The Last Boy Scout (1991) Bruce Willis, Damon Wayans
4. Lucas (1986) Corey Haim, Charlie Sheen
3. Jerry Maguire (1996) Tom Cruise, Renee Zelwegger
2. Brian’s Song (1971) James Caan, Billy Dee Williams
1. The Best Of Times (1982) Robin Williams, Kurt Russell
There’s been a lot of talk about Only God Forgives since it debuted at Cannes back in May-most of it has been bad. Complaints about the movies over-the-top violence and slow pace have followed from the critics screenings to the public, and some folks are calling it the worst movie of 2013. I’m not ready to go that far yet, but I have to agree with both audiences and writers-it’s a well made horrible movie.
If you thought Drive was too heavy on plot and dialogue, you might like the quiet tone of Only God Forgives. Especially if what you really liked about Drive was the scene where someone’s head explodes all over a hotel room. While watching this movie I didn’t think that much of the violence, but thinking back on it, yeah. It’s fairly grotesque. They cut away from a lot of stuff, which means you can use your imagination to fill in what’s going on, and that makes it even worse.
The plot, if you can call it that, is a revenge story pitting crooks and cops against each other. Gosling’s brother rapes and kills a girl at the beginning, which sets off a series of events that leads to a lot of blood. The police chief (played by Vithaya Pansringarm) in Bangkok, where this story takes place, prefers an “eye-for-an-eye” type of justice system. When they find the dead girl and Gosling’s brother, they bring in her father and let him do whatever he wants to the perpetrator. As if that weren’t enough, since they guy decides to go ahead and beat the killers brains in, the chief makes him pay, too. Violence begets violence, indeed.
The revenge gets deeper when Gosling’s mom shows up. Kristin Scott Thomas has never been seen like this before. She’s an evil woman who’s been overseeing the drug trafficking her sons were into from the states. She’s like a modern-day Tony Montana with an attitude and mouth to match. When Gosling takes her out to dinner to meet his “girlfriend,” Thomas says some of the nastiest things you could imagine someone saying to a stranger.
The movie is only 90 minutes long, and already by the time the dinner scene happens I was ready for the movie to be over. The biggest problem I had watching this steaming pile was Gosling, who seems to be provoking the audience by trying to see just how far he can push his silent anti-hero shtick. As great as he was in The Place Beyond The Pines, it comes nowhere close to how awful he is here (or Gangster Squad). Thomas might be the only interesting thing going on in the entire movie.
I would say the police chief was interesting, but we’ve seen that kind of character done before. The actor who plays him does a good job of putting on that “constantly cool and collected” demeanor as he seethes with rage just under the surface. Of course, some of that cool factor gets taken away every time he pulls out a sword from behind his back (which is far too often).
Nicolas Winding Refn, after being hailed as such a great visionary director with Drive, must have been shooting this movie on LSD or something. The bright colors are constantly distracting-from what I don’t know because there is rarely anything going on from scene to scene. It feels like a Lynchian fever dream combined with the constant feeling of dread that Kubrick created in The Shining, only done by Rob Cohen or some other hack who couldn’t direct his way out of a shopping market cashier line. I didn’t count how many close-ups there are of Gosling’s hands, but it’s a bunch. Each one more infuriating than the last.
Would I recommend you see Only God Forgives? Absolutely not. Many will watch, either because of Gosling or Refn. There’s nothing new in the story, the violence isn’t shocking enough to feel necessary, and the whole thing falls flat before it even gets going. I just hope that this acting and directing duo find a more compelling story to tell next time out.
Earlier this week I saw This Is The End-the apocalyptic comedy from Seth Rogen that features all the usual suspects from his other films (Franco, Hill, Cera, McBride). It was hilarious, but it got me thinking about other end-of-the-world flicks, and ultimately brought me to post-apocalyptic movies. I’ve always been a fan of the dystopian future film, generally the darker the better. So here are ten great films that depict a future we better hope isn’t in store for us.
10. The Road Warrior-George Miller may be better known today for making kid-friendly movies like Babe and Happy Feet, but when he was a younger man he made Mel Gibson a star with the Mad Max movies. A world without gasoline? Doesn’t seem so far-fetched right now, does it?
9. Robocop-Half Man. Half Robot. All Cop. I remember seeing this movie for the first time and being blown away by both the genius and the violence. A great satire. Plus, Verhoeven proves that you can accomplish great special effects without a huge budget.
8. Idiocracy-Mike Judge really got screwed with this movie. The company distributing it dumped the film onto as few screens as possible, so no one saw it until it came out on video. I think it’s a pretty accurate depiction of the direction our world is heading, with a constant dumbing down of everything under the sun.
7. Logan’s Run-I always found this idea interesting. No one lives past the age of 30. Michael York won’t go down without a fight.
6. Fahrenheit 451-Ray Bradbury’s work is all brilliant, but this filmed version of Fahrenheit 451 by Francois Truffaut just increases the brilliance exponentially.
5. 12 Monkeys-The first time I saw it, I didn’t care for it. This is true of most works by Terry Gilliam. It takes me a while to warm up to them. This movie is pretty bonkers, but it changed Brad Pitt from a pretty boy actor to a real thespian capable of handling the leading roles he would soon be offered. Some similarities between this one and another futuristic movie starring Bruce Willis-Looper.
4. Running Man-This movie freaked me out when I was a kid. Those Dynamo Twins were scary as anything else I’d seen. One of the first great Arnold movies, after Terminator shot him to superstardom. Richard Dawson is obscenely great as the game show host.
3. Children Of Men-One of my favorite movies of the past decade is this Alfonso Cuaron film about a world where women can no longer become pregnant. Clive Owen is great, but Cuaron’s direction is the real star.
2. Escape From New York-Snake Plissken is one of the great action icons of the 1980′s. The sequel that came a dozen or so years later is pretty laughable, but John Carpenter’s original is a masterpiece.
1. A Clockwork Orange-Kubrick. That’s really all I need to say. Throw in ultra violence, milk laced with heroin, an incendiary performance from Malcolm McDowell, and some Beethoven, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for a dystopian future I hope we never see.
The Place Beyond The Pines is an elegiac meditation on fatherhood and the vicious circle of life. Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper star as two men on opposite sides of the law who share one important trait: they both have a young son. Through the film by Derek Cianfrance we see one man willing to risk everything for his boy, and another blinded by guilt and ambition.
Pines takes a few quick turns that come out of nowhere, making the nearly two and a half hour runtime go by in an instant. Cianfrance’s camera is always moving, so it’s hard to look away even for an instant. In one scene Gosling is riding through the woods on his motorcycle along side an ATV, and it plays out kind of like the speeder chase in Return Of The Jedi. Cianfrance is also a documentary filmmaker, and he brings some of that cinema verite style with him in more intimate scenes.
There are a lot of things I can’t talk about because it would spoil the movie. I can say that the performances are all top notch. Gosling really raises his game in films like this, as if be is single-handedly bringing back the American New Wave of the 70′s. Dane DeHaan has been quietly taking steps to stardom after a great breakout performance in last year’s superhuman Chronicle. He’s great here as a teenage outsider who’s emotions run deeper than he lets on.
Cooper and Eva Mendes, both actors I generally don’t think much of, do well in their respective roles as well. Mendes doesn’t get to do a lot, but she convincingly plays a mother torn between doing what’s best for her son and following her heart. By the time Cooper comes into the movie, an hour has gone by. His character changes so rapidly that a lesser actor may have seemed almost cartoonish, but Cooper makes it totally believable.
The Place Beyond The Pines has been out for almost two months now in limited release. If it hasn’t played in a town near you, I definitely recommend picking this up when it hits DVD. For fans of American cinema it doesn’t get much better than this. Cianfrance has catapulted himself onto the list of directors I implicitly trust with any material. I can’t wait to see what he does next, hopefully with Gosling along for the ride.