REVIEW: Nebraska

25 01 2014

Cannes Film Festival – Official Competition

It’s tempting to analyze frequent writer/directors like Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman, and Noah Baumbach as if both their contributions to a film are co-dependent upon each other. Especially for someone like me, who values the power of the written word, it’s easy to think that a good script might just direct itself.

Nebraska,” a film directed but not written by Alexander Payne, offered a unique chance to observe his helming prowess independent of his writing. As it turns out, maybe I’m a bigger fan of Payne’s writing than I am of his directing. Payne’s critical stance towards his native Midwest almost seems to be working against the gentle tenderness of Bob Nelson’s script.

Payne’s previous scripts have all had a certain kind of bite to them. Perhaps that comes with the territory, though, as they mostly explore people going through crises – midlife, old age, the death of a spouse. “Nebraska” is remarkably simple, a tale of a grown son indulging his demented father in a road trip to claim a million dollar Publisher’s Clearinghouse prize.

For such a quaint tale, it’s refreshing to see a cast so free of pre-existing iconography assembled for “Nebraska.”  Perennial character actor Bruce Dern stars as Woody Grant, a patriarch of no particular distinction other than his unrecognized charity.  He’s calculatedly remote, both out of learned habit and elderly retreat.  Woody is often absent, but Dern is always present, making his character most alive in those dead moments.  It’s fascinating to watch the way he slowly reveals what Woody has mostly kept silent for years to a son with whom he’s not particularly close.

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LISTFUL THINKING: Most Anticipated Movies of 2013

2 01 2013

I’ll still be stuck in 2012 at least until the Oscars are handed out and until then will be filling in with reviews of some of the movies I missed from the year.  But it’s time to move forward and look ahead to 2013, which could be a great year for cinema.  Several of my favorite filmmakers have projects due this year, which is what I will have to remind myself as I have to slog through a year that reportedly will give us 31 sequels and 17 reboots!

I had originally prepared a top 10 list for my most anticipated of 2013, but then I realized that since so many were TBD, there’s a chance we won’t see some of these movies until 2014.  So I added three movies at the beginning of the list that premiered on the 2012 fall festival circuit but will hit theaters for paying audiences in 2013.

Without further ado…

To The Wonder

#13
“To The Wonder” (April)
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, and Olga Kurylenko

A year ago, Terrence Malick was critical darling with his “The Tree of Life.”  Yet when “To the Wonder” arrived at Toronto and Venice, you’d have thought they were reviewing a Michael Bay movie.  How someone goes from hero to zero that meteorically is curious.  If nothing else, “To the Wonder” could be the most anticipated disaster of the year.

Frances Ha

#12
“Frances Ha” (May 17)
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig
Starring Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, and Adam Driver

Upon its many festival stops in 2012, it was called a mixture of French New Wave with early Woody Allen.  Combine that with the fact that it’s written and directed by Noah Baumbach, whose “The Squid and the Whale” knocked me off my feet, “Frances Ha” sounds like a movie custom-made for me.

The Place Beyond the Pines

#11
“The Place Beyond the Pines” (March 29)
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder
Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, and Eva Mendes

They called it a sprawling, multigenerational epic when it played Toronto.  And from the trailer for Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to the harrowing “Blue Valentine,” it looks ambitious.  And honestly, I may be looking forward to this far more than several of the movies that made the ten.

Nebraska

#10
“Nebraska” (TBD)
Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Bob Nelson
Starring Devin Ratray, Bruce Dern, and Bob Odenkirk

Alexander Payne’s “Election” alone makes anything from the director worth anticipating.  After a second writing Oscar back from a seven-year hiatus for “The Descendants,” he shortens his gap with a new movie within two years.  I’m a little skeptical, though, since the cast lacks some of the pop of Payne’s previous films, and he also didn’t write this one.

Inside Llewyn Davis

#9
“Inside Llewyn Davis” (TBD)
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and Justin Timberlake

The Coens have gone from 1960s Jewish suburbia in “A Serious Man” to the 1880s Wild West in “True Grit.”  And now … back to the 1960s for the folk music scene of Greenwich Village?  They sure like to keep us on our feet.

The Wolf of Wall Street

#8
“The Wolf of Wall Street” (TBD)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Terence Winter
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, and Matthew McConaughey

Scorsese.  Enough said.  I suspect this will be the role that wins DiCaprio his Oscar, provided he doesn’t take Best Supporting Actor for “Django Unchained” this year.  With “The Great Gatsby” (see below) moving back to 2013, it assures us yet another fantastic one-two punch within the same year from DiCaprio.  “Gangs of New York” and “Catch Me If You Can.”  “The Departed” and “Blood Diamond.”  “Shutter Island” and “Inception.”  Boom, Leo comin’ at ya!

Catching Fire

#7
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (November 22)
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth

I enjoyed “The Hunger Games” this year, though I do see room for improvement in sequels.  Hopefully the writer of “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours” as well as the writer of “Toy Story 3” can elevate it because I’m certainly not expecting much from the director of the middling “Water for Elephants.”  And I just kind of need something to fill the void left from “Harry Potter.”

Elysium

#6
“Elysium” (August 9)
Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp
Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, and Sharlto Copley

Anything shrouded in secrecy is enough to get me interested; that’s why “Prometheus” was at the top of this list for me in 2012 (that list was just mental).  And I think “District 9” could be merely scratching the surface of what Neill Blomkamp is capable of.  With Matt Damon and Jodie Foster headlining a sci-fi class warfare pic, this could be other-worldly levels of awesome.

Gravity

#5
“Gravity” (TBD)
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Written by Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron, and Rodrigo Garcia
Starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock

Speaking of other-worldly levels of awesome, let’s talk Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.”  He hasn’t released a film for 7 years, but his last three films were the incredible stretch of “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” and “Children of Men.”  His “Gravity” has been described as “if ‘Avatar’ had been released in 1927 a week after ‘The Jazz Singer.'”  What.  Warner Bros. pushed it back from 2012 for what I imagine was fine-tuning, which just has me all the more on pins and needles.

Labor Day

#4
“Labor Day” (TBD)
Written and directed by Jason Reitman
Starring Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, and Tobey Maguire

Jason Reitman, on a subjective and personal level, is probably my favorite director.  He’s had a flawless 4-for-4 stretch of films in his career, and though “Young Adult” might have been a step down from “Up in the Air,” that’s because the latter was basically perfect.  I’m fascinated to see what he can do with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.

Twelve Years a Slave

#3
“Twelve Years a Slave” (TBD)
Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by Steve McQueen and John Ridley
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, and Michael Fassbender

Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” was pretty good, but his “Shame” was an absolutely ingenious triumph.  I can only imagine how he plans to top it in “Twelve Years a Slave,” the story of a New York man kidnapped and sold into slavery.  It’s got one heck of a cast, from Michael Fassbender to Brad Pitt to Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry’s first roles post-“Beasts of the Southern Wild.”  Is it too soon to cry Oscar?

Star Trek

#2
“Star Trek Into Darkness” (May 17)
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Benedict Cumberbatch

Abrams did one heck of a job turning around the “Star Trek” franchise in 2009.  And from the superb trailer, it looks like he plans to boldly go into Christopher Nolan territory with a beautifully lensed and incredibly emotional follow-up.  I can’t wait.

Gatsby

#1
“The Great Gatsby” (May 10)
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire

I heard today that Jay-Z is going to be scoring Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.”  My first reaction was to rethink my placement of the movie as my most anticipated of 2013.  Then, I thought about it and realized that it might be a stroke of inspired brilliance that makes the movie even better.  Luhrmann is unparalleled in his ability to take old texts and make them feel alive, modern, and relevant.  Just look at how he took Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and made it relevant for a post-MTV audience.  And think about how he seamlessly integrated pop songs into “Moulin Rouge,” set in 1900!  Luhrmann’s flair for the theatrical and opulent borders on gaudy on several occasions  but I think he’s the perfect match for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale of the rich and the glamorous.  I have no doubt his use of 3D will serve the movie well too.  All in all, his “The Great Gatsby” will most definitely be for and by our times … and could wind up being the movie that defines 2013.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 7, 2012)

7 12 2012

The election has been over a month.

Let that sink in. I know the last thing you want to do now that the nasty rhetoric and half-truths have ceased, and you have finally begun to realize that life can exist without vicious campaign ads.  But since the political system has churned out another major crisis with the fiscal cliff, it seems that Alexander Payne’s 1999 film “Election,” a micro look at the American electoral system will never get old.  In fact, it seems to have only gotten more and more timely – and that should scare you.

Though Alexander Payne’s last two movies have won him Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay, I would still argue “Election” is his finest script.  It works remarkably well as both a human story and an allegory for bigger things like American democracy and morality.  And after a few viewings, you start to see how brilliantly and subversively he uses American iconography to poke at the problems corroding the foundation of our great nation.

While many have lamented Payne’s insistence of voice-over in films that might not need it (such as “The Descendants“), his twisted employment of archetypical characters with a whole lot hidden under the surface really makes their narration yield some surprising revelations.  It allows us to penetrate deep into the characters beyond the functions they believe they should be functioning at Carver High School.  Not to mention, Payne writes stream-of-consciousness dialogue with a fantastic accuracy and hilarity.

By all means, the president of the student body should easily by Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick.  She’s the epitome of high school perfect and has worked her butt off to be the most qualified (or at least ensures she’s the most passionate) for the office.  But there’s also something incredibly annoying about her quest, and her teacher, Matthew Broderick’s Jim McAllister, is on a mission to stop it.  As the faculty adviser for student government, he still believes it can do good – he just doesn’t want Tracy to be the one to get credit for it.

Rather than let her run for the office unopposed, Mr. McAllister manipulates popular football player Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to challenge Tracy.  He’s rich, handsome, and an absolute moron.  But they both get more than they bargained for when Paul’s frustrated closeted lesbian sister, the frumpy Tammy, decides to run out of revenge.  Her platform of anarchy, pointing out how stupid student government elections really are, catches on with the Carver High students … and what ensues as the three duke it out for the presidency is absolutely hysterical madness.

Who do we side with though?  Who is the “right” candidate?  Sadly, we are faced with this decision all the time.  Do we vote for the appealing, good-looking candidate even though they might not be particularly qualified?  Or the overqualified one who might rub us the wrong way?  Better yet, should we go with the person who realizes how pointless and pathetic the electoral system is?  These are just a few of the questions that keep Alexander Payne’s “Election” a truly exceptional movie, one more than worthy to be featured as the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”





F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 16, 2012)

16 03 2012

Before Alexander Payne won his second Oscar for “The Descendants,” he still had game.  “Citizen Ruth,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” was his first feature film back in 1996, and it still has all the clever humor and heart of his later, more acclaimed works.  A razor-sharp satire of the abortion debate and the rest of the ridiculous culture wars of the ’90s, Payne leaves no party blameless, subjecting them all to scrutiny and criticism.

His protagonist, once again, is not someone easy to identify with; we merely experience the movie through them and become all the more aware of their flaws.  Here, it’s Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern), an irresponsible child trapped in a woman’s body (figuratively speaking, this isn’t “Benjamin Button” after all).  She’s addicted to huffing fumes, putting her own life in danger and giving no attention to the lives of her young children.  Now, she’s in trouble with the law for the sixteenth time … and pregnant.

Ruth’s first thought is to get an abortion as she can barely take care of herself.  But before she can act, she is ambushed by the two sides of the abortion debate, fervent Bible-clutching pro-lifers and free-spirited sexually loose pro-choicers.  To them, Ruth is little more than a tally to add to their team’s score, a prize to be swayed and won.  They objectify her and will do anything to placate her, truly pulling out all the stops to convince her to choose their side.

Deciding whether or not to bring a child into the world is such a human decision, yet no one really seems to care about the baby in the whole debacle.  Payne shows how horrifying the rhetoric from both camps has become as to remove all humanity from the discussion; even Ruth, the woman at the center of the controversy, sways throughout the film based on who can offer her the most money.  Dern’s performance is a little cartoonish and annoying at times, but I would watch anyone act if they were endowed with the words of Alexander Payne.





REVIEW: The Descendants

14 03 2012

Mixing comedy and drama is a perilous task, but Alexander Payne makes it look like he could do it in his sleep in his remarkable new film “The Descendants.”  An absolute triumph of writing and directing, he finds the humor in the tragic situations and gravity in the funniest moments.  His pathos is unconventional and unexpected, leaving his words and messages lingering in your head for days.

Just like some of Payne’s previous films like “Election” and “About Schmidt,” he chooses to tell the story through the eyes of a prickly protagonist.  In “The Descendants,” it’s Matt King (George Clooney), the owner of a massive Hawaiian land inheritance.  After his unfaithful wife lapses into a coma after a freak boating accident, Matt must come to terms that he has been absent as the head of his family.  His role as the “understudy” comes to bite him in the butt as he is forced to assume both parenting roles actively on short notice.

Payne’s screenplay (which he co-wrote with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) begins its narrations through voice-overs from Matt that illuminate his thoughts.  We get a chance to fully grasp his frustrations, his anxieties, and his fears before we really get down in the mud with him during these trying times.  The narration slowly disappears as the movie progresses, but that hardly means we lose our connection to Matt.  Instead, Payne wisely trusts leading man George Clooney to take over control of communicating his character to the audience.

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Oscar Moment: Final 2011 Predictions!

23 01 2012

Well, folks … guesswork is almost over.  In a little over 12 hours, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) will announce their nominations for the best of the best of 2011.  We’ve had plenty of nominations and winners to give us an idea of what’s to come tomorrow morning.  I’ve done plenty of analyzing the categories, but I think now I just have to go with a mix of gut and knowledge.

Best Picture

  1. The Artist
  2. The Descendants
  3. The Help
  4. Hugo
  5. Midnight in Paris
  6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  7. War Horse
  8. The Tree of Life
  9. Moneyball
  10. Bridesmaids

I’m feeling only six Best Picture nominees this year.  (For those who don’t know about the new rules and regulations of the category, the Best Picture field is now an elastic number of nominees between five and ten.  In order to be nominated for Best Picture, a movie needs to receive at least five percent of the number one votes.)  The top five are very obvious.

I would say “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” takes the sixth spot because it’s the only other plausible nominee with enough guild support (sorry “Bridesmaids”).  If we learned anything from 2010, it was that the guilds still win out in the end.  “War Horse” has been far too silent on the guild front and hasn’t made nearly enough money to be a smashing success.  Plus, there’s an opportunity – and a likelihood – that they can give him another Oscar win in the Best Animated Feature category for “The Adventures of Tintin.” “The Tree of Life” has the critical support, but I don’t think that’s enough to break it into this race.  Oscar voters aren’t critics.

Best Director

  1. Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist”
  2. Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”
  3. Alexander Payne, “The Descendants”
  4. Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris”
  5. David Fincher, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

The top three are rock solid locks.  Woody Allen seems very inevitable given the widespread love for his movie and that the directors have nominated him six times before.  The last slot could go any number of ways – Fincher like the DGA picked, Malick like every critic proclaimed from the rooftop, Spielberg if “War Horse” actually makes a strong showing, or maybe even Tate Taylor if they really love “The Help.”

Looking at history, the lone director slot comes when there’s a particularly unknown director for a well-liked movie: Joe Wright missing for “Atonement,” Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris missing for “Little Miss Sunshine,” Marc Forster missing for “Finding Neverland,” and Gary Ross for “Seabiscuit.”  So I think it’s safe to say that the vulnerable director of a leading movie is Tate Taylor.  But who gets the slot?

I would say look to the DGA, but looking over their nominees, they do a better job of picking the Best Picture five than they do picking Best Director.  So thus I glean from their slate that “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” has the strength to crack the Best Picture field, but Fincher might not necessarily show up here again.  My brain says go with Malick since lone director nominees usually represent far-out, well-directed artsy films.  But my gut says Fincher gets it, if for no other reason that Hollywood seems to have found its new anointed golden director and just wants to shower him with awards for everything.

Best Actor

  1. George Clooney, “The Descendants”
  2. Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”
  3. Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”
  4. Michael Fassbender, “Shame”
  5. Leonardo DiCaprio, “J. Edgar”

Best Actor is, on the whole, a very conservative category.  Save the occasional Tommy Lee Jones for “In the Valley of Elah” or Javier Bardem for “Biutiful,” it almost always unfolds according to plan – no matter how boring that plan may be.  So yes, I still pick Michael Fassbender for “Shame” even though there has been some skepticism raised recently.  And yes, I will even defend Leonardo DiCaprio who stars in what will surely be one of the most maligned movies of 2011 to receive an Oscar nomination.  This year, he accumulated the three most important precursor nominations.  And he managed to get nominated in 2006 even when he had two performances in play.  They like him, and I think that (unfortunately) they’ll probably reward him with another nomination.

Best Actress

  1. Viola Davis, “The Help”
  2. Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”
  3. Michelle Williams, “My Week with Marilyn”
  4. Tilda Swinton, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”
  5. Rooney Mara, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

Yes, even though she missed with the BFCA and SAG, I have confidence that the late surge of support for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” can net a nomination for Rooney Mara over Glenn Close.  I don’t think “Albert Nobbs” has much buzz about it anymore, and even though they like Glenn Close, there are a lot of quotients that Mara would fill.  She’s under 30 and hasn’t been nominated before; you have to go back to 1994 to find a year where the Best Actress category was all prior nominees.  Thus, I rest my case and cross my fingers.

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”
  2. Albert Brooks, “Drive”
  3. Kenneth Branagh, “My Week with Marilyn”
  4. Jonah Hill, “Moneyball”
  5. Armie Hammer, “J. Edgar”

I only feel sure of the top pick Plummer; the next three are fairly vulnerable; the fifth spot could go any number of ways.  I still can’t predict Nolte for “Warrior,” and maybe it’s because I can’t separate my dislike of the movie from the nomination process.  I just don’t think the performance was good, and I’m hopeful that the Academy will validate my opinion.  It could be Brad Pitt as a double nominee for “The Tree of Life;” it could be Ben Kingsley sneaking in for “Hugo;” it could be SAG nominee Armie Hammer for “J. Edgar.”  When in doubt, go with SAG, I guess.

Best Supporting Actress

  1. Octavia Spencer, “The Help”
  2. Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”
  3. Jessica Chastain, “The Help”
  4. Janet McTeer, “Albert Nobbs”
  5. Shailene Woodley, “The Descendants”

Someone else suggested the Woodley comparison to Andrew Garfield’s snub for “The Social Network,” and I’m dreading that it might be the case.  But I really have a hard time picking Melissa McCarthy for a nomination, even if she was a SAG nominee.  I just don’t see it happening.  I don’t think the performance is enough of a stand-out to break the funny woman barrier at the Oscars.  The nomination could be a symbolic vote, but I think traditional performances win the day.

Best Original Screenplay

  1. Midnight in Paris
  2. The Artist
  3. Bridesmaids
  4. Win Win
  5. Beginners

This category always has some surprises up its sleeve for nomination morning, so I don’t know how confident I feel picking so close to the WGA nominations.  I think “Bridesmaids” will see the prize for its remarkable awards run here, and I think “Win Win” has built up enough steam to get in too.  “50/50” has the WGA nom but not much else going for it.  Some say “A Separation” takes its enormous buzz and makes a showing here, but I think the drama of choice will be “Beginners.”  Just another gut feeling.

Best Adapted Screenplay

  1. The Descendants
  2. Moneyball
  3. The Help
  4. Hugo
  5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Four Best Picture nominees will be adapted, so I feel like those will make it in over some arguably “better written” or “more loved” work.  And “Moneyball” has too much acclaim and steam to ignore; it could win even if it doesn’t get a Best Picture nomination.

So that’s what I think!  What about you?  Anything you are hoping for?  Rooting against?





Weekend Update – Golden Globes 2011 Live Blog!

15 01 2012

4:00 P.M.  E! has already started their Golden Globe coverage, so I guess it’s time for me to begin as well!  Time for the best of Hollywood (and television) to come out and get rewarded (or robbed).  Predictions will slowly trickle in as the stars grace the red carpet, but I’ll be writing from the arrivals to the awards to Ricky Gervais’ harsh quips.  With recaps, opinions, and insights, make “Marshall and the Movies” your companion for the Golden Globes!

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