Movie Journal # 2: NEBRASKA and Other Fugue States

Nebraska

Nebraska

 

Prestige time (a.k.a. Awards Season) is upon us at the indieplex, and I’ve been lucky: not one stinker (or mediocrity) in the whole bunch.

NEBRASKA
“Older” is a They Might Be Giants song whose primary lyric incessantly proclaims, “You’re older than you’ve ever been / and now you’re getting older,” baldly and astutely stating a fact that most of us would rather not think about. Even though it wouldn’t fit the film’s sonic palette, one could hardly come up with a better song to describe NEBRASKA and its weathered, cranky lead, Woodrow Grant (Bruce Dern). We first meet him shuffling down the side of a busy highway in Billings, Montana, all wild, white hair and worn, comfortable clothing. He’s determined to reach Lincoln, Nebraska by any means possible (even if he has to walk hundreds of miles) to claim a million dollar prize offer he received in the mail.

Of course, the “prize” is one of those magazine subscription scams everyone’s familiar with, including Grant’s crusty, domineering wife Kate (June Squibb) and his adult son David (Will Forte)—everyone, that is, except for Grant, who refuses to believe anything other than what the piece of paper he’s holding onto literally says. No one takes him seriously, as he’s an elderly alcoholic showing signs of forgetfulness and perhaps some early dementia. Nonetheless, David offers to drive him to Lincoln as a means to spend time together and get out of Billings (and away from Kate) for a few days. En route, they make an extended stop in Hawthorne, the tiny speck of a Nebraskan farming town that Grant grew up in. An impromptu family reunion ensues, filling in some of the blanks of Grant’s past; we also witness how relatives, friends and other folks behave (or not) when Grant spills the beans as to the monetary reason for his trip.

The film is a sort of homecoming for director Alexander Payne, who set his first three features in the Great Plains State. It shares a few themes with the last of the three, ABOUT SCHMIDT (aging, road trip) but retains the melancholy, less romantic tone of the films he’s made since then (especially THE DESCENDANTS). The muted black-and-white cinematography perfectly complements the region’s virtually empty widescreen canvases and the drab aesthetics of Grant’s Lutheran family. As always, Payne depicts the Midwest with precision and authenticity (I swear I’ve been in places exactly like Hawthorne), but now he relies less on satire (only David’s two doofus cousins inspire any ridicule), successfully honing a more no-nonsense yet not humorless approach—one that may even suit the feisty, hilarious Squibb, who scrapes, cuts and bleeds like a good Mike Leigh anti-heroine. Former SNL cast member Forte also acquits himself well in his first dramatic role, but it’s unquestionably the 77-year-old Dern’s film—disappearing deeply into Woodrow Grant, he’s neither a lovable old coot nor a wizened force of nature; he just is who he is, an aged man on an inexorable march towards death, putting up with all of life’s stupid inconveniences because what else can one do?

THIS IS MARTIN BONNER
Deceptively simple and effortlessly graceful, this character study is the type of American indie you wish would receive the release and promotional heft of something like THE WAY WAY BACK.  Martin Bonner, a divorced, sixty-ish man of Australian decent (a charming Paul Eeehorn) has just relocated from Maryland to Reno, Nevada. Employed as a mentor for a prison work release program, he develops an unexpected friendship with Travis (Richmond Arquette), who is adjusting to life outside after serving a 12-year sentence. Martin and Travis are more alike than they initially appear (both live alone, are estranged from their children and seek redemption for past crises), but the beauty in Chad Hartigan’s script and direction is that he doesn’t hit you over the head with this notion. Often, moments of silence and reflection carry the narrative along, such as a 360-degree tracking shot where Travis takes in his surroundings, ruminating on what his life has come to. Hartigan never wallows in cheap sentiment or easy, unearned resolution, but you end up caring deeply for these two flawed but relatable men; their bond is also an all-too-rare depiction of male friendship onscreen.

ALL IS LOST
A gimmick film, but a very good gimmick it is: Robert Redford is an unnamed man on a small yacht alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean. When he unexpectedly crashes into a shipping container, the yacht floods and thus begins a weeklong descent into him being completely stranded and struggling to survive. In a way, it’s almost the nautical equivalent of GRAVITY, only on a much tighter budget and in a minimalist, decidedly less commercial style. No dialogue, no backstory, no other characters—just Bob on a sinking ship and the realistic methods in which he attempts to stay alive. The film’s first half gets a little repetitious, but the second half is visceral, harrowing and effectively dramatic in its “man vs. nature” theme. Exquisitely photographed, it’s not just an impressive technical achievement but a conceptual one as well. I didn’t think the aged Redford (whom I’ve jokingly called a walking corpse for years) still had it in him to pull off such a demanding role; although I still haven’t seen MARGIN CALL, I also never expected J.C. Chandor to make a film this audacious.

That Cold Day In The Park

That Cold Day In The Park

 

THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK
Made right before M*A*S*H finally made him famous at age 48, this obscure 1969 film directed by Robert Altman is nearly of a piece with all his revered work from the first half of the 1970s. Apart from a few surface details like a standard minor-key musical score, it anticipates the director’s blossoming idiosyncratic style: numerous camera zooms, a prevalence of mirrors, scenes transitioning via blurred focus and a little of that trademark overlapping dialogue (not much, however, because there’s often only two characters on screen, and one doesn’t speak in the presence of the other). As for the one who speaks, a wealthy 30s-ish spinster played by the great Sandy Dennis, well, she owns the film, more so than Altman. That rare actress who exudes intensity without breaking a sweat, Dennis anchors this character study-cum-thriller (though you may not recognize the film as such until the last twenty or even five minutes) about a lonely woman who invites a young man into her elegant, claustrophobic apartment (itself very much a character). Her desperation mounts as her affection is returned and then rejected; unlike, say, in Repulsion, her sanity doesn’t come into question for most of the film, thanks to Dennis—like the best Altman heroines, she’s simultaneously poignant, delusional, sympathetic and exasperating. For a long time a difficult film to track down, it came out on disc earlier this year and is required viewing for Altman and Dennis admirers.

12 YEARS A SLAVE
I’m inclined to downgrade films that contain subject matter too painful to allow for a second viewing (REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, SALO)—after all, shouldn’t a great film be endlessly rewatchable? However, on occasion I do see the merit and greatness in something I could never look at a second time, like DANCER IN THE DARK or this uncompromising, based-on-a-true-story account of one of America’s most regrettable eras. Without sentimentality or any Hollywood sense of heroism, it accounts the injustice of a free black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor, practically a lock for the Oscar, more so than the film) who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841. What ensues is like a decade-long car crash, full of the ugliest behavior imaginable, yet you can’t look away knowing that this all happened and involved hundreds of thousands of people. By portraying this brutality in such a frank, plainspoken way, director Steve McQueen never lets you forget that this was simply a way of life—even more impressive, his artfulness (gorgeous visuals, lack of a musical score, extended scenes that add tonal coloring rather than narrative heft) doesn’t distract from or soften the brutality. The automatic acceptance Ejiofor is given in the North, pre-abduction feels like the film’s only false note; the rest unmasks last year’s slavery-themed DJANGO UNCHAINED for the puerile revenge fantasy that it was.

IN THE HOUSE
That old adage, “Write what you know” receives an ironic, cautionary spin in Francois Ozon’s latest, which also plays like an older-and-wiser update of 2003’s SWIMMING POOL. Here, a high school French teacher (Fabrice Luchini) named Germain Germain (shades of Lolita’s Humbert Humbert) becomes a mentor to his 16-year-old student Claude (Ernst Umhauer), an aspiring, gifted writer. However, two problems emerge: Claude’s stories observe and critique his increasingly risky transgressions with his classmate Rapha’s family, and Germain’s fixation on Claude and his prose threatens to cloud his judgment and integrity, not to mention unravel an already fraught relationship with his art curating wife (a delectably tart Kristen Scott Thomas). In time, Claude transforms Rapha’s family into a fluid blank page with which he takes some liberties in telling their (and his own) story, with Germain guiding him to find just the right arc. Although, much like Claude, the film’s a touch too clever for its own good in parts, it’s also witty, entertaining and admirably shrewd in how it examines the hazards of co-opting life for art.

Also Seen:

Whether The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is better than its predecessor seems as irrelevant and difficult to parse as how the individual The Lord of The Rings films rate against each other–this second installment makes clear this is one masterful story, broken up by necessity because no one could take in all ten hours at once. Still, as “middle” installments go, it’s more The Empire Strikes Back than The Two Towers… I’ve begun to whittle down my list of stuff I need to see with Videodrome, which was as fun and as prescient as one could hope; the increasingly complex plot mechanics made my head spin a little, but like the film’s protagonist, I was fine as long as I gave in to the pure sensory rush of it all… the 1946 melodrama Leave Her To Heaven isn’t quite Sirk, but it anticipates his great ’50s work: less hysterical and openly darker, with a chilling Gene Tierney as its femme fatale (even if nothing in this Technicolor beauty screams noir), though she’s much more Dorothy Malone than Jane Wyman.

Top Fifty Films of the 1990s: # 10-2

10. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH
On paper, this has disaster written all over it, from a greasy, unkempt John Cusack and a frizzy-wigged Cameron Diaz to the titular actor, so pivotal playing “himself” that one false move on his part could ruin the entire film. And yet, everything in it gels to perfection: the extended seventh-and-a-half floor gag obtains a Monty Python-worthy level of inspired silliness as does the most Malkovich-iest sequences (including a trip into his subconscious and another into a realm teeming with Malkovich).

9. THE LONG DAY CLOSES
The easiest way for a filmmaker to evoke a past time and place is to use recognizable visual and aural cues to season the narrative. What makes this and Terence Davies’ other autobiographical essay films challenging is that he nearly leaves the narrative out altogether, fashioning tone poems out of period music and imagery as if we were viewing glimpses of Davies’ own memories. What more can I say except that The Long Day Closes is simply one of the most strikingly beautiful and original films ever made?

8. SAFE
Also amazingly original: Todd Haynes’ peculiar, perverse and unnerving study of a suburban housewife (Julianne Moore) increasingly unable to cope with the toxins in her everyday environment. As doctors can’t find anything physically wrong with her, she turns to radical, desperate measures, gradually closing herself off from the rest of the world. At this point, Safe starts resembling a psychological horror film. As it dribbles to a close, it bespeaks an eerie calm that in context is absolutely terrifying.

7. TO LIVE
For fans of Zhang Yimou’s landmark early ‘90s work starring his muse Gong Li, it’s hard to pick one favorite because they’re all so startlingly good (even The Story of Qiu Ju!). Thus, To Live was the first one I saw (in fact, one of the first subtitled films I ever saw) and its impact on how I view movies (and maybe life itself) has not diminished. A stirring account of a family through both China’s Communist and Cultural Revolutions, it’s possibly the most intimate historical epic I can name.

6. PULP FICTION
Years after all the hype has diminished, it’s reassuring to see Pulp Fiction age splendidly while still very much appearing like a product of its time—more accurately, it’s a film that ended up defining its time, no matter how much it geeked out on its own movie-ness. For all of his obnoxious traits, you have to admit Quentin Tarantino was some kind of genius in how he applied an encyclopedia of film knowledge to an innovative, circular narrative and an astounding ensemble cast.

5. RUSHMORE
For a certain breed of film lover, Wes Anderson’s second film had an initial impact analogous to that of when Breathless or Mean Streets or Stranger Than Paradise or Reservoir Dogs first hit theaters, not only heralding a unique talent’s arrival but also introducing a new kind of movie to become enamored with and obsess over. While Bottle Rocket (see # 42) might have done this for the relatively few who saw it, it is to grainy black-and-white what Rushmore is to Technicolor. Also, the moment when Max introduces Herman to his father may be my favorite scene in any film on this list for its understated but earned poignancy.

4. ED WOOD
Why make a movie about a man infamous for directing some of the worst movies of all time? The easy answer would be to have a cheap laugh at his expense; the more complex approach would be the one Tim Burton took—to affectionately celebrate the man and highlight his determination, spirit and love of humanity, while not obscuring his lack of talent or various personality quirks. Ed Wood was a little too subtle for mass appreciation: it was Burton’s biggest flop, but his most soulful work; Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi is one of the all-time great film portrayals of a real-life screen actor.

3. ELECTION
Despite what our parents said, high school actually isn’t all too different from adulthood, a crushing notion this brutally funny student government satire reveals and revels in. Having already established himself as a Midwestern heir to Preston Sturges (see # 43), Alexander Payne makes one inspired choice after another (most awesomely casting the man who played Ferris Bueller as a teacher). As the immortal Tracy Flick, Reese Witherspoon puts to rest any doubt regarding her acting prowess, wonderfully embodying both a heroine and a villain in the same deliriously ambitious, intriguingly cracked soul. P.S.: Election has aged almost unbelievably well.

2. THE SWEET HEREAFTER
I knew nothing of Atom Egoyan’s work when I first saw this during its theatrical release; afterwards, I wanted to rush out and consume everything he’d done, for it did nothing less than completely change how I thought one could construct a film. The Sweet Hereafter takes Exotica’s non-linear, puzzle-piece approach to narrative (see # 16) even further out into the blue, entirely reconstructing Russell Banks’ novel about a tragic bus crash to a degree where those familiar with the book will barely recognize it. But in taking such risks, Egoyan creates poetry out of prose (as does Sarah Polley in her breakthrough role).

Check back in a few days to see what I picked for # 1, along with some titles I couldn’t squeeze into the top 50.

Top Fifty Movies of the 1990s: # 50-41

I began taking film seriously (i.e.—deciding to devote my life to it via a graduate degree) almost exactly in the middle of this decade. Consequently, my current list of favorite films from this in-flux period rambunctiously swerves between the impossibly highbrow and the disarmingly stoopid. And I can’t help but kick it off with one of the latter…

50. THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE
Out of the many, mostly superfluous movie adaptations of old sitcoms made over this decade, few were as sharply satirical and simultaneously affectionate as this loving deconstruction of the TV equivalent of highly processed junk food. So effective you may even prefer Gary Cole and Shelly Long’s interpretations of Carol and Mike to Robert Reed’s and Florence Henderson’s before Henderson herself pops up at the end.

49. THE IRON GIANT
Although he’s arguably surpassed it with his two Pixar features, Brad Bird’s gorgeous full-length debut is its own kind of masterpiece. It initially bombed because it felt so out of time with its understated tone and deliberate pacing; with the possible exception of Miyazaki, it has aged far better than any of its contemporaries.

48. DELICATESSEN
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s first feature still presents such a rich template for everything he would subsequently do that one now almost finds it impossible to conceive that it was co-directed with Marc Caro. In a decade mostly deficient of whimsy and real anarchy, Delicatessen almost feels like a manifesto of sorts—a live action Warner Brothers cartoon, only stranger.

47. BOOGIE NIGHTS
Paul Thomas Anderson came off as a gen-x Robert Altman with this ambitious, hilarious, chilling epic spanning a most hedonistic decade in L.A.’s adult movie industry. Although a little too clever for its own good (something Anderson would rectify on later films), you can’t deny its excitable, somewhat insane ensemble (Marky Mark! Julianne Moore! John C. friggin’ Reilly! All of ’em cast as porn stars!).

46. RUBY IN PARADISE
Never available on DVD, Victor Nunez’s film risks becoming the decade’s lost indie classic (like Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping is for the 1980s). Probably a little too austere for today’s indieplex audiences, it suggests an intriguing alternate-world career for its young star, a never better Ashley Judd.

45. CLUELESS
The teen movie of the decade. Visually it hasn’t dated all that well, but that’s what makes it as much of an iconic time capsule as Grease or The Breakfast Club. Alicia Silverstone was never better (nor, sadly, was a refreshingly normal-looking Brittany Murphy). Even director Amy Heckerling could never replicate one-tenth of its wit and heart.

44. WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE
Practically mid-to-late ‘90s indie in a nutshell. Before Todd Solondz’s breakthrough film, you simply could not have a protagonist as geeky and put-upon and frankly infuriating and often deserving of all the shit life has given her as Dawn Weiner. Its sustained comedic awkwardness where you often don’t know whether to laugh or cringe anticipated The Office by a few years.

43. CITIZEN RUTH
For his first feature, writer/director Alexander Payne is a purely satirical Preston Sturges, a stance he’d successfully refine and deepen on his next few efforts. But it remains a delight, both for Payne’s scathing critique of both sides of the abortion issue and for Laura Dern, simply tremendous as an airplane glue sniffing lowlife whose usage as a pawn exposes the ridiculousness sometimes inherent in taking a side.

42. BOTTLE ROCKET
Some stand by this as the best thing Wes Anderson ever did, which I find ludicrous. It’s a first film—a unique, highly accomplished one that fully establishes the director’s voice, but a first film nonetheless, and one with building blocks for ideas and motifs Anderson would develop and alchemize in his next two films. Still, it’s a gas to see such a young Luke and Owen Wilson and perhaps not too absurd to consider that they’ve never been better.

41. BREAKING THE WAVES
Like Dancer In The Dark, this film is way too painful for me to revisit. I’ve only seen it twice in the late-90s but my memories of it remain vivid—particularly of Emily Watson, whose performance is one of the most shattering, sui generis I’ve ever seen. I can’t still can shake the childlike joy she expresses as she dances with her husband to Elton John’s “Love Lies Bleeding”; nor can I ever forget the film’s tragic, then oddly transcendent final fifteen minutes.

THE DESCENDANTS

If anything distinguishes Alexander Payne from other filmmakers of his generation, it’s in how thoroughly he develops his characters. Even when working with a densely packed narrative like his abortion satire CITIZEN RUTH, the characters stick with you longer than the (admittedly great) story does; it’s partially why he’s extracted career-best performances from Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon and Virginia Madsen and it’s arguably what made a whisper-thin narrative like SIDEWAYS work.

Payne’s first feature since SIDEWAYS centers on another intriguing character in Matt King (George Clooney), a Hawaiian land baron. His extended family owns the last large parcel of undeveloped acreage on one of the state’s islands. The family wants to sell this land, and since Matt’s the trustee, he ultimately makes the final decision as to whom the buyer is. Initially, he’s not terribly concerned about the land’s fate, and the issue does seem a little flippant in light of the fact that his wife, Elizabeth lies a coma following a severe waterskiing accident.

The thing about Matt is he’s decidedly modest for a land baron, preferring to make his living as a lawyer rather than living off his ancestral wealth. Whether dealing with his two daughters or reeling from an unpleasant secret about his wife, he is also amiably flawed in that he doesn’t always have the right answers but he rarely comes off as a buffoon. Credit Payne’s incisive but nuanced screenplay (cowritten with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) but don’t underrate Clooney–although the man still emanates a fair amount of his patented movie-star charm, he’s rarely seemed this relatable or vulnerable (his fairly good work in UP IN THE AIR almost seems like a trial run in comparsion).

Actually, THE DESCENDANTS greatly benefits from a sustained, understated tone that is rare for most films dealing with death, infidelity and a vanishing way of life. Gently buoyed by a pleasantly drowsy Hawaiian guitar-soaked score, Payne’s even-keeled approach is perfectly in tune with the culture it documents. While it’s hard not marvelling at Hawaii’s natural beauty, one gets an astute sense of what it’s really like to live there.  A major accomplishment for Payne, THE DESCENDANTS is miles away from the wicked satire of his earlier films, but it feels just as personal.