Nebraska Review – Colourless Flavour


Director: Alexander Payne

Writer: Bob Nelson

Stars: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach


Release date: November 15th, 2013

Distributor: Paramount Vantage

Country: USA

Running time: 114 minutes


 

 

3½/5

Best part: The eclectic performances.

Worst part: The discomforting tonal shifts.

What exactly defines a director’s ‘body of work’? A signature style? A high-minded agenda? A rise or fall in overall quality? Simple answer: all of the above. This energetic term refers to a director’s all-encompassing works becoming cognitive parts of a much larger odyssey. One director sporting a stellar and eclectic filmography is Alexander Payne. Since I fondly appreciate his acclaimed works, I refuse to make a dim-witted pun about his last name. In fact, despite his rich and irritable cynicism, his movies speak the truth about monumental issues. Payne, with Nebraska, takes a wild detour back to his old stomping grounds.

Bruce Dern & Will Forte.

Thankfully, 2013’s Best Director nominees have charged head-on into informative and alarming topics. From Spike Jonze’s scintillating work in Her to Steve McQueen’s transcendent efforts in 12 Years a Slave, these filmmakers transformed a humble crop of dramas into the past decade’s greatest Oscar nominees. Payne, shooting previous Oscar seasons into the stratosphere, knows how this process works. Gracefully, the likeable and vague director writes love letters to his younger self. His movie’s personal touches hint at gargantuan promises and immense surprises. Thankfully, they all work to his movies’ advantage. Here, Payne places his heart on the line, and is almost willing to stomp on it himself to prove a point. The move follows a disgruntled family aching for change. In the opening scene, a decrepit and alcoholic old timer, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), is caught wondering the streets of Billings, Montana. Brought into the local police precinct, Grant is convinced he’s hit the jackpot. Carrying a sweepstakes scam letter in his jacket pocket, Grant strives to retrieve his staggering $1 million ‘winnings’. With Grant’s frustrated son David (Will Forte) forced to pick him up and drop him back to his lively residence, Grant’s literal and figurative demons become abundantly clear.

June Squibb.

Prodded by his wife Kate (June Squibb) at debilitating moments, his anger ever-so-slowly rises to the surface. Despite Grant’s bizarre  behaviour, David, running away from his own problems, drops everything to take his unhinged father on this mind-boggling journey. Payne fuses modernity and tradition in this kooky dramedy. In creating this dreamscape, the priceless director reaches into his ol’ bag of tricks. Nebraska instills his electrifying filmography’s more distinctive kinks. Like Sideways and The Descendants, the narrative rests its transformative quirks on one quaint road trip. Obsessed with road trips, deceptive schemes, and irritating family units, Payne’s style is brought to the forefront of this ageless and touching familial drama. However, despite my intentions, ageless may be the wrong word. This Best Picture nominee, like Philomena, examines people of vastly different age groups. Commenting on cliches and hearsay, the movie quashes any preconceptions about the elderly community. Yes, the elderly characters in Nebraska do yell at younger people and regale family members with tiresome tales. However, they choose do so because of hard work and free will. First time feature writer Bob Nelson gives these retirees distinctive traits and empathetic shades. Tugging at heartstrings and brain cells, Nebraska‘s fruitful narrative comments on an era as old as the movie’s lead character. Convinced this shade of Middle America could become obsolete, Payne’s emphatic direction hurls the movie’s issues into the spotlight. Pushing against the grain, the movie’s gritty conflicts and resolutions inject observational comedic moments and intriguing personalities into the sprawling narrative. Contrasting personalities, defined by life-altering decisions and brash revelations, add emotional depth to this otherwise discomforting tale.

“I never knew the son of a bitch even wanted to be a millionaire! He should have thought about that years ago and worked for it!” (Kate Grant (June Squibb), Nebraska).

Stacy Keach.

Unfortunately, whilst returning to familiar territory, Payne doesn’t delve into anything original. The story, reminiscent of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and Paris, Texas, builds a cavalcade of overtly sentimental moments and tiresome cliches. Heading back to Grant’s hometown of Hawthorne, long-dead conflicts, long lost loves, and caricatures come out to greet him. Buying into Grant’s peculiar antics, the vultures – led by Grant’s old business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) – circle the unenthusiastic and ignorant lead character. Payne, refusing to sugarcoat certain situations and details, oddly embraces and rejects nostalgia and lower-middle class America simultaneously. This multi-millionaire – commenting on small-town America and economic turmoil – indulges in his perfunctory material. Aged care, family values, and the American dream are small fragments of Payne’s shattered perspective. However, despite the overwhelming agenda, Payne’s startling visual style and attention to detail stand above the conventional screenplay. Ambitiously shot in Black in White, Phedon Papamichael’s glorious cinematography lends poetic beauty to this cynical dramedy. Embedding itself into the consciousness within the first few minutes, the black and white photography turns a simplistic melodrama into a multidimensional character study. In addition, the quirky and efficient score lends gravitas to this comforting road trip. Plunking away, folk-blues sounds waft over certain sequences like none other. Hats off to Payne for that choice. Fortunately, the performances, more so than the visuals, hurls the audience into this darkly comic tale. Dern, an indie drama darling, establishes his immense prowess. Despite being the outsider in this year’s Best Actor list, his enigmatic and subtle performance elevates every scene. Saturday Night Live graduate Forte delivers his greatest performance as the miserable and amicable David. His character – picked on by sex-offending cousins, steely-eyed enemies, and rambunctious elderly relatives – is a step above most in this nostalgic romp. Squibb excels in her disarming role. Pushing her relatives to breaking point, her character becomes a terrible person doing commendable things. Meanwhile, Breaking Bad‘s Bob Odenkirk nicely rounds out the cast as the family’s more successful son.

Nebraska, despite the quaint charm and ingenious performances, is far from your typical comedic farce. Payne, not one to hide from the truth, places his thoughts and ideas in full view. His frankly modest perspective makes his characters walk that fine line between chaos and control. With Dern, Forte, and Squibb’s charisma saving all-important scenes, this eclectic road-trip dramedy transitions into a potent and thematically relevant adventure. Though not deserving of its Best Picture nomination, the movie, like its main character, is crazy in the sanest possible way.

Verdict: A cheerful and modest road-trip dramedy. 

Much Ado About Nothing Review – Shakin’ Up Shakespeare


Director: Joss Whedon

Writer: Joss Whedon (screenplay), William Shakespeare (play)

Stars: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Nathan Fillion


Release date: June 21st, 2013

Distributors: Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions

Country: USA

Running time: 108 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: The dynamic cast. 

Worst part: The awkward first five minutes.

“What’s the matter, smart ass? Don’t know any f#cking Shakespeare?”. Mark Wahlberg’s line from The Departed, to me at least, sums up William Shakespeare’s overwhelming effect on pop culture. The Bard, whether he’s infatuated with a sprightly, Gwyneth Paltrow-looking woman (Shakespeare in Love) or brashly labeled a fraud (Anonymous), is always depicted as a knowledgeable and enigmatic individual. In addition, big-budget renditions of his seminal works – including Ten Things I Hate About YouThrone of Blood, and Romeo + Juliet – amicably reach wide audiences. Along comes geek heartthrob Joss Whedon. Whedon, arguably Hollywood’s hardest working writer/director, offers up a loving tribute to history’s greatest poet. Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing depicts a funky, sexy, and witty insight into the Hollywood hills. Whedon’s rendition, receiving extraordinary exposure, is a unique and faithful ode to an ever-lasting hero.

Alexis Denisof & Amy Acker.

His version, touching upon an engaging story and vital themes, is an insatiably strong adaptation. Sticking to the source material, Much Ado About Nothing defines Whedon as an all-knowing and gracious filmmaker. Describing the plot, despite overlaying valuable information, doesn’t ‘spoil’ the final product. With work this treasurable and refined, everyone should seek out Shakespeare’s material (in fact, why are you still reading this review? Go find it!). The narrative unfolds with the scornful yet vibrant Beatrice (Amy Acker) lamenting her cloying existence. Her cynical ideologies and actions – cheerfully matched by zany, confident, and desirable bachelor Benedick (Alexis Denisof) – almost push her to breaking point. Thanks to Leonato (Clark Gregg) and Don Petro(Reed Diamond)’s agreement, Hero (Jillian Morgese) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) will achieve marriage and eternal happiness. This event, marked by lavish celebrations and free-flowing alcohol, is marred by Claudio’s deceitful brother Don John (Sean Maher). Along the way, our courageous and optimistic characters come across masked well-wishers, snivelling evildoers, and luscious settings. Hot on the evildoers’ trails, Agents Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) and Verges (Tom Lenk), and their spritely associates, watch over proceedings. However, their good efforts are threatened by Don John’s helpers, Conrade (Riki Lindhome) and Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark). Over the course of a few days, allegiances, best-laid plans, and the idea of love itself will be greatly tested. In this I-Pod, smart phone, and gossip induced world, our heroes and villains will face off in the midst of kind greetings, parties, weddings, interrogations, and funerals. Despite the pace wavering with each abrupt transition and additional plot-strand, this adaptation develops a comforting and engaging tone. With characters, twists, and sexual awakenings seamlessly intertwining, Whedon subtly controls every necessary strand and titbit. His overwhelming affection for Shakespeare pours over his charming and hilarious adaptation.

Nathan Fillion & Tom Lenk.

Before I go on, I’ll admit my affection for Whedon and Shakespeare may potentially cloud my judgement. Having read and viewed their all-important works, its difficult not to proclaim Much Ado About Nothing as entertainment history’s greatest ‘collaboration’. Both critically-and-commercially-lauded artists – bringing heart, soul, and laughs to every creation – have crafted influential and popular efforts defining certain generations. In praising Whedon’s adaptation on its own merits, Much Ado About Nothing, as famed film production schedules go, is a jaw-dropping and clever achievement. Mashing the original material with a contemporary setting pays off. Whedon’s behind-the-scenes ingenuity boosts the small scale and quirky visuals. With a 12-day shooting schedule, Whedon took time off from working on The Avengers to work on this concept. With planning, production, and post production taking place in Whedon’s Santa Monica Mansion, his style and the narrative’s intimate nature go hand in hand. Passionate about Shakespeare’s comedic touches, Whedon’s writing style derives from the Bard’s seminal efforts. His adaptation highlights the most punctual and relevant aspects of Shakespeare’s work. Relaying Shakespeare’s every word, the opening few scenes are jarring. With kitsch direction applied to poetic material, viewers may, sadly, throw up their hands by the thirty-second mark. However, criticising the movie’s core would insult Shakespeare’s material. With each metaphor, anecdote, and soliloquy, I hurriedly connected to intricate details and overtones. Despite several plot-points, including feuds between royal ties and Claudio’s paranoia over Hero’s virginity, not connecting to the movie’s time period, certain strands relate to relevant themes. Despite the hurried marriages, articulate prose, and pontifications, Much Ado About Nothing places Whedon’s popularity in the spotlight. Like his previous efforts, multi-layered characters, deception, honour, and societal order rule the day. Obsessed with familial ties and small scale conflicts, Whedon deliberates on our media-obsessed world’s love of power, sex, love, loss, regret, inspiration, and fame. Featuring attractive heroes, scheming, black-haired villains and vicious conflicts, Much Ado About Nothing and The Avengers aren’t too dissimilar.

“Why, he is the Prince’s jester: a very dull fool; Only his gift is in devising impossible slanders.” (Beatrice (Amy Acker), Much Ado About Nothing).

Fran Kranz.

Whedon’s unique pet project, born from a shared understanding of the source material, brings family and friends together. His mansion becomes a labyrinthine castle for conflicted characters to swiftly travel through. Emphasising each hallway and empty space, characters efficiently peer around corners, fall down stairs, and glance through wide windows. In addition, several camera tricks illustrate Whedon’s methodical conveyance of small details and symbols. Aiding the confronting material, the black-and-white cinematography also takes time getting used to. Emphasising  each conflict and relationship’s rawness, this choice elevates Whedon’s succinct and powerful style. Keeping it in the family, Jed Whedon (brother) and Maurissa Tancharoen (sister in law) contribute with a hip, jazzy score. Firmly stamped into the enthralling narrative, their tunes elevate each intriguing set-piece. This anachronistic journey – featuring an entertaining masked ball, scintillating romantic moments, and a discomforting memorial sequence – is a wondrous miasma of fashion, fun, and fiery feuds. Like Shakespeare and Whedon’s previous efforts, the characters contain a knowing sense of humour. Understanding each debilitating situation’s gravity and urgency, these people appropriately speak the truth. Making for several hysterically awkward moments, these blunt yet alluring characters solidify this intriguing dramedy. Using dry wit, guile, vaudeville slapstick, and heart, Whedon touches up Shakespeare’s creations. Boosting each enigmatic characterisation, the movie’s dynamic ensemble conquers the cloying material. As Whedon’s ‘regulars’, the TV-centric cast convincingly delivers Shakespeare’s tongue-twisting dialogue. Standout performers Fillion, Gregg, Denisof, and Diamond become comedic geniuses in vital roles. Meanwhile, Acker brings gravitas and poignancy to her promiscuous and cynical character.

Combining two brilliant minds for one rendition, Much Ado About Nothing is a humorous, reflexive, and thrilling dramedy. Despite having stated my overwhelming affection, it’s still worth mentioning – Whedon is a cinematic genius! This movie, aptly accessing the play’s most intriguing elements, is certainly worth a look.

Verdict: A witty, clever, and enlightening dramedy.