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. 

Smashed Review – Wasted Winstead


Director: James Ponsoldt

Writer: James Ponsoldt, Susan Burke

Stars: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Octavia Spencer


Release date: October 12th, 2012

Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics 

Country: USA

Running time: 81 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: Winstead’s naturalistic performance.

Worst part: Underdeveloped sub-plots.

Everyone, at some point in their lives, is exposed to alcohol. Alcohol is seen as a brief escape from reality. Temptation and redemption are the focus of Smashed. It’s a film that discusses an issue that is normally left alone. Alcoholism destroys lives in multiple ways, but this film is brave enough to delve into one person’s 12 step journey. Smashed is a balanced and thought-provoking study of how anyone can change.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead & Aaron Paul.

The film documents the rehabilitation process of Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Her marriage to Charlie (Aaron Paul) is made up of a love of sex, music and alcohol. Every day is spent drinking like a fish. Their inept decisions lead to unacceptable incidences such as bike-riding crazily through the streets. This inappropriate behaviour, however, changes when Kate lies to, and throws up in front of, her class of 3rd grade youngsters. Dealing with her increasingly offensive husband, her class, and her own internal issues, she decides to become sober. With the help of Vice-principal Dave (Nick Offerman), the 12 step program should hopefully change everything for the better. However, Charlie is actively against everything in this healing process.

Winstead & Nick Offerman.

Winstead & Nick Offerman.

Smashed promotes an alarming message about the effects of alcoholism. It’s a sweet, witty and honest tale of survival against all odds. This realistic issue is delicately emphasised as Kate pushes herself away from normality. From the beginning, the film illustrates Kate and Charlie’s fascination with the deadly substance. Whether she’s drinking in the shower or taking a swig before teaching, Kate is bluntly depicted as a troubled individual. We, however, are never allowed to judge the characters, as they must learn to accept and solve their own issues. It takes an embarrassing convenience store incident for Kate to realise what her affliction is doing. Smashed also smartly depicts why alcohol is seen as, as Homer Simpson puts it, “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” It’s lightly comic touch relieves the heavily dramatic weight of this identifiable issue. The laughs come from Kate and Charlie’s increasingly stupefying actions. When she wakes up under a bridge after a big night out, even she knows what has to happen with her life. Her perspective is illustrated with visual flair. Jarring at points; constant focus pulls, handheld camera work and cuts to black depict the heavy distortion created through consumption.

Winstead & Paul.

Winstead & Paul.

A heart-warming and important experience, Smashed also discusses how people are drawn together. Whether they are causing the problem or wish to help, the characters are suitably realistic. Her relationship with Charlie is a sad exploration into how her problems started. This couple celebrates their own inappropriate behaviour. Charlie sits at the back of the bar cheering on his drunken wife. As she belts out a hit song, both her and this appalling issue are placed in the spotlight. Unfortunately, their relationship is barely developed. This is mostly due to the lack of depth given to Charlie. He is simply the ‘enabler’. Smashed  unconvincingly focuses on the struggle between husband and wife, with every revelation being predictable or disengaging. The film succeeds, however, by establishing the importance of Kate’s journey. Studying her broken childhood, cynical mother and care-free attitude, this enlightening story of hope is based on redefining these vital elements of her existence. Several sub-plots fail to develop throughout. This slice-of-life story of survival and repression presents some key relationships but fails to explore them. Maybe this is a necessary decision; leaving us to question where Kate’s story may, or may not, end up.

“I like knowing that every little fuck-up I make is going to be a topic of conversation with a woman that I don’t know.” (Charlie (Aaron Paul), Smashed).

Octavia Spencer.

This grounded version of Leaving Las Vegas is supported by likeable performances from its ensemble cast. The actors filling these roles deliver a necessary amount of charisma. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the WorldThe Thing) is an energetic presence on screen. Providing equal amounts of sassiness and sorrow, Winstead delivers in an already solemn role. Her character is a likeable and strong-willed individual lost to temptation. Her humanistic turn is what propels the narrative as she constantly questions the people around her and her own life. Aaron Paul (HBO’s Breaking Bad) delivers in an underdeveloped role. Giving freelance writers a bad name, his character is a sympathetic yet problematic part of Kate’s life. He may be to blame for his marriage’s problems, but he becomes increasingly and sadly unstable without the love of his life. Nick Offerman is essentially playing a toned-down version of his character Ron Swanson from TV series Parks and Recreation. As easily the film’s smartest character, Offerman provides a needed sense of wit and jerkiness. Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) turns her two dimensional role into a memorable part of this story. Her character’s down-trodden past compels everyone around her.

The first step of overcoming any addiction is admitting you have a problem. Kate’s unforgivable actions lead her to become a likeable and realistic character. Smashed  examines the human soul while facing a controversial subject head-on.

Verdict: A humanistic and clever independent drama.