ImageDirector Alexander Payne’s film projects, while wildly different, do share the common bond of using a sort of journey to humorously examine some variety of decay in the American fabric.  His filmography includes Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and most recently Nebraska, all of which are a variation of a similar theme.  Nebraska is perhaps his most moody entry.


Nebraska is the story of an aging, somewhat alcoholic father who vows to collect a $1 million prize for a sweepstakes he believes he has won.  Bruce Dern puts forth an Oscar nominated performance as the father, Woody Grant, who after countless efforts to make the trek from Minnesota to Lincoln, Nebraska on foot is joined by his estranged son, David (Will Forte).  Woody and David’s journey allow Payne to examine physical, mental, and social decay while still maintaining the satirical humor for which his films have come to be known.  Filmed in gloomy black and white, Nebraska feels like what Fargo would have been like if you took out all of the murder and kidnapping.  What is left is a cast of wacky Midwesterners who dream of sudden fortune.  Woody has grown feeble and borderline delusional.  His relationship with his son David is virtually non-existent, but David takes this outlandish opportunity to see if there is a way to develop some sort of bond. 


Their journey is a fragmented one.  After Woody trips and falls in a hotel room, they are sidelined for a few days in the small town in Nebraska where Woody grew up.  It is here where the bulk of the movie takes place.  Soon Woody and David are joined by Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squibb) and other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk).  Nostalgia abounds as David becomes immersed with family and friends of Woody’s who he has not seen since he was a child. 


As news of Woody’s supposed wealth reaches the ears of the sleepy Nebraska town, Woody becomes the man of the hour, and David begins to learn things about his father’s past that help him understand a father he’s never really understood.  Payne also spins his web of deadpan humor to take the film beyond a simple father-son story, making some thoughtful observations about old age, mental and physical decline, and family.    


Overall, Nebraska is Payne’s most simplistic and laid back film.  However, it is moody, touching, and very well acted.  While Dern receives most of the accolades, Forte is the unsung hero of this film.  The Saturday Night Live vet’s first dramatic turn is excellent, and he is the perfect foil to Dern’s cryptic and obsessive personality.  In addition, Squibb is outstanding as Woody’s long-suffering but clearly loving wife Kate.  Also nominated for an Oscar, Squibb’s performance is the most successful source of humor throughout the film.  In a very revealing “family-reunion” scene, Squibb has the audience roaring with laughter after a few choice and well-deserved expletives aimed at some greedy family members. 

Nebraska is a small movie with relatively small ambitions.  At the heart of the film is David and Woody’s quest for acceptance, albeit in very different ways, and it is relatively successful.  While no masterpiece, this is a fine entry for Payne and a great collection of performances.  B


ImageIf I didn’t know any better, I’d swear that every time Spike Jonze releases a movie, he’s targeting me as his core audience type.  When Being John Malkovich came out, I was studying film at the University of Michigan and attended a free campus screening of the film; Ann Arbor film majors ate that film up!  When Adaptation came out, I had just begun struggling to write my first and still as of yet unfinished novel.  Where the Wild Things Are was one of my favorite children’s books growing up.  Now with Her, he takes aim at my self-proclaimed geekdom with a film about a man who literally falls in love with his technology.  The only problem is that while it seems like every one of those films should have been suited just for me, for one reason or another, I only really liked Adaptation.  Fortunately, it seems like Jonze and I are back in alignment as Her is one of the most imaginative love stories since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. 

Her stars Joaquin Phoenix as the odd and appropriately named Theodore Twombly, a name that practically invokes the characters of Dr. Seuss.  This very well could be Jonze’s intention, as Her succeeds more as a fantasy children’s tale for adults than Where the Wild Things Are ever did.  Set in the very near future, Twombly works for the web company, where he is paid to weave the events of real couples’ lives into artistically poetic love letters that are then sent unbeknownst to their recipients.

The irony is palpable as Twombly’s personal life is still reeling from his recent divorce, even to the point of sabotaging a sure thing with a prospective lover, played by Olivia Wilde.  Instead, Twombly spends his evenings playing holographic video games and remembering what his life was like when he was happily married.  Enter Samantha ( voiced by Scarlet Johansson), the whimsically playful voice of his new computer operating system, designed to exist as a consciousness that is so intuitive that it understands and knows you on a virtually human level.  It is with Samantha that Twombly is able to open up and real feelings of passion, love, and connection soon follow.

Jonze has written and directed a fine hypothetical commentary on love in a modern world.  Never has the question, “Can romantic love exist in a vacuum?” been so cinematically explored.  What should feel absurd and ridiculous is made to feel thoughtful and reluctantly authentic thanks to pitch perfect performances from Phoenix and Johansson.  In one scene where Samantha attempts to physicalize their relationship in a very creative but creepy way, the film achieves true greatness in the style of warped kind of Frankenstein story

Jonze truly has created a monster here, and it is one that is surprisingly refreshing, creative, and tonally apprehensive.  There is no doubt that if Apple announced tomorrow that it is releasing the OS1, thousands of people would be blindly grinning through the streets as they share their deepest thoughts and secrets with their virtual lovers.  Stories already exist of people who abandon their lives to live fake lives in virtual worlds like World of Warcraft or Second Life.  Jonze puts a magnifying glass on this idea and shows us how close we are to shutting ourselves into this type of cocoon-like existence.

Keeping this film from completely falling down the rabbit hole is Amy Adams as Twombly’s friend and neighbor, Amy, another symbolic name – because it’s REAL!  Adams continues her quest to be the female Kevin Bacon (more on that in my American Hustle review), but she also grounds this film and prevents it from getting too far in the disbelief column.    Her is a cautionary fairy tale that is effortlessly engaging and easily Jonze’s best film yet.  A-

Her is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours.  Her was recently nominated for three Oscars including best picture. 

All is Lost


In the early 20th century, a literary movement known as Naturalism caught on as war suddenly began to grip America once again.  Influenced by the work of Charles Darwin, Naturalistic writers wanted to emphasize the dark, harshness of life as well as man’s lack of control of the natural forces that truly guide his fate.  All is Lost is as close to cinematic Naturalism as I’ve ever seen. 

Robert Redford plays a character whose name is never revealed, a typical trait of Naturalism as these forms of expression look to stress nature’s indifference to man. This indifference is further exemplified with the film’s opening scene where the man (Redford) awakens from a nap below deck on his sailboat to find that a stray floating cargo container had somehow drifted into the side of his boat, puncturing it and resulting in the boat quickly taking on water.  No explanation is given for this circumstance or than that it presumably fell off of a cargo ship and, as fate would have it, collided with the boat.  The man is a pensive man; he does not react wildly or make rash decisions, rather he weighs his options and relies on his experience and skills.  Redford’s is the only character in the entire film, and he is also a man of few words; accordingly, the script for All is Lost is only 32 pages long.  Thus, writer/director J.C. Chandor’s film looks to explore modern Naturalism at sea as deliberately as possible. 

All is Lost is a riveting achievement.  As we watch this man struggle through a series of events set into motion by that seemingly innocuous cargo container, we are forced to mull over our own mortality and our own suitability to circumstance.  Last year, Ang Lee’s adaptation of Life of Pi beautifully captured some of what All is Lost attempted to capture, but that film was far more Romantic in its aspirations.  All is Lost instead puts plot aside and seeks to pit man against nature in a rigorous, albeit somewhat predictable series of events.  The result is a compelling yet extraordinarily minimalistic effort that does feel redundant at times. 

Earlier this year, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity also pitted man against incredible odds in a far more successful way.  While both films depict man’s struggle with expertise, Cuarón, like Ang Lee before him, understood the need to make the film a visual spectacle as well.  Thus, those films certainly utilize the media of film far more than All is Lost, while All is Lost relies more on Redford.  Fortunately, Redford delivers.  The sharp, witty con-man from The Sting is no more, but he has been replaced by a weathered and beaten sailor who may have the grit to do what Johnny Hooker never could – win an Oscar.  B+

All is Lost is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 46 minutes.  It is a nailbiter and a triumph for Redford.  The score by indi-rock name Alex Ebert is also characteristically right on. 



Lone Survivor

ImageCapturing the essence of war has been a theatrical tradition ever since the Greeks invented drama.  In the cinematic practice, war films range from fully inspiring to grusomely tragic.  Lone Survivor is an example of the latter. 

The film tells the story of an ill-fated Navy SEAL operation named RED WINGS.  During their mission to kill Taliban officer, Ahmad Shah, a SEAL team is stranded in a hostile region of Afganistan.  What follows is a horrific series of events as the four SEALs attempt to escape a barrage of enemy forces after they are ambushed. 

The film opens with a montage of intense Navy SEAL training exercies as preparation for what’s to follow.  Shots of submersive drills, endurance tests, and tactical maneuvers serve two purposes: 1) they make the audience have an initial feeling that nothing can be harder than this, and 2) they serve as a reflective point for when things become exponentially harder than this.  Writer/Director Peter Berg spent four years and a modest $40 million budget to get Marcus Luttrell’s memoir to the big screen.  The result is operatic realism.  Berg scales down the “war film” to create a film that while inherintly anti-war is also a celebration of the men who possess an uncommon type of courage. 

Berg is a filmmaker who has dabbled in this subject matter before with 2007’s The Kingdom.  In that film, Berg showed war as a fast, swift, pulse pounding, adrenaline pumping game, almost like the football depicted in the television series Friday Night Lights, also created by Berg.  Lone Survivor is an entirely different animal.  Here Berg narrows his scope and slows things down.  This brutal battle along the Afgahni hillside is as harrowing, frightening, and vital as perhaps any of its kind.  Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hersh, and Taylor Kitsch play the band of stranded soldiers who intermitedly attempt to communicate with their commanding officer, played by Eric Bana.  Berg’s deliberate pace is on full display packed with slow motion evidence of the blood, guts, and horrors of war. 

What the film has working against it is its outcome, which with the title Lone Survivor, should not surprise anyone.  Thus, it is clear that Berg has more on his agenda than to tell a story.  That agenda is to give tribute to those who fight to keep this country safe while also suggesting what could have been if they didn’t have to.  This agenda is met, but with a melancholy spirit.  The leanness of the film and the bleak tone make it difficult to watch, yet the film is strong, well acted, and evocotive.  The final scenes suggest some of the ironic complexities of modern even with the film’s simplistic nature.  While better films about this topic exist, Berg does a solid job delivering this particular story.  That being said, this is not a film for everybody by any stretch of the imagination; however, it is successful at depicting those naturalistic forces that are at work in the quagmire of today’s combative warfare.  B

Lone Survivor is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 1 minute.