Archive for December, 2013



Nebraska is this year’s road trip movie from Alexander Payne and his second to feature a grumpy old man (Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt was first).  Shot in a dehydrated black and white by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Payne’s and George Clooney’s regular light painter, every frame echoes a dying vision of the American Midwest.  The Nebraska here is a state of old men and women living in the last squalor of their broken dreams, beaten down, clinging to false hope– the false hope being Woody Grant’s (Bruce Dern) belief that the worthless Clearing House ticket in his possession is really worth a million bucks.  This Cornhusker community acts like the avarice stooges looking for their share of the hero’s fortune typical of a Preston Sturges comedy. 

Woody’s son David (Will Forte) sensing a chance to mend their broken relationship humors his father by being the chauffeur on the wild goose chase to Lincoln, bad fortune and scalp stitches being the catalyst that gets the rest of the family, older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and matronly scourge and Woody’s spouse Kate (June Squibb) back to his hometown of Hawthorne.  The past hangs heavy over Nebraska, but it is regretful and not nostalgic.  Payne never answers the question whether Woody’s frequent road wanderings are due to senility, depression, or a deep desire to squeeze something positive out of a less than perfect life.  All the audience knows is that in some way David helps Woody find what he is searching for and needs and maybe in the end, briefly achieve it.   David is the compassion of a son respecting their father’s experience if not necessarily their wisdom, knowing that by only the grace of God he has escaped the misfortunes and weaknesses (alcohol the primary one) that have shadowed his father’s existence.   

Bruce Dern gives Woody an odd mixture of blankness, hunger and ferocity that perfectly captures the feeling of a man at the end of his life.  It is easy to understand Woody’s urge for adventure even if the result is Quixotic. Woody is too passive to be evil yet too aloof to be charming.  Neither is he heroic nor noble.  Yet his stubbornness and his unacknowledged emotions make him a character worth caring about. 

Dern unfolds the layers of Woody’s humanity in perfect sync with the story.  The anger is there captured in the movies tone, but yet still buried deep inside Woody, and trembling out occasionally.  Like everyone, Woody holds onto his dignity by a hair.  

Payne returns to his Nebraska roots whenever he seeks his most personal film making. More than half his films are set there.  Payne, a child of Greek/German/Greek descent grew up in Omaha.  His full name is Alexander Constantine Papadopoulos.  The angry whining of Kate is both a screed and an ode of love that expresses his delicate relationship with his home state.  His tone, a balance of wordless contemplation and madcap humor, reflects the soul of every Cornhusker. 

Nebraska gets an A from me.  




Matthew McConaughey’s pretty good year (Mud, Magic Mike, The Paperboy, and The Wolf of Wall Street) comes to a brilliant close with his latest gritty, Oscar worthy acting moment in Dallas Buyers Club.  The based on real life story of homophobe Dallas electrician Ron Woodruff battle with AIDS, The FDA and big pharma at first to keep himself alive and then as an activist for the thousands disenfranchised HIV victims lacking access to the latest blind study or the newest European wonder drug not authorized for use in the USA.  McConaughey dumped 40 pounds to play the role and his body is a brittle skeleton with a thread of flesh.  All that is left is his will– and that is enough.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee wisely strips the proceedings of sentimentality.  It is all purpose, looking to get the job done, no time to think because death is knocking.  The clarity generates alliances from former enemies.  Jared Leto is in wonderful Blanche du Bois mode as a transsexual named Rayon who is not only Wodruff’s business partner but his bickering love-hate friend.  There is an affecting physical and emotional element to Leto’s performance that balances between outing his feminine and closeting his masculine sides. McConaughey and Leto are great foils for each other. 

Buyers Club only has time to show desperate sex– hot, sweaty, quick, impulsive and passionate only for the moment.  Romance, whether it is the echo of buddy bonding or the hints of real compatibility between the debauched cowboy and the sweet, virginal MD who comes to believe in Woodruff and his cause is all in the air.  It evaporates into dust because Buyers Club mission does not allow for such traditional movie sentiment.  It does not have hope for the promises of a normal life.  The shadow of AIDS displaces any hopes for a conventional reality.   

Woodruff is the role of a lifetime for McConaughey, for which everything before it was just preparation.   Sympathy mixed with menace is the hallmark of all great McConaughey roles.  A familiar type molded to a perfectly errant humanity.  McConaughey is wonderfully, agonizing alive for every second of his on screen life.  Yep, Oscar nominations will come, and maybe even a win and McConaughey will be wryly smiling through it all.  

Dallas Buyers Club gets an A from me.   



Stephen Frears is one of the few directors working today who has consistently displayed cinematic good taste– the ability to make the viewer see both sides of a theme without the need for overwrought sermonizing and flashy set pieces. In Philomena the story of an Irish mother’s search, with the aid of a journalist,  fifty years later to find the son who was taken away from  her while they were both in the care of a Catholic convent, the atheist and Catholic views get some serious airing.   The story is based on Martin Sixsmith’s nonfiction book The Lost Son of Philomena Lee and stars Steve Coogan as Sixsmith and Dame Judi Dench as Philomena. Both Sixmith and Lee are still alive.

Sixsmith and Philomena represent both the weaknesses and strengths of their respective viewpoints.   Sixsmith is an atheist, brash, intelligent, dismissive about what he can’t understand, a bit of a snob, angry over his life and what the convent nuns have done both to Philomena and her son.  He seeks to be a force for exposing the whole sordid truth, extracting justice and applying vengeance.  Philomena is culturally naive but life smart and has made room to both be charitable and forgiving to those who have wronged her.  She is in everything the true expression of her Catholic faith.

Frears delivers a perfect mix of acerbity and tenderness.  Philomena is as much about meaningful enlightenment then it is about knocking down the barriers of belief and the stumbling blocks unbelievers see in the truly pious.  It creates the benefit of doubt for God in Sixsmith’s soul and ceding some of life mysteries to the workings of the Divine.   Sixsmith doesn’t encounter miracles or angels speaking from the clouds, just the stubborn application of faith by an old woman who will not let her past keep her from living a psychologically conflict free life that abnegates the anger the world and Sixsmith (and by extension us) demand she has.  Sixsmith becomes the fool brought down a peg because he can’t release his anger.  Philomena is what she always was– a loving and forgiving child of God.  

Frears has no interest in rehashing the controversy, just examining the scars and the healing.  Peter Mullan’s 2002 The Magdalene Sisters already scourged the political-religious part of the controversy.  And the Irish state early this year confessed its sins and has already asked for forgiveness.  Frears only wants to show the humanity of what happens when religion sins and abuses its own adherents.   

Philomena gets an A from me.  

The Wolf of Wall Street Movie Poster


The Wolf of Wall Street is a rag to riches to rags story that displays the excess that success breeds.   Leonardo DiCaprio plays real-life swindler and high liver Jordan Belfort whose 1987 memoir described his excesses with drugs and successes with swindling people, his eventual reckoning and recreation.   Director Martin Scorsese generates the extended version, nearly three hours of  drugs, sex and lies that are occasionally videotaped.  It all starts repeating and blending together after the first ninety minutes with an over the top relish that resembles a Quentin Tarantino film at his most scabrous and profanely funny height before the pastiche overtakes the reality.   The Wolf of Wall Street is Goodfellas, the financial street version, with drugs and sex subbing for guns and violence.

DiCaprio earlier this year played Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby another story of a man who blew thru a fortune.   Both are poseurs with Gatsby striving for elegance and love while Belfort loves excess and loads of cash.   There is no tragedy because the protagonist has no regrets.  In reality Belfort was not the whale in a bathtub Wolf of Wall Street makes him seen but a small fish in a bigger pond.  The only one dumb enough to get caught.

DiCaprio is able to give one of his best performances because his character is all shill and no shade.  He plays variations on a theme of drug abuse, decadent excess and con artistry, never realizing nor wanting to grow beyond male adolescent desires.  Jonah Hill, ablaze in a set of porcelain white choppers, provides comic support, playing the same character from Superbad a few years on.  The acting is easy when the characters are nulls.   Oscar glory is only for those who put in the hard work.

Scorsese layers the whole charade with a bullying tone.  The story is told through the point of view of Balfort, who treats the viewer as both a client and a chump, delivering the voice over as if it is an aggressive sales call.  Everything is up there, with nothing left to the imagination.  And once the audience sees the script, the sets, all the hustle and play, it is easy to hang up the phone when the closing pitch comes.   Scorsese breaks his own on screen rule of closing the deal:  He speaks first.

Scorsese may be at the top of his game here, but when the playbook has only one good move done over and over again, the opponent is going to eventually find a way to stop it and get the win.  The Wolf of Wall Street gets a B from me.


Most of Anchorman 2 is in Burgundy time, that zone where awfulness is funny relative to the amount of time Burgundy remains clueless to his situation, which is pretty much the first 60 minutes.   The excuse for bringing all the funny back for a second time (besides money) is the parody of the rise of CNN and the 24 hour news cycle.   The fondling network needs good, bad or indifferent news anchors and Burgundy and his former news team weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), sports guy Champ Kind (David Koechner), and beat reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) are just the types to fill the lobster spot between 2-5 am.   Burgundy’s back story involves ego, divorce and unemployment. 


The moment Burgundy wins the ratings bet between him and the star anchor Jack Lime (James Marsden) and becomes cool is when the hit to misfire gag ratio starts ebbing below 50%.  When a clueless character becomes aware of his meta-fictional state it is not something even the best writers can save from bathos without a U-turn that returns him back to idiocy.   It is not funny for Ron Burgundy to undergo character development. 


Director Adam McKay devotes little time to sticking to the scripted dialogue. He stays out of the way of comic inspiration by letting improv run riot.  If some of it doesn’t cut together than that is the price that needs to be paid for comic greatness.   And much of Anchorman 2 is great enough to be groan free.  


The supporting cast aptly knows where the funny is.  The romance between Steve Carell and Kristen Wigg (who by sheer coincidence is the hot love interest of December with her appearance in Ben Stiller’s Xmas day gift, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) is a love dance between two wicks without a flame.   David Koechner gets lots of laugh from his occasional sleazy interior popping up.  Only Paul Rudd seems a little too earnest and a bit off, a disappointment considering his name in the title will get me fawning for any of his movies.  Like Ron Burgundy it is impossible to hate these lumps for too long.   


Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues gets a B from me.  




When Smaug the dragon, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, finally shows up in the last one-third of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug it is one of those great movie moments.  Smaug arising from a slush of gold coins and gems produces the same wonder and disgust that Gollum produced ten years before in the LOTR trilogy.  And that dragon voice echoing with regal malevolence ushers the same kind of dread in the audience as when Gollum uttered his first “precious” words. Smaug, unlike the motion captured Gollum of Andy Serkis, is an entirely CGI creation, even though Benedict Cumberbatch did slither along the recording studio floor at times in deep preparation for his voice role.   The Sherlockian past that Martin Freeman shares with Cumberbatch helps create a believable “frenemy” rivalry between Bilbo and Smaug as the finale becomes a “precious” display between Smaug’s fiery defending of his golden horde and Bilbo using the invisibility (and the blindness it produces) of his precious ring that figures prominently in the saga yet to come to steal that one gem worth a kingdom to one obsessed royal heir. Smaug is the devil in the details of Bilbo’s soul.

The skimpiness of the printed Hobbit tale prompted director Peter Jackson and writing partners Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro to scavenge Tolkien footnotes, marginalia and appendixes for dramatic filler.  The material devoted to The Desolation of Smaug occupies only five chapters in The Hobbit.  So the expansion keeps Smaug hitting consistent character beats as its action opens up like alternate levels of a video game.   The barrel chase down a river featuring the tiny crusaders fending off an army of Orcs is cut with the gamer point of view in mind.  Jackson is not only selling a movie but a potential theme park ride.

Of course, it is inevitable that old characters be brought back and new ones created.   Legolas (Orlando Bloom) makes an appearance, made up and digitally amazed to appear ten years younger than he was in the LOTR series.   Evangeline Lily as Tauriel, a female warrior elf, exists to give some girl power and romance to a mainly manly enterprise.   The beginning of a triangle between Legolas, and slightly taller than the rest of them dwarf, Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel gives off a familiar Hunger Games echo of the Peeta, Katniss and Gale kind for the tweeny boppers.  That Lilly manages to give Tauriel a deeper emotional side is just great performance magic and nice character development.

The first Hobbit agreeably dawdled along, content to display character through character affectations and scenes of culinary indulgence.  It was all fun and no glum.  Smaug by necessity gets on with the serious business of plot development.   There are Hobbits to be made brave, cunning and wise; Kings needing to prove their royalty; alliances to be forged and broken; heroes to be fraught and tested and evil to be fought.   Is it better than an Unexpected Journey?  I withhold my judgement until the whole series has been fully formed and viewed.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug gets a B+ from me.