Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is a wonderful little film, blessed with a first-rate script, gorgeous monochrome photography and a fine understated cast. But its secret weapon, even more powerful than all those blessings, is the lingering effect of Bruce Dern’s haunted gaze.

Dern, 78, has one of the most rewarding roles of his long career as Woody Grant, a reality-challenged former mechanic who’s quietly drinking his life away in Billings, Montana. Cranky and remote, Woody is a lost soul who barely speaks to his wife and two grown sons, a man who seems to have lost all reason to live…until he receives a piece of junk mail that changes his life.

The letter is a thinly disguised Publishers Clearing House flier soliciting magazine subscriptions, but the part that registers with Woody is the classic come-on telling him that he may have won a million dollars. Convinced that he’s hit the jackpot, Woody sets out on foot to make the 800-mile trip to the company’s home office in Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his fortune.

It’s the first of several attempts by Woody to hoof it across state lines, and eventually his son David (Will Forte) – a mild-mannered electronics salesman who’s starting to feel as useless as his old man – decides to gamble a road trip to Lincoln in the hope of finally bonding with the father he’s never really known. Along the way, a drunken Woody manages to injure himself, and they decide to take a side trip to give him time to pull himself together before continuing on to Lincoln.

That detour is to Hawthorne, Nebraska, the small town where Woody grew up. It’s a run-down little burg a million miles from anybody’s idea of an economic recovery, filled with some good-hearted souls and more than a few hopeless bitter jerks. At first, Woody is received as a feeble-minded old face from the past…but when he begins rambling about the million dollars he’s on his way to collect, people start miraculously remembering old debts and things start to turn ugly.

Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson have crafted a quiet, sad and frequently funny story about a family that discovers it was never quite as broken as its members thought it was, brought to life by a talented group of actors who effortlessly occupy their roles. Forte is quite fine as a decent soft-spoken schlub who slowly evolves from grudging and embarrassed babysitter for his wrecked father to a respectful and protective son. Character actress June Squibb is a revelation as Woody’s deceptively sharp-tongued wife, walking away with half the scenes she appears in, and Bob Odenkirk as David’s not-as-shallow-as-he-seems brother turns in first-rate comic support. Stacy Keach also scores with a vaguely sinister performance as one of Woody’s old Hawthorne cronies with a plan to benefit from his former friend’s good fortune.

But as good as everyone is, it remains Bruce Dern’s picture all the way. The consistency of his hazy and wounded character is utterly admirable, never deigning to play for our sympathy yet managing to capture it nonetheless. It’s a quiet and magnificent performance, the spine and soul of a lovely example of American moviemaking.

December 31, 2013 · Posted in Now Playing  
    

American Hustle, director David O. Russell’s tale of con artists and corruption in the disco era, has a first-class cast, gorgeous production values and directorial ambition to burn. Since its premiere earlier this month, it’s attracted favorable critical attention, increasing awards buzz and healthy returns at the box office.

If it only had a brain.

Russell scored a knockout last year with Silver Linings Playbook, a quirky romance that artfully skated the tricky area between importance and triviality, thanks in large part to a talented collection of actors unafraid to embrace the script’s whimsically mannered characterizations. With American Hustle he’s attempting the same trick, but this time he’s missed the mark. Though the new film’s actors have characters to play that are at least equally vivid, there’s just nothing of importance to the film they inhabit.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams star as a pair of swindlers who are pressured by an overeager FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) into conducting an ambitious sting loosely based on the real-life Abscam operation of the late ‘70s. Originally aimed at entrapping politicians into being caught taking bribes, the scheme becomes increasingly complex and dangerous as murderous underworld figures are drawn into the con. It’s a classic noir set-up, with our grifting protagonists trapped between the law and the mob…but Russell is too busy straining for cheap laughs and creating flashy set pieces to make us care about what happens next.

In retrospect, there’s a strong enough structure to it all, but, curiously, while it’s unspooling it seems to be a disjointed mess. So much attention is directed to the garish period costumes, hairstyles and what comes to feel like a relentless parade of songs from the ‘70s and earlier, that the story seems constantly pushed to the background and its characters rendered inconsequential.

It doesn’t help that Bale’s and Adams’ characters have been written in a minor key; they’re professional con artists, but they’re strictly petty crooks pulling off tacky crimes – and Bale’s performance in particular is so understated and colorless that he brings little of his usual charisma to any of his scenes. Adams is given little more to work with, but she does manage to add a hint of mystery to her underwritten character. Of all the other main cast members, only Jeremy Renner as the New Jersey mayor who’s the target of the federal sting delivers a recognizably human and relatable performance. Everyone else is a caricature of one kind or another, talented actors trapped in a series of scenes with little more art or depth than a Saturday Night Live sketch.

It would be easier to simply shrug and accept the film as a lavishly produced misfire if it weren’t so full of itself. It’s hard to escape the sense that Russell is bending over backwards to out-Scorcese Scorcese, trying hard to channel the look and ambience of works like Casino and Goodfellas…a comparison that proves not only unflattering but quickly annoying. In a movie so shallow that it draws its biggest laughs from two separate moments of poking fun at its leading mens’ hair, there’s little room for such pretension.

In recent years, the loudmouth New Jerseyite has replaced the Southern redneck as the stock comic stereotype du jour, and Russell’s film is filled with them. Of all the cast members, Jennifer Lawrence as Bale’s loose-cannon wife most successfully makes the characterization work, though it’s at the cost of transforming herself into a cartoon character. Everyone else seems to fall short of the mark; the self-conscious dialogue falls so uncomfortably from their lips that they seem less Scorcese-like – or even Russell-like – than  members of a road show production of Guys and Dolls.

Like many films about con artists, there are occasional moments here with little twists intended to make the audience wonder how they couldn’t have seen it coming. Your mileage may vary as to how successful those are, but don’t expect anything as clever as such gold-standard examples as The Sting or The Grifters. The biggest con pulled off by American Hustle is the one it’s pulling on anyone who buys a ticket expecting anything special, let alone anything they haven’t seen done better before.

December 28, 2013 · Posted in Uncategorized  
    

 

There’s a reason for all the glowing reviews and Oscar talk that have greeted All is Lost since its recent premiere: It’s really that good, really that inspiring, really that impressive.

The same goes for star Robert Redford, who at age 77 is experiencing the kind of third-act triumph of which most actors can only dream. His performance as the film’s unnamed hero is rock solid, as exemplary a display of underplaying as you’ll find anywhere in American cinema. Always an admirably authentic actor, these days – just as his golden matinee-idol looks have been slowly blasted by wind and sun into a rugged expressionistic version of his former beauty – his minimalist strength seems to have been boiled down to the essence of absolute truth.

Redford plays a man who’s sailing his yacht in the Indian Ocean when a collision with a drifting shipping container transforms his solo voyage into a series of disasters. There’s an ugly gouge in the hull, his electronics have been flooded, a devastating storm is sweeping toward him, and there’s nothing standing between survival and destruction except his own persistence and ingenuity.

He has plenty of each, and it’s fascinating to watch as he methodically tackles one problem after another, doing his best to remain on-task and unflappable; like a man quietly determined to maintain order, he continues to cook and clean in between making repairs and even finds the time to shave. His illusion of order slowly comes apart as the situation continues to deteriorate…but no matter how bad things become, he accepts the constantly-changing status quo and looks for solutions for each new problem.

This is clearly a man of means – he owns a yacht, after all, loaded with expensive survival gear – but it becomes clear that his best chance of staying alive lies not with the pricey toys he’s bought, but from within himself. It can be argued that director J.C. Chandor is making a quiet statement about the moral superiority of humanism over commercialism – note the contents of the shipping container that precipitates the film’s crisis, and the obliviousness of commercial cargo ships to the desperate plight of a man struggling to stay alive.

For all his quiet resourcefulness and grace under pressure, the film’s hero is never painted as perfect. The opening voice-over (virtually the only spoken words in the entire picture) suggests that he’s a family man who’s taken this voyage to sort out some serious problems of his own making, and it’s entirely possible that the initial collision could have been avoided if he’d paid more attention to the business of sailing instead of spending time inside his own head.

An old-fashioned story of survival that evokes Jack London and Hemingway – and, for that matter, this year’s equally stunning GravityAll is Lost is a stripped-down and gripping drama about a man whose determined fight for his life becomes an object lesson in acceptance. It’s a fine and memorable piece of work, just possibly the one film that will be remembered and cherished above everything else to hit the big screen this year.

December 15, 2013 · Posted in Now Playing  
    

On their goofy five-minute Christmas flexi-disk recorded for fan club members in 1963, the Beatles pause in the midst of reflecting on the really gear year just ending to offer a shout-out to their fan club secretary Freda Kelly. “Good ol’ Freda!” they chorus.

A half-century later, the former Miss Kelly is a 68-year-old grandmother who works as a secretary at a respectable law firm. But as we see in Ryan White’s engaging new documentary, she’s still every bit the Good Ol’ Freda of old.

Kelly was a 16-year-old typist in Liverpool when she first encountered the pre-moptop (and pre-Ringo) Beatles at the legendary Cavern Club, and quickly became one of the scruffy quartet’s biggest fans. She also became their friend, hanging with the boys at the club and ringing them up at home to suggest special songs be included in their next set to commemorate some other fan’s upcoming birthday. By the time Brian Epstein became their manager and their career began its steady skyrocket, Freda was the natural choice to run the group’s official fan club – a more than full-time gig that ballooned to nightmarish proportions during the 11 years she worked for the Fab Four.

The scenes in which Kelly describes hauling stacks of photos, autograph books and even the odd pillowcase to the Beatles’ homes for them to sign – not to mention tracking down hair clippings from the guys’ barber and cutting their old shirts into souvenirs – demonstrate how above-and-beyond was her devotion to making the fans happy. (Of course, she explains, “I was a fan, too.”) Her reminiscences and those of other players on the old Liverpool scene make clear her ferocious loyalty to the Beatles as both music stars and personal friends.

In fact, one of the documentary’s chief contributions to Beatles history lies in its first-hand depiction of the Four as hometown boys. The pride of the Liverpudlians for their famous sons’ success is well documented, but it’s Kelly’s fond anecdotes of relative trivia such as her frequent visits with Ringo’s mom, Paul’s dad taking her under his wing for horizon-broadening visits to pubs and restaurants, and being given regular rides home from the office by George that show how very small and homey their early ‘60s world was.

It’s a charming portrait, made even more so by Kelly’s own prodigious charm. She was clearly a genuine sweetheart during her decade with the Beatles, and half a century later, she still is. It’s touching to watch her continue to respect her boys’ privacy after all these years, pleasantly but firmly drawing a line between happy memories and tawdry gossip. Beneath her self-deprecating good humor one can occasionally detect a flash of the steely pride that earned fan club workers their pink slips when they were caught cutting corners (such as trying to pass off their own hair for genuine Beatles souvenir clippings)…and which once forced John Lennon to drop to his knee and beg her forgiveness after firing her in a fit of pique.

The documentary originated as a private recording, a way for Kelly to pass along her memories to her young grandson. Director Ryan White, filmmaker and son of a family friend, had agreed to interview her on camera as a favor, but soon realized that he’d stumbled onto something far bigger than a simple family history. Eventually convincing Kelly to take an unexpected step into the spotlight, he began to weave old photos, rare film footage and additional interviews into the mix. The result is a sweet and winning slice of pop culture history as seen through the eyes of a woman who grew up and worked alongside four of the most famous men in the world.

Other Beatles histories have more to offer in terms of concert footage or backstage scandal, but this simple documentary is one of the few that brings its famous subjects to life in such quiet, intimate terms…thanks to the affectionate memories and delightful presence of good ol’ Freda.

December 9, 2013 · Posted in Now Playing