Category Archives: Nebraska

Movie Review: Nebraska

Image via Buzzsugar

Watching a director who has always directed their own writing suddenly bring somebody else’s vision to life is always interesting. “Nebraska” marks the first occasion that Oscar winning writer Alexander Payne has directed a screenplay written by somebody else. Maybe the fact that it takes place in his beloved home state helped out a bit.

“Nebraska” marks Payne’s first foray back into his home territory since 2002′s “About Schmidt.” However, it takes some time to get there. “Nebraska,” like “Fargo” and “Chinatown” before it, are about more than the setting that their titles suggest. “Nebraska begins in Billings, Montana, the current home of the Grant family. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is the patriarch of the family, whether he is aware of it or not. Woody is a sad man living a sad life. He walks with a slouch and acts like he never wasted any potential because he never had much to begin with.


Yet, Woody finally has some big ambitions. While he won’t trust the postal service to mail out a letter for him, he trusts an ad from a magazine claiming that he won a million dollars. The catch is that he can only claim that money if he goes to Lincoln, Nebraska. Woody, an alcoholic who is too mild-mannered to speak too much and too nice to burden other people, tries to make the trek on his own two feet. The mission is crazy, but his son David (Will Forte) decides to drive his father to claim his “prize.” David knows there is little hope, but he wants that sweet father-son bonding time. Mainly though, he doesn’t want his life to become as stagnant as his father’s, which tends to happen when you’re selling electronic equipment in Montana.

Stagnant is probably the best word to describe what the film portrays. “Nebraska” inhabits a Middle America in which the people grow older, yet their beliefs never change. The world immediately surrounding them remains about the same in order to accommodate their consistent attitudes.

“Nebraska” is shot in black and white, which is funny because it also looks like a painting by Grant Wood or Edward Hopper. There is something very melancholy about the grey sky in Big Sky Country or the endless hay bales that line the highways that cut through Nebraska, yet there is also something defining and quite beautiful about it. I can’t quite pinpoint what it is, but it feels like a piece of Americana that we all need to get back in touch with.

“Nebraska” is a story that would not be as effective if it were told in any other time or in any other place. Alexander Payne and writer Bob Nelson are to Nebraska what Springsteen is to New Jersey: a sharp voice on the problems of their land. They have earned the right to say these things because they also get what makes the people tick. I could have mistaken half of these people for actual residents of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where the most important scenes of the film take place. Based on the lack of IMDB credits for many of the actors, it is possible that most of them were plucked from obscurity to play themselves.

Payne has always had a knack for getting the best performances out of his actors. Whoever he casts manages to live up to his bleakly funny vision of the world. In his first dramatic leading role, Forte manages to tailor his comedic chops splendidly for a much more serious performance. In everything from “Saturday Night Live” to “MacGruber,” Forte always underplayed and was so funny because he could deliver hilarious lines while playing it completely straight. In “Nebraska,” he manages to lead the way as a dramatic straight man, acting like he has it all together even when he actually doesn’t.

Main characters aren’t usually supposed to be this quiet, but Bruce Dern (father of national treasure Laura Dern) gives a show-stealing performance. He is funny and a little sad all at once and does so by using so few words. When he does speak, it often comes off as beautifully poetic revelations from a simple man (when visiting his now empty childhood home: “I’d get whipped if I came in here…guess I can’t get whipped anymore”). Dern plays Woody as an old man who is grizzled and bitter yet he has gone through so much that it just doesn’t bother him anymore. He is less oblivious than he is in a child-like state of ignorance. Expect a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Dern this year.

I wouldn’t be able to finish this review properly without mentioning June Squibb. As Kate Grant, Woody’s loud and pushy wife, she at first comes off as downright despicable. Then, with a little more time to talk, she suddenly becomes the hero of the story, and then Woody and Kate’s marriage makes a lot more sense. Also, the scene where she visits a cemetery is one of the funniest scenes in any movie that came out this year.

Overall, “Nebraska” is a road trip movie and a story of finding second chances in times when redemption seems impossible. It’s the holidays now. You will be spending a lot of time with your family. “Nebraska” is a reminder that “family” and “dysfunctional” naturally go hand-in-hand. Just as David is like Woody without even trying to be, family makes us who we are, sometimes in the strangest ways possible.

The MPAA Fails Again: “Nebraska” is rated R, solely for use of language. While the sex talks gets a little explicit once or twice, its more funny than sacrilegious. Come on, your grandparents have probably said worse things than June Squibb ever says here.

Another Note: Stacy Keach gets punched in the face a lot (also see: “American History X,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”).

My Most Anticipated Releases of November 2013

Nebraska

Alexander Payne has been on a hot streak basically since the beginning of his career. After “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” “Nebraska” brings the director back to his home city of Omaha for what seems like his turn even further into dramatic territory. Plus, Will Forte has a shot to show his dramatic chops (I know that they are there) and generally awesome person Bob Odenkirk gets a big role [Note: Saul Goodman was supposedly relocated to Omaha at the end of “Breaking Bad.” Hmmm…]. For great, little character-driven stories and perfect dark humor, Alexander Payne never disappoints.


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I have yet to read any of the novels in the “Hunger Games” series, but I was a big fan of the first movie, which was a thoroughly entertaining dystopian blockbuster. Since I have no background knowledge of the story, I am excited to see where “Catching Fire” brings the story next. Also, this will likely only increase my love for Jennifer Lawrence. Let’s just hope that the baboons that I saw in one of the commercials are less ridiculous than the giant mutated dogs from the first installment.


Oldboy

Ever since the moment I heard that Spike Lee was directing a remake of “Oldboy,” I had no clue what to make of it. Why mess with Korean perfection? Could anybody ever recreate the pure shock of the octopus or hammer scenes? Still, I can’t help but be more curious than angry about this remake. It has a stellar cast (Josh Brolin, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L. Jackson), and its easy to forget that outside of his often annoying media presence, Spike Lee is an incredibly talented director. Let’s just hope this is more “Inside Man” than “Miracle at St. Anna.”

No Country For Oldboy: Josh Brolin, who looks like he’s auditioning to play Bruce Wayne stuck in the pit in “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Movie Review: About Schmidt

It’s almost 5 o’clock on some weekday and Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is on his last day of work before retirement. He’s not so much paying attention to the paperwork on his desk, but rather for the very second that the clock strikes 5 PM and he’s a free man. Then again, this was probably what every single day of work was like for him.

I think it would be a gross generalization to say that Warren Schmidt, the titular character of “About Schmidt” is no different from me and you, as there are many things that make me and you different. Rather, he begins the movie with no unique characteristics to establish him. He is vice president of an insurance company, working in a blank office in a plain, white skyscraper. Later, we will find out this was never the job he hoped to end up with.
Warren then goes home every day from work to a wife (June Squibb) he doesn’t think he loves enough and a daughter (Hope Davis) who is marrying a deadbeat (Dermot Mulroney). The Schmidt household is a picture of lost potential.
Warren’s life post-retirement has come down to a single Winnebago, the one he will drive cross country to his daughter’s wedding. But Mrs. Schmidt suddenly, inexplicably, drops dead. This drives Warren into a second, even worse rut. But still, he must embark on that cross country road trip. Most say that long trips are best made with a companion. Well its a long road to Denver, and the only thing accompanying Warren are his thoughts.
“About Schmidt,” like just about every other Alexander Payne movie, boils down to a road trip. While his films are usually about how friends or family resolve their differences on the road, making Warren go it alone shows that this is truly a film about a man who doesn’t only need to redeem himself in the eyes of his family, but rather he must redeem himself in his own eyes. That’s why when he begins writing letters to a boy he adopted from Africa, it sounds a lot like he’s talking to himself.
“About Schmidt” certainly isn’t Payne’s best film. No, that honor still belongs to the twisted “Election.” Yet, it captures an essence and a feeling that all of his films try to convey better than anything he has ever done. “About Schmidt” shows that the idea of America lies on the road. This is a country of people who feel the need to explore, from the pioneers to Warren Schmidt. This might sound like too much of an overanalysis but once you see this movie, it’ll make sense.
“About Schmidt” shows in finest form that Payne and his frequent co-writer, Jim Taylor, know how to write natural sounding dialogue like few others working today can. The conversations feel colloquial yet relatable. No matter what, “About Schmidt” always gives off a warm, welcoming vibe, even when the characters act totally detestable.
Usually, a lone road trip would seem dull, and more like in-between time between big scenes rather than an entire movie. But Payne makes Schmidt’s trip a deep, introspective one. While most road trip stories are interesting for what the characters see, this one is most interesting for who our character meets along the way, and the moments they all share together. There is something about the kindness of strangers that can make someone want to tell them anything. Or that is, if you don’t feel comfortable saying anything to your own family.
I said it once before in my review of “The Descendants” that Payne can get established actors to go totally against type, and deliver some of their finest work. Jack Nicholson’s most familiar character is a loud, outcast rebel. In “About Schmidt,” he plays someone facing the consequences of a life of not taking any risks. It is a quieter performance than we are used to seeing from him. He unlocks something in the character that no other actor could in that he takes someone who is so plain and unextraordinary and makes him vibrant and extraordinary. Then, when he finally realizes how little time he has left, and how much of life there is to enjoy, his revelation feels earned rather than contrived.
For that main reason, the ending of “About Schmidt” feels right when it could’ve felt wrong. I am not saying that “About Schmidt” is going to change your life, as that is not the point of it. Rather, it might just make you want to look around, appreciate where your from, and then do something you wouldn’t normally do. How often does that happen?