Nebraska: Bumpy lives, flat land (a review)

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Much like the Big Sky prairies that serve as its backdrop, Alexander Payne’s 2013 film Nebraska takes a little bit to get going, but when it hits its stride, there is no stopping it.

An irascible old drunkard Woody (Bruce Dern) thinks he’s won a $1,000,000 lottery and is determined to collect his prize in person, walking if he must from his home in Billings, Montana to the prize centre in Lincoln, Nebraska. When his youngest son David (Will Forte) realizes there is no stopping the senile old coot, he takes a few days off work and offers to drive.

Along the way, they stop for a few days in his father’s home town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where they are joined by his mother Kate (June Squibb) and older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk). But almost as quickly as the townsfolk and extended family realize the old man has struck it rich, the hands reach out for their cut, led by Woody’s former business partner Ed (Stacy Keach).

As I said, the movie starts out slow. Woody has nothing to say to any of his family, at times appearing to have dementia. David meanwhile faces an empty life and just wants to communicate on some level with his family, never having felt like he could talk to them. Thus, when the two men with nothing in common aside from chromosomes take to the road, it feels very much like the start of an opposites-connect buddy film.

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The dialogue is excruciatingly simple in the early going, rarely more than one or two syllable conversations. Despite occupying the passenger seat of the car, Dern’s Woody is never really there, only being forced into human contact by having everything repeated louder. Forte’s David, meanwhile, has a perpetual pout of a puppy begging to be patted on the head.

Eventually, though, if only out of frustration, David begins to take control of the situation and his life. Through his own explorations and by observing his father interact with the home townfolk, he begins to see that there is so much more to his father, and this is where I really started to take note of Forte as an actor, as something more than his MacGruber caricature.

I would say that Dern turns in a solid performance, but his dialogue is so short and his stare so vacant that only once in a while do we get a real glimpse of the tormented soul within the husk of a man. June Squibb’s Kate is something to behold, however (her voice and attitude remind me of Shelley Winters). Starting more as a screeching shrew, she really comes into her own in the latter half of the film with some of the funniest lines and the staunchest defense of her messed up husband. Odenkirk is solid, but isn’t really given much to do here…this is Forte’s movie.

My strongest reaction, however, is reserved for Stacy Keach, who yet again, plays the charming, smarmy bully asshole for which he is famous (think Papa Titus on the sitcom Titus). I can’t remember a role for which Keach didn’t deliver. The man eats up the screen. You can’t not watch him.

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In terms of cinematography, Payne chose to film the entire movie in black and white, giving the whole story a sense of being trapped in another time, and adding to the sense of desolation exhibited by both the geography of the region and the simplicity of the town of Hawthorne, with its barren sidewalks and seemingly abandoned businesses. The whole thing feels like an emotional dead zone and the lack of human spark in all but a few citizens reflects that.

Bob Nelson’s screenplay is a simple one, devoid of plot twists or anxious moments. There are no great moments of revelation, but rather subtle hints at who Woody was when he was a young man. As such, the characters can come across as superficial and on-the-nose. But again, I think this was on purpose rather than a failing. I think he wanted to show us shallow people in a shallow land.

Toward the end, the movie started to take on a bit of a Hollywood ending feel, but although Nelson did start us down that road, he thankfully stopped himself before the point of schmaltzy no return.

All-in-all, I liked Nebraska, although I didn’t think it deserved the accolades it received at Cannes (Palme d’Or nomination, best actor for Dern), the Golden Globes (5 nominations) or the Oscars (6 nominations). It’s just not that deep a film, in my eyes.

 

You can find a PDF of the screenplay for Nebraska here.

Lessons from bad movies – The Canyons

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I believe that you can learn something from every experience you have, and because I am trying to learn more about screenwriting and films, this means watching bad movies. Thus, I was intrigued when I saw Netflix was showing a film called The Canyons.

Written by Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) and starring Lindsay Lohan and porn-star-going-legit James Deen, The Canyons shows the decay of Hollywood through the eyes of a struggling young actor who is still in love with his former girlfriend who is now the adornment of an unbalanced but oh-so-controlled producer on a trust fund. Paranoid from birth, the producer eventually learns of rekindled flames between the two and slowly his self-control ebbs. To tell you more would be to spoil the (complete lack of) surprise in this film.

Although the story was straightforward and highly predictable, I have to admit to being confused by one very big thing: I don’t know who the protagonist is. Through whose eyes is the audience supposed to see this story?

Lindsay Lohan’s Tara (the girlfriend) shares almost equal screen time with James Deen’s Christian (producer) and Nolan Gerard Funk’s Ryan (actor), and the story’s perspective seems to shift on a whim. If I go purely by a scale of which character left me feeling least icky in their behaviour, I would have to say Ryan was the protagonist. But he feels more like an unwitting pawn in this film.

Interestingly, however, if I was forced onto a limb, I would actually say Christian was the protagonist despite his antagonist schtick. As a character, he is reminiscent of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman…possibly his baby brother…although there is no comparison between Christian Bale’s performance and James Deen’s.

Speaking of which, the wooden performances of the actors don’t help my quest for a protagonist. (At her best, Lohan’s glamour-gone-gory Tara was reminiscent of Ann-Margret’s characters in Carnal Knowledge and Tommy at their most strung out.) Without distinct emotive clues and any sense of subtext, I really have no clue what any of the characters hopes to accomplish…there simply aren’t any goals, again with the possible exception of Ryan.

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To continue piling on, I would be intrigued to find out what kind of movie director Paul Schrader thought he was making.

On the one hand, with rampant over-use of black & white images of derelict movie houses, it seemed Schrader was going for art-house film, using the photographic decay as a metaphor for the social decay of Hollywood (this is the man who wrote Taxi Driver and directed American Gigolo).

At the same time, his rampant insertion of lengthy scenes of graphic sex gave the film a B-movie, soft-core porn feel. Here, Schrader may have been going for a moral decadence metaphor, but if so, I think he failed terribly. Instead, we were left with a humping morass of buttocks and breasts that a 13-year-old boy couldn’t be bothered to whack off to.

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But the one scene that truly grabbed my attention was a lunch conversation between Tara and Christian’s assistant Gina, played by Amanda Brooks. What caught my attention, however, was not the scintillating or captivating dialogue (there wasn’t any) or the repressed subtextual exchanges (they were incapable) but rather the fact that even the camera was unable to pay attention to the scene.

On either close up, the camera angle perpetually slid to the left or the right, and sometimes back again. Not panned to capture a background element. Slid, as if someone had forgotten to tighten the flange that holds the camera to the tripod. The camera literally nodded off.

So then, if this movie was so bad, how could I learn a lesson?

The lesson of The Canyons is that if you can get an actor of sufficient name recognition who is trying to prove something (e.g., I’m not washed up) interested in your script, you can get anything made.

 

Postscript:

As I looked up some background facts on this movie, I learned that The Canyons was the first film to be largely funded via crowd-sourcing. Given the performance of subsequent crowd-sourced films like Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here (poor) and Kristen Bell’s Veronica Mars (modest), I am beginning to wonder if there isn’t some merit in studios having some influence on whether and how a film gets made.

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