Nebraska


Bruce Dern tries to ignore the nagging feeling that he isn't wearing any pants despite all evidence to the contrary.

Bruce Dern tries to ignore the nagging feeling that he isn’t wearing any pants despite all evidence to the contrary.

(2013) Dramedy (Paramount Vantage) Will Forte, Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Stacey Keach, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Devin Ratray, Tim Driscoll, Angela McEwan, Gelndora Stitt, Elizabeth Moore, Kevin Kunkel, Dennis McCoig, Ronald Vosta, Missy Doty, John Reynolds, Jeffrey Yosten, Neal Freudenburg, Eula Freudenburg, Melinda Simonsen. Directed by Alexander Payne

As men grow older their relationships with their fathers change. Whereas young men lean on their fathers, one day we wake up and they are leaning on us. We go from being the children to being the parents in a lot of ways. Whether or not they were fathers of the year or if their parenting was something we endured and survived, deep at the core of our beings they are always our fathers and occupy that role for good or ill.

Woody Grant (Dern) is a stubborn old man. He’s got it in his craw that he’s won a million dollars in a sweepstakes and that he has to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim it. The trouble is that he lives in Billings, Montana. One look at the letter he received tells everyone else that the whole thing is a scam but Woody refuses to listen. It just makes him want to hit the road more and if nobody will take him, he’ll walk there.

Woody wasn’t the greatest of fathers. He had a drinking problem – one that he refuses to acknowledge even to this day. Of course, if you were married to Kate (Squibb) you might do a lot of drinking too. She’s shrill, crude and blunt to the point of cruelty. She has opinions about everybody, isn’t afraid to voice them and generally those opinions aren’t too complimentary.

Kate and Woody have two sons – Ross (Odenkirk) whose TV news career is just starting to take off, and David (Forte) who sells high end stereos and speakers. David is one of those guys that life happens to rather than life actually happening. His girlfriend of four years who he has been living with is moving out because David can’t be sure that she’s the One. And with all of his dad’s antics, he finally gets fed up. If his Dad has to go to Lincoln, best to take him there so that everyone else in the family can have peace and quiet.

Of course Kate thinks it’s a stupid idea and of course she says so but David is adamant so he sets out on the road with his father. They get waylaid when Woody stumbles during a late night drunken walk and opens a gash on his forehead, necessitating that he be kept in a hospital overnight. That means they won’t be making it to Lincoln during office hours of the sweepstakes company so David decides to visit Hawthorne, Nebraska where Woody grew up and where much of his family still lives .

There Woody begins to reconnect to figures from his past, chiefly Ed Pegram (Keach) with whom he once owned an auto repair business and whose relationship has some contentious elements. Kate decides to take the bus down there and join them for what is turning out to be a bit of a family reunion and everyone there is under the impression that Woody is a millionaire, despite David’s admonition not to tell anyone. That changes the way everyone looks at him – suddenly Woody is in the limelight, and he doesn’t mind it one bit.

Still, old girlfriends, old misdeeds and old family rivalries begin to resurface and over all of it hovers the biggest question of all – is the million dollar win legitimate or not?

Payne has become a really fine director with Sideways, About Schmidt and The Descendents among others to his credit. In many ways he is the successor to the Coen Brothers; he has some similar quirks in terms of his sense of humor and a kind of Midwestern earthiness that has a lot to do with his own upbringing in Nebraska (the Coens were brought up in Minnesota). His films have a kind of prairie sensibility.

It doesn’t hurt that he has assembled a fine cast. Dern, a long-time character actor who has had flings with leading roles since the 60s delivers what may well be the finest performance of his career. Woody is a very layered character who isn’t always very nice and doesn’t always do the right thing – in fact it is a somewhat rare occurrence when he does. Still, despite the dementia, despite the drinking and despite the foolish stubbornness, he is ultimately very relatable on different levels depending on where you are in life. You can’t ask for more than that from an actor.

Squibb is also getting a good deal of Oscar buzz for her performance. It is certainly the role of a lifetime for her. Some critics have cringed at her scene in which Kate, while in a graveyard paying respects to Woody’s kin comes across the grave of an old would-be lover who never sealed the deal. With almost demonic glee she lifts up her dress to show the ghost of her paramour what he had missed. Personally I found it life-affirming and if it is a little shocking, so what? Why do seniors have to conform to a set of behavior anyway? They are quite capable of being raunchy and sexual. It’s not like they didn’t have sex when they were younger. I’m quite certain they were having plenty of it before marriage back then too.

Editorializing aside, Squibb does a marvelous job and her role is as memorable as it gets. It was extremely telling to me that in a scene late in the movie when Kate is leaving Woody’s bedside she bestows on him a surprising gentle kiss that shows that with all the caustic remarks and cruel jibes there is still deep feeling for her man. It’s one of those rare grace notes that indicate that the filmmaker gets it.

Forte has little to do besides react to his parents and their relations but he is solid here. There are plenty of supporting characters besides Keach who contribute to the occasional surreal zaniness or to the pathos of the film, like an ex-girlfriend (McEwan) of Woody’s who watches him drive by in a truck and the wistful could-have-been expression on her face is priceless.

While the movie isn’t for everyone, I think that lovers of good, independent cinema will flock to this. Payne is a legitimate talent who I think at this point has to be considered among the best filmmakers in the business. He’s a filmmaker like Scorsese, the Coen Brothers and Spielberg whose films I will go see just because of the name on the back of the directors chair.

REASONS TO GO: Dry and occasionally hysterically funny. Quirky in a good way. Amazing performances by Dern and Squibb.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too much elderly as eccentric crazies syndrome.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth film Payne has directed to be set in his home state of Nebraska; it is also the first film he’s directed for whic87+*h he didn’t also write the screenplay.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The Son of the Olive Merchant

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The Impossible (Lo imposible)


Mother and child reunion.

Mother and child reunion.

(2012) True Life Drama (Summit) Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Maura Etura, Geraldine Chaplin, Sonke Mohring, Ploy Jindachote, Johan Sundberg, Jan Roland Sundberg, Nicola Harrison . Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona

The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004 was an event that captured the attention of the entire world. In little more than an instant the coastlines of Southeast Asia came flooding inland, taking with them debris and lives. More than 300,000 people lost their lives in one of the deadliest natural catastrophes of all time. Many of them were vacationers enjoying the sunshine for the holidays.

Henry (McGregor) and his wife Maria (Watts) – a doctor who has given up practicing medicine temporarily to raise her children – have checked into a beautiful Thai resort on the ocean. Their three children – the eldest, Lucas (Holland) who in the manner of kids approaching puberty basically doesn’t want anything to do with his family and tunes them out whenever possible with a pair of earbud headphones, the middle child Thomas (Joslin) who has a love for the heavens, and the youngest Simon (Pendergast) – are enjoying the sunshine of the pool and beach and the joy of Christmas presents.

Henry works in Japan and is concerned that someone has been hired to do his job, which may make him redundant. The family is considering moving home to England but that is a discussion for another day. The day after Christmas while the family is poolside, a gigantic wall of water taller than the roof of their resort rushes at them without warning. Henry is with his two youngest sons in the pool; Lucas is on the deck. Maria is by the glass wall of the pool deck. All are swept away in the frothing brown deluge.

Maria is bounced about in the raging tide like a rag doll. Tree branches and shards of glass slice into her and add a red hue to the brown waters. She manages to resurface and as the tide sweeps her away she sees Lucas and manages, after a good deal of trouble, to reunite with her son. The two huddle together as they wait miserably for the floodwaters to subside.

In the aftermath, all is silent. The two make for a tall tree they see towering over the landscape which has been flattened, like a petulant child had brushed everything off of a table with a careless sweep of his arm. Lucas sees a flap of skin hanging off his mother’s leg; she is grievously injured. They hear a child crying and Lucas is not inclined to rescue anybody, wanting to get his mother whose strength is rapidly fading, to a place as safe as possible should another wave hit the shore. After some gentle persuasion from his mom, they rescue a little Swedish toddler named Daniel (Johan Sundberg) and the three sit in a tree, awaiting rescue.

It eventually comes but there are no cars or transport in the area so Maria is dragged across the mud flats with Lucas clearing out debris ahead of the rescuers. The two are eventually taken from the small village they are brought to initially to a completely overwhelmed hospital in Phuket where it soon becomes apparent that Maria’s injuries are much more severe than it first appeared. Lucas becomes her guardian angel, but after Maria sends him off to help reunite people who had lost each other in the chaos, he returns to find her gone and a new person in her bed. It appears he is alone in the world.

But he’s not. Henry survived the disaster as well, and also found Thomas and Simon and is camping with them in the ruins of their resort. However, it is clear that the resort is uninhabitable plus the thread of further tsunamis caused by aftershocks make it imperative that the survivors be evacuated to higher ground. Henry reluctantly agrees to send his boys into the mountains but he cannot bring himself to leave until he has some idea of the fates of his wife and eldest son. He is assisted by the sympathetic  Karl (Mohring) whose family was on the beach that day and whose survival is unlikely at best.

Scattered around Thailand, not knowing what has become of one another, this family must somehow find a way to get through the chaos and find each other, but will all of them survive? And how will they have changed if they do reunite?

The movie is based on the real experiences of a Spanish family which has  been incomprehensibly switched to an English one; I supposed the producers thought that the movie would play better in English-speaking territories if the nationality was changed. I guess we all do what we have to do.

Fortunately this led to some superb casting. Watts in particular stands out here (and she has the Oscar and Golden Globe nominations to prove it). She spends much of the movie flat on her back in a hospital bed and undergoes privations that a lot of other actresses might handle with less forthrightness. There was a scene early on when she and Holland are trudging towards that tree when he points out to her that her tank top strap is ripped; her breast is hanging out and it is in none too good shape. She ties up her top and without much fanfare continues; the way Watts handles it is without self-consciousness. She has other things more important than modesty on her mind. Maria’s character is in full-on maternal mode and Watts captures it perfectly.

Holland has to shoulder much of the acting load; as his mother’s injuries grow in gravity, Lucas must grow up quickly and become her protector and advocate, all the while grieving for his dad and brothers with whom he had a fractious relationship at best. We watch a child grow into a man before our very eyes and it is quite moving.

McGregor gives a solid performance but is given not nearly as much to work with as Watts. Most of the time he’s showing despair and searching for his family while yelling their names in stubborn desperation. He does have one scene where he’s calling home to let them know he and the two youngest are okay and he’s searching for Maria and Lucas…he’s using a borrowed phone and he completely breaks down, all the stress and fear and pain overwhelming him. He finally hangs up, not willing to waste what little battery life is left on the phone – and the phone’s owner extends the phone to him gently, telling him he can’t leave off that call like that. It’s a powerful scene and if only McGregor were given more like it he’d probably have an Oscar nomination as well. But basically from that point, Da Queen was misty-eyed for the rest of the movie.

A word about the tsunami sequence itself; it’s impressive. Done with a combination of practical and computer generated effects, it is as harrowing a scene as you’re likely to see. It is one thing to watch home video of the tsunami hitting a resort made by a cell phone; it is quite another to see it like this where you get not only a sense of the size of the wave but of its power.

Some critics have complained that all the victims in the film seem to be white which isn’t true; if you watch carefully in the hospital and refugee sequences you’ll see plenty of Thai faces – the film is focusing on a single family which does happen to be European but then again the filmmakers are also European. I think most thinking filmgoers realize that there were more Asian victims in the tsunami than European ones.

This is a very emotional movie that is going to make every mom who sees it a wreck and a whole lot of dads as well. The experience is an incredible one and all the more so because it is real. I do hope that when the DVD is released we’ll get to hear from the actual family (a photo of them is shown during the end credits) because quite frankly I’m interested to hear how realistically the film depicted what happened to them. Nonetheless this is a movie worth looking for; it’s not on a lot of theater screens sadly, although Watts’ nomination for Best Actress might generate a little more interest. It deserves it.

REASONS TO GO: Powerfully emotional and brutal in places. Great performances from Watts, McGregor and Holland. Tsunami scenes are amazing.

REASONS TO STAY: Harrowing in places. Unnecessarily Anglicized.

FAMILY VALUES:  The scene of the tsunami hitting the resort is extremely intense; there are also some graphic depictions of injuries incurred in the disaster. There are also several shots in which there is some nudity as people’s clothes were knocked literally off of their bodies in the deluge.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the extras were survivors of the actual tsunami.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100. The reviews are strongly favorable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Krakatoa, East of Java

ASTRONOMY LOVERS: Young Thomas has an interest in the stars and there is an interlude where he and the Old Woman (Chaplin) discuss the death of stars while watching the night sky.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Woman