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Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: Little Women

Little women

The latest adaptation of Little Women stars Saoirse Ronan (top left) as Jo March and is adapted and directed by Greta Gerwig.

 

I’m sure when most of you learned of Little Women about to be released, I bet most of you thought ‘not another Little Women adaptation.’ I admit I had those feelings at the start. However I was surprised to see how well it turned out.

In 1868, Jo March is a teacher in New York City. She has writing ambitions and takes her writing frequently to Mr. Dashwood who will publish her writing… under considerable editing. Her younger sister Amy is in Paris under the guidance of her elder Aunt March who never married and despises the idea of marriage. She meets her love from back home, Laurie and invites her to a party, in which he gets drunk to her dismay. Jo’s writing ambitions are kept alive by a professor named Friedrich Bhaer who supports her work but is constructive but blunt in his critiquing of her works. However Jo has to put everything on hold when she receives a letter that her younger sister Beth is sick. She has to return back home.

The film flashes back to the winter of 1861 in Massachusetts, just after the March’s father goes off to the Civil War, and the March sisters all dress up and prepare for a party where Jo meets Laurie, the grandson of their neighbor Mr. Laurence, for the first time. Just before Christmas dinner, the mother Marmee encourages the girls to give their food to their Mrs. Hummer and her group of hungry children. The girls return with a plentiful Christmas dinner thanks to Mr. Laurence and a letter from their father who just started fighting. During the trip, Jo is invited by her single elder Aunt March to come to Paris with her. Also during that winter, Amy is strapped by a teacher for her drawing in class and Laurie takes her in to his Latin lesson before her family arrives.

It’s obvious as Amy has artistic ambitions and Jo has writing ambitions, their ambitions clash, often violently. One night as Jo is out with the family for an occasion, Amy burns the notes to her novel. Jo discovers upon returning, and a violent fight ensued. However all animosity ends when on an occasion while skating, the ice breaks under Amy and is in danger of drowning. Jo saves her. Also during that winter, Mr. Laurence invites Beth to play on his piano as she reminds him of his late daughter.

Returning to 1868, Laurie apologizes to Amy for his drunken behavior the night before. He also begs Amy not to marry Fred Vaughn but marry him instead. That only makes Amy unhappy as she feels she’s ‘second to Jo’ at everything, including Laurie. Amy later rejects Fred’s proposal after she learns Laurie returned to London. Returning back to the past, there was a period of time when Marmee left to visit their father who was wounded during the War. During that time, Beth received a gift from Mr. Laurence: his piano! However she becomes ill with scarlet fever. With a weak heart, it means she might die. Her mother rushes home with their father, already recovered. All come home in time for Christmas and Amy is all better. However returning back to 1868, Amy dies shortly after Jo arrives from her train trip.

The film flashes back to the past on the day Meg is about to be married. Jo doesn’t want her to marry, feeling Meg doesn’t want to marry, but Meg reminds her Jo’s ambitions may be different from Meg’s ambitions, but they’re still her ambitions. It’s on the day of the wedding Aunt March announces she will take Amy to Paris instead of Jo. Laurie admits his feelings for Jo after the wedding, but Jo insists she doesn’t have the same feelings.

Returning back to 1868, a devastated Amy returns home with a dying Aunt March. Jo starts to wonder if she has second thoughts of her love to Laurie. She writes a letter confessing her feelings, but she soon learns Amy accepted Laurie’s proposal and rejected Fred Vaughn’s proposal. Jo later agrees with Laurie to just be friends. After she throws her letter of love to Laurie in the river, she’s inspired to write her novel about her and her sisters.

She takes the novel to Mr. Dashwood who dismisses it because he believes a lead protagonist female who marries is what sells novels. Mr. Dashwood is given a change of heart when he learns his own young daughters love the story. However he’s still skeptical and wants Jo to make the lead protagonist marry. Jo is at first against it as it is sacrilegious to her work. However she compromises, but on one condition. She gets a $500 up-front publishing payment and more than the original 5% profits promised. She starts at 10% but compromises at 6.6%. The novel Little Women is set to be published and the school Jo and her sisters wanted to open is opened in what was Aunt March’s house with Bhaer teaching children at the school.

This may be a film adapted from a novel written in 1868, but as one watches, one would be surprised to see its relevance for today. This may be a story set around the time of the US Civil War and in New England, but there are a lot of similarities to the present. One common theme is the competitiveness of sisters. We still have that. Ask any woman who comes from a family with a lot of girls! There’s also the story of women with desires and ambitions. Today’s young women have possibly the biggest ever ambitions for their future. Women may have had it rougher a century and a half ago, but it makes clear the ambitions the women shared, whether it be career ambitions, romance ambitions or artistic ambitions. We should remember from history that women had to work during the war while the men were fighting and that started suffrage groups and the first feminist groups. There’s dealing with dashing but stupid men, as seen in Laurie. There’s support and encouragement from others. There’s also the bond of the family. First of the March girls all live with their mother Marmee as they’re waiting for their father to come home from the war. Even dealing with the heartbreak of a sister that died too soon.

For those that read the novel Little Women, I feel the reason why it became so popular is that women could see mirror images of themselves in the March sisters. They shared similar goals, similar trials, similar ambitions and similar dreams. Here in the film, I felt the characters of the March girls were made to look very relatable to most young females of today.

Now Little Women has already been adapted into a film many times before. In fact this is the seventh film adaptation of the novel if you even include adaptations as far back as the silent era. To make people welcome a film adaptation of this in the present, there would have to be a freshness or a twist that works. Having it a case where Beth is one with no intentions to marry is a risky thing. I feel it did the smart thing by having it a case where Jo is the author of Little Women and trying to market it, and using the money to build the school, is a brave decision. I don’t think it does anything too sacrilegious to the book. In fact the character of Jo is to mirror that of Louisa. What the film does is actually give two alternatives of Jo: the Jo that’s common in the novel and the Jo who’s more of a reflection of Louisa’s own life and strong will when she deals with Mr. Dashwood. It’s a unique twist for Greta to make it happen. Plus instead of it defying the story, it actually adds a unique twist to it that works.

Top accolades of the film should go to director Greta Gerwig. This could have been another rehash of a commonly-adapted novel. Instead Greta adapts the story to make it very relatable to young women in today’s world and even adding a twist to the story without ruining the dignity of the original story. Gerwig bends instead of breaks. Even the constant flashes between the past and present work well. The best acting comes from Saoirse Ronan. Again she does an excellent acting performance that adds dimension and charm and speaks to the audience. Florence Pugh is also great as Amy: Jo’s most rivalrous sister and very good at stealing the show from Jo at times. Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen are also very good as sisters Meg and Beth. Laura Dern is also good as Marmee, but her role is limited in dimension. Meryl Streep is also given a brief role as Miss March, but she delivers a character that commands your attention each time. Timothee Chalamet was good as the idiotic Laurie, but I feel he didn’t act 1860’s-ish enough.

The film also has a lot of great standout technical efforts too. There’s the costuming of Jacqueline Durran, there’s the score composition from Alexandre Desplat, the set design from Jess Gonchor and Claire Kaufman and there’s the cinematography of Yorick Le Saux.

The most recent adaptation of Little Women does the book justice, but it adds a twist at the end. I’m sure even the biggest fans of the novel will be happy how the film turns out.

Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: Marriage Story

Marriage Story

Marriage Story is the story of a marriage between an actress (played by Scarlett Johannson) and a theatre director (played by Adam Driver) that’s falling apart. And the child caught in the middle.

There have been films about marriages falling apart before. You could understand that a film like Marriage Story would be expected to deliver a lot in order to separate itself from the other divorce films. It will surprise you.

The film begins on the two in the marriage: Charlie and Nicole Barber. Charlie is a successful theatre producer in New York and Nicole is a former teen actress originally from California who’s part of his production and has helped her career as an adult actress. We see images of Nicole and we hear Charlie’s voice of what he loves best about Nicole. We see images of Charlie and we hear from Nicole what she loves best about Charlie. We then see Charlie and Nicole sitting in the office of a marriage mediator. What we heard are the written essays both were requested by the mediator to write of each other. The mediator requests Nicole to read first, but she’s too embarrassed and they forego the counselling.

The marriage troubles appear to have happened when Nicole was offered a starring role in a Hollywood television production. After she left the New York production of Charlie’s, Nicole moved back temporarily into her mother’s house taking their 8-year-old son Henry with them. Charlie chose to stay in New York as his play is moving to Broadway. They want the split to be amicable and to forego lawyers. However right after shooting, one of her castmates recommended a family lawyer she had for her ow divorce.

Her name is Nora and she is known to have experience in family situations, especially those in showbiz. Right from the start, Nora appears ready to deal with Nicole’s case, even before she hears it. Nicole does state her case. She tells of how she feels neglected by him and he constantly rejects her ideas and desires. She also suspects him having an affair with the stage manager of the theatre company.

Charlie goes to Los Angeles with the intention of visiting Nicole’s family. Nicole’s family is very affectionate to Charlie, but Nicole wants them kept out of it since this divorce is happening. The family try to make like it’s a normal visit until Charlie is served the divorce papers. Charlie first meets with Jay Marotta in Los Angeles who’s known to be an aggressive lawyer who fights dirty. Charlie declines hiring him, but he receives a phone call from Nora saying he needs to find a lawyer or risk losing custody of Henry. It’s on his return flight he finds a lawyer who’s not one Nicole previously consulted.

His name is Bert Spitz and he’s retired from family law and favors a civil approach to handling divorce. However Bert does make it clear there are some thing Bert will need to do to win custody of Henry such as move to Los Angeles. Charlie finds an apartment and remodels it to look modern. However he still has to fly back to New York frequently to work on his show. Charlie doesn’t want this to be a dirty court show so he gets Bert to arrange a meeting between the two of them, Nicole and Nora. From the start, Nora is the one in control as she brings up Nicole claim of him not being warm to her ambitions and revealing Henry prefers to stay with his mother instead of fly between the two cities. A frustrated Bert recommends Charlie move to Los Angeles completely.

A frustrated Charlie has had it. He fires Bert. During his Broadway run, he wins a lucrative Fellowship Grant. The first payout is enough to buy Jay on retainer. The case then moves to court. A confident Nora reassures Nicole that everything will be for her success, until she sees Jay coming to the court office. She knows it will get ugly. And it does get ugly in the court as Nora tries to portray Charlie as a bad person with past infidelity and emotional distance and Jay tries to portray Nicole as a bad person by making her wine drinking look like alcoholism and a criminal for hacking Charlie’s emails.

This whole lawyer vs. lawyer action frustrates both Nicole and Charlie. They act in a friendly way, especially around Henry. They don’t want this divorce to be a burden to Henry but he makes it obvious the back and forth is an annoyance to him. They hope a private discussion without either lawyer present will lead to a better resolve to the situation. Instead it starts as friendly and then turns into a heated argument. So heated, it a case Nicole claims he has gotten too involved with himself and an angry Charlie wishes she would die. However it’s Charlie realizing what he said that he breaks down, with Nicole comforting him.

The divorce drama isn’t over. Charlie is to have nightly visits with Henry where he is monitored by an expert evaluator. The visit appears to go well until Charlie shows both Henry and evaluator a trick he does with his carpenters knife in front of castmates. The trick failed and it left a long cut on his arm. The court process ends as both agree to relax their demands. At a family party with Nora as guest, Nora reveals the 50/50 agreement is actually 55/45 in her favor with terms Nicole didn’t want. At a party with his Broadway castmates, they console Charlie and he sings a song which seems to reflect his feelings of defeat.

One year passes. Charlie’s play has a successful year-long run and Nicole was nominated for an Emmy for directing. She also has a new boyfriend, possibly the boy she met at a party a year earlier. It’s on the day of Halloween Party. Nicole’s family is excited to see Charlie and Charlie tells them all he accepted residency to spend more time around Henry. Just before Charlie is about to take Henry to the party, he notices Henry trying to read something written on paper. Charlie tries to read it, but realizes it’s what Nicole wrote about Charlie in preparation with meeting with the mediator over a year ago. Charlie reads it as Nicole just enters in, and is in tears. At the end of the party, Nicole notices Henry tired on Charlie’s shoulder. Nicole agrees to let Charlie have him for the night, even though it’s her night with him.

There have been films about marriages falling apart and even films about actual divorce battles. Some will remember 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer. That film won the Oscar for Best Picture and even highlighted a touchy topic about children caught in the middle of their parents’ divorces. This film is unique as this is about a divorce and it’s a divorce of a showbiz couple with differing career paths whose ambitions can be best met thousands of miles apart. The thing about this film is that anyone who’s been married, been in a long-term relationship, or are even going through divorce themselves can see certain instances in the Barber story that mirror their own. Maybe it’s at the beginning where Charlie’s and Nicole’s essays reflect one’s pre-divorce feelings towards their spouse. Maybe it’s the nasty court battles. Maybe it’s those child custody situations. Maybe it’s even those moments where instead of keeping it all together, they just let it out and just vent out their hostile frustrations towards them. I’m sure one can see their own situation mirrored in this film.

The film does a very good, very thorough, if not completely thorough, look at the divorce of the Barbers. The film starts with the two talking of what wins them to the other. It progresses when we learn of their past career moments, present career situations and obvious future goals. It leads into how the split gets to the point a divorce is necessary and how lawyer involvement is needed. It gets to the legal preparation and even how one tried to prepare himself to win a custody battle. It even gets to moments where both bring out the worst in each other. Then there’s the two aftermaths: the first aftermath being right after the divorce and the second being much later with the calm after the storm. The film is very good at showing how the ambitions of the two, whom both describe the other as ‘a competitive person’ at the beginning, cause the friction. The film is good at showing how one state’s divorce laws conflict with another’s laws. The film is good at showing how divorce battles interfere with their child’s life. The film is also creative as it shows the first part of the aftermath of the court battle with a musical note. Nicole, her mother and sister perform a song from a Stephen Sondheim musical at a post-trial celebration party while Charlie sings a song from a Stephen Sondheim musical at a New York return party about heartbreak. It fits the film and story perfectly.

I feel the biggest focus of the film is not just the marriage falling apart, but of the involvement of lawyers. One of Jay’s assistants said: ‘Criminal lawyers see the good in bad people. Divorce lawyers see the bad in good people.’ That is very true. We see it at the trial as both Nora and Jay try to vilify their client’s spouse and expose the dirt in them. Even after we heard Nicole and Charlie describe each other at the beginning as ‘a competitive person,’ we see in the court battles that their competitiveness is nothing compared to Jay and Nora. Many divorce lawyers like Jay and Nora end up being this kind of ‘cutthroat competitive.’ You can see it puts a strain on Nicole and Charlie. Sometimes you’re left to wonder if their most frustrated by the divorce proceedings or by their lawyers’ involvement. Both lawyers even showed animal-like mannerisms in the way they did their business; Nora appeared to be coming off like a snake while Jay appeared to be coming off like a bull. What can I say? It’s like my father once said “The only people that really win in a divorce are the lawyers.” Very true, Dad!

It would be interesting to compare this to Kramer vs. Kramer. One think that’s noticed is that this film is a lot more intense. One difference is Kramer focuses on a neighbor who’s in support while Nicole has more of a support system of a family. Both films are about a divorce and a custody battle. However the role of Henry in this film is not as dimension as that of the role of Billy in Kramer. Both boys have similar bowl-cuts, but Billy was the bigger role. Actually the bigger roles in this film were the lawyers. There was some ‘lawyer moments’ in Kramer, but not as much. I think that’s the thing with this film is that it’s not just about a divorce but about lawyer interference too.

Interesting note is that Scarlett has been married once and has a daughter from that marriage to Ryan Reynolds. Adam Driver is currently married and has a child. Noah Baumbach is currently married to Greta Gerwig but was married to Jennifer Jason Leigh for some time before and fathered a child through her. Sometimes it’s tempting to think this is about that marriage, especially when Jennifer, like Nicole, was a teen movie star with her breakthrough coming in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Noah will admit it’s partially about that, but it’s about other divorces too like his own parents and through people he worked with. He even interviewed lawyers, judges and mediators. In case you’re wondering, Jennifer did see it and she’s cool with it. That bit about Nicole having directorial pursuits, I think that’s more like Gerwig than Leigh.

This has to be the best film ever made by Noah Baumbach. Up until now, I felt his best work was The Squid And The Whale which ironically is what it’s like being a teen during a divorce, and was semi-autobiographical. This film he directs and writes really appears to be a mirror on what’s happening in a lot of people’s marriages today. It reminds me of what won people to certain independent films of the late-1980’s and early 1990’s. Those films consisted of actors playing regular people who won audiences over by being reflections of themselves. This film does that. Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver were also excellent in their parts. There were times when they had to be their own individual character and then times to be a character that was part of a couple. Both did an excellent job of making their characters work. Laura Dern was hateably-excellent as the divorce lawyer that was appeared more interested in winning for her than her client and was going to manipulate her way into getting it. Julie Hagerty was also very good as the mother trying to be supportive for Nicole but still having high regards for Charlie. Azhy Robertson was also very good as Henry, but his role lacked the dimension and the screen time of that of Billy Kramer. I feel the role didn’t touch on the frustrations of the child that well.

Marriage Story is the story of two people in the arts whose marriage falls apart. However what they go through is what one can see mirrored in their own lives or what they see happening to couples close to them or what one experienced in their own divorce. That’s the film’s best quality.

Movie Review: The Hateful Eight

hateful-eight

The Hateful Eight focuses on eight despicable people in the same building. It leaves the audience wondering who will still be alive at the end, if anyone at all.

Quentin Tarantino is possibly the most uncompromising director in Hollywood. Even when he’s not at his best, he can still make a statement. I gave The Hateful Eight a look. I have to say I found it had a lot to like.

It starts in post-Civil War America in the frontiers. It’s a cold day and there’ signs that there’s a blizzard coming soon. Major Warren, an African-American bounty hunter, has three bodies to take back to Red Rock. He hitches a ride with a stagecoach despite being told by driver O.B. Inside the current passenger wants to be alone. Warren does get the ride and meets his other passengers: another bounty hunter by the name of John Ruth who has his bounty, the ruthless Daisy Domergue, with him handcuffed to him also headed to Red Rock. The ride is not pleasant as Daisy should racial slurs at Warren. To which Ruth response with a punch in her face. However Warren and Ruth are able to bond as Warren reads him his letter from Abraham Lincoln.

Along the way, the coachman  comes across a Lost Causer by the name of Chris Mannix who claims he’s to be the new sheriff of Red Rock. Mannix is welcome but tension between him and Warren start over each other’s war records. However both Ruth and Warren make a pact to protect each other’s bounties.

The blizzard becomes so powerful, the four have to take refuge at the nearby Minnie’s Haberdashery, a stagecoach lodge. Minnie’s not there and the four are greeted by Bob, a Mexican who claims Minnie is visiting her mother and he’s in charge. Also at the Haberdashery are Red Rock hangman Oswaldo Mobray, cowboy Joe Gage who’s simply traveling to visit his mother, and former Confederate general Sanford Smithers. Ruth knows they will all be in the lodge overnight and trouble is bound to brew with all these differing and conflicting people. So he gets all but Warren to disarm.

They even try to get the eight to have a civilized dinner of stew at the same table. However Mannix points out to Warren that his letter from Abraham Lincoln is a forgery. Warren admits it, stating his letter gets him respect from white people that he’d otherwise be denied. Ruth is outraged when he hears this. Warren also has another confession, but to Smithers. He provokingly confesses to him that he tortured, sodomized and killed his son in lawful self-defense in revenge for his son executing black soldiers during the Civil War.

Another incident happens known only to Domergue, the coffee was poisoned. She alerts no one of this and allows for Ruth and O.B. to pour a mug. After drinking they both vomit and collapse. Mannix is fortunate enough not to drink the cup he poured after he saw what happened. Domergue is able to kill Ruth but through her own gun. Warren attempts to be the master of justice, determined to find out who poisoned the coffee. Only to uncover that Bob is possibly an impostor because Minnie’s haberdashery does not allow Mexicans. He suspects from the start that Minnie was killed and executes the Mexican. To the surprise of everyone, Warren is shot from below. Further shootouts follow leaving Mannix and Mobray wounded.

The film then flashes back to the beginning of the day when it was to be a typical day for Minnie’s Haberdashery. However a robbery happened where everyone including Minnie were killed. Only Smithers is still alive. The leader of the heist was Jody Domergue, Daisy’s brother, who plans to ambush Ruth knowing they’ll eventually stop here because of the anticipated blizzard and his gang will take Daisy away. Returning back to the current situation, the story goes into various confrontations and leads to an unpredictable ending.

Of all the films that are happening around this Oscar season, this appears to be the one film that shows no real intention of making a political statement or social statement of any kind. Actually what it is doing is telling a story that for the whole of it only takes place not even for a full day. It’s starts with a free African-American major wanting a stagecoach ride only to end up in the same coach as two others. Then another. All of which are polar opposites and you know a fight would start any minute. Then the four get to a shelter during the blizzard which happens to be a haberdashery place with four others, also a set of characters too with traits you know could add to the conflict.With eight spiteful people in the same place at the same time with a bone to pick with at least one of them, you know hell will break loose any minute and you wonder who will be the first to get killed. Even as you watch the whole film unravel, you will end up surprised to see anyone at the end of the movie alive.

Once again Quentin Tarantino delivers. He’s one of few directors that doesn’t have to succumb to the pressures of parental guidance groups, family values groups or even the pressures of Hollywood and be able to deliver his stuff his way. As I said at the beginning, he’s possibly the most uncompromising director in Hollywood. He is no holds barred in terms of the use of profanity and racial slurs in this film and uses no restraint. As is common in his movies, he divides his film into segments or even chapters as he does here. Also like his past films, he plays with the chronology of time as the incidents of what happened before the eight got together is shown as the fifth chapter rather than a simple flashback as most film makers would do.

Another thing Tarantino does here like he does in some of his other films is throw in some subtle humorous moments. One example is the case of a cowgirl from New Zealand. Another is getting all of the eight at a table to eat their dinner in a civilized manner, or as civilized as it can get. Another example of his dark humor is the gory effects of when one gets shot in the face or when one drinks the poisonous coffee. And an additional example is how he has items be a significant part of the film. The same way the watch, Kahuna Burger, suitcase and wallet fit the story of Pulp Fiction to a tee, we have Warren’s letter from Abraham Lincoln. He does the type of movie violence that can even make Martin Scorsese jealous. He always was a film maker who didn’t play by the rules. He always made his own rules.

I will admit being a longtime fan of his movies, I was wondering what The Hateful Eight would be like. His last two films weren’t exactly his best: Inglourious Basterds could dazzle at first but would later be seen as ridiculous in afterthoughts and Django Unchained look both ridiculous and redundant as revenge being rehashed. Here Tarantino takes a chance by having most of the situation happen in a single physical location. Most of the time you have that in the case of student films or feature-length films of rising directors. Here Tarantino uses his experience and his knowledge of directing and writing to create a full intense film that’s predominantly set in a single place. That was very creative of him as he does a good job in the story and directing and delivers a movie that gives you the sense anything can happen any minute.

However the film is awfully long and there are many scenes that seem like they are drawn out. Sometimes there are times you’re actually wondering why something hasn’t happened yet.I do give Tarantino credit for delivering a story that’s unpredictable but I still feel almost three hours is too long for such a film.

SPOILER ALERT: Ending Will Be Revealed In This Paragraph. Bypass This Paragraph If You Want The Ending To Be a Surprise. If there’s one surprise Tarantino gave me, it’s the ending. Usually Tarantino is one film maker that doesn’t usually have sentimentality in his films. I have never seen a sentimental moment in any of his previous films. However the ending as Mannix and Warren appear dying was possibly the most sentimental thing I’ve ever seen in a Tarantino film. Sure, that’s not saying much but it’s still atypical enough to notice. No, I didn’t shed a tear as didn’t anyone else in the theatre but it was still a surprise.

Tarantino may be the brains behind what’s all happening in the film but it’s the actors that make it come alive. All eight of the main actors had to deliver a character that was as likable as they were hateable. Basically the type of characters whom you wouldn’t shed a single tear over when they die. They succeed in doing so and even make you welcome their deaths at times. Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell were the ones able to command the most attention. However the biggest scene stealer will have to be Jennifer Jason Leigh. Her performance as the uncoothed Daisy Domergue really caught everyone’s attention. Her character of Daisy could have been considered annoying or even a distraction but she made it work. Her turn will also surprise you how a woman can be as ruthless as the men. The second show stealer would have to be Walton Goggins as Sheriff Mannix. Goggins also had a character that could have easily been dismissed as annoying or over the top but he became more likable and oddly enough appreciable by the end. If there was one more scene stealer, it had to be Bruce Dern as the spiteful Confederate General. Even the minor roles such as Minnie and Six Horse Judy were played well.

The film also did well in terms of its technical aspects. Robert Richardson did a very good job of cinematography both among the outside shots and inside shots. The natural and created sets works well too. Once again, Tarantino delivers a film with an excellent mix of songs from the past that fit the film well. However it’s the addition of the score from Ennio Morricone that give the film an added boost.

The Hateful Eight is not Tarantino’s best film ever. In fact it’s imperfections are noticeable. Nevertheless the film rarely gets boring and will still please Tarantino fans.

Movie Review: Wild

 

Wild is about Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) who goes on a hiking trip in 1995 to heal herself from her troubled past.

Wild is about Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) who goes on a hiking trip in 1995 to heal herself from her troubled past.

Before you label Wild a ‘Reese Witherspoon movie,’ you have to see it from start to end. You’d be surprise that it’s not your typical movie from her. It’s more.

The story begins in 1995 with Cheryl Strayed, a young twentysomething, about to start a hike down the Pacific Crest Trail. This comes right after her divorce from Paul, her husband of seven years. One of the many troubles in Cheryl’s life. Cheryl looks to hiking the trail as a chance to reshape her life and gain inner strength. But at first, you will think Cheryl doesn’t have what it takes to do this long hike. It’s an 1,100 mile journey and on top of it, Cheryl is struggling to simply put on her 40-pound backpack, never mind walk with it. And on uneven terrain that includes mountains? Can she do it? Even her best friend Aimee feels she can’t do it.

The hike starts with great difficulty. Walking with the heavy backpack, she has difficulties on the first day such as not even hiking ten miles, being without cooking fuel and being unable to set up a tent properly. The days get stronger over time but it’s still very gradual as the second day she’s made aware of the type of wild animals she would have to deal with.

Over time she would have to find help. On the third day, she asks a farmer for help. He offers to take her to her house but she’s nervous about it, especially since she sees a gun in his car. She later learns he’s a married man and the couple offer her to stay overnight. Over time she meets other people that offer her help from a father and his teenage son to full families to people at various camping goods stores and retailers to hippies in a local California town who pay tribute to Jerry Garcia upon his recent death at the time to three college guys out having a fun hike together to even hikers that also plan to do the trail but eventually fail. Not all were helpful. One was a journalist for a magazine who just took pictures of her and interviewed her. Another was a group of snowboarders on a mountain top who just leave her. Another was a pair of threatening-looking men she met at a well only to be encountered by the bowhunter later looking like he would want to do something harmful to her. Fortunately it doesn’t happen as his colleague tells him to return.

However it’s the alone times of the hike that are the most crucial. In between the times she signs a name on the hike log that includes using a quote or line of poetry from a famous poet, Cheryl is all alone and has the moments of her past come back to her. Moments like a childhood with an abusive father her mother leaves taking her younger brother and her at age 6, going through high school while her mother was returning to complete her graduation, marrying Paul a successful restaurant owner while young, learning her mother has cancer and her dying sooner than expected, having her mother’s cherished horse put down, leaving Paul and hitting the inner city of Portland where she adopts a drug habit and even has an abortion. Those are the memories Cheryl is trying to wrestle with in her hike. Her cheap therapy hasn’t helped but maybe this hike will.

The thing with this film is that it’s not just to show the trip Cheryl took but also the flashbacks to the moments of her life that both trouble her and define her. We don’t just see the bad memories she’s dealing with but we feel them too. We may first just see Cheryl right after she finished her divorce at the beginning but as the trip progresses, we start feeling her situation. We learn of the bond she had with her mother and why her death hurt her terribly. We learn of how her marriage to Paul fell apart. We learn of her drug abuse. We learn of her abusive father she hasn’t seen since she was a small girl. We learn of the cheap therapy she tried at first but didn’t work. We learn of her no-so-close relationship with her brother. Over time, we see why Cheryl wants to use this trip to heal herself and it comes to appear as the right thing for her to do.

The film gives a good sense of inner strength Cheryl acquires over time with the hike. At first Cheryl appears to be a completely amateur camper who can’t get her backpack on right, can’t put up a tent well and can’t cook a proper dinner outdoors. You think she doesn’t have a chance in completing it. You’d think even more so when she comes across threatening creatures like rattlesnakes and cougars along the way. You’d also think that way in seeing she can’t even cover ten miles a day during the beginning of her trip. Sometimes you think she might become a victim of crime as there would be some threatening people she’d encounter, especially that bowhunter. Nevertheless she gets stronger with each and every mile.

However the film also succeeds in conveying the popular saying ‘the journey is the destination.’ It shows Cheryl being enriched by her experience while mentally fighting her troubles of the past. That’s not just acquired from her hiking but also from the people she meets. It’s people like the farmer who first appears threatening but becomes helpful along with his wife, like the hippies she encounters upon the death of Jerry Garcia, like the men at the store who help her reduce her packing, like the various hikers she comes across, and people like the grandson who sings ‘Red River Valley.’ There are many people that enrich her experience. Even those that seem insignificant like that journalist on the road or the three young college boys hiking together and goofing off appear to give some extra richness to her experience. Even the quotes from various authors and poets Cheryl puts in the logbooks add to the richness of the journey.

Another key aspect the film focuses on is people’s attitudes, especially in dealing with the hardships of life. We see Cheryl as she went through a self-destructive path after her mother died and needed a way out. She took the Trail in hopes that it would help her recover. We also see her mother who had also been through hardships of her own but still holds her head high. That scene where she says she doesn’t regret marrying Ronald because she had her and Leif. You think people that are constantly positive are naive and foolish but she shows strength in positive thinking. Even seeing her on her deathbed laughing how she finally gets a ‘room with a view,’ it takes a special kind of person to hold their head high during difficult times. I think it was because of her mother’s positive attitude that Cheryl knew she couldn’t be a victim anymore and needed to heal herself. That’s why she took that hike. Interesting how there are some people like Bobbi who just have that ability to stay strong in hard times and there are people like Cheryl who need to acquire that inner strength.

Without a doubt, the film belonged to Reese Witherspoon. This is not the typical Reese Witherspoon movie. This is Reese playing someone completely different from roles she’s played before in the past and it’s a role with immense depth. Even playing Cheryl at various ages in the film. She comes out shining. Even though this appears to be a one-person film, it’s Laura Dern who does an excellent job as Bobbi and even steals the film at times. She makes being positive in difficult times look smart and strong instead of naive and foolish. Thomas Sadoski did good playing Paul but his role could have been developed more as could have the role of her brother Leif played by Keene McRae and the role of best friend Aimee played by Gaby Hoffman. The various supporting performances were also excellent and added to the film. Even the briefest of performances.

Jean-Marc Vallee does it again. He really made a name for himself last year with the Dallas Buyers Club and he adds to his reputation here. He succeeds in making it the personal story of Cheryl’s it’s supposed to be while adding to the environment of the story. Nick Hornby did a very good job of writing out the story from Cheryl’s memoirs keeping in the key parts of her hike and of her life. The film made a wise choice in keeping the story mostly score-free and let the sounds of the wild and even the chill of silence add to the story. That scene of the bowhunter appearing to either want to rape or murder Cheryl wouldn’t have worked as well with a score. The inclusion of the Simon and Garfunkel song ‘El Condor Pasa‘ is an excellent addition. It’s almost like it becomes Cheryl’s own personal anthem. Also noteworthy are the contributions by Strayed herself where she’s the associate producer and even plays a woman in a truck in the film. Her daughter Bobbi Lindstrom even plays Cheryl as a child.

Wild is a bit of a melodrama but it’s not the least bit boring. It’s a very deep, very enriching story of one woman using a hike to fight her inner troubles. We not only witness her gain inner strength from it, we experience it.

Movie Review: Nebraska

Will Forte (left), Bruce Dern (centre) and June Squibb (right) go on what appears to be a surprise homecoming, only to not be in Nebraska.

Will Forte (left), Bruce Dern (centre) and June Squibb (right) go on what appears to be a surprise homecoming, only to not be in Nebraska.

A film like Nebraska isn’t the type of film that would normally draw a huge crowd but those lucky enough to see it will be quite surprised by it.

The movie begins with Woody Grant walking past the city limits of Billings, Montana and being stopped by the police. Why? He’s making his way to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect a $1,000,000 prize he believes he’s won in a sweepstakes. Son David and wife Kate let him know it’s a trick to get him to buy magazines. Woody is not a sharp tool. He easily gets injured and loses simple things like his dentures during walks. In fact David and his brother Ross have talked of putting him in a retirement home. Nevertheless he insists he’s won and he’s determined to collect it. David makes a big decision. He decides to take his father to Lincoln, Nebraska to find out for himself and get it over with. He doesn’t have much to lose. He has a solid job and his girlfriend recently left him because he wouldn’t marry her.

Before hitting Lincoln, Woody’s able to have his father stay at his brother Ray and Aunt Martha’s house in the nearby Nebraska town of Hawthorne for a couple of nights before. David goes for the visit and meets family he hasn’t seen in a long time. His mother joins up and soon the family learns of the people they grew up with and the places they visited. Some information about people coming out of Kate’s lips is too much for David to handle. They even visit the old farmhouse Woody spent his childhood in. It’s also where David learns of Woody’s drinking problem and how it kept him from being a successful farmer over in Hawthorne.

Ross joins up the next day leaving the wife and kids at home. Soon Woody tells everyone–family and friends at the bar– that he’s won a $1,000,000 prize. Everyone believes it and soon he becomes a celebrity even catching the attention of the local newspaper. To add to the problem, David and Kate insists to everyone he won nothing but no one believes them. Making things worse, David hears from family members and the town big man Ed Pegram how they lost money to Woody and they now want it back. David finds it hard to defend his father since the people know more about him, especially Ed as he has a menacing character. June however is able to defend Woody to the family claiming they owe him instead. She even reveals that Ed actually stole a compressor from Woody.

It’s not until an attempted robbery from the two nephews that the truth is revealed to the family and to the townspeople as Ed Pegram reads the letter mockingly to the bar crowd. Even though Woody is humiliated, David gives Ed something he’ll never forget. It’s after that incident David drives Woody to Lincoln to find out the truth. Even though Woody finds out the truth, the movie ends on a positive note and gives one the impression Woody leaves town as a winner as he drives by and his true friends from that town are revealed.

I know that Alexander Payne has done movies where a person’s struggle is depicted alongside the geography or the scenery of where the incident is taking place. This is something else. This is a movie where one gets a feel of the town or even a feel of the protagonist’s past life as the story is taking place. It’s interesting as Woody returns to the town of his upbringing how people make him feel welcome and even consider him a hero after hearing of his ‘prize.’ Also as interesting how these people like past friends and family try to get a piece of the action. They even know of his past to make up things where Woody owes them. You’ll soon learn that maybe Woody isn’t even part of the town or even part of the family. You’d probably understand why Woody moved to Billings. Because the town was too nasty to him. I think that’s why the film was done in black and white, to show the one-sidedness of coming from a small town. Even seeing how Aunt Martha knocks Woody’s past drinking while taking the criminal acts of her sons Cole and Bart with a grain of salt makes you wonder.

This movie is another accomplishment of Alexander Payne. I’ve never once been disappointed by him. This is another good one as it was a nominee for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. I know I talk a lot of Payne’s films being a man’s personal trial in the middle of their geography. Payne does it again but he doesn’t just simply show the geography of a small Nebraska town here. He gives a feel for it. Sometimes he can make one feel like a part of the family or a part of the town in Nebraska. I believe that was the best quality of the movie. Also you could say this film is a bit of a ‘homecoming’ for Payne. About Schmidt was the last movie he did with it set in Nebraska, albeit temporarily in Omaha. He’s gone from the Rocky Mountain valleys in About Schmidt to California’s wine country in Sideways to Hawaii in The Descendants to returning back to Nebraska here. Seems right since he is Omaha-born and raised. Also excellent is the script from South Dakota-born writer Bob Nelson. This is his first script for a feature-length film and he does an excellent job. Being born in South Dakota, I think Nelson intends for Hawthorne, Nebraska to appear like your typical small town.

Sure director Payne and writer Nelson get kudos but the story wouldn’t be without the fine acting performances. Bruce Dern was excellent playing an aging man who’s slow on wits and is easily prey to other people. He succeeds in winning feelings from the audience. It’s no wonder the performance won Best Actor in Cannes. Will Forte was also excellent in playing the son who is both caught in the frustration of the lie everyone including his father believes and starts to wonder if he really knows his father. You can see it in his face as it appears the Hawthorners appear to know more about Woody than David. June Squibb was also great as the mother. Some of you may recognize her as Warren Schmidt’s wife in About Schmidt. Here she was quite the scene stealer as the mother who had quite an outlandish mouth but was also tough as nails with those who tried to bully woody into paying. At first you think Kate’s a bad wife for Woody but then you learn she’s the best woman for him.

Even though Bruce, June and Will were the standout performances of the movie, there were other good performances too. Stacy Keach also delivered a great performance as Ed Pegram, the town’s head honcho. His scene-stealing performance kind of reminds of you of a lot of Texas cowboys that act like big shots. Makes you feel that punch in the face David gave him was well-deserved. Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray were also great as the nephews who’d do anything to get a piece of the action. Actually the film had an excellent ensemble and an excellent set of characters of family and townspeople. It’s a shame they weren’t nominated for the SAG award for Best Movie Ensemble. In addition there was great cinematography from Phedon Papamichael and good music from Mark Orton.

Nebraska is an excellent film for those that want to get off the beaten path. It starts off with a plot that normally would make for a ridiculous movie but gives you an accomplishment in the end.