Tag Archives: Payne

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.

Oscars 2011 Best Picture Nominee: The Descendants

“My friends think that just because we live in Hawaii, we live in paradise. We’re all just out here sipping Mai Tai’s, shaking our hips and catching waves. Are they insane? Do they think we’re immune to life? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up? Our heartaches, less painful?”

The Descendants is a movie starring George Clooney which is set in Hawaii. But if you’re expecting this movie to be an escapist holiday getaway, you’re wrong. It’s about real-life pain and heartache happening in an island paradise.

Matt King is a Honolulu-based lawyer who has to deal with the fact that his wife Elizabeth is in a hospital comatose from a boat racing accident. On top of that he has the issue of dealing with being the sole family member in charge of 25,000 acres of land on Kauai owned by his family for generations which will expire in seven years. The King family decided to sell the land to a developer, something Matt supports. Matt was never really close with his two daughters and always considers himself to be the ‘back-up parent’. With Elizabeth in a coma, he now has to be the main parent and deal with things like youngest daughter Scottie’s inappropriate behavior with other children and teenage daughter Alex’s drinking. As if his ailing wife and the future of his family’s land isn’t enough to deal with.

Matt had always considered himself a lousy husband and make a mental promise to Elizabeth that he will be a better husband to her once she’s better. Then the news drops. She will never recover. She also has it in her will that she be disconnected shortly from her life support. Matt will no longer be the back-up parents. He decides to tell Alex before Scottie. Alex gives the shocking news that Elizabeth was in an affair just before the accident. He later learns the ‘other man’ is Brian Speer. Matt makes a surprising decision: to find Brian and give him the news the Elizabeth is dying and a chance to say goodbye. He learns that Matt is a real estate agent vacationing in Kauai.

After telling the family of Elizabeth’s eventual death, he goes to Kauai with his daughters and Alex’s slacker guy friend Sid to find Brian. He soon finds Brian jogging on a beach and entering into his family’s vacation resort. Matt also learns from Cousin Hugh that Brian has connections to the developer who they’re about to sell their land to. If sold, Brian Speer will gain a lot of money from commission once it’s developed.

Before confronting Brian, Matt introduces himself to Brian’s wife Judy. Soon Matt is able to meet alone with Brian. He drops him the news he’s Elizabeth’s husband and she will die soon. Brian is shocked of the whole thing. He apologizes for the grief it’s caused the family but that the affair was only a fling and he loves his wife and sons. The fate of the land is finally determined.. The cousins meet to vote on the land mostly in favor of the developer but Matt decides to keep the land for other reasons. He doesn’t regret it even if it means potential lawsuits from Hugh or other cousins.

With the issue of the land over, Matt can now focus solely on the last days of Elizabeth as she’s taken off life support. Scottie hears the news from a nurse. Sid, who first appeared like an idiot, is now a figure of moral support for the family. Elizabeth’s father tells Matt he should have been a more devoted husband and father and describes Elizabeth as ‘good and faithful’. Matt expects Brian Speer to show up but it’s wife Judy instead. Matt is shocked but Judy is now aware of the divorce. She gives Elizabeth flowers and says she forgives her even though she should hate her for destroying her happy home. Finally after Alex and Scottie say their last goodbyes to Elizabeth, Matt comes to terms with all that’s happened and all Elizabeth has done and gives her a goodbye kiss. The movie ends with a scene showing that Matt is now no longer the back-up parent.

The best quality of the movie is that it deals with a family problem very likely to happen, if not common enough already. A wife from a marriage that’s already failing is about to die. The husband finds out his wife cheated on her while she’s in a coma with only days remaining. A lot of times, Alexander Payne has focused on stories of people that were either failures or felt like failures. This is a story of a husband and father who is a success as a realtor but paid the price of his success with a failing marriage. Now with his wife dying, he has to confront the fact that she failed him as much as he failed her. He’s forced to confront the fact that he would have to be the full-time parents now that his wife will die. It’s also on the verge of what could be the biggest break of his Real Estate career and the biggest break for a family business. The impending tragedy mixed with lucrative opportunity mix well in creating a story that succeeds in telling a lot about ourselves and our own feelings. Maybe this situation could be happening to an audient who sees this movie.

It also has an important element about forgiveness. For so long Matt thought he was the bad guy and he failed Elizabeth. Then he learns that Elizabeth was the dishonest one. Confronting the sudden fact that one’s dying wife was cheating is not an easy thing to sort out. She’s dying but she was unfaithful. Matt makes a lot of surprising decisions in that factor both on the future of his family’s land and to do with Brian. It’s surprising to see the husband of the cheating wife confront the ‘other man’, tell him she’s dying and offer a chance to say goodbye. It’s also surprising to see Brian’s wife, the wife caught in the mess, confront the dying ‘other woman’ and say that she forgives her despite the pain she caused. Forgiveness is not easy. Necessary but not easy.

George Clooney again shines. This is the best effort I’ve seen him do that involved a multitude of emotions and feelings. This could be his best performance yet. Even though none of the supporting performances were at the same performance level as George, the two best supporting performances came from Shailene Woodley as the oldest daughter Alex and Judy Greer as the wife of Brian Speer. Alexander Payne did an excellent job of directing and co-writing the script with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Payne has always specialized in including the story’s region and its charms in stories of people’s failures and difficulties. About Schmidt captured the charm of the American prairies. Sideways captured the charm of California’s wine country. Now The Descendants captures the charm of Hawaii while dealing with the impending death of a cheating wife and mother. Again Payne directs it to perfection. That scene around the beginning which shows homelessness in Hawaii sure says something about a place we all call and ‘island paradise’. The script’s plot and atmosphere combine perfectly to make the story of family problems in an island paradise work.  The script’s mix with dramatic and comedic elements as well as some genuinely touching moments makes a situation like this easier to watch on the big screen. The addition of Hawaiian music to the movie also added to its charm. Those lucky enough to see it will be glad they did.

The Descendants is excellently well-acted, well-directed, well-adapted drama. It features a situation that could be more common than we think and it shines. Definitely worth seeing.