Friday, December 20, 2013


Rated:  R

STARS:  Bruce Dern,  Will Forte,  June Squibb,  Stacey Keach,  Bob Odenkirk
DIRECTOR: Alexander Payne
GENRE: Drama

I wonder what the folks in Nebraska  think of Nebraska, and what they are saying about it. Having spent a goodly number of my formative years in the Cornhusker state, I imagine it's to the effect of:  Geez, we're not all such rubes!  While it's true that director Alexander Payne  has portrayed the locals, by and large, as  a mass conglomeration of hicks from the sticks, it goes with the territory in a film where most of the characters are varying degrees of over the top. 

Nebraska is a funny movie. Funny in the way that Peyton Manning pizza commercial on television is funny (the one where he's "tossing the dough") because it relies on someone being totally naive and out of his depth.  You are going to hear that  the film is charming, heartwarming, and rife with cackles. And I agree. That doesn't mean it doesn't have its warts.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a crusty old guy who isn't  all there--at least according to his wise-cracking wife, Kate (June Squibb). When Woody receives one of those come-on sweepstakes notices saying he's won a million dollars, (you've got to read the fine print) he takes it at face value and is determined to make it to Lincoln, Nebraska--even if he has to walk--to collect his prize. When his efforts to convince old dad that he is being lured in by a scam are unsuccessful, son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive Woody from Billings, Montana to Lincoln. 

On the way they will spend some time  reconnecting with folks in Woody's central Nebraska hometown of Hawthorne (a fictional place). When the locals get wind of Woody's apparent good fortune,  they come out of the woodwork--each with a different story claiming Woody owes them dough from long ago. And  then there is Ed Pegram, (Stacy Keach) who's a little more emphatic about what he wants,  and literally threatens father and son with dire consequences if they don't pay up. 

The ubiquitous use of non-actors playing the local townsfolk (they ARE the local townsfolk) who deliver their lines in monotone--as if they were reading them right off the page--hinders one's ability to grant the "willing suspension of disbelief" that allows you to forget that you are watching a movie. 

June Squibb, as Woody's eccentric wife, nearly steals the film right from under Bruce Dern, but it's due to the lines she's been given and not her dubious acting ability. Put some naughty words or sexual innuendo into the mouth of a senior citizen and folks in the audience are going to spew their drink onto the person sitting in front of them. 

Stacy Keach playing the heavy  was not terribly believable for me...he comes off more like a city thug than a small town midwesterner. If there's anything Nebraskans are know for, it's their politeness, and I felt Keach's role required more subtlety.

Then there was the decision to film Nebraska in black and white, which gives the landscape an aura of desolation that seems better suited to a desert setting. Though the season depicted is winter, I feel the film may give those unfamiliar with the area a distorted view of what it's like. If you've ever been there--especially the eastern portion around Lincoln--you know that rural Nebraska in the spring and summer is one of the greenest places in the country--with cornfields and trees extending as far as the eye can see. But director Alexander Payne is making a  point about the winter of Woody's discontent--and maybe about people who live a kind of colorless existence. 

Anyhoo...Nebraska IS a cute, funny, and poignant film, and if you're not from around there and wouldn't notice any of my aforementioned  concerns, you'll probably give it a higher rating than I did.

Grade:  B 

Speaking of which...


Picky, picky. All I can say is, I'm glad I'm from New England so none of the aforementioned flaws bothered me. NEBRASKA is a delight from start to finish. I'm not surprised Bruce Dern has garnered a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, Musical or Comedy. You really believe he's that stubborn old codger, determined to get his million bucks. Even if he has to walk from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. (837 miles) . I particularly liked the way Dern shuffled, all stiff-legged, feet pointing in opposite directions. And the gal who played his gossipy, super critical wife was absolutely brilliant. As we left the theater, Tim insisted she had little or no acting experience. I disagreed. Sorry, Timoteo. You lose! Among June Squibb's credits? Scent Of A WomanMeet Joe BlackAbout Schmidt.

As for the film being in black and white. For me, it only accentuated the absurdity of the situation. Those long stretches of highway, the desolation one feels while viewing it. Handled differently, NEBRASKA could have easily turned into something maudlin and depressing. But director Alexander Payne (also a Golden Globe nominee for Best Director) knows how to make funny with audiences. And believe me, this audience was laughing nonstop. Maybe the monosyllabic dialog between hayseed brothers, watching a football game on TV, was exaggerated. But I bet most of the women could relate. I sure could!



Friday, December 13, 2013


Rated:  R

Stars: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson,  Zoe Saldana,  Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafole, Sam Shepard

Director: Scott Cooper

Genre: Drama

Out Of The Furnace is evidently trying to make a point about senseless violence. The senseless violence of war. The senseless violence that permeates the drug culture. The senseless violence of clandestine bare-knuckle boxing (the human equivalent of cockfighting). The senseless violence of shooting animals at close range for "sport."  So as you might have guessed, there's a lot of senseless violence in this film,  but the only point that gets made is that Americans continue to possess a disturbing and unrelenting blood lust for senseless violence in their films, TV shows, video games, and sports. (Soccer--another excuse to hold a riot!)  

We're a bunch of sick puppies.

The most sympathetic character here is Russell Baze, (Christian Bale) a steel mill worker in a depressed area of Pennsylvania. More than the rest, you could say he's a victim of circumstance. He has a sweet thing going with his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) until he gets convicted of vehicular manslaughter and sent off to prison. She drops him, but he will attempt a reconciliation when he gets out. 

Russell has a loose cannon brother, Rodney, (Casey Affleck)  who just returned from four tours of duty in Iraq. Russell tries to get Rodney to see the practical wisdom of working at the mill, but Rodney would rather get involved with a scumbag bookie (Willem Dafoe) who sets him up in the world of bare-knuckle boxing. His handler is a twisted sociopath named  Harlan DeGroat, (Woody Harrelson) a local drug mogul whom  you don't want to cross. If you owe money to DeGroat and don't ante up, you could be paying with your life.  Rodney has stepped out of the furnace and into the fire, and there ain't no turnin' back.  

Out Of The Furnace is an old-fashioned revenge tale, pure and simple, which skulks  with a palpable sense of dread toward its inexorable climax, aided by yet another winning score from Dickon Hinchliffe (Winter's Bone, Project Nim, Last Chance Harvey).

Woody Harrelson and Casey Affleck turn in  memorable performances--Affleck as the ticking time bomb, and Harrelson for the brooding evil he summons forth from the darkest regions of the human soul. Why Harrelson, who by all accounts is one of the good guys in real life,  (environmentalist, vegan) continues to take on these kinds of lowlife roles is a curious and intriguing mystery to me--but he probably just wants to demonstrate his range. 

Out Of The Furnace is superb for what it is, but it covers no new ground. In fact, it covers some very ancient ground. The eternal, relentless, and invariably futile barbarism of exacting an eye for an eye.  

Grade:  B


It's a funny thing about OUT OF THE FURNACE. The script has more holes in it than a pound of Swiss cheese. For this reason alone I'd normally give it low marks. But I was hooked from start to finish. Even when the finish didn't make any sense whatsoever. Kill me, shoot me, but I like violent flicks. And believe you me, writer-director Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart") kept me tense and terrified throughout. I definitely wasn't bored. But after the movie ended, I wasn't particularly inspired, either. Or moved. Just confused.

I could pick on plenty of stuff about this movie that got my nose out of joint: e.g. hard to buy into the idea that skinny Casey Affleck could beat up on guys twice his size. And why did Forest Whitaker choose to play such a minor and meatless role? But I've got to be honest. For all it's flaws and implausibilities, OUT OF THE FURNACE had me jumping at every punch thrown, completely gripped by the madness I kept on witnessing. So even though my head tells me I should be objective about the script's structural flaws (cowritten with Brad Ingelsby) and grade this flick accordingly, I refuse to do it. Why? Because part of movie-going for me (and millions of others, I suspect), is to escape. And OUT OF THE FURNACE is perfect escapist entertainment. Especially for psychopaths....