Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Review: "Oldboy"

Director: Spike Lee
Runtime: 104 minutes

There's nothing inherently wrong with an American remake of an acclaimed foreign film. Though there's hardly a notable catalog of successful Hollywood remakes, successes aren't impossible. Just two years ago, David Fincher delivered his take on Sweden's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Despite sharing similar problems with the original (which stem from the novel), Fincher's version was a vastly superior work of pure craft. Go back a few years more, and there's Martin Scorsese's The Departed (based on the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs), which took home Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. So what's the verdict on Spike Lee's Oldboy, a remake of Park Chan-wook's acclaimed South Korean thriller? 

The short answer is that no, Lee's version doesn't hold a candle to the original. But to dismiss it for that reason alone would be foolish. And, in fairness, Lee's version does have its merits, even though they feel superfluous in the shadow of the Korean version. Even when Lee and writer Mark Protosevich deliver, the results are but a shadow of the previous iteration. 

It doesn't help matters that Oldboy gets off to a jarringly sloppy start. From the frenetic editing to the rushed line delivery, the film's establishing scenes, in which Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) drinks, fights with his ex-wife, and drinks some more, are hacky and amateurish. Joe's starting point in the film makes sense on paper, but Brolin's first moments feel like bad rehearsals. Things get a little better once Joe is captured and imprisoned in a mysterious, window-less room, but the filmmaking and acting remain disconcertingly subpar. Watching Park Chan-wook and the great Min Sik-choi chronicle the maddening years of imprisonment was visceral and unsettling cinema. Lee and Brolin's take quickly slides into tedium. Even as Joe learns, via his cell's TV, that he's been framed for rape and murder, the psychological component remains out of the film's grasp.

Only when Joe is mysteriously thrown back into the world does Lee's film start to improve, and even then the improvements seem like a lackluster reward for one's patience. Joe, understandably, struggles to put together the scraps of his former life (20 years is a long time to be kept in confinement). Old friends barely recognize him, but one (Michael Imperioli, whose character only exists within his bar and apartment) finally takes pity on him. Joe also befriends a young nurse named Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), who becomes determined to help him because the plot requires it. A version of Olsen's character exists in the original, but she was introduced in a way that felt in line with the narrative. Olsen, sadly, is brought in through a clunky intro that revolves around her position as a nurse. Even in the details that Oldboy keeps the same, it still fumbles with the moment-to-moment execution.

If it seems like Lee's film has nothing to offer, that's not quite the case. One of Park's film's best known scenes is its brutal hallway fight, in which the protagonist fights off dozens of henchman in a single crowded, brutal shot. Lee changes the scene's setup to the point where it almost feels like a video game, but it works. With this breathless, stylized crescendo of assault and battery, the director starts attacking the material with conviction. Everything afterwards is far from perfect, but there is, thankfully, a consistent increase in overall quality from here on out. 

Where Lee and company really make an impression is in the last half hour. In a pair of smartly-executed flashbacks, Lee elegantly overlays images of the past on the present. Even more striking is the director's handling of the story's shocking and disturbing climactic twist, doled out largely in a single, knockout camera movement. Everything - the directing, the writing, the imagery - finally coalesce into the movie that this remake should have been. 

But even for the uninitiated, it may not be enough. There will be, not surprisingly, those who find themselves too repulsed to enjoy to twisted nature of the conclusion. Yet even those who find it riveting will still have to contend with the mixed bag that precedes the final act. It's hard to find anything consistent or noteworthy for so much of Oldboy, that it threatens to completely sever one's engagement with the story and the characters. 

Even District 9 star Sharlto Copley, as Joe's shadowy tormenter, isn't enough to hold it all together. As much as Copley digs into his outrageously stylized character, he feels like he belongs in a 1950s Bond movie. Despite his muscular build, Copley's sneering Adrian is the sort of sinisterly effeminate type that Hollywood used to love parading in front of audiences with a wink and a nod.

So as much as Oldboy deserves credit for ending with its best foot forward, it's a hard movie to endorse with much enthusiasm. When Lee's sensibilities actually click with the material, there are tantalizing hints at the great, American-ized remake that could have been. Unfortunately, those moments make up too little of this middling, yet competent, retread of a film that's already something of a cult classic. As is often the case, you're better off simply watching the original, especially since Netflix finally uploaded the original South Korean version with English subtitles. 

Grade: C+

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review: "Inside Llewyn Davis"

Director(s): Joel and Ethan Coen
Runtime: 105 minutes

Though undoubtedly a small movie, it would be a mistake to dismiss Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel and Ethan Coen's folk music character study, as a forgettable or minor work in their careers. Firmly anchored by Oscar Isaac's lead performance, this melancholy story is filled with typical Coen quirks, yet ventures into a level of sincerity the brothers rarely tackle. Bound to deepen upon reflection and/or repeated viewings, this deceptively small movie makes its mark thanks to its gently played undercurrent of resilience in the face of sadness.

The titular Llewyn Davis (Isaac) likely won't go down as one of the Coen's more likable protagonists. Though certainly no villain, Llewyn is a great deal less sympathetic than the brother's last lead, True Grit's Mattie Ross. Though he's far from old, Llewyn carries himself like a man who's already been pushed to wit's end (this is nicely complimented by Bruno Delbonnel's blue-hued, wintery images). When we first meet him, Llewyn is singing his heart out into a microphone, and for a while it looks like he's performing in a vacuum as he pours out his soul. As the scene pulls back, however, we see that all of Llewyn's passion is being put forth in a dingy bar, with an audience that is appreciative and engaged, but not exactly enraptured. Llewyn's doing his best to communicate the only way he really knows how, but the gulf between artist and audience is quite a large one.

If Llewyn's interaction with his audience is lacking, his ability to interact with friends and family is even more dire. There are friends like Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Mitch (Ethan Phillips), but they seem like distance acquaintances at best (although not too distant that Llewyn won't abuse their hospitality). Then there are people like Jim's wife Jean (Carey Mulligan), who rightfully has nothing but contempt for Llewyn or anything he stands for. Through a series of tautly written, intelligently acted scenes, the Coens establish a whole host of relationships from Llewyn's POV, thus firmly planting him in his head. We spend time viewing events from his perspective, even as the direction is wise enough to avoid siding with Llewyn's thoughts and actions.

The surprisingly fleet pacing, with conversations often ending with hard cuts to a new shot, is what gives Inside Llewyn Davis a defiant lack of heaviness. The Coens aren't interested in misery porn or yanking at heart strings. Though the story's setting and music make it ripe for noxious sentimentality, the directors never betray their own level of emotional restraint, even as they branch into more sincere territory. Rather than blast emotions at the viewer, the film mostly underplays things - events, backstories, details - thus allowing them room to reverberate with the viewer throughout (and after) the whole film. 

For all that there is to say about the writing and directing, it would be foolish as well to say that the film isn't an actors' piece of sorts. Isaac, in his first real leading role, is nothing short of outstanding, whether he's singing, arguing, or merely observing and laying low. Isaac's turn is so key to the film, that whether or not you respond to it will likely come down to how to connect (or don't) to the actor's approach to him, as well as the film's. 

Supporting roles, meanwhile, often feel like hazily sketched satellites orbiting Llewyn's life. This is true of some (Jim and Mitch, Mitch's wife), but in characters like Jean the film is able to communicate so much with so little. In large part, that's due to what Mulligan pulls off, starting with bigger, noisier scenes before quieting down and hinting at a fuller, more authentic personality. Even F. Murray Abraham, who only appears in one scene, gives a performance that feels lived in. It's just not his life that we as a viewer are oriented around. 

The most valuable supporting player, however, is the music. Though little (if any) is original, music supervisor T. Bone Burnett (along with Isaac) has done a beautiful job of compiling a series of songs that work perfectly in sync with the story. It's hard to imagine swapping any songs in terms of order, given how carefully they've been positioned throughout the film. Details like this emphasize what makes Inside Llewyn Davis so special, despite its narrative and emotional modesty. 

The level of care present in every scene and shot may not always be immediately apparent, but the film moves in ways that have a confident sense of purpose. Llewyn hops from place to place, and the film hops from scene to scene, yet no excursion is without purpose. Inside Llewyn Davis is undoubtedly a small film, but it's anything but minor. It's an understated dark comedy handled with unparalleled restraint, which is precisely why it's so deeply felt. 

Grade: A-

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Review: "Labor Day"

Director: Jason Reitman
Runtime: 111 minutes

While Jason Reitman deserves credit for branching out with his latest film, he's hardly deserving of praise for the final product this time around. A mishmash of poor decisions and shoddy story telling, Labor Day comes across more as a polished Lifetime movie, rather than the latest work from an exciting young director. In venturing outside of his comfort zone, Reitman has made the mistake of indulging in all of the worst tendencies of his new chosen genre. The result is awkward, boring, and fatally unconvincing.

Set over Labor Day weekend in 1987, Reitman's adaptation of Joyce Maynard's novel centers on Henry (Gattlin Griffith) and Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet). The latter is a shut in of a single mom, unable to rebound from her divorce to Henry's father (Clark Gregg). On her monthly sojourn to the local convenience store, however, Adele's life changes with the introduction of Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict who inserts himself into Adele and Henry's life. 

Right off of the bat, the set up is unconvincing. The level of contrivance present, which rests upon Henry's gullibility and naiveté, isn't the sort of flaw the film is able to make up for over time. Instead, it undermines everything that follows. The psychological tension inherent to the set up never materializes, which leaves Labor Day as a goopy slog of a romantic drama. 

Reitman approaches the material by throwing every trick in the book at it, and it's rather depressing to watch. Voice over pervades the entire film, spelling out even the most obvious details. Meanwhile, Rofle Kent's score, though fine on its own, is overused to the point of self-parody. Rather than compliment the footage, Kent's music strains the create an atmosphere that the writing and direction are laughably incapably of conjuring. Reitman also tries, unsuccessfully, to build Frank and Adele's backstories through laughably "arty" flashback sequences that do little to truly get under the skin. If anything, they only make the whole project seem even more worthless.   

Even the two stars seem unable to fully connect with their characters. Though Winslet and Brolin are perfectly suited to their respective roles, the material they're given is so thoroughly lacking that its no wonder their performances suffer. Winslet, in the more emotive role, is particularly disappointing as the damaged Adele. All of the nervousness and wariness Winslet communicates feels halfhearted at best. Though it's hard to pinpoint whether the fault lies more with the writing and directing or the actress can be difficult. Either way, it's sorely lacking work from an actress who is capable of so much more. Brolin, meanwhile, is effective enough without having to really do anything that requires true effort. His character almost never seems to be in any true danger, which leaves the actor with little to work with, given that his main conflict revolves around whether or not he'll be captured by the authorities. 

The biggest disappointment in the whole mess, though, is Reitman's direction. The director made a name for himself with sharply observant comedies like Juno, Up in the Air, and Young Adult. His transition to full blown drama, however lacks any of the success of his previous work. His indulgence in tired techniques (heavy-handed music, voice over) feels desperate. There's no intelligence behind any of it, and it all grows old far too quickly. His adaptation surrenders to the dramatic contrivances of its source material, rendering it all painfully trite. Labor Day isn't an intriguing new direction for a rising filmmaker. It's a numbingly bad misfire that ought to be stricken from the resumes of everyone involved. 

Grade: D+

Friday, November 15, 2013

AFI Fest 2013: "Heli"

Director: Amat Escalante
Runtime: 105 minutes

At the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Mexican director Carlos Reygadas took home the Best Director prize. This year, his countryman Amat Escalante did so, for a film which Reygadas helped produce. Reygadas' touch is felt throughout Escalante's drug war drama, from the simple yet formal camera work to the aversion to trained performers. Unfortunately, none of Reygadas' influence, or Escalante's own vision, works particularly well. The execution is technically competent, but ultimately provokes little more than a shrug once its final shot fades to white. 

Drug trade violence is an always-topical subject matter, though most audiences are used to seeing it from a white perspective (whether in the likes of The Counselor or on TV's Breaking Bad). In that sense, it's nice to see a film that examines drug-related violence for an entirely Mexican point of view. If only the quality of the writing was there to give Heli greater justification for its existence. 

Heli aims for modern Greek tragedy, but it fails thanks to Escalante's indifferent attitude towards his characters, and the horrific events that befall them. The downward spiral is set in motion by a move of passion between two children, yet the real sense of tragedy is missing. The context of the setting - a world where people are forced to grow up far too fast - is compelling in its own right, but Escalante write and directs his story in a manner that never truly connects. It's telling that Heli's most effective moments are those involving anonymous violence, as in the initially vague opening sequence. 

The problem is that Escalante mistakes socio-political context for actual drama. As a window into Mexico, Heli actually does a solid job. What's missing is some greater reason or statement to make it worth the investment. Character arcs are non-existant, and the story's entire purpose seems to be that "hey, that drug violence south of the border really is unpleasant business, isn't it?" Escalante pulls off some nicely textured visual moments, but there's absolutely nothing underneath. The film received attention at Cannes for a violent sequence involving flaming body parts. However, in the full context, the bit barely registers, even as it gives painful new meaning to the song "Great Balls of Fire." 

Not helping matters are the performances, which are nothing more than functional. Only Armando Espitia as the titular protagonist achieves anything resembling a rounded performance, but his efforts are in vain. Escalante isn't interested in his characters. He cares about how he can use them to make a point. A pity that he forgot to even make much of a point to begin with.

Grade: C-

AFI Fest 2013: "The Great Beauty"

Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Runtime: 142 minutes

The spirit of Federico Fellini lives on in Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty, a big, bloated, beautiful swoon of a movie. Italy's official entry for the upcoming Foreign Language Film Oscar may not quite reach the heights of its obvious forerunner - Fellini's La Dolce Vita - but it's still an engaging watch from its dazzling opening to its contemplative final passages. Sorrentino's kaleidoscopic look at Berlusconi-era Rome can be something of a mess, but it's all practically bursting at the seams with life. 

Like the aforementioned Fellini classic, the center of The Great Beauty is a journalist, albeit one significantly older than the one embodied by Marcello Mastroianni all those years ago. Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo, excellent here and in Sorrentino's Il Divo) is an aging journalist who conquered Rome's high life at an early age. He's introduced to us during an elaborate party sequence, turning around and grinning with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. Yet all of those years a living the sweet life have left a bit of a sour taste in Jep's mouth, even as he continues to indulge. 

Rather than gradually push Jep to a breaking point, however, The Great Beauty is content to wash over the viewer in a series of episodes that often touch on the same themes and ideas. When it works - which it does a great deal of the time - it's grandiose entertainment powered by Sorrentino's full throttle maximalism. The results can sometimes be a bit manic (the camera is in almost constant motion), but they capture the mix of the beautiful and the profane inherent in both Jep's life and Rome itself. 

Though The Great Beauty is a lot of pure movie to take in one sitting, it's never less than pleasurable. Sorrentino captures moments of biting satire and honest, understated emotion with a mix of bombast and restraint. It shouldn't work, but alas, it does. Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi capture it all with relentless enthusiasm. A few bits and pieces here and there break the overall flow, but there's hardly a moment in this sprawling party that begs to be removed or trimmed down. 

Even with the indulgences, it's hard to deny Sorrentino's energetic dedication to his own vast, overwhelming feast for the senses. Despite all of the artistic flourishes, the script is no slouch. If La Dolce Vita showed the hollowness of high society in its heyday, The Great Beauty catches it in its decline. Jep and his associates aren't pretty young things anymore. They have a lifetime of mistakes and regrets behind them, and they're bearing witness to the offspring of their own indulgences. In a particularly humorous aside, Jep watches a group of people visit an outrageously expensive, yet frighteningly efficient, cosmetic surgeon, doing his best to puff and plump Rome's crumbling, sagging glitterati of yesteryear. Later, Jep and a new lady friend walk through a dark empty building filled with statues, gazing upon the immortal works of their ancestors. It's big juxtapositions like this that give The Great Beauty some sense of heft amid its shameless stylization. 

And even though his emotional journey can, at times, feel a touch repetitive, Toni Servillo remains an ideal match for Sorrentino's larger than life aesthetic. The swooping, gliding camera impresses, and the soundtrack choices are divine, but Servillo lends the film its cigar smoke-stained soul. In some ways, Jep is the singular manifestation of his era, despite the group of contemporaries who fill out the ensemble as his friends and lovers. Jep is capable of recognizing the beauty of simple pleasures, but unlike some of his friends, the pull of Rome's high life is too much for him to resist, even as it gets in the way of his more intellectual pursuits. Sensation is key in this thrillingly alive spectacle, but nothing is as truly captivating as a glimpse at the soul. With The Great Beauty, Sorrentino has found a way to stimulate our senses while also providing a successful character study. It's not the sweet life. It's the complete life.  

Grade: A-

AFI Fest 2013: "Her"

Director: Spike Jonze
Runtime: 120 minutes

The future is a sleek, dark, sterile world. At least, that's what your average near-future dystopia would tell you. This being the case, director Spike Jonze deserves a lot of credit for his simple, ultimately warm look at where our society is headed, with his new romance Her. He also deserves credit for, in his first outing as a writer, delivering such a funny, heartfelt, and empathetic look at love and human relationships in our increasingly tech-obsessed world. 

Despite lonely protagonist Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), Jonze approaches Her by doing a complete 180 from his previous film, 2009's Where the Wild Things Are. That film took a children's book and infused it into a tale filled with poignant, soulful mourning. By contrast, this tale of adults and their romantic lives is mostly a light comedy. 

Rather than opt for a future filled with nihilistic heaviness, Jonze and his collaborators have dreamed up a world filled with warmth. Rather than oppressive grays, Her is shot and designed to incorporate a wide range of soft, vibrant pastels. Some of Hoyt van Hoytema's shot compositions showcase the towering skyscrapers of Los Angeles, but the film is ultimately concerned with intimacy. 

For Theodore, that intimacy comes not from another person, but from a futuristic new operating system. Once activated, the program develops a personality, that grows as its spends more time with the given customer. Theodore's OS, for example, gives herself the name Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and quickly becomes her own strong-willed personality. In line with the film's notions of simplicity, the artificial intelligence in Her takes no physical form. There are Blade Runner-esque androids. There's only the voice.

While Jonze gets to craft scenes and images, and Phoenix has room to visibly express himself, Johansson is left with only her voice. She's Her's make it or break it element, and thankfully, she succeeds with flying colors. Though she came to prominence in roles that emphasized emotional minimalism (Girl with a Pearl Earring, Lost in Translation), Johansson proves she's capable of creating a richly textured character without even appearing on screen. Jonze's script only helps the performance. He gives Samantha room to be her own person. Though she's technically there to be a voice for Theodore's computer, Her's progression makes her every bit as well rounded as her "owner," even though she comes into the movie with no background or baggage. 

Likewise, Amy Adams' Amy is also given room to have her own life. For a movie ostensibly about a man falling in love with his computer, Her's women are refreshingly independent. Though they have moments to comfort Theodore, Jonze writes them as full-bodied beings with more to do than act as emotional sounding boards for a man. Even Rooney Mara, as Theodore's ex-wife Catherine,  is never simplified or demonized. Though most of Catherine's scenes are silent flashbacks, Jonze never robs her of a voice. The reason for her split from Theodore is given a fair shake, with both parties shown enduring some form of emotional struggle. 

As valuable as the women are, however, Her is built on both Theodore and Samantha. And for a couple who never visibly share the screen, Phoenix and Johansson work wonders together. Phoenix throws himself into the goofy, aloof Theodore with the same force he gave to the tormented and animalistic Freddie Quell in last year's The Master. Despite being known largely for playing men riddled with demons, Phoenix makes for a surprising comedic and romantic lead. 

The performances and direction only heighten as the film dips into deeper territory. Her is, somewhat contrary to the marketing, a comedy, but Jonze never forgets to push beneath the surface charm. Yet rather than become fully dramatic in the later portions, it's perhaps more accurate to say that the film becomes empathetic. Jonze wrings some beautifully romantic and heartfelt moments out of his sci-fi laced scenario, yet there's never an emotional heaviness behind it. In fact, the film's few uncomfortable moments come when seemingly dramatic scenes are suddenly punctuated with obviously intentional comedy. You enjoy the comedy, but simultaneously can't help but wish that a serious beat had simply been allowed to settle and take root. 

Her isn't so much a searing study of human relationships as it is a gently comforting, though ultimately lighthearted romance. It's easy enough to dismiss Jonze's tone as nothing but frivolity. The film's lightness is underscored by moments of deep feeling that speak for themselves though restrained direction and beautiful performances. Her is a gorgeous technical package (with van Hoytema's cinematography taking best in show honors) ,but it would be nothing without committed performances lending some real soul to its deceptive lightness. In Phoenix and Johansson, however, Jonze has found a perfect pair around which to build his singular vision of our rapidly deepening relationship with technology. 

So many films have tried tackling society's progression with heavy-handed seriousness. Her, on the other hand, sees fit to view the future with guarded optimism and a lovely sense of hope, despite the inevitable complexities that arise along the way. The journey into the future is uncertain, but for Spike Jonze, it's humanity's constant needs that are the real driving force behind society's developments. As it turns out, those are more impressive than any grandiose advancements in technology or special effects. 

Grade: B+/A-

Thursday, November 14, 2013

AFI Fest 2013: "The Congress"

Director: Ari Folman
Runtime: 122 minutes

Five years after the masterful animated doc Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman returns with The Congress, an overly ambitious odd duck that gets just enough right to avoid being a failure. Blending sections of live action and animation, Folman's foray into fiction filmmaking once again features dazzling visuals, even as them come trembling under the weight of unwieldy concepts and themes. Robin Wright's central turn is compelling in both physical and animated forms, and has great fun casting the actress as a version of herself.

For all of the bright, downright trippy animation that fills the second half of The Congress, the film's outlook on modern desires and priorities isn't exactly a happy one. Opening in the not too distant future, the film's first shot is a worn down looking Robin Wright listening to a demeaning lecture from her agent Al (Harvey Keitel). There are references to everything from bad career choices to bad choices in men (Wright was once married to Sean Penn), and it feels all too plausible, despite the undercurrent of humor. One wonders, in a system still filled with such an unfortunate amount of sexism and double standards, how many similar conversations have taken place behind closed doors. 

Things for Robin don't exactly improve when she meets with executive Jeff Green (Danny Huston, laying the sleaze on thick) offers her a troubling opportunity. The aging actress will have the chance to receive a steady flow of income if she takes part in a new process that will allow the studio to scan her entire being (mind, body, and soul), thus allowing them to manipulate and control her every move on screen. The other part of the agreement, however, is that the actual Robin Wright, the one not contained on a computer chip, can never act again in any capacity. 

Folman's set up is, despite some iffy acting moments from Keitel and others, quite effective. Though it's none too subtle about the message, there's enough winking humor to offset the heavy-handedness. Even with Wright loosely playing herself, there's a general avoidance of in-jokes about her career, thus allowing this Robin Wright to exist as her own character. 

Only when we first enter the animated section of the film does The Congress fail to fully gel. Folman has a great deal of fun with the visual style, but his handling of the rules of the animated world are fuzzy-headed at best. Robin's presence in the animated zone (an actual, separate place from the live action world) never feels convincing. The character is left to wander around (and occasionally hallucinate), but she lacks true conflict or motivation. The introduction of the mysterious Dylan (Jon Hamm), sadly, fails to ignite much interest as well. All hell breaks loose in the animated zone, yet it's difficult to feel any sense of tension because the zone still feels so overwhelming and vague as a place. 

Thankfully, Folman eventually remembers to give his protagonist a goal, which gives the animated portion a long overdue sense of narrative momentum. The animated zone's dream logic still frustrates, but the amusing imagery finally comes coupled with the sense of a world with a sense of purpose. Despite Wright's valiant efforts, however, The Congress is more of a director's (and animator's) film than an actor's piece. The actress' voice work in the animated section is vulnerable and human, but Robin Wright the character is ultimately not given enough for Robin Wright the actress to work with. 

On the other hand, when Folman's direction clicks, he delivers some truly arresting moments. For all of the uneven execution throughout, Folman does at least deliver when it comes to the ending. Aided by Max Richter's simple, atmospheric score, and a gut-punch of a visual transition, The Congress ends on a sobering, inexplicably emotional note. Even with all of the hazily drawn characters, concepts, and themes, enough of it sticks along the way that the last 15 minutes dazzle in their own quiet way. The Congress may not be the grand slam follow-up to Waltz With Bashir that it could have been, but there's certainly enough going on that makes it worth going way down the rabbit hole into Folman's relentless vision.

Grade: B-

AFI Fest 2013: "Borgman"

Director: Alex van Warmerdam
Runtime: 113 minutes

A head-turner at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Dutch thriller Borgman is as hard to pin down and understand as the titular character. Shaman? Demon? Alien? All seem like potentially valid interpretations in Alex van Warmerdam's briskly paced domestic invasion (infection?) tale. There have been comparisons to Haneke's Funny Games, but the more appropriate reference point is Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth, which was equal parts sinister and bizarrely funny. 

When we first meet Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), he's fleeing from a hunting party led by a gun-toting priest. Upon making his escape, he finds his way into the home of an upper class family, walled off from the world in their fortress-like modern home. Though Richard (Jeroen Perceval) brutally rejects Borgman's pleas for shelter, his wife Marina (Hadewych Minis) takes pity. Without Richard's knowledge, she takes Borgman in, hiding him away in the small shack on the outskirts of their sprawling backyard. The one condition, of course, is that Borgman never enters the house or interacts with Richard and Marina's three children.

What happens next is where Borgman starts to defy description. Strange incident after strange incident piles up, and van Warmerdam's slick storytelling keeps the episodes light, weird, and frequently hilarious. At every opportunity to answer a question, van Warmerdam simply throws five more out to the audience. You know nothing about Borgman or his motivations, but it doesn't take long before you wish you knew everything.

Yet as good as van Warmerdam is at raising questions, he's less successful at coming up with satisfactory answers, or even hints at answers. Carried by the direction and strong performances, Borgman goes down easy, despite its self-conscious weirdness. Yet once the ending arrives and the screen goes dark, it doesn't take long before you stop caring about the dozens of questions that you had in the moment. For a film that has such fun poking and prodding the audience (as well as the characters), there's a curious lack of thematic bite when it comes to the finale. 

The moments leading up to said underwhelming finale are still more than enough to make the film worth a look. With its swift story telling (doled out with simple, yet effective camera work) and lack of heaviness, Borgman is an unexpectedly accessible variation on the home invasion (home encroachment?) sub-genre, despite its myriad oddities. Watching Bijvoet and Hadewych play off of each other (as well as the rest of the ensemble) is a great deal of fun, with the actors' collective commitment to van Warmerdam's vision being a huge boon to the overall project. If there's any part of Borgman that will stay with you over time, it's the unfussy, unpretentious dedication to spinning a deliciously strange journey that matters far more than the ultimately hollow destination.

Grade: B/B-

AFI Fest 2013: "Tom at the Farm"

Director: Xavier Dolan
Runtime: 105 minutes

A tightly wound story of lust, desire, and control, Xavier Dolan's Tom at the Farm is the young Quebecois director's most accomplished film to date. Abandoning most of the film student tendencies of his previous features, the prolific artist's latest is a dive off the deep end into florid modern noir. Though Dolan still has plenty of room to grow, and it shows, his latest is a gay-themed, Hitchcockian psychosexual thriller that holds some truly magnificent pieces of acting and atmospheric tension.

As the film opens, Tom (Dolan) is bidding farewell to his boyfriend Guillaume, who has passed away in a tragic accident. Yet soon afterwards he's forced to conceal his feelings. Tom journeys to Guillaume's family's farm for the funeral. The family - mother Agathe (Lise Roy) and brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) - remain unaware of Guillaume's sexual orientation. Under pressure from the vaguely menacing Francis, Tom continues to prop up the lie, and finds himself slowly sucked into life at the farm. 

Dolan's first steps here are his clumsiest. Despite the moody photography, early scenes come front-loaded with Gabriel Yared's lush, bombastic score. As Tom meanders around the empty farm for the first time and Yared's strings flood the screen, it's tempting to write the whole thing off. Moments like these show Dolan struggling to acclimate to the genre trappings he so clearly wants to engage with (and indulge in).

Yet once the perfunctory first conversations are out of the way, Tom at the Farm starts to come alive with a Polanski-like attention to atmosphere. The style and content stop clashing, and come together to paint a fog-shrouded portrait of intimate, character-driven suspense and sexual tension. Yared's score, such an obnoxious distraction at the start, suddenly becomes wholly engrossing, even as it occaisionally threatens to recklessly upstage the drama. 

Beneath Dolan's typical attention to style, however, he's also put together a tight ensemble of strong performances. The writer/director/star likely won't win new converts with his acting style (his biggest change is that he's decked out with a heinous hairdo), yet his technique lends itself well to the story and character. That said, none of it would work half as well without the stellar turns from Roy and Cardinal, especially the latter. 

Roy's Agathe starts as a doddering and oblivious old lady, but through Dolan's script, the actress is able to peel back the layers and reveal surprising and unsettling facets. Best in show honors easily go to Cardinal as the hulking, gruff and controlling Francis. Whether simply hovering over Tom or trapping him in sinister emotional games, the actor is a force to be reckoned with. Both of these roles could have been frustratingly one-note, and it's exhilarating to watch Dolan and his cast pay such attention to them. Even though Dolan's atmosphere is purposefully over the top, the cast keep enough buried so that their emotional explosions never slide into hysteria. 

But after so much excellent material throughout the majority of the film, Dolan's ending come off as a bit of a whiff. There's hints at a payoff of sorts, but nothing truly materializes. It's enough make the whole film seem like less than the sum of its parts, and it leaves you wanting more in the wrong ways. Tom at the Farm's beginning and ending are the albatross around its metaphorical neck. After recovering so beautifully from its clumsy opening, having the finale arrive with so little impact, as though Dolan's hyperactive mind needed to wrap things on to move onto his next project (he's currently writing his fifth film). Yet even if, upon reflection, the film isn't quite the success it could have been, the excellence that defines the bulk of the duration is too good to ignore.

Grade: B/B+

AFI Fest 2013: "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom"

Director: Justin Chadwick
Runtime: 146 minutes

Despite its soaring shots of South Africa and a narrative that spans decades, the "epic" biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom feels like it belongs on a small screen in a classroom. Specifically, one presided over by a teacher suffering through a hangover, and too tired to deal with teaching those damn kids. Despite handsome production values and Important subject matter, this sporadically compelling portrait of Nelson and Winnie Mandela is ultimately a history lesson disguised as a genuinely compelling prestige drama. 

As biopics go, Justin Chadwick's film is appropriately titled. Nelson Mandela's journey was a long one, and Long Walk to Freedom is a long movie. Unfortunately, the two and a half hour runtime is exhausting, rather than exhilarating. Nelson Mandela's story is incredible, but as written by William Nicholson, it plays more like a history lesson that only momentarily comes alive as a drama. Stars Idris Elba and Naomie Harris are committed to their roles, but  their roles mostly leave them with little to do other than emote bombastically.

To the film's credit, however, it does effectively communicate the level of violence faced by blacks under apartheid without becoming exploitative. Following depictions of the Civil Rights Movement (The Butler) and the horrors of slavery (12 Years a Slave), Mandela is the next in a line of films that actually take on issues relating to black people, which is certainly commendable. It's too bad, then, that unlike those other films (or the present-day Fruitvale Station), that Chadwick's film feels didactic, rather than wholly dramatic. Though arguably less episodic than The Butler, William Nicholson's screenplay lacks the necessary character examination needed to sustain a film for two and a half hours.

With Mandela's childhood glossed over in bad Terrence Malick-lite montages, we're dropped into the story with him as a young man in college. It's one of the few times the film actually skips over a significant portion of Mandela's life, although in this case more omissions would have been welcome. Mandela is swept up in the anti-apartheid movement so swiftly that his motivation (aside from the obvious desire for equality) as a character feels empty. We know he's going to join the struggle, and the film doesn't try to delve any deeper into the man's decision to risk being such an outspoken activist.

At least the side of the film focusing on Winnie Mandela gives a look at the source of her more militaristic mode of activism (albeit superficially). Yet as Mandela's complicated and equally galvanizing wife, Harris sometimes overreaches with her performance. A painfully tight close up of her face in a jail cell is made worse by the actress' tear-soaked mugging.  

There's so much important, fascinating history covered in Mandela, but in this particular package it's difficult to get caught up in much of it. As a portrait of turbulent recent history it has some value, but as drama it only grabs you for only a few moments in its lumbering runtime. Like so many decades-spanning biopic films, less would have resulted in so much more.

Grade: C

Monday, November 11, 2013

AFI Fest 2013: "Stranger by the Lake"

Director: Alain Guiraudie
Runtime: 92 minutes

An excellent concept is betrayed by thin writing and misjudged direction in Stranger by the Lake. Following in the footsteps of Blue is the Warmest Color, Alain Guiraudie's sun-soaked psychological thriller is even more explicit in its depiction of gay sex (this time between men), eventually to the point of indulgence. Despite a few good jolts near the end, and all of the passionate coupling, Stranger is curiously bloodless as both a drama and a slow-burning psychological thriller. 

Set entirely at a lakeside cruising spot, the film opens with Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) arriving at the start of his summer. Though he's attracted to the fit, tan, and mustachioed Michel (Christophe Paou), he's unable to woo him away from his current lover. Bored, Franck befriends the quiet, closeted Henri (Patrick d'Assumcao), and the two form a platonic relationship as Franck continues to lust after Michel from afar. 

Now add water, rinse, and repeat. Aside from one significant development, which I won't reveal, the majority of the film consists of shots of male bodies, frequently nude, either sunbathing or locked in passionate embrace. Guiraudie even mines some of it for humor, which is the film's lone saving grace. 

Otherwise, the director's languid pacing proves to be detrimental. Once the fascinating psychological dilemma is laid out, Stranger by the Lake refuses to shift in any way. Within the conceit is the potential for an unsettling exploration of desire and our ability to rationalize anything to get (and keep) what we want. Rather than slowly ratcheting up the tension, Guiraudie's direction renders the narrative totally stillborn. The film runs just over 90 minutes, let it feels so much longer, and in the worst possible way. 

Beyond the direction and the pacing, the characters aren't up to snuff either. The actors all seem perfectly capable, yet they are poorly served by the screenplay, which is as lazy with characterization as the directing is with atmosphere. Guiraudie wants to use sex to define these characters, and that's where Franck and Michel's interactions go wrong. The initial sex scenes, as graphic as they are, are acceptable in their uncensored depiction of rampant lust. Yet the longer the film goes on, and the less Franck and Michel's relationship actually progresses, the continued inclusion of the sex scenes becomes gratuitous. The duo's sex life develops gradually, while the psychological developments come in contrived fits and starts. 

Admittedly, the abrupt finale marginally raises the pulse, but it's barely enough to undo the numbing sensation of all that came before. Concluding with a ludicrously drawn-out final shot, Stranger by the Lake frustrates and annoys, even when it momentarily engages. Ideas and ambition are important, but they're difficult to appreciate when coupled with misguided and lackluster execution. Though it ends in a flurry of motion, the majority of Stranger by the Lake is as listless and sun-dappled as the naked denizens of its titular setting.

Grade: D+

AFI Fest 2013: "Gloria"

Director: Sebastian Lelio
Runtime: 110 minutes

Even behind a pair of massive glasses, it's hard to take your eyes off of actress Paulina Garcia's face. It's a beautifully expressive, ordinary, and affable visage, capable of communicating deeply felt emotions with the smallest gestures. And even though Garcia bares it all in the frank, bittersweet film Gloria, her face alone is more than enough to carry the whole movie. 

Despite the generally melancholy tone, it's easy to see why Chile submitted Sebastian Lelio's character study for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. The movie is almost entirely dependent on Garcia's central turn, so investment in the titular character's journey is paramount. While the layers are pulled back slowly, Garcia is radiant throughout Gloria's minor triumphs and failures. 

Outside of Gloria and Garcia, there's not much else, which is the source of the film's best and weakest moments. When we first meet Gloria, she's casually dancing at a bar, hoping to snag a man for the evening. Having been divorced for over a decade, she's surprised when her one night stand with Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez) starts to bloom into something more. 

As this second chance at romance takes off, Lelio deftly takes us through Gloria's other relationships, highlighting her general loneliness. Her children have lives of their own, and her ex-husband (with whom she remains cordial) has already remarried. The initial shots of Gloria dancing to techno music transform from simple fun into quiet longing for human connection. Rather than use these strained relationships for tortured melodrama, Lelio, like Gloria, sits back and lets them play out with gentle understatement. 

With such a limited plot, Gloria does start to sag a bit in the middle, even as Garcia's performance continues to charm. At nearly two hours, it could easily use a trim; some smart cuts would actually make the film more impactful. If anything, the first act reveals Gloria's loneliness too efficiently, which gives way to repetition before Gloria's relationship with Rodolfo becomes more dramatically engaging.

That said, it's hard to get too irked at the film when the central performance is so beautifully compelling. The slightly tragic nature of Gloria's life may be too consistently present (it practically lurks around every corner), but the eventual pay off is outstanding. Lelio may get a little lost during the journey, but he knocks the finale out of the park, delivering a conclusion that empowers its leading lady without sugar coating anything. With its sensitive characterization and a beautiful performance from Ms. Garcia, Gloria is able to work as both an honest character study and a rousing crowd-pleaser. 

Grade: B

AFI Fest 2013: "August: Osage County"

Director: John Wells
Runtime: 130 minutes

It may seem odd, but the first film I thought of after seeing August: Osage County was Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. They have virtually no similarities when it comes to tone or subject matter, but they're noteworthy in how they downplay more noticeable "directing." Film is said to be the director's medium (auteur theory and all that jazz), but films like August and Lincoln are more content to reign in the cinematic techniques and simply let the acting and writing grab the spotlight. Both films are that much better because of this decision, even though August lacks Lincoln's distinguished sense of subtle finesse.

Adapted by Tracy Letts from his own Pulitzer-winning play, the film takes the Hollywood route and shears off roughly an hour's worth of material (much like Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd). While this decision does create the occasional pacing issue, such a considerable loss of material isn't enough to wreck the film. As 'directed' by John Wells, Letts' story is still an bitterly funny tale of a family get-together in the wake of tragedy. 

At the center of the film is Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), the cancer-ridden family matriarch. To say that Violet has complicated relationships with her daughters is an understatement. The reasons are best left unsaid (the story has a few surprising twists), but suffice it to say that this isn't just another big and loud family. The Westons are a particularly dysfunctional lot, capable of bickering and manipulating each other and then suddenly sharing in blackly comedic jokes about suicide. 

Like most family get togethers, real or cinematic, the early sections are where things struggle to take off. Letts' considerable cuts from his play are commendable, yet he leaves in some establishing scenes that are but empty stage business that would allow someone to change their costume. Wells doesn't try anything 'cinematic' or abstract, but some scenes - like Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper wandering through a dim, humid room - are as painfully stage-y as they come. 

The initial focus on Streep's Violet is also something of a divisive choice. While there are plenty of effective big and broad moments, Streep's capital-A acting sometimes clashes with the choices of her co-stars. Some of this is likely intentional - Violet comes off as a coarse, upper middle class Norma Desmond - but the performance is in need of some reigning in. When Streep does hit her mark, however, she's near the top of the ensemble in her ability to bring acid-soaked wit to Letts' tangy dialogue. 

Yet as Streep chews the scenery with reckless abandon, two of her co-stars (one famous, the other not so) steal the movie out from under her. As Violet's youngest daughter Ivy, Julianne Nicholson is superb in one of the film's quieter, introspective roles. This is the sort of supporting turn that immediately makes you wonder why Nicholson hasn't risen to greater prominence by now. She's effortlessly emotive, capturing Ivy's struggle with being the subservient youngest child without ever feeling pathetic. 

On the flip side is Julia Roberts as oldest daughter Barbara. Stripped of virtually any movie star ticks or persona, Roberts tears into the role, albeit in a more naturalistic manner than Streep. Watching Barbara's simmering contempt grow into a wrathful boil is among the narrative's most satisfying emotional developments. By the time the dramatic centerpiece - an early dinner featuring the whole Weston clan - comes to its knock-out ending, Roberts seals her status as best in show, just as Barbara finally claims her dominance in the household. 

For all of the antagonism on screen, Letts' script never forgets to make these characters feel human and relatable, albeit in uncomfortable ways. Among the film's best scenes is a conversation among Barbara, Ivy, and Karen joking and drinking together. Despite their drastic differences, the (admittedly warped) sisterly bond of the trio comes together with remarkable clarity. 

While the women are out dominating the screen, the men (none of them Westons by blood) are less successful. There's a subplot involving Barbara's husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), as well as one involving Karen's (Juliette Lewis) sleazy boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney), but they're used more to develop the great women around them. Only Chris Cooper makes much of an impact as his own individual, and it's a testament to his talent that he communicates so much with so little. Meanwhile, Benedict Cumberbatch, while certainly a talented actor, is a minor disaster as Cooper and Martindale's son Little Charles. The brief moments with Charles making his way to the Weston home are the lowest of the films lows. It's too bad that his character has such a pivotal connection to the underlying plot. 

Thankfully, the men are mostly afterthoughts, with the women allowed to take center stage in a way that's far too uncommon. Wells' direction ranges from bumbling to bland, but Letts' voice comes through so powerfully thanks to the clear emotional investment of just about everyone on screen. August: Osage County won't be remembered as high art years down the line, but as a vehicle for some superbly written and acted dark comedy, it certainly gets the job done. While I doubt it fully captures the greatness of the source material, it's certainly not a bad place to start.

Grade: B/B-

Sunday, November 10, 2013

AFI Fest 2013: "The Wind Rises"

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Runtime: 126 minutes

Shortly after the Venice premiere of The Wind Rises, legendary animation director Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement, to the dismay of fans across the world (including yours truly). For years, Miyazaki's animated creations have dazzled and thrilled. I still remember, at a young age, having my mind warped by the magic of Princess Mononoke. Yet given what Miyazaki's has churned out for his apparent swan song, perhaps it's for the best that he gives retirement a shot. Despite typically gorgeous animation, the master's farewell film lacks the inspired touch that drove all of his best work. 

Unlike Miyazaki's most famous films, The Wind Rises has no magical creatures. The flights of fancy are contained to a series of dream sequences revolving around Jiro Horikoshi (Hideaki Anno), the designer of Japan's WW2 aircraft, and his desire for greatness. Miyazaki's passion for the story is evident, yet the underlying notion that most of the flight scenes are dreams hinders the film's ability to engage. All of Miyazaki's most outlandishly designed creatures feel alive because they're real in regards to the story. Here, the number of dreamed or imagined flights vastly outnumber the real ones, and it causes the film to stumble where it should soar. 

There's also the matter of Jiro as a protagonist. For all the time he spends working and dreaming, he's such an introverted (and even passive) figure that he proves difficult to root for. The film's most compelling figure is actually Caproni, the Italian engineer who acts as Jiro's dream guide and inspiration. Caproni spends the entire movie leading, acting, and boasting. Jiro, meanwhile, mostly watches. It's a testament to the film's missteps how Jiro feels passive even when he's doing innovative work in the real world. 

And rather than pick up as it goes along, The Wind Rises sticks to the same old pace as it languidly moves from incident to incident. The film's low point comes when Jiro vacations in a quaint resort and meets his eventual wife. It's the stuff of bland, boring romantic comedies, except that here it's directed, designed, and animated with a masterful flair for movement. With respect to the title, at least the use of wind throughout the film is well handled. 

Yet the film's fatal flaw, and it's an odd one, comes in the form of the sound work. Or rather, the lack of sound work. Even when a massive, devastating earthquake strikes Toyko, one is left straining to hear (and thereby feel) more of the chaos. Despite the widespread destruction of such an incident, the limited nature of the sound gives the impression that only a few dozen buildings and/or people have been affected. The same approach is used with other scenes involving large crowds, and the effect is frustrating and distancing. It's almost like watching a silent film that has no added musical accompaniment; your ears are left begging for something more. 

Only in one of the final flight scenes does The Wind Rises briefly come together. But, in a film that runs roughly two hours, the scene is hardly a fraction big enough to outweigh the negatives. With its thin characters and ambling plot, The Wind Rises feels both lazy and indulgent. One would think that a director like Miyazaki could make a film that's more style than substance work on some level. Instead, the result is more like one of Jiro's earliest test planes: it hints at greatness before spiraling out of control and disintegrating into scraps. But hey, at least it looks pretty. 

Grade: C

Monday, November 4, 2013

Review: "Dallas Buyers Club"

Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Runtime: 117 minutes

As a film, Dallas Buyers Club is competent and effective. This isn't the sort of film that wows with writing or directing (especially the former). Instead, it's a simple, issue-driven drama that serves as a vehicle for some first-rate performances. Dallas Buyers Club isn't likely to stand the test of time, but it does provide an effective platform for Matthew McConaughey's continuing career renaissance, as well as a return to the silver screen for actor/singer Jared Leto. 

Any number of films have covered some aspect of the AIDS crisis, including last year's documentary How to Survive a Plague. This true-life story, however, tackles the topic with a protagonist who's anything but what one would expect. Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) is a free-wheeling, hard-living Texas good ole boy, as heterosexual as they come. In the opening scenes, he drinks, fights, participates in the rodeo, and throws a few homophobic slurs at Rock Hudson. Suffice it to say that he's far from an ally to the LGBTQ movement. 

That doesn't exactly change when, after collapsing in his trailer park home, he's diagnosed with HIV. Initially offended by the mere idea that he could even have the virus, Ron eventually comes to grips with his situation. The fire in his eyes, initially a lust for life, suddenly becomes a burning desire to survive. Of course, obstacles abound, namely the medical establishment. Even kind-hearted doctor Eve (Jennifer Garner) is initially determined to make Ron stick to a trial medicine that seems to do more harm than good. Ron, not content with the timeline of his so called treatment, decides to take things into his own hands with a trip into Mexico.

At its core, Dallas Buyers Club is a classic story of a rebel railing against part of the establishment. With conversations about healthcare taking up so much space in current public discourse, the film couldn't feel more contemporary, even though it begins in the early 80s. Having the AIDS crisis as a backdrop proves to be fertile ground for director Jean-Marc Vallee and writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack. Neither the writing nor directing handle the setting with histrionics or melodrama. 

This is a gritty, efficient film, and a complete 180 from Vallee's last film, the stuffy and unremarkable The Young Victoria. Proving himself an adept chameleon of a director, Vallee lends a (sometimes overeager) energy to the proceedings that gives the story a sense of urgency. With its handheld photography and reportedly brief shoot, Dallas Buyers Club certainly feels kinetic and alive, even as it tackles a story with painful, life or death consequences. Every now and then Vallee's energy threatens to overwhelm the film - as in a montage of Woodroof traveling abroad - but by and large he gets the job done with just enough flair, all while leaving room for his actors.

Whatever Dallas Buyers Club may be lacking in its overall execution, it makes up for with McConaughey and Leto's committed performances. McConaughey lost a frightening amount of weight for the role, but his appearance is dealt with so matter-of-factly that it's never used as lazy characterization. So many films involving body transformations fail to provide actors with anything to really do beneath their transformations. 

Dallas Buyers Club, at the very least, gets the transformative aspect out of the way without any pretense. McConaughey is allowed to be active, physically and emotionally, and the film is better off for it. While I'm still partial to his terrifying turn in last year's Killer Joe, his work here is another excellent addition to his current critical resurgence. Leto, as the cross-dressing Rayon, is also effective in his sheer commitment to his character's mannerisms. Just when the film seems ready to leave Leto with nothing to do on an emotional level, the script throws out some material to give the actor a chance to show why we should be glad that he's acting again. There are tears and pained expressions in Dallas Buyers Club, but they're all a far cry from cheap, manipulative melodrama. 

Ultimately, part of what keeps the film from being more than a performance showcase is its reticence to dig deeper into the far-reaching consequences of Woodroof's illegal ring of unapproved HIV medication. Other "buyers clubs" are mentioned, but for the most part Borten and Wallack's script is almost entirely focused on Woodroof's world. The man's story, and his gradual adjustment from his worst homophobic tendencies and attitudes, is compelling, but it also feels as though it needs to be grounded in a fuller context. 

Admittedly, it's a difficult balance to strike, but in this case the small focus does rob the film of deeper, more lasting impact. As a story of righteous anger and rebellion, Dallas Buyers Club has enough heart and intelligence to make it recommended viewing. But as a look at a major social movement in a turbulent decade, it can't help but feel like a footnote, despite the excellent performances leading the way.

Grade: B-/C+

Review: "Nebraska"

Director: Alexander Payne
Runtime: 115 minutes

Like the state from which it derives its title, Nebraska is a pleasant experience that lacks anything worth stopping for on your way through. Director Alexander Payne's follow-up to The Descendants is an amiable, bittersweet family comedy that turns its overwhelming slightness into an advantage. While it may not have attention-grabbing stars or subject matter, Payne's latest is another comfortably executed dramedy, even though it's hardly essential viewing for anyone but Payne's biggest fans.

The opening shots of Nebraska show Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) hobbling along on foot in his hometown of Billings, Montana to the state of Nebraska. He's on his way to claim a (bogus) reward of $1 million, much to the frustration of his sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and his wife Kate (June Squibb). Rather than dwell on the reasons for Woody's determination, Bob Nelson's script has David give in to the idea of propping up Woody's fantasy for a few days. This gives the film an early chance to jump to the bulk of its limited story, set among Woody's relatives in his hometown in Nebraska. 

And, try as David (and eventually Ross and Kate) may, no one else in the family wants to give up the idea that Woody has suddenly become a millionaire. Like a group of cuddly, wrinkly parasites, the Grant family starts cozying up to Woody in hopes that they can get some of the winnings. Folks outside of the family, like Woody's old business partner Ed (Stacy Keach), are less pleasant about it. David remains uneasy during the entire journey, while Woody nods along, too worn down and generous to say 'no' to anyone.

Even though it's tempting to nag and ask why David never cuts the journey short, Payne and Nelson make the open-ended journey a pleasant one. Though the film was hit with claims of patronizing its mid-Western characters, there are enough little details that give the ensemble enough plausible humanity. Some, like a pair of David's creepy cousins, are broader than others, but Payne's simple direction keeps things from sliding into cheap mockery. The films's vision of its setting is best encapsulated in a lengthy shot of the men in the family sitting, stone faced, as they watch TV and make conversation that would barely pass as small talk. 

When Nebraska arrives at scenes like this, it can be enormously entertaining. Despite the tinge of melancholy inherent in the premise, there are any number of laugh out loud scenes, many of which come from Squibb as the feisty, unfiltered Kate. With so much glum small talk and sinister sucking up, Kate's interjections enliven the film and provide Nebraska with its high points. 

What keeps Nebraska from being a more memorable addition to Payne's resume is the work from the film's pair of leads. Forte, known for his outrageous Saturday Night Live characters, is effectively understated. There are hints in the performance that he's capable of mining even richer characterization if given stronger material. Dern, meanwhile, is reduced to being distant and occasionally crotchety. In a year with any number of powerful, dynamic male performances, it's puzzling that Dern has gathered such acclaim, even picking up the Best Actor prize at Cannes earlier this year. 

Once the film arrives at its conclusion, and all of the emotional secrets are dragged out into the sunlight, you can already feel it evaporating. Woody's determination is so single-minded and lacking in interesting angles or details that he becomes a mere sounding board, rarely able to throw anything back. The role is passive to a fault. Just as Woody sits around while others talk, bicker, and scheme, Dern mostly sits and nods while others act. With such a paper-thin core, it's no wonder that Nebraska doesn't linger on the mind once the credits roll. Whether this or not this ends up being a transitional film for Payne, it's also an unquestionably unmemorable, albeit enjoyable, outing. 

Grade: B-