Sunday, June 29, 2014

Neighbors To Greatness: Parents Versus Parties in Neighbors.

Movie Review: Neighbors

Director: Nicholas Stoller

Reviewed: 27 June 2014

jamesintexas rating--***

The new comedy Neighbors has its moments of total hilarity with winning performances, but the film suffers at times from not trusting its own premise. Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen play new parents Kelly and Mac Radner who nervously view a fraternity from the local college move in next door to their home. In an effort to head off any potential conflict, they awkwardly introduce themselves to Teddy (Zac Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco), president and vice-president of the chapter, who realize the power of winning over the neighborhood in order to throw their increasingly outrageous parties. Teddy sees the looming, uncertain future represented in the Radners while they see the fraternity fun as the past that they left behind for responsibility. A blank space exits on the fraternity's Wall of Fame, and Teddy studies his own legacy, concerned about throwing the best bash in the fraternity's history (outlined cleverly with members of The Lonely Island among others in black and white flashbacks). But the realities of having a young infant trying to sleep while living permanently next door to a deafening party set in. Something has got to give as no compromise can be negotiated.

What begins as a funny exploration of two new parents negotiating the terms of their lives after having a child eventually degenerates into an elaborate series of pranks back and forth between the family and the fraternity as lines of decency (and credulity) are crossed in the pursuit of total victory: the fraternity's destruction or the Radners moving. The Dean and probation are involved, a subplot with filming an initiation ritual goes awry, and supporting cast member Ike Barinholtz shows up late as Mac's friend Jimmy to increase the level of craziness. Some of the pranks are funny and inventive, but halfway in, one goes too far and took me out of the movie. The film works best in its moments with Byrne and Rogen talk with each other around their baby Stella, but the second half of the film eagerly drops Stella from the movie, even shortchanging potential humor in having her babysat while they stealthily creep around the parties next door. The film offers some nonsensical interludes, and as someone with a neighbor using power tools after 9 p.m. at night while trying to ensure that my infant son does not wake up, I just don't buy a few of the characters' decisions late in the film. If their baby is still next door, some of what they are doing just exacerbates the noise level.

The surprise here has to be both Zac Efron and Rose Byrne's incredible comic timing and gameness. Unexpectedly, Efron delivers a committed and very funny performance often while shirtless, and his pairing with Dave Franco really works well (look for a show stopping themed party celebrating a beloved actor's film career). He seems to be having fun. Rose Byrne uses her natural Australian accent and is treated as more of an equal than typically seen in these types of movies; she shows a zaniness that works well playing off of Rogen's stoner charm, and I like how she is a partner to the mayhem, not just an accessory or an afterthought.

I think my frustration comes from the film not committing to its inventive premise and retreating into safer territory. There are a few scenes where I found myself wondering about how injured the person would (or could) really be as the pranks escalated, and some involving a house with a baby just do not work. And the film sells itself short by allowing itself to just be about juvenile hijinks. I wondered if there would be scenes where a crying baby Stella wakes up the fraternity neighbors or more introspection from Teddy and Pete on brotherhood and community. Yet, the movie is very funny with some moments of deep laughter, and I think director Nicholas Stoller focused too much on chronicling the party, drinking, and drug scenes in a film that really offered something fresh: new parents trying to hold on to their identities as cool people. Neighbors touches a few truths with some surprising heart, and I think a stronger script by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien would have spent less time pranking and partying and more time with the new family. He would have cut two distracting minor characters and their subplots and shown more of the couple. And that baby. What a cute performance by twins Elise and Zoey Vargas.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Monsters Part 2: Good Fun

Movie Review: Monsters University

Director: Dan Scanlon

Reviewed: 25 June 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***

A prequel to the sublimely silly Monsters, Inc., Monsters University offers insight into the backstory of James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) and Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) before they teamed up and became scaring buddies, and the result is this funny, albeit underwhelming story that loses its way a bit but offers enough winning moments to be enjoyable. The new film does not have the kinetic propulsion of Monsters, Inc. or its bureaucratic and baroque silliness, though setting these two lovable monsters in a college setting allows for some big laughs. From his childhood, Mike has always been inspired by the scarers who trained at Monsters University, and Sully is a legacy, the son of a great scarer with a nonchalance that borders on disrespect of his education. Much like the recent film 22 Jump Street, director Dan Scanlon focuses mostly on the bachanalian parties of college in lieu of spending time in classes or eating in a dining hall or visiting a library. At some point, someone should do a serious study of the depiction of college life in American film to catalogue the increasingly narrow vision of what higher education is shown to be. But, alas, back to the movie. An elaborate Scare Games contest designed by the fearsome dragon Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) serves as a group challenge that will allow the book smart Mike and the coasting Sully a way back into the Scaring Major after finding themselves kicked out for some mindless hijinks. To enter, they must form a team with the lowly Oozma Kappa fraternity of castaways who create some of the film's biggest laughs. I loved the Grover-Animal-like-bendy-monster named Art (Charlie Day) with his criminal past and silly personality. The film's structure quickly resembles the quintessential college film competition-style, with different challenges designed to test each team's overall scariness, and various lessons about teamwork and self worth are sprinkled throughout.  

The only challenge that really works involves a monstrous near-blind librarian and the team's stealth movements through her domain. The scene is really quite well-done in its grandeur and art design. But otherwise, these moments feel rote and by-the-numbers here until the ending which offers a bit of a twist. I was so happy to see Randall (Steve Buscemi) back, but instead of being the villain, he starts out here as Mike's roommate but is criminally underused and underdeveloped. More Randall, please! Scanlon's team of animators fills the frame with gorgeous and striking looking creations, and I loved some of the minor details (the slug trying to get to class, the hacky sack players, and the hard-rocking mom in a van). There were many moments when it was hard to believe that the film was animated; the technology has advanced so incredibly that I really am impressed by what I see on-screen.

These characters are fun, and their world is one with richness and texture. Monsters University does not try too hard or push itself too much, but it has a strong message about honesty, enough callbacks to the first film to reward an attentive viewer, and the colors dazzle. The eyeball of Mike Wazowski is a wonder to behold in its expressiveness and green-white beauty. I think the first film remains the classic film, one of the best of the past decade, but Monsters University is nonetheless a lot of fun.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Each Unhappy Family Is Unhappy In Its Own Way: Joe Wright's Anna Karenina

Movie Review: Anna Karenina

Director: Joe Wright

Reviewed: 20 June 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***

Tom Stoppard's script condenses Leo Tolstoy's 963 page novel into a concise 2 hour and 9 minute film, and married to that vision of this great Russian classic is director Joe Wright's theatrical sensibility of staging much of this within the confines of a classic theater setting. Marvelously, much of the film exists on the stage or around or above it, with sets being magically whisked into view, actors and actresses changing costumes quickly, artwork being dropped into view in the background hinting at the majesty of Moscow or the fields of wheat in the country. The stage becomes an office, a home, a train station, an opera house, and beyond, lending itself to Wright's love of long takes (evidenced in his camera swimming through parties in Pride & Prejudice or circling the beach of war torn Dunkirk in Atonement). Anna Karenina never seems to be having more fun than in that opening thirty minutes when Wright dazzles with inventiveness, taking us to the street through the stairs up into the rafters or having a delightfully daffy Oblonsky (Matthew Macfayden, obliterating his dour and officious Mr. Darcy character) storm around his office, tipping his cigar at his servants while eyeing his children's governess. And that act of infidelity, discovered by his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) begins the story. In the face of divorce, Oblonsky's sister Anna (Keira Knightley) arrives to heal the rift and preserve the union, but the train journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow leads to a chance encounter with the captivating Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). To enter into an affair with Vronsky means putting her marriage to the austere committee-member Karenin (Jude Law) at risk as well as the life of her young son Serhoza. In minor key to the relationship between Vronsky and Anna, the film also portrays the idealistic farm-owner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) tentatively pursuing the regal Princess Shcherbatsky (Susanne Lothar). The consequences of Anna's actions lead to social ostracism, paranoia, and potential ruin for all in a time where reputation means all and divorce is unpardonable.

In such a lengthy novel, the desire to be encyclopedic about agrarian methods, Russian politics, and family history can be indulged. In a more conventional film's running time, these elements must be boiled and dumbed down, reduced to their surface rather than plumbed to their depth. My main complaint with the film, having just finished the novel, is Wright's obsession with the surfaces (the costumes and shining jewelry; the lighting and blinding white and blues of Vronsky's uniforms) while neglecting the interiority of his central triangle of Anna, Vronsky, and Karenin. Anna's shift in mindset happens far too abruptly and without enough time to develop; it is difficult to understand the passion curdling so violently. Keira Knightley is a fine actress, but her work here as Anna seems too quick to offer as much about Anna the woman. She needed more scenes. I'm not sure that Johnson-Taylor has the gravitas or intensity yet to play a Vronsky well, and Jude Law is given very little to do in very few scenes. Macfayden seems to be having the most fun, and it is joyous to see him reunited with his former co-star of Pride & Prejudice. He seems of another movie entirely. The Levin-Shcherbatsky sections leave far too much unexplored, and the ending seems to me to be mishandled.

Wright foregrounds train imagery throughout the film, and I admire his fluid camera work and dazzling creativity. However, the decision to place most of the film inside the theater also undercuts some of the power of a dramatic horse-racing scene (where Vronsky's miscalculations and hubris are more obvious when given more dramatic time and space). Throughout, though, it is exciting to see Wright's characters dance and swirl around the stage, go in and out of doors only to reappear upon an entirely different setting. The film has a musical quality with elements of dance incorporated, but he also freezes scenes to dramatize certain moments.

The degree of difficulty in crafting a film from this novel demands an ambitious director. Wright is mostly up to the task, but his stumbles are also the screenplay's. The devotion to the technical aspects of the film may have supplanted the core relationships, and without investing in the drama of Anna, Vronsky, and Karenin, the film leaves me with a dry, academic, distanced sense of admiration instead of an emotional payoff at the end with "the impossibility of struggling." The final shots are ponderous: Karenin reading in the wheat fields with the children, and then the wheat fields extending into the theater. I'm not sure what to make of some of the dramatic choices here, but clearly Wright is interested in the masquerade of hypocrisy and facades worn by Russian aristocracy in 1870, though as a storyteller, he was better, funnier, and more nuanced in his work with Austen than he is with Tolstoy.

Giving a Damn: Gone With The Wind, Film Review 201.

Movie Review: Gone with the Wind

Director: Victor Fleming

Reviewed: 16 June 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ****

Gone with the Wind won Best Picture in 1940. 74 years later, 12 Years a Slave won the same award.

To watch Gone with the Wind is to see a story of transformation and survival through a distorted lens of American history, culture, and storytelling. At times with its intense color palette and rousing score, the American South feels like the mythical land of Oz (not surprising since director Victor Fleming also helmed The Wizard of Oz in the same year). Yet, it is impossible to ignore the foundation of this way of life and these characters as slave owners, with the slave characters written as ludicrous caricatures (with the one exception being Hattie McDaniel as Mammy). But despite a modern viewing of a work of art made during my grandparents' generation, I found Gone with the Wind to be captivating in its scope and its almost Shakespearean storytelling. As a guide, I turned to my favorite film critic Roger Ebert who stated, "A movie isn't what it is about, it's how it is about it." In this vein, Gone with the Wind is not merely a Civil War film or a portrait of the dying life of the Southern plantation or even a feminist empowerment story with fierce Scarlet O'Hara as the central protagonist. The film's how, its iconography and giant set pieces, its sweeping camera work and deliberate telling of its story make it the classic of American filmmaking that I always heard that it was, and it can be both enjoyed and critically examined.

Scarlett (Vivien Leigh), the daughter of an Irish plantation owner, lives a charmed life at Tara, the name for the family's ancestral home in 1860 Georgia. Attracting all of the boys in the county, Scarlett instead wants Ashley (Leslie Howard), the one man whom she cannot have due to his imminent betrothal to the saintly Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). A desperate attempt to throw herself at Ashley is rebuffed and witnessed by the charmingly rakish blockade-runner Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a confident and forward-thinking capitalist capable of prophetically seeing the profits and dangers of the imminent conflict. The Civil War arrives in Georgia, and all characters are swept up in the enlistment, the battles, the fundraising on the home front, the care of the wounded, and the eventual march of Union General Sherman upon Atlanta with ferocity and fire. Scarlet must adapt and survive despite her world transforming all around her, and the film depicts Scarlet adjusting to the destruction of her old way of life and her forging of a new one in the post-Civil War South.

As a piece of popular film culture, Gone with the Wind felt like a film that I knew without having seen it (from Oscar clips, parodies, famous lines, etc...). In viewing its nearly four hour running time, I found it engrossing not just because of its remarkable concision of Margaret Mitchell's 1400 page novel (infinitely deeper in characterization, history, and emotion) but also in its memorable imagery. Fleming outlines his characters in complete shadows frequently, and he uses color in almost painterly ways to indicate the burning of Atlanta. His camera dollies out upon a character, framing them in the context of his or her world, sometimes indicating a heroic posture and sometimes (as in the Confederate Hospital) to show one person nearly swallowed up by the history and action of the time. Scarlett's impetuousness and heroism make her developing relationship with the supremely confident Rhett all the more fascinating. The film moves beyond telling the history of these people during the war, and instead tells the history of these people during a time of great change in their lives.

It is impossible not to cringe at certain moments of this film: the slapstick, infantile treatment of Pork and Prissy; the crude and offensive romanticism of slavery and field work; the depiction (and glorification) of rape. Such things cannot be ignored. However, I found the film's technical craftsmanship to be superb; the fiery burning of Atlanta seems a dangerous, artistic triumph of special effects for its time. The film's lead performances are incredibly heartfelt and effective (partly, I think, because there is so much of them to experience). Vivien Leigh owns the entire film with her expressive face and body language, and Clark Gable brings a vivacity to his scenes, though he feels like much more of a supporting character. Hattie McDaniel embodies Mammy with a gruff decency, a loving intensity that makes her steal every scene. McDaniel and Leigh both won Academy Awards for acting, McDaniel's being the first ever for an African-American. I feel that as a work of art, Gone with the Wind showcases epic storytelling on a grand scale, miraculously keeping its characters straight, touching upon the unseen aspects of life in the South during this era with its myth-making always in step. The film remains one of my only windows into this world of supposed chivalry and antiquated decorum built upon the backs of slaves, men and women whose lives were destroyed to accommodate this lifestyle. That fact can and should never be forgotten while watching this film.

In some ways, this dreamworld of Gone with the Wind is like the Land of Oz, an alternate reality of mythical dimensions, a dream that ends and should end and maybe never existed in this way in the first place. We are better for having Margaret Mitchell's stunning novel and Victor Fleming's ambitious adaptation of it, though the story of survivor Scarlett O'Hara should continue to inspire troubling questions about our national identity and the stories that we tell about our own past.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Jumping for Joy: 22 Jump Street Delivers Pure Silliness.

Movie Review: 22 Jump Street

Director: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

Reviewed: 16 June 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***

22 Jump Street is a hilarious and fast-paced sequel that pokes fun at itself as much as possible en route to some of the largest laughs of the year. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill return as Jenko and Schmidt, this time placed under cover as college students to discover the identity of The Ghost, a dealer behind a superdrug named Why-Phy that is about to invade college campuses. Jenko finds himself pulled into the world of the football team and fraternity represented by Wyatt (Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn's son Wyatt Russell) while Schmidt forges a connection with hall neighbor Maya (Amber Stevens) while sleuthing for clues about the drug. The investigation threatens to drive the two friends apart as Schmidt deals with his jealousy and Jenko finds himself contemplating really playing football, realizing that "I'm the first in my family to ever pretend to go to college."

But, that flimsy plot is just pretense for a ton of screen time with Tatum and Hill playing off of each other, often times contrasting their physicality (Tatum will jump Parkour-style up buildings while Hill will angrily plod the stairs). The two actors work so well together; the chemistry never stops being funny with them taking on their friendship with the gravity (and dialogue) of a love affair. Tatum is so winning here with his new found knowledge from his Human Sexuality class and his verbal trips of the tongue. And Hill continues to play up his character's neediness and chameleon-like nature of changing into whatever he needs to be, a blend of awkwardness and big eyes. The plot gets put to the side as the film devises sequence after sequence to showcase these two actors. A great scene just involves Hill doing the walk of shame home in the morning carrying his shoes. Ice Cube returns as their Captain and delivers the best moment of the film at a breakfast gone wrong; I cannot remember when I have laughed more deeply or missed more dialogue because I was trying to breathe. His scene causes the theater to erupt with laughter. Some of the supporting cast from the first film returns for some big laughs as well with special recognition given to Rob Riggle for sheer silliness.

Last summer, one of the funniest films was the apocalyptic This Is The End with both actors amidst a group of contemporaries, and based on this third film, I could stand to continue to seeing a film with Tatum and Hill every summer. The verve with which they attack the idea of sequels in this film (through direct and very meta-jokes, budget concerns for the Jump Street department, a chain of potential follow-ups at the end) indicates an endless well of creativity and laughs. I'm pretty sure there was an Annie Hall reference with Tatum and Russell playing with lobsters midway through, and a chase scene passes the Benjamin Hill Center for Film Studies with a snippet of Hill's signature zany music. The film is not great from beginning to end, but the laughs are consistent and  real and guttural; they have made a film that maximizes its own laughter by cutting nearly everything else. And 22 Jump Street works. I recommend it.

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Dark Fairy Tale: Unfolding Stoker's Mysteries.

Movie Review: Stoker

Director: Chan-wook Park

Reviewed: 12 June 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***

I admire when a film defies expectation and convention and truly goes off into dark territory. Chan-wook Park's Stoker offers a maddeningly weird take on a familiar genre with his signature visual style and aplomb. Like in his masterpiece Oldboy, Park embraces a tactile type of filmmaking that can make your skin crawl with haunting and fleeting images of beauty and violence. A dominant motif of an elegant spider steadily traversing up a character's leg contains more menace than a thousand scary movies.

The enigmatic teen India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) struggles with her grief after her father dies, and she meets her mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) who moves in with her and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). The Stoker ancestral manse is a baroque marvel with weird outdoor sculpture and endless grounds of forest, a faded but still beautiful home employing housekeepers and servants. In some ways, the story seems transposed from the 19th Century into the modern age, but the claustrophobic nature of the film means our environment for the most part is the house (with occasional jaunts to the school or to town). The house has winding staircases, double doors, a cellar with swinging, eerie light bulbs overhead, impossibly long dining room tables, and a room with a piano. Stuffed animals abound as India and her father would frequently hunt together. The mood of the film is darkly menacing with the performances being strange on the surface because of so much that is to be revealed. India sees the increasing encroachment of her Uncle Charlie on their lives, and despite warnings, she seems drawn to solving the mysteries about her in a quiet, methodical way. The film regards its characters as smart and does not give them superfluous dialogue.

Park is such a master at directing that much of the film consists of misdirection and laying the foundation for faulty judgments. Scenes have a weird propulsion; an early shot of India rolling a hard-boiled eggshell on a counter top is jarring with its sounds. Mia Wasikowska has played Jane Eyre in the past, and her near-silent performance at times propels the film. We see things unfold as she does, and I never got ahead of the story in any way. Nicole Kidman is wonderful in the supporting role as the mother, conveying a simultaneous restlessness and a ruthlessness. Matthew Goode stands up straight, smiles perfectly, and epitomizes male perfection to both mother and daughter, offering a replacement for the father. I never entirely knew how magical or mythical or fantastical the film would travel, so the journey of watching it became a series of wonderments. I like its surprises and twists, including a visually stunning end sequence, and the word weird is most appropriately used here to describe everything about this complex mystery. Who would have thought a piano-playing sequence would be one of the most exciting of the year?

2 Guns: Under-Promise, Over-Deliver.

Movie Review: 2 Guns

Director: Baltasar Kormákur

Reviewed: 10 June 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***

Chemistry is a tricky thing to define: Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg have it in 2 Guns as Bobby and Stig, mismatched double-crossed partners who take on the world in this surprisingly fun action film. Both actors work best in quick dialogue scenes: ordering breakfast at a diner, verbally jabbing at each other in a car, or working in tandem through an earpiece with one across the street covering with a sniper rifle. Bobby is nearly always the smartest guy in the room, steps ahead of his adversaries, fully planned out for all contingencies. Stig, in contrast, seems to thrive on sheer optimism and gumption. Wahlberg plays him as an overgrown child, one who never even considers the possibility of thinks not working out. Together, they are a marvelous pair, and the actors appear to be having fun with each other and a deep cast of supporting players such as Paula Patton, Edward James Olmos, Bill Paxton, and James Marsden.

The plot involves the DEA, the Navy, the cartel, and numerous exciting chases through South Texas and Mexico. The less said, the better to fully enjoy the film. Naturally, there are many shoot-outs and chases, slow-motion sequences with raging music, as well as some particularly nasty villains. Without knowing anything about this director Kormákur or the source material (apparently, a graphic novel), I was pleasantly surprised and would be very inclined to see further adventures with Bobby and Stig based on the fun way this movie is put together and shot. Scene after scene works. In general, the film offers up a fairly world-weary, cynical take on its own genre with the American government as likely to be the bad guys as the cartel.

My esteem for this film diminished a bit in the second half when it became more conventional and less interesting. But until then, 2 Guns had me laughing, enjoying the action scenes, and admiring the cinematography. The glibness jars a bit with the violent consequences meted out to major characters, but I think the pairing of the two leads carries the day. Bottom line: This movie is flat-out fun and violent with plenty of humor that works.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Fluidity of Bob Dylan: Todd Haynes' exciting I'm Not There.

Movie Review: I'm Not There

Director: Todd Haynes

Reviewed: 8 June 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

Identity is not a fixed state. In addition to our lives being a series of transformations, subtle or otherwise, into different versions of ourselves, the times and scenes that we live in exist in a state of flux: fashion, politics, pop culture, and language to name a few. Life as a series of poses. Life as a constant shedding of skin. The person that I was at 25 is different than the person that I am at 35 despite a longing to be consistent. Early in I'm Not There, a thrilling riff on the idea of a biopic of Bob Dylan, his fans gasp and guffaw at the infamous plugging-in-Dylan-goes-electric moment at the Newport Folk Festival (dramatized by stylish director Todd Haynes as a violent shooting of weapons directly into the audience). Haynes positions the fans in a long horizontal line, walking away from the concert, and he tracks each person's face briefly for a direct camera aside, all critical of the performer's new style. "He's changed," laments one fan at Dylan's latest transformation from beloved folk musician into something new. "He's changed."

Besides being the cliche line of every film ever wanting to convey a character's descent, decay, or fall from his or her core values, "He's changed" as a fan's assessment of a beloved artist encapsulates a stifling of creative artistic desire, a need to pin down with a predictable, comforting label. "He's changed" denies the eternal mutability of an artist, and instead insists that nothing change. You are what you are. One is what one is. Elasticity is to be feared and reviled. Todd Haynes crafts his entire multidimensional, elliptical film around epochs in Bob Dylan's life, dramatizing each with a different performer playing him: Marcus Carl Franklin as Woody, a young African-American boy hopping box cars and playing the guitar in the late 1950's; Ben Whishaw as Arthur, the poet under interrogation from authorities; Christian Bale as the earnest performer Jack who later becomes a Christian pastor; Heath Ledger as Robbie, the movie star version of Jack and his messy love affairs; Richard Gere as Billy, the loner outlaw on the run in a mythical western town; and Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, the 1965 goes-electric version, all black sunglasses and wild hair, beset on all sides by interviewers and disgruntled fans. Besides being an audacious move to show so many lenses through which to view the performer, Haynes delivers modern looks at each of the musician's songs in the film, layering them in with modern day performers providing the singing voices in complement to Dylan's actual voice.

Instead of finding the secret or key of Bob Dylan in this movie, the title suggests an elusiveness and an impossibility of such a task. Of all the stories, Jude's resonates the strongest because of Blanchett's inimicable posture with the British press, the stark beauty of the black and white cinematography, the sense of whimsy in depicting Dylan encountering The Beatles and Allen Ginsberg. Other sequences have an even more lyrical and dreamlike quality such as Billy's wandering through the small town with its sad clowns, Civil War iconography, circus performers, and even a giraffe. Woody's rambling days are shot with impossibly gorgeous color, yellows of forests and leaves that nearly explode off of the screen. And the chapter of Robbie's love affair with Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) devastates with its forlorn gestures of beauty, its loving distance, and the sequences are impossibly elegiac with all the promise of Ledger

As a fan of any band or musician knows, the shifting of genre or time often seems to divide us into warring camps. I started to listen to my favorite band R.E.M. with some radio singles from Green in the early nineties before buying my first album Out of Time. The R.E.M. before that seems more mysterious to me since I dove into their music at a different point in their artistry. An earlier fan may lament the state of the songwriting that I worship. But it is the same band. Or not at all. And the artists that we love sometimes produce art that we cannot stand or make changes that we hate. I'm Not There posits the absolute necessity of Bob Dylan's shapeshifting not merely as a reaction to the press and popularity and pressures. Instead it becomes a Whitmanesque anthem, a Twentieth Century "Song of Myself" wherein the artist contains and is allowed to contain multitudes. Outlaw Billy puts it best: "I can change during the course of a day. I wake and I'm one person, when I go to sleep I know for certain I'm somebody else. I don't know who I am most of the time." Exciting in its sense of possibility, Haynes has created a stunning and audacious film, one that challenges notions of American identity through the impossibly dramatic and captivating personas of Bob Dylan. The film's reach reminds me of Cloud Atlas in its insistence on the fluidity of identity, but in general, it is an extraordinarily unique vision. I highly recommend it.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Nebraska: The Midwestern King Lear

Movie Review: Nebraska

Director: Alexander Payne

Reviewed: 2 June 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

In Nebraska, Alexander Payne's latest film, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a hunched over, stubborn and possibly confused patriarch marches along the highway from Billings, Montana towards Lincoln, Nebraska clutching a sweepstakes mailer indicating his claim of a million dollars. His electronic salesman son David (Will Forte) at first dissuades his father and then joins him in his quest, much to the chagrin of Woody's sharp-tongued wife Kate (June Squibb) and David's brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk). David, aware that the journey to Lincoln is about more than just the claiming of a million dollars, escapes his own mundane life to care for his aging father and try to reconnect with him, seeing the ravages of time on his father's lined, bandaged face and depleting memory.

Shot in impossibly gorgeous black and white which gives an epic quality to the quest, the father son road trip defies expectations at nearly every turn. Cathartic emotional payoffs are undercut by Woody's fading memory: "I don't remember" he offers when asked about his life when not being openly defiant, unsentimental, or evasive about the hard truths of his past. The undercurrent of painful years swirls beneath this film with Forte's son remembering pouring out his dad's beer, Woody refusing to admit his alcoholism, and potential vipers emerging from within their family. Winning the supposed money brings out the wide-eyed fantasy of wealth from people around Woody, providing a window into the American Dream ("What are you gonna do with that money?" "Get a truck." "I'd get a boat!"). People stop him on the street to congratulate him in his hometown while others plot how to separate him from his fortune. And through it all, Woody seems to nonchalantly slough it off while steadfastly heading towards Lincoln.

I found Payne's composition of shots to be quite funny, including one high-angle shot of the entire Grant clan staring at the Bears-Lions game on television, every brother curiously craning his neck to stare at the answer to a question about driving time. Kate is as verbose as Woody is reticent, and the film comes alive every time June Squibb is in a scene. Her speeches at the local cemetery are show stoppers. Her love for Woody is complex, a mixture of invective and denigration along with soft-hearted acts of kindness and vicious defense of his character in the wake of family accusations.

The lead acting performances by Dern and Forte are very strong, and Dern's is an almost silent, brokenly regal style, taking everything in, but often not letting us to far inside of his character's mind. Forte's son constantly must reevaluate the man that he believes his father to be after learning unseen truths (or lies) about him from estranged family, old friends, and possible futures. The set-up leads to the inevitable arrival in Lincoln with a muted, understated payoff that feels right. Payne's characters are concerned about legacy and what can be bequeathed from a parent to a child. I admired the way the script plays up the competition between David and Ross but does not allow that to be the defining characteristic of their relationship. As brothers, they make a late-film decision to reclaim a part of their father's honor that ends up being quite madcap and funny.

What Payne did in his marvelous film The Descendants is represent intense family pain onscreen, and he proves adept at doing that here in Nebraska. Yet, I found myself laughing quite a bit as well as moved to tears at least twice at the end, so despite its stark style and stunning black and white imagery, the film crackles with an energy and feels remarkably lived-in. Nearly everyone in the film is older, and how rare is it to see scenes inside of family homes with older family members not reduced to simple stereotypes. A scene lingers for me of Woody returning to the farmhouse where he was raised. With its broken furniture, windows looking out to beautiful farm country, and the haunting specter of memory, Woody stands in his parents' room, perhaps for the first time, remarking, "This was my parents' room. I got whipped if they found me in here. I guess nobody's gonna whip me now." The examination of the past does not always yield hallmark card sentiments, and Woody Grant's journey is bracingly free of such sentiment, though the ending does offer up its own ideas about children and parents that some may find maudlin, but I loved it. I really recommend this film.

As stated in Shakespeare's play of parents and children King Lear, "In jest, there is truth."