Nebraska -2013-

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Directed by Alexander Payne. 115 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on Blu-ray)

Solid road flick and family drama, but it didn’t live up to all the Oscar hype surrounding it. Made for excellent rainy day watching – I loved how my bleak, drenched surroundings contrasted with the dry (yet equally bleak) locales (beautifully shot in black and white by Phedon Papamichael).

That the plot is secondary in Nebraska came as no surprise. This film belongs to its mostly phenomenal cast. Bruce Dern, an actor with whom I mostly familiar by way of loud Walter Hill pictures, deserves his praise. Perhaps playing a crusty old man comes naturally with age (especially for Dern), but he laces it with plenty of nuanced dough under the flaky exterior. Will Forte, having been one of the weakest SNL players of my generation, is surprisingly grounded and provides Dern with an excellent foil.

The rest of the cast shines too. Since his turn on Breaking Bad, it’s no large surprise to see Bob Odenkirk doing good drama, but it’s nice to see that his performance as Saul Goodman wasn’t just a fluke. Stacy Keach and all the other players feel like they were plucked right out of real Midwestern everyday life. My only complaints stem from Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray’s roles as Bart and Cole. They were fun, but they didn’t feel quite right for this film – there was something a little too Coensian about them.

Despite its overly transparent structure (if you’ve seen more than a few movies in your life, you’ll be able to predict exactly when one character throws a punch), Nebraska is exactly the type of film I hoped Alexander Payne would helm after the witty-yet-obnoxiously-post The Descendents. Jeff Nichols’ Mud remains my favorite small-town film of 2013, but Nebraska is an honorable second place.

“Does he have Alzheimer’s?” No, he just believes what people tell him. “That’s too bad.”

(Seen and written on 2014-02-28)

300 -2006-

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Directed by Zack Snyder. 117 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on Blu-ray)

I don’t have high hopes for the upcoming 300: Rise of an Empire, but it reminded me that I hadn’t seen Zack Snyder’s predecessor since the year of its release (hard to believe it was eight years ago). I didn’t much care for 300 when I saw it in theaters, but I enjoyed it much more this time around. Watching it for free and in the comfort of my home worked in its favor, that’s for sure.

The film isn’t very intelligent or subtle, but neither was most pre-Homeric storytelling. For whatever reason, I found myself to be much more forgiving of the thin plot this time around. All that 300 aspires to be is a faithful adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel and an testosterone-saturated depiction of one of history’s most iconic battles, and it succeeds on both counts. The experience is bloody and beautiful, utilizing the green screen-centric Sin City approach before The Spirit butchered it a couple years later.

Of course, the events depicted in 300 probably have only the remotest of connections to the Battle of Thermopylae. Then again, I’d wager that it’s a fairly accurate guess at what came to mind when the average Spartan thought of the battle. Sparta existed in a time when people had an even more sensationalized concept of the world than they do today. Ogre-warriors, nine foot-tall god-kings, and goat-headed courtesans make for good time at the movies, and they’re also the sorts of details that would have been added as the story transformed to myth.

The purpose of myths is to convey a lesson in a story of wonder and spectacle – it is not a medium of nuance. Snyder delivered a story of nationhood and selflessness that would make and Spartan (provided they knew English) yell, “Fuck yeah!”

If you expect anything smarter than that, get back to your Thucydides.

Aside: 300 has one of the best trailers of any English-language film of the last decade.

Aside: The only area in which time has not been kind to the film is that the presence of Michael Fassbender, a virtual unknown in 2006, is now distracting.

(Seen and written on 2014-02-25)

The Counselor -2013-

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Directed by Ridley Scott. 117 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Watched on Blu-ray)

Ridley Scott’s collaboration with Cormac McCarthy (I had thought they were gonna do Blood Meridian, but I guess that dried up) came and went so quickly last year that I had almost forgotten that it existed. Most critics tore the film to shreds, which was partly why I didn’t run to see it in theaters. Still, there’s a small coalition of critics and film geeks who praise The Counselor as Like, The Best Fukkin’ Movie Ever.

So I think to myself, I think, “Hey, I’m a contrarian sort. Perhaps The Counselor will be my cup of tea!”

It’s not, nor will it be yours.

Aside from it’s thin, muddled plot – I don’t need thrillers to lead me by the hand, but come the fuck on – literally every single frame of this movie irritated me. Watch it (don’t watch it) for yourself, and you’ll notice that no character ever has his or her face fully visible. They’re always half-lit, like a student filmmaker forgot to rent an extra Kino and had to improvise. It’s not stylistic. It’s just annoying.

The dialogue is astoundingly bad at times. I don’t need all my films to have Mike Leigh authenticity, but if you’re going to talk solely in riddles, at least make it engaging (Rian Johnson’s Brick is a good recent example). Since McCarthy is primarily a novelist, I wasn’t surprised that the dialogue is presumably more interesting to read than it is to hear. All of the main actors give it their best with the exception of Cameron Diaz, an actor whose appeal completely eludes me.

Brad Pitt is easily the best part of the film, and he’s the only player whose lines sound somewhat convincing. His death scene (you’re not gonna watch it anyway) is pretty damn good.

Aside: Too many leopards.

Aside: Oh hey, Rosie Perez!

(Seen and written on 2014-02-19)

Il Posto -1961-

2014-02-18 Il Posto

Directed by Ermanno Olmi. 93 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

I received Il Posto as a gift shortly after I started a new job, but I didn’t get around to watching it until today. As it happens, I quit said job last week. I can’t think of a better movie to have watched immediately after quitting an office gig.

The film has a sense of humor, to be sure, but the whole thing has a cloud of doom hovering over it. I don’t mean doom in the sense that something bad is about to happen (if only Domenico, the young protagonist, got off that easy). Rather, the doom is there because nothing is about to happen to him. Nothing is ever going to happen to him.

Il Posto shrugs off storytelling conventions such as an active protagonist who propels the narrative and a third act following the story’s third act. Domenico never has a chance to affect the outcome of the story; the moment he arrives at the company for his aptitude tests, he’s buried in a system that survives through the smothering of individual volition. As Act II came to an end (or, rather, never came to an end), I jumped in my seat. Domenico deserves better. All of them do.

Aside: Wonderful cinematography by Roberto Barbieri and Lamberto Caimi.

Aside: If you’re writing a novel, please don’t hold a fulltime job. You aren’t Joseph Heller The scene of the employers discovering “Chapter 19” broke my heart.

(Seen and written on 2014-02-18)