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Review – Nebraska (2013)

Alexander Payne is a man who is knowing for making a very particular type of film; films about middle-aged men in crisis, and as a result of this there’s something of a worry that any new film he makes could be doing nothing more than retreading old ground. Fortunately, in the case of his latest effort, Nebraska, such qualms are resoundingly dispelled, and he’s crafted what is, in my opinion, the best film in his canon.

It tells the rather simply story of a man, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), trying to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to collect $1 million he believes he’s won, and roping his reluctant son, David (Will Forte), along for the ride. There is of course much more to the film than this alone, it explores the fractured dynamics of the Grant family, the deteriorating health of Woody, his uneasy relationship with his wife (June Squibb) and sons (Forte and Bob Odenkirk) as well as the very nature of being on the road.

There is something almost metaphorical about the treatment of the road and travel in Nebraska, they are not just covering distance and going to Lincoln but instead, in a way that is perhaps cliche of road movies and road novels (it brings to mind the Kerouacian sense of self discovery in works like On the Road), they also discover themselves, as well as each other along the way. When Woody and David set off together, their relationship is uneasy to say the least, they scarcely speak a word to each other – although that can be said of Woody throughout the film – and David’s resentment is not masked, but perhaps the reason for this is that the two men seem to know nothing about one another, and, more importantly, neither do the audience. To begin with, Woody is unlikeable, he is distant and cold towards his family and gaining any attachment to him is almost impossible given he never seems entirely present. But as the film goes on and David – and by extension the audience – discover more about him and this cold man is peeled away to reveal, in his place, someone almost tragic, a point truly brought home when David says to someone else (in reference to Woody) “he just believes what people tell him,” and the power behind that simple statement is that it’s true, for better or worse, Woody believes what he hears.

Dern’s performance as Woody is nothing short of masterful, if just because he can do so much with so little. Woody is a man who is clearly in the early stages of something like dementia, and by seemingly doing nothing; looking off into the distance, standing away from everyone else, Dern effortlessly embodies a man who is clearly not entirely there, both physically and mentally. His dialogue is sparse throughout the film, more often than not he simply “yes,” “no,” or “what?” and the testament to the strength of his performance is that he can say so much with so little. When Woody, David, Ross and Kate (Woody’s wife) are back in the town where Woody grew up, they visit the house he lived in as a child, and in there, his past is brought to light in a way that is so calm that it becomes more powerful. When he is in the room he and his young brother slept in, he is asked if he was there when his brother died (he died very young). Woody simply says “I was there.” In his parent’s old bedroom, he says “this was my parent’s room. I’d get whipped if I was caught in here. Guess there’s no-one to whip me now.” These few lines create such a strong emotional response, as well as a connection with Woody’s character, that they show just how good Dern’s performance is, it’s understated and restrained nature in no way weakens it’s power. The same can be said for Forte as David; although he has more dialogue and is generally more animated than his father, it is the quieter moments, those in between vitriolic lines of dialogue, that highlight how good Forte is in the role. Squibb is generally more eccentric than the two men, more outspoken and chiefly the most comical of the major characters; her performance is full of moments that lighten the film and inject it with an almost infectious energy.

Infectious is also the best way to describe Woody’s resolve to get to Lincoln. Even though the audience are more than aware that there will not be $1 million waiting for him, it’s impossible not to will him on to his final destination. Besides, the money isn’t even the most important reason for Woody’s travelling to Lincoln. Once again, this comes back to the seemingly metaphorical treatment of travel in the film; the more distance between Woody and his house, or the town he grew up in, the more alive he seems to become; travelling for Woody isn’t just about the prize, it’s about finding something to hold on to, some energy to inject his life with. As he says “I ain’t got long left,” and it seems he’ll be damned before he spends it sitting around in the same house day after day.

It’s not a perfect film by any means; there are issues with the pacing. This isn’t to say that the film takes a long time to get going, it moves deftly and at almost two hours in length, sails by. Instead, it takes a while to truly ‘click,’ or at least it did with me; it wasn’t until Woody’s return to his hometown that I began to love the film; it’s early scenes almost have a detachment to them that, while seemingly done by design, could make it difficult for an attachment to be formed to characters later on, when it’s needed the most.

Perhaps the most effective dramatic device in Nebraska is the way that it balances humour and pathos, both in its writing and characters (Squibb’s animated comedy works as an excellent counterpoint to the dry, stoic elements on the surface of Dern’s performance). What’s most effective about the humour in Nebraska is that it’s used, in that age old way, as a defence mechanism. Early on in their travels, Woody and David go to a bar and have a beer together. The conversation is awkward, and stilted, and instead of being serious, the two men tell jokes, but it is when the laughter stops that the reality of their respective situations set in. David reveals to his father that his girlfriend of two years left him, as well as speaking up about Woody’s alcoholism. Woody of course, gives as good as he gets, before leaving and spitting out to his son “you can’t tell me what to do, cocksucker.”

Stunningly shot in black and white, Nebraska is very much an exercise in restraint, less being more. With Dern’s faultless performance at the center, the film is about so much more than just Woody’s mythical million; it is about fathers and sons, the past as a prison, the allure of the road and a straightforward refusal to let go. Quietly tragic and triumphant, with superb performances from the ensemble (Bob Odenkirk continues to impress as an actor beyond simply being Saul in Breaking Bad), Nebraska is the best film Alexander Payne has made yet, and one of the strongest of the year.

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Updated 2013-14 Oscar predictions

I haven’t made any Oscar predictions since the very beginning of the season (other than a short piece about some of the films coming out of Cannes), but that can probably just be attributed to a general silence on the blog for a while, something I hoping to rectify soon, especially with awards season – which I always enjoy – is reaching it’s peak.

Given it’s reaching the end of the year and all of the major awards contenders have been seen, bar a few like The Wolf of Wall Street and Foxcatcher, but by now I think the latter of those two won’t be around this season (although I may have read something to the contrary a little while ago, there’s been utter silence in terms of news about it for a while), then it seems now is as good a time as any to do a revised, which will hopefully prove to be more accurate than my predictions from the beginning of the season, which included nominations for films like The Fifth Estate and Diana.

Best Picture

Gravity
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Saving Mr. Banks
Captain Phillips
The Wolf of Wall Street
Inside Llewyn Davis
Her
Dallas Buyers Club
Nebraska

At this point most Best Picture ballots will probably all look like that, with Her being a surprising pick, although it seems more than possible after the groundswell of support it’s received from critics groups over the last week or so. There are a few films that, while not on this list of ten, are very Academy friendly, and so their rather middle of the road critical reception may not get in the way, and of all the films like that, the most likely to try to get into Best Picture is August: Osage County, with it’s award-winning credentials (Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play) and A-list cast (Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and the like), it might just creep in. Blue Jasmine is also a possibility given Woody tends to receive nominations when he’s on form, and given this may be his best film of the last few years, the Academy might want to reward him for it with a Best Picture nomination.

Best Director

Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity
Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave
Alexander Payne for Nebraska
Paul Greengrass for Captain Phillips
David O. Russell for American Hustle

There are plenty of other contenders here, given that it’s in general been a strong year, and there have been some surprise critics winners (again, Her is suddenly in the conversation here), but these seem like fairly safe bets, given some of them have received nominations in the past (Russell, Greengrass and Payne), and something like Gravity just seems like a pick that’s “edgy” and “different” by Academy standards, so they might just go for it.

Best Actor

Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks for Captain Phillips
Bruce Dern for Nebraska
Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford for All Is Lost

Perhaps the major surprise here is Redford, given that, although his performance is the strongest aspect of All Is Lost, it seemed to lose a lot of momentum after its release and the early raves for Redford, especially since there were no other major awards people were saying it should be nominated for (although Chandor’s direction is excellent), and until the NYFCC winners, he seemed like he was out of the race entirely (presumably to be replaced by Leonardo DiCaprio for The Wolf of Wall Street), but the win there has suddenly thrust him back into the conversation.

Best Actress

Sandra Bullock for Gravity
Meryl Street for August: Osage County
Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine
Emma Thompson for Saving Mr. Banks
Judi Dench for Philomena

While this list looks like most others at this point in the season, Best Actress is stronger this year than it’s been in quite a while, and there are plenty of performances that could sneak in (my gut is telling me that Streep and Dench are the most vulnerable to taken out), given Amy Adams has received acclaim for her turn in American Hustle, and many would say that she’s due for a leading nomination after several in Best Supporting Actress. And then there’s indie darling Frances Ha (which is unlikely, but not impossible, Gerwig’s performance is excellent, and if the screenplay gets in, there’s the chance that the Academy notice the strength of the performance too), and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight, which also, rather disappointingly, seems unlikely, but it would certainly be a pleasant surprise if she got in.

Best Supporting Actor

Will Forte for Nebraska
Michael Fassbender for 12 Years a Slave
Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club
Jonah Hill for The Wolf of Wall Street
Brakhad Abdi for Captain Phillips

Jonah Hill is an interesting one here, given many are saying that his work in Wolf… is the best performance of his career, and he does have a prior Oscar nomination (Moneyball), yet  at the same time, the sheer number of performances worthy of consideration could knock him off. There’s Tom Hanks in Saving Mr. Banks, which the Academy will probably love, and the late great James Gandolfini’s superb work in Enough Said which has gotten more notice after the critics groups (although his categorization as a supporting actor is debatable). While Abdi may be on the outside looking in on most ballots, I had to include him in my top five here simply because his performance is so good that I couldn’t justify not having it there.

Best Supporting Actress

Oprah for Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Jennifer Lawrence for American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave
Octavia Spencer for Fruitvale Station
Jane Squibb for Nebraska

Squibb seems to have come out of nowhere, but all of a sudden she has quite a bit of momentum behind her, although I feel like she’s vulnerable to being knocked off, perhaps by someone like Julia Roberts (or one of the other women, maybe Margo Martindale, in August: Osage County) or, to make a brave/ridiculous (delete as appropriate) claim, if the Academy take to Her as strongly as the critics did, Johansson could get in for her voice performance, which would certainly be an interesting turn of events.

Best Original Screenplay

Blue Jasmine, by Woody Allen
Inside Llewyn Davis, by Joel and Eathan Coen
Nebraska, by Bob Nelson
Her, by Spike Jonze
American Hustle, by David O. Russell and Eric Singer

There are some other contenders here, like Gravity, but it doesn’t really have the support the film’s other aspects do; the film with the best chance of breaking in here is probably Saving Mr. Banks, although this list of five seems rather strong, although where Banks has a shot is that there’s no typically “Academy” fare, except perhaps the mere presence of Woody Allen, but the films themselves don’t really cry out to the taste of the Academy members, so that could help Banks sneak in.

Best Adapted Screenplay

12 Years a Slave, by John Ridley
Before Midnight, by Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater
The Wolf of Wall Street, by Terrence Winter
Captain Phillips, by Billy Ray
Philomena, by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope

I feel like the fact Before Midnight has unfortunately run out of awards momentum makes it perilously vulnerable, which is a shame because it’s a wonderful film and I’d love to see it get a nomination somewhere. I suppose the question becomes; what would replace it? Adapted Screenplay doesn’t feel as packed with contenders as the other categories, although it’s possible that August: Osage County could get in, but beyond that, I’m not really sure what could take the slot from Before Midnight.

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Best Leading Actor? – Categories and Campaigning at the Oscars

Yesterday, I learned on Twitter (via Gold Derby) that for their respective performances in Nebraska and Foxcatcher, Bruce Dern and Steve Carell would both be campaigning in Best Leading Actor. Now, whether or not this will stay true through the entirety of the season I don’t know, but it does raise an interesting question about categories and campaigns: what motivates actors (and studios of course) to change their category up or down?

Sometimes there’s the issue of ‘splitting votes’, wherein if two (or more) actors are nominated in the same category, that the votes being split across some or all of them will cause the film in general to go unrewarded. A friend of mine argued that the sheer number of actors nominated in Best Supporting Actor for The Godfather in 1972 – there were three, Paccino, Duvall and Caan – is a factor in Joel Grey winning for Cabaret – the sheer number of performances nominated for The Godfather that the vote was split three ways, and no individual performer had enough support to win. This kind of thing is what tends to cause films with multiple leading actors to drop one of them down into supporting instead. It happened with The Master; while the film was unseen everyone’s ballots had both of its main men (Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix) in Best Leading Actor, then as more was learned about the film, people thought Hoffman would go leading, and then once the film was released, and campaigns began, it was instead Joaquin who campaigned in leading and Hoffman – in spite of the size of his role, went into supporting, in theory because if both were nominated in Best Leading Actor (which probably would have happened had they both submitted there), the chance of either of them winning would have been even less likely.

This is exactly the kind of predicament being faced by all of the leading men in Nebraska and Foxcatcher; the former has both Will Forte and Bruce Dern in Leading, and the latter has Steve Carell and Channing Tatum. Whether or not it will stay like this remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t be surprised if both films had one of their leads campaign in supporting.

Similar thoughts have arisen with reference to Meryl Streep’s performance in August: Osage County, and the rumours that she will campaign in supporting. Of course, the issue of vote splitting in Best Leading Actress (between her and Julia Roberts) is an issue, as it would be in supporting (between her and Margo Martindale). Perhaps the difference is, if Meryl were to campaign in supporting, she’d be more likely to win; she has the second biggest role in the play that Osage County is being adapted from, and easily the showiest, playing a matriarch that spirals out of control and becomes addicted to prescription drugs.

Taking Meryl as an example, it’s clear that sometimes changing the category of your performance can be done to more easily secure a win for the performer in question. Some call it ‘category fraud’, and these were accusations levelled at the feet of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s campaign for The Master, although sometimes it is just good sense to not have your performances clash. It could be selling the film and its performances short, but it can sometimes be necessary  Of course, with Meryl, and indeed with all of the performers I’ve mentioned from this season, the notion of the categories is still utterly hypothetical, but it has given a chance for me to, however briefly, touch on vote splits and the idea of securing an ‘easy win’ for an actor.

What do you think? Was The Master category fraud? How will Dern, Carell and Meryl campaign? Have your say in the comments.

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Oscar contenders from the Cannes Film Festival

I’ll be the first to admit I’m late to the party here, especially given my rather frequent posts about the Oscars, but as they say, better late than never (I’ve had other commitments impeding my rate of blogging).

Of course, with the Cannes film festival behind us, a slew of new films have been revealed to us, and it’s often the case that Cannes films can do very well at the Oscars (The Artist went on to win several awards after a warm reception at Cannes). And so here, I’ll simply make a post that briefly mentions each film, and how it was received, and the awards it could be up for (I suppose that’s the issue with writing about films one doesn’t get a chance to see, it’s difficult to give in-depth coverage and analysis on them). As ever, I’ll only be doing ‘major’ awards (picture, acting, directing and writing), since I must say I’m not the most knowledgeable on tech and craft categories, especially given I haven’t seen the movies.

The Past (Asghar Farhadi)

Following up the exceptional A Separation was never going to be an easy task, but if the Cannes responses are anything to go by, Farhadi has admirably succeeded in crafting his follow-up feature. As with the aforementioned film (which was nominated for Original Screenplay and won Foreign Language Film), it appears that The Past is another drama about the secrets and lies of a family, and it’s been praised for it’s intricacy in terms of writing and performance, as well as being one of the best reviewed films of the festival.

Potential nominations

Best Picture
Best Actress – Berenice Bejo
Best Original Screenplay – Asghar Fahradi and Massoumeh Lahidji
Best Foreign Language Film

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen)

The Coen brothers are Oscar darlings (having won four and being nominated for a further nine), so it’s safe to say that this one could be making a splash come awards season, and that’s what people have been saying prior to the film’s first screenings. Perhaps what’s most interesting about it is that now people have seen the film, the buzz for John Goodman and Carey Mulligan to be nominated in Best Supporting Actor/Actress seem to have diminished given the size of their roles (so while neither of them will be on this list, they’ll likely be in the back of people’s minds throughout the season, and campaigning could bring them back to the forefront).
On the other hand, more has been made of Oscar Isaac’s performance (having made himself aware to many, myself included with his excellent work in Drive) and there’s talk of a potential Best Actor nomination stemming from this.

Potential nominations

Best Picture
Best Director – Joel and Ethan Coen
Best Actor – Oscar Isaac
Best Original Screenplay – Joel and Ethan Coen

 

Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn)

Speaking of Oscar Isaac and Drive, now seems as good as time as any to delve into the latest opus by it’s celebrated director Nicolas Winding Refn. Although perhaps in the context of his latest film, Only God Forgives, celebrated isn’t the best word to use, given it’s been much more polarising than Drive and, dare I say it, even a little poorly received (Refn said in an interview he thinks people will “come around” to it like they did with Drive, but from what I read when it was released, people were enamoured with Drive rather quickly, so I’ll need to disagree with him there.).
One aspect of the film that seems to be universally praised its Kristin Scott Thomas’ role as a malicious matriarch (Jacki Weaver was nominated a similar type of woman a few years back for the slightly underwhelming Animal Kingdom), so it could have a chance there.

Potential nominations

Best Supporting Actress – Kristin Scott Thomas

 

Nebraska (Alexander Payne)

Between The Descendants (which I really liked) and Sideways (which I really hated), I think it’s safe to say the Academy are growing fairly fond of Alexander Payne. Critics, on the other hand, seem less fond of his latest opus, Nebraska. It’s been called overly-familiar as a film and inessential within Payne’s body of work, so I don’t see it surviving the long road to a Best Picture nomination.
He has, on the other hand, won two for Adapted screenplay (the two aforementioned films) as well as another nomination in the category for Election. So normally I’d be saying that this’ll definitely get a writing nod, but what’s interesting is that:
– it’s an original screenplay (whereas all his academy recognition has come in the adapted category).
– it wasn’t written by Payne.
I still wouldn’t be surprised if it got in there though, if just because there’s something of an association of Payne films and screenplay nominations. And of course, there’s Bruce Dern, a veteran actor who is said to give a very strong performance here (although some claimed it could be over-praised due to Academy politics and Dern’s lack of a nomination in a long career), so I wouldn’t be surprised if he slipped in.

Potential nominations

Best Actor – Bruce Dern
Best Original Screenplay – Bob Nelson

 

Blue Is The Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche)

Being the first LGBT-themed film to win the prestigious Palme D’or, it’s safe to say that a lot is being written about Blue Is The Warmest Colour. But given the fact it’s in a foreign language, has a three hour running time and explicit sex, it feels like it could be  out of the wheelhouse for the Academy, who have something of a tendency to be set in their ways (although they do have a fondness for awarding LGBT roles, like Sean Penn in Milk or Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry), it might be a tough sell.
I’ve read some things that say that say Lea Seydoux deserves a nomination, but I feel like if there’s going to be a foreign language performance in an acting category (which the Academy seemed to have started doing – Riva in Amour, Javier Bardem in Biutiful and Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose), I feel like they’ll choose to reward Bejo for The Past, it seems like a safer pick.

Potential nominations

Best Actress – Lea Seydoux
Best Foreign Language Film

 

Some under the radar picks

There were a few movies at Cannes that got good reception, but no major awards buzz about themselves, but there’s something about the way they were received, and the prestige of some of the cast and crew that make me feel like there’s a chance that the following films could get in somewhere (although where they might get in is not something I feel I can predict at this moment in time).
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski)
The Immigrant (James Gray)

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