Adavanced Screening Review: Nebraska


Nebraska (2013)

Director: Alexander Payne

Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Suibb

I will show you fear in a million-dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing Prize

T.S. Elliot once wrote, in his masterpiece poem ‘The Wasteland’, ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’. Alexander Payne’s cinematic poem ‘Nebraska’ similarly seems to say ‘I will show you fear in a million-dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing Prize’. Both works, in different ways, touch upon the same universal truth: the futility of life. In Nebraska an aging alcoholic father Woody Grant, Bruce Dern, takes a road trip with his estranged son David, Will Forte, from Montana to Nebraska to claim a million dollar marketing prize. Despite the fact that the prize is obviously a marketing scam and almost everyone in his life tries to dissuade him from making the trip Woody will hear none of it. If no one will drive him he will walk.

The apparent absurdity and seeming ridiculousness of his quest is slowly subverted throughout the film as the prize ticket becomes the Elliot’s ‘handful of dust’, a metaphor for our universal fear of death, our desire for meaning and the futility of our lives. Nebraska is a beautiful cinematic poem, profound as it is poignant. Although the film has deep and powerful undertones it also works as a hilarious absurdist comedy and a charming road movie.

Alexander Payne is a master at creating vivid complex characters both tragic and comic, such as the futile Schmidt in ‘About Schmidt’, the depressed wine-aficionado Miles in ‘Sideways’ and the quietly heroic Matt King in ‘The Descendants’. In ‘Nebraska’ Payne creates one of his greatest characters yet, the stoic, complex, alcoholic, headstrong, melancholic , man of few words, who will not go quietly into the night. Bruce Dern gives the performance of a lifetime by capturing the so perfectly the man leading a life of quiet desperation. A rich complex portrait, never shying away from the pain he has caused to his son and others nor the quiet acts of kindness he has done throughout his life.

Following on from the moving study of roots and family present in the princely Hawaiian King family in ‘The Descendants’, ‘Nebraska’ also masterfully explores the extended family and community of the Grants. The Grants are a completely departure from the wealthy easy-going Hawaiian King family. The extended Grants: a Midwestern working class family of stoicism, no nonsense and hardworking conservatism. The silence in the film is deafening, a community of withheld communication, repressed feelings and deep resentment bubbling under a veneer of politeness.

This silence and repression is punctured only by the startling character of Woody’s wife Kate, played by June Squibb in a hurricane of a performance. Just as Woody is raging against his steady decline into death, so too does Kate rage against the silence and unfairness of her life. The premise of the road movie established as the son David reluctantly agrees to take Woody to get his prize is diverted with a pit-stop in Woody’s old home town in which a family reunion is organised. The funniest parts of the movie take place her as the extended family and old friends expose their true greed and resentment upon hear mistakenly about Woody’s new found ‘wealth’.

Shot in black and white the film is steeped in bittersweet nostalgia of a rapidly disappearing Midwest world from which Alexander Payne came from. ‘Nebraska’ itself becomes one of the most fascinating characters with sweeping plains and sleepy towns reminiscent of the Coen’s cinematography in the classic ‘Fargo’. Payne seems determined to dispel the honest-good-folk stereotype of the Midwest, seeking instead to instil a sense of human understanding to an often overlooked part of America.

The film navigates its tone carefully. Playing quirky upbeat music over scenes of quiet desolation and interrupting heartbreaking moments of truth with moments of hilarious comedy. Perhaps Payne’s most personal and deep film yet, ‘Nebraska’ is a minimalist masterpiece which says more about life and death in a simple man’s quest to get a marketing prize than most films with grander subject matter and important figures. The million-dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing Prize is Elliot’s handful of dust.

9/10     A-         ***1/2

My review at The Feed Magazine:


Advanced Screening Review: Saving Mr Banks


Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Director: John Lee Hancock.

Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks

Advanced Screening:

For Every Laugh, There Should Be A Tear – Walt Disney

Forget everything you think you know about ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ and the Mary Poppins story. Going into a Disney studio film about the uptight Australian born British author P.L Travers being seduced by a charismatic Walt Disney to give away the rights to her famous children’s story ‘Marry Poppins’, and coming from the director of the sentimental ‘Blind Side’, one is overcome with a foreboding sense of an impending onslaught of schamltz and sentimentality. The result, however, is a surprisingly film which is insightful, splendidly acted and deeply moving.

Although the first act of the film begins with a good helping of light-hearted schmaltz and overacting, as the film progresses the expectations of the audience are slowly subverted through a darker tone present in the flashbacks revealing the true story of ‘Marry Poppins’ from P.L. Travers childhood. After 20 years of trying Disney finally persuades the hard-nosed and rational Pamela Travers to come to Hollywood to discuss a film adaptation of her story. Disgusted at Hollywood’s book to film adaptations and Disney’s style of filmmaking the imperious Travers does not trust the system to capture or understand the true essence of her beloved story and what it means to her. However just as Pamela Travers is slowly seduced by the savy business man Walt to the Disney magic entertainment-machine so are we the audience seduced by the charm of the film and happy to be. The film is also a journey of closure and victory over a traumatic past in which Travers used the story of ‘Mary Poppins’ as a way of saving her tragic whimsical alcoholic father.

The movie simply wouldn’t work without the bravura Oscar worthy performance of Emma Thompson, the heart, eyes, ears and soul of the film. Starting out as a prickly unlikable woman, Thompson is able to create a rich character portrait of a woman who could not forgive herself for her past. Strictly speaking ‘Saving Mr Banks’ doesn’t always appear entirely historically authentic with the edges softened and the ending white-washing how conflicted the relationship between Travers and Disney really was. The film also doesn’t reveal that Pamela Travers was actually a feminist and bisexual, nor does it hint at Disney’s notorious anti-Semitism. The flashback to her childhood is set in an Americanised ‘Gone With The Wind’ romantic Australia populated by people with dubious accents.

The duality between the fun, comedy and wonder of the fictional story of ‘Mary Poppins’ and the darker, deeper and tragic reality of Travers childhood represent the two overarching themes of the film. Firstly Walt Disney’s storytelling philosophy that ‘for every laugh, there should be a tear’ which illuminates a much greater truth of life and drama: for there to be light there must be darkness, suffering makes joy sweeter, death makes life more alive. The flashbacks to Travers childhood deal with some heavy subject matters including suicide, alcoholism and depression. The second theme is the idea of the creative reinvention of the self through art. The pain that comes when art personally created has to be given away, akin to giving a part of yourself away. I cried. I laughed. And as scenes from the original classic played I felt like a little kid again watching ‘Marry Poppins’ with an adult sense of how it came to be.

8/10              A-            ***1/3

My review at The Feed Magazine: