Friday, November 22, 2013
Elderly Billings, Montana, resident Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is convinced that he has won a million dollars. So fervently does he believe this that, when we first meet him, he has set off on foot for Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim sweepstakes money promised by the form letter in his coat pocket. It’s not clear whether Woody’s mind has gone due to age or decades of unrepentant drinking or whether he’s simply delusional. He refuses to recognize the scam and repeats his quixotic attempts to the exasperation of brash wife Kate (June Squibb) and oldest son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), who still harbors resentment over years of paternal indifference. Younger son David (Will Forte), stuck selling stereo systems and recently separated from his live-in girlfriend, reluctantly agrees to drive his father to Lincoln to “get out of Billings for a while” and in the hope that Woody will then “shut up” about the money. The odyssey takes them across the flat, barren terrain of the Midwest, with Phedon Papamichael’s black and white camerawork underscoring the stark, unforgiving landscape. En route they stop in Woody’s hometown, Hawthorne, Nebraska, to visit family, and there David gets some insight into his taciturn father’s life in the recollections of a former girlfriend and his one-time partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), among others, until news of the prodigal son’s impending “riches” sours the reunion. Director Alexander Payne’s films routinely (and wryly) observe the foibles of flawed, misguided folk and have been accused (not entirely without justification) of being misanthropic. Thanks to Bob Nelson’s shrewdly observed and often funny screenplay, Payne transcends his tendency to condescend and displays a genuine tenderness for most of the characters. The acting is exceptional. Squibb is explosive as the lioness protecting her pride, Keach uses charming menace to mark his meager territory, and Forte moves subtly between frustration and compassion. But Dern turns the nearly mute Woody into the role of a lifetime. We see a world of regret in his eyes and root for redemption, however small. When it comes, it is surprising and supremely satisfying.
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
In Nazi Germany circa 1938 young Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) adapts to her new life in the modest home of amiable Hans (an excellent Geoffrey Rush) and brusque wife Rosa (Emily Watson) after her mother vanishes for vague reasons. Her prized possession is a book taken from the graveside of her brother, who died in transit. While Hans patiently teaches Liesel how to read and write at night, the girl spends her days playing street football or with neighbor boy Rudy (Nico Liersch) who challenges her to races in the hopes of getting a kiss. The Nazi party indoctrinates the children with songs and propaganda at school and gathers the neighborhood together for the periodic book burning under the watchful eye of Burgomeister Hermann (Rainer Bock). At one such gathering Liesel manages to steal a smoldering book from the ashes and smuggles it home. Her fear of being found out, however, is overshadowed by the arrival of Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jewish refuge whom Hans must hide in the basement in repayment of a debt to the young man’s dead father. Because Hans refuses to join the Party, work is in short supply. So with another mouth to feed Rosa earns extra money doing laundry for the Burgomeister’s wife, Ilsa (Barbara Auer). While delivering clean clothes to the Hermann home Liesel discovers a library of books that proves too great a temptation. Michael Petroni’s adaptation of the young adult novel by Markus Zusak is faithful to a fault. Every memorable scene from the book makes an appearance on screen but few receive sufficient time or dramatic significance to carry much weight or generate much suspense. Conversely director Brian Percival milks every meaningful look and moment, giving the film a sluggish pace. The filmmakers don’t seem to trust the material or the audience’s capacity to absorb it. Instead they feel the need to make life under the yoke of the Third Reich easily digestible for the masses. Even the dead pulled from bombed out buildings look serene and are unsullied by dirt or blood. The contrast between the courage of the book’s Liesel and the timidity of the filmmakers could not be more stark.
Thursday, November 7, 2013
We first met Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) in their twenties some eighteen years ago on a train to Vienna as they fell in love then parted ways after one fateful night in director Richard Linklater’s BEFORE SUNRISE (1995). Nine years later in BEFORE SUNSET (2004) we found them again, this time in Céline’s hometown of Paris at a promotion for Jesse’s book about their encounter. In spite of their committed relationships (he is married with child; she with another man) they fitfully succumbed to the rekindled embers of the past as Linklater closed that film with the tantalizing hint of further romantic complications. Now they (and we) are nine years older still. Since then Jesse has divorced his wife, moved to Paris with Céline, fathered twin girls, and written more books to varying degrees of commercial and critical success. We drop in on him during an uncharacteristically stilted airport conversation with his grown son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) as the boy prepares to return to his mother. During the car ride back to the home of Patrick (the Greek author hosting him and his family for a summer of conversation, food, and drink) Jesse ponders whether he should be a more regular presence in his son’s life while Céline considers a change in career, as their towheaded children snooze in the back seat. Their courtship period has passed. On the cusp of middle age they negotiate the treacherous waters of family, career, and the mutability of love. Linklater’s script (co-written with Delpy and Hawke) keeps the talk flowing, and the dialogue’s loose structure and natural rhythms give the sense of being privy to the most intimate of conversations. While Delpy’s unaffected performance fits the material perfectly, Hawke at times feels self-conscious (though, in fairness, I’m unsure whether it’s the actor or the character). For the heartbreaking penultimate scene, however, they each achieve a vulnerability that’s breathtaking. In all three films (each richer than the last) Linklater, Delpy and Hawke avoid pat closure and provide the uneasy comfort that with life and relationships imperfection is the rule, not the exception.