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Review: Nebraska (2013)

By: Greg Maier
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Director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, 2011) is back with perhaps the best film of his career and certainly the best film so far this year.  Nebraska is the story of confused and aging alcoholic Woody Grant played by Bruce Dern (Coming Home, 1978) who believes he has won a million dollars in a marketing sweepstakes scam and tries to walk from his home in Montana to Lincoln Nebraska in order to claim his would be fortune.  Unable to convince his father that the prize isn’t actually real, Woody’s son David played by Will Forte (Saturday Night Live) agrees to drive Woody to Lincoln in hopes to at least spend a few days of quality time with his father who was never a perfect dad growing up.

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The role won Dern a best actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival as his character is the epitome of a naive generation of aging parents who have reached the point in life where their diminishing memory requires guidance from their children to keep them from being taken advantage of.   More than anything, Nebraska is about a father/son relationship that, better late then never, is finally reaching a point of mutual respect and love.   Along the way, Woody and David are forced to revisit Woody’s hometown where word gets out that he is a millionaire causing the entire town, including their hilarious simpleton relatives, to want to get their hands on some of Woody’s prize money.

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Despite his mother’s protests, played with brilliant comedic timing by June Squibb (About Schmidt, 2002), David indulges his father’s delusional actions if only to show the man a good time and give him something to live for as he nears a point of complete confusion of his surroundings.  Nebraska is undoubtedly a comedy, but it is this selflessness by David for his father that makes the picture such a thing of beauty which conventional comedies seldom reach.  The story is such a simple one and is quite slow moving, but the characters are so genuine that it seems impossible not to fall in love with this movie.
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In an era where the success of films is heavily dependent on big name actors and digital special effects, Nebraska is truly a black sheep among its peers yet for all the right reasons.  Alexander Payne has proven that it is characters and not necessarily story that are most important in films.  After all, he made a picture about a man and his son taking a trip through the rural Midwest, shot it in black and white and avoided the boring conventions of usual storytelling and he ended up with a film that I would have no shame in calling a modern masterpiece of cinema.

4 star rating

Review: Out of the Furnace (2013)

By: Greg Maier

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With Out of the Furnace, writer/director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, 2009) has created an intensely emotional and violent portrait of working class life in small town America. The film follows two brothers Russell and Rodney Baze who grew up in a small steeler town in Pennsylvania where, in the footsteps of their dying father, Russell (Christian Bale, The Fighter, 2010) works as a welder in the steel mill. Younger brother Rodney Jr. played by the talented Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford, 2007) is an Iraq war veteran who falls into hard times financially and has to resort to using his combat expertise in illegal underground fights in order to pay back his debts. The film’s cast is rounded out with veteran actors Woody Harrelson (Seven Psychopaths, 2012), Willem Dafoe (The Hunter, 2011), Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff, 1983) and Forrest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland, 2006).

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Though the film has a number of flawed moments (a comedically long stare down between Bale and Whitaker and a dragged out cheesy ending), I have to say that the editing is quite outstanding and it is the silent imagery that sticks with you the most. The story spans over a period of several years and a couple of tours in Iraq for Rodney as well as a prison sentence for Russell and it is little things like the changing appearance of the characters that helps solidify the realism of the story. I also really enjoyed the performances from Affleck and Harrelson who bring everything they’ve got to each scene; especially the opening sequence which is one of the best I’ve seen this year and also one of the best of Harrelson’s career.

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Bare knuckle boxing and dramatic feelings of revenge aside, Out of the Furnace is ultimately about the love that the two brothers have for each other when they both have nobody else for support. Russell and Rodney selflessly care for each other in their darkest moments which overshadows an unnecessary romantic subplot between Bale and Zoe Saldana (Avatar, 2009); though I would like to mention that there is a beautifully acted moment to look for between the separated couple that takes place on a bridge. Critics have praised Christian Bale’s performance as one of the best of his career, but I felt that it was Casey Affleck who shines the brightest in his role as he continues to prove to be one of Hollywood’s most underrated talents.

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Ultimately I was very much a fan of Out of the Furnace despite my distaste for the film’s final act in which Bale and Sam Shepard become vigilantes. Yes the film is certainly derivative of The Deer Hunter (1978), but is that necessarily a bad thing? I would venture to say that it isn’t because after all, influence is impossible to avoid as a filmmaker and Scott Cooper certainly has forged his own vision of a broken family in a broken system. Maybe it’s because the setting and the casting is done so well that I believe this film is successful in expressing what it does. I look forward to future projects from Cooper who has shown to have more willingness to go out on a limb and more talent than a lot of filmmakers working today.

3 star rating

Sequence Analysis: Boogie Nights Opening

By: Greg Maier

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Boogie Nights (1997), the second feature from Paul Thomas Anderson, is an electrifying ensemble piece about a pseudo family of pornography filmmakers in the 70s and the rise of a young nightclub buss boy Eddie Adams (Mark Whalburg) who becomes Dirk Diggler, the world’s biggest porn star.  The opening sequence is perhaps the most impressive moment of the film as it is a three minute long tracking shot that starts across the street and tracks all the way into a nightclub where it continues to play with movement until the sequence ends.

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Beginning with the sequence’s mise-en-scene, the opening seconds of the sequence show the diegetic film title in bubble font on the marquee of a movie theater, the camera then tilts to a canted angle to reveal a neon sign on the theater that says Reseda, which identifies the location as Reseda Blvd. in San Fernando California.  The camera re-levels and is lowered to street level where it follows an old school Cadillac as it parks in front of a nightclub across the street.  A non-diegetic title over the moving image says “San Fernando Valley 1977”.  Burt Renyolds and Julianne Moore step out of the car and are greeted by Luis Guzman‘s character.  They are all dressed in their grooviest 70s nightclub attire which makes the setting feel convincingly like the time period.

The long take continues as the three characters enter the club with the camera tracking in reverse in front of   them.  The layout of the nightclub set has a circular feel to it with a dance floor in the back center.  There is low key high contrast lighting as one would expect in a club setting.  Lots of neon and moving lights as well as red candles on all the tables, while the actors faces are often in shadow.  Perhaps this is done to hide the character’s true personalities because at this point in the film, we only know the film is set in the 70s and have no idea the characters are pornographers.  There is only a slight illusion to it when Luis asks Burt to put him in a movie.  More likely, they chose this lighting set up because it is what the lighting was like in actual disco clubs.

Still in one continuous long take, Burt and Julianne leave the frame to the right and the camera follows Luis as he walks to left for a moment to tell the bartender something and then he walks back to the center moving to the dance floor in the back where he encounters Don Cheadle, John C. Riley and Nicole Ari Parker.  At this point, the camera breaks the 180 degree rule as it circles the 4 characters two times while they are saying hi to each other on the dance floor.  Don Cheadle, who already stands out noticeably simply for being a black guy at the disco, is also wearing an over the top white leather cowboy suit.  This is to introduce the difference in style his character has from the others which is a comedic motif revisited throughout the film.

The camera, now on the other side of the original axis of action, tracks to the left to find Julianne and Burt sitting at a table along the outside edge of the circular shaped club.  It is here where we first meet Roller Girl (Heather Gram) who roller skates from the background to the foreground of the frame where Burt and Julianne are sitting.  A large white spotlight, unlike the colorful lights of the rest of the club, follows her as she skates towards them.  This is done to foreshadow the fact the she is a porn actress and therefore has a spotlight on her when you see her for the first time.  After their brief conversation, the camera tracks Roller Girl from behind as she roller skates through the middle of the dance floor and then off into the dark background of the frame somewhere on the other side of the club.

The opening sequence’s long cut ends with Mark Whalburg as the 17 year old buss boy Eddie Adams entering the frame from the left just after Roller Girl is out of sight.  He is carrying a buss tub and is cleaning a table dressed in a collard white button up work shirt, obviously not one of the groovy club goers.   He looks up towards, but past the camera in the direction of Burt and Julianne’s table.  The camera cuts to a medium shot of Burt who makes eye contact with Mark, then cuts to a medium shot of Mark with his buss tub but also with neon stars on the wall behind him.  this moment of eye contact between the two characters and specifically the neon star lights on the wall, is meant to emphasize how Burt’s character, a porno film director, from the very first glance already knew that Eddie would be a star.

Moving on to cinematography, although I have already laid out the camera movement in the sequence, I will summarize what is happening on the end of Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, 2007).  The sequence, aside from the two medium cuts at the end, is one long three minute tracking shot the begins on a crane high up in the air outside and smoothly tracks across the street into a nightclub where it continues to move around until almost all of the main characters of the film are introduced.  The long take has several angles and perspectives including medium, long and closeup shots as well a high and a canted angle.  Though it is mainly a tracking shot, there are also many panning movements left and right, but absolutely no zooms.  There is also an instance where the camera breaks the 180 degree rule and a new axis of action for the scene is briefly set which is opposite from the original.

In terms of editing, the sequence has very little as it is mostly a long take with the exception of two short medium shots at the end.  I did notice that during the two medium shots after the long take, the speed of the film is slowed down when the two characters make eye contact.  This emphasizes the significance of the the coming relationship between these two characters who have never met.  The long take portion of the sequence however, is reminiscent and likely very much inspired by the famous Copacabana sequence in Martin Scorsese‘s film Goodfellas (1990).  This sequence also begins outside on the street and follows the two characters in one continuous long cut as they enter the Copacabana night club through the back entrance, through a maze of a kitchen and into the lounge where a waiter arranges for them to have a table brought front and center at the stage show going on.  I believe P.T. Anderson chose to open Boogie Nights with a continuous long cut out in the street moving into a club both as a homage to Scorsese’s film, but also for a practical reason.  That reason being that the long take establishes so much for the audience, the setting and time frame as well as the majority of the film’s ensemble of characters.

Last but not least, the sound of the sequence is what really polishes off the atmosphere and definitely gets the film started with a bang.  Just before the opening seconds with the movie title on the marquee, a blank screen plays a faint slow paced trumpet that sounds like some kind of broken circus music.  This mini overture of sorts symbolizes the subjects of the film who are a slightly broken pseudo family of porno filmmakers, much like a pseudo family of circus performers.  All the diegetic sound in the sequence is dialogue between characters who are having relatively unimportant conversations.  The sequence is more about the atmosphere than anything and therefore the dialogue isn’t very important.  The non-diegetic music on the other hand comes bursting out at you from the opening frame and plays through to the end of the sequence really setting off the atmosphere.  The song is the disco classic “Best of My Love” by the Emotions (1977) and is the perfect fit to this beautiful and technically stunning opening sequence of an underrated American masterpiece.

Review: All is Lost (2013)

By: Greg Maier

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How far would you go to keep yourself from death? How much can one person endure until they reach a point of hopelessness so deep that they forfeit their will to live and abandon their animal instinct to keep pushing forward? In All is Lost, the sophomore effort from director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, 2011), Robert Redford (The Sting, 1973) plays a man who is pushed to that very limit and beyond in what I would categorize as a modern day silent film. Redford plays a man, literally the only character in the entire film, who is the captain of a small sailing vessel that crashes into a cargo spill of tennis shoes somewhere in the Indian Ocean. He wakes up with a large hole in the side of his boat, clearly caused by a floating shipping container filled with new shoes, and spends the rest of the film attempting to survive out in the middle of the ocean. Almost no lines of dialogue are spoken during the film’s 106 minute running time, but every frame of this unique movie adds to the very understandable story that unfolds.

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What impressed me most about All is Lost was not the very well played performance by Redford, which has already won him several awards nominations by the way, but instead it was the visual narrative which drives the entire story that stood out as the films biggest achievement. Everything in the storytelling is done so organically. Redford doesn’t speak his thoughts or intentions out loud, but by the way the filmmaker allows the audience to observe the environment, they are able to understand what those thoughts and intentions are. You really can’t do this with many types of stories and I believe the reason why All is Lost is successful in doing so is because the story is so very simple and universal; survival is instinctual to everyone which makes the silent narrative more easily understandable. Even early silent films from Hollywood filmmakers like Buster Keaton (Sherlock Jr., 1924) and Charlie Chaplin (City Lights, 1931) have title cards to help explain the story where the visual narrative alone could not accomplish it. Don’t get me wrong, All is Lost is no classic by any means, but I do admire the film’s natural way of telling a story without words.

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The problem I had with the film is that it really doesn’t serve much of a purpose other than pure entertainment. I won’t spoil the ending which I found to be way overly dramatic, but when you get down to it, the story is just about Redford on a boat and hoping to survive. To me art can be almost anything, but exceptional art has more layers at work beyond just the imagery. Perhaps it makes a social commentary about the times or has other underlying themes in disguise, but for me these layers are important for a piece to be, not good, but great. I guess I feel this way because it’s more fun to experience something when you recognize these other layers, but with All is Lost I just can’t seem to find it. In the end it apparently seems that all along All is Lost was merely a film about Robert Redford on a boat…
3 star rating