Thursday, January 9, 2014

Three Movie Reviews For the Price of One...Except I Don't Charge

There are times where this blog tends to be nothing but movie reviews.   There's at least one per week.   Every month, there's a weekend movie guide. I discover it's tough to keep up the pace, especially during Oscar buzz season.

And I recently found myself seeing three different movies in less than ten days.  Not to diminish the importance of these films (two of which are recommended), I decided to lump my reviews of them into one daily entry.  So here goes.  Starting with the best of the lot.
From the poster for "Nebraska," you probably think this is a movie about Albert Einstein.   Wrong.   The unkempt hair in the silhouette is that of veteran actor Bruce Dern who just may score an Oscar nomination for his work in this Alexander Payne production.   I've always enjoyed Payne's efforts as a screenwriter and a director.  I actually met him several times when we went to the same hair stylist and our regular six-week appointments always seemed to coincide on the same Saturday.   He was a nice guy.

But that's not why I'm recommending the film.  Indeed, 'Nebraska" is one of the best screen depictions of the bouncy relationship an adult endures when his parent gets older and has health issues.  In effect, the dynamic does a complete 180 degree flip turn.  The child becomes the parent.  The parent becomes the child.  Lots of people can identify with that.   I certainly could, having dealt with two parent/children in my lifetime.  Alexander Payne definitely has his finger on this pulse and the results are rewarding.

Dern plays this old coot who's married to a shrill of a wife somewhere in the desolate Midwest.   He gets a letter from one of those magazine subscription companies that tells him he's won a million dollars and he can pick it up in Lincoln, Nebraska.  This is the typical senior citizen come-on, but Dern falls for it and gets his son (Will Forte) to drive him to the fortune.  What starts out as a father-and-son buddy movie turns into a lot more as other family members get involved in the journey.  It's a riotous, yet frequently poignant hoot all the way through.  

The performances are top-notch and June Squibb as the harpie wife steals the picture whenever she is on screen. But, the heart and soul of the film belong to Dern and Forte.  It resembles every father-and-son relationship that has flip flopped over time.   It sure did look like the one I had with my dad later in life.  Payne certainly knows the territory and delivers the goods.  Meanwhile, "Nebraska" is shot in glorious black-and-white, which only enhances the barren, wide open spaces of the Great Plains.

Need I say more?

LEN'S RATING:   Four stars.

There's a journey of another kind in "Philomena" and I'm guessing the ultimate destination for this movie might be Oscar Nomination Town as well.   The performances to pay attention here are those of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, who form very unlikely traveling partners.  

"Philomena" is the true story of a woman who, years earlier, had gotten pregnant and gave birth to a young son while in "the protective arms" of a home run by some Irish Catholic nuns.  Trust me, these aren't the same sisters who guided Maria and the Von Trapp children over the Alps.  They start selling off the kids to rich Americans faster than LL Bean markets hiking backpacks.   Philomena has a hankering to find out what happened to her son and she picks this British journalist to find out.  Together, they travel to Washington, DC to seek the truth.   At every corner, they overturn a new shocking revelation.  It all starts to seem unbelievable but then you realize, during a Google search after the movie, that it's all true.

Indeed, as they always say, you can't write this stuff.

That's what makes "Philomena" so compelling.   The story is true.  Meanwhile, the performances of Dench and Coogan as the journalist are quite organic.  You can believe it when they have their warmest moments as friends.  You can understand it when they argue and want to sever their ties immediately.  The mark of a good movie that really and truly understands the human relationship.

LEN'S RATING:  Three and a half stars.  
There's a journey of even another kind in "Inside Llewyn Davis." It's one I don't recommend you taking. That is, unless you really do like to spend almost two hours with truly unlikeable characters. Hell, if you want to watch a bunch of hateful people around this time of year, don't see this movie. Just remember Christmas Day dinner with your in-laws.

"Inside Llewyn Davis" is the latest concoction from the usually creative Joel and Ethan Coen and it's a complete misfire.  The Coens are generally known for their quirky characters and dark comic moments.  Trust me, there's a lot of them in this movie as well.  But they forgot to put any heart or substance into the story.  What results is....well...Christmas Day dinner with your in-laws.   Or worse.   Imagine you invited the top ten Food Network chefs over to your house and then simply asked them to make tuna fish sandwiches.  With this film, the sum of all parts somehow amounts to zero.

Set in Greenwich Village of 1961, Llewyn Davis is one of those dime-a-dozen folk singers trying to make it a career out of as little talent as possible.  Mired in seedy coffee houses, he strums his guitar and wonders which living room couch he can crash on next.  He's had a singing partner who chose to jump off the George Washington Bridge before the picture even starts.   Don't we wish we all had?

Davis bounces from apartment to apartment, from cat to cat, from New York to Chicago and back again.   All throughout, you realize you don't care one bit what happens to this complete shithead.  Even the people he meets along the way are despicable.   Birds of a feather flocking...well, you know.  You desperately want to like something or anything about this movie but you can't.  The actors aren't very convincing.   And even the usually reliable John Goodman turns in one of the hammiest and most pretentious performances in years.  And, if you're a film buff, you will recognize that his role here is a direct copy of the character Orson Welles played in "Touch of Evil" back in 1958.  Goodman clearly has gotten lazy this time around. 

And this film, which had some early Oscar buzz, might disappear faster than you think.   I saw the film on its opening weekend with a crowded audience at the famed Cinerama Dome.  At its conclusion, there was no applause like I heard at the end of "Nebraska" and "Philomena."  There was stone cold silence from this Guild-heavy film industry audience.  A person at my gym saw it in another LA showcase the same night.  Not only was the audience silent at the end, there were even booes heard at the end.  Indeed, in my own informal poll, I have found just one person who actually admits to liking this movie.  I guess it's making some money some place, but, then again, so are prostitutes.  

I spent a couple of thousand dollars last year on my colonoscopy, which I got to actually watch for the last five minutes.  Compared to the fifteen bucks I paid to see this piece of junk, the colonoscopy was actually the better and more cost efficient entertainment value. 

Oscar buzz flatlining in about three minutes. But, should anybody be surprised?  If you hate all the characters, how can you possibly like the movie?

Coen Brothers, if you want the answer to that question, please see the first two movies I reviewed today.

LEN'S RATING:  Zero stars.  

Dinner last night:  Steak, baked potato, and mixed vegetables.

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