Wednesday, November 27, 2013


"Nebraska" is another masterwork from director Alexander Payne ("About Schmidt," "Sideways," "The Descendants"). His same appreciation for the everyday and the ordinary is on full display, showing off the best we have known from the filmmaker, a trademark commitment to both comedy and drama. The movie is laugh-out-loud funny but at its core carries a melancholy heart. Payne, coupled with a screenplay from Bob Nelson, crafts a fable of middle America that is wry, affectionate and true.

Payne packs Nebraska, both the film and the film's setting, with orneriness, humor and an absolute sense of time and place. The director scoped out the small town where the film is shot to find the local faces he wanted to fill the screen. If many of the smaller performances feel like found artifacts, that's because they are; they perfectly shade in the story of the bittered, booze-drinking father, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), at the film's center.

Much to the exhaustive dismay of his son, David (Will Forte), Woody becomes obsessed with a scam certificate he receives in the mail, declaring him the winner of $1 million. He hits the road, lumbering along wearing a heavy jacket and cold face, attempting to walk all the way from Montana to Billings, Nebraska to collect his money. He does it repeatedly, stubborn as a mule. His wife, Kate (June Squibb), is fed up with it. "I didn't even know the son of a bitch wanted to be a millionaire," she bemoans. Also fed up, David decides to take his father on the road trip to Billings but only to stop in at Hawthorn, the town where he grew up, and learn more about his father's history than even he knew.

We settle in to the wrinkles of time, exploring a small town that seems to mostly regret the past and is irritated in the present. Nelson's writing and Payne's direction find the poignancy and absurdity in the burden of family and returning home again. And it's all canvased against textured black and white cinematography from Phedon Papamichael ("The Descendants," "The Ides of March"), a decision that Payne made eight years ago when he first discovered the script. It accents the film's wintry landscape.

Bruce Dern and June Squibb give the performances of their careers. Squibb, who played opposite Jack Nicholson in Payne's "About Schmidt," is uproarious with her crude, prickly exterior, always bickering about her husband. The Academy would do right in granting her a best supporting actress nomination. Dern plays Woody as a grouchy old bastard but also one of quiet mystery. Is he really not cognizant of his surroundings, or is he faking to drown out the noise? And of course there's no ignoring Will Forte's serious performance here, creating a portrait of a man who doesn't want to become his father but knows to do what's best for him.


Have no fear. "Catching Fire" is a worthy, exceptional and uncommonly smart second installment to the promising start Gary Ross' "Hunger Games" kicked off a year ago. With director Francis Lawrence taking over the helm, he and his team, including screenwriters Michael Arndt ("Toy Story 3") and Simon Beaufoy ("127 Hours"), deliver high-caliber pop culture escapism that doesn't get much better than this. It's pure entertainment spectacle with a strong beating heart in the right place. Amidst a sea of other YA crap, it's hats off to "The Hunger Games" for officially staking its claim as the next great franchise in our post-"Harry Potter" landscape.

Building on the political parable foundation of its predecessor, this second chapter delves deeper into what will become a revolution against Panem's cruel Capitol and the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Having just won the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are required to immediately embark on the soul-crushing Victory Tour, which forces them to relish in their triumphs, the ones that cost others their lives. Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) all are a welcomed return, infusing warmth and humor into the proceedings. And there's of course a gleaming and hilarious Stanley Tucci as the flamboyant host Caesar.

The announcement of the Quarter Quell brings a more thematically complex component to this installment. It becomes more about fighting back than just surviving inside the games. One male and one female victor from each district is required to re-enter the games for the 75th anniversary. Instead of trying to remake a life with her mother, sister Primrose and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss is once again ripped away, forced back into the killing ring next to Peeta. This also allows for the introduction of new characters, namely the strapping Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin). In the new and improved training facility, we're introduced to the other victors, ranging from the technologically savvy (Jeffrey Wright's Beetee) to ones livid and fed up with the Capitol's manipulation (Jena Malone's Johanna).

Leaner and meaner, "Catching Fire" is decidedly darker in tone than the original and for good reason. The games are less about the games and more about the horrors they symbolize for the world of Panem. Since these are all past tributes, there's a sense of anger and hurt that creates a more robust emotional resonance. And especially with our two stars, when the feigned romance between Katniss and Peeta to appease the Captiol turns to something genuine, we can feel it.

The movie indeed carries like a middle chapter should and leaves the audience with a deliciously teased cliffhanger leaving viewers salivating for "Mockingjay Part 1." But it works in the best way a franchise should, and it feels effortless and concludes a two-and-a-half-hour showcase that's thrilling, funny and touching.

Then there's Jennifer Lawrence. The now Oscar-winning actress acts the hell out of the role, embodying Katniss' angst, strength and vulnerability; she's one of the best heroines genre films have known, but you'll not once catch her acting with a capital A. It's all organic, earned and builds naturally under her character's circumstances. Playing the girl on fire, she lights up the screen, commanding your attention and admiration. She's unstoppable.

My four-star review of "The Hunger Games"

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


You don't just watch the two characters at the center of Abdellatif Kechiche's "Blue Is the Warmest Color." You live and breathe them, feel what they feel. The film is a long 179 minutes, but from beginning to end, every minute feels necessary. Once we are first introduced to Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos), the film quickly settles into it's rhythm and pacing, and we too settle in, lavishing over every detail of this 18-year-old girl who's about to embark on an intimate coming-of-age saga. We are right there along with her on the journey, to the point where long after the credits role, you may find yourself wondering how she's doing, as if she is more than a fictionalization. It's a testament to both Exarchopoulos' performance and Kechiche's extraordinary film. It's an explosion of love, passion and anguish, an enthralling piece of cinema that is not to be missed.

While Lea Seydoux is the top billed, as she's an actress well known in France, this is Adele Exarchopoulos' film through and through. The luscious film lingers over Adele's lips and mouth, as well as her beautifully messy hair, which she pulls haphazardly into a nest atop her head. There's a fixation on food and appetite. Adele mentions how she's always hunger and could always eat. She has an appetite, a lust. In one of the film's cheekiest moments (there are a few), she says at the dinner table with her parents she'd like some salad, as she leans back uttering a light moan. At her high school, she starts dating the most attractive guy, mostly due to pressure from her friends. But she knows deep down it's not what she wants, and the way the film handles her frustration is eloquent and heartbreaking. It's a perfect portrayal of adolescent confusion in the face of conflicting sexuality.

Adele's gay friend takes her out one night, and we watch as she, wide-eyed as if entering Wonderland, takes in the scene of a lesbian bar. That's where she finally meets the alluring, intoxicating blue-haired Emma (Lea Seydoux). Adele had seen her in passing before this initial encounter, a fleeting moment on the street that knocks the wind right out her, a moment of seeing the one. In Adele's class, they read a passage about love at first sight. A lot of Adele's schoolwork reads into what she's experiencing and, consequently, many of the film's themes. Later discussions about art and culture suggest ideals on gender norms and female sexuality. It's in this sense "Blue" is like a richly textured novel, one that requires multiple pass-throughs to capture every nuance of meaning.

The film is split into two distinct chapters, chronicling Emma and Adele's blossoming romance. Both actresses are brave, relevatory breakthroughs in putting on display the aching desire, electric chemistry and impending torment of a first love. Blue really is the warmest color as it appears in every single shot, on clothing, paintings and of course in Emma's hair. What the color represents transforms as does what Emma and Adele's relationship means to each of them as they grow and learn. Desire and despair come in equal waves.

"Blue Is the Warmest Color" won this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes, the first ever gay film to do so, and it happened right as France legalized gay marriage. This is a gay film, but it's also a film universally about love, which is even more important in its addressing (or lack thereof) of being specifically about two lesbians. Making the most headlines has been the graphic sex scenes earning the film its NC-17 rating. This should be what is least talked about with this movie. Yes, they are lengthy almost to a fault. But the intensity of the scenes informs how we view Adele and Emma together. We experience the raw lovemaking and nakedness right with them, and it lingers in our mind just as it does theirs. And it makes the pain of it afterward, the loss and unholy emptiness, feel all the more real.

Saturday, November 2, 2013


At the start of writer/director J.C. Chandor's "All Is Lost," the voice of Robert Redford is heard, composing a letter of farewell and apology, assuming to his family and loved ones. Aside from this moment, a distress call through a radio and one frustrated outburst, that's all we hear out of the actor for the film's 105-minute running time. We see a wedding ring on his finger but no photographs or memorabilia from a life back home. Labeling him "Our Man," it's purely man vs. nature in this allegorical tale that's pure Redford.

After his yacht crashes into an adrift cargo box, he is immediately responsive and resourceful to fix the damage even as water pours into the cabin. A lot of other bad things happen to him, all rendering Our Man alone on the open sea fending for himself. But he is a capable and intelligent man who perserveres against all odds, and the film is very detail-oriented in showing his survival. Redford takes a risk as does the film, keeping a 77-year-old actor, but no less a legendary one, on the screen, constantly and relentlessly. His performance is brave, full of nuance and physicality, as he acts through expression and action only, and the academy will certainly take note.

The point of J.C. Chandor's second film (after his debut "Margin Call," the chatty polar opposite) is to show a tale of survival stripped to its bare bones. It's a fascinating concept, keeping things completely figurative and full of gorgeously composed shots of the sea below, a school of fish and a swarm of sharks swirling intermittently. Or the dimming glow of a red flare landing in the water as a cargo ship, Our Man's hope for rescue, drifts away. The philosophical effort is there, but the impact is never quite achieved.