ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – Tarantino’s 9th Film Enters Fairy Tale Territory

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At first glance,  ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019), the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino, seems to be an exercise in style over substance.

It takes place in Hollywood in 1969, and Tarantino masterfully captures the look, feel, and very essence of the time, with impeccable costumes, set design, and a killer soundtrack. Watching this movie, I really felt as if I had been transported via time machine back to 1969. The experience was that authentic.

Tarantino also gets top-notch performances from everyone involved, especially his two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie.

The style, the filmmaking expertise, it’s all there.

But the substance? The story?

That’s harder to find because ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD takes its sweet time, and for most of its two-hour and forty-one minute running time, it’s not in a hurry to get anywhere, and so it tells its multiple stories with as much urgency as two guys sitting inside a saloon drinking whiskey. In short, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

And yet it’s told with an affection that clearly shows this time period and these characters and their stories were a labor of love by Tarantino. And it’s all light and funny, in spite of the fact that it’s built around one of the darkest chapters in Hollywood history, the brutal murder of a pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends by Charles Manson’s insane minions. There is a strong sense of dread throughout the movie, knowing what’s to come, and then— well, then Tarantino decides to have some fun at our expense.

ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD is mostly the story of two men, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Dalton is somewhat of a “has-been,” as his last major starring role in a western TV series was from a decade earlier. Now, he’s reduced to playing the villains on 1960s TV shows like MANNIX and THE FBI.

This is clearly wearing on Dalton and is one of the prevalent themes in the movie, of how quickly success can pass one by, and how artists of a certain age need to work harder and be open to reinventing themselves if they want to remain relevant. There’s a lot of truth to this part of the movie. As we age, we have to make adjustments. One of the ways Dalton eventually reinvents himself is by going to Italy to make “spaghetti westerns,” and so it’s easy to see here how Dalton’s story is inspired by the real life story of Clint Eastwood, who did the same thing in the 1960s.

Stuntman Cliff Booth’s best days are also behind him, but he’s taking it much better than Dalton, because, as he says, he was never a star to begin with and so as far as he is concerned he’s still living the dream. He enjoys being Dalton’s “gofer,” driving the actor wherever he needs to go, being a handyman around Dalton’s home, and just hanging out.

Dalton, who lives in a Hollywood mansion, is miserable, while Cliff, who lives in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theater, is happy, but this doesn’t stop the two men from being best friends. They truly like each other and care for each other, and the dynamic between DiCaprio and Pitt in these roles is a highlight of the movie.

And while Dalton and Cliff Booth are fictional characters, their famous neighbors, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, are not. They are real, and tragically, Sharon Tate’s life was cut short on August 9, 1969 by the insane groupies of Charles Manson.

So, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD also tells the parallel story of Sharon Tate, and the film really allows its audience to get to know Tate as a person.

These parallel stories move forward until that fateful night in August 1969, and in spite of the comedic elements of this movie, there is a sense of dread throughout, that builds as the film reaches its conclusion, a conclusion that suddenly introduces a major plot twist allowing the film to keep its light tone. I have to admit, for me, this was a head scratcher.

As a result, I’m not so sure ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD works as a whole, but it does have a lot of little parts that work very well.

The best part by far are the two performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. They work really well together, but this isn’t a buddy movie, and so they’re just as good if not better in scenes where they are not together. Some of DiCaprio’s best scenes are when Rick Dalton is acting as the villain in a 60s TV western, trying to prove that he still has what it takes. DiCaprio also enjoys a couple of outstanding scenes with a child actor played by Julia Butters who at one point tells him sincerely that his performance with her was some of the best acting she had ever seen.

Pitt’s Cliff Booth is the livelier of the two characters and the one who is larger than life. Cliff, as we learn later, lives in a veil of infamous secrecy as rumor has it that he killed his wife and got away with it. Cliff also enjoys a fun scene in which he tangles with Bruce Lee, one of the more memorable sequences in the movie. 

Cliff is also one of the connections to the Manson family, as he befriends a young woman Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) who’s part of the Manson clan. And a quick shout-out to Margaret Qualley who steals the few scenes she is in with one of the most energetic performances in the movie. She’s terrific.

The scene where Cliff drives Pussycat back to the ranch where the Manson family resides is a perfect microcosm for the entire movie. Cliff brings Pussycat to the ranch, a place he worked at years earlier. Concerned that this group of hippies may be taking advantage of the ranch’s elderly owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), Cliff wants to make sure the man is all right.

In an extremely long and meandering sequence, a lot like the entire movie, Cliff gradually makes his way through the various members of the clan, learning where George is supposed to be “napping.” He eventually makes his way to George’s room, and in a scene where you fully expect George to be dead, it turns out he is only napping, and what follows is a highly comedic banter between Brad Pitt and Bruce Dern, which is the route the film ultimately takes.

Which brings us to Sharon Tate. As I said, Margot Robbie is excellent in the role. On the surface, Robbie makes less of an impact than DiCaprio and Pitt because she has far less screen time than they do, but underneath the comedy and the drama Tate’s quiet spirit drives things along, and Robbie’s performance makes this happen.

Unfortunately, people can be defined by their deaths, especially if they were murdered. Tarantino seems to be pushing back against this notion with Sharon Tate. In ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD, Tarantino lovingly crafts Sharon Tate as a real person and not just as a footnote to the Manson murders. The film paints a portrait of Tate as a beautiful person, and really allows that persona to sink into its audience. I liked this. A lot. However, I would have liked it even more had Margot Robbie been given more screen time as Tate. She largely plays second fiddle to main characters Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth.

The entire cast is wonderful. I’ve already mentioned Bruce Dern and Margaret Qualley, but the film also has key contributions from Kurt Russell and Timothy Olyphant.  Also present are Dakota Fanning and Al Pacino, and look fast for Maya Hawke who is currently starring in Season 3 of Netflix’ STRANGER THINGS.

So, you have this meandering movie, which looks terrific and features powerhouse performances by lots of talented actors, with a fairly funny script, although the dialogue is somewhat subdued from the usual Quentin Tarantino fare, and it’s taking its sweet time, taking its audience for a pleasant ride with the knowledge that tragedy awaits. All of this, I didn’t mind and mostly enjoyed.

But it’s the ending of ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD that I find most problematic and is the part of the movie that is the least effective. To avoid spoilers, I will not get into details, but what happens here is the film enters into the realm of alternate reality, and once it does that, well, all that came before must now be looked at with a different lens, and a new question arises, which is, why did we just watch all this? 

In other words, for me, one of the reasons the movie had worked so well up until the ending was it was a piece of historical fiction. Fictional characters were appearing in a real setting (1969 Hollywood) with a canvas of real events in the background. Once these events are changed, the film enters the world of fantasy, of historical reimagining, and once this is done, I don’t think the film possesses the same impact.

In short, to turn this tragic story into a comedy, even with the best intentions, is something I’m not sure entirely works.

At times, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD seems to be a love letter to Sharon Tate. I liked this part.

At other times, most in fact, it’s a take-no- prisoners shoot-em-up dramedy about an aging movie/TV star and his laid back infallible stunt man. I liked this part, too.

But the last part, the punch line, seems to be Quentin Tarantino’s desire to do what he did to the Nazis in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) to Charles Manson and his “family.” It’s this last part that, while good for some laughs, seems the most out-of-place.  While there are hints in the film that this is where this story is going to go, it still feels jarring to watch the events unfold, events that change history, and thrust the movie head first into fairy tale territory, appropriate I guess for a movie entitled ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD.

—END—

 

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THANKSGIVING TURKEY AWARDS 2018

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Turkey

It’s Thanksgiving here in the U.S, that holiday where people kick back and relax, reflect on what they’re thankful for, and eat lots of food, especially turkey.

With that in mind, here are some Thanksgiving Turkey Movie Awards for 2018.  Of course, the year is not over, and so these lists are not final. There’s still room for more turkeys, so to speak.

Okay, let’s get right to it!

Here are my 2018 TURKEY AWARDS:

WORST MOVIE

(And again, this list is not final. There are still five weeks left before we close out 2018.)

Right now, my least favorite film of 2018 would be PEPPERMINT, a dreadful action film starring Jennifer Garner, followed closely by THE NUN, a flat-out awful horror movie, and THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS, a very unfunny comedy that wasted a cool concept. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see a raunchy R-rated Muppet comedy? But they blew it.

 

WORST ACTING PERFORMANCE

This is difficult because acting is not something that is lacking in today’s movies. Actors today perform at a level that I think generally speaking is much higher than actors in the past.  They convey emotions that come off as authentic more often than actors from  yesteryear. While there have been great actors in every generation, I think in terms of numbers, more actors today deliver performances that are spot on than ever before.

So, how to choose a poor performance when there really isn’t any? I’m going to cheat a bit. I’m going to go with the three main “actors” in Clint Eastwood’s THE 15:17 TO PARIS, and this is cheating because these three guys aren’t actors. Eastwood chose to cast the three real life men who thwarted a terrorist attack on a Paris train to play themselves in his retelling of this heroic tale. Decades from now, Eastwood’s decision may be deemed as genius, but right now, that’s not the case for the simple reason that those young men aren’t actors and as such were out-of-place in a movie, even playing themselves. As a result, their scenes were incredibly boring and lifeless.

 

WORST SCREENPLAY

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS – This screenplay by Todd Berger couldn’t be less funny if it tried. They should have hired Fozzy Bear. Waka! Waka!

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There’s not much that’s happy in THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (2018)

 

WORST DIRECTOR

Brian Henson, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS. Henson has made real Muppet movies.  He should have known better and pulled off a far more successful movie. He dropped the ball with this one.

 

WORST HORROR MOVIE

THE NUN. Nun of this movie is worth your time.

 

WORST SEQUEL

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY, followed by OCEAN’S 8, JURASSIC PARK: FALLEN KINGDOM, THE EQUALIZER 2, and MAMA MIA: HERE WE GO AGAIN! Not a good year for sequels. Then again, when is it ever a good year for sequels?

 

WORST SUPERHERO MOVIE

DEADPOOL 2 – now this is not really a bad movie. It’s simply the superhero film I liked the least in 2018.

So far.

 

And now for the THANKSGIVING AWARDS portion of the column. Movies I’m thankful for this year:

 

MARVEL

Three of the best films of the year so far have been Marvel Superhero movies: BLACK PANTHER, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP. Yup, it’s been a marvelous year for superheroes!

 

DOCUMENTARIES

With WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? the documentary on the life of Mister Rogers leading the pack, 2018 has been a stellar year for documentaries.

 

MOVIES ABOUT WOMEN

It’s been a great year so far for movies starring women, written and directed by women, and that are telling stories about women.  Some of these movies include BOOK CLUB, EIGHTH GRADE, ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, ANNIHILATION, and LEAVE NO TRACE.

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BOOK CLUB (2018) is one of my favorite movies of the year so far, thanks largely to its female cast which includes Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen.

 

BEST HORROR MOVIE

A QUIET PLACE – smart horror at its best, even if its ending isn’t nearly as intelligent as the rest of the movie. The horror genre is alive and well.

 

BEST SUPERHERO MOVIE

BLACK PANTHER – this Marvel superhero movie transcends the genre and is so good it has no business being a superhero film. Marvel continues its run of incredibly entertaining movies.

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CLASSIC ACTORS

Veteran movie actors have graced the screen throughout 2018, including Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Andy Garcia, Mary Steenburgen, Candice Bergen, Bruce Dern, Robert Redford, Jodie Foster, Ben Kingsley, Jamie Lee Curtis, Meryl Streep, and Cher.

 

BEST MOVIE

Sorry, but you’ll just have to wait until the end of the year for this revelation.

 

So, these are just a few of the movies I’m thankful for this year, along with some cinematic turkeys.

Thanks for reading, and wishing you a happy holiday season!

Gobble! Gobble!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Movie Lists: Robert Redford Movies

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robert redford

Welcome back to Movie Lists, the column where we look at lists of odds and ends pertaining to movies.

Up today, the films of Robert Redford.

Redford just announced his retirement from movies, and his swan song is the light and fun THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (2018), currently in theaters. Here’s a look back at some of Redford’s movies over the years, covering just a handful of his 79 acting credits:

WAR HUNT (1962) – Private Roy Loomis – After working exclusively on television for two years, Redford made his theatrical film debut here along with Sidney Pollack and Tom Skerritt, in this Korean War thriller in which John Saxon plays an army psychopath.

THE CHASE (1966) – Bubber- Redford actually plays the villain in this thriller starring Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Angie Dickinson, and Robert Duvall.

BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (1967) – Paul Bratter- co-stars once again with Jane Fonda in this classic comedy by Neil Simon. One of my favorite early Robert Redford roles.

BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) – The Sundance Kid- one of my favorite Redford movies, this iconic western was the first pairing of Redford with Paul Newman. Newman plays Butch Cassidy, and Redford plays the Sundance Kid. With Katharine Ross Etta Place. Directed by George Roy Hill with a fabulous witty script by William Goldman. And for such a light film, its classic shocking ending packs a wallop and lasts long after the end credits have rolled. Who are those guys?

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Robert Redford as The Sundance Kid in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969).

JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972) – Jeremiah Johnson – plays the title role in this solitary western by director Sydney Pollack.

THE CANDIDATE (1972) – Bill McKay- Redford again plays the title role, this time as a candidate for the U.S. Senate.

THE WAY WE WERE (1973) – Hubbell Gardiner – love story also starring Barbra Streisand, again directed by Sydney Pollack. Redford and Streisand play two lovers who are polar opposites but who fall in love anyway only to see that they’re not really compatible after all.

THE STING (1973) – Johnny Hooker- probably my favorite Robert Redford film of all time. This second pairing of Redford with Paul Newman as a couple of con men is high entertainment from beginning to end. Robert Shaw is outstanding as the main baddie here, the man Newman and Redford plan to con. Again directed by George Roy Hill.

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Newman and Redford in THE STING (1973)

THE GREAT GATSBY (1974) – Jay Gatsby – Title role in this film version of the classic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In spite of high production values and a strong cast which includes Mia Farrow, Bruce Dern, Karen Black, Scott Wilson, and Sam Waterston, this movie along with Redford’s performance has never really wowed me. Somehow failed to capture the depth and nuances of the novel.

THE GREAT WALDO PEPPER (1975) – Waldo Pepper – Again directed by George Roy Hill and again playing the titular role, Redford plays a World War I pilot who gets a second chance with a surprising movie career.

THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975)- Turner – Thriller directed by Sydney Pollack in which Redford plays a CIA researcher who finds his co-workers dead and has to solve the crime.

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976) – Bob Woodward – another of my favorite Robert Redford movies. Redford plays journalist Bob Woodward and Dustin Hoffman plays journalist Carl Bernstein in this tale of the reporters who cracked the Watergate case which led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon. Jason Robards won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his memorable performance as “Washington Post” editor Ben Bradlee.

A BRIDGE TOO FAR (1977) – Major Cook – part of an all-star ensemble cast in this Richard Attenborough World War II adventure.

BRUBAKER (1980) – Brubaker – Redford takes on prison corruption.

THE NATURAL (1984) – Roy Hobbs – classic baseball movie in which Redford plays Roy Hobbs, a middle-aged player who leads his team to victory in the 1930s.  Amiable movie, although I never truly bought Redford as a major league baseball player.

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THE NATURAL (1984)

OUT OF AFRICA (1985) – Denys- co-stars with Meryl Streep in this love story set in Africa again directed by Sydney Pollack. This was popular when it came out, but it never really did much for me. Outstanding supporting performance by Klaus Maria Brandauer.

LEGAL EAGLES (1986) – Tom Logan – Fun comedy drama by writer/director Ivan Reitman in which Redford plays a district attorney who becomes romantically involved with his adversary, defense attorney Laura Kelly, played by Debra Winger.

SNEAKERS (1992) – Bishop – another fun movie. This time Redford plays the leader of a group who specialize in testing security systems. When they’re blackmailed into committing a crime, they use their skills to strike back at their blackmailers.

INDECENT PROPOSAL (1993) -John Gage – Redford plays a millionaire who offers to pay off the debt of a young couple played by Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore. The catch? He gets to spend the night with Moore’s character. This one never ever did much for me.

THE HORSE WHISPERER (1998) – Tom Booker – Redford heals horses and falls in love with a horse owner.

SPY GAME (2001) – Nathan Muir- thriller in which Redford co-stars with Brad Pitt in this flick by director Tony Scott where Redford is a CIA agent seeking to rescue his protegé played by Pitt who’s been arrested in China.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) – Alexander Pierce – Redford joins the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Defense Secretary Alexander Pierce in this second Captain America movie.

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (2018) – Forrest Tucker- Redford’s swan song, as he announced that he would retire from acting after this movie.  This is a light, fun film in which Redford plays a polite bank robber who everyone seems to love because he’s so happy.  Also stars Sissy Spacek and Casey Affleck.

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Redford in THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (2018).

There you have it. A brief look at the career of Robert Redford. And while I’ve never been a huge fan of Redford’s, he certainly has made his share of memorable movies, my favorite being THE STING (1973).

Okay, that’s it for now. Join me again next time when we look at more Movie Lists.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

YOUR MOVIE LISTS: BRUCE DERN

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Bruce Dern hijacks the Goodyear Blimp in BLACK SUNDAY (1977)

Bruce Dern hijacks the Goodyear Blimp in BLACK SUNDAY (1977)

YOUR MOVIE LISTS: Bruce Dern

By Michael Arruda

To go along with my recent review of NEBRASKA (2013), which starred Bruce Dern in an Oscar-nominated performance, here is a partial list of movies featuring Bruce Dern, excluding his many TV credits:

MARNIE (1964) – The first film in which I saw Bruce Dern. His brief appearance in a key flashback in this Alfred Hitchcock thriller starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery is one of the movie’s highlights. In his one scene, Dern is oh-so-creepy, especially in his white wife-beater T-shirt.

HUSH— HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) – Hanging out with Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland in a southern mansion in this disturbing thriller.

HANG ‘EM HIGH (1968) – Up to no good in this early Clint Eastwood western.

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! (1969) – One of the villainous Danby family in this comedy western starring James Garner.

THE INCREDIBLE 2-HEADED TRANSPLANT (1971) – One of my favorite low-budget horror movies from the 1970s. Dern plays a scientist who for some reason thinks it’s a good idea to attach the head of a murderer/rapist to his slow-witted and immensely powerful gardener. Duh!

THE COWBOYS (1972) – Dern plays the villain in this John Wayne western, giving the Duke and his group of teenage cowboys all they can handle, and then some!

SILENT RUNNING (1972) – With robots Huey & Dewey in this 1970s science fiction classic directed by Douglas Trumbull.

THE GREAT GATSBY (1974) – Even though he’s miscast as Tom Buchanan, Dern makes the role his own, and the result is a somewhat fresh interpretation of the character.

POSSE (1975) – One of my favorite Bruce Dern roles, as an outlaw on the run from sheriff Kirk Douglas in this lively western.

FAMILY PLOT (1976) – Dern returns to work with Hitchcock twelve years after MARNIE in Hitchcock’s final film, a comedy thriller about murder and psychics.

BLACK SUNDAY (1977) – Hands down, my favorite Bruce Dern role. He plays a disturbed Vietnam veteran manipulated by a terrorist group into pulling off a terrorist attack at the Super Bowl. Exciting thriller by director John Frankenheimer. Also features knock-out performances by Robert Shaw and Marthe Keller. Memorable, intense conclusion in the skies above the Super Bowl as Dern and friends hijack the Goodyear Blimp and attempt to obliterate the stadium, while Israeli agent Shaw and American agents try to stop them. Dern’s never been more psychotic.

COMING HOME (1978) – Dern received his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in this Vietnam veteran drama.

THE DRIVER (1978) – Dern is cast against type as a police detective chasing Ryan O’Neal’s getaway driver in this stylish thriller by director Walter Hill.

THE HAUNTING (1999) – Dern’s brief appearance does little to lift this awful remake starring Liam Neeson.

TWIXT (2011) – Stylish low-budget thriller written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Dern enjoys a substantial role as Sheriff Bobby LaGrange in this one.

DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) – Small role in Quentin Tarrantino’s instant western classic.

NEBRASKA (2013) – Dern’s performance as aging alcoholic Woody Grant earned him an Oscar Nomination for Best Actor in this quirky slice-of-life drama by director Alexander Payne.

And there you have it, some highlights from the film career of Bruce Dern.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

NEBRASKA (2013) Showcases A Father’s and Son’s Journey

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Nebraska posterBlu-Ray Review: NEBRASKA (2013)
By
Michael Arruda

I missed NEBRASKA when it came out in theaters, but I was eager to see it on Blu-ray because as a longtime fan of Bruce Dern, I wanted to see his Oscar-nominated performance.

It was well worth the wait.

In NEBRASKA, Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a man clearly in the final stages of life, who may or may not be slipping into Alzheimer’s. He lives in Montana with his nagging wife Kate (June Squibb), and his present existence is lost and directionless. The film opens with him wandering along the highway where he’s picked up by the police.

At the police station, Woody tells his son David (Will Forte) that he was walking to Nebraska to collect the million dollars he had won. Woody shows David what he believes to be the notice proving that he’s won a million dollars. In reality, it’s a publishing clearing house letter, and David tries without success to tell his dad that this doesn’t mean he’s won a million dollars, to which Woody responds that it must be true since it says so in the letter.

Woody’s other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) along with Kate wants to put Woody in a home, but David feels bad for his dad and in a spur of the moment decision, in part because he’s in a rut with his own life and could use the time away, decides to drive his dad to Nebraska to collect his winnings. David understands that the money isn’t the real issue for Woody. The real issue is his dad sees his life as worthless, and he needs a purpose to get out and do something, in this case to take a road trip to collect his million dollars.

So father and son head off to Nebraska and end up in the town Woody grew up in, where they reunite with Woody’s extended family, his brothers and their adult children, David’s cousins, as well as Woody’s former friends and acquaintances. Of course, when people learn that Woody has “won a million dollars” he becomes somewhat of a local celebrity, even being asked to do a newspaper interview. Soon things take a darker turn as family and friends alike begin to ask Woody for some of his winnings, and one former friend Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), even makes threats against him.

NEBRASKA is a slow-paced slice-of-life movie about life in mid-western America which reflects the sadness and poor economy of the past decade. It certainly paints a less than flattering picture of rural America.

As advertised, Bruce Dern is excellent as Woody Grant, an aging alcoholic whose life has seemingly passed him by. With his mental faculties in a deteriorating state, he’s a sad lonely figure who seems to have made the realization that his life wasn’t much to begin with. In one of the movie’s most poignant moments, near the end, Woody tells his son David why the money means so much to him, as he wants to be able to leave something to his children after he’s gone, and he wants to do this because he realizes that without this money, he has nothing to give.

Dern’s performance reminded me of Frank Langella’s similar performance in ROBOT AND FRANK (2012), a film where Langella played an aging father and former jewel thief dealing with a failing memory due to Alzheimer’s, the difference being Langella’s character had more spunk and was still up for the battle. Dern’s Woody is on his last leg. He’s tired, worn out, and aimless, with nothing seemingly to live for other than collecting his million dollars. To Woody, there hasn’t been much in his life worth getting exciting about other than booze. He’s not a character you want to look up to or emulate.

Yet, there’s more to Woody than meets the eye. On their journey together, David learns some things about his father that he never knew before, things that help explain his father’s behavior over the years. David learns that Woody was shot down over Korea, and that when he returned home, he was never the same. David also meets a woman running the local newspaper who tells him that years ago she almost married his dad, but lost out to David’s mother. David seems shocked to learn that another woman would even have feelings towards his dad, let alone be head over heels in love with him.

As David, Will Forte is almost as good as Dern, playing the son who loves his dad and is trying to do right by him, in spite of what he sees as his dad’s efforts to make things as difficult as possible. But unlike the rest of his family, he understands his dad and is always ready to cut him some slack and do what he can to help him.

June Squibb turns in a potent and hilarious performance in her Oscar-nominated role as Woody’s wife Kate. She’s a take-charge no-nonsense woman who’s constantly berating and talking down to her husband. Still, she gets the most laugh-out-loud moments in the movie.

Bob Odenkirk, who played the unscrupulous lawyer Saul Goodman on TV’s BREAKING BAD (“better call Saul”) is also memorable here as Woody’s oldest son Ross, who sides more with his mom Kate than Woody. And Stacy Keach is sufficiently cold and villainous as the who-needs-a-friend-like-this Ed Pegram, who makes it clear to David that his dad owes him money, and if he doesn’t pay up, there’s going to be trouble.

The entire cast is very good, but the film belongs to Dern, who does a nice job creating the character of Woody Grant, a man in the deep twilight of his years, sad, lost, and barely cognizant of what’s going on in his life, yet he remains sensitive enough to know that the million dollars gives him the opportunity to leave something to his adult sons, which obviously is a value that is important to him. Woody is not a loser. He’s an alcoholic.

Dern also gives Woody a quirkiness that is quite funny. One of his best scenes is when David asks Woody about his relationship with his mom, and Woody admits that he was never really in love with her. He married her because she asked him, and he figured, why the hell not? David is shocked to learn that his parents didn’t even talk about having kids, that the extent of their planning was that Woody “liked to screw.” The scenes with Woody’s brothers and extended family are priceless.

Director Alexander Payne has made another deliberate paced slice-of-life quirky drama that captures American life in a way that is not always flattering, yet always seems heartfelt and sincere, and so does not come across so much as a critique as it does a sad rendering.

While I enjoyed his previous films THE DESCENDANTS (2011) and SIDEWAYS (2004) better than NEBRASKA, in that both these films possessed more energy, I did prefer this one more than his earlier effort ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002). All of these films have been about journeys, as the main characters in these stories take a trip and learn about themselves. The journey in NEBRASKA may be the saddest of all of these, as Dern’s Woody might be the most desperate of all the characters yet in a Payne movie. Yet, the film is not a downer, and the ending to this particular story is certainly satisfying and uplifting.

The screenplay by Bob Nelson tells a memorable story about a man who at first glance seems like a poor candidate to build a story upon, but there’s more to Woody than meets the eye, and it’s these revelations that give both the character and his story some depth. Nelson’s story also has something to say about life in rural America, families, and what it means to be a man. Woody often seems to be fighting not only for his legacy but also for his manhood. He even admits that he drinks because he has to live with David’s mother. In fact, in scenes with Woody’s extended family, all the men sit silently in front of the television, while the women speak actively and aggressively in the next room, as they are clearly the ones pulling all the strings.

NEBRASKA is more than just a story about life in rural America. It’s also a portrait of how families interact, how people age, and how elderly parents and their adult children treat each other. It tells the tale of one man who seems ill-equipped to deal with these things, yet somehow, in the single act of wanting to leave something for his children, he does.

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