THE DROP (2014) Is Crime Drama At Its Best

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Blu-ray Review:  THE DROP (2014)

by

Michael Arrudathe drop poster

Tom Hardy is one of my favorite actors working right now.

Every time I see him in a movie, he’s playing a completely different kind of role.  Whether he’s the villainous Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) or the heroic Max in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015) he’s making an impression.  In THE DROP (2014) which I recently watched on Blu-ray, he plays a soft-spoken ex-con bartender named Bob who works at a bar where there is more mob activity than alcohol served.  Bob is a fascinating character who plays his cards close to his vest.  You know there’s something more to this guy, but you just can’t figure out what it is.

In THE DROP Hardy is flanked by two equally talented actors, Noomi Rapace and the late James Gandolfini.

I saw THE DROP on Blu-ray the same week that I saw BLACK MASS (2015) at the theater, the lurid Whitey Bulger bio pic starring Johnny Depp as the infamous Boston mobster.  I found THE DROP to be the more compelling of the two, equaling the intensity of BLACK MASS but having a better story and more interesting and captivating characters.

In THE DROP, ex-con Bob (Tom Hardy) tends bar at Cousin Marv’s, a bar owned by Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) himself.   It’s a drop bar, meaning that the mob deposits money there on a regular basis.  One night, the bar is robbed, an act that the Chechen mafia who rule that neighborhood does not take kindly to, and they immediately suspect Bob and Marv of being in on the robbery. While Marv reacts nervously, Bob seems to take it all in stride and goes about his business in a quiet, unobtrusive way.

When he discovers a badly beaten pit bull puppy left for dead in a garbage can, he’s encouraged to take the dog home by his neighbor Nadia (Noomi Rapace).  He doesn’t want to do this because he says he doesn’t know how to care for a dog, but Nadia pretty much tells him the dog will die without his help, and she in turn helps him take care of it, and soon they become good friends, until her former boyfriend Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts) shows up, claiming the dog is his and that he wants it back.  Bob tells him no, even though Eric has the reputation of being a loose cannon and evidently killed a man.  None of this seems to faze Bob all that much.

When Marv’s bar is chosen as the main drop bar on the night of the Super Bowl, meaning that a huge amount of mob money will be deposited there, the story comes to a head as Bob finds himself in the middle of yet another plan to rob the bar, the vengeful Chechen mafia, and the psychotic boyfriend who seems ready to kill Bob at the drop of a hat.

THE DROP works as well as it does because of the superb acting performances in the movie.  Tom Hardy knocks the ball out of the park with his performance as Bob, a man who finds himself in the tensest predicament yet doesn’t seem to break a sweat.  He’s a fascinating character who seems to be harboring some sort of secret, a key which defines his personality.

Noomi Rapace as Bob’s love interest Nadia has played this kind of role before and she can pretty much sleepwalk through it, but that doesn’t mean she’s not excellent.  She is.  Her part here reminded me a lot of her role in another thriller DEAD MAN DOWN (2013) but that didn’t stop me from liking her performance.

The late James Ganolfini is also exceptional here as Cousin Marv.  When the movie opens, he seems to be the wise and weathered bar owner, whereas Bob seems more naïve, but as the story goes on, we learn that this is not quite the case.  Marv has a troubled life, and he makes poor decisions as a result.

The screenplay by Denis Lehane is flat out excellent.  It’s a complicated story that is never too confusing.  It creates captivating characters who you want to learn more about. It’s based on his short story “Animal Rescue.”  Lehane also wrote the novels Mystic River (2003), Gone Baby Gone (2007) and Shutter Island(2010). And even though this movie was based on his short story, it plays like a novel.  Its story is rich and deeply textured.

Director Michael R. Roskam has made a very suspenseful thriller that is as dark as it is satisfying.

If you like your crime stories populated with multi-dimensional characters who face crucial decisions throughout, in the face of threatening mob violence all around them, you’ll love THE DROP, a compelling movie that isn’t afraid to take its time with its characterizations.  It allows its audience time to get to know its characters without sacrificing intensity or excitement.

It’s also a showcase for Tom Hardy who continues to impress in movie after movie.

I loved THE DROP.

It’s crime drama at its best.

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UNDER THE SKIN (2013) Will Get Under Yours

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Blu-ray Review:  UNDER THE SKIN (2013)undertheskin poster

by

Michael Arruda

If you enjoy weird artistically-driven movies filled to the brim with neat visuals and creative camerawork, you’ll love UNDER THE SKIN (2013) a thought-provoking science fiction film by writer-director Jonathan Glazer. On the other hand, if you prefer mainstream movies with straightforward storylines and traditional story-telling techniques, you might find yourself reaching for the remote.

UNDER THE SKIN is not the kind of movie you’ll find playing at your mainstream multiplex. This is a good thing, and if you’re patient and willing to go the distance, you’ll be rewarded with a satisfying movie experience that is more intellectually challenging than most.

UNDER THE SKIN stars Scarlett Johansson as a mysterious woman stalking the streets of Scotland in search of men and leading them to an unfortunate fate. She drives around Scotland in a van picking up these young men, and she brings them back to a rather unusual house where—well, to avoid giving anything away, let’s just say that these men don’t return.

Who is this strange woman?  Is she an alien?  A robot?  A serial killer? The film never really says, although since this movie is based on a novel about an alien, it’s a safe bet that she’s not from this planet.

As she continues abducting young men, she becomes cognizant of what she is doing, and she experiences an emotional epiphany which alters her actions and ultimately changes her fate.

UNDER THE SKIN is beautifully photographed by director Jonathan Glazer.  He uses the contrast between light and dark brilliantly.  Rather than rely on traditional dialogue to move the narrative along, Glazer prefers the use of images and camera techniques to tell his story. It all works.  While things might not always be clear at first, everything in this movie eventually makes sense.

UNDER THE SKIN also has a phenomenal music score by Mica Levi.  It’s weird and very horror movie-like, yet it complements the film wonderfully.

The screenplay by director Glazer and Walter Campbell based on a novel by Michel Faber succeeds in telling a story without relying solely on words.  In fact, there is very little dialogue in this movie.

One of the best sequences in the film is when the woman picks up a man suffering from neurofibromatosis, and it’s in this scene where we see her really begin to evolve as a thinking being.

When she seduces the men, she places them in a sort of hypnotic state, which is so effective she nearly hypnotizes the viewer as well.  Watching her seduce these men is truly a hypnotic experience, and the way it occurs on screen, it’s pretty cool.

Scarlett Johansson is to be applauded for playing a role that is far from traditional.  She speaks very little dialogue, and like the rest of the movie, a lot of what she is doing and what she is all about has to be inferred, but it’s all there.  You just have to pay attention.

I really liked UNDER THE SKIN.  I completely bought into its artistic vision of storytelling, for the simple reason that director Jonathan Glazer covers all bases and makes sure that in spite of the obscure scenes and nontraditional way of filming, that everything you need to know for it all to make sense is there.

This is a tale of some sort of alien race preying on humans for some form of sustenance, and how one alien, the one played by Johansson, develops an awareness of what she is doing and seems to make the connection that the beings she is devouring are not cattle but highly developed creatures.  She seems to almost want to become human at one point, to share in the human experience, and it’s this desire which ultimately puts her at odds with her superiors

Does everything about it work?  No.  As a writer, I would have enjoyed a bit more dialogue, but that being said, I am not complaining.  And as much as I loved the visual style of this movie, I found that at 108 minutes it was a bit long for a movie with this kind of pacing.  I did get a bit restless during the final 30 minutes or so.

But these are small matters.

As a whole I liked UNDER THE SKIN a lot.

In the mood for a science fiction film that will not insult your intelligence, but on the contrary will make you think long after it’s over, and that tells its tale not so much with words but with images, camera angles, uses of light and dark, and music?

Then check out UNDER THE SKIN.

Its title is true.  It’ll get under your skin.

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Julianne Moore’s Oscar-Winning Performance Leads STILL ALICE (2014) to Poignant Places

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Blu-Ray Review:  STILL ALICE (2014)still alice poster

by

Michael Arruda

When Julianne Moore, one of my favorite actresses, won the Oscar earlier this year for Best Actress for her performance as a woman suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in STILL ALICE (2014), I made sure I added this movie to my Netflix queue.

In STILL ALICE, Julianne Moore plays Alice Howland, a 50 year-old linguistics professor who at this stage of her life has everything going for her.  She enjoys a successful career.  She’s happily married to a great husband, John (Alec Baldwin) and she has three wonderful adult children.  She has little more to worry about other than trying to convince her youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) to put off her stage acting career just long enough to go to college so she’ll have a fall back plan if acting doesn’t work out, an argument that never gets her anywhere since Lydia is adamant about her love of acting and resents her mom’s meddling.

But when Alice struggles to remember some of the words to her linguistics lecture, and later when she actually gets lost while jogging, she realizes something is wrong and she seeks medical help.  To her astonishment, she learns that she suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s, a disease for which there is no cure.  Worse, she is informed that her disease is genetic, which means she has likely passed on the gene to her children.

When she breaks the news to her husband John, he reacts first with denial before finally coming to terms with her diagnosis.  Their children are devastated but supportive.  Her oldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) is tested and learns she too has the disease, while her son Tom (Hunter Parrish) learns that he does not have the disease.  Lydia, ever the rebel, refuses to be tested, as she doesn’t want to know.

As the movie goes on, Alice’s condition deteriorates dramatically, and as she fights the losing battle to keep her memories and more importantly her dignity, and as her family struggles with watching her turn into someone they do not know, everyone strains to remember that through it all, she is still Alice, the wife and mom they all love.

STILL ALICE is not a happy movie.  But it is a rewarding one, even if the plight of Alice Howland, like real-life Alzheimer’s sufferers around the world, is one without a happy ending, as there remains no cure for Alzheimer’s.

As expected, Julianne Moore is excellent as Alice.  To watch her, a smart, albeit brilliant linguistic professor wrestle with her mental faculties is horribly depressing.  At one point in the movie, Alice makes a point of saying that being smart was her identity; it was how she saw herself.  For her, language, words, and linguistics were as much a part of her being as the way she looked, and now she was fighting to remember them.  It was, she said, as if the disease was ripping away her identity.

Moore captures completely the feeling of struggling with memory.  A distant lost look comes over her face, and suddenly her memory fails her.  It’s painful to watch.  Unable to put up much of a fight, Alice deteriorates into an entirely different person.  Once this disease takes hold of her, there’s nothing she can do to stop it.

Her best moment, and one of the best moments in the entire film, is when she speaks at an Alzheimer’s conference.  As she reads her speech, she highlights each written line in yellow to prevent her from reading it again because she can’t remember what she just read.  She makes many wonderful points in this speech.  One of them is how difficult it is for Alzheimer sufferers to be taken seriously when they seem so incapable and even ridiculous, but she reminds her audience that this is not who they are.  It’s the most poignant moment in the movie.

Alec Baldwin is effective as Alice’s husband John.  He doesn’t come across as the clichéd loving husband.  He is supportive, yes, and when Alice can’t take care of herself, he’s there to care for her, at first, but he doesn’t like it, and he struggles with having to watch his wife become a helpless person.  Later, he is offered a new position at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, far away from their New York home, and Alice asks him to delay the move, but he doesn’t want to.  It’s clear that he can’t handle taking care of his wife, even though he wants to.

He also talks down to Alice at times, as if she’s a child, telling her to go to bed when she was panicking about losing her phone, for example.  These scenes are frustrating, but they also come off as real.  John seems to love his wife very much.  He’s just not very good at dealing with her illness.

Baldwin and Moore work well together, as they did on TV’s 30 ROCK, where Julianne Moore guest-starred for a time as Baldwin’s love interest.

It was so good to see Kristen Stewart not in a TWILIGHT movie.  She’s really good here as Moore’s youngest and most rebellious daughter Lydia.  Other than Moore and Baldwin, she gives the best performance in the movie.  I don’t think I’ve ever said that about Stewart before.  Not that I’ve ever thought she was a poor actress, but that the films she was in rarely gave her the opportunity to do much more than brood.  This is probably the best role I’ve seen Stewart play.

It’s also a rewarding role.  Lydia butts heads with mom constantly, and yet, later when John is not there to care for his wife, it’s Lydia who moves in to take care of her mom.  In spite of their rocky relationship, Lydia and Alice share a special bond.

The rest of the cast is decent.  Kate Bosworth is fine as Alice’s oldest daughter, as is Hunter Parrish as their son Tom.  Parris must like playing Baldwin’s son, as this is the second time he’s played Baldwin’s son in a movie, having done so in the comedy IT’S COMPLICATED (2009), which also starred Meryl Streep and Steve Martin.

STILL ALICE was written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland.  Their screenplay was based on the novel by Lisa Genova.  These guys did a terrific job behind the camera.  They captured three fabulous acting performances by Moore, Baldwin, and Stewart, with Moore winning an Academy Award.  Sadly, Glatzer passed away earlier this year from complications from ALS.

STILL ALICE is a well-written, directed, and acted movie that reminds us of the finality of Alzheimer’s disease.  It follows one woman’s struggle to keep her dignity and remain relevant, even as her mind deteriorates to the point where she can’t even recognize her own children.  It’s also a showcase for Julianne Moore’s considerable acting talents.

Perhaps most importantly the film asks us to remember that people with Alzheimer’s aren’t simple-minded forgetful folks but individuals suffering from a disease without a cure, and as such, they deserve dignity and respect.

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DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013) Recalls Dark Times

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Dallas Buyers Club posterBlu-ray Review:  DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013)

by

Michael Arruda

 

When Matthew McConaughey won the Best Actor Oscar for his work in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013) earlier this year, I decided to go back and watch some of McConaughey’s roles from the past few years which led up to his Oscar winning performance, thus starting my own personal Matthew McConaughey tour.

Alas, the Matthew McConaughey tour comes to a close today with my review of DALLAS BUYERS CLUB.

Based on true events, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB takes place in 1985, just when the AIDS epidemic was first making front page news.  Ron Woodroof  (Matthew McConaughey) is an electrician who works at a rodeo.  He lives a fast and wild life:  sex, alcohol, smoking, and drug use, and that’s just in one day.   Nope, Ron is not going to win any awards for Man With The Healthiest Lifestyle.  In fact, he is shocked to learn that he is HIV positive, since he believed the AIDS disease was only contracted by homosexuals.

Initially in denial, he cusses out his doctors Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Eve (Jennifer Garner) accusing them of mixing up his blood results with someone else’s, and he scoffs at their prediction that he only has thirty days to live.  Eventually, though, Ron realizes that he is indeed very ill, and he reads up on HIV and the AIDS virus.

He learns that the one drug treating AIDS is called AZT, but since it hasn’t been approved yet, he is not allowed access to it.  Ron decides to take matters into his own hands to get AZT by any means possible, which eventually leads him to Mexico where he meets a disbarred American doctor Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne) who steers Ron away from AZT, calling it poison, and instead prescribes Ron with a series of vitamins and alternative medicines which do in fact succeed in prolonging his life.

Ron returns to Dallas and strikes up an unlikely friendship with a transsexual he met at the hospital Rayon (Jared Leto).  Together, they start the Dallas Buyers Club, a club in which members pay a flat fee for access to the alternative medicines which Ron continues to bring into the country in an effort to treat as many fellow AIDS sufferers as they can.  They fight an uphill battle against both doctors who see the Club as dangerous for their patients, and the FDA who see their actions as illegal and want to shut them down.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB tells a moving and relevant story, and for those of us who remember these times during the 1980s- the fear, the misinformation, and the stigma that went along with AIDS and HIV- it’s a chilling reminder of a troublesome  time in our history.  It’s a decent screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, but it’s not the strength of the movie.

The strength of the movie is the acting.  Across the board, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB features phenomenal acting performances.

Leading the way is Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof, the homophobic womanizer who at first is anything but a sympathetic main character, but as the movie goes on and Ron grows more frustrated with the system and becomes more and more proactive in seeking out alternative treatments, he develops into a leader for the HIV infected community.  Through his actions, he becomes an admirable person.

And when we grow to like Ron, it’s not in a superficial phony way.  He doesn’t suddenly go from homophobic hick to open-minded hero.  He may become more tolerant towards the gay community and those suffering from AIDS, but he’s still the same roughneck personality.  He’s just channeling his tough guy tendencies towards a worthy cause.

McConaughey looks absolutely sickly and weak in this movie, which is a testament to both the make-up department and his performance.  In fact, Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews won the Oscar for Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling.

Believe it or not, even better than McConaughey in this movie is Jared Leto as transsexual Rayon.  Leto also won an Oscar, for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role.  Rayon was my favorite character in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB because Leto makes him such a three dimensional sympathetic person.  We learn firsthand about his hopes and fears, we see him struggle through his weaknesses, and we witness some very painful moments in his life, like when he visits his father, who is completely ashamed and disgusted by his son.  Rayon is also the character who without really trying to do so reaches Ron, and breaks through his tough exterior.  Without Rayon, Ron wouldn’t have been able to operate the Dallas Buyers Club.

Jennifer Garner is also excellent as Eve, the doctor who at first warns her patients to stay away from Ron, but as the two become closer, and she listens to what Ron has to say and reads his research, she begins to change her mind about AIDS treatment.  Denis O’Hare is just as good as Dr. Sevard, the doctor who is steadfast in his opinion that Ron is flat out wrong.

Michael O’Neill is sufficiently annoying as FDA agent Richard Barkley, and Dallas Roberts is effective as Ron’s lawyer David Wayne, while Griffin Dunne makes his mark as the doctor in Mexico who first steers Ron on the path towards alternative medicines.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee has made a film that captures the fear, sadness, and suffering of this time period, when AIDS was a new and relatively unknown disease, and rumors ran rampant, and treatments were inadequate.  It goes without saying, that DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is not a fun movie.

Of the Matthew McConaughey movies I watched this past year, the one I probably enjoyed the most was MUD (2012).  Taken as a whole, MUD was the most entertaining of these movies.  McConaughey was excellent in all of them, but he was best as Ron Woodroof in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB.

I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next.

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Matthew McConaughey’s Dynamic Performance Drives THE LINCOLN LAWYER (2011)

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The Lincoln Lawyer posterBlu-ray Review: THE LINCOLN LAWYER (2011)
By
Michael Arruda

Matthew McConaughey won the Best Actor Oscar this year for his performance in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013), and if you haven’t been paying attention, you might not have noticed that McConaughey has been steadily working his way through some pretty decent roles the past few years.

Take his role in THE LINCOLN LAWYER (2011), for example, where he plays Mick Haller, a smooth talking cooler-than-ice defense attorney who becomes the victim of an even smoother criminal.

I caught THE LINCOLN LAWYER on Blu-ray the other day, and I enjoyed it quite a lot. I especially enjoyed McConaughey’s dynamic performance as the indefatigable Mick Haller. McConaughey easily carries this movie from beginning to end.

In THE LINCOLN LAWYER, defense attorney Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) never met a client he didn’t like, or wouldn’t accept payment from, and he operates out of the back seat of his Lincoln town car, thus the film’s title, THE LINCOLN LAWYER. He’s none too popular with the local police department since he has a strong record of keeping even the most guilty-seeming clients out of jail.

When a young man Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) accused of beating up a hooker personally asks for Haller to defend him, Mick thinks nothing of it, even though his friend and investigator-partner Frank (William H. Macy) tells him something about the guy rubs him the wrong way. But Mick is used to out-talking and outwitting everybody, so he takes on the case without fear, although he does wonder why Louis would ask for him when his mother Mary Windsor (Frances Fisher) is exceedingly rich and powerful and has an entire legal team at her disposal.

Mick prepares his defense with the argument that Louis is the victim of a scam by the hooker and an accomplice intent on setting up Louis for the crime so they could reap the benefits of an enormous settlement.

Things play out as planned until Frank uncovers some unsavory information about Louis that connects him to one of Mick’s prior cases, and suddenly Mick realizes why Louis chose him as his defense attorney, but this realization comes too late, as Mick’s family and friends are threatened, and Mick finds himself having to defend a man he knows is guilty not only of this charge but of a far more serious one.

THE LINCOLN LAWYER is a fun thriller with a likable character at its center. Attorney Mick Haller might not seem like the most likeable guy, but his energy is infectious, and he oozes confidence and charisma. As such, you can’t help but like the guy, and so when he’s targeted and double-crossed by another sly character, one who’s far more sinister than himself, you’re definitely rooting for him to succeed, and you want to see how he’s going to outsmart his adversary.

McConaughey imbues this guy with charisma and charm. His Mick is not a jerk or a weasel. He’s simply a player in the legal system, and he believes that all clients deserve to be defended. He just happens to be very good at what he does.

Taken as a whole, the film is somewhat uneven, as in addition to its main plot, which is good, it throws in a less than believable subplot involving Mick’s ex-wife Maggie (Marisa Tomei) who works for the District Attorney’s office. No, they don’t face each other in court. In fact, they’re hardly adversaries at all, and tend to get along splendidly as they work together to raise their young daughter. They work together so well it makes you wonder how they got divorced in the first place.

Tomei is fine in the role, although ultimately she doesn’t have a lot to do, and is saddled with some awful lines of dialogue, like when she looks at her sleeping daughter and turns to Mick and says, “At least we did one thing right.” No, by all accounts you two do a lot of things right. Why aren’t you still together?

Ryan Phillippe is icy cold as the defendant Louis Roulet who tries to outsmart his attorney Mick, but he’s a much more one-dimensional character than Mick and nowhere near as satisfying. The more the story goes along, the more we realize Louis is no match for Mick and it’s only a matter of time before his plan blows up in his face.

Even colder than Phillipe is Frances Fisher as Mary Windsor, Louis’ powerful and manipulative mother. I wish she had been in the movie more.

William H. Macy is very good as Mick’s friend and investigator, Frank, and Macy delivers his usual strong performance. Laurence Mason is also very good as Mick’s driver Earl, who helps Mick with more than just driving.

The film also features decent performances by Josh Lucas as the prosecuting attorney who’s in way over his head taking on Mick, John Leguizamo as Val, the bondsman who introduces Mick to Louis, Michael Pena as Jesus Martinez, the former client of Mick’s who is now in jail in spite of his claims of innocence, and Bob Gunton as Cecil Dobbs, the head of Mary Windsor’s legal team.

Strangely, only Bryan Cranston fails to impress, as he’s stuck in a brief throwaway role as police detective Lankford. It’s the first time I’ve seen Cranston in a movie without being wowed, but this has less to do with his performance than with the brevity of the role.

For the most part, the screenplay by John Romano, based on the novel by Michael Connelly, succeeds. Its main story is very good, as the battle of wits between Mick and Louis is compelling.

Director Brad Furman does a nice job at the helm, making this one as slick and as polished as Mick’s Lincoln. Furman would go on to direct RUNNER, RUNNER (2013), starring Ben Affleck, and I found both films very similar in terms of quality.

Matthew McConaughey is the best part of THE LINCOLN LAWYER. While the rest of the film is a mixed bag, its talented cast and decent story make this one a more satisfying “mixed bag” than most.

—END—

 

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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BODY OF LIES decent thriller from Ridley Scott – Blu-ray Review

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Body of LIes poster

Blu-ray/DVD Review:  BODY OF LIES (2008)

by

Michael Arruda

 

I caught up with BODY OF LIES (2008) on Blu-Ray the other day, Ridley Scott’s thriller from 2008 about terrorism in the Middle East.  It stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, and while both actors do a fine job, DiCaprio in particular, it’s Mark Strong who steals the show as the head of Jordanian intelligence.

 Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a young CIA operative working in the Middle East trying to locate the mastermind behind a series of terrorist bombings.  His superior officer, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) works behind the scenes back in the States and the two are in constant contact via cell phone. 

 Hoffman hooks Ferris up with the head of Jordanian security, Hani (Mark Strong) in their efforts to track down the terrorist.  Hani tells Ferris he’s happy to work with him, but under one condition:  “don’t ever lie to me.”  You know right off the bat that this is going to be a problem.

 At Hoffman’s urging, Ferris does lie to Hani, and once Hani finds out, he tells Ferris he no longer will work with him, nor will he be responsible for his safety.  As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate, Ferris finds time to befriend a young nurse Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani), and the two become romantically involved, giving Ferris’ enemies a card they can play against him.

Ferris and Hoffman devise a new plan to catch the elusive terrorist, but things don’t go as expected, and Ferris suddenly finds himself in a predicament in which there seems to be no escape. 

 BODY OF LIES is a decent thriller, but don’t expect anything as intense as the Kathryn Bigelow films THE HURT LOCKER (2008) or ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012).   It’s based on the novel by David Ignatius, and it plays more like a fictional tale than a true to life espionage account.  This isn’t necessarily the fault of the screenplay by William Monahan, which includes realistic and captivating dialogue, and likable characters, but of the story itself, a tale of elaborate plots that seem more at home in a movie than in real life.  Monahan also wrote the screenplay for THE DEPARTED (2006), a film that was actually darker than this movie.

 Although Ridley Scott does a fine job at the helm, for a thriller, the film isn’t all that suspenseful.  The most suspense the film generates comes at the end, when DiCaprio’s Ferris finds himself in the hands of the enemy, and when they start the video cameras rolling, you know exactly what they have in mind for the young CIA agent.  It’s nail biting time, and then some.  But before this, the film, while generally engrossing and entertaining, is not exactly all that intense.

 That being said, you can’t blame Leonardo DiCaprio, because he brings his usual intensity to the role of CIA agent Roger Ferris, and it’s a very similar performance though not as good as his work in THE DEPARTED (2006) and BLOOD DIAMOND (2006), two of my favorite DiCaprio roles. 

DiCaprio also shows off his softer side here, as his scenes with nurse Aisha are warm and enjoyable.  He and Golshifteh Farahani share a nice chemistry together.

And then there’s Russell Crowe. 

 It’s funny about Russell Crowe’s performance here.  He portrays Ed Hoffman as a veteran operative whose best days are behind him.  He works behind the scenes, from the safety of his own home most of the time, communicating to his agent Ferris by constantly talking into his headset while performing mundane duties, like taking his children to soccer practice and grocery shopping.

 He’s supposed to be a man who has let himself go, and the funny thing is, in recent films, that’s how Crowe has appeared.  No longer the beast of a man who was Maximus in GLADIATOR (2000), Crowe has been a rather overweight assassin in THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS (2012) and a rather ineffective Javert in LES MISERABLES (2012).  Life imitating art?

 But the two best performances in BODY OF LIES both come from supporting players.  First, in my favorite performance of the movie, it’s Mark Strong as Hani, the head of Jordanian intelligence.  Strong is one of those actors who looks different in nearly every movie he’s in, and who manages to deliver compelling performances in these films, and his work here in BODY OF LIES is no exception. 

 Strong originates from Britain, but in BODY OF LIES he seems at ease and natural portraying a Jordanian.  If you didn’t know his background, you’d never guess that he wasn’t from Jordan.  Likewise, in his performance as the villainous Frank D’Amico in KICK-ASS (2010), probably my favorite Strong performance, you’d never know he wasn’t from New York City.  Strong has appeared in SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009), GREEN LANTERN (2011), JOHN CARTER (2012) and most recently in ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012).

 As Hani, Strong is suave, confident, and ruthless.  It’s a great performance.

 The other memorable performance in BODY OF LIES belongs to Golshifteh Farahani as Aisha, Ferris’ love interest.  Farahani comes off as genuine and sincere, and she’s a breath of fresh air compared to the deceit which permeates the rest of the characters in this story.  She also projects a heartfelt sensuality not often found in female movie characters.  I absolutely bought the notion that she had feelings for Ferris and that she didn’t have ulterior motives or felt for him because she was turned on by a sense of adventure or daring.  She just genuinely seemed attracted to the guy.  Refreshing.

 BODY OF LIES didn’t blow me away, either with its story or its acting performances, didn’t have me on the edge of my seat, with the exception of the sequence where Ferris is captured by the terrorists, and this comes late in the game, but for its 128 minute running time, it held my interest and succeeded in making its point that our actions the past decade in the Middle East, for right or wrong, are a body of lies.

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