It’s increasingly clear from watching Alexander Payne’s films that he has certain preoccupations, most notably men on a search for something, both physically and emotionally/mentally, and his home state of Nebraska. Of his six feature films, four are set in Nebraska, and all feature some kind of journey. His latest feature Nebraska, although not scripted by Payne, feels a bit like someone trying to ape the director’s foci. Though it doesn’t reach the heights of About Schmit or Sideways, it certainly fairs better than The Descendants, whose praise I felt to be majorly overwrought.
There are two aspects that give this film something, the first being the performance of Bruce Dern. The actor, who’s been working in the industry for 54 years, gives what may be his best performance in all that time as Woody Grant. Woody is the alcoholic, elderly father who is determined to make his way from Montana to Nebraska to claim the million dollars he believes he’s won in a sweepstakes. After he attempts to walk there several times, his son David (Will Forte) finally relents and agrees to take him there, in part to spend what little time he my have left with a father who cared more about drinking that his own family. On the way they stop in the town that they grew up in, taking in a family reunion, and allowing David to discover more about how Woody became who he is, and maybe why they had moved away in the first place.
Dern masterfully makes a character who really is difficult to like open to empathy, not just pity. You’re never sure to what extent Woody’s ignorance of his surroundings is dementia or a wilful removal from the world after being beaten down by life. So often his eyes are downcast as he shuffles along, but once in a while he will lift them up and wide and the whites will fill with light and feeling. He’s a broken man, surly, stubborn and unresponsive but Dern manages to make us root for him in the end.
The other actors don’t get much of a look in. June Squibb plays Woody’s hectoring wife, and digs some fun moments from the classic ‘old people saying whatever they want because they just don’t care any more’ mine, but too often the laughter is ‘at’ rather than ‘with’. Will Forte tampers his usual energy to play the straight man, to act as our entry into this world, but his delivery can often seem too rehearsed, especially in the more emotive scenes.
Payne seems to have mixed feelings about his home state. He shoots it lovingly, but populates it with many caricatures. After much wrangling with the studio Payne was able to film in black and white, and his choice is certainly vindicated here, the second area where the film stands out. The bare Nebraskan landscape, both its natural and man-made features, is given a timeless and poetic quality by the removal of colour, and allows its appreciation, but not its foregrounding. The boarded up ghost towns of the Midwest are pictured with a sadness for times gone by. That small town community feeling at first seemed to be missed, but it’s soon given a sour bite as the townsfolk are portrayed as small-minded, pretty, ignorant or greedy. The Midwest is dying and you can’t be sure of Payne’s feelings on it. Road movies can allow the surroundings to pull focus at the expense of character, and it’s just a shame that Nebraska wasn’t filled with more interesting, less stereotypical ones.
Overall Nebraska fails to display the wit or perceptiveness of Payne’s earlier films, and while the finale is a nice touch, there is too much sourness left from earlier scenes. It’s Dern’s performances that lifts this from being a forgettable diversion.
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk
Distributed by: Roadshow Films
Running time: 115 min
Spider-Man: Far From Home is a splendid coda to the Avengers
Save the world, save the girl?
Where do you go after Avengers: Endgame? The finale to an 11-year journey was always going to be a heavy exhale. But with much of the story finding conclusion, it was only natural that the next chapter would be something a little lighter, less fraught but still tense with importance. The question of responsibility and the burden of carrying it has been a fundamental principle of being a superhero in this universe, a burden that only continues in the final film of this phase. So where does the Marvel Cinematic Universe go after Endgame? Well, on holiday of course. Spider-Man: Far From Home is not only a splendid film but a nice coda to the biggest cinematic undertaking we’ve seen in recent history.
You can find Spider-Man: Far From Home nestled in the cinematic landscape somewhere between Iron Man 3 and National Lampoon’s Vacation. Peter Parker (Tom Holland, really solidifying himself as this generation’s best Spider-Man) is Clark Griswolding himself across Europe to chase the heart of MJ (Zendaya). As a bumbling 16-year-old who only wants to find the girl, his romance is cut a little short by the expected Marvel cinematic tomfoolery we’ve come to expect from our arachnid hero. Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn as Mysterio is a concerted effort; a cross between Tony Stark’s wise but too cool tutelage and Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin (take that how you will). As the carnage across Europe unfolds, the film becomes a well-balanced juxtapositioning of the kind of humor we’ve found appealing within in the MCU and action and adventure that doesn’t become overly burdensome or heavy. Far From Home keeps things light and breezy, but you never forget the stakes or think that this is just a tacked on fling after the events of Endgame.
The cast are well rounded and the addition of Marvel players we’ve come to love (Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan, Spider-Man sidekick Ned, and both Nick Fury and Maria Hill) makes it hit with almost the same gravitas as the previous films. But more importantly, they never make the film feel like an overstuffed mess that plagued outings like Age of Ultron. The pace is engaging, and as the story unfolds amongst the smoke and mirrors, you can’t help but feel a kind of comic book happiness that you felt through Homecoming. It’s charming, it’s earnest, it’s funny, and at times, doesn’t take itself too seriously (Spider-Man video game in-joke included!). Plus it has those little moments that while may have been written for fans, will appeal to anyone who enjoys a good laugh, a touching moment, and good filmmaking. While the death of Tony Stark looms large within the narrative of the film, it doesn’t become baggage- but rather the catalyst for growth within Parker and helps propel the story to its conclusion.
However, one can’t help but feel that the continued presence of Tony Stark, and the reminder that he is gone, really does give this universe a sense of finality. If you stay for the end-credits (both scenes), you’ll know that Marvel has plans both big and small in the coming years. Far From Home is both the end and the beginning in a sense. It’s a nice coda to Endgame, and for some, probably a good place to step away from the past 11 years. Far From Home is also continued proof that heart and the desire to do good doesn’t always have to follow the same tired script. Save the world, lose the girl? Maybe not this time.
Spider-Man: Far From Home is in cinemas now.
SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME
Directed by: Jon Watts
Written by: Erik Sommers, Chris McKenna
Cast: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Jake Gyllenhaal, Samuel L. Jackson, Colbie Smulders, Marisa Tomei
Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Run time: 129 minutes
Film Review: Murder Mystery
Murder Mystery is a pretty crap film.
Murder Mystery is the next film in the long line of terrible Adam Sandler films distributed by Netflix. At this point we’re not sure that Netflix actually watches these movies before they put them on their service but here we are. Murder Mystery, like many of the recent Sandler-helmed flicks, seem less like movies than they do lavish holidays that Adam Sandler and friends go on where filming of random skits tied together loosely by some semblance of narrative occurs. Much of the film is slapped together with the kind of duct-tape storytelling you’d find in all those mediocre SNL movies.
There is star quality though. Jennifer Aniston is back, after working alongside Sandler in 2011’s equally terrible Just Go With It, and they’ve roped in some pretty prominent names, including Luke Evans (Fast & Furious series, The Hobbit), Gemma Arterton, and a happily cashing in his check Terrence Stamp. What happens can be best described as stupid Cluedo, or more blatantly, a dumb Murder On the Orient Express where Sandler and Aniston’s characters, a bumbling New York cop and hair dresser, stumble upon a high-stakes inheritance-grab murder mystery where absurd things happen. It never makes much sense but the biggest problems with these movies are not so much the cartoony skits (Sandler’s cop is so bad at shooting his gun that when he does, it’s a cartoon-like hail of bullets missing their target), but just the insanely unbelievable characters that fill these movies. It’s OK to suspend belief, but at this point, you don’t believe for one second any of the characters would exist in real life or that any of them act like actual humans do. There is also no shortage of cartoon bozos: Fat New York cop sidekick? Check. Buffoony Inspector Clouseau French detective? Check. Overly Spanish Spanish guy? Check. Ali G Indian guy? Check. Even Gemma Arterton’s Jessica Rabbit-esque character would make Jessica Rabbit shake her head in disbelief. At least Rob Schneider isn’t in it.
Is it funny? No, but there are actually some moments worth a chuckle. And that’s already better than Sandler’s previous Netflix outings. Murder Mystery’s jokes are mostly at the expense of the exaggerated caricatures and Sandler’s goofy self, but for the most part, its pretty bereft of humor. To make matters worse, the film has that cheap Netflix sheen to it that makes it even more of a TV movie than it already is. In the end, the movie is such a blatant Murder on the Orient Express rip-off that the end scene literally shows the Orient Express train. Unironically too.
Netflix’s has a serious movie problem- one that we’ve talked about before. Murder Mystery, is no different. You can’t fault Sandler for continuing down this path. Same goes for Aniston. Both have more than established their craft over the years that at times, you can’t help but feel envious of the position they’re in. So what if they just want to put their feet up, cash in a nice pay check, and enjoy the nice sights? Who wouldn’t?
Murder Mystery is a pretty crap film, but it’s what happens when we’ve given this much clout to Netflix. Spielberg had a point when he said Netflix movies shouldn’t be competing for Oscars. It is not only because they eschew theatrical traditions, but it should also be because they’re crap. And not even in the Spielberg Artificial Intelligence sense of being an average movie- but in the Lifetime channel level of crap. So really, when you think about, Murder Mystery is all our fault.