by Steve Habrat
The last time audiences spent time with director Alexander Payne, it was in 2011’s The Descendants, the heart-wrenching, Hawaii-set dramedy about a family facing the sudden and devastating loss of a family member. With The Descendants, Payne bluntly pointed out that even those who live in a constant sunny paradise and sport floral print shirts are not immune to the harsh blows that life can unexpectedly dish out. Two years later, Payne returns with Nebraska, another frank dramedy with a heavy lean on location. Shot in nostalgic black and white and set in the small, boarded-up Americana towns of the Midwest, Nebraska is a simplistic road movie about an elderly father and his patient son on their way to collect a million dollars that may or may not be real. Along their journey they drop into the father’s hometown, a bare strip of farm country that is aging right along with the born-and-raised citizens that still make up its population. With veteran actor Bruce Dern at the helm and comedian Will Forte riding shotgun, this soft-spoken little movie is unexpectedly hilarious and overwhelming sweet. It’s a snapshot of a meat-and-potatoes family brought together through one man’s senile belief and staunch determination. It’s also about digging up the past, taking a leisurely stroll down memory lane and fondly looking back at year’s past.
Nebraska introduces us to Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern), an elderly man who receives a letter in the mail stating that he has won a million dollars. Bound and determined to collect his winnings, Woody begins walking from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. After being stopped on the side of the road by a police officer, Woody’s son, David (played by Will Forte), picks him up from the police station where he discovers that the million dollars that Woody believes he has won is actually just a scam to sell magazines. After David realizes that Woody isn’t going to give up trying to collect his prize money, David decides to drive him to the sweepstakes center in Lincoln so that he will understand that it is all a scam. This plan outrages David’s mother, Kate (played by June Squibb), and his brother, Ross (played by Bob Odenkirk), who strongly believe that David shouldn’t encourage his father’s hopes. Ignoring the protests, the two set out on a road trip that leads them back to Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska. Upon their arrival, David and Woody begin reconnecting with old friends and family members, but after word gets out about Woody’s sudden new fortune, they all quickly have their hands out for money.
For a good chunk of Nebraska, the story lingers around the peeling buildings and desolate stretches of Hawthorne, a place that appears to be slowly fading from the map. It’s a town that seen some excitement back in the good old days, but now, the memories that haunt the abandoned farmhouses and boarded-up businesses are all that are left. Our characters chat about distant friendships that faded, family members that have passed on, or old American cars that have been hauled off to the junkyard, the chatter stopping when talk shifts into the present. Now the wrinkly inhabitants flock to the local buffet where the main form of entertainment is bad karaoke sung out in flat tones. The big news for the day is Woody’s return and the rumored million dollars that he has won, no one really knowing for sure if it’s true. Still, that doesn’t stop the citizens from beaming, gossiping, and proclaiming that it’s the biggest thing to happen to Hawthorne in quite some time. Even the Hawthorne newspaper jumps at the chance of doing a piece on old Woody. When David tries to explain that his father hasn’t really won anything to one eager newspaper employee, they simply shrug their shoulders and say that they’ll just do a piece on the prodigal son’s triumphant return. This grasp on the past that the citizens of Hawthorne hold so dear is complimented by the black and white cinematography from Phedon Papamichael, who provides haunting shots of rusted out Americana, photographed with misty eyed nostalgia and twinkling memories known only to the character’s themselves.
And then we have veteran actor Bruce Dern, who gives an irritable and touching performance as prizewinner Woody Grant. With his shock of mad scientist hair and his drunken shuffle, Woody is a man on a mission, pausing only to have a few bottles of beer here and there. It’s clear that he is starting to slip mentally, although it’s implied that he has been a simple and gullible man his entire life. His delight over the winnings is truly lovable, even if we the audience know that there is no million dollar prize waiting for him in Lincoln. It also grows extremely difficult to watch old friends and family members try to milk money out of the poor man. It’s even worse because he has absolutely no idea they are trying to do it. While he is definitely overshadowed by Dern, former SNL comedian Will Forte does a fantastic job as David, Woody’s sweet and easy-going son who decides to let his father have his moment in the sun. June Squibb will have you doubled over in laughter as Kate, Woody’s gabbing wife who never misses an opportunity to rip him up one side and down the other. Always a woman to speak her mind, Squibb is a feisty blast, especially when she is visiting the graves of several friends and family members at a Hawthorne graveyard. Bob Odenkirk takes a minor role as Ross, David’s older brother who is fed up with Woody’s behavior and believes that they should be considering a home. Also on hand is Stacy Keach, another veteran actor who turns up as Ed Pegram, Woody’s old buddy who may not be as friendly as he first appears.
While Nebraska certainly has its fair share of leisurely moments, Payne turns up the hilarity level to high when he wants to. In the early scenes, the glimpses of Woody marching by the side of the road towards Lincoln will nab a chuckle and the constant verbal beatings that Woody is subjected to from Kate will have you doubled over. When the Grant’s make it to Hawthorne, the comedy really kicks into high gear as David mingles with his deadbeat cousins, Bart and Cole, and the rest of the family tries to awkwardly reconnect. In between the hearty laughs, Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson delicately fill us in on Woody’s past. We learn he was a man of few words and that he had an ugly experience in the Korean War, but we learn that he would do everything he could for those he cared about, making him all the more lovable. Overall, Nebraska is a sparse and atmospheric story told with timeless care and comedic warmth. It puts up a defense with a dry sense of humor, but Payne isn’t afraid to reveal a vulnerable side, especially at the bittersweet climax. Though it may be shot in black and white, the film is given plenty of color from its quirky cast of characters, especially Dern’s career high turn as Woody. Nebraska is one of the finest films that 2013 has to offer.
by Steve Habrat
For years, Quentin Tarantino has been hinting that he wanted to make a spaghetti western. He constantly gushes about Sergio Leone’s classic epic The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (it’s his favorite film) and he even nabbed a bit part as a Clint Eastwood type gunslinger in Takashi Miike’s tepid Sukiyaki Western Django. We knew his take on the gritty western was coming but we didn’t know exactly when. Well, that long rumored epic he has been hinting at is finally here and I must say, I think Mr. Tarantino has outdone himself and delivered one of the finest films of 2012. Red hot with controversy (the N-word is used A LOT), Django Unchained is a firecracker of a film that finds the talkative director at his wildest and craziest. For years, audiences have been split over his kung-fu/spaghetti western mash-up Kill Bill, some saying he flew too wildly off the rails (I hear many describe it as “weird”) while others smack their lips at the cartoonish carnage. Me, I was all for a Tarantino western and I couldn’t be happier with the results. Yes, Django Unchained is a difficult pill to swallow with its harsh look at slavery but remember that this is Tarantino’s version of history and that alone should tell you everything you need to know about the film. Django Unchained is ultimately a valentine to a genre that Tarantino adores, which makes it easy to forgive some of the edgier moments of this masterpiece. I would go so far to say this is Tarantino’s strongest film and the one that seems to be the most alive with the spirit of 70s exploitation cinema. Maybe this should have been the film he made for his portion of Grindhouse.
Set two years before the Civil War, Django Unchained begins on a cold Texas night with a group of recently purchased slaves being transported through the countryside by the Speck brothers. As the group shuffles through the night, they are approached by Dr. King Schultz (Played by Christoph Waltz), a German dentist turned bounty hunter who is looking for a specific slave named Django (Played by Jamie Foxx). Schultz is hunting for a trio of deadly gunslingers known as the Brittle brothers and Django is the only one that can identify them. Schultz and Django make a deal that if Django takes Schultz to the Brittle brothers, he will help Django locate his long lost wife, Broomhilda (Played by Kerry Washington), who has been sold to a sadistic plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Played by Leonardo DiCaprio). As Schultz and Django bond, Schultz realizes that Django has a talent for the bounty hunting business and he begins showing him the ropes. The two form a deadly alliance that sends them to Mississippi, where they begin devising a way to infiltrate Candieland, Candie’s ranch that is protected by his own personal army and houses brutal Mandingo fights.
Just shy of three hours, Django Unchained covers quite a bit of ground during its epic runtime. It is jam packed with Tarantino’s beloved conversations, something that he knows he is good at and just can’t resist. The conversations are as fun as ever, but sometimes Django Unchained is just a little too talky for a spaghetti western. It is just odd to me that Tarantino would be making a tribute to spaghetti westerns and then never shut his characters up (For the love of God, his favorite movie is The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly!). I would expect someone like Tarantino to know that the gunslingers from Sergio Corbucci’s west sized each other up through razor sharp stares and not through constant chatter. No worries though, as I am sure that most audience members won’t pick up on this so it doesn’t really damage the overall product. Despite this minor nuisance, if you are a fan of westerns or exploitation cinema, you will be bouncing off the walls with delight. Tarantino zooms his camera in and out of action suddenly (it is hilarious every single time), getting right in a characters face or zooming out suddenly from a close up to reveal a jaw dropping landscape behind them. He laces his film with tunes from Ennio Morricone and Riz Ortolani, two instantly recognizable names if you’re up and up on your Italian westerns and cannibal films from the 60s into the 80s. When the gore hits, it is cranked up to the max. The blood often looks like the red candle wax goop that poured from gunshot wounds or zombie bites in the 70s. Hell, even Franco Nero, the original Django from the 1966 film (if you’ve never seen the original Django, you might want to get on that), shows up for a brief cameo! Are you exploitation nuts sold yet?
Considering this is Tarantino’s show, the performances are all top notch and instant classics. I was a little worried about Foxx starring as our main gunslinger Django but he is on fire here. He channels Eastwood and Nero’s silent heroes like you wouldn’t believe while also adding a layer of quivering mad sass to the character (Get a load of the delivery of “I LIKE THE WAY YOU DIE, BOY!”). I loved it every time Tarantino would zoom in to give us a close up of his scowling mug as it chewed on a smoke through tangled whiskers. He wins our hearts through his heartbroken stare and his determination to get poor Broomhilda back from Candie’s clutches. He instantly clicks with Waltz’s Schultz, a devilishly funny and clever bounty hunter who packs a mean handshake and can talk himself out of any situation. Waltz brings that irresistible charm that he brought to Inglourious Basterds and settles into the character quite nicely, a cartoonish cowboy who nabs all the best dialogue. When Foxx and Waltz are on screen together, the chemistry between them unbelievable. One is strong and silent, a pupil who is eager to learn and win back his life while the other is chatterbox joker who is deadlier than anyone could imagine. They alone will lure back for seconds.
As far as the rest of the cast goes, DiCaprio practically steals the film away from Foxx and Waltz as the bloodthirsty Calvin Candie. He is sweet as sugar one minute and the next, he is ordering his men to feed a terrified runaway slave to a pack of hungry dogs. You won’t fully appreciate the power of his performance until you get to the dinner sequence, which finds tensions rising to the point where Candie snaps and cuts his hand on a champagne glass. I honestly think he will earn an Oscar nomination for the hellish turn. Then we have Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, an elderly house slave that spews more profanity than his character in Pulp Fiction. Along with Waltz, Jackson gets to deliver the feisty lines of dialogue and you can tell he loves every second of it. He disappears in the role to the point where you can’t even tell it is him. The role also serves as a reminder of just how good an actor Jackson truly is. Washington gives a slight and sensitive performance as Broomhilda, Django’s tormented wife. Keep your eyes peeled for an extended cameo from Don Johnson as Big Daddy, another wicked plantation owner who leads a bumbling early version of the Ku Klux Klan. Also on board are Michael Parks, Tom Savini, Jonah Hill, Bruce Dern, Franco Nero, and Tarantino himself, all ready to grab a chuckle from those who will recognize them.
As someone who has been a fan of Tarantino’s work for years, I have to say that I firmly believe that Django Unchained is his best film yet. It is unflinching with how it handles slavery while also staying shockingly lighthearted at the same time. It packs a gunfight that features more blood, guts, and gore than anything he threw at us in Grindhouse and it manages to tell a touching buddy story that creeps up on your emotions. I just wish Tarantino would have paid the extra dough and digitally scratched the film to make it feel even more like an authentic exploitation film. Overall, Tarantino proves that there is still some life left in the western genre and he gives it a massive shake up by fusing it to the blaxploitation genre. It may not be historically accurate but Tarantino has the good sense not to sugarcoat this dark chapter of American history. There are some tough moments but he never shies away from having fun and slapping a big smile right on your face. Long live Django and long live the spaghetti western. Django Unchained is one of the best films of 2012.