Sunday, April 27, 2014

Nebraska (2013) ****

Every few years somebody makes a movie about an old man or woman going on a journey.  There was 1985’s “The Trip To Bountiful,” 1999’s “The Straight Story,” 2002’s “About Schmidt,” and so on.  It’s life-affirming to see a story about an elderly person pursuing one last dream, not giving up just yet.  This year’s offering is “Nebraska.”
David (Will Forte) is a sad sack living in Billings, Montana, saddled with a crappy job and a demented, alcoholic father, Woody (Bruce Dern). When Woody becomes convinced that his junk mail is a real notice of a million dollar prize, he is single-minded in his efforts to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect the money.  David finally gives in and agrees to drive the old guy to Lincoln.  This is harder than it sounds, as anyone who cares for an elderly relative knows.  Old folks need lots of bathroom breaks, and demented people tend to wander off.  This is all exacerbated by Woody’s alcoholism.  Despite the slow progress, David detours them through Woody’s tiny hometown.  It’s the kind of town where everyone knows you and your history, and it isn’t long before everyone is celebrating Woody and his coming “riches.”
“Nebraska” is the kind of awards-season movie that people think they “should” watch, but have trouble getting around to.  A black & white movie about some old codger and the state of Nebraska just doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.  I’m here to tell you, “Nebraska” is better than its title.  Despite its poignant subject, the film is full of comedy, as when Woody’s wife (June Squibb) hikes up her skirt in front of an old beau’s grave, saying, “See what you could have been gettin’ if you hadn’t talked about wheat all the time.”  Ultimately, this is a heartwarming movie, as David learns to accept the things about his father that he can’t change.  “Nebraska” isn’t a tearjerker, though, and there’s no cheap sentimentality here.
One thing this film will not do is boost Nebraska tourism.  While everyone in the movie is excellent, the state of Nebraska comes off looking like, well, Nebraska.  The band Soundgarden once sang about “Looking California, but feelin’ Minnesota,” but let’s face it.  You could easily sing about “Looking Minnesota, but feelin’ Nebraska.”  I hate to rag on a place, but I’ve driven through Nebraska more than once, and it really is as flat, windy, and often bleak as the movie depicts.  Even if “Nebraska” had been filmed in color, it still would have looked like black & white.

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) ***

     It seems like there have been a bunch of movies about the end of the world the last few years. Maybe this is a big, unspoken anxiety in our society right now. Anyway, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” is a fairly good, semi-serious exploration of the theme.
     Steve Carrell plays Dodge, a sad sack insurance salesman in a loveless marriage. We meet Dodge as he hears the news that NASA's final attempt to stop an earth-bound asteroid has failed. Humanity must resign itself to destruction, and people react to this in a variety of ways. Some opt for hedonism, others for suicide. Many leave their spouses, including Dodge's wife. Dodge just continues to show up at his insurance job, not because the work has meaning anymore, but simply because he is too depressed to imagine doing anything else. Friends try to set him up with a woman, but he isn't interested in such a meaningless, end-of-the-world fling.
     Then he meets Penny (Keira Knightley), his flighty, attractive downstairs neighbor who is in the midst of her own breakup. They wind up agreeing to help each other on their individual quests. Dodge wants to re-unite with an old girlfriend, and Penny wants to get back to England to spend the Apocalypse with her family. You can figure out the rest.
     This kind of story could easily descend into treacle, and unfortunately, that is what happens at the end. For most of the film, though, Carell and Knightley have enough charm to create some real fun and humor, with help from an excellent supporting cast. My only complaint, other than the sappy ending, is that the film really doesn't explore very deeply the inner life of the characters as they face impending annihilation. They dip their toe into these waters at times, and the story is certainly thought-provoking, but the movie ultimately feels shallow. I guess that in the asteroid-apocalypse genre (e.g. “Deep Impact” “Armageddon”) this qualifies as a pretty deep movie, though.

3 stars out of 5