In Nebraska, Alexander Payne paints a deceptively simple portrait of a complex character who’s become a withdrawn shell of a human being by a combination of senility, drink and disillusionment. Filmed in immaculate black-and-white by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska transforms the Midwestern landscape of its titular region, with its endless highways, expanses of farm country and small, desolate towns into settings befitting the film’s themes of despair and one family’s quiet yet profound healing. The end result is Payne’s most accomplished and emotionally affecting movie since his masterwork, About Schmidt (2002). It’s a character study fashioned like a detective story; as viewers, we have to discover for ourselves a sense of Woody’s personal and family history through clues dropped in bits of dialogue and in the subtle dynamics between Woody and his world.

This is a family odyssey that begins as a road-trip variation on the father-son bonding story. Determined to redeem a notice that he’s won a million-dollar sweepstakes prize, a bald-faced scam apparent to all but himself, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) sets out from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim the cash. Hoping that by indulging this nonsense through to its logical endpoint, his old man might finally be dispelled of his delusional ways, his younger son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive him to Lincoln.

After an on-the-road accident lands Woody in the hospital, his wife Kate (June Squibb) and older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) join the hapless pair in Woody’s fictional hometown of Hawthorne, where Woody’s older bother still lives. It’s an occasion for a reunion and for the family to revisit its past, for David to put the pieces together in his quest to understand why his father is the unreasonable, beaten-down drunk he is. Among the movies most profound moments is when the Grants stop by Woody’s childhood home, now a ramshackle ruin; here, with its combination of visual desolation, Woody’s terse words that hint at abuse at the hands of his father, we glean a disturbing picture of a bleak childhood. Another enlightening scene unfolds during a visit David makes to the publishing office of Hawthorne’s tiny newspaper where he encounters one of his father’s early sweethearts who, almost passingly, lets slip an important and traumatic detail from Woody’s service in the Korean War. It’s another clue in Payne’s character-study-as-detective-story.

As word gets out about Woody’s alleged millionaire status, everyone wants a piece of it, from members of his extended family to Ed Pegrem (an excellent Stacy Keach), Woody’s former business partner who wants compensation for all the losses incurred from Woody’s irresponsibility and drunkenness. He’s the closest we get to a villain in Nebraska; he’s all smiles on the outside but Ed soon shows himself to be a cunning, manipulative bastard. And, at first, Squibb is difficult to take; her performance, with is droll, plainspoken sassiness, feels stilted and recalls the charmless shrew she played in About Schmidt. But you warm up to her once you realize that this isn’t a case of a bad performance. Squib’s is actually a very good one as she plays Kate the way she needs to be played: a saucy, tell-it-like-is matriarch to the rest of her family’s reticence and repression. Her performance dovetails squarely with Dern, Forte and Odenkirk’s more colorful, hem-and-haw histrionics. And it’s that directness in her character that ultimately puts everyone in their place.

Bruce Dern gives an admirable, tip-of-the-iceberg performance; the actor’s calculated reserve offers an intriguing glimpse of an entire world hidden below the depths. If we allow ourselves to search his face, his defeated manner of speech and movement, and for what’s unsaid in the long pauses between his bursts of candid pronouncements, we excavate a potential gold mine of decades-old pathos and heartbreak. By the end, we wonder whether Woody is a truly senile drunk or a defeated soul whose childlike trust in others resulted in so much disappointment that he’s since retreated into his own imaginary world (one in which he’s a sweepstakes prize-winner), desperate now to show himself a success to those who’ve either come to pity him or given up on him.

The entire film–and the long section in Hawthorne in particular–provides Payne the opportunity for his patented blend of ethnographic realism and acerbic satire as it comments on life’s underlying sadnesses and the tragic, inevitable shattering of our dreams. Papamichel’s flawless cinematography, by the way, is aided immeasurably by Mark Orton’s gorgeously evocative score, a tender, yet haunting accompaniment to a thoughtful and provocative film experience.

If you want the antithesis of Normal Rockwell’s Freedom from Want (1943), that paragon of Americana, look no further than the family dinner-table scene in Nebraska in which you’re riveted to the sociological details of what this group of fringe Middle Americans are consuming even more than the almost-throwaway banter that interrupts the long silences and gulps of Old Mil. This scene is Payne at this best, offering–like so much else in Nebraska–a rueful, post-recession picture of America that’s compulsively fascinating to behold.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Bob Nelson
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Angela McEwan, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray



There are two intertwined stories in Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s inaugural foray into family-friendly cinema. The first — and less interesting — story is about an orphaned boy who lives in a Paris railway station in the 1930s, looking after the station’s clocks and eluding the station inspector at every turn. The second — and far more compelling — story revolves around the French cinema pioneer, Georges Méliès, living in broken-hearted obscurity and running a toy concession at that same railway station, and how he finds himself rediscovered and redeemed by a young film scholar (with the aid of the above orphan). Whenever the focus of Hugo is on Méliès, Scorsese finds his footing, the source of his passion for this material, namely the magic, heritage and history of early cinema. The Méliès story gives Scorsese an expansive avenue to wax lyrical on his affection for the magic of movies, to share with his audience his own captivation with the medium. In that sense, Hugo may be the most soulful, most personal fiction film in his career.

What links the young boy, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) to Méliès (played with world-class gusto by Ben Kingsley) is a broken-down mechanical toy — an automaton — that the filmmaker had fashioned decades earlier and gave away to collect dust in a museum. Hugo now tends to the automaton at the station, determined to carry on his late father’s wishes to repair and rebuild it. As Hugo and Méliès strike a bond with each other, the resurrection of the automaton is but one of many of the film’s resurrections: Méliès’ of course along with Hugo’s resurrection from aimless, fatherless oblivion into a future filled with purpose and the film world’s own resurrection of its own heritage.

Where Scorsese stumbles is in telling Hugo’s story, which finds the director flat-footed and at a loss to capture the pace, wit and energy of a children’s fantasy film. Scorsese has always been more at home in studies of behavior, mood and milieu. As a result, performances from child actors Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz — who plays Isabelle, Méliès’ goddaughter and Hugo’s spunky sidekick — have a charmless, obligatory feel about them. These are one-note performances as is a similarly troublesome turn by Sacha Baron Cohen, playing the station inspector as a queasy mishmash of Borat and Inspector Clouseau. While Cohen and Emily Mortimer, as flower vendor Lisette, have a couple of cute and amusing scenes, Cohen’s schtick never coheres into a fully realized character and in sync with this material.

Fortunately for Hugo, Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker keep Cohen’s scenes tolerably trimmed. The filmmakers aren’t quite as shrewd with the children’s scenes, which often feel protracted and not half as interesting as Scorsese believes they are. Scenes between Hugo and Isabelle benefit from Hugo’s unsparing attention to period detail, but the direction belabors each and every dramatic beat with little regard for pacing, freshness and energy. This is one of the shortfalls in Scorsese’s approach to his material: He has never been much of a storyteller so much as an uncanny capturer of moments and details. While his gifts serve biographies and crime sagas admirably, they become hindrances to the needs of this genre, this material.

But when the movie lands in Kingsley’s hands, Hugo becomes a thing of beauty and profoundness. Méliès allows Scorsese to transport himself and his audience to the halcyon days of the film pioneer’s career, when he perfected early special-effects techniques via hundreds of fantasy and adventure short films. Hugo hits its stride (and Scorsese finds his groove) when it ventures into Méliès’ biography — sequences bursting with visual splendor and emotional beauty. When a young film scholar, Rene Tabard (played delightfully by Michael Stuhlberg), chances on Hugo and Isabelle as they thumb through pages of his film-history tome, we feel that Scorsese has found filmic extensions of his cinema-love in both Hugo, the fledgling cinephile, and Tabard, the seasoned film enthusiast, through whom the director can give voice to the issue of film preservation (the lack of which destroyed much of Méliès’ cinematic output). When Scorsese finds opportunities to lavish attention on Méliès and on early film history, Hugo becomes something special, it finds its purpose in the world, right along with its own characters.

Grade: B+

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: John Logan
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Michael Stuhlbarg, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Jude Law, Richard Griffiths, Helen McCory

Finding Nemo

From its dazzling opening scene to its last, “Finding Nemo” is the crown jewel in Pixar’s 8-year association with Disney. Ever since “Toy Story” in 1995, Pixar has consistently pushed the boundries of digital animation while managing to tell clever, inventive stories, and “Nemo” is their most sublime balancing act yet. Coral reefs and marine life of every size and stripe burst forth with startling vibrancy, their textures and movements so vivid and lifelike that it seems Pixar has raised the CGI bar to spectacular new heights.

On the storytelling front, writer-director Andrew Stanton breathes fresh life into a familiar genre—the Quest Film—with a brisk and spirited script. What makes Pixar’s productions a cut above the rest—and “Nemo” is several notches above that—is not just that they take their cue from the fears and fascinations of childhood, but that they do so with such a genuine sense of awe and wonder. It’s what nourishes their stories and makes them consistently involving, even for those of us made jaded and cynical by adulthood.

Marlin, a hapless, overprotective clown fish, voiced with neurotic gusto by Albert Brooks, loses his son, Nemo, to a scuba diving dentist, eager to stock up his office fish tank. What follows are Marlin’s anxious, frenetic efforts to track down his son. Along the way, he’s joined by addle-brained Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), herself a bit of a lost soul, and, together, they brave various undersea perils in a journey that takes them from their coral home in the Great Barrier Reef to the Sydney waterfront. Meanwhile, having befriended his motley bunch of fish tank inmates, Nemo plucks up his nerve and schemes with them for a way to foil their white-coated overseer and escape back to sea.

Stanton mines the tropes of the episodic adventure yarn and comes up with memorable sequences and characters at every turn. A fish tank has never felt so oppressive till seen through Nemo’s eyes, and it’s certainly never been the setpiece for a daring jailbreak till its hatched by the cunning, resourceful Gill (Willem Dafoe). Likewise, Marlin and Dory’s run-in with a trio of sharks at a Fish-eaters Anonymous meeting, their precipitous jam inside a whale’s mouth, and their encounter with a colony of sea turtles migrating through a winding, twisting oceanic current are among the delights that keep us rooting.

“Finding Nemo” is a flat-out visual marvel and an inspired summertime entertainment. Best of all, it secures Pixar’s place as perhaps the greatest and most ambitious animation studio since it mouse-eared distributor was in its heyday.

Grade: A

Directed by: Andrew Stanton
Written by: Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson, David Reynolds
Cast: Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould, Willem Dafoe, Brad Garrett, Allison Janney, Geoffrey Rush, Andrew Stanton, Eric Bana

Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore

Straight out of Hollywood’s assembly line comes its latest, typically assaultive attempt at kiddie entertainment, “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore,” a 3D sequel to 2001’s “Cats & Dogs.” With its title’s sanitized reference to the Bond girl from 1964’s “Goldfinger,” “Kitty Galore” features a number of movie references aimed at the cinema-savvy adults in the audience. While these are all forced, they at least provide a glimmer of fun in a movie otherwise packed wall-to-wall with a frenetic, James Bond-style plotline and inhabited by characters who are just tired, cookie-cutter variations of their human counterparts in standard spy-movie yarns.

After being released from the San Francisco police force for being impetuous and resistant to training, the loveable loose-cannon Diggs (James Marsden) is recruited by the gruff, seasoned Butch (Nick Nolte), an agent from a global, doggie-spy network. Their mission is to track down the sinister, titular villainess – a hairless, sinewy feline, and a former agent herself who harbors bitterness towards both cats and dogs for a past injury and humiliating exit from the feline spy agency, MEOWS. Kitty Galore has concocted a plan to transmit, via a global satellite, a signal that’ll drive the world’s dogs insane. To get the job done, the dogs do the unthinkable: They team up with their arch-nemeses, the cats, represented here by Catherine (Christina Applegate), a MEOWS agent.

Voiced by Bette Midler, Kitty Galore’s voice and mannerisms are unmistakably patterned after Gloria Swanson’s delusional Norma Desmond from Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd.” Midler does a canny job of mimicking Desmond’s flamboyant, half-crazed theatrics. Similarly amusing is ex-James Bond Roger Moore’s “appearance” as head of MEOWS, and Sean Hayes as Mr. Tinkles, a kitty version of Hannibal Lector, outfitted with muzzle and restraining harness. The Lector sequence itself, set inside a feline wing of Alcatraz, is a cheeky homage to “Silence of the Lambs.” It’s all cute enough (and completely over the heads of the movie’s target audience), yet insufficient given the uninspired jokes and antics that dominate the rest of the film.

Much of “Kitty Galore” is a connect-the-dots slog through spy-movie tropes as our threesome, together with the streetwise pigeon Seamus (Katt Williams), piece together the nature of Kitty’s plan and follow clues to her whereabouts. Every beat, chase and action sequence feels stale and perfunctory, from Diggs’ disgraceful ouster from the mission (cue third act!) to the rocket-propelled chases all trumped up in 3D. While the occasional movie-inspired riffs elicit sporadic chuckles, all that will keep kids and their parents hooked are the undeniably cute animals and the message of working together to achieve common goals. Otherwise, neither the plot nor the action nor most of the jokes offer the joy or delight to make “Kitty Galore” worth the trip to the multiplex. For parents and kids seeking a witty, inventive story featuring cute, collaborative animals, look instead to Disney’s original “101 Dalmatians,” the single best talking-animal adventure ever made.

Grade: D

Directed by: Brad Peyton
Written by: Ron J. Friedman, Steve Bencich, John Requa, Glenn Ficarra
Cast: James Marsden, Nick Nolte, Christina Applegate, Katt Williams, Bette Midler, Neil Patrick Harris, Sean Hayes, Wallace Shawn, Roger Moore, Joe Pantoliano, Michael Clarke Duncan, Chris O’Donnell

A Better Life

In “A Better Life,” an illegal Mexican immigrant named Carlos struggles to make ends meet as a gardener in modern-day Los Angeles. His son Luis, alienated and adrift, is a high-school misfit, a thug in the making. After borrowing funds from his sister, Carlos (Demián Bichir) acquires a truck and tools to start his own gardener’s business. The business offers Carlos a ray of hope, a way out of poverty for himself and his son. But no sooner have the clouds of despair lifted than Carlos’ truck and tools are stolen, leaving father and son in a desperate search through the city’s Latino neighborhoods to recover them. Along the way, the wayward Luis (José Julián) finds greater respect and understanding – for his past, his identity and his father – and we see the lengths to which Carlos will go to ensure a better life for his son.

The above recap places “A Better Life” squarely in the tradition of Latin-American immigrant coming-of-age and family dramas, along the lines of Gregory Nava’s “My Family” (1995). But where “A Better Life” has tastefulness and sentimentality it could’ve used emotional authority and cultural command. Director Chris Weitz and screenwriter Eric Eason aim for something akin to Nava’s brilliant “El Norte” and Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief” (a film with which “A Better Life” shares an obvious resemblance) but their film lacks their predecessors’ vitality and immediacy.

Lacking a close affinity for their characters, Weitz and Eason devote themselves to the mechanics of story beats, plot points and the three-act structure. And lacking an intimate understanding of the realities and nuances of Hispanic culture (particularly the hardships faced by illegal immigrants), they provide us with the stand-by generalities of hard living, barrio-style: We get immigration protests, tattooed gangbangers, police hostilities and laborers clamoring for work from drive-by employers.

It all feels processed out of a Hollywood notion of what Carlos and Luis’ world would be like; none of it feels authentic and distinctive enough for viewers to give themselves over to what Weitz and Eason are presenting. You don’t trust this film in the way you do Nava’s bleak Southern California or De Sica’s cruel post-War Italy or, for that matter, Scorsese’s evocations of Little Italy in “Mean Streets” and “Raging Bull.”

Similarly, in examining the devotion of a father to his son, the film is at a loss: We understand the alienation between Carlos and Luis, the father-son fights and, finally, speeches about sacrifice, but there is little intimate observation here, the stuff by which character is truly revealed. Time and again, Weitz misses key observational opportunities to get at the depths of a father’s love and the emotional dynamics between Carlos and Luis.

The silver lining is an excellent lead performance from Bichir. In the actor’s weary eyes and personable charisma rest the film’s emotional and spiritual resonance. Often, Bichir is filling in the gaps that Weitz and Eason seem unable to, for lack of sensitivity or familiarity with the world they’re depicting. As Luis, Julián is less sure-footed – but that too may be a symptom of the weaknesses in the film’s writing and direction – but his final scenes with Bichir, in which Carlos and Luis contend with a possibly tragic separation, are genuinely affecting. Bichir and Julián’s contributions, to a modest degree, make up for “A Better Life’s” shortfalls, instilling a measure of credibility the movie craves.

Grade: C

Directed by: Chris Weitz
Written by: Eric Eason
Cast: Demián Bichir, José Julián, Dolores Heredia, Joaquín Cosío, Carlos Linares

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

For its rapturous imagery and mythical sensibilities, director Zack Snyder’s “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” aspires to something akin to “Avatar” or the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. In fact, the attention to texture and detail that Snyder and his team have invested in depicting everything from the film’s painterly landscapes to every individual feather of its largely avian cast is downright impressive. Rendered in 3D, “Guardians” can often be a breathtaking experience approximating James Cameron’s work in his above-mentioned saga.

Writers John Orloff and Emil Stern adapt Kathryn Lasky’s popular children novels about two warring kingdoms of owls – the noble Guardians and the evil Pure Ones. From the looks of it, Orloff and Stern do their best with an overload of characters, numerous by-plays, back-story and incident, but, finally, the job of condensing the full scope of a novel into a 90-minute fantasy flick asks both too much of the form and of the audience.

“Guardians” follows two plucky young barn owl-brothers, Soren (Jim Sturgees) and Kludd (Ryan Kwanten), who find themselves on opposite sides in the story’s mythic clash of owls. While testing their fledgling wings, Soren and Kludd are captured by agents of the Pure Ones and whisked off to their nefarious stronghold. Rather than be added to the Pure Ones’ legion of brainwashed soldiers, Soren escapes the clutches of its leader, Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton) while Kludd – always jealous of Soren’s flying abilities – vows allegiance to Metal Beak and his queen, Nyra (Helen Mirren).

Soren, meanwhile, teams up with the tiny but intrepid Gylfie (Emily Barclay) and the buffoonish but well-meaning pair, Digger (David Wenham) and Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia). Together, they seek out the storied Guardians and warn them of the Pure Ones’ imminent invasion, and of Metal Beak’s vaguely explained ploy that involves bats and unleashing the destructive energies harnessed from a rare metal. Deception in the Guardians’ ranks and an obligatory final act beak-and-talon throw-down round out a script that packs in far too many emotional and expository beats for anyone unfamiliar with the source material, frankly, to care.

A game cast featuring established thespians like Mirren, LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, Hugo Weaving together with newer talents like Joel Edgerton and Ryan Kwanten all manage to breath dramatic fire and a sincere gravity to the proceedings. That added to the story’s inherent sense of fantasy, and its genuinely felt moments of exhilaration (as when Soren discovers his perceptive gifts) and of danger (as when the “Guardians’” scrappy heroes struggle to fly through a dangerous ocean storm) keep us engaged – for a time, at least.

But one question I kept coming back to was, “Who’s this movie made for?” It’s too violent and scary for very young children. And I wouldn’t expect tweens and teens to be jonsing for a fantasy adventure about owls. For older crowds, the movie doesn’t have rich enough story and character development – though it teases with potential in both – to make the material truly involving. That leaves the fans of Lasky’s books, but they too might be turned off by Snyder’s rushed, fevered telling. “Guardians” may be trying to please all the above equally with the end result that everyone leaves the theater feeling a bit gypped.

Grade: C+

Directed by: Zack Snyder
Written by: John Orloff, Emil Stern
Cast: Jim Sturgess (voice), Emily Barclay (voice), Abbie Cornish (voice), Hugo Weaving (voice), Geoffrey Rush (voice), Helen Mirren (voice), Joel Edgerton (voice), Sam Neill (voice), Ryan Kwanten (voice), Anthony LaPaglia (voice), David Wenham (voice)

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

The bar has been set so low in mainstream Hollywood movies that it’s not even worth seriously analyzing this stuff. Lucas’ franchise is a cultural event and that, more than the movie, is cause for serious worry. What can you say when a series of movies (beginning with 1999’s Phantom Menace) is this incompetently made? Lucas has a tin ear for dialogue, and he’s so grossly oblivious to issues of dramatic tension and narrative pacing that, while watching Revenge of the Sith, I just sat there benumbed to it all. The kindest thing I can say about Sith is that it’s a couple of notches better than Menace and generally watchable. It’s an orgiastic spectacle of visual effects and painterly CGI alien cityscapes in place of smart, engrossing storytelling. What’s weird is that the most emotionally resonant moments in it don’t really stem from the story itself but from how we causally connect the implications made therein with our memory of the original three Star Wars movies…sigh. Still, if this tripe works for you, so be it. For me, this (along with other recent drivel like Sin City) is another nail in the coffin for the art of storytelling in Hollywood. And, while I’m on it, it points to the degradation of intelligence in culture as a whole, both in America and in its imperial subsidiaries overseas.

Grade: C+

Directed by: George Lucas
Written by: George Lucas
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smits, Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels, Christopher Lee, Keisha Castle-Hughes