Tag Archives: family drama

Midnight Special – Review

1 Jul

Science fiction is probably my favorite genre of film and literature because it can form such a huge spectrum of stories to be told. Recently, there’s been a huge influx of space films like the resurgences of Star Trek and Star Wars, but also completely original ideas like Christopher Nolan’s excellent work with Interstellar. If not space, the market seems flooded with science fiction via superhero films. What I don’t see a lot of are smaller films that still have a grand story to tell without all the bells and whistles of major Hollywood productions. This is partially why I was so interested with Jeff Nichols’ film Midnight Special, along with the fact that it stars my favorite actor, Michael Shannon. With my expectations raised pretty high, I’m thrilled to say that Midnight Special did not disappoint.

On a seemingly quiet night, and AMBER alert is issued for an 8 year old boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher). It’s revealed that he’s safe and sound in a motel with his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and Roy’s close friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). As the trio hit the road during the darkest hours of the night, the FBI raid a religious cult’s farmland to interrogate its founder, Pastor Calvin (Sam Shepard), who raised Alton since Roy and his wife, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), left the compound. The main interrogator is NSA communication analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) who is more interested with how Calvin was able to get highly classified satellite communications through Alton. It’s soon revealed through Roy’s travels with Alton with the FBI and members of the cult hot on their tails that Alton may not be of this world, and while his origins are unknown to all parties involved, it’s evident that he’s about to reveal something that will change the world forever.

Let me just say, the way this story is told is fantastic. The structure that this narrative falls into is really the only way this story can be told. The film begins in medias res with Roy, Lucas, and Alton on the run and we as the audience don’t know why. This first part of the movie is so riveting because I really hadn’t the slightest idea of what everything meant. Was Alton an alien or some sort of experiment gone wrong? What was the deal with the religious cult? How powerful is Alton and what are his weaknesses. Nichols knows that with a story like this, there’s going to be some major questions and he uses that to the film’s advantage and creates this mysterious thread that totally morphs into a web. The atmosphere of science fiction blends well with the rural roads our travelers call home during the night, and the mystery of what is actually going on had me hooked from beginning to end.

My last review was of J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, and I really liked that movie except for a problem with certain characters and their relevancy to the story. As much as I really liked Midnight Special, I feel like this film is a bigger offender of the same problem. Early in the movie we get introduced to the religious cult Alton comes from and its charismatic leader, Pastor Calvin. I really liked this element of the story in the way that it seemed to be blending science fiction and religion. It’s a theme that’s seen pretty frequently in the genre, but it felt really down to earth in this film. Unfortunately, this cult doesn’t really amount to much and the only impact they have on the story lasts a few scenes, one of them being quite intense. Still, I would have liked to see a lot more from the cult and especially from Sam Shepard’s character, Calvin, because he was really selling that role well.

Like I said, Midnight Special is science fiction brought down to earth. It’s something I felt like could be happening at this very moment, and I even thought about if I’ve ever driven past someone on a dark highway going through some extraordinary even like this, and I would never know. With these huge science fiction films taking us to different worlds and galaxies, it was refreshing to see a movie that just spans a couple of states with a story that deals with real people. While this movie isn’t action packed, it still has plenty of really unique special effects that I will forever associate with this film and some larger than life ideas that I feel pay off very well.

Midnight Special is truly just a wonderful story and I have to give Jeff Nichols credit for once again leading me down a road where I couldn’t have guessed the destination. This film works as science fiction, family drama, and as a mystery that’s wrapped in a very well shot and paced film. The only gripes I have come from some characters that feel underused or just completely forgotten. Still, this is some excellent science fiction that deserves more praise than it gets.

Final Grade: A

Revolutionary Road – Review

2 Sep

To me, some of the coolest kinds of movies take subjects that seem completely normal and uneventful and completely flip them on their heads to show a much more unsettling look at normalcy. In 1999, director Sam Mendes graced the world with a masterwork of film making, American Beauty, which took a darkly comedic look at the sometimes tragic follies of suburban living. After this great success, Mendes would revisit similar themes with his 2008 film Revolutionary Road. While it does share similar elements to his earlier film, Revolutionary Road is a much more serious and unsettling look at marriage, mental health, and the idea of “settling down.” It’s an overwhelming experience that is bound to leave you drained by the end.

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After Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets April (Kate Winslet) at a party, it doesn’t take long for them to fall in love and start their life together. They move into a nice house on Revolutionary Road in the suburbs of Connecticut. Frank gets a job as a salesman for Knox Machines and April stays home taking care of their two young kids. It seems like the perfect nuclear family. What’s happening behind closed doors is less than perfect. Frank and April’s relationship is completely disintegrating, and this disintegrations is causing a lot of hate to boil to the surface. This hate has to remain hidden from their friends and neighbors. Their final solution to this is to pack their things, get out of the mundane life they created and move to Paris. While this idea brings them closer to the happiness they desire, a promotion offered to Frank once again puts their relationship in jeopardy as their desires and feelings become even more at ends and their lives begin to spiral out of control.

What Mendes did for more modern suburban life with American Beauty, he does for the nuclear family in Revolutionary Road. This film takes a tough look at what is labeled as the “perfect American life.” The Wheelers are a close family that live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood, and that’s ultimately what seems to be their downfall. Everything is just too nice. It also shows the long term consequences of decisions that seemed like a great idea at the time, like quickly getting married or hastily taking a job that you have no interest in. I feel like I’m rambling a little bit, but that’s one of the more interesting parts about this movie. Everything seems so mundane and ordinary at first glance, but this mundanity is what’s helping to tear this family to shreds. Revolutionary Road also takes a critical look at relationships. It doesn’t condemn them even a little bit, but it forces the audience to examine what makes them actually work and how too much focus on yourself, no matter how right or wrong you may be, can wreak the foundation a relationship is built on. In a nutshell, Revolutionary Road is a film about the extraordinary dark side to an otherwise ordinary life, which may seem all to real to some people.

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Revolutionary Road is an emotionally exhausting film, and I guarantee that by the end you’re going to need either eat an entire tub of ice cream or take a really long nap. There are scenes in this movie that are so intense and real and uncomfortable that I was looking at it through my fingers. When a movie isn’t a horror film and it elicits that kind of reaction, then something was done very right. While it is very intense and tragic in many scenes, there are times where it got to be a bit too much. That’s probably my only complaint with this film. It goes from being highly dramatic to too predictably melodramatic. This only happens a few times throughout the course of the movie so it really isn’t that big of a complaint at all. Most of the scenes hit the dramatic intensity just right, while a select few kind of just go too far. One major contribution to the drama is Thomas Newman’s excellent score that fits right in with the film’s onscreen action.

Watching this movie, it isn’t hard to believe that before working in film, Mendes was a prolific director of stage plays. He, along with the help of master cinematographer Roger Deakins, films this movie like something that could be found on stage. It works great for the film and really allows that actors to work with the limited space that is given to them DiCaprio and Winslet have already shown their chemistry in Titanic, and now show a much more matured version of that chemistry in Revolutionary Road. They give outstanding performances that, I feel, have become under appreciated since the time of this movie’s release. I was surprised to see Michael Shannon, who has grown to be one of my absolute favorite actors, shows up for a little bit. He’s only in a few scenes, but he absolutely owns the screen whenever he’s on, and for this small performance he was given a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Revolutionary Road is one of those movies that really hits you where it hurts. At times, the drama could get a little heavy handed and the writing could stray into the “no one really talks like that” category. Even with the rare heavy handedness, this is a really interesting and upsetting film that succeeds in exactly what it was trying to do. Not only is this film shot very well, but the acting is superb and the production and costume design really get you into the era that the film takes place. Mendes is a film maker that understands the more subtle terrors of normal life, and he uses them very well in Revolutionary Road.

Blood Ties – Review

28 Jun

A little while ago I reviewed a movie called Contraband, directed by Baltasar Kormákur, which was based off of an Icelandic movie called Reykjavik-Rotterdam, also starring Kormákur. I wasn’t a huge fan of Contraband, and now we have a very similar situation. In 2013, Blood Ties was released which was directed by Guillaume Canet. This movie is actually a remake of a French film called Deux frères: flic & truand, also starring Canet. Much like my reaction with Contraband, I thought this was a pretty subpar film, even though there were a few great scenes and memorable performances. It just wasn’t enough to completely save the movie.

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The year is 1974 and small time criminal Chris (Clive Owen) is released from his 12 year prison sentence with the hopes of starting his life anew. Part of this means reconnecting with his estranged brother, Frank (Billy Crudup) a New York policeman who disapproves of Chris’ choices and lifestyle. While trying to hold onto a job, Chris once again falls into a life of crime, but also catches the eye of Natalie (Mila Kunis). The two quickly begin a serious relationship, but Chris’ criminal doings often put a strain on it. Meanwhile, Frank begins to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Zoe Saldana) after her husband Anthony Scarfo (Matthias Schoenaerts) is arrested by Frank. As the two very different brothers try to keep their lives on track, they are frequently getting into small battles with each other, with much more extreme violence always seeming to lurk around the corner.

I want to get the good stuff out of the way first. The whole reason I was drawn to this movie in the first place is the outstanding cast. Besides the name I’ve already mentioned, the movie also stars Marion Cotillard as Chris’ ex-wife and James Caan as Chris and Frank’s father. Each and every one of these actors give great performances. Owen gives a very subtle but believable performance as Chris, which only reminded me why I think he’s one of the better actors working right now. I also have to give a lot of credit to Saldana for really owning her role, and I’m confident in saying she gives the best performance in the entire movie. Crudup also has a strong performance and plays all of the complications and troubles of Frank very well. There is absolutely no faults to be given to the cast, and they’re probably the only real reason to watch Blood Ties, to see these A-list actors in a role you’ve probably never heard they were in.

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The biggest problem I had with Blood Ties is that I felt I was watching it for the thousandth time when this was the first time I ever saw it. This is a story that has been told countless times in a variety of different ways, and for the most part, much better. This movie is a remake, but it feels like it could be a remake of many other different movies. The whole crime genre has a lot of cliches attached to it, and Blood Ties seems to be an amalgamation of all of them. It’s actually pretty astounding how familiar this movie is. From the two brothers with different ideals, to the aging father who actually does know best, all the way to love triangle with criminal elements. It’s all been seen before.

The characters themselves also sort of lend to the problem of familiarity. While they were interesting at points, I could tell exactly where their paths were going to lead. Crudup’s character is the most fine tuned person in the whole movie, and while some of his arc is predictable, he plays the role with confidence and makes the movie all the better for it. The same can be said for Saldana’s character, who shares a very similar and close arc with Crudup. The biggest disappointment is Owen’s character who is, for the most part, completely one dimensional. He’s the criminal with the heart of gold, and it’s such a tired cliche, I really couldn’t get into his character despite his performance being strong.

I really wanted to like Blood Ties a lot more than I did. I mean, just look at the cast. It’s absolutely fantastic, and all the actors do a fine job. The problem is that the whole story it’s trying to tell is played out and has become far too predictable. If you’re going to tell a story like this, there has to be something in there that disrupts the formula and adds something new. This film felt like a clip show of cliches that other movies perfected. I can’t even say this movie’s worth watching for the cast because it feels like more of a chore than entertainment.

Nil by Mouth – Review

3 Mar

Everyone knows about Gary Oldman’s acting career. He’s been in so many movies as great as The Dark Knight Trilogy and as awful as the 2009 “horror” film The Unborn. He’s one of those actors that seems to turn up everywhere, but he always brings an air of seriousness to all of his roles. I’ve just recently learned about his work in directing after reading about his 1997 directorial debut Nil by Mouth. I didn’t really know what it was about, but being a fan of Oldman’s, I felt it was worth checking out. That being said, this is a surprisingly gritty, disturbing, and genuinely upsetting film.

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Set in the working class environment of South London, this film examines the life of a small, but poor family. Billy (Charles Creed-Miles) is a heroine addict that struggles with both his finances and his addiction, mostly using one to help the other. Billy’s sister is Val (Kathy Burke), a relatively unhappy woman who is married to Ray (Ray Winstone). Ray is a thief, an addict, and violent, many times taking out his rage on the pregnant Val. After a vicious night between the two, the family really seems that it is finally ready to break down and leave everyone on their own.

When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, Nil by Mouth was received with much critical acclaim and Kathy Burke winning for Best Actress. This is really no surprise to me since this movie tackles subject matter in an unflinchingly realistic way. As I was watching it, my mind kept going to Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, although the main protagonist in that movie is a kid and it was released two years later in 1999. It still deals with the same ideas as poverty and the breakdown of a family. There were many times in this movie that it got so intense and real that it stunned me.

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Like I said before, Kathy Burke won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for this movie, but that isn’t where the excellent performances end. Everyone in this movie seems to be working their hardest to completely sell their roles to you. Burke has a lot of different levels she plays at and Ray Winstone matches her perfectly by showing an aggravating and complex character. He has become one of the most hated characters for me because Winstone makes him so real. Charles Creed-Miles also works well as the pathetic drug addicted thief who I really couldn’t help feeling sorry for.

To really make Nil by Mouth work, Oldman had to create a certain kind of uncomfortable atmosphere that isn’t really easy to do. Many of the scenes are shot in dark side streets of London, the kind of streets that you wouldn’t want to find yourself alone at night. When we’re not in some alley, we’re in cluttered, tiny apartments that seems to have a few too many people in it. That being said, certain scenes have to appear comfortable and livable since this is just the way of life for these people. It’s an odd combination where I would be disgusted one moment and then almost feel at home the next.

Nil by Mouth can definitely be classified as a film that isn’t easy to watch, nor is it particularly entertaining. It is, however, a film that seems to be a very deep and personal project of Gary Oldman’s, and that comes through in how realistic and honest everything is in the movie. This may be one of the realest movies I’ve seen and it certainly isn’t afraid to throw a rotten piece of life into your face. While it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it’s an intense experience nonetheless.

Dogtooth – Review

25 Sep

I, personally, have not seen a whole lot of movies from Greece. I know they exist, but we just never seem to cross paths. That is until I saw Yorgos Lanthimos’ film Dogtooth. I got wind of this movie from hearing and reading from different sources and people about how weird it is, but also how well crafted it was also. Then upon learning that it was the first Greek film in years to be nominated for the Best Foreign Film award at the Oscars, I figured that I’d better quick add it to my list of movies to see. Well, I’ve finally gotten around to it and…well…wow…

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In an unspecified time at an unspecified place somewhere in Greece, a father (Christos Stergioglou) and mother (Michelle Valley) work hard to keep their three children (Aggeliki Papoulia, Christos Passalis, and Mary Tsoni) safe from the dangers of the outside world. Of course, this is the job of every parent, but it becomes strange when the children are fully grown and have never stepped foot beyond the gates that surround the house. The parents spend their days teaching the children a bunch of misinformation and scaring them away from wanting to go anywhere outside the gates. The children, knowing only what their parents tell them, are in fact afraid, but their curiosities start to get the better of them when their father starts bringing home a woman, Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou) for his son.

Let me start by saying that this movie is absolutely not what I expected. I went into Dogtooth thinking that it was going to be so weird and surreal that I would pretty much have to shut off that part of my brain that knows what it does about movies and just hold on for the ride. This really isn’t true. There is a clear beginning, middle, and end with actual character development and a story that is as concrete as it needs to be. Without looking at all the symbolism and other jazz like that, this is simply a movie about parents who are holding their children away from ever really learning anything constructive. Of course, that’s not the kind of cinephile that I am. I love looking for what a movie may possibly mean other than the obvious, and let me tell you, there’s quite a message to be had.

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What I really love about this movie is how loudly Lanthimos is yelling his point. What I, and many other people, have taken from Dogtooth is an idea of anti-censorship, and not just on a bug level. Sure, the movie can definitely speak about censorship of art and the stupidity behind the reasoning of not allowing someone to say or create what they want. I’d much rather read this as a satire behind family and the obsessive nature of some parents to protect their children. While this movie is over the top in how the parents and sheltered children are represented, I think everyone can attest that they have met someone that has been overly sheltered by whoever their guardians were. Keeping your children away from experiencing the negative sides of the world can do more harm than good, and that’s what Lanthimos is trying to say with Dogtooth, which i think is a brilliant and altogether unique message.

Going back to the story, this is a classic example of less is more. Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou tell the story of one of the most twisted families in film history by not giving the audience a whole lot of information. We know the father works at a factory, but what kind of factory. There are many instances of technology from the past 20 years, but we never really know what time period it is. The children are taught wrong definitions to words, but we don’t really know why. There’s also a mysterious older brother on the other side of the fence that the children believe exist, but where did that lie ever come from? This is a strange way to tell the story, but it made me as a viewer feel just as disconnected with reality as the children did. That along with camera angles that would make a film textbook self destruct.

Dogtooth is one of those movies that you’re going to want to think about for a few days before you can make a decision on whether or not you like it. Me, personally, it wasn’t a perfect film and it kind of wore on me after a little bit, but it was definitely interested to hold my attention until the end. This isn’t a traditional film with a traditional story, but a story is there and the message is unique and necessary, even if you don’t quite agree with it. This film isn’t for people who are looking for a straightforward film that explains everything clearly, which is totally an ok thing. Dogtooth forced me to put the pieces together and made me feel isolated at the same time, and for that I say it was a good film.

Happiness – Review

21 May

Every so often I watch a movie that shakes me to the very core of my being. The reason I got so interested in Happiness was because I kept hearing so many great things about it, but also so many warnings that it is one of the most disturbing films I’ll ever watch. I thought to myself that I’m gonna have to check it out, so that’s exactly what I did. To put it briefly, Happiness is a remarkable movie in terms of everything that exists that makes a movie good. It’s literally all here. That being said, there are many things that are disturbing about this movie other than the obvious one, but that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t want to see this film go down as a classic in the years to come.

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The story in this film is a collage of different, every day people whose lives collide due to their obsessive crusades to find happiness in their lives, even though the lack of true joy is their own fault. Joy Jordan (Jane Adams) is the youngest of three sisters, and has recently been feeling lonesome and unfulfilled. Helen Jordan (Lara Flynn Boyle) is the middle sister, and even though she has made a successful career as a novelist, she still has a hard time connecting with people on a true emotional level. When her pathetic neighbor Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) anonymously sexually harasses her over the phone, Helen becomes desperate to find the caller and begin a relationship. The eldest sister is Trish Maplewood (Cynthia Stevenson) who is happily married to Bill (Dylan Baker), a wealthy psychiatrist with a few dark secrets of his own, most of which involve pre-pubescent boys. Finally, Mona (Louise Lasser) and Lenny (Ben Gazzara) are the parents of the three sisters, and are now going through a separation which Lenny refuses to end in a divorce.

What’s really interesting about this movie is both how unapologetic it is, but also how real it is. Life, even for average, nothing special people can be darkly comedic and deeply disturbing, just like this movie. There’s nothing in Happiness that is so over the top you wouldn’t believe it could really happen. Everything in this movie can and does happen, and that’s what makes it so hard to watch at times. I found myself cringing and shifting around uncomfortably even when I was laughing at humor that may be darker than any movie I’ve ever seen before this one. There’s a great line in this movie where Helen leans over to Joy and says, “We’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing with you.” To this Joy responds, “But I’m not laughing.”

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That little line of dialogue sums up the movie better than I ever could. We’re watching the lives of these people suffer from enormous pressures, all in the guise of some twisted comedy. So, it’s a comedy and we’re supposed to laugh at them… Right? When I think of comedies, I normally think of films that are pretty light hearted and goofy, and sometimes I laugh at things that I feel like I shouldn’t. Even those movies where the laughing comes with guilt maintain a certain sense of silliness or an upbeat tone. Not Happiness. There is nothing upbeat here, and yet we still laugh. That may be the most disturbing part of the movie. Sure, the pedophile is disturbing enough to keep many viewers away, but this one has real world consequences. We’re laughing at these people, but you don’t see them laughing.

I’ve been told that if you’re going to write something weird, it has to be done in such a way where the writing doesn’t become aware of the strangeness. That’s where Happiness finds it’s footing. There’s nothing especially remarkable about the way this movie is shot. It could easily be a stage play, and sometimes that’s what it feels like. The writer/director of this movie, Todd Solondz, writes this in such a way that is weird, but made me believe like I was watching reality. Perhaps that’s what this movie is really about: a sad reality that we all live in.

The characters in Happiness are pathetic creatures and I’m a son of a bitch for laughing at them, but who could blame me? This movie is dark comedy and it’s darkest, but it’s also drama at it’s most dramatic. This film mostly takes place in the suburbs of New Jersey. Not some bustling city, but a quiet suburb. Much like American Beauty (although this film preceded it by a year), we get to see the suburban dream completely shattered by evils and despair. Recommending this movie is hard due to a lot of the content in it, but if you can stomach some truly disturbing stuff than Happiness may provide you with the strangest and most uncomfortable laughter you’ve ever felt.

Nebraska – Review

17 Feb

At this point in my life I’m focused on looking towards the rest of my life sprawled out in front of me. For the other group of people in the twilight of their lives, it’s a matter of looking back, but also keeping your eyes on the rest of the time you have left. I can’t really imagine what that must be like, but it is part of what Nebraska is about. Another thing I need to say about Nebraska is that I have never been so torn on a movie. There is plenty that I really love in this movie, but than there’s a lot that I really couldn’t stand.

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Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an aging alcoholic who has received a letter saying he has won a one million dollar sweepstakes prize and that he is to collect it in Lincoln, Nebraska. David (Will Forte), his youngest son, recognizes the prize to be a scam to subscribe to the magazine, but in order to spend time with his father before the inevitable happens, he decides to drive him to Lincoln. Along the way, they stop in his old hometown of Hawthorne and stay with his brother Ray (Rance Howard) while his other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and wife Kate (June Squibb) comes down for an impromptu family reunion with the rest of the family. As rumors spread about Woody’s newfound wealth, family members and, more importantly, his old friend Ed (Stacy Keach), begin asking for him to return their monetary favors, but as David knows, Woody has no riches to speak.

Now, this movie really doesn’t have a sweeping storyline. In fact, it’s pretty minimal when you really think about it. And aging man becomes part of a family reunion while he’s on his way to collect sweepstakes money. This is actually something I love about the movie. It’s an excellent story, and it’s impressive that someone was able to weave a full length movie around it. What’s more important than the story is what’s going on beneath the immediate surface. It’s a quiet movie about a dysfunctional family trying to get by, and also a cynical look at getting old and the years of memory loss that people must endure. While director Alexander Payne and writer Bob Nelson give a little bit of hope, it’s not really enough to satisfy or ease you in any way.

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While I was at first not pleased with the black and white cinematography by Phedon Papamichael, it has really grown on me, much like this movie in general. IT says a lot about the character of Woody and the time period he is in in his life, but it also beautifully accentuates the bleaker and plainer parts of the American Midwest. While these images may seem sparse and a little depressing, it is beautiful to look at. Unfortunately, Nebraska suffers from the same problem 12 Years a Slave suffered from. It spends too much time looking at the surrounds in some scenes and occasionally loses track of the plot altogether just to focus on landscapes. It’s beautiful, but doesn’t need to go on for quite so long.

In a sense, Bob Nelson’s screenplay is really great. The story is there, but a lot of his dialogue is really, and I mean really, terrible. He hits all the notes for the character of Woody, but when it comes to the supporting cast, it really left me with an awkward feeling. Will Forte really seems to be trying here, but he sounds like he’s reading his lines right off the paper, and I feel like some of that has to be attributed to Nelson. When it comes to Squibb’s and Keach’s characters, they come off as so over the top sometimes, and don’t really fit into the movie when they get so crazy, especially since Nebraska is such a toned down movie. Bruce Dern, however, was incredible and deserves his Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Nebraska was something else. I can’t quite pinpoint my feelings towards it because of how split I am between how great the story is and how well Dern plays his part, between how crummy a lot of the dialogue is and how awkward the supporting cast can be. I love the themes of this movie, and I can’t say that it’s bad because I know, deep down, that it’s a really good movie. Still, I’m completely split and I really can’t give you an exact feeling because I honesty don’t know. I may have to watch it again to get a more precise idea, but I don’t know if I really want to.

I really just don’t know…