Friday, January 31, 2014

Short Takes: Oscar Contenders Wrap-Up 2013

Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne, 2013)

It should come as no surprise that Alexander Payne would eventually return, after a two-film, eleven-year detour, to his home state with a film called Nebraska. The film follows David Grant (Will Forte) as he tries to help his senile father, Woody (Bruce Dern), claim the money he believes he won in a sweepstakes, which means the estranged pair has to take a road trip from Montana to Omaha, Nebraska. The resulting film, shot entirely in black and white, has the feel of a lost work from the 1970s, when filmmakers like Wim Wenders set off for the American Plains to find stories about lost souls. Dern - himself a relic of that era - delivers one of the finest performances of his career, revealing so much about Woody with very little dialogue. Forte, too, demonstrates his dramatic skills, which are quite impressive here. In supporting roles, Oscar-nominated June Squibb is amusing as Woody's feisty wife Kate, and Stacy Keach is terrific as the film's de-facto villain, a former friend of Woody's looking to get a cut of the cash. If the film's narrative feels a little well-worn and cliched, it's enlivened by its rich characters and great performances. B+

Saving Mr. Banks (dir. John Lee Hancock, 2013)

Given that Saving Mr. Banks is Disney's retelling of the process of buying the rights to make Mary Poppins in the early 1960s, it's not really surprising that the film chooses to make this version Disney-friendly and a little white-washed (author P.L. Travers was reluctant to sell Disney the rights, and hated the final movie so much that she refused any further adaptations of her works). To the film's credit, though, it wisely keeps the focus on Travers (Emma Thompson) herself, delving into her past growing up in the Australian Outback with her alcoholic father (a superb Colin Farrell) to make sense of her fierce protectiveness of her writings. Thompson is excellent as usual, as is Tom Hanks as Walt Disney himself. Ultimately, though, what carries the film past a merely-decent script and Hancock's lazy direction are the great performances and the beautiful integration of songs from Mary Poppins. If nothing else, it inspires a great desire to revisit Disney's 1964 classic. B+

August: Osage County (dir. John Wells, 2013)

Full disclosure: I have never seen August: Osage County, Tracy Lett's Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning 2007 play, performed on stage; I've only read the play. So going into the film adaptation, I didn't really have a point of reference for performance of this masterwork of American theatre. Meryl Streep stars as Violet Weston, the pill-popping matriarch of the family that has reunited for patriarch Bev's (Sam Shepard) funeral for a few scorching Oklahoma days. As the minutes go by, the dysfunctional family erupts more and more into vicious takedowns of each other, as secrets are revealed and things fall apart. Of the cast, Streep's verbal sparring with Julia Roberts, who plays the eldest daughter Barbara, is the biggest treat, with Margo Martindale (as Violet's sister Mattie Fae) and Julianne Nicholson (as middle daughter Ivy) doing terrific supporting work. The film's biggest problem, though, is how Wells tries way too hard to make the film seem cinematic, "opening it up" with numerous establishing shots, location changes, and quick editing. Ironically, the film's at its best when it feels the most stage-bound, letting the actors chew on Lett's acrid, cutting dialogue and allowing the performances room to breathe. It's unfortunate that Wells couldn't see what a special thing he had going. C+

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