NEBRASKA and THE GERMAN DOCTOR



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The new Bob Nelson (writer)/Alexander Payne (director) movie Nebraska is shot in Last Picture Show black and white, and has the same feeling of a passing way of life as that earlier film.  The rich cinematography of Phedon Papamichael shows a bleak world with little future.  The economy is bad; it’s approaching winter and everyone is smothered in parkas and down jackets; the foliage has fallen and all the crops have been gathered; and Woody Grant (a play on Grant Wood anybody?  Anybody?), the centerpiece of this Midwestern tragicomedy, fully embodies all these symbols of present day America.  Woody, let us say, is not aging in a particularly graceful way; he’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and easily gets confused, spending most of his time trying to get to Lincoln, NE in order to collect a million dollars in a magazine peddling scam that he thinks is genuine.
Nebraska is an odd duck of a movie when it comes to structure.  It’s a dysfunctional family drama in which the dysfunction is kept to a minimum (no Long Day’s Journey… or August: Osage County here).  In fact, most of the time it feels as if no members of the family can even get up enough energy to be dysfunctional (the scenes of brothers mesmerized by the TV are a highlight of the movie).  It’s a road picture in which the characters spend relatively little time on the road, stopping before they even get started.  And it’s one of those comedies in which someone thinks he’s come into a fortune and risks humiliation when the truth comes out, but Preston Sturgess it’s not. 
In fact, I would normally categorize the movie as a right mess, a story the author didn’t quite know what to do with and a plot that was being pulled in all sorts of conflicting directions.  That is, I would say it if it didn’t all come together and work so wonderfully well.  Nebraska is a pretty terrific film when it comes down to it; a movie of rich characterizations and deeply felt emotions.  A movie so funny you want to cry and a movie so despairing you want to laugh.
Bruce Dern plays Woody with grizzled visage; angry, bloodshot eyes; and perpetual scowl on a chin that never gets shaved.  Dern has been around for some time, of course, but he has never quite managed to connect with the audience as well as many of his contemporaries.  He’s never not worked, but he never quite had the career he deserved, perhaps.  There’s something about his squeaky voice and a face in which the parts don’t quite seem to fit that maybe got in his way.  But here he delivers, giving the performance of his career in the role of his career.
Woody is one of those roles where you think you know everything about him from the moment you lay eyes on him.  But little drips and drabs of his past come leaking out until you find yourself constantly reevaluating everything you thought you knew.  It never really makes him any more likable; he’s still the same old alcoholic cum emotionless bastard he always was, but you realize he has a right to his dignity, even if that dignity lies at the bottom of a beer bottle (he has one marvelous moment where he defends his right to be drink his liver into an early grave, and you find yourself coming down on his side).
Dern is matched scene for scene by June Squibb as his wife.  Here we have what may be one of the most enjoyable Xanthippe’s on film (she played a similar role in About Schmidt, but her long suffering wife here is richer and deeper).  From the time she comes out the back screen door of her house in her old lady dress and knee high nylons, crying to the heavens and asking if she is the only one with any sanity left in the family, she’s a life force not to be denied, but a life force she has little use for.  Her time has passed, much like Woody’s has.  And like Dern, it’s the performance of a career in the role of a career.
The supporting cast is filled out with two types: professionals and neo-realistic locals.  It’s easy to tell the difference since there’s a huge difference in talent.  Many people prefer the non-actors to the actors in movies like this (they like the breath of fresh air such amateurs can bring to a situation).  But I have to be honest; with a few exceptions, I’ve always felt that they tended to take a lot of the steam out of the proceedings since their “naturalness” seems so out of place and stylistically inconsistent (they’re so obvious, all they do for me is call attention to themselves).  And here it’s no different.  But they don’t harm the movie either.
But there are some very nice touches from Will Forte, out of character in a dramatic part.  Bob Odenkirk plays his brother and I’d say he was also out of character, except that his role in Breaking Bad proved his range was much wider than people might have originally thought.  And Stacy Keach old pros the screen as a Woody’s former partner, a bully with feet of clay. 
I’m not sure I can say there’s a ton of originality here.  The relationships are familiar and the sentimental ending may feel a bit formulaic (I always felt that Payne had gone a bit soft since the early days of Citizen Ruth and Election).  But everyone works so hard, and there’s so much true feeling here, that little of that matters. 
Whenever I tell someone I went to see The German Doctor, which is the Argentinean entry in the foreign language film category at the Oscars, the first thing they ask is, “Is it about Mengele”?  So I guess it’s safe to say there are no real surprises in the movie.   You pretty much know what you’re getting yourself into when you purchase your popcorn. 
The basic outline of the story is about a family that reopens a hotel and a mysterious German doctor comes to stay with them not long after the end of World War II.  He slowly ingratiates himself into their life and secretly experiments on them under the pretense of giving them the latest, up to date medical care.  Now, you would think that with an idea like this, how could you possibly go wrong?  But I have to say, the whole thing moves at a snail’s pace with little to no tension or forward momentum, up until the last few minutes when writer/director Lucia Peunzo tries to throw in a little Hitchockian suspense and chase scenes at the climax.  But it’s too little too late as far as I’m concerned.   To be ruthlessly honest, The German Doctor is a bit of a bore (and not just the movie; the character is played by Alex Brendemuhl, and he doesn’t bring a lot of excitement to the role).
It’s not that the whole movie is devoid of interest.   The strongest and most involving parts of the story revolve around the ex-pat Germans who have formed their own bars, social circles, schools and neo-Nazi movement.  But in the end, the whole movie feels like one of those ideas that is so great (and it is, it is a first rate idea, one of the more enticing ones I’ve heard in a while), you just had to make the film, but then once you get going, you realize that you didn’t really know what to do with it in the first place.   Because of this, the movie wobbles uncertainly between a coming of age film and a mad doctor thriller.  Perhaps the saddest aspect of it is that it makes The Boys from Brazil and Gregory Peck’s performance look like a classic, rather than camp.

THE SPECTACULAR NOW and ELYSIUM



This year has been something of a horse race for coming of age films.  I don’t think I’ve ever really kept count, but I don’t remember seeing as many in one year as I have this one.  It’s not a particularly close horse race as horse races go.  The lead, when it comes to quality, is obviously, as far as I’m concerned, a dead heat between Something in the Air and The Bling Ring.  Behind those two, and lagging far behind it should be noted, are The Way, Way Back and Mud.  And behind that, in a distant, distant, distant last place, is The Kings of Summer.  However, a movie has now come along that may just about dislodge The Kings of Summer from its singular location.
After seeing The Spectacular Now, I turned to my friend and told him, I swear I’ve seen this film before; it was part of a TV series called The Afterschool Special; starred a couple of familiar TV kids of the day; and was about teenage alcoholics (there were actually a couple of shows like this: a made for TV movie, The Boy Who Drank Too Much with Scott Baio and Lance Kerwin and that Afterschool Special one, The Late Great Me! Story of a Teenage Alcoholic).  No, The Spectacular Now is not a remake; but overall, I really couldn’t see all that much of a difference between The Spectacular Now and an episode of a series that was often made fun of in its day for it’s obviousness and PSA feel (it was only a few steps up from those films shown in school in the 1950’s on the dangers of premarital sex). 
I really don’t understand the big hoopla over this film.  It gets the job done, but I’m not convinced it does much else.  But for some reason everyone, including film critics who should know better, is calling it original and non-formulaic—perhaps the two very words that could never be honestly used in describing this picture (directed adequately by James Ponsoldt, with a screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber—a far cry from their exciting work of (500) Days of Summer).  It’s one of those movies in which every plot turn is telegraphed minutes, if not hours, before it happens; in which everything pretty much happens the way it always does, and always has, in movies like this; and just about worst of all, it’s one of those movies where, if you haven’t gotten the message that has been so obviously preached for the majority of the film, the central character actually tells you what it is in the final scene (really?  I mean, really?—Jesus, it’s like the ending of The Breakfast Club, except at least that movie had a bit more interesting of a message to its message). 
The story revolves around high school senior Sutter (played by Miles Teller, who is perfectly fine and does his Shia Lebouf best when it comes to his lines, though I’m not sure I ever fully bought him in the role).  Sutter has the smarmy personality of a used car salesman, and the drinking problem to go with it.  He’s one of these characters who is described in a way that is never dramatized: he claims to be one of the most popular kids at school and that no party is successful without him—of course, we have to take his word for it since he never does anything to prove it.  At one point at prom (which feels very underpopulated), he yells out that he loves these guys—why he does, I have no idea (in his defense, this is also the point where he has the best line in the movie: “we’ll never be this young again”).   His most moving and honest scene (and the one, perhaps, least encumbered by formula and predictability) is a moment he has with his boss, played by Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk, in which he is very honest about himself and describes himself in a way that, for the first time in the film, is actually supported by events in the story.
It’s not that the movie is without some moving scenes.  As clichéd as it is, Sutter has a scene with his father whom he hasn’t seen since he was a child that is quite memorable.  It’s not just that his father turns out to be someone other than what he seems at first (who didn’t see that coming).  Sutter’s father (played spot on by Kyle Chandler) is more than you’re run of the mill alcoholic; he is one mean drunk and the scene has some unexpected menace that the rest of the movie could have used.
Perhaps the biggest crime of the film, though, bigger than the triteness of the formula and simplistic story telling, is the use of Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sutter’s mother.  Leigh is someone who had potential to become one of our greatest actresses with incredible performances in such movies as Last Exit to Brooklyn, Miami Blues, Rush and Georgia, but has now been reduced to playing parts easily beneath her, throwaway roles in movies she is too good for.   That is perhaps the only thing in this movie I didn’t see coming.
Writer/director Niell Blonkamp is brilliant when it comes to metaphors.  The movie that made his name, District 9, is a comment on race relations and immigration revolving around aliens from another planet making their way to earth and ghettoized in South Africa.  Elysium, his new sci-fi story, is a metaphor on the haves and have nots, the 1 percenters having fled a decaying earth to a state of the art space station, leaving the earth to the 99 percenters.  Unfortunately, this is about where any interest in this movie stops.
The metaphor is original and exciting, but the set up, the concept, the back story, never seems well thought out and doesn’t feel remotely convincing.  After leaving the theater, all I and my friends did was pick apart how unbelievable it all was (it’s a world in which the population has not just sub-par, but almost no medical care; lives on a planet that is losing its resources; an earth where the pollution is deadly, and yet the place is overpopulated—a neat trick if there ever was one, and just one of the many parts of the film that never made sense).
But the fact that after the movie was over all we could talk about was the errors in the premise suggests a much deeper problem here.  We were talking about the errors because none of us cared about the characters or what was happening to them.  Everyone in the movie seemed bland and one dimensional, spouting dialog that had no bite to it.  And the over crushing direction with the emphasis on disco-like pounding action, over crushed any possibility of an emotional connection to what was happening on screen.   And it all ends with a scene so ludicrous, I and my friends were desperately trying to be polite and not burst out laughing.
There are plenty of interesting names in the cast.  Matt Damon plays the lead with an absurdly ripped body that feels out of place in a world where people can’t get the right kind of nutrition.  His chief opponent is played amusingly by Sharlot Copley (who has the lead in District 9); but what’s amusing about it all is not his performance, but that he’s taken the Anthony Michael Hall approach to his career and built up his body so he doesn’t have to play the bullied pipsqueak anymore.   And it’s always nice to see Alice Braga and Diego Luna.  But perhaps the biggest irony of the movie is that the best and worst performance of the movie is given by the same person, Jodie Foster, as the head of security on Elysium.  Bless her heart, she gives it her all and works her ass off, including giving her character an odd, clipped accent; but almost nothing about her performance works.  At the same time, she’s compulsively watchable, so what are you going to do?
But speaking of Jody Foster, though the film preaches understanding and sympathy and how we should treat each other with respect and as equals and all the other ten points of the Sermon on the Mount law, I did find it odd that in the movie women were given only two choices: the female trying to do the job of a male and by doing so, becomes a bitch of a Lady Macbeth because, well, that’s what happens to women who try to do a man’s job; and the female who is an adjunct to the male and is defined by her relationship to him—in this film, she’s not even allowed to be a doctor, no that’s a man’s job, she has to be the nurse in the equation.
That’s not even bringing up the other issue in that we have a world where the vast majority of people on Elysium are white and the more than the vast majority of people on earth tend to be minorities, mainly Hispanic.  But who is the savior of the world?  The whitest of the white, Matt Damon. 
In the end, I am quite worried that with this second movie, Blonkamp may be on his way to becoming the next M. Night Shyamalan, someone with only one good picture in him.  What is worse, Blonkamp may turn into one of those filmmakers who is a great visual stylist and thinks that that also automatically makes him a good writer or that he doesn’t need a good screenplay as long as he is at the helm.  Even District 9 suggested that this might be the way of the world for Blonkamp; it was a great idea with a strong first half, but the second half become much more formulaic and lost much of the originality and vibrancy of what came before.