Nebraska (Film review)

Nebraska (DVD) jpg

I have found one of my new favorite films ín Nebraska. It already ranks up there with films such as Station Agent, Bruce McDonald’s Roadkill and Highway 61 and a few of Jim Jarmusch’s early films (just to name a few) although I have only seen it once so far. The latter being a rather obvious comparison, as Nebraska is, like Jarmusch’s Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise, shot in b/w, and extremely beautifully at that, but more about that a bit later. Whereas Jarmusch’s films are always on the ‘cool’ side with musicians, DJ’s, hookers, pimps and the like in them, Nebraska is all about everyday people and their stories. It’s also a quiet, slow-paced, humane and has got an almost gentle feel to it in how the people in it are portrayed.

The film begins in Billings, MT (with the first few shots of rail lines and nearly deserted streets in winter that made me realise that I was in for a treat straight away). Old, frail and stubborn alcoholic Woody, played outstandingly well by Bruce Dern, falls for a scam letter, believing he has won a million dollars. He promptly decides to go to Lincoln, NE to collect his winnings and buy, for once in his life, a brand new pickup truck. His son, Dave, and Woody’s slightly vulgar and highly overbearing wife Kate try their best to convince him of the true nature of that letter, to no avail. Dave, also brilliantly played by Will Forte, an actor I previously only knew from a hilarious and memorable guest role in Flight Of The Conchords, reluctantly agrees to drive his dad down to Nebraska to collect Woody’s make-believe winnings. A decision he quickly comes to regret, after Woody drunkenly falls and splits his head open and he has to take him to an ER.

To recuperate, Dave decides to take Woody to his hometown of Hawthorne, NE where most of Woody’s family still lives. Fictional Hawthorne is a rural community on the plains of Nebraska, typically characterised by agriculture and a sedate lifestyle.

The meeting with his extended family (some of them on the graveyard) and former friends, acquaintances and lovers however, doesn’t go as smoothly as Dave would have hoped. The news that Woody struck it rich dos make various family members and one especially persistent former business partner and friend claim a payout for long-forgotten or not-existent in the first place, debts. The large family at the reunion meal is a brilliantly portrayed cast of people, all of them small town, and most of them older folk. Especially curious are Dave’s two never-do-well cousins, first mocking him for taking two days to drive down from Montana, and later going so far as to spring on Woody and Dave coming out of a bar, balaclavas and all – and stealing that famed letter. The rather comic fight between one of the cousins and Dave’s brother, hotshot TV-presenter Ross (played by ‘Better call Saul’, Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk) is hilarious indeed.

After these, for this somber, mostly melancholic film at least, comparatively tumultuous scenes, Dave agrees to finally go down to Lincoln to collect Woody’s imaginary winnings. They eventually make their way back to Montana without the million dollars, but with a new, well, actually 5-year old, but practically as-new Pickup truck which Dave lets Woody drive through his hometown. It’s a touching end to this lovely film, showing something of the fragile bond between a father and son that most probably haven’t been this close for ages.

As I hinted at earlier, this is a friendly, relaxed film in which nothing overly dramatic happens. I for one enjoy films like that a lot, there are enough films about cops, gangsters, pathologists and FBI people out there. This film is flying the flags for real people, trying to make the best of what they got and their all-too real problems. I was very impressed not only with the principal actors in the film, but also with the secondary ones and extras – they all look like genuinely like Midwestern, small-town inhabitants. Very nice.

The aspect I like best about Nebraska however is the photography. Each single scene in the film is perfectly framed and lighted, whether they are beautiful wide-angel landscape shots or small-town scenes quite a few of which are night shots. For somebody like me who loves the much-ridiculed Plains landscapes and the little towns dotted about it, the Nebraska is a feast for the eyes. Coupled with the superb acting, the lovely story and the impeccable directing, this is a film I will be cherishing for a very long time. Director Alexander Payne has of course done a quite similar-themed film before with About Schmidt, so he’s clearly got a lot of affection for his home state (he was born in Omaha). Although I did like that film a lot too, Nebraska in my opinion is the more successfully realised film of the two.





Smoke Signals

Smoke signals DVD cover Jpeg

As I wrote in my review of Sherman Alexie’s book The Lone-Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven, Smoke Signals is based on various stories and characters found in that short story collection. In cooperation with Sherman Alexie, who wrote the screenplay, director Chris Eyre straightened out some of the disjointed parts and managed to make them into a cohesive whole. It has to be said however, thankfully in my opinion, that the short story character of the book is continued here via a large amount of flashbacks that are intervowen into the story quite masterfully, so in that respect alone the film very much succeeds.

But that’s by far not the only level on which it does so. First and foremost, the acting is uniformly excellent. I especially have to mention Evan Adams as Thomas Builds-the-Fire here. How much I admired that character should be made clear if you read my review of the book. But after watching the film (which I had seen before I read the book) again, I have to say that this admiration is closely linked to Adams’ unforgettable performance in the film (talk about deserving an Oscar in a better world). His performance is equal parts hilarious, tragic, and most of all, singular and magnificent. The acting on part of both Thomas’ and especially Victor’s 12-year old selves isn’t half bad as well. You can tell that there is a whole lot going on behind young Victor’s stoic and mostly silent face, it’s an absolute pleasure to watch. Also exceptionally good is Gary Farmer’s performance as Victor’s dad Arnold Joseph, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody that has ever seen him in a performance before, even if it’s just a brief one as in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog : The Way Of The Samurai. He’s got an incredible presence in front of a camera (and I assume in life), he’s hard to forget. Here he shines as Victor’s crazy, drunk and abusive dad that flees the family and reservation life to Phoenix, Arizona where he can’t forget what he’s done at all. It’s also here he dies a lonely death in a trailer somewhere out in the desert.

Pretty much his only company in this barren desert seems to have been beautiful Suzy Song (played equally wonderfully by Irene Bedard) who he forms some kind of relationship of rather undetermined nature with. Whether they were lovers or having some kind of father-daughter relationship is left open by what Suzy’s tells Victor and Thomas during the longer scene in which Victor (played by Adam Beach) and Thomas stay with her for one night to pick up Arnold’s ashes. To the credit of the filmmakers, there’s not a romantic scene developing between handsome, athletic alpha-male Victor and Suzy. There’s a shine in here eyes in the beginning, sure, but as the scene develops it becomes clear that she’s rather taken aback by his somewhat harsh behavior and the problems he doesn’t seem to be able to adequately express, let alone handle. She’s also rather intrigued by the stories Thomas’ incessantly tells – probably the first person in a very long time to respond positively to them.

Of course Victor and Thomas don’t make it back to the Coeur D’Alene reservation without any problems, as they get involved in a car wreck, but luckily for them things end relatively well and they don’t get arrested by the police for their role in the crash. They arrive back on the reservation with, one can only hope, a new kind of understanding between them and a softened attitude on Victor’s part towards Thomas.

As I am a rather visually oriented person, adding a lot for me to making me love Smoke Signals, are the wonderful landscapes seen in numerous long shots of the Coeur D’Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho on which the film was shot for the most part (some scenes were shot in Washington). Not surprising, but very welcome nevertheless, are the flashes of humor, of course mostly on Thomas’ part, such as in conversations like this one: Victor: ‘… you gotta look like a warrior, you gotta look like you just came back killing a buffalo’. Thomas: ‘But our tribe never hunted buffalo, we were fisherman’.

Taking a step back compared with The Lone-Ranger And Tonto is the focus on the more serious and difficult realities today’s Native Americans face, the signs are everywhere you look of course, but this film is primarily concerned with the themes of forgiveness and coming to terms with what happened in the past. A beautiful, humane and compassionate film.

John Wayne Birthplace

Marion Robert Morrison, better known as John Wayne, was born in this house in Winterset, Iowa on May 26, 1907. Like most boys I devoured his classic Westerns as a child. When growing up, I lost interest in his films and the genre altogether and was also troubled by his political views (although I have to admit I never really made any effort to get a very informed view on them). But in the last few years I have made an effort to build a collection of the best Westerns on DVD and found (rather unsurprisingly), that quite a few of them have got him in them. My favorite is possibly his last film The Shootist, although that’s probably not in accordance with most people’s view, but I liked it a whole lot, both with regard to the film’s message and also because the films melancholic mood and its extremely beautiful photography.

John Wayne Birthplace

Sam Doores + Riley Downing & The Tumbleweeds : Daytrotter Studio 4/10/2013

Sam Doores + Riley Downing & the Tumbleweeds

I have been following Sam Doores & the Tumbleweeds for quite some time now, but still have to buy their first album Holy Cross Blues. So this Daytrotter session will have to do for the moment, but it’s a mighty fine one in any case.

None of the four tracks on here does disappoint: I already was familiar with the first one on this session (from the band’s Reverbnation/Facebook music player)  Throw Another Cap On the Fire , it’s reproduced here immaculately. It’s a swinging Country & Western tune dominated by a steel guitar, with a harmonica solo and a super-catchy hookline. The lead vocals are by Riley Downing, who’s got a husky, smoky voice of the Tom Waits variety (although not quite as gruff), very much suited to the Cowboy lyrics of the song (‘as I stared out ‘cross the prairie searching for what I can’t say I know, Bourbon won’t you warm my soul like sunshine’).

The next song Alligator Shoes is a slowly shuffling and slightly brooding track with a  spooky guitar solo. Alligator Man (the band are from New Orleans, in case you haven’t guessed so already), in contrast, is more up-tempo and upbeat with the happy fiddle providing the outstanding musical flavor – it’s short, snappy and could surely be a first rate feelgood hit – in a backwater world with good taste at least.

I Got Found is a slow song steeped in gospel stylings and I can’t help thinking about the chain gang scene at the beginning of the Coen Brother’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? listening to it – it should also be a sure highlight in their live set.

With this short 4 track session Sam Doores + Riley Downing & The Tumbleweeds prove to be an outstanding and highly original new act on the Alt-Country scene, with a sound clearly informed by their hometown. And, as should also be evident, a highly entertaining live act.