Mini-Reviews: Nebraska, The Wind Rises
Some of Alexander Payne’s post-Election work has struggled to find the balance between loving satire and outright mockery. About Schmidt, Sideways, and to a lesser degree The Descendants, have some lovely character work and keenly observed human behavior… only to then be undone by cartoonish moments and mean-hearted characterization. However, with Nebraska, Payne’s newest work, he finally figures out a way to satirize the world of his characters while never losing his affection for them. Perhaps the color film was holding him back, as the crisp black-and-white cinematography perfectly fits his tone. We meet Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an old man in Montana with a nagging wife (June Squibb), an underachieving son (Will Forte), and a dreary existence. Suddenly, he finds hope– he receives a letter from Publishers Clearinghouse that says he may have won a million dollars. Instead of replying in kind (he doesn’t trust the mail), he sets off to Nebraska to collect his money. After failing to convince Woody it isn’t real, his son decides to take him there himself, stopping briefly in Woody’s hometown. There, they see family, explore his roots, and his son grows to learn and respect more about his father. I’ve some familiarity with the Midwest, and I know these people: the men drinking beer and watching football, the women who know the business of everyone in town, the way that small news becomes big news. While it’s easy to poke fun at, it’s even easier to feel Payne’s love for this world, and the final five-to-ten minutes are a joy. This film has a small scale, but it feels big– it’s Payne’s best in a decade, easily.
The Wind Rises:
I’ve been trying to decide whether The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, would be a good entry point for those unfamiliar with his body of work. On one hand, it lacks the fantastical elements that have been a staple in his work, its typically-sprawling narrative more grounded in reality than one would expect. On the other, it’s still a dreamy film, a biopic about love and the complex nature of lofty aspirations. Its animation is, unsurprisingly, gorgeous, and its world is lovingly crafted. It follows Jiro, a young boy who dreams of building planes one day. While traveling as an engineer later in life, he encounters Naoko, assisting her in finding safety during a massive earthquake. After, he starts working at an airplane manufacturer, but he finds himself soon conflicted– Japan wants these planes to deliver bombs. He wants to create impractical planes, designed for perfect flight, aesthetically gorgeous… but unless he creates war planes, he won’t be able to build any planes at all. It’s remarkably complex for biopic fare, much less for what Westerners expect from an animated film. How does an individual, or a country, cope with the responsibility of wartime atrocities? It’s far from an easy question to answer, but Miyazaki gives it his all here. War themes aside, it’s also simply a film for dreamers. You can feel the vibe that it’s a filmmaker crafting his final story. At the end, Jiro asks himself whether he’s done good work in his life, wondering about his legacy. No worries, Miyazaki: your legacy is secure, The Wind Rises as a fitting final chapter in a legendary career.