End of the year treats in ‘Nebraska’ and ‘Walter Mitty’

The year-end movie rush arrived with a vengeance as holiday feel-good and epic adventures hit the theaters along with the awards contenders squeezing in during the final weeks to gain eligibility.

While “The Hobbit” and “Frozen” were packing houses over the holiday weeks, Ben Stiller’s modern-day telling of James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” has been charming sizable audiences of its own.

Stiller has made a career for himself playing lovable, unassuming guys who are easy to root for simple because they are so easy to identify with, and certainly Walter Mitty is an icon of such characters. Thus Stiller was smart to direct and cast himself in the title role as Walter Mitty.

This updated story of a common man who daydreams vividly of heroics and romance was penned by Steve Conrad, who wrote the screenplay for “The Pursuit of Happyness,” featuring Will Smith. This 21st century Mitty is an unremarkable person who has labored for 16 years within the bowels of Life magazine, handling the vast inventory of photograph negatives.

But Life, like many publications, is under new ownership and forging ahead with a transition to digital, putting the employment of many at risk. For the final print publication, the cover photo is to be one by the legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), one of the few holdovers still using film. This creates a problem when the film roll he sends to Life is missing the one photo that is to be used for the cover.

Mitty enlists the services of a co-worker, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), a woman to whom he is enamored and is trying to hook up via online relationship matching, in helping him get that missing photo. Amid the threats of layoffs and Mitty’s own fantasy indulgences, Walter and Cheryl try to track down the world-hopping photographer. With the print deadline approaching, Walter grows more desperate to the point he takes off for Greenland, the last known location of Sean O’Connell.

“Walter Mitty” is a familiar story of a person who when pushed to the limit summons surprising resolve and courage to meet challenges. The natural charms of Stiller and Wiig lift this story that has its share of surprises. Shirley MacLaine as Walter’s mother and Penn have only a few moments of screen time but they are indelible.

“Walter Mitty” is a bittersweet feel-good story. In the end, Walter and Cheryl have new obstacles to face but you know they will somehow come through.

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Writer-director Alexander Payne has made a name for himself by putting on screen comedic dramas that are insightful character studies, such as “About Schmidt,” “Sideways” and “The Descendents.” In his latest outing, “Nebraska,” he serves as director only,  using a script by Bob Nelson. Despite being 57 years old, Nelson has only two other writing credits, with “Nebraska” being his first full-length movie.

“Nebraska” is the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an addled man in his 70s from Billings, Montana, who is convinced he has won a $1 million prize from a publishing clearing house and is determined to go to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect the money. Worn by years of excessive drinking and a mind that is growing more fuzzy, he believes he can just take off on foot — he no longer can drive — and trudge the hundreds of miles to Nebraska.

His stubborn actions exasperate his long-suffering wife, Kate (June Squibb in an Oscar-worthy performance) and youngest son David (Will Forte) to the point David agrees to drive Woody to Nebraska to prove that the letter he received claiming he is a winner is really just a scam.

This story is just a simple backdrop to what are the gems in the movie — marvelous interactions between the characters that are real, funny, poignant and tragic.

Dern’s Woody is a man of few words, but everything he says depicts a man who simply was not caught up in life’s complications — mostly he let his alcoholic indulgences smooth out the edges of his existence. When asked by David if he ever was in love with Kate, he shrugs it off and says the reason he married Kate was because that’s what she wanted. When asked if he planned on having two sons, he dismisses the question with the explanation, well he wanted to have sex with Kate so he figured a kid or two would be the inevitable result.

As Kate, Quibb almost steals the movie. She is brutally honest, homey, vile and yet the wise backbone of the family. In a memorable scene that is both touching and humorous, Kate, Woody and David visit a cemetery in their native town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Kate recalls these departed family members with fondness but also with stinging indictments. Her candid recollections of intimate times leave David mortified.

Nelson shows a keen eye for family relationships, especially those that were filled more with tolerance than love. Woody’s many siblings are not the kind to hug it up. To them, warm moments occur when they talk about their old cars or how many hours it takes to drive from one place to another. Woody is the quintessence of a family that just moseys along in life, never wanting to analyze anything.

For David, the trip to Nebraska is a revelation, discovering the father he never knew, and while David gains a new appreciation for who his father is, flaws and all, he has to learn to accept that Woody is never going  to reciprocate with any “I’m proud of you son” praises.

Wisely, Payne and Nelson do not opt for any rosy finishes. That just would not be the Grant way of doing things.

‘American Hustle’ a superb ensemble piece

With seven Golden Globe nominations in the bag, “American Hustle” is yet more proof that writer-director David O. Russell is a proven talent. Fresh off his stellar work in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter,” where in these two films he guided Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale and Melissa Leo to Academy Award-winning performances, Russell has again presented memorable characters fleshed out by actors whose work will be contenders for Oscar nominations.

“American Hustle” focuses on people who are not evil but are willing to bend and break the rules to achieve their goals. Russell reunites with two of his most recent successful collaborations with Bale (“The Fighter”) and Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) in this story of schemes and corruption in the late 1970s.

Sporting a paunch and and an “elaborate comb-over” to hide a receding hairline, Bale is Irving Rosenfeld, a man raised in New Jersey whose most powerful influence in life is seeing his hard-working father victimized by corrupt people in control. Although he owns a chain of legitimate dry cleaning outlets, Irving veers off to do some conning, selling fake art and setting up a loan agency that is a rip-off scheme. At a party he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) who like Irving is prepared to do whatever is necessary to get ahead. The two are drawn together by a passion for Duke Ellington and a drive to gain the good life. Soon they are lovers and partners in a successful alliance of cons in which Sydney claims to have ties to a London bank and can secure loans.

This idyllic, if dishonorable, arrangement has a complication in that Irving is married to Rosalyn (Lawrence) and has adopted Rosalyn’s son from a previous relationship. The sparks have long gone out between the two but Irving is a dedicated father and Rosalyn is hesitant to file for divorce.

Then, Irving and Sydney find themselves in trouble when an ambitious FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), nails them in an undercover operation. DiMaso considers Irving and Sydney as small-timers and thus forces them to work with him in taking down some bigger prospects. One of DiMaso’s targets is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a passionate and ambitious mayor trying to revive Atlantic City and revitalize the state’s economy. But lacking the funding, Polito is desperate, making him vulnerable to using corruption in his quest.

“American Hustle” becomes a study in relationships as the plot unfolds. Irving has his hands full with Sydney, who is smart and manipulative, and Rosalyn, a strong-willed woman who is not as dumb as Irving might assume. Irving becomes the front man in luring Polito into DiMaso’s undercover operation and finds himself in unfamiliar territory — a genuine friendship with the political figure.

Trying to pull the strings is DiMaso, a volatile character whose ambition runs into roadblocks via his supervisor and his growing passion for Sydney.

All of these characters have good and bad points and are given shining moments to perform. Adams as Sydney can be vulnerable and conniving, playing both Irving and Richie. Rosalyn is the unknown variable. Not really sure what Irving is up to but forced to go along as she and Irving masquerade as a happy couple, she has the potential to unravel everything.

DiMaso is supposed to be the good guy, but he becomes blind in his overzealous pursuits of powerful people, making him easy prey to have the tables turned on him. Renner comes the closest to being a sympathetic character — a  man with strong family values and legitimate goals in making life better for his constituents only to find himself pulled into shady dealings.

And at the core is Irving, a man accustomed to being in control but finding himself pulled in different directions, factoring in loyalty, love and just trying to survive. Just when it looks like he is down and out, he makes a nice recovery.

“American Hustle”, co-written with Russell by Eric Warren Singer, is smart and funny and draws upon the challenges in life when the lines are gray rather than black or white. Who do you root for? Aside from great performances, that is what makes it a rewarding movie experience.

Diane Franklin recalls busy career in modeling and acting

Diane BookActress Diane Franklin had it all figured out. She knew from an early age what she wanted to do with her life, thus was able to begin her pursuits even before she started her schooling. Backed by unwavering parental support, and despite being a virtual novice with no connections whatsoever,  Franklin went to work while still a child, first in modeling, then in commercials, inevitably leading to  a busy career appearing in movies and television.

Now in her early 50s, Franklin has written an intimate and reader-friendly autobiography in which the title captures the essence of this actress:  “Diane Franklin – The Excellent Adventures of the Last American, French-Exchange Babe of the 80s.”

The layout of the book, a large paperback, is simple, with no fancy graphics. All of the photos, interspersed throughout the text, are black and white, including the eye-catching cover photo of the actress.

In a unique touch, Franklin “rates” each of the chapters that recall her movie experiences, using the guidelines employed by the MPAA in determining if a movie is for general or adult audiences. This is done by Franklin as a courtesy, as she is candid about her recollections of movies she was in that were geared toward adult viewers. These chapter ratings allow the reader to skip over any content that might cause discomfort.

Franklin recalls that the modeling work she did as a child was superb preparation for an acting career  — going after jobs, the long hours at times,  and the hard work. But she thrived on the demands and was drawn into the exciting world of entertainment.

Her diminutive stature, being only 5 feet, 2 inches, did stymie her modeling work, but she made a smooth transition into commercials. She also accumulated stage experience while in high school and did voice-over work for radio, all of which were valuable  in building her skills as an actress.

Franklin’s first professional stage work was playing Caroline Kirby in “The Happy Journey from Camden to Trention, Caroline being the daughter of the character played by JoBeth Williams.

At age 17 she landed the recurring role of Lois Middleton, a troublemaking teen, in the soap opera “As the World Turns,” which helped her prepare for the demands of an acting career. Thus, when she got her shot at a movie, she put in a memorable performance as Karen in “The Last American Virgin.”

In the book, Franklin details how she approached each role, finding she could play both an “angelic ingénue” or “searing siren.”  Karen in “American Virgin” was vulnerable, but Franklin easily fit into the siren character in the television movie of the week “Summer Girl.” She then proved her versatility with the tragic character of Patricia Montelli in “Amityville II: The Possession,” who starts out as sweet and naïve but ends up devilish, seducing a priest.

While television roles kept her busy, she was always looking for movie work, and in one of her career disappointments, she lost the role of Constanze, Mozart’s wife, to Elizabeth Berridge in the critically acclaimed and award-winning “Amadeus.” However, as events turned out, that setback enabled her to go on and make a name for herself in such movies as “Second Time Lucky” and more notably “Better Off Dead.”

Franklin’s book devotes separate chapters to these characters that have defined her career, analyzing each role along with comments on her working relationships with directors and fellow actors.

She closed down her 1980s experiences by starring as Princess Joanna in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” She makes a pretty good case for calling herself a babe of the 1980s.

The latter chapters of Franklin’s book describe her transition from youthful star to another rewarding role – that of a mother. She  writes about her daughter Olivia, who writes, directs, acts and edits comedic short films. Son Nick composes music and plays the guitar. Diane also has taken on roles in her daughter’s films.

“The Excellent Adventures of the Last American, French-Exchange Babe of the 80s,” is a quick and enjoyable read, written in a personable style that mirrors her rapport with her fans. Also useful is a filmography at the end of the book.

 The book can be found at amazon.com.

‘Out of the Furnace’ is grim but well-acted

An underlying theme of the dreary but effectively performed “Out  of the Furnace” is that life is not fair, and how people deal with that fact defines them as a person.

“Furnace,” directed and co-written with Brad Ingelsby by Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”), focuses on three characters whose lives intertwine with sobering results. Each has his own way of dealing with the challenges of their existence, and the sad conclusion in this movie is that hard work and an honest life do not always pay off handsomely.

The soul of “Furnace” is Christian Bale as Russell Baze, a man living in the economically depressed Iron Belt. His hometown of Braddock is well past its prime, but residing and working there are all he has known. He puts in long hours at the steel mill and has a strong relationship with girlfriend Lena Taylor (Zoe  Saldana).  On the down side, he lives under the ominous cloud of the mill possibly shutting down as cheaper steel from China encroaches upon the industry. His widowed father is dying, the old man’s body worn down from years toiling in the mill.

Also of concern to Russell is his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), a soldier who in between tours of service in Iraq returns to Braddock and falls into debt.  Rodney wants to break away from the Baze tradition of being mill employees but has no other job prospects lined up. In desperation he turns to illegal fighting, hooking up with the local operator, John Petty (Willem Dafoe), and earning money for taking falls in the bouts – except that sometimes in the heat of battle he forgets he is supposed to lose.

 During Rodney’s fourth tour of Iraq, Russell’s life takes a tragic turn, but he accepts the consequences and works on getting his life back together, even though his father now is gone and Lena has begun a new relationship with police Chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker). Russell pours his energy into renovating his father’s old house and resuming his employment in the mill.

On the periphery initially is Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a counterpart to John Petty but much more powerful. DeGroat resides and rules in the remote mountain areas of the northeast, where the sense of community is strong, with its own sets of rules and justice. Here, the police are mostly decorations. Harlan and his henchmen keep people in line.

Rodney returns from Iraq bearing physical and emotional scars from his tour there. Still indebted to Petty, he talks the reluctant Petty into setting up a fight in DeGroat’s territory. While Petty is looked upon warily in Braddock, he knows his place, and he knows that Harlan’s country is way more perilous than his own. Rodney’s story follows a familiar one of a person who vows to go astray just one more time, securing that big score, so he can settle into a stable life. Often these plans turn out tragically.

Harlan, aside from putting on fights, also deals in drugs, and as the opening sequence in the movie illustrates, is a loose cannon. It turns out that Petty’s worst fears about Harlan prove to be dead on.

Back in Braddock, just as Russell tries to come to terms with losing Lena, he is informed that Rodney has gone missing. He soon learns that law enforcement likely will not be effective in tracking down his brother. Harlan’s power is just too entrenched. So Russell, a man who always played by the rules, has to stray from that lifestyle to save Rodney.

Bale is engrossing as Russell, a man being dealt more setbacks than he deserves but maintaining a general faith in humanity until he is pushed too far. The rest of the cast is superb. Affleck is tragic as Rodney, the black sheep of the family, wanting to break out but essentially drifting along. Saldana’s Lena has fine moments as a young woman who has moved on with her life but still has strong feelings for Russell while being dedicated to Wesley.

Harrelson can play really unhinged characters, so he is in his element in “Furnace,” a man borderline crazy but also crafty. Some excellent support is provided by Whitaker – there are a couple of scenes involving Russell and Wesley that play out the dynamics of the relationship between the two as they are drawn together in solving the mystery of Rodney’s disappearance and must set aside the personal issues.

Also effective is Sam Shepard as Russell’s Uncle Gerald, who becomes a father figure, supporting Russell even as the man steps into danger.

As shown in “Crazy Heart,” Cooper has a sharp eye for human interaction, and in “Furnace” he tells a grim, humorless story that is violent and gritty but also conveys the warmth of people, particularly the brothers Russell and Rodney, who truly care for one another.

Statham is fine as good guy in “Homefront”

   With “Homefront,” what you see is what you get. It’s nothing more or nothing less – just an old-fashioned good versus evil movie.

   As usual, the character of virtue here is a person who does not seek out trouble, but does not back down when confronted by it. Also, this person may seem to be outnumbered, but the ferocity of his or her passion for survival is relentless and nearly impossible to subdue.

   This is a role that is tailor-made for Jason Statham.  He stars in “Homefront” as Phil Broker, a former undercover DEA agent, recently widowed, who settles in a small rural town with his daughter Maddy (Izabela Vidovic), who is about to celebrate her 10th birthday.  Phil just wants to blend in, but as with many small communities, he is an outsider subjected to close scrutiny.

   Trouble begins when Maddy is pushed around by a bully at school, Teddy Klum (Austin Craig), and responds by punching out the boy. Phil is called to the school and what should be a minor incident is inflamed by Teddy’s irate mother, Cassie (an emaciated Kate Bosworth), a woman with a drug habit who just will not let the playground confrontation blow over. When her husband Jimmy (Marcus Hester) tries to muscle Phil, he, like his son, gets flattened.

   So Cassie pays a visit to her brother, “Gator” Bodine (James Franco), whose boat repair shop is a front for a small-time meth operation. Gator has some local power and Cassie wants him to pull a little intimidation number on Phil. That also backfires.

   Meanwhile, the local gendarme, Sheriff Keith Rodrigue (Clancy Brown), is what you would expect from a small-town law enforcement officer – basically hard-working and honest but open to compromise when dealing with both Gator’s illegal activities and Phil’s growing list of physical encounters that are leaving some guys broken and bloodied.

   Gator’s small-time shenanigans, which also include stealing one of Maddy’s stuffed toys and kidnapping her cat Luther, only lead to Phil paying him a visit to say, hey I don’t want any trouble, but YOU definitely do not want any trouble from me. Gator snoops around in Phil’s house and finds boxes stuffed with old files that chronicle Broker’s past as a DEA agent.

   This allows Gator to go beyond his own jurisdiction. He enlists an old girlfriend, Sheryl (Winona Ryder), a lady whose own drug dependency past can hook her up with some big-time people who had a history with Phil and are harboring a grudge against him, to enlist them in taking out Phil.

    So now there is the inevitable battle between a man, who does have one ally, against a bunch of thugs. It ain’t gonna be a fair fight, especially when the added complication of Maddy being put in jeopardy is thrown in.

    Notable is that the screenplay is by Sylvester Stallone, an adaptation from a novel by Chuck Logan. This supposedly was going to be a vehicle for Stallone but the age factor kicked in, so it was handed down to Statham. It is not a complex story, and the characters are basic. Statham is low-key but dedicated to his daughter, wanting only a good life for her but ready to fight fiercely to protect her. Franco basically mails this one in. His only memorable scene is the one in which he is introduced, showing a vicious side that also falsely implies he is for law and order but actually is for protecting his own interests. Young Vidovic, who looks like she could be Statham’s daughter, shows a lot of spunk and clear-headed thinking, much like her father, when things get out of hand.

    A couple of plot items are left hanging. Whether they were eliminated via editing are so simply tossed aside and never filmed is unknown. Perhaps they may show up in an extended DVD version. Speaking of editing, once again, rapid editing mars some of the best action scenes. With a performer of Statham’s physical skills, it is annoying to not allow his scenes to flow smoothly without all the cuts.