Perspective and its Possible Implications in Zonca’s JULIA

•13/04/2014 • Leave a Comment

13 April 2014

Erick Zonca’s 2008 thriller, Julia, manipulates perspective to increase tension for viewers.  Julia (Tilda Swintob) is in nearly every scene of the film, the expected probability with Julia being the title character; clearly, Julia is making a claim that it is a character-driven narrative, despite all its action and plot twists.  Because Julia is in almost every moment of the film, the audience basically knows nothing Julia herself does not know; the audience has a limited perspective on the narrative because Julia herself, a rather unstable protagonist (who is also her own antagonist), is often unsure what will happen next.  Had the audience been given an omniscient perspective, as is the case with more standard, formulaic films (even thrillers), viewers would be less tense and anxious throughout the thriller, pacifying themselves with information Julia does not know.

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For example, after Julia kidnaps Tom and the two go on the run, Julia repeatedly talks with Tom’s (Aidan Gould) wealthy grandfather.  Eventually, because Julia is not career criminal, Tom’s grandfather figures out exactly who Julia is.  He reveals to her, over the phone, that a friend of hers has come to see him; the friend is Mitch (Saul Rubinek), who took it upon himself to contact Tom’s grandfather hoping to help Julia out of this latest, and most colossal, of her messes.  All this time, the audience has stayed with Julia, watching her on the run, trying to blackmail a millionaire. Had the audience been offered an omniscient perspective, viewers would have seen a scene between Mitch and Tom’s grandfather; the audience would have had more information about their arrangements, as opposed to Julia hearing a vague retelling of their meeting while on the phone with Tom’s grandfather.  This moment builds tension; along with Julia, the audience learns new details and finally hears there is a reasonable chance Julia will actually get the ransom money she is after.  Yet, there are so many variables: what if Tom’s grandfather is lying, or what if Mitch is not as trustworthy as originally thought?  Julia does not know, and so the audience does not know, adding more thrill to the thriller.

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However, and interestingly, Zonca breaks this established perspective four times in the film.  First, long before the kidnapping, Julia rides in the backseat of a taxi with a male friend; as usual, she is drunk and tries getting the man to come inside her apartment.  The man refuses, and he pushes Julia out of the car, slamming the cab’s door.  The audience, outside with Julia, sees her trip and fall.  Then, the camera cuts and the audience jumps back into the taxi, this time without Julia.  All of a sudden, the viewers are without their title character and overhear a conversation between the taxi driver and Julia’s friend.  There seems to be no reason the audience is pushed out of Julia’s perspective, gaining a more omniscient moment in the taxi, and, almost immediately, the scene cuts and the audience returns to their limited perspective.

This same thing happens twice with Tom.  The first is when Tom gets himself dressed in his new clothes, after he and Julia cross the border of Mexico.  Tom is alone in the bathroom, staring at himself in the mirror.  Then, he walks over to the bathtub and sees cockroaches in the tub.  Disgusted he leaves the bathroom and the audience returns to Julia. Also, after Julia’s one-night-stand with Diego, Tom awakens in a strange bed with a small girl.  Scared and confused, Diego arrives, gets him up, and escorts him to Julia, who has been asleep in another room.  Again, there is no clear reason the perspective changes here.  The audience is only away from Julia for moments, but it does seem strange to change perspectives abruptly when the film clearly attempts to remain true to Julia’s scope.

The last time it happens is when Diego gets murdered.  Julia, Tom, Diego, and the men who kidnapped Tom from Julia are all in the bathroom, where Tom has been help hostage.  A heated argument breaks out, and Julia tells the kidnappers Diego sold them out (a lie).  The kidnappers take Diego to another room, and the camera follows them.  When the kidnappers shut the bathroom door on Julia and Tom, the audience leaves Julia’s perspective once again.  In this last example, the audience sees Diego thrown to a chair, arguing continue, and a gun pointed at Diego.  Julia does not know what is happening; she is on the other side of the door.  Although the film, which is nearly two and a half hours stays with Julia for all but, roughly, four minutes, Zonca clearly breaks his established point of view at times.

Even though there is no clear answer as to why Zonca subtly, randomly, and quickly subverts the film’s perspective, it does make an interesting suggestion.  The viewers and Julia are close through the duration of the film; Zonca keeps it that way with this perspective.  Yet, when perspective changes, there are a few things the viewers know that Julia does not: her friend’s rude remarks after she left the taxi, Tom’s experience with cockroaches in the motel bathroom, his face when he awoke next to a strange little girl in a strange bed, and what Diego’s last moments looked like.  But, what if there were things Julia knows, things that take place within the narrative that she keeps from the audience?

What happened to Elena (Kate del Castillo)? The audience sees Julia and Elena fight the day of Tom’s kidnapping.  And, this is not just any fight; these two, particularly Elena, who is mentally unstable (to match Julia’s alcoholism), scream at each other, and Elena looks as though she is about to charge Julia.  But, the scene cuts.  All of a sudden Julia is seated at a bar, covered in red lighting, having a drink.  She does not speak at first, but it is clear she is shaken up.  After the kidnapping, when Julia watches news footage from a motel room television, a voiceover reveals Elena, the authorities number one suspect in Tom’s kidnapping, has also gone missing.  To authorities, this must seem like a sign of Elena’s guilt, but, to viewers, the question becomes…where’s Elena?

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This question is never answered.  That could be because Elena’s whereabouts has no impact on the title character, Julia.  Or, it could be because Julia killed Elena.  As the film progresses, viewers see how far Julia will go to protect herself, and that includes killing people.  It certainly is not unlikely she would kill Elena, hide her body, and hope authorities assume the insane mother is the kidnapper, giving Julia more time to finalize her blackmailing scheme.

A pendulum swings both ways; if there are details the audience gets to know that Julia does not, it stands to reason there are details Julia gets to know that the audience does not.  Perhaps this is why Zonca breaks perspective occasionally throughout the film.  Viewers stay very close to Julia; they are always in her proximity, and they nearly always share her perspective.  Yet, Zonca’s experiment in perspective cleverly opens up opportunities to read between the lines of the film, offering ambiguity and satisfying expectation of tension from audiences looking for this thriller to thrill.

This slanted reading on Julia, suggesting Julia conceals secrets from the audience, like the murder of Elena, gives a special twist to the film’s last line, which is Julia telling Tom, “Okay, I am going to bring you to your mother now.”

A Not So Fatal Femme Fatale: Experimenting with the Norms of Film Noir in THE DEEP END

•06/04/2014 • Leave a Comment

6 April 2014

Film noir, the highly successful style of filmmaking which peaked in the 1940s, focuses on crime, corruption, and a cynical look at humanity.  These key thematic elements are only part of what a standard noir is made of.  Speaking to genre, film noirs also tend to be thrillers, crime dramas, or gangster films. Moreover, and to get more existential, noirs often explore the isolation of humanity, and, conversely, the claustrophobic nature of humanity’s limited existence, which ultimate points to an unbalanced society/social structure.  As far as narratives go, film noirs are often set in urban areas, like major cities, which include, architecturally speaking, juxtapositions in size, shadows, and have plenty of back alleys for dirty dealing.  This set factor connects with the quintessential lighting of a noir, which is low-key, emphasizing shadow.  Also, noirs tend to break nonlinear storytelling by relying on flashbacks.  Jazz music is often a part of a standard noir, setting the mood from the audible perspective.

Most importantly, there is always an antihero; a fraudulent man, who, somehow, gets involved with the underbelly of humanity, but, thankfully, has a moral compass.  Unlike the femme fatale, the sexy female character of a noir, who instigates corruption, motivates the antiheroes wrongdoing, and often completely lacks morals.

Unquestionably, Scott Mcgehee and David Siegel’s The Deep End (2001) is a modern-day interpretation of film noir.  Although it is set in modern day, The Deep End is in a thriller about how far a mother will go to protect her child.  Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton), her three children, and her father-in-law live in Lake Tahoe City while Margaret’s husband, presumed to be in the navy, is away at sea.  The Hall’s eldest son, Beau (Jonathan Tucker), gets into a relationship with an older man named Darby (Josh Lucas), a user who owns a Reno nightclub.  Finding out about their relationships, Margaret pleads with Darby to leave Beau alone, but Darby is so unaffected by Margaret’s plea he comes to Tahoe one night to see Beau.  That night, in the Hall’s boathouse, Beau and Darby argue.  As Beau tires to walk away from the fight, Darby falls through the boathouse dock’s rail, killing him.  The next morning, Margaret finds Darby’s body and immediately assumes Beau killed Darby, so she covers the crime up. Although the audience knows Darby’s death was an accident, both mother and son assume the other committed murder.  And so, when a strange man, Al (Goran Visnjic), appears on their Lake Tahoe doorstep to blackmail the Halls about Beau’s relationship with Darby, as well as Darby’s death, the limits Margaret will go to protect her family are tested.

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Clearly the film is a cynical thriller revolving around a violent death.  In part, the film explores how the main characters, particularly Margaret, quickly descend into corruption once they are exposed to the underbelly of society.  The film uses flashbacks, breaking a linear narrative structure.  The Deep End also repeatedly sets the mood with jazz music (via Beau’s trumpet playing), and experiments with low-key lighting by frequently washing dramatic and tense moments in blue shadows, an incredibly significant color to The Deep End.  All these elements are standard noir.

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Yet, The Deep End is far from a typical film noir.  In fact, The Deep End subverts as many norms of noir as it adheres to.  For example, although Reno plays a part in the film, The Deep End keeps nearly all of its action in the quiet, secluded town of Lake Tahoe City. This affluent, scenic setting is far from a standard noir’s urban location.  And, while The Deep End finds ways into dark, confined spaces at the Hall’s Tahoe estate, such as the dimly lit, cramped boathouse, many of the grimmest and tense moments refuse this confined, dark location, and are, instead, set in open spaces and bright sun.  Specifically, when Margaret finds Darby’s body on the shore, it is a beautiful, sunny morning.  Margaret pulls an anchor out of Darby’s chest, drags his body into a dingy, and dumps him into the lake in open, bright space. This example is a clear slant on the expected noir approach, pointing out that, although the film adheres to noir standards, The Deep End also subverts norms of noir.

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Another striking defiance of noir standards is the film’s treatment of its antihero and femme fatale characters.  It seems the film makes an alteration from antihero to antiheroine, similar to what Mildred Pierce tried to accomplish years ago.  The Deep End is led by a female character, Margaret, whose seemingly strong moral compass is challenged because she mistakes her son for a murderer.  Margaret is the character that, in the opening shot of the film, enters into the underbelly of humanity (when she enters “The Deep End,” Darby’s Reno nightclub).  Although Margaret does not kill anyone, she conceals a murder, hiding Darby’s body and destroying all the evidence (she knows of) that connects Darby to her son, Beau.  It appears Margaret is the antiheroine of The Deep End, which presents a complication…

With Margaret as the antiheroine, and only woman, who is the femme fatale?  The easy answer would be The Deep End has no femme fatale, but that is actually not the case.  Once Al enters the film, as the blackmailer sent to extort money from the Halls, it becomes clear Margaret was never the antiheroine; Al is the antihero.  But, if Al is the antihero, what is Margaret’s role?  Turns out, Margaret is the femme fatale of The Deep End, and, completely subverting noir norms, this film tells its story from the femme fatale’s perspective.

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Noirs are traditionally the antihero’s story, but not in The Deep End.  The film does not even introduce Al right away.  Instead the film spends time redefining how viewers should see the femme fatale, if the story is told from her perspective.  The audience views Margaret as mother, wife, and homemaker.  Importantly, she is not sexualized (or hyper sexualized) as most femme fatales are.  Yet, once Al enters, Margaret’s appearance changes; she wears a striking red coat, causing her son to say, “You look nice,” finally allowing the audience to see Margaret as femme fatale.

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Because the film is the femme fatale’s story, The Deep End complete redefines a woman’s role on noir, with, perhaps, the most striking redefinition occurring in the film’s conclusion, which is more forgiving to the femme fatale than traditional film noirs.  In the end of The Deep End, the antihero dies—because of his relationship with the femme fatale—but the femme fatale survives.  In fact, with the phone call in the film’s conclusion, the film suggests the Halls completely recuperate, with Margaret and her family starting fresh.

Even with so many adherences to noir norms, The Deep End challenges film noir standards by telling the story from the femme fatale’s point of view.  In typical film noir, the femme fatale is, basically, evil incarnate.  She is the Lady Macbeth, the most morally damaged character who perpetuates corruption and wrongdoing.  Using her feminine wiles, she is typically punished in the end for her attempt to assert power and control men.  Margaret is a refreshing re-visioning of the cliché femme fatale and a stronger, more dimensional female character that often captured on film.

Howling in the Dark: THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, a Black Comedy

•30/03/2014 • Leave a Comment

30 March 2014

No question, Martin Scorsese’s latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, is bold.  Overall, critics and audiences welcomed the film warmly, but The Wolf of Wall Street also experienced its fair share of backlash for, what some perceive to be, its offensive and crude humor.

Yet, much of the backlash for the film’s distasteful wit may come from a misread of Scorsese’s latest.  It is not that the film considers substance abuse, vulgarity, moral corruption, female objectification, greed, power tripping, and death funny; The Wolf of Wall Street is a black comedy.

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As a genre of art, black comedy is a distinct type of comedic approach fixated on difficult, morbid, and/or depressing topics, but refuses to take these topics seriously. The aim of a black comedy is not simply to make the unfunny funny; a black comedy approaches tragedy lightly, often as a means of social commentary.

The Wolf of Wall Street wastes no time capturing the twisted humor in the lives of the morally corrupt, namely Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his associates.  Refusing to take any weighty topic seriously, Scorsese tackles countless ways the underbelly of humanity’s warped value system can be seen as humorous.  For example, when Donnie (Jonah Hill) sees one of his workers cleaning a fishbowl in the office, Donnie takes it upon himself to teach this worker a lesson; Donnie eats the man’s goldfish.  The film does not treat Donnie’s act as serious because the entire office staff look on and clap as Donnie digests.  Sure the act is disgusting, and tragic for the publicly ridiculed man and his innocent fish, but the focus of the scene is not on them; the focus is on a wild, reckless, captivating boss who runs his office like a fraternity house.

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Another scene in the film that exemplifies the ideals of a black comedy occurs just after Jordan and Donnie pop Quaaludes at Jordan’s New York mansion.  The pills have little effect, because they are old, so the two try compensating by taking massive doses.  Jordan is interrupted by a phone call from a private investigator, Bo. He tells Jordan to find a payphone and call him back immediately.  Jordan leaves Donnie in his house and drives to a local country club to use the phone.  Jordan learns from Bo that his home phone line is tapped, but, before Jordan can rush back and warn Donnie not to make or take any calls the Quaaludes kick in, literally knocking Jordan off his feet.  Crawling and rolling, Jordan makes his way, back to his car, and, likening himself to a person diagnosed with cerebral palsy, Jordan drives home to keep Donnie off the phone.  Of course, Donnie, who is also experiencing a trip from the massive dose of Quaaludes, is on the phone.  With slurred speech and limited body movement, Jordan tries to yell at Donnie and take the phone from him.  Donnie, incapacitated, fights back, and the two wrestle (as best they can) on Jordan’s kitchen floor.  Simultaneously, Jordan’s two-year-old daughter, Skylar, enters and sees the spectacle, while Jordan’s wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie), tries grabbing the little girl and taking her out of the room.

The men continue to awkwardly fight on the floor, having now wrapped each other up, accidentally, in the telephone’s long cord.  Donnie, intent on escaping through the dining room, wriggles his body free of the cord and crawls to the dining room table.  He pulls himself up as Jordan, who is now nearly immobile due to the Quaaludes’ power, gives up, laying flat, face-down, on the kitchen floor.  Panicked, Donnie stuffs sliced ham into his mouth, which he almost immediately begins to choke on.  Naomi runs into the dining room to help Donnie, who has now fallen prostrate, choking.  Naomi screams for Jordan’s help, but Jordan, still lying immobile on the kitchen’s floor, wrapped in the cord, can barely move.

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The film cuts to a shot of Popeye, the cartoon, which plays on a television in the background.  Popeye, needing his strength, grabs his can of spinach, downs it, and flexes his arm’s muscle, which, of course, has exploded in size thanks to his dietary decision.

Cut back to Jordan pulling himself toward a kitchen drawer.  Inside is a bag of (what appears to be) cocaine.  Like Popeye, Jordan ingests the cocaine, which makes him stronger.  He gets up, rips the telephone cords from his body, rushes to Donnie, and saves his friend’s life.

This scene is one of the best darkly humorous moments in The Wolf of Wall Street because it achieve its comedic value by not taking the tragedy of the situation seriously.  First, to see Jordan and Donnie rolling around on the floor, all wrapped up in the telephone’s cord, literally screaming (or, better phrased, slurring) is ridiculous.  Scorsese brings the camera right down to the floor with these two as they foolishly clamber their way through an intense, Quaalude trip of an argument. The film does not suggest any danger in the drug abuse; instead, the film revels in the wriggling of its two main characters. By not taking the drug abuse seriously, it becomes funny.

Moreover, the analogical cut to Popeye is also part of this scene’s black humor.  In The Wolf of Wall Street, apparently Popeye is to Jordan as spinach is to cocaine. Popeye eats spinach, and that helps him handle his obstacles; Jordan ingests cocaine, and that helps him handle his obstacles.  But, Popeye is not real, and he is meant to be entertaining.  If Jordan is likened to Popeye than he, too, is not real and meant to be entertaining.  Again, the film does not take Jordan or his drug abuse seriously, therefore he is entertaining and funny.

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Also, the ham Donnie chokes on is hilarious because it is ironic.  Metaphorically, Jordan and Donnie are two hams, meaning they are two loud, attention-seeking, spectacles.  They get themselves in trouble with the FBI and they get themselves paralyzed on old Quaaludes all because they are hams.  Their own behavior and entitled, elitist mentality are their biggest problems and, ultimately, their undoing.  This luncheon meat is the perfect, ironic “weapon” to nearly kill Donnie with because, figuratively, choking on ham is Donnie choking on his own warped, ridiculous behavior.  Again, the film is using irony to make a point; the film is not emphasizing Donnie’s peril, and so the entire choking experience is funny, not tragic.

And how does Jordan save a choking Donnie?  Not the Heimlich Maneuver, the way people typically save others who are choking.  Jordan gives Donnie CPR, a maneuver that could very easily kill someone who is choking.  But that does not really matter, because that would be too serious of a thought.  Again, it is so absurd and ridiculous to see Jordan pounding on a choking Donnie’s chest, and to hear him screaming for his friend (who one minute ago he threatened to kill), that it ends up being funny.  The audience does not really believe Donnie is going to die, and, if they do, they are not anxious or concerned about it.  Donnie’s near-death experience is treated like a joke, and so the audience laughs.

This is quintessential black comedy: spinning the morbid and grotesque into humor by not taking it seriously.

Yet, the scene is also disturbing, and this is where Scorsese steps up and demonstrates his control over the black comedy style.

It is not funny to see Skylar, Jordan’s young daughter walk into this scene and see this madness.  It is also disturbing to see Naomi, Jordan’s very pregnant wife, in the middle of this drug-infested, wild foolishness.  These more sobering images add complexity to this scene because viewers cannot take them lightly, unlike the way they view the men rolling around in the floor.

Scorsese knows what he is doing.  The Wolf of Wall Street, theoretically speaking, could never be a comedy because the film’s characters lack moral compasses; Scorsese would not want to fall into the trap of creating a film which celebrates and epitomizes unethical, unconscionable people.  That film would not be accepted by the masses.  Instead, the film itself, thanks to Scorsese, reveals its own moral compass and uses it to appeal to viewers’ value systems.  Injecting a shot of Skylar in the Quaalude fight scene is evidence of the film’s moral compass; this shot is serious and tragic, and cannot be confused for any type of humor.  Moreover, this shot forces viewers to recognize Jordan and Donnie’s behavior is wrong and selfish, which asks something of viewers’ morals.

In all, the film is a black comedy because it allows viewers to look at the unconscionable behaviors of the morally corrupt without taking them seriously, laugh at their ridiculous lifestyles and behavior, but never compromise their own values.  Thus, the morally corrupt characters are shamed in The Wolf of Wall Street by viewers, who Scorsese subtly reminds have a moral obligation not to condone the characters’ behaviors, but to laugh at them instead.

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Censorship and the 2014 Academy Awards

•23/03/2014 • Leave a Comment

23 March 2013

Typically, all the reactions posted on this blog focus on a piece(s) of a select film, exploring how a cinematic or narrative detail(s) communicates or connects to something larger at work in the film.  This week will be an exception to the standard practice.

Three weeks ago the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gave out their Oscars in one of their highest-rated and (arguably) most entertaining ceremonies.  Yet, some curious censorship decisions made a subtle and unsettling statement in this year’s ceremony.  During the first category, Best Performance by and Actor in a Supporting Role, a clip from 12 Years a Slave was played, one featuring nominee Michael Fassbender.  In this clip, Fassbender’s character, a white slave owner, referred to black people as niggers.  This term was censored, and therefore silenced, during the broadcast.

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To the ear, a bleep or mute is a noticeable type of censorship; the omission of sound interrupts the rhythm of speech, calling attention to the censorship.  When the 12 Years a Slave clip was censored early in the Academy Awards’ ceremony, it was a noticeable but understandable decision.  The term nigger is controversial because of it is demeaning and scornful etymology.  In the clip’s context, nigger is a hate-fill word used by a white slave owner in reference to black people who he considers inferior; from this point of view, the term degrades black people to such an inferior status that they are dehumanized.  Although 12 Years a Slave’s use of this word is historically accurate—and it would have to be because the screenplay was adapted from a memoir, or nonfictional text— the Oscars air on network television.  According to the Federal Communications Committee (FCC), the censors, the term nigger is not appropriate to say on network television no matter what the context is.

So, considering the precedent this censorship made in silencing the term nigger in the ceremony’s opening category, one might assume all degrading and scornful terms, which, like nigger, target a select group of people, would be censored during the ceremony, right?  Wrong.

Meryl Streep was nominated this year for her work in August: Osage County.  When her clip played, during the Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Lead Role category, Streep’s character yells out “son of a bitch,” and that phrase, specifically the word bitch, was not censored.

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To contextualize, in the August: Osage County clip, Streep’s character is calling her dead husband a “son of a bitch.”  Interestingly, although she intends this as a verbal insult on a man, it is really an attack on women.  The insult “son of bitch,” which is often aimed at men, actually lands on their mothers.  Thus, even when directed at a man, as in this clip, the term bitch is always degrading to women.

Looking closely at this one incident during this year’s Academy Awards, it seems confusing that censors did not allow nigger, but did allow bitchNigger targets blacks; bitch targets women.  Nigger has a controversial history of humiliating, lowering the status of, and dehumanizing black people, used to make black people feel inferior to white people; bitch has the same controversial history of humiliating, lowering the status of, and dehumanizing women (by likening them to a female dog in heat), used to make women feel inferior to men.

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So, why was the word nigger censored but the word bitch was not?

It is plausible the Academy Award producers, who select the clips that air during the Academy Awards, did not realize these two terms would be treated differently by FCC censors, and may have thought neither term would be silenced.  This is reasonable because producers could have easily selected clips from both 12 Years a Slave and August: Osage County that did not contain profanity.  Also, considering producers when well out of their way to select three clips/montages from The Wolf of Wall Street that do not feature the word fuck—which is used over 500 times in the film—it stands to reason the producers may not have realized the language used in the clips from 12 Years a Slave and August: Osage County would present a concern.  Therefore, the aforementioned question really falls on the network television censors.

According to the FCC, “profane speech is prohibited on broadcast radio and television between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.”  Technically, the 12 Years a Slave clip was played before 10 p.m. and the August: Osage County clip was played after 10 p.m.  Applying their policy to this situation, the FCC has the right to stop censoring at 10 p.m. and, apparently, did stop censoring this year’s Oscars.  Yet, according to the FCC, programs that use profane language after 10 p.m. are subject to fines.  However, there was no fine for the Academy Awards’ use of bitch after 10 p.m. in the August: Osage County clip.  So, evidently, even though bitch slipped into the Oscar broadcast after 10 p.m., the FCC does not feel it is inappropriate for television and/or radio to use the term bitch.

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In the end, the issue is not that nigger was censored.  And, the issue is not that bitch was not censored.  The issue is by censoring one and not the other, and not holding the Academy’s producers responsible for airing a clip with profanity after 10 p.m., a precedent is set: bitch, unlike nigger, is an acceptable term to use on television. Taking that further, according to this censorship call, one can presume it has now become acceptable to openly demean a woman, right?

Wrong.

Letting It Go: De-thawing Disney’s Antiquated Definition of “True Love” in FROZEN

•16/03/2014 • Leave a Comment

16 March 2014

The Snow Queen is a character Disney tried to use for at least 70 years.  The origins of this character date back to 1844 when Hans Christian Anderson published “The Snow Queen,” a fairy tale with an icy child-stealing villainess.  Every attempt Disney made to adapt Anderson’s character fell apart, and the project was repeatedly shelved.  However, within the last five years, the project was re-envisioned once more, and the Snow Queen transformed into a victim of her own cold powers; a well-intentioned anti-hero who audiences can feel compassion for.  Importantly, the Snow Queen, now called Elsa, was also given a family, specifically a sister, Anna, the film’s princess protagonist.  This re-envisioning of “The Snow Queen” into what audiences today know as Frozen is not simply a spin on a classic fairytale.  In fact, figuratively speaking, the transformation of the Snow Queen into Elsa likens nicely to the transformation Disney has made from its definition of “true love” for its earlier princesses into its definition of “true love” for its current princess, Anna. 

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To summarize (with spoilers), late one night in the far-off land of Arendelle, two young princesses innocently play throughout their castle.  The elder sister, Elsa (Idina Menzel, or as John Travolta credits her, Adele Dazeem), has a magic power; she can freeze objects and make snow.  The younger sister, Anna (Kristen Bell), who has no magic powers, loves her sister’s gift, happily prancing from one mound of snow to the next in their castle’s great room.  But, the faster Anna jumps, the harder it is for Elsa to create mounds of snow for Anna to land on.  Accidentally, Elsa strikes Anna with her magic, freezing her younger sister.  The king and queen rush Anna to nearby trolls, who save Anna’s life by removing her memories of Elsa’s power.  The trolls warn Elsa that her power can be dangerous if she does not learn how to control it.  Because of this warning, the castle’s gates are close, shutting all of Arendelle out from the royal family.  Moreover, Elsa secludes herself in her bedroom, away from Anna, practicing control.  Tragically, the king and queen are killed shortly after, leaving the two sisters alone in the world, and apart from each other because of Elsa’s unrestrained magical power.

Finally, years later, Elsa comes of age to take the throne.  On her sister’s coronation day, Anna meets a seeming gentleman named Hans (Santino Fontana) and the two fall in love at first sight.  But, upon learning of her sister’s plan to impulsively marry Hans, Elsa loses control of her power once more.  She accidently freezes all of Arendelle before she flees, alone, into the mountains.  Leaving her new finance, Hans, to run Arendelle, Anna runs after her sister.  Along the way, she meets Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), a local ice man, and hires him to take her to Elsa’s new ice castle at the top of the mountain.  Unfortunately, Elsa is not interested in returning to Arendelle, and, overwhelmed with the fear of her own power, Elsa once again accidentally strikes Anna with her magic.  This time, Anna is not immediately frozen, but is hurt.  Kristoff takes Anna back to the trolls, who tell the two that only an act of true love can undo the magic’s power; without this act, Anna will freeze permanently.  Kristoff rushes Anna back to Hans.  Meanwhile, Hans and others from Arendelle are narrowing in on Elsa in her ice castle.  Elsa is taken hostage and returned to Arendelle, just as a weakened Anna returns to her fiancé.  Anna pleads for her true love’s kiss, however, Hans reveals himself as a come-upper, someone who is only using Anna for her position in line to Arendelle’s throne.  Hans leaves Anna to die and orders Elsa executed for Anna’s death.  Before she learns of her own fate, Elsa escapes her imprisonment, but, panicked, she trips off another severe snowstorm. When she is confronted by Hans in the blizzard, he lies and tells Elsa that Anna died.  Immediately, Elsa’s sorrow stops the blizzard.  Just then, a nearly frozen Anna emerges, looking for her actual love, Kristoff, who has also just realized he, too, loves her.  Anna sees Kristoff, knowing she needs to embrace him soon or she will turn to ice, but she also sees Hans raise his sword over a grieving Elsa.  Instead of running toward Kristoff and the traditional “act of turn love,” Anna runs to save her sister.  Although Anna does save Elsa from Hans’s blade, she turns to ice, as the magic’s curse finally consumes her.  Astonished, Elsa tearfully clings to her sister.  With that, Anna unfreezes; her act of true love, saving her sister, was enough to break the curse.

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With the exception of Merida, all of Disney’s past princesses have one thing in common: their survival depends on finding “true love” in the end, and, therefore, because of the way Disney has always defined acceptable “true loves” (men), their princesses’ survival consistently depends on a man.  In Brave, Merida was the first Disney princess to challenge this; Merida does not need “true love” to save herself in the end, and she does not end up with a “true love” in Brave.  The entire movie, in fact, surrounds resistance to the expectation placed on young women to find their stereotypical “true love,” Brave avoids the “true love” trap by not introducing a plausible prince for Princess Merida.  Meaning, although Merida is a unique Disney princess because her happiness in the end does not depend on a man, there is no acceptable man for Merida to depend on.  Thus, Brave does not actually confront the “true love” expectation Disney spent years establishing; Brave avoids it.

This is not the case in Frozen; Frozen does confront Disney’s overly simplistic and now antiquated definition of “true love.”  First, one of the norms Disney established with its first princesses is a connection between “true love” and love at first sight.  Often times, in Disney films, the two are interconnected.  For example, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) meets Prince Phillip once (and perhaps “once upon a dream”) before he is able to awaken her from Malificent’s evil spell with “true love’s kiss.”  Frozen challenges this idea of love at first sight.  In Frozen, Anna thinks she finds love at first sight simply because she wants to find love at first sight.  Anna is so in love with the idea of love that she foolishly and desperately falls for (or thinks she falls for) Hans immediately. Instead of getting to know Hans, she accepts his marriage proposal and, shortly after, leaves Arendelle under his control while she chases after Elsa. Later in the film, of course, Anna learns Hans is a deceitful, self-serving liar, and realizes her impulsive and ignorant decision to trust him with her heart and land was a mistake.  Frozen purposefully challenges the idea of love at first sight, highlighting the likely dangers of putting one’s heart ahead of one’s head.

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Moreover, Frozen confronts how “true love” is typically defined.  Up until this point, and including Brave, “true love” is a term Disney used in reference to heterosexual romantic relationships, often, but not exclusively, between a princess and a prince.  And, unlike Brave, Frozen does introduce a possible “true love” for Anna who meets these standards: Kristoff.  In the end, when Anna is dying, she has the opportunity to embrace Kristoff for the oh-so-traditional Disney princess ending.  If Anna ran to Kristoff, “true love’s” kiss would have undoubtedly broken the magic’s curse. Yet, Anna did not run to Kristoff; Anna runs to her sister, Elsa, the very person responsible for her condition.  With Elsa in trouble, Anna puts her own life aside to save her sister.  The spell breaks because this act of sacrifice, although unlike how Disney has always defined “true love,” is an act of true love.  Had Anna relied on Kristoff’s kiss, as princesses in the past did, Anna’s survival would have depended on a man.  Instead, Anna’s survival depends on Anna; she saves herself by saving her sister.  And, through Anna, Disney redefines its own definition of “true love” in princess tales.

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One may hesitate to applaud Frozen too much through, as the idea of women needing to be sacrificial, which is promoted in Frozen’s conclusion, is problematic.  However, a necessary step is taken in this film.  For the countless girls and young women who watch Disney’s films and absorb their messages, Frozen finally offers women the option of not depending on a man for survival; women can save themselves and each other.

One last comment (although admittedly off-topic), regarding the backlash aimed at Disney for possible homosexual readings of Frozen (mainly by religious individuals and organizations).  True, it is not a stretch to read Frozen, on a slant, as a lesbian love story between Elsa and Anna.  These two are said to be sisters, yet they look nothing alike, act noting alike (to say nothing of magical powers that further separate the two).  Their love and loyalty to one another endures throughout the entire film, even though social pressures and fear of “differentness” consistently force the two apart.  In the end, when only love can break a magical curse, Anna’s love for Elsa breaks the spell.

A homosexual read on Frozen was not Disney’s intention, nor is it the only way to read the film; however, it is a valid read.  The same way scholars slant Kate Chopin’s writing for homosexual reads, Frozen does not need to be tilted all that much to see Elsa and Anna as lesbians. Like all art, films are, and always have been, a reflection of the society that creates them.  In America today, acceptance of homosexuality has greatly increased in comparison to the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, when early Disney princesses appeared.  This acceptance still has ways to go, but increased tolerance naturally infiltrates cinema the same way all social shifts infiltrate art.  And, for Disney, a company that typically releases highly prescriptive films, detailing how people, specifically women, should look, love, and behave, it is refreshing that, just maybe, Frozen is more descriptive, meaning the film, in reflecting an increased social tolerance of homosexuality, describes how people actually exist in society today instead.

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And the Oscar Goes to…: Technical Merit and Narrative Failure in GRAVITY

•09/03/2014 • Leave a Comment

9 March 2014

Last weekend, Gravity earned seven Academy Awards, more than any other film in competition.  Of its wins, Gravity swept the Oscar’s technical categories, suggesting that, based on how the American Academy of Motion Pictures rates films, Gravity is the strongest cinematic achievement in film from 2013.  However, Gravity was not awarded best picture; 12 Years a Slave is the 2013 Academy Award winner for Best Picture (as well as Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay).

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And so, the repeated banter begins…how can the most awarded film, the film that earned all the technical categories, not be the best picture of the year?

Simple.  That is the way it works, generally speaking.  Of Oscar’s twenty four categories, The Academy finds a way to celebrate two things simultaneously: the films with captivating cinematic prowess and the films that captivate viewers.  Evidently, a film rarely achieves both.  The Academy Awards ceremony celebrate films, like Gravity, that are cinematic achievements, but also recognizes that cinematic achievements usually do not find their way into viewers’ hearts.  Oscar also celebrates films, like 12 Years a Slave, which rely on pre-established cinematic norms, not pushing any filmic envelope, but have plots rich in pathos, pulling the audience in to an unforgettable narrative.  These captivating, unforgettable stories are what win Best Picture.

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But, this suggests and interesting pattern: again, generally speaking, films that emphasize cinematics are technically successful but have underdeveloped narratives, and films that develop narratives often end up relying on the narrative instead of cinematics for their success.  Gravity is a perfect example of this theory.   Without question, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is a cinematic accomplishment, yet its overused, predictable storyline offers nothing for viewers to invest in emotionally.

Like great directors often do, Cuaron took the bait with Gravity’s incredibly challenging screenplay: minimal cast, either claustrophobically enclosing or boundless sets, and, of course, no gravity.  Cuaron, who also wrote, produced, and edited the picture, was able to create a world outside our own in the film, experimenting with camera technique (notably including first-person perspective shots and juxtaposing close-ups with extreme long shots).

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Yet, from a narrative perspective, Gravity is a bust.  It seems as though Gravity’s narrative is the same recycled story all survivor films are made with.  Unlikely and unprepared anti-hero must rise to impossible challenges.  Miraculously escaping death time after time, the anti-hero’s story always ends one of two ways: death (usually suicide) for the greater good of humanity or as lone survivor, both options designed to restore hope in viewers. In Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone sets out on a mission to service a space telescope.  The mission is led by Matt Kowalski, an experienced astronaut, unlike Stone who has only been training for six months before this, her first, venture into space.  Almost immediately, things go wrong; fast moving Russian debris circling the Earth collides with crew, destroying the ship and killing all but Stone and Kowalski.  The two try making their way to the International Space Station; however, when power runs low on Kowalski’s thruster pack, only Stone makes it aboard.  Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), ISS has also been damaged by the circling debris, and Stone needs to get to the Chinese space station for a module capable of reentering Earth’s atmosphere.  Even though she encounters all imaginable (and some unimaginable) obstacles, Stone manages to make it to the Chinese station, into the module, and back to Earth, experiencing gravity once more.

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Memorable lines from Gravity go something like this, “Here we go,” “(gasp) What now?” “”I’m not quitting,” “Let’s go home,” and, a personal favorite, “It will be one hell of a ride.” Clearly, Gravity is all about technique because this dialogue is so cliché it is painful at times.  And, it is not just the dialogue; it is the entire narrative structure.  Of course the audience learns, shortly after the first major obstacle in the film, Stone is a grieving mother whose young daughter died tragically.  When a narrative is so underdeveloped, exaggerated attempts to grab sympathy for the protagonist are a must, and Gravity completely takes advantage of this.

Moreover, every time the narrative finds itself at a dead-end, a miracle happens so the story can keep progressing.  For example, Ryan Stone seems brilliant, but has absolutely no experience in space and limited knowledge of almost every spacecraft the audience sees her in.  She realizes this and gives up aboard the ISS; she turns off the oxygen, attempting suicide. Just then, Kowalski, who , presumably, died earlier in the film, reemerges; he opens the door and slips right in.  Kowalski encourages Stone to not give up and then tells her exactly what she must do to get back to Earth.  Suddenly, Stone awakens; Kowalski’s visit was all a dream.  She turns the oxygen back and begins the plan Kowalski told her to carry out.  If the apparition of Kowalski had not happened, Stone would be dead, not only because she in the act of killing herself, but also because she had no idea what to do next; the plot needed to get itself out of a dead-end.  And, with underdeveloped narrative, that something is often a random, unexplainable but well-timed miracle.

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Another way of looking at Gravity is that time spent on the film’s cinematics came at the expense of the narrative.  In the end, viewers will remember what a stunning visual spectacle the film is, but without care for the film’s characters or circumstance.  And, because of that, there is no way Gravity could compete against 12 Years a Slave for Best Picture; Best Picture winners are the films with a strong narrative.  Everyone who saw 12 Years a Slave remembers how emotional it was to see the true story of a free, black musician, kidnapped from his life and forced into a dozen years of brutal, inhumane servitude.  Solomon Northup is finally freed in the end, but, through his ordeal, audience members take an inside look at slavery and one man’s unrelenting fight for freedom. 12 Years a Slave moves viewers in a way Gravity cannot.  And so, when Oscar threw his party last week, Gravity’s cinematics were unanimously awarded, but it was not the Academy’s Best Picture.

Finding Humor and Poignancy and…the Ghetto: Blending Drama and Comedy in NEBRASKA

•02/03/2014 • Leave a Comment

2 March 2014

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, written by Bob Nelson, tells of elderly Woody Grant’s journey to claim his $1,000,000 winnings from a sweepstakes certificate he received in the mail.  Only trouble is, Woody (Bruce Dern) did not actually win any money.  The sweepstakes is a scam, and Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) and grown son David (Will Forte) realize that, even though Woody remains convinced he has finally hit it big.  Desperate and determined to get from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska and claim his winnings, but without a license to drive, Woody tries walking, only to be picked up by the police.  Woody’s son, feeling compassion for his aging father’s plight, agrees to drive him to Lincoln, as long as they can stop in Woody’s hometown, Hawthorne, Nebraska, along the way for an impromptu family reunion; Woody begrudgingly agrees.  Turns out, Woody has been hard up for money in the past, borrowing from friends and family.  And while he has bartered away his debts, most of Woody’s hometown friends and family are selfish, money-hungry people.  As soon as people hear that Woody is on his way to Lincoln to collect $1,000,000, people crawl out of the woodwork looking for Woody to repay old debts.  Despite David repeatedly telling the residents of Hawthorne that Woody is confused and did not actually win any money, former friends and estranged family members persist.  That is until the town sees Woody’s sweepstakes certificate, realize he has not won anything, and mock him publicly.  With his health failing, Woody and David leave Hawthorne, headed for Lincoln, where Woody will come face to face with the reality that he has not struck it rich, at least not financially.

Bruce Dern as Woody in a film still from Nebraska

One of the most striking things about Nebraska is the way the film blends poignancy with humor.  There is a great deal of sadness in Nebraska.  Woody Grant, for example, is “old man” who can barely walk, and who seems unsettled with his life.  Perhaps more pointedly, he seems unsettled with what he has not accomplished in his life.  The fact that Woody is desperate for his sweepstakes winnings so he can buy a truck and an air compressor suggest Woody feels inadequate in some way, that there are dreams he has had all his life that never became reality.  He is so desperate to meet these dreams in his life’s 11th hour he travels to another state, foolishly believing he won $1,000,000.

Woody never says much throughout the film, not only identifying him as a man of few words, but also suggesting that he is somewhat voiceless and defeated.  People talk over Woody, for Woody, and at Woody, and he takes it all.  By the end of the film, when Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) confronts Woody over the credibility of his sweepstake ticket, Woody stands in front of Ed and takes the abuse; David punches Ed for the malicious, unkind comments toward Woody.  That is a very satisfying moment for the audience because David lovingly stands up for his father (foreshadowing the conclusion); however, it is a final reminder that Woody has no voice and, perhaps, is too defeated to find the self-worth to defend himself.

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Conversely, the film does not dwell in sorrow; the film is as wickedly funny as it is somber.  Kate, for example, is the opposite of Woody, meaning she surely has her voice, and never stops using it.  She has something to say about everyone (living and dead), and she has no problem telling people exactly what is on her mind.  Even a former suitor whose grave she finds on a trip to the local Hawthorne cemetery.  Lifting up her skirt, Kate flashes the grave and tells this lost love, may he rest in peace, to take a good look at what he could have had.  Although her unfiltered nature tests the limits of comedy at times, Kate’s brazen humor is accepted as comic relief in Nebraska because the film clearly communicates that Kate is foundationally good-hearted and strong-willed; she always protects Woody and her children, even if her unabashed mouth sometimes unleashes on them.  Kate’s comedy helps balance Woody’s sadness.

But, it is not just that Nebraska is poignant in some moments and humorous in others.  What is impressive about this comic-laced drama is how nuanced the film is in blending comedy and emotion simultaneously, making the difficult things a little easier to watch, and giving the silly things some necessary weight.

One example of this blend comes mid-way through the film, when Woody, Kate, and David have dinner at Back Road Steakhouse in Hawthorne, where it just so happens to be karaoke night. To set the scene, this sequence opens with a woman holding a microphone, standing in the performance area, awaiting her karaoke cue, as the lead in music to “Time After Time” plays.  Based on the patrons, Back Road primarily services the elderly community, some of who make their way to the salad bar while karaoke singers entertain the masses.  Woody, Kate, and David sit away from the karaoke stage, in a connected room; however, the melodious sounds echo in for their (and the audience’s) listening pleasure.  Expressing her ruthlessly hilarious wit, Kate asks Woody, “What are you having, old man?”  He replies, “Meatloaf.”  Meatloaf is not on the menu, frustrating Kate.  Just then the waitress arrives to ask everyone’s order, and, as she does, Ed Pegram, an old friend of Woody’s and antagonist in the film, takes the karaoke performance stage and begins to sing “In the Ghetto.”  Kate notices, claiming Ed’s voice is the nicest thing about “that bastard,” which starts her on a rant about how all the men in Hawthorne wanted to “get in [her] bloomers” when she was younger.  From the karaoke area, Ed interrupts their conversations, drawing everyone’s attention to Woody, “a celebrity” for having won $1,000,000 in a sweepstakes, and encourages the restaurant to applaud for his old friend turned local millionaire.

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On the surface, this sequence is absolutely hilarious.  The audience is treated to a Grant family dinner at the local steakhouse on karaoke night.  To accompany their bickering over menu items and Kate’s rambling about how many men wanted to sleep with her in Hawthorne, Ed serenades everyone with a cover of Elvis Presley’s 1969 comeback hit, “In the Ghetto.”  Could a more perfect song have been selected to elicit giggles from the audience?  Probably not.  What does Ed, a farmer from Nebraska, know about the vicious circle of poverty and gun violence for families in inner-city Chicago (the story told in the song’s lyrics)?  Nothing.  But that does not stop him from selecting the song, deepening his voice, and belting out this obscure classic for the good people of the Back Road Steakhouse.

Moreover, when Ed calls attention to Woody, and Woody stands up to receive his round of applause from the restaurant, the karaoke version of “In the Ghetto” continues.  Ed is no longer singing the lyrics, but the background music continues to repeat the phrase “in the ghetto” as Woody looks around the room at the applause.  Woody is ‘in the ghetto.” Maybe not the actual ghetto, as described in the song, but certainly an odd “back road” ghetto of his past.

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Yet, this scene is not just funny; this sequence is a blend of humor and sadness.  First, this scene is another reminder that Woody has aspirations he cannot reach. It is a small example, but in this scene Woody was looking for meatloaf.  According to the waitress, the restaurant has it, but only for lunch.  Woody is out of luck, seemingly a recurring issue for him in this film.  Add meatloaf to the long list of things Woody almost gets in the film: $1,000,000, a brand new truck, respect from his family and friends, etc.

Moreover, instead of meatloaf, Woody orders chicken.  When the waitress asks him if he prefers fried or roasted, he asks for fried.  Kate interrupts and orders him roasted chicken.  Once again, we see Woody without a voice.  He does not argue with Kate; he immediately looks down, accepting that he will have roasted chicken for dinner.   Sorrow in his defeat over the dinner option is quickly subverted by “In the Ghetto” which begins playing in the background at exactly that time.

When Ed calls out Woody for his winnings, and commands the restaurant to applaud Woody, the audience cannot help but take this seemingly celebratory moment in stride, remembering Woody has not won anything.  It is very difficult to watch Woody receive a standing ovation for a delusion.  Moreover, the audience watches Woody look confused as he stands up because he probably did not hear what Ed Pegram announced from the karaoke stage—difficulty hearing is a constant problem for Woody.  Woody clearly recognizes the people are applauding for him, and he smiles, but he does seem to understand why this is happening, filling the moment with the feeling of embarrassment and not joy.

Nebraska constantly jumps between laugh out loud humor and heart wrenching moments.  The Back Road Steakhouse scene is one of many that blends comedy with tragedy, pulling viewers in and creating a genuinely emotional film viewers cannot help but invest in.  There is no dramatic turn of event, surprise ending, or unexpected conflict in Nebraska, yet, because the film subtly balances a range of appeals to viewers, there does not need to be any twist to make the film satisfying and memorable.

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