Not much to say about the lone new movie that opened this weekend — another “Paranormal Activity” sequel, which doesn’t quite do it for me.
Next weekend we’ll have an embarrassment of cinematic riches, including several late arrivals frequently mentioned in the award-season hunt. Look for Friday reviews of the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” set in the Greenwich Village folk-music scene in 1961; “August: Osage County,” in which Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts go toe-to-toe in a black comedy about family dysfunction; “Her,” a fanciful story in which Joaquin Phoenix falls for the voice of his computer operating system; and “Lone Survivor,” a true-story military mission gone awry in Afghanistan that stars Mark Wahlberg.
In the meantime, let’s take a look at the mailbag and do a little catch-up. If you’re like me, so many titles opened between Dec. 18 and 25 that you couldn’t possibly keep up with all the hot new movies amid the holiday hubbub.
A woman emailed me last week to say that she, her husband and another couple saw “Nebraska.” “We laughed a lot at the movie. Our husbands have relatives from Friend, Neb. It was right on, and so true of most of the people.”
I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one with small-town ties (I grew up on a ranch in northwestern South Dakota) who admired Alexander Payne’s black-and-white comedy.
A flurry of letters to the editor have told me that some people were unhappy with the depiction of small-town people and life in Nebraska. The movie, they say, feeds an unfavorable stereotype of the state as poor, hick, not very bright.
I didn’t go to the movie expecting a Nebraska Chamber of Commerce message. I don’t think it’s Payne’s job to deliver one. He’s a storyteller, and a darn good one. I thought the main characters were plenty smart. For me, Payne and the movie’s script got at a slice of truth about rural life on the Plains, as well as the often awkward relationship between fathers and sons. In my mind, there’s no doubt about Payne’s genuine affection for his home state.
The woman also asked whether “the two devious-looking brothers” from Hawthorne, cousins to Will Forte’s character, were from Nebraska or had ever acted before.
Bart and Cole were played by Tim Driscoll, who’s from Omaha, and Devin Ratray, a native of New York City. Payne told me that Driscoll had a bit part as a police officer in his first movie, “Citizen Ruth.” Ratray is perhaps best known as Macaulay Culkin’s mean older brother in “Home Alone” and “Home Alone 2,” and has a long list of acting credits.
Shortly after my list of 2013’s top 10 movies appeared Dec. 29, I got a frosty electronic blast from a reader for including “The Wolf of Wall Street.” He referred me to an editorial that had appeared in The World-Herald by Jonah Goldberg of the National Review, who made a case that vulgarity has become so common in our culture that it’s no longer rebellious.
Goldberg, this reader said, is “probably not one of your go-to guys when assessing national commentary.” Actually, I learn from a wide array of political views on our editorial pages. He went on to say that “your exaltation of the movie seems to indicate you partake of the lowering of the common culture. You underscore the miserable condition of our society.”
My opinion, he said, was as distasteful as the movie, which he walked out on.
Let’s begin by agreeing that Top 10 lists are highly personal and subjective.
I didn’t get to review “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Had I written about it beyond a blurb in a Top 10 list, I would have said how shocked I was by the amount of full frontal female nudity, graphic sex, consumption of massive amounts of illegal drugs and totally amoral behavior by investment brokers who cared only about their personal profits, not about their investors at all.
It was repulsive, certainly vulgar and morally bankrupt.
But it’s entirely possible for a movie to have great acting, direction, writing and cinematography and also be vulgar and morally objectionable. In fact, I’m pretty sure amorality, repulsive hedonism and unbridled greed were the point of the movie. It was so far over the top, the audience laughed loudly and often — as intended.
“12 Years a Slave,” which topped my list for the year, is also filled with morally objectionable, vulgar material of a different kind — and is, in my opinion, a great movie. Excessive violence in movies often doesn’t raise hackles as readily as sex and nudity do.
Do I think Jonah Goldberg has a point about pervasive vulgarity? I sure do. But I don’t think my job as a movie reviewer is to warn people away from any play or movie I think contains morally objectionable behavior. (The definition varies from person to person, by the way.)
I do think it’s my job to let you know what you’re in for. And I try to assess whether excessive vulgarity in movies — sex, violence, language, despicable behavior — has a reason beyond shock value behind it.
Far from endorsing vulgarity, “The Wolf of Wall Street” holds a mirror up to an amoral slice of American capitalism that repulses most of us. Vulgarity is at its heart. For me, the amount of vulgarity isn’t what determines how effective a movie is at making its intended impact on an audience.