miscellaneous commentary

Posts Tagged ‘Nebraska

Favorite films* of 2014 (Part 1)

leave a comment »

In keeping with last year’s bright idea of writing two posts about my favorite films of the year, I’m going to write a little something about the movies of 2014 that I’ve seen so far and enjoyed. I have to do this past-tense as, obviously, I waited until after New Years to do this.

Anyway, here goes…


There were four movies I really enjoyed in 2014. My favorite by far was “Boyhood”, a brilliant, low-key, honest story of a boy’s life. It wasn’t until just last year (2013) that director Richard Linklater revealed he had been filming the same four actors for a few days a year over a period of 12 years. We watch the boy, Mason Jr., and his sister Samantha grow up, and their divorced parents Olivia and Mason Sr. grow older and (in their own ways and on their own schedules) wiser. As much as the film is about childhood, it is equally about parenthood, though through the point of view of Mason Jr.; the film takes the autobiographical point of view of Mason, recalling both important and mundane moments in time. That’s how it is for everyone when taking a stroll down memory lane — sometimes we remember the monumental events that shaped who we are, and sometimes we recall some random moment, a song playing on the radio or a sunny afternoon or that time we rode our bikes down the street covered in slush and got our pant legs sopping wet. But I digress… Most of the adults in the film impart advice onto Mason, some nothing more than efforts to control him (his teachers, employers and both stepfathers) but some genuinely useful (his father, while discussing parenting: “We’re all just winging it”).


My next favorite film was ‘Under the Skin”, a dark, seductive sci-fi thriller starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien posing as a prostitute who lures men into her dark cavernous oil-liquid sex-cavern of a home and literally sucked the innards out of their skins. Mmm-hmm. It’s a morbid premise, but Johansson excels in portraying the alien seductress, probably her best film role to date.


There are only a few films by indie favorite Jim Jarmusch that I have really latched onto — “Dead Man” and “Broken Flowers” and the scenes from “Mystery Train” with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. His latest film, “Only Lovers Left Alive”, starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, tells the tale of two centuries-old vampire lovers, awash in gothic melancholia. After centuries spent influencing music and science, Adam now spends his days holed up in a dilapidated Victorian home in Detroit (the perfect run-down setting for this film), sneaking into hospitals to buy blood like a drug addict. His wife, Eve, flies from Tangier to join him and shake him free of his suicidal funk. John Hurt guest stars as a vampire Christopher Marlowe. Jarmusch’s films are, for me, best enjoyed by focusing on the mood rather than the plot.


And then there’s “Wild”, the indie film starring Reese Witherspoon as a woman who has lost everyone close to her, either through misfortune or by her own doing, and she embarks on a spiritual cleansing of sorts by packing way too much shit into a hiking pack and embarking on the Pacific Crest Trail in true greenhorn fashion. The film connected with me in that it rekindled a lot of memories of my time hiking in the mountains of New Mexico in the summer of 1997. A few memorable scenes — an older man running a camp graciously helps Witherspoon’s character strip the chaff from her pack and obtain proper footwear; the unsavory yet necessary muckwater treated with iodine tablets; being mistakenly interviewed by a reporter for “Hobo Times”; removing a boot to pop a blister and yank off a bloody toenail, only to watch said boot tumble down a few hundred feet of a steep rocky cliffside, immediately followed by much cursing and tossing of the matching boot in an act of angry defiance. The hike is something I’d like to try at some point in my life, preferably while I’m still “young”; that is, while I still have healthy knees and ankles.

I also really enjoyed the following:

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”, Wes Anderson’s saddest, most elegant film to date; my favorite scene is the chase between the attorney (Jeff Goldblum) and the henchman (Willem Dafoe) through the dark museum just before closing.

“Blue Ruin”, the most practical, bloodthirsty revenge film since “No Country for Old Men”.

“Interstellar”, a believable end to life on Earth, the cool TARS design and a star-swallowing black hole I couldn’t look away from. The docking scene was the most suspenseful four minutes of any film I saw in 2014.

“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” with its crazy two hours of drum solo soundtrack and 99% single-shot camerawork… and Michael Keaton, who is the most perfect person to cast for this type of role since John Malkovich in “Being John Malkovich”.

“Nightcrawler”: no one can tell me Jake Gyllenhaal can’t act after having watched this film. He is just great in channeling a greasy businessman version of Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver”. Creepy sociopath with a laser-like focus on success and absolutely NO morals whatsoever.

“Citizenfour”, which has convinced me our government will do just about whatever it wants to regardless of the law.

Other films I’ve seen this year and liked include: “Big Hero 6”, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, “Chef”, “Cold in July” (much like “Blue Ruin”), “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, “Dear White People”, “Edge of Tomorrow”, “Enemy” (another great performance — two, actually — by Gyllenhaal), “A Fantastic Fear of Everything”, the 2014 version of “Godzilla”, “Guardians of the Galaxy”, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”, “How to Train Your Dragon 2”, the beautiful black and white camerawork of “Ida”, “Land Ho!”, “The LEGO Movie”, Kelly Reichardt’s “Night Moves”, the strange of beautiful “Noah”, “Snowpiercer”, the ultra-trippy “The Congress”, the beautiful animation of “The Wind Rises” and “The Dance of Reality”.


2014 has been a really strong year for documentaries. Aside from “Citizenfour”, I really enjoyed “Maidentrip”, about a 14-year old Dutch girl who became the youngest person to sail around the world alone, over a two-year voyage. I also liked “Life Itself”, based on Roger Ebert’s autobiography; “Tiny: A Story about Living Small”, “Jodorowsky’s Dune”, and the fist-clenching frustration induced by Errol Morris’ “The Unknown Known”, about Donald Rumsfeld (a sequel of sorts of his 2004 doc “The Fog of War”, about Robert S. McNamara).


Now, some holdover movies from 2013 that I didn’t see into well into 2014 and wanted to share: “The Broken Circle Breakdown”, “Prince Avalanche”, “Inside Llewyn Davis”, “Dear Mr. Watterson” and “The Heat”. Two films from 2013 I really enjoyed and recommend are “Nebraska”, Alexander Payne’s touching tale of an old coot, his exasperated wife and loyal son, chasing a million dollar prize through the small dying towns of the Great Plains, beautifully shot in black and white; and “Prisoners”, a surprisingly captivating (and depressingly dark) tale of abduction and revenge.

Thanks to Netflix, YouTube and the UNI Library, I have continued to discover a number of great older movies:

“The Red Machine”


“The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” (Dario Argento’s film film)

the late 80s techno-metal Japanese horror film “Tetsuo: The Iron Man”

the 1983 WWIII film “The Day After”, which Wikipedia claims was the most-watched made-for-TV movie in history (over 100 million viewers) and can be seen in its entirety on YouTube

a pair of early David Cronenberg horror films, “The Brood” and “Shivers”

perennial 2010 Portland favorite “Cold Weather”

Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga”

the 2012 film “In the Family”, a really really damn fine film about custody rights in a Southern state that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages.

I also *finally* saw “Westworld”, the 1973 sci-fi western that was the first feature film to utilize digital image processing (to simulate an android’s point of view).

[I also want to point out I finally had the opportunity to re-watch the 1997 made-for-ABC “The Shining” miniseries, which is pretty awful.]


*And thanks to Netflix, I have binged on a number of episodic programs: “House of Cards” and “Orange of the New Black”, both of which were better in their first seasons than their second; the entire series run of “Twin Peaks” and various episodes from the first four seasons of “The X-Files”; and “BoJack Horseman” hands down the funniest show I have watched in a long time. I also rented on DVD the first season of HBO’s “True Detective”, a very well-written and well-acted show.


Written by camcarlson

January 4, 2015 at 4:30 PM

Summer 2014 Road Trip

leave a comment »

Like most vacations, I can now look back on the road trip Viet and I embarked on in July and remember it as a whole thing. But while it was taking place, each event felt episodic, inspired by the events that preceded it but still able to exist on its own. This is how I’ve chosen to recollect the things we witnessed in the Summer of 2014.

For the most part, we experienced sunny, often hot weather. 99ºF in Montana one day, 45ºF mornings in Yellowstone the next. Occasional light rain during our full day in Yellowstone. I dressed appropriately — light jacket, soccer shorts, hiking boots, with my iPhone for taking pictures and a bag of snacks and Gatorade in the back seat of the LaCrosse.

We drove over 3,300 miles and spent around $430 on gas. Spent only two nights on hotels, one in Salt Lake City (was not impressed with either the hotel nor Salt Lake City) and one in Denver (our first night on town; spent the next two as guests at the Girard residence). Camped two nights at Yellowstone, a place of such beauty and natural serenity I now believe everyone who is able bodied should make a point of visiting at least once in their lifetime, to spend at least one full day with nature. Camping, not RV-ing or staying at one of the lodges, is preferred.

That having been said…

SAC CITY: Start of our journey. Spent the night sleeping on two couches pushed together in my sister’s basement. Woke up with the sun and filled the gas tank with non-ethanol from 1 of the town’s 2 gas stations.

IA-20: Mostly a 2-lane highway west of Sac City. Gentle hills and decent NPR reception on a Saturday morning.

I-29 (SD): A rather bland 75 mph roadway heading straight north. Passed by Vermillion, no reason to stop there.

I-90 (SD): About a thousand bug splats on the windshield, matched by a thousand billboards hawking the wonders of Wall.

BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK: Brief excursion along Highway 240. Takes about an hour to drive through and stop at a few choice turnouts.

WALL: The very definition of ‘tourist trap’.  The Jackalope gag is cute but we didn’t see the huge fiberglass dinosaur. Can get a free “Where in the heck is Wall Drug” bumper sticker at one of the many gift tchotchke shops. Had a delicious buffalo burger at the Cactus Café, despite our waiter botching both of our orders.

RAPID CITY: Stopped only long enough to purchase bug bite relief cream at the enormous Cabela’s off the highway (my first time inside one).

KEYSTONE: Tiny little town at the bottom of a windy highway that attracts tourists like a light attracts bugs. Overpriced motel rooms, crawling speed limits and bumper-to-bumper traffic. Avoid if possible.

MOUNT RUSHMORE: To be honest, I was not as impressed as I thought I would be. If the Crazy Horse monument was finished, I would have gone there instead. If you want decent pictures, come during the morning or early afternoon.

CROOKED CREEK: Several miles west of Mount Rushmore. $32 will get you a campsite and access to bathrooms and showers . An extra $3 will get you an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast. Pay both with cash, if possible.

SD-385: we drove the 45 northernmost miles of this 1,206-mile highway that begins at Big Bend National Park in southwestern Texas and ends in Deadwood SD. One of the coolest stretches of American highway I’ve ever had the privilege to navigate. Up, down and around the Black Hills in an endless mix of inclines, declines and sharp curves. Highlight was descending along the east side of Pactola Reservoir.

I-90 (WY): white knuckle driving at 80 mph. Occasional road construction. More bug splats on the windshield.

WY-14: Winding high plains road with many hilly fields and little civilization past Sundance.

DEVILS TOWER: Impressive rock formation hidden behind dozens of miles of beautiful Wyoming hillsides. Should be included in any Great Plains road trip itinerary.

SHERIDAN WY: Meh. Ate a late lunch at a Burger King, decided on a whim to escape Wyoming and drive up and through Montana instead.

I-90 (MT): Same 80 mph speed limit, but more maneuverable roadways. Trucks forced to drive slower in the right lane, which makes for easier passing. Beautiful view of the Crazy Mountains west of Billings. Exit at Livingston.

MT-89: beautiful valley route that ends in resort town of Gardiner.

YELLOWSTONE – NORTH ENTRANCE: Be sure to take a picture of the giant stone Roosevelt Arch leading into the park (as there isn’t a similar archway at the southern entrance).

MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS: Like a town within the park. Wild animals lounge in the grass along the roadway. Check out the multicolored terraces from both the upper and lower observation walkways.

MADISON CAMPGROUND: 6,806 ft. elevation. Less than $25 per night. Bathrooms but no showers; bear-proof dumpsters, and a fire ring for each campsite. Good luck finding ground that isn’t hard-as-rock dirt to pitch a tent atop of. Park rangers give a nightly presentation at the nearby outdoor amphitheater.

GRAND CANYON OF YELLOWSTONE: My favorite feature of the park. The view of the lower falls and the canyon is best seen from the upper deck at Grand View, but we also stopped at Lookout Point. Didn’t make time for Artist Point or Inspiration Point.

YELLOWSTONE LAKE: With over 100 miles of coastline, it’s the largest high-altitude lake in North America. Deepest point is over 400 feet, and the undercurrent is cold enough (even in summer) to cause hypothermia in mere minutes. Next time I go to Yellowstone I will try to camp at Bay Bridge, on the western side of the lake.

OLD FAITHFUL: A necessity for any visitor of Yellowstone, though it’s not as impressive as other features at the park. A magnet for annoying tourists. I would have been satisfied watching the geyser erupt from inside the dining area of the nearby lodge.

GRAND PRISMATIC LAKE: Steaming beauty. I felt a small sense of reverence walking silently around the site, witnessing a geological formation that by and large has no equal anywhere else on Earth. An absolute must-see for any visitor, far more so than Old Faithful.

GRAND TETONS: Directly south of Yellowstone along the Rockefeller Parkway; check out the entire range from the first lake overlook. Don’t be tempted to stop at the Jackson Lake Dam to take pictures; keep going until you reach the Potholes Turnout or Mount Moran Turnout, or go all the way to the parking lot at Jenny Lake Overlook for superior views. Also, don’t let temporary gates along the walking trails deter you; just sidewind your way down the hillside right to the shoreline, and enjoy the view.

JACKSON HOLE (WY): First city after leaving Yellowstone/Grand Tetons; everything is crazy expensive, especially the gas. Just keep on driving…

CARIBOU NATIONAL FOREST: tied with SD-385 through the Black Hills as the most beautiful route of the trip. 15 to 20 miles through the park and I don’t think there was a combined 1,000 feet of straight road. The pace was leisurely and I didn’t see another car the entire time.

SODA SPRINGS: Plenty of smooth asphalt roads and elongated street lights in the small Idaho town.

I-15 (ID): The geography changes from mountain greenery to southwestern sagebrush. Hot, hot, hot.

NORTHEAST UTAH: An endless sea of cities, concrete and billboards, much like I-5 from San Diego to Los Angeles. 12 lanes of Hondas and Mazdas leapfrogging one another. Set your cruise control to 5 over, stick to the middle lane and plow ahead.

SALT LAKE CITY: Stayed at a Super 8 and dined at an In-N-Out Burger in Midvale. Didn’t have time to take in the Great Salt Lake. Temple Square was locked down for the night but could still see the big white temple from behind the perimeter wall.

UT-6: Some pretty tight canyon driving, though it doesn’t last for long. Local drivers continue to speed by like maniacs on a mission.

UT-191: Desert driving. Long stretches of straight roadway flanked on the east by seemingly never-ending cliffs of eroded rock.

I-70 (CO): A picturesque stretch of up & down roads that largely follows the Colorado and Eagle rivers. Lots of fun curves and tunnels along a 65-mile stretch between Gypsum and Silverthorne.

GRAND JUNCTION: The most disgusting truck stop I have ever set foot inside of. Nearly lost my faith in humanity. Avoid at all costs.

LOVELAND PASS: Take the 216 exit and weave your way up the mountain range to 10,990 feet. Foot paths lead higher up, though I settled for walking over to a nearby snowbank and scooping up a clump of hard snow in my hand… in July.

DENVER: Largest ‘midwest’ city that doesn’t feel too expensive. I don’t think I drove more than 2-3 miles in any direction without encountering some manner of road construction.

PHO 96: $9 bought a bowl of ‘special rare flame mignon’ pho larger than my head. So incredibly %#?@*&ing tasty!

QUALITY INN CENTRAL: The first room didn’t have working A/C. The second room reeked of nicotine despite being labeled a non-smoking room. Slept great in the king-size bed. The front desk was woefully understaffed, the continental breakfast was subpar, and the neighborhood was sketchy. Would not stay here again.

16TH STREET MALL: Free MallRide buses continuously run up and down the pedestrian mall. Illegal Pete’s offers tasty and affordable burritos, with a  full-service bar to the side. Browse the stores at the 3-story outdoor shopping mall or take a tour of the Denver branch of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank. At the bottom of the hill is the awesome Tattered Cover Bookstore (cartography buffs like myself will enjoy the sampling of maps kept in the side reading room); at the top of the hill is the Colorado state capitol building.

BROADWAY: A variety of stores, restaurants, cafes and bars. Several cluttered used book stores (one of them also a coffee shop – great idea!). One of the highlights of our entire trip was seeing “Boyhood” at the Mayan Theater. The décor inside the main theater is amazing.

BROTHERS: Just like the Iowa City one – packed with twentysomethings. The only saving grace were the $1 well drinks.

THE RETRO ROOM: offers more than a dozen delicious vodka infusion shots in flavors such as pickle, pepperchino and bacon. Go here instead of Brothers.

LOWRY BEER GARDEN: hip bar/restaurant at the former Lowry Air Force Base. Three sides of retractable walls. Outdoor and indoor seating. Cedar Falls needs a venue like this ASAP.

TRACKS: $12 cover gets you an evening of deafening club music and black light drag performances. If you ask for water, you will hand over $3 for a 10-ounce bottle. Take it… you don’t want to be rufied here. On a positive note, the bathroom was clean.

I-80 (NE): Tied with I-90 through South Dakota as the most boring stretch of highway driving of the trip. The only attraction of interest was the highway-spanning Archway near Kearney, which we didn’t stop at. Maybe next time.

OMAHA: Nearly 11 years ago I lived here while student teaching, and remember my time there with some fondness. Had I not been tired and hungry from driving all day, I may have turned off the interstate and driven through a few neighborhoods.

I-80 (IA): Some familiar sights driving through Council Bluffs. I don’t remember southwestern Iowa being as hilly as it is.

IMG_2733IMG_2761_MG_3789IMG_2938   _MG_3975

Written by camcarlson

October 19, 2014 at 1:00 PM