Nebraska reviews

Mister Tee
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Re: Nebraska reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Thu May 23, 2013 9:22 am


May 23, 2013 | 06:17AM PT
Alexander Payne's sixth feature is another low-concept, finely etched study of flawed characters stuck in life’s well-worn grooves. Scott Foundas
Chief Film Critic
After making side trips to California’s Central Coast and Hawaii (for “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” respectively), Alexander Payne returns to his home state of Nebraska for his sixth directorial feature, a wistful ode to small-town Midwestern life and the quixotic dreams of stubborn old men. Sporting a career-crowning performance by Bruce Dern and a thoroughly impressive dramatic turn by “SNL”/“30 Rock” alum Will Forte, Payne’s first film based on another writer’s original screenplay (by debut feature scribe Bob Nelson) nevertheless fits nicely alongside his other low-concept, finely etched studies of flawed characters stuck in life’s well-worn grooves. Black-and-white lensing and lack of a Clooney-sized star portend less than “Descendants”-sized business, but critical hosannas and awards buzz should mean solid prestige success for this November Paramount release.

Just as “The Last Picture Show” was a movie made in the 1970s about the end of ’50s-era innocence, “Nebraska” feels, despite its present-day setting, like a eulogy for a bygone America (and American cinema), from the casting of New Hollywood fixtures Dern and Stacy Keach to its many windswept vistas of a vital agro-industrial heartland outsourced into irrelevance. First seen trudging alone along a busy stretch of Montana highway, Dern’s Woody Grant is a man who, like his surroundings, seems to have outlived his usefulness, an ornery alcoholic whose bouts of confusion have put a strain on his marriage to Kate (“About Schmidt’s” June Squibb) and caused sons David (Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) to worry that he might be losing his mind. Offering further evidence to support this claim, Woody has become convinced he’s won $1 million in a Publisher’s Clearing House-like sweepstakes — a prize he insists on collecting in person at the company’s HQ in Lincoln, Neb.

Though more levelheaded parties insist that the money is bogus, Woody cannot be deterred. Asked what he’ll do with his “winnings,” he announces his intention to buy a new truck — even though he can no longer drive — and a new air compressor (to replace one he loaned to a friend 40 years ago). But like the children’s playground commissioned by the dying bureaucrat in Kurosawa’s “Ikiru,” or the interstate tractor journey undertaken by the Iowa farmer of David Lynch’s “The Straight Story,” Woody’s quest is really a last, valedictory gesture designed to give meaning to a life. So David reluctantly agrees to take Dad on the road, as much out of pity as to escape his own broken-down situation, working a dead-end retail job and recently dumped by his live-in girlfriend.

What follows is, like many of Payne’s films, a road movie of sorts, winding its way through Wyoming and South Dakota, slate-colored skies hanging over pastureland and lonely blacktop, last-stop diners standing on the edge of nowhere. The widescreen monochrome imagery, shot by Payne’s longtime d.p. Phedon Papamichael, is at once ravishing and melancholy, evoking both Robert Surtees’ “Picture Show” lensing and a host of iconic American still photography (Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, et al.) without calling undue attention to itself.

Eventually, father and son make a pit stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorn (actually, Norfolk, Neb.), where it doesn’t take long for the incipient millionaire to become headline news, like the ersatz war hero (also named Woody) at the center of Preston Sturges’ “Hail the Conquering Hero.” Nor does Woody seem to mind the attention, even as it brings all manner of moocher out of the woodwork, including more than a few family members and a former business partner (the coy, flinty Keach) with an old score to settle. Everyone, it seems, wants — or perhaps needs — to believe in Woody’s dream as much as he does.

Throughout, Payne gently infuses the film’s comic tone with strains of longing and regret, always careful to avoid the maudlin or cheaply sentimental. (A couple of nincompoop nephews, played by Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray, rep the pic’s only real concession to slapstick.) In a series of lovely, understated scenes, David finds himself learning secondhand about the taciturn father he has never really known, meeting an ex-flame (Angela McEwan) who competed with his mother for Woody’s affections, hearing rumors of a possible extramarital affair, gleaning details about Woody’s service in the Korean War. Finally, rejoined by Kate and Ross for the final leg of the journey, the entire family visits the farmhouse where Woody grew up, now a decrepit mausoleum of farm-belt prosperity. The closer the characters get to Lincoln, the more they appear to be receding into the past, culminating in one magnificent sequence that equates a drive down a small main street with the span of an entire life lived.

Dern is simply marvelous in a role the director reportedly first offered to Gene Hackman, but which is all the richer for being played by someone who was never as big of a star. Looking suitably disheveled and sometimes dazed, he conveys the full measure of a man who has fallen short of his own expectations, resisting the temptation to overplay, letting his wonderfully weathered face course with subtle shades of sorrow, self-loathing and indignation. Given the less innately attention-getting role (a la Tom Cruise in “Rain Man”), Forte does similarly nuanced work, his scenes with Dern resonating with the major and minor grievances that lie unresolved between parents and children. Had Payne not already used it, “The Descendants” would have been an equally apt title here, so acute is the film’s sense of the virtues and vices passed down from one generation to the next.

Keach and Squibb (bumped off early in “About Schmidt,” getting to go the full distance here) also stand out in a resolutely un-starry cast, full of convincingly ordinary, plainspoken Midwesterners. In addition to Papamichael’s camerawork, the plaintive guitar-and-fiddle score by Mark Orton is another craft standout.

Mister Tee
Posts: 6766
Joined: Wed Jan 01, 2003 2:57 pm
Location: NYC

Nebraska reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Thu May 23, 2013 9:20 am

Hollywood Reporter

Nebraska: Cannes Review
6:15 AM PDT 5/23/2013 by Todd McCarthy
Alexander Payne
Alexander Payne's in competition black-and-white film follows a father and son on a road trip to Lincoln, Nebraska.

A strong sense of a vanishing past holds sway over an illusory future in Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s wryly poignant and potent comic drama about the bereft state of things in America’s oft-vaunted heartland. Echoing the director’s most recent film, The Descendants, in its preoccupation with generational issues within families, how the smell of money contaminates the behavior of friends and relatives and the way Wasps hide and disclose secrets, this is nonetheless a more melancholy, less boisterous work. It’s also defined commercially by the difference between a colorful, Hawaii-set comedy starring George Clooney and a black-and-white, prairie-based old-age odyssey featuring a straggly and unkempt Bruce Dern. All the same, Paramount Vantage should be able to ride accolades for this very fine Cannes competition entry to respectable specialized returns in fall release.

“I don’t remember, it doesn’t matter,” largely sums up the attitude toward the events of his life by old Woody Grant (Dern), a cranky, bedraggled, partially senile coot first seen walking on a highway near home in Billings, Montana. His younger son David (Will Forte) wishes his father would be a bit more communicative, as he’d like closer relationship, but only his mother Kate (June Squibb) will talk about the old days and then only in the most derogatory terms about her “useless” husband and just about everyone else.

Woody’s hit the road because of a sweepstakes eligibility certificate he received in the mail that he imagines entitles him to a million-dollar cash windfall. No matter how plainly June and David explain that it’s a scam, nothing will dissuade Woody from walking, if need be, the 850 miles to Lincoln, Nebraska, the source of the deceptive document, to collect.

Conceding that his old man “just needs something to life for,” beleaguered David takes off work to drive him there just for the personal time it will give them. But while the ostensible focus of Bob Nelson’s original screenplay (the first for a Payne film the director did not officially have a hand in writing himself) is the father-son road trip, nearly all the peripheral characters that come into the picture develop motives related to expectations that Woody has come into mighty big bucks.

Befitting its Paramount heritage, there is a muted Preston Sturges element to the film’s view of the human condition in the way the populace’s heads are completely turned by the presence of celebrity, which the confused Woody now represents, and a possible financial windfall. Two of Sturges’s classics, Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, turned on very similar premises.

Part of the issue is that there isn’t that much else to talk about. After brief stops at Mt. Rushmore, which Woody disdains because it “doesn’t look finished,” and a goofy interlude spent looking for his missing false teeth along some railway tracks, the two men stop for an impromptu family reunion in (fictional) Hawthorne, Nebraska, to visit Woody’s brother Ray (Rance Howard) and his family. Joined by Kate and David’s older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk), the clan mostly sits around and watches TV; Ray’s overweight sons (Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray) are immature layabouts who, like the older men who come over, mostly talk about cars. While Payne tries to walk a fine line between honest representation and satiric caricature, the result is a pretty caustic group portrait of men who, whatever they may be feeling inside, are utterly undisposed to talk about it, representing one colossal failure to communicate that feels like a genetic male trait.

It falls, therefore, to the women to address the existence of an inner life, not only about themselves, but about the men who refuse self-reflection. Kate is utterly uncensored in her running commentaries about long-ago sexual shenanigans. But it is the odd women David meets around the tiny, forlorn town, notably a wonderful old soul at the town newspaper office (beautifully played by Angela McEwan), who disclose private information that opens a window on Woody’s life the son would otherwise never know.

Then there is Woody’s long-ago business partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach). Each man claims the other owes him something but, now that he’s convinced Woody is loaded, Ed becomes threatening. Then all the relatives pile on, resulting in a group portrait of greed and mooching that is none too pretty.

VIDEO: Live From Cannes: Todd McCarthy's Favorite Films So Far

The emptied-out look of Hawthorne makes it resemble the town in The Last Picture Show, but without the teenagers; there are only old people here, in the saloons and the streets, and other key settings—the cemetery, the newspaper morgue, the dilapidated farmhouse Woody grew up in and his father built—quietly contribute to the feel of time and opportunity having passed by.

In this light, Payne’s insistence on shooting in black-and-white—not an easy argument to win at a studio these days—enriches the film artistically; the story is set in a world that still, both in the cinematic and collective memory, exists in black-and-white. It’s stuck, like the leading characters, with decisions made decades ago and that is still defined by the past and a diminishing number of survivors.

At times in his career, Dern has played characters as half-loonies when it wasn’t necessarily called for. Here, portraying a man well on his way to being checked out, he underplays without a trace of neurosis or mannerism. Woody is a man who will give starts of recognition to anyone who has had parents or grandparents of diminishing abilities, and Dern and Payne keep him interesting by providing flashes of consciousness discernible behind his general inscrutability. The performance is like a window blind that’s mostly closed but can momentarily flip open to reveal what’s in the room.

Forte nicely underplays an incipient sad sack who would dearly like to enrich an uneventful life by learning more about his father but can only do so indirectly, while Squibb gets the most laughs by virtue of her colorful litany of complaints. Keach applies very fine contours to his role of an old man all too alive to what he considers unfinished business. Great care is evident in casting down to the smallest bit player.

Phedon Papamichael’s handsome monochromatic cinematography is neither ostentatious nor overly gritty, just forthright and elegantly composed, while Mark Orton’s lovely score, which often employs just a guitar in combination with an array of individual second instruments, provides a constant source of pleasure.

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