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 Nebraska (2013)

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Donald McKinney
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PostSubject: Nebraska (2013)   Wed Jan 15, 2014 2:36 am

Alexander Payne has made a career of making films about underdogs, and has done films set mainly in American suburbia and they have a dark sense of humour along the way. But they're not necessarily comedies, when you look at the plots on paper, they come across as dramas. His debut Citizen Ruth (1996), which was about a drug-addicted, pregnant mother who gets involved in a debate on abortion. Now, that sounds serious, but in Payne's hands, he found humour in it from it's quirky characters and good, dry dialogue. This passed over into his second feature, Election (1999), which was produced for MTV, which was a wry look at high school politics, which managed to be a small hit, and get Payne recognised as a potentially interesting talent. His next two films helped break him into the mainstream. He was lucky to get Jack Nicholson for his next film About Schmidt (2002), a comedy-drama about the struggles of retirement and Payne struck Oscar gold with his wine road trip Sideways (2004), which was quirky and amusing. Payne should have followed it up quickly, but audiences had to wait another 7 years before Payne's next film, the moving and strangely complex he Descendants (2011), set in the warmth of Hawaii, and giving George Clooney one of his best parts in a while. Now, Payne is back, and it's a road movie in the vein of About Schmidt and Sideways, his new one Nebraska shouldn't be funny, but it has a good sense of humour, and it's bouyed with some brilliant performances along the way.

It follows the exploits of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an elderly drunk who lives in Billings, Montana. He is making several attempts to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska. After being picked up by the police for walking down the highway, his younger son David (Will Forte) tries to find out why Woody is so intent on getting to Lincoln. Woody believes he's won $1 million, but it's all part of a telemarketing scam to make a person purchase magazine subscriptions. David tries explaining this to Woody, but to no avail. Woody's wife, and David's mother, Kate (June Squibb) has been driven to her wits end by Woody's insistence on going to Lincoln. David and his older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk), discuss the possibility of putting Woody in a home, however David decides to drive Woody to Lincoln, Nebraska. Just to put his father's deteriorating mind at ease, and just to get out of Billings for a few days. After Woody injures himself during a drinking binge on a stop-over, David decides to go to his father's hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Woody's brother Ray (Rance Howard) and his family have planned a family get together. While in Hawthorne, Woody and David go around the town, and find themselves in a bar where Woody is met by old business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), from years before. Woody mentions that he's won $1 million, and Ed and his cronies believe him. It's not long before everyone in Hawthorne wants a piece of Woody's fortune, from Ed to Woody's scheming nephews Cole and Bart (Devin Ratray and Tim Driscoll), much to David's chargrin, as he can't break the news that Woody hasn't actually won anything, and he learns a lot about Woody's part while staying in Hawthorne.

In the hands of another director, this could have been depressing and meditative, slow and repetitive. But, in Payne's hands it isn't, this makes for a brilliant piece of Americana. One which feels very old fashioned as well, it harks back to a particular kind of film that was being made 40 years ago, when New Hollywood was in it's infancy. In particular, the films of Peter Bogdanovich, who broke into New Hollywood not by being provocative or exploitative, but by being nostalgic. Painting pictures of small town America with The Last Picture Show (1971), which showed the American Dream dying and real ghost towns becoming an occurrence in post-war America as people moved from the small communities to the big city. The film also references the cheeky charm of Paper Moon (1973), even the final shot of the film here mirrors the final shot of Paper Moon. But, like those films, Nebraska is also shot in Black and White, quite a rarity in today's films, but the starkness adds to the film's mood. The vistas of Nebraska and eerie quiet streets of Hawthorne are brilliantly captured by Phedon Papamichael, who worked with Payne on Sideways and The Descendants, and it feels like a film from another time, and Hawthorne looks like a place truly lost in time, maybe with the odd splash of modern technology thrown in here and there.

Payne is known for assembling good casts together, and when he did Nebraska, he had a few old actors in mind for Woody Grant, but he found his perfect leading man in Bruce Dern, a true Hollywood legend, who worked with legends during the last days of the studio system of the 1960's, and became one of the faces of New Hollywood in the 1970's, as demonstrated in films like Silent Running (1972), The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) and Coming Home (1978). Dern gives a sympathetic edge to Woody Grant, a man whose constant alcohol abuse has left him befuddled and confused, and on the sad verge of dementia. It reminds us all what a good actor Dern is, and this should give him the recognition he deserves. For the role of Woody's son David, Payne was bombarded with auditions, but went with an offbeat choice in choosing Saturday Night Live comedian Will Forte, but Forte gives his character of David a believable and quietly exasperated quality, a man who was never given much attention by his father, but now, in this road journey, they have a chance to bond finally before it's too late. But, Dern and Forte are nearly blown off the screen by June Squibb as the long-suffering matriarch Kate, who gets some of the films best dialogue, and is unafraid to speak her mind about people from Woody's home town she knew. Stacy Keach, another great veteran of film and TV during the 1970's and 80's, adds a threatening quality to Ed Pegram, former business partner and an all-round bully. This is also a reminder of what a good actor Keach still is, and that with the right material, can turn in a fine performance.



Payne really got lucky with this project, it came to him as a spec script by TV writer Bob Nelson in late 2002 while he was prepping Sideways, however Payne didn't want to do 3 road movies in a row, so he waited, and it was well worth the wait. Payne stuck with it as it was set in his home state of Nebraska, and he saw how the film captured the matter of fact bluntness people from that part of America. It's a film about rediscovering the past and ones roots, and how somethings change and other things, like family and old grudges, simply don't. It's poignant in it's portrait of growing old and family ties, but it has some truly laugh out loud scenes like family banter and quirky situations and observations. The decision to shoot in black and white may seem arty and pious on the outside, but it enhances the film somehow, it gives it a focus and a sharpness too. This is a film which shows the true America, a world away from the cities that act as locations in many Hollywood films, but this is the America you don't see on film, the America that was truly hit by the recession, with high streets where two-thirds of the shops are shut and the towns are more or less abandoned, that gives the film an even more poignant edge. It's a sad state of affairs, but you won't see a truer picture of America and a statement on extended family on film anytime again soon. Payne manages to have fun along the way, and while it may look and feel bleak, you'll leave the film feeling warm and heartened by the characters and the story you've just seen.
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PostSubject: Re: Nebraska (2013)   Wed Jan 15, 2014 4:53 am

No chance of this hitting a cinema near me  Sad 

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PostSubject: Re: Nebraska (2013)   Wed Jan 15, 2014 1:00 pm

I was lucky to see it at the Tyneside in Newcastle.
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