***½/**** Image A Sound A Extras C+
starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach
screenplay by Bob Nelson
directed by Alexander Payne
by Walter Chaw Alexander Payne returns to form after the disappointing The Descendants with the muted, often hilarious, and sentimental-without-being-schmaltzy filial road trip Nebraska. It's easily his most tender work, despite the mordant, sometimes bitter humour Payne has become known for in his best work (Election remains his crowning achievement; About Schmidt is no slouch, either), and it makes a brilliant move in offering a showcase opportunity for national treasure Bruce Dern. Shot in black-and-white, with a spare, minimal production design making it an expressionist piece projecting the barren interiors of its broken characters, Nebraska, though not the adaptation of the identically-named collection of Ron Hansen short stories I initially hoped it was, at least possesses the same wintry, intellectual mien.
Dern is Woody, an elderly Montanan who believes a sweepstakes entry has informed him that he's won a million dollars, contingent on his ability to return the letter to the sweepstakes' home office in Lincoln, NE. He sets off on foot, defiant in the face of harridan wife Kate (June Squibb, brilliant) and worried sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), until finally David, a home sound-system salesman, agrees to drive Woody from Billings to deep in the heart of Huskerville. It's the journey, of course, and along the way David is introduced to his father, and he to him, as adults in all the small, often humiliating, occasionally noble peculiarities that comprise adults. A stopover in Woody's hometown introduces old bully Ed (Stacy Keach) and old flame Peg (Angela McEwan), who knew it would never work out with Woody because she "wouldn't let him round the bases." They're all beautifully-realized, beautifully-scripted performances: Ed holding court before a gathering of cronies in a bumpkin watering hole; Kate pulling up her skirt to show a long-dead admirer what he could have had if he'd stopped talking about meat once in a while. The film only ever really stumbles with a pair of Tweedle-Dee/Tweedle-Dum cousins (Kevin Kunkel, Devin Ratray) who function essentially like the black chef in Sullivan's Travels. When they're the focus of a late-film plot point, the nature of their contrivance is obvious.
Still, Nebraska's grace is in the ways the relationship evolves between Woody and David--in the gradual discovery that Woody isn't a crotchety old guy cliché, but a man broken by a lifetime of meekness taken advantage of by the small-time predators in his Midwestern town. His quest isn't driven by adorable dementia, then, so much as one last chance to be special in a life spent ordinary. Kate's crustiness comes clearer, too, as Woody's armour, while David, following a series of acts (one of violence, two of generosity) and lies that fool no one, demonstrates in a lovely metaphorical gesture everything that need be said about fathers, sons, the gulfs of misunderstanding separating them, and the bridges that can yet be rigged. Originally published: September 6, 2013.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers I missed the black-and-white Nebraska in theatres but heard unenticing reports of it looking mushy, for lack of a better word, on the big screen. I asked FFC's own Bryant Frazer, my Obi Wan when it comes to modern cinematic technology, if he could shed some light on why this might be. Before quoting his generous reply, I should clarify that the film was shot in 2K HD using the popular ARRI Alexa and desaturated in post. Anyway, here's what Bryant had to say:
Basically, in order to shoot in colour, you're adding a pattern of red, green, and blue colour filters (the "Bayer pattern") to the native imager inside the [digital] camera. Those filters reduce the total amount of light hitting the sensor, and a mathematical "deBayer" process is required to interpolate the final colour values of your recorded image, based on the pure red, green, and blue values captured by individually filtered pixels. The result is a colour image that isn't as sharp as the pure resolution of your sensor would suggest. And it's kind of a shame to compromise the image like that if you're just going to desaturate all of the colour in post, anyway--although the red, green, and blue colour channels do allow you to fine-tune contrast in different parts of the monochrome picture.
In order to really do it right, what you would want is a sensor without colour filters. That's what the Red Epic Monochrome camera is. If you want to see that in action, watch Fincher's "Suit and Tie" video for Justin Timberlake in HD. Also the new U2 video for "Invisible," directed by Mark Romanek. It's pretty impressive. But it's a niche market, which I suppose is why ARRI doesn't make a monochrome version of the Alexa.
On the plus side, they shot Nebraska with Panavision anamorphic lenses that maximize the Alexa's resolution by using the entire 4x3 sensor for the image, rather than a "letterboxed" portion of it.
According to this interview with Nebraska DP Phedon Papamichael, the best version of the movie to see in theatres was actually one of the small number of 35mm prints that were produced, because "you're picking up additional film stock grain, and you get the film projection element coming back to you. At that point, you'd be hard-pressed to say it was shot on a digital camera." In any event, I have no real complaints about Nebraska's 2.40:1, 1080p Blu-ray transfer; at least on the small screen, that it wasn't shot on celluloid is very difficult to detect. Fine detail is slightly soft in the way of 'scope lensing, while dynamic range makes up for in elasticity what it lacks in HiDef pop. Initially, I was caught off guard by what appeared to be a layer of film grain, but that same interview clarifies that the grain is a digital simulation/approximation based on Kodak 5248 stock, with a print of Paper Moon employed as a reference guide in managing its intensity. That bar couldn't be more apt--if not for the token modernities, Nebraska could easily pass for vintage Peter Bogdanovich. The movie's throwback affectations continue with a discrete 3.0 DTS-HD MA track that restricts the audio to the forward soundstage. It's a crisp showcase for the dialogue, some light foley work, and Mark Orton's lovely, harmonica-driven score.
The only extra on the disc, "The Making of Nebraska" (28 mins., HD), isn't terribly substantial and is perhaps too much the love letter to director Alexander Payne, but it covers the bases efficiently and entertainingly. We learn that Payne had been sitting on the project since Sideways, stringing poor "Dernsie" along the whole time while mulling alternates like the late Paul Newman. Dern talks about how he and Jack Nicholson are typecast so often that it leaves them starved for real director-actor collaborations, which this most certainly was, and Payne, having worked with Dern's daughter Laura on his debut feature (Citizen Ruth), says an admirable lack of vanity runs in the family. One especially revealing anecdote from producer Albert Berger has Berger paying Payne a compliment on his direction and Payne realizing that Berger must've heard a private conversation through headphones, leading Payne to strip Berger of his access to the set's audio feed. Is Berger fighting passive-aggression with passive-aggression by telling us? Whatever the case, the story reflects poorly enough on both of them that it takes a little of the hagiographic tang out of the piece. The keepcase includes DVD and downloadable copies of Nebraska. For more Nebraska framegrabs, visit our Tumblr.