Will Forte and Bruce Dern in NebraskaNEBRASKA

After opening nationally (in larger markets) in November, Alexander Payne's comic elegy Nebraska - nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Director - finally hit Quad Cities cineplexes this past weekend. I actually saw the film in Chicagoland over the holidays, and ordinarily, when preparing to review a film I first viewed a month prior, I'd take in a second screening to reacquaint myself with the images, dialogue, and performances. But I didn't with Payne's latest. I took in a second screening just for the sheer pleasure of the experience. Memories of Nebraska's marvelous images, dialogue, and performances, thank you very much, were still wonderfully fresh.

Photographed in black-and-white, by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, with an evocative, elegant bleakness that makes every shot resemble a beautifully preserved, turn-of-the-20th-Century photograph (or a scene from Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show), Nebraska boasts a present-day narrative that couldn't be simpler. In it, septuagenarian Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) - a large, lumbering alcoholic with, at best, a tenuous grasp on reality - convinces himself that a junk-mail sweepstakes letter has netted him a million dollars, and plans to make his way from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his prize money. No one, for understandable reason, believes in Woody's fortune: not his long-suffering, bluntly acidic wife Kate (June Squibb); not his mild-tempered TV-newscaster son Ross (Bob Odenkirk); and not his even-more-mild-tempered son David (Will Forte), a lonely, sad-eyed electronics-store salesman in his mid-30s who, despite the obvious emotional gulf in their relationship and the fool's-errand nature of the trip, volunteers to drive Woody to Lincoln anyway.

Yet although Nebraska starts off as a prickly road-trip comedy featuring an engaging odd-couple pairing and a lot of terrific jokes - David's and Woody's scene of mutual, hilarious one-upmanship when searching for the latter's false teeth is a miniature classic - it doesn't stay one. En route to Lincoln, the men land in Woody's hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, and for the movie's next hour-plus, choose to stay, encountering family members, Woody's old saloon pals, and a former business partner (Stacy Keach) with a huge, untrustworthy grin. And it's in Hawthorne that the deeper picture of Payne's and screenwriter Bob Nelson's achievement reveals itself.

We enter the film, as with most cinematic road trips, expecting David and Woody to eventually gain a better understanding of, and appreciation for, one another. Their trek, however, turns out to be more one-sided than that, and in a particularly affecting way. While Woody may be too far gone, or simply too stubborn, to ever fully connect with David, the younger man receives so much insight into his father's past, and its effect on his present, that we gradually realize this journey to claim Woody's "millions" was David's journey alone. Long after thinking he had nothing left to learn, David, surrounded by relics (many of them human) of Woody's past, is given the chance to uncover the mystery behind his father's withholding character, leading Payne's work to evince an honest, hard-won emotionalism that you didn't see coming. Beyond looking like a series of aged family photographs, Nebraska provides the context for those photographs - the ones that hang on your parents' or grandparents' wall and lead you to wonder how, exactly, the photos' "then" could have ever turned into "now." (In the movie's loveliest segment, and Forte's loveliest piece of acting here, a point-of-view shot shows David looking up at Woody while the old man drives through town, and afterward, for a few seconds, 30 years of David's life appear to vanish, leaving him a happily protected little kid gazing at his dad with respectful awe.)

June Squibb in NebraskaAll this, plus Payne's decision to shoot in black-and-white, may make Nebraska sound either unbearably lofty or unbearably precious. Happily, this vital and clear-headed movie is neither, even though the film does teeter on the edge of affectation by refusing to directly confront the nature of Woody's misguided determination. (Is Woody suffering from a malady such as Alzheimer's or dementia? Is this man, whom his wife routinely calls an idiot, merely dim enough to believe he's won a million dollars in the mail? And either way, why is most everyone in Hawthorne so quick to believe him, and laugh off David's constant recitations of the truth?) Exploring a lost soul with exceptional lucidity and variety, Dern delivers his powerful - and oftentimes powerfully funny - portrayal with no overt fuss or hint of sentimentality, an autumn-years turn matched by that of the 84-year-old Squibb, whose no-nonsense, crudity-laden readings are things of true comic beauty. And Forte, so good on 30 Rock and numerous Saturday Night Live sketches over the years, is a revelation, his hangdog expressiveness, and intentional inexpressiveness, suggesting the deep feelings held in check by a man both stymied and fascinated by his familial traveling companion.

I was delighted to give Payne's offering a second viewing, and was reminded of plenty of moments I'm already looking forward to on a third: the men of Woody's clan watching football, not even making token efforts to address one another during conversation; David's visit to the editor of Hawthorne's newspaper (the heartbreakingly fine Angela McEwan), who sweetly recalls her former romance with Woody; the man's visit to his vacant childhood home, with decades of loss visible in the haunted melancholy of his stare. Recently, I described the film to a pair of friends as being "like Fargo without the murders," and while that seemed accurate, it also felt a little too glib. But after my return trip to Nebraska, I've decided to stand by that assessment: Like the Coen brothers' Midwestern masterpiece, Payne's slice-of-Plains-state-life is gripping, and hilarious, and sneakily moving, and I left it excited to see it (yet) again.


Vanessa Hudgens in Gimme ShelterGIMME SHELTER

As she's principally known for playing Zac Efron's bubbly co-star in the High School Musicals, you can hardly blame Vanessa Hudgens for wanting to tear into her role as Gimme Shelter lead Agnes Bailey: a newly pregnant, emotionally and physically abused 16-year-old with nose and lip rings who's shuffled from one foster home to another when not in the "care" of her meth-addicted biological mom. But can we at least blame Hudgens, or her post-High-School fame, for allowing this forced and shallow movie to exist? Written and directed by Ron Krauss, this dispiritingly phony redemption tale may look like a gritty, tough-minded indie, but it plays more like a timid after-school special with shaky hand-held photography; the scripted dialogue, none of it sounding like the words of actual humans, wears its self-aggrandizing, capitalized Importance on its sleeve, and the movie is frequently senseless to the point of distraction. (Why does Stephanie Szostak's Joanna, married to the birth dad played by Brendan Fraser, turn overnight from harridan to saint? Why does Ann Dowd's good-hearted shelter organizer assign Agnes to a roommate, and then immediately tell the girl that she unfortunately can't stay? Why is James Earl Jones even in this thing?) Hudgens tries her best, but she's hopelessly done in by the second-rate material, and the only thing that kept me alert at Gimme Shelter was the electrifying overacting of Rosario Dawson as Agnes' loathsome mother, a vicious beast who, at one point, demands a kiss from her daughter while hiding a razor blade in her teeth. Dawson's choppers, by the way, are really something - slimy and decaying and roughly the color of the Academy Award that Hudgens, quite possibly, hoped to be nominated for. Sorry, Vanessa. Maybe the Golden Globes will bite.


Aaron Eckhart in I, FrankensteinI, FRANKENSTEIN

If you replaced Underworld's battling vampires and werewolves with gargoyles and demons, and got Frankenstein's monster to play referee, you'd wind up with the unholy bore that is I, Frankenstein, director/co-writer Stuart Beattie's adaptation of a graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux (who also co-stars), and a work so incessantly, oppressively dour that I fought the urge to cackle throughout. Is no one on-screen aware of how silly this all is? (I guess, in a couple of scenes, Bill Nighy appears to be, but then again, the actor frequently looks as though he's smirking at the goofiness of the Hollywood drivel he opted into.) Very early on, there's a brief nod to the original Frankenstein's famous cry of "It's alive!!! It's alive!!!", delivered as a sotto voce throwaway over the title character's "corpse." But excepting that, there are precisely zero jokes to be found in this interminable, CGI-heavy dud - unless you count, as I do, monster portrayer Aaron Eckhart's refusal to move or sound like anything other than Aaron Eckhart, albeit one with a somewhat nagging hangover. Consequently, I found myself enduring this endless travesty the only way a reasonable viewer conceivably could: by poking a crapload of fun at it. Your options for ridicule are multiple and varied, although my favorite was a bit of dialogue that transpired between Grevioux's hulking security guard and Yvonne Strahovski's pretty blond scientist, when the former announced Eckhart's arrival with a solemn "It's here," and the latter curtly replied, "'Him.' Not 'it.'" I would've given anything for Grevioux to respond with, "Sorry. 'Him's' here."

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