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Middle-American Gothic: Seven Films to Watch This Week

Woody (Bruce Dern) and his brothers doze off in front of the game as his son David (Will Forte) looks on in Alexander Payne's Nebraska.

Despite the ballast of critical chatter pulling in the other direction, Alexander Payne's latest film, Nebraska, undoubtedly lives up to his name. It's brutal. The Sideways director has always been a bit of a misanthrope, often misread as a humanist by over-generous critics aiming at the redemption narrative--everyone seems to have forgotten that the Election director always delivers a fierce satirical bite, and it's no less toothy in Nebraska

As the title indicates, Nebraska is firmly a film about geography: Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), the aging patriarch of a small clan in Billings, Montana, convinces his son David to head to Lincoln, Nebraska to redeem a clearly bogus sweepstakes ticket for 1 million dollars. Once they're underway, a road movie threatens, but after a pitstop at Mount Rushmore they're waylaid in Hawthorne, Nebraska, Woody's home town, for most of the action. Painted in black and white, the Dust Bowl has never looked so dusty--it's a graveyard of failed farms and rusted trucks, and the place long-held notions of American masculinity go to die, with little fanfare and great sighs.

Comparisons to the Joel and Ethan Cohen's films, especially Fargo, will be easily made here, though they're no less illuminating for it. Beyond the obvious regional aspects, what Nebraska does have in common with Fargo, more than anything, is a barely hidden contempt for the place its director came of age, an pathos buried so deeply in Payne's consciousness that he forces a happy ending as if that's what he's been after all along.

On the positive side, Bruce Dern lives up to every bit of the hype as a doddering old alcoholic veteran whose beard connects to his nose hairs, shedding any trace the "psychopath" persona that's imprisoned him for most of his career. Considered one of the great actors of his generation by a number of people including Jack Nicholson, who took his own shot at the older grump role in Payne's earlier film About Schmidt, the wiry Illinois native has set himself up well for a long-overdue Oscar with his work in Nebraska.

Elsewhere, the film's performances are more problematic. A grizzled Stacy Keach lends great bit of flair to his role as the film's closest thing to a villain, but in the roll of Woody's son David, Will Forte is plainly outclassed by fellow comedian Bob Odenkirk, who plays his more successful brother, a no-nonsense news anchor. Forte's character is mercifully underdeveloped, but never fails to take the audience out of the film when he's looking lost instead of determined, or confused instead of happy, or lost and confused instead of introspective. Luckily for him he's in a role that mostly plays to his one-note dramatic chops. A shrill June Squibb (also About Schmidt) is particularly great as Woody's spouse, the say-anything glue that holds the family together. In one particularly charming scene she presides over a graveyard filled with Woody's family, chirping out anecdote after anecdote about the bodies that lay at rest, most of them unflattering. We've all been taught not to speak ill of the dead, and her prattling is played mostly for laughs, but the message is clear: the good old days were never as good as they seemed. Rotten Tomatoes: 90%. Embarcadero.

ALSO PLAYING:

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - After Jennifer Lawrence rapidly outclassed what was meant to be her signature role as the series lead, a sequel would seem like a step backwards for the now Oscar-holding star. To pleasant surprise, new director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) elevates the series to meet her, crafting on-the-money popcorn-mashing entertainment with just enough intelligence to keep viewers engaged. Rotten Tomatoes: 94%. Bay Area theatres.

Oldboy (2003) - Before you check out the remake by Spike Lee, whose batting average has been particularly low lately, next week, do yourself a favor and watch (or re-watch) the 2003 original, a masterclass in haut violence with an indelible performance by Choi Min-sik. Friday and Saturday at midnight only. Rotten Tomatoes: 80%. The Clay.

The Broken Circle Breakdown - Belgium's Academy Awards entry about a bluegrass band walks the line between honesty and melodrama as finely as any big-budget Hollywood hootenanny. Fans of the genre, musical flicks and tattoo-covered family men take note. Rotten Tomatoes: 84%. Opera Plaza.

Food on Film - Exploratorium's Saturday Cinema series continues with a tribute to stuffing, stuffers and the stuff that they love. Or something like that. Loads of innovative and appetizing shorts, including works by Ray and Charles Eames, await your consumption. Saturday only. The Exploratorium.

Holy Ghost People - Peter Adair's rousing 1967 doc prefigures this year's SXSW fiction spectacle of the same name which also plays this weekend, but is no less shocking and stylish for its verité approach. Sure, you could watch it at home, but why not share the spectacle with a few friends on 35mm. Sunday only. The Tannery, Berkeley.

Peaches Christ 9 to 5 - The classic Dolly-sploitation flick doesn't have a whole lot more substance than the singer's classic tune, but that's plenty of meat for Peaches and her girlfriends to sink their teeth into. Saturday only. Rotten Tomatoes: 84%. Castro Theatre.