Nebraska (US - BD RA)
Jonathan revisits one of his favorite flicks of 2013 on Blu-ray...
When a father (Bruce Dern) and his son (Will Forte) embark on a journey to claim a million-dollar prize, what begins as a fool's errand becomes a search for the road to redemption. (From the Paramount synopsis)
Nebraska is as good as any movie in Alexander Payne's critically acclaimed filmography. He's known for mixing the sweet with the raunchy, and finding humor in depressing life situations. Though it doesn't have as much off-color humor as I'd expect from the man, Nebraska fits Payne's modus operandi and is arguably his best work to date. The story's main focus is on the relationship between David (Forte) and Woody Grant (Dern). After receiving a "million-dollar prize" in an obvious scam letter, Woody keeps trying to walk to Nebraska from Billings, Montana to claim his prize. After wandering off multiple times and driving his wife (a hilariously inappropriate June Squibb) crazy, David agrees to take him to Nebraska just to bring an end to the foolishness and spend some time with his father while he is still mentally present. Along the way they run into trouble and decide to meet up with old family in Hawthorne. This is where the majority of the run time takes place.
At times it feels like Payne is heading into Coen brother territory. He isn't as playful with symbolism, but the droll midwestern family dynamics and amusing facial expressions feel right in line with their sense of humor. There are family reunion scenes where the family fills up a living room and they all watch the same TV making small talk. It is eerily close to the time I've spent with older family members up north. The most interesting thing to talk about his the drive there, and what ever happened to that person. Payne is a Nebraska native so I have no doubt some of this dry amusement was reminiscent of his family reunions too. The story takes a twist when David leaves Woody alone in a bar with some old friends, and Woody decides to tell them, with full sincerity, that he has won a million dollars. The news breaks around town. Some good people are happy for Woody, others, including his own relatives, are looking to take advantage of him and get their piece of the pie.
While all of that drama plays out there is a lovely, understated plot at hand about a son getting to know his father. Talking with the town people, visiting cemeteries, and taking a trip to the home his father grew up in, David gets a full picture of the man who was always just a drunken disappointment to him and develops a greater understanding of who he is. None of it is schmaltzy, and the filmmakers are smart to never let the story wallow in sentimentality. It is all handled with graceful subtlety. I probably don't need to tell you Dern is fantastic in this role. Dern has said in interviews that it is the best role he has ever gotten to play, and while he has an impressive career, I tend to agree. He is the perfect mix of cranky and innocently unaware, yet Dern's eyes tell you there is a whole lot going on inside this man's head. Will Forte is an inspired choice as David. Will Forte just seems like a nice guy, and it is easy to perceive him as a respectful son who just wants to take care of his dad despite their rocky past. On paper, Nebraska would read like a pretty serious drama. As the story draws to a conclusion it seems it may not have such a happy ending, but Payne and company manage to find a warm and dignified way to bring everything to a conclusion. If it doesn't resonate with you then you might have problems.
Though Nebraska is shot in black and white, it is a gorgeous movie. The empty country landscapes and equally vacant towns frozen in time appropriately melancholy like the tone of the story, and this 1080p transfer does Phedon Papamichael's cinematography great justice. Paramount does it justice by encoding the film with a large bitrate. It boasts a 35 GB file on the disc, which is larger than necessary for such a low key black and white movie, but the healthy bitrate shows. Though it looks old fashioned, this was shot on the Arri Alexa digital camera and makes a strong argument that this device comes close to creating the personality of film. It looks much cleaner than your average black and white film, and you can make out every detail in Bruce Dern's magnificent hair. I didn't catch any compression artefacts on my viewing. This is high quality stuff, but the nature of the film is not going to make it reference quality.
I'm not sure why the filmmakers chose to release Nebraska with a 3.0 audio mix. I haven't encountered one of these since the LPCM 3.0 track on the Vicky Cristina Barcelona Blu-ray. My best guess is that, much like the black and white photography, this decision was made to keep with the old fashioned, unassuming qualities of the film. It is possible that it was also made out of budgetary necessity. Regardless, this DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0 track is a perfectly apt companion to this movie. Nebraska is beautifully shot, but it is not a movie built to push technical boundaries by any stretch of the imagination. The stillness of the environment and the quiet character interactions don't need an expansive sound mix, and the front heavy presentation that 3.0 delivers captures the lovely soundtrack and leisurely dialogue in all the clarity I experienced seeing this in a movie theater.
The only extra is The Making of Nebraska (HD, 28:50), which is a pretty traditional look behind the scenes with a lot of cast and filmmaker interview footage. It is divided into three primary sections. In the casting section, Payne and his writers/producers talk about how the actors all got involved in the project. In the middle segment, the crew and cast praise working with Alexander Payne and have a ton of nice things to say about him. The last chunk is dedicated to talking about the location scouting process and the choice to shoot in black and white. It's a charming little special feature.
I adore Nebraska. This is a near perfect movie for what it sets out to achieve. Alexander Payne continues to prove he is an expert storyteller, mining both humor and heart from a rustic midwestern setting and great cast of characters. The wonderfully understated material navigates through emotional territory without ever resorting to cheap sentimentality. Highly recommended. This Blu-ray release from Paramount is disappointing in terms of special features, but boasts a strong transfer and an accurate audio presentation.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 25th February 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0 English, Dolby Digital 3.0 French, Dolby Digital 3.0 Spanish, Dolby Digital 3.0 German, English Audio Description
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish, German
Extras: The Making of Nebraska, DVD Copy, Ultraviolet Digital Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk
Length: 114 minutes
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