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'Nebraska,' a Black History Month celebration and Panic Fest


"Nebraska" quietly earned itself a surprising six Oscar nominations last week (including one for best picture and best director), while more obvious Oscar bait like "Saving Mr. Banks" and "Lee Daniels' The Butler" struggled, coming up with one (for its score) and zero nominations respectively. It opens at Liberty Hall on Friday, and folks who grew up in the Midwest will likely find a lot of humor and truth in it.

Having grown up in Omaha, Alexander Payne has long been fascinated with the Midwest. His movies "Election" and "About Schmidt" were at least partially set in his hometown, so it's fitting that his sixth feature as director is tilted simply "Nebraska."

What’s interesting to note, however, is that "Nebraska" is the first movie he’s directed without a writing credit — and yet it bears the familiar Payne stamp of melancholy mixed with hard-edged satire, while still feeling very personal.

Best actor nominee Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a wild-haired old codger from Billings, Mont., who is dead set on getting himself to Lincoln, Neb., to claim the $1 million he says he’s won through a direct-mail sweepstakes notification. It’s no matter that his mild-mannered son David (Will Forte) and spitfire-of-a-wife Kate (June Squibb, also nominated) have told him repeatedly that it's a scam — he’s dead set on it.

You get the feeling that Woody hasn't been dead set on much in his 70-plus years, so he’ll make the 800-mile trip even if he has to walk. From the opening scene where a trooper picks Woody up on the highway, I was instantly reminded of David Lynch’s "The Straight Story," in which in an old man travels from Iowa to Wisconsin by lawnmower to reconcile with his estranged brother.

"Nebraska" has a similar leisurely pace and elegiac tone, but it’s also buoyed by Payne’s acute familiarity with Midwestern stoicism and his uncanny ability to squeeze absurd comedy from the most banal of situations. David’s job as a home-theater salesman isn't going so well and his girlfriend recently moved out, so he decides that maybe a spur-of-the-moment road trip to his family’s home state is just what he needs. Besides letting the old man live out his fantasy of becoming rich man, he’ll be able to reconnect with him as they drive through Wyoming and South Dakota.

The problem is that his father isn't interested much in talking — even when they stop in their (fictional) hometown of Hawthorne, Neb., to visit Woody’s brother Ray. Hawthorne is pretty typical of small-town America, with a dilapidated downtown that probably looked that way even before the economic crisis five years ago. Despite its bleak, worn-out setting, "Nebraska" has its own sense of grace. This is at least partly due to the striking black-and-white Oscar-nominated cinematography of Phedon Papamichael, which seems like an elegy for the rural Midwest. It brings to mind Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 look-back "The Last Picture Show," but that film approached its subject matter with way more nostalgia.

"Nebraska" achieves a certain poise also in the way that Bob Nelson's nominated screenplay withholds key information about its characters, revealing unexpected deeper layers as the film progresses. Dern’s portrayal of Woody takes on new shades, and it's impossible not to warm up to him, just as the emotional resonance of his story sneaks up on you.

A mystery begins to unfold about why the Grants left Hawthorne. Payne is balancing broad comedy and a serious portrait of culturally isolated people who have no use for self-awareness. Payne illustrated a similar sensibility in "About Schmidt," and here he walks the tightrope between ridiculousness and truth even more perilously. David’s dunderheaded cousins and Squibb’s foulmouthed barbs may steer a bit too far into parody sometimes. But there are plenty of people who will be able to relate to the scene where all the men — during the first family reunion in 20 years — gather around the TV to watch the game.

It’s no coincidence that Woody Grant is almost an anagram for Grant Wood, the famous painter of “American Gothic.” Dern is so natural in the role that he barely seems to be acting, lending Woody a dispassionate quality that could easily be mistaken for indifference if it weren't for the few moments when he is jarred suddenly into the present. If those around him haven’t noticed it yet, Woody has begun a serious self-examination. And he’s finally decided he wants something more from his life. Whether that something really is a truck — or something else — no one will ever know for sure. Because he’s not talking about it.

Black History Month will be celebrated by CinemaKC next month with screenings on consecutive Saturdays at Screenland Crown Center Theaters of local artists' works, with filmmakers present at all shows. "Chocolate Me" author Shane W. Evans has expanded his family-oriented book into a multimedia animated presentation with the help of co-producer Taye Diggs, and will present on Feb. 1. On Feb. 8, fresh off his successful run of his "Gangland Wire" documentary, Gary Jenkins will show his rarely seen doc "Freedom Seekers: Stories from the Western Underground Railroad."

Stinson McLendon's "Still Jammin'" chronicles Kansas City's Mutual Musicians Foundation, a rehearsal space and living museum where jazz greats like Charlie Parker used to jam well into the morning hours. It's now a registered national historic landmark, and McLendon's doc, screening Feb. 15, features interviews with luminaries such as Jay McShann and Big Joe Turner.

Around this time last year, Kansas University film professor Kevin Willmott screened an early cut of his campy '50s sci-fi comedy "Destination: Planet Negro" at Liberty Hall. Now, the film is making its Kansas City debut Feb. 22 as part of CinemaKC's event. Like all of the screenings, it shows at 11 a.m., and the filmmakers will be in attendance.

For those looking to escape Super Bowl mania, the horror/sci-fi festival Panic Fest runs Jan. 31 through Feb. 2 at Screenland Armour, featuring a healthy (or unhealthy) mix of extreme genre films, from hotly anticipated new indie releases to '70s camp classics.

No less an authority than Quentin Tarantino called the Israeli thriller "Big Bad Wolves" his favorite movie of 2013, and it makes its local premiere at Panic Fest. It's a brutal and well-made revenge thriller with a pitch black sense of humor to cut the tension every now and then.

"Here Comes the Devil", another new release making its debut, is a Mexican, '70s-inspired horror flick that starts out punishing the sexually active like most slasher movies and then takes a sharp right turn into psychological horror.


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