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Movies: 'Nebraska,' 'The Book Thief' & 'The Best Man Holiday'

Published 2:30 pm, Friday, December 6, 2013

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  • "Nebraska," a film starring veteran actor Bruce Dern, is now playing in area theaters. Photo: Contributed Photo / Westport News contributed
    "Nebraska," a film starring veteran actor Bruce Dern, is now playing in area theaters. Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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Following are Susan Granger's reviews of the latest movies in area theaters:

"NEBRASKA"

Filming in monochromatic black-and-white, Alexander Payne nostalgically returns to his home state of Nebraska to sensitively, subtly convey the melancholy lives of ordinary Midwesterners.

This original debut screenplay by Bob Nelson revolves around grizzled Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an alcoholic, aging resident of Billings, Mont., who is convinced that he's won a million dollars in a Publisher's Clearing House-like mega-sweepstakes lottery.

Obviously deluded with symptoms of senility, he's stubbornly determined to get to the company's headquarters in Lincoln, Neb., even if he has to walk there.

That's what he tells his younger son, David (Will Forte), an electronics salesman, who picks him up after he's been wandering down the highway. David's older brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), a local TV announcer, and their exasperated mother, Kate (June Squibb), want Woody put in a nursing home.

But David, feeling empathy for the frail, confused old man, offers to drive him to Lincoln to pick up his alleged prize. En route, they visit relatives in Hawthorne, Neb., where Woody grew up. Gradually, David learns more about his reticent, inscrutable father -- from his old girlfriend (Angela McEwan) and former business partner (Stacy Keach) -- and realizes how everyone, thinking that ornery Woody's suddenly struck it rich, wants a cut of the windfall.

Beginning with his breakthrough satire "Election" and continuing through "Sideways," "About Schmidt" and "The Descendants," Alexander Payne has established himself as a distinctly idiosyncratic, understated filmmaker. As he delineates his characters' socio-economic travails and emotional hurdles, his road-trip pace is leisurely, focusing on the listless lifestyle of the American middle class.

As the cantankerous old coot, Dern delivers a restrained-yet-convincing, career-crowning performance that's complemented by Forte ("Saturday Night Live," "30 Rock") as his caregiver, and Squibb as the quarrelsome matriarch who's engrossed with scandalous small-town gossip.

Photographed by Phedon Papamichael, the austere, elegiac imagery evokes Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Edward Hopper and Dorothea Lange, as do the disgruntled characters and sparse dialogue.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Nebraska" is a nuanced, endearing 8, exuding whimsical humor and poignant, homespun humanity.

"THE BOOK THIEF"

Narrated by Death and told from a child's perspective in small, German village during the Third Reich, this coming-of-age tale revolves around Liesel Meminger, an adolescent in whom the omniscient Grim Reaper (voiced by Roger Allam) has taken a particular interest.

In 1939, after the death of her mother and brother, orphaned Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) is deposited on the doorstep of her new Teutonic foster parents, benevolent house painter Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his cranky wife Rosa (Emily Watson). Playing on the cobblestones of Himmel Street (translated as "Heaven"), Liesel is quickly befriended by their Aryan blond neighbor, Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), an aspiring track star.

When it's discovered at school that Liesel is illiterate and she's ridiculed by the class bully, Franz (Levin Liam), Hans tenderly teaches her to read, beginning with "The Gravedigger's Handbook," which she grabbed when it fell from a workman's coat at her brother's funeral. Later, when she defiantly snatches a burning book from a bonfire at a local Nazi rally, she's spotted by the Burgermeister's wife, Frau Hermann (Barbara Auer), who invites her into her late son's library when Liesel delivers laundry.

Meanwhile, the Hubermann household is secretly harboring Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), the seriously ill, 20-something son of Hans' Jewish comrade who saved his life during World War I.

Adapted from Markus Zusak's lyrical 2006 best seller by screenwriter Michael Petroni ("The Voyage of the Dawn Treader") and director Brian Percival "(Downton Abbey"), it's far too episodic and restrained to evoke more than superficial emotional involvement in the characters, despite the horror of the Holocaust, Allied air raids, Florian Balhaus' sumptuous photography and John Williams' evocative score.

Rush ("Shine") and Watson ("Breaking the Waves") deliver thoughtful, understated performances. Schnetzer is charming, while Nelisse, a wholesome French-Canadian, is competent but hardly compelling.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Book Thief" is a schmaltzy 6, a gently engaging, well-crafted, historical melodrama that lacks the magical realism of Zusak's novel.

"THE BEST MAN HOLIDAY"

Back in 1999, Malcolm D. Lee concocted a romantic dramedy about African-American college friends working out life's most complicated problems. Now -- 14 years later -- they've reassembled to celebrate the Yuletide season together.

While the first film focused on Harper (Taye Diggs), the sequel shifts to Mia (Monica Calhoun), who married Lance (Morris Chestnut), a New York Giants superstar running back, and they now have four children. According to Lance, what's important in life is, "God, family, football -- in that order." But Mia desperately misses her old friends, so despite Lance's misgivings, she graciously invites everyone to their magnificently decorated, suburban mansion for Christmas weekend.

Not surprisingly, each has his/her own quandary. NYU professor/struggling writer Harper, who hasn't had a best seller since "Unfinished Business," his semi-autobiographical novel about his friends' early days, has an ulterior motive for making the trip. But he doesn't realize that his long-suffering, very-pregnant wife, Robyn (Sanaa Lathan), worries about him reconnecting with Jordan (Nia Long), his former flame, now an executive at MSNBC who's brought along her new "vanilla" boyfriend Brian (Eddie Cibran).

Private school administrator/social activist Julian (Harold Perrineau) is worried about a scandalous YouTube video of his wife ,Candace (Regina Hall), a former stripper, and the catty revelations of his slutty ex, Shelby (Melissa DeSousa), who is now a reality-TV star on "The Real Housewives of Westchester."

And trouble-making bachelor Quentin (Terrence Howard) is up to his rascally tricks, wandering around the house without his pants.

Mixing raunchy comedy with predictable, if sometimes forced and formulaic Christian melodrama and long-winded dialogue, writer/director Malcolm D. Lee (Spike's cousin) manages to keep the pace steady, even if every simplistic plot turn is telegraphed in advance.

To his credit, Lee takes full advantage of his talented cast, setting up for yet another sequel.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Best Man Holiday" is a soapy, seasonal 6. Perhaps comedian Seth MacFarlane put it best when he dubbed this "Love Blacktually."