The director of About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004) returns with Nebraska (12A), a road movie in which irascible old alcoholic Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) travels from Montana to Nebraska in order to collect the one million dollars he has won from the Mega Sweepstakes Prize marketing company. Keeping Woody company, and doing most of the driving, is his put-upon son Davy (Will Forte), who understands that his father is being scammed but refuses to allow him make the embarrassing trip alone. It’s a standard set-up, and we presume that a conventional father-son bonding tale will ensue, with time on the road together giving Woody all the opportunity he needs to admit to a life-long neglect of his son. A certain amount of belated mutual understanding does enter the picture, but Payne has bigger fish to fry here, and Nebraska, shot entirely in grainy black-and-white, is first and foremost a bittersweet love letter to the windswept northwest states of America. As Woody and Davy drive through Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota on their way to Nebraska, the camera lingers lovingly on scenes of utter desolation. When the focus does zero in on the people who live in this drab landscape, the actors make the most of the black humour to be mined from a monosyllabic, narrow-minded and pedantically literal people (“Just a bunch of rocks,” Woody declares when father and son stop off to view Mount Rushmore), although the characterisations only serve to reinforce the impression of a population devastated by economic deprivation and as devoid of warmth and culture as the largely barren landscape is of landmarks. As bleak in tone as it is haunting in its implications, Nebraska is a beautifully rendered elegy that offers fine performances from Dern and Forte despite giving them very little by way of dramatic development.
The Snow Queen is an enduring character in folktale, and her latest incarnation provides the narrative framework for Disney’s new animated offering, Frozen (G). Young Princess Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) of Arrendale grows up to become a poised, regal figure, although her reserve hides a terrible secret — Elsa has the power of ice and snow at her fingertips. When Elsa’s power is uncovered, she unwittingly consigns Arrendale to perpetual winter as she flees into self-exile. And so Elsa’s feisty younger sister Anna (Kristen Bell) embarks on a heroic climb into the high mountains, to persuade Elsa to return and undo the spell and in the process learn to accept herself. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, and designed by the creators of Tangled (2010), Frozen weaves comedy and musical numbers into an epic quest that is at times a little too pacy for its own good. The story seems to lack cohesion, perhaps because it is reluctant to offer a clear-cut clash between good and evil. That said, Anna’s dedication to her sister makes her a winningly self-sacrificing heroine, and the movie’s irrepressible energy gives it a straightforwardly enjoyable appeal.
Just A Sigh (15A) opens with actress Alix (Emmanuelle Devos) travelling to Paris by train for an audition. She catches the eye of fellow passenger Doug (Gabriel Byrne), they speak briefly, and then go their separate ways. That short flirtation leads to a minor case of amour fou, however; with time to kill in Paris, Alix tracks down Doug at the funeral he is attending, and the couple — both of whom are involved in relationships — gradually admit to their mutual lust. Written and directed by Jérôme Bonnell, Just A Sigh is a slow-burning romantic drama and a character study that investigates the psychology of betrayal and trust as much as it explores the nature of passion and lust. Devos and Byrne are equally generous to one another as actors, both underplaying their performances so that their simmering attraction is as plausible as it is engrossing. The hesitations and fears of two middle-aged lovers are credibly portrayed, their brief affair given a refreshingly downbeat and realistic treatment that is, nonetheless, heartwarming in its reaffirmation of the couple’s hopes and aspirations.