Terry Mark
Terry Mark
Terry Mark is The Elkhart Truth’s news editor and writes about sports, design, bicycling, science fiction and craft beer.

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'Nebraska' packs a powerful visual – and visceral – punch

"Nebraska" is full of striking visuals, even without color.

Posted on Feb. 25, 2014 at 1:10 p.m.

I've never been to Nebraska, but the movie bearing the state's name may be one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen.

I'm no movie critic, so I'll just point out that its six Oscar nominations are well-deserved. But I've seen many Oscar winners and Oscar-nominated movies before. Where "Nebraska" distinguishes itself in my mind is its visual punch.

One of the things I look for in movies is how it tells the story beyond words. That's why I rank diverse films such as "Skyfall," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Moulin Rouge" and now "Nebraska" as among the most visually exciting I've seen.

"Nebraska" was filmed in black-and-white, but it's no film noir — it's not a dark film. Instead, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and director Alexander Payne use light and shadow to convey emotions throughout the movie.

Oscar nominations 

When the Academy Awards are presented Sunday, March 2, "Nebraska" will be up for six Oscars:

• Best Motion Picture

• Best Actor, Bruce Dern

• Best Supporting Actress, June Squibb

• Best Cinematography, Phedon Papamichael

• Best Director, Alexander Payne

• Best Original Screenplay, Bob Nelson

There are many bleak prairie landscape scenes sprinkled throughout this road trip story, but they don't feel obligatory or repetitive.

Two scenes in particular, one at a critical moment and the other a peripheral subplot, stand out.

In "Nebraska's" penultimate act, Bruce Dern's Woody Grant visits the home where he grew up. As he and his family move through abandoned, decaying house, the camera follows them, framing their movements and viewing the characters through high and low angles. It's a quiet scene in which the camera and lighting give life to the emptiness of Woody's existence. No one has to say it; you see it on the screen.

The second scene occurs early in the film, when Woody's son, David (played by Will Forte), is visited at his apartment by his estranged girlfriend. The door opens into his cramped apartment, filling the space -- and David's psyche -- with a washed-out light. You see that David's life is dark and that this visit adds light -- and hope and desperation, even in a diluted form.

For these scenes and many others between Billings, Mont., where the film's story starts, and fictional Hawthorne, Neb., Papamichael was nominated for a best cinematography Oscar. I hope he wins.


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