Reel Critics: No corn in this 'Nebraska'

Director Alexander Payne knows his way around Oscar-worthy films and great actors. He proved it in "Sideways" with Paul Giamatti, "The Descendants" with George Clooney and "About Schmidt" with Jack Nicholson. Payne takes the time to develop his characters in great depth and paint a detailed picture of their lives

In "Nebraska," he gets an aging Bruce Dern to give the performance of his career as a crabby, cantankerous old man living a lowbrow life in Montana. He receives a mass mailer telling him he has won a million dollars and believes it's true. This triggers a chain of events that cause his adult son to drive him to Lincoln, Neb., to claim his prize or prove him wrong. The resulting father-son road trip is the real purpose of the movie.

Will Forte is outstanding as the sensitive son trying to humor his dad. As the dysfunctional family is revealed, more offbeat characters enter the picture. The glorious black-and-white cinematography does justice to the throwback look and feel of the whole enterprise. Wildly funny at times, it's also sad and uplifting in equal measure. "Nebraska" is sure to get attention at Oscar time.

—John Depko


'Hunger' invites a third helping

In this second installment of the futuristic action series, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" builds quite nicely on the drama and thrills of the first.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the beautiful "victor" of a deadly government-sponsored tournament, is plagued by guilt for the lives taken.

In order to ensure the continued survival of her family and home district, she and co-winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) must keep up the charade they're lovers and go on a nationwide tour. On their travels around 13 districts, we see that the country of Panem is not like its elite, grotesquely excessive Capital. People are angry, hungry and oppressed — the stuff rebellions are made of.

This is not unnoticed by President Snow (a sly Donald Sutherland), now hell-bent on turning Katniss' enormous popularity against her and quashing any thought of revolution. So he decrees a "Quarter Quell" in which previous winners must battle each other to the death.

Lawrence is terrific as always, showing us her desperate struggle to keep those she loves safe. Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci also return for memorable performances. Costume designer Trish Summerville deserves a special shout-out for her fantastical designs.

"Catching Fire" is slow to spark at first, but the plot twists and characters keep our interest building to an exciting finish. It's great to see that a film of this genre is not just about the special effects. By the time the credits rolled, I was definitely hungry for more.

—Susanne Perez

JOHN DEPKO is a retired senior investigator for the Orange County public defender's office. He lives in Costa Mesa and works as a licensed private investigator. SUSANNE PEREZ lives in Costa Mesa and is an executive assistant for a company in Irvine.

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