The director of About Schmidt and Sideways, not to mention the more recent Oscar-winning The Descendants, Alexander Payne has a fine eye for human frailty and a big heart that encompasses the many and varied flaws of his characters. In Nebraska, an aging, booze-addled father (Bruce Dern) makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son (Will Forte) in order to claim a million-dollar Mega Sweepstakes prize. The thing is a scam, but a perfect setup for a road movie that explores the humor and sorrow of small lives and big dreams. The odyssey combines, quite effortlessly, prickly combat between father and son and a stirring exploration of Woody’s past, for which he harbors little fondness. Shot in black and white and with photography that evokes the American Gothic of Grant Wood, Nebraska is beautiful and often funny. We know that Dern’s character has not won any money, and that his life won’t change in any material way, but the dream of riches, and the expectation that others have of sharing this wealth, reveals the dark and often confused souls of lead characters and bit players alike. The real winner from all of this is the audience.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones
The first Paranormal Activity was released way back in 2007 and its minimalist, found-footage style with plenty of shaky camera, weird angles and bad light was still able to provide some excitement, if not exactly scares. But six years and three movies later, there just isn’t that much mileage in that kind of treatment anymore. So what do you do? You go big budget and plunge into serious occult maximalism; but then you keep bits of shaky cam and other pseudo low-budget effects. Performances are actually above par here, and director Christopher Landon, who was the screenwriter for all the Paranormal Activity films except the first, and who produced Paranormal Activity three and four, is at home with the genre. Teenager Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) is playing around with a camcorder and captures images from strange doings in the flat below. Then he gets a strange mark on his arm, develops superpowers and seems to be targeted by demons. Landon tries for some twists and turns in the plot, but these only manage to make an already inarticulate story even more confused.
The White Storm (掃毒)
This is a pulse-pumping Hong Kong action thriller from director Benny Chan (陳木勝), who has set the bar impossibly high for similar genre films in 2014. At its center, The White Storm is the story of three friends, all DEA types, whose mutual love, respect and dependency upon each other has enabled them to survive and navigate the dangerous world of the Golden Triangle’s drug trade. When a big operation goes terribly wrong, their careers and friendship are put under intolerable strain. The action is top draw, as Chan looks to outdo the grand scale and outlandish bombast of films such as Dante Lam’s (林超賢) The Viral Factor (逆戰), and mix in themes of loyalty and honor that hark to the 1980s heyday of John Woo. Massive amounts of gunfire and some truly gut-wrenching close-up violence ensure that audiences get their money’s worth of action, and Lau Ching Wan (劉青雲), Nick Cheung (張家輝) and Louis Koo (古天樂) all provide solid performances that gives some spirit to a messy, sometimes bloated storyline.