Movie Review ~ Nomadland

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A woman in her sixties embarks on a journey through the Western United States after losing everything in the Great Recession, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.

Stars: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Gay DeForest, Patricia Grier, Angela Reyes, Carl R. Hughes

Director: Chloé Zhao

Rated: R

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Remember back in the day when the daydream was to leave your job and most everything behind and just travel the country, if not the entire globe?  If money was no object, you could just take the time to explore the nooks and crannies of this great land and hopefully meet others along the way who were also up for adventure.  Sleeping under the stars, waking up in one state and going to sleep in another, the possibilities were endless.  That wasn’t your dream?  Well, for a time it was mine and I know I wasn’t the only person that wished for even a glimmer of a summer to see what that life on a road with no destination would be like.  Double that now after we’ve all been cooped up inside for close to a year with little in the way of travel.

Watching Nomadland was a bit of a surreal experience because Fern (Frances McDormand, Promised Land) is, in a way, following the guide I had laid out for myself…just under different circumstances.  Displaced from her home after she literally lost her zip code, the sixty-something widow didn’t have much to begin with but was making ends meet anyway.  Now, she lives out of her unheated camper van and is working a seasonal shift at an Amazon warehouse when she decides to hit the road in search of something…more.  What that is she doesn’t know but it’s out there somewhere and all she has is time to find it, she just has a few pit stops along the way.

That’s the basic premise of Nomadland, director Chloé Zhao’s adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s 2017 novel which uncovered the rising number of past middle-aged Americans who have eschewed the trivialities of living in a brick-and-mortar dwelling for something more flexible.  They travel the country in vans, campers, etc. working odd jobs to pay for their passage before moving on to the next location.  Life is constantly in flux and they like it that way because there’s beauty in that consistency of change.  Fern finds a group of kindred spirits after attending the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a two-week event in the Arizona desert that brings together like-minded nomads to share stories, tips, and trades.  Mostly, though, this is a solo journey with its own perils to encounter and deal with along the route.

Just as this nomadic life isn’t for everyone, I can see how the film may present some challenges to viewers as well.  In my household, the final verdict on the film was decidedly divided.  I found it to be a rewarding watch that fed into my introverted self, speaking to the type of solitary journey I’d like to take at some point in my life.  For my partner, Fern’s aloofness throughout the film and her tendency to keep others so far at a distance, even those closest to her, was hard to accept.  I actually think Fern’s restlessness is one of Nomadland’s greatest strengths because, in the end, only she knows when it’s time to pull over.  Without anything to tie her down, she has control over her life whereas the last few years she had little autonomy over what her choices were.  There’s inspiration to be had in watching that journey unfold for Fern and maybe even a tinge a jealousy for viewers that she can pack it all in if she wants and be gone.

Adding to the film’s ultra-realism is the symbiotic collaboration between McDormand and Zhao.  Zhao created this story out of the themes from Bruder’s source novel and McDormand’s character sprung to life from there.  That’s how Fern (or is it really Fran?) actually went to work these jobs and is acting alongside nonprofessional actors that often shine brighter than their two-time Oscar-winning co-star.  Many times these experiments in using “real” people can backfire significantly but Zhao has an eye like Dorothea Lange or Ansel Adams in capturing the “true America” without it ever feeling like they are acting.  Most of the time, they are just playing themselves, like Fern’s bubbly co-worker Linda May or Nomadland‘s true lightning bolt standout, Swankie.  I was so taken with this side character that came out of nowhere, I’m not sure how much of it was built off of Zhao’s script but her showcase scene with McDormand is one of the highlights of the film.

If there are stretches where Nomadland runs a bit on fumes, it’s not surprising they’re the passages when Fern isn’t on the road.  A trip to her estranged family and a visit to a friend she’s met along the way (David Strathairn, The Devil Has a Name) that may have found his forever home are nicely played but have an itch to them that Fern (and McDormand) seems eager to scratch and be done with.  There’s a tension present that I’m sure Zhao intended but could have let the air out a bit more, if only to allow McDormand to be slightly more open to her fellow actors in these scenes.  She’s so tightly wound when she feels cornered that it can be uncomfortable to watch her work through her unease.

There’s just no other actress out there like McDormand, nor could I imagine this film being made without her.  The performance is as good as you’ve heard and as complicated as you might think, taking into consideration all the prep she had to do before, during, and after living and working in these conditions while also remembering that this is acting at the same time.  That’s the thing, though, it never quite seems like McDormand is “acting” and while the actress has disappeared into roles before (like her Oscar winning part in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) in Nomadland it feels like we’re watching Fran, not Fern, take this journey.  Some may find that hard to wrap their head around and call it “just playing herself” but I found it to be a fascinating study of both the character and the actress.  It almost seems like Fern is a parallel version of McDormand, with the two sharing a number of the same qualities but diverging in several key aspects.  No matter what, count on McDormand being a leading contender for her third Best Actress Oscar this year.

Releasing in theaters and on Hulu, Nomadland explores a different side of the American experience that we should be able to say is unfamiliar but has sadly become more commonplace the longer our economy devalues the middle and lower class.  Many of the nomads that were explored in the book and inspired the movie started their movement by choice, but a large number did it as a way to survive losing their homes and other possessions.  Through Zhao’s imagined narrative, McDormand’s performance brimming with unforced realism, and a colorful supporting cast of amateur actors, a strong message on the survival of the human spirit is delivered with regal beauty.

Movie Review ~ The Mauritanian

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A detainee at the U.S military’s Guantanamo Bay detention center is held without charges for over a decade and seeks help from a defense attorney for his release.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Tahar Rahim, Zachary Levi

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Rated: R

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: While I wouldn’t say the topic of The Mauritanian is something to get excited about, the release of it is because it signals another big screen (or small screen depending on your COVID-19 comfort level) appearance of Jodie Foster.  The notoriously picky Oscar winning actress doesn’t show up much in front of the camera these days, preferring to sit in the director’s chair more than anything else and while I appreciate the work she’s done for television and movies I do miss seeing her…she’s one of the best.  Foster returned (the same weekend The Silence of the Lambs turned 30, by the way) with this true-life story that casts her in a supporting role as famed criminal defense lawyer Nancy Hollander.  Even though many may be wary of another heavy-handed 9/11 political thriller, thanks to a powerful lead performance and assured direction this is one that should be given consideration.

Based on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s best-selling 2015 memoir Guantanamo Diary, which was infamously released with a number of the pages heavily redacted (it was later re-published with all of the redactions fully restored), the film sets out to tell Slahi’s story from a mostly bipartisan standpoint.  Shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States, Slahi was an electrical engineering student going to school on scholarship in Germany when he returned home to Mauritania for a wedding.  It was there the local police detained him after suspecting Slahi of ties to Al-Qaeda through his cousin and other loosely laced evidence that could easily be explained had he been given the opportunity.  This was 2002 and was only the beginning of a 14-year fight for freedom that would stretch across two presidential administrations, several countries, and many legal challenges.

By 2005, Slahi (Tahar Rahim) had been incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay without being charged with a crime and subjected to the interrogation techniques that would be the downfall of several leading military officials.  Taking on the defense of a suspected 9/11 terrorist might seem like poison to an established professional like Hollander (Foster, Carnage) but something smells off to the seasoned attorney and she isn’t scared off by her disapproving colleagues or a stern military prosecutor (Benedict Cumberbatch, 1917) out to thwart her progress.  Working with junior associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars), Hollander meets with Slahi who might be the most dubious of all about her prospects at success.  Over time, she begins to win his trust as they begin to make the mightiest argument of Slahi’s life so he may reunite with his family and have his freedom restored.

Plenty of films have been made about the horrors that occurred at Guantanamo “Gitmo” and wisely director Kevin Macdonald (Whitney, How I Live Now) and screenwriters M.B. Traven, Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani avoid making the focus of the film on that aspect of Slahi’s experience.  Instead, they shift the attention to Slahi’s current encounters with his attorney’s as well as detailing how he was moved from Mauritania to Gitmo.  Though Macdonald wants to frame some of this in mystery at times and adds some flash by changing the aspect ratio of the film (less obvious in a home viewing experience, probably), The Mauritanian is one of those experiences that works better when it sticks to the facts and tenets of straightforward narrative.  It’s when the Macdonald jumps around in the timeline that it becomes hard to follow and track.  For this film in particular, losing the thread of where we are in the overall Slahi lifecycle can set you back a few precious minutes.

Where the film is receiving the most notice are the performances of Rahim and Foster and I can’t help but agree that both are shouldering most of the weight, with a slight edge going to Rahim considering he’s the de facto lead of the film.  Rahim is able to take Slahi from an idealistic young man to a unjustly kept detainee without the urge to instill a bitter bite to his delivery.  Like the real Slahi who miraculously kept a positive outlook throughout even the worst of his low points, Rahim’s chin is always up and squared with his belief that he will be proven innocent.  Sporting a white-blonde wig and the reddest lipstick that’s just ever so slightly imperfect, Foster gives Hollander knowing authority and never backs down when challenged.  It’s exactly the type of role we want to see Foster chew on, and she happily snacks away…but does it with her mouth closed because while she takes big bites out of scenes, they aren’t obnoxious ones.

The supporting players are a bit all over the map.  Like she did within the cast of TV’s Big Little Lies, Woodley shrinks a bit when sharing the screen with more dominant females, eventually fading from view and memory.  In a small role that turns pivotal somewhat out of the blue, Zachary Levi (Shazam!) reminds you of John Krasinski and makes you wonder if Macdonald didn’t have that actor in mind originally for the part.  Levi is fine for the requirement but is missing some of the easy-going guard-down charisma someone like Krasinski could have brought to it.  Then we have Cumberbatch in a downright crazy wig and an even more eyebrow-raising accent.  Both don’t do him any favors and it’s another case of wondering if the actor wasn’t a last-minute replacement for someone else or if it was just a bit of casting that didn’t go as planned.  Scenes that should crackle between Foster and Cumberbatch only fizz and it’s largely because Foster is working harder than she has to as a way to make up for Cumberbatch’s lack of vigor.

While I wouldn’t rush out and line-up The Mauritanian for a Friday or Saturday night selection, this is a solid choice for a Sunday afternoon or mid-week bit of entertainment.  The story is quite a ride and kudos to the filmmakers for doing their level best to leave major politics at the door for what is ostensibly a movie all about political maneuvering.  Both Bush supporters and Obama fans will come away with something to grumble about, I’m sure, and that will lead to a good discussion…so be sure to choose your movie watching party carefully!

Movie Review ~ Body Brokers

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Drug addicts living on the streets in rural Ohio are recruited by a body broker and treatment center mogul and offered treatment in Los Angeles, where saving lives comes second to the bottom line.

Stars: Jack Kilmer, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jessica Rothe, Alice Englert, Peter Greene, Owen Campbell, Thomas Dekker, Sam Quartin, Frank Grillo, Melissa Leo

Director: John Swab

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: It was bound to happen sooner or later but I think that finally, in February 2021, we’re starting to see the effect of the slowdown of film production in Hollywood.  Even a minor halt in filmmaking has a ripple effect that catches up eventually and the unusually long hiatus brought on by the health crisis in 2020 is about to come crashing in on us.  Sure, it still seems like we’re getting a nice dose of new titles weekly, but a number of them are really just delayed releases finally making an appearance, smaller festival films that normally would have played to more niche art-house audiences, and middle of the road indie fare you’d be apt to discover in Redbox or down the new release list as your scroll through your streaming site of choice.

I’m thinking Body Brokers is one of those properties that likely would have gone unnoticed for most, only discoverable for fans of the actors and anyone who trusts the “recommended for you” lists even the pickiest of viewers fall for in a pinch.  While it aims to shine a brighter light on the corruption that exists within the drug rehabilitation industry, it keeps getting in its own way in strange narrative aspects, burying a compelling story underneath flimsy drama.  The resulting two hours are a squirmy sit, keeping viewers wondering where the characters they like went and wishing those they aren’t engaging with would get their act together.

Young druggies in love Utah (Jack Kilmer, The Nice Guys) and Opal (Alice Englert, Beautiful Creatures) steal to survive and feed their habit in a dead-end Ohio burb.  If they aren’t holding up a local convenience store for a paltry sum, Opal is turning tricks to pay for her drugs while Utah waits outside their hotel room, nervously biting his nails and wondering how he’s ended up in this situation.  Both are thrown a lifelife when Wood (Michael Kenneth Williams, 12 Years a Slave) crosses their path and buys them breakfast before pitching the two on a rehab clinic in California that he can get them into if they decide to get clean.  Opal isn’t falling for what she thinks is another good Samaritan who wants something more but Utah’s gut tells him this is his one opportunity to get out and he better take it…so he does.

Arriving in California by himself to enter a posh rehab center run by Dr. White (Melissa Leo, London Has Fallen), he meets a former addict working intake at the clinic (Jessica Rothe, Valley Girl) and begins his detox and journey toward sobriety.  It’s about this time writer/director John Swab starts to turn the dial on Body Brokers from its humble trajectory about kicking a habit to a less interesting crime drama that tracks Utah being recruited by Wood to make money off of other addicts.  Working as a sort of twisted pyramid scheme, the more addicts Utah can get into rehab (and the more times they go to rehab) the more money he can make, specifically when he is working with the facilities owned by Frank Grillo’s (The Grey) amped up greasy huckster.   Teaming up with Wood, the partnership becomes more of the mentorship his recovery should have been…until the risks start to outweigh the reward.

If you’re going to see the movie at all, it should be for another solid performance from Williams.  Though Swab gets a lot of things wrong in Body Brokers, one thing I will give him credit for is creating “bad guys” that aren’t what you’re used to seeing in these types of films.  Neither Wood nor Utah become these obnoxious boneheads the more money they make, they actually seem to be learning and absorbing the ins and outs of the con and you get the impression that, were it not all so illegal, they might have put their minds to better use on a sustainable business elsewhere.  Williams could have carved Woods with a darker edge to his actions, but he sticks to his original instincts in keeping him forthright and it gives the character extra authority later on when it becomes important.  He at least helps Kilmer out when the young actor struggles to make difficult scenes in the final act appear more of a challenge.  Without Williams on hand Kilmer is often a bit at sea, and he doesn’t get much help from Leo and Grillo, both of whom show up in glorified cameos.  I like Englert and Rothe but Swab has written them with such a two-dimensional slant that if they were to turn profile they’d disappear altogether.

More than anything, the impression I was left with is that there’s a better movie (or documentary) to be made about this subject.  I found that the people I was most interested in were the characters played by Leo, Rothe, and Grillo…and they’re hardly even touched upon aside from being pawns that Utah and/or Wood have to work around.  Even though Body Brokers ends with a sort of cruel reminder of the fragility of addiction, it doesn’t acquit the rest of the film from feeling a bit unnecessary.  That’s not exactly how you want to summarize your night’s entertainment when turning off your TV.

Movie Review ~ I Care A Lot

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A court-appointed legal guardian defrauds her older clients and traps them under her care. But her latest mark comes with some unexpected baggage.

Stars: Rosamund Pike, Eiza González, Dianne Wiest, Peter Dinklage, Chris Messina, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Nicolas Logan, Kevin McCormick, Michael Malvesti, Liz Eng, Alicia Witt

Director: J. Blakeson

Rated: R

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  A lot of good came out of 2014’s Gone Girl.  For one thing, after the cool reception of the big screen adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it gave director David Fincher an opportunity to bounce back with another hotly anticipated film based on a number one bestselling novel.  Then there was leading man Ben Affleck’s comeback story that was just kicking off after a Best Picture Oscar win for 2012’s Argo and the general feeling in Hollywood that he was robbed of a Best Director nomination.  Though he was soon to feel the heat from the comic book nerdom in the unwinnable battle of playing Batman for several films in the ill-fated DC Extended Universe, he was an interesting choice for the role but ultimately a smart move on Fincher’s part.

The real reason we’ll continue to talk about Gone Girl long after people have stopped debating the merits of the book vs. the movie is Rosamund Pike’s Oscar-nominated performance as a missing wife that may not be as missing as we’re led to believe.  Pike won critics and audiences over in how she brought this character that was so complex and unreliable on the page to life, adding in extra nuances the book wasn’t able to supply due to the limitations of its medium.  The character is unforgettable in so many ways and some of that is the collaboration between Pike, her director, and her co-star but it’s mostly Pike allowing an at times unlikable character to speak up and out, eventually burrowing under our skin to strangely become someone to cheer on.

After all the hoopla, you’d have expected there to be more to the Pike peak and while the actress had a solid resume before the film and nomination, her films over the last half decade have been slightly on the lackluster side.  Most have been supporting turns that haven’t allowed her the chance to shine like she could and when she does take center stage, like in 2020’s Radioactive, the films don’t quite rise up to meet her.  It’s a thrill to report, then, that right off the bat in 2021 Pike is back with I Care a Lot, the supremely entertaining new Netflix movie that premiered back in September 2020 at the Toronto International Film Festival where it received a nice round of notices.  Even better, Pike’s character feels like a slight riff on her Gone Girl persona and while it doesn’t seek to repeat the same work she did there, you see similarities in the characters so much that you almost wonder if Pike wouldn’t consider Amy from Gone Girl and Marla from I Care a Lot kindred spirits.

Meet Marla Grayson, a court-appointed guardian for a number of elderly or at-risk adults that need her expertise.  According to the law, she has access to their finances and authority over where they live, their medical care, their routines, and what they eat.  Even if they have family that are living, as long as she can convince the court she is better suited to take on these adults as her ward, she’s in charge.  It’s a wicked little con, this predatory guardianship masquerading as elder care, and no one is doing it better than Marla Grayson.  Sadly a concept based in reality, predatory guardians search for seniors with a history of health issues and either get them to sign over their rights or have the courts make the final call.  Once the guardianship is in place, it’s hard to get it dissolved without the person under the care making a direct statement they are well enough to care for themselves.  Easier said than done considering how these elderly individuals are “cared for” with the types of treatment they are subjected to by their “guardians.”   With her razor-sharp bob, perfect make-up, and always on trend clothes, Marla (Pike) is the very picture of having her act together.  How could the court see her as anything but looking out for the best interest of her clients?

Working with her second in command and live-in lover Fran (Eiza González, Paradise Hills), Marla is always looking for that perfect mark, or ‘cherry’, someone with no immediate family or living relatives that could show up to get in her way or claim any inheritance monies at the time of death.  One day, that fruitful horse comes in for Marla in the form of Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest, Let Them All Talk), a woman in her late ‘60s living alone in a big, beautiful house and sitting on a pile of cash.  Jennifer’s doctor is getting a kickback from Marla by tipping her off to patients that may be good targets for her type of service as is a local nursing home manager that can charge a lot of funds for his care services so all it takes is a stop in family court (without Jennifer present) and an emotional plea for Jennifer’s ‘safety’ and Marla has a new ward and what looks to be a big payday.  Before Jennifer knows it, her house is gone and her possessions have been auctioned off with Marla using the money from the sale to pay her own salary.  There’s just one rather large problem…this ward isn’t as alone in the world as Marla thinks.

Writer/director J. Blakeson wisely eschews the “based on true events” angle that could have been taken and opts instead for an original story that allows for a healthy helping of ice-cold bitterness traveling throughout a number of the characters.  In some films, this could become a real drag and stagnate into sameness fairly quickly but Blakeson’s film has such an energy to it that watching people take bites at one another only propels it forward with more adrenaline.  Marla is unapologetic in her mission to succeed and isn’t deterred by threats on a verbal or physical level.  While we don’t get much in the way of her backstory save for a brief (and telling) reference to her mother, an early confrontation between her and the son of a ward gives the impression she made a decision a number of years back to face all challenges head on and suffer any consequences as a result with open arms.

As one of maybe ten people on the planet that has yet to watch Game of Thrones, I can’t say I’ve yet joined the Peter Dinkalge (Three Christs) fan club based on the films I’ve seen him in so far, yet his co-starring role in I Care a Lot is likely the most I’ve enjoyed him from start to finish.  His first appearance is long after the tone of the film has been set by Pike and Blakeson, so he struggles with some adjustment at first and even if he arguably never fully gets that balance right, he makes a nice foil for Pike and a worthy sparring partner in several scenes near the end of the picture.  I only wish he wasn’t always trying to be a ‘character’ instead of just letting his acting happen naturally…he consistently appears to be working harder than everyone else for no real reason and it winds up shining the wrong spotlight on him.

It’s Pike’s picture all the way no matter how you spin it and it’s a shame there likely isn’t room for her on the Oscar ballot this year because here’s another complicated female role that deserves recognition.  Far from a decent human, insanely stubborn, and comically driven to succeed by stepping over anyone and anything without saying ‘excuse me’, Marla will still earn your admiration in spite of all her behavior.  That’s says a lot not just about Blakeson’s screenplay but in how Pike has layered Marla to have more to her than we originally see.  It’s not a softer side, per se, but it is someone that just wants to be taken seriously and to play by the rules…even if the rules may not ultimately be fair.  Movies that walk an edge like this and make an anti-hero the star of the show can be a turn-off for people but I appreciated that Blakeson saw Marla’s character through to the uncompromising end…her hard shell exterior isn’t an act so don’t waste your time waiting for her to break.

Regrettably faltering right when it needs to fly the highest, I Care a Lot almost makes it to the finish line maintaining the high level of entertainment it kept up pace with for its run time…and that’s too bad because it gets so close.  Take that as a minor quibble if you will but it nagged at me, especially seeing that Blakeson seemed to have everything so snappy and under control.  All said, this is one of the best Netflix offerings in recent memory and makes for an all-around crackling watch.  Don’t miss it.