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 Devil Has a Name

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A psychotic oil matriarch leaves the whole industry exposed when she attempts to outfight a bullish farmer whose water has been poisoned.

Stars: David Strathairn, Kate Bosworth, Pablo Schreiber, Katie Aselton, Haley Joel Osment, Alfred Molina, Edward James Olmos, Martin Sheen

Director: Edward James Olmos

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: When Netflix first came out, the hardest part was waiting for those discs to come in the mail.  It was especially difficult when you got a movie that you hated and didn’t watch all the way through because you essentially just wasted up to a week of your monthly subscription waiting for another film to arrive.  That’s why the streaming service was such a fantastic upgrade because whenever you wanted to tap out of a movie or show that wasn’t grabbing you, there wasn’t as much guilt as before.  That’s both a good thing and a bad thing.  Good because of the reasons I just mentioned but bad because we’ve all talked to someone that stopped watching Schitt’s Creek after the first few episodes of Season 1 saying they “just didn’t get it” though we all know that show took several episodes to find its stride.  People just aren’t willing to stick with something if they aren’t into it…there’s too much out there to waste time.

I have a confession to make.  Sometimes I feel that way about screeners as well.  Look, when I say I’ll review something, I’ll review it and I’m going to give it my all.  Take the new drama The Devil Has a Name (not The Devil All the Time…which is, coincidentally, a Netflix film) from actor-director Edward James Olmos.  This was one of those examples where the movie started and I had that sinking feeling in my stomach that I had gotten myself into something that was going to be trouble to review.  It starts off very badly and stays that way for at least the first twenty or so minutes.  I wanted to chuck it and give up but forced myself to stick with it…and I’m glad I did because while it got only marginally better it did have some redeeming qualities that I wouldn’t have caught if I gave up at the outset.  On the other hand, the more I watched, the more problems I had with the turgid script, oversized performances, and sloppy filmmaking.

Gigi Cutler (Kate Bosworth, Homefront) is in big trouble with the head honchos at her family’s Houston-based business, Shore Oil.  For what, we aren’t sure of yet but, like many a film, she’s going to down a swig from a flask and tell them (and us) just what brought about her bad behavior.  Flashing back, we’re introduced to Fred Stern (David Strathairn, Lincoln) a widowed almond-farmer whose land has been unknowingly polluted by a nearby oil-rig owned by Gigi’s family.  They’ve found this out before him and, wanting to avoid a costly lawsuit, attempt to buy his land for a paltry fee via negotiations by local yokel Alex ( Haley Joel Osment, Tusk).  Sensing something isn’t right and eventually uncovering the truth with the help of his longtime foreman Santiago (Olmos), Stern turns the offer down and hires legal counsel (Martin Sheen, The Dead Zone) to sue the company.  A legal battle ensues which brings out a whole host of nasty actions and a brutal fixer (Pablo Schreiber, Skyscraper) into town to make sure nothing gets in the way of a win for the oil company.

Viewers are going to have to hunker down and commit to the film from the start, there’s no easing into Robert McEveety’s screenplay and the direction from Olmos (Wolfen) doesn’t help much either.  I found the first twenty minutes to be disorienting as character introductions were slack or nonexistent and when they are onscreen they’re so oversized that it feels as if Olmos used a fifth take where he told them to “be as big as possible, just for fun.”  The degree of seriousness afforded to some rote dialogue is pretty funny after awhile.  Things pick up once the legal proceedings begin (because who doesn’t love a good courtroom drama?) but even that starts to get wacky after a bit, with the kind of grandstanding and unbelievable turn of events even the soapiest of legal dramas would raise an eyebrow at.

Speaking of performances, I wonder if Strathairn watches the film and wonders what movie everyone else is in.  He’s essentially playing the same low-key role he’s played before and that works well for the high strung movie but everyone else can’t decide exactly what volume they want to pitch their performances.  Schreiber is having a field day with his professional slimeball, aiming for dark and lethal but landing on gentlemen’s club bouncer.  The only thing he’s missing is a well chewed toothpick in his mouth. Come to think of it, he may have had one of those, too.  It’s always great to see Olmos in front of the camera, but wearing two hats seems to have clouded his ability as an actor to question some of the crappy dialogue he has to wade through.  I don’t quite know where to start with Osment, what worked for him as a child actor has not carried over to adulthood.  He’s just completely unappealing (which is the point of the character) but as an actor he’s also unquestionably terrible. Aside from Straithairn, Bosworth probably comes off the best because she at least puts some dynamics into the role so she has some place to go.  There’s a regrettable scene where she goes mental on a piece of carpet but anytime she’s cool, calm, and collected is when she’s at her most dangerous…and most interesting to an audience member.

Clearly, this is a film with a targeted message at the protection of the environment but the message gets lost in the large performances (can I say again how awful Osment is?) and the messy storytelling.  Olmos has directed films before that have had more solid footing but for some reason, either the directing or maybe even it’s the editing, The Devil Has a Name gets off on the wrong foot and never finds its way back in time with the music.  There should be a better way of getting the point across than relying on the unreliable resources gathered for this project.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

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Synopsis: Two hopeful new arrivals at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful quickly learn that there is only a single room left to rent.

Release Date: March 6, 2015

Thoughts: A surprise hit that built dynamic staying power thanks to good word of mouth when released in early summer of 2012, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a pleasant bit of fluff that benefited greatly from its starry cast of over the hill talent. In an interesting move, a sequel has been constructed that reunites the cast, writer, and director of the original in hopes that audiences will want to check-in again. I wasn’t knocked out by the first film but in all honesty by the time I saw it the hype machine was in full swing so I’m chalking my middle of the road feelings toward it up to overly lofty expectations. Based on the trailer for the sequel, it’s more of the same in store but when you have a cast featuring Judi Dench (Skyfall), Maggie Smith (Quartet), Richard Gere (American Gigolo), and Bill Nighy (About Time) I have little reservation about making a, uh, reservation.

Movie Review ~ Godzilla (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The world’s most famous monster is pitted against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence

Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston

Director: Gareth Edwards

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Boy, do I love a good blockbuster. Personally, I don’t lump the superhero films featuring men who can leap tall buildings in a single bound and hulky iron men teaming up with American captains quite into the same category as the epic scale movies that remind me of all those summer films I so eagerly anticipated back in the 90s. Give me a Jurassic Park over another Marvel film any day of the week, not that the Marvel films aren’t enjoyable in their own right.

Though I wasn’t yet born when 1975 became the summer of the shark (Jaws) and created the blockbuster event film, I do remember seeing Jurassic Park in theaters and I found myself flashing back to Spielberg’s dinosaur adventure as the reboot of Godzilla played out before my eyes. Here is a film that knows its audience, takes its time, and seemingly says “You want your money’s worth…OK…we can do that.” Setting a high bar for every other film to come in summer 2014, Godzilla is that must see entertainment that even people who only venture into a dark theater a few times a year will want to put on their list.

You know you’re in good hands right off the bat with a smart credit sequence that covers a lot of ground, showing newsreel clips from history about the A-Bomb testing and eventually making the suggestion that the bomb was actually used to subdue a threat to humankind rather than making a case for scientific advancement. From there, the film uses a lengthy prologue to its advantage as it hops continents, laying the groundwork for our titular monster to rise again from the ocean depths.

Not too long after an estranged scientist father (Bryan Cranston, Argo, Rock of Ages) and his military son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kick Ass 2, Savages) are reunited in Tokyo, the men get swept up in a closely guarded multi-government secret involving, well, here’s the rub…I could tell you what they find is being contained in an abandoned nuclear power plant but that would give away one of the secrets the marketing department over at Warner Brothers has wisely kept out of sight. Let’s just say that it ain’t good for anyone involved. What they find there sets into motion a good old fashioned creature feature as a hunt ensues with edge of your seat thrills and the kind of massive destruction of major West Coast cities that only a fire breathing lizard could be forgiven for.

Director Gareth Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein take a page from Spielberg’s Jaws (even naming of the leads Brody) and keep Godzilla out of sight until almost half the movie has gone (flown, really) by. When he’s finally shown in full, the effect is similar to the first time the shark in Jaws rears up to say hi to Roy Scheider – that of a giddy release that the great beast is actually as satisfyingly menacing as we imagine him to be. Impressively rendered via state of the art visual effects, this 2014 Godzilla is a mash up of many different versions of the beast over the years. Edwards and company did their research and have produced a greatest hits Godzilla, and the overall effect is spot-on.

There’s a lot going on in the film and if the end result is that the flesh and blood characters get a little short shrift, I’m totally OK with it…especially when you have a scenery chewer like Cranston on board. Much like Jon Hamm in Million Dollar Arm, Cranston proves that he’s no movie star (something he seems to have been making a case for in a series of disastrous supporting roles the last few years) thanks to a hammy, overly emotive performance. When Godzilla’s performance can be described as more subtle, you know you’re on the wrong track. It also doesn’t help he seems to be wearing two of the least convincing wigs in recent memory…the first making it look like he has the same haircut as Juliette Binoche.

The rest of the players seem to be content with playing second fiddle to the lizard. Taylor-Johnson’s cardboard performance oddly works for the film and Elizabeth Olsen (Oldboy) does what she can as a woman always either crying or on the verge of tears. As in-the-know scientists, Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) and Ken Watanabe (Batman Begins) are called on only when needed but lend a head-scratching gravitas. Even with Cranston, Edwards has pulled together a unique cast, one that you wouldn’t instantly think “Monster Movie” if you heard their name.

Don’t get too wrapped up in the human element of the film because this is an old-fashioned yet decidedly modern monster movie through and through…and a damn entertaining one at that. The first half of the film is largely a set-up for the mayhem of the second hour and the wait is both involving and well worth it. By creating a believable back story and letting his star shine, Edwards has done what Roland Emmerich’s soggy 1998 attempt couldn’t…have its lizard cake and eat it too. April showers truly brought May flowers as Godzilla stakes an early claim as the best film of the summer.

The Silver Bullet ~ Godzilla (2014) Trailer #2

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Synopsis: A giant radioactive monsters called Godzilla appears to wreak destruction on mankind.

Release Date:  May 16, 2014

Thoughts: Even after the impressive teaser trailer for Warner Bros. big (like really big) budget reboot of Godzilla I remained a tad skeptical.  Sure, the preview was edited in such a fashion that kept the title character a mystery until the final shadowy moments but would the movie just be effects-heavy rehash of the famously goofy Godzilla films of the past?  Well, the second trailer has arrived and it stirs a greater excitement in this viewer, suggesting an edge of your seat sci-fi action epic as much about the radioactive beast as it is about the havoc he leaves in his wake.  Roaring onto the screen at the start of a busy 2014 summer season, Godzilla is quickly moving to highly anticipated status in my little black book.

The Silver Bullet ~ Godzilla (2014)

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Synopsis: A giant radioactive monster called Godzilla appears to wreak destruction on mankind.

Release Date:  May 16, 2014

Thoughts: Though he first arrived in 1954 in one of the many campy big rubber monster movies, ever since 1998’s Hollywood-ized version of Godzilla belly flopped at the box office that mean ole monster has been keeping a low profile here in the states, retreating to the deep waters from whence he came with his powerful tail between his legs.  Warner Brothers is giving the big guy another go in 2014 and this first teaser is a nicely compact taste of what audiences can expect from a new millennium Godzilla.

With a story by David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel) that led to a script Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) put a shine on, and featuring cast members like Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Bryan Cranston (Argo, Rock of Ages), and Aaron Taylor-Johnson(Savages, Anna Karenina), actors so diverse that you’d think they were in a spoof video on Jimmy Fallon, I’m digging what I’m seeing, finding this to be an effective first glimpse at Godzilla’s next bid for domination.

The Silver Bullet ~ Lincoln

Synopsis: As the Civil War nears its end, President Abraham Lincoln clashes with members of his cabinet over the issue of abolishing slavery

Release Date:  November 16, 2012

Thoughts: Steven Spielberg is one of those directors who seem to churn out movies with the greatest of ease.  Almost under the radar, he plans and plots his productions so the actual act of filming them is nearly secondary.  The long in the works Lincoln is finally readying for its November release and it looks to be another winning notch in Spielberg’s well-worn cinematic belt.  Daniel Day-Lewis looked great in the promo shots and looks/sounds better in the trailer.  Being born on Lincoln’s birthday always made me feel a little closer to Honest Abe — after seeing him hunt vampires in the murky Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter I’m ready to experience his story told by a whole crew of master craftspeople.  The Oscar gauntlet has been thrown down by Spielberg and Lincoln…can’t wait for November.