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 Personal History of David Copperfield


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A fresh and distinctive take on Charles Dickens’ semi-autobiographical masterpiece, chronicles the life of its iconic title character as he navigates a chaotic world to find his elusive place within it.

Stars: Dev Patel, Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Paul Whitehouse

Director: Armando Iannucci

Rated: PG

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Right about the time this pandemic hit and the country shut down, I was closing on a condo my partner and I were set to take our time painting and moving into with the help of our friends and family.  Now, this new social distancing term and all that went with it meant that our friends couldn’t help us move or be with us to paint so we were on our own.  To while away the hours slapping primer and two coats on the entire place, we decided to go all literary and listen to Jane Austen’s Emma because it was a rare Austen neither of us had read.  As a reward not just for toiling away in Behr Eggshell over the course of several weeks but for getting through the novel, we movie buffs thought it a good idea to make our way through the filmed versions of Emma before watching the 2020 version that arrived this year because, well, there couldn’t be that many to get through right?  Wrong. So wrong.

Watching the various versions of Austen’s tale come to life so soon after reading the book illustrated that there were different ways to breathe energy into a novel but that it’s all based on interpretation.  There was a four-and-a-half-hour version of Emma that in some ways moved faster than the 1996 much-loved Gwyneth Paltrow version.  You also can’t forget 1995’s Clueless which we all know was writer/director Amy Heckerling’s loosely inspired modernization of the classic.  It all goes to show that you can have your Austen fancy or you can have your Austen cool but when the characters are written so well to begin with no amount of fussing around with them is going to totally ruin the heart of the piece.

So, why all this talk about Emma in a discussion of a new view of Charles Dickens David Copperfield?  Well, it’s to address off the bat that this isn’t going to be the David Copperfield you have come to expect from your BBC adaptations or your Masterpiece Theater Sunday evening appointment television showings.  While certainly not in any way a faithful adaptation of a novel Dickens published in 1850 and was known to be his favorite, The Personal History of David Copperfield is a richly realized one that rather blithely removes the most despondent pieces and revels in the fanciful.  It also wisely knows the difference between modernization and revisionism and walks the line between the two with ease.  The result is one of the most surprising and surprisingly entertaining films of the year.

Director Armando Iannucci is likely a familiar name to those that followed the HBO series Veep.  As the creator and showrunner for the first four seasons, he helped establish that political satire and its irreverent humor so I went into this film expecting it to have that same fast style and brusque energy.  The quick interplay was there and it definitely has the energy that I’ve come to expect from Iannucci but not in that same kind of rough and hot to the touch feel it has had before.  It’s softer here and allows the story to be propelled forward by the characters and their choices, not by plot machinations.  That’s a significant achievement when you’re working within a storyline where a seemingly endless set of maladies befall our leading man throughout.

For those unfamiliar, David Copperfield is the story of a young man (Dev Patel, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) who spends the majority of his growing up years encountering one set of colorful characters after another.  At his birth, his arch aunt (Tilda Swinton, Suspiria) arrives to assist but leaves promptly when she discovers he is not a girl.  His young, widowed mother (Morfydd Clark, Crawl) marries again, this time to a wicked man with an even more wicked sister (Gwendoline Christie, Welcome to Marwen) and soon he’s living with an always in-debt landlord (Peter Capaldi, World War Z).  During a brief stay with his aunt he’s introduced to her eccentric cousin (Hugh Laurie, Tomorrowland) before enrolling in a respected school where he meets lifelong friend James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard, The Goldfinch) and first encounters the meek but not mild Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw, Little Joe).  He’s loved from afar by Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar) and pursues dotty Dora (also played by Clark) all the while hoping to secure his future happiness.

There’s a lot for Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell to cover in two hours and it’s a remarkable accomplishment that they managed to cram as much story in as they do.  Obviously, some of it has to go and a good chunk of the book’s latter half is missing, with several storylines either combined or excised.  What’s been removed are the sallower portions of Dickens novel, leaving the remaining moments more light-hearted and vibrant.  One could argue that the characters needed a little more strife but Iannucci and Blackwell give David and his extended family a fair amount of business to overcome.  The villains in a Dickens story are always of the scheming and grasping variety, making them perfect for the likes of icy Christie and the gleeful apathy of Whishaw.

Along with the sharp writing, Iannucci has cast the film with a spectacular amount of top-tier talent and it all starts with Patel’s nicely metered approach to the title character.  Patel is an actor that has grown on me greatly over the years and continues to get better with each new role he takes.  I also especially liked Jairaj Varsani as the young David, showing again that its possible to play precocious without losing your audience to alienation.   As usual, Swinton mines every syllable and skin cell for maximum effect, and you simply can’t end 2020 without seeing her go crazy over a persistent donkey presence on her property.   If the film has a drawback, it’s that it’s so packed with welcome faces in episodic segments you don’t always feel you’ve rounded out the corners with each character before they’ve vanished for good.  That goes for the strong supporting players as well, many of whom have but a few lines/scenes to make an impression yet manage to leave an indelible on in their wake.

Purists may scoff and, honestly, I see their point in some way, but there’s an abundance of joy in these 120 minutes that have been hard to come by.  That’s something celebrate and not over-analyze.  A week after the extremely nasty and unpleasant Unhinged became the first film to re-open theaters, here comes The Personal History of David Copperfield on its heels to remind the rest of us what possibilities there are on the big screen…though it works just as well on the small one too.  I was thankfully able to screen this one from my home and would not have reviewed it otherwise.  Please, decide carefully if venturing into theaters is the right choice for you as well as anyone in your home that you may be returning to.