Nomadland (2020)

Movie Review

Nomadland (2020)

Directed by Chloe Zhao, starring Frances McDormand, David Strahairn, Linda May

This is a movie about America. There are two Americas. The haves and the have nots. This about the have nots who choose a life on the open road and freedom. It is not a life I would choose but it is a fascinating portrait of those who do. They are called American Nomads.

Frances McDormand turns in another brilliant but understated performance as Fern, the strong and determined woman, who takes to the open road after she loses her job at US Gypsum, a plant where she and her husband, who has recently died, had worked for years. The plant closing in Empire, a small town in Nevada, causes the economic collapse of the town. This is the sad reality of so many small towns in America.  

Fern sells her stuff and buys a van and takes to the road searching for work. She outfits the van to live in. She first takes a seasonal job at an Amazon fulfillment center through the winter. Whenever I buy anything at from Amazon, I cringe a little bit thinking of the workers at the fulfilment center, although Fern seems to thrive in this environment. A co-worker invites Fern to visit a desert winter gathering in Arizona organized by Bob Wells, which provides a support system and community for fellow nomads. At the gathering, Fern meets fellow nomads and learns basic survival and self-sufficiency skills for the road.

Fern later takes other jobs down the road: an RV camp host, a worker in a beet harvest, and a worker in a fast-food restaurant. It is a tough life living at the margins. She continues to run across some of the other nomads she has met along the way as she continues her travels and they become her friends and kind of a family or tribe. She does have a chance to settle down a couple of times along the way but continues to choose a life on the road to be free and independent if, lonely.

There is not much of a dramatic story here, more of a character study and a documentary on the nomadic existence in America. Even if we can’t identify with her way of life we can empathize with her very human feelings of loneliness and her desire to be free. As Bob Wells so aptly put it, “I’ll see you down the road.”

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Movie Review

LaKieth Stanfield in Judas and the Black Messiah

Directed by Shaka King, starring: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKief Stanfield, Jessie Plemons.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) is an important movie about a chapter of the Black Panthers in Chicago and the charismatic leader who led it, Fred Hampton. Part documentary and part bio-pic it delivers a history lesson on that volatile period in America when race relations were at an ebb. It is an interesting juxtaposition of events to the events happening today when once again the tension between the races is at a snapping point. The organization Black Lives Matter draws eerie parallels to The Black Panther Party.

The Messiah in this case is Fred Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya in a resplendent performance. Two other black messiahs who came before him were scarified on the altar of white supremacy, Martin Luther King and Malcom X. His betrayer, or the Judas of the title, is FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKieth Stanfield) who infiltrated the Black Panthers and gained the trust of Hampton. It was O’Neal who provided the layout of the apartment to the FBI which was crucial information that led to his assassination by the FBI and the Chicago police.

When law enforcement entered the apartment on Monroe Street where Fred was sleeping guns blazing, I was put in mind of the Breonna Taylor case where Louisville police officers entered her apartment while she was asleep on a “no knock” warrant and assassinated her. Police brutality and extra-judiciary killing continue to be a problem for the black community to this day.

Fred Hampton’s rhetoric was indeed inflammatory but he never actually declared war on the United States. He merely threatened the status quo. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wanted get rid of Hampton because  he thought the rise of another black messiah would unify and electrify the militant nationalist movement. Fred Hampton was an upstart crow, but he didn’t deserve to die. The FBI now has other fish to fry with the rise of white nationalism, which poses an even graver threat to American security.

LaKieth Stanfield was excellent as the informant William O’Neal delivering a nuanced performance of an underwritten part. Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s coworker and eventual lover I thought was particularly good and Jesse Plemons as the baby-faced FBI agent who compromised O’Neal into betraying Hampton, played his part with equal parts menace and moral queasiness.

Excellent movie. Highly recommend!

Beau Travail (1999)

Movie Blurb

Beau Travail (1999) Directed by Claire Denis. Starring Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, and Gregoire Colin. A brilliant retelling of Melville’s Billy Budd, only instead of a British frigate the action takes place in the desert on the Gulf of Djibouti near the Horn of Africa. Instead of sailors the men involved are soldiers in the French Foreign Legion. This is a movie about military discipline, routine, and codes of honor. A new recruit is introduced and tension develops with the second in command. There is not much of a plot or narrative arc but this is an extremely visual film and you get all you need to know from the visual story telling. The photography is spectacular.

There is an unmistakable undercurrent of homoeroticism swirling around just below the surface as Denis directs our gaze to the half naked young men going through their ritualist exercises and bonding together as in a slow moving ballet. It is an examination of military culture and the masculine mystique.

This movie can be seen on the Criterion Channel.

The Painted Bird (2019)

Movie review

I don’t review every movie that I see, only those that I have a strong reaction to, good or bad. Had I seen The Painted Bird in 2019 when it was first released, it would have jumped to the top of my Top 10 list. As it stands, it is very high on my all-time best film list. A rare bird indeed.

The Painted Bird (2019) is a film by Vaclav Marhoul based on the novel by Jerzy Kosinsky. It runs just short of three hours and is unrelenting in its depiction of the horrors encountered by a young boy as he makes his way across war torn Eastern Europe trying to find his way back home. If it were not for the occasional modern references such as a plane flying overhead, or a vehicle on a road, we would think the action was taking place in villages found in the middle ages.

Central to the story was a starling that was painted white and released back into its flock only to be pecked to death because it was different from the others. This is the analogous to what happened to the boy who was subjected to unimaginable horrors along the way because he was different and didn’t quite fit in and wasn’t from around wherever he found himself to be. And one could say that is true of minor groups not fitting in to larger groups such the Jews of Eastern Europe and in Germany.

This is a movie of cruelty, inhumanity, and bitter truth. It is not an easy watch. As a matter of fact, when the film was shown in Venice large parts of the audience fled the theater. But the film has to be admired for the unvarnished truth it portrays and the artistry and craftmanship that went into its making. The acting is superb by all the participants. All the characters were believable and real. The crisp black and white cinematography by Vladimr Smutny is extraordinary. Each frame is composed as a masterwork of inspired creativity and shades of grey.

I can’t recommend this film to everyone due to its strong content, but it has my rating as an artistic achievement.

The Big Knife (1955)

Movie Review

The Big Knife poster

Directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, and Rod Steiger. Screenplay by James Poe, based on the play by Clifford Odets.

The Big Knife is a movie that defies easy classification. It is billed as a crime picture, a drama, and a film-noir. I would call it more of a melodrama. It is a poison pen piece directed at the cruel and heartless Hollywood system of the time, which, when you think about it, hasn’t really changed by much. At one point the Shelly Winters character says, “I’d rather see a snake than a Hollywood producer.”

The writing is a bit turgid, approaching the Baroque. It is hard to tell where Clifford Odets leaves off and James Poe begins. But I suspect it is Poe, who is doing all the declaiming. Example: “How dare you come in here and throw this mess of naked pigeons in my face.”

Big Knife

Ida Lupino and Jack Palance

It seemed to me to have a strong Homo-erotic undertow. I don’t know, I didn’t see any mention of it in any of the reviews, but it was certainly apparent to me. In the opening scene the Jack Palance character, Charlie Castle, and his personal trainer, Nick, were boxing in the backyard of his plush home in Bel Air. Both were half naked and there was a lot of clinching going on. They were having a lot of fun. Later Nick gives Charlie a rubdown on a massage table in the backyard while Charlie took a meeting with the head of the studio and his henchmen. Lot of sensual rubbing going on. Then, Nick has Charlie turn over on his back and he pours alcohol on his chest and belly and continues to rub. All the while Charlie is talking to others in the scene. Towards the end of the scene, when it looks like Charlie is going to crack from the pressure, Nick sidled up to him from behind and gets very close and says into his ear, “Is there anything a Greek can do for you? Anything at all?”

Throughout the movie all the male characters refer to Charlie as kiddie, darling, and dear. All very strange. And then there is the matter of the Big Knife. What big knife? There’s no knife to be seen in the movie. Obviously, a symbol of something, but what? Usually considered phallic, but there was a lot of backstabbing going on and then there was that last scene. Plenty of heterosexual activity too. Charlie the movie star was something of a player. Every time somebody went up the spiral staircase it was to have sex with someone. Usually Charlie.

Big Knife 2

Rod Steiger and jack Palance

All the acting was over the top and the actors chewed the scenery plenty. Rod Steiger went nuclear in one scene which probably will go down in the history of cinema as the most explosive ever. The only actor who escaped this phenomenon was Ida Lupino, who was pitch perfect in every scene.

Now, you may have gotten the impression that I didn’t like this film. Not so. I thought it was very entertaining and fascinating to watch. I thoroughly enjoyed it! It is definitely an important part of film history. Highly Recommended.

 

The Comfort of Strangers (1990)

Movie Review

Poster Strangers

Never has Venice been more beautiful, photographed more sumptuously, or depicted with more foreboding since Nicholas Roeg’s, Don’t Look Now (1973). The Comfort of Strangers (1990), directed by Paul Schrader, is a horror movie but you don’t know that until the startling climax. That’s when you look back and see all the clues.

Venice

A young couple, Mary (Natasha Richardson) and Colin (Rupert Everett) travel to Venice to try to rekindle what is left of their lukewarm relationship. They walk around the streets of Venice in what seems like a bored stupor. They get lost one night and are rescued by an older man dressed in white (Robert, played with understated menace by Christopher Walken) who takes them to a bar and regales them with stories of his family and plies them with wine.

Lost in Venice

“My father was a very big man. And he wore a black mustache. When he grew older and it grew gray, he colored it with a pencil. The kind women use. Mascara.” This we learn from Robert not once but three times. This is our first clue that something is not quite right with Robert.

MV5BNWIzMGNhYTgtComfort

When Mary and Colin leave the bar, they get lost again and spend the night outside leaning against a wall. They make their way to a café on the piazza the next morning to order breakfast. Robert spies them and comes over and apologizes for abandoning them last night and invites them to his luxurious palazzo to get some rest. They accept. Later, they wake up naked in bed. It seems Robert’s wife,  Caroline (Helen Mirren), has hidden their clothes with instructions from Robert not to give them back until they accept an invitation to dinner. Caroline admits to Mary that she has sneaked into their room and watched them while they were sleeping. Another clue. Things get weird from there.

Christopher Walken

When Mary and Colin depart and go back to their hotel, they somehow find the spark that they were looking for and have wild passionate sex. They are lured back again to the mysterious couple’s abode and things do not end well.

CAROLINE AND MARY

A lot of things don’t quite add up in this stylish thriller but it is so interesting to watch you don’t seem to care. Excellent acting all around with Christopher Walken standing out as the creepy Robert. The film might best be summed up by the police detective investigating the crime at the end, “I don’t get it,” he says. I didn’t either, but I sure did enjoy it. Quite a literary pedigree, I may add, based on the novel by Ian McEwan and screenplay by Harold Pointer. Paul Schrader is known as a literary type of director and this is his kind of material.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)

Movie Review

Birds od Prey poster

Birds of Prey (2020)

Directed by: Cathy Yan

Starring: Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the Huntress, Jurnee Smollett-Bell as The Black Canary, Ella Jay Basco as Cass,  and rounding out the cast, Ewan McGregor as the Black Mask.

Some of you might be surprised that I went to see this movie. To be honest I am a little surprised myself.  First of all, I am not a big fan of Marvel movies. I agree with Martin Scorsese that Marvel movies aren’t really cinema. I know, this is a DC Comics picture. DC Comics, Marvel Comics, the same thing. So, what possessed me on a bright, sunny, Sunday afternoon to enter a dark cavern in a multiplex and witness mayhem at its finest? Margot Robbie, that’s what. Plus, there isn’t a whole lot to choose from right now and I have actually heard good things about this movie. So, I hustled there inside, and friends, I am here to tell you I am glad I did!

Harley Quinn

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn

I don’t know much about the source material because I stopped reading comics when I was 12, but this movie has legs and stands on its own.

This is 109 minutes of pure entertainment! A tip of the hat to Quentin Tarantino for some of the action scenes sure looked familiar. If you are going to steal, steal from the best, I always say! Also, there were some memorable dialog, lines, cultural references, and T-Shirts, such as:

“You make me want to be less of a terrible person,” spoken by One Harley Quinn.

She has the word “Rotten” tattooed on her right cheek, and she sports at times a T-shirt that says, “Daddy’s Little Monster.”

At one point she refers to a character as “You Frida Kahlo looking mother fucker!”

Rose Perez sports a T-shirt that says, “I shaved my balls for this.”

And at the end Harley Quinn reveals her new calling cards: “Harley Quinn and Associates – Bad Ass Motherfuckers!”

Black Canary

Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Margot Robbie in Birds of Prey

Written and directed by women, with strong female leads, this movie is a towering monument to female empowerment.  Lot’s a diversity on display here too. Visually stunning, Gotham City never looked better as photographed by lensman Mathew Libatique. Add a killer sound track that perfectly matches the action and you have  movie that is solid entertainment and a lot of fun. Two thumbs way up!

The Breaking Point (1950)

Movie Blurb

Breakimng point poster

The Breaking Point (1950) starring John Garfield and directed by Michael Curtis is based on the novel To Have and Have Not written by Ernest Hemingway. This vehicle is more true to the Hemingway tale then the highly popular and entertaining movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In my view, in many ways, The Breaking Point is a superior product. John Garfield turns in a magnificent portrayal of a down and out a boat captain Harry Morgan. Phyllis Thatcher plays his world weary but loving wife who is still hot for Harry. Patricia Neal is the sexy temptress who Harry is attracted to but doesn’t go overboard for.

Breaking point 2

Michael Curtiz has created and directed a taught thriller with no extra padding. Excellent black-and-white photography throughout.

Because Garfield was associated with the communist party during the Red Scare Warner Bros. buried this film and it lost out at the bus box office

This is a must see film for all serious movie buffs. It has definitely stood the test of time. Highly recommend.

La Grande Illusion (1937)

Movie Review

Grand Illusion poster

La Grande Illusion, directed by Jean Renoir, is a must-see film for anyone who is a serious film lover. It is considered to be Renoir’s masterpiece and has made many critic’s lists of best films ever made, including mine.

The film is about a group of French prisoners of war in two German camps during World War I. There are officers in the group that includes an aristocrat, a wealthy Jewish banker, a music hall actor and a mechanic. Pretty much a cross section of French society.

La Grande Illusion

These officers make several escape attempts. Their last attempt to tunnel out is interrupted when they are transferred out to another camp before they can complete the tunnel. They are sent to a fortress called Winterborn from which no one has ever escaped. This camp is run by a German aristocrat named Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim).

The French aristocrat de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) forms a bond with Captain Rauffenstein but sacrifices his life in order to help his fellow officers, working-class Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and the wealthy Jewish banker Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) finally escape. These class distinctions are essential to the story and are part of the overall theme of the illusion of class barriers which artificially separate men in society. The themes of race and ethnicity are also explored. The men are rescued by a German widow, Elsa (Dita Parlo), and eventually make it across the border to Switzerland.

Two other famous movies were directly influenced by La Grande Illusion: The Great Escape and Casablanca. The digging of the tunnel in The Great Escape is performed in the same way as in La Grande Illusion including the way the prisoners hide the dirt from the tunnel in their pants and shake it out on the ground during their exercises period. The singing of the “Marseilles” to enrage the Germans in Casablanca can also be found in La Grande Illusion.

La Grande Illusion is an anti-war film in which the main thesis is the futility of war. It relies heavily on ideas from the book The Great Illusion by Norman Angell published in 1909. Angell argued that the cost of war was so great that no one would risk starting a war because the result would be disastrous. Of course, this proved to be illusory.

The title of the movie seems to have multiple layers of meaning. The futility of war, the artificial boundaries between men in class distinctions and even the artificial and invisible borders between countries. In the last scene of the movie as Maréchal and Rosenthal make their escape into Switzerland across a snowy mountainside a German patrol spots the men and fires shots at them. The order is given to stop shooting as the prisoners are over the border into Switzerland. The camera pans down the mountain side to the two men. Marechal asks, “Are you sure we are in Switzerland, it’s so alike?” Rosenthal, who has a map, says, “Of course. You can’t see frontiers. They were invented by men. Nature doesn’t care.”

This is a movie that has definitely stood the test of time in every way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Detour (1945)

Movie Review

Detour

Detour, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, is a classic “B” movie in the Film Noir genre straight out of Pulp Fiction Hell. Shot on the cheap in four weeks it packs a wallop! This Criterion edition film is beautifully restored in glorious black and white. It is worth seeing just for the visuals alone. The story is as cheap as the characters it portrays. The writing is a little weak but the performances of the unknown actors more than compensate.

The story is told in flashbacks from an opening scene in a diner somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

The main character, Al Roberts (Tom Neal), is an out of work down on his luck pianist from New York City. He hitchhikes out to Hollywood to join up with his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) who is a chanteuse, also from New York City, who went out west earlier to find her fame and fortune. Along the way he is picked up by a guy named Haskell (Edmund McDonald). Haskell tells him about another hitchhiker he had picked up earlier. A young female who turns out to be a real hell cat who put some deep scratches in his hand when he had tried to make advances on her. “There oughta be a law against dames with claws,” he says. Later he dies of a heart attack. Al panics as he thinks the cops will think he killed the guy. He hides the body and takes Haskell’s clothes, money, identification and drives away in his car.

He meets a girl at a gas station and offers her a ride. She falls asleep in the car then suddenly sits bolt upright and demands, “Where’d you leave his body? Where did you leave the owner of this car? Your name’s not Haskell!” About this time Al realizes he has picked up the same girl that Haskell had picked up and she turns out to be the femme fatale of all femme fatales. She berates him all the way to Los Angeles.

When they get to Los Angeles, they cook up a scheme for Al to impersonate Haskell, the long-lost son of the elderly rich father who they read about in a newspaper is dying. They plan to inherit his estate when he dies. Waiting to execute their plan, they sit around in an apartment, drinking, playing cards and fighting. Al’s not playing ball to suit the drunken Vera and she threatens to call the cops. She runs to another room with the phone and slams the door. Al grabs the phone cord and pulls on it. He pulls and pulls. Finally, the line goes slack. He goes in the room to find Vera has become entangled in the cord and is accidentally strangled on it. Now Al has another corpse on his hands that just might point to murder.

That’s when he heads back east and we find him in the diner. In the final scene he is walking out on the desert highway and gets picked up by the cops. His last line is delivered in a voice over, “Fate, for some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all.”

Most reviewers of Detour take Al’s story at face value. But I have a different view. Al is an unreliable narrator and tell us what he wants us to hear to make himself  look good. He more likely is a psychopath who has committed both murders and is caught by circumstance or fate as he likes to say.

Famed film maker Errol Morris said of Detour, “It has an unparalleled quality of despair, totally unrelieved by hope.” A pretty apt description.