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.

Rancho Notorious (1952)

Movie Blurb

Rancho Notorious (1952) Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Marlene Dietrich, Arthur Kennedy, and Mel Ferrer. A western that is part western, part revenge thriller and part mystery and all Marlene Dietrich and Fritz Lang. In this cult favorite Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy), a Wyoming ranch hand, seeks to avenge his fiancé’s rape and murder which occurs during the course of a robbery early on in the film.  The only clues he has is a mysterious place called Chuck-a-Luck where the killer is supposed to be headed and a name which might be a person, place, or a thing: Altar Keane. The plot only becomes more convoluted from there. Vern helps the outlaw Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer) escape from jail and Frenchy leads him to Chuck-a-Luck, a sort of robber’s roost run by the infamous Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich).

Altar Keane is kind of a dominatrix who holds sway over all the outlaws that hole up at her place and demands 10% of their take in any illegal activities for providing them protection. She dominates all the men harshly except for Frenchy with whom she shares her bed. However, she takes a shine to new comer Vern and that is where the trouble comes in. Vern, for his part has to determine who at Chuck-a-Luck is the killer he seeks. He also falls for Altar Keane. Messy? You bet, but that is what makes it so fun!

Rancho Notorious is full of familiar faces like William Frawley (I Love Lucy), George Reeves (Superman) and stock player Jack Elam. It was originally titled “Chuck-a-Luck,” but studio head Howard Hughes made Lang change it to “Rancho Notorious”, fearing American audience wouldn’t know what Chuck-a-Luck meant. However, it had absolutely nothing to do with the film.

Shot in Technicolor, run time 89 minutes, aspect ratio 1.37:1.

I viewed it on the Criterion Channel. It’s also available on Amazon.

La Notte (1961)

The Night

La Notte (1961) (The Night) Directed by Michelangelo Antonio, starring Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, and Monica Vitti. I don’t know how I missed this masterpiece of the Italian cinema but I am happy that I did finally get to see it recently on the Criterion Channel. This film is second in the Trilogy of Alienation bookended by  L’Aventura (The Adventure) (1960) and L’Eclisse (The Eclipse) (1962). La Notte is about the dissolution of a marriage through indifference and boredom and the alienation of society in both the bourgeoisie and the upper classes. The film takes place in a 24-hour period culminating at a party at a rich industrialist’s house in Milan. Crisp black and white photography and excellent framing visually projects the loneliness and the alienation of the characters and the boredom of their respective lives.  

Jeanne Moreau’s inner feeling of sadness are well on display as she comes to realize she no longer loves her husband and that he no longer loves her. Marcello Mastroianni is perfectly cast as the husband who walks through life in a daze of bored indifference.

This movie is cold as ice, but it speaks the truth. Highly recommended!

Da 5 Bloods

Movie Blurb

Directed by Spike Lee, starring Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, and Clarke Peters.

I am a Spike Lee fan, but you got to admit the brother is a little hit or miss. Coming off the success of BlacKkKlansman, Da 5 Bloods is a miss. And it’s mess. Which is very disappointing considering the material he was working with and the timeliness of his subject. Other directors have taken on the Vietnam experience and other directors have done a better job. The one saving grace is Delroy Lindo who is a terrific character actor and lights up the screen in every scene he is in. Even when he is chewing the scenery.

The movie suffers from poor writing and mediocre directing. Spike throws everything he has into this movie including the kitchen sink. Part Treasure of the Sierra Madre and part Apocalypse Now, it never does find its own footing. Except for when one of the Bloods makes a fatal misstep. That was quite a heartstopper and a show stopper as well. The shootout at the end was well staged I thought and executed very well. The photography was well done but you got to ask yourself, why did he need four different aspect ratios? Oh, I get it. He wanted to demark different times and places. An artistic decision as it were. Well, it didn’t work for me, just made the whole thing more confusing. And in the flash backs it was impossible to distinguish the younger version of Da Bloods from the present-day version of themselves.

If you are going to steal, steal from the best, just use a little finesse when you do it and don’t make it so obvious. When the leader of a group of Vietnamese marauders are asked by a member of Da Bloods, “Where are your official badges?” The answer comes back from the leader, “Badges? We don’t’ need no stinking badges!” In another scene, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries accompanies the action.

This might sound like a pan but not totally. I’m going to give the brother a 6 on a 10. Better luck next time Spike.

Il Bidone (1955)

Movie Blurb

Il Bidone (The Swindle) Directed by Fredrico Fellini, starring Broderick Crawford, Richard Basehart, Giuletta Masina. This is a movie about a group of con men swindling poor people out of their money which they in turn spend on flashy cars, booze, and prostitutes. You know, the usual. Shot in the neo-realism style in post war Italy it is indicative of Fellini’s early work. It is book-ended by two other films of a similar vein: La Strada (1954) and Nights of Cabria (1957). These films comprise what has become known as the “Trilogy of Loneliness.” I always get a kick out of seeing American actors in some of these early European films. Broderick Crawford gives the performance of his career in Il Bidone. Not as good as the other two, but worth a look!

Broderick Crawford in Il Bidone
Richard Basehart and Broderick Crawford in Il Bidone
Giulietta Masina in Il Bidone

On the Criterion Channel and available on Amazon.

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 Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

Movie Blurb

Mars poster

I sat through this tedious little thriller last night. I kept hoping it would get better and redeem itself. It didn’t. It was a great concept but failed to deliver. It suffers from weak writing, mediocre direction, and zero chemistry between the stars, Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones. The sex scenes were some of the most awkward ever laid on celluloid. The dialogue was unbelievable and there were plot points through which you could drive a truck.

Mars

There was a lot of talent here but it didn’t add up to much. John Carpenter was the writer, Irvin Kershner directed. The images used in the film were from the Helmut Newton Collection and the title song was sung by Barbara Streisand. Interesting turn by character actor Brad Dourif. Raul Julia played Laura’s ex in a not so interesting turn. There was an exciting chase scene at the end that was mostly on foot. What I like the most about the film were the various location shots in New York City. New York was pretty gritty in 1978.

Mars 2

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.