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.”
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.
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.
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 Killers (1946) is a better than average film noir based on the Hemingway story of the same name. Starring Burt Lancaster as the prize fighter Ole ‘Swede’ Andreson, Ava Gardner as the femme fatale Kitty, and Edmond O’ Brien as the insurance investigator Reardon. Directed by Robert Siodmak. The first thirteen minutes are pure Hemingway and, in my opinion, the best part of the movie. The rest of the movie is quite good too, but that first part was very impressive. The rest of the movie is an expansion of the original Hemingway story and told in a series of flashbacks. Excellent performances by all, this was Lancaster’s first film and made him a star.
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.
Three Colors: Red (1994) Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski starring Irene Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignat, and Frederique Feder. The Blue, White, and Red in the movie titles stand for the French Tricolors, representing Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. I just watched them back to back and that is the best way to view them, I think. That way you can see the thematic links between them all even though each film stands on its own. I had seen Blue years before but had forgotten it and was pleasantly surprised as I started watching it and the previous viewing returned to me. Some of my friends like Blue the best but my money is on Red. They are all equally well done. What I liked about Red was the depiction of the parallel lives of the characters and the missed connections. Marvelously well done!
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!
Death in Venice, directed by Luchino Visconti and starring Dirk Bogarde, is based on the Thomas Mann novella of the same name. A Gustave Mahler like character, named Gustave, goes to Venice for a rest. There he becomes infatuated with a teenaged boy who for him personifies his very idea of purity and beauty. The movie deals with the themes of death, beauty, decay, youth, old age, art, and oddly enough the plague.
Slow moving but exquisitely beautiful to watch. Some say Venice has never been so beautifully photographed. The score by Gustave Mahler is divine and is in perfect combination with the majestic beauty unfolding on the screen. There are long stretches with no dialogue, only visuals and music. A true classic of the cinema.
Available on the Criterion Channel or Amazon Prime.
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). Directed by Elio Petri, starring Gian Maria Volonte and Florinde Bolkan. This is a nice little piece of Italian surrealism. Kafkaesque and so direct. Beautifully photographed in Technicolor. The colors are muted but strong. Score by the inimitable Ennio Morricone, which I found bit quirky but, given the material works. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. .
A chief of detectives, homicide section, kills his mistress and deliberately leaves clues to prove his own responsibility for the crime.
A little heavy handed politically but all satire is hyperbolic, that is what makes it satire
Highly rated and recommended.
Available on the Criterion Channel on Amazon Prime.