Archive for the ‘adaptation’ category

The Northman

May 15, 2022

northmanTwentieth-century softies like me may experience a film like Robert Eggers’ The Northman as a contemptuous but invigorating slap in the chops. Life was hard in AD 895, and every frame of the movie is there to show it, in all its magic-hour, snow-flecked beauty and all its torn-flesh, bloody-mud-puddle ugliness. Like Eggers’ two previous films — The Witch and The Lighthouse, both of which I adore — The Northman devotes itself to recreating a time long past, along with its moods, attitudes and details of day-to-day life. It would be easy indeed to parody The Northman, with all its shrieking madmen and howling to the black sky and chanting in the Old Languages. But Eggers offers up this material so earnestly, and with such carefully crafted art, that to lampoon it would feel callow and vile.

I’m about 75% on board with the film — it runs a bit long, and we start to feel it with about half an hour left to go — but I’m glad it was made, and I hope its poor showing at the box office won’t put Eggers in movie jail. This is the sort of expensive, excessive fantasia that sniffs around in deeper, darker nooks of cinema largely forgotten about and lifts the art form. The Northman is loud, with a brooding score and metal clashing against metal, but it has more in common with silent film than with anything else around. Based on the legend of Amleth (which in turn spawned Hamlet), it seems to want to take us back to the beginning of drama, or at least the birth of many tropes. It tells the most elemental of stories, the one about the son avenging his father, and grafts a lot of pagan strangeness and gore onto it.

Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is out to get his stinky uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who murdered Amleth’s father, King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), and married his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). For years, Amleth grunts and growls and readies himself for the moment when he realizes his oath: “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.” Amleth’s entire life becomes about that, after which, he guesses, he’ll just kill himself or something, because his life will no longer have purpose. Amleth does pursue a brief interest in the young sorceress Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who proposes another level of purpose to Amleth’s life. But mainly his fate seems to be mired in rage and pain and blood. It may take a little bit before a viewer recognizes that Amleth as presented here isn’t really the hero, just the protagonist.

The images appear to be charged by the post-human energies of spirits and fae. The shadows and scents of femininity seem to reduce these crude, brutal men to animals, and the women, dealing with this off-the-scale-toxic masculinity, are in danger of becoming inhuman wretches themselves. Queen Gudrún, for instance, certainly comes across as vindictive and cruel, but to what extent have the culture of 895 and its sickening rules (rape is no big deal, it’s part of every king’s victory lap) made her that way? There are other men, though, noncombatants, fools, he-witches, who have wiser heads — until they lose them to someone with a hotter head, plus a sword. The Northman seems simple, or simplistic, until we start turning it around and peering at it. 

The sensibilities we see in the movie are very remote from ours. We could almost be watching aliens. Sometimes the film has a harshly musical Icelandic vibe; Eggers recruits the Icelandic poet Sjón as his co-scripter here, and puts Björk in majestic electrocuted-penguin garb as a character called the Seeress. As I said, the narrative begins to drag a little, but the compositions and the colors of night and the cast’s dedication to exploring long-gone behaviors — all of this is first-rate. The Northman might be my least favorite Eggers project, but that means nothing — oh, it’s only a B+, or maybe even an A-. Eggers goes big here, and uses paints he hasn’t used before. His three films feel alike, in that they could all unfold in the same uncanny, demon-haunted universe at different times, but they’re also very distinct accomplishments. Eggers is still a major reason to stay interested in whatever movies are becoming.

The Power of the Dog

January 30, 2022

power of the dog

It’s been a while since I saw a movie that catches us leaning the wrong way as far as The Power of the Dog does. That could be due to the source novel, by Thomas Savage, but a lot has to do with the film’s master writer-director Jane Campion, who keeps things becalmed and subtle, even nuanced. In outline, The Power of the Dog sounds like a number of other stories, but it is its own story, and Campion uses its tropes and our expectations to tell it mainly through visuals and through the tiniest gestures and reactions. The movie requires patient attention, otherwise its mini-explosions might look like a lot of nothing on the screen.

We’re in Montana 1925, at a cattle ranch owned by brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons). Soon enough, George meets and marries widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who has a teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) readying himself for medical school. George’s money sends the boy, Peter, to college. George is kindly but doesn’t have much going for him other than that and his money, and he knows it, and so does Phil. Boy, does he ever. Phil is one of those brilliant rats we meet all the time in fiction, practically never in life. He’s intelligent — a product of Yale — but also mean as a scorpion, the kind of guy who always wants to tell the destructive truth the way he sees it, which is of course darker than most others see it. He may also be one or more of the following: a bigot of all stripes, a deeply closeted gay man, a potential murderer or rapist.

Campion’s steady hand and Jonny Greenwood’s anxious score combine to create a highly unstable, almost insecure film. Everyone else in the movie seems focused on Phil, afraid of him. But should they be? Cumberbatch weighs in with a portrait that can be studied in many ways, and will almost certainly play radically differently if viewed a second time. We gather that Phil, who initially mocks Peter’s effeminacy, has something in mind for him, but what? Clues surface here and there, involving Phil’s one-time mentor Bronco Henry, who apparently taught Phil the ways of ranching as well as several other things. Bronco Henry’s name is enunciated with almost as much reverence as Randolph Scott’s in Blazing Saddles. But the saddles here don’t blaze, and while we have our distrustful eye on Phil, someone else might be taking advantage of our distraction. 

Phil might well be a bad man who is not only a bad man, and the frame is otherwise filled with folk who are neither good nor evil but just flawed, weakened by life and its indifferences. George is about as understanding as any man circa 1925 can be expected to be; he takes the labor of women and men as his due, without malice. Rose has her private miseries that she has taken to dipping in liquor. Peter may or may not be gay — the question of his sexuality seems less relevant as the movie goes on — but there may be gaping holes in his good nature, put there in large part when he discovered his father dead, a suicide. Peter recounts this trauma without much feeling; it’s Kodi Smit-McPhee’s moment of triumph. Peter, we see, may grow up into another Phil. Phil certainly seems to think so. If he can be for Peter what Bronco Henry was for him, he might have a purpose — or he might become a monster.

The Power of the Dog can thus be debated long into the night — the characters’ paths not taken, the dramas interrupted. After several things we’re led to expect to happen don’t happen, we realize we have little idea where the movie is taking us, yet we trust Campion to take us somewhere, and she does. Campion excels at tension between people — largely between men and women, but not always. Here it’s tension between one person and everyone else, but most everyone takes a turn creating that tension. We gather that the mix of these particular personalities and all their painful baggage is combustible, though, in this movie’s terms, quietly combustible. We see that what happens is inevitable yet far from predictable, except maybe when we think back on it. 

The Tragedy of Macbeth

January 2, 2022

macbeth

Stripped down for action, shot in black-and-white in the boxy old Academy ratio, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth couldn’t be much more a hat-tip to film noir — the mode of narrative that has been so good to Coen and his brother Ethan (who seems to have left filmmaking for the nonce), from Blood Simple to No Country for Old Men. In this Macbeth, you don’t feel the pain of violence, as you did in Roman Polanski’s 1971 version, or Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 Throne of Blood. Nor do you really feel the weight of guilt and murder on the souls of Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and his wife (Frances McDormand). What you do get is an art-house riff on Shakespeare’s themes; visually and aurally this is a masterful achievement. Coen is using Macbeth to carpenter a stark, stylized tribute to a film genre he loves.

So throw out whatever Shakespeare-nerd expectations you may bring to The Tragedy of Macbeth; this ride’s for film nerds. The experience isn’t even much about performance, though Washington and McDormand — to paraphrase a critic quoted in the Coens’ Barton Fink — acquit themselves admirably. The star of this Macbeth is nowhere seen on the stage. Joel Coen must be aware that the Scottish play is so baldly a forerunner of noir — with its bargain-bin Macbeths led down the path of sin and doom by conniving dames — it has actually spawned movies that recast it in gangster-flick clothes (1955’s Joe Macbeth, 1990’s Men of Respect). Yet nothing in the design of the film — the costuming, the sets — links it to those earlier chiaroscuro morality tales. It’s dark and bleak and stylish, but more closely resembles, say, Welles’ Chimes at Midnight or Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse.

The problem with Coen’s approach is that it feels like an exercise. The visuals (and the beefy soundscape, where drops of blood seem to fall with thunderous force) are meant to express this or that, but mostly they just convey a director’s nifty ideas. When Macbeth raises arms against Macduff (Corey Hawkins), they’re both in a narrow walkway hemmed in by tall concrete walls, yet they’re also outdoors, so they get to taste teasing sips of the air while effectively buried alive. That design does work emotionally — they’re both like rats in a maze, stuck there by fate, and we feel the claustrophobic guilt and shame that put them there. Elsewhere, the three witches (all played, dynamically, by Kathryn Hunter) stand reflected in a puddle — or, rather, two witches are reflected from the third — or the frame is filled with leaves or crows. Sometimes the style is a bit much, but then noir always was.

As beautifully put-together as this is, though, I can’t help shrugging a little. Joel Coen has successfully told more than a few stories about the folly of crime. It’s as though he had finally worked back to the ur-noir, the original wellspring of crime drama and “Be sure your sins will find you out,” and found himself cowed, insecure. In this respect, Coen’s Macbeth is expressive after all: it expresses a smart director’s nervousness about approaching a capital-C classic — nervousness he resolves by visually showing daddy Shakespeare (and daddies Welles, Kurosawa, Polanski) who’s the captain now. But dramatically he sort of drops the ball.

Perhaps it’s because he has no fun Coen divertissements to fall back on; even in the Coens’ adapted work there are usually scurvy or scary villains, and there really aren’t any here (the hero, in what still seems a radical turn, becomes the villain). Coen sighs with relief when supervising Hunter’s witches, or Stephen Root in a funny bit; their brand of showmanship is more in line with Coen’s comfort zone. But when it comes time to make us feel the full pressure of a man who decides to cross the line you can’t uncross, or the horror of a woman who agitates for murder but whose dreams drown in incriminating gore, Coen doesn’t come up with anything. The morality of it all seems weightless. But, boy, is it something to look at.

Nightmare Alley

December 19, 2021

nightmare alley

Despite its darkness and pessimism, Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley is a shapely piece of entertainment that may cheer you up. Grim as it often is, it’s been put together with such obvious love and devotion that its energy carries us through Gresham’s moralistic tale of a con artist — Bradley Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle — whose imposture may or may not withstand the reality that there will always be someone shrewder, more ruthless and more powerful than he is. Gresham’s book is a sandwich of crisp bread slices surrounding a bit of soggy meat, though del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan streamline the narrative. They keep the bread fresh, and they retain Gresham’s bleak ending while importing a stellar final line from the 1947 film version. 

Stanton arrives at a carnival in 1939 and learns the ropes. He learns how to do “cold readings” as a self-proclaimed psychic; he also learns how an unscrupulous carny barker (Willem Dafoe in a brief but vivid turn) creates a “geek” — an attraction based on a down-and-out drunk’s desperate willingness to do disgusting things in exchange for booze. Stanton falls in love with Molly (Rooney Mara), who does tricks with electricity, and they leave the carnival to strike out on their own scams. It’s a bit of a bummer when Cooper leaves the seamy, intriguing milieu of strongmen and freaks in the company of Rooney Mara, who unfortunately remains a null presence. But the movie is still beautiful, with golden cinematography (Dan Laustsen) and richly crafted production design (Tamara Deverell) that keep our eyes happily engaged. Nightmare Alley is dark but not dreary. 

Stanton and Molly do their psychic act for rich suckers. A canny psychiatrist, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), pegs Stanton as a flim-flam man the minute she lays eyes on him, but is drawn to his confidence and technique. Along about the hour-and-a-half mark, Richard Jenkins enters the picture as the richest sucker of all, who is led to believe Stanton can put him in spiritual contact with a past lover. Jenkins, as he did in The Shape of Water, grounds a del Toro film in bitter humanity, though he’s playing much more of a scoundrel this time. Ultimately, nobody in this story is an innocent. The higher up you go, the more corrupt people you find. The picture of a pre-WWII America gouged by financial ruin and despair is deftly painted. Bradley Cooper, who spends a lot of his screen time with Rooney Mara and is thus casting his charisma into a vacuum, comes alive when he can play with Jenkins, or, for that matter, with Toni Collette or David Strathairn or Ron Perlman.

Gresham’s novel is a bit mechanistic in the tradition of noir, but it’s almost painfully internal; we seem to pause and hear the thoughts and feel the feelings of everyone, in Gresham’s plain prose spiked with carny slang. Gresham stops for so long to detail the backstory of Molly and her beloved carny father that he seems carried away, almost surprised at how Molly is coming alive and developing flesh. Molly is pretty opaque in the movie; del Toro and Morgan really only have time to concentrate on Stanton, even with a 150-minute length. Del Toro seems a little deflated when he has to leave the carnival (Dafoe’s lair of mutated fetuses and animals in jars is like a room in del Toro’s famous collectible-filled home) and go to swanky wartime Chicago, so he reaches out gratefully for Cate Blanchett, who banks another suave Old Hollywood performance. Lilith, true to her name, is like a fancy vampire drawn to a different kind of parasite.

In recent years I’ve remained fond of the idea of Guillermo del Toro while being disappointed in his last few efforts. But Nightmare Alley, the sort of gift a director can only give to himself on the heels of an Oscar triumph, is the real thing, physically imposing (it’s always raining or snowing outside the windows; objects have an almost pensive solidity and heft) and psychologically sound. Laid bare, the story casts the carny world as capitalism in microcosm, with misfits straining hard to make those quarters and dimes. The gawkers for the carny acts, even the geek act, are not portrayed as ghoulish or shameful — del Toro is too good-natured for that, especially since we and he are in the same crowd. The people getting bilked are in pain they’ll pay good money to stop. Stanton is quite willing to take their pain and their money off their hands, either as a slick psychic or as a cautionary figure.

Cruella

September 26, 2021

cruella

It’s entirely possible that the less real estate 101 Dalmatians and its various iterations occupy in your emotional neighborhood, the more you may feel free to enjoy Cruella, a live-action prequel unveiling the origins of one Cruella De Vil. She was born Estella, was orphaned as a girl, then fell in with a couple of Dickensian child grifters. Eventually she grows into Emma Stone, who dyes her natural two-tone hair a less showy deep blood-red and goes to work for the Baroness (Emma Thompson), a fabulous and malicious fashion-design icon. Cruella is about how Estella becomes Cruella, though tonally it’s unstable and off-putting, and it doesn’t seem directed so much as assembled.

That’s to be expected from director Craig Gillespie, whose previous film, I, Tonya, had similar themes and similar problems. Gillespie again can’t resist aping Martin Scorsese and swooping his camera through crowded rooms while the soundtrack is infested with period needle-drops. Cruella is supposedly set largely in the ‘70s, so we get the Stones, the Clash, Supertramp, the Doors, etc. As compellingly odd as it is to hear a Clash song in the middle of a Disney film, what people like Gillespie don’t get about the way Scorsese uses needle-drops is how the music emerges organically and emotionally — it’s not just there to make the movie cool. Cruella too often feels like a bunch of music videos glued together. It seems made to be thrown on the TV in the background of a party.

That’d be a stylish party, though, and if the movie launches a thousand Cruella Halloween costumes and drag queens next month, it will have done some good work. Truth to tell, a snarky, punk-goth riff on a Disney villainess sounded fine to me; I was a big fan of the Mouse’s previous toe-dip in this pool, Maleficent (though I missed the sequel). Full of pain and nuance, Maleficent more than redeemed the antagonist of Sleeping Beauty. But Cruella, though grounded in grief and poverty, is never less convincing than when it wants you to be sad — it’s just irrepressibly hosting its own outré costume party, although we don’t feel invited. Stone does put across a late-inning monologue directed at a fountain that represents her dead mum, but otherwise the movie’s conception doesn’t allow her or Thompson to transcend cartoonishness.

Here and there, Thompson does share the fun she’s having, swanning around in diabolically smashing outfits while everyone around her recoils in abject fear of her, and in some moments Stone’s conniving Estella/Cruella appears to be taking notes from the Baroness. (Or Stone from Thompson.) The level of craft is as high as Disney’s pockets are deep (one hears murmurs of a $200 million budget), but there was probably a firm ceiling on how arch and camp — on how gay, let’s not dance around it — Cruella could get without losing track of its bottom line. So it’s this sort of semi-closeted thing (though it boasts, in John McCrea’s fashion-shop owner Artie, Disney’s first “originally created openly gay character”) that doesn’t trade in nearly enough fun outsider queer-coding for a cult audience and isn’t legitimately queer enough for people who relate to Cruella and her cadre to be interested in it.

Even with all its weaknesses I might’ve cut Cruella some slack if it didn’t seem to play itself out at the 60-minute mark with over an hour left to go. A MacGuffin pendant is involved, leading to a tired twist. The style of the film comes on all Punk Sounds of the ‘70s, but the narrative is purely corporate story-meeting, with a lot of unacknowledged weirdness to unpack — we’re supposed to be jazzed that one sociopathically ambitious queen bitch is being replaced by another, who will go on to make dresses out of puppy skins? There’s no way an endeavor this costly is going to end on an ambiguous note or even in a way that closes off sequels. Nor does it want to go whole-hog into celebration, ironic or otherwise, of Cruella’s baser qualities. Cruella herself would find the movie dull and obvious, a wannabe punk decked out in Hot Topic.

@Zola

September 19, 2021

zola

Not everything needs to be a movie. That’s not to say that the legendary 2015 Twitter thread by A’Ziah “Zola” King doesn’t seem like — and play in our minds like, when we’re reading it — a movie-god-given piece of natural cinema material. It has everything: sex, violence, and, as Zola says in the first tweet, a story “full of suspense.” Zola’s common-sensical voice is loud and clear; it carries us through, and we can hear it in our heads, with its heartbeat-monitor spikes of disbelief and outrage. What I’m getting at is that Zola’s thread is almost a perfect little movie in itself. Imagining the story’s excesses, we collaborate, make it funnier to ourselves.

It gives me no pleasure to opine that @Zola, the movie director Janicza Bravo and her cowriter Jeremy O. Harris have made from Zola’s story, feels somewhat redundant. The actual film before us can’t compete with the mind-movie we made when reading the thread. (Maybe a viewer is better off going into the film cold.) I really didn’t want it to be this way. I was rooting for @Zola to be a disreputable but electrifying bonbon of sin and hyperbole, something along the lines of Spring Breakers or The Rules of Attraction in its mash-up of art and exploitation. And Bravo, who has a strong eye for trance-out color and movement, at first seems the ideal filmmaker for this tale. 

Part of the thread’s appeal, I think, is that its narrator (Taylour Paige) is Black and her companion, a sex worker here named Stefani (Riley Keough), is white. Stefani is also a hot mess who drags Zola into a hard-bass netherworld of guns and lust. Zola is essentially an observer on the side as Stefani, her pimp X (Colman Domingo), and her hapless boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) make everything ridiculously worse. We hear some of Zola’s tweets as narration, though they may lack the tartness and surreal listen-to-this-shit humor they had in our heads. Taylour Paige is fine as Zola but somewhat inexpressive, ceding the movie to Riley Keough’s dumpster-fire Stefani, who talks like a dumb white chick’s idea of how Black women talk, gleaned from tabloid talk shows.

Neither woman seems to learn much from their experiences, though, and the movie arrives at a stop without having really arrived at an end — or a point. @Zola appears to advise viewers not to trust crazy white women, who are too padded by privilege to feel the sharp edges of the danger they get themselves in. (It’s the whiny, insecure Derrek, also white, who makes the worst mistake and almost gets everyone killed.) The film doesn’t put much stock in Black men, either. We’re aware we’re getting a subjective account (and Bravo puts the movie on pause to let Stefani control the narrative briefly), the purpose of which is to show the wisdom and resilience of a Black woman. No problem there, except that it tends to keep Zola at a remove. In this chaotic, candy-colored universe of sin and stupidity, Zola is the one keeping her head while all around her lose theirs. She’s watching and relaying the story; she’s seldom truly in it. 

Everyone else on screen is flawed, hilariously (Nicholas Braun kept getting unanticipated laughs out of me) or frighteningly (Colman Domingo’s stealth-African X loses his fake American accent when he’s angry). Zola isn’t. She has no quirks, no likes or dislikes, and when you get right down to it she exists in her own plot to save the infantile white people from the savage, street-smart Black men, who will get money out of your carcass any way they can, whether pimping it or murdering it. Can a movie written and directed by Black people be prejudiced against Black people? Not consciously, maybe. And I don’t doubt that Bravo and Harris must have responded to the wild tall-tale aspect of @Zola; I don’t presume classist bad faith on their parts — again, not conscious. Bravo is eminently worth watching as a director; the movie at its pure-cinema finest is like a neon mandala. But, man, does this film give off some discordant vibes. 

Little Vampire

September 5, 2021

little vamp

Sometimes we want a movie that isn’t going to make us worry too much, and the amiable French animated all-ages fantasy Little Vampire falls squarely in that category. It’s good-hearted and has abundant charm, though not a lot seems to be at stake (no pun intended). Essentially it’s about friendship and finding one’s way, packed with enough monsters and goth beauty to keep fans of (early) Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro happy for a while. At times it feels like a pilot for a TV cartoon, as indeed it was, in 2004; it began life as a comic by Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat) and has nothing to do with the books of the same name that spawned a 2000 comedy (with Jonathan Lipnicki) and its 2017 animated remake.

Aside from the comics, all of those adaptations, including the 2004 series, seem to take the vantage point of the human boy who befriends the vampire boy. Here, the vampire boy is front and center, going back to the comics’ perspective. We begin with Pandora and her little boy pursued by the arrogant Le Gibbous, who wants to sacrifice them to a giant monster. They’re saved by the skeletal Captain of the Dead, turned into vampires, and taken to a big house full of monsters. The house is hidden from Le Gibbous by a magic dome, and no one can leave. After a while, the Little Vampire gets bored and meets an orphan boy by way of doing his homework — which takes him out of the Captain’s protective dome.

There’s always something to look at, and the narrative never stops moving; occasionally the film pauses to take in the spectral elegance of the Captain’s pirate ship floating across the sky, but mainly Little Vampire is paced and structured to hold kids’ attention. Sometimes I was reminded of Adventure Time, whose menagerie included vampires and other beasties. The imagination on view here is playful, prodigious. The monsters, including a Frankenstein’s-monster-like critter named Marguerite (voiced by Sfar himself), aren’t really scary — they’re ooky and spooky in the Addams Family mold, the sort of mischief-loving ghoulies any right-minded kid would love to hang out with.

Sfar and cowriter Sandrina Jardel have plenty of affection for all their characters (well, except maybe the giant slimy behemoth at the beginning). There’s a happy ending for just about everyone, and that’s never in doubt. And again, if you’re in the mood not to be challenged or stressed out by what’s meant to be a slight, friendly light-dark fantasy (the vampires don’t kill, they steal blood bags from the hospital), Little Vampire may just be your cup of ichor. Sometimes we can tell where the animation has to cut corners, and sometimes we see where the money went. There’s some fine swashbuckling between the Captain of the Dead and Le Gibbous. Sfar and his team originally envisioned a digitally-animated feature, but they ran out of money, and had to fall back on traditional cel animation, which has (there’s that word again) considerable charm.

If this feature does well enough to justify it, I’d be glad to see a streaming series along these lines and revisit this family of misfits and monsters. I won’t mind if Sfar dials down the fart and poop humor a notch, but this branch of Sfar’s creativity has powered 52 episodes of French TV. It could well provide fertile ground for another series. There’s unspoken personal pain in it, too: Sfar, who lost his own mother when he was four, has created a reality in which the young hero gets to live with his ageless, immortal mother for all time — along with all sorts of weirdies that seem designed to give kids from 8 to 80 the giggles.

Nomadland

February 28, 2021

nomadlandThere’s a Facebook group called “Capitalist Dystopia Stories Rebranded as Heartwarming Bullshit.” It provides links to news bits like the recent one in which a seven-year-old girl is selling lemonade to help pay for her brain surgery. I don’t know how we got to be a society that isn’t horrified by this. Anyway, stuff like that may help explain why the more I think about Nomadland the angrier I get. The movie is beautifully made (though not “poetic,” as many will tag it, so much as pictorial). It’s also heartwarming bullshit. Taking off from Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book, Nomadland gives us a community of good earthy folk who live in vans and RVs, roaming the country, taking temp work. This is the nicest movie about homelessness, financial despair and human frailty you’ll ever see.

Frances McDormand anchors the plotless, anecdotal film, but her role has been shaped by writer-director Chloé Zhao to make her the anchor — it’s an actor’s delight, a silently strong hero who stoically suffers. Zhao is known for filling her movies (previously, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider) with nonactors “playing” themselves, and with the exception of McDormand and David Strathairn as Dave, a quietly unstable fellow nomad, that’s how Nomadland is cast. McDormand plays a woman named Fern — the name isn’t far off from “Fran” — and her last name starts with “McD.” So is McDormand also playing herself? Let’s say she seems to be behaving as Fern, just inhabiting Fern with as few frills as possible. After a while it seems to be an exercise in how much of herself she can suppress.

I’m as hooked into Amazon as anyone, but the movie’s wishy-washy depiction of Amazon warehouses as places that give our kind nomads a nice paycheck or two stuck in my craw. See, the film unavoidably says, Amazon doesn’t exploit desperate Americans — it helps them. Thank God for the largesse of our corporate overlords! Will you be requiring anything else, sirs? The people in Nomadland, though, aren’t defined by the work they do. They all seem to have opted out of the rat race. Many are out there in their vans because the economy cast them off, but we hear a lot more often from the nomads who just can’t get used to sleeping under a roof, in a soft bed. They want to live under the stars with others of their tribe. So the movie really has no political or economic consciousness at all. Taken to its logical conclusion, Nomadland could be saying that all homeless are homeless by choice; they’re just not built for house living or careers.

Fern sits and talks with real-life nomads playing versions of themselves. Two examples of this are of monumental tastelessness. One woman, Charlene Swankie (named only as “Swankie” in the film), plays a scene in which she has a headache and confides that she has cancer and hasn’t been given long to live. The actual Swankie is healthy, and the movie mixes fact and fiction in this sort of strange way, asking a nonactor to pretend she has a mortal illness. The other example finds nomadic guru Bob Wells getting choked up as he tells Fern about his son, who committed suicide. As it happens, that tragedy did in fact befall Wells. But it takes us out of the movie (is his story real or scripted? we wonder), as Swankie’s feigned illness also does.

Chloé Zhao has no anger in her about how the country has failed these nomads, how it uses them up and denies they exist. She’d rather just groove on the serene vibe of a group of outcasts sitting together around a fire, being each other’s family. As drama, Nomadland is pretty null; the emotional crescendo comes when we gasp at Dave accidentally dropping some of Fern’s cherished dishes. Yet Fern’s anger at Dave gets the movie to snap into focus for a moment — suddenly, McDormand has a professional actor to play off of, and she lunges at the opportunity while scrupulously staying within the cramped bounds she sets for Fern. But as far as we can see, there isn’t anyone scary out in Nomadland or violent or mean. Nobody ever seems in trouble. Everyone looks after each other. It all seems very nice. If the film gets any award traction it’ll be due to the current moment’s collective yearning for community. But let’s not be numbed to the cold realities of being nomads, or the larger society that has, through economic or social pressure, ejected them. Nomadland comes close to saying whatever happens to drifters and vandwellers is okay, because they have each other.

One Night in Miami…

January 18, 2021

14one-night-2-superJumbo-v2Ossie Davis famously called Malcolm X “our own Black shining prince,” and One Night in Miami… adds three other princes. Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir) heads to a Black motel to celebrate with Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) on the occasion of Clay’s ascension to World Heavyweight Champion. On some level, in the words of Kemp Powers (Soul), who wrote the One Night script based on his play, these were “the Black Avengers” — a supergroup of “living Black manhood” (again as per Davis) in different but parallel ways. Each man was engaged in rising up and trying to take as many Black people as he could up with him.

The irony is that all four men gained their fame and power in front of audiences; only one, Malcolm, did so before largely Black audiences. The rest had to function as entertainers or gladiators for white viewers, who bestowed prestige and money on them as long as they knew their places. But Malcolm appears as the other men’s conscience, often an irritating one for them. Malcolm is always going after them for compromising themselves. What he doesn’t realize — since he’s caught up in his own identity crisis — is that they, like Malcolm, are souls in flux. Clay wants to join Malcolm in the Nation of Islam. Malcolm, who has butted heads with Elijah Muhammad, wants to leave the Nation of Islam. Brown wants to pivot from football to movies. Cooke wants to write songs that mean more.

One Night in Miami… ends before the men all get what they want; it also ends before two of them, Malcolm and Cooke, were killed, months apart, under still-disputed circumstances. Director Regina King proves the old saw that actors turned directors tend to be the best actors’ directors. She creates a comfortable vibe for the cast to stretch and project — the movie is leisurely paced, bordering on but never really crossing over into slow. The tempo was different then, not because the need for change wasn’t urgent but because everything took longer. The narrative reflects that, but King varies exteriors and interiors smoothly enough that the story doesn’t feel as stagebound and talky as it might.

Besides, most of the time, what the words are about is much larger than four guys in a room, and the guys all know that. Having the culture’s magnifying glass pointed their way has given them all some level of self-awareness. That they’re consciously playing roles doesn’t make them less sincere; the point is that Black people in America have had to play roles to survive for 400 years. And these four men, in the peak of their prime, the pride of their shining, want to renounce, fully or in part, their heroic roles. They want authenticity in their words and their lives. The actors give us the faces the rubes see, but then quiet down for their private moments as men, not icons. There are some stretches when you can forget you’re watching these specific legends — you’re just seeing four men wrestling with changes that will anger everyone in their lives. As if it weren’t hard enough being Black in a place that continually reminds them of that.

Of the four, I found myself most drawn to Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X. The movie seems to be about him, though the story doesn’t happen without Clay’s victory and subsequent get-together. Like I said, Malcolm is the ghost haunting the attics of the other three men. Malcolm himself, as we know from his memoir and Spike Lee’s film of it, was constantly in a state of change right up until his murder. He recognizes this in his three friends — especially Cooke, whom he comes down on particularly heavily — and tries to goose them along, sometimes breaking out his electrifying street-speech cadences, which the others respond to with “Man, shut the fuck up.” One Night in Miami… is a comedy of friendship as well as a drama about how change has to come because that’s what living things do. When you don’t change, you’re in the grave.

News of the World

January 10, 2021

news-of-the-world-universal-pictures-1“We’re all hurting. These are difficult times,” says Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) to a packed crowd in News of the World. The year is 1870, not 2020, but the words ring accidentally true for us. Captain Kidd is a remorseful Confederate veteran who now makes his living by traveling from town to town, reading newspapers to the gathered folk. This was when news was still valued, though at one point Captain Kidd runs afoul of a man who seems to lord it over his town and its news; the local paper is full of accounts of the man’s glory. This, too, is relevant to us, though perhaps not so accidentally. The movie is about atoning for one’s past through usefulness to the larger community. As Captain Kidd opines, his is not a rich man’s occupation. One hopes it will come to be valued again.

News of the World is decidedly a change of (literal) pace for director Paul Greengrass, famous for his herky-jerky Bourne movies and his stylistically fitful studies of modern historical chaos (United 93, Bloody Sunday, Captain Phillips). Here, Captain Kidd covers the miles on horseback or coach or foot, and Greengrass eases up accordingly; you’d have to go back to his 1998 romantic drama The Theory of Flight to find him this becalmed, this steady of brushstroke. Tom Hanks obliges Greengrass with a contemplative turn, tight with grief and guilt, but open to the warmth of company. On his way from one Texas dustpile to another, Captain Kidd encounters a felled coach, a lynched Black man hanging from a nearby tree, and a girl (Helena Zengel) who speaks no English — just a smattering of German, from her original family, and Kiowa, from the tribe that took her in as one of their own. Captain Kidd takes it upon himself (after several false starts) to bring her “home” to her aunt and uncle.

With the astringent Greengrass in charge and the increasingly no-nonsense Hanks in the saddle, the story is approached with minimal cuteness; a certain level of manipulation is built into the material (from a 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles), but mainly the film steers around it or tamps it down. If not for a dusting of PG-13 epithets and a stretch of ugliness involving an owlhoot who seeks to buy the girl, and then comes after Captain Kidd with two other men, this could be a family Western, sharing some traits with True Grit (either version), but with the dark undertone of The Searchers. The resulting shootout between Captain Kidd and the men, bolstered by the girl’s quick thinking, is a deft piece of suspense. Even there, Greengrass doesn’t revert to his old habits of jittery handheld camera or Cuisinart editing. Post-Civil War, even gunfights take a long time. Greengrass and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski pause and gaze upon the luxurious, unspoiled expanse of New Mexico (doubling for Texas).

Given that we just watched dirtbags shuffling through the halls of the Capitol bearing the Confederate flag, it may strike some as an iffy prospect to be asked to feel for a man who fought for that side, even if he is played by Tom Hanks. But Hanks imbues Captain Kidd with an intelligence that tells us the captain was most likely conscripted into defense of his birthplace, and was not acting out of any particular fidelity to the traditions of slavery. Still, we gather Captain Kidd sent his share of Union soldiers to Valhalla, regretfully, which makes him a complicated hero. (In the book, Kidd fought in the other, less divisive but equally noxious War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War.) As we saw in Saving Private Ryan and Greyhound, Hanks is a natural at painting men skilled at war who take no pleasure in it. That prior experience with Hanks does a lot of the movie’s work.

I don’t think News of the World was consciously made as “the movie we need right now” (how many films in the past year have been thus described?) — it’s a leisurely tale as much about storytelling as about anything else. One nice thing Hanks does is to refrain from making Captain Kidd any kind of great raconteur or proto-anchorman. Standing before his dusty crowds, Kidd squints through spectacles, bending almost in half over the newspaper he’s reading from. He seems to be doing this simply because it’s something he can do, not because he has any passion for it. By the end, though, the pleasures of story have brought animation to Kidd’s reading and wit to his telling. And we appreciate the happy ending because don’t we all deserve one? These are, after all, difficult times.