[REVIEW] ‘Nomadland’: Admire the Empathy but I Had Questions

Over at Backseatdirectors.com recently I wrote a review of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film The Truth. It is what I call a ‘slice of life’ film or in other words ‘a film that follows a character around without much plot or story’. In that review I said “It’s interesting because The Truth as a movie doesn’t have a ton of plot. It’s the kind of film some people will find boring, but not yours truly. I liked spending time with these characters.” I bring this up in my Nomandland review because it is also a slice of life film. And like The Truth, I enjoyed spending time with these characters (or character) but just enough to recommend it. I did not love it like I loved The Truth.

Nomadland is based on a non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century by Jessica Bruder, and I am curious to read the book. The strongest part of the film is the empathy it has for all of the people and the lack of judgement of their life choices. It’s also beautifully filmed with lovely cinematography by Joshua James Richards. He also shot director Chloé Zhao’s previous film The Rider, and it had a similar empathy towards its characters, which I admired.

In the film Frances McDormand plays a woman named Fern who is a nomad that wanders in her van from job to job. She eventually becomes a part of a community of nomads (real people not actors mostly featured as the nomads). That’s really all the plot there is. It’s just following her around, seeing her life, which is fine. She’s a compelling enough character to make the film worth a watch.

Unfortunately I couldn’t keep myself from asking a few questions (that maybe are explained in the book but that’s not what this review is based on). It seems unlikely that a single woman alone in a van would be so protected from predators and bad men. But never once in the film is that a problem? Maybe I’m too nervous as a single woman myself but there was no seedy side at all? No drugs, theft, or anything else unkempt.

And it’s not like challenging people makes a film less empathetic. For example, director Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete was very realistic in showing the good and the bad side of the Heartland of America and it only made me more invested as he struggled.

On one hand, I admire Zhao’s optimism in not portraying these dark sides but on the other hand it makes the movie very repetitive and not as interesting as it could have been. In Lean on Pete I was sobbing by the end of it because Pete had overcome so much to get to safety. In Nomadland I felt relief and comfort but not much emotional investment in Fern’s story. It was beautiful but would have probably worked better as a short than a feature.

I’m still going to give Nomadland a recommendation but I’d say to moderate your expectations. Some are calling it the ‘best film of the year’, and I’m not in that camp. Still it’s beautiful enough with a strong enough performance from McDormand to be worth a view. If you see it let me know what you think.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

I saw Nomadland through the NYFF Virtual Film Center at Lincoln Center. I recommend checking them out and supporting independent cinema if you can.

[REVIEW] ‘Faith Ba$ed’ or a Laugh and a Prayer?

In many ways the faith-based film genre invites itself for easy satire. Whenever a film puts itself out there as being more than entertainment, but a ministry tool it will be ripe with hypocrisy and ridiculousness. There’s also something so sincere and cheap about them which make it hard to not poke fun at. Filmmaker Vincent Masciale has taken on this fertile ground for satire in his new comedy Faith Ba$ed and the results are a mixed bag but just funny enough to recommend.

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In Faith Ba$ed the film’s writer Luke Barnett plays a dumb but optimistic man who idolizes a multi-level marketer tycoon named Nicky Steele (played by Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander). Barnett dreams of making easy money and living the good life. To make it big he develops a scheme with his BFF Tanner (Tanner Thomason) that they are going to make the world’s greatest Christian film.

Both Masciale and Barnett are regulars on the satirical internet show Funny or Die and you can see some of that influence in Faith Ba$ed. Evidently even just the trailers have gotten some of the conservative media upset calling the film ‘blaspheme’, which should feed right into their advertising. In truth, the script is pretty tame when it comes to their criticisms of religion. Most of the good jokes are similar to any type of misbegotten artistic project like we see in The Disaster Artist or The Producers.

There’s actually a lot in Faith Ba$ed that feels borrowed from other films. For example, Luke has an all Black family, which feels right out of Steve Martin’s The Jerk. Other gags (and the over-all vibe) has strong Napoleon Dynamite or Dumb and Dumber vibes. And their dopey optimism feels right out of the early Will Farrell comedies such as Talladega Nights.

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The derivative nature, however, wasn’t much of a downside for me because I was consistently laughing. The script in Faith Ba$ed is funny especially when it is focusing on the movie. When it’s filming, financing and casting the movie it is pretty hilarious. When it goes off on tangents it works less. For example, when Luke ends up at Nicky Steele’s house to clean his pool Alexander’s over-the-top sales pitches fall flat.

I was also left wondering who the target audience for Faith Ba$ed is? It’s too strong an R rating for most religious viewers to enjoy and will the R-rated crowd be aware of the tropes of the genre to laugh? As a conservative critic I’ve seen lots of faith-based films, so I am the perfect person for this film, but I think it might struggle to find a general audience. It might have been smarter to follow the Napoleon Dynamite model and make it something the skewered audience could more easily embrace while laughing at themselves.

Actor David Koechner in the film “Faith Based”. Courtesy photo

Nevertheless, I always judge a comedy by how much did it make me laugh and in this case it was quite a bit. Like I said, whenever they are making the film A Prayer in Space it’s quite funny. On that basis alone I have to recommend Faith Ba$ed. The script is solid and the chemistry between Barnett and Thompson works. If you get a chance to see it let me know what you think!

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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To the Dust Review

to dust3As most of my readers know the Academy Awards happened last weekend and much to everyone’s surprise the road trip movie Green Book took the big prize. A lot of people, including myself, enjoyed the film and thought it was a charming tale of an unlikely friendship. However, there was a loud group that felt the portrayal of Don Shirley wasn’t accurate and the script was too simplistic. Well, if you are in the latter group, there is a new tale of unlikely friendship called To Dust you might enjoy more. (Also Paddleton is another good option now available on Netflix)

To Dust is written and directed by Shawn Snyder and it tells the story of a orthodox Jewish man named Shmuel (Géza Röhrig) who is finding it difficult to find closure over the loss of his wife. In particular, he has a bad dream about her big toe not decomposing like the religious people tell him it should. He is plagued by worry of what happens to her soul after death and if the burial is done incorrectly is she damned for good?

When Shmuel finds his clergy to be less than helpful he turns to a science professor named Albert (Mathew Broderick). You get the feeling Albert leads a pretty boring, sad life, which probably allows him to pay attention to Shmuel’s insane requests.

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Pitched as a science experiment the 2 men attempt to discover what happens to the body when it decays. They start with a pig and then go from there! These 2 have a nice chemistry together and for the most part I bought their growing friendship. I also liked the nuanced look at religion, grief and science: None of which can bring back Shmuel’s wife or make his pain any less heart crushing.

What perhaps doesn’t work so well in To Dust is the more broad attempts at comedy. It gets a little silly at spots and for a film that takes on such deep themes it feels tonally off. Also the director spares the viewer no part of the decaying process. It’s very gross to watch time-lapse photography of a human toe decaying or a pig going through each stage of becoming compost. Yuck! I’m sure that disgust is intentional but it was a little much. If you are at all squeamish than I’d stay away. There is also a lot of profanity.

All that said, if you are looking for a film about an unlikely friendship give To Dust a shot. It’s not perfect but what it gets right is quite sweet and lovely.

7 out of 10

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My Problem with Sorry to Bother You (Spoilers)

Recently I heard great praise for an indie film called Sorry to Bother You and so I decided to check it out. It is directed by Boots Riley and stars Lakeith Stanfield in the lead role. I had been told this movie was very creative, and as I like creative things, I was hoping to love it. Unfortunately, I left feeling disappointed. What I got was creative but it wasn’t executed in an effective or appealing way. Let me explain…

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Sorry to Bother You tells the story of a man named Cash who gets a job working for a telemarketing company called Regal View. While there, he finds out that by speaking in “white voice” he can make more sales and move his way up the company ladder. All of this was effective and quite biting satire (that unfortunately is lost by the madness of the last act of the movie). The more white Cash sounds the higher he can get at Regal View, until he is the top position of “power caller”

This gets the attention of a CEO of a company called WorryFree played by Armie Hammer. He invites Cash to his headquarters to court him to his “innovative” business. The only catch is there is a strike at Regal View, and Cash will have to break the strike as a “power caller”. His girlfriend, an experimental artist named Detroit, is shocked by his behavior, as our his co-workers.

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All of this seems fairly straight-forward and the set up is pretty engaging. The problem is once the movie gets going we have so many ideas that it becomes overwhelming. We have workplace satire, anti-capitalism, a media commentary, racial satire/commentary, experimental art, surrealism, drug abuse, partying, fantasy sequences, and characters being turned into horses (yes you read right).

It sometimes felt like Boots Riley was scared he could never make another movie again so he had to throw every cinematic thought he had into this one. I’m sure some will say the chaos is part of the message but the world being in chaos is a hardly revolutionary or interesting thought. It’s certainly a way less interesting message than the “white voice” satire message that the film started with. By the end of the movie, I had forgotten that in favor of horse people and experimental art with sheeps blood.

film socialisme

Creativity in film is not an inherent good. A great example of this is Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme (a much worse film than Sorry to Bother You). You could easily make the argument Godard’s film is creative but it presents this creativity in such a chaotic way that it becomes exhausting for the viewer making whatever he was trying to say a moot point.

Roger Ebert wrote about Film Socialisme:

“This film is an affront. It is incoherent, maddening, deliberately opaque and heedless of the ways in which people watch movies. All of that is part of the Godardian method, I am aware, but I feel a bargain of some sort must be struck. We enter the cinema with open minds and goodwill, expecting Godard to engage us in at least a vaguely penetrable way. But in “Film Socialisme,” he expects us to do all the heavy lifting.

And like I said Sorry to Bother You is not as bad as Film Socialisme, but I think the heart of what Ebert is saying applies here. You can have interesting ideas and creative storytelling methods but if it is presented in a maddening, chaotic way than we leave feeling frustrated more than inspired. At least that was my experience. 

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An allegorical movie about the company who turns black people into horse people could have been interesting, or a film about a strike by low level employees, or about workplace racism, or a film about experimental art, or corporate excess and partying, or modern media and consumerism, all could have worked but combined together it was exhausting.

So I did not like Sorry to Bother You. I hope the talent involves continues to do creative things, and I applaud them for their ambitions but let’s hope next time they will remember the old wisdom of Coco Chanel “before you walk out the door everyday take one thing off”. Same holds true for movies!

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Lady Bird Review

Coming of age movies are some of the most important yet tricky movies to master. The teenage experience is so unique and sacred in a way that capturing it in film so many people can relate to is very difficult. For example, I love Perks of Being a Wallflower. It felt completely authentic to my experience, like someone had been filming my friends and I in high school; yet, I know others who that film rings completely false. I also love Juno, which many people find overwrought and annoying. To me it is funny and sweet, and I love it. Dazed and Confused and Dirty Dancing are two more favorites. However, other films like Edge of 17 or The Breakfast Club that others love don’t work for me. Today I went to see the latest entry in the genre, Lady Bird and for the most part I enjoyed it. I didn’t LOVE it like many seem to but it was good (I have a feeling this movie will be this year’s La La Land where merely liking it isn’t enough for some people. Sigh).

Lady Bird stars Saoirse Ronan (who I adored as an older character in Brooklyn) as a senior in high school in Sacramento (my parents lived in Sacramento for 9 years so I recognized many of the locations!). She is a sullen, angry teen who hates Sacramento and mostly hates her Mother. This is similar to the character in Edge of 17 but with a little bit more warmth than that film. I’m not going to lie I find this type of teenage character very uncomfortable to watch as it was totally me as a teen. I was pretty grumpy and hated my small town/parents who had a small baby at the time. I wanted nothing more than to get away from all of them and spread my wings (luckily I was also a die hard Mormon so didn’t get into much trouble!).

Still, whenever I watch these kinds of movies I want to call my Mother and apologize for how horrible I was. I remember one time throwing a book at my Dad because I was so angry at him. Another time storming up the stairs in one of the rare instances of my life I used profanity against my Mother. I remember feeling like nobody was listening to me. One time I screamed at my whole family “you’re the weird ones. I’m the normal one except in my own house”. LOL.  I was not pleasant to live with. I’m not saying this as a knock against the movie. I’m just trying to give some context into my response.

Lady Bird’s mother is played brilliantly by Laurie Metcalf. In fact, I kind of wish the movie was about her rather than her daughter. She’s a very interesting character where Lady Bird I’ve seen many times before. She loves her daughter but also finds her a royal pain, something most parents of sullen teenagers can relate to.

I also loved Lucas Hedges in this as Lady Bird’s first boyfriend. He is rapidly becoming one of my favorite young actors with his performances in this, Manchester by the Sea, and 3 Billboards. He felt very authentic and gave the movie some of the warmth I was missing in Edge of 17.

I know some people don’t like the glib dialogue in Juno and if that is the case then you will love Lady Bird. It’s very well done and feels authentic and natural. I prefer the more comedic, heightened dialogue of Diablo Cody but this is executed well.

I do have some negatives for Lady Bird. First, I did not feel the second boyfriend played by Timothee Chalamet worked. He didn’t feel authentic or real to a high school student and it was just bland. Perhaps this is because I loved Lucas Hedges’ raw performance so much that the new boyfriend fell flat? I’m not sure, but I didn’t like those scenes.

Also the movie should have ended with her leaving for college. Instead it goes on for another 15 minutes or so and this was anticlimactic. They had the perfect ending and stretched it on too long. I don’t know if I completely bought Lady Bird, with her personality, going for the popular girl either and leaving her best friend for a time. That didn’t quite feel true.

But that’s about it on the negatives. Lady Bird is worth your while if you like coming of age films and certainly if you are raising a teenager watch it! It will be very cathartic for you!

Overall Grade- B

Lady Bird is rated R for some sensuality, drug use but mostly language. It is fine for teenagers.

We Love You, Sally Carmichael! Review

Today I had a fun experience! I got to attend a movie premiere- red carpet and all. It was just a little local film but it was still a fun experience to see the cast and have them introduce the film called We Love You Sally Carmichael! Fortunately it also turned out to be a fun little romcom to boot. This is a small local film but it is not a faith-based film, so anyone who likes romcoms will enjoy it.

The is directed by Christopher Gorham who also stars as Simon Hayes. He is an author with social anxiety who has written a huge best selling romantic teen novel series similar to Twilight (the digs at Stephanie Meyer and Twilight were very obvious but tastefully done). Because of his anxiety, Simon chooses to write under a pseudonym Sally Carmichael. He is also embarrassed by the lightness of the novels and their popularity.

Things get messy for Simon when he writes a scathing rebuke of the series in a local newspaper as a favor for a woman named Tess (Bitsie Tulloch). To make matters worse, a big name star named Perry (Sebastian Roche) comes into town who the studio wants to star in the movie adaptation of the series.

We Love You, Sally Carmichael doesn’t reinvent the wheel but it consistently made me laugh especially Roche as the very weird movie star. Tulloch and Gorham have winning chemistry and it all works out to be a charming film.

The liar reveal plot is a bit of a groaner but the cast and laughs more than make up for it. I really enjoyed it and it is so rare that I like a comedy these days. This is one you can take the entire family and they will all have a good time. Imagine that! It’s as squeaky clean as they come!

Overall Grade- B+

Christine Review

christineToday I had a little gap of time and decided to see the indie film Christine, and I’m glad I did. This is a film by Antonio Campos about the real life story of Christine Chubbuck who committed suicide on live news television.

As you might guess this is a pretty grim, tragic film and I appreciate that writer Craig Shilowich did not add an ounce of sentimentality to the events of Christine. There is no soaring music as we get to the inevitable event and we are not emotionally manipulated in any way.

christine4The most interesting thing about Christine, played by Rebecca Hall, is she’s at once sympathetic and unlikable at the same time. There is nothing cloying or patronizing about the way her mental illness is depicted here. Often she wants to do do good things but she struggles to convey those desires in ways that others can accept. She’s not surrounded by jerk-offs like you might expect. Quite the contrary. Pretty much everyone is trying to love Christine in the ways they know how. It’s difficult because she is very tough to love.

christine2As a reporter Christine struggles with the idea of writing ‘juicier stories’. She wants to interview strawberry pickers and happy couples but they aren’t the stories that sell. Oddly enough she fantasizes about interviewing Richard Nixon but then most of her pieces are kind of fluffy feeling. She buys a police scanner and follows a fire but then does a fairly conventional story on the man who lights the fire. I completely saw where her boss was coming from on that one.

Many try to reach out to Christine but it all feeds her mania more than stopping it. One example is her office crush George, played by Michael C Hall, who she thinks is taking her on a date but it actually a Scientology like therapy session. He’s not trying to be mean. He’s genuinely trying to be helpful but it is one more shame she has to deal with in her life.

christine5Christine’s mother played by J Smith-Cameron was very good because Christine wants to be mothered as a little girl but also wants them to be equals as adults. She’s also very critical of all of her Mother’s choices including who she dates and how she lives her life. On the other hand, her Mother knows Christine’s mental health history and can tell something bad is coming.

All of those character aspects really work in Christine. Also you get a great sense of the 1970s in both the music and production design. Especially in the last hour tension is built like a ticking time bomb inside Christine’s head ready to explode. I’ve dealt with anxiety and I really thought they captured that feeling without being patronizing or annoying.

The one flaw with the movie is it could try to teach a small lesson. It does leave the viewer kind of empty. I don’t need much preaching but just a moment maybe at a funeral or something to think about her life and how we can do better might have been nice.

Also, the first hour could have been a little bit tighter. There were a few sequences when she is working at the newsroom where I grew bored and started to yawn. However, once the second hour starts it really becomes compelling stuff leading up to the suicide.

This is an extremely mild R rating with just a handful of F words said by Christine’s boss. I definitely think it is worth seeing as a cautionary tale for those of us deal with and live with friends with mental illness. We all need to be aware of these diseases and reach out to folks in the right kind of ways.

Overall Grade- B

Hell or High Water Review

 

I realized today that I hadn’t posted a review on the blog for a little bit. Sorry about that. I guess I have been favoring the youtube channel without realizing it. I usually try and keep it pretty even. I am trying to get to 1,000 subs on my youtube channel so if you haven’t checked it out give it a look.

Well, let’s talk about a film I have not reviewed on my channel- the western heist movie Hell or High Water. This is isn’t my favorite kind of movie but I can’t deny that it is basically perfectly executed.

I have not seen any other films by David Mackenzie but he does a tremendous job capturing a sense of place and tone and getting you to root for both the good guys and the bad guys.

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The film is about 2 brothers, Toby and Tanner who are robbing small banks in current day Texas in order to get enough money to pay off a lien on their mother’s property following her death. Oil has been discovered on the land and they have a small amount of time to pay the debt or the bank will take the land.

Toby, played by Chris Pine, wants to make life better for his estranged sons and Tanner, played by Ben Foster, is recently released from prison after killing their abusive father.

hell-or-highwaterJeff Bridges is fantastic as Marcus a nearly-retired sheriff looking into the robberies with his partner Alberto. Marcus is a little bit racist but there is always something about him that you like. He gives Alberto a very hard time about his Native American and Mexican background but you know all along he loves his partner. Gil Birmingham is so good as Alberto.

Toby has planned out the heists masterfully well but Tanner is a bit of a lug so things don’t go completely to plan. This draws the viewer in and helps it not feel predictable. Plus, all 4 of the leads feel like real people who could actually exist and talk and act the way they do.

I don’t want to give much away but it is so well paced without a wasted scene. Ben Foster makes me almost want to forgive him for Warcraft he’s so good as the crazy stupid of the two brothers. Chris Pine feels authentic and real in the role of Toby who at times you want to smack because he knows better. It all works. It seems like the way things might actually go down in small town Texas with everything from the waitresses to the cars feeling right.

I guess if I was going to fault the film some of the things the sheriff doesn’t look into with the lien on the boys property seemed a little puzzling. With them robbing banks and the bank being kind of the true villain of the film it wouldn’t have been hard to figure out the boys motivations, but it’s a small quibble in a very tight script.

This is an R rated film mostly for language with some violence and sensuality. Hell or High Water won’t be for everyone but if you want to watch an extremely well made, acted and written movie it shouldn’t be missed.

Overall Grade- A

Hunt for the Wilderpeople Review

hunt for the wilderpeopleRecently I had the chance to see Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, a mockumentary about vampires. If there is anything that is more tired than mockumentaries and vampires I don’t know what it is. Even so, I laughed my head off. So I was pretty excited going into Waititi’s latest film Hunt for the Wilderpeople.  I saw it tonight and I loved it but I really didn’t laugh that much. It felt like more of a drama to me with moments of humor.

Film Review Hunt For The WilderpeopleHunt for the Wilderpeople reminded me a little bit of last years Walk in the Woods but with a better script. Both are about people escaping modern world into the woods for several months, following their journeys.

To be more specific,  it’s a pretty simple story. A child named Ricky is taken in as a foster child by a couple in New Zealand. Then tragedy occurs and Ricky and his foster Dad or “Uncle Hec” as he’s called go on the run into the bush escaping the law. They meet eccentric characters and face challenges as they are pursued by child protection officers and others seeking a reward.

There are funny moments with the dialogue and some of the crazy people they meet but like I said I was more chuckling than roaring with laughter. HuntfortheWilderpeopleBut I really liked these characters and I liked seeing them grow and change together. It was sweet and heart-warming. I like that they never really softened them up that much. You saw growth but it felt natural and believable instead of cornball material it could have been.

The performances from Julian Dennison as Ricky and Sam Neill as Uncle Hec are wonderful and they have chemistry despite not getting along at first. They were people I was rooting for and wanted to see them succeed.

It’s also a beautiful movie with cinematography that will make you want to go to New Zealand! I also really liked the score and other music used.

If you are looking for a film that will make you smile with likable characters than Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a good choice. I really enjoyed it. I just thought it was more of a drama than a comedy, but that’s not a bad thing.

Overall Grade- B+

Here’s the trailer