A Marvelous Widow

Eleven years is a long time to wait for a character finally to be given its due in a stand-alone movie. While Ironman, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk all had their own starring vehicles before The Avengers, Black Widow only appeared in a supporting role in Iron Man 2 before that team-up, which truly secured the Marvel Universe’s box office power. True, she had more screen time than Hawkeye’s cameo in Thor, but the downside was the sexist nature of the role. Captain America: The Winter Soldier solidified Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow as an integral part of the Universe, while her sacrifice during Endgame was devastating, even as it fulfilled the character’s arc. But through these past eleven years fans have continued to clamor for a stand-alone movie.

Now after that long wait, extended by over a year because of COVID, Black Widow finally gets her due. It’s not so much that the film’s time has come as the field was plowed in preparation for this seed to grow. When Marvel began its own conquest of the theaters, after having its most popular characters (Spider Man, the X-Men) make millions for Sony and Fox respectively, there was resistance to the idea of a female superhero. One of the emails released in the Sony hack years ago was a mucky-much at Marvel saying a female superhero would never work. Then came Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, which blew that prejudice to dust. Captain Marvel did a similar service for the Marvel Universe and marked the first time a woman helmed a Marvel film with Anna Boden co-directed and co-writing the script with her partner Ryan Fleck. That opened the way for Black Widow, and for it to be directed by Australian director Cate Shortland.

The film begins by expanding on Natasha’s backstory. We meet the pre-teen Natasha sporting blue-dyed hair and living in Ohio in the early 1990s with her “family”: blond younger sister Yelena, mother Melina (Rachel Weisz), and father Alexi (David Harbour). We soon learn it’s all a front, a KGB created family to give Alexi cover while he steals research from SHIELD and deliver it to Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the head of the Red Room where female agents are trained to be Widows. They barely make it out of the US to Cuba, with Natasha having to step in to save them all when Melina is injured. The reward for Natasha and Yelena’s service is to be put into the Widow program.

Twenty-one years later, Natasha (Johansson) is laying low in Europe after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Secretary of State Ross (William Hurt) is gunning for her, but she stays several steps ahead of him. At the same time, Yelena (Florence Pugh) is part of a team of Widows going after one of their own who’s gone rogue. Yelena mortally wounds the woman, only to have her release Red Dust from a vial. It’s the antidote for the Widows, releasing them from the mind control drug that forced them to obey Dreykov’s orders. Yelena gathers the other vials and flees.

Mason (O-T Fagbenle), a longtime contact of Natasha’s, sets her up with a safehouse in Scandinavia. He also delivers a box filled with mail from the safe house in Budapest that Natasha had used. Natasha and Hawkeye mentioned Budapest a couple of times in previous films, and we learn that the operation they worked there was the assassination of Dreykov. Mixed in with the mail is a box containing the Red Dust vials. Natasha is ambushed by the Taskmaster, a relentless assassin who’s after the chemical, but the Black Widow manages to escape with the vials. She heads for the Budapest safe house where she finds Yelena in residence. Yelena lets Natasha know that Dreykov is still alive and running the Red Room from a secret location. To find it, they will need the help of Melina and Alexi. All the while the Taskmaster hunts them all.

Black Widow is one of the most grounded of the Marvel Universe movies, since its main characters aren’t so much superheroes as people with preternatural skills. Rather than massive amounts of computer graphic special effects, much of the movie is good ol’ stunt work. One of the best set pieces is a car and motorcycle chase through the streets of Budapest with camerawork that puts you in the middle of the action.
Shortland, though, isn’t just interested in action. The movie focuses on character development, particularly of Natasha, Melina, and Yelena, and mines a good amount of humor as well. Yelena kids Natasha for being a “poser” for doing her classic landing crouch. They also bond over a vest that Yelena has because it has a tremendous number of pockets. This is a movie that not only passes the Bechdel test (whether a movie can have two women characters who talk about something other than the male lead), but it may be the first superhero movie to win that test with its female-centered cast. The good news is, while Shortland is the first woman to solo direct a Marvel film, she won’t be the last; Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao is putting the finishing touches on The Eternals, due out later this year.

The movie owes much to the spy films of the ‘60s and ‘70s with double-crosses and triple-crosses galore, but that keeps the story moving at a breakneck speed throughout its 2¼ hour running time. Black Widow easily slips in near the top of the Marvel Universe, on the same level as The Winter Soldier and Black Panther. It was a long time coming, but it is a joy that it has finally arrived.    

The Way The World Ends

I’ve always had a soft spot for disaster movies. I remember being fascinated by When Worlds Collide as a kid, and then Irwin Allen switched from TV to films with The Poseidon Adventure, ushering in the all-star cast disaster flicks of the 1970s with films like The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, and the Airport sequels. Those devolved into the parody of the Airplane movies, and the title of Allen’s last theatrical film in 1980, When Time Runs Out, pretty much summed up the state of the disaster film. It came back in the 1990s, with Independence Day in 1996, then two years of seeing double in 1997 (Volcano & Dante’s Peak) and 1998 (Armageddon & Deep Impact). Roland Emmerich, who did Independence Day, would continue the genre in the new century with The Day After Tomorrow, and then go way over the top with 2012. But mixed in there you have some more realistic disaster films like Twister, the exceptional Norwegian film The Wave, an Australian film called These Final Hours, the variation on found footage films, Into The Storm, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s thrill ride San Andreas. They counted more on the story than on the cast to get people into the theatres. The film Greenland, now available on HBO & HBO Max, follows in that mold.

Atlanta-based structural engineer John Garrity (Gerard Butler) has been estranged from his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) following an affair, but he’s trying to reconcile. He’s invited back home to join with his son, Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) and the family’s neighbors for a watch party as a comet called Clark is passing close by the Earth and it’s expected some shards may enter the atmosphere. When John and Nathan run to the store for some supplies before the party, they notice the sky filled with transport jets flying north. While in the store, John gets a robocall from Homeland Security telling him he and his family have been preselected and to stand by.

They return to the house to find it full of their neighbors, gathered to watch the expected impact of a piece of the comet in the Atlantic. There’s a countdown, but no impact appears on the TV. Then John hears something strange outside. He goes out and sees a mass migration of birds – and then he’s knocked to the ground and windows are shattered when a shockwave hits. Running inside, he learns that a miles-wide piece has struck near Tampa, wiping out most of central Florida. With the impact, the truth is finally release – Clark is on a direct path to hit the earth. It had broken into many pieces over the eons it orbited, so there are many smaller impacts expected. In two days though, the main piece of the comet will hit, causing an extinction level event. Another call comes from Homeland Security, telling John to take Allison and Nathan and get to Warner Robbins AFB by nine that night. At the base, the evacuation goes FUBAR in the most spectacular way and the family is separated. But John manages to learn where the evacuees were being taken – Cold War-era nuclear bunkers in Greenland.

This is like a realistic mashup of Armageddon and Deep Impact without the fiction of a space mission that could offer any hope. People act like people – some surprise you while others confirm a person’s worse fears about humanity. As John makes his way from the base to where he hopes he’ll find Allison and Nathan, he sees looters in stores, people praying on the streets, and a party happening on top of a parking garage as people watch shards slice through the atmosphere and impact nearby. There are good people and bad, and some of the bad convince themselves that they are good.

Butler has one other disaster film to his credit, 2017’s Geostorm, which I have tried very hard to forget. As contrived and awful that film was, Greenland is the opposite, a meditation on the human spirit fighting to survive against overwhelming odds. While the comet may be coming from outer space, the story remains grounded and realistic. The three main actors do well to react in a relatable way. It would have been easy for Floyd, as the youngest member of the cast, to slip into an annoying tone, but that doesn’t happen. There’s also an effective turn by Scott Glenn as Allison’s father, facing the end with a rugged stoicism.

Director Ric Roman Waugh started as a stuntman, and he knows how to put together action sequences so they are thrilling. Working from an original script by Chris Sparling, the story is a fight for survival told as a hell of a road trip. It doesn’t try to tell a big story like Armageddon or Deep Impact, but instead focuses on three humans that you care about, and it tells that story effectively.

Wished For More

Taylor Sheridan had a decent career as an actor, including recurring roles in both “Veronica Mars” and “Sons of Anarchy.” Then in 2015 he switched to behind the camera, writing the excellent and intricate thriller Sicario. He followed that up with the modern western outlaw flick Hell or High Water, then both wrote and directed Wind River with Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen. Wind River was more contemplative than the propulsive action of the previous two films. Sheridan had written the movie about a murder on a Wyoming reservation, only to discover when they started filming that it mirrored actual unsolved cases. He incorporated details of those crimes into the film. Sheridan also created the series “Yellowstone” and wrote most of its episodes. The sequel to Sicario, Day of the Soldado, was a misfire, and his recent participation in Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse made me no longer consider his name on a production to be a positive, but I did want to see how he would do both co-writing and directing another outdoor crime thriller, Those Who Wish Me Dead. What is on the screen has its moments, but it’s not much more than an extended TV episode.

In a return to action flicks eleven years after the decent Salt and the abysmal The Tourist, Angelina Jolie plays Hannah, an experienced smokejumper who’s now grounded, working for the Forest Service in a fire lookout tower in Montana. She’s haunted by a fire her crew tackled that went very bad, leading to several deaths. Reunited with several of her firefighting team, she tries recreating a stunt she’d done before – parachuting off the back of a speeding truck – but it doesn’t go well and only raises the ire of Ethan (Jon Bernthal), a deputy sheriff married to Allison (Medina Senghore), who runs a wilderness survival training camp.

In Florida, Jack (Aiden Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult), a two-man hit team, take out a prosecutor and then sets their sights on Owen (Jake Weber), an accountant who’s the main witness against crime boss Arthur (Tyler Perry). Owen learns of the prosecutor’s death and goes on the run with his son, Connor (Finn Little), heading to Montana and Ethan, whom Owen trusts as they are related. The killers, though, discover where the father and son are headed and race ahead of them, setting a trap. While Jack and Patrick get Owen, Connor escapes into the woods, where he’s found by Hannah. She must use all her skills to evade the killers.

The camera still loves Jolie, and she can still handle an action scene convincingly. However, she’s not served by the weak script. The movie’s based on a novel by Michael Koryta, who collaborated on the script with Sheridan and Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond, In The Heart of the Sea) At a run time of 1:40, including the credits, not much thought is given to developing the characters beyond stereotypes. Tyler Perry is completely wasted as Arthur, with one short scene that might as well have been a phone conversation with its lack of tension. Owen’s predicament is only developed in the briefest way, and how the killers decide where he’s headed strains credulity. With Jolie’s Hannah, it feels like we’re being fed more filler than meat.

An exception is Medina Senghore’s Allison, who is believable at the pregnant survival expert who becomes the worst nightmare for Jack and Patrick. Bernthal, though, is essentially neutered by the script. He’s still interesting to watch, but you long for him to have more to do, especially if you’ve seen his work in The Accountant, Baby Driver, Ford vs. Ferrari, or “The Punisher” series on Netflix. Hoult is a bland generic bad guy as Patrick, though Aiden Gillen is a bit more interesting. Still, in comparison to his Game of Thrones role, Littlefinger, Aiden’s Jack is a marshmallow.

The story and the poster promise a forest fire sequence, which creates the climax of the film. What you get is okay, but nowhere near the intensity or full realization that was done in Only The Brave. If Those Who Wish Me Dead were made 60 years ago, it would have been the B film of a double feature – something for the audience to enjoy, but not the main draw. With this cast though, you expect much more, and Those Who Wish Me Dead doesn’t deliver it. 

Promise Kept

One reason I hated the COVID-19 pandemic was it kept me from seeing Promising Young Woman in the theater. The movie generated remarkable buzz, and it was rewarded with 5 Oscar nominations, including Best Actress for Carey Mulligan, Best Picture, and Best Director for Emerald Fennell, setting up a first in Oscar history where two women were nominated in the same year in that category, with Chloe Zaou eventually taking the trophy. While it got shut out in those awards, it did pick up a Best Original Screenplay award for Fennell, which was richly deserved.

By day, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) works a mind-numbing job at a coffee shop. Her manager, Gail (Laverne Cox from “Orange is the New Black”), recognizes her intelligence and wants her to apply for a better position in the company, but Cassie isn’t interested. She’s living at home with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown) who aren’t quite sure what to do about their daughter as she reaches her 30th birthday. At night, though, Cassie goes out to bars in the city and acts like she’s drunk out of her skull, waiting for a man to pick her up, take her back to his apartment, and start to rape her. They’re then freaked out when Cassie reveals she’s completely sober and challenges them on what they’re doing. She keeps a notebook of their names and color-coded tally marks on whether they made their move while she seemed to be asleep or whether they woke her up. As Cassie tells a later victim, every time she goes out, there’s always a man ready to take advantage of her. Always.

We learn Cassie was deeply damaged while in medical school when Nina, her best friend since she was four, was repeatedly raped by another student while others watched. Because Nina was drunk when the attack happened, she was faced with victim shaming and doubting of her testimony. She tried to pursue the case in court, only to be destroyed by the student’s lawyer. Cassie dropped out to take care of her friend, but Nina couldn’t recover and committed suicide. It leads Cassie to go after predators who would take advantage of women like Nina, filling those men with enough fear that they’d never approach another woman in the same way again. 

Then a chance encounter with Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former med school classmate who is now a pediatric surgeon, seems to give Cassie a chance at happiness. His sense of humor and decency manages to crack open her protective shell. But then Ryan casually reveals that the man who raped Nina and then moved to England following the case was now back in town, working as an anesthesiologist at one of the hospitals and engaged to be married to a woman described as a swimsuit model. Cassie pursues a decidedly personal form of vengeance against not only the doctor who assaulted Nina but also their former best friend in school who wouldn’t support Nina, the dean of students who did nothing when the assault was reported, and the lawyer who murdered Nina’s character in the court case.

Carey Mulligan communicates Cassie’s intimidating intelligence and her obsession to turn the tables on those who exploit women, even when that person is another woman. There’s a strong physicality in her performance. Early on, Cassie is walking home when a couple of construction workers start harassing her verbally from across the street. Cassie doesn’t run or respond verbally; she simply stares them down as if she were looking at bugs, then when they retreat, she continues walking.

While a revenge story is usually heavy and serious, Fennell’s witty and sharply-observed script leavens the story with unexpected humor. Yet it also packs a wallop. When she faces Nina’s rapist, he whines, “It’s every man’s worst nightmare, getting accused of something like that,” to which Cassie responds, “Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?” The story twists in surprising directions, taking the usual tropes of a revenge story and creating something new and fresh.

The supporting cast is exceptional, with Adam Brody and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as two of Cassie’s encounters, Alison Brie and Connie Britton as people who betrayed Nina and find themselves targeted by Cassie, and Molly Shannon as Nina’s mother. There’s also an exceptional scene with an uncredited Alfred Molina as the lawyer who had destroyed Nina in court only to suffer a breakdown from all his work enabling predators.

As Promising Young Woman builds to an unexpected and powerful climax, it strips away all the rationales and justifications to reveal predators who would never under normal circumstances ever think they fit that profile. In this way, it is a near perfect film to capture the age of #MeToo.

The Realism of the Absurd

COVID-19 essentially destroyed the box office for films last year. Four of the top 10 grossing movies were hold-overs from December 2019 (1917, Star Wars IX, Jumanji – the Next Level, and Little Women) and the other six (Bad Boys for Life, Sonic the Hedgehog, Birds of Prey, Doolittle, The Invisible Man and The Call of the Wild) were all released in January or February. After that, limited release became the rule, if a film could be released at all. Movies that were tied in with streaming services like Nomadland (Hulu) and Mank (Netflix) were seen but didn’t have traditional box office business. Warner Brothers’ deal with HBO Max let their movies get out, even though it meant Wonder Woman ’84 grossed 1/35th of the box office of the original. One movie that isn’t even on the top 200 box office list for 2020 is now available for rent on Amazon or to stream free with Amazon Prime. It may be the perfect comedy to sum up the past pandemic year.

Spontaneous is a blend of teen comedy and absurdist theater – John Hughes meets Eugene Ionescu, with a bit of Quentin Tarantino thrown in for good measure. Mara (Katherine Langford) is a high school senior who doesn’t have many plans for post-graduation, except maybe to live on a beach with her best friend Tess (Hayley Law). Then one day in a class, the girl who sits in front of Mara explodes. “Like a bomb?” Tess asks when Mara tells her what happened. “No, like…a balloon?” Mara responds.

At first it seems like a bizarre, isolated event that is processed by other students in different ways. While Mara and Tess are at a coffee shop, classmate Dylan (Charlie Plummer) joins them. He’s liked Mara from a distance for a while, but the possibility of death spurs him to ask her out. Dylan is a sweet slacker with an ironic sense of humor that matches Mara’s, and they become close. But then another of the class explodes, leading the authorities to send in FBI agent Rosetti (Yvonne Orji) to investigate. When a brother/sister pair blow while driving, with Mara in the car with them, medical teams descend to isolate the class while the doctors seek a way to stop more of them from turning into puddles of blood.

It should be noted the explosions are usually not shown. You hear a loud pop and see a spray of blood, but it’s actually fairly restrained in comparison to some movies. Mara and Dylan handle what’s happening by playing off the absurdity of the situation. When hazmat suited doctors put them into isolation, separated by plastic walls, they re-enact the similar scene in E.T. – The Extraterrestrial between Elliot and E.T. Eventually the deaths hit too close for Mara, and she spirals into a dark place before finally managing to climb back out.

Spontaneous is the first directing gig for screenwriter Brian Duffield (Underwater, The Babysitter), which he adapted from a novel by Aaron Starmer. Duffield uses Mara as the narrator as well as main character, occasionally breaking the fourth wall to have her address the audience directly within a scene. It’s done sparingly, and actually works quite well.

Langford looks completely different from her turn as Toni Collette’s daughter in Knives Out last year, and she carries the picture with panache. Hayley Law’s mostly been on TV with recurring roles in “Riverdale” and “Altered Carbon.” She projects more depth than you usually get in the “best friend” role. Plummer’s role could have easily slipped over the top into parody, but he keeps it grounded and you believe his relationship with Mara. There’s also a nice turn by Piper Perabo and Ron Huebel as Mara’s worried but supportive parents.

In light of COVID-19, Spontaneous takes on a bit more resonance than it would have in a normal year. (An unexplainable condition striking people without any rhyme or reason, while the medical team struggles to find answers? Yeah, sounds familiar.) Yet in a way it leads to a triumphant moment by the end of the film. In a normal year, Spontaneous might have been a sleeper hit with its cockeyed humor. If you’re looking for something different than what you usually find to watch, Spontaneous will fit the bill.

With Remorse

For a while, Tom Clancy ruled the thriller genre. Like Robert Ludlum before him, Clancy wasn’t originally on the path to being a full-time writer. Ludlum had been a stage actor and producer before he began writing thrillers, while Clancy was an insurance agent. His first book was published by a small press that specialized in naval matters who paid him $5000. That book, The Hunt for Red October, became a phenomenon that fit in perfectly with the mindset of the Reagan White House, and its hero, Jack Ryan, became as much of a hit in print and in the movies as Ludlum’s Jason Bourne.

One of Clancy’s more interesting side characters was the CIA operative Mr. Clark, who had been a SEAL by the name of John Kelly before joining the agency. Clark had appeared as a secondary character in several Clancy books before he stepped to center stage in Without Remorse. The origin story of how Clark became a shadow warrior was set during the Vietnam War and involved Clark’s vigilante war against heroin dealers in Baltimore after they injure him and kill a person he was helping. He also undertakes a secret mission to rescue POWs in North Vietnam. It was one of Clancy’s better books with propulsive action and a twisty plot.

Now Amazon has brought out a movie titled Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse, starring Michael B. Jordan as Clark. (He’d previously been played by both Willem Defoe and Liev Schreiber.) I’ve enjoyed Jordan’s acting ever since I first noticed him in the 2012 found-footage superhero movie Chronicle, though he was a veteran by then, playing recurring characters on “The Wire,” “All My Children,” “Friday Night Lights,” and “Parenthood.” With his performances in Fruitvale Station, Creed, and Just Mercy, as well as his mesmerizing turn as Killmonger in Black Panther, Jordan has become a major star. When I first heard about Without Remorse and that Jordan would play the lead, I was ecstatic. I anxiously awaited its release, which happened this past weekend.

To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement of vast proportion. This is definitely NOT Tom Clancy’s “Without Remorse,” regardless of the title. Amazon tossed everything else in the trash, except for a SEAL with the operational name Clark and a couple of name-checks of Clancy’s other characters. Instead, they grafted the name onto a generic action flick that has Clark and the SEAL team, under the leadership of Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith), getting mixed up in a firefight in Syria with Russian Spetsnaz. The mission had been arranged by the CIA, and Clark thinks their contact, Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell), set them up. Back in the US while the team is off duty, the Russians retaliate, taking out a couple of the SEALS before coming after Clark. Clark’s pregnant wife Pam (Lauren London) is killed, but Clark manages to kill all the attackers except their leader. After he recovers from his wounds, Clark goes after the leader. After he executes a Russian diplomat who provided a link to his wife’s murderer, Clark is arrested. However, the Secretary of Defense (Guy Pearce) gets Clark released to pursue the Russian via a covert mission into Russia.

I have to apologize because the above summation sort of makes sense. That’s more than I can say for the movie. There are action sequences galore, with plenty of explosions, mostly to hide the script’s hackneyed, pedestrian ploting. It surprised me, since one of the writers credited is Taylor Sheridan who wrote Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River, all excellent films I enjoyed thoroughly. I can only think that a major portion of the script came from co-writer Will Staples, whose previous work was on video games and a couple of episodes on so-so TV series. Sheridan has another movie coming out this weekend that he both wrote and directed – Those Who Wish Me Dead, with Angelina Jolie – and I’m hopeful that it will remove the bad taste that Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse has left in my mouth.

While Amazon did okay with the first season of “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” the second season was a disappointment. Maybe if they’d gone the limited series route with “Without Remorse,” even if they had to update the story with a newer war than Vietnam, they could have done an adaptation worthy of the book. As it stands now, though, Clancy’s books should be left to be read while Hollywood looks for something fresh. The movie versions have passed their due date.

See You Down The Road

The movies of the 1930s mostly offered an escape from the reality of the Depression, with musicals or comedies or gangster pics. The movie goer would plunk down their couple of dimes or a quarter and escape the plight of the country for a double-feature with a newsreel and maybe a cartoon or a short. It wasn’t until the end of that decade and the beginning of the 1940s that movies started addressing the devastation of the Depression in films like Tobacco Road, Sullivan’s Travels, and Meet John Doe. As decades separated the pain of that experience from the current world, films felt free to explore that time. Movies like Bound for Glory, Seabiscuit, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Paper Moon, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and many more could deal with the Depression from the safe distance of a half-century or more.

One of the first to deal with that time in a powerful way was 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel from the previous year. Henry Fonda gave a career-defining performance as everyman Tom Joad, leaving the Dust Bowl-devastated Oklahoma with his family to become itinerant farm workers in California, traveling to follow the harvest times. Directed by John Ford, the cinematography by the great Gregg Toland evoked the realistic Depression-era photographs of Dorothea Lange.

In 2008, the stock market again tanked as the housing bubble burst, and while the Great Recession wasn’t quite as stark as the Great Depression, the devastation people faced was just a real, and as long-term. In 2017, Jessica Bruder detailed how older Americans who’d lost their homes adopted a transient lifestyle similar to what happened in the 1930s. “Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century” detailed how the golden years for many seniors had turned into “the wander years,” as the New York Times Book Review put it. Now the story has been brought to the screen in a truly remarkable way.

The movie begins in Empire, Nevada, a company town that existed to support the US Gypsum plant located there. The company’s main product is dry board for construction, and in 2011, in the wake of the end of the housing boom, the company closed the plant. Within 6 months, Empire became a modern ghost town, with its zip code retired by the U.S. Postal Service. We meet Fern (Frances McDormand) at her storage locker as she loads some belongings into her 2001 Ford Econoline van and heads out on the road. Empire had been her world, the place where she’d buried her husband, and now it was gone.

What follows in Chloe Zhao’s starkly beautiful film is a mixture of cinema verité and narrative story, following Fern as she travels between jobs and learns how to survive on the road. The jobs become a part of the story, be it filling orders at Amazon during the Christmas season, cooking at a restaurant in Wall Drugstore, or maintaining an RV park. McDormand actually did the jobs and spent time living in the van. There are also gatherings of nomads such as one in Arizona that provide a support system.

Zhao and McDormand were accepted into the nomad community, with several playing themselves. There’s input from Bob Wells, who calls himself a vandweller and is essentially an expert on the nomad life – you can watch videos he’s done explaining the lifestyle on YouTube – but you also get to know people like Linda and Swankie. Except for McDormand and one or two others, everyone who appears on screen goes by their real names. (Some of the nomads didn’t recognize McDormand and treated Fern as a real person.)

The one other professional actor in the film is David Strathairn, playing the role of – no surprise – David, who becomes close to Fern over the course of the year. David has been on the road for a while, but while he and Fern are working at Wall Drug, his son tracks him down. The son and his wife are about to have a child and would like David to be part of their life. Fitting with the film, David’s son is played by Strathairn’s son, Tay.

A major character in the film is the country itself, and Zhao captures its beauty, be it the high desert of Nevada, the Badlands of South Dakota, or the California coast. Nomadland has both the elegiac tone of loss, blended with a fierce determination to carry on regardless of what happens. In a way it evokes the spirit of the westerns, with vans substituting for Conestoga wagons pulled by horses.

Nomadland has, as of this writing, collected over 200 awards from critics and film societies, including Golden Globes for Best Picture and Best Director. For the upcoming Oscars, it has already made some history. McDormand, who also produced the film, is nominated for Best Actress along with the film’s Best Picture nod – the first actress to receive those two nominations for a picture. It also received four other nominations, for Direction, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, and Cinematography. While the cinematography was done by Joshua James Richards, the other three nominations are for Zhao (along with a Best Picture nomination for producing). She’s the third person, and the first woman, to receive nominations in all those categories. The other two people? Joel and Ethan Coen, McDormand’s husband and brother-in-law, respectively. One other bit of trivia – this is the first year that two women are nominated in the Best Director category, with Zhao being joined by Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman.

Even without the award nominations, the film is a remarkable achievement. It lets the audience step inside the nomad world, to become involved with the people, to laugh with them and to cry with them. When the gatherings of nomads break up, they don’t say goodbye but rather “See you down the road.” After seeing the film, you may find yourself watching for them – down the road.

A Rainey Day

Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was born in Columbus, GA, in 1886, and was a contemporary and mentor of Bessie Smith. While Smith was known as the Empress of the Blues, Rainey was known as its mother who bridged the gap between early vaudeville and the true expression of southern blues.  With the Great Migration of Blacks from the South to the North, Midwest, and West, a market was created for Blues music. Paramount Records, founded by the Wisconsin Chair Company in 1917, signed some of the most important blues artists of the day and between 1922 and 1932, they released about a quarter of all the “race records” (as they were called at the time). It was a lucrative business, though Paramount couldn’t survive the depression and closed in ’32. Ma Rainey continued performing until her death in 1939 at age 53. As their nicknames show, Bessie Smith could be viewed as the champaign and strawberries of the Blues, while Ma Rainey was the meat, potatoes, and beer – a person who lived the blues with ferocity and unbowed pride. While there are thousands of pictures of Smith, only 6 pictures of Ma Rainey remain.

Playwright August Wilson broadened the knowledge of Ma Rainey beyond historians of the blues with his first Broadway play in 1984, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” It was the first of what became known as the Pittsburgh Cycle, 10 plays each set in a different decade of the 20th century exploring the Black experience. (“Ma Rainey” was the only play of the cycle not to be set in Pittsburgh.) The cycle contained several other excellent plays, including “Fences,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” and “The Piano Lesson.” Set in 1927, “Ma Rainey” spoke to the early days of the Great Migration as rural Blacks left behind the world of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan to seek a better life, only to discover the rest of the country had its own version of segregation. Now the play has followed “Fences” to movie screens so more people can enjoy the brilliance of Wilson’s writing.

The story begins with brief views of Ma Rainey performing earlier in her career, first in a tent in the south and then in a full theater, before switching to a hot summer at a recording studio in Chicago. Her manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), has brought Ma (Viola Davis) and her band there to do a record, but there’s a definite feeling that she’s now on the downward slope to the end of her career. Her band – trombonist Cutler (Coleman Domingo), pianist Toledo (Glynn Truman), and drummer Slow Drag (Michael Potts) – are comfortable supporting Ma, but trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) has his sights set on his own stardom, propelled by an incident from his childhood that left him scarred. Ma arrives late to the session, accompanied by her young girlfriend Dusie Mae (Taylour Paige) and her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown). The session seems to have many more stops than starts, and it’s questionable if they’ll succeed in making a record.

Director George C. Wolfe comes from the world of Broadway, having first worked with legendary producer Joseph Papp before striking out on his own. Wolfe has shepherded several hits to Broadway, most notably directing both parts of “Angels in America” for which he won Tony awards in 1993 and 1994. While Wolfe knows movie versions of plays require more motion for the picture, he balances the film to retain the theatrical feel, particularly in a couple of standout scenes to retain the musical flow of Wilson’s prose.

The film is anchored by Davis’ performance as Rainey that hits you with the heft of a sledgehammer. Ma knows the record label is exploiting her, and she has no compunction about exploiting them back as far as she can push it. You can see the wear and tear of her dissolute life, but in Davis’ embodiment they become badges of honor. In contrast, Boseman flashes across the screen like a lightning bolt, supremely confident in his musical gift. The cancer that would soon take his life shows in Boseman’s gaunt body, yet he summons a final bravura performance that lights up the screen like a fireworks display.

The story builds to its final, devastating climax, then Wolfe includes a brief coda that gives you a final kick on your way out the door. The film is co-produced by Denzel Washington, who had mounted the Tony-winning revival of “Fences” on Broadway in 2010 and then did the film version 6 years later. Davis won a Tony for the play, then took home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the film. For this year’s Oscars, both Davis and Boseman are nominated. I wouldn’t bet against either or both of them being honored that night.    

The Budding of the Rose

It’s well-known that Hollywood is gloriously incestuous, and loves stories about itself, from 1932’s What Price Hollywood? to La La Land and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. Thus it’s no surprise that the movie that’s cleaned up on Oscar nominations this year is Mank, the Netflix film about the writing of the screenplay for Citizen Kane. It does help, though, that Mank is an excellent piece of filmmaking.

Herman J. Mankiewicz was a fascinating and flawed character. Born in 1897, he was a Columbia graduate who spent time as a foreign correspondent in Berlin just after WWI, then worked at the New York Times as assistant theater editor (to George F. Kaufmann) before joining the New Yorker as their first theater critic. A member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, he socialized (and occasionally collaborated with) the brightest literary stars of the 1920s – Kaufmann, Dorothy Parker, Robert Sherwood, Marc Connelly – and co-wrote a number of plays as well as contributing to the Saturday Evening Post, Vanity Fair, and other publications. In 1927 he was lured west to become head of Paramount Pictures story department where he worked on many screenplays without credit, including the Marx Brothers comedies Horse Feathers and Monkey Business. In 1933, he moved to MGM where he co-wrote the adaptation of the Kaufmann/Edna Ferber play Dinner at Eight. He often contributed to screenplays without credit, including The Wizard of Oz. It was Mankiewicz who wrote much of the opening set in Kansas, and he was the one who suggested filming those scenes in black and white. Mankiewicz recognized the dangers of Naziism early and took a leave from MGM to write a screenplay on Hitler titled “The Mad Dog of Europe.” Even though no studio would produce it, by 1935 Propaganda Minister Goebbels let MGM know that none of their movies could be shown in Germany if Mankiewicz’s name was on it. Mankiewicz sponsored many refugees who fled Nazi Germany before and during WWII.

While you get a taste in Mank of his literary days, the screenplay mainly concentrates on two periods. One is the period in 1939-40 when, after a car accident that broke his leg, Mank (Gary Oldman) began working on Citizen Kane. Producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton), who’d worked with Orson Welles since they founded the Mercury Theater together, brings Mank to a desert inn near Victorville to write, recuperate from his accident, and dry out – Mank indulged regularly and often in alcohol, which one writer of that era called “the writer’s crutch.” RKO had originally hired Mank to work uncredited with Welles so they could portray Welles as a wunderkind – actor, director, and writer. There to help Mank work are Fraulein Freda (Monika Gossman), who serves as maid and cook, and Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), a secretary whose husband is fighting in the Royal Navy.

While Welles always said the story of Citizen Kane was not based on William Randolph Hearst, the involvement of Mankiewicz made that impossible to believe. The story jumps back and forth from Mank writing the script and his MGM days. Mank had spent plenty of time at San Simeon with Hearst (Charles Dance) and Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard). During that time a California gubernatorial had writer and muckraker Upton Sinclair challenged the GOP candidate backed by Mayer and Hearst. The race had a particular note of irony, since years earlier Sinclair had written a novel about a progressive newspaperman fighting against conservative factions to help regular people. Hearst had been the basis for Sinclair’s character. Mank also befriends Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), Hearst’s paramour, star of MGM pictures, and a lover of liquor like Mank.

David Fincher has become one of the pre-eminent film directors of this day, with credits like Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, and Gone Girl. Yet it took him almost a quarter-century to get Mank made. The script was actually written by his father, Jack, a talented writer who had articles published by Smithsonian magazine, Saturday Review, and Reader’s Digest. Jack had written the script in the 1990s, but David couldn’t get backing because he intended to film it in black and white in homage to Citizen Kane. Jack passed away in 2003. In the 2010s, Fincher helped Netflix establish itself with its first major streaming hit, “House of Cards,” and later worked on “Mindhunter.” He entered into a production agreement with the service that gave him the chance to finally make Mank the way he’d envisioned it. Not only was it shot in black and white, but Fincher used microphones from the 1930s to give the picture a sound like classic films, and soundtrack composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross abandoned their usual electronic style to create a classic screen score. Fincher even added the small marks on the print that were used to tell projectionists when to be ready to switch to the next reel.

Gary Oldman had envisioned using extensive prosthetics to make him look like Mankiewicz, like he did for Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, but Fincher wanted a more natural look. Still, Oldman as usual delivers a consummate performance, imbuing Mank with a Shakespearean feel even as it blends comedy and drama. Dance provides a suitable foil as the austere and powerful Hearst, including a devastating climatic scene with Oldman. A delight, though, is the fine performance by Amanda Seyfried as Marion. While she is much younger than Davies in the period of the film – Mankiewicz and Davies were actually the same age – Seyfried’s intelligent, heart-felt embodiment of the character goes a long way to restore Davies, who was in fact nothing like Susan in Kane. (A few years before Kane was released, Davies had retired from films after a twenty year career, including several years when she was the most popular star at MGM. In interviews later in life, Orson Welles stated he felt bad about the portrayal of Susan in light of it being confused with Davies.)

For the upcoming Oscars, Mank has been nominated for the most with 10, including nods for Best Picture as well as for Fincher, Oldman, and Seyfried. That actually puts it one ahead of Citizen Kane’s tally of 9. Hopefully, though, it won’t suffer the same fate as Kane which only won in one category – Best Screenplay. Strangely enough, that was one category in which Mank wasn’t nominated.

One last bit of trivia: In the movie you hear the radio broadcast of the 1940 Oscars where the win for Mankiewicz and Welles is announced. The voice actor for the scene is the host for Turner Classic Movies for the past 20 years, and the grandson of Herman, Ben Mankiewicz.

Take Care

I’ve enjoyed darkly comedic or pitch-black comedy movies since when I was a kid and saw The Wrong Box and The Loved One. Recently there’s been a renaissance in the genre, including last year’s best picture, Parasite. But then we’ve also had Jo Jo Rabbit, Get Out, Knives Out, Ready or Not, The Favourite, The Death of Stalin, and A Simple Favor, among others. Add to that the recent release on Netflix, I Care A Lot.

As with the best in the genre, it takes what could be a serious drama or a straight thriller and pushes it to the edge of farce. In the case of I Care A Lot, it’s people preying of the elderly by having them declared incompetent, becoming their legal guardian with control of their finances, then looting their lives for profit. (It doesn’t even need to be an elderly person, as in the case of Britney Spears who lost control of her life over a decade ago.) While it does happen at times that a court-appointed caretaker is needed to protect an elder, the potential for abuse in the system is broad and easy to exploit.

Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) has a small company providing legal guardianship services. With the help of doctors who can go to court to request guardianship for patients, Marla has built up a base of dozens of clients she “cares” for, which means she can put them in a retirement home, sell their homes, liquidate their assets, and pay herself handsomely. With kickbacks to the doctors and the nursing home administrators, she has complete control over the person, including controlling communication with the outside world and keeping them drugged so they can’t complain. Worse, all of this can be done without any comment from the targeted person or her biological family, who can be denied access to their loved one.

Marla and her assistant/lover, Fran (Eiza Gonzalez), learn of an exceedingly tempting target from Dr. Amos (Alicia Witt). Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) is unmarried, living on her own in a very nice house in an expensive neighborhood. The doctor goes to court and says Jennifer can no longer take care of herself, and Marla has strategically placed herself in the spectator seats so the judge can conveniently call on her to provide guardian services. Then, armed with the judge’s order, Marla swoops in, packs Jennifer off to one of the nursing homes she works with, and proceeds to liquidate Jennifer’s possessions before putting her home on the market. This time, though, Marla has made a mistake. Jennifer Peterson is a false identity assumed by the mother of Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), the kingpin of a Russian crime syndicate. Roman is not happy when he learns what has happened to his mother and being the target of Roman’s displeasure can be lethal.

Writer/Director J Blakeson had done the crime thriller The Disappearance of Alice Creed 12 years ago, which was well received with its tight focus and twisty plot. Since then he directed the so-so adaptation of the YA alien invasion novel The Fifth Wave along with “Gunpowder,” a BBC miniseries on Guy Fawkes starring Kit Harrington, and penned The Descent: Part 2, the kind of sequel no one really wants to see. I Care A Lot, though, has the structure of a crime thriller, just from a wickedly cockeyed perspective, and for the most part he juggles the plot effectively.

What draws you in and keeps you watching is Rosamund Pike’s amoral Marla. She won the 2021 Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy, beating out Kate Hudson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Maria Bakalova (for the 2nd Borat film). It’s her best role since her Gone Girl, with a very different feel. Where her Amy Dunne was an ice queen, Marla is a force of nature, imposing her will on her world. Gonzalez serves as a bit of an anchor on reality for both Marla and the audience. It’s a 180-degree turn from her recent role in Baby Driver as Jon Hamm’s murderous bank robber partner, Darling, and she manages to keep the audience’s sympathy. Dinklage brings a restrained, business-like quality to Lunyov, but the real delight is Dianne Wiest, especially when she lets Marla know just how big a mistake she’s made. The movie makes a serious point about abuses in conservatorships, but it’s also the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. Getting near the end the plot gets bogged down and I was a bit concerned if Blakeson could wrap up the story in a satisfying way. He manages to shoot the story to a higher level just before karma comes calling. Hopefully it won’t take another dozen years for Blakeson to give us another slightly poisonous confection like I Care A Lot.