“Year-end buzz” so much as it exists, is obviously rather messy this year for a variety of obvious reasons, but if there’s any movie that seems to have garnered a critical consensus as one of “the best of the year” it’s Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland.  Pretty much since the movie premiered at the (socially distanced) Venice Film Festival it’s been proclaimed one of the year’s best and the one to watch for award season.  It had a solid trailer and a cool poster, but I must say I was still a little skeptical because Zhao’s last movie The Rider was similarly celebrated and while I didn’t dislike it and thought there was some interesting ideas behind it I ultimately wasn’t really as fascinated by its central character as some critics seemed to be and mostly found its semi-documentary nature to have some clear drawbacks.  So I when I got an opportunity to get in on a limited virtual cinema screening of this I jumped on it but I went into it with cautious optimism more than anything as it was taking a similar yet not identical approach and covered vaguely similar subject matter.

The film follows a woman named Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow who had lived with her husband in a town called Empire, Nevada, which had been almost entirely dependent on a nearby gypsum mine and had essentially been rendered a ghost town when that mine was closed during the recession.  Left essentially homeless, Fern opted to live out of her van and join something of a loose community of outsiders who live out of vehicles and travel to various seasonal jobs that become available throughout the country like Amazon warehouse work during the holidays, grounds keeping at Badlands National park during the summer, and assisting with a potato harvest.  Along the way she meets various other people living a similar lifestyle including a man named David (David Strathairn) as well as some even more colorful figures like Bob (real life van living guru Bob Wells) and a terminally ill woman named Swankie (Charlene Swankie).  Over the course of the film we get a good idea about what Fern’s life is like, how she got to this point, and where it will go from here.

The notion of going off the grid and traveling through the back country has been something of a trope in American culture at least since Huckleberry Finn decided to “light out for the territory” and probably before that.  In literature its given us works like “On the Road,” which posits such a trip as a youthful adventure, in cinema it’s given us stuff like Easy Rider which posits such escape as a rebellion against society, and Albert Brooks’ Lost In America shows such a trip as a misguided yuppie impulse that’s quickly abandoned.  Here we look at people who are living the “life on the road” for reasons that are a bit more influenced by necessity rather than strictly matter of preference but which isn’t entirely forced on the characters either.  In fact much of the film is built around exploring the question of just how much these characters’ lifestyle is forced on them by circumstance and how much it’s something they’re choosing for themselves based on preference and the answer to that is a little complicated.  In the case of Fern you certainly get the impression that she never would have gone down this path if her husband hadn’t died and the Empire, Nevada community hadn’t folded, but she did have other options as well and wasn’t completely forced into living out of a van.

These sorts of semi-documentary slice of life anthropology type movies frequently don’t work for me but when they do work for me they tend to work for me quite a bit.  Zhao’s last movie The Rider was one of the ones that didn’t particularly work for me.  It certainly felt “real” but its story ultimately amounted to little more than a lo-fi redo of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and it didn’t really amount to as much for me as it seemed to for others.  This one worked a lot better for me, partly because it’s road-trip like format was generally more visually engaging but also because Zhao put Frances McDormand at the center of this one instead of a non-actor.  There are non-actors used here in various supporting roles and they do add that aura of authenticity they’re meant to, but McDormand is better positioned to really create a character and show the audiences sides of the character without speaking.  McDormand’s Fern looks authentic in this world and fits in with the non-actors but also manages to really capture the attention of the viewer and take then on an emotional trip with her.

Nomadland is a quiet movie and one that might necessarily be suited to the kind of “Oscar frontrunner” hype that people are putting on it.  It’s not really a movie you can safely recommend to everyone, there are going to be people who don’t really get what this movie is doing and think nothing is happening in it, but it is easier to recommend than some of these kind of movie can be.  I think it might also be kind of a perfectly positioned movie for a movie like 2020 in that it’s a movie that focuses on national hardships but not in a way that feels hopeless and is in many ways more about surviving hard times than enduring them.  Additionally, while we’re all cooped up in quarantine a movie like this which acts as something of a travelogue of the outside world might be more welcome than ever.  Zhao’s next movie is reportedly going to be a Marvel Superhero movie of all things and I’m not sure how that’s going to fit into her current style, but I do hope she comes back to doing stuff like this once she’s done with that because she’d clearly honed what she did on The Rider a lot here and her next film in this style could really be something amazing.

****1/2 out of Five


Home Video Round-Up 11/25/2020 (The Apple TV Plus Edition)

Greyhound (11/19/2020)

This World War II film written by and starring Tom Hanks was among the first films to move to streaming in response to the pandemic and is one of the few exclusive films you’ll find on the Apple TV+ streaming service.  The film is one of the few World War II films of late to focus entirely on naval warfare and does so in a very stripped down and procedural way.  It depicts the experience of a single U.S. destroyer as it takes part in the escort of a single merchant-marine convoy crossing the Atlantic to supply the European war effort when they are attacked by German U-boats.  I don’t think this is supposed to be a particularly special or noteworthy voyage so much as it’s meant to be representative of the routine challenges that the allied navy faced in many such crossings over the course of the war.  The film eschews superfluous sub-plots and keeps character development to a minimum outside of what can be intuited from people’s actions under pressure and it generally doesn’t try to stop things and explain to the audience in detail what all these naval maneuvers are for and what all the jargon means.  The movie was directed by a guy named Aaron Schneider but it feels like Hanks took a page from his Captain Phillips collaborator Paul Greengrass when putting it together given its focus on procedure and in the moment intensity.  The three major scenes where the ship goes head to head with the subs are indeed effective but by the end of the film I was kind of hoping for just a little bit more than I got.  I respect its interest in stripping things down to the essentials but the resulting film runs a mere 91 minutes and a good ten minutes of that are the end credits.  Some would say that’s a good thing, but I like my war epics to be a little more epic and the lack of additional dynamics will make this rather boring to anyone who doesn’t end up finding these naval procedures interesting, but as a bit of a WWII buff I mostly liked what I got.

***1/2 out of Five

Boys State (11/20/2020)

“Boys State” refers to a program that’s apparently been around for decades and is run by the American Legion which assembles a large group of boys every year (“Girls State” also exists but is separate for some reason) and has them do a sort of political LARPGing where they split into two groups and establish a pair of political parties from the ground up and then have them run in mock elections against each other for various government positions.  The film basically embeds camera crews into the “party deliberations” of a Boys State event in Texas a year or two ago and focuses in on certain boys who emerge as leaders within them and watches them as they engage in politics in their own seventeen year old ways.  Honestly there’s a lot about this whole event I don’t entirely understand, namely the fact that the boys seem to be placed into parties arbitrarily rather than based on their convictions, which is not really how parties are supposed to work and kind of seems like a remnant of an earlier time when Americans weren’t hyper-polarized.  It might have been nice to have had a talking head interview with some kind of adult in the organization to explain that and some other aspects of this process.

But the meat of the film is quite strong, in no small part because they manage to pick their subjects of focus very wisely and get some really interesting personalities at the center of the film.  We get one kid who is established to own a Ronald Reagan action figure and proves to be rather ruthless when electioneering, one kid who goes all in on misrepresenting himself to get votes, one kid who does surprisingly well in the middle of Texas despite being a Bernie Sanders fan and March for Our Lives organizer, and this other slightly effeminate black kid who gets a leadership role but ends up having to fight off a likely racially motivated impeachment vote.  I’m not exactly sure it gives me any kind of newfound hope for the next generation (especially given that some of them clearly inherited some really retrograde opinions from their parents) but it was certainly interesting to see these zoomers engaging with poltics in this way and I’d be interested to see a follow up film, particularly one in a different state or which looks at a Girls State event.

**** out of Five

On the Rocks (11/22/2020)

I’ve never quite been on the same page as critical consensus when it comes to the work of Sofia Coppola.  I liked both The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation but not quite as much as some of their biggest accolades, but I also think I probably liked The Bling Ring and The Beguiled more than many of the critics who thought they were kind of minor works.  Having said that I think I am more in line with the consensus around her latest film On the Rocks, which has mostly been viewed as a bit of a trifle, but not a bad trifle.  The film is about a woman (played by Rashida Jones) who suspects her husband has been cheating on her on business trips and goes on something of an adventure with her father (Bill Murray) in trying to get to the bottom of the truth of these suspicions.  As you can probably intuit the movie isn’t really about this lady’s marriage so much as it’s about her relationship to her father, who is this millionaire womanizer who she loves while sort of resenting some of his attitudes towards relationships and women in general.  Given that Sofia Coppola is rather famously the daughter of a larger than life man it probably isn’t too much of a leap to suspect that this is at least slightly based on her own feelings about Francis Ford Coppola but given that he’s still happily married to Sofia’s mother there are probably some limits to how much Murray’s characters should be viewed as a stand-in for the elder Coppola.  Relationships between fathers and adult daughters are not overly widely explored in cinema so there was something kind or interesting and refreshing about seeing that as the focus here, but the film never really manages to build into something particularly potent.  The characters all live in a bubble of relative privilege and wealth and there isn’t that much of a sense that the protagonist will ever really be divorcing her husband or breaking away from her father so the stakes for all of this just seem kind of low to the point of being meaningless.  That might still have worked if the film had gone all in on being more of a comedy but it’s not really going for laughs either.  It’s not a bad movie by any means but it is a slight one and being a streaming premiere probably works in its favor as this would seem like a particularly insubstantial entry into the Sofia Coppola catalog were it in theaters.

*** out of Five

Fireball: Visitors from Other Worlds (11/24/2020)

One would think that this time of limited attention spans and decreased interest in world cinema would be bad for Werner Herzog… and in terms of scripted films I suppose it has been, but when it comes to documentaries the guy has kind of been on fire.  Ever since the success of Grizzly Man the guy hasn’t had any trouble getting funding to make docs exploring various facets of the world and narrating them in his enticing Bavarian brogue and in particular he’s had a good run of making Discovery/NatGeo type films about natural phenomenon like the South Pole, Volcanos, and now Meteors, which are the subject of his latest work.  This is a bit different than some of Herzog’s other works in that he co-directed this one with a geologist named Clive Oppenheimer who is seen onscreen more than Herzog is, though Herzog still narrates.  It’s a bit of a trickier subject than some of Herzog’s other nature works as meteorites are not exactly as visually dynamic as active volcanoes or frozen wastelands and he needs to stretch a little bit more in order to get to the human element of the topic.  In general I’d say this is one of the less successful of Herzog’s 21st Century documentaries but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth a look, especially for his fans.  For people less familiar with his work this might not be the best starting point.

*** out of Five

The Banker (11/25/2020)

The Banker is a movie that’s had a bit of a tough time getting to the screen as it was originally slated to be a 2019 awards contender and the first movie from Apple’s new streaming service but it was pulled from the schedule after some #MeToo accusations popped up around one of its producers.  It did eventually get released to the streaming service this year but was met with something of a shrug by critics and audiences.  Honestly I probably would have just skipped it but I paid for a month of Apple TV Plus and I’m going to squeeze every bit of content out of it that I can.  A similar logic led me to watch Artemis Fowl earlier this year so it might not be the wisest instinct, but this proved to be a better experience than that.  The film, which looks at an African American entrepreneur in the 1950s and all the ridiculous hoops he needed to jump through in order to engage in routine business practices like owning real estate or operating a bank.  The film’s general tone will be familiar to anyone who’s watched other mass market civil rights movies like 42 or Harriet but is about more of an unsung figure.  On one hand that’s a good thing given that it teaches audiences about something they shouldn’t have already learned in elementary school on the other hand it’s not such a good thing in that it means they’re making a movie about banking, which is not something that everyone is going to find thrilling.  Fortunately the film has a reasonably efficient script which makes the business goings on about as understandable as they need to be and there’s some decent work here from Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson in the leads.  It’s not a movie that’s going to change the world or blow minds but it’s interesting enough to be worth a look if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing.

*** out of Five


When David Fincher announced he’d be making the American adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo I thought “yeah, that seems like something he’d make” what with its focus on technology and serial killers.  Then when he announced that he’d be making an adaptation of Gone Girl I though “yep, sounds like another thing he’d make” as he’d just done a pretty good job adapting a novel of that caliber.  Then when he announced he’d be working on the “Mindhunter” TV series I was a little surprised by the medium but still, a serial killer show certainly seems to be in his wheelhouse.  But when he announced that his next film project would be a black and white film about the life of the early Hollywood screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz that threw me for a bit more of a loop.  Firstly it seemed odd that anyone would get funding to make a movie about Mankiewicz, who was something of an obscure figure to the general public and who was (to my eyes at least) not even as important as his brother Joseph Mankiewicz.  Secondly it seemed like an odd project for Fincher, both because he has as of late doubled down on using commercial thrillers as catalysts for his skills but also because more than most filmmakers Fincher does not strike me as someone who is overly sentimental about film history.  He came into directing through the (at the time) cutting edge medium of the music video, he was an early adopter of digital filmmaking, and his visual style is pretty heavily based on giving his movies this really sleek look that kind of screams modernity.

So on that level this project did not make a lot of sense as Fincher’s next project, but on other levels it kind of did make sense.  For one thing, Fincher differs from the other major auteurs of his generation like Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson in that he does not write or co-write the scripts for any of his own movies and has instead collaborated with high profile screenwriters like Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, Eric Roth, David Koepp, and Andrew Kevin Walker which I think maybe gives him a somewhat unique respect for the role of the screenwriter in the cinema process and in a way that makes him something of a perfect director for a movie about a legendary screenwriter and by extension screenwriters writ large.  On top of that there’s a rather personal angle he seems to be coming to this project from in that this screenplay about screenwriters was actually written by Fincher’s father Jack Fincher, who was a magazine writer who also wrote various unproduced screenplays, including this one, prior to his death in 2003.  David Fincher has apparently been interested in making this since way back in the 90s and has only now brought the movie to the screen.

The film begins in 1940 with Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) arriving at a cottage in a small town outside Los Angeles where he plans to work on this latest screenplay while recovering from a leg injury he got in a car crash.  That screenplay is an as of yet untitled project he’s agreed to work on with Orson Welles (Tom Burke), who has been given a promising contract from RKO and intends to use to make a film which is a fictionalized telling of the life of the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst.  Interestingly, Mankiewicz had actually known Hearst (Charles Dance) and his younger paramour Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) through his various dealings with Los Angeles high society and we get to learn about that and a handful of other interesting tidbits about Mankiewicz through the film’s second timeline which follows the writer from 1930 up to the Kane timeline as he witnesses his dealings with other major Hollywood figures like Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) as they along with Hearst respond to the depression and the 1934 gubernatorial election between Upton Sinclair and Frank Merriam.

It doesn’t take long to understand what Fincher is up to visually here; he’s presenting something of a fusion of modern and classic aesthetics.  The film is in black and white, a medium that Fincher has worked with before back in his music video days and while the movie was filmed digitally he’s added a great deal of artificial grain to the image.  The movie even has cigarette burns to signal reel changes despite the fact that it was made for streaming.  This is pretty far removed from the really smooth look that Fincher’s films had even back when he was working on 35mm, though you can still see Fincher’s trademark perfectionism and smooth camera movements and he definitely has a good time playing with shadows here.  The film also uses period appropriate fonts in its opening titles and even tries to replicate vintage audio recording in the dialogue, giving every line  certain echo which will be recognizable to classic movie fans if perhaps a bit alienating for more general audiences.  The film is not, however, a complete slave to 1940s filming conventions.   It is shot in widescreen, which is not something that would have been available at the time, and the movie also doesn’t insist on being restrained by Hayes code censorship and includes a sprinkling of profanity that wouldn’t have been used in Hollywood’s golden age.

Of course the golden age film that this is most intentionally riffing on is Citizen Kane, but keeping with the subject matter the aspect of that film it’s borrowing from the most is the writing and particularly the flashback chronology it’s working with.  A majority of the film takes place over the course of various segments about Mankiewicz’ experiences in the 1930s, including some peaks into the day to day life of a Hollywood screenwriter during that era but it increasingly becomes about Mankiewicz’ growing disgust with the elites in Hollywood and their responses to the depression.  This aspect of the film feels surprisingly topical in a way I wasn’t necessarily expecting.  Discussions of the rise of fascism in Germany combined with elite disbelief that the people of that country could “fall for that” certainly brings to mind the rise of… a certain someone else four years ago.  Meanwhile you’ve got this unconventional figure running a perhaps ill-fated campaign for office on a socialist platform that freaks out the establishment, so it basically seems like a parallel to the more paranoid readings of Bernie Sanders’ recent electoral history.  Then of course there’s William Randolph Hearst himself, a Rupert Murdoch figure if ever there was one (or maybe it’s more accurate to say that Murdoch is a Hearst figure).  Of course if it’s true that all of this was written by Jack Fincher back in the 90s then a lot of these parallels to today are sort of coincidences, but David Fincher was almost certainly mindful about them when making the actual movie at this particular time.

Mank is in many ways a movie that was made for me; it’s a movie about movies and about movie history that’s told in a thoughtful way and which respects its audience and expects them to go into it with a certain degree of historical and cinematic knowledge.  That said I’m not sure it’s movie that’s particularly accessible to people who aren’t primed for this sort of thing and I’m not sure it’s going to be the audience pleasing awards contender that Netflix is hoping it will be.  For one thing I’m not sure that Mankiewicz is going to be a figure that a lot of people are going to be as interested in as I am and even if they do, the movie they’re being given has a really cynical world-view in which the powerful pretty much always get their way and even projects that are meant as a broadside against them are ultimately co-opted and marginalized.  If I personally had an issue with the movie it’s probably that I don’t think it perfectly handles its ending, in which it sort of concludes by picking a fight that’s kind of tangential to the main themes of the rest of the film and tries to handle a rather loaded controversy briefly and largely off screen in a way that kind of feels like the resolution to a conflict that wasn’t really there in the rest of the movie.  In fact, I’d say the 1940 framing story is generally less interesting than the flashbacks and maybe could have been handled a bit differently.  That aside, I’m largely impressed by the final movie and look forward to revisiting it.

**** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 11/16/2020

The Devil All the Time (11/7/2020)

I avoided this Netflix movie when it debuted earlier in the fall given that pre-election jitters had me stressed out enough without violent crime movies getting to me, but the election has finally been called so I think I’m good to willingly seek out some depressing shit.  The Devil All the Time is a hard movie to classify and a hard movie to describe.  In essence it’s a very dark Southern Gothic set over serval decades about some rather twisted inhabitants of a town called Coal Creek, West Virginia.  The film has a rather unusual structure in which we begin with a lot of flashbacks to earlier events and it’s not always easy to quite catch your bearings as to who is related to who and what the flashback material does to explain what happens later on.  Director Antonio Campos films the movie with flair and gives it a number of interesting scenes and set-pieces and also assembles a very intriguing cast which showcases new sides of actors like Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson, but I was a bit at a loss as to what the point of it all was supposed to be.  It’s a somewhat lurid mix of lurid violence and religious hypocrisy and is filled with characters that don’t feel entirely believable or human.  It kind of feels more like an exercise in simply making up twisted stuff to happen in this hellish town.  I admired the movie’s general gusto and found it to be an interesting viewing experience but I’m not sure I can really take it as seriously as it seems to think it should be taken.

*** out of Five

Rebuilding Paradise (11/11/2020)

One of the many things that have made 2020 the shittiest year imaginable have been the massive forest fires that swept through California over the summer, but that was something of a long-term trend rather than something 2020 specific and the new Ron Howard directed documentary Rebuilding Paradise looks at the devastation that a similar fire left in 2018.  Specifically the film looks at the town of Paradise, which was almost entirely destroyed by one of these wildfires and the film follows the aftermath of this as the survivors try to regroup and rebuild in the wake of the disaster.  The root causes of these fires are discussed here and there, but for the most part the film focuses on the human story of the disaster.  Several home movies are used to show what the actual fire was like for many of the inhabitants and then there’s more traditional vérité documentary work shot in the aftermath as cameramen sort of embed themselves in the town in the year or so after.   Howard, who apparently had some family in the Paradise area, clearly builds some admirable empathy with the people who live in Paradise and perhaps gets a bit too wrapped up in the triumphal rebuilding narrative they’re building to the point where he’s perhaps too quick to ask some of the questions about whether re-building is such a good idea in the first place given the ongoing threat of wildfires which have only gotten worse since 2018.  Still there’s some harrowing footage and stories to be found here and the film mostly depicts its subjects in a way that feels fair without being condescendingly wrapped up in their salt of the earth charms.

***1/2 out of Five

The True History of the Kelly Gang (11/14/2020)

The outlaw and bushman Ned Kelly is something of a central myth of Australia and dozens of movies have been made about him going all the way back to 1906.  I haven’t really seen any of these earlier films and it might have been a mistake to start with this one because, in spite of the title, this is a more fictionalized and revisionist look at the life of the outlaw and whatever subversions there are to be found here were perhaps a bit lost on me given my relative unfamiliarity with the traditional version of the story.  The film was directed by Justin Kurzel, who’s coming off the rather disastrous Assassin’s Creed movie but who did some fairly interesting if not entirely successful work before that.  This looks at both the childhood and late criminal career of Kelly and stars George MacKay in the lead role while also featuring the likes of Russell Crowe, Nicholas Hoult, and Essie Davis in supporting parts of various sizes.  Kurzel generally gives his films a certain haunted stillness and this one isn’t really an exception.  It’s not a movie that makes being Ned Kelly look fun and instead depicts him as a guy who was pretty much channeled into the criminal life by his upbringing and society, which is an approach but not necessarily one that felt like a grand revelation.  In fact I kind of think this movie lives in the shadow of another movie with a grandiose title about an outlaw from an Australian filmmaker: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  This doesn’t really hold a candle to that movie either in terms of production or thematic resonance, but that’s not to say that there aren’t some solid qualities to it that make it worth a look, especially if I’m giving it some benefit of the doubt that there may be some subversion here that’s going over my head.

*** out of Five

My Octopus Teacher (11/15/2020)

Nature documentaries are not generally my bag but occasionally something comes along that seems to have that extra something that catches my interest and this documentary which recently premiered on Netflix has been getting some strong marks.  The film is about a South African filmmaker and naturalist named Craig Foster who regularly goes diving in a coral reef and at some point encountered a single octopus that came to fascinate him and he came to revisit it day after day to check in on its life.  You could say that this is a story about a friendship between a human and a mollusk, though I guess it’s not entirely clear how much this friendship is reciprocated so really it’s more about how this guy just got really fascinated by how intelligent and interesting this eight armed invertebrate was to him.  This actually isn’t the first time I’ve seen a documentary with this kind of subject matter as I distinctly remember seeing a made for TV documentary at some point about a similar friendship that formed between a guy and a dolphin.   Formally, the film is a bit different than your average nature doc as it largely (though not exclusively) consists of a sort of spoken monologue by Foster along with footage of the octopus, which is often in close-up on the ocean floor as this octopus really isn’t very large.  I’m not sure I quite connected with Foster’s fascination with this squishy little aquatic being, but his approach probably is more interesting than a straightforward Discovery Channel style doc would be.

*** out of Five

Unpregnant (11/16/2020)

Unpregnant is a movie about a teenage girl who finds out she’s pregnant and, upon learning that she can’t get an abortion in her state without parental approval, goes on a road trip to get what should be a legal procedure.  Observant film watchers will notice that in grand strokes this is almost the exact same plot as another movie from earlier this year, Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, but where that was a somber indie drama Unpregnant is a road trip buddy comedy that appears to be more or less aimed at mainstream sensibilities even though it appears to have been heading straight to HBO Max rather than theaters even before the pandemic.  That streaming release seems to have rather blunted its impact in much the way a lot of streaming releases just haven’t hit pop culture in the way that theatrical releases have despite potentially technically having more eyeballs on them.  Truth be told I think this one might have had trouble getting eyeballs on it even under the best of circumstances as it doesn’t really have any major names in comedy in its cast or crew and is kind of part of a genre of comedy that’s dying off.  It’s certainly not as funny or commercial as the similarly targeted Booksmart and even that movie sort of flopped at the box office.  I would also note that this movie is perhaps a bit tame and PG-13 in terms of its comedy and is perhaps a bit lacking in major gut busting comic set-pieces or hooks that could have filled an audience attracting trailer.

All that having been said, I still think this deserved to have a bit more impact.  Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferreira both have solid chemistry as the leads and the film is also reasonably well shot on what I assume was a low budget and finds some solid scenery from its North Texas/New Mexico locales.  But more importantly it’s a nicely irreverent take on a pretty important subject, namely the way that local laws interfere in pretty serious ways with the rights of young women to choose and it makes this point about as effectively as Never Rarely Sometimes Always did albeit in a much different way and to a different kind of audience.  I’d say that this message is going to be even more vital going into a post- Amy Coney Barrett world but the truth is that might be a bit of an understatement as we move into a world where laws like this are even more onerous and parental notification laws are the least of the pro-choice movement’s worries.  With that in mind there’s a sort of melancholia over both of these movies because rather than ushering us slowly toward something better they almost seem like dim last gasps before things get much worse…. which is depressing, but I’m not going to hold that against the movies.  They may have been too little too late as activism, but that doesn’t make them unengaging.

***1/2 out of Five

The Nest(11/18/2020)

When theaters first (probably irresponsibly) re-opened late in the summer around the time of the ill-fated Tenet release I exerted my willpower and mostly stayed away.  This wasn’t too hard as the theaters were mostly filled with stuff like New Mutants, but there were a couple good things outside of Tenet that tempted me a little and one of those was Sean Durkin’s Sundance hit The Nest.  Under normal circumstances this is the kind of movie I’d try and get to as soon as it hit arthouses and try to be ahead of the game on.  That’s certainly what I did with Durkin’s first film Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, which was a chilling movie about a cult’s hold on a woman who fled from it.  I had to wait about two weeks for that movie to arrive in my local area theaters and at the time that seemed like an incredibly annoyingly long wait to see the movie all the critics were talking about after its New York/Los Angeles review.  But now here I am willingly waiting two months to see his follow-up, not because I was less interested but simply because I knew deep down that running out to the theater when it hit was a dumb choice to make both for myself and for society.  At the time I had no real way of knowing how I’d eventually be able to see the film.  There was a VOD release lined up for later, but at the time mid-November seemed like a lifetime away and it wasn’t clear to me if that VOD release would be at a reasonable price that I was actually willing to pay for a streaming rental.  Fortunately the eventual at home release did arrive, the wait didn’t drive me too crazy, and the VOD rental fee was a reasonable $5.99 so I decided to finally give the movie a watch.

The film is set sometime in the 1980s and focuses on a family in New York consisting of an Englishman named Rory O’Hara (Jude Law), his American wife Allison O’Hara (Carrie Coons), their teenage daughter Samantha (Oona Roche), and younger son Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell).  Rory is something of a self-styled hustler with some sort of faintly defined career in finance but feels he’s at something of a dead end in his current New York position and convinces his wife to move the family to London to chase an opportunity there that’s gotten him excited.  They arrive and rent a large dusty manor in the countryside, enroll the kids in expensive schools, and by a horse that Allison can practice her equestrian skills with.  Things in England to not go very smoothly for the family though, not so much because there’s anything wrong with the country but more because Rory’s plans to build a new life there proved to be rather half-baked.  It soon becomes apparent that this is something of a pattern of conduct from in and the movie then begins to depict how this series of bad decisions starts to tear apart his marriage and how this by extension begins to tear apart the whole family.

The Nest is a tricky movie to talk about because it doesn’t really have a central hook or high concept that you can lean on when describing it.  I think it’s probably at its best when you look at it as a character study of the Jude Law character and his sort of mania to be this Gatsby-like rags to riches success when he frankly doesn’t really have the level of success to back it up, but the film is also interested in the wife and to a lesser extent the kids as well.  A bit like the Ang Lee film The Ice Storm, the film focuses in on the family’s upper class ennui, but unlike that film which was pretty clearly focused in on their reaction to the sexual revolution this one is more about the fallout of Reagan era hyper-capitalism.  There is a bit of a hurdle to getting to invested in the plight of this family given that, while perhaps not quite as rich as they’d like to be they are plainly still more privileged than vast swaths of society and there is a bit of a “first world problems” taint to a lot of this, but I don’t think the film is unaware of this and is in many ways intentionally exploring this grass is always greener rich person mentality.

The film’s director, Sean Durkin, is plainly an emerging talent in cinema though I’m not sure I’ve quite cracked what makes his work distinctive quite yet.  This is only his second feature and he’s had a pretty long break since his debut Martha Marcy May Marlene in which he did some work on a British miniseries called Southcliffe.  If Wikipedia is to be believed he was born in Canada, raised in England to the age of twelve, but then moved to New York during his teen years.  That’s kind of the reverse of the trans-Atlantic journey the family in The Nest takes.  I have no idea if his own story resembles the life depicted here beyond that but I don’t think it’s a wild leap to wonder if there is at least an element of autobiography on display here.  So you have something of a personal movie here and it has some things to say about ambition and “the American dream,” though at times it maybe spells these ideas out a little too directly in certain conversations, but it lacks a particularly marketable hook like Martha Marcy May Marlene had to really get people interested.  So this might be a bit of a tough sell, but if you’re in the mood for a new character based indie this might have what you’re looking for.

***1/2 out of Five