Nomadland – Review

Frances McDormand is exceptional in a story about living in a van.

Nomadland is, at the time of writing, the favourite for the best picture award at the Oscars in a few weeks time. Beyond that, it’s directed by Chloe Zhao who the marvel fans amongst you might know as the director who was given The Eternals which comes out later this year. Don’t come to this film expecting something like a marvel spectacle. Nomadland is something very different to your standard blockbuster.

Nomadland follows Fern, played by the always magnificent Frances McDormand, a woman who has committed to life as a nomadic traveller living in her van. This has come about after the death of her husband and essentially the closure of her town after the industry that kept it going shut down. Her performance is incredible, feeling incredibly real. That same genuine feeling I felt watching Minari a few weeks ago was back here.

As you are watching Nomadland, it feels like it’s blurring the lines between a fictional story and a documentary. The people Fern meets along the way feel incredibly genuine. The key reason for that, most of the other people in this film aren’t actually actors. They’re what’s been called “Non-actors”. These are people who are essentially playing a slightly altered version of themselves. Drawing from their own experiences to bring their own real life trials and tribulations to Fern’s fictional story.

That all brings a real sense of authenticity to Nomadland. I don’t know if I’ve seen another film do it quite like this that wasn’t a documentary. It feels like the character of Fern has been dropped into this world of mostly elderly Americans who are living this nomadic lifestyle and Frances McDormand has just lived the life for the year the film covers. Of course, that isn’t how it happened, it is written and the events are scripted. Every character is at least a little different from the real person.

This film tells more of it’s story using visual story telling and well placed music than it does with character dialogue. When people are talking it has a purpose, or they just make small talk. There isn’t the kind of forced conversations you feel happen in a lot of films where every emotion and explanation has to be said out loud by someone. You feel the weight of loss, the consistency of grief and the joy of remembering.

The score is one of the best this year. It sounded how I felt Fern was living. Still for a moment, then on the move. The character never wants to stop in one place for too long, and by the end I understood why. This, perhaps more than any of the other Oscar nominated films this year, is a moving film. Maybe the year we’ve all had contributed to this, but this film made me think about how we deal with loss and how we can move on but keep the one’s we’ve lost in our minds. But I can easily see someone else getting a different, maybe more positive message about your enjoying life your way.

Chloe Zhao’s approach to this film shows all the hallmarks of a great filmmaker. The unorthodox approach to the casting pays dividends with the authentic feel. It boasts an excellent score that’s memorable and fits the main character. The cinematography lets the breath taking scenery do the talking, at times looking like a windows background in it’s picture perfect nature. Nomadland is a personal story told in an intimate way that hits home. It’s a very “Oscary” movie in that it’s not going to get your blood pumping with adrenaline, but it might just make you think.

Good: Great performance by Frances McDormand, and I really liked how it made me think about certain things towards the end of the film.

Bad: The meandering plotless style may turn people off even though it fits the “Nomad” tag.

TL;DR – Nomadland is one of the more thought provoking films I’ve seen for a while, and moves up to my No.2 for best picture. (Chicago 7 remains top dog for me).

One Night In Miami – Review

Pardon me… are you Aaron Burr, Sir?

Based on a night that might have really happened, One Night in Miami follows the events that happened in a hotel room following Muhammed Ali’s world championship title win in 1964. Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Malcom X spent the evening together, and that premise is enough on it’s own to intrigue me.

I don’t think know how historically accurate this film is, but the setting serves as a perfect backdrop for the conversations about these prominent figures in Black history and their impact on the world. I’d only heard of one of the 4 main actors, that one being Leslie Odom Jr, a star of Hamilton, which was probably the best thing I watched during Lockdown. I really should write about Hamilton.

The movie picks up before that title fight, and introduces us to the main characters in their elements, giving each actor a chance to establish themselves with the audience before they are thrown together. Up to then it’s a bit by the numbers and uninteresting, nothing really grabbing me. The boxing scenes aren’t particularly stunning, but it’s not what this film is about.

Malcom X is played by Kinglsey Ben-Adir, who peaky blinders fans might recognise, but he was a newcomer to me. He certainly looks the part, and brings the sense of purpose and focus I imagine embodied a man like Malcom X. He is the driver of the conversation, which would have been little more than a drunken night out without his presence. At first he struck me as that guy who gets all political on a night out, but quickly you understand there is more to this for him. It’s not just about a boxing victory celebration.

Cassius Clay is such an iconic figure, it’s a huge testament to actor Eli Goree that I only ever saw Ali. He becomes the young version of the man who would go on to conquer the boxing world seamlessly. I wanted more from him, but the plot just didn’t require it and despite being such a larger than life character, he blends into the room when it’s other’s time to shine. That collaborative effort is shared between all the actors.

I wouldn’t normally dedicate a paragraph to each of the main actors in a film, but this one deserves it. Aldis Hodge brings a confident, sure of himself power to NFL star and actor Jim Brown. He is the least “active” of the quartet, but in his moments he provides some well placed levity and some thoughtful moments with characters that support the other three well.

There was a moment in the film when I nodded and went “It’s his film now”. Leslie Odom Jr is an incredibly talented human, he is the best part of Hamilton and that’s praise of the highest order. His portrayal of Sam Cooke is an excellent piece of casting as the characters love for music is easily brought to life in little moments early on in the film. Then he explodes with charisma and is magnetic on screen during the most memorable moments of this film.

It perhaps lends to Odom Jr’s talents that the film plays out like a stage play. There are long one shot takes and the majority of the movie takes place in one hotel room. That theatre feel carries over into the passionate speeches the characters exchange as they battle for their own way of fighting the same fight.

There is no debating the importance of the cause they are fighting. The hardest moments of this film for me came after the credits reflecting on it. Black people’s struggles are appallingly still prevalent today. The fact this film’s message is still something we need to discuss is horrendous, but we do and therefore we need to keep having the tough conversations.

One Night in Miami isn’t a perfect film, but its provocative and entertaining one. The performances elevate it, and Leslie Odom Jr deserves all the praise he is getting for this one. It’s not a film I think everyone will enjoy, but one I did a lot.

Good: Magnetic performance’s and an intriguing premise make this one worth spending the time watching.

Bad: Slow pace at the start and stage play like back and forth is maybe not for everyone.

TL;DR – The story of One Night in Miami that Leslie Odom Jr earned an Oscar Nomination.

Sound of Metal – Review

A Film based on a drummer? Sign me up.

I continued my Oscar Movie Marathon with Sound of Metal. Considering the last film about a drummer i watched was Whiplash, which is probably my favourite film of the last decade, I went into this one rather excited to see another film with music at it’s heart. What I got was not what I expected.

Sound of Metal follows Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a drummer in a heavy metal duo. Together with Lou (Olivia Cooke), his other half both in the music act and in a romantic sense, they are plugging away at being a success in the music industry. Ruben begins losing his hearing, and we follow his journey as he deals with his new reality.

No spoilers as usual, but the film is not a musical in any way. Ruben’s passion and main outlet is his drumming, but that isn’t the focus. Instead you are taken on an eye opening ride into what it’s like to lose a sense like hearing. Ruben’s a deeply flawed character in a lot of ways, and losing his hearing threatens to strip away everything he knows and push him back to a past of addiction.

The couple have both clearly had troubled lives and this isn’t told via exposition or a conversation, it’s all visual. You see the scars on Lou’s arms, the suicidal thoughts tattooed on Rubens chest. It’s never the focus, but it’s there. You get the impression this couple are keeping each other stable and would be lost if separated. It’s all set up very efficiently and we get into the journey Ruben goes on.

Riz Ahmed is in every moment of this film, it is put on his shoulders and he carries it with his passionate and committed performance. You feel the anguish and frustration he feels, and you see the ignorance of someone who lives entirely for one thing. He has a sole focus and one that he is convinced will work, and is too stubborn to ever admit he is wrong.

The film shows the extremes of how I imagine I would feel if my hearing was to go. The frustration at not being able to do something you’ve taken for granted for your whole life. The difficulty adapting to the new sound of the world. It’s all laid out in this film and Riz Ahmed’s performance elevates it.

His performance is matched in this film by the sound design. I often a film’s use of silence powerful, and this does that expertly. I watched with headphones on, and I suggest you do too, as it really added to the experience. A good sound system will do the same, but the way the film flicks between the sound of the scene and the sounds Ruben can hear is unlike anything I have watched before. It’s the closest you can feel in a film to being in a characters head.

This is unlike most films you will watch this year. It’s a dive into what life is like for the deaf community, and still manages to keep an emotional hook that got me more than I expected at the end. It rides on the shoulders of a fantastic performance and unique sound design which all come together into a very good film.

That combination of all these elements is down to a wonderful directorial debut by Darius Marder who can feel a little unlucky to not have an Oscar nomination for directing. Sound of Metal has come out of nowhere to be one of my favourite films of the year.

Good: A heavy hitting look into the life of someone losing their hearing, wrapped in an emotional story told with real passion and care.

Bad: It’s quiet a lot of the time which is a bit unusual…. honestly there is not much I have to say negatively about this film.

TL;DR – Sound of Metal is a film that highlights the trials the deaf community has, and importantly how people adapt and overcome them. That message is worked into an emotional story and delivered in a very well made film.

Minari – Review

Korean Cinema keeps on delivering.

Minari is one of those rare films that i went into having absolutely no idea what it was about. I knew it was in a mix of English and Korean, but that’s it. That being said, Minari was nominated for Best Picture among other things, and that meant my expectations were a little higher than normally for a film I had no idea about.

Minari is a slow, ponderous film. Neither of those terms are a negative, they’re more of a warning. This isn’t a tense thriller or a laugh a minute comedy, although it has moments of tension and levity. Minari invites you in to be a fly on the wall in this young Korean family as they move from California to Arkansas.

Essentially the plot of this film is basic, it’s a family struggling to adapt to their new lives for a variety of reasons. There is a mundane feel to things, much like real life, punctuated by moments of more exciting moments. These moments are strange for me to watch as they feel so real. You believe you are just watching a kid and his grandmother bickering back and forth. It’s bizarre to watch as there isn’t anything that gets your pulse racing, but it’s really quite engrossing.

The film is a nice, interesting story, but it’s elevated to the Best Picture levels by the performances of it’s lead actors. Steven Yuen and Yeri Han play the young couple and they do a phenomenal job of bring the characters to life. Their ability to convey emotions and thoughts without saying a word is displayed in a couple of great emotional moments. Steven Yuen deserves him nomination and at this point the fact Yeri Han isn’t nominated for Lead actress seems outrageous.

Alongside Yeri Han, and this time actually getting the nomination is Youn Yuh-Jung, who plays the grandmother. She brings a different energy to the film, which then flips at a certain point and she is fantastic either side of that moment. Her relationship with the young boy is the heart of a film all about family dynamic’s and the connection between the members of the family.

Minari is a film I appreciated more than enjoyed. It never really hooked me, but the entire time I felt like I was watching real people in real situations and that’s something special in itself. I don’t think it’ll win best picture, but I understand why it’s nominated because the overall package is more than the sum of it’s parts. The incredible performances take the humdrum story and turn it into very well crafted piece of cinema that critics will love.

Good: The performers deliver in a big way, and the brilliant score matches the tone of the film at every turn.

Bad: Slow pace may turn off some, and it’s felt very much like an actor’s film. It will perhaps feel a little to “real” for some audience members to be engaged with.

TL;DR : Minari is lifted to lofty heights by some truly incredible performances.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Review

Aaron Sorkin doing Aaron Sorkin things.

Aaron Sorkin has quickly become something of an idol for me. He has the ability to find the compelling elements of a story and then entertain you using people talking in a room. There is no big action scenes, no grand acts of love or even particularly funny moments in his films, they just grab your attention and never let go.

The Social Network was a film I only watched last year, and it blew my mind which the sharpness of the writing and the pace of the script. With him turning his hand to Directing in 2017 with Molly’s game which I enjoyed a lot, my excitement was quite high for The Trial of the Chicago 7, a film he wrote and directed.

If you haven’t seen other Sorkin films, then on the face of it this film sounds like a standard courtroom drama. It takes place in 1969, over the course of the trial of people accused of inciting riots in Chicago in 1968. The story is told from the court room, with regular cuts back to the events the trial goes over. This mechanic slowly gives us more and more detail. Even though at first I felt a bit lost in the courtroom trying to follow who was who, by the end I was completely engrossed.

Sorkin’s script slowly sucks you into it, setting up the trial quickly at the start before everyone sits down to deliver performance after performance. The cast in this is just dripping with talent, and I am a little surprised there is only one Oscar nomination between them all. That nomination has gone to Sacha Baron Cohen, who is unrecognisable from the actor behind Borat as he plays one of the defendents. His comedic timing is perfect, delivering sarcastic comments and remarks peppered throughout the film to just provide some needed levity.

There isn’t any performance here that lets the film down. I loved Mark Rylance as the defending lawyer, even if his hair just bothered me endlessly throughout. His back and forth with the judge and the witnesses is so compelling. I also have to mention that this is the most I have ever enjoyed an Eddie Redmayne performance, as he plays another one of the the 7. Any of Redmayne, Rylance, Baron Cohen or the judge Frank Langella could be up for a nomination and it would be well deserved.

The reason they’re all so good though, and my mind keeps going back to it, is the incredible screenplay. The story is laid out, and the characters are talking almost non stop through the just over two hours this film runs for. The pace at which the dialogue hits is ferocious, but never hard to follow. As much as I love a good action sequence, the back and forth dialogue in this film is every bit as entertaining as seeing John Wick fight his way through a city.

This is the first of the Oscar Nominated films I have watched on my list, and it’s set an unbelievably high bar. A screenplay Oscar feels inevitable. The Best Picture might not be far behind, I reserve the right to change that after I have seen the other seven nominees of course, and what a treat it will be if this isn’t the best film of the year.

Good: Stellar performances bring to life an intriguing story told via a perfect screenplay.

Bad: I mean it is still a courtroom drama, and if that isn’t something you care for, I understand why it might not be for you. It’s worth a try though.

TL;DR : Aaron Sorkin doing Aaron Sorkin things with actors who clearly admire Aaron Sorkin.

Booksmart Review

I missed Booksmart when it released in early 2019, and I shamefully have waited until now when it appeared on Amazon Prime to watch it. I’d heard nothing but positive things about this coming of age story so seeing it pop up on the streaming service was a nice surprise just before the Academy Awards this weekend.

Staring a cast of relative unknowns, and being director Olivia Wilde’s first feature length project, Booksmart has no right to be as genuinely brilliant as it is. Coming on the heels of me watching the second season of Sex Education, review of that here, Booksmart feels like it’s set in a very similar world. The 80’s fashion is toned down, but everything still feels a little stylised, everyone’s outfits are a little bit cooler than in the real world.

Amy and Molly are the two girls we follow through the film, played by Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, and they have really believable “best friend” chemistry. You immediately believe they have been friends for years and have the relationship that kind of time builds between people. They have been the bookworms, studying and forgoing the partying their peers are indulging in that we all associated with our college (High School) years. It struck a note with me because it reminded me of my college years, going around to a mate’s house and drinking alcopops and pretending to enjoy beer.

I also once woke up in the middle of the night feeling very unwell, so I staggered out of the room to find a toilet, only to discover a drum kit where I thought the toilet should be. In my head I then returned to bed and slept it off. In reality, as my friend discovered the next day, I had decided to return to the room, move aside the dressing gown hung on the door, and proceeded to throw up all over the door. I then replaced the dressing gown and went back to bed.

Allegedly, it’s never been proven.

Anyway, back to the film! Booksmart took me back to those days of being carefree and having no responsibilities. The characters of course don’t realise that, to them the graduation they’re about to have and the crush they have on their classmate are as big an issue as anything life will ever throw at them. When our lead characters decide that they’re going to let their hair down for a night and party for the first time, I found myself hopeful that they would have a good time.

Ridiculous situation’s come thick and fast for the girls, and the laughs follow each one of them. I found myself chuckling a lot throughout Booksmart, and a few times I was howling with laughter, quite a rarity nowadays in films. Sometimes they’re a little juvenile, but that’s my kind of silliness, and I think there is a scene somewhere in there that will make most people laugh at some point in the film.

Much like Sex Education, it isn’t all about the laughs. Booksmart explores the challenges of growing up in your teens with all the anxiety and uncomfortable conversations about sex and sexuality. The awkwardness of the romance is painfully real, and without really being able to judge, I think it does a great job with LGBTQ+ representation without drawing any overt attention to it. Early on there is a conversation about Amy’s crush, and it’s a girl, and that’s just how it is. Her sexuality isn’t a plot point, she has feelings for someone are, and that’s the important part of it, not their gender.

Booksmart is a… smart film about coming of age, and it approaches it from a different angle to most films I have seen in this genre. Combining this with Sex Education, this new wave of media about growing up that is directly addressing the most uncomfortable parts of that part of life is really refreshing. I loved this film, and I can’t see why most people wouldn’t.

Good: Funny, Heart-warming, relatable, great performances, surprisingly well shot movie and a great soundtrack.

Bad: A bit of a slow start had me checking my watch and staring at Instagram, but that’s all that stopped this being a ten for me.

9/10 – Near perfect coming of age film.

Bombshell Review

Bombshell caught me by surprise late last year when I stumbled across the trailer and saw it had some of the most talented actresses all bundled together to tell an important, powerful story. It then fell off my radar until it finally released, and now I have finally been able to see whether it could live up to the expectations such a talent packed cast demand. 

Well first off, that cast all turn up and deliver excellent performances all-round the board. Everyone follows the lead of Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie and Nicole Kidman in the lead roles and that level of performance is what really drives this film and makes it so compelling. Charlize Theron in particular catches the eye, and the Oscar nomination she has received for this role is well earned.

Margot Robbie is less central in the film, but she has some of the most powerful scenes and that’s why she is in the running for the supporting actress role, once again earning it. I did feel that those two were just a level above Nicole Kidman, who plays a very important role in the film but never threatens to steal a scene from anyone.

John Lithgow plays Roger Ailes, the man in charge of Fox and the man who is pitting these women against each other in their competitive field. He channels the ability he’s displayed in several roles over the years to be incredibly unsettling. He shares scenes with all the leads and although Margot Robbie’s character is a blend of several real women, the idea that this is based on true events made me feel extremely uncomfortable.

The story, if you don’t know it already, is essentially a dramatic telling of the events that led to Roger Ailes being removed from his role at Fox due to him sexually harassing numerous women over years in power at the news platform. The movie does a fantastic job of bringing you through the events, and the voice over from the three leads provides extra exposition when needed to give you more information as we go through the events.

There are a couple scenes in this that really feel powerful, and the film starts to go deeper into the characters and their emotions and the struggles they had to deal with. Margot Robbie bears the brunt of these scenes, with one showing how much the events have hurt her and another asking cutting questions to other women asking why they didn’t come out sooner to protect the next group of women from being abused the same way they was.

In these moments, the film threatens to step up another level to a point where I would be championing it for best picture, but it never quite goes for that step up and delivering something that really pulls at your emotions. It’s not that there is a joke that breaks the tension, it’s that the moments sort of fizzle out, they pass without a big moment to really punch it over the line and that’s where this film doesn’t quite make it to where it could have.

I found the subject matter horrible to watch, as a straight white dude I have not experienced anything like this and I am ashamed of the men in this story, as they stand idly by and turn a blind eye to these events. I can imagine that in the moment these situations are unbelievably difficult to manage. Their careers and personal aims would be unaffected by them staying on the outside of this, but they could lose it all by stepping into the fight for women against powerful men.

This film wasn’t about them though, and rightfully so, its focused on the women that stood up to the Mad Men style patriarchy and came out of it with an important win. I would be interested to know how this film makes women feel watching it, and I am looking forward to the conversations I will have about this film.

Good: Fantastic Performances carry this film, and it tells an important, interesting and at times powerful story.

Bad: The tone doesn’t always match the events unfolding, and the pacing took away from some of the more dramatic beats that could have elevated this film even higher.

8/10 – Bombshell is full of Bombshells.