*MOVIE RECAP: NOMADLAND

Nomadland is a beautiful piece of cinema. A haunting film that feels like it is part-fictional film and part-documentary.

Based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Jessica Bruder about a new economic sector of primarily middle-aged and older people who have taken to the road as modern-day nomads — they live their lives out of their vans, campers, and cars. They follow seasonal work, like farms, restaurants, amazon warehouses, and recreational areas.

Living like nomads, going from place to place, as a form of self-sufficient living for these people, they find low-wage work that allows them to live and support themselves. For some, this nomadic lifestyle is their preferred way of living. There is a sense of freedom for them while they get to see the country and make friends along the way. But for most of these nomads, this lifestyle is the only chance for any meaningful life and the only option to support themselves.

Fern (Frances McDormand) is a fictional character who is grieving the recent loss of her husband. They lived in a company town, where all businesses and homes are owned by one company. When the company decides to stop operations and eliminate its entire workforce, all of the town residents are left jobless and have no choice but to relocate. There is a sad and tragic reality with these types of company towns built entirely around corporations and factories. When these companies folded or left town, entire cities were disseminated, leaving their population with nothing.

Fern abruptly goes from a comfortable life to hitting the road and joining these communities of nomads. She remains positive throughout her ordeal while maintaining that “she is not homeless, she is houseless.”She joins and befriends an established nomad culture who also goes from town to town looking for work. Real-life nomads featured heavily in this film, like Bob Wells.

Frances McDormand is exceptional here; Her most intense scenes are when she is all alone with no dialogue. She holds and commands the screen like no other.

Nomadland is an unapologetic modern American Western that shines a light and exposes a way of life in the United States. It is a framing device to the economic realities of the working-class people of this country and the failures of the American Dream. My only issue with the film is that it doesn’t really show all the intricacies and the everyday challenges of the nomadic lifestyle. Nevertheless, this film is an outstanding achievement by Director Chloe Zhao — capturing a powerful story of survival, grief, and the fragility of time and our human existence.

Four out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿

Nomadland (2020). Streaming on HULU.

*MOVIE RECAP: THE SOUND OF METAL

Some movies need time to settle in your mind to fully digest and reflect on what you have seen… maybe even watching them a couple of times is required. For me, Sound of Metal is one of those movies.

Ruben (Riz Ahmed) and Lou (Olivia Cooke) are rock musicians touring the United States — they live and drive from show to show in an RV. It seems like their whole life is in their RV.

Pretty soon into the story, Ruben notices that his hearing is weakening, and all of the sounds around him are beginning to sound muffled. He hides this fact from Lou and continues with concert gigs, hoping things will return to normal at some point.

Ruben consults with a doctor who breaks the bad news that his hearing is deteriorating rapidly — the doctor tells him that his first responsibility is to protect the hearing he has left. Ruben completely disregards this advice and continues playing another concert gig.

During their next concert, his hearing deteriorates to the point where Ruben can no longer keep up with the show and rushes off the stage. He now has no choice but to come clean to Lou and explain the situation regarding his hearing loss.

Ruben’s life and his entire sense of self are completely changed almost overnight. He has to face some complex decisions moving forward. Playing the drums and continuing with the rest of the concert dates are no longer an option. Ruben believes he can still manage and work around his deafness; however, Lou disagrees and urges Ruben to get some professional help.

Here is where Joe (Paul Raci) enters Ruben’s life. Joe is a Vietnam War vet who runs a community home for deaf people. In this community, they do not see deafness as a disability or as something to be fixed. They see deafness as a concept of empowerment.

Joe has very strict rules for joining his community home. Ruben has to move in, learn ASL and begin the process of learning how to live with his new reality. Ruben also has to give up the keys to his RV, his cell phone and be completely away from Lou during his time in the program.

Ruben’s whole life is turned upside down; his music, lifestyle, and relationship have all fallen apart. He is now forced to look deep within himself in the wake of this trauma. He is holding on to the hope of regaining his hearing. The prospect of receiving implants through surgery is his last hope for things to go back to normal. And he is willing to risk it all for the return of his old way of life.

Riz Ahmed is exceptional here, delivering a soulful performance. He conveys so many emotions with his eyes and face — through his eyes, you can see this tortured, wounded soul. Riz Ahmed brilliantly portrays the rage and bewilderment of Ruben losing his livelihood. I heard that Ahmed actually learned to play drums and learned American sign language preparing for this role.

Paul Raci is outstanding here, delivering an authentic and human performance. Joe provides tough love and raw honesty to Ruben in every scene they are in together. A well-deserved Academy Award nomination for best-supporting actor. I am excited to see where the success of this performance takes Paul Raci next.

This movie is a fascinating exploration about a person attempting to put his life back together after losing his reason for living. The film takes you inside the central character’s experience while crafting a world where the details are as accurate as possible. The subtle things done with the sound effects are remarkable. The specific details of the deaf community are well executed.

The Sound of Metal is essentially a story about identity and loss. One of the most thoughtful, well-made movies of the year. An extraordinary achievement by Director Darius Marder, showing us what cinema can still do when passionate, creative filmmakers are allowed to put forth their vision.

Four out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿

The Sound of Metal (2020).

*MOVIE RECAP: JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH

Here is another socially and culturally relevant film that shines a spotlight on a recent time in our history that we all should be aware of.

Judas and the Black Messiah is the true story of a disciple’s betrayal; in this case, Judas is William “Bill” O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), and the Messiah is Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).

Fred Hampton was the Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers and one of the most notorious figures in the civil rights movement of the late ‘60s. He was a leader in the fight for Human rights and a prolific community organizer, attempting to make life better for Black Americans, minorities, and poor people. Fred Hampton believed that uniting with other race groups was crucial for the movement to succeed. He also started things still instituted today, like the Free Breakfast program. Feeding the poor earned him a Folk hero status in the community. This film, however, only covers a short period of his life, focusing primarily on Fred Hampton’s last days alive.

Bill O’Neal was a petty criminal caught by the police for impersonating an FBI agent. He was coerced into helping the FBI to keep tabs on Fred Hampton’s activities and to infiltrate the Black Panthers as an informer for the government. O’Neal eventually becomes close to Fred Hampton and has to choose between his freedom and betraying his friend.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover believed that Fred Hampton could unite a coalition of oppressed minorities into working together towards one unified goal. Hoover saw this potential union as an inherent threat to the National Security of the United States; thus, declaring war on the Black Panthers and stopping Hampton at all costs became one of the top priorities for the FBI under Hoover.

The performances alone make this movie a must-watch. Daniel Kaluuya transforms completely into Fred Hampton; he delivers a powerful performance. He captures the complexities and magnitude of this real-life character convincingly. We get to see how charismatic Hampton was in public and how reserved and measured he seemed in private life.

However, the narrative centers mostly around William O’Neill. And how he was equally a victim of the system. We see how he was coerced into becoming a reluctant informant. This character’s inner conflict and the constant struggle between opposing allegiances are at the center of this story. O’Neill is pulled in many different directions, which is the central idea of all undercover stories; A character that goes into a world, and then the character becomes a part of said world. Lakeith Stanfield is excellent here — He establishes a strong physical performance, where the facial gestures anchor most of the core emotions of Bill O’Neill.

The relationship between Fred Hampton and his girlfriend, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), is exceptionally depicted. Their love story was complex, and it was superbly dramatized. Dominique Fishback has been on my radar ever since I saw her in the outstanding HBO series the Deuce. She is fantastic here.

Kudos to director Shaka King. I dig everything about this film — how it was shot, the dialogue, and the acting. The shootout and the raid scene were pretty intense and well-executed. My only issue is that we don’t get a real sense of how young Fred Hampton was when he was murdered. Fred Hampton was just a kid, barely 21, and Bill O’Neill was 17 when all of this went down in 1969. I feel that the movie needed to emphasize this fact better.

Nevertheless, Judas and the Black Messiah is a bold and thought-provoking film. It is not one of those movies that romanticize the FBI as the good guys vs. the bad guys while completely ignoring their dark history and shady tactics, especially during its early years under Hoover. The fact is that Fred Hampton was murdered by his own government, executed in his own home. There is solid historical value here — We get to see how the FBI used shady and perverse tactics to hold people like O’Neill under their control in their ruthless pursuit of Black Panthers, minority revolutionaries, and anyone who displayed any progressive or radical ideologies. This film unapologetically exposes the dark history of the FBI brilliantly.

There is a direct connection between Judas and the Black Messiah and The Trial of the Chicago 7. Both films have been nominated for Academy Awards, and both movies tackled similar and relevant issues. Both stories parallel each other, and both stories are centered around government oppression, corruption, Police brutality, freedom, human rights, and social-economic issues. Their significance cannot be understated.

Four out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿

Judas and the Black Messiah (2020).

*MOVIE RECAP: THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7

The timing and arrival of this movie at the tail end of 2020 was perfect. Written and Directed by master screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is one of the most politically relevant movies I’ve seen all year.

It was initially supposed to be released in theaters, but because of the global pandemic, Paramount sold it to Netflix for both direct streaming and theatrical release.

The movie starts with actual news footage from the late ‘60s, including a Walter Cronkite clip at the beginning of the film, similar to how Spike Lee did it in Blackkklansman and Da 5 Bloods. The movie doesn’t waste any time and gets right into the meat of the story right away.

1968 was one of the worst political years in the history of the United States. Both MLK and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated in the same year. The draft and the unpopular Vietnam war were still going on—and 8 prominent leaders of progressive movements were brought to trial. They were accused of conspiracy to cross state lines to commit violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago — where violent clashes did indeed broke out between protesters and police.

Under President Lyndon Johnson, the justice department investigated these clashes. It concluded that the Chicago Police department was as much to blame for the violence as the protesters and declined to seek any legal prosecution. Then, Richard Nixon comes into office and decides to send a message to all young idealistic protesters by putting all these prominent progressive leaders in a criminal trial, which was evidently, pure political theater with potentially dire consequences for the accused.

Riveting performances from the entire cast. Sacha Baron Cohen (Abbie Hoffman) is excellent in a captivating performance. Eddie Redmayne (Tom Hayden) adds a unique and believable sensibility to this role. The conflict between Abbie and Tom — and all of their philosophical differences regarding how to move their progressive causes forward is a crucial component of this movie. There is also great chemistry between Jeremy Strong (Jerry Rubin) and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman. John Carrol Lynch (David Dellinger) gives a solid performance as the anti-war pacifist leader. Alice kremelberg (Bernardine Dohrn) shows up as a younger version of the future and infamous leader of the Weather Underground organization.

Frank Langella (Julius Hoffman) should have been nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor with this performance of the disgustingly corrupt Judge Hoffman, who turns this trial into the most unfair shit-show of a trial that I have ever seen in a movie. We get to see how the defendants and their lawyers feel powerless against his tyrannical behavior. Langella’s portrayal wasn’t exaggerated; Judge Hoffman actually behaved in that exact manner during the trial. The mixture of dialogue straight out of court transcripts and Sorkin’s dramatization work beautifully.

Mark Rylance (William Kunstler) is outstanding as the famous ACLU lawyer. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Bobby Seale), the renowned leader of The Black Panther Party, has a handful of scenes but completely takes over the screen in every single scene that he is in. He was actually bound and gagged for days during the trial — insane to realize that this actually did happen in a courtroom of the United States of America. My only issue with this part of the movie is that it doesn’t clarify how long Seale was bound and gagged. I feel like the movie had plenty of opportunities to amplify this fact but ended up minimizing it a bit by not focusing on how long he was restrained.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Richard Schultz) is convincing as a conservative federal prosecutor who takes on the case but disagrees with his own Attorney General John N. Mitchell (John Doman) on the merits of the criminal charges against the Chicago 7. Although surrounded by extreme right-wing types in the Nixon administration, Schultz manages to show empathy, integrity, and support for the defendants’ rights to protest.

It is fascinating to view the events of the trial of the Chicago 7 through the lens of our current times and to see the parallels between today and 1968. it is hard to believe that this trial actually did happen in the not so distant past. The cultural and generational divide is comparable to our current timeline. Today’s relevant issues are expressed brilliantly in this movie, like the power and right to protest—liberalism vs. extreme right-wing ideologies.

The villainization of the Black Panther Party and the Black Lives Matter movement is similar in the way media outlets attempted to negatively portray BLM protests all over the world this past summer (2020). The need for police reform is also pointed out. This film explores government and media power themes and how they can be used and abused to silence voices of progress.

The ending felt a bit abrupt, mostly because I wanted to watch a bit more and see the defendant’s eventual vindication instead of reading about it at the end. Nevertheless, the Trial of the Chicago 7 is an important movie to watch and should already be a strong candidate to win a bunch of awards in the upcoming Awards season. I was moved and inspired by this movie.

Four out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020). Streaming on Netflix.

*MOVIE RECAP: HILLBILLY ELEGY

I noticed that most people dismissed this movie even before it was released. Most of the negativity surrounding Hillbilly Elegy was due to the political influence of the source material, which was cited as a sort of benchmark in understanding how Trump won the “white working class” vote in 2016.

Based on the controversial bestselling memoir of the same name by J.D. Vance — and adapted for film by Vanessa Taylor, best known for writing Hope Springs and co-writing The Shape of Water with Guillermo Del Toro. The Screenplay manages to remove many layers from the source material memoir to avoid any right-wing propaganda.

The movie is told through J.D. Vance’s eyes, using flashbacks, jumping forward and backward in time. J.D. is from central Ohio but considers himself to be from the Hill Country of Jackson, Kentucky (his family roots are from the Appalachian region). It is important to note that a significant number of people within the Appalachian community did not embrace J.D.’s memoir. Still, many people outside of this community were fascinated by it, primarily by coastal liberal elite types.

Nevertheless, without any of the book’s political stuff, the movie leans heavily on family melodrama. J.D. (Gabriel Basso) is a law student at Yale; he is attempting to navigate through college life away from his middle American upbringing. While at the same time hiding his family background from his college girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto). Through flashbacks, we get to see young J.D. (Owen Asztalos) and his early family life. His mother, Bev (Amy Adams), is a single mom who works as a nurse but seems to be a chronic drug addict, mentally unbalanced, and violent. Bev’s eventual heroin overdose throws adult J.D.’s plans into disarray.

J.D.’s grandma, “mamaw” Vance (Glenn Close), is the rock of the family and teaches J.D. valuable life lessons. She teaches J.D. responsibility. She provides him with the structure needed for success.

The movie’s main plot point is about J.D. driving back home to Ohio to deal with his Mother’s relapse situation. J.D. has to figure out a place for his Mother to do rehab and then drive overnight to make a 10 am interview for a highly sought-after internship. The scenes between J.D. and his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennet) are very emotional.

There was a good story to be told here, but it wasn’t J.D. Vance’s story; it was his Mother’s and Mamaw’s story. Those two intertwined stories were the two most compelling aspects of this entire movie.

The performances are solid, considering there are many limitations to the development of each character. The actors do very well with what they are given within the script. Gabriel Basso portrays J.D. as awkward, whiny, and at times unlikable. Similar to how the real-life J.D. Vance comes across; He constantly whines about something on social media. Essentially, he is just another right-wing talking head nut job.

I get the sense that J.D. has contempt for his humble background, like he is almost looking down at it. We never get a clear understanding of the real reason why J.D.’s family fell so hard, it feels like that is how things are supposed to be no matter what, and J.D. has to find his way out of that environment at all costs.

Glenn Close ended up getting an Academy Award nomination for her performance here. Some of the best moments of the movie come from this character. Mamaw Vance is this chain-smoking, tough love granny, and Glenn Close is fantastic here. She is the mirror image of the real-life Mamaw Vance.

Amy Adams needed more screen time. I felt like we needed more time to explore her backstory on a deeper level. There was apparent emotional damage done to Bev during her upbringing. The reason for all the fights, the screaming matches, the overdoses, and the constant need to self-sabotage herself was an area that needed to be analyzed further.

My favorite thing from this movie was the cinematography by Maryse Alberti. Phenomenal stuff, as usual from her.

Hillbilly Elegy is a drama that attempts to touch on several themes like never forgetting your roots and where you come from. The inherent nature of poverty, the difficulty of escaping from it, and the importance of your ancestry. However, the story doesn’t really go anywhere within the context of the drama, and it feels rushed and condensed. It simplifies and minimizes essential aspects of the family’s troubled history. This whole story would have been better served as a limited series instead of a movie.

Director Ron Howard’s filmography is full of excellent films, some of which are American cinematic classics. And although this movie may not be one of his best works, it still manages to provide us with plenty of debate. This is precisely what films, or any form of art for that matter, are supposed to stimulate and encourage.

Two out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿

Hillbilly Elegy, (2020). Streaming on Netflix.

*MOVIE RECAP: MANK

There is no measurable way to describe how much impact and influence the 1941 film Citizen Kane had on an entire generation of filmmakers; It continues to be one of the most celebrated films of all time. The myth of Orson Welles and the making of Citizen Kane endures to this day.

MANK is about screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and his intense development of Citizen Kane. The authorship of Citizen Kane has been widely disputed — It has been the subject of documentaries and many articles throughout the years.

MANK depicts Herman Mankiewicz as the sole writer of Kane and not Orson Welles. Mank initially agreed not to be credited for writing Citizen Kane. But eventually, he changed his mind and received a writing credit and shared an Academy Award with Welles for Best Original Screenplay.

This movie is structured similarly to Citizen Kane, told in a non-linear manner, mostly through flashbacks, and shot in Black and White, resembling many of Kane’s artistic styles.

We see Mank bedridden, recovering from a car accident while writing and dictating the story that will become the basis for Citizen Kane. We see Orson Welles (Tom Burke) visiting Mank at the hospital and recruiting him for his upcoming project with RKO pictures. Tom Burke is dead-on in his portrayal of a young Orson Welles.

The story flips back and forth in time, with most of the flashbacks set to the backdrop of the great depression, between 1933-1940. We get to see Mank’s political leanings and all the personal and professional struggles Mank experienced during that particular decade. At one point, we see how Mank socialized and mingled with elite Hollywood circles and how those same Hollywood elites turned away from him.

The casting is remarkable. Charles Dance (William Randolph Hearst) commands the screen on every scene. Amanda Seyfried (Marion Davies) captured the essence of a 1930s Hollywood starlet brilliantly. Arliss Howard (Louis B. Mayer) was fantastic; Howard steals every scene he is in. There is a noteworthy hallway sequence where Mayer explains his rules of Hollywood to Mankiewicz….. outstanding scene.

Even Bill Nye, the Science Guy, makes a cool cameo as the author and political activist Upton Sinclair.

Gary Oldman is superb as usual; He is very convincing, pulling off all the drunk scenes. Mank, the real-life person, was also a gambler and an alcoholic, and Oldman embodied this character’s complexities exceptionally.

The relationship between William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, and Herman Mankiewicz is crucial to understanding how Mank ended up framing Citizen Kane’s story. Hearst was one of the most powerful and influential characters during the first half of the 20th century, comparable to someone like a Rupert Murdoch of our time. You get the sense that writing Citizen Kane was a big Fuck You to Hearst.

It seems like this was a passion project for director David Fincher. On a technical level, this movie is excellent. It takes great skills and ingenuity to make a film like this. The glamour and corruption of the golden era of Hollywood are depicted beautifully. The cigarette burns between reels, the muffled dialogue, the sound, and the vintage vibes make for a stylish-looking film. Interestingly enough, Mank was written by Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher, over 30 years ago, and I read that David Fincher had been trying to get this movie made since at least 1997.

There are direct parallels between the events of this movie and our current political climate. In the 1930s, Upton Sinclair was running for Governor of California. He was calling for social reforms, and some of the wealthiest California capitalists joined up and mounted a propaganda campaign to discredit Sinclair. William Randolph Hearst, Louis B. Mayer, and other elite members of their inner circle used Hollywood’s power to paint Sinclair as a radical socialist who was going to destroy California. They used movie theaters and the radio as a medium to spread disinformation and propaganda. Similar to how social media is used today to seed mistrust and division.

The real-life Herman Mankiewicz was a highly regarded writer. In fact, he was the first theatre critic for the New Yorker and member of the Algonquin Round Table. His contributions to cinema were significant. However, today his name is not well known outside of film buffs and movie historians. Hopefully, this movie will generate new interest in his work.

Mank is a movie for legit Cinephiles and anyone who enjoys the golden-era of Hollywood. It is the portrait of a complicated artist clashing with the establishment. But above all, Citizen Kane’s profound influence on generations of filmmakers is precisely what makes this movie so compelling. You may need to watch it a few times to grasp the whole thing fully.

Four out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿

MANK (2020). Streaming on Netflix.