Bitches of the Badlands

Nomadland

by Hope Madden

Nobody sees American poverty as honestly or as poetically as filmmaker Chloé Zhao.

Those who saw Zhao’s sublime 2018 cowboy story The Rider will recognize her romantic fascination with the American West. That’s not the only thumbprint the filmmaker leaves on her third feature, Nomadland.

She weaves a spontaneous, near-verite style into lonesome, wide vistas of a rugged America we think of as lost to time. In doing so, Zhao creates a lucid dream where struggle as reality is somehow beautiful but never sentimental.

The incandescent Frances McDormand stars as Fern, an itinerant widow since her hometown of Empire, Nevada ceased to exist once the gypsum mine closed. We join Fern on her journey sometime after that collapse. She’s just beginning to customize “Vanguard,” the van that serves as her new home.

In that same loose style that’s marked Zhao’s previous films, Nomadland follows Fern through her days, boxing product for Amazon in the winter, working vacation rest stops and tourist destinations in season, and traveling the country in the meantime following work, looking for a safe place to park, and getting to know this country.

Zhao—who writes, edits, and produces as well as directs—based the screenplay on Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book. Empire was a real place. Fern is a fictional character, but those who mentor her in her new life—including the endlessly endearing Linda May and brilliantly saucy Swankie—are, indeed, real nomads.

McDormand is perhaps the only perennial Oscar contender who could fit so seamlessly in this tapestry. Without an ounce of vanity or artifice, her performance allows this film to be one of resilience and promise. Given that Normadland is, in fact, the story of a penniless Sixtysomething widow who lives in a van, that is in itself a minor miracle.

But that’s the film—a minor miracle. Perhaps only in a year when the billion-dollar franchises were mainly held at bay could we make enough space to appreciate this vital and beautiful reimagining of the rugged American tale of individualism and freedom, which is almost always also a story of poverty.

Fright Club: Oscar Nominee Skeletons in the Closet

You know what? This year’s batch of Oscar hopefuls have made some genuinely excellent horror movies. Richard Jenkins starred in not only the amazing Bone Tomahawk, but also the underseen Fright Club favorite Let Me In. Willem Dafoe took a beating in the amazing Antichrist and grabbed an Oscar nomination for his glorious turn in Shadow of the Vampire. Laurie Metcalf made us laugh and squirm in Scream 2 and Woody Harrelson led one of our all time favorite zombie shoot-em-ups, Zombieland.

But what’s the fun in talking about that when so many of the nominees have made so many bad movies? Here we focus on the worst of the worst, but if you check out the podcast we mention even more.

5. Halloween II (2009)

Octavia Spencer’s 20+ year career, struggling early with low-budget supporting work, guarantees her a place in this list. Indeed, she could have taken several slots (2006’s Pulse is especially rank), but we find ourselves drawn to Rob Zombie’s sequel to his 2007 revisionist history.

Zombie ups the violence, adds dream sequences and suggests that Laurie Strode (played here, poorly, by Scout Taylor-Compton) shares some hereditary psychosis with her brother Michael.

Spencer plays the Night Nurse, which naturally means that she dies. Pretty spectacularly, actually, but that hardly salvages the mirthless cameo-tastic retread.

4. Gary Oldman: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Francis Ford Coppola took his shot at Dracula in ’92. How’d he do?

Cons: Keanu Reeves cannot act. Winona Ryder can act—we’ve seen her act—but she shows no aptitude for it here, and lord she should not do accents. Anthony Hopkins has always enjoyed the taste of scenery, but his performance here is just ham-fisted camp.

Pros: Gary Oldman, who can chomp scenery with the best chewers in the biz, munches here with great panache. He delivers a perversely fascinating performance. His queer old man Dracula, in particular – asynchronous shadow and all – offers a lot of creepy fun. Plus, Tom Waits as Renfield – nice!

Still, there’s no looking past Ryder, whose performance is high school drama bad.

3. Clownhouse (1989)

There are several fascinating pieces of information concerning the derivative yet uniquely weird Clownhouse. These range from odd to awful.

1) The Sundance Film Festival somehow found this film—this one, Clownhouse, the movie about 3 escaped mental patients who dress as clowns, break into a house where three brothers are home alone on Halloween night, and commence to terrify and slaughter them— worthy of a nomination for Best Drama. If you haven’t seen this film, you might not quite recognize how profoundly insane that is.

2) The great and underappreciated Sam Rockwell made his feature debut as the dickhead oldest brother in this movie. The clowns themselves—Cheezo, Bippo, and Dippo—are genuinely scary and garishly fascinating, but outside of them, only Rockwell can act. At all.

3) Writer/director Victor Salva would go on to create the Jeepers Creepers franchise. But first he would serve 15 months of a 3-year state prison sentence for molesting the 12-year-old lead actor in this film, Nathan Forrest Winters.

So, basically, this film should never have been made. But at least Rockwell got his start here.

2. Margot Robbie: ICU (2009)

Margot Robbie is a confirmed talent. Underappreciated in her wickedly perfect turn in Wolf of Wall Street, she has gone on to prove that she is far more than a stunning beauty (though she certainly is that).

Not that you’d realize that by way of her early work in this low-budget Aussie dumpster fire.

The then-19-year-old leads a cast of unhappy teens vacationing for the weekend with their estranged dad, who’s called into work yet again. To entertain themselves, they peep on their neighbors through the facing skyscraper windows.

Robbie showers, swims and changes clothes at least 3 needless times within the film’s opening 10 minutes, which makes a film that wags a finger at modern voyeurism feel a little hypocritical. But to even make that statement is to take writer/director Aash Aaron’s film too seriously. Heinously acted, abysmally written and tediously directed, it amounts to 50 minutes of whining followed by utterly ludicrous plot twists, unless Australia boasts the largest per-capita number of serial killers on earth.

But the point is this: Robbie would go on to deliver stellar performances, so this is just something we all need to shake off.

1. Frances McDormand: Crimewave (1985)

Is a horror film really a horror film just because imdb.com says so?

Well, anything as bad as Crimewave is a horror, that’s for sure. The fact that it’s a slapstick crime comedy at its heart hardly matters.

Co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen, directed by Sam Raimi and co-starring Bruce Campbell, this film has a pedigree. And we love them all so much we can almost forgive them for this insufferable disaster. But we suffered through it for two scenes—one at the beginning, one at the end—involving a nun who’s taken a vow of silence.

Frances McDormand, what the hell are you doing in this movie?

No, no. We get it. If we were duped into optimism by Coen brother involvement, what hope did you have? You couldn’t have known that the result would be a tiresome, embarrassing, un-funny, painful waste of 83 minutes.





Truth in Advertising

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

by George Wolf

In any form, great writing is a joy to behold. On the movie screen, pair it with skilled actors and you’re more than halfway home to a memorable experience.

Three Billboards… gets all the way home.

Writer/director Martin McDonagh provides his stellar ensemble with smart, insightful dialog that crackles with bite, poignancy and scattershot hilarity. His tale is offbeat but urgent and welcome, speaking as it does to grief, compassion, and navigating the contrasts between the good and evil in our flawed selves.

Frances McDormand is sensational as Mildred, a woman still haunted by the unsolved murder of her daughter seven months earlier. Passing by a series of abandoned billboards on her rural drive home one evening, Mildred decides to rent them, publicly asking Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, capping off a year of multiple great performances) why there have been no arrests.

This is not a popular move, not with the Sheriff, his violent deputy (Sam Rockwell – fantastic), Mildred’s abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes), her embarrassed son (Lucas Hedges) or…who else ya got?

Only an enthusiastic co-worker (Amanda Warren) and a hopeful suitor (Peter Dinklage) offer support, leaving Mildred as a small-town pariah.

She is unmoved, and McDormand crafts Mildred with meaningful layers, as a foul-mouthed firebrand lashing out at injustice and sorrow with a defiant lack of concern for consequence. She is absolutely award-worthy, as are Rockwell and Harrelson, and as their character arcs take unexpected detours, the film displays its relevant social conscience through both subtlety and aggression.

McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) compliments his usual knack for piercing wordplay with well-paced visual storytelling and some downright shocking tonal shifts. We are constantly engaged but never quite at ease, as McDonagh demands our attention through brutality and dark humor, holding the moments of humanity until they will be most deeply satisfying.

Behind Three Billboards..are performers able to create rich, indelible characters and a bold filmmaker whose vision and instincts have never been more on point.





Walk the Dinosaur

The Good Dinosaur

by Hope Madden

Is there any name in filmmaking more reliable, any surer bet, than Pixar?

Maybe not.

The Good Dinosaur, as is always the way with a Pixar film, opens with a fascinating short. Longtime Pixar animator Sanjay Patel directs his first effort, and Sanjay’s Super Team defies expectations to tell a lovely, warm story of overcoming father/son barriers and, in doing so, opens larger doors for similar cross-cultural embracing.

The animation giants’ second feature in less than a year takes us back to a magical time when dinosaurs were farmers and cowboys. That meteor? It missed Earth, you see, so this is what might have happened had we evolved right alongside those majestic beasts.

Rather than relying on a star-laden vocal cast (although Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn, and the unmistakable Sam Elliot do lend their talents), the bulk of the film features – almost solely – the work of 14-year-old Raymond Ochoa.

Ochoa plays Arlo, the runt of the dino litter who needs to battle his own insecurities to find a way to make his mark. He does so with the help of a feral whelp of a human called Spot.

Though the story borrows heavily from The Lion King, first time director Peter Sohn combines hyper-realistic scenery with very cartoony characters in a way that’s surprising and lovely. Punctuated frequently with silly humor, the mostly serious tale does not shy away from darker edges and a real sense of peril, eventually delivering a genuinely emotional punch.

Sohn is even craftier without the aid of dialog, as many of the funniest and most touching moments are delivered in silence or with grunts.

After producing arguably the best film of 2015, Pixar has the cajones to release a second feature this year. I guess when you’re the undisputed king of cartoons, that kind of swagger makes sense. And while The Good Dinosaur is no Inside Out (or Up or Toy Story, for that matter), it’s a worthy entry in their impressive canon.

Verdict-3-5-Stars