September 14th, 2020

Nomadland: TIFF 2020, such as it is, began on Thursday. There is a live component where they are showing about 50 films, rather than the traditional 300+, and they have fewer venues (a couple of drive-ins and TIFF Lightbox) and an online component. Bell has set up a digital theatre (sadly only for Canadian viewers it would seem) to stream some of the available films. For the cost of a ticket during TIFF normally ($26), I was able to stream at home the latest film of Frances McDormand entitled Nomadland. McDormand has won the Oscar twice before (once for Fargo, and the other Three Billboards…). Both of those performances are excellent. She is also producing this latest story. In it, she plays a woman in her sixties from a small mining town in Nevada in 2011 named Empire. Empire’s sheetrock plant was closed and the town, according to the movie’s open lines didn’t even have a zipcode any longer. Fern was married, but her husband passed and she is one of the last to leave Empire. She has very little and has packed up what she had from a storage locker facility into a panel van. She is living out of the panel van, and moving from job to job and place to place. The story is slow. I had half expected there to be a challenging moment, which would force some decision to be made (likely health- and safety-related) for Fern. It doesn’t really materialize. Instead you have scenes of her mingling with various people she meets along the way. Nomads, by definition, are loners generally. So groups of loners meet from time to time in various places and take up random, temporary work where they can find it. The western economy philosophy is explored about the almighty dollar with perspectives of those chained to desks, doing jobs that they don’t like, and trying to pay for things that they don’t need. This is a story of the disenfranchised. The free market has left them behind, and they likely don’t vote or can’t vote given that they have no fixed address. Do they even care? I am not sure that this is an Oscar-worthy performance, but then again, I am not sure that even having awards for 2020 makes much sense. How many films will be new and released? How many will people actually see? In an unusual year, I don’t foresee that this movie will take the honours for Frances. Without a doubt she carries this movie, but for me, it didn’t really have a lot to say. 

Knives Out: I managed to see this murder-mystery caper last week with a very good cast, including Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, and others. It was well-done and fun. It is ultimately more complicated than I had anticipated, so you have to pay close attention. Things are not as straight-forward as they at first appear. It will keep you guessing all the way until the ultimate conclusion. Christopher Plummer plays a family patriarch who is a successful murder-mystery writer. He has a family not that altogether different than the dysfunctional family seen in Succession; that is, hangers-on and screw-ups who are waiting in various degrees of patience for the old man to pass away. The setting is a gorgeous mansion in the country. Someone dies, many have legitimate motives, and fingers are pointed. Craig plays a Kentucky-based detective who was hired to oversee the whole sordid affair. This is a throwback to Agatha Christie novels with a good cast. This was worthy to check out and some fun.

Les Miserables (2019): This is NOT the movie where Russell Crowe tries to sing, and does about as good a job as Pierce Brosnan did in Mamma Mia. It is NOT the musical set to film about the French revolution. It is an Oscar-nominated film for Best Foreign Film from last year. I love Paris, it is my favourite city in the world. The history, the architecture, the museums, the wine, the cheese, and of course, the baguettes. When I wander around Paris, I can feel the history in those cobblestones. What I don’t think about while standing in line at Notre Dame or sitting on the hills near Sacre Coeur is that this is a modern city as well, with over 12 million people. Like any big city, it also has its challenges. 

This movie explores a young police officer joining an Anti-Crime Brigade in an urban part of Paris that tourists won’t be visiting anytime soon. He is a relatively new cop, and joins an existing team of two. The head white guy is introduced and almost immediately puts the rookie down with a label that is meant to make him understand who is in charge. The other colleague is a black man who has been with the other guy for quite some time. Together they drive around the neighborhood in a way reminiscent of Training Day with Denzel Washington. 

The similarities are evident, with the street smart leader in the car who takes liberties with his power and muscles his way around showing how to work the streets. There are competing factions at work, like the gypsies who are in town with a circus, and demand the return of one of their animals. The gypsies accuse one of the local black boys, who has a leadership voice of a gang leader in a soccer jersey. He hates the cops and their ways. There is a stand-off, and the cops enter the fray to try and find this circus animal and keep an uneasy peace. Things happen. The cops act like many cops these days in positions of power, and an already tense situation grows more complicated. The connection between the cops fractures somewhat too. 

The underlying theme, which ties in with the Victor Hugo title, is one of “you reap what you sow”. That was true during the French Revolution, and it remains true today. If you beat down, belittle, take advantage of, and otherwise look to assert your superiority to another, you may find out that they don’t necessarily agree with you. There may be unintended consequences. I do think that the director was effective in the story when he showed the three partners back in their home situations. It shows more of the picture of who they are, with some being surprising and others not as much. In truth we don’t know anyone and their full story unless they tell us or we find out. This insight wouldn’t be readily apparent otherwise. This was a good movie, especially in the current climate post-George Floyd and other recent examples of police brutality. This is not an easy job, but there are ways to go about it that are more fair, reflect the values of the society, and will hopefully lead to better consequences. There are of course much larger societal and political aspects at play, like social services, engaging the disenfranchised, and even higher level still providing a livable wage and more fair distribution of the wealth within a society (whether that is the more socialist-leaning French, or we in North America). The story is no less relevant for those of us on the west side of the Atlantic Ocean.

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