May midpoint movie roundup

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Nomadland (2020) is an Oscar-winning film directed by Oscar-winning director Chloe Zhao starring Oscar-winner Frances McDormand as Fern, a sixty-something widow, who is travelling across the Western states of the US in a beat-up camper van, taking part-time jobs and essentially living a nomadic life. She meets various other self-proclaimed nomads along the way and we slowly learn their stories and hers. It’s a gentle, slow-moving and thoughtful drama very much based more on characters than action.

McDormand is as usual very good in her role, but whether she actually deserved another Academy Award for this is up for debate. I’ve not seen the other nominees’ performances, so I won’t comment any further than that. The film itself won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s not overly long and it’s hardly offensive in any way, unless you’re an angry atheist who doesn’t believe the sentiment that we’re all travelling in a journey where we will eventually meet those we’ve left behind some day. I actually don’t buy into that myself, but it didn’t bother me hearing people talk like that in the film which to some extent is a study of loss, the meaning(less) of life and the grieving process.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is a classic film I really should have already seen a few times before now. I’m glad my first viewing was of the digitally restored version available on Amazon. The cinematography is sublime in places and while the music wasn’t to my taste and the pacing of the 3hr 48min film rather slow, I thought the film deserves all the plaudits it has garnered over the years. Peter O’Toole is great as a very complex Lawrence and Omar Sharif perhaps even better as Sherif Ali. If the character Ali was a women, you might paint this as one of the greatest romances in film history, as it is it is a bromance with subtle homosexual undertones.

The action sequences are epic and must have taken a huge amount of planning to get right. These days you send the frames off to ILM and get them to draw in the hundreds of horsemen and camel-riders and the various explosions and gunshots etc. Back then it had to all be captured in the lens and it’s so impressive just for the scale of some of the scenes regardless of the actual story. The only thing that felt a bit uncomfortable for me was watching Alec Guinness playing Prince Faisal rather than the studio finding a suitably good non-white actor to do the job. A sign of the times for sure.

Shazam! (2019) is based on the comic book character probably better known by people of a certain age or interest in the history of these things as Captain Marvel. In fact this Captain Marvel was more popular than Superman for a time in the 1940s and only got renamed decades later by DC, who inherited the character from a now defunct comic book line, to avoid conflicts with similarly named characters, most notably that of the MCU’s Captain Marvel. In the film, young Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is given the power to change into his super-powered alter-ego (Zachary Levi) by saying the word ‘Shazam!’ and of course there’s a bad guy, Dr Sivana played by a typically brooding Mark Strong, intent on causing trouble.

It’s not a DC film I was eager to watch, but after the high of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, I thought what the heck and gave it a go. The best I can say about this film is that 99% of the effects are really nice looking (indeed perhaps better than some of those in the Justice League revamp). I was a big fan of Zachary Levi in the TV series Chuck, but this movie isn’t a great showcase of his talent, it’s all a bit to dopey/cheesy. Only Mark Strong seems to be playing it straight and as such seems like he’s in the wrong movie. But hey, I’m 50 years old, so you might expect that this movie didn’t really click with me. I’m not the intended audience.

Brightburn (2019) was certainly a more enjoyable film than Shazam! and turns the Superman origin story on its head. Here we have the childless Breyers (played by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) living on a farm in Brightburn, Kansas who one night witness a meteorite strike on their land. The meteorite turns out to be a small spacecraft which has crashed landed. Inside is a baby boy who they bring up as their own. They call him Brandon. Everything is cool until he (Jackson A. Dunn) hits puberty and discovers his powers (the same as Supe with the addition of telekinesis).

Unlike ol’ red pants Brandon Breyer’s masked and caped alter-ego is an evil little shit. He takes a shine to a girl at school but when she doesn’t reciprocate he breaks her hand and kills her mother. It’s downhill from there. The film is a tightly scripted mix of the superhero and horror genre with some convincing special effects which seems to an allegorical tale feeding of parents’ fears about not understanding their rebellious teenage sons. With the same source code to corrupt, there are obvious parallels to the origin story of The Boys‘ Homelander.

Blade of the Immortal (2017) continuuing the violent streak in this batch of films is also about as far from Shazam! as you can get while still being based on a comic book – in this case a manga by Hiroaki Samura. It is legendary Japenese director Takashi Miike’s 100 feature film and tells the story of samurai warrior Manji (Takuya Kimura) cursed with a life of immortality who helps a young girl (Hana Sugisaki) to avenge the death of her father at the hands of a violent band of warriors led by the fanatical Anotsu Kagehisa (Sota Fukushi) who is intent on wiping out all marshal art schools except his.

I love a good samurai film and anything Takashi Miike serves up, so I really enjoyed this film which could be viewed as a dark comedy albeit a super-violent dark comedy. Almost every historic Japanese weapon you can think of is employed as the immortal Manji and the expert Kagehisa cut their way through literally hundreds of extras in a series of battles that culminates in a suitably intense final showdown.

There’s also a connection to the novella I am currently in the process of finalising for publication on Amazon in a few weeks in that my main character is also a Japanese immortal, albeit not as skilled with a sword as Manji.

The Highwaymen (2019) is a Netflix biopic written by John Fusco (Young Guns, Hidalgo) and directed by John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr Banks, The Blind Side) about the two ex-Texas Rangers (played by Woody Harrelson and Kevin Costner) who caught and killed Bonnie and Clyde on May 23 1934.

It’s an interesting take on a much-covered and embellished story that captivated the American public’s imagination turning the villains into national heroes. Harrelson’s character, based on Maney Gault, is more nuanced than Costner’s, based on the legendary detective Frank Hamer, who is portrayed as a law-abiding but ultimately brutal assassin. It’s a thinking-man’s buddy movie without any jokes and some interesting observations on celebrity culture and what it takes to enforce the law.

The Clapper (2017) comes a final bit of light relief after all that drama. Written and directed by Dito Montiel (Man Down, Fighting) is a heart-warming story of Eddie Krumble (Ed Helms) who works as a clapper on daytime TV shows with his friend Chris (Tracy Morgan), and falls in love with petrol station attendant Judy (Amanda Seyfried) who unfortunately seems to my mind to be too young for Eddie. But this is Hollywood where lead male actors always seem to be a lot older than their female love interests.

Krumble gets a taste of fame when he becomes a sensation on the internet and a talk show, but he really only wants a quiet life and the company of Judy. Both Helms and Seyfried play their parts well in this rather formulaic cautionary tale with a predictably happy ending. There’s some obvious underlying commentary on how the entertainment industry uses people with a disregard for their feelings and the effect on their lives, while the film is playing through the romcom tropes.

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