Current Cinema Catch-Up 1 – Nomadland, Judas and the Black Messiah, Godzilla vs. Kong

Before the pandemic and before I started writing this Blog I used to go to the cinema once a week on a Monday, normally catching a double-bill of my own choosing, and occasionally lucky enough to watch three movies in a day. Since cinemas re-opened in my neck of the woods in mid-May I’ve found it impossible not to return to my old habits. So here’s my first triple-bill.

Nomadland  (2020) ****

Easy Rider meets The Grapes of Wrath except in both these cases the travellers had a distinct destination in mind. Like the title implies, the characters in Nomadland are going nowhere, and often just round, though somewhat contentedly, in circles. Deservedly winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actress Frances McDormand and Best Director Chloe Zhao, this not so much invests in diversity but in a world we never knew existed, of people who live out their lives in the backs of vans and trailers. In a previous generation, they might be deemed trailer trash, but that’s not the case here. They may be humbled but they are not unprincipled.

Recently widowed Fern (Frances McDormand) takes to the road after unemployment closes down her small town and temporary work at the local Amazon depot dries up  after Xmas. Considering herself “houseless” rather than “homeless” Fern finds herself involved in a peripatetic community of like-minded individuals, some drifting due to circumstance, others wanting to live out their last years as sight-seers. It’s not a drama and it hardly even qualifies as a docu-drama because virtually nothing happens but it is an eye-opener, not just for the visuals but for the way it explores the inherent loneliness in society. Once she has a taste for the road, Fern spurns every opportunity to settle down. The characters encountered are definitely originals and have the feel of genuine nomads – Swankie and Linda May certainly are –  the camera just happened to catch as it tracked by.

A true original with McDormand – her third acting Oscar after Fargo (1996) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2107) plus another one as producer here – giving a tremendous performance as a passive individual surrendering, despite occasional indignity and hardship, to the joys of roaming.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) ****

Rather than face a jail sentence. car thief Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) turns FBI informant and infiltrates a Black Panther group led by Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Spurred on by FBI controller Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), O’Neal’s work has disastrous consequences.

As a devastating expose of the criminal activities undertaken by the world’s highest- profile criminal-catching operation, the FBI,  this is a first-class procedural type of picture, where, courtesy of the suspense created by director Shaka King (Newlyweeds, 2013), you find yourself rooting for O’Neal as he comes close to being discovered. But it is also grounded by an impeccable performance by Kaluuya (Queen and Slim, 2019) who portrays Hampton as a gentle soul, shy with women, but with a gift for public speaking that rouses a put-upon generation.

The Black Panthers are shown as instigators of genuine social reform, setting up medical programs etc, rather than just gun-toting rebels. Kaluuya won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor but in truth he steals the show from the lead Stanfield.  

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) ***

If you can make out what is going on in among all the noise and implausibilities then there is a halfway decent summer blockbuster to be enjoyed. The sci-fi gobbledegook spouted by scientist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) leads Kong-whisperer Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) and Ilene (Rebecca Hall) into harm’s way, so far beneath the earth you are likely to poke up in Australia. Naturally, the two ancient behemoths go head-to-head while destroying everything in sight.

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)***

There may be spoilers ahead.

No wonder Warner Brothers took the first opportunity to dump this bloated mess onto HBO Max. It’s two hours of heavy-handed satire/message and 30 minutes of action. The date of the title is bit of a misnomer, so don’t look too hard for any George Orwellian influence (or even any old hit singles). And the jokes about Steve (Chris Pine) being in a state of awe about turning up 70 years into his future are mostly weak – how many times can you squeeze a laugh out the fact that an elevator moves for goodness sake?

Which is a shame because it starts very well indeed with a young Diana (Scottish actress Lilly Aspell) taking part in a Games against much older rivals. The competition itself is very imaginative and there is a surprise come-uppance for the young lass. And the transition of the ultimate Wimp Woman the nerdy needy Barbara (Kitsten Wiig) into super-predator The Cheetah is a joy to behold as she lifts jaw-dropping weights, discovers her inner slinky sexy self, and literally kicks the ass of a sleazy scumbag. Gal Gadot’s sardonic Wonder Woman has not lost any of that character’s freshness.

The story is set, for no apparent reason, seven decades on from the superhero’s previous incursion with Wonder Woman quick off the mark to rescue a woman from being knocked down and foil a robbery, played in part for comedy. Wiig and Gadot are by far the best part of the picture, linked by a desire for something beyond their existing realities and by the contrast in how they use their super powers. Had their initial friendship turning sour provided the film’s entire focus then the result would have been far more enjoyable, Wiig’s evolution into uber-villain commanding the screen, and the ultimate battle royal worth the wait.

But it’s as if Big (1988) sneaked in, the old make-a-wish idea, but this time when wishes come true they do so at a price, as Diana, pining for the return of Steve, soon realizes. Oil prospector-cum-conman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) runs Wish Fulfilment Central (and Over-Acting Central as a sideline) after discovering an ancient artefact. And that leads to a mountain of guff. No global political issue seems outside this movie’s remit as we dash between the Middle East and Russia and a remake of War Games (1983).

There’s an unhealthy obsession with chucking children into the action with the sole intent of heightening tension (especially in one sequence when kids with acres of desert to play in insist on playing on the road!) And there’s a predilection for instant solutions – Wonder Woman suddenly remembers she can make things invisible, and the golden wings she finally dons come with a quickly-inserted legendary backstory.  

The element of Wonder Woman turning more human through the loss of her powers, and the human consequence of regaining those powers, would have been enough to anchor the story without the need for an endless lecture. The action sequences are top-notch – there’s a sensational sequence in the desert – but overall this feels like a movie Meghan and Harry would make.

Ironically, this $200 million picture – whose sole function is to make gazillions – informs us that greed is bad. Even more bizzarely, I guess in the interest of future sequels, nothing – not even love – can interfere with Wonder Woman’s super powers.

In cinemas now (if you can find one open, that is) and on HBO Max on Dec 25.