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.

The Fox (1967) ****

Based on a novella by D.H. Lawrence, The Fox, relocated to contemporary Canada, marked the debut of director Mark Rydell. Originally, Alan Bates (Georgy Girl, 1966), Patricia Neal (Hud, 1963) and Vivien Merchant (Alfie, 1966) were in the frame for the three roles.

Instead, the trio were Sandy Dennis, Keir Dullea and Anne Heywood. Dullea’s career was at a dead end after flops The Thin Red Line (1964) and Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965). Former beauty queen Heywood had been a Rank starlet which resulted in small roles of no distinction until marriage to the film’s producer Raymond Stross improved her prospects. The main marquee attraction was Sandy Dennis who had won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and starred in drama Up the Down Staircase (1967).

Despite the film-makers attempts to treat the subject matter with subtlety, this did not prevent film reviewers and the most sensational newspapers by pumping up the sex angle.

But it was a low-budget enterprise all the way. Dennis and Heywood play spinsters running a chicken farm in rural Canada, home-body Dennis the more introspective and content, task-oriented Heywood self-sufficient but sexually frustrated. Dullea is a merchant seamen who visits the farm in search of his grandfather, now deceased. Allowed to remain, his presence threatens their lifestyle and forces them to confront the intensity of their suppressed feelings towards each other.

Although a real fox is causing trouble, Dullea is the symbolic fox in the symbolic hencoop. Rydell displays considerable confidence in his material. It is very atmospheric, the natural backdrop, early morning sunsets and wintry chill in the air adding a certain tone, with the isolation providing a thematic template. The tiny cast creates a sense of intimacy as well as tension and the acting is uniformly good.

It was quite a feat for a small budget picture to achieve a circuit release in Britain – in this case on the ABC chain. No doubt in part due to the sensational images used in the poster.

There is no sense of lust, just a gradual emergence of submerged emotion. Tackling such a bold theme would have brought the movie some attention anyway, but nudity, masturbation and sex brought much more. That such scenes were filmed in good taste and impressed critics was hardly going to deter the salacious. The nervy, whiny Dennis has the showiest role but Heywood’s subdued performance, trapped by her conflicting sexual needs, is the central figure.

George Roy Hill might well have purloined his freeze-frame ending in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid from an idea Rydell employs here, one of only two effective stylistic devices in an otherwise highly-controlled piece. The only directorial downsides are a couple of instances of unnecessary melodramatic music when otherwise Lalo Schifrin’s gentle theme is perfectly in keeping with the picture’s mood.

Made on a budget of buttons and reliant entirely on acting skill, this is one of the decade’s low-budget triumphs, not least for its sensitive treatment of its subject matter.