Older. Films reviewed: Nomadland, Supernova, Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Posted in Death, Dementia, documentary, Drama, Gay, Poverty, Road Movie, Romance, UK by CulturalMining.com on February 19, 2021

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

As the baby boomers age, so do the characters in their movies. This week I’m looking at two dramas and a documentary about travelling around. There’s an older woman exploring the western US in her dilapidated mobile home; two older men driving through northern England in their old camper; and an intense documentary series that takes you across the twentieth century and back again.

Nomadland

Wri/Dir: Chloe Zhao

(Based on the book by Jessica Bruder)

Fern (Frances McDormand) is an ornery, older woman with short grey hair who lives in Empire, Nevada, a company town that processes gypsum. She likes wearing overalls and reciting Shakespeare. She followed her beloved husband to Empire decades earlier with the promise of lifetime employment.  It proved true for him — he died at work. But the empire has fallen. Now she’s a widow, the plant is closed,  the company has pulled up its stakes, and the town itself no longer exists; it’s been wiped off the map, literally. She’s broke with no prospect of work, so she packs up all her stuff, piles it into a ramshackle RV, and sets out on the highway. She’s not homeless, she’s houseless. Her home is on wheels. 

She encounters a group of people like her,  camping in RVs in the desert, like old war horses put out to pasture. They’ve got no money — instead they share goods at a trading post, sing songs around a campfire, and do each other favours like fixing flat tires. They live entirely off the grid. (You’ve heard of Burning Man? This is Burning Van.) Fern meets Dave, a friendly guy with a greying beard (David Strathairn), and she begrudgingly shack up with him. They go their separate ways looking for work where they can find it. But she meets up with him again in the Badlands as she travels across the American west. Will they live together permanently? Can Fern settle down? Or will she stick to her nomadic life and the freedom of the open road?

Nomadland is an engrossing, gritty drama about an older woman on the road trying to make it on her own. It’s all about finding friendship and hope amidst loneliness and poverty. Frances McDormand is remarkable as Fern, acting alongside non-actors, ordinary people playing themselves. 

This is Chloe Zhao’s third feature, and like her earlier films, it feels part documentary, part drama, slow paced and very real.

It’s all shot on location, against magnificent and stark scenery, the desert, the mountains, the sterile interior of an Amazon warehouse and the rustic kitchen of the famous Wall Drugs. Nomadland isn’t a Hollywood feel good movie — its even mildly depressing in parts, but on the whole it’s a magnificent and moving picture. Just Great

Supernova

Wri/Dir: Harry Macqueen

Sam and Tusker are a middle aged couple who have lived together in England for decades. Tusker (Stanley Tucci) is a successful American novelist, bald-headed with a sharp tongue. He loves staring at the night sky and thinking about distant galaxies. Sam (Colin Firth) is an English concert pianist who likes wooly sweaters and old friends. Together they used to travel the world on long trips exploring Paris, Italy, and Kyushu, Japan. Now they’re on a drive in an old  rundown camper through the rocky hills and steep green ravines of the Lake District. They’re heading for a concert hall where Sam is giving a recital after a long hiatus. Tusker is working on his latest novel. On the way, they stop to celebrate a birthday in Sam’s childhood home. Surrounded by closest friends and family, driving on a scenic highway,  snuggling up together in their camper with their shaggy dog… what could be bad?

The bad is Tusker’s early-onset Alzheimers. He was diagnosed a while back and it’s starting to reveal itself. Everything still works normally but he dreads the day when he can no longer control himself. I’ll always be there for you, says Sam. But Tusker doesn’t want that to happen. He wants to be the driver, not Sam’s passenger. Will 

Supernova is a tender  and loving drama about dying and loss. It’s full of profundities about destiny and memory, picturesque stone houses, and music on the car radio. It’s nicely acted and subtly carried out. But maybe too subtle, by half. It didn’t really move me.  There’s a single idea — Tusker doesn’t want to lose control, Sam doesn’t want to lose Tusker — but it feels repetitive,  exploring the same conflict over and over. I like the intimacy and familiarity of the characters, but the movie is too simple and Tucci’s portrayal of someone with dementia didn’t quite ring true.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Wri/Dir: Adam Curtis

What do Jiang Qing, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Red Army Faction, a London slumlord, the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya, Petrodollars, and Appallachian coal miners,all have in common? They’re all part of the documentary series directed by Adam Curtis, on the history, economy, psychology and politics of the twentieth century. He explores the fall of empires, but also the failure of revolutions. He also looks at the origins of false conspiracy theories, as well as actual conspiracies, like the CIA’s use of LSD on unsuspecting patients. Basically, he looks at what movements, schools of thought, and major changes going on today, and what inspired them.

If you’ve never seen his documentaries before, now — with all the recent confusion and strangeness and unprecedented changes — is a perfect time to start. Curtis has a unique filmmaking style, that manages to tell its story without ever shooting any new footage. Virtually all his visuals are taken from meticulously researched material from the BBC’s archives. They’re edited together in a constantly changing, almost convoluted way but that all makes sense in the end. And all his docs are narrated, relentlessly, by the filmmaker’s own distinctive voice. And they have such an unusual look, as if they are made of long-forgotten, dusty film spools he dug up in someone’s basement  but that also somehow explains what you heard on the news  news three days ago. You may or may not like his style, but I guarantee he will tell you things you never knew before.

Nomadland opens today, Supernova is playing at the Digital TIFF Bell Lightbox and you can find episodes of  Can’t Get You Out of My Head for free on YouTube. 

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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