NOMADLAND – movie review

Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Chloé Zhao
Writer: Chloé Zhao, adapted from Jessica Bruder’s book by the same name
Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/23/20
Opens: December 4, 2020

Nomadland Movie

The people shown here may just be among those Americans who believe that the regular politicians never understood their way of life. After all, most people in Congress are well-to-do, almost all college graduates, many with degrees in law, finance, economics and even medicine. By contrast the itinerants in Chloé Zhao’s film are not likely to have seen the halls of academe. They do not live in big cities, they do not teach their kids how to ride a bicycle in the ‘burbs. These are the rural folks who, statisticians tell us. are the biggest fans of Donald Trump, who they believe is the first candidate for President who can relate to their way of life, however impossible this seems (if you see “Nomadland” and then take a look at Trump Tower in Manhattan, you may agree).

The film is adapted from Jessica Bruder’s 2018 book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century” by writer-director-editor Zhao, whose film “The Rider” is about a young cowboy whose head injury sends him on a quest for new identity in America’s heartland. Taking place not simply in our heartland but in what might be considered a rural enclave of any heartland, the story features Frances McDormand as Fern, in her mid-sixties, whose husband had died and whose town of Empire, Nevada suffers a similar fate when the gypsum mine for which everyone depends on employment goes belly-up. Even the zip code passes away in an area that could not be considered even a one-horse town.

Like Brady Blackburn, the injured cowboy in “The Rider,” Fern goes through a crisis. She takes off in her small rec vehicle, carving a new identity, wondering whether she can handle her unwelcome new independence. She runs into a virtual commune of elderly people who appear not to complain about their lives in the American West, taking warmth from the companionship of people like them. (Most are played by non-professional actors.) They take odd jobs to make ends meet, including temp work with Amazon during the Christmas season, and even there, as Fern tapes the boxes that are en route to tens of millions of homes, she looks so relaxed that you wonder about people who complain that Amazon exploits its workers—limited bathroom breaks, stop-watch timing and the like.

I think Zhao wants us in the audience to put ourselves in place of these people, and no doubt many of us imagine ourselves away from the hamster wheel, the rat-race, the belief that the American dream may consist not of the home with the white picket fence, two kids and a golden retriever, but at the same time not like that of the unfortunate homeless people who live in cardboard boxes in heartless big cities. Covering towns in what we new Yorkers may consider flyover country—Quartzite, Arizona, and bitter-cold South Dakota warmed by the campfire and the camaraderie of what some refer to wistfully as the real Americans… while enjoying sushi in a cozy restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side.

There’s even a chance of sixties-plus romance, as Dave (David Strathairn) shows how flirtation is easy when everyone is naturally friendly and non-exploitative. They part. They meet again. But what about money? Is working odd jobs in Amazon and baking doughnuts in fast-food joints able to satisfy the basics? You probably can guess the biggest expense. Remember that nomads, unless they are thumbing rides, are traveling in their own vans. What happens when they need not only gas money but a complete restructuring of their vehicles? Fern, for example, is quoted $5000 to get her broken-down wheels running again, and here’s where complete independence ends as she must hit up her sister for the money.

As you’d expect, this film does not follow the usual plot lines of commercial productions with beginnings, middles and ends, maybe some flashbacks and a slew of twists. The action is circular, and there really is not a heck of a lot of variety in Fern’s life. But isn’t there something enviable about enjoying the friendship of people who ask nothing in return, who are not out to pick your pockets?

The best thing about the enterprise is Frances McDormand’s awards-worthy performance. She is no longer the assertive but pregnant presence of Marge Gunderson in the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” or the justice-seeking Mildred of Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.” Here she is just another American seeking the American Dream in her own way, looking relaxed throughout but perhaps wondering whether she can spend the rest of her life as a wanderer.

108 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

HUMAN FLOW – movie review


Amazon Studios
Director:  Ai Wei Wei
Cast:  Ai Wei Wei
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/18/17
Opens: October 13, 2017
Human Flow Movie Poster
Famine, Poverty, War, Disease: Four horsemen of the apocalypse, human problems that will not likely go away as people make their New Year’s resolutions for 2018. Most of us know about the overwhelming problems faced by people who leave their lands in search of a better life or, indeed, of just a continued life somewhere where they can be fed and live with people who respect them as human beings.  It’s not until we see Ai Wei Wei’s engrossing, yet sad, documentary, that we see visual examples of the terrors that face tens of millions of the world’s seven billion.  And these may be the lucky ones.  Others simply stayed in their homelands, too sick or old or indifferent to move, as their bodies shriveled with malnutrition, their very beings torn apart by bombs.

Ai Wei Wei, who seems to have traveled almost as much as Hillary Clinton when she was Madam Secretary, at age sixty is an artist who has been openly critical of the lack of Chinese democracy.  In making this film he emerges once again as a humanist, a fellow concerned not with Trump’s super rich one percent, not even with the U.S. politicians’ favorite target the Middle Class, but with people who are not only poor like America’s homeless but who are at risk of life and limb.  As we see them in this film, which could have easily gone another hour to cover the field, they are walking, traveling in rickety boats, getting some rest in tents.  The verbal ones face the cameras to talk about their grievances, some in halting English, but most with their native languages of Arabic (as with Jordanians, Syrians, Iraqis and Gazans) Turkish, and other tongues.  Those affiliated with organization to help these people speak English while there are snippets of German and Greek as well.

Some of the 65 million on the move from 23 countries, who are photographed by some 12 cinematographers, are turned away by guards or by fences (there are no 70 such barriers) and barbed wire, others given just temporary respite from xenophobic authorities.  “Don’t send us back to hell,” shouts one woman, presumably more willing to live in a rain-soaked tent than to go back to their failed communities largely in Asia and Africa.  They heard that Europe is a continent enjoying freedom and democracy and empathy for the downtrodden, which they can occasionally confirm when, for example, Italian aid workers give them foil capes for warmth, probably in Lampadusa (see the movie “Fuocoamare” for more on this).

Palestinians from Gaza note that millions of their ilk are in Jordan and Lebanon, and while these people are critical of Israel, they do not utter the fierce denunciations of the Jewish state which newscasters love to capture.  One creature does find solace after living like an animal: a tiger, having escaped into Egypt thanks to a tunnel built by Gazans to sneak into Israel, paces around his cage like an animal in my own borough’s Prospect Park zoo: frustrated in his desire to live as a tiger should live.  That tiger lucks out by being flown to South Africa where he or she will presumably be released to a sanctuary.

Unrated.  140 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – B+