It’s that time again. Film review time. As it is every time. This time: Nomadland, Palmer, The Human Voice, Without Remorse, Stowaway, Nobody, and Mortal Kombat. It’s about time.
In Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, Frances McDormand is Fern, a widower who, approaching retirement age, finds herself out of both job and home as a result of the late naughties financial crisis. Mainly out of necessity, but perhaps also born partly of a nascent pioneer spirit, Fern adopts the life of a van-dwelling modern nomad, eking a frugal living out of seasonal Amazon warehouse work via their CamperForce initiative, and other odd jobs throughout the remainder of the year.
The movie follows Fern as she becomes an on-off member of a loose collective of other nomads, mentored by Bob Wells, here playing himself as the founder of the hugely influential Cheap RV Living website. It has been something of a talking point around the movie that much of its cast is comprised of non-actors, most of whom are authentic nomads themselves, though in addition to McDormand we are also treated to an appearance from the always excellent David Strathairn as Dave, with whom Fern develops a low key bond.
Colour me cynical, but besides a veneer of authenticity I also think a good reason to cast non-actors is that it helps one make this kind of a movie very cheaply; $5m in this case, give or take. That’s fine, and everyone involved seems happy with the arrangement, but throughout the whole affair I couldn’t shake a feeling that there was something exploitative going on; a sense that was only compounded when I read an article of reputable origin which stated some of the nomads were surprised to find out McDormand was not actually one of them.
I’ll be over-thinking that horribly no doubt, and I don’t think it’s something anyone else seems bothered about, but it’s part of a larger sense of dissatisfaction I have with the movie that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s not that I need a laser-focused, propulsive narrative and/or a caravan to randomly explode, but I’m also not saying that I don’t think it would have helped. The value one finds in a meandering tale such as Nomadland will often build down to what one makes of the characters, and this is a movie where the most interesting ones quite often disappear after five minutes of screen time, never to be seen again. Swankie, I’m looking at you.
My biggest gripe is perhaps that I find McDormand allowing a little too much of her own personal idiosyncrasy into he role of Fern. I do like and admire McDormand a great deal as an actor, but I also harbour the suspicion that we’d probably find each other insufferable in person. There are moments here where I suspect we are seeing more of Frances than Fern, and where her contemplative ogling of the distant horizon borders a little too closely upon Emile Hirsch’s gurning in that insufferable Sean Penn directorial effort from a while back.
As interesting a concept as it is I strongly suspect I’d enjoy Nomadland more as an out-and-out documentary, rather than this halfway-house drama hybrid. I’m also incredibly glad that movies like this are being made right now, regardless of whether or not I enjoy them, and given everyone else whose opinion I value has so far told me they really enjoyed it (including my wife) I wouldn’t want to try and actively dissuade you from seeing it. Have at it, I suppose.
Palmer sees the sainted Justin Timberlake, who died for our sins and brought sexy back, play Eddie Palmer, returning to his small home town after a length stint behind bars for what is revealed, eventually, to be a serious assault and theft rap. He moves back in with his grandmother, June Squibb’s Vivian, and tries to get his life in some sort of order in a town still wary of him, eventually becoming a janitor at the high school at which he was once the star footballman.
Intruding on his homelife on occasion is the neighbour’s kid, Ryder Allen’s Sam a gender non-conforming lad in an area not known for welcoming such things, although Palmer is supportive. He is occasionally looked after by Vivian, during the stretches where his drug addled mother, Juno Temple’s Shelly, heads off into the unknown for what is presumed to be weeks of druggery. This status quo comes to an abrupt end when, whilst she’s off on one of these excursions, Vivian dies, leaving Sam, by default, in Eddie’s custody, at a time when he’s already dealing with the stress of loss.
Ultimately Eddie feels he cannot face putting Sam into the government care system and agrees to look after him until his mother resurfaces, aided on occasion by Sam’s teacher, Alisha Wainwright’s Maggie, who Eddie soon falls for. Eddie and Sam also form a solid bond over the course of things, to the point that Eddie will want to outright remove Sam from his family when Shelly and her abusive boyfriend eventually return still using, in yet another example of why they should have been deemed unfit parents many years before Eddie got out of jail.
This leads to an ending that for a moment convinced me it was going to take a darker turn before settling back into a more crowd-pleasing family ending, which I perhaps should have expected given the familiarity of all of the elements of it to that point. If you have been to as many rodeos as we have, there’s no part of Palmer that’s not been seen before, if perhaps not in exactly this configuration.
So Palmer is not going to win any awards for originality, or indeed any awards at all, really, unless there’s an award for “Most Adequate Motion Picture”. Which is perhaps a bit more dismissive than I mean it to be, after all I don’t think there’s anything of much significance I disliked about Palmer, and a lot that’s somewhere between perfectly solid and good. Eddie, Sam and to a degree Maggie are fairly well fleshed out, believable characters, and well enough acted by all concerned. By virtue of needing to be absent for most of the film I suppose Juno Temple is a little hard done by, but she certainly is giving it her all.
I don’t think there’s a lot to Palmer other than a fairly well put together, enjoyable flick to spend one hundred of your Earth minutes with, but maybe that’s all that it needs to be. Fine / Ten.
The Human Voice
The Human Voice is the new short film from Pedro Almodóvar, his first work at all in English, and something I’ve been looking forward to seeing for a long time. Such anticipation can be a dangerous thing, though, and, well.. The Human Voice is now a thing that I have seen.
Based, loosely, on Jean Cocteau’s stage monodrama of the same name, the bones of which he had already adapted into 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the work sees Tilda Swinton as a woman left by her lover of several years, awaiting his arrival to collect his belongings and enjoy a final goodbye, only to be made to make do with a phone call, of which we hear only one side.
The usual Almodóvar table stakes are met: the film is absolutely luscious, with wonderful saturated colours, dominated by reds and oranges, and the acting is excellent. Tilda Swinton, an actor I’ve never much cared for but have greatly warmed to in recent years, is captivating, and despite the incredibly interesting set she’s in (an apartment revealed to be inside of a sound stage, suggesting her relationship is also artifice, full of Almodóvar style), it’s hard to take your eyes off of her as she talks to her unheard lover and the details of their relationship and its nature are revealed.
It’s intriguing: who is this lover? What was the nature of the relationship? Who caused it to end? Was the mention of blackmail genuinely a reassurance or a veiled threat? Swinton swings from bleak despair to anger to pleading to introspection, eventually covering roughly the traditional five stages of grief in the compressed timeframe of this one emotional, cathartic, phone call. Just her. A great performance in a beautiful film.
I… don’t care?
This short is definitely not passing Scott’s Garth Marenghi test, as it’s full of subtext and metatext. For a 30-minute film it’s incredibly dense, and students of film could pore over this. And maybe they should. I just wish I could say I wanted to join them.
Say what you will about Tom Clancy’s politics… no, go ahead, say what you will. The man wrote some decent enough thrillers, even if erring somewhat on the masturbatory so far as militaria is concerned. We’ve had a decent enough volume of mid-to-high quality movie adaptations from his works, and now Amazon have seen fit bring us this adaptation of Without Remorse, the record-breaking 1993 novel that tells the origin story of recurring Clancy figure John Clark.
Formerly John Kelly, the novel sees the protagonist, a former Navy SEAL, grieve a dead wife before his new love is tortured and murdered by a drug trafficking ring, being left for dead, rehabilitated and sent to wreak havoc in Vietnam, then returning to the US to set about assassinating more drug traffickers, fake his own death and change his name to embark on a career of more murder for the CIA. I mean, it’s the life we’d all want to live.
I bring this up in some detail because it’s important to understand that the movie Without Remorse has absolutely nothing to do with any of this. In fact, it has so little to do with any of this one orders why bother labelling it as such in the first place. It is also really, really bad, and really, really stupid.
In our instance, John Kelly (Michael B Jordan) is an elite Navy SEAL, and there the similarities end. We join him and his colleagues on a mission in Syria, spearheaded by slippery CIA operative Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell), which turns out to be a covert strike against Russian assets in the area. When it all goes pear-shaped the team are understandably miffed at Ritter, but not as miffed as they will be when they start getting knocked off back home in an apparent act of retaliation by the Russians.
Now, that’s a decent enough setup for a movie like this, but unfortunately there the intrigue ends and the stupidity begins. Kelly’s pregnant wife is killed in the attempt on his own life which leaves him badly shot up, and from here we end up going down that predictable and woefully over-trodden road of macho revenge fantasy. A macho revenge fantasy that sees Kelly’s rage leveraged by the CIA in an incursion into Russia which basically serves to lend the movie a scale it neither earns nor deserves.
The whole endeavour is so massively improbable that at times it defies belief, and I find it hard to imagine Clancy would have approved of the kind of ineptitude displayed here, albeit fictionally, by his beloved military. I was initially baffled by the presence of Jordan, one of the best young actors of his generation who is here merely functional. When I realised he had a producer credit I was perhaps even more perplexed, but one assumes this was planned as some kind of a vehicle for further franchise entries in the Clark saga for Jordan to spearhead. Whether those will materialise now only time will tell, but if they do I hope a lot more respect is paid to the source materials.
Jamie Bell is at least having some fun as the convincingly scummy Ritter, even if his unexpected emergence as a genuine ally later in the film comes incredibly unconvincingly. I don’t know how much fun, if any, director Stefano Solima would have been having, because despite his strong credentials in both film and television to date he clearly cannot escape the stupidity of Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples’ script. In fairness he manages to wrangle one or two decent moments of action, notably an interrogation inside of a burning car, but there’s nothing whatsoever here to parallel his work on the likes of Gomorrah or ZeroZeroZero.
I’d honestly suggest that even Clancy die-hards ought to avoid this one, and in fact I’d say it will anger them the most. For my part I just don’t care about Without Remorse other than to grudge it the two hours of my life I’ll never get back.
In which a mission to Mars goes wrong. I am as shocked as you are. Let’s just hope there’s no ghosts there.
Toni Collette’s Marina Barnett reports to ground control that their launch appears to have used up more fuel than expected and is told not to worry about it. Which seems odd, but odder still is when she notices blood coming from the walls of the ship. Oh no, it’s all going Event Horizon again. No, thankfully it turns out it’s simply one of the ground techs that had an accident during final prep, falling unconscious and apparently no-one noticed his absence. Seems wildly unlikely, but maybe Elon tweeted something about a non-fungible dogecoin and distracted everyone or something.
At any rate, the presence of Shamier Anderson’s Michael Adams soon presents more of a problem than a simple lack of crew quarters. While Anna Kendrick’s Zoe Levenson and Daniel Dae Kim’s David Kim initially get on with their work, helped where possible by Michael, turns out having him bounce around in the wall cavities during launch has irreparably knocked out a crucial piece of life support equipment.
Essentially, there’s not enough oxygen to get them to Mars, and nothing that the brains trust back home can think of to help, particularly after the repurposing of David’s algae experiments into an ad hoc oxygen scrubber fails. So the crew are left with the horrendous moral dilemma of sacrificing some so others can live.
Now, can I take a quick moment to simply congratulate this film for existing, despite a complete absence of pan-dimensional horrors or other such nonsense. It’s a science fiction film that’s more or less about -gasp- science, not magic. In a great many ways it’s a throw back to the cinema of the seventies, which is where I imagine a lot of the most common criticisms of the film are coming from. Sure, it’s slow paced, although compared to The Andromeda Strain it’s a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster, so in a lot of ways I think this is more of a flaw with the audience than the film.
In fact, I really like approximately ninety percent of this film. There’s a solid set of turns from the ensemble, and they and the script do a fairly good job of conveying the emotion, stress and gravity of the piece, particularly when push is coming to shove, without being laden with overly descriptive clunky dialogue. I like that while it’s perhaps not exactly hard science fiction, it’s at least a slightly squidgy solid. The production design is also fairly on point and believable, certainly for a relatively small budget. There’s a lot more I like than dislike, to be sure.
It’s a shame that the one thing I did dislike threw a bit of a pall over the final reel, which without giving too much away when it comes time for the sacrifice that’s been on the cards since about the twenty minute mark, there’s a seemingly arbitrary clock put on it that, well, I can’t exactly check the maths on so I suppose I’ll just have to go with it, but really does not seem to jibe with the earlier descriptions of the situation, and left me kind of flummoxed trying to remember if I’d missed something rather than enjoying what’s supposed to be the emotional crescendo of the piece, and wondering why an excess of solar radiation gives people a weird green aura that in cartoons would denote a stench.
Something also tells me there’s a logical further act that would be more interesting than that moment of sacrifice itself, as the survivors deal with that for the not inconsiderable remainder of the voyage. So, maybe as a film it doesn’t quite stick the landing, and it’s pace means it’s not going to be for everyone, but if you are a fan of the more serious side of sci-fi from days gone by I’d say it’s worth putting on your watch list, if for no other reason than to encourage the powers that be to make some more of it, please.
Bob Odenkirk, action hero. It doesn’t really sound right, does it. Liam Neeson may have helped launch the “Ageing Action Man” genre in 2008 with Taken, and he was only a couple of years younger then than Odenkirk is now, but Neeson still cut an imposing figure.
Bruce Willis is perhaps a better comparison, his regular guy hero John McClane more closely resembling the unassuming, dishevelled appearance of Odenkirk’s factory manager, Hutch Mansell. But still, that lawyer guy off Breaking Bad, an action hero? Get outta town!
Yet here he is. Mansell’s job and appearance belie a darker past, one that he has tried to put behind him, when he was an “auditor” for some of those three-letter agencies of the United States Government, but it’s hard to reconcile with how he’s first presented, and the drab monotony of his daily life and moribund marriage. Mansell is, though, as the film describes, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and that wolf is awoken when two burglars break into his house and seemingly steal his daughter’s bracelet.
Now awake, the wolf is hungry, and Hutch decides to feed it drunken bus punk, a meal the wolf finds quite satisfying. However, part of its sustenance happened to have been the brother of a member of the Russian mafia, and he’s not happy. This fella’s a bit of a psychopath, and also has many, many men hench. You can imagine where it goes from here.
The plot is, as in so much of the genre, on the daft side, leaning towards ridiculous at times, but that’s fine, because it’s really just an excuse for some really quite crunchy and gory action scenes, in which Odenkirk acquits himself commendably. Editing helps him out a little here, but editors William Yeh and Evan Schiff, along with director Ilya Naishuller, resist the urge to go full Bourne, allowing us to actually see the damn thing, and Odenkirk is really selling it.
Pains are even taken to show that, while confident and skilled, Hutch isn’t some invulnerable superhero, and he can get hurt, and while expecting that your hero is going to lose may be a bit much, there are plenty of “ooyah!” moments, and a decent level of threat to our protagonist.
But the real key to Nobody’s success is how very, very funny it is. I don’t think I’ve laughed this hard in ages, and certainly not at anything in this genre. Odenkirk’s the key to that, as you might expect, but he is given a run for his money at times by a great turn from Christopher Lloyd as Hutch’s nursing home-resident father (it’s really nice to see Lloyd again, who I don’t think I’ve seen since Sin City: A Dame to Kill For).
Nobody is taut and energetic, spending the minimum amount of time on setup and getting into the plot-light action as soon as possible. It barrels along, skilfully mixing action and humour, and even manages to make a “you think Bob Odenkirk is an unlikely action hero? Hold my beer” move within the same damn film!
If there’s a criticism it’s that the opening scene sees Hutch remove a can of tuna from his pocket, and I was forced to think of Neil Breen. And… no, that’s about it. One of the best action films I’ve seen in years: highly recommended.
Or “What happens when an unstoppably stupid idea meets an immovably dumb fanbase?”
Welp, I’m not going to waste my time or yours trying to explain a movie based on a series of arcade fighting games that will celebrate it’s thirtieth anniversary next year. Mortal Kombat’s selling point as a game all those years ago was it’s hyper-violent combat and finishing moves, rendered on screen using what were for the time fairly realistic digitised representations of its combatants. The main complaint with Mortal Kombat the movie some three years or so later was that said violence was almost entirely absent.
What, you may ask, is the point in making a movie based on the most plot-bereft genre of video games if you remove the one thing it had going for it? Well looky here, it’s Mortal Kombat 2021 to answer all your alternate reality questions, proving (hopefully conclusively) that if you take a shit movie with no plot and no violence, then add some violence, you end up with a shit movie with some violence.
There are people among us who enjoyed Mortal Kombat 1995 and I’m not here to judge them… much. Those people felt that the only thing missing from that movie was the gore, but now that we find ourselves on this branching timeline of reality we call the 2020s many of those same people are now moaning that Mortal Kombat 2021 is missing the plot. This, it transpires, is the result of the more recent entries in the gaming franchise leaning into soap opera storytelling that’s actually won them some awards.
Now, I’ve played those games and I did not notice anything resembling a plot, but if we assume these people making such claims are being honest interlocutors then it seems like a great shame the makers of this reboot have missed the mark again, albeit from the opposite direction. I’m not here to deny anyone the pleasure of the things they enjoy the most, and I do genuinely wish they had received the plot and the gore they so desperately wanted and, I have to assume, deserved.
I will say that the one thing which could have elevated this movie at least a little would have been a smidgen more self-awareness and much more of a sense of fun. Okay, that’s two things, but clearly no one is listening, and certainly no one will hear me say the first movie didn’t have any plot either; that’s just something we’ve been nodding along to up until now because the people who extoll that are dangerous, unstable individuals. There are moments where Mortal Kombat 2021 threatens to enjoy itself, mainly embodied by Kano, one of the heart-ripping bad guys of the series, played here by Josh Lawson who brings some welcome Aussie humour to the mix, but mainly it’s taking itself way too seriously, and if you’re not a fan of the games then there is no particular reason you should so much as hover over that play button.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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