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NOMADLAND: WORTH WAITING FOR

Filmmaker Chloé Zhao opens Nomadland on a tight closeup of Fern’s face—a woman we might chance to meet any day of the week.  Because she is played by Frances McDormand there is no better way to establish a connection between her and us in the audience. We know she is genuine; there is no artifice here. Fern is leaving a town so desolate (since the closing of a factory) that its zip code has been retired. She puts in time at the local Amazon warehouse, collects her pay and retreats to a modest van. She’s not homeless, she explains; she’s houseless, and there’s all the difference in the world. Fern has learned to survive on her own since the death of her husband. She keeps to herself…

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A MEL BLANC DISCOVERY

Sometimes a gem can be hiding in plain sight—or within hearing distance. A few weeks ago I turned on Turner Classic Movies (my go-to channel) and watched part of Alexander Korda’s 1942 production The Jungle Book, starring Sabu. I hadn’t seen it in a while and it’s very entertaining. But when Mowgli encountered the giant snake Kaa, I listened carefully to the voice and realized it belonged to Mel Blanc. It had never occurred to me before; he’s speaking in a very low register so it isn’t immediately apparent. Then I thought of him performing his parody of a popular radio commercial in a Warner Bros. cartoon, saying, “Beee-Ohhh” and I was certain. The best way for me to confirm this, since neither Mel nor any…

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‘MINARI’ IS AN ARTISTIC TRIUMPH

To have won both the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival indicates, correctly, that Minari is an artistic triumph as well as a crowd-pleaser. Clearly a passion project for writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, inspired by his own life, it traces a star-crossed Korean family’s experiences trying to work a farm in Arkansas during the 1980s. If the story isn’t unusual, the details are, and it is those moments of sharp observation and unique behavior that set the film apart. Steven Yeun and Yeri Han play a married couple who are raising two young children when they follow his dream (not hers) to the middle of America, where their new home is a cramped trailer in the middle of a barren…

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JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH

Judas and the Black Messiah is a provocative movie title and the film that bears it lives up to the expectations it generates. Director Shaka King plunges us into action in the opening scene, where a little-remembered figure named Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) brazenly steals a car using a counterfeit FBI badge as his weapon of choice. His immediate capture enables a true-blue FBI agent (Jesse Plemons) to blackmail him into working as a stool pigeon. He infiltrates the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers and works himself into the inner circle of its leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Having recently watched Sam Pollard’s riveting documentary MLK/FBI it’s especially interesting to view this story from the inside. Martin Sheen, under a pound of makeup, briefly plays…

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LAND: AN IMPRESSIVE DEBUT FILM FROM ROBIN WRIGHT

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that any feature-length film that has earned Robin Wright’s complete commitment—as actress and director—would be worthwhile. But Wright’s film is more than merely competent: her bywords seem to have been simplicity and honesty. That goes for her moving performance as well as her treatment of the screenplay by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam. Land is a damn good movie. This is a story of how one woman deals with grief: by moving to a cabin in the wilderness of a snowy mountain chain. She gives herself no options by discarding her cell phone and asking the realtor who drove her there to have someone pick up her rental vehicle. She is truly alone, and as she quickly discovers, utterly unprepared to…

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‘LITTLE FISH’ EXPLORES A DARING IDEA

I’m not sure when Aja Gabel wrote the story that became Little Fish, but I don’t think it was during the pandemic that has seized the world. In the near-future depicted here it’s a different kind of malady that overtakes society: a disorder called Neuroinflammatory Affliction, or NIA. It causes people to lose their memory—sometimes all at once, sometimes in stages. In the midst of this unfathomable blight two people meet and fall in love. Their challenge is to maintain that relationship as long as they can, after he shows the first, heartbreaking signs of memory loss.  The film rises or sinks on the empathy we feel for those lovers, who couldn’t be more perfectly cast. Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell are both likable and believable.…

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TWO OF US: A SENSATIONAL SLEEPER

There’s nothing more exciting to me than making a discovery. I wasn’t at the Toronto International Film Festival when Two of Us made its debut in the fall of 2019. It has played other prestigious festivals, including Los Angeles’ Outfest.…but I finally made it a priority when I read that it is France’s official entry for the Academy Awards this year. Now I’m telling everyone who will listen that it’s a must-see. Two of Us opens with an intriguing prologue showing two girls playing hide and seek. It’s a visual metaphor that foreshadows a crimp in the longtime, loving relationship between two older women, played by the great German actress Barbara Sukowa and the Comédie Française veteran Martine Chevallier. They plan to run off to Rome to start a…

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