Film Review of the Week


Nomadland (12A)

Review: In one of the naturalistic conversations tightly woven into the fabric of Nomadland, Bob Wells – a real-life trailblazer for the van-dwelling nomadic lifestyle – explains to Frances McDormand’s widow that members of his free-spirited community never say goodbye. “We just say, ‘I’ll see you down the road’,” he softly professes. It is impossible to say farewell to writer-director Chloe Zhao’s achingly beautiful and poetic paean to solitude inspired by Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America In The Twenty-First Century. Directed, produced, written and edited by the Chinese-American filmmaker, this delicate character study lingers fondly in the memory, dedicated to a generation of outsiders who have abandoned conventional living and created self-sufficient communities off the beaten track.

McDormand’s unself-conscious lead performance as a grieving vagabond on the fringes of American society is enriched by a non-professional supporting cast of real-life nomads. Joshua James Richards’ exquisite cinematography captures tightly wound emotions in the majestic wilderness in every imaginable refraction of natural light, set to the haunting lament of composer Ludovico Einaudi’s score. Zhao’s elegant script exercises restraint when feelings are most heightened: characters turn their backs on the past without fanfare and when one nomad dies, the tribe tosses rocks into an open fire in remembrance, causing embers to spew heavenwards into a starry firmament.

Nomadland opens with archive images of Empire, a prosperous mining town in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada. When the gypsum plant closed in 2011, the God-fearing community evaporated, leaving behind a graveyard of weather-beaten empty stores and company homes. Sixty-something former worker Fern (McDormand) retrieves precious belongings from her storage locker before she hits snow-laden roads in a rusty white van. A seasonal job fulfilling orders at an Amazon warehouse tides her over.

One of Fern’s colleagues, Linda May (playing herself), quits the cacophonous shop floor for the serenity of a desert camp run by Bob Wells, which provides “a support network for people who need help now”. Fern follows Linda May to sun-scorched Arizona, where she is embraced by dispossessed and displaced souls including David (David Strathairn) and Swankie (Charlene Swankie). Moving between camps and temporary jobs, Fern is pricked with guilt by an overdue reunion with her sister (Melissa Smith) before she confronts the reality of life without her husband.

Using Fern as a dramatic fulcrum, Nomadland cherishes the enduring power of the human spirit on numerous soul-stirring detours without a clearly designated and potentially contrived final destination. Zhao’s understated and profoundly moving trek into America’s economically ravaged heartland does not draw attention to its simple yet artful construction. McDormand melts effortlessly into her surroundings, fiercely committed to authenticity in her role whether she is relieving herself in a bucket or tenderly recalling her father’s poignant mantra: “What’s remembered, lives.” By that simple measure, Nomadland burns brightly.

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Tom Clancy's Without Remorse (15)

Review: Tom Clancy’s hero Jack Ryan has existed on the page since The Hunt For Red October in 1984, which splashed onto the big screen with Alec Baldwin as the former US Marine turned CIA analyst. The character of John T Clark, who has been part of the same literary universe since 1987, has appeared briefly in Ryan’s big screen escapades, portrayed by Willem Dafoe in Clear And Present Danger and Liev Schreiber in The Sum Of All Fears. Without Remorse engineers a bullet-riddled origin story loosely based on Clancy’s novel, providing Michael B Jordan with a plum opportunity to flex the same muscles that served him well in the Creed films and Black Panther.

Italian director Stefano Sollima soaks a script penned by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples with petrol and testosterone, choreographing pyrotechnic-laden gun battles including a thrilling fight for survival in Murmansk against deadly snipers. Strangely, the most spectacular and physically demanding set piece on a plummeting airplane is starved of tension even when the action moves from the air to sea in a rapidly sinking fuselage. Shady political manoeuvring, powerplays and the obligatory double-crosses manifest as an extended chess metaphor. “I’ll show them what a pawn can do to a king!” seethes Clark at one point. Screenwriters Sheridan and Staples adopt a series of predictable moves before a solidly satisfying checkmate.

Senior Chief John Clark (Jordan) leads an elite team of Navy Seals in Aleppo including Lieutenant Commander Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith), Rowdy (Luke Mitchell) and Webb (Cam Gigandet). Their mission is to extract an American asset, held by the Syrians, based on intelligence supplied by CIA agent Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell). During the incursion, Clark discovers the captors are ex-Russian military. Three months after the team returns home, the Seals are victims of coordinated attacks and Clark’s heavily pregnant wife (Lauren London) and the couple’s unborn daughter are two of the casualties.

As Clark rehabilitates, he vows revenge against the man responsible: ex-Special Forces officer Victor Rykov (Brett Gelman). Prompted by Secretary of Defence Thomas Clay (Guy Pearce), Greer dissuades Clark from inflaming tensions between America and Russia by promising that she will bring in Rykov, alive, to answer for his crimes. “We are going to bring him to justice. Tell me that’s going to be enough for you,” she pleads with Clark. Some hope.

Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse follows a familiar mission brief, repeatedly questioning characters’ motives and moralities as Sollima cranks up the body count. Aside from a few expertly wrung tears of grief, Jordan does not have to stretch himself emotionally in the lead role. The queen is the most powerful piece on a chessboard but Turner-Smith is poorly utilised in a pivotal supporting role that should counterbalance the male posturing. For that, screenwriters Sheridan and Staples should feel deep remorse.

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Wild Mountain Thyme (12A)

Review: In 1988, playwright John Patrick Shanley deservedly won an Oscar for his original screenplay to the gorgeously giddy romantic comedy Moonstruck starring Cher as an Italian-American widow with a passion for Puccini. More than 30 years later, lightning fails to strike twice but the rain clouds certainly open in Wild Mountain Thyme, a misfiring slice of garish Irish whimsy adapted by writer-director Shanley from his 2014 Broadway play Outside Mullingar. Taking its title from a lilting folk ballad, which lead actors Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan croon in a cosy pub setting, this tangled tale of star-crossed farmers’ children has tantalising, brief flashes when performances, script and direction dance a merry jig. Alas, those genuine belly laughs are as scarce as leprechauns and a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow – Shanley stops short of going there, but only just.

A luminous cast is frequently at odds with clunky dialogue that would sit awkwardly in an outdated sitcom festooned with Guinness-quaffing stereotypes. A bewildering array of patchy Irish accents does not help a lost cause but cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt captures the lush sprawl and coastal grandeur of County Mayo even when the heavens open for a sodden, unconvincing declaration of simmering desires.

As a spirited young girl growing up on her family’s farm, Rosemary Muldoon (Abigail Coburn) listens intently to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake with her doting father (Don Wycherley). He convinces his daughter that she is a white swan and “can do anything”. Years later, when she has blossomed into an independent woman, Rosemary (now played by Blunt) hankers dreamily for aloof neighbour Anthony Reilly (Dornan). He is reluctant to reciprocate Rosemary’s doe-eyed advances.

Anthony’s ageing father Tony (Christopher Walken) fears his only child will never marry and the Reilly clan’s proud 121-year history of working the land will die with the next generation. Consequently, Tony proposes bequeathing the farm to his smooth-talking American nephew, Adam (Jon Hamm). Rosemary is furious that Anthony should be denied his birthright. As matters come to a head and a torrential downpour lashes the two farms, Tony has a heart-to-heart with his boy and reassures Anthony: “I have faith love will find you in those fields when you want her.”

Wild Mountain Thyme is one profane, boozy priest shy of a tongue-in-cheek parody but writer-director Stanley earnestly pursues his convoluted romantic agenda. He engineers a flimsy love triangle by recycling the life-affirming opera scene in Moonstruck for a ballet performance of Swan Lake in New York, but it is impossible to take the heavy-handed convolution seriously. Blunt and Dornan work tirelessly to find a four-leafed clover in the tall grass of Shanley’s script but it is a thankless undertaking.

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