Sunday, February 07, 2021

Road Trips at the End: Supernova and Nomadland

So, I figure that this should last me until vaccination, and if it doesn't, then I've been out waaaaay too often. I probably really don't need the temptation of movie theaters reopening right now, especially since I've started to slip back into the habit of making small runs for a thing or two that I need rather than loading up and hunkering down for the whole week. If I'm going to justify going out to movies to myself - which I would talk myself into during the fall because I live alone and mostly stay home for days afterward - I should tighten that up.

Of course, there's the whole question of theaters being open at all, which got some extra teeth-gnashing this week as Imax announced the Lord of the Rings movies getting giant-screen re-releases starting on Friday using the new 4K masters, with folks grumbling about why Imax and Warner had to do that now. I tended to look at it from the opposite side - if theaters like the local AMCs figure they need to be open because insurance won't cover the rent if they're not legally forced to close, then they need to show something, and if you figure that the places getting LOTR are going to have it for a few weeks so that people can spread the long movies out a bit... Well, it's not like those sorts of windows come along very often in non-pandemic times. Maybe you can plan for a couple weeks around Labor Day, but that's about it.

We didn't get LOTR here, but Boston Common did re-open with Nomadland on the Imax-branded screen, and that's also something that doesn't often happen under normal, non-pandemic circumstances, as studios roll out a constant stream of bigger, more VFX-based spectacles. It's a crying shame, because it proves incredibly well-suited to the format, and not just for the striking widescreen photography. I was reminded of what someone described as "big mood" after watching Shunji Iwai's Last Letter from the front section a couple years ago. There is power in letting a film fully envelop oneself, especially when it takes you out of doors and out of one's comfort zone the way Nomadland does, especially as ChloƩ Zhao makes good use of the screen, giving us lots of chances to look study Frances McDormand's face without being up her nose. I'm sure that this will be a fine move when it hits Hulu in a couple of weeks, but it's sublime on the giant screen.

It also makes a surprisingly good double feature with Supernova, especially when one looks at them as the opposite sides of losing someone. The trailer for Supernova isn't exactly deceptive, but it definitely starts in the middle and obscures just how much of the movie is just Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci on the road. That's fine - the film is brief enough that one doesn't lose patience getting there and makes for a tighter film than one might expect. All that road time made me wonder how it would look in Imax as well, which is not exactly the usual thing I'm musing about when seeing two films of such tight, personal focus.

But it's a weird time. I would never have imagined seeing the same trailer for a Serbian WWII drama distributed by a tiny label twice at the mainstream theater, but that happened as well.

Supernova '21

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2021 in AMC Boston Common #4 (first-run, DCP)

The title of Supernova gives the game away if you know your astronomy, but this is not a film about surprising you so much as getting you settled in for the inevitable, so that's fine. It's bucolic in its way, contrasting cozy spaces with lovely landscapes, letting the small cast enjoy each other so that the audience can enjoy them as well.

Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci) have been together for a long time, and used to go on road trips like the one they're on more often, but life gets busy and people slow down. This time, they're loaded into their RV for a trip out to the country where Sam will be giving a piano recital, stopping to see Sam's sister Lily (Pippa Haywood) and her husband Clive (Peter MacQueen) along the way. There probably won't be many more like it; though still fairly lively and witty, and young for its onset, Tusker is in the early stages of dementia.

Writer/director Harry Macqueen doesn't exactly try to hide that in the early going, but does present it as something that Sam and Tusker are trying hard to work around. The solitude of the film's first act means that there is no reason to explain the situation but plenty of time to observe the different levels of energy between the two and take note of how the activities presented as therapeutic are seeping into the rest of how they interact. It's early, so Sam's life is not yet consumed with accommodating Tusker's illness, but one can see it starting. It's a dynamic that will change when they reach Sam's childhood home; Lilly and Clive know the score, and they can't pretend it's not a big deal.

Not that Macqueen is going to have this be terribly melodramatic. Though there are moments when the couple's separate intentions for dealing with this come into conflict, Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth are playing smart people who have already played this out in their heads, whether they admit it or not. They play a couple that has settled in nicely, able to poke at each other with affection but also simply be affectionate, because there's nothing for them to prove after all these years. They take good advantage of their characters' shared history so that moments of confusion have weight, and little bits of stress in their voices stand out. Tucci in particular does a nice job of creating alternating layers to Tusker, his innate friendliness getting a coat of fear which he is mostly successful in covering with more earnest cheer, letting the moments where the physical symptoms of dementia appear imply more to come. Firth does well to project strength in a way that is seldom rigid, even when he's breaking down.

But for some time in the middle, this is by and large a two-person show, the sort that could almost be a play, but Macqueen seldom limits it to that sort of stage-bound limitation, especially during the pair's time on the road. There's both the comfort and unsteadiness to the way the filmmakers switch scales from wide shots of the road that seem designed for Imax but quickly narrow to tight shots that would be at home on small TVs. There's never anything to distract, maybe as much for in-story reasons as Sam tries to keep Tusker from having to process too much as for us, and despite the film being rooted in the present, all but one or two scenes occur in places unchanged for decades or generations, focusing and grounding. The world endures even as we burn out, and the light sent out generations ago still endures.

It's a fairly simple film and plays out as the audience expects (and, as an aside, a great double feature with Nomadland), and indeed almost assures the viewer that it won't do otherwise as Tusker explains what a supernova is to Sam's niece without actually using that word. But that's okay; everyone's good at what's being asked of them, and there's value in learning to sit with something that can't be avoided.

Also at eFilmCritic


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2021 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax digital)

For as much good reason as there is not to go to theaters right now, there's some small consolation in how it gives something like Nomadland some time on a multiplex's Imax screen that it would not normally be afforded with new blockbusters coming out weekly. It's beautifully shot, yes, but seeing it like that makes it all-enveloping, and seeing it after a month and a half of theaters not being open reminds one how a movie built for immersion can hit differently when not limited to the size of one's TV.

The nomad of the title is Fern (Frances McDormand); she and her late husband never had kids and had settled in a Nevada company town that completely disintegrated when said company closed the gypsum mine. She's converted a van to live in and is parking it near the Amazon fulfillment center where she's found work, but all the Christmas music on the soundtrack in the early going suggests that it might be seasonal. A co-worker tells her about an annual gathering people living a similar life in Arkansas which acts as both support system and education, so she heads there and makes some new friends - notably Dave (David Strathairn), who trades extra can openers for potholders - and then heads out for the next adventure.

As with filmmaker ChloƩ Zhao's previous features, she blurs the line between traditional narrative and non-fiction filmmaking here, even more so than in The Rider, with much of the movie feeling like fly-on-the-wall documentary, especially since it's not really time to unlock Frances McDormand's Fern yet, meaning that she spends a lot of time hanging around people with stories to tell and wisdom to impart, and it's something Zhao and McDormand handle exceptionally well. McDormand immerses herself in this world and is able to emerge seeming like part of it such that Fern's eccentricities and discomfort with conventional life never feel like performance or put-on. The veteran actress never feels like she's imitating the working-class folks around her, but she's also able to make the little adjustments necessary as a story starts to form.

That story is inevitably going to be tied to David Strathairn's eponymous character, and the audience can kind of guess that when Strathairn shows up; he's familiar in a way nobody else Fern meets is. But the fact that she merges with the non-actors and he sticks out is something Zhao uses; the way he knows how to connect to an audience means Dave-the-character connects to her, and as we see this world through her eyes, he shines just a little brighter. Just a little - he is never far off the film's wavelength - but Zhao knows the effect he has, and mines the pleasure of seeing a much-appreciated character actor show up in a film a few times and has it work each time. That Mcdormand and Strathairn approach their jobs in different ways but each serves their characters' rootlessness in a way that fits means that as much as the audience inevitably enjoys them together, we also see how it might just not work.

Both manage to immerse themselves in this world without much ego, and that's necessary, because the documentary side to this film demands respect. It doesn't work if Zhao can't step back and recognize that this life fits these people's needs even if the circumstances that led them there often means that they have been failed in some way. There's empathy but not pity for these people that she mostly allows to just be themselves on screen, and love for both the wide-open country and honest work surrounding them. Zhao doesn't romanticize this life - I suspect she included three or four scenes about relieving oneself in awkward situations to drive home that it isn't necessarily fun in very basic ways - but she does find beauty in things that many in the audience have likely walled themselves off from in the name of safety and comfort.

And there is a lot of beauty here; when Zhao and cinematographer aren't pointing the camera at something beautiful - just look at the Badlands in this movie - they're catching the ends of days, either during the golden hour or with the sun setting in the background, lending either bare parking lots or deserts a sort of warm glow that reflects the people Fern finds there who are generally kind despite being weathered and disappointed. Ludovico Einaudi's score contributes to that as well - it's simple, but firm, never trying to do too much or impress with subtlety.

As a snapshot, Nomandland is appealing without trying to be convincing, but it's not just about a different way of life. By the end, Zhao and McDormand have communicated just how it can feel to be unable to either stay put or let go, and though few will act upon that feeling in this fashion, there is something universal to that, especially when presented with what feels like less artifice than usual.

Also at eFilmCritic

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