Sunday, February 14, 2021


Hope everybody's had a great Valentine's Day!

Today also marks the kickoff of...

...this year's Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival. This, the 25th annual fest, is an entirely virtual affair. Check out my column, online at Phoenix Magazine, about the event.

Friday, February 12, 2021


Opening this weekend at Arizona Mills IMAX...

Nomadland--Frances McDormand is Fern, a widow left adrift after her gypsum mining village in Nevada becomes a ghost town. She wanders the western states in her beloved van, which she calls "Vanguard," following seasonal work, and connects with the subculture of van and RV nomads with a hub in Quartzsite, Arizona. She works cleaning state parks or in the kitchen at Wall Drug in South Dakota, at a beet harvest in Nebraska, at an Amazon facility in Nevada. She makes friends; a fellow nomad named Dave (David Strathairn) might even be a love interest, although Fern is cautious in such matters.

Scripted and directed by Chloe Zhao, this adaptation of Jessica Bruder's nonfiction book feels like a true original, heartwarming without sentimentality, maybe a hair slow but beautifully acted and shot. McDormand and Strathairn are the only two professional actors that I recognized; most of the rest of the cast, including "vandwelling" YouTube guru Bob Wells, use their own names and play themselves, with great warmth and poignancy. This gives the movie the quality of a documentary, but with a movie star presence at its center.

And it need hardly be said that McDormand is wonderful; Fern is another of her classic sensible yet frayed at the edges creations. She gets across Fern's aching sadness at finding herself at such a cosmically loose end, but she also shows us the exhilaration she feels at her independence. Whenever Fern is tempted with an offer of permanence, her instinct is to move on. Maybe when Kris Kristofferson observed that freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, Fern's lifestyle is what he meant.

Also opening today...

Minari--Lee Isaac Chung wrote and directed this autobiographical chronicle of a Korean family struggling to start a farm in rural Arkansas in the early 1980s. Dad Jacob (Steven Yeun) is an expert "chicken-sexer" (able to quickly determine the sex of chicks at a hatchery and sort them). He's dragged his family from California to the south, to the horror of his pretty, pious wife Monica (Han Ye-ri), because he wants to start a produce farm specializing in Korean vegetables and fruits for what he perceives as a growing immigrant market in Dallas and Oklahoma City (the title refers to an herb popular in Korean cuisine).

The couple and their two young children, Annie (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim) are eventually joined by a mischievous, fun-loving Grandma (Youn Yuh-jung), who doesn't seem to David to act like a grandma is supposed to. There's also a showcase role for Will Patton, as a religiously ecstatic, tongue-speaking farm hand trying to help Jacob realize his dream.

This may be the best film I've seen so far this year; a contemporary take on the early-'30s dramas about ordinary people up against agricultural and meteorological fate, like Murnau's City Girl or Dovzhenko's Earth. As in those films, the antagonists are largely elemental: water, fire, health. But Minari's characters aren't emblematic; they have a psychological subtlety and reality, and their passions and priorities also drive the conflict. The story-telling is simple, but the problems these people have with the land, and with each other, are anything but.

The Mauritanian--The title character, played with disconcerting charm by the Algerian-French actor Tahar Rahim, is Mohamedou Ould Salahi, who was held at Guantanamo Bay for a decade and a half, and tortured, without ever being charged with a crime, on suspicion of having been a recruiter for 9/11 terrorists. Jodie Foster and Shailene Woodley are the pro bono lawyers working to free Salahi under habeas corpus, and getting stonewalled by U.S. intelligence. Benedict Cumberbatch is the Marine officer assigned to prosecute Salahi, who finds himself equally stonewalled.

Directed by the capable Scotsman Kevin Macdonald, this is another of the surprisingly large class of political dramas like The Report or Official Secrets or Fair Game, which remind us of the constitutional outrages of the W. Bush administration, as well as the failure of the Obama administration to rectify most of them. Macdonald sets a unhurried pace, and generates a steadily waxing sense of almost Kafkaesque fury and horror. It's a well-acted, compelling movie and it can boil your blood. And it should.

Friday, February 5, 2021


This week "No Festival Required" offers, along with the 1976 Texas music documentary Heartworn Highways...

M. C. Escher: Journey to Infinity--Robin Lutz directed this deft and speedy documentary portrait of the Dutch woodcut and print artist famed for repeated symmetrical patterns; birds and lizards taking shape in the spaces between other birds and lizards; gravity-defying, dimension-bending stairways; hands drawing the hands that are drawing them and the like. It traces his life, from art school in Delft and Haarlem to artistic awakening in Italy until Mussolini drove him to Switzerland and then Belgium, where the Nazis made him uncomfortable and ultimately drove him back to the Netherlands.

There are a few talking heads: Escher's own (now elderly) kids, and Graham Nash, who's a big fan. But the focus is less on his life than on the evolution of his art, although Escher claimed he was less an artist than a mathematician. Many of us would be inclined to disagree; his style is impeccably lovely, and his visions are playful and beguiling at the same time they carry unsettling perceptual resonances. He is perhaps vulnerable to the charge of gimmickry; this may be why serious critical appraisal was slow to come, despite (or because of) his work's worldwide popularity.

But it would be hard to suppose, based on Escher's diaries and other writings from which the narration of this film is taken, that he was a crass huckster. Indeed, he seems perplexed and a bit pained by the enthusiasm of hippies and rock stars for his pictures. This narration, spoken with Cleese-worthy buoyancy and a touch of comic pomposity by Stephen Fry, is one of the movie's best assets; it's the perfect seasoning to the feast of Escher's images.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021


Another spooky one, available today on Prime:

The Funeral Home (La Funeraria)--This Argentine chiller takes place entirely in and around the cheerless title establishment. It unfolds through long tracking shots that prowl the rooms and grounds to the accompaniment of screeching, groaning music, and I can't deny that it worked my nerves and creeped me out.

But the movie is more than cheap scares. It's a well-constructed, very well acted supernatural analogy for how a family can carry on in a home despite the presence of extreme dysfunction. Bernardo (Luis Machin), the funeral director, lives in the back of the home with his wife Estela (Celeste Gerez) and her teenage daughter Irina (Camila Vaccarini) from an earlier, abusive marriage. There's plenty of domestic tension in the house anyway, but it's compounded by the fact that the family is well aware of the ghostly, even demonic presences in the house, and the adults have chosen to simply tolerate them. Irina isn't OK with this, understandably; she wants to move in with the abusive father's mother. Just as understandably, Estela isn't OK with this.

The acting is top-notch. Better yet, though the tale has a psychological subtext, writer-director Mauro Ivan Ojeda keeps the film fun-scary instead of depressing-scary by playing rigorously by the hokey rules of the ghost story; Ojeda even manages a touching flourish in the final minutes with lapsing into sentimentality, or losing the sinister atmosphere. This movie is literal-minded in the best way.