Ian Floodgate: With the holiday season upon us, it looks like Christmas came early this December with many high profile films getting a release, whether that be in cinemas or via video on demand. The first of which I would like to discuss is director Chloé Zhao‘s latest film Nomadland. It follows a woman in her sixties who, after losing everything, embarks on a nomadic journey through America. There has been an immense amount of positive buzz and reaction around this film ever since it screened at the Toronto and Venice Film Festivals, winning their top awards. I’m not familiar with Zhao’s work but her sophomore film The Rider received a lot of praise and perhaps should have gained more attention in the 2018 awards season. I know you’re familiar with Zhao’s work Alex, what is about her style and films that stand out?
Alex Sitaras: I think what stands out most about Zhao’s films are her characters and the writing. She creates scenarios that truly test the strength and convictions of her characters, and her stories ultimately become captivating and convincing through her writing. I reviewed her debut film Songs My Brother Taught Me a few years back for the site and from that film I was confident Zhao would have a very fruitful career in filmmaking in the years to come. Flash forward to today and Nomadland is set to take audiences by storm, likely to become an awards’ darling, and Zhao is also behind the director’s chair directing Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, and Brian Tyree Henry for next year’s Eternals.
As you mentioned, Nomadland follows a woman who decides to lead a nomadic lifestyle following the Great Recession. The lead is played by Frances McDormand who will inevitably capture this role quite well, and I think the film will be able to resonate with a wide audience given a universal subconscious (or not so subconscious) desire for escapism and mobility in light of the pandemic. Add on present economic uncertainty, and Zhao may very well capture the zeitgeist through Nomadland. Zhao’s films thus far are deeply rooted in Americana and Nomadland will provide her yet again another opportunity to portray landscapes, sunrises/sunsets, and scenery through the cinematography of Joshua James Richards, her cinematographer through her first three films. Is Nomadland a film that has piqued your interest at all Ian, or is my indulgence in the film not matched by yourself?
Ian: I’m looking forward to seeing Nomadland. I enjoy watching McDormand’s work, especially of late. Her performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was excellent. The characters she portrays always seem to have great depth. Even though I haven’t seen Nomadland yet, I think it’s likely she will receive another Best Actress Academy Award nomination and possibly win it, which would make her one of most decorated actresses in the history of the awards.
And I agree, I think Nomadland will resonate with audiences because of the subject material. I was disappointed not to see it at the London Film Festival this year, but I’m glad the wait is nearly over for its general release, and I’m excited to see it.
One of the many films I did get to see at the London Film Festival was One Night in Miami. The film is a fictional account of a meeting between icons Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown and their discussion about civil rights. With strong performances from the cast, it’s another film likely to be in the conversation for awards. It also marks an impressive directorial debut for Regina King, known for her work in front of the camera. Is it a film you have been looking forward to seeing, Alex?
Alex: I’m very much looking forward to seeing One Night in Miami. I didn’t realize you had seen it already, that’s excellent you were able to catch the film at the festival. I had the opportunity to hear Regina King speak during a Q&A session following a screening of If Beale Street Could Talk, and King is very much sensitive to characters’ fortune/misfortune and very deliberate in her intentions when playing a role. I have no doubt this focus and energy will be actualized during the gathering of the four men in One Night in Miami even though King takes the director’s chair rather than performs as an actress. With almost universal praise, King seems to have hit it out of the park with her directorial debut. What about the film did you enjoy Ian, and is there anything you would recommend audiences research before seeing One Night in Miami for the first time given that the setting of the film occurs following the historical moment of Ali’s heavyweight championship win?
Ian: I was familiar with Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali but not so much Jim Brown and Sam Cooke, and I don’t think it matters whether the audience know anything about the four icons in the film before watching. I enjoyed learning a little bit about the personalities I didn’t know anything about as well as a bit more about those I did. I think the actors’ portrayals of each person are good, particularly from Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. His subtle actions are credible of what I have seen in real-life footage of his character, and he conveys well the pressure and responsibility he feels trying to make the lives of Black people better. Regina King appears to know how to get the best performance possible out her actors, which I’m sure is attributed to her experience as a performer.
Alex: Also inspired by Black history is George C. Wolfe‘s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The film stars Viola Davis as “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman in his final film role as the strong-spirited trumpeter Levee. Based on the trailer, both Davis and Boseman steal the show each time they’re on-screen, Davis capturing a standoff-ish character whereas Boseman portrays a man brewing with charisma. The film in set in Chicago in 1927 over the course of a recording session that Ma Rainey runs late to. Once arrived, she vies for control over her music with her white manager. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is based on the August Wilson play of the same name and is the third chronological entry in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle and also the third put to film. Wilson’s Cycle was written to reflect the Black experience within the 20th century, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom capturing the 1920s and the creative and financial struggles that Black musicians faced when creating music.
Ian: I think Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will generate a lot of attention for many reasons. As you mentioned, both Davis and Boseman appear to deliver top-notch performances, with a lot of people saying that they both could stand a strong chance of winning an Academy Award for their efforts. You also spoke about the film’s themes and its focus on Black characters at the centre of the story. I’m pleased to see more projects centred around Black stories, and especially when they are also strong films that give Black performers and production crew the chance to showcase their talent. You also mentioned that the film is another screen adaptation of an August Wilson play. Some audiences may remember Fences, the last script given this treatment, and the critical success of that film. Davis also won her inaugural Oscar for her role in that film, so it seems Wilson’s writing allows actors and actresses to shine.
The next film I would like to discuss is another release I’ve long been excited about seeing and that’s Mank. The film focuses on the tumultuous development of one of the most revered films of all time, Citizen Kane, and its screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman). The film’s director is David Fincher, and I am a big fan of his work. However, I’m not a great fan of Citizen Kane, so I’ll be interested to see what my reaction is to Mank because the film is said to embody the era of the 1940s wonderfully, and I do like many other works from that time. I think Fincher is an excellent technical director, so I’m looking forward to seeing how he executes the technical aspects.
Alex: Agreed. As a more technical director, it will be interesting to see how Fincher explores creating a black-and-white film. I have a mixed opinion overall regarding his films, but I do admire them from a filmmaking standpoint after seeing/reading many a breakdown of scenes across his films. As you mentioned, Gary Oldman stars in the film and so does Amanda Seyfried and Lily Collins. Seyfried and Collins have appeared in films I’ve admired in recent years, so I’m looking forward to seeing their work in Mank. And, of course, Oldman will not disappoint being one of today’s great actors. Citizen Kane has a certain mythology behind its creation and I’m curious to see how Fincher approaches the “character” of Orson Welles and what stance Fincher takes regarding exploring the Hollywood of yesteryear.
Last but certainly not least is Pete Doctor‘s Soul, Pixar’s latest film which will receive a Disney+ release on Christmas rather than a theatrical release. I had the opportunity to see the film and I don’t think it will disappoint. Soul revolves around middle school teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx). Joe has aspired to perform jazz on-stage and become a jazz musician, and one timely opportunity presents itself that might very well change Joe’s life forever. Despite this optimistic premise, I will say that Soul is one of Pixar’s darker films and parents may want to see the film for themselves before showing it to their children. Mortality and purpose are the themes that Doctor delves into the most in his film, so there’s a natural weight associated with that subject matter. Nonetheless, Soul is very life-affirming and wholesome as one would expect from Pixar. I recommend seeing Soul on the largest screen you can find given that its spectacle would benefit from doing so and to go in as blind as possible when seeing the film.
Ian: I am hugely disappointed that Soul won’t receive a theatrical release, especially since it’s gained rave reviews. I think it could have been a box office hit like Docter’s last film Inside Out. I thoroughly enjoyed Inside Out, and that too dealt with some mature themes. At the time of its release, I would have recommended adults viewing it first before taking their children. However, I think it’s good that Pixar does not shy away from focusing on such mature subject matter as they have done in many of their films, and I am very much looking forward to seeing Soul. Overall, this looks like an excellent month for film and new releases and I cannot wait to watch all these films.
Great write-up guys. I’ve been holding out for most of these for a while so I can’t wait for them to finally arrive. Obviously it’s not great that many films aren’t getting theatrical releases, but as an Australian, I’m kind of glad we’re actually going to see some great movies at the same time as the rest of the world.