Feldman @ the flicks


Peter Feldman: A mixed bag of movies from the Oscar-winning Nomadland to thrillers, an African vernacular drama and the beloved Peter Rabbit.

Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells
Director: Chloé Zhao
Classification: 13 DLN

Nomadland was the big Oscar winner this year with three major awards in the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress categories.

Chloé Zhao became the first Chinese woman director to win an Oscar for best director and best picture.

Her film is an intimate look at the “houseless” people of America who travel around the country in camper vans. It’s often an isolated existence but over time these people connect with each other at various rendezvous destinations. This is their story.

Fashioned as something of a documentary-come-drama, Chloé Zhao has written, edited, produced and directed this reasonably engrossing production.

Based on the 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland focuses on one character Fern, exquisitely played by Oscar-winning Frances McDormand, who loses her job in 2011 after the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, shuts down.

She had worked there for many years along with her husband who had recently died. Fern decides to sell most of her belongings and purchase a van to live in and travel the country searching for work.

She takes a seasonal job at an Amazon fulfilment centre through winter, but during the other months she is forced to travel to various states where she finds low-paid work in other areas, such as an all-night diner and the Badlands National Park.

It’s often a soul-destroying existence, but she finds some form of solace and spiritual meaning to her life when she encounters a colourful group of real life nomads who relate their stories.

Fern’s friend and co-worker Linda (Linda May) invites her to visit a desert rendezvous in Arizona, organised by Bob Wells playing himself, which provides a support system and community for fellow nomads. Here she meets them and learns basic survival and self-sufficiency skills for the road. Bob espouses the view that goodbyes are not final in the nomad community as its members always promise to see each other again “down the road”.

David Strathairn plays David, a fellow nomad, whom Fern keeps running into, and who has feelings for the lonely widow.

A number of real nomads play themselves including Linda May and Swankie, an elderly veteran of the road who is dying from cancer. Swankie’s objective is to make good memories on the road rather than waste away in a hospital.

There is no glamour to this slow-burning tale, but director Chloé Zhao manages to extract humanity from her characters and this aspect gives Nomadland a special resonance.

Admittedly, there are moments when tedium sets in, especially observing Fern at her daily grind, but Nomadland provides viewers with a refreshingly different view of America and its people.

Frances McDormand anchors the entire production with an understated mien that fits in beautifully with the calm, measured tone of this production.

Judas and the Black Messiah
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Dominique Fishback, Jessie Plemons, Martin Sheen
Director: Shaka King
Classification: 16 LVP

Judas and the Black Messiah covers a period in American history which may be unfamiliar to most South Africans, especially where key political characters of this unfolding drama are concerned.

The two key entities are Fred Hampton (a mesmerising Oscar winner Daniel Kaluuya), who is chairman of The Black Panthers Illinois chapter, and Bill O’Neal (Oscar-nominated Lakeith Stanfield), a petty thief with no interest in politics, forced by the FBI to infiltrate the movement. O’Neal soon becomes a trusted member and is the Judas in the pack.

Based on a true story, the production has director Shaka King cobbling together a compelling, if sometimes confusing, narrative which embraces a slew of political characters and delivers a scathing message about 60s race and politics.

Devoid of undue sentimentality, Judas and the Black Messiah follows the events that lead to Hampton’s assassination in 1969 and the role O’Neal played in his downfall.

It opens with archival footage of Hampton in full vocal flow, an individual who spent his young life uniting the oppressed and fighting to topple racial structures. It demonstrates why FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) labelled him a threat, imploring his agents to stop Hampton lest he become too influential. Hoover is determined to uphold the white supremacist system at all costs which spurs Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to recruit Bill O’Neal.

With O’Neal successfully planted within the Black Panther Party — first as a driver for Hampton and then as the head of security — the audience observes the heartbeat of Hampton’s life. It details his relationship with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), who falls pregnant, and his impassioned speeches and grassroots activism.

While the movie offers some outstandingly powerful moments, showcasing Hampton’s magnetism and racial activism, the decision to frame his life mostly through the eyes of O’Neal somewhat weakens the cause.

The energy levels are high at the beginning and sizzles with promise, but lack of focus blunts its impact. When Kaluuya’s Hampton is at the heart, the movie flies, with the actor overcoming the weaker aspects of the script with his charisma and intensity. Despite Stanfield’s Oscar nomination, his portrayal of O’Neal is awkward and uncertain, a character caught in the throes of lies and the looming threat of the FBI.

Though absorbing at times, Judas and the Black Messiah never explores the complexities required to humanise the characters and bring the audience closer to them. An exasperating aspect, too, is comprehending Kaluuya’s heavily contrived accent.

This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection
Cast: Mary Twala Mhlongo, Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha, Makhaola Ndebele, Tseko Monaheng
Director: Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese (African vernacular with English sub-titles)
Classification: 10-12 PGV
Rating: 3/5

Acting legend, the late Mary Twala Mhlongo, takes her final bow in This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection.

The film serves as an emotive tribute to an immense acting talent and helps seal her legacy as a much-loved, creative South African icon.

In most of her scenes, this award-winning screen veteran cuts a lonely figure, injecting both heart and soul into Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s slow-paced and often ponderous production.

Mantao, her character, is a sad, grieving Basotho widow whose very existence is being ripped away from her in her twilight years. She resides in the isolated mountain village of Nasaretha, in Ha Dinizulu, where her family lie buried in the local cemetery. It is here where she wishes to be buried herself, but there are problems caused by the municipality which intends flooding the area to create a much-needed dam and water for the people.

The news is met with great alarm by the villagers, but the local chief, Khotso (Tseko Monaheng), swathed in a traditional blanket and straw hat, assures them they will be relocated to another spot.

This does not sit easily on the shoulders of the frail and elderly Mantoa who is confronted by a string of red tape when she treks to the municipal offices to lodge a complaint.

Her plight, her deep feelings of sorrow mixed with confused anger, bite into her inner core and this soulful character refuses to bow down to authority as she contemplates her bleak future.

The film opens with grave news that Mantoa’s son, a miner on the gold mines in South Africa, has died and his body is being repatriated to Lesotho for burial. This places the focus on the dead and their sacred place of rest and is a theme that carries this cinematic enterprise.

Director Mosese has used the location to stunning effect with the desolate mountains, the vastness of space and the primitive nature of the people adding a telling resonance. Many locals were used, blending flawlessly with the professional cast from South Africa.

Another screen veteran, Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha, plays the narrator who sketches in details of the unfolding drama and Makhaola Ndebele is cast as the village priest who attempts to soothe their fears.

Mosese has said this production is deeply personal because it carries different childhood memories, including one of his family being evicted from his home when he was a child. It is a heartfelt tribute to land, community and ancestry.

* It must be noted this film was reviewed via streaming on a laptop and not under normal cinema conditions.

Wrath of Man
Cast: Jason Statham, Scott Eastwood, Holt McCallany, Josh Hartnett
Director: Guy Ritchie
Classification: 16 CTLV

Celebrated director Guy Ritchie ignites another familiar orgy of death and destruction in Wrath of Man, or Cash Truck as it’s labelled overseas.

This frenetic escapade serves as the perfect vehicle for taciturn British action hero Jason Statham, whose name alone will attract the adrenalin junkie brigade.

Never mind the story, which is based on Nicolas Boukhrief’s book, what counts here is the methodical manner in which Statham’s character goes about his job. He dishes out Guy Ritchie’s action set-pieces, which have become the trademark of this British writer-producer-director’s many productions, with conviction.

Wrath of Man follows some well-trodden territory offering up an individual named H (for Hill) with a shady background, who joins a New York cash security company as a guard to find out who killed his teenage son during a cash-in-transit heist. His motive: revenge

The shadowy H seems to be the head of a gang of operatives but, as is often the case with Ritchie’s movies, this is never made clear. H has many contacts which he uses to penetrate deep into the heart of a ruthless gang which has been executing a number of lucrative cash heists in the city.

Statham is Statham and Ritchie refuses to tamper with the actor’s sullen screen presence which has garnered millions of fans.

Scott Eastwood, son of the famous Clint Eastwood, plays Jan, one of the numerous villains thrown into the mix. Holt McCallany, as H’s section leader, and Jeffrey Donovan, as the ex-military man with cash on his mind, add to the colourful collection. English actor Eddie Marsan also joins the line-up as Terry, the firm’s nervous dispatcher.

It’s sufficient to say depth of character has never been one of Ritchie’s strongest suits, but he is at his best when orchestrating the numerous vicious encounters that drive this narrative.

The Courier
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Angus Wright, Rachel Brosnahan
Director: Dominic Cooke

The Courier returns to the age of the old-fashioned spy thriller which gripped viewers as intricate plots unfolded and shady characters roamed the storyline.

Dominic Cook’s engaging production is based on real events that occurred in the early 60s when a British salesman named Greville Wynn (Benedict Cumberbatch) smuggled thousands of pieces of intel out of Russia. Wynn, who believed what he was doing was not for material gain but rather for the common good, was eventually caught.

British Intelligence used Wynn because they assumed he was purely a capitalist whose concern was strictly money. A plus factor was that Wynn also had the talent for ingratiating himself with customers (a good thing), someone who is neither suspicious nor a potential danger to Soviet security.

Wynn is recruited by MI6’s Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) who, along with CIA agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan), convinces him, after some reluctance, to meet with a Russian agent. Any Intel they receive, they tell him, will help President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile crisis. She assures him he will be safe.

He has had no formal training and is a family man with a precocious young son, Andrew (Keir Hills), and a loving, trusting wife, Sheila (Jessie Buckley). She has to be a trusting spouse because any normal wife would think her husband’s numerous trips to Moscow meant he could be having an affair.

This is Greville Wynn’s stoic story, dramatically enhanced by the consummate skills of a deft storyteller and a convincing cast, especially Cumberbatch’s flawless performance. The narrative draws you in from the very start and never lets go until the end.

Working with screenwriter Tom O’Connor, director Cooke may employ a host of cinematic clichés in the telling, but these can easily be overlooked when the characters are involving and there are high stakes to overcome.

Assisting Wynn in his role as “courier” is Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Russian agent with far more experience than the somewhat naive Briton, who helps to guide him through treacherous waters. The men develop an unbreakable bond which is the cement that holds the movie nicely together.

The Courier is a character-driven yarn and those seeking quick-fire action may be a trifle disappointed.

Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway
Cast: Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, James Cordon, Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie
Director: Will Gluck
Classification: 7-9 PG

Beatrix Potter’s celebrated rabbit family comes to life again in this sequel which, as its predecessor, effortlessly blends live action with realistic computer-animated images.

It’s a sweet story that will appeal to the younger generation and focuses on Peter (voiced by James Cordon) who is up to his old tricks again.

The little rascal cannot shake off his reputation for creating mischief among his rabbit family, causing mayhem wherever he goes.

When Bea (Rose Byrne), an accomplished children’s book illustrator, is offered a book deal, she and her hubby, Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), head for the town of Gloucester with Peter and the furry family in tow.

Peter, as is his usual manner, breaks away from the main party. While exploring the town, he falls into the clutches of a motley gang who want him to help them pull a job at the local Farmer’s Market. The story also embraces the antics of the unscrupulous owners of a pet shop.

All in all, director Will Gluck has created an undemanding, visually appealing adventure, with a couple of perfectly clean human characters (Bea and Thomas) and a glimpse of the dangers of a world beyond Farmer McGregor’s garden of harmony.

Cast: Chris Rock, Max Minghella, Samuel L Jackson, Marisol Nichols
Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Classification: 18 HLV
Rating: 2/5

Fans of the Saw series are in for a blood-soaked romp with Spiral, a movie inspired by comedian Chris Rock. It follows the same revenge theme, using horrific torture machines, aimed at destroying corrupt members of the police force.

One by one the various characters meet their fate, while troubled cop Detective Zeke Banks tries bravely to sort out who is behind the killings and the cryptic messages left beside shredded bodies at each crime scene. The whole issue is personal and Banks has a massive problem ahead.

Samuel L. Jackson plays Zeke’s gung-ho retired cop father who is ensnared by the unfolding gore fest and Max Minghella is the rookie assigned to help Banks in his search.

Torture porn for the purist?

Twitter: @petersdfeldman_

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Peter Feldman has been a journalist and arts critic for almost 50 years and served on The Star in various capacities for 35 years, ending up as a specialist writer on films, music and theatre. During that time, he travelled extensively on assignments and interviewed many international film and pop stars, both in South Africa and overseas. He also covered some of South Africa’s biggest film and musical events. He was one of only two South African journalists to be invited by Steven Spielberg to the Hook film junket in LA in 1991 where he interviewed the famous director as well as Dustin Hoffman and the late Robin Williams. He attended the gala James Bond premiere in London in 1981 and did an iconic interview in a Rolls Royce with Roger Moore who played Bond. He spent a week touring England with Queen prior to their Sun City visit in 1983, interviewed a host of international stars on films sets in Hollywood and London and was the first local journalist to nail an interview with The Rolling Stones prior to their SA visit in 1995. He is active in the freelance field and his work has appeared in a variety of South African newspapers and magazines, including Artslink.co.za. He has also worked on TV and radio (ChaiFM 101.9) in his specialist capacity. Over the years Feldman has been the recipient of several awards for his contribution to music journalism and the SA record industry. He is a recent recipient of the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz award in recognition for his long-standing journalistic support for the arts. He wrote lyrics for some top artists, including Sipho Mabuse, and had a hit disco single, “Video Games,” which was released in 1988. He coined the phrase “Local is Lekker”.