By Marc S. Sanders

In the year 2010, a sect of women must hold congress in the upper level of a barn to debate whether to leave their colony or stand and fight against the oppressive men who rape, beat, and brainwash them into believing they will be denied entry into the kingdom of heaven should they never offer forgiveness and tolerance for the abuse they suffer.  That is the story of Women Talking, written and directed by Sarah Polley, from the novel by Miriam Towes.

From IMDB, Towes based her novel on a true story of vicious serial rapes in an insular, ultraconservative Mennonite community in Bolivia. From 2005 to 2009, nine men in the Manitoba Colony, using livestock tranquilizers, drugged female victims ranging in age from three to sixty and violently raped them at night. When the girls and women awoke bruised and covered in blood, the men of the colony dismissed their reports as “wild female imagination”–even when they became pregnant from the assaults–or punishments from God or by demons for their supposed sins.

Sarah Polley’s film works like a stage play.  She shoots with deliberately dim cinematography as if to have you feel the cold, helpless isolation the women of this fictional community endure.  These women are smart but uneducated in reading or writing.  When they vote for what do, pictures are drawn to display their options.  Two figures with dueling swords are drawn for stay and fight.  A horse is sketched for the choice to leave.  The women cast their ballots by drawing an X under the picture they opt to follow. 

To know that this piece of fiction is inspired by true events is very chilling, and when the film finishes there’s much to ponder and talk about.  It stays with you.  A young educated man named August (Ben Whishaw, in a beautifully reserved performance) from a university is recruited to keep the minutes of the meetings.  Topics of debate include if they should leave with a mass exodus of all the women, do they also take the young boys; most of them products of the numerous rapes they suffered through.  At what age are these boys incapable of trusting they will not be as monstrous as their bastard and abusive fathers?  What about August?  He is harmless and sympathetic to the ladies’ victimizations.  Shouldn’t he be allowed to go too, or because he is a man, is he excluded?  Frances McDormand’s character, whose appearance lives up to the name Scarface Janz, insists upon doing nothing.  She’s convinced they will be denied entrance into heaven by their almighty God.  To not forgive their attackers is a sin.  Is doing nothing an option?    If they stay and fight, how exactly will that be done?  Violence is an unforgivable sin, as described in doctrine.  How else do you fight against the constant attacks of violence, though?

Women Talking deserves an audience.  It’s a very good film because it draws attention to a modern day hardship.  When there are communities like this in the world that most of us are unaware of, how are the members accounted for?  Are they being nourished and educated and living comfortably?  Is everyone safe and protected?  If they are not, then how are they getting the justice they are entitled to, and do they have a chance of survival?  I appreciate when movies can open my eyes to a reality for which I have yet to carry any regard or awareness.  I feel taught having watched a movie like Women Talking

When the movie began, before knowing anything of what the story was about, my first presumption was that maybe this is an Amish or Quaker community based on the farm country setting and the simple wardrobes of the characters.  The time frame was uncertain to me as well.  Horse and buggies are shown, but no automobiles.  So, is this the early twentieth century, perhaps?  Only after the first ten minutes of exposition, did I realize this was something else taking place within a more recent time period.  It is astounding how far we’ve come globally with the rights of women, minorities and the overall oppressed.  Yet, there are those who regrettably remain overlooked.

Polley’s script is rhythmic with strong dialogue, and the cast of actresses (Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Frances McDormand, Jessie Buckley) are quick with their retorts when one makes one statement after the other.  There are lots of fascinating arguments at play here, reminiscent of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men.  Again, this is gripping material ready for live stage work. 

I did have a problem with the picture, however. The trajectory of the film works on its dialogue of debates.  The actors deliver lines from Polley’s script perfectly.  This is a smart collection of actors.  Still, it is challenging to keep track of what platform each woman stands upon.  When one gets swayed from one argument over to other side, it is also a little tricky to realize when that has occurred.  Who is staunch in their beliefs is also difficult to keep track of.  The dark photography that Polley layers the film with is meant to be morose.  It works.  It places you in the helpless mood of these afflicted women.  When you consider the practicality of the piece though, it makes it hard to identify who is who and what perspective they have.  Often, the characters don’t stand apart from one another.  It might sound trivial.  I may risk putting a stain on the filmmaker’s art.  Nonetheless, but it got in the way of the movie I was watching.

It is a blessing that Women Talking has received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and for Sarah Polley’s screenplay.  Had it not, the film would likely go unnoticed, and it cannot afford to be.  Sarah Polley’s film deserves attention.  Any one of us may never come upon these very private, hidden, and isolated communities that function under an unfair governance.  However, the film demonstrates the vicious dominance that one sex can have over another which still remains all to common.  No matter how much wiser we have become as a people, there are some who still have never gotten the message.


By Marc S. Sanders

If you explore the career of Edward Norton, you may find a common theme of duality in many of his roles.  Certainly, The Incredible Hulk (man vs literal green monster).  There’s also the heist film The Score where he is an aspiring thief with a talent to take on a mentally handicapped persona.  American History X offered a wide transition from downright evil to wholesome redemption from the worst of sin.  Even the remake of The Italian Job shows one kind of jerky guy early on, and later there’s another kind of cad on display.  Yet, Norton’s role as a church choir boy named Aaron Stampler in his first film, Primal Fear, is maybe his most apparent, and it remains an astonishing performance.

I had read William Diehl’s novel long before the movie was even made.  My impression of the film is that it is well cast.  Early on in the story, Aaron is apprehended following the grisly murder of Chicago’s Archbishop.  His clothes are covered in the priest’s blood and he’s captured on the news trying to outrun the police.  This looks like an open and shut case, which is why hot shot attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) wants to take on defending Aaron, pro bono. 

Simply the name of Gere’s role, Martin Vail, could not be more appropriate.  He thrives on vanity and pride, ensuring that when he gives an interview it is none other than a cover story.  Gere is perfectly handsome and his energy is so right for the part.  He wears his suits with natural and self-assured swagger.  When Martin attends a benefit dinner in the first few minutes of the picture, everyone in the room knows who he is, whether they only at least admire the guy, or downright despise the ego he proudly carries.  Only Martin Vail will insist that young Aaron with a boy scout, puppy dog expression could be innocent.  Everyone else has deemed his client as “The Butcher Boy.”

The accused is a simple kid who was brought in off the streets by the Archbishop.  He’s a nobody.  It’s the victim who is prominent, and one of the first strategies that Vail engages in is putting the deceased Archbishop on trial because it could lend to just what he needs for exoneration – reasonable doubt.  That could mean other prominent figures in the city will get caught in the web. 

Like many mysteries and courtroom dramas before and after Primal Fear, red herrings abound.  The side stories dealing with botched real estate investments within minority neighborhoods feel like they sprung from a completely different cloth, like an episode of L.A. Law.  What keeps them above water though are the performances of the supporting cast with John Mahoney and Stuart Bauer, respectively portraying the state district attorney and a Hispanic well-established mobster that Vail represents.  Somehow, Diehl’s murder trial story circles back to these guys and what the Archbishop had to do with them.

A twisted sex scandal within the church also comes into play.  After all, where there’s murder there is motive.  The math is not that simple though.

To lend a little more conflict to the film is the prosecuting attorney Janet Venable.  She is played by Laura Linney, maybe doing a little over acting, who once had a tryst with Martin.  Honestly, it comes off as an unnecessary subplot, perhaps only there to give quick witted resentful dialogue for Janet to serve at Martin, while Gere puts on the teasing smirk to send back over the net.  The opposing counsel try to psych one another out, but we all know that Martin is the smarter attorney of the two. 

Primal Fear hinges on Edward Norton first and Richard Gere second.  Norton’s performance is written, and thereby performed, to come in under the radar for the first half of the film.  Aaron is a quiet, frightened, uncertain kid from the backwoods of Kentucky.  Gere and the supporting cast populate much of the first half of the movie.  Later, Aaron offers up a surprise delivery that turns the film on its heel, and the story takes on a whole new trajectory. 

Gere is superb with the conceit of the character.  Director Gregory Hoblit places Martin Vail front and center during transition shots where he gives statements to the press while entering the courthouse.  It’s a subtly effective way to uphold how proud and cocky the attorney is.  When the surprise from Norton comes around though, even a hot shot, intuitive lawyer like Martin can’t immediately figure out what to do next.  The surprise works even though it comes out of nowhere.

Primal Fear offers a lot of standard stuff from other typical courtroom thrillers.  Some players are introduced that could lend to why the crime occurred.  Some are there to distract you.  Some are there to circle back around in the third act.  There’s a ping pong volley of objections and witness testimony.  There’s the blood splattered crime scene investigation.  We’ve seen it all before.  Nevertheless, I don’t hold any of that against the film.  I still get a thrill out of standard car chases and shootouts the same way I stay alert through another courtroom mystery.  It’s fast paced and until the puzzle is completely assembled, I’m engaged especially if the cast is working on all cylinders. 

The end leaves you thinking though because just when you believe all the pieces have been put back into place there’s one hanging thread that is left unraveled and you may be asking yourself how that got past me.  That’s when you know you are watching an entertaining movie.  If you have to think about it long after it is over, then the movie got one over on you.  Primal Fear accomplishes that feat.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Chloé Zhao
Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, and a cast of non-professionals/actual “nomads”
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 93% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A woman in her sixties, after losing everything in the Great Recession, embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.

Nomadland is one of the most visually beautiful films I’ve seen recently.  It mostly reminded me of Brokeback Mountain (2005) with its sprawling vistas of distant mountains, lonely country roads against a looming sky, and desert badlands illuminated by that elusive light that appears only during the “magic hour” so coveted by cinematographers and photographers alike.  It’s beautiful and well-made.  As a message film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2020…I mean…it’s good and admirable, but it didn’t quite get to me like it was clearly trying to.

As a piece of propaganda (intentional or not), I can see Nomadland being effective for anyone who has been disillusioned of the American Dream by financial troubles.  Set in 2011, the film follows Fern (McDormand) as she hits the road in a van after the gypsum mining company her deceased husband worked for folded, displacing an entire town, Empire.  Even the town’s zip code was discontinued.  Fern literally lives out of her van, which doubles as living quarters, bedroom, dining room, and (revealed in a shot that I was stunned to learn was real) bathroom.  She works seasonal jobs throughout the American West at various parks, restaurants, and even an Amazon warehouse during the holidays.

On her travels, she encounters a large community of fellow nomads.  Periodically (I think annually), they gather at a location in the middle of the desert to trade goods, share stories and nomadic tips, and basically support each other for a week or a month or whatever…it’s not made clear exactly how long everyone stays before they go their separate ways once more.  On this occasion, she meets a fellow traveler named Dave (Strathairn) who trades her for a can opener.  Over the course of the film, Fern’s and Dave’s paths will intersect again and again.  I thought we were getting the kernel of a corny love story, but not quite.  The purpose of their relationship is pragmatic, not romantic.

Another traveler Fern meets is Swankie, a lively woman in her seventies who hangs a skull-and-crossbones flag from her van when she wants no visitors.  Honestly, it made me wish I had a similar flag to hang from my neck to communicate the same thing in public.  Anyway, Swankie reinforces Fern’s commitment to this way of living by describing trips to Alaska, a visit to a large community of swallows nesting on a cliff while on a canoe trip, and by revealing one of the real reasons Swankie has adopted this lifestyle in the first place.  All with no bills to pay, other than gas, food, and vehicular upkeep.

The movie follows Fern from one place to another over the course of a little over a year.  We see her working, driving, talking with people she meets, cooking on her tiny gas stove inside her van, dealing with the cold in the winter, reminiscing over old photos and slides.  There are two interesting side trips when she can’t avoid reaching out to…well, I guess “civilization” is the right word.  One occurs because her beloved van breaks down and she has to get to her sister’s to ask her for repair money.  Another occurs when she takes Dave up on an offer to…no, won’t spoil it.

At times, I found myself comparing Nomadland to Cast Away, Robert Zemeckis’ 2000 film where Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) finds himself stranded on a desert island after a plane crash.  In both situations, the heroes find themselves isolated from civilization.  They must both learn to deal with an alternate way of life, and there is no alternative.  Adapt or die.  (When Swankie learns Fern doesn’t even know how to change a tire, she reprimands her.  “You can die out here.  You’re out in the wilderness, far away from anybody.  You can die out here.  Don’t you understand that?  You have to take it seriously.  You have to have a way to get help.  You have to be able to change your own tire!”  It’s a sobering reminder that, even though she has a cell phone (how she pays the bill is a mystery to me), Fern must be self-sufficient in order to survive.)

Furthering the similarities to Cast Away, there’s even a moment where Fern has an opportunity to sleep in a real bed.  We see her crawl underneath the covers…but in the middle of the night, she creeps back out to her faithful van to get a real night’s sleep, just like Chuck Noland sleeping on the floor of his hotel room.

But what does it all mean?  What is Nomadland trying to say?  I couldn’t shake the idea that Zhao’s film, based on a book of the same name, was an attempt, like Into the Wild (2007), to romanticize the concept of shedding our material needs, stripping ourselves down to the necessities, and getting back in touch with nature.  I have no doubt this notion appeals to many people.  Well, that much is clear because nearly everyone in the film besides McDormand and Strathairn are non-actors who are playing themselves, and they’re all nomads, too.  But is the movie simply showing me how and why a person makes this decision?  Or is it trying to convince me that I should do the same thing?  Is this one of Ebert’s “empathy machines” that allows me to live in someone else’s shoes for 107 minutes and experience life through their eyes, or, like Into the Wild, is it making the case that folks who haven’t made this decision themselves are slaves to a corporate system?

At one point, a gentleman named Bob, who is a real person and is one of the main coordinators of the community that meets once a year in the desert, makes a speech to the nomads who have gathered:

I think of an analogy as a work horse. The work horse that is willing to work itself to death, and then be put out to pasture. And that’s what happens to so many of us. If society was throwing us away and sending us as the work horse out to the pasture, we work horses have to gather together and take care of each other. And that’s what this is all about. The way I see it is that the Titanic is sinking, and economic times are changing. And so my goal is to get the lifeboats out and get as many people into the lifeboats as I can.

I’d be lying if I said his notion wasn’t appealing.  Who wouldn’t want to live a life of seeing the country, parts of which many of us may never see in our lifetimes?  Never being tied down to a job, to familial obligations, bills, taxes, the eternal quest for the almighty Dollar?  I get it.  But…if I didn’t have a job, didn’t earn a living, didn’t pay my bills, and have enough left over to buy a home entertainment system including the Blu-ray of Nomadland…I would never have seen this lovely film in the first place.

So, no, the concept of living as a nomad is not something I would seriously embrace…yet.  Life is good.  I have a job.  I have family.  I have friends who are as good as family.  I have the woman I love beside me.  I’ve seen Alaska, England, Greece, New York, Miami, and Key West.  Nomadland argues that, if any of that would ever change, there is an alternative to depression and slaving away and eking out a living in my retirement years in a 1-bedroom apartment.  Perhaps, on that day, I might re-evaluate my opinion of nomadic living.

But that day is not today.

Tomorrow is not looking good, either.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Joel Coen
Cast: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Stephen Root
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 93% Certified Fresh

PLOT: William Shakespeare’s tragic tale of murder and guilt gets a stylistic re-telling with moody direction from Joel Coen and powerhouse performances from its two leads.

I am of two minds when thinking about Joel Coen’s take on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

First, I must admit I am no Shakespeare scholar. I can count on one hand (maybe two) the number of filmed Shakespeare adaptations I have seen, and I can count on one finger how many theatrical productions I’ve seen. I’ve only read two of the Bard’s plays beginning to end: Othello and Julius Caesar. I have acted in a production of the popular Shakespeare parody The Compleat Workes of William Shakespeare (Abridged), but I doubt anyone would find that an acceptable credential.

So I must be honest and say that, when it comes to the nitty gritty specifics of the dialogue in The Tragedy of Macbeth, I was lost for, oh, 50-60% of the time. Like, “out to sea” lost. I am moderately familiar with the story, so in those times I was lost, I was able to glean what was going on or what was being said in context. I know who Banquo and Macduff and poor Duncan are, and so was able to follow their various comings and goings as revealed in the frequent chunks of expositional dialogue.

[Full disclosure: If the name of the Ross character is ever actually mentioned in the film, I must have missed it…for the duration, I wondered what his name was, and he is a vital character in certain scenes.]

But I have to say, whatever I missed in the dialogue was more than compensated for by the sensational visual language of the film, and by the stunning performances from the two leads.

First, it was shot in glorious black-and-white, and it was all shot on soundstages, giving the director (Joel Coen, working for the first time without his brother Ethan) and cinematographer (Bruno Delbonnel [Amélie, Across the Universe]) absolute control over the lighting and shadows. The resulting visuals look like something out of the early silent films of Fritz Lang and, especially, F.W. Murnau, with compositions that must have taken hours and hours to set up, with high-contrast shadows creating elaborate framing devices on walls and floors. When Macbeth famously sees a dagger before him, it’s accomplished by shining a reflective light on a highly polished door handle. In the few shots that take place outside the castle, more often than not shadows are moving slightly in the frame, as if the sun or the clouds were in constant motion. Those shadows always seem to be sliding down over the characters, perhaps mirroring Macbeth and his lady’s constant downward spiral towards their fate.

Another factor in the visual look of the film was the decision to frame it in the standard 1:33 ratio, sometimes known as the “Academy” ratio. Basically, instead of watching the film on a rectangle-shaped viewing area, you’re watching it on a square set in the middle of the screen. One might think that doing so would limit the possibilities of visual expression, but not so. For me, it had the effect of making everything a little more claustrophobic, which I think is important in cementing the state of mind of our two main characters. As the guilt over their evil deeds threatens to overwhelm them both, the smaller screen is a constant, subtle reminder that their options are limited, and becoming fewer as time goes on.

All in all, a visual feast, in a nutshell.

But what makes The Tragedy of Macbeth even more delightful to watch are the performances. To be sure, everyone involved acquits themselves incredibly well. (Keep your eyes open for a young man named Harry Melling, aka “Dudley Vernon” from the Harry Potter film franchise.) But the two that shine brightest are Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth is as quietly vicious and malicious as they come, and it helps that her attitudes are quite at odds with McDormand’s kind, open features. It is a little startling to see the face of good-hearted Marge Gunderson fiercely exhorting Macbeth to commit regicide in sharp, clipped tones, her whispers piercing the air between them like poison darts. Her despair at her husband’s inability to calmly deal with the guilt is clearly evident; when he reveals he went above and beyond what was originally planned, her shocked “are-you-kidding-me” looks are worth pages and pages of dialogue. And, of course, in the late stages of the story, when madness finally overtakes her, when no amount of washing will wipe the blood from her hands, her animalistic howls of anguish are almost worth the price of admission.

But the highlight of the whole venture (for me, anyway) was watching Denzel Washington demolish the screen as Macbeth himself. Words fail me. I haven’t seen a performance this amazing and praiseworthy since Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood. I may not be a Shakespeare scholar, but I know enough to understand that making it flow as easily as normal speech takes a great deal of research and rehearsal and collaboration. What I would not GIVE to see him reprise this role on stage somewhere! He navigates the twists and turns of Shakespeare’s tortured syntax as easily as if he was telling a story about his day at work. As with any great performance, there are peaks and valleys, and his teeth-clenching, fist-pumping outbursts are used as periodic punctuation marks, not entire sentences. There is a brief scene where he angrily berates a messenger, and his seventeenth-century taunts and name-callings are as surgical and cutting as anything from Mamet. It’s a miraculous performance, and I would not be surprised in the least if he gets another Oscar nomination. (The same goes for Frances McDormand…what a duo!)

(I would be remiss if I did not also mention the performance by a little-known actress, Kathryn Hunter, as the famous Witches. Her voice and face open the film, and if there’s any justice, it will go down as one of the great opening sequences of the movies. There are portions of her performance that must have taken great courage and trust in director Coen, to make sure she did not come off as simply a kook. She does not. She is one of the most ineffably creepy individuals in a movie in quite some time. I dare not say more without ruining the effect. But she was breathtakingly successful.)

When I walked out of The Tragedy of Macbeth, I can clearly remember thinking, “Well, great movie, but one that I wouldn’t purchase for my home video library, because how can it possibly equal the experience of seeing these precise visuals married to these insane performances, on a big screen?” But the more I think about it, the more I think I will pick up a copy when it becomes available, for a couple of reasons. First, a little extra culture never hurt anyone, and second, it will be worth the purchase price just to see Washington and McDormand tear up the screen as the Macbeths again, not to mention those stunning visuals, AND those creepy witches. This movie is really growing on me.


By Marc S. Sanders

From February 2017:

A number of years ago I read Roger Ebert’s review of a Kevin Spacey film called The Life Of David Gale, only after seeing the film myself. Reading his viewpoint assured me that perhaps I do recognize good and bad filmmaking with the absence of influence. Like me, he hated the film because of its contrivances and the complete 180 on Spacey’s character. He said it angered him so much that he wanted to throw his popcorn at the screen. Years later, I feel the same way, for nearly identical reasons after seeing this 2017 Best Picture nominee. I hate Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

I HATED THIS MOVIE. Hated it so much that I’m pissed over how much I hated it. This film is worthy of Best Picture, Actors and Screenplay nominations???? There was nothing better than this dreck???? Not Baby Driver, or Wonder Woman? Not All The Money In The World? Blade Runner 2049?

This film contains great talent trying way too hard to elevate the stupidity of the unjustified actions of their characters so much that suspension of disbelief isn’t just thrown out the window (like one hapless character who earns no justice), it’s burned, beaten, raped, shot, burned again, thrown off a building and drowned.

Consider midway thru the film, Sam Rockwell’s nominated performance as a vile, heinously racist backwoods lawman. He reads a letter and is magically transformed into a do gooder Boy Scout. There’s no way in hell I’d ever believe this. No one should. This guy is the entire KKK in one embodiment. By the time this bastard gets to this “epiphany” he had already committed the most sickening and atrociously violent actions fathomed, and in great detail. Yet magically a letter from a friend and an arson scene that burns him suddenly transform him. Just like that. Uh uh. Too convenient. Too manufactured. Too insulting to a movie going audience.

This film is full of other ridiculous contrivances that are simply too long and spoilery to describe here. (I’d love to spoil the film to salvage anyone from seeing this crap.)

Frances McDormand’s character is also despicably written. Here’s a character entitled to the anger she has after losing a daughter to rape and murder, worthy of attention due to the stubborn intellect she conveys during the act one exposition, yet as the film progresses, she becomes incredibly stupid and downright unlikable. What a thoughtless jerk she is. Nothing to cheer for. Nothing to love to hate. Nothing to laugh at. Nothing to cry over. Nothing. She’s just an asshole who conveniently gets away with her actions, yet everyone knows she’s the culprit.

In a film like this the bad cops are uncaring racists. The good ones are the clueless keystone cops who conveniently can’t see the forest through the trees. I don’t like it, and more importantly I don’t believe it. Unacceptable!!!

What a stupidly shitty movie that has been executed here in exchange for arguably the most interesting idea of all the 9 Best Picture nominees. I salute the idea of the film. It’s the execution that’s deplorable.

The only redemption that can come from this garbage now is if this film does not win one single Oscar. Sadly, I think I’ll be wrong. Congratulations Sam Rockwell, you stole a trophy from three much more entitled actors (Christopher Plummer, Richard Jenkins and I hear Willem Defoe.) Woody Harrelson’s performance in this pic is also up for grabs….for what? He coughs up blood quite well. I have no clue, otherwise.

Don’t believe the hype. Three Billboards… only has a great title, a great concept on paper and a great cast list. Beneath all that is carbon monoxide. Don’t breathe it in. You’ll only feel sick after watching it.

This will likely remain as one of the ten most despised movies I’ve ever seen.


By Marc S. Sanders

amazon ( n.) a large strong and aggressive woman; Synonyms: virago. amazon ( n.) mainly green tropical American parrots; 2. Amazon ( n.) (Greek mythology) one of a nation of women warriors of Scythia (who burned off the right breast in order to use a bow and arrow more effectively);

As I reflect on watching the 2020 Best Picture Oscar winning film, Nomadland, I considered the literal translation of the word “amazon.”  To many of us, I would think the word has an entirely different meaning.  Director, writer and editor Chloe Zhao probably considers both the literal definition of the first noun (noted above), as well as the brand name that seemingly runs the world these days.

Fern, played without compromise by Frances McDormand, is likely a strong and aggressive woman, though only subconsciously large.  I’d argue you would have to be in order to survive as a nomad within a pre-Trump era mid-western America with a beat up van as your mobile residence and a deep plastic bucket for a toilet that isn’t hard on your knees when used.  Fern is a former resident of Empire, Nevada.  Empire and its postal zip code no longer exist as of 2011 when the sheetrock factory that sustained the town closed up after 88 years, thus forcing all its residents to give up their homes and relocate elsewhere.  Now that Fern is widowed, she does not see any other way to live other than in the van she calls “Vanguard.”  She lives paycheck to paycheck with seasonal jobs that are hopefully available.  The first of these jobs includes a packing facility for Amazon.  Once the holidays are over, it’s up in the air as to what she’ll come across next.

Zhao is an observational director.  To depict a film about a lonely, uncertain post middle age nomadic widow will require shots of the country like frost on the ground, deep snow, endless roads, hot deserts and moonlit campfires with other nomads who come by Fern’s way.  These people (many of which are real life nomads in the film) might travel individually but they are a community as well.  They teach one another in ways of being resourceful with auto repair or what’s the best bucket for a toilet.  They provide people like Fern with temporary job opportunities.  They also counsel one another with how to deal with grief and share their own health challenges like the various forms of cancer and illnesses they endure and how they plan to live out the remainder of their limited time on earth.  One woman with an inoperable brain tumor is determined to make it back to Alaska.  What drives these people is not necessarily a will to survive.  More importantly, it’s the knowledge that they will cross paths with one another again.  An experienced nomad who lost a son to suicide never considers saying goodbye to anyone he encounters.  Rather, he is staunch in telling others that he’ll “see them down the road,” at another time and place.  He reminds Fern that to live this life is to never close the book or end a chapter, and memories of those we have lost can only stay alive if Fern and others stay alive.

I appreciate a film like Nomadland simply because I’ve never been the brave traveler.  One of my greatest fears is being lost and alone.  It has always terrified me.  I still don’t trust the navigation apps on my cell phone.  I have to see the destination in front of me.  Luckily, my wife keeps me in check.  Yet, Nomadland is a film that gives me an opportunity to explore places I might never arrive at, while I sit safely in front of my flat screen.  Chloe Zhao shoots with wide lenses to take in gorgeous landscapes.  How fortunate for Fern that she can encounter all of this beauty in person.  How fortunate, as a viewer, a film like this allows me to witness what’s out there.  How sad though as well that sometimes this way of life seems treacherous and nonsensical.  Whatever entity created the earth allowed no sympathy for a flat tire or a broken-down engine, when you have no means of paying for replacement parts.  As well, mother nature is not always going to be that companion that holds your hand during lonely times.  Corporate America certainly won’t do that either, but it is a necessary evil.  Thank you, Amazon!

Frances McDormand is perfect for this role as she carries no inhibitions about herself.  She will truly show herself sans makeup or coiffed hairstyles, floating nude in a stream, or go so far as to literally defecate on screen in that practical bucket to demonstrate how truly unglamourous and unforgiving the life of a nomad is. 

Nomadland is not a favorite film of mine, but I can’t help but appreciate its honesty thanks to Zhao, McDormand and the numerous real-life nomads that inhabit the picture.  It’s a sad story; not a triumphant one, but it is also a film that tries to emulate the comfort of being “houseless…not homeless” as Fern describes with absolute certainty.  It might not be the life for many of us, but it is definitely a life meant for Fern.


By Marc S. Sanders

Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning opens with two water fountains side by side. One is labeled “White” and the other is labeled “Colored.” That tells me enough about what life was like in the state of Mississippi in 1964.

The very next image I see is a burning church. Parker keeps his camera focused on the fire as the blazes get bigger and more out of control. Then I realized I’m only just getting to know what life is like in the state of Mississippi in 1964. It’s only now in the year 2020, that Mississippi is opting to remove the Confederate symbol from its state flag. It really has taken this long?

The script written by Chris Gerolmo centers on three young civil rights activists (one black and two white) who turn up missing. Two FBI agents named Anderson and Ward travel down to Jarrett County to investigate the activists’ disappearance and come to learn they are engrained within a dense populace of the Ku Klux Klan that dangerously spreads as far as the local sheriff’s department.

The events in Mississippi Burning are fictionalized, but Gerolmo’s script is based on actual facts. The feds plainly see they are not welcome in Jarret. Ward (Willem Dafoe) is the young crusader in charge of the investigation. He is adamant about being thorough and he will not be intimidated to sit with the colored section in the town diner to ask some questions. Problem is no one dares answer his questions. Worse, simply because Ward approaches a black man, he’s opened up a world of hurt for this man.

Anderson (Gene Hackman) is a former Sheriff of the south who knows that to get anywhere down here means not being so direct on a personal level. Hackman is one of cinema’s finest actors. He’s adept at handling tricky dialogue like circumventing with flirtation or good ol’ boy humor to arrive at some facts. He shares great moments with Frances McDormand as the meek wife of a brutal Klan deputy (Brad Dourif) that the Feds suspect was the ring leader of what happened to the missing men. This is one of Gene Hackman’s best roles. It’s also one of Frances McDormand’s best roles.

Ward orders hundreds of men from the FBI to join the investigation. That only heats things up in the process. Black men are pulled from their homes in the dead of night to be beaten and lynched. More churches and homes are bombed and burned down.

Mississippi Burning is a very disturbing film, as it should be. Alan Parker is unrelenting in showing the brutality of the deep south who are not simply satisfied with just segregation. An obsession of power and evil is rooted in this film. The violence is terribly frightening. More so, Parker wisely gets close ups on the innocent faces of young children embraced in their mother and father’s arms as they proudly listen to a white Klan businessman (the great character actor Stephen Tobolowsky in a truly unexpected and surprising performance) preach his justification for where he believes the colored belong in order to uphold a purity to his proud state of Mississippi. The film reinforces the idea that hatred is taught. Hatred is an unfair misguidance that brainwashes a young mind and passes from generation to generation.

Watching so many movies, I really thought I’d become desensitized to most images. Then I watch a film like Mississippi Burning and I see Confederate flags draped just about anywhere and I honestly wince. Its so ugly to me; as ugly as a swastika. It’s not just on a license plate or hanging on a flagpole. There’s at least three in the local beauty shop and the diner next door. It’s remained a proud tradition. So proudly the symbol hangs, that it seems to cheer for the culture of dragging a young black man into the woods for a beating. When the Feds find this man, Agent Ward asks “What the hell is wrong with these people?” I’m still asking that question over 50 years from the time setting of this film, over thirty years after this film was made.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning should be a must see for parents to show their children. There’s a terrible madness to this film. It’s incredibly sad that this deep hatred is so alive with a passion. Seriously, what the hell is wrong with these people?