Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935)

Broadway Melody of 1936 is the second of four Broadway Melody films. The first, simply called The Broadway Melody (1929) is likely the most famous, as it was the first musical and first sound film to win Best Picture. It was also M-G-M’s first all-talking picture, the studio’s first musical, and the highest grossing film of the year. It introduced classics often repeated throughout the series (and later, in Singin’ in the Rain), such as “You Were Meant for Me,” “Broadway Melody,” and “Wedding of the Painted Doll.”

Broadway Melody of 1936 isn’t any kind of sequel, and just picks up on the idea of folks wanting to be in a show, and it shows us the numbers as they are rehearsed or performed. In just a few short years, the studios, especially M-G-M—which ended up making the greatest American musicals—learned how to film their numbers, from large group efforts to individual performances. The film is packed with then-famous faces, including Jack Benny,  Una Merkel, and Robert Taylor. But it is the newcomers that make the film worth watching, and one of them makes one of the most spectacular appearances as a newcomer that film has ever seen.

But first, the famous ones. Una Merkel is perfectly cast as the tough-but-tender wisecracker she often plays. Benny hadn’t yet become a legend, and he is almost in a separate film. Most of his scenes are with Sid Silvers, a comic second banana as an actor, but who as a screenwriter either contributed to or wrote the scripts for this film and the next two in the Broadway Melody series (“…of 1938” and “…of 1940”) as well as For Me and My Gal and even The Wizard of Oz. There’s a lot of Benny humor and physical comedy, and it doesn’t show the famous comedian at his best. If anything, Silvers might have the edge here.

Robert Taylor is one of the three actors of the time that the leads in Zoolander would have called “ridiculously good looking” along with Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power. Here he surprises, as he sings “I’ve Got a Feeling You’re Foolin’”, not the easiest song to sing. He doesn’t have much of a voice. It has little character, but he’s smooth and on key. This was a time when studios were stretching their dramatic and comic actors to see who might be a musical star. (Check out Jimmy Stewart…. Taylor has a nice natural voice, but he isn’t a singer.

The minor revelation is Buddy Ebsen, here in his first film with performing partner and sister Vilma, a dancing team that once billed itself as “The Baby Astaires.” For those who only know Buddy Ebsen in The Beverly Hilbillies or Barnaby Jones, his dancing is something to behold. It’s been described, as loose-limbed, rag-doll, and even “surreal.” All apply.  He and Vilma sing a rather silly song called “Sing Before Breakfast,” which introduces the main star of the film. Ebsen’s voice is like his dancing. He sings around the notes, eventually hitting the pitch, but often just barely. (He’s a much better singer than Taylor, though.) Check it out:

Finally, the woman that most folks have forgotten. It’s the inimitable Eleanor Powell. She had a small part in George White’s 1935 Scandals, where she is uncredited but gives a small glimpse of her incredible talent. Here in Broadway Melody of 1936, she is given the star treatment, and puts on an incredible display of dancing talent that was unequaled. She’s not much of an actress, and she is weakest playing the main role as the character. But when her character is imitating Katharine Hepburn in her first Oscar-winning role in 1933’s Morning Glory (very funny) or pretending to be a French dancing star, she’s quite good. But when she dances, watch out. The film gives her a gradual unveiling of her talents. She dances with the Ebsens in a “Wow, she can really tap” moment. Then she gets the classical ballerina treatment (and dances beautifully, often en pointe.) in an overly lush scene that reminds one of the sets for A Midsummer Night’s Dream from a year earlier. Having established those credentials, she does a dazzling technical display of her footwork as the French star, and then at the end, the film gives her the ultimate musical treatment, allowing her to tap like crazy, bend over backward like few others could, and spin like the best ice skaters—except for longer. This last segment is breathtaking, and anyone with an interest in film should see it: and start at 1:50.

Perhaps the greatest dance ever recorded on film came four years later, when Powell was finally paired with her only equal, Fred Astaire, in Broadway Melody of 1940. Powell could never be part of a dance couple, as Ginger Rogers was with Astaire. But the pairing of these two giants who shared a great respect for one another is extraordinary. The number is long and starts slowly, but here is what most folks remember when they talk about the number:

I’d always thought of Powell as a machine-like technician, and a little on the cool side. But she has a glorious smile and a sweet demeanor on film. It’s just that she dances everyone (except Astaire that once) off the screen, and has acrobatic abilities that left even other dancers in awe.

The film, as a film, has its high points and low points. There is some interesting use of film technique, especially in the editing and use of double exposure. The downside of some of the Broadway Melody films is the awful tendency to showcase novelty acts that are out of place and generally annoying to the modern viewer. Here there is a recurrent character who does different kinds of snoring. Really. But this is what fast-forward was made for.

Powell was a unique performer, and she deserves to be more remembered than she is. One good look at her dancing should take care of that for one willing to give her a try.

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In the Heights

When it comes to the film version of In the Heights, context might not be everything, but for many folks, it might be the biggest factor in experiencing it. The Broadway version opened in 2008, and it was to be made into a film a few years after. Then there were problems, and things were delayed. Then they finally made the film, and looked to a June 2020 release date. Then COVID pushed it to June 2021.

Since the pandemic changed the timing for a lot of projects, what’s the big deal? Well, the film version of Hamilton was supposed to be released this coming October (2021). But instead, it was released on Disney+ in the middle of last year, and has been a popular streaming choice. For me and many others who have seen this version of Hamilton (in my case, several times), In the Heights comes off as a delightful but pale early version of a Lin-Manuel Miranda work, a great first draft for the deeper and richer Hamilton.

Is that unfair to In the Heights? Yes, but it’s still the way many are going to see it, with the monumental Hamilton firmly sitting in the background. It’s energetic (too much at times) and colorful, and its focus on a specific neighborhood and cultural community will always make it focused and relevant. (Disclosure: My family lived in Manhattan in the ‘70s and ‘80s—for the most part in a Hispanic neighborhood—and we had friends who lived in Washington Heights. The many New York City jokes hit home, and added to the experience.)

The film is a good half-hour too long, and feels like it just has to include large showstopper numbers that clearly worked better on stage. For a musician/singer like myself, those numbers have an attraction that might not work on others; my guess is that they will seem to go on too long and will be seen as distractions from the main story line/s.

Musicals always have the tremendous creative challenge of creating a universe in which people can sing and/or dance. Hamilton was essentially all-singing, but In the Heights, while having long and involved musical numbers, has many “normal” dialogue scenes as well. Opening as the film does with a large group number, it suggests that this is going to be all-singing as well, but then it settles down to going back and forth between spoken and singing/dancing scenes. Transitions are easy and natural, and nothing seems forced.

The plot is not the point, as the real point is Washington Heights—a place, not a story. But there is a central story, and many, many side ones as well. There are actually too many stories here, and the film loses its focus more than once. There are several attractive characters here whose stories we are interested in following, but the many group numbers often pull us away from our investment in these characters, and the abundant energy of the numbers isn’t enough to keep us as invested as we are in the individual people and their particular challenges.

Key among these people is Anthony Ramos, who occupies the soft, warm center of the film with a soft and warm character. What his character Usnavi does in the film and what he wants really doesn’t matter; it’s what Ramos radiates that matters. Ramos, who played the dual roles of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Hamilton, easily holds this film together, and while only a decent singer and dancer, holds his own in those regards and has a strong screen presence of likeability and relatability. It will be fascinating to see where he goes to from here.

There has been a good deal of press around the presence of Jimmy Smits in a major role. The non-singing dramatic actor does a little bit of singing (well done) and some dance-like moves that can substitute for real dancing. He provides the gravitas of the piece, and while Ramon remains the standout, Smits fills his role well.

The two female romantic leads are lovely and have lovely voices. But after hearing what Renée Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo did with Miranda’s words and music in Hamilton, these two sounded more like Disney princesses. They are competent actors and very good singers, but they suffer by comparison (again, unfair, but real).

A real standout among the supporting playes is Tony nominee (for the stage version of In the Heights) Olga Merediz, who plays Abuela Claudia, and provides some real heart in the first half of the film. Then in the second half, she steals the film for a while with a showstopper number that reveals a surprisingly strong voice and a command we didn’t see coming. After all the big numbers (on the streets, in the pool, etc.), this is the number that really lifts the film. I was thinking in the first half of the film that hers was the character and performance that might draw a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Watching her big number (“Paciencia Y Fe”) only confirmed that.

In contrast, Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela has a similar number that showcases her energy and talents. But “Carnaval Del Barrio” is one big number too many, and reminds us of the difference between stage and film. My guess is that it worked well on the stage. It could easily have been cut or even drastically shortened. Coming as it does toward the end of the film, it tends to draw things out when things need to be wrapped up.

Multi-hyphenate Miranda, who originated the lead role of Usnavi on stage, makes a fun appearance as a piragua salesman. He sounds better and stronger than ever before, certainly more than in the film version of Hamilton or Mary Poppins Returns. Another even smaller cameo appearance as the Mister Softee man is provided by Christopher Jackson, who along with Leslie Odom Jr., was one of my two favorite Hamilton performers. (Jackson played George Washington.) The most beautiful male voice in the film is Corey Hawkins’; he plays Benny, and I could have heard a lot more from him.

Then there is a completely non-musical performance by music legend Marc Anthony, playing a straight, down-and-dirty role that wasn’t in the original play. He does a very good job, but it’s hard not to see the superstar under the tattoos and grit. Another supporting performance that gets stronger and more satisfying as it goes along is that of Sonny, played by the young Gregory Diaz IV. His part becomes more important as the film goes along, and really blossoms near the end. This is a multi-talented young actor that is well worth watching out for. He sings, dances, acts, and possesses a strong screen presence, especially for someone so young.

There are a few problems with the main love story. Ramos as Usnavi is just a little too hesitant and shy with Vanessa  (Melissa Varrera), and that gets old quickly. Also, during a scene where he supposedly “abandons” her, believability is strained to the breaking point both in what supposedly occurs and in how it’s shot. Director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) generally does a good job balancing the group numbers with the individual story, but this scene—an important one in the romance plot—doesn’t work. It’s not a fatal flaw, but it hurt.

The film goes into magical realism in one number for no good reason, and ends up reminding everyone of La La Land. Not sure what this brought to the film. Since there hadn’t been anything other than the usual suspension of disbelief that most musicals have, the scene was confusing and a bit distracting.

In spite of the overwhelming marketing campaign, the film doesn’t seem to be doing all that well. With a $55 million dollar budget plus marketing costs to cover, the film hasn’t even cracked the $20 million mark internationally. Is it worth seeing? It depends. If you’re a musical or Miranda completist, it’s worth seeing, and Ramos is now officially a star and worth watching. What it has going for it is a not-quite-unique musical style (see Hamilton), some good performers, and a specific focus on a community and a place. But it doesn’t have a song you’ll be humming on the way home (not that it has to…), it overreaches, and it’s too long. Your call.

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San Francisco (1936)

I had always thought of 1936’s San Francisco as the ultimate early studio disaster movie I hadn’t seen yet, with then-groundbreaking effects dominating the film. Actually, the amount of film covering the devastating 1906 earthquake is relatively small, but the effects are so good and so shocking within the context of the film that the impact of them far outweighs their time on the screen.

For most of its 115 minutes, San Francisco is a generally unbelievable struggle of good vs. evil, classical music vs. modern music, and love vs. exploitation. It stars Clark Gable well on his way to becoming the “King of Hollywood,” soprano Jeanette MacDonald at her height of popularity, and Spencer Tracy right before his back-to-back Oscars for his films in 1937 and ’38. In fact, this film gave him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor (Paul Muni won that year for The Story of Louis Pasteur), though the case can be made that he should have been nominated in the new Best Supporting Actor category. But his effect on the film is strong. He’s playing a priest and long-time friend of Gable’s Blackie Norton; Tracy supplies a firm strong sense of morality throughout when others are either wavering ethically or simply choosing to be the bad guys (e.g., Norton), and his presence is onscreen even when he isn’t.

MacDonald’s Mary Blake is a classically trained singer trying to make it on the Barbary Coast in 1906. She secures a gig with Blackie Norton (Gable) at his house of gambling and drinking, the ironically named Paradise. There is a back-and-forth with Blake singing Norton’s kind of dance hall music, and a wealthy socialite and an opera empresario drawing her back to classical roots. Mary and Blackie inexplicably fall in love, and Mary later just as inexplicably falls for the wealthy socialite. Most of this is sheer hooey, as is the idea of MacDonald singing in a modern-day saloon.

This all leaves plenty of opportunity, however, for a half-dozen performances of “The Theme from San Francisco” (a.k.a., simply “San Francisco”) an earworm before there were earworms. The song is sung with every possible musical approach, including the rousing crowd anthem version with MacDonald going to town with an operatic descant that creates an aural combination that perhaps ought not to be. (The cynic in me wonders if the combination of the crowd performance of the title song combined with the aria-like descant is what actually caused the earthquake, which happens right after.)

The song gets in your head quickly and was so familiar to me that I has assumed that it had been written about the city before this film. But no, it was written for the film, and has become one of two of the city’s great anthems—the other being “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”. I also assumed that such a popular and singable song might have won Best Song at the Oscars, yet it wasn’t even nominated. That’s understandable, however, when you learn that three of the nominees included “The Way You Look Tonight” (Swing Time), “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (Born to Dance), and “Pennies from Heaven” from the film of the same name. (“The Way You Look Tonight” was the winner.)

Note on MacDonald: She isn’t my favorite movie soprano. She has the rather “hooty” sound of some classically trained sopranos that covers the sound they’re producing and makes the words take a back seat. (In contrast, my wife has the same vocal range as MacDonald, but has a clear, almost “pop” sound, even on her high notes; that’s a sound I’ve come to prefer.) MacDonald sounds like she had come to film from opera, but the opposite trajectory was true. After her film career, she seriously pursued, with some success, a genuine operatic career. MacDonald does better with another song composed for the film. It’s “Would You?”, which musical lovers will remember from 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. I had thought that Singin’ had tried to stick to the numbers written around the time of the earliest talkies, with “Beautiful Girl” from a few years later being the exception. Seems that “Would You?” Is indeed the biggest outlier.

In terms of acting, Tracy is the standout, and it’s not hard to see why he snagged a nomination. But the film really belongs to the two leads. MacDonald was a bit out of her element; she was better in smarter, sharper roles, like those with Maurice Chevalier. She’s not lost here, and she gives it her all, but her character is slightly unrealistic, and she is asking the viewer to believe things most simply won’t if they gave it any thought. Having just seen Gable (and Crawford) in Dancing Lady (, where I was pleasantly surprised by Gable’s range and depth, I was disappointed to see a more two-dimensional performance here. It’s a meaty role, but not as fleshed out as it could have been.

Note on Gable: It’s understood that many, many films are going to do their best to highlight the physical attributes of their stars, and certainly in the studio era, those stars were mostly female (see the poster above for the film’s attempt to do that with MacDonald). I grew up learning that Gable was “what women wanted, and men wanted to be.” But I hadn’t realized how often Gable was presented physically. In Dancing Lady, there is a gratuitous scene in a gym that shows off his muscles. In San Francisco, he’s put in a boxing ring with little more than a Speedo. There is a small attempt to connect those scenes to their films’ plots, but the goal of the scenes is obvious.

Part of the problem between Gable and MacDonald is that the leads have no real chemistry (see Dancing Lady again for an example of chemistry). Their characters would likely never have fallen for each other; only as cinematic stars and leads is this possible. Not outwardly visible is another possible reason: these two actors didn’t like each other, and had no relationship when the cameras stopped. Gable apparently did some rather immature things to signal his dislike, such as eating garlic before love scenes. You can’t see the mutual aversion on the screen, and it’s to the two actors’ credit. But there is no real connection.

The earthquake scene is justifiably famous, and should have garnered some kind of award. For the time, it was certainly state-of-the-art, and even today it can be jarring. Having recently seen a documentary on the earthquake and its attendant fires, I realized that the film nails the key components of the quake, and gives the viewer a surprisingly accurate experience. You can see it here:

Once the earthquake sequence is done, the film goes from heavy melodrama to positively surreal. Gable/Norton looks for (and of course eventually finds) Mary/MacDonald, a man conveniently dies, and when Norton finds Mary, the film gets downright strange. The situation he finds her in is rather unusual to modern eyes and ears, and then the film ends with what is supposed to be a stirring expression of hope by, apparently, all the survivors. It’s probably important to remember that this film came only 30 years after the earthquake, and there were likely millions of viewers who remembered it, and thousands who experienced it. San Francisco had rebuilt itself in those 30 years, and the film (spoiler alert) ends with a modern (i.e., 1936) image.

An M-G-M production, the film has the requisite gloss of the studio, as well as the stars acting like stars as much if not more than their characters. Part of me would have loved to see what Warner Brothers might have done to it—adding an edge and getting down and gritty in a more realistic way. But clearly any film attempting to convince us that Gable and MacDonald are a believable pair is clearly going to try and distract us with energy (check), a believable supporting performance (check), and a plot that leads to a well-done demonstration of state-of-the-art special effects (double check). The film is a strange amalgamation of high- and low-brow, and pretty much everything aside from the earthquake sequence can’t be taken seriously. The parts never really gel, but as an example of M-G-M at its height, and a platform for two major stars who would never get together in or out of a movie, it’s fascinating.

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A Quiet Place Part II

More than a year after its planned wide release, A Quiet Place Part II is finally here. It’s a solid, well-directed, and well-acted film. It reminds me a little of Alien followed by Aliens: thefirst was a deeply felt, intelligent classic followed by an excellent action/horror film with many more creatures to deal with. Part II here has more monsters, more close-ups of monsters, and a lot more action.

The story line picks up the moment after the first film ends. But director John Krasinski (who wrote the film as well as directed it) wisely brings himself back as an actor as the film opens by going back to Day One of the attack. He’s a most welcome screen presence (especially after so many will see this as their first film enjoyed in a theater), and his presence at the beginning of the film brings back our memories of his heroism as well as connecting him strongly with daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who takes over the lead as the film progresses. We also meet Emmett (Cillian Murphy), who figures into the action later.

Once the film reminds the viewer of the danger and devastation awaiting the unsuspected or the noisy, it moves us back into “the present,” where Krasinski’s Lee has died, and the family must survive on their own. Without Lee, the family moments are less effective, but the film reminds us that son Marcus (Noah Jupe) is emotionally high-strong and needs lot of encouragement from Mom (Emily Blunt, a.k.a. Mrs. John Krasinski), that Regan is smart and feisty and creative, and Mom is still a rock—albeit one with a tender heart.

Without giving away the plot, suffice it to say that the family discovers that one or more people in the region are alive. Connections are made, journeys are struck out on, and each of the family members develops their own story. The big leap viewers have to make is that while they are telling us that the action picks up right after the first one ends, Marcus looks quite a bit taller and more mature, which of course the actor was when it was made. Blunt and Simmonds can get away with it; Jupe can’t. But as long as you accept it (and it took this viewer a while to do so), we file it away under suspension of disbelief and we go on. Fortunately, his actions in this film befit someone older than the Marcus of the first film, and that helps to make us forget how quickly this young and talented actor is growing up. As in the first film, Jupe has to maintain a look of terror throughout much of the film, but he gets both tender moments and a gut-wrenching scene of intense pain and screaming that round out the performance. What he is put through reminded me a bit of some of the comments on 2005’s War of the Worlds (yes, the Tom Cruise one), where poor Dakota Fanning was so traumatized for so long that some critics were worried about the effect the performance might have on the actor.  

After a while, however, the film belongs to Simmonds, who gives a quiet, intense, and moving performance—all while being the film’s de facto action star. Her scenes with Murphy show a maturity we didn’t see in the first film, and highlight the actor’s and character’s strength, tenderness, and intelligence.

Sequels are fascinating in how they choose to keep parts of the first film, and how they choose to branch out or simply depart. The film benefits greatly by the characters and the actors. We want to be with these people that we so fondly remember from the first film, and the film benefits from our loyalty to them with our memories of the family times in the first film. We don’t get much of that here, and it could have used more of that, even without Lee’s presence. But these are people we want to be with, and that alone is a strength. I

n terms of the acting, we know that Blunt can be a strong screen presence and a very good actor, and the film simply confirms that. Murphy’s presence is less slick and more macho than in any film I’ve seen him in, and those who know his history are reminded of the similar world he was challenged with in 28 Days Later…. He’s solid, but his character is no replacement for Krasinski. By the end of the film, Simmonds has essentially taken over the role of her film father as the strong and capable lead, and has shown the world that she can hold a film together on her own. Jupe is clearly an actor of sensitivity and range, and he could hardly have a stronger calling card to casting directors than his work here.

There was a kind of perfect storm of plot, actors, and directors in the first film. The sequel necessarily loses the element of surprise and freshness that a surprise hit like the first film possessed. With Dad gone, it’s also lost the strongest connector of the family. But Krasinski has made some wise choices here. He has spread out the action geographically, and has given each main character his/her own story-within-the-film. He’s also chosen to go the rather familiar route of more horror and more action, but his continued astute use of silence still sets this apart from the more routine action/horror films. We miss the strong element of family, however, that so tenderly characterized the first film, and that is a bit of a loss. The film isn’t devoid of quiet moments, but the depth of family love we associated with those moments in the first film isn’t here. Yet we get more activity, more jump scares, and more people (e.g., Djimon Hounsou making a quiet and unfortunately short appearance).

Viewers with happy memories of the first film should enjoy this one. Just being with these folks is a cinematic pleasure. Krasinski can’t quite capture the lightning-in-the-bottle essence of the first film, but that would be impossible. It’s indeed a smart sequel and a thoroughly enjoyable experience, just not a particularly deep one.

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A note to my readers – May 2021

First of all, thank you for being a reader. I hope you enjoy and are blessed by what you read. I have a couple of things to share with you:

  1. I have three websites in all. I hope some who are signed up for one might be encouraged to sign up for another.
    • My devotional (, which is a daily Christian devotional meant to encourage and challenge.
    • “Dedicated to Grammar” (, which is a fun weekly release designed to help professionals speak and write more accurately. It’s also ideal for folks learning English as a second language.
    • Last but not least is my film website ( My degrees are in film, and I taught film at a university for 20+ years. I analyze films, new and old, and cover some film-related events. My newest entry is on The Father.
  2. I would like to turn all these writings into books. I did have the devotionals turned into a book that apparently sold out its modest run, but the publisher decided not to reprint. The grammar site could easily be a fun and easy book to have around. Lastly, the film website wouldn’t be these entries (I just hit 300 of them this past week), but a book on the musical films of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen.

If anyone has any connections or great ideas about getting these writings published, let me know at


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The Father

I was wrong. Not having been able to see The Father in the theater until recently, I went with the current wisdom that the award for Best Actor would of course go to Chadwick Boseman for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It would be an award signaling our collective loss of a great actor, one who would likely have continued to contribute powerful, shaded performances…plus…it was generally agreed that this powerful performance was the best of the year besides.

Then I saw The Father’s Anthony Hopkins, who won the Oscar for Best Actor and shocked anyone paying attention. The Academy got it right. As good as Boseman was, Hopkins’ performance is one for the ages. It’s stunning, rich, full, and as powerful as it comes. That’s one reason to see it. The other Oscar the film won was for its screenplay, which is masterful.

The film is a challenge to anyone getting up there in years. It’s the nightmare scenario of a man dealing with Alzheimer’s, and the slow but steady loss of a grip on reality. The plot is simple: when is it time, if it is ever time, to put a parent in a home? But there is so much more experientially. The film takes us along on the journey of Anthony’s (yes, that’s his character’s name as well, as screenwriter/director Florian Zeller wrote it specifically for him) growing confusion, until we don’t know exactly what is going on and can relate to his constant bewilderment. (For those among you who must make sense of things, you’ll be happy to know that by the end, things clear up.)

I’ll get back to Hopkins soon, but his fellow actors are well-known, even to most American audiences, and they range from solidly good to great. The great is the great Olivia Coleman, Oscar winner for The Favourite. She plays Anthony’s daughter, and is the character who holds the film together narratively. Other well-known actors include Olivia Williams (The Sixth Sense), Mark Gatiss (Mycroft in the TV Sherlock Holmes with Benedict Cumberbatch), and Rufus Sewell (Man in the High Castle and Victoria).

The script by Zeller, based upon his play, has a clear arc and direction while still allowing viewers to experience the dizzying confusion Anthony is plagued with. It moves at a steady pace, never rushing but never lagging. This is also Zeller’s first film as a director after years of writing plays, and while his work is being overshadowed by both the strength of the script and the stellar work of Hopkins, it’s an exciting and very intelligent first effort.

The cinematography by Ben Smithard (Downton Abbey the film) hasn’t been written about much, but it’s a major contributor to the story. In most films dealing with confusion or dementia, there is a clear differentiation between what’s real and what isn’t, or what might not be real. Everything here is crisp and clean and in focus, making the unreal as real as the real, and allowing us access to Anthony’s perceptions.

Finally, I cannot say enough about Hopkins’ work. He’s funny, intelligent, silly, mean, self-absorbed, selfish, childish, and finally, pitiable. It’s an “all out there” performance with no punches pulled, but it’s not showy and no furniture is chewed. Even Hopkins’ patented “yell” is used only once. It’s as fine-tuned a performance as you will ever see. The film is closely centered around him, and he holds it together while the film itself provides him with an opportunity to show the depth and breadth of his talent. It’s easy to see why some consider him the greatest actor alive today.

The film is intriguing, fascinating, engaging, smart, and genuinely emotional. It’s worth seeing for itself. But finally, it’s a must-see for those that appreciate world-class acting. This performance is one on the best you’ll ever see. (Yes, it’s that good.)

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A note to Oscar (re: 2021 show)

Oh, Oscar, Oscar! I’ve never felt sorry for you up to now. Yes, you’ve been ridiculous, and full of self-centeredness and virtue signaling. But with the pandemic and the dearth of movies in theaters, I had faith that you would turn a negative into a positive, and that the new approach might be refreshing in these most unusual times. I expected record low viewing numbers, as the thin movie year yielded a number of excellent smaller and independent films, but the big popular movies that lead to lots of viewers just weren’t there.

Things started well with a long shot (that was admittedly TOO long in duration), but that featured the talented, intelligent, and articulate Regina King. And just when you had me willing to go along on this new approach, there she was, bringing in current socio-political events that apparently she just HAD to talk about. She was right that folks were reaching for their remotes at that moment. You didn’t lose me at that moment. To quote many people, I wasn’t angry, I was just … disappointed.

There were actually a lot of happy moments, though none were completely unexpected.

Emerald Fennell’s Oscar was partly for her arrival and skill at her first film, right? Yes, the screenplay was good, but everyone knew she wasn’t going to win Best Director this year, right? (And isn’t it against some law somewhere to not give this to Aaron Sorkin?) But she is a bright new light in cinema, and this was a great encouragement for her.

Of course the best competitive acceptance moment was the overlong but gut-wrenching sharing of Another Round director Thomas Vinterberg’s story about his daughter. This was one of those great personal moments that will be remembered by everyone who saw it (low as those numbers are). The other great moment was Yuh-Jung Youn’s win in the Supporting Actress category. Again, lovely and memorable, but this time lighter and funnier.

No host again, huh? I know it’s hard for you, as there is a reason that everyone on the planet is unsuitable for hosting, and everyone out here is poised to be offended by … something. But really, can we reconsider, Oscar? A good and popular host may actually improve the numbers, and make the show worth watching again. What about an actor/actress who can actually speak intelligently? Everyone loves Clooney and Pitt, yes? What about either? What about both of them?

Thank you for not having full-length and time-consuming performances of the five nominated songs, of which, lately, perhaps two or three are worth listening to. But did you have to take the music away from the main show, and relegate them to the pre-show, where pretty much no one could hear them? I’ve been telling you for years that there should be one, grand, knock-your-eyes-out medley of the Best Song nominees. We’d get the flavor of the songs without taking up so much time. Is that so hard to manage?

I liked the roving camera that showed us the various nominees in many of the more technical categories. Nice touch—human and engaging. And done pretty well to boot. Also, a nice job on the remote nominees and winners. Tricky stuff and you did it well. Two thumbs up.

I won’t mention the name, but you know who I’m talking about. Can we please just have a show that’s about the movies, and not about anything else? I understand that this is a platform now—a smaller one than ever, but a platform, nonetheless. But there seems to be some kind of impetus to go beyond the world of film and thankfulness. You can actually see when the switch happen sometimes. Winners just STOP, and then they think, and they just HAVE to say something, and since it’s not planned, it’s generally not clear. Or appropriate.

Related to that was an idea that didn’t quite work. THANK YOU for not having inane “banter” between two stars before giving us categories and winners. Good job, there! But winners tended to share a little too long, and some of them, well, again, I won’t mention names, but a few were quite painful to listen to, especially as they droned on.

You did get one big response from me during the evening. When Lil Rel started to move into the audience for his bit about songs that may or may not have been nominated, I started yelling at the television. I was screaming for you to stop it, now, please, for the love of all things good, please stop this immediately. You clearly didn’t listen to me, and it’s a  good thing that the reputedly spontaneous but clearly prepped Da Butt/Glenn Close thing happened; it distracted from what a bad, bad, bad, bad, stupid, awful, if-you-asked-me-about-this-I-would-have-shut-it-down-immediately, bad idea. Please don’t ever do anything this awkward and poorly done again. Please. Let’s just keep things moving.

The sad thing about an experimental format that only partially succeeds (and I’m being nice here) is that most of the voting was actually something I tended to agree with. There were no egregious, horrible choices, no career Oscars for mediocre or cringeworthy performances (thank you for not giving GC her Oscar for this film). There were some surprises, and if I’d been part of an Oscar pool, I don’t think I’d have won. But even when surprised, it was generally either a happy surprise or at least an “it’s OK” one. (I did feel bad for Halle Berry, who messed up the name of the one of the nominees, and then had to repeat the name—doing a slightly better job—when he won.)

…which of course leads us to your decision to mix things up a little, departing from tradition, and doing the unexpected. Mostly it was fine; I don’t think anyone is going to lose any sleep over the preceding year’s Best Whatever winner for giving the award to a person of the same gender this year. But oh, that ending. Not good. Throwing the Best Picture award into the show when you did was confusing, and it undermined the award. Then you had Best Actress, which I was happy to see. I was rooting for Carey Mulligan, but was happy that Francis McDormand, the early frontrunner, was the eventual winner. Yes, she will always refuse to get glammed up, and you never know what she is going to say, or howl. But always entertaining.

Putting the Best Actor award at the end was a bad choice. Yes, I know you and everyone else expected Chadwick Boseman to win for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, (as did I) and you gambled that it would bring the show to an emotional close. Instead the opposite happened.  Instead, Anthony Hopkins wins for The Father, and you’re left holding the bag. Since your cronies had refused to let him be seen or speak on Zoom, he was just an unresponsive face on the screen. There was no one to accept the award, and Joaquin Phoenix did the best he could do to bring the embarrassing and awkward moment to a close. His gracious acceptance speech the next morning put the previous night’s Best Actor decision to shame. I know you’re trying to rescue the choice by saying that hey, we’re all talking about it. And we’re all taking about COVID still, too.

The highlight was Tyler Perry’s deserved Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and his elegant speech. He took advantage of the moment to put forward not a political or social agenda, but a human one. It is the kind of speech that deserves to be heard and remembered. He was absolutely shining that night, and the audience that stopped clapping when he suggested that those whom we should not hate include police officers showed themselves to be as shallow as he was deep, as unthinking as he was thoughtful. Quite telling.

We all hope that this coming year will yield more and richer choices, though this year’s quality was the equal of any. The roster for film releases looks promising. So Oscar, I beg you, do a thorough and far-reaching post-mortem on the show, keep what works, fine-tune it, and toss the rest. No matter what, I’ll be watching. And I’ll always have a suggestion or two.

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Oscar 2021–Thoughts

One might think that this would be a strange year for the Oscars because there were so few films that got a traditional theatrical release. I thought the list to choose from would be paltry, but with extending the qualifying dates well into 2021, we have a decent crop of good films. So the awards won’t be a joke, and they won’t have an asterisk by the year to indicate that we shouldn’t take those awards seriously.

Unfortunately, it’s been difficult for anyone trying to see all the possible films if they didn’t catch the film during its short release time, and if you don’t have every streaming service imaginable. So, not having seen every film, but certainly having read much about them, here are some thoughts on the race.


This one is easy. Nomadland has won nearly every award in this category up until now, and this is as close to a lock as we’ll find this year (except for one award). Fortunately, the film is worthy of the award, and is not just the strongest in a weak bunch. I was happy to see Sound of Metal in the running, though it never had a chance to actually win. Mank, which many thought might win even before it was released, was a bit of a letdown to many folks, and while still a good film, is not a great film. Minari, from what I understand, is the “feel-good-but-is-still-a-good-movie” among the rest, and has a slight (and I mean slight) chance of winning, but that’s the only real competition to Nomadland.

Note: The win for so-called “Best Picture” given by the Screen Actors Guild is really “Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture”.  That’s a whole different thing than “Best Picture.” This year that award went to The Trial of the Chicago 7, which had a large cast with many excellent performances. Smaller, tighter casts were featured in the other nominees: Da 5 Bloods, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Minari, and One Night in Miami. There’s nary a weak link in all those non-winners. But The Trial of the Chicago 7 had perhaps the largest and most varied cast, and that might be why it won. But is it a real Best Picture contender? Not at all.


Mandatory Credit: Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Variety/REX/Shutterstock (9447408ae)

No contest here. It will be Chloé Zhao for Nomadland. She won the Directors Guild Award, and the film is set to win Best Picture. I was glad the academy didn’t feel pressure to give a nod to Aaron Sorkin for The Trial of the Chicago 7, as it got nominated for Best Picture and will likely win Best Original Screenplay. Cynics may note that Hollywood will be happy to give this award to an Asian woman (the first to be nominated in this category) and will then pat itself heartily on the back for being so inclusive. That will happen, but in this case, it will also be deserved.


This is the one true lock. It will be (the late and sorely missed) Chadwick Boseman for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Yes, it could be seen as a nod to a great actor who will be greatly missed, but as with Zhao, the award will be deserved. This is an outstanding performance, and the fact that he give it his all while dying is something of a miracle. What is regrettable is that Delroy Lindo of Da 5 Bloods wasn’t nominated. He surely deserved it. And it would have been nice in any other year to see Anthony Hopkins pick up a second Oscar in his old age for The Father. Riz Ahmed’s nomination for The Sound of Metal is his prize, as it is for Minari’s Steven Yeun. Gary Oldman has won relatively recently, so he is out of the running. It’s Boseman all the way.


This one is up for grabs. The Screen Actors Guild gave it to Viola Davis for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Andra Day won at the Golden Globes for the United States vs. Billy Holiday, Carey Mulligan has won many awards for Promising Young Woman from more local groups and festivals, and Frances McDormand—the early frontrunner—just won the BAFTA (the British “Oscar”) for Nomadland.  Since actors make up the majority of voters for the Oscars, it seems like Davis might have the edge. I personally would like to see Mulligan win. Have always been a fan, and she contributed a completely different performance last year with The Dig. I can’t predict this one with any assurance.


This one is a no-brainer. It’s going to be Daniel Kaluuya for Judas and the Black Messiah. For those who still don’t know this actor, he was the lead in Get Out. Kaluuya is really more of the lead, but with film-dominating performances that are not clearly the lead, it’s become fashionable to put the actor in a supporting role category (e.g., Viola Davis in Fences). And he’s not just good, but he OWNS the film; he’s a force throughout, and deserves his win.

This category was a bit confusing this year. Kaluuya’s film partner in Judas and the Black Messiah was Keith Stanfield, who was initially presented as the lead. But here he is in this category, which isn’t really reflective of his role, and isn’t really good enough to be nominated. Leslie Odom, Jr. in One Night in Miami surely deserves his place on the list, and if not for Kaluuya, would likely be the winner. But Kingsley Ben-Adir As Malcolm X in One Night in Miami was just as good, if not better. He’s been ignored this season, but anyone with an eye for talent surely noticed.


The early money was on Amanda Seyfried for Mank, but she has faded in recent months. Maria Bakalova is getting great acclaim for her work in Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm, and the supporting roles is where Oscar is more comfortable giving awards for comedy. This could p-o-s-s-i-b-l-y be where the Academy decides to finally give an Oscar to Glenn Close, but Hillbilly Elegy was ravaged by the critics, and the tension here might be between wanting to finally give her an Oscar, and not wanting to give her an Oscar for this film. My money is on Bakalova at the moment.


There are good reasons why any of these nominees could win. With Nomadland winning Best Picture, that might pull the script into the win column. But with the love flowing for Sasha Baron Cohen this year, he could win for Borat. White Tiger’s final award is the nomination itself. One Night in Miami’s central idea is strong, and the film’s ability to keep as many ideological balls as possible in the air throughout the film is admirable. The Academy loves intelligent and “classy” scripts, too, and that may bring a win to The Father. Not sure about this one yet.


This one might be a bit of game-changer. Normally, an Aaron Sorkin script is the default winner any year, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 is both intelligent and witty. The man’s a legend, and that may be enough for some voters. But Promising Young Woman is young, fresh, brilliant, and written by a newly arrived female writer-director. I think the script is better than the film, and this may how the Academy will show its love for this film. Surely the arrival of such a talented director is an encouraging sign for the future


Well, we don’t have a film like Parasite, which won this last year, and then cleaned up on the rest of the major awards. But we do have Another Round, which has gotten great reviews, and which snagged a Best Director nomination this year for Thomas Vinterberg. That may be enough to convince voters that this is the best. The others are virtually unknown compared to the higher visibility of foreign films of years past. Blame that on COVID….

Quick thoughts on other categories:

Best Animated Feature: Onward and Soul may cancel each other out, giving this to Wolfwalkers.

Best Cinematography: Mank’s cinematography has already won awards, and if it wins here, will be the rare modern-day black-and-white film to win the award. It’s stunning and would be a worthy win. None of the other nominated films (Judas and the Black Messiah, News of the World, Nomadland, and The Trial of the Chicago 7) are known for the lush imagery that seems to attract votes. The slight exceptions are News of the World and Nomadland, whose vistas are beautiful but rough.

Best Film Editing: The Best Picture often gets this as an accompaniment to the other awards. But in the year of Sound of Metal and Promising Young Woman, that’s not a lock.

Best Original Song: “Fight for You” and “Speak Now” have nearly identical functions in their films, and may cancel each other out. “Hear My Voice” is not far away from them. We may actually have voting based on the quality of the song!

Best Sound: I’ll be really surprised if Sound of Metal doesn’t win.

Best Visual Effects: Tenet and Mulan are the only films anyone has heard of. (Slightly exaggerated, but close to being true.)

Final note: These are likely to be the least watched of any Oscar show in years. For one, it’s going the virtual route, which is necessary but not fun, and viewers may choose to skip that. Then there is the thin list of films to draw from. There have obviously been no blockbusters to choose from, and there are not even any deeply loved films in the bunch—all because of the pandemic and the small roster of films released. Also, a famous or funny host used to be a draw. But now everyone is running in fear of saying anything controversial, so the Oscars have passed on employing that possible help. The only emotional attraction is going to be the win for Chadwick Boseman, and the Academy should be happy that is one of the last awards given that evening.

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Dancing Lady (1933)

For a film historian and even for just a film buff, there is almost too much going on in 1933’s Dancing Lady. It’s pre-Code, coming at the end of 1933, which already makes it worthy of special attention, i.e., what are they going to try to get away with? It’s MGM’s answer to the successful Warner Brothers “new musicals” with Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, and the kaleidoscopic dance patterns of Busby Berkeley (e.g., 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade). Dancing Lady features Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone as the leads—and this sentence has enough in just those few words to support a documentary. It also features the 3 Stooges (really); Fred Astaire in his first film (yes, really);  greats like May Robson, Robert Benchley, Sterling Holloway, a too-short moment of a blonde Eve Arden; and an early blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance from Nelson Eddy before he teamed up with Jeanette MacDonald.

The first thing you might notice is the gloss. This is a thin story of a young woman who wants to dance, finds a rich supporter who keeps asking her to marry him every 15 minutes, and who finds herself trying not to fall in love with her director. Where to begin? Probably best to begin with Crawford. She is still lovely at this point in her career, with huge eyes and a heavily lipsticked mouth. Her acting still has a bit of humility and eagerness to it, in contrast to later years when she hardened into a near-parody of herself, and her acting became more confident and yet more stylized.

Crawford started her career in “legitimate” films in uncredited roles in 1925. She became a star and something of a “dance sensation” with 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters, followed a few years later by Dance, Fools, Dance (1931). She was perhaps the greatest “jazz baby” of her day. Film historian and author Jeanine Basinger is kind in her description of Crawford’s talents: “As a dancer, Crawford was untrained but capable. Her dancing style was unpolished and her tapping is from the Ruby Keeler school [see above], which means hitting the floor hard and giving it all you’ve got.” I would more describe it as party girl dancing, with an emphasis on the Charleston and loose elbows. Basinger would go on to say that Crawford had a “fairly good voice.” I wouldn’t go that far. She has a very limited range, and while she’s not flat pitch-wise, her tone is. What’s funny here is watching her being presented as some kind of musical star, which she most certainly isn’t.

And that brings us to Astaire, who first appears as himself (at that point, a very famous half of a song-and-dance pair on Broadway with his sister), brought on to give poor Crawford some help with her leading musical role. It’s almost embarrassing to watch someone we know will soon become a legend, and who can dance anyone else off the screen, spend even a moment hoping to improve someone with Crawford’s limited terpsichorean gifts. He’s only on for a moment at first, and then it seems he disappears until the end of the film, where, like 42nd Street, the bulk of the musical numbers are presented as the new show opens. Like Gene Kelly, Astaire could dance down to the level of his partner, but it’s rather wild watching the great man do what he could to help his hard-working but only slightly talented partner. But these numbers, as a few others in the film do, borrow some tricks from Busby Berkeley in dazzling patterned overhead shots, and in numbers that literally “took off” from the stage into a purely cinematic space. What these lack is Warner Brothers’ sense of anarchy and surrealism (something MGM knew nothing about). But the lovely, even camerawork and beautiful lighting and set design is all MGM. Some numbers even presage the overwhelming sets and numbers of The Great Ziegfeld (1936). For someone much more familiar with the Warners musicals of that time, and the MGM musicals of the ‘40s, this film is new territory.

The supporting players, too, are dropped in just before reaching their own fame. Seeing the 3 Stooges in a serious high-end musical was unanticipated and almost confusing. Then seeing Nelson Eddy come on as simply “the singer” to help move things along is nearly over the top. Robert Benchley, Stanley Holloway, and Eve Arden would all become bigger films stars in the next few years.

But perhaps the strangest part of the movie experience was the disconnect on the screen (or the actual connection off the screen) among the three leads. Franchot Tone played the rich man in love with Crawford’s character, and it was obvious she could settle for this man and be comfortable. But it wasn’t so much because of any love for Gable’s character as much as the simple fact that she didn’t love Tone’s character. The movie ends with Crawford and Gable in a clinch, as if the movie were a romance, which is primarily is not. What makes this fascinating is that Crawford and Gable apparently had a decades-long affair that, on and off, lasted through their several marriages. Most contend that while this is was the third film they co-starred in, the actual affair began during this film. But Crawford married not Gable but Tone just two years later, with the two divorcing in 1939. So watching the three of them interact, and watching the “chasing” of Crawford by Tone, and the obvious connection with Gable, made this an unusual experience.

A note on Gable: I’ve seen Gable in a lot of films, but I generally see the legend rather than the actor. I thought he was fine in his Oscar-winning It Happened One Night, and I still think—in spite of the Oscar nomination—that he was underrated in Gone with the Wind. But here he was excellent, and a joy to watch. His character certainly had the machismo we expect, and some of the toughness we’ve come to know. But this performance is much more than that, with various layers of humanity, and it’s the best surprise of a film packed with surprises.

I can’t vouch for how entertaining this film would be for someone without a sense of film history. It’s pretty, but the story is hackneyed, Crawford can’t really sing or dance, and the few numbers with Astaire are the only musical entertainment worth one’s time. But for a film historian and anyone who wants to give it a try after reading this article, the film is dizzying.

Next up: My thoughts on the Oscar nominations for this most unusual film year.

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Nomadland is nearly guaranteed to win Best Picture in April, and will likely bring Chinese director Chloé Zhao the second of two consecutive Best Directors given to an Asian director, the first being Bong Joon-ho for last year’s groundbreaking Parasite. It’s the story of a widow who has lost her husband and the majority of her material possessions, and is now living in her van. But as she says, she is “houseless, not homeless.” That’s because she has outfitted the van as her home on wheels, and has pursued the life of a “nomad,” specifically meaning those that have chosen to travel from nomad event to nomad event, meeting other nomads, several of whom become friends.

It would be easy to say that the film is great because its central character is played by the great actress Frances McDormand (Oscars for Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—but let’s not forget “Olive Kitteridge,” Almost Famous, Mississippi Burning, North Country, and Wonder Years.) She was a shoo-in for a third Oscar a few months ago, and that still may happen. If she hadn’t won recently for Three Billboards, she most certainly would win for Nomadland. But her recent win and the arrival of other great performances (specifically Andra Day for The United States v. Billie Holliday and Carrie Mulligan for Promising Young Woman) have put some doubts there. But if a non-histrionic performance that still dominates the film is to your taste (which it should be), this is a film to visit.

As strong, layered, and complex as the central performance is, the film is much more than that. It’s a generally clear-eyed look at a life and community unknown to most of us, and it’s done without condescension or elevation. McDormand and supporting player David Strathairn are the only professional actors, and many of the nomads play themselves—beautifully. McDormand has the central role, but she blends in well with her surroundings and the life her character is living. She looks and genuinely acts like a hard-working, self-contained woman. Straitairn, an actor I respect, is a bit problematic, but more on that later.

The film itself is generally understated, and only occasionally self-conscious. The film doesn’t pretend to be A Grand Statement about anything, but is nonetheless beautiful to look at and moving in its presentation (as opposed to an examination) of small moments. Nomadland could be read as a socio/political commentary, and for those limited by always looking for that perspective, I suppose you can find what you’re looking for here. But you’d be missing the joy and beauty of individual humanity, of warm but clear recollection, of lives lived in a certain kind of freedom that most of us eschew. That freedom is chosen and thrust upon the folks here in an uneven manner, and that tension is part of what makes this such a rich film.

Director Zhao is also the screenwriter and editor as well as one of the producers. She has been able to tenderly and rigorously observe an American subculture in a way that perhaps only a foreigner can do. This is a uniquely American world here, with little to no Hollywood gloss or rhythm. It’s roughly beautiful to look at, accounting for its nomination for Best Cinematography. But what it draws the viewer into the film is not a performance, or its photography, or story that pulls the viewer into a typical three-act story. It asks, but doesn’t demand, that you accept the film in the same way that Fern (McDormand) accepts the realities of her life and the others accept their own chosen pathways and its ups and downs.

Perhaps the only false stitch in the fabric of the film is Dave, played by the very American actor David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck), who, like Stanley Tucci, generally adds to any film of which he is a part. There is no faulting his performance, which is real and deep. It’s just the fact that he is an ACTOR in a film of mostly non-actors, and is playing against a great American actress who disappears into her part, leaving him the sole obvious ACTOR in the mix. Then (spoiler alert) there is the problem of a possible romance with Fern, and a journey into Dave’s story, which is less interesting if more fleshed out than Fern’s own tale, which is intriguingly shrouded in mist and mystery, and only revealed, if the details are even important at all, in bits and pieces. Dave’s journey is a side trip that is somewhat satisfying in and of itself, but pulls away from the main part of film even as it provides something of a thought-provoking contrast with Fern and her decisions.

For most of us, director Zhao has appeared from virtually nowhere. Her previous films, all independent as is Nomadland, were 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me and 2017’s The Rider, which both address cowboys and Native Americans in a way that John Ford or John Wayne would never have recognized. This Beijing-born multi-hyphenate is just 39 years old, and is already on her way to becoming a great American director, in that she is already a significant contributor to seeing America on film.

Note: While this is generally a must-see film, please note that for those who might be offended, there is a completely asexual short scene of full-frontal female nudity. It’s nearly gratuitous, but there is narrative sense to the scene. It could have been shot in any other numbers of ways, but hey, I’m not the sure-to-be-Oscar-winning director.

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