This weekend’s new streaming arrivals of note are unusual in that they (nearly) all focus on protagonists 60 or older. That’s a character demographic that seldom dominates movies outside the annual quota of crusty-coot comedies in which the real audience identification point is some Gen X’er shocked by grandma or grandpa’s inappropriate behavior. There’s also the occasional “sad final curtain” drama in which some lonely old soul is seen being neglected to death by the modern world, perhaps with one misfit child glimpsing their true worth before a tearful fadeout. The films below, however, perform a too-rare service in giving mature principal figures real lives, even jobs and romantic interests, without getting too cutesy or sentimental about it.
The highest profile among them is Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, which is turning out to be the single most potent awards magnet among 2020 features. (Though apart from a very limited Oscar-qualifying run, it’s only hitting available theaters as well as streaming platform Hulu this Friday.) We first meet Frances McDormand’s character Fern as she is leaving what appears to be most of her life’s accumulated belongings in a storage locker. She then leaves for seasonal work at an Amazon shipping warehouse, living at an RV park in the camper van she’s kitted out to be both permanent home as well as transport for one. Old friends she runs into worry that she’s homeless; she says she’s just “houseless,” and that this status suits her fine. It takes a while before we realize that Fern’s husband recently died, the prairie company town turned into a ghost town during the Great Recession of ’08, and there is no money for her to retire—or even stay in the home that now no one will possibly want to buy.
Ergo Fern has joined the ranks of the “stealth living,” a floating community eking out an ongoing existence on the road. Some can afford a big, amenity-laden RV, traveling more or less as if on vacation. Others like her scape by in humbler circumstances, with little to protect them from freezing winter weather. (Save driving south, of course.) But for nearly all, the American Dream has landed somewhere well short of what they’d hoped. Defunct past employment left them with no pension, and their own or a loved one’s illness may have wiped out any savings. SSI is not enough to live on, so they’re stuck spending their golden years on the move, going from one low-end service job to another. (Amazon warehouses may be ill-famed for their working conditions, but here they represent the most lucrative and desirable employment Fern can seem to find, if only in the short term.) The people she meets in this sphere try to put a good face on it, including a 75-year-old woman dying of cancer.
There’s a certain risk as well as instability to this lifestyle, underlining the fact that it’s a choice not exactly freely chosen. These folks have aged out of a society whose rugged individualist capitalism has somehow turned into a survival-of-the-fittest (or wealthiest) attitude towards elders. Fern does get to see the country, from badlands to redwoods to ocean. But she also has to be wary of being taken for a squatter, her vehicle sometimes rousted from empty parking lots by overzealous security personnel in the middle of the night.
Nomadland a lovely, poetical film that is not plot-driven, but so cannily crafted that it never feels meandering. Its episodic progress incorporates both nonprofessional actors (as did Zhao’s prior features) as well as the occasional familiar face like David Strathairn. He plays a fellow traveler probably more interested in a relationship with Fern than vice versa. The ideally-cast McDormand is guardedly sociable but essentially a loner, preferring an excess of solitude to the trap of commitment.
You could argue that characterization softens the rather harsh economic reality here: Fern’s freedom may not be entirely voluntary, but when given a choice, it’s still what she chooses. There have also been some complaints that the film sidesteps the sharper political points of the same-titled nonfiction book (by Jessica Bruder) it’s based on, in order to hit a more palatable tone of lyrical, melancholy travelogue.
I’ll admit Nomadland didn’t have nearly the cumulative emotional impact for me of this director’s prior The Rider, perhaps the best American narrative feature of 2017. But it’s still a fine film that merits considerable appreciation simply for inescapably revolving around the fact that the world’s richest nation is increasingly pushing its baseline workers into de facto homelessness and poverty once their peak-employability years are done. You can’t find a much clearer illustration of economic inequality than that: A growing underclass of formerly middle-class discards roaming the Earth like some genteel version of Mad Max, while the rich stockpile multiple homes and tax breaks.
Two more new dramas both happen to center on aging gay male couples. The higher-profile one is actor Harry Macqueen’s second feature as writer-director, Supernova. In it, Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci play a longterm spouses on a road trip with their dog, driving across England in a camper van. We soon grasp that there’s an elephant in the, er, vehicle: Tucci’s writer Tusker is succumbing to dementia, and Firth’s classical pianist Sam struggles to inconspicuously play caretaker while denying the severity of the situation. After a spell visiting some old friends, Sam discovers Tusker himself is taking that situation very, very seriously.
Released to home formats earlier this week, Supernova treads familiar thematic ground amongst recent movies dealing with such debilitating illnesses, the issue of euthanasia, and the pain of one partner losing another—whether to physical death, or the slow erasure of mental deterioration. Macqueen aims to distinguish his treatment with a mix of solemnity and restraint (as well as beautiful scenery) that works well enough to a point. But despite the performers’ commitment—if also, to an extent, because of it—this movie ends up feeling like a pretentious tearjerker. It is one very much designed to let its stars run the gamut of “noble sacrifice” histrionics, rather than constructing characters and a narrative from which such emotions might more naturally flow.
This is the kind of movie so self-consciously tasteful, so aware of straight actors going for that gay-role awards gold, that nothing quite feels organic. It’s a well-meaning enterprise that’s nonetheless rather forced and laborious, failing to move us much because rather than witnessing the end of a deeply felt love, we never forget we’re watching two name thespians “bravely” playing same-sex lovers. In 2021, that no longer seems anything to be especially grateful for. I’m fine with straight actors playing gay roles, and vice versa, but Supernova ultimately feels more like a contrived acting showcase than the heartfelt drama to which it postures.
At the hopeful beginning rather than the end (though it may be that, too) of a relationship are the two closeted Hong Kong men in Ray Yeung’s Suk Suk a.k.a. Twilight’s Kiss. 65-year-old divorced retiree Hoi (Ben Yuen), who raised his son alone, meets still-married, still-working, 70-year-old taxi driver Pak (Tai-Bo) in a public toilet. Declining to have sex on the spot, the latter asks “Can’t we be friends first?” Each are in living circumstances that provide little or no room for privacy, let alone the love otherwise long missing in their lives; and both are from a generation in which public gay identities were not a viable option.
This low-key but winning drama gets us rooting for the notion that it’s never too late to start acting like the person you’ve really been all along. It’s notably without preachiness, contrivance, or sentimentality, while nonetheless conveying considerable empathetic warmth. Part of last year’s SFFilm and Frameline programs, it’s now available for streaming via the virtual cinemas of the Roxie, Rafael Film Center, and Rialto Cinemas.
Probably not approaching 60 within the timespan of his screen story is Michelangelo, the Renaissance sculptor, painter, architect, and all-around genius. But as portrayed by Alberto Testone in Sin, he is already wizened, a shriveled husk one can hardly imagine surviving to the then-extraordinary age of 89 (as, indeed, he did). This not-quite-latest feature by veteran director Andrei Konchalovsky (whose Soviet history lesson Dear Comrades! was just released here a couple weeks ago) is a Russian-Italian coproduction of painstaking period detail, its aesthetic impact at once beautiful, cluttered, and austere. Life half a millennium ago is largely grotty and dark here—often splendid in decor and landscape, but very rude in behavior and, well, sanitation (or lack thereof).
This portrait is somewhat reminiscent of Mike Leigh’s 2014 Mr. Turner, another frequently off-putting look at a largely ugly life that created beautiful art, providing arresting details of daily struggle but not much sense of where such “divine” inspiration might have come from. Met already mid-career, being forced to quit the Sistine Chapel (the Pope having wearied of its perfectionist mastermind’s endless revisions), this Michelangelo is no Charlton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy. Instead, he’s a scrawny, bedraggled figure, driven half-mad by ill health, overwork, hallucinations, perpetual money troubles, paranoia, and personal betrayals. He’s pulled like a wishbone between the viciously rivalrous Medicis and della Roveres, aristocratic families who control the papacy in turn. Much time here is spent on the quarrying of marble from Carrara, where he obsesses upon a “monster” chunk of stone whose transport is as logistically improbable as the ship’s progress over mountains in Fitzcarraldo.
While he remains something of a cipher, this Michelangelo defines his own torment by saying “I have no sense of boundaries… my every project goes beyond my strength.” The contrast between his creations and his era are pegged in an observational sigh, “All this great beauty… for whoremongers, tyrants, and assassins.”
Sin is both fascinating and frustrating, offering much less the conventional satisfactions of a cogent “big picture” and neat narrative arc than a convincingly rough-hewn dive into a distant time and place. It’s one messy, ill-contextualized section of a great man’s messy life, unpleasant yet impressive, challenging yet worthwhile in a way that feels very true to the peculiarities of Russian (rather than Italian) art cinema. It’s available via virtual cinema programs nationwide Fri/19, joining Roxie Virtual Cinema’s bill next Friday, January 26th.