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Things have picked up again after last weekend’s frequently bizarre Oscars ceremony, an event that undermined the better parts of the evening (Nomadland director Chloe Zhao picking up a historic win) with frankly embarrassing fumbles as it attempted to capitalise on the passing of actor Chadwick Boseman.
With all that behind us though, now we can just watch the films. Netflix continues its venturing into animation with the delightful The Mitchells vs the Machines, while Nomadland finally sees its release on Disney+, of all places. Meanwhile Amazon Prime continues to plumb the depths of Tom Clancy’s bibliography with its adaptation of Without Remorse, with Michael B. Jordan taking up the tough-guy leading role.
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Nomadland - Disney+
Adapted from journalist Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction bestseller Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, it’s fairly tempting to see Chloe Zhao’s Oscar-winningNomadlandas a romantic paean topeople drifting along the country’s margins, painted as a a sort of new cowboy lifestyle.
But the film, for the most part, combats such frontier romanticism, highlighting every move as one of sometimes desperate pragmatism, borne from businesses buying up prominence in people’s lives and fostering dependence before being scuttled, closed businesses decimating entire towns. As for how these stories are told — Frances McDormand plays the fictional character Fern, who decides to adopt a nomadic lifestyle following the death of her husband and the closure of the factory she works in as a result of the Great Recession.
Watch a trailer for Nomadland
As she travels across the country she comes into contact with other nomads — figures from Bruder’s book playing themselves. That recreation of real lives is fascinating as it was in The Rider but Zhao’s insistence on observation sometimes shortchanges the film, which sometimes feels uncertain in its view of its characters as liberated easy riders or victims of capitalism’s failures. It mostly lands on “a little bit of both”, which can feel like a lack of conviction. Still, it’s worthwhile viewing.
Also new on Disney+: 25th Hour, Armageddon
Without Remorse - Amazon Prime
The combination of Sicario sequel director Stefano Sollima, Hell or High Water writer Taylor Sheridan and a Tom Clancy book will be enough to make some eyes roll, but Without Remorse at least attempts to soften the right wing overtones of the divisive 1993 political thriller novel.
Michael B. Jordan brings his trademark mix of intensity and vulnerability to the leading role and proves pretty watchable as a result, essential in the film’s modernisation of a several decade old military story. It’s still airport bookshop material through and through, but it’s delivered with muscular action that for the most part is well-staged enough to distract from the film’s contrived plotting.
Also new on Prime Video: Chick Fight
The Mitchells vs the Machines - Netflix
With its creative visual design and disarming sense of humour, The Mitchells vs the Machines is an early contender for one of the year’s best. Following a quirky, dysfunctional family on a road trip to take the eldest child Katie (Abbi Jacobson) to college, the trip is upended when they find themselves in the middle of the robot apocalypse, and suddenly become the last hope for humanity’s salvation. That plot makes for a delightful inverse of The Incredibles, right down to the construction of the family and character art (the dad’s design and bygone dreams recalling Mr Incredible).
By contrast to Brad Bird’s film this family special for how unremarkable and everyday they are, as opposed to a family that has to hide how special they are. Minus the robot apocalypse that kicks the plot into gear — it’s simply the story of a disastrous family roadtrip where the awfulness of it eventually becomes a bonding experience.
Watch a trailer for The Mitchells vs The Machines
With that film in mind, the visuals of Mitchells really sets it apart from that increasingly photorealistic Pixar house style, with Sony Animation studios seemingly cultivating its own eclectic vibe. One of the essential aesthetic building blocks of the studio’s Into theSpider-Verse came from its mimicking and incorporation of traditional animation techniques — such as by animating on 1s and emphasising motion through smears — mixing those and two-dimensional textures with three-dimensional character models and environments. Where Spider-Verse paid homage to the formal structures of comic books, Mitchells is a little more free flowing and appropriately chaotic, emulating the family’s haphazardness and Katie’s wild imagination through its seemingly random incorporations of hand-drawn doodles.
As Katie, Abbi Jacobson gives a charming and dynamic performance, and the rest of her family — her father played by Danny McBride, her mother played by Maya Rudolph and her kid brother played by the director Michael Rianda himself — has some fun, chaotic chemistry.
Outside of that nuclear unit, Eric Andre is darkly amusing as a young tech bro leading a conglomerate combining the menace of Apple, Amazon and Facebook, who accidentally unleashes an army of Asimov-like robots by scorning his old Siri-like AI named PAL, played with delightful outrage by Olivia Colman.
The film’s barometer of “weird” and dysfunctional is a little generous as for the most part the Mitchells get along really well, with the exception of Katie and her father. But the film itself is wilfully stupid enough to make that a non-issue - such as in an incredible sequence in a shopping centre where the family are besieged by sentient household appliances and then a hilariously nightmarish army of Furbies, one proclaiming “behold, the twilight of man”.
It’s not just an incredibly fun film in its own right but an exciting affirmation of Sony Animation Studios’s direction post-Spider-Verse, encouraging its artists to play with the aesthetics of CH animation and move further away from its contemporaries rather than try to mimic them.
Also new on Netflix: Stowaway