REVIEW: Loving

21 11 2016

I’m of the mindset that historical dramas and social issues pieces, often derided as self-important and grandiose, are getting better. Films like “Spotlight,” “Selma” and “12 Years a Slave” have dramatized America’s past with unflinching honesty and aesthetic rigor. Yet there is still a straw man of the prestige picture that looms in the critical imagination, and Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” seems to exist in stark contrast to this imagined bundle of clichés.

Nichols runs counter to so many impulses dominating filmmaking that historicizes the contemporary. Without belittling the importance of belaboring the significance of Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple whose arrest led to a Supreme Court case overturning bans on interracial marriage, he moves the political steadfastly back into the realm of the personal. The simple elegance of “Loving” is evident in every scene of Joel Edgerton’s Richard returning to lay bricks and every disapproving gaze from their provincial Virginian neighbors. Society is slow to change, attitudes are tough to dislodge, but sometimes unsuspecting individuals like the Lovings can help turn the tide in our culture with their radical ordinariness.

Perhaps one of Nichols’ boldest casting choices was selecting Nick Kroll (yes, The Douche from “Parks & Recreation”) as Bernie Cohen, the ACLU lawyer who helps guide the Lovings’ case all the way to the highest court in the land. It’s more than stunt casting or going boldly against type like Seth Rogen did in Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs.” Kroll’s instinct to play his scenes with the Lovings as incredulity underscored with comedy helps tremendously to enhance the realism of the moment. Richard and Mildred were not dying to become star defendants in a landmark case. They find themselves, reluctantly, at the center of history after Mildred (Ruth Negga) writes what she assumes is a throwaway letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Their naïveté about the role they can come to play in American racial dynamics is almost ridiculous, both to Cohen and to a present-day audience.

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REVIEW: Midnight Special

9 04 2016

SXSW Film Festival

NOTE: This piece is adapted from a piece I wrote for Movie Mezzanine at SXSW comparing “Midnight Special” to Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!”

Midnight Special” owes a great debt to widely recognized commercial filmmaking styles of the 1980s – chiefly, Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. Nichols makes no secret of his artistic touchstones for the film, even ribbing before the SXSW premiere screening that the poster “shamelessly rips off Spielberg.”

The film has many thrilling and breathtaking moments that deserve recognition as creations of Nichols’ and his creative team in their own right. Several crew members stuck with him through many projects for the past decade, which saw the director make the leap from $250,000 indies to $20 million studio fare. In his fairly unsubtle homages to films like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (which was released in 1978, to be fair), “E.T.” and “Starman,” Nichols grants them a kind of aesthetic supremacy in his yearning for the paradise lost of this post-New Hollywood era.

This very specific window of studio filmmaking, after the “Movie Brats” took power but before the dawn of nonstop CGI interference, found a satisfying balance between artistic integrity and audience satisfaction. Nichols employs his post-“Mud” goodwill to attempt a return to such a happy median, injecting the American indie sensibility into Spielbergian conventions of storytelling and presentation. He favors suspense over scares and restraint over excess, in everything from Adam Stone’s measured cinematography to David Wingo’s affecting score.

These interventions revise – and perhaps even formalistically improve upon – the foundations of ‘80s commercial cinema. But the vague plot and characterization, along with the more complex tonalities, are to “Midnight Special” what the non-animatronic monster was to J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8.” That is to say, these aspects appropriated from modern filmmaking belie the original films being referenced and just throw into stark relief how the new creations are not like their forbearers.

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REVIEW: Mud

19 01 2013

Cannes Film Festival 2012 / Sundance Film Festival 2013

(NOTE: I saw “Mud” at the first showing in Cannes last May.  I have no idea if the movie being shown in Utah is the same one I saw in France.  I have some lingering suspicion it might have been reworked and tweaked a little bit since it disappeared from the festival circuit for eight months.)

Third features are, for most filmmakers, really the first time we can gauge their capabilities and career trajectory.  A debut film is, well, a debut film.  Unless you are Orson Welles, whose first film “Citizen Kane” is the best of all-time to many, the first time behind the camera is rarely one that produces much beyond the promise of great things.  While many directors break out with their second film, some would consider that they still have the training wheels on the bike.

By the third film, however, we generally stop cutting them slack or grading them on a curve.  It’s do or die, make or break.  If you haven’t quite figured out how to make a good movie, perhaps it’s time to consider a career change.  Just to provide some perspective, Scorsese’s third film was “Mean Streets,” Spielberg’s was “Jaws,” Malick’s was “The Thin Red Line,” Jason Reitman’s was “Up in the Air,” and Ben Affleck’s was “Argo.”

Jeff Nichols, an emerging American filmmaker, made his first two movies with a very independent spirit.  His debut, “Shotgun Stories,” had an interesting concept but was poorly executed.  His second film, “Take Shelter,” was a superb ambiental drama that effectively visualized the state of economic and personal anxieties in the age of the Great Recession.  But his third feature, “Mud,” is so different that it almost feels like a first film.

With “Mud,” Nichols makes what I believe to be a very conscientious leap towards the mainstream.  It definitely plays more towards satisfying audience expectations with familiar storyline and aesthetics, not jarring them with the uncomfortable or the unknown.  And there’s nothing wrong with that; he’s fairly adept at capturing that boyish spirit in the coming-of-age movies that Steven Spielberg among others made so well in the 1980s.  But after the brilliance and originality of “Take Shelter,” I was hoping Nichols would not just fall in line.

And to reiterate, I don’t disdain “Mud” simply for daring to be similar.  It’s still quality filmmaking, but it feels more like a harbinger of things to come than something substantial in and of itself.  This transitional film is too populist to be indie; however, it’s also a little too indie to be truly mainstream.  I don’t usually talk about forces competing for the soul of a movie, yet it feels totally relevant for “Mud” as these two entirely different spirits of filmmaking run amuck throughout the movie.  Each claims a scene here or there, and the ultimate victor is unclear.

I would argue that the real winner of “Mud” are the characters, written with love and care by Nichols and brought to the screen with compassion by the cast.  Matthew McConaughey, the new king of career turnaround, beguiles as the titular character Mud.  He fancies himself an urban legend, an almost mythic figure of sorts.  Yet it’s fascinating to watch the man slip out from underneath his tough facade and see his guilt and shame manifested.

Though the movie is named for his character, Jeff Nichols’ film isn’t really about Mud.  It’s about the two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan from “The Tree of Life,” albeit totally changed since that film was shot so long ago) and his sidekick Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who stumble upon Mud hiding out in a boat in the trees.  While Mud drives the narrative forward, the movie’s real story and power comes from the way those events affect these two adolescents.

“Mud” mainly follows Ellis as he navigates a new world, one where nothing seems clear-cut or black and white.  Mud teaches him what love and trust really are when they are together away from society, and then he reemerges to find alternative meanings of such concepts.  Sheridan lends a real authenticity to the struggles of growing up and realizing hard truths in a performance that evokes Henry Thomas’ Elliott in “E.T.,” a movie that feels like quite a kindred spirit of “Mud.”

To tap into a fraction of what Spielberg achieved is quite an achievement.  Now, it’s time for Nichols to relocate his old voice of originality and create a work just like “Mud,” only with that old aesthetic brilliance and creativity.  B2halfstars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 4, 2013)

4 01 2013

The recession has manifest itself in many obvious ways in American cinema.  There has been the vilification of the rich in movies like “Arbitrage” and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” excoriation of big business excess in “Tower Heist” and “Margin Call,” and glorification of the average joe worker-bee in “Win Win” and “The Company Men.”

Though “Take Shelter”, my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” does not indulge in direct tapping of the zeitgeist, perhaps it best embodies it.  In a statement posted on the film’s website, director Jeff Nichols wrote:

“I believed there was a feeling out in the world that was palpable. It was an anxiety that was very real in my life, and I had the notion it was very real in the lives of other Americans as well as other people around the world.”

This brilliant realization of such post-recessional anxieties has made his “Take Shelter” a superb film that plays timely now but I suspect will ring timeless in the future.

“Take Shelter” opens with its protagonist, Curtis, experiencing a rain of motor oil.  This is quickly revealed to be a hallucination, but it feels like a very real way to bring some internal storms to expressionistic life.  The movie’s magical realism is a perfect compliment to the beguiling veracity of Michael Shannon’s performance as Curtis, a man who puts on a brave face for his family in tough times but ultimately struggles with some very deep demons.

As these apocalyptic delusions get worse, Curtis becomes a sort of modern-day Noah (nothing like Steve Carell’s hokey character in “Evan Almighty,” I’ll have you know).  He quietly sets out to protect his wife and daughter from a cataclysmic event that apparently only he is able to recognize on the horizon.  This tension builds until he ultimately explodes in a fit of rage directed towards a community that doesn’t understand his worries.  In the hands of Shannon, these harbingers of doom sound completely righteous, almost like the words of a prophet.

Grounding the film in an unfair and unkind reality, on the other hand, is Jessica Chastain as Curtis’ loving wife Samantha.  She plays a very different kind of Madonna than her mother in “The Tree of Life,” one fiercely committed to the safety and stability of her family and doesn’t hesitate to fight for it.  She’s the heart and soul of “Take Shelter,” trying to work through Curtis’ torments with patience and level-headedness.  Sweet as can be, it really makes an impact when she snaps after Curtis puts a preventative tornado shelter in their backyard above their own daughter’s health.

All the while, Nichols punctuates the superb performances of Shannon and Chastain with sporadic bursts of nightmarish imagery.  Whether it’s a biting dog, masses of birds, or the mysterious motor oil, Nichols sets the mood for a constantly shape-shifting modern American anxiety.  No matter who watches this and when they watch it, I believe they will find something floating in the ambience of “Take Shelter” that will accurately represent their inner fears.