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: Out of the Furnace

11 09 2015

Out of the FurnaceThe small town, blue-collar workers in Scott Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace” are disappearing both from America and from the silver screen.  They deserve better than what they get here, a gritty realism riddled with clichéd storytelling conventions.

Cooper covers a lot of that up with a great cast that turns in predictably solid, if not dazzling, performances.  The explosiveness of Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, and Casey Affleck in one movie alone is a sight to see no matter what. But it should be a powder keg, not a few sparks flying.

The film should receive some credit for being one of few to tackle the home-front experiences of Iraq War veterans like Affleck’s Rodney Baze.  He’s completely volatile, a pugnacious time bomb who will detonate if he cannot pulverize someone with his fists.  But everyone else in the Pennsylvania Rust Belt town in “Out of the Furnace” who tries to either defuse him or encourage him just fails to light up the screen in any way, shape, or form.

For a film whose title refers to an object capable of generating high temperatures, “Out of the Furnace” packs remarkably little heat.  C / 2stars





REVIEW: August: Osage County

22 01 2014

August OsageI’m a firm believer that there are some source texts that are absolutely impossible to botch, provided they keep the main narrative intact.  Tracy Letts’ play “August: Osage County” belongs in such a category.

Many in the theatrical community already assert that it will be in the American dramatic canon along with works by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Tony Kushner.  Letts provides some of the most gripping familial tensions I’ve ever read, and it’s chock full of meaty characters in an ensemble for the ages.

John Wells’ film adaptation of “August: Osage County” brings that story to a larger audience than likely could ever be reached on one stage.  Moreover, the cast he assembles is like the kind of “one night only” extravaganza that fans can only dream about.  I’ve never seen the show live, so I can’t really speak to its theatrical power.

Letts’ words did, however, jump off the page and paint such a vivid picture in my mind that I feel as if I did.  While the film does a decent job translating the action to the realm of cinema, there still feels like a bit of raw intensity evaporated in the transfer.

That’s not to say, though, that Wells doesn’t effectively harness the power of the screen to bring a different dimension to Letts’ opus of intergenerational discord.  On a stage, you can’t key off the subtleties in an actor’s facial movements, which is one of his most clever editing tricks in “August: Osage County.”  Some theorists have labeled film a fascist form because it has the power to direct your attention towards only what it considers relevant, but the way Wells chooses to organize these massive scenes is actually quite freeing.  It ensures we do not miss crucial reactions that serve to define the arcs of the characters.

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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