REVIEW: “Midnight Special”

MIDNIGHT POSTER

For many, a new movie from an accomplished filmmaker can be a special occasion. Tarantino, Scorsese, and the Coen brothers all have fanbases who mark their calendars whenever these filmmakers have a new project hitting theaters. Jeff Nichols has become that guy for me. Now before I am called out for unduly thrusting him into the company of the greats, all I am saying is that with only four movies under his belt Nichols has a defined vision and sensibility that I absolutely love. Whenever a Nichols film arrives it is a must-see.

“Midnight Special” is his latest film and first since 2012’s “Mud”. For the first time it features Nichols playing within multiple genres but not without adding his own undeniable signature. It’s a science fiction picture with Spielbergian flavor, but at the same time it’s impossible to pigeonhole. Quite honestly I don’t know what to call “Midnight Special” other than one more example of Jeff Nichols’ brilliance as a filmmaker and storyteller.

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

Armed with a humble $18 million budget, “Midnight Special” accomplishes many things that $200 million blockbusters rarely nail down. Most notably, a strong and compelling story that trumps an overload of special effects and thoughtful, interesting characters who are easy to invest in. The film looks great as Nichols knows how to shoot a scene and build a load of tension with his camera. But as with each of his other films, the characters are the core of the story.

Nichols favorite (and one of the most underappreciated actors in the business) Michael Shannon plays a man named Roy who is running from the law along with his childhood friend Lucas (played by the perfectly tuned Joel Edgerton). With them is Roy’s eight-year-old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) in what appears to be an abduction. Amber Alerts spread across Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. The story becomes a fixture on national TV news coverage. The FBI joins the state and local authorities to intensify the search.

MIDNIGHT2

Here’s the thing, Alton mysteriously possesses otherworldly powers and different parties want him for their own selfish reasons. Roy just wants him as his son, and that gets to the true heart of the film. Nichols gradually lets us in on this father/son relationship that doesn’t always go in the directions you would expect. Another intriguing layer is added when Alton’s estranged mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) enters the picture. Adam Driver is excellent as an NSA analyst reluctantly thrown into the search and the always reliable is really good Sam Shepard playing a cult-like religious leader.

“Midnight Special” is undoubtedly science-fiction, but it also plays around in other genres and with several interesting ideas. It is very much a family drama. It’s a suspenseful thriller. It’s a chase movie. It dabbles in parenting, childhood, cultism, and government intervention among other things. Remarkably none of these things feel underserved. Nichols (who also wrote the story) brings all of these things together in a way that helps to strategically define the world his main characters are navigating.

MIDNIGHT3

Perhaps my favorite thing about the film is that Nichols doesn’t hold our hands and walk us through every aspect of his story. He slowly grants us bits of information while allowing us the space to piece them together ourselves. Sometimes he leaves things wide open, but it is never ambiguity for the sake of ambiguity as we often see in movies. He simply doesn’t answer every single question he asks choosing to allow the open-ended plot point or character to remain a mystery. The vast majority of that works perfectly, but I must admit there were a couple of instances that I felt deserved a little more attention.

That aside, “Midnight Special” is such a satisfying experience from Nichols’ smart script and assured direction to the top-notch performances especially from Shannon. It is an unconventional concoction that doesn’t feed on a desire for mass appeal. Instead it is a unique yet surefooted project that pulled me in and kept me hooked all the way through. I love it when a movie can do that.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Take Shelter”

Take Shelter poster

“Take Shelter” is a beautiful and tender yet painful and unsettling drama written and directed by Jeff Nichols. It’s a near flawless exercise in enigmatic but measured filmmaking anchored by an unforgettable Oscar worthy performance from Michael Shannon. Nichols brings a haunting realism to his examination of mental illness and it’s because of our genuine relatability to his believable and organic characters that the journey is so heart-wrenching.

Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a loving husband and father who begins to experience disturbing dreams and hallucinations. His dreams always start with an approaching storm and as he teeters on the edge of insanity, the storm becomes more and more of a reality to him. Curtis is different than so many of these characters we have seen before. He’s not an bad man. While he does struggle to keep his grasp on reality, he also recognizes it and takes several sensible measures to curb it. He genuinely loves his family and his greatest fear is that the same mental illness that effected his mother will effect him and those closest to him. As the storm from his dreams melds more into Curtis’ reality, he begins working on an old tornado shelter in the backyard. It’s this project that brings his troubles to the surface and it’s the family he desperately hopes to protect that may pay the ultimate price.

TAKE Shelter1

Shannon is simply brilliant in this film. There was no other performance that year that grabbed me and moved me the way he did in “Take Shelter”. There are so many elements to his character and Shannon sells them all. In some scenes you hurt with him as he fights the coming storm. Other times you can’t help but fear him as he loses ground in the war for his sanity. The entire film hinges on Curtis’ character and without Shannon’s captivating work the movie would have flat-lined.

Jessica Chastain beautifully portrays Curtis’ wife Samantha. She’s given much more to do here than in her earlier film “The Tree of Life” but she’s just as mesmerizing. Samantha is a loyal and devoted wife and mother. She’s a woman of faith with an unwavering love for her husband even as things get more complicated. In many ways she is the more sympathetic character in the film. Not only is she the gentle voice of reason, but she must deal with the changes in her husband while taking care of their hearing impaired daughter. She truly is a remarkable woman and Chastain is magnetic in every scene she is in. It’s impossible not to be drawn in by her authentic and subtle performance.

“Take Shelter” moves at a very deliberate pace, slowly developing the story but never getting weighted down by the subject matter. The main characters are so well written and their unfolding relationship keeps things grounded while also raising the stakes. Nichols also does a fantastic job capturing the details and nuances of small town middle America. It’s little things like embroidered pillows and Lion’s Club luncheons that stand out for those like me who are familiar with this part of the country.

Take Shelter 2

My one problem with “Take Shelter” is its vague and ambiguous ending. Sure it leaves things open for all sorts of interpretations but I’m not sure that’s the best approach for this type of story. I can think of a couple of places close to the end that would have made for a stronger and more moving finish if only Nichols could put down his pen. It’s not that it’s a terrible conclusion to an otherwise great film, but it’s confusing and I would be lying if I said I knew exactly what took place.

“Take Shelter” paints an intriguing picture of an embattled man losing a war within himself. It presents such an authentic family dynamic that makes the consequences of Curtis’ potential fall so much more devastating. It can sometimes be a difficult film to watch but it’s thoroughly rewarding. Shannon and Chastain both deserved Oscar nominations for their work in what is one of my favorite movies of the past few years.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Mud”

MUD posterAfter just two feature films Jeff Nichols has become a director whose name instantly attracts my attention. His first film “Shotgun Stories” was a real and gritty look at rural southern life. His next movie “Take Shelter” was a powerful and potent look at mental illness and its effects on a working class family. It was pure brilliance and one of the best films of the last decade. Now he’s back with another slice of southern gothic storytelling. This time he teams up with some marquee stars and a slightly larger budget to give us “Mud”. But does a little more cash and bigger names equal success or does it take away from the down-to-earth filmmaking that Nichols is known for?

Let me get this out of the way, “Mud” is a scintillating piece of cinema. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s a thriller. It’s a skewed romance. It’s a film that dabbles in several areas yet it all comes together in a gripping story full of life and grit. Nichols takes us to a world that I was mesmerized by and lost in – a world that many people don’t know exists today. He also gives us characters that interest us and that we care about. He raises the stakes and wraps them up in a mystery that we can sink our teeth into. In other words he gives us the experience that is at the heart of why we go to the movies.

Jeff Nichols started writing the story for “Mud” around 2000 and it’s clearly a personal project for him. Many critics have called this film a modern-day “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and for good reason. Nichols was particularly influenced by the Mark Twain classics. But what makes this movie stand out is the familiarity that Nichols has for the locations and the people he is depicting. The reason we buy into the story is because of the sharp reality that we see through his constantly moving camera. Like me, Nichols is an Arkansas native and the stunning detail and unashamed portrayal of a vanishing river subculture and small town life was as honest of a depiction as I’ve ever seen on screen.

It’s here in the south Arkansas delta, that 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) calls home. His family is part of a low income river community that works the waterways as a source of income. He and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are adventurous sorts. One day they take their boat out to an island and discover a bigger boat left in the trees after a recent flood. They claim it as their own but there’s one problem. Someone has beaten them to it, namely a mysterious stranger who goes by the name of Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Ellis and the more cautious Neckbone develop a friendship with Mud but soon find out he’s a man of many secrets.

MUD 1

Sheridan, Lofland, & McConaughey

The movie builds itself around the mystery of Mud. Who is he, where did he come from, and why is he hiding on the island? Is he harmless? Is he dangerous? McConaughey and Nichols combine to create a fascinating character and I was thoroughly intrigued by him as they peeled back layer after layer. McConaughey seems to have reinvented himself over the past two years and his career has taken a better turn. But despite his recent good work, nothing he has done matches the phenomenal performance he gives here. For my money this is his very best work and I found myself always anxious for his next scene.

Just as impressive is young Tye Sheridan as the sensitive, tough, and vulnerable Ellis. I loved watching Sheridan navigate his scenes of discovery, revelation, and heartbreak like a seasoned professional. There was never a moment in the film that seemed too big for him and he felt right at home in his character’s shoes. This is really his story and the movie wouldn’t have worked without his amazing performance.

Nichols also puts together an incredible supporting cast loaded with personal favorites of mine. Reese Witherspoon plays a beautiful stranger who arrives in town and who may have deeper connections to Mud. She’s very good here and her name adds some pop to the cast but it’s a fairly small role. Sam Shepard is great as a surly old river hermit who prefers to be left alone. A Jeff Nichols favorite, Michael Shannon also appears in a small but well acted role as Neckbone’s uncle and guardian. But I want to single out a terrific supporting performance by the underrated character actor Ray McKinnon. He plays Ellis’s father and it’s a much more layered role that you might at first think. This is a character that’s right in McKinnon’s comfort zone and he shines particularly in what I thought were two of the movie’s more stirring and emotional scenes.

MUD 2

Matthew McConaughey as Mud

While “Mud” is a deep south thriller filled with mystery and intrigue I was surprised to find a deeper reoccurring theme that penetrates the entire story. It’s really a movie about love. Throughout the film we see the ravaged emotions, fractured relationships, and heartbroken cynicism left in the wake of failed love. A big part of the film focuses on Ellis’s confusion over what he believes love to be and the harsher reality that he witnesses all around him. It’s sad to watch him innocently cling to his idyllic perception of love. In fact, every character in the film has some dealings with the painful side of love. The way Nichols weaves this throughout his narrative is simply genius.

There are only a couple of things which keep me from calling this the perfect movie. One centers around the Neckbone character. Young Jacob Lofland delivers a nice performance especially considering he had no acting experience. My problem with his character isn’t in his work but surprisingly in Nichols’s writing. Neckbone is a potty mouth and Nichols uses that as a source of humor. But he constantly goes back to it over and over through the entire movie. First of all I don’t particularly find a cursing kid that funny, but beating the same drum over and over was a drag. There’s also a big sequence at the end that is actually satisfying although it’s a bit jarring. It delivers in the end but it did feel a little out of place with the rest of the movie.

That said, it’s clear to me that “Mud” once again verifies that Jeff Nichols is a master craftsman who uses his southern roots and appreciation for classic filmmaking to tell stories rich with vigor and authenticity. “Mud” is an atmospheric and evocative film that takes a southern fried look at adolescence. It’s nestled in the reality of trot lines, cottonmouths, Piggly Wigglys, and Big Banjos while never coming across as clichĂ©d or condescending. It’s a part of the world not far from where I live which makes the movie’s treatment all the more satisfying. “Mud” was my most anticipated movie of 2013 and my expectations were through the roof. Thanks to Jeff Nichols for exceeding those expectations with what will surely be one of the year’s best films.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

Small Roles, Big Performances Blogathon

Fellow movie-oholic Ruth at FlixChatter has thought up a great idea for a blogathon. It’s simply titled “Small Roles, Big Performances”. The idea is to draw some attention to great supporting performances from actors or actresses that seldom get the love that they deserve. These are performers who haven’t received a lot of notoriety or major awards but nonetheless are incredible talents. I love it! FlixChatter will be highlighting many contributors to the blogathon so be sure to check there regularly. I know I will.

This project really took a lot of thought because there are so many actors and actresses known for their small roles that I adore. I mean these are the people who often times provide the backbone of a picture. I just had to figure out which person I wanted to single out. After much thought, it came to me – Ray McKinnon. Anytime I see Ray McKinnon appear in a scene, he gives a sensational performance. Well, maybe with the exception of “The Blind Side”. His feature film career dates all the way back to a small role in “Driving Miss Daisy” all the way to his performance in Jeff Nichol’s “Take Shelter” from 2011.

But the performance I want to focus on is his incredible work in the 2009 film “That Evening Sun”. It’s a story of Abner Meecham, an elderly man (Hal Holbrook) who feels forgotten by his family after being placed in a nursing facility. He escapes the home and heads back to his farm only to find that his son has sold it to a young family. Abner will have none of it and makes himself at home in the small cabin right next to the farm house. McKinnon plays Lonzo Choat, the new owner of the farm. He doesn’t take kindly to Abner’s presence on his property which triggers several confrontations that soon get way out of hand.

McKinnon is wonderful at creating a character that we don’t know what to make of at first. He has every right to the property since he bought it fair and square. But he’s also a boozer who verbally abuses his wife and even physically assaults his daughter. McKinnon sells this guy perfectly and you can’t help but to hate him. The movie is set in small town Tennessee and McKinnon’s deep and true southern accent, course mannerisms, and rough redneck appearance is absolutely perfect for the part and key to making many of the film’s strongest scenes work. He and Holbrook square off multiple times and it’s McKinnon who often steals the scenes. He’s detestable and frightening – a perfect movie antagonist and you’ll never doubt the authenticity that McKinnon brings to the role.

Ray McKinnon can be seen next year in Jeff Nichols’ next film “Mud”. In the meantime, check him out in “Driving Miss Daisy”, “Apollo 13”, “O Brother, Where Art Thou”, and of course “That Evening Sun”. Thanks again Ruth for providing a forum for talent like Ray McKinnon to get a little love. And as I mentioned, visit FlixChatter to learn hoe you can join in on the blogathon.

5 Phenomenal Movie Nicknames

There are so many cool and fun things about movies. One of those things is the cool assortment of characters that filmmakers introduce us to. I’ve been thinking about some of these great movie characters lately. As I was thinking on them, I started noticing the many nicknames that characters have had. I thought it would be fun to do a Phenomenal 5 on movie character’s nicknames. The one’s I chose range from funny to cool to down right iconic. Now as always I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these 5 movie nicknames are simply phenomenal.

#5 – BLONDIE

Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach share some fantastic and memorable moments in Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. The three title characters are trying to beat each other to a chest of buried Confederate gold. They scratch, fight, and shoot their way through deserts, civil war battlegrounds, and cemeteries. The movie is actually full of nicknames but none stand out more than the name Tucco (Wallach) gives Eastwood’s character. “Blondie” is funny in that it doesn’t exactly fit a tough-as-nails gunfighter. But it works so well especially in the classic final scene. How can you not love it?

#4 – SHAMPOO DOUGLAS

Before things really get serious in Jeff Nichols’ “Shotgun Stories”, we are introduced to the key characters through some genuinely fun scenes. While “Shampoo” Douglas (G. Alan Wilkins) isn’t one of the main characters, he cracked me up from the first time I saw him and in almost every scene afterwards. He’s part small town redneck, part dense-as fog airhead and you can’t help but laugh at him, the way he talks, and the interesting predicament he finds himself in. Then there’s his nickname. What’s so great about it is that he hardly looks like someone who has used much shampoo. But yet somehow the goofy nickname is a perfect match for this goofy character.

#3 – HARMONICA

Yet another Sergio Leone classic, “Once Upon a Time in the West” may be my favorite western of all time. It features some incredible direction from Leone and a fantastic cast of characters. We meet one of those characters in the brilliant opening scene at the train station. Charles Bronson plays the mysterious gunfighter who makes his presence immediately known. Aside from his quick draw, he stands out for the haunting tune he plays on his harmonica. It clearly has meaning and we see that later in the film. But it’s the on-the-run bandit played by Jason Robards who gives him the simple but perfect nickname “Harmonica”. He’s such a great character and every time someone mentions the harmonica I think of him.

#2 – WILLIAM “BILL THE BUTCHER” CUTTING

Daniel Day-Lewis’ award winning performance in Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” is memorable for many reasons. Day-Lewis gives the character the same intensity and energy that he always does. He creates a scary and brutal gang leader who also has one of the more interesting nicknames. The name William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting is both funny and intimidating. The fact that his last name is Cutting is pretty funny in itself. But it’s his fondness and skill with knives that really give the nickname it’s pop. We see that he not only knows how to butcher meat, but he’s not afraid to use his knives on his enemies. He’s a great movie character with a movie nickname that really sticks out.

#1 – INDIANA JONES

How can any other nickname top Indiana Jones? Harrison Ford’s iconic action movie character is not only one of the most entertaining movie characters but he’s also known by everyone. We first saw Indiana in 1981 with the classic “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. It was followed by two fun sequels and more recently a pretty bad one. But Indiana’s icon status will never die. It’s a strange and unusual nickname but it’s one that after all these years feels perfect. I mean can you imagine him being called anything else? He may have taken the name from the family dog, but whenever I hear the name Indiana Jones, I’ll always think of the tough and cool archeologist that I grew up wanting to be. Without a doubt, Indiana Jones is the best movie nickname.

There they are. See a movie nickname you disagree with? What are some of your favorite movie nicknames?

REVIEW: “Shotgun Stories”

I was a huge fan of the 2011 movie “Take Shelter”. In fact, it was easily one of my top five favorite movies of the year and it featured two of the very best performances of the year. “Take Shelter” was written and directed by Arkansas filmmaker Jeff Nichols and it was only his second feature film. Since I loved the movie so much, I thought it would be worth it to check out Nichols’ first film “Shotgun Stories”. Boy am I glad that I did.  Like “Take Shelter”, “Shotgun Stories” stars Michael Shannon, an actor who is perfect for the type of rural, working class movies that Nichols is drawn to making. It also shows the amazing writing ability of a director who is clearly passionate about his material.

“Shotgun Stories” is set in the small rural town of England, Arkansas. It’s a part of the country that Nichols obviously knows well and that familiarity really shows itself on screen. Michael Shannon plays Son Hayes, a husband, father, and the oldest of three brothers. Son works at a local fish farm with his youngest brother Kid (Barlow Jacobs). Kid has no house or vehicle and lives in a tent in Son’s backyard. Having her fill of Kid’s presence and of Son’s gambling, his wife Annie (wonderfully played by Glenda Pannell) leaves with their young son and moves in with her mother. While she’s gone, Son has his other brother Boy (Douglas Ligon) temporarily move in to give him a break from living in his van. We quickly are introduced to the three brothers and Nichols does a fantastic job of showing us each of their personalities, shortcomings, and quirks.

One day while the brothers are hanging out at Son’s house, their estranged mother shows up to notify them that their estranged father has died. We learn that when they were young their father left them to be raised by a mother who Son described as “hateful”. Their father remarried and started a new family completely leaving Son, Boy, and Kid behind. The boys crash their father’s graveside funeral service which infuriates their half brothers, especially Mark (Travis Smith), the oldest. Mark swears payback and this sets off a series of encounters, some violent, between the two sets of brothers.

“Shotgun Stories” has a pretty drastic change of tone close to half way into the picture. But where many movies have handled it in a clunky and jarring fashion, Jeff Nichols makes a near flawless transition. During the first part of the film there are some genuinely funny, laugh out loud moments. Nichols’ region-specific dialogue is perfectly done with a clever mix of humor that would work for those completely foreign to the rural Arkansas area or to those who are very familiar with the local nuances that Nichols plays with. The movie generates several understated laughs through the brother’s southern banter and peculiar circumstances. I found it to be quite funny at times.

By the tone changes when we see the friction between the two sets of brothers. Nichols shows us a deep-seated resentment that’s been hidden in the hearts of the brothers, especially Son. “Shotgun Stories” really builds a sense of tension and suspense and as you watch you just expect the pot to boil over at any second. The change in tone feels natural and appropriate and I was completely caught up in Nichols’ cleverly structured story which revolves around Michael Shannon’s performance. While some of the supporting performers aren’t all that good, Shannon is nothing short of brilliant and much like in “Take Shelter”, I was blown away by what he was doing on the screen.

With “Shotgun Stories”, Jeff Nichols shows that with the right skills in writing and filmmaking and with a phenomenal lead actor, you can make a strong movie even with a minuscule budget. This may be a movie that many have missed and some may not have even heard of it. But it, combined with “Take Shelter”, solidifies my position as a bonafide fan of Nichols and Shannon. “Shotgun Stories” is wonderfully written, brilliantly conceived, and cleverly crafted. Is that enough overused adjectives to prove that I really liked this film? You should check it out.

VERDICT – 4.5 Stars