REVIEW: “Midnight Special”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

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Occasionally I will come across a movie that despite its obvious strengths and critical acclaim never connects with me. Often times it can be traced to a bad initial reaction or maybe to specific themes or performances that I didn’t care for. But there are also occasions where a movie will leave a slight mark in the back of my mind. These are films that deserve to be wrestled with regardless of my initial misgivings. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is one of those films. After a fairly tepid first impression I was ready to dismiss the movie, but overwhelmingly positive reviews and a tinge of curiosity convinced me that this film deserved a second viewing.

Acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman wrote the screenplay which was based on a story he created along with director Michael Gondry and Pierre Bismuth. It cleverly develops itself as a romantic drama but incorporates a subtle bit of science fiction to create a cerebral and multifaceted story. Kaufman and Gondry steer clear of any traditional mode of storytelling and instead engage the audience on an intellectual and emotional level. There’s nothing conventional about “Eternal Sunshine” and at times its lack of clarity may be a little frustrating. But having a firm understanding of the periphery allows you to better understand what is going on inside at the heart of the film.

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The story starts by introducing us to a morose and withdrawn man named Joel Barish (Jim Carrey). One morning while waiting on the train for his morning commute he takes off on a whim and hops aboard another train heading out of the city. While aimlessly strolling down a Long Island beach he notices a woman named Clementine (Kate Winslet) who appears to be doing the same thing. A couple of chance meetings later and the two are on the same train heading back into the city. Eventually a relationship forms between these two lost souls, but before we get a good taste of it there is a dramatic narrative shift.

The film leaps forward in time which is the first of many transitions in Kaufman’s fractured storytelling. We find out that Clementine has visited a clinic called Lacuna, Inc. which specializes in wiping certain people or things from an individual’s mind. Clementine has had Joel erased. There is a real challenge here for the audience because neither we nor Joel know why she has done it. You have to wade through this information gap until Kaufman is ready to give you more. An angry Joel decides to enact his own form of revenge by visiting Lacuna himself and having Clementine wiped from his mind.

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Lacuna, Inc. is the brainchild of Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). His staff is made up of his peppy receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst), his frazzly haired chief technician Stan (Mark Ruffalo), and his technician’s assistant Patrick (Elijah Wood). Each have their own surprising role to play in this absurd but utterly fascinating procedure that Joel undergoes. They also each have their own bits to add to a lightweight but intriguing side story. From there the majority of the film takes place in Joel’s mind as he has a sudden change of heart and tries to cling to and hide away any memory of Clementine before they can be erased.

The movie snaps back and forth between the surreal world inside Joel’s brain and the real world where an assortment of things play out between the Lacuna gang and Clementine. To go any further would be a criminal injustice to those who haven’t seen the picture but suffice it to say it’s some unique and compelling stuff. Also, you can’t simplify what is going on as I did during my first viewing. Kaufman and Gondry aren’t interested in a straight-line narrative or generic over-used tropes. There is a fragmented structure that is made challenging by the playing around with with chronology and order. But there is a method to the messiness that I didn’t appreciate before.

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I also didn’t appreciate just how good of a performance that Carrey gives. Over the past couple of years the actor hasn’t help his sputtering career with some rather dopey decisions he has made. But this is a performance that shows a comedic actor embracing something different and really doing it well. Winslet is her usual rock-solid self. It’s an odd and erratic role but she never struggles with it. The supporting cast is also very good at handling what they are asked to do.

I still think “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a bit indulgent and I do think there are some moments where it doesn’t hit the emotional note that it is going for. But to say my opinion of the film has changed would be an understatement. I can honestly say that “I got it” during my second viewing and my appreciation for what the movie does is unquestioned. I still feel the need to see it again after the birth of my new feelings towards it, but this time it won’t be for the same reasons.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

“MELANCHOLIA” – 3 1/2 STARS

“Melancholia” is a solemn and unsettling examination of depression wrapped up in an end-of-the-world, sci-fi drama. It’s written and directed by the sometimes controversial Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier and it’s been said that the picture was inspired by some of his own experiences with depression. In many ways it does feel deeply personal to von Trier and his treatment of the material is painfully real. But there are also a few instances where he forces his penchant for stylization and uniqueness onto the script. But even with the occasional lapse into self-indulgence, “Melancholia” is a lighter von Trier which for the most part really works. 
 
“Melancholia” has a very interesting structure. It starts with a brief prelude set to the beautifully haunting music of Richard Wagner. The prelude features a synoptic montage of stylistic imagery that we later find out is directly tied to events in the film. It’s a pretty no-nonsense, straight-forward approach by von Trier and it seems like an attempt to put the audience’s focus in the right place. On the other hand, it wasn’t until after I had finished the film that I really appreciated the prelude. It was then that I saw the brilliance of this clever device. 
 

The main story is broken into two parts and focuses on two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The first half of the film is simply entitled “Justine”. It follows Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) and their lavish, high-priced wedding party thrown by Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) at their luxurious home. Things start poorly when they arrive two hours late which clearly frustrates the cost-sensitive John. We’re then introduced to the sister’s immature and irresponsible father Dexter (John Hurt), their angry and cynical mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), and Justine’s self-absorbed boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgard). While at first everything seems perfect for her, we slowly see Justine swallowed up by her genuine inner struggles with  frustration, uncertainty, and depression. We watch as her happy bride facade crumbles and she becomes more and more detached. It’s painful and heart-breaking yet exquisite and utterly mesmerizing. 
 
The second half of the film, titled “Claire”,  jumps ahead in time and takes a drastic change of direction. Justine is brought back to live with Claire and John after succumbing to severe depression.  But we begin to see that Claire has struggles of her own. She is battling fear and anxiety brought on by the possible destruction of the earth by an approaching rogue planet called “Melancholia”. It’s hinted at in the first half of the film, but we learn that most scientists believe the planet will pass by earth. John, who is enthralled with the astrological phenomenon, tries to ease Claire’s mind but differing Internet theories fuel her despair. It’s sad to watch both sister’s fall victim to their own mental frailties and the planetary threat, while real, is a subtle but agonizing metaphor. 
 
“Melancholia” is a gripping, meditative film that’s delivered like an operatic mood piece. While sometimes slow and deliberate, the film  moves at a measured pace that’s fairly effective even though the second half of the film does require some patience. The movie occasionally flirts with being ostentatious but von Trier manages to keep the film reined in. But there are some exceptions. There are a few scenes that seemed forced upon the story and served no other purpose than to be provocative or erotic. These speed bumps pulled me out of the movie and that hurts a picture like this that depends on our deep involvement in the story.  
 

Despite the movie’s few flaws, there is no denying the strength of Kirsten Dunst’s performance. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was just how good she is here. You almost feel yourself being pulled into her collapsing world as she delivers what may be one of the most authentic portrayals of depression and it’s devastating effects. I’ve never seen her give a performance even close to this one and she could be in line for serious Oscar consideration. But to be honest, there isn’t a bad performance. Gainsbourg is fantastic as the complex Claire. Early in the film I was disgusted by her only to be completely sympathetic towards the character later. And it’s great to see Kiefer Sutherland once again in a role of substance. He nails ever scene he’s in and never sells his character short. 
 
“Melancholia” is sure to be heralded by many to be a great film and in many ways it is. For my money a more tempered Lars von Trier is better and that’s what we get for most of the movie. He maintains a steady and solemn tone which doesn’t always make for happy viewing, but it works considering the subject matter. He also steps back and lets his really talented actors go. He uses some striking visuals but never overdoes them. They move poetically and almost hypnotically throughout the picture and I couldn’t take my eyes off each strategically placed sequence.  But he did yank me out of his picture with a few self-indulgent scenes that should have been left on the cutting room floor. It’s here where von Trier seems to be putting style over substance and the story suffers for it. But the movie is carried by the performances. I never doubted any of the characters and I would watch it again just see these great actors work.