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

2015 Blind Spot Series – “Paris, Texas”

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From the film’s first scene we know that “Paris, Texas” is something unique. A sprawling overhead camera combs a sparse desert landscape to the ominous twanging of an acoustic guitar. The camera settles on a thin, disheveled man with a straggly beard, dusty suit, tattered shoes, and a red ball cap. He drinks the last of his water from an old milk jug and then heads on his way.

Immediately we find ourselves asking a number of questions. Who is this man? Is he looking for something? Where has he been? Where is he going? He seems lost, like a wanderer. But at the same time he’s heading in a specific direction, his eyes fixated on the horizon. These early scenes highlighting the South Texas desert are filmed with an almost postapocalyptic perspective. The rugged and bleak terrain that Travis roams offers no sense of hope or life. This landscape is captivating and we are instantly drawn into the mystery of this man.

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“Paris, Texas” was directed by German filmmaker Wim Wenders and written by “Kit” Carson and Sam Shepard. The film was a big winner at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival and over the years it has been heralded as a true film classic. The movie has often been singled out for its striking score from acclaimed guitarist Ry Cooder and its mesmerizing cinematography from long time Wenders collaborator Robby Müller.

After its brilliant setup, the story doesn’t leave us in the desert long. In a surprisingly brisk fashion the film begins feeding us morsels of information about this man whose name is Travis. He’s played by the great Harry Dean Stanton, an actor who has always been able to speak volumes through his expressive face. It turns out Travis disappeared four years ago and no one has seen him since. We learn that he had a wife and son but something happened and he lost them. In fact, in some ways this gets to the key focus of the film – loss, fear, insecurity, sacrifice.

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The slow and methodical unveiling of information begins in the desert and then picks up when Travis is found by his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell). Walt, his wife Anne (Aurore Clément), and their son Hunter (Hunter Carson) each play a part in putting together this complex human puzzle that is Travis’ life. They are keys, each unlocking new portions of his backstory while also moving the narrative forward. Nastassja Kinski appears later to offer an even different layer to the Travis character.

The movie is basically broken down into three chapters. The first chapter follows the desert wanderer. The second chapter spotlights the time Travis spends with Walt and his family. The third chapter turns into an unexpected road trip. I won’t spoil a thing, but the film makes an interesting shift and the story sets its focus in a new direction while still maintaining its very grounded and cliche-free structure. The third act is the most fascinating and compelling even though it has a fairly glaring narrative hiccup and a couple of lapses in logic.

 

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“Paris, Texas” has so many unique features that differentiated it from the majority of movies being made at that time. And the film’s captivating uniqueness still makes an impression today which is a testament to its quality. The cinematography is sublime, never using camera trickery or gimmicks. It visualizes truth and authenticity. The story is simple but emotionally rich and pure, again focusing on truth. It stumbles in a few places but never loses itself. Most of the performances hit every right note especially Stanton, Kinski, and young Carson. All of this is brought together under the management of Wenders who tells a living, breathing story free of contrivances and artifice.

The film never sets foot in Paris, Texas. It’s a mirage that sits in the back of Travis’ mind. It serves as a connection to his past. It serves as a small hope for a potential future. For a time it gives Travis a sense of direction, a purpose to follow. But over the course of the film we see Paris, Texas replaced. He finds a new purpose at least for a time. But Paris, Texas still lingers for Travis, and by the film’s end we fully understand its importance.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “August: Osage County”

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“August: Osage County” is a hard pill to swallow. It’s based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name and could be categorized as a dysfunctional family drama with pinches of dark comedy. It features a star-studded cast led by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts and a premise that may have a lot of appeal to some audiences. But underneath all of the big acting from big stars lies a coarse and abrasive film that never knows when to pull back the reins. It ends up being a movie I could never wrap my arms around.

Tracy Letts (who also penned the play) writes the screenplay and John Wells (better known for his television work) directs the film. It’s set in Osage County, Oklahoma during a sweltering hot August. Violet (Streep) is a mean and contentious women suffering from mouth cancer and a heavy addiction to pain pills. Her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) is a calmer sort who seeks refuge in his books and liquor. One day Beverly hires a caretaker for his wife and soon after disappears.

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Distraught over her husband’s disappearance, Violet calls in her family and a parade of family dysfunction follows. First to arrive is her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charles (Chris Cooper). Shortly after, Violet’s three daughters come. Barbara (Julia Roberts) is a shrill carbon copy of her mother. She’s at odds with her mom for leaving home and moving to Colorado. Karen (Juliette Lewis) is the spacy middle daughter who hasn’t been home in years. And there is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the youngest daughter and the only one who lives close to home. Each of these characters have a wheelbarrow full of flaws and baggage that all comes into play as the film moves along.

But if that assortment of maladjusted individuals wasn’t enough, we also have Barbara’s husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) who apparently has an eye for younger women and their daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) who is bearing the fruits of their horrible parenting. Then there is Karen’s fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney), a phoney and moral-free Florida businessman. Oh and then there is Charles and Mattie Fae’s awkward son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) who may have a weird little secret.

It’s almost impossible to like any of these people. With the exception of the caregiver, practically every character reveals an appalling secret, spits out hateful insults, or does something vile. And the film is relentless. It bludgeons you to death with one dysfunctional family scene after another. I found it to be smothering. The story never allows any breathing room or provides any variation with its characters. And the constant barrage of bad behavior and disgraceful revelations is a bit ridiculous. It’s as if Letts wants to trump one disgraceful act or insult with another. And so on and so on…

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Again, the cast is a laundry list of big names and the performances are good. However many of the scenes are so big and the characters so loud that it can be difficult to really appreciate the performances. It’s one of those cases where the material hurts what the actors are doing. Streep is fine as the venom-tongued Violet but she is so big and brash. It’s definitely how the character is written but Streep does her share of scene chewing. Julia Roberts has been applauded for her work but it too is a loud and showy performance. Roberts is never overmatched by the character and she shows brilliance in some scenes. But the character is crassly written and some of her dialogue is so over the top. The other performances aren’t getting the same attention, but they’re generally good when the screenplay allows them to be.

I’ve heard that the stage version of “August: Osage County” is very good. Sadly I don’t think it has translated well to the big screen. This is a crude and unyielding adaptation that has a powerful and potent potential. The idea is appealing and every so often we get glimpses of what I hoped the film to be. Unfortunately I was put off by these characters, their endless dysfunction, and their profane spite. This was a tiresome watch and tough movie for me to endure. It’s a shame because with this much talent I was expecting more.

VERDICT – 2 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.

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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.

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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 clichéd 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

“SAFE HOUSE” – 3.5 STARS

Safe House

The 2012 movie year has offered several pleasant surprises at the local cineplex. “Safe House” is a high-octane action picture that keeps this trend going. While I can’t say there is anything particularly fresh or profound about “Safe House”, what it does it does well. It offers plenty of gunfire, car chases, and fist fights while employing several familiar elements into its story. But it never goes beyond it’s intentions and for my money “Safe House” entertains.

Denzel Washington plays Tobin Frost and ex-CIA operative who is now wanted by several international organizations including the CIA and MI6. After being leaked secret documents from an MI6 agent in South Africa, Frost finds himself on the run from a group of heavily armed contract killers. He flees to the American Embassy, a last resort, and is immediately taken into custody. He’s moved to a local safe house ran by a disgruntled Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds). Weston has seen no action and has petitioned for a transfer from his boring position. As you can guess, that changes once Frost is brought into his facility. The mercenaries arrive instantly leaving Weston to take Frost and run.

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Most of the film focuses on the pair as they try to escape their pursuers while also toying with the question of “Is Frost a good guy or is he a bad guy”? As usual Washington nails his character and often times carries some of the scenes that would have otherwise fell flat. He also relays his character’s moral gray area with the perfect amount of ambiguity. He’s hard to read and I loved watching him and his story unfold. Washington never shortchanges his character whether it be Frost’s grit or his personal affections. Reynolds is also quite good and shows again that he is capable of handling better material (sorry Green Lantern). He lays it all out during the action sequences and He and Washington have a good chemistry. There is also a fantastic supporting cast including Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, and Brendan Gleeson.

“Safe House” uses a grainy, gritty visual style throughout the movie and while it did take me a minute to get used to it, I found it really worked. The film features a lot of herky jerky camera work and is frantically edited which I’m sure is meant to capture the chaos and intensity of the action sequences. This works more often times than not but I can see where it may be a bit disorienting for some. There are a few instances where it tries to get too clever with the camera but not enough to hurt the movie. Overall it’s visually impressive and the sound design is stellar.

“Safe House” could be considered your standard action/chase picture and there is a good argument there. But I found myself interested in the international aspect as well as the “who can you trust” question that shows itself as the story unfolds. Washington has been consistently good in his career and he delivers a strong performance here as well. He can carry films like this but here he doesn’t have to. Reynolds holds his own and the strong supporting work helps make up for when the plot may not be as sharp. But I had a great time with “Safe House” and I don’t penalize it for aiming at a specific mark and hitting it. Sometimes a straightforward action picture is all I need.