Review: Midnight Special


It really doesn’t take much for the media to announce that some American director has taken up the mantle of “the Next Spielberg.” We’ve seen the cycle go around a lot recently with the influx of “fresh” white men handed the keys to major Hollywood franchises: J.J. Abrams, Colin Trevorrow, Joss Whedon. Hell, even M. Night Shyamalan infamously held the belt for a while. And then there’s Jeff Nichols, who might be the only candidate actually following the same career path as the patron saint of Amblin: hovering on the edges of Hollywood and garnering a significant critical following through ambitious, low-budget genre work.

But whether it’s recency bias at work or I’ve just gotten bored to tears of Spielberg’s schtick, I find the comparison extremely unflattering to Nichols. In a very short amount of time (“Midnight Special,” his latest feature, is only his fourth film following “Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter” and “Mud”), Nichols has displayed a thematic and narrative complexity far beyond much of Spielberg’s work, which tends to allow exquisite craft and rousing entertainment outpace the simplistic moralism of his ideas. There are certainly exceptions to this – “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” for one, from which “Midnight Special”, not coincidentally, draws more than a little inspiration. But Nichols has a confidence in the archetypical nature of his characters and stories that Spielberg has never had – and it allows the writer/director to go to places both more enigmatic and more fine-grained.

Let’s back up (and stop ragging, for no special reason other than I felt like it, on Spielberg). What is “Midnight Special?” You may very well ask, especially given that title will essentially never come into play in the film (at least, until a haunting cover of the American traditional of the same title plays over the end credits). It is many things – a sci-fi thriller, a cross-country road chase, a “True Detective”-season-1-esque vision of a spiritually corrupted American South, a family story of reunion and redemption. None of these, however, is particularly obvious from the start; except perhaps that bit about the South, shown here with the same kind of familiarity and affection for America’s heartland that Nichols brought to all his previous features (especially “Mud,” with its clear echoes of Mark Twain). From the moment Roy (Michael Shannon), Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) emerge from a seedy state route motel and jump into an unpainted custom muscle car, Nichols’ vision of time and place is uncannily specific and evocative, even as what is actually going on remains paradoxically, almost infuriatingly unexplained.

The story emerges in elliptical bits and pieces: Roy has kidnapped Alton, his 8-year-old son, in an apparent escape from the Branch-Davidian type cult in which they were both raised. The cult (led, because of course it is, by Sam Shepard, doing wonderfully Sam Shepard-y things) is hot on Roy’s trail, but so is the federal government, led by a pack of FBI agents and an antsy NSA agent (Adam Driver) who exudes the self-assurance of someone five minutes away from realizing they’re in over their head. But Alton seems an oddly willing kidnap “victim”, not to mention just plain odd: he constantly wears a pair of bright blue swimming goggles, is unable to step foot in sunlight, and too often for comfort stares fixedly into the night sky, quite obviously seeing something that we are not (it doesn’t help that he’s played by Lieberher, who was exceptional on the past season of “Masters of Sex” and looks like Stephen King designed a child from scratch). And why do the federal intelligence agencies have such a pressing concern for this case?

Answering all the questions raised by this scenario would spoil some of the surprise, but, as Nichols’ purposefully cryptic method implies, is also beyond the point. As in “Take Shelter,” which tantalizingly refused to acknowledge whether the apocalyptic visions witnessed by Michael Shannon were prophecy or insanity, “Midnight Special” takes its genre outlining and paranoid atmosphere as fertile ground for metaphor. The oblique details of Roy and Jaeden’s journey allows us to see through to the familiar building blocks of their relationship: a father just trying to protect his son, a child trying to make sense of the world around him. There are dark forces at work in America: banal religious extremism, intrusive government surveillance, external threats with motivations beyond our understanding. But Nichols finds optimism in the stability of family (Kirsten Dunst does good work in a too-brief turn as Alton’s birth mother), friendship (Joel Edgerton’s fiercely loyal Lucas) and empathy (Adam Driver’s NSA agent, too inquisitive and compassionate to ever be a true threat to Alton).

A final compliment must also be paid to David Wingo’s wonderful score, a pulsing, ethereal work that sets the tone for the film perfectly. Listening to it again as I write this, it vividly suggests to me that half hour or so before a summer storm – clouds gathering, brewing, and you know the rain is about to break but just not when. “Midnight Special” holds you in that moment for almost two hours, and whether, when it all finally breaks (not with a thunderclap, but more a rolling wave), you find the ending satisfying will likely be entirely up to you.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

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Review: April and the Extraordinary World


When I was around 10 years old, I fell in love with Hergé’s Tintin books. They contained such an effortless and innocent* sense of adventure, propelled by a core of simple, charming characters and a globe-trotting spirit that certainly appealed to a middle-school Geography Bee champion. There’s just something about a plucky, ingenious young hero foiling cartoonishly dastardly plots with their talking pet sidekick that puts a smile on my face.

Thus, the big, dumb grin I sported for pretty much the entire runtime of “April and the Extraordinary World,” an out-of-nowhere animated charmer that combines the escapist pleasures of “serial” romps like the Indiana Jones movies with the inventive, alternate-universe visual flair of Miyazaki. The Tintin comparison is an inevitable one – the drawing style, adapted (as is the narrative) from the graphic novels and comics of Jacques Tardi, even looks much the same as Hergé’s – but “April and the Extraordinary World” also has its own distinct flavor, a steampunk/early sci-fi/apocalyptic vibe that owes as much to “Metropolis” and Jules Verne and Conan Doyle’s The Lost World” as it does to a certain intrepid Belgian reporter. Should they ever re-attempt to adapt Alan Moore’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” for the screen, please, may it be tackled by a team like this.

To describe the setup of the story is somewhat a chore: imagine Napoleon III died, not as a deposed exile, but in a freak scientific accident while attempting to develop a super-solider serum (yes, something not unlike our dear Captain Rogers’ juju juice). Imagine further, in the wake of that accident, that the world’s leading scientists and inventors all began to mysteriously disappear, snatched up by a mysterious, roaming, all-seeing cloud. Einstein, Edison, Fermi, Marconi, Curie, on and on – without our greatest minds, the world stagnates under primitive 19th-century technology. France, under a revitalized imperial regime, is forced to scrabble for a share of the world’s dwindling resources. In the middle of all of this, a young girl named April is distraught when her parents, chemists secretly working on the same serum project that did in old Napoleon, are taken by that threatening, straight-out-of-a-Roald-Dahl-nightmare cloud.

These things are all related, and there are yet many more puzzle pieces and characters to keep track of as April grows and pursues the truth underneath her topsy-turvy life (indeed, the French title of the film more literally, and more aptly, translates to “April and the Twisted World”). The writers deal nimbly with a massive amount of exposition, fleetly bounding on to the next scene and the next setpiece before the weight of this expansive world can ever come crashing down. Yet the film also never feels rushed – despite leaps of years, even decades, between some sections early on, “April and the Extraordinary World” finds time to linger just the right amount of time on a particularly gorgeous image (the twin Eiffel Towers of Paris that house a transcontinental cable-car station, for instance) or a clever bit of dialogue. Have I mentioned that, somehow, amid all the international intrigue I laid out above, this movie finds time for April to read “Puss in Boots” out loud to her talking cat named Darwin? “I’d have a few things about cats to tell Msr. Perrault,” Darwin sniffs, and I am not sure how else I can convince you to see this film.

But if that isn’t enough, “April and the Extraordinary World” is also a welcome newcomer in the burgeoning recent sub-genre of science-positive entertainment (kicked off, I might argue, by “Interstellar,” and finding its platonic ideal in “The Martian”). April is not just a bland, brave everyman protagonist; she is fiercely, explicitly smart, and put in a position to go on her pulse-pounding, high-stakes adventure for that very reason. The film recognizes both the risk and reward in that, just as it sees the danger humanity so often creates for itself by pushing society forward for short-term gain at long-term expense. But ultimately, progress is the long-term gain – resources will run dry, but as long as the urge remains to advance, to push the boundaries, to dash out into the unknown…we might be OK.

Now playing in limited release – to be expanded wider starting April 8. Watch for it!

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

*I know, I know, I didn’t discover “Tintin in the Congo” until a while later, and the um, less-than-savory villainization of Asians, Native Americans, Jews, etc. didn’t register at that age. The moon ones are still OK, right?

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Top 10 of 2015

All right, the Oscars are long over and done with, so it’s time to finally put a cap in the year in film that was 2015. I ran down the 9th Annual EMOs a while back, but after having the chance to spend a couple of months catching up with titles that I missed over the course of the year, I can put out my Top 10 of 2015 and be done with it.

And honestly that sort of feels like a relief. 2015 was a varied and intriguing year – a year where genre contenders (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Creed”) went toe-to-toe with the prestige stuff, not just in critics’ lists, but on the red carpets of the awards circuit. A year where some of my favorite international auteurs fell short but new ones arrived with a thunderclap. It was also a year where it felt like some dents were finally made in the Iron Curtain that keeps women’s stories out of Hollywood; hopefully that will be the start of a trend and not an anomaly looked back at in melancholy.

But overall it felt like a year of solid craftsmanship and earnest filmmaking with few offerings reaching for the stars – and even fewer actually making it there. Any regular readers out there will hopefully know that I’m a fierce advocate for positivity in criticism – and indeed, there were many films this year that I would like to applaud, for one reason or another. But outside a few top candidates, I can’t say that my passion really ignited for this top 10 list. Ah well. We’ll always have 2007.

Without further ado then, my personal top 10 films of 2015:

10. The End of the Tour


James Ponsoldt’s indie flick about the long-form interview performed by Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) with David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) during Wallace’s book tour for Infinite Jest surprised with how unconcerned it was with the famed writer’s brilliance (or pretentiousness, depending on whom you’re asking). Ponsoldt’s film, adapted from Lipsky’s article by playwright Donald Marguiles, is almost wall-to-wall conversation, but the specifics of what Wallace and Lipsky are saying – ramblings about crap television, dogs, women, drug use, or supposedly “deeper” considerations of Wallace’s sudden fame and the nature of genius – are so much less important than what is not being said. Lipsky and Wallace have an instant congeniality, even chemistry (Segel and Eisenberg sell the heck out of the awkwardness of straight men who quickly take a liking to each other but don’t know what to do about it), yet deeper strains of envy and insecurity continually bubble to the surface and interrupt the friendship. The movie’s last moments hammer home the true sadness of not just Wallace’s premature death, but that of any suicide – not that the world lost a talent, but that these two people lost a chance at connection. A touching addition to Ponsoldt’s growing, melancholic collection of addicts and loners (see “Smashed,” “The Spectacular Now”).

9. Room


What a curious movie. A potentially sensational subject matter handled with almost aggressively good taste. A blend of stark realism and stirring expression bordering on the manipulative. Two fine leads asked to walk a very fine line between subjectivity and authenticity. To be honest I am still not entirely sure what I think of Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” and very much desire to revisit it – but I’m certainly still mulling it over, and the ambition of Abrahamson and writer Emma Donoghue’s vision has an enviable panache.

8. Brooklyn


A charming immigrant tale, steering clear of melodrama in favor of the engagement and empathy of a very real, grounded young woman simply trying to move forward in life. Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson are both wonderful as two equally intriguing romantic options for Eilis (Saoirse Ronan, in the best performance of her budding career), their divergent futures offered as possibilities, not inevitabilities. Rarely does a coming-of-age tale have the subtlety and agency that director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby hand over to Ronan. The stunning, warm cinematography by Yves Bélanger and evocative, folksy score by Michael Brook play into the film’s strong sense of emotion without getting calculated about it.

7. Mad Max: Fury Road


George Miller’s decades-in-the-making passion project was the cinephilic surprise of the year, a thunderous return to action filmmaking that signaled Miller’s innovation didn’t run out with “The Road Warrior.” A film-long set piece bursting with indelible design and imagery, “Fury Road” was an adrenaline-soaked reminder that most Hollywood blockbusters (even the entertaining ones) are sleepwalking their way through the motions. Simple but strong politics and Charlize Theron’s instantly iconic turn as one-armed badass Imperator Furiosa were also a gracious antidote to the prevailing action-hero trends of spandexed, tortured machismo. If there’s any problem with the movie, it’s that it may have validated the studios’ instinct to revive old properties over creating something new – if only all those reboots and revivals had a tenth of the energy behind “Fury Road.”

6. Spotlight


“We’re going to tell this story. We’re going to tell it right.”

Tom McCarthy’s paean to investigative journalism is a reflective testament to the power of a well-told story: narratives don’t just entertain or inspire, they can tackle institutions, cause very real consequences. “Spotlight” lacks the paranoid, chilling atmosphere of “All the President’s Men,” its obvious cinematic reference point, but in some ways that makes the story ring all the more true. Corruption and crime doesn’t always happen in shadowy parking lots or shifty hotels; sometimes it plays out under harsh fluorescent lighting, in the false congeniality of men in drab khakis and ill-fitting suits. Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy’s crackling script is in total sync with a terrific ensemble of journeyman actors (McAdams and Ruffalo deservingly got the Oscar nods, but Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schrieber, Billy Crudup, John Slattery and others are all equally on-point). Everyone involved in the making of this film was on the same page – the story’s the thing.

5. Carol


“Carol” opens with an enigmatic closeup, an interweaving pattern of…what? Wallpaper? A fence? A carpet? Carter Burwell’s wonderfully woozy score swells and we finally pull back to see a subway grate, trampled underfoot as a dozen people walk by obliviously, until Todd Haynes actually gets interested in a character and we follow him into one of the more romantic films of recent years. The deception and beauty of things right in front of our eyes has always been an undercurrent of Haynes’ work, and in “Carol” he brings it to the fore to tell a story of repressed love with restraint and delicacy. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara have a striking, otherworldly chemistry, relatable yet alien – but isn’t that always how it is when you look at a couple that you’re not a part of? Their attraction is a secret known only to them, and Haynes exploits that feeling to effective measure.

4. 45 Years


Domestic drama with just the slightest touch of gothic horror, Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” is more than a showcase for one of the more remarkable leading performances in recent memory (though that would be enough). Charlotte Rampling is superb as Kate Mercer, a retired schoolteacher who finds her marriage, and indeed her whole life, unexpectedly fractured – yet Haigh’s direction is equal to Rampling’s boundless expression. A gesture, a small piece of sound design, a careful framing – these are all it takes for “45 Years” to convey a whole history of a couple. As Kate and her husband Geoff learn when a decades-old choice snowballs into an unraveling of forty-five years of content, it’s the little things that’ll get you.

3. Hard to Be a God


Aleksei German’s last film may very well also be his masterpiece, a blistering, bilious stew of a movie filled with feverish imagery that feels like a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life. Cross Tarkovsky’s philosophy with Pasolini’s obsession with the dirty, disgusting physicality of humanity, and you’re in the ballpark of German’s deep dive into sci-fi feudalism and fascism (the film comes from a novel by Arkady ad Boris Strugatsky, who also provided the source material for Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”). At 3 hours long, it must be said that “Hard to Be a God” veers close to overstaying its welcome – but German’s planet of medieval horrors is so stunningly and convincingly realized that it’s difficult to say what should be cut. As an Earthling scientist sent to study another planet’s cultural renaissance (which never arrives), Leonid Yarmolnik is fantastic as both tour guide and native, an intelligent man gradually losing himself in the baseness of a primal society. Not an easy sit, but an unforgettable one.

2. Taxi


For Jafar Panahi, just turning on a camera is an act of protest. The Iranian director has been arrested and jailed for his filmmaking and its (gentle, humanist) criticism of religious repression and censorship, yet he keeps working, steeled by the absolute right of expression. His latest work, a mix of improvisation, casual conversation and quiet observation, is all the more bold for how unhurried and relaxed it is. Politics doesn’t have to be about righteous anger or fierce speeches – sometimes it’s just about watching, and listening.

1. Son of Saul


My opinion of László Nemes’ debut feature probably came through pretty clearly in my review for The New Republic, but let’s put it on the record: “Son of Saul” is a landmark piece of film that I firmly believe we’ll be discussing for years to come.  It’s one of the most astonishingly confident first films I’ve ever seen, absolutely assured in its technique and fully prepared to debate with those who will (not unfairly) challenge its complex morality and obsession with depicting the unspeakable. For the record, I’m not even quite in step with Nemes on his interpretation of his own work – there is, I would agree with some commenters, a dangerous grotesquerie present in beatifying the character Saul, or presenting the film’s vivid experience as presenting any sort of “reality”, both of which are things Nemes has gone dangerously close to in his interviews. But this is the kind of film that takes on a life beyond its maker’s intentions: there are so many layers to pull back, particularly in Géza Röhrig’s astonishing lead performance. In so many of Röhrig’s tight closeups, as Saul wanders through Auschwitz on his desperate and foolhardy quest to properly bury a young boy, one wonders, what is he thinking? It’s something we (or at least I) will be pondering for a while, perhaps in nightmares.

Ten more, unranked: “Amour Fou”, “Creed”, “Ex Machina”, “Inside Out”, “Mistress America”, “Results”, “Shaun the Sheep Movie”, “Sicario”, “Tangerine”, “The Tribe”

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