Midnight Special (2016)

★★★★

Midnight Special PosterDirector: Jeff Nichols

Release Date: March 18th, 2016 (US); April 8th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Science fiction

Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst

The opening shot of Midnight Special shows a motel door peephole. The peephole offers those inside the motel room the ability to spy on any external goings-on, and is in fact the only means to such an end: each of the room’s windows have been dressed in cardboard by occupants wary, perhaps, of the instability of conventional curtains. One of the room’s occupants, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), has even donned enormous orange headphones and a pair of goggles, ears and eyes shielded from something, or maybe someone. It is a brilliant introduction to this patient, mysterious world created by Jeff Nichols, without doubt one of the most exciting up-and-coming filmmakers working today.

A number of forces are after Alton for a number of reasons: the FBI, for fear of his invasive abilities, that the child can undercut complicated governmental systems albeit without malice, and a Texas cult corrupted by the promise of an upcoming day of reckoning. Adam Driver represents the former as Paul Sevier, a compassionate analyst of sorts, and ranch leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) the latter. See, Alton possesses a variety of characteristics not written into the laws of physics. His eyes shoot blinding beams of light and his mind works prophetically, both of which make him valuable. But nobody values him more than his father Roy (Michael Shannon) who, with the assistance of friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), sets out to shield Alton from harm.

Moral complexities are at large early on. Roy and Lucas’ motives aren’t initially clear therefore Shannon and Edgerton must convey a sense of righteousness or otherwise. As they leave their motel room with Alton, we cut to a suspicious receptionist. Shortly thereafter, the pair endure a nasty collision on the road and have a run-in with a state trooper which ends when the latter is shot. It’s not exactly a heroic introduction, but subtle nuances get us onside: Shannon’s paternal vibe towards his son and Alton’s reciprocal nature; Edgerton’s considered demeanour and his character’s need to protect any innocent bystanders (shooting not to kill the trooper, for instance).

The film is also Spielbergian in many ways, from its science fiction touch to how it places youth on a pedestal. You first notice the similarities in a dusk horizon shot, where the various silhouettes of imposing military trucks can be seen advancing along a shadowy road, the background an orange-tinted sky. A general nighttime vibe exists throughout the piece, partially because the screenplay requires it, but also because darkness funds an overarching sense of uncertainty and mystique. Visual flair is mostly restrained, though the film does let loose on two occasions with incredible results — especially incredible given the comparatively meagre $18 million budget.

Its celebration of youthful imagination is another trope from Spielberg’s wheelhouse, enacted generally across the piece but also more intimately when we see Alton reading a Human Torch comic. “Reading’s reading,” Lucas claims, to which Roy glumly replies, “He needs to know what’s real”. Lucas has been won over not just by Alton’s abilities but also his humanness. Roy, while evidently full of love for his son, is more strict when it comes to completing the task; that is, getting Alton to where he needs to be. Perhaps this early in proceedings Roy is unwilling to fully accept the consequences of doing so, which only adds further heft to his journey.

But he does have faith. Religion, the inevitability of one’s beliefs, the cultish haranguing instigated by an isolated community — these are all explored in Midnight Special. Calvin’s ranch carries significant pull, even to those who have left. “Do you miss it?” Roy asks former member Elden (David Jensen), and you can bet he does. We don’t really know anything about those on the ranch, nor those who have escaped, which includes Roy and his wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). Their backstories might have benefited from some filling in, though you have to commend Nichols for his consistency in letting the audience make up their own minds. And there certainly isn’t a total information blackout. Rather, this feels like a well-crafted piece, where each event and scene and conversation carries meaning.

It is always easy to compare a filmmaker’s current work to his/her previous efforts, though such a comparison makes sense here. In many ways, Nichols has taken the most appetising ingredients from both Take Shelter and Mud and moulded them into a sci-fi base: the former’s apocalyptic vision and air of encroaching trouble tags with the latter’s unflashy, youngster-imbued agenda. Alton is the physical manifestation of both elements, a dangerous otherworldly presence to some, yet to others simply a child searching for answers. Television news reels spew out stories on crippling addiction while honchos in suits decry the possibility of nuclear decimation, paranoid and afraid of change even if it is for the better.

Despite being set in contemporary times, the film has an undeniable retro quality similar to that purveyed in Super 8 (though clearly J.J. Abrams’ movie is set in a period that matches its retro-scape). David Wingo’s oscillating, spacey score somewhat soothes our ears as it recalls Alton’s futuristic attributes. It tends to play over scenes involving Alton and never jars, instead shining a positive light on what the boy could represent — that aforementioned change for the better — as well as his family’s motives. At times the music also reminded me of Kristin Øhrn Dyrud’s work in Coherence, a small sci-fi thriller bred from a similar pool of cagey mystery.

For those of you who thought Tomorrowland: A World Beyond lacked concrete storytelling or a consistent strain of intrigue, there’s every chance Midnight Special is film you have been looking for. While Nichols’ outing doesn’t flourish through splendour, it does keep the viewer engrossed for the duration. You have to be; various ideas are floated around — including concepts I haven’t touched upon here, such as undemocratic government surveillance — and it is often up to us to make our own moral judgement. Midnight Special is as much an on-the-road drama as it is any other genre, but it’s also very effective sci-fi. The special stuff, almost.

Midnight Special - Jaeden Lieberher & Michael Shannon

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

The Great Gatsby (2013)

★★★★

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Release Date: May 10th, 2013 (US); May 16th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Romance

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire

As Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, The Great Gatsby stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the title character, Jay Gatsby, a very wealthy-yet-mysterious man seeking to rekindle his relationship with the woman he has loved for years, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). The story is narrated by war veteran Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who recalls his life living next door to Gatsby whose parties — attended by those from all over the country and overflowing with alcohol, entertainers and fireworks — are products of the Roaring Twenties, where the stock markets on Wall Street were booming and morale was at an all-time high post-World War I.

The Great Gatsby, or more aptly, ‘The Very Good Gatsby’, has Baz Luhrmann’s influence etched all over it, which by no means is a bad thing. Luhrmann, who had previously worked with DiCaprio on Romeo + Juliet, and whose recent directorial credits have included historical epic Australia and the extravagant Moulin Rouge!, certainly knows how to put on show — and more than anything else, The Great Gatsby is a spectacle. Everything from the acting to the set pieces to the costume design to the cinematography is set to full throttle here, as Luhrmann shows no restraint in his direction. And it needs to be this way: the man whose life the film centres on is an over-the-top, charismatic individual and therefore a film without extravagance would not have worked as well. Luhrmann puts the “Great” in The Great Gatsby, because had this film been anything different, it would probably have just been “Gatsby”.

“Jay Gatsby sure is tall.”

At a fairly substantial two hours and 20 minutes (or so) long, The Great Gatsby never really seems to let the pace drop which is a credit to Luhrmann and the writers, as too many lulls in the proceedings would have turned the film into a less-than-dramatic portrayal of a wealthy individual’s life. Personally, I feel that between the half hour and hour mark, there were a few extra-long party scenes which may have benefited from being trimmed down a little, but as I mentioned beforehand this may have taken a snippet of the excessive nature of the film away, a nature which The Great Gatsby relies on to be a success. The difference between, for example, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (which, do not get me wrong, I enjoyed a lot) and The Great Gatsby is that just about every scene Luhrmann directs in Gatsby fulfils a necessary purpose in the plot, whereas An Unexpected Journey includes scenes which are, though entertaining, completely unneeded.

Since last working with Baz Luhrmann on Romeo + Juliet, Leonardo DiCaprio has moulded himself into one of the best actors in Hollywood at present (the best, for my money) and delivers another convincing, flamboyant performance as Jay Gatsby — a man who, on the exterior seems to have it all and lives the picturesque, glamorous life, whereas on the inside is broken and partially empty without the woman he has missed for five years. The mystique surrounding Gatsby during the first twenty minutes to half an hour of the film is very well executed, as he is a man seldom seen but mentioned very often, and spoke about with passion and awe. Tobey Maguire does a fine job carrying the film throughout the opening half hour or so, however as soon as DiCaprio arrives on the screen the film appears to move up another level (if that is even possible in a Baz Luhrmann offering). DiCaprio exudes importance and slickness as Gatsby and, as someone who has never read the book, completely sold me on the character. Tobey Maguire narrates the film very effectively and his voice never seems to make the film drag at any point. His on-screen acting is solid, much like it normally is, with himself and DiCaprio developing an intriguing dynamic throughout the piece (it is cool to see the two share the big screen together, having been very close friends since the early nineties). Carey Mulligan is elegance personified, balancing the correct amount of strength and frailty between her scenes with Gatsby and her husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton — who is part of a very strong supporting cast boasting the likes of Isla Fisher).

“Good day, old spore.” “For the hundredth time it’s ‘sport’ – not ‘spore’!”

Much has been said about the modern soundtrack to the film which contains the likes of Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Lana Del Ray. Personally, I did not see a problem with it, in fact it gave The Great Gatsby an extra oomph which 1920s music would more than likely have withheld from offering. Although the film is set over ninety years ago, Luhrmann’s narrative provides modernity and the cinematography creates a classic-yet-fresh vibe throughout. The costume design harks back to the Roaring Twenties (I remember them well) without making the characters look outdated, and this is down to the bright colours — that pink suit Gatsby is wearing is a show-stealer — and the intricate details of each piece of clothing. The set design throughout the film is to the highest standard which helps to create that party atmosphere associated with Gatsby — by contrast, the Valley of Ashes (an industrial works situated between New York City and Long Island) has all the grit, sweat and coal required to reinforce that everything must begin from the bottom and work its way up, echoing the life of Gatsby.

Without giving any spoilers away (yes, there will be people who know nothing about with plot — much like myself beforehand), in a film where hope appears to dwindle throughout — and I stress ‘appears’ — the final few scenes were very well delivered in my eyes, with Tobey Maguire’s narration concluding the film in a seamless manner. The very philosophical final few moments essentially provide the basis for what has gone on throughout the film, which, at heart, is much more about desire and soul than extravagance and dazzling lights.

“Think we get to keep the car?”

One criticism which I do have is that, on a few occasions, the editing seems a touch off (when Gatsby and Carraway are in the car), but this is more of an annoyance than a significant error. Overall, in regards to such criticism as the film prefers style over substance, I do not believe this to be the case and that the substance is in there, just not always as apparent due to the overload of style. For rather than meaning the style completely overawes the substance, it signals that Luhrmann has done a tremendous job in creating a mysterious and distant Gatsby on the outside, who has bolted up his emotion on the inside — much like Gatsby is looking to rediscover that emotion he has long withheld since losing Daisy, the viewer must find the substance in the film for themselves.

Baz Luhrmann has been vindicated in summoning another Gatsby out of the ashes, as The Great Gatsby is a well-directed mesh of extravagance, emotion and booming life throughout the 1920s, all patched together triumphantly by way off Tobey Maguire’s narration as Nick Carraway, and wonderfully acted at the hands of the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio.