Midnight Special (2016)

★★★★

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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.

Man of Steel (2013)

★★

Man of Steel PosterDirector: Zack Snyder

Release Date: June 14th, 2013 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon

Batman fans, close your ears. It’s time to come clean: Zack Snyder has a very iffy track record. For every ingenious graphic novel re-imagining there’s a hollow sucker punch. Presently, we can only cross our limbs loyal to Nolan and hope for a Snyder hit in 2016, but if his upcoming superhero face-off is anything like Man of Steel, it’d be best to quell those dreams. This Superman reboot isn’t anything to scream about, not unless those screams are riddled with unsavoury expletives. There are one or two great moments that only serve to thicken Snyder’s woes, acting as snippets of what could have been. Rather, what we see is disjointed, all-too-familiar and far too reliant on CGI. Never has a superhero gallivant felt like nothing more than just an opening act. And a pretty measly one, at that.

Having been sent to Earth by his parents during the destruction of planet Krypton, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) has grown up as an outsider surrounded by humanity. Displaying otherworldly powers, Clark eventually discovers the truth behind his own origin but is encouraged to retain secrecy. That is, until General Zod (Michael Shannon) threatens to harvest Earth and terraform the planet for the benefit of his and Clark’s Kryptonian race. Buoyed on by a robust moral code and assurances from journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams), the newly christened Superman must live up to his moniker.

In its primitive stages, Man of Steel is caressed by a solid narrative basis. We watch Clark’s early journey through life, sometimes in the form of flashbacks that are invariably effective. His struggles to adapt are pitted against an authentic prerogative to help others. As a child he rescues a bus-full of school compatriots yet instantly reverts back into an attitude funded by reclusion. It’s not instantly clear why, but we soon realise. (“People are afraid of what they don’t understand.”) The superhero genre is fully literate when it comes to principle-juggling and any subsequent strands of righteousness, therefore these elements ought to be employed with a twist. Sadly this one’s on the straight and narrow.

Despite being touted as one of 2013’s biggest extravaganzas prior to release, the outing carries an inertness that compromises any ingenuity. David S. Goyer’s screenplay is bombarded by exposition from the get-go, so much so that what we’re watching feels like an hour long prelude to proceedings when in fact, said time frame is the opening to the main event. There’s a lot of talk about genetic codices. Other than his commonly applied Superman title, our lead has two further names bestowed upon him: Clark and Kal-El. He also seemingly vacuums his way through an inordinate amount of jobs, from fisherman to military aider. All of this time spent building up the central character is unnecessary. As opposed to presenting Superman/Clark/Kal-El within a context of effective simplicity, Goyer’s script tends to opt for overcomplicating matters.

By the time we meet love interest Lois Lane the film has gone through a descriptive rigour. From what appears to be an unduly long opening act, events meander into a CGI-stuffed conclusion, equally unnecessary in length. A whole central act is missing, one that should cement our character’s mindsets and throw up internal hostilities. Lois goes from an investigative reporter interested in Clark’s uncanny abilities to his romantic concern after only a single scene — if not for Amy Adams’ charm infusion, her character would’ve been as pithy as they come. This is a two hour film that flies by, but not in a fun-induced fully-engrossing manner. Instead, lost narrative chunks highlight a lack of meaty content. Forget drama, the filmmakers’ seem satisfied with generic set-up and action.

And there is a lot of action. On occasion, the film sends out pleas for resuscitation through energetic sequences and flamboyant visual turns. Apart from all the bombastic alien light shows and exotic explosions (did somebody invite Michael Bay over?) Man of Steel purveys a gritty realism that actually works in its favour. Snyder utilises shaky cam and a monochromatic colour pallet as a means to present Superman within realistic boundaries, an attempt to show the apparently indestructible being as quite possibly human after all. It’s a shame that CGI-gorging eventually prevails in a display of all-encompassing consumption. One fight scene towards the end is particularly unforgivable in its obvious computerisation. Realism is substituted for video game-esque exaggerations, removing rather than endearing us to goings-on. Perhaps Snyder is indulging himself here — he certainly loves his ‘low, rapidly approaching blast of wind’ camera shots.

Michael Shannon is a left-field choice to play the main villain General Zod, but a choice that transpires to be the best thing about Man of Steel. His arrival on Earth is greeted with discomforting eeriness, the “You are not alone” telecast proving to be one of the film’s most successful moments in terms of emotional circulation. Sporting a peculiar white goatee, Shannon is domineering as Zod, facial expressions stoic and purposeful, overcoming the infrequent dialogue faux-pas. (“Release the world engine” might be the least intimidating line a villain has ever uttered when in the process of launching a deadly attack.) Dawning the red cape, Henry Cavill also does well. It’s a huge role and he isn’t afforded much to sink his teeth into, but the Brit relays just enough of a charismatic glimpse to signal a productive future. Russell Crowe manifests every now and then as Superman’s biological father, his efforts wholesome but not entirely effective. Frostiness battles affection, and the former usually wins.

Zack Snyder’s Superman revival is weighed down by a tendency to streamline towards convention. The film is essentially a carbon copy of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, only it severely lacks the Norse God’s raucous charm and humour. Here, superficial reigns supreme. Wearing more than few chinks in the armour, Man of Steel is a bit of a dud.

Man of Steel - Henry Cavill

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Mud (2013)

★★★★★

Director: Jeff Nichols

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

Genre: Drama

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon

“Well ain’t that somethin’?”

Matthew McConaughey’s would-be convict Mud appreciates the trivial simplicities of life: a boat for crossing water, food to quench hunger and loyalty in a time of need. What else if not the bare minimum, would a man of his troubles seek refuge amongst? His runaway status evokes moral juggling — do you root for the criminal, or sentence the lover? Jeff Nichols’ admirable tale of two boys who tend to see the best in otherwise dour surroundings works well on a number of narratively distinct levels. However it’s only when each aspect blends with the other elements above, below and to either side that Mud emerges from good film status, to really great film status.

And that most definitely is something.

Ellis and Neckbone spend their days stretching their curfews to the maximum in the jungle-like plains of Arkansas. They’re young, ambitious and boast that primitive exuberance driven by the desire to learn and discover, an energy that only fully manifests out on the edge of civilisation, where uninhabited landscapes taunt with hidden secrets. On another planned excavation to an abandoned boat planted high in a tree, the boys encounter the mysterious Mud: grizzled, somewhat wearisome yet poised and alert. From then, perhaps partly captivated by the stranger who appears to be the ultimate wild-man and also drawn upon the notion of trust, optimism and loyalty, Ellis and Neckbone make it their prerogative to assist the moored Mud in his attempts to reconnect with the girlfriend he murdered a perpetrator to protect.

On full throttle through his self-professed McConaissance, Matthew McConaughey delivers another outstanding performance as the titular Mud. The romcom stalwart turned highly-rated ‘serious’ star has an underplayed role, seldom emitting bouts of raw emotion (although when he does, he succeeds). McConaughey is challenged opposite two younger actors; he must act as a buffer for their highly-spirited intuition whilst developing his own character’s persona simultaneously. It’s fitting that he is the centrepiece of the narrative, the proverbial glue holding everything together, however it should be noted that McConaughey is not the centrepiece of the film. That’s the pair of maturing youths, Ellis and Neckbone, both portrayed brilliantly and charmingly by Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland.

Ellis and Neckbone are instantly drawn to the rugged fugitive. Although indecisive (particularly Neckbone) the boys see something in Mud that they do not have in their own lives — a father figure. Ellis, parents’ relationship cracking, is often faced with a distant dad who worries more about his own future rather than that of his son. Neckbone lives with his uncle, an outgoing type resembling the cooler big brother as opposed to a caring father. Growing up in a masculine culture, one defined by putting food on the table, working and earning and treating women with utmost respect, Ellis sees hope in Mud’s outright optimism. Optimism for love and a secure relationship in the face of violence and restraint. Optimism for freedom against restriction. Tye Sheridan, who the camera follows more than anyone, holds his own in scenes opposite a multitude of big-name actors: other than McConaughey, the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson and Michael Shannon make up an efficient, talented supporting cast.

Stand by Me is an obvious comparison but the coming-of-age component is only one of two main plot lines, the other channelling a more commonly depicted fugitive (and subsequent search for) story. Mud, having murdered the man who impregnated the love of his life Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and later thrown her downstairs, has no allies. Police prompt his image in the faces of residents and passers-by. The father and brother of Mud’s victim spend their relentlessly watching Juniper, ready to pounce and eliminate the outcast on sight. Mud has done wrong, but his eloquent treatment of the two boys demands admiration. He becomes their guru, and a trusted one at that (“It’s a hell of a thing ain’t it?” Hell of a thing”). You want him to succeed, just as much as you root for Ellis and Neckbone in their numerous quests: for maturity, for relationship, for acceptance.

The two primary narratives amalgamate into one, creating a wonderful Winter’s BoneMoonrise Kingdom hybrid. Our main characters share a familier desire. Others are interested in self-preservation of body, property and history. There are even boats and water, a lot of it. The setting shares connotations with both films too, and is the very first nuance you are aware of as the outing begins. Shot beautifully by Adam Stone, the widespread landscapes juxtapose Mud’s isolation and loneliness, highlighting just how much he is hemmed in by a multitude of threats. His lack of ever-presence reinforces this idea of being trapped, and along with McConaughey’s composed-yet-ready-to-burst demeanour, you are always captivated by Mud and ultimately invested in his fate.

Jeff Nichols writes as eloquently as he directs. Camera enveloping atmosphere, words rhyming off lips propelled by their engrossing southern drawls, Nichols offers up a truly splendid piece of film. Alongside his young co-stars, McConaughey matches the excellence served up by his director and delivers on all fronts.

On present form, is there any stopping him?