Recap: Best of June 2017

the beguiled elle fanning nicole kidman moviesI did a lot of running around in June and didn’t make it to the movies much at all as a result. I still managed to introduce myself to some #cinema though. Here are the highlights.

Dogville (2003)
Directed by Lars von Trier

I still have a lot of Lars von Trier blind spots. I love Melancholia. I have mixed feelings about Nymphomaniac. I haven’t seen anything else except Dogville.

And Dogville, my friends, is very good. It’s a dark, nasty film. And it’s incredibly and thoroughly alive.

Kidman is absolutely fantastic here, and there’s a scene featuring her and Patricia Clarkson that I’ll be holding on to for quite some time.

The Beguiled  (2017)
Directed by Sofia Coppola

In May, I had a fabulous time watching Don Siegel’s The Beguiled. Then, in June, I had an equally fabulous (albeit, somewhat different) time watching Sofia Coppola’s.

Though more classy and more elegant than the ’71 version, Coppola’s The Beguiled doesn’t completely deny its more lurid origins. Where Siegel’s film goes to bed with pulp, Coppola’s often flirts with it instead. Both are valid takes on the story at hand, and examining the differences between them is worthwhile in and of itself.

I have yet to see Somewhere, but The Beguiled is one of Coppola’s very best as far as I’m concerned. Like much of her previous work, it’s “about” femininity, the underside of certain types of privilege, and the maddening power of boredom. A moody, Gothic-tinged, deeply psycho-sexual story is the perfect vehicle for such topics, which may be why The Beguiled feels more fully developed to me than a few of Coppola’s other films. It’s calculated, intelligent, and visually beautiful. It’s also surprisingly funny and features compelling performances from Kidman and Dunst.

Scarecrow (1973)
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg

Scarecrow is very sad and very well acted. Hackman is stellar, but Pacino is especially devastating. Schatzberg’s film also demonstrates a great deal of empathy and patience for its main characters, unfortunate individuals who it depicts tenderly and with considerable emotional detail.

I’ve never seen Midnight Cowboy, but maybe I don’t need to now.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Directed by Clint Eastwood

“She was trash.”

“Mo cuishle”

I cried.

E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982)
Directed by Steven Spielberg

I may have seen this as a kid, but I definitely didn’t watch it often, and I have no memory of ever making it through the whole thing until I caught it at The Egyptian in June.

It’s embarrassing how much of Spielberg’s work I haven’t seen. Fortunately, E.T. has encouraged me to do something about that. As most know by now, it’s a touching, delightful film that’s bursting with heart. It’s not the kind of movie that I want most days, but it’s a thing of beauty all the same.

Until Next Time
Best of May

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A Review of Jeff Nichols’s Midnight Special: A Solid Sci-Fi Drama about Family and Faith

Midnight

Film: Midnight Special
Director: Jeff Nichols
Primary Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Bill Camp, Paul Sparks, Sam Shepard
US Release Date: 18 Mar 2016 (limited, anyway)

An Amber Alert is issued for a missing Texas child. The boy is 8 years old. He has brown hair and blue eyes, but the local news stations are unable to provide a photo of him. His name is Alton Meyer (Lieberher). He was kidnapped from a cultish ranch by his father, Roy Tomlin (Shannon) with the help of a man named Lucas (Edgerton).

Alton is a quiet, intelligent boy, and his calm demeanor suggests that he may have been rescued rather than abducted. He wears blue goggles and sleeps during the day. He can’t be exposed to sunlight either. He also picks up all sort of information (government and otherwise) from satellites, radios, and more. He knows things he has no business knowing. He occasionally shoots blue light from his eyes. When this light connects with the eyes of other people, they see and feel things unlike anything they’ve ever known.

Roy and Lucas—and eventually, Alton’s mother Sarah (Dunst)—are on a mission to get Alton to some specific location by a specific date. Exactly why Alton needs to be there is not clear to any of them, but they all know that it’s important, and they are willing to risk their lives to make it happen.

As Roy and Lucas do their best to look after Alton while avoiding the authorities, the FBI interrogates the cult that he was once a part of, because classified government communications have been finding their way into leader Calvin Meyer’s (Shepard) sermons. An NSA agent named Paul Sevier (Driver) interviews Meyer, who claims that all of the information came directly from Alton. And as Sevier talks with more members of Meyer’s cult, it soon becomes apparent that they all view Alton as some sort of messiah.

Midnight Special is not perfect, but there is something special about it all the same. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter), the film presents an engaging parental drama under the guise of a science-fiction thriller. For all the inexplicable phenomena that it presents, Midnight Special is about faith, feelings, and family more than it is about superhuman powers or fantastical ideas. While not all of the script is as rock-solid, Nichols manages to present viewers with a distinct story that, for all its mysteries, still manages to feel familiar and approachable. Even if there are aspects of Midnight Special that could be considered lightweight, the film remains engaging and enjoyable all the same.

Midnight Special is not a typical sci-fi thriller. Though it’s far from a comedy, the film is lighter and less noticeably pessimistic (or nihilistic) than much of today’s science fiction. The film also lacks the cold and grandiose feel of genre blockbusters. Nichols uses action and fantasy elements throughout the film, but he does so judiciously, and the mysteries surrounding Alton’s abilities never take up so much space that they become the heart of the story.

There is enough interpretative potential in Midnight Special for different viewers to leave it having had very different experiences. For me, it’s primarily a tale about parents who love their unusual—and indeed, unfathomable—son enough to let him go. They do what is best for him, even though it causes them pain. They don’t question him. They have faith in him, because they love him. They listen, and they do their best, and they accept that they can’t ever fully control or know him. There’s more to the film than that, but that’s how I understand it.

Nichols’s focuses his sci-fi on a small handful of individuals; and by keeping the scope of his film relatively small, he increases its narrative efficacy and emotional power. There is no great evil in Midnight Special that threatens to destroy all of mankind. There is no universal human flaw that needs to be exposed. There is no real hopelessness either. Instead, there is a humble, and affecting tale about parenting, growing up, and about having faith in the ones we love. Instead of overwhelming his viewers or plunging them into despair, Nichols chooses to stimulate their imaginations while tugging at their hearts and while putting an only slightly sad smile on their faces.

When it comes to storytelling, Nichols reveals a steady hand and demonstrates that he doesn’t feel compelled to meet certain viewer expectations. Midnight Special may not be what many of today’s audience expect, but it also doesn’t try to be anything but itself. Nichols also has enough confidence in his story to reveal information gradually and naturally. He doesn’t overburden viewers with extraneous explanatory details that—while they might dispel certain questions—would do nothing to strengthen their emotional connection with the film. By withholding information about Alton and his other characters, Nichols also works to keep viewers as rapt as possible.

That said, there are places in Midnight Special’s script where additional information could have helped. Nichols is right not to slow his film’s pace by allowing it to become bogged down in the details of Alton’s upbringing, his origins, or of life on the ranch. However, the film may have been stronger if he’d taken the time to imbue his characters with a bit more depth. Throughout the film, I wanted to know more about both of Alton’s parents, and I especially wanted to hear more from Roy. A lot of Midnight Special takes place below the surface—in the interactions and glances shared between Roy, Lucas, Sarah, and Alton; and while this aspect of the film is largely effective, it would have been improved by some more overt character development.

Another aspect of the script that may inspire disappointment is its ending. As solid as much of Midnight Special is, its resolution is rather vague, and it’s unclear just how purposeful the details of it are.

And yet, even if Midnight Special’s final section may come as a letdown, I am not too bothered by it. The film’s aims are simple, and they have much more to do with bare emotions and wonder than they do with anything else. Those who are looking for more complexity and specificity will be the most bothered by the film’s refusal to delve too deeply into the details of its own tale, but those same people probably won’t like the rest of the film that much either. The end could have been better (though I’m not exactly sure how), but the resolution of its various mysteries doesn’t matter nearly as much as the people, the relationships, and the belief at the center of them. And besides, if no one who loves and tries to help Alton tries to fully understand him or to comprehend the precise nature of his abilities, then why on earth should viewers?

While none of the performances in Midnight Special are spectacular, they are all quite solid, and the film’s cast should be counted among its strengths. In my experience, Shannon and Edgerton are almost always good, and they both do quality work in Nichols’s film. This is especially true concerning Shannon (who was seen recently in 99 Homes); even when Nichols’s script fails to add much depth to Roy, Shannon manages bring a noticeable degree of weight and emotion to his scenes. At the same time, Dunst—who was particularly impressive in this year’s season of Fargo—also does a decent job with the material she is given, as does young Jaeden Lieberher.

For what it’s worth, I also enjoyed the dark, slick tone of Midnight Special. In addition to its story, such adjectives also apply to its images and to its score.

I knew virtually nothing about Midnight Special before going to see it. I hadn’t seen a trailer for it. I hadn’t even seen a promotional still. Fortunately, my ignorance was more than amply rewarded. I didn’t know what to expect from the film before watching it, and I was regularly surprised and delighted over the course of its running time. Though it doesn’t feel quite right to declare Nichols’s latest a “great film,” it is a surprising one. Parts of it do remind me a bit of The Twilight Zone and Looper (2012), but the majority of Midnight Special feels distinct and refreshing. The film is heartfelt, and it doesn’t fit any one particular mold—and that fact makes it worth watching even when the script is simpler or less developed than some might want.

Until Next Time
Thanks for stopping by! If you haven’t seen Midnight Special, I’d encourage you to give it a look (and feel free to return here with comments when you do).

I recently rewatched The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time in a couple of years. I’ve seen the movie more times than I know, and I’m intimately familiar with Tolkien’s novels. And yet, for some reason, this time around, Jackson’s film affected me much more than usual. This, along with the fact that I just really like Lord of the Rings, has me thinking that I should also rewatch The Two Towers and The Return of the King. If I do, I may try to make a post discussing my personal ranking of the trilogy—if I can even come up with one—so if that’s something you’d be interested in, let me know.

You should also follow this blog on twitter. (Just do it.)

Quick Reviews: The Two Faces of January and Barton Fink

the two faces of january and barton fink

There is still nothing worth seeing playing at my local theater. So here are some more reviews of films I watched during my Netflix adventures.

Up Today: The Two Faces of January and Barton Fink

Quick Take: The Two Faces of January is stylish, restrained, and unfortunately lackluster directorial debut from Hossein Amini that, despite a few flashes of potential and some decent acting, never really manages to hit its stride. Barton Fink is a well written black comedy that manages to strike a balance between nuance and absurdity that and explores ‘the life of the mind’ in an intelligent, satirical, and perfectly cynical way. 

The Two Faces of January (2014)
Directed by Hossein Amini
Watched on Feb 15

I had heard the word ‘Hitchcockian’ being thrown around with this film on the internet before I watched it. As a Hitchcock fan (and as someone who recently fell in love with the beautifully unsettling Hitchcockian film that is Stoker), such comparison inevitably got my hopes up, which may be partially to blame for my disappointment in the film. While there is really no sense comparing the two, The Two Faces of January lacks the depth and the well-crafted suspense of Hitchcock’s best works.

In fact, the best thing about The Two Faces of January is Oscar Issac’s face (close second: Viggo Mortensen smoking cigarettes); which is to say that, as beautiful and talented as Issac is, and as much as I enjoy Mortensen, Amini’s thriller/character study is largely forgettable and is unfortunately mundane.

Amini’s screenplay (which is an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith Novel) is at once flat and too obvious to really work. At times, The Two Faces of January seems determined to keep things as quiet and as subtle as possible; at others, it goes out of its way to make make certain aspects of the film (such as the similarities between Rydal’s father and MacFarland) so painfully apparent, that it renders them wholly uninteresting. The film’s overwrought deus ex machina ending is also a frustrating let down. While a great deal of The Two Faces of January seems determined to come off as elegant, subtle, stylish, and morally ambiguous, ham-fisted moments like its ending ultimately undermine and ruin what could have been a much more compelling and worthwhile film.

Still, Mortensen and Issac do bring a certain level of gravitas and magnetic presence to the film that help to keep it more-or-less watchable through it’s 97 minute running time. As the scammer/tour guide Rydal, Issac gives slick and magnetic performance that remains relatively strong despite the fact that the scenes between him and Dunst (who plays Colette, the wife of Mortensen’s character, Chester Macfarland) lack a certain genuine chemistry and contain virtually no sexual tension (though the plot leads one to believe that they were supposed to). That said, Mortensen gives what is surely the film’s strongest performance. As the wealthy con man McFarland, he runs the gamut from threatening and erratic to pathetic and inept quite beautifully. Several of the scenes between him and Issac are also quite good; the script and the final product simply do not live up to their abilities.

The Two Faces of January could have been an intriguing character study; the right material seems to be there somewhere beneath the surface, but it is grossly mishandled. While the film remains mostly OK regardless, it is simply too lackluster for my taste. Given the fact that Amini penned Drive (which I love) as well the fact that Mortensen and Issac are the incredible actors that they are, The Two Faces of January just isn’t good enough.

Barton Fink (1991)
Directed by Joel (and Ethan?) Coen
Watched on Feb 15

One of my many current film-watching goals is to finish the Coen Brothers’ filmography. There is a hopelessness and a darkness in their work that I respond well to, and their irreverent humor is certainly something that I am a fan of.

Anyway, before watching Barton Fink, my favorite Coen films were No Country for Old Men and Fargo. This is still the case. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by Barton Fink (which I knew almost nothing about before watching it). The film is puzzling, unsettling, and a tad repulsive, but in a good (read: intelligent and purposeful) way. It’s a well-crafted film that has “Coen” written all over it. And while I’m not racing to watch it again (with all the sweat, vomit, melting wall paper glue, and Barton Fink, there really is something sort of icky about this film), something tells me that it will only improve with further viewings—that is has more to say than one is likely to realize the first time that they watch it.

Barton Fink is an original and inspired (and dark, and twisted, and somewhat frustrated) work that combines a rich network of visual symbolism with deliberate (and often grotesque) stylization. The film explores a number of complex topics including (but not limited to) fascism and the failure to recognize it, writer’s block, a certain disconnect between ‘artists’ and reality, the relationship between high art and low art, and the disconnect (and intersections) between art and moneymaking. The film pokes wholes in just about every topic and type of person that it explores and does not mind if you come away from it loathing just about every character it portrays. While this film does feature memorable characters (the most important of which are Barton Fink himself and his hotel neighbor Charlie Meadows), it is not about them; they are simply the vehicles and the mouthpieces with which it explores much larger ideas and themes. No one in the film is particularly likable (whatever that means), given the film’s stance on the topics it tackles, it would not make sense for them to be.

John Tuturro and John Goodman both give excellent performances in this film. As the extremely self-involved and often terribly impotent playwright-turned-Hollywood-studio-writer Barton Fink, Tuturro completely disappears into his role. As Barton’s neighbor at the hellish and incredibly creepy Hotel Earle, John Goodman gives a complex and hard-to-forget performance; as Charlie Meadows, he often manages to be pathetic, sympathetic, and strangely frightening all at once. The scenes that feature both Barton and Charlie are some of the most thematically important in the film; thanks to the skill of Tuturro and Goodman they are also some of the film’s strongest and most memorable.

Whether one enjoys Barton Fink or not, the films certainly leaves one with the impression that it is a deliberately crafted work or art that has more than enough to say. While I understand that certain aspects of the film may turn off some viewers, I find myself hard-pressed not to call myself a fan of it. As hellish, as unsettling, and as sweaty as certain aspects Barton Fink are, I can’t help but feel a certain attraction toward a film that demonstrates as much intelligence, personality, and attention to detail as Barton Fink. (Given the widespread critical acclaim that it received upon its release, I am clearly no alone in this).

Fun fact: I graduated from the same school as Ethan Coen (as have a shit ton of other people). Someone tell him and convince him to give me a job :{ (that’s supposed to be a little emoticon idk). 

Until Next Time
Thank you so much for reading. If you are a regular follower of this blog, I’d also like to thank you for putting up with the occasional gap between posts. Additionally, despite the current string of reviews, I do intend to write more analytical/argumentative posts (I’ve said this before sorry). The problem is that I often wait until I am ‘inspired’ (gross, I know) to write them; so I may need to make an adjustment there.

And, as always, feel free to ask questions or share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!