Skip to main content

You all have no idea what you're dealing with, do you?

Midnight Special
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Midnight Special sadly isn’t all that special. It seems those ‘80s movies that inspired him didn’t rubbed off enough to leave writer-director Jeff Nichols with a remotely affecting plot, let alone one eliciting a sense of wonder. A chase thriller that is only sporadically thrilling, and a science fiction mystery that turns out not to be so mysterious, there’s no doubting Nichols’ talent as a director, but I’m less convinced of his touch when embracing genre trappings.


The picture is at its most effective during the opening stages, with the encouraging decision to set the wheels of this road movie in motion midway through events; Roy (Michael Shannon), his son and prodigy Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and state trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are fleeing the arms of the law, and the cult that has been Alton’s enforced home, courtesy of its leader Calvin (Sam Shepard). We know Alton is special, we just don’t know quite how; the NSA is interested, as Calvin’s sermons have been dropping coded official secrets. Whatever is going on?


Intriguing as the set up is, the anticipation soon dissipates. Alton is some kind of next level, highly advanced indigo child, prone to bouts light streaming from his eyes (or having them merely glow in uncanny Village of the Damned fashion), an ability to touch others to their core (the details are vague) and an antenna that picks up signals (as such, his speaking in tongues is revealed as altogether mundane). Alton isn’t really all that fascinating beyond his party tricks, particularly since, like E.T. and (the main template for Nichols) Starman, he just wants to go “home” (and, as with Close Encounters, he must journey to a specific spot to do so).


There’s nothing wrong with the performances. Lieberher gives another strong showing following St. Vincent. Edgerton apparently stuffed himself with pies before arriving on set each morning. Dunst seems a bit haggard, no doubt in the name of her art. Shannon acts slightly mental (so no change there). But none of them have been given engaging characters. You expect some nourishment of backstory or character development for Lucas, justifying Edgerton’s presence, but it never comes. Llike the realm Alton is bound for, they are wilfully oblique, but not in that way that can sometimes be rewarding, where less is more because it invites you to speculate and piques the imagination.


As such, one rather gets the feeling Nichols had no ideas beyond the limited ones he voices. Hence the rather lame denouement, as Alton joins his people, the ones who live above us and watch us (effectively in a different dimension, co-existing with our own). It’s Tomorrowland redux, right down to the futuristic architecture and these more advanced beings’ blithe indifference to the fate of wretchedly average Earthlings. What’s Nichols trying to say with that? Has he thought about it? He doesn’t consciously seem to be invoking the Rand-ian reading Tomorrowand invited, but it’s still a bit whiffy.


Also in the equation is Adam Driver’s benign NSA agent, unable to rise above memories of similar ‘70s and ‘80s characters, be they played by Peter Coyote or Bob Balaban or… usually Bob Balaban. There’s the occasional strong, energised episode in its favour, such as the sequence where Alton is snatched back by Calvin’s minions, or a satellite falling to earth at a service station, or the climactic road block. There’s also a fine Carpenter-esque score, from regular Nichols composer David Wingo.


Unfortunately, the latter just adds to the feeling of unworthy homage. Midnight Special is as cap-doffing as JJ Abrams’ Super 8, but shamefacedly so, attempting to be a little more indie as a counterbalance (too often, Nichols mistakes mood for content, where the mood is mostly dead space). In doing so, he only highlights the picture’s essential emptiness. It’s as if he really wanted to make a sombre, downbeat movie, something closer to, say, The Dead Zone in chilly texture than the bittersweet warmth Starman, and found his intentions muddled by themes of family and transcendence. His last picture, Mud, was highly impressive, so perhaps Loving (also due this year, also with Shannon and Edgerton, but a straight drama) will see him regain his form.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

If you could just tell me what those eyes have seen.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Rodriguez’ film of James Cameron’s at-one-stage-planned film of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm on the one hand doesn’t feel overly like a Rodriguez film, in that it’s quite polished, so certainly not of the sort he’s been making of late – definitely a plus – but on the other, it doesn’t feel particularly like a Jimbo flick either. What it does well, it mostly does very well – the action, despite being as thoroughly steeped in CGI as Avatar – but many of its other elements, from plotting to character to romance, are patchy or generic at best. Despite that, there’s something likeable about the whole ludicrously expensive enterprise that is Alita: Battle Angel, a willingness to be its own kind of distinctive misfit misfire.

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

Even after a stake was driven through its heart, there’s still interest.

Prediction 2019 Oscars
Shockingly, as in I’m usually much further behind, I’ve missed out on only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees– Vice isn’t yet my vice, it seems – in what is being suggested, with some justification, as a difficult year to call. That might make for must-see appeal, if anyone actually cared about the movies jostling for pole position. If it were between Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody (if they were even sufficiently up to snuff to deserve a nod in the first place), there might be a strange fascination, but Joe Public don’t care about Roma, underlined by it being on Netflix and stillconspicuously avoided by subscribers (if it were otherwise, they’d be crowing about viewing figures; it’s no Bird Box, that’s for sure).

You use a scalpel. I prefer a hammer.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
(SPOILERS) The latest instalment of the impossibly consistent in quality Mission: Impossible franchise has been hailed as the best yet, and with but a single dud among the sextet that’s a considerable accolade. I’m not sure it's entirely deserved – there’s a particular repeated thematic blunder designed to add some weight in a "hero's validation" sense that not only falls flat, but also actively detracts from the whole – but as a piece of action filmmaking, returning director Christopher McQuarrie has done it again. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is an incredible accomplishment, the best of its ilk this side of Mad Max: Fury Road.