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 was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.

This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t enco…

Seems silly, doesn't it? A wedding. Given everything that's going on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010)
(SPOILERS) What’s good in the first part of the dubiously split (of course it was done for the art) final instalment in the Harry Potter saga is very good, let down somewhat by decisions to include material that would otherwise have been rightly excised and the sometimes-meandering travelogue. Even there, aspects of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I can be quite rewarding, taking on the tone of an apocalyptic ‘70s aftermath movie or episode of Survivors (the original version), as our teenage heroes (some now twentysomethings) sleep rough, squabble, and try to salvage a plan. The main problem is that the frequently strong material requires a robust structure to get the best from it.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his…

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.