Archive | January, 2019

Revisiting: Midnight Special

5 Jan

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

by Tanner Smith

Jeff Nichols (“Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” “Mud”) had two films released in 2016: “Midnight Special” and “Loving.” I initially gave three-and-a-half stars to “Midnight Special” and gave it credit for being what it was even if it didn’t exactly leave so much of an impact on me upon first viewing. And I gave four stars (my highest rating) to “Loving” simply for being a well-made drama with excellent acting and a timeless message.

How many times have I seen “Loving” since its original theatrical release two years ago? Once.

Now, how many times have I seen “Midnight Special” since its original release? About eight or nine. Maybe ten.

There are movies that I know are great because all the right elements are in place (and I’ll give them credit for that, hence my four-star review of “Loving”)…but with a lot of those movies, I feel like as time goes on, I realize they hardly require more than a couple viewings because once I have the movie I expect to be great, there aren’t many surprises. As a result, I “admire” the movie more than I “like” it.”

Then there are movies that I don’t have many expectations for or that I hardly know anything about, and then I get pleasantly surprised by what’s presented to me. Maybe I won’t think much of it at first, but as time goes on, I’ll feel the urge to watch it again and learn something more the second time. Then, I think to myself there’s probably far more here for which I originally gave credit. More time goes on, and I watch the movie a few more times, and I don’t realize until later…it’s becoming one of my new favorite movies.

That kind of movie is so fascinating, especially when I think back to when I originally saw it for the first time. Movies like “The Dirties,” “Whiplash,” “Ruby Sparks,” “Tex,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Thank You For Smoking,” “The Last Detail,” “Frances Ha”–all of these are among my favorite films now, and I wouldn’t have guessed upon first seeing them! They knew they were good…I didn’t know they’d become my faves!

My point is Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special” gets better and better each time I see it. His previous films–“Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” and “Mud”–are among my favorites, and I find myself thinking…I might actually like “Midnight Special” MORE than “Mud!” (And Midnight Special didn’t even make my best-films-of-2016 list!!)

“Midnight Special” is a sci-fi road-trip drama featuring two men who are on the run with a little boy (the son of one of the men) who seems to have special abilities. The government seeks him because he seems to possess secret information, the religious cult that held him and raised him want him back because they see him as a savior, and the boy’s father just wants to keep him safe.

“Midnight Special” was Nichols’ first studio achievement (making a film for Warner Bros.). And unlike many indie filmmakers who get their time to shine in the studio system, he was able to maintain final cut. (The budget needed for the production was small, so WB agreed to give him plenty of room.) Part of me doesn’t want to be so cynical as to how limited space directors are given when working in the mainstream…but another part of me truly appreciates the freedom that Nichols was given. At the very least, couldn’t you imagine the vagueness of this story’s execution thrown out the window for simple explanations? (At its worst, they probably would’ve had Adam Driver’s NSA character deliver every possible answer to each raised question, a la the psychiatrist’s deduction in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”)

What I love about “Midnight Special” is exactly that: its vagueness. There is development upon development upon development in this story, and none of it feels forced or tacked-on. It feels very well thought-out, and I admire Nichols for putting faith into his audience to stay with the oddness (and the realism added to the strange and unusual) all the way through to the end. Why is the boy wearing goggles? Why do his eyes glow? How is he able to do the things he does? How does he know what he knows? Why does the government want him so badly? What were the cult’s intentions? And so on. It’s a delight seeing this story unfold–instead of being angry for getting more questions than answers, I’m actually intrigued by what’s already happening in front of me. That’s a sign of great filmmaking (and it reminds me of why Nichols is one of my favorite filmmakers).

Even the characters are somewhat vague–we just know enough about why we should root for them and yet we have to fill in the blanks ourselves about what brought them here. That’s another thing I love about this movie: all the central characters–Roy (Michael Shannon), Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), and Sevier (Adam Driver)–are so interesting and beautifully realized while still leaving much for me to think about with them. I don’t know if I have everything right involving their backgrounds or even their true intentions…but it’s fun to think about.

All of that leads to the ending, which confused many people (and most critics who somewhat resemble people) even more than when “10 Cloverfield Lane” ultimately gave its audience what it was secretly building up to. Like “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “Midnight Special” ended its story with so much and yet so little at the same time.

Something else I love about this movie (and what I touched upon in the review originally) is the theme of parenthood. While the agents see this little boy as a weapon and the cult sees him as a savior, the heroes are the ones who want to look out for his wellbeing. And it’s during this journey that they have to ask themselves what truly is best for this special child. Even if Roy worries about him when he has no choice but to let him fulfill his destiny, he knows that’s part of being a parent as well.

However, that does lead me to my one little nitpick of the film. Alton’s mother, Sarah, reveals to Lucas in one line of dialogue that she was broken apart from the cult that raised him and that Roy couldn’t do anything but watch as the cult leader practically took him as his own. (This also indicates that Roy was part of the cult long before he met Sarah, and perhaps she ultimately didn’t belong.) “He watched another man raise Alton for two years–something I couldn’t even do.” She’s reunited with her son for less than 24 hours on this desperate trek when she realizes she may have to let him go. She’s the one to tell Roy that they all have to be ready to lose him… I don’t know if I buy her acceptance of that, considering she’s probably been leading a lonely life ever since she was separated from her son for two years. But still, that’s a minor nitpick I have with the film.

On a deeper level, “Midnight Special” is more than mainstream sci-fi entertainment. It’s a wonderful, brilliant film that deserves more credit than I originally gave it. Maybe someday, I’ll give “Midnight Special” the “Revised Review With Spoilers” treatment so that I can give a detailed analysis about what I think it all means, and thus, I can go into why I embrace this film wholeheartedly.

And maybe I should give Loving another viewing and “Revisit” it sometime soon…

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Revisiting: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

4 Jan

me-and-earl-and-the-dying-girl

by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING!!!

What is the purpose of my “Revised Reviews”? To express new thoughts about a particular film that are different from what I initially had. That’s the beauty of continually watching films–while the films themselves don’t change, our attitudes toward them do. We can praise films for being great and then in good time they can become some of our favorites. Or we can think less of them as time goes by. My personal favorite type of film is one I think is “OK” or “fine” at first but then gets better and better with each viewing, to the point where I can call it a “favorite.”

This is probably why it was a mistake to publicly post about my Top 250 Favorite Movies. Maybe the Top 100 was enough. Creating the Next Top 150 only meant many other films wouldn’t slip in over time. (Hell, there may even be a couple films that could sneak into the Top 100 over time. See what I mean?)

Anyway, I gave three stars to a 2015 indie comedy-drama called “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” and now I’d give it three-and-a-half. This is after watching it countless times since it was released.

How many three-star reviews have I written for movies that eventually ended up on my personal-favorites list? I’ve lost count.

Seriously, there’s The Dirties, Gremlins, The Monster Squad, Dazed and Confused, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, among others, that I’ve initially rated a measly 3 stars out of 4.

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” isn’t in my Top 250…but it might be in the Top 400 (if ever I make one…which I won’t…publicly…). But why?

While I praised the acting from the leads, the charming atmosphere, and the revealing bittersweet ending, I complained very much about two other things–I called them Excessive Comic Relief and Kind of Aware But Not Quite. For the former, I was referring to the side comedic characters (particularly those played by Nick Offerman and Molly Shannon) who seemed like they were there because there wasn’t enough comedy already given by the droll commentating lead character, his wisecracking best friend, their natural appeal & chemistry together, and especially the amateur home movies they make. (This is always my pet peeve in independent dramedies–a lot of them seem to have quirky side characters for the sake of…having quirky side characters.)

And yes, I’ve read the book this film is based on, written by Jesse Andrews who also penned the screenplay for this film adaptation. These characters work a little better in the book, but only slightly.

And for the latter, I was referring to the characters pointing out that they’re partaking in cliches that were done in other movies involving teenage friendships–just because you say you’re doing something doesn’t make it any different.

But I did mention a lot of the things that I did like about the film, hence the three-star recommendation. How was I supposed to know I would end up watching the film several times after, just for the things I really like about it?

What has grown on me with subsequent viewings? Well, for one, there’s the dialogue. I know I harped on a lot of the self-awareness of the characters, which much of the voiceover narration focuses upon, but when we actually get to see these kids as regular high-school kids, they sound very authentic (with a lot of intentionally awkward “uhs” and “ums” and stammers here or there) and have a lot to say. And as such, they’re not only likable–they’re real.

That’s another thing I like about the film: the lead characters are great! Greg (Thomas Mann) goes through a brilliant character arc in which he learns that he needs friendship in his life, and Earl (R.J. Cyler) knows he and Greg have been friends the whole time (even though Greg won’t acknowledge it) and ultimately becomes the one that has to talk sense to Greg. They make films and they go to high school, where they have very little social status, but they don’t take it all so seriously. And the more I watch the film, the more I realize how unserious they are in their filmmaking…and when you think about all the pretentious analyses we get from filmmakers and film scholars, especially from the indie film circuit nowadays, seeing these kids treat their films this way makes me smile.

Then there’s Rachel (Olivia Cooke), the titular dying girl. Critics complained that she’s more of an “idea” than a “person,” much like the dreaded Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope…THAT’S THE IDEA! We’re not supposed to know the real her–we’re supposed to get an idea of her: Greg’s idea. That way, when Greg realizes there’s so much more he could’ve known about her, it’s all the more tragic.

And I also like that it’s a film about friendship. It’s a film about a teenage boy and girl who form a relationship, but at no point are the two romantically linked. Maybe they could’ve been, if they had taken the time to get to know each other more and decided to take another risky step further. But then again, maybe they would’ve been fine as just friends. That’s not something you would expect in your average teen film, but there you are–this is not your average teen film. It’s better than that.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl got high honors at the Sundance Film Festival; it’s a shame it didn’t get higher praise for Oscar season (like Best Adapted Screenplay?). And for good reason–despite the heavy subject material of an awkward boy befriending a cancer-patient girl, the story is told effectively with useful benefits, instead of resorting to melodrama. It takes realistic characters and forces them to ask questions about themselves–about what they must go through at this crossroads in life, how they must react when someone is in turmoil, how useful they can be in certain situations, etc. and so on.

And the more times I watch this film, the more I think about THAT rather than the things I complain about.

To conclude, I also love this dialogue exchange, after Greg and Earl are accidentally stoned (don’t ask): GREG: You can’t tell them we’re on drugs. EARL: Why not? (pause) GREG: Because then they’ll know.

That line (“Because then they’ll know.”) makes me cry with laughter each time I hear it.