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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews Midnight Special

Jeff Nichols, amazingly, wrote and directed not one but two films that were released in 2016.  The second was Loving, a magnificent drama about Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple forbidden from marrying in Virginia, whose case eventually came before the Supreme Court in 1967.  I missed his first 2016 film, Midnight Special, when it was released to theatres earlier in the year, but I was delighted to catch up with it during my end-of-the-year catch-up rush before finalizing my Best Movies of 2016 list.

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

Midnight Special tells the story of a young boy, Alton Meyer, who appears to have some sort of special powers.  When the film opens, Alton’s father Roy (Michael Shannon) and friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are in hiding and on the run with Alton.  They seem to be trying to evade both government agents as well as members of a Texas cult in which Roy and Alton were once involved.  As Alton’s condition deteriorates and their pursuers close in, their situation becomes increasingly perilous.

Mr. Nicols’ film throws the audience right into the story in media res.  This is exciting, but also somewhat confusing and I found it took quite a while for me to have any sense of what was going on.  Part of this is on purpose, as Mr. Nichols’ story very slowly and methodically doles out information about Alton’s special nature and his and Roy’s past.  But I found I enjoyed the second half of the film, when I had a better understanding of the players and the stakes, more than I did the more opaque first half.

What I love best about Midnight Special is the tone, one that has a heaping helpful of nostalgia for the great sci-fi/fantasy Amblin Entertainment films of the eighties that involved kids and paranormal events.  But unlike a film such as J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (which I like a lot), which succeeds primarily as an exercise in nostalgia, Midnight Special also has an intensity and hand-held grittiness that made it feel very modern, very of-the-moment.  Mr. Nichols has done great work in striking this balance.

He’s assisted by the wonderful cast he has assembled.  Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Man of Steel, The Night Before) is always wonderful, and so no surprise he is terrific here as the main adult character.  Mr. Shannon’s intensity is always mesmerizing, and it’s nice to see that quality presented here in a heroic and noble character rather than a villain.  Roy is laser-focused on protecting his son Alton, no matter what happens to himself or anyone else, and Mr. Shannon’s powerful persona is well-harnessed for this character.

Joel Edgerton was one of the two lead … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Loving

Jeff Nichols’ film Loving tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving.  In the nineteen fifties, Richard, a white man, and Mildred, a black woman, fall in love and decide to get married.  They get married in Washington, DC, but their home state of Virginia outlaws interracial marriage.  They are arrested twice in Virginia and eventually, to avoid prison, they agree to leave Virginia for twenty-five years, abandoning their families and the lives they had known.  Their case eventually winds up before the Supreme Court, and the landmark 1967 decision Loving vs Virginia would invalidate all laws preventing interracial marriage.

Loving.cropped

This is an important story, and writer/director Jeff Nichols brings it to life with artistry and dignity.  (Mr. Nichols has unbelievably written and directed TWO 2016 films.  Earlier this year saw the release of the sci-fi story Midnight Special, a film that I have not yet seen but one to which I very much hope to catch up before finalizing my end of the year lists.)

Loving is anchored by the phenomenal performances of its two lead actors.  Ruth Negga plays Mildred.  I enjoyed her work on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (and apparently she was terrific in the first season of Preacher, which I have not yet seen but hope to), but this performance is leagues beyond what I have seen her do before.  With small gestures, Ms. Negga brings Mildred’s warmth and honesty and integrity to life.  Joel Edgerton, meanwhile, plays Richard.  This is an almost silent performance, as Richard is a man of very few words.  And yet, Mr. Edgerton’s work renders dialogue almost irrelevant, as he’s able to bring the audience right into Richard’s mind and heart.  What a joy it’s been to watch Mr. Edgerton’s work develop over the past decade.  He was wasted (as were much of his fellow cast-members, let’s be honest), in a tiny role as a young Owen Lars in Star Wars Episode II and III.  He was solid in Zero Dark Thirty and terrific in leading roles in Black Mass and Exodus: Gods and Kings, two not-great films in which he, nevertheless, shined.  Comparing his work here in Loving to his role in Exodus shows Mr. Edgerton’s range, as in Exodus he is all blustery talk while here in Loving he is quiet and internal.  The chemistry between Ms. Negga and Mr. Edgerton is wonderful, carrying the film on their shoulders.

Mr. Nichols avoids any Oscar-bait speechifying or other artificial, overly-grand silliness in his film.  There are no overly-caricaturized villains and while it is tough to watch at times, the film avoids the unpleasantness that some films focusing on the Civil Rights struggle of this era dive deeply … [continued]