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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.

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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]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Catches Up With Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings

I missed Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings when it was released back in December, 2014, and the film’s dismal reviews kept me from rushing to watch it on DVD or streaming.  But there was no way I could altogether skip a new film from Ridley Scott, one of the greatest directors working today.  After recently re-watching Mr. Scott’s brilliant adaptation of The Martian (actually, the new Extended Cut of that film, about which I might write more soon) I decided the time had come to give Exodus: Gods and Kings a try.

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The film is a sort of action-adventure version of the Exodus story from the Bible.  When the film opens, we meet Moses (Christian Bale) as a young adult, the happy adopted son on the Pharaoh of Egypt.  He and his brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are close and, in one of the film’s opening sequences, they ride off to war together on behalf of their father, the Pharaoh.  But a prophecy given by one of the Pharaoh’s priests threatens the bond between the half-brothers Moses and Ramses.  When Moses agrees to do a favor for his brother by taking on a thankless assignment to visit the city of Hebrew slaves, he begins to discover his true heritage.  You pretty much know how the story unfolds from there.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is an interesting movie.  It’s certainly not entirely successful, but neither is it the train-wreck catastrophe I had expected from all the original reviews.

What’s most curious about the film is the way that Mr. Scott (and the phalanx of screenwriters credited on the film) have taken the Biblical Moses story and reshaped it into, well, into Gladiator (Mr. Scott’s very successful 2000 film starring Russell Crowe).  The whole set-up is almost exactly the same.  Two almost-brothers have been raised by a powerful king.  The brothers begin the story close, but a wedge is driven between them when it turns out that the king favors his adopted almost-son over his flesh and blood heir.  Said adopted son is a cunning warrior and noble and honest to a fault.  After the death of the king, the actual son assumes power, and very soon after an attempt is made on the life of the noble almost-son, who survives when everyone believes him dead and is driven into exile.  Eventually, events conspire to bring the brothers back together in a confrontation that will result in the ultimate defeat of the now power-mad actual brother.

Am I exaggerating?  That description is almost exactly the story of both Gladiator and Exodus: Gods and Kings.

The funny thing is, while much of what we see in Exodus: Gods and Kings has been dramatically … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Black Mass

Black Mass tells the story of Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, the Boston crime boss who, for twenty years, was allowed to operate and consolidate power in Boston by the local branch of the FBI because of Bulger’s secret role as an FBI informant, helping the FBI work against the Italian mafia.  The film, directed by Scott Cooper and written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, is based on the 2001 book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill.

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Black Mass is a solid crime flick.  The film follows a fairly familiar rise-and-fall-of-the-criminal story-arc that you will recognize if you’ve ever seen a movie of this type before.  There’s none of the exciting originality found in the work of, say, crime-master Martin Scorsese.  But don’t sell Black Mass short just because it’s not as great as a movie made by one of the most brilliant masters of this genre!  It’s an intelligently made drama/thriller that I enjoyed.

Johnny Depp is in the lead role as Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, and wow, I had just about given up on Johnny Depp’s ever actually acting in a film again (as opposed to the clownish make-up-laden shenanigans he’s been up to for the past decade or so).  OK, this role is heavily dependent on make-up, too, but still, this feels to me like the first real, honest performance Mr. Depp has given in a long time, and it’s a delight to see.  Jimmy is a monster, but Mr. Depp keeps the performance very restrained and internal.  Just watch his eyes — cold and calculating and hard.  I am happy to say that I have once again enjoyed a Johnny Depp performance.

But what surprised me about the film is that, in the end, it’s not really about Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger at all.  Johnny Depp is great, but Jimmy doesn’t have much of a character arc in the film.  He’s a scary psychopathic bastard when we first meet him, and he’s a scary psychopathic bastard at the end of the movie.  No, the film is really about Jimmy’s childhood friend from Southie, now FBI agent, Jack Connolly, played magnificently by Joel Edgerton.  It’s Jack who is at the heart of the film, coming up with a scheme that he felt would allow him to honor his personal code of loyalty to his friend from the neighborhood while also advancing within the FBI, a scheme that takes him far… until it all falls apart.  Mr. Edgerton is terrific, compelling and horrifying and empathetic all at once.  The film stakes at a clear position that Jack wasn’t a patsy taken advantage of by Jimmy, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow has directed some terrific films.  I’m a sucker for Strange Days (the futuristic sci-film from 1995, written by James Cameron and starring Ralph Fiennes) and The Hurt Locker (click here for my review) was terrific, but I’d say with Zero Dark Thirty she has made her masterpiece.

Based on true events (though to what extent the film is completely factually accurate seems to be a subject of much debate — more on that in just a minute), the film begins on September 11th, 2001. Over a black screen, we hear intercut bits of dialogue — mostly phone calls — of panicked people on that terrible day.  The film takes us through the long hunt for Osama bin Laden until May 2, 2011 — almost a full decade later — when he was shot and killed in a Pakistani compound by US forces.  The focus of the film is on a woman named Maya (we never learn her last name), played by Jessica Chastain.  A CIA operative, when we first meet her in 2003, she has been assigned to the US embassy in Pakistan, with her focus being the hunt for bin Laden.  In several difficult-t0-watch early sequences in the film, Maya observes a fellow operative, Dan (Jason Clarke), torturing a detainee with suspected ties to al-Qaeda.  One tidbit of information that he mentions turns into the breadcrumb that Maya spends years following, trying in many different ways to turn a potential hint of a lead into something concrete.

The film is an incredibly complex piece of work.  For almost three full hours, we live with Maya through the myriad twists and turns of the CIA’s investigations during their hunt for bin Laden.  The film piles on the details, not in a confusing way but rather in a way that illuminates the insanely daunting needle-in-a-haystack nature of the search.  Kathryn Bigelow’s patient, taut direction works in perfect concert with Mark Boal’s dense, sophisticated script to bring all these details to life and to make them sing.  It is in the accumulation of details, in the way the film thrusts us into the head-spinningly complex web of secrets and doubts in which Maya and her fellow CIA investigators must live as they push forward their work, that the film weaves its magic and the story gains its power.

This is not a film for someone not willing to pay attention.  The movie does not spell everything out for the audience.  (I was reminded of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in the way the film throws around names and terminology without bothering to explain things, immersing the audience in the jargon of this world.)  There are many characters in … [continued]