Midnight Special (2016)

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

MIDNIGHT SPECIALadamdriverAndjaedenlieberher

Movie “mash-ups” are a hallmark of our Postmodern era.  It is as if everything that has come before in cinema has been collectively smashed into pieces, and filmmakers freely pick up whatever shards they like and combine them to make something new.  It doesn’t matter if the pieces are recognizable, nor is it necessary to justify the appropriation by calling it an “homage.” This is, arguably, how it should be.  Each generation redefines the culture on their own terms, and it has always been standard practice for artists to “borrow” from those who have exerted a strong influence over their own work.  However, when they are not driven by a cohesive vision that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, far too many films fall short, no matter how sincere their creator’s intentions may be.  Unfortunately, “Midnight Special,” the newest feature from writer/director Jeff Nichols, is one of them.

Drawing heavily on the work of Steven Spielberg in his heyday, it combines several genres- chiefly science fiction and family drama- to tell the story of Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy with mysterious powers who has been kidnapped by his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), from the compound of a religious cult that believes he is their only hope to survive the imminent apocalypse.  With the help of an accomplice, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), the fugitives flee across the country in an attempt to reunite with the boy’s mother (Kirsten Dunst) and journey towards a mysterious destination to which Alton’s visions seem to be leading them- all the while trying to stay ahead of the cult’s operatives as well as a government task force, spearheaded by Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), that wants to find Alton for reasons of their own.

There are a lot of threads to follow in “Midnight Special.”  Nichols takes his time unraveling them for us, and doles out information sparingly as he goes.  In the first few minutes, he effectively introduces us to the main elements of his premise; from this point on, however, his film develops into a continuing series of complications, each one serving only to lead to the next, while offering only the merest scraps of information about the deeper mystery at the heart of the proceedings.  By the time we get to the big revelation- which is simply announced to us, somewhat anti-climactically- we have already been led through so many confusing turns that it’s difficult to still be invested in the outcome.

Of course, anyone familiar with Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” will sense from early on where the story is going.  “Midnight Special” has so many echoes of that classic (among others) that it is hard not to compare the two works.  To go into detail about the connections would spoil the current film, but it is worth noting that the things that make Spielberg’s movie so memorable are painfully absent here.  The sense of adventure is replaced by a feeling of impending doom; and although both movies center on families threatened and pulled apart by momentous events, “Close Encounters” nevertheless manages to be joyous and fun while “Midnight Special” struggles to stay just this side of despair.  It’s fair to say that they are different movies from different eras, but one still cannot help but think that Nichols movie takes itself far more seriously than needed.

It’s not the fault of the cast, who mostly deliver heartfelt performances.  Young Lieberher is engaging and likable while still managing to be suitably grave.  As his adult protectors, Shannon, Dunst, and Edgerton all play admirably against sentimentality, and if they come off as unrelentingly dour it seems more a function of the script and direction than the integrity of their work.  As the cult leader, the venerable Sam Shepard (whose presence underscores strong parallels with another vintage film, Daniel Petrie’s “Resurrection”) provides understated sorrow instead of predictable menace.  The standout performance, though, comes from Driver, whose turn as the government expert trying to unlock Alton’s secrets evokes the wonder and excitement so sorely missing from the rest of the film.  His screen time is all too brief.

“Midnight Special” is not a complete failure; it offers an intriguing exploration of the way that belief- whether in religion, science, or worldly concerns- can keep us blinded to truths that lay outside our understanding, and it avoids pandering to its audience with easy answers or familiar clichés.  In the end, though, there is little payoff for these ruminations, and the movie leaves us wondering far more about the details of its plot than the implications of its ideas.  It disappoints us more than it challenges us- and considering the sources from which it draws its inspiration, it is a strong disappointment, indeed.

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Days of Heaven (1978)

Days of Heaven (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Days of Heaven, the 1978 second feature by director Terrence Malick, featuring a young Richard Gere alongside Brooke Adams and actor/playwright Sam Shepard in an elegiac tale of two migrant workers who scheme to con a dying farmer out of his fortune on the early-20th-century Texas panhandle.  Universally lauded for its visual beauty, it was nevertheless snubbed at the time of its release by critics who found it shallow and unengaging; in the years since, however, it has come to be recognized as one of the best films of the seventies, perhaps partly due to a two-decade hiatus taken by its director following its completion, during which time a sense of nostalgic retrospect- coupled with wide exposure on art-house cinema screens, cable TV, and home video- prompted a re-evaluation of its merits.

Set in 1916, Days of Heaven unfolds mostly through its visuals and the overdubbed commentary of Linda, the younger sister of its lead male character.  The movie opens in Chicago, where Bill, a short-tempered steel mill laborer, accidentally kills his foreman in an on-the-job fight.  Fleeing the scene, the young man collects his sister and his girlfriend, Abby, and the trio jumps a train with dozens of other poor laborers seeking opportunities in the wide-open spaces of the American Midwest.  Their journey takes them to the expansive plains of the Texas panhandle, where they find work as harvesters alongside other migrants on a large wheat plantation owned by a shy and sickly young farmer.  To avoid talk among the other workers, the unmarried young couple pose as brother and sister, and for awhile the little makeshift family finds a sort of idyllic peace in their simple existence here, despite the grueling and dangerous work required of them, and despite a growing interest in Abby from the lonely young farmer.  When Bill accidentally overhears a conversation in which a visiting doctor informs the farmer that an unspecified illness leaves him only a few months to live, the ambitious and opportunistic young laborer begins to concoct a scheme by which he and his companions might trick the dying man into leaving them his considerable fortune.  He encourages Abby to accept the farmer’s advances; she does so, reluctantly at first, but gradually warms to him as their relationship progresses.  All goes according to plan- the farmer marries Abby, and moves her into his house along with her supposed siblings- but as time passes and his health remains stable, the delicate balance of this romantic triangle grows ever more precarious.  With Abby’s feelings becoming more and more conflicted, and the suspicions of the farmer’s trusted foreman threatening to expose the plot, Bill’s jealousy and impatience grow, and he begins to contemplate other means of removing their gullible benefactor from the picture.

Director Malick, who earned a degree in philosophy before turning to filmmaking, had made an impressive debut with Badlands, a 1973 drama starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a young couple on a crime spree; produced independently, it garnered such acclaim at the New York Film Festival that Warner Brothers bought the distribution rights for three times the amount it cost to make.  For his follow-up project, Malick teamed with producer Bert Schneider, who negotiated a deal with Paramount Studios in which he and the director would be given complete artistic control over the project; the studio paid for the film, with Schneider agreeing to cover any amount spent beyond the allotted budget.  Malick, meanwhile, developed his vision for Days of Heaven with acclaimed Spanish-born cinematographer Nestor Almendros, drawing inspiration from paintings by Andrew Wyeth (specifically “Christina’s World”) and Edward Hopper (“The House by the Railroad,” an iconic image upon which the farm house in the film was based) and planning a narrative presented more through imagery than dialogue.   Filming took place in Alberta, Canada, despite the Texas setting, and thanks to Malick’s and Almendros’ wish to shoot mostly during the so-called “magic hours” (the 20-or-so minutes around sunrise and sunset) in order to capitalize on the special quality of light present at these times, it was a painstakingly slow and frustrating process for the actors and crew.  Things were made worse by Malick’s unorthodox shooting schedule, in which he would frequently diverge from the loosely organized daily plan according to his own whims and changing ideas; this caused expensive delays, as did the director’s choice partway through production to jettison his scripted dialogue and allow the actors to craft the story through guided improvisation.  In the end, the project went severely over budget- Schneider had to mortgage his house in order to live up to his deal with the studio- and took so long to complete that key participants (including Almendros) had to leave in order to fulfill other commitments.  To further exacerbate matters, Malick then took two full years to piece together the movie from the miles of footage he had shot; a full year after filming wrapped, he had to call his actors to Los Angeles in order to shoot assorted pick-up shots, famously including close-ups of Sam Shepard taken under a freeway overpass and an underwater take of Richard Gere’s submerging face captured in a large aquarium in Sissy Spacek’s living room.  When Days of Heaven was finally finished and released, the lavish praise it received for its visuals was undermined by the mixed critical reactions to its content, and though it turned a small profit at the box office, it was widely considered a financial failure.

Nevertheless, all the painstaking work undertaken by its director, maddening as his process may have been to his colleagues and his studio, resulted in a film of breathtaking beauty, and though its simple story is seen as if through a prism, detached from the reality of its circumstances and affecting our emotions only obliquely as we take in the wonder of the pretty pageant displayed before us, it nevertheless has a cumulative power that strikes deeply resonant chords within us.  It’s not a deep tale, and its inescapable conclusion is obvious to us even as its premise develops, but that is part of the movie’s haunting charm.  Our intellect is not the target, but rather our senses, and through them that deeper level of understanding where we can appreciate the profound beauty of sadness.  For sadness is the overpowering emotion in Days of Heaven, creeping around the edges of every scene, even those full of joy; it comes from the implicit knowledge that everything is temporary, that the world is in a constant state of change- a theme underlined by the importance of the seasons in the life of the farm, the ominous juxtaposition of industrial age machinery in the pastoral life of its workers, the certainty that the security of regular wages will come to an end with the harvest, and the specter of death that haunts the doomed farmer.  It is exuded in Linda’s narration, filled with wistful nostalgia and philosophical observation rather than direct reminiscence, and it is inherent in the entire situation presented by the film’s central plot- a timeless and oft-repeated saga of the heart being subjugated for worldly gain, of people yearning and struggling for a life better than the one they know, in which brief happiness is attained and lost by all involved.  Days of Heaven, ultimately, is a meditation on the transience of all worldly things, almost biblical in its message; indeed, the title itself is a scriptural reference, and biblical connections are conjured by a number of elements, not the least of which is a plague of locusts that settles on the farm during the film’s climax.  It is not, however, a preachy polemic warning us of the wages of sin, but rather an invitation to embrace life in all its pleasure and its pain, to appreciate the good moments as they come and weather the bad ones with the knowledge that they, too, shall pass; most of all, it is an evocation of things past, a commentary on the repetitive and universal patterns of human behavior, and a chance to mourn our own losses and celebrate our own memories.

Malick’s success at realizing his vision- laborious and, perhaps, badly organized as it was- cannot be denied, nor can credit be denied him for making a film of such unique and delicate beauty; it would be wrong, however, to ignore the tremendous contribution of cinematographer Nestor Almendros on the artistic success of Days of Heaven.  He worked extensively with Malick from the beginning of the process, having been chosen by the director for his earlier efforts (particularly The Wild Child, a 1970 effort by French master François Truffaut, with whom Almendros had a long-standing professional relationship); the two men were much in tune with each other’s sensibilities, and Almendros was impressed by Malick’s knowledge and understanding of cinematography, both technically and aesthetically.  Their collaboration and the loosely-structured, improvisational process they used in creating the all-important look of the film may have led to dissatisfaction and frustration among the rest of the crew (there were claims that the two men “didn’t know what they were doing”), but it resulted in a truly stunning visual experience that still ranks as one of the most gorgeous films ever shot.  Malick’s vision works because of the power of the imagery which Almendros helped him to realize, deliberately drawn from the painters which first inspired the film- not only the aforementioned Wyeth and Hopper, but Johannes Vermeer and other old masters, whose distinctive visual style is referenced throughout in the play of light and shadow- and the techniques of silent filmmaking, with its penchant for the ethereal qualities of natural lighting and its reliance on the importance of wordless storytelling; indeed, these infusions are a perfect fit with the period and setting of Days of Heaven, enhancing its sense of time and place trapped in a bottle, and giving it a magical, shimmering quality that pervades even its earthy and most brutal moments.  The achievement is more remarkable because not only was Almendros, as a foreign national, not allowed to operate the camera himself (due to union regulations), he was also beginning to lose his eyesight at the time, and had to prepare the shots in advance with the cameraman by taking polaroids of the set-ups and studying them through his glasses. It is important to note, in the interest of giving full credit where it is due, that another legendary cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, was brought in to complete the shooting process when Almendros had to leave; the two worked together for a week ahead of time, and Wexler made every effort to duplicate the style that his predecessor had set for the film.  Unfortunately, though over half the footage in the completed movie was shot by Wexler (according to his own letter to critic Roger Ebert), he received credit only for “Additional Photography,” rendering him ineligible to share the Academy Award ultimately received for the cinematography in Days of Heaven.  This oversight resulted in some degree of controversy within the industry, but it has been widely acknowledged by all involved parties that both men played an important role in bringing Malick’s opus to the screen, and the work that they did stands among the best in either of their careers.

Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World," the painting that primarily inspired Malick to make "Days of Heaven."

Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World,” the painting that primarily inspired Malick to make Days of Heaven

Edward Hopper's "House by the Railroad," another important visual influence on Days of Heaven

Edward Hopper’s “House by the Railroad,” another important visual influence on Days of Heaven

The magic of Days of Heaven is also bolstered immeasurably by Ennio Morricone’s ethereal score, borrowing from Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Aquarium” (from Carnival of the Animals), which is played over the film’s main tiles, and carrying its mood and motifs into the original music he provides for the narrative.  The remarkably authentic period atmosphere is made possible largely through the costumes designed by Patricia Norris, which she made with old fabric and used clothing items, giving everything a faded look of well-worn realism; also important here are the authentic period vehicles- everything from early automobiles to monolithic farm equipment to a bi-plane carrying a troupe of traveling entertainers- and, most prominently, the farm house, designed and constructed by Jack Fisk, which dominates the landscape of the film, both physically and psychologically, built from plywood and fully dressed with period detail inside and out.  This latter piece was used to film both exterior and interior scenes (a rare occurrence; standard practice, especially at the time, would be to shoot the interiors on a set in a soundstage) and leaves a lingering impression on the memory well after the film has faded to its final close.  It is, in its way, as iconic a structure as the house from Hitchcock’s Psycho (also based, coincidentally, on a painting by Hopper), and gives Days of Heaven a concrete center, a simple, serviceable image rich with multiple layers of symbolic meaning.  Finally, the cast cannot be overlooked.  Though Malick sought to evoke memories of the silent era, there is no bombastic posturing here, no emotional histrionics; instead, his players complement his elegantly simple plot with performances of equal simplicity, avoiding bravura displays and offering instead a low-key naturalism which implies volumes through its very restraint- likely a result of the improvisational nature of Malick’s shooting process.  All four principals give unforgettable performances; Brooke Adams provides a heartbreaking balance of pragmatism and romance as Abby, Linda Manz is hard-shelled but touching as the worldly-wise-before-her-time Linda, Sam Shepard mixes melancholy and earnestness into an appealing package as the unnamed farmer, and Richard Gere uses his almost impossible physical beauty as a powerful tool both to express a genuinely good nature and to mask the darkness brooding inside it in his portrait of the charismatic Bill.  Mention should also go to Robert Wilke, the craggy-faced character actor who manages to touch us deeply in his brief screen time as the farmer’s loyal foreman and surrogate father figure.

Terrence Malick, after Days of Heaven, spent twenty years as a virtual recluse from the movie industry, finally returning in 1998 with The Thin Red Line, a WWII drama which sharply divided critics who found it either a masterpiece or a pretentious sham.  The same response, by and large, has been generated by his subsequent films.  For many, myself included, the jury remains out on whether he is in fact a genius or a charlatan; but regardless of any assessment of his later work, Days of Heaven– especially taken in combination with his earlier Badlands- is more than enough to ensure his status as a true cinematic master.  The way it uses imagery to convey its story, as well as its underlying subtext and the thematic elements which drive it, is a rare and remarkable achievement in utilizing the full power of cinema as a visual medium, and the magnificent beauty of that imagery is still unsurpassed over thirty years later.  Those seeking a passionate romance, with all the typical heart-tugging excesses of standard Hollywood fare, are likely to find it a cold and distant experience, like watching fish behind the glass of an aquarium- a comparison that is, upon reflection, more apt (and less critical) than it might seem.  Malick’s triangulated tale of tragic love is more compassionate for being less sentimental, more deeply moving in its preoccupation with the surface than any number of films that strive to explore the inner experiences of its characters; though it has all the makings of a melodrama, it is a tale without heroes, heroines, or villains, and its characters all contain elements of each, making it impossible to take sides or to judge their actions.  Through the director’s well-considered lens he shows us life, plain and simple, using his art as a means to reveal beauty rather than to manipulate emotion.  As a result, though we may feel somewhat removed from the events and characters, they have the unmistakable ring of truth, and our reactions to them are as honest as they come; for this reason, I count Days of Heaven as one of my personal favorite films, and despite my ambivalent feelings towards its director, consider him one of the greatest filmmakers of his time.  I don’t like to make hyperbolic proclamations like that, so coming from me, you can consider it a pretty strong recommendation.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077405/?ref_=sr_1

 

 

Paris, Texas (1984)

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Today’s cinema adventure: Paris, Texas, director Wim Wenders’ elegiac drama that swept the 1984 Cannes Film Festival and has consistently remained on most critics’ “Best of” lists ever since.  Adapted by L.M. Kit Carson from a screenplay by esteemed playwright Sam Shepard, it tells the story of Travis, a middle-aged man who walks out of the Texas desert after disappearing for four years and, after reuniting with his brother’s family, slowly begins the effort of restoring his shattered life.  Through this simple synopsis, Wenders executes a masterful, character-driven exploration of subjects, allowing the mystery of Travis’ past to unfold through the players’ interactions and reminiscences as they take awkward steps to move towards an uncertain future- and using the microcosmic drama to stir powerfully resonant themes and conjure deep, universal emotions.  A collection of superb performances makes it all work beautifully, from veteran character actor Dean Stockwell as Travis’ well-meaning brother to newcomer Hunter Carson (son of the film’s screenwriter Carson and actress Karen Black) as the child rebuilding a relationship with a father he doesn’t remember; Nastassja Kinski, whose star turn doesn’t come until late in the film, beautifully captures the emotional fragility of a woman confronted with a past she has tried to forget (though I can’t help nit-picking that her German accent sometimes distorts an otherwise acceptable Texas drawl).  It is, however, the remarkable presence of Harry Dean Stanton, as Travis, upon which the film hangs: from the opening moments when he purposefully stumbles out of the blasted Texas landscape, he is utterly compelling, allowing his droopy, hang-dog features and his simple, unaffected delivery to express a dazzlingly complex spectrum of emotions.  It is a performance which few actors could accomplish, and the fact that it was not even nominated for an Oscar is one of those glaring omissions that makes the entire idea of Hollywood awards seem suspect and vaguely ridiculous.  Beyond the cerebral and emotional riches provided by Paris, Texas, it delivers a visual beauty thanks to the stunning cinematography of longtime Wenders collaborator Robby Müller, which captures a remarkable array of iconic American backdrops- the dusty vastness of the southwestern desert, the scenic experiences of the endless cross-country highway, the bland familiarity of suburbia, and the contrasting elegance and squalor of the big city- giving this jointly-French-and-German-produced film a distinctly American flavor rarely captured by domestic cinema.  Despite these lavish praises, this movie is probably not for everyone: viewers with a short attention span may find the leisurely pace a bit grueling (particularly in the climactic sequence, which is comprised mostly of long, lamenting monologues performed in a claustrophobic setting), and those who seek a clear-cut, definitive resolution from their entertainment may be left unsatisfied by the mixed emotions which cascade around its ambiguous conclusion.  Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine a more exemplary piece of filmmaking than Paris, Texas, and it is easy to see why it became one of the most influential and revered pieces of cinema to come out of the eighties.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0087884/