Tag: Jeff Nichols

Loving

 

lovingJeff Nichols is a restless director and certainly not one to bed-down in any single genre. He has plumbed the depths of the psychological thriller in Take Shelter, wrangled the stars in the coming-of-age drama of Mud, and more recently pushed the envelope with the sci-fi road-film, Midnight Special. He is certainly one of the more versatile directors working today, and in his latest outing, Loving, the enigmatic auteur tackles racial injustice.

Based on a true story about an unlawful interracial marriage, Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga bring performances that are both powerful and understated. In 1958, before America’s civil rights revolution, Richard Loving (Edgerton) married Mildred Jeter (Negga) in Washington DC, where interracial marriages were legal.  However, on their return home to Virginia where interracial marriages were not permitted, they were met with legal road-blocks as the state saw to throw them out under threat of imprisonment. Years of legal and social tumult saw their case taken all the way to the Supreme Court, where the couple’s relationship finally prompted the overturning of those laws nationwide.

Loving is a film that is surprisingly non-belligerent in tone, despite the outrageous injustice of its subject matter – America’s historical treatment of race. Instead it calmly states its case and proceeds to leave the histrionics to the viewer. It is a slow burn that is satisfyingly sure of itself. What is remarkable is the bold move to not only explore the boundaries of racial segregation but also comment on gender politics.  Typically the husband is seen as the enduring pillar of strength, fighting the good fight, while the wife plays a passively supportive role. Here, it is increasingly apparent that the real hero of Loving is Mildred as she begins to take control of their situation herself. Nichols masterfully presents this visually, as Mildred becomes more and more centred in the film’s frame (observe at the image above) and Edgerton is gently ushered to the margins. The diminutive Negga returns the favour by giving a wonderfully authentic performance that no doubt draws from her own experience as a child of mixed race (being of Ethiopian and Irish descent).

Nichols’ muse, Michael Shannon (who I could listen to read the phonebook), pops in for a cameo as a photographer for Life magazine. His big screen presence is perhaps the film’s only distraction in a story that, despite its subdued telling, is an enlightening glimpse into America’s checkered past and is well worth the watch.

Rating: 4 constitutional laws out of 5.

You can see the published review here.

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Midnight Special

The sci-fi genre tends to put my cynical filmic sensibilities on high alert. More often than not, the genre offers cinema an easy vehicle for over-bloated visual bombast. But every so often a film comes along that is carefully considered and more concerned about its characters than the audience’s wallet — Alex Garland’s Ex Machina and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin are excellent recent examples of this. Given its pedigree, I was very hopeful that Midnight Special would join this good company.

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (MudTake Shelter), Midnight Special has just run its course on the screens of this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival. Fear not if you missed it there, as it has just been released on DVD and some streaming providers. Set in the present, the plot centres around Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) who is a 9-year-old boy with special powers. His father Roy (Michael Shannon) helps him flee a doomsday cult in order to get him to an undisclosed “destination” (a place that ostensibly operates as the film’s MacGuffin). Lucas (Joel Edgerton) is a family friend who helps the pair flee and reunite with the boy’s mother (Kirsten Dunst). Meanwhile, Sevier (Adam Driver) is an NSA agent trying to investigate the nature of Alton’s powers.

For the most part, Midnight Special is a solid piece of entertainment. It is very well acted and Nichols successfully squeezes fantastic performances out of Shannon and Dunst, employing a relatively slim script and a very vivid form of visual storytelling. The economy of dialogue complements the brooding soundtrack that builds tension and a foreboding sense of dread as the film progresses.

However, the film is not without its frustrations. Nichols, intentionally or not, has made a film that mixes its genres; Midnight Special is part sci-fi, part family drama, and also has elements of a superhero origins story. The juggling of genres confuses the film’s identity rather than forming it, and the result is an uneasy mix of unfinished narrative threads and a blow-out of characters that are crying out to be explored in far greater depth. This unfortunately obstructed what may have been a very personal experience had more attention been given to a smaller number of players.

Very good in parts, but ultimately Midnight Special feels more like a missed opportunity than a cinematic triumph.

Rating: 3/5 stars.

Read the published review here.

Mud

Film two on my Film Fest list was Jeff Nichols’ Mud. This has been a while coming but finally I saw this last Saturday with Seema. We both saw Nichols’ previous film, Take Shelter, a few months back and loved it. Mud has a similar tone and pace to Take Shelter although its subject matter is quite different. I won’t go into the plot as you can pretty much gather this from trailer below. Suffice to say that this is an excellent film that had me engrossed from start to finish. Superbly shot, timed, with authentic attention given to its characters. Worth also mentioning the excellent acting by the two main protagonists Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Perhaps the slightly over explained and contrived ending was the only let-down … I would’ve preferred more mystery. But this is a minor quibble in what was a suberb film. I cant wait to see what Nichols comes up with next.

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Tonight’s NZIFF film is Mistaken for Strangers. Will report on this tomorrow hopefully.

Perks of Taking Shelter

It been a couple of weeks since my last update. It is the beginning of term and so my focus has shifted towards my thesis and the cinema of Aronofsky. Things might be a little sporadic this year. To that end, I have recently revisited Aronofsky’s Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain. I had forgotten just how good The Fountain is. Perhaps the end is a little overworked, but other than that, it is a masterpiece. I’m starting to snuggle my thoughts into the idea that Aronofsky’s films are examples of “cinema of absent presence”. A concept that I was introduced to in Dillon’s book The Solaris Effect. He examines how Tarkovsky, in his film Solaris, explored the relationship the viewer has with the screen fiction being observed; experiencing a reality, but in fact only observing celluloid. Woody Allen more directly explored similar ideas in The Purple Rose of Cairo and I believe Aronofsky is, perhaps unintentionally, stepping on similar grounds. Four of his five films appear to explore the haves and have-nots of cinema, and this is the direction I seem to be currently heading.

Of other films I have recently seen …

Jeff Nichol’s Take Shelter; I have heard a lot about Jeff Nichols but this is the first film of his that I’ve seen. Michael Shannon does an impressive job playing Curtis, a blue-collar worker who starts to suffer panic attacks resulting in visions and paranoia. The ensuing strained relationship with his wife is equally impressively played by Jessica Chastain. Perhaps a little overdrawn, this film is for the most part a superb and unique portrayal of a very real mental illness. Rating here.

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Take Shelter

The Perks of Being a Wallflower; “I feel … infinite”, a sentiment expressed by Charlie (played by Logan Lerman), which so aptly describes that feeling of youth. A kind of invincibility that we all felt when we were in that limbo period between child and adult. My brother described Perks as being a current day The Breakfast Club (despite being set in roughly the same era), which tonally describes this film well. There is, however, a lot more going on in this film. Directed and written (both book and screenplay) by Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, centers around Charlie. An awkward freshman desperate to fit in, he falls in with a group of empowering but quirky seniors. The film beautifully develops its characters and unfolds Charlie’s darker mysteries with good consideration. I found Perks to be well balanced, really well acted, and for me will probably be the surprise of the year … but to be fair I wasn’t expecting much. Rating here.

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower