Midnight Special (2016)

I’m not quite sure the extent to which this film has penetrated mainstream consciousness, but like Jeff Nichols’s last film Mud (2012), everyone in the critical community (and online chatterers such as myself) is talking about Midnight Special. Now, I didn’t like Mud, for the most part due to its reliance on coming-of-age archetypes, though I admired the way it opened its story, and its sense of place. Nichols hasn’t strayed too far away geographically for this latest film (it starts in Texas), and again his storytelling instincts are very strong: there’s a palpable sense of mystery and threat that hovers over much of the film from the outset. This may partially be because I didn’t know anything about the film or its subject matter in advance, but really there’s so much mystery embedded in the film — mystery which is never fully resolved — that it creates a strong desire in the audience to want to know more.

Quite whether you’ll be satisfied with how Nichols’s screenplay answers that desire is going to be a matter of difference (I’m not quite sure I am), but the acting within those key roles is rock solid, particularly from the dependably intense Michael Shannon as Roy, and Joel Edgerton as his childhood friend Lucas. We open on a cultish religious community, from whom has been kidnapped a boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher); the kidnappers are Roy and Lucas, and Alton turns out to be Roy’s son. This is all set out fairly quickly, but there’s clearly a lot more behind this fairly straightforward set-up, something touching on profound mysteries involving the boy, his origins and powers. In a sense, it’s like a science-fiction blockbuster film refashioned as a low-key indie road movie, which gives it a fascinating dynamic that some have linked to cerebral 70s efforts like those of Steven Spielberg, though perhaps his more recent work A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2000) would be more apposite — Lieberher reminds me particularly of that film’s Haley Joel Osment in both looks and the mysterious blankness of his character.

For me it’s a flawed film with a lot of ambition, but it has the filmmaking nous to be able to realise what it sets out to achieve, especially in those opening stretches.

Midnight Special (2016)CREDITS
Director/Writer Jeff Nichols; Cinematographer Adam Stone; Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 11 April 2016.

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While We’re Young (2014)

Another story of the New York middle classes from its latter-day poet laureate Noah Baumbach, and however insufferable one might expect it to be, While We’re Young actually treads a rather fine and well-judged line for much of its running time. The overall impression by the end is of it being more a drama than a comedy thanks to its extensive disquisition on ethics in documentary filmmaking, but in getting there it does a good deal of wryly amusing legwork as established filmmaker Ben Stiller finds himself being usurped by young pretender Adam Driver. It’s at its strongest in observing the generational differences between Stiller and his wife Naomi Watts, and Driver and his wife Amanda Seyfried, as the older couple find themselves inspired and energised by their youthful counterparts (I suppose one would call them hipsters). Unlike some of the film’s reviewers, I don’t find them particularly ridiculous, but it’s in the nature of Stiller’s characters to overanalyse such things to the point of ridiculousness, and at that he remains a master. Still, I do prefer Baumbach’s looser collaborations with Greta Gerwig (most recently, Mistress America).

While We're Young film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Noah Baumbach; Cinematographer Sam Levy; Starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 21 December 2015.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Finally, the review I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for, as undoubtedly you’ve all been hanging back, waiting cautiously about whether to see this film on the basis of my verdict. Well, I can unequivocally state that if you are fond of George Lucas’s original trilogy, then you’ll enjoy this new instalment from the auteur behind Star Trek Into Darkness, whereas if you are at best ambivalent about his franchise’s politically retrogressive and genocidally destructive worldview, then… it’s probably not for you? On the plus side is the welcome focus on three new and diverse young protagonists — Daisy Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn, and Oscar Isaac’s Poe. There are some heartwarming reappearances by original cast members, and there are more silly chirruping droids. Plotwise, it feels of a piece with the original film, but the spoiler police are out in force on this one, so I’m not going to go into detail and, frankly, I’m not even sure I could. Suffice to say I laughed at a joke about the Force, and in general there’s a good sense of bonhomie amid the good-vs-evil derring-do.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens film posterCREDITS
Director J.J. Abrams; Writers Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams and Michael Arndt; Cinematographer Dan Mindel; Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Sunday 20 December 2015.

Tracks (2013)

I don’t really understand why the concept of ‘spoilers’ and the avoidance of them has become such a big issue nowadays; I’m quite sure it wasn’t this way when I was younger. It feels to me like an extension of that infantilising idea that people need things signposted, as if they can’t be trusted to figure out by themselves that their coffee will be hot or that a review of a film might disclose some plot points. I won’t for example let you in on what happened in the last episode of Game of Thrones, suffice to say that having intentionally spoilered myself as to what happens, I could still enjoy (or, you know, not enjoy) the staging of the events, because most of the power of filmmaking (to me, anyway) lies outside what actually happens. In any case, this is all a rather roundabout way of saying that Tracks, an Australian film about a woman walking across the country’s desert, isn’t really about what happens and is by its nature pretty resistant to the idea of spoilers. I feel confident in fact that I could tell you how it ends (I won’t) without it affecting your enjoyment of the film, because it really is — as the title suggests — all about the journey.

That journey is one that took place in 1977, as Robyn Davidson resolved that she would walk from Alice Springs (in the centre of the country) across the desert as far as the Indian Ocean, a journey of several thousand miles. I might try to ascribe this quest to a certain directionlessness in her life, except that she is very single-mindedly focused on achieving her ambition, whatever vague reasons she may have for it (her parents had taken similar journeys, and there are teasing hints throughout the film, via flashbacks and memories, that she is still processing and working through the death of her mother). In any case, having made this resolution, she puts it into action and spends a few years in Alice Springs, acclimatising herself to the desert and working at camel farms learning how to train and ride camels to accompany her on the journey.

Some of the posters prominently feature Adam Driver as National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan, but his role is fairly minor in the scheme of things — he drops in and out of Robyn’s life during her nine-month trek — and the relationship between him and Robyn is hardly dwelt upon. This is not a story about two people in love, and very thankful we can all be for that. If anything, it’s Robyn’s faithful dog which provides the more compelling relationship and provokes rather more pathos than anything Rick does (even some of the camels have more personality, though I don’t mean to demean Driver’s performance: he does well within the limited context of his scenes).

The trailer I’ve seen (and that gratuitous King’s Speech namedrop on the poster), too, seems to present this as some feelgood story of Outback camaraderie and local colour — the kind of sentimental angle that would usually raise alarm bells with me, fears that we’d get a dose of ‘magic realism’ and the spurious new-age spirituality that often accompanies stories of white people moving amongst native cultures. Yet, again, none of these fears are realised, and though Davidson’s peripatetic journey does indeed bring her into contact with a wide range of people, it’s all presented in an uninflected matter-of-fact way. There’s still a fundamental decency to all the supporting characters, even under the solitary prickliness that some of them exude, and if I do broadly find these interactions heart-warming, after a fashion, it’s never melodramatically forced.

No, this is very much Mia Wasikowska’s film as Robyn, about a woman who decides to do something, for her own reasons, by herself, and achieves it. Wasikowska is an actor I’ve grown to really enjoy over the last couple of years, as she’s made a name for herself in films, and this film really highlights all the wonderful subtlety of her acting. So much of her journey is internal (again, the kind of thing that could go so wrong in a film, but which is well-handled here), that you need an actor capable of conveying that and Wasikowska is exactly right. I should say a few words about the director too, whose only previous film I’d seen was his debut, Praise (1998), which got a release in New Zealand when I was a young film student and which made a few waves over in that part of the world for its frank depiction of grungy young directionless lives with a vibrancy that belied its depressing themes. As I hope I’ve conveyed already, Curran has found exactly the right tone here for material that could have been pulled in all kinds of inferior directions (whether feelgood shmaltz or bleak loneliness of the soul), even if the journey itself is filmed in a fairly straightforward way. Then again, perhaps you don’t need narrative tricksiness when you have this kind of expansively beautiful setting.

For a film that could easily have been boring or plodding, or have tried to melodramatically force in some kind of spiritual awakening or overdetermined meaning to the journey, Tracks is never dull. It’s a heartening corrective to so many macho stories of journeys of testosterone-fuelled bravado. The character of Davidson never allows herself to be forced into conventional gender frameworks; this is a human story of determination, served best by its excellent central performance.

Tracks film posterCREDITS
Director John Curran; Writer Marion Nelson (based on the memoir by Robyn Davidson); Cinematographer Mandy Walker; Starring Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Saturday 27 April 2014.