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)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
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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Bachelorette (2012)

Like Bridesmaids before it, and the more recent film Sisters, Bachelorette is a comedy about adults misbehaving which is written by and primarily stars women, and which if written by and starring men would probably be atrocious. (These scenarios have almost certainly already been made in that guise. They probably star Vince Vaughn.)

Sadly, Bachelorette doesn’t quite attain the hilarity of those other films, but it’s also fascinating in a quite different way, because all the central characters are uniformly awful, unlikeable people. Sure, there’s a move towards softening some of these characteristics by the end (which, for a film about marriage and strained friendships, is of course a wedding), but that’s really just the very final scene (it’s a bit soppy). For the most part the film doesn’t spare these characters, and yet despite that, the film mostly kinda works.

As for the storyline, it’s Rebel Wilson’s Becky who’s getting married (Wilson sounding weird doing an American accent), but the film is most interested in her closest friends, Regan (Kirsten Dunst), Katie (Isla Fisher) and Gena (Lizzy Caplan), none of whom are particularly happy, and who manifest this in various ways. When they accidentally ruin the bride’s dress (for the benefit of a particularly nasty joke at Becky’s expense), they end up having to call in favours and run around figuring out how to fix it, and it’s this almost-slapstick set-up which is probably the weakest part of the film. However, there are plenty of observant moments for each of these characters, and the acting is of a high calibre, such that it’s never quite as bad as it feels it should be. It’s even a little bit refreshing.


Bachelorette (2012)

FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Leslye Headland (based on her play) | Cinematographer Doug Emmett | Starring Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, Isla Fisher, Rebel Wilson | Length 87 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Tuesday 5 January 2016

Upside Down (2012)

Sci-Fi-London Film Festival FESTIVAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Sci-Fi-London || Seen at Stratford Picturehouse, London, Sunday 4 May 2014 || My Rating 2 stars worth seeing


© Millennium Entertainment

I saw this as the closing film of London’s Sci-Fi Film Festival in May, and I was hoping to write about it earlier, but what I can say, it took me some time to come to terms with what must surely rank as the silliest film I’ve seen in the last year. There is quite a lot to enjoy in the film, especially at the level of set design, special effects and cinematography. Sadly this doesn’t extend to the script, with its ridiculously improbable physics and reliance on creaky plot devices that would have seemed cliched in a romantic movie of a hundred years ago and which lack the classic timelessness that perhaps the writer/director hoped for. It probably doesn’t help that the young leads — an English actor with whose work I was not previously familiar, and the perky Kirsten Dunst — don’t really have the charisma to make these lovers fully believable. However, the chief issue is also the central premise of the film: that there are two planets so closely interrelated that buildings can be constructed between the two, but between which characters are not allowed to travel (it’s the classic upstairs-downstairs class-based scenario). In some ways it’s a productive metaphor, this idea that different classes literally live on different planets which are nevertheless so close that they can be seen from one another. The two central characters thus only meet because they’ve managed to find a secretive mountaintop that brings them almost within touching distance — a mountaintop, it must be said, that only they appear to know about and which they seem to be able to reach at very short notice. And then there’s the way the gravitational pull of each planet exerts itself only over those who are from that place, along with an extra kicker that you gradually burn up the longer you spend away from your home, meaning our male protagonist must weight himself down in order to visit his beloved on her planet and can only be with her for a short time. Oh and the writer has added a bit of selective amnesia for the heroine. The more one thinks about these plot manipulations, the more one’s head hurts, but it’s never really possible to overlook them or excuse their stupidity, no matter how compelling the film can be in other respects. A noble failure, then, perhaps.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Juan Diego Solanas | Cinematographer Pierre Gill | Starring Jim Sturgess, Kirsten Dunst, Timothy Spall | Length 107 minutes

Anastasia (1997)


FILM REVIEW || Directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman | Writers Susan Gauthier, Bruce Graham, Bob Tzudiker, Noni White and Eric Tuchman | Starring John Cusack, Meg Ryan, Kirsten Dunst, Christopher Lloyd, Kelsey Grammer | Length 90 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), Friday 30 August 2013 || My Rating 2 stars worth seeing


© 20th Century Fox

I don’t choose every film I watch, and this was one my wife wanted to watch, so I’m going to keep this review fairly brief, as I confess I don’t have too much to say about it. I remember when I was a child really liking Don Bluth’s directorial debut The Secret of NIMH (1982) and watching it back-to-back several times one day, so I didn’t want to discount that this film 15 years on (and now over 15 years old itself) might be a good animated feature. And yet I feel a little disappointed by the result.

To a certain extent, I imagine some of my antipathy towards it comes with being somewhat older than I used to be. The animation is still beautifully clear, with little concession to changing trends in modern animation, though I recall one scene of Anastasia hurrying up a staircase that surprised me with an apparently unnecessary ‘crane shot’ (i.e. the film’s point of view mimicking a camera craning out and back). Other scenes integrate the ‘camerawork’ better, particularly some nice massed ball scenes in the Winter Palace near the start.

Where the film does follow trends is in its amalgam of action and song, as was the fashion in the popular Disney films of the 1990s. The music rather anchors it in its time period (when it was made, not when it’s set) and though the musical numbers aren’t too shabby, I still find myself a little underwhelmed.

And then there’s the history. Here I should mention the film’s plot — it follows the travails of the young Anastasia (voiced by Kirsten Dunst), Grand Duchess of the Imperial Russian family and daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, deposed by the 1917 Russian Revolution and executed. Almost ten years later, it transpires that Anastasia escaped but lost her memory and grew up in an orphanage as Anya (Meg Ryan). She meets a young man and con artist called Dimitri (John Cusack), who helps her to learn the truth about her identity and then aids her flight to Paris, where her grandmother lives and is offering a reward for Anastasia’s return.

It has now been definitively established (admittedly after the film was made) that Anastasia was shot with her family in 1918 by the Bolsheviks, but the legend that she survived has been persistent throughout the century as a sort of aspirational folktale. That said, you’d be hard-pressed to get any sense of the political events of Russia in this period from this film. The chief antagonist is Christopher Lloyd’s mad monk Rasputin, and it’s his curse that spurs the Revolution so it seems. When Anya comes to light again, he continues to pursue her.

Obviously, one shouldn’t get too hung up on the history in this kind of animated fantasy musical, but nevertheless the very gap between history and folk legend presented here is so wide as to make it rather ridiculous. That said, I imagine the film will please plenty of people who are perhaps closer to the target demographic, and indeed its box office figures at the time were very healthy. If you are able to put aside the questionable history and embrace the film’s wayward romanticism, you may really like it. I’ll just be the grump in the corner on this one.