“Midnight Special” (2016) starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kristen Dunst, & Adam Driver

From a local Texas news story, we learn that 8 y.o. Alton Meyer (Jaeden Martell) was been kidnapped by Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon). Alton (who doesn’t look hurt/scared) wears goggles over his eyes, headphones over his ears, and reads comic books. Roy has a friend, Lucas (Aussie actor Joel Edgerton), who is along on the road trip to Florida. Alton’s adopted father, Pastor Calvin Meyer (actor/playwright Sam Shepard; he passed away in 2017), is the leader of a religious cult (The Ranch). He sends two of his loyal followers, Doak (Bill Camp) and Levi (Scott Haze), to find and bring back the boy. Agent Miller (Paul Sparks) is on the case; The Ranch has raised the suspicion of the FBI in recent mos. (after members purchased many firearms). A young NSA agent, Paul Sevier, (Adam Driver), is flown in to lead the investigation. We will also meet Sarah (Kristen Dunst- understated w/ no make-up), a woman who left the cult.

This film (written/directed) by Jeff Nichols was shot in 40 days on a budget of just $18M. It still has the look (aside from the special effects) and feel of an indie, BUT was produced by Warner Bros. This is the 4th film where Nichols collaborated w/ Shannon (who came up from the Chicago theater world). I was quite impressed w/ Shannon when I saw him in Ramin Bahrani’s indie, 99 Homes (2014), co-starring Andrew Garfield. Before quarantine, I’d sometimes attend free/press screenings of films in/around DC. I’ve also seen him as the villain (Gen. Zod) in Man of Steel (2013) and as a sheriff in Nocturnal Animals (2016). He is tall w/ big/wide-set eyes and projects a lot of intensity.

I heard about this movie on a few podcasts (when it first came out); many critics praised it and referred to Nichols as an auteur (a filmmaker whose individual style and complete control over all elements of production give a film its personal and unique stamp). This film is moody, atmospheric, mysterious, and the characters usually express themselves (w/o saying much). Spielberg is (obviously) a big influence on Nichols, who wrote the screenplay after becoming a father for the first time. I learned that Nichols turned doing directing Aquaman– wow- b/c he prefers to work on his own (small) projects!

If you’re a fan of Driver, you’ll enjoy this movie. He looks youthful, cute in a relatable way (wears glasses and the clothes are a bit nerdy), and projects intelligence and open-mindedness. Yes, this is before he made it big as Kylo Ren. Nichols said that Sevier was influenced by Hopper (Richard Dreyfuss) in Jaws (1975) and Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)- a movie I haven’t seen. Nichols had never seen HBO’s Girls; Driver was recommended to him by his casting director.

We took a character that could’ve been the most clichéd in the whole movie, and maybe still is, but I think it was Adam who started to ask the right questions about that character. […] I remember in one of the first scenes we did, he sat down at this desk and banged his leg on the table and dropped his bookbag. And I remember thinking, “Oh, that’s terrible, should I call cut?” And I realized, “Oh no, he’s being Paul Sevier. That’s how Paul Sevier enters a room.” And it just made it better and I’m quite impressed with Adam Driver. …I think he’s probably gonna be one of the most important actors of our generation.

-Jeff Nichols (from March 22, 2016 interview in Indiewire)

This has a great sense of sci-fi realism… Shannon simply has intensity.

A beautiful, touching story. Nice performances. Fascinating subject.

– Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Silence” (2016) starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, & Liam Neeson

In 1633, a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), witnesses the torture/death of 5 fellow missionaries. He’s helpless (in the presence of Japanese inquisitors) to assist them in any way. In 1640, at St. Paul’s College in Macau (China), an Italian Jesuit priest, Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds), receives news that Ferreira renounced his faith (became an apostate) after being tortured. In disbelief, Ferreira’s young Portuguese pupils, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), set off to find him. Valignano explains that they “will be the last priests sent to Japan.” Rodrigues and Garupe find a guide, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kobuzuka), an alcoholic fisherman who lost his family (after they failed to renounce Christianity). When they arrive in Japan, they witness first-hand the incredibly difficult lives of those who live as Christians (of course- in secret).

Rodrigues: I feel so tempted. I feel so tempted to despair. I’m afraid. The weight of your silence is terrible. I pray, but I’m lost. Or am I just praying to nothing? Nothing. Because you are not there.

The story is based on historical fact; while keeping the name of the hero’s mentor, author Shusaku Endo changed the nationality of the hero (an Italian named Giuseppe Cara) to Portuguese. Endo gave him the fictional name of Sebastian Rodrigo (translated as Sebastiao Rodrigues). Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Jay Cocks had written an early draft of the film in the 1990s w/ the intention of Scorsese directing it after Gangs of New York (2002). But when Scorsese couldn’t get financing, he decided instead to do The Aviator (2004). When the project was announced, Daniel Day-Lewis was set to play Ferreira, Gael García Bernal was set to play Rodrigues, and Benicio Del Toro was set to play Garupe. They dropped out of the project after MANY development delays.

Interpreter: But everyone knows a tree which flourishes in one kind of earth may decay and die in another. It is the same with the tree of Christianity. The leaves decay here. The buds die.

Garfield took a year off, grew out his head/facial hair, and studied w/ Father James Martin (who is now editor of The National Catholic Review). Garfield (who was raised w/ no religion) and Driver (who was raised in Baptist churches) spent a week at St. Beuno’s, a Jesuit retreat in Wales. They didn’t speak for a week, as that was the rule, so they could get a feel for the spirituality needed for the roles. The most noticeable change is the weight: Garfield lost 40 lbs. (down to 130 lbs), Driver lost 50 lbs (30 lbs. before filming and 20 lbs. during), and Neeson lost 20 lbs. Scorsese noted that there was a nutritionist on location w/ them, but I’m sure it was tough to subsist on such little food. I also learned that Ang Lee advised Scorsese on which locations to use while filming in Taiwan.

This film is quite impressive (esp. the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto); he worked on some great-looking movies, incl. Frida; Alexander; Brokeback Mountain; Lust, Caution; and State of Play. Silence was tough for me to relate to (until Neeson’s character appeared late in the 2nd act). I think I’ve been agnostic (or skeptical of all religions) since age 7. My family also comes from a faith tradition which does NOT include proselytizing (the act or process of converting or attempting to convert someone to a religion or other belief system).

I’ve watched Driver’s work in the past month; this was on the list (BUT I wasn’t excited to see it). I thought Driver did a great job (as usual); Garupe appears in the 1st hour, then we learn about his fate in the 2nd hour. Scorsese commented that he chose Driver b/c “he looks like he stepped out of a Flemish painting.” Driver said (in several interviews) that one of his “dreams” was to work w/ Scorsese; I’m sure this is true of many actors. At the Telluride Film Festival, the director called the actor “one of the best, if not THE best, of his generation.”

But for all the torments they inflict, the Japanese inquisitors are no generic movie villains. They truly believe that Christianity is incompatible with the Japanese spirit, an alien pathogen imported by arrogant and incurious Europeans. […]

…one of the chief weaknesses of Silence is that so many of the characters in orbit around Rodrigues convey more narrative gravity than he does himself: Asano’s translator, Ogata’s inquisitor, Kubozuka’s fickle Kichijiro, Driver’s Father Garupe, a village elder played by Yoshi Oida. Andrew Garfield is a fine actor, but his calling card has always been a kind of boyish ingenuousness, and here it is tested beyond its limits.

-Christopher Orr (The Atlantic)

In the lead roles, Garfield and Driver (respectively graduates of the Spider-Man and Star Wars franchises) bring mainstream appeal, although wobbly Portuguese accents threaten to undercut the solemnity of their English-language dialogue. With his angular features Driver catches the eye, but it is to Garfield’s leonine locks that Scorsese is drawn, the handsome face of Rodrigues evoking beatific images of Christ in whose likeness the padre presumes to style himself. No wonder he sees a vision of Jesus when gazing at his own reflection in a stream. As for Neeson, he played a Jesuit priest in The Mission, but his late-in-the-day reappearance here is more evocative of his turn as Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace…

-Mark Kermode (The Guardian)

…one of the things that impressed me most about it was the care it devotes to understanding the position of the Japanese authorities. Without condoning their brutality, it lets a major character—Inoue Masashige (Issei Ogata), one of the officials in charge of eradicating Christianity from Japan, and the supervisor of the hero’s suffering—explain the official point-of-view on Western religion. He doesn’t just consider it a corrupting influence on Japanese culture, he doubts that Christianity can truly take root in the “swamp” (his word) of his home country.

-Matt Zoller Seitz (rogertebert.com)

…judged in broadly cinematic terms, “Silence” is not a great movie, despite having been directed by one of the medium’s greatest masters at a point of great maturity… […]

Still, viewed through the narrow prism of films about faith, “Silence” is a remarkable achievement, tackling as it does a number of Big Questions in a medium that, owing to its commercial nature, so often shies away from Christianity altogether. […]

For non-believers in particular, when Neeson resurfaces, his arguments, intended as the cruelest temptation, will instead sound perfectly logical.

– Peter Debruge (Variety.com)

[1] All the acting is exceptional, helped by strong writing and sharply drawn characters. Andrew Garfield is subdued but still splendid, while Adam Driver is powerfully moody. Liam Neeson is on fearless form…

[2] I will talk about the major flaw I had with the picture and it’s during the first 90 mins. I honestly thought 20 of these minutes could have been edited out, because I thought it took the film way too long to move forward and get to the real meat of the story, which is the Priest [Rodrigues] and Father Ferreira having a battle of wills.

…I really loved the fact that it didn’t treat the subject lightly or take on that mentality that you can’t question your faith.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“The Power of the Dog” (2021) starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, & Kodi Smit-McPhee

SPOILERS: Don’t read this post if you haven’t seen, or don’t want to know, details from the movie (now streaming on Netflix).

Peter: When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?

In 1925 in Montana, wealthy rancher, Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), inspires fear and awe in those around him. His younger brother, George (Jesse Plemons), marries a hard-working widow- Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst)- who has a sensitive young adult son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Resenting the changes in his home, Phil acts cruel to both Rose and Peter (when he comes home from college in the Summer). Phil tells Rose he thinks she’s a gold-digger. He bullies Peter (effeminate and introverted), and the cowhands follow his lead. After some time, Phil takes Peter under his wing, showing him the ways of the ranch.

George (to Rose): I just want to say… how nice it is not to be alone.

Jane Campion won an original screenplay Oscar for The Piano (1993); she was only the second woman to receive a nomination as Best Director. I haven’t seen that film in many years, but I did like it. I had also previously watched In the Cut (2003) and blogged re: S1 of Campion’s TV show (Top of the Lake). The ranch house and cattle barn (aged to reflect the 1920s) were constructed on location. Filming began in January 2020; due to the COVID pandemic, it was halted until late June. Many critics have pointed out that this film is Campion’s 1st w/ a lead male character. The original book was written in 1967 by an American author (Thomas Savage) who was known for Westerns; he was a closeted gay man who married and had children.

Phil Burbank: Bronco Henry told me that a man was made by patience in the odds against him.

This is a departure for Cumberbatch; I thought he did quite well portraying a macho cowboy (who is hiding his true self). Though Plemons and Dunst are engaged and have two young sons, they have a awkward (yet promising) chemistry in their early scenes. George and Rose are two lonely people who just decided NOT to be alone anymore; I wanted to see more of them (esp. Rose after she becomes alcoholic). Smit-McPhee (an Aussie actor, 25 y.o.) is getting a LOT of notice; he could be nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He has an other-worldly look and creates an unique character; he and Cumberbatch share a few tense scenes. I thought much more would happen between them (such as violence), BUT this film subverts expectations. What exactly happened btwn the younger Phil and his older/beloved mentor Bronco Henry? Phil idolizes Bronco Henry (20 yrs. after his death); he’s held up as the ideal cowboy/man.

As one critic said, the tone of this movie is like than in The Beguiled. The pacing is V slow, which many viewers (esp. on Twitter) joked about. The score for this film is rather unnerving; I thought it was overmuch in some scenes. Phil whistles a song which Rose can’t play well; she’d gotten a grand piano from George (who wants them to mix more w/ society). Phil then plays the same song on his banjo, taunting Rose further. Though some have called the ending “ambiguous,” I knew Peter weaponized the anthrax (which had infected the dead cow he found on the road), then planned the death of Phil. If you have some time and a LOT of patience, then check this film out.

[1] It’s a slow burn especially in the first half. While I find these characters compelling, I do wish to have more reasons for these characters. I need their history.

[2] Campion lets her camera linger on the outward expressions of inner struggle and the vast landscape, which promises to bury one’s secrets, but doesn’t.

[3] “The Power of the Dog” reinforces what I already knew – male macho posturing and bullying is usually a desperate attempt to disguise feelings of inadequacy and self doubt. Though set in 1923, the film is so clearly about now…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Hungry Hearts” (2014) starring Adam Driver

Jude (Adam Driver) is a young engineer living in NYC. He becomes trapped in the bathroom of a Chinese restaurant w/ Mina (Alba Rohrwacher), who works at the Italian embassy. Despite this awkward first encounter, Jude and Mina begin a relationship and move in together. Some time later, Mina wakes to a phone call from her employer; she will be relocated to her native Italy in 2 mos. Mina soon discovers she is pregnant. Jude and Mina are married at a beachside cafe on Coney Island. A fortune teller labels her baby as an “Indigo child. Mina believes that her son is needs to be “protected” from doctors, meat, and sunlight. Her extreme actions create intense worries for Jude, as well as his mother (Roberta Maxwell).

This indie film is based on the novel Il Bambino Indaco (The Indigo Child) by Marco Franzoso. It was directed by Saverio Costanzo; he worked a handful of indies, then on the Italian version of the TV show In Treatment (2013-2016). Most recently, he directed eps of My Brilliant Friend (2018-2020). Hungry Hearts was selected to compete for the Golden Lion at the 71st Venice International Film Festival; Driver and Rohrwacher won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor and Best Actress respectively. It was also screened in the Special Presentations section of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). When the credits rolled, I learned that the Production Manager was one of my former classmates from grad school (Fordham)! Rashi DeStefano grew up in Brooklyn (her father is Italian, her mother is Indian), was a Teaching Fellow at a public HS in Manhattan (while in grad school), but then studied filmmaking.

[1] With the current uproar of vaccinations, there is certainly a modern day link to the story line of mother’s instincts vs. doctor’s orders.

[2] A psychological drama – tense at times, perhaps – but it really doesn’t have all that many thrills.

[3] The idea of having the diet of a child being the source of conflict between a couple is unique in cinema, but a very real concern. …the duo’s impeccable performances do their characters justice and it’s often heartbreaking.

[4] It has a good storyline and some incredibly emotional scenes. Adam Driver does an amazing job portraying Jude- a father who is conflicted between pleasing his wife and saving his son- and I believe his performance makes the movie. However, throughout the film, the camera is inconsistent and shaky.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“While We’re Young” (2014) starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, & Charles Grodin

Josh: For the first time in my life I’ve stopped thinking of myself as a child imitating an adult.

Cornelia: You feel that way too?

NYC-based documentary filmmaker, Josh Srebnick (Ben Stiller), is 44 y.o. and married (for many yrs.) to 43 y.o. Cornelia (Naomi Watts). She produces films for her father, Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), a respected/successful veteran documentarian. Josh and Cornelia’s relationship has been boring lately; they don’t travel or do anything out of their routine. On the personal front, they may still want to have a baby, like their BFFs Marina (Maria Dizzia) and Fletcher (Adam Horovitz- also a member of Beastie Boys). On the professional front, Josh seems to have lost inspo (working on one film for 8 yrs, but nowhere near completion). Thing change when they meet a creative/hipster couple in their mid-20s- Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Jamie expresses great admiration for Josh; he aspires to become a documentary filmmaker himself. Darby makes ice cream in unique flavors.

Cornelia (to Marina and Fletcher): It’s like their apartment is full of everything we once threw out, but it looks so good the way they have it.

Greta Gerwig (the partner of director Noah Baumbach) was cast, but dropped out due to scheduling conflicts; Seyfried replaced her. When Josh leaves his father-in-law Leslie’s apartment, a sign is visible next door for the National Arts Club. Leslie lives on Gramercy Park, one of the most prestigious ‘hoods in NYC; the homes face Manhattan’s only private/gated park (only residents have the keys). The Lincoln Center tribute to Leslie Breitbart was filmed at the Time Warner Center/Shops at Columbus Circle bldg; I went to grad school nearby and was often there (it had a Whole Foods, offices, retail). The speaker who presents Leslie with his award is Peter Bogdanovich, a film historian/director.

Josh: It’s weird, you know, I’m at that age where the things you think are only going to happen when you get older are actually happening.

Jamie: If I’m going to be totally honest with myself, I don’t think I’m ever going to die. I know that’s crazy.

Josh: It’s crazy.

Jamie: I think I’m pathologically happy.

If you’re a fan of Driver, you’ll really enjoy this film (free on Amazon Prime)! Jamie is energetic, warm-hearted, and wears some interesting outfits (incl. hats). This is the time when the actor grew his thick/dark hair longer (to cover his large ears). Those big/elaborate tattoos on the arms are fake. He moves in a quirky manner; Baumbach had the “idea of Jamie being like water.” Jamie and Josh have a touching bromance; Josh even starts to dress differently. I liked the set design; the places you see all looked lived-in. The younger couple have many albums (not CDs), videos (not DVDs), a typewriter, a rooster (in a small cage), kittens, and a roomie (renting the loft space). There is a (LOL) scene where Josh and Cornelia practice hip hop dancing at home; Darby had taken Cornelia to such a class. I don’t want to give more away, so check it out if interested!

While We’re Young” takes a turn in the third act as it grapples with some ethical dilemmas, and it doesn’t quite work. It becomes angrier and heavier as Josh uses his inquisitive nature to unearth some dark truths—both about himself and his new friends. It feels like a totally different movie as it reaches its very public climax, and an inferior one. -Christy Lemire, film critic

[1] I love the sharp jabs launched at Josh’s expense. That may annoy some people who are uncomfortable with the awkward truths being poked at. All four leads are doing amazing work. Adam Driver is the big difference. Noah Baumbach is at his sharpest up to this date.

[2] The film spends the first hour weaving a tale and presenting us with flawed but likeable characters. Then of course the “twist” comes in at about an hour (typical for all films). At this point the film which had me hooked, loses me. It was a twist I felt coming…

[3] A lot of the jokes and digs at the hipster culture may be deserved for simple pretentious ways…

…by the last act Josh becomes so one-note in his obsession over uncovering the BS of Jamie that it gets to be a bit much.

Luckily… much of the movie is funny. Stiller is quite funny, in some instances when he becomes the foil for Driver, and the latter actor has a weird kind of charm and energy, filling in this hipster’s shoes a 100%. He doesn’t look like he should be a really good comic actor, but he carries a lot of odd, quirky interest…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews