“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

Nocturnal Animals (2016) starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, & Michael Shannon

A (revenge) story inside a story follows LA-based 40-something art curator, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who receives a (soon to be published) book manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), who she left 20 years earlier. The second element follows the book itself (titled Nocturnal Animals) which revolves around a family man, Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), whose vacation turns violent after his car is run off a rural Texas road. Tony, his wife (Isla Fisher), and their teen daughter India (Ellie Bamber) come face to face w/ a trio of dangerous young men. As Susan reads Edward’s engrossing book, she finds herself recalling their marriage, her loss of idealism, and confronting some hard truths about herself.

The first thing you notice re: this stylish (yet not shallow) thriller (directed by famed American fashion designer Tom Ford) is its look- it’s beautiful! The cinematographer is Irishman Seamus McGarvey; he also worked on Atonement. The costumes, hair, makeup, set decoration, etc, add to the richness of the story; however, sometimes the symbolism is too obvious. The score was inspired in Philip Glass and Bernard Herrmann; there is something familiar, yet also mysterious about the music. This tale also has something to say re: the art world (which Ford is familiar w/ being among the wealthy).

The acting is also quite good, starting w/ (Oscar nominee) Michael Shannon, who portrays a gruff Texas deputy- Bobby Andes- who’s not afraid to bend the rules to catch the bad guys. He’s a magnetic screen presence (bringing to my mind Gene Hackman). Gyllenhaal does a great job (as usual) in both his roles, esp. as Tony- the more interesting character. Laura Linney is only in one scene- she’s fabulous! Armie Hammer plays Susan’s second husband- Hutton- who is cold, distant, and worried re: the failing art gallery. Critics also loved to hate the villain- Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, husband of director Sam Taylor-Johnson); I hadn’t seen him before. As for Adams, pay attention to the quiet moments (she spends a lot of time reading).

Love & Friendship (2016) starring Kate Beckinsale & Chloe Sevigny

My friend and I recently saw this at the Jane Austen film festival held annually on the grounds of Dumberton House (Washington, DC). You can watch it w/ Amazon Prime. This is the first movie based on Austen’s epistolary (letter format) novel Lady Susan (1871), which uses a name from another of her novels- Love and Friendship. It’s well-made (though w/ low budget of $3M), funny (w/ both subtle and obvious humor), and a fresh take on the beloved author’s work.

It’s with ticklish glee, then, that you watch Love & Friendship live up to every possible expectation you could set for it, opening out the adulterous games of Austen’s surprisingly risqué text and elaborating on them with impish, often breathlessly funny verve. It’s flat-out hilarious… Gliding through its compact 92 minutes with alert photography and not a single scene wasted…

Excerpt from The Telegraph 

The daughter of an earl w/ little money, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale- check her out in Emma), visits her brother- and sister-in-law, Charles (Justin Edwards) and Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell), w/ little advance notice at Churchill, their country estate. Catherine is quite anxious/unhappy; years ago Lady Susan (the widow of her older/deceased brother-in-law) tried to prevent her marriage to Charles. Also, Lady Susan (though considered old-  mid-30s) has the reputation of being one of the biggest flirts in England (more likely, just their social circle). She owes debts to many merchants in London. Among Lady Susan’s conquests in London is the married Lord Mainwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin).

Catherine’s genuine/handsome younger brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) arrives a week later, and despite Catherine’s  warnings, soon falls under Lady Susan’s spell. She messes w/ his affections for her own amusement, as well as upsetting Catherine. Her closest friend, an American woman, Mrs. Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny),  recommends she marry the eligible Reginald ASAP. Lady Susan considers him to be greatly inferior to Mainwaring. 

Too old to be governable, and too young to die. -Lady Susan comments re: Alicia’s older/respectable husband, Mr. Johnson

Frederica, Lady Susan’s 16-year-old daughter, tries to run away from school when she learns of her mother’s plan to marry her off to a wealthy/stupid young man, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). She stays at Churchill where her aunt and uncle come to like her (her character is totally unlike her mother’s). Sir James shows up uninvited, much to Frederica’s distress; she still doesn’t want to marry him (though she doesn’t hate him as a person). Lady Susan isn’t having it, telling Frederica that she doesn’t know how much worse their lives could be. After all, they need a permanent home and security, so she should obey her mother. 

…Tom Bennett, whose scene-stealing efforts should make him every bit as much of a star, grins and grins and understands nothing as the biggest stooge of the lot…

Excerpt from The Telegraph 

Frederica even goes to the local church alone, asking the kind young parson re: the commandment to “honor thy mother and father.” One day, Frederica is crying in the parlor, and Reginald asks her to tell him what’s wrong. She begs Reginald for support, feeling she has nowhere to turn, as her mother has forbidden her from telling her aunt and uncle. Reginald is shocked to learn that Lady Susan would want her daughter to marry such a dolt as Sir James! 

Facts are horrid things! -Lady Susan declares to Alicia

Lady Susan returns to London; Reginald follows her, still in love. One day, he goes to see Mrs. Johnson and deliver a letter from Lady Susan. He finds the inconsolable young Lady Mainwaring (Sophie Radermacher) meeting w/ her former guardian, Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry, in a rare serious role). After reading the letter, Reginald finally learns Lady Susan’s true character (she came to London to be alone w/ Mainwaring)!

Lady Susan ends up marrying Sir James herself, and allows Frederica to live at Churchill. As Catherine always wanted, Reginald and Frederica grow closer, fall in love, and marry. At their wedding reception, we see a very pregnant Lady Susan, Sir James (still clueless), and Lord Mainwaring (her lover) all looking quite satisfied. Of course, Sir James is NOT the father! 

Lady Susan has few parallels in 19th-century literature, according to scholars. She is selfish, clever, VERY attractive to men, and unashamed of her relationship w/ a married man. She has an active role in the her life story; she is NOT just beautiful, BUT intelligent and witty. Her suitors (incl. Reginald and Sir James) are much younger than herself. The ending includes a reward for morality; Frederica is praised for her “virtue” in a poem written by Reginald. While Alicia has to sail back to Connecticut (a punishment) w/ Mr. Johnson, Lady Susan is settled into a comfortable life w/ a husband she can control.

The Magnificent Seven (2016) starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, & Ethan Hawke

Director Antoine Fuqua brings his modern vision to a classic story in MGM and Columbia Pictures’ re-imagining of The Magnificent Seven (based on Seven Samurai). With the town of Rose Creek under the control of evil robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), the desperate townspeople (“simple farmers”), led by young widow Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), employ protection from seven outlaws, bounty hunters, gamblers and hired guns: warrant officer Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), card playing Joshua Farraday (Chris Pratt), former Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), Bible-quoting bounty hunter Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), East Asian knife fighter Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee- a star in his native South Korea), wanted outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo- a Mexican actor), and young Comanche Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). As this motley crew prepare the town for the violent showdown w/ Bogue and his (many) hired men, these mercenaries find themselves fighting for more than money.

Right off the bat, we realize that Bogue is a cartoonish villain, unlike Eli Wallach’s bandit leader in the original. Bogue shoots a farmer, Matthew Cullen (Matt Bomer), who stands up to him outside the town church. That’s NOT even a smart bad guy move, as the reviewers on What the Flick!? said. Don’t look for much characterization in this movie, though it’s nice to see Denzel and Hawke’s chemistry onscreen many years after Training Day. I wanted to know more re: how they were connected, aside from one scene. I thought Haley Bennett did well; her character ends up fighting (w/ the Seven; in the original, it was a young Mexican man from the town.

The cast is diverse, which has a contemporary edge, as Mark Kermode noted. Vasquez repeatedly calls Faraday “huero;” Faraday asks what it means, but receives no reply. It’s a Mexican racial slur meaning “whitey.” Considering the ethnic make up of the Seven in 1879, the fact that this is the only racial slur directed at any one of the Seven during the entire film is somewhat of an anachronism. The two former Confederates (Faraday and Robicheaux) and African American Chisholm would likely have at least some animosity. Horne who has taken “300 Comanche scalps” would certainly make Red Harvest feel wary. D’Onfrio (who also worked earlier w/ Hawke) is playing an eccentric, over-the-top character, yet pulls it off so well that you want to know more. The way he speaks is so unusual, too. As for the Asian, every race looked down on them at this time in US history! However, the men’s mutual respect for each other as fighters may go some way to explain lack of racial tension.

I’m NOT a fan of Chris Pratt; the jokes he is given (mostly) fall flat and NOT that funny. In moments, his way of talking and attitude comes off as TOO modern (as Jeremy Jahns observed). As for Pratt’s screen presence and charisma factor, sorry, BUT I fail to see it. Fuqua cast him in the Steve McQueen role, BUT he just doesn’t measure up. I don’t see how this actor keeps getting big roles! I applaud him for losing weight/getting healthier after age 30. I heard that he and Denzel became quite friendly on the set; maybe Pratt picked up some tips from the veteran actor. We can hope, right?

This film embraces cliches and the typical things you expect from the Western genre. The action here is bigger, louder, and longer (in part to the incorporation of the Gatling gun in the third act). OK, I was NOT expecting that, which made the stakes higher and created even more danger for the heroes and the townspeople. Aside from the action, one of the reasons to see this movie is its music. Fuqua explained that James Horner’s team visited him on set in Baton Rouge, one month after the composer’s accidental death, to deliver the completed score. Horner liked the script so much that he composed the entire score during pre-production (WOW)! Almost each time there is a shot of Vasquez, we hear a reused cue from Horner’s score for The Mask of Zorro (1998). I knew this sounded familiar, then saw this bit of info on IMDB. From the moment when Faraday gets his horse and rides away, there are some beats from the original movie’s theme song, but with different instruments. In the closing credits the entire original theme song is heard.

There are some great wide shots in this film (which you can see on Amazon Prime). It aims for entertainment, NOT critical acclaim. It’s got some nice moments, BUT I expected more. There are a few lines (of Denzel’s) that I thought were quite fitting for the genre and his character. He does a fine job (as usual); he has an all-black costume, yet plays it cool (restrained), as Yul Brynner did. We eventually learn that Chisholm wants revenge against Bogue b/c of what happened years ago to his family. Finally, Emma gets to kill the man who took her husband from her. Only three of the Seven survive the fighting: Chisholm, Vasquez, and Red Harvest- this may be subversive (as Kristy Lemire said).