“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

“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

“Frances Ha” (2012) starring Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, & Michael Zegen

Frances lives in New York, but she doesn’t really have an apartment. Frances is an apprentice for a dance company, but she’s not really a dancer. Frances has a best friend named Sophie, but they aren’t really speaking anymore. Frances throws herself headlong into her dreams, even as their possible reality dwindles. Frances wants so much more than she has but lives her life with unaccountable joy and lightness. —IFC Films Summary

Frances Halliday (Greta Gerwig) is a 27 y.o. “apprentice” dancer in NYC; she doesn’t yet feel like “a real grown-up.” She lives w/ her BFF since college, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who works as an editor for Random House. They’re both trying to figure out adult life/responsibilities, BUT Sophie seems to be a bit more confident and put-together than Frances. The friends often sleep in the same bed and act like sisters. Frances breaks up w/ her bf, Dan (Michael Esper- primarily a theater actor). Dan had wanted them to live together and get cats (a rather pricy/ugly breed). Then, Sophie wants to move to her “dream apt. in Tribeca” w/ another friend; Frances is saddened that they won’t live together anymore. She makes two new friends, Lev (Adam Driver- before fame) and Benji (Michael Zegen- who co-stars on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), who have space in their Chinatown apt. available. Unlike most of her circle, Frances doesn’t come from money; her parents are middle-class. At a dinner party, Frances heard that Sophie and her bf, Patch (Patrick Heusinger), are moving to Japan for his job! What will happen to their friendship?

Lev: Just because you bought dinner doesn’t mean I’m gonna sleep with you.

Frances: I’m not trying to sleep with you.

Lev: No, I was pretending to be a liberated woman.

***

The way Adam says it is like a song: “Ah-ma-zinnggg.” I always think of that word that way now.

-Noah Baumbach, director

I came across this charming film when I was looking up works w/ Driver; he doesn’t appear much here (but his character is memorable). Driver and Baumbach became very good friends; he is the 2nd male lead in While We’re Young (2014) and the lead in the much-acclaimed Marriage Story (2019). The movie was shot in black and white to “boil it down to its barest bones,” and create an immediate “history” and “a kind of instant nostalgia” (according to Baumbach- who also directed). Frances goes on one date w/ Lev (who is a sculptor), but may have a connection w/ writer Benji (a stand-in for Baumbach w/ his dark hair/eyes, and slim/short build). I was pleasantly surprised to see that romance isn’t at the heart of this story- it’s about female friendship.

Sophie (on her visit to Lev and Benji’s apt): The only people who can afford to be artists in New York are rich.

Charlotte d’Amboise, who plays the head of the dance company (and a former dancer) is a well-known Broadway dancer, w/ such shows as Cats, Chicago, A Chorus Line, and Pippin. Frances’ parents are played by Gerwig’s real-life parents, Gordon and Christine. Gerwig was raised as a Unitarian Universalist; there’s a scene in the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento (which she grew up attending). Rachel (Grace Gummer) stars as one of the modern dancers; her mother (Meryl Streep) starred as Aunt March in Little Women (2019) directed by Gerwig. The college seen in the movie is Vassar, a liberal arts university in Poughkeepsie, NY (which Baumbach attended).

Frances: I’m poor.

Benji: That’s actually offensive to poor people.

I could relate to this movie in many ways, as I also lived in NYC when I was in my late 20s. I went to grad school at Fordham. Like Frances, I was (usually) broke, since I worked as a substitute teacher (as well as a few smaller jobs in the summers). I lived in two NOT so fabulous apts (though the rents were high- as you’d expect). Unlike Frances, I didn’t have one particular bestie, BUT I did meet many smart/interesting people (some of whom became friends and I stay in touch w/ 10+ yrs later). I didn’t know where my life was going, BUT I think I put myself out of my comfort zone and kept a positive attitude (which Frances does as well).

[1] I felt there was something truly raw and authentic about everything in here, especially the characters’ interactions and dialogs. Apart from that, there is some great music… Lead actress Greta Gerwig scored a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal here and it was very deserved I must say, especially as she also came up with the excellent script.

[2]The feeling of Frances not really knowing where she is going, bouncing from one flat-share to the next (albeit awesome flats) is very well done and Gerwig delivers it very well, somehow managing to get through all the traps of the genre.

[3] I’m not saying you should live your life like her or take advice from the movie. But it is very refreshing to see something, that is not very obvious. I couldn’t tell where the movie was going, but it was interesting to find out. And while some might find this boring, others will rejoice.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“The Beguiled” (2017) starring Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, & Colin Farrell

During the Civil War (1864), the secluded Virginia mansion which serves as Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies is still running. It is occupied by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), a teacher named Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and 5 teenaged students. Amy (Oona Laurence) stumbles upon Col. John McBurney, a wounded Union deserter near death. The balance in the school is disrupted after the headmistress decides to take in the soldier (while he heals from his leg injury). It’s not long before they find themselves competing for the man’s attention/favor.

To be surrounded by talented, decent, smart, insightful creative and serious women – I was spoiled by Sofia Coppola who set a particular mood of comfort, ease and trust. It allows you as an actor to play and explore. -Colin Farrell

Sofia Coppola (daughter of Francis Ford Coppola) chose the 1.66 : 1 aspect ratio b/c she wanted to make the film feel claustrophobic. So, this may NOT be the best movie for you if you’re feeling a BIT trapped at home (in quarantine life)! She won the prize of Best Director at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival; this marked the first time in 50 years a woman won the award! The estate used in the film as the main location is the Madewood Plantation House near Napoleonville, LA. The same location was also used for portions of Beyoncé’s long-form music video Lemonade (2016). Interior scenes were filmed in the New Orleans home of actress Jennifer Coolidge. The film was shot over 26 days. The cast went through several lessons during filming: sewing, dancing, etiquette, corset training. They also had to cook and eat meals together. A Civil War reenactor demonstrated how to dress wounds. A priest explained prayers from the Book of Matthew. Costume designer Stacey Battat saw Dunst’s character as being romantic; her wardrobe had decorated billowy sleeves, diaphanous skirts, and more jewelry than the others. She gave Kidman’s character a high neckline and a vest to denote authority.

I think she’s unique. It was like watching a virtuoso or an incredible athlete. We’d do a scene, and she’d have five different emotions going on at the same time. -Sofia Coppola re: Nicole Kidman

Coppola stated multiple times that this is not a remake of The Beguiled (1971), but an adaption of the same source novel by Thomas Cullinan. Since the adapted screenplay of the 1971 film (which I haven’t seen yet) is credited in Coppola’s film together w/ the novel, story elements from the earlier screenplay have been used, too. McBurney’s heritage was not changed to suit Farrell’s natural accent; the character is Irish in the book. The character Hallie was cut from the film; she’s a slave and the only person of color in both the novel and the 1971 film. Coppola explained that as slavery was such an important topic, she didn’t want to treat it lightly; she felt she should focus on these women cut off from the world.

McBurney: If you could have anything, what’s your biggest wish? If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?

Edwina: Anything?

McBurney: Yeah. Anything.

Edwina: To be taken far away from here.

[rushes out of the room]

This is a short (a little over 90 mins.) movie that was made for about $10.5M. The languid pace will turn off viewers who want excitement. Several critics/viewers have commented that this is a matter of style (visuals) over substance (characterization, tension, etc.) We know Kidman can handle any role she is given; her first movie was at age 18 (I think). I did see potential in Dunst’s character; she is very lovely (but looking a tad bit heavier in her mid-30s). I’ve learned that she still eats meat and hates extreme exercise. I also liked the ambiguous nature which Farrell portrayed; he is still quite youthful (though he also isn’t very slim here). Fanning (her older sis Dakota is also an actress) looks stunning; she may have a big career in the future. In a bold move, her character sneaks into the soldier’s room and kisses him (while he is asleep)! The acting is very good all-around, but this story just felt under-cooked.

[1] This is a slow-burning movie that picks up steam as it moves along, leading to an extended climax that provides plenty of effective drama. …it does suffer from the style-over-substance syndrome and ultimately feels hollow at times.

[2] Sofia Coppola delivers a quiet, sparse tale of female competitive power. McBurney is no saint either. It’s an empty fleeting world especially with the slaves abandoning the mansion. There is something eerie about this creation. I do want for more tension or more horror like Misery. It’s hard to sympathize with any of the characters. Maybe she should concentrate on Edwina as the only protagonist. This has a nice haunted vibe, but I don’t feel for anybody.

[3] This is Coppola trying on something closer to a piece of Gothic literature… this is her trying to tackle one of the Brontes, only through cinematic grammar. She rarely uses music in the film, certainly not much at all in the first half, and when it comes up it’s eerie and brooding, a low synth that sounds like someone is somewhere about to do something sinister. Or, in this case, giving what may be just desserts for some.

The acting: it’s all wonderful, but Dunst is the one that I hope people remember the most here. Farrell and Kidman are the leads, but she’s the one who has the most inner conflict, the person in this tale who has so much responsibility with these girls while at the same time wanting to choose her own path…

[4] The story is rather slow in pace, but the interaction between the characters are well portrayed. The women’s jealousy and rivalry are palpable, while the soldier’s mind tricks on them are not so nice. The story turns dramatically in the middle, and it become a story of survival. It is worth watching, especially for the cast.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews