movie reviews

Review: “Midnight Special” Shines Its Ever-Lovin’ Light on You

Jeff Nichols' sci-fi thriller is just the sort of smart, entertaining, mid-budget movie they supposedly don't make anymore

Movies come in two sizes these days. You got your juggernaut, nine-figure-budgeted, sure-fire box-office dominators on one hand, and your boutique, art-house, critical darlings on the other. That’s the common, well-founded complaint of grown-up moviegoers who like to just be flat-out entertained sometimes without having the cudgel of pop culture icons slammed repeatedly onto their brains.

This has been true for a while to some degree about American cinema in general, but it’s especially true of science fiction films. What gets lost when superhero epics and space opera installments take over the nation’s multiplexes are the mid-level movies with the resources to spin a visually compelling tale and the brains to tell an intellectually compelling one. Now the choice, sci-fi-wise, is generally between the latest pre-sold franchise episode with a colon in its name or some micro-budgeted mindbender with a single-word title (“Primer,” “Coherence,” “Chronicle”).

Jaeden Lieberher says hello in a scene from "Midnight Special."

Jaeden Lieberher says hello in a scene from “Midnight Special.”

Which brings us to “Midnight Special,” a movie that was financed by a major Hollywood studio, Warner Brothers, and directed by an indie-film darling, Jeff Nichols. It’s the best of both worlds: a ripping character-driven yarn with action, suspense, and even some snazzy special effects. I have this terrible feeling, though, that as a money-maker, it’s going to sink like a stone. I hope I’m proven wrong, but it just feels like not enough people are in the habit of going to movies like this anymore.

“Midnight Special” has a 1970s feel, with some of the DNA of the 1975 Disney film “Escape to Witch Mountain” in its blood. The story centers on a young boy, Alton Meyer, who has been snatched from a religious cult by his biological father Roy (Michael Shannon) and an accomplice (Joel Edgerton). Alton has special powers, often triggered by exposure to bright sunlight, that involve glowing eyes and strange babblings and occasional gas station explosions. The cult leader (Sam Shepard) wants him back. The feds want to bring him in for study. And Roy just wants to keep his son free and alive.

Shannon, who played Superman’s archenemy General Zod in “Man of Steel” (and cameoed as his corpse in “Batman v Superman” just last week), has appeared in all four of Nichols’ films. He’s a treasure, and fortunately he seems to have opted to cash his supervillain paycheck and resume putting his off-kilter but empathetic demeanor to good use. (He’ll also be appearing as The King himself in “Elvis & Nixon” later this month.)

The rest of the cast, which also includes Kirsten Dunst and Adam Driver (in the “Close Encounters” Francois Truffaut role), is able enough, but a movie like this rises or falls based on the juvenile casting, and young Jaeden Lieberher steals the show. He’s creepy and tragic, messianic and mundane, in turn, sometimes within the same scene. Lieberher held his own against Bill Murray in “St. Vincent,” and he handles a lot of intense stuff here as a boy whose secrets threaten to destroy him and those around him.

Nichols’ previous movies—“Shotgun Stories,” “Mud,” and “Take Shelter”– have had the same genuinely Southern feel as David Gordon Green’s early work. And “Midnight Special” has a similar authenticity of place as Roy hurtles across Texas and Louisiana trying to stay one step ahead of his pursuers. It also has a sense of authorship that comes from the all-too-rare instance of a major studio allowing a director to have final cut. Nichols has said that his only demands were casting Shannon and having final cut, and a paltry budget by studio terms, a reported $18 million, made this possible.

But it’ll take a lot more than $18 million in ticket sales to make “Midnight Special” stand out on Warners’ ledger, considering that’s what “BvS” earned for the studio about every nine hours on its opening weekend. They’re doing a platform release on this one, slowly expanding it around the country and opening it in Portland at one theater, Cinema 21, initially. The goal, of course, is to allow the movie to find an audience, but I wonder if it doesn’t mark it somehow as “art house” fare, turning off some portion of the wide audience it deserves to find. Putting a full-fledged marketing campaign behind an $18 million movie is a lot more expensive than relying on word-of-mouth (or, God forbid, critics!), but it might pay off more in the end. We’ll see.

Regardless, if you’re the sort who gripes about the lack of smart, grown-up, genre filmmaking, you have a moral duty to buy a ticket to this movie, and to tell other people about it—in other words, put your money where your mouth is and prove that we can be allowed to have nice things. Shine your ever-lovin’ light on that.

(“Midnight Special” opens Friday, April 1, at Cinema 21.)

Rated PG-13, 111 minutes. Grade: A-

Review: “City of Gold” is a moveable, and enjoyable, feast

This documentary about the noted food writer Jonathan Gold should appeal to even the most discriminating palates.

I’m no gourmand. I’m not even a foodie. I mean, I like food, and I like food that tastes good better than food that tastes bad. But when I watch documentaries about thousand-dollar sushi or modernist Danish restaurants, I can be a tough crowd. When it comes to fetishes and porn, my favorite kinds don’t come prefixed by ‘food-.’

And there have been nearly as many food-porn movies in recent years as there have been actual sex-porn movies. All this preface is my excuse for not getting around to watching “City of Gold,” the documentary profile of Los Angeles Times food writer Jonathan Gold, until now. My mistake. This is a movie that’s about food, yes, but also a fascinating human and the infinitely diverse metropolis he calls home.

Jonathan Gold

 

I’d never heard of Jonathan Gold before I learned about this film. (See, not a foodie.) But he is apparently one of the key figures in shifting the focus of restaurant reviews from white-linen French bistros to taco carts and strip malls. If it feels like a cliché now to say that you can always find the best ethnic food (whatever that means) in sketchy, linoleum-encrusted outposts, it’s because Gold shined a light on neighborhood Korean barbecue joints and Iranian cafes.

In other words, pretty much every food cart pod should be renamed in his honor. But he’s also a charmingly reticent, thoroughly decent-seeming profile subject with layers that would make an onion proud. Whether detailing his all-too-human struggles with deadlines, depicting his contentedly cluttered family life, or relating his time as the cellist in a punk rock band, the movie doles out biographical data judiciously.

“City of Gold,” though, lives up to its title, tagging along as Gold cruises around Los Angeles in his Dodge pickup, showering love on this patchwork, polyglot urban domain. Most positive cinematic portraits of L.A. are tinged with at least some derision, but this is might be the first film I’ve ever seen that made me actually want to live there. Or at least appreciate why others do. And only part of it has to do with food.

(“City of Gold” opens Friday, March 25, at Cinema 21. Jonathan Gold will appear live via Skype following the 7 p.m. screening on Thursday, March 31.)

Rated R (but only for a few f-bombs), 96 min. Grade: A-

 

“How to Be Single” Tries to Cash In on Feminist Irreverence and Fails

Kourtney Paranteau thinks that "How to Be Single" is a great example of how not to make a movie.

by KOURTNEY PARANTEAU

 

The past year proved one in which female sensibilities, particularly in comedy, rose to a prominence never before approached.  The reigning popularity of Amy Schumer, “Broad City,” and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s return to the Golden Globes podium all signaled a new level of attention towards truly funny, unabashedly feminist humor.  Christian Ditter’s “How to be Single,” from this vantage point, felt readily poised to catch the momentum laid out before it.  However, the film, at nearly every opportunity, plays out like a cash grab capitalizing on pop culture’s warming to the tastes and voices of female narratives.  

(L-r) REBEL WILSON as Robin and DAKOTA JOHNSON as Alice in New Line Cinema’s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures’ and Flower Films’ comedy “HOW TO BE SINGLE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Barry Wetcher

(L-r) REBEL WILSON as Robin and DAKOTA JOHNSON as Alice in New Line Cinema’s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures’ and Flower Films’ comedy “HOW TO BE SINGLE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Photo by Barry Wetcher

Buoyed by the reputation of Rebel Wilson’s brash persona, Dakota Johnson’s other big feature (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) and Leslie Mann’s overall likeability, the film, by its skin alone, holds a fierce amount of promise. “How to be Single” quickly squanders, though, any timeliness or contribution to a genre riddled with disappointingly reductive routines when it comes to imagining the lives women lead while predominantly around only each other.  

Alice (Johnson), recently out of a relationship, takes a job as a paralegal and attempts to traverse the Big Apple for the first time as a single, alongside her friend Robin (Wilson) and her older sister (Mann).  The film’s home base is a pick-up bar where a semi-attractive bartender preys on unsuspecting young women and dispenses mediocre advice and casual sex to Alice.  Lucy (Alison Brie), another bar regular, pops in and out of “How to Be Single” as a love-obsessed young woman who uses the bar’s Wi-Fi as she toggles between internet dating sites.  

Brie’s Lucy feels like an updated and more forgivable Charlotte of Sex in the City and her presence breathes the only spark into an otherwise ignorable plot.  Whenever the narrative finds Lucy (only to soon forget her) the central characters are revealed  as even duller, hackier and bigger wastes of times from the last time we saw  them.  Brie, on the heels of the much more successful “Sleeping With Other People” (Leslye Headland, 2015), seems to be finding a voice that can be heard even through the clutter of pointless excitations the rom-com genre often becomes stuffed with.  

Because, at its heart and despite the light protestations of its title and rhetoric, “How to be Single” is a romantic comedy–and if it were titled “How to Spend Your Time While You’re Single to Make You More Dateable Later On,” the title would be hundreds of times more honest.  Based on a book by the same author as the equally deplorable “He’s Just Not that Into You,” “How To Be Single” is a disgusting narrative masquerading as a guidebook. It tells women who want partnership to continue taking it on the chin until the right guy comes along.  

Never actually confronting the possibility that singledom has perks, the film spends nearly all of its depicted nights out dancing, drinking to excess and sleeping on couches, without any characters washing their faces, let alone moisturizing.  Ditter’s film makes single life out to be an exhausting peril of bandage dresses and taxicabs.

Johnson’s Alice cannot even unzip her own clothing without help, and watching the actress struggle to disrobe over and over again resonates as more embarrassing than relatable. Wilson’s Robin never becomes anything more than an exemplar of excessiveness.  She drinks the most, talks the loudest, has the most sex and the most fun, and dresses extravagantly, but her character lacks any sense of interiority and her physicality as an overweight woman appears to have been used by Ditter to cheat his way into explaining female pleasure.

The usual complaints over popular media’s depiction of youth in New York City all remain; Alice’s apartment outperforms her salary, the central characters lack diversity, occupations feel like accessories, and the prospect of romance overrides the gratification of friendship.  This familiar list of gripes, however, is continually overshadowed by how hollowly “How to Be Single” reverberates. Besides the scarce appearances of Alison Brie, the film’s one contribution to an otherwise desolate landscape is the truly casual sex its characters are able to have without guilt, humiliation, or walks of shame.  Beyond this amendment and a handful of jokes clearly written by a punch-up artist, “How to be Single” disappoints even within its disgraced genre.  

Instead of exploring the space women share or occupy together prior to or in place of a heterosexual, romantic partnership, “How to Be Single” ends up as a frantic tale of how to complete oneself for the enjoyment of a male onlooker, despite its flimsy gestures toward independence and solidarity among the female sex.  Like a meal comprised only of carbohydrates, Ditter’s film takes up space but without much flavor or color, and the craving which brings you to the table is only satisfied for a moment.

 

(“How to Be Single” is currently playing in theaters nationwide.)

 

PIFF Preview: The ten most anticipated movies at the festival

The 39th edition of the Northwest Film Center's Portland International Film Festival features work by veteran directors, new talents, and everything in between.

The 39th Portland International Film Festival gets under way Thursday, February 11, with the opening night selection “The Fencer,” from Finland. Over the following 15 days, another 96 features will screen at seven venues around town, centering on the Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium and sprawling as far afield as the Moreland Theater in Sellwood, the Roseway out on NE Sandy Boulevard, and Cinema 21 in Northwest Portland. While the geography may prove challenging for completists trying to commute their way to as many movies as possible, it does make PIFF feel more like a citywide event, instead of being confined to its downtown core.

Anyone who did set out to watch every movie in PIFF during PIFF would face a steep challenge: five or six feature films per day plus three or four titles plucked from the eight programs of short films on the docket. For seventeen days. There might be time left over to sleep and eat, but that’s about it. So unless you’re independently wealthy and/or a social pariah, it’s pretty much an impossible task. (If anyone is able to grab this particular brass ring, do drop a line—I’d love to know your secret!)

 

"The Fencer," from Finland, is the opening night selection of this year's Portland International Film Festival.

“The Fencer,” from Finland, is the opening night selection of this year’s Portland International Film Festival.

Prioritization and logistics, then, are key to maximizing one’s return on one’s PIFF investment. With that in mind, I’ll share some brief thoughts on a few titles I’ve managed to see at previous festivals and point out the films I’m most anticipating from among the rest.

I caught “April and the Extraordinary World” (screens Feb. 13 & 17) as part of the Rendezvous with French Cinema in Paris, and it was the most enjoyable of the dozen-plus films I saw. It’s a smart and original animated film, set in an alternate version of 1940s France where Napoleon V is in charge and electricity hasn’t been invented. A spunky teen heroine finds herself on the run and possibly in possession of an invention that could change the world. The visual style and themes are inspired by the work of graphic artist Jacques Tardi, which means it has impeccable comics-nerd cred. The French voice cast features big-name Gallic talents Marion Cotillard, Jean Rochefort, and Olivier Gourmet. And it has a talking cat named Darwin in it. There’s some fantasy violence, and a kiss or two, but mostly it’s pretty kid-friendly.

Three other films featured in the Rendezvous event are showing during PIFF. The most notable is “Evolution,” (Feb. 19) an eerie fable directed by Lucile Hadzihalilovic, whose first feature, 2004’s “Innocence,” mined similar themes around the terror and wonder of adolescence. “Evolution” takes place on an isolated, rocky island populated entirely by young boys and their mothers. Shortly after one of the boys thinks he sees a dead body in the offshore shallows, he’s taken away to a creepy medical facility, where some of the secrets of this bizarre community are revealed. Hadzihalilovic is the spouse and sometime collaborator of notorious French filmmaker Gaspar Noe (he of the 3-D hardcore effort “Love”), and her films are just as uncompromising as his, if somewhat less in-your-face.

“My Golden Days” (Feb. 25 & 27) is director Arnaud Desplechin’s belated follow-up, and prequel, to his early, quasi-autobiographical success “My Sex Life (or How I Got Into an Argument).” Mathieu Amalric, who played Desplechin’s stand-in Paul Dedalus in that 1996 film, reprises the role in framing scenes, but most of the movie plays out as three extended flashbacks to Paul’s youth. It’s all very talky, romantic, and smart—definitely worth a look for art house stalwarts. Alice Winocour’s “Disorder,” (Feb. 15 & 18) on the other hand, is fairly forgettable. Mathias Schoenaerts, who was so good opposite Cotillard in 2012’s “Rust and Bone,” plays a PTSD-afflicted veteran hired to bodyguard the wife (Diane Kruger, “Inglourious Basterds”) of a wealthy businessman. Winocour, in her first feature, can’t seem to decide if she’s indulging in genre conventions or subverting them, and the result is predictably muddled.

At least a few of the films in PIFF played at the just-concluded 2016 Sundance Film Festival, including Colombia’s Oscar nominee “Embrace of the Serpent,” but I didn’t manage to catch any of them. Canadian auteur Guy Maddin’s latest film, “The Forbidden Room” (Feb. 16 & 19), however, played at Sundance last year and I did see it, and have a pleasantly discursive chat with its director, then. It’s a typically Maddin-esque affair, a bizarre and frequently hilarious pastiche of silent-film tropes, playful sexuality, and bathtub etiquette. And the droll Icelandic comedy (like there’s any other kind!) “Rams” (Feb. 13 & 17) played in Portland back in October as part of the Northwest Film Center’s annual survey of New Scandinavian Cinema.

That’s the extent of my personal head start, at least until the PIFF press screenings and online viewing links started showing up with a vengeance a couple of weeks ago. We’ll be providing thorough coverage throughout the festival at Oregon ArtsWatch, but here are a few titles (in alphabetical order) I’m keeping a special eye out for.

 

“Above and Below”: (Feb. 14 & 24) This documentary by Swiss director Nicolas Steiner profiles five Americans living on the margins of society in the desolate corners of the American West, including a woman training for a life on Mars and a couple who survive in the sewer tunnels of Las Vegas.

“Arabian Nights”: (Part 1, Feb. 15; Part 2, Feb. 20; Part 3, Feb. 22) Portuguese director Miguel Gomes has played with form and the boundaries between fiction and reality in his previous films “Our Beloved Month of August” and “Tabu.” Now comes this six-hour, three-part magnum opus, which uses the framework of Scheherazade to encapsulate an anthology of stories about the state of the world today.

 

Portuguese director Miguel Gomes' "Arabian Nights" is a three-part, six-hour magnum opus.

Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’ “Arabian Nights” is a three-part, six-hour magnum opus.

“Cemetery of Splendour”: (Feb. 17 & 22) The latest from Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (yes, this fest has a Hadzihalilovic and a Weerasethakul) is described as a “hypnotic cinematic dreamscape,” which sounds about right for the reliably elliptical director whose “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” took home the top prize at Cannes a few years back.

“Eisenstein at Guanajuato”: (Feb. 18) Peter Greenaway is still making movies! His puzzling, painterly work has included “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” and “A Zed and Two Noughts,” and his latest spins a fanciful tale set during Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s travels in 1930s Mexico.

“I Saw the Light”: (Feb. 20 & 21) Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki in the Marvel movies and played a vampire in a Jim Jarmusch movie, here takes on the role of Hank Williams, Sr. Elisabeth Olsen, who plays the Scarlet Witch in the Marvel movies, plays his wife. This one may not be great—its release has been pushed back a couple of times—but it should be interesting.

“In the Shadow of Women”: (Feb. 20 & 22) I referred recently to Arnaud Desplechin as the Frenchiest of filmmakers, but Philippe Garrel might give him a run for his euros. Garrel came of age during the Nouvelle Vague, and has continued to make films in its style for almost fifty years. His latest, shot in black-and-white (naturally), is about a documentary filmmaker who cheats on his wife and collaborator with a younger woman. There will probably be lots of smoking.

“The Lobster”: (Feb. 13) Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz star in an offbeat comedy with a premise that sounds a bit too quirky-by-numbers. It’s set in a world where single adults are given 45 days to fall in love with someone or else they’re turned into an animal of their choice. Early reviews have been positive, though, and Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (“Dogtooth”) has a short but impressive track record when it comes to keeping things truly weird.

 

Movie stars--they're just like us! They go to PIFF too! Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz star in the offbeat comedy "The Lobster."

Movie stars–they’re just like us! They go to PIFF too! Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz star in the offbeat comedy “The Lobster.”

 

“No Home Movie”: (Feb. 14 & 16) This is another one that might qualify more as a curiosity than a revelation. The final film from feminist film pioneer Chantal Akerman, who died in October, is an intimate portrait of the director’s aging mother, a Holocaust survivor, in her last years. In other words, this one won’t be a laugh a minute, but could serve as an appropriately somber farewell to a hugely influential artist.

“The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers”: (Feb. 17 & 20) This year’s winner for longest title goes to British experimental filmmaker Ben Rivers (“A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness”), whose Paul Bowles-inspired effort involves a director who flees his own film’s North African set and eventually becomes a plaything for a band of nomads. Or something.

“A War”: (Feb. 25 & 27) Director Tobias Lindholm earned his second Oscar nomination in two films, following up 2012’s “A Hijacking” with this story of a Danish combat detachment coming under attack during a routine mission in Afghanistan. Their commander is forced to make a decision that exposes his to charges of war crimes, but the truth, as it often is in such things, is more complicated.

 

Hopefully, that’s enough to whet your whistle for Oregon’s biggest cinematic cornucopia. The festival runs from February 11 through 27, and for a full schedule, list of venues, and ticket prices, check http://festivals.nwfilm.org/piff39. And be sure to check back at Oregon ArtsWatch throughout PIFF for guidance on which of the dozens of movies on tap are worth your while. Happy travels!