Pottersville (2017)

Early reactions to the bizarre Christmas comedy Pottersville have been intensely focused on the over-the-top absurdity of its plot, which is totally fair. Michael Shannon stars as a small town general store owner who, once discovering his wife (Christina Hendricks) is having an affair with his best friend (Ron Perlman), goes out on a drunken rampage in a gorilla suit, inadvertently sparking a Bigfoot hoax that makes his once-humble community internationally famous. Oh yeah, and this incident is sparked by his discovery of a secret club of closeted furry fetishists lurking in his community. That’s certainly not the most traditional of Christmastime narratives (especially the part about the furries), but the movie is much more intentionally (and successfully!) goofy than people are giving it credit. It plays a lot like a Christmas-themed, kink-shaming episode of Pushing Daisies and its plot’s overarching sweetness more or less amounts to It’s a Wonderful Yiff, but there’s no way that highly specific aesthetic wasn’t its exact intent. I wouldn’t suggest entering Pottersville if you’re not looking for a campy, tonally bizarre holiday comedy, but it’s novelty subversion of the Hallmark Channel Christmas Movie formula is both deliberate and surprisingly successful.

Pottersville works best when the material is played straight, allowing the (intentional) camp value of the absurdist plot to shine through in full glory. Michael Shannon is disturbingly committed to his lead role as the put-upon shopkeeper, his natural creepiness only making the most impossibly kind character’s earnest, charitable heart all the more bizarre. His befuddlement over the existence of furries (which he unfortunately discovers by catching his wife mid-yiff) and subsequent, moonshine-influenced decision to run amok as Bigfoot are the easy highlights of the film, wonderfully clashing against the Frank Capra Christmas backdrop. By the time he’s drunkenly howling to the night like a wild animal, the performance is downright Nic Cagian. Thomas Lennon’s turn as the film’s heel is much more pedestrian. Dressed up like an early 2000s boy band singer and armed with a horrendous Australian accent, Lennon plays a reality TV “monster hunter” who blows the Bigfoot story way out of proportion, compounding the small town & general store owner’s problems exponentially. He feels like he’s airdropped in from a much broader, more conventional comedy, which detracts heavily from the much more unique tension between Michael Shannon and the furries, but he’s also amusing enough in isolation that he doesn’t ruin the fun of the picture at large. If nothing else, between this movie & Monster Trucks, Lennon has at least built an interesting case for being Bad Movie MVP of 2017.

Delivered by first-time writer/director team of Seth Henrikson & Daniel Meyer, Pottersville is surprisingly well constructed as a visual piece & an oddly subversive act of comedic writing. The town itself looks like a whimsically manicured snow globe miniature, giving it that Pushing Daisies dollhouse look; even the run-down trailer park is super cute. The script also sneaks in out-of-nowhere allusions to Freaks, Jaws, and the Christian Bale freak-out tape … just because? Whenever it functions as an outright comedy it threatens to become hopelessly pedestrian, but the basic premise of Michael Shannon as an undercover Bigfoot hoaxer trying to infiltrate a community of small town furries in a modern retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life is enough to carry the film as a Christmastime novelty. I have to assume everyone involved knew exactly what they were doing when achieving that strange imbalance; you don’t stumble into that kind of absurdity completely by mistake no more than you can accidentally wander into yuletide yiffing. Either way, it’s a strange delight.

-Brandon Ledet

The Shape of Water (2017)

Supposedly, Guillermo del Toro saw The Creature from the Black Lagoon as a child and was disappointed that, at the film’s conclusion, the titular creature (also called Gill Man) was killed in a hail of bullets. This isn’t such an unusual reaction to have, given that the film borrowed some rhetorical resonance from the “Beauty and the Beast” archetypes, and hoping that the film would follow through on that emotional  thread and show the monster and his beloved achieving a kind of happily ever after isn’t that unreasonable. He sought out to correct that perceived mistake, and although it may have taken some time, he’s finally managed to put right what once went wrong with sci-fi/love story/1960s period piece The Shape of Water.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely, mute night janitor working for Occam Aerospace Research Center in early sixties Baltimore. She is but one face in a multitude of such women, which also includes her talkative friend Delilah (Octavia Spencer), who fills the silence between the two women with stories about her home life with Bruce, the husband who causes her no end of old-school domestic strife comedy. Elisa’s is a life of precision that’s just a step out of sync with the rest of the world: instead of rising in the morning, she wakes at precisely the same time each night after the sun has set and makes the same egg-heavy breakfast meals day after day (or, rather, night after night). She also looks after her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay man in his late fifties, whose intricate and perfect illustrations for advertisements have made him an unemployed dinosaur in the time of the rise of photo ads.

Elisa and Giles share a love of the divas of old Hollywood with their elaborate dance numbers and heightened emotions, which echoes the void in both of their love lives. Elisa has never fallen for anyone, and any love that may have touched Giles in his youth has long since slipped into the abyss of time. This doesn’t stop him from developing a schoolboy crush on the counter operator of a franchise pie restaurant (Morgan Kelly), but Elisa’s loneliness seems to have come to an end when Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives at Occam with the “Asset” (Doug Jones), a being that is, for lack of a better term, a fishman. Elisa meets this strange creature when it takes a bite out of Strickland’s left hand and she and Delilah are called upon to mop up the blood. The two develop a bond over music and their mutual inability to express themselves verbally, until the Army orders the Asset vivisected for science. Elisa and her compatriots (along with sympathetic scientist–and secret Russian spy–Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg) must find a way to save the fishman from the real monsters.

I’m a big fan of del Toro’s, as is likely evident from the fact that two of his films, Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth, were my favorite horror films of their respective release years. He knows how to take a tired concept like European vampires or fairy tales and suffuse them with a new energy and vitality, even if he does so by looking backward through time. As such, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this isn’t exactly the most original of premises. A more dismissive reviewer or critic might call this a greatest hits compilation of plot threads from movies and TV shows like E.T. (both in the bonding between human and not, and the The government will cut you up!” angle), Hidden Figures (given that the facility is explicitly aerospace and features the presence of Spencer), Mad Men (in that both works hold a mirror up to the culture of the fifties/sixties as a reminder that to romanticize this time is to ignore many of the prevailing toxic attitudes of the time), and most heist films that you can name. That doesn’t make this film any less ambitious, however, nor does it negate the validity of the emotional reaction that the film evokes.

It’s not just the richness of the narrative text that’s laudable here, either, but the depth of the subtext as well, which even a casual del Toro viewed likely expects. I’ve been a fan of Richard Jenkins ever since his Six Feet Under days (even though it’s not one of his lines, my roommate and I quote Ruth Fischer’s “Your father is dead, and my pot roast is ruined” to each other every time one of us scorches something while cooking), and he tackles this role with a kind of giddy glee that fills the heart with warmth. There’s magic in his every moment on screen, even if his shallow adoration for the pie slinger comes across as a little rushed, narratively speaking, and there’s an understated desperation in his interactions with his former co-worker Bernard (Stewart Arnott). There’s enough of a hint that technological progress is not the only thing that cost Giles his position, and a nuanced tenderness to the dialogue between him and Bernard that hints that there may have been something between them in the past. It’s sweet and heartbreaking all at once.

Strickland is a villain in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Captain Vidal: a terrifyingly familiar figure of fascistic adherence to a nationalistic, ethnocentric, exploitative, and phallocentric worldview. Whereas Vidal was the embodiment of Fascist Spain and its ideals, Strickland is the ideal embodiment of sixties-era Red Pill morality: a racist, self-possessed sexual predator empowered by his workplace superiority. Strickland is a man who professes Christian values out of the left side of his mouth while joking about cheating on his wife and threatening to sexually assault his underlings out of the right side. He mansplains the biblical origins of Delilah’s name to her while, for the sake of her job and perhaps her safety, she plays along with his assumptions of her ignorance. This is above and beyond his inhumane (and pointless) torture of the Asset, an intelligent being that he cannot recognize as sentient because of his own prejudices and assumptions about the world.

Shannon is fantastic here, as he brings real, discomfiting menace to his performance in much the same way that Sergi López did as Vidal, including the arrogance of unquestioning adherence to an ideal that privileges oneself at the expense of others. This underlines the importance of this mirroring of characters as a rhetorical strategy: although Pan’s Labyrinth wasn’t created with an American audience in mind, U.S. viewers could reject Vidal and his violence as being part of a different time and place, distancing themselves from his ideologies. Not so with Strickland, who lifts this veil of enforced rhetorical distance and highlights the fact that idealizing and period of the American past is nothing more than telling oneself a lie about history. It’s a powerful punch in the face of the fascist ideologies that are infiltrating our daily lives bit by bit to see such a horrible villain (admittedly/possibly a bit of a caricature, but with good reason) come undone and be overcome. It’s a further tonic to the soul to see him defeated by an alliance comprised of the “other”: a “commie,” a woman of color, a woman with a physical disability, and an older queer man.

I could be undermining that thesis by ending this review here without highlighting or praising Hawkins or Spencer’s performances, but we’re over 1200 words already, and you should stop wasting time reading this and just go see the film. Let it lift your spirit as it lifted mine.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Well-Intentioned Letdown of When John Waters Targeted the Art World

Starting with the mid-career course correction of Polyester, cult director John Waters had a kind of creative epiphany. In his earliest works of divine genius (Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, etc.), the trash-dwelling provocateur gave life to insular freakshows of over-the-top Baltimore personalities, outsiders who were naturally exuding a punk rock nastiness when hippie feel-goodery still ruled the counterculture. Polyester and its suburban-set follow-ups (Hairspray, Cry-Baby, Serial Mom) found an even more subversive platform for his cinematic freaks, contrasting their outlandish trashiness with the supposedly more well-behaved sect of Proper Society. Hairspray & Cry-Baby were especially adept at exposing suburbia for being a sea of hateful, racist, close-minded assholes in a way that wouldn’t be apparent in more insular settings like Desperate Living‘s Mortville, where the weirdos keep to themselves. After four consecutive films exposed this suburban evil, however, Waters was in need of a new target. Mainstream commercial success had entirely changed his outsider status as a renegade filmmaker & a provocateur by the mid-90s. Waters found himself the toast of both the suburban monsters he’d lampooned for the better part of a decade and the art world snobs who enjoyed his early works for their supposed dedication to irony. With suburbia thoroughly skewered, the director fired off two successive films that targeted the ironic hipsters & mainstream moviegoers who fundamentally misunderstood his passions & his appeal. The intent was admirably calculated, but the results were . . . mixed.

It pains me to write anything even remotely negative about a director I consider to be the greatest artist, if not greatest human being, of all times forever. The nu-metal vibes of the late 90s & early 00s were just poisonous for pop culture in general, though, so it would make sense that Waters would experience the worst creative slump of his career in that era. You can feel him introspectively reaching for something to say in his 1998 comedy Pecker, which continues his childhood period piece navel-gazing in Hairspray & Cry-Baby by centering on a weirdo teen artist who accidentally makes it big just by goofing around with his nobody loved-ones in Baltimore. I think the biggest misconception of Waters’s career, particularly in his early “trash” pictures, is that his portrayals of over-the-top Baltimore caricatures are entirely rooted in a sense of irony. Those pictures are actually coming from a place of feverishly obsessive love. There’s obviously a sense of camp that informs his humor, but Waters also deeply loves & admires early regulars like Divine, Mink Stole, and Edith Massey (as well as his home city of Baltimore) and seemingly only makes his films as a way to document & broadcast their art & their obsessions. Pecker is, above all else, a film about that clash between his intent & public perception of his work. Just as Waters obsessively made movies about his weirdo friends in 1970s Baltimore, he depicts a young photographer (Edward Furlong, the titular Pecker) who obsessively documents his loved ones & their surroundings on the same city streets. That’s why it’s such a betrayal when, in the film and in life, Big City hipsters latch onto those characters only with a sense of irony, laughing at them instead of with them.

Pecker is a film about obsession & authenticity. Even beyond the titular protagonist’s bottomless passion for photography, every character in his social circle has a sitcom-esque dedication to a singular interest: candy, laundromats, shoplifting, clothing the homeless, gay men, pubic hair, ventriloquism, teabagging, etc. These damned souls stay dutifully within their own lanes, only speaking on their one respective topic of interest whenever prompted for dialogue. Pecker finds their passions endearing & documents them within his own sole interest: photography. When his art takes off to an unlikely notoriety in New York City, he assumes everyone championing his photographs is similarly celebrating the beauty of his subjects. Instead, they’re ironically laughing at his “culturally challenged” family & friends for their perceived tackiness. Once this Big City hipster irony is revealed as a real world evil, the film eventually takes the form of a good-natured revenge tale. Pecker invites his new Art World “friends” to Baltimore for his latest show, where they’re given a taste of their own medicine as the derogatory subject of his photographs, a source of mockery. They’re briefly gawked at by Baltimore weirdos as the true freaks for once, until Pecker unites both sides for a climactic party where everyone shares indulgences in each other’s obsessions & collectively cheer, “To the end of irony!” The point being made in that celebration is admirable and I love that Waters took his audience to task for looking down on his weirdo friends as inhuman curiosities instead of genuinely joining in the celebration of their obsessions. The comedy just doesn’t feel as sharp or, frankly, as dirty as it should to match the laugh riot heights of earlier triumphs. Besides a few details involving strip clubs & gay bars (of which The Fudge Palace feels like an obvious ode to New Orleans staple The Corner Pocket), the film didn’t feel very much interested in its own subjects, at least not with the same obsessive intensity they were interested in things like candy & pubic hair. It seems in making a film about art & obsessions, Waters somewhat lost track of funneling his own passionate obsessions into his art.

Cecil B. Demented, the 2000 follow-up to Pecker, feels even more creatively exhausted. Waters shifts his focus slightly from the irony of Art World assholes to the slow death of modern cinema, which he sees as being completely drained of the obsessive artistic passions of his earlier work. Here, the director sides with the artsy types he previously lampooned in order to take aim at the corporate business end of film production. In an opening credits sequence that’s only become more relevant as the years roll on, movie theater marquees are overrun by sequels, franchise titles like Star Trek & Star Wars, comedies starring disposable knuckleheads like Pauly Shore, and art films dubbed from their original languages. As Pecker toasted, “To the end of irony!,” Cecil B. Demented cries, “Death to those who support mainstream cinema!” This is essentially a heist picture where a “teenage” gang (including early appearances from Michael Shannon, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Adrian Grenier) kidnaps a famed Hollywood starlet (Melanie Griffith, who has no trouble slipping into the role of Terrible Actress) and forces her into a guerilla film production that often borders on outright terrorism. Literally wearing their influences on their sleeves in the forms of tattooed names like William Castle, David Lynch, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Kenneth Anger, they attempt to disrupt business-as-usual Hollywood filmmaking by bringing artistic obsession back to the forefront of the industry. There’s an unfortunate irony in this intense focus on authenticity, as the movie doesn’t feel nearly as dangerous or as personal as Waters’s own past in guerilla filmmaking. His murderous cinephiles are certainly silly, but you get the sense that he’s on their side, while still failing to live up to their impossible ideals. “Technique is nothing but failed style,” is a great line in isolation, but I’m not sure what it means in a work that’s Waters’s least funny, least stylish, and most obedient adherence to the mainstream technique of its time: the nu-metal Dark Ages.

By the mid-90s, John Waters’s outsider aesthetic had become an essential part of mainstream filmmaking thanks the gross-out comedy boom that followed the success of There’s Something About Mary. There’s an “Okay, what now?” quality to Pecker & Cecil B. Demented that might be a direct result of that assimilation. With a sensibility he was on the ground floor of establishing now the mainstream standard and his own personal obsessions already documented for infamy in previous works, Waters had to find new purpose for his art in a time mired in one of our worst modern pop culture slumps. I admire his ambition in tackling the commercial end of art production in Cecil B. Demented & the earnestness of the art consumer in Pecker, even if I believe those films to represent his worst creative period. Not only is it a half-assed put-down for me to call out a film or two for being the worst releases from my favorite director; this story also has a happy ending in John Waters eventually getting his groove back back in the excellent 2004 sex comedy A Dirty Shame, his most recent (and most underrated) film to date. Having proven himself in so many other titles that transcend these nu-metal era doldrums, Waters’s Art World potshots are worth having around if not only for giving voice to the director’s take on the art & commerce compromises of his industry. Characters describing Pecker’s photography persona as “a humane Diane Arbus” while Cindy Sherman (playing herself) walks around art galleries offering Valium to children or a dangerously horny Michael Shannon shouting “Tell me about Mel Gibson’s dick and balls!” are worthwhile indulgences for their own sake, even if they don’t match the obsessive passion of documenting Divine & Edith Massey’s exploits in the Dreamlanders era. I may wish that the final products were a little funnier & more artistically distinct, but I love that Waters took the time to dismantle art world pretension & empties commercialism once he was done vilifying suburban normies.

-Brandon Ledet

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

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threehalfstar

There’s no doubt in my mind that fashion-designer-turned-director Tom Ford has a masterpiece in him somewhere. His 2009 debut A Single Man was an interesting work that suggested that maybe his intense vision as a meticulous stylist wasn’t exactly suited for an intimate, small cast drama. Ford took the note and his follow-up, the gleefully trashy Nocturnal Animals, makes much more deliberate strides to match the arty perfume commercial pretension of the his visual obsessions to a more appropriately detached work of cinematic abstraction. In its best moments, Nocturnal Animals nearly touches the transcendent modes of exquisite trash that wins me over so fully in titles like Phase IV, Beyond the Black Rainbow, and The Neon Demon. Ford has seemingly accepted his role as an art curator & visual stylist here, aiming more for a well-constructed image than an emotionally engaging narrative. Nocturnal Animals still feels oddly restrained, though, and the director hesitates to follow through on the film’s more exciting, disorienting impulses, restraining it from becoming the soaring cinematic achievement Ford will surely make someday. Hopefully, it’ll be someday soon.

Amy Adams stars as an art gallery curator struggling to hold onto a flailing marriage with an indifferent business dick, played by Armie Hammer. Their imperfect, handsomely tailored reverie is disrupted by a package containing a manuscript for a new novel from the curator’s first husband, played by Jake Gylenhaal. This framing device sets up three competing storylines: the narrative of the novel, flashbacks to the bickering that dissolved the first marriage, and an endless parade of shots of Amy Adams thinking & reading in bed. All three of these narrative threads are dripping with melodrama, but only one of them is consistently entertaining to behold. The novel, which plays almost like a parody of macho fiction scribes like Bret Easton Ellis & Cormac McCarthy, follows a family who are derailed from a road trip by some West Texas hooligans who rape & murder all but one surviving member.  After a years-long pursuit with the help of a grizzled law man, an absurdist terror brought to life by a top of his game Michael Shannon, those hooligans are brought to a justice of a kind, but at a devastating cost. There’s some kind of parable here about the flawed nature of revenge, but the point Ford’s trying to make doesn’t really matter all that much in the end, given how little attention the “real” world drama of the art curator’s love life is given in comparison to the crime novel’s sensationalist violence & self-doubting masculinity. I like how the novel’s years-long search for retribution mirrors the frustration of constantly performing mental autopsies on a past failed romance, including the incessant impulse to return to the scene of the crime in both cases. However, I’d rather that the art curator’s half either match the novel’s narrative significance so that both halves are equally strong or for the film to not try to make a point at all. As is, their connection feels a little thin considering the effort they take to merge thematically.

The one thing the Amy Adams end of this fractured narrative does accomplish is to contextualize Nocturnal Animals as a work of Art, rather than a conventional feature film. The opening credits are a stunning, immersive gaze into a gallery exhibit where flabby erotic dancers shake their naked bodies in a Twin Peaks void of sparklers, confetti, and tiny American flags. At a fancy cocktail party between artsy types, Adams rattles on about “junk culture, total junk” and a swishy Michael Sheen chides her (along with the audience) to “Enjoy the absurdity of our world. It’s a lot less painful when you do.” Gyllenhaal’s frustrated novelist even laments at one point about how painful & vulnerable it is to make divisive art that seemingly no one likes. Nocturnal Animals feels most alive when Ford drops the pretense of trying to make a point and instead lovingly shoots his beautiful sets & impeccable costumes without any semblance of making them narratively significant. His art curator framing device works best as an instruction manual on how best to appreciate what he’s trying to accomplish in the film, rather than a participation in its thematic goals. I have very little interest in the way Ford’s narratives clash fragile artsy types against the unhinged threat of dangerously macho hicks, but any abstracted moment where he carefully posed naked bodies before blinding red fabric voids on top of a classical music score had me drooling in my chair. I’m not convinced Nocturnal Animals has anything useful or novel to say about the frivolity of revenge or the human condition, but it often works marvelously as an art gallery in motion (when it’s not hung up on watching Amy Adams think & read herself through another lonely night).

I’m loving the new weird territory Tom Ford explores here; I just think he can afford to get a whole lot weirder. There’s a third act shift into audience disorientation in Nocturnal Animals that I found far more exciting than any of the film’s various moral dilemmas and moments of bitter melodrama. Ford cuts from one reality to the next in jarring transitions where you sometimes aren’t even sure if you’re watching a scene or a still photograph. If this narrative jumble between its various storylines lead to some kind of a psychological break along the lines of a Persona or a Mulholland Drive, I might be singing its praises (the way I have been with its fellow exquisite trash pieces Tale of Tales & The Neon Demon) as one of the best films of 2016. It instead leads to a much more pedestrian narrative about revenge & bruised emotions: a hollow, although beautiful, shell of what could have been. I doubt Ford would be interested in doing so, but I’d love to see the director move into an even trashier genre than a pulpy crime story in the future. If he left behind his impulse to make a narrative point about life & humanity and instead applied his stylist skills to a horror of sci-fi genre pic, where the stakes are lowered from the heights of an intimate drama & the thrills are more or less predetermined, he’d feel way more free to let loose & deliver that weirdo masterpiece I’m convinced is in his imminent future. Nocturnal Animals very nearly gets there and it’s fascinating to watch him reach for it in his own carefully meticulous way, but he needs to loosen up just a little bit to arrive at that accomplishment.

-Brandon Ledet

Loving (2016)

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threehalfstar

With his two feature film entries in 2016, Jeff Nichols has established a very clear (although probably unintentional) genre pattern in his career. The director seems to be strictly alternating between realistic familial drama & high concept sci-fi in his work (with a little of the former category seeping in to inform the latter). The sequence so far looks like this: Shotgun Stories (drama), Take Shelter (sci-fi), Mud (drama), Midnight Special (sci-fi), and now Loving (drama). Although Shotgun Stories is contrarily my favorite title from the director, I typically find myself more enamored with the sci-fi end of this divide. Loving finds Nichols returning to the muted, sullen drama of Mud, this time with a historical bent. It isn’t my favorite mode for a director who’s proven that he can deliver much more striking, memorable work when he leaves behind the confines of grounded realism, but something Nichols does exceedingly well with these kinds of stories is provide a perfect stage for well-measured, deeply affecting performances. Actors Joel Edgerton & Ruth Negga are incredibly, heartachingly sincere in their portrayals of real-life trail-blazers Richard & Mildred Loving and Nichols is smart to take a backseat to their work here, a dedication to restraint I respect greatly, even if I prefer when it’s applied to a more ambitious kind of narrative.

Loving, which really does have a conveniently apt title thanks to history, is an exercise in directorial patience & discipline. A decades-spanning dramatization of a young Virginian couple as they raise children & defy a federal law banning interracial marriage in a historical Supreme Court decision, this film could have easily been an over-the-top melodrama about hard-fought courtroom battles & explosively violent racism in the South, especially in the hands of an Oscar-minded director like a Ron Howard or a Spielberg. In Nichols’s version of the story, however, the seething anger over the Loving couple’s interracial romance is just as quiet & deeply seated as their love for one another. The score can be a little imposing in its own tenderly sad way, but for the most part Nichols avoids cliché and mostly just makes room to allow his actors to quietly do their thing. Portraying a couple who were more interested in being left alone than (literally) making a federal case out of the “crime” of being married, Edgerton & Negga brilliantly use the negative space of non-reaction to convey the emotional swell of a scene. Negga is especially skilled at this maneuver, making the mute reaction to a phonecall or a shared physical intimacy with Mildred’s sister hit like a ton of bricks without ever calling attention to herself. The distracting presence of actors Nick Kroll & frequent Nichols collaborator Michael Shannon detracts from that disciplined subtlety, but they’re also playing characters who bring publicity & legal attention to the Lovings’ case, so their sore thumb effect might’ve been deliberately intended. Either way, all of the romance, suffering, and compassion in Loving rests in Edgerton’s & Negga’s steady, capable hands and Nichols’s best moments in this traditionalist drama is in the way he harnesses their quiet energy for a subtly devastating effect.

If you wanted to be especially morbid in your reading of the film, you could say that Loving has an alarming amount of significance in a modern context, given many Western countries’ sudden far right return to horrifying ideology like “God’s law” & “racial purity.” This isn’t the metaphorical, history-minded political statement of titles like the Hitler-themed black comedy Look Who’s Back, though. If anything, Loving reminds me of the quietly measured drama of last year’s Brooklyn (sans the pretty dresses for the most part, unfortunately). It doesn’t force attention-grabbing moments of high stakes drama, but instead details a fragile romance in a perilous era that threatens to shatter it under immense social & legal pressure. Loving is less about racism than it is about, well, loving and the movie only really stumbles when outside personalities disrupt the believable romantic ideal Edgerton & Negga establish in their scenes (Nick Kroll’s presence is especially egregious on that note). Nichols finds interesting detail to signify the era: the early stirrings of rock & roll in exciting hot rod races; playful abandon in Mason jars full of moonshine; the horror movie atmosphere of small town law enforcement creeping through the night. His best impulse here, though, is in the way he backs up to allow space for Negga & Edgerton to work their magic. It’d be tempting say that any director could’ve made Loving, because of that absence of stylistic imposition, but I don’t think many directors would’ve displayed the same level of restraint in a drama about such an important Supreme Court case. Nichols puts a relatable, knowable face to history here (with his talented cast’s help, of course). Although this is far from my favorite work he’s put in so far as a director or as a stylist (Midnight Special makes sure it’s not even his most winning success this year), it’s this exact kind of discipline & restraint that sells his higher-concept work so believably & effectively.

-Brandon Ledet

Thoughts on The Congress (2014) and the Question of What, Exactly Modern Celebrities are Selling

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One of the most wildly imaginative sci-fi films in recent memory, for my money, was the often-overlooked, “technophobic” film industry satire The Congress. In the film, Princess Bride actress Robin Wright plays a fictionalized version of herself facing an exponentially shrinking list of potential career options thanks to an industry that has a long history of underserving women as they age past their 20s & 30s. Wright’s agent uses this professional crisis to pressure her into allowing a major movie studio to digitally capture (or, in the movie’s lingo, “hermetically scan”) her very essence, essentially selling her tangible soul to a media conglomerate. This leads to a psychedelic existential crisis involving an animated wonderland of dystopian terror that makes The Congress one of the most visually bizarre films I can remember from the last couple of years.

As eccentric as The Congress‘s visual pallet can be, it isn’t exactly what’s been keeping the film fresh in my mind since I first reviewed it last year. There’s been a recent string of news stories reminiscent of the ways The Congress depicts movie studios owning actors’ likeness that feel oddly off-putting in a way the film seemed to forewarn, keeping it fresh in my mind. For example, during the press tour for the recent Zack Snyder debacle Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, eccentric Lex Luthor actor Jesse Eisenberg went into great detail about the fake Michael Shannon body double used in the film. Shannon, who played the villainous Emperor Zod in Snyder’s Man of Steel, didn’t fully reprise his role in the sequel as Zod’s corpse (who could blame him?), but instead allowed the studio to include him via lifeless dummy created based off his headcast. Where it gets really creepy is in Eisenberg’s description of the fake Michael Shannon, which appears in the film completely nude. According to Eisenberg, the Shannon doll was entirely, unnecessarily anatomically correct to the point where the detail was a little disturbing (long story short, he had a penis).

There are, of course, even more direct comparison points to Robin Wright’s fictional plight in the way celebrity actors are being represented & altered digitally. Actors appearing posthumously in commercials for beer, junk food, vacuum cleaners, etc. is crass enough of a concept in itself and has been around long enough to likely have influenced some of The Congress‘s digitizing paranoia. Things have snowballed even since the film’s production, however, including two high profile instances of actors being digitally inserted into feature-length works they didn’t live to see completed (Paul Walker in Furious 7 & Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Mockingjay Pt II). Even actors who did film their role to completion are being subjected to digital alterations in post-production. Sometimes this can be as simple as removing a pimple or a blemish or the effects of aging with computer magic (Paul Rubens in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is a recent example) or as horrifying as the very recent reports of Paramount & DreamWorks allegedly testing a digital technique to make white actors appear “more Asian” in post-production for the already-controversial live action Ghost in the Shell adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson. Whether or not you agree with the actors’ decision to accept those roles/paychecks in the first place, you have to admit it’s super shady that the studio attempted to dress them in digital yellowface after the fact (presumably without their knowledge or consent).

The question at large here is what, exactly are celebrities selling to movie studios when they sign a contract for a big budget role? In the past (and, indeed, in smaller current productions) actors were strictly selling a performance, a record of work delivered. Modern celebrities, however, seem to be selling much more than that. They’re not selling a record of their work so much as the rights to their personalities & essence. This current era of digital recreation & the ownership of celebrity likeness is on much shakier, creepier ground and it’s difficult not to think of The Congress‘s sci-fi celebrity culture dystopia as each of these news stories crop up. The film didn’t do so well critically or financially upon initial release, but I find that its pointed satire about Hollywood’s future gets more eerily relevant on almost a daily basis. It’s difficult to say for certain exactly why The Congress failed to strike a chord with a larger audience. I’ll admit that it plays a little off-balance & unsure in moments, but if nothing else I greatly respect the film’s tendency to swing for the fences even when what it delivers lands way off target. I also am continuously taken aback by just how much the film has to say about modern celebrity culture, especially when I see modern celebrity culture talking back.

-Brandon Ledet

Midnight Special (2016)

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fourhalfstar

“Y’all have no idea what you’re dealing with, do ya?”

Michael Shannon is, without a doubt, my favorite actor working today. There’s an unmatched level of intensity in his screen presence that ranges from hilarious to alarming to terrifying depending on how he wants you to react, but he always gets a reaction. Some directors aren’t entirely sure how to harness this intensity & Shannon is often asked to dial it to eleven in every scene. This is fun to watch, but not necessarily the full extent of what his unique talent can bring to the screen. The madman actor does, however, have one long term collaborator in Jeff Nichols who knows exactly how to put his talent to full use. Jeff Nichols often allows Michael Shannon to play his intensity quietly, providing the actor more room to fully do his thing than any other director I can think of (outside maybe Herzog in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? or the show runners on Boardwalk Empire).

With Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols continues his career pattern of alternating between intimate thrillers & ambitious sci-fi. As far as ambition goes, this marks his riskiest, most far-reaching work to date, drowning out even the widespread mania of his sophomore work (and last sci-fi outing) Take Shelter. Mirroring the best eras of sci-fi cinema giants Steven Spieldberg & John Carpenter, comparison points you wouldn’t want to evoke lightly, Midnight Special is massive enough in its imagination & awe-inspiring mystery to establish Nichols as one of the best young talents in the industry today. Much like folks like Jonathan Glazer & Miranda July, his catalog is modestly small, but each film is a preciously crafted gift well worth waiting for. Nichols & Shannon have been close collaborators on four films in the last decade and Midnight Special easily stands as their most rounded & complete work since their first outing in 2007’s near-perfect Shotgun Stories. It’s also the best example of sci-fi action & supernatural mystery by any filmmaker in recent memory, perhaps going back for years, which is impressive given its pedigree as a mid-budget work from a director who’s still working just outside the Hollywood system.

It’s difficult to speak too extensively on Midnight Special‘s plot without ruining what makes the movie, well, special. For so much of the film’s runtime the audience is left in the dark with only brief flashes of game-changing revelations (literally) illuminating exactly what is going on. Just getting an exact handle on who’s involved in the film’s sci-fi chase plot (kidnappers, parents, cultists, federal agents, etc.) and whether their intent is good or malicious can be a lot to process. One thing in the film is clear: there is an 8 year old boy at the center of the chaos who has a mysterious, perhaps supernatural connection to a world beyond ours. The boy, Alton Meyer, is destined to travel to a specific location for  a specific date, but the purpose of that mission & the source of that intel is largely unclear. As one character puts it, “That’s all we have. This date & place is everything.” As an audience member, you’re better off not knowing any more than that yourself. Like the characters surrounding the young, enigmatic Alton Meyer have faith that the child’s very existence serves some higher purpose, you just have to have faith as an audience that Midnight Special will culminate all of these obfuscated, grandiose elements into a worthwhile whole. I am here to witness to the fact that there is indeed a payoff. I’ve seen the light. I am a true believer.

Midnight Special is like a perfectly calibrated feature-length episode of The X-Files, but without the sex appeal. The only thing I can really fault the movie for is not taking the time to develop the emotional impact of its central relationships the way past Jeff Nichols films have. The air of mystery is so oppressively heavy here that I was far more concerned about what would happen next & what small clues might be lurking in the details than I was with the film’s emotional core. This is kind of surprising for a plot centered around a vulnerable child in worlds of trouble and it may very well be the case that its emotional impact will hit me harder in future viewings now that I know where the plot is going. Honestly, though, these concerns feel downright minuscule in light of what the film accomplishes as a mid-budget sci-fi. Jeff Nichols creates an intimidatingly massive world here with the most basic of tools. Slight visual references to comic book staples like X-Men & Superman and real-life doomsday cults like Heaven’s Gate & Jonestown carry so much significance in terms of storytelling economy that the world’s most expensive CGI team couldn’t muster with a limitless budget & absence of a deadline. Just look to Alton Meyer’s headgear (plastic ear muffs & swimming goggles) to see how otherworldly the film can make even the most basic elements feel.

Nichols & Shannon have quietly built a concise little catalog of small, intimate stories with massive emotional impact in their collaborations. Midnight Special may be the director’s most ambitious work to date in terms of scale, but he’s smart to keep the individual parts that carry the hefty, supernatural mystery of the narrative just as small & intimate as he has in past familial dramas like Mud & Shotgun Stories. Shannon is similarly subdued & bare bones in his performance, which is a nice change from the long line of explosive roles that ask him to go larger than life with every breath. Together, they’ve delivered an incredible work with a near-limitless scope, but it’s one built an intricately detailed foundation of grounded, believable worldbuilding & old fashioned character work. Midnight Special may allow its ideas to outweigh its emotion in a general sense, but you never lose sight that these are real people struggling with an unreal situation. Honestly, the most difficult thing to believe in this wildly imaginative film is that there are working payphones in rural Texas in 2016. It might not be my favorite collaboration of theirs to date (that’s a bit of a close call), but it’s easily recognizable as their most ambitious & it really ups the ante for where their work is headed & what they could achieve with the right resources.

-Brandon Ledet

99 Homes (2015)

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fourstar

You’d be forgiven for assuming that an indie drama about forcible evictions during the 2007-2009 U.S. Subprime Morgage Crisis would be a thoroughly bleak affair. And even if you didn’t assume that about 99 Homes, the film sets its pessimistic tone early by opening with the fallout of a suicide. There is a wild card at play here, however, and its name is Michael Shannon. Shannon is notoriously deft at playing hilariously terrifying monsters & his turn as a money-obsessed real estate broker in 99 Homes is certainly not relatable or even remotely likeable, but it is, at times, riotously funny. Shannon is such a darkly amusing joy to watch in 99 Homes that his performance often threatens to turn the film into a black comedy. It’s whenever he’s offscreen, leaving Andrew Garfield’s much-suffering construction worker & single father to pick up the pieces of a broken life left in the evil broker’s wake, that Shannon’s antagonist stops being darkly amusing & just simply feels dark.

The story of 99 Homes is fairly straightforward. Michael Shannon’s real estate broker makes most of his money by evicting people from their homes on behalf of the bank. When Shannon’s monster broker evicts Andrew Garfield’s out-of-work construction dad from his family home, Garfield’s desperate blue collar everyman ends up working for the less-than-legal brute. He works his way up from literally shovelling shit to making ludicrous piles of cash as the evil broker’s right hand man. This, of course, leads to Garfield’s sad dad performing the very same heartless eviction practices that ruined his life in the first place & hiding his newfound source of income from his suspicious mother, played by the always-welcome Laura Dern. There’s a devastating amount of empathetic pain in Garfield’s eyes as he explains to people that their homes are now owned by the bank & that they are trespassing on bank property that makes the film at times bleakly arresting. For the most part, though, there aren’t too many surprises in the film’s indie drama formula & it plays out exactly as you’d expect.

It really is Michael Shannon’s performance that makes 99 Homes a memorably visceral experience. Although there is a unignorable consistency to his work as an actor, Shannon brings a terrifying authenticity to the role, something that truly makes you feel bad for laughing, seeing as how this was a real thing that happened to real people very recently. Shannon’s heartless real estate broker is a pitch perfect update to the wicked bankers with the cigar-chomping switched out for e-cigs. (Our next generation of irredeemable villains are vapers. There’s no way around that.) Cop’s call Shannon’s evil broker “boss”. He golfs with politicians in one scene & makes backroom deals to rip off the government with higher-ups at the bank in the next. He brags about how he “made more money during the crash than before” & talks cynically about America as “a nation of the winners by the winners for the winners.” I also particularly liked a moment where he describes houses as boxes that you shouldn’t get emotional about. Instead of saying what matters is what you fill the boxes with, he says it matters how many boxes you have, which is a perfectly succinct summation of his monstrously greedy soul. As with a lot of Shannon’s work, the real estate broker at the center of 99 Homes‘ true-to-life nightmare is deliciously over-the-top in his villainy. Andrew Garfield & Laura Dern are talented actors who hold their own when needed, but Shannon devours so much scenery that there isn’t much left room for them left to stand on. He’s a sight to behold.

-Brandon Ledet