By Ray Pride
Thematically, Arkansas-born writer-director Jeff Nichols’ fourth feature draws capably from the models of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.” and “Starman,” as well as Nichols’ own affinity for spare widescreen compositions akin to Clint Eastwood movies of that filmmaking era.
“Midnight Special” is a shaggy God story, withholding secrets without being precious, and hardly ever explaining. A boy is taken from the compound of a religious sect led by a patriarch (Sam Shepard) who’s convinced that eight-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is a vessel for languages and numbers from God. The boy also has a tendency when disturbed to disrupt everything around him through blue light that shoots from his eyes. The abductor is his father, Roy (Michael Shannon, bringing a taciturn, complex characterization to a Nichols film for the fourth time), and an accomplice (Joel Edgerton). The layers of reasons for their cross-country escape are slowly revealed, including meetings with his mother (Kirsten Dunst) and a quizzical NSA agent (Adam Driver) also curious about Alton’s talents or origins. Visually, dramatically, things stay cool, at a distance or middle distance. Like ”Close Encounters”’ Roy Neary, this father takes a son on a journey to an unknown place, a proving ground.
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Michael Shannon simmers at a lower temperature than many of his film roles in “99 Homes,” Ramin Bahrani’s punchy, persuasive combination of fierce polemic and widescreen genre filmmaking. Shannon plays the appositely named Rick Carver, a reprobate realtor flipping homes in Florida, with Andrew Garfield a single father who slides into his infernal orbit after archetypal modern financial setbacks, facilitating forced evictions of other families. Bahrani, a favorite of the late Roger Ebert and friend of Werner Herzog, makes bold moves here from his neo-neorealist origins in movies like “Man Push Cart” and “Goodbye Solo.” I’m predisposed to movies that mesh topical elements with classical movie form—not all of the “one percent” might own ninety-nine homes, only enough not to count, like John McCain—and Bahrani meets the challenge to oft-fiery result, making blunt political points amid genre-amped melodrama. Read the rest of this entry »
“Nobody knows anything” is how screenwriter William Goldman describes how the Hollywood studio system works. “Nobody knows what’s coming next” would be an apt motto for the film industry at large, as well as the many aspects of the booming, burgeoning city of cinema called Chicago. Big-budget movies and television are shooting in Chicago at a rate not seen since the glory days of the 1990s, the same economics that are crunching the film industry are making it possible for so much more small, strange or lovely new work to make its way into the world, and gifted artists are staying in Chicago for all the reasons we’re sure you’re still in Chicago.
There’s a much larger pool of talent in Chicago than a list of fifty can do more than indicate. While last year’s debut list was more about the behind-the-scenes players, this year we’re focusing just on artists. And there are many ways we’re defining the word “artist” in our choices. In pulling together this pool of creative people, we looked for paragons in whom we could all find inspiration—whether it’s zen everyman Bill Murray, or indelibly young filmmakers you haven’t heard of yet—people who do the Chicago name proud, whether on the big screen, on cable or online. Many of these individuals take part of the larger weave of how films get made—“below-the-line” as the jargon goes—and others are exemplars of the multi-hyphenate talents who seem to be around every corner, protean prodigies who aren’t juggling multiple careers, but living them as full, admirable, even enviable creative lives.
Chicago is a storytelling city, and we’ve let the Film 50 tell a few about who they are and what they do. It’s like a busy, buzzing party where you’re content to listen in on other conversations with a strong drink in your hand, nodding your head in agreement more times than you realize. It’s an indication what a great film town this is when everyone’s ready to talk about how they love to work in Chicago, and how grateful they are to be part of an ever-expanding, ever-more-prolific community at large. Here’s betting that these conversations are only the tip of the ice cream. These people know something. (Ray Pride)
Film 50 was written by Ray Pride, with additional contributions by Brian Hieggelke
All photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux on location at Lagunitas Brewing Company.
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With its radical shifts in tone from scene to scene, “Man of Steel” is as much a study in schizophrenia as a portrait of a misunderstood thirty-three-year-old superhuman sent down to save the world and the fates of a seventy-five-year-old comic book character. The constant is whirling mayhem and Christopher Nolan-scale gloom. While director Zack Snyder has his own way with brooding and blackness, the stern hand of co-producer Nolan presses down. David S. Goyer’s screenplay takes full advantage of the familiarity-unto-banality of Superman’s origins, flashing forward and back at will to underline his origins. Any true origin story, however, would take a more secretive shape that audiences will never know: the dealings in blandly gleaming conference rooms amid grande lattes and fistfuls of fiscal projections as calculations are made of the potential of 3D upcharges, Russian and Chinese repeat viewers and the revenues from compulsive cycling of product placements. That would be the “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” of origin stories: seemingly dry but of endless fascination in its gestural minutiae. Read the rest of this entry »
By Ray Pride
My strongest memories of Chicago storefront theater in the 1990s when Tracy Letts’ “Killer Joe” was first loosed are rude floorboards and multiplicities of dust. Letts recalls the confines of the space at Evanston’s Noyes Cultural Arts Center. “There’s still a theater there called Next Theatre, but down the hall, in the same building was something called the Next Lab, the creation of Dexter Bullard. It was a classroom that had been painted black. There were about forty seats, about as many as can fit into a classroom, ringing two sides of the stage. We built the trailer inside that classroom, with two walls cutaway. So I mean, it was very close. People were as far away as you and I are now, to the action going on, on stage. It was a very intense experience.” Read the rest of this entry »
“It’s still stormin’.” A taut masterpiece of prescient dread, writer-director Jeff Nichols’ control in “Take Shelter” is exemplary, and a huge leap from the already strong work in his observant first feature, “Shotgun Stories.” Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) works as a sand miner and lives along a tornado alley in a rural Ohio town with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and six-year-old daughter Hannah, who is deaf. Read the rest of this entry »
“You quit stripping to fucking pack fucking mushrooms?” sputters an incredulous Sam Childers (Gerard Butler, “300”). On his first day out of prison, this Pennsylvania biker, doper and gun-lover gets the news that his wife is no longer employed at the Bunny Hole: she’s a Christian now. The lowlife father of her little daughter is soon dunked at her Pentecostal church, starts a roofing and construction company, and builds his own church. Read the rest of this entry »
The racing ostriches. The tiny man dancing on a clear-cut stump in the snow. Endangered flamingoes named McNamara and MacDougal. Plates of shivery black Jell-o offered up as a treat in a Norman Rockwell-styled tableau vivant. Meaninglessly meaningful offerings of basketballs. Brad Dourif spooking Michael Shannon. Werner Herzog does not need special effects. In his David Lynch-produced procedural, “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?” the Teutonic seeker of “ecstatic truth” bends the fictions of television narrative to his eccentric ends. It could well be “CSI: Tierra del Fuego.” Shooting a script he’d written several years ago (with Herbert Golder, a classical civilization professor he’s worked with before), the 67-year-old director tells a story based on the real-life case of Mark Yarovsky who became obsessed with Euripides’ “Orestes” and killed his mother with a prop saber. Michael Shannon and Grace Zabriskie (“Twin Peaks,” “Inland Empire”) played the fiction son and mom. Read the rest of this entry »
By Ray Pride
“These bitches suck” was Creem magazine’s timeless takedown of The Runaways when the teenage girl band bobbed to the surface of the 1970s.
In Floria Sigismondi’s writing-directing debut, the making-of-the-band, life-on-the-road, taking-of-the-drugs telling of 1970s teen rockers who made it right to the middle (despite mostly sucking, musically) has the right attitude if not a fully fleshed story. It satisfies in bursts, like an erratically track-sequenced album. Based on Cherie Currie’s slim memoir, “Neon Angel,” “The Runaways” is episodic, and Currie’s decline isn’t as interesting as 15-year-old Dakota Fanning’s embodiment of her rapid slip-slide into neurasthenia and diva-dom. (Fanning’s turn-on-a-dime from sullen to sneering as the band assembles the song “Cherry Bomb” is one of her best moments: “Ch. Ch. Ch. CHERRY BOMB!”) Joan Jett’s survival instincts are more indicated than dramatized, and Kristen Stewart, while as watchable as ever, brings more spark than fire. Michael Shannon, playing oddball Svengali Kim Fowley, is bright and funny as a leering loon, but he’s a man we ought to be fearful of as much as mesmerized by. (Shannon’s memorably theatrical styling of lines like “I am the luckiest dogfucker in space!” are more Walkenesque than truly loony.) Read the rest of this entry »
Noah Buschel’s “The Missing Person” was well-regarded in its 2008 Sundance premiere, but makes it to theaters only now. (Elements involving the Twin Towers may be part of the reason for the modest, delayed release.) A knottily plotted detective yarn, more film blanc than noir, it features Chicago’s own Michael Shannon as a 1940s-style detective whose unintentional specialty is finding psychological damage all around him. The twenty-first century needs definition, if not detection, and Buschel’s work is a peck of poetic longeurs and narrative crisscross. The pacing is eccentric yet foreboding, suiting the elegant unease of Shannon’s performance. He’s difficult, his character is unlikable, but you can’t tear yourself away from the simmering mood, the glowing performance. From “Bug” to “Revolutionary Road” to “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?” Shannon populates a world all his own, but manages to bring the movies he’s in along, revealing something about our own as well. With Amy Ryan, Frank Wood, Linda Emond, Paul Sparks, Margaret Colin, John Ventimiglia, Yul Vazquez, Merritt Wever, Daniel Franzese. 95m. (Ray Pride)