Tag Archives: michael shannon

Midnight Special – Review

1 Jul

Science fiction is probably my favorite genre of film and literature because it can form such a huge spectrum of stories to be told. Recently, there’s been a huge influx of space films like the resurgences of Star Trek and Star Wars, but also completely original ideas like Christopher Nolan’s excellent work with Interstellar. If not space, the market seems flooded with science fiction via superhero films. What I don’t see a lot of are smaller films that still have a grand story to tell without all the bells and whistles of major Hollywood productions. This is partially why I was so interested with Jeff Nichols’ film Midnight Special, along with the fact that it stars my favorite actor, Michael Shannon. With my expectations raised pretty high, I’m thrilled to say that Midnight Special did not disappoint.

On a seemingly quiet night, and AMBER alert is issued for an 8 year old boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher). It’s revealed that he’s safe and sound in a motel with his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and Roy’s close friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). As the trio hit the road during the darkest hours of the night, the FBI raid a religious cult’s farmland to interrogate its founder, Pastor Calvin (Sam Shepard), who raised Alton since Roy and his wife, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), left the compound. The main interrogator is NSA communication analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) who is more interested with how Calvin was able to get highly classified satellite communications through Alton. It’s soon revealed through Roy’s travels with Alton with the FBI and members of the cult hot on their tails that Alton may not be of this world, and while his origins are unknown to all parties involved, it’s evident that he’s about to reveal something that will change the world forever.

Let me just say, the way this story is told is fantastic. The structure that this narrative falls into is really the only way this story can be told. The film begins in medias res with Roy, Lucas, and Alton on the run and we as the audience don’t know why. This first part of the movie is so riveting because I really hadn’t the slightest idea of what everything meant. Was Alton an alien or some sort of experiment gone wrong? What was the deal with the religious cult? How powerful is Alton and what are his weaknesses. Nichols knows that with a story like this, there’s going to be some major questions and he uses that to the film’s advantage and creates this mysterious thread that totally morphs into a web. The atmosphere of science fiction blends well with the rural roads our travelers call home during the night, and the mystery of what is actually going on had me hooked from beginning to end.

My last review was of J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, and I really liked that movie except for a problem with certain characters and their relevancy to the story. As much as I really liked Midnight Special, I feel like this film is a bigger offender of the same problem. Early in the movie we get introduced to the religious cult Alton comes from and its charismatic leader, Pastor Calvin. I really liked this element of the story in the way that it seemed to be blending science fiction and religion. It’s a theme that’s seen pretty frequently in the genre, but it felt really down to earth in this film. Unfortunately, this cult doesn’t really amount to much and the only impact they have on the story lasts a few scenes, one of them being quite intense. Still, I would have liked to see a lot more from the cult and especially from Sam Shepard’s character, Calvin, because he was really selling that role well.

Like I said, Midnight Special is science fiction brought down to earth. It’s something I felt like could be happening at this very moment, and I even thought about if I’ve ever driven past someone on a dark highway going through some extraordinary even like this, and I would never know. With these huge science fiction films taking us to different worlds and galaxies, it was refreshing to see a movie that just spans a couple of states with a story that deals with real people. While this movie isn’t action packed, it still has plenty of really unique special effects that I will forever associate with this film and some larger than life ideas that I feel pay off very well.

Midnight Special is truly just a wonderful story and I have to give Jeff Nichols credit for once again leading me down a road where I couldn’t have guessed the destination. This film works as science fiction, family drama, and as a mystery that’s wrapped in a very well shot and paced film. The only gripes I have come from some characters that feel underused or just completely forgotten. Still, this is some excellent science fiction that deserves more praise than it gets.

Final Grade: A

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Revolutionary Road – Review

2 Sep

To me, some of the coolest kinds of movies take subjects that seem completely normal and uneventful and completely flip them on their heads to show a much more unsettling look at normalcy. In 1999, director Sam Mendes graced the world with a masterwork of film making, American Beauty, which took a darkly comedic look at the sometimes tragic follies of suburban living. After this great success, Mendes would revisit similar themes with his 2008 film Revolutionary Road. While it does share similar elements to his earlier film, Revolutionary Road is a much more serious and unsettling look at marriage, mental health, and the idea of “settling down.” It’s an overwhelming experience that is bound to leave you drained by the end.

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After Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets April (Kate Winslet) at a party, it doesn’t take long for them to fall in love and start their life together. They move into a nice house on Revolutionary Road in the suburbs of Connecticut. Frank gets a job as a salesman for Knox Machines and April stays home taking care of their two young kids. It seems like the perfect nuclear family. What’s happening behind closed doors is less than perfect. Frank and April’s relationship is completely disintegrating, and this disintegrations is causing a lot of hate to boil to the surface. This hate has to remain hidden from their friends and neighbors. Their final solution to this is to pack their things, get out of the mundane life they created and move to Paris. While this idea brings them closer to the happiness they desire, a promotion offered to Frank once again puts their relationship in jeopardy as their desires and feelings become even more at ends and their lives begin to spiral out of control.

What Mendes did for more modern suburban life with American Beauty, he does for the nuclear family in Revolutionary Road. This film takes a tough look at what is labeled as the “perfect American life.” The Wheelers are a close family that live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood, and that’s ultimately what seems to be their downfall. Everything is just too nice. It also shows the long term consequences of decisions that seemed like a great idea at the time, like quickly getting married or hastily taking a job that you have no interest in. I feel like I’m rambling a little bit, but that’s one of the more interesting parts about this movie. Everything seems so mundane and ordinary at first glance, but this mundanity is what’s helping to tear this family to shreds. Revolutionary Road also takes a critical look at relationships. It doesn’t condemn them even a little bit, but it forces the audience to examine what makes them actually work and how too much focus on yourself, no matter how right or wrong you may be, can wreak the foundation a relationship is built on. In a nutshell, Revolutionary Road is a film about the extraordinary dark side to an otherwise ordinary life, which may seem all to real to some people.

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Revolutionary Road is an emotionally exhausting film, and I guarantee that by the end you’re going to need either eat an entire tub of ice cream or take a really long nap. There are scenes in this movie that are so intense and real and uncomfortable that I was looking at it through my fingers. When a movie isn’t a horror film and it elicits that kind of reaction, then something was done very right. While it is very intense and tragic in many scenes, there are times where it got to be a bit too much. That’s probably my only complaint with this film. It goes from being highly dramatic to too predictably melodramatic. This only happens a few times throughout the course of the movie so it really isn’t that big of a complaint at all. Most of the scenes hit the dramatic intensity just right, while a select few kind of just go too far. One major contribution to the drama is Thomas Newman’s excellent score that fits right in with the film’s onscreen action.

Watching this movie, it isn’t hard to believe that before working in film, Mendes was a prolific director of stage plays. He, along with the help of master cinematographer Roger Deakins, films this movie like something that could be found on stage. It works great for the film and really allows that actors to work with the limited space that is given to them DiCaprio and Winslet have already shown their chemistry in Titanic, and now show a much more matured version of that chemistry in Revolutionary Road. They give outstanding performances that, I feel, have become under appreciated since the time of this movie’s release. I was surprised to see Michael Shannon, who has grown to be one of my absolute favorite actors, shows up for a little bit. He’s only in a few scenes, but he absolutely owns the screen whenever he’s on, and for this small performance he was given a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Revolutionary Road is one of those movies that really hits you where it hurts. At times, the drama could get a little heavy handed and the writing could stray into the “no one really talks like that” category. Even with the rare heavy handedness, this is a really interesting and upsetting film that succeeds in exactly what it was trying to do. Not only is this film shot very well, but the acting is superb and the production and costume design really get you into the era that the film takes place. Mendes is a film maker that understands the more subtle terrors of normal life, and he uses them very well in Revolutionary Road.

Elvis & Nixon – Review

3 May

Of all the historic photographs held in the National Archives, you might be surprised that the most requested picture of all time is of Elvis Presley shaking Richard Nixon’s hand in the Oval Office. The King of Rock n Roll and one of the most notorious presidents in American history sure make quite the duo. What’s even stranger is that there are no records to give the reason why these two American icons met in the first place. That brings us to Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon, a pretty absurd comedy that offers a pretty hilarious fictionalized account and possibly reason behind the whole meeting. What I really love about this movie is that it knows what it is, and it also gives leaves some time between the absurdity to offer some interesting themes surrounding celebrity and a person’s real identity.

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In 1970, Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) still has his status as one of the biggest superstars in the world, even though his impact on the entertainment industry has declined since his earlier days. Meanwhile, President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) has held the presidential office for a little over a year and has his sights set on re-election. After seeing the troubles plaguing the youth of the nation, Elvis decides that he hasn’t been doing enough to make the next generations of Americans safe and prosperous. This line of thinking leads to his decision that it’s time for him to be given a federal badge and be appointed a “federal agent at large.” Armed with his golden pistols and trusty entourage (Jerry Schilling and Johnny Knoxville), Presley makes his way to Washington D.C. for what he believes will be a monumental meeting with the president of the United States.

I’ve explained this movie to some people who haven’t heard of it, and the looks on their faces as I’m talking makes me feel like I have three heads. Elvis & Nixon is, without a doubt, completely absurd. That being said, however, a lot of the events surrounding these two cultural icons are even more absurd than most of the things in this movie. There’s a part of me that believes their secret meeting might have gone a little something like it does in the movie because we all live in such a crazy world anyway. This is where I give a lot of credit to the screenwriters (one of whom happens to be the Dread Pirate Roberts, himself, Cary Elwes). The story that they’ve constructed is very silly, but there is a lot of really snappy dialogue and an understated, yet very present, grounding in reality.

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When Elvis & Nixon takes a break from the over the top scenarios and barrage of witty banter, there is time to look at the characters for who they truly are. That, I believe, is the real point to this movie. What we have are two people that couldn’t have been different from each other, and having never met one another have their own judgmental opinions of the other. It’s interesting to see the interaction when they finally do meet and the real people behind what the media has created for them is revealed. There’s one excellent scene in the movie where Elvis says when regular people walk into a room they are recognized for who they are, but when he walks into a room he is only recognized by the preconceived notions and memories that his fame created. This idea of separating a celebrity from their works to see them as a person is a pretty timeless theme and it’s handled surprisingly intelligently in this film.

Besides the premise, the two main actors were the big reason why I was excited about this movie and they did not disappoint. Michael Shannon may not look a lot like Elvis, but he seems to have mastered all of the movements and swagger of the King, and even sounds a lot like him at times. The best part of Shannon’s performance is that he never makes it over the top. He brings a subtlety to the performance that feels real, and it reminds me why he is one of my favorite actors. Speaking of my favorite actors, Kevin Spacey is hilarious as Richard Nixon. He has all the same subtlety as Shannon, and never turns Nixon into a caricature. I was concerned that Spacey would just come across as Frank Underwood from House of Cards, but he really does step away from that president and become Nixon.

What’s great about Elvis & Nixon is that it never tries to come across as more than it is. What this film is is a sometimes over the top satire of a time period, celebrity, and even politics, but done so in the most unpretentious of ways. There’s some real humanity amongst all of the jokes and absurdity, and the actors play their roles with real skill. Elvis & Nixon won’t go down as a classic or even a movie that’s going to be really remembered and discussed, but that’s ok. This is still a really good and fun movie that is well worth anyone’s time.

Bug – Review

26 Apr

I seem to be in a William Friedkin kind of mood recently having just reviewed his movie The Hunted and now coming back to review his 2006 film Bug. I actually remember when this movie first came out and how intrigued I was by the whole idea, but unfortunately it was 10 years ago and 10 years ago I would never be able to get into a theater to see it. I’m actually glad I waited so long, because now I’m a lot more familiar with the works of William Friedkin and his screenwriting collaborator, Tracy Letts. Bug is actually based off of Letts’ stage play, as was a later Friedkin film Killer Joe, which is now one of my top favorite movies. Like Killer JoeBug tells a nightmarish story of the south with very troubled human characters engaging in some very strange behavior.

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Agnes White (Ashley Judd) is a waitress living in a shady motel on the side of a seemingly desert road. She’s in such a secluded location so as to stay hidden from her abusive husband, Jerry Goss (Harry Connick, Jr.), who is getting released from prison any day now. On a night like any other, Agnes meets a drifter named Peter (Michael Shannon), a quiet but caring man who only seems to care about Agnes’ best interests. As their relationship begins to build, Jerry returns and starts to harass Agnes, but Agnes is far too busy with learning about Peter and Peter’s strange beliefs that the government implanted millions of bugs into his skin and blood, and that they are now beginning to escape and make themselves known.

This is a very, very strange movie and definitely not what I expected it was going to be. It’s easy to see how this is a stage play since most of the action occurs in Agnes’ motel. Sometimes the characters go outside or are in a bar, but that’s really only for a couple scenes out of the movie. I love when stories happen in closed in spaces. It creates the feeling of claustrophobia and injects the fear of not escaping the horrors that will surface. What really threw me off is the pacing of Bug. I don’t want to say that it’s bad, it’s just weird. The first 45 minutes play as a straightforward drama with a lingering sense of unease. Then after these 45 minutes, the movie shoots forward into insanity. It jumps through time so strangely, that you can’t really know how much time has passed, which was jarring while watching the movie but after thinking about it, it was a clever way to tell the story.

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There’s no doubt in my mind that Bug features the best performances of both Ashley Judd’s and Michael Shannon’s careers. I always looked at Ashley Judd as an overall unimpressive actress, but after seeing her in this movie my attitude’s changed. I think with the write screenplay and direction, she can really deliver a powerhouse performances. Now, Michael Shannon’s history with Bug goes pretty deep. For years, Shannon has played the role of Peter off Broadway in both London and America. This role is so ingrained in his mind he seems to literally transform into Peter. It’s an amazing performance and I just assume that this movie was too weird to get any Oscar attention for both actors.

Over the years, Bug has torn critics and audiences into a couple different and completely polarizing categories. On one side are the people that absolutely hated the movie claiming that it doesn’t make any logical sense and that it’s the stupidest thing in the world. On the other side are all of the people who look down on the plebeians claiming that the movie is stupid and just rubbing it in that they “just don’t get it.” I honestly can completely understand how someone can both love and hate this movie. It’s really bizarre and often doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but that’s sort of the point. The movie is designed to make the audience feel more distanced, confused, and paranoid as the story progresses which forces Bug to go through some jarring changes. I, personally, respect the hell out of this movie.

William Friedkin and Tracy Letts are two artists that just seem to be made for each other. I felt that way after I saw Killer Joe and I feel it once again after watching Bug. This is one of the most disorienting and jarring movies I’ve ever seen, and at first it made the movie kind of hard to watch and a little questionable, but after letting it all sink in I can understand why the movie had to be made like it is. It isn’t as powerful as Killer Joe, but Bug is a powerhouse of a movie in terms of directing, acting, and writing.

 

The Iceman – Review

15 Aug

Between the 1960s and the early 1980s, Richard Kuklinski murdered over 100 people as a hitman working for various mob families. Since his arrest in 1986, there has been a biography written about him and also an HBO documentary that features and interview with the Iceman, himself, from 1992. With all of this information already out there, and the fact that it was a huge media sensation, it seems only right to have a movie made after the guy. We got this movie in 2013 with Ariel Vroman’s The Iceman. While this movie does have a lot going for it, like the title performance, there’s a lot to this movie that just falls short which makes it not achieve a place a small gangster classic.

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Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) is a violent and unpredictable man, but he finds joy when he marries his girlfriend, Deborah (Winona Ryder). After losing his job dubbing bootleg porn for the mafia, he is hired by mob boss Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) to act as an enforcer and hit man. This job forces Kuklinski to channel the rage and violence that he has hidden away from his family in order to get the job done, and it turns out that he’s very good at what he does. As the years go by and the amount of bodies becomes ridiculous, Richard finds himself in a position where he could either lose the way to provide for his family or team up with another mafia hit man, Robert Pronge (Chris Evans). Whatever his choice may be, the consequences could be big enough to tear his entire world apart.

I have to be honest here. I never heard of Richard Kuklinski before this movie, but his story really is an interesting one. With a career that spanned over two decades that was filled with violence and malice, you’d think it would be enough to make a great gangster film. Well, yeah it is, but the screenplay to The Iceman keeps it from ever really achieving that greatness. Since there is so much to work with, you’d think that this would be a pretty long movie, but it’s actually under two hours. How is that possible? There is way too much to cover for it to be that short. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of scenes that had the potential to be awesome and memorable, but is glazed over in a matter of seconds. The best part of this movie is a montage when it should have been stretched out to build character and create suspense. Oh well…

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Despite the screenplay being less than spectacular, there’s still something that makes The Iceman well worth seeing. That is Michael Shannon’s fantastic performance. I’ve yet to see Michael Shannon give a less than perfect performance, be it as General Zod in Man of Steel, Nelson Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire, or even his small role as Petie in Cecil B. Demented. While some of the stuff he’s in may be awful (I’m looking at you Pearl Harbor and Jonah Hex), Shannon is never the weak link. In the role of Richard Kuklinski, he is both demonic and loving, good and evil. He is a family man and also a cold blooded killer. This is the kind of stuff that makes his character, and many other characters in cinema, so interesting and he pulls it off with such menace, it’s hard not to be terrified of him.

It’s also easy to get lost in the production design. I recently reviewed Parkland, and I talked about how well the designers pulled off making everything look and sound like 1963. I have the same thing to say about The Iceman, except that it showcases design from the 1960s through the 1980s. It really puts you into the scene, but unfortunately there is plenty to take you out of the scenes. I’ve heard complaints that a lot of the dialogue is stereotypical gangster lines, but that wasn’t the issue with me. Going back to what I said before, the pacing of this movie is too sporadic and things just seem to happen too quickly. The choppiness of the film’s plot is enough to take you out of what’s happening onscreen and start thinking about what could have been done to make the movie better.

What makes me so disappointed is that The Iceman had a lot of potential to be a great gangster film, but it only is a pretty good gangster film. Michael Shannon’s performance as Kuklinski is enough to make this movie worth watch, but there’s too much that’s lacking. While I didn’t expect it to have the size or scope of a movie by Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola, it would have been nice to see a little bit more work done with the screenplay. The bottom line is that The Iceman is a good movie, but is sorely lacking.

Man of Steel – Review

30 Jun

Superman has never been my favorite super hero. In fact, he’s pretty far from it. I always found that his near indestructibility and countless super powers made things a bit too easy, and I was never too fond of Clark Kent as a character either. That being said, when the trailers for Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel began coming out, I began thinking that this incarnation of DC Comic’s most prized creation may not be too shabby. I can’t say that I was at all disappointed, but Man of Steel is certainly not a perfect movie.

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The distant planet of Krypton is close to destruction due to the large amount of exploiting the natural resources of the planet which has affected the planet’s core. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) stores a genetic codex in the cells of his newborn son Kal-El and sends him to planet Earth after General Zod (Michael Shannon) stages a coup with the hope of saving the planet. Zod is banished to the Phantom Zone, but is freed after Krypton is destroyed. On Earth, Kal-El is found by farmers Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), who rename him Clark and raise him as their own son. After years of learning to control his super abilities caused by his biological reaction to being on Earth, an adult Clark (Henry Cavill) learns of his extraterrestrial past and vows to protect the Earth. This responsibility comes sooner rather than later when Zod arrives to retrieve the codex hidden within Clark and form a new Krypton so his race can survive.

There is a lot that happens within the two hour and twenty minute running time of the movie. Much like with Snyder’s previous film, 300, the pacing of this movie is what really hurts it. In this reviewer’s opinion, we spend way too much time on Krypton. By the time we got to Earth, I felt relieved since I felt like the “prologue” was finally over. As Clark grows up and learns of his powers and his past, most of the story is told in flashbacks, which is very jarring when mixed with the adult Clark trying to find his way. This really is the only effective way that this could have been pulled off, but there is just so much crammed in there. That being said, this is an origin story, and origin stories aren’t always the easiest to make because it’s the responsibility of the writer and director to establish this character’s past enough so that we understand them and beliefs.

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This being a Zack Snyder movie, there is sure to be an excess of special effects that go right along with over the top action. In this category, Man of Steel delivers. Once the action starts, it never seems to let up. It almost becomes exhausting. If you think New York City had it bad in the finale of The Avengers, just wait until you see the destruction that befalls Metropolis. Buildings, trains, jets, helicopters, you name it. I will say that there was a lot of characters getting thrown into buildings. That sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. It happens so many times that I almost wanted to say, “That’s cool Zack, but I get the picture.”

Henry Cavill was definitely the right choice to play Superman, but I still can’t really say his character is all that interesting. I may be biased in saying that because I always thought he was kind of a bland character. Amy Adams is acceptable as Lois Lane, bringing an appropriate amount of curiosity and interest. The real scene stealers are Michael Shannon and Russell Crowe. These two seem so into their characters and the universe that they inhabit that it really is just a joy to watch them, especially when Michael Shannon would lose his temper and yell a lot. That was fun.

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I have never really been a fan of Superman. The whole concept behind the hero always seemed kind of cheesy. After seeing Man of Steel, I’m beginning to realize that part of the reason has been the presentation. This most recent incarnation of Superman offers outstanding action, the deepest the characters have ever been, and a good origin story. The pacing is kind disjointed and the movie is overly long, but saying that I didn’t have a really good time at Man of Steel would be a downright lie.