Midnight Special (Nichols, 2016) Rating: 8/10 stars.
One thing I found gratifying about the film was the faces. In the Hollywood of past decades, particularly the 1970s, there were plenty of actors with weathered, craggy faces to fill roles of weathered, craggy men and women living in the American interior, or else the hard, meaty faces of blue-collar factory and dock workers from the coasts. Lee Marvin, Warren Oates, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Strother Martin, Harry Dean Stanton, John Cazale--the list goes on. Among actresses, we might mention Sissy Spacek, Shelley Duvall, or Talia Shire--but the demands on beauty have always been much greater for actresses. These faces were memorable because directors then knew how to use them, knew that performers like that brought an authenticity you can't fake to their films. Such faces have died out in modern Hollywood. To a certain extent they have died down in American society, what with good plumbing and acne medication and all (most of the performers I just listed lived through the Great Depression, and a few fought in World War 2).
Jeff Nichols is one of the few directors in current American movies who seems to go looking for such faces, and even if what he finds can't equal the past, he still manages to create a convincing rural American through face and texture alone. Here he casts Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver, and Sam Shepard (not to mention character actors like Bill Camp and David Jensen), and even manages to transform Kirsten Dunst into utterly convincing Pennsylvania Dutch motherhood. Such actors feel like blue collar America in a way so many others do not. And when one takes a wider lay of the land and sees character actors like Shea Wigham, Jason Clarke, Ben Mendelsohn, and Scoot McNairy gaining in prominence and getting cast all over the place, why, it's almost enough to make one optimistic about Hollywood.
Watching this, I'm reminded of the review I read when Watch the Throne came out, which said the big thing that distinguished Kanye from Jay-Z was--humility. Paradoxically true then, obvious now.
Love to see the references to everything from Ganja & Hess to David Lynch--Beyonce is really stretching herself, and this is going to lead a lot of people in a lot of new directions in their movie-watching. I put Daughters of the Dust on my watchlist like 9 months ago and I still haven't gotten around to it, and now I feel like I'm late to the party or something! I gotta get on that. [UPDATE: I did, and it's wonderful.] Beyonce reads Warsan Shire's poetry with rich and biting intonation that lends suspense to every line; I suspect these poems sound better aloud than read on a page. The synergy between the music and the images is remarkable, with both visual and musical compositions striking and memorable.
I do have a few caveats, though: I remain a little uncomfortable with the way Beyonce, surely the second most powerful black woman in the country (maybe the world?), equates her personal problems with a cheating husband to the larger historical oppression of all poor and enslaved African-American women. But the usual identity politics activists don't seem bothered by this point at all, and I'm a lot more uncomfortable with ever coming off more politically puritanical that that sort of commentator on such issues, so I guess I'll just shut up about it. On more aesthetic grounds, let's get one thing clear: as much as this apes Malick throughout (in ways so obvious I'm not even going to list them), it's not "better than" or even (IMO) "as good as" Malick. The editing here is nowhere near as radical, the interplay between music, voice, and image is nowhere near as complex, and the artistic risk and ambition is not as great. Knight of Cups is in a different order of magnitude--and has more to say about the world we live in today besides.
(Not to mention the pacing problems--this is still a pop album first, experimental film second.)
But still, this is pretty darn good, and way better than I expected.