“Loving”

For anyone who doesn’t think that our US Constitution is a living, breathing document, this film is a must. For those of us who do believe, Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” reminds us of why it should remain seen as one.

This is a slow, quiet film. Words are not so important. What is key is family and the rural and urban divide, and, of course, love. The true story of Richard Perry  and Mildred  Delores Loving is as soft and unassuming as they are. The film begins with Mildred (Ruth Negga)  in profile. Negga plays shy and thoughtful with her eyes and the set of her mouth. Her surprise when her white boyfriend acknowledges her  pregnancy news with his simple “good” is as understated and  as emotional as a performance can be. This Ethiopian-Irish actress is perfect in her role : grounded, perceptive, patient, and truly loving.

The Welsh Joel Edgerton is the second half of what will  become the first interracial marriage of Caroline County, Virginia. He is dyed blond and buzzed and perfectly cast. As Richard Loving, he is a mason who, because of  Mildred, will ultimately lay the foundation for the national eradication of all anti-miscegenation laws in the United States. It is hard to believe that I was in college when this landmark Civil Rights case was won. Nichols’ film gives viewers the backstory of the ruling “Loving vs. Virginia” (1967).

The 1950 rural South has teenagers who love rock and roll, racing  car engines and kissing. This setting still leads the responsible Rich to purchase an acre of land and dream of protecting and providing for his family. Dee and Rich drive up to Washington, DC to be married. Dee’s father, Mr. Jeter,  accompanies. Sequences of a sewing pattern being selected , a  bassinet being lined, and hens roaming about follow. Dinners at the Jeter house are portrayed as  warm and familial.

It does not take long for a night of terror to disrupt the Loving couple. The sheriff and three deputies break into the Lovings’ dark  bedroom. Flashlights glare as the pregnant Mildred and her husband  are arrested and placed in separate  jail cells. Their marriage is seen as unlawful in Caroline County.

Rich bails himself out, but is not allowed to free his wife. ” A sparrow is a sparrow and a robin is a robin. Get one of her own people to bail her out.” , Loving is told. There is no communication between husband and wife. Dee waits patiently in her chenille bathrobe for two days as Rich sits outside the jail, taciturn in his promises. Mr. Jeter posts his daughter’s bail, and Rich hires a lawyer.

Frank Beasley ( Bill Camp ) is the lawyer, who tells the Lovings to plead guilty and the judge will suspend jail time; otherwise, they will be forced to leave the state and stay away for twenty-five years. This banishment sentence states that their interracial marriage is ” against the peace and dignity of the commonwealth. Likewise, when Dee’s sister cries and berates Rich for taking Dee from the Jeter family, her : ” You had no right. You knew what you were doing,” is turned in the viewers’ mind as an indictment against the racism of the Virginia legislators.

The film’s pacing may be its only flaw. Methodically slow and uneven, the Loving’s move to the city where they share a house with a relative and deal with noise, danger and lack of green space. Stoically unhappy, they sneak back home to have their baby delivered by Rich’s midwife- mother. Even in her love, grandma states: “You never should have married that girl~you knew better.” Director Nichol’s makes it clear that change agents this family is not. Love is what moves them: principle is the after- fact.

After violating their parole, the couple is saved by their attorney, who takes the blame by lying that he told the Lovings that they could return for their child’s birth. Frank warns them that this venturing back can not happen again. And it doesn’t until their third child is hit by a car, and the city becomes a cage.

The forward motion picks up with Mildred ‘s letter written to Bobby Kennedy. After watching tv news with Aunt Laura, Dee takes auntie’s outburst of “you need to get you some civil rights” to heart. With Kennedy’s response, ACLU attorneys eager and ambitious in their want to have a Supreme Court case heard, step in. It has been five years and three children since Dee and Rich’s conviction. Now, the litigators want them to return home and get arrested a third time.

The differences between Mildred Delores’ impulses  and Richard Perty’s are subtlely evoked. Slow as soup simmering, Nichol’s keeps stirring-up their love for each other. It is a beautiful thing. Altering the Constitution of the United States is a beautiful thing, too. Balk at the eighteen century Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s interpretation of racial mixing with his pronouncement:  ” Almighty God created the races white, black, and yellow, Malay and red and placed them in separate continents. This shows that God did not intend the races to mix. ” or I presume to travel !

One of the joys of this film is the children. Jeff Nichol knows children. He has written their tiny parts with such knowledge that we connect with family life over and over again. This appeal centers us, and we become invested emotionally over and over again. The childish chanting repetition of ” that’s a story alright” , brought tears to my eyes. This around the kitchen table scene was one of my favorites.

Actor Michael Shannon with his  city assuredness as a Life magazine photographer adds another layer of comparison to the film. We see the actual photos before the credits roll. Mildred’s sweet, ” We may lose the mall battles, but win the big war” has much to say about the good our Federal System can do. As Shannon photographs the Lovings laughing at tv’s Barney Fife, we get it.

Finally, it is hopeful to know that, “We may have some enemies, but we have some friends, too.” When Richard tells the attorney to relay to the nine Supreme  Court judges that, ” I love my wife,” it encapsulates the truth of the film. The final scene where they put their children to bed and close their bedroom door is perfect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Nocturnal Animals”

Tom Ford, I like your politics, your clothing line, your eyewear and make-up forays and your first film, “A Single Man” (2009). Your screenplay of the Austin Wright novel “Tony & Susan” just left me cold. What to say. I have not read the novel, but with  themes like unending discontent, abuse of power revenge, masculinity and protectiveness, and guilt with accompanying fear, one should feel something in the end besides alas.

Amy Adams is miscast as Susan. She does not play selfish well. Though she tries, Tilda  Swinton she is not. Somehow, she interprets her ex-husband novel’s dedication as a reason to examine her past actions. Because she liked to stay up at night, he called her a nocturnal animal. Now, that she has married a cheating husband, she now can feel how she hurt her first by cheating on him and aborting his child. “What goes around, comes around” seems to be a suburban cliché Susan can not bear.

Cleverly, as Susan reads the story of West Texan road rage violence and revenge, we are volleyed back and forth between  her truth and his (Tony’s) fiction. It is a story within a story that never meshes. The bullying “Deliverance” – like miscreants are the nocturnals. Their savage rapes and batterings are met with two years of chasing and vigilante closure. Susan has already gotten her just desserts, so take the book’s dedication at face value: Susan was Tony’s best critic. No threats are being made against Susan, but then everything is about Susan. I found her vacuous and boring, deserving of a table for one.

Tony ( Jake Gyllenhaal )  is the protagonist we feel for the most . As an author, he takes Susan’s advice and writes about someone besides himself. What could his character have done to protect his wife and  his daughter ?  When does a thinking man take visceral action? What is weakness and what is stupidity ?  Tony perseveres and Gyllenhaal does him justice. It is just that Director Ford tries so hard to make  an art film that almost every scene is extended one-hundred and twenty seconds too long. What is the point of massaging every camera angle when only the overwrought twelve-tone scale is left ?

One of the most overwrought sequences has Susan walking up a marble staircase in stacked-heeled boots. The rather stylized ascent, meant to show that Susan is ambitious, has viewers shoulder-shrugging and sighing, ” so what”.

A similar example of wasted-camera-lingering with no impact is the scene where our villain, Ray Marcus (  Aaron Taylor-Johnson ), squats on a self-plumbed toilet au natural. On his trailer’s extended porch, we even watch him check his wiped tissue~ a film first for me. See if he doesn’t remind you of  a younger “Prison Break” ‘s  “T- bag”.

My movie partner liked Michael Shannon’s portrayal as “the lung cancer sheriff”. He is a fine actor and shows real empathy to Gyllenhaal’s weakness-angst. Masculinity-driven, he gave a rather Clint Eastward aura to his role, but added a bit of dead-pan quirk.

The West Texas book chapters are very scary: four whacked roadies and car bumping aside. The arch New York speech and social commentary on vaginal rejuvenation, being married to a gay man, and the high-society quotable:” our world is a lot less painful than the real world” are to be noted. Naked, heavy women on red velvet couches must mean something. It can’t just be art.

Laura Linley adds to the cast with her role as Susan’s mother. Looking like Tricia Nixon, her three strands of mega pearls precede her  marriage warning. And there is a nightmarish scare for a baby named Willow.

“Nocturnal Animals” is a derivative noir thriller with an odd paradox: too much going on while not enough.

 

 

“Elvis and Nixon”

It is comedy and it is history. A photo of Elvis Pressley shaking President Nixon’s hand is the most requested item asked for from the National Archives. Fact is stranger than fiction. Seeing this  quirky film after voting in Indiana ‘s Primary  was especially pleasing. Seeing these two right-wing world-viewers cavort and  then voting for Sanders made me smile. Nixon in one scene asks , “Do you think there would be an Elvis if this land were Communist?” Nixon often refers to himself as ” leader of the free world”.

This  is the second  comedy made about the Oval Office meeting of Elvis Pressley and Nixon. I have not seen the 1997 ” Elvis Meets Nixon” written by Alan Rosen, but I can say that Liza Johnson has directed a marvelous show in the 2016 “Elvis and Nixon”. The introduction is artful with colorful sliding inserts and the music so in sync that you will applaud the detail given to each underscored lyric. This is niche cinema at its best.

Blood, Sweat and Tears’ “Spinning Wheel” with its “Ride a painted pony” is perfect for this carousel ride which teams up Michael Shannon  (Elvis) with Kevin Spacey ( Nixon). Male insecurities and male balancing puffery is both hilarious and a tad moving. Johnson hits a balance that has the viewer enjoying this ” hard to handle” duo.

The sub-story of Jerry Shilling ( Alex Pettyfer), Elvis’ friend and later manager of Billy Joel, is likewise touching. Jerry is asked to proofread Elvis’ handwritten letter to Nixon ( on American Airline stationery) and to take care of Priscilla when she is unhappy with Elvis’ spending. Elvis, in turn, pulls some savvy maneuvers to get Jerry  a seven minute escort to the airport  and back home in time for a pre-engagement dinner with  his intended’s father. Elvis knows how to “snooze”, even praising the marines over the army and navy to ingratiate himself with the “palace guards” outside the White House. But he also knows how to be a friend.

Much of the film is Michael Shannon’s Elvis making headway into the Oval Office. One of my favorite scenes is where he takes a commercial airline and runs into three Elvis impersonators who think he is one of them. One asks, ” Do you do ‘Teddy Bear’ ?” . The real Elvis answers, ” Sometimes” without smirking. Another is when Elvis’s sweet tooth takes him to a donut shop. ” Original, my ass, maple bars” is a line well- delivered twice! The writing of Joey and Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes is top-notch.  The Sagals play minor parts as secretary and  Elvis impersonator. They are good on screen, too.

Shannon and Spacey push and pull when they finally meet. Nixon could use a political boost in the South with the youth vote, and Julie, his daughter wants an  Elvis autograph. Tricia, Nixon’s eldest daughter, prefers The Beach Boys. Nixon doesn’t like his nap hour interrupted. He has a  disciplined routine with M&M’s and Dr. Pepper playing a part. Elvis wants to help with the war against drugs, to be an undercover rock and roller. He really wants a Federal Agent At Large badge. As he cracks his knuckles, he tells the President that he can supply his own firearms.

Kevin Spacey has the Nixon hunched shoulders, arms folded, impersonation down; but,  he is tantamount at showing his “bubble bursts” of defeat. As Nixon expounds about the magnificence of the Capitol Building, in his soft voice, Elvis innocently responses with, ” It looks a little like my place.” When Nixon tells Elvis he may go ahead and touch the moon rock on display, Elvis tosses out that ” Buzz sent me one, too.”  Spacey is the one who ” crumbles like a sand dune.”

This is Elvis’ movie, and we learn a lot about him. His penchant for numerology, his acknowledgement of the masks he is forced to wear, his preening and privilege. Cultural icons are rather silly. Shannon does an admirable job in showing this. He is always onscreen and we follow his every move. We are amused at how in awe many are. No deep psychological studies here, but smiles at behaviors that show glimpses of personhood and of delusion.

“Midnight Special”

Jeff Nichols’ fourth film, “Midnight Special”  is not as good as “Mud”, though it may be muddier. We are dropped into a dark scene almost “in medias res”. We hear before we see, like in so many 2016 films. The radio is coughing up insurance ads in Central Texas when we are given “breaking news”. An Amber alert is out. An eight-year-old  boy has been abducted from a religious sect. We see a hulking man and his companion with the boy. We fear the worse until the boy wraps his arms lovingly around the neck of his captor, now possibly his savior. Dibs and dabs of background are slowly revealed throughout this drama-sci-fi, leaving more questions than answers. How did this special boy get among us? We are told only that “they” have been watching for a long time.

Sam Shepherd plays Calvin Meyer, the boys adopted father and patriarch of “The Ranch”. Somehow his sermons to his congregation have decrypted U.S. Government security codes, and now the FBI is more than concerned. Writer and director ( often not a good thing) Nichols bandies the action back and forth between the car rides and safe houses of the birth father ( Michael Shannon) and the  FBI interrogations  of  the sect. The boy, Alton, ( Jaeden Lieberher ) has powers: satellites fall from the sky, electronic grids are blown, and generators fail as the earth shakes. The Ranch members believe if he is with them that they will be saved. The Apocalypse even has a date.

Unlike more profound sci-fi writing like that of Mary Russell Doria, Nichols does not give much to the plot. His theme that there may be a better world  with ever-loving light reminds me of the folk song, named after a train ” The Midnight Special” with its chorus ” shine your ever-loving light on me.” The glowing eyes of Alton must give images of this world for removing his goggles seems to be a temptation one compatriot can not resist.

When guns are used in this film, no one dies. Does that give a new meaning to “Saturday night special”?  I’d like to think so. Even when protecting a territory police can only shoot when fired upon. This is a film about fathers, sons, mothers ,friends  and sacrifice and loss at its heart. The dialogue is sparse, but the faces of  the actors register familiar emotions. Kristen Dunst as Alton’s birth-mother, Sarah, does an exceptional job of showing hope for tomorrow. Much like in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Berneice Bobs Her Hair”, Dunst finds glee in cutting her corded braid. Is her son in a better place ?  His bruised eyes , bleeding ears ,  shortness of breath, and kryptonite questions lead us to an imaginative “yes”.

Joel Edgerton plays a likeable friend and  sheriff, Lucas. We all need trusting and true loyalty like he displays. Adam Driver, likewise,  plays a believer’s part to the hilt. As a savvy scientist, he asks if he can come with the boy, too.

See this film to learn about heat wounds, debris fields and panicking parents. Smirk at  childhood development counsellors  and multi-paged questionnaires, but bask in the light of  Alton’s ,” I am not a weapon; I am not a savior.” But, what is he ?

Nichols doles out a little bit of candy, one piece at a time. Some throwbacks to E.T. in the angelic demeanor of our otherworldly boy. Sky prisms and boy speaking in tongues not as interesting as the tension of the chase. Michael Shannon registers fatherly and protective emotions as Roy Tomlin. We just don’t get any insight to how muddy and burdensome those sect contracts are. I had trouble identifying with the characters~ but then letting  go does not come easily for me.

Favorite lines. ” Stick to the plan”. ” I am an electrician. What do I know of these things.” ” You would have made a nice family.” ” Back on the road, asshole.” ” He needs to know what is real.”

“99 Homes”

Oh, for an honest day’s work! Director and writer Ramin Bahrani ‘s film “99 Homes” has the audience longing for the plumber, the plasterer and Rosie the riveter to watch and laud. For certainly, Michael Shannon’s one -dimensional portrayal of an immoral Capitalist benefiting  by throwing out families in the midst of home foreclosures doesn’t provide more than a devil to hate.  In this greed screed gone awry, Shannon becomes a caricature as Blair Carver,the man who carves up lives. Yes, I agree that money, especially easy money, is the root of most evil. But without lust,love and loathing,filthy lucre gets boring,just like this picture.

Blair Carver, realtor, cautions construction worker Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) not to get emotional about real estate. “They ( houses) are boxes. What matters is how many boxes you have.” After foreclosing on Nash’s home, Carver offers a Faustian deal to Nash as a “rookie evictor” .  House-flipping and fraud work hand in hand. Garfield provides more nuanced acting then Shannon, but it may be the script’s fault. Does Carver see something besides opportunity in Nash? Does he really believe that the pursuit of wealth usurps all other values? Nothing is developed. This is a black and white film that longs for a few shades of gray.

Laura Dern is a fine actor,yet no matter how she explains that she had Dennis at a young age,the mother /son dynamic is not American. She could have played his wife more easily. Never does he question her or do anything, but try to protect her. This is another culture being portrayed. Nice, but foreign. For Mama Nash, greed is not the only game in town. Her grandson, Conner, is to be cared for and protected. Her beautician work somehow does not materialize. She wants to go to Florida to live under the roof of her brother. Again, not very culturally savvy.

The incongruous music, something akin to bush drum beats, irritated me more than quickened the film’s pace. The heavy breathing as despair did the same. Lines like Shannon’s ” You work for me. You’re mine” , “Surly homeowners, you need a gun” ring melodramatically. Themes like “America does not bail out losers: America bails out winners.” deserve more than a twenty -second image of a mason jar with repossessed keys. See this film if you want to see foreclosure sheriffs and stuff dragged out to the front lawn. As Dennis Nash deliberates what to do as the movie closes,I am shaking my head,too. This film could have been another “Civil Action”, but somehow one child smiling in a car window manages to profit neither justice nor moral triumph.