Opens on my birthday, sometime during the cold war. Mute Amelie (Sally Hawkins) lives in the apartment above a reclusive artist (Richard Jenkins) who forges them fake IDs and van decals when it’s time to break her fishman boyfriend out of the government facility where she works alongside Octavia Spencer, but wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, blatantly evil U.S. government agent Michael Shannon wants to kill and dissect the fishman, and sympathetic Russian spy Michael Stuhlbarg defies his superiors to save the fishman, all the while nobody noticing that Mute Amelie is having an affair with the fishman, and forgetting that she’s not deaf and can hear all their plans which they are constantly saying out loud.

I was warned by the anti-Guillermo critic contingent, but thought it’d be worth checking out Sally’s dance moves on the big screen, and jeez, does this movie ever have the best production design. Since Doug Jones plays the fishman, can this count as a Hellboy prequel?

Quiet, lumpy Joel Edgerton (fourth movie I’ve seen him in, maybe I’ll recognize him next time?) marries sweet Ruth Negga (Ethiopian, of World War Z), they just want to be left alone with their kids and their auto repairs and home building and what not, but they’re arrested because they live in a racist Virginia shithole, and forced to move out of town. The NAACP hears about this and decides to use their case to challenge federal law, hires a shaky-looking local lawyer (comedian Nick Kroll), and Life sends photographer Michael Shannon, who gets them national attention. A slow-paced, good-natured movie with a happy ending – what’s not to like?

It was the baby-monitor jump-scare that lost me. Intriguing backstory open before the movie changes directions, centering on Amy Adams (far less electric here than in Arrival, and given much less to do) reading the rape-murder-revenge novel written by her ex Jake Gyllenhaal, visualizing it starring him with Michael Shannon as a dying cop who doesn’t play by the rules. I suppose the ending should be cynically satisfying, as Adams becomes obsessed with the novel, contacts Jake to meet him and talk about it, and gets stood up. By that point though, who could care about Amy and Jake’s old relationship problems (she got an abortion without telling him, and dumped him for Armie Hammer) or his elaborate literature-based revenge plot, when the bulk of the movie has become the novel itself, a grimy, joyless, desert desperation story? And who can say why Adams gets so sucked in, to the point where she starts seeing jump-scare monsters inside her assistant’s baby monitor, a moment that felt so outrageously cheap that I optimistically figured it would be justified later, or at least be the beginning of a series of visions?

Also it opens with naked fat women dancing in slow-motion. And hey, here’s Love star Karl Glusman and Donnie Darko‘s Jena Malone, both of them returning from another 2016 movie I found ugly and misguided. Standard dialogue scenes were filmed in a flat and boring manner (and the movie is mostly standard dialogue scenes). Diana Dabrowska in Cinema Scope and David Ehrlich on Letterboxd both compliment the camerawork, so maybe I missed something there. At least Jake G. is very good in his role, and Shannon is always pleasant to watch.

After Take Shelter, I’ll definitely sign up for another Jeff Nichols/Michael Shannon drama about impending doom. This one is maybe more ambitious, definitely more confusingly plotted, and has less well-defined characters and relationships. Shannon and childhood friend Joel Edgerton have kidnapped Shannon’s magic son Alton from a doomsday cult and with help from Shannon’s (ex-?)wife Kirsten Dunst and federal agent Adam Driver they take Alton to fulfill his destiny by ascending to Tomorrowland.

Pretty sure this was meant to evoke the string of psychic-child adventure stories in the late 1970’s: Firestarter (the novel, if not the film) and The Fury. In fact I was so busy trying to remember how Firestarter ends that I may have missed some details about the doomsday cult and why exactly they wanted Alton – or maybe they weren’t even sure of that themselves. If not an instant classic, at least a cool-looking, mysterious movie, full of great acting and shocking moments (I leapt when satellite parts rained down on the gas station). I always appreciate sci-fi stories that show glimpses of larger worlds and deeper mysteries than the film has the time or inclination to explain.

This counted as the kickoff to Cannes Month, since Nichols’ previous movie Mud played Cannes, and his second film of 2016 Loving is about to premiere there. Although I would’ve watched it anyway.

M. D’Angelo:

For some reason, the emotional core of this film seems to have gone missing — I can see where it’s supposed to reside, but the love Alton’s parents feel for him is oddly abstract, perhaps because E.T. seems more human than he does.

I. Vishvenetsky:

The bad guys trace [our heroes’ car] through an insurance bill left on a kitchen counter, because even Midnight Special’s sense of conspiracy is grounded in the commonplace. The only explicitly poetic line the movie allows itself is spoken by the cult’s neckless goon, played by character actor Bill Camp. Sitting in his truck, he says, “I was an electrician, certified in two states. What do I know of these things?” This is the most the viewer will ever learn about him. Midnight Special defines characters through what they can’t understand, contrasting fear of the unknown with faith in it, and flipping the supernatural into a metaphor for the everyday.

From J. Romney’s review intro:

Cinema has rarely felt so much like a son et lumière as it did in a brief period in the early ’80s, when suddenly shafts of light came shooting out of movie images, as if the screen had been slashed. It became a defining image of Steven Spielberg’s films — Close Encounters, E.T., and Poltergeist too, if you want to count that as one of his … In their purest and most glaring form, those shafts of light had something of the quality of angelic revelation about them. Certainly, you suspected that cinematographers such as Vilmos Zsigmond and Allen Daviau had taken a close look at certain academic religious paintings of the 19th century, or perhaps at Renaissance church sculpture, with their sheaves of marble emulating beams from the divine. At any rate, it came as a shock to get the impression from these films — and with such eye-searing intensity — that cinema was a matter of light streaming directly out of the screen, rather than just bounced off it. The motif was a powerful way of restoring, if not a holy, at least an authentically otherworldly dimension to cinema.

World of Tomorrow (2015, Don Hertzfeldt)

Emily Prime is contacted by her third-generation clone, discussing memory, robots, love and life in the outernet of the future.

Only 16 minutes long but I watched it seven times.

Choose You (2013, Spike Jonze & Chris Milk)

Written by Lena Dunham and directed by Spike Jonze – and yet it’s terrible? I think that’s because it’s a corporate-sponsored short made for a music video awards show. Anyway, subtitled and censored, club dude’s ex-gf is now dating DJ Michael Shannon, some girl he doesn’t even know freaks out about this, then Jason Schwartzmann hosts a choose-your-own-adventure ending and double suicide is chosen.

The Discontented Canary (1934, Rudolf Ising)

A sad caged canary gets his chance to escape, but nature beats the hell out of him, so he returns home, learning to appreciate his captivity. At least he wasn’t hit by lightning like the feral cat. Moral: life is just horrible.

The Alphabet (1968, David Lynch)

Now in high-def!

Les jeux des anges (1965, Walerian Borowczyk)

Heads roll.
Pipe organ becomes firing squad.
Angel wings.
Infinite scrolling.

Mouseover for decay:
image

The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918, Winsor McCay)

Didn’t realize this was a WWI propaganda film. “Germany, once a great and powerful nation, had done a dastardly deed in a dastardly way.”

Intro explaining how difficult the movie was to create, and plenty of title cards, so the nine minute short has maybe four minutes of animation. But the animation is real good stuff, all water and smoke.

We Give Pink Stamps (1965, Friz Freleng)

Absurd fun in a department store as the Pink Panther torments the night janitor.

Closed Mondays (1974, Will Vinton & Bob Gardiner)

Great claymation. Wino wanders into an art gallery, hallucinates (?) all the paintings and sculptures coming to life.

Night Mail (1936 Wright & Watt)

I’ve heard this is one of the greatest short documentaries. True, it’s admirably put together, showing all the moving parts in a great, manned machine that moves the mail across England and Scotland really damn fast. And it makes you marvel at the heights of human endeavor. And it ends with a post office rap song. So yeah I was gonna say it’s just a doc about a mail train, but I guess I see their point.

Monster (2005 Jennifer Kent)

Beginnings of The Babadook (there’s a pop-up book and everything). Monster-doll grows into full monster and attacks son, mom screams at it, tells it to go to its room.

Fears (2015, Nata Metlukh)

Terrific 2-minute animated short linked by Primal.
A man literally embraces his fears.

Restaurant Dogs (1994, Eli Roth)

Student film in which an evil brigade of fast-food restaurant mascots is bloodily defeated by a young dude who’s given a mission from the Burger King himself to save his daughter the Dairy Queen. Something like that, anyway. I thought the guy only wanted to buy a milkshake, and suspected he was drunk, so I’m surprised he signed up for the murderous mission so quickly.

Given all the trademarked properties being mixed with nazi images via Terry Gilliam-style cut-out animation, I thought I’d better watch this as soon as I heard about it, rather than wait until our corporate overlords remove it from the internet like they did the Soderbergh cut of 2001: A Space Odyssey which I’d been meaning to watch. Besides Reservoir Dogs, there’s some Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now in the grimace/hamburglar flashback scene.

Ritual (1979, Joseph Bernard)

Under three minutes, viewed online as a trailer for the new Bernard blu-ray, which I obviously need. Drawings, figures, people and scenes and stuttering colors cut together into changing rhythms and overlays. My favorite bit has an overlay of two scenes, one of which is cutting, an effect I don’t see often.

Goofy meta-romantic-comedy with half the cast of Wet Hot American Summer, full of delightful bits and ones that didn’t quite work (extended scene about Chris Meloni crapping his pants). Good cameos and minor roles, the best being a sword-wielding Michael Shannon, but it’s mostly the Rudd and Poehler show and they sell the whole fake-comedy thing perfectly. Oh and New York City, which is practically a character in the film.

Great movie, not in the sense that I’d want to watch it over and over, but that the doomed feeling of the final scene has stuck with me intensely for the past two weeks. AV Club says the movie’s got an open-ended, ambiguous finale, but I didn’t see it that way. I see Michael Shannon and his family as unambiguously screwed.

Shannon (perfectly cast, his voice a Sling Blade croak, less manic than in Bug) is having apocalyptic dreams of oil-colored rain, bird swarms and terrible storms, becomes obsessed with building a survival shelter in the back yard, with food stocks and gas masks, at the expense of his job and personal relationships. Wife Jessica Chastain (“grace” in The Tree of Life) tries pretty hard, harder than most movie-wives, to understand and help her husband. But he blows the money they need for their hearing-impaired daughter Hannah’s corrective surgery, and she becomes less forgiving. Shannon also gets a helpful employee (Shea Whigham of Splinter, All The Real Girls) into trouble. Finally after he overreacts to a regular summer storm, he agrees to cool it for a while, and the family takes a quiet trip to the coast. Then the oily rain begins.

Adding to the mystery, Shannon’s mom (Kathy Baker, the sexy neighbor in Edward Scissorhands) has long-term psychological problems which began when she was his age. He visits her to compare notes, not-so-helpfully. No help either from brother Ray McKinnon or boss Robert Longstreet, and little from psych counselor LisaGay Hamilton.

R. Koehler in Cinema Scope says it “gives expression to an extremely nervous country” and that each Sundance audience member thought it expressed his own particular conspiracy theory. Nichols sounds like a smart, engaged writer/director from his interview. And I’d been wondering if he watched Todd Haynes’ Safe before making this – he did.