Midnight Special

If you like your movies neatly packaged with everything spelled out – plot, motivations, relationships and the like – then Midnight Special is probably not for you. The best sci-fi’s are loaded with ambiguity and uncertainty and that is the case here. A lot of what goes on in this latest offering from writer/director Jeff Nichols is not clearly explained,  so those who like everything presented in a neat nugget of obviousness will be disappointed.  Things happen that are never really contextualised, characters behave in ways that seem at odds with their role in proceedings and there are some glaring narrative gaps, but Nichols has created an exhilarating, efficient and intelligent sci-fi feature that echoes the likes of Steven Spielberg or John Carpenter yet remains completely in keeping with the independent aesthetic of Nichols’ previous films (Mud and Take Shelter). Of course, what you make of it all will be determined by your willingness to accept the more far-fetched aspects of the story.

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Like Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this is set very much in the present, a world that we (on the surface at least) recognise and understand. Nichols wastes no time in plunging us into the action, opening with Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) holed up in a motel room, watching a news report about the search for a kidnapped boy, the same young man who is situated between the two beds, reading comic books with a torch. The boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), is Roy’s son and so ‘special’ that he is considered a prophet by the members of a religious sect led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). The cult, it seems, worship the numeric sequences that Alton spouts, even though they have no idea what they mean. However, when it is discovered that these numbers mean something to the Government, agents are sent to find Alton and ascertain how he could possibly be privy to such information. With Meyer also despatching some heavies to retrieve Alton, the trio struggle to stay one step ahead of their pursuers, which includes NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver). More Mulder than Scully in his willingness to accept that something beyond the world we know might be at play here, Sevier finds himself somewhat torn between curiosity and responsibility.

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We never really understand the connection between Roy and Lucas, other than that they were school friends, with Lucas seemingly motivated more by his firsthand experience of the physical manifestations of Alton’s ‘power’ (blinding light emanating from his eyes) than any duty to Roy. We never find out why Alton was raised by Meyer instead of his parents and, having been constantly reminded that Alton is averse to sunlight – the group travel only at night – when a moment arises where Alton is suddenly cured of this affliction, it seems more a case of narrative convenience than anything else. It is to Nichols’ great credit therefore that you remain very much invested in these characters and their plight. You see, Roy is certain he understands what the numbers mean and his determination to deliver Alton to a particular place at a particular time never wavers in light of all manner of obstacles. The pace slows at times, but the cinematography from Adam Stone and the score from David Wingo work beautifully in unison to fill the myriad moments devoid of dialogue.

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Shannon has appeared in each of Nichols’ previous films and he is terrific again here as a father who will do whatever it takes to save Alton from the clutches of those whose intentions are less than noble, even if it means he will never see his son again. In fact, all of the cast, which includes Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s mother, are impressive although the cult sub-plot is underwritten, leaving Shepard with little to do. Certainly Nichols’ most ambitious film thus far, Midnight Special ends with an otherworldly sequence that is a  startling departure from the rest of the film and, like so much of what comes before, it leaves many questions unanswered. Flawed it may be, but Midnight Special is a powerful story of a father determined to do the right thing for his son no matter what the personal consequences.

The Qube Effect

A variety of Queensland bands took part in The Qube Effect in Fortitude Valley on Sunday (April 17) as part of National Youth Week Celebrations. Presented by Brisbane City Council, The Qube Effect featured a series of live music performances throughout the day on the Brunswick Street Mall stage, with each participating band/artist also afforded an opportunity to record a music video inside a cube fitted with 360 degree cameras.

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A wide range of musical styles featured on the program, which included the likes of Baskervillain, Blonde on Blonde, Georgia Mae and The Ninjas.  There was also skateboarding demonstrations and performance artists throughout the day and a selection of images from the event have been posted in the gallery.

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For more information about The Qube Effect, or to submit a vote for the best music video, head to the website.

 

 

Victoria

The fact that the breathtaking technical accomplishment of Victoria might easily go unnoticed by the average cinemagoer is a huge credit to director Sebastian Schipper, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen and the cast of performers that execute this one-shot thriller with faultless precision. Yep, over two hours of action, all in one take; no cuts. This isn’t the first time a filmmaker has adopted a one-take approach – and there is an element of gimmickry in such a decision – but the sheer magnitude of what Schipper has accomplished with Victoria is something to behold. Refusing to limit the scope of the action, the characters traverse Berlin by night as the story morphs effortlessly from playful romance to crackling crime caper, all in real time. Whilst the technical prowess on display is quite remarkable, the lead performance from Laia Costa as the titular Victoria is equally impressive. In a mesmerising turn devoid of vanity and bristling with emotional intensity, the 30-year-old Spanish actress (playing much younger here) is powerfully effective as a young woman who finds herself caught up in a most unexpected turn of events.

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The film opens on a smoke-filled strobe-lit night club, the camera weaving amongst the crowd until it fixes on Victoria dancing happily by herself, oblivious to those around her. Having found her, the camera never lets her go and, for the next 135 minutes, we follow her on an adventure that pushes her to the brink, both physically and emotionally. As she leaves the club, Victoria encounters a group of four young men and strikes up a flirtatious rapport with Sonne (Frederik Lau). Like so many young guys today, Sonne, Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit) and Fuss (Max Mauff) roam the streets listlessly, drinking and engaging in (mostly) harmless moments of mischief. Bored and with little money, they are all desperate to impress Victoria, however, it is Somme to whom she is drawn and we spend the first half of the film watching this romance unfold. The pacing here will no doubt leave some people frustrated as Victoria and Sonne (and the others) spend a lot of time walking and talking (and riding). The conversations between Sonne and Victoria are awkward, yet heartfelt and genuine, and the scene inside a closed cafe is particularly well-handled by the two performers.

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When Boxer, who, having spent time in prison, is summoned by the criminal figure who afforded him protection in jail, Victoria finds herself recruited to join the boys in an undertaking that is fraught with risk. The mood changes from this point as the action ramps up and the tension builds. Despite their bravado and bluster, these boys are not hardened criminals and there are moments of humour as they bumble their way through a bank heist and their subsequent efforts at escape. Throughout it all, Costa embodies the emotional fluctuations without the benefit of an editing safety net. The ‘we’ll fix it in post’ adage simply doesn’t apply here and Costa rises to the challenge, delivering a powerful performance that spans the full gamut of emotional responses to the various situations in which her character finds herself.  As is to be expected, the camera movement becomes more frantic in keeping with the increase in pace and emotional intensity as the group becomes desperate in their efforts to evade the police.

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What starts as something akin to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise morphs into something altogether different in tone and perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Victoria is the fact that you become so captivated in the story that you stop fixating on the sheer bodaciousness of Schipper’s approach. You stop looking for hidden edits and embrace the characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves. Shot between 4:00am and 7.00am in the Kreuzberg and Mitte neighbourhoods of Berlin, it took Schipper just three attempts to complete filming and the improvisational nature of much of the dialogue creates an intimacy between the characters that evokes a sense of realism. Ruled ineligible as Germany’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards due to the fact that most of the dialogue is in English, Valerie is a masterful melding of directorial audacity, sublime camerawork and a leading lady who transfixes in her mastery of her character’s emotional and psychological trajectory.

The Daughter

Given its title, there is no doubting who the key figure is in this delicately unsettling Australian drama set in a small Australian town that, for years, has relied on the local timber mill for its economic survival. Adapted from Henrik Isben’s play The Wild Duck by Simon Stone and featuring a slew of terrific performances, The Daughter is a film that looks stunning and packs an emotional punch in its unravelling of long suppressed family secrets. More than just a family drama, The Daughter delivers an exploration of social class and the fragility of those small communities dependant on one industry for their continued survival.  Whilst Stone’s only previous film credit is a segment in the Tim Winton portmanteau piece The Turning, he has previously helmed Ibsen’s work both in Australia with the Belvoir Street Theatre and on international stages. As such, his familiarity with this work has produced an assured feature film debut; a disciplined drama in the same vein as the very fine works of Ray Lawrence (Lantana, Jindabyne). As such, this may well prove to be the best Australian film released this year.

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Geoffrey Rush is Henry, the wealthy owner of the local timber mill who, having informed his workers of the impending closure of the business, sets about preparing for his upcoming wedding to his former housekeeper Anna (Anna Torv). The wedding has lured Henry’s son Christian (Paul Schneider) back from America to serve as best man, despite the fact that the pair can’t stand to be in each other’s company. When Christian reconnects with childhood friend Oliver (Ewen Leslie), one of those to have lost their job as a result of the mill closure, their reminiscences soon make way for the unleashing of a series of secrets and lies that ultimately threaten to irrevocably change the lives of those involved. Oliver is an affable everyman who is hitched to Charlotte (Miranda Otto), a teacher at the local school attended by their 15-year-old daughter Hedvig (Odessa Young). Throw in Sam Neill as Walter, Oliver’s forgetful father with a penchant for wildlife rehabilitation, and you have the core players in this understated yet unnerving tale of deception.

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Whilst the core revelation around which the narrative revolves doesn’t come as a great surprise, there are still plenty of other questions left unanswered to sustain viewer interest through to the end, such as the circumstances surrounding the death of Christian’s mother years earlier. A genial husband and father who, despite having squandered the opportunities of his youth, has etched a happy life for himself and his family, Oliver’s transformation into an emotionally bereft shell of a man by movie’s end is a great credit to Leslie’s performance. However, in a movie titled The Daughter, it is the titular character that is so pivotal in making the film work and Young is remarkable as the precocious, complex Hedvig, a luminous presence whenever she is on screen. Although a typical teenager in many ways (sneaking off into the bush to have sex with her boyfriend), Hedvig seems destined for something far beyond the confines of this small town in decline. Young articulates the contradictions of Hedvig’s persona – wise beyond her years one minute, wide-eyed innocence the next – with an effortlessness that belies her lack of experience.

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Filmed on location near the Snowy Mountain towns of Tumut and Batlow, cinematographer Andrew Commis, editor Veronika Janet and composer Mark Bradshaw have been very successful in conveying intimacy and conjuring tension; the forest setting is menacing, mysterious and meditative. With The Daughter, Stone has crafted a fine, emotionally powerful piece of cinema that has unearthed yet another Aussie upstart seemingly destined for big things. For Young though, the challenge will be to maintain the momentum generated from a performance that might just be the best from a young Aussie actress since Tilda Cobham-Hervey’s equally stunning turn in 2013’s 52 Tuesdays.