Why That MIDNIGHT SPECIAL Ending Makes Perfect Sense

Jeff Nichols’s latest film, Midnight Special, is a beautiful, sad, striking work of cinematic art. There’s my review in a nutshell. I loved it. But there’s a very strong criticism from even some people who share my opinion: That ending.

Obviously, spoilers ahead.

Let’s start with the film’s story. Midnight Special follows a father and special-powered son who, along with the father’s childhood friend and eventually the mother, are running from the cult that worshiped the boy and the federal government who sees him as a threat. They need to get to a certain place at a certain time for an unknown reason. Throughout the film, the father and son are only briefly separated.

And that’s where the problem with the ending lies in some audience members eyes. At the film’s climax, the father leaves his son with the boy’s mother so mom and son can get to where the child needs to be. Dad drives off with his friend in the car, which means the military will chase them instead of interrupting the child’s shift to a parallel universe.

Yes, the dad leaves the son. Even Nichols, who was at an Alamo Drafthouse screening in Austin last weekend, said it didn’t necessarily make narrative sense as a father-son story. Of course, the film isn’t that. Like all Nichols films, it’s this father’s story alone.

Part of the inspiration for the film, according to Nichols, was the birth of his own child. Here he’s unpacking the idea of fatherhood and its scary and beautiful nature. In that sense, Midnight Special has more in common with The Babadook (about motherhood) than it does Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Fatherhood aside, Nichols’s films—from Shotgun Stories to Mud—have a central theme: The collision of primal masculinity and modern emotional vulnerability. When male weakness is exposed, how does the man respond? In Midnight Special, the relationship Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) has with his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) still focuses on this idea, just told through a filter of paternity.

I’m no parent, but after watching this film, I know with certainty that having a child is an exquisite vulnerability. When Roy has to make the choice of leaving his son with his mother or being there to see his son disappear, something he could have easily done because his friend could have driven the car away, Roy can’t do it. His response is emotional disengagement and aggression, knowing that by fleeing he’s setting himself up for a final, possibly deadly confrontation with soldiers in armored vehicles.

Filtering the central theme through fatherhood appears to be where the hang-up lies. People want a Spielberg movie and instead they get a Nichols movie. Midnight Special is almost anti-Spielbergian. The blockbuster master’s films were about a father’s legacy, how his actions (present or not) impact the life of the child. In Midnight Special, it’s about how a child affects a father. Even in Shotgun Stories, a film about adult brothers abandoned by their father and their war with the father’s other family, is more about the aggressive masculine response to an emotional situation than it is about that relationship with the father. If Midnight Special had a bold, big-hearted payoff, it would have done a disservice to the film’s intent.

Nichols never sets out to make a Spielberg movie. He’s said John Carpenter was a bigger influence, and Michael Mann seems just as stylistically important. His continued focus on the flaws of masculinity puts his work more in line with Scorsese’s than the king of entertainment’s. However, unlike his boomer influences, Nichols is trying to find a role for maleness in world marching toward gender diversity and equality. To abandon that idea means not completely making narrative sense in order to make thematic sense. And if we’re going to push the boundaries of cinema, I’ll take thematic sense every time.

Someone Please Save the DCEU from Zack Snyder

Zack Snyder isn’t a filmmaker. He’s a bro with an entourage that happens to have cameras.

I’m not saying this to offend Mr. Snyder or his fans. I think they’re all aware of this. I’m saying it as a DC kid who grew up to watch his heroes become selfish man-children. And honestly, I’m not as outraged as I thought I would be after watching Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Because it’s hard to be upset when you ask Pauly D to be Pasolini.

Snyder, who comes from music videos, never evolved past his MTV prime. (Even though so many others have.) The thing of it is, he didn’t even seem to try. He owns what he is. His narrative beats. His choppy editing. His mise-en-scene. His overwhelming bro-sthetic. All straight from someone just shooting visuals for a Soul Asylum single.

It’s not shocking that Snyder’s “Desolation Row” music video from the Watchmen movie he also directed is infinitely better than the film itself. And it’s certainly not shocking that from start to finish, Batman v Superman works on the emotional level of a meathead with only two feelings: Confusing sadness and fist pump.

I won’t say superheroes weren’t meant to be this way, it’s just that these superheroes weren’t. Snyder doesn’t seem to understand that, nor does he seem to care. So the question here is why let him shepard the DCEU? Why a man who with Man of Steel and now BvS has shown outright contempt for Superman as a character? Why a man whose greatest contribution to cinema is a mediocre remake of Dawn of the Dead? Why a man who has only ever made long trailers and short music videos? Why Zack Snyder?

A studio gave its most valuable and potentially lucrative franchise, one steeped in history and ingrained into the American cultural consciousness, to a dude whose greatest concern is, “Can I make this look awesome,” without ever asking if it should. Worse, the stuff that should from a dramatic perspective doesn’t to a mind-boggling degree.

Case in point: In Batman v. Superman Snyder has a shot of Superman, floating stoically above flood victims for longer than necessary despite the family’s obvious and immediate need for rescuing. Cool, bro. But when we actually get to the film’s money shot, the meeting of Batman and Superman for the first time in costume, it’s a dark, distant, indistinct long shot with zero impact.

Or how about in the very beginning of the film when Bruce Wayne saves a little girl from being crushed under the falling debris of Wayne Financial Tower. Fucking awesome. Why you may ask is a little girl in the business district alone during the day while her mother, as the child indicates, is supposed to be up in the building that just collapsed. Because mega awesome.

There’s a gross, bro-ish quality to every decision Snyder makes, like he arrived on set everyday wearing a skin-tight, deep-v, all-over Batman t-shirt. That sentiment obviously inspired crossfit Batman, which is actually a thing in this movie. It lead to the execution of Superman’s pal and apparent CIA operative (?) Jimmy Olsen, which is also actually a thing. It turned Diana Prince into Selina Kyle and it made Lex a nerdy twerp that meatheads could fight. Why? Because awesome, bro

Snyder doesn’t care just how stupid Bruce Wayne/Batman and Clark Kent/Superman appear when they have to feel… anything. The supposed World’s Finest mostly just seem bewildered that grown men would have emotions at all. In Snyder’s world, this makes complete sense. These aren’t characters. They’re just moving costumes who have the emotional range of autistic toddlers. They only need to appear… EPIC. Give the image a bleak color grade and the characters a frowny face, and this is what Snyder considers drama.

None of this is surprising. Anyone who has muddled through Snyder’s filmography understands this. He’s the guy who made Sucker Punch and The 300, after all. What’s disappointing is that legendary pop culture icons have been reduced to roid-raging jocks in an effort to make them “relevant” or “badass.”

This also means they’re not superheroes. In Snyder’s world, Batman and Superman are superheroes in the same way Donald Trump is a politician. While that might get Warner Bros. a billion dollars, it makes these characters unrecognizable to anyone who ever really cared for them, anyone who was inspired by them.

Now it’s the DC heroes who need rescuing from bro Snyder. Until that happens, we can only ask ourselves, in the truly depressing way Snyder wants us to, “Whatever happened to the man of tomorrow?”

No Impact: AVATAR’s Groundbreaking 3D Experience Is Why We Forgot About It

James Cameron’s Avatar is no longer king of the domestic box office world. Star Wars: The Force Awakens took the top spot in North America officially on Wednesday, January 6, 2016. And with that record broken, we’ve been talking about Avatar more now than we ever have in years. It’s the biggest film of all-time worldwide with a stunning $2.7 billion in the bank, a figure that even the Star Wars juggernaut is unlikely to topple. Yet, we don’t make reference to it in everyday conversation. We don’t dress up like the characters every Halloween. We don’t think about it—ever. So how is it that Avatar, a film that made a half billion dollars more worldwide than Cameron’s equally blockbusting Titanic, is gone from most of our cinematic and cultural memories?

A Legacy, for Better or Worse

Over at Forbes, Scott Mendleson asked the question and focused Avatar’s business impact. As he points out, we’ve had to endure an onslaught of 3D releases since Avatar made it apparent that you can charge more per ticket for a now watered-down third dimension.

Most of the films we saw in 3D in 2015 were post-converts, meaning the enhancement was an afterthought. In fact, very few films aside from Scorsese’s Hugo or the How to Train Your Dragon films make you feel like 3D is part of the experience. Even as Cameron inspired auteurs like Gaspar Noé and Jean-Luc Godard to make their own 3D art films, the tech has become something we ignore. So in the end, what Avatar really did is force us to spend an extra $10 bucks when we can’t get into the 2D screening of the latest Marvel movie.

That’s Avatar’s legacy in a nutshell, and it’s not a great one. But everyone in 2009 went gaga over the film. I wrote a four-star review, which upon re-reading, I realized never even touched on story. Instead, I like most everyone else focused almost exclusively on 3D and motion capture technology. James Cameron, tech auteur and mediocre storyteller.

Yet here were are, six years later, and every time Cameron brings up his Avatar sequels, cinephiles roll their eyes while average moviegoers are more concerned with seeing the next franchise installment than they are returning to Cameron’s 3D world. Everyone saw the damn movie, but nobody remembers it. And there’s probably a one reason why: 3D.

Video Killed the Box Office Star

I tried to watch Avatar at home once after seeing it twice in 3D at the theater… and it’s not a good movie. When turning on Cameron’s sci-fi epic at home without the 3D experience, the weak characters and unimaginative story are exponentially more apparent. In 2D, the Oscar-winning cinematography, visual effects and art direction have all the impact of a Magic Eye poster without a hidden image. I won’t say it’s unwatchable, but it’s hardly more than white noise.

Avatar may have ushered in a new era of theatrical 3D, but similar technology at home, the way most people come to love and watch movies, never panned out. After Avatar there was a rush to get 3D TV sets in homes, but we’ve since moved on to just 4K Ultra HD sets and binge streaming on Netflix, both of which are more important to a wider range of media in the long term.

So Avatar faced two problems that other pop cultural juggernauts didn’t:

  • At home without 3D, the film is an overwhelming disappoint
  • Media consumption itself was changing and Avatar got left behind

While home video sales were as astronomical as the box office grosses, Avatar’s huge DVD and Blu-ray sales were likely following the wave of popularity, not it’s actual impact. Avatar’s DVD sales (remember this was 2009) don’t exceed those of 2008’s The Dark Knight, a film that could be watched and re-watched at home. Likewise, Disney’s Frozen, a film every parent of a young daughter has probably watched 100 times, tops Avatar in Bluray. Those two films and the urge to revisit them at home, amplified their cultural impact.

Most people haven’t forgotten about Frozen or The Dark Knight because you could rewatch these movies at home without losing anything. But not so with Avatar… and it’s not alone. I tried to watch Hugo in 2D watch and it was ugly. Scorsese hit a 3D homerun and now I can’t watch it  again. Unless you watch these movies in a 3D theater, you’re going to lose something significant. This is probably the root cause of Avatar’s cultural collapse.

A Shift in the Media Landscape

Avatar’s DVD and Bluray discs might as well be buried in a New Mexico landfill given the home viewing experience.  But the way we’ve experience all media has changed as well. While Avatar might have played on FX Networks at some point (I don’t ever remember stumbling upon it in my hotel rooms like I’ve done quite a few times with The Dark Knight), cable wasn’t the only way to watch movies or TV anymore once the fervor died down. Streaming came into play.

Back in 2011, Fox Home Entertainment’s Mike Dunn said that Avatar would not be on Netflix in his lifetime, for a number of now moot reasons. But Netflix and other streaming services have played an important part of the continuing relevance of any number of films and TV shows. Breaking Bad might have simply been a cult hit, even canceled, without Netflix. Marvel’s films have been there, as well, and have now swapped the film streaming with Marvel original series. Nolan’s first Batman film in on Netflix, too. Strategically using streaming to bolster popularity and drive demand is old hat in 2016.

Today, Dunn’s technology complaints, about consumers becoming high-def snobs and his bullishness on home 3D and Bluray, aren’t even part of the conversation. Instead it’s the ability to build a franchise with multimedia platforms that Avatar seemed to have ignored, just as Marvel was setting the model for this experience. Avatar was a success from another era, released just as the blockbuster film model was changing to the blockbuster universe model. Avatar, for whatever reasons, ignored it, making this planet-sized film release a pop culture pebble… for now?

The Na’vi Awaken

We know this: Cameron is working on three back-to-back-to-back sequels, the first of which is tentatively planned to hit theaters in December 2017. We also know that when it comes to James Cameron, you underestimate him to your detriment, as has be illustrated by both Titanic and Avatar. So is it really just too early to say whether or not the world of the Na’vi is one fans will flock to again and again?

When it comes to franchise and universes like Star Wars, Marvel, The Lord of the Rings and Jurassic Park, subjective quality of a single release isn’t what matters in the end. Rather it’s the ability to generate a consumer identity around a brand, tapping everything from publicity and advertising to multimedia experiences to good old-fashioned nostalgia in order make it happen. (Avatar’s brand itself is limited thanks to a name that’s exactly the same as a Nickelodeon cartoon with a fervent fan base.)

James Cameron himself has to buy into this. He has to realize that wowing people with film tech isn’t going to make up for flaccid storytelling or a universe that can’t be revisited.

I don’t see that as a likely scenario, though. It’s Cameron doesn’t seem like the type to put the film ahead of the filmmaking anymore. If Avatar is ever to become relevant, we have to be able to talk about the movie with more passion and intrigue than how it was made. We certainly can’t say that about his 2009 film. But if we can in 2017, Avatar may just become Cameron’s Star Wars after all.

5 X-FILES/BREAKING BAD Connections You May Have Missed

Vince Gilligan may have created one of the greatest shows in TV history with Breaking Bad. But the writer/producer also spent time on various other televisions shows, the most well-known being The X-Files. Gilligan is credited with producing over 120 episodes of The X-Files, and he wrote some of the series’ most entertaining “Monster of the Week” hour-longs, with his multiple perspective vampire story “Bad Blood” often cited as his best.

So it’s not surprising then that Breaking Bad often connects back to The X-Files. Here are five examples that you may not have noticed before:

1. Aaron Paul and Dean Norris

It’s well known that Bryan Cranston was the man Vince Gilligan wanted for Walter because of Cranston’s role in The X-Files episode “Drive” (Season 6, Episode 2), which was written by Gilligan. But 10 actors have crossed from X-Files into Breaking Bad in total, including Aaron Paul and Dean Norris.

Paul was a guest star in “Lord of the Flies” (Season 9, Episode 5) as the host of a Jackass-style show in the episode’s cold open.

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Norris was featured early in the series in the episode “F. Emasculata” (Season 2, Episode 22), playing a U.S. Marshal who chases down an infected fugitive with Mulder and Scully.

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2. Cradock Marine Bank

In season six of The X-Files, the episode “Monday,” written by Gilligan and John Shiban, features a bank that is the center of the action in a Groundhog Day Twilight Zone-inspired story.

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That same bank just happens to have a branch in Albuquerque, featured in the Breaking Bad episode “Say My Name” (Season 5, Episode 7).

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3. Ehrmantraut

You may have known that Mike (played by Jonathan Banks) has the last name Ehrmantraut.

Mike from Breaking Bad

But that name was also mentioned in the Vince Gilligan-scripted episode of The X-Files titled Tithonus (Season 6, Episode 10), albeit with a different spelling in the closed captioning.

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4. 10:13

The numbers 10 and 13 appear frequently in The X-Files, as they are not just the name of Chris Carter’s production company but also Carter’s birthday (Oct. 13, 1957).

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Well, in the Breaking Bad episode titled “Box Cutter” (Season 4, Episode 1), the number is featured briefly in a scenery montage as Gale’s neighbor calls 911 to report Gale’s murder.

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5. Erlenmeyer Flask

The last episode of the very first season of The X-Files is title “Erlenmeyer Flask” in reference to the container that holds extraterrestrial bacteria.

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In a rather subtle nod to The X-Files before his time on the show, Vince Gilligan, in the Breaking Bad pilot, has Walt specifically mention the Erlenmeyer flask in all of the chemistry equipment he steals for the high school.

breaking-bad-erlenmeyer-flash

Have you spotted any X-Files connections in Breaking Bad? Let me know.

From our readers…

Alex 
Walter was in the episode ‘Drive’ & Tuco was in the episode ‘El Mundo Gira’

Sam 
In the episode about Chupacabra the man who plays Tuco Salamanca is in it, and his name is “Eladio” Puente…… Eladio also being the name of the don of the Mexican Cartel in Breaking Bad.

Vincent 
In the black and white episode “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” episode 5.5, the monster is hidden in tented houses that are being fumigated just like in Breaking Bad with Vamonos Pest.

Dana 
And Jane had a drawing similar to Scully’s snake tattoo, if you look closely at her messy room after her death.

Pete
The Breaking Bad Season One episode titled “Cancer Man.” Could the connection be any more obvious?

David 
The Bounder appears in an early episode of the X-files, and in Kill Switch, we see all kinds of interesting things hidden
in a beat up old trailer!

Kelly
Michael Bowen (Uncle Jack) is the guest star on “Surekill” season 8 episode 8:). And Jim Beaver (the guy who sells the guns to Walt) is the coroner on “Field Trip” Season 6 episode 21:).

Nick
Heisenberg is mentioned in Season 7 Episode 19

MAKING A MURDERER: An Engrossing, Overlong True Crime Saga

When’s the last time you sat around for 10 hours watching phone call transcripts and courtroom video? Unless you had CourtTV during the O.J. Simpson trial, never is probably the answer. Well, Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi’s Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer might just change all that. The streaming TV service’s first foray into true crime film is engrossing and infuriating, in spite of runtime that’s more about binge watching than storytelling.

The series, which starts with the exoneration and release of Steven Avery after 18 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit and follows his subsequent arrest and trial when he’s accused of yet another grisly crime, isn’t like the other true crime entertainment we’ve seen in the last few years. The podcast Serial and HBO’s docuseries The Jinx have the storytellers featured prominently as the events unfold. Making a Murder instead sees the filmmakers do all of their work behind the camera, like feature journalists instead of narrative guides.

The questions are never articulated outright. Rather they’re formed in the audience’s mind as the details are presented. That certainly makes in the most provocative documentary released in this recent surge in the genre’s popularity. But of the three, Making a Murderer feels like the one with the most invested and outraged filmmaking team.

Maybe it’s Avery’s story itself, one that’s consumed by the injustice, bigotry and hubris we want to believe can’t infect our justice system. In Making a Murderer it does. And even if the film, as many in the Manitowoc, Wisconsin, sheriff’s department and neighboring Calumet County’s DA’s office accuse, doesn’t tell the whole story, it certainly spends hours upon hours giving us more than enough detail to say: Avery isn’t guilty and he was a victim of a police-led frame job.

If that’s what the filmmakers were hoping to achieve, they almost succeeded. But watching Making a Murderer, I flashed back to an episode of Serial where the host described a defense technique of confusing people with so many details that they don’t really know which ones really matter. To its detriment, the docuseries isn’t succinct enough to make its case stick.

Films like West of Memphis and The Paradise Lost series about the West Memphis Three, as well as the Errol Morris’s groundbreaking documentary masterpiece The Thin Blue Line, made a difference because they were much more pointed stories. HBO’s The Jinx accomplishes the same thing, using all of its six hours masterfully and for a purpose, which isn’t surprising given Andrew Jarecki’s near Morris-level documentary storytelling ability. Making a Murderer, which was filmed over a decade, just has too much material to work with to not feel like the facts, like the evidence presumably planted to convicted Avery, might have been manipulated.

The thing is, there’s great drama in Making a Murderer and that’s what makes the series so entertaining. Despite being unnecessarily inundated with trial footage, jailhouse phone call audio and interrogation video, the saga at the heart of the show prevails. Still, I can’t help thinking I’d much rather see a two-hour documentary or even narrative feature telling a much more thematically focused film. Brevity isn’t just the soul of wit. It’s the heart of storytelling. On that point,  Making a Murderer fails.

Reviews and commentary from an Austin cinephile.