(On Cable TV, July 2017) Writer/Director Jeff Nichols is now firmly on my radar after Mud and Midnight Special: his quasi-tactile sense of verisimilitude is astonishing, the local colour he brings to his stories is exceptional and he gets to control his movies by acting both as screenwriter and director. His frequent collaborations with Michael Shannon also help, as exemplified by Take Shelter, in which Shannon plays a young dad trying to keep himself and his family together through increasingly worrisome premonitions. It’s not a big movie, but it’s effective. The tension ramps up, Shannon is mesmerizing and Jessica Chastain shows up as a wife who tries to understand what her husband is going through. The ending packs a surprise whammy. It’s a good movie. But, if I can dedicate the rest of this review to post-viewing thoughts, I approached the film as low-key fantasy: there wasn’t any ambiguity in my mind as to whether the protagonist was suffering from delusions or prophetic dreams. I’m a genre-movie fan, and didn’t really bother with any realistic interpretation. When the surprise-ending came, I was more than willing to see it as a classical, literal fantastic twist with no other interpretation. Imagine my surprise when I started seeing references to the ending being open-ended—as a genre-comfortable fan, I hadn’t bothered with the depressingly realistic interpretation of the ending, in which we go back into the protagonist’s mind for another premonition. There’s probably a lesson here in terms of audience expectations and what they get from a movie, but I’m perhaps more interested in noting that Take Shelter’s ending does successfully walk a difficult line between literal and metaphorical interpretation … while being unusually successful in fulfilling both.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) My history of film comedy is shaky, but if I recall correctly, The Jerk was an early example of the idiot-protagonist subgenre, especially as executed as a continuous series of gags. Steve Martin was trying to broaden his appeal beyond stand-up comedy at the time, but the film he wrote ended up reflecting his gag-a-minute sensibilities, with a generous side dish of absurdity. Does it still work? Well, sort-of: While comedy audiences today are far more used to rapid-fire idiot comedies (Will Ferrell’s career comes to mind), The Jerk acts as a prototype of the form and, as such, can feel a bit slack compared to later examples. Its eagerness to throw everything on-screen to see what sticks can feel desperate, and it does have strange ideas about pacing that occasionally stop the film dead. It’s amusing more than funny (although I couldn’t help but laugh audibly at the kitten-juggling moment, probably helped along by the fact that I was caring for a kitten at the time) but it does have a good-natured tone that’s hard to resist even today. Steve Martin is irreplaceable as the title character, and it’s always nice to see Bernadette Peters going for laughs in her prime. The Jerk appealed to a specific kind of viewer back then (i.e.; Steve Martin fans) and while that audience may have grown since then, it’s still not a comedy for everyone. I found the details and throwaway gags funnier than the overall story, but that’s to be expected from a quasi-slapstick comedy.