Nostalgia Ultra: How two projects have perfectly recaptured the past


Nostalgia is a powerful force. When tapped into correctly, it compels people to gloss over the shortcomings of the era for which they pine. Whether it’s in politics or entertainment, people wish to hearken back to a time when they felt more positive, safe and secure; when joy was easier to come by and things weren’t so complicated. It’s usually associated with childhood because that’s before adulthood brought compromises and shades of gray. Suddenly, decisions had to be made with serious weight but also with implications that could stretch far into the future. This is why politicians always talk about going back to an idyllic past that never existed, and why studios crank out big screen remakes of various properties they hope people still get warm and fuzzy over.

But it’s a hard thing to recapture that feeling, to perfectly evoke those feelings of the past without feeling like a hollow retread. Artists with deft hands have to be able to take those old familiar stings and blend them with something new in a way that is seamless yet exciting. These projects must be comforting but also with a dash of the unexpected; alive in ways that aren’t incongruous with that nostalgia but also not purely a slave to those feelings either. Recently, two such projects have come along that have shown the way to properly revisit the past with an eye to the future. The Duffer brothers’ “Stranger Things” on Netflix and the Jeff Nichols’ film “Midnight Special” both call back to a specific attitude and time in pop culture (and in fact, it’s the same time for both of them), but they manage to do so masterfully enough that it feels both like going back to something familiar while moving forward into unexplored territory.

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Movie Review: “Midnight Special”

Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Joel Egerton, Adam Driver
Jeff Nichols

Much of director Jeff Nichols’ work is about fatherhood. “Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter” and “Mud,” in one form or another, show what it means to be responsible for another human being. It should come as no surprise, then, that Nichols explores that theme once again in his biggest film to date, “Midnight Special,” a thrilling throwback that’s both meditative and moving.

Roy (Michael Shannon) needs to get his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) to a specific location at a certain time. He’s not sure why, but he knows he has to for the sake of Alton. Roy’s son has special powers that he nor anyone else can explain, and while a religious cult – led by Sam Shepard – believes that Alton is their savior, to Roy, he’s just his son. With the help of his old friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Roy will do whatever he must to protect Alton, even if that means running from the government or getting into shootouts with crazy cult members.

“Midnight Special” isn’t exactly “E.T.,” although a few shots and ideas certainly pay tribute to Steven Spielberg’s classic. Like that film, Nichols tells a personal story, with its characters and themes driving the story, not set pieces. Alton might have super powers, but this is far from a superhero movie; it’s about fatherhood, finding one’s place in the world and faith.

Alton has his father and mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), but he’s never lived a normal life. During one quietly heartbreaking exchange, Roy and Sarah hold hands, watching their son play in front of them. It’s a sweet moment, but there’s an inherent sadness to the scene as Lucas cleans his gun in the background, watching the family trying to grasp onto fleeting moments of normalcy.

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