REVIEW: “Midnight Special”

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For many, a new movie from an accomplished filmmaker can be a special occasion. Tarantino, Scorsese, and the Coen brothers all have fanbases who mark their calendars whenever these filmmakers have a new project hitting theaters. Jeff Nichols has become that guy for me. Now before I am called out for unduly thrusting him into the company of the greats, all I am saying is that with only four movies under his belt Nichols has a defined vision and sensibility that I absolutely love. Whenever a Nichols film arrives it is a must-see.

“Midnight Special” is his latest film and first since 2012’s “Mud”. For the first time it features Nichols playing within multiple genres but not without adding his own undeniable signature. It’s a science fiction picture with Spielbergian flavor, but at the same time it’s impossible to pigeonhole. Quite honestly I don’t know what to call “Midnight Special” other than one more example of Jeff Nichols’ brilliance as a filmmaker and storyteller.

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Armed with a humble $18 million budget, “Midnight Special” accomplishes many things that $200 million blockbusters rarely nail down. Most notably, a strong and compelling story that trumps an overload of special effects and thoughtful, interesting characters who are easy to invest in. The film looks great as Nichols knows how to shoot a scene and build a load of tension with his camera. But as with each of his other films, the characters are the core of the story.

Nichols favorite (and one of the most underappreciated actors in the business) Michael Shannon plays a man named Roy who is running from the law along with his childhood friend Lucas (played by the perfectly tuned Joel Edgerton). With them is Roy’s eight-year-old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) in what appears to be an abduction. Amber Alerts spread across Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. The story becomes a fixture on national TV news coverage. The FBI joins the state and local authorities to intensify the search.

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Here’s the thing, Alton mysteriously possesses otherworldly powers and different parties want him for their own selfish reasons. Roy just wants him as his son, and that gets to the true heart of the film. Nichols gradually lets us in on this father/son relationship that doesn’t always go in the directions you would expect. Another intriguing layer is added when Alton’s estranged mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) enters the picture. Adam Driver is excellent as an NSA analyst reluctantly thrown into the search and the always reliable is really good Sam Shepard playing a cult-like religious leader.

“Midnight Special” is undoubtedly science-fiction, but it also plays around in other genres and with several interesting ideas. It is very much a family drama. It’s a suspenseful thriller. It’s a chase movie. It dabbles in parenting, childhood, cultism, and government intervention among other things. Remarkably none of these things feel underserved. Nichols (who also wrote the story) brings all of these things together in a way that helps to strategically define the world his main characters are navigating.

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Perhaps my favorite thing about the film is that Nichols doesn’t hold our hands and walk us through every aspect of his story. He slowly grants us bits of information while allowing us the space to piece them together ourselves. Sometimes he leaves things wide open, but it is never ambiguity for the sake of ambiguity as we often see in movies. He simply doesn’t answer every single question he asks choosing to allow the open-ended plot point or character to remain a mystery. The vast majority of that works perfectly, but I must admit there were a couple of instances that I felt deserved a little more attention.

That aside, “Midnight Special” is such a satisfying experience from Nichols’ smart script and assured direction to the top-notch performances especially from Shannon. It is an unconventional concoction that doesn’t feed on a desire for mass appeal. Instead it is a unique yet surefooted project that pulled me in and kept me hooked all the way through. I love it when a movie can do that.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Gift” (2015)

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At first glance “The Gift” looked like another movie about a creepy guy with a secret who dupes and then terrorizes a naïve family. We’ve seen this before, even last year with “The Guest”. But looks can be deceiving and just like the naïve families in these films, I was expecting one thing but what I got was surprisingly different – a mesmerizing swirl of twists, turns, and revelations that consistently subverted every expectation I had.

I’ve been a big fan of Joel Edgerton since he grabbed my attention in 2010’s “Animal Kingdom”. “The Gift” is clearly his movie where he serves as co-star, co-producer, writer, and director. Edgerton has received several past writing credits but this original work may be his best. Even more impressive, the film marks Edgerton’s directorial debut and it doesn’t take long to realize he knows his way behind a camera. GIFT1  There is an undeniable harmony between Edgerton’s writing and direction. Both fluidly combine to reveal his keen sense of storytelling which transcends any limitations such as the film’s meager $5 million budget. Edgerton is completely in tune with his characters and the tone that he is going for. Perhaps most importantly the story doesn’t dumb itself down or lazily rely on overused clichés. It certainly hits some of the normal genre ticks, but you almost sense that it’s doing it to set the audience up in order to pull the rug out from under them later on.

Jason Bateman is perfectly cast to play the confident and controlling Simon. He and his wife Robyn (played equally well by Rebecca Hall) have just moved to Los Angeles from Chicago after he gets a swanky new job at a large security firm. Their move was also influenced by hopes of leaving some difficulties behind and starting a new chapter in their relationship. It begins with them buying a stylish new home in an upperclass neighborhood.

One day while accessory shopping for their new home they run into Gordo (Edgerton), a timid and mousy former classmate of Simon’s. The chance meeting leads to a series of awkward encounters. Gordo begins leaving them house gifts and popping up during the day while Simon is at work. Simon is leery and uncomfortable around Gordo while Robyn is a bit more sympathetic and curious. This leads to the film’s key focus – three characters confronted with truth, consequences, and sins from the past. To tell any more would be doing a disservice. Gift2

The three central performances are vital. Bateman often relegates himself to lame raunchy comedies, but here he shows an extraordinary natural bend that tops anything he has done to date. Rebecca Hall continues to be one of our most earnest and expressive actresses, delivering superb work while tackling the most emotionally complex character of the three. But Edgerton’s performance may be the key. It would be easy for him to fall into conventional traps but he steers clear of that. Instead he gives us a character so thoroughly cryptic. One minute he has us challenging our sympathies and the next we are squirming in your seats.

Edgerton listed Hitchcock and Haneke among his influences for the film and you can sense it. A stealthy and tense Hitchcockian vibe flows from the title screen to the end credits. Edgerton has given us a crafty thriller made with an impeccable sense of pacing. It is deceptively smart, hypnotically intense, and most importantly it never tips its hand. This is one of the more impressive directorial debuts and Joel Edgerton has exposed himself to be a gifted filmmaker and storyteller. Here’s hoping we get a lot more from him in the future.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Exodus: Gods and Kings”

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I can’t help but wonder if it’s actually possible for a ‘by the good book’ movie to be embraced and appreciated within the arena of contemporary film criticism. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying critics have been given a lot of quality Bible-based movies to consider. I’m just curious if a receptive environment exists in criticism these days for movies like Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”? Is this why a flawed movie like “Noah”, which drastically alters the biblical account, is widely accepted among critics? Is this why Ridley Scott chose to omit some key portions of the Moses story in his new film “Exodus: Gods and Kings”?

Now make no mistake, thankfully “Exodus” is no “Noah”. Darren Aronofsky used his Noah story as a platform to promote everything from environmentalism and animal rights to redefining the God of the Bible in several unsavory ways. Ridley Scott doesn’t do that in “Exodus”. “Noah” was also utterly ridiculous and downright dumb at times. “Exodus” doesn’t have that problem either. Scott takes several dramatic liberties, but he does maintain a level of respect for the source material. Instead it’s the numerous omissions that hold the film back a bit.

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It may be an overused term, but “Exodus” is by definition an epic. Ridley Scott is definitely playing in a familiar period piece sandbox and the sheer scope of the production is jaw-dropping. Over 1,500 special effects shots and some incredible costume and set designs were used to create this vast and vivid landscape. This may be the most visually arresting movie I’ve experienced this year, and it could be said that it should be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate its accomplishments.

The sweeping story begins in 1300 B.C. with Moses (Christian Bale) serving as a general in the Egyptian army. He holds a place of prominence after being adopted into the royal family as an infant and raised with friend and Pharaoh-to-be Prince Ramesses (Joel Edgerton). The Moses of this film is a very complex character. We see him as stubborn, defiant, and conflicted. These traits really come out after God appears to him and tasks him with leading His chosen people out of Egyptian slavery. The film paints Moses as a reluctant prophet at first – one who often disapproves of God’s actions. Only over time does he finally understand that God is with them.

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Now “Exodus” could be theologically picked apart, but I felt its central focus was on target. But there were interpretive decisions that puzzled me. For example, when God speaks to Moses He does so through a messenger – a young boy. I’m sure there is some deeper meaning behind that imagery, but it’s completely lost on me. I also think Moses’ reluctance to follow God and general lack of faith carries on for too much of the film. I think it robs the story of some of its deeper meaning.

On the other hand there are some interpretations that really intrigued me. For instance, I love the way Scott presents the ten plagues. Aside from the odd way the film launches them, there is a natural connection between several of plagues that is very well realized. Some people have voiced displeasure with the use of nature, but I think it works because the plagues are still clearly supernatural. The same with the parting of the Red Sea. It’s definitely a different approach and some of the changes are unnecessary. But the entire sequence is tense and thrilling. It’s an incredible visual spectacle.

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There has also been criticism about the casting of predominately white actors playing Hebrew and Egyptian characters. Some have gone as far as to ask for a boycott. I don’t like these objections because they automatically assume a degree of racism is behind the casting even though no evidence exists to support it. I also think in this case they ignore some really good performances. Bale gives a solid performance that skillfully moves his character from prominent Egyptian royalty to tired and destitute Hebrew leader. And Joel Edgerton is very good as Ramesses. It’s an incredibly committed performance that could have gone terribly wrong in lesser hands. Both actors put all into their characters and I have nothing bad to say about their casting.

“Exodus” is an interesting Bible-inspired epic. There are a number of Bible omissions and deviations that actually hurts the plot. There are also some unfortunate narrative jolts – moments where the story leaps ahead without giving us the information we need to fill in the gap. But the movie doesn’t disrespect the Biblical account and there no hidden or secret agendas as with Aronofsky’s “Noah”. And then there is the overall presentation from director Ridley Scott. No one can visualize huge and ambitious period pieces like he does. I can’t tell you how many times I said “Wow” while sitting in the theater. It’s that visionary style that ultimately brought this amazing and beloved story to life for me. I doubt it will resonate with most critics, but I’m hoping it finds an audience.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

“Zero Dark Thirty” – 4.5 STARS

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Kathryn Bigelow may be the boldest and gutsiest director in the business. One things for certain, she’s not scared to jump head first into a part of the film industry sandbox normally dominated by male directors. I think that’s the main reason I like her so much. Bigelow doesn’t allow others to define what type of director she is or what type of movies she’s going to make. She makes the movies she wants to make and lately they just happen to be gritty and realistic military pictures. But what’s really cool is that she does it better than almost anyone else. She doesn’t bow to gender trends, political positions, or industry traditions. She tells powerful and mesmerizing stories and does it her own way.

Bigelow’s latest film is “Zero Dark Thirty” and it didn’t take long for the cries of controversy to begin. This is also a movie that’s received a lot of praise even garnering several Oscar nominations including Best Picture. But Bigelow herself received what I think is the biggest snub of the Oscars when she was passed over for a best director nomination. This has brought speculations of gender bias from some while others believe it’s Academy backlash for what they perceive as bad politics from Bigelow. I don’t know about any of that but it’s an inexplicable snub. Bigelow has crafted a dense and thrilling film that surpasses her previous movie, the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker”.

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“Zero Dark Thirty” is an edge-of-your-seat procedural that follows the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden. This isn’t a paper-thin conventional Hollywood action picture. This movie follows the CIA’s taxing search through evidence, information, and leads in order to find the terrorist mastermind. It’s an arduous and toll-taking mission that weeds through enhanced interrogations, misdirections, and loss of life. Bigelow manages to condense this decade’s worth of investigation into a gripping and concise 2 1/2 hours. She stops at critical points during the manhunt, some where we made important progress and others that were disastrous.

Bigelow once again teams up with writer Mark Boal and, as with “The Hurt Locker”, they aren’t out to make political points or deliver a heavy-handed statement. Regardless of the “pro-torture” accusations from the left and the “inaccuracy” claims from the right, Bigelow and Boal throw out a lot of information and allow the audience to sort through it, process it, and come up with our own conclusions. I like that. Unlike so many Hollywood productions of this kind, I wasn’t beaten over the head with a political slant. Instead I was allowed to view the events through my eyes and interpret them accordingly. That’s one of the reasons there has been such a range of reactions and I think it’s a sign of brilliant filmmaking.

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Before I move on let me address the “pro-torture” debate that surrounds this film. I think “pro-torture” is a self-serving term that doesn’t do the film justice. Yes the movie shows several scenes of enhanced interrogations and it does say bits of important information were gathered through them. But it also shows the heavy personal and emotional toll it takes and it asks the question ‘Was it worth it?’ Bigelow doesn’t gloss over the harsh and disturbing nature of the torture and it’s impossible to view those scenes in a “pro-torture” light. On the flipside, just when you’re questioning the at-all-cost approach to the search for Bin Laden, Bigelow injects a scene of savage terrorist violence that reminds you of the barbarism at the heart of the enemy. These scenes, along with the brief but sobering opening featuring 911 calls from the 9/11 attacks, really hit home with me and reminded me of the ruthless reality of terrorism. But I had to decide if the ends justified the means and the film makes that decision a challenge.

2012 has been the year of ensemble casts and “Zero Dark Thirty” may have the best of them. It’s a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of actors that I love. It all starts with Jessica Chastain. She plays Maya, a brash and determined CIA operative whose entire career has been devoted to finding Osama bin Laden. Early on she is assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan where she grows tired of the political wrangling and red tape. She may at times look like a supermodel but she’s really a firebrand who will stir things up to get results. Maya is devoted to her mission and at times she seems like the only one interested in succeeding. But as the movie progresses we see the physical and emotional toll the manhunt is taking on her. Chastain is simply phenomenal. There’s not one disingenuous moment in her entire performance and while 2011 was a great year for her, this was superstar making work.

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And speaking more of that ensemble cast, there are several other standout supporting performances. Jason Clarke is fantastic as a tough and slightly unhinged CIA interrogator. Kyle Chandler is wonderful as Maya’s CIA boss in Pakistan. Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt are perfect as members of the Navy SEAL team tasked with pulling off the final mission. I loved Edgar Ramirez as a skilled CIA ground operative. The great Mark Strong plays a CIA head caught in the middle of Washington politics and the mission at hand. James Gandolfini is a lot of fun as a heftier Leon Panetta. I also enjoyed Jennifer Ehle as Maya’s co-worker who starts as a rival but ends up a good friend. This is just an enormously strong cast from top to bottom.

Everyone knows how “Zero Dark Thirty” ends but that doesn’t keep it from being an intense edge-of-your-seat thriller. The story starts with the frustration of bad leads and dead ends but the intensity is ratcheted up to crazy levels once the first big break comes through. I was absorbed in what I was seeing. And then there is the finale, possibly the best 20 minutes of military action ever put on screen. Bigelow never Hollywoodizes the sequence. She makes it as grounded in reality as possible. But when it comes down to it Kathryn Bigelow likes to make movies about people. This is a movie about women and men who sacrificed their skills, their lives, and some may argue their humanity to accomplish a greater good. It’s a movie that’s not afraid of asking tough questions or of challenging popular sentiments. It’s also a movie made with impeccable filmmaking  style and skill which all comes back to Bigelow. So Academy, you’ve got explaining to do!

“THE THING” (2011) – 3 STARS

While I would hardly call 2011’s “The Thing” necessary, this prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic manages to capture enough of the shocks and paranoia of its predecessor to be successful. While it is indeed a prequel, in many ways it’s a remake borrowing more from Carpenter’s version than offering much new. But trying to recreate a tried-and-true formula isn’t a bad thing and “The Thing” almost nails it. It works more often times than not but it does fall victim to its own poor choices.

The film sets the table for the 1982 picture by detailing the discovery and unleashing of the deadly shape-shifting extraterrestrial by a Norwegian research team in Antarctica. One of the film’s biggest strengths is its desire for a fluid continuity between the two movies. Everything is connected nicely and any fan of the earlier film will appreciate the effort. Here the Norwegian team has found a UFO and a life form buried under the ice. Against wiser suggestions, the head of the group orders the creature be brought back to their base for research. After the creature reveals it’s still alive and escapes, the team learns that the alien assimilates its victims and then imitates them both physically and verbally. Soon everyone is suspected of being a host which leads to fear and panic throughout the base.

Sound familiar? Like I said, the film borrows a lot from its predecessor. It’s moody and creepy and the isolated Antarctic setting still works really well. But it never lives up to Carpenter’s version. One of the problems is the overloaded cast of characters, most of which we never connect to. Only a few characters really stand out while others feel like token kills for the alien. You could have easily cut out about five meaningless characters. They would have never been missed and the others would have benefited from it. Also while the movie does finally start to capture some of the intense paranoia of the earlier film, it seems to come and go. Carpenter’s film was driven by the paranoia and unnerving suspicions of his characters. I also thought this movie got a little off track close to the end. There’s an out-of-place sequence in the underground UFO that felt completely disconnected from the rest of the film. That was one attempt at originality that really fell flat.

On the flip side, Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. does effectively employ several of the techniques used by Carpenter. And while I wouldn’t call the special effects better, the availability of CGI does give this creature much more fluid motions and his assimilations are pretty grotesque. Of course I mean that in a good way. The film is also helped by some really good acting throughout. Mary Elizabeth Winstead as especially impressive as a paleontologist who becomes the lead character. The wonderful Australian actor Joel Edgerton is also quite good as an American helicopter pilot who tends to sit on the outside of the largely scientific group. Both performances are natural and true even when the material let’s them down a bit.

“The Thing” is a film that will largely appeal to a small audience. Fans of the 1982 classic will want to see it and should find a lot to like. While it trips itself up with an overloaded cast and a few scenes which feel like they belong in another film, it does deliver that almost old-school sci-fi monster movie feel. It captures some of the paranoia that I keep harping on and it’s connection to the previous picture is very well done.  Top it off with some nice performances and you have a film that is very watchable. Oh, and did I mention they have flamethrowers???