Sunday, April 17, 2016
GREEN ROOM Review:
- With his first film, Blue Ruin, director Jeremy Saulnier made himself known as a major new voice in movies. Blue Ruin took the same sort of retro, minimalist, slow-burn aesthetic that's become all the rage in the indie horror sphere, and applied that same sort of vibe to the revenge thriller. The result was a unique film that mixed understated, low-key, pitch-black humor with bursts of brutal violence. Now, with GREEN ROOM, Saulnier takes that same sensibility and cranks it up to eleven. Where Blue Ruin sometimes felt like a director still, to an extent, finding his voice, GREEN ROOM feels like the work of a creative voice now fully-formed. The film is a master-class in cinematic tension - a hardcore, uncompromising midnight movie that will make you laugh and gasp and clap. It's pure cinematic rock n' roll.
GREEN ROOM hits you with an instant-classic exploitation film premise: punks vs. Nazis. The film begins by showing us the rough-and-tumble road life of a young and hungry punk rock band called The Ain't Rights. After a planned college-town gig falls through, the band takes a chance by accepting another gig at a backwoods punk club somewhere outside of Portland. They're warned that the club caters to a certain type, but it's not until they arrive on the scene that they see that it is, in fact, a haven for neo-Nazis and skinheads. The band, feeling extra rebellious, decides to play a cover of The Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks %$&# Off.” The bottles that get thrown at them are a portent of things to come. As they prepare to leave the club after the gig, the band stumbles onto a murder scene. And suddenly, they're in way over their heads - unwanted witnesses to a crime, and the targets of the violent sect of neo-Nazis that use the club as a headquarters and recruiting base.
The movie takes its atmospheric cues from legendary cult movie masters like John Carpenter and Walter Hill. Most of the film takes place in a select few locations, but Saulnier makes the most of those confined spaces to build tension to crazy levels. When the violence comes, Saulnier pulls no punches - he makes GREEN ROOM into a blood-spattered, gory battle of wills. But what keeps even the quiet moments interesting is the care the movie gives to make all of the characters have depth. The violence always means something - we have some investment in all of the characters, big and small, hero or villain. The members of The Ain't Rights all feel fleshed-out - and each, in a short time, is given plenty of personality.
It helps that the movie gets great performances out of actors like Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat - both playing members of the band. Imogen Poots is also very good, playing a friend of the initial murder victim, now held captive alongside the band members. The fun of seeing these punks backed into a corner is that they must now channel their fearless, rebellious stage personas into a real-life, life-or-death situation. The punks are forced to dig deep within, and see if they can translate their on-stage bravado into real, actual, courage in the face of danger. The movie has a lot of fun with that duality. It's not ragging on the punks or calling them out as poseurs - instead, we're made to root for them to be the badasses that their hardcore music makes them out to be.
Of course, the icing on the cake here is that GREEN ROOM casts the great Patrick Stewart as its Big Bad - the icy, manipulative club-owner who also happens to be the enigmatic, cult-like leader of the white supremacist gang calls the club their base of operations. Stewart kills. He tones down his usual Shakespearean grandiosity in favor of a much more slithery, serpent-like performance. His character, Darcy, is a sadistic dude prone to bursts of rage, but also a guy who can turn up the charm when need be - as he does when he initially tries to persuade the members of The Ain't Rights that he's on their side. Saulnier is definitely having fun having Stewart play against type. He's also having fun with showing how these despicable neo-Nazis - based out of a hardcore punk club - still have all sorts of mundane concerns around money, supplies, etc. Stemming from the Nazism-as-a-business motif is the resigned subservience that Darcy inspires in his underlings. In particular, there's a great performance from Blue Ruin's Macon Blair as Darcy's put-upon right-hand-man - a guy whose evilness is counterbalanced by a certain self-aware sense of "how the hell did I get myself into this?".
What's remarkable about this movie is that from the moment the punks run afoul of Darcy and his minions, the intensity never lets up. The movie is a nail-biter through and through. And Saulnier makes sure that no act of violence is taken for granted - each is a shocking, wince-inducing jaw-dropper. The action in general just feels raw - there's a you-are-there messiness and a constant feeling of unpredictability. There's also a streak of dark humor that permeates the film - just the right amount. At the same time, Saulnier does occasionally let things breathe, and really makes you feel bonded to these characters. It's all a great recipe for a new midnight movie mainstay - an ode to punk-rock rebellion that feels like the movie equivalent of a balls-to-the-wall punk rock headbanger.
My Grade: A-
Saturday, April 16, 2016
THE JUNGLE BOOK Review:
- Initially, I was skeptical of this latest live-action version of THE JUNGLE BOOK. Disney seems intent on turning all of its animated classics into live-action spectacles. But to what purpose? How many times must the same stories be re-told over and over again? Still, my skepticism was lessened when I saw the first trailers for this one. Perhaps a live-action Jungle Book was justified if it would look this amazing. Now that I've seen the movie, my verdict is that the movie is a mixed bag. From a purely visual perspective, this one is undeniably a stunner. The animals and the environs look amazing. But story-wise, to me this was pretty shrug-worthy - it's an at-times awkward mix of the animated original's whimsy and the darker Kipling source material. This is a movie that has full singing/dancing musical numbers, but also sure-to-terrorize-and-traumatize-kids moments of violence and brutality - often veering wildly from one extreme to the other in a matter of minutes. Ultimately, there is a numbing effect. The movie doesn't really seem to know what it is - other than a showcase for insanely realistic CGI.
There are, certainly, some interesting thematic ideas amid the spectacle. Director Jon Favreau and writer Justin Marks push heavily on the idea that young Mowgli has reached a crossroads, and must decide if he'll remain a creature of the jungle, or embrace his human-ness. Having been raised by wolves - along with the kindly panther Bagheera - after his father was killed, Mowgli has become an integrated part of the animal melting pot that is the jungle. He has, mostly, been indoctrinated into the ways of the wolves. But whenever he does display human traits - like making/utilizing tools - he is chided, his makeshift tools denounced as "tricks." Now, however, the sinister tiger Shere Khan has decided that Mowgli must be killed for the good of the jungle. Having been scarred by a man wielding fire, Khan is convinced it's only a matter of time before Mowgli becomes a danger to the jungle. And so, at Bagheera's urging, Mowgli flees his wolf pack in search of a nearby human village. The movie builds towards a pretty interesting climax, where Mowgli must decide once and for all if he'll stay in the jungle, or embrace his humanity - with all that that entails.
The problem is that the movie, mostly, feels like a series of self-contained tangents that distract and diverge from the main plot rather than add to it. Mowgli meets a mysterious snake Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and learns his origin story! Mowgli meets happy-go-lucky bear Baloo (who is voiced by Bill Murray) and helps him get some honey, and they sing a song (one of two in the movie)! Mowgli runs afoul of King Louie of the apes, who is voiced by Christopher Walken and sings a song (two of two in the movie)! Mowgli saves a baby elephant! In many ways, the film has the same sort of light and airless rhythm of a typical Disney animated movie - with the difference being that this movie seems to want to go darker and deeper, even as it keeps getting distracted with all sorts of seemingly-obligatory Disney-ness. But more than that, the movie rarely feels like it has much plot momentum. The structure is loose and freewheeling, which can make the movie - for all its stunning visuals and action - feel aimless and draggy at times.
The movie really does get creepy at certain moments - the Kaa sequence, for one is pretty intense. And some of the animal-on-animal fights are downright vicious - especially given how photo-realistic most of the movie's creatures are. But like I said, some of the movie's more extreme and intense tendencies create some real tonal dissonance with its lighter moments. Kid actor Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli, seems more comfortable with the goofy and funny stuff. His wide-eyed, go-big performance feels less attuned to the movie's more serious sequences.
The other performances - namely, the voice-acted parts - are all quite good. If nothing else, the main animal characters in the movie have a ton of personality. In particular, Bill Murray makes Baloo an instant favorite (he basically is a real-life Baloo, after all), and Idris Elba makes Shere Khan into a fearsome and formidable antagonist. Christopher Walken also provides a comedic spark as the larger-than-life (personality-wise and size-wise) King Louie. But what really impresses is how the voice-acting combines with the amazingly-rendered CG to create a surprisingly immersive heightened reality. Going into the film, I was worried that seeing photo-realistic animals speaking English would be awkward to the point of taking me out of the film. But in practice, the movie's animators do a brilliant job of making the animals just heightened and just anthropomorphic enough to convey real, believable personalities - and to make us buy them as fully fleshed-out characters.
Favreau, for his part, really goes for broke. The movie's jungle world is amazingly-realized, and Favreau shows a cinematic sense of artistry here that I didn't know he had in him. Interestingly, where the movie shines most is in the quieter, more painterly scenes. The action, too, is often breathtaking - although more so for the eye-popping CG work on the animals and environments than for anything particularly awesome going on with the staging of the big set-pieces. Nothing really reaches Spielbergian levels of inventiveness. Still, give Favreau credit for crafting what is, overall, one of the most visually-impressive blockbusters in quite some time.
Ultimately though, THE JUNGLE BOOK just doesn't nail its big emotional beats like it should. There's too much here that feels like fluff and/or filler, and that means that the should-have-been-powerful ending instead feels sort of "meh." THE JUNGLE BOOK works well enough, but only its visuals are more than serviceable.
My Grade: B
Tuesday, April 12, 2016
EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! Review:
- Richard Linklater is one of our greatest filmmakers because he so expertly captures moments that are small, yet in their own way, monumental. Boyhood was, perhaps, his masterpiece - an epic yet intimate look at one boy's journey across the years. But EVERYBODY WANTS SOME (which, in its official title, includes double exclamation points) goes back to the days of Linklater's breakout Dazed & Confused - instead of taking place over a sprawling timeline, it's a hyper-focused look at a single weekend. The movie looks at a perfectly-crystalized moment in time: 1980, Texas, the first weekend of arrival at college and the last weekend before class starts. A moment of parties, rock n' roll, identity crisis, and total - blissful! - freedom. A time when the 'staches were unironic, the shorts were short, and kids were free to be kids. It's the last weekend of summer and the first weekend of the rest of these characters' lives. And yet ... this often hilarious (but surprisingly poignant) pre-college party film has more in common with a movie like Boyhood than you might think. Because like Boyhood - and like so much of the Linklater filmography - EVERYBODY WANTS SOME is, really, about how small moments shape us and make us who we are. And nobody captures those moments like Linklater.
The movie sort of drops you into this world makes you feel less so like you're watching a movie, and more like you're hanging out with these characters for two hours. It helps that the characters here are so great. Some we feel like we know well. Some we feel like we only get a sense for. But they are all defined and shaped in the way that real people you've just met might be. They are all, every one, distinct and memorable. Jake is our entry-point character - and, as played by Blake Jenner, he's a classic Linklater protagonist. Jake was a standout high school baseball player who's now finds himself one of several rookies on a college team with championship hopes. The team members live together in an off-campus house provided by the school - a ramshackle party pad where girls are supposedly banned from being present upstairs, but where many girls will spend a lot of time upstairs. The team is a mix of colorful characters - they may all be baseball players, but the group is an eclectic mix of swaggering jocks, philosophical stoners, would-be ladies men, awkward dorks, dorky rednecks, and the prerequisite might-be-a-psycho loose cannon.
Jake, meanwhile, is a natural talent, but he's also quiet and introspective, a music collector, and a bit of a chameleon. Throughout the film, Jake is the catalyst that guides his less-adaptable baseball teammates into all kinds of corners of the 1980 college scene. We see Jake and his new pals go to a punk rock concert, a theater-kid party (after Jake falls for an aspiring actress), a disco, and a cowboy bar. So yes, this is a movie about baseball players. But it's also a movie about the universal college experience - trying out different scenes, figuring out where you fit in and where you don't. Beverly, the theater major who Jake falls for (played, in a great performance, by Zoey Deutch) is essentially living in her own movie running parallel to Jake's. She's new at school, coming from a place where she was the star of school plays, now thrown in with a bunch of others who were, each of them, the stars of *their* school plays. It's a testament to how naturally fleshed-out Linklater's world feels that you could easily imagine, at any point, his cameras shifting focus to Beverly - with a whole new movie growing organically out of this one. But that's the magic of EVERYBODY WANTS SOME. It's a very specific story that is also incredibly universal.
The cast here is mostly unknowns. But just as the cast of Dazed and Confused turned out to be made up of future stars, there is that some sort of potential here. Every actor brings something a little different to the table, and they all do a remarkably great job of playing to Linklater's naturalistic style. Blake Jenner is very good as Jake, but he's also sort of the POV character - so it's the others who get the really weird/funny/standout moments. The best, I think, is Glenn Powell - who was hilarious on the series Scream Queens. We all know a guy like his character, Finnegan - a smart-mouthed amateur philosopher who freely dispenses sage advice on everything from college clique pecking orders to the best (often highly out-of-the-box) ways to pick up women. Of course, the all-knowing Finnegan is, in his own way, as confused and clueless as everyone else. Another standout is Wyatt Russell - who is really becoming a great comic actor. Here, he plays Willoughby - the quintessential stoner hippie - a California-raised zen-guru whose preternatural calm is a marked contrast to the unchecked male aggression of many of his teammates. There's also a great twist around his character that I won't spoil here - except to say that, ultimately, he becomes sort of the living embodiment of everything this movie is about. I know - heavy stuff, man.
EVERYBODY WANTS SOME is often uproariously funny. It's you-are-there authenticity only makes some of the characters that much funnier. Even the broader characters - like Coma, a man-beast prone to rage-filled outbursts - feel like guys we've all seen before. Certainly, they feel like guys Linklater has seen before. The director seems to be mining his own memories of college (he also played college baseball) and of this particular time and place - to great effect. He really captures the way that these guys hang out, goof off, and shoot the $%&#. In general, Linklater captures an essential guy-ness - showing guys being guys in a way that both extols the fun of being a young dude in your prime and also gently critiques how maleness can be toxic when it goes too far. A lot of what Jake and his teammates discover is the line between being cool and being a jerk. And so, while this is a funny and very fun look at the halcyon days of college - set in a nostalgia-tinged, pre-internet era of sex and rock n' roll - there is also a subtext here about how, even in this carefree, responsibility-free environment, these boys are starting to learn what it means to be men.
Make no mistake, EVERYBODY WANTS SOME is a great - maybe even essential - college movie and party movie. Seeing it will make you want to go grab a posse and find a party to crash. But what separates this from your average bro-friendly college comedy are the many layers that Linklater's ever-observant eye adds to the film. It's nostalgia tinged with sadness, celebration tinged with regret. It's a look at what it means to be young and free, but also what it means to be an adult who evolves and adapts and becomes more accepting and empathetic of others. This is a movie about universal experience - and it's an oddly hopeful one. It is, in some ways, about these various tribes coming together - the athletes, the punks, the stoners, the drama kids - and creating this melting pot of people who - surprise! - share common worries and wants and dreams. It's all pretty utopian actually - but EVERYBODY WANTS SOME captures a certain sense of us all being in this together - even as it hits us with dick jokes and pratfalls. Not many directors could pull something like that off, but Linklater makes it seem effortless.
My Grade: A-
Monday, April 11, 2016
THE INVITATION Review:
- And so the indie horror revival yields yet another gem. THE INVITATION is one of those great little horror films that delivers slow-burning intensity and a pervasive atmosphere of "WTF-is-happening-right-now?" creepiness. Director Karyn Kusama keeps the pressure-cooker vibe strong, making a strong case for herself as a director who really gets how to do horror right. Now, this will be a difficult movie to review - THE INVITATION falls squarely in the less-you-know-about-the-plot-the-better category. But I will try to speak a bit about why the film works as well as it does.
The basics of the plot (don't worry, not spoiling anything) involve a man, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) reluctantly accepting an invitation to a dinner party being thrown by his ex-wife, Eden, in the secluded Hollywood Hills home where the couple used to live. The guests include an assortment of old friends - who were once clearly very close - but for eventually-made-clear reasons, grew apart. And so the dinner party is a reunion of sorts - with new significant others (including Will's new girlfriend and Eden's new husband), and assorted other new faces, added to the mix. But the exact reasons as to why Eden felt compelled to throw this party remain mysterious, and a feeling of dread seems to hang over Will throughout the night. Is this really just a long-overdue gathering of old friends - a way for Eden to make peace with her past? Or is there some other agenda here?
The film does a great job of slowly dispensing information as it goes - all while raising new questions throughout its running time. What's so impressive is how Kusama takes her time to get to the movie's explosive endgame - and yet, everything leading up to the big climax is completely, 100% gripping in its own right. Even as we struggle to figure out what's going on, even as we try to wrap our heads around the subtle clues and character dynamics revealed over the course of the dinner party, the film holds us firmly in the palm of its hand. Indeed, THE INVITATION feels like a nice companion piece to recent indie thrillers like You're Next and Coherence, in that it really nails a lot of small moments and character stuff, but also delivers pretty nicely - and really escalates in a pretty crazy way - once all of its cards are laid on the table.
I do think the movie has a couple of faults that keep it from being a new classic. One issue is that the acting is a bit of a mixed bag. There a couple of reliably great performers - like the always great (and often creepy-as-hell) John Carroll Lynch - who really help elevate things. But a couple of the actors - and by extension their characters - feel a bit bland. One other complaint is that, as fun as the movie's final act is, it does feel a bit rushed. It would have been fun to have the film's endgame given a little more breathing room - especially so as to allow the plot to come together in more of a cohesive fashion. As is, there's still a lot that feels not-quite-explained-to-satisfaction by the time the movie ends.
That said - and again, without spoiling anything - the movie has an absolutely jaw-dropping coda, that will be talked about by horror fans for a long time to come.
THE INVITATION is well worth a watch if you've been digging (as I have) the recent indie horror explosion. If nothing else, the film is a great testament to Kusama's skills as a director - after this (and the underrated Jennifer's Body) it'd be a crying shame if she doesn't get put on Hollywood short-lists to helm more thrillers and horror flicks. But more so than that, this is one of the most genuinely creepy and unsettling horror movies in quite some time. Check it out.
My Grade: B+
Friday, April 8, 2016
HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS Review:
- As a longtime fan of The State and its many notable alumni, the recent renaissance of State-related projects has been, well, pretty awesome. The recent Wet Hot American Summer series on Netflix was a great way to revisit the group's most popular collaboration. But one cool thing that seemed to come out of the renewed attention on the group was a greater opportunity for them to produce more projects. Several years ago, we got a taste of what a Michael Showalter movie would be like with The Baxter. But his latest, HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS, is a major step forward for the writer/director. Like The Baxter, Showalter's latest mixes the sort of absurdist humor that he patented with The State and Stella with a surprising amount of pathos and heart. Part of the reason that Wet Hot is so funny is that, even in its most absurd moments, it strikes at some sort of universal truth. But DORIS goes a step further, mixing wacky humor with a realness that makes the film's characters feel grounded and multi-dimensional. Sally Field absolutely kills in the title role - it's a performance that's both hilarious and heartfelt.
The film centers around Doris, played by Field - a sixty-something eccentric who has become the quirky older woman in her Millennial-heavy workplace. The joke here is that Doris' well-worn urban quirkiness is a pretty perfect match for her twenty-something co-workers' newfangled urban hipsterism. Doris - with her big glasses, colorful clothes, and general adorkability - was, basically, a hipster before being a hipster was cool. And so, the movie (and Doris) wonders - is it that far-fetched to imagine a May-December romance between Doris and one of her younger hipster acquaintances? This is where Doris' mind wanders to when she meets her newly-transplanted-from-LA co-worker, John (Max Greenfield), who inspires powerful feelings in Doris. John's friendly nature convinces Doris that, perhaps, she actually has a shot of wooing her much-younger colleague.
I can't say enough about Field in this film. It would have been easy to make this a movie in which the joke is on Doris, but that's not what this is at all. Field - enabled by a wonderful script from Showalter - makes Doris someone we can't help but root for and sympathize with. Not just that, but there is actually something much deeper going on with her than just a workplace crush. The movie gives us incredible insight into Doris' world. We see how she has a sweet yet potentially too-co-dependent friendship with longtime confidante Roz (an amazing Tyne Daly) - in a relationship that provides her comfort and routine, but that perhaps holds her back from new experiences and connections. We see how she has an adversarial relationship with her more square, overly-concerned siblings (Stephen Root and Wendi McLendon-Covey - also pretty great) - who worry about Doris' hoarding tendencies, among other things. Field isn't afraid to go to some pretty dark places. There is something genuinely wounded about Doris. But there is also an un-extinguishable light - a dogged determination to be who she wants to be and live life her way. Doris prides herself on marching to the beat of her own drummer. She doesn't want to be put into a box, but she realizes, more and more, that perhaps she's become confined in a box of her own making. Field pulls off the movie's light, funny, absurdist moments with aplomb and perfect comic timing. But she also has moments that are incredibly moving and even intense. I don't know if her performance will come up at all in terms of Oscar consideration - but it most definitely should. This is an all-time amazing turn from Field.
Greenfield is also great, playing a much less cartoonish character than he does as New Girl's Schmidt. But what the film really does well is that it develops the relationship between John and Doris in a way that never devolves into pure movie fluff. Sure, their adventures together take many strange, often hilarious turns. But Showalter never "cheats" - everything that does or does not happen between them feels honest and earned.
Meanwhile, the cast is brimming with fun performances from very funny/talented people. Beth Behrs shines as John's proto-hipster girlfriend. Doris' office-mates consist of the always-funny/always-excellent likes of Kumail Nanjiani, Kyle Mooney, and Natasha Lyonne. Isabella Acres is also great as Tyne Daly's teenage granddaughter, who Doris hilariously turns to for romantic advice, once she enters the world of social media in order to stay connected to John and his world.
I will emphasize: even though DORIS has a surprising amount of dramatic weight, it's also funny as hell. Michael Showalter seems to have struck the exact right balance of drawing from his talent for absurdist comedy and his seeming desire to create works with a little more dramatic heft than the Wet Hot American Summers of the world (don't get me wrong, I worship at the alter of Wet Hot - but it's clear that Showalter is going for something different here). But DORIS hits comedic gold in a number of ways. It's got moments of razor-sharp absurdism. It's got very clever satire of modern Millennial hipsterism. It's got spot-on character-based humor. And it's got the kind of applause-generating funny that can only come when you love the characters in a movie and are 100% invested in them.
Perhaps one of the best compliments I can give to this movie is that, when I saw it at the Arclight Hollywood, the crowd was an eclectic mix of younger New Girl fans, slightly older The State acolytes, and much older Sally Field admirers. All came away raving about the film - everyone seemed to love it equally. That, I think, is a testament to the power of a great movie that works on many levels - brilliantly funny and also radiating with heart. I hope many more Michael Showalter movies will follow.
My Grade: A-
Thursday, April 7, 2016
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL Review:
- Writer/director Jeff Nichols has quickly become one of *the* guys to watch in cinema. His films - though to date, they've been lower budget - overflow with narrative ambition. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is perhaps his most ambitious movie yet. It mixes the heightened, slightly-surreal drama of his previous films with a throwback, Spielberg-esque vibe - calling to mind the Amblin movies of the 80's that so often featured a kid or kids on the run from evil forces. But where the Nichols of it all comes into play is that MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is also an ultra-intense, spiritually-rich meditation on fathers and sons, destiny and fate. Like some of Nichols' other films, there are parts of the movie that work better than others. But mostly, this is a cinematic journey well worth taking - a film that feels both personal and epic, a sci-fi adventure that you won't soon forget.
The movie centers around a young boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) - who was born with super-human powers. He seems attuned to all kinds of invisible frequencies, and has psychic powers that make him nearly omniscient. The film throws us right into the middle of a crucial turning point in young Alton's life. He is on the run. His father, Roy (the great Michael Shannon), and his father's childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are driving him away from multiple pursuers. Their destination is foggy - they are simply going where Alton tells them they need to go, to fulfill some as-yet-to-be-revealed higher calling. But there are many who want to find Alton and take him away from his protective father. For a time, Alton was raised by a cult in his Texas hometown - led by a charismatic leader (Sam Shepard), who now wants to reclaim his messianic figure by any means necessary. In parallel, the government is aware of Alton and wants to bring him in for tests. A government scientist (Adam Driver) leads the hunt.
Once again, Michael Shannon's intensity is a great match for Nichols'. Shannon anchors the film with a searing performance - playing a father utterly dedicated to protecting his son. But that drive to keep Alton safe comes into direct conflict with the rapidly-materializing reality that the boy is meant for some higher purpose - a purpose that will likely separate father from son. And so, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL becomes a somewhat haunting meditation on fatherhood - on the idea of bringing someone into this world that you must eventually part with. Shannon is fantastic here. He often plays larger-than-life, but he also acquits himself well to everyman.
The rest of the cast is also excellent. Lieberher does a great job as Alton - he fluctuates between seeming like a regular kid and having a tangible otherworldly quality about him. Edgerton is also really good as Shannon's erstwhile companion. He seems so natural as a down-home Texan that it's hard to believe he actually isn't one. Suffice it to say, his performance made me picture him as a perfect Stu Redman in an adaptation of The Stand. Kirsten Dunst is another huge standout. She comes into the picture later in the film - playing Alton's estranged mom - but she makes a huge impact and is at the center of some of the movie's most memorable scenes. Coming off of her phenomenal work in Fargo Season 2, Dunst continues her hot streak with another great performance. Adam Driver is doing something much different here than we've previously seen from him. Unlike his twitchy performance on Girls or his angry/emo portrayal of Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens, here he plays a subdued, inquisitive scientist - a guy who goes against the grain of his employer's aggressive, often ruthless modus operandi. And Sam Shepard is a lot of fun - pretty much the best there is at playing a Southern-fried badass.
But ultimately, this is Nichols' film. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL absolutely drips with atmosphere and pounding intensity. It feels like Nichols is doing a sort of Marvels-like take on the superhero genre, filling his cinematic canvas with street-level views of the fantastic - giving us imagery designed to elicit maximum awe and wonder. In an age where CGI-porn action movies often take their own wizardry for granted, Nichols seems to be deliberately trying to channel that old-school, Spielberg sense of grandiosity. And he succeeds pretty spectacularly. The filmmaking in this movie is like a live-action version of something Alex Ross might paint - an apocalyptic vision of one family's fight against rapidly-encroaching doom. Meanwhile, the movie's brimming intensity is only accentuated by its thunderous score.
Where MIDNIGHT SPECIAL perhaps falters a bit is in its endgame. In similar fashion to the recent 10 Cloverfield Lane, the movie almost goes too big with its grand finale, giving us too much when all we needed was a quick hint of the bigger picture. This movie - like 10 Cloverfield - keeps its secrets relatively close to the vest throughout its running time. The exact nature of Alton's powers and origins is kept vague - and really, it's mostly beside the point. So the big finale feels a little out of place given what most of the movie has been to that point. And whereas the mystery around Alton adds to the tension of most of the film, the finale makes us ask various plot-related questions that threaten to overshadow some of the film's deeper themes.
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL works best when thought of as a father-son movie that also happens to channel the vibe of 80's Spielberg sci-fi. If you think too hard about the details of the plot, the movie definitely reveals itself to be a bit thin. But as a quasi-metaphorical, quasi-spiritual journey - it soars. Nichols is one of those filmmakers who, quite simply, knows how to hold an audience in the palm of his hand. He makes even the movie's more slow-burn sections feel positively riveting. I can't wait to see what he does next.
My Grade: A-