Movie Review ~ Midnight Special

midnight_special
The Facts
:

Synopsis: A father and son go on the run after the dad learns his child possesses special powers.

Stars: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Paul Sparks

Director: Jeff Nichols

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Hot on the heels of 10 Cloverfield Lane comes another film where spoilers and too much information will pretty much ruin your enjoyment.  My best advice, dear reader, is to go in to Midnight Special with the least amount of knowledge available.  Even if that means you bookmark this page and come back to it after you see it, I won’t mind because I want you to get the maximum impact out of the newest feature from Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter).

OK…you’re either brave enough to trust in my spoiler-free pledge or you’ve just returned from seeing Midnight Special…either way…thanks for being here!

Let’s start off with what I can divulge, which is that Midnight Special is one of those rare movie-going experiences where the filmmakers are wise enough to not let audiences get too far ahead of the events that transpire.  In fact, don’t be ashamed to admit when the movie starts you have no clue what’s going on…it’s ok…I felt the same way.  Nichols plunges you right into the middle of the cross-country pilgrimage of a father (Michael Shannon, Man of Steel) and his son (Jaeden Lieberher, St. Vincent, Aloha) that turns out to be a trek into the unknown.

Nichols draws on elements from old-school paranoid chase films and Steven Spielberg’s late 70s/early 80s sensibilities to fashion his tale of a boy who may or may not possess special powers that the government wants to exploit and who members of a religious cult in the Texas boondocks use to guide their sermons and instruct their belief system.  Shannon has taken the boy from the cult and roped in his childhood friend (Joel Edgerton, The Great Gatsby) to help transport them both to an unnamed location only the boy seems to know.

Picking up the boy’s estranged mother (Kirsten Dunst, Bachelorette) and avoiding a curious NSA analyst (Adam Driver, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) along the way leads to more unexplained phenomena that keep the military and spiritual disciples in hot pursuit.  Through it all Nichols never tips his hand as to what the outcome will be, throwing in multiple surprise moments that act as nifty curveballs in an already eventful ballgame.

Nichols is making his large studio debut with Midnight Special and it would have been easy to style an easily accessible commercial feature and pick up a swell paycheck.  Instead, Nichols has produced a crowd-pleasing sci-fi drama that’s exciting, entertaining, and downright refreshing in its execution.  Even the ending, which could have gone oh so wrong and still may be hard to swallow for the more jaded flock amongst us, feels just about perfect.

One of the nicest surprises here is Shannon’s sensitive turn as a father willing to protect his son at all costs.  Shannon tends to give me the willies but he’s arguably the least creepy he’s ever been here.  Edgerton continues his run as a dependable presence whether in a supporting role or as the leading man. He’s given a lot of good material here and makes the most out of what could have been a low wattage auxiliary role. Driver is well-cast too, though he tends to come up lemons when he’s asked to play overly nebbish and Dunst nearly outshines them all with her understated and delicate performance that’s believably maternal.  The film revolves almost entirely around Lieberher and he proves again he’s a young actor to watch, infusing every line or wordless moment with a truth that’s hard to fake.

They say the fun is in the journey, not the destination and that’s apropos here.  While the ending to Midnight Special is sure to divide audiences, there’s little denying that the events leading up to it are mighty captivating.  Definitely check this one out.

MIFF Movie Review ~ Mud

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mud

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two teenage boys encounter a fugitive and form a pact to help him evade the bounty hunters on his trail and to reunite him with his true love

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Paul Sparks, Joe Don Baker

Director: Jeff Nichols

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Owing a lot to similar coming-of-age tales like Stand By Me, The War, and even Whistle Down the Wind, Mud is director Nichols third film and follow-up to his critically hailed feature of 2011, Take Shelter.  What Nichols has crafted for his latest movie is an involving tale that mixes a few genres into its pot, puts the top on, and then waits for it to boil over.  While it simmers for a while and eventually ends up a satisfying if not quite hearty meal, Mud was a strong showing in the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.

McConaughey has really been on a roll in the last few years.  After making a strong starring debut with A Time to Kill in 1996, he eventually sidelined into lighter fare that may have made money at the box office but didn’t season his acting chops any.  Then he started becoming involved with more independent features and that’s where he’s struck gold again.  Last year he made memorable appearances in Magic Mike (really the only good thing about the movie), Bernie, and Killer Joe.  Now he’s back in the leading man chair for Mud, playing the titular character…a man on the run that has a way with words.

Two boys find Mud living in a boat placed in a tree by flooding in the bayou and soon become involved with his plan to sweep the girl he loves (Witherspoon in a nicely muted small supporting role) off her feet and away to the gulf waters to avoid the law.  Mud paints a nicely romantic tale of forbidden love to the two boys but as the film develops we learn that everything isn’t as it seems and that some truths haven’t been acknowledged.

The film is told through the eyes of Ellis (Sheridan, in a well-layered performance) who seems to be on the same trajectory as Mud when it comes to falling for the wrong girl.  Barely a teen, he has eyes for an older woman and the pain of first love is handled by Sheridan and Nichols with care.  Paulson and McKinnon are nicely cast as Ellis’ parents, small-town folk adjusting to the reality of moving from their river home.

As you can see, there’s a lot of storyline to juggle and Nichols keeps everything flying for much of the film, only letting things dip when it feels natural.  Nichols once again is working with his Take Shelter star Shannon (Man of Steel) and resists casting him in several roles he may have been right for in favor of wisely utilizing him as the uncle to a friend of Ellis.

Mud is another nice departure for McConaughey – grubbed up with chipped teeth and greasy, tousled hair…he’s a fascinating character study that McConaughey seems to gobble up with aplomb.  As Mud starts to see the forest for the trees, we see the character at a crossroads rather than the actor making choices.  Nichols has given him a nice framework that McConaughey thrives in.

What I appreciated most about the film is the way that Nichols lets things happen in a naturalistic fashion.  It’s peppered with several edge of your seat moments…and not always for the reasons you’d expect.  If in the end the film sacrifices some of its earlier unexpected moments for a finale that feels too pat, it can be forgiven for the earlier noble attempts at something different.