Movie Review ~ Midnight Special

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The Facts
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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.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Cold in July

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When a protective father meets a murderous ex-con, both need to deviate from the path they are on as they soon find themselves entangled in a downwards spiral of lies and violence while having to confront their own inner psyche.

Stars: Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard, Vinessa Shaw, Nick Damici, Wyatt Russell

Director: Jim Mickle

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  The first preview I saw of director Jim Mickle’s adaptation of Joe R. Landsdale’s grim noir novel gave me flashes of Blood Simple, the masterful 1984 debut film of Joel and Ethan Cohen (Inside Llewyn Davis).  With good reason too.  Both films are set in Texas and both have moments of shocking violence that come out of left field.  While Blood Simple would win in any battle royale between the two films, don’t let Cold in July fall off your radar because it’s a seething film with plenty of twists and turns…culminating in a finale that amps up the tension and takes no prisoners.

Mickle is a filmmaker to watch and while I haven’t yet published my review of We Are What We Are, his creepily effective cannibal film from 2013, I can tell you now that he’s batting 1000 in my book.  With Michael C. Hall and Sam Shepard (Mud) as two fathers brought together by a murder that turns into something more sinister and Don Johnson (The Other Woman) nearly stealing the show as a man with no scruples the stage is set for a dark crime drama that, though familiar on paper, entertains nonetheless.

Movie Review ~ August: Osage County

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Oklahoma house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham

Director: John Wells

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: By the time the stage version August: Osage County premiered to thunderous acclaim on Broadway in 2007, it wasn’t hard to see the possibilities of Tracy Letts’ play making the move from the Great White Way to Hollywood.  I mean, just think of the rich casting potential for the wonderfully complex and flawed characters that Letts created…it was an actor’s feast.  And when Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady, Hope Springs) was announced as playing the matriarch of the Weston clan the only thing I could think was ‘Of course.’.  It made perfect sense for Streep to be attracted to such a whopper of a role and even more sense for producers George Clooney (Gravity) and Grant Heslov (Argo) to lock her in as the star on top of the twisted Christmas tree that is August: Osage County.

Over the next months as more cast members like Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman, Mirror, Mirror), Ewan McGregor (The Impossible, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), Chris Cooper (The Company You Keep), Abigail Breslin (The Call), Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek: Into Darkness, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear),  Margo Martindale (…first do no harm),  Dermot Mulroney (Stoker),  and Sam Shepard (Out of the Furnace, Steel Magnolias, Mud) were announced the stakes just kept getting higher and higher and the expectations soared through the roof.  After all, with a multi-award winning cast gathered together for some good old fashioned family dysfunction there was no way this could miss, right?

Well…

I’ll say that if you’ve never seen a production of August: Osage County on stage you may like this a little bit more than I did.  Though I enjoyed the film overall based mostly on several key performances/scenes I was more underwhelmed than I thought I’d be because the film version was missing that lightening rod indefinable IT factor that made the stage version pulsate with life.  Whatever magic happened when you saw the dark secrets of this family exposed in the darkness of live theater just didn’t transfer over the same way to film.

Not to give the impression that this cast doesn’t toss themselves whole hog into trying, though.  Streep (sporting an appropriately ratty brown wig and huge sunglasses that make her look like Johnny Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) gets down and dirty with her eldest daughter played by a refreshingly earthy Roberts who wasn’t vain enough to hide her faded graying roots.  Gathered together in the days following the disappearance of the patriarch of the family (Shepard, who interestingly enough played Roberts boyfriend in The Pelican Brief), the Weston brood return to their dusty hometown toting all kinds of baggage.

While they eat, drink, and avoid being merry, pretty much every kind of family squabble breaks out and usually during a large family meal.  These dining room scenes were quite effective on stage and they work nearly as well on screen with arguments that start small erupting into knockdown, drag out fights.  Audience members that avoided recent holiday arguments with their own families will get their quota of bickering when they sit down to dine with the Westons.

Adapted by Letts from his own Pulitzer Prize winning play, the author finds acceptable ways to open up the cinematic interpretation of his work that allow the characters time away from home.  That’s all well and good but part of why the stage version felt so claustrophobic was the fact that the action took place entirely in the house…so we were as trapped as the family was.  Giving the actors on screen some breathing room winds up taking air out of the tension that Letts attempts to build.

It doesn’t help things that television director John Wells is behind the camera for only his second feature film.  His direction is exceedingly pedestrian, though I can’t imagine these actors needed much help from him.  Still, one wonders what a more seasoned director (like Gus van Sant, for instance) could have done to shape the film better.

I saw the film at a screening back in October and at that time the ending wasn’t set in stone.  I know that two endings exist, one that stays closer to the stage play and another that adds a coda many feel unnecessary.  I saw the second ending and agree totally that the film didn’t need it…it’s only there to placate audiences that need resolution, lessening the overall impact of all the maladies that came before it.  From what I’m hearing the ending I saw is the one that stuck so take stock of when you think the movie should have ended and see if it aligns.

It’s likely that Streep and Roberts will be Oscar nominated for their work here and it wouldn’t be off the mark to say they’ve earned their spot in their categories.  It’s extremely doubtful they’ll win with the quality of the other actresses they’d be competing against but the work here is demonstrative of Streep’s good instincts and that Roberts is more than just America’s sweetheart.  The two make the film worth seeing and the source material itself is brilliant…if you can’t see it onstage then the film version of August: Osage County will have to do.

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Movie Review ~ Out of the Furnace

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Rodney Baze mysteriously disappears and law enforcement fails to follow through, his older brother, Russell, takes matters into his own hands to find justice.

Stars: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoë Saldana, Sam Shepard

Director: Scott Cooper

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: One could be forgiven if one missed the fact that the crime drama Out of the Furnace was released amongst the higher profile films this holiday season.  With so many choices up for consumption in our multiplexes it can be easy to miss these more character driven films that eschew mind numbing special effects in favor of honest performances that work their own kind of magic on an audience.

I myself almost missed the movie, nearly letting it slide to my “Watch at Home” pile that tends to get loaded up around this time of year.  Something drew me to the film, however, and I’m glad I made the effort because with stellar performances, crafty direction, and an overall ominous feeling of danger Out of the Furnace may just find itself on my shortlist for favorite films of 2013.

Christian Bale (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) proves again that he doesn’t need a batsuit or a big budget to show he’s a helluva good actor in his performance as Russell Baze.  A good natured man that keeps a watchful eye over his brother (Casey Affleck, ParaNorman, showing again that the Affleck Talent gets better with age), uncle (Sam Shepard, Mud) and his dying father, all while holding down a job in the town mill.  When a mistake puts Russell in prison for several years, he’s faced with finding new ground in his old life when he returns home.  What could have been another reworking of a tired plotline turns dark when Russell’s brother goes missing and he sets out to find the people responsible.

Don’t think that this is a variance on Death Wish, though, even if the look, feel, and performances seem to be plucked right out of the mid 70’s.  This is a character driven story written by Brad Ingelsby and director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) that lets the actors do the heavy lifting in a script that’s relatively light on dialogue if you really sit down and think about it.

Along with Bale and Affleck’s rock solid performances, Woody Harrelson (The Hunger Games) makes for a frightening hick at the center of a ring of bare knuckle fighting and drugs.  Harrelson started out as a dim bulb light comic on Cheers and continues to produce diverse and interesting performances, refusing to be pigeon-holed in one genre.  I wasn’t sure about Willem Dafoe’s (John Carter) greasy loan shark at first, thinking that 10 years ago he would have played Harrelson’s role but something about his duck tailed hair and cheaply fancy clothing rang true.  Forrest Whitaker (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) seems a tad too old for his character but still manages to smooth things out thanks to his smartly restrained instincts.  If there’s a nitpick to pick, I’d say that everyone in the film seemed to be going for a whiskey soaked manner of speaking that came off feeling like everyone was trying to “out gravelly voice” each other.  Whitaker, in particular, sounds just this shade of producing a sound that appears to have originated near his belly button.

This is male heavy film with only Zoe Saldana (Star Trek: Into Darkness) as the lone female with a substantial role (I’d say there are about 4 small female speaking roles in the entire film).  In fact, the movie is so testosterone heavy that even the daintiest of ladies should bring their travel Nair with them in case they were to sprout a mustache during the films running length.

Cooper has assembled all these strong parts into a grim, gritty experience that’s aided by strong location shooting from cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (Silver Linings Playbook, The Grey) in a Pennsylvania industrial town and a moody score from Dickon Hinchliffe.  I don’t think Cooper needed an extra shot in the final moments of the film but aside from that the movie is edited to keep things moving without sacrificing the strong work the cast is putting forth.

So if you can find this one in theaters, know that the other blockbuster choices will still be waiting for you in a few weeks and try this one out instead.  Those who warm to smoldering dramas with a hard edge will find a reason to head into Cooper’s Furnace.

The Silver Bullet ~ August: Osage County

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Synopsis: A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Midwest house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.

Release Date:  November 8, 2013

Thoughts: An all-star cast has been assembled for the big screen version of August: Osage County, based on the searing Pulitzer Prize winning play.  Seeing the play, I was riveted and while I’m not sure a film version can create that same immediacy there’s a wealth of strength in the material from playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts.  Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) is an interesting choice for the boozy matriarch of the troubled Weston family but knowing Streep she’s going to knock this one out of the park and wind up with another Oscar nomination or win for her troubles.  When they announced Julia Roberts (Mirror, Mirror) was to play opposite Streep some turned up their noses but our first look at Roberts in action suggests that the A-List star is readying for a powerhouse performance.  The rest of the cast is top-notch too with some spot-on casting to look forward to.  Unless something goes majorly wrong, this is a film that will factor heavily into the next Academy Awards…I can’t wait to see it.

MIFF Movie Review ~ Mud

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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.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Steel Magnolias

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Revolving around Truvy’s Beauty Parlor in a small parish in modern-day Louisiana is the story of a close-knit circle of friends whose lives come together there

Stars: Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts, Tom Skerritt, Sam Shepard, Dylan McDermott

Director: Herbert Ross

Rated: PG

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Like the film adaption of A Few Good Men, the movie version of the play Steel Magnolias has ruined me for any future stage production.  Playwright Robert Harling brought his auto-biographical play to the screen with a script that took the ladies out of the beauty salon and added male characters without sacrificing any of the charm, humor, and emotion that made the theatrical work so popular.

It can be a tough chore to adapt a play for film without making it seem too stagey or confined but Harling and director Ross (The Turning Point) avoided these pitfalls with ease thanks in no small part to a slam-dunk sextet of females in leading roles.  It’s clear that the women enjoyed working together because their warmth and easy-going vibe really elevates the film from being a sappy Southern fried weepie to a memorably classic tearjerker.

I’ve seen Steel Magnolias on stage several times (even on Broadway with Delta Burke, Marsha Mason, Frances Sternhagen, and the Noxzema Girl) and the shadow of the movie always loomed large…I know it’s unfair to make comparisons but it can’t be helped with a cast of this caliber.

It’s lovely to see the journey Roberts (coming off good notices in Mystic Pizza) takes as a young Southern belle.  Earning an supporting Oscar nomination for her work here, she’d follow this up with a Best Actress nomination for Pretty Woman a year later.  She fits in well with other Oscar winners Dukakis (for Moonstruck), MacLaine (for Terms of Endearment) perfectly cast as funny biddies and Field (two time winner for Norma Rae and Places in the Heart) as her kind but overly protective mother.  They’re joined by a surprisingly effective Hannah as gawky Annelle and the still underrated Parton (Joyful Noise) as salon owner Truvy.

Though the film has several scenes throughout that may get you misty, it’s Field’s breakdown near the end of the movie that chokes me up each and every time I’ve seen it.  There’s something raw and real about the internal struggle that manifests itself in a powerful cry for answers that hits a nerve within me.  The beauty of the film, similar to Terms of Endearment, is how it injects humor in all the right places so just when the tears start to flow you find yourself laughing.

Yeah, one could describe Steel Magnolias as chick flick and it absolutely is – but more than that it’s notable for its strong performances, gorgeous score (by Georges Delerue), and sensitive direction by Ross (though it’s widely known that Ross was a real devil to work with – he hated Parton and was especially hard on Roberts).  Tearjerkers don’t always come in this easily accessible a package.