MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

March 19, 2016

midnight special Greetings again from the darkness. Austin-based filmmaker Jeff Nichols serves up some of the familiar themes of spiritualism and parenting seen in his first three films: Mud (2012), Take Shelter (2011), Shotgun Stories (2007), but this time he goes a bit heavier on the science fiction … while maintaining his focus on the individual.

An exceptional opening scene kicks off the story, and Nichols makes sure we are alert by forcing us to absorb and assemble the slew of clues flying at us … an Amber alert, cardboard on the windows of a cheap motel, a news report tying us to San Angelo, Texas, duct tape on the peep hole, a duffel bag of weapons, two anxiety-filled men, and a goggled-boy under a white sheet who seems extremely calm in an otherwise hectic environment. We learn a lot, yet many questions remain.

As the boy and the two men speed off down the backroads, the setting switches to an eerily calm Calvin Meyer (the always great Sam Shepard), who is the leader of a religious cult similar to the Branch Davidians. “The Ranch” is desperate to get the boy back, and we learn they worship the numbers and words the boy has “received” from above. An FBI agent (Paul Sparks) leads the raid on the compound and takes us to an interrogation of Calvin by NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).

Alternating between sci-fi special effects and an “on the run” story line, we slowly pick up more details about the boy Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), as well as the men with him – his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and Roy’s childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). It’s not long before they reunite with Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and we really start to comprehend just how different and special Alton is.

It’s easy to see the influence of such films as Starman, E.T.: The ExtraTerrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. We are reminded that our society inevitably assumes the worst when something we don’t understand appears right in front of us. The Ranch sees the boy as a savior, and the government labels him a weapon. But it’s Shannon who captures the protective determination of a father trying to do the right thing for his son. Shannon again flashes the best ‘pained’ expression in the business, but it’s young Lieberher (so terrific in St. Vincent) who allows us to accept the father/son story in spite of the bright white lasers shooting from his eyeballs.

There are plenty of unanswered questions – not the least of which is, how did two “normal” parents end up with this “special” son? The visuals near the end are impressive to see on screen, but don’t appear to have much impact on the final questioning of Lucas or our understanding of how it all happened. It should also be noted that the piano score is especially impactful during both the quiet and thrilling moments. Director Nichols is a talented idea man, but he does leave us wanting more details.  (That’s his brother singing the song over the closing credits.)

watch the trailer:

 


ROOM (2015)

October 24, 2015

room Greetings again from the darkness. Tragically, stories of women being held captive have become all too common in this sometimes frightening world in which we live. Emma Donoghue had the high profile, real life situations of Jaycee Dugard, Elisabeth Fritzl and Amanda Berry (Ariel Castro) to draw from for her terrific novel upon which this film is based. While not easy for anyone (especially parents) to watch, it’s a well made movie with outstanding performances … including a career-changer from Brie Larson.

Director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank, a critical favorite from last year) takes us inside the world – or more accurately – the walls where Ma (Brie Larson) and her just turning 5 year old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) live. Seven years ago, Larson’s character was abducted while walking home from school, and since then she has given birth to Jack, and the two have been held captive in a small shed with only a skylight connecting to the outer spaces of life. The captor … known as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) … periodically brings them supplies, while also regularly visiting to satisfy his more base needs with Ma.

For the first half of the film, we as viewers are held prisoners right along with Ma and Jack. We see what a patient and wonderful mother she is as she strives to provide some semblance of hope for her son, though in a nearly hopeless situation. When Jack turns 5, Ma begins to explain the outside world to him, as she knows they must try to escape in order for her son to have any semblance of a normal life. During this time, we are in awe of this 10 x 10 environment and how it is every bit the nightmare we have imagined while reading the articles and seeing the reports on real life ordeals.

The second half of the film is equally fascinating, as we watch young Jack and his sense of wonder and caution at discovering the real world. We also see the psychological trauma that Ma experiences after staying strong for so long. Assimilating into society brings different challenges for both Ma and Jack, plus those of her mother (Joan Allen), her father (William H Macy) and her mom’s new beau (Tom McCamus). The film doesn’t shy away from their reactions, though some are easier to stomach than others.

Providing any more details would soften the impact of the film, and this is one that is meant to be felt – even if it’s a true kick in the gut. The film is well cast and well acted, and young Jacob Tremblay captures our hearts quickly and joins the short list of child actors who go far beyond “cute” and into profound. Brie Larson exploded onto the acting scene in Short Term 12, one of my favorite movies of 2013; but it’s here where she steps into the elite level of actresses. She brings a tenacity and emotional strength that leaves us never doubting whether she has “her strong”.

watch the trailer: