MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Violence and Action

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Directed by: Jeff Nichols

Written by: Jeff Nichols

Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard & Jaeden Lieberher

After two critically praised down-to-earth dramas and one intense dark thriller, indie filmmaker Jeff Nichols has moved onto stranger territory with MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. Clearly paying homage to early Spielberg and Carpenter, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is a science-fiction slow-burn that has interesting ideas and good performances, but never fully melds either of these qualities together into an emotionally involving story. The film is worth a look for fans of old-school less-is-more science fiction, but will likely be a one-and-done sort of viewing.

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The opening minutes reveal two men and a small child hiding out in a hotel room: eight-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), Roy (Alton’s father, played by Michael Shannon), and Lucas (Alton’s friend, played by Joel Edgerton). Their destination is unknown to us, but what we do know is they are on the run. You see, Alton isn’t like other children. He has abilities that have caused some to worship him and others to see him as a potential weapon. It’s up to Roy and Lucas to keep Alton out of the hands of creepy cult members and the federal government…while heading towards an unknown destination for an unspecified reason. I’m being intentionally vague, much like the first half of this film.

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MIDNIGHT SPECIAL has a lot of cool ideas and remarkable visuals, but these never really reach their full potential as the film is mysterious to a fault. It’s apparent that director/writer Jeff Nichols didn’t want to give away too many details during the first half of this film. This less-is-more approach is admirable and works to an extent. We are immediately sucked into the chase and have to use our imagination to figure certain things out with clues that are slowly given to us throughout the film’s second half. Nichols’ restraint is also a negative as his glacial pacing makes for dull stretches of the story that were too damn vague and underdeveloped. The running time is almost two hours and probably could have been tightened up or expanded with a better screenplay. The combination of a half-baked script and uneven pacing cause the movie to keep the viewer at a noticeable distance from the on-screen happenings.

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In the area of performances, the big name cast members are doing their damndest to elevate the underdeveloped dramatic-supernatural material. Taking the lead is Michael Shannon as Roy, who plays his character as a loving father who would do anything for his son…despite his child’s dangerous powers. Joel Edgerton is enjoyable as Lucas and provides some unexpected comic relief. I was shocked to see that Kristen Dunst is in this film, because the marketing hasn’t really given her the time of day. Usually, I’m not a fan of Dunst, but she is actually convincing as one of Alton’s former followers turned protectors. These three well-known adult performers are joined by Jaeden Lieberher (who was previously seen in ST. VINCENT) as the mysterious Alton, who sells his young character as a weird kid who remains innocent in spite of his dangerous superhuman abilities.

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On the opposing side of things, we get an unusual antagonist in NSA analyst-turned-investigator Paul Sevier (played by Adam Driver, who was recently evil in THE FORCE AWAKENS). Driver makes for a bit of mousey bad guy and has unexpected developments as the film goes on. Sam Shepard has a disappointingly short appearance as cult leader Calvin Meyer (who was definitely inspired by Fred Phelps, as evidenced by his congregation’s hairstyles and outfits). Shepard is built up to an intense antagonist, but the threat of the cult actually manifests itself through two of his henchmen (who are only given a handful of brief scenes). Though this story doesn’t necessarily need a main villain, the screenplay might have done better to develop these threats a bit more.

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MIDNIGHT SPECIAL hooked me enough to keep me interested in where things were going, even when the slow pace came dangerously close to boring me. The performances definitely elevate this film above its shaky screenplay, which has many good ideas that never quite satisfyingly come together. This is a slight disappointment for Jeff Nichols, whose track record has been very solid up to this point, but he’ll return again with an awards season drama in November. Overall, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is worth a look for sci-fi junkies and indie film fans, but it’s a one-and-done experience that wouldn’t necessarily be any less impressive on the small screen.

Grade: B-

COLD IN JULY (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Bloody Violence, Language and some Sexuality/Nudity

Cold In July poster

Directed by: Jim Mickle

Written by: Jim Mickle & Nick Damici

(based on the novel COLD IN JULY by Joe R. Lansdale)

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

It’s a rare thing when a filmmaker leaps from the Midnight section at Sundance in one year to the much more prestigious Competition category during the next. Such is the case with Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, who have yet to make a bad film. Their previous three efforts have been horror (MULBERRY STREET, STAKE LAND, and the remake of WE ARE WHAT WE ARE), but they step into gritty crime thriller territory with this adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s cult novel. It shows that the pair are continuing to further their talent, because this is their best work yet.

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Set in 1989 Texas, we follow Richard Dane, an upstanding citizen and beloved family man. One night, he hears sounds of an intruder in his house. After reassuring his wife and checking on his young son, Richard loads his father’s gun and slowly creeps down the hall. In an act of self-defense, he shoots the home invader and becomes the focus of unwanted attention in the town. Unfortunately, the attention has also been captured of the intruder’s convict father, Ben Russell, who begins a quest for revenge on Dane’s family. Then things take a surprising turn and a far more sinister truth is revealed.

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That basic premise sounds familiar, but is far from what the actual plot winds up being. COLD IN JULY is a story that keeps you on the edge of your seat in the most literal way. You have no idea where it’s heading (unless you’ve read the novel, which I haven’t). Mickle and Damici do a phenomenal job of keeping the viewer’s interest by constructing a gritty mystery that has a hovering sense of unease. I knew things were just going to keep getting more twisted, but I had no idea how far the film would go. The answer is insanely far. It’s a dark, but very rewarding experience.

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The setting of the 1980’s is captured very well and adds to the grittier nature of the film. Appearances of VHS tapes, VCRs, large satellite phones, the soundtrack, and bad hairstyles are commonplace here. It’s not done in a distracting fashion either, this just happens to be when the story is set. The atmosphere of quiet tension and dread is apparent through the entire film, only intensifying with each new disturbing discovery. Again, you really won’t know what hit you when the end credits begin to roll. This isn’t the movie you expect it to be and I praise it to the heavens for that.

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The cast is great, with some familiar faces from Mickle’s previous films popping in as side characters. The real stars here are the trio of pure talent that comes with Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson. Props especially to Michael C. Hall for convincing me of his character. This man is far different from his role in DEXTER (of which I’ve seen every episode, some multiple times). It takes great skill to play roles so diversely that you forget you’re watching this actor and become completely invested in the character. Hall is more than up to the task and delivers. Veteran actor Sam Shepard is intense as the revenge-seeking father of the deceased home invader. Don Johnson delivers a wholly unique badass in a pig-farmer/detective who brings some much welcomed laughs.

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My only complaint with this film comes in two unanswered questions that are bothersome enough that I am barely not giving this movie a perfect review. It could be seen as nitpicking and to bring up the specifics would be delving into spoiler territory. If there’s one thing you shouldn’t do with this movie, it’s find out too many details before watching it. A lot of the suspense comes from the unexpected and though the film is still going to be amazing on repeat viewings, I can see the experience being a bit lessened by someone spoiling any of the twists.

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COLD IN JULY is a movie that simultaneously entertains and delivers a shotgun blast (much like some that are fired by the film’s conclusion) to the viewer’s emotions. It’s a dark, gritty crime thriller! By the time the intense finale has come around, characters have found themselves in a far larger scenario than they ever could have imagined with plenty of human darkness to boot. Highly recommended!

Grade: A

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