MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Violence and Action

MidSpecial poster

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-

ROOM (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language

Room poster

Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson

Written by: Emma Donoghue

(based on the novel ROOM by Emma Donoghue)

Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Sean Bridgers, Megan Park & Cas Anvar

2015 has been quite a wild year for movies. I’m deeply interested in seeing how the Academy Award nominations and winners play out early next year. There are tons of fantastic cinematic surprises that have erupted onto the screen during this end-of-year awards season and ROOM is on the top-tier of these phenomenal dramas. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, ROOM is a deeply moving rollercoaster of emotions set on an intimate scale and populated by a handful of well-written characters. It’s also one of the most beautiful and powerful films of the year.

Room

Jack has spent the first five years of his life hidden away. Jack’s mother, Joy, was abducted as a teenager and has spent seven years locked in the dingy backyard shed (called Room) of “Old Nick” (Jack’s rapist father). Joy has done her best to shield Jack from the awful truth of their single-room life. As a result, Jack has grown up thinking that Room is the entire world. As tensions between “Old Nick” and captive Joy rise to dangerous new levels, motherly survival instincts kick into full force and a dangerous escape is made. Even when they do make it to the outside world, both Jack and Joy will have the harrowing experience of adapting to the outside world after years spent in a confined shed.

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One thing that’s been receiving huge praise from others and that I will continue to praise here is the acting in ROOM. Brie Larson has a solid chance of getting the Oscar for Best Actress and she has earned every bit of it. As Joy, Larson shows love for her son and pain from her circumstances in equal measure. The movie may be centered more around her character’s son, but Larson’s Joy serves as an astounding adult counterpart to the impressive 9-year-old actor. As Jack, Jacob Tremblay delivers one of the best performances from a child actor that I’ve ever seen. He’s simply incredible and remains absolutely convincing through every frame of the film. This was clearly a demanding role and Trembly also portrays the more frustrating aspects of a five-year-old (occasionally driving his mom up the wall with frustration).

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On the sidelines, Joan Allen and William H. Macy are Joy’s distraught parents and Jack’s newfound grandparents. Though William H. Macy doesn’t necessarily have a huge part in the film, he makes the most of the scenes he’s been given and has one especially heartbreaking moment. Joan Allen feels totally genuine as Joy’s concerned mother and Jack’s loving grandmother. Allen fits the part well and delivers quiet, heartfelt moments during the second half of the film. Though he only receives screen time in the first act of the story, Sean Bridgers is infuriating and creepy as “Old Nick.”

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It’s worth mentioning that I haven’t read the novel that ROOM is based on. If it’s anywhere near as powerful or as well-constructed as this film is, then I’ll definitely have to give it a look in the near future. The decision to have this heavy and mature survival story narrated from a five-year-old’s perspective was a risky move, but paid off in spades. Little details stick out to give the viewer clues to the more mature aspects of the story happening among the adults. Jack’s narration gives the film an innocent quality too as he doesn’t fully understand what’s going on around him. While parts of this make for a couple of lines that are bound to elicit gasps and sobs from certain viewers, there are also a couple of well-placed pieces of cute humor that keep the movie from being a completely depressing tear-jerker.

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ROOM uses many different emotions to tell its heart wrenching and powerful story. The beginning has tension as Jack learns the truth and the escape is made. The middle is where most of the heartbreak and tragedy come to a head. The conclusion is a perfect way to end the story as sheer beauty and unconditional love breaks loose. I was on the edge of my seat during the intense first act and was crying on-and-off during the rest of the film (other theater patrons seemed to have the exact same reactions as well). The performances and writing are perfect. ROOM is a deeply moving masterpiece and easily one of the best films of 2015.

Grade: A+

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