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Midnight Special

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Midnight Special is part chase movie, part science fiction pulp, and the end result is fascinating. It’s simple sci-fi, but the depth within the material makes the film as complex and thought-provoking as the old classics. Director Jeff Nichols knows how to convey a moving and intimate story, filled with thrills and masterful performances, yet keep the more outlandish stuff grounded.

The film opens marvelously, and you’ll be hooked from the get-go. Roy (Michael Shannon) is on the run from the authorities with his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who just so happens to have mysterious powers. He’s fleeing a cult with his pal Lucas (Joel Edgerton), and the three reunite with Alton’s birth mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), while avoiding militia who intend to turn Alton into a weapon.

Midnight Special may not seem like deep science fiction, and initially it isn’t. With its limited budget only allowing a few knockout effects, Midnight Special is limited to big ideas on a small scale, and Nichols has his work cut out for him. He knows this, and the best part of Midnight Special is its intriguing mystery. Opening in the middle of a thrilling chase sequence leaves the audience in wonder, constantly asking why Alton is so important and what exactly he is. We continue to ask these questions throughout, and some become answered while others don’t. The beauty of the film is its layering of the story, going back and forth between Roy’s exodus with Alton and the investigation into the boy by Paul Sevier (Adam Driver). Each scene is meticulous in revealing details and relationships, Nichols’s dialogue growing a bit frustrating towards the end yet intriguing nonetheless, and not a second is wasted.

Michael Shannon leads a tremendous cast, in what is becoming quite a fascinating director-actor relationship between the two. Shannon brings Roy’s faith and love in Alton to center stage, crafting a believable and intimate father-son bond, but it goes deeper than that. Shannon is able to conjure up such powerful emotions with just his eyes alone, he doesn’t even have that much to say in the film, yet we go along for the ride. Dunst and Edgerton also do fine work, the former playing an ex-cult member who hasn’t seen her son in years, and the latter being an underdeveloped state trooper whose blind faith in Alton adds interesting layers to the chase narrative.

I could see Midnight Special being a tad frustrating to certain viewers. Many questions are left open-ended and the finale is a bit rushed. But the film isn’t traditional science fiction; the self-contained story allows the world-building to remain simple, as the film is essentially a chase sequence mixed with disaster elements. But Nichols goes above and beyond in his characterization and production, making a beauty of a film.

 

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2016 in Movie Reviews

 

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The Martian

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Like the astronaut the film is named for, The Martian is very focused and practical. It doesn’t match the ambition or spectacle of Gravity or Interstellar, but The Martian is a no-nonsense science fiction film that knows exactly what it needs to do. Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard adapt Andy Weir’s fantastic book with the same grit and humor of the writing style and keep it close to earth, resulting in a satisfying film full of awe.

Survival stories are one in a million, yet what makes The Martian different is that Mark Watney is literally thousands of miles away on Mars. There’s little human drama, not many tears, despite the fact that this situation is life or death and couldn’t get much more dire. Matt Damon brings Watney to life with the same sarcastic wit of Guardians of the Galaxy’s Starlord but with the practicality of Macgyver. He’s a brilliant protagonist, never wasting any time as he awaits rescue on the red planet.

While reading “The Martian,” I was surprised to see that Mark wasn’t the only main character. The trailers gave that away, but the supporting characters in The Martian are doing just as much heavy lifting as Mark. It’s an ensemble piece with a stellar cast despite being about one man. The way everyone unites around bringing Mark home gives the film a sense of community. We have three main camps: Mark on Mars, the Hermes crew in space, and the NASA crew on earth. These three different perspectives make the film never feel repetitive, as I couldn’t imagine being stuck with Mark for 150 minutes.

The Martian is a love letter to space exploration, and it shows. The film is an impressive craft, with strict attention to detail and scientific accuracy. Every character gets to shine, whether its the devoted Hermes Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain, always magnetic), to the behind the scenes work of satellite specialist Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis). Apart from a miscast Donald Glover as the eccentric Rich Purnell, the supporting cast is terrific, especially Chastain and Chiwetel Ejiofor. I also wanted to especially give a shoutout to the score from veteran Harry Gregson-Williams, which creates tension yet keeps the pace steady the entire way through; add The Martian to the list of sci-fi films with impressive scores.

Still what I love about The Martian is its ability to balance all of these elements without feeling overlong. It’s a long film, to be sure, but I never grew tired of any individual element. Sure, the script could use a few less sci-fi cliches – I can’t stand when a character says “in English, please” to any technological talk – but The Martian wisely avoids the pitfalls of other survival stories. I recently saw the film Everest, another survival film of a different nature, and it was a mess of a film. What sets these two films apart is that I actually cared for Mark Watney. He made the best of a bad situation, and its his engineering and botany skills but also his attitude that got him back home in one piece. The Martian is a smart film made for smart moviegoers with an impressive cast and awe-inspiring 3D moments, overflowing with character.

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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