FlixChatter Review: Midnight Special (2016)

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I’m a big fan of science fiction films, and the ones that are more *grounded* in our reality, meaning it’s not all sleek and drowned in special effects are usually the most compelling. Midnight Special is certainly one of those films, which in essence is a father/son story.

Right from its opening scene, this film instantly grabbed me and never let up. Two men are on the run with a small boy Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and the people in a cult organization are hot on their trail. Who the boy is and why he’s so important to the devout followers of this group is not known right away. The only thing we know from the marketing promos is that perhaps he’s from another world as we don’t shoot laser beams from our eyes, nor could we make a satellite fall from the sky. Soon the FBI arrives in the small town in Louisiana and from the interrogations with the cult members, we’re given glimpses of why Alton is so special. As if being on the run is not hard enough, there’s a certain date looming that the runaway group absolutely can’t miss.

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I feel that it’s best to experience this film knowing as little as possible. I love discovering more and more about the characters as one layer after another is peeled away. Alton has a very close relationship with his father Roy (Michael Shannon), who we knew in the beginning is his adopted dad. But who is Lucas (Joel Edgerton), the guy helping them get away? I’ll let you figure that out, as that’s part of the fun of discovering the story.

Jeff Nichols wrote and directed this movie and I’m so impressed by his talent as a storyteller. The story is intriguing albeit not completely original and treads some familiar grounds. It reminds me a bit of Spielberg’s E.T. but with its own twist as well as look and feel. Though the story deals with a kid’s special powers, it’s not really the main focus. Instead, it’s more about the relationship of Alton and Roy and why Roy would risk everything, even his own life, to get Alton to where he needs to go. It’s a bond that transcend understanding.

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The performances are excellent all around. I haven’t seen Lieberher in anything but despite his young age, this isn’t his first film. He’s able to convey a lot without saying anything, which is tricky even for adult actors. Shannon is truly one of the best actors working today as he’s excellent in everything I’ve seen him in so far, including this one. There’s something enigmatic about him but here he shows a tender, vulnerable side as well. He shares a convincing emotional bond with Lieberher which makes you so invested in their journey. Edgerton is another actor whose work I admire, so it’s cool to see both him and Shannon’s continued collaboration with Nichols (both are featured in his latest film, the Sundance darling Loving). Adam Driver has a supporting role as the NSA officer, sporting geeky chic glasses a la Snowden. He’s quite memorable here and at times provides some comic relief. I have to mention Kirsten Dunst and Sam Shepard as well in small but key supporting roles.

Though mostly serious, the film isn’t devoid of humor and some amusing scenes thanks to some of the roles some of the actor have portrayed. I’m not going to say what that reference is, but let’s just say it has something to do with a superhero from another world who’s also adopted by an earthly father. I appreciate that the film has plenty of quiet moments but by no means slow or tedious. The fact that there’s not much action happening, but when it does, it’s quite effective.


I wouldn’t say the film is perfect however, there are some predictable moments that somewhat lessen the impact. The fact that there are still a lot of unanswered questions about Alton by the end is a bit frustrating. Why did he end up on earth in the first place, why is the daylight harmful to him, why the cult thinks Alton is who they think they are, and so on. That said, there’s enough going for it that Midnight Special was a satisfying ride. Oh and that finale is quite a heart-pounding one. Given all the suspenseful build up, nice to see a pretty powerful pay-off.

Overall it’s an impressive film that offers a unique twist to an often-told sci-fi tale. This one is actually Nichols’ first studio film (with Warner Bros), but given that it’s budget is only $18 mil, the studio still agreed to let him have the final cut. I sure hope that he’ll continue to get as much creative control over his work even as he inevitably transition into bigger-budget films.

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So have you seen ‘Midnight Special’? Let me know what you think!

January 2016 BLIND SPOT: Marie Antoinette (2006)

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I have to confess that since I visited Paris a couple of years ago, I’ve become slightly obsessed with French history. Sofia Coppola‘s retelling of France’s iconic but ill-fated queen promises a character study of the title role instead of a historical account that led to the fall of Versailles. I have no problem with that, after all I’m not expecting a documentary of the subject. If one actually wants to learn more in depth about French history that’s also visually stunning, there’s a good three-part docs called The Rise & Fall of Versailles on Hulu.

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It’s loosely based on the Marie Antoinette biography by Lady Antonia Fraser which reveal the humanity of the French icon. The film opened with the archduchess of Austria at 14, being betrothed to Louis Auguste by her mother Empress Maria Theresa to secure the fragile allegiance between France and Austria. I can only imagine what it must’ve been like for a teenage girl like her to have to part with her family, and her beloved pug, and enter a strange new world on her own. I think the film captured that sense of alienation perfectly, as well as the intense loneliness, not to mention utter bewilderment, of all the new traditions she must quickly become accustomed to. Some of the most amusing scenes pertain to the mystifying traditions at Versailles.

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There’s one where the young queen had to be dressed in front of dozens of courtiers. Given that the most important courtier had to dress her, she literally had to stand shivering in the cold room waiting for someone to finally put clothes on her!

Kirsten Dunst was quite mesmerizing in the title role and being that she was Austrian, I thought she looked the part physically. There’s a playfulness as well as fragility in her performance, and despite being in her early 20s at the time, she looked quite believable as a teen. Jason Schwartzman on the other hand, seems miscast here as Louix XVI. He wasn’t given much to do here either, perhaps that’s purposely done to further the sense of estranged marriage between the two.

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Some critics have said the film is style over substance and there’s certainly style in abundance. The film is lavish and absolutely gorgeous to look at. I have to admit that the first half hour or so I was marveling at the spectacular set pieces and colorful costumes, but the film grew rather tedious and repetitive that it threatened to grind it to a halt. Coppola seems obsessed with the unconsummated marriage that the scenes of Marie being frustrated in bed is played over and over again. I understand Coppola intended to create an unconventional biopic, and that’s to be commended, but it feels overly indulgent. The young queen might’ve been giddy and frivolous, but it doesn’t mean the film depicting her has to be done in the same way.

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“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” (Let them eat cake)

As a character study, I feel that Coppola didn’t really go deep enough into the titular heroine. Marie Antoinette is depicted as a friendly, vivacious and sweet, though like most teen, she has a penchant for gossip and spectacular parties. ‘The Party That Started A Revolution’ one of the film tagline says, and well, the queen sure gave some ridiculously opulent parties in a time where the French citizens were starving. Whether she actually uttered the heartless remark ‘let them eat cake’ had been largely disputed, but she did say that line in this film. There’s perhaps a good five minutes or so devoted to the Revolution, there’s not even a mention of the Guillotine anywhere in the film. By the time the crowds had seized Versailles and the royal family escorted to Paris to await their doomed fate, I felt a tremendous sympathy for the characters, but more because of what I’ve learned in history about them, not necessarily due to their depictions here.

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The supporting cast was filled with actors who’ve become quite famous of late, especially Tom Hardy who had basically a cameo here as one of the French aristocrats. The other pretty boy was Jamie Dornan as a French soldier who became Marie Antoinette’s lover Count Axel Fersen. There’s also Rose Byrne as Duchesse de Polignac, the queen’s best friend. Rip Torn played Louis XV here, a role which was apparently offered to French actor Alain Delon, which I think would’ve been perfect. According to IMDb trivia, it has been speculated that Delon did not have confidence in the young American director to do justice to a film on this period of French history.


In any case, the star of this film is definitely Dunst, who carried the film with her charisma. She’s able to convey a variety of emotions throughout and make me sympathize with her despite her obvious flaws. The feeling of total isolation and tremendous pressure of having to produce an heir seemed so unbearable and she conveyed those emotions convincingly.

Technically the movie is a marvel. The cinematography by Lance Acord is simply stunning, a *decadence porn* displaying the most extravagant aristocracy lifestyle in history. I also like the use of contemporary music, as I quite like anachronism in period films when it’s used well. I think Sofia Coppola has been known for having good soundtrack in her movies. This one called Fools Rush In is one of my favorites:


Overall I think Marie Antoinette is a pretty shallow affair, an incomplete and rather unmoving character study that could’ve been much tightly-edited. The film tends to only focus on certain aspects of the character and leave others out, for example the infamous diamond necklace affair that forever tarnished her reputation wasn’t mentioned here. I do think the second half of the film is a bit more interesting as the revolution drew near. I’d still recommend this if you’re into this genre and anything to do with French history. I’d also still applaud Coppola for taking a novel approach to the subject, even if it’s far from being a superior work.

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Check out my full 2016 lineup by clicking the graphic below

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Well, have you seen Marie Antoinette? Well, what did you think?

Weekend Viewing Roundup + The Two Faces of January (2014) review

Well last Friday was the first weekend of Spring but Winter’s still not done with us yet as it was the Winter Wonderland again Sunday night. I didn’t think the snow was going to stick but here’s what my neighborhood looked like as I left work this morning! I do love those snow-covered branches!

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Skipped the cinema again this weekend, but rented a few things from Netflix: Shaft (the 2000 version with Samuel L. Jackson – review upcoming) and The Two Faces of January. Apparently The Phantom of the Opera (2004) w/ Gerry Butler and Emmy Rossum is now on Netflix streaming so of course I had to rewatch that again. In fact, I also watched half of the 2006 BBC Jane Eyre w/ my dahling Toby Stephens. Wintry night in is meant for viewing indulgences 😉

RoyalDeceitOh, on Thursday night also rented what’s supposed to be a Danish re-telling of Hamlet called Royal Deceit. I couldn’t believe how horrible it was, it’s simply ghastly in terms of direction, script (if you can even call it that), production design, as well as acting. I only saw it because of the stellar cast: Gabriel Byrne, Christian Bale, Helen Mirren, Brian Cox, Tom Wilkinson AND a young Any Serkis (this was apparently his film movie), all of them were absolutely wasted in one cringe-worthy scene after another. I honestly thought the cast might’ve lost a bet or something to star in this movie, what a criminal waste of talents! If I were to rate it, it’d get a big fat ZERO reel as there is nothing redeemable about it.

Anyway, here’s my review of …

 The Two Faces of January

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A thriller centered on a con artist, his wife, and a stranger who flee Athens after one of them is caught up in the death of a private detective.

This film seems to have the making of a great psycho thriller, given that it’s from the writer of great mystery thrillers The Talented Mr Ripley Strangers on a Train. I haven’t read Patricia Highsmith‘s novel, but I’d think the book might’ve been more exciting. It has its moments but it suffers from a rather sedate beginning and sluggish second act before it finally picks up in its third act.

I haven’t seen Viggo Mortensen in anything new in a while so it’s always nice seeing him here, playing an older, elegant businessman Chester Macfarland traveling with his young wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst). Mortensen is a solid actor and he does a great job here, but I find myself drawn to the tour guide/con-artist Rydal (Oscar Isaac) with his brooding good looks and dark, enigmatic eyes. There’s a palpable sexual chemistry between Isaac and Dunst, and Isaac also has some great dramatic scenes with Mortensen, especially towards the end.

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The breathtaking cinematography in Athens and Crete is practically a character in itself and it serves as a fine distraction during some of the film’s slower parts. The finale’s foot-chase scene in Istanbul was stylishly shot and that’s definitely the most exciting part of the entire film. Iranian director Hossein Amini made this film with a Hithcockian flair to it, and the use of light is quite dramatic, especially in the night time scene in a Greek ruin. Apparently this is Amini’s feature film debut so that might explain the uneven tone, but I think he did a pretty good job for a first timer and I’m curious what he’d do next.

I think the strength of the film lies in Mortensen and Isaac, and the film’s main conflict is ultimately between these two. Mortensen convincingly displayed the jealousy and paranoia that constantly haunted Chester, whilst Isaac’s character couldn’t seem to shake his lust for Colette that sucked him deeper and deeper into this dangerous predicament. I’ve been a fan of Isaac for some time and I sure hope he’d get more leading roles as he’s got such an effortless screen magnetism.

Given the intriguing plot and the cast, this could’ve been a really compelling and riveting noir thriller. As it is now, the film dragged in parts and felt longer than its 96-minute running time. It’s also hard to care about the unlikable characters, even if there’s a hint of redemption in the end. But overall I still think it was well-worth renting, especially if you’re a fan of Highsmith and Hitchcock and/or any of the cast.

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So did you see anything good this weekend? If you’ve seen The Two Faces of January, I’d love to hear what you think!

Scene Spotlight: Spiderman’s Upside Down Kiss

Many of you on Twitter probably have seen the first official photo of Andrew Garfield as Spiderman. In fact, fanboys/girls everywhere were all bursting with geek-gasm yesterday with the release of two major superheroes in their uniform (the other one was Captain America). At first I wasn’t too enthused about the upcoming Spiderman reboot, but since Andrew Garfield’s been cast, my interest just went up tenfold! And you know what, I’m liking what I’m seeing so far. It’s dark and brooding, certainly nowhere near as blissfully cheery as the first official photo of Tobey Maguire in the web suit (you can see both images in this Cinematical article).

The hype meter will soon be off the chart for this Spidey reboot, as practically every week we’ll be hearing of some kind of ‘first look’ from the movie. I’ll try not to get too caught up in all that but today, I thought I’d highlight one of my favorite scenes from the original franchise. For me, one of the most beguiling thing about Peter Parker’s story is his humble upbringing and the fact that he’s just a regular bloke, not all beefcake heroic looking like most of his Marvel superhero. And there’s the earnest, heart-tugging love story between the geeky high-schooler and the most popular girl in school, Mary Jane. In the reboot, the love interest will be Gwen Stacey instead of MJ (and some paparazzi shots have emerged on the set of Garfield and Emma Stone).

Now, I wonder how the romance part will pan out in the new one, as I think Garfield and Stone have big shoes to fill. Maguire and Kirsten Dunst have great chemistry in the Sam Raimi flicks, especially in this unforgettable upside-down kiss in the rain after the hero saved the day. Rain always makes things extra romantic, and apparently the heat of the moment is so strong Mary Jane is not at all shivering. 😉 This scene is not only memorable, it’s a classic! [Sorry I couldn’t find a hi-res clip without the last part at the end of the movie]

Whoof! Now that’s some scorching hot kiss, don’t cha think? Though from various interviews, Maguire often said how miserable the shoot was as his sinuses kept filling up with water during the kissing scene. So the fact that it appears sexy on screen is quite a feat! I’m really curious what director Marc Webb will bring to the table. But given how delightfully quirky his first film is (500 Days of Summer), I’m certainly hopeful.

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Well folks, are you at all looking forward to this Spiderman reboot? Thoughts about Andy Garfield in the suit? Let’s hear it.