Midnight Special (2016)

Midnight Special

Now, this is some refreshing sci-fi! Midnight Special starts in mid-stride, with two men hustling a cooperative young boy into the back of a ’72 Chevelle as an AMBER alert describing the trio blares in the background. The driver of the car then puts on a pair of night vision goggles, switches off the headlights, and tears off into pre-dawn darkness. It’s a badass opening sequence — and it all takes place before the title screen — but, thankfully, the movie doesn’t proceed on some mindless chase, full of gunfights, explosions, and unlikely scenarios. (That kind of faux sci-fi has been done to death.) Midnight Special instead takes the high road, adopting a deliberate, albeit slow, pace that eventually yields a unique, character-driven sci-fi/drama rather than another trope-filled sci-fi/action flick.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols, whose credits include Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, relies once again on Michael Shannon — one of the most interesting and expressive actors in Hollywood — as well as the American Deep South to tell a moving and meditative story. Taking cues from the sci-fi blockbusters of the 1980’s (Close Encounters, E.T., Starman, Cocoon), Midnight Special weaves together government agents, religious cult members, and a boy with seemingly “alien” abilities into an extremely suitable, though particularly subtle, tapestry. The script doesn’t spend much time explaining itself, and the dialogue doesn’t spoon-feed the audience any plot points. Viewers are forced to pay close attention if they want to put the whole story together, piece-by-piece. (And, as you surely know by now, I generally find that kind of “work” refreshing.)

Midnight Special is worth the slow ride because it ultimately pays off with an unforgettable conclusion, unlike any I can remember from the past two decades of cinema. With this film, Nichols’ certainly solidifies his status as one of the most fascinating (and uniquely American) writer/directors working today. (Actually, I tend to believe that he’s poised to excel in every way that his predecessors — directors like Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green — have failed. [Holler at me in the comments section if you need me to explain that rather brazen comment.])

Nichols is like that rare, good friend, who actually has very thought-provoking things to say, but never talks too much — and I’m really psyched to see what he does next.

Four pot leafs out of five:
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Midnight Special (2016)

Self/less (2015)

Selfless

Eventually, I will completely trash a movie with a one-leaf rating. But Self/less barely managed to stay above my personal hate threshold. It starts out as a promising-enough, Twilight Zone-y science fiction flick, but then it quickly devolves into a gimmicky and predictable action flick — complete with multiple gun fights, chase scenes, flamethrowers, etc.

Actually, I can’t stand to spend much time thinking about this movie anymore: Self/less is a complete waste of… millions of dollars. Sir Ben Kingsley and Ryan Reynolds were both fine in (albeit it yawning through) their respective roles. But this one’s such a throwaway script, it shouldn’t even be blogged about. (My bad!) The movie has a decent-enough premise and, like I said, I can’t say that it offends the senses completely. But do rest assured that it’s a predictable, paint-by-numbers exercise, and you can totally skip it without losing any sleep.

The director responsible, Tarsem Singh, has overseen some pretty visually stimulating movies in the past, including Immortals, Mirror Mirror, The Fall, and — my personal favorite — The Cell (with freakin’ Vince Vaughn and J-Lo)! But Self/less fails to engage on any emotional level, and I’m afraid to say that it’s also incredibly stupid. (Not that any of Singh’s other flicks are real genius pieces either…)

Anyway, I’m not going to pan it completely because it didn’t make me want to gouge my eyeballs out. It is, in fact, a “production.” But I’m a serious science fiction fan, and Self/less is severely disappointing.

Two pot leafs out of five:
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Self/less (2015)

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)

Monsters vs Aliens

If you’re going to read this blog, I suppose there’s something you should know about me right off the bat: I fucking love animation. I’ve been obsessed with the medium — especially the pure, hand-drawn and stop-motion stuff — ever since I discovered He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Voltron: Defender of the Universe as a child. (I actually broke my wrist, swinging a plastic sword around and shouting, “I have the power!” when I was two years old.)

That said, I continue to watch a lot of animated features as an “adult,” and I recently took a chance on the 2009 Dreamworks release known as Monsters vs. Aliens — a 90-minute CGI romp that blends references from all the major science fiction films of the past 50 years into a silly and colorful adventure. Overall, I found it to be extremely decent. It never attempted to get deep or pull on any heartstrings, but it maintained its light and breezy tone from beginning to end, evoking a few genuine chuckles along the way. It also benefited from some really great voice acting by well-known artists such as Reese Witherspoon, Kiefer Sutherland, Will Arnett, Rainn Wilson, Amy Poehler, and Stephen Colbert.

The computer animation was adequate enough to propel the story at a steady pace and dazzle the senses every once in a while. And, even though the characters’ mugs were — for the most part — ugly as sin, the animators managed to create some really brilliant facial expressions that added a little more depth to the already punchy dialogue. They also gave us the wonderfully behemoth and dead-eyed mutated bug, known affectionately as Insectosaurus, whom I will never forget. The movie would have gotten an extra pot leaf if it had been filmed one cel at a time. But it maintains a certain charm of its own, and it is in no way offensive to even the most sophisticated sensibilities.

Three pot leafs out of five:
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Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)