Sci-Drama 'Midnight Special' Both Other-Worldly and Familiar

Directed by: Jeff Nichols; Runtime: 112 minutes
Grade: B-

Jeff Nichols' sparse but potent body work has largely flown under the radar over the past decade, even though he's crafted these absorbing dramas powered by thematic ambiguity and tormented main characters, always with the stern, piercing features of Michael Shannon somewhere within. His work ends up having such an impact because he distills a lot of emotional and moral complexity within the scenarios he's written, which give his indie projects a kind of dramatic grandeur that stretches well beyond their budgetary means. Thus, those who have followed Nichols' work over the years were justified in getting excited for Midnight Special, in which the writer/director would direct his energy towards a small-scale story about hiding a young boy with extraordinary, almost magical powers ... kinda like a superhero. Sadly, while Nichols' situational intimacy and gorgeous composition remain in this suitable science-fiction effort, a dose of uninspired, overly recognizable storytelling keeps it from reaching the same heights as his previous work.

Midnight Special drops us immediately into the pursuit for young Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who's holed up in a ramshackle hotel with his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and their traveling companion, Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Ever monitoring the TV for updates on how much information the authorities have on them, they once again flee into the night after another escalation in the information released about them, desperate to keep the young boy safe. The reason? Alton has specific supernatural capabilities, ranging from tapping into hidden communications arrays to expelling energy beams from his eyes, not entirely unlike Cyclops from X-Men. While the government poses a threat to his safety, wanting to locate him for assumed reasons, they're also fleeing from a religious cult-like group -- led by Sam Shepard's Calvin Meyer -- who believe him to be the key to the fruition of their rapturous belief structure. As a result, Roy and Lucas are forced to do anything possible, crossing boundaries, to get Alton to a specific destination before time's run out.

Midnight Special does get its hook in early with a crafty slow feed of details about the capabilities of the young boy, generating a compelling mystery that unravels in big, bold ways between the stretches of restrained exposition. Jeff Nichols' interest in ambiguity emerges in how he avoids direct explanations of what exactly Alton's powers are and what, precisely, all the information collected about the young boy -- both by the government and by the Mormon-esque quote who reveres him -- actually entails. Coupled with the character-driven focus established by Nichols, the film takes on a tone that's unmistakably inspired by the works of Steven Spielberg, a fusion of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind with how it snaps pieces of the puzzle together underneath an emotional momentum, with Star Trek: The Force Awakens' Adam Driver filling the role of the Richard Dreyfuss-type of expert as an NSA specialist. As Alton's eyes begin glowing and dumps of numerical data create an odd maze for Midnight Special to navigate, it's hard not to get intrigued with seeing what's at the end.

Much like his previous films, writer/director Nichols brings beautifully-shot, quaint rusticity and invigorated performances to Midnight Special, driven by Michael Shannon's hardened yet sympathetic protectiveness as the boy's father and Joel Edgerton's compromised perspective as a longtime friend. Nichols is also working with a premise that doesn't communicate as effortlessly with subtle, personal dramatics, and that shows once the film drags in the middle amid the protracted pursuits for Alton and the gradual connecting of the dots about the boy's purpose. Largely stoic underneath his blue goggles and orange headphones, Alton becomes more of a device for the plot's forward movement than a captivating character, whose bizarre verbal outbursts and dangerous energy projections rob the other characters of the kind of attention they'd need for actual depth. Familiar faces from Anton's past emerge in the roadtrip, including his mother, played by Kirsten Dunst, but these interactions seem more like interruptive stalling of a dramatic reveal than adding emotional depth to his escape from pursuers.

Jeff Nichols' craftsmanship around the boy's escalating powers and inherent link to this cult becomes a source of wonder and amusement in Midnight Special, but that doesn't make up for the lack of thematic edge that traditionally commands the director's work, and it's not from an absence of potential. Ideas about religious belief, intercepted government telecommunications, and the morality behind protecting an individual like Alton at all cost present themselves in Nichols' script, but they're only developed to a superficial level, perhaps deliberately so in order to allow the audience to draw their own conclusions. That vagueness rings hollow, though, especially once all the pieces of data about Alton begin to snap together in the dramatic conclusion, amplifying the extent of his other-worldly capabilities as the rest of the characters bask in its amazement. Everything comes together in suspenseful fashion, but the boy himself possesses so much gravitational pull that the rest of the story's moving parts -- notably the other characters -- fade into the background. It's alien territory for Nichols, and his latest lacks that special something for it.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]

'10 Cloverfield Lane' Descends Into Sharp, Confined Sci-Fi

Directed by: Dan Tracterberg; Runtime: 104 minutes
Grade: B+

Bad Robot's Cloverfield turned out to be little more than a serviceable found-footage monster movie built around a Statue of Liberty-sized kaiju tearing through Manhattan, but the mysteries and speculation surrounding its prolonged viral marketing campaign were something to behold. An enigmatic trailer without a title, social-media pages for the characters, and websites built around the fictional brands found in the film created a long line of breadcrumbs for interested parties -- many of whom were already caught up in the puzzle-solving of LOST's missing pieces -- to follow until its release. Dan Tractenberg's 10 Cloverfield Lane, a parallel spinoff set in the same universe, does almost the exact opposite, where instead of a year of promotional nudges and winks, a surprise trailer emerged mere months before the film was slated to arrive in theaters. The difference in approaches to the marketing reflects the differences between the films themselves: 10 Cloverfield Lane keeps its scale small and its intentions cerebral, producing a well-crafted paranoia thriller with apocalyptic science-fiction in its veins.

Instead of jarring, loud interruptions made up of shaky-camera found footage, 10 Cloverfield Lane maintains a steady visual focus while depicting a group of survivors holed up in a fallout shelter following a catastrophic event. Overseeing the bunker is Howard Stambler (John Goodman), a controlling and intimidating ex-military man who forces his two guests, Michelle and Emmitt, to adhere to his rules if they're going to stick around -- and they're going to stick around, whether they want to or not. Michelle, injured and fresh off a marital breakup, grows suspicious and fearful of Howard's motives and contemplates the truth behind the hazardous state of the world above ground. Emmitt, who knew Howard before the event, exhibits less concern due to Howard's willingness to let him wait out the lingering effects of the disaster. There's one constant among them: the only information they're going by is Howard's deduction about the state of the toxic atmosphere, and the length in which they'll have to stay underground before everything's safe.

At first, 10 Cloverfield Lane began as a project called "The Cellar" that didn't have anything to do with Bad Robot's universe, something that makes plenty of sense considering the ambiguous, paranoid atmosphere and post-apocalyptic theorizing going on between the bunker's residents. Attaching it to Cloverfield adds an intriguing -- if unnecessary -- layer to the experience, though, that takes on different meanings depending on whether someone does or doesn't know about the first film's world-building. Without that context, mystery and suspicion loom over Howard's authoritative explanations about the global state of affairs, where he spins a cogent but ominous tale of warfare, weapons of mass destruction, and hopelessness for anyone who isn't in a bunker like his. Knowing the reality of what's going on in New York, on the other hand, replaces some of that vagueness with analysis of the things Howard's saying about the dangers and the fallout. 10 Cloverfield Lane works splendidly on its own regardless, and it's largely because of what it sets out to do with the murkiness of "the truth".

Thus, the bulk of 10 Cloverfield Lane occurs within the confined, shaky corridors of Howard's mildly homey bunker away from the toxic atmosphere, adorned with minimal creature comforts that make the power surges and intermittent tremors in the ground easier for its inhabitants to bear. Smart, polished set design squeezes the most that it can out of the film's modest budget, creating a space that really feels like a fallout shelter designed with years of isolation in mind, with just enough entertainment around -- board games, reading material, movies -- to keep the metal box from seeming like a spruced-up prison. Combined with Bear McCreary's beautifully off-kilter score and John Cutter's cinematography that relishes the bunker's dim lighting and sunken depth, 10 Cloverfield Lane generates a uniquely alarming mood as Michelle and Emmitt adjust to their new surroundings, persuading those watching to consider whether their living conditions may or may not be as they seem.

The effectiveness of 10 Cloverfield Lane swings on the complexity of Howard's nature, placing the bulk of the pressure on John Goodman's burly shoulders. Much like his character's self-designated call to duty, Goodman's up to the task, producing an understandably fearful individual with both sympathetic and unnerving personality traits. Director Tractenberg wants those watching to be uncertain about what Howard wants and why he's so adamant about his rules, and Goodman's fluctuations in temperament -- volatile and controlling in one moment, concerned and misunderstood in another -- are what keep those motivations in a compelling state of flux throughout. Mary Elizabeth Winstead embodies the wide-eyed, fraught, yet crafty victim similarly to how she does in The Thing, while John Gallagher musters a convincingly earnest Louisiana laborer who's more easily persuaded than Michelle, both of whom capably adjust to Howard's dominant flare-ups and seemingly good-intended restriction of freedom. Neither possess very deep character traits, but that's not required for the roles they fill.

Ominous philosophical small-talk, periodic flickers of light and earthen rumbles, and scattered clues about Howard's true nature -- as well as how Michelle came to live in the bunker -- all form into a mystery worth unraveling in 10 Cloverfield Lane, posing questions about trust and lesser evils in the process. These are carefully constructed diversions from director Tracterberg's ultimate intentions, though, which manifest in a hazardous and explosive final act, revealing precisely how this tense underground psychological thriller connects with Bad Robot's pseudo-kaiju flick from nearly a decade prior. Saying any more than that, vague as it may be, borders on spoiler territory, and the surprises waiting on the other side of the door are worth preserving for the exhilarating conclusion telegraphed by Tractenberg. While it may not have been originally devised with this purpose in mind, 10 Cloverfield Lane illustrates what's possible when a sci-fi spinoff is driven by contained, clever writing that'd succeed regardless of its recognizable namesake.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]

'The Wave' Hits Disaster Genre With Authentic Thrills, Emotion

Directed by: Roar Uthaug; Runtime: 105 minutes
Grade: B

Subtlety isn't easy to accomplish when you dealing with the kind of situations typically depicted in disaster movies: crumbling buildings, fleeing crowds, trapped people with moments before their looming death. Hollywood rarely makes the effort for that kind of restraint in the genre, instead taking the threats of doomsday prophecies or looming earthquakes and barreling forward with as much tongue-in-cheek demolition as possible, fitting in just enough personal relationships to deepen the fatal stakes. Roar Uthaug's The Wave positions itself somewhere between the bombast of normal disaster fare and credible self-control in the drama surrounding a disastrous event, tasked with depicting the real-life concern of a mountainous rockslide creating a tsunami that'd submerge a lakefront tourist town. Keeping things completely understated in a depiction of this event wasn't really a possibility, nor would that be desirable, but this Norwegian production never lets the thrilling excess drown out its genuine aspects.

The Wave depicts the waterfront town of Geiranger, a smallish, verdant area surrounded by towering mountains, whose beauty makes it a regular site for travelers. It's a locale with a bleak past and an ominous future, however: the mountains are historically unstable, resulting in rock debris that toppled down into its fjord and created waves that rushed into the town, most recently in the '30s. Geologists, such as Kristian (Kristoffer Joner), are certain that the systemic erosion of a particular mountain in the area will eventually cause another of these events to happen, thus unleashing a tsunami onto the town potentially populated with tourists. Kristian's scientific concerns weren't enough to keep him from taking a job in the city, away from this natural ticking time-bomb, which would uproot his wife, hotel front-desk clerk Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), and their two children. The days leading up to their departure are disrupted by indications of seismic activity, suggesting that the long-feared event might be on the way.

Both The Wave and Brad Peyton's San Andreas were released within about three months of one another, so drawing any similarities between the two -- over the family drama, the real-world geological premise, or the mounting scientific tension -- wouldn't amount to much in the "copycat" department. Instead, their resemblances are merely a reflection of the broad, mechanical formula at work in disaster movies, a point of interest considering how systematically Roar Uthaug develops far more nuanced versions of essentially the same ideas found in the Californian earthquake flick. Similarly also to The Impossible, The Wave lays a more sincere emotional groundwork about an everyday lead character, not a muscled hero but a regular ole scientist, and his family moving away from such a unique, burdened location. Kristoffer Joner and Ane Dahl Torp lead the way with their earthy chemistry as forty-something spouses, who butt heads over parenting choices that interweave with the dangers of the impending catastrophe. Director Uthaug approaches the fjord's atmosphere like a drama at first instead of an action-movie setup, and that impact can be felt throughout.

Obviously, there's little being spoiled in revealing that, yes, things do eventually go south in the Norwegian mountains, heralding the arrival of the titular wave once the rocks come tumbling down. It's a testament to Roar Uthaug's craftsmanship that The Wave generates relentless, on-edge rushes even knowing what's to come, in the midst of a fluid transition from family dramatics to unbearable pressure. Troubled Water's Harald Rosenlow-Eeg and Ragnarok's John Kare Raake have penned a script that convincingly flings normal people into dangerous situations and separates families from one another, all while adhering to the scientific logistics behind how the eroding mountain might actually be handled as a debatable concern worth warning the city about. Small touches, like the fraying of wires and the malfunction of sensors, become surprisingly poignant catalysts for tension, while observing whether these scientists decide whether the time's right to sound the alarm over the incoming tsunami -- akin to confirming the arrival of a doomsday prophecy -- both exhilarates and provokes a bit of thought.

Once the tsunami starts rushing toward Geiranger, The Wave musters every ounce of vigor it can from its modest budget, defying budgetary limits as it depicts the overbearing rush of water coming from the fjord. Stunning photography and cleverly-used visual effects capture both the nocturnal chaos in front of the wave and volatile writhing with everything that's submerged, evoking harrowing beauty within the dilemmas created by the event. Since this isn't a constant disaster -- there's only one tsunami -- and the town maintains some level of preparation for its coming, the vast majority of the thrills emerge in both the flight from The Wave itself and coping with the lethal circumstances after, underscored by the anguished performances from the entire cast. The Wave succeeds by embracing the smaller scale of the location and the relative brevity of the tsunami's physical impact, and while Roar Uthaug doesn't deviate from the disaster-movie formula up until its final breath, he clearly understands how to telegraph a strong impact while keeping the dramatic authenticity from suffocating under Hollywood-style bombast.

Film review also appeared over at [LINK]