Saturday, July 30, 2016

Mad Max: Fury Road

Spoiler-free.

What this intense, non-stop action thrill ride of apocalyptic proportions lacks by way of meaning, it makes up for with style points. Style points for days. This film's fuel is style points, and it came prepared for a very long road trip. With style.

Visually, 100% epic and 100% beautiful.

Okay, I think I overdid it now. This movie's plot requires too much explanation to explain and isn't exactly important anyway, so I'll just go with this: is Max, and he spends a lot of time with , , and some hot girls, during what is essentially a two-hour-long car chase through the open orange desert of post-apocalyptic Australia.

And seriously, the style is the best thing about this film. It was nominated for every academy award it qualified for except those for acting, scripting, and scoring. And it won 6 out of 10, so that should tell you a lot. Scoring I almost never really notice, but I didn't think this one was particularly good or bad. Acting was not Oscar-worthy in any way, but that hardly means it was bad. But the writing was certainly this flick's downfall -- comparatively, anyway. Since it's a huge action film I seriously doubt it was trying to achieve a whole lot on those fronts it doesn't make much of a difference, but they're worth mentioning all the same.

Nicholas Hoult had the surprise best character of the movie. "What a lovely day!"

For the leads, the acting was just underused. I actually really enjoyed Nicholas Hoult's performance quite a lot. He was unexpected, amusing, and, as Hoult's characters always are, charming. However, he wasn't written as interestingly as he might have been when it came down to the end. Really, the only character who makes it through the third act without diminishing their interest was Max himself. And that was because he had no actual drama until then in the first place. Tom Hardy did a great job with the action side of things, but never got a chance to try anything more. Therone made a good lead for the emotional side of the film with her hardcore and stoic one-armed woman, but never goes beyond that. Still it's an action film with a huge emphasis on action, so it really was more than good enough.

His movie in name only.

Writing also slacked a little in the plotting of the drama. The overly-dramatic and serious drama didn't annoy me or anything -- it worked for the tone and rating of the film -- but at the same time it was never able to bring me to truly care. I wasn't invested in the lives or the success of the endeavors of the characters. And honestly, that did matter a little. I was still able to appreciate the style points that were everywhere, but style can only get you so far.

But, because of this film, we now know exactly how far style can take you -- because this film set the new standard. Everything that is required to make a great, thrilling action flick, this barreling fireball has in spades. It really says a lot about the action when it can hold your attention for a whole hour-and-a-half with a grand total of only two brief pauses and never breaks a sweat. This is no Michael Bay or Zack Snyder film where the longer the battle goes the more bored you get; and Fury Road knows how to intertwine the plot into the action to keep the momentum going, and mix things up without ever applying the brakes. On that score, the writing is impressive.

His guitar shoots flames, and that is everything.

The best quality though, is the visuals. Constantly, consistently, dazzlingly brilliant and sharp, the special effects, the visual effects, and just the whole look and way the action was presented here is striking, and extremely memorable. It was filmed very cleanly, so you always know what's going on and don't get left behind with the fast pace. The coloring is incredible and the world equally shiny as it is gritty. And the stunts -- all the moves and tricks are all so unique, there was multiple times when I just burst out laughing out of sheer enjoyment of the craziness going on onscreen. Sometimes a movie doesn't need anything besides an excuse to go for a thrill-ride, and the means to make it a memorable one.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

Spoiler-free.

When the trailer released, I was one of few people who thought it promised good -- a promise that needed to be made for the fans nervous about J. J. Abrams handing over directing reins to Justin Lin. Through that admittedly iffy trailer I saw where I thought this film was headed, and I liked it. Still after a while my excitement took a beating, and I was hesitant to see the film as soon as I did. Not because I thought it wouldn't be good anymore, but because I thought I wouldn't be able to enjoy it as it was meant to be enjoyed. But I was right where it mattered and wrong where it mattered; Beyond does everything that I expected it'd do, and was able to put a smile on my face.

The third installment of the rebooted franchise dials back on the scale, and narrows its focuses to character and action for a pleasant episodic feel. Jim Kirk and his crew are cut off from the federation, stranded on a strange planet in the far reaches of the galaxy, and face a mysterious and intimidating threat which they face with bold determination.

This movie isn't perfect, but it's going in the right direction. So boldly go!

Firstly, more than just the directing reins changed hands. This time round, and Doug Jung did the writing, rather than J. J.'s regulars. The reason I had so much confidence in this movie from the start was because of Simon Pegg. Certainly less known as a writer, but anyone who knows his writing work knows that it's the type to inspire confidence. And he didn't fall short; to the uninitiated this film is indistinguishable from the last two. There's the same sharp action, the same comic relief that is actually funny and elicits a real laugh, the same serious tone used carefully to add depth and urgency, and those same "Star Trek" moments that cause cheesy grins.

But to those like me who are compelled to look under the surface, there are some differences. And differences I was all for, but these were not purposeful deviations from the formula, but rather elements that were attempts at copying previous successes that just don't land quite as confidently. Paying attention to the plot progression, a more than typical number of plot holes are distinguishable, and too much of the dialogue is used in exposition, trying to explain holes away. And there are a few contrivances that were necessary for the plot to work. There did seem to be a handful of moments of genuine inspiration -- and they were all kinds of fantastic -- but for the most part the plot exists to serve the action.

The best the plot does is create situations for the characters to shine.

There was no shortage of memorable action set pieces though they were sometimes worked into the story less than gracefully. There were two shots where the CGI was noticeable and almost humorously bad, otherwise the special effects are fine, though not exactly evoking of awe either. It also loses a sense of sophistication that the previous films had, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. This film has a ragtag aura that is interestingly appealing. The only thing the more blunt action caused that I didn't like was that the fighting and action was filmed too close, and often with too low lighting for us to get the full effect. But not quite too much that you can't tell what's going on. The grandeur and beauty of the setting seems to be only shown off because it's obligatory; it's still got some great artistic imagery, but it doesn't linger like I found myself wishing it would.

The themes are simplistic and not particularly thought-provoking, but there is a charm to experiencing an action flick that doesn't try to shoehorn its themes. There's friendship and camaraderie going on that feels like it wasn't even done on purpose it's so natural. Give Justin Lin a large cast of oddball characters, and he can make them mesh; and these characters take to his treatment like they were made for it. Captain Kirk battling the odds with his two opposite sidekicks is sometimes the only thing we need. And when Bones and Spock have scenes together, which they do often, they lightly bounce their opposing worldviews back and forth with a casual depth that is subtly epic. Their scenes are also the most consistently funny, in a true, organic way.

Two sides of the same coin if ever two people fit the bill.

has found that perfect balance of determined logic and suppressed but genuine emotion with his Spock. I doubt he'll ever be my favorite character, but the respect keeps going up. Bones is already one of my favorites though, and won't be losing his place any time soon. always has been, and continues to be a fantastic Bones. The rough, sarcastic edge, the way he embraces his humanity (the good with the bad), and his innate lovable charm is all effortless from Urban. He gets even more to do this time around, and proves he deserves it and more. This time it's Uhura () and Sulu () who fall slightly to the wayside -- comparatively. They still have whatever they had from the last movies, but don't really add anything new or fresh.

I'm sure they'll come back around soon.

Ever underused is Chekov. Especially now, considering this is the last film in which the adorably quirky character will make an appearance. He was my favorite ever since he had all that trouble pronouncing his V's in movie one, and the Star Trek franchise won't be half as good in my eyes without him. Here he gets more to do than ever, but still isn't there nearly enough. The way the camera glances past him is maddeningly reminiscent of real life, but made the best of the part as he always did, and made the character unforgettable with his cute and awkward mannerisms, accent, and unconcealable charm. It's never pointed out to the audience even slightly, but I don't think I was seeing things when I noticed Chekov crushing on Jaylah, and it nearly broke me with adorableness. Chekov is an irreplaceable character -- there will be a gaping hole in every single installment to come.

I never knew you, but I'll miss you, and the characters you brought to life onscreen.

Now Jaylah () is the obligatory new allied character, and is the best yet. That chic totally rocked. I loved her attitude and her unique, yet familiar persona. She's like a sullen, hardened teenager, yet is an alien with some naive and disarming fish-out-of-water qualities. She was cool, and funny, and had a great arc with a good amount of depth. I'd love to see her again. She hangs out a lot with Scotty, and they make for some sharp scenes together. Who knows if it was a temptation, but Simon Pegg didn't abuse his writing powers and give himself anything more to do as Scotty as he did before; but Scotty has always been a character worth devoting a good amount of time to, and he did match that. He's capable of holding down scenes by himself, and does it with that patented Scottish attitude and wit to spare.

Her makeup is epic. And I love that Scotty calls her Lassie. And she calls him Montgomery Scotty!

Am I missing someone? Ha -- just kidding. In movies like this, the lead is rarely the character I love most, but 's Captain James T. Kirk will always be a character worth admiring, rooting for, and revolving an entire movie around. Here his arc was fairly predictable, but an avenue worth exploring and was handled well script-wise and performance-wise. There are no huge emotional scenes, but that doesn't matter with Pine. He mixes the subtle depths of Kirk evenly into every moment and brings an important weight to the story and his loyal, smirking, and heroic Captain. The villain he faces was a surprising downside. brings the intimidation and the turmoil, but unfortunately was landed with the side of the script that was dotted with holes. In the end Krall was too flimsy to be convincing or memorable. He got the job done, but only just.

He belongs in that captain's chair.

In fact, that's a pretty accurate description of the film as a whole: it gets the job done. Not glamorously or impressively or mind-bendingly, but with a solid amount of fun and excitement, and a decent amount of throwing back and respect for what it is continuing. And the job really is to showcase the characters. What surrounds them may not be as spectacular as it has been before, but the characters themselves are every bit as worth spending time with as they ever were. The plot may not be terribly smart, but the smartest thing the film does was a great choice; to pair off the characters into groups were they brought out the best, and the most interesting sides in each other.

Beyond is an enjoyable caper into the unexplored reaches of space; comparatively inferior in quality to the installments actually helmed by Abrams, but for fans of the new franchise, no less worthwhile by its own right. In a few ways it is flawed superficially, but at its heart holds onto what makes these adventures worth the trip -- the iconic and lovable captain and crew of the USS Enterprise.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Jurassic Park

I recently got to see 's classic dino-thriller in its full effect at a theater. I've seen it through at least three times now, and bit and pieces of it several more times, but I only now feel as though I've really seen it. So it's about time I reviewed this thing.

There's our hero shot.

As a movie lover I am biased toward the work of Spielberg. There is something truly magical that comes through his films, especially his science fiction films, and none more so than this one. The sense of adventure, the grandeur, the awe, is unmatched. I didn't even watch this until I was in my teens, and even then it didn't make a huge impression on me at first, but I still have a fierce nostalgic attachment to it. This flick has flaws, yes, mostly in the form of casual plot holes common in action and horror films. It's the nature of the beast, and in a lot of ways, those little marks and flaws endear the movie to me even more.

I think the reason I didn't originally fall for this film was because I saw it at an inopportune time. I was young enough that I tried to identify with the kids, and I had seen enough visually impressive movies that the dinosaurs weren't enough to win me without character. Of course, identifying with the kids didn't work out, because let's face it, they're annoying. However, now that I'm old enough to be naturally inclined to identify with the adults, it doesn't matter how annoying the kids are. In fact, it helps, because Dr. Grant thinks the exact same thing.

That of course is why it's so cute that he gets stuck with them!

It took me a while to warm to 's Grant (at first I thought Malcolm was supposed to be the main character, which was confusing for me) but now that I finally have, he may even replace Malcolm as favorite character. It's great that we can sympathize with his aversion to children even if we don't happen to normally feel the same way, and he doesn't comes across as too much of a jerk. So then his journey to overcoming prejudice and changing his mind is easy to get behind and enjoy. He has that Indy/John McClane cynical action-hero thing going, and balances it with brains and a big-softie side. My favorite thing about him is his immediate dedication to protect the kids even though they're not his favorite type of human. "He left us! He left us!" "But that's not what I'm going to do." The delivery of that line is spot-on epic.

Of course Dr. Malcolm is still that character that you just can't help but love, especially when he's played by . Everyone knows that the rock star scientist is the coolest kind of scientist, and, well, there it is. Malcolm keeps the energy going constantly with his clever and funny quips, doing great things with the majority of the film's comic relief, and generally just being Jeff Goldblum and therefore being interesting no matter what he's saying. 's Ellie came at a time when a female character didn't have to forgo being charming in order to be sufficiently feminist, so while she does quip about sexism, it's done in a way that lends her a cool confidence like she really couldn't care less. She has a natural, easy likability, and is smart and brave.

All the dinosaurs in the world (or not in the world) can't replace human characters. On that note...

Now the dinosaurs. And this is interesting, because I've actually grown more and more impressed with them over the years. Yeah, the animation doesn't hold up so well, and the first scene that shows them is probably the worst animation-wise which detracts a bit from the wonder of the moment. Really though, it holds up way better than a 1993 film has a right to, and that is due to the animatronics. This is the first viewing of this film I've had since I saw Jurassic World, and it really struck me how the animatronic triceratops is actually more believable than the apatosaurus featured in the sequel 22 years later. Maybe that believability has a little to do with the stunned look of awe on the actors faces in this one... or maybe not.

The T-Rex is spectacular. The animatronic is incredible and still pretty incomprehensible to me, and I barely even noticed animation mixed in with it, because I was so absorbed in the terror of the scenes featuring Rexy. My favorite though, is the velociraptors. Cunning, sneaky, and terrifying. With Rexy, all you have to do is hold still, but I've never been able to figure a plan for if ever I'm being hunted by a raptor, and that's what makes them so scary. They're featured heavily, and were probably very tricky to do. They're certainly at their best when in animatronic mode, but the mixing was done really well. The obvious reluctance to animate them made for some fantastic creativity with the filming that translates intensely onscreen. And then the rare animated shot fills in the gaps.

There's a realness to this that CGI still isn't able to fully recreate.

A lot of the time with classic films, I can tell why they're classics, but have trouble going past liking them as a classic and getting to a point where I like them in a way that is uninfluenced. It can be a large hurdle to get over. I believe I have officially made it over that hurdle with Jurassic Park now. Perhaps because now that I've seen it as it was meant to be seen -- felt the T-Rex roar vibrate in my chest while that magnificent theme brought on a cheesy grin and misty eyes. I experienced it fully, and have found my own reasons to love it. I've begun to understand the filmmaking aspects, fallen in love with the characters, laughed, cried, was thrilled by the well-crafted suspense and terror, and blown away by the awe and wonder. A Spielberg classic, absolutely -- and worlds more.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Z for Zachariah

Spoiler-free.

In this sparse and rural post-apocalyptic film, Ann () is a young woman living by herself on a farm with her dog. The farm is in a pocket of clean air surrounded by toxic radioactive air. She may be the last woman on earth -- but she isn't the last person on earth. John, () a scientist stumbles onto her land, and the two soon settle into a life there, planning improvements and thinking long-term. Really long-term. But then another man () shows up, throwing a wrench in their comfortably forming plans.

The whole, entire cast of this film.

There are two reasons why I got around to seeing this smaller, low-key film: One, the cast. A small cast numbers wise, but a big one name-wise. And two, the fact that it was a sci-fi, dystopian, post-apocalyptic type movie. On this front came the first wave of disappointment. This is a sci-fi film technically because it takes place after a fictional nuclear war, but that doesn't result in any sci-fi effects. It is the result of sci-fi effects. The most sci-fi thing that happens is people walking around in hazmat suits. Otherwise it's just some country people roughing it on a farm in the mountains. That's not a bad thing in itself -- it just didn't dig deep enough into its genre to satisfy me.

Really, it's a straight-up drama with a plot that is enabled by science fiction. And on that side, it was interesting for a while. It has some complex characters that worked well against each other to create drama, and their interactions posed some interesting -- if not particularly deep or important -- questions. The cast did a good job with their characters, keeping them involving, and through them the story as well. Eventually though, as they do, the film had to end. And that's where everything fell apart.

Apparently it was based on a novel. I wonder how accurate the adaptation is. (I looked it up. Not very. But I get what they were going for with the film better now. Doesn't change my opinion though!)

They had introduced a bunch of problems needed resolution, and a good amount of character drama with potential. The most interesting was the love-triangle, and the unique relationships between each of them as the two men vie for the attentions of the last girl on earth. The characters are so evenly done that I didn't have a guess as to who she would choose, nor a real preference. I was very interested to see where that would lead. Unfortunately, it led to a jumbled, non-committal ending. And not on any of the character's part -- this was all the film. The movie spent so much time exploring the slow journey of the characters and the details of their reactions to plot events, yet it's like it couldn't commit when it came to deciding where all that would lead to in finality. It just dropped everything and quit.

It was like everything stopped at the second act just when things were really getting interesting. I suppose there could be some people who see some kind of point or meaning or social commentary or whatnot, but I didn't, and it didn't leave me curious enough to try and find one.

The cast by themselves were good. Margot Robbie was the standout, and Ejiofor and Pine had some occasional ups and downs but they all were quite commendable and enjoyable. The thing I really can't figure out is why they wanted to do this film in the first place. I don't understand what attracted them to this project at all. And since it felt like the movie resolved nothing at all and ended before getting to the good stuff, they and their talent felt like a total waste in the end.

They never explain the title either.

The location and setting was nice, and the look of everything was probably the film's most memorable aspect. Though, there was an unnatural quality to it that made it a little hard on the eyes. Too much contrast or something. I did like the purple tone.

So, this film wasn't a total waste, though it might as well have been, considering how everything it had going for it for so long was left in the dust as this small-scale apocalypse tale breezed on toward promising conflict and resolution without us. Maybe the camera ran out of battery.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Slow West

When the girl he loves and her father move to the American West, Jay, a young, naive Scottish man follows her, determined to find her and win her love. Along the way he falls in with a brazen Irishman who offers to be a much-needed personal bodyguard for Jay. Violence ensues.

Very pretty violence.

The biggest problem with this film is that nothing seem to happen for any reason. The plot moves along at a predictably slow, but casually upbeat pace, but nothing seems to drive it. It starts, it happens, and it ends, and never seems to have an actual point to it. There's no reason for it's existence except for it to exist. The characters are there, and we know what they want, but we never get to see what drives them. They have a element of mystery to them that never really gets solved. They just what they're supposed to, and then that's it. They're good, but they're pointless.

While none of the performances are lacking, the only ones really worth mentioning are and . Fassbender is the more seasoned actor of the two, so there's more expectation there. He's good and entertaining, but doesn't exactly jump off the screen; there's just not enough meat to his character for him to be particularly memorable here. Motivations are shallow, and the development arc is short and flat. Smit-McPhee impresses more because we haven't come to expect performances to match the likes of Fassbender out of him -- yet. Jay was slightly more compelling because the simpler motivations worked with the naivete of the character, and Smit-McPhee backed it up well with a convincing and charming performance.

Keeping up appearances.

The highlight of the film stays at the surface. It was shot in New Zealand, so it goes without saying that there was some plenty of picturesque scenery. But New Zealand was a good choice for more than it's breathtaking mountain ranges and rolling fields. It lent the film a note of surrealism. It looked like what the old American North-West could have looked like, but in an extreme, overly-exaggerated way. And then the shots were saturated with color just to the point where it starts to seem unnatural. And then presented as a western it evoked a sense of unfamiliarity that was subtly unsettling, while at the same time, extremely beautiful to look at. It was neat effect that complemented the film well -- or would have if it didn't overshadow it a bit too much.

The music was also interesting -- perky and plucky, and western sounding but not classically so. It worked by keeping the film's pacing from feeling too draggy, but at the same time it had a hand in producing a false impression of the tone of the film. There was some serious bits and some comic relief, but for the most part the movie just floated around ambiguously and never landed on any tone at all. If that was the desired effect, I applaud the effort, but it left me feeling oddly disconnected and unable to invest much of anything in the film.

Just wandering around through some smoke...

The movie is framed fittingly -- even without the New Zealand landscape as a backdrop this film would have looked good. And the action scenes were sharp and just the right level of violent. Particularly in the climax scene, which went on for a good amount of time without losing steam. Slow West is able to live up to its title in a pleasant, not boring way, moving along to its own odd but stylish and rhythm. And its attractive, colorful, and sparsely decorated exterior is almost able to distract from an equally sparse and aimless interior.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Take Shelter

Spoiler-free.

' second film, but the last one I saw of his four to date, cinches this writer/director's spot at the top of my favorites list, with a masterfully crafted, intimate look at fear and anxiety. The film stars and focuses on as Curtis, a husband and father who begins to have vivid nightmares that seem to warn of an approaching storm. He feels that he must prepare for this storm, but also worries that it might all just be in his head.

A slow-burning, thrilling drama with a very rewarding payoff for patient viewers.

This film isn't personally my favorite of Nichols' work (the scale has a very narrow margin) but I do think it is his most precisely crafted film (another narrow margin). It's very focused and intent, and doesn't say a whole lot, but what it does say it says in a very affecting and moving manner. Going in, even with avoiding spoilers, I had a preconceived idea of where the film would go; and it did follow that for a while, but then it went beyond it in an unexpected very rewarding way.

All of Nichols' other films so far (Shotgun Stories, Mud, and Midnight Special) have had endings that required thought to know if I really liked them. But, with Take Shelter, I didn't need to think to know I loved it. It was immediately, intensely satisfying, especially considering the stressful drama it followed. But at the same time, I haven't done any less meditating on it. His other movies could have had slightly different endings and I probably would have still liked them, but Take Shelter's ending is the main quality that won me over. The whole film hinged on that powerful ending. It left one or two plot points open to interpretation by ending exactly when the story was completed emotionally. So it feels as resolved as any film can, but still leaves you thinking.

Nails the open ending shut with the best of them.

As he did before, did after, and will likely do again, Michael Shannon does a phenomenal job leading the film. His screen presence is something legendary, and he lines up with the film's tone and pace with matchless precision. impressively never lets him overshadow her. This is probably partly a credit to the writing as well, as Samantha is Nichols' largest female character yet, and is very well-written, but Chastain takes charge with her and holds her own against the powerhouse of Shannon.

Take Shelter focuses on character drama, but had one very impressively ticked mark on the technical side as well: the special effects. And because the film is very realistic with its general appearance and dialogue, the effects -- which were minimal and carefully done on a small budget -- come off in a spectacular way. I was beyond impressed with the scene where all the furniture in the room suddenly jumps into the air and floats there. It not the sort of thing you'd expect to see in a low-budget indie, let alone at the level of realism it reached. The quality was so high, I thought it might have been a practical effect at first. The effects were the final push that brought this film to the intense peak it needed to go to.

An all-around exceptionally well-done film.

I won't say much more. Partly because I don't want to explain too much of this film, and partly because I've really explained enough. This is a very simple film without a lot floating around in it, but it feels very big. It goes deep, and its depth is displayed visually, with assured grandeur, not just put into the plot and performances -- as commendable as those elements are. It's like an independent event movie; a profoundly rewarding experience to see, and to feel, and to understand.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Midnight Special

Spoiler-free.

Midnight Special is a touching and melancholy drama about parenthood, highlighted by the explosive intensity of a chase thriller, and the mesmerizing wonderment of mysterious science fiction.

Alton () is not like other boys. In fact, he is not like anyone else. His adoptive father () is the leader of a religious cult in Texas where he's looked to as a prophet and savior. His real parents were members; Sarah () left the cult -- or was kicked out -- and Roy () both left and was kicked out two years later when he kidnapped Alton and took him on the run. With help from Roy's childhood friend Lucas () and pursued by the cult and the federal government in a national manhunt (helped by a curious NSA analyst ), the family goes on a desperate journey to help Alton discover who or what he is.

I am completely in love with this photograph.

This film is very different; the latest effort from who is now officially one of my top favorite writer/directors. I've still yet to see his second film Take Shelter (as of writing this), but after seeing Mud, and then Shotgun Stories, I started to understand his directing style -- and with Midnight Special I fell in love with it -- but if I didn't understand and connect with his style, this movie could have gone very differently for me. See, he always excludes exposition from his films, and this one to the highest degree yet. We are told next to nothing; but there is plenty to see and to piece together. There exists backstory and explanations to things in this movie that is never actually explained to the audience. Nichols knows, and his actors know, but we may never know.

It's the sort of thing that might annoy me if it came across as lazy film-making, but since I know that Nichols does know every detail of his story and just chose to omit some of it (because to include it would be to force it in), it works, and actually becomes a significant plus. It has become one of the things that I get to look forward to in his films; being encouraged to make my own discoveries concerning left-out details, and fill in gaps with my own imagination. His movies make me think, but more than that, they make me want to think. They are so interesting that I want to know more, and then they leave more to be discovered in the form of unexplained details and hinted-at depth. I suppose it's not a style that would appeal to everyone, but for me it's a delight.

As emotionally driven as this film is, there is no skimping on the technical side. This film is tight and precise.

The film is very dark in tone; dark and melancholy, then serious and intense, and then rich and quietly grand, always with an undercurrent of introverted, tightly wound emotion. It edges on being too dark, and too serious, considering that it starts out that way, instead of taking time to build up to draw the viewer gradually along with it. It may be easy to not get caught up in the flow and the dark depths. Once you are invested though, there's no turning back. I was at several times aware of my heart pounding from the thrill and the mystery, which doesn't happen often, even in more overtly thrilling and mysterious movies. I was completely and hopelessly swept away in it all.

If you want your movie to be constantly swirling in an emotional storm of melancholy, yet still have an intense air of excitement broiling under the surface, you can't do any better than to cast Michael Shannon as your lead. He has been in every one of Nichols' films, but it's clear that he's not just there because he's buddies with the director, but because the roles he plays are meant for him, to utilize his unique attributes and abilities. With the help of an intensely deep face that seems magnetic to darkness, Shannon strikes a fluid balance of imposing, tender, and desperate with Roy. He fits with Nichols' writing incomparably well, and his quiet turns of countenance are a thing to behold.

When Roy tells Alton "I like worrying about you"... I melted.

Next best to watch is Adam Driver, who has a disarming charm that makes him easy to trust even though he works for antagonists. His scenes are the closest this film gets to comic relief and a relaxing break from the chaos that threatens other scenes. Jaeden Lieberher comes across as an old soul type (he did in St. Vincent as well) which adds greatly to the other-worldly quality of Alton. Both strange and sweet, he is an endearing center for the film to revolve around. Joel Edgerton didn't get much of the meat of the script, but wound up making a great impression anyway with the thoughtful, loyal, and level-headed helping friend. With Kirsten Dunst, I haven't been converted into a fan yet, but she did exude motherliness with the proper amount of distance and uncertainty. 

One of my favorite things about the science fiction genre is how sci-fi elements can be used so magnificently as metaphors for real-life, and to enhance the real-life drama of the story. Nichols uses the opportunity provided by that quality to full potential, and doesn't get swept away by the shiny allure of sci-fi special effects. This film's effects are remarkably realistic, strikingly beautiful, and most importantly, used solely to enhance the story it surrounds. At its core Midnight Special is a family drama, focusing thoughtfully on character and relationships as the family is caught up in an unnaturally amplified struggle against the odds. 

 Sci-fi is such complementary genre -- it can enhance every other genre out there.

Midnight Special is achingly beautiful, and powerfully thrilling; filled with heart, and presented with a Spielbergian-type wonder remade anew. It's plot's ambiguity is purposeful to give way to an emotional story arc, but it creates a side effect; some have and will find it confusing or unfulfilling in the end. (It took me five days to resolve the ending in my mind.) I would like to offer that those people just aren't looking at it in the right light. This film is told so singularly through the eyes of its director that if you can't see it with his very particular vision it may not make an ounce of sense. I'd like to say this strange, moody genre flick is unarguably as I was able to see it, but it's closer to the truth to simply say that this is a personal and very special film that will not appeal to everyone. And that is one of the best things about it.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Shotgun Stories

Spoiler-free.

' first feature film watches as a long-running feud between two sets of half brothers escalates out of control when their father dies. In the older group there's Son () Boy () and Kid (). They were taught to hate their abusive father and his second family by their bitter mother. But when the father left his first family he cleaned up his act for his second and four other sons, and they mourn him when he dies -- and take it personally when the former three crash the funeral and insult their dead father's memory. And so it begins.

Son, Kid, and Boy. Yep, those are their real names that they really go by.

Set in a rural small town in Arkansas, this movie is full to the brim with the deep south. And that's where Nichols is from, so he must know what it's like. (Arkansas is also where he set my current favorite film of his, Mud.) The culture in this movie is endlessly interesting, and an ideal setting for this drawn out, but tense battle between brothers. And even though the filming quality isn't the best (being his first film it's understandable) that actually adds to the dirty, realistic tone of the film. Like in Mud, the setting is practically a character all by itself.

And this is a character story. It probably didn't have a budget to be anything else, but it seems to purposefully focus on the drama behind the fight rather than try to entertain with violence. The actual violence always seems to be obstructed from our view, yet we get to see every last detail of the emotional aftermath. It's a film that has a lot to say, but in true southern fashion, never really says it outright. Southerners are always thinking way more than they're saying and this film follows that lead to great result. One of my favorite things about Nichols' writing is how well he does natural, minimal exposition. If you wait for it, and pay attention, it'll come out. Most of the time it seems like characters talk about things that really aren't important, (and even when they do they don't explain their thoughts or motivations fully) but somehow the plot, character, motivations and thoughts are all worked into it.
 
Exposition is hard enough when your characters do like to talk. Nichols is a pro.

Acting plays a helpful part, since none of the characters say how they're feeling. Michael Shannon is the only really known actor in the film, but the rest of the cast is quite good, and able to portray their subtle roles every bit as well as they needed to. Of them, Douglas Ligon especially gave an unexpectedly good performance. Shannon is the main lead of the film, and gives a clearly outstanding performance with many ample opportunities to impress. One scene in particular blew me away. I had a complaint, because I was immediately intrigued by the shotgun blast scars on his shoulder, and disappointed that the plot line was concluded with more ambiguity than I wanted. But, that disappointment has now dissolved; it led me to connect some dots on my own, and I discovered a satisfying answer. And I now know that that was Nichols' intent.

I also wondered a little bit at why the ending played out the way it did. It came unexpectedly, which made me think about it, and I eventually reached the conclusion that it was thought through and purposeful, but in some ways it seemed to cut the movie's momentum short, which left then ending feeling slightly non-climactic. It probably works way better if you expect a non-climactic ending which is why I'm mentioning it. If I ever see the film again, (and I expect I will) I will look forward to the ending most, since it nearly lost me the first time. In retrospect, trying to fill in the background, I've discovered some deeper points that I didn't pick up on at first, and would like to confirm my theories. Of course, the fact that this movie left such a firm impression on me to make me think about it in so much depth is sign enough of the story's quality, whether there's more to understand or not.

The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out. Proverbs 17:14

That's another great thing Nichols does. No matter how deep he tells a story, you feel that it goes deeper than that. It's just fiction, but it's so realistic that every aspect of the story becomes as if it were real and knowable, even the small details that we never get to know. That's the sort of thing that makes a film like this stick with you. Drawn from real-life truths, told with life-like depth and care, and held up by real performances and a thoughtful script, Shotgun Stories is an immaculate, sincere, and potent tale of violence and strife.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Upcoming Movie Roundup - July

Last month was theater-free for me. Warcraft tempted me a few times, as did May's X-Men: Apocalypse, and I even made an agreement with my brothers that if Independence Day: Resurgence got good enough reviews we'd go see all three -- but it didn't, and we didn't see the other two either. However, I did finally see one March movie that I would have gone to the theater for if it had actually played in my theater -- Midnight Special! I took a small risk and bought it, pretty confident that I'd like it and it paid off spectacularly! Not only did I love the film more than enough to want to watch it multiple times, it was also worth it for some neat and informing special features. A review will be incoming soon, but I'll go ahead and say that I strongly recommend it.

How was your month of June? And how is your July looking? Happy Summer!


The Legend of Tarzan
Jul 1st; PG-13
I'm pretty much only mentioning this one because I thought it looked interesting before any reviews came out.  Now, of course, it seems obvious that it would be no good -- now that I've actually sat down and watched the trailer. I didn't expect it'd be great, but I probably should have seen a low RT score like this coming. The adventure appeal of it distracted me a little. And someday, if ever I can get it for free and am feeling resilient to disappointment, I probably won't be able to help myself from watching it for that same reason.




The BFG
Jul 1st; PG
The latest from Steven Spielberg is a kiddie movie based on a book. Giants and magic and sweeping music is involved. I like Spielberg (who doesn't?) and the cast has Mark Rylance and Jemaine Clement who are great (but they're both playing animated giants so you can't actually see them, though the BFG does look quite a lot like Rylance (I actually recognized his face before I did his voice)) and it looks like a good kid's adventure movie, but maybe not quite to the point where it'd be a great movie for adults too. Especially for people like me who don't have a sentimental attachment. Still, the director and cast practically guarantees that I'll wind up seeing it someday. And I wouldn't be surprised if I enjoyed it.




Ghostbusters
Jul 15th; PG-13
Da-da da-da. Dada da-da da-da. Okay, no. I debated even mentioning this one, but decided to so that I could voice my opinion of how much I wish this movie didn't even exist. Based on the epic number of dislikes on the trailer, most people share my opinion, but I wanted to make my view clear anyway. Set out to attempt to destroy the classic by association, and so steeped in extreme feminism that all criticism of it has been (and probably will continue to be) labeled sexist, this is a film that I am happy to announce I will completely avoid for all eternity. The trailer is painfully unfunny, and the idea is completely pointless. Who you gonna call? The real, ORIGINAL Ghostbusters.




Cafe Society
Jul 15th; PG-13
Woody Allen's latest venture is set in the 30's, and focuses on the glamorous life of society people in Hollywood and New York through the eyes of Jesse Eisenberg. Also starring Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Steve Carell, and Corey Stoll. This one seems slightly similar to Midnight in Paris which is my favorite of Allen's films. It look like it has lots of vintage style and classic Allen-esque quirky conversations. Early reviews aren't as promising as my previously mentioned favorite's, but I think it'll turn out to be worth a look.




Equals
Jul 15th; PG-13
Another Kristen Stewart movie. Sometimes I surprise myself by watching her movies, but then I remember that I've never actually disliked her in anything -- and she's slowly wearing off the stain of Twilight... Anyway in this one Nicholas Hoult co-stars and it's a sci-fi, so it certainly has my attention. It does look very moody though, and that may very well be a downfall. But I'm pretty sure I'm gonna have to find out for myself.




Star Trek Beyond
Jul 22nd; Not rated yet
This is hands-down the most exciting release of the month, yet it has a a very sad side to it, because of the untimely and tragic death of Anton Yelchin who plays the fan-favorite Chekov. He will be sorely missed in the years to come. Beyond doesn't have the guaranteed success that Into Darkness seemed to either because of the new director coming on board. However, I think, and have thought from the first that this installment looks every bit as good as the last one. I like the episodic, smaller-scale nature it seems to be bringing, and am very excited to see how Simon Pegg's script turned out. A definite must-see!




Jason Bourne
Jul 29th; PG-13
Bourne is back and bigger than ever. Actually, I'm not sure "bigger than ever" is a good thing; at some point things are going to go over the top, and the grounded feel of the previous Matt Damon Bourne's was a huge part of the appeal. However, I doubt it'll matter much -- this film looks solid. With Damon and Greengrass back, how could it not? Julia Stiles is back too, and it's also got Tommy Lee Jones, and Alicia Vikander, which means promises of good things. This may very well be a must-see as well!