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Midnight Special – Review

1 Jul

Science fiction is probably my favorite genre of film and literature because it can form such a huge spectrum of stories to be told. Recently, there’s been a huge influx of space films like the resurgences of Star Trek and Star Wars, but also completely original ideas like Christopher Nolan’s excellent work with Interstellar. If not space, the market seems flooded with science fiction via superhero films. What I don’t see a lot of are smaller films that still have a grand story to tell without all the bells and whistles of major Hollywood productions. This is partially why I was so interested with Jeff Nichols’ film Midnight Special, along with the fact that it stars my favorite actor, Michael Shannon. With my expectations raised pretty high, I’m thrilled to say that Midnight Special did not disappoint.

On a seemingly quiet night, and AMBER alert is issued for an 8 year old boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher). It’s revealed that he’s safe and sound in a motel with his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and Roy’s close friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). As the trio hit the road during the darkest hours of the night, the FBI raid a religious cult’s farmland to interrogate its founder, Pastor Calvin (Sam Shepard), who raised Alton since Roy and his wife, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), left the compound. The main interrogator is NSA communication analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) who is more interested with how Calvin was able to get highly classified satellite communications through Alton. It’s soon revealed through Roy’s travels with Alton with the FBI and members of the cult hot on their tails that Alton may not be of this world, and while his origins are unknown to all parties involved, it’s evident that he’s about to reveal something that will change the world forever.

Let me just say, the way this story is told is fantastic. The structure that this narrative falls into is really the only way this story can be told. The film begins in medias res with Roy, Lucas, and Alton on the run and we as the audience don’t know why. This first part of the movie is so riveting because I really hadn’t the slightest idea of what everything meant. Was Alton an alien or some sort of experiment gone wrong? What was the deal with the religious cult? How powerful is Alton and what are his weaknesses. Nichols knows that with a story like this, there’s going to be some major questions and he uses that to the film’s advantage and creates this mysterious thread that totally morphs into a web. The atmosphere of science fiction blends well with the rural roads our travelers call home during the night, and the mystery of what is actually going on had me hooked from beginning to end.

My last review was of J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, and I really liked that movie except for a problem with certain characters and their relevancy to the story. As much as I really liked Midnight Special, I feel like this film is a bigger offender of the same problem. Early in the movie we get introduced to the religious cult Alton comes from and its charismatic leader, Pastor Calvin. I really liked this element of the story in the way that it seemed to be blending science fiction and religion. It’s a theme that’s seen pretty frequently in the genre, but it felt really down to earth in this film. Unfortunately, this cult doesn’t really amount to much and the only impact they have on the story lasts a few scenes, one of them being quite intense. Still, I would have liked to see a lot more from the cult and especially from Sam Shepard’s character, Calvin, because he was really selling that role well.

Like I said, Midnight Special is science fiction brought down to earth. It’s something I felt like could be happening at this very moment, and I even thought about if I’ve ever driven past someone on a dark highway going through some extraordinary even like this, and I would never know. With these huge science fiction films taking us to different worlds and galaxies, it was refreshing to see a movie that just spans a couple of states with a story that deals with real people. While this movie isn’t action packed, it still has plenty of really unique special effects that I will forever associate with this film and some larger than life ideas that I feel pay off very well.

Midnight Special is truly just a wonderful story and I have to give Jeff Nichols credit for once again leading me down a road where I couldn’t have guessed the destination. This film works as science fiction, family drama, and as a mystery that’s wrapped in a very well shot and paced film. The only gripes I have come from some characters that feel underused or just completely forgotten. Still, this is some excellent science fiction that deserves more praise than it gets.

Final Grade: A

Melancholia – Review

19 Jul

Lars von Trier is no stranger to shocking and appalling audiences. It seems he relishes in the idea of giving the willies to unsuspecting audiences. Mind you, he isn’t some sort of horror film maker who fills his films with monsters and murder. His films give a more spiritual upheaval or a large dosage of mental anguish. Melancholia hits where it hurts, and leaves you feeling hopeless and completely insignificant. Sounds like a bummer, right? Well this bummer of a film is also completely mind blowing and will leave you in a state of thought for days to come.

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The film is broken up into two parts. Part 1 is titled Justine. It is the night of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael’s (Alexander Skarsgård) wedding. Arriving two hours late to their own reception at Claire’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) mansion, tensions are already running high. Throughout the night, Justine becomes more and more distant from everyone, leaving the party to sit by herself many times. Soon the entire party comes crashing down on everyone’s heads. Part 2 is titled Claire. In this part, we follow Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) as they allow Justine, who is depressed to the point where she can’t even take a bath, to stay with them. During their stay, a planet called Melancholia, is either going to pass closely to the Earth and allow a spectacular display or will crash into Earth, ending all life as we know it.

Visually, this is an incredible movie to look at. Lars von Trier has a way of making his movies look like moving paintings, rather than moving pictures. Every shot is so deliberate, even with the handheld style that he uses to give a more intimate look into the private lives of these people. What is really very impressive is the CGI visuals of the planets. In a breath taking opening sequence, we see planetary events from a remarkable view. While I know that it is all just special effects, it felt majestic.

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To many, Melancholia will be a prime example of a boring movie. The whole film takes place primarily on the grounds of John and Claire’s mansion. By the third act, the excitement and suspense really pick up, but for a bulk of the movie, not too much really goes on. There are some familial betrayals and arguments, but it’s very much just a family drama and character driven story. That being said, until the science fiction element of the story really kicks in, the plot moves fairly slowly. This is hardly a problem thanks to the excellent performances by the cast, with a special recognition going to Charlotte Gainsbourg for really conveying the emotional intensity of the story and characters beyond the screen. Kirsten Dunst also has a challenging role, and does a fine job at getting the physical and mental troubles of constant dread across.

A word of caution. If you’re in a great mood before watching Melancholia, be prepared for that happiness to be shattered. If you’re a generally sad or depressed person, than maybe this movie wouldn’t be the best thing to watch on one of your gloomy afternoons. By the end, you feel absolutely helpless and alone in the universe. All of the controllable and fixable problems that the characters have on earth mean nothing when an oversized planet is careening towards them. You are forced to put yourself in their situation, because you, no matter who you are, would be affected by this interstellar disaster.

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What Lars von Trier has done with Melancholia is blend beauty and tragedy, love and hopelessness together to create something that, to me, has surpassed what movies are really supposed to achieve. The reaction that I had to this movie is deep and personal because it deals with my own mortality. This movie isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t really traditional entertainment, but it has a way of sticking with you and affecting you. I implore whoever reads this to give Melancholia a chance for the visuals, the acting, and the internal turmoil that it is sure to cause.