It Comes at Night

Trey Edward Shults’s unconventional horror film is a moody, atmospheric, evocative thriller about how mistrust has the power to make everyone sick.

Will the apocalypse come when a plague hits, or aliens attack, or when climate change ravages the planet? Or will humanity become so divided and fearful of one another that we gradually kill ourselves?

The monsters in the unusual indie horror film It Comes at Night all live under one roof. It’s a moody, atmospheric, evocative thriller about how mistrust has the power to make everyone sick.

The only image of the end of the world in Trey Edward Shults’s film is on a wall in Paul’s (Joel Edgerton) cavernous cabin in the woods. A Renaissance painting depicts Biblical fire and brimstone, but the vast forest surrounding their home only contains endless mystery. While outside, the family dog barks and chases after nothing in particular except the craggily branches masking whatever horrors we simply assume are out there. Continue reading “It Comes at Night”

Loving

Jeff Nichols’s modest true story values romance above civil rights melodrama

loving_2016_filmJeff Nichols should make all civil rights dramas. He’s not interested in making history, in exposing melodramatic movie racism or in grand speeches and moments of righteousness. “Loving,” a film about the landmark Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia that allowed interracial marriages, separates the broader cultural and historical significance of this couple’s story from their more personal struggles to keep a family together. “Loving” is impressive because it ignores so many clichés, but more so because it’s a modest drama that’s intimate and understanding when looking at this romance.

The film’s first words are said in close-up on Mildred (Ruth Negga): “I’m pregnant.” It cuts to Richard (Joel Edgerton), who breathes a long pause before smiling. Before we know what time period this movie is even set in, or whom these people are, we know that this pregnancy will be a point of contention, whether because of their skin color or because of reasons we can only begin to surmise. The question of if they can make it work will be far more interesting than the inevitable court decision.

And in Mildred and Richard’s country lives, the Supreme Court doesn’t even register as a concept. Upon traveling to Washington D.C. to get married in a court house, Mildred asks her brother what the city is like. For the people in Mildred’s family, their marriage is far less a question of decency but whether it will threaten to take Mildred away from the country. Integration nationwide may be on the minds of Mildred and Richard Loving, but it’s hardly the only challenge in their lives, and the movie feels more naturalistic and less overbearingly political as a result. Continue reading “Loving”

Midnight Special

Michael Shannon stars in this mysterious and surprising sci-fi of fathers and sons.

MidnightSpecialPosterWith “Midnight Special,” Jeff Nichols’s fourth film (“Mud, “Take Shelter”), Nichols remains the best emerging American director today, capable of infusing any genre with earthy, Americana trappings and unpacking the intimate character drama within. “Midnight Special” channels sci-fi, noir and family melodrama in unpredictable, startling ways and resembles a modern day stab at the personal conflict of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or the spirituality of “Contact.”

Except the story of “Midnight Special” defies easy classification and blends genres with thrilling results. At its very core a chase film, “Midnight Special” begins with Roy (Michael Shannon) on the run for having abducted a young boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher). He and a former cop named Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are trying to get Alton to an undisclosed location while evading a religious cult who sees Alton as their savior and the FBI who believes Alton knows confidential government information. Roy however is really Alton’s birth father, separated from him by the cult leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard).

Above the sci-fi tension and conspiracy theories, the father-son dynamic between Alton and Roy truly drives “Midnight Special.” Alton possesses untold powers that change and grow more intense and severe the more they remain unchecked, from being able to unconsciously tap into radio frequencies to locking eyes with powerful blue tractor beams of light. Roy can’t fully comprehend all that’s happening to Alton, covering his eyes with blue swim goggles and transporting him only at night, but he displays a need to protect him above any greater cause the boy might represent to the cult or to the government.

As a result, Shannon proves a touching father figure. His eyes and body language are more muted and less intense than in many of his other fiery roles, but he’s gruff and a man of few words in a way that will be familiar to many fathers and sons. “I like worrying about you. I’ll always worry about you Alton. That’s the deal,” he says. All this family drama weaves wonderfully within “Midnight Special’s” denser scientific jargon and spiritual underpinnings. The ambiguous nature of Alton’s abilities and ties to another world all serve the film’s mystery and suspense.

And “Midnight Special” is highly entertaining and beguiling. Nichols seeps the film in darkness and other-worldly lens flares. The quiet, procedural and noir-like filmmaking make Alton’s skills all the more startling when the fireworks begin. “Midnight Special” even has a sense of humor. Adam Driver (“Girls,” “The Force Awakens”) as the NSA analyst tracking Alton is out of place in the best way possible. He has an awkward, nerdy charm that’s practically foreign to the more rural sensibilities of the rest of the cast.

With “Midnight Special” Nichols has proven that he can take a larger budget and still deliver the intimate character drama of an indie. As a director and screenwriter, Nichols has as much untapped potential as Alton.

4 stars

Black Mass

Scott Cooper’s follow-up to ‘Out of the Furnace’ stars Johnny Depp as Boston gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger

BlackMassPosterThe best scene in “Black Mass”, a biopic on the life of Boston’s notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, is when a naïve, young waif of a girl is picked up by Bulger and her stepdad after spending the night in jail. Bulger grills her on exactly what the police asked of her and how much she knows. What’s exciting about the scene is not the fear of what Bulger might do but how oblivious she is to all the danger she’s in.

The amusing nature of this exchange may be entirely unintentional. We know exactly what Bulger’s going to do with her. Director Scott Cooper has reduced Bulger into a monster, not even a ruthless human being with a hint of dimension. He kills and has people kill for him, and his fuse is so short that any sense of his humanity, or of those around him, is long gone.

Appropriately, Johnny Depp plays Bulger with an alien sensibility in line with his equally eccentric performances for Tim Burton and others. Thin, slick-backed gray hair, a forehead that dwarfs even his massively dark old-man sunglasses, and piercing blue eyes make him more vampire than gangster.

But Depp’s performance feels hollow in a movie that has little substance or real style behind it. “Black Mass” documents Bulger’s rise to power in the South Side of Boston during the ‘70s and ‘80s when Bulger became an informant for the FBI and his old childhood buddy John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Connolly believes by looking the other way on Bulger, his intelligence can help the agency land a more significant Italian mafia family. But once the mob is out of power and Bulger is given a free reign of terror, the movie loses its steam. Cooper bookends the film with interview testimonials of Bulger’s crew making confessions, so there’s no tension to if or when Bulger and Connolly’s jig will be up.

Cooper has some talent as a director, but not as a storyteller or stylist. He borrows plenty of Scorsese-isms from other greater and equally mediocre gangster films, but adds none of the themes of morality or loyalty to any significant degree. It results in a lot of empty killings and point blank shootings in broad daylight, a lot of penetrating death stares and friendly conversations turned tense. Cooper staged similar scenes of dire gravity and violent melodrama in his last film, “Out of the Furnace.” But the Americana trappings found there had no bearing to social issues either, as though staging these scenes was enough to make such themes emerge.

“Black Mass” also falls into a trap of some unfortunate casting and poor usage of its talented cast. Joel Edgerton is so blindly a hot-head, the antithesis to Depp’s low-key hiss, that it’s a wonder he’s able to pull the wool over his superiors’ eyes. People like Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Corey Stoll, Jesse Plemons and Juno Temple are in the film so briefly they barely register. And if it seemed like there was nothing Benedict Cumberbatch could not do, make the Brit don a Boston accent and you may have found it.

In an interview with the police, one of Bulger’s cohorts is asked his opinion of his boss. “He’s strictly criminal.” “Black Mass” is so flat and generic that it can’t be held in much higher esteem.

2 ½ stars

The Great Gatsby

The parties in “The Great Gatsby” are grand, but does Baz Luhrmann see any similarities between now and then beyond “people were gangsta”?

Part of what has made “The Great Gatsby” so enduring is that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is a trim, elegant story with themes that touch on American values old and new. And yet as would be his nature, Baz Luhrmann has transformed “The Great Gatsby” into a long, over-stylized melodrama. Because it lacks Fitzgerald’s resounding tone, it’s a glitzy movie stuffed to the brims that feels strangely empty.

Luhrmann spoke on “The Colbert Report” about how modern the book feels after all these years, and no one is arguing with him there. But what does he see as the similarities between the Roaring Twenties and now? Surely it can’t be the economy, music, fashion or ideas about race.

Luhrmann sees the massive parties and equates them to raves on the wildest scale. He sees scantily clad dancers and choreographs them to hip hop, and for everyone else wearing suits, throwing around money and driving flashy custom rides, he sees them all as gangsta.

Make no mistake; the parties in “Gatsby” are grand. Done up in 3-D and bursting with colors, streamers and floating butterflies, Luhrmann throws a gigantic bash. All the greater then in demonstrating Gatsby’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) unwavering love for Daisy (Carey Mulligan), or something like that.

“What’s all this for,” Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) asks Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki). “That, my dear fellow, is the question.” But Luhrmann is too enamored with his 3-D effects and the celebratory nature of it all to justify how any of this speaks more broadly about our time or theirs’. Continue reading “The Great Gatsby”

Warrior

“Warrior” is an ugly, jittery, annoying and contrived film that never relents in beating you.

The Fighter” isn’t exactly “Raging Bull,” but it’s a better film than most give it credit for. To call “Warrior” just a Mixed Martial Arts “Fighter” set in Philly however is giving “Warrior” way too much credit.

Watching “Warrior” I realized all the things “The Fighter” actually does not do. It has no split screen montages, no wives telling their husbands fighting is the wrong life for a family man, no shaky cam fight scenes, no unbeatable foreign behemoth, no money problems, no dark pasts conjured out of thin air, no legal issues, no dead mother, no washed up father lamenting his glory days, no fake SportsCenter clips and most of all, no parables.

“Warrior” has all of these things, and yet lacks a minute of the fun in watching Micky Ward’s train wreck of a brother, his posse full of trashy sisters, his tart and sexy girlfriend or his commanding and memorable mother. Continue reading “Warrior”

The Thing (2011)

“The Thing,” a prequel to John Carpenter’s overrated horror favorite, lacks even the paranoid tension or ominous silence of that 1982 version.

“The Thing’s” idea of cabin fever is a lot of people standing around and pointing flamethrowers at one another.

This prequel to John Carpenter’s overrated horror favorite lacks even the paranoid tension or ominous silence of that 1982 version.

Rather, the new “Thing” is just another bloody, frenetic monster movie that begins when an alien leaps out of a block of ice in an Antarctic science base.

The American and Norwegian researchers’ fears are generated not by conflicts of identity but simply of what’s around the next corner.

Although done entirely in CGI rather than in innovative makeup special effects, “The Thing” is as gratuitous as its source material in terms of bizarre monsters and deaths.

And although Shakespeare didn’t exactly write Carpenter’s film either, “The Thing’s” screenplay is painfully dumb and obvious, parroting the most basic of dramatic conflicts.

It refuses to even copy Carpenter’s memorable blood testing scene and instead finds its leading lady shouting at her companions to open their mouths.

It’s the sort of thing you hear when an already silly film gets worse.

2 stars