joel edgerton

Midnight Special 

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Midnight Special (2015) – Drama | Science Fiction 

Directed by: Jeff Nichols 

Starring: Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton 

How I Watched: Amazon Instant Video

Jeff Nichols makes a habit out of taking his viewers into a different dimension. Take Shelter lifted Michael Shannon into an otherworldly acting status and Mud further solidified this decade’s Matthew McConaughey dominance. In both of those films, it was easy to get completely absorbed into the stories. His characters, often seemingly simple people, can be frustrating, yet immensely likable. Shannon is fighting paranoid schizophrenia in Take Shelter, stricken with visions of an imminent worldwide storm threatening his family’s safety. In Mud, McConaughey quite literally takes shelter in the forest on an island in Arkansas. While both stories stay grounded, there are times in each which border on the unbelievable. I don’t want to say this film is unbelievable, but Nichols definitely has jumped into another genre with this effort.

Midnight Special tells the story of a young child with extraordinary powers and his father (played brilliantly by Nichols alum, Michael Shannon) who does everything he can to protect his son from all those who threaten his existence. From the beginning, the film is exciting, unnerving and incredibly mysterious as it ramps up toward the heart of the movie. There’s a creepy religious cult, car chases, shit crashing to earth from space and some breathtaking CGI that is refreshingly done right in today’s world of graphic overabundance. While it might not reach the emotional levels that Nichols’ previous two offers do, Midnight Special has earned its place in the world of modern Science Fiction.

The film’s ensemble is one of the most impressive elements of Midnight Special. Joel Edgerton shines as Shannon’s old friend, driving and protecting the father and son throughout the film. Adam Driver is not a huge part of the movie, yet provides some of the little humor that pops up. Kirsten Dunst makes an appearance, which seems questionable at first, until I remembered when she rocked the hell out of the transcendent Melancholia. This is not quite the emotional rollercoaster that Melancholia is, but it’s easy to compare elements of the two. I get annoyed by child actors quite often, but Jaeden Lieberher does a great job as Alton, the film’s focus as the young boy with supernatural abilities. Whenever I see Sam Shepard’s name in the credits, I know I’m in for a treat. He does not let down in Midnight Special, as the leader of the cult. His character is unsettling, and walks the tightrope that begs both empathy and hate.

As I mentioned previously, Jeff Nichols has a knack for creating his own worlds. Like Steven Spielberg, you know when you’re watching one of his movies. David Wingo (who has worked with Nichols on all three of his features) and his music in the film, oppressively drones at your emotions, only ramping up when the action does. The beginning of Midnight Special is strange, but delivers an important sense of wonder, much like Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Not much is said for quite a while and we as the viewers are left wondering where the story might move next. Little by little, the story comes together and is pieced together much like a 1980’s sci-fi flick (ala Spielberg) would be. Nichols ultimately abandons his typical penchant for leaving us suspended by the time the film comes to an end, but it still leaves enough to probably require a second viewing.

Midnight Special is the ultimate display of just how much Nichols is capable of with the appropriate budget. With more than three times the amount of money he was given to make Take Shelter, Nichols created a golden Science Fiction film that does not forget to keep the human element an active part of the story. While I feel it does not quite reach the level of Take Shelter and MudMidnight Special is a spectacular visual treat that lovingly takes from exciting sci-fi of yesteryear. If you haven’t yet experienced Jeff Nichols’ cinematic worlds, do yourself a huge favor and soak all of these in.

Final Score: 3.5/4

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Similar Films: Melancholia, Take Shelter, Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Black Mass

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Black Mass (2015) – Gangster | Drama

Directed by: Scott Cooper

Starring: Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton

How I Watched: Amazon Instant Video

Best Line: “The last thing I would do if I was planning to harm you is to warn you in advance, you dumb fuck.”

One of the most polarizing genres of film is the gangster movie. Loyalists often argue the merits behind the Godfather films and compare those with the absolute perfection of GoodFellas. Personally, I love the first two of the Godfather trilogy and GoodFellas about just as much as the other (admit it, you watch GoodFellas every time you happen upon it clicking through channels). A good gangster flick is just perfect sometimes. While Black Mass can’t really be placed in this higher echelon, it is still a damn good time and may even take its own place as time goes on.

Scott Cooper has only directed two movies previous to Black Mass. Those that saw Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart (for which he won an Oscar) know a bit of what to expect out of a Cooper film; it’s going to be dark, dirty, a bit depressing and there’s going to be some pretty cool music. 2013’s critically under-appreciated (in my opinion) Out of the Furnace continued this trend, but turned those elements up to the max. Woody Harrelson is especially disgusting and I felt like there was definitely a lot more that we were going to get out of Cooper.

Then the trailer for Black Mass hit. Cooper traded the country music and Appalachian meth dealers in for 1970’s Boston gangsterland. Johnny Depp looked like he fell out of a Tim Burton nightmare and I honestly thought it looked too much like The Departed. The more I watched it though, the more I was intrigued. When I learned more about the supporting cast (including Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, Peter Sarsgaard, etc.), I knew I had to check this one out.

Let’s start with what is great about this movie. I love The Departed. The accents, the cast, the crazy ending; all are great about that film. One thing I’ve noticed as time goes on though, is that it feels too chaotic, almost disjointed in its storytelling. Scorcese does some frantic cuts and at times, it’s difficult to keep up, but I think that’s also what makes his movies as exciting as they are. Black Mass, like The Departed is based in Boston, but it spans over a few decades. It does not take the same approach and really paces itself in its build-up of Johnny Depp’s character, Whitey Bulger.

This is important, because I really believe this character is one of the chameleon-esque Depp’s best. From the moment his face appears, it’s clear that this is not going to be the kooky Depp we so often get. This is a character that can stand on its own in the gangster canon, including the Vic Vega’s, the Tommy DeVito’s, the Michael Corleone’s. Depp’s Bulger is downright frightening, and his presence steals every scene in this film.

Something that I felt the movie was missing though, was just a little bit more to the story to make it more exciting. I don’t want to say it lags in the middle, but there was a definite change of tone from where the film started. If you can handle changes like this in movies, you’ll be just fine and appreciate Cooper trying to tell a story, but I could see how some would check out at this point.

There are a lot of moments in Black Mass where I felt like I did watching Out of the Furnace: Cooper is trying some really cool things. There are some awesome zoom shots in Black Mass that I wasn’t expecting and he even seems to be experimenting with some Nicolas Winding Refn-ish, neon-infused backdrops that really breathe some life into the gritty browns I’ve come to expect from Cooper’s films.

If you like gangster movies, you’re probably going to like this one. There’s great one-liners, it’s bloody as hell at times, and it’s got some great characters. It may not stand up as one of the best in the genre, but god damn, it’s worth the ticket alone for Johnny’s Depp’s Bulger.

Final Score: 3/4

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Similar Films: Killing Them Softly, Out of the Furnace, The Departed