“MIDNIGHT SPECIAL” My rating: B
112 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
There is almost no element of “Midnight Special” that hasn’t been already thoroughly mined by other science fiction/fantasy films over the last 40 or so years.
And yet through some sort of cinema alchemy writer/director Jeff Nichols makes it all fresh and compelling.
Nichols is the Arkansas auteur of oddball down-home dramas like “Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter” and “Mud.” Here he ventures into full-blown genre moviemaking, and for the most part sucks us in and leaves us wanting even more.
The film begins with three individuals on the run. Roy (Michael Shannon), his eight-year-old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher, the scene-stealing kid from “St. Vincent”), and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are making their way across Texas and into Louisiana in a beat-up car that has more Bondo than paint.
Alton is a strange kid who sits in the back seat wearing sound-damping headphones and blue swimming goggles. Since they travel only at night he uses a flashlight to read a stack of comic books.
Turns out the trio are the object of a massive manhunt, not only by the feds (FBI, CIA, whatever else you got) but by the members of a Texas religious cult with whom Elton has lived for the last two years.
Apparently the kid has had visions which have now become as much a part of the sect as the shapeless sisterwife dresses worn by their womenfolk. Incensed that Elton’s dad has snatched him up, the cult leader (Sam Shepherd) dispatches a couple of heavily-armed members of the congregation (Bill Camp, Scott Haze) to recover the boy in the few days remaining before a prophesized day of judgment.
Nichols’ strength as a storyteller is that he doesn’t drop too much up front. His films are voyages of discovery in which audiences pick up the characters’ backgrounds and info about the plot in dribs and drabs.
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Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, Kristen Dunst
“THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY” My rating: B- (Opens Oct. 31 at the Tivoli)
96 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
In a cinema world filled with Bourne-ish violence and spectacular chases, there’s something quietly satisfying to be found in the work of Patricia Highsmith. Her novels — especially those centering on the vaguely sinister Tom Ripley — were about character and motivation, not overt violence.
“The Two Faces of January” — the directing debut of acclaimed screenwriter Hossein Amini (“The Wings of the Dove,” “Drive,” “47 Ronin”) — is a minor work but a solid one, a tale of corruption and escape set against the spectacular Greek countryside.
It’s 1962 and the American couple, Chester and Collette (Viggo Mortensen, Kristen Dunst) are enjoying the pleasures of Athens. He’s a money manager, the much younger Collette is rather obviously a trophy wife.
They hook up with another American, the young Rydal (Oscar Isaac, late of the Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis”), an American “poet” who sells his services as a tour guide. And because he speaks fluent Greek and can conspire with local merchants and vendors, Rydal is usually able to double-charge his clients for a bit of extra profit.
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Sam Riley as Sal Paradise/Jack Keroac; Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady
“ON THE ROAD” My rating: B (Opens March 29 at the Glenwood Arts)
124 minutes | MPAA rating: R
“That’s not writing. It’s typing.”
Such was Truman Capote’s withering critique of Jack Keroac’s “On the Road.”
Having long assumed that Keroac’s stream-of-consciousness beat odyssey was unfilmable, I was pleasantly surprised by Brazilian director Walter Salles’ intelligent, sensitive and evocative new screen adaptation.
Not that it’s going to please everyone. Like the novel, the film lacks anything like a conventional plot, being a series of episodes experienced over several years and a half-dozen cross-country treks by its protagonist, wannabe writer Sal Paradise.
But Salles, who has given us the Oscar-nominated “Central Station” and “The Motorcycle Diaries” (about the early travels of the young Che Guevera), finds a narrative and visual style that mimics the book’s pleasant ramblings and heartfelt rants. It’s not perfect, but it’s about as good a screen version of this controversial American classic as we’re likely to see.
In large part that’s due to Garrett Hedlund’s superb (I’m tempted to use the word “monumental”) portrayal of Dean Moriarty, the womanizing, overindulging, incredibly charismatic figure based on Keroac’s real-life friend Neal Cassady.
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Kristen Dunst in "Melancholia"
“MELANCHOLIA” My rating: A-
136 minutes | MPAA rating: R
Achingly beautiful and fiercely nihilistic, “Melancholia” may very well be Danish director Lars von Trier’s ultimate philosophical statement.
And since von Trier (“Breaking the Waves,” “Dancer from the Dance,” “Antichrist”) is both genius and jerk, this is one of those love/hate deals.
You may despise what he has to say; you’ll be floored by the skill and artistry with which he says it.
“Melancholia” begins with a series of mysterious images, all of which will be revisited before the film’s over. These are presented as slo-mo tableaus:
A black horse stumbles and falls beneath a sky illuminated by the aurora borealis.
Electric arcs flicker from a woman’s upraised hands.
A mother struggles to carry her child across a golf putting green, but her legs sink in turf as loose as quicksand.
A bride in white runs through a forest glade, but tree roots and branches reach out to entangle her legs.
Finally the Earth collides with another planet in a cataclysmic dance of destruction. (more…)
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