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Fri07032020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) has named his latest film—about a boy with special powers running from a Texas cult—Midnight Special.

The name alone is a stroke of genius. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s cover of “Midnight Special” was featured in Twilight Zone: The Movie back in 1983. Whenever I hear that song, or even see the title, I am reminded of that song and movie, which both hold a special place in my film-going heart. Because of all of this, I walked into Midnight Special in an ’80s sort of mood. Whether or not Nichols named his film with Twilight Zone in mind doesn’t really matter. The end result had me thinking of Dan Aykroyd attacking Albert Brooks in a parked car at night on a country road.

Midnight Special, the movie, feels like a product of the late ’70s and early ’80s, a time when the likes of Spielberg and Scorsese were going full-throttle and turning out some of their best stuff. It also works like a really cool episode of The Twilight Zone.

Other filmmakers, like J.J. Abrams with his muddled Super 8, have tried to evoke a Spielberg vibe and wound up ripping him off. Here, Nichols has made a film that is an interesting homage to Spielberg—while still coming off as smart and original. It’s also a very entertaining journey.

Michael Shannon (who has appeared in all of Nichols’ films) plays Roy, father to young Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a mysterious boy who must wear goggles all the time due to fits during which his eyes shoot out blinding light. He has the power to down satellites, channel radio broadcasts and transmit military secrets. So, yeah, the government is after him—and the Texas cult he grew up within sees him as some sort of prophet.

Roy takes Alton away from the cult (led by the forever-haggard Sam Shepard) and is racing toward some undisclosed location—because he knows his boy is important, and that his mystery meeting is important. Nichols cleverly keeps much of his movie shrouded in mystery, with some of questions never getting clear-cut answers. Movies that spell everything out for you can be very boring.

The film has elements of Duel, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind on the Spielberg front, along with the mystery and wonder of the best Twilight Zone episodes. It also has the look and feel of some of Clint Eastwood’s best offerings, the dramatic intensity of Scorsese films, and some of the better aspects of last year’s poorly received Tomorrowland. Yet it feels very original.

Shannon is typically strong as the worried yet emotionally closed-off father who doesn’t have all of the answers, but will do everything he can to help his son. Joel Edgerton gives his best performance to date as Lucas (yep, a George Lucas homage), a former state trooper along for the ride.

Kirsten Dunst plays Alton’s mysterious birth mother. There’s also Adam Driver as the sympathetic government guy (think Peter Coyote in E.T.) in full nerd mode, doing much to make viewers forget that sinister villain he played in that little film that came out late last year.

Nichols is, quite simply, one of the finest directors making movies today. If you haven’t seen Take Shelter or Mud, get on it. This film is perhaps a notch below those two movies, but that’s not saying it isn’t an entertaining and satisfying experience. That’s just saying he’s made three great movies.

Some people have complained that Nichols botches his films in the third act. That’s a bunch of crap. The third acts in his films are always exciting or mind-blowing, and this one is no exception. 

Midnight Special is an example of a great director stretching his wings and hitting his marks impressively. It’s also the first of two Nichols movies (the other being Loving, also starring Edgerton and Shannon) that will be released this year. In other words, this is a movie year about which you should be excited.

Midnight Special is now playing at the Cinémas Palme D’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730).

Published in Reviews

The new Star Wars doesn’t suck! The new Star Wars doesn’t suck!

What a relief, right? Ever since Disney absorbed the Lucasfilm empire, some fans and cynics have speculated that the Mouse plus George could equate to shite. Then the Mouse handed the reins of the Star Wars universe to that bespectacled guy who reinvigorated the Star Trek universe.

Fret not, for director J.J. Abrams and crew have done exactly what they did with Star Trek: They created a fun movie that not only respects the blessed canon of a beloved franchise, but stands on its own as a piece of supreme entertainment. It is 2015’s most entertaining film, and a movie that stands up proudly in the realm of Star Wars movies.

In many ways, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the best movie in the franchise. I won’t say it’s my personal favorite. (I think The Empire Strikes Back still holds that post; a little more time will tell.) Its storytelling is solid; its special effects are first-rate; and the performances are easily the best the franchise has ever seen.

That’s due in part to Daisy Ridley, an incredible talent who is now an instant star as Rey, a scrappy scavenger on a Tattooine-like desert planet. She delivers the best all-around dramatic performance in the Star Wars universe. She does some of the year’s best “face acting”; you’ll have to see the movie to find out what I’m talking about. With this new star at its center, the revitalized Star Wars universe takes life around her with a bevy of new characters and, of course, returning oldies.

Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, who happens to be the guy who wrote Empire, combined on a screenplay that follows a lot of the familiar beats from past Star Wars films. They took over writing duties after Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) took a failed stab at the task. (Arndt still gets a credit.)

The universe is being tormented by the First Order, an offshoot of the former Empire. Rey, after rummaging around in a fallen Star Destroyer, discovers a lost droid (BB-8, who is adorable), and eventually finds herself on a space adventure with familiar and new faces.

That’s it. That’s all I’m saying about the plot.

Harrison Ford, cryptic and snarky about his Star Wars pedigree in the past, returns as Han Solo, and his newfound enthusiasm for the part is infectious. Ford slips back into that laid-back, charmingly sarcastic smuggler role with ease, while his old buddy Chewbacca has become some sort of comedian in the last 30 or so years: The old Wookiee scores some of the film’s biggest laughs. Seeing the pair together again is an invaluable movie gift to be treasured.

As the movie’s central villain, Adam Driver is multi-layered and appropriately disturbing as Kylo Ren, a masked, obvious riff on Darth Vader who is a bit of a fanboy of the long deceased Sith Lord. I’m a Star Wars fan, and I have a few nice toys in my possession—but Kylo Ren has the Holy Grail for Star Wars collectors in his chambers!

John Boyega brings a new, welcomed dimension to the Stormtroopers. (Hey, there are actual people under those helmets!) Oscar Isaac a brings funny charisma to Poe, the best pilot in the galaxy.

I think I got through this review with no major spoilers, so no Star Wars geeks will kill me. My life force will not be extinguished, and I will make it to next year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Episode VIII, which is due in the summer of 2017.

Gone are the days when we waited decades for new Star Wars chapters. Oh, the spoils of Disney.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is playing at theaters across the valley in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

Ben Stiller re-teams with director Noah Baumbach (Greenberg) for While We’re Young, a very funny movie about artistic integrity and learning to grow up.

Stiller and Naomi Watts play a 40-something couple who are content, but perhaps a little bored. They meet a 20-something couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) and find themselves drawn to them and aspects of their “really cool” lifestyle. As it turns out, the Stiller and Driver characters are both film documentarians. This leads to initial bonding—but then it leads to big problems.

This is Stiller’s funniest movie since Tropic Thunder, and Watts is every bit as funny (especially when she cuts loose in a hip-hop dance class). Driver and Seyfried are adorable, and a little scary, as the younger couple who still listen to vinyl and watch VHS tapes, because it’s cool and retro.

Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz and Maria Dizzia get laughs as Stiller’s older friends who just had a baby and are worried about the emotional welfare of their two pals.

Baumbach is always amusing, and this is one of his better films.

While We’re Young is now playing at the Camelot Theaters (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565) and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

The Coen Brothers have made films raging from dark-comedy works to Westerns—yet they all have a distinctive, specific Coen Brothers feel. Their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, is loosely based on Dave Von Ronk, a Greenwich Village folk singer who tried—and failed—to captivate audiences in the early ‘60s.

The story begins in a café. After performing, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is told by the owner that a “friend” is waiting for him outside. When he steps outside, he’s beaten up by a stranger. The struggling musician—his new record isn’t selling—sleeps on the couches of his friends, and he’s trying to come to terms with the suicide of a former collaborator and friend. He ponders returning to the Merchant Marines.

Inside Llewyn Davis has some of the dark humor typical in a Coen Brothers film, and the comedy relief is always perfectly timed to break the moments of intense heartbreak you feel for the struggling Llewyn.

The musical performances also make the film worthwhile. Isaac’s work is fantastic. (He performs solo and as a trio with Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver.) Other music performances come from the likes of Nancy Blake and Declan Bennett. The soundtrack for Inside Llewyn Davis is indeed worth remembering.

The Coen Brothers can do no wrong, it seems, when it comes to making good films that separate themselves from previous efforts. There is no doubt that this one is going to bring home some awards; in fact, the nominations have already been pouring in. 

Inside Llewyn Davis is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565) and the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

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