Month: April 2016

Midnight Special Review

nawst76v.jpgThe reason certain genres appeal to writers and directors is because with them, there are expectations. This enables filmmakers to create movies where the audience, even before seeing the film, already has an inkling of what they are going to see. For instance, if one buys tickets for a gangster film, one knows there will be lots of gunplay and violence. However, genre can be flexible. It can allow a filmmaker to work within the conventions of a well-worn type of film, while at the same revising and subverting them as they are already aware of what the audience believe they are about to watch. Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special does just that.

The film centres upon a father named Roy (Michael Shannon – The Iceman, Boardwalk Empire) whose young son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), possesses extraordinary but mysterious powers. With the help of an old friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton – The Gift, Warrior), Roy and Alton escape the cult to which they belong – who believe the young boy is their new messiah. Meanwhile, Alton’s abilities attract the attention of the FBI and the NSA. On behalf of the two government branches, Paul Sevier (Adam Driver – Kylo Ren in the recent Star Wars) is assigned to investigate.

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A traditional science-fiction film would explain the reason for Alton’s powers early on and the rest of the story would explore their impact. However with Midnight Special, Alton’s abilities are the mystery. The audience for most of the film’s running time is left in the dark regarding why this young boy is so powerful. This, along with a thunderingly fast pace and a handful of tense action scenes, drives the plot forward and keeps the viewer engaged. It takes a great skill to understand exactly how much information to withhold from the viewer and for how long. Luckily Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) is a master at building mystery through the slow reveal, as evident by his previous work.

Like the script (which features no unnecessary plot exposition), the film’s exceptionally well-chosen cast share the ability to reveal so much without words. As the lead, Shannon (in his fourth collaboration with Nichols) once again displays how he is the king of quiet intensity and emotion. As his partner in crime, Joel Edgerton manages to convey a lot with just a subtle change in posture. Adam Driver appears to be channelling Jeff Goldblum – his awkward shuffle as he arrives late to astutely question the cult leader (played by Sam Shepard) tells the audience all we need to know about his character. Also, Kirsten Dunst continues her string of excellent performances of late (Fargo Season 2, The Two Faces of January) as Alton’s estranged weary mother Sarah.

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While the film succeeds as a whacked out sci-fi hybrid (think E.T. or Close Encounters blended with a road film along with the seedy underbelly of America’s religious cults), it is also at times a strangely beautiful metaphor for the father/son relationship. As many critics have pointed out, Roy is attempting to give his son (who he does not understand) the freedom that he never had as a result of having moved to “The Ranch” (the cult’s headquarters) as a child. Although this aspect of the film is slightly undercut by the fact that Alton is played more as a plot maguffin than a child with a personality, Shannon’s delicate performance manages to sell their relationship with gusto to the audience.

Verdict: 3.5/4

Mysterious, tense and at times, oddly enchanting – writer-director Jeff Nichols’ first take on a genre film is a terrific addition to an increasingly impressive filmography.

Trafficker Review

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At this year’s UCD Film Festival, one of the special guests was the brilliant cinematographer Larry Smith, known for his work on Calvary, Only God Forgives and Bronson. As well as this, he also worked in the camera and lighting departments on Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. Prior to his Q & A, he screened his directorial-debut Trafficker – a film not yet picked up for distribution.

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The film tells the story of two Vietnamese brothers and orphans growing up in Australia. While attending boarding school, they find themselves victims of racially-motivated, psychological and physical violence. As a result, they abandon education and are taken under the wing of an Australian-Vietnamese gangster. Years later, when the older brother botches a gangland assassination – running his crew into serious debt, his younger brother is forced to embark on a harrowing drug run from Vietnam to pay off the mob bosses.

The film is flawed in the sense that it never fully invests in one story. What begins as a tale of the horrors of post-war Vietnam, becomes a story of orphans struggling to survive without a family, then a gangland thriller and then suddenly a critique of capital punishment. While Smith depicts these events successfully and the relationship between the two brothers is emotionally affecting, the audience never quite spends enough time with one story to become truly invested.

However, Trafficker is worth seeing just for Smith’s excellent cinematography. While the whole movie was shot in Thailand (Bangkok stands in for Sydney, Saigon and Singapore), the film feels authentic in terms of place. There are handful of night-club scenes (the best of which occurring in the Saigon portion of the drama) which evoke memories of Smith’s work on the neon-drenched Only God Forgives. Smith also crafts a number of memorably tense moments such as a shoot-out in a Sydney apartment block and a sequence in which a character smuggles heroin through Airport customs.

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Shot in 25 days and funded without studio interference, Trafficker is quite an accomplishment. However, one can’t help but feel that following Smith’s work with unusual and artistic directors, that he could have chosen a more experimental or daring vehicle. Despite this, I am unsure as to why the film has not been picked up for distribution because it’s a fine piece of work made with skill by one of the film industry greats.

The Witch Review

The-Witch-Poster-Large_1200_1776_81_s.jpgThe Witch is a remarkably assured debut from writer-director Robert Eggers. The filmmaker displays skill behind the camera that many only achieve far into their careers. Shots linger just slightly longer then they should, creating an air of paranoia – as if at any moment, something is going to lunge at the characters. Scenes veer from comic relief to horror in a matter of seconds with deftness, leaving the viewer wonderfully confused and disorientated.

Set in New England in 1630, the film centres upon William (Ralph Ineson, The Office). He and his family, consisting of his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie, Red Road) and their five children, are banished from a Puritan Christian plantation due to the sin of pride.  To sustain themselves, the family build a farm on the outskirts of a large, mysterious forest. However, strange occurrences begin to plague the family and they start to believe they are being preyed upon by a satanic force.

Like many great horrors, The Witch works equally well as a drama. It builds an air of genuine suspense when one is interested in the characters that are being picked off by a strange supernatural force. Watching the family tear themselves apart, not just on account of their fear but over other trivial matters (a tea-cup becomes a recurring motif) is just as engaging as the horrors within the woods.

Having read fan reaction to The Witch, I feel I must note that the film favours mood over story. Eggers spends more time crafting an oppressive atmosphere, rather than a complex tale. Also the fear does not predominantly arise from jump scares in the vein of Paranormal Activity. Instead, The Witch is more about a sustained threat which begins as the film opens and doesn’t cease until the end credits roll. However, that is not to say there are no moments which will truly jolt the viewer because the climax of the film is edge-of-your-seat tense and I’m sure it will have many jumping from their seats.

352f65868751a608900f6a7067005592.jpgAlso worthy of praise are the young stars Harvey Scrimshaw, who plays William and Katherine’s son Caleb, and Anya Taylor-Joy, as their daughter Thomasin. Scrimshaw delivers a monologue as perfectly as a trained Shakespearean actor and when the film shifts its attention to Thomasin, Taylor-Joy appears more than comfortable carrying the weight of the film on her shoulders. However, she is aided by sumptuous cinematography which captures the earthiness of the New England period setting, as well as a script which feels surprisingly authentic in terms of the older archaic forms of English delivered by the actors.

If I had one gripe, I feel the film slightly overplays its hand in terms of story in the final scene. However, that’s just a minor complaint which does not detract from the fear the film sustains throughout.

Verdict: 3.5/4

The Witch is a horrifyingly confident debut by the immensely talented writer-director Robert Eggers.