First Watch: Midnight Special

The comparisons that have been made of Jeff Nichols’s new Midnight Special to Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind are many, and they’re also true. But as we quickly learn during an interrogation scene, “this is something different.” The movie begins as a high-octane thriller, fueling the getaway car of a kidnapping in progress. Naturally, these are no ordinary kidnappers (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) – they’re tinged with morality. Their motives are not financial, but spiritual, calling to the higher power of their precious cargo, a young boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Liberher). Alton, who is more a passenger than a victim, has a growing mystique, for which members of different factions are willing to take lives and risk their own.

The comparisons that have been made of Jeff Nichols’s new Midnight Special to Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind are many, and they’re also true. But as we quickly learn during an interrogation scene, “this is something different.” The movie begins as a high-octane thriller, fueling the getaway car of a kidnapping in progress. Naturally, these are no ordinary kidnappers (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) – they’re tinged with morality. Their motives are not financial, but spiritual, calling to the higher power of their precious cargo, a young boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Liberher). Alton, who is more a passenger than a victim, has a growing mystique, for which members of different factions are willing to take lives and risk their own.

The pace softens as the movie progresses, and so do its characters. Rather than abandoning his boy for a vision, like Roy Neary from Close Encounters, Shannon (also named Roy) uses Alton to complete his. But it’s Edgerton, in his best performance to date, who displays more paternal instincts. Edgerton cares for the ailing child in times of need, while Shannon drives him to realize his prophecy. The movie adopts pieces of different genres, but Alton’s role at the center of the story is a constant. He brings the other characters together – uniting families, zealots, and government agencies. NSA Agent Sevier (Adam Driver) arrives as that government representative in the race to recapture the young boy. Driver is tasked with solving the film’s most complex problems, but Alton’s reach is so great that even the smartest man in the room is tempted by his secrets.

One of Nichols’s strengths as a writer and director is that he allows the audience to complete the film. He is willing to omit an action sequence or a line of clichéd dialogue to produce a greater effect. Though some audiences may find that Nichols has gone too far, leaving out too much, mostly in his narrative. One may feel that he has kidnapped us and taken us for a ride, with no clear destination. During their ride, Alton is seen reading comics in the backseat with only a flashlight to guide the way. This is quickly denounced by his father, suggesting that Alton “needs to know what’s real.” Nichols is interested in what is real, but only as it applies to human emotion and connection. And sometimes we must look to beings from other worlds to learn about those connections – to embrace a sense of euphoria, rather than search for an explanation.

First Watch: Eddie the Eagle

If you see Eddie the Eagle in theaters make sure you wear your helmet because this film will uplift you straight through the ceiling. If what you’re looking for is new and inventive film-making, do not see this film. Go see The Revenant and stare in awe (but mostly cringe) for the better part of 2 1/2 hours. If what you’re looking for is inspiration, smiles, and giddiness, go see Eddie The Eagle. This film embraces the cliché and takes the tried and true approach to inspiration.

If you see Eddie the Eagle in theaters make sure you wear your helmet because this film will uplift you straight through the ceiling. If what you’re looking for is new and inventive film-making, do not see this film. Go see The Revenant and stare in awe (but mostly cringe) for the better part of 2 1/2 hours. If what you’re looking for is inspiration, smiles, and giddiness, go see Eddie The Eagle. This film embraces the cliché and takes the tried and true approach to inspiration. I would recommend this movie to anyone who’s not tired of how they felt after seeing Rocky, The Mighty Ducks, Chariots of Fire, Miracle, Hoosiers, Rudy, or Cool Runnings. These types of movies are the ones we’ve seen recently when we find ourselves on a late night run, eating unusual amounts of fruits and vegetables, or at the gym for the first time in years. They send shivers of excitement up our spines and reignite our most ludicrous dreams. Maybe it’s just me but I can’t get enough of these movies.

Eddie the Eagle tells us the true underdog story of Eddie Edwards, the phenomenally undertalented and remarkably British Olympic ski jumper portrayed by Taron Egerton. Born with the will of an Olympian but the body of a Muppet, Eddie has always dreamed of being an Olympic athlete. Every day of his childhood he pursues his hopeless goal with blinding optimism, the encouragement of his ever supportive mother, and the doubt of his less than supportive father. After nearly making the Olympic downhill skiing team Eddie is unfazed by failure and turns his gaze upward toward ski jumping, a sport for which the British do not have a team. Eddie decides to be that team. Through this he meets his trainer, a once-great ski jumper turned washed-up drunk played by Hugh Jackman.

The film’s director, Dexter Fletcher, mixes these clichéd characters with an age-old story and a D-grade sport and cooks himself up a powerful stew of a movie that will leave you soaring. This is feel good film at its finest. Fletcher does a great job of bringing you into the world of ski jumping and making you feel the fear and excitement of launching off these epic jumps. Egerton, after playing a super suave spy in Kingsman, shows his range and brings to life this incredibly quirky and dorky character. Jackman is amazing and super likeable as usual, the score is kinetic and uplifting, and there are a few scenes of absolute movie magic that embody the reason I love movies. Matthew Vaughn (Stardust, X-Men: First Class, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Kick-Ass) helped produce this movie and you can definitely see his fingerprints every so often. Eddie the Eagle will be on my re-watch list for years to come and hopefully on your soon-to-watch list starting now.

First Watch: Steve Jobs

The trailer for Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs asks if a great man can be a good a man, or as Steve Wozniak’s character says, “both decent and gifted.” Steve Jobs, the character, isn’t interested in that morality or with pleasing anyone but himself. Jobs’s only motivation is sharing his vision with the world, giving all that he has to give, the entirety of his flawed self. He knows no other way. Jobs also knows what we want before we want it, and he leaves us to catch up. The movie follows Steve Jobs backstage through a maze of messy relationships, joining the endless queue for his attention. It’s a constant chase and we are always a few steps behind.

Fassbender’s portrayal of Jobs is believable and gripping. The movie revolves around three product launches — three of the tensest moments of his life. The small scope of the story and close-up shots revealing only a fraction of Jobs’s face suggest the audience is only receiving half of the story, half of the man. Fassbender argues that idea, emitting a full range of emotion, easily transitioning from aggressive to lighthearted in a matter of moments. Immediately following the film’s best scene, a heated encounter with Apple CEO played by Sorkin favorite, Jeff Daniels, Fassbender playfully slides down a stair rail.

As expected, the Aaron Sorkin screenplay is perfect. Accompanied by a subtle, pulsating score from Daniel Pemberton, his magical words with musical cadence are fit for the grand stage of Steve Jobs. The man and the movie are made for theater. Each product launch is grander and more ambitious, each encounter filled with more angst and resentment, each crescendo echoing louder, culminating in an impromptu showdown between Rogen and Fassbender. Their relationship is the most captivating and often results in Rogen delivering some of the film’s most poignant advice. Rogen as a dramatic actor is great. He is always on his back foot, perfectly encapsulating the apprehension everyone employs during an encounter with Jobs.

Jobs’s list of friends dwindles fewer by the minute, but the movie still makes it difficult to choose sides. We are all too familiar with the mythology and genius of his work. Even during the film’s most humanizing moments, Jobs is unable to help himself from his own genius, keeping a safe distant from others. That is where we must remain, outside of the room, eavesdropping. We can question the truth of what we hear, but we cannot turn away; the story is too great.

First Watch: Bone Tomahawk

Bone Tomahawk is a cannibal-western movie that derives it’s name from the weapon of choice used by the cannibalistic “troglodytes” or cave people that brutally murder or kidnap (with the intent of keeping the ‘meat’ fresh for later brutal dissection and feasting) almost every single named character in the movie at one point or another. The name of the movie is what drew me in, though looking back I have no idea why. Sometimes I just get lucky.

Bone Tomahawk is a cannibal-western movie that derives it's name from the weapon of choice used by the cannibalistic "troglodytes" or cave people that brutally murder or kidnap (with the intent of keeping the 'meat' fresh for later brutal dissection and feasting) almost every single named character in the movie at one point or another. The name of the movie is what drew me in, though looking back I have no idea why. Sometimes I just get lucky.

It stars, in almost equal parts, Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, and Patrick Wilson. They play four hardy western settlers who venture out on an acknowledged suicide mission to rescue loved ones who have been taken from their town by the sadistic native villains.

For the most part, Bone Tomahawk is a character study of these four men. The first two-thirds reveals very little of the cannibals they are seeking and instead reveals the inner demons that plague these men's past and present. Richard Jenkins was easily the standout for me. His bumbling Chicory slowly reveals himself to be the most balanced and stable of the group. I didn't even recognize him as Richard Jenkins until almost half way through the movie. All of the performances were terrific, really. Kurt Russell was born to play an old curmudgeonly sheriff fighting against cannibal cave dwellers, and Matthew Fox is always fluttering near total campiness but somehow stuck this role.

Bone Tomahawk is the most character-driven cannibal-western you will ever see. I believe, because of that, it has something for everybody (or at least all adults) instead of not enough for anyone, which I could easily see being the criticism of this movie. The final act is a serious bloodbath and while it may not be surprising, it is still satisfying.

Overall, Bone Tomahawk was a very enjoyable movie. Mainly because of the back and forth between well developed characters but also because it features some shocking violence and brutal imagery. It is an unflinching account of a feeble rescue party's attempt to do the right thing by facing their own demons as well as the demons in the hills of the Wild West.

First Watch: Beasts of No Nation

Agu, played by Abraham Attah, looks right into the camera during Beast of No Nation’s final moments, telling a counselor from the missionary school which has abruptly supplanted his harrowing days as an NDF child soldier that he “just want[s] to be happy in this life.” The weight of the film’s previous 130 minutes is visibly bearing down upon him, the vigor, joy, and mischievousness that can be found in his eyes at the film’s onset gone, replaced by motionless, murky pools. Most importantly his innocence. He tells the counselor of the family that loves him, of his good heart, his good nature, more trying to convince himself than whomever is sitting in the chair opposite, trying to convince the viewer whom has seen this world through Agu’s eyes, been forced to drown inside of those growing pools right alongside him.

Agu, played by Abraham Attah, looks right into the camera during Beast of No Nation's final moments, telling a counselor from the missionary school which has abruptly supplanted his harrowing days as an NDF child soldier that he "just want[s] to be happy in this life." The weight of the film's previous 130 minutes is visibly bearing down upon him, the vigor, joy, and mischievousness that can be found in his eyes at the film's onset gone, replaced by motionless, murky pools. Most importantly his innocence. He tells the counselor of the family that loves him, of his good heart, his good nature, more trying to convince himself than whomever is sitting in the chair opposite, trying to convince the viewer that has seen this world through Agu's eyes, been forced to drown inside of those growing pools right alongside him.

It's this progression housed in Agu's eyes that makes his plea all the more heartbreaking. We have seen him at his best: eating dinner at ease and playfully joking with his family, a door-to-door "imagination television" pitchman goofing off with his friends, and we have seen him at his worst: hacking an innocent academic beyond recognition with a machete in painfully drawn-out slow motion, something like enjoyment briefly floating to the surface of those otherwise still pools. It's the existence of both of those boys in the version of Agu that asks for his redemption that makes Beasts of No Nation such a complicated, gut-wrenching story. Were both of those boys always present? Floating in and out of existence as the circumstances call for, the ruthless killer lurking in the shadows of the dinner table or the little troublemaker shuddering on the side of the battle-torn road. While we can't know the answer to that question, it's an unequivocal yes that both of those boys now live inside of Agu, and he'll have to forever reckon with that, something Attah makes beautifully and tragically apparent in the film's final, high-stakes scene.

Leaning so heavily on Attah, a complete unknown, first-time actor, to bring scenes of both the early levity and ultimate gravity alive is only one of director Cary Fukunaga's brilliant decisions on display here. Attah, in being a fresh face on screen (whether silver or small, given the film's Netflix Original distinction), is able to utterly embody Agu and the viewer never questions him. It's as if Attah is experiencing the reality around the character in real time, reacting perfectly to every horror around him. By the time he sits across from the counselor, it could be either Agu or Attah himself that feels the weight that is visibly bearing down upon his shoulders. Fukunaga mercilessly trains his camera on Attah for the monologue's duration, a culmination of all of the moments he refused to turn his lens away from for the film's brutal span. Even those when that brutality is implied, such as the machete scene or later on when the Commandant (Idris Elba) sexually assaults Agu, Fukunaga's camera shows what is necessary to display the toll those moments take on his protagonist. Each shot is handled with intention and care, a plain indication of the level of Fukunaga's commitment to his film.

Perhaps it is this commitment — the fact that Fukunaga adapted the screenplay himself from the Uzodinma Iweala novel of the same name, directed, and shot the whole thing himself — that draws such beautiful performances out of all those around him. Attah is a stunning emergence, all of the support around him — from his silent partner-in-crime Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye) to his brother (Francis Weddey) pouring nearly tangible love and affection for Agu — further carry forth Fukunaga's naturalist approach to his tough subject matter, but Elba himself is just as surprising. This shouldn't come as a surprise, but in a way it does: Beasts of No Nation is so reliant on realism and grit — especially when it comes to its performances — that for Elba to eschew any prior iconography as The Wire's Stringer and the titular Luther and his generally overpowering Idris Elbaness and deliver a rich and believable performance as the Commandant is an accomplishment in his own right. He was never at risk of standing out in the crowd of unknowns and embodies the monstrous character in a way that, though he finds none of the redemption that Agu does, makes him a sympathetic character as well. The story is a tragedy on all fronts, not just Agu's: each and every character that finds his or her way on the screen is a victim, and Fukunaga treats everyone with respect for that fact.

Beasts of No Nation will not be a blockbuster. In fact, it hardly will find footing on any blocks to bust. However, its cultural impact should far outweigh the level of opportunity it receives to make said impact. Fukunaga and all involved seem keenly aware of the responsibility that a film has which will choose war as its focal point, particularly a war as widespread and terrifying as the one here, which sees an impressionable child have to worry that he has become nothing more than a beast. That responsibility is reigned perhaps as well as any war movie has ever done, reconciling the philosophical weight and visual beauty of a film like Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line with the importance of not looking away, not sugarcoating. Even the film's score, devastatingly composed by Dan Romer (Beasts of the Southern Wild), seems to struggle with his reconciliation; in one of the film's pivotal scenes where the Commandant's roughshod army is set to take a key bridge, the score fights for an identity that will both celebrate those young souls perishing in the dirt but revile at their deeds, tonal argumentation overlaying the graphic imagery put forth by Fukunaga. Ultimately, this is the film's mission: to celebrate Agu for the boy he was, the boy he could again become, but never turn its eye from the boy he can be.

First Watch: Crimson Peak

The world of Guillermo Del Toro’s ninth feature film Crimson Peak is one that is announced with its very first utterance: “Ghosts are real. This much I know,” Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) narrates over footage of her bloodied and frightened on a snowy backdrop which is later explicated. Del Toro quickly asserts the claim by bringing forth these ghosts, never turning a blind eye to them for gimmickry and cheap thrills at sudden spooks. The sudden spooks come not despite this forthrightness, but actually because of them. They’re inescapable in a way that turning the lens to an empty corridor or revealing it was only the wind could never achieve; the lens turns to a corridor with a plodding, smoky ghost, and it’s the wind, but it’s so much more, and we’re just going to have to deal with that reality for Crimson Peak’s duration.

The world of Guillermo Del Toro's ninth feature film Crimson Peak is one that is announced with its very first utterance: "Ghosts are real. This much I know," Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) narrates over footage of her bloodied and frightened on a snowy backdrop which is later explicated. Del Toro quickly asserts the claim by bringing forth these ghosts, never turning a blind eye to them for gimmickry and cheap thrills at sudden spooks. The sudden spooks come not despite this forthrightness, but actually because of them. They're inescapable in a way that turning the lens to an empty corridor or revealing it was only the wind could never achieve; the lens turns to a corridor with a plodding, smoky ghost, and it's the wind, but it's so much more, and we're just going to have to deal with that reality for Crimson Peak's duration.

By establishing his world in this way, Del Toro is able to better hide the true horrors of the film. Edith, an aspiring author, later defends her novel by saying that it's "not a ghost story, but a story with ghosts in it," and the same can be said of Crimson Peak itself. The ghosts are merely facts, remnants from another realm that will always stand for the horrors done in this one. By diverting our shaken attention around every corner of the terrible Allerdale Hall, looking for the next phantasm to provide some answers, the truth lurks right at the surface in the brutal deeds done by the crumbling manor's living residents. Del Toro frames his shocking imagery of jarringly realistic violence within the familiar Gothic fantasy land to stunning effect, but it's not a sleight of hand.

In fact, everything is hidden in plain sight with Crimson Peak.

The fatal burst of passionate evil that erupts in Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain) is always contained in her silently pulsing promise of harm that is barely contained through the duration of the film. But the eruption is no less the dazzling for it. If Crimson Peak has a greatest strength it would be this fact, that all of its cards are revealed from the start and we still clap in delight when Del Toro turns one over to show us our card. Somehow it's this fulfillment of promise that makes the film work in a mode that had long been dried up, where houses creak and come to life and ghosts glide through their walls and mysterious lords who are not what they seem are exactly what they seem.

Del Toro's vision, of course, is carried out by the performances pulled out of the actors on screen. Every second of Chastain's performance, from the silent dark breezes of the film's first half to the ravenous storm that befalls Allerdale Hall in Crimson Peak's climax is completely dazzling. Her chemistry with Tom Hiddleston (playing her brother Thomas) and Wasikowska in their warped domestic triangle create near breathless tension and her violent surges plummet the action of the film into joyful chaos by its end, creating ghosts of all, in one way or another. Her presence truly does haunt the film, in the best possible way, which Del Toro makes sure to allude to in Crimson Peak's final shot of her specter, plucking away at her piano lullaby.

Of course, the fantastic performances of Chastain, Hiddleston, Wasikowska, and Charlie Hunnam (Dr. Alan McMichael, who is pretty much just Jax Teller with better bedside manner and wardrobe) were basically a bonus with Crimson Peak. Del Toro hardly needed talent that immense to make a film that looks this good tell a captivating story. Everything put forth on the screen was utter eye candy, from the gorgeously tragic Allerdale Hall and its bloodmud-stained terrain to the turn of the century costuming and special effects. Del Toro has proclaimed that this is his most composed film, and the payoff of that thought and effort is brought to bear in full here. WIth Crimson Peak, he has not only created a world in which ghosts are real, but one in which the horror and the beauty of that realization is to be experienced firsthand.

First Watch: Sicario

Midway through Sicario, the ostensible Department of Defense task force chief Matt Graver (played by Josh Brolin) looks over his shoulder and tells the ever-questioning FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) to “keep watching. Learn. That’s why you’re here.” Macer had just been on a harrowing ride-along with the task force to Juárez, Mexico with the objective of bringing Guillermo Diaz, the brother of Mexican cartel kingpin Manuel Diaz, across the border to El Paso to ultimately “make enough noise” to bring Manuel out of hiding and lead them to their true objective, cartel leader Fausto Alarcon. The mission devolved into a highway border-crossing bloodbath that left Macer shaken and angry at the vagueness surrounding her role in the task force’s shadowy objectives, and Graver attempts to sate her desire to be freed from the dark by implying that some greater truth about what was going on around her would reveal itself in time. The statement, however, felt more closely directed at the audience itself. Told through Brolin’s signature sideways smirk, director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy) asks his audience to pay close attention. To wait for it. The surprise is coming.

Midway through Sicario, the ostensible Department of Defense task force chief Matt Graver (played by Josh Brolin) looks over his shoulder and tells the ever-questioning FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) to "keep watching. Learn. That's why you're here." Macer had just been on a harrowing ride-along with the task force to Juárez, Mexico with the objective of bringing Guillermo Diaz, the brother of Mexican cartel kingpin Manuel Diaz, across the border to El Paso to ultimately "make enough noise" to bring Manuel out of hiding and lead them to their true objective, cartel leader Fausto Alarcon. The mission devolved into a highway border-crossing bloodbath that left Macer shaken and angry at the vagueness surrounding her role in the task force's shadowy objectives, and Graver attempts to sate her desire to be freed from the dark by implying that some greater truth about what was going on around her would reveal itself in time. The statement, however, felt more closely directed at the audience itself. Told through Brolin's signature sideways smirk, director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy) asks his audience to pay close attention. To wait for it. The surprise is coming.

Villeneuve is aware of audience expectation that not everything is as it seems when it comes to film. Macer may stay in the dark, ultimately told that she's only kept around to clear some red tape governmental issue rather than her value to the mission, but Villeneuve wants us to know that if we pay close enough attention, we may learn something about how the world, or at least a filmic portrayal of the world, works. This is ultimately Sicario's greatest strength as a film: Graver pulls off the line with such easy conviction that even the audience believes that it is her, not we, that will learn something over the course of the film, that she will come to this greater realization that she seeks and that it will have positive effects on the world around her. She is an upstanding law official, never wavering in wanting to do things by the book — in a way coming to represent the book itself by the film's end — but the only thing that she learns is how to survive the frame of the film and that she has no real effect on the world that exists outside of that frame. It will go on, with or without her.

This realization, of course, comes in the form of Benicio Del Toro. As most realizations do. The times when director of photography Roger Deakins points his camera Del Toro's way to capture the enigmatic character Alejandro are the film's more captivating moments. Alejandro quite literally arrives from nowhere, eliciting gradually more fearful glances from Macer, becoming more of a shadowy and frightening presence in the film with each passing scene, becoming that realization not through so much shock and surprise, but by simply fulfilling the promise that his character's haunting presence seems to imply all along. If he is surprising by the film's end, it's only in how far he is willing to go to complete his own objective, which leaves the theater pulsing with fear during his and Macer's final moments together on screen. Del Toro and Blunt both carry the film throughout, an enveloping dark presence and the small light that attempts to find its way through it. Their performances are truly the film's core that carry forth the message that, film or not, sometimes the light isn't going to find its way.

This is ultimately what Sicario stands for, the bleakness that we sometimes can't escape. In fact, it's a bleakness that we often must come to face head-on. Deakins and Villeneuve say this most poignantly at the onset of the film's third act, as the task force is silhouetted against the gorgeous and expansive southwestern sky, colored infinitely by twilight. It's a rare moment of peace and beauty (though the entire film is shot beautifully, from an aesthetic standpoint) that is shattered slowly by their descent and eventual disappearance from the frame, leaving the desert empty and alone. The task force not only evades the beauty's embrace, they dig right into the core of it with their objective; Villeneuve hovers on the empty sky for a few seconds before throwing the viewer headlong into a nightvision firefight inside of a smuggler's tunnel, only meters below the serenity we just witnessed. Perhaps this is what makes Sicario such a harrowing watch: it's hard to sensibly stop and enjoy something like the majesty of a desert sunset when we know all along that the "land is run by wolves," as Alejandro tells Macer in the film's final moments.