Midnight Special — a review

Don't worry, kid. I'm good friends with Spider-Man. We'll see what he can do.

Don’t worry, kid. I’m good friends with Spider-Man. We’ll see what he can do.

Midnight Special is one of those great movies that hits the ground running–literally, since the main characters Roy, played by Michael Shannon and Lucas, played by Joel Edgerton, find themselves on the news during an Amber alert, which accuses them of having abducted a young boy. It turns out that they did take a boy, but he’s Roy’s son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and he was actually taken from a cult that’s led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). Calvin had taken Alton from Roy (who was a member of the cult) and raised the kid as his own son–the reason being is that Alton has developed some very particular powers at a very young age, powers that make the cult worship Alton as if he were a prophet.

Abducting his child from the cult compound, Roy goes on the run, with his childhood friend Lucas helping in any way he can. Calvin, not wanting to let the golden goose slip out of his grasp, begins organizing some men to go after Roy–until his plans are thwarted by the arrival of hundreds of armed FBI agents that seize his compound and place everybody under arrest. It turns out that the US Government has also taken notice of Alton’s extraordinary powers, and they are hell-bent on finding the boy, with an unassuming NSA agent (Adam Driver) helping to lead the charge.

Wow, neat trick! The Sith could really use you!

Wow, neat trick! The Sith could really use you!

The fantastic actor, Michael Shannon–who’s probably best known by mainstream movie fans for his role as General Zod in Man Of Steel–teams up again with Jeff Nichols, his director on the equally marvelous Take Shelter, to knock another one out of the park with Midnight Special. Eschewing the bullshit flashback trope that many films and TV shows use (where the story starts in mid-action, only to flashback several hours or days to explain everything), Midnight Special explains everything on the go, in dibs and drabs, all while it races through its chase sequences while building its story and creating some truly sympathetic characters at the same time. Shannon is great as always; he portrays a man who’s way out of his element who is just trying to do right by his son. Edgerton, an Australian, effectively creates a regular guy from Texas who’s just trying to help out his buddy and his kid.

Hey, everybody...group hug!

Hey, everybody…group hug!

Kirsten Dunst is also very good as Sarah, Alton’s mother, who gets caught up in protecting her son from both the cult and the government. Adam Driver gives a good performance as a character who should be a card-board cut out–the “evil” government agent–but he manages to instill within his NSA man a quiet nobility. Jeff Nichols’ script and direction is taunt and exciting, right up to the end of the chase, where the movie takes an incredible leap into SF territory that still makes sense while also being amazing at the same time. Midnight Special achieves the kind of wonderment and overall satisfaction that Disney’s Tomorrowland film strove for, but fell short of grasping. This is a gripping thriller that’s also a very emotional human drama wrapped in an astonishing science fiction story–and it all works spectacularly. Don’t miss it. –SF

Fantastic Beasts — a review

What's the frequency, Kenneth?

What’s the frequency, Kenneth?

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them takes place in the same Harry Potter universe, but some seventy years before the boy-wizard would go off to school at Hogwarts (which means the Harry Potter stories took place in the ‘90s!). Premiering fifteen years after the first Harry Potter film, Fantastic Beasts stars Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, a specialist in peculiar animals, and I’m not talking about various frog species. With this tale being set in the Harry Potter universe, these beasts are truly fantastic and creative examples of literally magical creatures. Newt keeps them in his suitcase, which, like Doctor Who’s Tardis, is much bigger on the inside.

My favorite of these beasts is a hysterically funny little guy who looks like a platypus with an ornery love of money and all things shiny. It’s called a Niffler, and Newt winds up chasing him all over New York City. The Niffler gleefully robs and steals everything that’s not nailed down, stuffing the items into unseen pockets within his fur (and these pockets are also bigger on the inside, judging from the multitude of riches he can get in there). It’s meant to be a throwaway joke, but the Niffler nearly stole the movie for me.

The real star of Fantastic Beasts.

The real star of Fantastic Beasts.

With a screenplay by the creator of Harry Potter and his universe, J.K. Rowling herself, the story is slightly more ominous than the gee-whiz fairy tale trappings of the first Harry Potter film. While the first Harry Potter movie was more of a children’s story (with the HP series becoming darker and more mature with each sequel), Fantastic Beasts–with its mainly adult cast–strives for a more complex tale dealing with magic and prejudice on the streets of New York City that’s equally gripping and entertaining at the same time. This darker edge serves the film very well. Directed by David Yates, who helmed the last four Potter films, as well this summer’s superb The Legend of Tarzan, Fantastic Beasts still manages to drag in some spots, but its sympathetic characters, brought to life by a great cast, keeps you hooked.

Redmayne is very good at playing a main character who feels more comfortable around animals than people, while Katherine Waterson is great as Tina, his spunky sidekick. But the real revelation here is Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol as Kowalski and Queenie, respectively–the both of them are marvelous standouts in a fine cast that also includes Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller (the cinematic Flash from the DC superhero films), Samantha Morton, and Ron Perlman.

Whoops! This isn't Westeros, is it? Excuse me.

Whoops! This isn’t Westeros, is it? Excuse me.

This is supposed to be the first in a five part movie series, and it winds up being a great setup film, because thanks to the well fleshed out characters–as well as the signs and portents of nefarious things to come–I wanted things to just keep going when it ended. If you’re looking for a fun, magical film for the entire family then grab yourself some giggle water and go find these fantastic beasts. –SF

Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders — a review

Holy animation, Batman!

Holy animation, Batman!

Batman: The Return of the Caped Crusaders is a loving tribute to the 1960s TV series that manages to feel like the second 1960s-era Batman movie, thanks to the voice-casting of original Batman and Robin stars Adam West and Burt Ward, along with Julie Newmar, who reprises her role as Catwoman. Taking place in the same time period as the series, the film is filled with the social mores of the time, such as having Catwoman demurely step to the side whenever Batman and Robin battle the villainous henchmen (complete with the customary BIFF! BAM! and POW! word balloons the original series always flashed during the fight scenes).

Catwoman is a part of a fearsome foursome of rogues that includes the Joker, Penguin and the Riddler as they set out to work together to wreak havoc on Gotham City. The fact that these villains team up, along with their use of a penguin-themed zeppelin later in the film, is a nice nod to the original 1966 Batman movie that was released during the height of the TV show’s popularity. But there are plenty of fun Easter eggs here, all riffing on the various incarnations of Batman. One of my favorite moments is when Batman, having been struck on the head, sees three Catwomen standing before him, with two of them looking just like Lee Meriwether and Eartha Kitt.

They may be nefarious villains, but they still wear their seat belts!

They may be nefarious villains, but they still wear their seat belts!

There are also fun nods to Michael Keaton’s Batman, the Nolan Batman films, and even a shout out to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. But while it tweaks the nose of the original series (like when Bruce outright fires Alfred for not stopping a nosy Aunt Harriet from snooping around), this animated version is still very respectful of the source material. I first saw the 1960s Batman series when I was a toddler, so I always took it very seriously–until a viewing when I was older made me realize that the show was much more lighthearted and whimsical, but still entertaining in its own way.

That was what the makers of this animated feature realized as well, and they sought to recreate that same silly vibe, and they succeeded marvelously. The characters are all drawn just like they appeared in the series (although this version of the Joker, while drawn to look like Caesar Romero’s version, doesn’t have his painted-over mustache–and I’m actually grateful the filmmakers’ dedication didn’t go that far), and even the original 1960s Batmobile makes a valiant return. If you’re a diehard Batman fan, like me, then this is the movie for you. –SF