Sunday, April 10, 2016

Rapid Reviews: Demolition and Midnight Special

Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee has always managed to produce quality movies while somehow flying under the mainstream radar. Even with the overwhelming success of his Best Picture Nominee, Dallas Buyers Club, and immediately following it up with the winning effort, Wild, Vallee still fails to stand as a household name. Either way, I've been a longtime admirer of the director's work and I was puzzled to learn late in 2016 that his latest project, Demolition, would have its release date pushed back to April. How could an Oscar-caliber filmmaker settle for an uncharacteristic early year release? Unfortunately, the proof is in the pudding.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Davis, a successful investment banker who ended up marrying the boss's daughter and working his way up the chain of command. However, when an unforeseen accident claims the life of his wife, Davis begins penning deeply personal letters to a vending machine company that robbed him of 5 quarters. Through an interesting relationship between him an a customer service representative (Naomi Watts) fascinated by his letters, Davis quickly discovers that in order to build his life back up again, he must first tear it down completely.

Demolition is another artistic effort from a brilliant filmmaker. And with a renowned talent such as Jake Gyllenhaal on board, you would expect something far greater than this jumbled mess. The film begins extremely well and Gyllenhaal's performance strong enough to allow the audience to wrap its arms around an overly wealthy and otherwise unappealing figure. Even the build up and introduction of Naomi Watts's sidekick character works well within the framework of the film. Yet, once her onscreen degenerate son, Chris (Judah Lewis), starts commanding screen time, Demolition slowly starts to crumble. I can't say that youngster Judah Lewis is unequipped to deliver a worthwhile performance. Instead, I'll put the brunt of the blame on a sloppy screenplay that's unfocused and only minimally effective when all is said and done.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Another under-appreciated director whose valuable films have impressed indie audiences worldwide is Jeff Nichols. The supernatural thriller, Take Shelter, is an emotional masterpiece and the more well-known, Mud, is a strong feature in its own right. I was less surprised to discover an April release date for Nichols' newest sci-fi effort, Midnight Special, especially since his work hasn't garnered much Oscar love over the years. However, that still couldn't deter my overwhelming interest in this mysterious drama.

A father (Michael Shannon) and his young son (Jaeden Lieberher), who possesses rare other-worldly powers, go on the run from both a fanatical religious sect known as "The Ranch" and government officials. Communicating with forces well beyond our comprehension, Alton has a specific destination in mind and his biological parents must take any means necessary to guarantee their child's safety from other entities who don't completely understand his abilities.

Jeff Nichols adds another solid effort to his repertoire, although Midnight Special is a far cry from the best we've seen from this filmmaker. The entire cast delivers stellar performances, especially the talented youth, Jaeden Lieberher. Yet, Nichols massively embraces the element of mystery to his film and conjures up a story that's just enough for audiences to follow, but perhaps never enough to fully comprehend. From an emotional standpoint of Midnight Special's characters, the film achieves everything it sets out to accomplish. However, its sci-fi backdrop leaves far more questions than answers. This ambiguity will surely repel some audiences, but I wasn't particularly burdened by the unresolved. Instead, I was disappointed at how little I was emotionally invested in the characters, since that's a large staple in all of Nichols' previous films. Midnight Special is a well-made and compelling feature but, unfortunately, it offers little more than that.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

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